I Ask You for a Cigarette

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
SK Elliot


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

An R.V. coughs to a halt in the parking lot. I want to rest in this quiet dry moment until the end of time. But I know that cannot be so. We are standing above the visitor’s centre on a scenic platform. We’ve been on the Appalachian Trail for 112 days. And this is where we peel off. We’re supposed to go to a funeral. Part of me likes being able to look out over what we are quitting. Like I am finally making some peace with years of failure that have crept up on me. Then, I lift my heavy legs, walk over to the railing, and ask you for a cigarette.

In the gift shop you rifle through a tourist book of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. My feet are sweating and tingling from standing around. Something in me wants to keep walking. Even if it is nothing more than my feet. I am aware of that feeling in my gut again. It haunts me. A frustrated, sad, stuck feeling.

I can tell that your flesh is warm so I reach out to touch it. You look up from a glossy page and at that moment I want to tell you exactly how much I love you. I want you to know how tenderly my entire heart is wrapped around you. Even though it curls back at times. But this feeling saunters by and I look up at you without knowing what to say. “Are you hungry?” and I am not talking about a physical hunger.

“Yeah, a bit.”

I could feel nothing of that kind of passion the night before. We shared a meal of beans and wieners with a Swiss couple hiking in the other direction, towards Maine. Her name was Sophie. Blond, big blue eyes, a tight tanned body. Every inch of her was gorgeous. It is a nice name to say out loud; Sophie. You kept saying her name and then pausing. I noticed that you were lost in an uncertain moment of time.

“Sophie,”—leaves rustle, a morning dove coos—“would you pass me my beer there?”

“Sophie,”—the water boils over the edges of a pot and sizzles on the burner—“what do you think of America?” There was something in that long space. After her name. Space that shouldn’t have been there.

Later when you touched me your being seemed to be elsewhere. Your mouth tasted unfamiliar, almost like metal. Like some strange chemistry coursing through your veins. When I closed my eyes I saw a little boy full of excitement. All over my body I could feel your grown-up hands with complex needs. And that made me want you more. I wanted you everywhere at once. I wanted our two bodies to fill up the space after Sophie’s name.

“Well then, breakfast?” You say this with your eyes sucked back into the world of gloss. But I am not hungry, not for food. I am hardly ever hungry for food. Though the roundness of my thighs and the breadth of my stomach tell another story.

We get a ride into town with the woman who has just cleaned the toilets at the dam. I ask her what time she starts work.

“Five a.m., girl. I hate it but ain’t much else to do round here. Times are hard. The economy ain’t what it used to be.”

I nod, mostly to prove that I am listening. But I have never known hard times, not the kind she’s talking about. I grew up in Montreal. In a big, old house that sat on an immense lawn with big, old trees. My professor parents made lots of money and squared it away like good soldiers. There were no hard times in Montreal, at least not for me.

A song on the radio chases down my thoughts. It’s been ages since I have heard music. It hasn’t even been playing in my head. Despite the heat I shiver. “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac, the quintessential break-up song. A voice that is like velvet and rust slowly dancing in an empty pool hall. I lean back into ripped vinyl and watch my wrist bumping up and down on the baby seat. Its movement and the song and the heat of the day pack together into a tiny little speck. I am utterly mesmerized. Something like gratitude washes over me and I sing along with Stevie.

We get into town. The cleaning lady lets us off at a diner.

“Git the waffles, they’re delicious.”

My belly grumbles as if to thank her. Once we have picked a table we order two coffees and two waters. I realize we haven’t sat down in front of each other for some time.

While hiking we ate our meals mostly in silence, sitting on hot rocks. Looking out over the towns below, the endless sea of blue-green. The hazy silhouettes of more and more mountains in the distance. Once the sun was down they would transform into ominous, dark masses sprinkled with glowing dots. I would lust for what was below. A different me: thinner, more agile, less achy.

Soon I realize I have guzzled my coffee. I flag down the waitress. She fills up my cup and I vow to stay present for a few minutes. If only to enjoy a hot cup of coffee. “What are you going to have?” I lean over towards you. I notice your eyes on my breasts. They are cradled in my bra. My dirty, sweaty shirt dangling, barely covering them. Your eyes slowly retreat back to the menu.

“Mmmmm, waffles, I guess. And a double side order of bacon. You?”

And as if I could really hear what you are asking, I go for it.

“What will we do, Johnny?” It’s like a half-born question to try to nudge you into a conversation about what was and what is to come.

You look up again. I am sitting up straight this time. I can feel the curve in my back, all the way down to my sitting bones. I can feel the flesh of my butt splayed around those grounding bones. I can feel my thighs firmly resting on the bench. Moist, sticky, glowing from all the sun. And like a bud, my tightly packed insides open. Cautiously at first and then I can feel it, the alive and the breath.

I am not sure what you’re thinking. You always keep an even temperament. Even back in Virginia when we learned about your uncle’s truck, smashed into hundreds of pieces on the highway. You take a sip from your glass of water. You clear your throat and drink some coffee.

“I don’t know, Becky. I don’t know what we should do.”

And I love you all the more for this answer. It is entirely perfect, this answer.

The waitress comes over to our table. She can’t be more than nineteen. Some menus under her arm, a pen behind her ear. Her hair a pleasant mess around her flushed cheeks. Her skirt is short, her legs long and lean. I sneak a glance at you to gauge your level of interest in this attractive creature. But your face is buried in the menu again.

We place our order and stare out into the room. Worry rolls into my mind again like fog in a seaport. There is a young family sitting at another table. A little girl and boy are driving their forks through a city of cups, salt and pepper shakers. Their parents are lost in an intense conversation.

You never had much luck with women, or at least that’s what you told me the day we met. The apple trees were in full blossom and you were sitting on the boardwalk looking out at the lake. I stopped to take a picture and you came up to me.

“I know this is crazy,” you said later at a bar downtown. “I’m hiking the Appalachian Trail this summer and I know we’ve just met and I know we’ve had too much bourbon but would you come with me?”

When I fell asleep that night, your long body folded around me.

We sit in silence till the food comes. I eat like an abandoned cat. Licking at the last traces. My body’s metabolism is still in full tilt. I sigh as I think about regaining the ten or more pounds that I lost on the trail.

“What?” you say.

“Oh, I’m just thinking about Mars. That Rover thing, the data it’s collecting.” This is one of your favourite topics and I cannot admit the ordinary truth. My preoccupation with weight is ridiculous and embarrassing and I could never explain to you how I constantly battle with the fluctuating size of my body.

“Unhun,” you say. You lean back into the wall and put your feet up along the length of the bench. You also ate fast and are in the midst of a digestive haze. “Well, Beck, I don’t know either. I have had a really good time.” You look up like you’re carefully hanging heavy keys on a little thumb tack.

I feel exhausted. Not from hiking. The kind of exhaustion that is hardly ever there when I first wake up in the morning. It’s the kind of heaviness that comes with slowly remembering all of steps and missteps that cannot be retraced. Like being in a maze, with no start and no finish. I ask you for another cigarette and tell you I’ll be outside.

When I step out into warmth I see the mountains. I feel sad and alive in equal parts. My body bends gently into crumbling steps. I light the cigarette. I inhale and the smoke fingers the walls of my mouth. It hits the back of my lungs and then I let it out. I am breathing deeply. I don’t know what I want to do but I know what I can do. I won’t go to the funeral and I won’t go to Asheville with you afterwards. Instead, I’ll go back to Montreal, to my parents. I’ll crawl up in one of those big, old sugar maples and sit and be still. And for a moment things will feel easy again, uncomplicated and manageable. I’ll look down on the world and you won’t be in it. And I won’t ask you for a cigarette.

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SK Elliot is currently undertaking a degree in Biochemistry. She lives with her husband in a small farm house in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. Email: sarahzadie[at]gmail.com

A Pot of Tea

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Vanessa Levin-Pompetzki


Photo Credit: 約克夏飼主/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

The first week of summer vacation, Olivia and her grandmother bake scones. Nelle sits her granddaughter down at the island in the middle of the kitchen, tosses her ingredients to measure and weigh.

“Lavender in the scones?”

“A girl after my own heart,” Nelle says. Nelle uses lavender for more than baking—her favorite thing is to add a teaspoon of it to a pot of Earl Grey tea. After they shape the scones and put them in the oven, Nelle gets hot water ready and measures out the tea.

“Mom never measures out the tea,” Olivia says, and Nelle laughs.

“Which is why mine is always better.”

But Olivia isn’t sure—her grandmother’s tea is consistent, and her mother’s isn’t. Sometimes it’s sharp and bitter, other times too pale in color, but once in a while it’s the best cup she’s ever had.

“She thinks hers is better,” Olivia says.

“You’ll think yours is better soon enough.”

The hot water boils with a sharp whistle. Nelle takes the kettle off the stove with a kitchen towel wrapped round the handle—they have an electric kettle, sitting in a corner, but Nelle refuses to use it.

Every morning, Olivia is awoken by the whistling sound of the kettle as her grandmother makes a morning pot of Earl Grey.

Nelle pours the water carefully, then carries the blue china teapot to the island in the middle of the kitchen where Olivia sits. “Get the cream and the butter, Olive,” she says, and goes to check on the scones again.

Within minutes they are sitting down to an afternoon feast of scones and tea. Olivia breaks open a scone, watches steam rise in great curls. She slathers it with butter in a rebellious sort of way—Nelle would never comment on it, but Olivia can just imagine the way her mother’s eyebrows would rise.

“I noticed you’ve been over at Angela’s a lot lately,” Nelle says. She pours Olivia a second cup of tea. Olivia stirs in one sugar cube and a bit of cream, taking a sip to get scone crumbs out of her mouth.

“Yeah, I have.” Angela is loud and she’s funny and she’s Spanish and her mother always smokes at the kitchen table during breakfast. Angela wears black nail polish and she even dyed her hair once. And she’s sixteen to Olivia’s fifteen—it’s only half a year difference in age, but it’s enough.

“Don’t listen to your mother about her,” Nelle says matter-of-factly, as if she disagrees with Olivia’s mother all the time. “The important thing with friends who are louder than you is to know what’s in here,” Nelle says, and she reaches over to tap Olivia’s chest, right where her heart is.

“I know what’s in there,” Olivia says, but Nelle’s words prick at her skin. Does she? She is only a few years a teenager and Angela is already sixteen, big and bold and beautiful and so very sure of herself.

“Have another scone,” Nelle says, and she puts two on Olivia’s plate.

When the pot of tea is about to run empty, Olivia knows without asking that it’s time to make another. Always two, Nelle says, three if we’re desperate.

 

“How did she die?” Angela asks, tucking her legs beneath her.

“Heart attack,” Olivia mutters. They are sitting on Olivia’s bedroom floor, a tub of cookies that a neighbor brought over between them. Olivia has eaten five of them and she’s nibbling on a sixth.

“I’m so sorry, Liv.”

“Yeah.”

Olivia keeps glancing over at the teapot, beautifully white with blue flowers curling around its sides. It was Nelle’s favorite teapot, and, after Olivia begged her mother, Diane let her have it. But it doesn’t feel right to use it without her grandmother there.

“If you ever want to feel her presence again, I know something we can do,” Angela says.

Olivia shoves the rest of the cookie into her mouth. She knows what Angela is talking about—magick. Angela is a proud Wiccan, and she’s always trying to give Olivia crystals to carry in her pocket, gifting her with candles and herbs. “Maybe,” Olivia says.

The next morning, there is no whistle of a teapot. Instead there is the gentle chime of the hot pot. It sounds like the noise a stone makes in an empty cave.

There is no dessert for a week, not until Olivia drags out Nelle’s favorite cookbook and puts a chocolate cake in the oven. She proudly serves a slice to her mother after dinner, careful to make sure it’s a small piece.

“Lovebug,” Diane says, eyeing the size of the slice Olivia cuts for herself, “I don’t think it’s good for our health to have sweets around the house all the time.”

At night, Olivia turns on Jeopardy, but it isn’t the same without Nelle’s voice shouting all the wrong answers. When she can’t sleep and her throat hurts from trying to cry quietly, when her nose keeps running and her bed is too hot, she slips down the hall and into Nelle’s room. Diane made the bed. It looks exactly the same, just quiet. Olivia lies on top of the covers, cool and soothing against her cheek.

The next day, she goes over to Angela’s.

 

“Ready?”

Olivia nods. Her stomach is a writhing pit of worms, and there is a hard rock of guilt in her throat. Nelle, who went to church every week, probably wouldn’t approve. But Olivia is desperate. So here she is, sitting on Angela’s bedroom floor, praying to a god, any god, that this will work.

Angela uses a stick of chalk to draw a circle around them, sets a black candle in the middle of the circle. Olivia takes the thyme she brought from Nelle’s garden and they twist it into a wreath, encircle the candle. Angela has Olivia light the candle with a match.

“We have to say it at the same time,” Angela says, “and think of Nelle when you say it.”

That won’t be hard, Olivia knows. They speak, haltingly, together: “You who lived yesterday, I’ll call you from my mind to yours, come back from the shadows into the light and show yourself here.”

Olivia waits. Her skin goosebumps. She thinks of Nelle and how she kneaded her bread by hand even though they had a mixer, how she thought there was something alien and magical about crop circles, how she liked to tell stories about Olivia’s early years (sometimes so fantastical Olivia suspected she was lying).

The candle’s flame flickers, and Angela’s face splits into a wide grin. “She’s here.” Angela whispers, “Can’t you feel her?”

When Olivia closes her eyes, she is sure that she can. It is almost as if her grandmother is right there, pressing a cheek against hers, as if there is a hand around her heart, squeezing softly.

“I think so,” she whispers back.

“Do you have any questions?” Angela asks.

“No,” Olivia says, keeping her eyes shut, afraid to open them—afraid to ruin whatever it is she feels, deep in her bones, warm and familiar. “Just… I miss you.” She stays there for a while, her heart pounding madly, her palms turned toward the ceiling. There is pressure on them, just a little, just enough for her to know.

“We should let her go,” Angela says after a while, and Olivia’s eyes flicker open. The candle between them has burnt down to half its size, and the room smells like thyme.

Olivia nods, and they speak together, “You who lived yesterday, thank you, now fly away from this earth and join the world of spirits.”

Angela blows out the candle.

 

Olivia builds herself an altar in her closet. She takes cardboard boxes and stacks them on each other, turning them to create little levels, little platforms, on the corners of the lower boxes. Draping scarves over the boxes, she lines them with little candles, herbs, a large abalone shell that she rests her smudge stick in. After looking up altars on the internet and finding websites with flashing icons and black backgrounds, she reads about the god candle and the goddess candle, a pentagon. She adds some of those things, but mostly she makes it her own. She steals one of the lighters kept in the kitchen, and Diane muses out loud once that she swore there were two of them and goes out to buy another.

She even buys a goblet when she is out at the mall with Angela, unsupervised and with two twenty dollar bills in her pocket. It is tarnished and embellished with curling Celtic knots, and it rests heavy in her hand. Angela coyly suggests she borrow some wine from Diane for a spell here or there.

And even though Olivia calls Angela up, asks her about this spell or that, she does not show Angela her altar. It is a thing for only her. Olivia takes Nelle’s teapot and sets it at the back. She chooses rose quartz down for love, hematite to fight negative energy, aquamarine for courage, blue tourmaline for healing and opening (sometimes she has trouble breathing).

When her lungs do close up, or when Diane is shouting about the mess in the living room, or when it’s so hot outside and her body aches like little fairies have been using it as a trampoline, Olivia will open her closet and slide the door closed, sit down in front of the quiet altar. There is a sliver of light from where the doors don’t quite meet, a line that comes down right across her lap. She lights her candles. If there is still a tablespoon of wine left from when she poured a bit into her ceremonial goblet after her mother had gone to bed, she will sip it carefully. She pretends she is a priestess and the wine a gift from the Goddess, and, in the dark of her closet, it doesn’t feel silly at all.

 

Angela’s mother goes away for the weekend and, after nagging at her mother for several days, Olivia is allowed to stay with Angela. On the first night, they read tarot and do a spell to ensure that they stay best friends forever. Angela jokes about how “middle school” it is, but both girls eagerly join hands in the circle, prick their fingers with needles and mix their blood.

The second night, they light a fire in the backyard. It’s a new moon, and the sky is clear, stars like little pinpricks in a black sheet held taut over the sun. In firelight, Angela strips down, tossing every bit of clothing behind her. Olivia, fingers shaking, follows suit, but she cannot help the way her hands slide to cover the softness of her stomach, the thickness of her thighs.

As they spin, dizzily about the fire, Olivia cannot stop looking at Angela—her dark hair falls down her back in wild waves, her skin alight. It is in this moment that Olivia finds herself believing in the truth of magick. She feels it deep in her gut, down to her toes, and when Angela pauses to smile at her, to take a hand in her own, Olivia forgets to worry that she is naked. She forgets to care about anything beyond the light the fire casts as they dance, together, in mad circles around the fire.

 

One morning, Olivia goes downstairs to make tea and finds that Nelle’s old kettle is gone from the stove. Rage and righteousness well up and out of her eyes.

Diane finds her in the garage, throwing rotten banana peels, papers covered in coffee grounds, and unidentifiable chunks from the garbage can and onto the floor.

“What are you doing!” Diane shouts, but Olivia is beyond words. She keeps going, her hands wet and stomach turning. Diane tries to grab her arm but Olivia has spotted the kettle. She wrenches away from her mother’s grip and yanks it out of the bin, holds it in the air like a trophy. Diane lets out a heavy sigh.

“Lovebug, we don’t need that anymore.”

“Yes, we do,” Olivia says, stalking into the house. Diane follows her, watches as her daughter washes the old kettle thoroughly in water so hot that her hands turn raw and pink.

Diane tucks an escaped strand of frizzy hair behind Olivia’s ear, rests her palm against her daughter’s cheek. “It might be good not to have so many things of hers lying around. It can make things harder.”

But Olivia just fills up the kettle with water and sets it on the stove to boil. She makes sure to glare at her mother. “It’s already hard.”

Diane leaves the kettle alone after that.

 

In early July, Diane’s ex-boyfriend brings over a bottle of vodka. Diane makes a face at it and chucks it into the trash without pouring it down the sink. (Diane has been throwing a lot of things away. Her own things, Nelle’s things, Olivia’s things. Olivia thinks it’s a phase.)

Thinking of Angela, Olivia makes her way back to the garbage sitting in the garage, digs it out from where it smells of rotting meat and other bottles Diane couldn’t be bothered to recycle. She rinses it in her bathroom sink, squinching up her nose, and drips lavender essential oil on the outside of the bottle to get rid of the clinging garbage stink.

It occurs to her that Nelle would disapprove.

She puts the vodka beneath her bed. It is a few weeks before she has the guts to get it out, to present it to Angela like the grandest gift she could get her.

“Oooh!” Angela squeals, and she breaks its seal, a scent not unlike rubbing alcohol drifting up. Olivia gets up off the bedroom floor to light incense.

“Let’s be careful though,” Angela adds, pouring out just a couple of glugs into a mug. She sips it, winces, and hands it back to Olivia, who does the same.

“Have you ever kissed anyone?” Angela asks when they are on their second mug of vodka. She is swaying a little to the music Olivia put on, her eyes half-closed and dreamy.

“No. Have you?”

“Yeah, a couple boys, but they were all terrible.”

Olivia smiles down into the mug. “Well, of course they were.” She can’t imagine ever wanting to kiss a boy—she wants to kiss Angela, who is sitting across from her in a black dress, a Wiccan pentacle tied around her neck. Angela has lips that are a beautiful, plush pink.

“Because they were boys?”

“Duh!”

“You think you could do better?”

The vodka makes her bold. “I know I could,” Olivia says with a grin, leaning in just a little, just enough—

Angela moves forward onto her hands, presses warm lips against Olivia’s. Olivia’s chest is an empty cavern, striving for air. She tries to do what she’s seen in the movies, what she has practiced on pillows and on the back of her hand since she was eleven.

It’s over in a heartbeat. Angela leans back, picks up the mug again.

Olivia raises her eyebrows. “Well?”

“You were right.”

 

After several nights of quiet, furtive hands and lips, the girls grow bold. Angela slips a knee between Olivia’s thighs—Olivia lets her fingers graze lower than the soft rounding of a breast.

Angela leans against Olivia’s shoulder on the couch, watching TV with Diane. Olivia holds Angela’s hand at the mall. Diane comments on how close they’ve grown, and Olivia barely stammers when she replies with a “yes, very.”

Angela suggests that they perform a ritual for power, sitting across from each other. When they hold hands, Olivia’s entire body is electric. After the ritual, they wind up in Olivia’s bed, limbs a tangle, nearly caught by Diane bringing them lemonade.

When Olivia is alone after a particularly bold session with Angela, her fingers wander to her lips, red and swollen, and then there is something on her chest—like a mountain, like a clamp around her heart squeezing the blood right out of it.

She invokes the Goddess, but her voice shakes and the weight grows. Her lungs shrink. She does a spell for peace, leaping out of bed to light a blue candle, fanning sage above her head. But the panic is stubborn. Her mind is a slippery wine glass, like the one she dropped in the sink washing dishes the other day. No amount of chanting or candles can stop it from shattering.

She imagines Nelle, watching from heaven, thinks how disappointed she must be. Her granddaughter can’t keep herself together and now she’s turned to witchcraft despite all the times Nelle put her in Vacation Bible School as a kid.

Olivia tries to will her away, push the weight off her chest, but the altar in her closet feels less like safety and more like a lie.

It takes a couple glugs of the vodka beneath her bed to get the weight to ease. Her pillow remains soaked with tears and black mascara streaks, so she finds a dry corner and presses her face into it. She is an empty seashell. Hollow, but hold it up to your ear—

Can you hear something?

 

One day in late July, Olivia returns to her bedroom from a quick bathroom break, and finds Angela standing in front of her open closet, staring at her altar. Olivia’s cheeks run hot and she hurts like her ribs are curving inward.

“What’s this?” Angela asks, bending, her fingers skimming the blue-and-white china teapot.

“An altar. I made it a while ago,” she says, hoping her voice sounds dismissive. Olivia is all too aware of how different it looks in sharp midday light, all magick sucked away—a cardboard fantasy built by a stupid, naive little girl.

“Quaint,” Angela says, and Olivia does not—can not—miss the mocking in her voice.

Sharp anger hits her in the stomach. She steps forward, slams the closet doors closed. Angela touches Olivia’s arm, seeming to regret her words.

“Olive, I’m sorry.”

But the use of Nelle’s pet name adds pain to her anger, and Olivia just snaps, “Don’t call me that.”

There is no kissing that day.

 

There are quiet apologies made, but the next time Olivia and Angela wind up naked in bed, there is something different. A recklessness that pushes them further. It’s a need. It’s power and control. It’s the same feeling Olivia had when she first did magick—nagging guilt, rush of pleasure, something deep in her blood urging her on.

Later, Diane invites her out to sunbathe on the porch, and Olivia feels like a different person. She thinks of the neediness of it all, watching a red sun through her eyelids—of the line crossed from fooling around into sex, of the detached loneliness that comes after a hard spike of pleasure.

 

Angela mentions that she knows a spell that could help them find true love. Olivia has known for a while that they are not each other’s, but the suggestion makes her body hurt like her friend just drop-kicked her across the room.

“Sure,” Olivia says. They have to write down who they want their true love to be, and they write at the same time. But Olivia finds that she can’t—there is a vivid pain across the bridge of her nose, and she just scribbles nonsensical words down after she sees that Angela has written “he.”

 

Olivia’s sixteenth birthday approaches, and she and Angela have stopped kissing. Olivia thinks Angela might have crossed a line she never planned. Kisses and touching were things girls just did sometimes, but they moved beyond that. Angela’s true love would be a man—Olivia’s would not.

Would Olivia have told Nelle everything? She always had, always inherently trusted her grandmother where her mother had to work for that trust. For the first time, Olivia wonders if Diane resented that. Not for the first time, Olivia wonders if she would have fallen for magick or for Angela if Nelle hadn’t died—where would Olivia be, then?

And would she give up Angela to have Nelle back? Would she give up her brief affair with magick, with control, with love? Would she give up her first time, tangled in sweaty limbs and sweet lips? She wonders if that’s how death works—how death gets you, keeps you submerged, how you lose the fight. But still.

She would give anything.

Later that day, Diane catches Olivia unable to breathe—Olivia has dropped Nelle’s teapot. The lid chipped, a sharp little nick on one side, and suddenly her lungs were empty and closing in like fake walls in a haunted house.

Diane names it—“Are you having a panic attack?”—presses her cool hand to Olivia’s forehead, instructs her how to breathe, holds her tight.

The following week, Olivia is prescribed a little jar of pills to take when her lungs are trying to kill her. They work much better than praying or magick or even vodka. She needs to take one after she and Angela go to the movies and Angela tells her she kissed a boy named Roberto.

 

Olivia’s sixteenth birthday party is loud and drunk. Olivia invites all of her friends and Diane invites all of hers. Diane decorates, stringing white lights all through the house, hanging red Chinese paper lanterns and star lamps in the corner of every room. Scarves and bejeweled pillows cushion every seat and chair—Olivia thinks it looks like the inside of one of those hippy dippy shops that always smells of musky incense.

In previous years, Nelle spent all day in the kitchen. Olivia remembers the way it smelled—of roses and sugar and sweet, moist cake. Olivia would poke her head around the corner, and Nelle would tell her to come taste, stick a frosting-covered finger in Olivia’s mouth. She always made the same cake for Olivia’s birthday: a honey cake frosted with rose and cardamom, covered in fresh, soft figs.

Olivia’s favorite thing about her birthday is the timing—fig season.

This year, though, Angela informed her that wasps and figs go hand in hand. The wasp crawls into the male fig, lays eggs, and dies. The babies emerge, and the cycle continues. Olivia finds it fitting—death and her favorite fruit.

When Nelle would have Olivia taste the frosting, Olivia would always tell her to add more cardamom.

This year, there is no honey cake. Olivia will turn sixteen without Nelle and without figs. But she does have her mother, who is kind despite how alien Olivia finds her, and she has Angela, who arrives to the party an hour early.

Olivia answers the door, and Angela stands there in all of her Wiccan glory, wearing a pentacle necklace and holding a box of beautiful figs.

“Happy birthday,” Angela says, and Olivia hugs her until she manages to blink the tears out of her eyes.

And then it’s almost seven o’ seven, the exact minute of her birth sixteen years ago. All of her mother’s friends are loud and drunk and all of her friends are loud and sober. Diane stands behind her daughter, finishing her toast, and Olivia holds a glass of punch.

Every face at the party is watching her. The clock clicks over to seven o’ seven, and Diane hurries—

“My daughter, my heart, how happy I am to know you. What a woman you will be.”

Cheers. Olivia sips her drink, and everyone congratulates her. It makes her feel a bit strange, a bit lost—all she has done is grow up, and she had no choice in that.

Her mother’s friends, dressed in bright colors, their cheeks flushed and lips loose, kiss her and wish her well. Olivia’s friends titter about how nice she looks, dressed in a pretty white sundress, her light brown curls wild and long. They lean on her shoulder and bring her punch.

Right when Olivia starts to feel tight in the chest, her fingers shaking, unable to say “thank you” to another person, Angela finds her. She pulls her into the bathroom, locks the door. The roar of the party quiets. A candle flickers across Angela’s dark features. Olivia breathes.

“Here,” Angela says, and out of her pocket she pulls a handful of figs.

“Oh, yes,” Olivia says with a moan. She eats them in seconds, licking her fingers. Then Angela hands her a glass—it is full of golden liquid.

“Cheers,” Angela says.

“What is it?”

“Tequila. The liquor is all very unguarded in the kitchen.”

Olivia takes a big sip. It burns but it also makes her insides feel lighter.

“Thank you,” Olivia says, handing her back the glass and sitting on the toilet lid.

Angela hovers over her, dark eyes sparkling. She takes a sip herself, winces, takes another sip. “Listen, Liv… if you don’t want to do Wicca anymore, it’s okay.”

Olivia’s chest feels tight. “I’ve lost the… truth of it,” she tries to explain. She’s lost the truth of the two of them, too, but she thinks maybe she found a new one. With friendship instead of kisses and a different kind of pleasure.

Angela touches her friend’s cheek, a gesture that sets Olivia’s heart on fire. “It was a summer love,” Angela says, and Olivia knows she isn’t just talking about the magick.

They finish the glass of tequila, brush their teeth to try to get the pervasive scent off their tongues. Olivia’s head is full of clouds as she turns to her friend, grinning widely. “Can you smell it on me?” she asks.

Angela leans over, presses warm lips against Olivia’s, a final offering. “Not at all,” she says. When they leave the bathroom, Angela offers Olivia her arm as if she is a gentleman and Olivia her lady, and they head, giggling, back into the party.

 

After the party has ended and Diane has collapsed in her bed, drunk and snoring, Olivia makes her way back downstairs, tiptoeing through streamers and party hats, into a kitchen whose counters are cluttered with glasses and plates and forks sticky with cake. She pulls out the teapot, fills it with water, and sets it on the stove—she waits.

She measures out Earl Gray, adds a teaspoon of lavender. She thinks of the saying “a watched pot never boils” but she also knows that it has to boil eventually, even if she never takes her eyes from it. At the first soft whistle she snatches it off the stove.

Then she thinks of her grandmother, the way she would pour so carefully. Olivia pours like she always does, nearly overfills it.

She hasn’t turned on a single light, and everything is awash in blue darkness. Olivia thinks that it suits the teapot very well, with its blue china flowers, the stark white of it dulled in the dark. When she pours the tea it feels as ritual as the spells she’s been doing all summer, and even though she knows it isn’t magick, there is something magical about it—tea at three in the morning, the dead quiet of a world asleep.

She adds a bit of cream, whiteness blooming within her teacup, settling into the perfect creaminess. It is perhaps the best pot of tea she has ever made, and there is an ache at the thought. She lets the ache sit there, lets it find a home in the hollow of her throat. After a while, the tea washes it away.

She gets up to make another pot.

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Vanessa Levin-Pompetzki’s favorite thing to do is weave together imaginary worlds (often with magic), but she also frequents used bookstores and enjoys a good cup of tea. She lives in South Carolina with a very inconsiderate cat. She won a mini-contest with On The Premises and has been published with Twisted Sister Lit Mag. Email: v.levinpompetzki[at]gmail.com

The Formula for Skipping Stones

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
LS Bassen


Photo Credit: Owen Jones/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

For two summer weeks, on and off, we’d seen one another, the fisherman and I. He was in an old motor boat out at the end of the C of the New Hampshire cove, and I was sitting on a boulder well within the center of the letter at the lake’s edge. I’d just turned fourteen, brought by my aunt and uncle to take care of my cousin. When three-year-old Kenny napped and my aunt did whatever she liked in the large cabin, I was free to search about the woods and shore. I often ended up at what I named Lonely Rock that looked out onto the wide Winnepesaukee. The water around the giant rock was deep and clear. I often watched minnows in miniature schools. Out at the pine-covered point of the cove was the fisherman. I never waved at him, but each day he brought the boat in a little closer. By the end of two weeks, I could see more than the silhouette of the man. He looked old, in his late fifties, his long face a mottled tan. It seemed to me that every time he threw in his line, he reached back with a shining fish he’d admire and then toss back before it drowned in air.

When he brought the boat right up to Lonely Rock, I held stiff as the stone.

“Hey, you,” he said, his thin body shaking at the steering wheel. I knew how to handle a boat as big. My uncle rented one, and I was proud he’d taught me to dock the twenty-four footer easily even though home in New York, I was two years too young even for a learner’s permit.

I didn’t answer him. The breeze blew across his back, from the lake toward the land. I breathed pine and water, pipe smoke and sweat stink. It was a strong male smell, like the beer another girl in the cabin colony and I had discovered. The brown glass bottles had been hidden in a stone-covered roadside culvert. Kathy and I tasted some of the beer before we broke all the rest, shattering them against a low stone wall nearby.

“Hey, you,” the fisherman repeated. “Wanna ride?”

He nudged the boat up against Lonely Rock. In the stern, I saw feathery lures arranged in a metal tackle box. I looked over my shoulder to the hill clearing and cabins.

“Wheah ya friends?” he asked.

“I don’t have any friends. No one’s talking to me.”

“Me eithah.”

“What did you do?” I said.

“Long stawhy,” he said.

The teeth he wasn’t missing were brown-speckled, like pebbles in the sand at the lake’s edge.

He moved quickly for all his shaking, leaning over the boat’s glass windshield, giving me a hand stepping onto the bow. Then I climbed over and sat on the mate’s seat. He turned on the ignition, which coughed wetly a few times, and backed the boat out into the cove. In a few moments, we were well beyond it, on the open lake. Speed lifted the prow out of the water and gusted the summer air. I shook out my loosened braids.

“You look’t like a Penacook boy,” he said, disappointed, “but ya eyes ah blue. Y’act like a boy. Why’s no one talking to you fah?”

“It’s a long stawhy,” I imitated. Then I blurted, “I did something bad.”

“Who ain’t?” He cut the motor.

“No one likes me anymore.”

“I don’t like guhls. Name’s John.”

“Well, John, where’s all this forgiveness you hear about in church?”

“Guess that’s wheah it stays,” he said.

“How do I act like a boy?”

“Got no brains. Like t’go fast?”

He started up the engine again and raced us across the water faster and farther than I’d ever been out before. We must have been miles from the cove. Still, there was more and more lake, more bends and curves we took at high speed, water splashing in our faces when he steeped a turn. I stood up to feel the spray hit, and John yelled over the motor noise, “Siddown goddammit!” He reached out and pulled me into the seat and slowed the engine. Gasoline fumes sweetened the lake air. He turned the boat around and headed back to the cove. He left me off not at Lonely Rock but on the narrow lip of beach by the point where he usually fished.

“Next time weah a suit so ya can swim,” John said.

*

Every day it didn’t rain I went out on a different boat with Old John. I didn’t tell anyone about him. I thought it served them all right since no one was talking to me. My aunt was tight-lipped around me and kept shaking her head, muttering about my father and what would happen when I got home. Meanwhile, she didn’t have any problem with me playing Cinderella to her Wicked Stepmother. She told me the unidentified bites or rash I’d gotten were fair punishment. I had to wear dishwashing rubber gloves and couldn’t go swimming, she said, because it could spread. So I sat in the big white Adirondack chairs on the hill, watching my little cousin race his toy cars in and out of the elaborate pine cone obstacle course I’d created for him. I looked down the hill to the lake where Kathy, my beer-smashing pal from Beverly, Massachusetts, was off duty from babysitting her four younger brothers and sister. She was swimming with the Swampscott minister’s son Tim, his thirteen-year-old half-sister Diane, and Jay, the townie boy from Passaconaway. Both boys were handsome.

Some days, standing on the beach, the boys skipped stones. Jay’s always flew farther than Tim’s. While I wondered what Galileo or Newton could make of it, Kathy and Tim’s half-sister cheered the boys on.

In our first week at Winnepesaukee, Diane and I had taken out a row boat and shared stories about our older brothers.

“Behind a billboard?!” I choked. Diane rowed the boat in circles while I reached to regain the oar I’d dropped. When I tried to explain what incest was, she refused to believe that she was no longer a virgin.

During my cousin’s afternoon nap time, I’d go sit on Lonely Rock. I imagined how it locked into the lake in winter when Jay said you could walk across the ice. Jay lived on a farm. He said that after the frozen months what New Hampshire looked forward to most was the coming of the new lambs. He said he’d pulled live lambs right out of ewes. In the summer, he also worked at a bakery in Wolfeboro where I’d seen him “selling overpriced cookies to overweight tourists.”

I’d hear whatever boat Old John was in that day before I’d see him clear the point. I’d jump up and run through a pine-needled forest hemming deeper woods, running over the rocks and hollows among the trees, fleet as the Penacook Winnepesaukee natives I imagined there long before. The boat sputtered in neutral. I got on without Old John’s help. He snorted at my aunt’s orders.

“Found a fine place to fish,” he said, before he gave me the wheel and I pushed the throttle into drive, “and ya go ahead swim.”

He directed me around turns to a new, hidden cove. I couldn’t tell one bend in the lake from another, but they seemed recognizable to Old John. By this time I’d confessed to him, and we had a way of doing things beside one another. Some talk, Old John tied knots, taught me Cat’s Cradle or fished, and I’d swim. He’d show me a fish and name it and tell me its ways while it squirmed in his shaking hands. He’d lean over the boat and let the fish back into the water near enough to where I was treading to make me squeal at the thought of it swimming through my legs. It always made Old John laugh, and then I’d laugh, too.

“What do you do?” I eventually asked when were returning to the point at our cove.

“Always keep one for supper and one for breakfast,” he avoided. “Wha’d’ya do?”

“I go to school, of course. I’m going into ninth grade. What’s your profession?”

He snorted again. “I do what I can.”

“I mean it, John.”

“I’m an escaped convict.”

I was thrilled. “Like Magwitch in Great Expectations! That’s a book on our list for next year so I read it ahead. So I’m Pip? You steal these boats? I could change my name.”

“Bahrrow ’em. No one the wiseah. Ya name’s okay. ‘Leenda,’ they say. Means pretty. Changed mine to John. Lotta Johns. Lotta leaves ont trees, ev’ry one jus’ ta leaf.”

I agreed. “It’s my father’s middle name. Dr. Theodore John McDermott. He makes me eat calcium tablets bigger than communion wafers because the Russians resumed above ground testing, and he’s afraid the Strontium-90 will leach calcium from my bones.”

We neared the point, and I slowed the boat. He held the wheel as I turned, reached for a sweatshirt. While it was still over my head, Old John said, “It wasn’t such a bad thing you done with eitha boy, the ministah’s son. Was t’othah one, Jay’s fault, talkin’ ’bout you.”

I’d described kissing Jay when he’d walked me back from the beach in the dark and confessed about going into the apple orchard behind the cabins one night with the Swampscott boy, how I’d run away from Tim after fighting him off.

With the sweatshirt still covering my face, I said, “No, I was all wrong. Diane told me what Tim did. I knew Kathy liked him and didn’t tell her. When he said to meet him, I did. Back home in New York, I’m a Good Girl. Up here, they’re all blond and I’m not, so they think I’m a…” I couldn’t repeat the word Jay had called me.

Old John pulled the sweatshirt down so my turtle head popped out. “Jus’ ’cause you wanted some kissin’ and have th’sense of a buttahfish?”

We were at the point then, and I started clambering off the boat, but not before Old John caught my sleeve. I thought it was to steady me. He made me fall back against him. His smoky, sweaty smell was friendly by then. But he pulled me to him and kissed me harder than either boy had. Those mottled teeth hitting mine! He tasted sickening of beer and age, and I pushed him with enough force that I fell out of the boat. My heart thundered with adrenaline. Stunned, I tread water and saw minnows scatter. Old John backed the boat away.

“You said you didn’t like girls,” I shouted.

He yelled over the motor, “I like you!”

*

Linda was neither an old child nor a young adult. On the number line, she saw herself going up only to fourteen for her recent birthday, a primer page in a Universal encyclopedia of possibly infinitely numbered, disconnected dot-to-dots. She’d heard a singsong: Freshmen don’t know they don’t know; sophomores know they don’t know; juniors don’t know they know; and seniors know that they know! Linda didn’t know that she didn’t know she possessed any agency, nor that she lacked fear. She only knew things happened. The Earth moved around the Sun, and the Moon around the Earth in ways better explained by science than mythology, which is what Linda called religion ever since, at eleven, she had been stunned by her mother’s reaction to Sputnik, “But where does God live now?”

The convict’s kiss shocked, flattered, repulsed, and disappointed her. Those were some dot-to-dots to try to connect. All the recent kisses had no different effect from her secret practice at home against the wooden leg of a Queen Anne chair while the family had watched TV. So far, kissing was all mechanics and momentum, no communion. She thought there must be something wrong with her. She was like the Betsy McCall paper doll on the last page of her mother’s monthly magazine. She had stopped cutting out and playing with them but still looked for them every month. Betsy McCall was flat, two-dimensional, a little girl. Linda was a big girl who acted like a boy and felt nothing when kissed.

The next day, Linda was in hiding, waiting at the point for Old John.

He was surprised to see her emerge from the pines. He had been sitting behind the wheel trying to calm his shaking hands by tying knots. It was late August, autumn chill in the air, leaves turning. There wasn’t going to be much time. Beside him on the mate’s seat was last week’s newspaper whose rumpled front page reported that in Moscow, downed American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers had been convicted of espionage against the Soviet Union and sentenced to ten years imprisonment. Ten years didn’t sound long.

Linda was dressed in jeans and a thick sweater. The motor idled.

“Why did you do that?” she demanded.

“Why’d ya come back fah?’

“To say goodbye. We’re going back to New York later today. To ask.”

“What?”

“Why do you shake all the time?”

He held up a sloppy bowline knot. “Parkinson’s. Ev’ry thing’s got a name when they don’ know whah t’is.”

“I didn’t feel anything with you either.”

He laughed. “Me, neithah. Ya not a boy, jus’ a green apple. Ya shoulda felt scaihed.”

“What are you scared of?”

“Not much left t’. Surpris’d ain’t bin found, but maybe wasn’ much lookin’.” He tapped the newspaper. “Don’ worry so much about Russians and bombs. But don’ you nevah go nowheah with a strangeah again.”

*

My father smelled like the brown bottles and Old John. It was the cherry pipe smoke and sweat. My father didn’t shake, but he looked sad. Kathy and I had smashed the beer against the low stone wall, laughing at the explosions of foam, glad to be rebelling against grown-up deception.

When I returned from New Hampshire, my parents and brother were waiting in the car in front of my aunt and uncle’s house. After the long drive and longer summer, it was good to get out of the car, a new 1960 Buick station wagon, that Clydesdale of automobiles. I hugged my father, but he didn’t come inside where I carried my sleeping cousin. I put Kenny to bed while my uncle went around opening windows, and my aunt did something in the kitchen with my mother and brother, who, I noticed, hadn’t stayed with our father. Just another disconnected dot.

As I came out of the bedroom, my mother grabbed my shoulder and pulled me into the pink-and-gray hall bathroom. She shut and locked the door.

“Your aunt told me. You are just like your father,” she hissed.

I’d never seen her that angry even during the Kennedy–Nixon bouts she had with my father. They argued about everything, but before I’d left for the summer, it was politics. He’d voted for Eisenhower, and she and my aunt were not only Democrats, but also Catholic like Kennedy, who I only cared was handsome.

“It will take every cent we have—and my uncle who is a State Supreme Court judge—to keep your father out of prison and save his license!”

I became so dizzy, I fell. It took hours of that day and years later to make sense out of my mother’s fury. At home that same night, she sent my older brother to my bedroom.

“Are you chaste?!” he demanded.

For the first time in my life I said, “Fuck you.”

Later that September, before the Kennedy–Nixon debate, the family drove up to Troy in the huge Buick station wagon. I sat in the smaller rear seat with Kenny, feeling carsick facing backwards at the past rather than ahead to the future. I attempted and failed to keep Kenny busy for awhile playing with string; a three-year-old’s attention span and finger control were equally unreliable. I did a few of the eight turns Old John had taught me: Soldier’s Bed, Candles, Manger, Diamonds, Cat’s Eye, Fish in a Dish, Clock, and Cat’s Cradle. My uncle was at the wheel, and my aunt sat beside him. With my maternal grandmother, my mother was crammed between my father and brother in the middle. The radio was on in the front of the car, and my uncle was explaining about “payoffs” when my brother snapped, “You’re stupid.”

There was some swerving and yelling, and Kenny didn’t know whether to cry. My brother’s cramped position—also as firstborn and family genius—he eventually won a Nobel—kept any hand from being raised to smack him.

In November, Kennedy won the election. Three years later, after skipping my senior year of high school, I felt the same dizziness again. I was a freshman at a college where tests were administered on a non-proctoring honor system, so it was a shock when our French professor entered, crying, “Ah, mademoiselles, on à assassine Le President!”

Even before we’d left New Hampshire, I knew my aunt had been wrong about swimming spreading the rash. In time, I ripened and mastered Cat’s Cradle, studied geometric topology, and won a minor award in 2007 for a paper chronicling the 1867 faulty atomic theory known as the Tait conjectures that quantum theory eclipsed for awhile. By the end of the twentieth century, knot theory had reemerged. Useful regarding DNA and polymers in biology and chemistry, its related braid theory figured in the development of quantum computers’ resistance to decoherence.

My father’s license was suspended during my college freshman year, but thereafter he practiced medicine until he died the year I was pregnant with my firstborn. To his wake, one of his immigrant patients who had paid in barter since the fifties, brought jugs of homemade wine and frozen packages of deer he’d hunted. A Guinness World Record for stone skipping was set in 1992, thirty-eight bounces, filmed on the Blanco River in Texas, bested once in 2007 and twice in 2014. Galileo and Newton had gotten the laws of motion moving, but it was a French physicist who developed a formula for estimating how many times a stone would skip based on spin and speed. The key to a good skip, Lyderic Bocquet said in 2004, lay in spinning the stone. Engineers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory proposed a HyperSoar airplane, which would skip along Earth’s upper atmosphere at five to twelve times the speed of sound.

In 2010, Boeing was reported designing an experimental military weapon that could fly twenty-five miles above Earth, then drift up into space and down again. When it hit the denser air of the upper atmosphere, it would bounce back up like a stone hitting water. Eighteen skips would be enough to get HyperSoar from Chicago to Rome in seventy-two minutes. As of June 2015, the U.S. military was reportedly developing such a new hypersonic vehicle that could take flight by 2023, building upon research from a 2013 test flight of the experimental X-51A Waverider.*

What’s it to be, then, sorrow over the depths to which a stone may sink or celebration of its defiance of gravity? Kathy surprised me by calling at the very end of that August at the beginning of the sixties. She put her phone up to her radio and told me to listen to the song that had just come on, the one we’d sung to each other all summer. Then with the radio in the background, Kathy sang and once again together we imitated Brenda Lee’s melodious growling of “Sweet Nothings.

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Website: lsbassen.com  Email: LSBASSEN[at]aol.com

Closure

Beaver’s Pick
Alex Shishin


Photo Credit: Jamelah E./Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

In February, Bart Kozlov, a professor at Ikeshita Women’s University, learned that Emiko Toyohashi, taking her Semester Abroad in America, was having homestay trouble. The homestay family’s emails said Ms. Toyohashi had gone mad; she had locked herself in the guest room and had not eaten for days. The English Department chairwoman was departing for Los Angeles to bring Ms. Toyohashi back home to Nagoya.

There was still time for Ms. Toyohashi to enroll in classes at Ikeshita Women’s for April. The chairwoman informed Bart that Ms. Toyohashi was assigned to his English Composition seminar and his American Literature lecture class. “This is her fifth year. She is severely short of credits, as you know. Have you worked with her before?”

“Never,” he said.

“Do your best, Kozlov-sensei.”

Upon entering the seminar room, Bart felt Ms. Toyohashi’s glittering presence. Her hair, dyed fiery red, seemed to reflect in the sheen of her white mini-dress. Long red fingernails accentuated her small hands. Her lightly freckled face bore an expression of somnambulant vagueness. She sat rigidly at her desk, surrounded by a dozen chatting young women.

His ex-wife, a fellow American, also glittered, he recalled. She had run off with a blond tennis-playing millionaire a decade before.

Bart wrote his name as Bart and Bartholomew Kozlov on the whiteboard.

“Bartholomew,” Ms. Toyohashi said.

“Good pronunciation!” he said.

Ms. Toyohashi nodded but did not smile.

In her first in-class essay, Ms. Toyohashi wrote, “I want to work in a boutique. It is my dream.” She concluded, “I am making my parents sad.” On the other side of the paper she wrote, “Dear Professor Bartholomew Kozlov-sensei: “I am sometimes away because I am unstable. I also catch a cold easily. I am sorry. Please excuse me.”

She was gone the next week and the week following. Ms. Toyohashi was splendidly groomed from head to toe when she returned, but her face was blank. He guessed she was sedated; his girlfriend, Tsuki Ogori, an orthopedic surgeon, had told him in Japan doctors treated psychological illnesses mainly with drugs and not talk therapy.

Ms. Toyohashi gave him two make-up essays for English Composition and a note saying she had read “Fever,” one of the two Raymond Carver stories assigned for the American Literature class. The other story was “Jerry and Molly and Sam.”

The essays, likely written under sedation, were just comprehensible. In the first she wrote about becoming a flight attendant. In the second she wondered if she could be a fashion designer.

At the close of the semester Bart had his English Composition students write an in-class essay on a theme of their choice. Ms. Toyohashi was not there.

That afternoon there was a knock on Bart’s office door. Ms. Toyohashi entered, redheaded, bleary-eyed and mini-skirted. “May I write the essay?” she asked.

“Sit at this table, Ms. Toyohashi,” Bart said. “Here is paper. Here are pencils and erasers. Take all the time you want.”

She wrote nervously for half an hour, often erasing or scratching out words and whole sentences. She stood as he read the paper.

Her essay was about free schools, jiyu gakko in Japanese. Free schools were for truants and dropouts: girls and boys who had escaped regular schools because they were bullied or misunderstood. Though somewhat loose in organization, the content and her command of English were good.

“You’ve passed English Composition,” he said and handed her the paper.

Ms. Toyohashi appraised Bart with a puzzled look.

“You passed. You may go, Ms. Toyohashi.”

She did not move. Then she smiled. Bart smiled.

“Don’t miss American Literature this Friday,” he said. “Okay?”

“Okay,” Ms. Toyohashi said. “Goodbye.”

The final paper for American Literature, an in-class open book essay in English, was the only major project for this class. Because it was a make-or-break assignment, Bart spent three weeks reviewing the theme. He was worried because during that time Ms. Toyohashi was absent.

There were thirty-two students in the American Literature class. Ms. Toyohashi was there on time and sat in the back. She was the last to leave. He face was blank when she handed in her paper and thanked him.

Bart read her paper first. It started out by saying that “Fever” was unrealistic. The protagonist’s wife had run off with his colleague and friend and he was too nice about it. He and his wife were too nice to each other. The children were too nice. His girlfriend was too tolerant. Mrs. Webster, the housekeeper, had a too easy time of taking care of the children whose mother had abandoned them. On the other hand, “Jerry and Molly and Sam,” a story about an alcoholic man cheating on his wife, was very realistic because it was filled with bitterness and cruelty. The part she found most poignant was where Betty tells Al: “I know you don’t love me any more—goddamn you!—but you don’t even love the kids.”

Bart was shocked by what he read next. It was about her homestay family’s domestic unrest: the parents shouting from morning and into late at night, the slaps, the tears, the broken dishes, the unhappy children who threw tantrums. She felt unsafe outside the locked guest room and deeply regretted missing her classes, which she enjoyed. She concluded: “I have not told anyone else. Because I don’t want to cause more trouble. Who would believe me anyway?”

Over dinner, Tsuki, said, “She was not the crazy one! You have a duty to report this before another homestay student is abused.”

The department chairwoman said, “Let me keep Ms. Toyohashi’s paper for a while, Kozlov-sensei. Only until I take care of this matter. Please, sensei, keep this to yourself. It could hurt our Semester Abroad program. I’m glad Toyohashi-san passed your classes at least.”

“Not any others?”

She shook her head.

Prior to spring break, Ms. Toyohashi came to Bart’s office. “Sensei, I want to do a tutorial with you on Raymond Carver next semester,” she said.

“Certainly,” Bart said. “Your Carver essay showed you have a good command of English, a fine eye for details and a good mind for literary analysis. It all needs to be refined, of course.”

“Can we start with ‘Preservation,’ sensei? About the man with no job who spends all his time on the couch. My boyfriend is like that. He is always in his room. He never leaves the house. I try to help him.”

“That is really good of you!” Bart said.

“Sensei, I want to teach in a free school. I know I’d do well there because I’m an outsider.”

“I am too,” Bart said.

“Eh?”

“I found solace in reading Carver at a time when I felt I didn’t belong at my university. Ironically, I married a woman who acted as though she owned the place. When I came here I knew this was where I belonged. My ex-wife hated our university, hated Japan, and hated everyone I cared for. Finally she hated me.”

“Poor sensei!” She said. “I will always be your friend.”

“Thank you, Ms. Toyohashi. I need to catch the bus.”

“Me too! We must hurry!”

It was raining and only Bart had an umbrella. When they reached the bus stop the bus had already departed.

With the umbrella between them they were both getting wet. There was no other shelter. Bart remembered that Ms. Toyohashi was prone to colds. There were taxis close by. He also remembered the administrative admonition to the staff not to take taxis with students.

“We’re taking a taxi,” he said.

In the taxi, Ms. Toyohashi asked, “Do you have a girlfriend?”

“Yes. A doctor.” He told her which national hospital she worked for. “She is also a professor.”

“I want to meet her!” Ms. Toyohashi said. “Could I meet her today, sensei?”

Bart called Tsuki on his cellphone and then told Ms. Toyohashi, “She wants to meet you. She’s at our usual café.”

Tsuki was waiting at their usual table. She had changed into blue jeans and blue work shirt, and had unfurled her long straight hair. Today she was wearing the gold necklace Bart had given her for her birthday. She stood when they entered. The women bowed to each other and introduced themselves.

“You’re beautiful!” Ms. Toyohashi said.

“Thank you! So are you!” Tsuki answered.

Rapport established, Ms. Toyohashi poured out her life story to Bart’s girlfriend. Bart listened.

“I am unstable and I know why,” Ms. Toyohashi began. She never liked her parents’ business, yet she would inherit it because she was an only child. Her parents told her to study law. She failed to get into every law department she applied for. She was only accepted for English at Ikeshita Women’s University. It was located not far from her home and carried a good regional reputation. Her parents should have been pleased, she said, but they were disappointed. At the university she became bored. “I can never do what people tell me to do,” she said.

In his office that autumn, doing Raymond Carver with Ms. Toyohashi, Bart asked, “Do you understand why Carver chose the title ‘Preservation’ for this story?”

“Yes. The man is sad because he cannot find a job. He stays on the couch because he does not want to be hurt any more. But by preserving himself that way he becomes like the mummy man from the peat bog. Sensei, why don’t you marry Tsuki-sensei? Don’t you love her?”

“We love each other very much. But we were both betrayed and went through painful divorces. We’re like the man in ‘Preservation,’ I guess.”

“I kissed my boyfriend for the first time,” Ms. Toyohashi said and covered her mouth.

At the weekly English department meeting in late January the chairwoman announced that Ms. Toyohashi’s mother had written to say that the family would no longer be paying tuition. Privately she said to Bart, “Emiko-san disappeared a few days ago. Her parents are frantic. Please find her. We know she was close to you.”

“So everyone no doubt knows about the taxi and us meeting here,” he said to Tsuki at their usual café. “They presume I know where to find her. I haven’t a clue.”

“She may find you,” Tsuki said. “I’ll keep an eye out for her.”

Thanks to serendipity Bart found Ms. Toyohashi sitting on a bench and reading in Sakae, Nagoya’s downtown. She was wearing blue jeans and a denim jacket. She had stopped dyeing her hair.

“Bartholomew-sensei!” she exclaimed and stood.

“Are you hungry, Ms. Toyohashi?” he asked.

“Yes, very hungry.”

“I’ll treat you to a good lunch on the ninth floor of that department store over there,” he said pointing.

On the ninth floor Bart showed her around the various restaurants.

“I don’t belong here,” she said. “I feel like a Raymond Carver character.”

“Me too,” Bart said. “But we are hungry Raymond Carver characters. Let’s take another look around. When you find a restaurant that feels right let’s eat there.”

Over lunch she said, “Oh, by the way, I like ‘Fever.’ The people remind me of my parents. My mother and father are gentle. They have never punished me. They only look sad when I do something they don’t like.”

“They are very worried about you. Don’t you want to go home?”

“Bartholomew-sensei, I slept in Internet cafes and ate cheap food because I didn’t want to go home. I left because my parents wanted to put me to work in the business right way. Yesterday I found a job at a free school in Osaka. I start in April. I don’t know what I’ll do until then. I know they’ll tell me to forget the free school and work in the business. I can’t go home.”

Bart did not know what to say. Ms. Toyohashi ate her sushi slowly and with delicacy.

“Maybe Tsuki can help you,” Bart said. “Like write a letter to your parents explaining you have found meaningful work that will help society.”

She put down her chopsticks and looked up.

Bart called Tsuki on his cellphone. She was on her lunch break.

“You’ve done a brilliant job, darling!” she said. “Now let me take over. Hand Emiko-san your cellphone.”

After the next department meeting the Chairwoman told Bart not to worry about Ms. Toyohashi. She was safely at home.

The grateful parents, meanwhile, had sent Bart and Tsuki lavish gifts and invited them to dinner.

The parents were non-stop talkers. They were jovial. They were witty. They were captivating. They were the kind of gregarious people, Bart thought, who could, without meaning to, perpetually upstage a child trying to find herself. Ms. Toyohashi, like her mother, wore a kimono. Unlike her mother, she did not say a word or look at Bart and Tsuki.

Her mother and father told wildly vivid anecdotes about their travels around Japan. They had been to all forty-eight prefectures and even to the disputed islands above Hokkaido. Bart was dying to tell them they were brilliant storytellers and they had no doubt inspired their daughter’s interest in literature. It would break the ice for a talk about her future.

Suddenly it was over. Tomorrow was busy day. Before Bart and Tsuki knew it, they were in their shoes and the family was kneeling at the genkan and bidding them sayonara.

Months passed without a word from Ms. Toyohashi. Bart fretted to the point where Tsuki had to ask him if he was in love with her. He answered apologetically he only wanted closure.

One spring day it occurred to him that he was not entitled to closure. Ms. Toyohashi was none of his business.

In June he married Tsuki, his longtime girlfriend.

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Alex Shishin is an award-winning fiction and non-fiction writer widely published in print and online.  Shishin’s non-fiction includes the travel memoir Rossiya: Voices from the Brezhnev Era. His novel Nippon 2357: A Utopian Ecological Tale and other ebooks are published by Smashwords. Originally from San Francisco, he is a university professor in Kansai. Email: magwitchv70[at]gmail.com

Deflation

Fiction
Tara Kaprowy


Photo Credit: Jeremy Brooks/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

The sun couldn’t reach inside the fire hall. John David, alone, eating watery chili and drinking sweet tea, felt the cool cement floor through his shoes. He sat at a long fold-out table that had been covered with a thin plastic tablecloth featuring veiny fall leaves. He wasn’t hungry, he’d filled up on a pancake breakfast at First Baptist that morning, but the thing to do was to finish the offering.

Finally, a lone square of chopped onion remained beached in his bowl, and he put down his plastic teaspoon, which was now stained orange. If he didn’t get moving, Humfleet would pin him down with a piece of red velvet.

He managed to avoid her and joined the group of volunteer firefighters standing outside the hall smoking. It was a pretty Kentucky afternoon in Pine Knot, the sun more golden than yellow. The fire hall faced the curvy road, which was banked by a wall of limestone that always looked wet.

John David joined Ron Townsend’s group, their beefy backs bent over to protect the flames of their Bics.

“Sure is a pretty day for a chili supper,” he commented, and Townsend nodded. “Reminds me of the kind of days when I used to go with my grandfather to the old homestead, visit the old cemetery. You know the one in Eubank?”

“Near the lake?”

“By the dam. Some of those stones date back to Civil War times. But still well maintained. Still well maintained.”

Townsend nodded as he inhaled, squinted as he let the smoke out. “Pretty spot.”

“Just goes to show that if you let people handle things themselves, they will,” John David said.

The comment referred to a recent vote denying county funds from being apportioned to cemeteries with less than a hundred plots. John David had voted to deny the money and he knew Townsend agreed with him.

“You’re damn right,” he said.

“That’s one thing we did right. Though I tell you, getting anything passed these days is a miracle. I mean, there’s a way to do things, manuals sent from the state, the whole bit. But Sparkman will come in and do things just how he likes. I mean, he will do things just how he damn well likes.”

More people were listening—now the wives had joined, almost all of them with their hair cut so it spiked up in the back. This group always showed up at the polls. John David switched the topic to zoning, how he’d confronted Sparkman on that, too, “because he’d tried to bully us again and I just wasn’t going to have it.” His speech rolled out of him so it was impossible to interrupt and not appear rude. It was a gift, his gab.

Humfleet came up to him and offered him the predicted block of cake.

“Honey, I’m no sweet eater. And anyway, if it gets any better than your chili, I don’t want to know about it.”

She smiled. He liked to think he was famous for his “honeys.” He held on to the “hon,” would cock his head, lower his jaw, before releasing the rest of the word. The overall effect could be construed as a mild admonishment, an inside joke, a prelude to some juicy gossip or just a feature of his charisma.

The men had had their smoke now and their kids were getting antsy in the driveway. He saw a boy pick up a handful of gravel as another boy danced around him, taunting. The boy cocked his hand over his shoulder, threatening the other, a few shards slipping out, but hesitated to fight his conscience before he released the rocks. The hesitation had given the other boy time to escape, and the gravel sprayed over the driveway, hitting nothing.

*

By the time John David pulled into his garage, it was dark. He’d attended two more events, the car show downtown and a fall festival at one of the elementary schools. He had three more weeks until the election, and though he was the incumbent for the sixth-district magistrate seat, he never let anything go to chance.

He could feel smoke and funnel cake grease on his skin. An orange cat greeted him with insistent meowing as he walked inside. As John David pulled off his shoes, the cat extended her front legs and made a ramp of her back to stretch it.

“Hello, Hester,” John David said, lifting the animal into his arms.

He deposited a can of Friskies onto a paper plate and went to turn on the shower. He was in the midst of renovation, the old pink tile stripped so now only ribbed cement remained on the walls. He bent over the pink sink to get a good look at his skin in the mirror. He could feel a cystic lump forming on his chin and pressed on it, feeling the pain from the build-up inside. He’d have to treat that before bed and first thing in the morning if he wanted to get a handle on it. He turned his head and examined the burgundy acne scars speckled along his jaw, passing the pads of two fingers very softly over them in a way meant to detect future eruptions but avoid contamination.

He was nearly 42 and, still, here he was, his skin at once inflamed and cratered.

Otherwise, he was attractive. He had kind, grey eyes, thick brown hair and his body was lean and fit. But he’d given up trying long ago. The stress of a first date would inevitably make his skin break out so that he’d have to suffer the humiliation of the woman across the table trying not to look. A few times, he’d gone on dates with women who’d also had an obvious deficit. His friend Cassidy had once set him up with a woman who sweated uncontrollably. Just past appetizers, amoeba-shaped stains had spread under her arms, so that by the time they reached dessert, she was forced to drastically restrain her hand gestures, pinning her upper arms against her body. She looked like a Tyrannosaurus Rex. He’d felt badly for, but disgusted by, her and was disappointed to learn he expected generosity from people that he, himself, did not possess.

No one was Jeannie anyway, so it didn’t matter.

He scrubbed his skin with sulfur wash thinking of her. They’d met sophomore year at Eastern Kentucky University, after mascot squad try-outs had narrowed down he and Jeannie as the two new Colonels. There were four members on the squad, each expected to spend about 100 hours a year inside the costume, which featured a giant head that looked much like Colonel Sanders and a maroon suit complete with frock coat and string tie.

John David had come into the try-out by accident, his roommate’s friend telling him he was the right size and it came with a partial scholarship. Jeannie had gone to every football and basketball game with her dad as a child and was fascinated by the Colonel.

In the costume, John David quickly learned he was no longer a shy, unappealing virgin. Instead, he was a beloved, silent jokester who wandered the aisles of the screaming stadium sliding down stair railings, stealing people’s popcorn, giving high fives to women sporting EKU tattoos on the apples of their cheeks.

Of the four students who played the Colonel, John David was the best at it, and Jeannie—blond, dimple cheeked, who had a habit of addressing people by their last names sports-team style—marveled at his natural talent as they sat over beers after the games. He loved her completely.

John David dried off and put on some track pants and an old, holey EKU T-shirt. He’d taped a new episode of Justified, and the new issue of his cycling magazine had come in. First though, he sat down and looked at his calendar, which featured space views taken from the Hubble telescope. He’d be free of commitments tomorrow, but Tuesday was Rotary in the morning and Wednesday was the Chamber luncheon. He’d need his game face on, something that was worth noting, but not really a hardship.

In the end, that’s the most important thing his time as a mascot had taught him. Even without the costume on, he had figured out how to become the embodiment of the Colonel: garrulous and likeable, but tactical, not easily interrupted. With two first names, not one.

When he returned to his hometown after college, armed with the degree he needed to take over his father’s accounting business, he perfected this public persona, surprising old friends and relatives with his new loquacious, down-homey confidence. Eventually, he discovered that the most natural place for the Colonel to shine was on the political stage. If he couldn’t have love, he could at least have power.

Hester, whom he’d inherited from his grandmother, jumped up as he sat and he scratched her back just above the base of her tail before she turned, once, twice, and finally settled on his lap in a curl much like that of a crescent roll.

It was, he decided, enough.

*

John David pulled up alongside the woman bent over the wheel in the Wendy’s parking lot. Her long brown hair whipped in the wind. The tire was a love handle puddled on the asphalt. The scent of fried meat hung in the air.

John David climbed out of his truck and pulled out the Colonel’s friendly voice.

“I’m not one to state the obvious, but it looks like you have yourself a bit of a problem,” he said and she looked over, surprised.

“I do,” she said.

He sat down on his haunches beside her. “Whewee, that’s a bad puncture.”

“I was lucky to pull in here. I was getting gas and was about to get back on the Interstate when the car suddenly starting shaking.”

Her accent was foreign. European.

“Hit a pothole or a curb?”

“No.”

“Maybe it was losing pressure for a while and suddenly just gave out. Well, let’s get you back on the road.”

She stood and she was tall. “I can’t ask you to do that.”

His answer was automatic, sounded as if it were coated in Teflon: “You don’t need to ask, ma’am. I’ve already offered.”

He smiled, looking at her briefly in the eyes for the first time. Her skin looked like cream.

He opened her trunk, which was filled with luggage.

“I’m going on a trip,” she said as they both pulled out the loaded bags. They were exceptionally heavy.

“These could be your problem,” he said. “An overloaded car is hard on the tires.”

As they stacked the luggage in the empty space beside them, cars inched forward to gain access to the drive-thru. It was nearly lunchtime and the Wendy’s always did a brisk business. Many people honked and waved at John David as they drove past. He was very aware that some of them were voters who would see him helping a stranded woman five days before the election.

He pushed the wrench with the palm of his hand to loosen the lug nuts and crawled underneath the old Civic to place the jack. He smelled grease, its bluntness, and thought of his dad. When he’d taught him the technique, his father had said there were two things never to be too busy for: stopping for a funeral procession and helping a woman on the side of the road.

“I still can’t believe you’re helping me,” the woman said. She wore a long, flowing dress, swirling with paisleys, and it swayed in the wind, so, from his vantage point, he could see her slim ankles. “It is making me wonder if I would help someone like this.”

“Honey, it’s no trouble,” he said. “I’m glad to do it. I would want someone to help my sister or my mother if they were in the same spot.”

He jacked up the car six inches. The wind had obscured the warmth of the day, and it took little for him to feel too hot in his jacket. He took it off and was about to put it in the truck.

“Here, let me hold it,” she said.

She folded the windbreaker over her arm and patted it once with her free, ringless hand. He removed the lug nuts and pulled off the defeated tire, replacing it with the spare.

“This will do you for a while, but you really should replace the tire. How far do you have to go?”

“I’m driving to Key West.”

He whistled loudly. “You’ll want to replace the spare before then. I can suggest somewhere here that will give you a good price, if you’d like. Where are you coming from?”

“New York,” she said.

He whistled again, a piercing crescendo that conveyed the enormity of her undertaking. He saw her wince in response to its sound.

“What is this town?” she asked.

“You’ve landed in Pine Knot,” he said, more quietly.

“Pine Knot,” she answered, as if trying out the words for the first time.

At that moment, someone honked from the drive-thru and John David looked up and waved. It was Don Marshall, owner of the car dealership.

“Whatcha got there?” he asked.

“Just doing my civic duty,” John David answered.

Dan honked his horn twice and John David waved again, a big, wide arc.

The woman looked at him, considering him thoughtfully. “Why don’t you let me take you to lunch? It’s the least I can do to repay you.”

“That’s not necessary.”

She nodded, deciding. “It is necessary.”

*

Frothy pies rotated in a glass display case at the entrance of Frisch’s Big Boy. The restaurant smelled of pork chops and gravy.

“It’s busy here,” the woman commented.

The room was mostly filled with grey-hairs sitting together having coffee or returning from picking up parlor dishes of Jell-O from the buffet. A decorated group of ladies with the Red Hat Society occupied a table of twelve in the center of the room. John David quickly said hello to several people before they sunk into a booth with brown, pleather seats, air exhaling from them in a swish.

“What’s good?”

“Well, it’s a burgers and fries kind of place. But there is the buffet too. Green beans, corn, mashed potatoes, stuff like that. Just simple country food.”

John David felt both embarrassed of the little restaurant—he could hear Crystal Gayle on the speakers—and loyal to it. He knew the woman would be out of place, but she’d asked for something more formal than Wendy’s, and there weren’t a lot of options in Pine Knot.

She ran her index finger down the laminated menu. Her nails were neatly filed, unpolished. He was very aware his forehead was in different stages of peeling from the medicine he took.

“I think I will have the Big Boy,” she announced and smiled. “When in Rome.” She pushed her hair over her shoulder in a wave. “Thank you again for helping me.”

“You don’t need to…”

“I understand it’s polite to decline thanks, but, yes, I do. I do need to thank you.”

He felt the discomfort that came from accepting the acknowledgement, like swimming up current. “Well, you’re welcome.”

She smiled and small wrinkles appeared beside her brown eyes. He guessed she was in her mid-40s.

“See? That wasn’t hard.”

“No, I suppose not.”

She was looking straight at him, her eyes wanting his to meet hers. It was hard for him to look back, feel her eyes assessing his face, and she seemed to know it, but didn’t mind insisting.

The waitress came to take their order, placing glasses of ice water on the table. She and John David had gone to high school together and she asked him how his mom was doing.

“She’s getting along OK,” he said, his voice booming suddenly. “Good days and bad days. You know how it is. Thank you for asking. I’ll be sure to tell her.”

“She was one of my favorite teachers.”

“She has a heart of gold, honey. She sure does.”

John David could see the waitress assessing the woman. When she left, the woman leaned in, her hands together and pinned between her chest and the table.

“She thinks we are on a date,” she said playfully.

John David took a sip of water, pushing a cube of ice against the roof of his mouth before he chewed it.

“You seem to know a lot of people,” she said.

“Yes, it’s part of my job. Well, not my job, really, but my second job. I’m a county magistrate.”

“Oh my. Are you up for election?”

“I am. It’s on Tuesday.”

“I see.”

She tapped her fingers on her lips. Karen Carpenter crooned.

“So, what’s bringing you to Key West?”

“It’s a long story,” she said. Her hand was around the red, pebbled plastic of the water glass and her skin was very white. She exhaled. “Actually, everything in my life is turning out to be a long story.”

“Well, everything in mine is short. So who’s ahead?”

He surprised himself by saying it. It was meant to be funny, but betrayed a wisp of bitterness that she latched onto immediately.

“Finally. I see you. Thank you for being honest.”

She told him she was leaving a lover, she used that word, and was headed south because she had a friend there. The man in New York had become too serious, was pushing her toward marriage. She didn’t want to stay with one person forever and he’d known that, she’d told him that, but, still, he was putting pressure on her.

“He had these big, thick wooden hangers, ones meant for suits. When he would get home from work, he would hang his pants on them, matching up the crease in each leg before folding them over on the rod. Then he would place his jacket on it. He would take off his shirt, but he would keep his socks, big, tall socks, on while he looked for the outfit he would change into.”

She looked at John David in a way that conveyed that she badly wanted him to understand. He did not; how else was the man supposed to undress? He considered laughing it off, politely telling her that men were clueless, as the women in town would expect him to say. But the thought of doing that suddenly tired him.

“I don’t understand what he did wrong,” he said.

“But it’s the same. Each day.”

“Everyone’s life is the same each day.”

“Not mine,” she said. “I couldn’t stand it.”

Their food arrived and he absorbed the idea that in an hour she’d be gone and that, for once, maybe ever, he could say anything.

“Well, was he a nice man? Was he good to you?”

“He was very nice. He is a good man. I do know that.”

“Is it possible you’re just spoiled then?”

She sat back against the booth, the pleather compressing. She knitted her hands together and put them under her chin. He expected her to be insulted and braced himself.

“Yes, maybe I am. That’s a good point.”

She examined her burger and bit into it, its height requiring her to open her mouth wide to accept it. The sandwich squeezed with her bite and gooey cheese dripped onto the plate. She wiped her hands on her dispenser napkin, which she’d unfolded and put on her lap.

“So now I’ve had a Big Boy,” she said smiling.

He watched her eat. He’d had no idea eating could be sexy.

“And what about you?” she said. “Do you have a lover?”

She asked it offhandedly, picking up the dropped cheese with the side of the burger. He wiped his mouth. He could feel anger swirling in a far-off place. She would have to know his answer. So was she laughing at him?

“No, ma’am.”

“Ma’am?” She laughed loudly. “Surely we aren’t going backwards.”

She held out her hand, wet from the meat of the burger, and he took it.

“I’m Marie.”

“I’m John David.”

“It’s nice to meet you. John. I’ve liked every John I’ve ever met.”

He didn’t correct her to tell her he used both names.

“So no wife? No girlfriend?”

He pinched his lips together and took another bite of his salad. But when she caught his eyes, he could see she was sincere.

“No, neither,” he said quietly. He looked around to see if anyone could hear them, but the noise from the red-hatted ladies was swallowing everything else in the room.

“So what is it? Are you shy?” she asked.

She raised her eyebrows in question, but it annoyed him, felt like goading. It occurred to him he could get up and leave and never see her again.

“Are you manipulative?” he responded instead.

She didn’t flinch. “I can be, but I am not being that now.”

“Well, you’re certainly steering this conversation.”

She dipped a French fry in her ketchup. “Ahh, but didn’t you manipulate me? Changing my tire to make yourself look good for your election?”

His fork paused in mid-air. “There is such a thing as doing the right thing.”

“It’s always motivated by something.”

“That doesn’t make your tire any less changed.”

“OK. Then me asking about your life. Your real life, and about you, none of the bullshit. That doesn’t make it unkind.”

He looked out the window, the trimmed boxwoods in the restaurant landscaping swaying as a unit. Beyond them stood the chubby statue of the Big Boy with his red-and-white checkered overalls, pompadour hair and 1950s optimism. She touched the pads of her fingers over his nails.

“You’re angry. I can see that you are. But why waste time being polite and saying nothing? Don’t you see? We have so much in common. I am running away and you are hiding. That is the same thing.

*

Marie ordered a milkshake for dessert and John David had a slice of pecan pie. She told him she’d come to New York from France to escape another lover. That was two years ago and her Visa was long expired.

As she spoke, about the waitress jobs and roommates she’d had, lifestyles that didn’t befit a woman of her age, John David watched her. Marie spoke often with her hands and, at one point, knocked over his cup of coffee. She didn’t clean the mess well, pulled out too many napkins from the dispenser and then left them in a wad on the side of the table, the still-fresh napkins eventually ruined because of the wet ones underneath.

Her life would always be untidy and unsteady, he decided. Here she was pouring her heart out to a stranger, something she could get away with because of her beauty; she knew men would listen. But then she asked him if he’d ever been in love.

“Once.”

He took a bite. “Pie’s good.”

She folded her hands on the table. “So? Once?”

“A girl in college. But it didn’t work out.”

“Why not?”

“Well, I never really told her. I mean, she might have known but if she did, she never told me.”

“Unrequited love is the most perfect love.”

“Except you don’t actually get to be happy.”

“Well, why didn’t you try for her?”

“It wasn’t a matter of not trying, it was probably a matter of not being wanted.” He gestured to his skin, something he had never done before.

She squinted, considering. “I’m not talking about getting her. I’m talking about risking.”

“I didn’t want to ruin the friendship.”

“Are you still even friends?”

“We lost touch.”

“Exactly.”

He felt a sudden shedding. She sipped her milkshake.

*

Marie kissed him on each cheek before getting into her car. She said she’d get her tire fixed when she got to Atlanta, though he doubted she would. She honked twice at him as she pulled away and he smiled at how American that was.

John David got into his truck. He had to pick up groceries at Walmart, and might as well get windshield washer fluid there while he was at it. He had to make a deposit at the bank. And Glen at Cumberland Appliance said they’d be willing to put up one of his election signs, so he needed to drop one by there.

He pulled out of the parking lot and turned left on Main Street. Then he imagined what music Marie would be listening to in her car. Probably something French. Or folksy—she seemed like the type. He rolled the window down and felt the wind on his scarred face.

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Tara Kaprowy lives in Somerset, Ky., where she works as a journalist. She has had work published in North Dakota Quarterly. Email: tkaprowy[at]gmail.com

The Nun Who Loved Rammstein

Fiction
Natasha Cabot


Photo Credit: Celine Nadeau/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Sister Mary Moira Frances O’Shannon stands naked at her window, smoking and fingering herself as she watches the boy and girl across the street drink whiskey and make out. If they were to look up, they’d see the naked nun but they don’t so they won’t. She sees the boy kiss the girl’s neck while the girl reaches down and rubs the boy’s crotch. Their mouths connect again with an inelegant grace. The boy pushes the girl down on the concrete steps while he roughly grabs one of the girl’s breasts—Sister Mary Moira thinks it is the left breast but from this distance, she cannot be sure. Her eyesight isn’t what it used to be.

She’s jealous of the girl. Age has made her bitter and filled her with numerous regrets. Her most notable regret is never having fucked someone. As a Bride of Christ, she will have instant entry into heaven but she’d give it all up to have been fucked at some point in her life. Christ will have many brides, she tells herself. And he’ll fuck none of us.

She stubs her cigarette out on the windowsill and pulls a wet hand out from between her thighs.

She sighs, somewhat satisfied but not entirely. Masturbation is no substitute for actual sex, she thinks.

Sister Mary Moira walks into the bathroom and stares at her reflection as warm water pours over her left hand. The harsh, fluorescent light magnifies every large pore, every facial hair, as well as the spider veins crawling along the tip of her nose.

She looks at the moles on her face and the grey hairs that poke out of them. To pluck them would be vain and vanity is a sin, she’s been told. So she doesn’t pluck and the hairs grow and grow and they curl at the end. When she walks, they flap gently in the breeze. The other nuns don’t notice; they have their own facial hair issues, too. The good thing about living with other ugly women is no one notices anyone else’s physical faults.

She takes a wash cloth, runs it under very hot water, and places it between her thighs and scrubs hard. This is her penance. She does this every time she masturbates. It hurts but feels good at the same time. She enjoys the feeling of the hot cloth rubbing against her dilapidated clitoris.

Now fully absolved, she goes back into her room and walks to the window. The boy and girl are gone and the concrete steps are empty. Opening the window a bit, she inhales deeply—wanting to catch any remaining scent of the boy and girl but it has left. Too late, she tells herself. Again, I’m too late.

The nun walks away from the window, goes to her desk, and pulls out her iPod, which she won at bingo one night. She lights another cigarette, closes her eyes and listens to Rammstein. She finds almost as much salvation in the voice of the singer as she does in Jesus Christ. She feels protected by him even though she doesn’t speak German. There’s something about his deep, rumbling voice she finds safe and that allows her to momentarily forget about the cast-iron hymen lounging inside of her cunt.

She closes her eyes and falls into the music while her lungs fill with smoke. Sister Mary Moira Frances O’Shannon once again imagines what it would have felt like to be fingered and fucked at age 15.

pencil

Natasha Cabot is a Toronto-based Canadian author whose work has been published in numerous international journals. She recently finished her first novel and hopes to begin work on her second soon. Email: natashacabot22[at]gmail.com

Union

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Meredith Lindgren


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

It was the fourth day, three after Sadie reported George missing, that the note came in the mail. Talking to his memory helped her to feel sane during the lonely hours. The note was in his handwriting. She looked up to ask his memory what she held, but it wasn’t there.

The note smelled of paper, not him. It was sandwiched in its envelope between two back pages of different entertainment sections. Puzzles and horoscopes. The way his mom had wrapped money she sent in the mail to hide it.

There was his handwriting with all of its grace and superfluous curves, swirls and quirks. Lines that tapered and went nowhere. Letters written over one another or crossed out so that words would be spelled correctly.

It said:

My dearest Sadie,

It is you and only you, you are the one who I will miss. Our Union has meant the world to me. If ever I have met one who made the world a better place, it is you, my lovely Sadie. For that reason, a world without you, is the one thing which is unacceptable to me. I fear for your safety, so long as I am alive.

There is nowhere to go that could ensure your safety, so I take my final holiday beneath the waves. Let’s hope it is a tranquil one.

Those who are after me are nothing if not relentless. If only I had stolen anything besides other than knowledge I would simply give it back, such is a journalist’s life I suppose. I am not the only one in peril, by which of course I mean Finn and Heyduke. Now I suppose it is one down, two to go.

There is so much, it seems, left unsaid that you must be saying right now to yourself. I am at an advantage I suppose. I have but one. Except for knowing that the most important thing is that I love you, knowing that that is the one thing I should have said more often and wish I could say in a way where you could take it with you forever, the rest is a blank. You knew me better than anyone and that is why I have walked into the ocean, never to return to you or this life.

I would never leave, but for your safety. I love you always, so long as I can love. I know it doesn’t feel like it now, but I did this for you. One time and a thousand times more, I love you.

Love,

George Goodsell

And that was it.

Like all lovers, they always meant, but never actually got around, to talking about everything. But once, in the whispering hours of an especially macabre morning, after a good friend’s close call and cry for help, he had told her that he couldn’t imagine anything driving him to suicide, but if he were to do it, he would freeze himself to death. She said that if she were to take herself out it would have been by walking into the sea or, as cliché as it was, driving into the Grand Canyon.

“What is this?” she said to her memory.

“A suicide note,” the glimmer of George in her mind said.

“But what does it mean?”

“Read it again. It might mean I killed myself.”

“I don’t need to read it again. Why couldn’t you just go to the police?”

“Maybe they were in on it. What do you think, did I do it?”

“If so you borrowed my suicide.”

She tried to see forever out the window, but snow reduced her view to a couple of feet. She tried to look past it, as if, for the first time ever she would be able to see either the Grand Canyon or the sea from their apartment in Denver. The second day, she had spent a lot of time crying; if she started again, it might make it true. George would be dead the minute she started crying.

He walked up behind her and she could feel the shape of his body against hers, at the same time feeling how much it wasn’t there. She tilted her mouth toward his but in his absence, she couldn’t lean into him without falling, so she didn’t reach.

“Where is it postmarked?” he said. She looked at the envelope again.

“San Francisco. Your least favorite Californian city.”

“If I didn’t want to, but had to kill myself, would I do it in San Francisco?”

“That night we talked about it you presented some pretty good reasons to freeze to death and the weather’s been good for it.”

“Plus, I didn’t want to drown at all.”

“You said it would hurt too much.”

“Sure.”

“So, I need to buy a ticket to San Francisco.”

“Assuming I sent this from there, would I stay?”

Questions like this made this apparition’s origins glaringly apparent. He might stay in San Francisco, he might go someplace else. He might have actually killed himself, but she didn’t believe it.

“Why did you have to leave me all alone?” She couldn’t help it, she cried. As she did so chanting, “He didn’t. He’s still alive,” to no one. Her memory of George watched silently and at a distance. She did this for some time. She woke the next morning from dreamless sleep, slipped into without intent, although gratefully.

His memory was there.

“I don’t want to talk to you. Not if you did it.”

“Yet, I’m still here.” He wavered.

There was a knock at the door. It was the police.

“Ma’am, I’m Officer Edwards and this is Officer Cooper. May we come in?”

“Yeah,” she said. She let them in.

“We have an update on your husband,” Officer Cooper said. “You might want to sit down.”

She sat down.

“His car was found abandoned in San Francisco. There was a note,” Officer Cooper reached into his jacket and pulled out a piece of paper. It was a copy of an original suicide note. It was not the same as the one she had received in the mail.

It was unaddressed. It said:

I can’t take it anymore. This world is far crueler than it is kind. I have taken care of the disposal of my body by walking into the sea. Tell my wife I love her and hope she can forgive me.

That’s all. I have nothing more to say,

George Goodsell

George always had more to say. She put her hands with the note in it in her lap. “The coast guard is sweeping the bay for the body. All along the west coast folks are keeping a lookout,” Officer Edwards said.

Sadie nodded.

“Sadie, I know this is hard,” said Officer Cooper, “but you don’t happen to have a sample of George’s handwriting, for comparison’s sake, do you?”

“Uh, sure,” she said. She stood and walked to the bookshelf.

“The more recent, the better,” Edwards said.

The most recent thing he had handwritten was an anniversary card. Instead, she pulled out a grocery list and put the card to the side.

“Is this good enough?”

“That should do, although if you have anything more, it really would be helpful.”

“Let me look.”

She found some notes on what he was working on most recently for work. If he was dead, she should give them to the police. If not, she shouldn’t. She bypassed it for another notebook which she handed to Cooper.

“Can we take this? You’ll get it back,” said Edwards.

“Yeah, sure.”

“I have to ask, had you noticed any changes in George’s behavior,” said Cooper, “just before he disappeared?”

“No,” she said.

They nodded and asked her if she had anyone to call, to be with her during this difficult time. She called the electric company and pretended their phone tree was her brother. The officers offered to wait with her until he arrived. She declined, saying that it would be several minutes, not so long that they should worry, but long enough to keep them from their jobs.

She watched them go. The snow had stopped and the streets were plowed. Even still, Sadie was going to take the lightrail.

George worked in the newspaper office downtown, the full length of the 16th Street Mall from Union Station. She couldn’t speak to him about it aloud, but two notes were not a thing. He was alive somewhere. She needed to talk to whoever he was working with, the others in danger, Finn and Heyduke. She needed to find out what he was working on.

The girl at the receptionist’s desk, Susanne, Susan, Suzette, some kind of Sue, recognized Sadie and escorted her back to George’s desk. Cubicle walls surrounded it. Sadie was encountered with a small pile of papers. In the trash, there was a hand-drawn crossword puzzle. As soon as the Sue left, Sadie pocketed the puzzle. She was looking through the papers on the desk when George’s boss approached.

“Sadie, what are you doing here?”

“George’s car was found abandoned. I need to talk to the people he was working with on his most recent article.”

“What people?”

“Finn and Heyduke.”

“You haven’t heard from George at all, have you?”

“No. His car was found abandoned in San Francisco,” she said.

He didn’t react.

“There was a suicide note.”

“Maybe you should sit down.”

She sat in George’s chair.

“I’m not surprised,” his boss said.

She looked up at him. It was her turn not to react.

“We don’t have anyone here named Finn or Heyduke. Further, his work has been,” his boss paused. He did not want to say what came next. “Erratic.”

“Can I see?” she said.

“We need to clear out his desk, anyway. I just wasn’t going to rush it,” he said. “Take what you need.”

Sue was there with a box. Sadie hadn’t even seen her approach.

The boss started picking out papers and personal knickknacks from the desk, leaving office supplies that belonged to the newspaper. It was full when he handed it to Sadie.

“Sadie, maybe you should take it easy,” he said.

Sadie nodded.

“No, I mean… the things George was working on…” He was struggling. “He seemed fine, right up until the end, but the things he was writing, they’re not even disturbing as much as nonsensical. He kept doodling unsolvable crosswords and the like. Maybe you should rest.”

“I will,” she said. “I’ll just take this home and rest.”

Once in the apartment she ignored the box, fully expecting that it was indeed, filled with gibberish. He had not been different in the past several weeks, not in the way people seemed to expect. Not with her.

“Why did you make up Heyduke and Finn?” she said.

“Think,” the memory of George said. “Think.”

“You’re not dead. You can’t be.”

He was there, in her mind. “Have you looked at the crosswords yet?”

“What? No.”

And she pulled the discarded crossword out of her pocket. Her eyes were blurry from tears and staying up to talk to ghosts. Now that she had time to look at it she saw, it was incomplete and thus unsolvable.

The clue for nine across was “Doc Holliday’s final resting place.” That was Glenwood Springs, the place he had asked her to marry him.

He had put the word holiday in his note.

“Glenwood Springs,” she said. “You want me to go to Glenwood Springs.”

She was excitable and his memory didn’t answer. He just watched her go to the computer and make the reservations. The next train was leaving at eight the next morning. She packed.

“Of course you’re alive,” she said. “It makes so much sense.”

She found she was tired for the first time since he had been missing. But when she went to bed she couldn’t sleep. Half the time she was excited. Half the time she was wrong and he was dead.

When the alarm went off the next morning, she was unsure of how long she had slept, or if she had done so at all.

The train ride lasted a long time, almost six hours, and while at the start she had tried to read George’s work notes, by the end of it she was observed by other passengers talking to herself in half-conversations.

She got off the train and began to search the station for George’s face. People bumped into her or avoided her and she was left standing by herself on an empty platform. It was frigid and snowflakes with little substance blew around her, finding her face as pinpricks of cold.

“Where are you?” she said. “Where are you?”

And the loneliness was vast and surrounded her on all sides. Her efforts and failure heaved around her, a grim tide. The air was wet and took on weight. As she fell to her knees things began to dim. This is what it was like to drown. On the way down, she might see him.

 

George stood at Union Station in Chicago. Sadie should have the clues. They were lame. He had taken it for granted that he had more time. Once he realized that he was probably going to have to disappear, he had begun work on a crossword where the down clues were to read that he was in Chicago. One, “I think ___ I am”; two, “Inn, as an example”; three, “Three past nine down.” The solutions were meaningless for the most part.

He couldn’t tell whether it was too obvious or elusive and at the end he ran out of time, the senator’s men were driving him off the road. He’d left for San Francisco, the other end of the line and the best he’d been able to do was send her the note that should have told the police the same story as the one he left in the car, if she shared it with them, but tell her the truth. It was sandwiched between two crosswords called Chicago. Each with union as a solution.

He waited.

pencil

Meredith Lindgren graduated Summa Cum Laude from Metropolitan State University of Denver in Colorado with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing. Her work has appeared in Toasted Cheese Literary Journal (under her previous name, Meredith Bateman) and Subprimal Poetry Art. Although she would not call herself a crossword aficionado, she does honor their right to exist. Email: nuclearmirror[at]gmail.com

The Ginger Box

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
R.J. Snowberger


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

The five of us sat, ignoring each other. We didn’t know why we were there. The will had already been read, the inheritance dispersed. There was nothing left to do. So, why had we all been summoned?

I shifted in my thinly padded chair to keep my butt from going numb and passed furtive glances over my cousins. Alec and Dirk were playing games on their phones, while Julia had her nose in a romance novel, and Maria—bless her heart—balanced the spine of a coloring book against her knee, attempting to fill in an animated cat with a gel pen.

When I thought about it, I realized I didn’t actually have a problem with Maria. The snobby, trust-fund triplets, yeah, but not Maria. We just hadn’t seen each other much since she had moved away when we were teenagers. We were merely out of touch. That was nothing to dislike anyone over.

I was considering going over to talk to Maria when the lawyer finally entered the room. He was a stocky fellow with brown hair that had been slicked back with so much gel, it lay flat against his scalp. His tucked-in, collared shirt was a little too tight and had a small stain in the middle that played peek-a-boo with his suit jacket as he moved.

“Hello, everyone. I am Peter Bradley, your grandmother’s lawyer,” he announced with a jovial smile. “I guess you’re all wondering why you’ve been invited here, today.” He looked like a clean-cut Hagrid, offering us a scholarship to Hogwarts. We were not amused.

His smile faltered and he continued. “So, when your grandmother died, she left most of her things to either the VA or your parents—”

“We already know that,” Alec interrupted. “It was in the will.”

“She left our mother a broach,” Julia added, face lowered and eyebrow lifted in disgust.

“Right, but what you don’t know, is that she left something for you, too,” Mr. Bradley replied with an ‘Ah, I’ve got you there’ expression. He then hesitated before correcting himself. “One of you, that is.”

“Which one of us?” Dirk asked.

“Well, that is to be determined by this.” Mr. Bradley held up a small stack of papers. After passing the pages out, he stepped back and watched as we scanned the document. He seemed amused by our bewilderment.

Maria was the first to speak. “A crossword puzzle?”

Even as an adult, her voice still had a high, squeaky pitch. When we were children, I used to tease her about it, calling her Maria Mouse. She would protest, retaliating with, “Yeah, well, you’re Piper Pepper” to which I would say, “That doesn’t make any sense.” Then we’d both pout, and Grandma Pat would tell us to “get over it” while simultaneously giving us sweets.

I guess I unconsciously smiled at the memory, because next thing I knew, Mr. Bradley was saying, “See, Piper is excited about the puzzle.” How a smile translated to ‘excited’ I’m not sure, but I received a few smoldering glares from the triplets for it.

“Now, the instructions are quite straightforward,” the lawyer continued. “The first one to finish the crossword puzzle, discovering the hidden message in that center column there, receives the prize.”

“And what is the prize?” Alec asked. His tone implied he wanted to know whether or not the puzzle was worth his time.

“Unfortunately, only the one who receives it will find out the answer to that,” Mr. Bradley replied.

“So, you don’t even know?” Alec asked incredulously.

Mr. Bradley ignored him, continuing on with the instructions. “There is only one stipulation. The puzzle must be completed alone. You are forbidden to help each other, so no group sharing.” He passed us all a stern look, but it was obvious that he was referring to Alec, Dirk, and Julia.

“My number is at the bottom of the page,” he stated, drawing our eyes to the name and number printed below the clues. “Let me know when you’ve finished.” He left then, leaving the five of us sitting in uncomfortable chairs with nothing but a crossword puzzle and the hope of maybe receiving a mystery prize.

Maria was the first to react. She packed up her coloring book and gel pens, and stood up. “Well, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ve got a job, a husband, and a very busy two-year-old. I loved Grandma Pat, and I’ll miss her, but I don’t have time for games. I wish you all the best.” She gave us a small smile before following in Mr. Bradley’s footsteps, leaving her copy of the puzzle behind in her chair.

“Weirdo,” Julia snorted as the door closed behind Maria.

I immediately felt the urge to slap her and shoved my hands under my legs to keep myself in check. So Maria was a little weird. She still had some good points. I may not have a husband or a kid, but I did have a job. A full-time job—one that paid the bills and provided money for food.

Even as those facts crossed my mind, however, I was still considering the possibility of taking some time off. Just a day or two. Plus, there was no way I could allow one of the triplets to win, right?

When I arrived back at my apartment, I decided to see how hard the puzzle was before making any work-related decisions. Who knows? Maybe it wouldn’t be as time consuming as Maria had thought.

As far as games went, I hadn’t been all that surprised that Grandma Pat had chosen a crossword as her way to test us. She had always loved them, putting aside an hour or so every morning to fill out the one in the daily newspaper. She claimed they kept her sharp.

“Make sure you always find time to engage your brain in something that really tests you, Piper,” she would tell me. “You don’t want to become dimwitted.”

Upon first perusal of the clues, I experienced a brief moment of glee when I thought the puzzle might not be that difficult to complete. One, three, and five down, for instance, were simple: the clue “onion garden” obviously referred to chives, while “Grandpa Richard’s favorite game” was pool, and “The only type of tea” was loose-leaf.

As I filled in these squares, however, I noticed that none of the letters corresponded with the central column. The clues I’d answered were just distractions from the main point of the puzzle. I knew I shouldn’t have been shocked by this. Of course Grandma Pat wouldn’t make the clues to the main answer that easy.

Annoyed with myself, I found the clue for nine down—the middle column, mystery answer—and read it. It was about as vague as vague comes: “Where hope is kept.” What was that supposed to mean? The first words that came to me were ‘mind’ and ‘heart,’ but the answer had to be nine letters long.

Since columns six, eight, and ten across intersected with nine down, I switched my attention to them, hoping they would provide some letters for me to start with. Their clues, however, turned out to be just as vague: “Where love awaited,” “A memorial,” and “China.”

I decided it was time for some coffee.

While listening to my old coffeepot gurgle and slurp in its attempt to brew the nectar of life, I grabbed a Kit Kat bar from the freezer and pondered the clues I’d read so far. “Where love awaited” and “A memorial” were beyond me, but “China” struck a chord. I highly doubted that Grandma Pat was referring to the country, which meant it had to be a china set.

When we were five and six, Maria and I had been obsessed with tea parties. We each had our own little plastic sets, but sometimes on a quiet Saturday afternoon, Grandma Pat would bring out her white bone china set with the hand-painted, purple pansies, and we would have a real tea party. I could still remember her telling us, “You always need to have a set of four cups: one for yourself, two for your guests, and one for a surprise visitor.”

I froze for half a second, allowing the memory to wash over me, before snatching up the puzzle. To my delight, I found that the answer to column ten across only needed four letters. I wrote in F.O.U.R and stepped back, proud of myself for having figured out one of the hard clues.

Once my coffee was brewed, I mixed in some cream and sugar and then returned to the crossword. Deciding to save the main clues for later, I focused on some of the easier ones.

As I read over the clues, I found myself amazed at how a simple phrase or word could elicit such strong memories. Stories and funny instances that I had long forgotten came back to me in a flash, filling my mind with happier times. It was nice, but sad.

One thing I did notice, though, was that most of the memories had occurred when only Maria and I were present. The triplets wouldn’t have had any part in them, having grown up in Ohio instead of in the same town as our grandparents like Maria and I had. They wouldn’t know that Maria had once called Grandpa Richard’s eggplants purple squash, or how I had picked a leaf from their fig tree, exclaiming, “This was Adam and Eve’s clothes!”

So, why would Grandma Pat contrive a test that only either Maria or I could finish?

With the easy clues out of the way, I saw that a letter had been provided in the columns of the harder clues. From this—and some of the memories that had sprung up—I discovered that the answer to “Where love awaited” was hospital—because Grandma Pat had met Grandpa Richard when she was a nurse during Vietnam—and “a Memorial” referred to the azalea bush that Grandma Pat had planted in memory of her mother.

Now, all that remained was that center word.

The answer took me a while to figure out. However, with only the letters ‘I’, ‘E’, and ‘O’ and the phrase “Where hope is kept” to work with, I couldn’t fault myself too much. I could only remember Grandma Pat using the phrase a couple of times, and I had no idea what it meant. After all, how could hope be kept in a ginger box?

The ‘ginger box’ was a small silver-and-gold box that had sat on our grandparents’ mantle. It hadn’t seemed very special. My grandmother only used it to keep her ginger candies in. She had offered me a ginger candy once, but it had been too spicy, and I’d spit it out. Grandma Pat had laughed and said, “You get used to them,” but she never offered me another.

I learned later that she’d acquired the habit of sucking on them during her time as a nurse. She’d said they helped her ignore the stench. Afterwards, she’d carried them around when she was an activist in the late seventies and early eighties, standing up for women’s rights. “They gave me courage,” she’d explained.

The box of candies obviously held a special meaning to Grandma Pat. But why leave it to one of her grandchildren? And why create such a difficult puzzle in order to see who received it?

After typing in Mr. Bradley’s number, I pressed my cell phone up to my ear and waited. When he answered, I read him off the answers to the puzzle. I could hear a smile in the lawyer’s voice as he instructed me to meet him the next morning at his office.

Mr. Bradley only grinned as he pressed the ginger box into my hands. When I just stared awkwardly down at it, he added, “You’ll understand once you read the note.”

I decided to wait until I was in the security of my own home before I did anything. I don’t know why. It just seemed proper. So, while seated cross-legged on my brown, squishy couch, I opened the box. I half expected to find old ginger candies inside, but, instead, there was only a folded envelope. My heart hammered in my chest as I withdrew the crinkled letter and read its contents.

Dear Piper,

Yes, I knew it would be you reading these words. Though it was obvious that you would be the one receiving this gift, I only thought it fair to allow the others a crack at it.

I daresay, the triplets never stood a chance, but they needed to feel involved. They always did care more about physical possessions than life experiences. That left you and Maria. However, I’ve known for a while now that Maria is contented with where she is in life. She doesn’t want to relive the past, nor think of what could happen in the future. Which leaves you.

You’ve had it hard, Piper, and that’s okay. Life is never easy. This box can either financially stabilize you—for it is made of pure gold and silver—or inspire you to continue working towards a brighter future. It has been in the family since the early seventeenth century and has been my reminder that life goes on. It has also been somewhat of a good luck charm. I hope it will be the same for you no matter what you decide.

Love you, dear,

Grandma Pat

I blinked. She was handing me a choice between hope and riches. A smirk crept over my lips at the realization that I could be richer than the triplets.

I felt my phone vibrating in my pocket, distracting me. I knew who it was without looking.

“How did you do it?” Julia’s voice exclaimed. “That puzzle is impossible.”

“Really? I didn’t think so.”

She huffed in response. “Whatever. So, what was the prize?”

I looked down at the ginger box and smiled. “Hope,” I replied, and hung up.

pencil

Email: rjsnowberger[at]gmail.com

Special Warranty Activated

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Erin McDougall


Photo Credit: Edsel Little/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

That ‘Everything’ bagel was a mistake.

I could smell my own breath—the distinctive waft of garlic and onions—as it crystallized, mid-sigh, in frigid, early morning air. Bits of poppy and sesame seeds were wedged between my teeth. I ran my tongue along my gums, grimacing as I tried to work them free.

I should have stuck to my regular order.

Plain bagel, lightly toasted. Small coffee, black. No fuss, no mess. No lingering onion breath, nor visible evidence to clear away. My order took longer than usual today and by the time I was out the door, I’d missed my train.

I should have known.

Deviation from routine equals disruption, then distraction, which leads to mistakes, then to reorganization and, if all these warning signs go unheeded, demotion. Deviation from routine is how you find yourself alone on the platform in the freezing cold, digging bagel bits out of your teeth while you wait for the train to take you to a job you hate, in a life you never wanted.

But I never seem to learn the lesson.

I stomped my booted feet against the frozen tiled pavement and checked my watch for the tenth time in last two minutes. According to the blinking sign above the platform, not only had I missed my train, the next one was running late. Not that it really mattered; I could parade in naked to the call center, or stumble in drunk, and no one would so much as look up or bat an eye.

Of course I’ve never done that. Too conspicuous.

The whole point of my working there is to blend in and take up no more space in the pack of pathetic sad sacks who work there than necessary. I resign myself to that existence because I have no choice, but I would much rather arrive on my own terms. On time.

A long, exasperated exhale escaped. At least my breath was clearing up.

The train finally rumbled into the station, the blurred faces in its packed cars coming into focus as it slid to a jerky stop. The doors jutted open and a stream of passengers spilled out and mingled with those waiting. I joined the advancing swarm, expertly navigating around the elbows, briefcases and backpacks until I found a seat. I brightened slightly; I never get to sit on my regular train.

Cellphones, tablets, and the occasional book or newspapers appear in the hands of my fellow commuters, pulled from their various purses and pockets. Their eyes glaze over; their jaws go slack as they disappear into them, shielded from unsolicited small talk and awkward eye contact with the people planted much too close within their personal space.

This is why I hate having bad breath. I can’t control who breathes on me, but I can lead by example.

“Excuse me, Miss, can you think of an eight-letter word meaning ‘to cause to function or act?’” says the man sitting next to me. I jump at his voice and my eyes lock involuntarily with his for a second. He is a jovial, unassuming old man: round face, pointed nose, grey eyes peering out from behind thick glasses, wispy tufts of white hair poking out beneath a faded green cap. I glance away, but not fast enough to discourage further conversation.

“Starts with ‘A’?” he ventures, eyebrows raised hopefully. He gestures to the crossword puzzle on a tattered page of newspaper in his hand.

I’m caught. But I don’t have to play along. “Don’t know. Sorry,” I reply.

He looks crestfallen.

“Active?” The woman across the aisle pipes up. She puts down her knitting and shoots me the briefest of glares as the man counts the squares in the crossword grid. He shakes his head and sighs.

“Activate?” I offer. I wouldn’t normally get involved but the woman’s righteous glare shames me; she’s like the teacher who guilts you into partnering up with the fat kid with no friends.

The man resumes his counting—the word fits. He fills in the spaces carefully and looks up at us in triumph. “How about another? I need an eight letter word for ‘a stipulation, explicit or implied, in assurance of some particular in connection with a contract—‘”

The wording of the crossword clue stirs up a memory. A monotone voice, an odd instruction from the past:

Study these definitions; you’ll need them when someone asks for help with a crossword…

“Warranty,” I state before I’m aware of it. I feel a familiar unease stirring; old instincts aroused. I’m hyperaware of my surroundings, my mind starts taking in and noting the smallest details: the knitting woman’s wool is baby blue, the person three seats down from me just spilled tea down his front, a child’s mitten is lying abandoned on the floor under the emergency buzzer…

It could be nothing… don’t read into it unnecessarily…

The old man smiles and nods his confirmation but I already knew it was the right word. My body grows tense in my seat. He busies himself with the puzzle but keeps his eyes trained on me. My gaze shifts towards the door, where I count the blinking lights above indicating the train’s route. Four more stops.

They’re supposed to ask for help three times… he’s only asked twice.

“One more—seven letters, means ‘an exceptional degree; particularly valued’…” The third question. He trails off and there’s a weight in his voice that wasn’t there a moment ago. He’s knows that I know and he’s waiting.

“I really can’t help you—” I grope for my bag and try to stand up as the train starts its screeching deceleration. It’s not my stop but that doesn’t matter. I need to get off the train right now. The car rocks as it rounds a turn and the lights dim for just a second. Before I’m on my feet,a strong hand seizes my elbow and pulls me back into the seat.

“Oh, I think you can,” the man says, his voice low. His smile remains benign but his eyes darken ever so slightly. His hand is gripping my elbow, squeezing it so hard I almost wince.

“It starts with an ‘S’…” He hisses the letter and I feel a chill that has nothing to do with the gust of icy wind that rushes in when the doors fly open.

“Special…?” I whisper.

He nods again and releases my arm. I fight the urge to rub where his fingers dug in through the thick tweed of my coat. He gets up, touches the brim of his cap in a gesture of farewell to the woman across the aisle before he exits the train. He glances back at me for a moment while the door buzzer blares. The train jolts ahead and he’s gone.

I look down at the paper he placed on my lap and see it, intersected within the crossword puzzle, the signal from a former lifetime:

Special Warranty Activated

*

“You’re late.”

It’s an hour and seventeen minutes later when I walk into the half-empty diner. It’s next to the Specialty Electronic Shop on 10th Street, with an ‘Active Warranty’ sign in the window. The man from the train is waiting for me.

I move to sit in the booth behind him, with our backs to each other as is procedure, but he beckons me to sit opposite him instead, my back to the door.

I slide into the booth and bite back the sense of dread that creeps up from my gut. I need eyes on the door and I don’t have them. I catch a crude image of the door reflected in the dented metal napkin dispenser. It’s better than nothing.

“Did you forget how to interpret the signal?” He taps his watch at me in a ‘tsk, tsk’ gesture; all traces of the old-man joviality gone. He’s irritated, impatient.

I don’t apologize for being late; just as every other day, when I show up is one of the few cards I have to play.

The first words are critical… don’t rush them. You have all the time in the world…

I take my time getting settled: I pull my gloves off finger by finger, and then rub my cold hands together. I unwind my scarf in near slow motion.

Get your bearings. Easy does it…

I hear the bell above the door jangle every time someone enters. The early lunch crowd is arriving: the businessmen in their tailored suits, the old ladies shuffling in with their bulging shopping bags, the solo diners gravitating towards the counter. The noise level swells as the tables fill up.

I turn my attention back the man. His mouth twists itself into an irked half-smile as he takes a sip from his chipped tea cup.

“Terrible. Over-steeped.” He finally says, exasperated by my continued silence.

Good… Make him come to you.

“Would you like something? Coffee? A late breakfast?” He pushes a greasy laminated menu towards me.

I ignore it and clamp my eyes on his. “I already ate.”

“I can tell. You have something stuck in your teeth.” He smiles at my obvious annoyance. The bagel that put today in motion refuses to die.

“Who are you and what do you want?” I ask. My voice is devoid of emotion, calm even, despite the sweat gathering under my arms and at the base of my neck. They trained me well.

“You can call me Carl,” he says, offering his hand which I refuse to shake. “I’ve heard a lot about you, Mathilda.”

“I go by Brenda now,” I counter before I can stop myself.

He cocks his head to one side thoughtfully.

I gave him—‘Carl’exactly what he wanted: a noticeable reaction to my real name. I press my hands into the table and take a steadying breath.

Stay in control. You can do this.

“I know. Brenda Southland. 31 years old. Entry-level Customer Service Representative. Single. No children. No friends. Not even a cat,” he recites in a bored voice. He opens his jacket to reveal a thick manila envelope tucked inside. He taps it over his heart before zipping his jacket cheerily.

“What do you want?” I repeat, raising my voice a hair above normal.

Steady now… it’s a test… stay with him…

“I want to eat lunch. I’m starving. Then we’ll talk.” He snaps his fingers and a waitress, glaring haughtily at him, appears at our booth. “Two cheeseburgers, please.”

“As I was saying, I’ve heard a lot about you. I’m aware of your current predicament—your demotion and subsequent relocation—and I want to help.” He removes his glasses, polishes them on a gleaming white handkerchief and puts them back on.

I open my mouth to respond but he cuts me off.

“Don’t insult me by pretending you don’t need my help. You were a good agent but you got sloppy. And now you’re stuck warming the bench. But you’re still valuable. I’m willing to put in a good word with The Administration. Get you back in the game.” He watches me draw in a breath. “What do you think, Mathilda?”

My real name sends me back to that last fateful mission:

I’m alone, crouched in a darkened motel corridor. I’m waiting for the ‘all-clear’ but something’s not right. My watch reads one minute past the specified drop time. I catch the faintest whiff of something in the air… cigarette smoke? No, gunpowder. I hold in a gasp as something dark and red oozes slowly under the door. Then I run.

I was training at the call center less than 48 hours later, or rather, ‘Brenda’ was…

I snap out of my memory. Carl is munching happily on his cheeseburger, waiting for my response.

“The Administration made it very clear the agents were killed because of my mistakes,” I tell him. “I don’t see them changing their minds so easily.”

He takes a long time to finish chewing as he considers what I said. He gestures for the ketchup, lobs a healthy dollop on his French fries and leans in closer. His voice is so faint, barely a whisper but there’s no mistaking his excitement:

“The Administration needs new intelligence. The easiest way to get it is to access a large communication network. Tell me, ‘Brenda’,” he says, a disgusting leer on his face. “What is it again that you do all day at the call center?”

Realization dawns, bright and clear, and a rush of goosebumps shiver up my arms. My pulse quickens. I just stare at him, unable to speak.

It’s so simple…what’s the catch?

“What do they want me to do, exactly?” I ask, breathless. My knee jumps under the table so I reach down a hand to steady it. The bell rings as the diner door opens. In the napkin dispenser, I see the distorted reflection of two construction workers in bright orange vests enter.

“Plant the malware on the server. When the system backs itself up, a copy will automatically download to the district server. The Administration will have its access and you’ll have your life back.” He smiles and for the first time all day, so do I.

Suddenly, a raised voice startles the noisy restaurant into a stunned silence.

“FBI! Freeze! Put your hands where we can see them!”

It’s the voice of Special Agent Mathilda Hawthorne—me.

I’m on my feet, my one hand brandishing my badge, the other closed around my gun, which I retrieved from my boot in one swift motion. My dining companion never saw it coming. He cowers, arms over his head.

“Great work, Agent Hawthorne,” crackles the voice in my earpiece, my partner in the Bureau.

“Thanks. Let’s get him out of here,” I motion to the construction workers, my backup, and they haul him out of the booth and into the waiting van.

“Nice undercover work, Hawthorne.” says Agent Cole as he tightens the handcuffs on ‘Carl’. “But just so you know, there’s something stuck in your teeth.”

pencil

Erin McDougall is an educator, dancer, writer, proud Canadian and great lover of life. She taught dance, drama and English in Canada and she is currently teaching English as a Second Language in Velizy-Villacoublay, France. She is also an avid blogger, sharing her favorite sandwich ideas and tips with Sandwiches are Beautiful, documenting her adventures in dance, theatre, art and culture with A Dancer Abroad. Erin plans to continue pursuing her life-long passions for dance, theatre and creative writing while exploring the cultural playground of Europe. Email: eamcdougall[at]gmail.com

Thirteen Cents

Fiction
Bonnie Thompson


Photo Credit: Harminder Dhesi/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

With tax, the Tampax will cost $4.33, Lorene calculates, leaving a dime and three pennies in the change pocket of her wallet. Her stomach clenches: that’s not a good number to carry around today. In Chinese, the word for four sounds the same as the word for death. And thirteen is one plus three, which equals four, which equals death.

“I thought it was on sale,” the girl in front of her is protesting. Blue barbed wire encircles her wrist.

“Only the vanilla,” says the clerk.

“What if I take one of the cans out?”

The man behind Lorene coughs. She shifts away from sour coffee.

“You can’t break up the six-pack.” The clerk pushes the girl’s bills back toward her. “Go ahead and switch it out. Aisle seven.”

“My mom only…” The girl blinks down at the cans of chocolate Ensure, then raises her head. “Maybe the penny dish?”

“Don’t have one. Besides,”—he glances at the restlessly twitching end of the line—“you’re not supposed to take all of them.”

“Just thirteen,” she mumbles.

“One-thirteen,” he says.

“Thirteen cents?” Lorene holds out the coins. After the clerk lets them fall into his cupped palm, she fishes out the bill, too.

The girl turns to thank Lorene, her face as blank as an egg.

“You sure, mmm…?” The clerk’s lips are pressed together like he was going to say “ma’am” but then took in Lorene’s baseball cap and flannel overshirt and, even though she’s small, wondered about “sir.”

Lorene shrugs, says something about how it’s just more efficient.

Plus, later on, she won’t be carrying around that thirteen, which equals four. In the clerk’s full register, it’s neutralized.

*

Lorene leaves work early. She has to get one of those tests you’re supposed to do when you hit forty but she didn’t. Eventually, she had to either schedule it or stop seeing the NP she goes to instead of the doctor.

Traffic snarls the 101, the city squeezed between ag fields and rugged hills. She kneads a cable of muscle in her neck and tries to relax into the song on the radio, only it seems off—as if someone has scrubbed all the bright points off Joni Mitchell. She hopes the delay will last forever.

Then the Kia’s short blue hood is pulling into a parking spot, sun blasting off hundreds of windshields like a fritzed-out solar farm, and she’s moving through the double glass doors, into a chilly room where two receptionists sit behind a cutout, the one on the phone skinny and dark as a stiletto heel, the other pale, with wide cheekbones, wearing a silk blouse the color of orange juice.

On the edge of a hard couch, Lorene extracts her reading glasses from her backpack and, using a pen with a big red daisy taped to one end, fills out a questionnaire that starts with the numbers that identify her and moves inward, to her vital organs. When she brings the clipboard back, the dish-faced receptionist reaches out her hand without looking up from the computer monitor.

The pages of a magazine pass before Lorene’s eyes: actresses with golden hair in silver dresses. She picks up another and, halfway through, realizes it’s the same issue.

“I should have told the girl four-thirty, I guess,” a woman with a wavery voice is saying. “Or quarter of five.”

“They had some emergencies today,” the receptionist in orange explains. “They’re trying to catch up.”

“I hope I make it,” the patient says, and as the technician calls Lorene in, she glimpses a liver-spotted hand on a black cane and fluffy shoulder-length yellow hair.

*

In the blue cotton gown, worn thin by the bodies of strangers, Lorene feels as cold as a corpse. The machine rears up in the middle of the room, white metal with a dinosaur skull and flat jaws. The tech murmurs softly as she uses its knobs and pedals to cajole it into position, and it obediently lowers and tilts its massive head, glinting at Lorene. She wraps the faded fabric tighter around herself, making a double layer in front.

The tech steps away, revealing a framed print on the wall: sunflowers sprawling in a vase. Lorene’s ankle rolls, and her hands grab at nothing. Her uncle had that painting in his basement.

“Ho-kay there,” the tech says. “Do you need to sit down?”

Lorene shakes her head.

The Pacific Ocean.

Blue waves against the pale sand.

The Pacific Ocean is blue, the Atlantic Ocean is green.

The Pacific Ocean is eighteen miles to the west. The Atlantic is three thousand miles to the east.

Blue waves on the pale sand. White spray flying off dark rocks.

“That’s good,” the tech says. “Focus on your breathing.”

She’s young, her hands soft and veinless, and her bronze hair is bobbed short in the back, leaving the nape of her neck exposed.

“No one likes having this done,” she reassures Lorene, pressing buttons that make the red numbers change. “But we try to make it as uncomfortable—I mean,” she laughs, “as un-uncomfortable—as possible. We can’t actually make it comfortable.”

“No,” Lorene says.

“Just never do one during your period,” she advises. “Always more tender then.”

“That was my plan,” Lorene says. “Then: surprise!”

The tech looks at Lorene from under her bangs. “I can’t go any easier,” she says.

“Of course.”

“But you’re good to do it,” she goes on, peeling a little sticker off a sheet of slick paper and opening the gown to position it on Lorene’s left nipple. A marker for the X-ray, she explains. “Some women”—she deploys another pasty and applies it without touching Lorene—“they just bury their heads in the sand.”

“Is that an option?” Lorene jokes, her voice sounding like a tin can being opened.

“No!” The tech gives her a reprimanding look. “If you’ve got something, it’s much better to catch it early.”

She puts her hand on the small of Lorene’s back to coax her right next to the machine, and then she starts raising its lower jaw.

“It’s like they think they can undo it later. Like”—she uses both hands to shape Lorene’s breast on the plate, as if it’s bread dough—“like they can wait until they’ve already got a problem and then start exercising and eating organic.”

“And that will erase the whole thing,” Lorene says in her new clarinet-reed voice.

“That’s right!” The tech raises her eyes to Lorene’s, and Lorene notices that they’re large and gray, like her sister’s, when she says, “As if good actions can undo something bad that’s already happened.”

Lorene looks away.

The tech turns the dial, squeezing the glass plate down on Lorene’s breast, and after it’s already pressed flat, she keeps turning, until Lorene can’t breathe. Her flesh becomes a ghostly pancake, tipped by a fat lip, and then it’s all blurry.

Pacific Ocean. Blue waves with white caps. Scrub-jay blue near the shore. Sapphire farther out.

“Hold your breath,” the tech says. Her rubber soles pad away.

When she returns and releases the plate, Lorene inhales jaggedly.

“Good,” the tech says. Then: “I’ll get you a tissue.”

*

Lorene is almost out the door when the receptionist in the orange blouse calls her back, saying they don’t have her signature on the HIPAA forms.

“The privacy thingie,” she prompts in response to Lorene’s dazed look, rattling the clipboard at her.

Perched on a cold leatherette chair, Lorene grasps the pen with the big red flower, but the type seems to be Cyrillic. All she wants to do is go home, pull on her pajamas, and eat a bowl of macaroni and cheese on the couch, until the TV narcotizes her.

She paws through her backpack, searching for her reading glasses. The woman with the yellow hair comes out of the offices. She’s wearing glasses with black frames and black orthopedic shoes, and the pale receptionist makes a tepee of her eyebrows and tells her that she missed her ride. The van was here at four-fifteen, she says, and the driver came in and asked for her, but he had other passengers and couldn’t wait.

“Oh, Annie.” The woman’s weight goes against her cane, her wide fingers gripping hard to still the wobble. Her hair, Lorene notices, looks both dry and sticky, like fiberglass insulation.

The skinny receptionist glances up. “Where do you need to get to?”

“Hidden Hills,” she says, “in Roseland,” and the typist shakes her head and resumes clicking keys.

“I’m right near there,” volunteers Annie, “but I won’t be leaving till after six.”

“Oh, no,” says the older woman, squinting up at the clock. Behind her thick lenses, one eye drifts a little.

“I can take you.”

The cane clumps as she rotates to look at Lorene, who gets up to bring the clipboard back, her knapsack slithering into the crook of her elbow. Both receptionists are staring at her like a paused video.

“Well, where do you live?” the woman with the cane asks.

“Graton.” Dropping her off would just mean following the highway south, Lorene figures, instead of the flat farm road west.

“Well, that’s not near at all.”

Lorene looks at the clock. Hidden Hills is a mobile park, and the woman got here via the county van system. “It’s just about the same to go through Sebastopol,” she says.

There is a general outpouring of gratitude and praise. “There should be more people like you in this world,” gushes the dark receptionist. Lorene ducks her head and holds the door, standing back to allow room for the cane.

Outside, the heat off the asphalt slams into them; Lorene realizes she should have offered to bring her car around. The older woman halts. “Don’t tell me you don’t have AC,” she says, the cane shimmying under her hand.

“Oh no.” Lorene plucks her flannel shirt away from her tee. “You can’t live without air out here.”

“All right.” The other woman moves her heavy jaw side to side, then continues her tripod progress and introduces herself: Shelley.

A headache seizes Lorene’s right temple. “I had a cousin with that name—Michelle.”

“Oh yeah?” Shelley says. “Me, too. Only mine hated it. Sheldon.” She makes a sound like a small animal is racing up her throat.

“Oh no,” Lorene agrees. “Not as good.”

“No,” Shelley snorts, looking at her sidelong. “Not good.”

Shelley refuses help getting into the car, and when Lorene starts the engine, the radio blares. “I used to love this song!” Shelley exclaims, waving Lorene’s hand away from the volume knob. She raises both arms and jiggles in the seat as Ringo dreams about a garden beneath the sea.

Lorene cranks the AC, which makes a flapping sound like it’s caught a grasshopper, and follows the big white arrows painted on the ground. Shelley half-hums, half-sings about the place where all the children are happy and safe. The sealed car fills with a musty apricot smell, and as they merge into the clotted stream of the highway, McCartney’s bass thrums against the rear window like a repressed memory.

“With me, you can take it.” Shelley points with both index fingers, still bopping along. Once Lorene shifts over, they sail freely.

In the East, Lorene remembers, people said “H.O.V.”; in California, it’s the diamond lane. Like we’re all rich and lucky, she thinks.

The Beatles are followed by an electric guitar. Shelley twists the knob, reducing the plangent soul-searching to a muted whine, and asks Lorene what she was at the imaging center for.

“Just a mammogram,” Lorene says.

“Well, that’s a special kind of torture.” Shelley claps one palm against the other. “Like you put your boob in the open refrigerator and then they slam the door on it.”

A shaky laugh escapes Lorene, and she admits that this was her first. “How long before they tell you?” she asks. Until now it’s only been the procedure that has worried her, if she could go through with it.

Ahead, a silver convertible cuts out of the middle lane, slices along in theirs, then knifes back in. “Oh, he could come to regret that,” Shelley says. She reaches over and pats Lorene’s arm. “Not too long, honey. Like a week. Don’t fret about it.”

Shelley should know, Lorene learns, what with all the tests she’s been through. The cane, the shoes, and the kink in her back came courtesy of a car crash, she and her son flipped over on a country road by a teenager in a Suburban reaching for a bottle of Mountain Dew. “Both of us weeks in the hospital,” she says. “They put all the pieces back together, thank God. But I haven’t been able to work a day since.”

She’d been a housecleaner. She relates this fact wistfully—as if she actually liked the job, Lorene thinks. “I used to do the mayor’s place,” Shelley boasts, tapping the dashboard smartly. “Every floor and wall and window in his house, I washed it.” Warshed. Lorene’s eyelids flutter. She’s just a computer tech, IT school all she could manage on her own, after she had to leave.

Shelley returns to her injuries: the months of rehab, learning to walk again, the chronic pain.

“That sounds dicey,” Lorene says.

“Dicey?” Shelley looks away and looks back. “Dicey? You try having your bones cracked open and metal rods stuck in ’em.” She fixes Lorene with a glare she can feel from the side, holding it until Lorene glances over.

“Sorry,” Lorene says. “I didn’t mean—”

“No, it’s on me,” Shelley sighs, turning away. “I guess all the anxiety is working my temper.”

She explains why she was there today, which has nothing to do with the accident: for an MRI. She has MS, but sometimes the disease goes into remission, she says. “I feel fine,” she declares, tapping one fist against her knee. “I feel strong.”

It’s time to squeeze back into the crowded right lanes. On the radio, a muffled voice implores them to tune in again tomorrow.

“You’re going to be okay,” Shelley says suddenly. “The mammogram—it’ll be clean. Don’t you worry.”

Lorene’s mouth opens. The fan’s breeze raises Shelley’s hair in a contiguous swath, as if it really is insulation. Lorene wonders about her son, if he looks after her.

“Oh,” Shelley says once they’re on Route 12. “Oh.”

Lorene’s index finger is jabbing at the dashboard buttons; they’re speeding toward a huge cattle lot, and if she doesn’t close the vents, the stench will gag them. To her left, a throbbing Harley keeps fishtailing toward her.

“I shouldn’t even ask you,” Shelley says.

“Ask what?” Ahead, a Prius and a farm truck are caught in lockstep. When the sliver of space between them widens, the biker, with a heart-clenching blast, jackhammers through it. Lorene finds the button, and the apricot smell returns.

“You weren’t, by any chance,” Shelley says, “planning to stop by a drugstore?”

“Not really.” Lorene scratches at a new hormone pimple on her chin. Shelley goes on: she’s been sitting so much, what with her twisted back, that she’s got—well, she says, now she’s supposed to use a sitz bath.

“There’s one close?” Lorene asks, and Shelley makes finny gestures with one hand, giving her directions.

*

As they step into a smell like freezer frost and plastic, Lorene feels a jolt of familiarity, like she’s reliving her lunch-hour errand. Shelley, saying she doesn’t want to put Lorene to any trouble, hobbles across the shiny floor toward the makeup aisle.

The pharmacy summons a customer, using only his first name. “But you’re his favorite niece,” Lorene’s mother had said.

When Lorene finds Shelley again, she and an employee with a long gray braid are commiserating about the construction on South Wright. “I don’t know why they had to dig it up to begin with,” Shelley complains.

Lorene carries the device out to her car, and Shelley guides her through the back route to Hidden Hills. The park’s cluster of trailers and single-wides stands out starkly on the flat expanse of Sebastopol Road.

“That’s it,” Shelley says, pointing. “Number four.”

Lorene leaves the car running; Shelley doesn’t move either, and after a while, Lorene cuts the engine and helps the older woman out of the Kia.

The wooden steps leading up to Shelley’s door have splintered, but the room they enter is airy and bright. “Well, then,” Lorene says, depositing the sitz appliance on a red vinyl kitchen chair and backing away.

Shelley’s face crumples.

Lorene’s hand squeezes the two keys, house and car. Beyond the living area, a dark corridor leads to three narrow closed doors. KIA, she thinks: a bad acronym, but you get what you can afford. She says, “So if you’re—”

“Would you,” Shelley interrupts. “Well, I shouldn’t. But with my ruined spine, I just can’t reach—” She wobbles on her cane, and Lorene’s eyes draw inward.

It turns out, though, that all Shelley needs is for her to change a light bulb. While Shelley roots in a drawer for a screwdriver, Lorene carries over the other kitchen chair. She thinks of the tech saying how those women tried to atone for something that wasn’t even their fault, that was just genetics, just family.

In the window above the sink, dangling bits of plasticky stained glass twirl on the breeze. Shelley’s counter is cluttered with boxes of cookies and cereal and raisins in clear produce bags, the gathered tops like drooping lilies. Pill bottles cover exactly half of a lazy Susan, and then there’s a neat, empty stretch before the toaster oven, its window burned caramel. The little paper reminders stuck to the freezer door herd together on the left side; there is nothing on the right.

Once Lorene is standing on the chair, reaching up to dismantle the ceiling fixture, Shelley keeps offering to help, to get her things or hold things for her. As Lorene extracts each screw, she drops it into the chest pocket of her flannel shirt, and then she climbs down with the dome of frosted glass.

The inside is dusty and filled with the small, dark bodies of moths and flies. Shelley’s gazing out the window, through the broken space between the jingling trinkets, so Lorene dumps the insects into the sink and dampens a paper towel to wipe out the glass. “That should give you a little more light,” she says, and she climbs up again to remove the useless bulb, its blunt nose the color of tobacco.

“If,” Shelley begins, still staring out the window. “If…”

The new bulb won’t screw in. Lorene tries turning it counterclockwise, to realign the threads.

“If,” Shelley says again, placing the old bulb on the Formica, where it rolls a dwindling pendulum. “If—”

Lorene’s hands freeze. Four ifs: that’s not good. Shelley should say it again.

“—my scan says I’m in remission, maybe Denny can come home.”

A muscle in Lorene’s neck spasms, and the tip enters the socket.

“The social worker pushed it.” Shelley passes Lorene the bowl. “She pushed it hard. Well, my illness had been barreling along there—the shakes, the blinding migraines. And so I really did think it would be better for both of us.” She goes on, and Lorene gathers that her son is mentally disabled—autistic or retarded, she can’t tell which. “But sometimes,” Shelley adds, swaying on her cane, “I miss him so terribly, and it’s just me here now, with no one to talk to.”

With her neck torqued to the side, Lorene slips the screws into place, tightening each manually, then reaches into her chest pocket for the screwdriver. It’s not there.

“Besides,” Shelley adds, with a laugh like fabric tearing, “even if I’m in remission, I’m won’t live forever. And he’ll have enough time in that place.”

“Do you get to see him much?” Lorene’s thigh trembles as she steps off the chair.

Shelley presses one finger to the tip of her nose. “Twice a week. The paratransit takes me.”

“That’s nice,” Lorene offers. The vinyl flooring has been made to look like interlocking bricks. She thinks about the bottle of Advil in her car, how she can take one once she’s back on Highway 12.

“Even though, really, he couldn’t do very much—could hardly help out at all. And at my age, too. Well, he could have changed that bulb,” Shelley says, jerking her chin toward the fixture. “But now I have to do every last thing myself, and it’s hard.”

Lorene surveys the kitchen, trying to remember where she put the screwdriver. The mix of cluttered and empty, the gaps, suddenly falls into a pattern, and her eyebrows rise: that’s where all the son’s things were.

The garbage bin is under the sink, and when Lorene swings the cabinet door open to throw out the old bulb, she bangs it into the chair. “Did you see where I put the screwdriver?” she asks. Shelley points to her purse, a black nylon carryall with plastic studs on the bottom. “I might’ve laid it back there,” she says. Lorene picks the handbag up to look behind it, and there’s the little pot of flowers.

It’s not even a real pot, just a plastic margarine tub. In that bed of hardening mud, Lorene figures, the striped seeds must have been buried close together. They took hold and pushed their heads through, and now from thick, rough stems loll four shaggy golden disks, their spadelike leaves dull and hairy. Dwarf sunflowers, squat and brutish. Like the painting in the mammography room. Four sunflowers, one for each—

Pacific Ocean. The Pacific Ocean is eighteen miles away. Blue waves against the pale sand, white foam rippling to the shore, spindrift farther out, like galloping horses—

“…take that.”

Lorene hears vaguely under the blood pounding in her ears, and the purse is gone from her hands.

“He grew those for me. Dug the dirt out from a tree pit there,” Shelley adds, her eyes pink like a rabbit’s.

My handsome uncle, Lorene thinks. Four times.

Lorene finally recognizes the screwdriver next to the flowers and tentacles one hand out for it, her neck clenching again, then reaches for the chair and misses grasping its back. “Who’s going to take care of me now?” Shelley’s wailing as Lorene raises one foot onto the seat, the whole room tilting.

Shelley lunges at her, her big black cane raised. Lorene drops the screwdriver and turtles her head, but as the pain twists her neck, she sees those sunflowers again, their monstrous faces.

The other four flash through her mind then. How none of them—not her parents or her sister or her cousin Chellie, who’d been her best friend, believed her.

Instead of covering up, Lorene attacks.

Shelley’s forearms are strong, like a man’s, like the thick ropes that tie up large ships—from all her years of scouring floors, Lorene thinks. They grapple at each other, and the cane clatters to the floor.

Lorene’s splayed fingers thrust Shelley away, a snarl screeching up her throat. The older woman flails at the air, her big jaw flung back, her weak leg losing contact.

Lorene dives forward and clamps her around the neck and one arm, part lifeguard’s cross-chest carry, part chokehold, and staggers under Shelley’s dense weight until her hip hits the counter.

“I thought you were going to fall,” Shelley croaks.

There’s a clawing in Lorene’s chest, Shelley’s asbestos hair veiling her nose and mouth.

“It’s uneven.” Shelley points at the fake brickwork under the chair, where one rusty leg tips on a raised knot.

Lorene’s legs turn to water and she sinks, her body cushioning Shelley’s when they hit the floor. Shelley scrabbles away until she’s against the cabinets. “Sorry,” Lorene wheezes, her hands tingling with pinpricks, her arms as light as air.

“I can’t believe I let them take him away,” Shelley sobs, her chin trembling, like the awful thing Lorene has done doesn’t matter anymore. She tries to draw her legs in, but one won’t bend very far, and she gulps and pushes her glasses up to press her hands against her eyes. “Why did I do that,” she moans.

Lorene’s chest feels stamped flat, as if her whole body is vised in the mammography machine. “It’s not your fault,” she manages to rasp.

Shelley wipes her eyes. When she reseats her glasses and sees Lorene, she startles. “Don’t worry,” she says. “Your test will be clean.”

“It’s not your fault,” Lorene repeats, one thumbnail pushing a painful crescent into the mortar line of the vinyl brickwork, and Shelley again says, “Your test will be clean.” Then their eyes meet, and they both let out a crazy laugh.

“Your test will be clean,” Lorene tells Shelley, finally understanding that this is what she most wants to hear. Pulling herself to her feet, she steps over on shaky legs to help the older woman up.

“And it’s not your fault,” Shelley says, completing the reversal, one hand clutching the countertop. Then she frowns.

“Or maybe it is,” she considers, her walleye drifting to the side as if to see around Lorene, to whatever she’s hiding behind her back. “I don’t even know you.”

But now Lorene does. She slips off her flannel shirt, feeling the breeze on her arms, and her rib cage expands with air. It wasn’t her fault. And four doesn’t kill you. That was so many years ago, and look: she’s still here.

pencil

Bonnie Thompson is a freelance book editor. Her fiction has been published in a handful of literary magazines, including the South Dakota Review and the Elysian Fields Quarterly. Email: bthompson.xyz[at]gmail.com