Question Authority

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Stephanie “Baker” Lenz

Since my daughter was born, my big outings are to places like discount stores, malls and bookstores. I also haven’t had the energy or free time to do much creative writing. Recently our family of three went to the Barnes and Noble in a nearby college town for a fun outing. A sign announcing “Writers Workshop 1-3 p.m.” stood just inside the door. Always curious to hear what people are writing, I decided to eavesdrop from the World History section.

The group was small, about ten students and an instructor. I heard a few pieces of good advice immediately. The teacher asked the students, “What creates the urgency in your story?” Silence. She rephrased the question as: “What must your character do for the story to reach its resolution?”

I couldn’t hear the answers. Having been in writing classes, I understood the reluctance to raise the volume, especially when people are browsing bargain hardcovers just behind you. I ventured closer.

The next piece of advice floored me. Seemingly in response to a student’s answer, the instructor said, “You should never write in first person. You should only write in third person. You need to know what every character is thinking and doing.”

As a fan of first person POV as a writer and reader, I could hardly believe what she said. You should only write in third person? I felt like going around the store and gathering up Jane Eyre, The Catcher In The Rye, The Great Gatsby, Out of Africa and other first-person classics and dumping them at her feet. Unfortunately, I could only stand there gape-mouthed and hear the follow-up.

“Your readers won’t know where you end and your narrator begins.”

When I was reading Judy Blume books in fifth grade, I didn’t think she was Margaret or Peter. By that point, I was already writing my own short stories, always in first person and almost always told by a boy. No one in my class though I was transgendered; they thought I was a writer telling a story.

Besides, who cares if a reader mixes up a narrator and an author? It won’t be the first or last time it’s happened. The question is: is it the reader’s problem or the author’s?

My original idea for this Snark Zone was to write about the lack of character-based TV shows and linking that fact to the dearth of quality programming and the no-writer-involved rise of “reality” TV. After hearing what new writers are being told in a little workshop in northern Colorado, I have a different idea about the source of the problem: we’re supposed to dumb down our work to appeal to the audience.

The more I think about it, the more it makes sense. Remember when Oprah Winfrey picked Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections as her book club selection? Behind the main dispute, there was another set of squeaky wheels that wasn’t being heard. People were angry that Oprah had chosen a “hard” book.

In all, Oprah’s choices had gone back and forth between mainstream choices (Where The Heart Is,The Deep End of the Ocean) and lit fic novels (three of which were authored by Toni Morrison, including the 318-page Paradise). When she chose more mainstream works, the discussion conversation swirled around topics gleaned from the stories, only occasionally touching on aspects of the writing process. Discussion of the lit fic or “hard” books was generally somber and geared toward structure, symbolism and the evolution of the story.

I think the mainstream books deserved as much attention on those topics but it only seemed to be the “hard” books that got it. Back Roads, a favorite which straddled lit fic and mainstream, got a discussion group that kept telling author Tawni O’Dell that they were “in love with” the main character, Harley. It didn’t take a dozen readings for me to realize that Harley was not the kind of character one is meant to “fall in love with” in the way they indicated. It only took one close, deliberate reading.

People also asked her about writing this first person novel with a male narrator. If memory serves, she indicated that it was no different than writing a female narrator. I don’t know if the discussion group or other book club readers had trouble wrapping their minds around that but if we’re to believe the writing group instructor, they did.

Some church-goers recently gathered in Denver (and possibly other towns across America and elsewhere) to dismiss The DaVinci Code as heretical nonsense. One man interviewed on the local news said his concern was that “people would believe this novel was not fiction.”

By definition, a “novel” is fiction. It’s sad that large groups of people feel the need to debate whether or not fiction is fiction. Maybe that’s why publishers have resorted to printing “a novel” underneath the titles on the front covers.

As a reader, I’m offended that writers are being told that I’m not smart enough to deal with their work. As a writer, I’m offended that I’m not allowed to tell the story with the best narrator for it or from the best perspective.

When I see readers who just don’t get it, whether in an Oprah Book Club discussion or on the evening news, I’m almost tempted to do what the writing instructor said and “dumb it down.” But that’s not how I was taught to write. I was taught to expect effort from a reader, to assume a reader is relatively intelligent, to write in a way that suits the story.

Intelligent literature, be it lit fic or mainstream, still sells. You don’t have to comb through the classics section to find a well-written read. It’s right on the front table as you walk in the local bookstore. Read smart, write smart. Despite what the writing authorities say, you won’t be alone.


Send us your opinion on this Snarkzone topic and you could win a best-selling book! Choose from gently-used copies of The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (hardcover), White Oleander by Janet Fitch (hardcover), or The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (paperback). Title your e-mail “TC March Snarkzone,” include your name and a mailing address and send to editors[at] Your opinion can agree or disagree; it just needs to be coherent. We’ll post some of our favorite responses on a TC forum board in June.

Community Spirit

Best of the Boards

Arthur picks up a three-week old copy of his local newspaper, already folded at the classifieds—the flats for rent page. He circles one of the ads with his small pen, just one of several pens collected from a few of his local betting shops. He pulls the small table on wheels with the phone on toward him, parking it by the side of the sofa. Picking up the handset he clears his throat, and savours the aftertaste of his earlier salmon and dill sandwich that he followed with a fresh melon medley. Arthur watched his diet; it wasn’t always easy on his state pension, but he believed he was what he ate.

He carefully dials the number in front of him saying each number out loud to himself, 5-9-4-2, and as he predicts, after a few rings it connects to the answering machine of what sounds like a young woman. He is gladdened by a chirpy and energetic voice.

“Sorry, I can’t take your call at the moment, please leave your message after the tone, thanks.”

Arthur waits for the beeps before speaking, “Have you got my medicine yet? I’m still waiting for me medicine, you know I can’t afford to be making calls out.”

He then hangs up, satisfied his message would be listened to. He picks up his copy of the latest Sporting Times and tries his hand at predicting the 2.40 Kempton Park race.


Lottie drops her two bags of shopping on the kitchen floor before taking off her coat. The red light of her answer machine beckons her attention but she kicks off her shoes and walks straight back into the kitchen, telling herself she will only sit down and relax for five minutes after she has put away her groceries. As soon as she diligently puts away the empty carrier bags into the already stuffed carrier bag drawer she eyes the cushions on the sofa and breathes a sigh of relief after what has been a heavy day at work. She presses the play button on the answer machine before collapsing on to the sofa.

‘You have 3 new messages’ — the robotic voice of her machine tells her.

“Hi Lottie, mum here, hope you’re settling in ok, let me know if you need anything, call me.”

“Hi Lot, Gemma’s arranging a surprise birthday party for Serena in two weeks time, we need your help, speak later.” Lottie smiles to herself as she hears her friend’s plans.

“Have you got me medicine yet? I’m still waiting for me medicine, you know I can’t afford to be making calls out.”

Lottie lifts her head from the plump cushions, trying to work out if she knows the shaky voice of what seems to be an old man from the last message. She reluctantly gets up from the sofa and standing by the answer machine, plays back the message.

Scratching her head, she wonders what to do. She quickly realises that he’s dialled the wrong number, but didn’t he hear her own voice at the end of the line? That’s old people though, she thinks, but maybe that didn’t register with him. Lottie hesitates before picking up the phone and dialling 1471. The familiar automated message comes on the line saying, ‘the last person to call was 7 495 4’, Lottie quickly reaches for a pencil and scribbles down the number onto the memo pad within reach at the side of the phone.

Lottie sits on her sofa, unable to relax until she works out what to do about the message. She justifies taking no immediate action by telling herself that surely the old man already realises he’s made a wrong call, surely he’s got through to the right person, surely he’s got his medicine by now, maybe he was trying to get through to his daughter, she would surely be checking on him on a regular basis. A hundred and one different scenarios race through Lottie’s mind, until she concludes it is quicker and easier to just call the man and let him know that he has mistakenly left a message on her answering machine.

Picking up the phone Lottie presses 14713 and immediately hears the dialling tone. The phone rings and rings but no answering machine. Lottie puts the phone down, telling herself that she has at least tried to get through to her last caller—the mystery medicine man.


Arthur laughs along to his favourite radio play, only slightly interrupted by the phone ringing. He knows who it is thanks to his old friend Hazel, who had been kind enough to buy him a large caller display. He also knew the caller would try again.


After a quick meal of supermarket ready-made curry Lottie settles down once again on the sofa with a glass of red wine and the remote control. She sighs as she flicks through the channels, her favourite programme not starting for another hour. The LCD on her DVD player flashes 9.01pm. She looks over at the phone and tells herself she should try again and so she gets up and presses the redial button. The phone rings and rings until she finally gives up, putting the phone down. 10pm arrives and Lottie settles down to her favourite programme, but is unable to enjoy it as much as she usually would.


Arthur pats Felix, his cat, as it jumps up on his bed. “My true little friend aren’t you Felix?” he says as the cat purrs from yet another good feed of chicken scraps. “Well, early to bed, early to rise.” And Arthur climbs into his warm bed, tired but satisfied of a productive day, but knowing he would need to be on top form tomorrow.


Lottie wakes at 6.30am after a fitful night’s sleep. She groans to herself as she realises she doesn’t need to be at work until 10am. Her thoughts wonders to her mystery caller, would he be ok, would he have had his medicine by now, she asks herself. Unable to relax into a couple of hours extra sleep, Lottie pushes back her duvet and gets out of bed. She picks up her cold cup of half drunk Horlicks from her bedside table and makes her way through to the kitchen. Her attention is once again drawn to the scribbled number on the memo pad by her phone. She puts her cup into the sink and then picks up the phone, dialling the number again. No answer. She then puts the phone back down before picking it up again and calling 192—directory enquiries.


Arthur finishes emptying Felix’s tray of gourmet cat food into his bowl. “There you are Felix, breakfast is the most important meal of the day, enjoy.” Arthur has already been awake for almost an hour when he hears the familiar ringing of the phone. He already knows who it is but makes sure by checking his trusted caller display once more. Yes, he’s right, yet again. Making sure all heating is off, he makes his way round the flat and opens all his windows. The cold morning air wafts through the flat, quickly sending a chill through every room. He then opens his fridge, glad that he at least had never believed in buying in bulk, satisfied that the shelves housed only basic provisions, margarine, half a pint of milk and a carton of yoghurt two weeks past its sell by date. It is always important to plan and think ahead, he tells himself as he takes a few clean plates and dirties them by smearing them with tomato ketchup and strategically places a piece of mouldy bread on the top plate, taken from his stash of old rotting groceries from the cupboard underneath the sink.


Lottie discovers the number isn’t ex-directory and in addition to her knowing from the first few digits of the phone number that the man must be local, she also manages to ascertain from the helpful operator that the number belongs to a basement flat on a street not far from her. She recognises the name of the street, St. Luke’s Avenue, as it is just a few streets away from her own, and she passes it twice daily on her way to and from the tube station, even though she’d only been making the journey for just over 2 weeks. After making a note of the address and putting the piece of paper in her bag she takes a quick shower and dresses.


After putting on his old and rather tattered and worn pyjamas Arthur, satisfied at the flat’s coldness, closes the windows and throws an old overcoat down by the front door before lifting the latch. He then stuffs away his deluxe duvet into the bottom of his wardrobe and replaces it on the bed with a few blankets and then jumps into bed.


Lottie stands at the top of St. Luke’s Avenue and counts down the houses until she comes across a tall house, and like most houses in the area, it has been converted into separate flats, displayed by the various bells. She walks down the side of the house and walks toward a front door with a cracked windowpane. As she approaches the front door she hesitates as she looks for a bell, but finds none. She goes to knock on the door but seeing it ever so slightly ajar she pushes, fearing the worst. As the door pushes back, she sees the old overcoat from behind it, there to keep the warmth in she thinks as the draught hits her as she enters the hallway. “Hello?” she shouts through to the living room.

Arthur lies in bed and hearing the overcoat being pushed back on the floor by the front door he calls in a low voice, “Hello?” He hears a young female voice, the same voice from the answering machine, shout through.

“Hello?” he replies, feigning an effort to get up from his bed as the young woman makes her way into his living room.

“Don’t get up,” Lottie says, rushing over to him, “Oh my God, are you ok?”

“Oh yes, perfectly ok my dear,” Arthur replies.

“But your door was open.”

“Yes, I’m afraid it’s a habit I’ve gotten into, Hazel used to run errands for me before she went to work in the mornings but it seems she has left the area as I haven’t seen her for a while.”

“You left a message on my answering machine and I worried, and traced your number through directory enquiries,” Lottie explained.

“Directory what?” Arthur asks, looking at her in mock confusion.

“Oh, never mind, erm, you said something about medicine, you not having your medicine?”

“Aah yes, now, let me think, I have a prescription that I need picking up from the chemists but am unable to get it myself…”

“Well, I’d be happy to collect it for you,” Lottie offers.

“Why, you must be wanting to get to work, a young girl like you must have a very busy life?”

“Well, yes, I do, but I only live around the corner and I’d be glad to help. Do you have family nearby?” Lottie asks.

“Family dear? Good grief no, they’re all far too busy.”

“Oh dear, do you really think you should be living alone?” Lottie asks, not sure how it would go down with him.

“My dear, all I have is my independence and the kindness of strangers—well that fades from time to time of course, people come and go but I shall never leave here, I shall never go into one of those homes you know.”

“No, of course not,” Lottie replies, having just that weekend watched a BBC documentary on the state of council run old people’s homes.

“The chemist is just at the bottom of the road my dear, oh, and if you wouldn’t mind picking up a few bits and bobs from the supermarket?” Arthur asks, physical weakness showing in his voice.

“Yes, of course,” Lottie replies, her conscience recovering from her hesitation of the evening before.

Lottie picks up Arthur’s little betting shop pen and an unused betting slip and makes a note of his grocery needs before, upon his instruction, she picks up his key and locks the door after her as she makes her way on what would now be a regular errand run.

Hearing the front door lock Arthur props himself up and picks up yesterday’s paper and sees he is only halfway through the crossword. He laughs as he reaches the clue for 7 down, helpful neighbour? 4, 9. He then fills in 9 down—The application of science to commercial objectives? 10. “Mmmm, let’s see, ah yes, technology,” he mutters to himself, “a most wonderful thing.”

He then turns to the back of the paper, and reaching the travel section plots his next holiday with the money he saved with the help of Hazel. After all he knows that Felix and the flat will be well taken care of while he gets a much-needed change of scenery for a while.


“Community Spirit” was first posted at Second-hand Dagger-proof Coat, Toasted Cheese’s mystery forum. E-mail: belwebb[at]

Tango Essay

Best of the Boards

We were sitting at the 74th Street Ale House, after a night of waltzing, when Bruce said that he loved dancing because of how much people revealed about who they truly were. “You can’t hide who you are, when you’re dancing,” he said.

I still remember the jolt of fear that ran through me at his words. I prided myself on maintaining a confident and pleasant façade that I hoped effectively concealed the insecurity and neediness I really felt. I had been training myself for years to hide my desperate longing to be loved, admired, even worshipped. Was it true that anyone could glimpse my longing by looking into my eyes on the dance floor?

Yet I know how transparent people are. In the opening class of a series of classes I teach for Center, a career development center, we play a game in which people make guesses about each other based solely on personal appearance. Last night I guessed just by body posture (perhaps it was the defeated hunch of her shoulders) that one woman had been doing care-taking for a long time. Indeed it turned out her Great Aunt for whom she had been caring for eleven years had died three months earlier. I also guessed that the one man in the room (was it the complacent way he held himself?) had gone to a large public university. “The biggest in the United States,” he told us with pride. “The University of Minnesota.”

So I know we give off myriads of signals that can be interpreted by those around us. And nowhere are we more vulnerable than when dancing, especially in the close embrace of tango.

I know which men are desperate just for the touch of a woman’s body, who long to clutch her soft flesh and dream just for a dance of possessing it. I recognize those men who need to control their partner, who want to make her swerve and swivel at their command.

Then there are the men who want everyone to watch them. They are not as obvious as the others, except for the way they flinch when you miss a step, or the way their neck flushes or their eyes flicker quickly to the sidelines to see if anyone noticed the mistake. I don’t like dancing with these men, the judgment conveyed by the raised head, the sneer, a slightly raised eyebrow. But it’s easy to get rid of them: just make several obvious mistakes and they will promptly usher you back to your seat at the end of the dance. I imagine them going back to their buddies, shaking their heads, just to make it clear that any errors were yours, not theirs.

I know which men live in their heads. The engineers, I sometimes call them, although not all of them are engineers—one is a physical therapist, another a professor at the university. But they all act like engineers, treating you as if you were a part in an engine which they are reassembling, which must be moved around until they figure out how it works. Once they’ve learned a step, they immediately like to try it backwards or reversed. They’re after perfection, duplication, the result of endless repetition.

But don’t get me wrong. I love dancing with these guys, even though I’m not the slightest bit interested in the physics of tango. Because after hours and hours of trying to figure it out intellectually, something clicks and suddenly they are beautiful dancers.

But the best of all, the men for whom I long, are the ones who dance with the music, who become the music. I don’t have to think, or even watch for the tiny movements that will cue my steps. All I have to do is enter the music myself and we will be in sync, floating always on the lines of the song, tapping out the rhythms with our feet.

I feel the music through his body, another instrument, providing that one element missing from the music, the temperature of his skin, the pressure of his hand on my back, the brush of his leg against mine, the way his neck smells.

I am aware of the whole field—the polished floor, the glittering lights, the gaze of the onlookers—but only as extensions of my experience. Lost in the music and the moment, I am all sensation. If a thought crosses my mind, if I identify a step—“That was an ocho cortado!” or acknowledge my pleasure—“Wow! This is great!—I lose the connection and the dance falters. Only this, only this, the moment, the music, although of course it doesn’t really require music, this dance which is the tracing of desire with bodies, the soft embrace of feet on the floor. One of my most memorable tango dances was a dance danced in silence after a class, folded into the arms of a man who smelled like vanilla and with whom I would have danced over the edge of the world.

Now when I dance with this man my dance is stiff, reserved. I am afraid of my own desire for him, afraid of revealing that on the dance floor. And without my willing compliance, his steps seem stiff, jerky and uncomfortable. Instead of gliding in harmony, we chafe against each other.


Waverly’s tango essay was first posted at What I Tell You Three Times Is True, Toasted Cheese’s non-fiction forum. E-mail: wavefitz[at]

First Night

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Brian Maycock

I will wait while the flames still burn. I want to see.

The fabric, the skin, how they are being taken away, all recognisable trace destroyed by the fire.

It doesn’t bother me, which makes me think I must still be drunk. How else could I stand here and watch my dress, my face, my long brown hair crackling as they are eaten away.

I know I was drunk when I left the nightclub. There’s no way otherwise I would have decided to walk home alone when I couldn’t get a taxi, or spoken to the man who offered me a lift just when my heels were really starting to hurt.

I don’t remember the next bit. What happened in the jump between the blast of warmth I felt when I opened the car door and standing here a few moments ago.

I should be in bed, on a Sunday morning with a stinking hangover, looking forward to more fantastic nights-out and more splitting headaches as the run-in to Xmas gathers pace. That’s where my memories should begin again. But no, I’m standing in a wood, looking into a ditch while my body burns.

He’s not watching. He’s got his back to the flames, and me.

I want him to see me, to let him know he’s not going to get away with this, because somehow I’m still here, and I’m going to tell everyone what he’s done.

The filthy pig. He’ll get what’s coming to him, when people find out.

I shout at him, scream. But he ignores me, and now he’s starting to walk away.

No you don’t mister, I think and try and follow.

Try again, but I can’t. Can’t move.

I’m stuck here. Trapped with the smoke and the dying embers as the fire finishes its work.

I look around. Getting scared now. Sobering up, I guess. Though I don’t know how I can sober up, or how I could still have been drunk.

Or how I could have stood and looked down on my own body. Christ! What is happening!

I start to to cry. Sob, “Help me, please.”

“It’s no use”


“It’s no use crying. It’s too late now.”

“Where are you?” I cry out, for there is only another woman’s voice, and darkness still that I can see.

And when my question is not answered, I decide I imagined the voice.

(Because I’ve gone crazy. Of course I have. It’s the only sane explanation for what’s happening. Drunk! What was I thinking.)


And then this answer comes and I don’t even have the comfort of madness to chase away this cold, endless night.

“Where?” I ask.

“I don’t really know, but in the woods somewhere.”

“He likes the woods.” A third woman’s voice joins our conversation.

“He does.” And a fourth.

But I don’t want to listen. I want to go home. I want to be warm and safe.

So what do they do, my only companions. They start to laugh, and say:




“NO!” This is my voice. I scream the word. I will drown them out. Defeat them.

Escape them.

“No,” they say again, with one voice. “We are together now, forever.”

“Why?” I ask. But they do not answer at first.

And then I hear: “Pretty party dress, pretty face, pretty long brown hair.”

All embers now I think, cold and grey and dead, and I understand.

Then there is a new voice, that says: “You are all the same.”

This voice is different. It is distant and harsh. It is his voice, and for a moment I think he is dead, but then I feel the urge to go to the toilet, a painful, living urge, and then I feel the thought: No, wait there’s something else to do first.

And I feel sick as he remembers me, what he did to me, and becomes more and more excited.

“We are all joined,” the voices sing.

No, I think, even though I know this word has no meaning anymore because

We are all joined, they sing. Forever.

My name is… I try and tell them, but I can’t remember my name, and for some reason this does not bother me. All that matters is that I sing.


Joined forever.

It is what he wants. What we all want.


“I live in West Yorkshire, England, and work as a press officer at the National Railway Museum in York. My stories and poetry have appeared in a number of small press magazines, including The Third Alternative and Scavengers Newsletter. This year I’ve work due in Dark Horizons, Black Petals and Not One of Us. I’ve also recently made the breakthrough into the professional market, having just sold my second story to the Games Workshops’ Inferno magazine.” E-mail: brian_maycock2[at]

The Love-Struck Ghost and Madeline

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Mona Awad

If the ghost had had a heart he would have given it to Madeline. Madeline who was always scowling. Madeline who would not play with the other girls and boys. Madeline whose mouth was always blue from eating Freezies. Madeline who hated everyone. Oh Madeline, thought he, as he watched her watch everyone with disgust. How I love you.

When the ghost was feeling romantic he lived in Madeline’s hair. When he was feeling lusty he rolled around in Madeline’s blue mouth. And sometimes, when he was feeling miserable, he buried himself in the catacombs of Madeline’s bittersweet soul and wept.

But mostly he just followed her around.

The ghost followed Madeline wherever she went except when she went to the washroom. He followed Madeline when she walked to school. He followed Madeline from classroom to classroom. He danced alongside Madeline in her tap dancing class. He sat with Madeline while she did not eat dinner. He stood in the corner of her room while Madeline slept the fitful sleep of those who are not loved. Oh, Madeline, thought he as he watched her dream her colourless dreams. How I love you. And he cried all night into his see-through hands.

For months now Madeline had the feeling that she was being haunted or, at the very least, she began to suspect that she was not alone. Day after day she saw strange shadows dash in and out of the corner of her eye. Day after day she walked and sat and stood and slept in a whirlpool of sighs which were not her own. Her hair levitated and her mouth felt like it was being licked from the inside. Fingers like clouds touched her tenderly in the dark. Most of Madeline hoped it would go away whatever it was. But some of Madeline wanted it stay whatever it was. So when Madeline said “Go away and don’t come back,” to the black of her room one night, she only mostly meant it.

Well, if the ghost had had a heart, Madeline had just broken it, for he believed she had meant every word she said. So he took his little mist of sighs and with a howl of unspeakable grief disappeared quick into the night. He lived his eternity out in the various countries of the world, half-heartedly rustling the skirts of women he did not love.

Nobody ever licked the insides of Madeline’s blue mouth again. She didn’t know that was going to be the case. But now that she’s beginning to suspect it is, sometimes Madeline wishes she would’ve said something else to whatever it was that lived briefly inside and around her in her youth. She thinks about this from time to time, when she can’t sleep in the unenchanted and eyeless dark.

Mona Awad was born in Montreal, Canada. She mambos on Mondays and tangos on Tuesdays. A selection of her short stories, the legend of men and women, is being released by Fooliar Press the summer of 04 in Toronto. Her poem ‘Zoology’ has appeared in the Canadian poetry anthology, The Anthology of Begin, published in the fall of 03. She foxtrots on Fridays, sambas on Saturdays. E-mail: ledaswanned[at]

Between Stairs

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Leila Eadie

The house was old and cold. I was there at my mother’s request; Granny refused to leave her home at Christmas, so we were going to visit her instead. Because my college term had finished, I was the advance guard. It was my job to clean and shop and make everything ready for the family to descend.

Granny wasn’t one for conversation. I got “You like your sleep, don’t you?” in the mornings, “this soup is too hot,” at lunchtime, and “I’m off to bed now. Do try not to disturb me, and leave the liquor cabinet alone. I’ll know if you’ve been near it,” in the evenings.

I don’t think she liked me very much, even though she barely knew me. Maybe that was why. I tried my best, putting on a smile for her and acquiescing to her wishes, strange as they might be. Leaving the liquor cabinet alone was no problem; I had no liking for the sharp taste of alcohol. But some of her other orders troubled me more, like the prohibition on my using the back stairs.

They were the servants’ stairs in the days when the house had employed a full staff. Now that it was just Granny and the three-days-a-week cleaner, no one used them and I wagered they were filled with dust, cobwebs and insects. I didn’t understand why she was so vehemently opposed to their use. But she was insistent. I shrugged and agreed that they would remain locked.

It was only as I was preparing rooms for my family to stay in that my dilemma arose. The house was large, with almost twenty guest rooms. Plenty of room for everyone. The main stairs were great for accessing the rooms to the front of the house, but it was quite a trek to reach those rooms toward the rear. The back stairs, on the other hand, would cut my journeys back and forth with bedding and towels by half, if not more.

I had keys to every room strung on a metal ring big enough to be a bracelet. That was another thing: if I were to avoid the back stairs, why had she given me keys that opened the doors at the top and bottom? It was too much for me. I flinched as the key grated in the lock, but I turned it all the way, opening the door at the top of the back stairs.

Feeling around for a light switch, I became caught in sticky webs and heard the tiny rips as I pulled them free of the wall. I found the cool plastic and flipped the switch up. A bare bulb flickered on and off several times before deciding to stay lit. A narrow stairwell was revealed by the sudden flood of light, and it was just as I had expected: filthy.

Perhaps it was a better idea to leave these stairs alone, I thought as my shoes crunched on something lying on the bare wooden boards. Maybe the wood was rotten. It seemed stable enough as I took my first step downwards. I remembered the trips along the endless corridors to the main stairs and then back again, and thought, to hell with it. I can’t see any reason why I shouldn’t use these stairs. Ma and Da and all the uncles and aunts are arriving tomorrow, and I still have a whole load of work to do before this place is ready. Why should I make it any more difficult for myself? To hell with it.

I walked down the stairs, taking them slowly in case the wood wasn’t as solid as it looked.

Granny never need know. She would be out at her friend’s coffee morning until at least four o’ clock.

When I reached the bottom my shadow blocked most of the light, and I had to feel for the keyhole. It wasn’t difficult to find, however, and I soon stepped out into the corridor next to the kitchen. Perfect. It would make my life a whole lot easier. I went to fill the vases with flowers brought from the market especially.

As I was half way back up the stairs, loaded down with the tray full of vases, the bulb above my head went out with a ping.

“Oh, great,” I said, stopping dead. It was annoying, but not that much of a problem; I could see the open doorway at the top shining brightly. Continuing on, I paused at the top when I thought I heard a sound. It was a rustling, like someone crumpling a paper bag. I froze. Had Granny come back early? There was nothing else to hear, so I carried on into the corridor, nudging the door closed behind me. Gently putting the tray down, I ran along to the main stairs and down them two at a time, looking around. There was no sign of Granny, or anyone else. God knew what that strange sound was then. Probably just the house creaking. It did that a lot, although I had thought I was getting used to it. I returned to the rooms to continue my preparations.

When I found myself outside the back stairs door, arms full of cleaning products, I paused. I’d forgotten the light had died.

To hell with it again.

I started off down the stairs, trusting my judgment as to where the next step was. The amount of light streaming past me grew less and less as I progressed, one crunching step at a time. When I was just over half way down, the door at the top swung closed with a creak straight out of a Halloween haunted house. Utter darkness prevailed, and I stopped, straddled between two stairs. I was nearer the bottom than the top, so I took another step downward, finding the stair easily enough despite my darkness-induced vertigo.

And then I heard that sound again. A crinkle, a rustle. Behind me.

“Hello?” I said, feeling silly, but unable to stay silent. “Is there anyone there?”

Nothing. I swallowed, and took another step downward.

“It’s not fair.”

The voice had come from above, and was small and faint. A child’s; a girl’s.

I dropped my armful of plastic bottles, and they clattered down the stairs with a huge noise in the otherwise quiet house. As the last one rolled to a halt, I grabbed at the walls to stop myself falling forward.

“I had so much I wanted to do.”

“Who’s that?” I asked, immediately ashamed that I sounded high-pitched and scared. I tried again. “Is that you, Amy?”

Amy was the cleaner’s daughter who sometimes came along with her mother during the school vacation.

“My name is Eleanor.”

“What are you doing in here?” I didn’t know an Eleanor. “Does Mrs. Henderson know you’re here?”

“It’s not fair,” Eleanor said again.

“Look, I don’t know who you are, but I’m pretty sure you shouldn’t be here. Let’s go down to the kitchen, and I’ll drive you home.” I took another step down, my clammy hands sticking to the cold plaster of the walls.

“I am home.”

“No, I don’t think so. Mrs. Henderson lives here on her own. Are you lost?”

“Lost? Oh, yes. I’ve lost everything.”

“What do you mean?”

“There was so much I wanted to do. I had plans.”

She had lost me; I had no idea what she was talking about. “Come downstairs,” I said, “and we’ll sort it out.”

“I can’t. And you shouldn’t take that next step. You’ll fall.”

I stopped, foot hovering out over the next stair. After a fraction of a second, I pulled it back to the stair I stood on, safe enough.

“There’s a bottle on the next step.”

“How can you see that?”

“I just can. You’ll have to believe me.”

“Did Mrs. Henderson hire you to help me out?” I found that hard to believe, but not impossible: she no doubt thought I wasn’t doing a good enough job of preparing things.


“Then who are you?”

“I’m Madam’s daughter, Miss Eleanor.”

“Mrs. Henderson’s daughters are Katherine and Denise. Denise is my mother. I don’t know an Eleanor.”

But suddenly I did. We didn’t call her that, of course. Anything other than Mother, Granny, or Mrs. Henderson was frowned upon. My mind whirled as I was slowly sucked into this girl’s story.

“What are you doing here?”

“You don’t understand. I don’t do anything any more. I’m just waiting.”

“For what?”

“She who pushed me.”

“I’m afraid you’ve lost me. Why don’t we go somewhere where I can see what’s happening, and you can tell me all about it.” I was entirely fed up with standing in the chill dark, talking to someone who wasn’t making the least bit of sense.

“I have to wait here.”


“I don’t know. Maybe because this is where I died.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. Was she mad? Or was I talking to a ghost?

“Where you died?” I repeated, more than a hint of disbelief in my tone.

“That’s right. She pushed me down the stairs, but everyone thought I’d slipped and fallen.”

“Who pushed you?”

“Charlotte. She was a tweenie here.”

“A tweenie? What’s that?”

I could feel her scowl. It came through in her voice. “A between-stairs maid. Not a scrubber, but not a ladies’ maid either. In between.”

“When was this supposed to have happened?” I asked.

“April 17th, 1934. Charlotte just had her ninth birthday. Mine was two weeks away. We were almost exactly the same age, you see.”

It made sense. Granny’s birthday, strictly forbidden though it was to mention it, was the thirtieth of April. Whoever—whatever—this Eleanor was, she’d done her research.

“We even looked alike. Mother thought it was nice that there was someone the same age for me to play with. But Charlotte wasn’t my friend. She was a nasty girl. And she pushed me down the stairs and took my place. Of course no one would have believed she’d done it, even if I had been able to tell them.”

“What do you mean, she took your place?”

“I was to return to school that afternoon, and she put on my uniform, took my trunk, and left in my place. I don’t think Mother ever noticed.” She sighed, and I felt bad for her. “And I stayed here.”

“What about when people found you? Didn’t they know you weren’t Charlotte?”

“Maybe they did. Maybe they didn’t. No one said anything.”

“So you’re a ghost?” I felt silly speaking the word, but that seemed to be exactly what this Eleanor was saying.

“Yes. I must be. I know I’m dead, but I’m still here.”

We stood in silence until I couldn’t bear it any more. I didn’t know what to believe, but Eleanor was so terribly sad, and it tore at my soul. “Please, let’s get out of this darkness; come and have some coffee with me.”

“I’d love to, but I can’t. I have to stay here. But I’ll move those bottles out of your way, so you may leave.”

A shiver brushed up against me, rubbing against my bare skin like an ice-cat, and I heard the sound of plastic scraping on wood. It was immense in the silence and my heart pounded in my chest.

“There you are,” she whispered up close to my ear, and I almost leapt forward into the blackness. “It’s safe now.”

I somehow knew I could trust her, so I stepped down, my eyes wide but unseeing. My foot found the stair clear of any obstructions. Had there ever been anything there in the first place?

“Thank you,” I said, and took another step onward. Hands outstretched, I stopped when my fingertips brushed the door, and shuffled forward until I had traversed all the steps. I grabbed the handle, but paused.

“Is there anything I can do for you?” I asked.

“If you see Charlotte, you could tell her I’m waiting here for her.”

I nodded. I think ‘Charlotte’ already knew that. That must be why she’d banned anyone from using these stairs. “I will,” I said, and turned the door handle. Light burst into the space and I blinked at the sudden brightness. Turning around, I could see only stairs heading up into the darkness. At the bottom, bottles of plastic cleaning fluid had been pushed to the sides of the stairway. I picked them up, and looked one more time into the darkness. Perhaps I had imagined it.

“Goodbye, Kate,” Eleanor said, and I saw a small, pale hand held out, its arm vanishing into the gloom.

I left the door open.


“Is everything ready for tomorrow?” Granny asked me that night at dinner. “The rooms? The provisions? Is everything clean? When are they arriving?”

“Everything’s fine. People are turning up after lunch, and we’re ready for them.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, Charlotte.”

There. It was out.

She froze, her fork half way to her mouth. It felt like hours until she blinked, and put her fork down on the plate with a clink.

I forced myself to swallow my mouthful of food, and waited.

“You’ve opened the back stairs.” She didn’t look at me as she spoke, instead watching the wine swirl as she picked up her glass.

“Yes,” I said. “She’s still there, waiting for you.”

Her thin hand shook and she put her glass back down. One drop of scarlet fell to stain the pristine tablecloth.

Her chair scraped back as she stood up. Shooting a dire look at me, she turned and left.

I pushed my plate away; I’d lost my appetite.


Christmas was a strange affair. Granny avoided me whenever possible, and yet managed to keep a close eye on me at the same time. Everyone else was bright and jolly, and we had fun. I was left to stay on at the house again after the festivities to clear up. I didn’t mind; there was more to clear up in that house than just crumbs and streamers. In the end, though, I didn’t have to do anything.

I found Granny—Charlotte—on the morning of New Year’s Eve. I was leaving later that day and I suppose I wanted to say goodbye to Eleanor. But as I opened the back stairs door by the kitchen, Granny spilled out into the corridor at my feet. She was cold, lifeless.

“Eleanor?” I called, looking up at the stairs. There was no reply.

The light bulb half way up the stairwell flickered on and off in rapid succession. The stairs were old, dirty and empty.

“Goodbye Eleanor,” I said. “Rest easy, now. Try to forgive her, please?”

The light died one final time and the house creaked peacefully around me.

Leila is an eternal student who would pretty much always rather be writing. She has published horror and fantasy stories in magazines including The Eternal Night, Bloodlust UK, Between Kisses, Here & Now, Alien Skin, and her work has appeared in various anthologies, with yet others winning contests. For more details, see her website. E-mail: leila[at]

Not Quite a Ninja

Ryan Michael Faist

When I was seven I learned ninjitsu. I mean I was seven when my friend Jon started training me in the art of Shaolin Long Fist Kung-Fu. I didn’t become a real ninja until I was older. You can’t become a ninja overnight; there’s a lot to learn. For three years I dedicated every Saturday and Sunday, which I always spent at my dad’s house, to training.

Jon led the gang, then me, then Reese, his little sister. Reese was a year younger than me, three years younger than Jon. She’s who I beat up during training. Sometimes Jon would hold me down so she could practice her kicks and punches, but for most of 1986 Jon taught me and her how to take a beating together. My first busted nose. My first black eye.

Life was tough for an eight-year-old in my neighborhood. It made sense to make it tough for everyone else. We’d patrol the gravel alleys of South Bend’s south side looking for dares. Garage windows learned their lessons, believe that.

Adam and his three ugly brothers rivaled us. They lived two doors down from my dad; four houses down from Jon and Reese. Once upon a time we all played hide and seek together, but those days vanished sometime when I was wasn‘t looking. I remember playing with Adam and his brother on my porch one summer night and they got into a fight. The first fight I ever saw. Adam grabbed a fist full of dirt from my dad’s porch garden and hurled into his brother’s eyes, sending him to the floor—blind and screaming. Ever since, Adam was the last kid in the world I ever wanted to have to fight. Besides Jon, I mean.

My dad knew about Jon. But, as I found out years later, being a hippie-turned-businessman, he recognized the social benefits I could get by expanding my childhood associates beyond those who lived in my mother’s neighborhood. He always knew I was shy. My mom knew it, Jon knew it, Reese knew it.

Jon was my best friend. I respected him more than the president, and I really liked Ronald Reagan. I think my dad had several private conversations with Jon during those years, but they didn’t matter. Me and Reese still had to make sure we could snowball the driver-side window of a car speeding down Miami Street every single time. We were good, too. In spring of ’87 we advanced to rocks.

“To be overbearing when one has wealth and position is to bring calamity upon oneself.” —Lao Tzu, 14th Century

I learned a lot about life during those years, more than just martial arts mastery. I know it now. Courage was vital. Risks were respected. One winter I was called upon by my sensei to crouch behind a bush next to the corner bank’s entrance and wait until the first person came out of the doors.

“You blast the next fool that comes out with this ice-pressed snowball. Some stupid college girl, probably,” Jon laughed. “Hit her in the tits if you can.”

But the maintenance man didn’t have very big tits, so I blasted him in the face, which is when and where I got the small scar above my left eyebrow.

“Tell her you fell off your bike.”

Every now and then there was trouble. Part of being a ninja is being ready for trouble. We had two spots in the alleys we could go if we ever got split up or something happened. And they saved our lives more than once, believe that.

About a block south of my dad’s house were two garages really close to each other. I mean really close. But if you could squeeze yourself between them, and shuffle a few feet back, you’d find a 5′ by 5′ opening completely sealed off by the two garages and one giant shed. Nobody ever found that spot.

But the one we used most was the roof of the garage directly behind my dad’s house. The weirdos who lived there vanished one day. Nobody knew why they left or if they‘d ever come back, so Jon and me and Reese moved in. We had the place looted within a week, couch and all. I bet we had more great times on that roof than most people have in a lifetime. In fact, I remember more of that roof than I do of any other part of my life.

“Michael, I think your dad smokes pot.”


Jon nodded.

“No he doesn’t. I know it, he doesn’t do that.”

He shrugged his shoulders, “I’ve seen his pipe before.”

“My dad doesn’t do that dude, trust me.”

He dug some chew out of his gums and watched his loogie fly off the roof. “Want some?”

“You’re always trying to get me to do stuff, Jon.”


“Lay plans for the accomplishment of the difficult before it becomes difficult.”

On my tenth birthday my dad gave a skateboard. It was a red and white Veriflex with a green cobra on the bottom. That’s all it took for me to start skating. Besides Jon, I mean. And you better believe if you can’t ride backwards down a hill on a skateboard in pitch black you’re less of a ninja than me, believe that.

About the best thing Jon ever did for me was teach me how to skate. First in the grass, then on the sidewalk, and finally in between lanes of rush-hour traffic. It took about nine months to get the hang of it, during which Jon began smoking cigarettes, rocking a green and yellow mohawk, and railing impressive stair rails with his skateboard. I liked the mohawk the best, but my mom told me if I ever did that to my head I’d be showing how dumb I was. So instead I told Reese I could rail a stairway too.

“You can?”


“My brother rails that one by the liquor store all the time.”

“I know.”

“And the one at the bank, too.”

“I know.”

“Can you rail that one? I want to see.”

Luckily, her bitch of a mother happened to be coming around the corner. “Hey! What’er y’all doing way over here? Get on home! Go on!” Even though I always hated their mother, that particular afternoon she saved me from humiliation and broken balls.

That bitch even had the nerve to bring it up to my dad while we were all sitting on our porch one night. “…yeah don’t you know Bill there’s lots to do across Miami Street…”

It didn’t matter. That was still the last time anyone ever bitched at me for crossing the street.

At eleven-years-old I could kick your ass with a stick, bat, staff, bottle, rock, ball, anything. Good thing I never had to. We did beat up a couple people, though. Definitely Adam and his brothers, countless times. And because I was advancing in ninjistu quicker than Jon ever expected, he left me to run the gang while he was ‘kicking it with cooler cats.’ I hated cats too, so I understood and accepted the responsibility.

But Reese didn’t skate, and that was a problem. And then she started liking me, and I didn’t know what to do about that.

“So do you ever wonder why Reese waits on the stairs for you while you use the bathroom, Michael?”

“What, dad?”

“I think she’s got the hots for you.”

“Huh… Reese is stupid.”

“She’s stupid?”


“Oh. Okay.”

One time Jon was missing for six days. My dad told me the high school had stopped calling for his excessive absences, and that the only thing his mom and dad ever cared about was him going to jail. So Jon agreed to at least call every time he wasn’t coming home. Out of respect, I guess. But when six days went by without even a word, his mom let everyone know.

“He’s stealing, I know he’s stealing.”

“He’s with that girl, that’s where he’s at.”

“Maybe he’s already in jail.”

“Maybe he’s never coming back.”

Jon came back on the seventh night, hiding a ten-inch purple hickie that stretched all the way down his stomach. He showed my a few days later, after it began to heal, and it was still the coolest thing I’d ever seen since Jon jumped off my dad’s roof and broke both of his legs. Jon’s dad felt differently—three bruised ribs, two busted lips, and an arm in a homemade sling.

For some reason I never made a move on Reese. I guess years of ninja training made us war buddies, even after she told me she wanted to have sex with me. We’d still hang out though, and sneak into Jon’s room when he wasn’t home.

Jon was a great artist. I should have said that a long time ago. We used to make a martial arts magazine. He’d pencil little sequence kicks and takedowns, and I’d trace over them with a pen. I still have some. He painted murals too. You could see our gang sign on the backs of garages all around our side of town. A black ninja star with “South Bend” inscribed in the center let everyone know who was in charge. But it was the water color of Jesus Christ on the Cross that worried his folks in a new way. I’d say Jon gave up about five teeth for that spectacular painting.

He also had brass knuckles, which beat the old Chinese finger-cuff trick out of the fucking water. And nun-chucks, which is why I have two fake front teeth. And a .22 caliber pistol, but nobody’s supposed to know about that.

But the darkest, scariest, least talked about thing Jon ever had was the Black Book. Reese warned me never to open it or else tortured souls would wage war on me. It was Satan’s bible.

“He was reading it last night.”

“Where at?”

“In his room. He was naked, too.”

“Shut up.”

“He was, I swear.”

“Does he always get naked when he reads it?”

“I don’t know, Michael. ”

But I never asked Jon about it. He would’ve probably asked me to help him conjure up a spirit or something.

Finally his mom asked a preacher to come to the house. Someone to talk to Jon from a new perspective. But enemies never seem to make very good advisors. And when Jon scattered soul-black soil all over his bedroom, the preacher could do nothing to harm him.

“In chopping wood on behalf of the master carpenter, there are few who escape without hurting their own hands.”

Me and Reese weren’t allowed to be seen with Jon by our parents anymore, and my skating had become too much of an outlet for things between me and her not to change. My mom moved to a suburban neighborhood where I was thrown into the mix with a bunch of yuppies. Kids who got off on smoking cigarettes and talking about each other’s moms. Naturally, I felt a certain amount of superiority as a fourth-degree black belt.

By seventh grade I found drinking was the easiest way to feel good. I joined the wrestling team with some new friends and started starving myself like everyone else. But despite all the training I had gone through, I still wasn’t prepared for all the changes. Like nightmares.

It was 1988 and Jon was fifteen or so. We were skating in circles on the old blacktop behind the bank. I distinctly remember him wearing a black hooded sweatshirt that darkened his face, even in the broad daylight. We kept circling each other, each time coming closer and closer to colliding with each other. But every time we would just barely miss each other, and I would get a glimpse of the skeleton of his face. Then, we slammed into each other.

His face was so black and skeletal that all the next morning I kept thinking of Skeletor from He-Man. He looked at me the way you hope nobody does when you’re nine.

“C’mere, Michael.”

He tugged on my chest.


I didn’t even have time to say anything.


He kept getting angrier and angrier and kept touching me and pulling me.

“C’mere Michael. It’s okay. I’m just gonna take you in this back room and…”

When I woke up I cried so hard I was afraid my mom would hear and want to know what was wrong, but she didn’t.

Meanwhile, I was discovering things like Goldshlager, scooters, and other ways to spend my mom’s money. By then I’d grown out of the whole weekend trip to my dad’s house. I’d go there every couple of months just to say hi. And when I did, Jon was never there. He’d been through so much trouble, I figured he was in jail or dead. A few months later I learned his dad had been taken away for nearly beating him to death when he caught him getting rear-ended by some old man in the basement.

That summer changed everything. I realized I didn’t champion South Bend Ninjitsu Gang Culture, and I became aware of the gangs bigger than mine. All seventh-graders did.

Jon’s conflict with his parents taught me that my parents really didn’t know everything, like I once pretended, like they still pretended. And when I thought about it, I concluded there wasn’t much difference between me and them other than age.

“You don’t pay bills, boy. Maybe you should.”

But I was smart for my age; As and Bs without even trying. “Believe me, mom, if I have to pay bills, it sure as shit won’t be to live at home.”

After the first few suspensions from high school for smoking and fighting, trouble was no longer a concern. My dad liked to hear about my fake girlfriends over the phone: Tracy, Michelle, Lisa. My mom never cared; As and Bs kept her happy.

I quit the wrestling team. I decided obnoxious boys really pissed me off more than anything. I fell in love with whiskey and starting getting in more fights with skater-haters.

“Through compassion, one will triumph in attack and be impregnable in defense.”

One June night, 1995, while eating some drunk breakfast with a few friends at Denny’s, I stumbled into the bathroom. I looked up in midstream and saw him for the first time in four years. It was most certainly Jon. He was wearing red lipstick and had blue yarn in his fucking hair.

“Michael?” he said. “Why hello. Long time.”

“Shit,” I burped.

“How are you?”

“Well,” I said dizzily, “I don’t feel right talking to you knowing both of us got our hands on our dicks.”

“Oh.” He went to wash his hands.

“What happened to your Mohawk?”

“My dad ripped it out… before he left.”

But I was too fucking drunk to feel sorry for him. This was the same piece of shit who kicked my ass for three years. Who got me to let him watch seventies porn in the basement while my dad was outside mowing. Who got me to show him and his shithead friends where my dad’s liquor closet was. Who got me to let them take turns passing Jack Daniels around and ollying over me behind the garage. Who got me to stand under icicles while he executed somersault snowball drills during winter. Who got me to steal cigarettes and garbage pail kids for him in the summer.

And now he stood before me with his homopolitics expecting sympathy? I wanted him buried. And what a poetic opportunity it was to demonstrate what my ninja training had been preparing me for all those years.

I zipped up and bounced back, feet strong, but loose.

The first punch shattered the towel dispenser. He blocked the second and third, but the fourth connected square in his nose, erupting blood like a busted fire hydrant. But he didn’t fight back. No usual side strike to my gut followed by a round house to the back of my skull. Instead, he just stood there, holding his nose and staring at me. It was the only kind of offense I hadn’t prepared for.

Panic struck, and I fell backwards into the stall behind me. I remember gasping for breath, confused at the confusion, desperate for a forearm side strike or something—anything. But three eggs, extra cheese, and salsa scrambled out of my mouth and into the toilet. “Goddammit,” was all I could mutter while brown slobber splashed against my face.

After a final dry heave I kicked the door open. And there stood Jon, delving into my eyes.

He pressed his hand against my chest and sat me down. Then, very softly, he pressed his lips against mine. It could’ve lasted two seconds; it could’ve lasted two days. When I opened my eyes, he was gone.

Not much more needs to be said. I grew to be a fine little heterosexual and made my parents proud. But they still don’t know about my ninjitsu. Or the only reason in the world I would ever use it.

“To retire when the task is completed is the way of heaven.”


“I am a proud native of Indiana who spends as much time as possible reading and writing outdoors. I graduated from Indiana University in 2002 with a B.A. in English, and am eager to further my education with graduate studies in creative writing.” E-mail: Ryanfaist[at]

Dancing in the Dust

Suzanne R. Thurman

I didn’t mean to fall in love with a cowboy. After all, I’d just left one behind in Utah. I waited until he came in from his evening rounds, covered in the dry red soil of Thompson Springs, then blew him a kiss and fled to Denver to get the dust out of my nose. I thought the noise and the traffic would cure me of my addiction to open spaces and desolate landscapes. But here I am, one week later slouched in a booth at a suburban Denny’s, picking the green peppers out of my salad while Rusty the cowhand sits across from me, fiddling with a deck of playing cards.

I have to laugh. It’s ten p.m. and the other cowboy is probably upping the ante at his weekly Saturday night poker bash. Those parties drove me crazy. Not that I don’t enjoy an occasional game of cards, but I got tired of sharing my life with four queens and their motley sidekicks. Every now and then we could have gone dancing in Moab. That’s all I’d wanted from him, love and the occasional two-step. Was that expecting too much?

I sip my coffee and try to forget. I don’t want to think about that cowboy. I have a new one to keep me busy. I stare at Rusty while he practices shuffling the cards with one hand. He is a cliché. His hair is all silky waves, bleached white from the sun. His skin, tanned the color of perfectly toasted bread, is soft beneath my touch; he’s still young and his cheeks haven’t turned to shoe leather yet. His eyes flash emerald green, and his lips, parted slightly in concentration, sizzle a dark red. I get goosebumps just imagining what our first kiss will taste like.

It’s not a new sensation. I always feel this way around cowboys. I don’t know why. We have nothing in common, yet they drive me wild, even though I’m generally a very rational person. My dad’s an engineer. My mom’s a psychiatrist. I’m a nurse. Scientific objectivity runs in my genes. Until I talk to a cowboy. As soon as he opens his mouth, his words fill my head with stars, the kind that litter the sky in the open country of the high desert. His pungent sweat, laced with juniper, makes me dizzy, and his cry, mournful as a coyote, lures me in. Before I know it, I’m baking bread and washing dishes in the kitchen of a ranch house miles from anywhere, my green scrubs covered in a thin layer of desert dirt.

What was it my friend said after I moved in with the last cowboy? That it all seemed so whimsical, a nurse and a cowboy falling in love. Fact is, there’s nothing whimsical about living on a ranch, measuring your life against a herd of cattle and weekly poker games. Still, I must find it appealing. Why else would I be sitting here with Rusty when I could be cruising the doctors’ lounges at the local hospitals?

Rusty interrupts my thoughts.

“I can do a trick. Wanta see it?”

The words sound strange, coming from Rusty. My other cowboy did card tricks too, only his never worked.

While Rusty shuffles the deck, I admire his long, thin fingers. I picture them tracing a pattern on my bare skin, an intricate dance of swirls that makes my body shudder. I’m mesmerized by the vision and forget to answer his question. But I don’t have to. He’s just like the last cowboy, assumes I will always want to see his tricks. He shoves the deck in my direction.

“Pick a card and I’ll tell you which one it is. I can read people’s minds.”

I smile. That’s what the other cowboy used to say. But he couldn’t, really, which is why I’m here now.

I stare at the backs of the cards fanned out on the table, looking for a sign. Two dice stand out against a dark green background. “Las Vegas” is printed in the lower right-hand corner, the gold letters worn from constant handling. The images tell me nothing except that Rusty gambled away his paycheck one weekend during off season, a sin I’m willing to overlook. I choose a card, take a peek, then slap it face down on the table. It’s the same card I drew the last time I played this game, with the other cowboy.

Rusty squeezes his eyes shut. I can tell he’s thinking hard. He gnaws on his bottom lip, and his veins throb in his temples. I cross my fingers. I want his trick to work.

“Nine of clubs?” he asks.

Dust motes dance in the cheap glare of the hanging light.

“Nope,” I say. “Joker.”

“I am a writer, musician, and mother of 2 small boys. My poetry and short stories have appeared in many publications, most recently The Mochila Review, The Cresset, Studio, and War, Literature, and the Arts (forthcoming).” E-mail: srthurm[at]

Eyes by

Kevin Gruzewski

Deafening hands roar thunder as we prolong the final beat of our second encore. Jeff, our lead singer, has both tattoo-stained arms waving frantically. This is the part of the night where we absorb all their energy, letting it fuel our exhausted souls.

I look into the crowd. Stares prick me attempting to unravel my simple confidentiality. A sea of eyes with waves of clear blues, earthy browns, and affectionate hazels leaves me exhilarated and overwhelmed. What’s behind these eyes? What made them become our fans? What do they want out of life? The questions could flow infinitely…

As my fingers hold the final chord, I spot a pair of orbs, as dark and healthy as a thriving pine tree in the midst of autumn, in the third row. I quickly look away as if staring into those eyes is a bad thing—a voyeur in the window of her soul.

The clapping diminishes to echoes. I hand my guitar to one of the techs and disappear backstage. My fingers ache and my ears are strained, but the fans’ energy shoots through me like strayed electricity.


Incessant chatter and laughter fills the plush room filled with all the forbidden pleasures of life. Members of the crew and lucky fans with all-access passes cram together to celebrate a show well done.

It’s easy to socialize at this time of night. Everyone always wants to talk—as if we have some kind of lofty wisdom to share. I have nothing profound to say—it’s rare that I do. Still, anyone in this room can be mine; that is, if I want.

A woman stares at me with radiant powder blue eyes. Although I’m attracted to her, I sense she has nothing worthwhile to offer. She wants to use me as much as I want to use her. There’s no conquest, just another nick on our mental bedposts. I’m sure, at best, she’s only familiar with our overplayed songs on the radio. I turn away and forget about her.

Wandering about the room, compliments set a sickening bulge of invincibility through my stomach. Staying humble is difficult, especially after doing this for five years.

I find a comfortable couch and grab one of my guitars. I blankly strum a couple chords as eyes focus on me. The attention dissipates some of my loneliness.

“Let’s do a song,” Jeff calls from the other side of the room.

I don’t respond. Jeff’s holding a bottle of vodka in one hand and a cute blond with curious lavender eyes in the other. He stumbles across the room bumping into anyone in his shaky path. Bursts of excitement and encouragement bounce about the room.

I strum a couple minor chords and wonder about the future.

Jeff almost falls on me as he plops on the couch. His eyelids droop over bloodshot eyes. “Let’s do ‘Anybody’s Girl,'” he says.

I nod and play the opening bars. Everyone stares, at least those that still have the ability to focus their vision. A dark-eyed woman, one I’d consider ending the evening with, claps with the thrill of a high school cheerleader on speed. I couldn’t do anything with her—she’s too much a fan and not enough groupie.

Jeff comes in a couple beats too late, but I compensate for his mistake. He’s not this sloppy onstage, but after the first bottle is finished his counting ability rarely exceeds two.

Chad, the bass player, watches neutrally. The drummer, Bernie, is nowhere to be found, although we have pretty safe assumptions where he is and what he’s doing.

We struggle through the song and our manager, hiding behind sunglasses, beseeches everyone to cheer. He wears those ugly, hip sunglasses so often I wonder if he even has eyes.

I put down the guitar and light a cigarette. Eyes shift elsewhere. Jeff finds a small group of fans and makes himself the center of attention. Chad is getting cozy next to an ordinary-eyed girl with a couple extra pounds showing through her tight, crimson top. Chad loves those barely legal, heavier girls. We joke about it quite often.

A couple guys with shaggy hair and dull eyes approach me. They start a conversation about guitars and I respond politely, but remain uninterested. I scan the room while they talk gibberish about guitar effects and amplifiers. There’s a girl I’ve been casually observing with owlish eyes for an hour or so. I spot her snorting a line of coke near the barren deli trays. I stay away from girls who do coke; they’re usually trouble.

I excuse myself from the conversation; the guys hardly notice. They’re too busy arguing about tweaking knobs and adding reverb. I honestly couldn’t care less. Jeff is at the other end of the room ranting about the supposed symbolic meaning of our second album. Chad and the girl with the crimson top are gone. I swallow a couple shots of whiskey and embrace loneliness.

I make it a point never to look at the clock—I don’t want to think about all the sleep I’m missing. We’ve been touring for over a year and these constant late nights are taking a toll on my well being.

Bored with the shallow interactions rattling about the room, I follow a minor labyrinth to the outdoors. A couple bouncers nod at me as I excuse myself into the night.

The dark air blankets me. Above, a million tiny specks of light glow onto the desolate parking lot. I try to remember what city we’re in tonight. Wichita, I think. It’s so easy to lose track.

I light a cigarette and absorb silence while the whiskey massages my brain. Silence is becoming my favorite sound. No more loud music, no more people screaming. I could walk now–only turning back to see our bus getting smaller and smaller. This is all I’ve known, though. I can’t fathom becoming a civilian again.

There are only a few people left when I find my way back to the party. The remaining eyes are surrounded by bags of exhaustion and uselessness. A make up-saturated face with puffy eyes is staring at me as though I’m a precious stone. To her, I might be. I dismiss her courting winks feeling like I’m Fool’s Gold.

Jeff’s sitting on the couch staring at nothing—the alcohol’s finally caught up with him—while a sleazy green-eyed woman gazes lovingly at the rock star treasure she won for the night.

I sip a beer as the bouncers clear everyone out. Jeff’s green-eyed groupie leads him from the room into the thresholds of pleasure while I sign a couple autographs with illegible scribble and thank people for coming to the show.

Back on the bus, I find a small shaving mirror. I place it on the bed thinking about the show we played six hours ago and the sea of orbs consuming our every move. My hand disappears under the silk cloth of my underwear. I look into my eyes as the physical pleasure becomes more intense. This is what they see when I bring them here. These are my eyes presented to the world.


Kevin Gruzewski has had short works of fiction published in The Muse Apprentice Guild, The Green Tricycle, and The First Line. When not writing he is working with individuals with mental retardation and finding the most effective ways to tie his shoes. Kevin currently resides in the south suburbs of Chicago. E-mail: kgruz77[at]

Strike Zone

John A. Ward

I’m at bat and I’ll strike out. This is what I worry about at 10 years old. It’s not the same thing I worried about at 8 and 9. I’m not good at sports that require skill. It’s all right when I’m just playing in the cow field with the other guys and the bases are squares of cardboard. We never have the same team from day to day. We just play for fun. Nobody cares. But when my father makes a donation to a team, the Frank Smith All Stars, my life changes.

I don’t know who Frank Smith is. The All Stars are in last place all season. I have a uniform, number 37, my Boy Scout troop number. They play me in right field. That’s where they play the slugs. It’s much more serious now, because I’m on a regular team. I ooze self-defeat. Instead of going to the plate determined to get a hit, I go there not wanting to strike out. The coach knows this and tells me to draw a walk. I scrunch up. The strike zone is from the armpits to the knees. I try to shrink it down. This is a challenge. I have to discover the point of returning diminishment because if the umpire thinks I’m deliberately shrinking the strike zone, he estimates where it would be if I was standing up, stretching even, and he calls the pitches on the basis of that. It happens to me a few times until I wise up and figure just how much I can telescope my body. It helps that my uniform is too big and I can almost squat in it without him seeing that my knees are bent.

This works. I don’t have to worry about striking out. If a pitch comes down the pipe, I just have to foul it off. Fast balls are trouble because they can blow by me before I know it. That’s no problem on the first two pitches. I’m not allowed to swing on them. I get good at this. I can foul off anything near the strike zone if I pay attention. The opposing pitchers start walking me because the game will be called if we don’t get three innings in before dark. I don’t get a hit all year, but I get on base a lot. Then the coach puts in a substitute runner, because if I stay on first I’ll get picked off. I become a specialty player, a walker, just like they have place kickers in football. I don’t worry about striking out anymore. It’s a distinction to do what I do.

John A. Ward was born on Staten Island, attended Wagner College in the early ’60s, sold his first poem to Leatherneck magazine for $10, and became a biomedical scientist. He is now in San Antonio running, writing and living with his dance partner. E-mail: jaward[at]