Pattern Recognition

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

As I was putting together this issue, I realized that we have six repeat contributors this time around. Five of those are appearing for their second time: C.L. Bledsoe, Kate Gibalerio, Kimberley Idol, Charles D. Phillips and Janice D. Soderling. Two of those writers (Gibalerio and Phillips) have pieces in different genres than they did in their first appearance in Toasted Cheese. One (Bledsoe) is returning after a four-year absence. From an editor’s perspective, both of these things are rewarding to see.

After nine years, seeing familiar names is not unusual, but we generally don’t have so many in one issue. One reason for that may be that we limit submissions to one per person per submission period (a maximum of four per person per year).

We have this policy for a few reasons. For one thing, it’s hard to consider a new submission in an unbiased way when you’ve just sent a rejection or acceptance letter. Asking writers to wait to submit again gives us a bit of breathing room and means the new submission is more likely to be considered on its own merits. For another, if we allowed unlimited submissions, we might end up with issues dominated by just a few writers. One of our mandates is to be welcoming to new writers and limiting the number of submissions per person helps us to fulfill that goal by giving a broader range of writers a chance at publication.

There is, however, a legitimate way to circumvent this rule, one that few regular submitters take advantage of.

Enter a contest… or four! Did you know that Toasted Cheese holds four writing contests each year? We do! Three of the contests are for fiction, and one is for creative non-fiction. All of the contests are blind-judged, so your recent acceptance or rejection doesn’t come into play. Enter all four contests, and you increase your opportunities for publication from four to eight.

Earlier I mentioned there are six repeat contributors in this issue. The sixth is Liz Mierzejewski, winner of the Fall 2009 Three Cheers and a Tiger contest, who is appearing in Toasted Cheese for the fourth time. This is her third win of the fall Three Cheers competition, making her our winningest contest entrant.

I think Liz’s success can be attributed to a combination of things. First, she’s persistent. She keeps entering year after year, and has entered every Toasted Cheese contest at least once. That said, it’s probably not a coincidence that she’s been most successful writing stories with a science fiction element; science fiction is her favorite genre. Finally, she’s a regular at our forums. Being familiar with the judges’ likes and dislikes can’t hurt.

Of course, not everyone has the time or inclination to hang out at the forums (although we’d love to see you there). But there are other ways of getting to know the judges. One of the ways is to check out the past contest winners. Another is to read the Editor’s Picks in each issue. In the spirit of the season, I’ve made this easy for you. Below, I’ve listed each of the contests with links to past winners, as well as the editor’s picks of the respective judges.

By the way, Liz’s fourth publication? Best of the Boards. That’s right. If you do decide to join us at the forums, you actually have twelve opportunities for publication per year.

So why limit yourself to just regular submissions? Enter a contest. (I know the contests are a challenge; that’s the point.) Post at the forums. Who knows? Maybe you will be our first triple threat and have three pieces published in the same issue.


Baker & Billiard | Dead of Winter

The Dead of Winter contest has been judged by Stephanie Lenz (Baker) & Erin Bellavia (Billiard) since Toasted Cheese 4:1. The judges say: “Dead of Winter is a fiction contest (any genre) for stories with supernatural elements or themes. Ideally, stories should be set in autumn or winter. The most original, most haunting stories will be chosen for publication.”

DoW runs from November 1 – December 21 each year and winning stories are published in the March issue. Word limits are typically between 3,000–5,000 words.

Past themes & winners:

Baker’s Picks:

Billiard’s Picks:


Bellman & Bonnets | Three Cheers and a Tiger (Spring)

The spring Three Cheers and a Tiger contest has been judged by Amanda Marlowe (Bellman) and Mollie Savage (Bonnets) since Toasted Cheese 4:2. Three Cheers and a Tiger is a 48-hour short story contest. All entries must be composed within the contest time frame. The spring rendition is a mystery contest.

Spring 3 Cheers is held in March each year and winning stories are published in the June issue. The word limit varies, but is usually under 2,500 words.

Past Themes & Winners:

Bellman’s Picks:

Bonnets’s Picks:


Beaver | A Midsummer Tale

The A Midsummer Tale contest has been judged by Theryn Fleming (Beaver) since Toasted Cheese 4:3. A Midsummer Tale is a creative non-fiction contest. The “creative” in creative non-fiction means we are looking for non-fiction stories told using fiction techniques. Stories must take place in summer.

AMT runs from May 1 – June 21 each year and winning stories are published in the September issue. The word limit is typically 3,000–5,000 words.

Past Themes & Winners:

Beaver’s Picks


Boots & Ana | Three Cheers and a Tiger (Fall)

The fall Three Cheers and Tiger contest has been judged by Lisa Olson (Boots) since Toasted Cheese 3:4 and Ana George since Toasted Cheese 4:4. Three Cheers and a Tiger is a 48-hour short story contest. All entries must be composed within the contest time frame. The fall rendition is a science fiction / fantasy contest.

Fall 3 Cheers is held in September each year and stories are published in the December issue. The word limit varies, but is usually less than 2,500 words.

Past Themes & Winners

Ana’s Picks:

Boot’s Picks:


E-mail: beaver[at]

The Stiff

Best of the Boards
Kirk Becken

Sandra looked at the lifeless form in front of her. A few minutes ago, he had been alive. Very alive, in fact. But apparently she had misinterpreted his last few cries. Pleasure and pain could be quite close in Sandra’s experience, but never had that concept been quite this clear. She didn’t know how long it took a body to become stiff after death, but one particular part seemed intent on leading the way there. Amazing. Suddenly Sandra felt a wave of embarrassment and covered him with the sheet, then immediately felt foolish as she looked down at the little tent he made.

The ticking of the clock caught Sandra’s attention, and she felt a wave of panic. Three o’clock. Afternoon delight indeed. But his wife would be home by five. Two hours. Suddenly this simple affair seemed to be a little more complicated, and a very bad idea. Amazing how clear that suddenly became.

Leave him? No. Definitely not. Oblivious to his needs as she might be, there was no way his wife would think he had come home for a nap and died in his sleep, especially if one type of stiffness did not go away before the next type developed. And as soon as she pulled back the top sheet… well, it wouldn’t take the top crew from CSI to find DNA on that bed. Dress him. Take him somewhere. Take him away from here—to where was a question that could wait, but he couldn’t be here when his wife came home.

Change the bed sheets. Blow dry the top of the mattress too, Sandra thought with some embarrassment. He had really been very good—right up to the moment when he stopped moving. Actually for a few moments afterward, before Sandra had realized the significance of his stillness. More embarrassment. She had continued making love to a dead man! A brief wave of nausea followed, but she quelled that by convincing herself that Harold had died the way all men dream of dying. Yes. He would have wanted it that way. The expression on his face was preserved ecstasy, not a rictus of pain. It was. The two may look virtually the same, but his expression was pleasure, not pain. It was!

Time to act, and stop standing here like a… like an adulteress who had just killed her lover. Sandra dressed quickly, then rolled Harold into the top sheet, the most visible sign of his pleasure still protruding absurdly. She lowered him gently, then dropped him on the floor with a thump. She stripped the sheets from the bed, found Harold’s wife’s hair dryer in the ensuite, and dried the top of the mattress until the evidence of this afternoon’s tryst was less… evident. She found the linen closet and changed the sheets. Fortunately, they were all the same colour and texture—Harold’s wife really was a bore.

Next: dress Harold. She retrieved his clothes from where they lay scattered on the floor of this room and the next, and dressed him. The sheet made it easy to drag him to the door. Thankfully Harold’s house was only one storey, and had a door leading directly to the garage where she had discreetly parked her Camry. She dragged him into the back seat, and folded his legs so he would fit. Fortunately he wasn’t getting stiff yet—well, except for that one incredibly persistent part. How long did that take, anyway?

As Sandra looked at Harold lying in the back seat, wrapped in the sheet, she realized how ridiculous that plan was. Would anyone looking in at a red light think he had just crawled into the back seat to take a nap, having brought a convenient sheet along with him? She dragged him back out, apologizing to his lifeless form as she bumped his head on the doorsill, then maneuvered him into the front passenger’s seat. Now to put the sheet in the laundry basket… No! Stupid! She put the sheet in the trunk, then went back to the bedroom to retrieve the other sheet, put the hair dryer back in the bathroom, and pick up her purse, which was still sitting in the living room where she had left it. Okay. That’s everything. Cell phone. Keys. Shoes. Condom wrappers. Damn! Another trip to the bedroom, fish them out of the wastebasket, into the trunk with the sheets. That’s it. Nothing left behind.

Sandra got into the driver’s seat and looked at Harold, his head lolling to one side. Taking a nap. That’s believable. No. Damn. How long until he was stiff enough to hold his damned head up? Four o’clock. Obviously more than an hour, then. Harold’s garage contained a small workshop where he started (but usually didn’t finish) small woodworking projects. A small lath would do the trick, but what then? Attach it to his head with duct tape? Staple gun. Oh my god, I’m sorry, Harold. She leaned him forward against the dash and fired two staples through the lath into the back of his head. Oh no, would he bleed? His face was quite pale, so there probably wasn’t enough blood to— His face was pale. Too pale. Makeup!

She reached into her purse, pulled out her compact, and gave him an even foundation. Great. Now he looked pale and painted. But better—enough to fool other motorists. Probably. As long as they didn’t pay too much attention at a stop light. Oh please let the lights be green!

Sandra started the car, put the transmission in reverse, then back in park. Turn the car off. Get out. Look for the switch to open the garage door. There has to be a switch, right? Damn you, Harold, why isn’t the switch right beside the door? His car. The remote clipped to the visor. Damn, damn! Harold, this is your own garage! Why did you lock your car door? Keys—she had felt them jingle in his pocket when she dressed him. Back to her car. Reach in his pocket. Oh my god, he was still up. Yes! Car keys! Harold’s head still lay against the dashboard where she had leaned him over. She pushed him upright. Was he starting to get stiff? The lath stuffed down his collar held his head upright now, and wasn’t visible unless she looked directly at it.

Okay. Harold’s car. Damn! Harold’s car alarm! Which bloody button—? Okay. Quiet again. For the first time in her life, Sandra was ecstatic that car alarms went off so annoyingly often that no one paid attention to them anymore. The remote. Open the door. Clip it back on the visor. Back to her car— Fingerprints! Damn! Sandra let the garage door close as she used one of Harold’s work gloves to wipe her prints from Harold’s car door, from the garage door remote, from the staple gun… then realized how futile the exercise was considering how many prints she must have left inside the house. Had she ever been fingerprinted? No. Could she be connected to Harold in any other way? Probably not. Maybe. Worry about that later.

Finally, Sandra was on the road. Great. Where to go now? The river? The forest? A back alley? Homeless people died on the street… but they didn’t generally wear expensive clothes like Harold did. Or wear makeup. Under the floorboards like that dreadful story she read in school so she could be tortured by the throbbing of the hideous—no! Best not to think about that. Her eyes drifted to his lap. That could not be normal! Oh my god, I’m driving a stiff stiff. Her spontaneous chuckle nearly became a sob. What was she doing? She was covering up—it wasn’t a murder! It was just a very inconvenient accident! Drop him behind the police station with a note? I’m sorry, but Harold died while having sex. It was a terrible accident, but I didn’t want his wife to come home and find him. You can easily verify how he died because…

Red light! Pay attention! Sandra screeched to a stop. Her heart stopped, then thundered, when she noticed a police cruiser coming the other way. But the officer just grinned and shook his head at the silly woman who had too much on her mind and almost missed the light. Don’t look at Harold. Don’t look at Harold. Don’t look… The light turned green and she drove on. The policeman gave her a wave and a grin as she passed. She felt the sweat run down her neck as she started breathing again. Apparently Harold looked good enough to— Damn! Apparently he looked like he was leaning over at his silly wife who almost missed the red light. His head leaned comically toward her and she realized anyone on the other side of the car at the next light would see the thin stake stapled to the back of his head. She reached over and turned his head straight again. He was definitely getting stiff now— Stop looking there! Yes, there too. His head wouldn’t stay on straight. She couldn’t just hold it there, looking like she was giving him a neck massage while driving him… she had to get him out of here! She couldn’t do this! She had to give herself up!

What would happen? Would she go to jail? It wasn’t murder! Adultery wasn’t a crime, and a heart attack wasn’t her fault! Okay, maybe it was, but she didn’t want it to happen! All she wanted was to be with Harold, to give him the pleasure he needed!

And now she had to give him the peace he needed. After a few blocks, Sandra pulled into the parking lot of the local police station. She turned to Harold, looked into his glassy eyes, still crystal blue, surrounded by the unnatural-looking makeup. “I’m so sorry, Harold.”

She walked into the police station in tears. What could she say? The female officer at the front desk saw her distress and guided her to a chair. “What happened, dear?” she asked.

Sandra tried several times to say something, and finally came out with “He’s dead,” before breaking down completely. It was over. There would be consequences, but Harold could have peace. His wife would be devastated, but she would find peace. And Sandra, doing right by a very wrong situation, she too would find peace.

Kirk Becken is a professional Green Guy who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, and occasionally finds something to write about. For Kirk, writing fiction is a therapeutic antidote to writing position papers, policy documents, and somewhat-safe work procedures—even if such documents occasionally require some degree of creative writing. Kirk’s greatest literary hope is that no one takes his writing too seriously—especially his girlfriend, Sandra.

Prisoner’s Potion

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Dixie Sorensen

The prison door banged open, and my eyelids flew apart. I scrambled to the door in surprise and peered out of the small barred window as two guards and a soldier walked down the rows of cells. I frowned. Meal time was not for another three hours.

I slipped back to the corner of my dark cell. Their arrival couldn’t have anything to do with me. I hadn’t had a single visitor in the eight years I’d been a prisoner.

My cell door rattled and the light from a torch appeared in the window.

“On your feet,” the soldier shouted as my door flew open.

I remained sitting. My first thought was that the king had finally decided to execute me, but I knew that couldn’t be true. He’d tried to kill several of my associates before I’d been caught, but he’d failed every time. By the time I was captured, he had given up on executing. Instead, he threw me in a dark dungeon cell.

“The king requires your services,” the soldier announced, motioning for the guards to seize me.

My services? The king? I was sure I hadn’t heard correctly. The king hated magic more than anything else. Anyone caught using it received a harsher punishment than murderers or traitors. Magic had killed the king’s father, and he had hunted those who could use it from that day on.

Despite my misery, I’d never regretted the act that had led to my imprisonment, not even when the meager food made me sick to my stomach or when the constant darkness was almost unbearable. The little girl would have died if I hadn’t healed her.

“I’ll stay here,” I spat, trying to shake off the two guards who were grabbing my arms. Even the thought of leaving my small cell couldn’t make me work for the man who had tortured so many of my friends.

“You’ll be rewarded,” the soldier said in a voice that was supposed to sound convincing.

I snorted, still struggling. The king was too afraid to let me loose, and that was the only reward I wanted.

My face stung as one of the guards hit me. I stopped struggling just long enough for them to seize me. I was shoved to my feet while my hands were tied roughly behind my back.

“I’ll never work for the king,” I snarled, trying to struggle again. “I’d rather die.”

“Not even for your mother?” the soldier asked with the air of knowing something that I didn’t.

I stopped struggling as a fear that hadn’t been there before crept into my body. My family had been carefully hidden in the Mulee Forest before my capture. I’d made sure of that. How could the king have my mother?

“My mother’s dead,” I growled, testing to see how much they knew.

“Not yet,” the soldier taunted, seeing that his bait was tempting me.

“You have the wrong woman,” I snarled. “My mother died before I came here.”

“You can’t fool us,” the soldier jeered. “You look— used to look just like her,” he laughed, casting the torchlight on my skinny frame.

Alarm seeped into my bones. I did look just like my mother.

“She has a scar just beneath her right eye that looks like a tear drop,” the soldier said, sneering as my look told him that they were right.

“Let her go,” I snarled.

“We didn’t capture her,” the soldier chuckled. “She came to us seeking help for a dying nine-year-old boy.”

My head snapped up. My brother Andrew had been a baby when I’d been imprisoned. “Let them go, and I’ll do whatever you want.”

“I thought you might see it that way.”


I was breathing heavily and my eyes stung from the excess light by the time we reached the king’s chambers. I hadn’t climbed stairs or walked more than the length of my cell in eight years, and my body was reminding me of the fact. The guards shoved me roughly to my knees and forced my head to bow. I was too weak to resist.

Footsteps came closer and slowly stopped in front of me. The end of a walking cane jabbed underneath my chin, pulling my head back. The king stared at me. He had aged in the years since he’d thrown me into my dark cell. Small streaks of silver had crept into his brown hair and wrinkles were showing beneath his dark eyes. His middle buttons strained from too many feasts.

“Aaron the Sorcerer,” he mocked. “We meet again.”

I wanted to snap something about his strained waistline, but the thought of Andrew and my mother kept my mouth firmly shut.

“I see prison life has tightened your tongue,” the king said with satisfaction. “I have a job for you. Do it right, and you will live. Do it wrong, and you and your family die.”

“Sickness has entered my kingdom,” he explained, pacing in front of me. “A sickness no one has ever seen before. It attacks without warning, taking anyone in its path. My best experts do not understand it. I need you to create a cure.”

I didn’t answer as I gazed at the king. It must be serious if he was worried enough to resort to the thing he hated most.

“Don’t try to tell me that you don’t know how,” the king continued. “I caught you using healing magic. The victims lie in the Great Hall beneath us. My physicians are tending to them, but there is little they can do.”

He met my gaze, and I knew it was my turn to choose to die now or help him. “Take me to them.”

The guards pulled me back to my feet, and forced me back out of the room. After descending a few flights of stairs that had me breathing heavily again, we reached the Great Hall. Normally, the spacious room was filled with grand, ball-going nobles, but now the people in the crowd were all lying on the floor.

“I can’t examine the patients with my hands behind my back,” I snapped.

My hands were untied, and I knelt down next to the first patient. A young girl about eight years old had her eyes shut and breathed heavily. Her face was sweaty and her hands shook. Her skin was rosy, but it felt like ice.

A physician knelt next to me.

“They start with upset stomachs,” he explained. “Within a week they are too weak to stand, and their faces turn ashy gray. That’s usually when they arrive here. Their faces are gray for two days before they fall unconscious. They usually live for two or three weeks after that, eating nothing and drinking little.”

I nodded. “I’ll need a cauldron and ingredients,” I said, addressing my bodyguards.

“They have been prepared,” the soldier said as the guards marched me down another corridor to a small workshop. A large fireplace was built into the wall and a cauldron hung over it. A table was already filled with ingredients that had been confiscated from prisoners like me.

“I need this filled exactly half full of clean water,” I ordered, pointing to the cauldron.

I grabbed a large butcher’s knife to crush a dragon scale to powder and caught sight of my reflection in the shiny blade. My face was different from the sixteen-year-old boy who had been caught healing a little girl. I looked older than twenty-four. My hair had gone from thick, wavy black to frail, patchy white. I hadn’t even had stubble before, but now a matted white beard hung halfway down my chest. My skin was sallow and stretched across my face like a skeleton. My tattered clothes hung loosely over my skinny frame.

I looked away from the knife and began crushing the scales angrily. I’d spent the first year cursing the king, and the last seven learning to accept my place. Now that I was so close to the surface, and to freedom, my anger was hard to suppress.

A guard filled my cauldron with water and started a large fire. I carefully measured beetle eggs and unicorn horn into the large black pot. I added dragon scale, gryphon claw, lythian flower and fawn hair, watching it turn from ocean blue to leaf green. I stirred carefully, sometimes clockwise, sometimes opposite. Sweat poured down my face as I completed the last clockwise turn. My potion was now a royal purple. I put a drop to my tongue.

“It’s ready,” I announced, startling one of the guards who had drifted to sleep during the long hours of work.

“Bring in the boy.”

A new pair of soldiers entered, one carrying a boy who looked just like I had at his age. The second herded my mother behind them.

“Aaron?” she whispered, trying to see the face she knew beneath the scars of prison life. Her own face was lined with more wrinkles than I remembered.

“Two drops,” I told the guard who had a ladle full of my concoction.

The soldier opened Andrew’s mouth and carefully dropped two drops of purple liquid down his throat. Andrew’s blue eyes fluttered open immediately. He sat up, strength flooding into his limbs, and darted to my mother’s side.

“Successful test,” my soldier announced. “Soldiers, the woman and boy are free to go. Tell the physicians to administer two drops of this tonic to each patient.”

“What about my son?” my mother demanded.

“I said that you and the boy are free,” my soldier repeated.

We all knew that she hadn’t meant Andrew.

“My other son.”

“Aaron is a prisoner of the king,” the soldier said coldly. “Until the day he dies.”

My mother opened her mouth again, but I shook my head. “It’s okay, Mother. I’ll be fine. Go home. The others need you.”

Tears filled her eyes. I smiled to prove that I’d be fine as the soldiers pushed her out the door.

“Your reward is a hot bath before we take you back to your cell,” the soldier said as the guards led me away.


I hadn’t felt this clean in years. I’d been given new clothes, and my beard was gone. My wispy hair was trimmed, and my pale skin was no longer caked in dirt.

The bath house door opened roughly and my bodyguards appeared with another group of soldiers.

“That’s him,” one of my guards said, pointing at me.

I frowned as the mass rushed at me. I felt myself being thrown into the air until I collided roughly with a wall. My new shirt ripped along my back and I groaned in pain as I hit the floor. I shook my head and tried to figure out what was going on when I felt a fist connect with my stomach. I doubled over as another one found my face. My head spun and my vision went black.


Every part of my body hurt. My hands found my face, and I quickly realized that my nose was broken. My left eye was swollen, and my head throbbed.

“Get up,” a familiar voice demanded, and I realized what had woken me. Three familiar bodyguards were standing over me, holding a torch.

“Just kill me,” I muttered, rolling over.

“We will,” the soldier assured me. “After you tell us what you did to the potion.”

“I put in unicorn horn, gryph.”

A sharp kick to my ribs took my breath away. “I don’t want an ingredient list. What did you do to it?”

“Nothing,” I answered honestly. I had watched it work and I was sure I’d mixed it correctly.

“Why is everyone we gave the tonic to invisible?”

Invisible? I had to be dreaming.

Another sharp kick.

“I don’t know,” I moaned. “Blue salt is the only thing that can cause invisibility, and there wasn’t any of that in the room.”

“Liar.” Another sharp kick.

“I’m not lying,” I moaned. “I can fix it.”

“You will,” the soldier said, roughly pulling me to my feet again. My body cried out in pain.

A few minutes later I again found myself in the Great Hall. The doors were being carefully guarded to prevent invisible patients from leaving. I could hear them walking around and talking to each other. My tonic had obviously restored them to perfect health.

“I’ll need another cauldron and water.”

I was escorted back to the work room and a new cauldron was filled with water. I slipped my finger into the water, putting a drop on my tongue. Something didn’t seem quite right. I searched through the ingredients on the table and found a long unicorn hair. The water bubbled and boiled when I dropped it in. Shades of color started to appear, swirling among each other, but never mixing. I peered intently at the water. Unicorn hair revealed the substances used in any potion, but reading it could be difficult.

“Tell the king that his water supply is being poisoned, and unless he does something, his entire kingdom will be sick.”

A blood-red streak, banana-yellow strip, and lime-green swirl each revealed substances that caused weakness, upset stomachs, and painful unconsciousness. A pale lavender was also swirling through the water, denoting naccilian flowers. The rare lavender flower had no effect by itself, but when combined with seaweed, which the lime-green indicated, it created intense pain. When combined with dragon scales, it acted the same as blue salt.

I grabbed a hair from the tail of a sphinx and dropped it into the water. The colors disappeared.

“What are you doing?” the soldier demanded.

“Purifying the water,” I snapped as I found a phoenix feather. “One of the ingredients in the water reacted with the dragon scale that I used to create the invisible effect. This,” I dropped the feather into the water, “should counter that.”

The water bubbled and turned a pale pink. “A drop each should do it.”

“You had better be right this time,” the soldier growled, marching me to the Great Hall. The guards followed, carrying my new potion.

One by one, the patients reappeared and left the Great Hall.

“What do we do with him now?”

“We take him to the king,” the soldier said.

We made our way back up the long stairs, and I found on my knees again as the king approached.

“You aren’t worth the food I generously feed you,” the king spat, jabbing me with his cane. “I should have you executed.”

“Please try,” I taunted, but it was an empty threat. In my weakened condition, I was powerless.

My threat scared the king enough to change his mind. “Throw him back into his cell and let him rot there.”

“You can hide me deep beneath your castle, but you can’t hide what you’ve done,” I said recklessly. “Invisibility only comes with magic, and the whole kingdom can see that. You have an uprising on your hands, Your Majesty. It may not be to long before I am released from my cell by rebels who have just taken over your rule. Make your decisions wisely.”

I got to my feet and began walking back to my cell. War would come, and with any luck, I’d be free soon.

E-mail: wsorens[at]

Tech Support

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Ari Susu-Mago

Albert Woodler had been poring over ancient volumes of text for nearly three days when he finally found what he was looking for. It was almost dusk, and the dusty light that filtered through the workroom window pooled on the long worktable as Albert thumbed through the heavy books before him. His vision was beginning to blur even with the help of reading glasses and he paused to rub his eyes and glance over at Julia, who was once again settled on her perch with her head tucked under her wing. Lucky bird, Albert thought. He sighed and took a swig from his water bottle, managing to slop a sizable amount down his shirt and jeans in the process.

“I have a drinking problem,” he announced to his sleeping familiar, looking ruefully at the dark stain spreading across his crotch. Julia didn’t move. Hopefully, his pants would be dry soon—for now, at least, there was nobody there to see. He stretched his arms above his head and then behind his back, cracked every joint he could think of, and returned to the open book.

It was as he was settling back into a reading posture, perched on his stool with his chin in his hands, that he saw it. The runes were inked beneath an illustration of a man with his hands raised in a gesture of summoning. Before the man was a wooden oval like a picture frame, and within it, a human face. To the untrained eye, it looked like a picture of a medieval lord showing off his favorite portrait, but Albert’s stomach gave an unnatural swoop when he saw it. Was this it? He silently mouthed the runes, testing the sounds in his mouth but not daring to say them aloud. The sensible part of his brain that wasn’t yet swimming with adrenaline was protesting that he couldn’t know for sure, that he hadn’t even translated them yet. Nevertheless, no logic could overrule this feeling in his bones that he had found the object of his search.

The paragraph accompanying the illustration was in Occitan, and he could read most of that easily. His heart pounding faster with each line, Albert skimmed through the text, then grabbed a bit of paper and hastily copied the runes onto it.

Under different circumstances, Albert probably would have exercised more caution; he was not a rash person by nature. Normally, he would have double-checked and cross-referenced and asked for a second opinion, just to be sure, but after three days of nothing but musty books and the company of an ill-tempered African Grey Parrot, he was desperate for a bit of excitement and some tangible results. He slid down to the far end of the worktable where the spell lay, essentially finished, but not yet working.

Julia woke up at the sound of the metal stool scraping against flagstones. “Must you be so loud?” she muttered irritably. “Some of us are trying to sleep here.” She shoved her head back under her wing.

Albert paused for a moment and considered whether or not he should ask Julia for help. If he kept her awake now, she’d be more annoyed than usual and would probably insist on doing a lot of research before she allowed him to try anything. That was a disheartening prospect. Yet, it really would be best to have an extra pair of eyes. He sighed, running his fingers through his rumpled hair, and then stood up and walked over to Julia’s perch.

“Hey,” he said. When she didn’t move, he poked her gently with a fingertip.

Without untucking her head, Julia scooted down her perch away from him.

“Jules, I need your help.”

She ruffled her feathers. Well, at least he knew she was listening.

“Julia, I’m going to… try something.”

There was a pause as Julia slowly swiveled her head to regard him with one shrewd yellow eye.

“Nothing big or important,” he lied hastily. “It’s just sort of an… adjunct spell. And I need an extra pair of eyes.”

She cocked her head at him, unblinking. Finally, she turned and flapped over to her worktable perch. “Wake me when you’re ready,” she said, and her head disappeared under her wing.

Albert finished sketching the lines of the spell on the worktable, outlining them with powdered mandrake root, and set the large oval frame in place, propping it upright. He also, as subtly as possible, added a containment charm, marking the necessary characters on tiny scraps of paper and pasting them at various points around the spell. Hopefully, Julia wouldn’t look too closely—if she saw a containment charm, she might easily guess that this was no mere adjunct spell. Better to ask forgiveness than permission, he thought. Last but not least, he took the paper with the new runes on it and carefully added it to the spellboard. He stepped back and surveyed his work.

“Jules,” he said. He turned and saw that she was already awake, standing on one foot with her head between tucked between half-fluffed shoulders, her eyes glazed and sleepy.

“Well?” she demanded.

Albert turned back to the worktable, rolled up his sleeves, and taking a deep breath, flicked his fingers to set the spell in motion.

A fizzing sensation filled the workroom, as though the air itself was humming some inaudible tune. The outlines of the worktable seemed to blur and shift from side to side, and the pungent odor of mandrake powder filled the room. Albert stared hard at the wooden frame in the center of the table, and at the rippling air around it. Was that a man’s face? He definitely saw—

There was a flash of light from the center of the table as the wooden frame exploded, sending flaming splinters in every direction. Albert, having completely forgotten his safety goggles, was saved only by the containment charm—the chunks of wood slammed into an invisible wall just inches from his face and clattered harmlessly onto the table and floor. It all happened so fast that Albert hardly had time to register anything, and when it was over, he stood rooted to the spot, his mind utterly blank with shock.

“What… the bloody hell… was that?” Julia’s voice was soft, but infused with such ire that Albert would have much preferred she scream at him. “I don’t know of any kind of ‘adjunct spell’ whose purpose is to blow up in the face of the wizard casting it. Albert? Would you care to explain why we almost died just now?”

He couldn’t look at her. Not only had he told her an outright lie, but she was right—he could have killed them both, tinkering with an unverified spell. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled. What else could he say? Skirting the wreckage strewn across the floor, he clambered onto his stool and slumped forward, his face in his hands. His shirtsleeve, resting against a bit of smoldering wood, began to singe, and he rubbed it out in irritation, using the movement to covertly wipe his eyes as well; he refused to let Julia see him sniveling. But he couldn’t help it… it was just so disappointing. Here he thought he’d found what they’d been looking for, and it all turned out to be a dud, and a dangerous one at that. “I’m sorry,” he said again.

“At least you had the sense to put up a containment charm,” she said by way of an answer. She was now picking her way through the debris on the table; she lifted a bit of wood in one claw, turning it over dexterously and then nibbling at a corner. “It looked like the same spell you’ve been trying all week. What did you add?”

“That,” he said, gesturing to the piece of paper bearing the runes. It wasn’t even singed—go figure.

Julia hopped over to inspect it, but before she was even halfway there, a low groan issued from somewhere on the other side of the worktable.

Julia and Albert both froze, staring at one another, silently confirming that, indeed, neither of them had made the noise. Albert cleared his throat. “Hello? Is there someone there?” There was no response.

Julia gave him a significant look, then walked over to the far edge of the table. “Albert,” she said sharply.

He moved around the table to look.

A man lay there, curled on his side amid the splintered wood, his arms over his head. He looked to be in his mid-fifties or so, balding, plump, and well-dressed. He moaned again as Albert approached; he didn’t seem to be totally conscious yet. Albert stood at the man’s feet, staring at his familiar, and Julia stared back.

“Albert, what have you done?”

“I have absolutely no idea.”

“That,” she said in an ominous tone, “is the wrong answer.” She trotted back to look at the unblemished slip of paper on the table, and after a minute, she asked, “Where did you find this?”

“Over there… top of the page.” Julia flapped over to the book and landed on top of it, cocking her head to one side to read.

Albert bent to inspect their guest. The man was covered in debris, but at least he was visibly breathing; tentatively, Albert put his hand on the man’s chest—there was a heartbeat.

“You copied it wrong.”

Albert looked up. “What?”

“It’s mannaz nauthiz sowilo, and you wrote mannaz nauthiz kenaz. You never paid attention in runes. Why didn’t you let me double check for you?”

But Albert was distracted again. “Julia, I found his wallet.” He gently dislodged a brown billfold from the man’s pocket and flipped it open. Out fell a couple bills of unfamiliar currency and several identical little cards. Albert picked one up and inspected it. It was embossed with an official-looking symbol and gold lettering. Julia glided down to settle on his shoulder, and he passed her one of the cards.

“It’s a hotline,” she said.

Albert turned to her in astonishment. “What? They’re not numbers—”

“Did I say they were? No, it’s more runes… I’ll translate.” She held the card up in one claw and read, “‘In case of emergency, please contact Resident Midgard Liason, Nissa Aven.’ The contact info—” She squinted at the card. “—is the same as what’s in that book.”

They looked at each other.

“Well, if this isn’t an emergency, then I don’t know what is,” Albert announced. He replaced the wallet and its contents, keeping one of the embossed cards. Working quickly, they cleaned up as best they could and began to set up the spellboard again. While Julia sketched and lined the shapes with mandrake powder, Albert scribbled characters and figures on scraps of paper, passing them to Julia for inspection before wrestling a new wooden frame into place. Ten minutes later, they were putting the finishing touches on the pattern.

“At least if the containment charm fails this time around, I’ll know it was both our faults,” Julia remarked as she settled on to her perch.

Albert cracked his knuckles and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly, and after glancing once more at the man on the floor, he flicked his fingers. The air once again began to hum as though infused with electricity, and the outline of the wooden frame wavered as the energy coalesced in its center. Albert braced himself for another explosion, but after a moment or two, an image shimmered into being. The woman was in her mid-twenties, attractive and smartly dressed, as though for a business meeting. She looked directly at Albert and spoke, but although her voice was pleasant and smooth, he had no idea what she had said. He glanced quickly at Julia, who fluffed her feathers in an avian shrug and started to preen. Nervously, Albert looked back at the young woman. Why did she have to be pretty? He swallowed. “Erm… do you speak English?”

She looked confused for a moment, and then seemed to understand. “Ah… Anglishe.”

“Um, yes…” He looked at the unconscious man, and then said, “Well, I was casting a spell… this same spell that I’m using now… but I made a mistake, and the spell exploded, and it brought a man with it. I don’t think he’s seriously hurt, but he’s unconscious.”

She frowned a little, but nodded.

“I’m guessing he came through the spell from… wherever you are. This is his.” He held up the card.

To his astonishment, the woman reached towards him through the frame and held out her hand.

Numbly, he passed her the card, and she took it, her fingers actually brushing his. She was no mere image. His heart began to pound—after all this, had he actually done it? Had he created an inter-dimensional portal?

The woman looked at the card. “Is de man still there?” she asked.

“Yes… on the floor. I can’t really lift him up to show you.”

The woman said she would be back soon, and walked out of the frame. She was gone for about five minutes, during which Julia pretended to sleep and Albert fidgeted. When she returned, it was with two burly men who nonchalantly clambered through the gateway and onto Albert’s worktable, carrying a stretcher. The young woman stood on the other side of the frame, directing them in that melodic language, and Albert waited awkwardly until the men had lifted the little man onto the stretcher and backed out through the portal. When they were gone, the young woman turned back to Albert and smiled—God, she was pretty, especially when she smiled.

“Dank you,” she said. “Can I help you in any oder way?”

“Ah, yes, actually. Can you explain something?”


“Um… who is that man? And, where did he come from?”

“Where?” she asked. “Our company. In Anglishe… I would say, ‘Technical Help’. For magic. It is his job to fix spells with problems.”

“No, no, I mean, what’s the name of the place where you are?”

She looked confused again.

“Erm, like, this is Earth. Here, this place, this world,” he said, gesturing vaguely around him.

She brightened. “Ah, yes. Dis is Asgard. We know of your Eard because we help wid your magic—I visit often—but, it is not in de same… ah, place.” She beamed at him one more time. “Dank you for contacting us, and have a pleasant day.” She stretched her arm to the side as though reaching for something, and vanished with a snap.

“Gods be praised,” Julia remarked.

Albert looked at her. “Since when are you religious?” he asked.

“Ever since you started communing with deities.” She hopped off her perch and on to his shoulder. “We can clean this up later. It’s dinnertime. Let’s go out to celebrate our own personal deus ex machina. Drinks on me.”

“Hang on a minute…” Albert’s mind was still churning. “You think that she’s… that they’re…”

“Yes,” Julia interrupted. “Once again, it’s your own fault for not paying attention in runes class. Some of us actually did our homework.” She fluffed herself up and shifted from foot to foot. “And we need to go now, because Polly really wants a cracker.” She swooped towards the door. “Any day now would be nice.”

Still dazed, Albert shook his head and went to fetch his coat. As he was pulling it on, he noticed something glinting under the worktable, and bent down to look. It was one of the little embossed cards. He picked it up and squinted at the runes that spelled out “Nissa Aven,” then smiled, and put the card in his pocket.

Ari Susu-Mago has been writing and telling stories since the age of five. After one year of college, she decided that she needed a change of pace and is taking a gap year to further explore her interest in creative writing, among other things. She lives with her parents, sisters, and dog in Oregon. E-mail: lyrwriter[at]

Dante’s Grid

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Liz Mierzejewski

When I first met Dante I was still in college. I was in my junior year attempting to earn my degree in English Lit. At that time I was planning on becoming a teacher. “You know what they say,” Dante would tell me back then. “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” He would laugh at his own joke, and at first I would get all insulted, but to be honest, I was never much of a writer. So eventually, when he’d tell that joke, I would have to agree. After all, I wasn’t the creative one. Dante Benedict, future world-famous inventor, was the creative one, and I loved him then even as I love him now.

But right then I had these boxes to bring down to the University. The papers were all over the place, stacks and stacks, in no order I could ever determine. I wished Dante were there right then. But he wasn’t, the poor soul.

“So, you still haven’t heard from him?” asked the professor, Dr. Leitner. He was holding some of the papers with Dante’s drawings and calculations. Dante had tried to explain to me what all of it meant, but gave up when we both realized that I was hopelessly lost.

“No, sir, it’s been four days now—”

“And this is all of it, the papers, the drawings—all of it?” He scratched the top of his bald head, papers still in his hand.

“Uh huh. Those are all the papers, sir. He’s made the cages, though.”

“Well, now…” Dr. Leitner spread some of the drawings on the big table in his office. Light from the enormous windows made the papers look old and important, edges curled up from so much use. He tapped his lower lip with a pencil. He pointed to one of the drawings, a wild sketch of metal filaments criss-crossing, twisted around nails and hooked up to Dante’s computer. He had labeled most of it, but his handwriting resembled broken twigs, angular and sharp.

I pointed to the drawing as Dr. Leitner puzzled over it. “He would put things in there. Pens, cups. Things like that. Little things.”

He shooed my hand away.

“Miss Sloan, please.” He looked up and must have seen my little pout. It has its advantages. “I’m sorry, what were you saying? Small items, like a pen?” He smiled, but it still made him look impatient to me.

“Yes, at first. But it didn’t work. He’d start the machine and there would be a great deal of noise, but nothing much else.” I pointed to the cage sketch. “Noise and sparks. He broke a few computers, too.” He had burned the tips of his fingers one day. And his hair. I can still remember the smell. He had given up on it for almost a week after that.

Dr. Leitner sat down, lifting the sketch up into the light. I could still see the drawing through the paper, sunlight pouring through it from behind him. He put it down and scanned the notebooks filled with calculations. I waited for a very long time while he examined the notes. Dr. Leitner’s office did not have many pictures on the beautiful, old paneling. One yellowed photograph of a child with a huge bull in tow hung between his rather grandly framed diplomas, but nothing else. Two of the fifteen-foot walls carried every book I could ever imagine, disorganized and dusty. Dante’s papers almost seemed at home here.

“Miss Sloan—”

“Penny, please. Call me Penny.”

“Yes, yes of course. Penny, did Dante ever tell you what he was doing?” He licked his lips, but they still seemed dry.

“He tried. Many times. Something about other dimensions, unlimited energy, lots of things. I never did quite understand him. Didn’t he tell you, Doctor?” Dr. Leitner was his advisor for his doctorate. They spent a lot of time together.

Dr. Leitner smiled broadly, his teeth spread across his face like little wooden soldiers in yellowing uniforms. “Oh, yes. Certainly. I just want to make sure that he—” He stopped for a moment and his gaze softened. “Penny, Dante is a brilliant young man, and I just want to find out where he’s gone.” He paused again. “This work is vitally important. You do understand that, don’t you?”

“Well, of course I do!” I protested. I knew Dante thought it was important, so it was important to me. “I love Dante and I want him to come back, wherever he’s gone.” I choked on that last bit, trying not to cry. I breathed in deep. “Do you think we can find him, Dr. Leitner? Can you use these formulas to get him back?”

He didn’t answer. He didn’t make eye contact. The room became silent and then the light shifted as clouds covered the sun. I could feel the heaviness of the moment in my ears, like pressure when climbing a hill. We were quiet for a long time, minutes, perhaps. I wished there had been a clock or something to mark the time. It made me feel like my bones were drying up from inside. And it made me scared. I hadn’t felt scared up to that point, but now I was afraid I might not ever see Dante again.

“Tell me, Penny, what you remember,” he said. He opened one of the notebooks and checked the date of the entry. “What do you know?”

I thought for a moment. Dante was always going on about his work, but not to just anyone. “Penny, I can tell you because you don’t understand,” he had said. “If you did understand, then I would have to keep this a secret.”

So he told me. Every day he would tell me what he had done, what part of the formula he had solved, the inexplicable riddle he had fussed over since I had known him.

“What riddle?” asked Dr. Leitner.

“It was a poem, I think. He seemed driven by some need to make a poem work out just right…” I was trying to think. Dante used the word almost daily and I had gotten used to the strangeness of it. “He was trying to solve something called…” I bit my lip, trying to remember.

“Called what, Miss Sloan?”

“It was the…” It came to me. “The Rhyming Hypothesis.” I smiled. That was it, the goal of Dante’s research.

Dr. Leitner smiled back, but it was that same condescending smile I got all the time from Dante and his cohorts. I wanted to leave.

“The Riemann Hypothesis? Is that it?” He opened up a few more notebooks to find the math Dante had worked out. He pointed to a long set of numbers, zig-zags and fractions. It was all a jumble to me, but I nodded and he pored over the work. “Did he say he solved it?”

I nodded again, more slowly this time. I felt suddenly small. As far as I could tell, Dr. Leitner didn’t care if I were in the room at all.

“He finally got the machine to work, you know,” I blurted. “He made a pen go.”

He seemed more interested in what I had to say now. “Are you sure of this? It disappeared? Tell me more.”

Dante had tried for weeks to make the grid function. He had created a magnetic grid of wires to go over another metal plate, creating a cage just big enough to hold maybe a loaf of bread, if he wanted to. Along the sides he had labeled it with numbers and symbols I couldn’t decipher. He used strange words that looked beautiful on the page, but were gibberish to me. “Nontrivial Zeros” and “Zeta Space.” I remember them not because they were meaningful, but because they sounded like part of the poetry he was trying to figure out.

The first time he had turned it on, I thought we might have a fire. The wires sizzled and hummed. The energy shimmered a cobalt blue along the wires and within the cage itself. He had placed a pen inside. The pen shimmered blue as well, and then began to melt. Then it burned, and finally sizzled. An energy burst flew up the wires into the computer and it emitted a nasty whooshing sound, an acrid smell of melting plastic filling the air.

The next time didn’t fare much better. Dante decided that the plastic was too vulnerable. And maybe the grid wasn’t aligned just right, something like that. He took my tea cup, one of those cheap ones with no character, and planted it firmly in the center of his wire grid, now a cage. He had spent days checking and aligning the filaments. He had purchased a cheap computer to handle the program, just in case it also died. And he started the process. Okay, I wasn’t fair. It did work better than before. There was the blue glow, but this time nothing melted. Instead, the mug fizzled in and out of view, like an image on a zoopraxiscope. For a split second it wasn’t there, and Dante grabbed me by both arms, lifting me off the floor. He all but dropped me when it shattered, sending porcelain shards in all directions. The pieces didn’t escape the grid, thank goodness, but the computer failed again, and Dante was heartbroken.

“What was he trying to do, Penny?” Dr. Leitner asked.

I thought for a moment. I knew, but shouldn’t Dr. Leitner know? He was Dante’s advisor, after all. “Oh, I don’t know…” I said, lying to the floor.

He was quiet, but I dared not look up at him. I began to wring my hands, something I do when I feel trapped.

“Was he trying to make it disappear?”

That wasn’t it, I knew that much. According to Dante, nothing could ever truly disappear. I felt like Dr. Leitner was treating me like a child, and I resented it. I shook my head no.

“Another dimension, perhaps? Did he say anything about another dimension?” He had raised his voice and it was shrill, not at all kind or patient.

My hands were getting hot from wringing. I nodded. I still refused to look up, but at that moment he slammed both his hands onto the table, sending dust and papers onto the floor. “Did—he—succeed, Miss Sloan?”

I could hear his breathing, heavy. I started shaking. I refused to cry this time. He sat down next to me and pulled my balled fingers apart. He held one hand and draped another over my shoulders.

“We’ll find him, Penny, but you’ve got to cooperate.” He squeezed my fingers.

Another moment went by and I said, “Yes, he got it to work.” I could feel his arms go rigid as he said nothing for the longest time. “He solved his riddle, Dr. Leitner. He finally solved it. He told me every zero had its own space. All he had to do was put something in that space and it would be… um… somewhere else. Another dimension.”

“And he figured out how the grid did that? How to align the grid with the zeros?” His voice got low.

“Yes sir, I think so,” I said. I had seen him do that, not six days before. “A large grid and a small one, the one that made the mug disappear.” Why hadn’t he told Dr. Leitner?

“And these grids, they’re still at your apartment, you say? I think I would like to see these grids of his, Penny.”

I led Dr. Leitner to the basement where Dante had made his grids, both secured to large oak tables he had taken from the university. Both computers were still running, both grids giving off a barely discernible hum. He looked over the larger grid, letting his fingers run over the top, minute sparks following his path. He called up the program, which was running in the background. “You do realize the program is still on, don’t you Penny?” I didn’t answer him. He waited a moment and pulled a pen from his pocket. “Show me,” he said.

I flipped on the smaller grid and took the pen from his hand. “Will this get Dante back?” I looked him in the eye.

“We can only try, Penny. I need to understand and to try.” He gestured toward the small grid. “This one here?”

I nodded and put the pen inside. I started the program as I’d seen Dante do a hundred times. The grid glowed and murmured, this time looking beautiful rather than dangerous. The pen gave off one final blue flare and it was gone. Dr. Leitner gasped.

“Wait,” I said. “Watch this.” I did as I had been taught by Dante, typing in the correct code. The grid hummed again, and the pen was there again. “Check it.”

He picked up the pen for examination. “Ohhhh,” he moaned, like he’d been struck. He held up the pen to my eyes. It was horrible. Taped to it was a message written in Dante’s pointed hand: HELP. He leaned back on the table, both palms cupping the lip. “Tell me, Penny. Did he ever use this larger table?”

How could he know? I knew that Dante believed in this man, but he was making me nervous. “Only a few times,” I said. “Only once or twice, maybe. He found a deer carcass a few weeks back and he—”

“Did he ever use it himself?” He walked up close to me, and I leaned up against the computer, arms up to protect myself, from what I didn’t know, but he scared me. “Did he ever get into the grid himself?” He took hold of my wrists. “Did he, Penny?”

I couldn’t look at him, and I balled my fingers. “Yes. He had me help him four days ago. He said you would be able to get him back. I tried, but he said only you could do it.” Tears slid down my face. “Can you, Dr. Leitner? Please tell me you can bring Dante back.”

He paused. “Now Penny, why do that? I have all of his papers now. I am—was his advisor. I have complete access to this technology, wherever it leads us. Bring him back? I’d be cutting my own throat.”

“That’s not true,” I told him. “He told me to give this to you.” I handed him the note that I had read so many times since four days before, when I had started up the program for Dante. Dr. Leitner, I have the solution. It is not in my notebooks. I have it with me. Come and see.

Dr. Leitner refolded the paper and tucked it into his jacket. “Get me there, now.” He climbed onto the table.

“I couldn’t get Dante back. How can I get you back?” I was shaking horribly.

“Send another pen.” He smiled his wooden soldier smile. “I’ll send instructions.”

So I did it. I followed the instructions Dante had given me. The large cage shimmered and glowed, humming its soft song. I watched Dr. Leitner flick in and out of this dimension, just like Dante had only four days ago. And he was gone.

I got Dante back, just like Dr. Leitner had promised. I did send the pen, and a pad, too. I can’t understand a mathematical proof, but I can follow instructions, and Dante is here with me. I can’t say the same for Dr. Leitner. Some people just can’t be trusted.

Liz Mierzejewski is a mother, wife, teacher and part-time writer of speculative fiction. Her work has been published at Expanded Horizons, Clonepod, the Drabblecast and Dunesteef, along with Toasted Cheese! E-mail: mizem55[at]

One Last Storm

Ana’s Pick
Chris Yodice

The snow was relentless that year—and surprisingly consistent. The first storm came on a Friday. It lasted three days, leaving ten inches at the shallowest point and drifts that threatened to consume whole houses like ocean waves. It had been twenty-four hours since anyone in my family could see out the windows; we knew it had ended only because we were told by the woman on the radio.

She was the one we really listened to. The television weatherman appeared once every few hours; through a practiced smile, he spoke of satellites and radars and air masses. He was unaffected; he could have been talking to us from anywhere. His suits—he wore a different one for each appearance—were unwrinkled. His hair was perfect. This woman, though, seemed to stay with us the whole time. If she slept, I don’t know; she must have, I suppose. But I am sure she didn’t go home. And as the hours wore on, her tired voice only grew more intimate.

Finally, she said, “It’s all over now, but I’m glad that we could spend this time together.”

I spent Sunday night fighting my way out of the house, budging the door open inch by inch until I could extend a foot first, a leg, and, at last, enough of my body to force the rest of the way through. The wind was fierce. Trapped outside as snow blown from the roof re-covered the clearing I had made, I was now left to shovel a path to the street and then dig my way back in.

We awoke Monday to clear skies and early forecasts of another blizzard later in the week.

And so it went: weekends covering us in white, the following days offering reprieve enough only to carve temporary gaps in the continually compounding walls of ice and snow. Those gaps would be filled in again come each Friday, some weeks, Thursday.

Despite the wearying cycles of the weather, this was my busiest season. I was in school, in the midst of a program that took up much of my time both in class and for study. I had a job at the library; despite the hours required by school, this was a necessity. Without it, both education and recreation would go unfunded. The job was low paying but it was not easy—attendance was mandatory and there were no excuses accepted.

In this season, I had also found love. Or what I hoped were love’s beginnings. But while the quotidian routines of study and work remained mostly unaffected, it turned out that love was harder to nurture in the cold. She was older than I was. Not by much, just enough to convince a college sophomore that he was dating an older woman. She had dark hair, long and straight, green eyes, and a wide and frequent smile. She was smart. And funny. This should have been enough to battle the elements for. It should have been love quickly, but as the weeks passed, its potential was buried under the unending snow. I was unconcerned; I bided my time and held out for thaw.

In the meantime, I traveled when I had to—fighting the winds that whipped the ice and snow at me from all directions—to get to the places others told me I must be. But I let those same winds, winds that continued long after the storms ended, keep me from my love. Dates were made but each weekend they were pre-empted by the snow that inevitably came. And we grew apart before we were yet close. We grew apart as we watched the storms and I barely noticed.

It had started on a whim. There was a holiday gathering in the school’s common area on the last day of finals. She and I began within a circle of students, speaking all at once of tests passed and vacation plans and the possibility of a white Christmas. In ones and twos, our mutual friends excused themselves with wishes for a happy season, and then there was just the two of us, unintroduced but carrying on merrily.

When it was time to go, she said, “It was nice talking to you.” She had not stopped smiling since I first saw her and, with these words, she smiled still. But now her face was different; it might have been something in her eyes. Unexpectedly, she leaned in and kissed me, holding her lips against my cheek and pulling them away slowly.

I stopped. Stopped speaking, stopped thinking, stopped breathing. It was not until she was halfway to the door that my heart leapt. If it had beat at all in those few seconds prior, I don’t know. But now it was galloping, faster still with each step she took. And then—if only then—at the start of it all, I did the right thing. I followed her.

I called her often over the school break. And she called me. Our conversations were lively, both of us bursting with so much to say. We had our first date, and our second, and third. We spent the early winter nights staring at the clear, star-filled sky.

Classes reconvened in January. And with them, came the storms. While school gave me the opportunity to see her almost daily, the excitement of the first few weeks gave way to conversation more polite than passionate. Too often, we spoke of the snow.

“It’s hard to get out in this weather,” I said.

We would spend time sitting together after class, then part: her to her house, her family; me, to mine. Best to avoid too much driving on the icy roads, I thought. The phone calls continued, but, with so much else to do, they too became perfunctory. Through it all, I assumed this would be remedied when the weather warmed.

The year’s shortest day falls in December, but I have always felt that there is a darkness unique to February. In the midst of this dreary month, I asked to see her.

“This coming Friday,” I suggested.

Both of our schedules, mine of a lucky underclassman, hers expected of a senior, allowed us that day off. She accepted quietly, with barely a trace of the smile I knew. We didn’t plan anything specific, just time to be together.

When the day arrived, I awoke to snow. Snow outside my bedroom window, snow rising halfway up our screen door. I called her midday, the routine now familiar.

“It’s bad out there,” I said.

“Mm,” she responded.

“Maybe—” I began, intending to finish with the overused, “Tomorrow would be better,” although I should have known that in this season, the tomorrows were never different.

Before I could continue, however, she had begun as well. The same, “Maybe—”

We thought alike at least. I laughed. She didn’t. I let her speak.

“Maybe,” she said, “We should talk.”

And suddenly things changed. The realization that came upon me was harsher than the shock of a frigid wind upon leaving a warm house, a sensation I knew too well.

It was with those words that I knew I had let it slip too far, for too long. I thought of our recent interactions and knew now what that reserved smile had meant. It was about to end; we were about to end. I thought of the storms that had kept me from her. They were real and they were cruel, there was no doubt of that. But why had they not kept me from anything else? Suddenly I gathered the ambition that had lain dormant for these weeks.

“I’ll come to you,” I said.

Silence. Then, “Okay.”

My intention was not to argue or plead. The instant clarity of the situation stunned me—how could I not have seen this? The guilt over the complacency I had shown fell upon me fast; the weight of it pinned down any urge I might have had to convince her it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t deserve that opportunity; she didn’t deserve that excuse.

Now, I only wanted to see her once more while she was still mine.

I fought through the door and shoveled, digging deep and hurling the snow with back-wrenching motions. This snow. It came; it stayed, unknowing of its effects. It had been so easy to blame for my own lapses. I looked toward the street; the plows had been through.

My car sputtered and whined, reluctant, but it moved. The roads were lined by the icy walls that had become fixtures this winter. Riding through them was like being trapped in a tunnel. These walls were white, but dirty. They were thick and solid, swirled throughout with asphalt and branches and oil. And they were endless.

I arrived at her house nearly ninety minutes later. I had not been there often, certainly not often enough in these past weeks. On less treacherous days, the trip would have taken one-third the time. But I had driven slowly and, even so, ended up spun out and backwards more than once. Fortunately, most others had stayed off the roads.

I parked as best I could—the side of my car scraping the boulders of ice that lined her street—and walked toward the house, following a thin path that had been cleared from the sidewalk to the front step. I looked up to see her silhouette in the doorway, her details lost in the glare of the setting sun off the snow.

She let me in with a quick word of hello, nothing more. Her family was sitting down to dinner as I entered. I was self-conscious, wondering where she would bring me for this final talk, wondering if they all knew—of my foolishness, my fate, or both. I was surprised to be invited to stay by her mother, who repeatedly expressed amazement that I was out on such a day.

“Young love comes with such devotion,” she said.

And with that I knew. This woman was unaware that my devotion came too late, that my arrival was a final act, and one of redemption.

The meal was lovely, and though I knew I was a condemned man at his last, I enjoyed it. Her family was amusing and gracious. I could see them in her. And they seemed to like me. I made them laugh and I was glad. This was how it should have been. I remembered her inviting me to dinner once before: “Come meet my family. You’ve never come inside, you know.” She had needled me when I was still graced with the lightness of her full smile. “Don’t be scared.” I dismissed the offer; the weather reports had been threatening. But sitting here now, I did not want to be anywhere else.

She did not say much throughout; she ate and watched and listened. Afterward, her father went outside, happy and hearty, to finish clearing the driveway of snow, ignoring his wife’s telling of more to come later in the night. I offered to help, an automatic gesture, declined by this man who seemed to relish the challenge of the elements.

So she and I remained at the table while her mother retired upstairs. We began to talk. My heart, lulled since my arrival, quickened. Now she would finish it. But while the long conversation touched on many things, we did not speak of us.

But that is not altogether true. I should say that she did not bring up this inevitable end. We spoke instead of those first, clear nights. This afternoon, in the moments after waking from my snow-blind stupor, those nights had seemed so long ago. Here, watching her mouth as she spoke, I realized how little time had passed since then. I could tell by her glinting eyes and only half-suppressed laughter that she had enjoyed them as much as I had. She seemed happy. I did all I could to not think about the chasm of my neglect that lay between those nights and this.

Our conversation branched into topics formerly untouched. As it did, I realized how much I had missed, how the focus of the early days of attraction is so often on the immediate and the simple. Now she spoke with no boundaries; sitting face-to-face, away from all of our responsibilities, and sheltered at last from the threatening skies, she told me about her family, her loves, and her life. Her openness affected me; I offered more to her than I had to anyone that I could remember. And in a gesture that was probably more than I deserved, she listened sincerely.

I could not forget, however, why I was there.

In one moment of silence, I said, unprompted, “I’m sorry.”

She shook her head. “Not yet,” she said.

Shortly after, her father came through and bade us good night. She stood up. I followed her to the living room where we sat before the front window.

This would be it.

The dark had come long ago. The hours since had passed under a blanket of clouds that moved constantly but never parted. It was only now that they opened, pouring light onto the frozen landscape in front of us. The moon was no more than a mirror, I knew, but on this night, it seemed to contain a luminescence all its own. And in the moments that followed, the snow started again, as if cued by this unveiling. The flakes fell gently and I was content watching them, just sitting by her side. They blew back and forth and, at times, drifted and circled in the air, carried by the unseen breeze. It would, at least, be a beautiful end.

She took my hand in hers, not finger laced in finger, but whole. I looked at her, saw her profile bathed in the new brightness coming through the window. I was ready now. This day had made it all worthwhile, provided one memory to treasure among the squandered potential of all the other moments. There was romance here. And in the years to come, when I would think back of this as love lost, I would be justified.

We sat in silence. I looked out the window and felt her turn toward me, then back. Together, we watched this one last storm.

Outside there was no way to gauge the falling snow. Each flake was like a drop of water falling into an endless ocean. But this ocean would soon rise and I had a long ride ahead. It was time for her to have her closure.

And so I would leave her, giving her the opportunity to tell me what I had already come to accept. She would do it now. Or, if she were tired, she would do it later: over the phone, or on the brown couches in the school’s common area, quietly, but in the company of her friends. It didn’t matter when.

I took a long breath. “Maybe I should go,” I said.

She moved toward me and slipped her fingers between mine.

“Maybe” she said, “You should stay.”

Chris Yodice lives and writes in New York. His work can be found in recent (and upcoming) issues of Bewildering Stories, MicroHorror, Conceit, and Rosebud magazine. He, himself, can usually be seen through his front window spinning in circles with his children. Chris can be reached at yodicec[at]

Meegan Kissinger Wore White

Baker’s Pick
Amanda Viviani

In my opinion, weddings are just a pissing match for girls. You get 100 of them in one over-priced, floating-candle and gardenia-bedecked banquet hall, and the hidden agenda becomes whose five-inch heels and $90 celebrity knock-off commands the most attention. The rest of the evening is spent taking bets on which member of the Sex and the Single Girl set, sloshed with champagne and teetering around on her gold spikes, is going to fall into the decorative fountain or drip rivers of cocktail sauce down her purple silk frock.

When we aren’t going to weddings, we work at them. The Old Man makes food for apple-cheeked, hand-holding young couples, wanna-be hipster brides, white-trash family barbecue nuptials and politically correct lesbian faux-ceremonies.

“I would prefer the coffee to be served table-side, and please try to find ivory linens.” Meegan reminds The Old Man for about the twentieth time. She raises her voice a few decibels, as if to make certain that we have heard her requests. We don’t really care one way or the other, since we’re just there having beers. Meegan, who wants to be shown the spelling of her name on the contract, to be assured of the presence of the extra “e,” is petite and appears to live in a tanning bed, as evident by the crispy-crinkly skin on her fried sternum. It’s humid outside, and her sprayed and gelled yellow hair sort of resembles an old fruit roll-up.

The Old Man takes his glasses off and grips one end in his teeth, mentally calculating. He’s got a bad back and a mean knife collection. He bids for replica daggers on eBay, and stockpiles them in his basement along with weird World War I bayonets and other sharp, pointy objects of fascination. God knows what he’s going to do with them—though we figure that’s why he makes such a great antipasto skewer.

The following weekend we toted tacos and peppery pico de gallo to a park shelter, where the groomsmen were throwing Busch Light cans into a wishing well and stubbing their cigarette butts out in the little metal grills.

Jaid and Derek, it turned out, were really into Mexico and all things Latin—if plastic red chili pepper lights can be considered an appropriate cultural symbol. She had tight, wiry-curly black hair and a bright white dress with red trim and a skirt with so many flounces, it looked like a Louis XVI window treatment. Her husband’s drunken buddies hoisted her high in the air, yelling and whooping a sort of Neanderthal celebratory chant.

I stood over the steaming tub of taco meat, feeling the humid sweat accumulate on my neck and watching the guests plod through the line. They always spent more time talking than serving themselves, and filling their plastic plates—you know, the kind with those little school-lunch dividers—to way past brimming. There was always someone who was vegetarian, or couldn’t eat dairy, or was allergic to anything remotely resembling, or touching, peanuts. Then they would stand at the end of the line, waiting for their specially ordered bland-o dinner to be handed over, watching me like a big-eyed puppy in the chow line.

At this particular reception, the special-food recipient was a diminutive, frizz-haired guy in a navy blue suit, the legs of which had obviously been tailored incorrectly, as the hems rose way above his black wingtips.

My serving companion nudged me lightly as Short Pants approached. What a dork. I mean, you don’t have to look like the guy at the wedding who needs a special meal.

Turns out that Short Pants was allergic to gluten—of course—and had to swap the taco feast for a spectrally bland-looking chicken breast with rice. He took his tin foil bowl with a nod, and stared down at the white protein and tasteless grains as if he had genuinely been looking forward to eating them. Which, I guess, was probably fairly realistic.

Not that he was really missing out on the spectacle of 150 wedding guests eating sloppy-spicy tacos in their suits and pastel dresses. Men held stuffed softshells up to their sideways mouths, dripping the tomato and jalapeño juices down over their gold watches and into white sleeves; women stood in circles and dug tortilla chips into piles of cilantro-flecked guacamole, whispering with hooded secrets or howling with high-pitched laughter.

Later, Short Pants found me standing with the dishwashers and their lit cigarettes, and tried to bum a smoke from someone, which we found pretty amusing.

Making enough hummus for 200 people is a real bitch. The Old Man is up to his arms in canned chickpeas, with legume-juice seeping out onto the counter, swearing about the recipe calling for tahini, and what the hell was that. Luckily, my job is counting out and sorting silverware, on a stool far from the whirring blender. I’m perched far away because I was the one who originally suggested making the hummus, and how gourmet that was, and wouldn’t it be easy and so much better than the kind the food truck dropped off every other Tuesday. Only now, it’s just not going so well. Choice words are flying out of The Old Man’s mouth like errant bees, and I could use some toasted pita chips for the amount of hummus on the stainless steel table. He doesn’t appreciate that remark—glares over his glasses with tired black eyes and lowered brows—but all I need to worry about is wrapping silverware in neat little folded linens, so what the hell do I care. I should make myself another vodka tonic.

On the hummus-day, six people come in to taste short ribs and bitch about prices. The bride and groom, trailing like meek and overwhelmed children, are escorted in by both sets of parents, who sweep in with the whoosh of air that accompanies the heavy glass door closing behind them. Both prim mothers are front and center, purses slung over their forearms, thickly-lipsticked mouths drawn sourly down, ready and aiming for judgment. All they’re missing are white gloves and some sort of hat that looks like a cotton-candy bird’s nest.

The fathers, in crisp khakis and sports-team polos, extend hands for shaking and clap The Old Man on the back, their loud-mouths running rife with money jokes, daughter jokes, you’d-better-give-us-a-damn-good-deal jokes. The young man, whose horsey height goes with his long horsey face, looks down at his little bride, and you can tell right about now that they’re wishing they’d gone to Mexico.

Once they’re seated, I get the careful task of delivering the complimentary wine—red, in tiny glasses—for the ladies and beer—skinny-necked bottles of thick dark micro brews or yellow cylinders of Miller—for the men. The mothers make a show of staring into their scarlet drinks, settling their napkins, sighing and rubbing their temples, weary with the weight of wedding planning.

The Old Man is in rare form tonight—he really wants this job. Five hundred guests means backbreaking work, means sucking up to gauche rich assholes, but mostly it means money to pay the bills, and maybe even a little something extra for himself. He’s wearing his white chef’s jacket, and we think he actually emptied the ashtray that usually sits on his desk, filled to the brim with crushed-out cancer. He likes to stand under the hood vents and suck down Winstons, stretching his back and muttering over the bubbly-hot fryer oil.

Now, though, he darts around like a nervous sparrow, refilling this and answering questions about that. The mothers frown at barbecue sauce on their fingers, they ask about silverware and china and the presence of wait staff.

“Will there be someone clearing the tables at all times?” This is the woman with the aversion to the barbecue sauce. I’ve pretty much dismissed her as a waste of time, and try to stay out of her Calvin Klein-scented way. I think she called me ‘girl’ the last time she wanted more wine.

Gotta hand it to The Old Man, though—he can be charming when he wants to be. He directs most of his attention to the bride and groom, even though they are practically silent. The mothers are so ensconced with executive decision-making, they fail to notice their husbands’ increasing beer tally. The first time the bride smiles, she looks up at The Old Man, grateful. Calvin Klein-Mommy doesn’t look thrilled as she propels her resplendent young daughter out to the Cadillac.

“Well,” I say resignedly, “there goes that one.”

The Old Man cracks his thick knuckles and twists open a beer, his self-satisfied grin showing even ivory teeth. “Bullshit!”

Meegan Kissinger’s name is spelled properly in silver script on all of the purple napkins, matchbooks and other gaudy wedding mementos that cost more than they’re worth. In fact, Meegan Kissinger’s wedding reception looks as if a 200-foot tall lilac bush threw up. She looks pretty good as a bride, with that canary-colored hair swept up and the filmy veil floating around her pink cheeks.

There are no sloppy-saucy short ribs after all, and no one is allergic to anything, so it’s actually not that horrible to be there, except for the fact that I have to wear black and white, with a ridiculous bow tie and chunky shoes that I loathe—they’re comfortable, so naturally I hate them. I hold aloft trays of appetizers, and when dinner comes I have to stand in the kitchen and help make a veritable field of salads: greens and tomatoes and croutons on little glass plates that are spread for miles on the counters and tables. One red wedge, two cucumbers, a few purplish onions—I pick a renegade fruit fly from one of the silver bowls of ranch dressing, scoop the black speck out of the creamy slop with my pinky finger. Think about how funny it is that a fruit fly is in Meegan Kissinger’s wedding salad dressing.

Her bridesmaids—all eight of them—are like the attendants in a movie wedding, traveling in a pack, flushed and giggling. They have traded their silver heels for white rubber flip-flops, which some bored family matron obviously embellished with rhinestones, in an attempt to make us forget that they are indeed flip-flops. In their lilac-colored silk, they lean elbows on the bar while waiting for their free beer, flirt with male guests, and speak too loudly, swollen with the status and duty of being one of Meegan Kissinger’s bridesmaids.

Meegan hangs on the tuxedoed arm of her new husband. “We met in college—I don’t know, maybe six, seven years ago? Tom?” Tom isn’t answering, and she scrunches her little nose briefly, frowning. “Well, I guess it was six. Who knows, right?” She laughs and sets her cheek on his shoulder, one hand constantly playing with the voluminous folds of her dress.

When they are eating later, at their long head table, raised up on its dais, I pass with a plastic tub full of dirty dishes. Meegan reaches over and pokes me on the arm with one French-manicured acrylic nail. When I turn, she tosses a salad plate on top of the stack.

“Thanks. You guys are doing a great job.” She tugs on her husband’s arm, “Aren’t they, Tom?” Her cheeks are bright red from the zinfandel she’s been drinking all night.

“Huh? Ya.” Tom’s mouth is full of chicken. Next to him, one of the fathers is pulling an envelope out of his breast pocket and handing it to The Old Man, who is sweaty and red-faced with work, but grinning like a Cheshire cat. I really hope there is a decent tip in there.

Later, I steal a piece of wedding cake and watch them dance. Newly married people always look as though they are living in a storybook, like they are imagining themselves far away from the big stupid party that they paid $20,000 for. Meegan and her husband look like any other wedding couple: elated, tired, half-drunk and with no real idea of what they are going to do when they wake up tomorrow. They’re actually kind of cute, the two of them, with their sleepy eyes and deliberately slow dancing. It’s OK that I have to pick up dirty napkins and dump chicken bones into the garbage, and scrub lipstick off wine glasses. It’s OK, I think, because they really are cute. And Meegan Kissinger’s wedding cake is really good.

Amanda Viviani is a 2003 graduate of Edgewood College in Madison, WI, where she received her B.S. in English with an emphasis in creative writing. She is currently doing freelance copywriting and looking to pursue an MFA in fiction. E-mail: viviani.amanda5[at]


Boots’s Pick
Jim Harrington

The photon blast rocketed past my ear and hit the metal wall behind me. Fiery tendrils exploded from its core like fireworks on the Fourth of July. I uncovered my eyes in time to see the heel of Zorton’s boot disappear down the hallway leading to the crew’s quarters.

I paused when I reached the junction of the two passageways and snapped my head around the corner and back. No Zorton. I edged into the hallway and was greeted by a waving Nolander. He wore a purple and yellow tunic. His hair sprouted from his head like the branches of a willow tree. The thump, thump of a cane tapping the floor preceded him down the hall.

“Did a man run past you?”

“Yes. Don’t know who he was, though.”

“He escaped from the Mitros penal colony three months ago and is here to kill me.”

“Why would he want to do that?” The man rested both hands on the cane and leaned against the wall.

“To get even with me for sending him there. He tried to kill me just now, but I got off the first shot. Thought I hit him, but he’s damn fast for a man with a wounded leg.”

“He dragged his leg, and I thought I smelled burnt flesh.” The Nolander bowed and excused himself.

I continued my search without success. I knew Zorton wouldn’t leave the ship until one of us was dead.

I returned to my apartment around ten that evening. Cassandra leaned against the wall waiting. “Did you forget about our dinner date, Alexi?”

“Oh, shit. Yes. I’m so sorry. Something came up.” I unlocked the door and motioned for her to enter. “Did you hurt your leg?”

“It’s nothing.”

I met Cassandra two months ago in the ship’s game room. Tall, with long white hair, her pale blue Andrean uniform molded to her sleek body, she yelled with every kill, until her opponent was out of players. Victorious, she turned, looked my way, and wagged me over with a long finger. After she kicked my butt in every viral game the place had to offer, we went to the bar, where she out-drank me as well. Before I was unable to think or talk, I asked her to dinner. What started as a platonic affair turned into something more by the end of the week.

“It must have been something important. You’ve never missed a date before.”

“It was.” I put my weapon in the wall safe and turned to her. “How can I make it up to you?”

Cassandra pouted a smile and lowered the zipper down the front of her uniform. She was naked underneath. We made love, slow at first, then as if we hadn’t been together for weeks, instead of days.

Afterward, we lay naked, spooned, my back to her front, her arm across my chest. I opened my eyes and saw the hair on her arm change from white wisps to dark strands. I felt hot breath assaulting my neck in angry puffs. The arm increased its pressure on my chest. The hand edged toward my neck. I heard a growl and reached my own hand under the mattress. Tonight my battle with Zorton would finally end.

Jim Harrington lives in Huntersville, NC, with his wife and two cats. His stories have appeared in Apollo’s Lyre, Every Day Fiction, Bent Pin Quarterly, Long Story Short, MicroHorror, Flashshot and others. He currently serves as a flash fiction editor for Apollo’s Lyre. You can read more of his stories at his website. E-mail: jpharrin[at]

Muse at Work

Creative Nonfiction
Kate Gibalerio

You need to write something. Anything. Emails don’t count. We’ve gone over this. The same for tweets, texts, and Facebook chats. Just say ciao to your cousin from Rome and log out. Peek at Google News, if you must, but limit yourself to one article about swine flu—you’re on deadline. You need to write something for this evening. Get your venti latte, then sit, and start writing—anything—to share at Writers Night.

But first you must decipher the train schedule and figure out how your teenage daughter and her friends are getting into Boston since one of the girls completely misread the inbound departures and as it stands, there’s no train for them to ride. Do not volunteer to drive them. You have Writers Night. Do not let Alison volunteer to drive them. She’s hosting Writers Night. Just write—anything—before you have to cross town to pick the kids up from gymnastics and stop at the supermarket for an appetizer to bring to Writers Night. And get dinner—because everyone—the dog, the girls headed into Quincy Market, your husband, me—will be looking for dinner.

By all means, call the vet for the overdue Frontline prescription. And then you can sit on the back porch with your laptop and write something. Hold on, you need to get the candids for the sixth grade yearbook to Wendy before it goes to print and while you are out, drop off the DVDs at Blockbuster before they notify the authorities.

Now sit, relax, and write. Anything. Finish that essay about launching your eldest to college or the memoir about the comet—any of your nonfiction pieces will do—except the genealogy—we’ve been over that—no genealogy.

Try to focus and you may have a decent draft by seven. Don’t forget—the pecans for the appetizer need to be toasted. Pop them in the oven now so they have time to cool and then get back to the essay—it’s practically writing itself.

What is that irritating dinging noise? Get the pecans out of the oven. Get the pecans. Get the pecans. They don’t look so bad. Just throw the black ones out. Your son is off the bus, but don’t let him distract you. No, he cannot have five friends for a sleepover tonight—remember—you have Writers Night. No, you do not have to read the school alert about swine flu right this moment. It can wait. You have to write. How about that thought you had yesterday. The one about mellowing as you get older. The one that brought to mind the Woody Allen quote from Annie Hall about mellowing and ripening and rotting. No, you don’t need the exact words. No, you don’t have to look it up. Great, you found it. You are quick with the Internet, but do you really have to MapQuest the distance between Rome and Venice right now?

Just write. Anything. OK, after you feed the dog and exile the burned pecans to the garage and assemble the appetizer—no it doesn’t taste funny. No, you do not have time for a manicure.

Yes, you do have a lot of unfinished short stories but I doubt, after years of neglect, you can actually complete one in 37 minutes and have it ready for tonight. No, you may not drink wine to counteract the latte.

No, now is not the time to start a novel, or lament the fact that you don’t have a novel in you. Now is the time to write, please write.

That is, after you read your email, search Duotrope’s Digest, upload photos onto Facebook, download BlackBerry apps, consult Symptom Checker on WebMD, compare multi-city flight schedules on Air France, Google yourself.

At least, at the very least—end this essay. Here’s an example of a finished piece: my resignation. Ciao.

After a year-long hiatus, Kate Gibalerio has returned to writing creative non-fiction and short fiction. When not writing and wrangling with muses, she’s parenting or traveling or discovering additional distractions on the Internet. Her stories have appeared in Toasted Cheese and Boston Literary Magazine. Kate resides in Massachusetts with her family. E-mail: kate.gibalerio[at]

Midnight at the Oasis

Melodie Starkey

It’s not that Dad tries to be a loser. He just doesn’t even seem to realize it. Like last summer: we went to Boston for our annual road trip. I wanted to see the aquarium and drive to Springfield to see the Basketball Hall of Fame. He took me to tour Emily Dickinson’s house. Maybe there are lots of fourteen-year-old boys who would consider this the high life. It gets worse: at Emily Dickinson’s house, the old lady tour guide showed us the original manuscripts of some stuff, and asked if anyone wanted to read a poem. Now I’m about 100% sure she meant, “Do you want to look at these and read them silently to yourself?” But not my dad. He picked one up and proceeded to give a dramatic public reading of it, complete with the hand turning gestures my sisters make so much fun of. The other people in the room just stared at him, including the guide lady.

I died.

I love him. Really. But since I usually only see him for those two weeks each year, he doesn’t have any sense that I’m actually a person, not the six-year-old he left standing in the driveway in his soccer uniform for the last game of the season because he “forgot” he was supposed to take me to the game instead of making plans to abandon us.

Anyway, this year I told him I didn’t want to go anywhere with him in the summer. I want to get on the basketball team this fall, so Mom signed me up for Summer Basketball Camp. That’s way more important to me than exploring a random distant town and scouring the AAA guide looking for places that don’t charge admission. He was pretty cool about it; he said he’d just come here for a week and visit his old buddies, and I could hang out in the hotel with him, then he’d drive me to the gym each morning. I’m okay with that. We did that when I was little, and it was fun, jumping on the beds and watching the Cartoon Network (Mom is a “no cable TV” person) and eating so many hotdogs at Portillo’s we both got sick. One time the tornado sirens went off, and instead of following the emergency instructions posted in the hall, he went out on the balcony to see if the funnel was visible. I had nightmares about tornadoes for a long time after that.

He picks me up on Sunday evening. The first thing I notice is that I’m suddenly as tall as he is. How is this possible? He has always been the tallest person in the world to me, except maybe Yao Ming or something. But it turns out he’s just 6’5″ like I am. The next thing I notice is he’s starting to look old. His hair is receding and thinning and turning grey at his temples. He has permanent lines around his eyes and drooping shoulders. I feel self-conscious about being careful not to slouch whenever I look at him. I’ve never noticed this trait before, but both of my big sisters, who have beautiful posture, have always scolded me, “You don’t want to look like Daddy, do you?”

I quickly get my stuff into his rental car to minimize the time he has to stand on the porch while Mom glares at him and tells him, “You do not drive with my son in the car when you’ve been drinking.” He doesn’t answer, because he does exactly that all of the time. Once we get on the road, he tries to tell me how great my stepsisters are, as though I would care in the least. Doesn’t ask me about my real sisters, even though they’re his real daughters. He knows how they are: angry. We load up on Portillo’s at the drive-thru, and retire to the hotel room.

He doesn’t ask me how I’m doing, or how was my first year of high school, or what I think my chances are of getting on the basketball team this year. Last year I got strep throat during tryouts and nearly passed out in the gym. I don’t ask him how things are going out in wonderful Santa Barbara, either. When he complains about the humidity, I want to say, “We live in Chicago because this is where you dumped us, remember?” I just nod agreement.

I’ve brought my PlayStation along, and my Guitar Hero, so we don’t have to worry about talking anyway. It’s the perfect toy for him, because he has off-and-on tried to start up rock bands. He tells me about a band he had in college when he met Mom. He never talks directly about her, won’t talk to me about their divorce. About how I got a half-sister eight months after he left. He says I’ll understand when I’m older. I think that one is pretty easy to figure out on my own.

After a couple of hours of watching him play Guitar Hero, I tell him I’m pretty tired and remind him I have to be at practice by 8:00. He says, “Okay, Sport.” He turns the game off, then takes the phone out on the balcony and is talking to his new wife when I fall asleep.

When he picks me up Monday, we take the train into Chicago and visit the Shedd Aquarium. Because exercise is good, we walk from Union Station to the aquarium in the heat. He manages to convince the woman he qualifies for an educator’s discount since he teaches composition at a junior college in California. I pretend that I’m fascinated with the dolphins and belugas so we can sit in the cool room while my legs try to recover from running suicide drills all morning and following that with this hike, which is about three miles. When it’s time to leave, I tell him I can’t walk back. He tells me I’m being a baby. I hail a cab. I’d like to just leave him there, but I don’t say anything when he gets in. At the station I pay the driver and give him a large tip, as Mom has always taught us to do.

Back in Aurora, he pulls up to Portillo’s without asking me. I suggest, “What about Taco Bell?” He starts to scowl, but I point out, “It’s just the other end of the parking lot, and it’s way cheaper.”

“Sure, Sport. Whatever you want.”

That night we play Grand Theft Auto, which I’ve brought two controllers for, so we can play together. He drinks a six pack of Sam Adams, and ends up falling asleep in his chair. I watch TV for awhile, then take the phone out on the balcony to tell Mom I’m doing fine. She says she misses me because the kitchen is staying clean. Then she says she loves me, and calls me Shorty, which always makes me smile. I really want to go home.

Tuesday morning I have a hard time getting him up. “C’mon, Dad! I can’t be late!”

He sends me down to get the “free” breakfast. It’s coffee and cookies. Nothing else. I bring him some, then say, “Can we drive by McDonald’s or something?”

“Why? Can’t you eat breakfast here?”

I glare at him. He acts like he doesn’t notice. Fortunately, there’s a McDonald’s across the street from the school. I run over there when he drops me off and get orange juice and a McMuffin.

After practice, I stand in the vestibule and watch for his car. We are having a full-blown Midwest summer storm—thunder, wind, gallons of rain, occasional bursts of hail. Eventually everyone is gone except me. I duck my head and trudge home in the downpour. I don’t know if I should be worried or angry. This is too much like before. Should I call Mom at work? I decide not to, and fill the bathtub for a good soak, which is a coping trick the talk doctor Mom took me to after the divorce helped me come up with (seemed better than falling face first on the floor crying). Then I lie down for a nap.

The doorbell ringing over and over wakes me up. It is 3:30. I glance out my window—his rental car is in the driveway. I take my time going down the stairs to open the door, looking at him without speaking.

“Hey Sport! I’m glad you got home okay. Sorry I’m late. I was downtown with some of the guys, you know, and the traffic is pure hell in this weather. You eat lunch yet?”

“It’s after 3:00.”

“Yeah. I’m really sorry. C’mon. We can get pizza, okay? Richard says they’ve opened a Giordano’s out this way. You know where it is?”

He looks so pathetic, standing there with the rain flattening his hair to his forehead and drenching his Eddie Bauer slacks. “I gotta get a jacket.” I shut the door, leaving him out there, and go up to my room. I sit on the bed for awhile. He could be telling the truth. I know what the traffic out of Chicago is like on a good day. But he knew my practice was four hours long—what was he going into Chicago for in the first place? At least he could have told me. I wouldn’t have minded so much walking home to wait for him if I’d just known. I sigh and get my White Sox windbreaker out of the closet, then head back downstairs. He’s sitting in the car waiting. As I get in, I see an empty beer bottle on the floor in the back seat.

“Quite some weather!” he says jovially.


“So, you know where this place is?”

“There’s one in Oswego. That’s real close. Go out Ogden. By the Target store.”

I don’t say much during dinner, but he doesn’t seem to notice, chatting about California baseball players that I don’t care the least about, and a couple of times saying things like, “Do you think your Cubbies will turn the trick this year?” even though I am sitting across from him in a White Sox coat. He drinks a couple of beers with his pizza, and flirts with the waitress until suddenly we have a waiter instead.

Cueing from the decor of the restaurant, he decides to fill me in on the history of the Chicago fire and the World’s Fair. I finally offer, “Did you know that Grant Park is built on top of all the rubble from the fire that they pushed into the lake?”

He frowns. “Where’d you hear that?”

“At school. It’s a park because it can’t support anything real heavy like a building—it’ll sink.”

“Fascinating.” He’s quiet while he mulls it over. I know where this is going; he is going to write a poem about it. When he’s not teaching composition, he’s a poet. Once he wrote a poem about seeing his own reflection in the handle of the bathroom door while sitting on the toilet. Mom tells my sisters to avoid those poetic types like the plague. My sisters tell her they are smarter than she was.

When we get back in the car, I say, “Dad, how ’bout you just drop me home tonight. You can pick me up after practice tomorrow, okay?”

“Your mother put you up to this?” he snarls.

“No. I just thought…”

“I paid a fortune to come out here to see you. You’re stayin’ with me. Understood?”

“Sure. That’s okay.”

“Damn right.” He screeches out of the parking lot.

I clutch the grip on the door so tight my knuckles feel like popping, but don’t dare speak as he weaves in and out of traffic in the rain. I need a cop. Please send a cop. They’re all over the place when nobody needs them; where are they now?

We reach the hotel. He doesn’t speak as he leads me to the room and opens the door. He lies across his bed and covers his face with his arm, so I get out the GamePro magazine I brought along and start reading it. After a while he goes into the bathroom for a long time. I don’t hear the water running. Must be studying himself in the doorknob. Then he comes out and leaves. I really don’t want to be here. I look at the clock—6:20. If he’s not back by 7:00, I’m calling Mom.

He’s only gone about fifteen minutes, and comes back in with a two-liter bottle of Dr. Pepper, a package of Chips Ahoy, and a king size bag of Doritos. “I realized we forgot dessert!” he bubbles.

“Excellent!” I reply, reaching for the Dr. Pepper.


“Wake up! Hey!”

I crack my eyes open, then groan. The room is mostly dark, the only light coming from the open bathroom door. “Time’s it?”

“Let’s take a road trip. Remember how we used to go on road trips? Remember how fun that was?”

“Dad, I gotta go to camp in the morning. Go to sleep!”

“Stop actin’ like such a wimp. Get up. It stopped raining.”

“I don’t want to…”

“Let’s hit the road!”

I feel real close to crying as I slip my jeans on and step into my Adidas. One thing for sure: if I survive this visit, never again. I don’t even have to stand my ground there, because Mom will be all over him like hounds on a rabbit.

In the car I stay silent and alert, watching his driving in case I need to grab the wheel all of a sudden. He heads first toward Chicago, but after the toll plaza turns north on the Tri-State and starts toward Milwaukee instead. Toward the airport. Maybe he’ll take the rental car back and leave and just abandon me at the airport. I’d be okay with that. There is practically no traffic except occasional semis spraying up water from the soaked pavement like lawn sprinklers.

Then I see the sign and have a brilliant idea. “Dad, can we stop at the oasis? I gotta take a leak. Too much Dr. Pepper, you know?”

“Hm. Okay. I should probably get gas.”

Yes! After what seems like forever, we see the oasis ahead, spanning the desolate Interstate with its bright promises of comfort and junk food inside. Dad starts humming, then laughs.

“What?” I ask.

In a high voice he starts singing, “Midnight at the Oasis / Send your camel to bed / Shadows paintin’ our faces / Traces of romance in our heads…”

I grin in spite of myself, and breathe a huge sigh of relief as he pulls up to the gas pumps, telling me to get him a coffee while I’m inside. Yeah, I’ll get right on that. As soon as I’m in the door, I run up to the payphones.

She picks it up on the second ring, although it is nearly 3:00 a.m.



“What’s wrong? Where are you? This is a Chicago number.”

“I’m at the Oasis. The O’Hare Oasis. Can you come get me?”

“Of course. Where…?”

“I got out of the car. I want to go home.” I sob suddenly.

“Oh, Baby. I’ll be there as soon as I can. Are you in a safe place?”

“Yeah. I’m at the end by the McDonald’s.”

“Okay. I’ll be right there. Don’t leave.”

“Okay.” After hanging up, I go in the bathroom and just sit in a stall for a long time. The walls are steel, but not shiny, so you can’t see yourself reflected in them. Probably for the better. The air has an artificial sweet smell to it. I want to be home. I want to be in my bed with the sound of the fan blowing and my cat occasionally strolling over my head, trying to get my attention.

“Hey, Sport, you okay?” His call echoes in the long room.

“My stomach hurts.”

“Want me to get you a Sprite or something?”


“Okay. I’m going to get a coffee. Be right outside.”


I sit awhile longer, until I think I can stay calm. Then I wash my face and dry it on my T-shirt. Out in the Oasis, Dad is sitting in one of the massage chairs, sipping a large coffee. The chair is buzzing its magic. He smiles and says, “You ever tried one of these?”

I shake my head, then sit in the chair next to him.

“Want some change? Give it a try?”

“Better not. Might make me puke.”

“Good call.”

We don’t speak as he finishes his massage. The Oasis is bright but library quiet, the employees behind the various food counters not speaking as they tend to their cleaning tasks. When the chair goes silent, he says, “Ready to hit the road?”

“I’m not going.”

He smiles a little. “Not going? Decided to take up residence here, huh?”

“I need to go home.”

“Hey, Sport. We’ll go back. Just out for a little adventure, you know? Where’s your sense of adventure? You’re a teenager!”

And you are not. I just don’t answer.

“Just for the day. We’ll poke around up in Wisconsin for the day. We’ll be back in plenty of time for you to go to camp tomorrow. Remember when I took you guys to the Dells? That was fun! Riding the Ducks…”

“I was four years old.”

“All the more reason to go again!”

I don’t answer.

He stands up. “C’mon, Stick in the Mud. Let’s go.”

“No. I’m staying here.”

He sits down again. I clench my fists under my thighs to make them stop shaking. It’s not like I’m a little kid he can physically drag out of here. Not only am I as tall as him, but I’ve noticed that I’m actually far more muscular than he is. I guess that’s the difference between playing basketball and writing poems. Would I hit him if I had to?


If I think about it too long, I just might hit him anyway.

After shifting his jaw a few times, he says, “What are you going to do if I leave?”

“Same thing I’m going to do if you stay. I’m waiting for Mom. She’s coming to get me.”

He bounces back up, his face squinting with anger. “What?”

“I called her to come get me. I need a parent who thinks about keeping me safe.”

“Fine!” He turns and throws his coffee toward the garbage can, missing and spraying the wall, then storms out. I watch to see if he’ll really leave. He doesn’t even hesitate—whips the car back, and peals out, fishtailing on the wet road.

I close my eyes and lean back in the soft chair. I have no sense of time passing, but suddenly fingers are smoothing my tangled hair, and I hear, “Shorty? You okay?”


She sits down next to me. “What happened?”

With a shudder, I start to explain, “He doesn’t mean to be a loser. He doesn’t even seem to realize it…”

Melodie Starkey’s young adult novel, View from the Closet Doorway, won the 2008 SouthWest Writers Conference award in its genre. Another novel, Sunflowers, was a quarterfinalist for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award in 2009. Her short fiction has appeared in several literary magazines, including South Carolina Review, The Pikestaff Forum, Skylark, Porcupine Literary Review, The Charleston Post & Courier, New Works Review, and an anthology of Southern writers titled Inheritance. She was a recipient of the 1993 South Carolina Fiction Writer’s Project award, and received a 1999 writing grant from the Illinois Arts Council for a novel in progress. Currently she is a technical trainer at a Chicago-based law firm. She has three fledgling children and too many cats. E-mail: melodie.starkey[at]