The List

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Josh Flores


Photo Credit: Joel Montes de Oca/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Abuelito Tzoc was a quiet but imposing man. His short stocky body declared his Mayan ancestry. But it was his deep-set black eyes carved into brown-speckled-granite face which warned people. Rumors surrounded him: fearsome histories whispered from drunken lips in darkened corners of his cantina. The murmurs would stop whenever he looked up from cleaning his glassware. He would grunt and serve the next man.

This was the man the public knew and feared, not the man I thought I knew. I never heard what secrets the whispers held.

Abuelito Tzoc never smiled in public. One day, soon after I came to live with him, I passed his bedroom and the door was open; he was sitting on his bed staring at an open book. I cleared my throat and asked him why he never smiled.

Hijita.” His low baritone voice made me feel safe, it was full of strength and promise to overcome. He quickly tied a leather strap around the book and pushed it under his leg. “Smiles are precious gifts reserved for those we love. The people of this town don’t deserve such a gift. But you, Teresa, are mi corazon, my heart. I give you my smile and much more.” His lips would stretch out, showing yellow teeth long grounded into stumps from years of eating maize kernels. He scooped me up to embrace me in a loving hug.

This was the man I knew and now mourned.

I was sitting at our kitchen table taking a break from college homework. Abuelito Tzoc was drinking his nightly cafecito con leche while eating a concha. He made sure to be home by midnight every night, closing the cantina down exactly at 11:30.

Ever since I was eight years old, I’d set a pot to boil at 11:15 and put out a few sweet pastries. I would pour milk halfway into two white metal cups. I added brown sugar then poured in the coffee. I took our cups to the table. He would smile.

He would wait a few minutes, letting me have first pick. I knew conchas were his favorite, so I always picked a semita or an empanada. He would nod his head, and reached for his treasured pan dulce. His fingers would then pinch the surface of the coffee to pull out the thin skin formed from the cooling milk—la nata—and his smile grew as he raised it quickly to his mouth and swallowed it steaming hot.

I’d been staying with Abuelito when my parents died. My parents went to La Frontera to find a way to cross the border so they could find work and send for me. A few weeks passed when a couple came to visit. Their eyes didn’t look up as they told us my parents hired a coyote to take them through the desert. The patroya found them; they escaped. But not from the desert’s hungry hot grasp. I cried. Abuelito thanked them and they left. He hugged me and cried with me. I haven’t seen him cry since, but I have heard soft sobbing from his closed bedroom door often. I always wanted to run to him, hold him, tell him it’s okay.

After he ate his last piece of pan, and drank the last drops of cafecito, he smiled and thanked me.

Mija Teresa, mucha gracias. It was the best pan and cafe I’ve had. I’m so glad you’re here with me. I love you. My old bones scream for rest and my eyes itch to be closed. I go to bed now. Please don’t stay up too long. You need your rest too.”

“I won’t Abuelito. I will finish up soon. Duerma con los angeles.”

He not only slept with the angels but joined their ranks soon after. I found him in his bed, two hours after his normal waking time, when the smell of cooking eggs and bacon didn’t rouse him. He was asleep on his back with an honest and joyful smile. I knew he’d left me. For the second time of my life I cried in his arms. The first time they were warm and welcoming, this time they were cold and stiff. But I still found comfort.

Not many people came to the funeral mass, mostly my friends to express their condolences to me. There was a couple who showed up claiming to be related to me. I never knew them. I politely accepted their empty words, awkward kisses, and hugs and stared at them as they made their way to the coffin to pay their respects. Anger burst in my chest as I thought about how they never made themselves known by visiting Abuelito and me. The fact they were smiling when talking to me, had me clenching my fist. Were they happy he was gone?

Gratefully, my temper was stilled by a few of his cantina customers, asking if I was planning to sell the cantina or keep it open. I answered I haven’t decided. They murmured some words and joined the line to the coffin.

No one came to the burial except those who needed to be there: Father Torres, the pallbearers he provided for me, and the gravediggers. I was happy my relatives decided not to show.

I went home numb.

I spent hours sitting at the kitchen table, with my tablet on. I didn’t move. When thirst called me out of my trance, I drank cool stone-filtered water. The house felt wrong. It was missing the energy my Abuelo infused into it. The air sucked at my skin like a vacuum, trying to pull out of me whatever I had of his. I shivered.

I walked into his bedroom. His scent surrounded me. His bedclothes were saturated by it. It filled my lungs, sending shooting pain to my heart, forcing racking sobs. I saw him in his bed with his smile looking at me, trying to comfort me. But he wasn’t there.

I decided then it was time for me to tidy up his belongings. I never was allowed in his room, even when he left the door open. Usually he was sitting on his bed reading his book. It was his sanctuary. I didn’t know what secrets he hid from me. Curiosity pushed me forward.

I opened his nightstand drawer. I found what I expected—a bible, a pack of stationery, a pen, and a flashlight. Underneath was a leather book, with a leather strap around it.

It smelled sweet. My fingers trembling, I tugged at the thin, hard, leather strip. I unwound the strap from the book, noticing the stiffness of the leather and the contrast of its darkness and the light brown line it left in its wake on the surface of the cover. The contrast reminded me of Abuelito Tzoc’s wrinkles. It took several deep inhales and teeth clenching to stop me from crying.

Composing myself, I ran my fingers along the cover’s edge. In fancy cursive on the first page—“Diario“. In even prettier cursive underneath—“Teresa”.

My Abuelita. My father said she died when he was eight. I was named after her. Her death was a tragic one and he promised to tell me all when I was older. But he never did.

I flipped the page and began reading. The beautiful writing told a story of a young girl of sixteen meeting a dashing young man at a village dance. He charmed her with his beckoning smile and welcoming personality. They talked mostly, both too timid to dance. He promised to meet her at mass the following Sunday. A week of entries spoke of her excitement, anxiety, and fears of being close to him again.

My heart pounded faster as I felt what my grandmother felt from her words, her excitement became mine. When I arrived to the fateful day, I paused before turning the page. The sweet aroma became stronger and there was a dark-brown shadowing on the page. An outline of a flower? I turned the page. There were no words written there, instead was a pressed rose darkened by dryness and age, but still releasing its perfume. Its beauty in age spoke of its beauty when it was fresh and alive.

I turned the page, careful not to damage the rose. I was rewarded. There was her story of meeting with the boy who I knew as Abuelito. He showed up at mass with a single rose which was the most beautiful she had ever seen. They sat next to each other in the pew keeping a respectable distance apart. After the mass they walked around the town’s plaza for hours, joining other young and older couples in a waltz of romance and hopes.

After two years of courtship and many walks, the young Tzoc asked her to marry him. She agreed. He built this house for them. They had a son—my father. Tzoc built his cantina next to his home so he could be close to his family if they needed him. She stayed home and made a few pesos by selling cures.

Abuela Teresa was a healer from a long line of healing women. People came to her from neighboring towns for her medicines. She wrote of some people fearing her, spreading rumors of her being a witch and her son being Satan’s child. She scoffed and ridiculed them with a few sharp sentences.

As their son grew, try as they did, they were not blessed with any more children. They accepted this and focused on loving each other. When my father reached eight years old, Abuelo Tzoc took him to help bring back supplies from the city a day’s ride away.

After this point, her beautiful writing was replaced with a shaky print. There was a list of eight names, six of which were crossed out. I found another page with a dried carnation—a funeral flower. I realized what this meant. Flipping to the next page, the shaky print told the story I dreaded.

When Abuelo Tzoc returned to an empty house, he ran through the streets, banging on neighbor doors looking for his beloved. No one saw her. Eventually his search led him to the cemetery. He smelt the acrid scent of burnt flesh and hair. He raced through the grounds to find a burnt cross with his Teresa’s blackened body tied to it. People had burnt her as a witch.

Anger flared through me, such as I never had felt before. I kept reading. Abuelito found out the culprits through lips pried open with free tequila. He wrote the names down. Over the years, people who were named on the list disappeared one by one.

There was one more page. It looked newer than the rest. Abuelito Tzoc’s writing was shakier than before. There was a smudge of ink which looked like it could have been caused by a teardrop. His words were directed to me.

Mija Teresa. You have given love and hope to a bitter old man full of despair and hate. You are so much like your Abuelita. You have a kind, gentle heart. I make this confession to you, the people who took her away from me, from you, they have paid dearly. I made sure of it. Only two escaped me. They have hidden themselves when they realized what I was doing. They have avoided my justice… they escaped. I know I will die tonight. I feel Muerte approaching to take me home. Live your life well. Everything I have is yours now. Be happy. I love you.”

There the story ended.

I went back to the list and studied the last two names. Something was familiar about them.

The people who claimed to be my relatives, the ones at the funeral mass I didn’t know! They had told me what town they lived in. I didn’t intend to do so when they asked, but the ember of anger towards them was fed by the need for justice for my Abuelita and fueled by my love for Abuelito.

Time to finish my Abuelo‘s list.

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Email: JoshFloresAuthor[at]gmail.com

The Mystery of the Capucine

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Zachary Turner


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

Future Me will be fine with this, I’m sure.

There I was, perusing Indeed.com while my élèves ate chips and scrolled on their phones—swipe right for yes, swipe left for no, swipe down perpetually to pass the hours along till you die.

Ugh. There had to be more to these kids than just… this.

“Aie, euh, Baptiste,” I started. “What is it you want to do after Brevet de Technicien Supérieur?”

“Bah… pth?”

Pth isn’t an acronym. It’s not a word either, but it is French. It’s a noise, like a little fart sound, meaning “I dunno.”

“Uh huh.” What did these kids think about? Sometimes the simplest questions were the hardest ones to translate though. I dumped the following bowl of word soup on Aurélien: “De quoi tu, euh… bréf, tu penses à quoi maintenant?”

He’ll figure it out.

“Rosa.”

Oh, a little classroom romance perhaps?

“She didn’t show up today.

“I know,” I looked around the nearly empty classroom. “A lot of people didn’t show up today.”

“No, not to this class. To school. She didn’t come to any of our regular classes.”

Ok, ouch, I thought, this is still a regular class, you knob. I started turning my thoughts inward again.

“Regard.” Aurélien shoved his phone in my face, jolting me from my reverie. Irked by the distraction, I dismissively read:

FOUR GIRLS MISSING IN TWO MONTHS.

The article, published yesterday, chronicled the kidnapping of four girls from town over the past two months. Huh, I thought, that’s definitely worrying, Aurélien… but before I could follow up, the bell rang.

“Bonne journée, bon weekend,” I sighed, the boys offering passing good weekends and bye-byes as they bullrushed the door. It was always a mixed bag with these classes: half the time I left feeling fulfilled, and other times it sort of felt like I’d failed my anglophone identity. This BTS class was definitely the latter.

Tant pis, I told myself, it’s the weekend now, and I was meeting my boyfriend, Rémi, for a hike in the woods near Pons. Outside the classroom, kids were already lining up and I had to scoot through the masses before beelining for the stairs.

En route, I passed a girl reading by the window. Then it struck me just how rarely I saw anyone reading in the halls around here—I’d already taken the first step down the stairs before curiosity won over and I turned back.

“Whatcha reading?”

Le Mystère de Capucine.”

Which was an archaeological text, she explained, as controversial as it was perplexing. It claimed that the oldest book, if you consider metal plates and clay blocks books, wasn’t the 2,500-year-old Etruscan Gold Book, but rather a Neolithic Era clay tablet found in Saint-Léger’s Grotte de Bois-Bertaud. Supposedly, a wandering troglodyte had pressed flowers into the clay slabs, creating a volume that included not only regional flora, but species they’d collected along their travels.

There was a photo of the slab, with its five impressions, the biggest by far a fat, five-petaled capucine in the center.

The controversy was that while archaeologists suspected that the single surviving slab came from a greater body of slabs, the other slabs had since disappeared. Obviously, the Bulgarian National Museum of History wasn’t keen on challengers to their golden book and dismissed the claim entirely.

The mystery was how the troglodyte had come to press a capucine, a flower indigenous to Latin America. Scientists considered it impossible that a European nomad, no matter how nomadic, could’ve crossed that species.

Yet there it was.

*

“Saint-Léger.”

“You’re kidding me,” I said. In English, too, which I didn’t usually speak with Rémi, but sometimes surprise trumps habit, “Pardon, it’s just a weird coincidence.”

“How’s that?”

We were in Rémi’s shoebox car barreling down the D137 towards Bordeaux. He’d mentioned we’d be hiking around the Forêt de Pons, but I never really knew where that was. My regional geography was still a C- at best.

“Well, I saw this girl earlier today, reading a book…” I trailed off not long after, realizing the coincidence was more meaningful in my head. Out loud it sounded, well, quite ordinary.

Rémi shrugged amicably. He was lovely that way: no matter how lazy my French was, he was never cross with me.

“La Grotte de Bois-Bertaud? I know where that is. We’ll check it out.”

*

The first thing we came across on our hike was a grotto called the Rock Woman.

La Roche Madame opened up like a giant maw, and when I passed through it, I entered the belly of a giant frog. We crawled through the arms, the legs, and then ran screaming back out—this frog had eaten a colony of bats!

Beyond La Roche Madame lay the wood. A path cut through the bramble and felled trees, bounding merrily through the twilight forest.

The wood broke wide open. A hunting box lay to our left and we moved down the line, skirting the side of the clearing till we picked up the trail through the stumps and long grass. On the other side, a lumberyard tumbled down into the valley.

Walking through the lumberyard, deserted as it was, felt like we were crossing a tree cemetery. A shiver ran down my back.

“Qu’est-ce que vous foutez là?”

A gendarme was approaching from the foot of the valley. We weren’t arrested, but we were questioned. Someone had killed a girl in the lumberyard, dragged her body down into the valley, and marked the grave with a muddy insignia.

“What was the insignia?”

A fat, five-petaled flower, the girl’s namesake: Capucine.

I shuddered. Another coincidence.

There had been others as well: Iris, Lily, Daphné—all women named after flowers. All strangled to death. The gendarme turned us away with only a warning once we explained we’d only been looking for the grotto.

*

“We’ll come back tonight,” said Rémi.

“What?” Back at the car, I was scraping the mud off my trainers, but I stopped just long enough to throw him an incredulous glance. “T’es sérieux?”

“Yeah, I mean, it’s a cave. It’s gonna be dark regardless.”

“It’s not that,” I replied, rolling my eyes. “Obviously. But what if there’s—”

“A little troglodyte?” Rémi laughed, “Doubt it.”

*

We did return that night: past the giant frog, along the bounding trail—the woods were really something else after nightfall. I know Hansel & Gretel were born a door over, but I could well envision a witch pitching a tent somewhere behind these walls of moonlight, hidden in the thorny brush.

A final bump in the trail before the clearing, the hunting box, the long grass and…

…a shard of light struck her body, resting in middle of the lumberyard. Below her naval gleamed a white rose, oneiric in the lunar glow.

Rémi moved to get a closer look before I grasped his arm—there was a figure hovering over the girl. Veiled behind the celestial drape, the specter towered rigidly over the night, only distinguishable by the twin twinkles reflected in his eyes.

We should run, I thought, we should definitely run. But the specter beat us to the punch, bolting into the wood.

“We should—” Both of us were standing somewhere between what was possibly right and what was definitely smart. I took the lead, advancing toward the girl, Rémi following close behind.

Rosa. Even bleached by death and moonlight, I recognized her, wearing the same leather jacket she’d had on in class a week ago. Dazed, I sunk low, crouching beside her. I leaned forward, plucked the flower…

This was a crime scene. We were in the middle of a crime scene, and I was holding the evidence.

Aie! Don’t move!” A beam of yellow light cut through the clearing—the gendarme from before was approaching from down in the valley.

“What are you kids doing back here, what…” His voiced trailed off as his eyes settled on the body at my feet and the flower in my hands.

“Put your hands where I can see them.”

“Officer.” Remi and I were both panicking, and Remi’s words came out in shaky fragments. “Someone else is in the woods, the assassin…”

Crrrrk.

All three of us pivoted at the snapping of a branch down in the valley.

“I can’t leave you two here. Follow me and stay close.”

We gave chase. Against our own footfalls, the murderer’s steps were scantly heard, but we kept the trail all the same, taking us to the opening of the Grotte de Bois-Bertaud. With no choice but to follow him in, we all clambered down the narrow entryway, into the cavern below.

Intermittent echoes traveled back to us. Over the din of our own labored breathing, we overheard some very guttural woofing sounds as he fled, always a bend ahead of our torchlight. Finally, rounding the last rocky corner, the gendarme’s light struck the man as he was shimmying frantically through a crevice. For the first time, we got a good look at the murderer and what we saw was— a caveman? He was short, hairy, and, well, naked. Nothing like the looming shadow we’d glimpsed over the girl’s body. It was enough to give me pause, but Rémi and the gendarme plowed on regardless, scooting through the crack in hot pursuit.

From the other side, I watched their bodies contract, like they were being flattened by mighty stone jaws. I gasped, stifling a cry as they suddenly vanished before my eyes, pulled through a wormhole…

No questions now, I didn’t have a choice. I wriggled between the rocks, and just as the claustrophobia set in, I felt my body being stretched, pulled and then spat out onto the muddy floor on the other side of the cavern.

The lads had caught up with the time-traveling troglodyte. The gendarme was pushing his hairy visage deep into the clay floor with the nose of his rifle while Rémi had his arms pinned behind his back, fighting to keep him down. Desperate as the scene before me was, I still spared a look for the surrounding cave.

I nearly fainted.

My face flushed, burning red-hot, and I looked through tears along at the gallery of clay tablets lining the cave wall. Each block held five flower prints—there must have been about ten in total. Violets and tulips, jasmine flowers, a whole menagerie of flora and—

Wait.

“Espèce de gros con,” growled the officer. “You killed those innocent—”

“Stop!”

Silence fell quick and heavy, like darkness in a cave.

“I don’t think he killed them. There’s no iris. No lily or daffodil either…”

I was standing in front of the last, unfinished slab. There was only one print, right smack-dab in the middle: the fat, five-petaled capucine. Pulling the white rose from my jacket pocket, I pressed it into the clay below its sister impression.

“He dragged the bodies down from the lumberyard into the valley and buried them. He was paying respect to them.”

I looked down the line at all the murders that hadn’t happened… yet.

“It’s some sort of time catapult?” I paced the length of the gallery. “With diminishing returns it looks like— I think the cave is launching him through time with less and less force whenever he goes through it.”

“Ok, but that still doesn’t tell us who killed these girls.”

“No, but this will solve the case.”

“How do you know?”

“Five thousand years of history. Five thousand years of people coming in and out of this cave and never finding the other slabs.”

Rémi caught on before the gendarme. “Oh, putain…”

“I don’t understand,” said the gendarme, now agitated. “How does that solve the case?”

“I dunno, but,” Rémi explained, “you can’t find what doesn’t exist. Once we go back through that hole, these tablets never happen, our friend here never finds their flowers. Because the case will be solved.”

We watched realization spread over the gendarme’s face. Oh…

Then, “So, what do we do now?”

“We run, are you kidding me?” I said, already back to the portal. “He’s still a f—king caveman and we just assaulted him. Allons-y!”

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Zachary Turner graduated from UNC Chapel Hill in 2017 with a degree in French Literature and now writes on his site, American-Fables.com. Email: snowturnerz[at]gmail.com

Gray-Eyed Greedy Guts

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Jill Spencer


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

“I don’t know,” Momma says. She has just gotten home from work and is busy cooking dinner. Bread from a tube and something noodly with tomatoes and ground beef. It smells good. “Maybe there’s something you can use in the stuff from Grandma’s.”

She motions towards the laundry room where there are several boxes, leftovers from when Grandma moved into a nursing home. A big spoon covered in melty yellow cheese is in her hand, and I think, Later, when I clean the kitchen, I’m gonna lick that big spoon clean.

“You think Grandma kept newspapers?” I’m pretty sure old people read them. Maybe she saved some. “I could use newspapers.”

My friend Janetta plans to use wax paper to dry her leaf collection, but Momma says that’s a waste and I agree. Wax paper is for cookies. Period. Besides, think how much you’d need for thirty leaves! It would cost a fortune, which I don’t have, unlike Janetta, who has a Mom and a Dad, her own bedroom, and an allowance way bigger than poor ol’ me.

“I wish we had some old books or magazines,” Momma says. “That’s how we pressed leaves in my day.”

“Or maybe dinosaur feet and stone tablets,” I mutter.

Momma laughs and swats my behind. “I heard that! But serious, there probably are newspapers in there.” She points the spoon at me. “Just don’t use anything without asking first, okay?”

“Aye, aye, mon capitaine!” I do a goofy salute like I saw in a movie on TCM, then snag a gooey glob of noodles from the pot and pop it in my mouth. Oh my god, is it hot. “Whoo!” I hoot, waving my hands.

“Just what you deserve!” Momma shouts as I race to the toilet.

I spit the noodles in the commode, and I swear they hiss when they hit the water. Then I rinse my mouth. My tongue feels like it’s coated in fur, and as I head into the laundry room, I’m certain I’ve permanently damaged my taste buds.

The laundry room is cooler than the rest of the apartment, but underneath the bleach and detergent there’s a warm, musty smell. Probably from Grandma’s boxes, which are stacked beside the dryer.

Momma keeps saying she’ll go through them and sort the keepsakes out, but she never gets around to it. As I take the top box down, I wonder if this is her way of getting me to do it. It’d be just like her. She’s a crackerjack—that’s what Grandma says, which I’m pretty sure means tricky in a fun way.

Grandma has nicknames for all of us. Max, my little brother, is a pistol for the same reason Mama’s a crackerjack. And me, I’m Greedy Guts.

It sounds awful, I know, but actually it’s a compliment that means I’m hungry all the time—for food, for knowledge, for drama. For life.

“Gray-eyed Greedy Guts, try to eat the whole world up,” Grandma says, quoting some old poem she knows by heart.

Then there’s Daddy, who left years ago and hasn’t been seen or heard from since. Boy, does Grandma have a nickname for him! Only I’m not allowed to repeat it, even if he is the reason we live in a one-bedroom walk-up and have to watch every penny so we can’t afford even two rolls of wax paper when we need them.

The box is filled with knickknacks from Grandma’s old apartment—porcelain dogs and crystal vases and flowerpots shaped like lambs and cooing doves. They’re wrapped in newspaper, only it’s super rumply. Will that work? It seems to me the paper should be flat so it leeches moisture evenly from the leaves, but I’m not sure honestly and decide to ask Mr. Akins, my science teacher.

Shoving the knickknacks aside, I dig deeper and discover a pile of kitchen gadget manuals. The paper feels like newsprint, just what I need. I pull a handful out. Yes! There’s enough for thirty leaves, easy.

It’s only when I start flipping through that I realize they’ve already been used for pressing flowers. Every single one has papery purple violets between the pages. Notes, too.

Dear Delia, I love you more every day.

Dearest Delia, My love for you is hotter than the sun.

My Dear Delia, You are the Sunshine of my Life.

Each is addressed to Delia, which is Grandma’s name, and each is signed the same: “With Love from Your Greatest Admirer.”

The dates on the booklets are from the sixties and seventies when Grandpa was alive.

“Find anything?” Momma calls.

“Not yet,” I answer, shoving the booklets back into the box.

At dinner I can hardly eat. Momma thinks it’s because of my tongue, but the truth is I have a sicky, reely feeling deep inside, like when you hit your head so hard it makes your stomach hurt.

I can’t stop thinking about those trashy TV shows I’m not supposed to watch but do anyway when Momma’s at work—Cheaters, Mistresses, Divorce Court, Real Housewives. Is Grandma like the people on those shows? Was she a cheater? A mistress? And if she was, if she’s not the little lady I thought I knew, then who am I? And who are Max and Momma? Are they still Pistol and Crackerjack? Am I still Greedy Guts?

The next day is a Saturday. After cleaning the apartment, we visit Grandma at the nursing home as usual, but I can hardly look at her. Instead I look at her bedspread, her curtains, the china clock on her nightstand. The pictures on the walls. Everywhere there are violets. There’s even a pot of them on her windowsill.

In the car I ask Momma, “What’s with all the violets in Grandma’s room anyway?”

She looks at me, surprised. After all, it’s not like they’re new. I’ve seen them before. We all have.

“What about ’em?”

“I don’t know. It’s just— she has a lot of them.”

Momma shrugs. “They’re her favorite flower.”

I have never heard this before and think on it the rest of the trip home. Were violets always her favorite? Did she tell him they were? Is that why he gave them to her? Or are they her favorite because he gave them to her?

And then I think about Grandpa, and although I never knew him, I feel bad for him.

That night, after Mom and Max are asleep, I get the flashlight and go into the laundry room. In the second box, I find another stack of manuals. Like the others, they have papery violets pressed between the pages and messages of love from “Your Greatest Admirer.”

There are at least twenty-five and I think, How could Grandpa not have known? Their kitchen must have been littered with electric apple corers and salad spinners and knives that cut through pipes. And then I think, Momma must have known too, and as I crawl back into bed, my heart feels like my stomach, all reely and sick.

The next day after school, I am still feeling yucky as I get Max started on his homework at the kitchen table in Momma’s room. The table used to be Grandma’s, but she gave it to Momma when she moved into the home.

“Get your books out while I get your snack, okay?” I tell Max, edging my way from the room.

The table is too big and, along with the bed, takes up almost all the floor. Momma says that’s okay though since it gives us a place to study. It also keeps the living room from getting cluttered, which is hard since that’s where Max and I sleep, me on the sofa bed, Max on his cot.

In the kitchen I press my hand to my wobbly stomach and stare at the bananas Momma left on the counter. No way can I keep a banana down, I think, and pour myself a glass of milk, even though it means I’ll probably have to eat dry cereal for breakfast Friday.

“Two bananas today,” I tell Max, setting them at elbow. He has removed the books from his backpack and has opened his day planner.

“Better start with math,” I say, skimming the list of homework he has written down in big round sloppy letters. Math’s always been his greatest challenge. “If you need me I’ll be in the laundry working on my leaf project.”

He gives me a funny look but doesn’t ask, and before I’m out the door, he’s deep into the world of fractions.

The whole family is like that—me, Momma, Max. Grandma too, I guess. Once we start on something, we give it our all.

Two hours later Momma, home from work, sidles into the bedroom for a change of clothes. Max and I are at the table.

“Hard at it, I see,” she says, sounding pleased as she wriggles into the space between the closet and the bed.

“Math,” Max says, wrinkling his nose.

Momma slides the closet door open and looks over her shoulder at me. “How’s he doing?”

“Pretty good,” I say, wrinkling my nose, too, but for a different reason. The closet is a mess. In addition to her clothes, mine are in there. And Max’s. “He’s only missed two so far.”

“But I’m correcting them,” Max chimes in, so proudly I pinch him when Momma turns her back.

“Geek,” I whisper.

“That’s the ticket!” Momma says, her voice muffled as she fishes sweatpants and a T-shirt from the shelf. “That’s how you learn. From your mistakes.”

As I watch, a pile of clothes falls on her head then to the floor, and she has to back into the bed to get them, the space is so small. It makes me so angry my stomach twists.

“Let’s get rid of this stupid table, Momma,” I say. “Get TV trays or tables from the thrift shop and do our homework in the living room. We’re taking all your space!”

Momma shakes her head. “You know why the table’s here.”

“But it’s not right! You should have some room for yourself!” I slam my fist down on the tabletop, surprising us all, then feel the tears start, although I never cry. I never cry. It’s just— I’m so angry. About how we live. And why. About Grandma.

“Good heavens, girl!” Momma wraps her arms around me. “What’s got into you?”

“I hate this table, that’s all. It’s too big!”

“It’s the right size to me. Just big enough for my two babies to do their homework on.”

I roll my eyes. “We’re not babies,” I say, wiping my cheeks. “And it is too big. You don’t have any room!”

“That may be, but I don’t mind. Besides, I’d never get rid of this table. I remember when Daddy gave it to your grandma. He put it by the Christmas tree with a ginormous bow on top. Momma was so happy she cried. He was always doing nice things for her, getting her little presents. Love gifts, he called them.”

Momma smiles, a faraway look on her face, and I wonder if she’s remembering or wishing she had someone like that.

“So stop fussing!” She gives me a little shake then scoops her clothes up and heads for the door. “I’m gonna change and then, dinner! With my family.”

Like it’s the most exciting thing in the world.

Late that night I get the flashlight again and pad into the laundry. One box is left. I tear it open and get to work, an hour later finding what I’m looking for, a red envelope with “For Delia” scrawled across the front. Inside is an old-fashioned Christmas card.

With shaking hands, I open it, sandy glitter roughing my fingertips. The handwriting is the same as in the notes.

Dearest Delia,

Here’s the kitchen table you wanted. It’s just like you. Round in all the right places, strong enough to love for a lifetime, and beautiful.

Merry Christmas!

Your Greatest Admirer

I press the card against my chest, so happy. Grandma is a little lady. And Momma’s a crackerjack, and Max is a pistol. And me? I’m Greedy Guts, and sometimes a dumb one.

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Jill Spencer lives and works in Southern Maryland. In 2014, she won the Three Cheers and a Tiger fall contest. Email: spencer.jill[at]yahoo.com

The List

Broker’s Pick
Joseph McGrail


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

Will Tallent smoked his fourth, and last, cigarette of the day, reached over to the bedside table, took a sip of cold coffee, and got out of bed. The shower was hot, his jeans were roomy, his sweater was warm, and his slippers were soft. It would be hard to get motivated to leave the apartment, but “Doing something is better than doing nothing,” he repeated to himself. It was his mantra, a mantra more of hope than accomplishment.

Will had a blog, which some day would lead to success, and a high paying job offer, which in turn would lead some woman to fall deeply in love with him. But a blog only worked if you had fodder for it, so now he had to get fodder.

“Human interest writing,” he had told his coworker at the bagel shop, “that’s what the blog is about. Like a Charles Kuralt or a Bob Greene. I go around, talk to people, make them sound interesting, and write about them for other people to read.” His coworker looked at him with the blank, patronizing stare of the young to the old.

That day’s fodder involved a curious incident with a library book, The Twelve Greatest Ideas, which had been written in the fifties by a “Great Books” associate of Mortimer Adler. Tallent had picked it up from the sale table at the front of the library. Christianity was a great idea, as was the Enlightenment, as was Confucianism, and then Tallent lost interest. Then he saw that someone had playfully written their own list on one of the blank end pages: “The Twelve Greatest Love Stories of All Time.”

“Adler would be proud,” Tallent thought. “He was always a big advocate of writing in books.”

Some of the entries were obvious: “Romeo and Juliet,” “Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor,” “Dante and Beatrice.” Most of them displayed a literary sense, and even some Biblical knowledge: “Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale,” “Jane Eyre and Rochester,” “Tristan and Isolda,” “Lancelot and Guinevere,” “Tobias and Sara,” and “Rachel and Jacob.” And there, right after “Antony and Cleopatra,” and “Heloise and Abelard,” in the same penciled script, was the final entry: “Ilsa and Patrick Demarest.”

And who were Ilsa and Patrick? Tallent imagined them, a young married couple, the wife pretty, blonde maybe, wearing a sweater, royal blue with a simple pattern of white snowflakes, glasses certainly, she read a lot. The husband, studious as well, heavy black glasses, hair unkempt, moustache, beard or both, and since Tallent was indulging in stereotypes, a tweed jacket. The husband reads Nabokov, and not just the one with the nymphet, the really obscure ones. They are sitting at a library table, each with their stack of books. The wife is getting impatient to go, she grabs this book from his pile, starts glancing at the ideas, gets a smile on her face, and starts writing something. From time to time she asks the husband, “Who would you say were the greatest lovers in history?” He, engrossed in his reading, absentmindedly throws out an idea or two, and she writes it down.

Curious, the husband looks over at her. He’s appalled, she’s writing in a book! “It’s only pencil,” she says, “lighten up.” He looks at her list, smiles and then smiles again. Maybe he affectionately rubs her back. “We should go,” she says.

Tallent couldn’t let the list go, who was this Ilsa Demarest? What happened to her and Patrick? Where were they now? One question that might be easily answered. There was a deputy D.A. who came to the bagel shop and Tallent had heard him complain about how easy it was to look someone up in Colorado as all the voter rolls were published on the web.

“I could have sent a guy to prison,” the man had said. “He gets out, spends two minutes on Google and comes gunning for me.”

Tallent agreed. No one was ever going to come gunning for Tallent, but the thought was worrisome.

Nonetheless, Ilsa Demarest was easily found. Not so with Patrick. Maybe Patrick didn’t live in Colorado anymore, or maybe he had died. The book had been published in 1956, and there was nothing to show when the list had been written. Or maybe Patrick didn’t vote, and he and Ilsa were still together, he with his tweed jacket, she in the tasteful blue sweater.

Ilsa lived in Oak Creek, way out near Craig, as much as it was near anywhere. Too bad it was so far from Denver. But Tallent would follow through, call her and set something up.

He put in the number.

“Hello?” a woman’s voice answered, wary and cautious. It was hard to tell her age, certainly not young nor crackly-voiced old.

“Is this Ilsa Demarest?”

A pause and then, “Who is this?”

“Well, you don’t know me Ms. Demarest, but I’m a journalist of sorts and I’d like to sit down and have a chat with you.”

“A journalist of sorts?” She gave a cynical laugh. “What kind of scam is this? I’m going to hang up now, please don’t bother me again.”

“Wait, wait! I found a book.”

“What?” she said, confused.

“A book, a library book. You had written a list in it, I don’t know how long ago—‘The Twelve Greatest Love Stories.’”

She didn’t say anything.

Somehow he knew that he had made a mistake, that he was bringing up something that embarrassed her, something that should have been left in the past. He had hoped that Ilsa and Patrick were still together, an older couple whom he would meet and they would be holding hands and joking about the time she made that silly list.

She still didn’t say anything, and then, “Did Patrick have you do this? You’re friends with Patrick aren’t you? Why would he—?”

“No, Ms. Demarest. I’ve never met you or Patrick. As I said, it was what you had written in that book. That was it. I’m sorry.”

“I’m hanging up now. Please don’t call me again.”

“Wow,” he thought, rubbing his hand through his hair. “That didn’t turn out too well. I guess I’m back to searching for some other human interest deal, hopefully not one as far away as Oak Creek.”

He pulled on his jacket and headed to the coffeehouse. Maybe someone at Dietrich’s had a lead on human interest. But the normally voluble crowd was oddly quiet. The fishmonger from down the street, the fellow who actually looked like a fish, was finishing a Danish. Tallent could interview him, something like, “Selling Seafood Thousands of Miles from any Ocean.” It would only work if Tallent could include pictures, the owner posing with a redfish or something. But Tallent’s mind was far from human interest and his blog. At least in making bagels you never got the impression you had brought pain into someone’s life, poppy and sesame seeds, and onion only, never pain.

After the coffeehouse, Tallent advanced upon Mead Street Station, the Dew Drop Inn, and Twins Tavern, so the next day his hangover persisted through his shift at the bagel shop, and his afternoon nap, but was ebbing when his phone rang.

“Hello?”

“If I speak with you, you’ll write an article about what I wrote in the book?”

“Ms. Demarest?”

“Yes. It’s me. Will people read this article? Does anyone actually read your blog?”

“Yes. I have a number of readers.” The number was seven, but he didn’t need to provide details.

“You don’t know Patrick?”

“No, no, I don’t know Patrick.”

Oak Creek had already gotten some snow. Luckily the steep streets, including the one Ilsa Demarest lived on, were clear.

“Quaint town,” he said after she had let him into her frame cottage. “I like all the Victorian gingerbread.”

“Yes,” she answered. “Hard to maintain though.”

She was blonde, starting to show bits of white, and indeed wore thickish glasses. She was taller than he had imagined, and pretty. She was pretty and about fifty.

“So,” he asked. “What do you do here in Oak Creek?”

“I’m the high school librarian.”

They both laughed, and he said, “I see you’re now using your powers for good, not evil.”

She offered him tea and he accepted, and they sat at opposite ends of a green plaid sofa, a plate of cheddar scones on the coffee table. She sat quietly while he tried to think of something to ask. If he had been a real journalist, he told himself, he would have all of his questions written out on a legal pad in a clipboard or better yet, written out on Demarest.doc on the laptop he would have brought.

Instead he opened up the tiny notepad with the faux leather cover he kept in his vest pocket.

“Do you mind if I knit?” she asked, picking up two needles with a project started in grey wool.

“Not at all,” he said, happy the ice had been broken. “What are you working on?”

“Socks for my son, and no, he’s not Patrick’s child. I’ve been married twice since Patrick. Ronnie’s my son from the first marriage. The second marriage altogether, the one after Patrick.” She looked embarrassed, and Tallent thought again of how he should just have left her alone, though questions were now coming quickly to mind.

She had uncovered a book when she picked up her knitting.

Crampton Hodnet,” he said, “You read Barbara Pym? She’s my favorite.”

She looked at him as if he was a little odd, being a man who liked Pym, but it made him likeable.

“Have you ever read this one?” she asked. “It was written when she was first getting started and not quite as good as her later ones.”

“Oh. I haven’t seen it. I liked Some Tame Gazelle, the one the library had.”

She was about to say, “I could lend you some others…” but that would presume a friendship that was not there.

“Tell me about writing the list, where you were, what spurred it, did you come up with it all on your own?”

“The kitchen table with a bottle of wine in front of me, we had broken up and gotten back together, and yes.”

“Yes?”

“’Yes’ to your question, ‘Did I come up with the idea on my own?’”

“Did you realize when you were writing the list how tragic so many of your couples were?”

“Like Patrick and me, huh? Or as we turned out? No. When you are twenty-seven and in love or struggling with a love, those names look like great romantic lovers, tragedy and romance all mixed together, and tragedy…”

“Doesn’t seem so bad?” Tallent offered, “Not a lonely, depressing thing that simply leaves one miserable and ultimately may not have a point?”

She laughed nervously. “Boy, you are a cynic. But that’s how fifty-year-olds think, not twenty-seven-year-olds.”

“I’m not even sure why we had broken up,” she continued. “Maybe it was his idea, maybe mine. He moved to a small apartment in Arvada and I was still living in Denver. I started calling him, asking him to come over and have dinner.”

Tallent asked, “This was after you were married, but had broken up?”

“Yes. So we had dinner and he was in the living room of my place doing one of these complicated crosswords he liked.”

Tallent saw how her eyes were bright, and she was smiling at the memory.

“And he’d brought over a pile of library books, I’m not sure why, maybe I’d already asked him to start living with me again. I picked up one of them to look at and I’m thinking, ‘The Greatest Ideas of All Time? How about the greatest love stories?’ I have a pencil because I’m trying to teach myself to sketch while he’s there with his crossword, and I just start writing the list, planning to tease him about it afterwards.”

“Did you?”

“Oh yes, he was very teasable. He had good sense of humor. He scolded me for writing in his library book, and then laughed and gave me a big kiss…” She stopped.

After her reverie, Tallent asked, “So what happened to this greatest love story of all time?”

“Whatever happens to them. You’re my age, you know.” She gave Tallent a glance and went on. “He was very smart, but immature, and I was impatient, I wanted to get on with things, a house, children, and he wasn’t willing to work hard enough at it. I’ll often think how Patrick was when I read about men living in their parents’ basements or having PhDs and working at Burger King. Of course, he ultimately grew up, after we’d gotten divorced and I’d moved on. I’ve heard he has kids. He’d sometimes talk about wanting a small ranch in Nebraska. I wonder if he’s there now.”

“And you?” Tallent asked, glancing out to see snow falling thickly from the sky. “You ever think about getting in touch with him?”

“Why, isn’t that why you’re here?” she mocked. “Aren’t you going to put this on your blog and Patrick sees it and comes back to me? And finally we’ll have the chance to live happily ever after, fulfill the greatest love story destiny? The real answer? No. I’ve seen too much of life. I’ve been married twice more. I have a son at college. I have my job and my knitting. I even do some sketching still, animals mainly, pictures from magazines. You need more tea?”

He really should have gone, but he said, “That would be nice,” and they moved into her kitchen.

She lit the burner on a gas stove with a match.

“It’s hard to keep this place warm, drafty old windows,” she said. “When my son Ronnie was here, he’d bring in firewood all the time.”

“May I,” Tallent asked, “go get you some firewood?”

She laughed. “That wasn’t a hint; I was just feeling the cold.”

Tallent brought in some split wood from a shed in the yard. The snowflakes were larger and more numerous, and he realized again that he should leave. But Ilsa’s yellow house was warmer than she gave it credit for.

Though it had been years since he had built a fire, he placed the wood on the embers and managed to stir up the flames.

“That deserves another scone,” she said, and had him sit back on the couch. A hot mug of tea awaited him as well.

“It’s very comfortable here, but I’ve got to get going.”

He was disappointed when she agreed. “You should. This valley is hard to get out of in a snowstorm.”

“Is there a hotel in town?”

“Not really, nearest would be Yampa or Steamboat, if you get through on the highway.”

He got his coat and she helped him put his scarf on in an almost affectionate manner, or perhaps that was wishful thinking.

“I almost forgot,” she said. “When you were outside, I picked up the Barbara Pym novel and read something. Here…” She walked to the coffee table and got the novel.

He read:

A great unrequited passion was hardly in Mr. Latimer’s line, she realized, the sort of love that lingers on through many years, dying sometimes and then coming back like a twinge of rheumatism in the winter, so that you feel it in your knee when you are nearing the top of a long flight of stairs.

She said, “That’s my feeling towards Patrick, a great unrequited passion that dies sometimes and then comes back.”

“So, ‘thanks a lot,’ you’re saying? Thanks a lot for bringing it all back like rheumatic twinges?”

She laughed. “Maybe. Oh, look at it now, you had better get going.”

And then Tallent was on the road and headed out of town. Why couldn’t she have said, “Oh, look at it now, you had better stay here, I can make up a bed on that couch”? But it hadn’t happened and he was too worried about bald tires, landing in ditches, and paying for a motel to give it much thought. He would contact her again, let her review the article before he posted it, but she was too smart a woman, she could see through Tallent, realize he was a bit of a poseur of a journalist, realize the chances of Patrick seeing the blog were very slim and then she would feel foolish for having revealed herself. Unless Patrick was having his own rheumatic twinges, and happened to see the blog in a search for the long lost Ilsa. And where would that leave Tallent? Why, with another human interest article of course.

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Joseph McGrail has written stories since eighth grade, and a few years ago had another story published in a journal called Inklings. He is currently at work on an episodic novel set in Nebraska and Kansas, as well as other stories. Along with writing, he enjoys drawing and being in the outdoors. He was a probation officer for several years, though little of his writing involves crime, and is now looking for other work. He resides with his family in Denver. Email: joseph.mcgrail.28[at]gmail.com

The Mirror Game

Fiction
Penny Frances


Photo Credit: Mindsay Mohan/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

I see her.

No. It’s the passenger headrest, the red glow of the rear lights reflecting back. Shadow of an overhanging branch. The luminous chevrons of a right-hand bend jump out and I swerve into the full beam full horn of an oncoming car. Miss it by centimetres. Heart pounding, mouth dry. Keep going.

I grip the steering wheel so my hands ache. If I can just get to Danny. All I have to do is drive. Follow the cats’ eyes. Ignore the tree shapes leaping into the headlights. Ignore the dark space of mirror at the edge of your vision. Think about Danny and pray he’s safe. She’s not here. Just drive.

We used to play the mirror game when we were little. We’d wear the same clothes, Alice and I. It started with the party dress Mum made for Billy’s christening. Yellow satin under the pale gauzy stuff with little bobbly parasols you could pick at. Layers of net under the sticky-out skirt, finished off with a wide satin sash. We’d put on the dress and tie yellow ribbons in our wispy butter hair and look pretty-as-a-picture, as Dad-in-a-good-mood would say. There’s a photo of us standing by the French windows outside the house. Mum’s holding Billy in his white lacy gown with me on one side and Alice on the window side. Mum wearing the dark blue linen with blue and white buttons. She made her dress, too, and found a wide-brimmed hat to match. Dad took the photo—still in his fixing motorbike clothes and cursing about having to wear his too-small suit. But Mum has her look focused on some distant point—Billy was their saviour, or so I heard her say.

For the mirror game we wore the dress and did our hair the same only her parting was on the other side. Stood face-to-face and tried to catch each other out: twitching your hand as if you were about to move it then flicking the other one instead. Spinning round and stopping without warning. Alice was best at the catching out and when she did there was always a forfeit, like a dare. She’d make me mix lawn mower clippings in Dad’s tobacco so he sputtered as he tried to light his roll-ups, or swap the sugar for salt on Billy’s cereal, sand in Mum’s face powder. And then I’d always get the blame. Mum would smile in that if-you-say-so way of hers if I said it was Alice, but Dad would pull those thick eyebrows together, which meant a rage was due. I’d clench my hands tight into the dress and stand like a board, chewing at my lip and waiting for the wallop, Mum wandering out of the room, and Alice behind me, in the mirror above the mantlepiece, with that terrible smirk when she knew she’d got me.

I don’t drive in the dark. I don’t do mirrors in the dark, don’t like them in the light. Danny says that’s fascinating. It’s a condition called catoptrophobia. It can be worked out, he says, with a bit of behaviour therapy. He’s promised to look into it for me, though I already know what it would be like from what I do with Melanie. Writing things on slips of paper: There is no sister in the mirror. The mirror reflects only what’s there. As if any of that helps now, the icy slide of fear as I sense the car coming up behind me, its lights beaming, urging me to look. I slow right down, but that brings it closer, casting the shadow of my car on the road. Round the bend, my neck rigid. I should pull over but there’s nowhere. Then the sodium glow of a thirty zone for the next village, the uniform outline of concrete-faced houses like the one we lived in before I moved to the Project flats. The car overtakes me in a roar of headlights retreating to red dots turning the corner. Last stretch of country road now before the big roundabout and the ride into town. Keep looking ahead and get there before she destroys the dream that is Danny. How will he know it’s not me?

Danny took me for a spin in his new Cappuccino Fiat. Pillar box red, even the seatbelts. Camp as Christmas, he said, the laughter twitching in his cheeks. But the first thing was when he bought me a coffee after my shift. He’d been chatting while I served him, asking if I was doing psychology because he swore he’d seen me across the lecture theatre. When I told him I just work in the coffee bar though I’m hoping to get into college, he was, oh, you must have a double, smiling so big at me he turned something over. I must have smiled, too, because he bought me the coffee, came back again the next two days. On my day off it was all I could do not to jump in the Escort for the ten miles into town to see if he’d turned up again. But it was the day for Melanie to come and check I had food in my fridge and still know how to pay my bills. This time she was showing me the forms for the access course but all I could think of was Danny’s open face and the dimple in his cheek as he smiled looking just like Robbie Williams. Then the next day, two coffees and a skipped Developmental Psych lecture later, he’s asking me to go for a drive.

He talked about the car: how nippy it was and yet not bad for speed round these country lanes. Chill-out music on the radio and my seat on recline—I smiled and admired the glimpse of my new gold sparkly pumps with the black drainpipes. He parked up off the main road on the way back into town. The sky dove-blue at dusk. A footpath leading over a little brook and the lights of a county pub through the bare trees on the other side.

Come on, he said.

I followed him down the side of the brook, across the little stone bridge, the water pouring in viscous streams over the weir. Celandines pushing at the rotting autumn debris and the sharp tang of spring. Along by the dry-stone wall of a soggy meadow and I did a light sort of dance to save the gold pumps, felt the dance inside like a tremor as he lead me on and out to the road to the pub. The dance not ready to stop as I shifted, awkward at the bar with the crowd of suited men on their way home from work, not knowing which of the hand-pulled beers to choose. But sitting outside—some crackly old Motown from the upstairs window—sipping at the treacly bitter and tracing the fluffy outline of a spreading pine, I hugged myself for the surprise of this moment with someone real who said he liked me.

Tell me about your family, he said.

Pinprick white buds on an evergreen shrub: a tiny red moth darting from bud to bud as if willing them to reveal their treasure. So I told him.

I had a twin sister, she died, you see.

The red moth settled on a glossy leaf. The pause in the music as he looked up from his beer, his face immobile, choosing its expression. My fists tight in my lap with the flash of Alice in the cell-like hospital side room.

I— I’m sorry Cilla, what a terrible thing.

Alice pouring red paint on the neurotic girl’s bed. Stealing the queens from the old bloke’s chess set. Creeping up and shouting behind the muttering old lady. They locked her in the side room and gave her a shot to keep her quiet, only they couldn’t, she wouldn’t ever, be quiet.

Danny through the darkening air, his hand reaching to touch mine, the moth flitting away over the hawthorn hedge as the music started again. When will you love me, when will that be?

How did she die? His voice as if he’d pushed the mute button—the far away hum of a distant car.

I shook my head, felt the imprint of his fingers burn.

She was called Alice, was all I’d say. The first time I’d said her name in two years.

Coming into the edge of town now, past the rows of semis on the dual carriageway, the street lights threatening to make me look. I stick to the inside, feel the fear with every car that passes. Only a week ago, that drive with Danny when I thought she was safe to mention. How can I be sure she’s not there on the backseat sending messages from my mobile? Think of Melanie and the job in the coffee bar. Passing my test and getting the car. All on the straight and narrow until Danny shines through and tells me he likes me. She could sneak up behind him.

I put on my best top for work today. Plucked up courage and asked if he wanted a drink tonight. He went all wistful and told me he’s got a paper to write for tomorrow. She could slide the mouse to write her back-to-front lies on his screen. Make him think it’s me.

There are lines of black wheelie bins on the grass verge like sentries guarding the rows of Mock Tudor. We’re coming closer now to his student flats. My hands slip on the wheel as I risk the left turn without the mirror. He said to leave him alone tonight—I was going to text him, what harm would that do? But first I checked the Outbox to see what I said last time. And there they were: Cilla liar Alice live. C 2 get u A 2 protect u. On way 2 u A. All sent to Danny a few minutes before.

I pull into his car park and he’s waiting at the window, comes down to let me in as I lock up the car. I shiver without my coat, my shoes slipping on the slimy tarmac. He holds the door open, his head to one side, expression stiff like he doesn’t recognise me as I fling myself towards him.

It’s not me, I’m not Alice. Me, it’s not me. The words gabble across the chill air as I fall into the doorway. He frowns as he steadies me.

His books lie face down on the desk in the pool of lamplight, his mobile beside them. The computer screen is blank, the cursor flashing, waiting for her to sneak up behind me. A touch on my shoulder and my mouth opens for the scream.

Cilla, what the hell is going on? He pulls me round to face him, places a mug of coffee in my hand. My fingers shake with the cold, the coffee slops to the floor.

For God’s sake. He bends to mop the spill with a tissue from the box on the desk. I stare at the screen, feel her willing me to tip the coffee as I cling to the mug and watch the hot liquid splash some more to catch the fuzz of hair on the back of his neck.

Jesus. He shakes his head as he stands, wiping at the wet. Will you just sit down?

He guides me to the beige vinyl chair in the corner. Takes his time in fetching the coffee to the little table. He stands in front of me and rubs his eyes. I look away, towards the screen. She will write her lies. I must be vigilant.

He follows my gaze to the blank computer.

I haven’t got very far with my paper, funnily enough. His laugh is hollow, his softness gone.

It’s Alice you see, sending you texts, she’ll get in your computer, infect your email. I hear my voice screech high like her. The cursor winks. She is ready to strike.

He turns to sit on the edge of the desk, blocking out the screen with his back. Still that look, like he doesn’t know me.

What is all this about Alice? You said your sister died?

I saw her in the car mirror. She sent you texts but it’s all lies.

He leans forward, his hands on his thighs. I see the swirl of dark hair where his sleeves are rolled back. It goes through me, a sweet dull pain.

Alice through the looking glass, he says, that wistful way of his.

It’s not true what she’s saying, Danny, it’s lies.

He leans forward, holds my gaze with his tired dark eyes.

You’re reminding me of something I read. It goes too, with the fear of mirrors. Dissociation, I think they call it.

I turn to sip at the coffee, bitter and claggy in my throat. Cold sweat under my thin yellow top.

Dissociation. I run my tongue around the word.

Danny gets up and fetches a pine-framed mirror hanging on the wall. Moves his computer chair to prop up the mirror a few feet in front of me.

Look, Cilla, he says. Who do you see?

I turn my head. No! I yell.

Look in the mirror, Cilla.

He kneels beside me, touches my hand. Gazes at me as if he’s working me out. Nods towards the mirror.

There’s a figure huddled round a cup of coffee in a yellow smock top and black drainpipes. Her buttery hair straggles over bony shoulders. You lean forward to the image, is it her behind you? Danny by my side. I sense him with my body and see him in the mirror.

It could be like a part of your personality so repressed it becomes a different character. Like an Alter.

I’m not Alice. I stare at the reflection. She gives me no clue.

Danny smiles in the mirror. His voice is distant, like a lecture. It is order just beyond reach, like a waking from a dream.

I force a smile and see the chip on my tooth. Alice doesn’t have a chip. I stare into the eyes. Are they mine? I pull back. Listen to Danny.

This thing I read reckoned a lot of it was patients acting out what they think the therapist wants to hear.

I turn to face the real Danny and his grin is smug. Behind him fish move through the dark computer screen and the soft gurgle of their breath fills the silence.

I’m not your case study, I shout, feel a fury rising.

He shakes his head. And I’m not a therapist. I don’t need a case study. He pulls a straight-lipped smile with just a hint of the dimple.

I look back at the mirror and I can’t see the chip. If I am Alice I can be as mean I like. What tricks can I play on Danny then? I can poison his fish, put sugar in his petrol tank, type obscenities in his paper. I look up at him, and he’s moved to the desk, smoking a fag like his life depends.

What are you doing here, Alice? He says.

Nobody calls me Alice, I shout it. Nobody ever. I get up, away from the mirror. Step towards him and shout it again. I am not Alice.

He turns his back on me, jiggles the computer mouse and the screen goes blank again.

I bang my fists between his shoulder blades. Nobody calls me Alice!

He turns to grab my wrists. He lowers them slowly to my sides, guides me back a step.

I can’t do this now, he says. I’m tired, I’ve got a paper to write. Why don’t you sleep on the bed? You’ll feel different in the morning. He walks over to the mirror, puts it back on the wall.

Danny makes me a cup of tea, sets it down by the bed. Danny touches my hand.

Sleep well, Cilla.

He moves to the desk, turns the lamp to shine on the keyboard, starts to type.

I lie out on the bed and sip my tea, pull the duvet over me and watch him work. There is no sister in the mirror. The mirror only reflects what’s there. They gave me a shot in the white hospital bed. Alice is dead.

I feel warm for the first time.

I finish the tea and lay my head on the pillow. As I start to drift into sleep I hear Danny’s mobile beep with an incoming text.

pencil

Penny Frances lives in Sheffield in the UK. Her stories have been published in magazines, including in Mslexia and The Interpreter’s House and online with Horizon Review, Pygmy Giant, and most recently with Fictive Dream. She has a Writing MA from Sheffield Hallam University and is currently seeking publication of her novel. She blogs at pennyfrances.wordpress.com. She uses the pen-name Penny Frances as her real name (Penny Wightwick) is unpronounceable. Email: pennyfw[at]blueyonder.co.uk

Rotten Fruit

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Vanessa Levin-Pompetzki


Photo Credit: PJ Nelson/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

It is winter when the tree blooms. Sarah watches it out of her kitchen window, her breath fogging up the glass. The sight of it sets her pulse galloping.

“Andrew,” she calls, picking up the pot of coffee and pouring another cup. Her husband, shivering in the cold morning, comes to stand beside her. They watch the tree as Andrew takes several gulps of coffee. The silence—the knowledge that sits between them, heavy as all three of her babes piled in her arms—hurts nearly as bad as remembering.

“I’ll tell the kids not to eat the fruit,” Andrew says. He moves away without another word.

Sarah stays by the window until the coffee grows cold in her hands. Her brain is a pit of snakes, writhing, reminding.

Let all of your fruit born in winter be rotten.

The words, heard nine years ago, are fresh as the snow fallen that morning. Sarah thinks of the woman—the witch—of her white hair and brittle hands, and she wants to take her children into bed, keep them there till ice thaws and their other trees bloom.

All three of her babes were born in winter.

Josephine, days before Christmas.

Andy, during the last snowfall of a particularly hard winter.

Elizabeth, on a day so cold wet eyelashes froze together.

And every time Sarah gave birth she feared what she might push out between her legs—a child black with rot, a screaming mouth full of maggots. Or perhaps a child shrunken and wrinkled, already dead inside of her.

But she gave birth to three beautiful, blonde, blue-eyed children who said please and thank you and (almost) always listened to her.

And now, seven years after Sarah pushed Josephine, red and screaming, into the world, the tree bloomed. Tiny green shoots press out of spindly branches, reaching toward a gray sky. Sarah pulls the curtain over the window, heads upstairs to wake her children.

The next day, the tree’s leaves are full and there are small, pretty, baby apples hanging on its branches.

Sarah sends her children out to play in the snow—“don’t eat those,” she warns them, and they nod dutifully.

Inside, she cleans the house. Every five minutes she runs to the window—every time her children are far away from the tree, launching snowballs at each other. Andrew, chopping wood beside the barn, doesn’t take his eyes off them.

Sarah cannot stop thinking about that day nine years ago. It is branded into her, a wound that never heals. Remembering is ripping the scab off, letting it ooze again.

As she cleans the kitchen, suds soaping up and bubbles popping, she is reminded of the smell of his skin. Harshly clean, like he had come to her straight out of the bath. Perhaps he had.

Sarah gets down on her knees and her bones begin to ache, her hands red and raw.

He had tasted of sweet salt, like he had nervously sweat on the drive over, let it dry before knocking on her door. They were never ones for words. Their version of talking had been lips between thighs, soft “oh god”s offered up to heaven. Whether in pleasure or in asking for forgiveness of sin, Sarah has never been sure.

When her children come inside, their cheeks are red as ripe apples.

They chatter to her about their game over dinner. Sarah smile and nods, but she sits at the table in a spot where she can see the tree out the window. She swears its leaves grow even as she eats.

If she closes her eyes, she can see his skeleton suspended in dark earth beneath the tree. She wonders—as the tree has grown, have his bones moved with its roots? The image of a root snaking through a skull’s eye is stuck in her mind.

“I’m going to cut it down tomorrow,” Andrew tells her. When she thinks of Andrew with an axe, she doesn’t think of him next to a tree but standing over a pool of blood. A body, empty.

“Good,” Sarah says. She rolls over to sleep and the full moon shines in through their window. It is hours before her brain quiets enough to let her go.

The next day, Sarah breaks a plate. It isn’t a snap-in-half kind of break—it’s a shatter, send-shards-deep-into-crevices kind of break.

“Go outside while I clean this up,” she tells her children. Josephine bundles up the younger ones and they troop outside.

Sarah crouches and digs out ceramic shards, grateful that she can’t see the apple tree for a moment. Earlier she saw that its apples were round and glistening in the cold morning light.

He had gone into town, but Andrew promised the tree would be gone by afternoon.

Just as she is getting the last of the shattered plate off the floor, there is a loud clatter as someone runs back inside.

“Mommy,” Elizabeth sobs, and Sarah is up in a heartbeat, tossing the plate remnants into the sink. Her youngest is crying, snot and tears mixing. Her mouth is black.

“Elizabeth?” Sarah says, her voice high.

“I don’t feel good,” her daughter says, throwing herself forward into Sarah’s arms. Elizabeth sniffles. “Mommy, I’m sorry.”

“What happened, pet?” Sarah asks. Her voice is calm, hand steady as she touches her daughter’s hair.

“We ate the apples,” Elizabeth says.

Sarah’s heart stops. She takes her daughter by the shoulders and wrenches her away, crouches down to look at her. Elizabeth’s blue eyes are dark, like a cloud has passed over them, and black liquid oozes slowly from one corner of her mouth.

Elizabeth pulls an apple out of her pocket—it has one bite taken out of it. The apple’s insides are made of mold.

“Did everyone eat this?” Sarah demands.

Elizabeth’s sobs have quieted to hiccups. She nods. “It was Andy’s idea,” she mumbles, but Sarah knows better. Elizabeth, her sweet, youngest daughter, has long been the troublemaker. The one who steals cream from the fridge, feeds the cat pieces of cheese, climbs far higher in the trees than she knows is allowed.

Despite the panic crowding her lungs like one too many cigarettes, Sarah goes to the door and opens it.

“Andy! Josephine! Come inside, please!”

She doesn’t quite understand how normal her voice sounds. How even it is. It is what she sounds like when she calls them in every day.

There is a choking noise from behind her. Sarah whirls around to find Elizabeth hunched over on all fours, black sludge pouring from her mouth.

“No!” Sarah cries, running, but before she can reach Elizabeth, her daughter is back on her feet, and it is not her daughter any more.

“Mommy,” Elizabeth says. No, Sarah tells herself, this is not Elizabeth. “Mommy,” the thing says again. Its eyes are black and dripping. Its mouth is a gash in its face.

“Hi, pet,” Sarah says, but this time, her voice shakes.

Behind her, the door rattles, and two voices drift through. “Mommy?”

The voices are wizened and old, voices of throat cancer and strep throat, of sickness and phlegm. It is the voice of the witch—of his mother—when she cursed Sarah so many years ago.

Elizabeth—what was Elizabeth—lunges. It moves faster than a child. It screams like a mountain lion in heat.

No time to think, Sarah moves. She opens the door right as Elizabeth runs at her, lets her youngest slam into her two eldest, closes the door behind them. If Elizabeth is lost, surely her other two are as well. Surely they will come after her.

Sarah turns, heart ready to vomit itself onto the floor, to find all three of her children looking up at her through the window in the door.

They look hungry.

She yanks the curtains closed, throws the bolt across. She runs around the house, locking every window, blockading every door. Her mind sings her a song—all of your fruit born in winter be rotten, all of your fruit born in winter be rotten. She can hear them, scraping at the doors, screaming.

“Mommy!”

“Mommy, I’m so hungry!”

“Help me! Help me!”

The shrieks, the noises. Not all of their windows have curtains. Her children peer inside, their eyes black as a moonless night, searching.

Sarah is about to let them back inside—to finish what she began, to end the cycle, to let the rot take her. It is already inside of her. It has been inside of her, festering and growing, for years.

But there is a sound from the driveway. A car, pulling in.

Andrew.

 

Ten years ago, Sarah and Andrew married in a quiet ceremony. Sarah’s parents were eager to get her out of the house—only daughter, a burden. Andrew had a farm, inherited from his family. Means to take care of their daughter. They pushed her out, eagerly put her hand in his during the ceremony. Sarah kissed him on the lips and felt nothing in the pit of her stomach.

But him—him. She met him at the market when summer was at its fullest. He sold her a basket of peaches, and she told him that she would bring him a jar of her peach jam. She brought him one a few weeks later, and he invited her to come see the harvest of plums he had not yet brought out from his truck—they fucked twice in the backseat, once fervent and needy, the next quiet and slow, with the kind of eye contact she had ached her whole life for.

Between laundry and starting dinner, a whole afternoon before Andrew was due back, he would come by. He drove a red truck—Sarah loved the flashiness of it, like a bright fall apple during a hard Canadian winter. He would knock, all politeness, and she would let him in, lead him to the bedroom. Kissing him was inviting summer into her mouth.

But Andrew came home early.

Sarah heard his truck, pulling into the driveway, and her fear was a worm in her throat. She leapt out of bed, yanking on a nightdress. Beside her, he tried to get dressed, fumbling with buttons.

“Who’s here?” Andrew’s voice demanded. It had taken him longer than she would have thought to run inside, but when she came out of the bedroom she knew why.

Andrew stood in the kitchen, dark eyes glinting, axe in hand.

 

Sarah rushes to the window to see Andrew arrive, peers out—her children, or what were once her children, rush toward his truck.

Sarah sees his lips move as he gets out, calling to the children before he can see them. She wants to warn him, wants to say something, but there is still a bit of her old lover lodged in her brain. She will never scrub the blood from her mind, never forget how the soft moan he made while dying was just like the one he made in her bed.

Was it worth it? Andrew had asked her, eyes dark as the bottom of their well. She saw nothing in them. Was it worth it?

When she thinks of the decade of ice between them, of the scent of blood, of the way he smells after sex, Sarah does not open the window. She does not call to her husband—she does not warn him of their children, rotting from the inside out.

She watches as he sees it. Their eyes, black as his own—their mouths, grinning mold. She watches her middle child, named for his father, hand Andrew a half-eaten apple. Andrew stares down at it. Sarah watches him grapple with what lies in front of him.

Rotten fruit. Crazed children. Are they children? He takes too long to figure it out, to realize that Sarah’s dead lover’s mother has cursed them into a horror story. To remember the words Sarah repeated to him after she heard them. Andrew does not hear those words in his sleep—he does not begin each winter with a chest of glass.

The children rip into him. Sarah flinches at the sight—teeth in neck, blood spurting onto snow. Her husband’s blood is so hot it melts the snow down to the ground. The sight makes her think of her children’s art projects, of the way they paint with abandon. She hunches over, her lunch splattering into the sink.

There are screams. She cannot tell whose they are. When she raises her head, looking out, they are done.

They stand over their father’s body, pulling flesh from him. They try to eat, then spit him out, then cry. Great sobs, black tears streaking down their cheeks.

She can only hear the high keen of her eldest. Josephine, standing over her father, looks down at his body and screams, “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!”

Sarah stumbles away from the window. She looks around, wildly. They will come for her next. Does she let them? She wonders if his bones can hear—if he heard her children kill their father, if he can hear them now, screaming. She wonders if he wanted this, or if he would apologize. He was an apologizer. Sorry, Sarah, let me, he would say, press his lips to her inner thigh. Sorry, Sarah, that my mother cursed you and your children.

Innocent. They were innocent.

She begins to sob, sinking to the floor of her kitchen. She stays there for a long time, longer than she should. She should keep an eye on them. She should watch where they go. She should be prepared. But she sits there, tears seeping into her dress, unable to move.

A knife would be good, she thinks after it’s been quiet a while. She yanks open a drawer, finds her best knife. Grabs the second best, two. No, a cast iron pan instead. That might not kill them. She could knock them out, call the doctor—

No, no. Fuck, the doctor won’t be able to fix the problem of a nearly decade-old murder and the rotting fruit of her loins.

There is a loud splintering noise.

Sarah struggles to her feet, the knife in one hand and the cast iron pan in the other.

“Mommy?” a voice says. Her boy. He comes in first. At five years old, he already looks like his father. Same dark hair, but her blue eyes. What a heartbreaker he will be, she thinks, as if she has smudged the black away in her mind. Her baby walks toward her.

“Mommy?” he asks again. He blinks at her. His mouth, black, gapes open.

“Andy, come here, honey,” Sarah says.

Her son leaps at her, and Sarah swings. It’s a decision that takes a moment—her affair can have no more consequences. It has to end with her, with them.

She hits Andy in the side of the head and he flies across the kitchen, hitting the wall with a thud. Black sludge oozes from his head, drips from the pan.

Her daughters step into the kitchen.

Elizabeth tilts her head like she used to when she was a baby.

“Mommy,” she says. She is holding a fresh apple in her fist. “I’m hungry.”

 

Days after Andrew and Sarah buried her dead lover beneath the apple tree, his mother came calling. She drove her son’s truck, the one Sarah had driven back to his house in the dead of night, her lungs hot as coals.

When his mother climbed out of the truck, Sarah knew it was over. She was the picture of fury. The cold wind whipped her hair around her face, a halo of snow white. The slam of the truck’s door echoed like a gunshot.

“Sarah,” the woman said.

Sarah did not know her name.

His mother was silent until she stood right in front of Sarah. She was tall, thick, angry. She was the kind of angry that makes you a murderer. Sarah had seen it days before in her husband’s eyes.

“I know what you’ve done,” the woman said.

Sarah tried to look confused. “I’m sorry,” she said, cocking her head to the right. “Have we met?”

The woman’s hand shot out and grabbed Sarah by the wrist. She pulled and Sarah fell forward, so their faces were inches apart. Sarah could see every line in her face—was assaulted by the eyes of her lover. Gold rimmed in hazel.

“Do you know that they call me a witch?” she hissed.

Sarah decided pretense was done with, and she nodded.

The woman—the witch—let go of Sarah’s wrist. “It isn’t a fairy tale,” the witch said. When she reached out again, this time she had a knife in hand—Sarah flinched, stumbling backward, but the witch just laughed.

“I’m not here to kill you, girl,” the witch said, “just to reap what’s been sown.” She grabbed Sarah’s arm and sliced a cut across her wrist, soft and shallow. Sarah’s blood dripped, hot and red, into the snow.

“Let all of your fruit born in winter be rotten,” the witch said. When she let go, Sarah fell, clutching her wrist.

The witch cut herself then, letting her own blood drop atop Sarah’s.

“I didn’t mean to,” Sarah said, then. She clamped her mouth closed. She wished the witch would cut her tongue out. “I didn’t do it.”

The witch stood, wrapping her bleeding wrist with a strip of cloth. Her anger seemed to have bled away, laid itself out on the white ground. She looked almost sad. Sarah watched as her eyes flicked toward the apple tree.

Andrew had dug a hole in autumn, planned to plant a tree by the house come spring for the children he was certain they would have. They dumped the body in first, put the tree on top of it. Cold soil from the barn. The tree wouldn’t survive the cold, sure. But for now it was serving its purpose.

“I don’t imagine you did,” the witch said.“But you started it, see?”

Sarah did.

 

She gets in her dead husband’s car. The keys are still in the ignition. She puts her knife, black with blood, in the passenger seat. When she looks into the rear view, to back out of the driveway, she’s surprised to find that her own eyes are still blue.

They match the sky.

It is a five-minute drive to her dead lover’s mother’s house. The witch still drives his truck, a red apple resting in the driveway. Sarah sits in Andrew’s truck for a moment, and she finds that she is the kind of angry that makes you a murderer.

She thinks of Elizabeth’s last words—I’m hungry.

Sarah is hungry.

The witch’s front door is not locked. She is sitting in front of a roaring fire, covered with blankets. Sarah’s hand clenches around the knife.

“Sarah,” the witch says, turning to look up at her.

Same white hair, same eyes. Sarah looks down at her and into the past. The witch stares into the fire. “Been waiting for you,” she says.

“You’ve reaped what I’ve sown,” Sarah says.

“Yes,” the witch says.

Sarah wrenches the old woman’s head backward, drags the knife across her throat. The blood that spurts is red—like her son’s was when Andrew sliced into him with the axe. The blood streams down the witch’s body, soaking her blankets. The woman makes a gurgling noise and Sarah can only think of her children, of the only good thing Andrew gave her.

She grabs the dead witch by the hair and hauls her out of the chair. The body thuds to the ground, vacant eyes watching as Sarah sits herself down. She watches the fire pop and sizzle, the knife still hanging in her hand. She knows the blade will rust but she can’t bring herself to clean it.

Something is digging into her thigh.

Sarah shifts in the chair, reaches into her pocket, and pulls out the bitten apple Elizabeth had handed her.

Its insides are white and crisp.

Something snaps in Sarah’s chest. The curse is over. She wonders if her children, dead in her house, are bleeding red instead of black. She wonders if she were to peel back their eyelids, she would find eyes the color of a summer sky.

The witch, on the floor beside Sarah, smells of shit and metal and blood. The fire is hot against her skin. She wonders if she should cry, but finds that there is nothing left.

Sarah takes a bite of the apple.

It tastes like fall.

pencil

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

Us, Alone

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Meredith Lindgren


Photo Credit: James Gates/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

The sky did not lie that morning, clouds covered it as some indecent warning of that which can never be prepared for in adequate fashion. They would turn the world white. They blanketed even the ground and hung down as if in some attempt to find reflection.

It was a year to the day since Amelia hadn’t lived.

Nick and I needed to go into town to get some supplies.

We could stay there. Or we could go right through.

We could go right through the next town and the next town and the next. We could go and never stop, but we won’t.

We’ll return to our one room cabin with a loft for the bed, open to the bottom floor. Separation, but no privacy, except the bathroom.

We almost expanded the place last year.

We started to.

The cats, Mittens and Boots, watched us from the window of the loft. They would not go outside again for days. Country life is sometimes simple, but never more so than city life.

Before we left for town, we cut as much wood as we could. More money for food. We broke down building supplies.

As the morning passed the sun did not come and the cold did not go, it worsened. The sun hid its place in the sky, dim and evenly dispersed, an indicator of day.

We piled the wood up next to the stove. It almost covered the door. If the weatherman was right, in a day’s time we wouldn’t be able to leave the house anyway. The birds and small animals skittered frantic, never far from their nests and holes.

We got into the car.

“Do you have the list?” Nick asked.

“Won’t matter,” I said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

It meant that the shelves would be picked. We would get what we could. The wood should have been cut the day before, the supplies acquired, but our mare, Joan, had begun to birth a foal. Though we had attended the birth and given it our best efforts and lost sleep, we lost them both. We should have done better.

Death comes in threes. Last year had been unseasonably warm. The first two deaths had been chickens, taken by coyotes. We didn’t talk about the third.

Amelia.

A year later, death had come again. Two down. No telling who the storm would take. I turned to Nick.

“It’s all up here,” I said. I pointed to my head and grinned.

“Can you tell me where it is in the house so I can go get it?”

“It’s also in my pocket,” I said.

“Can I see it?” he said.

I showed it to him.

He looked at it. “I don’t know why we had to do all that,” he said.

There was no reason. Numbness drove me. I felt none of the urgency I should have. This had been true for some time. My notice of it was occasional.

He started the car. “I love you,” he reminded us both without looking at me. He squeezed the steering wheel.

“I love you,” I said back.

I didn’t look at him. I looked at the day. I looked at the year. I looked away but it all looked the same.

The truck tried to make it up the hill. More and more the truck tried to make it places. It made a noise. Chunky, like everything fixed inside it had come loose.

It sputtered. Something tight contained, connected to the other noise in an indiscernible way. We ignored it because we didn’t have time for something like that.

The car hissed and steamed. It died.

Much as it could for something that had never been alive.

“Shit,” Nick said. He hit the steering wheel. CPR for cars, it never works. For CPR to work, you have to break ribs.

Cars have no heart or breath to start. No ribs to break. There were no numbers attached to their deaths. They die alone without envy of our threes.

We got out and looked under the hood.

“There’s a coolant leak,” he said. “We need to patch it and put in more coolant. Otherwise the engine will get too hot and will just run itself into oblivion.”

We were just between the general store and our home. Two miles in either direction.

We didn’t have any coolant or patches. He undid the stick that held the hood up. It slammed back into place. The first flakes fell onto it, melting with the heat left by the engine in some strange taunt.

We looked in both directions. The birds had not yet stopped their calls, beseeching nature not to run her course. More snowflakes were quick to follow.

“We won’t make it to the store and back,” I said.

“No. We won’t.”

He turned to walk home. I followed.

I had a hat with flaps, but my ears were numb within five minutes.

Don’t get me started on my nose.

I tried to walk up close with Nick, for warmth, but it was hard to keep up. He was walking as if trying to lose me.

By the time we got home the birds were silent. It had snowed four inches. About one every ten minutes. We started a fire. We stood in front of it. There was nothing to say. The fire popped and crackled. Boots and Mittens wound around our ankles.

We sat at our table and shared a can of chili for dinner. If all had gone as planned, we each would have gotten our own. He went up to the loft and there produced a bottle of whiskey from the depths of his bottom dresser drawer.

“I was saving this for the next storm,” he said.

“This storm.”

“Yup.”

It raged outside. The wind howled, stealing any other sounds.

I took a drink straight from the bottle. There was no reason to be fancy. It was warm in my chest, my blood coming alive.

“We should take a look at what we have,” I said.

“Won’t change anything,” he said.

“It will help us ration,” I said.

“That it’d do.”

He lifted the bottle, tilted it. It was less than half full.

“I might switch to the cheap stuff.”

“Smart,” I said. We were past the point of caring about quality.

He got the bottle I had known about from out of the cabinet. It was no fuller than the other. We would have picked more up at the store. Even with both, the whiskey wasn’t going to last us the storm.

“I might be okay for now,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said.

The electricity went out. A log cracked in the fire. We went to bed. To say we made love ignores the other feelings we made as our bodies worked and writhed in expression that may well have been meaningless for all it told us about each other.

I searched his face for my own feelings, but it was too dark.

A log cracked in the fire.

I searched his movements for my own and though he stirred inside me, the only feelings I could discern were my own.

Once done, we separated, some mystic push away from each other. We came back together for the warmth. Our limbs did not intertwine.

Weightless, I could feel our stillborn daughter between us. I had all year.

She had been fully formed and came out with my body’s leftover heat. Perfect. Nick hadn’t been gentle as he had pressed his two fingers into her chest, one’s not supposed to be for CPR to work.

It was hard to say if we had her in common anymore.

Two feet of snow kept the doors shut. Wind howled.

I listened to the absence of the steady gentle hum of electricity, sudden and noticeable when it was gone. The world was too unstill for it. Unsaid things moved around inside me like Amelia had. A light snore formed in Nick’s throat.

I woke to blank light and silence. Each lay upon the world, equally distributed across all surfaces. Snow fell onto itself. It reached past the sill, filling the window. The wind had ceased. The birds were silent. Nick was silent.

A silence beyond sleep.

I did CPR. I broke his ribs. I touched his heart, but not hard enough for it to start beating and bleeding and all the things it had done again.

I did nothing.

I started after he’d stopped making his own warmth. Like her, any heat he retained was borrowed from me.

At what point he died in the night, there’s no way for me to tell.

I tried to call emergency services. The lines were down. We didn’t have cellular phones. We lived beyond service.

I screamed. I cried. There was no witness to any of this. I realized that I had the luxury of unobserved grief. I could cry all day or not at all. I could say that either had occurred.

Upon this realization I stopped.

I started some breakfast for myself. I got the fire going with the embers left in the stove. Heat spread through the room.

I would need my strength to get Nick out of the bed. At some point I would need to lay down again. It was the only surface in the house for it and I wasn’t going to give it up for a corpse.

I ate plain oatmeal. We were out of butter and sugar. Each were things we had intended to get at the store.

I fed the cats the parts of Joan and her dead foal that we had had time to cut out and wrap up. Whether the hide and the bulk of the meat from either animal would be salvageable would be clear when the snow was gone.

When I was done, I went up to the loft. I put my hands under Nick’s armpits. I lifted to no avail. I got his head and shoulders less than an inch off the bed, even using all my strength. I collapsed onto my side.

He turned to me.

“Hello, handsome,” he said, just like the night we met.

“You’re dead,” I said.

I had not said that the night we met.

“Do dead men talk?” he said.

“No,” I said. I believed it at the time.

“Well then,” he said. “Let’s start over. Hello, handsome.”

All the gestures and facial expressions remained the same. The human mind is a wonderful thing. This conversation didn’t seem like something to do, but he repeated himself.

“Hello, handsome,” he said.

“Handsome, but I’m a girl,” I said again. It was what I said the night we met.

“It’s the golden rule,” he said. “Treat others as you want to be treated.”

“I do. Or, I do try,” I said. The first night I had just giggled.

“You shouldn’t lie to the dead,” he said. “We know.”

He went back to being dead. I no longer had anyone to talk to. It was a relief. Now I could get back to moving him.

I did not put my hands back under his armpits, but rather his shoulder and hip. I rolled him. He hit the ground with a great thud.

I lay across the bed.

It felt so normal. This was something I’d do after changing the sheets.

It felt so abnormal. Someone had died here just few minutes before. Minutes adding up to hours in all likelihood, but a blink in time however dissected.

I shifted so that all of me remained on my side.

I looked over to the empty space next to me. I could feel the inanimate nature of the body that lay just beyond my sight. Still I lay as time existed outside of me. The snow obscured any of the sun’s telling. It piled on and on in silence. Tears ran gentle down over my nose, outside my control and like all things without a sound.

It was only when I stopped that he sat up.

“Why did you let our daughter die?” he said. He had never been so straightforward as to come out and ask.

“Why did you?” I said. I had never been so straightforward as to come out and ask either.

“Me,” he said. “You were the one carrying her. What did I do?”

“You were never there for me. You were never there for us.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“You weren’t there for me,” I said. “For us.”

“Excuse me for trying to make some money so that I could support us. Besides, you’ve said as much before, but what more could I have done? Climbed in your skin and lived life for you?”

“Don’t be absurd.”

“No. You don’t be absurd. You’ve said I wasn’t there for you, but what more could I have done?”

“Something. You could have talked to me. Helped me when I was sick. Brought me food. That’s what you could have done. There’s an in between living life for me and what you did which made me feel alone. It made us feel alone.”

“She never got the chance to feel anything. And I wish I could have carried her inside me. I wouldn’t have been so proud. I wouldn’t have tried to do so much.”

I had continued to work a lot.

“Maybe I did do too much. Maybe I wouldn’t have had to if you hadn’t been hungover so much. You were always somewhere, drinking with your friends, leaving me alone. Us alone. She would have lived if I hadn’t felt so alone.”

He collapsed back to where he had been all along.

“What?” I said. “Don’t you have anything to say for yourself?”

He lay down again. There he was on the floor, broken ribs. Flat lack of breath or muscle tension.

I got up and changed the sheets. I wrapped him in the old ones.

I laid back and let the silence overtake me. The eeriness of the unexpected. I waited for him to speak again, but he didn’t. The snow kept falling. The hidden sun made for a day without time. I was hungry.

I made grilled cheese and soup. Warm food helped keep the house, body and soul warm. Something a person needed in a storm like this.

I started bleeding after lunch.

My period, right on time.

Part of me had hoped I wouldn’t, that some part of Nick would live on. This time his absence would be expected. That would make it tolerable.

Pads were something we would have bought at the store.

I didn’t worry about what Nick would think as I cut up a towel, our brown one that was fluffy and soft, but wasn’t as new as some of the others. I didn’t care about his judgement as I stuffed it in my underwear.

It would work fine.

The phone lines were still down.

I paced in the dim and sourceless light.

The plan had been to talk to each other and read. I picked up my book but couldn’t focus. Tears came again. They couldn’t last the possibility that this time they were not for him, but rather for myself.

I paced and paced at a steady pace, faster than the hours crawled on. Darkness came on. The wind started again, the snow did not stop. Nick could sense the evening.

“Are you going to sleep with me in here, like this?” he said.

“I don’t think I can.”

“Are you going to stay up all night? My mourning widow until morning?”

“Even sleepless mourning widows are removed from the body.”

“What next then? Are you going to push me down the ladder? Aren’t you afraid that I’ll break? Don’t you love me too much for that?”

Did I?

“You’re supposed to,” he said. “You can blame me all you want, but love goes far to keep things alive. I could never tell how much you loved anything.”

I dragged Nick by his feet. I stopped at the edge of the ladder.

The sheet had fallen off of him. I pushed him. He hit the rungs. His body hit the rungs. He was gone. The way it hit the floor was more solid.

I could never tell how much he loved things either and for a second, it was me that was dead and he was standing above me broken body that he had just pushed down the ladder. I was him and he was me. It was so vivid, it had to be true. It was nothing like the night before when he’d been separate inside me.

It passed. We were ourselves again. In our little home.

The outside world was so far away, it might as well have not existed. I continued to sit and watch him, lifeless. I looked down on him from above, bloating and bruising. His eyes were open. No more could I feel him watching me, either from above or below. Even though I wanted to believe in Heaven.

It was a grey dusk that came. And with it a hunger. And with it a girl. She was ten, an age Amelia had never reached, but I recognized her. There were his eyes, my hair, his chin, and my cheekbones.

His lips parted to say, “Why didn’t you want me?”

She was gone, but I said, “I did. What are you talking about?”

I went down the ladder and put the sheet back over Nick. I went to get the bottle of whiskey that would be my dinner. Not having to share anymore, I only needed the good stuff. Boots sniffed at the sheet.

“Boots, don’t,” I said. “Don’t, Kitty.”

But I didn’t move to stop her. I watched her sniff about.

“How long are you going to let her do that?” he said.

Boots moved to chew on his toes. I shooed her away. She would drift back and I would have to deter her again.

I put more of the cut-up towel into my panties.

I drank the rest of the bottle and passed out to her chewing noises.

It was dark when I woke. The cats were curled up, warm beside me. Out the window, I could stars in the sky. The clouds were gone, the snow had stopped.

I was hungry. I had to step over his body to make my stew. I had to put wood in the fire to keep it going.

While it heated I dragged Nick from the base of the ladder. I did not take him far. I didn’t want him in the kitchen area or too close to the stove. I lay him down by the window where he would stay cold. I ate.

“You could offer me some,” he said.

“There’s more,” I said.

He sulked.

“I could heat it up for you,” I said.

“Is the phone working yet?”

“What you don’t want to hang around the house with me? You think it’s boring to be expected to do nothing, to just sit there looking pretty?”

“You still think I’m pretty,” he said.

I’ll admit, though I didn’t when questioned, that did make me curious. I went over to the sheet and lifted it. Even in the dim light of the fire I could see, his blood had begun to pool as gravity dictated. I poked at his back.

“You have blood pooling,” I said.

“It happens,” he said. “It will happen to you.”

I didn’t tell him, but it wouldn’t happen to me like that. Whatever happened, I wouldn’t let it happen to me like that. Bones had broken in the fall. They floated around inside him, banging against his ribs. His skin was bruised.

“Only after I die,” I said.

“You don’t have to rub it in.”

I smiled.

“Do you think you’ll be blamed?” he said.

“I think I’ll be questioned. Blame must placed.”

“I want you to be blamed,” he said. “It’s your fault. You killed me.”

But I didn’t. I hadn’t. I turned to go upstairs. Amelia stood at the top, six, now.

“You told more than one person that you didn’t want children,” she said. “You told your best friend when you were my age. You told your first boyfriend. And your second. You told me.”

“I told you that you were changing my mind. By the time you were here I wanted you more than you can imagine.”

She turned into the sun which was rising.

I went back to bed. I laid down, hoping to get back to sleep. I didn’t want to be awake any more than I had to. The sun would be an unwelcome guest.

Though I couldn’t get back to sleep, I searched for a connection with widows who would stay up all night. Who reach for their absent husbands in the morning. I moved my hand across his pillow in motions I imagined they took.

His warmth would have been welcome. He was bigger than the cats. I had to go to the bathroom.

I cut off more of the towel. I threw what I had been using away. The cats had chewed the others, sucking out the juices and shredding the fabric. I picked up the pieces.

The snow filled the downstairs windows, dipping under its own weight in the middle. Light flowed from the loft.

The cat had bit Nick’s toe. It was red with blood, but it was not bleeding.

I went to the bathroom and cut up more of the towel.

When I came out, Nick turned to me and asked, “Would you have married me? If it hadn’t been for her? I’ve always wondered. When I do things right, sorry, did things right, it seemed like the answer was yes. But otherwise, I don’t know. It was pretty iffy.”

“I might have married you if I hadn’t gotten pregnant, but not when I did.”

This left him still and deflated.

I made myself a breakfast identical to what I had eaten the day previous. I had enough of yesterday’s lunch and dinner to do the same, but we would see.

Mittens rubbed against my leg. He looked up at me.

“You’re thinking of feeding me dry cat food, aren’t you?” he said. It was the first time he had ever spoke. “Don’t you ever want more,” he said. “I want more.”

I patted his head. I would give him some of Joan’s foal, so much like my own human child, when it came down to it. He had a point.

But first I would feed myself.

“I agree with the boy cat,” said Boots. “Sometimes I want more.”

“You may not forever,” I said to her agreeing with the boy cat.

She rubbed against my leg in the same way he did. One difference was that I was secure in the fact that she wouldn’t spray the walls. As though she could occupy a space, but did not need to own it. Lines did not need to be drawn.

Not in her mind.

She was naïve.

“You can have some of Joan’s foal,” I told her. “Both of you,” I told them.

Nick sat up under his sheet.

“You again,” I said. “I’m tired of you.”

“Sorry to be an inconvenience,” he said. “I’m curious about whether the phones are up again.”

They weren’t, nor did we have electricity. The storm was over, but I was still waiting.

“We’re still waiting,” he said.

“So we are,” I said. I ate in front of him. I didn’t offer him any.

I let the cats sniff my spoon. They did not eat any.

“You’re practically feral at that point,” my mother said.

“You’re not dead,” I said.

“The dead are easier to be haunted by. Anything we say might be something that you want to say to me, but can’t. That will occur to you in the future.”

She was right.

“I know I’m right,” she said. The first time one of them responded to my unsaid thoughts.

To ignore them was to ignore my own mind. There was silence from all of them with this revelation.

The cold white world provided no supplement. All life beneath the placid surface. Death which would not be found in nooks and crannies picked by animals that had wanted nothing more than to survive the storm.

Inside was the home where I did the same. The dead man in the corner. The ghosts dissipated. Silent cats padding along, searching in corners for food until I would give them some.

I looked up as if I was a small animal waiting for food to be delivered. Rather than becoming accustomed to the quiet, it grew. It seeped in through my eyes, nose, mouth and ears. It exploded in my mind.

They all came back again.

“If you had wanted me more, I would have lived,” Amelia said, though she was a baby now. Too young to be talking.

“See, even she agrees,” Nick said.

“It might be for the best,” Boots said. “You can’t even feed your animals on time.”

I got my coat.

“Plus, it seems awful, this predicament you’re in,” my mother said. “But with the grades you got and your basic looks, this may be as good as it gets for you. Although you do need to find another man, as soon as you can. And for the love of God, keep the baby alive this time.”

I got my boots and snowshoes.

I opened the door to the outside. Snow piled in. I would have to dig my way out. They would talk to me the whole time. They were talking as the snow fell in.

“Great, now we’re all going to die,” Mittens said.

“I don’t mind,” Nick said. “It will preserve me. In certain cultures, you would have been expected to throw yourself on my pyre in mourning. This works, though.”

“What kind of mother are you?” Amelia said.

“The kind that would kill her own mother,” my mother said.

“You’re not even here,” I said.

I went up the ladder to the loft. I looked out the window. The drop was about six feet from the sill. How bad it would be would depend on the density of the snow.

“If I was here, you’d find a way to kill me,” my mother said.

The drop would be fine. I emptied the cash out of Nick’s wallet and put it in my own.

“Now you’re robbing me,” he said. “My mom was right.”

His mom was always so nice. What did she say about me?

It was all in my mind.

It wouldn’t stop.

It was all in my mind.

It was all my mind had made out of something.

I lifted one leg and then the other out of the window. I sat on the edge. Only my bottom was still inside. There was no heat to the day. I hopped down. I sunk about a foot into the snow.

I stepped out from the cavity I created, up onto the surface of the snow. Even with the snowshoes I sank into it with every step, but kept walking. They called to me from the window.

Taunts and apologies.

There was no one to hear them.

The world was bright in a way that had to be witnessed. Brightness like that could not be imagined. I would be snow blind the following day, but that was okay. In town they would have been plowing the roads until they couldn’t. They would have started again as soon as possible.

I wouldn’t need to see to take the next bus out of there. I would take it to the next town. To the next town then the next.

Even far into the white that I hoped was the road, I could still hear them yelling from the cabin.pencil

Meredith Lindgren graduated Summa Cum Laude from Metropolitan State University of Denver in Colorado with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing. She has worked as a childcare worker, a radio co-host and currently an appointment setter. When she is not setting appointments, she spends her time talking herself out of secluded cabins in the woods. A previous Three Cheers and a Tiger Winner, her work has appeared in Toasted Cheese Literary Journal and Subprimal Poetry Art. Email: suavegossamer[at]yahoo.com

Mary Claire

Fiction
Mary Ann McSweeny


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

My brother-in-law John is a funeral director. When he calls me about a new case, as he did this morning, he always goes right to the point. “We’ve got a baby. Mary Claire Stewart. Died during open heart surgery.”

“Ohh,” I said. “How sad.”

“Marie and Greg Stewart are the parents. Marie is the daughter of René and Odile LaFleur. LaFleur’s Jewelry Store. Do you know the family?”

“Marie… and Mary Claire. Yes. Yes, I think I do. I met Mary Claire and her mother a few weeks ago.”

In a supermarket bathroom.

“What a beautiful baby,” I had said, admiring the baby in the carrier. “Look at those rosy cheeks. What’s her name?”

“Mary Claire,” her mother said, proud and delighted. “She looks healthy, doesn’t she? But she has a problem with her heart. Can you believe the doctor wanted me to have an abortion? He said she wouldn’t live to grow up. Even my husband pressured me to have the abortion. But I said, ‘She’s my baby. I love her. I won’t give up on her.’” She smiled at her tiny daughter and touched the pink cheek with a gentle fingertip. Then she looked at me. Her eyes widened and darkened. “She’s having surgery in a few weeks. There’s a hole in her heart.”

I am accustomed to people confiding in me, although not usually in a public bathroom, but this outpouring seemed to wash away my intelligence. I managed to say, “I’ll pray for you.”

Her smile took the shadow out of her eyes. “Thank you,” she said. She whirled out of the bathroom with her baby. I hoped and prayed her love would heal that hole in Mary Claire’s heart.

John said, “I’m meeting with the family at ten o’clock. Do you want to be there?”

I don’t usually sit in on arrangements, but meet later with the family to plan the funeral service and provide grief support. But I thought I heard a plea for my presence in John’s invitation. “Sure,” I said.

Since my husband Mike died, John has rented me the apartment over the funeral home, so it was a quick walk to work that sad morning. Marie was no longer shining with hope. Her hair was tightly drawn into a messy top-knot, her makeup a valiant attempt at normalcy. She sat on a couch next to her husband, an athletic-looking young man, arms firmly crossed, legs spread wide, remote, sulky. Her mother sat close to her on the other side and kept touching her shoulder, arm, leg as if to be sure her daughter was safe. There were two opinionated aunts and Marie’s father, lanky, sharp-nosed, bald-with-fringe, who looked as if he were prepared to keep expenditures in check.

Except John never charges for a baby’s funeral.

I stayed unobtrusive while they decided on the tiny casket lined with pink velvet. Marie wanted a wake, but her husband said an immovable no. Marie insisted on a two-hour period before the funeral mass for people to pay their respects. Her husband’s mouth tightened into a lipless line. He moved to the window, his hostile back turned to the room. Marie’s mother clucked and the aunts raised their eyebrows. Marie’s father asked about limousines. The aunts put their attention back on the prayer card book. They favored the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Marie and her mother preferred the Guardian Angel.

“Could we put her picture on the other side?” Marie asked.

John nodded and made a note.

“The one with the pink bow around her head?” That was Marie’s mother.

“Oh, no, no, the one in the car seat where she looks like she’s waving,” one aunt said.

Marie shook her head. “I was thinking of the one—”

“—in her Baptism dress,” the other aunt finished. She and Marie exchanged nods and trembling smiles.

Marie’s husband looked over his shoulder at the group. Silence descended. The family stared at him. Marie made a small gesture, an invitation, a plea. He turned back to the window. She took a breath.

“And I want the passage where Jesus says let the little children come to me…” Her voice failed and tears leaked. One of the aunts pulled out a packet of Puffs and handed it to her.

“I’ll be in the car.”

A sigh flitted through the family as the door slammed behind Greg.

Les Anglais,” said Marie’s mother with an eye roll.

The aunt who had favored the car seat photograph pursed her lips. “His mother hasn’t even shown up yet. No feelings.”

“Of course she has feelings. So does poor Greg. They just can’t talk about anything important. They stuff all the real stuff.” Marie’s mother sounded New Age knowledgeable.

John cleared his throat and gathered the papers together. “I think I have everything for the moment. I’ll write the obituary and email it to you before I submit it to the papers. Penny—” He nodded at me. “—will help you with the details of the liturgy: readings, hymns, who you want for readers, that kind of thing.”

We arranged an appointment for the early afternoon to give them some time to think about their choices, and then the bereft group drifted out the door, down the walk to the car, talking, gesturing, touching, with Marie protectively flanked. Greg’s stern profile and the stiff set of his shoulders were just discernible through the car window.

“I give that marriage six months,” John said.

“You think?”

He ducked his head and got busy putting the papers in a file folder. “You ever want to talk about Mike?”

“What? Where did that come from?”

“Speaking of stuffing,” he said with that bold grin he thinks is charming.

“I’ll let you know what they decide for the liturgy.” And I went back to my apartment.

pencil

Mary Ann McSweeny holds an MFA from Fairfield University. Her work has been published in The Merrimack Review, Highlights for Children, Queen of All Hearts, and Pastoral Life. She is the co-author of a series of spiritual meditation books published by Liguori Publications. “Mary Claire” was inspired by a true story. Email: mamcsweeny[at]verizon.net

Fathers

Fiction
Amanda DeNatale


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

When I was eight years old I saw my father for the last time. Mom and I had dinner with him in our old town in Kansas. We were there visiting some of Mom’s friends, and met my father at Hal’s for a bite. A yellow light hung in the air of the dimly lit bar, and wood paneling raced around all four walls. Mom said she used to work there when I was little, but I didn’t remember.

At dinner, my dad told me he was going on another long vacation soon, so he wouldn’t be able to be in contact with us. At this age I remember realizing that vacation was another term for his bullshit excuses, or some trouble he was in with the law. I remember watching mom pat her bottom lip with her fingernails, a habit she’s always had when she’s nervous. We ate our mediocre cheeseburgers and said goodbye.

I hugged my father around the waist—he was so tall then—and he patted me on the head and said, “I love you, kiddo. You always remember that.” I’ve thought about his words a lot over the years, before deciding, they too, were bullshit.

When we drove by the little house where we used to live, I remember feeling a wave of familiarity, but no concrete details. There was a little red wagon in the yard, and a few pink flowers planted below the front windows. I remember seeing Mom cringe a little. It looked like it could have been a decent home once, but the one we lived in now was much nicer.

Eight years later, double the age when I last saw him, and I still haven’t heard from him. I took one last pull and tossed my cigarette to the curb. I could see Mike walking down the sidewalk. I ran my hand over my shaved head. Mike’s curly brown hair that hung to his shoulders—a huge hit with the ladies—made him easy to spot from a distance. I pulled my notebook out of my back pocket and recorded the blood sugar level that appeared on the insulin pump clipped to the belt loop of my jeans. I pressed the button to inject the bolus I would need for lunch, and returned my notebook to my back pocket. Everything was normal.

Mike and I were meeting our girlfriends, Hayley and Leah, for a double. They were sisters. We were cousins. Hayley, Mike, and I were all juniors at Ridgedale High, and Leah was a sophomore. Hayley and I had caught Mike and Leah making out in her backyard one day. Mike and Leah had started dating, officially, a few weeks later, and the four of us had become nearly inseparable.

“Hey man,” Mike said when he was close enough. He was glaring at his phone.

“What’s up?” I asked.

He let out a huge sigh. “Leah said she wants to talk or something, so it looks like we are not going to lunch anymore.”

“Weird.” I double-checked my phone to be sure. “Hayley hasn’t said anything about it.”

“Why do we always need to ‘talk,’” Mike groaned. He started sulking in the direction of the Jacobsons’ house.

I slapped him on the back and laughed. Girls.

He shoved me back.

“Oh yeah, I have something for you.” Mike slid a picture out from the side pocket of his cargo shorts.

It was a picture of both of our families together, in some sort of cabin with a log backdrop. Mike and I looked barely two. Uncle Ron and Aunt Katie were kneeling next to a little kid that must have been Mike. Ron was patting down his curly fro, and Katie was straightening his tie. Aunt Katie and Mom looked even more identical than they do now. Next to them, I rested on my dad’s hip with my arms hugging his neck. Mom had her arms wrapped around his waist and her head leaned on his chest. Her eyes were closed. She looked peaceful, happy even. Everyone looked so young. I had a sudden urge to crumple it up and throw it in the street.

“I wonder where they took it,” I said. I had stopped walking to take in the full picture, still holding it delicately between my fingertips.

“My mom made me help her clean out the basement yesterday. We found it, and she said it was from a vacation they all took to a cabin my dad’s company owned.” Mike shrugged. “I thought you might like it.”

He knew I didn’t have many pictures of my father. “Cool, thanks.” I wanted to say more, but I had no idea what.

“I like how it’s candid, you know, we can see them un-posed—exposed.” He pretended to take a picture of me looking at the picture. I rolled my eyes. Mike could thrive on dramatics. I slid the picture carefully into my pocket.

When we got to the Jacobsons’, I knocked on the door of their large two-story, and we waited. Mike lingered slightly behind me. I looked back at him and mouthed, “Good luck.” He cracked a little smile and pushed me forward as Hayley opened the door.

“Hey guys,” she said. She smiled at me and leaned forward to kiss me on the cheek. “Leah’s waiting for you in the living room, Mike. Let’s go.” She dragged me quickly down the front walk towards her Old Malibu, while Mike closed the door behind him.

I felt lucky with Hayley. Her milky brown hair hung down to the top of her jeans, and she had a way of talking that made you never want to stop listening. I knew her parents thought I was trouble, but I had realized a long time ago that girls’ parents rarely trusted boys over the age of twelve.

Hayley seemed nervous after we settled into the car, and then suddenly her eyes were wide and panicked. She tried to smile at me, but her faced looked pained. I grabbed her hand that rested on the gearshift and kissed it.

“What’s up?” I asked. Our hands rested, intertwined, next to the shift. She opened her mouth, but said nothing. What was she afraid to tell me? I squeezed her hand.

“Well,” she started. Her forehead scrunched up and she started to sob.

Was she going to break up with me? Was it something I did? I stumbled over my words. “What—what’s wrong?”

“Just everything,” she said. I pulled her into a hug. I wondered if she could hear my heart racing.

“Tell me about it, you can tell me anything.” I swallowed. I tried to be earnest, but I was terrified.

She mumbled something into my chest and I heard the word pregnant. My stomach dropped, and I could feel a cold trickle down my spine. “What?” My voice had become hoarse. Images popped into my head—a baby, a pregnant Hayley, Mom sitting at the table with her head in her hands, disappointed.

She stopped crying for a second and looked up at me with her eyes wide. “Leah’s pregnant, and she hasn’t told our parents yet.” Hayley broke into more sobs in my arms.

Part of me felt relieved, but I was still tense. Poor Mike. Leah must be telling him right now. We were only teenagers. Leah was only a sophomore. Mike was my best friend, my family. Wow. He must be terrified. Aunt Katie and Uncle Ron would flip, and probably my mom too. The four of us hung out way too often for Hayley and me to be left out of this.

“So she’s telling him now, I guess?” I looked over my shoulder at their red front door.

She nodded and her gaze focused bleakly behind me.

“Wow—just wow—Mike and Leah and a baby.”

Hayley shook her head. “I just want everything to be okay.”

“Me too.” I looked hard into her golden brown eyes and wished for the best possible outcome—whatever that could be. “Why don’t we get lunch to go and head to Helena to detox?” I pulled a small joint out from my cigarette carton, and wiggled it between my fingers. Helena was a large lake that was enclosed by a huge park, just outside of our subdivision. There were tons of places to sneak off to there.

“Gotta make sure we feed Panky there first.” She smiled weakly. Hayley had named my insulin pump Panky, since it was a replacement for my pancreas. It was cute that she was so understanding. I think that’s why my mom liked her so much.

As we drove away, the sun seemed too bright overhead.

*

Hayley and I lay together on the green-checkered blanket she kept in the trunk of her car for occasions like today. Our legs intertwined, and her head rested on my chest. We held each other close as the weight of the news about Mike and Leah pressed down upon us. The warmth of the sun seemed to weld us closer, and the haze of the afternoon lulled us into a phase of comfort—at least we had each other.

We had been lying there for at least an hour when our phones buzzed simultaneously.

Leah was calling Hayley in hysterics because Mike had freaked out about the pregnancy—naturally, I thought.

Mike had texted me that he and Leah had broken up, but nothing else. I offered to meet with him later to talk things over. They couldn’t just be ‘broken up.’ Mike was stupid to think that was an option. I wasn’t really surprised by his reaction though, he could be a hot head—and was great at overreacting. Maybe I could talk him into a more reasonable state.

Hayley dropped me off at home, but we were going to meet up by the docks later. I would talk to Mike there, and she would talk to Leah at home. I leaned over to kiss her goodbye through the driver side window and squeezed her shoulders. “Everything will be okay.” It had to be.

“Okay, I’ll see you then.” She took a deep breath and nodded. She closed her eyes for a moment then said, “I—just don’t know what I’d do without you.” Her eyes had a sparkle to them and I felt my stomach turn over. I loved this girl, even if I couldn’t tell her yet.

She drove away, and I lit a cigarette. I thought about what I would say to Mike. We had agreed to meet down by our old spot at seven. It was the place we had always fled to as kids to escape the rules of our parents. Our dock was partially enclosed by a cove of trees, and not many park goers ever looked beyond them. As kids we would race there and see who could throw the biggest things into the lake. Once we heaved a huge boulder over the wood railing. You could still see the top if you looked closely. It was perfect for childhood or teenage delinquency. We liked to call ourselves delinquents—it felt edgy and exclusive, although the most that ever went down there now were a few beers or a joint or two.

I tossed my cigarette butt into the street and headed inside. Mom’s Honda was in the driveway, so I knew she was home. I wondered if she knew about Mike and Leah yet.

She was in the kitchen sitting on a stool at the counter. She stared at her phone that she cradled with both hands. Her blonde hair was tied up into a ponytail, and she was still wearing her maroon scrubs from work.

“Hey, Mom.” I opened the fridge and poured myself a glass of OJ. I figured she had just gotten off the phone with Aunt Katie, but I was going to let it lie until she brought it up.

She looked up and smiled, but then both corners of her mouth drooped downward. She definitely knew, and she was definitely upset, but I had to play it casual. “So how was work?”

She sighed, and then looked at me like she was calculating something. “Just the same old thing.”

I nodded, took a slow drink of my OJ, and tried to lean casually against the counter across from her. She did medical coding and billing for some small company. They paid her well there.

“Cade,” she said, standing. She started pacing back and forth, and crossed her arms. “There’s something we need to talk about.”

She set her phone down on the counter, screen down. I nodded and waited for her to go on about safe sex and mature relationships, like she had a few times before.

“Your father just called.” She paused and looked up at me. Her forehead was wrinkled with concern. She ran her hand over her head and down the length of her ponytail. “He’s going to be driving through here in a few days. Wednesday, specifically.”

I stiffened. “And?” I turned away from her and braced myself on the lip of the counter.

“He asked if he could see you. I told him it was up to you—you’re old enough to make your own decisions now.” She pursed her lips and continued pacing and shaking her head. I could tell she was pissed too—but there was something else there.

“It’s been eight years, and now he wants to see me?” I was fuming. Who did he think he was anyway? Waltzing into our lives now? We’re doing just fine—thank you for nothing.

“I know it’s tough, but this may be an opportunity—”

“For what, Mom? For what? What the hell does he even want?” I pressed my palms over my eyes.

“Cade,” she said, stern. She had closed the gap between us. “This is an opportunity for you.”

“To do what?” I snorted. I could feel a stinging rising behind my eyes, and dropped my hands hard to my sides.

“Whatever you want to do.” She looked me right in the eyes, and grabbed my arm tightly.

“What if I don’t want to see him?” I challenged her. I couldn’t tell if this was one of those “make your own decisions, but make sure you choose the right one,” type of situations.

“Then don’t see him.” She released my arm. She seemed so conflicted—I couldn’t read her. “But know that not everyone gets a chance like this.”

I could tell she was trying hard not to sway my opinion one way or the other. She never talked much about my dad—only if I had questions. I could tell he’d hurt her pretty bad.

“You’re right, not everyone has a deadbeat father come knocking, asking you to choose to meet with him or not.” What a prick. I should ask him where he ‘vacationed’ for the last eight years while mom worked her ass off to go to school, work, and provide for us. Dickhead. I turned away from her, shaking my head.

She placed her hand firmly on my shoulder. I could feel the tension radiating from her body. “Just let me know by Tuesday what you decide, and I’ll call and let him know either way.”

“I have to go meet Mike at the dock at seven.” I turned toward her and tried to walk past, but she stopped me.

“Cade, wait.” She folded her arms around me. “I love you, buddy.”

Her hug made me catch my breath. I could feel her hesitation and her sadness about the whole thing. I knew that she wished it had never come to this with my dad.

“I love you, too, Mom.” I sighed and rested my head on top of hers. “Thanks for telling me.”

“Of course,” she said. I thought I heard her sniffle a little, but I had never seen her cry before. “Now get on. Don’t make Mike wait on you too long.”

“Right,” I said. She definitely didn’t know about Mike and Leah yet. I could feel a headache coming on as I left toward the docks to meet Mike.

*

It was about a ten-minute walk to the dock from my house, and by the time I got there, the sun was nestled on the horizon. Everything had an orange tint to it, and the trees seemed almost black in the lighting. I could see the slouched figure of Mike leaning over the dock. I had tried to clear my head of my father on the walk over, but I couldn’t shake it completely. This needed to be about Mike and Leah.

“Hey man.” I walked up and patted him heavy on the back.

“What’s up?” Mike was drunk. He burped. “Want a beer, dude?”

“Uh sure, man.” Damn. I wasn’t surprised, but I really wasn’t in the mood to deal with this shit.

He passed me a PBR tallboy. I cracked it open and took a sip.

“Remember that time we dug that huge hole in your mom’s backyard?” Mike asked. He hadn’t looked away from the lake. The wind was blowing mini rips of water into the dock.

“Yeah.” I laughed. “Our underground fort.” We had spent one summer when we were kids digging a hole in my backyard. I think it ended up being about four feet deep by the end of it. We had been obsessed with the Ninja Turtles that summer. We had even sculpted footholds in the walls and made a small dirt couch to sit on. We kept a piece of wood over the top to hide it.

“Your mom was so pissed.” Mike smiled for a second, and then his face was blank.

I laughed and took a sip of the beer. The orange sun sank lower.

“So, Leah’s pregnant,” he offered.

“I know.” I took a deep breath and leaned on the rotting wooden railing next to him.

“I broke up with her,” he said, in a challenging way. “Can’t be mine.”

“Uh, you think it’s not?” This was not what I was expecting. Of course it was Mike’s. They had been dating for six months and doing it for five, a fact that Mike had been very open with me about. Leah wasn’t the type of girl who got around.

“Can’t be, we wrapped it every time, man.” He shrugged, smashed his empty PBR can on the railing, and chucked it into the lake.

I was silent. I knew that Leah had not cheated on him, but I didn’t think this was really a time for an “accidents happen” lecture.

“Fuckin’ bitch,” he mumbled, cracking open another beer.

“Come on, man. I don’t think she’d make this up.” I tried to sound neutral, but anger was starting to creep into my voice. My headache was really starting to pound.

“Well, I’m not fucking falling for it. She’s not going to trap me with some ‘pregnancy’ bullshit.” His words slurred together.

I snorted. “Mike, she’s fifteen, I don’t think she wants to marry you or anything. She’s scared, too.”

“What do you fucking know, man? Huh?” He shoved my chest and I dropped my beer. It hissed and spewed at our feet. I felt anger curl around my chest like a snake.

My head was still throbbing. “Listen, I don’t—”

“Of course you side with her, Mama’s boy.”

Rage flooded my body to every extremity. “Mike,” I tried to say calmly, but it came out a growl. “I know this is hard—” I grabbed his shoulder.

“You don’t fucking know anything, Cade!” He pushed me again.

I didn’t know anything? Me? The mama’s boy, the fatherless kid, and I don’t know anything? He was going to abandon Leah, just like my dad had my mom.

“I don’t know?” I yelled at him. “There is a baby and he deserves to have a father, Mike, goddammit.” I gripped his arm tighter.

Mike decked me in the face with his free hand. It felt like a rock smashing into my eye socket. I swung back, and connected with his jaw. Strings of pain shot down my wrist.

“This kid did nothing to deserve this!” I shouted. We wrestled our way to the ground.

“You don’t know anything about my life, dickhead.”

“Fuck you.” I pressed my arm hard over his chest.

He wiggled underneath it. I didn’t know? Mike was the dickhead. My father was the dickhead. How could Mike, my best friend, be acting like him?

I felt a splitting pain in my side and cried out. Mike must have raised his leg and kneed me in the side. I couldn’t breathe.

Mike scrambled to his feet. “Don’t come around anymore, Cade. I’m done talking about this. Fuck.”

I grabbed at his ankle. He kicked me again in the stomach, and I wheezed. I needed help. My pump, the injection site was on my side, he must have kicked it. “Mike.” I tried to say his name but nothing came out. I could feel the thud of each step as he ran off. I tried to sit up, but I couldn’t catch my breath. I coughed, reached for my phone, and dialed Hayley. I heard the ringing, but still couldn’t speak. Heat rushed to my head, and all I could see were images of Mike and my father, and the two of them morphing into one. No answer.

“Cade! Cade!” I heard a warped voice. I was shaking. No, someone was shaking me. I opened my eyes and saw a dark blur surrounded by white baubles like a halo. I tried to speak, but all I could do was close my eyes. “Oh God,” I heard. I think it was Hayley.

*

“Cade,” I heard. “He’s awake, Jen. His eyes are open.” Someone shouted this.

I immediately smelled hospital. My body ached everywhere, like a workout gone wrong.

“Cade, I’m here. Your mom is here,” Hayley said. She was holding my left hand. My right, I noticed, was in a cast.

My eyes opened and closed a few times before I was really awake. My mom came running into the room.

“Hayley, will you go get the nurse, please? I want her to check on him.” Hayley’s eyes were red around the rims, and so were Mom’s. She patted Hayley on the shoulder, and Hayley squeezed my hand before leaving the room. It was like someone else had been driving for the past few hours, and I was just along for the ride.

What happened?” I asked. “Where’s Mike?”

“Hayley found you on the dock like this, and called 911,” Mom said. “Was Mike with you? They can’t find him.” Her voice was full of concern. She pinched the bridge of her nose, and looked at me again. I could see tears brimming in her eyes.

“Mom,” I said. I didn’t want her to cry.

“Who did this to you boys? Did someone take Mike?” she pressed. None of them knew what had happened.

I looked away. Mike did this, I wanted to say. “No, he was there, and we kinda just got into a fight.” I shrugged.

Mom’s mouth hung open. “Did he do this?”

“I didn’t help,” I said. “We got into a fight, and—” I paused. I could see the anger flaring up in Mom’s eyes.

“And what? Where did he go?”

“It’s not all his fault, “ I said, feeling guilty. He had been wasted when I got there, and I had been heated over everything with my dad.

“So he left you there?”

“He didn’t know,” I said. “I said some stuff too.”

“You could have died, Cade.” She started to cry for real.

My nose started to tingle and I could feel my own tears well up, just looking at her. I had never seen her like this before. “Its okay, Mom. I’m okay now. Everything’s okay.” I squeezed her hand.

“I know, I just.” She took a deep breath, calming herself. She shook her head, and looked at me sternly. “No more fights, ever.”

“Promise,” I said.

“So you don’t know where Mike is?” she asked. Her brow creased.

“No, he just told me to leave him alone and walked off,” I said.

“He didn’t say where he was going?” She took out her phone and pulled up a text with someone.

I shook my head. Where could he have gone? I shouldn’t have overreacted. I couldn’t believe that Mike would actually try to run away. I hoped he hadn’t passed out somewhere like I did.

“They can’t find him anywhere I guess. Katie is a mess of course,” she said. “And Leah’s pregnant.” She looked behind her at the door.

“Hayley already knows,” I said. “That’s why I went out there to talk to him. He was pretty upset.” I didn’t want them to think Mike was the bad guy here. We were both just pissed and got into a stupid fight.

“She was the one that told me.” Mom looked preoccupied. Everything was starting to feel a little weird. I could tell there was something she was keeping from me. I couldn’t believe Mike had run away.

“Everything okay?” I asked. Mom looked at the door again. “Waiting for someone?”

“Cade.” She looked at me wide-eyed. “I’m sorry, I just couldn’t not call him since you were in the hospital. It didn’t look good for a minute there, and I couldn’t—”

“Mom, what?”

My father walked into the room.

“Cade,” he said. His voice was deeper than I remembered. His eyes were blood-shot, and he’d definitely been crying. He was older-looking than the last time I saw him. Definitely older than the picture—I glanced quickly at my jeans that were splayed on a chair next to me. Gray hairs littered the edges of his beard, and his hairline was receding a little. He had also gained a few pounds in the stomach. It had been eight years, I guess. We looked to be about the same height now.

I looked away. I was pissed, but a part of me was happy he showed up, and that part pissed me off more.

Then Hayley walked in with the nurse, and she asked everyone to leave. They all looked at me as they walked out the door. Hayley with a wary smile. Mom looking guilty—I didn’t blame her. My Dad looking scared. I was relieved to be alone for at least a moment.

The nurse checked my injection site and a few other vitals. I snatched my jeans from the chair, and dug through the pockets. The picture was still there. It was a little crinkled and folded around the edges. I stared at my father, my family. I felt so disconnected. He looked so happy. I couldn’t remember the feeling of the love in this photo. The nurse left. I hid the picture under my crumpled jeans and crossed my arms. There was a knock on the door.

“Can we talk?” My father poked his head into the room.

I nodded and he walked in slowly and took a seat in the chair next to my bed. We were both silent. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair. It seemed like he was trying to make himself smaller.

“So,” I said, finally breaking the silence.

“How are you feeling?” he asked me. His voice was deep, but quiet.

I shrugged. “Fine.” He was the one that wanted to talk. Start talking, I thought.

“I—” he began. “I’m sorry.” He looked down at his feet.

“Okay.” My voice rang with annoyance.

Then, my father looked up at me and started to cry. His sobs were deep. He folded forward, cradling his head between his hands.

I stared at him, shocked. It felt like someone had dumped a cold bucket of water down my back. “I—” My voice was dry.

He looked up at me. I could see that his hands were shaking where he clutched them together in his lap.

“Can I show you something?” I asked, scrambling to pull the picture out from under my jeans.

He nodded. “Of course, anything.” He leaned forward, and looked me right in the eyes. His were the same light brown as mine.

I could feel tears sting the corners of my eyes. “Mike found this picture.” I held it out for him to see. “Our family,” I mumbled.

His eyes grew wide, and he stood and hugged me over the bed. I remained still at first, and then sank into it. He smelled like stale coffee and clean laundry.

pencil

Amanda DeNatale is an alumna of Creighton University’s MFA program where she served as the nonfiction editor for Blue River. She is currently a junior editor for F(r)iction. Amanda is a writer by day and a waitress by night. She is a St. Louis native, currently residing in Omaha, Nebraska with her cats Lady and Booger. Email: AMD34342[at]gmail.com

Mars

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Anila Syed


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

“They used to put us to sleep for this you know!” the man says, jovially.

Elin does not like him. His breath smells of fish and his eyes look scared. She shrugs and moves away from him, to look out of the window at the unremarkable grey dawn.

The man shrugs, too, and directs his attention to the passenger on his right. “They used to put us to sleep for this, in the olden days,” he says, cheerfully.

The elderly woman jumps at the sudden sound, but they start to make stilted small talk.

This is not Elin’s first trip in a planetary shuttle. She was brought here from Mars twenty-six years ago, but obviously doesn’t remember that trip she made as a baby.

The man is thin and, unusually, wears dark clothes—against current trends. He has not shaved and is not even fluid enough to use permanent depilation. Elin is not planning on any interaction with her fellow passengers anyway.

The shuttle is tiny. Hardly the luxury liner she dreamt of when her company first told her about this trip. Trust Goo to provide an economy trip all the way to Mars. Her employers need someone to investigate the recent spate of terror which is sweeping the colonisation efforts. Idiot, demented, backward, mentally-challenged—however you like to see them—people, usually in their fifties and sixties, have started to disrupt the huge Starliners which take thousands of people off Earth to begin a new life on Mars.

‘Disrupt’ is such a strange word. It could mean ‘interrupt’ or it could mean, as in this case, ‘kill thousands of innocent individuals by blowing yourself up like some kind of uber drama queen.’ Elin cast that in her blog last week. She is proud of the wording and got nearly fifty-thousand upvotes for it. More upvotes equals more credits. Credits are what control your life, especially if you are a lifer.

She adjusts the camera and checks to see that her thoughts are being cast. Lifetime bloggers give up a “normal” private existence to broadcast their every waking thought to millions of adoring fans. Except the fan pool is shrinking by the day, as more and more people climb aboard the bandwagon.

Elin is Totally Connected—thanks to her employers—it’s not cheap. She is a Hot Spot and can broadcast live video and sound, and her surface thoughts are collated and sent to an editor at Goo headquarters. The editors don’t exactly change her content, but they make sure that she is not presented in a bad way. She is a valuable asset—until the next one comes along.

The man and woman, her neighbour passengers, have quietened down, finally. He is listening to headphones now and she has her eyes closed. He is listening to headphones. He had some in his bag and has plugged them into his seat somewhere. Elin nearly bursts out laughing, but decides to start sending an extremely long thought-stream to her cloud about how she has only ever seen headphones in old clips (bit of an exaggeration to be honest) and how even though the woman looks older than the man, at least she has a trans-spot in her neck. At least she is moving with the times. Go Grandma!

Elin glances at them and takes a couple of quick snaps for her blog.

The disruption is a strange thing really. Terrorist activity. Fundamental Remainers who don’t like to see human beings colonising other worlds. They believe in the sanctity of human creation—a woman who was trending last week said that she would rather see everyone dead than to go against God’s plan. She was just a saddo ranting against a Colonise Mars badge some kid was wearing on the AirBus. That story went viral in 5.2 hours.

But the main problem is, these nut jobs could be anyone, anywhere. No one really knows how to find them until they turn up with a big bucket of something and set it on fire—still the easiest way to kill people these days.

Some days Elin feels like she has ‘shock fatigue.’ It seems like every day there’s something—some old loony being caught or some sweet-looking old dear having her house raided. What won’t these guys do to stop us? There are traffic checkpoints everywhere. It has taken her nearly a week to get past Starport security. Her internal hard drive was checked for suspicious activity and her cortex was deep scanned for stray thoughts. We haven’t been blown up, yet at least, so everyone here must have passed the scans.

At one point last week, everyone over fifty had all their cameras permanently switched on—for every device they own. They now have no privacy in anything they do. Good. Any one of them might be plotting a terror attack. Actually, a thought strikes her, both of the people next to her must have their cameras activated. In fact, a quick look at everyone in the waiting lounge showed her that at least twenty percent of the people on board must be over fifty. It’s easy to tell, even with the rejuvenating treatments. Actually, easier to tell because of the rejuvenating products. That’s a bit too sarcastic for her. Elin guesses that will be edited out later.

“So, why are you going to Mars?” There’s a quick waft of fish and Elin turns to see the thin man peering at her. She’s jolted back from her thoughts. A little number in the bottom right of her screen tells her that around 35,000 people are watching her live feed. Some have started adding the little hearts already.

While her thoughts are carefully filtered, IRL she is trained to maintain brand @Elin. With so many watching, Elin has no option but to engage.

“Like, I’m off to go on a big explore!” she exclaims in her @Elin voice. “So many of my peeps can’t go to the, like, wonderful places I do, so I get to experience it all for them.”

“Oh!” The seated man’s eyes are metaphorically looking for the exits. “That’s great.”

[In reality, Goo are sending Elin so that her followers, who have quite a young demographic, can experience the direct fear related to interplanetary travel and terrorist activity. No one watches fiction anymore. This is the new way that the masses are fed their opioids. They’ve promised many credits, just for going—plus credits for upvotes.]

A red notice appears in the middle of her vision, flashes twice and fades away.

ASK HIM WHY HE IS GOING.

Without rolling her eyes, Elin politely says, “So, like, how ‘bout you?”

“I’ve been offered a job,” he says. “I’m going out to help run the ecodomes, you know, maintain an ecologically thermically-sound environment for all the residents, both new and existing.”

The man hasn’t even noticed that Elin has stopped listening. She’s actually been playing a viral clip about a kitten who gets wrapped in a ball of wool. The little fluffy grey kitten stares out of the wool carnage so innocently.

“…so it’s the pressure that makes it a harder job.”

Elin giggles at the kitten, but mentally crosses the man off the terrorist list. He is way too boring to be one. During the man’s explanation, twenty-thousand viewers switched her off. Six thousand new ones joined, but then they left, some sending her a puzzled emoji.

He has obviously stopped talking, so she turns her attention back to the window where the rocket is now ready for lift off.

They are very protected from their thunderous escape from the Earth. It’s surreal to watch the rocket’s storm blowing around outside their pod, while they sit shielded and serene within.

At least there have been no signs of terror on this rocket. Elin does not realise the release of tension would be so palpable. She can feel the blood begin to flow back into her arms and legs as her muscles relax. She is leaving Earth. She waits for an emotion, but nothing appears. Should she feel sad? Exulted? Mars is her place of birth. She is leaving Earth and going home. Her parents came back long ago. They were among the first pioneers, but after nearly three decades, they had decided it was not for them.

The passengers are allowed to feel a few moments of weightlessness before the anti-grav is switched on. It feels unpleasantly like being drunk. The famous sketch of the quote begins to play in her vision. Her cortex is scrabbling around to find things to calm her down. Or it could be her editors, who also monitor her vital signs, who are sending her comedy clips and little kittens being cute.

Oh no! Home videos have been dredged up from the beginning of her internal hard drive. Yellow alert! she thinks, jokingly, while watching a young Elin trying to drench her older brother with a garden hose.

The thin man, Mr. Boring, has nodded off, or passed out, or something. His elbow has spread over to her seat. Curse you, Goo and your Economy travel. They reason that the followers will feel more of a connection to their Followed if they can be as close to their lives as possible. Gone are the days when only the people with the luxury lifestyles and most beautiful looks became the super mega stars.

Elin pushes the man’s elbow back to his seat and surreptitiously sniffs her hand: fish. He moves, but stays asleep. In snatching a quick snap of the sleeping form with the caption ‘Fish man,’ Elin notices his neighbour—the little old lady—is staring at her quite crossly.

She is mouthing something. It is disconcerting to say the least. The transmission-spot in her neck is flashing like crazy. Her eyes are blue and faded, but shining brightly for all that, gouging circuits into Elin.

What is she saying?

Elin sends emergency msgs to her editors.

YOU GETTING THIS?

CRAZY LADY ALERT.

Her msgs go, but there is no receipt.

It is like the light has leaked from her eyes and is firing into the space around her face. All the while, her mouth moves, noiselessly, wordlessly.

In panic, Elin scrambles for the emergency button. They just showed her this half an hour ago in the safety clip. Where is it?

She tries to shake the man. He is out cold.

Realisation spreads into her brain, slowly, trying all the ports until something understands. People around her are lying unconscious.

“Stop it!” she commands the woman. Her voice is a thin and soft squeak.

“Stop!” She holds her arm up above her face to shield herself from those eyes.

The old woman is a terrorist. It can be anyone around you. At any time they can turn into a devil. There are half a million people watching this now. Elin does not even have this many followers in this diluted gene pool she now inhabits.

KEEP LOOKING AT THE WOMAN

What? This is the command from the editors after all this time and all this danger?

Reluctantly, she lowers her arm.

ASK HER WHAT SHE WANTS

There is a scream in Elin’s throat which won’t move. There may be words behind it, who knows?

But before she can sort out her vocal intentions, the woman’s words become coherent.

“All will die,” she says.

And she keeps repeating it. Over and over. All will die.

Elin’s panic has paralysed her, half with her hand on the sleeping fish man and her other hand, lowered into a clenched fist in her lap.

All will die, all will die, all will die.

She now knows who will die and when. The passenger pod that they are in has been rigged with an atomic weapon. Separating from the rocket will trigger the countdown and by the time they reach Mars’ orbit…

She can feel the information drilling through her firewall. The handhold she has always felt as her editors since she went online feels weak, ephemeral, far away.

All will die. Yes, that’s right. All must die. Elin shakes her head, but this lets the new, upgraded-her establish itself.

Colonisation is a doomed project. Humans have ruined Earth and are now running away, like a kid who breaks a window and runs off. Going to another planet will do the same, and by then, they will spread off-world to another, and another.

No! A faint voice inside her pleads. Please, stop this!

We are strong. We are many. We are the sure-fast holders of the fate of humanity. When you join us, you will see reason. You will be shown the light and you will know.

Elin has read their propaganda, of course she has, but getting it implanted into her brain lets her see the truth for what it is. Of course!

Elin sees her life for what it has been. The little old lady’s eyes have stopped glowing, but instead they look quite red and sore. She has stopped saying, ‘All will die.’

Now she’s saying, ‘You are the one.’

ELIN, YOU ARE THE ONE.

Yes, Elin knows she is the one. She must return to save her home from the infestation of mankind. She is still emitting her life to the hordes watching on earth. There are millions of them now. She starts to get feeds from news stations, hundreds upon hundreds try and fail to hack her input. Her head reels from the sudden onslaught as images appear one after another. When that does not work, news feeds start to send her snippets of the news:

‘The Cosmic Shuttle has been hijacked by a lifer known as @Elin.’

‘The twenty-six-year-old is reported to have been born on the Red Planet and was thought to be going back to visit her homeworld.’

HELP ME!

The tiny part of Elin’s own being is dying. She will be the first casualty in the Cosmic explosion.

Elin can see a miniscule sub-routine has started to spread inside her brain and take over her thinking. In a strange way, she guesses that this sub-routine must have been implanted into her on Mars. It is working its way towards her motor cortex where it will give her further instructions.

Desperately, she tries to strengthen her firewall, using the emergency codes she was taught after her implanting was complete. If she can buy some time, maybe she can—

She can what?

You are the one.

You are the one.

“I’m not the one!” Elin hears her voice screaming. Her throat is raw with the strength of the sound.

“I AM NOT THE ONE!”

She must stand up and go to the nose of the pod. There are no pilots. There is no cabin crew. The pod disengages and is pushed towards Mars. Everyone on this shuttle is going to stay there. Elin will go to the front and place her hand on a small panel situated under the first seat of the pod. From this small action, the countdown will begin.

The human race is useless. They are a cancer, and spreading throughout the solar system will only help to spread the disease.

The news feeds are now showing her people standing in the streets. Someone has made an effigy like a big scarecrow and printed her face and stuck it on. She sees placards with her name flash briefly past.

Thousands will die.

Elin?

The sound is faint, but the strength of the bond makes it heard above all the noise.

Elin comes to her senses and finds that she has been walking along the aisle of the shuttle pod, in a nightmare daze.

Elin, listen to me.

It’s her father. “Elin, your mother and I love you.”

They are using her personal channel. Elin remembers the joking and leg-pulling she got when she had first told them about this personal comms channel that she had asked for. Only her family members had the password.

“We don’t want to see any rude stuff!” her mother had joked.

“Mum!”

“Well, you know, I don’t want to see you asleep, or on the—”

“Mum!”

Blushing all round.

“Elin, can you hear us? Your mother and I love you very much. Whatever it is you’re into, come home, love. Let’s talk it out.”

Tears are streaming down Elin’s face. She can hear sobs leaving her body. She knows she is the trigger for this atom bomb.

Her legs feel like lead.

“Elin, we know this is not you,” her mother says.

“You’ve been hacked. Your boss from Goo is here, Elin. He is going to talk to you, OK?”

“Elin!” Steve sounds strained, like he does when she’s dropped the F-bomb in her livestream and he is trying to stay calm.

“Elin, listen to me, honey, your ratings are through the roof. Keep going—“

But whatever he is about to say is drowned. Elin pictures her father wrestling him to the ground, his large hands over Steve’s rat-like face.

“Elin, I’m going to read from the manual, OK?” Mum’s telephone voice. She is aware of the watching world.

“I’m going to shut you down, OK, honey bun?”

She starts to read out Elin’s emergency shutdown codes. There are so many to get through, but Mum perseveres.

She’s at the end of page one. Elin feels her own will draining from her body. She feels like she has been in a very hot bath and now the water is draining away, leaving her heavy and useless.

Her mother is crying now, as she reads out the final set of codes.

No one. No one has ever been shut down like this before. It took sixteen years to legislate the backdoor codes and fail-safe mechanisms to prevent this kind of man-jacking. But, no one knows what will happen when that last code is read.

“Mummy,” Elin says, with the last of her sentient breath.

“I love you.”

Mum is sobbing: “5… 6… 3… K.”

She finishes reading.

Elin is lying on the floor, arm stretched towards the panel, her fingers reaching for the lock.

pencil

Anila Syed has been writing and reading sci-fi all her life. Email: syedab[at]totalise.co.uk