Count Me In

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

Photo Credit: Stephanie Lenz

I belong to the 52 Weeks 25 Stories challenge and for the purposes of the group, some writing doesn’t “count.” Within the discussions, this idea of what “counts” expanded beyond the group and I discovered that some writers don’t “count” some of the things they write. At first I assumed what counts meant work that wasn’t short fiction and didn’t count for the 52/25 challenge. Turned out that one person meant flash. Another person meant drabbles (stories of around 100 words, sometimes up to 1,000, depending on who’s defining “drabble”). These fit the definition of short fiction (and, therefore, the challenge) as far as I was concerned and the discussions piqued my interest about writers who don’t “count” their work for one reason or another, whether it’s the word count, the genre, or the purpose.

I understand why some things “count” and some don’t within the confines of 52/25. If the goal is to write twenty-five short stories in a year (and submit them), then editorials, blog entries, and even novels don’t count (nor should they). But there are writers who dismiss their own work and that’s where I’m intrigued.

When it comes to “counting” my writing, where should I draw the line? If I write something for publication it counts? What if I write it and can’t get it published? Is the intention enough? Is the practice enough?

Is there a Great Whiteboard where the Muse is keeping track of my word counts and tally marking my publication credits? She’ll have to box off a corner of the whiteboard for Snark Zones and another for Absolute Blank articles. Oh, and one for blog entries. One for emails and texts. That’s all of our corners. The center is taken up by novels and the edges are full of shorts: flash across the top, short fiction across the bottom, and genre fiction down both sides, some started and never finished, some finished and never published and some published. It’s all on that mythical whiteboard, though, because I count it all.

I don’t have criteria in place that my writing has to meet in order for me to count it as writing. By writing, I’m indulging in a creative effort. It’s not about the purpose of the work, at least not for me. I don’t give weight to certain pieces of work and take it away from others. That’s fine for some people but it’s not going to work for me. If I only counted certain writings, I’d write only what counts.

I haven’t written part of a novel or any short stories for quite a while. That said, I did win NaNoWriMo by writing blog entries. I also wrote the December Absolute Blank article. In some circles, I couldn’t say I’d written anything lately because of the lack of novel, short story or poetry writing. My work doesn’t “count.”

The fiction I’m creating—writing nearly every day—isn’t traditional. I don’t intend to publish it in any way; I’ve hidden the blog from Google searches. I’m writing for myself. For practice. For fun. I’d gotten burned out blogging and I was tired of the criticism from random fly-by trolls. I had an idea of creating a “fake” blog of sorts: gleaning from my own life but writing under a false identity (a pseudonym).

Then I read about Fernando Pessoa and his use of heteronyms: imaginary characters created by a writer in order to write fiction that a reader might assume to be non-fiction due to its subject matter, presentation, voice, style, etc. A heteronymic character has his own biography and writing style. I thought it would be much more fun to create a heteronym character and then have him write a somewhat traditional blog. So not only is the blog 100-percent fiction, it has a first-person narrator who appears to be a real person.

But those couple thousand words I write just about every day don’t count.

I spent months researching the December Absolute Blank article, deciding what publishing terms to include and refining definitions from several sources. It’s not fiction so it doesn’t count. Moreover, research isn’t supposed to count toward my creative efforts, according to some of those who determine what counts.

I write up little things for my business (adult novelty home parties, thanks for asking) like letters, emails, blog entries, jokes for delivering during my shows, etc. None of that counts either because not only is it not fiction, it’s for work. Same goes for this essay.

To me, writing is writing and I count it all.


Email: baker[at]

Introducing Candle-Ends

Candle-Ends: Reviews
TC Editors

open to possibilities 2
Photo Credit: Chris Blakely

As we begin our second decade, we are retiring Best of the Boards, and introducing a review section, Candle-Ends. In keeping with the community-oriented spirit of BotB, Candle-Ends will focus on reviews of work by writers with a connection to Toasted Cheese. In particular, we’re looking for reviews of work by writers who:

Reviews can be of individual poems, stories, and other short works as well as books and anthologies. Work does not need to be current to be reviewed.

Suggestions for and submissions of reviews can be made either to reviews[at] or at our new reviews forum. If you’d like to suggest your work (or someone else’s) be reviewed put “Review Suggestion” in your subject line. If you’d like to submit a review, put “Review Submission” in your subject line. If you are submitting by email, paste your submission in the body of the email message.

Reviews should be 100–500 words in length, and include the name of the author and the title of the work. Books and anthologies should include publisher and publication date. Individual work should include date and place of publication, as well as the URL for work available online. You may submit more than one review.

Submission periods for reviews will mirror the regular submission periods. Notification of whether your review has been accepted for publication will be sent in early February, May, August and November. (No preliminary notifications will be sent.) Reviews are subject to the same terms of publication as regular submissions.

We hope you’ll enjoy this new section, and if you’re a member of the Toasted Cheese community, please do not hesitate to suggest your own work for review!



Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Jill Quinn

Photo Credit: Daniel Horacio Agostini

Sasha shivered. It had been a long winter, but he hoped that everything would be over soon. That’s what all the grown-ups on the streets said anyways. What did he know? He was just a little thief. They shooed him away at every opportunity.

It hadn’t always been that way. Once he had been a child with mother and a father, but then they had attacked the Winter Palace and the world had turned upside down. Earlier revolutions had failed, but not this one. This had ripped his family apart and tore at the very fabric of Mother Russia.

No time to think about that now. If this worked, he would have a little of his family back.

He approached the edge of the circus with a feeling of dread hanging over him. He checked his pocket one more time. A flashy bit of pink winked out at him in the darkness. It was still there. He had to stop checking, he would drive himself mad. He held it very carefully in the palm of his hand.

The tents and carts loomed over him. The smell of overcooked cabbage hung in the air. A woman scuttled by with a nervous gait.

“Excuse me, could you take me to the ringmaster?”

She eyed him up and down. From her garish painted face and hurried but graceful gestures he guessed she was a ballerina, but not the star of the show. The star would have just pushed him in the mud.

“Is it wise that a little one like you would meet up with him?”

“I need to do it. I have something for him.”

“Is it something he wants or something he needs?” She asked this question like it was very important.

“Something he wants.” Sasha tried to say it with confidence, even though he wasn’t sure. All he knew is he had to get it to the ringmaster and fast if he wanted to see Irina again.

“Let me see it.” The ballerina held out her hand. She had only one. He had thought the other hand was drawn up into her sleeve to protect from the cold, but now he saw it was just a stump protruding out of her coat sleeve. It wasn’t bandaged, but the flesh had a raw look.

“Give it to me.” She waved her hand again.

She might be graceful, but she had the authoritarian voice of a schoolteacher. Should he trust her? How did he know she wouldn’t run away with it?

The only reason he had survived on the street this long was because he didn’t trust easily. That and his lightning-quick fingers. He would have starved many times over without his newfound talent.

Sasha fished around in his pocket and displayed the trinket. The ballerina snatched it from his hand and dashed it to the ground.

“There, now go and don’t come back if you know what’s good for you.”

She ran away, crying into the night. Sasha didn’t have a moment to spare for her. He bent down and started anxiously scraping away at the dirt and muck.

Finally he saw the shine of pink diamonds. He sat back on his heels and sighed with relief. The tiny elephant was safe. Now he just had to make sure it worked. He jammed the little key in and cranked it. It took a moment, but the elephant raised its head in a creaking movement.

He didn’t realize he was holding his breath until he saw the puff of white in the air. Now he just had to find the ringmaster. He had to reach him before midnight.

A drunk was sprawled out over some old netting. Sasha poked him with a long stick. The man grumbled.

“Excuse me, can you take me to the ringmaster?”

The drunk grunted and pointed.

Sasha decided that was the best he was going to get, so he hurried off in that direction. Noises started to grow louder, lights started to grow brighter. The smell of cabbage started to fade and he smelled something else. Something that smelled a lot like rotting meat.

He finally reached his destination. A train car that stood open to the elements on one side. Herds of animals gathered around. He saw them as eerie half shapes that would come from nightmares. There were claws, fur, and lots of teeth.

He shuddered and it wasn’t from the cold.

“Step back. Step back. He’ll see you later.” A ferocious man swaggered forward. He didn’t have a stick or anything to beat back the animals. They made no motion.

“Step back.” He said again, gulping at a bottle. Then he roared out a wall of blue flame. There were neighs, roars, and squawks as the animals skittered away.

Sasha wanted to skitter away too, but the fire-breathing man saw him. He waved a hand.

“Come here. You’re expected.”

Sasha took a tentative step.

The fire-breathing man squatted down close so they could be eye to eye. He had no mustaches or beard, probably because they might catch on fire. He did have bushy eyebrows that seemed to dance about his face. All the sudden he seemed easy and friendly, like Uncle Artemi after some plum brandy.

“You have what the ringmaster needs?”

“What he wants.” Sasha corrected the man, but felt himself atremble with nerves. What if the man questioned him? What if he stole the elephant? What could the big man do to it? It wouldn’t survive another blow.

Sasha clutched onto the pink elephant in his hand, still protected in his little wool jacket. Too tight and he might break the delicate machinery inside. Too lightly and the man would might seize it right out of his pocket.

The man wrapped his arm around Sasha. “Little one, the two are often one and the same. You must be very brave to have come this far and done this much.”

“He has my sister.” Sasha said.

The man nodded. “You must not react to his appearance.” He tapped Sasha twice on the nose. “Remember that and you will be fine.”

The man stepped back and made an elaborate bow. “Continue on, my good man.” Sasha heard him say under his breath. “And may God bless you.”

Every step up the plank seemed to be an eternity. The fire-breathing man shut the door.

Sasha knew he should feel frightened, but his first sense was of a delicious warmth, something he hadn’t felt in months.

Then he began to take in the cozy interior of the room. Jewelry and shiny trinkets were strewn about as if a child had been playing. Everything was covered in green velvet and purple silks, elegance that would put the tsar to shame. That is if they still had a tsar.

There was a samovar glowing golden in the lamplight. His hands ached to hold a cup of tea, to feel the heat sliding down. There was no smell of rotting meat here, just tea and something like flowers.

His eyes scanned the room. He had to find Irina. Towards the back of the rail car there was a large Oriental screen, painted with flying cranes and dragons.

An orangutan stepped out behind the screen, wiping his hands on a cloth. He had the stiff-legged gait of someone who was trying to walk after a long time in bed. He was dressed in the style of a country gentleman.

“Oh good. You’ve come. Let’s see it then.” The ape adjusted his spectacles. His arms were far too long to make this dignified, but somehow he managed.

Sasha hesitated. “I need to see Irina first.”

The orangutan let out a rich liquid chuckle. “I need to see Irina, sir,” he said, unfazed by Sasha’s boldness.

“Yes, sir.” Sasha said.

The ringmaster rubbed his chin in a gesture that looked disturbingly human. “All right then. Irina, come out my dear.”

Irina walked out from behind the screen. She wasn’t Irina as Sasha knew her. She was just sixteen, still beautiful, but now tired and worn. What was worse, her face was a blank slate.

“Sit down, my pet.”

Irina walked over to a couch, sat and folded her hands primly over her lap. She moved with the grace of the acrobat she had once been, but there was no joy to her movements.

“Irina, do you know me?” Sasha longed with every fiber in his being to run to her and throw himself into her skirts and cry like he had not done in years.

She looked at him and smiled, but her face revealed no trace of recognition.

“You’re upset. Perhaps you’re too young to understand what’s going on,” the orangutan said.

“I understand, sir. You’re creating a better world.” Sasha swiped at his nose with his hand, resisting all impulses to cry. It wasn’t what he believed, but he knew what was expected.

“Not a better world. A fairer one. A just one.” The ringmaster gestured at a chair. “Please sit, my boy.”

Sasha sat down by a table that was scattered with implements. He tried not to stare at the saws and other cutting devices. Surely those were only used on the animals.

The chairs and tables were all low to the ground, all perfectly sized for Sasha. Or an animal that was about a foot or so shorter than a grown man.

The orangutan settled into his own chair as if he was about to tell a long fairy tale.

“You see, when the human ringmaster figured out how to make me talk and think that was a great moment, but when I could give the gift to the other animals…” the ringmaster tapped his long orange finger to his head, “…that was the miracle.”

Sasha decided not to mention that the orangutan had also killed the human ringmaster and many others besides. He and this circus had started a movement that had overthrown a whole government. Everyone knew that by now. It was all anyone could talk about, the great Animal Uprising. More and more animals were being given the special clockworks and special parts to make the world “fair.”

There was a roar close by.

“You see, my children are hungry for more miracles. There’s only so much I can do.” The orangutan held up his huge hands in dismay. “That’s where Irina comes in.”

“How, sir?” Sasha said. It took every inch of his courage not to run out into the night, but he had a feeling there was more than one animal waiting for a miracle. And most of them would be ready to gobble him up if a miracle wasn’t handy. Only the fire-breathing man could hold them back and he wouldn’t be so nice to someone who crossed the ringmaster.

“Look at her radiance.” The ringmaster gestured at Irina. He spoke in a low croon. “You humans are usually vile-looking creatures, but she has such an innocent, pure way about her. We animals don’t want to be like humans, we want to be better, the best. And the only way to be the best is to study what is most beautiful and right and true in all of you.”

Irina glanced up and gave another stupid smile. Sasha wanted to run over and slap her, just to get her to cry or laugh. To do something.

“You’ve studied her. Now you can set her free.” Sasha didn’t know how he would manage with Irina acting like a dress mannequin. Somehow he would do it. He’d care for them both this time and not lose her like Mama and Papa.

“Give me the elephant first.” The ringmaster curled his lips in a most inhuman way. Tongue licked teeth.

Sasha reached into his pocket and pulled out the pink elephant. In the golden lamplight, it seemed little and soiled.

The orangutan snatched it up and polished it with his cloth. He held it up and the pink diamonds shone again.

“Those nasty Romanovs could never appreciate something of such beauty. Only someone who works with his hands can understand the art that goes into even something simple. How nice of you to liberate it.”

“Thank you, sir.” He didn’t steal it from the Romanovs, not exactly. A freelance rascal had taken it during the confusion of the animals storming Saint Petersburg. Then Sasha had liberated it. Let the ringmaster think what he wanted.

“You’re very talented with your hands aren’t you, little man? There’s not many that could handle this situation properly.” The orangutan poured a cup of steaming hot tea from the samovar and handed it to Sasha.

“You have your elephant. We’d like to go, sir.” Sasha raised his voice a little. He curled his fingertips around the dainty china cup. It wouldn’t hurt to steal a moment’s warmth.

“You see, Sasha. We don’t just want to study you. We’re not trying to become you. We want you to become us. Don’t you see that’s the only way to fair world? No rulers, no chains. No king of the jungle. ” The ringmaster smiled at his little joke and caressed Sasha’s hand.

Sasha had to do his best not to show even a hint of repulsion. He knew if he did it would be the end of him and Irina.

“I was told you stick to a bargain, sir.”

The orangutan released Sasha’s hand. He sighed. “With your fast little fingers I could do so much. Someday I will create the perfect human being, much like your sort used to breed thoroughbreds. Or perhaps how your mama would sew up a little doll for your sister to play with.”

Sasha remembered for a horrible moment the ballerina with one hand.

“A doll?” Irina asked. Her voice was eager, but cracked and strange.

“Yes, my poppet. A doll for you later.” The ringmaster sounded amused, but bored, as if talking to a small child.

The orangutan’s eyes cut back to Sasha. It was clear he had no further use for Irina. “Very well. Give me the key.”

Sasha laid the key to the toy on the table. He did not want to touch that paw again.

The ape grabbed the key between two fingertips and wound up the elephant. This time it did not raise its trunk. It just sat there in that large brown palm.

“Oh dear,” said the ringmaster, but he didn’t sound very sad at all. He sounded almost gleeful.

“It worked just a moment ago.” Sasha felt as if he might have been better off with the lions and bears.

The orangutan smiled. “These things happen. It was only something I wanted, not something I needed.” Then in a fast move he shattered the elephant all over the table and flung the pieces at the samovar. The diamonds and clockworks fell to the floor, making a slight tinkling sound as they collided on the Oriental rug.

“Very well. Your sister can go. Irina, leave now,” the ringmaster said with a voice filled with a strange, terrible authority.

Irina got up and walked to the door. She pushed it open and walked out without a glance to Sasha.

Sasha laid down the tea.

“Sir, I’ll just be going. I have to look after her, you see.” He wasn’t sure if she could be trusted even a moment on her own.

The orangutan gripped Sasha’s wrists with a brute force, stronger than the grip of any man. “I don’t think so, my dear,” he said, his tone full of regret. “Your sister is free, but you must stay. You see, you’ve brought me something I want, but now you have something I need.”


Jill Quinn is a writer. She lives with her family in Washington D.C. and their lives are enriched by one very neurotic cat. Email: jill.kathleen.quinn[at]


Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Bethany Nuckolls

Photo Credit: Jeremy Hiebert

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face. —I Corinthians 13:12

The lake turned to glass during the night.

Next morning, he can see straight down to the bottom when he lays his forehead on its cool surface. He can see the minnows, brown and motionless like pebbles, hovering mere inches beneath his open palms. The surface is smooth, but not mirror-smooth. There are small dimples and flutters of frozen motion, a scattering of tiny proofs of life. And yet, overnight, it has all fallen still.

He crawls across the lake on hands and knees, exploring what he knows to be impossible. The touch of glass feels like water fondling his palms, or a breeze flowing through his fingers. Ripples are frozen, leaving giant undulations of pooling glass where, perhaps, a mallard has taken flight or a turtle ducked its head. The perfect roundness of every ring and dimple reflects the sun and glimmers, as unique as thumbprints. It seems as if time itself has stopped and he is the only creature still breathing in the world.

He wonders if he is still drunk from the night before. It occurs to him suddenly that the lake may not be frozen at all. Last he had looked at the calendar, it was the middle of June. Perhaps if he stops believing what his senses are telling him, he will wake up and discover that it has all been a dream.

He peers again at the lake bottom. The glass looks fluid, ready to melt, to shatter, and to swallow him. He can feel it giving way. So he holds his breath, and waits for the plunge.


A pair of running shoes on the bottom stair, visible in the half-light of the kitchen bulb.

“What the hell are those?” I demand, bare feet slamming into each wooden step.

Shane switches on the basement light, blinding me suddenly with the glare of harsh metal edges—pipes from the furnace and water heater. Dammit! My brother grins at me. There’s a mischief in his eyes that I rarely see.

“They’re yours, Dez,” he says, and I stop muttering curses under my breath. He hasn’t even mentioned the bottle of Corona Light in my hand, or how I’m not supposed to be combining alcohol with medication. He just flashes that stupid grin, like I’m supposed to throw my hands up and start dancing ecstatically on the stairs. Great, I’ve got a new pair of shoes.

I’m not a runner; Shane is. He runs every day to some end of the earth that I’ve never seen nor care about. I tell him I think he’s found a girl that he can’t quite catch. He thinks if he keeps running, one day I’ll follow him. He never says it, but I always know what he’s thinking. He’s thinking right now that this time I will go out, that I will put on those running shoes.

Not a chance.

“You’re out of your mind,” I say and walk back up the steps, Corona in my hand, towards the table shadowed in the kitchen corner. My corner. The wallpaper is peeling and the floor slopes down in the corner, but I like it that way. I like to see the old house peeling away, erasing the place where my wife and I once lived. Soon, I think, or maybe hope, all the echoes will be gone.

I hear my fool brother call after me, “Last one to the end of the road is a pig’s ass!”

Mere boyhood threats. But things haven’t changed much.

I thunder down the steps to grab those running shoes.


We used to race barefoot in the woods behind our home in Virginia. We’d follow a creek into the crowd of dark cedars that would suddenly burst apart into dew-soft clearings. There, we would see rabbits sit up straight on their hind paws, surprised at our coming.

I would always be behind, following Shane’s footprints in the muddy clay. I’d notice how they were larger than mine, the strides longer, although he was younger than me. I’d stop as if to catch my breath and say, “I’m going home now!” And that would turn Shane right around, because whoever reached the kitchen first would get to choose his favorite color of ice pop first.

When I was much older, I broke three of my toes, and I stopped running. My wife said it was my fault because I was kicking in the garage door with my bare feet. I don’t really remember anything about it. Shane says nothing on the subject.


Today, the sky smells autumn dry. The dirt drive is packed hard beneath my running feet. It is late afternoon and the shadows from the cornfield on my left are weaving a gold and dark mesh across the ground. To the east, trees grimace against the deepening light, turning as red as my face. My breath comes in quick gulps because I know I can’t do this. I can’t run this far. Ahead, I see a small blob of white—the T-shirt of my brother who is at least an eighth of a mile in the lead, shrinking into a human-shaped blur.

I stop to gasp for air, heart throbbing in my chest, phlegm filling my throat. I can’t do this. I will never be able to catch up to my brother.

I’ve only been first once, and that was by birth. I should have gotten the best as the oldest child, but I didn’t. On my ninth birthday, my parents bought me a new, black-and-yellow ten-speed bike. They gave Shane a plastic model airplane so he would not feel left out. Shane enjoyed his one little toy so much that he never even asked to ride my bike.

That night, I buried that toy plane in the woods. I told Shane that he must have lost it. Shane cried, of course, but he believed his older brother.

“I’m turning back!” I yell. “I’m going back and I’m never doing this again! You listening, Shane? I don’t run! I never wanted to run!”

I see Shane turn around, but I don’t wait for him to come to me. I walk back up the drive, gazing out at the lake behind the house.

In the basement, I toss the new pair of running shoes into the empty metal water trough beneath the stairs. Then I stride across the basement and push Dad’s old worktable aside. My head clunks against the hanging light bulb. Dammit! I try to steady it, and my hands scatter shadows over the floor. Bed frames and moldy books crouch against the walls and watch me in the half-light. My fingers do the searching. At last, I find the paint can right where my wife set it before she left, the kitchen only half-painted the yellow of lemons.

I pry open the lid, carry it to the trough, and dump the paint over the laces, the soles, the tread, drowning the shoes in yellow. Behind me, I hear my brother come through the door. He doesn’t say anything, and I know he’s watching.


A crow caws. He gasps from sleep, his breath ragged. His knees are sore, his muscles tense. The hardness of the glass sends shocks of pain up his arms where they have been pressing against the surface. All around him, little whirligigs fall from the maples, landing on the lake’s phantom surface with the sound of rain. No longer June, but November. The world around him is dying quickly. But he is unable to die, turned back by the lake’s unending flatness.

He thinks about calling for help. Then he remembers:

Shane is gone. Shane has left him behind. He put on his running shoes one day and just kept running…


“Put down the phone!”

Shane looks startled as he glances up at me. He’s probably not expecting me up at five in the morning, but as the doctor tells him, “Always expect the unexpected.”

“Goddammit, Shane! I said, put down the phone!”

I reach for the receiver while my right fist pulls back in readiness. Shane gives me one frightened look before trying to slam the phone back in its cradle. I grab it first. “Listen!” I yell into the receiver, “I don’t need any help! Got it? You leave me alone! You and all your goddamn medications! I don’t need you!Crack! Call terminated.

Shane looks at me, stares at me as if I am a rabid animal. I’m not crazy, I want to shout. I want to ram my words into his face. But as I look at him, I can’t help but see the little boy who used to run into my room at night and bury himself beneath the covers. Our parents had given us separate bedrooms, but we had slept in the same room almost every night. “I’m scared,” he had whispered so the shadows wouldn’t hear. It had been our secret so Dad wouldn’t find out. “Promise?” he would beg, the sheets crumpled in his fists.

I should have kept it. I shouldn’t have let one little throb of jealousy get in the way of my promise. For days after I told on him, I would hear Shane crying through my bedroom wall until late in the night, his door blocked from the outside by Dad’s armchair.

“You’re crazy!”

I don’t mean to yell, but I have a strong voice. “You are out of your mind! Don’t you ever, ever call Dr. Mellin without my permission! I decide who to call around here!”

Shane shakes his head. “You need to get better, Dez,” he says. “Why can’t you just accept my help? When are we going to stop playing this childish game of pretending that everything is okay?”

“When hell freezes over,” I snarl. It sounds petty. I’m not even sure what the petulant turn of phrase is supposed to mean—a figurative place undergoing a figurative change. The rest of the world is so set apart from reality that “normal people” can understand every last one of these damned, moralizing concepts. I, however, can only hurl them like blunt objects at the people who know me the best.

Shane has no comeback. He just stands there wordlessly, arms hanging limp at his sides as I turn to walk away. I give him a last warning look, but I feel shame creeping up into my face. So, like a striking snake, my hand snatches and yanks the phone cord from the wall.


The smoothness of the lake when he glides his hand over the polished ripples reminds him of ice skating at the university. Erika had taught him how to ice skate. Before then, he hadn’t even dared to try. He knew he would just keep falling on his ass and hear the jeers of the upperclassmen. But she had given him the courage to try, to take a risk, to have fun while he skittered about on his blades, feeling a pull at the bottom of his stomach every time he moved. She had been the one who had pulled him out of himself, who had allowed him to shrug off the mask he had worn throughout his freshman year. He had felt lucky to have won her as a friend.

He remembers.

He remembers laughing.

As he reaches out to touch a tuft of cattail poking out of the surface, his hand freezes in motion. He recognizes the image frozen beneath the surface of the lake… the crossed shape of a model airplane. It should not be here, but it is—dirt-covered, broken, and only an arm’s length away, yet as unrecoverable beneath the glass as a thoughtless deed.



“Erika sent this.”

Shane stands at the bottom of the stair, his white shirt stained yellow with sweat. He’s been running. I’ve been staring at my computer, so my vision is cloudy with after-images as I roll my chair back to look at him. I see that Shane is holding out an envelope.

“Come up,” I say at last.

No return address, but that’s to be expected. I rip open the paper and suddenly feel a hot sting. Damn! The paper cut bleeds across my finger and I smash it down against the fabric of the placemat.

A storm had rattled the windows hard the day Erika bought the lemon yellow placemats from the department store. “I just wanted to go out by myself,” she had said in a rusty voice, one longing to not speak at all. “Besides, I can’t return them now. The receipt got wet in the rain.”

She had crumpled the soggy paper in her hand, and the ink had bled between her tightly-clenched fingers.

And so the placemats had stayed, though now they are speckled brown and gray from food and dirt, and now red from blood.

“Damn envelope,” I mutter. “Doesn’t she know how to use email?”

Of course she does. She doesn’t have a computer at her apartment. Her residence is just temporary anyway, but I don’t think she has any intention of coming back, even if she does get the house and everything else through the divorce. For now, the house is my home—home until Dr. Mellin decides to lock me up if I don’t “improve.” It’s a nifty experiment, imprisoning me in my own house. I suppose he and Shane think that this regimen will cure me. Cure me of what, I’d like to know? Divorcing my wife? Marriage used to be a private matter. So had reading the mail.

“What does it say—if you don’t mind my asking?” Shane says, and I know he’s trying to lighten the gloom that curtains the off-yellow kitchen.

“She says, ‘Dear Desmond. Hope you aren’t lonely and you and your brother are getting along, neh deh-neh deh-neh…'” I fall silent, reading the handwriting that looks so familiar, curved in the smooth lines that are being crushed under my thumbs and stained by my bleeding finger. Her flowing hand reminds me of the softness of her dark hair. It was the most beautiful on summer days, when we went hiking in the Appalachians and its dark tangles looked like the patterns of the forest shadows.

We had gone hiking the day after Erika found out she was pregnant. “I might not be able to do this for awhile,” she had laughed. We had talked about names. If it was a boy, I would name it. If it was a girl, Erika would, and I could choose the second name. I had decided on Liam for a boy.

“It follows family tradition,” I had explained to her. “And it means ‘strong-willed.'”

“Like you,” she had said. Erika had a fondness for Hebrew names, so the girl would be named Abby, which she claimed meant ‘joy of the father.’ I had told her it was the perfect name.

It was born on a stormy March night that was much less intense than the confusion at the hospital. Although invited to stay, I left the delivery room and waited in the hospital lobby. Erika’s first contraction had struck me, like lighting, with a sudden doubt.

It turned out to be a girl, a crying, pathetic thing. But Erika loved it; she loved the lumpy red creature that could easily have been mistaken for a large and gnarly potato pulled up out of the earth. The strength of that love frightened me.

I tried to be gentle with it at first, praying that it would not open its eyes and see me, holding it in my arms. Then I tried ignoring it. But every day, I’d see Erika sitting in the rocker beside the crib, crooning to it, singing to it. She’d ask me to make her dinner, and I’d stiffly comply, clenching my teeth against a jealousy I knew shouldn’t be there. I knew it was wrong.

Her face is still vividly there. Her luscious, black hair melts into the creases of the paper. Her eyes gaze at me from between the folds. I can smell her scent on the letter. Her face smiles, then saddens, as a mist in my eyes fades the image out.

Shane puts a hand on my shoulder. I feel it like a blow. Our dad’s voice rings in my head. “You only see the surface, Desmond. You never really get the heart of the matter.” He is standing there in his crisp white shirt and khaki trousers. His frame is tall and thin. His clothes look like paper. I always felt that if I blew gently, the wind might carry him away. But his heart was too heavy. “Goddamn, you’re the most short-sighted son I’ve ever had to raise.”


Shane whispers in my ear, and I start and look over my shoulder. I see his serious, brown eyes taking hold of mine, trying to draw me out of the darkness. But I can’t keep my gaze steady. I can’t hold it in. The next moment I’m on my feet and I’m swearing like I never have before. My lungs can’t hold it all, the pain, the swelling that fills my chest. My ears roar with static noise.

“I don’t care!” come the echoes of my own words, as if from a great distance. “I don’t care what you say, or anybody says! I don’t need her! I don’t want her!”

The letter tears in my hand, again, and again. The pieces flutter to the floor along with the tears that fall from my face.

I turn on my brother who is looking stunned. “Her… them… You’ll never leave me alone!” I accuse. “Nobody does! Listen to me, there is nothing wrong with me! I’m me… this is me! I am perfectly normal!”

Shane gets ahold of my left wrist and gives it a painful twist and I stop yelling so I can curse.

“Dez, listen,” he says. “Listen to me. You’ll be fine. You just don’t understand… you don’t understand.” He lets go of my wrist and takes several deep breaths, as if winded, despite all of his running practice.

At last, it’s my turn to win.

“I do understand,” I say, coolly. “I know why you’re here, Shane, why you came here. You’re the watchdog. Erika was worried about me, so you thought you’d do her a favor by keeping an eye on me. But that’s the older brother’s job, Shane. That’s my job. I’m supposed to look after you! It’s my right!”

I choke on my own words as I speak. The creature inside of me throws itself against the bars.

Shane grips both of my shoulders now, but he can’t look at me. He’s crying, and shame fuels my desire to run. I try to wrench away, but Shane does not let go. I glare into his tightened face. My fingers begin to reach for his throat. “God, how I hate you…”

“Desmond,” he says.

Something in the softness of his voice causes me to listen this time.

“I—I have always… always looked up to you. I just want you to know that. You were my only big brother and I wanted to be like you. Just like you.”

I jerk away from Shane’s grip. Liar, I think. I already know that he’s going to call Dr. Mellin. He’s going to have me taken away and locked up. They both think I’m crazy. But they don’t know crazy.

Crazy is crawling on a frozen lake without feeling the cold. Crazy is risking death by lying at its center, the weakest spot on the ice. Most of all, it’s being able to look down beneath the surface and see it all clearly, second by second, every regret, down to the deepest level of hell.

But I suppose none of us ever realize we’re standing on thin ice until it begins to crack.

I stalk away from my brother to find something that will stop the pain that is pressing against my ribs and pounding in my head. I search for something I can kick or hurl against the wall. Through a blur of vision, I see the curling ends of the lemony wallpaper border that wraps around the walls of the kitchen, cracked in places where my fist smashed the drywall. It used to frighten Erika when I lost my temper. Sometimes, I frightened myself.

On the cabinet beside the kitchen table, I see the hand-blown glass plate that Erika bought last summer at the Appalachian art festival. Erika had said she could see our own lake in its rippled bands of painted blue. The glass dims and wavers in my mind—a volatile thought coming into focus. Then it breaks beneath the sledgehammer of my fist. I watch the lake shatter into a hundred pieces.


He awakens once more. It is winter now. The glass has become ice. The cattails are gone and he wants to leave. He reaches for her hand, but it is not there anymore.

“You can do it, silly,” her voice says. “Keep your knees bent this time.”

Her voice is still there, but she is long gone.

He tries to stand, but his feet slide suddenly on the surface, and his fingers claw the ice for purchase. The lake groans, then cracks. The sun fades fast behind dark trees as he struggles again to stand, the way she taught him, with knees bent.


Bethany Nuckolls knew she wanted to be a writer since she was five, and thus seventeen years later she earned a degree in Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Her writing has been featured in the university’s publications and also in various online publications. Her main hobby, aside from writing, is traveling around the country and the world, and many of the places she has visited have also inspired her stories. Lately, she has spent two years living in rural Japan. Email: writebackatcha[at]

Gogo Knows Best

Boots’s Pick
Shannon Schuren

Voodoo Doll Dotees
Photo Credit: April/elasticcamel

Your maman is so good with needle and thread, her Gogo Ezrulie used to say, she could even mend a broken heart.

As Marie stitched the doll, she prayed fervently that she’d inherited that gift. Because something was broken between her and Manny, something hard to name and even harder to fix. If it hadn’t been for the baby, she might not have tried.

Manny was big and dark and wild, a bull in her fragile china world. And though at first she’d found this exciting, the cracks were starting to show. Where he had once been chivalrous, he was now overbearing. Once accommodating, he was now demanding.

It all began with the tea.

At first, it was just a niggling thought in the back of her head. An old recipe from her Gogo, her maternal grandmother, a tea that pregnant women drink to promise a successful delivery. But Gogo had been gone a long time. Surely those remedies had died with her.

But it wouldn’t let go. It gained voice, then momentum. Soon the very idea was a constant drumbeat in her soul, drowning out all other thoughts. The only way to quiet it was to drive down to the swamp, gather the moss, and brew the tea.

She shouldn’t have told Manny. She thought he’d laugh; the crazy cravings of a mother-to-be. Instead, the argument had opened a gulf between them that was littered with the memories of the foul names he’d called her and the accusations he’d thrown. It was up to her to close that gulf, and the old ways were the only ones she knew.

As she stopped to admire the doll’s shiny black eyes and primitive yarn smile, the phone rang. She started and drove the needle through the cloth body and into the palm of her hand. Blood welled up, droplets already soaking the fabric of the tiny dress.

It was Manny, sounding as if he’d been on a two-day bender. Had she cursed him? Given him some sort of hex potion? If not, did she know of some way to get rid of his terrible headache? Something that wouldn’t bring the wrath of God down upon them both?

As she hung up the phone, she glanced at his portrait, hanging upside down on her mantel. It would be a simple matter to turn it, to reverse the headache. But Marie had another idea.

She dressed in one of Manny’s shirts and a pair of old jeans, then drove to the cemetery. As she crouched in the dirt to fill her cup, she saw one of the doctors from her pharmaceutical route kneeling beside a nearby grave. What must he think of her now? But without her black bag of samples and her practiced smile, she was merely a spirit in oversized flannel, and he looked right through her.

Back at home, she burned the rest of the Spanish moss, the cloying odor heavy and thick in her closed-in apartment. She longed to stand at the balcony, to feel the breeze from the bayou on her face, but she resisted. Her neighbors were staid professionals, more likely to consult their therapists than a voodoo priestess on matters of the heart. If they came to her door, she didn’t know how she’d explain the pools of candle wax and grains of salt scattered across the kitchen floor.

She was surprised that she still remembered the recipe for a gris-gris, but she shouldn’t have been. Like her Gogo always said, the memories of childhood are fast forged and last forgotten. She mixed the ingredients along with red pepper and herbs, and some old, dried mistletoe berries she dug out of her Christmas decorations. These she ground with a pestle on the altar of her Corian countertop before pouring it all into a little drawstring bag.

Before she left, she poured hot coffee into a Thermos, then opened the wound on her palm to let several drops of her own blood fall into the rich, dark brew. For binding, in case the doll didn’t work. She stirred it, screwed on the cover, and gathered it up along with her other gifts.

Manny met her on his front porch, his bloodshot eyes wide and accusing.

She took in his rumpled clothing, his messy hair, his swollen lips. The lipstick stain on his T-shirt. The smell of perfume clinging to him like a five-dollar whore.

“I need whatever goddamn concoction you’ve brewed up,” he demanded by way of greeting.

Wordlessly, she handed him the coffee. She felt their baby squirm in happiness as he gulped it.

“I’ve made you something else,” she said, offering him the doll.

He pushed it aside and pointed at the little sack in her hand. “What’s that?”

“It’s a gris-gris,” she began.

He ignored her and snatched the bag, emptying the contents into the Thermos and then mixing it with his finger.

Marie thought about telling him that the gris-gris was for keeping, not for eating. That the graveyard dirt was for protection, and that the mistletoe berries, though highly poisonous, promised fidelity.

And then she thought about the lipstick on his shirt. And the love bites on his neck.

And said nothing.

She smiled sadly as he downed the coffee, the blood-flecked doll still clutched in her hand.

Her Gogo had another saying: A quick death is a snake’s only friend.


Shannon Schuren lives in Sheboygan Falls, WI with her husband and three children. She finds writing both emotionally rewarding and the best way to quiet the voices in her head. Her short fiction has appeared in journals such as Big Pulp, Concisely Magazine, Howls and Pushycats, and Toasted Cheese Literary Journal. Email: schurshan[at]

Two Poems

Baker’s Pick
Holly Burdorff

Get Your 50-50 Tickets
Photo Credit: Nigel Gunn


On the gridiron, waves of bodies crash and fall,
bathing in a million watts of yellow light— but

that’s behind the line of lithe girls
shaking pom-poms, tossing and tumbling

through the air like the red and gold leaves
falling from the maples surrounding the stadium.

In the bleachers, their mothers shimmy around feet
and knees, selling the night’s 50/50 raffle tickets:

one for a dollar, an arm’s length for five. Their limbs
arc to measure; their joints stretch with honesty.


While inside, hot gymnasium air stands still, smothering
all, and echoes pop and bounce off every wall.

After each point, all six girls furl up in the center
like petals of a flower at sundown; hands clasped,

they recite cheers for perfection. Pressure is the pulse
of the room; they are driven to be diamonds—

although, aren’t they more than just carbon?
The setter wipes sweat from her fingers

as she waits for each pass, raises her palms skyward,
knows that the seven spectators are holding their breath.

After each spike, knees knock on floors
like knuckles rapping on doors to empty rooms.


Geology, a Love Story

They were big together, they knew. Like gravity:
it exists, but few people care.
He was her knight in schreibersite armor,
she said. And he said
she was still his home.

They would stroll, late at night,
holding hands. Their outside hands
wandered into their coat pockets;
they let their fingers play with bits of rock.

They’d spend hours poring over minerals
in empty classrooms.
One deep-scratched table, one hand lens.
They’d pause, every now and then,
to test each others’ mouths for halite.
Who needs stargazing? Here,
on Earth, we have apophyllite
and garnet
and carpathite.

When he found her,
he knew she was steadier
than the ground beneath his feet;
she was a place to build a home.

He washed over her
like field manuals spread over a hard wooden table.
Or sweeter;
like thick ribbons of fudge frosting
spread over a marble cake.


Holly Burdorff lives, works, and attends school in central Ohio. This is her first publication. Email: hburdorff[at]


S.E. White

More water fun…
Photo Credit: Carol Munro

In the farthest room of the old sanitarium Musgrove County converted into a museum some years back, Lenore Holcomb’s shriveled blue fingers are kept in a jar. She was murdered by her husband in 1880 during a scorching summer, hacked to death with a corn knife. Her fingers, so the plaques on the walls say, are among the larger pieces that remain of the woman once considered Musgrove County’s premiere seamstress.

I lean in closer to the display cases, to see past the reflection of the cushy red carpeting in the glass. The rooms smell dusty with a hint of mothballs and the building’s cooling system carries the only odor that can be both faint and pungent: as if a pigeon got caught in the vents and thrashed itself to bits.

It’s a Saturday. My husband Richmond and I are touring through the county’s makeshift museum alone. He took the day off, and I have yet to find a job in our new town. We recently moved from Detroit to the small, rural Ohio village of Townsville four hours to the south. I already miss the malls and outlets; this town has only a Sav-Mart—a grocery store, pharmacy, bank, and clothing store all in one. Richmond’s job transferred him to one of their branches offices here—a demotion masked as a “titled, managerial position”.

I drum my fingers against the glass. The beige newspapers with the screaming headlines sit next to the noose that eventually snapped Edward Holcomb’s neck. The rust-stained knife cowers ominously in the shadows of the jar. All of the typed cards near the exhibit say the reason for the interest in the case is that Edward Holcomb was the last man in the county to have been hanged (though I’m sure backwoods lynch mobs might’ve dispelled such “facts” had they been considered less trivial). I find no cards for such a footnote.

I nudge Richmond who seems more fascinated by a painting of some woman on the opposite wall. Her hair almost as pale as her face, ruby lips and blue eyes, a velvety blood red dress with a high lace collar.

Richmond hasn’t been himself since just before the move, more easily distracted, as if he has something to say, but can’t. I stare over at the painting myself, then back into the display case.

“Reminds me of an angel,” he muses, his voice low, overemphasizing the word “angel”.

“Probably dead,” I say. “Or else a wrinkled prune.”

His eyes linger on her porcelain white features. “The best parts are below the frame anyway.”

Something about his tone, or perhaps the violation of Lenore Holcomb, makes me flinch at his unexpected innuendo, and I sigh. “I thought you said the first thing you noticed about me was my smile.” The glass warms against my fingertips.

He strokes his chin and turns from the painting towards the display cases. “Were you born yesterday?”

I feel a bead of sweat tickle my upper lip.

He wraps his long arms around me, and I feel his hot breath on my neck. “You know I’m a leg man.”

I give him the smile he expects and endure his stifling caress despite the heat. He hasn’t touched me, not really, since before the move, and I feel myself lean against him. I point to the display.

“We live on Holcomb road,” I remind him. “The articles say this guy’s insanity might’ve been caused by lead in the water.”

The trapped humidity in the old building makes Richmond’s skin feel sticky against mine.

“Among other things,” I add.

Richmond releases me and stuffs his hands into the pockets of his khaki shorts. “So we’ll buy bottled water.” His fingers must be fidgeting with his car keys, his usual sign that he’s ready to leave. I hear the soft jangling.

With a nod, I tell him that I’m done looking. But, at the end of the display, easily missed, I find a picture of a woman who the card identifies as Lenore Holcomb. Beside her, a tall, burly man poses with a large smile and bright, almost sparkling, eyes.

Richmond expresses vague interest by telling a tasteless joke about how maybe the poor sap’s wife had cheated on him and he just wanted a piece. I glance over at him. I don’t laugh. The cooling vents rattle in the awkward pause.

Lenore Holcomb wasn’t pretty. In the black-and-white photographs, her stark black hair is pulled tight into a bun, her grey skin looks dented with pockmarks, and her figure is stocky at best. The contrast between the fingers, the noose, the newspapers, all of the hideous evidence still fail to make the jovial expression of Edward seem in any way demonic. His appearance is as a man who might whistle chopping wood or who could listen and appreciate a gentle rain. I pull at the collar of my blouse. The summer of 1880 must’ve been hotter than hell itself. Richmond stares over at me as though he’s got a secret he’s ready to share, but I’m ready to leave.

Together, we stroll out the front doors and climb into our old car. The air conditioning is broken, so we roll down the windows and shout relief to each other that the drive back to the house is a short one. Ours is the slate blue house at the end of the winding road. The shutters, painted black, have chipped and created flakes in the yard like ash. The dried shrubs and flowers in the dirt nearly encircling the house grope towards the shadows. I should water them, I think as the car rolls to a stop, but I know that once I look away I’ll forget.

“Penny for your thoughts,” Richmond says. “Or should I make that an arm and a leg?” I weave my fingers together and set them on my knee. “Hm?”

I shake my head absently and take a deep breath, then step out into the musty garage. Weed whackers and garden shears, hoes and rakes clutter the walls.

Richmond lingers behind in the car while I go and unlock the back door. The house feels stuffy. We closed the windows before we left, actually buying into the weather girl’s prediction of a thunderstorm. The sun has shone all morning.

I open the first window I find in the kitchen. The curtains sway in what little breeze there is.

The kids are at the swimming lessons Richmond insisted they take, if not to learn the skill, then to at least meet other kids their age before the school year starts. They had tried to plead their case to me, but lately, since the move, I felt I should defer to Richmond.

A year ago I would’ve informed Richmond that our children didn’t need swimming lessons to live in the middle of “Podunk,” Ohio, and the kids would find friends in their own time, but I couldn’t challenge him. Accepting his word was my own quiet penance. So, I told the kids that they’d enjoy the cool water since the summers here are supposed to be so dry and hot.

I close my eyes and submerge myself in the refreshing feeling of a blue pool. The thought of it makes me thirsty. I run myself a glass of water from the faucet and hold it to my lips. Richmond must be going to do a little yard work. I hear him rummaging through the shelves of rusty tools we inherited when we bought the house. I part my lips to take a drink, but then think better of it. I consider milk instead.

The last time I drank milk was six months before we moved. I’d strolled down to the gas station cattycorner to the Angel Motel and bought a carton of milk and a dozen powdered doughnuts while Hal took a shower in our room. The room smelled of Ivory soap when I returned to it, still muggy from the warm water that fogged the mirrors. I wonder who is taking a shower in the Angel Motel now? I had sat on the rumpled bed and sipped from the carton, watching Hal dress, his white T-shirt sticking to his back.

The memory of it makes the air seem so unbearably hot, and I ache for even the slightest breeze to blow across the back of my neck. There is no breeze, and before I think about it, I swallow the water in the glass, tasting it as milk.

The screen door screeches, and I shake my head, the daydream lingering in a simple smile I conceal from Richmond as he enters the kitchen. He washes his hands in the sink.

“I thought you were doing yard work,” I say.

He wipes his hands slowly with a paper towel, faces me. “Ripped my shirt.”

I nod.

“Got anything I can fix it with?” he asks.

A drop of sweat tickles the side of my face. “Maybe in the top drawer of my dresser.”

For some reason, he seems to pause before leaving the kitchen. I stare up into his face and try to blink away the glazed look I know my eyes are showing. To think of Hal was a mistake. I had promised myself I would put all of that behind me with the move.

“Funny thing,” Richmond muses.

I raise my eyebrows.

“About that crazy guy,” he sighs. “He was all smiles in that picture. You’d have thought he was happy.”

“Smiles can suggest a lot of things, Richmond.”

He tosses the paper towel into the trashcan. “You were smiling just now.”

I meet my eyes to his. “I thought you said you were more interested in my legs.”

He does his best to chuckle and wag his finger at me before disappearing into our bedroom.

I stroke my forehead. Hal had been the one to break it off after only a few times. Said a woman had cheated on him once, and he felt dirty doing it to someone else. My relationship with Richmond had become stale, perfunctory, not like when we’d first been married, and Hal had worked so close to me, shared the same office, so available. It wasn’t love, just convenience. A few weeks later, and news that Richmond’s company needed him to transfer, I suppose I agreed with Hal. I wasn’t a cheater, not really; I’d lost track of the lies and excuses I’d told Richmond, and, truth to be told, it’s hard work to lie. It was easier to move with Richmond and the kids than to go through the hellish turmoil of a divorce just to end up alone anyway.

I hear my dresser drawer squeak open. Richmond will never find my sewing kit, even if it’s right under his nose. I wipe the back of my hand across my forehead and shuffle into the shadowy bedroom. He’s sitting on the edge of the bed, the needle almost invisible in his thick, muscular fingers, the thread hanging from his teeth. My lips begin to form an offer of help, but he looks up quickly and grunts.

“I’ll fix it myself,” he says.

From the appearance of a couple of the buttons, it seems as if he has done just that in the past.

“Damn,” he hisses, pricking his forefinger enough to make blood swell at the spot.

I grab a couple of tissues and kneel down to wrap his finger, catching the single blood drop.

He sighs.

“I only smile when I’m happy,” he says suddenly.

Taking the needle and thread slowly from his hands, I lick the end of the thread and push it through the eye.

“Stuffy in here,” I say.

A small welcomed gust of wind stirs the warm air. It makes me remember.

“I still have to water the flowers,” I say.

Richmond shakes his head. “I already did.”


“I figured that’s what you were thinking. So I already did.” He twiddles his thumbs. “Ever since we moved in, you always look at them when we drive in and then forget.”

“How do you know?” I pull on the thread, drawing the torn ends of his shirt together.

He suddenly breathes harder and my heart skips; I peek up at him. The sun slips behind clouds; the room darkens.

Richmond seems intent on my sewing as he reaches out, stares me full in the face, touching his fingertips to the back of my neck, thumbs to my throat, and says, “How could I not know?”


Currently, S.E. White teaches English at Purdue University North Central. She maintains a blog at Red Room, as well as a personal blog. Most of her publication credits have been in regional and online magazines. A short story is forthcoming in The Smoking Poet‘s December edition. Email:

The Yellow Bike

Cody L. Stanford

Photo Credit: luxomedia

It’s not there anymore.

Think of worn-out pale brown shoeboxes lined up end to end and you’ll see where I left the yellow bike, at our drab little shopping mall in old Boca Raton. In front of the mall doors by the taco place sat a poor little courtyard, with large planters of sand-colored concrete where a kid could rest his butt while hanging out. An awning clung to brown brick walls, propped up by chocolate-painted poles that doubled as bike racks for kids like me. That was the best place to chain my yellow bike, especially the night I went away.

The mall was about to close up. I hitched the yellow bike to one of the narrow poles and double-checked the lock, spooked that it might have surrendered at a bad moment. I was breaking all the rules that night; pushing at imposed limits; baring my flesh for a razor cut that might draw blood.

I walked over the dark, deserted parking lot and ran across Federal Highway to the grey-blue gas station. Soon a Greyhound bus came tottering along like an unsteady elephant, and in chuffs of diesel smoke swallowed me up to go to Ft. Lauderdale.


I had one simple truth in my life, one thing I was sure of: an emotion pure and lovely as a razor so sharp that nothing could ever grind it dull.

I loved him.

Stefan the meteorite burned into my world in the sunny late summer of 1979. We were both sixteen. We didn’t have cars but we had our bikes, and Boca Raton was still small enough that a boy who flew through his life on a bike owned the entire town. I spotted Stefan at school one day and puppy-dog followed him until he noticed me. I wedged my way into conversations with his friends like I actually fit in. Stefan had long, thick, frizzy blond hair and gentle green eyes, strong legs and shoulders, and a smile cute enough to melt diamonds. Laura was his girlfriend, smart and pretty but plain, with long brown hair and grey eyes. Stefan could have picked any girl he wanted, that he chose Laura proved he was not just some dumb and gorgeous kid who didn’t give a damn.

I was tall and bike-post thin. Florida gave me cover to grow my dark-brown hair very long. My mother hated both my hair and Florida. I hung out with the surfers and the freaks, and no one knew that I liked my hair long because I wanted hair like a girl. I crushed heavily on another boy for the whole summer of 1979, a lithe Italian surfer boy with dark eyes and a cute overbite. For him I was at the beach nearly every day.

Our summer ended with a hurricane. Then I met Stefan.

Normally I was shy, a wallflower without a blossom. But I made friends with Stefan, and told him my name. How hard did I fall for Stefan? I wanted to look cuter, so I cut my hippie-girly hair.

I was a wolfboy tracking down Stefan between classes and after school. On Friday and Saturday nights we met up at the tired shoebox mall on Federal Highway. My eyes were full of stars. Stefan and I ate pizza and drank beer. We wandered around and talked. Sometimes we got high. Our bikes carried us, or we walked. To Stefan it was just a friendship. Me? For the first time in my life, I was an ecstatic little animal with red blood hot in my veins like heady, new wine.

One day I “ran into” Stefan after his metalworking class. He had forged a little pendant, like a charm, one of those peace signs that looked more like a Mercedes emblem. Stefan didn’t want to keep the charm but rather than toss it out, he did the first thing that came to mind: he gave it to me. I was smug over my good timing, certain that Stefan would have given the charm to Laura had he seen her first.

I bet Stefan wished he had given the charm to Laura after it showed up on the leather cord around my neck, next to my tiger shark tooth. I told everybody that Stefan gave it to me. I was so very much in love with him.

I’m surprised it took Stefan so long to figure that out.


The drive from Boca Raton to Ft. Lauderdale took only thirty minutes on I-95, but the bus crawled like an old lady down Federal Highway instead, and made stops. This was annoying. Summer of 1980. I was seventeen years old, but my mother forbade me to use her car to go to Ft. Lauderdale. Hence, the bus. In later months, I took Mom’s car to Ft. Lauderdale without telling her where I had been. But that night burned with honesty and love, and my desperate desire to see Stefan again.

Even so, Stefan was in the dark. I was afraid he might arrange to be out if he knew. I watched shops and restaurants glide past the bus, and I envied the people in their cars down below.

The yellow bike had never pulled an all-nighter at the mall before. It came close once, on a night when Stefan and David and I were taken by some rowdy guys to a party until three a.m., with beer and grass in good supply. I faded into a couch and simply watched Stefan being beautiful. The party guys were too busy with beer and high school girls to notice the lovesick boy who didn’t talk much.

The yellow bike was my first really good bike, a Schwinn ten-speed, mine since I was ten or eleven. Today I live just a couple of blocks from the shop where my mother bought me the bike; its memory is never distant. Yellow is not even close to my favorite color. It was probably chosen for me, a boy who let others delimit and define him, who went along too easily. But it was a hot-looking bike all the same.

Sometimes the bike stayed home. One sunny afternoon at the Boca Mall when I was fourteen, I hunched against the edge of one of those planters outside the taco place. I waited for my mom to pick me up from a movie, probably Star Wars again. A few boys staked out the area behind me with affected maturity beyond their years. One boy’s lean body was clad only in sand-colored corduroy pants. The skin on his torso was nut brown. He glorified in the most incredible long and loose-curled black hair that spread in frizzy radiance like a lion’s mane over his shoulders. He was twelve or thirteen. He stared back at me, but his black-as-coal eyes told me nothing. I had yet to fully accept the way boys had enchanted me since I was eight years old. I was too shy to talk to the black-haired boy with his hawk’s eyes, as if, were those eyes to detect why I couldn’t stop looking at him, he might rip me to pieces.

Alone in my room later, the boy’s image came back to me, and in my dream I talked to him. We both wound up right where I was, together. His eyes were still dangerous, but his breath was soft and his lips were wet, and his naked body felt warm against mine.


David was my other good friend and he attached himself to our adventures, especially those at night. David was in our school’s Drama Club. He was boisterous and funny, and told great stories of which you never knew how much to believe. Like Stefan, David was straight, so he didn’t spark up my jealousy over Stefan the way Laura did. But it turned out that I was vulnerable to the betrayal of another boy, gay or not.

Rock music fueled our lives, but in this day before Walkmans and iPods, the soundtracks of our shared days and nights played mostly in our heads. I liked Yes, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin, and was on the cusp of discovering the towering joys of classical music, dramatic and emotional like hard rock. The Yes song “And You and I” became “our” song, even though I don’t think Stefan ever heard it. The entire album Close to the Edge, full of innocence and expectation, played alongside every thought I had about Stefan.

That previous spring I had finally said to myself, “I’m gay.” The stars aligned, and I felt nothing but bliss for days afterward.

Stefan, David, and I pounded pavement when we were short a bike. One day I wound up riding behind Stefan on his bike, and tempered my fear of tumbling off by holding tight to his bare shoulders. Stefan’s beautiful golden hair ruffled like a lion’s mane between my hands.

The three of us did the beer and pizza thing together, and no one gave a damn that we were all too young to drink. David showed us a way to get up to the roof of the mall, where we drank beer and watched shoppers through the domed skylight. David loved to take a piss on that dome, laughing at the oblivious people below. We went to movies, and occasionally Laura came along. At those times David and I tried to lock down our antics. If Stefan and Laura went out alone, David and I attacked the beer and pizza together, and wandered through late-night Boca Raton afterwards. One night we sneaked into the swank Boca Raton Hotel and Club. Another night a police car stopped where two youths talked calmly atop a picnic table at the Palmetto Park Road Pavilion, over the beach. David and I had deftly hidden our beer just before the cop pulled up; he soon left, and we laughed. On other nights David and I screamed dialog from Apocalypse Now at each other at two in the morning, along residential streets. It’s amazing that we never got in trouble for any of this shit.

The three of us saw Apocalypse Now in a theatre with a broken air conditioner, and I called the hot and humid auditorium “genuine southeast Asian jungle effects.” Stefan and I saw Alien together, and I jumped and screamed, and wished, wished, wished I were a girl so Stefan would hold my hand.


The bus lurched into the Greyhound station in Ft. Lauderdale and set me loose. I smelled the pungent aromas of late-night adventure: damp concrete, old oil, diesel fumes. I found a cab and gave the driver the address, a residential motel facing the beach across A1A.

One day between classes, Stefan gave me a letter, hand-written, with a couple of funny sayings to soften the letter’s tone. In the letter, Stefan asked if I could please stop following him around everywhere. See, I was there all the time, between every class and after school, and, well, some of Stefan’s other friends were starting to wonder about me. That I always wore the charm Stefan gave me didn’t help.

I was mortified, panicked, close to tears. After class I ran to Stefan, vulnerable as any girl. Were we still friends? Of course, Stefan said; I just needed to give him some space, that’s all.

I gave it to him. I would have done anything in the world for him.

I still have the letter. I keep it with the ticket stub from the bus trip.


The cab left me at the motel. I heard the rush of ocean across A1A, and watched waning moonlight tremble on the waves. I knew Stefan loved being so close to the beach. I walked past motel doors, checking numbers. Stefan had given me his address over the phone, with an open invitation to come see him. I sent him a letter also, here to his current home. My enthusiasm for him hadn’t waned. I bet my letter to Stefan read much like the one Tatiana sent Eugene Onegin, launched by Tchaikovsky into mad, soaring bursts of ecstasy.

I found Stefan’s door, right next to the pay phone he used to talk to me. I knocked.

Stefan opened the door. I said hello, fearful as a mouse. I hadn’t seen Stefan since March, when he ran away from home. He still looked beautiful, and still carried his body with the casual grace of someone who never let anything bother him, the polar opposite of my worrisome personality. Stefan smiled, glad to see me, even though he was a bit surprised. Laura was with him, and I had visions of spending the night in the bus terminal. The next bus back to Boca didn’t leave until morning, and I hoped Stefan would let me crash on the floor or something. My luck held; Laura was leaving just as I knocked.

I entered a small sitting room with a couch and a chair and a small TV. At one end of the room were a kitchen sink and a little refrigerator. The colors were dark and tired, browns and burgundies, as I recall. Maybe blue? Maybe green? You didn’t even notice the damp Florida smell after you’d lived there a while. A painted cinderblock wall separated the sitting room (front room, living room, such a fancy name for so small a space) from the bedroom. Stefan was tired from his job, a line cook at a restaurant. We traded banal words about people we knew. My main concern was him: was he okay? Were we okay? Stefan assured me—again—that I wasn’t the reason he ran away from home. But I knew my love for him had hastened the events that upended his life.

I apologized to Stefan for the surprise visit. He could have been angry; he could have kicked me out in a rage; he had every right to hate me. Had he done so, he would have destroyed me.

Instead, Stefan said I was welcome to stay and watch TV or sleep on the couch.

I still had Stefan’s friendship. That was what I had traveled to Ft. Lauderdale to find.


November of 1979. I invited Stefan and Laura over for dinner. My Italian mom cooked, and the food was delicious. Stefan’s mom was Italian, too. I barely noticed Laura; I was too smitten with Stefan.

After dinner we watched a movie on TV; or rather, everyone else watched the movie while I watched Stefan with silly-happy love-struck eyes. The movie was dreadful, and I shuddered when the story turned out to involve a youth who commits suicide after a homosexual encounter with a male teacher. Utter, ignorant rubbish, but no one else seemed to notice.

I gave Stefan a gold roach clip for Christmas. Stefan and I spent a sun-drenched Christmas Eve at the beach, drinking beer and laughing on sand as warm as summer. Laura was there, too. I didn’t care. To the beach and back, I hammered the pedals of the yellow bike toward the earth with my furious joy at being in love.

Stefan was gorgeous in the sun, a golden-haired, bronze-skinned beach creature. I called him “Fozzie Bear” because his adorable face reminded me of one of the Muppets.


Stefan disappeared behind the painted cinderblock wall and went to bed. I watched TV, The Conversation, another Coppola movie that I had seen before. I thought about Stefan in the next room and hoped for the impossible, for a call from him to come share his bed. Of course, it didn’t happen. Miracles like that happen only in the movies.

On TV, Gene Hackman played a desolate saxophone amidst the wreckage of his apartment. That felt about right.


One cloudy late winter afternoon, while David and I hung out alone on an old playground in a park, David asked me.

“Yes,” I said, sitting on a creaky old swing. “I’m gay.”

See, it was that simple. I told my older sister back during Christmas, but no one else knew. I wasn’t a fool; I knew exactly how the hornets would swarm if word got around school that I was gay. I made David promise not to reveal my secret to anyone, not even Stefan. Though I knew, and probably hoped, that David would tell Stefan.

He did.

At first it stayed the same, all of us still friends committed to endless acts of fun. Stefan lived with his mom, and I with mine; we both had older sisters that lived away from home. But Stefan’s mom was religious, and a bad drunk. Nothing much bothered Stefan, but his emotionally unstable mother was the one dark cloud disturbing his sunny life.

Stefan’s mother found out about me, and the heavens thundered down over us.

I could no longer call Stefan, unless I wanted to listen to his mother rant in the background that I was evil, and destined for Hell. I could no longer go into Stefan’s home; I had to wait outside for him while his mother condemned me in righteous platitudes through the walls.

Stefan remained my friend despite what it cost him, and I dared not put my gratitude into words. He knew I loved him; I didn’t have to keep saying it.


The bathroom door was right inside the entryway to Stefan’s motel bedroom. I used it once.

Stefan lay atop the sheets wearing only a pair of shorts or swim trunks. A blue glow from the back window traced the muscles of his gold body. Was he asleep? I think so, but I didn’t linger in case he saw me. Again I felt the fluttering warmth inside, the overwhelming urge to touch Stefan’s body, to feel his hand nest in mine, to kiss him.

Dawn was nearing. I stepped outside and used the pay phone to call a cab, then came back and waited. I wrote Stefan a note to thank him for letting me stay the night. I signed it “Love” with my name. He wouldn’t like that, but it was necessary. We lived far from each other now; I had to say it.

I watched Stefan sleep. I wished for courage to walk in and give him one kiss before leaving, but I wouldn’t surrender the respect that kept me from it. Not because there was anything wrong with my love for him, but because he didn’t share that love.

Outside, the sky was still dark. I smelled salt and dead things in the nearby surf. A squeal of brakes heralded my cab’s arrival.


March of 1980. My birthday fell on a Friday. My dream was to spend that evening with Stefan at the mall, and he assured me we would. Laura had to work. I didn’t want David along; I knew he was spending time with Stefan without me. It didn’t matter that David wasn’t gay. Stefan was my guy, and I was very jealous.

I floated through my birthday like a giddy girl, anticipating the night and Stefan’s promise. Just the usual beer and pizza, just him and me alone, and you and I in paradise for one beautiful night.

Everything precious can shatter. That night, Stefan and David went out together, to Ft. Lauderdale, and left me behind.

They call it “heartbreak” because saying that it feels like someone tore the fucking thing apart takes too long.

At first I didn’t know; I only knew I couldn’t find Stefan. I rode the yellow bike everywhere, fast and desperate, fueled by love and burgeoning hints of betrayal. I dared call Stefan’s home, and faced his mother’s righteous wrath. David’s parents finally told me what happened. In my chest I felt the muscle tear, like gristle ripped from steak. I spent the evening in tears. I hated David beyond measure, and I was furious with Stefan. But I could never, ever hate him.

Two days it took me to reach David over the phone. I was ready to scream it out with him for encouraging Stefan to join his betrayal. But my anger deflated; I had no choice. While I skipped in the clouds that Friday, everything came apart at Stefan’s home between him and his mother, and that night he needed a release with another guy who wasn’t in love with him. David didn’t actually use those words, but I knew, one more revelation to me about the mysterious behavior of guys. The muscle tore further; didn’t Stefan see how much I cared?

Stefan’s mother had stopped answering the phone, so I asked David. “Where is Stefan now?”

“He ran away,” David said. “He’s staying with his sister in Ft. Lauderdale.”


Stefan moved to the beachfront motel as soon as he got a job. For a time he didn’t keep in touch with Laura, and one day she phoned me in despair, seeking advice and consolation. She worried that Stefan didn’t love her anymore. I tried to help, but I’m terrible at giving advice. Not to mention that I was stunned by her words and the very fact of her call. Laura didn’t know. She didn’t know. I was her greatest, most vicious rival, and she had absolutely no idea.


Sunlight seeped into the sky over the rolling bus while it passed the same shops and perhaps the same cars as before. Back in Boca, I crossed the empty mall parking lot with muted sneaker-steps in the quiet morning. The yellow bike was still there. Both of us had survived the night.

It’s not there anymore. The sad little shoebox mall and the grey-blue gas station have been replaced by Mizner Park, giddy with shops and offices and sunny, happy people. I sold the yellow bike to somebody’s kid when Mom and I moved back to Kansas City. That hurt, too, losing both the bike and Florida together.

Until then, David and I still went to the mall for beer and pizza on Friday nights. I was like a girl that way: a guy filled me with wrath, and then I forgave him. But vicious whispers hissed around me like swamp fire. On a Friday night, David and I walked out of the mall past several jocks and their girlfriends. One of the girls knew, and ignited the fire. After words were exchanged, I watched the jocks step off the curb as one, coming to get us. David defused the bullies’ fists before either of us got beat up.

I saw Stefan two or three more times, and sometimes David was along. But that night never came again, the bike ride and bus trip like a lifeline to the boy I loved. Stefan remained my friend until killing distance came between us. Your best friends, your truest friends; they understand. A part of them sticks to the ripped muscle, always.

The little charm Stefan gave me? I still have that, too.

The torn muscle stopped bleeding for a little while. I wheeled the yellow bike into the apartment while Mom left for work. I crawled into bed and clutched the pillow, and pretended that Stefan and I held each other close while I fell asleep.


Cody L. Stanford‘s publishing credits include “The Hot Bolt Kids” at Aphelion, “Wolf Dreams” at Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, “Freedom,” “Flying Fox” and “Gryphonwind” at The Piker Press, “White Fire” at Gypsy Shadow Publishing, “Alexandra’s Cat” and “Reedman” in The New Orphic Review, “But a Toy” in The Circle, “Blindsight Eclipse” in The Rejected Quarterly, and “The Magician” in Eyes magazine. Upcoming stories include “The New Boy’s Kiss” in Collective Fallout. Email: gryphontiger[at]

Natural Disaster

Gina Sakalarios-Rogers

Wow. Pineapple Mojito
Photo Credit: John Dunsmore

Hurricanes aren’t tragedies. Maybe if someone dies in an unexpected or unpreventable way, then it is tragic. A tree falls on a house and kills everyone inside is a tragedy. The hurricane itself is just nature.

I’m not a cold bitch. I lost my home, my boat, a close friend, and a lifetime of memories during the storm last year.

Hell, I may be among the few who don’t think it was such a bad thing. I lived, so who gives a shit about insurance woes and recouping financially for all the stuff that we lost. Most of it wasn’t important anyway. As George Carlin said, smart man that he was, it’s just stuff anyway.

I got a new life, so I’m not complaining at all.

The worst thing now is those people who get all excited at hurricane season, but can’t admit that the excitement comes from wanting the storms to come our way, wanting the shake up of the usual routine that storms bring. All the rush to stock up is to keep them out of the last minute panic lines, so they can look responsible. They can then sit back and enjoy the anticipation of tracking the storm, giving their learned assessments of where it will make landfall.

These people annoy me, like the guy in my bar earlier tonight.

I’m trying to enjoy a drink without hearing the inane noise the bartender has tuned in on one of those constant news networks. There’s some tropical disturbance out in the Caribbean, which is, of course, being “closely monitored” for its “potential to intensify” overnight into the next killer storm. I don’t need to see the news anchor to know he’s salivating at the opportunity. I can hear in his reporting of the speculation about the effect of any sized storm on the oil spill in the Gulf that he’s hit weather reporter gold.

I should fire my new bartender for his obsession with the news.

I don’t want a conversation, but there’s some yahoo at the bar drinking a Mai Tai who does.

“It’s just a tropical depression,” he says. “Gulf’s too cold for a big storm right now with all this rain. Storms out in the gulf all the time, so that’s not gonna change the oil situation anymore than shifting currents.”

Since it sounds like he’s trying to convince himself, I keep my nature at bay. No need to talk to him at all really.

Until he says, “If a storm comes in I’m ready. I stocked up the day hurricane season opened and all the stores did that tax-free thing on supplies.”

So he asked for it, I figure.

“You got gas stored in your garage, generator at the ready? Ice in the freezer and canned goods in the pantry. I bet there’s fresh batteries in the flashlight and Coleman lanterns in the hall closet. You have a pyramid of bottled water in the dining room and precut and numbered plywood for the windows out in the new workshop you got the insurance to pay for when the neighbor’s tree took your old one out last year. No matter what you say about that oil you got ideas in your head about how BP could maybe pay you a little bit for some way it’s messed up your way of life.”

He was unwilling to accept this as his due for being a jackass; most jackasses are. His reaction though was not one that I expected.

I’ve seen very few men break down in tears. This guy was the first to burst into tears like a child whose sucker just fell in the dirt. Hell, his sucker was immediately covered with ants who wanted a bite at him as well.

I didn’t know what to do. So I got up and let the bartender handle it.

He called me a cold bitch. I’ll fire him when I get back from the chaos at the hardware store.


Standing in lines at banks and grocery stores makes my nerves tingle. It’s dead time. Lines full of antsy, hurricane-rattled, last-minute preparers singes my entire nervous system. I become one of those obnoxious people who everyone else in line sees as self-important when I say things like “Hope this place is well-built ’cause it looks like this is where we’ll all be when the storm gets here.”

I was in the store for two hours, fighting for the few remaining sheets of three-quarter-inch OSB and standing in line. When I got back to the bar, I wanted a cold drink before hauling all that wood into the storage room.

What I walked into was Jim Cantore on both televisions over the bar, telling all of my patrons and anyone else watching that the potential for the Category Two hurricane to strengthen to a Four and hit the Panhandle was looking more and more likely.

“Turn that off,” I said. Not yelling yet, trying not to project the store frustration onto this situation, which required an entirely different level of anger.

My bartender raised his eyebrows at me like he couldn’t believe I’d made this request. “They’re going to have this expert on next who’s going to try to convince us that the hurricane won’t pick up oil and sling all the hell over our homes and everything else.”

“The news is one thing, but no Weather Channel in here.”

“But this storm—”

“Fear mongering is all it is. Ratings nirvana. Turn it off.”

I climbed the bar. No one expected this. I kicked a margarita into an outraged snowbird’s lap.

“Hey,” someone said from the far end of the bar by the toilets.

“What?” Yelling now.

“I’d like to know how soon it will be here,” the newly-sticky snowbird said.

“What?” still yelling.

“The hurricane,” my unemployed-but-unaware-yet bartender said.

“Category Two,” said the snowbird’s husband/boyfriend/son/whatever. “Is that serious?”

“No,” from me.

“Yes,” from the bartender.

“Please turn it back on,” the lady said.

I turned it on, not wanting to be irrational. They had a right to know, but not from storm mania central. If it was headed our way, it would be on the local station. Henry, the weatherman and frequent patron, who is hopelessly obsessed with his scandalous co-anchor, stood in front of a map of the Gulf of Mexico pointing, with a smile, at the loathed red hurricane symbol twirling like a kid’s pinwheel back and forth on a muddy yellow dotted line meant to represent its projected path. Along this path lay the now too familiar outline of the oil slick, red for definite area of oil and impact, yellow for the possible.

The snowbirds began making plans to leave, wanted to know how soon they should get out.

The bartender said, “There’ll be a few more years of this kind of storm activity they say. They also said that no matter how quick this oil is cleaned up we’ll still be dealing with it for years. We’re screwed no matter what, dude.”

I let him finish pulling a couple beers and serving them up so I’d have enough time to really work myself into a righteous lather before launching into the argument I now wanted us to have.

“So how do they know what they say is true?” I asked my fired-as-soon-as-we-boarded-the-place-up bartender.

“Scientific studies. I saw this guy on TV, this researcher, who studies mud or something at the bottom of swamps and can read the hurricane history from it somehow. He said that these intense hurricanes are part of a naturally recurring cycle that’s happened many times in planetary history and will last about twenty years.”

I snorted. Snorting is always a good sign of derision. It’s as classic as the middle finger and as eloquent as any Shakespearean barb.

“Global warming,” was my verbal response.

The idiot bartender laughed.

None of us listened to what Henry the weatherman was saying about the storm. We just assumed, as most do now, that it would come for us and it would intensify, be maybe a Three by the time it got here in two days.

As I informed my bartender of the link between storm intensity and global warming, while denouncing his mud scientist as a swamp-brained distractionist, I worried about how full of shit I might actually be myself.

This storm damaging my bar too seriously was a long shot since its concrete slab foundation and block wall construction had weathered every hurricane thrown at it since it was built in the fifties. Unlike my former house, whose nineteen-eighties slab-and-stick frame, up to a then-inadequate building code, was non-existent after Ivan swept across the island last year.

I wanted to be brash, like a Two was no worries. “We’ve got the remainders of a wedding party coming in here soon. This hurricane crap won’t be on when they show up.”

My reliable cynicism, sharp tongue, and quick temper were wimping out on me. I couldn’t summon them. Even my normally impassioned “we’re heating up the planet with toxic crap and killing ourselves” global warming speech was lukewarm, rote speechifying at best. My much-wanted argument with my smug bartender offered me no relief because it hadn’t even been an argument. He didn’t jump in and I couldn’t summon up enough invective to goad him. I avoided the oil argument entirely. I hadn’t yet figured it out.

“You think they’re still coming?”

“Life doesn’t stop because there might be a hurricane on the way.”

“But we should be—”

“Get the champagne out of the cooler, get the glasses. Dammit, just get to work or I’m firing you now.”

“Instead of later?”

The lady snowbird at the bar said, “Oh, he’s been so pleasant to us. Don’t fire him. ”

I glared at her. I couldn’t really give her hell because, unlike so many other tourists who’d planned vacations to our beaches, she hadn’t cancelled her vacation because there might be some oil on the beach. She knew, I assumed, that there was more here than just a nice view.


Betty grew up on the island, and even though she couldn’t bring herself to live on it anymore, she was drawn back to it frequently.

I didn’t feel festive, no reason to. But Betty is Mr. Scott’s daughter and he was my friend and neighbor before the storm, and the crabs, got him. If he was still around, I’d be at the wedding having a good time. I’d just have to do some pretending for his daughter.

It doesn’t help, though, when you have to be polite to acquaintances that you aren’t particularly interested in seeing or knowing anymore. Meeting acquaintances you didn’t care to see in a small bathroom where the close quarters make polite chatter a necessity multiplies the unpleasantness. Especially when you are made to feel uncomfortable in your own territory.

She smiled as she dried her hands and said, “Hello.”

Abby Sanford has a habit of looking at you head to toe when she greets you. It’s like she’s reading a sentence, taking in the meaning of your appearance. Subject and verb. Hair too slick, clothes a bit too big. The meaning of your sentence only diagrammable by Abby.

She was out the door before I even got out my reluctant, “Hello.” There is the possibility that my sentence wasn’t hard for her to read: “This is a secondhand outfit I’m uncomfortable in, but I need to keep up appearances after my arrest.”

Abby Sanford lost nothing of any significance in the storm—a couple of trees, some shingles, her mailbox. You bet she collected though, got a new roof for those few shingles.

I, however, lost my home, my best friend, and, after sneaking onto the island and getting arrested, my job teaching American Lit at the community college in town.

I would like to have asked Abby if she was a friend of Betty’s or Marvin’s. I couldn’t picture her being friendly or even acquainted with either one of them. They are outdoors, outgoing, friendly. Abby is at best unremarkable, dull most often. She’s one of those people that’s just there, whose life outside the context in which you know them is hard to imagine. They leave work or school or the bar or wherever and then they cease to exist until they come back. They go gray.

I thought it would be entertaining to observe how she functions in a festive atmosphere. I’d lay down a hefty bet that she dances by the book.

Her husband would read what he wanted into the book and, therefore, be a sloppy dancer convinced he’s Fred Astaire. When Abby’s husband, Oliver, ordered a mojito, he mocked my bartender for not knowing how to make it and not knowing that it was the favorite drink of Ernest Hemingway.

It’s a shitty drink, and Hemingway never touched one.

I made it. Oliver, what a dumbshit name, thanked me and asked me if I knew much about Hemingway.

I said yes.

“Just read a good one myself,” he said. “Hemingway’s Hurricane. It’s been out for awhile, but I just got around to reading it.”

I nodded, watched him sip at his mojito like a woman. Men like Oliver don’t want to be surprised into making an unflattering face if they gulp a drink that is too sour or too strong. He finished half of his mojito in the next swallow, leading me to believe that he found its potential to make him look less than manly non-existent. It was a safe drink. It didn’t mess up his manicured-to-look-weathered style.

“Hemingway didn’t drink mojitos,” I told him.

He laughed. “He made them popular.” He raised his glass as he said this like we were toasting the old man.

“No,” I insisted, “he did not drink them. It’s a marketing myth swallowed wholesale by men hoping to project a larger than life, grab-life-by-the-balls machismo that they can’t possibly possess unless they consume the affectations of the lives of their heroes.”

This was intended to shut him up. Unfortunately, my bullshit doesn’t fly with people equally as full of it.

“What the hell do you know about me or Papa?”

“Papa,” I said, “Like you know the man.”

“I do know the man. I’ve read his books.”

“Oh, well then you know him well,” I raised my glass. “Cheers.”

“Well enough to know what he’d say to you.”

“Which is?” He didn’t expect this I’m sure. His line was meant to shut me up, but I don’t shut up easily. So he said what he was thinking, and, unfortunately, most likely what the old man would have said himself.


I laughed. “It’s my new profession,” I told him. “What’s yours?”


Impossibly, I didn’t have a line for this. I kept my mouth shut. Surely this jackass wasn’t forced into his retirement though. No one told him he was too stressed, stretched thin, storm-worn to continue. He didn’t need a break, some time to rest, to straighten out the debris of his life.

Hemingway’s Hurricane,” I said, “was not written by Ernest Hemingway, so it is not a Hemingway book.”

He lifted his glass to the bartender and pointed at it, thinking he’s smooth because he can do this and talk to me without looking at me all at once. “He’s all over the story though, so he may as well have written it.”

“I don’t like jackasses like you in my bar,” I told him, like he gave a shit, but I was mad and had to keep my mouth running.

“Jackasses like me don’t willingly go to bars owned by bitches like you.”

Abby crept up at this point in our conversation, so I lashed out at her. “So you have to be forced by nosy, gossipy bitches like her?”

Astonishment from Abby. Indignation from the jackass.

There was yelling, bad words I won’t share because you surely know them. Name calling, threats to punch me. My requests to see if he had a lot of hair on his chest.

They left. Abby red-faced. My name to be smeared all over the community college English department on Monday.

I apologized silently to Mr. Scott via the large photo mounted on an easel behind the cake.

That damn photo made me uneasy. I could see it from every position behind the bar. Betty’s uncle, on her mother’s side, put a barstool with Mr. Scott’s favorite drink, Jack Daniels over ice, in front of it.

A bar full of jackasses. But I smiled and laughed at the sentiment, somehow, for Mr. Scott via Betty, I guess. Mr. Scott, like Hemingway, would agree that “an intelligent man is sometimes forced to be drunk to spend time with his fools.”

Fortunately, the cake was cut, the bride and groom pummeled out of the bar and into their taxi by birdseed-wielding friends, before I was no longer able to smile.

The leftovers, those people who just won’t leave once the party is over, hovered around the pool tables, drinking, talking, rolling the balls around the tables, but not playing.

The TVs were back on, some snowbirds drifted in from the overcrowded restaurant next door. They ordered the inevitable fruity drinks.

My bartender put the hurricane’s-gonna-drown-us-in-oil news back on.

“So how much longer do we have before we should get out of town?” one of the snowbirds asked my no-longer-fired-because-I’d-lost-the-mood bartender.

“You should’ve left already if you’re gonna leave,” he said. “I had a friend last year, got stuck on the interstate trying to get out of town too late. Traffic even now is going to suck.”

“We should stay,” his companion said. “When it passes we might be able to help out with the oil and things, you know.”

These guys were young, college kids maybe. Well-intentioned, I guess. I really shouldn’t have thrown them out when they started seriously making plans to stay and help clean up the oil that the hurricane was going to toss all over the beaches and homes and animals. They meant well. They tried to tell me so. They suggested that they could try to make my bar some sort of home base for the friends they planned to call in with clean water, since surely all of our available water resources would be contaminated by flying oil.

My bartender tried to restrain me. I punched him. He told me he was going to quit.


Gina Sakalarios-Rogers lives in Pensacola, Florida where she is an instructor of composition and creative writing at the University of West Florida. She received her M.A. at UWF and her Ph.D. from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. She has published fiction in Toasted Cheese, The Bare Root Review, and Flash Fiction Online. She was nominated for a 2006 Pushcart Prize and was voted a notable story of 2006 by StorySouth Million Writers Award. Email: rsakalariosrogers[at]

Mobile on the 214

Tony Press

W151 ULR at Liverpool Street station
Photo Credit: Matt Davis

“Brilliant! When? Did they induce?”

Stephen Keefe folds the Guardian he has already read, has only picked up because it was on his seat as he scrambled out of the sudden summer rain onto the 214 toward Parliament Hill. He sets it down to better concentrate on the monolog in front of him though such discourses ordinarily annoy him. At least twice each week on this very bus he imagines a swift tai chi movement, though he knows nothing of tai chi, in which he seizes and hurls a mobile out an open window. The clatter as it strikes concrete and skitters off poles, now that is a sound he could embrace. But not today. This time he warms to the words tumbling toward him (were his mother alive, she’d brand him a curtain-twitcher, but technology had changed the rules since her time). He’d picked up something from the thirtyish pink-haired girl jabbering in front of him. What had she said? Fortunately, she repeats word for word, as far as he can tell, either for emphasis or from excitement, all that she had already said.

“Just like that? At noon? It came on its own, after all? Bloody hell! After all that worrying, all those scare stories everyone told you, natural as could be!”

Natural isn’t all it is cracked up to be. If Stephen knows anything, and sometimes he wonders, he knows that. He glances at the heel of his right hand, seeking the long-faded tooth marks where his wife had drawn blood, biting him so deeply as to require stitches, during “natural” childbirth. And how relieved he had been to suffer that pain, to transport him from the hollowness of standing like a scarecrow as she writhed and sweated and cried and cursed, standing with nothing to offer. Wretched with responsibility and impotency, he clutched her hand, whispered, encouraged, lied. When he winced from the atavistic cut of her teeth, he rejoiced.

“I love it. ‘Henry.’ That just sounds so right! You’re proper parents, and I’m an auntie.”

A boy. An afternoon boy, like his own son. Early on in the dank delivery room he had commented, deadpan, that he hoped “it would be over soon, because West Ham and Chelsea would be on, and it looked to be a good match.” His wife knew he was joking (it had actually been her joke, originally, spoken at home before coming in to hospital), but he sensed disapproval from the attending nurse. No, “sensed” was inaccurate, too mild. The nurse fired high-caliber daggers, mixing her metaphoric weapons, but striking effectively despite her unjust verdict. Doubtless the bloody hand he received was, to the nurse, appropriate karma. Such a curious calling, a delivery room nurse. You might as well be in a bedroom while two people were having at it, such intimacies and fears and lies you heard. He wonders now how much they actually took in, got right or wrong, and recalled and repeated later, over tea, or in pubs, or in their own beds.

His son arrived at 1:22. Damn. It was either 1:22 or 2:21. He, so good with dates and numbers, yet endlessly caught between the two options, each, on its own, sounding perfectly correct, until he re-considered, as he always did, and tested the other in his mind. 1:22. Yes, it was 1:22.

“Yeah, yeah, can’t wait to see him. And see you guys, too. You both must be exhausted.”

Stephen and his wife were dead tired for a full year. Months and months, night after night, of “sleep” that was too-little and too-lousy. Nothing was wrong, doctors and friends parroted, but no one should ever live that way. He thought of his parents, the little they had told him, and more from the stories he had read and movies he’d seen, of people going about their business during the bombing raids of their war. An entire city sleepless. How did it function? Mustn’t there have been terrible decisions made, in families, in shops, in offices, in spaces packed with short-tempered, over-stressed people? He remembers the first time he had ever stayed up all night. It had been a “sleep-over” at a cousin’s house when they were about ten. When they finally fell asleep at five o’clock the next afternoon, he swore he never wanted that fatigue again. Ten years after, add to that the emotions and worries of an adult. Two nominal adults, that is, with an infant that neither had any idea what to do with. Two adults with increasingly little idea what to do about each other.

Serenity of a sort arrived the second year, and as the boy was approaching three, but what never returned was the zest of the pursuit, or even the passions that carried into the half year of marriage before the birth. There was no fighting. They were numb, disinterested in the other’s touch, even in the other’s eyes. It had no definition but it was inescapable. Inescapable until Stephen forged a route. Her name was Liz, and she was, until that time, equally close to both of them. On a weekend when his wife was away, he told Liz he was attracted to her. Years later, he realizes how foolish that statement had been, almost worse, really, than the subsequent coupling itself, which repeated itself only as required to explode his marriage. If you tell a woman, one who is already a friend, that you hold thoughts about her in that way, either action, or damage, or both, must follow. It is the kind of thing you shouldn’t say unless you really know what you wanted. He believes it a universal lesson. But the action served him, for it hastened the inevitable conclusion.

His first departure, they agreed, was “temporary,” to give them a chance to think. He was gone four weeks, finances fortunately not a problem for them in that time, thanks to her generous and non-judging parents, living an ocean away. He took a small room on the coast, walking, reading, going alone to a cinema each Friday night no matter what the title. He returned, not sure why, to a week of false starts, strained silences, and fumbling lovemaking, then abruptly left again, a rail pass in his pocket. He would need to resume his own academic career soon, somewhere; on the trains he saw things he long ago should have seen. In one smoky carriage after another he realized he had made a series of bad decisions, beginning with taking on the role of “husband” when he barely felt himself a man. Perhaps some men his age could do it. He could not. Rejoining his wife would be one more such decision, and he was not going to do it.

In Norwich, on the walls of the old castle, he discovered and copied Masefield’s words onto the cover of his notebook:

My road calls me, lures me

West, East, South, North,

Most roads lead men homewards,

My road leads me forth.

He rang home that night. In a long, easier-than-he-had-expected conversation, they reached an accord. When he returned to gather his belongings and resolve the minutiae, he found her more comfortable than she’d ever been in the time he’d known her. A peace was in her face, and her dealings with the boy were effortless (he knew they weren’t, but compared to earlier times, so they appeared).

Their son lost the most, but waiting fifteen years would have been insane for both of them, for all three. Stephen missed the largest part of his son’s boyhood and teenage years, the mother and child returning to the States, to her native Nebraska. With the boy now a man and to Stephen’s good fortune working in East London, they have developed a comfortable footing. It isn’t the relationship it could have been; more importantly, though, it isn’t the relationship it would have been. His wife had re-married, not right away, but successfully, and with the good services of distance and time, she and Stephen had created a state of fond friendship. Stephen failed again at a marriage, having learned too little too soon, but now, finally, he could claim to be in a long-standing mature (he dared use that term) relationship. Each keeps a flat on opposite sides of the Heath, she near Queens Park, he, on Swains Lane, and each intends to maintain the refuge, but they thoroughly delight in and appreciate what they have, and reasonably believe they will enjoy each other for the rest of their years.

The 214 halts suddenly, at his stop, his body recognizing it prior to his consciousness, the mobile and its owner long silent, long departed. He nods to the driver and steps down, and as he does so he smiles at the familiar courtship sounds from the teenagers in the park shadows. He quickly crosses Highgate and strides the short distance to his door, keys jangling and telephone numbers rattling in his head, the August evening skies clear again. The clock in his favor, he will ring his son’s mother in Omaha to thank her one more time. He will see Josh next week, their regular second Tuesday of the month, so he doesn’t really need to push his number, but he will anyway. Then he will ring Anne. Just to talk, their words arcing across the heath, lips to ear and back again, keeping the lines open.


Tony Press lives near the Pacific. His fiction appears (or will soon) in Rio Grande Review; SFWP Journal; 5×5; The Linnet’s Wings; Boston Literary Magazine; Qarrtsiluni; Menda City Review; Foundling Review; Temenos; Thema; MacGuffin; Shine Journal; Lichen; and two anthologies: Crab Lines Off The Pier, and Workers Write: Tales from the Courtroom. Email: tonypress[at]