Interdependence

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Deana Zhollis


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How many hours of rest do you need?”

Raven chose the number nine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you hold a secret? Yes. No.”

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

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

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

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

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

“But we want to tell you a secret.”

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

Nothing happened.

She tapped again. But still nothing.

Did the app freeze?

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

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

She slowly lifted her finger. Did she pass?

She pressed Yes.

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

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

The question disappeared and a white screen was shown.

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

“The package is waiting, Raven.”

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

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

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

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

She raised her finger slowly, and then quickly tapped.

Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh, hello?” Raven answered.

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

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

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

Raven had almost forgot about that.

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

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

The creature smiled. “We know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raven laughed and Cerasee continued.

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

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

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

Interdependence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interdependence’s workforce was for life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Step inside, please.”

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

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

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

“Oh my god!”

“Amazing, isn’t it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cerasee stood still.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pencil

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

The Devil’s Take

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Joshua Flores


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But Father…”

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

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

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

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

Rafa opened the door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Speak.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Risk Assessment

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Annie Percik


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

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

“You’re going to die!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The screen went black.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“On screen.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It Will Happen to You

Beaver’s Pick
Jeff Bakkenson


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

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

“You didn’t make a list?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But didn’t he want to talk to me?”

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

“I’m not worried. I’m mad.”

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

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

“Maybe we’re in Serbia.”

“Check the book please?”

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

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

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

“Me too.”

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

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

“No more, please.”

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

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

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

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

“Does she know you’re upset?”

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s real money.”

“So’s a credit card.”

A while after that, Josh heard her humming.

“What are you thinking about?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are we watching?” asked Josh.

“Dunno. Check the book.”

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

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

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

They breathed deeply in and out together.

Josh asked, “You’re doing okay?”

“Better.”

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

“Did they say how it went?”

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

“Then wake him up already!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nikola was confused.

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

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

“I never have discount.”

“It says so right here.”

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

“This is you, right?”

“You bring this book.”

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

“This is my house,” said Nikola.

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

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

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

“He’s awake?”

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

“Maybe he’s just not awake yet.”

“It’s the same thing all over again.”

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

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

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

“Josh?” said Meghan.

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

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

Josh stood.

“Hello?”

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

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

In a Silent Voice

Fiction
Bonnie Thompson


Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks/Flickr (CC-by)

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

Ruthie shakes her head no.

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

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

“So how’d you make them?” Kevin asks.

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pencil

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

A Prisoner is Released

Fiction
Alexa Recio de Fitch


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

The Present

She steps inside of a place reminiscent of the Count of Monte Cristo’s solitary confinement prison cell. The concrete walls are bare and grey. The only thing that seems to be missing is the markings on the wall counting the days of his incarceration, as he plots his revenge. She follows along the lonely, tenebrous, arched, cavernous tunnels, past the chair with the two bronze bullets placed on it. In this correctional facility-style atmosphere, as she enters another empty room, it appears to be the end. However, it isn’t. Just as she approaches the windowless wall, another tunnel opening curves into view. Suddenly, she seizes a sculpture of a bronze power tool and smashes it into a woman’s head. Her victim falls over, and her blood trickles onto the cement floor. The killer leans over, inside of this basement of the Sculpture Center, in Long Island City, New York, at Fiona Connor’s Closed for Installation exhibit. As she observes the life leaving the woman’s eyes, she knows that just like the Count of Monte Cristo, she is no longer a prisoner.

 

Nadia Thompson
The Past

“What are you doing, luce dei miei occhi?” my husband, Marco, says to me. His pet name for me means light of my eyes. He has called me that since the day he proposed, in a gondola, in Venice.

“Reading query letters from writers pitching me their novels,” I answer. I am slumped on the couch, still in my pajamas, with uncombed hair and the scent of coffee on my tongue.

“Good luck!” Marco says, in his Italian accent. He takes me into his arms, gives me a long kiss goodbye, and walks out the door. I smile.

 

Hannah Wallace
The Past

I stare at my laptop, take another sip of my energy drink, and sigh, as I type another follow-up email to Nadia Thompson. I press send and minimize the browser window. On my laptop screen, saved on my desktop, is a Word document with last year’s date. This file is my novel. It’s been sitting there for a full year, and still, Nadia Thompson cannot be bothered to answer my query letter.

I take another deep breath and run my fingers through my hair. Then I slip into the jeans that are on the floor of the apartment I share with three roommates, in Long Island City, Queens. I walk out the door, pass Center Boulevard, and wind up in Gantry State Park. There, right under the willow trees, I sit at one of the picnic tables overlooking the East River and the Manhattan skyline.

A group of women gathers in the picnic table next to mine. They are speaking in my native language, Dutch. I decide not to speak to them, though. They park their strollers and place their babies on a blanket by the shade. I catch myself looking at their babies’ little toes and little eyes. Just then, my thoughts trail to the exam room, at my doctor’s office, after that pregnancy scare. I recall my ex-boyfriend’s face, when my gynecologist tells us that I will never have children. I brush those thoughts aside and try to concentrate on what my therapist has told me—that I do have a child. I have birthed a novel, something I have wanted to do my whole life.

I check my email, on my phone, and there are no new messages. I frown and check again. Still, there’s nothing. Can you imagine checking your email multiple times a day every day for 365 days, hoping for good news, but instead that email never arrives?

There’s a hammock on one of the trees facing the river. I lie on it and search for Nadia Thompson’s website. She works for the Charles Knox Literary Agency. In the “About Us” section of the website, it says that Nadia studied English literature and graduated as Summa Cum Laude, from Cornell. In addition, she has a Literary Arts MFA from Brown University. She worked at Random House and Hachette, before she decided to become a literary agent.

 

Nadia Thompson
The Past

Again. Again, there’s another email from Hannah Wallace. I shake my head. It’s not like I can go around responding to every single query letter. If more than six weeks have gone by, it clearly means I’m not interested. Why doesn’t she stop pestering me and get the hint?

My boss stops by my cubicle and stares at my laptop.

“Nadia, you haven’t read all of those emails?” she asks. Her eyebrows shoot high above her glasses.

“I promise you I will catch up, Suzanne,” I answer.

“Catch up faster,” Suzanne says.

Before I have a chance to tell her that I’ve been working nights and weekends to read through all of the query letters, she walks away. And just then, fifteen other query letters pop into my mailbox. It’s five p.m. and I haven’t had lunch yet. My stomach grumbles. I open my desk drawer and pull out two menus, one is from a salad place and another is from a burger joint. Even though I know that my bathroom scale says I have gained ten pounds, I tuck away the salad menu back in my drawer.

I grab my cellphone and attempt to order a burger from downstairs, but the man on the other line tells me that the bank has declined my credit card. To top it all off, there’s also an email from my landlord saying I’m late in my rent payment.

Suzanne pops her head into my cubicle again. “Nadia! Have you read the Tom Peters manuscript yet? I need the final edited version by tomorrow!”

As soon as she leaves, I rush into the bathroom and burst into tears.

 

Hannah Wallace
The Past

I check my email again. Still, there’s no answer from that literary agent. I search for my initial email to Nadia, which I sent a year ago. I know that it’s been a year. I know that. However, I also re-read Nadia’s only response to me, after she read my query letter. She said that she loved it and asked me to send her my full manuscript, and I did. Last I checked on her website, it says that no answer doesn’t mean one is rejected, it just means that the line is long. This experience is like going on a date with the man of your dreams, hearing him say that he’s interested in you, and then never hearing from him ever again. However, you can’t let go, you keep hoping every day that that day will be the day when he reaches out to you.

I continue to read Nadia’s profile. I scan through all of the authors that she has helped publish. Then I put away my cellphone. Stop! I think. You need to write something new, you need to move on. I get off the hammock, in Gantry State Park, and I walk toward the East River. I look at the United Nations building and the Chrysler. Should I write a novel that takes place in this park? What would it be about?

Just then, my phone buzzes. I gasp, stop in my tracks, and check my email. However, it is not an answer from Nadia Thompson.

My thoughts trail to when I was working on my novel. It took me nine months to write it, and then, after that, I spent another twelve months editing. I joined several writing critique groups in Manhattan and recruited six of my friends to function as readers.

There were many nights I spent crying in my room, after listening to their negative feedback, and many mornings I spent, working on revisions, after deciding that maybe the feedback was correct after all. Then, I had to spend money to hire a proofreader. The process didn’t end once my manuscript was in perfect condition, though. When that happened, I had to write customized query letters, after selecting and researching the different literary agents for my novel’s genre. Moreover, I had to write a two-page synopsis of my novel. Additionally, I had to pay money, out of my own pocket, to visit events where I could pitch my book to literary agents. Then, I spent months writing to each of the literary agents. After that, the wait began, along with the dozens of unanswered follow up emails.

 

Nadia Thompson
The Past

I dry my tears, in the bathroom of my office. All I want to do is go home, to my apartment—to Marco. Then I remember that we can’t afford to live in Long Island City anymore—not since he lost his job. Suddenly, I feel the contents of my breakfast coming up. I vomit into the toilet. Is this stress, or am I pregnant? I can’t be pregnant! I can’t support the three of us on the salary of a literary agent!

The phone in my pocket starts buzzing. I look at it and notice ten more query letters in my inbox. I begin to hyperventilate.

 

Hannah Wallace
The Past

I chew on the inside of my cheeks. When will Nadia Thompson respond to me? It’s been a year! My fingers rummage through my purse, and I pull out a cigarette, which I then light. I read her profile on the website, Manuscript Wish List. It says Nadia is interested in literary fiction. I continue to read, and I throw my hands into the sky. Everything she lists—in terms of what she is looking for in a novel—every single little thing, is in my book! Just read it and you’ll see, Nadia Thompson! Just read it!

I blow smoke into the air, and the mothers sitting at the picnic table next to mine, glare at me, so I walk away. Then I find myself pacing. Back and forth, I reach the Pepsi sign on the boardwalk and then head to the binoculars facing the East River. The wind blows my hair into my eyes, and, after I move the strands away, I press my palms over my eyes. Why Nadia Thompson, why?

A text message interrupts my rant. It’s my boyfriend. We’ve been dating for three weeks, and he wants to know if I have plans for tomorrow. As I stare at the idyllic view of the East River, underneath the willow trees, I smile.

 

Nadia Thompson
The Past

Today, I don’t go into the office. Instead, I urinate on a stick and hope for it to be negative. I look at my watch and hold my breath for the longest time. When it’s finally time to check, I notice that it’s positive. Cursing as I remember the figure in our bank account, I leave the bathroom.

Slamming the door, I head out of my apartment. My phone rings. It’s my boss. She probably wants to know why I’m not there. I’ve never missed a day of work in my life. I turn off my phone, and I just walk, with no particular destination in mind. The air in my chest feels constricted, so I press my palm against it and take deep breaths, but that doesn’t work. After walking for half an hour, I find myself close to the Sculpture Center.

That’s when I see them. My eyes blink several times. I have to be sure, so I enter the museum. They take an elevator, and then they’re gone. I press the button for the elevator and take it to the only floor, the basement. There they are, walking ahead. My entire body shivers, even though it’s July, and there is no air-conditioner in this building.

I follow behind and overhear the woman. Her name is Hannah. She is talking about her novel. I remember that plotline. Just then, I recognize her voice. My shoulders become tense. She has called my office multiple times. It’s the same Hannah Wallace who sent me a query letter and has bombarded me with her follow-up emails. He kisses her and calls her, “luce dei miei occhi.” The pet name resounds in my brain, on a loop. I grab my pregnant belly, and my fingers twitch. I look around the empty room, and the first thing I find is a bronze power tool. I seize it and charge toward them. With the power tool, I separate their embrace, and I smash it into her skull. Her chestnut locks tumble onto the cement floor, soaked in blood. My husband accompanies Hannah on the floor, with the same lifeless look on his disfigured head.

pencilAlexa Recio de Fitch is a mystery author. Her debut novel is titled Triggers and will be available soon. Alexa has published stories in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Colombia through Orbis International Literary Journal (featured on the cover), Library Zine! Voices From Across the New York Public Library, and El Heraldo. She worked at Hachette Book Group and McGraw-Hill and holds an English literature degree from the University of Notre Dame. Alexa is from Barranquilla, Colombia and lives in New York City. Twitter: @alexardfitch | Instagram: alexa.reciodefitch | Facebook: AuthorAlexaReciodeFitch Email: alexarecio[at]gmail.com

I Lost My Job and Now I’m Mowing Lawns?

Fiction
Kyran Lambert


Photo Credit: LancerE/Flickr (CC-by)

When my wife invites me to the kitchen table, a Heineken waits at my place setting. Grave thoughts arrive. As I sit, my wife doesn’t belabor. She makes her ask swift and concise. I process her words. Gratitude for the things she doesn’t say dampens the discomfort of her suggestion.

She isn’t pregnant.

She isn’t having an affair.

She isn’t gauging my interest in a second trip to the adults-only store.

“You want me,” I repeat her exact words, “to go door-to-door to see if the neighbors will pay me to cut their grass?”

She nods, seemingly proud of my comprehension.

“Let me get this straight.” I crack open the beer. “You want me to ask Bill if I can cut his grass?”

“Not just Bill,” she says, “Roger, Kent, The Whiteheads, Murray—”

“But they cut their own grass.”

She anticipates this response and scoots her chair beside mine. She uncaps a blue pen with her mouth and starts doing math on a mortgage statement that happens to be on the lazy Susan.

Something about the scene feels orchestrated. I feel like I will have lines to say rather than decisions to make.

As she writes, I wonder how long she has been preparing for this encounter. On the back of the mortgage statement, she estimates forty neighbors at fifteen dollars per lawn, four cuts per month. Finally, she writes $2,400. My wife doesn’t mention that this used to be my monthly income, but she does extend the tail of the comma to circle the amount.

A month ago, two months since losing my job, we had a similar conversation. That time, a Hostess cupcake waited at my place setting. As I ate the cupcake, she suggested that I ask her brother for financial assistance. When I asked why she hadn’t asked him herself, she told me that she wouldn’t dare, that I was the head of the household and so forth. Her explanation left me willing to ask for help. She managed to make me, a vulnerable man, feel like a regular one.

My brother-in-law is like most brothers-in-law—forty, thin, and successful. He uses words I don’t understand, and I pretend to understand them, and, because of this, he must think I am pretty smart. To an outsider, my brother-in-law is the thinker, and I am the fighter. Sadly, not even this theory stands up as my brother-in-law is a black belt in some version of karate I cannot spell. He is unmarried and nabs girls who are thirty-something but look twenty-five. I’m glad I don’t have a son who will look up to him. My brother-in-law happily gave us the money.

“So,” my wife asks, “what do you think?”

I study the numbers on the envelope. “I don’t know where you’re getting forty lawns from.”

My wife stands to pull out a folded paper from her back pocket. I realize her jeans are almost a decade old. I am lucky she can fit into old jeans. Is she unlucky to be with a man who doesn’t insist she get a new pair?

The note contains the first and last names of our neighbors. I briskly read the list and try to connect the names to people I might have met at our block party or trick-or-treating with the girls. The girls. What will the girls think of Daddy cutting the neighbors’ grass? Do a couple of ten-year-old girls understand that their daddy’s career, or lack thereof, will soon affect them? Was cutting grass even that much different from laying wire for Trent Telecom? At least when I worked at Trent, the stains of my labor were about my uniform and, therefore, seemed to belong to the company. The smears of wet grass will belong to me.

My wife starts explaining the origin of the list, the lengths she went to acquire it. I can see addresses next to each name. There are small descriptions, like this is the house that had the three cats on the roof in ’91. As she speaks, I appreciate the fact that my wife hasn’t reminded me that the grocer disallows her personal checks and that the bills we receive these days are collection notices from out-of-state vendors.

“You’re not saying much.” My wife places her hand on my knee. “This is temporary, and I know you are so much more than this. It’s not our only option, but it’s an option until work comes to town.”

I almost tell her that her idea would be fine—if it were my idea.

Our dog, Travis, barks through the picture window. Travis only barks at the out-of-ordinary. I leave the kitchen table to inspect. I see Bill standing at the end of his driveway across the street.

“What is Travis barking at?” my wife asks.

Bill begins inspecting the irrigation hose beneath one of his rose bushes. “Bill’s fiddling around his drippers.”

Travis wouldn’t have barked if Bill was solely checking his drip system. I, like my dog, sense something spurious.

“I’m going to…” I smile at my wife rather than finish my sentence.

As my patio door slaps shut, Bill rushes to his feet and waves me over. I look back toward my house and see only Travis in the window.

Bill is hard of hearing and always seems to yell rather than speak. “I hear you are looking for work!”

At this, I expect neighbors to rush from their front doors in a coordinated dance, singing, parodying a show tune about neighborly love while rhyming temporary-leaf-raking with auxiliary-wage-making.

I expect to see my plotting wife in the window. Only Travis. “Let me guess—”

“You,” Bill interrupts, “worked for Trent, right?”

I nod.

“My cousin owns an outfit that lays cable for the internet—I don’t have a computer—and, anyway, they need experienced people who worked at Trent. Pay is better. He asked if I knew anyone just a couple days ago, and it hit me that you worked for Trent.”

I feel my brain release a cocktail of joy and disbelief. My skin shimmies. If I were a different man, I’d hug Bill. Instead, I shake his hand and offer to help with his drippers. He tinkers with the timer. The drippers seem to be working fine. When I tell him such, he says the tiny hoses are scared of me.

Bill enters his house to get his cousin’s phone number. When he returns, he hands me a sheet of loose-leaf and warns me that the number belongs to a cellular phone.

I walk back to the house, searching the window. Still Travis.

I hear plates being washed in the kitchen. “Honey.” I move into the kitchen. “You’re not going to believe this.” I wind down my enthusiasm. I take my hat off like men who deliver bad news. I swallow. I am careful not to minimize her role in my discovery.

My wife rips off her dish gloves with a smile. “What?”

“I approached Bill… ready to talk about the lawn idea.”

Her smile turns on like a flashlight. “What happened?”

“Well.” I look between her feet and then to her eyes. “Turns out his cousin owns a communication company very much like Trent.” I hand her the paper with Bill’s cousin’s phone number on it as if the paper outlines guaranteed security. “Bill told me to call today.”

My wife snaps a dishtowel at my rear end. “What are you waiting for?”

I snag the paper out her hand and hold the sides of her face. “I love you.”

“See,” she whispers, half kissing my ear, “I just knew the lawn idea would be temporary.”

I move to the den to make the call. As I dial the number, I wonder if there was anything wrong with Bill’s dripper.

pencil

Kyran Lambert is an emerging writer who holds a BA from Arizona State University. Kyran lives in Phoenix with his wife and two young children. When he isn’t circling the state on sales calls, he is changing diapers. Kyran has recently finished a literary fiction novel. Email: kyran.a.lambert[at]gmail.com

Twin Lakes

Fiction
Scott Chiusano


Photo Credit: Don Graham/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Joyce had already committed to buying the Red Bow Special for herself. Since she’d hit the fork at Kerley’s Corner and taken the right for the diner instead of the requisite left, she’d known. And then in the parking lot when she took the keys from the ignition of the Camry and the gravel dust had billowed up from under the hood like the crescendoing growl in her stomach, she was even more sure. It was what she was supposed to do. Still, she couldn’t be blamed for the certain measure of shock that registered within her when she saw it listed on the encyclopedia-sized menu (which she had conveniently stood upright on the table on three edges, like a science board, so as to hide her face behind it) for $8.99. $8.99!

There were few constants in Joyce’s childhood, though she couldn’t have had the worst of it, think of Wyatt the poor kid, but the Red Bow Special, for $5.99 and $5.99 only, had been one of them. Joyce did some quick math in her head. It was fifteen years since she’d last been here, so maybe, actually, the price increase of three dollars shouldn’t come as such a surprise, being just about right in line with the inflation rate. She thought that might be a good Do Now prompt for her seventh graders when she got back on Monday; they usually became interested by talk of food, but then they’d only want to know why she didn’t bring them any pancakes.

Joyce peered over the top of the menu. She had a straight shot view past the red leather stools at the counter and into the kitchen, where Chet was hunkered over the grill, bacon grease probably oozing into his slimy, ogreish pores. God, she sounded like such a child. Which shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Something about this place that made her revert back to the girl in pigtails and taped-up floaties. Chet started to turn from the grill and Joyce sunk lower behind the menu.

One of the waitresses came over to her table and Joyce was forced to sit up. At least she didn’t recognize any of the girls in their red striped blouses, low-cut. Chet had disappeared somewhere deeper into the kitchen.

“Can I help you, dear? Something to drink?”

On second thought, maybe Joyce did know her. Something about the ginger hair, recently curled, but it couldn’t be Liz. Liz would be what, 33 now, 34? More head math, 18 plus 15, carry the 1, Jesus, this was supposed to be a weekend off. But the waitress was older than that, slightly wrinkled, what 33- slash 34-year-old said dear, and not quite as pretty as Liz either. It had usually taken more than one kick under the table to get her brother to stop ogling Liz while she rattled off the specials. Joyce remembered him once requesting that Chet add more daily specials to the menu. Maximize the time Liz would be leaning over their booth with one button undone, pad in her left hand.

“Dear, to drink?”

Joyce realized now she was the one ogling.

“Sorry, yeah, um, a chocolate milk. No, an iced coffee, please.”

The waitress smiled or smirked. “From around here?” she said.

“Not exactly. Familiar with the area, though.”

“Pretty this time of year, isn’t it?”

“Little warm.”

Joyce knew what she was doing, knew how proud they were in Elizaville, especially about the weather. Don’t chat casually about rain in the forecast, unless you were talking to Ronnie, who owned the eighties jukebox roller rink and made a living on the assumption that it would, in fact, rain twice a week in Elizaville without fail. You just didn’t mention it. And you never, for any reason, complained about the temperature, because you couldn’t change it so what was the point?

So just as Joyce expected, the waitress let out an annoyed exhale. Pleasantries cut off.

“What’ll you be having?” Not even a dear.

“I’ll take the Red Bow Special,” Joyce said.

“Pancakes or french toast?”

“Pancakes.”

“Sausage or bacon?”

“Sausage. No, bacon.”

“Eggs scrambled or fried?”

“Scrambled.”

“White or wheat?”

“You have sourdough?”

“White or wheat?”

“Wheat.”

“Hashbrowns ok?”

“You know what, let me just get two eggs over easy and a half a grapefruit,” Joyce said.

The waitress—Joyce squinted for her nametag but couldn’t quite make it out—it was either Margie or Midge, aggressively crossed out what she’d written until the paper ripped through the middle. She tore it off, stuck it in the front pocket of her apron, scribbled something on the next piece.

“Be a few minutes,” she said over her shoulder and walked to the kitchen, slapped the paper on the order queue. Chet came to the window to inspect it and Joyce disappeared behind the menu again.

She knew it was silly, a fruitless effort, she’d have to interact with him at some point, or at least confront the memories. That much had been clear as soon as she agreed to make this trip, after having avoided it for fifteen years. Joyce hated driving on the Taconic, the relentless winding of the parkway made her nauseous and the speed traps were brutal, begrudging troopers always able to tell which cars were coming from the city. Then there was the image always in the back of her head of Mom’s totaled car, passenger side bumper ripped entirely off, even the steel guardrail had taken a dent, phone call to dad going to voicemail, Chet coming to pick them up, the way mom folded into him, his right hand on her thigh the rest of the ride up. So yes, Joyce told herself, it was that fear of the Taconic that had kept her away for so long.

The waitress had slid into a booth across from an older man in a Bills cap, must have been a regular, because there never were irregulars at this diner. Joyce knew they were talking about her from the way Margie or Midge would jerk her head over her shoulder with little subtlety. Every so often the Bills fan would smile and sip his coffee. Outsiders were an easy conversation topic in Elizaville.

A bell rang and the waitress got up, picked up a plate from behind the counter and brought it to Joyce’s table.

“N’joy,” she said.

Joyce’s heart double-dutched for a moment. Was the waitress lying about not recognizing her? How did she know her name? But then she realized she’d misheard, she must’ve just been saying enjoy, not Joyce. Just another reason to hate her name, the way it sounded exactly like a word, but wasn’t actually one, in fact didn’t really have any meaning at all. My pride and Joyce, Mom used to say whenever she did something decent as a kid, like tie her shoes the proper way instead of bunny ears, and god she’d grown to despise all that, because why not just name her Joy then? It felt like her mom thought she’d made a mistake with the name, was forever trying to amend it. Like she wished Joyce could be someone else. To Dad she was just JL, her initials, it was music when he called her that.

The eggs were a little runny, but Joyce didn’t care, she hadn’t even had a snack on the three-hour drive up, not that there was anywhere she could’ve stopped on the Taconic. Joyce wondered now how none of them had ever gotten tired of the food here, because as far as diner food went it was nothing special. You could pop into basically anyplace in the city and get a better stack of pancakes. But every Sunday morning for three months of every summer for twelve years, this was where she ate, all the campers piling in at nine a.m. sharp, girls in the booths on the right side, boys on the opposite end, one booth left open for Mom and Dad. It was one of only two times per week the boys and girls were all allowed in the same room together.

When she was fourteen, Joyce remembered, Savannah Hemming had snuck a fifth of Captain Morgan from her dad’s liquor cabinet into her duffel bag and kept it hidden away until the last Saturday of camp, two days before pickup, when she’d passed it around to everyone in B-bunk. Savannah—of all the uppers she was notoriously the most developed (the boys called it something else)—must have been taking longer swigs because they had to drag her out of bed the next morning to make it to the diner in time, and she was so pale it looked like she’d spent the entire summer locked in B-bunk. At breakfast, Joyce had to prop Savannah’s head up to keep Mom and Dad from getting suspicious, and when Liz took their order, Savannah asked for an omelet.

“What would you like on it, sweetie.”

“Nothing. Just an omelet,” Savannah said.

“No cheese,” Liz said.

“Nothing.”

“Why not just order scrambled eggs then?” Joyce said after Liz left.

“I wanted an omelet.”

“Well it’s not gonna be an omelet.”

“Can you stop screaming at me please?” Savannah said and Joyce caught her just before her lolling head landed on the tip of the salt shaker. When the “omelet” came, just a flat crescent moon of egg, Savannah took one look at it and sprinted to the bathroom. Dad was enjoying his Red Bow Special too much to notice, and Mom was somewhere in the kitchen lending extra hands or other body parts come to think of it, so nobody ever saw or heard Savannah Hemming puking up Captain Morgan in the diner bathroom, Joyce holding her hair back and thanking God Savannah hadn’t touched her eggs.

After wiping her plate clean and slurping up the last bit of juice from the grapefruit, Joyce signaled for the check. She felt a little bad for throwing Margie or Midge for a loop with her order earlier, so she left a nice tip. Twenty-five percent. No sign of Chet.

Outside the diner, a flock of geese had gathered at the edge of the lake. On the opposite bank she could just make out the dock at girl’s side, the slide, the lifeguard chair. She stared for a while, heard low voices on the lake, some splashing around in the water though nobody was there at all, wondered if she was making a mistake, got in the car and reversed out of the diner parking lot, made a left for Camp Twin Lakes, watched the geese scatter while the engine coughed up dust.

*

The sign for Twin Lakes was crawling with ivy, which was how Joyce knew summer hadn’t really started yet. Her dad used to wait until the last day before campers arrived to cut the vines away, because they grew so fast and by the third week they were back again. Visiting parents would complain about missing the turnoff sometimes because they couldn’t see the sign, and Dad would have to trudge out with the clippers and hack away, always knowing they’d regrow, like the tail of a snake. She wondered if Mom did it now, or Chet, or maybe it never got done at all. But Joyce was on autopilot, the sign could’ve been buried in the ground and she would’ve known where to turn, even after all this time.

Joyce stopped the car across from the big house, facing the rolling green of the driving range. The yard markers were brown with rust, the 50 still bent from when her brother had rammed it with a golf cart, five Miller Lights-deep trying to keep up with the older counselors. With the engine idling, Joyce looked out the rearview mirror and could see Wyatt in the oversized rocking chair on the porch, sitting duck-duck-goose-style swaying with the music from his headphones. She took a moment to gather herself, put the car in park, shut it off, got out, thirty years old and headed in reverse.

Even though he had the earbuds in, Joyce could hear Wyatt’s music as she walked up the steps to the porch. The Barney theme song. She knew the pains Mom went through to get him to stop, to listen to Timberlake or Britney or other crap a normal 15-year-old would like. What did it matter? He’d never be into the same things as other kids his age, hard as Mom tried, blocking Barney videos from his YouTube and hiding Joyce’s old Boxcar kids collection in the basement of the canteen because all he ever did was rip the covers off, carry them around ketchup stained, never reading the insides.

“Hey bud, what’s up? You listening to music?”

He stared blankly out at the driving range, his finger on the pause button of the iPod mini. He pressed. Then rewound. I love you. You love me. Pressed play again. We’re a happy. Rewound. I love you. You love me. It was dizzying, or the hearing equivalent of dizzying. She wondered what he was searching for.

“Wyatt? You remember me?” She hadn’t seen him since Christmas time two years ago, when Mom took him into the city to see the Lloyd and Taylor windows. Chet hadn’t made the trip so Joyce joined them, held Wyatt’s hand awkwardly while he watched the fake snow fall in the display, one finger pressed to the glass.

“Joyce,” he said without looking at her.

She was impressed even by that.

Wyatt was nodding but it seemed more to the music than in answer to her question. She knew swimming was one thing he would do, unless you pushed too hard. She thought it would be a good thing to take him down to the lake at some point, good for who she wasn’t sure, but since she was here.

“Know where your mom is?” Like talking about someone else’s mother.

He pointed out past the tennis courts to the pavilion.

“Thanks bud,” she made to tussle his hair but he yelped and pulled back. “Maybe we’ll go swimming later.”

Joyce headed for the pavilion to find her mom, following the driving path instead of cutting across the green, got to the Please Honk sign and panicked. She remembered the stories about Wyatt wandering off—there was nothing to stop him from leaving camp—how one time Chet had found him seated on the side of Route 9 picking grass, cars screaming past. She whipped around but he was still there swaying with apparent content, and only then did Joyce notice the rope around his wrist double-knotted to the leg of the rocking chair.

There was a leak in the pavilion, and Joyce found her mom on her knees squinting up at the ceiling like it was the Sistine Chapel, trying to find the precise spot to place a bucket to catch the intermittent drops.

“Bad rain last night?”

“May in Elizaville.” Mom stood and wrapped her in a bony embrace. “What else is new?”

She held Joyce at arm’s length, inspecting.

“You look good sweetheart.” She patted Joyce’s bun, then tugged at it.

“Mom,” she pushed her hand away and held the bun in place, re-wrapped her hair tie tighter. “Seriously?”

“I just wish you’d leave it down all the time. Cover that face of yours some.”

“Have you lost weight? You look like a stick.” Taking the high road was not Joyce’s specialty, though when her mom slunk wounded back to the bucket she instantly regretted it. That’s how it worked. Take all the punches, never deliver them, and when she did, feel lower than dirt.

“I’m glad you were able to make it up.”

“Yeah.” Joyce crouched next to the bucket, felt a drop hit her forehead. “You know how much I love coming back.”

“This is your childhood, Joyce. Place has given you so much. It wouldn’t have killed you to come visit. I mean it’s been how long since you’ve been here?”

“You know how long it’s been.”

Her mom searched for somewhere to rest her eyes that wasn’t on Joyce, landed on the hoop over her shoulder.

“I have to find a way to fix this damn leak before week one. It’s landing smack in the middle of the paint. Begging for a sprained ankle.” Something about the watermark forming around the bucket made Joyce profoundly depressed. Her brother’s tears splashing on the blacktop, her chin resting on his shoulder.

“Have Chet do something about it.”

“He’s so busy. Trying to keep up with that IHOP on I-9. You know it’s drawing a lot of the rest stoppers.”

“Not surprised. Eggs were a little runny.”

“You were there?” Her mom clawed at the neck of her pullover, sports bra flashing underneath. Joyce didn’t feel like recounting her covert breakfast operation.

“How’s Wyatt?” she said.

“Wyatt’s Wyatt. There’s good days and bad.”

“Still biting?”

“It’s been better. Latest specialist told us to try a gluten-free diet. Supposed to stunt the tantrums. So we’re doing that. Or I am. And Wyatt obviously. The no bread is what kills me. It’s hard on Chet.”

“Yes, poor Chet.”

“That’s his only child, Joyce. I love Wyatt but I’ve got you. And your brother. You have to understand. Being you’re around kids every day and all.”

“So was the leash your idea or his? Or maybe handcuffs would be a better description.”

“Joyce, please.” She grabbed a towel and bent over to pointlessly scrub the spreading watermark. “You’re upsetting me.”

“God forbid.”

“You know how he runs off. What am I supposed to do?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Bring him with you when you go to boys’ side? Let him sit here?”

“It’s not so easy. He fights me. He’s getting too big for me to be dragging him around unwillingly. And I’m getting too weak.”

“He’s autistic, Ma. This isn’t a fucking zoo.”

She stood slowly, dropped the towel, rubbed some feeling back into her knees and thighs. “I need a walk. I’ll be down by the lake.”

Joyce watched her go, wondered why she seemed unsteady on her feet. Chose not to follow.

There was a basketball stuck under the bleachers, and she reached far to roll it out. At one time Joyce was the best shooter on girls’ side, consistently winning the three-point contest during color wars. It was only worth half a point to their overall score. But still. The boys were usually impressed. She stood at the top of the key, formed the L-shape of her elbow naturally. Like riding a bike. Let the ball go. It was short, nicked the front rim, bounced twice and knocked over the bucket.

After a few more shots she found her stroke again; it had always been there, dormant just below the surface like bubbling lava. Swish. She pulled off her I.S. 278 hoodie, tossed it to the baseline. Swish. 2-of-3. 3-of-5. 5-of-12. Nearly fifty percent. Starting to break a sweat now. Her bun came undone, curly hair spilling down her back. Spin the ball out past the arc. Miss. Long rebound, right back to her. Swish. More stains on the blacktop, these from sweat. Maybe Mom was right. This place a part of her and her of it, something missing long ago buried within this court these grounds the lake that sprawling expanse of field. Swish. Grass burnt at the edges. Campfire charcoal smell soaked into wool Twin Lakes sweater. Miss. Miss. Sticky white marshmallow remains on twig tips Dad is leaving your mother’s pregnant miss miss miss 8-of-15 8-of-18 percentage dropping lake water rising tears on the blacktop miss. Miss.

Joyce fell to the ground in exhaustion, leaned back on her elbows, wiped away the necklace of sweat. A swim in the lake would be bliss, she thought.

*

On the dock her mom lay on her back, toes dipped in the water. Her shirt was tied around her waist and Joyce could see the sharp outline of her ribs. Maybe she’d been too callous. How could she know what it was like to raise such a severely autistic kid, fifteen years old, mental capacity of a four-year-old? Back when she was living with her dad in Sheepshead Bay, he’d called it karma what happened to Wyatt. Joyce sided with her father on most everything but that she thought was borderline cruel. Wasn’t the kid’s fault. Wasn’t anybody’s fault, really, though Mom and Chet swore it was the vaccine, the crippling 108-degree fever, fear they might lose him. Science be damned. God’s fault maybe. Joyce didn’t invest much in God, even after years of Dad bringing her to St. Mark’s on Sundays. Confirmation. Smokescreen confessionals. Bishop exiled for keeping altar boys late after mass. Cardboard host. Whatever.

A school of minnows was gathered in the water around Mom’s feet. Joyce sat down beside her on the dock, peeled off the sweaty T-shirt, dipped her own toes in the lake, frigid after the rains.

“Careful, they’ll nibble on you, remember?” her mom said. “How you used to hate that as a kid.”

Joyce felt the tickle of scales and yanked her feet out of the water, sending the fish scrambling for cover. “Yeah. Slimy creeps. I still hate ’em.”

“Get over yourself,” her mother laugh-coughed.

There was no movement on the lake, the waterfront residentials across the way eerily desolate. But she could hear the echo of playful shouts coming from somewhere, the sound of splashing, like before at the diner. Joyce wagged her head to the side, as though trying to knock water loose from her ear.

“You OK?”

“Yeah, yeah.” She must have looked insane. “Feel like taking the canoe out?”

“Not sure I could pull my weight. Feeling a little achy.”

“Come on. Doesn’t look like you have much weight to pull these days.”

Her mother sat up and pulled her knees into her chest.

“OK fine. How about a pedal boat?”

“Pedal boats are gone. Chet sold them last summer.”

“What the fuck did he do that for?”

“Joyce.”

“Well. What for?”

“We only had one hundred registered last summer. Seventy-five boys. Every year it drops more, especially the girls. They’re just not coming.”

“Jesus, we had 250 my last year.”

“It’s not the same. Kids want different things. Competitive spirit, camaraderie, they could care less about that stuff. Chet says it’s the social media, but you know that’s everybody’s excuse for everything. I chalk it up to bad parenting.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Anyway, we needed to pay the groundskeepers. Needed serious re-sodding after the crazy amount of rain last spring. So Chet… so we sold the boats. Kids barely ever took them out. Paint was chipped and the insides were rusting.”

“Well it wouldn’t kill you to make some renovations around here, actually. Can’t really expect these Gen-Y kids to have the same interests. I mean come on, the pavilion still has Larry Bird posters up.”

“It’s not so easy. With that mathematical mind of yours, you should take a look at the books.”

“Better you than me.”

The minnows were back, dark eyes unblinking below the surface. Joyce felt like she was being watched. Couldn’t they just leave her alone?

“You should know, Joyce. I’m sick.”

“Yeah, I can tell. You’ve been hacking away since I got here. Allergic to me or something?”

“Like I have cancer. That kind of sick.”

Again, the voices on the lake. Clearer now, and Joyce could make out the game they were playing. The call and response. Maaarco. A more timid Polo, then a quiet splash, someone hiding underwater. Maaarco. A brief silence, then the Polo voice, this time squealing. She must really be losing it. Joyce whacked herself on the side of the head. Snap out of it.

“My god, Joyce, I didn’t mean to upset you. You’ll give yourself a concussion.”

“No. Sorry. I’m good. Did you say cancer?”

“Lung. Starting chemo next month.”

“Camp starts next month.”

“I’m aware.” She turned and Joyce saw her mother for the first time. The skin stretched taut against her cheekbones like a tent flap to keep out the draft. “That’s why I hoped you’d take over.”

Joyce laughed. A laugh that came from deep within her belly and sent the geese on shore scattering into the air. Laughed the way her students did when somebody let one rip in class. Laughed and laughed and laughed to drown out her dying mother and the voices on the lake, laughed to silence the demons urging her to say I hate this place, I’ll burn it to the motherfucking ground.

“I’ve gotta go check on Wyatt.” Anything to get away from a maniacal daughter. Joyce couldn’t blame her.

“Wait, Ma, I’ll come with.”

She had to hustle to keep up, for someone with cancer her mom could still move, staying a few steps ahead through the wooded path from the lakefront to the big house. When she finally caught up, Joyce took her mother’s hand from behind and they emerged from the shelter of trees into the blinding sunlight. They approached the porch and her mother yanked her hand away and screamed so Joyce thought well she deserved this didn’t she, laughing at a cancer patient, it was only a matter of time and then she saw the empty rocking chair, the gnawed through rope swinging in the breeze like an abandoned noose.

*

They split up to search for him which, as Joyce sprinted through the woods, she thought maybe wasn’t the best idea, to leave her mother alone in this state. But it had happened too fast, she had jumped into the golf cart and taken off, telling Joyce to take the lake path to boys’ side and circle back, cover every inch of the grounds while she canvassed Route 19. Joyce passed the arts-and-crafts shed, the canteen, the pavilion with the roof still dripping, her heart pounding like the last minutes of a five-on-five, game 21, score 20-all. She tried to ditch the image of his mangled body on the side of the highway, shattered iPhone screen but the song still rising from the headphones. Like one of those god-awful musical cards that won’t shut off even when you close it. I love you. You love me. Wyyyyyyyatt, she hollered as she ran. Wyyyyyyyyyatt. The screams echoed in the woods. Maaaaaaarco. Maaaaaarco. Fuck fuck fuck. Wyyyyyyyyatt. Her eyes were blurring; she couldn’t tell from tears or sweat. She should’ve known better than to come back here, should’ve known something bad was bound to happen. In that sick part of her brain, that expectation was exactly why she’d come back, like rubber-necking a three-car fire on the highway she couldn’t look away from her family’s mania. Joyce hadn’t anticipated literally everything going wrong, though, Murphy’s Law or something, but it was this chaos in her life she’d been missing. It drew her back in. She envisioned Wyatt’s funeral, hovering above the scene, looking down at his loose-leaf white corpse in the casket done up to hide the horrid scars from the accident, the people coming up to her to give sympathy, her mother in a headscarf hiding her bald head sobbing into Chet’s shoulder, covered by a short-sleeve Hawaiian shirt, the church bells ringing outside. I love you. You love me. Wouldn’t it be nice, to have people feel sorry for her?

Wyatt was sitting at the entrance to the Sunset Trail when she found him, his feet hanging off the cliff that overlooked all forty acres of camp, high above the lake. He was rocking back and forth as though he were still sitting on the porch. Joyce’s spent legs folded like a cheap beach chair and she lay back next to him.

“Trying to give everyone heart attacks, aren’t you?”

He kept swaying, looking out at the horizon. She reached to push him away from the edge. Teacher instincts. Or sister. Wyatt yelped.

“All right, all right,” she said. “It’s cool. Long as you’re not planning on going over. Not that I’d blame you, with what you’ve got going on.”

“Look I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that. I get it, this is a cool spot, I used to come here too. Quiet. Mount Blushmore we called it, because everyone would make out up here and the girls would climb down with cherry cheeks.”

“Yeah, I know, it was stupid. I did have my first kiss up here. And only. Of camp, you rascal. I know what you were thinking. Trent Dormund. Nickname Doormat because he got walked all over in boys’ side basketball tournaments. He had this mole right on the bridge of his nose, like a third eye. But I thought he was kind of cute. Right there, my back against the tree, wish I still had the scratch marks from the bark to show you. I hope you believe me anyway.”

Joyce remembered her mom was still frantically searching for Wyatt. She took out her phone. ‘Found him on Blushmore. Not a scratch.’ She pressed send, watched the green bar get two thirds of the way and then stop. Never was good service up here, but it would go through eventually.

“Doormat had braces and I didn’t. His bands were red, white, and blue, for Fourth of July. Everyone told me kissing a metalface sucks but it wasn’t that bad actually. Better than some.”

It was soothing, talking to someone who didn’t talk back, who maybe wasn’t even listening. What rough secrets she could unload on him. She followed Wyatt’s gaze. Heard the voices again. Maaaaarco. Polo. Thrashing in the water to follow the sound. Maaaaaarco. Polo. Hand on the shoulder. Gotcha. That meaty hand, gripping her closer. Scent of burnt grease. Cigarettes. Loose fingers traveling south, minnows nipping at toes, bathing suit waistband pulled apart cold water rushing in then the sausage fingers. Pain.

Joyce reached her hand down to her lap, felt the buzz of her phone. ‘Be right there. L M

“Ok fine, you got me. I don’t like lying to you, Wyatt. Doormat wasn’t my only camp kiss. Just the only one I wanted. I probably shouldn’t tell you much more than that. You wouldn’t want to know, right?”

Still he had barely moved during their conversation. One-sided as it was, Joyce wanted to believe it was a conversation. Who else could she talk to?

“Hey Wyatt, are you happy? You know, like content?”

What a mood killer she was. Asking a question like that of a kid who barely knew his own name. Was anybody happy? She looked at Wyatt. Hint of a smile there? He was actually singing now, it had been so long since she’d heard his voice. I love you. You love me. We’re a happy. I love you. She hoped he was talking to her. He carried the tune with ease, fifteen years of repetition. Fast forward, rewind. Same thing over and over again. The words, the meaning, the way his voice cracked, like Doormat’s had when he’d sat with his arm around her and told her she was pretty. Nothing ever changed here.

In the distance she heard the rumbling motor of the golf cart, headlights foxtrotting in shadows through the trees. Joyce stood, the phone sliding off her lap. She put her hand on Wyatt’s shoulder and he did not flinch. She could see the girls’ side dock from here, geese gathered now where she had sat and cackled at her dying mother’s request to take over Twin Lakes. She’d be expecting an answer now. Joyce remembered when she and her friends would climb up on the lifeguard chair and do cannonballs off it to see who could make the biggest splash. She never won. Always found herself unfurling at the last second, going in with her legs straight like a pencil and sinking to the bottom, feeling the sand in between her toes just for a moment before coming up for air. The sun was setting and soon it would be hidden beyond the lake, which was shivering slightly in the breeze. Maybe this was home, Joyce thought. She took her hand off Wyatt’s shoulder, brushed the back of it against his pimpled cheek, and jumped.

pencil

Scott Chiusano is a writer/editor, formerly ink-stained at the New York Daily News, and not yet completely scarred by the journalism industry. Email: schiusano7[at]gmail.com

The Empty Mirror

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Sarah Evans


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your sister has been found.

That morning…

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

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

‘Time to get up.’ My same-old reply.

‘We only just got to bed.’

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

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

‘Skiing? In summer?’ Emma replied.

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

As usual she was willing to follow my lead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘No Joel.’ Emma said it for me.

I shrugged, trying to deny the inner letdown.

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

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

‘I wasn’t planning to.’

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

He wasn’t my type either.

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

‘What’re your plans?’ he asked.

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

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

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

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

Not that it was any business of mine.

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

This was our final chance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I assumed that Emma was close behind.

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

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

 

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

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

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

‘Can I see her?’ I asked.

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

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

pencil

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

Dirty Secrets Make for Orderly Lives

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Amberdawn Collier


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Does that mean—” Bebe began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you,” she replied quietly.

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

Bebe nodded. “Yes, thanks.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

“Having a party?” he scanned the items.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cece took a deep drink. “Thanks.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pencil

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