Like Alice

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

Photo Credit: alex:

You’re probably familiar with the sentiment that on one’s deathbed, no one ever wishes they had worked more.

I don’t believe it. I mean, I’m sure there are people who wish they had worked less. But I’m equally sure that there are some who wish they worked more.

“No one ever wishes they worked more” is a myth arising from the cultural framing of work as a necessary evil, drudgery to be endured until rescue by retirement, lottery or—these days—building an app that Facebook buys out for $1 billion. But whether you think you worked too much or too little depends on how you view your work. On what you view as work.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman once explained that she was inspired to write “The Yellow Wallpaper” after a doctor’s advice to never write again nearly drove her insane: “I cast the noted specialist’s advice to the winds and went to work again—work, the normal life of every human being; work, in which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite—ultimately recovering some measure of power.”

Who’s ever heard of a writer who wanted to write less?

As a young mother, Alice Munro was always conflicted about spending time writing. She wrote anyway, because writing was what was most important to her. You might think, well that’s fine for her, she’s Alice Munro. But she wasn’t the writer Alice Munro back then. She was Alice “housewife finds time to write short stories” Munro. And you can be sure Jane “doesn’t find time to write short stories” Jones from next door was giving her the side-eye. Think about our collective loss if she had decided that Jane’s opinion of the state of her living room carpet had mattered more than getting an hour of writing in.

You’re probably not spending what could be your writing time trying to perfect your impression of June Cleaver. But most of us do spend too much time worrying about what other people think.

Most writers aren’t lacking in empathy. Most of us want to be liked. We feel guilty putting our work ahead of the people in our lives, so we tell ourselves that our work isn’t important. That when we look back on our lives we won’t care about the incomplete projects, the things we planned to write but never got around to. We lie.

If you put it on your wish list, would your family or friends give you the gift of writing time? If not, why not? If they ignore, devalue or belittle your writing, is it because their love is conditional on you behaving in a way that pleases them? Or is it because you’ve framed what’s most important to you as unimportant?

I’ve read a lot of author acknowledgments this fall, and one thing I’ve noticed is successful writers typically have other writers in their lives. People who not only support them, but understand them. It’s stating the obvious, but I’m going to say it anyway: if you’re the only writer in your family, if none of your friends are writers, if everyone around you thinks writing is a big waste of time, you’re going to have a harder go of it than if your spouse or sibling or parent is also a writer, if you’re surrounded by creative friends, if everyone around you wants to be the first to read the next thing you write. That’s not to say you can’t make it without support and understanding. Of course you can. It’s just harder. So give yourself a break. Stop treating it as if it doesn’t matter.

It’s time to reframe.

If you haven’t expressed to the people who are important to you how important your writing is, do it now. If you have done so and still no one cares, you’ll need to develop a thicker skin, learn to ignore their negativity, and be firm about your writing needs (“Enjoy the movie. I’m going to write.”).

Go ahead, feel guilty. But be like Alice: write anyway.

Maybe one day you could be a writer of Munro’s caliber. You’ll never know unless you actually sit down and write—regardless of what the people around you think. As Marge Piercy once wrote:

Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.


Email: beaver[at]

Evidence of Murder by Lisa Black

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Theryn Fleming

While most of my co-editors are into science fiction and fantasy, my favorite types of genre fiction are mysteries and thrillers. That’s why I was excited to learn that one of Toasted Cheese‘s first contest winners has become a bona fide mystery writer.

Lisa Black has published four novels about forensic scientist Theresa “Tess” MacLean: Takeover (2008), Evidence of Murder (2009), Trail of Blood (2010), and Defensive Wounds (2011). The fifth, Blunt Impact, is forthcoming in 2013.

Evidence of Murder is the second in the series but, like most mystery series, enough background information is sprinkled throughout the book that not having read the first doesn’t detract from this story. Some of that background might, however, be considered a spoiler to Takeover, so if you’re a fanatic about that sort of thing, you’ll probably want to read the books in order.

Jillian Perry is found frozen in the woods, seated next to a tree. The cause of death is not apparent. Did she freeze to death? Was it an accident? Suicide? Murder? She has a new baby, an even newer husband, and until recently worked as an escort for a sketchy character with a criminal past. She’s estranged from her parents—and, oh yeah, she has a stalker. His name is Drew Fleming. I have to admit Black won me over with this detail. (Your mileage may vary.) I love it when my namesakes are persons of interest. Just ask Baker.

The twist of Theresa being a forensic scientist, rather than a detective, police officer or lawyer, isn’t unfamiliar, with the many crime scene procedurals on television, but here the premise felt fresh, perhaps because Black’s real-life background as a latent fingerprint examiner and crime scene investigator lends authenticity to the scientific details. She’s obviously familiar with her setting, Cleveland, as well.

Supporting characters include the requisite cast of quirky lab mates, a gaggle of Theresa’s relatives—the most of important of these being her police detective cousin and her teenage daughter, and a hostage negotiator who doubles as a potential love-interest. Most of these characters only played a small role in this book, but Black has established a good base to build on as the series progresses.

There are numerous suspects and red herrings but, as the title suggests, ultimately, the real mystery isn’t so much the identity of the murderer, but the method. This makes sense, given Theresa’s profession, but I think it makes it more difficult to write a satisfying ending. Part of the fun of reading a mystery is attempting to arrive at the solution on your own—and I don’t think that was possible here. That said, Black’s writing style is very readable and Evidence of Murder is a quick and entertaining read that convinced me the rest of the series is worth checking out.


Evidence of Murder made The New York Times mass-market fiction best seller list in October 2010. Lisa Black’s story “In the Bleak December” placed second in the first annual Dead of Winter Writing Contest. She has also published two novels as Elizabeth Becka, Trace Evidence (2005) and Unknown Means (2008). Her website is


Email: beaver[at]

Maybe Among the Better of Many Possible Worlds

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Mark Neyrinck

Slot machines inside New York New York hotel
Photo Credit: Ian Lloyd

Zip! The lights and sounds wobble and flicker, the heavenly casino hum going discordant for a moment. Blurry olive fireworks appear, and I smell vinegar. It makes me a little sick, which is good, because otherwise I’d do it even more often. The casino would get nervous about me, and I’d get kicked out.

As desired, the ace of spades is in my hand now. I guess it was from a parallel universe or something. I don’t really understand how this works. This is what happens when I take acid: I see other worlds, and move into one if it seems better.

After, like, a half an hour the dizziness wears off, but my world-grabbing ability hasn’t; I retain it for about a day after taking the LSD. Possibilities start creeping into my peripheral vision, and I get the urge to cheat again. I’m well ahead for the night, so instead I get up and stroll into the Las Vegas night.

As always, the strip is full of people. I’ve now spent years here, and I recognize people all the time. I walk away from some chick I talked to once.

A car horn honks. It’s some bastard in a convertible running an orange light, honking at a pedestrian it looks like he’s trying to hit. His slick hair glistens with neon light. Then a Hummer barely brakes in time to avoid hitting him. I see a world where the crash did happen, so I grab it. El Smasho. A few of the immaculate hairs are now out of place. I suspect the convertible has lost its convertibility.

The crash distracts some people, but I move on down the strip. I feel really dizzy, since I had little chance to prepare for that jump. I barf onto some porn in the gutter.

I carry on, considering another casino visit, but then fatigue starts to smother me. Well, it is 3:30 a.m., so I dip into my apartment for a nap. I take some no-dream pills and hope for the best.

I dream anyway. I see some lady taking a morning walk in Europe or somewhere. A dog barks at her, so I fail to resist yanking into the world where the dog got into some bees that day, and is not so vocal now.

Upon waking, a hangover reminds me that last night I grabbed the world with the excessively curious-about-beehives dog. I panic, looking for changes in my bedroom once I realize this. I don’t see anything, and am relieved. I think one time I woke up in a harem in Qatar with a killer hangover. But maybe that was a dream.

Yeah, I’m not totally sure I wasn’t personally affected by that dog’s stupid beehive curiosity. That’s the trippiest thing. My brain gets used to an alternative world after a few minutes and I forget the original one. I can’t even use Polaroids and tattoos to remind myself of worlds I’ve left, like that guy in Memento did. I’ve actually tried that, but the tattoos didn’t come with me. I’m lucky that a few of these memories have stuck in my brain.

Dawn is breaking outside. I turn on the TV. It’s live news, even though I’ve tried to disable news channels. (Live TV tempts me to wreak havoc on the set.) Of course the anchorman is a super-douche. I saw him sexually harassing a blackjack dealer a few months ago. So that’s my excuse today to take some acid. After a couple minutes I start to see a fairly nearby peripheral world where he cut his chin shaving this morning, and grab it.

I see a blob of makeup appear on his chin where he cut himself and then I gradually forget that I produced it. Forgetting is troublesome but calming. I find myself actually listening to the TV. The douche is talking about an asteroid that’s coming toward the earth. A big asteroid.

Yeah, this crazy asteroid will be here in a few months. They’re talking about the options for destroying or deflecting it, and it looks bad. By instinct, my hyperactive brain starts searching for alternative worlds where it looks better, and I see nothing. I start to get a headache, and turn off the TV.

I turn on my phone. There’s a voicemail from my parents, and Sally sent me a text: “did you hear about the asteroid? crazy what are you doing today?” Apocalyptic romance syndrome, perhaps. I text my parents that I’ll call them later, even though I’m not sure they know how to accept texts.

Things went pretty well with Sally at first, a couple years ago. Almost immediately, before I even did any world-grabbing, she called me “Lucky,” which I took to be a sign from heaven. I had fantasies that she supernaturally understood me. Then I gave her a $100,000-winning lottery ticket, and soon she was satisfied with her own luck; she lost interest in me. I’ve seen her around town a couple of times, though, and she seemed cautiously happy to see me.

I text her: “trying not to watch TV” and turn off the phone. I’m not in the mood for a text conversation.

I shower and eat something, then go out the door for some gambling.

The daylight hits me hard as usual, even through my thick sunglasses. At least it tends to crowd out alternative worlds.

I reach the strip, and immediately notice how few people there are, fewer people than four a.m. Christmas morning. A bug-eyed dude almost runs into me. Most people are walking fast, on a mission. Maybe they’re all astronauts going to the asteroid with Bruce Willis. There are also some dudes like me, taking a lazy, apathetic stroll.

I enter a casino. The slot machines’ hum calms me, but that wears off. Inside, just like outside, there are only a few bastards like me.

“Hey bro, hear about the asteroid?” a middle-aged male slot-machiner, even more disheveled than me, asks.

I ignore him, and head to the only poker table already with gamblers. There’s a good-looking dealer there, too.

“Mornin’,” a fellow poker-player says, an old lady. Her mouth makes what might be a smile. There’s a little small talk, but nothing about the asteroid. I win her a few hands. I’m in a generous mood, with all this gloom and doom around.

After an hour or three the asteroid-apathy starts to get on my nerves. I check out, losing only a couple hundred dollars.

I decide that watching the Bellagio fountain might cool my nerves. On my way out there, unbidden, my thumb turns on my phone; yep, a couple more texts from Sally. She’s in town and wants to meet up. This makes my unsettled feeling boil over, but I text back: “Wanna meet at the fountain?” She says she’ll be on her way over.

The water streams do their wasteful but tasteful, hypnotizing dance. My mind wanders, and again seeks out peripheral worlds without the asteroid. This often works best when I’m not concentrating on it, but even now, I see nothing.

I can see alternative presents, but not futures. So I can’t for example tell you whether the asteroid is really going to hit, if it’s a hoax, etc. I get another text from Sally, apologizing for still being on her way.

I consider taking some more LSD. Sometimes that seems to broaden the range of worlds I can find. But it’s at home; I almost never take more than one dose a day. I see a sparrow smack into the side of the Bellagio, feel crappy about it, and grab the world where it didn’t happen. A couple seconds later I look down at the phone and notice that Sally didn’t text me today in this world. But I forget about that soon enough and make my way home for some more LSD.

As usual I’m briefly appalled at the mess in my apartment, but then I grow accustomed; it becomes just another unpleasant buzz in my unconscious. I turn on the TV, finding myself actually starting to care about the damned asteroid, and prepare another dose of LSD. I look at my watch; four hours since the last dose. Shouldn’t be fatal, at least.

On the TV, they’re discussing asteroid-avoidance options. Apparently nuking the mofo in space won’t work; it’s too big, and the pieces, now radioactive, would still fall to earth, possibly wreaking even more havoc. There’s a plan on the books to gravitationally tow it away, that in principle might work given another two to three years of intense development, but we don’t have that kind of time.

A text from Sally appears: “did you hear about the asteroid? crazy what’s up?” I get a hint of déjà vu, but needless to say my sense of déjà vu is almost perpetual.

Things went pretty well with Sally at first, a couple years ago. Almost immediately, before I even did any world-grabbing, she called me “Lucky,” which I took to be a sign from heaven. I had fantasies that she supernaturally understood me. Then I gave her a $100,000-winning lottery ticket, and soon she was satisfied with her own luck; she lost interest in me. She’s left town.

I administer the acid. The last time I took two doses in one day was when I was trying to invade a world where Sally didn’t decide to leave town. What I jumped into was way too far away (maybe there was a zebra involved?); I had to quickly jump back to something roughly resembling the original world to even know Sally at all. Even then it wasn’t quite the original world, for one reason because my memory of it was already starting to disappear.

With the added dose, peripheral worlds spring up all around. One is cherry-flavored, under my shirt on the table. I get the sense that I don’t exist at all in that one; in fact, I’m not even sure humans ever came to be. There’s also one on the sofa that reminds me of chimichangas, and another inhabiting the ugly plaid jacket on the coatrack. This is the kind of nonsense that comes with a double dose. They get more wildly different than the “real” world, but it gets harder to tell what’s in them. It’s almost hilarious, but at the same time olive-colored, musty, and profoundly not, I assure you. Don’t get any ideas that this crap might be pleasant.

All at once, I see a tendril of icy, glistening cinnamon waving like a flag. I feel like I’m in a kid’s sugary-cereal commercial, and my nose reels it in, leading me into the kitchen.

The cinnamon tendril-flag is coming from a family-sized box of MarsMallows, a sickly-sweet cinnamon cereal that recently emerged with the announcement of a supposedly-actual manned Mars mission, to happen in ten years. I didn’t remember buying MarsMallows, but then I don’t remember a lot of things.

The box is bitter cold. And yet I have the distinct impression that there’s no annihilating asteroid in the world it contains. I also get the sense that I exist there, but there’s something deeply weird about me. I grab the box anyway.


Now I’m driving a minivan on a snowy street in suburban Kansas City. I think this is strange; I thought it was summer. I look up at the sun and it looks strangely small. The kids are in the back seat. The news on the radio is telling me that an asteroid was discovered that might hit the earth, but will more likely graze the atmosphere in a few months. This gives me some déjà vu, then some meta-déjà vu because I think I should get déjà vu more often, or maybe vice-versa. It all makes me dizzy. I look strangely at the losing lottery ticket on the dashboard. The stop light turns green, and I shake my head, and drive on.


Mark Neyrinck does cosmology research in Baltimore. He writes creatively as much as he can, to combat the dulling effect that scientific writing has on his style. Email: mark.neyrinck[at]

Mind Over Matter

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Eleanor Ingbretson

the vacancy project.
Photo Credit: Jason Saul

Calm yourself, Juno, I told myself as the option to panic here and now entered my thoughts. This steel is your friend and is now part of you. I slowly began again to move through the metal’s molecules. You are the master of your mind, Juno, and of all the inanimate atoms around you. More relaxed, I remembered what Oscar would say as he lectured the class on matter and its properties: mass, weight, volume and density. Of the molecules, atoms and the more elementary particles, from which everything on this earth, and for that matter, ha ha, everything in the universe is formed. In this class, he said, we will learn that we can and will blend with any matter: animal, vegetable or mineral. Our minds are the blenders. Oscar. I felt myself smile and shifted the molecules of skin, bone, muscle, and blood, of the steel and, what’s this, a flaw in the construction? Shoddy materials? Rust?

Oscar says to keep a good attitude and working relationship with whatever you are moving through. So, while I moved cheerfully through the rust as well as the high-grade steel of the bank vault, the force of my will kept my particles from bonding with the ambient matter of this potential prison. I had become dangerously close to becoming another flaw.

I extricated myself from the steel of the vault, turned and ran my hand over the wall. Almost completely smooth, hardly a particle out of place in the wake of my emergence. Oscar would have chided me for the infinitesimal roughness of the surface, but hey, really, who cares.

In Oscar’s lab classes we had learned to walk through water vapor first, blending our molecules with the vapor, as I did just now with the steel molecules of this vault.

After vapor came water. That was more difficult as the molecules in liquids are more tightly bonded than in vapors. And after water came you know what. Same atoms, different form. Ice.

That was my first experience mingling with a solid and, successful, I became overconfident. I lingered too long and froze in panic. Oscar came down through the ice to get me, and he doesn’t like to go through ice any more; it hurts his bones, he says. The tips of my two pinkies had to be amputated, but I didn’t give up. And Oscar didn’t give up on me. I had potential, he said. But, as he had pointed out before, transit should be as rapid as possible through the more inhospitable environments.

In the dark I located the wheels and gears on the inside of the vault door and searched with my hands until I found the light and ventilation switches nearby. Then I found my stepmother’s safe deposit box. I’d once had the key to her box in my hand but when I heard her sneaking up on me, I quickly tossed the key back into the drawer and shut it. I told her I was looking for what? Gum, I think I said. The key wasn’t there next time I’d looked.

So, I enrolled in Oscar’s class. There seemed to be no other way to retrieve my mother’s jewelry. The jewelry my mother said would be mine one day. The same jewels my besotted father handed to his second wife. This is your new mother, darling, he’d said to me. Call me Mom, she gushed, and wasted no time locking up my jewelry.

Oscar ran only word-of-mouth classes as they were highly illegal, and everyone was sworn to secrecy. He charged an awful lot, but he was so sure I’d successfully perform a very lucrative withdrawal that he permitted me to give him an I.O.U. He knew I’d be able to do it. He believed in me. He also knew where to find me or anyone who would dare stiff him. He could turn up anywhere, anytime, he said, to get what was owed him. But he also inspired us, urged us on, laughed at us, and made us laugh at ourselves. And, if a class went awry, he took the injured to his doctor.

I plunged one hand into the safe deposit box, assimilated the matter at hand into my own, and then drew it all through the locked door. Man, was I good.

Never get cocky, Oscar told us over and over. Look at me, do I look cocky to you? I’m never cocky, he said, though I certainly have reason to be. I’ve never lost a student, and none of you want be my first. So don’t get cocky. You’ll end up stuck forever in some dead-end position. And he’d laugh while we sweated at the thought. We’d hear Oscar repeating that, and his other maxims, while we assembled and disassembled our molecules in class and on field trips. If we ever got stuck he always came back for us. I was not as good as Oscar, but I was best in the class.

I gazed at my mother’s necklaces, her bracelets, and her rings. The beautiful pieces with which we would play dress up when I was a child. I wondered if she would be proud of me for doing this. If I were to be arrested I’d be able to walk out of any jail. Oscar can, and has, all over the world, before he retired to teach.

A slight whirring came from the wheels and gears of the vault door as they slowly turned. I could hear muted voices coming from the other side.

“Harry, come into the vault with me, would you? I get the creeps every time I go in there by myself.”


The thick, heavy door swung out on silent, overgrown hinges. Two employees came in, pulled the door closed, and locked it behind them. One I assumed was Harry, the other was a young woman about his age.

From my hiding spot behind the doors of the safe deposit boxes, I watched them. I kept moving so as not to bond with the metal.

“Some one left the lights and ventilation on,” said the young woman.

“Well, I can fix that,” said Harry.

“Not yet, I have to bring Old Lady Washburn’s box out to her.”

“She can wait. It’s been days since we had vault time.”

The young woman smiled and laid Mrs. Washburn’s key on the table.

Great, they’re going to have some quality trysting time while I’m working. I rolled my eyes. One I left partially exposed on a door, to keep watch. I began to get uncomfortable, my molecules bisected here and there by the vertical and horizontal dividers of the boxes. My attitude was not good. Particles in air, in metal, in water, and in wood, hay or stubble, all work the same way. It’s a matter of mind over matter, Oscar said, to be able to meld and mingle with anything you choose. Just make sure you’re choosing to mingle with whatever matter you’re in at the moment. Love the one you’re with. Keep your mind in control and keep control of your mind.

I readjusted myself, altering my position, and attitude, behind the doors of the boxes. I had almost begun taking out my annoyance with these two on my host molecules. I changed to sublime acceptance of steel and inch-thick safety glass, embracing those atoms as my own, just as the happy couple in the opposite corner embraced each other.

“G—L—O,” Harry began singing between osculations.

Gah! I tried to keep my atoms fluid and, at the same time, keep a pleasant working relationship with the ambient atoms and particles.

“R,” Harry breathed sing-song into Gloria’s ear.

Make a fast transit, I thought. Now. My concentration was becoming compromised. The jewels in my hand threatened to bond permanently, displacing some of my molecules into the steel.

Nature abhors a vacuum, Oscar said. When your molecules move between those of more tightly molecularly bonded areas, the foreign atoms will insinuate themselves into the interstices that are left behind. Never forget how it works, class. And keep moving. Keep those atoms rolling.

He said that while homogenized in the whiteboard, his hands making an appearance now and then as he waved them for emphasis.

“I,” whispered Harry.

Guys, please, Mrs Washburn is waiting, and I haven’t finished in here. I had only gotten half of my jewelry, and still needed to find something with which to pay Oscar. I shifted and shrugged, I stretched out my arms to keep the atoms circulating. I hit air. Then the molecules of jewels embedded in my hand separated from mine and clunked against the wall of boxes as I tried to draw my hand back.

“A,” Harry finished, breathlessly and off-key.

“Harry, did you hear that noise?”



My jewel-embedded hand extended from the wall like a stuffed specimen. I kept perfectly still.

“Harry! What’s that thing?”

“What thing?”

“That, sticking out of 1312.”

I tried again to pull my hand back but couldn’t. I had lost control. The shelving of the boxes began to bi-, tri- and quadrisect me as they also began to bond and solidify.

Harry and Gloria screamed at the moving, waving, disembodied hand and without feeling the need to adjust their untidy selves, they pushed against the door, remembered to unlock it, and fled screaming into the bank.

Mrs. Washburn asked for her box as she waited at the door.

A familiar voice spoke in my ear. A calm and assuring voice. “What exactly do you think you’re doing, Juno?”

Oscar’s face had moved into my safe deposit box. His hand reached out and enveloped mine. The force of his mind commanded the melanged matter of my jeweled hand and it all slowly merged into his. He gently, slowly, pulled it all back behind the doors of the safe deposit boxes.

“Well?” he said, his eyes inches from mine, his breath on my lips in the box below.

“Oscar,” I said. My mouth moved to answer him. The familiar feeling of my atoms and the atoms of my environment moving together in harmony returned.

“I’m sorry. I got stuck.”

“You got cocky.”

I nodded. “And scared. I panicked.”

“Why didn’t you just get out? What have I always said in class, from day one?”

“Move quickly through inhospitable environments?”

“Are you asking me?”

“Move quickly through an inhospitable environment,” I said, with more conviction. “I wanted to get the rest of my mother’s things, Oscar. I was interrupted.”

“I noticed.” Oscar said.

His voice relaxed me, I was able to focus my mind on assimilating my molecules with the steel that had solidified throughout my body. I felt I could move through them again, that they were no more difficult to work with than water vapor, or air.

“I should just leave you here, but that would reflect badly on me,” he said. “Which box is your stepmother’s?”

I told him and, hidden from the eyes of bank guards and curious employees who thronged the vault, he emptied the box. When he returned it was to guide me out through steel, cement and bricks, trash and dumpster, to his limousine. We opened the doors and got in, waited and watched for a moment, behind tinted windows, while Gloria was loaded into an ambulance. “Chinese?” Oscar asked me, tapping the glass behind the driver. “Or Mexican?”

“Mexican,” I said, and watched as my jewelry disconnected from my molecules and dropped from my hands into my lap. The tiny gold ingot that I’d palmed on the way, I passed to Oscar.


Now retired, Eleanor has taken up traveling, Mah Jongg, cooking gluten-free, writing, and too many other things to list. For her, as with many writers, the hardest part of writing is to SIT DOWN AND WRITE! Once beginning a story however, things usually flow; sometimes like molasses in January, but sometimes like ice cream in July. The Toasted Cheese 48 hour contests give her the kick to get started, and finished. She lives in New Hampshire with one husband, two cats and three ducks. Email: s3misw33t[at]

In the Garden Where Monsters Grow

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Alison Reeger Cook

Naturally dyed eggs
Photo Credit: Tarehna Wicker

Cudwad cast his gaze back and forth among the various embryos that hung like morbid glass ornaments from the thorny vines. “Uh, which one am I looking for?” he called.

Gnawbone sighed irritably. “The salamander. The blue one with the bright red fringes.”

Cudwad finally found the one that he had been sent to harvest, a cobalt blue creature that looked more insect than amphibian, and with gentle, gloved hands, he plucked it free of the Mothervines. “Found it. What does this one do again?”

“Burns memories. Drowns lost children.” Gnawbone grinned slightly. “Bites idiots.”

Cudwad furrowed his brow, and looked down at the peacefully sleeping beast. “I still can’t get over how Lady Nightmare grows all these… things. I mean, she doesn’t seem very motherly or welcoming… but she ‘loves’ all these monsters.”

Gnawbone shrugged. “You’re trying to apply human tendencies to Lady Nightmare. Don’t worry, once the Taint absorbs into your blood a little while longer, it’ll make more sense to you.”

The young boy—although, not much longer would he be a human one—glanced at the veins showing through the skin of his arms. Already they were several shades greener than they had been the day before. He had also noticed that morning that his ears were a bit pointier at the tips, and his once-blue eyes were slowly shifting to a moon-silver. It was pretty cool.

It was also necessary.

Without the Taint, no normal being could be in the garden for long—not before the poisonous spores, or the mind-rot fumes, or the plentiful carnivorous insects that were drawn to untainted blood would do them in. The garden itself was an embodiment of Lady Nightmare’s soul, or lack thereof.

Cudwad cradled the salamander, biting his lip. “Do you think she’d let me keep one, sometime?”

“Keep… one of these? For what, a pet?” Gnawbone laughed. “Just do your job, Cud. No one bends the lady’s rules here.” He pulled back the shaggy white hair by his left temple, showing the deep scars there. “And this was from her being mildly irked, and not for anything I did.”

Cudwad gulped, but then spotted something at Gnawbone’s feet. “Careful, there’s a tiny one right there.”

“Where?” Gnawbone looked down at the spot Cudwad pointed to, and then he bent down and picked up a dull, yellowish egg that fit comfortably in his palm. “Odd, this wasn’t here this morning. And there haven’t been any other layings today.”

“Ooooh, do you think something else laid it here?” Cudwad, still cradling the salamander in one arm, reached out for the yellow egg with his free hand. “If it’s not Lady Nightmare’s, then I can have it! Please, don’t tell her it’s here. I’ll take good care of it. It’s probably just a regular old bird. She’ll just feed it to the monsters if she finds it. Please please please, let me have it.”

Gnawbone scratched his chin, looking the egg over. “Hmm, you know, I bet I could pawn this off as a phoenix egg… I could get some good money for this at the Charmers’ Market.”

“No, don’t sell it! Give it to me!”

“I’m older than you, so I get first pick of—”

The arguing, of course, woke up the salamander in Cudwad’s arm. Waking a fire salamander should be a slow, careful process, lest you anger the poor thing. Being jostled about in Cudwad’s arm with all that yelling going on was not a good way to awaken a salamander for the first time, proven by the fact that he coughed up a ball of acid before he squirmed out of Cud’s grasp and slithered away among the tangled Mothervines.

The sudden attack by the salamander caused Gnawbone to drop the yellow egg in surprise… right into the pool of acid that the salamander had belched up on the ground.

The two caretakers watched, petrified, as the shell of the egg began to melt in the acid, and it peeled back to reveal something unlike anything they could have ever expected to come from such a tiny, unassuming egg. In other words, it was definitely not a bird… not a reptile or amphibian… not even a monster, which would have been a more pleasant alternative.

“Cud…” For the first time that Cudwad had ever seen, Gnawbone blanched as pale as Death’s horse. “Cud, run…”


“Which one of you found that egg?”

Cudwad shivered at the sound of Lady Nightmare’s voice. Its chill made the dead of winter seem like a mild, sunny spring. Her sickly green gaze was just as icy, set in a face that was as rigid and flawless as a porcelain mask. Hers was a venomous beauty, a beguiling toxicity.

Gnawbone stood calmly beside Cudwad, although the younger boy could sense the stiffness in his coworker’s stance. “I picked up the egg first, madam. It is my responsibility.”

Lady Nightmare narrowed her eyes on Gnawbone, and then shifted her eyes to Cudwad. “Who saw the egg first, Cudwad?”

Gnawbone put a hand on Cudwad’s shoulder, a gesture to still him, but Lady Nightmare’s influence was more intimidating. Cudwad cautiously raised his hand.

“That’s what I thought.”

Lady Nightmare cast him a gentle smile—the kind that ripples through one’s skin like tiny, writhing snakes—and approached him. “You are a very lucky boy. You found the egg of a leucrocotta, a very rare creature. I haven’t had one in my garden since… well, long enough ago to say almost never.” She brushed aside a few hairs from Cudwad’s forehead tenderly. “Naturally, anyone would want to bond with such a special monster—” She shot a piercing stare towards Gnawbone, who dropped his gaze from her. “—but only the one who sees the egg first can form a bond with the leucrocotta. It wanted to be found by you.”

“So… so it’s mine?” Cudwad felt a surge of excitement in his chest.

Lady Nightmare’s smile twisted slightly, almost as if there was some unspoken joke she was musing over. “Yes, it has chosen you. You will tend to it, and prepare it to permanently bond with you. We should go discuss it.” She put a sinewy arm around Cudwad to lead him away to a secluded parlor, while Gnawbone watched them go, his mind racing in a silent frenzy.


Cudwad found it odd that Lady Nightmare put him on a strict diet of a special curry dish that she prepared solely for him at every meal. He also found it odd that when he attempted to read up about leucrocottas in the bestiaries in the Nightmare Library, the entries had been blacked out with thick blotches of ink. Lastly—and he hadn’t realized it until some time afterward—he was more easily irritable towards Gnawbone, especially when the older boy said, “You don’t have to take care of that leucrocotta just because she said you should, you know.”

“You’re just saying that because you wanted it to choose you instead!” Cudwad would retort. “And you don’t like that Lady Nightmare’s giving me so much attention, and has forgotten about you. Well, too bad! Just go away if you don’t like it!”

When Gnawbone did walk away, and shut himself up somewhere for several hours, only then did it dawn on Cudwad how nasty he had been to his friend.

One evening, while Cudwad was tending the garden, a sudden chill—no, this was a blistering fire—crawled over his skin as Lady Nightmare appeared from nowhere with frightening speed. Without a word, she grasped his face, turning it from side to side, gazing deeply into his eyes, rubbing his pointed ears and checking his wrists, where she could see the deep green pulsing in his veins. Cudwad was startled, yet some new voice in his mind said, “Don’t question your mistress. Make sure she is pleased.”

After a moment, Lady Nightmare released him. “You haven’t been in my cabinets, have you?”

Cudwad blinked perplexedly, and shook his head. He, as well as Gnawbone and any others in her employment, had always been forbidden to go into Lady Nightmare’s cabinets, which housed the various ingredients for her exotic concoctions.

She let out a long breath. “I would appear to be missing a bottle of powdered griffin feather that is very expensive. No one is allowed to borrow anything from my collection, understood?”

Cudwad nodded quickly. But a churning was already twisting his guts, as he could imagine where that bottle could be. Probably already sold at the Charmers’ Market, with Gnawbone having gathered a plentiful price for it. In fact, Cudwad hadn’t seen Gnawbone at all since that last time he yelled at him. He hadn’t bought a ticket to run away somewhere, had he? Cudwad suddenly felt such a sharp pang of loneliness, even the thought of his upcoming bonding with his leucrocotta couldn’t cheer him up.


The next evening, Lady Nightmare summoned Cudwad to her parlor.

“Is it time to bond with my leucrocotta?” Cudwad asked. “I hope I can do it correctly. I tried to research about leucrocottas this week, but I couldn’t find—”

“It’s quite all right,” Lady Nightmare replied. “I’ve prepared you well enough. It’s time for my leucrocotta to have his sacred feeding.”

Cudwa tilted his head. “But… I don’t know what it would…” The realization smacked Cudwad like a dragon’s tail to the face. “I thought you said I would bond with it—”

“And you will. A leucrocotta must eat the first living creature that finds its egg in order to grow into the magnificent beast it will become. More importantly, in order for me to have its undying loyalty, its first meal must be saturated in my Obedience spices.”

Cudwad thought of all the curry dishes he had been eating that past week.

“And since you have been eating those spices, you can’t oppose my orders,” Lady Nightmare added. “Now go out into the garden and let my leucrocotta eat you. I’m sure it’s quite hungry.”

Fear festered in Cudwad’s chest and gut like acid burn, but he couldn’t argue. He couldn’t resist, or run, or cry. His feet moved without his permission and that new voice in his head said, “You heard the lady. Go outside and get eaten before she gets impatient.”

His mind could only go blank as he walked out into the ghoulish garden, past the hanging embryos, past the frightful fruits, searching out the creature that he had wanted to be his own so desperately.

And he found it. Lying still, dead, on the ground.

Next to it lay an equally still and lifeless Gnawbone. Only it wasn’t Gnawbone—or, it was, but not the white-haired, blood-Tainted boy Cudwad knew. This Gnawbone had brown hair, normal peach-colored skin, and even appeared a bit frail. In his right hand was an empty bottle; a few flakes of some golden powder were scattered on the ground. His left hand was completely gone, the wrist a bloody bitten-off stump. That same red, sticky blood laced the leucrocotta’s pale lips.

It would take Cudwad some time to process it, but the answer eventually came. Gnawbone had taken the bottle of powdered griffin feather from Lady Nightmare’s cabinet, a powder designed to cure any and all poisons or diseases, including the Taint. After relieving himself of the Taint, he had gone into the garden to find the leucrocotta as quickly as he could—after all, he was human again, and would not be able to live in the garden for long. But once the leucrocotta bit off and ate his hand, it would have attained the same un-Tainted state of being that Gnawbone had—in the same way it would have soaked up the obedience spices that Cudwad had eaten. Without that Taint that the garden would have given it, the leucrocotta must have succumbed to the poisonous spores or fumes and died.

And Gnawbone did all this… to save me. He knew what Lady Nightmare was planning for me, Cudwad realized. But his sadness was drowned out by that voice saying, “What are you going to do? She ordered you to be eaten… but it’s dead! What will you do now?” Cudwad paused, before his old voice—the one raging like an inferno right now—replied, “She wanted me to bond with the leucrocotta. The way I see it, there’s only one way to do that now…”


After waiting a few days for the obedience spices to wear off—and after struggling to wolf down a good share of leucrocotta meat, unsure whether or not the meat was toxic—Cudwad returned to Lady Nightmare’s parlor with a newly-grown set of leucrocotta teeth in his mouth, curved claws on his hands, and a ravenous desire to hunt a fresh nightmare…


Alison Reeger Cook is the book reviewer for the Gainesville Times in Northeast Georgia. She also writes novels, her first being published by Knox Robinson Publishing in May 2013, and her ten minute play “In the Cards” was published by Heuer Publishing, Inc. In October 2010, she was chosen for Honorable Mention in Writers’ Journal magazine for her short story, “When the Bottle is Lost.” In 2011, she was awarded Honorable Mention in the Writer’s Digest 80th Annual Writing Competition for her stage play, “Major Arcana,” and Honorable Mention in WD‘s Science Fiction contest for short story, “Psycho Babbles.” Email: areegercook[at]

The Quilt

Billiard’s Pick
Cezarija Abartis

chenille pram quilt
Photo Credit: Leslie Keating

Paula wanted the world to be perfect, as her mother, Rose, had wanted the world to be perfect, and Paula must have inherited that flaw. Larry once said that about Paula. Larry, who loved birds and flew away like a bird.

Outside the window, the sun slanted across the yard for an instant; the television meteorologist predicted rain later on this April day, but the showers would bring May flowers, right? The gray hung low on the horizon like a billowing quilt, but overhead blue shone through brilliant white clouds. The brightness dazzled the eyes. She had to look away.

The semester was ending. The students would take their final exams and leave school, and she would never see most of them again. She had wanted to teach a perfect course; she wanted the students to be perfect; she wanted to hold on to them until they learned the material perfectly. They squirmed and wanted to be finished and out. She reluctantly understood that.

Paula put down the red pen. The gray evened out overhead now, but from time to time, a streak of sunlight pierced through the clouds.

Candide too looked for perfection, she told her students, and finally he learned to stay home and tend his own garden.

Larry had loved her and not loved her, and she in turn had loved him and not loved him back. Larry married someone else. And Paula was an old maid, well, a career woman. Funny, that sounded as if her career was being a woman, instead of her being a woman with a career. A fulfilling career, she semi-mocked herself—filling the heads of the young with diminishing knowledge about the old.

Patches of perfection did exist—she admitted that. Shakespeare was perfect and Jane Austen and Chekhov, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost. One could climb into their laps and be warm like a cat. Her mother had told her a story about fairies and princes, about Cinderella separating herself from her peasant roots to take on her royal identity. Paula’s grandparents had left Poland to travel to America and work in the factories. Her grandmother, Stanislava, named her daughter, Paula’s mother, Rose, though there were not many flowers in either of their lives.

Paula’s mother wore black to her parents’ funerals, did not accept death gracefully, writhed against the memory of her miscarriage from decades ago, was saddened by her father’s stroke that left him paralyzed on the right side, railed against corruption in the U.S.S.R.

Her mother had once not cared about imperfection: there was proof in an old photograph of her mother as a young child wearing a nightgown and sitting up in a bed covered with a patchwork quilt with no design, just leftover rectangles and squares of cloth sewn onto each other. Her mother gave Paula the quilt, ragged now but with one perfect sky-blue square in the center.

In the black-and-white photograph, Paula’s grandmother Stanislava sits on the bed, with her six- or seven-year-old daughter, Rose, who is wearing braids, the way she still wears her hair sometimes. The child smiles into the camera, full of anticipation and knowledge, unlike her mother. Stanislava, with her dark-bead eyes, is slumping. Young and distracted, she looks as though she wants to smile but is tired from working in the factory and does not remember how to curve her lips. It must have been Paula’s grandfather who took the photo of his wife and daughter. Perhaps he borrowed the camera from a friend and wanted an impromptu record of their young domestic life. The windowless walls show spots and cracks, but the little girl, Rose, Paula’s mother, smiles all the same. She owns this universe. It is perfect.


Cezarija Abartis’s Nice Girls and Other Stories was published by New Rivers Press. Her stories have appeared in Per Contra, Prime Number, Waccamaw, and New York Tyrant, among others. One of her flashes was included in Wigleaf‘s 2012 Top 50 list of flash fiction. Recently she completed a novel, a thriller. She teaches at St. Cloud State University. Website. Email: c.abartis[at]

In My Old Neighborhood

Ralph Uttaro

brooklyn stoops
Photo Credit: Brendon Horton


I put on my dark blue suit, clipped my red tie onto the collar of my white shirt and carefully slicked my hair back with Brylcreem. A long red cassock hung ironed in my closet, neatly buttoned down the front. On another hanger was the blousy white surplice that went over it. My mother had proudly purchased this altar boy uniform from the neighborhood religious store. I folded the garments over my right arm to keep them from dragging on the ground then set off down the stairs.

We lived in the first house down from the corner of a wide avenue lined with shops. A butcher in a blood-stained white apron stood outside the Bohack supermarket pulling on a cigarette. The other stores were closed on Sunday morning: Goldman’s Furniture and Appliance where we had recently purchased our first color television, the beauty parlor where my mother had her thinning hair teased and sprayed every Thursday, Dave’s 5 & 10 where we bought our school supplies and the pink Spaldeens we used for stoop ball games. The street was quiet, my classmates all in church, their presence noted by Sister Mary Clare in her blue-lined ledger book. Attendance at nine o’clock Mass was mandatory; I was excused because I was serving as an altar boy at ten-thirty.

A small boy suddenly jumped out from the doorway of the Cadet Dry Cleaners. He was about my age with dark skin and bristly black hair. Puerto Rican. He blocked my way and pulled his hand out from behind his back. “Give me all your money,” he whispered in a raspy voice. If I had been looking at his face, I might have noticed that he was smiling, but my eyes were glued to the silver barrel of the revolver pointed at my chest. I held my hands up, my altar boy outfit hanging like a flag from my arm.

“Please, don’t shoot,” I pleaded. My eyes filled with tears.

The boy looked down at the gun then turned it in his hand and held it out with the handle facing me. “It’s fake. See? I was just kidding.” He was a head shorter than I was, his clothes were ragged, his shirt stained with something yellow like an egg yolk. He looked concerned. “I’m sorry kid. I didn’t mean to scare you. Don’t tell on me.”

I was embarrassed when I realized the gun was a fake, but mostly I was relieved.

“My name’s Miguel, but you can call me Mike,” he said. He held out his hand.

I hesitated then shook quickly. “I’m Frankie.”

“That’s a nice suit you have.” The way he looked at me made me feel uncomfortable, self-conscious. “Going to church?”


“Ok, then.” He edged away from me. “See you around. And remember, don’t tell nobody, okay? I was only joking.”


The neighborhood was a haven for Italian immigrants. The men could walk to the docks where they worked loading and unloading the big ships. If a crate accidentally broke open, all my friends would arrive at school the next day with identical new sneakers or dungarees or coats. The signs in the stores, even at the Hamilton Savings Bank, were in both English and Italian.

My father’s father had come over when he was in his twenties. He worked as a huckster, selling fruit and vegetables off a horse-drawn wagon. He had done well, eventually buying the house I grew up in. He lived on the second floor—the parlor floor we called it. When my parents got married, they moved into the apartment directly above. My grandfather took great pride in his property, polishing the brass handles on the big mahogany doors at the top of the stoop, hosing down the sidewalk in front every evening, growing tomatoes and peppers in a small patch of dirt in the backyard. It was like living in a small town, everyone knew you. Our parents felt safe letting us roam the streets. Outsiders were looked on with suspicion, were questioned by the men standing outside the storefront social clubs and the candy stores. They kept track of who belonged and who didn’t.


I didn’t see Miguel again until about three weeks later. Louie Mancuso and I were playing stoop ball in my front yard when he rode up on his bicycle. He slowed to a stop beside the lamppost and stood there watching us. He looked lonely. He seemed like a nice kid but I knew that I wasn’t supposed to be friends with him. If my father saw me playing with him, there was no telling what he might do. I tried to ignore him.

“Hey kid, how ya’ doin’?” he said at last.

Louie turned to face him before I could answer. “Whadda you want?”

“Can I play?” He had a hopeful look on his face.

“No, only two can play.” That wasn’t true. Still, Miguel stayed and watched. I threw the pink rubber ball at the stoop and it hit squarely on the edge of the second step, sending it into the air on a sharp flat arc. I thought I had a hit but Louie reached up and snagged it on the fly with his left hand.

“Nice catch,” Miguel said, smiling.

Louie took a step toward him and drew back his fist. “Get lost, we don’t want no Puerto Ricans in this neighborhood.”

The smile drained from Miguel’s face. He stood up straight on the pedals of his bike and rode away, his hands pressed down on the handlebars, his legs pumping hard. I felt sorry for him but I was glad that Louie was there. He had done the right thing.


I turned the dial looking for something to watch. I flipped past The Honeymooners, Bowling for Dollars and the evening news before settling on a rerun of I Love Lucy on Channel 5. I flopped down on the sofa. It was mid-summer, the air moist and heavy even with the fan rattling in one of the front windows. I mostly watched TV, sometimes read a book. It was depressing to be sixteen, wishing the summer away so I could go back to school.

I was hoping for an evening thunderstorm, one with white flashes of lightning followed by long rolling rumbles of thunder. That might send the guys hanging out on the corner under cover for a while. They were loud, busting each other’s chops, whistling at the girls that paraded by in their halter tops and tight shorts. They wore white muscle shirts, jeans with chains extending from their belt loops to the wallets in their back pockets. I could hear them from my window every night.

“Is he gonna sit in his room like that the whole summer?” The apartment was small, a railroad flat with no real doors separating the rooms. You could hear everything, especially my father. “Don’t he have any friends?”

“Who’s he gonna have?” my mother shot back. “He had Louie until the Mancusos moved out to Staten Island. They got out while the gettin’ was good like everybody else. All that’s left is the coloreds and the spics. You want him to stay on the corner with them?”

Some Puerto Ricans and a few blacks had started to move into the neighborhood, but they were still a small minority. Most of the guys on the corner were white. The color of my skin wasn’t the problem. I was quiet, didn’t drink, declined my turn when they passed a joint around. The guys all went to the local public high school, if they went at all. My parents sent me across town to Holy Cross, an all-male Catholic school. We were required to wear dress slacks and ties, keep our hair cut above our collars. The guys on the corner called it “Homo Cross”. I was thin-skinned and would get upset; that only encouraged them. I drifted away. Now they all ignored me, except for Miguel. He had become part of that crowd, although he always seemed to stand at a bit of a distance. He dressed like they did, stood on the corner with them and drank beers wrapped in brown paper bags, took a drag on a joint when it was passed to him, but he never joined in the taunting. Sometimes he would tell them to back off.

“Don’t go startin’ in again. We ain’t movin’. Stop listening to that sister of yours, we got it good where we are.” My aunt and uncle had moved out to Staten Island a couple of years earlier, only a few blocks from the Mancusos. They had a single-family house with a garage and a small yard. Louie and my cousins rode a yellow bus to school instead of the subway. My mother was feeling isolated, left behind, just like me.

“Yeah, I know. The house is all paid off and that’s all you wanna know. You don’t care how the rest of us feel.”

My father inherited the house when my grandfather passed away. I was in second grade. I knew something was wrong when my father was waiting to pick me up from school that day. We rode home in his car, even though we lived only five blocks away. He was silent the entire way. When we stepped into the living room, Father Joseph was sitting on the sofa. He stood and walked toward me, a thin smile on his face. He placed his hands on my shoulders; they were warm, reassuring. His voice was strong, authoritative. “Frankie, I know this is hard for you to understand, but Pop is in heaven now.” We recited the Lord’s Prayer together, then he pushed me gently toward my mother.


I had seen this episode of Lucy before. The Ricardos and the Mertzes were on a cross-country car trip and had gotten stuck for the night at a small motel somewhere in the Midwest. Their room was beside a railroad track and, every time a train went by, the room would light up and their beds would slide across the floor like they were on wheels. I used to think it was funny. The TV flickered once then did a slow fade, the picture contracting from the edges of the screen until it dissolved in a little blue circle at the center.

“It’s a blackout!” I heard someone yell down in the street.

My mother lit some candles as it got darker and we both stood at the window looking down at the street which was black except for the occasional beam of a flashlight bouncing off the pavement. It was strange to see all the stores closed, even the Bohack and the liquor store which were usually open until at least nine. Then we heard the sound of shattering glass, followed by cheering. I leaned out the window and looked down the street. Some of the kids had broken into the liquor store and were walking out with bottles and cases of booze. Miguel stood on the sidewalk empty-handed, looking down the street in one direction then the other.

Suddenly the street was full of people, adults as well as kids wheeling carts full of groceries out of the Bohack, carrying armchairs and sofas out the front door of Goldman’s, smashing windows at random as they moved in a wave toward the next corner. Miguel turned and slowly followed, almost half a block behind the crowd. I thought I smelled smoke, like a pack of firecrackers had just gone off. Then I saw a flicker of orange inside Goldman’s. It disappeared briefly but soon we could see four or five low flames burning behind what was left of the windows.

“Angelo, get over here,” my mother yelled. “They started a fire in Goldman’s.”

My father was in the kitchen brewing his evening cup of coffee in the glow from the gas burners on the stove. By the time he got to the window, a cascade of orange light had climbed the walls inside Goldman’s and burned through to the roof. Sparks shot into the air like bottle rockets. We saw our reflections in our front windows, ghostly against the background of billowing flames.

We heard sirens in the distance, then saw the glare of headlights wash the street. The vibration from the air horns on the hook and ladder shook the room, rattling the glass. The urgent flash of the red beacons on the roof of the trucks pulsed off our walls. I could see fear in my parents’ eyes.

“That’s it,” my father said grimly. “We gotta move.” He turned and walked slowly back toward the kitchen.

In spite of the chaos down in the street, I felt hope for the first time in a long while. Maybe this was my ticket out.


We never moved. My father talked to a real estate agent, the one my aunt and uncle had used. He went to look at a few houses but there was always a problem: the basement was damp, the furnace made a funny noise, the neighbor’s dog stood in the front yard and barked the whole time they were there. His heart wasn’t in it. “This place is all I know,” I heard him confess to my mother. She didn’t push.

I was starting my sophomore year at Fordham when my mother got sick. Cancer. The treatments took her hair and her strength, the pain sapped her spirit. My father sat by quietly in grim denial. It was a month before graduation when she insisted that she be brought home from the hospital so she could die in her own bed. The neighborhood decayed in much the same way, blight spreading block by block like raging cancer cells, rows of houses succumbing one by one to arson, neglect, fear.

Stores started going out of business. Before long, the liquor store was all that was left, a silver mesh grate guarding the plate glass window even during the day. Drug houses sprung up. Ragged men huddled on the corner on winter nights passing a bottle, crowded around a trash barrel fire. I began to visit only in daylight. One night someone broke into the vacant ground floor apartment. My father told me how he ran downstairs in his slippers, one of my old baseball bats in his hand, and chased them away. I told him he was lucky he wasn’t killed. I begged him to move out to New Jersey. There was a nice apartment complex near our house.

“What would I do all the way out there? I got no driver’s license, remember?”

“It’s a block away from the village. You know, where all the little shops and restaurants are. We had coffee there when you came last Christmas. You can get most of what you need on the little main street and we can take you wherever else you need to go. You can see the girls more often.” My father was sour and prickly with everyone else, but in the presence of my two daughters he exuded a softness I had never witnessed before. He sat on the floor with them and played Parcheesi, squeezed onto a tiny plastic stool and pretended to sip tea out of a miniature pink plastic cup, acted like a dull troublesome third grader in their imaginary school room.

“I’d be a burden. I don’t want to be a burden to nobody.”

“You won’t be a burden.”

“Your mother died in that bedroom. You expect me to leave?” He looked at me with that flinty grimace that always signaled that the conversation was over. That house really was all he knew. He had moved in when he was fourteen and, except for a three-year stint in the Army, had been there ever since. “Besides, I got a plan.”

The plan involved Miguel. He had stayed in the neighborhood all these years, drifting from job to job, apartment to apartment. My father knew he was out of work and had no place to stay, so he made a bargain, letting him stay rent-free in the vacant parlor floor apartment where my grandfather once lived. Miguel’s cousin was one of the leaders of the Diablos, the gang that controlled the neighborhood. They protected the neighborhood in much the same way that the men outside the storefront social clubs did when I was young. I didn’t realize until much later that the clubs were fronts for gambling rings run by the mob, that there were poker games and slot machines in the back rooms. As long as Miguel lived in my father’s house, the Diablos wouldn’t touch the place, wouldn’t let anyone else touch it either.


I always tried to visit on my father’s birthday. Sarah and Melanie were teenagers now and busy with soccer and dance lessons and boys, so I came alone. I picked up some cannoli from his favorite pastry shop and parked across the street from his house in front of a building that had been abandoned and boarded up years ago. To my surprise, the sheet metal covering the doors and windows had been peeled back and there was work going on inside, the dusty front room illuminated by the glare of a bare light bulb dangling from the ceiling. I could hear the rhythmic sound of nails being pounded into drywall, the whining of a circular saw.

I crossed the street with the little white box of pastries in my hand. Miguel was sitting at the top of the stoop in a white and green striped lawn chair. He shook my hand, gave me a half-hug.

“The old man has been waiting for you all day. He wants his cannoli.”

“How’s he doing?”

“He’s okay. Tough old fucker that he is.”

We laughed.

Miguel had grown heavy, his neck thick and his face jowly. His hair was still full and bristly but was dusted with streaks of grey. He was respectful to my father, innocent and big hearted in a way that was almost childlike. Their relationship had started as sort of a benevolent protection racket but evolved into something much deeper. Miguel ran errands for my father, took the trash barrels to the curb twice a week, shoveled the steps and sidewalk in the winter. I called one night and they were having coffee, listening to the Yankees game on the radio.

As Miguel and I were talking, two young men carried a large mounted canvas down the street. They wore torn faded jeans, T-shirts splattered with paint, colorful high-topped sneakers. One wore his long hair tied back in a blue bandana.

“What’s going on?” I nodded toward the two men who were now trying to wedge the canvas into the back of an old van.

“The artists are moving in. Pretty soon we’ll be just like Tribeca.”

“That’s a good thing, no?” Artists were the new urban pioneers, seeking out and resurrecting forgotten, downtrodden corners of the city

“I guess it is, until guys like me can’t afford it no more.”

I had never quite thought of it in those terms.

“Hey, go and see your father. He’s waiting.”


The call came from Miguel. It was a Sunday morning, just before noon. His voice was shaking. “Frankie. He’s gone.”

I didn’t understand at first. I had just seen my father two weeks earlier; nothing seemed amiss.

Miguel took a deep gulp of air. “I didn’t see him yesterday and didn’t hear him walking around this morning, so I took my key and went up to check. He musta passed in his sleep.”

Miguel was standing in the front yard when I got there, pacing back and forth. He wrapped me in a long, uncomfortably tight hug. He reeked of perspiration; there was the yeasty scent of alcohol on his breath; tears dropped softly on my shoulder. “He was a good man, Frankie. I’m gonna miss him.”

I envied him in a way, wishing I could express the same depth of emotion, but all I felt was numb.

Miguel waited in the dining room as I walked toward the bedroom at front of the house. The room had the texture of a sepia-toned photograph, uneven shafts of brown light filtering through the blinds. My father looked like he was sleeping, lying on his back under the sheets, his jaw clenched, a few days worth of bristly white stubble on his chin. His skin was already cold.

Miguel accompanied me to the funeral parlor to make the arrangements, sat through the calling hours, came to the cemetery. The extended family had dwindled, aunts and uncles passing away, cousins dispersing to other states, all of us too busy to stay connected. There were only ten of us standing in a tight cluster as the priest said a last blessing at the grave site.

“What are you going to do about Miguel?” my wife asked as we drove back to my father’s house.

“I don’t know.” I had thought about it often. The artists had indeed transformed the neighborhood. It started slowly at first, abandoned buildings being reclaimed for studio space. Gradually apartment buildings were restored, businesses followed: a vegetarian restaurant, then a yoga studio, a secondhand clothing store. The neighborhood became trendy; young professionals moved in. When the rents began to rise, the artists moved on, starting the cycle again in another part of the city.

“You don’t want to be a landlord, you know that.” My wife was an attorney, could be coldly logical at times.

“I could hire someone to manage the place.”

She looked at me skeptically.

“I don’t know, I feel like I owe him. He did all the things I should have done, but didn’t. I could give him a lease for a few years, with no rent, then put it on the market.”

“That would depress the sale price, if it didn’t turn buyers off entirely. We’ve got the girls’ college to think about.”

“We can take out loans,” Melanie said cheerfully from the back seat.

“You can’t just put him out on the street,” Sarah added.

I tried to talk to my father about Miguel once but didn’t get very far. He was from the old school, believed you should never discuss money with your kids.

“What, I shouldn’t be charging him no rent?” he said.

“No, that’s not what I’m saying.” My father had always misunderstood me. He wasn’t a good listener; maybe I wasn’t a good communicator.

“What I do with my house is my business, understand? When I’m gone it’s yours, then you can do with it what you damn well please.”

We never spoke about it again.


My father had always kept his papers in a series of brown accordion folders stored on the top shelf of a bedroom closet. I looked when we got back to his apartment and found them right where I expected. My wife and daughters boxed up his clothes for Goodwill while I sifted through years of tax returns, utility bills, cancelled checks. He saved everything. I came across a yellowed, wrinkled document with words printed in a formal font on stiff legal-length paper. It was the mortgage my grandfather signed when he bought the house in 1934. The note was for $7,435.

My father never told me whether he had a will, but there it was in a crisp white envelope with the words David Greenberg, Attorney and Counselor at Law embossed in sober black letters in the upper left-hand corner. The will contained a bequest to “Miguel Ramos, my dear and trusted friend.” The words were legal boilerplate, written by Mr. Greenberg; my father would never express himself that way. The bequest was in the amount of two thousand dollars. Everything else was left to me.

There was another sheet of paper in the envelope, a page torn out of a spiral notebook. A few lines were written on the back side of the page in my father’s meticulous, slanted cursive:


About Miguel. He was good to me but I took care of him too. No rent all these years. He’s not family. I left him a few dollars in the will but that’s all he gets. I know you never wanted to have anything to do with this place, so sell it. Take the money and run. Miguel, he’ll take care of himself. He always has.


I showed my wife the letter.

She sighed. “He’s probably right, Frank.” She turned back to the clothes she was sorting.


I knocked on Miguel’s door when we were ready to go home that night. He had a beer in his hand, a string of thick black rosary beads hanging around his neck and down over the front of his ribbed white undershirt. He looked tired. Over his shoulder, I could see a pizza box on the table with its lid tipped open, two slices missing from one side of the pie.

“All done?”

“For now,” I responded.

“Long day, huh?”

We talked for a few minutes until we ran out of things to say.

He looked at me with sad, expectant eyes. “Ok, then,” was all he said, never changing his expression or disengaging his eyes from mine.

“We’ll talk.” I sounded so much like my father, brushing aside his obvious concern. That wasn’t what I had intended, I just didn’t know what else to say or do. Maybe it was that way for my father too.

We shook hands and I watched as he slowly pulled the door shut.


Ralph Uttaro spent his formative years in Brooklyn, New York where some of the scenes from this story, loosely speaking, may have taken place. He nows lives, works and writes in Rochester, New York. His work has recently been published in Bartleby Snopes, Blue Fifth Review, Everyday Fiction and Front Porch review. Email: ruwriting[at]

The Zipless F___

Karen Karlitz

For Lease
Photo Credit:

Millie Bartoli, the forward-thinking leader of our weekly women’s consciousness-raising group, stood in the center of Janet’s impeccably decorated, wood-paneled den expounding on the principles of Erica Jong’s book, Fear of Flying. “Men have been doing it for years. Now it’s our turn. This may not fit some of your lives or personalities, but for the rest of us,” she smiled slyly, “I suggest you seriously contemplate having at least one zipless fuck.”

Everyone in the neighborhood knew all about Freddie Bartoli’s cheating. He carried his infidelities around with him like they were his birthright, a badge of honor. But this wasn’t about payback, this was a sea change in lifestyle, a sign of the times. This was the seventies. I assessed my fellow group members. My next-door neighbor Jill sat near me on the sofa. A conservative type, who lived in a home with large white pillars reminiscent of the White House and who rarely attended our boozy, pot-fueled parties, Jill stared intently down at Janet’s turquoise shag rug. The other women looked intrigued.

“Does it only count if you don’t know the person at all?” Janet asked.

“That’s a matter of interpretation. Certainly a man you don’t know makes the best choice. But it wouldn’t hurt to choose someone you know as well, albeit, it would not be zipless.” Millie giggled like a teenager.

Claudia let out with a snort.

“I see,” Janet said gravely, as though she might have a particular someone under consideration.

Zipless fuck! I couldn’t get it out of my mind. That cute butcher at Waldbaum’s? The pharmacist? My son’s pediatrician? The man who recently moved into the brick colonial down the street? Any interesting male shopper in Bloomingdale’s men’s department? The handsome carpenter who hung my living room shutters? A stranger on the subway? The new reporter at work? My marriage might be falling apart, but the world was suddenly awash with possibilities.


The man in the carpet store? One morning that same week of Millie’s latest suggestions for our personal growth, I stopped in at Anthony Carpet and Tile. I’d been looking all over for a new kitchen floor. Someone tapped me on the shoulder as I was poring over samples. I turned around.

“Hi,” said a young man of no more than twenty. “Can I help you?”

Oh, my God. This rug salesman looked like my old boyfriend Greg when he was about twenty, a mere boy to my almost thirty years. He couldn’t possibly be a zipless fuck contender. Or could he?


In a week my mother’s boyfriend’s divorce would become final. She’d been counting down the days with me and anyone else who would listen for a month. Rose had grown used to living high on the hog after suffering through years of financial struggle with my father. She spent her mornings with Ted, a top Manhattan real estate agent, searching for suitable properties on the Upper East Side. Her boyfriend Sheldon left the choice of a condo to her, and she gloried in the fact that finally she could afford such opulence. She took her time, waiting for the perfect residence to come on the market.

After a busy afternoon spent shopping at Saks or Bendel’s, my mother ordered in dinner from an assortment of expensive eateries, unless they had plans to dine out. Sheldon had always enjoyed a rich diet, indulging in meats, gravies, cheeses, cakes and pies, heedless of cholesterol counts or doctors’ reproaches. My mother pretended not to notice his expanding midsection, lack of hair, and striking resemblance to the Pillsbury Doughboy.

That night in their fourteenth-floor luxury rental, after an especially flirtatious round of condo touring with Ted and a satisfying trip to Saks, Rose ordered up some of Sheldon’s favorites: duck pâté, brisket smothered in gravy, potatoes au gratin, corn on the cob, fresh spring greens suffocating under a mountain of bleu cheese dressing, and for dessert, chocolate custard éclairs and a bottle of Moet. While he forged his way through the meal, my mother picked at a green salad sprinkled with one teaspoon of light Italian and a side of fresh strawberries. After the repast Sheldon could barely move, but managed a labored, brief sexual encounter with his bride-to-be.


The morning sun filtered through the curtains and crept over the bed where my mother and Sheldon slept. She woke with a satisfied smile, sat up on her side of the bed, slipped her feet into white fur-trimmed satin mules, and went into the bathroom. After finishing her morning ablutions, she glanced over at Sheldon and saw that he was still asleep. She walked into the kitchen to brew some imported coffee purchased at Zabar’s, then watched the world go by from her spacious terrace as she sipped from an antique china cup. In only two weeks they would marry. At last, my mother had the life she thought she always had coming to her.

She went back inside and looked at the clock. It was half past eight, and Ted expected her at ten; she entered the bedroom to get Sheldon going. She patted him gently on the back. He didn’t move. Too fat, she thought to herself, shaking him more vigorously. Still no movement. She walked to the other side of the bed so she could see his face. It was deadly pale, and she knew instantly. Sheldon’s overtaxed heart called it quits shortly after last night’s final avalanche of fat.

Because the divorce had yet to be finalized, his wife Annette got the entire estate. This included the fourteenth-floor apartment, which had been leased in Sheldon’s name.


I became more nervous than usual; on a scale of ten, I went from a seven to a nine. After all, life could be snatched from you at any moment, even without a steady intake of brisket and éclairs. My mother moved in with my sister until she could figure out what to do next. I finally broke down and asked my husband if he was cheating on me, an obsessive thought I’d been harboring for quite a while. Beforehand, I promised myself to remain under control. I wrote out several pages of dialogue that I practiced in front of a mirror, but when the curtain went up couldn’t stick to the script.


“Yeah, Frannie.”

“Just tell me already. Who is she?”

He lay in our bed, eyes half-closed, watching the late news.


“I know all about it.”


“You know exactly what I’m talking about and don’t tell me you don’t. Your girlfriend, Brian. I have to know who she is. Is it someone I know? I bet it’s Sandy Schwartz. She has such huge breasts.” The thought of her chest sent me into a tailspin.

“Whoa, Frannie, stop. You’re hyperventilating.”

“I am not.”

“You are.”

My breathing, I had to admit, was impaired and I felt thoroughly unhinged.

“C’mon Frannie, I love you. I don’t have a girlfriend.”

“You’re never home anymore.”

“I’m swamped at the store. You know that.”

I couldn’t tell if he was telling the truth or had one foot out the door.

“I gotta get some sleep. You should too.” He lay back down and closed his eyes. In less than a minute, he was fast asleep.

I got up to change the channel. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was on. For weeks Mary had been thinking about having an affair with a cute policeman she met, but now she knew him too well for it to be considered zipless. Her husband was mean and everyone tuned in night after night hoping she’d finally have sex with the policeman. That night she was getting close.

One day not long after my mother’s boyfriend’s demise I had nothing to do. I decided to swing by the carpet store. After all, I still needed a kitchen floor.

Flipping through floor samples, I pretended to debate the merits of tile and linoleum. I snuck a glance over my shoulder; the handsome salesman sat at his desk doing paperwork. It was late afternoon, no one else was in the store. Unsettled duskiness filled the skies as this part of the world changed uneasily from day to evening. It was the time of day babies cry, seeking comfort they often can’t find until the sky grows dark, the time when people who believe they’ve taken too many hits reach for a drink or a drug, sometimes both.

I turned and walked towards him; my heart raced. I wore my tightest dungarees and, adhering to the current “burn your bra” philosophy, nothing under a striped gauzy shirt. He looked up and smiled.

“Ready for some help?”

I sat down in a chair across from his desk. “Yes, as a matter of fact, I am.”

“What can I do for you?”

“I want to have sex with you.” I looked directly into his big brown eyes.

Shock registered on his face for a brief second. I figured he must have had women customers flinging themselves at him throughout the day.

“Cool. When?”

“Now.” Did I really say that?


He got up, walked to the front of the store, switched the “Open” sign to “Closed” and locked the door. I followed him to a back room where the carpet remnants were stored. He threw some samples aside, and lay down on a piece of yellow shag. He patted the spot next to him. I joined him on the rug.

I never found out his name. No question, this was zipless. I never went back to the store, and instead purchased my flooring from a short, stout, gray-haired woman at Macy’s. Months later, I drove by and the Anthony Carpet and Tile store was empty, a “For Lease” sign pasted on the front window. It was like it never really happened at all.


After three cross country moves and working as an editor/writer for publications in New York and California, Karen Karlitz now lives and writes short stories in Marina del Rey. Her short fiction has appeared in Broad River Review, Loch Raven Review, Ranfurly Review (Scotland), American Diversity Report, Scribblers on the Roof, Long Story Short, and Miranda Literary Journal, among others. One of her stories won the Jerry Jazz Musician New Short Fiction award, one was included in The Best of The Foliate Oak, and another read theatrically in Syracuse, NY. Email: kkwrite[at]

Death Sits A While

Antonin Dvorak

My goldfish tank _55 gal
Photo Credit: IrishErlina

Come on In

Have you ever met Death? I have, I’m sorry to say, and I don’t much care for him. I say Death is a “he”—if really there is any gender, I’m not sure—not only because he appeared masculine, but also because I can’t imagine a woman so cold and unfeeling.

My Beth had cancer: the big C. My mother died of the same damned poison when I was twenty-four. But in all my seventy-five years, I had never met Death. I had never been in the same room as a dying friend, dying relative—well, dying anyone. Death was like some distant relative whom we all knew of, whom we were all embarrassed and scared to know of. But not anymore. The distance between us is gone. For a while there, we were three peas in a pod, Hugh, Beth and Death.

Cozy, huh?

He first came to us a week before her passing. I was walking back to our bedroom with an oatmeal and scrambled Egg Beaters breakfast for my Beth—my meals must have tasted like fish scales, as I was hardly in condition to cook. But I managed. And she didn’t complain. She never complained.

We lived in a ranch-style house. I’ve always felt that stairs are for those uneasy people who feel low in the chain of things. They climb up them to sleep in their lofty bedrooms and look out their windows at their yards and the streets below. Not Beth and I: we were quite happy where we were.

There’s a hallway between our living room and our bedroom. A white carpet covers the entire area. And in that hallway, there’s a fish tank. It’s a fifty-five gallon, full of colorful gravel (the kind Beth liked), plastic plants, and goldfish. Goldfish, after all, are the easiest fish to keep alive.

One of them was dead, though. He was a fancy tail that Beth delighted in calling Secretariat (I just called them goldfish). His yellow-orange belly poked out from the water’s surface like an island, or maybe an iceberg. The filter swished him around, pulling him across the surface and then pushing him under in a strangely elegant circle.

I damned near dropped the tray of oatmeal and eggs. I had to carefully put it on a nearby table so that I could fall to my knees without making a mess. And I did fall. The carpet caught me as it had always caught my feet before.

I felt my breath snag in my throat and my eyes begin to leak. I brought my old hands up against those eyes, pressed hard. Maybe I was trying to hold everything in, but if that was it, it didn’t work.

As I watched Secretariat circle in his dead-swim, I cried hard and I cried quietly. Can’t let my Beth hear, I thought. I found my hands clutching the carpet with angry fingers, found them digging my fingers in like claws.

I watched the other fish investigate the corpse, half-expected them to peck at him. But they didn’t peck—only regarded him curiously, then swam off as if scared.

I was scared, too. After all, it was me who had forgotten to feed them. It was me who had starved them and invited Death in. But life was never supposed to be a solo act.

How were we supposed to survive? The answer was simple, I guess: we weren’t.

I cursed the goldfish.

I cursed myself.

I cursed Death.

And after I collected myself some ten minutes later, I threw a handful of goldfish food into the tank and continued into our room.

Take a Seat

It took me until the next afternoon to get up the nerve to take the fish out of the tank.

“I’m sorry, Secretariat,” I whispered as I prodded my hand through the water. I missed him the first time, his slippery tale just escaping my pinching fingers.

I got him, though. I pulled him out and he sat in my hand, staring blankly at the wall. His eyes were bloated and puffy, even by goldfish standards. His skin felt cold and slimy. That sliminess was the worst, like the algae-coated wall of a pool that hasn’t been kept up with chlorine.

An embarrassing thought passed through my mind then. I thought—for just a moment, mind you—that the lifeless, slippery thing in my hand was a heart. I gasped and dropped poor Secretariat to the carpeted floor. As he struck it, his tail kicked water drops at my bare feet and pajama pants.

When I got to the bathroom with him, I stared into the toilet skeptically. The white, shiny lip of the bowl looked like a hungry mouth. I knew that this was where pet fish went when they died. Where their bodies went, anyway. But this wasn’t a worthy fate for Secretariat, was it? I didn’t think so and I dropped him into a plastic baggie, then laid him to rest in the freezer till I could decide what else to do.

Death was with us now. I knew that much. He had taken Secretariat and he wasn’t through with his taking.

So I started bartering. I wasn’t making a deal with the devil, mind you, and I’ll punch anyone who says that I was. But certain things needed tending. Having Death as a houseguest wasn’t easy. I wanted to make sure he was comfortable, make sure he would stay a while—a long while—before he felt that it was time to move on with my Beth.

I gave him my chair. As any hot-blooded American man will attest, this is quite gracious. And this wasn’t just any chair. No, not the living room chair. Not my dinner table chair (though he could have had that one, too, as I didn’t eat dinner anymore). I gave him my chair in our bedroom.

It was a scuffed up old beater, much like I am. Its arms and back were thick with stuffing that pushed out irregularly against tight, red fabric. I’m not sure the type of fabric, but it was soft and plush like velvet. It was probably some synthetic velvet; it seems you can make a fake anything nowadays. A fake anything, except Beth.

Now when I was in the room with her, I was on the bed at her side, which was nice. I held her hand and looked at her sleeping eyes. And of course, I looked to Death’s chair.

Sometimes I looked through Death and remembered only the chair. Those were the best parts of the day. I would sit and stare at it, reliving silly arguments I had spearheaded from its soft and always understanding lap. I would recall making love on it, though it was hardly big enough for that. I would remember sitting there late in the night with baby Eddie in my arms.

That chair had been with us since our second house. And now the father of all things evil was sitting in it, probably fashioning his own disturbed memories.

I tried hard to see him. I really did. Sometimes directly, I had looked for an outline of his body, if one could call it a body. And sometimes I’d just look for some depression in the fabric, some show of the beast that was seated there. Nothing. Just my chair and my memories and my Beth’s cold hand in mine.

He was there, though. I’m sure of it. He was there and I could feel him there. Whenever I looked in the chair’s direction, I would put on my happy-pappy-face, as my grandchild calls it. I would smile as if understanding. “I know you have come to take my Beth,” I smiled. “I know that you have to take her, and I know that you’ll have to take me sometime.”

Then I’d turn away and curse him under my breath, quiet so Death couldn’t hear. Quiet, so my Beth couldn’t hear.

State Your Business

David Letterman was no longer funny to me; I already knew most of what the History Channel offered and, in a final effort to try something to get my mind away, I had nearly choked my eyes on all the flesh of MTV.

So, late at night when my Beth slept and the house moaned and creaked—I think it knew, too—I stared into the walls and out the windows of our bedroom. At night, I couldn’t stomach looking into the corner that held Death’s chair. In the shadows and swirling darkness, there was too much to see and it was too much to bear.

The walls offered little, but out past the windows the snow was usually falling.

It was quiet this time of year in Alfred Station. It was December now. All the college kids were off with their parents, conducting joyful reunions and short-lived festivities. And all of New York was blanketed with thick snow.

I hated staring out that window. I realized this when there were only three days left in my Beth’s life. There is a correlation between snow and Death. And with my sleepless nights, I had drawn out that correlation. I hate myself for it now, sure, as it consumed me for many precious hours. You see, snow is Death, in a natural sense. It comes, blankets the ground and strangles life. It is never-ending. It numbs you of feeling. Snow, like Death, numbs you of feeling.

No wonder Death had come in to sit a while. I would come in, too, if outside there was nothing but a suffocating version of me.

It was my Beth’s cold hand that finally jarred me from these thoughts. Her cold hand that reminded me where she was headed.

“Damn you,” I whispered suddenly, staring into the corner of the room, staring at the chair. I could barely see it behind the curtains of darkness, but I knew it was there, as it had always been there. And I knew that he was in it.

“Leave us alone. We’re good people and we’re not ready to go yet.”


“Is this what you want, huh? Why can’t you just leave? What do you want—us to suffer like this?”

But I knew what he wanted. I knew very well. I clung to the stupid idea that maybe Death himself didn’t know why he was here. After all, he had been sitting in my chair for three days now. Maybe he had forgotten?

Silence, and snow tapping at the window as if it, too, wanted to come in.

“Get the hell out of here!” I sniped. “God, oh God, please go!”

I lay down next to my Beth and wrapped myself around her terribly cold body. She moved a little at this, but hardly at all. I tried desperately to warm her. In my old age though, with my infirmities creeping cunningly over me as they were, she could have gotten just as much warmth from a wet towel.

Death was staring at us, his eyes on us like searchlights casting away our shadows. I suspect he regarded us with the same interest that I had once afforded Secretariat.

Time to Go

I did finally see him, maybe. To this day I cannot be sure, and you probably won’t be either. Every part of me except my mind tells me that I did. But my mind is stubborn, and I’m not sure it’ll ever listen.

There’s a certain logic to it, I guess. I paid Death the respect of my chair. He, in turn, paid me the respect of showing himself. At least, that’s the best my stubborn brain could come up with to put things into perspective.

Logical or not, I sensed him, saw him. And it scared the hell out of me. (Scared the hell into me, if you like.)

I don’t really know how I can write about it. I was never a writer, but a carpenter. But something in me is pushing me to get this out on paper. Maybe, if I can get the horrible memory out on paper, I can stick that paper in a box and throw it under our bed or into the closet, and I’ll be rid of the horrible nightmares that have been playing in my sleep.

When I saw him, my Beth was asleep next to me. I was sitting on the edge of our bed, half my butt hanging off. And outside, the snow was louder than usual. The dark seemed darker than usual. I heard the frozen branches and twigs shifting in the storm that had come. Now and again, I heard snow slide off our roof and crunch into the snow on our lawn.

I guess it started with a feeling—a very odd, very slow tugging feeling. Beth never did wake up, though I’m pretty sure that she felt it, too, even through sickness and sleep.

I stared into the corner of the room, into the chair, and I wondered if I was dreaming. But I wasn’t. A dream has a certain quality to it; it’s rubbery and stretchy. This didn’t stretch. This was very physical, cold.

I wish it had been a dream. I wish it had all been a dream without consequence.

For what must have been an hour, I stared at Death, not seeing him, and he stared at me.

“Go away,” I whispered firmly. “Go away or I’ll report you to your superiors.” I wasn’t sure who his superiors were, but everyone has a superior, don’t they? Everyone except God All Mighty has someone to answer to, even Death. I well intended to report him.

Then the air in and around the chair began to—well, began to breathe. I can’t explain it any better than that. The darkness seemed to move and expand.

I started crying then. I can admit it because it’s true, and I’m no liar. And the truth never hurt anybody.

“Please,” I begged. “I’m not ready for you to take her. I don’t know what I’ll do. I don’t…” But by then all the words were having trouble getting past my throat. It felt like I had swallowed a handful of staples.

Have you ever noticed scratched glass? There’s a way that light passes through it, especially on sunny days. There are thin splinters of light in it, sometimes circular, sometimes straight, all depending on how the glass was scratched.

That’s what I saw next; I saw slivers of light like scratched glass. They danced around and through the chair. They danced through the breathing air. And there was no more darkness.

Inside that light, I saw a figure. He looked like a decent fellow and I hated him for that. Now Death, the bastard that he was, had the gall to be better than I had expected. His face, not particularly masculine or feminine, was calm and young. His blue eyes understood. And in his black suit, he breathed.

The only inkling of foul play was in his hands. They were callused and old and wrinkled. Nails spurted from bony fingers like twisted railroad spikes. And he clutched my chair with those hands. Those filthy, work-battered hands.

You can tell a man’s profession by looking at his hands, my father had always said. If a man hasn’t the time to cut his nails and tend to his hands, then he probably don’t have time to dry off his pisser either. My father had always had a way with words.

And now—for perhaps the first time—I saw how right he was. Death had, more likely than not, the dirtiest work of all.

Slowly, I watched Death rise from my chair, those splinters of light jumping wildly about him like hungry dogs.

I gasped and leapt to my feet.

“No!” I yelped. “Please, no!”

The figure offered a weak, shifty smile, then winked out of my perception. And the slivers of light were the last to disappear; they pulsed in the darkness like brilliant scars.

It was all gone: that tugging feeling, the iciness of the air, the storm outside. All were gone. And I knew that those things wouldn’t be the last to go.

I hurried back into bed and hugged my Beth. I clung to her tightly, the way a senile man clings to the last strands of his sanity. I felt every breath move through her body and counted them. I counted them as if each one would be her last, be our last.

I don’t know how long we lay there together. But I can tell you that I cried like a baby. Our life flashed before my hollow eyes. Our life, in between my Beth’s breaths of air.

After two hundred and twenty-four, there were no more. I brushed tangles of willowy, white hair from her face. I studied every curve, every time-engraved wrinkle, and every last bead of sweat. And as the heat seeped from her, as the cold bore in, I kissed her one last time on the lips.

Clean Up

I feel I have to add to this. I have taken my story out from under the bed and out of its shoebox, because there is more to be said now.

When Eddie came for my Beth’s funeral, the house felt empty. He watched the goldfish with sticky tear-residue on his cheeks and I offered him a beer.

“No thanks,” he said. “Nancy has a doctor’s appointment in about an hour.”

Nancy is my granddaughter.

We sat together in the living room and pretty much stared at each other. I didn’t have anything to say, and even if I had, I don’t think I would have had the strength to say it.

Eddie left the house not an hour later and I was left to cope with my grief. I’m not sure how well I managed. The pain was immense and it remains. But I’m still here, aren’t I? Well, some part of me is still here.

My houseguest was gone and he had taken a whole lot with him. Though I dread him more than ever, I look forward to his return.

The house is so silent now. Even with Letterman’s mockery running from the TV at night, the silence is strong. The silence that I speak of can’t be diminished by the TV, or by the howling wind, or by the fish tank’s constant babble. This silence runs deeper; it runs through my head like a sliver of dark light. Because of it, I sometimes find myself wishing that I had a second-story bedroom.

I do take a little pleasure from life, mostly from Eddie and his family. Mind you, I’m not a happy man. I don’t think that I ever can be again.

I’ve gotten rid of my chair. Yes, that’s right—I couldn’t have it in our room anymore. It just didn’t seem right to keep it without Beth. What good was it without her? You think that maybe it was good for Death to sit in? Well, maybe. But when he next stops at Alfred Station, I don’t want him sitting around. He needs to move things right along. There’s a reunion pending.

I threw the chair out onto the snow-choked curb and it must have struck the fancy of a young couple, because they came and hauled it away in a big, red pickup truck. I wanted to tell them not to bother, that Death himself had sat in the chair. But I’m no fool. They took it, and I haven’t seen it since.

It’s spring now and I’m still here. I can say that with a sense of accomplishment: I’m still here. Life was never intended as a solo act. But I’m surviving somehow.

The snow has melted away.

The other goldfish are still alive and I’m feeding them regularly. They look at me with their bulgy eyes and I call them all by name.

Last Saturday when Nancy came for a visit, Cathy (my daughter-in-law) found Secretariat in the freezer. She screamed when she saw him. His eyes had frozen to the inside of the plastic bag and that had made him look horrible.

We took him outside and buried him in my Beth’s garden. And though it was hard, I survived that, too.

For the most part, my nightmares have left me. But I don’t think that they’ll ever go completely. It’s the day-mares that bother me more anyway. Now and again I wonder if he is still here or if he is coming. Sometimes I can even feel his presence, as if he has come to check up on me.

On those days, I sit back in my living room chair and whisper to him. “I guess we should get going,” I say, imagining his gnarled, railroad-spike nails. “There’s no place for you to sit.”


Antonin Dvorak’s works have been published in Space & Time Magazine, Midnight Times, and Wild Violet Magazine. Email: tony_dvorak[at]

I Wish They All Could Be Chilean Girls

Behlor Santi

Photo Credit: TOM81115

My sister-in-law is short and wants to sing. She sings everyday in the shower, she tells me, and my brother hates the sound. Leonor, my sister-in-law, is small and refuses to listen to my tall older brother. He demands an ending to the singing, yet she continues to sing. In addition, my sister-in-law has a son—a son named Carlito. My brother’s name is short, Carl, and I have a long name, Sebastian. I am Sebastian, and my brother has a two-syllable name. His son has a three-syllable name, along with a short Chilean mother who tries to sing. My sister-in-law tells me about the songs she sings, and I listen, because I want to sing, yet I have no talent. My sister-in-law says that she hates motherhood. That remark makes my brother slap her. My sister-in-law talks about the songs she wants to sing, and she mentions Shakira. My sister-in-law wants to look and sound and be famous like Shakira. My brother Carl taunts my sister-in-law’s singing and appearance. She’s ruined her figure with the baby, he says, and wouldn’t it be better to head to the gym rather than sing? My sister-in-law is small, and when she talks about singing, I imagine having a daughter named Sebastienne with my sister-in-law—a name with four syllables. I’ll sing a song about that. My sister-in-law is small enough to stuff into a purse. Carl hits her over the baby’s dirty diapers, over her singing, over her lack of desire for sex with him. I crossed my brother once, and he left a scar above my eye. Carl hits my sister-in-law one more time, and we figure out an escape. My sister-in-law is small, and wanting to sing has made her smaller. So I slip her into a #10 envelope and mail her to Chile, and my brother mourns for his missing wife. He always changes Carlito’s diapers before things get bad. My brother pretends to joke about having peace and quiet in the grip of Carlito’s squalls, and I feel good, because I will have other sisters-in-law who want to sing, and I want to feel their smallness in my envelope.


Behlor Santi’s most recent short story, “Mama-San,” was published in The Foundling Review. She currently lives in her birthplace, New York City. Email: behlorwritesstories[at]