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

I snatched the opportunity to do this month’s SnarkZone not knowing what I would write about. Would it be my experience participating in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition? Would it be about the aftermath of #QueryFail? Would it be about the fact that my five-year-old is asking me to take dictation while she “writes stories” aloud? Or how about the fact that Castle was renewed and how many portrayals of writers do we get on TV these days, much less ones as smokin’ hot as Nathan Fillion?

After a few moments—and some research of images of Nathan Fillion—I thought, “There must be some way to tie these things together.” So while listening to my daughter tell the story of horses escaping the bloodthirsty, hippocidal skeleton that has followed them to Candyland, I came up with a solution: Success.

For some of us, success is getting 500 fresh words down in a day. It might be finally working out that metaphor in the second stanza. It might be getting a request for a full from our dream agent or hearing our latest piece read in a podcast. I know that writers have goals, even if the goal is nothing more than “write.” There are people out there who prey upon those goals but more often there are people who want to help us achieve those goals, like agents, editors and publishers.

Editors, agents and publishers want writers to succeed.

Without a product to sell, these folks are out of business. That’s why agents and editors have set up blogs and Twitter accounts and Facebook pages: to get you the information you need to succeed. #Queryfail was another attempt by agents to get us to do our jobs right—a day agents and editors devoted to using Twitter as a platform to share real life examples of “don’ts” we’ve sent them over the years.

#QueryFail was not about mocking writers. Agents who participated did approach the subject of queries from “here’s what NOT to do” but that’s why it wasn’t called #QueryWin. Was #QueryFail some kind of catharsis by way of snarkery? Sure. I have a feeling that one of the reasons for #QueryFail was for the agents to get together and say “I’m not the only one who gets queries like this, am I?” It’s silly to think the sole purpose of the experiment was the equivalent of watching sideshow geeks bite the heads off chickens.

This whole “Us Versus Them” mentality that was, likely, sparked by #QueryFail makes no sense to me. I admit, I wasn’t on board for #QueryFail. I was concerned that it would be what many writers perceived it to be after the fact: a public mockery of our hard work. I went later and read the #QueryFail tweets and found it to be not much more than a reiteration of the advice given to writers since the days before Miss Snark: write well and don’t be an idiot.

When your work doesn’t succeed, use the energy of your righteous indignation to make it succeed instead of blaming agents, editors and publishers for quashing your dreams. We get tons of really good submissions to Toasted Cheese every reading period. Unfortunately we have to reject many good submissions in favor of great submissions and even those great submissions get the axe when they’re compared against spectacular submissions. Once in a while someone whose work we rejected responds by blaming us for the rejection instead of the work or the writer’s failure to follow our submission guidelines. This is all about the writer, not the editor, and the only person who can fix this is the writer himself.

Agents aren’t thrilled by the bad queries they tweet about on #QueryFail or mention in their blogs. What thrills an agent—or an editor—is someone who’s bothered to follow some simple rules and then backs that up with excellent writing. I suspect that the “hoops” we jump through in querying are a kind of litmus test to see if we’re flexible enough to work with and can follow directions.

After a few months off, I’ve returned to querying and submitting and, apart from writing the synopsis of a 100k word novel, the hardest part of the process is clicking that “send” button. The “send” button leads to waiting. I’ve been waiting to hear the status of one submission since December (and when I wrote to the journal weeks ago, I was told that notifications were on their way). I know how it feels to offer up your hard work for judgment and for likely rejection. I’ve done stupid things in my own queries (I recently sent out a batch forgetting to mention my creative writing degree). I can’t even bring myself to follow the form so many agents say they want. In my moments of righteous indignation, I say to my writing buddies, “If an agent passes on my query because I opened it with my novel title and word count instead of the hook, he can just pucker up, buttercup.” But I crave my definition of success as much as any writer.

I’ve published stories. I’ve sold stories. I’ve worked some excellent editors (as a writer and as an editor). I made the Top 100 in ABNA and received a (favorable) Publishers Weekly review as my prize, which was the goal I’d set for my manuscript; I wanted that review so bad, I could smell the ink (or pixels, as the case may be). I set new goals all the time (today’s: finish Snark Zone) and I keep reading blogs by agents, editors, publishers and writers. I might not agree with all the advice out there or with the way it’s presented but I respect its purpose: to help me succeed.

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

Portrait of a Home

Best of the Boards
Aaron M. Wilder

Your cross-beams sway in the wind now. That once stood so defiant to God. Shingles splintered and thrown to time. Weathering to male-pattern baldness. When I see you again will this roof be shaved? Doors hanging by one hinge? Elements and that run-down phrase—“it’s just the wind”—making themselves at home?

Thieves and highwaymen. All of them.

I never knew you were my past. That burning of forever in me— and you— that never falls to ash. Until I saw the ruin. The dust. Of the nights— our nights— that were to last forever. Melt to red dawn and… a familiar face, washed out. Rain fallen through the roof, moldering my best memory.

Aaron M. Wilder is a student of English at Marian College in Indianapolis, IN, where he plays baseball and tennis for scholarship. He hails from the small town of Decatur, IN, where his parents, Susan and Michael Wilder, were also born and raised. After college he plans to attend grad school and hopes to pursue a future as a writer, editor of a literary magazine, or college professor. E-mail: aaron_m_wilder[at]hotmail.com

Lady Fingers

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Amanda Divine

“Holy crap. Look at this.” Taj set down the book and stared at the photograph. “I always want to find money in books, not fingers.”

“How can you find a finger in a book? Seriously,” said Lana, shutting the cash drawer and waving goodbye to a customer.

“Well, not a finger. But a picture of a finger. Is this for real?” She handed Lana the picture and rubbed her eyes. “Tell me that’s not a finger.”

“Did you read the back?”

“What? Gimme that.”

“No, no, I’ll read it,” said Lana. “‘You know what you owe us. You have two days. Every hour after is another snapshot.'”

“It has to be a joke,” said Taj, taking back the picture. “The date stamp is two days ago.”

“That is really creepy.”

“This is the book it was in.”

Lana peered at the title: “How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found? There aren’t enough words for how creepy that is.”

“And guess who brought it in. That Craig guy.”

“Oh my god. And we thought he was a wacko before. Do you think…?”

“He put it there? I’m sure he’s on the receiving end… unless… what if this is for us?”

“Well, I don’t owe anyone any money. And I don’t recognize that finger.” Lana held up her hands. “See? All ten…”

“How can you just forget about a ransom note? Did he think he was going to get extra store credit for it?”

“He is insane…”

“But he thinks he’s rational. How else could he have written an entire website devoted to ending all wars through the use of hypnotism?”

“Don’t forget his plan to kill the president…”

“…endorsed by his contact at the CIA…”

“But I really doubt the CIA would send him a ransom note.”

“Well I really doubt the Tri-Cities has a mafia.” Taj sighed. “So do we think this is a prank, or do we report it to someone?”

Lana smiled. “Why don’t we ask him? You still have that crazy email he sent you about interpreting the Bible through the use of secret hand signals.”

“To my great regret. And what do we ask him? ‘Excuse me, Craig, is this photo of a severed finger yours? Really? You owe how much? That’s a shame, really it is. Perhaps you could offer them some of your store credit. Of course we’d be glad to help.'”

Lana said nothing, just continued smiling.

Taj shook her head. “I don’t think I like the way you’re looking at me.”

“Please? We need an adventure.”

“Okay, fine, whatever. Just be glad it’s almost closing. And if we get blindfolded and tied to chairs, they damn well better be your fingers and toes that get cut off first.”

After locking up the bookstore for the night, even Taj had to admit she felt intrigued. After the mundane bookmarks and ticket stubs she found every day in the books people brought in, there would occasionally be money, family photos, clippings, and even a pot leaf, once. But never before had she found anything more intriguing than someone’s Scotch-tape covered page of instructions for an unknown nanny. A picture of a severed finger, just sitting there on a paper plate. It looked real, but with so much digital reconfiguring anymore it was impossible to tell. And anyway she’d never actually seen a finger chopped off before, and certainly wasn’t going to test for authenticity with her own fingers.

“All right,” said Lana, leaning over Taj’s shoulder. “You type; I’ll dictate.”

“Okay. But you’d better make it sound good. Time’s running out, you know.” She opened the old email and hit Reply.

“Sure. I’m all about authentic. How about: ‘Craig. We know you’re in trouble, but we don’t know how we can help. Who is after you? We have connections that can give you time…’ How’s that?”

“Super. Great.” Taj tapped the screen. “‘We have connections?'”

“Well, why else would he tell us what’s going on?”

“Because he wants us to bear his children?”

“Eww… no, I’m sure he rather have an alien baby.”

“Maybe this is the finger of his alien baby. Maybe he kidnapped an alien baby and the aliens want their baby back and this is his mother’s finger.”

Lana poked her in the back of the head. “Just hit Send.”

The response was almost immediate. Taj had assumed they wouldn’t even get a reply, much less one that indicated Craig was psychic, or stalking them. They both read it on the screen:

“Thank you so much for contacting me!! You are blessed and must help me. I have so much to tell you and not much time. I will be at the Richland Public Library in the occult section until they kick me out tonight. Bring resources and prepare your mind for mental combat!”

“So do we do it?” asked Lana. She twisted her silver pinky ring, as she always did when she wanted something.

“Do what? Are you crazy? There’s no way I’m gonna go meet him somewhere.”

“Oh, come on. It’s at a public place. It’ll be a good laugh. What else were you going to do tonight?”

“Not get murdered? You’re gonna owe me a drink when this is done.”

“I’ll drive; you stare at the picture.”

In ten minutes they were parking under the oak trees at the library. The October chill made Taj shiver. “Are you seeing men in trenchcoats under every tree or is that just me?”

“Don’t be silly. I’m sure he just got some kind of Halloween prop and thought this would be a great joke. You have to admit this is better than going bowling after work.”

“I will admit to nothing.”

“Then I hope they’re not after your fingers. Come on already. It’s cold. Let’s go inside. I think I see him through the window. They close at seven so we don’t have to stay very long.”

Taj and Lana strode in, moving quickly before they became cowards. Craig sat at a reference table with four or five open books in front of him, running his fingers over the columns of words in two different volumes.

“Ah, excellent,” he said as they approached. “How did you find me? Wait, nevermind. We don’t have time for that. I only hope it’s not too late.”

“Too late for what?” asked Lana.

Taj tossed the picture onto one of the open books. “Whose finger is that?”

“I can’t…” Craig sighed, cradling his forehead. “I can’t tell you that… yet. But the rest of those fingers are very important to me. And since you have connections…” He looked around the room, trying to appear casual but instead giving the obvious impression of someone guilty and paranoid.

“If you want our help you have to tell us more,” said Lana sternly.

He craned his head toward them. “I know that since you sell sci-fi books you are familiar with convincing people to believe the unusual.”

Taj and Lana exchanged glances, then leaned on the table like two bad cops.

Craig spoke in a whisper. “You have to convince them to give me more time. If they take the rest of my fingers I will be doomed to fail and the world will meet its demise.”

Taj straightened and rubbed her chin. “Let me confer with my associate.” She and Lana stepped a few feet away and turned their backs on him. “What is he talking about? The rest of his fingers? I count all ten.”

“I have no idea,” said Lana. “But he’s pretty obviously still nutso. Just play along.”

They sat down across from Craig. Lana spoke first. “We can push for a delay, but we need specifics.”

“I don’t think you understand how important this is. This is worldwide. This is cosmic.” He seemed petulant.

Lana crossed her arms.

“Alright, alright. You win. They’re trying to get rid of me, because of the news that I spread. They have crossed through time to do this. Listen, right now, at this particular time intersection, I have all of my fingers.” He held up his hands and wiggled the stubby digits. “But they are crossing through time. Each hour I waste is another finger gone. You see them now, but somewhere else in time they are being pincered off with pruning shears. That’s how I got the picture. You must have gotten it through some other jump in time. But it’s all intertwined, see? You belong here helping me destroy them. I can already feel my fingers being saved.”

“Who are ‘they’ again?” asked Taj.

“The people running this machine, this video game we live in. The ones who control us. That’s why they want me, do you understand? Because I’m spreading the truth about your sense of reality. I’m the disrupter.”

Lana picked up the picture, holding it up as if to compare to Craig’s finger. They did look similar. “And how did the date stamp get to be in the past, if your fingers aren’t chopped off until the future?”

“Their technologies are quite advanced… and that was the date when my warning began. I would have thought it would be a countdown to a date in the future, that the date would change on the picture itself, but it seems firm.”

“And what, exactly, do you owe them?” Taj leaned back in her chair, looking at the picture rather than making eye contact. A severed finger was starting to look pretty normal, whether or not he purchased it from a Halloween store.

“I owe them revision of history. But I’ve laid too many loops and traps for them, and now it’s payable with my life.”

Lana looked at Taj and raised her eyebrows. “Well,” she said, “Our work here is complete. We’ll do what we can.”

“You’ve probably already done it.”

“Right,” said Taj, as they all stood up. “Good luck.” She put the picture in her back pocket. “I’m sure you’re… ah… doing a great service for humanity.”

“Luck is the devil’s business, and that’s a whole different plane of existence. My future fingers thank you.”

Outside, Lana whooped with laughter, breath exhaling in thin white clouds. Taj began to giggle. They barely made it to Lana’s car, but once inside were able to calm themselves. “Ah,” said Taj. “That was awesome. If not incredibly awkward and pathetic.”

“The only mystery now is how he got to be so crazy.”

The next morning, before the bookstore opened, Taj paced back and forth in the breakroom, unable to drink her coffee. Something didn’t feel right with the world.

The breakroom door handle rattled and she jumped. Lana entered and tossed a newspaper on the table. “He’s dead.”

“Dead?” Taj paled. “Craig? How can he be dead? We just saw him.” Lana collapsed onto the couch and recited from the article. “Richland man found dismembered at library. All fingers removed and missing. Indication of foul play.”

“I thought he was crazy,” said Taj, sitting down next to her.

“He was crazy. Completely whacko. And now I must be going crazy, because he’s dead.”

“He could have died of natural causes. Maybe he was on drugs. His website said he was on drugs.”

“Yes, that’s the rational explanation for why his fingers had all been chopped off!”

Taj shrugged. “People on drugs do crazy things.”

“They don’t chop off all of their fingers and then make said fingers disappear completely without a trace.”

Taj stared at her, and slowly moved her hand to her back pocket where she had put the picture the previous night. “I can’t look…”

“We’re not crazy. Photographs can’t change.”

Taj placed the picture upside down on the table. “On the count of three…” The picture of the severed finger remained the same—the same fat pinky finger set in the middle of a paper plate—except, and they only noticed this after a moment, the date stamp on the edge no longer reflected a date three days in the past, but read yesterday’s date, followed by a time of 19:08:32. And as they watched, another finger appeared on the paper plate, initially vague and transparent, but quickly looking just as real as the first. It was shorter and more slender, perhaps a woman’s pinky this time, and at the base, just above the bloody gash, was a thin, silver ring.

Amanda Divine lives in the Tri-Cities, WA and sells books, comics, games, and words for a living. She has several pieces appearing in Northwest Boulevard and Toasted Cheese, and will never be a kung fu master. E-mail: amanda[at]advunderground.com

Stuck in the Middle

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Brian Behr Valentine

Occasionally in a movie someone lurches awake, sitting up wide-eyed with shock. I have claimed this in my own personal anecdotes but it never really happened, not really, until last night. Remembering an old box of books I’d just purchased yesterday, or more importantly, a realization about one particular book had awakened me. One used book and what I had found inside of it.

I’m a bibliophile… a book lover, and a yard sale addict. I’ll run a grandma off the road and drive through a flowerbed for a hand-written sign tacked to a light pole. I cruise the better neighborhoods Saturday mornings with a thermos of coffee and a box of donut holes, red-eyed and looking for a fresh intellectual kill.

I make more stripping for two nights than I can in a week using my diploma. Something in me rebels against that so I use a portion of the money to buy books. I have a basement, a garage and two storage units full. I hit several good sales yesterday morning. I had purchased a lot of books but none by the box when I made my last stop.

Old dusty boxes are the best. Boxes laid out on the dew-covered grass in distain for their weight and filth, $1/ea hastily scrawled on a flap. “Oh, those were Dad’s books, from the attic, sorry about the dust! I should clean them.” They say this hoping I’ll offer a way out. A five usually seems like a good exchange for a water-damaged box full of dusty old books, mouse crap and dead wasps.

Right. I often wonder how quickly they would grab the Lincoln if they knew it had been tucked in my thong just a few hours earlier. That bill was still warm from my buns and greasy from some fat investment banker’s sweaty fingers. I marked the place on my iPhone GPS and drove home to sort through my find in the garage.

The real filth turned out to be written between the pages of one particular book, Adolph Hitler’s Mein Kampf. I’m only thirty-two but I was a serious youth. I studied this sort of thing as I prepared myself for a career in law enforcement. It is an odd thing to hold Mein Kampf in your hands in the era of Barack Obama’s presidency.

It was a ratty version, much read, which was unusual. People bought it to have not to read, consciously claiming they could not understand, unconsciously knowing they did. It went directly into the book-exchange container. The ratty leather bookmark with a hand printed safe combination went in the trash and both were forgotten, until five this morning when I lurched up in bed. I was on my knees on the garage digging through the trash when Missy, who had awakened at my hasty departure, walked in.

“Wow, Jewel, are you like… puking or waiting for me to get the strap-on?”

Missy is a stripper friend. I’m not officially a dyke and neither is she, supposedly. But she did not want to go home to her asshole boyfriend last night after we climbed down off the poles. She slipped into my car saying she just wanted to sleep on my couch. I suspect there was an ulterior motive, though she swears it was just a one-thing-leading-to-another moment. She had two bottles of very fine Chardonnay on ice in her little lunch-bag cooler. One thing did lead to another… tricky bitch.

I stood and turned, holding the bookmark by the edges under the dim garage light.

“What’s that?”

“A bookmark… of sorts,” I replied in a shaky voice.

She took the tattered bookmark from me. “It’s going to shit. Somebody wrote an IP address on it with a blue Sharpie. What’s the big deal?”

“I think those are identification numbers tattooed from the arm of a concentration camp detainee during World War Two.”

“That sucks. They did that?”


She looked at the bookmark again. “Somebody’s numbers copied off their arm…”

“I don’t think that’s a copy!”

Missy screamed, hands going to her face, she jog-stepped back from where it fluttered to the floor. “Oh my God!”

I stepped over the strip and pushed her through the door. She threw up in the sink then vigorously tried to wash the feeling of holding the marker from her hands before running upstairs to cry in bed. There are things even a stripper can’t bear thinking of.

I had no choice. I can’t… not think. I went to the couch rubbing my fingers together. I too could still feel the ratty edges myself, a dry, powdery strip of decaying leather marked with faded purple numbers. Someone’s skin though. I had found someone’s personal horror story between the pages of a used book, a book representing millions of personal horror stories.

I went back out to the garage at daylight. The streaky tan bookmark with ragged edges lay flat and frayed on the cold concrete in the stark angular light. I retrieved the copy of Mein Kampf from the exchange bin first. The book was marred by the bookmark the way the world had been marred by the author.

The strip of human leather had been too thick and the pages were compressed to form an indention. The binding was loose, the boards warped. The pages directly in contact with the tattooed flesh were red stained from the iron in the blood remnants that had leached into the paper over the years. How ironic. How horribly poetic. How poetically horrible. I wanted to replace the marker and burn them together.

“Wow,” I remarked to the author. “Still working after all these years. Trying to get me to fall for one of your own stunts. A nice toasty book burning. Bask in the warmth of vindictive judgment.” I looked the rest of the book over. There was no personal mark. But it had been one of ‘Dad’s books.’ It was Sunday morning and I had a lot of research to do and a visit to make on Monday. I’m a private detective when I’m not stripping, and sometimes when I am, since most of my clients are fellow sex workers. It would not do to hand this over to the police just yet. I needed to get to the truth for them first. I wanted to see the lady’s reaction when I held the book out. Would she be baffled or chagrined?

Her name was Susan. “Dad’s book.” I said bluntly, when she opened the door.

After a quick surprised glance she stared at me and not the book. She knew what I had found.

“Have you read it?” I asked.

“Tried. I kept getting stuck in the middle.”

“I meant this particular copy.” Still she stared. “Look lady, a crime has been committed and I don’t just mean what’s written on the pages.” I flipped it open to the bookmark and her eyes finally left mine. “This is human skin!” I said bluntly. “This is…”

With a quick look around the neighborhood she motioned me in. “Okay. I’m sorry…” She reached for the book and I tucked it under my arm. “Look, that’s family business. I’ll pay whatever you want, miss…”

“Jewel Harvard, and I want the story behind this… this atrocity pressed between the pages of an old book like it was a keepsake flower. This is more than a photograph, a postcard, or a note from grandma to the future. This isn’t a leaf from a field trip or a receipt for grandpa’s mail-order bride! This is part of a human being! Someone bled for this!”

“I know… My father…” She shook her head.

“Tell me the story… and I warn you, I will go to the police if you lie.”

“But… but its ancient history! Why bring it up now? Why not let it be?” Her eyes were glazed with tears but she trembled with rage as well. She was a tall, big-boned gal who looked like she had been athletic once despite the weight.

I held my ground. “The story!”

She glared. “I never dreamed Momma kept that after he died. She would never talk to me about it. You can try if you want. At the nursing home tomorrow morning. Just, for God’s sake, don’t go to the police!”


“He… he never wanted anyone to know,” the old lady mumbled from her partially-raised bed. “Auschwitz… He couldn’t stand the tattoo. One night… drunk… cut it off with a filet knife. Whole kitchen was bloody mess!”

“My God!” said Susan. “That scar… he said… he said it was from an auto accident!”

“No,” the crone croaked in a heavy German accent across toothless gums. “He… the blood… all over kitchen,” she said indicating the strip exposed in the open book. She turned away and squeezed dry eyes against tears that did not come.

“I’ll wait in the parking lot,” I said, sticking the book back in the white plastic grocery bag and turning it twice to wrap it.

“Satisfied?” Susan demanded, confronting me between our cars. I kept a good two-handed grip on the book. In the sunlight you could read Mein Kampf through the thin plastic. “I’ll give you five hundred dollars! I’ve got it here.” She began to dig in her purse.

“It’s a lie.” She froze. “The two of you cooked this up just for me. That number was issued to a woman named Eva. It’s not your father’s skin.”

She looked ready to jump on me.

“He’s dead. Just tell me what happened,” I demanded.

“And you’ll give me the book?”

“I will go to the police if I think you’re lying, though.”

“Okay.” She looked around. “Here?”

“Give me the short version and let’s end this.”

Her eyes remained dangerous and flat. “He was a clerk and a guard at Auschwitz. He was just a stupid boy though, tall for his age. He lied and joined the Nazi army. He was young and foolish… he believed… he believed.” She glanced with disgust. “A woman came to the house. Came here to America! She said he had been the one to… mark her. Said he had… also taken her… as his personal assistant.”

“Sex slave, you mean.”

“He was a hot-headed young fool!” Susan barked.

“Get on with it.”

“He immigrated to the U.S. and went on to live a respectable life.”

“He believed he was leading a respectable life as a Nazi too!”

She was red with anger now. “Ancient history! Then this woman comes along, two decades later!”

“He must have made a hell of an impression!” I remarked acidly.

Susan raised her hand to slap me and I gave her the eye. I probably could not have, but I maintained an attitude that said I would kick her ass in a heartbeat. Stripper nerves.

“The bitch was going to turn him in. Ruin all of our lives. She brought all this proof, pictures, records… they struggled. He hit her with a softball bat and cut that strip away so that the body could not be identified.”

“But he couldn’t stand it! The difference between who he was, a loving husband and father, peer in the community, and who he had been…during the war. He kept the strip and used it as a bookmark in that damned book. A reminder… he hadn’t read it since he brought it from Germany. But after she came… he read again and again trying to understand! How could he be both of those people? Mother found the book after he died and hid it in the attic. I thought she trashed it.”

Susan snatched the book and stalked away without looking back. It was a lie. If her father had been using a version he immigrated with, it would have been written in German. I went to the cops with the real copy and its ugly bookmark I had stowed in my trunk. It had been Susan who read and reread the English version, trying to understand how sweet wonderful daddy could also be a Nazi rapist.

She broke down under questioning and admitted to killing the woman who had come to their home when her parents were out. She had been seventeen and just home from softball practice. A big, hot-headed girl with a bat handy. Born long after the end of the war, Susan had been stuck in the middle of that book along with Eva for almost forty years now. Stuck with millions of bodies, hundreds of burned cities, a couple of A-bombs and a generation of other personal tragedies.

Brian is a winemaker who lives in the country with his lovely wife of twenty-four years and their thirteen dogs. E-mail: behrvalentine[at]excite.com

The J

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Nathaniel Tower

The other day I was reading a book I had purchased online a few years back. It was Ulysses, by Joyce. I was finally on the last chapter, the one with no punctuation, the one from the woman’s point of view—not sure if those two ideas are related or not, but I guess it makes sense.

So I had just started the chapter, a glass of wine, a Pinot Grigio, in my hand. I didn’t really have a clue what was going on, but I kept reading anyway because I was once told that the most intellectual accomplishment a human being could achieve in this day was to read Ulysses cover-to-cover. There I was, on the brink of achieving some intellectual brilliance that I didn’t fully comprehend but was proud of anyway, when I accidentally tipped my Pinot, sending the swirling liquid in a waterfall to my newly planted carpet.

In haste, I sprang from the comfort of my recliner, spilling the immortal genius of Joyce in a far less tragic accident, the heavy volume crashing with great force upon my naked big toe. Although the massive words hurt, I resisted the urge for profanity, instead stooping quickly and silently to rescue the pages from the wine that was seeping into my carpet.

After bouncing off my foot, the book had landed oddly, its spine down, flipped open to pages 364 and 365, words I had read many weeks ago, words that now stared at me wistfully, begging for another glance.

And then I noticed it. Lodged between those two pages was a tiny white envelope.

How had I not noticed this before?

I could feel the dampness soaking into my foot, ruining my carpet, but I paid no attention.

Was this an omen? A sign? Had someone planted this envelope possibly when I had dozed for just a brief moment while reading on the park bench?

Without hesitation and with great curiosity, my clumsy fingers tore into the small white envelope, forever breaking the bond between paper and licked glue.


In big block letters. One word and one letter. No punctuation. A tiny space separating them.


“Who the hell is J?” I asked aloud.

No one answered.

I flipped the book closed, not caring that I had lost my place, and stared at the picture of Joyce that graced the cover.

“Who’s J?” I asked his reproduced image.

He stared back, but did not answer. I flipped through the book, but the pages offered no further clues.

A swarm of question buzzed through my mind. Who wrote the note? Was it intended for me? Who was J? Was I to kill J? Was Joyce the J, and this was just some jokester’s attempt to suggest we stop reading his works? Was this a reference to the novel that I had somehow missed? Had someone accidentally switched books with me and left his reminder to kill J in the wrong hands?

I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and gathered myself. The questions ceased.

Out loud, I made a list of all the Js I knew well. “Jane, Jared, John, James, Jim, and Janet.” I thought about it again, and decided to add all of the last names I knew. “Johnson, Jurotich, Jackson, Jerinnian.”

I repeated the list, trying to order them according to whom I would most want dead. Of all the names, two stood out: Jim and Jurotich.

Jim was a two-timing snake, someone who stabbed you in the back before you even turned around. On top of that, he was a pervert who had twice been arrested for doing unmentionable perverted things.

Jurotich wasn’t a terrible person, but every time he spoke, he irritated to core of your soul.

I continued to think, wavering back and forth between the two despicable characters. At last I came to the realization that it was Jim. Someone wanted Jim dead. That someone wanted me to kill Jim. I understood what I had to do. I was the chosen one.

I made another list, this time of all the people I thought might want Jim dead. Once I had a dozen names, I folded it gently and placed it in my pocket. I returned the envelope to its shelter between the pages of the book, and headed out for the park where I frequently read, leaving the soaking wine to forever soil my new carpet. Oh well, I told myself later, it was bound to happen eventually.

In the park, I sat on my usual bench, a bench of sturdy wood and cracking gray paint, and held the book just below eye level so the world could easily see what I was reading. Actually, I wasn’t reading. My eyes were glancing over the top of the book, peering stealthily into a world that did not know I was watching. Strategically I had placed the jagged torn end of the envelope so that it also peered out, the rest of its body clenched together by two pages halfway through the book.

I studied the people that walked by.

There was a tall rabbi, a man who did not even glance my way.

There were three or four women jogging, two of whom studied me as they ran slowly by, possibly admiring my intellect.

Two men walked by talking about a woman one had “boned.” They repeatedly and loudly used the word as they neared me.

There were a handful of squirrels, none of whom paid any attention to me whatsoever.

There was a police officer who eyed me suspiciously for a moment before continuing his beat.

There was a sketchy bearded man in a trenchcoat and sunglasses. Of all the people present, he seemed most likely to be the one to want someone dead. But he didn’t approach me either, although he did stand within a dozen yards for quite some time. Perhaps it was I who should have approached him, I began to wonder.

Finally, after several hours of waiting—eventually I realized how suspicious my lack of page turning must have looking—a young woman I didn’t think I had ever seen before approached and sat on the bench beside me. She caught me off guard, at a moment of weakness where I was actually studying Joyce’s words, so I didn’t get much of a glimpse at her, but I could see how maybe she would want someone dead. She certainly didn’t seem the type to do the deed herself.

“Nice day,” she said casually.

“Uh huh,” I responded, lost in my book.

“You like Joyce?”

“I’m trying to,” I added curtly. I wasn’t about to play coy with her. This wasn’t a situation for coyness.

“Yeah, he’s hard to get into.”

Something about her voice forced me to look up from the words that didn’t really have my attention. Looking over her face, I noticed she was strikingly beautiful, the type of woman that would likely have inspired someone like Joyce to write a poem. I wished for a moment that Joyce had been there to capture her beauty with his magical pen.

“Is this your first battle with Ulysses?” she asked with her glistening green eyes the color of emeralds shining in the morning sun.

“No. Yes. I’m not really sure,” I stumbled over my clumsy tongue in a very un-Joycean manner.

She laughed comfortably at my words, taking my clumsiness for some cute form of flirtation.

“Look,” I said, lowering the book and looking away from her sharp eyes, “I know why you’re here.”

“Oh really?” she asked, blinking but surprisingly not blushing.

“I sure do.”

“But you don’t even know my name.” She spoke incredulously.

My fingers gently played with the frayed edges of the protruding envelope. Her eyes watched my subtle movements.

“Perhaps it’s best we not get too personal here.”

My brown eyes met her green eyes. Hers pierced mine and I looked away.

“But don’t I want to get personal?” she asked cryptically, as women are wont to do.

“No, you just want to kill J. Or have me do it.”

“Oh.” She began to slide away from me as if I were some leper.

“Look, I’ll do it, but I need a little help.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that.” She looked down at the ground, her dragon-colored eyes searing the pavement below us.

We sat in silence for several minutes. I could feel the heat rising from the ground, circling around me, engulfing my soul.

“So is this how it’s going to be?” she asked, finally breaking the silence.

“I told you I need help.”

“And I told you I couldn’t help you.”

“Can you at least tell me who J is? I mean, I think I know, but how can anyone be sure? And this is far too serious to risk picking the wrong J.”

She sighed and stood. “I’m sure you can figure it out,” she said unsurely. For the first time, I noticed more than just her eyes. She was actually not as strikingly beautiful as I had initially thought. In fact, she was rather plain. “So are you going to do it?”

“If I can figure it out.” Secretly, I decided I no longer would. There seemed no clear reason for such an act, and I couldn’t very well just go kill someone because a normal-looking woman who happened to have somewhat enchanting eyes asked me to.

“Oh, you’ll figure it out,” she added, her back turned to me as she walked away.

And that’s when I noticed it. Attached to her bag was a single letter, straight at first, then hooking into a miniature U at the bottom. Together, the two shapes formed a golden J.

I reached into my pocket and removed the small revolver. Pointing the gun, my hand quivering, I debated for a moment. Was I sure? Was this what she wanted? Could I really kill someone I had just met? Then again, who was I to not kill someone who really wanted me to do it?

Before she could get out of range, I decided to pull the trigger. As the smoke rose from the barrel, her body collapsed to the grass, falling like a sack of potatoes, a strange sight from such a small woman.

I stood, looking around to assure myself there were no witnesses, then ran to the body and scooped up her bag before sprinting away from the scene. As I ran, the image of blood-painted grass clung to my mind.

Back in the security of my apartment, I searched the contents of her bag. It was filled with dozens of small white envelopes. I tore into one after the other, the same five letters staring at me repeatedly.





After a couple dozen, I stopped my frantic search for meaning. I removed the golden J from her bag and studied it carefully. It looked so out of place in my hand. I turned it over repeatedly. It was nothing but a plain gold J.

I tried to reason with myself that I had done the right thing. Clearly she had been the purveyor of the note, but still I wondered how it had gotten there, and still I wondered why she had been so cryptic. I tried to focus on some logical explanation, but I couldn’t see anything clearly except her cold green eyes blending into the grass as her body fell to the ground.

Throwing the J to the ground, I decided to turn to Joyce for help. After all, the book was where the story had all began. Perhaps the ending would clear things up. So I read the last few pages, desperately searching for some sign to indicate that I had done the right thing, to confirm that I wasn’t completely insane.

And in the end, I found the confirmation I needed. There, on the final page of Joyce’s great work, the final sentence of a chapter without sentences, a solitary affirming word. That single “Yes” caused me to breathe the greatest sigh of relief that had ever been emitted from my lips. Smiling, I closed the book and rested it atop the mountain of notes.

At the precise moment of my victory, the police showed up.

Nathaniel Tower writes fiction and teaches English. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Cantaraville, Mud Luscious, Bottom of the World, Inscribed, Skive, Toasted Cheese and many others. He is also the founding editor of the online literary magazine, Bartleby Snopes. He currently lives in St. Louis, MO with his wife. E-mail: bartlebysnopes[at]yahoo.com

In the Footsteps of Robert Running Bear

Ana’s Pick
Ron Arnold

Jimmy, my cousin, is lanky for a twelve-year-old, but not awkward. Once he clobbered a baseball so hard it sailed clear over the fence in the park. He always says, You’re a scrawny runt for ten. I’ve never hit a home run or come close. Our mothers like to dump us off at Grandpa’s farm on weekends ’cause it’s a convenient way to get rid of us. Whenever Aunt Betty sees me, she squeezes my cheek to put a dimple in it. Then Grandpa hangs onto both of them ’til I look like a bloodhound. I don’t like being called cute or being squeezed and poked, but I guess that’s the way relatives are.

Today Grandpa is riding the tractor to break up and turn over soil. Worms and bugs are everywhere. A swarm of seagulls has flown in from the coast and follows the tractor wherever it goes. The birds squawk and dive down to pick up the quivering insects in their beaks. A red pickup turns off the road and kicks up a stream of dust as it heads toward the barn. Grandpa stops the chugging tractor and climbs off. He says, “That must be Robert Running Bear.”

We walk across the field to greet him. Robert Running Bear has high cheekbones, a broad nose, long black hair, and the sunburnt complexion of an American Indian. Another Indian, Daniel Black Swan, starts loading sacks of Sweet Silver corn seed from a stall in the barn to the back of the pickup. Sweet Silver is Grandpa’s cash crop ’cause he can plant it in early spring and harvest it in the middle of July, which is a good three weeks before anybody else does. Robert Running Bear pulls his hair together in a ponytail and knots a leather band around it that has two feathers hanging down.

“Are those eagle feathers?” I ask.

“Eagle, no. Falcon, yes. Never the eagle! That is a sacred bird.”

“What’s so special about eagles?”

He studies me closely before speaking, “At one time the earth was covered by an immense, dark cloud. The eagle gathered the lightning during a storm and soared high into the sky and flew in a circle to form the sun. Then a lightning bolt came loose and spun off to form the moon. With its work done, the eagle glided back to earth and built a nest in the highest treetop.”

I imagine the bird gliding in triumph on wings turned gold by the sunshine.

Robert Running Bear goes over to help Daniel Black Swan load the sacks of corn.

Jimmy snickers.

“What are you laughing about?” I ask.

“That Indian is loco. Everyone knows eagles can’t fly that high.”

“He says they can.”

Jimmy scrapes a stick in the dirt. “My father told me Indians are drunks. He says most of them have a stash of liquor in their living room.”

“Robert Running Bear is not like that,” I insist.

“How do you know?”

“How do you know he isn’t?”

Jimmy throws dirt balls that splatter against the tires of the pickup. Grandpa shouts at him to stop and invites the Indians into the house for coffee. Only Robert Running Bear accepts the offer. Daniel Black Swan stands guard by the pickup and Jimmy sits outside on the porch. So I find myself in the kitchen with Grandpa and the Indian.

Grandpa tinkers with the coffee pot on the stove, “Tell him how you got your name.”

“It happened when I was fifteen,” says Robert Running Bear. “I was fishing with my older brother at a creek near our village. We were catching striped bass and cleaning them. I walked back up the path toward my home. That’s when I crossed paths with a crazed black bear.” He looks over my head as though he’s seeing something.

“The bear was crazy?” I blurt out. “How did you know?”

He looks into my eyes. “Most of the time they stand up and huff. That means leave them alone. Or sometimes they turn and tramp through the woods to get away. But this one was foaming at the mouth and charged toward me.”

Grandpa pours the coffee into several cups and sets a pitcher of cream and a jar of honey on the table.

“I tried to move out of the way,” explains Robert Running Bear, “before I could, it was towering over me.”

“Those bears out in the backwoods are really big,” says Grandpa. “I’ve seen them myself.”

“I left my hunting knife down by the creek.” The Indian sips his coffee. “Luckily, my elders taught me to keep a clear head in times of danger.”

“What did you do?” I ask.

“I reached into my pants pocket and pulled out the round flint stone I used to sharpen the knife with. I delivered it like a hammer blow. I killed the bear right there. That day I became Robert Running Bear.”

I’m not sure whether to believe him, but he has a proud look on his face. He unbuttons his shirt and shows me the scars scratched across his chest.

I scramble outside to tell Jimmy. “Robert Running Bear was in a fight with a bear. I saw the claw marks on his chest.”

“It’s probably a knife mark from a barroom brawl.”

“There’s a lot of them.”

“He’s been to a lot of bars.”

“How can you say that?” I complain. “You don’t even know him.”

“My father told me what I need to know about Indians.”

“Your father doesn’t know Robert Running Bear.”

Jimmy walks over to a stack of tools and pulls one out. “Do I have to hit you over the head with this rake?”

“Why can’t you believe him?”


Summer seems to drag on except on rainy days when Jimmy asks Grandpa if we can play in Uncle Bucky’s room. Grandpa thinks we admire Uncle Bucky ’cause he has gone to Agriculture School and shows up at family gatherings sporting clean overalls and speaking in scientific lingo. But me and Jimmy like the room ’cause a trap door is hidden underneath the rug, allowing us to sneak outside by climbing down a wood ladder and scooting underneath the house. Sometimes Jimmy takes along a slingshot to shoot stones at squirrels. Lately, he has an urge to go snooping in the woods leading to Peterson’s house.

Last night’s rain has tailed off to a drizzle. Black pools of water dot the ground as we jog across an open field. “No trespassing” signs are posted on either side of Peterson’s gravel driveway. We ignore them and slip into the woods. The upper side of branches and leaves are wet but underneath the ground is dry. Jimmy tugs on the collar of my shirt and stops me.

“David,” he says, “You might not know this, but there are spooks in these woods from John Bonner’s graveyard.”

I creep forward. The closer we get to Peterson’s house, the more eerie it feels. We spot a fence that is at least ten feet high. My heart is racing faster than the clogging of a thoroughbred as I follow Jimmy. I see a pair of black eyes and a toothy grin behind the fence. Then a dog comes roaring out, snapping its fangs.

I scream and flee for my life. I stumble over a bush and fall into a big puddle.

Jimmy stands by the fence and laughs.

He torments me for weeks by calling me a coward and teasing me with wolf howls. He says that Peterson makes his living by breeding watchdogs for city folks stuck in poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods and always keeps a pair around to scare suckers like me.

I can’t sleep for weeks, causing dark circles to form underneath my eyes.

One day, Grandpa shows us the vegetables growing on his farm. He can recognize each type by the shape of its leaves which he holds in his thick, leathery hands. He kneels down along a row and digs up a purple beet. I detect a sharp odor. He breaks open a pea pod. I can smell a sweet green flavor.

Then Jimmy charges toward me with a garden snake dangling from a stick.

“Argh!” I run away.

Jimmy doubles over with laughter and stomps the ground.

When Grandpa comes over, I hang my head and almost cry. I tell him I’ve been having nightmares about the dogs.

“Robert Running Bear might have a prescription for that,” says Grandpa. “We’ll call him this afternoon.” He picks a few ripe vegetables and puts them in a cardboard box. He tells me he’s going to play the role of a Good Samaritan and dole them out to the neighbors.

“Why are you doing that?”

“Because you can do something extra that is easy for you to do and in return they will help you. It makes you wealthy like having money in the bank.”

Our first stop is Grandpa’s next-door neighbor, Clara, who has brown hair rolled on top her head like a cinnamon bun. She talks to us while hanging up clothes on a rope strung from the back porch to a pole in the middle of the yard. She starts with a light syrupy gossip—Jean’s daughter has chicken pox. Becky is engaged to a boy in another town.—and ends up with a story at least six months old about the time the tractor rolled over onto Roy Tillman and crushed his leg. She lets us use her phone.

We call Robert Running Bear’s village. He has just come back from a hunting trip for white-tailed deer. Grandpa tells him about my situation and puts me on the phone.

“If you put a man into the right situation,” says Robert Running Bear, “like planting a seed in fertile soil, courage will sprout and grow.”

I doubt it.


Grandpa can’t resist doing a favor. So when Peterson asks for help taking the dogs to the vet, he can’t say No! I tell Grandpa that I’m scared. He says Peterson sometimes allows the dogs to stay in the house and eat dinner in the kitchen. They like spaghetti. I picture them sitting up at the table with a plate set in front of them. “Do they know how to use a knife and fork?”

Grandpa laughs in his easy way.

That Saturday Jimmy is nowhere around. I guess he died of fright and his ghost is looking over my shoulder as we walk on the driveway of crushed gravel which dips down and rises again. My hopes soar in a strange way. Maybe I’ll get along great with the dogs and handle them like a pro. I expect to see a break in the trees any moment. We round a bend. An old Chevy sits at the end of the driveway next to a pale yellow house. An oak tree with crooked branches reaches out for us from the front yard and an oval pond with a rock wall gazes upward at the lazy blue sky. I stand over the clear water and see goldfish wagging their tails and darting around. Grandpa knocks on the front door. Peterson has white hair like Grandpa’s, but a stern face. He looks mean enough to raise killer attack dogs. He lets us inside the house. I hear the dogs growling from their pen in the backyard.

When we walk out the back door, my spine tingles with fear from the sheer size of the dogs. Both are German shepherds with a blend of black and brown fur. Rex leans against the wire and stretches out to six feet in length. Sheba, the female, stands behind him and is slightly smaller. Peterson pulls Sheba out of the cage. They slip a muzzle over her snout and led her to the car. Next, Peterson grabs Rex by the collar and slowly walks the dog toward Grandpa. Grandpa tries to hold the dog still, but Rex twists out of his grip. As Peterson brings the muzzle to its face, his right hand, which is clenched into a fist, comes falling down and bops Rex on the nose. The dog recoils backwards like a stallion rearing up on its hind legs and knocks Peterson to the ground. The old man lies there motionless. Then with a fury born of a million years of instinct, the dog lunges at Grandpa. Grandpa falls to his knees and yells, “Go get help!”

I spin around and sprint like the devil. When I get into the house, I look back. Grandpa has slipped off his jacket and wrapped it around his forearm for protection, shielding himself from the dog’s gnashing fangs. I don’t know what to do. I can’t find a phone anywhere. I knock over a dining room chair on my way out the front door. I begin to run down the long driveway toward Clara’s house. I stop. My clothes are wet with sweat. What would Robert Running Bear do?

I turn around. I race back to the front yard and kneel by the pond. Water trickles over my hand as I pull out a flat rock from the wall. I hurry back through the house.

Grandpa is lying on his back. His jacket has been ripped to shreds and blood covers his face and shirt. The dog swirls madly above him.

I step outside and heave the rock like a shot put. “Grandpa!” The rock lands with a thud about two feet away.

Grandpa crawls on his back toward it. He wraps his hand around the rock.

I pray. Then I hear a clap of thunder and an ungodly squeal. It is over. I rush to Grandpa’s side. The dog has marbles for eyes and is crumpled into a ball. I take off my belt and wrap it around Grandpa’s bicep like he tells me to. His forearm is mangled. Peterson is still out cold. I calm down and run to Clara’s house for help.


In the hospital Grandpa has a white bandage covering his forearm. After two days, they are ready to let him go. He puts the arm into a sling and laughs, “The doctor says when they take this off, it’s going to be a real shiner.”

Back at the farm the Indians are in the field clearing the rows of corn with a combine. Robert Running Bear drives the machine while Daniel Black Swan and another Indian pick up stray ears of corn and toss them into the back. “Those are Good Samaritans,” says Grandpa. “That’s what they are. A group of Good Samaritans returning a favor.”

Robert Running Bear stops the combine and walks over. He plucks a falcon feather from his leather band. Then he ties a knot in my hair and tightens it around the quill. “From now on, you are David Running Dog.”

Grandpa smiles.

Jimmy stomps the ground in a rage. “I could have done that. I could have.” He looks in awe at Robert Running Bear and the other Indians.

They go back to work all sweaty and dirty.

“I am a freelance writer of fiction and poetry. My short stories have been published in the following magazines: The Funny Paper, Penny-A-Liner, Northwoods Journal, Creative With Words Publications, and Tale Spinners. I am also a member of the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland.” E-mail: rraflw[at]aol.com

Search, Rescue

Beaver’s Pick
Andrew H. Minnick

Two hours after the walk began the dog was lost. The master had set off in the mild cool of a warm February day with light gloves and a pocket full of old steak. A gentle motion and a quiet word, a “go,” or “off,” or “run,” released the beast from obsequence to instinct and the master watched the dog run through the cluster of aspens into the pine forest beyond.

It had been so warm that day, the odd cloudless sky offering the land to the sun. Now it grew cold. The treacherous flame of life leaving open the door to darkness and the chill it spoke. No movement in the pine, no sight of the dog. The master slid his hands into his coat pockets and kept on.

He had found the dog on a breeder’s farm, a beautiful fawn with two white boots and a streak along his spine. He had wanted to save the dog from all the others, from the cages and the concrete. The first night home the dog licked barbeque sauce from the master’s fingers, it fell asleep in the bend of his knees.

A friend of his once made an augurous prediction. With the wolf gone, the friend said, the elk will feel imbalance and it and will leave. The deer will follow, and the jackrabbit and the fox. The coyote will remain alone, to scavenge on itself.

The wolf was gone and had been. An elk the master may have seen as he released the dog, a long and languid distant movement. It was gone before he could be sure. The dog had not returned. Now it was too cold, the distance getting on too far. He called twice and whistled, expecting nothing, an aural mark, may the dog hear it.

Toward home mid-day slush had turned to ice. It had taken an hour to get this far. The sun was gone and he could see his porch lights. He remembered the old Polaris sled in the garage. He considered it, but the sled was for search and rescue and it had only half a tank of gas. He called the dog twice.

His nose was bloodless now, pale. The master felt the frostbite start. Hurrying inside on the front walkway he slipped. A jag of ice from an earlier footprint ripped warm blood from his cheek. It melted the snow. It froze and turned to pink. He went in through the garage.

The snowmobile was near the bandages. He turned away.

Fumbling the door key in his frozen hands, the master stepped into the heat. On a table by the door was a glass jar of biscuits. He had made the dog lie down and gave him one before they left. They were green and brown and smelled like bacon.

“I am a 2007 graduate of Washington University in St. Louis where I studied film and media. I currently reside in Summit County, CO, where I read, write, snowboard, and look for work.” E-mail: aminnick85[at]gmail.com


Baker’s Pick
Adam Poltrack

I wring you,
Like a fresh squeezed citrus fruit,
Empty you like a piggybank,
Leaving only pulp and pennies.

I make all the right withdrawals and
All the wrong deposits,
Lint and shiny foreign coins.

Your frosted feet
Siphon away my heat
Under the bed sheet—
I call you a thief.

You call me lover.

We have it backwards,
Like so many things.
While our bodies
Right side up,
Somehow see eye to eye.

And I tap the candy tree again,
Let the serum drizzle down
and coat my throat.

I tap the candy tree again,
You’re sweet
And I’m not sorry.

“I am a 22 year old student at the City College of New York majoring in comparative literature. I have received the Isaacs fellowship for study in literature.” E-mail: ptrack17[at]gmail.com

Cane Island

Paul Silverman

The Cane Palace brochure said nothing about swarms of Portuguese Man of War in the waters of their very expensive private beach. Yet there was the official sign, posted not ten feet from where Ray Ryan was interrogating the towel boy on what the sign actually meant. “Your sign says Portuguese Man of War hazard December through May,” Ray said. “So what are those people doing out there?”

The towel boy kept on folding, kept on setting out the bottles of Cane Palace water and the little paper cups of complimentary sunscreen. He looked odd performing these fey activities, because he was cut like a linebacker. Ray read his behavior as sullen, as though he didn’t consider Ray’s question worth answering. “Your sign,” Ray said, pointing. “What does it mean? Is it correct?”

“The sign is correct,” the towel boy said, his native island face blank as the sand.

“Right now,” Ray said. “Are there jellyfish out there or not?”

The towel boy’s shrug was unreadable, and so was his answer: “I don’t know.”

After lunch, Ray marched back to the beach. And what he saw made him boil. So many guests dunking, dipping, dogpaddling, standing waist-high and shooting the shit, the cove could have been a public bath in Tokyo. By now the towel boy had been joined by his buds, four fellow islanders. They were smartly turned out in crisp khaki shorts and cucumber green polos with the Cane Island logo, the ever-present sugar plant. Together, they seemed like a clique of junior bodybuilders, or bodyguards for some Asian film star. Two of them had Tarzan manes. Their tattoos were cryptic in that South Pacific way, endlessly winding and tangling, like tentacles sent from the bottom of the sea to guard the warrior muscles.


Next morning, Ray marched up to the lobby desk, hot to find a hike with enough ups and downs to maybe keep the waistline from swelling yet another belt-hole. Behind the desk was a girl attired in the female version of what the buff beach attendants wore: the crisp khaki, the cucumber green, the sugar cane graphic that was pasted on everything from cocktail napkins to cabana umbrellas. She was an island girl who registered indifference, or diffidence, or whatever it was that hit Ray like dry ice, in the very act of smiling for him.

While she fished around for a trail map, Ray looked around at the murals all over the big room, centuries-old depictions of the early South Pacific war parties who’d fought their way onto Cane Island and populated it to this day. The murals showed how they’d paddled their outriggers an astounding distance, some twenty-five-hundred miles of ocean, coming from God knows where. Yet at journey’s end they still had the strength to spill onto the shore and hack the existing inhabitants to pieces. Fierce as these originals were, they fell like swatted flies at the onset of the nineteenth century, when the Western sugar tycoons rolled in. The natives were crushed and chained, and their machete skills were turned, under the lash, to the usual Caucasian-glorifying pursuits, top-most of which was building the plantation manor house known as Cane Palace. Back then it was the domain of hard white-faced masters, but now it was the domain of soft white-faced guests. Tippers extraordinaire. The present Cane Palace, touted in high roller magazines like The Robb Report, was a five-star resort owned by Swiss luxury hoteliers, but largely staffed with island folk. “Swiss-trained and efficient as a Swiss clock,” The Robb Report crooned.

The desk girl unfolded a piece of glossy paper and spread it on the counter, which was an enormous plank of hand-hewn jungle-wood, black as the lava that lined the seacoast. Before she said even a word Ray saw there were only three trails mapped out, all highlighted in cucumber green. One was hardly more than a walk beside the beach that had the towel boy and the Man of War sign. Another followed the cart paths on and around the pristine golf course. And a third snaked along the ocean on the side of the property that seemed to have no Cane Palace beaches, pools, bungalows or facilities of any kind. “What about that one?” Ray said, emphatically pressing his finger on the map. Either the girl didn’t hear his question or she ignored it, responding in a kind of teleprompter voice that seemed flat and faraway, the kind of voice Ray usually heard when he had a computer problem back home. It was as if she were a headset-wearing tech support person talking from India or the Pacific Rim, way at the other end of some vast fiber-optic sprawl. The only difference being that her inscrutable face was right there, two feet in front of his face.

A half-hour later that was the very trail he was out on, the un-recommended number three, scaling the wave-battered lava chunks in his new hiking sandals, a bottle of Cane Palace water stuffed in his shorts pocket. The more the desk girl had discouraged it, the more he hankered to spite her and go. In her tech-support voice she droned on, like some robot-concierge, trying to get him to choose the beach or golf course trails because they had shade trees and were prettier walks. “That’s the problem,” he snapped back. “They’re walks, and I don’t want a walk. I’m fat. I want a hike.”

“The trail is all overgrown,” she said. “No one goes there much.”

“Sounds promising,” Ray said.


Based on the beach experience, the first thing he had expected to find on the un-recommended trail was a herd of other hikers. But as Ray approached the top of the first rise he felt a rush of solitude, the sense he was as alone as a man on the moon—and the crazy shapes of the lava made him feel like he was on some moon.

Decidely un-lunar, however, was the gathering heat. The morning sun was on the move along with him, and it was rising faster than his fat hiker’s feet. But this was good, he told himself. Double action on the blubber roll: if the trail couldn’t walk it off, the sky would broil it off. Ray sucked from his water bottle and tried a little foot-hand rock scramble when he found a monster root humped across the trail. He palmed the spur jutting out of a black crag and began to hoist himself. But the spur bit his palm like pins and needles—a far cry from familiar New Hampshire granite, this spiky lava—and he let go fast and swung his thigh over the root instead.

The effort was worth it. He stood on a promontory that gave him a jeweler’s view of the rocky inlet below, shimmering pure turquoise. According to the map, this was one of several such formations on the lava trail: steep ascent followed by steep descent, each sequence ending in a bauble of surf and shore. Now that he was at the top he began picking his way towards the bottom, and the heat came right along with him. Half-way down he stopped and mopped, and took a long look at the crescent of rock-beach below. All the stones were white or off-white, all except one that was bigger than the rest, and greenish. Next he looked up at the lava cliffsides, and saw some of those same beach stones, the whitest ones, arrayed in a spooky design, like a Halloween thing. It was a giant stick figure with the jitters, arms and legs flying every whichway. How they ever got the white stones to stick there against the sheer black walls baffled him, but there they were, bright against dark and gravity-defying—a bunch of crazy bones doing a dance for the sea.

Ray slugged more water and resumed his descent. He kept going until he was off the cinders of the path and onto the glinting beach, wondering whether his toes would fry if the sandals slipped off. Something flashed up from the past, a story he’d heard in the Arizona desert about vultures—that they vomit on their feet to cool themselves off. That was when he got a good look at the large greenish stone and saw it was no stone at all.

It was something out of the pages of National Geographic, a honker of a sea turtle, green and horned and still as a boulder. And for a sea turtle it was quite some ways from the sea, well above the ragged edge of dried gunk that Ray reckoned was the high-tide mark. The last time he had been so close to a turtle this size was in the Boston Aquarium, ages ago, when he pressed his face to the glass and stared at it floating his way, beak on beak. By Ray’s estimation these were rare creatures, ancient and endangered, and to him the lunker at his feet was either dead or dying in the sun, by now as hopeless as a roast in an oven. He gave it a wake-up shove with his foot, then a rap with the plastic water bottle. No response, not a flicker, and suddenly he had a new plan for the morning. He seriously wondered where his surge of resolve came from—maybe from the heat broiling his brain, somehow beaming its rays through all the sarcastic crud to strike some buried lobe that governed empathy and pity. He turned on his heels and took off with newfound zeal. He clambered up the side of the lava, re-entered the resort grounds and stormed into the lobby.


“What are you going to do about it?” he demanded of the desk girl, the same one he had locked horns with over the map. “Maybe the thing isn’t dead. But it sure can’t get back to the water by itself, not from where it’s stuck now…”

For a response, she gave him even colder treatment than the turtle had. The voice of a droid, flat as a scripted courtesy speech on some digital loop. “That location is off property. I’ll report it to the maintenance people, but they aren’t allowed—”

He set his two rotund forearms on the thick black plank and pushed his face at her, bull-like. “The thing is probably a hundred-and-fifty years old. Are you going to let it just cook there?”

Finally she gave him a burst of eye contact, but hardly the happy kind. “If the sea turtle is as old as you say, it didn’t get there by being stupid. It’s probably napping.”

Ray could hear his voice swelling, and he could see other heads start to turn. “I kicked it,” he said. “If you were napping and I kicked you what would you…”

She broke eye contact and lowered her head, so he was aiming his words at nothing but the jet black hair of her head. When her island face came up it was different, flashing something he had never seen from a concierge type. There was a warning in it, and a silence so venomous he considered backing off. But by then the big door had opened and the man with the look that said European-in-charge pushed himself into the fray.

He had one of those walrus mustaches that make you think of the Hindenburg era, and a cracker suit to boot, linen white as coconut meat. He seemed twice as large as the girl as he loomed over her, as though he were capable of biting off half her head. Instead he crisply banished her to the office he had emerged from, his raised arm sharp as a Rolex hour-hand striking nine o’clock.

He addressed Ray in the manner of a general in the Swiss civilian army, using sharp politeness as a kind of invisible pistol. “We are all servants here, including me. She should not have talked to you that way.”

“How could you hear how she talked to me? Your door was shut.”

The look he gave Ray said don’t ask and don’t think. And don’t try to do my job for me. It was a look so dictatorial Ray actually felt, of all things, a flutter of concern for the girl. In it was an unpleasant picture from days gone by: the shod foot of the planter crunching the island person’s neck.

“I hope she still has a job here,” he said. “People do have disagreements.”

But when all was said and done this was a polite lie, and Ray knew it. The truth was, having the girl shitcanned was appealing—you can’t lie to your own self—and, in the best of all possible worlds, maybe towel boy could get the gate right along with her.

But his comment about the girl’s job evoked no more than a cool managerial nod, neutral as Switzerland. “Nobody on their vacation should be fretting about the life and death of giant turtles. Why don’t you leave that to us, Mr. Ryan. And meanwhile…”

He reached into the white suit jacket, pulled out a gold pen and scribbled a note on stationery embossed with the sugar plant logo. He slid it into an envelope and pushed it across the black plank to Ray. “Drinks all day are with our compliments. Enjoy.”


Ray carried the envelope to lunch, where he vacuumed up a shrimp salad, washed it down with Long Island Tea twice, canceled a 3:18 tee time and marched back for another bout with the lava trail. Ray was too curious not to—but the cynic in him said the beached turtle would be no better off than before—and by now the beast was likely fouling the air like any dead fish left out in the sun.

The high afternoon sun was on fire, and the dancing bone-stones looked even more bleached against the dark cliff-side. Down below, the beach rocks were wall-to-wall as before—but something was missing. The turtle. Ray searched up and down, scouring both the beach and the shallows of the surf, but nothing resembling a greenish hump remained. He felt a rush of self-importance. Based on the evidence, he had gotten Cane Palace off its ass—and they had either pushed the turtle back in the ocean, if it was alive, or carted it off if it was dead. At any rate, one thing was clear: he could resume his fat-melting regimen. Which he did, huffing in the sun, and soon he reached the top of the next black and jagged rise.

He looked down to the new cove below, expecting to find another crescent of white beach rocks. Instead he saw green, green, green. Humps everywhere. Fifteen, twenty of them. Out of the water, burning in the sun. Was it a plague of turtles? Were they all dead or dying? He double-timed it down the thin, spiky trail, nearly stumbling twice, ripshit at himself for making yahoo assumptions, for being such a tourist. Turtles! For all he knew they could fly or disappear into the earth. Maybe, just maybe, they could squirt on SPF50 every day and waddle onto the shore to sunbathe, just like a Cane Palace guest.

Ray went up to the closest behemoth and, just like before, was about to knock on its shell with his plastic water bottle. But a human voice interrupted him, female and spear-sharp, yelling what sounded so primal it seemed beyond language. He turned and saw, mid-way up the cliffs, the desk girl, and she was descending fast, as if the lava offered her all kinds of footholds he hadn’t even noticed. Gone was the decorous khaki and green career apparel she wore in the lobby, gone was the polite arrangement of her long black hair. She had on one of those sequined surf shop tank tops and frayed jean shorts and everywhere, even in her flyaway hair, she flashed pieces of shiny stuff that could have been razor blades or bone shards. From her tone and the way she moved his way, Ray concluded two things: yes, she had been fired. And, two, she was out to get him for it.

He took the measure of her—a girl, for Christ’s sake—and decided to confront her head-on with the best stuff he had, words from the heart, or at least from the voice-box that was fueled by the heart. He was on the workers’ side always, he had been all his life, not a doubt about it; he came up hard, working in the underbelly of old factories, peeling asbestos from the pipes. Never in his life would he try to get an island girl canned, and he had specifically asked the Swiss boss to…

The words were bubbling up, his apology and defense, and Ray lurched over the rocks and around the boulder-backs of the turtles to get within earshot of the girl. He shoved a hand in his shorts to check for the wad of bills—he would peel off half of them it that’s what it took, to show her that she mattered, that he gave a shit about her life and her future.

But then there was the blur from another part of the cliff, and it told him he had more than the girl to contend with. Two of the beach attendants, the Polynesian Tarzans from the day with the towels and the jellyfish, they were scrambling down too. What they both looked like, the raging hair, the tattooed chests that seemed war-painted, the glint of blades—to Ray they were leaping out of the warrior art he had seen in the lobby. And seeing them lope towards him, making that same unearthly whoop as the girl, made him change course, swivel into reverse, lose his footing and fall hard on the hot white stones.

The way Ray landed, his face came up inches from the head of one of the turtles, so close to the side of the beak he could smell the salt on it. As he tried to get to his feet he saw a big wrinkled eyelid move, saw it open and shut, just once. It was like the world’s oldest man winking at him, giving him the one-eyed chuckle, thinking about the wild old days when the beach was red with blood.

Paul Silverman’s stories have appeared in The South Dakota Review, Tampa Review, Eureka Literary Magazine, Minnetonka Review, Worcester Review, Alimentum, Coe Review, Jabberwock Review, Hobart Online, Pindeldyboz, Smokelong Quarterly, The Pedestal, Adirondack Review, Dogmatika, Summerset Review, VerbSap, Word Riot, Thieves Jargon and many others. He’s been a Spotlight Author in Eclectica, which nominated his story, “The Home Front,” for Best of the Net. He has three Pushcart nominations and was shortlisted twice for The Million Writers Award. E-mail: psilverman[at]verizon.net

Two Suns in the Sunset

Andrew Rivas


The whole fucking mess was Jonesy’s idea. Six weeks ago, he came to me with his bag filled with pills, higher than God, but still he convinced me in spite of his shot-blood eyes, slurred speech, smoke pouring out of his nose and mouth. Six weeks ago, he convinced me to take this fucking road trip, convinced me that we’d be famous, convinced me that I’d get my book published, convinced me that he could drive in spite of the light blue oxys, the white vikes, the also white Quaaludes. His rainbow-streaked bag of drugs. The hashish, the marijuana, the PCP, the uppers and downers which Jonesy used to call quicks and slows, the Ketamine, LSD, and Xanax, more painkillers which were always Jonesy’s weakness, the psilocybin mushrooms which were Marks’, and more psychedelics depressants stimulants than I could name if my life depended on it.

Which it might; I am not completely sure about that yet. Writing is hard in spite of the vikes, which dull the pain but can’t eclipse it completely, can’t block out the red spires of pain that muscle into my vision when I move even the slightest bit, which keep me trapped here in this metal cocoon encompassing.

I should rest. This is going to take a lot out of me.

I look over what I’ve written and wonder if anyone will be able to decipher my last words, my last chance at leaving something of even a little importance, and all I have is fear. Isn’t the whole point of writing this to tell people what happened? Tell people why all my friends are dead, sixteen-hundred miles from their homes, drugged up to shit, and one missing except for his leg? Why shouldn’t they be able to know the truth? Why shouldn’t I tell them the whole thing from the beginning?

The first day of it was exhilarating with its jackrabbit quicks and hummingbird slows. Jonesy came to me with his rainbow-filled bag after reading Keroauc and Thompson, wanting to emulate their masterpieces while adding our own touch of the absurd, our slip of the tongue with the abyss—

He knew that I was having trouble finding something to write for my first book. I had had various short stories and poetry published and wanted to get noticed; I wanted it to be a labor of love but I wasn’t passionate about anything, really. Except for the drugs. I wanted it to be something semi-unique, yet familiar. Jonesy was the one that brought up the ‘druggie road trip’ book idea.

Jonesy’s the only person who could convince me of something like that. He used to convince us to do crazy shit all the time, and it was always interesting, albeit usually dangerous and stupid to boot. The thing was, he had the money to do it in style. He paid for all the drugs in the bag, that’s how privileged he was. He wanted to take this road trip in spite of that; I sort of admired him. Sort of.

He was never condescending, though; he never shoved it in our faces. It’s funny, the things I remember about him now: he never brushed his hair, which actually made him look homeless, and he always wore these aviator sunglasses that were way too big for his fucking head.

Talking about him in the past tense is hard to do.

Jonesy is also the only person I would trust to drive while under the influence of almost seven different drugs. There’s a time and place for that story, why I would trust him with my life, but then is not now. The story that I am writing now is not just about Jonesy, but about all of us.

Marks was the polar opposite of Jonesy. He was quiet, reserved, and always wrote down in this pocket-sized notebook he carried around with him. He was like me with the writing, although he wanted to write screenplays while I had always wanted to write fiction. He was a closet neat freak—he never yelled at someone to clean up but always did so behind their back. At any given time, Marks was usually high on shrooms.

I can’t help but write about them—this is their eulogy. I can force myself to take the extra time to write about Jack since I’ve already written a bit about Jonesy and Marks.

Jack was my best friend, out of all of them. We had been friends since infancy. He wasn’t like a brother to me, he was a brother. Something more, when I think about it…

I don’t want to talk about Jack anymore.

Jonesy came to me with his rainbow-filled bag on March 14th.

Six weeks later, I woke up to find Marks’ decapitated head resting on my lap.

He didn’t look that much different than he had back at the motel, inquisitively looking upwards with those eyes that never focused on one thing but saw so much. I didn’t even know he was dead until I noticed the wet damp cloth of my crotch, and then as I lifted the head, I realized. I glanced back, hearing Jonesy’s throat-blood jettison from the wide sallow slit through his neck, Jack lying there, crimson rose blooming through his chest…

I don’t know if I can do this.

I promised to start from the beginning, so I’ll get back to it. The truth of it was, we didn’t need much convincing. I was excited about the trip. I convinced Marks to come by telling him that he could rewrite my novel as a screen-play. He asked if I would front the money for some shrooms. “We could go halves,” he said. “I’ll pay you back.”

I said “okay”, and that only left Jack.

Jack came because he trusted me. Stupid, stupid piece of shit. You shouldn’t have come. You’d be alive right now and I wouldn’t be stuck here, smelling like shit, covered in your blood.

It took a week for Jonesy to amass his rainbow bag. It’s taken almost four days for me to consume most of the painkillers and all of the marijuana. This would be funny if I wasn’t about to die: trapped here in the wreckage of Jonesy’s car, trapped, contemplating amputating my leg so that I can escape, and I’m rolling joints and smoking them, blowing the smoke out of the broken window, coughing into silence.

I’ve finally come to the crux of all this, the point of the whole damned thing: all of my friends are dead. Marks was decapitated by the wreckage, somehow. Jonesy’s neck looked like a gutted fish; some part of the car almost ripped his head clean off his torso. Jack was shot through the lung, and he survived for a while, but I watched him bleed out in the rearview mirror.

“Help’s coming,” I told him, but no one knew where we were. No one knew.

I was sitting in the passenger’s seat when it happened. We hit the rocks, the car folded like silk, the hood buckled and the windshield caved in. Glass rained down on me like brimstone. My right leg trapped in the wreckage of the car, I’ve been trying to survive. We had assorted food and a ton of bottled water in the back, but if I don’t get out of this car soon, I will die.

So, it’s come to this: I am going to try to sever my leg just below the knee. A dangerous, stupid, really fucking stupid idea, but it’s the only one I can think of. I probably should have tried sooner, now that I think about it.

A Swiss army knife is all I have to do this.


There’s two suns as I write this, or at least the illusion of two; the reflection of the sun on the dash blinds me, silhouetted by the actual star, seeming to overlap but the two intertwine, pulsing as one with my heartbeat.

The inner sun is sick; its heartbeat is irregular. Only I know this.

Marks, Jack, and I went to Jonesy’s house the night before and planned out the trip. We didn’t plan anything of interest in particular, but we thought the scenery would be enough to inspire us to write some crazy shit. Jack and I drank way too much and Marks took too many shrooms and god only knows what Jonesy ate and we left too late the next day to make any sort of distance. Jonesy drove for about two hours before we were forced to stop at a motel.

I’m being selective here. I only have enough time to tell the important parts. Or at least the interesting parts.

That night at the motel, I took peyote for the first time.

That was one of the last times we were all together, so it’s important that I tell you what happened.

Ketamine tastes like sweat, by the way. Salty.

The peyote’s effect was more than instant: it happened concurrently. I fell backwards onto the motel’s shitty bed.

I felt like I had swallowed fire, but it was a pleasure to burn, to suffer sweetly. Everything seemed to be made of canvas, soft fuzzy furry and flat, unreal. I stood back up on tentative unstable legs and walked around the room, feeling everything, marveling at how everything felt fragile, ethereal, fake. I tried to rip through the wall to ascertain reality and fell into a field made of color, comprised of brushstrokes, hellish but beautiful, filled with atrocities and angels. I started screaming at some point.

“Calm down,” I heard Jack say, and he pulled me through the hole I had created. He laid me down on the bed and told me that everything would be all right.

In the short term, he was right. But now he’s dead and I’m—

I thought I heard a noise, someone’s voice calling out, but I screamed for them until my voice was hoarse and no one came. Hope felt good for a couple of minutes but shit, this is reality, not some stupid movie where it was all a dream or we all survived the crash or where this never fucking happened in the first place.

“Calm down,” I heard Jack say, so I did. I felt Jonesy sit down on the bed beside Jack, his aviators covering his face, his hair covering his aviators, his mismatched socks coming out from his shoes.

“Don’t be so slow, man,” Jonesy said, and handed me a yellow pill. “Quick’s the way.” He always used to say that.

But there were two black holes where his eyes used to be, cascading silently surrounding darkness, twisting like jackrabbit slows.

I slid the yellow underneath my tongue, feeling it pull like the undertow, dissolving like clouds in the summer. The air solidified in front of my eyes until everyone’s faces were unrecognizable and only elements of their features shone through the madness…

The memory’s so vivid, almost as if I was experiencing it now. Jonesy sitting there, laughing like a jackal, Cheshire teeth shining. Jack there as well, watching over me, telling me everything was going to be fine.

Telling me the same thing I told him, less than six weeks later, before he bled out.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Marks was in the bathroom the whole time this was happening, probably passing out or tripping balls staring at the light fixture or drinking tap water thinking it was the holy Christ, like he did that one time. Can’t remember if it was that night or not.

He opens the door with some difficulty, stumbling out, his eyes not black holes but something similar, something less than his usual stare. His eyes unfocused, he looks toward us, not really seeing us but really looking at us.

He smiles.

“So, what do you guys want to do tonight?” he asks.

“This,” I say, and even though I’m already lying down, I fall backwards onto the bed in a moment of vertigo.

“This,” he repeats, and we all start to laugh at some point.

All of our nights were the same, though. Describing them would become redundant, but that didn’t mean that they weren’t the best times. We did a ridiculous amount of drugs and we bought a more ridiculous amount and we said funny shit about the drugs we took that we’d later quote in the car, while taking even more. Dynamite sticks of ketamine, gardens of shrooms, Vicodin mountains, lily-strewn fields of marijuana.

This continued and the manuscript was coming along great until Jonesy brought up the idea to meet a few of his friends that lived in the mountains, half an hour from the nearest town. About a day or two out of the way. They’d give us material for the book, he said; he had stories about them that’d have us pissing our pants if he could remember them, but he was too fucked up at the time.

“Answer quick,” he said, crimson nose drips parallel, seeping into his mouth.

“Not slow,” he reminded us, smiled.

Their names were Steve and Matt and George. Pieces of shit.

The car ride there was uneventful besides Marks taking almost a half-pound of shrooms and vomiting uncontrollably out the window, a dog with his face in the wind, tongue dry sandpaper and—

The car ride there was uneventful. George’s place was the only house in sight, past all these windy twisted roads and steep ninety-degree drops. We pulled up and we all had had our daily dose of Vitamin K.

George walks up to the car and says, “What’s up?”

“What do you guys want to do tonight?”

His eyes stuck on the rainbow bag the entire time he’s talking, licking his lips through his grin, a snake in the grass under the brush.

“This,” I say, patting the bag, but not really meaning it.

He smiles and asks, “So what do you guys want to do tonight?”

I think I’ve lost a lot of blood. It’s hard to tell. The crimson echo tide of ichor slips slowly down the seat, absorbed by the car floor before it has time to pool.

Isn’t Vicodin a blood thinner?

Oh shit Oh shit. Stupid, stupid piece of—

Thought I heard the sound again. Someone calling out.

It might be a hallucination; I passed out for a minute, imagining bright lights, but then I woke up and I was still here.

I wish I had some water to wash down the shrooms, they taste like the shit they grew in.

George’s friends were fiends, hollowed out eye skulls and stringy long hair, talking in between cigarette drags and long stares to the side as if they were looking for someone. Matt couldn’t stop fidgeting with his fingers, ripping pieces of paper into tiny strips, letting them litter the floor, and Steve was comatose, mumbling through loose flap lips and lying there, not moving. And George couldn’t stop staring at the bag.

Matt took too many bathroom breaks and George seemed to disappear to the back room during these breaks, shifty eyes, and it was honestly the shadiest thing I’ve ever seen. I threw glances to Jonesy that said we should leave, this is honestly a bad idea, I don’t even know who the fuck these guys are.

He laughed at me and said “Don’t be so slow” through his grin.

George didn’t even live in a house; it was so small it was more like a converted garage. A living room, a kitchen, a bedroom, everything was there but downsized.

The whole time, Steve said nothing to us directly, intermittently bursting out into laughter and saying to no one in particular “We’ll be rich, man,” and “We don’t even know these guys,” like a parrot.

Water stains peppered the ceiling and I thought I smelled rotting ham coming from the bedroom, and the only reason that we didn’t leave was George’s girlfriend, Michelle. She walks in and she looks like a normal fucking person, so misplaced in this carnival of freaks, and she sits down and starts talking to us.

“So, what’s going on with this bag?” she asked, and before we had time to answer, Steve started laughing and gestured towards Marks.

“We’ll be rich, man.”

“Shut up, Steve,” she said, “No one wants to hear you rant.”

And it relaxed us. It wasn’t a case of us being stupid, because she was sincere.

So she asked, “Where are you going?” and “What’s with the notebook?” and once I explained the book idea, she seemed interested.

We’re talking for a little less than an hour before Matt stands up, drops the piece of paper that he was shredding, and walks towards the back, mumbling something about going to the bathroom.

“Matt, you haven’t drank anything in two hours,” Michelle says. She almost looks comical, with this incredulous look on her face, but she also seems confused and maybe a little scared.

“Wha?” he asks, giving her a stare, and continues walking. His footsteps an ellipse, his black-and-white sneakers piano keys playing on the floor.

We hear the door shut like an exclamation mark.

The next time he comes back, he’s with George, and they both have guns.


“I’m sorry, man, we’re friends and all,” George says, “but give me that bag.”

“What the fuck, George?” Jonesy replies, his mouth agape. “What the fuck?”

“There’s got to be at least ten thousand dollars worth of shit in that bag, man,” he says. “So if you don’t want to get gut-shot, I’d hand it over.”

I’ve seen those old war movies with the gut-shot lieutenants, begging to be put out of their misery; their intestines leak out like yarn, thick angel hair pasta, and they lie there, tasting their blood and bile for upwards of a day, if nothing interferes and they get shot in just the right place.

“Just give me the fucking bag,” he says, and adds, “Nothing personal.”

His eyes flicker to Michelle, her face brimming with fear, and he falters. She’s as afraid as we are.

The moment that George’s eyes leave Jonesy’s, Jack stands up and punches him in the face, attempting to grab the gun as he falls to the side but not succeeding.

He didn’t have to say anything, no one said a word as we all ran out of that place quick, not slow, like a jackrabbit but quicker.

Jonesy kicks George as he passes him, hard, in the face, and a crimson splash of blood splatters across the door in a Rorschach ink blot.

The door hits me in the face on the way out, and I’m disoriented as I run to the car, and for some reason, Jack runs to the back passenger door instead of the front, but I don’t question it as I race in front of him. We hear a car backfiring, then another, and somewhere in the recesses of my brain I register the dark maroon blood bloom through the front of Jack’s shirt, and I realize that it wasn’t a car backfiring at all.

Smoke pours out of George’s gun in a theatrical way; he grins and pulls the trigger four more times.

Jack stumbles into the car, and Jonesy and Marks are yelling at me, get the fuck in the car, why the fuck are you still outside?

I open the door and barely sit down before Jonesy floors the gas, rocketing into the forest, and when I look backwards George and Matt are climbing into an old station wagon.

We’re turning corners blind, cliff faces mocking us as we barely miss plummeting off the edge. Jack screaming in the background, Marks trying to calm him down, rooting through rainbows trying to find the goddamn ketamine, and we see George’s car in the rearview trying to catch up to us turning blind. Jonesy starts screaming at some point.

We’re about three feet from the cliff face, driving parallel to it and trying not to fall off of it, but losing traction, and just as the car jukes to the side, George’s front bumper collides with our backs and nearly pushes us through the flimsy rail that was supposed to be protecting us from falling to our deaths.

I hear him firing the gun out of his driver’s side window, and think to myself that it’s not much use, he’s driving, people aren’t that accurate in real life, and I turn backwards to see how close he is and we turn right as I do so and my passenger’s side window explodes hail into my face, my ears, my nose, my mouth.

I taste blood on my tongue and spit it out onto the dash. I try to make sense of the chaos but none of us are really conveying what we’re meaning to: Jonesy is screaming about how he doesn’t know where he’s going, Jack is yelling about how much he’s in pain, Marks still can’t find the ketamine and he’s mumbling something about it not being there. I yell something like “Give me the fucking bag and I’ll find it,” and as he hands me the bag, the car hits a rock, jukes to the side, and one of George’s bullets connects with our back tire.

I don’t remember anything after that besides flashes.

The tire explodes, and the car rockets to the left with such ferocity that Jonesy can’t correct the wheel in time.

Our car in the air for a moment, all of us screaming the same pitch.

Hitting the rocks.

The car folding like silk, the hood buckling and the windshield caving in.

Marks’ decapitated head resting on my lap.

And then…

“Everything’s going to be all right,” I told Jack. “Help’s coming.”

His shirt opened up at his heart, he couldn’t even form a coherent sentence, screaming, “Give me a vike perc some K something for the pain, man,” and I don’t think he even realized that both Marks and Jonesy were dead.

“Let me see the bag,” he said. I went to hand it over to him, painfully, trying not to twist my leg against metal, and

The rainbow bag had ripped in the crash, spilling almost three quarters of the contents out the window in a trail to where we were currently trapped.

“Breadcrumbs,” I said, and giggled.

“Why the fuck are you laughing, man?” Jack asked me, a steady pour of blood seeping out of his mouth into his lap. “How the fuck are they going to know where we are? How are they going to know what happened?” and then I just laughed and said “Breadcrumbs.”

He started coughing and blood jetted out of the hole in his chest, his nose, his mouth, and he kept on coughing as I said “Don’t worry”, “Help’s coming”, “Just hold on for a little longer”, and he didn’t even say goodbye when he took his last breath in, he just… stopped.

I would have thought he’d say something thoughtful, something meaningful, that he’d at least say goodbye, but he just stopped breathing and left me here, stuck, for four days before I came to the conclusion to cut off my own fucking leg.

A Swiss army knife is all I have to do this.

What doesn’t kill you leaves you without a leg; I think that’s how it goes.

There are two suns as I write this, and they’re both setting as I place my hand in the console, looking for my salvation, finally gripping the cold red metal of the knife’s handle.


One day, when we were kids, maybe eight or nine, Jack’s father took Jack and I hunting. Jack’s father brought two of his hunting buddies who brought their sons, to show them the nature of being men I suppose, and that’s how Jack and I met Marks and Jonesy.

Skin splits like fabric, spilling muscle and meat faster than I can accept, and I look away and think of Marks and Jonesy and Jack and the forest where we became friends.

They were weird kids, but we were too I guess, and we bonded in that way that only kids that age can when they’re strangers. While our fathers prowled the forest with their rifles and tried to assimilate generations long gone, we all walked around aimlessly, trying to think of something to do beneath the high overbearing trees and the filtered sun.

I can hear muscle tearing, feeling faint, and losing a lot of blood.

Marks led us deeper into the forest, away from the protective watch of our fathers, and the light lessened as we penetrated the woods further, deeper, and we only realized we were lost when Jonesy asked “Do you even know where the fuck we’re going?” and we all gasped, because we had never heard that specific word come from someone our age’s mouth before. Jonesy chuckles and takes a cigarette from his pocket and asks us if we’d like to try it, he stole it from his father, and he grins his fucking grin, emulating Cheshire, grinning so hard that we can’t help but smile, too.

“Sure, why not?” I say, in the memory, but my face contorts and spasms as I force the knife into my leg, ripping back and forth, trying to widen the separation so I can reach the bone.

We sit, coughing into silence, embarrassed that we don’t know how to inhale the smoke but Jonesy doesn’t either, and we smile after racking our lungs and Jonesy says “What was that?” We hear a mewling sound from behind us that sounds like a mix between a purring engine and an infant crying, and we look over some logs and see an orange and creme-colored fox with its leg in a bear trap.

Tendons white, snapping rubber bands against skin, and the white sheen of bone glimpses up from the pulsing muscle.

There were teeth marks around the fox’s leg. Jack goes “I heard a story from my dad about a fox in a trap that chewed through its own leg to get out, once.”

I can see the white but there’s more meat to carve; the bone gleams like a smile, teeth shining, but the two ends need to connect before I can get out.

“Maybe we should help him escape,” Marks said, but no one wanted to take initiative and we sat there, exchanging glances. “Maybe we should,” I answer, trying to be brave, raising my foot high above the fox’s leg, with it crying looking up at my shoe wishing to die.

Almost done cleaving strings of meat and flat flaps of skin—

I bring my foot down hard and the bone snaps, and the fox just lays there, in shock. I make a defeated sound against my hand, afraid; I thought that it would run away, injured but alive, thinking I was its God, even though I was just a little shit and all I did was break its leg.

I’ve reached the bone but what now?

“Fuck,” Jonesy says. The fox’s eyes twitch and it slowly tries to move its leg, skin still connected but the bone broken clean, grinding inside its fur.

The handle of the knife will have to serve as a blunt force.

“Jonesy?” we hear from the trees, watching the flashlights blink through the branches, amazed at how quickly Jonesy’s dad found us. We must not have walked far.

I’m free oh god I’m free sounded like twigs snapping—

We walked back to the camp and sat around the fire, our fathers telling stories. None of us told them what I had done.

I think I see flashlights around the rocks I think I hear voices calling out our names—

None of us slept, and that morning, we barely said goodbye to each other. But we knew that what had happened to the fox had created a bond between the four of us, somehow.

Not a hallucination this time I can see their faces—

We never spoke about the fox, after that night. We never once mentioned it.

“I am currently enrolled in SUNY New Paltz for a BA in Creative Writing, enjoy sub-zero weather, climb mountains in my spare time, and am 20 years old.” E-mail: rivas30[at]newpaltz.edu