The Naming of Plants

Fiction
Gwenda Major


Photo Credit: Seán Ó Domhnaill/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Ok, so some people might think a graveyard isn’t a suitable place for a child to play. But I disagree. I’m not talking about one of those soulless city cemeteries. I admit they can be bleak. No, I’m talking about small church graveyards like the one near us in the village. I’d always loved it even before we had Molly: the lichen-encrusted slabs, the old trees and shrubs, the weathered headstones.

 

And since things started to go wrong at home I’ve been coming here a lot. As soon as I step in through the lych-gate I feel a sense of peace. All the emotion and anxiety disappears. I can sit for hours on one of the benches just thinking, trying to work out what to do, what the future holds. I know it’s a cliché but the graveyard really is an oasis of calm, a place for reflection and yes, even for dreaming. What might have been. What the future might hold.

 

Recently I started bringing Molly with me—only when she’s not at nursery, of course, maybe at the end of a walk or just when I can’t bear to be in the house anymore. To her it’s just a lovely green space to play in. Nothing morbid or sad about it. She loves to run about and play hide-and-seek behind the gravestones. When we came in the spring she picked wildflowers and we learnt their names together—buttercup, daisy, forget-me-not, dandelion, speedwell. I talked to her about the old trees and how some of them might have been there even before the church was built.

Of course, she asked me about the headstones and I told her the truth, that they’re to help us remember people who have gone away. I don’t believe in lying to children. Which is why I’ve been honest with Molly about what she hears at night sometimes, the shouting, the angry words.

“Mummy and Daddy don’t always agree about things, you see,” I told her. “Daddy gets cross and then he shouts because he thinks I’m not listening. But I do listen. I hear every word he says.”

“I listen, don’t I, Mummy?” Molly said. “Buttercup, daisy, forget-me-not, dandelion, speedwell.” She did a wobbly pirouette on the grass.

“That’s right my pet. Clever girl.”

 

Things got worse and worse at home. Martin was like a record stuck in a groove. Since he found out about me and Dan he’s been obsessed. I told him we all make mistakes, but you have to move on eventually, forgive and forget. But he couldn’t.

I have tried to make a go of it—for Molly’s sake. I really have. But I wasn’t sure how much longer I could go on like this. The atmosphere was poisonous. Not good for any of us. And whenever I tried to look ahead I just knew it was going to be up to me to make a move.

 

Autumn’s heading towards winter now. Gloomy days and even darker nights. The house was beginning to feel even more like a prison. So Molly and I were going out as much as we could when the weather allowed. Like we did a few weeks ago. We had a lovely walk together through the woods, scrunching through leaves, talking about the trees and flowers, dropping sticks into the little beck.

On the way home we had to pass the churchyard. I suppose I just wanted to delay getting back to the house, back to the inevitable rows and recriminations. It was only for an extra ten minutes or so as it was getting towards dusk but Molly had a lovely time racing around.

“Look, Mummy—look at all the different leaves I’ve found.”

“That one’s a sycamore and that’s an oak—you can tell by the curvy edges. And that’s a horse chestnut. It’s just like a huge hand isn’t it?”

“Can we take some back home for Daddy? He’d like to see them all.”

“Yes, that’s a lovely idea. I think I’ve got a plastic bag in my pocket you can pop them into. Off you go—see how many you can find.”

She skipped off and came back with a bagful of crisp autumn leaves, gleaming colours ranging from russet to yellow. She was so pleased with herself.

“Can I put some of these berries in the bag, too, Mummy? They’re so pretty. Like little red jewels.”

“You’re right, they are pretty. Yes, that’s fine—but not the squishy ones. Just a few of the nice round ones. Now we’d better go or it will be dark before we get back.”

 

My point is you can’t blame a four-year-old for something they don’t understand. I’m just so glad Molly was in bed by the time Martin started to feel ill. First he said he felt shivery so I told him he must have caught a chill at the weekend when we went to the seaside. But then, when he got up to go upstairs, he started to stagger and had to grab on to the banisters to stop himself falling.

“I feel so cold, Becky. Freezing cold.”

I went into the kitchen to boil the kettle for a hot drink to take upstairs with him. By the time I got back he’d collapsed, lying sprawled across the bottom of the stairs. His colour didn’t look good and I could only feel a really faint pulse.

I don’t know why the ambulance took so long to arrive but it’s no use blaming anyone now is it?

Of course they had to do a postmortem as it was all so sudden. Taxine alkaloid ingestion, they said. Had I any idea how Martin could have eaten yew berries?

I explained that Molly and I had been in the churchyard and that she’d collected leaves to bring home to her daddy. “She must have popped some yew berries in, too,” I said. “We had fruit salad for dessert—maybe she added her berries to Martin’s dish while we were out of the room? She probably thought they looked pretty. She would only be trying to please him.”

 

Everyone agrees the main thing is not to burden Molly with any feelings of guilt. No one wants her to have something like that hanging over her for the rest of her life.

So it’s early days but I think she’s beginning to accept that Daddy is in the churchyard now with all the other people who have gone away.

pencil

Gwenda Major lives in the Lake District in the UK. Her passions are for genealogy, gardening and graveyards. Gwenda’s stories have featured in numerous print and digital publications. Most recently her short stories have been published in Dodging the Rain, Toasted Cheese, Retreat West, Brilliant Flash Fiction and Bandit Fiction. Gwenda has also written four novels and three novellas. Her novella Offcomers won first prize in the NAWG Open Novella Competition in December 2016 and others have been either shortlisted or longlisted in national competitions. Email: gwendamajor[at]hotmail.com

Backseat Driver

Fiction
Mark Joseph Kevlock


Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

I worked at the car wash. She worked at the Acme supermarket next door. It was 1975. We were probably in love.

I saw a kid hanging around more and more in the background. I thought maybe he was our son, from the future, come back to ensure his own birth by monitoring us closely. I read a lot of science fiction in those days.

I followed the kid when he wasn’t looking. After he left the car wash he went straight to the supermarket and lingered in the produce aisle, where Cathy worked.

“Do you have any long-lost brothers or sisters?” I asked her, walking home up the hill together.

“No. Do you?”

I told Cathy no. She asked why I asked.

“That kid. Haven’t you seen him?”

“Which one?” Cathy said.

“The one with the ragged jeans and the black windbreaker. Bangs in his eyes. Tennis shoes.”

“Un-uh,” Cathy said.

“How could you not see him? He was standing in your aisle for twenty minutes, staring right at you.”

“I didn’t see him,” Cathy said.

The next day at the car wash I chased him into the back seat of a Volkswagen Beetle. He’d been leaning against the cinder blocks, nonchalant, when I circled around and snuck up behind him. At the last second, he spotted me and scrambled through the open door of the car I’d been washing, a VW Bug. The windows were still all soapy, so I lost sight of him for just a second until I got there. Guess what? He was gone. Vanished like a magic act. Neither door had opened on the opposite side. I was positive I saw him climb in. So where did he go?

A time-traveling ghost was looking better and better, as explanations go.

I ate lunch out on the curb with Cathy.

“Why don’t you ask someone else at the car wash if they see him?” Cathy suggested.

“And if they don’t?”

“Then you’re bonkers,” Cathy said.

I didn’t give her a bite of my cupcake.

The kid wore the same clothes every time. But a lot of kids do. Pretty flimsy evidence of a supernatural origin—that was all I had so far.

I did ask a couple of customers, next time he appeared. They didn’t see him. Maybe he’s a psycho-projection of my unconscious mind, I reasoned. I tried to recognize the kid, but I didn’t. I just didn’t know him from anywhere at all. I followed him again to the supermarket. The automatic door opened for him like it did for anybody else. He must’ve been real. Right?

Cathy was getting close to marriage, and I was the only guy around.

“What if we have a kid and this is him?” I said.

“I don’t want our son hanging out at car washes and supermarkets,” Cathy said.

“We’ll raise him better than that,” I said.

“Maybe you should invite him to the wedding,” Cathy said.

She laughed but I didn’t.

Maybe I had a little brother who died, then my parents had me hypnotized to remove the trauma. You’d think I’d recognize his face, though.

I tried shouting at him. He didn’t answer. He didn’t ever look directly at me, either. Just sort of in my direction.

I waited for a revelation. None came. I got married to Cathy, on a car washer’s salary. One day the kid wasn’t there anymore.

“Maybe he’s in my womb, hiding,” Cathy joked.

It took us nine months to find out.

“He’s just a baby,” Cathy said, at first glance. “I can’t tell what he’s going to look like.”

Neither could I.

“Maybe the money got tight and we put him up for adoption. Then he haunted us out of revenge.”

“Haunted you,” Cathy corrected. “I’ve never seen him.”

“I should’ve taken a picture with your Kodak camera,” I said. “Instant developing.”

The kid wasn’t so instant. It took him ten years to get to the right age. I even bought him tennis shoes and a black windbreaker.

“Well?” Cathy said.

“I don’t know,” I said. “It might be him. It might not. Let’s grow those bangs into his eyes.”

“Are you, by chance, working on a time machine in the basement?” Cathy said.

“I guess I forgot that one little detail.”

Winter turned to spring. The car wash was reopened. It was 1985. Cathy and I were probably still in love.

One day a Volkswagen Beetle pulled in. There was a kid asleep on the back seat. He had on a black windbreaker.

I stood there looking at myself in the window reflection. The kid moved a little bit like he was dreaming. Maybe he was. Maybe his dream started back in 1975.

Maybe I only existed because he was dreaming about me. Maybe my whole life was just a story that began at that moment.

I loved Cathy. And my real kid. I didn’t want to lose them.

He kicked a little, like a dog having a bad dream. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to know that I didn’t exist. Maybe I was ruining his imaginary love life. Maybe I represented him in the dream.

All I had to do was wake him up. That would prove, or disprove, all of my theories.

I might cease to exist. Or maybe he would.

I stood there with the sponge in my hand. Then I tossed it back in the bucket.

I couldn’t take the chance.

I just didn’t want my story to end.

pencil

Thus far in 2018 Mark Joseph Kevlock’s fiction has appeared in over two dozen magazines, including 365 Tomorrows, Into The Void, The First Line, Ellipsis Zine, Literally Stories, Bewildering Stories, Down in the Dirt, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Friday Flash Fiction. He has also written for DC Comics. Email: DippedinForever[at]aol.com

Subsidence

Fiction
Hayley N Jones


Photo Credit: NCM3/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

When it began, I would see her reflected in windows. Sometimes she was reading mail; other times she was striding across the room. I saw her dusting the sideboard on several occasions. Always mundane tasks. Chores. I asked the doctor whether hallucinating was a symptom of my condition, but he said it was doubtful. He thought it might be psychological rather than neurological, since she was often doing the housework I can no longer do. He referred me to a counsellor and suggested I keep a record of the sightings.

They thought my condition was stress related, but nobody knew for sure. The symptoms started around the time a large crack appeared in the exterior side wall of our house. Subsidence, said the structural engineer. He said it could be repaired without spending an astronomical amount, but couldn’t guarantee it wouldn’t happen again in future, especially in another part of the house. The ground was literally shifting beneath me.

Julie thought my condition was a reaction to William’s coldness, a subconscious bid for attention. I pointed out that it wasn’t very effective. If anything, my illness made him angrier and more distant. He resented having to prepare his own meals and iron his shirts. He made snide comments whenever he saw me lying on the couch, too exhausted to move.

I used to pride myself on not being weak. I demanded perfection from everyone, in my job as a television producer and in general—including from myself. William used to joke about his go-getter wife whose programmes got top ratings and awards. I scrabbled to cling to work as I got ill, but the bare minimum soon became too much. I went from running the show to oblivion. In the television industry, there is always someone to take your place.

Perhaps the same is true of all things in life: everyone is replaceable. As people fade away, others shine. William may have found my replacement as soon as I became ill. He worked longer hours as I got frail and needy. I had no energy to check on him, to make enquiries at his office or examine his schedule. Anyway, I didn’t want to be that type of woman.

We led separate lives. William could still do the things he enjoyed: playing golf, drinking whisky, vintage car shows. I could only watch television, the medium I used to control. I watched others claiming successes which should have been mine. The names on programme credits belonged to people who possessed a scant percentage of my talent and dedication.

But paying attention to the screen took too much energy. I had no appetite for critiquing programmes and I didn’t care who was staring down the lens of my camera. The names were becoming unfamiliar—producers too young to remember me, even by reputation.

Julie came around for coffee a few times a week, often bringing treats from the bakery. She also brought stories of the outside world—a mutual friend having an affair with a man twenty years her junior, a bad car accident on the main road into town, an argument with her sister which ended with her phone calls being ignored for a month. Our gossiping was banal and wonderful. I almost felt normal. It reminded me of meeting Julie for lunch when I had half an hour to spare and could be released from the pressures of the studio.

‘The builders will be here next week,’ I said. ‘Mayhem and upheaval, no doubt.’

‘Hope it’s sorted quickly. You know, once the actual work starts.’

‘William wanted to get second opinions, to check everything would be fixed properly. I doubt he’s been stalling on purpose.’

‘Wish I had your faith. It’s the kind of thing he does, manipulating you by prolonging the stress.’

‘It’s stressful for him, too.’

Julie pursed her lips. She had thought the worst of William since they met at a charity function and he mistook her for a waitress. While I had no illusions about my husband, I didn’t believe he would put off repairs to the house. It was more of an inconvenience to him than me.

I was afraid to tell Julie about the woman I kept seeing. I’m not sure why: nothing she could say would be worse than my own thoughts. Perhaps I was going mad. I never asked my doctor whether you can get hallucinations which appear only as reflections: neither answer would reassure me. Instead, I watched her. I saw her plucking her eyebrows and deadheading the roses. I could feel her presence even when I wasn’t watching her; cool wisps of vapour pervading my home.

I began to resent her silence. I shouted, willing her to communicate—or to glance in my direction. I wanted her to acknowledge me. I yelled until I fell back onto the couch, exhausted.

 

None of us could believe how my health nosedived. The doctor was mystified, Julie was concerned and William was incandescent. Living with an invalid tests everyone’s patience and William had never been the most compassionate man. He kept insisting there must be something I could do—a different type of medication I should take, physiotherapy, breathing exercises. His suggestions became more outlandish, less William-like: Bikram yoga, colour therapy, stroking horses.

Even if any of those non-options could work, how would I access them? I struggled to leave my bed, let alone the house. Our household budget was being eaten up by building repairs and the takeaways William bought because he couldn’t be bothered to cook. When I questioned the practicalities, William flew into rages.

We had a bad argument when he accused me of spending too much time with Julie. She had dropped off several chilled and frozen home-cooked meals, so that William didn’t have to do anything more challenging than put the dishes into the oven. I told her she was very kind; William thought it was an invasion and an insult.

‘What business does she have coming around all the time? If you didn’t waste hours talking to her, you’d have the energy to do the things that matter.’

‘Friendship and companionship matter to me.’

‘Why is she always here?’

‘She helps me.’

‘If you need a carer, we can employ one. Once we’ve paid for these bloody subsidence repairs.’

‘I need Julie—I’m damned lonely.’

‘One of us has to work and pay the bills.’

‘I don’t expect you to mollycoddle me.’

‘But she does. I forbid it—I’m fed up with coming home and finding her in my house. I want her gone. Stop inviting her and tell her she isn’t welcome.’

‘You can’t cut me off from her. It’s not fair.’

‘Having to put up with her isn’t fair on me. Bloody interfering woman.’

‘None of this is fair! This illness isn’t fair and Julie helps me to cope, which is more than you do most of the time.’

He flushed crimson. ‘Who the fuck helps you wash? Who puts food on a plate for you?’

‘I mean emotional support. You never listen to me.’

‘Why should I when I’m bloody tired from working and picking up your slack?’

‘I can’t help it. I didn’t want this to happen to me.’

‘Neither did I.’

‘At least you can escape. You can go out and get away from my illness—I can’t.’

‘It’s still a burden to me.’

‘You mean I’m a burden to you.’

‘Yes. You are.’ He stomped out of the room.

My phone went missing that night. I kept it near me at all times, but it wasn’t on the bedside cabinet when I awoke. I checked the floor around and under the bed. My body screamed with pain. I peered behind the bedside cabinet, sliding my fingers into the gap. I checked every space I could think of, hoping that my instincts were wrong, but my search was fruitless. My phone was gone.

William denied taking it, but he didn’t offer to buy a new one. I tried calling it from the landline, but it went straight to voicemail. Since I was meticulous about keeping it charged, someone must have switched it off.

As I lay awake next to William that night, I saw the woman in the wardrobe mirror. She was trying on dresses, one after another, examining herself with a critical eye. Elegant, expensive dresses tailored to her slender hips and shoulders. She smoothed her hands over the silks and jerseys, checking how they draped over her breasts and midriff. She poked a non-existent love handle and frowned. Her underwear was simple, bridal: white French knickers and a lace bra. Her movements were smooth, balletic. Mine had become clumsy and lumbering. Our eyes never met, but I felt as if she were putting on a show for me.

 

Julie came around when she could, but it was difficult because she had to be gone before William got home and his work hours were unpredictable. I think he might have varied them on purpose, hoping to catch me dancing around the kitchen. He was convinced I was somehow fooling him.

I missed Julie with an intensity I found disconcerting. She offered to get me a pay-as-you-go phone, so that we could call and text each other again, but I was afraid William would find it and accuse me of cheating. I called from the landline when I was able to get to the phone, but moving around was increasingly difficult. I was also worried that William would see Julie’s number on the bill. Or that he would say the bill was too high.

Julie begged me to leave, but how could I? I was too drained to make plans or pack and I didn’t want to be a burden to her—she had her own problems. I think I had decided to stay in my ever-shifting home and wait for death.

William grew more stressed and aggressive. He never hit me; his cruelty had more subtlety.

‘This house is filthy.’ He dragged his finger through the dust on the sideboard.

‘What can I do about it? I can barely dress myself.’

‘It’s disgusting.’

‘So get a cleaner.’

‘What with? The money for the structural engineers and builders?’

‘They’re causing most of the dust. It’ll be better when they’re finished.’

‘And until then?’

‘Get a cleaner. Or do it yourself.’

He glared at me.

‘I’d do it if I could. I did for seventeen years while working full time, didn’t I?’

He sighed and went to the kitchen. I heard him bashing the kettle and his mug on the worktop. He didn’t offer me a coffee.

 

I couldn’t stand long enough to shower anymore, so William had to help me in and out of the bath. He looked away as he manoeuvred me, as though my illness made my body repulsive. It still looked the same—perhaps a little skinnier, with less muscle. I wondered how he would react when I deteriorated enough to need assistance using the toilet.

The warm water eased my aching joints and muscles a little. After several minutes, I regained enough flexibility in my fingers to wash my hair. I disliked rinsing it in the bath water, but it was easier than asking William to help me use the shower hose. As I lathered the shampoo, I glimpsed her in the bathroom mirror. She was wet from the shower, with droplets of water glittering on her pale skin. She dried herself with a thick towel, stroking her limbs and dabbing between her legs. Another performance.

She stepped outside the range of the mirror and didn’t come back; I watched as the bath water cooled and my pain intensified. There was something threatening about her that I couldn’t pinpoint. It wasn’t just her sense of proprietorship, the way she moved about my home as if she had always belonged. Perhaps it was her vitality.

I began to see her chatting on the phone, her conversation punctuated with laughter. She must have more friends than me. Julie still tried to come around when William was at work—I gave her a spare key years ago, though I knew William wouldn’t like her having access to our home. I didn’t get to see her often, but it was enough to keep me going.

Julie told me I should have divorced him years ago. ‘Get your compensation and get out.’

‘It’s not that easy.’

‘It’s not difficult—I’ve done it twice.’

‘But I love William, that’s the difference.’

‘I loved my husbands, in my own way.’

‘It’s too late now anyway.’

On my worst days, I had to rely on William to give me my medication. He handed me the pills with such carelessness that I wondered if he had checked the dosage. How could I tell? I was so tired I passed out regardless of what he gave me.

*

Everything came to a head, as it always does, on an otherwise ordinary day. A Friday. I had spent the day in bed—in fact, I had spent most of the week in bed, listening to the builders. I was too weak to read or watch television, so there was nothing to distract me from my aching body. I begged William to help me to the bath, just so that I could have half an hour’s semi-relief.

He lifted me into the bath as usual, his gaze averted. After he left, I savoured the warmth enveloping my stiff and tired body. I relaxed for the first time in days. The woman wasn’t in the mirror, making me feel like I had no right to be in my own home. I stretched out my legs and spine, relishing the relative ease of movement. Then I slipped. My body weight shifted and my shoulders sank down the side of the bath.

I couldn’t grip the edge: my hands kept sliding off. I tried to push myself up, but I had no strength. My feet scrabbled against the porcelain and then my body plunged forward, dragging my head underwater.

I thrashed about, trying to gain purchase or alert William, but my energy drained within moments. I lay in the water, my lungs burning and my head close to exploding, until everything went blank.

 

I see her every day now, cooking in my kitchen and choosing new sheets for my bed. I think she knows I’m here—sometimes I catch her eye and she turns pale. Her name is Susannah, but William calls her Sweetheart. He seems softer, more patient. He brings her roses and cups of tea. They have romantic dinners in front of the living room fire. She smiles and giggles, but I know part of her is always uneasy.

She senses me, no matter how much she changes the décor and feigns nonchalance. She knows I’m here, even as she blots out every vestige of my life. She threw away my photos and my television awards, but she can’t get rid of me. She pretends not to care—she tells her friends she doesn’t mind living in my house because it’s gorgeous and the location can’t be bettered. They might believe her; they don’t hear her pleading with William, saying that the latest subsidence problems shouldn’t have a drastic effect on the price.

She continues her pseudo-exorcisms as she uncovers more of my things, as though binning a birthday card or a trinket could unleash us from each other. She bristles as I walk past her, my body no longer aching and cumbersome. She senses me, just below the surface of her life.

pencil

Hayley N Jones has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Exeter. She has previously been published in Confingo and the Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual 2017. She lives in East Devon, England (UK), where she volunteers for a local youth mental health organisation, blogs about mental health and is currently studying part time for a Psychology BSc. Email: hayleynjones[at]hotmail.co.uk Twitter: HayleyNJones

The List

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Josh Flores


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

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

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

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

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

This was the man I knew and now mourned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I went home numb.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There the story ended.

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

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

Time to finish my Abuelo‘s list.

pencil

Email: JoshFloresAuthor[at]gmail.com

The Mystery of the Capucine

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Zachary Turner


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

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

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

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

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

“Bah… pth?”

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

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

He’ll figure it out.

“Rosa.”

Oh, a little classroom romance perhaps?

“She didn’t show up today.

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

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

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

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

FOUR GIRLS MISSING IN TWO MONTHS.

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

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

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

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

“Whatcha reading?”

Le Mystère de Capucine.”

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

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

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

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

Yet there it was.

*

“Saint-Léger.”

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

“How’s that?”

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

“Qu’est-ce que vous foutez là?”

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

“What was the insignia?”

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

I shuddered. Another coincidence.

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

*

“We’ll come back tonight,” said Rémi.

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Put your hands where I can see them.”

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

Crrrrk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nearly fainted.

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

Wait.

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

“Stop!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, but this will solve the case.”

“How do you know?”

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

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

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

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

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

Then, “So, what do we do now?”

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

pencil

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

Gray-Eyed Greedy Guts

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Jill Spencer


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Delia, I love you more every day.

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

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

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

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

“Find anything?” Momma calls.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about ’em?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Math,” Max says, wrinkling his nose.

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

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

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

“Geek,” I whisper.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dearest Delia,

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

Merry Christmas!

Your Greatest Admirer

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

pencil

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

The List

Broker’s Pick
Joseph McGrail


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He put in the number.

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

“Is this Ilsa Demarest?”

A pause and then, “Who is this?”

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

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

“Wait, wait! I found a book.”

“What?” she said, confused.

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

She didn’t say anything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello?”

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

“Ms. Demarest?”

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

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

“You don’t know Patrick?”

“No, no, I don’t know Patrick.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m the high school librarian.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is there a hotel in town?”

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

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

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

He read:

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

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

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

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

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

pencil

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

The Mirror Game

Fiction
Penny Frances


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

I see her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come on, he said.

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

Tell me about your family, he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He follows my gaze to the blank computer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dissociation. I run my tongue around the word.

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

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

I turn my head. No! I yell.

Look in the mirror, Cilla.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are you doing here, Alice? He says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sleep well, Cilla.

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

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

I feel warm for the first time.

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

pencil

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

Rotten Fruit

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Vanessa Levin-Pompetzki


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

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

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

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

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

Let all of your fruit born in winter be rotten.

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

All three of her babes were born in winter.

Josephine, days before Christmas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Elizabeth?” Sarah says, her voice high.

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

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

“We ate the apples,” Elizabeth says.

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

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

“Did everyone eat this?” Sarah demands.

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

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

“Andy! Josephine! Come inside, please!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They look hungry.

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

“Mommy!”

“Mommy, I’m so hungry!”

“Help me! Help me!”

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

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

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

Andrew.

 

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

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

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

But Andrew came home early.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Innocent. They were innocent.

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

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

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

There is a loud splintering noise.

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

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

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

“Andy, come here, honey,” Sarah says.

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

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

Her daughters step into the kitchen.

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

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

 

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

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

“Sarah,” the woman said.

Sarah did not know her name.

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah decided pretense was done with, and she nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah did.

 

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

They match the sky.

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

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

Sarah is hungry.

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” the witch says.

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

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

Something is digging into her thigh.

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

Its insides are white and crisp.

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

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

Sarah takes a bite of the apple.

It tastes like fall.

pencil

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

Us, Alone

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Meredith Lindgren


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We almost expanded the place last year.

We started to.

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

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

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

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

We got into the car.

“Do you have the list?” Nick asked.

“Won’t matter,” I said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

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

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

Amelia.

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

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

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

“It’s also in my pocket,” I said.

“Can I see it?” he said.

I showed it to him.

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

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

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

“I love you,” I said back.

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

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

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

The car hissed and steamed. It died.

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

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

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

We got out and looked under the hood.

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

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

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

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

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

“No. We won’t.”

He turned to walk home. I followed.

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

Don’t get me started on my nose.

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

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

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

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

“This storm.”

“Yup.”

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

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

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

“Won’t change anything,” he said.

“It will help us ration,” I said.

“That it’d do.”

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

“I might switch to the cheap stuff.”

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

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

“I might be okay for now,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said.

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

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

A log cracked in the fire.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A silence beyond sleep.

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

I did nothing.

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

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

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

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

Upon this realization I stopped.

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

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

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

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

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

He turned to me.

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

“You’re dead,” I said.

I had not said that the night we met.

“Do dead men talk?” he said.

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

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

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

“Hello, handsome,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I lay across the bed.

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

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

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

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

It was only when I stopped that he sat up.

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

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

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

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

“You can’t be serious.”

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

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

“Don’t be absurd.”

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

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

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

I had continued to work a lot.

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

He collapsed back to where he had been all along.

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

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

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

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

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

I started bleeding after lunch.

My period, right on time.

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

Pads were something we would have bought at the store.

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

It would work fine.

The phone lines were still down.

I paced in the dim and sourceless light.

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

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

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

“I don’t think I can.”

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

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

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

Did I?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You could offer me some,” he said.

“There’s more,” I said.

He sulked.

“I could heat it up for you,” I said.

“Is the phone working yet?”

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

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

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

“You have blood pooling,” I said.

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

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

“Only after I die,” I said.

“You don’t have to rub it in.”

I smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She turned into the sun which was rising.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This left him still and deflated.

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

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

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

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

But first I would feed myself.

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

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

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

Not in her mind.

She was naïve.

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

Nick sat up under his sheet.

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

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

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

“We’re still waiting,” he said.

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

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

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

“You’re not dead,” I said.

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

She was right.

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

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

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

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

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

They all came back again.

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

“See, even she agrees,” Nick said.

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

I got my coat.

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

I got my boots and snowshoes.

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re not even here,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

It was all in my mind.

It wouldn’t stop.

It was all in my mind.

It was all my mind had made out of something.

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

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

Taunts and apologies.

There was no one to hear them.

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

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

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

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