Burn Your Life Down

Kevin P. Keating

Photo credit: Viewminder/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)


Professor Maura Deepmere, standing alone under the great sandstone arch at the entrance to the riverfront memorial park, reaches for the forbidden pack of cigarettes in the pocket of her pilled wool overcoat, a lingering habit from her “experimental phase” with Juliana. Deepmere is convinced the nicotine helps her to relax, but when she goes to strike the match, she is surprised to find that her hands are trembling. After taking those first few guilty puffs, she leans against the arch and listens for the gentle trill of a screech owl. Though she isn’t superstitious, she imagines she hears above the swiftly flowing current the low moans of the restless spirits rumored to haunt the river’s muddy embankments. Five years ago, a riverboat casino christened the Miss Bordereau sank near the oxbow bend after colliding with a barge that carried in its massive hold twelve tons of iron ore. Some of the bodies were never recovered, and on nights like this, when the smoky October air stirs the leaves, Deepmere thinks she can hear the dead as they place their final bets and lay their losing hands on the card tables.

From the corner of her eye she senses movement. Across the street a well-fed possum clambers from a sewer and plunges head-first into an overturned trash can. Deepmere shudders. Suddenly the cigarette tastes quite foul to her and she flicks it to the ground. After crushing the butt under the wide heel of one black boot, she begins walking back to her office on campus. Whenever she has trouble working, she takes long contemplative strolls through the empty streets of Sloperville, Ohio, a small college town in the Appalachian foothills. At this time of night, the greasy spoons and dive bars along Prest Street have all gone dark, and even the rowdiest of undergraduates has returned with vampiric gloom to the dorms to await the dreaded sunrise.

An hour ago, while sipping her customary cup of herbal tea, Deepmere put the finishing touches on “International Episodes: The Real and Surreal in the ‘High’ Middle Period,” an exhaustively researched essay in which she argues that an uninspired Henry James, under his older brother’s medical supervision, had regularly used nitrous oxide. One of these “treatments” resulted in The Aspern Papers, James’s indisputable masterpiece. Penned between uncontrollable fits of laughter and tears, the tale concerns the misadventures of a “publishing scoundrel” who sets off on a doomed quest to Venice to unearth the private letters of a lecherous dead poet. In his underhanded attempts to obtain the letters, the protagonist deliberately misleads a virtuous young woman. But the young woman, with dubious designs of her own, may not be as innocent as she seems.

This essay, like many others Deepmere has published, is sure to generate controversy when it appears in the next issue of Conclusions & Completeness, the leading journal of Gilded Age Studies. This time, however, Deepmere anticipates not only sharp criticism but open ridicule and vehement demands that she retract her paper. Last spring, at a prestigious academic conference, an especially hostile critic, motivated more by professional jealousy than ideological zeal, took to the podium to publicly denounce her work. “I think we can all agree, can’t we, that the professor’s highly speculative claims and maddening baroque style border on self-parody, hallmarks of a decadent, self-indulgent culture that once pervaded our liberal arts departments and damaged so many students.”

Although it’s something to which she would never admit, Deepmere rather enjoys the notoriety that comes from being such a polarizing figure. Thanks to her prolific output and regular appearances on public radio, there is a small but dedicated coterie of Deepmere enthusiasts who continue to cite her work in their own seldom read scholarly papers and who treat the appearance of a new Deepmere essay as a kind of literary event, no small feat in an age when serious scholarship is on the wane. “The important thing,” Juliana used to remind her, “is not to allow success to go to that great big head of yours.”

Even now, five years after Juliana gathered up her secret stash of blue chips and stormed a final time from their house, Deepmere continues to resent her for her constant hectoring, lack of encouragement, and sheer ingratitude. Hard experience has taught her that the best cure for an inflated ego is to spend more time staring at the empty pages of a notebook or the blinking cursor on a blank computer screen. Writing is one of the few activities that fills her with a sense of existential dread, and on lonely nights like this, when the campus is completely deserted, she is convinced she will never again have anything original and interesting to say. The startling thunderclap of inspiration can no longer be heard above the deafening screams of self-doubt, but because she has nowhere else to go, she chooses to listen to the screams and climbs the steps in Clairmont Hall.

She returns to her third-floor office and begins brainstorming ideas for a new project. At her desk she listens to the rhythmic clatter of branches against the windowpane and contemplates the crescent moon shining through the trees. Grateful she has a view of the dark hills and not the river with its somber arch and the campus quad with its imposing wrought iron gates, she leans back in her chair and wonders if Henry James did his best work after midnight. It would certainly seem so, judging from the malevolent specters that disturb his characters. With mildly chewed pencil in hand, she rests her heavy eyes and, within a few minutes, falls into a deep and dreamless sleep.


At two in the morning, according to the wildly inaccurate mantel clock on her shelf, Deepmere comes awake with a start. From behind her closed door, she hears the jovial murmur of male voices and catches the unmistakable scent of marijuana. Her left foot has gone totally numb, and when she tries to stand her knees crack sharply in the empty office. Like some medieval dungeon keeper, she drags her leg across the room and cracks open the door. A feeble light is burning in an office at the opposite end of the corridor. Over the summer the office served as a kind of storage room and temporary shelter for adjunct faculty, but this semester it belongs to the new writer-in-residence, a man Deepmere has met only once at a painfully polite faculty party. She makes it a point never to mingle with the creative writing staff. Their prose is appalling and their insights into human nature embarrassingly trivial. But then few writers possess the style and subtlety of a master like Henry James.

She cocks her head and listens.

“No, really, you should write a book about my life. Okay, so I’ve never been hunted down by a redneck cartel, but I have been chased by a bunch of wasted frat boys. Believe me, you don’t want to piss off a two-hundred-pound meathead with whiskey on his breath and a baseball bat in his hand.”

“Kid, in your line of work you must encounter all kinds of interesting characters.”

“My line of work? Oh, well, hey, this isn’t exactly a full-time job, you know. I prefer to think of it as a side hustle.”

“But you do provide a service.”

“Well, sure. I mean, I sell to family, friends, acquaintances. Some students, too. But only the ones I can trust to be cool about it. I never sell to faculty members. So far you’re the only exception. But, come on, how many badass authors will I get to meet in my lifetime?”

“Don’t confuse the persona with the real man. By the way, kid, this is some terrific shit.”

“Third generation sinsemilla. I call it Mellow Fruitfulness. In honor of the season.”

“The season?”

“John Keats. You read poetry, right?”

“Sure, kid. Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed.”

“I’d like to pick your brain one day, but I have to take off. Believe it or not, I’m the only medicine man in town who makes house calls this late at night. And business always picks up after the bars close.”

“Makes sense.”

“Hey, enjoy the rest of your night. And like I said, my weed is pretty mellow but I’d advise you not to drink any of that tea tonight. I know you’re no amateur or anything, but with this stuff you need to start off slow. Take a few modest sips until the desired effect is achieved. Took me a whole year to get the nutrients in the soil just right.”

“Potent, huh?”

“One of my buddies, a theoretical physics major, totally lost his shit after drinking a cup. He sat in the corner of my apartment and sucked his thumb for almost an hour. Then he convinced himself that the world was nothing more than a hypnotic lightshow, that all of existence was like a film flickering through a movie projector. Good a guess as any, I suppose. To tell you the truth, I’ve always considered shrooms a sentient life form.”

“Well, in that case, I better keep this fancy tin right here in my desk drawer. If I bring it home with me, I might be tempted to sample some before I hit the hay.”

“Guaranteed to provide loads of inspiration. A beautiful example of how art and science can come together in meaningful dialogue.”

“I suppose that makes you my collaborator, doesn’t it? Tell you what, kid. If this stuff is as good as you say it is, I’ll be sure to acknowledge you in my next novel.”

“Are you serious?”

“Perfectly serious.”

“No fucking way! Oh, shit, thanks, Mr. Ryker.”

“Malachi. And thank you for coming to my office at such a late hour.”

“No worries, Malachi.”

“Drive carefully.”

Deepmere slides behind her door and spies a young man slouching down the hallway. His blonde beard grows in patches around his cheeks and neck and his jeans hang loosely around his hips. Deepmere knows the type only too well, a pale and underfed commuter kid who survives on a steady diet of Ramen noodles, bong hits, and big bottles of soda and spends endless hours playing violent video games in his trailer. Juliana introduced her to the manners and customs of the people who live in these misty hollers and hills. A sharp-tongued townie with a taste for bourbon lemonade, late night poker tournaments and middle-aged women, Juliana enrolled in Deepmere’s seminar on heteronormativity in nineteenth-century American literature. Though crude in class with her off-the-cuff pronouncements, she showed remarkable promise as an undergraduate. She just needed some guidance, that’s all, a little refinement, and before the semester had ended, they’d begun to see each other socially.

Now, adjusting his wire-rimmed glasses on the bridge of his acne-speckled nose, the boy approaches the stairs and suddenly stops. “Almost forgot!” He reaches into his duffel bag and hurries back to the corner office. “Would you mind signing a book for me?”

“My pleasure, kid. What’s the last name again?”

“Archer. Iggie Archer. Guess you need to know that if you’re going to put my name in the acknowledgements page of your next novel.”

“To my favorite botany major…”

“Wow, I can’t believe this. Mad Malachi Ryker. In the flesh. Smoking my weed and signing my favorite book. Well, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading your stories, Mr. Ryker, it’s never to underestimate the power of meaningful coincidences.”

“A keen observation, kid. Yes, a keen observation.”


Thirty minutes later, after retrieving the master key from the department secretary’s office, Deepmere creeps along the corridor. Taped to Malachi Ryker’s door is a life-sized poster of an unshaven middle-aged man wearing a pork pie hat and mirrored sunglasses. He looks, at least in her estimation, like a deranged Buster Keaton. In his arms he cradles a .50 caliber double-barrel shotgun, and with a smug smile he leans against a white 1957 Plymouth Fury, a bloated beached whale of an automobile. Above his head a bold-faced caption reads: “Burglars, please carry ID so I can notify next of kin.”

A number of campus activists, outraged by the poster, have demanded the dean amend the university’s code of conduct to include language that expressly forbids faculty members from “promoting any message that valorizes firearms.” The dean, an obsequious little fellow with a nervous twitch in his left eye, has agreed to these changes but says the new rules cannot go into effect until next year. Deepmere shakes her head. In her day someone would have ripped the damned thing down and burned it in effigy.

Worried she might find Ryker slumped over his desk, she presses her ear to the door and gently knocks. When no one answers, she slides the master key into the lock and cautiously opens the door. His office smells like a smoke-filled pool hall. Mounted to the wall above his desk is an elk skull with a lethal pair of antlers. Aside from a dirty ashtray and a manual typewriter, the office is empty. There is no comfy ottoman draped with a crocheted blanket, as Deepmere has in her own office. No teapot or individually wrapped mints in a glass bowl at the corner of the desk. No framed lithographs by John Singer Sargent or custom shelves lined with treasured first editions arranged alphabetically by author’s last name. No degrees or awards or commendations of any kind.

Deepmere flicks on the light and, taking care not to disturb anything, steps inside. She goes to his desk and opens the drawers one at a time. Ryker seems like the kind of man who, just for fun, might place a mousetrap at the bottom of a drawer, and she delicately lifts his notebooks and three-ring binders. In the lower left-hand drawer she finds a small silver tea tin. She lifts the tin, pops the lid, and takes an experimental sniff. It smells damp and earthy, like the forest floor after a steady rain. She waves it under her nose and turns her head to let out an explosive sneeze.

She places the tin on the desktop and searches for a tissue. In another drawer, she finds a tidy stack of paperbacks. Burn Your Life Down: A Novel. The front cover depicts a ferocious one-armed woman with a wild mop of red hair and a bloody meat cleaver in her hand. After wiping her nose with her sleeve, Deepmere reads the description on the back cover and wonders how anything so vulgar, so contrived could garner universal acclaim from reviewers. By some strange chance, the plot concerns a young woman named Juliana, its one redeeming quality, and Deepmere finds herself turning the pages almost against her will.

This is the story, at least in part, of how my older sister Juliana lost her right arm during third shift at Lambert & Sons Rendering Plant. She was just twenty years old when the high-speed belt of a transit bin ripped the arm clean from its socket and whisked it away, along with a pile of animal entrails, to a steaming kettle at the end of the line. My sister, evidently in shock, simply stood there and watched her own hand wave goodbye as it sank slowly into the percolating sludge.

Linus Lambert, the owner’s son and heir apparent, blamed her for the mishap. “Gross negligence,” he called it. He docked her wages for the day and managed to cheat her out of a substantial financial settlement. She’d been drinking on the job and had fallen asleep at her station. This was an incontestable fact. Blood tests revealed alcohol in her system, and a co-worker confessed to sharing a flask with her. But what human being could stay sober working in an environment like that? So, one hot summer night, with my older brothers as accomplices, she decided to make the Lambert family pay dearly for its grievous sins.

As the youngest of four siblings, I’ve had to piece together her story from a variety of sources, including police reports, court records, newspaper clippings, and late-night conversations with cousins and neighbors. Some people were reluctant to talk about the past. They may never admit to it, but they still fear my sister’s wrath even though she’s been dead and buried now these twenty-five years.

Some of the details are pure speculation on my part, but mainly I tried to stick to the facts, tried to tell the truth of how Juliana Jefferies, the Terror of Touchett, Ohio, and the woman who raised me, operated a brutally efficient criminal syndicate out of our clapboard house on Stackpole Lane and how, for a few years, she became the most feared citizen of our forsaken county.

Deepmere finds herself chuckling at the sporadic decapitations and spectacular shootouts. Pure trash, but she is so captivated by the narrative that she doesn’t immediately notice the sound of creaking floorboards outside Ryker’s office. She freezes. For an instant she thinks she hears a muffled cough and the heavy breathing of someone who has just climbed three flights of stairs. In a panic she bolts across the room and switches off the light. With her back pressed against the door, she listens for footsteps.

Except for the steady hiss and occasional clank of the old radiator, all is quiet.

Silently berating herself for her recklessness, she shoves Ryker’s novel in her pocket and grabs the tin from the desk. She looks around the room to make sure everything is in its proper place and, her heart racing, hurries to the secretary’s office to return the key.


Early the next morning an idea for a sensational new essay strikes Professor Deepmere with almost physical force, and she spends a very productive day at her desk. She intends to show how on a rainy Parisian afternoon in 1875, at a fashionable cafe on the Rue de Bretagne, a young Henry James, then drafting his debut novel Roderick Hudson, met and became fast friends with internationally acclaimed fantasy writer Jules Verne. Over the next few years, Verne would exert a profound influence on James’s creative output, particularly his “romances” and ghost stories. The evidence for this theory is flimsy, but Deepmere is so convinced of its essential truth that she furiously scribbles down her thoughts until her aching hand is stained with blue ink.

When she finally decides to take a break, she looks up from her desk and is startled to find that night has fallen. She has been in her office now for close to twenty-four hours and has neglected to cancel her classes for the day. She vaguely recalls hearing a knock at the door and the phone ringing on the corner of her desk.

“Never have I… Never have I…”

She swivels in her chair and catches her distorted reflection in the dark window. She needs to go home, take a scalding shower, write an apologetic email to her students for her unexpected absence. She pushes aside a pile of papers, but before leaving her office she swallows down the cold and bitter dregs from the bottom of her teapot.

A few minutes later she finds herself walking through the bustling town. She is sensitive to noise, to crowds, to loud music, but tonight she actually enjoys the tumult all around her. It’s an unusually warm Friday night in late October, and the streets are teaming with students gathering outside the bars and pizza parlors. It all feels strangely tutorial, the bright neon signs in the windows and the live music pouring from the open doors, as if each kaleidoscopic display of color and virtuosic guitar riff has something unique and meaningful to teach her. At an intersection she stops beside a lamppost to light a cigarette, and for just a second, she feels a little envious of those sweetly intoxicated sorority sisters walking hand in hand and calling to the cute boys standing on the opposite corner. Juliana used to bully her into going out for a drink, a smoke. “Loosen up, relax, stop being so self-conscious.” These were her sacred commandments, and up until their final night together Deepmere always obeyed.

For old time’s sake she considers going into their favorite bar and ordering a bourbon lemonade. But then she sees the giant Plymouth Fury floating toward her like an alien spacecraft, its professionally polished bone-white finish reflecting and magnifying the lights on the strip. In an asphyxiating cloud of blue exhaust, the Fury pulls to the curb. A middle-aged man wearing a pork pie hat leans across the front seat and lowers the passenger side window. He smiles at her, and the green dashboard lights make him look less like Buster Keaton and more like Boris Karloff.

“Hello there, Doc. Need a lift?”

“Thank you for the offer, Mr. Ryker, but I believe I’ll walk.”

“I’ve been looking for you. Where’ve you been?”

“I don’t think that’s any of your business.”

“Maybe you should hop in. You don’t look well, if you’ll forgive my saying so. ”

“I feel perfectly fine, Mr. Ryker. I haven’t walked this strip on a Friday night in years. I find it… enlightening.”

He stares hard into her eyes and frowns. “Jesus, Doc, how much of that tea did you drink?”

“Is that an accusation, Mr. Ryker?”

“Would you like me to call someone? A friend? Your spouse?”

She lets her cigarette fall from her fingertips and approaches the car. “Oh, now I think I understand. You’re looking for new material, aren’t you? A funny story for your fanboys? The unfailingly sedate professor having a bad trip? I read your latest novel, Mr. Ryker, and I must say, you certainly are an imaginative storyteller. Albeit one with a rather twisted sense of humor. Some might even argue a decidedly sick sense of humor.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“Your novel is deeply offensive. You turned the people of these mountains into an appalling mass of faceless stereotypes. At times it felt as though you were taking the reader on a guided tour of some demented roadside attraction, a freak show crawling with babbling lunatics and serial killers”

As she continues speaking, she is forced to raise her voice. It’s karaoke night, and inside the bar someone growls an obscene version of an old-fashioned love song. Behind her a small group of students stops to listen. Not sure if they’re listening to her or to that awful singer, Deepmere spins on her heels and glares. In the Fury’s red taillights their glowing faces look like brightly painted masks with large empty eyes and wide mocking grins. They’re impostors, not students, she’s sure of it. Spies sent from the dean’s office to observe her behavior and write a detailed report. She’s been reprimanded already for her inappropriate relationships with students.

Deepmere, sensing trouble, backs slowly toward the car. She opens the passenger door and climbs inside.

Ryker says nothing.

In silence they drive along Prest Street, braking occasionally for the masked figures shambling from the smoke shops and seedy taverns. Deepmere stares in fascination and tries to make sense of what she is seeing. She is so entranced by the sights and sounds that she doesn’t immediately notice Iggie Archer staring at her from the Fury’s enormous backseat. He blinks bug-like from behind the smudged lenses of his glasses.

“What is the meaning of this?” she says.

Ryker shakes his head. “I think you know.”

“No, actually, I don’t. Perhaps you’d care to explain.”

“Something went missing from my office last night.”

In her sternest professorial voice she says, “We are not having this conversation, Mr. Ryker. Not in this vehicle. And most certainly not with a student present.”

“He’s as much a part of this as I am.”

“Yes,” says Deepmere, “and he’s going to pay a price for it.”

Iggie smirks. “What exactly do you mean by that?”

“What I mean, Mr. Archer, is that according to the Ohio criminal code, the penalty for growing and selling hallucinogenic mushrooms carries a minimum of one year in state prison. And I’m quite certain that a college tribunal, once it finishes a thorough investigation into this matter, will recommend immediate expulsion. You can, of course, avoid all of this trouble if you simply drop out now. Hmm, yes, I believe I should give you that option.”

Ryker sighs and says, “No one is going anywhere, Doc.”

He spins the wheel hard to the left, and they turn down an alley where the loose bricks clatter like bones beneath the tires.

“You are in no position, Mr. Ryker, to dictate the terms of an agreement. I told you that I didn’t want to have this conversation. But since you’ve insisted on taking things this far, you should hear the rest of my demands. You need to make a public confession. Tonight I’d like you to go home and write a letter to the editor of the college newspaper, explaining how you purchased illegal drugs from a student. And just for good measure, I’d like you to send copies to your editor and literary agent.”

Iggie thrusts his head forward. “You hypocrite, who the hell are you to speak this way?”

“Cool it, kid, let me handle this.” Ryker turns the wheel again and mutters, “This place is a maze.”

Spittle flies from Iggie’s lips. “Do you know how much college costs these days?”

Deepmere shrugs. “Not my concern, Mr. Archer.”

“I have loans.”

“Then I suggest you scrub dishes or wait tables. Or are those jobs too menial for you?”

“Growing shrooms and weed is hard work. There’s a lot of chemistry involved. There’s commerce, too. Books to keep. At least I’m making practical use of the bullshit courses I take at this second-rate college.”

“What did you just say?” With shocking agility, Deepmere turns and grabs Iggie by the ear. “What did you say about this institution?”

She twists his ear and squeezes until the boy’s face turns red and then a rather lovely shade of purple. Wine, maybe. A rich, satiny Pinot Noir. At first he smiles defiantly and then he tries in desperation to yank his head away.

“You’re not hearing me. I’m trying to help you. I’m trying to save you from years of trouble. You silly fool, look what you’re doing right now. Peddling dope and driving around town with a part-time instructor. I don’t think you realize the serious danger you’re in. Students develop complicated feelings for their mentors, and the relationship can spiral quickly out of control. Yes, you might learn some new and wonderful things, but like everything else in this world, the relationship will evolve, sometimes in ways you cannot possibly anticipate. One day you may find that your mentor, just to keep the doomed relationship going, has become your enabler.”

By the time the car comes to a screeching stop, Deepmere has grabbed a handful of hair and is shouting, “Isn’t that right, Juliana? Isn’t that right? Answer me!”

The passenger door flies open, and before she can raise an objection, she feels a pair of powerful hands pulling her from the vehicle.

“Crazy bitch,” Ryker snarls.

She is being assaulted, profaned, but no one hears her screams. She slaps and scratches and kicks her assailant, and when she finally frees herself from his grip, she runs over to the great sandstone arch. She pulls the collar of her wool coat tight around her throat and looks back to see if she is being pursued. A lovely white mist rises all around her, and she notices how everything seems eerily still.

“Wait a minute,” she whispers. “What are we doing here? Are you giving a reading, Mr. Ryker? Is this some kind of avant-garde literary event?”

In a kind of trance, she touches the arch and with one unvarnished finger traces the familiar names engraved there for all time.

“I need to work, to write. You must take me back to my office.”

But she has already forgotten the brilliant idea that, only a short time ago, had taken complete possession of her. She crosses the memorial park, and at the river’s edge she searches her coat pockets for her cigarettes. Once again, her hands are trembling, but this time she fumbles the matchbook and drops it to the ground. “So clumsy of me. So stupid. You’ll wait for me, won’t you, Juliana? Please don’t go gambling tonight.”

She kneels in the wet grass and whimpers, but the giant white Fury has already rumbled away into the misty night.


My first novel, The Natural Order of Things (Vintage 2013), was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes/First Fiction award and received starred review from Publishers Weekly and Booklist. My second novel, The Captive Condition (Pantheon 2015), was launched at the San Diego Comic Con International and received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. Email: kevinpkeating[at]hotmail.com

An Aroma of Plums

Travis Inglis

Photo credit: jay-chilli/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

She, Rose, she thinks about it. It’s funny how life changes. You grow and get older, and those days of youthhood, terrifying and ballistic no longer exist. What was carefreeness, is now unfreeness. Unfreeness. She likes this thought. She likes words that aren’t words. When had she signed up to this life? She cannot remember.

Looking around Anna’s home, she sees furniture new and shiny, she sees clean surfaces and good salaries. She sees old friends, all hidden and dressed to impress, the way women do. Dressed as metaphors of their happy shiny lives. Dressed to impress each other, impress and shame. She wonders whether there is a breath of honesty anywhere.

The wine is good, it is red. She is an adult; therefore, it is important that she knows the difference between good wine and bad wine. She had learnt the difference between red wine and white wine when she was thirteen. She also at thirteen learnt that they both do the same job, more or less. Happiness, bliss, openness, chaos, hangover, vomit, dread, repeat. And then when she was in her awkward growth between childhood and adulthood, she learnt its other trick, the one involving lack of inhibition and sex. It was a good red, fruity note, an aroma of plums.

What had happened to these other women, her old friends? They acted man-made, their appearance and how they moved, were full of straight lines, full of function. They were shaped and fitted by trends and expectations. They are cookie-cutter versions of each other. Fashions usurping truth. Artificial. Maybe, she thinks, maybe she was too. This realisation had been haunting her. She had always thought she was on the outside looking in. That she occupied the high ground so often claimed by devout-individualists. Devout-individualists. She smiles, smirks at her new phrase.

This was another trick of wine. The self-doubt about one’s worth, about one’s uniqueness.

There apparently is a lot to talk about. At first it appears that the conversation must be around spouses and kids, and childcares and homeownership. This bores her, it more than bores her it sucks the will from her. She replaces her will with wine, which she sucks from the glass. She tries to outwardly look interested. Tries to mask the straight lines she can feel in her face. She wonders whether everyone else is pretending to look interested too, whether they are burning on the inside. A room of masks?

She is a risk taker, always has been. There is foreplay in the pursuit of annihilation, a fulfilment in the chaos that she can cause. It is addictive, like the taste of blood, and dangerous, like choking in sex.

Her friends all have children; she is the only one who sees the sense in being childless. And of the four, she again is the only one not to have married. She had been with the same man for ten years, but couldn’t reconcile why you would marry, convenience maybe? They had never talked about marriage. What would it change?

Maybe it was time to grow up. Maybe it’s just the way of things. Nature or social conditioning. That self-doubt. Maybe she should pity herself.

The room talks weddings. Her friends are in competition, each trying to extend the importance and pomp of their big days. Openly take pride in the obscene amount of money spent, and waste created. As the politely veiled insults battle, she opens a second bottle of wine and observes. She laughs internally at the idiocy, and the ridiculousness of it all. These women are clichés.

She escapes into memory, into fantasy. Drifts away from that room, that space, those old friends and their words. Memories are like lucid dreams. She controls and shapes histories. Connects dots and creates new pasts, discards unneeded truths.

She remembers the wedding, Tom’s wedding, Anna’s wedding. Like a story told for generations, it changes from truth to myth. She replays the chaos, the risk, the sounds. The pictures are dull. What are dreams and what are memories, what’s the difference?

It is unhealthy, but she remembers the rush of destroying something beautiful. When was the last time she had been destructive? She misses that high.

Lucid dreaming mixes with reality.

The battle has simmered down, as it does between old friends. Memories and laughs are being shared. They talk now about Anna’s wedding. She had been beautiful. It was a beautiful wedding.

Her own private peace.

A memory from her hidden and dangerous past; sin flashes in her mind. Heavies her breath. She had enjoyed Anna’s wedding, enjoyed it well, the risk of being caught.

A lot of money had been spent on that wedding. And looking around the pristine house it seems important to Anna to display wealth. Everything shines with expense. The house is imposing, and the little corner of it where wine is being taken, is not little at all. Thirty square metres dedicated to the sole function of lounging formally. High ceilings and chandeliers. Decor and furnishings are a blinding array of whites.

She has an urge. An internal fantasy. A secret joke. Foreplay. An urge to spill wine on the obscene whiteness. Destroy something beautiful. She thinks about fighting this urge. The chaos is too tempting. She reaches for her glass, clasps her fingers around the stem and drinks. She hesitates, but only briefly, returns the glass to the table. Her hand spasms. There is a magnificent spill, and a bloody stain across the blinding white rug.

There is a rush by her friends, and an attempt to reverse time, reverse the bloody stain. A brief chaos brings her a brief satisfaction. A low-current of joy. It does not last.

The moment passes and the afternoon moves on. That’s how it is, events evaporate into nothing.

Wine has eroded inhibitions. They are back onto the topic of weddings. Weddings and who had fucked who in past lives, in the hedonism of the wedding reception.

She looks at her friend Sarah, she remembers her how she used to be. Reckless and beautiful. Sarah would leave carnage not chaos. Looking now at her friend, she remembers how much she was in love with her, that lifetime ago. A catastrophic beauty. She smiles at her thoughts; she smiles at Sarah. Sarah winks back, and in that briefest of moments they have removed their masks. They are twenty-one again. This is dangerous. This is honest.

She is terrified by the way Sarah is looking at her. There is experience of memory; that look will lead to devastation. She is alive with electric current caused by the foreplay.

“I know what you did.” Sarah announces to the room, face hidden behind false expression. Was she play-acting?

“What…? What did I do?” She, Rose, she speaks, conceals her real fear, the fear of the unknown, not the fear of admission.

“I can’t say.”

She could leave it there. The moment would move on. But she wants that rush and completeness of chaos.

“Why can’t you say?” She dares her friend.

“You know why… you… you hooked up with Tom.” It was a masterpiece. “Tell her!”

“What! You’ve got it wrong.” She was in between excitement and fear, she didn’t know whether to confess.

“Tell her! At their wedding!”

“You’ve only got half the story.” This was not a game anymore, this was real, this was people’s lives. People’s expensive, shiny lives. But she cannot stop herself. Vile admission spills forth. “I fucked him, well… he fucked me! He bent me over and he came inside me.” She is shocked by her own words. Shocked by the crudeness.

Chaos and carnage.

“Get out!” A voice pierces the room. She assumes it is Anna’s, she is electric and blind.

She stands and walks. But high with the moment and drunk enough not to give a shit, she cannot help herself, adds. “And you know what, I didn’t enjoy it!”

There is fury and violence and punches, kicks and hair is loosened. Skin is collected by fingernails. She does not fight back; she just laughs and spits and smiles and bleeds. Oh the fucking rush.

She is the centre of the world.

The moment passes, like all moments.

Bliss of chaos, she feels alive with self-harm. Her face is swollen from the attack, she loves the pain. She is aglow with self-satisfaction.

As she drives, erratic and reckless and drunk and dangerous. She is living.

It is glorious, her triumph of annihilation. She is wet thinking about the ramifications, Tom and Anna and their happiness distressed. The destroying of friendships, a cathartic culling of useless people from her life.

And from the safety of home, and in her garage, and still in her car, secure and blissful, she is static with orgasm. And as she climaxes, she admires her perfect lie. Laughs to herself, satisfied and electric, Imagine, she thinks, if only it had been true.


Travis Inglis has been living abroad on and off for the past ten years collecting stories, he guesses. His work is influenced a lot by the idea of home and identity and finding out how to fit in in this world. Email: travisinglis[at]gmail.com

Solution B

Zixu Fan

Photo credit: Chris Spiegl/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

“Damn it! God damn it!” he shouts out as he scratches his pen hard on his paper. The hour hand has already turned to twelve but the last geometry problem on his exercise book remains unsolved.

“Stop doing your math, Ian,” his mother says and barges into his room. “You’ve spent two hours on this question. Have a rest now. Don’t run into a dead end every time.”

“Get out of my room! I’ll solve it out in five minutes,” he yells at her, like a mad lion.

She frowns, but still follows his words, and says, “Only five more minutes” before she steps out of his room.

He looks at the clock, which shows 12:10 a.m. He still hasn’t started his Chinese and English homework, as he always does his math exercise first after coming back home. Finishing math gives him a sense of security, so he will study other subjects more calmly and efficiently. But it seems that something has gone wrong with his exercise today: he fails to prove one side length of the triangle in the last question is 5 cm, though he is quite sure it should be 5.

As Mr. King has collected all the key pages from them, there is no way to consult the answer and get any new ideas. He cannot imagine what will happen if he doesn’t work out the last question this evening. Will Mr. King force him to stand outside the classroom again, which he did when Ian just entered the school two years ago, because he was only one minute late for class? Will Mr. King rip his exercise book into pieces, like he did to Laura’s notebook, since she fell asleep in his class? Will he throw out one question after another to him in class every day and ask him to copy the questions and answers one hundred times if he can’t answer them, the way he did to Bryant, the student who doesn’t like to study?

He thought Mr. King looked like a frail scholar the first time he met him, as he had a short and thin figure and wore a pair of black-framed glasses. He doesn’t remember exactly when he became a tyrant to them. As both the class and math teacher, he always said they should study harder, as they are one of the elite experimental math classes. Always delayed his class, sometimes not finishing until the next Chinese class or English class begins. Often liked to add a math class when school finished early in the afternoon. Each time before their monthly test, mid-term or final, he would grit his teeth and point at them with a strained face. “Write your paper carefully. We must achieve the highest score among the whole grade. The highest.”

Fortunately, the class lived up to their teacher’s expectation every month, not as a result of hundreds of classes he taught and lots of homework he gave, but of the high pressure and the fear, the fear that he may treat them like Bryant if they drag down the class average. As the lowest student, Bryant always sat in the corner, as Mr. King arranged their seats according to their ranks. “Top students sit in the front, while low-level students sit in the back. The lowest is also in charge of throwing out the garbage every day.” So he named Bryant “The Garbage King,” to warn everybody if you fall behind, you cannot escape the same punishment.

But even though they were the top class, Mr. King was still not satisfied with it. “Don’t feel too proud. Don’t think you become a somebody simply because you get a high score. You should keep working hard and try to compete with other excellent middle schools in Beijing one day. Never get slack. Arrogance may destroy you.”

Ian knows Mr. King really hates conceited people. When Lemon, the math genius, questioned one of his statements in class, he asked him to sit down, boiling with anger. “You know all of them, so you think you’re number one? That you’re qualified to challenge me? Let me give you a university-level axiom. Prove it, and hand it to me after class.”

Five minutes have passed, and Ian is still struggling with the question. As a middle-level student, he dares not make a mistake when doing homework, having classes, or taking exams, though he doesn’t like math. Mr. King is content with what he does most of the time. But what’s wrong with today’s homework? It is not the Olympic math Mr. King gives them on Friday, which is often unsolvable; it is only the exercise book they do every day. It should be easy enough. It should be.

He tries to organize his thoughts again as he begins to sweat. Maybe I have made a mistake when proving it. Maybe I lost a condition when writing the deduction. Maybe. I’ll try it one more time.

“Fuck,” he says several minutes later, tossing the book on the floor.

“You’ve promised me five minutes, and now it’s over. Come out and have some fruit,” his mother says with a more serious tone this time.

“Shut up.”

“Don’t think you’re allowed to speak like this only because it’s your math assignment. Your father and I are doing our best to assist you. We are not your servants, and you’re not Mr. King. If you don’t come out for rest now, I will not help you with anything from now on,” his mother says and places the fruit plate on the table before she leaves.

Being silent for a while, Ian throws his pen to the corner of his desk, rushes into the living room, grabs all the grapes on the table and stuffs them into his mouth. As he is munching hard, he hears his father’s hoarse voice from his study.

“Don’t hurry me. I’m trying to solve the assignment with all my strength. I’m almost sixty and must work all day for the family. I know what time it is. Don’t blame me. Isn’t it you who chose this school for him? Other middle schools in Beijing may also have lots of homework and exams, but they don’t have such an insane teacher. Now I must pick up middle school geometry and work out the problem, just so the teacher doesn’t punish him. It’s all your fault so don’t blame me.”

Ian pricks up his ears but can only hear his mother’s mumble. When he finishes the fruit a few seconds later, his mother returns, “Your father will solve it out for you. Now go to bed. It’s already 12:30.”

“Impossible. I haven’t done the Chinese and English homework yet,” he says as he walks into his room again.

“What can I say? Why don’t you do the easy work first? You’re almost fourteen and still act like a little boy? Finish them immediately.” She slaps the table, wipes it, and takes the empty plate to the kitchen.

His Chinese and English assignments are quite simple today: to copy the new characters and new words and make some sentences. He sits down and takes a deep breath, trying to calm down. He writes down the Chinese characters and the English words fast, but still tries to keep them legible. Their Chinese and English teachers are also easily angered if they do not do their work well. Miss Jiang, their Chinese teacher, is probably undergoing her menopause these days because she always bawls them out like a shrew when they don’t finish her homework or get a bad grade in exams. “You all love to do your Mr. King’s math, and never learn my lesson?” is what she often groans. Their English teacher is an eccentric old lady, who never shows her temper in front of the class, and would go to tell their misbehavior to Mr. King instead, which is the most frightening, as Mr. King would never spare them and give them detention and lots of homework on that day.

Because of the punishing homework, Ian has stayed up late many times, and learned to yawn with his lips closed during class, in case that Mr. King may find it out. Like last Friday afternoon when they were having an extra class, he got extremely sleepy but still hid his yawns, and tried to straighten his back on the seat. The temperature in the room kept rising as the door and windows were all closed. He could feel his face glowing, as hot as a fever. Staring at the blackboard, he didn’t know what Mr. King was teaching and writing but kept nodding to him. When his eyelids were about to meet each other, Mr. King suddenly threw his chalk towards someone in the back, and before everybody realized what was happening, he threw his textbook hard in the same direction, with wide and burning eyes.

“Ouch!” One girl sitting in the back put her hand over her mouth when everybody turned around. It seemed like the book had hit her teeth.

But this was not enough for Mr. King. He dashed toward the back of the classroom and roared, “What the hell are you doing?”

Ian dared not look back. He only heard Mr. King overthrow a desk, and then saw Luke, the boy who often dozes off in class, flee out of the front door in panic. Mr. King also ran to the front, trying to catch him.

“Do… do… do not… do not come… to my… class tomorrow!” he shouted at Luke again before he shut him out.

That was the first time when Mr. King, such a quick-witted man, stuttered. His aim was so bad that he hit the girl by mistake. It was amusing but everybody was too frightened to laugh. His temper seems so unpredictable that their hearts raced every time he exploded. He had no bias. Anyone can be his target. Anyone who does not study well, anyone who feels too proud, or anyone who is disobedient. Ian was lucky that he wasn’t one of the victims, but he should still be careful, careful enough. At the beginning of the semester he forgot to write down the counting process in his algebra assignment, and Mr. King caught him. He asked him to copy the whole paper ten times, a way to teach him to write all the details when doing homework.

After finishing other assignments on that day, Ian became crazy because he could not find his math paper anywhere. Maybe I have left it in the classroom? But it is locked now… No. It can’t be. It can’t be. He threw everything out of his schoolbag and freaked out since there was still no paper.

“Don’t run into dead ends. That cannot solve any problems.” His mom came to him and said, “You must have left it in school. Call Elizabeth and go to her home to pick her paper up.”

He lives in the suburb and only their class leader, Elizabeth, lives nearby. The class leader was supposed to be voted by the students, but Mr. King chose Elizabeth himself because her father is a famous math teacher. Nobody in the class liked her as she looked down upon everyone. Ian didn’t want to call her but had no other options. She answered the phone and agreed to lend her paper to him, reluctantly. He doesn’t know how he completed the two-mile run within fifteen minutes, as he was not all that athletic. He only remembered he was out of breath but hardly stopped to have a rest after coming back home. He copied everything from the paper nervously and carefully, and hardly knew what time it was when going to bed.

Time passes quickly, and the math exercise book still lies on the floor. Looking at it again, Ian stops copying English words. He goes to pick the book up, checks if it is damaged, and cleans it with tissues several times. I’ll try to solve it out again. He flips the pages gently, and copies the question word by word. He is not in a rush. He does not get crazy. This is the most careful and peaceful time he’s ever had.


“What have I told you? What have I told you? Why are you struggling with that question again?” His mother rushes into the room.

“Get away,” he says in a strong and low voice.

“How can I get away? The whole family is staying up late with you, don’t you know?” She sighs and is about to leave the room, “I really have to talk to your Mr. King one day. Why does he always give you such difficult assignments?”

“Don’t you dare. Don’t you dare talk to him.”

She stares at him, with shocked eyes. Without saying a word, she storms out.

He’ll never let his mother go to school and complain about Mr. King. Never. He cannot forget that afternoon before they finished school, when Mr. King went into the classroom to give them assignments as usual. Nobody noticed the changed expression on his face.

“Well, from tomorrow every row of desks will move one unit to the right. The rightmost row, you move to the left side,” said Mr. King after pointing out some problems in yesterday’s homework.

“To be honest, I don’t think changing your seats is a good idea. But one of your parents suggested it to me on the phone today.”

That would be my mom, thought Ian. His mom often worried he might develop exotropia because he always sat on the leftmost side of the class.

“This parent also complained I gave too much homework to you. You think it’s too much? Hmm?” Mr. King started to glance around them, trying to discover the culprit.

That also sounds like what my mom would say. Ian started to quiver.

“The assignment is far from enough. Do you know what time other school’s students go to bed? 12 a.m. or 1 a.m. is not uncommon for them. Since we are the elite experimental math class, it’s reasonable to give you a little more to do every day. So why don’t you study hard and get a good grade, instead of complaining about our homework?”

Glaring at them a few seconds, he suddenly banged on the lectern and broke out, “Fuck off if you can’t be the top student! You only know to tell your parents. What else can you do? You think you are God, so everybody should listen to you and have less homework? A coward! Why didn’t you get a high mark during the mid-term? Why didn’t you enter the top ten? Why didn’t you achieve a prize in the Olympic math? Shut the fuck up if you can’t do any of this! The whole class is working hard for the final, and they face all the difficulties, like you. They never cry out; they never say the homework is too much. Only you can’t stand it. You think you are the most pitiful one? Let me tell you everybody is much more hardworking than you. You are nobody compared to them.”

With a deathly pale face, Ian stared at the floor. He dared not look up again.

“And the parent is also ridiculous. Why don’t you tell your child to study hard? You only know to complain about me. Then you go. Go to the headmaster to complain. You think I’m afraid of you? Let me tell you, I don’t like fucking teaching anymore. Especially teaching your lazy child.”

When all the children’s nerves stretched to the breaking point, Mr. King paused, and sneered at them. “Well, you think we got too much homework. Then I’ll show you what is too much today. Juliet. Come and hand out the papers to them. Remember three double-sided papers for each person. This is the Olympic math. Don’t hurry. It’s extremely difficult.” He left and slammed the door behind him.

“Who did this? Who the fuck did this?” As soon as Mr. King went away, almost everyone in the room exploded.

“A stupid jerk. Fuck you. Fuck your mom and dad,” the boy sitting behind Ian blurted out.

But Ian said nothing. He pretended to be calm and tried to pack up his schoolbag as quickly as possible. I’ll go home right now. I’ll blame my mother. She has ruined my entire future.

He can’t tell how many times he was about to fall on his way home, because he never stopped shivering. Maybe it’s not my mother. Then I won’t become the whole class’s enemy. I’ll make sure right now. I’ll make sure.

The one-hour bus ride should have been the longest time in his life, and he doesn’t remember how he summoned up the courage to ask his mother and hear the truth.

“Why are you so frightened? I never called your teacher. But what the parent said is right. You should change your seats regularly. And the homework is too much.”

He felt a great sense of relief. He thought his life came back to normal again. He was still that hardworking and obedient boy. Nothing changed. It felt so great, so great that he was about to laugh out loud. It didn’t matter that he was going to spend the whole night with those Olympic papers. It really didn’t matter.

As his mother leaves, he tries to cool down and do the proving again. “Holy shit.”

“Do not curse, Ian. I’ve worked it out! Worked it out!” With sleepy eyes, his father comes to his room, “I’ll tell you my solution. It’s a little long. Listen.”


After finishing all the assignments, Ian has a sound sleep late at night, so sound that he almost forgets everything the next day he gets up. He grabs the glass on the table, swigs down the milk in a few seconds and carries his schoolbag. His mother is saying something about eating his bread as he walks out of the house and closes the door behind him.

When he arrives at school, many of his classmates are discussing yesterday’s homework. The boy sitting behind him, who usually likes to copy others’ work, asks almost everybody coming into the classroom, “Have you solved out the last geometry question?”

Lots of them reply no. And what a pity he just misses Ian. Then he turns back to discuss it with Elizabeth and Elizabeth turns back to discuss it with the math genius, Lemon. While the whole class seems to be discussing the problem, Ian just sits silently on his seat, and starts to review his textbook, one chapter after another. He imagines one of his classmates comes to him and finds out he has solved the problem out, and how surprised they may be. But it cannot be possible. Nobody thinks he can solve the problem. Only the TA, Juliet comes to his seat to collect his assignment, so he hands it to her grudgingly, feeling a little desperate.

The first two classes slip by, and Ian quickly forgets about the assignment. During the break before the third math class, some of his classmates become a little fearful, as they say they haven’t worked out the last problem, so they worry that Mr. King might torture them in class. But at least it will not be me, thinks Ian, so he takes out the textbook and notebook calmly, ready for the new class.

Mr. King is late for class. Five minutes after the bell rings, he walks fast into the room with an exercise book under his arm. Ian thinks he may teach a new chapter, but he just opens the exercise book, and begins to talk about yesterday’s assignment.

“I apologize, that I didn’t realize yesterday’s last geometry problem is a very difficult one.” Looking at them, he pushes up his glasses with his index finger. “I shouldn’t have let you do it if I had known it. But still, it’s an interesting question, and I’d like to discuss two solutions in class.”

Mr. King starts to write his Solution A on the blackboard and the class is busy copying it in their notebook. “This is my solution, which uses trigonometry,” he says and explains each step slowly and clearly. The whole class jots it down and listens to him simultaneously, trying to keep up with his thoughts.

After Mr. King finishes teaching the first solution, he turns back from the blackboard and says, “Now I’m going to show you the second solution. This is a very smart way because it doesn’t use trigonometry.”

As Mr. King is writing down Solution B, Ian notices that it’s the same answer his dad taught him. He never knew it was a smart way. He just keeps copying all the lines from the blackboard.

As soon as Mr. King finishes the blackboard, he turns around, places his book on the rostrum and asks, “Ian, did you figure out this solution yourself?”

Ian is speechless. He didn’t know Mr. King was teaching his answer, his answer, as the standard answer. While his teacher is staring at him, Ian’s heart begins to thump. His teacher’s eyes seem to be so sharp and keen, that they are going to debunk something, something hiding deep inside Ian’s heart. But he still tries hard to conceal it, and nods at Mr. King, repeatedly, with his innocent and blank eyes.

“This Solution B is not mine. It’s worked out by Ian Cheng. Let me show you how clever it is.”

Staring at the blackboard, Ian gradually loses his concentration. He doesn’t have to listen to Mr. King since he already knew the proving steps. He feels attracted to something else, something very light, very slow, and very cozy. It’s like someone is massaging him, that every inch of his skin feels so cool, so sensitive and so relaxed. He imagines a lover is kissing his body, his forehead and lips, that he cannot move even a millimeter. Time is frozen, the whole classroom is frozen, and only he is enjoying this silent and static world.

“Before the class ends, I want to say Ian has done a great job this time. I’ve learned a lot from his solution. I strongly encourage everybody to share your thought or solution, if it is new or different from ours.”

Ian peers at Mr. King, who still looks quite serious, that he cannot tell if his teacher is genuinely happy this time. Then he casts a glance at his classmates sitting around him, who turn out to be preoccupied with class, never giving him a look of praise. But he can imagine what they think of him, and how envious they are of his success. He is lost in his own world again, where he grows out a pair of wings, flies up to the sky, and lies on the cloud, which feels as soft as a marshmallow. He is having fun with the birds, the winds, and the sunshine. So much pleasure that he wishes he would never come back to real life again.

He realizes the class is over as the bell rings. Mr. King leaves the class on time, but nobody moves out from their seats in the first minute. Ian doesn’t look around, but he knows they will scatter and chat as usual, they will take out snacks to eat as usual, and they will talk about him. Which is unusual.

Several students leave their seats and start talking. The classroom becomes louder and louder. As nobody comes to interrupt him, Ian continues to linger on the soft cloud, float on the sunny sky and flirt with the warm breeze, until Elizabeth calls him.

“Mr. King wants to see you, outside the door,” she says without any expression.

His heart beats a little faster, not knowing what else Mr. King will say to him since he has already praised him in class. So he stands up, adjusts his uniform, and goes to the corridor, where Mr. King is standing, arms crossed.

Turning to Ian, Mr. King narrows his eyes and says, “Don’t be arrogant. I praised you only because this solution is great and special. I know you didn’t work it out yourself. I did not expose you in front of everybody because I like this solution very much. But remember don’t play with me.” He points at Ian, frowning, “No matter where you copied it from, don’t play with me again. I won’t be as patient as today.” He points at him one more time and then disappears down the hall.

Returning to the classroom step-by-step, Ian falls into a trance. He feels so dizzy that he puts his hand on the wall to seek support as he enters, while other boys and girls are gossiping and chasing each other like any other day.


Since she was a little girl, Zixu always wished to be a writer. She wrote her first Chinese novel, The Falling Flowers at the age of 14 and chose to study Chinese Literature in college. However, none of the professors there taught literary writing, so she came to join the MFA program in the U.S. in 2016 and started to write in English. Email: zf4059gs[at]cnr.edu

I Can’t Tell Him

Vidiya Dawah

Photo Credit: Franco Lautieri/Flickr (CC-by)


My scalp pricks with pain as I try to pull my hairbrush out of my hair. I set the brush down with the strands of hair I had to rip out on my dresser. The mirror looms over me, the only way to avoid its gaze is to look down, but like a magnet my eyes are drawn straight to the center. Eyes red at edges and trembling, I try to take a breath.

“Nothing happened. I’m ok. Ok I’m ok.”

My heart pounds as I try to rid my mind of all thoughts that swirl and swim through my head like rainwater. I close my eyes and tilt my head upwards, straightening my posture and shutting down my mind. My entire world is oppressed under a frigid grey fog, there’s no source of light, but no source of shadows either.


I jolt from my stupor and grip the edge of my dresser, I can’t see him in the mirror, but my eyes are still stuck in my reflection. I can tell what he looks like though, his hair is a curly mess of dark ink and he’s wearing his usual sweats. The only thing keeping him from becoming a shadow is his translucent pale skin and blue veins that pop against the black.

“What happened this morning?”

My mind dredges up all the memories I’ve spent the past six hours trying to silence. They come in slow waves as I relive the nausea and discomfort from before. I’m going to touch you. Everyone is going to touch you. The world is out to get you. Once you turn 18 I’m gone. You’re running away from your problems. You’re not like other children. You’ll be all alone. You’re hurting me. You’re unreasonable. You’re pathetic. You’re a freak.

“Nothin’ happened. M’fine. Totally fine.”

I look up at him over his shoulder and give him a small smile. He leans against the desk and looks at me out of the corner of his eyes, arms folded and sweatshirt bunched up.

“You were screaming when he was in your room. He didn’t mean any harm.”

I swallow back my vomit of words, all my excuses burn the back of my throat like acid. What do I say? He’s creepy, he’s scary, he’s weird, he’s gross, he scares me. It’s not like you’ll believe me, so what do I say? The truth tries to claw out from my body, starting as a numbing feeling in my toes, then making its way up to my torso where it settles. It claws at my stomach until it reaches my heart. It pounds and pounds until my vision fades away and all I can see is my ripped up heart, covered in punctures.

“He wasn’t trying to hurt you.”

He says it with such a softness and sadness in his eyes that I have to hold back my laughter. Everyone loves him, he’s such a good guy, he’s been through a lot so we have to forgive him, he’s trying his best, he loves you, he’s not in his right mind, he’s sick, he’s ill, he’s our Dad.

I want to laugh. I can’t tell him.


Email: vdawah7663[at]bths.edu


James Butt

Photo credit: naathas/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Angie was on the sofa in the living room, on her side with her back to the TV. One of those reality wedding shows was on, the ones where the drama appeared natural enough. I put my work bag on the kitchen table and poured a glass of water.

“Any dinner?”

She didn’t respond. I didn’t expect her to. She rolled toward the TV, resting her right arm across the top of her waist as she reached for the remote. She probably thought these little gestures of hers prevented me from noticing her growing bump.

I rummaged in the pantry for a loaf of bread and filled a sauce pan half-ways with water before putting it on the stove. “I’m boiling some weenies. You want any?”

She shook her head no, and I went to the fridge. There was a casserole dish with sour cream and salsa dip on the middle shelf, covered with cellophane.

“We having nachos?”

“No,” she said. “That’s for Eileen and me. She’s coming over later and we’re doing some planning for the baby. You’re going over there to play poker with Ray tonight, remember?”

Eileen was a few months pregnant. She and Angie got together regularly now to discuss her baby. I’m not sure what things they discussed, in terms of Eileen’s baby plans. But it seemed to help Angie some. She’d been happier the last month or so. It meant I had to spend more time with Ray, because that’s who we hung out with now, Ray and Eileen. Tonight was poker, and he’d have his construction pals over to fill out the table.

I closed the fridge and put the pot of water in the sink. I threw the bread in the trash. “I got fired today.”

She glanced over briefly and I couldn’t read her face. I said nothing else and turned for the bathroom to get ready for poker night.


Ray and Eileen lived next door to me and Angie. We shared a fence in the back, and the path between us was beat down to a thin dirt trail. Ray had a new poker table set up in his garage. We usually played at the kitchen table, but now, with Eileen pregnant, she didn’t want smoke in the house.

Ray was a big guy. He looked exactly how a construction worker ought to, with a large shaved head and barrel chest. His construction pals looked the same as him, each had arms thicker than my legs.

They were already at the table. Ches and Paul, and a new guy I hadn’t seen before. He was younger than the rest, with a cap pulled tight over his head, and a thick, wiry beard hung down below his chin. All four of them were smoking cigarettes, something I rarely seen outside of poker night.

The garage door was open, and their beers dripped with condensation from the humid night. A few moths pecked at the light attached to the door opener above the table.

“Hey, Chuck,” Ray said.

My name isn’t Chuck. But I’d gotten sick the first time playing poker with Ray and his pals. They all called me Chuck now.

“This here’s Aiden. Hired him for that hotel contract we got a few months back,” Ray said.

I nodded and reached my hand across the table. Aiden passed me a beer from the fridge behind him. Ray started to deal. I looked at my cards. None of them made any sense so I folded. The hand played on without me, and I gazed around Ray’s garage. It was neat and organized, obsessively so, with a workbench along the far wall. There were painted outlines for all his tools on the pegboard above the workbench.

“I knew Angela back in high school,” Aiden said, “before she went away to college.”

“That so?”

“Small world, sometimes, seeing people like that from the past again.” He grinned and flashed teeth white as bone, bright against his dark beard.

“Yeah,” I said. My attention drifted to the middle of the pegboard to where a large machete hung vertically. The blade was close to two feet long, coated in black enamel that’d been chipped away in some spots.

“She was popular back then, being so pretty. Smart, too.”

“She still is,” I said, getting up from the table. I moved over to the pegboard. They continued to play the next hand.

“A lot of us fools went for her back in school. Asking her out or trying to get her to come out to a party. She wouldn’t have any of it, though.”

“Never seen this before, Ray. It’s a big blade,” I said.

Ray turned from the game to eye what I was on about. “Yeah, needed that for hunting last fall. Glad to have it, too. Saved my skin.”

“You serious?”

“Yeah. I went deep in the Highlands after the first snow. Tracked a buck for miles. He led me deeper than I’d been before. Big buck, a full seven pointer. Maybe close to 600 pounds. It took awhile, but he fell. Good thing he was close to the road.”

I glanced back to him. “Thought you said you were deep in the Highlands? No road out there deeper than one or two miles.”

“Well, I had to cut the road first,” he said and nodded toward the blade.

Ches and Paul and Aiden laughed behind me, but I didn’t get it. I leaned in close to the pegboard and could see old blood and fur caked to the edge of the blade. “What’d you use it on? That doesn’t look like deer hair.”

“Coyote,” Ray said. “They came at me while I was hauling my buck down to camp. Must’ve smelled blood where I quartered him and tied him to the sled. I heard their cries, but the sound bounced around the hills up there. I couldn’t get a good read on where they were.”

“That’s something else, Ray,” Ches said.

“Thing is with coyotes is they’re smart. They got intelligence enough to know when to be tricky. They used that so I couldn’t get a sense for them. I don’t usually see them in packs, but with the snow and my buck, I’d a hunch they’d be round in a pack. They answered howls back and forth, louder and closer for about an hour. But they used those hills. Smart, see.”

I had a recollection of this story from some time before.

“They have weakness, too, just like all animals,” Ray said. “They come at you from the front, for the throat. You get a chance to see them before they strike. And soon enough they showed themselves right in front of me.”

“Christ,” Paul said.

“No matter. They showed themselves, and I cut each one down in turn. I brought those hides home, too. A nice trophy to go with my seven points.”

I lingered at the blade a couple minutes more before taking my seat again. I stared over at Aiden, but he seemed less interested in me then. The next hand was dealt and I finished my beer. My cards made no sense so I folded, and the hand played without me.


I was home later than I’d liked. Eileen had left a couple hours before, and Angie had gone to bed. The TV was on in the bedroom, the blue glow visible between the floor and bottom of the door. When I entered she was on her side, facing the wall away from me. All the blankets had been stripped off the bed, and she lay there in an old tank top and a pair of my boxers. She wasn’t asleep. People asleep have a softness to them, like all the weight been squeezed out of them. Her body was too rigid for sleep.

I flicked off the TV and opened the window a bit wider. A night breeze came in, and a ceiling fan spun above our bed. I lay next to Angie. It took less than six years for me and Angie to fall out of love. I tried to think of what that meant, but my attention strayed to the twirling blades above.

If I stared at one blade at a time I could follow each unique rotation around the room. I watched them spin and tried to listen for the call of coyotes in the distance. I watched them and wondered who the father was. I watched them and wondered if it mattered.


James Butt lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. A graduate of Dalhousie University, his time is split between the excitement and spontaneous nature that is family life, and the crafting of short fiction based upon those experiences. Email: james.butt[at]eastlink.ca


Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
DJ Tyrer

Photo Credit: Herry Lawford/Flickr (CC-by)

Twin beams of light thrust their way across sparkling, frost-rimed gravel as James swung the car off the road and onto the lengthy drive, revealing ranks of stark winter trees on either side.

James blinked sleep from his eyes. It had been a long journey, but it was nearly over; there was a nervous optimism alongside the tiredness he felt. Tonight, he hoped, he would have all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of his identity. Tonight, he would have answers.

Still, crawling up the drive, stones crunching beneath the car’s tyres, he felt a tremor of trepidation, as he recalled what Houghton had told him. What would he learn? Would he wish he’d stayed in ignorance?

No. No matter what he learnt, he had to know. He needed to know everything, to assemble all the pieces. No longer would he feel the shame of ignorance.

He remembered, as if it were yesterday, his cheeks burning with shame at school, his classmates’ laughter, when he showed his project on his ‘family tree’ with just his name on it, the exasperated tone of his teacher as she dismissed it.

“Not very good, now, is it, Jamie? More of an acorn than a tree.”

As if he were supposed to produce a family tree out of nothing!

James slammed his hand on the wheel with a grunt of anger.

Well, he would know.

Ahead of him, the black, unlit bulk of Lander House rose from the darkness. Had he know about the house then… he could imagine the other children’s envious faces. If only…

Growing up in what they called a ‘group home’, a small orphanage, effectively, James never had known a home of his own, never had a ‘forever family’, not even a foster one. Unwanted, ‘odd’, he’d slipped through the gaps, forgotten and ignored, without an identity.

Maybe he would have one now?

The drive swung around in front of the building, the headlight beams revealing that Lander House was constructed from a dark-red brick across which twined tenebrous vines of ivy. James parked before its main doors.

All the windows were black; no lights turned on at his arrival.

Slowly, he climbed out of his car and stood before the house, wondering if it held the answers Houghton had promised him.


Six months earlier, James had knocked hesitantly on the door to Houghton’s office.

All his life, James had assumed he’d been found on a doorstep, or dumped like trash in a bin, had never thought he would know who he really was. Had never thought he could find out.

Getting engaged had changed that.

“You should hire someone to research your past,” Jane had told him, brushing aside his protests. “Don’t talk about costs, darling, I can see it eating at you, no matter what you say.”

It was true. A wedding was as much about family as the two people getting married, driving home to him just how alone he was, no matter how welcoming Jane’s family were to him.

He’d taken her advice, bringing him to the man’s office. Christopher Houghton found people. His job was half-genealogist, half-private investigator, tracing beneficiaries of wills and missing persons.

“Come in, come in,” called a voice from the other side of the door.

He went inside and sat opposite the investigator.

“Hello, I’m James Eastleigh; I have an appointment.”

“Yes. How can I help you?”

“I was abandoned as a baby. I want to know who my parents were, where I came from.”

Houghton nodded. “What do you know of your birth?”

“Practically nothing. Once I was old enough to ask, all the carers in the group home would tell me was that I was named James after the local MP and Eastleigh after the hospital I was taken to. They couldn’t tell me who my parents were.”

“Unsurprising,” said Houghton. “That was often the case. Sometimes the care staff just wanted children to accept their lot and not ask questions. At other times, the parents may have requested anonymity. Of course, things are different now.”

James nodded, uncertain.

“Have you applied for your birth certificate?”

“Yes, I did, and when I got it, both parents were missing from it. I believe I was dumped.” James sighed. “Is it even possible for you to help me?”

“Tough, Mr Eastleigh, but not impossible. Just because your birth certificate is blank doesn’t necessarily mean nobody knows who your parents were. The first thing I will do is request your records. If any of them are sealed, we will ask for them to be unsealed. It’s possible their names are in them, somewhere. If they aren’t, I will check newspaper archives for reports of your discovery, see if it points to your parents or if any other news stories offer us clues.”

“And, if that fails?”

“DNA comparison—we might find relatives on one of the databases out there—or, we can try a public appeal. Somebody out there knows who you are, Mr Eastleigh, and it may be that someone will recognise a family resemblance.

“Of course, it is possible, we may only find dead-ends, but I promise you, I will follow every possible avenue…”


Houghton had.

“Yes, you were a tough case, Mr Eastleigh. Or, perhaps I should say Mr Bostrom.”

“Bostrom? You know who I am?”

“Yes. Well, close. A DNA test will be necessary to confirm it, but I am certain of your identity.”

“That’s brilliant.”

“Only, it’s a little complicated. Indeed, yours is a peculiar case. A proper mystery.”


“Uh-huh. I had to dig—pull together disparate strands. But, I got there in the end. It all began with a call to the police from a Mrs Clarke.”

“I thought you said Bostrom.”

“She wasn’t your mother. She was your grandfather’s housekeeper.”


“She worked for Andrew Bostrom of Lander House. Forty years ago, she called the police, saying her employer was behaving madly, threatening her. Then, the line cut off. The police arrived to find her dead and a baby crying in the nursery.”


“Yes. Recently born, unregistered. No sign of your mother, presumed to be Bostrom’s daughter, Cecilia, nor of Andrew Bostrom himself. Little was said in the papers, some vague talk of an ‘incident’ at Lander House, implied to involve an intruder. You were placed into the care of the local council and your grandfather reappeared in official documents a couple of years later, as if nothing had happened.”

Houghton shrugged. “He’s a rich man; probably paid somebody off to stop asking awkward questions and assume it was an intruder who killed Mrs Clarke. As for his daughter, nothing.” Another shrug. “That’s it.”

“You say he is a rich man—he’s still alive?”

“He would be about ninety, but there’s no record of a death. The taxes on Lander House are up-to-date. The obvious inference is that he still lives there.”

“Then, I guess I ought to go see him.”

Nodding, Houghton said, “If you want any more answers, James, Lander House is the place to look. That’s where it all began for you…”


There was an old-fashioned bell-pull beside the door of Lander House. James had only ever seen one in movies before. He pulled it and thought he heard a distant jingle from somewhere within the vast building.

No lights switched on. Nobody came.

As he waited, James hugged himself: The night was chilly and he only had on a light jacket. He hadn’t expected to be left standing on the doorstep like this.

He hammered the large brass knocker against the door.

Still no response.

He hammered again, shouted.


Was his grandfather really inside waiting for him? Perhaps he was dead. Or, maybe, he’d left long before. James wondered if he were wasting his time.

Should he come back? Would he find his answers if he did?

He had to get inside.

Using the light from his phone as a torch, James slowly circled the house, wary of tripping on something unseen in the night. Perhaps it was a relic of the days when the Welsh Marches were a wild, lawless place, but the building looked like a fortress with windows high up and both the front and kitchen doors thick and bound with iron.

“I guess grandpa didn’t like visitors.” James wished the muttered joke hadn’t sounded so weak in the darkness.

There was an old glasshouse, an orangery, maybe, at the rear of the building, built with an iron frame and thick panes of glass that had a milky texture and were grimed with years of dirt.

James considered trying to break in that way, but smashing the old glass seemed extreme and he doubted his grandfather would appreciate such destruction of his property.

There were outbuildings near the house and he was able to smash the lock off the door of one with half a brick. Inside, he found a ladder.

He dragged it over to the house and leant it against the wall, before climbing to an upstairs window. Through it, he could see a room that was empty except for a large, dark wood wardrobe.

James used the half-brick to break a pane, then reached in and unhooked the latch, opened the window, and slipped inside. He checked the wardrobe, but it was empty.

He paused beside the door and listened; the house was silent.

He exited the room. The hallway was in darkness and he felt a shiver that had nothing to do with the chill. The light of his phone made little impression upon the blackness and he felt as if it were pressing in upon him. He shouldn’t have come here…

He searched around and found a light-switch, flicked it. The hallway lit up and he winced at the sudden brightness. Illuminated, the hallway no longer seemed spooky and he gave a shaky laugh at his foolishness. A grown man shouldn’t fear the night!

Still, the light told him there was power, which meant the house wasn’t completely abandoned. Not that it meant anyone was home.

“Hello,” he called, but there was no answer, only silence.

He tossed the half-brick from one hand to the other as he considered which way to go; it didn’t seem to matter much.

Slowly, James made his way through the upper floors of the house, but it appeared to have been abandoned for years and many of the rooms were empty or contained furniture covered in dust sheets. There was a bedroom with a rather grand four-poster bed, but the blanket was dusty and he doubted his grandfather had slept in it for a long time.

Then, he found the nursery.

The room was large with a cot in the middle, ornate with legs like the trunks of trees that rose to support a shade decorated like a canopy of leaves. Art Deco-style branches were painted twisting across the walls of the room. James had never seen anything like it.

Was this where he’d slept as a child? Where the police had found him crying on that fateful night? Maybe he was being naive, but he’d expected to feel something, some frisson of familiarity, but he’d felt nothing within Lander House, not even here.

Could Houghton have been wrong?

James slapped the door as he exited the room.

It might have been where he was born, where he was found, but, if it were, there were no answers, nobody to tell him about himself.

If anything, the tantalising hint of an identity was worse than knowing nothing about himself.

He found the stairs down. The top of the stairs was where the police report the investigator had dug up said the body of Mrs Clarke had been found.

Looking down at the spot, James had to wonder what could have driven his grandfather to murder his housekeeper. He could imagine no reason. Had the man been insane?

Stairs creaked as he descended them.

James explored the ground floor. Still, there were no clues to his identity, not even in his grandfather’s office when he used the half-brick the smash the locks on the bureau and a desk drawer, nothing to tell him who his mother was, what had happened to her.

Was she dead as well? Had his grandfather killed her?

What mad family had he come from? Was he better off not knowing the truth?

James sat on the bottom step of the stairs and put his hands over his eyes and sobbed. He’d hoped for so much, like a fool. He should’ve known better, just accepted that he was a cipher, alone in the world.

Shaking his head, he stood. There was only the glasshouse at the rear of the house left to explore, and it wasn’t as if that held any secrets about him.

He stepped towards the front-door. At least, he could leave without having to clamber awkwardly down the ladder.

Pausing with his hand on the lock, he looked back. Had he heard a noise, or was it the echo of some memory nagging at him? For some reason, he felt the need to visit the orangery. Or, maybe it was just a compulsive need to complete his search.

James felt like a fool as he stood there, grasping the lock. He knew there was no reason for him to go back there. There was nobody in the house, nobody hiding back there, and it wasn’t as if his grandfather had left any paperwork amongst the ornamental shrubs, or whatever had been growing back there, doubtless long dead, if they were untended as the rest of the house.

There was no point to it, but he let go of the lock and began to walk towards the rear of the house. He felt as nervous as he had when he first stepped out into the dark hallway upstairs. Ridiculous.

He could almost taste the damp air on his tongue as he entered the glasshouse. The orangery was full of plants. Clearly, there were automated sprinklers keeping it watered.

There was no sign of a light-switch, forcing him to proceed by the light of his phone, pushing past shrubs that had overflowed their pots. Before the place was abandoned to go wild, he could imagine it had been quite beautiful, probably his grandfather’s pride. But now, it was a mess.

At the centre of the glasshouse, where the roof peaked, there was a single tall tree that towered over everything else that grew in it, so tall that it pressed against the glass ceiling and bent to one side.

James approached it and shone his light over its dark, wavy leaves.

At about head height, he could see a single fruit, the shape of a rugby ball and a little larger. It seemed to shudder where it hung.

“What the—?”

He went closer, studied it. There was something moving within the fruit, pressing against the membranous skin.

He leant towards it.

Something pressed through the skin, defining features—something like a face peering out at him. James recoiled and swore.

Yes, it was definitely like a face. He couldn’t believe it.

Mould—yes, that was it. He’d read about mould spores making people hallucinate and this place was damp and bound to be full of them.

Only, he knew it wasn’t mould, knew that what he was seeing was real. Real and yet quite impossible.

He reached out to it, touched the slick, waxy skin. It pulsed beneath his fingertips.

A split appeared in the skin of the fruit and spread, so that it practically burst open. Inside the fruit he could see the tiny form of a newborn child, covered in slimy pulp, like blood. Its tiny arms reached out towards him.

James stared, unable to quite believe what he was seeing, yet unable to look away, to dismiss it. He felt as if he were about to vomit.

He was going mad! He was going mad!

The more he looked at it, the more he was reminded of a photo in his file of himself as a baby. It was like looking at himself as a child.

A torrent of thoughts flooded through his mind as he understood the meaning of what he was seeing, why people had always found him odd, why nobody had wanted to adopt him, why even Jane had said he wasn’t like other men she’d dated as she looked at him sideways.

Had he had the DNA test Houghton had suggested, what would he have found?

What the hell had his grandfather been doing here?

He stumbled back and looked around.

“My family tree,” he laughed, tears in his eyes. He’d always wanted to know where he came from and, now, he knew—and, wished he didn’t.

Spotting a hatchet, James seized it and struck at the child in the fruit, burying the blade deep in it. The child wailed in pain and James screamed, wishing he could silence the sound as he struck it again and again, obliterating it into a pulpy mess.

Then, he began to hack at the tree.

But, it wasn’t enough. It was too large.

He ran back into the house, to the kitchen and threw open every cupboard until he found lighter fuel and kitchen oil. Pausing only to turn on the gas from the cooker, he ran back out to the glasshouse and threw the fuel and oil over the tree, before lighting if, sending a coruscating sheet of flame up its trunk.

James stood, watching the flames engulf the tree, which seemed to shiver as it burnt. Flames spread to nearby vegetation, despite the dampness. Above him, the glass ceiling cracked from the heat, then shattered and began to rain down about him like a fall of snow.

He couldn’t return to Jane, not now, not knowing the truth about himself, where he came from. He just prayed his grandfather was dead, unable to continue the mad course he’d taken.

James watched the tree burn, the heat painful against his skin.

The scent of gas reached his nostrils.

It had begun here and it would end here.

He was ready when the end came.


DJ Tyrer is the person behind Atlantean Publishing and has been widely published in anthologies and magazines around the world, such as Chilling Horror Short Stories (Flame Tree), What Dwells Below (Sirens Call), and EOM: Equal Opportunity Madness (Otter Libris), and issues of Sirens Call, Hinnom Magazine, ParABnormal, Ravenwood Quarterly, and Weirdbook, and in addition, has a novella available in paperback and on the Kindle, The Yellow House (Dunhams Manor) and a comic horror e-novelette, A Trip to the Middle of the World, available from Alban Lake through Infinite Realms Bookstore. Email: djtyrer[at]hotmail.co.uk

The Silver Wrens

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Alex Grey

Photo Credit: Sarah Horrigan/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

The ancient yew tree stood in the Fraser family graveyard. Dense, dark leaves absorbed the weak winter sunlight, making gewgaws of its red berries and silver wren pendants. Family legend said that the tree had watched over the clan for a thousand years. The dead lay tranquil in its shade. The living prospered, the clan’s assets expanding as surely as the great yew’s girth.


Felicity stormed out of the house three weeks after her birthday, slamming the door hard enough to shatter the glass. She heard her mother cry out, but Felicity’s anger could not be soothed with words. She needed to run. She didn’t know how she could ever look her mother in the face again—her mother, yes, her actual mother, her real flesh and blood mother.

“I adopted you when you were a baby.”

Her mother had been telling her this lie since Felicity had been old enough to understand the concept.

“Where are my real mummy and daddy?” Felicity had asked when she was three years old.

“I’m your mummy now.”

“What about daddy?”

“My husband died a long time ago. You were only a baby when he left us.”

Sometimes, when her imagination was alight in the darkness before sleep, Felicity remembered a sly, handsome face with a clever smile, reading her stories in a melodic golden voice.

“He didn’t have time to read to you. Your mind is just playing tricks.”

Once she started school, Felicity’s curiosity about her real parents grew. Every year on her birthday, she asked her adoptive mother about her real parents.

“I found you under the mulberry bush.”

“You were abandoned on my doorstep.”

“They left you in a shelter, they didn’t leave their names.”

“They died in a car accident, there’s no one left to find.”

Felicity might have wondered why her adoptive mother changed the story every year. But she had no time to wonder about anything; she spent her childhood energy adapting to moving home every few years, learning her way round new cities, finding new friends and settling into new schools.

“Why do we have to move again?”

“Because it’s better to be a bird on the wing than a tree stuck in the earth.” Felicity had seen her mother clench her hands, heard her muttered monologue. “Roots in the earth, going where they don’t belong, grabbing what isn’t theirs.”

So they’d moved, always living in characterless concrete tower blocks. Felicity never got to play in a park. Her mother made strange warding gestures every time they passed a tree. Her childhood had been filled with hard greyness.

It’s too easy for you, thought Felicity, you’re not an orphan. She became determined to leave home as soon as she was old enough and start laying down roots of her own. Her mother had told her that she was adopted, that there were no ties of kinship between them—Felicity didn’t owe her anything.

On her eighteenth birthday, Felicity excitedly tore open the DNA test kit she’d bought. On impulse, she had bought one for her mother too, not that her secretive mother would have agreed to take part. Felicity had obtained saliva from her mother’s toothbrush and hoped that it would work.

Felicity ran blindly on the rough pavements, stumbling as she recalled opening the test results that had arrived that morning. She’d opened hers first. Her ancestors were Scottish Celts, going back for generations with very little genetic variation. The results included a map which showed the familial matches they’d found on their database. The stars that marked her family’s location looked like a new and wonderful constellation. Her relatives were scattered all over the world, but one relative was very close to where she lived now and then there was a cluster in the far north of Scotland.

Felicity took out her adoptive mother’s results. At first, she thought she’d got the papers mixed up. But no, the results were almost identical. In that moment Felicity knew that the woman who had claimed to be her adoptive mother was her biological mother.

They’d had a colossal argument when Felicity confronted her mother.

“You stupid girl! All these years I’ve protected you, hidden you. All my efforts undone in a moment.”

Her mother waved at the map.

“See these stars? This is their way of finding the people who dared to leave. Now we have to fly again. Why couldn’t you just let it lie? Why wasn’t my love enough for you?”

“Lies aren’t love!” Felicity had yelled. “What sort of mother pretends not to be a mother? What sort of twisted life is that?”

“I had to. You don’t understand the danger. Give me five minutes to explain, but then we have to get away. You need to pack some things. Quickly!”

“I’m not listening. Everything you say is a lie; you’ve lied so much you don’t even know how to tell the truth anymore.”

Felicity rewound their argument over and over as she ran. She lost track of time, but suddenly became aware of the chill air cooling her sweaty body. She looked around. There was an inviting coffee shop on the corner.

As she sipped her hot chocolate, the flickering film reel of their argument coalesced into a single tangible image—her mother’s face, full of love and terror, reaching out to her. She sat there for an hour, hoping the steamy warmth of the cafe would thaw her icy confusion. Eventually, Felicity realised that whatever came next, she would have to go home first, gather her things and move on, either with or without her mother.

Felicity hadn’t appreciated how far she’d run until she stepped out of the coffee shop and realised where she was. She recalled her mother’s fear and almost called an Uber to take her home, but she preferred to walk, using the time to clear her head.

She saw the reflections of the actinic blue lights from around the block. As she turned towards her home, she saw an ambulance and a police car. The front door was open. Just beyond, her mother lay unmoving as a paramedic shouted “Clear!” Her mother’s body jumped as the defibrillator discharged. She saw the paramedic check her mother’s vital signs, then shake his head. She heard him call time of death, a knell that drowned out the police officer’s voice, asking her if she knew the deceased. As they led her inside, Felicity glimpsed, in the distance, a strangely familiar face, a good-looking man with a clever smile. She blinked, but when she looked again, he was gone.

Although the police quizzed her for many hours about the broken door and the argument with her mother, they could find no evidence of foul play. The inquest recorded death by natural causes, a heart attack, probably brought on by the stress of the conflict with her daughter. Felicity hated the pity on the coroner’s face.

Felicity inherited a comfortable amount of money. Her mother’s will was clear, especially about being cremated rather than buried. The solicitors managed the paperwork efficiently and impersonally, though Felicity had to sign for one envelope, a letter from her mother.

Dear Felicity

I hope that when you read this letter we will both have enjoyed long and happy lives. I hope that you have made your own family and are surrounded by my grandchildren. If you are young, then it means they have found me. I beg you to flee, use the money to travel, get away, find a new identity. Families are what you make rather than what you inherit, never forget that.

xxx Mummy

Felicity fingered the pendant that had accompanied the letter. The exquisite silver disk showed a perfectly sculpted wren, every detail chased into the metal with delicate skill. She could feel the individual feathers with her fingertips, metal cold but somehow alive to her touch. There was a curious golden chain attached to the pendant, too small to be a necklace. Felicity turned her mother’s letter over. There was no explanation.

Although her mother had urged her to use her inheritance to travel far away, Felicity had only one destination in mind. The clustered galaxy of stars on her DNA map drew her to Scotland.


It was Christmas Eve when Felicity arrived in Aberdeen airport. The wild and robust landscape was a world away from her cloistered urban childhood.

It had taken a few weeks to follow up on the DNA test results, but she was relieved when her relatives had enthusiastically agreed to meet her. They’d invited her to join them for Christmas. A cousin had picked her up from the airport, loading the two suitcases that held all her possessions into the back of his truck and driving her to their ancestral home.

She held on to the bag which contained her mother’s ashes—her new uncle had asked her to bring them, suggesting they could be laid to rest in the family graveyard. He’d also asked her to bring the silver wren, telling her it was a precious heirloom.

Felicity was astonished when her cousin parked the car in front of a castle. There was no other word for it, though it was no fairy-tale confection of turrets. This building had stood firm against war and weather for a thousand years and looked set to endure for thousands more. The grand hall was palatial, but Felicity couldn’t see beyond the throng of her extended family as she was greeted and hugged exuberantly. She wept as a deep feeling of belonging filled a space in her soul that she never knew existed. Her uncle shooed the flock of cousins away and asked a servant to show her to her room. The tartan-draped walls were cosy and comforting; the roar of the fire in the hearth lulled her to sleep.

Christmas day passed in a whirl of feasting and song. Felicity delighted in her family’s lively energy. Her uncle had fiery red hair and was clearly the king of the castle. Her many aunts bore a striking resemblance to her late mother. She seemed to have a legion of cousins, some already working on the next generation with babies due the following spring. They swept aside her apologies, accepting, without rancour, her explanation that her mother had kept them a secret. She felt embarrassed when the family gathered to open the gifts lavishly piled under the Christmas tree. She had prepared a few thoughtful tokens for them, but was overwhelmed when her uncle handed her a carved wooden box. She removed the silk and velvet wrapping and found a newly minted silver wren, identical to her mother’s.

“The wren is an ancient family emblem gifted to just one daughter in each generation. We thought the family had lost the wrens forever when your mother disappeared. To have you back amongst us is a gift beyond your comprehension.”

Felicity stuttered a reply. It was hard to perceive herself as a gift when her family had heaped such unearned generosity on her.

She woke early on Boxing Day. Her uncle had invited her to the family graveyard at dawn. He said that she could be part of an important family ceremony and she could lay her mother’s ashes to rest. He asked her to bring both silver wrens.

The castle was silent as she walked down to the breakfast room. It was still dark, so she knew she wasn’t late, yet the horde of cousins was nowhere to be seen. The housekeeper served her strong tea and bitter salted porridge, smiling at her protests. There would be a raw wind at the churchyard; she would need this traditional fuel to keep her warm. As the first light blushed the crystal dark sky, the housekeeper ushered her toward the nearby churchyard.

A low granite wall surrounded the cemetery, the natural stone glowing as the sun’s rays shimmered across them. Felicity walked in through the iron gates and threaded her way between the gravestones towards a dark shape in the centre of the graveyard. The ancient yew’s dark green leaves absorbed the rising sunlight, providing a stark contrast to the reflected luminosity of the bright red berries and the silver wren pendants hanging from its branches. Felicity was enchanted by the tree’s beauty as the sun’s radiance filled the graveyard with colour.

A hand grasped her shoulder.

“This is a moment that I have dreamt of since your mother took you from me.”

A honeyed voice wrapped the words around her. She turned, knowing that she would see a man with a sly, handsome face and a clever smile.


“Do you remember me?” His voice was melodic and soothing.

“You used to read me stories. Sometimes I couldn’t remember your face, but I would know your voice anywhere.”

He smiled, pleased that she had recognised him.

“Where is everyone?” Felicity asked, looking around the empty graveyard.

“They stayed in the castle, out of respect for me, and this divine moment.”

They stood for a while and then her father snapped his fingers. The sound echoed jarringly among the gravestones.

“Come, this ceremony must be completed before the sun is fully risen. Are you ready, little wren?”

Felicity nodded, but she had no idea of what to expect.

Her father pointed at the abundance of tiny red berries adorning the yew.

“These are not strictly berries, they are arils. The seeds sit at the bottom of tiny cups of sweetness. The fruit keeps the birds alive in winter. We must offer a gift to the tree in exchange for its bounty.”

He gestured for her to hang the two wren pendants from the branches. The golden chains looped perfectly around the fine-needled branches. The silver birds settled smoothly, blending harmoniously with the green leaves and the red arils. Felicity felt a strange flutter in her chest, the birds looked so peaceful on their perches, but her mother had never wanted this. She felt a sudden urge to grab the wrens and fly away, but then she flushed with fear at the thought of losing her cherished new family.

Her father looked at her curiously, then turned to thank the tree as he picked a handful of arils.

“Now we must share this fruit—this ritual binds us to the family tree. Let the fruit dissolve in your mouth then swallow. Do not chew the seeds inside the arils as they are poisonous when broken.”

Felicity hesitated, but couldn’t resist her father’s invitation to join the family. She saw him place a handful of arils in his own mouth and swallow them with relish. She put a few arils in her mouth. Their sweet flavour was delectable, but the flesh dissolved into a sticky slime that was difficult to swallow. She resisted the urge to chew the seeds, and was grateful when her father offered her his hip flask.

“This is mead, made from our own honey. It will help to wash that down.”

The sweet drink melded deliciously with the fruit, though the spirit burned her throat as she swallowed.

“There, we have completed the first part of the ceremony, now we must welcome you home.”

He gestured at a small hole that had been dug nearby.

“Return your mother’s ashes to the family tree where she belongs.”

Felicity knelt and poured the ashes into the ground, her heartbeat loud and urgent in her chest. She supposed that the emotion of meeting her family, of saying goodbye to her mother, was finally catching up with her. She lifted her hands to wipe away the tears that were blurring her vision, but her eyes were dry. Her arms trembled, overcome with weakness.

She looked up, surprised to find that she was now lying beneath the tree. The silver wrens sparkled in the branches above her. She felt strangely warm and comfortable as her father knelt to cradle her head.

“Rest. The yew seeds that salted your porridge this morning will soon do their work. You will not suffer, I am sure of that. I did not let your mother suffer. We were distant cousins and childhood friends. We married young and I loved her, even though she was marked as the wren. We could have had a long life together; the tree is patient. But she tried to escape her fate and forced the family’s hand.”

Felicity looked at her father’s clever face. She felt cosseted by his mesmerising voice, even as her mind wrestled with his words. She did not understand what he was saying, could they have had a life together, been a family? Her body was weighed down with sadness and regret.

He continued, stroking her hair gently.

“This tree has safeguarded our family for a thousand years. As it thrives, so do we. As we nurture it, so it cares for us. All it asks is a sacrifice, a wren on the feast of St Stephen, one in each generation to bind the family to the tree. Your grandfather chose your mother to be the wren, but she was afraid that I would choose you in the next generation. Her love for you transcended her love for our family. However, she was the wren of her generation, there could be no other. I knew that we would find her one day.”

Felicity felt her father lift her unresisting body. Her heart was fluttering frantically now, like a captured bird. The family tree blurred into shimmers of silver, red, and green, festive tinsel colours. He lowered her gently into the shallow grave that had been hidden behind the yew’s vast trunk.

“We had not chosen the wren for your generation. In the olden days, we could rely on pestilence and plague to choose the sacrifice, but now we have to be more direct. It is a difficult decision, though the wrens can choose to live up to fifty years before the tree demands their lives. We were about to choose your generation’s wren when you turned up, a stranger to us. Your arrival was a blessing. Now we can let you go before we have time to love you and suffer the pain of your loss.”

He stayed with her as her heart faltered and stopped. Felicity’s cousins emerged from behind the gravestones and covered her body with earth.

Back at the castle, the family celebrated the sacrifice that would bring them prosperity for another generation. Felicity’s possessions were burned—no one would come looking for her.

In the graveyard, the yew’s fine, questing roots covered Felicity’s body with its downy filaments, binding her, bone, joint and socket, to the family, forever.


After a lifetime of writing technical non-fiction, Alex Grey is fulfilling her dream of writing poems and stories that engage the reader’s emotions. Her ingredients for contentment are narrowboating, greyhounds, singing and chocolate—it’s a sweet life. A number of her poems and short stories have been published in the horror ezine Siren’s Call. One of her comic poems is also available via a worldwide network of public fiction dispensers managed by French publisher, Short Edition. Of her horror writing, Alex’ best friend says ‘For someone so lovely, you’re very twisted! Email: sue[at]collavoce.co.uk

The Famous Poet

Jim Ray Daniels

Photo Credit: Julie Jablonski/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Ellen was married to the famous poet.

“Famous poet—that’s an oxymoron,” he’d say, while signing books after readings, chatting up his readers, ignoring the length of the line, “the poetic line,” he’d joke, which sometimes extended to ten or twenty—long, in poetry terms. Poetry is full of oxymorons. Or just plain morons. Ha, ha. Poetry joke. Ah shucks. He’s a poet and he knows it. He liked keeping the line long to give the illusion of popularity. He was an illusionist.

She attended most of his readings once he got into his seventies. A deadhead for Dan. Dan was her man. They flew together, then slept in single beds in poetry-budget hotel rooms. It didn’t seem like a lot of people wanted to sleep with him anymore, but while he held a book in his hand—his book—and they waited, he held a brief power, however diminishing. His signature, more precious the closer he got to dying.

You might think her presence was a deterrent to those who might still want to sleep with the famous poet, but that’s not why Ellen was his roadie—not anymore. He was starting to get confused. With or without the book in his hand, he sometimes forgot where he was. He now liked the idea of sex better than sex itself. For years, he liked the idea of being married better than marriage itself.

Why do people get books signed? Ellen was never interested. Dan got so many books sent to him by younger poets that he often sold them to the used bookstore in town. Their signatures irritated him. He didn’t want people in the bookstore thinking he was callous and mercenary, selling books signed to him personally. “Shit,” he’d say, ripping open the padded envelopes, “another signed one.” He kept them those together on a separate shelf. ‘Sell them when I die,’ he’d tell her. “Maybe some of them will be famous someday.”

Always about fame. Dan loved the scheming and feuds. They animated him in ways that Ellen never understood. She never met a person who took greater pleasure in ire.


She met Dan when they worked together in a French restaurant in Cleveland as high school kids. His uncle owned the joint. He always seemed to find a way into The Club, whatever club that might be, then passing judgment on nonmembers. He claimed not to be in any club, like all poets, but he’d won the big prize, so that made him a universal card-carrying member, a blood donor for all victims.

Three people on the awards committee, and two of them they’d had dinner with on multiple occasions. Casual acquaintances, he called them, but they did each other favors. Once you win the big prize, they hyphenate it in front of your name forever.

“Hey, Pulitzer-Prize winning poet,” she used to tell him, “take out the trash.” Funny at first. But he wouldn’t take out the trash. At school, they hired an assistant to open those padded envelopes, screen his email. He had a booking agent, Marge, who mothered him, despite him being thirty years her senior. He was shrinking into an elfin wiry hanger of an old man. On bad days, he looked like Munch’s The Scream, skeletal with inscrutable suffering. On good days, it rained, and they sat drinking tea together, and he forgot the tiny world of poetry in which he was a minor god. He’d read the newspaper comics aloud, particularly the odd, serious ones like Mary Worth and Rex Morgan, M.D., giving the characters absurdly dramatic voices. He would be hers again as they watched rain rattle windows, and they’d be happy to be together, inside, and dry, while the world out there got wet.


Ellen never really understood his poems, though she was afraid to tell him. He dutifully signed one of his free copies to her “with love” each time he published a new book, and she stacked them in their son’s old room on the shelves below the favorite children’s books they used to read him aloud and couldn’t bear to part with. She sometimes sat on his old bed and reread them—Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel, Dinosaur Bob, Goodnight Moon, a sweet, endless row of colorful titles—while the poetry books at eye level gathered dust. Their son Pablo (yes, Pablo—Pablo Mitchell) had done well enough to afford to live in San Francisco, far enough away from them in Pittsburgh to exhaust the prize winner on the cross-country flight, though when a school flew him out to get another prize or to give out another prize—once he won the big prize, he was called upon to hand out many prizes himself—he was happy enough to go, and then spend an extra day with Pablo and his partner Walt. He didn’t like Walt much. “Does he have to be so gay?” he asked without irony.

“Our son loves Walter,” Ellen always said. He stopped responding to that, except to harrumph and leave the room or rattle the pages of a manuscript he was working on. His assistant printed out everything for him. Ellen used to do that.


Yes, she used to. They entered the past-tense mode, and the rest of Ellen’s dreams took a tumble, so that’s how this little story ends. So predictable—may as well get it out on the table, let you know this is going where you think it is. Not like one of his poems: “a master of mystery and self-interruption, of opacity and misdirection, he gives whole new meaning to the word ‘meaning’.”

Ellen got hit with some moral outrage from the poetry world when she introduced his poems as evidence in the divorce trial. Online diatribes that Pablo read to her over the phone while giggling and drinking some high-priced wine. He was fond of expensive wines and mocking his father.

Evidence of what? Mental instability. Her lawyer thought the judge would find them a hoot, and he was right. He didn’t understand them either. Yet the poets wanted to protect him and his poetic license—no one wanted to take that away, leave him stranded with his fancy certificates and trophies. Ellen had protected him for thirty-seven years, yet she was vilified on social media by a pack of poets who were desperate to write online screeds in lieu of poetry. Yet it made no difference in her daily life. Dan himself once called them a bunch of circle-jerk backstabbers—if you were outside the circle, there were no consequences.


“I don’t care about the poems,” Ellen told Dan, “but you have to make sense to me.” They sat in the large, modern kitchen of their sleek house in Upper St. Clair, further from the university, closer to the airport. They’d moved out there for the schools for Pablo and stayed so Dan could use traffic as an excuse to be late for everything on campus.

“That’s always been the problem—you don’t care about the poems. I’m glad you’re finally admitting it,” he said. He took the wallet out of his back pocket and set it on the table between them.

“Does this make sense, Ellen?” he asked, as if she was a stupid student who had dared to challenge him. He only had to teach one course a semester now, and even that, he was mailing in, winging it, having his assistant screen the student poems like she screened his mail.

“You don’t get the joke of my poems,” he once explained. “They deal with the absurdity of the world. Do you think the world makes sense, Ellen?”

“It’s our job to try to make sense of it,” she said, “Not to reproduce incoherence.”

“Who is this ‘we’?”


He laughed. What’s the source of this newfound idealism?” he asked. “No, that just won’t do, not at all.”

“Fuck you,” Ellen shouted.

“Fuck me, indeed,” he said, and took his coffee into his study. The next week, he left for a week-long residency at Princeton, and when he came back, he moved out. Even his movers were a bunch of sycophantic grad students.


He had given Ellen the opportunity to be cruel, at long last, and she took it. Perhaps he was at fault for taking so long to grab It himself. She was ashamed of playing the martyr, the anchor to his ship straining to pull away.

Since she’d retired early from my job as a paralegal for Hoefner and Reid, a big downtown law firm, she’d been intent on helping his career, but he won the prize, just when you think he’d need her more, and the university, the foundations, the Poetry National Honor Society, all started fluffing up his pillows. Excuse the sarcasm. Or not. She is still working on not giving a fuck.

When she retired, she made the obvious mistake of making the poetry world her world, so when they got divorced, she lost a lot of friends she could no longer call for help with crossword puzzles.


She loved him after long shifts together in the restaurant, walking home on the muted streets of Cleveland, hands held, the faint smell of wine and garlic and sweat in their white shirts and black pants, passing only the occasional random drunk, the buzzing lights of the all-night donut shop they sometimes stopped into for coffee. She loved the way he set them apart from the others, quelling her loneliness, squelching the persistent urge to fit in that she always fought against, the behaver in her, the follower. Ultimately, their love became a small club of two. He was always president.


“You should have been a lawyer,” they’d tell her at the firm. “You’d be a real ball buster,” Jake Hoefner himself told her. But once Pablo was away at Stanford, it was too late. Ellen knew she could never go back to school and take notes from some little shitheads when she knew as much or more about the law—about practicing law—than most of the lawyers she worked for.


When you get older, it’s easy to get hurt. Physically hurt. Ellen had both knees scoped, and a torn rotator cuff—from shoveling the snow while the famous poet was at a conference. Dan had a “heart episode” a few years ago, which led to her snow shoveling, though to be honest, it’d always been, when the flakes were falling, Dan was stalling. Pablo shoveled for years—one of his chores—but not Dan.


“Not bad for a poor white kid from Jersey,” was Dan’s favorite line. It had a hint of humility to it and also celebrated the relative poverty of his family (his father had come from money and lost it). Dan had remade himself over the years, telling lies about his family in interviews his family would never read—he never read them himself. He trusted Ellen to read them. “Just make sure they don’t make me sound like an asshole,” he said, which was never a problem, since the interviews were conducted by younger poets currying favor.

Ellen thought lawyers were sleazy, but once she started keeping score in poetry, she understood that the lawyers had nothing on poets except more money. The poets added an extreme level of pettiness in lieu of financial compensation. They were always putting in the fix on the prizes and contests. She was going to bring that up at the divorce proceedings as well, but that’s when he caved. He was correct that introducing his poems would make him a martyr in some circles, but he also knew details of some of the backroom deals might get him the kind of publicity he didn’t need.


“After a certain point, shouldn’t you just stick it out till the end, till death do you part?” Pablo asked. He’d never been a big fan of his father’s poetry, or sometimes of his father himself, but he’d embraced his name, and Neruda, and it became part of his image—the silicon valley guy who read poetry. A techie with a deep side.

His mother was calling him to make the announcement. Even before she told Dan. In a way, perhaps she was steeling herself for Dan—to see if Pablo could/would talk her out of it.

“What do you have to lose by staying with him?”

“There’s no hyphens in front of my name,” Ellen said. “Maybe there’s still time for one. I’m thinking ‘ball-buster Ellen.”

“Mom, you don’t mean that,” he said.


Ellen could have gone the easier route with “infidelity,” but that was too easy. “Infidelity for $200!” She wanted the upper hand somehow, to not be a victim, despite being victimized for years.


“I’m getting a medal next week from the Academy,” he told her as soon as she sat down at his booth at Two Brothers, the one he was sitting at on the cover of his New and Selected Poems. It was a home game for him, she thought idly as she set her satchel down beside her, but then again, it always was.

The satchel was for what her future might hold. She was sixty—not much time. It held her new laptop and nothing else. She didn’t ask what academy. “You look good for an old man.”

He was drinking a martini as if he posing for another author photo, proud of himself forever. He always wanted to be interviewed at the Two Brothers, for it to get mentioned as his place. He was delighted whenever one of the brothers told him someone had come in looking for him. He wanted to be looked for.

Ellen ordered a draft and a bag of pretzels and looked around.

“Are you happy now?” he asked.

She smiled at him. “You know me, I’m never happy.”

“That’s why you should be a poet!” he shouted and laughed.

“You know, Danny, sometimes I think this poetry thing is all these little toy soldiers on a board moving around while above them the rest of the world goes on, not caring who kills who, who takes what territory, because we all know they’re toys. The only ones who don’t know are the poets.”

“This poetry thing you talk about—it’s my life.”

“Come on, it’s me, Ellen. See, I’m not taking notes.”

“You loved me for it back when we worked at Le Petite.”

“I liked you better as a waiter pretending to speak French. You knew you were pretending then. “

Dan pounded on the table. “Pretend? Pretend? I’ve been saving my own life with poetry.”

“What about my life? Have you been saving my life?” she shouted.

“Oh, good,” he said, “you’re making a scene. Everybody loves a good scene.”

“They do,” she replied. “You need more scenes in your poems and less…”

“And less what? Less poetry?” he snorted. He was fingering one of the cigars he’d taken up, chewing them soggy without lighting. Another form of pretending.

“You’re always talking about the image, but I think you mean image in a different kind of way.”


Pablo and Walt were having a baby. Or somebody was having the baby for them with somebody’s sperm. Ellen was too excited to ask. She didn’t care.

They were both on the line, talking over each other from different rooms in their San Francisco apartment. “We didn’t want to tell anyone until the baby was born,” Pablo said.

“But we couldn’t wait. Just family, we said,” Walt added.

“Get Dad. Put him on the other line,” Pablo said.

Ellen pulled the phone away and shouted, “Dan, pick up, it’s Pablo and Walt!”

He was reclining in his La-Z-Boy scanning through a stack of literary journals looking for familiar names.

“Both of them?” he said before picking up. “I don’t know if I can handle that.”

“Hey Grandpa,” Pablo shouted. “Now you’re going to have something to write about—we’re having a baby!”

“Who? What? Who’s having a baby?” he unreclined his chair and stood up, bending down to shout into the phone.


“We’re using a surrogate!” Walt shouted. “It’s when—“

“I know what a surrogate is,” Dan shouted. “Who’s the father?”

Across the room, Ellen made mad hand gestures to indicate happiness, as if it were a game of charades.

“Oh, never mind,” he said, “Congratulations to you two,” he said, then hung up.

“What’s that all about?” Walt asked.

“My Dad doesn’t like talking to more than one person unless he’s performing,” Pablo said. “Was he writing?” he asked Ellen.

“Oh, it doesn’t matter what he was doing,” she said. “I’m excited and proud of you both. So is your father.”

“Will he write the baby a poem?” Walt asked.

“No,” Pablo and Ellen said simultaneously.


“It’s not just me and you,” he said, “it’s about saving everybody.”

“Oh, don’t start quoting William Carlos Williams again. You’re going to make me puke.” Ellen was sorry as soon as she said it, and, in fact, liked Williams. She understood some of what he had to say—the plums poem, but not the wheelbarrow poem.

They had been happy and reckless—then they were less reckless, then less happy. Unhappiness was subtle and blurry, almost unrecognizable, something disguised as happiness—as if someone had gently nudged them into a dark room and their eyes failed to adjust.

“When’s the last time you puked, by the way? It might be good for you. A nice purging.”


Dan had written poems about Pablo. One of them was anthologized everywhere: Pablo crawling into bed with them during a thunderstorm. Dan recited it from memory. Pablo recited it from memory. Even Ellen could recite it from memory. She sat in the back at readings, then slipped out when she knew the poem was coming, their intimacy turned into a parlor trick, the audience making murmuring noises of approval and wonder.

He rarely wrote about Ellen, at least in any recognizable way. The Pablo poem had been an uncharacteristic dip into sentiment, but it went over so well that Dan had to keep reading it, even after Pablo was a grown man. He would have preferred to leave the room himself and have someone else read it. He didn’t consider it one of his better poems.


“You don’t need a beginning and ending if the middle’s good enough,” Dan was fond of saying.

But I need an ending, Ellen caught herself thinking whenever he said it. It was a mistake to follow him around the country and sit at long tables in noisy restaurants and listen to Dan hold forth. He turned it on and off like a faucet, so when they were alone back in the hotel room, it was off for Ellen, or only running cold.


The poetry scuttlebutt was that they were getting divorced because of his affairs—small change in the dramatic currency of poets’ lives. “A few peccadillos,” he would raise his shoulders and shrug. “Don’t you love the sound of that word, peccadillos?”

Clearly, she’d hurt him, and that kind of clarity was what she was looking for, without apology. The pain of the needle, not the blunt instrument.

They were both tired of apology.


One of the Two Brothers was heading over to check on them. Ellen reached across the table and took Dan’s hand. She squeezed. In the lack of words, they each found their own meaning.


She edited their high school yearbook, and he edited the literary magazine. He rarely mentioned this, because what hardscrabble high school had a literary magazine? And in his version, he was busing tables at the restaurant, not waiting tables, not speaking French with only the slightest of accents, as he recited the memorized menu each night.

What was not to love? He stood thick through the chest with a deep resonant voice. His hair was thinning, but he had a beautiful forehead and a sincere smile.

Sincere. Dan, the owner’s nephew who always got more than his fair share of tables, tips. But he could handle it. He was good at handling, his deceptively delicate hands easing plates onto the white tablecloth with a bow.

Ellen had to talk him out of the beret back then, but now he wore one without irony or affectation. He could wear anything because he’d won the prize. He was a noted raconteur, and didn’t a raconteur need a good chapeau?


“Ellen, if you go out with me, I’ll explain poetry to you.”

“What makes you think I want it explained?”

They were driving to a writer’s conference at Hawking, a fancy prep school in the suburbs of Cleveland.

“How about you explain yearbook to me then? A collection of vanity mug shots for the cliques to prove they were important once?”

He had the wit of someone who took nothing seriously, but he took everything seriously.


They were the two finalists for the English Department award their senior year, and he had won, backed by the passionate endorsement of the gay literary magazine advisor who had a crush on him. The yearbook advisor, on the other hand, was an alcoholic stumbling toward retirement, cynical and defeated.


She loved that his French sounded authentic, that he also made jewelry and played the piano. He went to Kenyon College and she went to Denison for a year, then transferred to join him at Kenyon. He wrote her letters full of wild madness that often showed up later as parts of poems. She didn’t wonder then, but later asked him what came first, the letters, or the poems.

“It’s all a process,” he said. “I wrote them all out of love for you.”

They went to Paris once, a rainy week a year before Pablo came along. Dan was unhappy being a tourist and taken advantage of. Ellen did most of the French-speaking. He was uncharacteristically hesitant, fumbling. Ellen loved his reliance on her, how he turned to her for confirmation or assistance. He never wanted to go back.


The yearbook did a feature on the literary magazine, Prism, which was then only in its second year. Dan was in three of the four photos, bent over, pretending to edit, pretending to lay out a poem, pretending to have a staff meeting. The only other picture of Dan in the yearbook showed him sitting in the library, holding a book with his middle finger extended. No one noticed until after it came out, and Ellen had been furious. Even the old, drunken advisor had gotten out of his chair to raise a protest, but the photo was just uncertain enough that Dan could plead innocence. He was an escape artist, even then, hiding his meaning with wit. He’s a clever one, they all said, and he was Ellen’s, and she lovingly put up with him, like in the teen movies she couldn’t help liking—the good girl, the wise-cracking guy. They were a unit in school, in the restaurant, on the street. Because you couldn’t understand his poems, they were good. He was smart enough to be clear, and too smart to be clear—selling mystery and wonder. He had the magic fire stick, and what he did with it was his business.


Ellen remembered the phone call, and Dan, of course, remembered it too. A caller from New York who wanted to talk to Daniel Ronson, the poet. She handed him the phone, and they exchanged a look.

“Is this it?” he whispered to her, pointing to the phone.

Ellen giggled. They knew he was a finalist. and that the announcement was coming. He winked at her and crossed his fingers.

“Yes, this is Dan Ronson. Yes, the poet.”


When he hung up, he clapped his hands and whooped a series of celebratory shouts, then shimmied a victory dance. Ellen wanted to dance with him, but he didn’t reach for her until he was tired of dancing.

“Ha!” he said, panting, and she took him in her arms. He lifted her up. “How does it feel to be married to a Pulitzer-Prize winner?”


He was the first to ask her that question. She soon lost track of how often she was asked. Many of the questions were not rhetorical, like Daniel’s. People wanted an answer, as if there was one. Something witty and crisp, not heartfelt.

“I’m proud of him,” she always said.

“Well, of course,” they said, “but…”

“It’s only poetry,” she said, and laughed, but no one laughed with her.


He didn’t wait for an answer. “I’ve got some calls to make,” he said, and pulled away. He’d prepared a list. First, he called Two Brothers.

“I won,” he shouted. “Open up the back room and be ready, we’re coming down!”

It wasn’t as festive as Daniel or Ellen imagined it would be, since winning the prize meant, of course, that his friends had not won. He should’ve just invited their neighbors and the plumber and electrician—anyone who had nothing to do with poetry and could sincerely be thrilled for him.

Back home, he was glum, restless, and couldn’t sleep. “Fuck them,” he said. “Why even show up if they can’t be happy for me?”

Ellen wanted to remind him of the years he’d spent railing about other prizes and winners, but she just took him in her arms and patted his head. They were on the same team. She was happy for him, he needed to know.

The next day, he remembered to call Pablo.


Dan had an opinion on everything. He should have been a critic, Ellen used to think sometimes, listening to him evaluate every meal, every movie, every other driver on the road—but she worried that he’d be too harsh. He excelled at finding weak spots.

For many years, Pablo had adopted his father’s beliefs about everything, but when he became a teenager, he stopped and went into reverse, and Dan didn’t have the time or disposition to win Pablo over with reason. He was dismissive and patronizing, as he could be with everyone, but his own son, confused about his sexuality, got no help from his father, who, oblivious for years, offered comments on which girls were cute, and why didn’t he ask them out?

“Dan,” Ellen told him, “Pablo is figuring things out. Don’t pressure him.” She worried about him being gay. At their high school back in Cleveland, they shunned anyone who was different, and different often meant gay—like the Prism advisor, Mr. Hancock, who Dan mocked behind his back. Dan himself had to fend off taunts due to his poetry writing, and Mr. Hancock’s fawning, which lead him to take a more macho stance, denigrating the true gay students, who, in fact, were often interested in poetry and finer things—at least some of the more open ones. Ellen was no expert on who was gay and who wasn’t. Somebody like Walt, it seemed easy to tell. But Pablo didn’t wear the spangly affectations of being gay like Walt. He didn’t fight for gay rights. He just was. Gentle, kind, Pablo, their son, who didn’t understand why they couldn’t stay married and keep whole and simple one part of his life. He never tired of hearing that one poem.


Dan didn’t reserve the backroom at Two Brothers when Pablo and Walt made their announcement. He seemed embarrassed, hesitant to share the news.

Ellen couldn’t figure it out. Between academia and poetry, Dan had many friends who were gay. But maybe it wasn’t about being gay at all. It was either about being oblivious, or about how poets count years compared to the rest of us. You can still be a “younger” poet until age forty, when most athletes are already retired. Even at his age, Dan seemed to still have a generation older than him of poets still alive and gently kicking. Dan denied her chiding—being labeled “grandpa” wasn’t going to bother him, he said.

Ellen couldn’t help but compare the two big announcements—they came within months of each other, and led to the third, since all big things come in three.


That night after he hung up on Pablo and Walt (not named after Whitman, which would have been too perfect, though Dan, in his softer moments, joked about “those two poets out in San Francisco”), Ellen missed out on sharing the genuine joy she felt, knowing how life gives so little of it—he could go back to scanning his literary magazines for familiar names without it. There’s a reason they only had one child.

Perhaps Ellen’s meanness was a work-in-progress, like a painting class at the senior center. But Dan did not appreciate the competition a child provided. Ellen knew poetry was “a kind of lying,” as Dan always quoted somebody. Williams? But that sweet poem he wrote about Pablo seemed like another kind of lie.

No, not Williams. It was that sweet poet with the long white hair who looked a little like Whitman. Once he was in town for a reading and came to look for Dan, to thank him for something. Dan should have been home. He was probably holding forth at the Two Brothers. Ellen offered to have him paged there, but the man said not to bother—he’d just dropped in—though she’d never seen him before, and he must have looked up their address.

Ellen was holding Pablo in her arms. He asked, “But if it isn’t too much trouble, can I hold your baby for a minute?”

How could she refuse such a request? She gently handed him over.

“And what is this fine baby’s name,” he asked, brushing aside his long beard and holding him to his chest.

“Pablo,” she said.

“Ah, Pablo,” he said, and stroked the fur on the baby’s head. The man handed him back to Ellen and thanked her again. He bowed and slipped out the door.


Dan is sitting alone at his booth in the Two Brothers. His assistant sits across from him. Together, they go through a box of mail. She is a poet herself and hopes this might lead to something.


Ellen is sitting in Pablo’s room, the stack of old children’s books in front of her on the floor. She will ship them to the boys for when the baby comes. She grabs one of Dan’s books from the lower shelf and opens it to with love. She keeps turning the pages. She begins to read.


When Dan finally came home, it took them nearly half an hour to determine who that visiting poet was. Ellen was sure he’d said his name at the door, but she had forgotten it.

“Wow,” Dan said. He was flattered that the frail old poet had come to see him, though not enough to attend his reading that night. “Hand me my son,” he said. “Can’t let the poetry world get their grubby hands on him,” he winked at her.

Ellen thought about making a crack about naming him Pablo in the first place, but she’d agreed to the name herself. She handed him back his award.


Jim Ray Daniels is the author of six collections of short fiction, including, most recently, The Perp Walk, Michigan State University Press, 2019. His fiction awards include a Michigan Notable Book prize, finalist for the Paterson Fiction Prize, and awards from the Midwest Book Awards, the Independent Booksellers Association, and the Foreword INDIE Book Awards. He is the Thomas S. Baker University Professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Email: jd6s[at]andrew.cmu.edu


L.M. Brown

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

Nollaig Sheehy sat two seats from the front pew with her coat fastened. Her hands were folded on her knees. The priest’s late start didn’t concern her. He was probably called out to an ailing parishioner. A few children were restless. She heard the whimpers and the hushing noises of mothers. But mostly the congregation waited with nothing more than the occasional whisper and shuffle. Nollaig was thinking of the roast beef she would cook for herself and Margaret when the priest appeared red-cheeked and breathless in his white linen vestment.

Father Kineally, a tall, skinny priest, with a thick head of silver hair and big nose, grasped the side of the pulpit and leaned forward to tell the congregation that a terrible thing had happened.

“Nick Moody was grievously hurt,” the priest said.

“He was bludgeoned and found behind the Dun Maeve pub,” he said.

Nollaig thought he was looking directly at her. She was convinced she’d misheard him and it wasn’t Nick Moody’s name he’d spoken, but her daughter’s, Margaret Sheehy, who had been working in the Dun Maeve last night.

Father Kineally was speaking about community helping each other in this time of need and Nollaig was thinking of her daughter standing by the back door of the pub. No matter the weather she liked to stand there so she could hear the rush of the river beside her.

“The first thing I do when everyone leaves,” she’d said before, “Is go out and breathe that fresh air.”

Nollaig realized she was standing. Her head was light. She could feel the attention move onto her and the worry that had risen from her movement. Many present must have realized that Margaret had been working last night. There was a collective intake of breath. Neighbor’s knees tilted sideways. Nollaig stumbled onto the aisle.

The priest’s voice followed her out of the church, but she heard nothing of the words. Last night’s rain had brought out the dark hues of the countryside. The road was quiet. Nollaig weaved through the cars parked in front of the church. Somewhere close a dog was barking and she imagined Margaret hurt or still hiding in the pub. Her breathing felt trapped inside her head. She ran, then walked, then ran again.

It took three efforts to get her key in the latch. Nollaig didn’t bother taking it out. In her hurry, she left the front door open. Her daughter’s room was at the front of the bungalow. Nollaig opened the door to darkness and a scent of unwashed clothes. Her daughters form was huddled under the covers in bed. Nollaig turned on the light to reveal her daughter’s dark hair and pale skin.

“Hey!” Margaret said, “Turn the light off.”

Nollaig couldn’t move. Her daughter was rising from the bed and Nollaig was looking at the wet clothes that had been thrown on the floor.

“Mammy what is it?” Margaret said.

For a moment Nollaig couldn’t speak.

“Mammy,” Margaret urged and the worry in her voice pulled Nollaig back.

She told her, “Nick Moody was hurt last night”.

“What do you mean ‘hurt,’ what happened?” Margaret said.

Nollaig was shaking her head. She said she didn’t know. She said she’d run home as soon as she heard because she was so worried. “You get up, I’ll put the kettle on,” she said.

Nollaig was standing by her kitchen window when she saw the police car.


Across from Margaret was a female detective with short blonde hair and thoughtful navy eyes. She was slim with wrists that looked small enough to break with touch. She had introduced herself as Hennessy. Her partner sat beside her. McMahon was his name. He had broad shoulders and pale green eyes over a small nose and thin mouth. There was some grey in his hair, though his face was young.

In her pajamas, Margaret looked like a large child beside them.

“I didn’t go out the back. I was going to,” Margaret said, “But the rain sounded awful.” She paused and shook her head. “I left the bin bag by the back door.”

Nollaig felt numb, as if she was watching this scene from afar. It was too much to think of her daughter standing at that back door, her hand on the handle, the absurdity of it all. McMahon asked if Nick Moody left with anyone.

“No,” Margaret said, “He left alone just after one a.m.”

The last customer was gone twenty minutes later. Margaret finished cleaning and went out the front. Nick’s car was parked across the road, but it was too dark to see if he was inside and too far for her to investigate. She had gotten soaked running to her mother’s car. She’d driven because the forecast warned of rain and she didn’t like walking alone at that hour anyway, no matter how short the journey. She saw no one on her way home.

“Did anything unusual happen last night, any arguments?” Hennessy asked.

Nollaig had to fight the urge to run to her daughter and tell her not to say anything more. The seconds of silence pulled at her and made the swish of the washing machine sound oppressive. She had not looked at her daughter’s clothes before she put them into the machine. They swirled in suds, one pair of pants, a black shirt, and socks.

Margaret said no, nothing strange happened.

“Are you sure,” Hennessy asked.

Margaret had a habit of biting her lip when concentrating. As a child she used to chew her hair. After a while, she said, “Yes, I’m sure, nothing happened.”

A glance out the kitchen window showed the day had turned darker. Clouds skimmed the sky. Nollaig wanted to be on the other side of the glass, far away from here. The room was stuffy and hot. Hennessy asked who Nick was with last night.

Margaret said, “His wife, Joan, but she didn’t stay long.”

She said she couldn’t imagine how she was now. A silence reigned after this and Nollaig wondered if her daughter was waiting for news, if she expected the police to lean forward and tell her something of the wife, how she greeted them at the door with a tired face and collapsed when she heard of her husband’s murder.

Hennessy had glanced at her partner with the mention of the wife’s name. Nollaig was sure they had been the bearers of bad news; the two had stood at Joan’s door. Maybe Hennessy had held her up.

Hennessy said, “Who else was there?”

Margaret rolled a list of names including their next-door neighbor Finn.

McMahon scribbled the names down. Nollaig wondered what the guards would learn about Margaret. They would probably talk to their neighbor Finn, since he was in the pub. She could imagine them at his kitchen table, huddled as they were now. It was possible Finn would remember spending time with Margaret when they were children. Margaret was never happy in his company. There were one or two instances where Nollaig found Finn crying.

What would the two detectives think when they learnt that Margaret had no friends and a sketchy employment record?

For three months she’d worked in a clothes shop in Sligo town. The manager, a forty-ish, well-kept woman with blonde hair and judicious eye had agreed to take Margaret on part-time. Within the first week, Margaret had come home telling Nollaig that she had dressed the window and had been asked to order the clothes for next week. Nollaig had sat at the kitchen table, listening with a sinking sensation in her gut. Days before Margaret had stopped going to work, their dinners were eaten quietly. Margaret had stopped grabbing her mother’s arm and saying. “Wait till I tell you.” Nollaig had been foolish enough to feel relieved with the end of the lies. She should have known her daughter had had her fun and was getting bored. It had happened with the courses in hairdressing and computers she’d started with a flourish, then let fizzle out. Still it had been a shock when wrapped in her duvet and with her pillow over her head; Margaret had announced she wasn’t going into the shop. By the time the owner of the pub asked if Margaret wanted to work a few shifts, she had been unemployed six months.

Nollaig hadn’t heard the last questions asked. The voices rose and fell and she wondered if the detectives were aware of washing machine. Nollaig couldn’t remember if she’d poured detergent in before turning the machine on. The police had gotten out of the car by then and were walking towards the house. Margaret had stalled in the hall when she saw them. She’d looked frightened.

“It’ll be okay,” Nollaig had told her.

A scrape of the chair brought Nollaig’s attention back to the table. McMahon and Hennessy were standing.

“Let us know if you think of anything else?” Hennessy said and Nollaig noticed the white card that had been placed on the table as she walked them out.

“It’s a shock,” McMahon said to Nollaig, and she realized how pale she must look, how shaken and disheveled. She had lost the power of speech.

“I know,” she wanted to say, but there was nothing in her mouth.

From the door she watched them drive away. When she went back to the kitchen, her daughter turned to look at her.

Margaret’s eyes were red but focused. “Isn’t it terrible, Mammy?” she said.

Nollaig couldn’t answer. Her tongue felt too heavy in her mouth. She didn’t know how she was standing.


The house was narrow and painted a light pink color. There was one window to the right of the front door with wooden blinds. It looked innocent, tucked between two nondescript buildings, a few yards from the train station Margaret had to walk to every morning. She’d passed the house seventeen times before she noticed the bronze plaque and she paused to look at the letters, elegant and bold, rising from the color of soil. The words surprised her, but not as much as they might have eight months ago when she’d imagined the seediest thing she’d ever have to contend with were the roaming eyes of the drunks she served at the local pub and how they’d call her over with a quick movement of their head. She’d have to lean forward to hear their order, feel their beer-sodden breath on her cheek. Through the side window, she saw there was nothing innocent about that room with the armchairs hidden behind the door, so the men waiting would have the benefit of seeing the ladies enter from behind. But there was nothing innocent about Margaret either. That’s why she left home and flew to the other side of the world. She could have gone to the States. She had relatives there, but she wanted to go where no one knew her, where she could start from scratch and build herself up into someone different. Her eyes met the reflection in the sun-shattered window. Dark hair, heavy-boned, big-eyed, loose of shoulder. She moved on.

Margaret had been staying in a hostel up the road and living out of her suitcase since she’d arrived in the country. For the last months at home, while she’d waited for her visa to come through, she’d hardly left her bedroom. Days were slept away, and nights were spent watching movies on the small portable TV she’d bought when her mother’s silent existence started to get on her nerves.

After Nick Moody’s death, little could be said about her behavior or her need to stay safe inside. She’d ignored calls from her peers who lived close by. They’d phoned because their parents said they should. Margaret needed some support, a shoulder to lean on. She knew the calls had been their parents’ idea because they’d stopped there, no one bothered to come to her front door. Margaret had imagined the neighbors shaking heads and whispering that it must have been shocking to realize what had happened only a few feet away. They would have thought about Margaret alone and vulnerable in the pub; a few might have imagined what would have happened if she’d stepped out the back like she normally did.

“No wonder she hasn’t come back,” they would have said. “It’s a shock.”

Whenever she’d ventured out of the house, the pity in their eyes made her go cold. There was no curiosity about her being the only one in the pub when it happened—Margaret Sheehy, the big quiet girl with the pretty brown eyes.

If it had been Louise, they’d have wondered why he was there in the first place. They would have looked at Louise’s slim figure and blonde hair and come up with a different answer.

But it wasn’t Louise, who liked to flirt behind the counter. It was Margaret, who on her first night tending bar couldn’t talk. Their questions were smiled at and left unanswered until the customers gave up.

The hostel was quiet. Just after two p.m. Margaret’s shift in the café finished at noon. Margaret used to hate this time of day. Now she got through listless afternoons by napping. She could sleep until five if her roommate, an English girl who spent most of her time on the roof smoking, didn’t come in to rummage around her rucksack. Then Margaret would walk around the city for hours. She went all the way to Bondi once. She’d lost weight since she got here, but could do nothing about those big thigh bones.

Her hostel room smelt of sweat and beer, the English girl’s input, and grease, which was Margaret’s. The café she worked in was a busy fast food place and suited her perfectly. From the moment she entered at 6 a.m. she was kept busy, preparing food, serving customers, and cleaning their mess. The owners didn’t keep her a minute past needing her. She got her lunch when she finished and ate on the high counter by the window.

The air was hot and muggy, but this never bothered Margaret. Nights, she tossed and turned with flashes of skin and blood. The feel of cold stone against her palm would wake her more than once, and she’d jump breathless from the bed, expecting to see the bloodied rock before her as if it was possible that it had been unearthed from the bottom of the river and could find her oceans away.

The afternoon sun, though hot and intrusive, kept the dreams back, and let her drift to sleep unhindered. Only not today, because today she couldn’t stop thinking of the bronze sign and the women behind it, and this made her think of the parish priest at home. Hidden behind the red curtain with his face made up of tiny squares from the screen that divided him and his confessors, the quiet grey-haired man became someone different every Saturday evening. He was the voice of power. His stutter disappeared as with a flattened hand he made the figure of the cross and gave penance. He never looked you in the eye so Margaret believed he couldn’t help feeling a little ashamed by the sins he was made to hear.

One Our Father and three Hail Marys was his usual. How much would he have given her?

Her knees would have been raw by the end of it, even if he understood, even if he knew she had no choice, because that’s the way she would have told it. She’d lied too many times to stop now.

The police had come to Margaret’s house to interview her a second time. They’d apologized for making her think of that night but they needed to make sure she hadn’t seen anyone linger. She’d started crying and one of them, a young red-cheeked man with watery eyes, let slip that the violence against Nick had been shocking. When she looked at him wide-eyed, he’d apologized for upsetting her and dropped his gaze.

She’d heard the rumors about an affair, though it was hard to imagine how they’d reached her behind the closed door of her bedroom. She might have heard the whisperings the day she gave her notice in the pub. No doubt the moment she entered, people started talking, as if all they needed was a bit of a push to get going. Margaret knew the wife had been more angry than hurt. With her two young children asleep upstairs, and the bruise on her cheek a faded yellow, she’d told police it was probably some jealous husband. Everyone had known the deceased to wait in the dark for someone else’s wife.

Still no one thought that he might have waited for Margaret. Maybe that’s why she decided to leave, because at home she was so easy to overlook. When she applied for the visa and booked the ticket, she thought she was saying goodbye to the notion that she was the type of woman nothing ever happened to. This idea seemed to follow her though and each time Margaret passed the building with its bronze plaque, the deceit of its pink childlike exterior pulled at her, and made her want to expose what lay underneath.

Six days after reading the plaque, she couldn’t sleep. The English girl had moved out and Margaret was surprised by her loneliness. She dressed in a long black skirt and T-shirt, and went to the small shop tucked in front of the train station to buy a pencil and writing pad. She looked through the newspapers and jotted down the name of one.

The front door to the parlor was opened by slim blonde woman dressed in a pink business suit. She looked like a doll with her shiny complexion and small wrists and ankles. Her hair fell thick on her shoulders and her narrow eyes moved up and down Margaret in a way that made her feel naked. She wasn’t entirely sure if she disliked the sensation.

“I’d like to interview the girls for an article,” Margaret said.

“Really?” the blonde answered.

Margaret tried to say yes. The name of the paper she’d picked was on her tongue but she couldn’t let it fall. There was something about the woman that suggested she saw right through Margaret. The woman looked amused, though there was a hard glimmer in her eyes that made that amusement less personal.

“You can talk to Taylor. Are you thinking of trying it?”

Margaret wasn’t sure what the woman meant, but she nodded and stepped inside. The walls were painted a color between pink and red, a warm color that made Margaret feel claustrophobic. The floor had a brown carpet. A smell of perfume was stronger at the foot of the stairs than anywhere else and made Margaret think of ghosts, or parts of the spirits of girls lingering at the spot. Her gaze slipped quickly away from the stairs that fell into the hall, as if it was something perverse. She watched the gentle sway of the woman’s hips as she led her to a small cluttered room at the back of the house. The room resembled a living room with the couch and two chairs. Clothes were strung over the back of the couch and a bag of makeup was on the coffee table, its contents spilled outward. The window to the left of the door looked out to a concrete yard, and a red-haired girl dressed in a short shirt and vest top sat below the beams of sunlight reaching over her head. She could have been any age from fifteen to twenty-three. She had small compact body that exuded energy.

“This is Taylor,” the blonde said. She looked at Margaret in the appraising way she’d seen men look at Louise. “Sorry I didn’t get your name.”


“Is that your real name?”

Margaret nodded.

The woman smiled. “Yeah I thought so.”

She said Taylor would tell her everything she needed to know. Taylor was too small, too young, too full of her life, so Margaret listened and wouldn’t have said anything about herself even if she got the chance. There was too much dirt to spill. Besides once Taylor started talking there was no stopping her. Margaret was awed by the rapid movement of her thin painted lips as she talked about moving from Queensland with her father after spending years in the wrong company. She’d started young. At the tender age of fourteen she had sex in the back of a car and was paid with crumpled bills. Taylor’s father tried to keep her on the straight and narrow, but there were too many windows to watch and too many people waiting on corners. Finally he packed up and moved across the sprawling country, putting the desert between his daughter and the people she’d met.

Taylor worked in a laundromat for a couple of weeks, and a café for three days but she couldn’t stand the idea of putting in so many hours for measly pay when in Queensland she made a few hundred in a day. When she paused, Margaret thought the small parting of her lips looked like a full stop.

It was early afternoon. There was only one other girl, who was busy in one of the rooms upstairs. After a half an hour and most of Taylor’s life story, the doorbell signaled the end of their conversation. Margaret had to wait until the man was brought upstairs before she could leave. Walking back through that narrow corridor, she felt too much like the priest, seeing only the patterns people wanted her to see and showing nothing of herself.

“Can I come tomorrow?” she asked, and the blonde shrugged.

“You could try it out, see if you like it.”

She smiled with Margaret’s surprise. “Girls will get fed up talking. You’ll have to make up your mind soon.”

Margaret nodded.

“And you’ll have to think of a better name.”

The next day, Margaret was led into the small courtyard that was surrounded by high stone walls and made the sky appear close enough to touch. A young woman in a short black dress with thin shoulder straps was sitting at the only table. Her legs were stretched before her and her high heels were slipping off her naked feet. A cigarette burned in the full ashtray beside her. The blonde woman introduced the woman as Sam.

“And this is Margaret—she wants to ask you a few questions.”

The blonde woman retreated with sharp clicks of her high heels. Sam took a cigarette from her pack and lit it. With the pull of her cigarette, her cheeks were drawn in to make her look skeletal. Smoke rose above her rouged cheeks and heavily painted eyelids. Her brown lipstick was thick and smudged. Margaret imagined this carelessness might have been sexy to some of the men who came. It hinted at a kind of risquéness. But to Margaret it made her look as if she had been playing dress up and the game had gone on too long, the borders and boundaries erasing themselves so the girl hadn’t known when to stop, and that was why the woman ended up in this courtyard, in the middle of a city, waiting for a doorbell to ring.

Margaret told her she was interviewing all the girls for an article. The masseuse smiled. Margaret expected her to ask about the paper she worked for, like Taylor had done. The excitement in her brown eyes had dimmed with The Herald as if she had hoped for better. Sam’s lack of curiosity made Margaret feel transparent. A line of sweat tickled her upper lip, and she resisted the urge to wipe it. The gesture would have reminded her of how Nick Moody had wiped the white foam of Guinness from his lips, a hint of aggression that she hadn’t thought of until it was too late.

“So, what do you want?” the woman asked her. Her thumb and pointer fingers had thick silver rings. Her distant and humorless gaze pulled at the nerves in Margaret’s stomach.

“I talked to Taylor yesterday,” she said.

Sam was looking at Margaret as if nothing about her visitor might interest her, as if she knew everything there was to know because she was big-boned and plain.


“Yes.” Margaret’s mouth had gone dry. The belief that she could be honest with these women dissolved at her feet and made her want to cry.

“What did she tell you?”

“It doesn’t matter.” Margaret mumbled. She went towards the empty chair and tried to ignore the muscles of Sam’s calves. She imagined Taylor and Sam had talked about her. They would have laughed at the thought of the frumpy girl working here or having to see her dressed in skimpy clothes.

Sam’s fringe came down over one eye. The rest of her hair was cropped short around her head. She leaned forward. “Taylor lied to you. Her dad didn’t bring her to Sydney.”

Margaret remembered the red hair lying loose around Taylor’s neck, her vest top clinging to her flat boy-like breasts, her short bare legs. She remembered the glint in her brown eyes and the smile of self-ridicule.

“Taylor followed her pimp. He says he loves her but wasn’t happy with the deduction in funds when she started to go straight. He brought her here.”

Sam looked Margaret over, smiling at her dress with long sleeves and the lack of naked skin.

“Taylor thought you’d follow your dad before a lover. She’s used to pleasing people.”

Margaret couldn’t answer. Her nerves had flattened and hardened inside her and made her so angry at this young woman with the smooth skin and self-assurance. Sam knew what it was like to pretend, and yet she looked at Margaret and came up with the same conclusion as those fools on the other side of the world.

Sam tipped her ash into the ashtray and Margaret felt the same irritation as she did when she opened the back door of the pub and realized he had been waiting for her. She hadn’t been scared which surprised her. Instead there as a kind of relief in having something she could fight against. Sam took a long drag from her cigarette and Margaret remembered him stepping from the shadows and the sound of the river hitting against the wall behind them. He’d smelt of beer and sweat. She’d hit him with the first thing that had come to hand.

“I didn’t have to kill him.”

Sam stiffened.

“He was lying on the ground, and I dropped the rock on his face. Then I finished cleaning the bar as if nothing happened. I drove home and went to bed and didn’t even think of him.”

The air had grown still and heavy, as if the world had stopped to finally take notice of a big girl with pretty eyes. “I would follow a lover,” she told Sam, “I wouldn’t let him tell me what to do though.”

Sam’s lips had parted and her eyes were soft with fright. Margaret thought again that Sam looked like a child caught in the middle of dress up. The clock ticked in the other room and there was a distant sound of traffic. A cloud skimmed by unnoticed. Margaret was in no rush to leave. The woman sitting before her had dropped her gaze. She said nothing, but Margaret heard her apology in the silence. It would have sounded something like his, a pleading tone in the voice. The bell rang and still Margaret didn’t move. She waited for the blonde woman to stand at the door.

“I’m done here,” Margaret said and the woman looked at Sam who had deflated in her seat. Then she looked at Margaret as if she had no idea what she was.


L.M. Brown is the author of the novel Debris, and the linked short story collections Treading the Uneven Road and Were We Awake. Her novel Hinterland is forthcoming 2020. Her stories have been nominated for the Puschcart Prize and have been published in over a dozen magazines such as Eclectica, The Chiron Review, Fiction Southeast, Litro and more. She has three daughters and they live near her husband’s hometown in Massachusetts but L.M. grew up in Ireland. Email: lornawbrown[at]gmail.com

Appetizers and Armani

JG Alderisio

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

How is it possible that an island only thirteen miles long and less than a mile wide at its narrowest point can jam almost two million people onto its shores and not have people constantly tripping over each other? It seems a mathematical impossibility. And yet on the Upper East Side in the middle of the day there’s a place where the luxury of emptiness exists, where walking on the sidewalk is not akin to a rugby scrum because the sidewalks are blissfully free of pedestrians. It may not be the only neighborhood in Manhattan so empty during the day, but between Park Avenue and Madison Avenue, from 64th to 85th Streets certainly has to be one of the prettiest.

Sheilah knew that neighborhood well because she ambled through it every day. The apartment she shared with her husband Peter and their two kids was slightly north on Park Avenue and 88th Street. Whether jogging or shopping or simply running errands she usually headed down to the tranquility of that roughly twenty-block area to accomplish what she needed to do, even if it was just to wander. Sheilah loved looking at the rows of brownstones she found, some a white or dark gray color but most a deep red, the color of dried blood. She stopped to look at the black wrought iron fences many of the brownstones had, inspecting their scrollwork and how they impeded access to a small hill of steps as well as the front door. She peeked into what windows she could but most had their blinds down, their shutters closed as if no one was home which Sheilah assumed they weren’t. That’s why the neighborhood was so empty. Everyone was downtown somewhere earning the salary it took to own a brownstone between Madison and Park Avenues.

Today Sheilah headed for a small French bistro she thought was in the upper 70s about halfway between Park and Madison Avenue. She lunched there months ago and instead of looking up the address decided to trust her memory to guide her there. Though hazy on the location she absolutely remembered the name, La Table du Boucher, a name taken from a French fairy tale about a time of famine when an entire town was miraculously kept alive by the food the local butcher served on his small kitchen table.

After a few wrong turns Sheilah quickly corrected, she saw the handpainted sign for the bistro. The restaurant was on the ground floor of a building the color of sand and had a short, dark gray awning over the entrance. White peonies filled the flower boxes outside the two large front windows. A single table with two chairs stood to the right of the entrance, more for decoration than for function since La Table du Boucher did not deliver food, not even to its sidewalk. The real reason for the table outside was to hold the bistro’s menu.

It was a bit early for lunch so Sheilah expected to see many open tables and booths inside the restaurant. What surprised her when she scanned the room was seeing someone she knew at a table near a window.

“How did you get here before me? I’m local, you’re the foreigner here.”

Kyle stood and hugged his cousin. “I took an earlier train,” he explained. “Couldn’t wait to see you.” That was actually true but he knew Sheilah would only somewhat believe it. He thought his cousin looked appropriately casual for a lunch date. Her brown hair was pulled back into a ponytail, she wore a man’s white oxford shirt and a pair of black stirrup pants.

“How was the ride in? It must have been exciting to see Grand Central Station again.”

Kyle shook his head. “I didn’t come in through Grand Central. I took a train to the Bronx then hopped on a subway to get here. It takes longer but I saved a few dollars.”

A waiter appeared at their table and handed menus to Sheilah and Kyle. She described the specials and promised to return in a few minutes once they decided what to eat.

Sheilah stared at the menu splayed flat on the table in front of her. “Remember what you promised me,” she said.

“Hmm?” said Kyle absentmindedly since he was busy reading about the wonders French cooking could perform.

“You promised you’d let me know if you needed money,” said Sheilah.

Kyle looked up from his menu. “Where did that come from?” he asked, sounding confused. Then he remembered the subway story. “I’m okay, honest,” he said. “I’m just an efficient spender these days.” He went back to his menu. “What do you suppose a flaugnarde is?”

“Are you looking at the desserts already?”

Kyle went back to the top of the menu. He asked about his favorite aunt and uncle. “What are your folks up to?”

Sheilah exhaled dramatically. “Therese and Don are still hunkered down in the wilds of Connecticut,” she said. “They’ve turned their house into a dog shelter, I don’t know how many strays they have now. All I know is they’re too busy to drive to Manhattan to see their grandkids. When I ask why, Therese says ‘You don’t need us, you have everything. Those poor dogs have nothing, they’re the ones we can help’.” Sheilah closed her menu and left it face down on the table. “Can you imagine your parents saying something like that to you?”

“They wouldn’t say it, they’d just do it,” said Kyle. “You see how they abandoned me on this coast as soon as my little sister moved out west and started having kids. At first it was extended visits, then they bought a house out there. They decorate it with sticks, rock crystals, and cow skulls bleached in the dessert sun and pretend to be Georgia O’Keeffe.” Kyle picked up the wine list. “They haven’t stepped foot on this coast in years. Mom says she waves to it as she flies over New York on their trips to Europe. If I want to see Bill and Joan, I have to go to them. They’re not coming here.” Kyle handed the wine menu to Sheilah. “What would you say to some vin with lunch?”

“I want the biggest glass they have,” said Sheilah as she took the menu. “Remember when they acted like real parents and honestly wanted to be with us? All of us—both our families. For Christ’s sake, they herded us out to Long Island for all those summer vacations. That was a priority back then.”

Kyle closed his eyes. So many things only happened back then. “They dreamed of buying a house out there but it never happened,” he said. “They never really got over that.” Kyle looked around for the waitress so they could order. “But you have a place out there so at least someone in the family eventually got one.”

Sheilah was still deciding what wine she wanted. “Did I tell you the broker who sold us the house called it a ‘tear down’? To her, it was unlivable. We stayed in it for three summers before doing any renovations.” She took her eyes off the wine list and looked at Kyle. “Renovations you’ve never seen, by the way. You haven’t been out there for years.”

“I know,” Kyle said sheepishly. “Work always got in the way.”

A waitress appeared at their table. “Ready to order?” she asked.

The cousins made their final decisions about food and alcohol then let the waitress convey the news to the kitchen.

While they waited for their appetizers Sheilah asked about Kyle’s job search. He gave short, shallow answers and as soon as possible without seeming hasty he shifted the conversation back to family.

“How are your boys? They must be excited the end of the school year is near.”

“Oh good Lord that’s all they talk about,” said Sheilah. “You’d think they were being released from prison they’re so excited.”

“So Ian is finishing off seventh grade, is he?”

“No, eighth,” Sheilah answered, sounding suddenly panicked. “My baby’s going to high school next year.”

“That’s impossible,” said Kyle. “Did he skip a year?”

“No, honey, you did.” Sheilah looked at Kyle sympathetically. “But it’s easy to do. They grow up so fast.”

Apparently, thought Kyle as he wondered how he lost track of a year somewhere along the way. He didn’t want to make the same mistake with his cousin’s other kid so he chose his next words carefully. “That means come September Malcolm will be what?”

“Angrier than usual,” said Sheilah. “He doesn’t want to go to the same school as his little brother. But anyway, Malcolm will be a senior, Ian a freshman.”

Restaurant servers made periodic trips to the table to collect empty plates, refill water glasses and deliver the chosen entrees. When the entrée dishes were replaced by dessert menus, Sheilah read hers with unusual interest.

“This time we’re getting dessert,” she told her cousin. Kyle was not about to argue but it was odd that Sheilah wanted dessert. Something’s up. He was several spoonfuls into a chocolate soufflé before he found out what.

“I always love when we see each other, and we don’t do that often enough if you ask me,” said Sheilah. She casually picked at her half-eaten apple galette. “But I have to tell you I have an ulterior motive for getting together. I wanted to ask you for a favor.”

Was that all? That’s nothing. A favor he could do.

“It’s about the boys,” Sheilah said. “Now that school’s ending, we’ll go out to the beach for the summer. Months ago Peter read about a class at a local school that helps seniors do better on their SATs. So he signed up Malcolm. Of course he didn’t mention it to me. Then Ian found a cultural exchange program in London that he wanted to go to so we booked tickets for that. Now I find out these two things overlap.” Sheilah downed the last of her wine and considered ordering a second glass. “I can’t let Ian go to London alone, I have to go with him. That means Malcolm’s alone at the beach. Peter can’t go out there because he has to work. So I was thinking maybe you’d want to stay out there with Malcolm. The class is only for a week. It’s a ten-minute drive from our house. All you’d have to do is drive him to school in the morning and pick him up in the afternoon. The rest of the time you can do whatever you want: go to the beach, take bike trips, hang out in town, whatever.”

Kyle didn’t react. “What’s Malcolm think of this?”

“Oh he thinks he can stay by himself,” Sheilah scoffed. “Of course he does, he’s seventeen. And maybe he could. But the only car he’ll have out there is an old Jeep with a stick shift. He can barely drive an automatic, there’s no way he can handle a stick. So he knows he needs help.” Sheilah’s voice took on a more nostalgic tone. “Besides, I thought it’d be like old times for you. You can go to the same beaches we went to years ago. Some of the same shops and restaurants are still around. You know the neighborhoods out there so I thought it’d be a fun time. That and you’d really be helping out me and Peter of course.”

Kyle’s pictured bodysurfing in the ocean waves and having beers on the beach. “No problem. If you need me, of course I’ll do it,” he said.

Sheilah smiled. “That’s great but I don’t want to put you on the spot. Take some time to think about it and let me know.” She pushed the dessert plate away from her, signaling she was done eating. “Peter will be happy. He’s convinced the class will get Malcolm into a better college.”

“I guess I have to remember where I stored my bathing suit,” said Kyle.

“Most everything else we have out there. Beach towels, umbrellas, chairs, extra bicycles. Just bring clothes and a tooth brush.”

Kyle started making a mental list of the things he wanted to bring.

“And I’ll cover your expenses out there, too.”

Kyle looked confused.

“I don’t want you to lose money because you’re doing us a favor.”

“You’re not going to pay me. You’re family. This is what families do.”

“What if you have to turn down a freelance job because you’re with Malcolm? Or some kind of temporary position?” Sheilah asked. “I don’t want you missing out on income.”

“Stop it,’” Kyle said and imitated his cousin by pushing his dessert plate away from him. “You’re being ridiculous.”

The servers came and cleared the table followed by the waitress who delivered the check. When they saw the bill both cousins reached for it.

“I’m paying. You paid last time,” said Kyle.

“No, wait. Hear me out,” said Sheilah as she tried to wriggle the piece of paper out from underneath Kyle’s hand. “No one’s paying this time.”

“That’s a good trick if you can do it,” said Kyle though he didn’t relax his grip on the check.

Sheilah grabbed her bag and pulled out a folded-up piece of paper. She waved it in the air making the paper unfold like an accordion. “I have a gift certificate. Got it months ago and I’ve been dying to use it.”

Kyle released the check and Sheilah immediately started to write on it.

“Well, thank you. And give my thanks to whoever gave you the certificate,” said Kyle.

“What?” Sheilah looked up. It took her a moment to understand what he said. “Oh. Yeah sure,” she added and went back to writing.

Soon they were outside La Table du Boucher and walking along the city sidewalks, neither one of them anxious to go home.

“How’d you like to go shopping with me?” Sheilah asked.

Kyle had nowhere in particular to be and said as much. That’s how he found himself walking along Madison Avenue and eventually stopping outside the glass doors of the Giorgio Armani boutique.

“I need to pop inside for a few things,” said Sheilah as she moved toward the doors.

“When you said ‘shopping’ I thought you meant groceries,” said Kyle.

“Oh, if only. I need to find something to wear for this thing Peter and I have to go to.” She pushed on the right side of the double doors while Kyle pushed on the left which allowed them to step into the boutique at exactly the same time. They walked into a room with high ceilings, stainless steel columns, black wooden floors partially covered by cream-colored rugs and surprisingly few clothes considering how large the space was. Kyle saw dresses hanging in neat rows in small alcoves along the back of the room, black fabric chairs and dark wooden tables dotted the floor which gave the room a lounge-like look.

“Should I wait here for you?” asked Kyle as he stood at attention next to the entrance like some kind of doorman.

Sheilah looped her arm around his. “You’re coming with me,” she said and pulled him toward the elevator.

Seconds later they emerged onto a higher floor with the same ordered and uncluttered look of the first. A salesperson saw them arrive and walked over.

“Mrs. McKay, so good to see you. How have you been?”

“Hello, Lorenzo,” said Sheilah as the salesman kissed her on both cheeks. “I know I should have been here days ago.”

Lorenzo then looked at Kyle though to Kyle it felt more like an inspection. For the first time that day Kyle wished he’d worn a better pair of chinos and spent more time ironing his shirt.

“This is my cousin. I’m dragging him along on my errands,” Sheilah explained.

Lorenzo shifted his gaze toward Sheilah. “I have the things you wanted plus a few extras I thought you’d like to see. Shall we go take a look?”

Sheilah turned to Kyle. “I have to go try on a few things. Men’s clothes is right around that corner.” She pointed the way to Kyle. “Why don’t you go take a look.”

Lorenzo and Sheilah walked off whispering to each other as if they were telling secrets.

Kyle watched them go, then went looking to see what the Armani man wore.

The Men’s section had the same design aesthetic as the Women’s. Suits hung from shiny, stainless steel rods along the walls, perfectly-folded dress shirts sat on glass shelves that were backlit so the shirts appeared to glow. The top of one rosewood table held cuff links, tie clips, and a selection of leather belts. A second table displayed more ties than Kyle could count. He realized some men must have to wear clothes like these for work, but Kyle didn’t know any of them. He tried to think of the last time he wore a suit. A jacket, yes, sometimes he wore those to client meetings. Suits just collected dust in his closet.

Kyle turned and saw shoes on glass shelves that jutted out from a wall. Shoes were another matter, shoes he could use. Each pair sat on its own plate of glass lit by spotlights somewhere in the ceiling making each pair the center of attention on its tiny glass stage. Kyle looked at leather loafers, loafers that looked like slippers, oxford lace ups, formal patent leather shoes, though he didn’t touch a single pair until he came upon the leather lace up boots.

He picked up the right boot and ran his hand along the side simply to feel the leather that was such a dark brown color it looked almost black. He turned the boot over to inspect the leather sole. Kyle looked for the signs of hand stitching then noted whether the sole was double- or triple-layered.

“That’s my favorite shoe in the whole store.” The voice startled Kyle. He looked up to see Lorenzo by his side. “They’re full-grain calf’s leather so they’ll last for years.”

Kyle wasn’t sure what to say but felt he had to say something. “That’s nice,” was the first thing he thought of.

Lorenzo continued. “The ankle height is perfect for a boot because it looks great with jeans, chinos, almost any casual slack.”

“I’m just looking,” Kyle said. “It’s something to do while I wait.”

“Trying them on would be something to do,” said Lorenzo. “While you wait.”

“Oh, no,” said Kyle as if the thought was impossible. “I’m a tag-along. My cousin’s the customer.”

Lorenzo did not look convinced. “Then can I get you some coffee or water? We have wine or prosecco if you’d like that.”

“Really? Alcohol’s an option?” Kyle asked.

“Alcohol’s always an option,” Lorenzo smiled. “For customers.”

There was the sound of heels clicking on hardwood floors and moments later Sheilah appeared. She wore a slinky black-and-white dress with matching spike-heeled shoes. “How do I look?” she asked as she dramatically raised her arms into the air.

Besides her wedding, Kyle had never seen his cousin in any kind of formal wear. “You look fantastic,” he said.

Sheilah made a short curtsy then noticed what Kyle had in his hand. “Those are nice shoes,” she said. “Why don’t you try them on?”

“That’s what I said,” Lorenzo echoed.

Kyle shook his head. “Not today.”

“Why not? That’s what we’re here for,” said Sheilah.

“It’s what you’re here for,” Kyle replied.

Sheilah would not be denied. “Lorenzo, would you be a dear and bring a pair out for my cousin.”

“I won’t tell you my size,” Kyle said as if that was an impenetrable roadblock.

Sheilah smiled. “You are so adorable,” she said and turned to her personal shopper. “Lorenzo, where do you want to begin?”

Lorenzo winked at Sheilah then crossed one arm over his chest and raised the hand of his other arm to his chin in a classic appraisal pose. “Well, from his height alone he’s statistically at least a size 11, but looking at the shoes he’s wearing now, I’d say they’re a 12. Maybe even a 12-and-a-half.” Lorenzo circled Kyle, more for effect than anything else. “I notice you sometimes wince slightly when you walk, especially when you’re on the left foot. Now maybe you have a pebble or something in your shoe and you’re too embarrassed to take it out. But more likely I’d say your shoes are too narrow for your feet. I’d start you on a size 12, wide. No question.”

Sheilah looked at Kyle and noticed even he seemed impressed. “He’s a professional,” she said as she pointed to Lorenzo. “That’s why it’s so fun to come here.” Sheilah looked down at the dress she wore. “Okay, I have a few more things to try on and now Kyle it looks like you do, too. So Lorenzo, if you’d escort me back to the dressing room.”

“Of course,” he said. And once again Lorenzo and Sheilah walked away whispering to each other like conspirators.

“You said he’d be difficult and you were right,” said Lorenzo. “He’s a hard man to buy a gift for.”

“It’s not exactly a gift,” Sheilah explained. “He’s going to babysit my teenage son for a week.”

“Ugh,” said Lorenzo before he could stop himself. It would take way more than a free pair of shoes to get him to babysit one of his teenage relatives.

Lorenzo dropped Sheilah off at the dressing area then went in search of shoes for Kyle.

He was gone for a while, long enough for Sheilah to try on and reject several outfits. But eventually he returned to Sheilah’s dressing area, boxes in hand.

“What’s wrong?” asked Sheilah.

“He says he doesn’t like them anymore,” said Lorenzo.

“He’s lying.” Sheilah put her hands on her hips. “What’s not to like? They’re gorgeous shoes. Am I wrong? Are they not gorgeous?”

“They’re beyond gorgeous. I told him they were my favorite shoe in the store,” said Lorenzo.

“Will they look amazing on him?”

Lorenzo had no doubt. “His feet were made for these boots.”

Sheilah looked at the boxes in Lorenzo’s hands. “And one of those pairs will fit him?”

“Guaranteed,” he replied.

“Fuck it,” Sheilah said then went to a side table in the dressing area, picked up a pen and began scribbling on a piece of paper. “Here’s his address. Mail those boxes to him but tell him—and this is important—tell him in no uncertain terms that he has to keep one of these pairs. Word it however you like but instructions have to sound ironclad or he’ll never follow them.”

She tore the piece of paper from the pad and handed it to Lorenzo. “He can mail back what doesn’t fit, but he has to keep something.”

Lorenzo pocketed Kyle’s mailing address. “Leave it all to me,” he said. “So that takes care of him, now what about you?”

Sheilah exhaled, as if trying to center herself. “I am so much easier,” she said. Sheilah told Lorenzo which outfits she wanted and which he could put back on the floor then changed back into the clothes she walked in with.

“You’re the best,” Sheilah told Lorenzo when she kissed him goodbye. “Thanks for all your help.”

Then Sheilah went back to the Men’s section where she found Kyle sitting in a black overstuffed chair. He looked like he was staring into space.

“All ready to go?” she asked cheerily.

Kyle saw her empty hands. “You’re not getting anything?”

Sheilah took his arm once again and together they walked toward the elevator. “I don’t want to lug everything around the city.”

“I’ll lug it around. How heavy can it be?”

Sheilah patted his arm. “Thanks, but that’s what delivery services are for.”

Once back on the sidewalk Sheilah and Kyle meandered toward Fifth Avenue and an entrance to Central Park. They were on one of the pathways by the children’s zoo when Kyle said, “I have a few more thoughts about Malcolm and Long Island.”

Oh boy, here it comes, thought Sheilah. He’s had second thoughts about babysitting.

“If you think it’d make Malcolm feel any better, we could position my visit as a week-long private driving tutorial. He can’t drive a stick and I can. I’ll come out there to teach him.”

Sheilah heard everything Kyle said but the only words she cared about were the ones where he said he’d go to Long Island. And if she recalled correctly, he actually said it twice. Kyle wasn’t backing out after all.

“That’s really generous of you,” said Sheilah. “But honestly I don’t care how Malcolm feels about this. I’m the parent, he’s the child and there’s no way he’s staying out there on his own. So I’ll tell him the driver’s ed story if it makes you more comfortable. Otherwise Malcolm just has to suck it up.”

Their circuitous path took them around fountains and up hills; they went passed a vintage carousel and ball fields where young men wearing shorts played games with bats and gloves. Eventually their wandering led them to the other side of the park where they emerged on the west side of Manhattan. The sun was lower in the sky now and without looking at their watches Sheilah and Kyle knew it was time to go home.

“I guess the next time I see you will be in the Hamptons,” Kyle said.

“I know, isn’t it exciting?” said Sheilah. “Don’t forget, I’ll text you all the details and I’ll call you before you take the train out so there shouldn’t be any surprises.”

Sheilah threw her arms around Kyle. Kyle was obscenely taller than Sheilah, the top of her head barely came up to his chin. When Sheilah hugged her cousin it always felt like she was hugging a tree.

“Let’s get you a cab,” said Kyle as he looked at the traffic speeding past them.

“Now where are you off to?” asked Sheilah.

Kyle acted like this was an odd question. “Westchester, where else?”

“So you’ll need a cab too. To Grand Central.”

Kyle turned back to the traffic. “Yeah, yeah,” he said.

“Okay, so you take the first cab and I’ll get one after that.”

Kyle almost laughed at the idea. “No, no, no, no, no,” he said. “You’re going first.”

Sheilah took a step away from the curb like she was retreating from the street. “I know what you’re going to do. As soon as my cab’s out of sight, you’ll head straight for the subway. I don’t like you taking a subway up to the Bronx.”

Kyle dropped the hand he was using to hail a cab. “There’s nothing wrong with doing that.”

Sheilah’s eyes widened. “I knew it! I knew I was right.”

Then simply because he didn’t want one to at that moment, an empty cab pulled up beside Kyle. The two cousins looked at each other.

“Please,” said Sheilah.

Kyle opened the door and climbed into the backseat of the cab.

Sheilah stepped off the sidewalk and leaned into Kyle’s window. “Thank you for everything,” she said. “And don’t worry, there’s an empty cab right behind you that I’ll get.”

Kyle didn’t turn around and look because he wanted to believe it was true.

“Watch for my text,” Sheilah continued. She reached into her right pocket and pulled out a twenty-dollar bill. “This will cover the cab,” she said as she threw the bill into the backseat, aiming for a section of it Kyle couldn’t immediately reach. Then she banged twice on the roof of the cab and yelled to the cab driver to get moving.


J.G. Alderisio is a sometime advertising copywriter who is far more interested in telling stories than selling products. He was educated in New England and lives in New York. An essay of his appeared in Hudson Valley Magazine. This is his first published work of fiction. Email: Getthegenenow121[at]gmail.com