Union

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Meredith Lindgren


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

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

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

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

It said:

My dearest Sadie,

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

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

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

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

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

Love,

George Goodsell

And that was it.

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

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

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

“But what does it mean?”

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

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

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

“If so you borrowed my suicide.”

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

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

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

“San Francisco. Your least favorite Californian city.”

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

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

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

“You said it would hurt too much.”

“Sure.”

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

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

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

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

His memory was there.

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

“Yet, I’m still here.” He wavered.

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

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

“Yeah,” she said. She let them in.

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

She sat down.

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

It was unaddressed. It said:

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

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

George Goodsell

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

Sadie nodded.

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

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

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

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

“Is this good enough?”

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

“Let me look.”

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

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

“Yeah, sure.”

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

“No,” she said.

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

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

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

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

“Sadie, what are you doing here?”

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

“What people?”

“Finn and Heyduke.”

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

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

He didn’t react.

“There was a suicide note.”

“Maybe you should sit down.”

She sat in George’s chair.

“I’m not surprised,” his boss said.

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

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

“Can I see?” she said.

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

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

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

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

Sadie nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re not dead. You can’t be.”

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

“What? No.”

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

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

He had put the word holiday in his note.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

He waited.

pencil

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

The Ginger Box

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Which one of us?” Dirk asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I decided it was time for some coffee.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, all that remained was that center word.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Piper,

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

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

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

Love you, dear,

Grandma Pat

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

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

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

“Really? I didn’t think so.”

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

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

pencil

Email: rjsnowberger[at]gmail.com

Special Warranty Activated

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Erin McDougall


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

That ‘Everything’ bagel was a mistake.

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

I should have stuck to my regular order.

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

I should have known.

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

But I never seem to learn the lesson.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He looks crestfallen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Special…?” I whisper.

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

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

Special Warranty Activated

*

“You’re late.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get your bearings. Easy does it…

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

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

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

Good… Make him come to you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He cocks his head to one side thoughtfully.

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

Stay in control. You can do this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s so simple…what’s the catch?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pencil

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

Thirteen Cents

Fiction
Bonnie Thompson


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

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

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

“Only the vanilla,” says the clerk.

“What if I take one of the cans out?”

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

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

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

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

“Just thirteen,” she mumbles.

“One-thirteen,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

Lorene shakes her head.

The Pacific Ocean.

Blue waves against the pale sand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” Lorene says.

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lorene looks away.

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can take you.”

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

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

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

“Well, that’s not near at all.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just a mammogram,” Lorene says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That sounds dicey,” Lorene says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shelley’s face crumples.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…take that.”

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

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

My handsome uncle, Lorene thinks. Four times.

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

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

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

Instead of covering up, Lorene attacks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Last Ever Karaoke Night

Fiction
Lanny Durbin


Photo Credit: ernie.ca/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Teddy is perched upon his barstool, mumbling quiet words of encouragement to himself. His lips and tongue go dry again, as they always do when his name is next to be called. He watches the young girl dance in front of the projector, fumbling with verses of “Slide” by the Goo Goo Dolls and singing off key. She doesn’t even have the lyrics memorized, so she’s hamming it up for her two drunken friends cheering her on from the next table. Teddy is irked by these displays and there’s at least three each week. Some of us take this seriously, he thinks, at least pick a song you know for Christ’s sake. Now isn’t the time to get frustrated, so Teddy dismisses the disrespect for now.

Teddy comes to karaoke night here at Boo’s Bar—Boo’s is the tiny sports bar sequestered in the corner of the Strike N’ Spare Lanes bowling alley—every Thursday. Between songs, he listens through the thin glass windows to the soothing thud of bowling balls on the hardwood and the satisfying clash of the pins. He’s not much of a bowler himself, but he appreciates the resolve in picking up a spare. A strike is all skill; a spare is a determination. He feels that’s what he’s doing here. He knows a strike is out of the question, but a spare would do just as well.

He’s soaking it in, as this may be the last time he steps foot into this place.

He saw Jeanie for the first time almost a year ago. He passed her on the front steps of the bowling alley as she was shivering in the cold, having a smoke. He noticed her pale blond hair pulled back into a ponytail and her thin lips around her cigarette. She let out a good-humored chuckle as Teddy pushed the door instead of pulled, bumping into the glass. He shrugged at her and rolled his eyes at himself. Their first and only interaction. He only knows her name is Jeanie because it’s stitched on the lapel of her purple bowling league shirt.

He watches her through the glass of the bar as she rolls with her team of similarly dressed and aged women—cleverly named The Rolling Wallendas—who lack the glow of Jeanie. He’s put together that she’s something of a middling bowler, likely playing for the love of the game. When she gutter balls wide right or when she fails to clean her plate on a spare, she shrugs and playfully blames it on her ill-fitting shoes or a loose board on the lane. When she does roll a good frame or pick up the rare strike, she lets out a whoop and punches the air three times. He feels true love swell up in his throat when she does her dopey little victory dance.

He’s witnessed on more than one occasion, random alley bums—their guts always hanging over their belts in tucked in T-shirts—trying to pick up on Jeanie. He’s appalled by the audacity. He watched a campy action movie recently in which the villain sewed explosives into his victim’s torso. The look on the poor boy’s face just as he realized he was about to blow is similar to the one on his face when he watches these troglodytes hit on Jeanie.

His method is different, bubbling over with his idea of romanticism. He sings to her every week.

She doesn’t know he’s singing to her, but he’s sure it will work. If he keeps trying it’s going to work. When the timing is right it’s going to work. On that perfect night when it’s his turn at the microphone, when those damn buffoons out in the alley have stopped playing on the jukebox, and the rumbling thunder of lanes dies down, it’s going to work. Jeanie will happen to be close enough, or better still, be at the beer window between the bar and the lanes proper buying another pitcher of Coors Light.

He’s tried Springsteen, Tom Petty, Fleetwood Mac. All the great, classic songs of love and yearning. None of them seemed to do the trick. There have been times when Teddy was sure he should hang up his karaoke hat and get over it. The last three weeks have been particularly low. Jeanie appears to have gotten friendly with a tall, bearded man from one of the other teams. Teddy thought of the poor exploding boy’s face from the action movie and said to himself on the dark car ride home last week that tonight would be the night.

In his final try, he’s fittingly chosen Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night.” Teddy has the lyrics down by heart, so he stands in front of the useless projector screen, the words written across his pale, bony cheeks and skinny neck. He adopts an admirably close approximation of Rod’s smoky rasp. His heart and his desire and everything he’s hurting to offer to Jeanie soars out of him with the words and floats through the thick, stale beer air of the bar and drifts out into the lanes.

Teddy’s eyes are closed as the song reaches its end. When he opens them, to scattered applause from the bar’s audience, he glances through the glass to find Jeanie standing with her bowling shoes in her hands.

She’s standing there, her socked feet on the neon-speckled carpet. He’s stared at her through the window on many nights, but this time, she’s staring back at him.

 

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Lanny Durbin lives in Springfield, Illinois, plays in a few bands and drives a Buick. His work has appeared in Flash Fiction Magazine, The Fiction Pool and Every Day Fiction. He can be found on Twitter @LannyDurbin. Email: lannyadurbin[at]gmail.com

Helping Hands Retreat

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Red Lagoe


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

Clouds of dust lifted from the concrete and swirled in the red glow of Sarah’s tail lights as her car crept down the broken pavement leading to the retreat. After an entire day on the road, with a watchful eye on her rearview mirror, she was still not confident that Wade was not following her. Trees and thick shrubbery lined the narrowing road, and a deep ditch on each side made it too difficult to turn around to go back.

As her stomach grumbled and fear of being lost began to creep in, her headlights revealed a chain link fence stretched across the road. The gate was wide open for her to drive through, but she let the car roll to a stop. An aged plank board sign sat off the side of the road with white block letters that read: “Helping Hands Recovery Retreat.”

She released her breath in relief and drove through. The road became gravel and the trees and shrubbery cleared into an open field of weeds, so far as her headlights could see.

A clopping sound came from behind and Sarah pressed on the brake to come to an abrupt stop. It was the sound of galloping hooves. She twisted around in her seat and spotted the silhouette of a large man on horseback. He climbed off his steed and hurried to the gate to close it behind her.

Her heart sped up. She couldn’t see his face, but could feel the icy glare coming from the dark outline of the man as she pulled her car away from him toward the welcoming light of two houses.

As Sarah bounced her focus from the man behind her to the houses in front of her, a paunchy woman in a purple winter coat came from one of the rustic structures and walked up to her car. Sarah rolled down the window.

“Welcome to the Helping Hands Retreat, dear.” She oozed with kindness and gentility.

“I don’t know if I’m in the right place—”

“Of course you are.” Her voice was sugar-sweet and comforting.

“I had a brochure for Helping Hands Retreat, but this doesn’t look like—”

“You need help,” the round-faced woman said. “A chance to get back on your feet. To start over, right?”

“Something like that—” Sarah was on guard and reluctant to trust this woman. She was reluctant to trust anyone.

“That’s what we do, dear. You’re in the right place. Come in. You just missed dinner, but we can get you a room for the night if that might help.” She interlaced her white-gloved fingers and held her hands near her heart.

Sarah, exhausted from an entire day on the road, and needing shelter from Wade for the evening, brushed her skepticism away and accepted the woman’s offer, whether she was in the right place or not. “That would be wonderful,” Sarah said.

“I’m Mary,” the woman smiled.

The premises were not as upscale as they appeared in the brochure, but Sarah didn’t care. Perhaps it looked better in the daylight. She followed the small waddling woman to the steps on a simple rectangular house. Each of the three steps crepitated beneath her feet as she climbed to the entrance.

There was no time to pack a bag when she left home that afternoon, so Sarah arrived at the retreat empty-handed. The cool mid-November air chilled her skin, and reminded her of the bruises that Wade left on her arms. He would find her soon. He always had a way of finding out where she was.

*

Mary left Sarah in room number four, gave her a key to the room, and a welcome package complete with a fresh towel, toothbrush, toiletries, and a set of hat and gloves to keep warm. The package gave her a feeling of indignity—like a homeless person—but that’s what she was now. Eight rooms stretched along one side of the hallway inside, similar to a hotel. On the opposite side of the hall was a shared bathroom and a common room, but all of the guests had retired for the evening. Strange to Sarah, considering it was only seven o’clock, but she was so thankful to be away, that she washed up and retreated to her room for the evening without any questions.

The room was drafty and cold, and the gentle sobbing of a woman could be heard through the wall.

The soft blue glow of moonlight seeped in from behind the curtain of her private room, exposing shadowy lines—bars on the windows. A further peer into the darkness outside the window revealed a large open field fully illuminated by the moon. It was at least thirty acres to the edge of the property where the fence laid. Plenty of room for the horseback riding that she had seen on the brochure.

As she dreamed about her potential new life, she felt it again—an icy stare. Eyes watching her. She tried to shrug it off as paranoia about Wade following her, but it persisted. She closed her curtains and walked barefoot across the creaking wooden floors and froze in the middle of the room. The feeling was still there. From under her right foot, she could feel a gentle upward pressure from underneath the floorboard, then a swift sound of scuffing below. Sarah gasped and jumped to her bed, staring down at the floorboards as the clunking, slithery sound from under her room waned. Her blood pumped through her veins so hard, she felt sick to her stomach.

“Hey!” Sarah said toward the floor then leapt from the safety of her bed to run to the window. A shadow, consistent with the shape of a person, darted out of view around the side of the house.

“Did anyone see that?” Sarah said through the walls, but there was no reply.

Screaming began only a moment later. The deep, throaty voice of a man that sounded like it belonged to a giant, was crackling and crying out from somewhere outside the house.

Sarah shoved her feet into her shoes and left her room, then crept down the empty hallway to the outside door, and gripped the knob. It wouldn’t turn.

“Hello?” She spoke with a firm voice, while she held the door knob within her shaking palm. She shook it harder, but it was locked from the outside.

Sarah backed away from the door as the realization of the surrounding danger kicked in. It was a familiar feeling. It was the feeling she got before Wade would go into a rampage. Her vision would tunnel, her heart would throb harder, and she would become still as she awaited his outburst. But nothing came.

She went back to her room, trembling with fear, and then climbed into the bed awaiting her fate.

*

In the morning, sideways light from the rising sun glared through her window and through the lattice woodwork on the crawlspace beneath the house. She peeked through the cracks of the floorboards to see the dusty brown earth below, and enough room down there for a grown man to crawl underneath.

“Coyotes,” Mary said when Sarah asked her about it, standing in the doorway of her room.

“I didn’t see any paw prints,” Sarah cut herself off from the argument, and jumped to her next concern, hoping to inquire without setting off any red flags. “Mary, is everyone here okay? I thought I heard someone screaming last night.”

“Honey,” she leaned in closer. “I’m not gonna lie. The people that come here have problems. They got demons to work out, and sometimes those demons get the best of them. That’s why we have bars on the windows and such.”

“So there are dangerous people here?” Sarah watched as those people passed by her to exit the house. Most kept their heads down and didn’t look, but one gray-haired woman peeked from under her silvery strands to give her a glance.

Mary continued. “Everyone that’s here has got their sins they gotta atone for.”

“I’m not here because I sinned.”

“You don’t sin?” Mary smiled.

“I…” Sarah was careful with her choice of words. “I’m here because I’m escaping an abusive relationship. I thought that’s what this place was.”

“I see.” Mary shifted her weight and tilted her head. “You poor dear.”

“Am I in the wrong place?”

“Of course not. You see… you escaped a horrible man, didn’t you? But to do that, what did you have to do? You cleaned out the bank account maybe? Took his car?”

“But there was no other way. How did you know—?”

“It’s my job to know. Come now.” Mary guided Sarah outside into the cold dry air. Her tiny gloved hand pressed between Sarah’s shoulder blades to direct her to the next building.

“Where’s my car?” Sarah asked, crossing her bare arms to keep warm.

“Well that wasn’t your car, was it?” Mary smiled. “It was Wade’s car.”

Sarah’s blood turned cold at the sound of his name and her survival instincts kicked in with the new looming threat. Though she wasn’t sure what was going on, she knew how to protect herself from unpredictable people. Until she could figure out what to do, she would keep her head down and be compliant, like she had done with Wade for all those years.

She entered a cafeteria space with a wood stove in the corner that did not generate enough heat to keep the drafty old building warm. Five guests were already seated and eating at the two round tables. They were still wearing winter hats and mittens while they shoveled the food into their mouths without exchanging words. Sarah, with Mary still perched beside her, approached the breakfast bar and was scooped a meager pile of scrambled eggs by the gray-haired woman. She was wearing green latex-free gloves and a hair net. She looked to Mary, then back to Sarah.

“This is all part of it,” Mary said. “We all do our part to be helpful in our community. Helping hands…”

“Are clean hands,” the gray-haired woman muttered the words in a reflexive way.

“Thank you,” Sarah said and sat at a table with three others.

A man with spiky black hair poking out from under his hat and weeks’ worth of beard growth rocked in his seat across from her. He kept his hands tucked between his knees and his eyes on the pile of rubbery yellow eggs before him. His gaze broke from the eggs when Sarah sat down, and he stared at her pale and bruised hands.

“Sh-sh-she didn’t wash her hands!” He backed away from the table with his hands tucked into his armpits. He stood up, looking around the room in a panic, “She didn’t wash her hands!”

“I washed them,” Sarah insisted.

“Now, Jacob,” Mary approached him from behind.

“It’s not fair!” He yelled with spit strung between his lips.

Sarah looked around the room as the other guests stared at her. “I washed them—”

“Jacob!” Mary raised her voice and lowered it as soon as he took his seat. “Don’t worry about when she washes her hands. They’ll get washed after we do our chores for the day, because helping hands—”

“—are clean hands.” Six voices from around the room said it in consonance.

*

After breakfast, Sarah was given a thick flannel work shirt and a pair of heavy duty work gloves. “Come on, dear,” Mary said, and led her outside where the other six other guests of the retreat were pulling weeds along the entrance road.

A large man on the back of a brown-and-white horse sat near the entrance with his arms crossed and a shotgun slung over his shoulder. All of the guests were wearing the same black-and-red flannel that Sarah had on. She pulled weeds and piled them neatly into a wheelbarrow, and caught the gray-haired woman staring at her. Her large round eyes were backlit with urgency. Some warning hid in the intense glare, but her lips remained shut.

Sarah continued to keep her head down, pulling weeds with the others, hour after hour, wondering what was going on, and how she was going to get out of this place without incident.

Her nose turned pink, and her fingers numbed from the icy air, so Sarah removed her work gloves and rubbed her hands together. The motion caught the attention of the woman with gray hair, and she watched as Sarah blew warm, moist air onto her skin.

Mary was burying tulip bulbs into the earth near the buildings, when she broke the silence to cry out, “Tom!”

The man on the horse looked in her direction, squinting to see her pointing to the westward wall of perimeter fencing. A coyote was pacing at the fence line.

Tom nudged the horse with his heel and trotted off the gravel road, away from the open gate, and took aim at the coyote in the distance. It was too far, so he edged closer, and took aim again.

As he did, the man with the black spiky hair shifted his twitchy eyes back and forth, then darted toward the gate. Dust kicked up behind his boots as he sprinted along the gravel, unnoticed by Tom and Mary. They were both focused on the coyote, but the guests and Sarah swung their attention back and forth between the running black-haired man and the man with the gun. It seemed like a smart idea—to run—but Sarah knew better. There was nowhere to run to, not with a man on horseback and a gun nearby. She knelt down and went back to picking weeds, waiting for her opportunity, while the black-haired man escaped the open gate.

The shot gun fired, blasting up a chunk of dirt at the coyote’s feet, scaring the critter away.

“Damn,” Tom shouted, disappointed with his miss.

“Tom!” Mary yelled again, this time pointing toward the runner, and Tom spun his horse around to chase him down.

Everyone was staring as that horse closed in on his pursuit, but Mary redirected them.

“Come on folks,” Mary said, “I think that’s enough of that for today. Let’s go back to your rooms for a while.” She gestured for them to follow her as Tom chased the black-haired man into the woods outside the gates.

Sarah got in line with everyone else and walked back to her room, concealing the terror within. The gray-haired woman went into room three, next door, still with grave warning in her eyes.

Sarah paced her room until the sound of a gunshot in the distance, and a bullet cutting through the air, made her freeze mid-step. Her feet were heavy on the floor, like gravity could yank her through the wooden planks.

Sarah dropped to the floor to inspect the wood and the cracks between. They were old boards that bowed under the weight of her feet, and the rusty nails that held them in place were eroding in their holes. She pried on a board where it appeared to be weakest, and the edge lifted up.

Her fingers would not fit between the spaces to get enough torque on it, so Sarah dug into her welcome basket of supplies and used her toothbrush for some leverage. She wedged the board upward, and the nail came with it, wiggling out of place with minimal effort. She got to work on the second board—three would be enough for her frame to squeeze through. The boards came loose and she stuck her head into the space beneath the house. It was still too light outside to make a run for it. She needed to run under the cloak of nightfall.

She was sick to her stomach and her instincts told her to run—to get out, but she had to be smarter. It had to be the right time. She placed the boards back into position and waited impatiently on her bed as the daylight lingered. There was a knock at her door.

“Sarah, dear?” The soft voice was absorbed by the old wooden door of her room.

“Yes?” she asked, as casual as possible.

Mary opened her door and Sarah stood to greet her.

“What a day, huh?” Mary smiled and stepped one foot inside her door. “I want you to know that Mr. Lewis is alright now. Tom caught up with him and he’s resting in his room now.”

“I thought I heard—”

“The gunshot, right?” Mary rolled her eyes. “Coyote. There’s been some with rabies reported in these parts. Tom saw another one and took a shot. Poor Mr. Lewis could have been seriously hurt out there.”

“Mary, may I ask—” Sarah kept a kind, respectful voice.

She unclasped her white-gloved fingers and spread her arms apart as if she were an open book.

“Why wasn’t he allowed to go?”

“Mr. Lewis was a violent sex offender before he came here. We can’t let people wander off. They are in our care.”

“So, what about me?”

Mary took a step back and folded her hands back together. “You?”

“I’m not violent. I’m not a danger—”

“But you’re not perfect.” Mary’s voice lowered and her face dropped with an earnest message. “Everyone thinks they don’t sin.”

“I don’t think that,” Sarah argued, “but I don’t deserve to be imprisoned.”

“You don’t deserve…” she laughed. “It’s not about what you deserve. It’s about cleansing our hands of our sins and becoming a better community in the process, because helping hands…” She paused and waited for Sarah to reply.

Sarah hesitated, but did as expected. “Are clean hands?”

“That’s right. Dinner is at six o’clock. Tom and I will stop by for hand-washing just before that.”

“Hand-washing?”

“Hush now. It’s been a long day.” Mary left.

The sun set at five o’clock and Sarah sat against the wall on her bed and waited for the sky to darken.

“Don’t worry,” a voice made its way through the wall from the adjoining room number three. It was the gray-haired woman.

Sarah got to her knees, palms and ear to the wall to listen.

“It hurts bad the first time, but you get used to it,” she said.

“What?”

“It hurts. It still hurts. Just don’t run and don’t fight.”

Don’t run. Don’t fight. Sarah had spent too many years enduring attacks from Wade. Fight or flight should be a natural instinct, but instead she cowered and stayed, for far too long. She couldn’t do it anymore. She was determined to run this time—or to fight if she had to.

“He watches us from under the house.” The gray-haired woman was solemn and desperate.

“Who?”

“Tom.” Her nervous breathing could be heard through the wall. “He comes after dinner and tries to watch us undress. When he gets caught, he gets his hands washed.”

While the gray-haired woman talked, Sarah knelt down to remove the loose planks from the floor. Twilight was darkening and the moon was rising in the east above the tree line. Heavy feet clomped on the stairs out front—two sets of feet—and Sarah lowered her body into the crawlspace with her only chance to run. She returned the planks to their position, haphazardly, and crawled toward the open latticed board at the edge of the house. The front door opened and Tom and Mary could be heard walking down the hall.

Sarah crawled out from under the house and crouched down to be sure to stay out of sight, but curiosity and the light from room number one, drew her to investigate. The curtains were almost shut, leaving a two-inch gap that allowed a strip of light to escape from the window and onto the ground. Sarah peeked inside, adjusting her position with precision over the gap to see part of Tom’s body standing in the room. A five-gallon bucket was placed on the floor and the guest in room one removed his work gloves to expose a set of raw, burned hands. They were pink and shriveled.

He trembled, with tears escaping his eyes, as Tom held his forearms and Mary placed a cloth in his mouth. He chomped down on the fabric as Tom forced his hands in. The bucket sizzled and bubbled while the man in room one screamed through the cloth between his teeth. The acid ripped through his flesh and splattered onto the floor, hissing. Sarah backed away from the window, and for a brief moment, she considered performing a heroic rescue—rushing inside and fighting them off, or perhaps she could find Tom’s gun and…

Instead, she ran. She sprinted across the blue moonlit field toward the entrance gate that was wide open. She would come back with help. The cold air sliced through her lungs as she made her way off the property and down the beaten old road. It was at least two miles to the next road, if she remembered correctly. Get help—she chanted under her breath, and with each step, she pushed harder and faster.

In the distance, there was a set of headlights, but the ephemeral beacon of hope vanished when Sarah considered that the driver of that vehicle may someone that couldn’t be trusted. She darted off the road, into the ditch, and took cover in the thorny brush, as a pickup truck blasted by, music thumping, heading toward the retreat.

Sarah had never been so terrified, not even when she was with Wade. Not even when he had held her by the throat, threatening her life. Sarah pressed forward, and after several minutes, her run slowed to a jog, and she wondered at what point she’d hear the sound of hooves galloping up behind her. But she never heard them.

 

The man in the pickup truck left his music blasting as he pulled through the gate of the Helping Hands Retreat.

“What the hell?” He said as a little woman shuffled out of the house toward his vehicle. Tom stood in the doorway, holding the five-gallon bucket, as moaning sounds of pain poured out behind him.

“Welcome!” she said.

“I’m looking for my wife.” The man scowled.

“Are you now? You must mean Sarah.” Mary smiled. “She’s inside. We’ve been taking good care of her.”

“Have you now?” His arrogance and belligerence was transparent. “Did you know she took off with my car?” Wade got out of the truck and put his hands in his pockets while Mary guided him toward the house.

“Come. You’re just in time for dinner. Let’s wash your hands.”

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Red Lagoe graduated from Cazenovia College in 2001, but did not pursue her passion for writing until a decade later. In 2011, she gave up the nine-to-five life, and pursued her passion for writing by creating her first children’s book, Drips. Since then, her non-fiction article has appeared in the astronomy publication Reflector. When Red is not entertaining her kids, she can be found stargazing or writing. She is exploring a variety of genres including speculative fiction, horror, thriller—and even some romance—by writing novels and short stories. Email: redlagoe[at]gmail.com

The Dead of Winter

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Catherine J. Link


Photo Credit: 一帆 尹/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

William Savage rode ahead of the covered wagon on his favorite stallion. He liked the way he looked on the back of the shiny black horse. Part Friesian, part Arabian, the horse was strong and tall. He had named him Destrier, and felt like one of the knights of old as he blazed trail. His fantasies kept him from getting bored and from getting discouraged.

He’d had a massive covered wagon built for his family. It had two stories. A lower section for storage of food, clothing, and valuables. An upper berth for sleeping, and a back porch where the servant could churn butter and prepare food on a sheet iron stove. The wagon was so heavy, it had to be pulled by four yoke of oxen.

The man who’d built the wagon for him had a reputation for being hot tempered and dangerous. His mother had come from the depths of the woods along the Rappahannock river. She was a witch, people said. The morning they left, she had come to cast a protective spell over the wagon. The sight of the hag frightened Savage’s wife, Mildred.

“You’re gonna need this magic,” she’d said to him. She was ancient, nearly bald, wrinkled, with no teeth, and she smelled of some kind of strange herbs. “You’re a fool. No one takes his family west this time of year. You’re gonna need protection more than most.”

Savage shoved her away from the wagon, causing her to fall in the dirt. “I’d be a fool if I believed in your hocus pocus. Get the hell away from here.”

Her son charged at Savage, ready to kill him, but his mother pushed him along down the street. “Never you mind, boy,” she said. “I’ll handle this.” She gave the wagon the evil eye and spit on it.

“We won’t be seeing them no more.” Then she cackled, sounding completely insane.

Savage didn’t want to go west. He had to. He’d gambled his fortune away, and part of his wife’s, and now he was running from unpaid debts. After paying the wagon builder, nearly all the money was gone. He had to leave town before someone killed him, and before his wife found out what he had done.

Keeping the over-burdened wagon in sight behind him, Savage blazed the trail in front. It was hard going, and the weather had thwarted him every step of the way. He often lost sight of the trail, especially when parts of it were obscured by blankets of snow. He had studied the map so often, he should have memorized it by now, but he didn’t and so edges of the map were starting to tear, even dissolve, in his hands.

There had been too many delays. He wanted to be in California before the dead of winter, but it did not happen. They were moving slowly, plagued by one disaster after another. Broken wheels, collapsed springs, sick animals, and then Millie had the baby early. She nearly died, and needed a doctor’s care for several weeks.

At least we’re moving now, he thought, but when he looked behind him again, the wagon was at a standstill once more.

“Damn it all, Ben. What the hell is wrong now?”

Ben FitzJarrell was his hired hand. He sat next to William’s young wife. She looked miserable in the wind driven snow. Mildred was embarrassed by her husband’s habitual rudeness.

“Don’t shout at Ben. It’s not his fault we’re lost,” she said.

“I never said we was lost, Mr. Savage. It’s the oxen. They don’t pull together,” Ben said. “Who ever trained these here animals for ya’ll didn’t know what they was doing.”

“Mr. Parker and I trained these animals,” he said smugly. “What, in your illustrious opinion, is wrong with them?”

“They don’t seem to understand commands, and they don’t pull together. A couple of ’em wanna go their own way instead of following behind.”

“It’s not them, it’s you,” William said. “You need to shout so they hear you. Let them know you’re the boss. Lay into the goad if you have to.”

“Being mean ain’t the same thing as being boss,” Ben muttered under his breath.

“We’ll be coming to a small town up ahead. Copper Ridge,” William told his driver. “We can spend the night there, and continue on in the morning.”

“Good,” Mildred said, sounding hopeful. “You can ask if we’re going in the right direction.”

The snow got worse before evening. By the time they made it to the shabby mining town, Mildred’s hands and face were nearly frozen. She wept silently, clutching their month-old son to her breasts, trying to keep him warm. Ben’s wife, Lollie, was hunkered down in the back under a layer of blankets, weak from a miscarriage. Mildred’s father, Quilla Parker, was staring off into space, hardly breathing.

“Are you all right, Papa?” Mildred asked him. He grunted once, letting her know he was still alive. Since his stroke a few weeks back, all he could do was grunt.

They pulled up to a building that looked like a stiff wind could knock over. It had a sign in one small filthy window, barely visible behind grime and ice. “Boarding House.”

William ran up to the door, and knocked. A wrinkled old woman smoking a pipe answered. They chatted for a moment and he came back with a smile. “Hot food and a warm bed for the night,” he said. “Mildred, you and Lollie go in. Papa, Ben, and I will take care of the team.”

When they entered the drab house, warmth enveloped them like a hot westerly wind. It was wonderful, but it hurt all the same. It stung nerves that had been frozen into numbness. Lollie was barely able to stand.

“Let’s get this young ‘un to a bed,” the old woman said. She looked at the infant in Mildred’s arms. “That her baby?”

“This is my son, Sampson,” Mildred said. “She lost hers. How did you know?”

“I wasn’t always this old,” the woman replied sharply. “I had some babies in my time. Lost a few, too. I know what it looks like, having seen it on my own face.”

Mildred took Lollie into a sparsely furnished room and made her get into bed. She laid Sampson in the bed with her. She went into the bedroom she would share with her husband and laid out some night clothes. She looked around at the crude furniture, the whitewashed walls, the uncarpeted floor, wondering where the baby would sleep.

“No fancy cradles this town,” the old woman said in what seemed like a rebuke. She was carrying hot soup and sandwiches on a tray. “You’ll have to tuck him in a dresser drawer like everyone else in Copper Ridge does. We’re not very refined in these here parts.”

“A drawer will be fine,” Mildred said.

She crawled into bed and waited for her husband. A few minutes later Savage entered the room, dripping melted snow.

“We found a livery stable just down the road. Papa’s staying there with the team.”

“He should have a bed, and some warm food,” Mildred said angrily. “You shouldn’t have left him there.”

“Someone has to stay with the animals and our belongings,” he said to her, defensive. “I’ve been in the saddle all day. Besides, he wanted to do it. His way of paying for the free ride.”

“He’s my father,” Mildred said sharply, “He does not not have to pay for anything. Remember that, William. I brought a fortune and a respected family name into this marriage.”

“Of course my dear. I simply meant that you dote on him too much, Millie,” Savage said. “He’s old, and he won’t be around much longer. I don’t want to see you hurt when that happens.”

He bent to kiss her lips. She turned away from him.

“Get Sampson out of that thing,” Savage said, venting his anger elsewhere. “No son of mine sleeps in a drawer.”

The morning came and they were on the road again. Mildred was furious with her husband.

“Ask for directions,” she’d told him while they were still at the boarding house. “I don’t think we’re going the right way.”

“See this,” he’d held the slowly melting map directly in her face, nearly hitting her nose with it. “This is a map made by Hastings himself. I watched him draw it. It goes from the Midwest to California. I don’t need to ask for directions.”

“Ask for directions,” she said insistently, knocking the map away from her. “The next time you shove that in my face, I’ll rip it to shreds.”

Lollie came out of the house carrying Sampson.

“I’ll take him,” Mildred said.

“I’d like to hold him a while,” Lollie said weakly. “It feels good to hold him.”

“Of course, dear,” Mildred said. “You can sit up on the seat with Ben and me. There’s plenty of room for three.”

The snow had stopped. There was a bright sun out this morning. The wind was cold, but the sun brought a much needed cheerfulness to their trip.

Nearly four miles from town, Mildred noticed Savage looking confused. He studied the map drawn by Lansford Hastings, then rode his black horse away from the trail to the left. Then he rode to the right. He looked at the sun, scanned a small book, The Emigrant’s Guide to California, also written by Hastings, then he looked at the map again.

He rode back to the wagon.

“We are going to turn here,” he said. “Hastings wrote that this road is an acceptable detour during winter. The snow is minimal along this part of the state and the Indians don’t bother emigrants.”

Ben had a doubting look on his face. “I don’t know, Mr. Savage…”

“I do know, and we are turning here,” he said stubbornly.

“Did you ask for directions?” Mildred asked him.

“See this map, this book?”

“Just answer my question,” Mildred said. “Did you ask for directions?”

“No, I did not. I’ve never gotten us lost before, and I won’t this time,” he replied. “Would you please learn to trust me.”

Savage rode up ahead, leading the way.

“Don’t fret, Mrs. Savage. It don’t matter much which way we go,” Lollie said.

“It matters very much,” Mildred said. “A wrong turn and we’ll be lost.”

“It don’t matter,” Lollie said, holding little Sampson on her lap, staring at his small face and balled up fists. She played with his fingers.

“Why do you say that?”

“We’re in the hands of fate. Your baby is alive, mine is dead. Who knows what tomorrow will bring, or who will still be alive to see it. We all have our fates to suffer.”

Weeks later they found themselves in the mountains. One day seemed very much like the next.

They lost the sun about midday. The clouds darkened and rain began to fall. Soon the rain turned to snow and wind made the snow dance in flurries. Savage was in a panic. He could no longer find the trail; landmarks on Hastings’ map were no where to be seen. The mountains were getting steeper and it was getting colder by the minute. He rode back to the wagon.

“Are we lost?” Mildred called to him.

“We’re stuck in a snow storm,” he said. “We should wait it out. Let’s make camp.”

“Where we gonna camp, Mr. Savage?” Ben asked, shouting to be heard over the wind. “Ain’t no good shelter around here.”

“True,” he said, looking around at the terrain. “Let’s go on till we find a good campsite.”

The snow fell in a thick sheet of white. It was almost impossible to see where they were going. William Savage tied his stallion to the wagon, and he rode now on the seat next to Ben. He had his wife take the baby in the back and crawl beneath the blankets, sharing body heat with her father and Lollie.

“I think we’re lost, Mr. Savage,” Ben said.

“We are not lost, goddamn it!” Savage yelled.

Suddenly, something charged the wagon. Obscured by the heavy snowfall, and the gloom of dusk, it was hard to see. It stood on its hind legs, taking a swipe at the lead oxen. The injured animal groaned with pain and fought the yoke, trying to flee. Ben shouted for the team to turn, “Haw! Haw!”

Then the creature attacked the wagon, roaring loudly and taking swipes at Ben with one huge paw. Claws raked down the man’s leg, opening him from knee to ankle. He screamed in agony. Savage shot at the creature with his pistol. It was so close, he could not have missed. It ran off toward the tree line.

“What was that?” Ben asked.

“It must have been a grizzly bear,” Savage replied. “You’re bleeding badly.”

“That was no bear like I ever saw before,” Ben said. “Did you see its eyes? They glowed like hot coals.”

Savage did not answer. He turned the wagon and headed for some boulders. It was a windbreak, and would have to do for the night. They made a fire in the small stove in the back of the wagon. Savage made Ben lay down as he examined the leg. It was sliced open down to the bone.

“He needs a doctor, Mr. Savage,” Lollie said.

“Papa can sew him up,” Mildred said. “He’s done it before.”

“We can wrap some bandages around it to slow the bleeding, then we can head out again at first light,” Savage added.

It was impossible to sleep. Cold tortured them mercilessly. Ben shivered with pain and chills, while the women huddled around the wailing babe, trying in vain to keep him warm. The old man stared at his son-in-law with hatred in his eyes. Savage stared back at him, knowing that the old man knew why he’d needed to run, and that he was to blame for them being here, lost in the mountains.

Savage had managed to doze off sometime in the night, but then a roar filled his ears. Something was right outside the wagon, only a thickness of the canvas away from his head. He grabbed his rifle and opened the front flap.

The bear had returned. Was it a bear? He wondered at what he saw. It stood on its hind legs, walking like a man. Its eyes glowed red in the night; its sharp teeth flashed like a demon smiling and it screamed in fury as it attacked the oxen. It clawed at one, relentlessly hacking at its hind quarters. It ripped off a leg and a haunch, and stood up in a victorious pose, holding the meat above its head. Then it ran off, leaving a trail of gore on the ground.

“Shut up!” he yelled at the screaming women, and when they hushed, he could hear a roar from somewhere in the darkness.

Ben bled to death in the night. The ground was too hard to dig, so they made a cairn for him out of stones, using the sheets he had bled in for his shroud.

“I wish we could do more, Lollie,” Mildred said.

“He’d still be dead, so what good would it do?” Lollie replied.

Savage and Parker rearranged the oxen in the yoke, replacing the lead animal. When they went to cut meat from the mutilated carcass, they found almost nothing of the animal left. It had been taken in the night.

They traveled west for a few hours, and, finding an area where the oxen could graze, they decided to stop. The under-fed animals needed rest and food.

“This is a pretty spot,” Mildred said. “Where are we?”

Savage studied the map, trying to make sense out of the landmarks, but the truth was he had no idea where they were. This river wasn’t even on Hastings’ map.

“Looking at these mountains, we must be in California, and probably have been for a long time,” he said.

“Are we going over more mountains, Mr. Savage?” Lollie asked.

“Yes, we just follow the map,” he said with confidence that he did not feel. “And if we don’t get snow tonight, then we should have an easy day tomorrow.”

Lollie awoke just before sun up and crawled out of the wagon.

Her screams cut through the silence, jolting Savage awake. He grabbed his rifle and leaped from the wagon.

“What is it?” he asked, “What do you see?”

All Lollie could do was scream and point. There on a large rock was the head of her dead husband. It had been torn from his body. Strewn around the boulder was shredded clothing and bones. His bones. The meat had been gnawed away and the larger bones had been cracked and sucked dry of marrow.

The women cried in horror and his father-in-law stared in terrified silence.

“The bear did this,” Savage said, knowing that was a lie. He looked at Parker, who was slowly shaking his head. “Yes, the bear did this. Let’s get him re-buried.”

“Leave him where he lay,” Lollie said. “They’d just do it again.”

“They?” Mildred asked. “Who do you think did this?”

“Demons,” Lollie answered, almost matter-of-factly. “The old witch gave us the evil eye. That’s an invitation for demons to come.”

They headed away from the river, traveling as fast as the oxen could go. They put in a full day of travel, and camped in a canyon, out of the winter wind. The sky threatened rain, but so far they remained dry and able to enjoy an enormous campfire.

“This should keep animals away from us,” Savage said.

He saw Parker scratching in the dirt and went to look.

Traveling in circle. Passed this same canyon before. Savage kicked the message with his boots, not wanting Mildred to see it. “Don’t be absurd,” he said to the old man. He wondered if the Parker was right.

Morning came and two of the oxen were gone. Gigantic footprints told a story of more than one creature having entered camp. Almost like a challenge, a large bone was tethered to one of the yokes. It looked like it might have been a human bone. Savage wondered if it had been another piece of Ben.

“Nnn brrrrs.” A strange sound came out of Parker’s mouth. “Nnnnn brrrrs!”

“Now is not a good time for you to start talking, old man,” Savage said heartlessly, “I know it’s not a bear, but should we scare the women? It’s probably Indians toying with us.”

“No!” Parker said clearly, shaking his head.

“What do you think? Evil spirits, or some other crap?” he asked angrily. “Only men do this kind of thing. So be on your guard. If you see what looks like man or beast, kill it before it kills us.”

The mountains were steeper and the snow more relentless. Day after day went by when they could not find a trail. They suffered from the cold, a lack of sleep, and only the meager fires they made out of damp green wood gave them any relief at all. They kept moving, but at a terrible price.

Lollie did not wake one morning. Two weeks after the death of her husband, she lay dead in the same bed. We’re in the hands of fate, Mildred heard her say. We all have our fates to suffer.

Again, they built a cairn of stone, unable to cut into the earth. Mildred wondered if Lollie would be left to her rest, or would she, too, suffer desecration.

She had her answer the next day when they came out of the wagon in the morning to find Lollie’s head laying among the ashes of the campfire. Huge foot prints circled the camp and bones that had been gnawed and cracked were tossed around carelessly.

“Cover it up, please,” Mildred begged.

“There’s no time,” Savage said. “We’ve got to move as quickly as we can. Get in the wagon.”

Leaving Lollie’s bones strewn around the campsite, they headed west. Savage yelled at the oxen, goaded them, and even took a whip to them to get them pulling as hard and fast as they could. Weak from little food, the animals struggled in the deep snow.

The oxen finally stopped, unable to go any farther. Snow came down heavily. The family gathered in the back of the wagon. There was a small fire in the stove, but not enough to fight the freezing temperatures. Morning found the group passed out in a deep slumber, the kind you don’t wake up from.

Before midday, the child died. The old man died. Mildred was nearly gone. Savage alone was in and out of consciousness. He opened his eyes but saw nothing but white. He felt hands on him, carrying him out of the wagon.

“Praise God,” he said.

He awoke to a cup at his lips. Something warm was being poured into his mouth. He started to gulp greedily.

“Take it easy, son,” a man’s voice said. “You’re gonna be alright.”

He opened his eyes and saw that he was in a small dirty cabin. It seemed to be filled with people. There was a warm fire blazing in the hearth, and a pot of something that smelled wonderful was being stirred.

“Who are you?” Savage asked.

“That’s what I was just about to ask you,” a man said. The man looked very thin and weak. “Are you from Sutter’s Fort?”

“No,” he said. I was taking my family to California, from the east,” he replied.

“Hastings’ map, again,” someone else in the room said. “Another mouth to feed.”

“Why did you even bring him in here?” a woman asked. “Now you know what’s gotta be done. Makes it that much harder to do.”

“We had to know for sure,” a male voice said. “Besides there’s no real hurry. We’ve got the cattle and the others.”

Savage sat up and looked around. He saw children with swollen bellies and sunken eyes sitting on a rug in front of the fire. It was a bear skin rug, complete with head and claws. Its dead eyes glowed red in the firelight. He saw enormous hand woven snowshoes hanging from pegs on the wall. Knives and machetes hung from hooks over the hearth, still dripping blood.

Old people as thin as skeletons, and adults looking half-starved all stared at the black cast iron caldron, watching it boil, sniffing the air as a woman stirred the contents. The woman was Mildred, and she had her back to Savage.

“Millie,” he called to her, and the woman turned. It was not Mildred. It was another woman, wearing her dress.

“Who are you people?” he asked, starting to panic. “Where are my wife and son?”

“You are the last alive,” a man said to him, patting him gently on the shoulder. “Don’t you worry. We’re gonna take real good care of you. I’m Lewis Keseberg,” the man replied. “And we’re what’s left of the Donner Party.”

*

“That was a terrible story for you to tell the kids,” Katie said as they went into their tent. “How are they supposed to get to sleep now?”

“We’re on vacation. They’re not supposed to sleep after a good campfire story,” Joel said. “It’s tradition.”

Katie crawled into their sleeping bag fully clothed. She was freezing. “Is it also tradition to go camping in the dead of winter in Colorado?”

“No, but we can make it one,” he replied, crawling into the bag next to her, naked. “Why are you still dressed?”

“Never mind that, just tell me that you asked for directions at the Ranger’s Station. I want us to be able to find our way out of here in the morning.”

“I did not, but I’ve never gotten us lost before. Trust me.”

pencil

Catherine J. Link is an artist: painting, sketching, photography and writing. She teaches art out of her studio at home, and mentors students, judging during the Visual Art Scholastic Events every spring. She has loved writing since she was a kid, and has written poems, short stories, and a couple of books, but she has never attempted to have anything published. She does it for fun. Email: kajalink[at]embarqmail.com

The Hands of Fate

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Ellis Sinclair


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

A black Volkswagen Jetta sped along Country Road 47, an isolated two-lane road that ran parallel to the interstate, after two hours wasted on the highway. Devin and Jenna were traveling from Athens to spend Christmas week at a cabin he rented in the country. Devin drove with furious glee since taking the ignored exit and Jenna, with a book in her lap, watched the barren pines pass like rows of gray frozen skeletons.

“This is so much nicer than the highway,” she said.

Devin laughed. “Yeah, I’m doing sixty on an open road. Suckers!”

“Be safe. I don’t want to crash on some backwoods road where a family of deranged hillbillies will rape and eat our corpses.”

“What the hell kind of book are you reading?”

“It’s hard to read when everything’s so beautiful.”

Pine trees transformed into apple orchards stretched across a clear and ice-covered landscape. Sunlight reflected through the snow in a kaleidoscope of shimmering colors: blues, yellows, reds, oranges. An aged wooden sign covered in frost caught Jenna’s attention.

Welcome to Arcadia

They passed an abandoned chapel with a cemetery at the base of a hill. The tops of random headstones littered graveyard, peering above the snow cover. The town was an island surrounded by an ancient wood.

“Talk about an antique,” Devin said. “This place is set in amber.”

Jenna pressed her nose against her window. She watched a house rise above the woods and homes around it.

“Drive slower,” she said.

“Why?”

“Just do it.”

They stopped at the intersection of Main and Polk Street.

“Turn this way.”

“We need to get to the cabin. I don’t want to lose our deposit.”

“We have until six and it’s not even one yet. Turn here. I want to see something.”

Devin huffed but knew he had to satisfy her curiosity or the rest of the trip would degrade into a bitter fight. “Fine, but after this we hit the road.”

Jenna became more excited as they coasted toward the large house. “I don’t believe it,” she said. “Stop, stop, stop.”

Devin parked in front of the aging home.

“I can’t fucking believe it!”

Jenna grabbed the book from her lap and opened the cover. The inner-fold of the dust jacket had the author’s bio, but instead of the author’s photo was the picture of the home.

“This is it!” she said. “This is the house!

“Yeah?”

“It’s the house,” she said.

“So?”

“Abraham Grabowski is a complete hermit. He doesn’t do book signings or anything. He never leaves. There aren’t even pictures of him. His publisher doesn’t even know what he looks like.”

“That’s stupid.”

Jenna shook her head and grabbed her phone. “I need this for my blog.”

She jumped out of the car into the snow.

“Where the hell are you going?”

“This is obviously a sign I was meant to come here.”

“We can do this on the way home!”

“I’m not risking it. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

She shot a video with the home behind her. She meant to post it to Snapchat, but she didn’t have any service. She recorded anyway and figured she’d upload it at the cabin.

“Hey, horror bookworms. If you’ve been paying attention to my blog at all, you should recognize the house behind me. That’s right my nerdy little nasties—it’s the home of the one and only Abraham Grabowski. I’m going to see if anyone’s home. Hopefully, I’ll have some more footage to come. Your Ghastly Girly signing out!”

Devin turned the car off and trudged up the lawn. “This might be the house, but it doesn’t mean he lives here. Hell, the guy might not even exist.”

“It’s worth a shot. Look around, everything in his books is here. This is the town he writes about. This is where all his stories come from. This is the epicenter.”

“This is crazy.”

The front door to the home opened and a young woman stepped out. “Excuse me,” Wendy said.

“Sorry, if she disturbed you,” Devin said. “We’re leaving.”

However, Jenna bolted up the stairs.

Devin followed.

“This is it, isn’t it?” she said.

“Jenna!”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Yes, you do. Don’t say that. This is it. This is the house. You know who lives here. Who are you?”

“Jen, you’re acting crazy.”

“You shouldn’t be here. You should be going.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Devin said. He took Jenna’s arm.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. We can go in a minute. Just tell me I’m right. I know I’m right.” Jenna noticed the sound of a door closing inside. She hopped to look over Wendy’s head and saw an older woman standing beside a staircase.

“Wendy, who’s at the door?”

“Nobody, Miss Catherine.”

“Nonsense. Nobody’s nobody at Christmastime. Let them in.”

Jenna glanced to Devin with her eyes wide open and a grin stretched across her face. Catherine greeted them in the foyer. The hypnotic rhythm of typewriter keys tapped through the floorboards.

“I apologize for our assistant,” Catherine said. “We like our privacy and Wendy does a good job.”

Jenna couldn’t speak. Her senses were choked—soaking in the details of the home. “This is it,” she muttered. “It’s all here. Everything from every book!”

“I can see you’re a fan,” Catherine said.

“More than that,” she said. “I actually write book reviews and Mr. Grabowski’s books are one of my favorite topics.”

“Oh, a journalist.”

“So, this is the place she thinks it is?” Devin asked.

“That and so much more.”

Catherine asked Wendy to make some tea and returned her attention to her guests.

“We can sit in the study. I do enjoy company.”

Bookshelves lined the walls, filled with leather-bound manuscripts and wooden boxes. Devin and Jenna shared a loveseat while Catherine sat in the armchair.

“Do you help Abraham with his books?” Jenna asked.

“Abraham’s the writer, as you can hear.”

The clack of the typewriter hadn’t stopped since they entered. Catherine held her bony and withered hands up.

“And, these hands create the death scenes,” she explained.

“Death scenes?”

Wendy returned to the study with a tea service.

“Wendy, my dear. Bring one of the displays to show our guests.”

“Certainly, Miss Catherine.”

She brought one of the boxes to Catherine. She opened the lid to reveal an intricate diorama.

“Oh, my God,” Jenna said. “That’s Marlon from A Cry in the Night. That’s amazing.”

“Very good,” Catherine said.

“She’s read every book,” Devin added.

“I’m actually finishing Babylon right now. How long have you two been working together?”

Wendy returned the diorama to the shelf.

“Since the beginning. I’m convinced that fate brought us together.”

“Is it possible for me to meet him?”

“Anything’s possible if Abraham ever comes out of that basement. These winter months are when he’s most productive. Once you hear the typewriter going, it rarely stops.”

Catherine sipped her tea, undisturbed by the mechanical keystrokes firing away like a machine gun from the depths.

*

Devin insisted on leaving after one cup of tea. On the trek back to the car Jenna stopped to take a few more photos of outside the home. When she was content, she jumped in.

“Why don’t you have the car running?” she asked. “Get the heat on, I’m freezing.”

“What do you think I’ve been doing since I got in here?”

Devin checked his phone for the time. “It’s three o’clock. My phone’s not getting any service. Can you call the cabin and see if they’ll hold our deposit?”

“No service for me, either. It hasn’t worked since we got here.”

“Damn it!”

He slammed his hands into the steering wheel.

“Don’t get mad. Try and see what’s wrong with the engine. I’ll see if they’ll let us use their phone.”

Devin popped the hood and Jenna ran up to the home. Wendy answered.

“Hi again,” Jenna said. “Can we use your phone? Something’s wrong with our car and I’m not getting any service.”

Wendy led Jenna to the kitchen.

“Wow, a landline. I haven’t seen one of those since I would visit my grandmother’s house.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, but we rarely leave the city.” Jenna let out a humiliated and exhausted sigh. She took the phone from the receiver, but there was no dial tone. She pressed down the cradle three times, but nothing. “Does your phone not work?” she asked.

“It goes in and out around here.”

“Damn.”

“It’s pretty dead in the winter around here.”

“Do you have a car? Maybe you can drive us to the next town so we can find a phone?”

“We don’t have a car and anyone with a car has already left for the winter.”

“I was gonna ask if other people lived here, because we haven’t seen a sign of life.”

“Anyone that hasn’t left just digs in.”

The basement door opened and closed. Catherine entered the kitchen.

“Why, Jenna, I thought you and Devin left.”

“I know. I’m sorry. For some reason our car won’t start. I wanted to use your phone.”

“Ha! Good luck. We basically live on a frozen island.”

“Man, Devin’s going to be pissed.”

“Why should he be upset? We aren’t that bad of company.”

“No, it’s not you. We rented a cabin and if we don’t contact them before six we’re going to lose our deposit and I feel like it’s all my fault.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself. One day you’ll learn that some events are out of our hands. If you can’t get your car started, I insist you stay here the night. We don’t mind.”

Devin came inside. “I don’t know what’s wrong with it,” he shouted. “Any luck on the phone?”

“Phone’s dead.”

“Damn it.”

“Devin,” Catherine said. “Jenna told me about your plans and I feel awful that you stopped here and now can’t go. Let Wendy know how much the deposit was for the cabin. We’ll pay for it. We have plenty of money.”

Catherine looked back to Jenna.

“Perhaps the phone will be working tomorrow,” she continued. “It goes in and out all the time. Wendy, get the guest bedroom livable. I’m going downstairs for a little while longer.”

*

Catherine returned to the basement. Jenna explored the study with Wendy following her like a doe-eyed lost child, brushing against her softly and asking endless questions. Devin struggled in the frigid temperature with the car, but was lost with mechanics. When nightfall descended, he returned inside with their bags. Wendy and Jenna were in the kitchen chatting, laughing. The scent and warmth from a well-used kitchen filled the home.

“What’s for dinner, ladies?”

Wendy hovered over a cooking pot, stirring the contents. Jenna glanced at Devin with a playful grin. An open bottle of wine rest on the table next to her.

“We’re having sausages with boiled cabbage,” Wendy said.

“I hope you were taking notes,” Devin said.

“The recipe’s a secret,” Jenna answered.

*

The white noise of the typewriter filled the pauses between the conversation.

“He really never stops,” Devin said.

“When a story grabs him, it becomes his obsession.”

“Is there any way you could tell me what the book is about?” Jenna asked.

“I don’t even know if he knows, yet. He says it depends on what the characters do. I mean he knows what the end result will be but he never knows exactly how they’ll get there.”

Dinner ended with empty plates, followed by dessert.

“Wendy, dear. Thank you for dinner. It was delicious.”

“Thank you, Miss Catherine. I just follow the recipes you give me.”

“Yes, yes, but it’s the subtleties that transform food into cuisine, just like the nuances that augment words into prose.”

Catherine paused.

“It was very good,” Jenna said. “Wasn’t it, Devin.”

“Oh, yeah. The best sausage and cabbage I’ve ever eaten.”

“My dear, you are more than a cook, you are a chef de cuisine.”

Wendy nodded in thanks and Catherine let out a satisfied sigh. “I believe it’s time for me to go to bed,” she continued. “Wendy, make sure our guests see their room.”

“Of course, Miss Catherine.”

“Thank you again for your hospitality,” Jenna added.

Catherine retired upstairs, followed shortly after by Wendy, Devin, and Jenna. Wendy stopped at the first door by the stairs.

“This is where Miss Catherine sleeps,” she said.

“Just Catherine?” Jenna whispered.

“Her and Abe don’t sleep in the same bedroom?” Devin added.

Wendy shook her head. The next room had an open door. It was cramped with a large bed, a mirrored dresser by the door and a chair by the window.

“This is my room,” she continued. “If you need anything, come see me.”

Ahead of them was a third room with two windows that gazed across the archipelago of little shingled roofs.

“This is where you’ll be sleeping tonight,” Wendy said.

“Do you hear that?” Devin mentioned.

Wendy and Jenna turned to him standing in the doorway. They waited for him to answer his question.

“It stopped,” he continued.

“What stopped?” Jenna said.

“The typing.”

Jenna paused and glanced to Wendy. “Does this mean we might get to see Abraham?”

“No,” Wendy answered. “Abraham stays downstairs when he’s writing and he’s always writing.”

Wendy left them alone. Jenna and Devin gazed across their room.

“Separate beds,” he said. “Not quite the romantic getaway I planned.”

“Welcome to a simpler time.”

“You wanna push them together?”

“Their house, their rules.”

“Do you think it’s weird they don’t sleep in the same room?”

“Yeah, but my grandparents lived in separate rooms for the last twenty years of their marriage. Look, as long as Abraham keeps putting out books, I don’t care where he sleeps.”

“Well, I’m going to use the little boy’s room. Did she give you the money for the deposit?”

“Really, you’re going to ask that now?”

“Hey, she offered. I was just curious.”

“No, she hasn’t.”

“Let’s find out how far the next town is tomorrow. If we can get there maybe we can use a phone and maybe the cabin hasn’t been rented so we can still have a vacation where we can share the same bed.”

Devin took a change of clothes and meandered down the hall. Jenna gazed down to the street. Devin’s car was parked beneath the streetlamp. She undressed away from the window, facing the wall. After removing her top, the door opened. Jenna turned but was startled to see Wendy.

“You shouldn’t stay here,” she whispered.

“I’m sorry?”

“We should leave tonight.”

“Tonight?”

“I have a car,” Wendy continued.

“I asked if you had a car earlier.”

“I couldn’t say anything. It’s parked on the edge of the woods. The keys are inside. Gather your things. We can leave, right now.”

Jenna sighed. “I’m tired and it’s too late to go anywhere tonight. We can leave tomorrow.

Devin entered. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he said.

“It’s okay. Wendy was just making sure we had everything we needed.”

Wendy nodded slowly and exited.

“What was that all about? She seemed a little into you.”

“I still got it.”

“Okay, we can stay an extra night, but only if I can watch?”

“You’re an absolute pig. You’re just lucky I love bacon.”

*

Jenna awoke to a chill that swept across her body. She wasn’t accustomed to sleeping alone and slid out of bed to join Devin. However, he wasn’t in bed and the mattress was cold.

“Devin?” she whispered.

The home was silent, even the mechanical chug of Abraham’s typewriter was quiet. Jenna glanced out the window and saw the car was no longer on the side of the road.

“What the hell?”

Jenna crept along the hall. Wendy’s door was open and her bed was empty. From out of the silence of the home, the cellar door closed. Jenna peered over the banister but found no one. “Damn it, Devin,” she said.

Jenna rushed downstairs and pressed her ear against the basement door. She struggled with what to do: knock, enter, yell. She chose to enter. A banker’s lamp illuminated the underbelly of the home. An unmade bed below rested the steps. Flush with the far wall was a workbench with small intricate tools, fabric, boxes, wood, and clay. With her final steps, she discovered a writing desk with a typewriter and a stack of paper next to it. One sheet was clamped into the carriage half-typed.

“Devin,” she said. “Are you down here?”

Before escaping the basement, Jenna decided to investigate the upcoming book. She looked over the two dioramas Catherine left on the bench. The first appeared to be the study upstairs, intricately designed down to the tiniest detail, but with the figure of a man dressed like Devin, hanging by his feet from the ceiling. A bucket rested below him to collect the blood that coursed from his gaping throat. The next box looked like the front of the home and the edge of the street. Across the snow-covered ground, drag marks and a trail of blood led to the street, but it was unfinished, the body was missing.

The slide, crash, and ding of the typewriter shifting to the next paragraph. Typing soon followed. She read along as each letter was hammered into the page:

*

Jenna gasped for air as the prisoner spirit cried out to her, “Run.”

*

Jenna clambered up the stair and fled the basement in the desperate hope of finding escape. She stopped at the door as the typewriter continued to tell its tale. A slow-moving shadow in the study coaxed her attention. Light from the street lamp sprinkled through the front room. Devin’s body hung from his feet in the center of the study. An occasional drop fell from his gaping throat as the gentle motion of the home swung his body from side-to-side over a cooking pot.

Jenna burst from the home but a bloody trail of drag marks led from the steps across the lawn. In the middle of the street Wendy’s corpse lay slumped and twisted in the street. The word DISLOYAL was written with blood in the snow. Jenna ran back through the house to the door in the kitchen that led to back of the home. She could find the car Wendy had mentioned.

She stomped through the snow mounds toward the woods. Her feet and body were frozen to the point that she no longer felt cold. Frozen moonlight blanketed the world. The bony arms of the trees reached out to her in waiting and wanting. When a flash of light from a torch appeared from within the shadows, followed by another and another. From the darkness, robed figures emerged, their faces obscured.

“Winters are long but our homes remain strong by feasting upon the body and the blood!”

A collective voice followed.

“The body and the blood!”

“We must feed the spirit!”

“And, the spirit will feed us,” the group countered.

A light feathery snow began to fall.

“Don’t cry, my dear. This was meant to happen; our lives are forever guided by the hands of fate.”

*

A knock rattled on the front door of the old home. The winter continued its frozen onslaught. Parked in the street was a red 1998 Toyota Corolla. A cheery-eyed dark-haired girl hopped in glee when the door opened. She looked back to her friend, Ally.

“I know this may sound strange, but is this the home of Abraham Grabowski?”

“You have the wrong house.”

Catherine descended the stairs.

“Who’s at the door?” she asked.

“No one. I was just telling them to leave.”

“Nonsense, Jenna. No one is no one. Let them in. You know I love guests.”

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Ellis Sinclair is a recent graduate from the University of Central Florida. As a freshman in high school, he was hit by a car while riding his bicycle. This event and a series of bizarre experiences guided him to writing. He grew up in a poor neighborhood. He worked overnight at a gas station which allowed him to read and write as much as he wanted. He has a wide range of interests with writing and some of his favorite writers have been: Hemingway, Stephen King, Alan Moore, Steinbeck, and Philip K. Dick. Email: ellissinclair[at]outlook.com

Judy

Baker’s Pick
Kathryn Pallant


Photo Credit: Martin Rødvand/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

The three of us meet at Starbucks on Main: me, her and her husband. The minute I see them perching on bar stools at the end of the counter I know it’s them. He’s tall with that air of wealth and hurry that comes with success in business, but his hair is grey. Next to him she looks like a tiny aerobics instructor with a lot of glossy hair, and smooth skin. She’s wearing a tight jersey dress that holds her like a negligee. Her sandals show me she has long toes and a shiny pink pedicure.  Her husband’s knee is juddering; it’s hard to tell why except they’re often uptight like this.

I order my coffee first. I can see they have drunk theirs already. David, that’s what the husband is called, has slugged a double espresso, to judge by the empty cup on the table and the last of Beth’s latte is visible in her mug. I get the usual; a double shot cappuccino with caramel and low foam. Low foam. I almost laugh. Guess that’s why we’re here.

It’s not that I do this for a living or anything. Beating off into a cup every day is the pastime of cash-strapped and embarrassed college kids. I drive an Escalade, dress in Hugo Boss and wear Tod’s loafers. I’m not the polystyrene type. I’m a professional man. I’m married. I run my town’s chapter of the Insurer’s Guild, I hold down a tough job and everyone thinks I’m a pretty great guy. My wife’s got nothing to complain about. She works part-time on reception at the firm, and the rest of the time she steams her face and walks the dogs and keeps herself in shape. We’re not the kind of people you worry about. We’re the kind you ask over for dinner.

It was at one of the dinner parties that this first came up. A good couple, Deidre and Frank, friends of ours for years now, hosted us for Thanksgiving. We’d got to the part of the meal where people, maybe a little drunk on the old Californian, raise a glass and tell people that know anyway what it is that they’re grateful for. We’d had the predictable enough starters from others around the table. Mark Hanson said he was grateful for the holiday bonus that had bought his new Chevy—who wanted to walk to work? There was a bit of laughter at that, mostly at his expense but no one said so. His wife Charlotte was grateful for their family and home; they have two daughters and one of them suffers with Down’s Syndrome. It’s a struggle for them; they get tearful late at night if someone asks them how it’s going. Tears of tenderness Charlotte calls them, though it’s clear she spends her life striving to stay on the level.

Anyway, Frank gets to his feet a little unsteady, grips the edge of the table and says how grateful he is that he’s firing blanks because he gets to sleep in on a Sunday morning instead of changing diapers and driving the older ones to Little League while his gut circumference grows by a couple of inches a year. It’s almost worth, he says, having to sit with Deidre on the edge of the tub once a month while she weeps about it. He slops wine out of his glass onto his shirt and sits down with a thump. Next thing you know, Deidre’s up and thanking God that this website she’s just found lists people who’ll give her a good fuck without worrying about the consequences of a baby. That shut him up.

We talked about it in the car on the way home, my wife and I, as you might expect. This was a couple we’d known for years. Chances were it’d be days or at most weeks before I’d be unwinding their insurance policies so Frank could make his alimony payments.  Judy, my wife, was very shocked. She kept saying that she couldn’t believe it, and just when you thought you knew people. She seemed a little misty eyed which was puzzling because we were solid and it’d been a long time since we’d put the idea of kids behind us. It was something, we agreed, that God just didn’t intend for our partnership. As Judy and I talked, I kept thinking about the look on Deidre’s face: satisfaction and hunger all at once, and something else that I couldn’t quite name.

So when she came into the office two weeks later, I did the insurance business for her and asked her as casually as I could about the website she’d been frequenting. She gave me what I wanted and I gave her what she wanted against the filing cabinet, the whole thing shaking and clanging, mostly so she wouldn’t tell my wife what I’d asked her about, but also owing to that ripe as a plum look she’d had, shining with lust right there at her Thanksgiving party.

And so it went on. There was something a little unsavoury about the anticipation of a hook up but the fucking was worth it and I got to leave afterwards, no questions. The women just waved me on my way. After a while it got so it was like having a good workout at the gym, and I’ve always kind of thought that the fucking is a bodily need like any other, why get worked up about it, if you know what I mean. Deidre was pretty focused on the act while it was underway, and all business afterwards. She’d set up my profile on the site but never talked about the other women. We just zipped up and got on with our days. It might’ve been the times with her that made me do the same with the others. Maybe I set the tone and they fell in with it. Frankly, why dwell on it when everyone’s happy.

So I’d walked into Starbucks, and they were both there. It wasn’t the first time a husband had got in on the act. It wasn’t my favourite thing, but I figure I’m going to bang his lady, so whatever he feels he’s got to do. The few times I’d met the husbands, they disappeared at the critical moment, which suited me, because who’d want a dude in the room at a time like that? And it left their wives free to enjoy what they were getting. Pretty soon it’d be all logistics for them, pregnancy tests and a note from the site administrator to close up the association, as they called it. Job done, time to move on. Suits me fine.

But there he was, and historically the husbands have had a few questions. They are using the site to avoid the legalities, the hold ups, the medical insurance, the what have you. And on your side you want minimum fuss. You don’t want to bring a child into the world, have nothing to do with it, and then have it turn up when it’s eighteen asking about what you’ve amounted to and what this means about who they really are and why you don’t care about any of it. I’m comfortable with where I am. I’ve talked you through that already. Wife, house, a little money, some fucking and being left to enjoy your liberty. But anyway, the husbands want no strings. They’re the ones who want to be the daddy. Another one would get in the way. But they still have questions, so you humour them. The sooner you do that, the sooner you can get to the point. And Beth, without wishing to offend, is a point I’m pretty keen to get to.

The husband’s jittery from his espresso. The knee jigging keeps up. He lets me know up front, he’s doing this for Beth. She’s desperate for a child. I enjoy my coffee and wait for the talk to be over. I glance at her at this point and it’s true she looks a little haunted. But the wives, in my experience, might be thinking of a child before I get there, but then I arrive and they get focused pretty quickly on the next hour and a half. They get into it with a reliability that is gratifying. There are a few things that gratify that way. There’s not a whole lot in the insurance world that’s new to me, and I’ve been at the game for a while now. But there’s a quality in a pile of completed and filed applications at the end of the week that makes me feel pretty satisfied, since you ask. There’s a commission coming and everyone’s content, and I appreciate that the way I feel good about there being a little give in my waistband even after a long lunch. It’s like being one of the few at your high school reunion that still has his hair and a wife you wouldn’t turn away on a cold night. You know what I mean.

So when this guy starts with the questioning, I’m clear that it’ll be over soon and Beth and I can move on to the hotel upstairs for the business end of the deal. She’s sitting cross legged on the bar stool examining her manicure and I’m confident she’s waiting for this bit to be over too.

“You don’t look much like you went to Harvard,” David says. “What was your year?”

I’m wearing a good suit and I’ve got good posture and I’m pretty pissed by this, so I say, “Class of ’95, buddy. Didn’t see you there.”

“I was at Yale,” he says, like I give a shit. And he says it in this kind of way that makes you feel you’re already judged and found wanting. But I’m about to fuck his wife so I give him the benefit for a minute. Meanwhile I store away the Harvard thing. I don’t know what else Deidre wrote on that site. Who cares, right? It gets me in the door. But it’s handy to know from time to time, particularly when the husbands come out fighting.

“And you have no children of your own?” he says.

“No, ironic—isn’t that what you Yale grads say?” I give him a smile. “The wife’s not able,” I say. Not that it’s his business but he should know it’s not me or else Beth and I won’t get to the money shot.

“And your IQ is…?”

“Listen, buddy,” I say to him. I’m getting impatient now and Beth’s started to stare across the coffee shop like this isn’t anything to do with her. She’s looking far away and a little upset and it’s an effort getting past that later. I reach into my jacket. I know how to hold it so the label shows, and the lining flashes to its best advantage. Cerise satin, this one, on grey flannel. Boss makes them just so. And I hand him a business card. It gives him the low down on my business and the good neighbourhood I live in. Give him some comfort, I think. I’m all about transparency. The Harvard thing and whatever IQ Deidre’s stuffed out into cyberworld just don’t have anything to do with success, at the end of the day.

“I get results,” I say to him. “Never had an unsatisfied customer.” And I smile the way you do when you just know it’ll go your way.

Just then he gets all courteous. He looks closely at my card and raises his eyebrows. He’s impressed. He files it in his breast pocket and pats it through his jacket.

“Gabe,” he says, “thank you.” Very earnest he is, and I enjoy that. So when he says he needs just a little more time, that he and Beth have to talk—at this, she looks at him and squeezes his hand—I think well, what’s the hurry? They’ll be back soon enough. He gives me one of those crushing Yalean handshakes and she puts a perfumed kiss on my cheek and we agree to meet up again once they’ve had that talk.

The next week I’m in the office. I’m pretty relaxed after a decent hook up, and there’s a knock on the door. There’s a bailiff there, a squat man that smells like a row of sneakers in the locker room at the Y and he starts barking about fraud and Chapter 7. He hands over one of those business cards that’s like a high class wedding invitation. I have just enough time to reflect that the only person I’ve met lately who’d wield a card like that is David before the bailiff’s crew start confiscating filing cabinets and the breakfront Judy bought me for our fifteenth anniversary. I can see that out in the reception area—it’s not Judy’s day today—the secretary’s already reaching for her handbag and jacket.

I’m feeling a lot of rage and humiliation so that I can hardly drive, but somehow I’ve got to get home. On I-95 it feels like if I go fast enough I can stop the asteroid that’s about to fall on my house, but as soon as I pull into the driveway and turn off the engine, I know. Not much is different, but there’s one blind drawn in the window of the den and when I get to the front door I can hear the clink of the chain out back where Snowflake must be sniffing around. If she’s not in her basket while Judy’s doing the washing up and singing, if Snowflake’s not sitting on my wife’s knee while she watches Oprah, if she isn’t inside there’ll be no comfort for her. For Judy, my Judy, who stood up on Thanksgiving and gave God thanks that if she couldn’t have the family of her dreams, she had Gabe, the man of her dreams, and a happy, happy home.

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Kathryn Pallant is a fiction and poetry writer studying for a Creative Writing PhD at Manchester University, England. Her first novel, For Sea or Air, is represented by the Lucas Alexander Whitely agency and her poems have recently appeared in Cake and Antiphon magazines. Email: kpallant[at]hotmail.com

Travelling With Ashes

Beaver’s Pick
Gwenda Major


Photo Credit: Enkhtuvshin/Flickr (CC-by)

When Bob dropped down dead as he was hoeing between the rows of leeks, the last thing on Ellen’s mind was the trip to Budapest. And yet here she was, sitting on the balcony of the Hotel Gellert with a cup of tea and looking down on the huge squat tourist boats gliding along the sparkling Danube below.

“Do you think Dad realised how noisy it would be when he booked this hotel?” Rebecca sipped her tea and sighed again as a long yellow tram squealed and creaked its way off the Freedom Bridge and on to the riverside rails. Rebecca had been doing a lot of sighing since she and her mother had arrived on Tuesday.

“I don’t know love—but it wouldn’t have bothered him anyway. You know how he loved to watch traffic. Just look—you can see trams, cars, buses, boats and bikes—and there’s even a metro entrance over there. He would have been in heaven.”

“Mum—that’s inappropriate” Rebecca chided, frowning. She’d also been doing a lot of frowning in the last few days.

“Sorry—just a turn of phrase.” Ellen did not want to get into a pointless argument about semantics with her daughter. There was enough tension in the air already. “Can I get you another cup of tea? And aren’t you glad I packed the travel kettle? Why is it they never have hospitality trays in the rooms?”

“No, thanks—the tea just doesn’t taste the same—I suppose it’s the water.”

Rebecca had always been hard to please, reflected Ellen. Even as a little girl. I don’t want that dress, I want this one. I don’t want gravy on my vegetables, just on the side. I don’t want to see a film, I want to go ice skating. Contrary by nature. Bob doted on her of course. Couldn’t do enough for her. And Rebecca had always known she could wind him around her little finger. Just a pout or a frown and she’d get her own way. Ellen had given up arguing with Bob about it after a while. Saw it was useless.

 

The sad thing was that Bob had always wanted to see Budapest. “One of the best public transport systems in Europe,” he’d said. And had then added in a tone of wonderment, “and eighty percent of the city was destroyed after the Second World War.”

The Hotel Gellert was his choice too. Naturally he wasn’t to know he would die from a sudden massive heart attack only two weeks before their departure date. Which was a blessing really. No one wants to dwell on their imminent mortality do they?

Ellen had initially thought that setting off only days after the funeral seemed a little hasty. Lacking in respect somehow, but Rebecca had persuaded her—“Dad would have hated the idea of wasting the flight and the hotel booking,” she said. And going together meant they could share memories of Dad, make it a sort of tribute to him. Ellen had her doubts on that score too but said nothing. But when she mentioned she was thinking of bringing some of Bob’s ashes with them, Rebecca reacted with horror.

“I thought you said he always wanted his ashes spread at Morecambe—on the sea?”

“Well yes he did—where his family spent their summer holidays. And I will—most of them. I just thought it would be a good idea to bring some with us, so that a small part of your dad will have made it to Budapest after all.” In actual fact Bob had never given any indication of where he wanted his ashes spread—he hadn’t quite reached that age where it seems sensible to consider such matters. Ellen had thought the little white lie might be helpful to Rebecca, give her a focus for her grief. She should have known better of course.

Ellen stuck to her guns this time but then Rebecca went and googled ‘travelling with ashes’ and discovered it was recommended to carry a copy of the death certificate as well as the cremation certificate, plus a statement from the crematorium confirming the ashes belonged only to the person named. As if you would mix them with someone else’s, Ellen thought. The advice went on to say it would also be a good idea to inform the airline and possibly even contact the embassy in your destination country. “So you can see it’s out of the question mother,” Rebecca concluded with a note of satisfaction.

“That’s ridiculous” Ellen had argued. “I’m only bringing a token amount, not the whole contents of the urn. Nobody will be any the wiser.” She was quite firm about it so there was nothing Rebecca could do—except sulk. Which she did and was still doing—on and off.

 

Ellen gazed across at Gellert Hill. She’d read that Saint Gerard had been thrown off from the top in a barrel in the eleventh century, poor man. And further down was the entrance to the caves that had been a chapel and then a field hospital for the Nazis. It seemed Budapest had been invaded by all and sundry over the centuries. So much misery and pain. No wonder a lot of the Hungarians looked glum. Not surprising after what they’d gone through.

Rebecca didn’t seem very interested in the history which was a shame. She seemed to have decided that her being there at all was an act of great sacrifice on her part and that she was only doing it for her father. Whereas Ellen suspected she hadn’t been able to resist the idea of a free holiday—especially after her split with Mark. Maybe I’m being uncharitable she thought—but I do wish she would stop finding fault with everything. Like the hotel for example—the exterior of the Gellert was unquestionably magnificent, rising in its Art Nouveau splendour above the banks of the Danube, but it couldn’t be denied that the rooms were very dated and on the edge of shabby.

“Just look at that bath, Mother,” Rebecca had declared, pointing at the brown water stain below the taps. “And that shower head isn’t fixed on the wall properly.” Within minutes of arriving she had started to make a list of all the defects: the chipped tiles around the toilet, the rough surface in the bath where the enamel had worn away, the threadbare areas of the carpet, the dreary curtains. “I’ll do a review on TripAdvisor when we get back,” she said with grim satisfaction.

“Faded grandeur,” Ellen attempted in the hotel’s defence. “I agree it could all do with an update but I like it.” She wandered around on her own on the first morning, taking in the marble pillars, the luminous stained glass on the stairs, the wrought iron work and wood panelling. It’s like stepping back in time, she thought.

For the first few days they did the tourist round—a tour of the city on an open-topped bus, a cruise on the Danube, a trip to Margaret Island in the river with its water fountains and parks and a funicular ride up to the Royal Palace and National Gallery. On each trip Rebecca would murmur, “Dad would have loved this” or “poor Dad, he’ll never see this now” with a sniff and a wistful look. But she refused to accompany her mother into the famous Gellert baths next to the hotel, saying it would be a breeding ground for bacteria, so Ellen found herself sitting alone in the hot outdoor pool watching the dappled sunlight dance on the water. Later on she padded down to the tiled splendour of the thermal pools. I feel like an ancient Roman, Ellen thought to herself as she stretched her legs luxuriously in the forty-degree water, smiling indulgently at the sly kissing cherubs above the tiled doorway.

 

On their fourth morning Ellen crept out of bed at six and dressed quickly and quietly in the bathroom. She thought about leaving a note for Rebecca but decided she’d be back before she was missed. She eased the door open carefully and walked softly down the wide corridor. There was nobody about. Rather than use the lift she tiptoed down the graceful staircase to the lobby where a sleepy receptionist nodded at her without curiosity. Outside Ellen paused for a moment, breathing in the fresh chill air with its hint of sulphur. A hazy mist floated over the metallic surface of the Danube. It was very quiet. Ellen crossed the road and started climbing the steep concrete steps that wound up Gellert Hill. After ten minutes she reached a spot where there was a view down over Freedom Bridge and right along the river towards the Chain Bridge and the Parliament buildings. Her heart was pounding with the effort of the climb but her mind was clear. Carefully she took out the little Tupperware box from her pocket and prised open the lid.

No one can ever know what goes on inside a relationship, Ellen thought, and she had no intention of trying to tell Rebecca now. She had her own image of her father and that was only right. Bob had not been a bad man but he had been a difficult man, a bully who lacked empathy and consideration, a man who had never made Ellen feel wanted or happy. Perhaps she had been wrong to stay with him all these years. She accepted she was partly to blame.

 

Ellen shook out the contents of the little box on to the grass that sloped down on the other side of the railings. The ashes descended in a powdery cascade and then lay in a silvery sheen on the dewy grass. “Goodbye Bob,” she murmured. Ever since the funeral Ellen had still half-expected to hear his car on the drive and his voice shouting, “I’m home.” But now she finally knew he was gone. The sense of relief was overwhelming. Ellen gently tapped out the last of the ashes—let the bad go with the good. And then, taking one last look at the view, she turned and made her way cautiously down the uneven steps back to the hotel.

“Where on earth have you been mother?” Rebecca’s voice was shrill. “I was worried sick. I was just on the point of phoning Reception to report you missing.”

“Don’t be silly, Rebecca. I wasn’t missing. I just thought I’d go and spread your father’s ashes quietly on my own. I didn’t think you’d mind—we can do the rest together at Morecambe when we get home.”

For once Rebecca seemed to have little to say. Sitting up in bed in her pyjamas she looked more vulnerable and much younger. “What were you thinking of mother?” she wailed.

Deliberately misunderstanding her daughter Ellen replied, “Well, actually I was thinking how nice it would be to do one of those river cruises. After we get home I might look into it for next year.”

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Gwenda Major lives in the South Lakes area of the UK. Her passions are genealogy, gardening and graveyards. Gwenda’s stories have featured in numerous publications. She has written four novels and two novellas; three have been either longlisted or shortlisted for national competitions. Email: gwendamajor[at]hotmail.com