Oops, It Happened Again

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Theryn “Beaver” Fleming

So, it happened again. After sending out the acceptance letters, we received an, “Oops, I’m sooooo sorry! I forgot to let you know that that piece has been published elsewhere.”


The Etiquette of Submitting… or Lack Thereof

My first emotion upon receiving an “oops!” letter is disappointment. A pretty natural reaction, I think. I mean, clearly we liked—in some cases, loved—the “oops!” piece; we chose it over 80 or so other submissions. We’ve spent time reading it, discussing it, deciding that this piece would make our final list. By the time we send out the acceptance letters, we’re attached to it.

Look, we’re not getting paid here; we do this because we love it. Editing Toasted Cheese is the most rewarding job I’ve ever had. I love seeing what comes into our submit box, sifting through it, finding the gems in the midst of the snark. Finding those gems—being able to say “I got to publish that! Wow.” is our reward.

When a writer rips away a submission at the last minute, that takes away a good deal of the satisfaction we get from doing this.

Policy Change

Inevitably, disappointment gives way to a second emotion: irritation. We’ve spent, no, wasted, a lot of time on the “oops!” piece. The first few times this happened, it was like, okay, we can deal. But more and more submissions are arriving marked as simultaneous submissions, withdrawals during submission periods are becoming a regular occurrence, and last-minute withdrawals are happening all too frequently.

So, as of March 1st, 2005, Toasted Cheese will no longer accept simultaneous submissions. We’ve hesitated to instate this policy, because we can’t really prevent people from sending simultaneous submissions. We can only request that you don’t, and let you know that if you do decide to flout the rules, your submissions will no longer be welcome at Toasted Cheese.

After March 1st, if you withdraw a submission because “it’s been accepted elsewhere,” any subsequent submissions you send to Toasted Cheese will be automatically disqualified.

Harsh? Perhaps. But we don’t think this little courtesy is too much too ask. We have set submission, reading, and notification periods—you know exactly when you are going to hear about the status of your submission. The longest you will wait to hear about the status of your submission, if you send at the very beginning of a submission period, is four months. Since most people don’t submit on Day One of a new submission period, in most cases, it will be a much shorter turnaround time.

A Philosophical Note

I understand that waiting is hard. And I get that it seems like the best strategy to speed up the process is the shotgun approach: send your story to every publication you can think of and see who bites first. After all, if you were applying for work or school, that’s what you’d do: send out multiple applications to as many potential employers or schools as possible.

Except… it’s not the same thing. The employer or the school is looking for anyone who fits certain criteria—so if you turn their offer down, it’s most cases not a big deal for them to turn to the next person on the list. You, on the other hand, really are stuck in limbo, waiting for a response. Since there’s only one of you and you can’t make up credentials you don’t have (without being unethical), you really are limited to applying to as many places as possible with the credentials you do have.

Writing isn’t like that. Editors aren’t looking for any poem about subject A or any story that has more than X number of words. What they’re looking for is something much more indefinable than that. But this much is true: each piece chosen is unique. There is no “going to the next thing on the list” when a submission is withdrawn—all there is is a hole. As for you, you’re not stuck simply waiting once you’ve sent a submission off. Since you’re a writer, it’s reasonable to assume that you have more than one story or poem in you.

When a writer withdraws a submission because they’ve been published elsewhere, I always check out the competition, so to speak. And sometimes I’m like, “Eh, okay” and sometimes I’m like “They chose this over TC?” But not once have I ever said, “Oh, wow, I can really see why they’d want to be published here rather than at Toasted Cheese.”

So the final emotion I feel, the one I’m inevitably stuck with, is sadness. Not for myself, but for the “oops!” writers. It’s not that I think Toasted Cheese is the be-all and end-all. There are lots of great e-zines and magazines. It’s just that when you submit everywhere and then jump at the first offer you get, you’re probably selling yourself short. There are a lot of crap-ass journals out there too—ones that’ll take anything and slap it up on their site. A little patience, and you could do so much better.

Forget shotguns. Think of submitting more like target practice. Aim your submission at a journal you’d be delighted to see it in. While you’re waiting to hear back about that submission, write something else. Find somewhere appropriate to submit it. Still waiting? Write something else. And so on and so on and so on.

Yeah, it never ends. But that’s what being a writer is about.


E-mail: beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com.

Did You Take These Women……

Best of the Boards
Trena N. Taylor

Steven swayed and trembled in his ill-fitting tuxedo as the bridesmaids stepped in time down the makeshift aisle, his wife Anneke at the rear of their procession. All the expenses had been paid and this renewal of their vows was a lavish wedding ceremony, if a bit unconventional. Steven hoped it would make up for the hasty nuptials they had rushed through seven years ago. He tried to swallow, but the ashen lump in his throat would not shift, would not permit him to gulp the air he needed to draw another breath.

What a coincidence…

It was Sandy. Sandy whom he hadn’t seen since his stag party. The night Steven had not been at all sure that he could go through with marrying the girl he’d thought was the one of his dreams. On that evening, the word “Forever” had seemed to echo in his head as the music overwhelmed and his buddies slapped him on the back, egging him on as this Sandy, this bridesmaid walking not ten feet before of him, had pulled him up by his belt buckle and led him through the small crowd and out the back of the pub. He shouldn’t have done it, shouldn’t have let her do it, should have stopped her, but, at the time, Steven had been having unrelenting doubts about whether or not he was a “Forever” kind of man.

This can’t be right…

But, behind her… yes, it was Bea! Smiling serenely as she always had in the office, even after their tryst during the Christmas party, on the boss’s desk. His face now flushed a shade of deep pink that is the plague of all redheads, and the thin sheen of perspiration that had been accumulating on his brow began to bead.

This ain’t right…

Steven feared he would fall to the floor as Carole’s face came into focus next. With eyes as smoky as he’d remembered, they always seemed to hint and promise and suggest they could give him everything he’d ever wanted, and he had listened to them and, for one very brief evening five years ago, he had believed.

When Angela next appeared in the processional, Steven began to think, or at least to hope, that perhaps he was dreaming all of this. Perhaps there really was an ocean’s waves crashing nearby. Angela had certainly been one of his bigger mistakes. He’d been confused at the time, not knowing if he was satisfied with the way his life was going, wanting to make a change, to cause an effect, to do something to shake things up a little—take charge of his own life again.

Think… Must… think…

The fifth bridesmaid was Mindy. Steven had known she was there long before he saw her face. She had worn Tea Rose back then and she wore it now, that overpowering scent of roses permeating the room, even though gardenias filled the studio. He felt a sinking in the pit of his stomach, as she drew near, briefly recalling how upset he had been with Anneke for meeting his old college roommate for yet another lunch. And how he had inflamed that anger over vodka mixers. Until, of course, he’d discovered that Anneke’s lunch dates had merely been a cover to plan a surprise party for him. How could he have thought it was a good idea to hook up with Mindy? He had never felt so low, afterwards.

Keep smiling…

As if in a trance, Steven swayed gently from the waist as he recognized the penultimate bridesmaid, Adrienne. Adrienne, who had been underfoot the entirety of that fateful summer, two years ago. Adrienne, who Anneke had constantly left alone with him, practically on a silver plate. It was an inevitability, really. At least that’s how Steven had seen it, at the time, what he’d told himself again and again, afterwards.

Don’t look at the cameras…

And now Linda, who had been like a breath of fresh air—was it already a year ago?—when things had become so strained and difficult between Steven and Anneke. She had been the release he’d thought he’d needed and deserved.

Leave… Go… Run…

The rush in his ears had grown steadily and he now recognized it for what it was, as Anneke came into focus before him. Initially mistaking it for cheering, he now realized it was not. It was jeering.

Too late…

And in that moment, as Anneke stood before him and opened her mouth to speak, Steven knew he was a fool to have agreed to renew their vows on the Springer Show.


Trena Taylor is a member of Zokutou, a writing group that formed during the 2002 NaNoWriMo in London. The group has produced several anthologies. She is currently editing her 2002 NaNo, “31,” with NaNoEdMo. Trena won bronze in the fall 2003 Three Cheers and a Tiger contest. E-mail: tntaylor101[at]hotmail.com.

The Broken Spoke

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Lindsay Vaughan

Winter in Dublin is a grim affair. Not since my childhood have snowflakes fallen so sticky and voluminous as to spread a great white blanket across the ground, birthing snowfamilies and forts overnight. Instead we are treated to months of rain and cold wind, but if I glance out the window at the Dublin Mountains nearby, I can sometimes see fogwrapped white peaks, and the urge to become a mountainman swells within my chest.

At the end of my road is a condemned house, previously converted into the neighbourhood pub and before that nobody knows anymore. Well, nobody except me, but I’m not sure if the stories are true. There were rumors akin to Boo Radley, that a ghostly figure roamed the halls at night and wakened the inhabitants from terrible dreams. This was why it was sold to Mr Kennedy at such a bargain price; apparently the family who lived there were so eager to leave that they practically gave it away.


I never knew why the pub was given its name. The Broken Spoke sounded more like a bicycle repair shop than a place for middle-aged men to gather round and hurl abuse at each other over pints of Guinness. My father had been going there every night for ten years before I joined him; I was eighteen and had only a few friends, whose parents disapproved of my company. This puzzled me at first because I was never one to get into much trouble, but I was a quiet kid and folks always seem to be suspicious of the quiet ones.

The Chinese girl arrived on my seventh night. She sat in a dark corner sipping pint after pint, none of which seemed to have any effect on her at all, and glanced at me curiously. Finally she rose and approached my stool; when she was standing at my side, she leant towards my face and stared directly into my eyes. “There’s a tree out back.”

“The old oak?”


“What about it?”

“It whispers sometimes…”

“It’s a tree.”

“Come and I’ll show you.”

As she took my right hand I relieved my left of its pint, and followed her through various corridors to the back garden. It was small and overgrown; in all the pub’s years of operation a gardener had never been hired, and an ominous oak took up almost the entire space. Its old cracked roots were only partly submerged in earth, so it was a precarious activity to walk anywhere other than the patio nearest the door. Nevertheless, she pulled me along those roots until we were standing at the base of the trunk, beneath a thick canopy of swaying leaves and branches.

“If you wait patiently, eventually you will hear it.” She closed her eyes, pivoting slightly as if she were an antenna trying to tune into the correct station.

Turning my gaze away from her for a moment, I glanced back towards the pub and noticed two men in black suits seated on the patio, watching us attentively. It struck me then that she might be in cahoots with them, hired as a lovely siren to lure young boys into seclusion for the purpose of abduction. Just as I was about to apologize, make up some excuse about work that needed doing, and do a runner back to the Spoke, I heard something that clenched my guts so tightly with nerves that I was unable to move from my spot.

“Do you hear that?” Her eyes were open now, searching mine for validation.


Relief washed over her face. “Nobody believes me. Listen.”

As ridiculous as it undoubtedly sounds, the noise seemed to be emanating from within the trunk of the tree. I considered the possibility that the tree was hollow and that this was another aspect of some trick she was playing on me, but the voice I was hearing sounded too sincerely desperate to be contrived, although I was unable to understand a word.

“It’s Mandarin,” she said, as if reading my mind. “I showed some other people, but they thought I was doing it, that I have some sort of strange ventriloquist skill.”

“What is the voice saying?”

“It’s a boy. He’s saying ‘They broke my legs; they broke my arms; they broke my neck; they broke me all over.'”

“Oh my God,” was all I could muster to mutter; I felt as though my insides were sliding out of my body, and I wanted to be home, asleep in my bed, away from this girl. I no longer cared whether she was trying to trick me or not.

Suddenly I heard the unmistakeable sound of heavy boots plodding towards me, snapping twigs and stumbling over roots along the way. The two men were approaching, and one glance at the girl’s face told me she was just as surprised as I was. I grabbed her arm and skirted around them towards the back entrance of the pub, but the corridor within was crowded and the more I pushed against the door the more the drunken men inside seemed to push back. There was only one other way out of the garden, and that was over the hedges at the side of the patio. There was a hole at the bottom of a bush just big enough for her to crawl through, but I had to scramble over the top of it like some escaped prisoner. I almost landed on her but she sprinted around the side of the building and I followed, not stopping to glance behind me. When I’d made it safely inside the Broken Spoke again, she was nowhere to be found, and a quick glance out the window showed the two men walking slowly and quietly away down the path. Just before disappearing around the corner one of them turned and made eye contact with me through the glass, with an expression devoid of life or interest.


At my present age, and with all of my history spread out before the neighbourhood like so much freshly-washed linen for airing, and with the fate of the Broken Spoke being what it was, my stories are not welcome in the realms of sanity and non-fiction. It is long past the time when vague interest was expressed; when I received a sympathetic smile or nod of the head; when I was actively searching for an answer to this riddle. Nobody but I saw the girl or the black suits that night, and the madness that eventually drove Mr Kennedy to cut down the giant oak and split for the west was in no way related to my own experience. At least, that is what they told me.

E-mail: lindsaymv[at]gmail.com.

Winter’s Ghost

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Robin Hillard

The Kellys lived in the house at the end of the street, that Jamie and I called “the last house in town,” to remind ourselves that we were stuck in the bush. The paved road stopped after the Kellys’ house, but we had to drive on, over a bumpy dirt track. Every time we passed the Kellys’ place, with its lawn and swimming pool, I wished we could stop there.

All we had was a weatherboard cottage with peeling paint. When Mum saw it she burst into tears, but George told her it was cheap. “We won’t be here for long,” he said. At first, as we reached the end of the street, he would wave at the Kellys’ house: “That’ll be us one day.”

By December the promises had stopped, and we were sweating through the Australian summer, still stuck in the bush with the dust and the flies. The Kellys’ house seemed like the beginning of civilization when we drove into town, and the end of everything on the way home, but if George said anything at all, it was a reminder not to get involved with “nosy neighbours.”

I did not like Australia and I did not like George.

We had known him back in London. When Dad disappeared he moved in with Mum, and the next thing we knew he was dragging us out here. “The sun always shines in Ozzie-land,” he said. “You’ll get a bit of colour in your cheeks.”

But we arrived in August, winter on this side of the world, and whatever George might have said about the weather, the Gippsland winter was cold.

He just laughed at our grizzles and told Jamie to toughen up. When my brother started to cough, Mum went to Vinnies and got him a jacket and bought a couple of sweaters for me. Vinnies. St. Vincent de Paul. They sell secondhand clothes for charity and George was so tight that Mum did all her shopping there: clothes, furniture, and even our school uniforms.

“Gotta be careful of the dosh,” George said, when she complained. We even had ratty old secondhand beds with stained mattresses.

Now, in the summer heat, he sat huddled on the veranda looking silly in his thick coat. He said he was cold. In December! In Australia!

“I bet it’s a ghost,” Jamie whispered, “rubbing fingers up his spine.”

The ghost of London’s winter, chasing him across the world!

“The ghost of all the nasty things he’s done,” I whispered back.

Jamie giggled, but I pressed my hand against his mouth in case George heard. We didn’t want to make him mad.

I pulled my brother inside. If George was in one of his moods we’d better keep out of the way. The sitting room was the coolest place in the house, so I turned on the fan and sprawled out on the floor. We were almost comfortable till George stormed in and switched off the fan. “It’s like a bloody freezer here!”

I thought of a freezer. A big one, like the Kellys had. Soon after we arrived, Di Kelly invited me to her place after school; she went to this huge freezer and pulled out two ice creams with the kind of wrappings they have in the shop. George was really mad when I got home, and told me to keep away from “that toffee-nosed town crowd,” so I never went to the Kellys’ house again, but as I sweated under our tin roof I wished I could jump into their pool.

George was still going on about the cold.

“You better toughen up,” Jamie said, giggling. The stupid kid. George fetched him such a swipe he ended up on the floor, screaming.

George would have hit him again, but Mum burst out of the bedroom and grabbed his arm. “The neighbours!”

That was stupid too. There was no one closer than the Kellys’ house.

It stopped George though. Which was something to remember. In Australia he was scared of the neighbours, and maybe when he hit us we should yell real loud. Jamie had the sense to scuttle outside, I wanted to follow, but with George between me and the door I had to stay where I was. And hope he would not notice me.

He headed for the bedroom, but was out again before I could move.

“What the flakin’ hell is this?” he was waving a receipt. It must have fallen from Mum’s bag. “Five hundred dollars for a flakin’ dress! You stupid cow!”

“I didn’t think y-you’d mind”

“Of course I flakin’ mind. That’s why we’re stuck in this flakin’ place—your idiot husband flashed his money around. You know what happened to him.”

Did she? Did Mum know why Dad left? We were used to him going away, but usually after a policeman came to the house. This time he just disappeared.

Mum muttered something that made George really mad. He dragged her into the bedroom, threw her down on the floor and started dragging clothes out of all the drawers.

Mum was crying and he slammed the window down. “D’you want the whole town listening in?”

She shut up.

Then he seemed to calm down. He was talking slowly, with his posh voice. “I am a junior sales manager of Argyle Electrics, and we live on my wages. That’s all the money we’ve got. And you want to swan about a flash dress? How much more did you spend? Eh?”

He shook her and, when she did not speak, answered for her in a high squeaky voice. “Just going into town, George. Just a little shopping, George.” Then, as his own horrible self, “What’s wrong with the dresses you’ve got? Your old clothes not good enough eh?” There was a thump as he knocked her onto the floor. “I’ve had told you a hundred times to keep your head down. Just like I told your Roger. You stupid bitch.”

He stormed out and headed back to the veranda where he huddled in a patch of sun.

I turned on the fan, and then went into the bedroom where Mum was still on the floor. Crying.

“What did happen to Dad?”

“Shh.” She whispered. Acting really scared. “Roger made George mad. He was so stupid.”

“I bet it was the money.” I was whispering too. I remembered how Dad had come home with a lot of new stuff, and Mum had tried to get it out of sight. I don’t know what it had to do with George, but when Mum saw him coming she sent me to Gran’s place with Jamie. When we came back Dad was gone.

Mum was burning hot from crying so I opened the window to get a bit of breeze.

I could hear music coming down the track; the Kellys must be having a party. Maybe later they would light the barbecue. That’s what Australians do when they have visitors, everyone sits on the lawn and they do their cooking outside. Last time they had what Mum called a “spit,” and roasted half a sheep. There was a bit of a breeze and, like the music this afternoon, the smell of their dinner came right down the track. It made George mad. He did not mind a bit of steak himself, but he said the smell of burning made him sick.

This time I could not smell a barbecue but George clumped inside, complaining, and slammed the front door shut. “Doesn’t anyone use their kitchen in this flakin’ place?”

Mum’s eyes were red from crying and she turned her face away, but George did not notice.

“It’s so flakin’ cold,” he said.

“Maybe it’s the ghost of last winter.” Mum’s window opens onto the veranda and she must have heard us talking about ghosts, but I wished she would shut up. She would only make George mad.

“You flakin’ stupid cow,” he said, and I thought he was going to hit her again. “That’s a flakin’ stupid thing to say.” Then, to me, “I don’t know why I brought you lot along. I thought your Mum had class, but look at her.”

That wasn’t fair. Mum didn’t have money for clothes, or make up, or for getting her hair done, so how could she look like the girls in the shop, the ones who worked with George? Was that why she wanted a new dress?

As suddenly as it started, George’s shivering stopped, and he was sweating like everyone else, and cursing the heat.

I thought about one of the shop girls. Beverly. The one George said had class. Was she the reason he got mad at Mum?

When we landed in Melbourne he was using his nice voice.

“Just hold off a little, luv,” he begged at first, when she wanted to buy us some clothes. “Let things settle down. Then we’ll take our loot and find somewhere nice. I promise.”

“Loot.” That always made trouble for Dad. It was never enough to get us “somewhere nice” and it always brought the police around. I hoped George had his loot with him, and that the Australian police would drive down the track, stop outside our gate and come bursting in to look for it. Then they would take George away.

It was not much good wishing. George was always reminding Mum how much it cost to bring us to Australia “with all the flakin’ papers.” There would not be much loot left for the police to find.

He was shivering again, and from the way he talked you’d think it was Mum’s fault. Only decent thing about the move, he said, was the climate. Missing the flakin’ cold—and here it was: “Like the ghost of flakin’ winter.”

There, he said it himself. Maybe it was a ghost, a bit of London winter coming to get him—for whatever he did before we came away.

Maybe it’s Dad’s ghost. I pushed that thought down quickly, in case he read my mind.

In December even the nights were hot, and I woke in a puddle of sweat. Someone was screaming. George.

I thought he was fighting with Mum, till I heard him shout at Dad. “Roger, y’ flaking idiot—do y’ want to bring the police around?” Then, as if he got an answer from the empty room: “Suppose the money’s marked? Did y’ think about that?” and talking more softly: “O.K. old chap, come on. Just a little drive, eh.” Yelling again: “Y’ want me to blast y’ away, y’ flakehead. Y’ll flakin’ well come.”

Jamie was awake. I climbed into his bed and held him tight, so he would not make any noise.

We heard George getting up, still yelling about a flakin’ burning car, and watched through the window as he rushed down the track. Mum went after him.

Jamie and I followed them.

George headed for the town screaming about “flakin’ Roger—flakin’ burning.”

He got as far as the Kellys’ place. Mr. Kelly came out and stood in front of him. He said something quietly, took George’s arm and walked him home. Then he talked to Mum, who pretended she had just got out of bed. Jamie and I kept out of sight.

I didn’t know want to face the kids at school. Everyone thought George was our Dad, and here he was yelling in the street like a drunk with the horrors.

But Di Kelly didn’t laugh at me, and she didn’t crawl around, pretend friendly, like people do when they smell a good story. I don’t think she told the others, because no one stared at me or acted strange. It was as if nothing had happened the night before.

But when I got home I saw the Kellys’ car, and as I went inside I heard Mrs. Kelly talking about a thing she called AA. Alcoholics Anonymous. “It made such a difference to Jack.” Jack? Was that Mr. Kelly?

I could not see George joining it, this “Alcoholics Anonymous,” and I wished Mrs. Kelly would go away—before he came back. He might not yell at her, but he would be mad at Mum. He’d say she was getting mixed up with the neighbours. Which he thought was the worst thing we could do. Even worse than buying new clothes.

“You don’t want them nosing around,” he said once, as we passed the Kellys’ house.

Mum must have been feeling perky because she spoke up, and said she had nothing to hide. “It’s not as if I robbed a bank.”

That was the first time he hit her. He gave a sideways swipe and we nearly crashed into a tree.

“It isn’t the drink,” Mum was saying now, as I pulled Jamie away from the house.

We knew it wasn’t the drink. There was something wrong with George’s head, something that made him go freezing cold on a hot day, and sent him screaming down the track, yelling at Dad.

Maybe it was a ghost. The ghost of a London winter, chasing him across the world.

“Dad’s dead,” Jamie said suddenly. “Dad’s dead in London and we’re here. We’re going to be here forever and ever.” He started to cry. “I bet George killed Dad. I bet he burned Dad in the car. That’s what he was yelling about.”

It made sense. Too much sense. I had to get Jamie away before George came back.

We ran down the track to where the town begins. To the house at the end of the street. The Kellys’ house.

“Dad’s dead,” Jamie shouted as we burst through the open front door. Mr. Kelly must have thought we meant George because he grabbed his car keys and rushed out. But Mrs. Kelly had the car.

“She’s at our place,” I said, trying to pull him down the track. “And George is going to be mad.”

“George killed our Dad,” Jamie was yelling and crying as he tugged at Mr. Kelly’s other hand.

That was when George came by, in our old car. He must have seen us with Mr. Kelly but he didn’t stop. He headed down the track in a cloud of dust with Mr. Kelly rushing after him.

“Oh. Oh. Oh.” Jamie screamed the number he had learned at school. Call 000 to get the Australian police. Our class had learned it too, but I never thought I would make an emergency call. Maybe, if I used the Kellys’ phone, George wouldn’t know it was me.

You wouldn’t believe how quickly the police came, with flashing lights and sirens, right past the Kellys’ place and down the track.

By the time we got back to our house, the police were outside with a megaphone, and George was screaming through the window. He had an arm around Mum and was yelling about a knife. We could hear Mr. Kelly’s deep voice, telling everybody to keep calm.

One of the police kept George talking while the others rushed through the front door. Then someone grabbed him from behind and we couldn’t see anything till they came outside, two policemen holding George, and Mr. Kelly following with his wife and Mum.

I don’t think they found any loot, but the police wanted to know how Dad disappeared and they gave Mum something called “witness protection” which meant she had to fly back to London and go to court.

That is why Jamie and I are still in Australia, staying with the Kellys until Mum comes back. Now, after we’ve been into town, we can stop at the house at the end of the street. And every afternoon, as we jump into the pool, I think of George shivering on the hottest days, and the ghost of a London winter that followed him across the world.


E-mail: robinhillard[at]ozemail.com.au.

Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Barbara Bergan

The Razzle-Dazzle’s chains clang against its pole, and the merry-go-round groans to a stop as the last of its young passengers jumps to the ground. Amidst shouts and laughter, there is a clatter of footsteps along the sidewalk that leads from the playground of the old city park out to the busy street.

Through missing front teeth, a whistle-y voiced six-year-old calls out, “Let’s play hide and seek.”

The others gather round the girl. Laughing, tugging, as children do, they ask, “Who will be it?”

The girl’s brother, older than the others, answers, “I will.”

The older boy counts, and the children scatter. Some duck behind the brown-leaved oaks that tower above small, twisted cherry trees whose bare branches seem to reach out and grab at them. Others clamber over the large rocks that juxtapose themselves at the top of the hill. One, clutching a worn teddy bear, hides behind the stone wall that marks the park’s entrance.

“Apples, peaches, pumpkin pie! Who’s not ready? Holler I!”

The boy begins his search. His sister runs to the green-painted park bench designated “home,” and calls out with glee. The boy, a good sport, allows most of the others to reach “home” untouched, then tags one—his friend. As the last rosy tinges of sunlight seep into the darkening sky, street lamps blink, then illuminate the scene with their steady glow. The boy calls an end to the game; the children cross the street, and head in different directions home.

Dark clouds scuttle across the moonlit sky. The wind at their backs, the boy hurries his sister along as they approach the house at the end of the road. Beyond the house lies the path that is their shortcut home.

The boy and girl stop short at the iron-fenced lot where a stately Victorian towers above the tangle of stalks and vines and drooping branches that had once transfixed passersby with its fragrant blooms and bountiful harvests. In another time, these grounds had provided pink-tinged roses for a crystal bowl that now sits empty on the Chippendale hall table, aromatic lavender to be dried and tied into lace-trimmed sachets and placed between fine linens, baskets of apples and ripened peaches, and immense orange pumpkins whose prickly vines always outran their allotted space in the well-tended vegetable garden. Now all is brambles and weeds… except for the old, gnarled apple tree which stands near the back gate, its few remaining fruits aglow in the moonlight.

“Look! There are still apples on the tree. Let’s pick some,” says the girl.

“No,” says her brother. “We’d better get home.”

Inside the darkened house, trembling fingers lift the edge of a dingy white curtain; rheumy eyes peer from the window. The old man spots the children outside the gate. A large black and white cat at his heels, the man shuffles across the kitchen floor, turns on the outside light, and opens the backdoor. The cat darts outside.

“It’s Old Man Quimby,” whispers the boy. “Run!” He grabs his sister’s hand and pulls her along.

“Wait! My shoe’s untied.” She pulls her hand free, and bends to tie her shoe; instead, she works the lace into a knot.

“Here. Let me do it.” Impatiently, the girl’s brother pushes her hand aside and tugs at the knotted lace.

The back door slams. The boy pushes his sister down behind the vine-covered iron fence, and claps his hand over her mouth. “Hush,” he warns.

The frightened girl closes her eyes and clings to her brother’s jacket as he struggles with her shoelace. Finally the knot is undone and the shoe tied; the children inch their way along the fence. From the other side, there is a sharp hiss; green eyes glow between the open fence rails. The cat arches its back menacingly, reaches its claw-tipped paw through the opening, and draws blood. The girl screams. She and her brother race toward the path and home.

Breathless, their hearts pounding, the wide-eyed children slam the front door behind them and lean against it. Their father, dividing his attention between the evening paper and the small, round black-and-white screen from which Douglas Edwards reports the news, looks in their direction and asks, “What’s the matter with you two?”

Their mother appears in the kitchen doorway. She wipes her hands on her apron as her eyes narrow. “You didn’t take the short cut home, did you? You know I don’t want you on that path after dark.”

The boy nudges his sister. “No, Mama, we came the long way.”

“Well, go wash up for supper.”

As meatloaf and mashed potatoes are heaped onto her plate, the girl asks about the old man. “Why doesn’t Mr. Quimby like anyone, Daddy?”

“Well, I don’t rightly know. Hiram Quimby is a strange one, the last of his family. I remember your granddad talking about him. How, even when he was a boy, he had strange ways… especially after his little sister disappeared. The other youngsters didn’t bother with him much except to tease him and play tricks on him.” The girl’s father looks across the table. “Children can be cruel sometimes; I hope that you and your brother have never purposely hurt another.”

The boy gives his sister a warning look, and she lowers her eyes. She will not be a tattletale, will not tell how, just days before, her brother and his friend had taunted the old man by ringing his doorbell and running away.

Supper over, his homework done, the boy wheedles his father into letting him and his sister watch just a bit of Uncle Miltie before bedtime. The family gathers around the new television set, but his sister is asleep before Berle makes his first call for “Makeup!”

Later that night, tucked in her bed, the girl awakens and reaches for her teddy bear. It is not there. She remembers her brother pulling her along; sees her precious bear lying in the weeds outside the iron fence. She must rescue it! Quickly, she dresses, then tiptoes down the stairs. The closet door squeaks as she reaches inside and pulls down her coat. She hesitates, looks back toward the stairs, then quietly lets herself out the front door.

A frosty November moon lights the girl’s way across the street. She turns onto the tree-lined path, then stops. Knees shaking, she thinks of turning back, but the need to rescue the beloved bear overcomes her fear. She runs toward the house that looms large at the end of the road, then cautiously makes her way along the fence to the spot where she and her brother hid. The teddy bear is not there. The cat! It must have dragged her bear inside the fence. She opens the rusty gate and creeps into the overgrown garden.


The girl awakens on a canopied bed in a dimly lit room. The last thing she remembers is wondering how she would ever find her bear; now it lies beside her on a crochet-trimmed pillowcase that smells of lavender. She sits up and looks around. On the bedside table is a small, gilt-framed photograph of her standing beside her brother. The girl doesn’t remember when the photograph was taken.

The walls of the room are papered in trellised roses and moonbeams dance through lace curtains at the windows. Scattered about the room are other bears: stiff, old-fashioned teddy bears with silky mohair coats and long arms and legs. A porcelain-faced doll with a startled expression peeks at the girl from a child-sized wicker baby buggy as, atop a book-filled shelf, a music box plays.

The girl’s eyes travel across the room to an open wardrobe. It displays an assortment of little girl’s dresses. One of the dresses has a wide, lace-trimmed collar and a satin sash; it is the dress worn in the photograph. The girl should be frightened, but she is not. Somehow she feels at home in this room. She cuddles her teddy bear close and is lulled to sleep by the last faltering notes of the music box lullaby.

The old man smiles as he totters up the stairs. He carries a silver tray. Quietly, so as not to disturb the sleeping girl, he opens the bedroom door. He sets the tray of milk and cookies on the bedside table, and from his pocket adds a shiny red apple.

As he makes his way back downstairs, Hiram Quimby hears the voices—the same voices that had once tormented him. “Hiding here, hiding there… hiding everywhere. We are here, you are there… we are everywhere.” No matter. His little sister is home again… and safe.


Barbara Bergan lives with her husband in northern Delaware. Though she has entertained herself with the stories in her head since childhood, only since her own children “left the nest” has she been able to devote her time to the writing of those stories. Barbara has previously been published in Toasted Cheese and Retrozine, and is currently at work on a collection of moon-inspired short stories. E-mail: bjbergan[at]verizon.net.


Macfisto’s Pick
John A. Ward

I press the lid onto my Styrofoam coffee cup. The fit is critical. Get it right or dribble coffee all the way down the hall.

“That’s a poison frog,” he is talking about my tie.

“Yes, a poison dart frog,” I say.

“I’ve seen them.”


“In Guatemala.” He looks like the dust jacket photos I’ve seen of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Marquez is from Colombia, but I have a notion that everyone in South and Central America looks like him. I know it isn’t true. Daniel Ortega looked nothing like him.

“You lived in Guatemala?”

“Yes, I helped a biologist collect frogs and snakes.”

“You were a graduate student, or a technician?”

“No, guerilla commander.”

“I’ve heard that the frogs are disappearing, becoming extinct.”

“Yes, the nights are getting quiet. They used to be filled with their peeping, but it’s not because we collected them.”

“No, I think it’s parasites or pollutants.”

“It’s not just the frogs. The rain forests are disappearing. In another fifty years, the only frogs will be the ones on your tie.”

“I’m 62. I’ll be dead before then.”

“Men can live to be 120 years. You’ll be only 112 then.”

“Not me, men in my family don’t live that long.”

“It’s true. You have to choose your ancestors carefully.”

“Of course, none of them died of natural causes, so who knows. What about you?”

“Oh, I’m already dead.”

“Really! How did you die?”

“Poison arrow.”

“You look good for a dead man. How do you manage that?”

“Push ups and wheat germ, and I have unfinished business.”


“I’m looking for the man who took the frogs.”

“It’s not me. This tie was a gift.”

“I believe you. You have an honest face.” He pushed a hollowed reed across the table to me. “Take this.”

“What is it?”

“A whistle. It makes the sound of the poison dart frog. If you find the man who took them, blow it and I’ll come.”

I pick it up and put it in my pocket. He turns, walks out into the parking lot and disappears among the cars.

Coffee drips all over me on my way back to the office. When I check the lip of the cup, it’s defective, crushed and bent. I don’t know if I did it, or if it was like that when I got it.


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: jaward04[at]sbcglobal.net.


Bellman’s Pick
H.H. Morris

Peter Winston studied three cartons of books. Each was marked four dollars for the contents, no individual sales made. The books at the top of one looked more tempting than those crowning the others.

“Before you select the middle box,” a female said, “I’ll tell you that the one on the left contains over a dozen Civil War books.”

He turned to look at the woman behind him. Around 35, she showed mileage on her face. Her aquiline nose and jet black, long hair made him think her Mediterranean, even though her complexion was like ivory. She was short, barely over five feet tall, and he thought she might be slightly dumpy. He couldn’t tell from the way she was dressed. Most of the women at the flea market wore jeans. She had on a shapeless sweater atop a dress that hung to the ground. She reminded him of a bag lady without her bag.

“How do you know?” he asked her.

“It’s my job.”

“Your job is to know that I’m a Civil War nut?”

“That, too. I meant that it was my job to know what’s being sold in my name.”

“Your name?”

“Asis,” she said.

Her Giaconda smile made her seem even more mysterious. Was da Vinci’s model an Italian bag lady?

“As is,” he said, splitting it into two words.

“None other. The goddess Asis, who presides over yard sales, flea markets, auction galleries, and used car lots has decided that today you, Peter Winston, receive an opportunity to bless my name.” She jammed the two words back together.

The woman joked. She was a former student or a friend of his ex-wife, one who’d heard the lady complain about being married to a bibliophile who was a Civil War nut. Peter had never realized how much his ex hated battlefields until he discovered that the only item of clothing she’d left behind was a souvenir T-shirt that identified her as a Civil War nut’s wife.

“Marriage is a flea market,” Asis said. “If the ancients had been wise, they’d have assigned me the nuptial couch.”

He picked up the box she recommended, put down four singles, and took it to his car. He drove eight miles to his home, a handyman’s delight he’d purchased as is with his half of the sale of the conjugal abode, and lugged his purchase into the kitchen. He turned the coffeemaker on, waited impatiently while it slowly warmed to slightly above room temperature, and sat at the table, his chair turned to one side, the box at his feet.

The books on the top were historical novels from the middle of the twentieth century, a few with tawdry dust jackets showing bosoms about to spill out of gowns. Then, as he dug into the contents, he discovered an apparently unread, boxed set of Shelby Foote’s three-volume history of the Civil War. There were also four books from the Time-Life series, three of which he didn’t own. In addition, there was a copy of Mary Boykin Chestnut’s Diary from Dixie. He also found an old fantasy paperback entitled The Incompleat Enchanter and a pair of early Asimov novels. He wondered if he should go back and buy the other two boxes.

“No,” said Asis.

He hadn’t felt a breeze caused by either door opening. In his handyman’s delight, an open door brought a Force 2 gale. She stood on the other side of the box.

“Should I pour you a libation?” he asked.

“This floor won’t register another libation.”

His ex had nagged about his slovenly housekeeping. Housework had become his specialty because he had the low-paying teaching job while she was an executive on the fast track.

“Too fast for kids,” Asis said. “I don’t nag. I point out the obvious. If you feel like a host, pour me a cup of that under-heated coffee. There’s a yard sale two blocks from here where you can get a coffeemaker—same model, but not about to expire—for seven dollars. Don’t go there now. You’ll pay three times as much. Wait until around four. Evening will be near enough that panic will set in. Offer seven, neither more nor less.”

“Yes, goddess.”

“Call me Asis. I’ve never stood much on ceremony. That’s why so many people defile my name with shoddy deals. I wanted you to stick it to that seller today. He’s cheated people for years. If you go to the Read and Gulp Used Books and Coffee Emporium with those novels, the owner will give you a quarter apiece, the same price he pays the public library when it cleans its shelves. Since there are 23 you don’t want to read, your profit from two transactions will be $1.75 and the value of the books you keep. Next, go to the left shop wall and to the last set of shelves before you reach the back. On the fourth shelf up, you’ll find four historical novels from the same era as those you’re selling. Don’t worry about titles or authors. You’ll recognize them because they have flood damage. There are no dust jackets. The covers and pages are warped and show mud stains. They cost 50 cents apiece. Buy them. Then wait in your car for me. I’ll go to a thrift shop down the street from the Read and Gulp to buy clothing for our dinner date tonight.”

“Our dinner date?”

“Make a good meal my libation, Peter. If I look like an Italian bag lady, we’ll get thrown out of the fancy restaurant you’ll be ready to take me to by sunset.”

She again gave him her Giaconda smile.


Asis carried two bulging shopping bags.

“I bought everything as is,” she said, laughing softly. “Did you examine your books?”


“Why not?”

Peter said, “I don’t know what to look for. With you around, though, I’m on a roll.”

“Not much faith, but then I’m not much of a goddess. You can fix us a couple of sandwiches while I change into jeans so I’ll look properly suburban at the yard sale.”

There was an explanation for what occurred. Peter had no idea what it was, but he believed that all phenomena could, with sufficient knowledge, be thoroughly analyzed.

“Try random occurrence,” Asis said. “Am I a free agent, or are the gods and goddesses themselves subject to Fortune’s whims? Take your pick.”

She went into the bathroom while he made sandwiches. When she came out, she wore jeans and a tight sweater. She hadn’t wasted time hunting for a bra.

“Take me as is or don’t take me at all,” she reminded him. “There are modern garments and customs I find ridiculous. I refuse to conform.”

“Sorry,” he said. “It’s your business.”

“Do you have a razor knife?”


“Get it when we’ve finished the sandwiches.”

He’d never figure her out. If he did, she’d change in order to outfox him. As a goddess, she saw into his mind. She’d told him what they’d buy at the yard sale, but he’d been required to take her on faith—or, if he were honest, on a gamble.

“You’ll know what as is means when I get through with you,” the goddess said.

Peter got the knife. She picked up the first book and opened the front cover. When she pointed it out, he saw where the inner paper had been cut and then glued back down. He carefully traced the faint line with the sharp blade. He peeled the stained paper back and saw green paper. There were two bills—$100 and $50. Four front covers, four back. Eight times $150 is $1200. The bills were old and slightly worn, but legal tender. He didn’t need to declare these on his next 1040.

“Of course not,” Asis said. “Who sold you this handyman’s delight?”

“A realtor named Edgar Frankel. He’s the only person in the area who handles homes in the price range I could afford.”

“You also take divorce as is. Now that you’re temporarily under my protection, I’ll make Mr. Frankel regret selling this slum in my name. Do you ever play the lottery?”

“No,” he said. “I did for a while. It’s blind luck.”

“Don’t call my colleague blind. She has a vision problem, but can see dimly.”


“Luck dislikes all lotteries except the really big ones. Then she tells one of her favorites which numbers to pick and fixes the drawing. The instant games drive Luck crazy. You buy the tickets as is.”

Peter caught it. Asis again smiled.

She said, “We have some time to kill before four. I noticed a convenience store and a liquor store near here. Do you patronize either?”

“The convenience store occasionally. Once at the liquor store. I know a place where I can get beer and bourbon cheaper.”

“Good. No need for you to get reported to the tax snoops.” The convenience store featured eight different instant games. Asis scowled at the rolls of tickets, then told him to buy five of the third from the right. He did as she commanded and used a dime to scratch off the film that covered the numbers. The second one was a two dollar winner, the fourth a $50 winner. He collected his money and they went to his car.

“If you know which ticket…” he began.

“Always buy at least one more than you need to. That makes the suckers think it was Luck instead of Asis beside you.”

The liquor store had nine different games. Asis again squinted and scowled and finally told him to buy one from the roll in the middle of the group. It was worth $500, also paid in cash.

“I hope you hang around,” he told her. “There’s an expensive restaurant about 20 miles north. You don’t need reservations of an evening. In fact, you can’t make them.”

“Remember, I can’t drive. A drunken crash won’t hurt me, but it can kill you.”

“I’ll celebrate within the limits of sobriety as defined by the state,” he assured her.

“Good. I’ll get silly drunk. A new man always makes me overindulge in praise of Bacchus. Now let’s go get that coffeemaker as is—seven dollars, neither more nor less.”


The maitre d’ frowned to show that the establishment’s dignity had been seriously wounded. A giggling, wobbly Asis clung to Peter’s arm on the way out. Their bar bill had almost matched the food tab. Peter had drunk three glasses of wine. The waitress had told them to be sure and come back, Peter’s hefty cash tip more than compensating for his raucous date. The dress Asis had selected at the thrift shop was the woman’s equivalent of a dark suit—a black number designed to fall almost to the wearer’s knees and fit tightly across the torso. She’d chosen one at least two sizes too small, however. Couple that with her dislike of lingerie of any kind, hose included, and her unwillingness to let a razor touch her legs and a scandalous sight ensued. Actually, only the female patrons were scandalized. The men enjoyed Asis’s two trips to the ladies’ room.

Peter suspected the only way the maitre d’ liked pretty females was embalmed.

He got Asis into the car and didn’t tell her to buckle up. She was a goddess. Accept her as is. After all, she appeared to accept him. She wasn’t as dumpy as he’d thought. She was short and heavier than fashion gurus thought a woman of her height should be. But she was feminine and appealing.

“I like your thoughts, Peter,” she said. “As is for Asis.”

About halfway to his house they passed a sign for a discount liquor store.

“Do you shop here, Peter?” she asked.


“Pull in. Lottery time again.”

Drunk, she wasn’t careful. Besides, they were in a strange county. They won some and lost little as she worked her way back and forth in the ten rolls of tickets on display. When they finally quit, Peter had invested $400 and come out $1700 ahead. Asis immediately spent almost $300 on booze.

As he drove home, she said, “I’m a cheap date, Peter.”

“No, Asis, you’re a profitable one.”

“You may adore me. Don’t fall in love with me.”

“I’ll do my best to avoid it,” he promised. “It wasn’t long ago that I swore I’ll never fall in love again.”

“The best way to avoid Love’s arrows is to stay away from the District of Columbia and its suburbs. Eros is working a joint gig with Eris there this month. Love and Discord—they wreck two senators a week and people think it’s Washington business as usual.”

He lugged the liquor inside. Asis watched him store it, grabbing the bourbon to mix him a hefty highball.

“You earned this, Peter,” she said. “I’ll get drunker and show you how Aphrodite’s priestesses danced in praise of the goddess while arousing male worshipers. I’m not much of a dancer, though.” “I’ll take your dancing as is, Asis.”


Peter taught his classes at the community college—five mornings per week, two early afternoons, Wednesday nights. The rest of his energies went into forays into liquor stores and convenience stores with Asis and weekend trips to yard sales, flea markets, and auctions. The weather warmed. Asis switched to shorts, her hairy legs drawing stares that Peter could literally feel in the air. Her powers were such that if those disapproving offended her they’d wind up making bad deals.

Don’t fall in love with me, she’d warned. He barely obeyed. Each time they embraced, every morning he awakened with her warmth beside him, he was grateful for one more day with Asis. He had encountered the relevant myths as a graduate student—Eos and her lover Tithonus, the eternal grasshopper; Petronius’s Sybil of Cumae, who begged to die because Apollo had given her eternal life without youth. Aphrodite looked out for Anchises only because of Aeneas. Nothing good except pleasure came of a goddess loving a man.

She said, “Take your pleasure as is—and take me to the beach.” The vacation weekend provided a new spectrum of lottery outlets. He booked a room in a luxury hotel. Their bar tab and restaurant costs were enormous. When Asis requested, he took her to the trendiest boutique in the area and bought her a bikini. Then he proudly put her on his arm as they paraded up and down the beach. Her appearance generated frowns and giggles. He didn’t care. Each day Asis grew more beautiful. The female body is far less important than the female who inhabits the body.

Two days after they returned, he came home to an empty house and a note on the table. “I didn’t take my own advice, Peter. I started feeling Eros’s arrows in my big rear. You’re right—a goddess and a mortal never come to a happy ending. We’ll write our own finis. Remember, a woman who won’t take you as is isn’t worth having, but you also have to take her as is.” For the rest of the week he moped around the house. It contained almost $100,000 in tax-free lottery winnings. Asis’s parting advice had been good. Whether he could act on it was another matter.

On Saturday morning, he returned to the flea market where he’d met Asis. The same seller was there. Today there were four boxes of books—take an entire carton as is, five bucks, no browsing. One featured historical novels atop the books stacked inside. Remembering his experience with the Civil War books, he started to reach for it. Then he stopped. His eyes moved left. Atop this carton was a book on how to make $10,000 a year as a freelance writer. It dated back to when $10,000 a year was a fabulous sum. Another book explained DOS. There was absolutely no reason to buy that box, save that he felt that somewhere within it was a treasure.

“You take it as is,” the man said.

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Peter told him. On his way out of the market area he encountered a short, golden-haired woman in extremely thick glasses. She peered intently at three boxes of junk jewelry. As she did so, she almost backed into him. They excused themselves simultaneously.

“Can you tell me which of these boxes has the most yellow in it?” she asked.

“Not with ease,” he told her. “They appear equal in that respect. Let me try some counting and some elementary math, if you have the time.”

“I have eons.”

Ten minutes later he suggested she buy the box on the right. She did so.

“Thank you, Peter. Asis told me you’d come here. Those who know me call me Luck. Did you know the lottery drawing tonight is worth seven million dollars?”

“No,” he said.

“I’m a very expensive date.”

“I’m sure,” he said. “But I’ll take you as is.”


“I’m a bum. I used to teach college speech and English, but then I retired. If I were selling more fiction, I’d be a writer, but this year I’ve been mostly a bum. I currently have one up at alienskin.” E-mail: hhmorris[at]iximd.com.

i dream of pigeons

Corey Ginsberg
Beaver’s Pick

when all else fails.
A simple, deviant pleasure
for those of us who can’t stomach
doves and swans.

The scene changes
but the bird is always the same.
Pigeons on the beach
and in the park.
Perched on windowpanes,
watching the world unwind beneath them
with their beady red eyes.

The flapping of wings carries me
to a deeper level of sleep
where the line between pigeon
and dreamer melts.

I find myself pecking through
garbage and medical waste,
exploring sticky spots on the sidewalk,
and gracefully digesting society’s ugliness
until I choke and can swallow no more.

But my gift will go unappreciated.
My gristly wings will be forced to cover
my blank stare until I find myself miles away,
in a different form, but with the same red eyes.

Once again I am the dreamer,
and I dream of pigeons.

Rats with wings.
The flying plague
High in cholesterol.
I feed them bread from a white bag.

A safe fallback
in a world of insanity
and pretty things.

Just the flap flap peck ququququ
waddle waddle waddle.
Dirty, vile birds
whose existence is the only
truth I’ll claim to know.


Corey Ginsberg is a recent graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, where she studied Creative Writing and Philosophy. She currently resides in Pittsburgh, and is getting her master’s degree in Professional Writing. In addition to her classroom work, she also serves as a poetry editor at the Carnegie Mellon Press. Her favorite writer is Kurt Vonnegut. She has never before been published. E-mail: corey[at]andrew.cmu.edu.

The Clay Man

Baker’s Pick
Laurie Seidler

When Chase came back the dirt was so thick on him he looked like a ghost. Mom spent the evening picking burrs from his hair. It dried in a frizzy halo pitted where she’d cut out the tangles too bad to unwind.

“You look demented,” I said and Mom shushed me. I wasn’t wrong, just saying what she didn’t want to hear. Chase grinned and shook his head slowly to make the halo bow and wave like a sea-creature in a slow current.

That night she locked the door but he got out anyway and slept on the lawn.

He was 15 then. He’d been gone three weeks and worried Mom skinny. She’d known he was off in the woods and he’d stayed away before, but never that long. She sat up in the armchair by the window waiting.

Mostly he was ordinary. Walls made him crazy, though, and certain noises. Some lights did too. Fluorescents buzzed, he said, and gave him headaches. He couldn’t stay in a store for more than a few minutes without bolting. He’d need to run then, run hard, to a quiet place up in the hills.

Two rails of low mountains cupped our valley and came together, about five miles to the south of the house, in a high wooded ridge. He’d take me there with him sometimes. In winter, the mist wrapped you in a web of cold silver drops. In summer, the heat burned the hills yellow and the air hung heavy with dust. It was beautiful, but unnerving too, wide open and bright on the peaks and dark among the trees. It made my stomach ache to be so alone, so far from home.

Chase needed it though. Some days you could see the want growing in him. He’d get a tight chiseled look like he was reining himself in and his eyes would wander. When he left, finally, he would be like wire thrumming. After, the tension would be out of him. He’d meet your eyes and talk to you and there’d be an easiness in him for a while.

Mom understood, although she’d grown up in the city. Living in an apartment was like living in a warren, comforting and close, she said. Chase squeezed his eyes shut at that and squirmed.

“All those people,” he said. “All that noise.”

She smiled. “Different strokes,” she said and rested a finger lightly on his arm. “Different strokes for different folks.”

She moved us out here after Dad died, took the money from the insurance and bought a house on the outskirts of an old mining town skirted by national forest.

“Breathing room,” she said. “A place to start over.”

Chase was nine then and I was seven. I remember driving up on the coast road, Mom pale with missing Dad, Chase hanging out the window grinning.

“Hold him, for Christ’s sake,” she shouted and I tugged at his sweatshirt, anchoring him with my scant weight. When he sat back his hair was stiff and twisted, rimed with salt, and his cheeks were glowing. Mom shook her head and half-smiled at the wind-swept look of him.

Dad never really understood Chase’s ways, didn’t have it in him to let Chase be Chase. He came from a long line of doctors and lawyers, my father, and he had a fixed notion of how a boy, his in particular, should act. They were both pig-headed and they clashed.

Dad kept on Chase, kept after him to do better in school, to stop fidgeting, stop whining. Once he tried to make Chase wear a tie to an office party. He must have known from the start that the effort was doomed; Chase couldn’t stand anything around his neck and, anyway, would have been hard-pressed to keep still in the crowd. But that night Dad was determined that we would be a normal family. He must have pictured us, dressed in our best and smiling shyly, passing under the admiring eyes of his co-workers.

Dad ended up sitting on Chase, pinning his arms, working the crumpled tie into a double knot. When he rose, sweaty but triumphant, Chase gagged and threw up at his feet. Mom reached down and swiftly, silently, slit the tie with her pinking shears.

Part of me was angry with Dad. Part of me was proud. He could have sagged then but he straightened. He smoothed his shirt, shrugged into his neatly pressed jacket and left.

Mom wiped Chase’s mouth and I cleaned up the sick. We sat on the floor with Chase panting between us. Mom closed her eyes and leaned her head against the sofa.

“You couldn’t give him that one little thing, could you?” she said tiredly, then touched his arm to take away the sting of the words.

“I hate him,” Chase said.

“It’s just, he was expecting someone else. He forgets you’re not him.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” he said.

“It means we’re a disappointment,” I said. “You’re you and I’m a girl.”

“That’s crap,” Chase said.

Mom frowned and gave him a warning look. “Chase. Language.”

He looked chagrined, briefly, then something in the moment struck him as funny. Mom and I got swept up in it too and shook with laughter. Chase took the pieces of tie, cut them into scraps and threw them in the air like confetti. Mom sat with snippets of blue and gold in her hair wiping her eyes.

Dad came back for her then. He’d walked around the block a few times and cooled off. Mom got a neighbor to stay with us. We opened all the windows and Chase was quiet for the rest of the night.

Mom thought that moving into the country would make it easier for Chase, that the quiet would soothe him. When you stepped outside our house you heard trees bending in the wind and birds calling instead of traffic. The school down the street was less crowded than our old one and the teachers, less harried, were more willing to take his idiosyncrasies in stride.

But having the wild in plain view was a temptation Chase hadn’t known before. His disappearances grew in frequency and stretched into overnights. He grew more feral as he got more comfortable in his skin. It seemed, the happier he was the further behind he left us.

Mom did what she could to keep him. She bargained: homeschooling in the mornings and afternoons off if he’d stay close and sleep indoors where she could check on him. And he tried for her, he did. He stayed until he was stretched so thin it was hard to watch. She’d break then, stuff his pack with sandwiches and warm clothes and stand, resigned, by the door.

“Go on,” she’d say. “Remember the way back.”

He’d beam, grab the pack and run.

“Not much for good-byes, that one,” she’d remark and I’d wrap my arms around her. She’d squeeze me hard.

That three-week stint was a milestone of a sort, although we didn’t know it at the time. His wandering takes him further afield now, along paths and twisting waterways that we can scarcely find on a map. He returns each time with new scars and tiny precious gifts: shells and carvings, delicately beaded moccasins. He sits on the sofa, smelling of wood-smoke and lets Mom smooth his wild hair.

“It’s good to be home,” he says, and his voice cracks with disuse.

Laurie Seidler lives in San Jose, CA. She is the editor at VerbSap.com and recently has had stories accepted online by The Shore Magazine, In Posse Review and Hobart Pulp, among others. E-mail: Laurie_Seidler[at]email.com.

Dreams to Remember

Ana’s Pick
Denis Taillefer

Juno appears in the kitchen doorway, his food bowl locked in his jaws and his head tilted. Juno is a three-year-old black Labrador. He’s become listless and overweight. His gaze is disturbing as it reminds me of my neglect of all things important: his health and mine, the unpaid bills, and my need for a job. Tomorrow I’ll look for the “To Do” list and take him out for a walk. Today, I’m relaxing with my 12-year-old friend, Johnny Walker.

When I tell Juno that today we are watching films, he hesitates, then trudges toward the sofa. He drops his bowl at my feet, and returns to the kitchen where he opens the fridge with his muzzle and snatches a beer with his jaw. I only let him drink beer on weekends or whenever we watch films. I pour the bottle into the bowl, open the Scotch, and pour myself a glass. His beer lapped up, Juno retrieves the remote, sits on the sofa beside me and rests his head on my outstretched legs. A sliver of light forces itself through a slit between the drawn curtains.

The film starts with Mary doing her Vanna White impersonation as she displays our new car. My voice is heard in the background, “So Vanna, please tell us about this car.”

“Well,” she says as she moves her arms and hands in slow, exaggerated motions. “This is not just a car, it’s a cruise ship.” With arms outstretched she says, “This metallic light-blue craft symbolizes the open and unending sky in which we will find new and interesting worlds. The soupçon of sparkles indicate the distant stars to be discovered, and where we will rest during our long romantic journey.” With this, she winks at the camera.

“All right, Vanna,” I say, “the stars await us. Help me with the camcorder.”

Mary is more beautiful than I remember. She’s no supermodel, and she’s a little overweight, with short brown hair, rosy cheeks, and hazel eyes. I can remember her scent.

Juno barks when Mary first appears, then buries his head on my lap.

The trip through north-western Ontario was Mary’s idea. We hadn’t had a vacation since our honeymoon two years ago. She even picked out the car. Well, I did the research then decided we should buy a Toyota Tercel, but she chose the colour. I hope to put it back on the road someday. I’m sick of taking the bus.

It was my idea to record our journey by installing the camcorder on the back seat, aiming it out toward the windshield, and allowing for a wide-angle view of the driver and passenger.

It’s our first day on the road and we are bouncing to the music of Otis Redding trumpeting from the tape deck. The camcorder had been positioned just right. Ahead, Juno and I make out a long straight highway edged by a strip of gravel—a passage through a dense forest. Shadows play like a slideshow on the car’s hood as the morning sun peeks through the tall pines. Mary snaps her fingers and sways her shoulders while I drive and sing along with a cigarette hanging from my lips.

“Robert,” Mary coos in my right ear.

“Yes,” I coo back, flicking ashes out the window.

“You said you would use this vacation to quit smoking.”

“Yes I did, but I’m still in the planning stages.” I smile and turn up the volume.

“Planning, my eye. You said you wouldn’t bring any.”

“Yes, but, Men are from Mars remember? You’re not supposed to understand.” I turn to the camera and stick out my tongue.

Mary sits back against her seat, her arms crossed. “You turn everything into a joke. You’re never going to try, are you?”

“Shit.” I flick the cigarette out the window. “Happy now? We’re sitting here enjoying the moment, and you decide to harass me with a guilt trip.” I slap the steering wheel. “Shit.”

“Robert, we’re supposed to be working on stuff; you’re supposed to quit smoking, I’m supposed to eat more sensibly, and both of us are supposed to work on our relationship—seeing we’ve been so distant lately.” By now Mary’s voice is quivering and I could tell she’s about to cry.

“You’re right. Sorry.” I’m still pissed off.

Mary leans forward and kisses me on the nose. I feel both irritated and aroused.

“I love you,” she says.

I squeeze her hand. “Me too. Even if you’re not from Mars.”

I pause the video and reminisce about the next scene, which was not recorded. After supper and champagne at a Holiday Inn in Sudbury, we had made love in the hotel’s swimming pool. That was her idea. I got my rocks off on the Great Canadian Shield, I had said. She said it wasn’t funny but laughed anyway.

Juno rises and walks to the door. We both need to pee. I don’t feel like putting on my winter boots so I pull off my socks and we stagger to the back yard and urinate against the cherry tree. I stare at the yellow piss holes that I’ve formed in the snow and tell Juno to hurry. On our way back I glance at the Tercel’s smashed front-end and tell Juno that this summer we’re going to finish that trip—drive all the way to the Manitoba border, as Mary had planned.

Mary and I are wearing dark shades and we think we look cool. We’re off to a late start as we ordered breakfast in bed, and after a bit of frolicking, we showered then went out to meet the noon sun. With thumbs up, we give a Fonz imitation: “Eh!”

“Next star on the sky chart—Sault Ste. Marie.” Mary folds the map and says, “You know, I’ve already planned our next trip.”

“Oh, yeah?”

Mary turns, gives a mischievous smile, and flits her eyebrows at the camera.

I pause the video. This frame represents the last seconds of her life. “Mary,” I say raising a glass to the television, “I finally quit smoking.” I tell Juno to say hi to mom.

I press the play button and see a truck pullout from a side road about a hundred feet ahead of us. Tires screech, a red truck smashes into our car then the TV screen turns blue. The audio goes on for another few seconds. It’s Otis singing, “I’ve got dreams to remember.”

I get up, put on an Otis Redding CD and refill my glass. I continue watching the blank screen.

I look for speckles of light in a field of light blue. Each dot and fleck I liken to a distant star—a new world that Mary and I have yet to discover.


Denis’s work has appeared in various print and online magazines. Recent publications include The Grist Mill’s Annual Anthology of Prose and Poetry, where he received honorable mentions for both the Spencer Hill Award for fiction, and The Joker Is Wild Award for prose. E-mail: dat.is[at]rogers.com.