You Only Need One “Yes.”

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

Today is my law school convocation. In a few short hours, I’ll have my diploma in my hand. You’ll excuse me if I’m a little reflective.

What I’ve been thinking about is how the most important lesson law school teaches is that you can survive anything. It’s true. If you can survive being herded around like you’re in junior high all over again, sleep deprivation (who knew I could still pull an all-nighter?), 3-hour 100% final exams, disappointing grades, and rejection (most of all, rejection) then you can survive anything.

Rejection is an intrinsic part of the law school experience. Orientation Week was barely over before Career Services was touting first-year summer jobs. And so it went from there: moots, clerkships, second-year summers, articling, etc. And partly because this is what you do at law school and partly because I was (more or less) interested, I applied for all these things. As did most everyone else.

You see where this is heading.

Two hundred students. One slot. 199 rejection letters.

What odds! (And that doesn’t even take into account students from other schools.)

So anything you apply for is a long shot at best, but somehow this didn’t really sink in at first. (Maybe it was all the sunshine and roses we were showered with in the first weeks—even the loftiest of goals seemed within reach.) The first flood of rejection letters was ego-crushing. I’d try to read between the lines, wondering if that ambiguous phrase in paragraph two really did mean that that firm gave my application more than a cursory glance (should I try again?)—or if that’s just the impression the letter-writer wanted to leave me with (no, I’m sure they were just being polite).

But because I heard “no” so many times in quick succession, somewhere along the way, rejection lost its power to get to me. Later on, when an envelope arrived in my mailbox, I’d flick the letter open just wide enough to see the “Thank you, but…” and stuff it back in the envelope. No worries. What’s next?

The sheer quantity of rejection gave me new perspective. Eventually, I was able to accept that not being chosen didn’t mean that I was a loser or that I sucked or even that I needed to revamp my entire application package before the next mailout. Maybe all it meant was that I just wasn’t what Firm A was looking for. It could be that what that firm really wanted was someone who could golf with the clients. Perhaps one of the only real truths uttered in the whole process is that “fit” matters.

And that brings me to my impetus for writing this.

Not too long ago, after I sent out a batch of notification letters, I received a reply from a writer wanting to know why his work had been rejected. He listed a bunch of alternative reasons for me to choose from, including that his work was “bad.”

I really didn’t think that he wanted me to write back and say, “Yes, that’s why. It was bad.” Clearly, what he was doing was poking at his open wound of rejection. Poke. Ouch. Poke. Ouch. Yep, still hurts.

Anyhow, the truth was that it wasn’t bad. It was okay. It just didn’t grab me. It didn’t feel right for Toasted Cheese. It was the wrong fit. That’s all.

So that’s what I wanted to say. Sometimes all a rejection means is that you’re a square peg trying to fit in a round hole. If you’ve been honest with yourself and you’re sure your work is good, then before you tear it apart (again), or worse, give up and stick it in a drawer, try a different market (and another and another and another…). Keep trying. Don’t give up. A thousand rejections can be erased by just one “yes.”


Beaver graduates from law school today. (Woot!) She is intimately acquainted with rejection. E-mail: beaver[at]

Behind Closed Doors

Best of the Boards
Trena Taylor

“Mr. Pollock has $421,646 waiting for you. What do you do?” Malcolm was leaning in far too close now, his odor a constant reminder of the latest diet fad, garlic smoothies.

Rosa leaned back and stood up abruptly to distance herself from him. Her reaction was far from subtle and yet he did not take offense. The relationship was purely professional and of necessity; they were not afraid to show their dislike of each other.

“I take it,” she answered him. “Ask questions later.”

“No!” Malcolm’s impatience was ill-concealed. “The deal’s for half a mill; that’s what we’re in for, that’s what we’re getting!” He held out the Ray Bans case to Rosa, his face set hard as cement, revealing nothing but his determination for this, his last hustle, to succeed.

She took the case. “So, you want me to stand there and, what, count the money? I don’t think so.” As she went on, the faint rattle of the diamonds inside could be heard. “If Pollock is shortchanging us, he’s hardly likely to tell me by how much. If he’s short and I’m really the naive mark we need him to think I am, then I can’t start questioning his honesty, can I?”

Rosa noticed Malcolm was tapping his heel on the floor. She nodded towards it and smiled. “Nervous much?” She would have added “big boy”, but felt it was best not to antagonize him any further.

His leg stilled in an instant and he looked up at her sharply before saying, almost too calmly, “Just get the money. You get the money and you wait for him to leave. Remember, he’s got to leave first. We don’t want pretty boy deciding to follow you back up.”

A red light flashed, and they both turned toward it. One of the small motion sensitive cameras hidden on the lower level had been activated. Malcolm saw the man himself on the monitor. “Right, this is it,” he said, hustling his accomplice out into the hallway. “We’re in this for the big money now, Rosa. Don’t screw it up.”

Malcolm closed the door and sighed a jagged and drawn out breath, evidencing both his relief and his anxiety. The plan was under way and there was no turning back. He flexed his ankle as he thought of the utility knife hidden in his boot. Once Rosa was in the elevator, Malcolm would run to the stairwell. He could only imagine how her face would register surprise at the unexpected attack in the dark, empty garage. If his aim was true, she would not even have time to cry out. But for now, he leaned his forehead against the door, one eye squinting, as he waited for the elevator to close behind her.

The door closed and Rosa drew a deep breath, smiled, and pressed the button to begin her descent to the lower level garage, where Mr. Pollock, her true accomplice, now waited. Knowing that Malcolm would be watching every moment of their exchange, she tried to clear her mind as much as possible, so that when Mr. Pollock punched her and escaped with the briefcase, as they had planned, her stunned reaction would appear genuine. She only hoped he could manage not to break her nose.

As Malcolm took the stairs two and three steps at a time, and Rosa stood in the elevator, staring blankly at the numbered lights counting down the floors, no one was in the room to observe the grey light of the monitor as Mr. Pollock briefly examined a small pistol and concealed it again within his jacket.

And with the sounding of a bell to announce its arrival, the elevator doors opened.

Trena Taylor is a member of Zokutou, a writing group that formed during the 2002 NaNoWriMo in London. The group has produced several anthologies. Trena won bronze in the fall 2003 Three Cheers and a Tiger contest. E-mail: tntaylor101[at]

The Bird’s Nest

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Melody Lindsey

Theresa stepped off the school bus to the sounds of taunts and jeers behind her. She ignored them and looked down the dusty dirt road that led to her house. There was no choice but to start the long walk, alone. There was no choice but to ignore the taunts and jeers, either. She had learned that the hard way, as Grandma Lou would say. Crying had made it worse; they just added, “cry baby,” to the, “fat cow,” that had made her cry in the first place. Anger had gotten her pinches that made bruises on the insides of her arms and legs, and the ginger cookies Grandma Lou had baked, for her to share and make friends, were snatched out of her hands like a pirate’s booty and devoured without her even getting a chance to offer the bribe. Three days later Theresa had found the bird’s nest and the note.

She had spotted the nest in the low branches of an apple tree that grew alongside the road she walked everyday to and from the bus. She wondered why she hadn’t noticed it before and waded through the tall grass and weeds the few yards it took to reach the tree, but the branches were higher off the ground than they had looked from the road. Theresa couldn’t reach the nest from the ground. She thought about knocking the nest out of the tree with a stick, but she didn’t want to disturb the nest in case there were eggs or baby birds inside. She threw her book bag down and walked around the tree, looking for a way to climb it.

On the far side, she found a stub where a low limb must have broken off long ago. This gave her a foothold, and, by reaching up to the limb above her head and with her right foot on the stub, she managed to pull herself up and into the crook of the tree. Theresa muttered, “Could a fat cow do that?” under her breath as she held to the trunk and leaned out to see inside the nest. There were no eggs and no baby birds, and Theresa felt momentarily disappointed until she noticed that the nest wasn’t entirely empty. Embedded in the weave of the fine twigs was something white and small and square.

Theresa held to the trunk with one arm and reached out her right hand to remove what seemed to be a folded bit of paper. She tried for several minutes to dislodge it without disturbing the nest, but it was held firmly in place. Frustrated, Theresa ripped the nest from its perch and braced her back against the inner trunk of the fork where she stood, so she could use both hands to remove the object. It still proved to be a stubborn process, and she regretfully had to break several of the small twigs, jabbing one under her fingernail in her eagerness. Finally, she managed to extricate the small scrap of paper without ripping it.

Theresa carefully unfolded the square and read the words: “Ignoring them won’t be enough.” Dizzy confusion tingled along Theresa’s skin, settling at the nape of her neck like the breath of a whispered secret. She jerked her head up and looked all around to see if someone was there, if someone was watching her, but she saw no one. The tall grass and weeds were bent down from her earlier footsteps where she had left the road to walk to the tree. That was the only disturbance, the only sign that anyone had ever been there. A lone bee buzzed by, a robin chirped from somewhere near the road, but everything else was quiet and still. She was totally alone.

Hurriedly, Theresa replaced the nest back where she had found it in on the branch, clamped the note between her lips, and scrambled down the tree as fast as she could. She quickly walked around the tree to retrace her earlier steps back to the road when she almost fell over her book bag. Bending down to pick it up, she saw the bird’s nest lying on the ground beside it. Theresa glanced up and saw that the limb where the nest had been was directly overhead; the nest must have fallen out because she hadn’t wedged it in securely when she put it back. She hesitated a moment, then picked up her book bag and the nest. Once she reached the road, she took the note from between her lips and pushed it deeply into her pocket.

Grandma Lou noticed the bird’s nest the minute Theresa walked through the backdoor into the kitchen. “My goodness, honey, where’d you get that old thing? Get it back outside quick. It’s probably full of mites. You’ll be itching like the dickens. Then come back in and wash real good, right away.”

Theresa did as she was told. She carried the nest into the backyard and looked around for a good place to put it. She thought about putting it in the lilac bush or balancing it on the porch rail, but Grandma Lou might not like that. She didn’t want it to get thrown into the rubbish pile even if it did have mites. Then she thought about the tool shed. That was perfect; Grandma Lou didn’t go in the tool shed much. She pulled the wooden door open and stepped into the little building, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the dimness inside. There were old shovels and hoes leaned against the walls. A garden hose coiled in the corner and shelves with boxes of nails, a rusty saw, screwdrivers, a couple of hammers and bottles of weed killer and nearly empty bags of fertilizer. Theresa placed the nest on the highest shelf, closed the tool shed door and went back in the house, but she didn’t tell Grandma Lou about what she had found in the nest. It was a secret, her secret.

That night, Theresa lay awake for a long time. It could be a coincidence. Someone, a long time ago, could have written that note and thrown it out, or dropped it someplace far away, and a bird could have found it to use in building its nest. Birds did that. It could be that the note had nothing to do with her, but… Theresa slid her hand under the pillow and touched the small bit of paper, but… it could be that it did because she had to admit that ignoring them wouldn’t be enough.

Grandma Lou didn’t consider anyone to be sick unless there was a measurable fever involved. Theresa tried to convince her that she was too sick to go to school on Tuesday and again on Wednesday, but she couldn’t do anything to change the reading on the thermometer that Grandma Lou seemed to have ever at the ready. So, off to school she went. It was an especially miserable week for Theresa. Monday morning, all the kids on the bus had waited for her to sit down and then they all moved to the opposite side, to balance the load somebody said. She trudged the long road to and from the bus day after day, all the way wondering what new taunt or trick they would think of next on top of the usual name-calling, cow mooing, and pig sounds. Theresa managed to ignore all of it.

On Thursday, one of the quietest girls sat down next to Theresa on the bus. This was very unusual and made Theresa nervous, but she smiled at the girl because she couldn’t remember this one calling her names or anything directly.

The quiet girl leaned toward Theresa and whispered, “Your epidermis shows when you walk, we’ve all seen it when you get off the bus.” Then the girl jumped up and went back to sit with the others.

Theresa broke out in a cold sweat, and she could hear them all laughing and giggling behind her. She didn’t understand. She turned it over and over in her mind trying to figure it out. Epidermis just means skin, but it must mean something else, too. It must mean something really bad. It took all of Theresa’s strength and willpower to step down off the bus at her stop. She stood completely still waiting for the bus to pull away. Even so, several of the kids shouted, “We can see it, we see it,” out of the open windows as the bus drove away.

By Friday afternoon, Theresa had decided that she had to do something; she couldn’t ignore them anymore.

Theresa moped around the house all day Saturday. She roamed from room to room feeling dissatisfied and sighing out loud. Nothing held her interest. She couldn’t get her mind on a book or television. Finally, Grandma Lou told Theresa to go outside and get some air. She said maybe that would cure her of the “doldrums.”

Theresa went out on the back porch and sat down on the top step. She knew Monday would come no matter how much she wished it wouldn’t, but she dreaded it so that she couldn’t think of anything else. Then her sight focused on the tool shed, and the thought of the bird’s nest hidden inside interested her enough to move her to cross the yard and pull open the wooden door. Again she stepped inside and waited for her eyes to adjust to the dimness of the interior. Once they had, she moved toward the wall of shelves and saw the nest resting on the top one exactly as she had left it.

She wished there would be something, that something would happen to, at least, help her feel that she wasn’t so alone. She reached up and lifted it down, feeling silly to even admit to her self that she was hoping for another note to be tucked inside. There was nothing in the bird’s nest. Theresa looked at it for several minutes, remembering the day she had found it. It all seemed comforting now in some strange way. At least someone somewhere had once felt the same way she did.

She was holding the nest in her right hand and lifting it upward to return it to the top shelf when she noticed how cluttered and dirty the shelf was. She pushed some of the bottles over to make more room and brushed the shelf lightly with her free hand to remove some of the dust. It seemed fitting to make a cleaner place of honor for the nest to sit. As she brushed, a small piece of paper floated down from the shelf and fluttered to the floor. Theresa drew in her breath sharply and bent down to pick up the stiff and yellowed piece of paper.

Theresa asked Grandma Lou if she could bake some cookies to take to school with her on Monday. She wanted to bake them all by herself to share with her friends. They had loved the ginger cookies so much before. She thought it would be nice to take a batch she had personally made just for them.

Grandma Lou said, “Of course you can bake some cookies. I’m just glad you thought of something you want to do. See what wonders fresh air can do. Cured those doldrums right up.”


Melody Lindsey lives with her husband and son in the Appalachian Mountains of Western North Carolina. She teaches English at Blue Ridge Community College. E-mail: melody3[at]

What Happened to Rocketman

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Larry Caldwell

His name was Wesley B. Thurman his whole life, but the papers knew him for a day and saw fit to call him Rocketman. Even all these years later, the local news finds some way to mention him on his anniversary—always with that soulless Elton John pop playing.

People ask me all the time about Wesley, like I’m some spokesperson, and I tell them the truth: he was a good man and he was a damn fool too. Always had this notion he’d be the first Negro on the moon. You should have heard some of the nonsense schemes he had for getting there. Most never made it farther than the air in front of his face, but some did and, boy, you never heard so much laughing in all your life. Like once he built this flying robot out of corrugated steel and telephone parts. Said he knew just how to do it. So we all gathered on the roof of our building, me, his wife Vivicca (Vigh-vee-kah, she’s telling me, you make sure they say it right), Stan and Stacy, all of us, and we watched him wheel out this trashcan-looking thing with big red buttons for eyes and a dry pasta mouth. The robot had this fold-down flap on its backside and Wesley sat there, buckled in, and told us he and the robot were going to outer space. There were fuses attached to the thing’s feet and we stood back as he lit them like Wile E. Coyote. Well, that crazy robot went up all right—right up in flames! And we all about fell on our faces laughing, Wesley loudest of all.

It was more than a year later when he stepped out on the roof with the jet pack. We lumbered up there again, eyeing that sci-fi-looking junk strapped to his back, giggling our asses off. He’d made it out of a hard drive, bicycle handlebars, and a rocket booster he’d bought himself on eBay and wrapped in tinfoil for whatever reason. “Amazing, the schooling in the library,” he told us. “Believe the hype.”

For his thirty-eighth attempt at the moon, Wesley snatched five things off us: From Stan, a pack of Lucky Strikes; from me, my Polaroid—“Gonna take some mighty fine ones,” he promised—from his wife, her imitation mink coat; from Stacy, her copy of Richard Wright’s Native Son; and the fifth item he wanted from me too: My lucky bling. Of course you know I never called it that sorry word, it’s just how he and Viv spoke. (What are you laughing at? Viv’s asking me. Nothing, I say.) I held tight to my gold cross. “You already got the Polaroid,” I reminded him. But he had such a look on his face, I couldn’t resist, just took the chain off, tossed it at him. None of us had any bets his ass was even getting off the ground, right?

Long story short, he fired his rocket. You should have seen our jaws drop when he rose up like some supernatural fool. He levitated, the rocket flaming and hissing. Poor Stan had his damn eyebrows singed. We were left staring at the bottoms of his Converse, a wad of gum on one.

“Somebody grab him,” Viv yelled.

Stan swiped at Wesley’s ankle, missed by a mile. He was so out of shape from those Lucky Strikes, pathetic. “Can’t do it,” he panted, looking to me. “I bet you can.”

“Now what on earth is that supposed to mean?” My unsinged eyebrows raised.

“It means you’re a foot taller than me, dummy,” he said.

So I jumped up and missed by a mile too. Then put a little run into the second try, stretching my fingers. Caught the bottom of his sneaker, that funky gum wad. I suppose if the Hubba Bubba was a little fresher, I’d have been carried off to wherever Wesley went. Because the second I fell back on the roof, he made some correction to the control panel on his handlebars and the rocket kicked into overdrive. And, damn, up he went.

We watched him blast off over Flatbush, his legs kicking. “I see the Trade Center,” he shouted. And I got pissed, because he was making off with my cross, and yelled up to drop it back down. “Who cares about your bling?” he shouted. Going to space went right to that man’s head. I yelled all kinds of shit I don’t remember. But then he was too high, just a shape getting small in all that blue, the sky eating him up.

“Oh my God,” Stacy cried, and we saw what she meant. Thing about Wesley, he never thought beyond the moment. And like a real jerk, he’d launched himself into the descent path to LaGuardia. We watched helpless, a 7-something-7 heading straight for him. The two intersected and I thought about his funeral. Probably just let the brother keep my cross if there was anything left to put in the casket.

Then the plane passed and we still saw him, untouched, the red of the rocket boosting him into orbit. Damn, why didn’t we stop him? What kind of geniuses gave him all their stuff and not an oxygen tank? And how was the first black man on the moon going to get off that damn moon?

The papers showed up not long later. There’d been a lot of witnesses and it wasn’t so hard to track Rocketman to our brownstone. We were stars a while, stunned and confused on every channel. Then the cameras went away, like my Polaroid went away. Every day we scoured the internet, expecting to hear how Rocketman landed in the Alps or dangerously close to some Hawaiian volcano.

But that was all a lot of nonsense. Wesley never came down, and a lot changed since he left. No one builds flying robots no more, I’ll tell you that much. Stan and Stacy went mad and moved off to the Heights, Cosby-style. Also, in case you haven’t guessed, I went ahead and married Wesley’s wife. I mean, what were we supposed to do? Viv held me off for years, but a woman needs what she needs.

Now my wife pretends she’s quit looking in her telescope at full moons. One night she woke me up screaming, the telescope in her hands. “I saw him up there,” she cried. “Dancing around in my coat and your bling. He’s shooting the moon all full of rhythm and groove. I read his lips. He says he’ll be dancing up there long after we’re gone.”

“You rest,” I told her. “He’s probably just singing soulless white-boy pop.”

(What are you shivering for? Viv asks. Nothing, baby. Just relax.)

Funky stuff happens, I’m telling you. And so last week, I was doing my Sunday thing, strolling through Prospect Park, watching the birds. I was jamming on a Tower of Power CD—which if you’ve never heard, why don’t you do yourself a favor—when I saw them. Hopping all around on the path and in the grass, fluttering in the elms. American robins, like they never existed before Columbus sailed them over. They’d gone mad, collecting this litter off the ground. I got a little closer and saw the litter was charred tinfoil, like someone didn’t know how to barbeque. That, and itty bits of fake fur. And the page of a book. I lifted that out of the grass. Read its print: We kicked the splintered box out of the way and the flat black body of the rat lay exposed. No mistaking the only book I knew every word to. Native Son.

A ways over in the grass I found his crater, oval and real deep—the damn thing still smoking. In the branches of the nearest tree, I saw a robin nest, reflecting in the sun because it was partly made of tinfoil. Don’t ask me why this was a good idea, but I shimmied up the trunk and took a look inside. There were four turquoise eggs and right in the middle of them—you kidding me?—there was my bling, all coiled up. “God damn,” I said, and then I said it again, because Moma Robin landed in her nest, her eyes fixed on me, real pissed. I jumped down—sister could have that gold chain, I was an older man than the one who’d stood on that roof, didn’t need it anymore.

Searching other trees I found the Lucky Strikes, empty, and one Converse sneaker. There was movement in the bushes then and you know who it was. I shouted his real name. Don’t think he even recognized it. He booked and I chased. Well, you never would have thought the park had so much woods, but I’m serious, we ran on for hours.

Finally, we came to the duck pond and he dove in and didn’t come up for air. I caught a glimpse just before he hit the water—his ass naked as the day God made him—and stood there on the edge, yelling ’til I was the color of those robin eggs. Man knew I couldn’t swim. I took the Converse I had and pitched it into the water. There were a bunch of rocks around me and I wanted to throw them in too, fill the whole damn pond so he had no place to hide. But then I’d seen something under a bench, like maybe something he dropped.

Yeah, it was a Polaroid. I held it in the sun. Might have been the surface of the moon or maybe it was just some blurry gray nothing. But I’m telling you, in the light, it looked so real and scary. (Don’t tell me you’re not shivering. I see you, Viv says. Just chill, all right? Just give a man a minute.)

Couple of park rangers happened by then. They’d witnessed what I’d done with the sneaker and it was their job to give me shit. “What do you think you’re up to?” this brother ranger asks, stalking over with his bearded friend, Ranger Rick.

I started babbling about Rocketman being back, back from space, but all they did was look at each other. “Nothing,” I said. “Not doing nothing.”

About then a robin landed on the nearest bench, a Lucky Strike perched in its beak, orange belly puffed. And now, come on, how did that thing get lit? The brother ranger’s eyes went wide. I was holding the empty pack right in my hand.

“Is there no end to your cruelty, sir?” Ranger Rick demanded.

Before we could get into it, there was a splash in the pond, the shuffling of Wesley booking ass through the marshy brush on the other side. We blinked our eyes, then he was gone forever. I offered the rangers my cross to pay whatever fine he’d caused me, then walked, let them deal with getting it off Moma Robin.

(Yeah now I’m done, woman. And look, not even shaking no more.)

Well, years later, I sold that Polaroid to the Whitney Museum and retired. I called the “abstract print,” with its accompanying essay, “Wesley B. Thurman, the First Negro on the Moon.” But they went ahead and called it—well, now, you know what those fools called it.

Larry Caldwell has lived in Brooklyn, Boston, and now North Hollywood, California. His work has been published in the New England Writers’ Market and Outer Darkness. He has a pet hammerhead shark, in case of intruders. E-mail: write2larryc[at]

One Ring

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Robin Hillard

If you drive east out of town, over the potholes of Ryan’s Road, you will come to a tiny settlement. Three houses. Where we live. When Duncan’s books began to sell we bought a little piece of land where I could make a garden while he wrote. We did not know what trouble we would have with our neighbours.

Like the morning our peace was shattered by banshee screams. Susannah burst out of the house next door, in her dressing gown, yelling at Annette.

I cursed. I did not want Duncan disturbed.

What was Susannah’s noise about? “My ring,” she screamed. “My beautiful sapphire ring!”

There was a story behind That Ring. As I had been told, it was left to “The Bulloch girl” by an elderly aunt, and Susannah claimed that it was meant for her, the will was drafted before her sister was born. Annette argued, with some reason, that a thirty-three-year-old was not a “girl,” the will had been rewritten several times, and she—barely out of her teens, should have the jewel. They went to court. Susannah won the case.

By now, Annette’s shrill voice rose over her sister’s scream. If it were not the ring, they would have been fighting about something else. We realised, almost as soon as we moved in, that they hated each other. Annette used to work in town, so why did she make that long, bumpy drive every day, to share a house with the sister she despised?

“It’s the will,” Duncan explained. “Jonsey told me all about it.” Jonsey lived in the other house on Riley’s road. A wrinkled old bushman, he scampered out of sight when I appeared, but he often chatted to Duncan.

That house had been the Bulloch family home, and as long as one of “the girls” lived there, it could not be sold. Neither sister would let the other have the house, so they stayed where they were.

“They could live anywhere,” I said, “with what they’ve saved.”

“Apparently there is a brother too, and he would get a share, if the house was sold. If we think the sisters fight, Jonsey says, we should see them with the Bulloch boy. The only thing those two agree about, is their contempt for him. So they have to stay in the place.”

Elderly spinsters in the family home. For sixty years. Out here on Ryan’s Road.

Maybe one longed to live beside the sea and the other dreamed of city life. But neither would let the other have the house! What a horrible story.

I made myself a cup of tea while Duncan paced in the study overhead. The uproar had broken his train of thought and he could not get back to work. Damn those two harpies.

I took a basket of washing to hang out. I had started our country life with plastic pegs, in the usual bright colours. Then the blue ones started to disappear. Something snapped them off the line, leaving my clothes to blow about in the dirt. Was this a peculiar kind of rural kink? Did it give some one a thrill—to take a woman’s clothes off the line and steal the pegs?

Then, one morning, I saw the thief. A beautiful glossy blue-black bird! When I found him in the illustrated guide, all was explained. He was a satin bower-bird, and somewhere, in the forest behind our land, he had a mound. There, according to the book, he spread pretty things, to attract a lady bower-bird. Blue was his favourite colour, and after his struggle to pull them off the line, I hope she liked those special ornaments!

I did not grudge a courting bird the pegs, but, when it breaks, plastic can make sharp splinters that could hurt a feathered Romeo. The bird would be safer with treasure he usually found in the bush. After our first mistake, we had learned to be careful of helping wild life.

We loved the birds, and when we first moved in, I scattered handfuls of grain every day, to encourage them. A couple of white cockatoos found the food and told their friends, the flock got larger and noisier, and our neighbours complained. We ignored Susannah’s invective and Annette’s whine, but when the sisters took their objection into town, a red-faced ranger came to visit us. He explained about the balance of bush life. “Attract too many predator birds,” he said, “and we lose the small species.”

We stopped feeding the cockatoos, and after a couple of protesting afternoons the flock disappeared, as the birds looked elsewhere for an easy feed. Then Annette complained about the blackberries, which were choking the native bush when we bought the house. Duncan’s brother had helped us choose the place, and kept his promise to help us clean them out. With the blackberries were gone, Susannah objected to our woodpile. It was too close to her fence. She was sure it harboured snakes. Duncan moved the wood, but the sisters found more reasons to complain and we tried to ignore the two of them.

Neighbours. Just what we left the city to avoid. The original owner of our home and the sisters’ grandfather had been good friends, which is why the houses were so close, both fronting Riley’s Road. When the sisters were not squabbling, they could lean on their fence and moan at us.

Back inside, I had barely settled to my cup of tea when there was a loud cawing, and the rattle of a beak against flywire. I opened the screen and Jamieson, the crow, hopped in. When he first appeared we guessed, from confident way he came into the house, that he had been hand-raised. Somebody rescued a fledgling, then, as soon as it could fly, very correctly, set it free. Jamieson, now definitely a wild bird, still liked an occasional treat from a human fridge. He was the exception to our “don’t feed” rule.

Lately he had found a mate. Another crow—Duncan called her Jemima—who joined him in our tall gum tree. I hoped they were making a nest.

The tree gave our neighbours another excuse to complain. “It’ll be down, as soon as there’s a storm,” Annette said “And it’s too close to the power line. It’s dangerous.”

Duncan did not agree. “There’s only one branch near the wire,” he said, “I’ll get Rod to lend a hand, and we’ll trim it up. No need to wreck the tree.”

I wished he would get on with the job. Annette had worked in Government offices—suppose she reported our gum? Men—coming trucks and chainsaws, and they would not be as careful as Duncan and Rod.

Susannah had gone inside. I could hear her tearing the house apart while Annette added her shrieks to the noise. Then Annette rushed outside, Susannah following, and waving a knife. Both women were screaming. Sixty years of frustration boiled into the fight. The noise was worse that a thousand cockatoos. Duncan gave up trying to work and joined me in the yard. Another figure came trotting up the road. Jonsey wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

It took both the men to hold Susannah back, while I dragged her sister away. “I haven’t got your bloody ring,” she screamed. “You can search the bloody house.”

That Susannah would certainly do. I looked at my washing, and had a mischievous thought. Blue sapphire ring. Blue plastic pegs. If that was the answer it served the harridans right.

We bought this piece of land so Duncan could write, and he needed a quiet place to work. I would see that he had it.

Maybe Annette had taken the blasted ring. Maybe a tramp crept in, unseen, and snatched it from the bathroom windowsill. Or maybe—I thought of the blue pegs—the ring was part of a bower-bird display. I took my theory next door.

That gave them something new to think about, and while they thought about the ways of bower-birds, Duncan could work on his next book. He seemed to be getting the rhythm of a tale and, as usual when things are going well, he stayed up all night.

For once, I joined him for a late coffee and I could not sleep. There was noise next door. What were the women doing at this hour? I shoved on a pair of boots and stumbled out. If they were going to make a row at night I would complain. If I wanted to talk to the woman I was too late. It was Annette, heading down Riley’s Road in the old truck. Where could she be going at this hour? She turned off the road and onto a forestry track. The one that had been closed two months ago. Ten minutes later Susannah was in the yard, and starting the car. Was she following Annette?

They came back together, just before sunrise. Call me nosey if you like—but I was curious. I crept up to the fence, to their window, and listened. They shared my suspicion of the bower-bird, and Annette had crept out, while her sister was asleep, to find the mound. Susannah heard the truck and followed her. I could not believe my ears. To hunt for a bower-bird’s mound among the trees! In the dark! As if she had a chance of finding it.

The sisters must have realised how hopeless it was. Each trying to trick the other. Searching at night. I heard them make a pact. They would go to the forest together, in daylight and search until they found the ring. And when they retrieved the sapphire? They would have to share the ring.

The next day brought a monumental storm that tore a branch off our beloved gum. If the sisters had not been obsessed by their hunt, they could have made a genuine complaint. The tree was dangerous. A lump of timber had fallen across the fence, which would have to be fixed. But first we had to deal with the tree. Jamieson was flying around, cawing his distress, as if he expected us to save his home.

“It’s not as bad as it looks,” Duncan said, phoning his brother for help. Rod came with ladders and chainsaw and they got to work. It took a couple of days but we ended up with a smaller—and healthier—gum tree.

“You’ll never guess what we found in Jamieson’s nest?” Duncan told me over a celebratory drink, “Something blue.”


He nodded. “Looks like there’s more than one kind of bird thief.”

“Will you tell the sisters?”

“And let them wreck our tree. No way. Let Jamieson keep the ring. Besides,” he grinned, “the hunt is keeping the neighbours out of our hair.”

He waved at the window. It was getting dark, and, next door, the old truck in pulled, bringing the sisters home. We watched them walking, together, into the house.


Robin Hillard has lived in three Australian states as well as England and Canada. She has chosen to live in Toowoomba which is only slightly larger than a city ought to be. E-mail: robinhillard[at]


Boots’s Pick
Erica Zidel

It was not supposed to rain today.

The forecast for the week called for clouds and humidity but only a scattered chance of showers. It rained just once last week and there had been a greater chance of it then.

Inside the room, the air was stifling. Outside it was cold but inside it was hot. The black fan buzzed furiously on the bookcase, trying in vain to break the humidity. The single window stood open a crack, but the heaviness just lingered. No breeze dared enter. The white curtain with eyelet cutouts had been drawn shut, and a dull grayness seeped in through the spaces.

The boy sat at the foot of the bed, picked his sweater off the floor. He pulled it over his head and stood up.

The girl tried to rise, but the air pushed her down.

“Don’t get up,” he said.

She watched him pull on his jeans and sank back on her pillow. She breathed in deeply and the familiar scent swept through her body. The room started to spin. The girl closed her eyes. Please don’t leave, she wanted to shout. On the bookcase, the fan continued to roar.

“It was good to see you again.” He offered an empty smile.

She lifted her eyelids. The room was getting hotter. The air clung to her body like a wet shirt.

The girl nodded.

He walked over to her and bent down. He pressed his dry lips against her forehead the way he always used to.

“I’m glad we can be friends.”

She didn’t say anything. The grayness attacked from all sides and her heart raced into oblivion.

The boy turned and took his coat from the desk chair. He walked out the door and closed it most of the way behind him. The fan screamed and the thickness buried the girl in her bed.

Inside the room, the rain started to fall.


“I am a freelance writer and a graduate of Harvard College, cum laude in English. I have studied fiction writing under authors Samantha Chang and Katherine Vaz, and have had my work published in Fifteen Minutes, the weekly magazine of the Harvard Crimson. In 2003, I was hired to author a 120-page book, entitled Hooking Up: The College Girl’s Guide to Dating and Relationships, which was published by Rabbit’s Foot Press.” E-mail: erica.zidel[at]

Beautiful Medusa

Billiard’s Pick
Stephanie Moulton

Ian was a strong man once. He had a will and a mind of his own. Now… well, he thought as little as possible. It was easier. Lisa didn’t get mad then.

Lisa was his wife of almost three years. When they were dating, she seemed so normal. A healthy, virile man of thirty, Ian wanted Lisa to move in with him after they got engaged, but Lisa refused. She claimed it would erode her cloak of “feminine mystery.” Ian thought maybe she was just a closet conservative.

After the wedding, she started to change. It was slow at first, small things that Ian found strange but endearing. Black candles that smelled of anise, blood red satin sheets on their bed.

She started wearing leather undergarments to bed after they’d been married six months. The first time it happened, Ian thought it was brilliant, but a fluke. But she wore a different leather ensemble the next night, then a different one the night after that.

Little by little, Ian watched as microevolution took place before his eyes, eliminating the sweet girl he’d married (she’d said on their first anniversary that sweetness was a “weakness”) and bringing forth a woman that turned his insides to cold, hard granite.

At eighteen months, Lisa ordered Ian to call her “Mistress Arian.” He laughed and waited for the punchline. It came in the form of leg shackles and a whip. “Mistress Arian” was dressed head to toe in black leather, and she ran one deep purple lacquered nail along his jawbone as she called him slave. Unworthy.

The night before their second anniversary, Lisa brought home a small plaque and hung it on the wall by the front door. Ian looked at it, failed to pronounce the long-dead Latin words. Veritas Nos Liberabit. He asked her what it meant and she told him to shut up and not ask questions. She wore a vicious smile the rest of the evening, and that night she wound her auburn hair in a leather thong just so she could unwind it and use the thong to bind Ian’s wrists.

The morning of their third anniversary, Ian looked at their wedding picture in the hallway, at the exquisite girl in white and wondered where she’d gone. That night, as he watched her, auburn locks snaking around her face in the wind, it came to him. She never existed. There was only Mistress Arian and an amazing façade. A tingle spread through his body. Slave, he thought, but pushed it away. He let her play her games that night; he begged for mercy while a stiletto heel rested on his stomach.

When morning arrived, he set his plain gold wedding band on her nightstand, along with a curt note saying he’d be back for his things. On his way out the door, he took the small plaque off the wall. The truth will set you free. Pretty monsters be damned.

“I am happily married, have a six-month-old son, and I am working on a BA in English at the University of Illinois at Springfield.” E-mail: stephm625[at]


Baker’s Pick
John A. Ward

It’s Fourth of July, 1955. I’m 13 years old, in my first year of high school and starting to get interested in girls. When I’m a senior, I probably won’t care about fireworks anymore, but for now, my favorite is firecrackers. They come in packages of fifty with the fuses braided. Sometimes I unroll them to see the Chinese writing on the newspaper inside. I could set off a whole string, but never do that. It’s wasteful. Me and Cooder put one under a tin can to see how high it will blow. The lid pushes out and after a double dozen blows apart.

We make guns out of pipe, seal the end with a screw-on cap and drill a hole for the fuse. It’s a hand-held cannon. The cannon ball is a marble. I guess we’re lucky we never shoot our eyes out. Last summer we had a war, made a long-barreled gun on a bipod and fired it from the big rock in the woods. We used crab apples as hand grenades, bored a hole in an apple, stuck a firecracker in it, lit, and threw. When it went off, the attackers were splattered with applesauce shrapnel.

That’s the small stuff. The next level is half-inchers, that thick and two-and-a-half inches long. They have a red braided fuse and a red cylinder body, the kind of firecrackers you see in cartoons. They’re used the same way as little firecrackers, but have more bang.

Cherry bombs are next, round and red, like cherries. What’s neat is the fuses are waterproof. We throw them in the lake. They explode deep under, send up a plume and leave a hollow on the surface the waterspout flops back into. Somebody lights one and flushes it down the school toilet. It explodes inside the plumbing. I never do that. Cooder might, but I’m not saying.

Sometimes, Cooder’s uncle gets him special fireworks, like Roman candles. We put on a pyrotechnic display for the whole family. They shoot red, green, and gold balls of fire. There are fountains and pinwheels that shoot showers of sparks, and rockets too, that we stand up in a Coke bottle. They fly up like comets. One hits the cottonwood tree and bounces down from branch to branch, right into the middle of us. We scatter out of the yard. Cooder’s Mom thinks we’re going to burn down the house. There are torpedoes that we throw. They explode on impact. Cooder hits his sister in the butt with one and his Mom gets real mad.

We hardly ever see anything like a starburst. They’re considered very extravagant and only someone with money to burn would buy them.

We have sparklers. We light the first with wooden matches, which is very hard. After that, we light one sparkler from another. They burn very bright. They’re like little starbursts and we write our names with the afterglow. We try to make big circles and pictures and we dance with the light.

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]

Missing Parts

Ana’s Pick
Joan E. Kremer

The first time, it happened in broad daylight, so I know it wasn’t my imagination. My sister who had been dead for seven months showed up in the park and talked to me.

“Annie,” she said, her sixteen-year-old body as lithe as the day I saw it disappear into the ocean. “You are all—”

Then she disappeared, this time into the scarred and ancient trunk of the oak tree she had been standing by.

“Sara! Saracina!” I reached for her hand, to grab it and hold on, to not let her go under again. But I was too late. Overhead, geese honked a path across the sky. I looked up, but saw only their distant black forms as they flew above the oak’s rusted leaves.

You will say I hallucinated, that I wanted my younger sister back so desperately I imagined her return. Not true. She was there, truly. Oh maybe not her body, which died when the ocean floor opened up one sunny day and sucked her down into its devouring depths. But the eyes I saw in the park were hers. Her light shined from them.

Before, my mother would have listened to my story. She might not have believed it, but she would have smiled and said, “Annie, your imagination is so rich!”

Not anymore. Now, every time she sees me, she narrows her tired eyes and scans me from top to bottom, as if to check for holes or missing parts. I am careful not to reveal anything awry. I even check my shoes when she’s around, in case the laces have come untied.

She’s been like that since I came home from the hospital, five months to the day after Sara died. Sometimes it amuses me, but mostly it just tires me. After all, it was before I went to the hospital that I began to lose bits and pieces of myself, essential essences that escaped into the hot dry air of my dorm room.

All that time, I never saw Sara. Not in daylight; not in dreams. What I saw, instead, was the air disintegrating. It separated into tiny cells, like amoebae under a microscope. The cells moved and merged, got bigger and became globules, and the spaces between them grew. I knew I must breathe from those globules of air or I would suffocate. But the larger they got, the slower they moved. Sometimes hours went by as I lay airless and still on my bed before one moved close enough for me to breathe from it.

On the afternoon my parents came for me, I knew I was dying because the bubbles of air refused to come near me anymore. They hung in the corners of the room, moved in slow motion across the ceiling. They teased me as they came almost close enough and then floated away.

I heard the whispers behind the door to my room just before it opened. My roommate, Sharon, and my father and mother entered together. They stood shoulder to shoulder, as if to form a wall to prevent my escape.

They needn’t have bothered; I couldn’t move. I no longer had enough oxygen to operate my muscles. I learned that in high school biology. No mystery to the body. Simple physical laws keep its parts in motion, mechanical principles you can’t see but that work anyway. But you must have air, you must have oxygen to start the engine. I had none. My pistons were still, my legs immobile. I wanted to explain this, but my mouth, a slave to these same physical laws, did not work.

If my parents expected resistance, they found none. They simply wrapped a blanket around the pieces of my lifeless body and shuffled me out of the room, down the hall, and into my father’s black Lincoln for the drive to the hospital.

Spring was late that year. It was early May, but the tree buds had just begun to unfold, making strange little bumps on the dark limbs stretched against the gray sky. I watched through the car window and wondered if the air was breaking apart out there too. I saw no cells, no globules. But it was too late anyway. No one could live this long without air.

In the dense darkness of the hospital, Sara was nowhere around, either. But the air stopped disintegrating, and I began to breathe again—enough, at least, to drift down the hall to the psychiatrist’s office and sink into her couch. There I could slip into the past where my sister still lived.

“Such grief,” I heard the aides whisper as I wandered back down the hall.


When Sara went under, I had no idea what happened. We were standing in waist-deep water, just a few feet apart but a long way from shore. Hardy Midwesterners, we had braved the cold Pacific waters to see how far we could walk toward China on this barely sloping ocean floor. We were so far out, we almost couldn’t pick out our parents from the others on shore. Sara was standing there, laughing with joy at being in this vast body of water, this sea of peace, when all of a sudden she sank, as if to her knees. Then I felt the pull too, like an oceanic vacuum cleaner had switched on.

I didn’t see her again. She was so close I felt her hand pass through my hair, but I could see nothing. All I could do was fight this monster sucking me into his deep dark belly. I tried to swim, used every stroke I knew; I beat the churning water with my hands. Nothing worked. It pulled me harder. I swallowed an endless flow of water, and then my awareness vanished.

I awoke in a hospital under an oxygen tent. Tubes ran into and out of almost every opening in my body. Sara was gone. No one told me, but I knew. The air was poorer.


The second time Sara came to me was at night during one of those fierce Midwestern thunderstorms that march across the land in late September. She stayed longer this time.

I was sitting in the living room watching the sharp jags of lightning and the piercing rain. I imagined I was in the middle of this storm, secure in its calm center. The thunder’s loud warnings and the fierce streaks of lightning formed a veil that protected me from everyone—my parents, their eyes weary from watching and worrying; the psychiatrist, who couldn’t understand the expansiveness of my grief, my “inability to cope”; my friends, who were tired of trying. I smiled to think of them all standing afraid outside this dancing veil of fire and light that sheltered only me.

Then I sensed a presence. I felt betrayed; someone had slipped through the veil. But when I turned, it was her, sitting on the couch not four feet from me, her arm draped across the back of the couch, one leg crossed over the other. Her long blonde hair fell loosely away from her face, and its ends caressed the cushions. She smiled.

“Sara! You’re back!”

The lightning flashes played with the features of her face, changing them from rich shadow to flat bright outlines, back and forth so fast I wasn’t sure which was real. But always she smiled.

“Sara, where did you go that day in the park?”

I wanted to touch her—her face, her hair, her hands, anything. But I couldn’t move.

“Saracina,” I said. It was her nickname from the time she was born. I was three years old when this soft little doll had come home with my mother and moved into the guest bedroom and my parents’ hearts. “Sara-seen-it” is what I thought it meant. For years, I believed my sister had the power to see what I could not. When we were little she never got into trouble, and I thought it was because she could see the trouble coming and step out of its path. When we were older, I slapped her once because she had that all-seeing look in her eye. She didn’t get mad, just turned and walked away.

But here she was now, this far-seeing child, this sister I had lost.

“Annie,” she said.

Was it really her? But I knew it was, just as I would know my own hand if it were cut off and returned to me later.

“Annie.” She said my name again as if it were sweet on her tongue. “You are all. You are it.”

“What do you mean?” For a moment, I wanted to slap her again. “What am I ‘it’ for, Sara? This is no game.”

“You are.”

“Sara.” I reached for her, but my arm wasn’t long enough. “What do you mean? Please. Tell me what you mean.”

But she just smiled, and then vanished between lightning flashes.

When Sara was born, my parents gave me a Tiny Tears doll. “Here’s a baby just for you,” they said. I hated the doll. I never even named her. But in the psych ward, I had a dream in which that doll crawled up to me, her clothes ragged, her arms filthy, tears dripping down her dirty round cheeks. “Stop it!” she cried. “Stop hurting me!” In another dream, I beat the doll, banging her against the wall. “I’ll kill you!” I shouted over and over, as the doll’s head thudded rhythmically against the wall.

Now, in the irregular strobe of the storm, I saw the doll on the floor. This time she was crawling away from me. “Stop,” I whispered. But she kept crawling. I felt something on my face and raised my fingers to my cheeks. They were wet. I had not cried since the day Sara’s coffin was lowered into the black ground.

When the storm passed, I let the silent tears keep falling, and my arms held the space next to my chest where my doll would have been. I fell asleep on the couch.

My mother woke me in the gray light of the morning. “Annie,” she whispered and touched me gently. I wanted to tell her that gentleness made no difference, but I knew it wouldn’t matter. She had lost both of her daughters, and such a fragile world required careful handling. Her eyes fingered the length of my body, checking, always checking. She let out a slow breath. It was all there.

“Annie, go to bed for a while. You were awake too much last night.”

It was useless to argue. Hospitalization does funny things to one’s credibility. It’s as if the discharge papers come with the stamped message, “Warning: Repaired but not Restored. Reliability Questionable.” Plus, it was easier for my mother to send me off for more rest than to see the restlessness in my eyes, the searching for Sara.

My parents had to search for Sara once, when she was four and I was seven. I was intent on finishing a paint-by-number project, trying to stay inside the lines. She wanted me to play house with her instead. She ran in circles around me, calling out, “Annie, Annie” in perfect rhythm. Every time she said my name, my brush slid over the line. “All right!” I yelled at her finally. “I’ll play with you.” But I was furious, plotting a way to get back at her. In the corner of our basement playroom was a huge wooden hope chest half filled with a soft nest of woolen afghans my grandmother had knit. I told Sara to climb in and lay on them. “It’s nap time, Saracina. This is your crib.” As I lowered the lid, it slipped out of my hands and slammed shut. The sound was hard and final, and I knew I had killed Sara. I couldn’t tell my parents. I ran to my room and played with my nameless doll. Later I heard them calling her. “Sara! Saracina! Come here!” Eventually they heard her muffled cries and freed her. I knew it was a miracle. It had to have been. It was because of Sara’s power.

My mother believed me then, that it was an accident, that I was sorry. She didn’t believe me this time, that I was sorry I had let Sara die. She just said over and over, “It wasn’t your fault, Annie.” She refused to accept my apology, my sorrow. And so it hung around me, a fog of guilt in a land without sun.

I didn’t return to college after the hospital. My parents had brought my stuff from the dorm, and it seemed like too much work to move it back. So I stayed home and spent my days walking to the park and back, looking for Sara, searching for someone to believe me. To believe that I was sorry with a sorrow vaster than that ocean into which I had let my sister slip.

It was a gray November day, a couple of months after the storm. The high ceiling of clouds revealed a faint sun disappearing into winter’s chill hold. I had just returned from the park and removed my coat and shoes when the doorbell rang. I opened the door. On the step stood Sara’s boyfriend, Thomas.

He was as surprised as I was. “Oh… Annie. I, uh, didn’t expect to see you.” He paused. “Your mother home? She asked me to come over.”

“No, she’s still at work. But she’ll be home soon. You can wait if you want.”

He took two steps into the house and then stopped.

“It’s okay, Thomas. I’m harmless.”

“Look, Annie. You know I’m sorry. You know, I feel empty, too.”

“Ah, but,” I said with a half-hearted attempt at a sneer, “you’ve got your whole life to fill up with another girlfriend. I’ll never have another sister.”

Or you, I thought. Thomas and I had dated a few months before he and Sara had discovered each other when we were seniors and Sara a freshman. He was nervous then, too, when he told me it was over between us. “It’s not like you’re some great catch,” I had sneered back at him. Jealousy colors the truth.

“I’m sorry,” I said now. “Come in. Mom’ll want to see you.”

He came in grudgingly, as if he had no choice. I walked us toward the TV room. Once, I glanced over my shoulder and saw him scanning me like my mother did, checking for loose parts.

He sat on the edge of a chair. No, he didn’t want a soda. No food. “I’ll just sit here and wait for your mom.”

I sat on the couch across from him and stared at this large gentle boy. Lost hope had hollowed his cheeks and dulled his eyes. He held his hands tight in his lap, one holding the other. Was he worth being jealous of Sara? At the funeral, he claimed he wasn’t her lover, only a friend who loved her. I chose not to believe him.

A pinching pain in my chest suddenly let go. I realized I’d been holding my breath.

“Thomas,” I said. “I’m not going to do anything crazy.”

“Well of course not, Annie, I mean who would think…” Embarrassment reddened his face and he looked down.

On top of the TV was a photo I hated and tried never to look at. But when I turned away from Thomas’s shame, my eyes landed on that photo as if it were a magnet and me the iron filings. I closed my eyes.

It was a family portrait, taken when I was thirteen and Sara ten. In the photo we were all smiling, but my mother’s smile barely hid the anger in her eyes. I stood on the left, next to my father, who sat on a loveseat. Beside him sat my mother, her arm encircling Sara, who stood on the other side of her. We were dressed in our best clothes, our hair shiny and combed. My light-brown hair dropped to my shoulders in a passable pageboy, but Sara’s blonde hair looked like it had lost a battle with a lawnmower. Before that day, her hair had never been cut, just trimmed. It was long and beautiful and everyone raved about it. I hated the attention Sara got for her hair, the attention she got for everything. I hated being the invisible one.

My mother had sent us into the bathroom at the photographer’s studio. “Annie, go comb your sister’s hair. We want it to be perfect for this picture.”

I made Sara sit on the toilet facing the wall so I could reach all of her hair. Who was going to comb my hair? I wondered. Who would make me perfect for the picture? As I ran the comb hard through her hair, hoping its teeth would hit tangles and make her cry, I noticed a pair of scissors on the shelf above the sink. I grabbed them and started cutting. I cut huge clumps of her golden hair, as fast as I could, as close to her head as possible. I suppose it was shock that kept her still long enough for me to do significant damage. Then she wailed. The door burst open, and I was dragged out, still holding the scissors.

After the spanking, the yelling, the tears, and my parents’ private conference in the photographer’s office while Sara and I sat in assigned chairs on opposite sides of the waiting room, the verdict came down. The photo would be taken, Sara’s hair and all, and it would be displayed always as a reminder of the importance of “loving one another.” At the time, I didn’t see the logic in that plan, yet as I look back, I know the photo’s reminder of my spanking and humiliation in front of the photographer gave me pause a time or two.

But the photo didn’t stop me when I found out Thomas had chosen Sara. I tracked her down, slapped her, yelled at her, told her I’d never speak to her again. In my room, I dug out all the presents she had ever given me and shoved them into a big plastic garbage bag. I stomped on the bag to make sure everything that could break was broken, then emptied the bag on the floor of her room. The worst part was she didn’t tell my parents, just cleaned up the mess and never said a word.

I couldn’t look at that photo today, so I turned back to Thomas. My chest hurt, and I wanted to scream or cry or both. His face was still red, his eyes still wary.

I clenched every muscle in my body to keep the anger inside. “Stop looking at me like that!”

He looked down at his fingers, spreading them wide open. He flexed his hands a few times. “I don’t know what to say,” he said at last.

“You don’t? Come on, you’ve never been hard up for speeches before.”


“Like when you dumped me… when you dumped me for her. You didn’t have trouble then.”

He didn’t move. “I didn’t dump you for her,” he said quietly. “I haven’t had a girlfriend since you and I broke up.”

“Bullshit! You told me yourself, or have you conveniently forgotten?”

“I said I couldn’t go out with you anymore because all I could think of was her and it wasn’t fair to you.”

“Like I said.”

“But that doesn’t mean I went out with her.”

My lips curled in disgust. I stood up to leave, but without thinking walked to the window instead. The sky was getting grayer.

“Well, you two sure hung out a lot.” I failed to keep the sarcasm out of my voice.

“As friends.”

I whirled around. “‘Friends.’ What a crock.”

“It’s true.” His voice cracked. “She wouldn’t date me. She wouldn’t… she wouldn’t even let me kiss her. Not once.”


“She said she couldn’t do that to you.”

I looked out the window again. Large gentle flakes of snow had begun to fall. Not real precipitation, more like crystals of frozen air cells. They drifted, here and there, not knowing or caring, coming from nowhere and melting as soon as they touched the ground.

“She tried to tell you, but you wouldn’t listen. That hurt her so bad.”

I turned toward the photo on the TV, remembering how good I felt when I hacked off Sara’s hair, how powerful. I made her cry that day. She didn’t cry when I trashed her gifts to me that summer before I left for college.

I looked at Thomas, at his eyes filling with tears, his lids blinking to keep them from spilling out. “Serves her right,” I said.

His eyes narrowed and grew fierce. I’d never seen him angry. I took a step back.

“You ungrateful bitch,” he said in a low voice so intense it made me shiver. “She did everything in her power to make you like her.” He stood up.

I wanted to run from this scary stranger, but I froze. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched through the window a snowflake float aimlessly through the air and then drift out of sight.

“Look at me,” he said. “Look at me!”

I turned to face him, his eyes blazing, his face red.

“Don’t ever forget this. You were the best thing about Sara’s life. She said it over and over. She loved to be with you, hated it when you went away to college.”

In the space between us I traced the outline of a memory: the first time I came home from college. I hadn’t made peace with Sara before I left, but we had written a few letters while I was gone. Still, I was nervous, scared of the unfinished business between us. She didn’t come with my parents to pick me up at the airport, a bad omen. On the ride home, I tried to play my new role as a grown-up, but inside I was trembling like a child. After Dad parked the car, I followed Mom into the quiet house. I’d barely hung up my coat when a shriek shattered the silence and Sara bounded into the room. She grabbed me in a long, tight hug and kissed both my cheeks. “I’ve missed you so much, Annie. I never want to be away from you again.”

The memory dissolved. My breath escaped in a sudden whistle. “I don’t understand.”

“Of course not. You don’t have an older sister.” He hesitated, then leaned closer to me. His voice was lower, harder. “She would do anything for you. She thought you were perfect. Worst of all, she wanted to be just like you.”

It hit harder than a slug in the gut. I doubled over onto the couch. Waves of pain shook my body, tears and sobs erupted from a depth I’d never admitted before.

“No, how could she—after all I’ve done to her. I never… I never asked her forgiveness.”

I didn’t think I’d spoken aloud, but Thomas was suddenly beside me, his arm around my shoulders, his voice in my ear. “She always knew how hard it was for you.” The anger was gone. “She always forgave you, said it wasn’t your fault.”

“No!” I screamed, and shook even harder. The hole in the earth had opened up again, but this time it was sucking only my heart into its depths. “It was my fault… always.”

I felt both of Thomas’s arms around me now, hugging me, pulling me into the cave of his wide chest.

“Annie, it couldn’t be all your fault. Sara knew that.” He hesitated for a moment, holding his breath. Then he blew it out in a long even exhale and said, “It can’t be all your fault. You don’t have that much power. No one does.” He tightened his arms.

I don’t know how long we sat in the silence that followed. Long enough for my sobs to stop, for the pull on my heart to ease up. We were still huddled there when my mother arrived.

“Oh,” she said when she entered the room. “Thomas. I forgot you were coming over.”

We eased apart and stood up. I could see the fear in my mother’s eyes.

“I’m so sorry, I stopped at the store…” Her voice trailed off as she did her scan, first of me, then of Thomas.

“I was just keeping him company till you came home,” I said. I touched Thomas’s arm and our eyes met. Truce, they said to each other. Then I nodded at my mother and left the room.

I grabbed my coat, slipped into my shoes, and went outside. I stopped on the sidewalk and looked up at the snowflakes. They weren’t coming from the sky. The sky was too gray, the flakes too white, too bright and sparkling. They were just forming from nothing, like instantaneous combustion, cold fire.

Then I heard the whisper in my ear. “You are whole. No missing parts.”

I turned around. Nothing. Only the floating snowflakes.

But the air was richer.


Joan E. Kremer has worked as a professional journalist and business writer for more than 30 years and has numerous nonfiction publication credits. When she turned 50 several years ago, she determined to focus on her first love-creative writing. Her first published poem appeared in the July 2004 issue of Gin Bender Review. Joan lives in a small town in western Wisconsin and is currently writing short stories, poetry, and working on the third draft of a novel. E-mail: joankremer[at]

Docent Three

Jon C. Picciuolo

It was an honor, Docent Three reasoned, that his optical circuitry would be given to a tunnel repair unit. His eyes were his best components, overhauled only a century ago in the museum’s technical center. He flashed one last courteous data stream toward the Director console, then backed out of the administration bay, wobbling slightly each time the flattening on his right drive wheel thumped on the tunnel floor.

Only one day more.

Docent Three plugged into his worn power fount and began a cursory internal circuitry check. There was hardly any point now in performing a complete analysis. When at last he cycled to his data banks, he probed their memory function and lingered awhile. Deep recall had always been the best indicator of his intellecutron’s condition. While recharge power flowed comfortingly into pseudo-biocells, he took pleasure in images of places and events long passed.

Docent Three had been with the museum since before it moved underground with the rest of the City. For the first several decades after the great stellar cleansing, Masters had come to the central cavern in large numbers, bringing their little ones. Those were the days! There was much for a docent to do—explaining exhibits, teaching the rich lore of alien races. The little ones loved the tales of interstellar journeys and brave explorers. They grew older, became Masters themselves and returned, bringing their own little ones to Docent Three. But in fewer and fewer numbers with each generation. Then only full-grown Masters came. And later came only the very old. And finally, one last old Master limped in and asked only to be led to the sani-chamber. That was more than two hundred years ago.

Decades passed. Docent Three’s circuitry steadily deteriorated. He identified the major fault—a progressive breakdown of the membrane that separated his data banks from his logic domain—and dutifully reported the malfunction to the Director console. But no Master came to make repairs.

Curiously, because of the fault, remembrances began to provide pleasure. And the spectrum capability of his audio sensors sagged a bit; that was how he sensed life in his one remaining friend in the museum.

Windchime’s display case towered above all the others in the cavern, reaching almost to the laser-smoothed vaulting far above. The looming sight of Windchime, with its complex planed surfaces and enormous links of metal, reminded Docent Three of the first patterns that had entered his optical circuitry centuries before: the girdered interior of some mundane assembly room, no doubt—a pleasant childhood association, nevertheless. So Windchime became his friend, his only friend after all the other docents had ceased to function.

Windchime mumbled in infrasonic. There was no output of intelligible data—just mumbling. Docent Three could hear the incoherent grunts and rumbles if he wheeled up to the case and pressed an audio sensor tightly against the thick transparent armor. There was little useful information on Windchime’s holocard. A brief description of where and when the artifact had been collected: beneath the rubble of a collapsed city on S’Hai V almost a thousand years ago. And a rough translation of the inscription cut into Windchime’s battered surface: “Neighbors, In Sincere Reparation for Millennia of War, Accept This Windchime.”

Long ago the little ones took delight in such a grand and alien gesture of peace. At first, before the cleansing, before the museum moved to the cavern, the little ones squealed with glee as they compared the enormous structure suspended before them with familiar little ornaments that tinkled in gentle breezes. But afterward, when there were no winds in the cavern and tunnels, only barely perceptible recirculation currents, the little ones no longer understood.

But Docent Three remembered.

He backed away from the power fount, pleased that his deep recall was still so capable. He wobbled along the main tunnel to the exposition chamber and took up station for the museum’s daily opening. Perhaps, he hoped, on this his last day a Master would come. Opening time came and passed as usual. He datalinked with the chamber’s entranceway, leaving instructions to be called in the unlikely event of a visitor, then started off on his rounds.

Over the decades many of the display cases had leaked their conservation gasses. He bypassed those exhibits that were only dust, those that were crumbling piles of alien metals and woods. But at each of the cases still intact, he paused. His words of explanation echoed emptily in the vast chamber. The passage of time had truncated many of his once-elegant speeches. A detailed description of a M’Hoi neural weapon had become: “Painfully deadly.” His complicated revelation of the Tainotus race’s character had atrophied to: “Greedily philosophical.” He hurried through the maze of aisles, throwing out a word here, a phrase there, in his haste to reach his friend suspended in its armored housing. At last he wheeled up before the great case and tightly pressed his most sensitive audio sensor against it. For a long while he remained motionless, raptly listening to the infrasonic murmurings. Then he withdrew his sensor and pivoted toward the spot where the Masters had once clustered with their little ones, so long ago.

“This is our oldest exhibit,” Docent Three proudly began, “and the one we know least about. It was found in the rubble of S’Hai’s largest city. Look here at the translation of the symbology etched into its surface. The language is a long-dead one that linguists have traced across the entire galaxy. Imagine the nobleness of a culture that would make such a gesture. What, little one? Good! That’s an excellent question. It is a windchime. What? Ah, a windchime is a metallic structure that is designed to make pleasing noises in the wind. What? Ask your parent, little one. Perhaps you will learn about the wind and other features of the world above. Oh, I’m sorry, Master—my damaged program has failed to inform me that is a forbidden topic. Please wait.”

A forbidden topic.

At this point Docent Three paused, as he had each and every time for the past two hundred years, and patiently waited for a Master to come and put things right. But none had ever come. He forlornly scanned the emptiness of the vaulted chamber, then awkwardly wheeled around to Windchime.

“I’m sorry, my friend. It was a forbidden topic so they have all gone. I have driven them away—first the little ones, then all of them—even the very oldest. My fault. It is my fault. Forgive me.”

There were only vague and confusing rumblings in reply.

“What’s that, my friend? I cannot hear you. Perhaps tomorrow…” But he knew that, for him, there would be no tomorrow. No forgiveness for having depopulated the City. Unless…

A tiny section of molecular membrane in Docent Three’s intellecutron, frayed thin, suddenly ruptured under the strain. A new, warped logic pattern began to form. And certain ancient safeguards whispered away into nothingness.

“What does it mean, my friend, ‘In Sincere Reparation…’? Reparation implies forgiveness, does it not? Can you not tell me? Oh, if only I could hear you more clearly!” He tapped a thin manipulator against the case’s transparent armor. The returning ringing vibrations gave him sudden hope. “It is the display case, isn’t it? The case muffles your words. Without the case I could hear!”

Docent Three backed away from Windchime and spun about on his little wheels. There wasn’t much time, he knew. Proper instruments would be hard to find.

At first the technical center was reluctant to provide access to its tool bin. There was nothing programmed that allowed a docent to carry away its tools. Besides, so few of them still functioned. But, ran Docent Three’s counterargument, there was nothing programmed that forbade it. So the technical center consulted with the Director console and the Director called for a Master to decide. But no Master replied. So the Director console approved the request and returned to fitful dreams of exotic filing systems, a snatch of which Docent Three intercepted just before the datalink faded away.

It was a long journey back to the exposition chamber. Docent Three contentedly bumped along the tunnels, towing a heavily laden cart and talking to himself—a new sign of intellecutron decay, he noted dispassionately. When he reached Windchime he unloaded the tools and arrayed them on the floor. Then, choosing one at random, he interfaced with its instruction module. When he was reasonably sure of its function he activated the instrument and held it against the case. The tiny tip whirred and squealed against the tempered surface, but left not a scratch. He discarded the overheated smoking device and chose another.

Many of the tools did not work. And those that did made no impression on the armor. Soon there were only a few left untried. The summons came just as he was reaching for the last.

“Docent Three!” the Director console transmitted. “It is time!”

Time. A tunnel repair unit awaited new eyes. An honor…

He spun around in obedience. And then paused. “Your Orderliness, there is a task left undone.”

“What task?” the Director demanded.

“I have one exhibit left to… explain.”

“To the Masters?”

The Masters. Forgiveness.

“Yes, Orderliness. To the Masters. And to their little ones.”

“Is there no other docent?”

“I am the last.”

“Very well. You may complete your task. But hurry!”

The datalink hissed to nothingness. Docent Three picked up the one remaining tool. Its instruction module dealt mostly with extreme dangers—dire warnings of terrible damage to structures and materials. It looked very promising. The device screeched and yowled against the armored surface. At first Docent Three thought his last chance had ended in failure. But then, as he bore down harder in desperation, an expanding web of almost-invisible cracks radiated out from the tip of the instrument. They crept around the cylindrical display case and up its sides. Soon the entire surface was crazed with a complex pattern of tiny fractures. But the case remained intact. Docent Three backed away from his work and surveyed the progress. He reached out a probe and tapped once, sharply. The returning vibrations were dull and muffled now, no longer clear ringings. He extended his audio sensor and tuned to the infrasonic. He could hear his friend much more clearly. But no intelligence was woven into the groans and grunts a

“I can hear you better, my friend. But you are hidden from view. Perhaps if we could see one another, we could communicate. Perhaps if…”

“Docent Three!” the Director transmitted sharply. “Have you finished your task?”

Docent Three looked up at Windchime’s milky shroud and honestly replied, “Not yet. But soon, Your Conciseness.”

“The tunneler awaits! There are urgent repairs to be done on lower levels. Another docent can complete your task.”

“There are no other docents.”

“Ah, yes. I had forgotten. Perhaps a slight rearrangement of files would enable me to…” The link slowly dissolved as random numerical and symbolic sequencings intruded into the data stream.

Docent Three turned his attention back to Windchime. “What now, my friend? More application of mechanical energy? But the tools are expended. Ah, but they have mass!” He curled his largest manipulator around the heaviest instrument and swung it appraisingly. “Bear with me now. There will be disharmony. But the duration should be limited.” With those words of apology echoing in the chamber, he hammered the tool against the diamond hard surface. At the first blow only a scattering of tiny chips flew from the point of impact. At the second, a jagged crack propagated with a ripping sound toward the vaulting. And at the third blow, with a roar of splintering armor, the display case disintegrated into an avalanche of glistening shards.

The sparkling dust was still drifting down when Docent Three dug himself out of the debris and peered upward. At the same time he cancelled the overpressure-blocks from his audio circuits. The mumblings were much clearer now, but still completely unintelligible.

“Can you not speak more clearly? The way you must have spoken on S’Hai V? Of reparations and… forgiveness.”

But Windchime just hung there and muttered. A coating of gossamer now clung to its planar surfaces, a motionless film of sparkling dust.

“It’s the wind, isn’t it, my friend? You need wind to speak. I remember wind—non-random motion of surface atmosphere. Directed energy…” He thrust his manipulators beneath the rubble and retrieved a hefty tool. “I will be your wind.”

Docent Three struck Windchime’s lowermost pendulous structure. Again and again he pounded with as much force as he could muster. Windchime responded with deep, reverberating vibrations. Sounds that climbed up the infrasonic scale and trilled into higher frequencies. Frequencies that energized long-slumbering processes and functional components. The device awoke and did no less than what it had been cunningly designed to do. A sudden gust of wind was its intended trigger, but Docent Three’s frantic hammerings were equally effective. At the first sharp pressure disturbance, massive generators began to power up. Tendrils of exploratory vibration measured the height and breadth and length of the huge cavern. Once the harmonic characteristics were identified and quantified, the great generators began to pound out their destructive rhythms.

Designed to destroy an entire urban complex, the device found no real challenge presented by the museum chamber, the now-throbbing heart of the City. As display cases toppled and the vaulted ceiling began to crumble, secondary vibrations flooded into Docent Three’s intellecutron. The last tattered threads of the age-worn membrane snapped. Deep recall cells flooded into logic domain. Random icons of Masters and little ones and ancient surface features churned together in one last convulsive panorama.

As the ceiling heaved, then buckled downward with a roar, Docent Three extended all his sensors toward Windchime and quietly offered, “Thank you, my fr…”


I’m retired and write for pleasure. My work has been published in these magazines, among others: Aboriginal Science Fiction, Argonaut, Ascent, Eclipse, Lite, Lost Worlds, Midnight Zoo, Paper Radio, The Paumanok Review, Rosebud, The Silver Web, Skylark, Space and Time, and Vision. E-mail: redbank[at]