Carpe Diem

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

Last month, after the editors finalized their selections for the March issue and the notifications were sent out, we received word that one of our authors had died in December. This was sad news for us, as Homer had submitted to us several times over the past four or five years, and while we hadn’t published everything he sent us, we had always been entertained by his work. We are sorry that “Buzzards in the Projection Booth” is the last story we will see from him.

My first thought after I’d had time for the news to absorb was that I was sorry that he hadn’t got his acceptance before he died. Almost as quickly came a second thought: but isn’t it great that he went out the way every writer presumably wants to—writing and submitting until the very end?

Of course it’s a cliché, but none of us knows exactly when our end will be. But sooner or later, it will come. When it does, what will you be doing? Will you be writing your pants off or will you still just be thinking about doing it… someday?

When we take time to map out our goals and aspirations, it’s easy to single out the things that are most important to us. We often finish such exercises feeling inspired, energized, ready to take on the world. But back in our day-to-day lives, our To Do Lists aren’t generally organized from “most important” to “least important.” They’re organized from “the deadline for this was last week! ack!” to “this can wait.” In other words, things with firm deadlines (regardless of how trivial) get prioritized, and those without deadlines at all (regardless of how important) get pushed to “tomorrow” or “next week/month/year” or “when the kids leave home” or “when I retire.”

To my mind, this is why writing resolutions so often fail. Unless you have a firm deadline for a piece of writing, it’s likely to get pushed to the bottom of your To Do List—and keep getting pushed there, because there’s always going to be something that needs to be done first.

There are some who will say that if you’re putting off writing, it’s because you don’t really want to write, you just like the idea of being a writer. I disagree. It may be true in some cases, but I don’t think it is the real reason for most. I think the real reason writers put off writing is that we like it so much that we think of it like we think of dessert: it’s a treat. Just like dessert is the reward for eating our veggies, writing is the reward for getting our work done.

Writing on a deadline gets done because we mentally shift the activity from treat to work. But sans deadline, how do you convince yourself it’s okay to write today, rather than putting it off until later? I’ve heard the argument that the only way is to think of all writing, regardless of deadline, as work. That if you persist in thinking of it as fun, then you’re destined to be a dilettante. But here’s the thing: I just don’t think that reasoning—as rational as it may be—works for a lot of writers. As exasperating as their labor of love may be at times, it just doesn’t feel like work. They simply get too much pleasure from it.

But dessert is also pleasurable and yet it’s unlikely that you plan to hold off eating any dessert until your golden years (at which point you will stuff yourself silly with cake, cookies, and pie). While you probably don’t eat dessert at every meal, you might have it once a day or a couple times a week or on special occasions or when you eat out. And when you do have dessert, you probably don’t eat an entire cake or pie or batch of cookies. You eat a couple cookies, a piece of pie, a slice of cake. Why? Because treats are best in small doses. That’s how they stay treats.

Waiting until you have a stretch of uninterrupted time and then writing for hours or days without a break is like eating too much dessert: it’s delicious and thus you don’t want to stop, but eventually it hits you that you’re over-satiated. Afterward, you avoid desserts for a while because the thought of more sugar makes you feel a little sick. A long writing session can be great, but not if it leaves you feeling so wrung out that you put off your next session indefinitely.

Instead of putting off writing until you can binge on it, try giving yourself the occasional smaller reward. It might not seem like you can get much done in five minutes or even an hour—but it all adds up. One hundred words a day—about the length of this paragraph—adds up to 36,500 words in a year; in two years, you’d have a complete novel. So next time you reach for a cookie, why not grab your laptop or a notebook and treat yourself to a writing session while you nibble? Don’t wait until it’s too late.


E-mail: beaver[at]


Best of the Boards
Matthew David Curtis

To Sgt. Nick Johnson

Creased hands blocking sun,
the old men watch as we ride
down the Phlegethon.

They whisper Allahu
Akbar, while we load guns
and pray Our Father.

Mosques are falling stars
in claws of hot sand. The cold men
have empty eyes.

The Tigris opens—
the palm of a hand accepting
bodies as alms.

Matt needs four things to survive: Mint Mochas, Miki, his computer/typewriter, and someone to listen. Paducah, Kentucky may not be the best place to be 21, but the town and the people of the town are what keep his fingers typing. Matt’s father thinks that freelance writer is another word for hobo, so until Matt runs out of coffee or until Miki runs out on Matt, he is going to embrace his vagrant life-style.

Bridging Christmas

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Kristi Petersen Schoonover

My eight-year-old sister Kelly says that Santa doesn’t come to Salisbury.

“That’s ridiculous,” I say. The latest in a string of ridiculous things in this nowhere village. Like the football team only plays against itself and I have to be up making breakfast at 5:30, because our school’s an hour away and the bus, according to the guys, takes even longer in the winter on account of the plow attached to its grill. “Santa goes everywhere.”

“How do you know?”

“Because I’m eighteen.”

“You’re wrong, Graham. He doesn’t come here,” she insists. “Ask your nickelback friends.”

“Quarterbacks.” The kitchen linoleum is out of the forties with dancing salt shakers for a design, and it’s so cold it’s numbed my toes. I just hate stuff on my feet—even if Mom says we shouldn’t walk in this house barefoot because of the mice. It’s not the city, she’d said. Country mouse poop is loaded with esoteric diseases. It still wasn’t enough to keep me from wearing socks, but now that it’s December—a much harsher December than two hundred miles southeast in New York City was, I might change my mind. “My friends are quarterbacks.”

“My friend Shelby says they don’t need Santa because they have their own special guy called The Flannel Man.”

The toaster pops. A piece of toast rockets from the slot and hits one of the pinged white metal cabinets. The wallpaper’s dingy, the couch sags in the middle, and the porch windows leak in the summer rains, but we have a toaster that could dance if it weren’t even plugged into the wall. Mom’s concession. Not like there could be much of a concession for her driving Dad away and moving us to a town whose main drag is a single-plot cemetery, a combo gas station/general store/post office/diner, and a decrepit barn covered in deer antlers.

I shovel the eggs and sausages onto two plates and set one in front of Kelly.

She frowns. “I don’t like sausage.”

“Then don’t eat it.” I reach for the pepper and blanket my eggs.

“Why didn’t you make bacon?”

“Because we’re out and Mom hasn’t been to the supermarket in awhile.”

Bacon’s Kelly’s favorite, and when we lived in the city there was always plenty because Mom could get it right around the corner. But the only place we can buy it up here is the Price Chopper in Gloversville, which is a total haul. So she only goes there once a month—and then doesn’t buy enough.

“Do you think Mom will buy some so we can have it on Christmas?”

“That’s three weeks away,” I say, stabbing my egg with a fork. The runny yolk creeps toward my toast. “I’m sure we’ll have some by then.”

“If she doesn’t, maybe The Flannel Man will leave some on the porch! Shelby says last year The Flannel Man left them a whole roasted pig for Christmas, so I bet he’ll bring me bacon!”

“Who will bring you bacon?” Mom shuffles in, looking haggard. She’s in her bathrobe, and she’ll probably be in it all day. Not like she drinks anymore—she used to, after Dad took off, but since we moved here, she’s channeled her creative energy into making jams. Jerva’s Jams, she calls them. She churns them out, decorates the jars with red gingham, and sells them in the I-90 rest stops next to the shot glasses that say I ? NY.

“The Flannel Man,” Kelly says. She hasn’t touched her breakfast.

“Who the hell,” Mom says, pulling a mug out of the cabinet and peering inside it, presumably looking for mouse crap, “is The Flannel Man?”

“She’s got something in her head that Santa doesn’t visit here because they have their own dude who does it just for this town. Something her friend told her.”

“It’s true!” Kelly stands up and almost falls over. She was born with one leg shorter than the other, so walking’s difficult enough; when she’s excited, she forgets and does things like falls over getting out of chairs. It’s why I always have to look after her.

“Kelly!” Mom reacts. “You need to stay calm. You don’t want to crack your lip open again.”

“But it’s true. He lives under the bridge. The abandoned bridge.”

I almost choke on my toast. “Not the one on our property?” I say. Elkie told me Mom was able to get this broken-down place cheap because our driveway used to be a town road that connected Route 29A on one side of Trammel Creek with 29A on the other. You made a left onto our driveway, you went three miles, you passed our house, and then you went about three hundred feet to an old wooden bridge. I guess five years ago part of the wooden bridge collapsed. The town didn’t fix it or move the debris, they just left it. Built a new bridge in town instead. Nobody wanted property with a broken bridge. It was cursed, Elkie said.

“Yes.” Kelly nods enthusiastically. “Our bridge! The Flannel Man lives right up the road!”

“That’s a bit silly, isn’t it? A man living under that falling-down thing.” Mom sips her coffee.

“He does! Shelby told me her brother saw him and he was like this big hairy ape-man. Like Bigfoot.”

Mom dries the cup, pours her coffee, and sighs. “Somehow I doubt a Bigfoot would be running around leaving gifts on people’s doorsteps, even if he were a friendly neighborhood one. Now eat your breakfast and hurry up.”

I get up and put my plate in the sink just in time to see a wood spider crawl down the drain. “It was probably just some animal he saw. There’s tons of bears and stuff around here.”

Mom touches my arm and murmurs, “Graham, don’t scare her.”

“Did I sound like I was trying to scare her?”

“Not really,” she says, sipping her coffee, “but I know that tone of voice.”

She’s talking about the first few months after Dad left. I tortured Kelly. I was just pissed off and she was an easy target. I played jokes on her, told her there were ghosts living in her closet, shit like that. Mostly so Mom would talk to me, though. She wasn’t doing a lot of that after Dad left. She was talking a lot to the bottle of blackberry brandy instead. If I was being yelled at, at least I felt like I existed. “That was a long time ago, Mom.”

She eyes me, dumps her coffee in the sink, and shuffles toward her bedroom. “I’m going back to bed for awhile.”

Outside, there’s fog. Make no mistake, it’s cold, but there’s fog. It’s another thing about the Adirondacks I hate. In the city, if I saw fog, I knew it was warmer out. Here, the fog billows in like something out of a John Carpenter film and leaves ice on the leaves behind it. I help Kelly into her Barbie coat and mittens.


Me and Elkie smoke cigarettes during lunch in the woods behind the school. There’s a private clearing surrounded by a huddle of evergreens and tons of boulders that have plenty of holes for us to hide lighters and ditch butts. In the summer, it’s a festive hideaway out of the Adirondack humidity, the kind of place you want to toast marshmallows. Now, though, with a foot of snow on the ground, the logs we sit on glazed with ice, and freezing rain stinging our cheeks, it’s creepy.

I flick the Bic and light up, then pass the cigarette to Elkie. “So who the hell is this Flannel Man my sister keeps talking about?”

“Oh, he goes back, like, a hundred years or something.” One of her long black braids is caught under the collar of her coat and the other one hangs loose; the incongruity is annoying. “There was a town up on top of the mountain called Bungtown ‘cuz they made barrels or some crap. And like at the end of the 1800s everybody who lived there got plague or whatever and died, but there was this one guy who survived and he came down and moved underneath the bridge that used to be on your property.” She takes a drag. “He had to live there because nobody wanted to go near the old fart for fear of getting sick. But I guess he had scads of money and he missed his kids who died, because every Christmas he supposedly left presents for all the kids in town on their porches.” She passes the cigarette back to me. “He did that for like ten years and then he disappeared, and the parents felt so bad they started giving their kids stuff from ‘The Flannel Man’ instead of Santa.”

I get what Kelly is saying now. “So nobody writes ‘to Jimmy from Santa’.”

“Pretty much,” she says. “Around here, it’s ‘to Jimmy from The Flannel Man.’ Kinda bizarre. Every couple years some freak resurrects the whole thing and really does leave presents from The Flannel Man on people’s front porches. You’ve lived here long enough to see there isn’t much to do around here, much less in the dead of winter, except for shovel snow. Like last year there were like six families said they woke up Christmas morning and found presents on their porches, presents they didn’t buy.” She stands up and stretches.

“So it’s true? Shelby did have a whole pig roast left on her porch on Christmas last year?”

Elkie’s trapped braid finally comes loose. “Oh, yeah. But like I said, some freak like Shelby’s brother Seth probably did it. Bored, wanted to get his rocks off.” She takes the last drag off the cigarette. She tries to pitch it into the cup-sized hole in a boulder we’ve been using all week to toss our butts. “He would, too, he’s such an asshole. Let me tell you that apple don’t fall far from the tree.” That’s when I notice the hole is empty. There should be at least five or six butts in there—me and Elkie make sure we dump it every Friday, so hunters or anybody cross-country skiing or hiking through these woods on the weekends won’t find it and discover our secret patchaway—but today’s only Wednesday.

“Elk, did you dump the butts? Our hole’s empty.”

“Why the hell would I do that in the middle of the week?” She pulls her hood up over her head and wraps her scarf around her mouth. “Maybe it was The Flannel Man, ooga-booga,” she laughs as her booted feet crunch through the snow.

There is a crash in the woods behind us and I turn and look.

Elkie doesn’t seem to hear it and keeps walking.


The last time I saw my father was Christmas Night two years ago, and he was wearing the brand new peacock-colored flannel shirt, XXL, that was the first present he opened that day—the one from me. And I was surprised he liked it so much.

My Dad was always all about his job, working his ass off, crunching numbers in some cubicle at a company. Mom and me and Kelly, especially Kelly, with all her surgeries for her legs, we never wanted for anything. He was always working, working late, leaving before I left for school and coming home after I was in bed. And I thought he loved his work. So every Christmas I bought him business-y things. Ties. Or dress shirts. Or pencil cups and boxes of paper clips.

But for the better portion of that year, I found out Dad wasn’t all work and no play. At least, he didn’t want to be all work and no play. I heard Mom yelling at him at night. It seemed like she was always asking him for more stuff, we need a new car, I bought this new dress, Kelly needs to have a trip to Disney World… the more I listened, the more I figured out that Dad really didn’t like work; he was just doing it for us. And he never yelled back when my Mom got all harpy. The only thing I ever heard him say back to her at a volume above normal was, “Jesus, aren’t you ever going to appreciate what I do for you?”

So that Christmas was the one that I decided to encourage him to take a little down time for himself. To go do something guy-esque, like bowling or hunting or fixing cars. And so I took a risk. And I bought him the flannel shirt.

He put it on and buttoned it up. “This is nice, Graham,” he said, feeling it. “It’s really comfortable.”

“I thought you could use it,” I said.

He looked at me for what seemed like a long time. I know because we got almost all the way through “We Three Kings,” which was playing on the stereo, before he winked at me and said, “Don’t you worry, I will.”

“Open mine!” Kelly demanded. She was chewing on a very crisp piece of bacon, and crumbs fell from the corners of her mouth to the rug. “Open mine!” She handed him the box, inside which was a tie with martini glasses on it.

He thanked her by patting her on the head, but then said, “Okay, now comes the best part! Kids, let’s get to opening your presents!”

Later, after Mom and Kelly were in bed, me and Dad were cleaning up the living room. He still had the shirt on.

“I really like this, Graham,” Dad said. “Really. I know it was probably a little scary for you, buying me something so different.”

“I didn’t think you’d like it,” I answered. “I was nervous.”

“See?” He nodded. “It pays to take a risk, doesn’t it?” He took a piece of wrapping paper, tossed it in the fireplace, and lit a match. “I want you to remember that. Sometimes you need to be not so safe about things. Sometimes, you need to change it up if you’re going to make yourself happy.”

The next morning I got up, and Mom was sitting at the kitchen table, crying. “Your father’s gone.”

“Where’d he go?” I was rummaging in the refrigerator in search of leftover eggnog—the only thing I was allowed to drink in my parents’ house, and I could have it for as many days as I pleased until it was gone, but once it was gone, there would be no more.

“No,” she said. She blew her nose. The worn-out tissue broke apart and disintegrated into tiny white bits. “Gone forever. He won’t be back.”

I stood there, blinking. “Why?”

But she cast her gaze to the floor, went to the bedroom and slammed the door. That was the first night I saw her really drunk, and after that, there was eggnog in the house every night and I could have had it whenever I wanted.

We made it through one more Christmas in the city.

Then, this past April, we came here.


It’s the middle of the night—almost morning, actually—and there is a thunk, a crash, and Kelly screaming. I hear Mom rush downstairs, and when I get down to the kitchen and flip on the light, I realize Kelly wasn’t screaming in horror, but in surprise.

“He was here! He was here! The Flannel Man!”

Mom rolls her eyes. “For God’s sake, Kelly, it’s five o’clock in the morning and I only just went to bed an hour ago. I was up all night, I didn’t see anyone.”

“He was here!”

“You had a dream,” Mom says. “All this bat-shit talk, it’s got you imagining stuff.”

But through the dark of the kitchen, out in the indigo night, I think I see a shadow dart by the window. And I hear footsteps.

“Mom, take Kelly and go upstairs.”


“I’m on the football team, Mom, I can handle it. Now take Kelly and go upstairs and lock the door. Somebody is definitely out there.”

She is about to protest further, but then Kelly says, “I told you!”

They tiptoe out of the room; they tiptoe up the stairs. And the sound of the Civil-War era stairs creaking under their lighter footfalls chills me, because I realize it’s familiar. I’ve heard that sound in the house before. I’ve heard that sound in the middle of the night when I knew both Mom and Kelly were in bed.

Whoever’s out there has been inside our house.

I have no choice.

I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and cross myself, and in my head, I heard Dad say, sometimes you need to not be so safe about things. I grab the mop, because it’s the only thing even close to a weapon, pull open the door, and rush out onto the porch, shrieking “yeeyeeyeeyeeyeeyeeyeeyee!

But there is nothing but the sound of the wind chimes and that mournful mountain silence broken only by the occasional hoot of an owl.

Until I see the footprints in the snow. Footprints that don’t belong to me, or Kelly, or Mom. Because they start in the corner by the woodpile, trail off the edge of the porch, and wend their way toward the frozen stream in the direction of the broken bridge.

I look back at the house. In the upstairs hall window I see Mom and Kelly’s huddled shadows.

I swallow. I should follow those tracks to the bridge and put an end to this once and for all. For all I know, it’s that asshole Seth, like Elkie said. But then I feel how cold my feet are and realize I’m out here, in the snow, barefoot.

On Christmas Eve.

I wave an ‘all-clear’ up to Mom and Kelly, and I see Mom pull the sheer curtain across the window and the hall light goes out. I balance the mop handle on my shoulder and start to walk, as fast as I can because my feet are burning, back toward the porch—

But I see a dark, hulking shape moving toward the bridge. Son of a bitch! “I see you!” I yell, and the thing stops for a moment and turns. God, it’s thick in the middle. Big, I can’t tell how much bigger than me, but tall.

“Get off our land!”

The thing turns and starts to run back toward the broken bridge, and I follow it, hoping to catch up with it before it decides to duck into the woods. As I get closer I can hear its heavy footfalls, a heavy crunching of the iced-over snow. God, my feet are burning!

Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.

It veers toward the broken bridge.

“Get out of here!” I shout, waving the mop. The shape is standing on the embankment, just above its lair, and it’s watching me advance, making no move to retreat. I keep running, brandishing the mop handle. I try to become one with the burning in my feet, to use the pain for courage, and I rush at the figure, raise the handle over my head, and poise to strike. And when I do, the handle clubs nothing. I end up falling down in the snow.

The dark shape has vanished.


Mom’s Swedish meatballs taste like plastic because she makes them with the powdered sauce that comes in a box. But it’s Christmas Day and she’s making something other than jam, so I’m not going to complain.

“So,” Mom says. “If you didn’t see anyone, what was all that yelling out in the yard?”

I hadn’t wanted to frighten them, so I had lied about the dark shape. “Just raccoons. I went all the way up to the bridge, Mom,” I say. “There was no one there.”

“You didn’t see The Flannel Man?” Kelly is sitting by the Christmas tree, sorting presents to the strains of Frank Sinatra’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

I look at Mom. She has that stern I’m-warning-you-young-man look on her face.

“No,” I say. “No, Kelly. There’s no such thing as The Flannel Man.”

Mom nods her approval as she stabs meatballs with her fork puts them into the Crock Pot with that vile yellow sauce.

“Really? Because he left us presents!”

One of the meatballs falls off Mom’s fork and makes a soft splish as it lands on the metal countertop between the stove and the Crock Pot.

My chest pinches. “Stop joking around, brat.”

“No, really! He left us presents! Come and see!”

Mom and I don’t move for a moment, and then we head into the living room, lit only by the twinkling white and red lights of the tree. Kelly’s got a gift, wrapped in red shiny paper, in her hand. At her feet is a pile of four or five more. “See?”

Terror: that shadow person was in this house last night. There was someone in our home.

“They have our names on them!” Kelly is beaming. “Look! Kelly. Mom, these two are for you. And Graham he even got you, too! We should go down to the bridge and thank him and maybe bring him some meatballs!”

Mom looks at me, her eyes narrowing. “Graham,” she hisses. “How could you?”

It takes me a second to figure out she’s accusing me of playing a prank on Kelly. “Mom. I didn’t! I swear!

Her expression turns sternly dubious. “Right. You said you didn’t see anyone last night.”

“I…” I know I have to come clean or she’ll blame me. “I… I did, Mom. I did see someone. I lied. I’m sorry.”

She scowls. “If your father were around—”

But she doesn’t finish her sentence. There’s no sound in the room except Frank Sinatra crooning “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays.”

“Where’s Kelly?” she asks.

Kelly is gone.

Mom’s voice goes up in pitch a notch. “Where’s Kelly?

As if in response, I hear the wind chimes on the porch and the slam of the door.

“Kelly!” Mom screams and clambers to her feet, nearly tripping on her bathrobe as she races toward the kitchen.

“Mom, I’ll go.”

“Graham, she’ll fall, she’ll get lost, she’ll— Oh, God! She took the meatballs!”

I set my hands on her upper arms. “Mom, I’ll get her. Go sit down.” And then I’m out the door, running, my feet freezing because I once again am a complete ass and am running outside in the snow barefoot. “Kelly!” I see her, in her yellow nightgown, hobbling down the embankment. She vanishes behind the skeletal bushes.

I envision her cracking her skull open on the boulders that line the creek and pick up my pace. I scramble down the embankment, slipping a few times on the ice, but arrive under the bridge unharmed.

Kelly stands there, her mouth hanging open, her little chest heaving, her breaths coming out in white puffs.

She is staring at one big, hairy man, all right. He’s got a squirrel-colored beard and hair that looks like fourteen chickadees have built nests in it. But he’s far from Bigfoot. He’s just your regular old homeless guy living under a bridge. Only something’s different.

I’d know that peacock-colored flannel shirt anywhere.


Kristi Petersen Schoonover‘s short horror fiction has appeared in WrongWorld‘s latest multi-media anthology, I’m Going to Tell You One More Time; Barbaric Yawp, The Illuminata, New Witch Magazine, MudRock: Stories & Tales, and over a dozen others, including Sussurus Press’ I Am This Meat anthology. Her stories “Wailing Station” and “King of Bull” took 2nd and 1st place, respectively, in Toasted Cheese‘s 2006 and 2007 Dead of Winter Contests. She holds a BA in Literature and Creative Writing from Burlington College and is pursuing an MFA at Goddard College in Vermont. E-mail: petersenschoonover[at]

Merry and Monroe

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Shannon Schuren

She keeps it hidden in a box under the bed.

She only keeps the bed—the same uncomfortable one she’s slept on since childhood—because it is high enough to house the box, which fits snugly beneath the tarnished frame, which holds the coiled springs, which lie beneath the torn mattress, all of it covered by the quilt hand-sewn by her grandmother.

She takes comfort in these layers. They are all that muffle the voice when it calls. Teasing, pleading, wounding. She tries to ignore it, has faced the sofa in the opposite direction so she doesn’t have to look at it. Still, the loft is sparsely furnished. It is easily heard or seen from anywhere in the apartment.

She used to worry that visitors would ask questions.

Luckily, no one has ever come.

She took the loft on a whim, something temporary until she made her mark. The gray walls hadn’t suited her then, but she wasn’t going to be here long enough to bother. Now, ten years later, the only splash of color in the room is the framed photo on the wall of herself at eighteen. She is beaming a smile reserved for moments of utter joy, a smile her lips have long forgotten. She is like a goddess, her blonde hair teased and sprayed and washing over her shoulders like a river of liquid gold, her sequined gown shining like jewels in the floodlights. One arm clutches a bouquet of roses; the other is raised to hold the teetering crown in place upon her head.

Sometimes, she wakes with the smell of the roses in her nostrils—that heady mixture of earth and fruit, of life and promise. Her skin is flushed from the heat of the lights and the thrill of the moment; her head throbs from the bobby pins being jammed against her skull, a pain so delicious it makes her cry.

She was supposed to do more. Change the world, or at least travel it. She’d thought about college briefly, thought more about dating college men. Education itself was for ugly girls with no talent, or so Monroe tells her. Girls who live in one room walk-up apartments on the bad side of town and who eat tomato soup from a can for supper. And sometimes not even for those girls.

She eats over the sink, then rinses the can and plastic spoon before recycling them. It is time to dress for work. Perhaps the blue dress tonight, or maybe the red. It doesn’t matter. She is invisible, even to those who pay to see her.

She kneels by the bed and runs her hand across the bumpy leather of the box. Her fingers fit perfectly into the worn grooves in the plastic handle, and she no longer feels the repeated bumping on her thigh as she moves down the three flights of stairs to the street outside, the weight as heavy and familiar as the door to the vestibule, the snow packed against the curb, her own thoughts.

The bar is full by the time she arrives. She slips in through the side door, catching sight of herself in the glass door. Her hair, once the color of sunflowers, has now faded to the same dull brown as the watered-down rail brandy. Her eyes are as gray as the smoky air inside. She belongs now, just like the regulars hunched protectively over their drinks, or the bartender, wiping the same liquor spills with the same dirty dishrag.

In the back, she wrestles the box onto the table. Her hands are shaky, and she takes a deep breath before flipping open both clasps and lifting the lid.

“Hello, Merry.”

“Hello, Monroe.” She stares down at the dummy. His black hair matches his tuxedo, and the rose in his lapel is as red as his painted grin. His marble eyes glitter with intelligence, or perhaps it is malice. She can no longer tell. “How did you sleep?”

“How do you think I slept, you stupid little twit? You know I hate that box.”

“I’m sorry, Monroe,” she mumbles, as she does every night.

“The blue satin again? I suppose you think it’s charming,” her dummy sneers. “It makes you look like a washed up prom queen. But then again, I suppose that’s what you are.”

“Yes, Monroe.” He’s right, he’s always right.

“I don’t know why you bother. I’m the one they come to see.”

She used to spend this time before the show telling Monroe to behave, urging him to curb his sharp tongue, warning him not to offend the customers. But that was back when she still had a voice.

“Hey, fatso,” Monroe will tell the overweight woman in the front row. “Why don’t you swallow your misery instead of that burger? It’s got a lot less calories.”

And the woman will laugh along with the audience, and Merry will pretend not to see the tears shining in her eyes.

“You over there.” He’ll raise his little fiberglass arm to point at the old man with the paunch under his shirt. “Who do you think you are, Hugh Heffner? That blonde on your arm is young enough to be your granddaughter. I’m guessing you’ve got money, Heff.” And to the blonde: “I don’t care how rich he is, honey, I guarantee you can do better.”

The man will guffaw, all the while keeping one arm wrapped tightly around his date, holding on to her youth and beauty for dear life.

Merry had once been young and beautiful. Special, they’d said, and she believed them. She’d been promised fairy castles and happily ever after, but now she knows those things don’t exist. The world is dark and cold and plastic and people are so hungry for something real, they pay to hear the smallest morsel of truth. Even when it comes out of the mouth of her dummy. No matter how painful or humiliating, for one moment it makes them feel something.

Merry will make them feel something, too.

“It’s Burger Lady tonight, Merry,” Monroe whispers after the show.

She bites her lip. “No, Monroe,” she pleads. “I can’t. Not again.”

“You’ll do it. So shut up with the stupid arguments.”

She closes her eyes for a moment, rests her forehead against the rough brick of the building. She kicks at the snow, now muddied with cigarette butts and vomit, and wishes she’d worn a sweater. It’s cold tonight, though the metal dumpster blocks some of the wind. She fingers one of the rust holes.

“I know what you’re thinking, Merry. But you’re the piece of garbage, not me. Throw me away? After all I’ve done for you?” he hisses as she slams the box shut and fumbles with the latch. “We’re connected, you and I. You can’t escape it. I’m your voice.”

She shivers and drops her gaze, steeling herself against the words and the wind as the back door swings open and the woman from the audience stumbles out into the alley.

“Look at her eyes, Merry. She’s living a fragile, lonely, bloated existence. She’s already dead inside. You know what that’s like, don’t you? She needs you to help her finish the job.” His voice is muffled now, low but still audible through the thin walls of his case, the case she shifts to her left hand so that she can better grip the carving knife in her right.

Once, she thought she’d have more. A handsome man to love her, thousands of adoring fans. But those things are just a long ago fantasy, and she knows the difference. Reality is Monroe’s voice, her dingy apartment, the smoky bar, this rat-infested alley. And the feel of the knife in her hand.

The burger lady moves toward a nondescript blue car parked along the curb. Merry slips from the shadows and falls into step behind her, the knife secured in the pocket of her parka.

She doesn’t like to hurt people. She doesn’t want to be a monster. She’s just a faded beauty queen with a puppet whose voice has long drowned out her own.

She approaches the woman as she reaches her car, careful to avoid the skids of ice along the snow-packed street. “Excuse me, but my car won’t start. Do you think I could get a ride home?”

These are the first words she’s spoken on her own in a long time, and she revels in the sound of her own voice. She throws back her head and laughs, partly from the sheer joy of speaking again, partly to drown out Monroe’s muffled accusations about witnesses on the brightly lit street.

She isn’t worried about getting caught. In fact, she yearns for it. And when it happens, she plans to keep her mouth shut and let Monroe do all the talking. The stupid bastard never can keep his mouth shut. He was wrong. There is an escape, and she’s found it. Who’s the dummy now?


Shannon Schuren lives in Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin with her husband and three children. Her stories have appeared in The Storyteller, The Chick Lit Review,, and Toasted Cheese, among others. Her first novel is available at major online bookstores and at her website. E-mail: schurshan[at]

Ice Under the Bridge

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Ryan Peterson

It was a classic dare among children in the small town of Amethyst, Wisconsin—a rite of passage by which they tested the waters of urban legend each winter to see who was the bravest. Most of all, it was for the thrill of a good scare.

Press your ear to the ice under Blood River Bridge. If you listen closely, you can still hear them trying to scream as the freezing water rushes into their lungs. You can still hear their tiny fists pounding on the bottom of the ice, and their fingernails scratching at it. If you stare through the ice long enough, you might see their faces—black, dead eyes—gaping mouths. But don’t freeze with fear…they might break through and pull you in with them, pull you all the way down to the bottom of the icy river, where it’s pitch black forever.

What made the dare all the more frightening was that it took place inside a culvert that runs under Cotton Road—a dark, cold, concrete vaulted tunnel, about five feet high and about twenty-five feet from opening to opening. The proper name of the river—the name you’d find on a map—is the Catfish River, but everyone in Amethyst had called it the Blood River Bridge since the time of the school bus accident in the winter of 1945. No one gave any thought to the connotations of the nickname anymore, or about what happened to the children who died so horribly.

Sixty years after the accident, the town hadn’t changed much. It was still small, still rural, and in the dead of winter it felt like the only place that existed in the world to Jacob Sheldon and a group of other twelve-year-old boys who were growing up in the small town of Amethyst. Jacob managed to make it through his first twelve years without being challenged, but on a gray winter afternoon after a heavy snowfall during their Christmas break, his friends called him out.

Jacob stood at the arched mouth under the Blood River Bridge, staring down its length. His friends kept a safe distance behind him, also staring down the tunnel, all of them quiet because each boy was secretly grateful it wasn’t him who had to trespass into the dim cavern. The group’s usual instigator, Toad (they called him that because of the warts he would sometimes get on his fingers) finally spoke up.

“C’mon, pretty soon it’ll be spring—the ice’ll melt, already!”

Jacob squinted with disdain but kept his eyes forward, afraid the others would see his fear. Press your ear to the ice under Blood River Bridge.

With each step Jacob took into the heart of the cave, the other boys echoed his footsteps, until they found themselves at its mouth, where they remained, and then Jacob was truly on his own. He paused to watch his breath puff out into the cave’s dim glow. He didn’t want them to see he was afraid, even though he knew they knew he was. They all were. Otherwise, what would the fun be?

The platoon of boys comprised the usual six: Toad was the leader. He could be antagonistic towards the others, but when push came to shove, they knew Toad would watch their backs. Jimmy was the fat kid, and as long as the teasing was kept to the normal, healthy dose, he took it in stride. Chris was the athlete. He could hit a ball into the outfield every time. His father had played minor league baseball before Chris was born. Alex was the smart kid. Everyone said he would be the first of them—if not the only one—to leave Amethyst. Tommy was two years younger than the other boys. His father had run off before Tommy was born. From the time he was about a year old, Tommy’s mother noticed something wrong with him. In a more cosmopolitan environment, Tommy would have been diagnosed as slightly autistic and non-verbal. In Amethyst, he was considered slow and mute, but Tommy was Toad’s baby brother, so no one ever messed with Tommy.

Jacob stopped mid-span in the concrete barrel vault. The only sound was his breath, and the only movement was the mist it puffed into the crisp air. He snuck a glance over his shoulder to see the silhouettes of the other boys watching and waiting at the cave’s mouth.

If you listen closely, you can still hear them trying to scream as the freezing water rushes into their lungs.

Jacob looked down at the gray ice beneath his feet. He felt his skin crawl and the hair stand on his neck. His racing breath echoed in the cold, concrete cavern. He no longer cared if the others knew he was scared; he just wanted to get it over with. Jacob’s lip quivered as the periphery of his surroundings faded and he stared down at the ice until its sickly, dull sheen drew him to his knees, terrified and hypnotized.

You can still hear their tiny fists pounding on the bottom of the ice, and their fingernails scratching at it. If you stare through the ice long enough, you might see their faces—black, dead eyes—gaping mouths.

Jacob felt his heart beating in his chest, and in his cold hands, and in his freezing ears. A feeling crept in that he was not just looking at the ice, but through it—that at any moment, the animated corpses of the children from that bus accident could torpedo from the deep black bottom of that river with black eyes, gray skin, and gaping mouths, pounding and scratching and clawing at Jacob on the other side of a few inches of ice. He felt a tingle in his bladder and thought he might not be able to control it. Jacob trembled, but he clenched his eyes shut and put his ear to the ice, hoping it would be silent, but as the heat was drawn from the side of his face, he heard a deep, resonating murmur…like the extended echoed thump of a heartbeat. It’s just the sound of the river flowing under the ice, Jacob told himself. That’s all it is.

What could live down there? How long could a child live as the river’s undercurrent dragged him down into its freezing, entombed darkness?

Jacob shuddered. The tingle in his bladder grew until he was sure he was about to let it go. He wanted to jump up and run, but he couldn’t. He was frozen with fear.

But don’t freeze with fear… they might break through and pull you in with them, pull you all the way down to the bottom of the icy river, where it’s pitch black forever.

Jacob pictured the dead children propelling up from the bottom of the water, like demon sea creatures from a nightmare, their pale flesh illuminated by what little light made its through the gray ice. They grew closer and closer to Jacob with their black eyes to pull him down with them into the cold darkness forever. He could hear them coming. Hear them slicing through the dense water.

Run run get up and run.

Jacob summoned strength he didn’t know he had and lifted his ear from the ice. Don’t look, just keep your eyes closed until you’re all the way up and then run run run! But before pushing himself off the ice, Jacob looked.

It was more horrifying than Jacob could have imagined, pressed up against the ice, awakened and risen from the bottom of the river. Its skin was translucent, pale, and alien. Its eyes were two black sockets, and there was evil, unyielding hunger in those two black holes that looked back into Jacob’s eyes and into his soul. When it snapped open its horrible mouth, Jacob screamed, wet his pants, and jumped off the ice as if it were charged with a thousand volts.

The other boys had never actually seen a person react this way, outside of scary movies. The pallid expression of pure horror on Jacob’s face as he ran towards them—the unabashed terror in his eyes that seemed to transform him into something altogether different—caused the other boys to scream as well. The little hairs on their little necks jumped, as did the skin from their little bodies, and they ran across the field, through the wooded area riddled with bunkers, mounds, and natural trenches in the terrain, and along the small country road that lead to their houses. Jacob had not only caught up, but had taken the lead. His house was first, and as he ran up the rattling wood steps to his porch and through the front door, the other boys followed. They huddled in the living room as if they’d just survived a wartime ambush, all of them covered in goose bumps. Jacob was on the couch with his knees tucked under his chin, trembling.

“Wha’d you see?” Toad shouted. Jacob didn’t seem to hear.

“What happened?” Toad cried again. “Wha’d you see?”

Jacob hesitated before whispering. “The kids.”

The other boys knew immediately what Jacob meant. He was telling them the urban legend was real. The boys’ jaws dropped and their eyes went wide. No one uttered a word… until Toad finally spoke up.

“You’re full of it,” Toad said. He turned to the others. “He chickened out… that’s all it is. Look! He pissed himself! He’s a chicken and he got scared and pissed himself and ran, that’s all!”

The other boys looked from Toad to Jacob and back. They didn’t know what to think, but by the looks of Jacob, he either saw something or had one hell of an imagination.

“I’m outta here,” Toad said. “I’m goin’ home.”

Toad cast Jacob a disgusted scowl, let out of puff of air through his teeth, and marched out of the house. The other boys looked at Jacob in excruciating silence until finally Jimmy lowered his head and followed Toad. Jacob peered at Chris, who avoided eye contact and followed Jimmy. Alex sighed. He looked Jacob in the eyes.

“It was real,” Jacob whispered and choked back a sob, “I saw it.”

Alex lowered his head. He noticed Jacob’s wet snow pants, and Jacob saw him notice.

“I gotta go home anyway. See ya, Jake.”

Alex walked out the door and Jacob remained on the couch, trembling and staring out at nothing. The face he saw under the ice was burned into his brain and he didn’t think its impact would ever fade. He thought he would end up in one of those mental institutions he’d heard about. Nut houses, they called them. Or mad houses. Jacob lay down on the couch and curled into a ball. His heart gradually slowed and his breathing relaxed, until darkness came over him and he slept.

Jacob’s slumber was haunted by a nightmare in which he was under water, beneath the ice. He couldn’t breath. It was dark and he felt arms and fingers groping his limbs, pulling and surrounding him like tree branches in the water under the dark ice, into cold blackness forever—

“Jacob!” a voice called.

Jacob opened his eyes. It was dark outside.

“Jacob!” his mother repeated. He turned his head to see her wearing the same nervous expression she had the time they went to the farmer’s market and Jacob got lost.

“What happened to Tommy?” she said, taking a step closer to Jacob as he sat up on the couch, dizzy and in a surreal half-dreaming state.

“Tommy?” Jacob mumbled.

“His mother can’t find him. What happened today? Where is he?”

Jacob squinted his eyes and stood, increasing his sleepy disorientation. “He—what?”

Jacob’s mother took him by the shoulders and shook him. “Where’s Tommy goddam it what happened to him where is he?”

Before Jacob’s eyes, his mother’s frantic face transformed into the face Jacob had seen under the ice. He recoiled as he thrust her arms away, fell to the floor, covered his head with his arms, and wailed uncontrollably.

His mother shook her head and trembled as she looked down on her son. “Jacob? Oh, Jacob…what did you boys do?”

No one had noticed Tommy wasn’t among them when they gathered at Jacob’s house, except for Toad, who figured his little brother had simply run straight home, but when he got there, Tommy had never shown up. Tommy’s mother called the other boys’ parents, who then called other parents, until dozens of parents were searching for Tommy well into the night. The following morning, Amethyst’s sheriff, Sean Grady, had the parents bring the boys to the station where he conducted a group interrogation.

“Do you boys realize the gravity of this situation?” Sheriff Grady berated them. “Wherever Tommy is, he needs our help.”

The boys looked back at the sheriff—mortified, terrified, but helpless.

“Do you understand the longer it is until we find Tommy, the more likely it is we won’t find him at all?” Sheriff Grady sighed and softened his voice. “I don’t care what you boys were doin, now, see? This is my town, and I’m tellin you, you aren’t in any trouble, so no matter what happened, you can tell me.”

Grady looked each of them in the eye, one at a time. All he got in return were blank faces and silence. He took off his hat and smacked it across his thigh. “Goddamn it,” he muttered before leaving the room and slamming the door behind him.

The boys sat silently. Jacob faced the wall. The other boys faced Jacob, who finally felt their eyes burning into the back of his head and turned around.

“It was the kids…” Jacob whispered as if afraid they would hear him. “…from under Blood River Bridge… they got him.”

“Don’t say that,” Toad sneered.

“Jesus,” Jimmy muttered as he trembled, “I can’t believe—”

“Don’t you say it,” Toad glared at Jimmy with a tear in his eye.

Sheriff Grady cracked the door open and poked in his head. “Jacob…”

All the boys turned towards the sheriff.

“…I want to speak with you out here.”

Jacob looked at his friends before reluctantly leaving. The last thing he saw before the door shut was Toad’s glare. Sheriff Grady escorted Jacob to a small room with a coffee machine and refrigerator, where his mother was waiting.

“Sit down, Jacob,” Sheriff Grady said, motioning to a metal folding chair. A very nervous and shaken Jacob sat.

“Your mom thinks you might have something to tell me…” he told Jacob, straightening up and crossing his arms. “…maybe something easier to say away from your friends.”

Jacob realized he was in the hot seat for Tommy’s disappearance, and it filled him with dread. Jacob’s mother had told Sheriff Grady about the way her son reacted when she told him Tommy was missing, and now she and Grady both believed Jacob was hiding something, afraid he’d get into trouble. Jacob was scared now—scared of what happened under the bridge, scared of Sheriff Grady, and scared of what would happen next. There was nothing Jacob could tell them, other than the truth—that the kids from the bus accident had pulled him down to the cold, dark bottom of the water under Blood River Bridge. Jacob’s mother put her hand to her eyes and turned away, at once distraught and embarrassed. Sheriff Grady sighed but didn’t completely dismiss Jacob’s account; he hoped it was Jacob’s way of trying to tell them something… anything that might help them find Tommy.

Sheriff Grady organized a search party to comb the area and brought in a team of divers to check the river. The ice-covered water made the underwater search difficult, and by the time darkness fell, they had found nothing. After two days, the diving team abandoned their efforts. After two weeks, the search party was disbanded. When the boys returned to school after Christmas break, Tommy was not among them.

One day at school during their first week back from break, Jacob was walking down an empty hallway to the bathroom with a hall pass. A moment after he walked past an open classroom door, Toad ran out, prowling towards Jacob, pointing a rigid finger from his balled fist and screaming.

“It’s his fault! It’s all his fault!”

Jacob recoiled as Mr. Hampton, Toad’s teacher, ran out after Toad and pulled him away.

“Where’s my brother!” Toad cried as Mr. Hampton restrained him. Toad gave in and collapsed to his knees, crying, while children and teachers from classrooms within earshot poured into the hallway to check on the commotion.

“Where’s my brother?” Toad pleaded through tears, no longer to Jacob per se, but to God or anyone who could answer. The teachers and dozens of students looked from Toad to Jacob, who was now backed up against a row of lockers, startled and mortified.

It was the kids from the river. They took Tommy away with them… down to the bottom of the icy river, where it’s pitch black forever.

The boys began to avoid each other in the halls and in the cafeteria. Toad didn’t speak to Jacob after that day in the hall, and Jacob began to feel the others believed somehow it was his own fault Tommy was gone. After a while he began to feel like much of the town believed the same. The worst of all, however, was his mother. It wasn’t that she treated Jacob any differently after Tommy’s disappearance, at least not overtly, but there were times when he would daydream she would lay her hand on his back and say, “It wasn’t your fault.” Jacob couldn’t figure out why she never did.

It was impossible for the boys to completely avoid each other in such a small town, but it was a bit easier the following year when they went on to middle school. Forgetting about each other made them feel they could forget about what happened. None of them spoke to anyone of the reoccurring dreams they each had about Tommy—cold and alone at the dark bottom of the water under Blood River Bridge. By the time the boys reached high school, the once inseparable friends were strangers.

Toad excelled in football and became the starting quarterback for Amethyst High School’s meager football team, which rotated playing games against a total of only four other teams from Grace County and Wilbur County each season. Toad was popular, always seemed full of life, and never seemed to take anything too seriously, except for football. He got into trouble now and then, but it was always good-natured trouble, the kind teachers discipline out of obligation while secretly amused. Those who might not have known Toad would never have guessed it was only a few years ago his baby brother disappeared from the face of the earth—but everyone knew Toad because no one moved to the town of Amethyst. They grew up there, and few moved away.

Jimmy grew out of his baby fat and dropped out of high school before his senior year and got a job as a laborer for a local contractor. Chris did well in baseball, but did so poorly in classes he was kicked off the team, dropped out of school, and became an alcoholic before age eighteen. Alex did more or less as everyone expected and got accepted to Dartmouth College with a full-paid scholarship.

Jacob spent most of his time throughout his teens doing homework or reading. He didn’t have many friends. Jacob didn’t know how Tommy’s disappearance could have been his fault, but he felt it must have been, because if he hadn’t been so scared under that bridge, somehow Tommy would still be with them. In Jacob’s dreams over the years, the face he saw under the ice that day slowly transformed into Tommy’s, and each time Jacob woke from the dream, he was crying, and it felt like that day under Blood River Bridge was yesterday.

As their high school graduation approached, the only common bond the boys shared were the town itself and the memory of what happened that gray winter day when they were twelve years old. In a small town like Amethyst, nothing changes, and nothing would have changed for the boys as they grew into young men—nothing, that is, had it not been for a new warehouse under construction near the Blood River Bridge.

It was five days before Amethyst High School’s graduation ceremony. Jacob sat in the dilapidated wood stands of the football field eating his lunch alone, as usual, when he saw a figure standing on the other side of the field, staring at him. Jacob froze as he lifted a turkey sandwich to his mouth. He trembled.


As the figure walked towards him, Jacob realized it was just an old familiarity that he associated with Toad’s missing brother. It was Jimmy, wearing his Dickies work clothes, caked in dirt and dust. Jimmy walked up the steps of the bleachers and sat next to Jacob as if they’d been out for beers together the night before, except he never looked Jacob in the eye, but stared out across the field.

“We’re building that warehouse over there by the river,” Jimmy said, still gazing into the distance. A crow flew over the football field and cawed.

Jimmy went on to tell Jacob about how the construction of the warehouse was behind schedule because of problems they had building the foundations. It turned out the ground wasn’t as solid as they had thought, and they’d run into a series of small crevices and caves during excavation. A week ago, the town of Amethyst had called on state park rangers to explore and document the caves outside of the area where they’d installed the new foundations. That morning, the park rangers found something lodged in a small crevice that led down to a small cave. The only opening to the crevice was a hole in the ground the size of a basketball in the wooded area between Blood River Bridge and where the boys lived. It had since been covered over with dirt and looked no bigger than a prairie dog hole.

“It was tree roots,” Jimmy said as if it explained everything. “Tree roots around the hole… caught the dirt and stuff… made the hole look small. And snow too, I bet. They probably walked right over it a dozen times while they were looking.”

It had also been tree roots that caught Tommy as he fell through the crevice during their flight from Blood River Bridge that day. Tommy had stepped in precisely the wrong place at precisely the wrong angle and fallen about twenty feet, half the distance to the bottom of the crevice. Had anyone seen it happen, they’d have said the ground just swallowed him whole, but no one did see it happen; they had all been running away. The park rangers discovered Tommy’s remains lodged in the tree roots within the crevice. Jacob couldn’t keep from wondering if Tommy was killed as soon as he fell, or if he was awake—and if so, for how long? Did he try to cry out? Could he have? Jacob could only imagine what it would have been like to die down there like that. Amethyst’s most perplexing mystery had been explained.

The funeral was two days later, and most of the town was in attendance. As the small casket was lowered, bringing Tommy’s body into the earth for the second and final time, Toad glanced at Jacob from the other side of the burial plot. Jacob wasn’t sure how to read Toad’s expression, but he didn’t believe it wasn’t contempt or hatred.

Three days after the funeral, many Amethyst town members gathered once again in the football field for the Amethyst High School graduation ceremony, which celebrated the achievement of a graduating class of fifty-two. It was a more somber event than usual. After the ceremony, the parents spoke with each other about their children’s futures and about what was going on in Amethyst that summer. They tried not to talk too much about Tommy or his family, but there was plenty of hushed conversation.

Jacob stood away from the crowd, alone in the end zone, gazing over the town towards Blood River Bridge. He didn’t act surprised when Toad approached and stood near him, gazing off in the same direction.

“I heard Alex is going to Dartmouth,” Toad said.

“Yeah, I heard too.”

A breeze kicked up and blew Jacob’s tassel. He took off his mortarboard, having forgotten he was still wearing it.

“You guys celebrating? Party or whatever?” Toad asked.


Toad kicked at the dirt. “We’re going over to O’Neill’s,” Toad said. “Just dinner. No big deal. My mom figured it would be good to get out.”

“That sounds good.”

The two old friends stood in silence and watched a tree line in the distance sway with the spring breeze.

“Well,” Toad added with a sigh, “I’m gonna head home.”

Toad glanced at Jacob as he turned to go, but Jacob didn’t seem to notice, and Toad began walking away.

“Kevin…” Jacob said without looking at him.

Toad stopped and turned around.

“…I’m sorry,” Jacob added.

Toad looked down at the ground. “It wasn’t your fault.”

And Toad walked off.

A wave of peace and forgiveness washed over Jacob—a feeling he had been sure would never come, especially not by the grace of Toad. He thought back to the friends he had when he was twelve years old, and he thought about the dare under Blood River Bridge, and how the younger kids were surely still doing it. They still called it the Blood River Bridge, but no one had thought about the reason why in a long time. Even in a town as small as Amethyst, there’s enough room to forget.

Ryan Peterson has written two full-length feature film screenplays, a novel, and about twelve short stories. He placed as a quarter- finalist in Fade In Magazine’s Writer’s Network Screenplay competition for the screenplay “Livingston.” He has had multiple short stories remain in the top ten favorites on as well as placing in Triggerstreet’s top ten favorites out of over 3,000 other scripts for the “Livingston” screenplay. E-mail: ryan[at]

Do Not Go Gentle

Boots’s Pick
Richard Wolkomir


“What’d your cat say?” Elroy asked.

No response.

They stood down there on the dock—the man, dog, and cat—staring up at his house, their skiff bobbing beside the dock where the lanky man just tied it. Elroy figured he must be a crabber from across the river in Old Cootchicalla. He had that sun-bleached look—unkempt yellow hair and mustache, both faded to straw.

Now the short-legged dog plopped down onto the dock, yawning in the Florida sunshine. Probably a Welsh corgi, Elroy thought, except its eyes seemed preternaturally bright. It gazed genially at Elroy. But the black cat and the crabber exchanged another long stare.

Elroy knew a conference when he saw one.

“She got anything interesting to say?” Elroy asked.

For the first time, the crabber looked directly at him. He had eyes like smoke. “We seek the corridor,” he said.

And Elroy thought, with sudden glee: “No martini and Turner Classic Movies tonight.”

He’d been raking palm fronds off the patio, but he guessed the rake he held wouldn’t do much against this younger man. He remembered his bedside nightstand, where he kept a pistol.

Abruptly, as if something was decided, the cat padded up the stairs and across the patio, cucumber cool, tail up, and disappeared into the house through the French door he’d left ajar.

Elroy thought: “Yes, a lively evening shaping up.”

He smiled a little, his tiny white mustache stretching out. He stood mulling the situation, a small, delicate old man, white hair moving in the hot breeze off the Gulf of Mexico.

“I get out of Connecticut every winter and I come on down here alone, now Evelyn’s gone,” Elroy told the crabber. “I garden, and pester Junior with know-it-all phone calls about the business, and he patronizes me, and I watch dolphins swim in from the Gulf.”

He hoped to smoke the guy out, see what he had in mind, because this sprawling house made of glass cubes must look enticing to a Florida Cracker from across the river, making nickels a day. But the crabber stared at the door where the cat disappeared.

“Where’re you from?” Elroy asked.

Now the crabber turned those almost-white eyes on him. He felt himself not so much looked at as looked into, an odd sensation, since who noticed old men? Then the crabber looked away, toward the glass door, watching for the cat.

“I come from far,” he said.

She reappeared on the patio, staring at the crabber. He nodded. He trotted up the steps and walked past Elroy. Then he stopped and looked back. “I am rude,” he said. “It is because of our concern—I beg leave to enter your home.”

Elroy looked at him wondering, how do you handle this?

“We shall harm nothing, take nothing, we mean only to seal the corridor’s doorway,” the crabber said.

“All well and good,” Elroy said, thinking of the corridor where Evelyn hung the artworks she’d collected in Europe. “But I like looking at those paintings now and then.”

“It is not a corridor of which you can possibly be aware,” the crabber said. “You will never notice the sealing.”

Elroy thought again of the pistol in his bedroom nightstand, which would certainly help equalize things. It was a question of how to maneuver himself to where he could get it.

“I’m Elroy Whitt,” he said. “Who’re you?”

Solemnly, the crabber looked at him. And, again, into him. “Wil Deft,” he said. “We are not to be feared, these animals and I—others might come, and they must be feared, although it may not seem so.”

“William?” Elroy said, stalling to gain figuring time. “William Deft, is it?”

For a moment, the crabber seemed preoccupied, like a man in a library, researching. Then he returned from wherever he had gone. “Wil,” he said. “Only one letter ‘l’, for so, in my own realm, is that name written.”

Ever wilder, Elroy thought, which pleased him. But he wanted his pistol.

Ahead of him, Wil Deft started across the patio toward the French doors.

“So these other folks who might come, they’re bad guys?” Elroy asked, to slow things down. “You’re the good guy?”

Wil Deft stopped, turned, his expression strange. His left hand, of its own volition, seemingly, rose to touch a blue scar running down the side of his face. But then he shrugged and walked across the patio, through the French doors.

Elroy smiled faintly, stretching out his tiny white mustache, thinking this was the most fun he’d had since seven years ago, when Evelyn volunteered at the animal shelter—he’d snuck off and bungee jumped.

He followed his visitor into his house. Inanely, he hoped Wil Deft would appreciate the Italian marble tabletops and the fancy leather furniture and Persian carpets, and the artworks. Such things were all that remained of his life with Evelyn, back when he still mattered. He wanted even burglars and robbers and homicidal maniacs to admire them, although he did not believe he dealt with anything so mundane. He felt strangeness had come into his life this evening, and it pleased him.

“Even if I get dead and dismembered,” he thought.

Walking behind Wil Deft, he slipped into his bedroom. He took his pistol from the nightstand drawer and slid it into his khaki trousers’ pocket. It felt heavy. His eyes fixed on the nightstand telephone. He imagined dialing 911, the approaching siren wail. Probably this man would turn out to be just a crabber from Old Cootchicalla, hoping to steal a few things. Elroy found it depressing, that the crabber might be just a crabber. He stared a while at the telephone. Then he walked out of the bedroom without calling 911, thinking, “Now I’ve done it.”

He found Wil Deft in the kitchen pantry with the cat, who sat staring at the back wall, just blank wallboard against which brooms and dustpans and mops leaned. Not the house’s most interesting feature.

“Yes,” Deft said. “It begins here.”

“Just mops and brooms,” Elroy said.

Wil Deft ignored him. He studied the wall. Elroy kept his hand in his pocket, clenching the pistol. He thought he saw Wil Deft’s lips move a little, as if he mumbled something to himself, maybe a poem. And then Deft held up his hands, palms down, fingers clenched, except that each ring finger extended outward, pointing at the wall.

Elroy felt disappointed.

So it’s just some weird cult ritual, he told himself. These loony sects worshipped imaginary extraterrestrials or fairies in rose bushes, or they’d give a wacky spin to some obscure Old-Testament verse, or whatever. It depressed him, that his visitor might be just a whacko. Also, his left leg hurt from standing too long. He slid his hand back into his pocket and clenched the pistol, remembering Charles Manson.

A circular patch of wallboard shimmered.

Elroy thought: “Eye trick.”

But nothing else in the pantry changed, just that round patch of wallboard, big enough to walk through. It looked silvery, touched with gold. It looked like the sunlit river, rippled by a Gulf breeze. But now the glimmer faded. Elroy saw just wallboard again. He doubted he ever saw the glimmer at all.

“It is finished,” Wil Deft said, turning to him. “That weapon in your pocket is unnecessary, and useless—even this desiccated realm retains trickles of flow, for calling upon.”

“I’m a scientist,” Elroy muttered. Maybe he had an eye disease. That would explain the glimmer. He kept his hand on his pistol. “So you’ve sealed out the bad guys?” he asked.

A shrug from the crabber. “This sealing merely veils, against seeing eyes, and our hope is it remains unfound,” he said.

“So now it’s covered in fairy dust?” Elroy asked.

Wil Deft regarded him. “It is dire,” he finally said. “You do not understand.”

Again that piercing stare.

“Will you accompany me to your dock, Elroy Whitt, scientist?” Deft said. “Would you try an experiment?”

Elroy thought: “Let’s keep the fun going.” So he followed Deft and the cat out onto the patio and down the steps to the dock. Now the dog lay in the skiff, sleeping.

“Tobi,” Deft called.

Grudgingly, the dog lifted his head. Deft looked closely at Elroy.

“Yes, I am right,” he finally said. “Allow me to do this, Elroy Whitt.”

He placed his two forefingers gently upon Elroy’s forehead.

“Ever weirder,” Elroy thought.

And then he heard a voice, a new voice that seemingly spoke within his head, with perfect clarity. “Elroy, I like you, and I want us all to be friends, even though Wil says we have to go away, and do you like lying in the sun and getting sleepy?”

Elroy started, hearing that voice in his head, because he knew whose voice it must be, and he guessed he must be going nuts.

Wil Deft spoke aloud: “Tobi judges people well.”

“Dogs don’t talk,” Elroy said, sounding to himself like an idiot.

Now another voice spoke in his head, a high, thin, dry voice: “You cannot smell, and so you fear what you should not, but not what you should.”

“That is Lal,” Wil Deft said, nodding toward the black cat sitting at his feet, staring at Elroy with eyes the azure of an iceberg.

He removed his fingers from Elroy’s temples. No more voices. Elroy felt this return to normalcy as a nearly imperceptible dimming.

“Now I wish you to remove the weapon you hid in your pocket, and shoot me,” Wil Deft said.

“That’s insane,” Elroy said, pulling the pistol from his pocket and staring at it.

“It is necessary,” Wil Deft said.

“I won’t shoot a man,” Elroy said, although he once did shoot a man.

“Then I will shoot myself,” Wil Deft said, and abruptly the pistol was in his own hand, although Elroy had not felt it grabbed away.

Staring at Elroy with those eyes faded almost to white, faintly smiling, Wil Deft held the gun at arm’s length, aimed at his own left ear, his fingers clenching the hilt and his thumb touching the trigger.

“You pull this lever?” he asked.

“For Pete’s sake!” Elroy said.

Wil Deft pulled the trigger.

A bang, and recoil—it threw the weapon from Deft’s inexperienced grip. Elroy watched the pistol thump onto the dock.

He looked up from the dock. Wil Deft still stood, looking calmly back at him. In the air, an inch from Deft’s left ear, the bullet levitated, immobile.

Elroy thought: “Newton…”

Invisible fingers released the bullet, and it plummeted to the dock. It bounced into the river.


Elroy thought: some prestidigitational stunt? But it was his own pistol, which long ago killed that bandito in Uruguay. It worked just dandy. Hallucination? But the talking dog? And the high-and-mighty cat?

“If they find you, weapons will be useless,” Deft said. “Do you see that?”

Elroy felt himself moving in the direction of the ultimate bungee jump. “I’ll head back north,” he said. “I’ll leave the alarm system on, let the sheriff deal with the bad guys.”

Wil Deft shook his head. “If you go northward,” he said, “the corridor will follow—it’s you who make the corridor.”

Elroy blurted out, “I’m a geologist,” sounding to his own ears nuttier than the crabber, who merely shook his head and smiled wanly.

“If they come, do not resist them—they’ll slay you,” he said. “Take this.”

From inside his shirt he pulled a thong, suspended from his neck. A polished white pebble hung from the leather strand, engraved with what looked like an askew letter “z.” Wil Deft handed the thong to Elroy.

“Not quartz,” Elroy thought, looking at the pebble. “Not marble. Rhyolite? Pegmatite?”

“Hold this, if they pass into the corridor—think of me,” Wil Deft said.

“What happens then?” Elroy asked, still wondering what mineral he held.

“Then I’ll know,” Wil Deft said.

He climbed back into the skiff, followed by the cat. He unwound the rope from its cleat. With an oar, he shoved the skiff off. Then he dipped his oars, pulled. Elroy watched the skiff recede downstream toward the Gulf, where the setting sun turned the sky orange. It made the water seem metallic, like mercury. At the Snook Creek confluence, the river’s bend, the skiff—now a speck—disappeared.



Every morning, for the next three, Elroy awoke thinking that.

While he weeded dahlias, he wrestled himself into viewing what happened scientifically—mini-stroke, trick of sun and shadow, swamp gas, whatever.

“Lame,” he thought.

On the fourth morning he got onto his Harley and drove up Manatee Marsh Road, rumbling past the Cootchicalla’s other north-bank mansions. His bike’s blat made his neighbors look up from polishing their Lexuses, and they frowned. That always tickled him. But today he had the crabber on his mind.

Abruptly, he braked.

He stood, helmeted, one foot braced on the street.

“It actually happened,” he told himself.

He knew it damned well. And thinking it out loud, he felt giddy with release.

“Besides,” he thought, “I’m just a half-baked, night-school-degree scientist anyway.”

When he got to Route 19, he pulled into the Fooducopia Supermarket’s sun-roasted parking lot. Maybe, he thought, he should tell Junior what happened. By the time he left Fooducopia with a plastic bag containing supper—Dijon mustard, a bottle of capers, a half pound of tilapia—he knew that idea was stupid.

Because Junior would figure he had brain itch. Then a platoon of nursemaids would take him prisoner. Inevitably, it would come to nursemaids anyway. Which was another reason he kept that pistol in his bedroom nightstand.


On the fifth morning after the crabber’s visit, Elroy awoke before dawn. Why he did not know. But his heart pounded. He sat up in bed. He wore Wil Deft’s leather thong slung around his neck, always did now, a talisman proving the visit. He pulled it up from under his pajamas, with its suspended mystery pebble. Sitting in his bed in the dark, heart racing, he fingered the still-unidentified bit of mineral.

A thump.

From down the hallway, toward the kitchen.

He knew, now, what woke him.

Footsteps. Slappy footsteps, coming up the corridor.

He opened his nightstand’s drawer. By feel he found his pistol, and a penlight. He aimed the light at the telephone and punched 911. “Intruder,” he whispered to the dispatcher. “I’m at 5238 Manatee Marsh Road, name’s Elroy Whitt. Better hustle.”

Then he hung up because the slappy footsteps approached his bedroom door. No time to wait for deputies.

He got out of bed, holding the pistol, suppressing a groan because lots of things hurt when he got up like this. At the bedroom’s open door he stopped, listening.

Feet slapped toward him in the dark.

He reached his hand around the doorframe and felt along the wall until he found the hallway light switch. But he didn’t flick it, unsure.

Maybe the intruder would walk past his bedroom and out.

He should have reset the alarm system. But armadillos on the patio sometimes set it off, or he might trigger it himself, shuffling half asleep in the wee hours with that golden-years need to frequently urinate.

Up the corridor, the footsteps stopped. Elroy sensed the intruder knew he stood there. Then the footsteps came on again.

Elroy held up the pistol, feeling his hand shake. But he felt angry, too.

He flipped the switch: sudden yellow light. He stepped through the doorway, aiming down the hall. Only, in the sudden light, he couldn’t see. He cursed himself for not thinking of that. He hoped the intruder couldn’t see either. If he heard the footsteps coming on, he’d shoot at the sound.

But the footsteps stopped. And he could see. And he yelled.


Huge. Its hairless head up to Elroy’s chin. He could see wet prints of its webbed feet along the hallway back toward the kitchen.

It glared at him, green eyes lit. Not really a frog, but it looked like one. It wore a jacket and a little boy’s short pants. But that glare was knowing, malevolent.

“Get out of my house!” Elroy yelled.

It made a sound, “Gark!” Its tongue shot out, too fast to see. Elroy felt slipperiness on his hand. And the pistol left his grip. It clattered onto the floor’s tiles. Elroy thought: “Those tiles cost a bundle—hope it doesn’t break one.”


It butted him. He felt its wet, hairless skin, its strength, its hate. He found himself lying on the floor, stunned, looking up at the thing.

“What an odd way to die,” he thought.

But the creature twisted around, looked behind it. It made a noise like “Bagrot!” Then it rushed down the hallway, webbed feet slapping. After a moment Elroy heard the patio door slam open.

“Good lord,” he thought, lying on his back. “What will I tell the police?”

His chest heaved. Heart attack? But after a moment the heaving stopped and he lay there.

He figured the frog, or whatever it was, had run down the ramp to the dock and jumped into the river.

Sirens would be coming.

He sat up.

Maybe he hallucinated. But wet footprints, already drying, marked the tile floor. Ignoring his aches, he limped out onto the patio, then down the ramp onto the dock.

Under a full moon, the river seemed black, touched with silver. Upstream, he saw a V in the water, and guessed the frog swam up toward the river’s head, a spring welling up from the limestone, near Route 19.

Somebody came out onto his patio. He thought it must be a sheriff’s deputy, responding to his 911 call. But then he saw it was not.

A woman stood in the moonlight. Blond hair, lank and wet. Her skin looked gray. A drowned woman, she seemed. In her left hand she carried something silver—a trident.

She walked down the dock towards him, peering left and right, as if she desperately sought a quarry. She wore a short gray tunic, dripping water. Beautiful, he thought, but so sad. Her eyes, colorless in the moonlight, glanced in every direction.

He guessed she hunted the frog.

She looked at Elroy, anguished. She said nothing, yet seemed to plead.

“Damned thing jumped in the river and swam upstream,” Elroy said, and pointed.

She looked where he pointed.

Abruptly she ran down the ramp to the dock. She dove in, making hardly a splash. After a while he saw her head surface, a long way upstream, and then she vanished again, beneath the water. He did not see her again.

Out in the driveway, a siren wailed.

Elroy sighed. He headed back toward the patio door to let them in.

It was two deputies, a gray-haired man, looking ready for retirement and fishing, and a younger fellow with a blond buzz cut and some slop around the belt line. In the younger deputy’s blue eyes he saw stupidity and excitement, and a wish to shoot someone.

“Embarrassing,” Elroy told them. “Must have been those damned armadillos.”


A week later a blue Dodge minivan pulled into Elroy’s circular driveway and parked by the front door. Elroy looked through the window—no car he knew.

He got his pistol out of its drawer, thinking, “I’ve got a constitutional right to be jumpy.” He pocketed the pistol and went to the door to see what this was all about.

“Don’t shoot a citizen,” he warned himself.

He’d had a new idea, which was schizophrenia. He thought the disorder came on only in younger people. And he still wore the stone on its thong around his neck. It seemed real. But giant bullfrogs didn’t look good. Neither did trident-toting mermaids, or chatty corgis and kitties, not to mention bullets stopped in mid-air. He meant to check out the county library branch over in Old Cootchicalla, or the internet, maybe, to see if people with Medicare cards ever started getting messages from angels up in laurel oaks, because he felt pretty freaked out.

He opened the front door, with his hand in his pocket, gripping the pistol, thinking he probably should tell someone about all this. But who? Besides, he’d always handled things his own way—flew solo, he liked to say—which caused a few personnel problems at Whitt Industries, not least with Junior. Evelyn nearly divorced him over it twice, that and other things.

When he looked out the door, he faintly smiled.

A dumpling of a fellow was getting out of the van. He looked at Elroy—weak greenish eyes—then looked away. He diffidently shuffled up to the stoop, a man even smaller than Elroy, but round instead of skinny, with a gray-shot reddish beard and no hair on top to speak of.

“Gosh, it’s hot,” said the man, producing an old-fashioned red-and-white handkerchief from his baggy jeans’ back pocket. He wiped his neck and his bald pate.

Elroy made out three others in the van, but not clearly, because of the green-tinted windows, to keep out the Florida sun. He thought maybe an old woman, sitting up in front, a young man in back, and maybe a fat kid.

“I’m Reverend George Grinn,” the man said. “From the Covenant of the Seekers? Over in Old Cootchicalla?”

Elroy thought, I don’t need religious tracts, even free ones. But he only raised his eyebrows, because saying what he thought might make this little man cry.

“Well, you wouldn’t have heard of us,” the Reverend Grinn said, apparently addressing his sneakers. “We’re new, and…” He wiped his neck with his bandana again.

Abruptly, he looked up.

“We believe messages are everywhere, like in… oh, even how a telephone works, or clouds, or… well, just anything, and you need to study things, read their messages, try anyway, and… I know I’m not being clear, but…” He looked at Elroy with pleading eyes.

“Anyway,” he said, “right now we’re studying buildings and…” He spread out his hands. “Well, your house is the only really modern one around here…”

“So what can I do for you?” Elroy asked.

Again, the little man looked at his sneakers. “Do you mind if we take a look at your house’s architecture, just a few minutes?” he said. “Of course, if it’s a bother we’ll…”

“Hey, Reverend,” Elroy said. “I’ll show you around myself.”

Because it relieved him, that his visitor came from just across the river instead of from another dimension. And because he made it a point to shake the little man’s hand, which felt dry and oddly cool. In that way he assured himself the hand did not belong to a schizophrenic hallucination. Also, what else did he have to do?

“Thank you,” the little man said. “You don’t know how much this means to us.”

He walked back to the car. He opened the door and put his head inside, to speak to the people sitting there. Out the front passenger-side door climbed a plumpish woman, no spring chicken, her hair dyed red. She gave Elroy a dithery smile.

From the back emerged a young man Elroy recognized from the Fooducopia Supermarket, out on Route 19, a bagger. He grinned, too brightly. “Hey, Boss,” he said to Elroy, and grinned even more brightly.

Not someone you’d pick for a religious fanatic, Elroy thought, looking at the wiry young man, who lacked one front tooth. More like a juvenile detention center graduate. But, these days, you never knew.

“What about the boy in the back seat?” Elroy asked, peering into the car. “He’s welcome to come, too.”

But the Reverend Grinn shut the door before Elroy could see the boy. “He’s retarded,” Grinn said, spreading his hands. “He’s better there.”

“Anyway, you can see this house is made from a girder frame, glassed in to make cubes,” Elroy said. “Come on in, so you can see how it’s all put together.”

He led them into the house, meaning to give them a look at the brackets the architect designed to attach the glass walls to the metal girders. But, once they got inside, the Reverend Grinn seemed uninterested in the construction.

He gazed into the living room. “Not there,” he muttered.

“What’s not there?” Elroy said, suddenly wary.

“This way,” Grinn said. He strode toward the kitchen.

“Hey,” Elroy said.

Now the woman followed Grinn. “Dear, dear,” she said to the young man.

“We’re cooking now!” the young man told her.

Elroy followed after them, wondering if he should get out his pistol.

Grinn passed the kitchen, then stopped at the pantry. He stood looking through the door, then turned.

He no longer seemed the diffident little man he did at first. His eyes now flashed. They seemed emerald now, and as if lit from within. His expression seemed oddly mixed, triumph and wrath.

“It’s sealed!” he told Elroy. “So you’re in with them? You thought this would stop us?”

“Get out,” Elroy said. “Out of my house.”

“Hey, Boss,” the young man told Elroy. “Let’s keep it polite, huh?” He gave Elroy another of his smiles, manipulative and menacing.

Elroy pulled his pistol from his pocket. He aimed at Grinn’s head. “Leave,” he said. “Now.”

Grinn looked at the gun. He continued looking at it, his gaze intensifying. Elroy felt a tingling in his hand.

The pistol fell apart.

Pieces of it—screws, the barrel, cartridges, the walnut hilt—fell from Elroy’s hand, clattered onto the floor.

Elroy stared at the pieces strewn on the tiles. Abruptly, he strode—limping—out the front door. He remembered: Grinn left the keys in his car. Elroy thought to get it going, run for help. But when he opened the door, he stood frozen.

In the back seat sat the frog.

It glared at him, malevolent. And Elroy saw a terrifying thing: on the floor, discarded, lay a silver trident.

“I wouldn’t rile him,” said Grinn’s voice from behind him. “You wouldn’t like it.”

Grinn looked at the frog, which abruptly threw open the car’s back door and climbed out.

“Gark,” it said.

Elroy shuddered, remembering that long tongue, its slipperiness wrapping around his hand that night, pulling away the pistol. But this time, as if responding to an order Elroy did not hear, the frog grabbed him by his shoulders, a painful grip.

Grinn looked at the frog, jerked his chin toward the house. Then they all filed back inside. Last came the frog, walking Elroy ahead of him, with that iron grip on his shoulders. Pushed by the frog, Elroy followed Grinn and the dithery old lady and the supermarket bagger to his pantry.

“I don’t care what happens to you,” Grinn told Elroy. “Don’t interfere and you can go on with your life. Otherwise…”

He turned, stared at the pantry wall. Elroy could see only the back of the man’s head, but he guessed he mouthed words. He extended his arms and seemed to do something with his hands that Elroy could not see.

Once again Elroy saw his pantry wall shimmer: that circular patch, large enough to walk through.

Grinn stared at the patch, satisfied. Elroy saw the wiry youth gazing at it excited, as if he had just won the lottery.

“Goodness,” the old woman said.

Elroy saw her look at the Reverend Grinn, adoring.

“Well, I almost forgot,” Grinn said. He walked back to the front door and stood in the opening. Elroy could see the blue van through the doorway. And then the van vanished.

Grinn walked back to the pantry.

“Tell anyone you want,” Grinn said to Elroy. “They’ll put you away as an addled geezer, or just forget all this—you’ll be better off.”

He looked at his three companions. “Shall we go?” he said. Then he turned and walked to the shimmering patch on the wall, and through it, and disappeared.

Under his breath, the wiry young man muttered, “Wow—it’s happening!” He too walked to the wall. For a moment, he hesitated, then walked into the shimmer. He, too, vanished.

“My goodness,” the old woman told Elroy. “Isn’t this exciting?” She walked to the shimmer and stopped. She stretched out a hand, tentatively, and touched the shimmer. Her hand disappeared to the wrist. “Oh, my,” she said. She glanced back at Elroy, an expression all at once frightened and excited and triumphant. Then, straightening her shoulders, she walked through the shimmer and vanished.

“Gark!” the frog said.

Elroy felt himself thrown onto the floor tiles. Over him, he saw the frog looking down. And he knew the frog wished to crush him, for the pleasure.


Abruptly the creature turned and hurried through the shimmer and vanished.

Elroy lay on the tiles, alone in his glass house. “What now?” he thought.

He remembered the thong around his neck and pulled up the stone from beneath his shirt. “Okay,” he thought. “Wil Deft—I’m thinking about you.”

And he thought: “What now?”

How he would spend the rest of the day mystified him. Or the day after.

He got up, groaning, for he hurt in several places. He saw the pantry wall’s shimmer beginning to fade. He knew, somehow, this would end it, that none of them would trouble him again.

He sighed.

He walked to the shimmer, staring at it, nothing on his mind at all.

“See you, Junior,” he thought.

He walked through. And he was gone.

“I’m a long-time contributor of articles and essays to major national magazines (Reader’s Digest, Smithsonian, Woman’s Day, TV Guide, Playboy, National Geographic and a number of others). My writing has received several awards, ranging from the Clarion Award to the American Association for the Advancement of Science Award for Distinguished Science Writing in Magazines. But I’ve recently turned to a long-time interest, fiction. I currently have a science fiction story in the internet magazine MindFlights and a fantasy set to published in the forthcoming issue of another internet magazine, Reflection’s Edge.” Website. Email: authors[at]


Bellman’s Pick
Casey Hill

We should go bowling sometime
when it’s nice outside
and everyone’s happy
feeling the grass
sway like an April kite
in the wind between their toes.
I love how they love springtime
and only springtime days
when the sun shines down on them
alone to keep them company.
Let’s go bowling.
I want to watch you pick
shoes that best match your shirt
even though they don’t fit
as well as when you rise
an inch to your toes
and chin your way
into the L of my neck
and whisper something new
that no one else can hear
since they don’t care for bowling
on sunny spring afternoons.
I want to watch you roll
three gutter-balls in a row
then twirl on your toes
and spin your skirt
like children laughing
on a merry-go-round
too afraid to let go,
and watch you say it’s not fair
how the floor slants to the right
when it’s your turn to go
so I can say you’re right.
I’ll say it’s time to go
so you can wrap yourself
around my arm
and skip without skipping
on linoleum diamonds
that show us to the moon
light sliding through the doors,
lingering with your eyes
on a bouncy-ball machine,
hoping for pink.

“I am currently a senior English major as well as a wide receiver on the football team at Wake Forest University where I have witnessed my love for poetry increase tremendously over the past four years. I grew up in Memphis, TN, which is home to Elvis, soul music, and the best BBQ in the world.” E-mail: hilltc5[at]

The Oaten Hands

Baker’s Pick
Nathaniel Tower

His hands were made of oats.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if he hadn’t been a horse whisperer.

His hands were like that when he was born. No one really understood why. Neither of his parents had any body parts made of oats. Neither of them had even eaten any oats the morning the conception took place. But sure enough, when Edwin MacGrain was born on that windy November night, he slid out, covered in all the embryonic goo, with hands made out of thousands of sturdy oats, all clumped together in the exact shape of normal looking hands.

The hands were still fully functional. He had full range of motion with both hands and all of his fingers. The thumbs were even opposable. It was as if the oats had simply taken the skin’s place; everything underneath was exactly the same as everyone else.

It was a darn good thing that Edwin had developed a taste aversion to oats early in his life. His mother had made sure of it. Myrtle MacGrain wasn’t going to have a child that went around munching on his own hands.

“Get your oats, I mean hands, out of your mouth,” she would yell at him whenever the youth had chewed on the delicious grains that comprised his hands.

“But they taste delicious and I’m hungry,” the boy had whined.

“Well, let me just fix that,” she said before wiping wormwood all over his hands. “Why don’t you try them now?”

He did, and immediately he drew back his head forcefully, the bitter taste of his wormwood oat hands leaving him cringing for sugar.

“Now, promise me you will never chew on your hands again.”

“I promise, Mommy,” the boy had told his mother.

And he made good on that promise, so for twenty-two years, Edwin MacGrain lived a somewhat normal life, as normal of a life as anyone could live when his hands were made of oats.

Edwin was bullied about his oat hands in school, with classmates often threatening to feed him to the local farm animals or to pour milk on him and eat him out of a bowl for breakfast. They stopped bullying him about his hands when he started wearing black cotton work gloves all the time. Then they made fun of him for wearing gloves all the time.

Most wondered if there were other parts of his body that were made of oats as well. Although some of the ladies enjoyed the novelty of his grainy touch, they were a bit afraid that other appendages might possibly consist of oats, and they assumed that the logistics of that just wouldn’t be able to work out. So, for the most part, they kept their distance.

It was his complete lack of normal social interaction that drove him to horse whispering. He stumbled upon it one day by accident really. The bullies had chased him unknowingly to a farm, leaving him as a sacrifice to the most feared horse of all, a ferociously muscular white stallion by the name of Hayman. When the beast seemed poised to strike, the cowering Edwin softly spoke, “Hey man,” not realizing at the time that the two syllables he had uttered, had they been uttered closer together, would have represented the horse’s name. But it was all the same to the horse. To Edwin’s amazement, rather than munching at his hands, the horse simply nuzzled at his feet as he begged for mercy. When he placed his oat hands on the mighty stallion’s fiery mane, the horse purred for him, and he realized that he had tamed the wild beast. It was a ridiculous scene, the boy rubbing his oats all over the menacing horse as it purred like a kitten and paid no attention to the tasty smells that emanated from Edwin’s hands.

Edwin’s favorite part about interacting with Hayman was that the horse made no attempt to make fun of him. For the first time in his life, he felt normal. He fit in. From that moment, he knew why he had been born with hands of oats—God had made him that way to connect him with the creatures of the farm.

His mother was a bit skeptical when he told her.

“How will you be able to work with horses with your condition?”

It upset him when she referred to it as a condition. It wasn’t a condition. It was a permanent state, the state in which he had been born and would live forever, and surely she was at least partly to blame for it.

“I’m a horse whisperer,” he replied simultaneously angrily and cockily, “I have full control. I don’t need to worry about my hands.”

After sighing, she let the boy choose his own fate. She didn’t know what else to do.

He never told his dad, not that the man would have cared. The father had gotten out as soon as he realized his boy’s hands were permanently made of oats. “Can we cut off the oat hands and attach real hands?” he had asked the doctor within five minutes of the birth.

“No, we can’t attach real hands, but we can cut off the oat hands. We could give him hooks if you want,” the doctor, who loved pirates, replied while standing underneath a poster of a scowling Blackbeard in his office.

“No son of mine is going to have hooks,” the mother responded when the husband told her the idea.

“Then let’s just get rid of his hands,” the father told her.

“No son of mine is going to live without hands.”

“Well no son of mine is going to have oats for hands. I want a divorce.”

She gave it to him. Had she the papers with her then and there, she would have signed them. What kind of man wouldn’t stand by his wife and son in this time of need? Men stayed in relationships when their children were born mentally retarded or without limbs or with heart conditions or with thousands of other much more serious ailments. This was just oats for hands. Maybe, in some strange way, this was a blessing.

And by the time Edwin MacGrain had turned twenty-one and discovered his gift, he realized it was indeed a blessing, and that in itself made up for the years of torment as well as the years with soggy, crumbling hands.

Although Edwin MacGrain felt that he had accomplished something when he discovered his gift, he quickly learned that the profession of horse whispering was not much in demand anymore. It had gone the way of the gasoline pumper and the scrivener. There were simply more technologically advanced ways to get the job done. Modern medicine and training techniques had created horses that didn’t need anyone to whisper to them. In fact, most horses found the whole idea of having someone feel their face while whispering nonsense to them quite annoying. Some horses would buck and kick when they felt strange hands upon them no matter how gentle the whispering was. But Edwin’s touch was different. No horse could resist the roughly gentle touch of his oaten hands. If Edwin could tame Hayman, then Edwin could tame any equine.

Edwin MacGrain felt his best opportunity for employment was through the classified ads of the neighborhood newspapers. In small towns with closely-knit communities, everyone seemed to favor neighborhood journalism over the sharp tongues of the big city writers. For a small fee of ten dollars for a week, he posted his advertisement in every neighborhood newspaper within a one hundred mile radius:

Horse Whisperer Searching for Employment
With my soft oaten hands and soothing voice,
I will tame your horse, guaranteed.
Fee: $50 per hour plus travel and meal expenses
If interested, contact Edwin MacGrain.

Below the description, he posted his mother’s phone number, which was the only phone he had ever known. He wondered if he should explain more about his hands, but he figured it was best to just wait until the calls came in.

After a week, the phone still hadn’t rung. No one seemed to need a horse whisperer, either that or they just didn’t believe that he could do the job, or possibly even the fee was too high. The following week, he put out a similar ad, another ten dollars out of his pockets, with his fee lowered to $25. The week went by and the phone still did not ring. He tried one more. The fee this time was listed as negotiable.

On Friday of that week, he finally got a call. Bixley Drowley was the man’s name, and he informed Edwin that he had several horses that needed taming. His voice was strange, deep and husky with an accent that Edwin had never heard before. The man seemed to pronounce every sound hard, stressing syllables that normally weren’t stressed.

“Edwin Mackgrain please,” he had said when Edwin picked up the phone.

“This is Edwin,” the young man replied professionally, his oaten hands tightly grasping the phone.

“This is Bixley Drowley. Got some horses that need taming. What you charge?”

“Name your price, sir.”

“Bullshit, son. I need your fee. You tell me, I’ll pay it.”

“Alright. Twenty-five an hour,” Edwin said timidly.

“Bullshit, son. That isn’t your fee. Any sensible horse whisperer with any bit of talent charges a helluva lot more than that. What’s your fee?”

“Fifty dollars an hour,” Edwin said with a little more confidence.

“Bullshit, son. I won’t pay less than one hundred. I need to know that I am buying something that is quality. So what’s your fee?”

“One hundred dollars an hour,” Edwin said firmly.

“Bullshit, son. If someone tells you they won’t pay less than one hundred, you better charge them more than one hundred or you ain’t getting all the you can out of them. You need to charge me as much as I am willing to pay.”

“How much are you willing to pay?” Edwin felt this conversation was quite twisted.

“I’ll pay up to three hundred an hour.”

“Then I’ll charge you two hundred fifty per hour—”

“Why won’t you charge me my max—”

“Plus travel and food.”

“Good deal, son. I accept. You be at Drowley farms tomorrow by the time the sun rises.”


Edwin woke excitedly the next morning two hours before sunrise. He wanted to be sure to give himself plenty of time to arrive at the Drowley farms before the sun peeked its head above the horizon. There were no mountains or hills to delay its arrival, so Edwin had no room for error. He wasn’t sure exactly what before sunrise meant as far as time, and he didn’t want to cut things too close, so he figured he would just arrive about an hour before the newspaper said the sun would rise.

As he drove down the two-lane highway, he wondered if he should have covered his hands. Even though he had indicated in the ad that his hands were oaten, it could still be quite the shock to see someone standing before you with hands made of oats. To his knowledge, he was the only one of his kind, but he was also pretty sure that no one outside of his immediate community knew about the condition. The Drowley farms were almost an hour away, and news about something like that probably didn’t bother to travel very far. It just wasn’t that important. As he neared the farms, he decided it was best to keep his hands uncovered. Drowley needed to know immediately what he was dealing with. Besides, Edwin was not ashamed of his hands. They were a gift.

An hour before the sun rose, the faint light of its rays began to emerge, and Drowley was awake and waiting on the wooden porch when Edwin arrived. Drowley, a tan man with a grisly beard, greeted him immediately. “Well hello, Edwin,” he began, pleased to meet the young man that could tame any horse. “I’m glad to see you are—what the hell is on your hands?”

Edwin looked down embarrassed but offered no answer.

“Well, son, speak…” Drowley suddenly seemed unpleasant in every way imaginable.

Edwin thought about hopping back into the car and speeding away. This was the first time he had really traveled away from his home by himself, and he was quickly realizing that he had made a mistake. “Th, the, these are my hands.”


“These are my hands.” Edwin held his oaten hands high for the man to see.

The man studied them closely for a moment, grabbing him by the forearms but being certain not to touch the hands. Drowley’s grip was strong, certainly not the grip of hands made of oats. “So your hands are made of oats?” he said in disbelief while still studying the grains that had clumped together over the bones and tendons of Edwin’s hands.

“Yes sir.”

“That’s the kind of thing you should probably tell someone before selling your services to them,” Drowley said as he released the boy’s forearms causing the oaten hands to crash against Edwin’s waist. The impact caused slight cracks that snaked their way around his hands.

“I did tell you,” Edwin responded timidly while staring at the damage that had been inflicted upon his hands. “The ad said that I had ‘oaten hands’.”

“I didn’t think that your hands were made of oats. I thought it was just some cute medafore, or whatever. Aw, hell.”

Edwin shrugged but did not respond. He saw nothing to respond to.

The two stared at each other silently for a few moments before Drowley broke the silence. “How’d they get like that?”

“I was born this way.”

“Well, no shit. Was your daddy a horse or something?”

“Wouldn’t know,” Edwin responded spitefully. “I’ve never met the sonuvabitch, but I don’t think him being a horse would give me oaten hands. Maybe if my daddy had been a box of oatmeal…”

“How the hell could your daddy be a box of oatmeal?”

“How the hell could somebody live his whole life with hands made out of oats?” Edwin responded, holding the backs of his hands right before the eyes of Drowley.

“Good point. Let me show you to the stables. You sure you can work with horses with those things?” Drowley asked as he led the way to the stables.

“Ever hear of Hayman?”

“You mean that vicious beast monster of a horse over at the Fardley place?”

“Yes sir. I tamed him. I tamed him with these oaten hands.”

Drowley stopped in his tracks and turned to the boy. “Well I’ll be a sonuvabitch. You really can do this job. Good thing I am paying you so damn much money.”

Edwin didn’t know how to respond to this. After all, Drowley was the one who had refused a lower price and suggested such a high one. All Edwin did was shrug.

Drowley resumed the walk and showed Edwin to the rotting stables. The stables consisted of four horse pens, each one a tiny cage filled with feces and shredded hay. The four horses that occupied the pens immediately perked up from their naps when Edwin entered. They could smell his presence.

“Well, here they are. That one’s Shadow, that one’s Horsearama, that one’s Milk Breath, and that one is Skinny Man,” Drowley said as he introduced the four identically brown horses. Edwin did not see a single identifying feature on any of the horses other than the fact that they were separated into different cages. “Basically, they are all wild beasts, and you need to tame them so that I can ride them.”

“Sounds good,” Edwin said with his hands hidden underneath his shirt.

“I’ll basically leave you alone with them, and you come get me when they are tame. If they aren’t tamed by noon, come see me for lunch.” Drowley didn’t wait for Edwin to respond, departing from the putrid smell of the stables as soon as he finished speaking.

Edwin went to work immediately, entering each pen, placing his oaten hands upon each horse until their menacing eyes transformed into beautiful black mirrors that accepted his presence as if he were a part of them. His work was quick and magical, and within a few short hours, the horses would have eaten out of his hands without eating his hands, no matter how tempting it might have been.

When he entered Drowley’s house only three hours later, the man assumed that Edwin was throwing in the towel. “Can’t do it, can you boy?” Drowley asked.

“Actually, I’m finished. They’re all ready for a ride. Even Skinny Man.”

Drowley dropped the mug of coffee he had been sipping. “You’re pulling my leg, ain’t ya boy. Just like you were about those oaten hands. Let me see your real hands.”

“These are my real hands,” Edwin said with a laugh. He was proud of his hands. They had just earned him over a thousand dollars. “May I have my money now?”

“How ’bout we have lunch first?”

“Whatever suits you,” Edwin replied with a smile.

The two sat down to a meal of scrambled eggs and burnt bacon. Before Edwin had even swallowed his first bite, Drowley began to rain questions upon him.

“You were really born with those?”


“How do you wash your hands?”

“I don’t. They’d crumble and get soggy. Besides, germs don’t really accumulate.”

“Interesting. Aren’t you ever tempted to eat them?”

“Aren’t you ever tempted to eat yours?”

“No, why the hell would I do that?”

“I don’t know. Why the hell would I eat my hands?”

“Because they are made of oats.”

“I hate the taste of oats.”

“I guess that makes sense. I don’t really like the taste of human flesh..”

“Have you ever really tried it?”

“No, I suppose not, other than when I used to chew on my fingers as a child.”

“Well, then it’s a damn good thing your hands weren’t made of oats.”

Edwin and Drowley continued the exchange for hours. It turned out, much to both of their surprises, that Edwin was quite normal and that he really was quite proud of his malformation.

“Shall we go look at those horses?” Drowley finally asked.

“Let’s do it.”

Drowley was quite satisfied with the behavior of his four stallions, and the two walked back to the house after only a few minutes to retrieve Edwin’s pay. Drowley handed Edwin twelve hundred dollars, which was more than the agreed upon rate, and told him that he really appreciated the help and that he would recommend him to all his friends.

“This is more than we agreed,” Edwin said.

“Well, I’ve got one more job for you, if you don’t mind.”

“Sure, anything,” Edwin replied with a renewed confidence.

“Alrighty then. Can you take this bucket of milk to them?” Drowley held out a wooden bucket filled with several gallons of milk.

“Absolutely,” Edwin said as he grabbed the bucket from Drowley’s hands. Edwin held the bucket by the bottom with both hands. He wanted to ensure that the weight was distributed evenly so as not to put any unneeded pressure on the oaten hands.

The moment Edwin entered the stables, things seemed different than they had been when he had entered. The smell of milk mixed with the smell of the oats, and the four horses reverted back to their wild ways, exiting their pens ferociously and causing a general commotion that knocked the bucket out of Edwin’s hands and sent him sprawling to the floor. His hands landed first, crumbling from the impact and soaking up the milk rapidly. Almost instantly, the four horses swarmed him and began furiously licking and chewing at his hands. His cries of pain went unheard, and he lay there helplessly as the horses ate until Edwin thought his hands were no more. After a few minutes, everything went black.

When Edwin came to, his hands were bandaged and he found himself in Drowley’s bed.

“Am I okay?” he asked the tan farmer.

“I’m not sure. Your hands were pretty badly injured.” There was general concern in Drowley’s tones.

“I need to see them,” Edwin said through anticipatory tears.

Without a word, Drowley began unwrapping the bandages until Edwin’s hands were clearly visible. Edwin’s eyes clouded with tears as he stared at the pale human flesh that had been underneath the oats all this time. It had taken him twenty-two years to figure out what to do with his deformed life, and now he wondered what he could possibly do without his oaten hands.

Nathaniel Tower is the founder and editor of Bartleby Snopes. He is a writer of fiction and teacher of English. He has stories published or forthcoming in Inscribed~A Magazine for Writers, Pens on Fire, Darkest Before the Dawn, Cynic Mag, SHINE!, Long Story Short, Ranfurly Review, Perspectives Magazine, Bottom of the World, and Cantaraville. He also has contributed many articles to The Spoof. He just finished his first novel, A Reason to Kill. E-mail: bartlebysnopes[at]

A Requiem for Javier

Ana’s Pick
Dave S. Shearer

Colin stood at the top of the bridge looking out over the bay in the moonlight. His dark hair flipped and fluttered and his jacket ripped loudly in the breeze. The bay stared back at him, a sea of living ink, churning and crawling in the night. Somewhere down below lay the body of his best friend Javier Ruiz. He had lain in a sunken grave for exactly one year to the day.

Colin stared at the water, watching the way the moonlight played off of the waves. He tried not to imagine the body of his friend beneath the water’s darkness, but the images came anyway. He saw a skeleton covered in barnacles, crabs scurrying back and forth across fish-eaten bones. He forced himself to push the image away and after a moment he saw Javier again as he had been, dark eyes shining within his deep olive complexion, handsome and bold, an image of youth and vigor. Colin looked back at the water. “There are worse places to be buried,” he supposed. “At least it’s quiet…”

Javi would have been nineteen three weeks before and Colin had gone to his mother’s house to see her. She had cried when she saw him, arms open wide to hug him as she greeted him at the front door. She had looked so much older than Colin had remembered her. Her hair was long and graying and deep lines had formed into her face. She had cried again when she brought his picture into the kitchen where Colin sat at the table eating banana bread. It was the same banana bread they had eaten as little children, when Javi called it ‘nana’ bread and his mother had always said that was just fine because her mother had taught her the recipe anyway. She continued to cry as she talked about her son and how talented he was at everything he put his mind to.

“He’s still out there Colin,” she said in her mild accent through her tears. “I know it Colin. My little chico is out there somewhere.” She cried until he felt shamefully exhausted and had excused himself. Unable to stomach anymore banana bread and powerless to ease a mother’s tears, he had kissed Mrs. Ruiz on the cheek and went back out the front, a hollow thud trailing him as he had closed the door behind him.

And so tonight on the anniversary of Javi’s death he had come out to the bridge. Earlier in the night there had been a fair amount of folks fishing or crabbing from behind the stone walls of the bridge’s sides. Colin had hung out and waited as the night saw them all disappear one by one until only he remained.

How many times had he and Javier stood there at the top of the world (or so it had always seemed)? He couldn’t remember. What he did remember was that first night, the night Javi had put in motion the cycle of events that had both bonded and broke them in the brotherhood of a secret shared.

It had started back in freshman year. Jake Standwill had told them a story that eventually turned into a dare. Jake was a small kid with glasses two times too big for his face, and a set of ears to match. His older brother was a senior and happened to be the source of Jake’s questionable information. Jake had told Colin, Javi, and a small group of other boys that a couple of varsity baseball players engaging in a hazing ritual had jumped from the Ponquogue Bridge where the Shinnecock Bay ran next to the ocean along Dune Road on the south shore of Long Island.

Jake said it was a hundred feet to the water from the top of the bridge. Colin doubted it, but since he had never measured it himself, nor knew anyone who had, he kept his mouth shut and listened to the story. Apparently one of the guys was nervous or something and he hit the water wrong when he jumped and he began to drown. Luckily, someone was there with some kind of boat and they were able to get him out of the water in time. He had almost died, at least that was what Jake had said, but Jake was a documented liar, so who really knew? It wasn’t like Colin was going to go ask one of the seniors or anything.

Javi had always been the type of kid to push his luck, jumping off five-foot ramps with his bike, picking fights with the older boys twice his size, and riding heavy waves at the ocean even on red flag days. Colin was always there with him, a disciple of poor judgment and lack of inhibition. He was Javi’s sidekick, his “mejor amigo,” as Javi always said himself. They had grown close over the years ever since they had first started playing together in grade school, and despite their differences in skin color they were like the closest of brothers. Colin had always admired Javi and sought to emulate him in every way he could.

Javi had told Jake that anyone could jump off that bridge if they only knew how to do it, and furthermore, that Javi could jump off that bridge himself with his eyes closed, (Colin supposed the latter part wasn’t as important as you would probably close your eyes anyway), so of course Jake had dared him to do it.

The next Friday, they had snuck out of Jake’s house where they were sleeping over, creeping quietly out the back door and hauling their bikes from the bushes where they had hid them earlier that day. The group was Javi, Jake, and Colin, as well as Timmy Waterson and Forest Mitchell, two other kids from their grade who they hung out with. They had ridden swiftly down south shore roadways under the lush May foliage of a blossoming Long Island summer. They peddled as if pulled by the tide, racing and laughing, whizzing through the spotlights of lonely streetlamps, their shadows struggling to keep up. At last they came to the bridge, rising above the water like a tremendous leviathan.

They parked their bikes at the foot of the bridge in the shadows of the thick reeds that grew along the shore and began to make their way up the bridge’s slope. The steep ascent quickly tired the boy’s legs and a few groans escaped their mouths as they hiked up the asphalt. At last they made it to the top, the air seeming to “open” more around them as they stood in the center of the road. They had left late enough that no one else was on the bridge. They were alone.

No one really thought that Javi was going to do it except maybe Javi himself. They figured he would chicken out and they would call him a ‘pussy’ and then they would sneak back home. Javi, however, seemed determined to make the night memorable. He walked to the stone wall at the side of the bridge and looked over. Forest joined him.

“Man, that’s high!” Forest exclaimed. He let out a long whistle.

Javi set his eyes out on the bay like Columbus looking upon the new world for the first time. He looked to Colin almost as if he were someone else, as if Colin had never seen him before in his life.

“You see?” asked Jake. “I told you it was crazy.”

Javi said nothing for a minute, then he turned around and looked at all of them and smiled. “Well, we didn’t come all the way up here to just turn back now,” he said.

Jake snorted. “Yeah right. You’re not going to do it,” he said.

Javi simply smiled and began to start taking off his shirt.

Jake saw that he intended to uphold the dare and began to get worried. “Javi, this is crazy,” said Jake, his voice sounding a little panicky.

“You shouldn’t have dared him,” said Colin, laughing.

The others besides Colin looked concerned. “Javi, I don’t think you should man…” said Timmy.

Forest murmured an agreement. Colin knew it was pointless. Although he was as worried for his friend’s life as much as the others, he had seen that look on Javi’s face before. There was no talking him out of this one.

Javi looked over at Colin. “Qué le hace piensa mi amigo?” he asked.

“I agree with Jake, I think you’re crazy,” said Colin in return.

Javi smirked and began to take off the rest of his clothes until he was standing in his boxer shorts. He climbed up and stood on top of the steel rail, looking towards the rough water.

At that moment a pair of headlights appeared at the base of the bridge and began to approach them quickly from the south. All five boys whipped their heads to see the oncoming car’s approach.

Jake looked back up at Javi, looking real scared now. “Javi, man, were going to get in trouble. C’mon get down,” he pleaded.

“Shut up Jake,” said Javi.

Colin was struck with an admiration for his friend he had known often before, whenever Javi looked in the face of danger and didn’t blink. It wasn’t natural, and you couldn’t help but marvel at the sight.

The driver of the car had seen them by now, the four boys crowded around Javi, standing on the bridge’s ledge in his underwear. The car’s tires screeched and the sound pierced the night like a piece of chalk drawn across a dry board.

“Oh no,” whispered Jake.

“I told you we’d get caught,” said Forest.

The car was close now, pulling to a stop a few feet away as the driver screamed at Javier through the open window, yelling at him, telling him not to jump.

Forest, Timmy, Jake and Colin looked up at Javi. He bent his knees again, and without any further hesitation, hopped over the ledge and into the empty night’s embrace. He dropped through the air like a falling icicle; hands at his sides, chin tucked, feet pointed. The other boys pushed to the rail and looked over the ledge to watch as Javi’s pencil dive plunged his body into the deep bay water. The sound of his entry into the waves was marked with a distant splash and the water heaved into the air as he penetrated the current.

“Oh my God!” shouted Jake.

“What the hell is going on?!” a voice shouted from behind them. A balding middle-aged man was running over from the purring car that was excreting smoky exhaust into the air above the road, the binding light from the headlamps briefly eclipsed as he passed in front of the vehicle. He joined the boys at the railing and put his head over the edge. “What are you boys doing?” he asked quickly.

They didn’t answer him. Colin had stood there biting the inside of his mouth, something he had done often throughout his whole life when he was nervous. They had held their breaths watching, waiting, and begging the waves with the silent voices of their minds for their friend’s fate.

Then, as their eyes squinted against the night, they watched Javi emerge miraculously from the water as he burst through the surface. As he propelled himself out of the depths of the bay they all cheered as Colin smiled, watching Javi start to paddle to the shore.

“Holy…” the middle-aged man said.

Colin laughed out loud.

The middle-aged man turned out to be an off-duty cop and after Javi was seen to be safe and sound he seemed to collect himself. He had gotten on a CB radio in his car and called in the incident to the precinct. They had stayed on the bridge as he told them to until two police cars showed up and brought them to the station house. Their parents were notified and one by one they showed up, hastily dressed with sleep still in their faces, angry and bewildered. Javi’s mom was the most angry. She had yelled at him in Spanish and yanked him out of the building by his hair. Colin remembered thinking to himself that none of them would ever forget that night.

And he was right. None of them ever did. Jake had squawked his mouth off about it and Javi was a superstar around school for a few weeks. Kids would come up and ask him if it was true, boys gushing with admiration and girls giggling and marveling at him. Javi played it cool but Colin knew that he like the attention.

Eventually the novelty wore off and the fascination began to die down. The weeks went by and everyone turned to the finals and the state regulated exams that were coming up. Before he had known it, Colin found the last day of school only a short week away. It was around that time that Javi had told Colin he wanted to do it again. They had been playing Playstation at Colin’s house when all of a sudden Javier had turned and told him out of the blue. Colin had asked him if he was serious. Javi had said yes, and that this time, he wanted Colin to do it with him.

They went alone a week later as the summer evenings wallowed in the moist thick of June, a sticky, clingy web of humidity. They jumped under a cloudy sky, starless, as if the heavens had taken the night off, impenetrable layers of fog covering the murky bay.

Colin remembered how scared he had been. How immense everything had seemed. He remembered feeling as if the whole world were rushing towards him, while at the same time realizing it was he that was rushing at the world. He understood at once after his feet had left the ledge why Javi had needed to do it again. It was utterly the greatest moment he had ever known in his life.

There had been no cars, no police, no angry parents that night. It had been just Colin and Javi, embracing life in a way neither of them had ever imagined, stunned that something as serious and foolish as the temptation of death could bring such surreal sensations. They had ridden home in silence and yet they had never felt such a strong bond in their friendship before.

They told no one else of that night. Not Jake, not Timmy, not Forest. No one. Nor of the other nights that followed. Every few months they would jump from the bridge, save the months from December to April, which they spent in agony waiting for the water to warm again. They harbored their dark secret together. The dangerous bond that ensnared them, their common obsession.

Senior year everything changed. Colin had gotten a part-time job at the video store in August and worked after school, so he wasn’t around during the week anymore. Javi played baseball through to the end of the summer and worked with his dad’s landscaping business on the weekends when school started. They compensated for their lack of availability by scheduling more frequent jumps, going every three or four weeks instead of months. It had been Javi’s idea. Javi had always been the one with the ideas. It wasn’t that Colin had been content to just follow him around all their lives; it was just that Javi was the type of guy who needed to be in charge. He needed to be the first one to think of something, the first to act. Yet as Colin found himself spending more time without him he began to feel an independence he had never felt before. It was not unlike the feeling of jumping from the bridge, free and uninhibited.

He also began to feel less of a thrill each time they went and something else too. Fear. A fear that he had not known before that fall. Fear that he would hurt himself and that he would get into trouble. Fear of things that had never mattered before and had all of a sudden become inexplicably important. He felt vulnerability, the weight of responsibility of adulthood creeping over him.

Javi seemed to not show the same feelings. He was as carefree as ever, relishing the jumps, untouched by the stresses of SATs and college planning as was Colin. He had started to drink and smoke weed on the weekends with a crew of other guys Colin didn’t really hang out with. Most of them were poor and came from some of the lower class families that lived in the town. They were dirt bags mostly, always getting into fights and doing drugs, some even dealing, and Colin had asked Javi what he saw in them, Javi had answered that they were fun guys and Colin just had never given them a chance.

Eventually Colin had started to feel like he and Javier had drifted apart. Javi began to skip school and get into trouble. He had two fist fights that fall for which he received a suspension each time. The principal had called Colin down to his office after the second time and asked him if he knew what was going on with his friend. Colin had told him the truth—that he honestly didn’t know.

Colin had asked Javi that same question two weeks later at the bridge as they parked their bikes. Colin had just gotten his mother’s old car the month before but they still rode their bikes, partly because the car made too much noise and partly because it was simply tradition.

Javi had looked at him angrily. “What are you talking about amigo?” he had asked.

“C’mon man,” said Colin. “You haven’t been yourself these past few months.”

Javi had looked away from him. He stared into the night as if searching for something, something hidden and elusive.

“I just want to have fun.” said Javi. “I don’t want to listen to stupid teachers and counselors who think they know all the answers. What do they know? What do you know? What does anyone know? You’re all so content living in your tight little white bread community. You’re all like a bunch of sheep, always just going along with the flock. You don’t know any other way to live!”

Colin looked at him strangely. He was confused. He had never heard Javi talk this way.

“I thought you were different Colin,” said Javier.

“I don’t understand,” said Colin.

“How could you. How could you understand how I feel? What do you know about me?” Javi had asked sharply.

“I’ve been your best friend for seventeen years!” shouted Colin. “I know you better than anyone!”

Javi looked away again, avoiding Colin’s eyes. He stepped to the railing, pulled himself up and closed his eyes. “I don’t even know myself anymore,” he said softly. He jumped off the bridge, and a moment later, Colin followed.

That night Colin had told him he wasn’t going to jump anymore. It was almost November and the water had been freezing. They wore wetsuits after September to keep from getting hypothermia and they peeled them off afterwards like snakes shedding their skins on the small rocky beach next to the bikes. Colin had told him as they peddled home.

At first Javi had said nothing, and then after a long silence he asked: “Why?”

“I don’t know…” said Colin. “It’s dangerous, and sooner or later one of us is going to get hurt. Besides it’s… it’s not the same anymore.”

Javi had not replied. They had peddled back to Colin’s house where they snuck back inside like usual, quiet as whispers in the breeze. They had lain awake for some time staring at the traces of moonlight across Colin’s bedroom walls, posters of the rock bands Taking Back Sunday, Thursday, and Glass Jaw looking down on them.

Finally Javier had whispered, “So that’s it huh?”

“Yeah…” Colin whispered back. “Are you mad?”

“No,” said Javi. “I guess I expected it.”

“Right,” said Colin.

Silence for a moment, and then: “Goodnight Javi.”

“Goodnight Colin.”

And so it had went. They had moved along separate paths after that night, their intimate bond broken. They rarely spoke, even at school. Javi had continued to act up and hang out with the wrong crowd. He failed his midterms and missed the SATs in November. Colin had continued to work at the video store, where he met Amy Hutchins a few weeks before Christmas.

Amy was very cute, with dark hair like his and beautiful hazel-brown eyes. She had a penchant for sarcasm and was every bit as high strung and energetic as he was laid back and unruffled. Somehow they made a perfect fit. She had a laugh that turned him soft each and every time he heard it. They had become friends and soon after began to date. After a few months they were calling each other boyfriend and girlfriend.

They took each other’s virginity on a bright Sunday afternoon on soft cotton sheets in Amy’s bedroom while her parents were shopping for a new T.V. Colin remembered feeling her warmth for the first time, drinking in her wonderful smell and the electric touch of her fingers on his bare skin. He remembered telling her he loved her and hearing her say it back. He remembered how amazing it felt to have someone tell you they loved you.

He had lost track of the months after that, his mind knowing only his new love and the rapidly approaching last day of high school. He had applied to NYU as an English major with the intention to write, maybe go into journalism or something like that. Amy would be going to school in the city as well to study environmental science so it seemed like the right decision. He had scored high on the SATs and was doing well in his classes. He had almost forgotten those nights at the bay when Javi had grabbed him one day after school. It had been the second week of June and the only thing standing between Colin and the start of summer were the Regents exams going on the next week.

“You missed my birthday man,” Javi had said. He was smiling.

“I called, but your mom said you were out,” said Colin.

“I know, she told me. I was just kidding,” said Javi. “So, what’s up man?”

“Not much,” said Colin. “How about you? I haven’t seen you in Chemistry…”

“Yeah, I’m going to flunk that class so I’m just not going to go. I’ll make it up over the summer.”

“What about college?”

“Well I figured I would take a semester or two off you know? Work with my dad maybe…”

“Oh,” said Colin. He had felt strangely awkward, as if they had just met for the first time instead of having known each other their whole lives.

“Listen,” said Javi. “I know what you said about never doing it again. But… I wanted to see if you would jump with me.”

“Are you serious?” asked Colin. “We haven’t done it in like six months. We’ve barely seen each other…”

“I know… It’s been eating at me man. I need to do it.”

“Javi, I don’t know…”

“C’mon!” Javi pleaded.

Colin had paused for a moment. “I can’t…” he said finally.

“Why not?” asked Javi. He looked hurt. Colin saw a weakness in him that was as foreign as a palm tree in Alaska. He had never seen Javi seem so needy.

“I don’t know,” said Colin. “I have so much to study for, and then there’s Amy… Besides how many times are we going to jump from that bridge…”

“You’ve changed man,” said Javi.

Colin looked at him for a minute, thinking about what he had said. Javi was right. Colin had changed. All that time he had been thinking it was only Javi that was different, but he realized he was different too. He made decisions for himself, and he really liked the feeling. He was happy with his life’s direction, happy that it had one. He felt like he was on the right track. A path all his own.

“We both have,” said Colin finally.

Javi nodded his head. There was another awkward silence and then finally he said. “Well, if you change your mind I’m going this Friday.”

“You shouldn’t go by yourself. What if something happens?”

“I had hoped I wouldn’t have to.”

“Why are you doing this?” asked Colin.

“Because I have to feel it again,” Javier had said. “It makes me forget everything for just a moment. When I’m falling, I don’t worry about school, or where I’m going when it ends, where I see myself in ten years.” He paused, and then said finally, shaking his head softly back and forth, “Because it makes me feel alive.” He walked away.

Colin never saw him again.

Up on the bridge, Colin pulled himself out of his memories and brought himself back to the present. The wind was blowing stronger now as the night deepened and he told himself the chill he felt on his spine was because of it. He looked again at the water.

They had searched for exactly three weeks when Javi never came back home. Volunteers from around town and relatives of Javi’s Colin had never even met had hunted the east end of the island for the boy. Colin remembered the news broadcasts and the flyers. He remembered the police asking him questions and how he had lied and how it made him feel dirty and sinful, as if the guilt of Javier’s disappearance lay on his shoulders. All the kids at school couldn’t stop talking about it, each and every day for three weeks. And when they finally had called off the search Colin had been there to see the unfortunate picture of Javi’s exhausted and mourning mother, screaming at the police for calling off the manhunt. He remembered how Javi’s father had pulled her away and swept her into the car, and then worst of all, had thanked Colin for all of his help before driving his hysterical wife back home.

Colin had found Javi’s bike a few days after the news broke. It had been stashed in the reeds beneath the bridge as they had always done. Taped to the handlebars had been the note. It was short and not made out to anyone in particular. Colin had felt a strange combination of anger and sadness beyond measure when he read it and he found himself crying and cursing as he ripped it to shreds and tossed it into the water. He had wondered how in the world Javi had gotten the cinderblock here on his bike, and how he had gotten it up the bridge for that matter. Colin had gathered the bike into the trunk of his car and driven it out to the dump the next day.

He had never told. He bore the secret partly as a mark of shame for the failings he attributed to himself in Javi’s death, partly because he didn’t want Javi’s mother to have to confront the darkness of the reality of her son’s suicide, and partly because he knew that Javi would have somehow liked it better this way. This had been their place. A place where the entire world had lain before them, where they could be anything, where nothing could touch them and they would live forever. Here they had been kings.

He paced along the sidewalk wondering how cold the water would be. Warm enough despite the wind’s chill he guessed, but it was hard to tell in June really. The temperature of the water could be fickle this time of year. It didn’t matter either way, freezing or not, he would find out soon enough.

He began to undress in the moonlight. He pushed back his thoughts of danger and injury. What he felt now was a sense of duty and honor. He had come alone. He thought that Amy might have understood enough to come, but as it had always been, it was Colin’s secret to bear. This was between him and Javi.

He stood at the rail as they had time and time before. “Hola mi amigo,” he whispered to the wind. “I’ve missed you man.”

He was in his underwear now, his body illuminated with a dull soft glow. He was fighting back tears, but now he just let them come, letting them run off his face like the surf off the rocks below, his cheeks themselves looking like polished stones in the moonlight.

He screamed into the night. “Why Javi? Why did everything have to change?!” He stood there, sobbing and shaking. “Why does everything always have to change?!” The salt of his tears mixed with that of the sea and the two danced together in the wind.

“I wish I’d been there Javi,” he cried. “I wish you could have just let it go. I wish we could have changed together. I wish…” His voice dropped, narrowly audible even to himself above the wind.

“I guess I owe you one last jump, mi amigo,” he said finally. In the end it had been what broke them, their bond of friendship that until one year ago had been timeless, and Colin was compelled to make it right, to make it whole again. He pulled himself onto the ledge as the wind tugged at him gently.

“Here I come brother,” he said softly.

As his feet left the rail he felt the water reach for him, welcoming him, and in later days he would always recall the feeling that someone was there with him, calling and laughing as he fell, seeing him safely all the way down as he plunged into the open arms of the sea.


Dave S. Shearer is from Suffolk County in Long Island, New York. He is a graduate of Dowling College. His hobbies include fishing, martial arts, writing, painting, drinking cheap whiskey, scaring his cats, and hotly debating his friends on trivial matters. E-mail: davesshearer[at]

Dead Cat

Melanie Summers

She sets the cardboard box on the countertop right in front of you, her fingers still fondling the Chiquita Banana logo on the box. She looks exactly how you imagined a female trucker would look: five-foot-two, stout belly, greasy hair peeking out from under a black ski cap, and Roman numerals tattooed onto her knuckles. A metal chain swung from her wallet as she walked through the glass doors of Park Hill’s Animal Hospital, hugging the cardboard box. It is her red nose, rubbed raw from the used Kleenexes stuffed in the pockets of her faded black jeans, that throws you off.

The counter separates the two of you like the Plexiglas wall in bad prison movie: prisoner, visitor; receptionist, client. You hand her a clipboard with the appropriate paperwork trapped under a plastic clip. The word Rimadyl is tagged across the clipboard along with most everything else in the office, pencil cup holders, staplers—all the latest freebies from Addison Pharmaceutical Company. The trucker takes the paperwork gently, as if the mere strength of her hand would shatter the hard plastic, but, then again, she may have just been tired. Her slow scribbling lulls you to sleep until the scent of stale piss and feces seeps through the cardboard box.

“His name is Andy.”

You barely understand her mucus-filled voice. Was that Sandy or Randy? No, Andy; she definitely said Andy. Her calloused fingers graze yours as she hands you the clipboard. You know her tissue will get even more of a workout once she steps out of the clinic. They always cry more once they have left the building. You lean over but the front desk—like barbed wire—stops you from patting her shoulder, from saying, “there, there,” in the same patronizing tone you watched the other receptionists use. Or maybe it isn’t the desk? You look down at her chicken scratch. The address portion is left blank. Only her name, Andy’s name, and a phone number are written. You slip the clipboard behind the counter, shielding it from the truck driver’s swollen eyes, and write, D.O.A.—Dead on Arrival.

“Would you like to say goodbye to Andy?” you ask, but she shakes her head. (You wouldn’t even know she was a woman if it wasn’t for her double-Ds stuffed into a sports bra covered by an oversized North Carolina t-shirt.) She only strokes the top of the box before she stumbles out the glass doors.

You take the box into the back, where technicians express anal glands, as well as other practices most people without medical degrees do not want to witness. You can peel back the flaps to investigate what is inside. The stench immediately saturates the air. You can’t put your finger on it, but it is definitely something you’ve experienced—not the rancid smell that Parvo leaves when the dog takes his last shit, hell, it doesn’t even smell like shit, but instead like a rotting sadness, the fetid stink of death, and you can’t help but dip your head into the box.

At first it was simply curiosity that caused you to ignore the wretched smell and peak into the tiny coffin, but now you find yourself mesmerized by this delicate creature. Andy looks like the cat you dissected in high school except white with a patch of yellowed fur on his hind quarter. Your grandmother’s cheeks were that color the night her liver gave out—marigold-flush, the Crayola crayon equivalent of jaundiced. Andy also isn’t outstretched from being hung by a wire as the formaldehyde dried like your high school specimen. He looks more like your aunt’s cat pleasantly sleeping by the fire in Vermont.

You treat this creature as if it were a jellyfish you found on the shore, and poke at his backside with a leftover tongue depressor, another goody from the Addison group. Once you realize this animal has a skeleton and fur and a heart, you press your palm against his chest. Coarse hairs slide through your fingers, and, as you ignore his rigor mortis, your hand slides over Andy’s smooth coat. For a second he is yours, he is your baby. Growing up, you were never allowed to have any pets; your mother was allergic. Funny, how even now that you are in your twenties, away from home and working at the clinic, it never occurred to you to get one.

By the size of him, you guess that Andy was four years old, about three years post his kitten days of chasing knit balls and catnip laced-mice. He collapsed in the truck somewhere between Deltona and the East/West expressway on Interstate 4. Only your second week at Park Hill’s and out of all three receptionists, you were the one to answer the trucker’s call. Amidst a constant pounding of tread against asphalt, like the broken washing machine your mother had sworn was fixed, a small voice muttered, “Do you provide private cremation?” That was two hours ago.

A set of rubber soles squeaked against the newly-waxed linoleum. A chill runs down your spine just like the night Billy Kohler unzipped the back of your dress in the faculty bathroom during the ninth-grade dance and you heard the quiet steps of a size-nine Aerosole pump. Your hand against Andy’s still heart, you remember: receptionists are not supposed to leave the front desk.

“Can I help you?” a small voice asks. Remembering how fast Billy Kohler zipped up your dress, you quickly replace the flaps on Andy’s makeshift coffin then realize it’s only Liz. Liz is about a hundred years old and given only the simplest of tasks, such as wellness exams and nail trims, because she operates about as quickly as melting snow. You turn to her (her bright-blue scrub top reflecting off her silver hair) and hand her the cardboard box as if it were a house-warming gift.

“What we got here?” She peeks in between the cracks of the cardboard box. Her lenses slope down the end of her nose. “Ah, dead cat. I’ve done a dozen of these. Follow me.”

She pushes her glasses back onto the bridge of her nose and gestures you to follow her, and you follow her aimlessly to a room the size of a walk-in closet, as if you were four and she was your mother. Shelves holding various tin boxes line the water-stained walls. A deep freezer like the one your grandma kept icy-pops and frozen patties in takes up most of the space, leaving barely enough room for the three of you to breathe. Well, the two of you.

“Here.” Liz shakes open a large plastic bag and hands it to you.

Confused, you take the empty bag.

Then, without warning, Liz picks Andy up by all fours and slides him into the bag.

Your stomach drops. The weight of this small cat pulls as if he were a Mastiff, and you dig your stubby nails into the dark plastic. Why did you take Andy into the back alone? Why did you caress his stiff coat?

The plastic slips from your sweaty fingers, and Liz catches it before it hits the ground. Her lips press tightly together, holding in any kind of reaction, and hands you a small tag with a single string like a mouse’s tail. “Here, make yourself useful,” she finally responds, twisting the bag closed to remove any air.

Embarrassed, you look down at the flimsy cardstock. Name. You print “Andy Jones.” Date. November 10, 2004. Private Cremation / Communal Cremation. You circle Private Cremation and hand the tag to Liz. She shakes her pale head until you tie the slip around the knot on Andy’s bag like a toe tag.

“Go on.” She nods.

“I can’t,” you say.

“Go on.” She is as unruly as swim coach demanding you stop being such a pussy and dive in.

The idea of placing Andy to rest in a deep freeze that should be holding icy-pops and last year’s green bean casserole makes you want to spew your half-eaten peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich all over Liz’s electrifying smock. You shake your head again. This time you’re sure to get a little empathy. You are the receptionist, damn it; you refill coffee mugs and file files. You don’t dispose of dead animals.

“You can’t remain a virgin forever,” she says with her hand against your shoulder. This is the empathy you receive—a pep talk and a pat on the back, a therapy session with a cheerleader.

His body thuds against the freezer’s bottom even though you gingerly placed him next to the other four body bags. Liz hands you a clipboard with a small yellow pencil attached to it to record the new resident. Thursday when the man from Greenbriar Crematorium comes to pick up the bodies, he’ll look at the clipboard and know who’ll get the private suite and who’ll get thrown into the kiln with the rest of the strays. The small pencil makes you think of miniature golf and you imagine tallying up your score at the end of the day—Liz, 12; you, 1; Andy, zip.

That evening when you open the door to your shoebox-sized apartment, a tiny red light, like an omen warning sailors land is near, flashes. You shimmy your way pass empty take-out boxes and press the play button.

“This is Mr. Jones with Jones, Edwards and Walsh; we handled your mother’s estate—”

You press stop. You can’t deal with him right now and instead go into the bathroom. The bathtub is the exact length of your legs, but you make do. The water heater takes its precious time, and your fingers turn pale blue as you dangle them under the faucet.

Mr. Jones was your mother’s lawyer. Now he is just a pest. Your mother died three weeks ago. Breast cancer. She’d been battling for a couple of years. That’s why you got the job at the veterinary clinic instead of going back to the university for your master’s—someone has to help out with the stacks of outstanding medical bills (your mom’s insurance company doesn’t believe in a “grieving period.”) Your sister is useless, and your mom’s deadbeat boyfriend sure isn’t doing his share; he hightailed it out of there the moment your mom quit wearing her wig.

So not only are the insurance vultures hounding you, but now Jones keeps harping on you. Apparently, you are the executor of Mom’s will, whatever that meant, but all that doesn’t matter now, and you slip into the warm water and close your eyes.

That night you heat up the leftover tuna casserole your aunt brought over last week. It’s made with the chunk light tuna not the albacore that you prefer. You bat a green pea with the end on your fork, the way you imagine Andy batted toy mice. Later that evening, you lie on the floor and throw a tennis ball against the wall. The cable is out, and you know that Todd and Nancy from next store are in Hawaii. You’ve always wanted to go to Hawaii, as well as Ireland and Spain, but you’ve never been farther that Kissimmee, Florida, about 200 miles from the hospital where you were born. How many places had Andy traveled in the passenger seat of a big rig while his owner’s tattooed knuckles grazed his neck? Did he enjoy the wind blowing through his fur?

A week passes. When you do sleep, you dream of Andy curled up in the trucker’s lap, purring to the melodic ebb and flow of endless asphalt. Tuesday rolls around, and the delivery man from Greenbrier Crematorium returns with five new tins, the smallest belonging to Andy. You sign off on the delivery slip and search the file cabinet for the manila folder labeled, Andy Jones. Waves of names tumble through your mind—Bronco Jenkins, Darby Jenner, Petal Drop Jharva then finally Andy Jones. His file is thin, skeletal alongside the meaty histories of those who’ve been seeing the doctor for years. Andy came in only that one day, and he hadn’t seen a thing.

You wait until the other receptionists are busy with their daily mundane tasks before shoving the file under your scrub shirt and slinking your way into the supplies room. You’re not sure why you hid Andy’s file under your top or why you’re in the storage closet. All you do know is that you have to be alone to make this call. Surrounded by the protective blanket of Eukanuba and Science Diet, you dial the number. No ring, only a mechanical voice, “This phone number is no longer in service, please dial again.” And so you do. “This phone number is no longer in service, please dial again.” You stare at the chicken scratch on the blue sheet of paper. Maybe the four is a nine. You dial again, adjusting the numbers. This time, you call a pizza delivery joint off of Semoran Boulevard. You think about ordering a pie, but you’re not hungry.

“Don’t worry,” you say, as you rest Andy into your lap, his tin box decorated like an Easter egg. “I won’t give up.”

You check your messages from the phone in the storage closet—your sister called, asking you if you heard from the lawyer, and Jones. Jones left four messages, probably an accumulation of dodged calls from the past week.

Two weeks pass, and no word from Andy’s owner. You keep Andy in your cubby next to your bottled water and tuna sandwich. Every Tuesday, you take him on a walk around the property during your lunch hour. As you hug him close to your waist, you tell Andy the juiciest office gossip you can muster like how the newest technician always leaves Dr. Cohen’s office with her hair disheveled and her scrub top inside-out. Some days you go into your troubles with men and how your last boyfriend claimed that Social Distortion was lame but all he ever listened to was whiny babies with acoustic guitars strapped to their chests, singing about trapped wasps. On Friday, you dial the numbers one last time. No change, so you take Andy into the small room where rows of candy-colored urns collect dust.

Cramped between the freezer and the metal shelves, you sit Indian-style in the middle of the floor. Andy is in your lap. A small envelope is taped to the top of his box. You open it. Inside, a thick card is imprinted with Rest in Peace, Andy Jones in golden calligraphy; underneath in small blocks letters the words Greenbriar Crematorium are printed. Each urn encompassing the small room has a similar envelope taped to the top of it. You rummage through dead pill bugs and layers of dust until you reach a tin large enough to hold a bag of flour, blocking a rather intricate web. Avoiding the thin gossamers and trapped insects, you grab the large oak urn and open the card. The card reads, “Bernard Taylor.” Bernard was most likely a German Shepherd or Rottweiler, possibly a police dog since Dr. Cohen saw all the K-9 units in Orange County. You don’t stop with Bernard. Tin after tin, you remove envelopes. You read the contents of each card, as if you were involved in some kind of morbid birthday party. Wiggles McGee—the size of matchbox—was probably a hamster. Pixie Allister-Jones was the same size as Andy, another cat or possibly a Chihuahua. Dozens of calligraphic names hide in beige envelopes, and you read all of them until you are drowning in a pool of abandoned animals. You have never felt such intimacy as you do right at this moment stuffed in a broom closet with the ashes of old companions. They are alone, just like you.

You’re not sure how much time has passed, but it couldn’t have been much since none of the nicotine-jonesing receptionists have sent out the bloodhounds in search of you. You stare into Andy’s new home—the filthy shelves, the brightly colored tins and wooden boxes (some marked with paw prints or slots for old photographs because their owners forked over the extra hundred bucks), and you know that it has to end, and you return each urn—the Kahulas and Boomers—to their original spots. Despite the fact that placing bodies atop of bodies makes you think of concentration camps and the communal graves dug during the Civil War, you place Andy on top of Pixie. There are no assigned plots here, and you may never be able to find Andy again. You don’t say goodbye; you only pull down the light switch and walk out the door.

As you return to the receptionists’ desk you glare into the glass doors. Smudges from the wet nose prints of over-excited pups create a foggy film over the doors you wiped down this morning. Two weeks ago, the trucker walked through those doors and handed you a wet Chiquita banana box. You swear it was two years ago.

“You’ve got a message,” one of your co-workers says between bites of a Mars Bar. “I left it by the phone.”

You sit down and rest your hand on the telephone. You find comfort in the leftover breaths on the glass doors, proof that someone, something, had been here and been happy. You pick up the receiver and dial the numbers written on a scrap of paper, Rimadyl printed across the top. When the receptionist asks you how to transfer your call, you reply, “Mr. Jones, please.”


Melanie Summers’ days consist of running after her daredevil son, writing fearlessly during his nap times, and sneaking in the occasional Woody Allen flick or foreign film. She currently resides in northwest Florida and has had poems published in both The Cypress Dome and the anthology A Peace We Knew. E-mail: melaknees2003[at]