Closure

Beaver’s Pick
Alex Shishin


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

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

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

“Never,” he said.

“Do your best, Kozlov-sensei.”

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

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

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

“Bartholomew,” Ms. Toyohashi said.

“Good pronunciation!” he said.

Ms. Toyohashi nodded but did not smile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ms. Toyohashi appraised Bart with a puzzled look.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not any others?”

She shook her head.

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

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

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

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

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

“I am too,” Bart said.

“Eh?”

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

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

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

“Me too! We must hurry!”

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

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

“We’re taking a taxi,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bartholomew-sensei!” she exclaimed and stood.

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

“Yes, very hungry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She put down her chopsticks and looked up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In June he married Tsuki, his longtime girlfriend.

pencil

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

Deflation

Fiction
Tara Kaprowy


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Near the lake?”

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

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

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

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

“You’re damn right,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was, he decided, enough.

*

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

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

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

“I do,” she said.

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

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

Her accent was foreign. European.

“Hit a pothole or a curb?”

“No.”

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

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

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

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

He opened her trunk, which was filled with luggage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Here, let me hold it,” she said.

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

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

“I’m driving to Key West.”

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

“New York,” she said.

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

“What is this town?” she asked.

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

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

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

“Whatcha got there?” he asked.

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

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

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

“That’s not necessary.”

She nodded, deciding. “It is necessary.”

*

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

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

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

“What’s good?”

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

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

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

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

“You don’t need to…”

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

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

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

“See? That wasn’t hard.”

“No, I suppose not.”

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

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

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

“She was one of my favorite teachers.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh my. Are you up for election?”

“I am. It’s on Tuesday.”

“I see.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But it’s the same. Each day.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, ma’am.”

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

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

“I’m Marie.”

“I’m John David.”

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

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

“So no wife? No girlfriend?”

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

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

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

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

“Are you manipulative?” he responded instead.

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

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

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

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

“It’s always motivated by something.”

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

“Once.”

He took a bite. “Pie’s good.”

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

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

“Why not?”

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

“Unrequited love is the most perfect love.”

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

“Well, why didn’t you try for her?”

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

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

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

“Are you still even friends?”

“We lost touch.”

“Exactly.”

He felt a sudden shedding. She sipped her milkshake.

*

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

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

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

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

The Nun Who Loved Rammstein

Fiction
Natasha Cabot


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Union

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Meredith Lindgren


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

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

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

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

It said:

My dearest Sadie,

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

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

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

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

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

Love,

George Goodsell

And that was it.

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

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

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

“But what does it mean?”

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

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

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

“If so you borrowed my suicide.”

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

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

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

“San Francisco. Your least favorite Californian city.”

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

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

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

“You said it would hurt too much.”

“Sure.”

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

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

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

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

His memory was there.

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

“Yet, I’m still here.” He wavered.

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

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

“Yeah,” she said. She let them in.

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

She sat down.

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

It was unaddressed. It said:

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

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

George Goodsell

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

Sadie nodded.

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

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

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

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

“Is this good enough?”

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

“Let me look.”

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

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

“Yeah, sure.”

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

“No,” she said.

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

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

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

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

“Sadie, what are you doing here?”

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

“What people?”

“Finn and Heyduke.”

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

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

He didn’t react.

“There was a suicide note.”

“Maybe you should sit down.”

She sat in George’s chair.

“I’m not surprised,” his boss said.

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

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

“Can I see?” she said.

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

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

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

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

Sadie nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re not dead. You can’t be.”

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

“What? No.”

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

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

He had put the word holiday in his note.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

He waited.

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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.”

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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