Speak Your Truth

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

“Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes” --Maggie Kuhn. Cringle Park, Levenshulme, Manchester
Photo Credit: Duncan Hull

When I moved away to start university, more than anything I looked forward to a fresh start, a chance to shed the role I’d been pigeonholed into, and redefine my image into something closer to my true self. That didn’t happen. While I was no longer saddled with my high school “character,” I was quickly slotted into a new role, different than the old one, but just as flawed. It took a while, but eventually I understood why.

Other people only know you from the outside; they don’t know what you’re thinking or feeling unless you tell them. Many people in your life only know a small slice of you, because they only ever see you in one context, like school or work. So while you see yourself as a round character, complex and complicated, with many facets, to them you’re a flat character, one-dimensional, a trope.

Even the people closest to you, the ones who know you the best, don’t know everything about you, because everyone, even the most forthright of us, holds things back. Your close family and friends may think they know everything about you, but they really only know what they see and what you choose to share. Only you know the true you, the one on the inside. Of course, the reverse is also true. We all have secrets.

One of the most common issues I run across when reading submissions is writers who have left too much out. It’s clear that there is a story, but the bulk of it is still in the writer’s head, not on the page. I often remind writers that readers can’t read your mind. You have to include enough information so they can fill in the gaps and make sense of the story. Otherwise, readers are left guessing—and likely drawing wrong conclusions.

The same applies to our own personal stories. People draw conclusions based on what they know—but often they know very little. And these days, there are more opportunities than ever for people to think they know you well when they really don’t.

I recently observed a situation on social media where friends and family members were speaking on behalf of people who were temporarily unable to speak for themselves. It’s one thing to want to be supportive; it’s another to assume you know what your loved one wants/doesn’t want, likes/dislikes, feels, thinks, etc. Yet, this is what was happening. I get secondhand-embarrassed when I hear someone sing badly. This was a hundred times worse.

But it got me thinking. We’re often advised to take charge of our online identities, to build our personal brand or writer platform, but these profiles typically focus on external attributes: highlighting accomplishments, choosing flattering photos, charming followers with witty one-liners, etc. We scatter breadcrumbs. The picture others put together from them is inevitably incomplete.

In wanting to make a good impression and not wanting to be vulnerable, we often leave unsaid the most important things, our innermost thoughts and feelings. But as writers we’re fortunate. We’re not limited to bite-size updates. We have all the space, and all the words, in the world to speak our truths, to write about what really matters to us. We have the ability to put our words out there so they can speak for us if/when we can’t. We just have to be brave enough to do it.


Out of Dublin by Ethel Rohan

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter

Out of Dublin by Ethel Rohan

Compelling is the first word that came to mind when I began reading Ethel Rohan’s 10,000-word memoir, Out of Dublin (Shebooks, 2014). Her story begins with images from her childhood—plastic bags filled with belongings carted across country, summer camping by the sea, ice cream cones with “sticks of chocolate” and fizzy drinks, watching planes take off from the top of the family sedan, and good night kisses “laced with smoke and the tang of hard spirits.”

Rohan’s story is a non-linear narration. She time-travels back and forth, allowing the reader to see the chronology of her life through glimpses and remembrances: “As a girl I often danced alone, usually to the music in my mind, my moves stolen from TV and ballerinas inside music boxes. I was helium. Stardust.” Vivid scenes showcase characters that are rich and rotund, dressed and addressed and seen through lovely turns of phrase and metaphor.

“[Y]our tired, shaky, blue-veined hands serving up bowls of the steaming chicken soup to my sisters and me, and as we’d finished eating, … you said you’d put poison in the soup, that we’d all be better off dead…” Moment-by-moment and scene-by-scene, Rohan peels back the layers revealing the darker side of a loving family living, coping, and surviving their mother’s mental illness and more.

Motifs of skeletons and lost bones flow organically throughout the story alluding to fleeting moments of fragility and innocence lost— “Waiting through the days and nights for you to come home, for you to be found, I shook so hard I felt sure my skeleton would come undone, terrified you would kill yourself…” and later, “I tried to tell Dad the secret picking at my bones.”

The narrator’s voice is credible throughout the entire story and is especially heart-cut when she recalls the descent of her father into illness. “I yearned to hear certain things from him, like I love you. I’m proud of you. Thank you. I couldn’t bear the thoughts of a tracheostomy taking away his ability to speak, of the hope of his ever saying those things of the heart gone forever.”

Yet her story is hopeful. For this family happiness might be fleeting, but it abounds in moments captured with a beautiful cadence that transcends and small moments tantalizingly shown like the narrator’s father teaching her how to sweep a floor.

Dad had always said if you were going to do a job, do it right. He had taught me to sweep a floor, had maintained there was only one right way to do the job. Start in this far corner, he instructed, and work your way around to the last corner, tackle every inch, and a broom is better than a brush. He had also taught me how to waltz and to drive a car. Every time I went wrong at sweeping, waltzing, or driving, I would apologize and he would say, “Don’t keep saying sorry.”


I would never be great at the waltz and proved much worse at the driving, but I can sweep a floor like I’ve licked every inch. I have always loved to sweep floors, especially with a broom, savoring the sure feel of the wooden handle in my hands, the rhythmic scratch of the straw needles, the gathering pile of dirt, the making clean.

And not a word is wasted. “For a long time I didn’t sleep, thinking how I hadn’t sang, how I hadn’t gotten heard.” Rohan’s selections are alluring in their brevity, pulling in theme (such as isolation and silence) and emotion between the spaces.

Also noteworthy is how the language also changes throughout the course of the memoir. There are times when the narrator yearningly addresses a second person—her mother in flashback. Other moments are realized through a stream-of-consciousness style where Rohan narrates her backstory in a page-long sentence as if she is speaking her remembrances aloud in a hurried and held breath.

In Out of Dublin, Ethel Rohan lays it all out—bare and unflinching in its humanity. Monsters do exist in different forms and danger is everywhere “even in the smallest of things.” She keeps the reader on a need-to-know basis, curiously omitting the details of ordinary life milestones, as her story seems to be about her own childhood closure. With a quiet gratefulness, Rohan recalls the best and brightest and the worst moments of her coming of age, of the people and places she loves and the cement that binds family. She sifts and salvages the lost and gleaming pieces, the scattered and broken parts and leaves the reader totally engrossed until the very end.


Ethel Rohan was the winner of Ireland’s 2013 Bryan MacMahon Short Story Award. Her work has or soon will appear in The New York Times, World Literature Today, PEN America, Tin House Online, The Irish Times, BREVITY Magazine, The Rumpus and Toasted Cheese. She is also the author of the chapbook Hard to Say and two story collections, Goodnight Nobody and Cut Through the Bone, named a 2010 Notable Story Collection by the Story Prize. Rohan was a former book reviewer for the New York Journal of Books and received her MFA in fiction from Mills College, CA. Rohan was raised in Dublin and presently writes in San Francisco. She is a member of The Writer’s Grotto and PEN America.

Website: ethelrohan.com
Twitter: @ethelrohan
Cut Through the Bone: Official Book Trailer

pencilShelley Carpenter is TC’s Reviews Editor. Email: harpspeed[at]toasted-cheese.com


Rise Up Singing

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Eric E. Wallace

Deadly Listeria Food Poisoning: Who are at Risk?
Photo Credit: James Palinsad

Cheetah Kenyatta McGuire backstage: barefoot, in tattered harlot calico, the dress blue-black like bruises, a slash of red sash around her waist, minimal stage makeup on her striking face. She was standing a half-story up, the platform nudging the back of the flats. Reflective safety markers winked at her from the dimness. Cheetah, exotic and talented, knew all about receiving winks.

Something razored in her abdomen. She flinched, shifted her weight. Gritty boards grumbled beneath her, tried to sliver her bare feet.

Directly through the set-piece door, its inner dark edges haloed by house lights, was a fictive Charleston, South Carolina, circa 1925, and the tangled world of Porgy, of Bess, of Crown, of Sportin’ Life and all the others in Catfish Row.

Beyond, past the footlights, was today’s real Charleston, with a standing-room-only Spoleto Festival crowd ready to see and to hear opera’s brightest rising star.

For the last five years, Cheetah McGuire had been racing along a very fast track, a fire in her belly, a huge need to sing. Not for money, which now arrived steadily. Not for fame, which now had found her. She simply had to sing.

“The odd thing, my dear, is your humility.” Madame DeNice sipped a sherry. “Very rare in someone who’ll soon be a superstar.” Gwendolyn Nice had aimed for the top, fallen short, resurrected herself as a demanding teacher whose students likened her to Marchesi, Lehmann or Thebom.

The veranda was humid, the air heavy with honeysuckle. Cheetah fanned herself with a menu. “I have passion. Isn’t that enough?”

“Oh, it’s most important. I told you that the day I took you on. Yes, you have real passion. But success changes people. And in our world so much is hubris. I’m amazed you’ve held on to the essential you.” Madame DeNice smiled. Two beads of sweat slalomed down her powdered nose and jumped into her sherry.

Rain thrummed on the stagehouse roof. Cheetah heard a dull karumph of thunder. She thought of the cannons booming at Fort Sumter, out there in the bay, shots which led, through years of slaughter, to the end of slavery.

Her own lineage was not from Southern slaves. Cheetah’s genes came directly from modern East Africa. Kenyan mother, Irish-American father. Gentle Swahili dance ethnographer meets arrogant New York neurosurgeon. That was thunder too, tamed by love. Asante sana, Mama.

And all for what? Five days after Cheetah’s twenty-first birthday, Mwana Ongoro McGuire and Dr. Patrick Halloran McGuire, on holiday in Mombasa, were obliterated by a terrorist bomb. Instant nothingness. You can’t flee fate.

“We gave you the name Cheetah, so beautiful, so sleek, so fast,” her mother had often told her, “so you can outrun all the troubles of the world.”

“And have you? Outrun them?” asked Harald, curled beside her, the evening Chicago breeze snapping the hotel curtains in a lively foxtrot. Harald, his Nordic face paler than the moon, leisurely traced the long mauve scar plunging down her abdomen.

Cheetah arrested his hand. “That’s why I sing,” she whispered. “Tra-la. So nothing can catch me.”

“What’s this scar anyway, Cat?” Harald’s insistent finger slid along the thin ridge of imperfection. “Something pretty major?”

“A Central Park slasher. Druggie running crazy. I was saved by a policeman. On a big horse. Entered right on cue, my knight in blue wool. But now I can’t remember his name. Officer, Officer… Krupke or something.”

Cheetah giggled and hummed Bernstein. But her thoughts, not of blue knights, were of dark nights, of the deep scars of memory.

The rain grew frantic. The storm hadn’t deterred the audience. Over the orchestra’s tuning, the antiphonal coughing, the raincoats rustling, the umbrellas sighing to the floor, Cheetah could hear the soft surge of collective breathing. It heaved in anticipation. No one wanted to miss hearing Cheetah McGuire.

“A voice of honey, charged with lightning,” one critic wrote. “Astonishing range,” said another. “Every note is astounding.”

Natural talent was one thing. But finding the right teacher had taken time, and the years of studio work were increasingly arduous, the intense focus cruelly demanding. Madame DeNice cajoled, bullied, challenged, pushed harder and harder, a tyrant, a demon.

Cheetah stuck it out, above all wanting to honor her parents. Her Puccini recital was a triumph. Even if the audience consisted mostly of her fellow students.

Cheetah’s voice was fiercely operatic, dramatic and lyrical. Tinged with spiritual quirkiness and gospel fervor. Husky with jazz. Edged with shared sadness, loss and love.

“God, girl, have you got it!” Amalie Root raised her champagne glass. Amalie had become Cheetah’s best friend. They were celebrating at a rare party at Madame DeNice’s Brooklyn studio. “What amazes me, is it hasn’t gone to your head.”

“Not yet, anyway,” laughed Cheetah. She hoped it never would, remembering her mother’s quiet grace. Mwana radiated confidence, never displayed conceit.

And now plump and genial Amalie—a perfect second soprano ready to bring Serena to life—was meditating down there in the wings, gaudy turban on her head, bulky handbag clasped to her bosom. Having a friend in the show was wonderful, especially on such a long tour. Especially with so much to confide.

“That jerk is back again?” Amalie banged her cup on the table. The coffee spilled through the iron fretwork and dripped onto her knees. “Shit.” She dabbed with a paper napkin. “Shit. And that applies to LeBraun too. Girl, he only comes around because you’re tasting fame.”

Amalie reached for another donut. This week Porgy and Bess was jazzing up New Orleans. Perfect time for a beignet binge at the Café Du Monde.

Cheetah exhaled a cloud of powdered sugar. “God, this stuff could kill my high notes. But it’s divine. Look, LeBraun’s a—a sometime thing.”

“That sounds like a song with very crappy lyrics. What about Harald?”

“Harald’s sweet.” Cheetah moistened a finger and rubbed it around the sugared plate. A horse-drawn carriage clop-clattered by in the street, jingling.

“Yeah, sweet on you. The boy’s a genius. Best damn lighting designer anywhere. How he treats you with those special spotlights is amazing. It’s gotta be love. But that LeBraun…”

“He’s been good to me, Am. I like his no-nonsense approach to life.”

“You call a criminal career ‘no-nonsense’?”

Cheetah smiled, unbaited. “I don’t think he’s a criminal. Just a wheeler-dealer. A fast track kind of guy. Power in a man appeals to me.”

“Well, I can’t seem to keep a man of any kind. So what do I know?” Amalie sipped her coffee and made a face.

The sour stink of Mississippi mud blew from the levee. Cheetah, her fingers reaching for another beignet, sat back, wrinkling her nose.

Waiting on her platform, Cheetah could smell dust as old as the grand old city of Charleston itself. Damp. Wet ropes. Lubricating oil. Something electric. Greasepaint. Talcum. Thrusting through that mélange, pulling at her, was a fragrant ray of jasmine.

Gardenias, hidden, filled the cemetery with sweet overtones. The air was oversopped with humidity, the sky painfully dazzling. Harald led Cheetah between the headstones, his slight limp oddly endearing.

“See who I found!”

The small gray marker was half-hidden by a sagging rosebush. Cheetah blinked through sweat and looked at the inscription. It took her a moment before she remembered it was DuBose Heyward’s novel which inspired Gershwin to write Porgy and Bess.

“Oh,” she said. “Buried right here in Charleston. And we’ll be performing…”

“…very near this spot. Neat, huh?”

Cheetah let him enjoy his moment. She sought out a bench. “Look, Harald, I came with you because I thought we needed a quiet place to talk. Same subject as Atlanta.”

“Oh, yeah, that subject. Well, no place quieter than a graveyard.” He studied two crows wheeling above an ancient magnolia.

“We’ve had a very good run,” she said. “Us, I mean. But…”

“You sound like a producer. God, Cat. What’s changed things? Him?”

“You mean LeBraun?”

“Not that jerk. Your new skinny mulatto.” Harald kicked at the base of a crumbling tombstone. It moved slightly, grating. Harald recoiled.

Cheetah watched, not really focusing. “Who? Palmtree?”

“‘Palmtree’? You gotta be kidding. What kind of a name is…?” Harald tried to adjust the tombstone. The crows chided.

So Harald had seen her conferring with her latest dealer. Hookups on a tour were fast. The Diva Drug Network. Sing for your needs. No waiting. Who knew the guy’s real name, but he went by Palmtree. Not her type. No way. Christ, he talked to himself in Gullah. Missing a chunk of one ear. Downright odd. And he was a drug dealer, for God’s sake. Next to that even LeBraun’s shady operations seemed okay.

But suddenly Cheetah realized how Palmtree could be of additional use.

“I love you, Cat. I really do.” Harald stood over her with the sun behind him. He was throwing a protective shadow on her face. But forcing her to look at him to avoid squinting. He knew his lighting.

She squinted anyway, grimaced. “Palmtree’s only, oh, symptomatic. Something has just… slipped for me,” she said. “I didn’t plan it. We can’t go on. You should find a woman who’s a lot more stable than I am. You’re a great guy, Harald, but I’m sorry. I don’t… I’m so sorry.”

Harald slumped. His shadow fled. The sun’s angry glare hit Cheetah full in the face. But it was Harald who was blinded. By her lies.

A red light blinked. Cheetah looked down and saw the assistant stage manager giving her the one minute signal. She acknowledged it with a half-salute, belatedly remembering that was part of her father’s collection of mocking gestures.

Harald leaned over the onstage lighting console, adjusting something. He turned, looked up. Cheetah saw confusion, pain.

The old rehearsal theater in Queens reeked of Pine-Sol. Someone had tried to mask the mustiness. Cheetah’s nose twitched. Maybe this will improve my vibrato.

“Can you hold it right there, Miss McGuire?” A voice from above.

She shielded her eyes. A white oval peered down from the darkness. Were those freckles? Eyeglasses twinkled two stars toward her.

“Call me Cheetah.” She virtually sang the words. How else do you respond to heaven?

A few moments later he limped along the stage. “I’m Harald Thorpe. Lighting designer. The union doesn’t want me up there, but I need those viewpoints.”

Cheetah smiled. “I won’t tell if you won’t.”

His blush was charming. “Sorry this preliminary stuff’s taking so long. I’ve got new ideas, and I’m pretty fussy about my lighting.”

“That’s okay. I’m pretty fussy about my singing. We don’t want to take this show on the road until everything’s perfect.”

She also liked his shy smile.

A wave of discomfort surged in Cheetah’s abdomen, tumbling sharp-edged surfboards through her gut. She felt like going back to her dressing room. Can’t. Mustn’t. She fingered the small envelope tucked in her dress pocket.

The pain eased. She watched Ziggy Canton wheelchairing from his post at the stage door, skillfully negotiating between the prop tables. Ziggy’s large-headed cat, Barrymore, strutted behind the wheels. That cat knew he was lord of the theater.

Cheetah half-smiled, thinking of yesterday, when LeBraun encountered Barrymore in the theater alley.

It was no contest. Tomcat one, macho man zero. Who’d have known her sometime guy was severely allergic to cats? Sneezing and scratching, LeBraun stumbled up the alley. Cheetah ran after him.

“How come you can be around me?” she asked, resisting the urge to purr.

LeBraun, still twitching, reached for her. “You I can tame.”

Cheetah stepped back. “Don’t be so sure.”

A trumpet player took a last showy staccato gallop up a scale. The pianist countered with a honky-tonk riff. Sweat ran down Cheetah’s arms. She felt it sneaking between her breasts.

And now nerves. Waiting to go on, she was nervous. That didn’t compute. Usually she had incredible coolness. One of her strengths. But tonight she had the jitters. Side effects?

“I love the effects you create. Your lighting is magical.” Cheetah had bumped into the lighting guy on the subway platform after a rehearsal. Hal. No, Harald.

Soft pinks and reds washed over his face. “That’s a great compliment, coming from you. But it’s your voice that’s magical. It’s pure synesthesia for me, so full of light and color.” He blushed again.

They talked about singing, about art. A Manhattan train hissed into the station. They sat together. Harald enthused about light in the paintings of Edward Hopper. Cheetah said she liked Hopper. Harald blurted out an invitation. A retrospective at MOMA.

“Why not?” Cheetah was startled, but pleased. As usual LeBraun was off somewhere. Probably catting around. He had no real hold on her. Besides, this was just two professionals sharing a passion.

Passion. Who knew dry old Eddie Hopper could start such things? And so quickly.

After they left the exhibit, they strolled up West 53rd, eating spumoni.

Harald surprised her again. “You’re seeing someone, right?” he asked. “The big guy who shows up now and then? Or is he your uncle?” Spumoni dripped onto his shirt.

Cheetah laughed. “LeBraun? Not my uncle, no. Hard to describe. He travels a lot. We sometimes see each other. It’s an on-again, off-again thing.”

Harald seemed to glow in the early evening sun. “Well, how’d you feel if I took the off times?”

Cheetah’s smile melted the rest of the ice cream.

The stage manager signaled some kind of hold. Too much waiting. Too much thinking time. Too much need. Cheetah reached into her pocket, worked a tablet from the envelope. She snapped it in two, palmed half, brought it to her mouth, swallowed it with saliva.

Morphine was her friend, her ally. But it meant she needed more and more willpower to keep the singing right. Tonight, the last performance of the tour, her singing had to be good. No, it had to be exceptional.

She saw one of the field hands practicing twirls and leaps, light as cotton.

“You move like a dancer, Cat.” Harald watched Cheetah step through the tall grass of the headland. They were hiking on Angel Island. San Francisco shimmered across the silvered bay. A city not easily wowed. But it had taken to Cheetah McGuire.

“My mother’s influence. Dance was her life.”

They sat on a clovered knoll. Cheetah talked about Mwana’s poise and charm. Patrick’s overabundance of surgeon ego. Harald laughed.

When she told him how her parents died, he fell silent. “Strange to say,” he finally murmured, “but I envy you. Instant death. And at a great remove.” He leaned against her. “Your grief must have been terrible. But up close, death is even worse. When I was fourteen, I watched my grandmother dying. Five weeks in a gloomy back bedroom. I still hear her wheezing, her spitting. Still remember the smells.”

A small white butterfly meandered near his head. “Later I had to leave college to nurse my mother. A really vicious cancer. Went to her brain. She hung on for months. You watch those you love dying, you go crazy. Never, never again. I prefer to embrace life. Hang on to beauty, to light.”

The warm air breathed eucalyptus and pine. Cheetah slipped an arm around him. I could love this man.

She watched two stagehands conferring over a cue sheet. James Jimson, playing Porgy, practiced his shuffling crippled walk. Billy Royale, Crown, was intent on deep knee bends. Billy reminded her of LeBraun. Large, burly, radiating assurance. But LeBraun didn’t have Billy’s sensitivity. Or his luscious baritone voice. LeBraun spoke in a craggy-edged bass.

“You hidin’ any of them leopard spots down here, Cheetah-gal?” LeBraun snuffled around under the sheets. “I knows you gotta have spots. Them wild cats always does.” Cheetah laughed and tried to pull him up. She liked his playful side. When it didn’t veer into something rougher.

They met at a party in Soho. LeBraun Dixon overwhelmed her with confidence, expensive cologne and a prizewinning smile. Not my type. But there was a hole in her life and he could fill it. Beauty and the businessman.

“What business?” she asked. Apparently LeBraun traveled a lot.

“Buyin’ and sellin’, sellin’ and buyin’.” What more you need to know, Baby?” Cheetah thought if he’d had a trained voice he’d have been perfect playing Mephistopheles in Faust. Devil in more ways than one.

LeBraun’s travels meant his path sometimes crisscrossed with Cheetah’s touring schedule. He showed up in in Anchorage, of all places. What can he have to sell to Eskimos? They snuggled high in one of the towers at the Captain Cook, winter lights twinkling below.

Whiskey betrayed him, and he spoke too longingly about a woman in Seattle. He knew he’d been caught.

“Sure, I’m cheatin’ on you. Takes a Cheetah to know one, don’t it?” Big deep laugh wrapped in that incredible smile. “But I always comes back to you, Baby, don’t I?”

And so he did, even after she’d begun seeing Harald. She didn’t always accept LeBraun’s surprise returns, but she couldn’t seem to send him away forever. All that focus on perfecting her singing, she’d never found time to master the rest of her life.

Cheetah’s abdomen burned. She tried to ignore it, thought about the audience. LeBraun should be sitting in the theater, freshly-arrived from Godknowswhere. He’d easily commandeered a ticket to the sold-out Spoleto performance, likely making some scalper very happy. Or scaring him to death.

Another awaiting her entrance: Madame DeNice, who broke down and cried when Cheetah had phoned to say the festival tickets, hotel and air were all taken care of. Who’d have guessed her tyrannical old teacher was so sentimental? Or so fond of hotel sherry?

And someone else should be there. Cheetah peered through a small opening in a flat. In the front row, tall and gangly, sat Palmtree, muttering to himself. He was in full drug-dealer-at-the-opera regalia. White dinner jacket, orange tropical shirt, purple cummerbund. His mauled ear was accented with an emerald stud.

“You wants what, gal?” Palmtree had slipped Cheetah the envelope and was ready to split.

“I’ll get you a great seat. You might even like the show.”

“It ain’t dat. I dig opera. Shit, don’t look so shocked. But comin’ on sweet for you, I dunno. You ain’t no conkywine for dis bruddah. I goes for w’ite meat.”

Cheetah squinted up the alley. The light was overbright, searing. The stage door swung into the glimmering heat. Harald came out and turned in their direction. Cheetah pulled Palmtree close, whispering in his good ear.

“A cash proposition, nothing else. Fifty more if you hug me tight right now.”

Palmtree shrugged and hugged her hard, sliding a knowing hand along her bottom. He stank of cigarettes and barbecue sauce. Cheetah heard Harald limping toward them. He stopped, shuffled, limped the other way. The footsteps receded. Palmtree gave Cheetah’s bottom a bonus squeeze. Yeah, white meat indeed.

The house lights dimmed, hushing the audience. The stage lights came up. Catfish Row burst into action. Cheetah sensed the conductor’s arms rising, felt his downbeat. Her heart leapt to synchronize.

The rain tried to drum in counterpoint to Gershwin’s orchestral roughhousing, failed, faded.

Cheetah loved Gershwin, loved his genius at fusing many types of music. What a waste, she thought, dying so young. Dying of a brain tumor. Wait! Dr. McGuire can save him! But who can save the doctor? Focus, focus.

A smoke-sultry clarinet solo began putting the brakes on the musical helter-skelter.

Cheetah straightened. Shook her shoulders. Took a breath. Opened the door and stepped out, now Bess through and through.

She stood on a landing, awash in light and warmth. On the rickety steps just below sat Clara, slowly rocking her baby. Every performance Melissa Stuart tried not to give Cheetah a ‘you stole my solo’ look. Tonight Mel turned to the baby a moment too late. If eyes could set fires, Cheetah thought, the swaddled bundle would be furiously ablaze.

“I can’t take the first solo from Mel. It belongs to Clara, not to Bess. Not to me.”

Dirk d’Angelo ran his fingers through thick silvered hair. Bottle assist.

“Look, sure, Cheetah. Until you came along, Clara would have sung it. And Porgy would have been my production’s main focus. Status quo show.” Dirk fondled one of his Tony medallions. “But art needs to be organic. If I don’t let your magnificent Bess rule the roost, George and Ira Gershwin will scream in their graves. Hell, their ghosts will chase me down Broadway. Get me run over by a taxi.”

He took Cheetah by the shoulders. None too gently. “Cheetah, kid, you were made for Bess. “Summertime” is your ticket to the Met, La Scala, wherever you wanna go.”

She pulled back. “I just wish we could make it up to Melissa.” Does ambition need to be cutthroat?

Slow chords, punctuated by bells and piano. The frantic syncopations of Catfish Row gave way to an amble. A tiny new spotlight found Bess, caressed her.

Cheetah smiled wistfully at the baby, turned, lost elsewhere. She gazed towards an imaginary sky.

Those who knew the opera expected a simple lullaby. But from the start, Cheetah’s singing was different. Every note, every syllable, was also about: yearning.


Cheetah held each of the three notes for a long time, the last forever.

“How long have I got?”

“I can’t say for sure.” Marion Stein looked more haggard than usual. A piece of straw hung from her hair. Romp in the hay? Cheetah was amazed at being distracted, calm. Even flip. She decided her subconscious had always expected this moment. Remission isn’t cure.

Dr. Stein searched for the right words. Cheetah’s heart went out to her. The living have to bear so much more than the dead.

Stein sighed heavily. The straw fell onto her desk, the thin golden arrow pointing to a plastic model of the female organs. Bullseye.

Six years ago the news had seemed more devastating. Young women weren’t supposed to have late stage ovarian cancer. Cheetah had just won her Met Regionals and was ready to compete in the majors.

She dropped out of everything. Suffered two tough surgeries. Endured interminable sessions of harsh chemotherapy. Braved fatiguing attempts to stay in shape.

She struggled to hang on to her music despite the pain, the nausea, and especially the fear. You lose both your parents in a bizarre tragedy. A few years later your own life is in extreme jeopardy. Why did these things happen?

At the end of the treatments, the oncologists were guardedly optimistic. They put Cheetah in the ‘five years and watch’ category. She charged back into singing. With the help of Madame DeNice, she sang at major recitals, got the attention of the critics, snagged better and better roles in regional opera and last fall easily won the role of Bess in Dirk d’Angelo’s revival of Porgy and Bess. Few knew of her fight. Of the threat hanging over her. She tried hard to forget it herself.

Five triumphant years, each even better than the last.

Cheetah looked past the audience. Harald’s lighting gave her an unusual radiance.

“…and the living is easy…”

“How long?”

Dr. Stein looked directly at her. Hazel eyes. I never noticed. “Two to five months. I’m very sorry.”

“Months? That’s it?”

“Barring intervention from the God you said you didn’t believe in. Or has that changed?”

“No, that hasn’t changed. Can I keep singing?”

The doctor was startled. “Well, the meds and so on…”

“What meds?”

“You’ll need drugs to make you more comfortable.”

Cheetah felt a frightening clarity. “And they’ll interfere? With my singing?”

“Some might. Yes. In these cases—”

“What if I want to keep going? At least through this tour?”

Dr. Stein saw the determination. “How much longer?”

“Memphis. Atlanta. Then the Spoleto Festival in Charleston. Another two months.”

“I can give you pain killers which shouldn’t make you too loopy. We can at least try.”

As Cheetah turned toward Clara and the infant, she ignored the shredder running somewhere deep inside. Palmtree’s little envelope sang from her pocket. She’d take another fix as soon as she went offstage. Something extra Marion Stein couldn’t legally offer.

“…so hush little baby…”

There were times when she needed to hold Harald so tightly. Not only for her own sake. Harald needed comfort and she wanted to give it. But he surprised her.

One free evening in San Francisco they were wandering through the rambling grounds of the Presidio. The warm air whispered of juniper, roses, the Pacific.

They stopped to look at long rows of headstones gleaming in the lingering sunset. Harald told her he wanted to share something.

He said that despite being so close to death in his youth, soon afterwards he began visiting old cemeteries. He found them beautiful. He liked to read the inscriptions, touch the relative permanence of old stone, learn to respect the value of memory.

And cemeteries were places where the interplay of sun and shadow, of branches and breezes, made the light seem hallowed, even inspiring.

“So one day you’ll visit me in some cemetery?” Cheetah asked. “And be inspired?”

“Oh, Cat,” he said. “You already inspire me. You’ll be singing long after I’m gone.”

Cheetah saw the Golden Gate Bridge through tall stands of windblown evergreens. Its lights danced like fireflies.

All of Catfish Row was watching Bess, every face absorbed. Cheetah remained stationary. She didn’t need to move. Her voice held everyone.

“…you’ll spread your wings…”

So easy to jump. Cheetah stared down from the open hotel window, saw the manic rush and tumble of the city. But she heard nothing at all. New York was silent. Silent, waiting.

She remembered the day she’d learned of the Kenya bombings, her mother and father simply gone, their immense vitality no more, their huge presence in her life abruptly removed. For weeks, numbness trumped horror. And then the dreams came.

Somehow she’d risen again, nurtured her talent, found great focus.

Then the devastating cancer diagnosis. She’d fought back a second time, found artistic success. But now…

“Huzuni kwenda.” In the silence, she heard her mother’s voice. “Sorrow will pass.”

Cheetah remembered her father taking them to Ireland. They visited his mother’s modest grave in a small country churchyard. Afterwards, Patrick hoisted Cheetah up and perched his spindly seven-year-old atop a wall of ancient stacked stones. He gazed for a long time at the unending fields of green, then cleared his throat, quickly tucked his emotions into his pocket along with his monogrammed gold silk handkerchief. Grief will pass.

Cheetah collapsed on a couch, let go, and cried and cried.

As she pulled the last Kleenex from the fancy enameled box, she noticed the pile of wadded tissues on the floor. Laughed. Jeez, I cried this out six years ago.

How ironic, she thought. The fire which had driven her, pushed her to success, was to be the fire which would kill her. But not until I’m ready.

She drank some water, settled herself, and returned a phone call. She told them she wasn’t available. But she had a suggestion.

“Her name’s Melissa Stuart, spelled u-a-r-t. Luscious soprano voice. Sings Clara with us. She’s fantastic. Audition her and you’ll love her. Dirk will second the motion. But can you keep it a secret who recommended her?”

Cheetah put down the phone. No more recitals. No Mimi at Santa Fe. No Aida at the Met. No international tours. But Bess would thrive for a few more weeks in the South. Bess would sing her heart out.

The clamor of the city returned. Cheetah closed the window. Her mother’s lilting voice came to her again. “Si kitu kukuumiza…”

“…Nothing can harm you…”

Cheetah was more than halfway through the song. She was drenched. Harald’s lighting seemed more intense. It was burning her up.

“What’s really killing me…” Cheetah stopped and laughed. Amalie gulped at her second mint julep. Cheetah touched her friend’s arm.

“You’re a wonderfully-strong person, Am. I love you for it. What’s really got me is Harald. I haven’t told him. I can’t. I’m not sure the poor guy can handle it. I don’t think he should stick around to watch me dying.”

Amalie’s makeup had dribbled, settled around her chin. She jerked at a napkin and blotted her face.

They were in Atlanta. An Italian restaurant at Peachtree and Peachtree. Everything’s peachy. Except.

“If I can make him back off, if we’re no longer close, it could be easier for him.”

“Don’t do that. Quit the tour right now.” Amalie tore savagely at a piece of mint. “Run away with him. To Paris. Love him for every second remaining.”

“Sounds very operatic.” Cheetah got the giggles. “But the soprano always dies in the last act.” She shook with laughter. “Opera houses are littered with dead sopranos.”

Amalie’s smile was bleak. “Yeah, but those divas get up for curtain calls and maybe a bunch of flowers.” She crumpled. “God, Cheetah.”

“No. No running away. Harald will be fine. I’ll figure something out, Am. But for sure, I’m going to sing and sing and… well, just sing.”

“Hush little baby… don’t you cry.”

Cheetah’s last syllable hovered. Hovered. Hovered, slowly fading. The orchestra’s final notes trailed.

Gershwin intended the piece to end there. Gently rock the baby, receive the applause. On with the show.

But this was Cheetah’s song, her moment, and she still had a final gift for her listeners, one more moment of beauty to savor and share.

Before the audience, still silent, enraptured, could interrupt, Cheetah McGuire breathed deeply, straightened, sang unaccompanied. As though she had all the time in the world.


That one word, pure, evocative, so languid it stretched toward the eternal, curled round the theater like lazy blue smoke, like aching desire, like a beautiful creature loping along with infinite grace, leaving every trouble far behind.

pencilEric E. Wallace writes fiction, plays, poetry and humor. His work has been published in Alaska Magazine, Alaska Quarterly Review, Rosebud, The First Line, Writers Digest and many other periodicals, in six anthologies, and online at WritersWeekly.com, where he has won several short story competitions. His short story “Cell Block” appears in the June 2014 issue of Toasted Cheese. A collection of his stories, Undertow, was published in 2014. Eric lives in Eagle, Idaho. Email: ericewallace[at]gmail.com

Hip Hip

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Alexander Drost

Blue on blue
Photo Credit: Hani AlYousif

Ten years have gone by, and still I can bring back every humid detail of that morning when I arrived in New York. I was seventeen, and it is safe to say now that I was foolish then. That I never stopped to think that to be an artist required more resonance. I never considered that my work would only boomerang me back to the all too familiar scenery of chained pit bulls and SpaghettiOs.

I work on my canvas every day but, after months of staring, it all seems blue. The painting that is. How could such a thing have happened? Every stroke seemed so important.

To know how to paint is to know how to work in opposition, to avoid an oversaturation that only mixes to a gray. The sad truth is, that blue and gray is what most of what my work has become. Sure, I sold a few when I first started but it really is incredible how quickly that excitement wanes. It is so easy to get trapped in a process, a process that slowly becomes repetition and routine.

I am convinced that art has nothing to do with originality, only delivering what already exists but differently, more cleverly. I used to just feel it, feel it in my head but, in just ten years, everything has become stale.

I lick the palette with my brush and touch it back to the big blue. New York City traps people like me. It plays with us, then repackages with a Return to Sender stamp. Tomorrow should be the day I finally listen and squeeze these tubes dry for good. I am just used to it I guess, so by the time it all became blue and gray, so had New York.

Tonight, I walk the streets in search of a bar where I can still smoke. Summer on the island is best at night when the traffic makes a desperate attempt to sound rural. I get to my usual joint, Stranahan’s, and see Ben behind the counter drying a pint glass. It is exactly as expected, and certainly not how I want to spend what should be my last night in the city.

I continue on for maybe ten minutes until I pass a pawn shop sealed off by a big linked fence. Only one bulb inside is lit, spotlighting a white Stratocaster through the window. It is the same color as my stepfather’s that he kept locked under his and my mother’s bed.

Above the stairs next door to the pawn shop sits a folded chalkboard outside of, judging by the smell, what seems like a hookah bar: “TONIGHT Jai Bahrami.” There are no signals of an audience here, and the two dozen or so lights around the sign blink in varying states of disrepair.

“Hip! Hip!” tunes from inside the bar. “When you’re on a holiday.” I know it instantly. There is a strangeness in the cover, the voice. It is much deeper than the original.

The whole tone of the place suggests that not many people have been down those steps and inside. The bar is a dark red inside and has only three round tables before the stage.

I order a beer, light a cigarette, and turn to watch the music. There are maybe twenty people watching Jai Bahrami, a few younger kids dancing, and a man in a dark suit sitting in the corner. From my experience with the bartender, I assume that I am the only person who speaks English in the entire joint.

As I look to the band, I get a bizarre lapse of familiarity. I have had a number of unusual experiences in New York, but I have never felt such strange deja vu as this. I raise my head and look more closely at Jai. Still I cannot recall ever having seen him before. His hair is long and black and he is playing the strings with such ease. It is the kind of sound that you think you recognize immediately but know that you have never heard before.

Jai hammers his hand against his guitar in a windmill-like strum. Pulling back his hair with one hand, he giggles the neck and reverberates the overdrive.

“Thank you for letting me play for you. Good Night.” The lights above the stage lower as I swivel around and realize that I haven’t touched my beer. The singer closes and locks the case to his guitar then walks to my end of the bar.

“Mind if I sit down?” he asks in a Middle Eastern accent. He has a long distinguishable nose, the kind of face you would automatically notice, one who if I had met before I would be able to recognize immediately.

“Please.” I hold up a palm and he drags up a wooden stool and sits next to me. I can see him eyeballing the cigarettes next to my beer. I lift the lip of the pack and pull up on two of the butts, offering him one which he graciously accepts. “You sound great up there.” I say.

“Thank you, very much.” He lights the cigarette.

“Weezer was my jam growing up.”

This makes him chuckle as he shakes out his match.

“By the way, do I know you? I can’t seem to remember if we’ve met before.”

“I do not believe so, friend.” His English is surprisingly good. “Jai.”

“Zack.” I take his hand. “Where did you learn to play like that Jai?”


“Iran?” I can tell he was from somewhere in that part of the world by his accent but I wouldn’t have dared to guess. “You guys got rock and roll out there?” I ask.

He takes a long drag of his cigarette.

I should not have prodded so much. Maybe asked a different question.

“Not much, no.” He lets out a long breath after this leaving me unsure if I have insulted him.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—”

“No. No, it is fine.” He motions to the bartender for a beer. “Iran is a split.”

“A split?”

“Yes. It is split, like, urban.” He runs his hand through his hair and unbuttons the top of his flannel. “There are conservatives like you see on TV. People who are very inward and have never left Iran. Who have never even heard of The Beatles. And there is the city, people like me.”

“Boys with long hair and skinny jeans?”

This makes him laugh.

I touch a spot a few inches below my shoulder. “Mine used to be down to here.”

“Have you heard of the Basijis?” he says.

“They’re like police right?”

“Well, yes. They are religious police, hair cutters.” He sets down his drink. “They, do not like rock and roll. They will stop you for dressing like this.” He motions towards my jeans. “They arrest you for playing an electric guitar.”

I think of the white Stratocaster in the window, how carrying it home could make you a criminal. “So, how did you practice?”

“You are allowed to practice at home, but rock and roll shows are very forbidden. You are not allowed fans or to play covers.”

“Is that why you came to America?”

“For music? Yes. Mainly.” There is a long pause. He puts out his cigarette and looks at me as if he were staring into the cage of an animal at the zoo. “You’ve got blue on you,” he says pointing towards a stain of paint on my cheek.

“Thank you. I’m a—a painter.” I wipe off the smudge.

“An artist?” He turns to face me completely. “Another creative. New York is such a fantastic place for that.”

I turn back towards my beer. I have had this conversation too many times before. Some other kid comes to the city to be an artist. I know because I was that kid for the past ten years; luckily I have ripened to know how low the odds of a breakout are. I think it has made me more rational regarding what I can actually achieve.

Jai flips through his wallet and removes an old faded photograph of him and three other boys. “My brothers,” he says and hands me the photograph. He points to the tallest boy in the middle holding a bass guitar. “Amir, he is a writer. He wrote a story about New York when he was just ten. This one, this one here is Farid. He is an artist too.” He points to the shortest of the brothers holding two drumsticks.

“Do they live here with you?” I ask.

Jai returns the photo to his wallet. “No,” he says, dropping his eyes down to the bar. “They are with police.”

“Police? In Iran?”

“Yes. They arrest anyone they think violates their values.”

“And being a writer and a musician is too western?”

“Yes. Even being an artist.” Jai lifts an eyebrow as he says this. “I love New York. You and I are so lucky to be here. To be able to create, and destroy. We have no bounds.”

I catch myself unwillingly rolling my eyes as he says this. I draw the tip of my finger along the grain of the wood countertop. I want to tell him the truth. How hard and unlikely it is that he would make money with his music. That it is not about talent and all about connections. I want to tell him that even in the west, creatives still starve.

“You know it’s hard, Jai. Not everyone gets so lucky.”

“Luck is big Zack. But, I already won. Just because I am here. Because I can sing and play for you, because you could walk in here and listen.”

“Have you always thought like that? People still fail in New York. Too often actually.” And in fact, I only know artists who failed in the city.

“Fail? I play music for a living. Not just music, rock and roll. In America!” He finishes the last of his pint and stands up from the stool and pulls back his hair. “I can’t think of a better way to fail.” Jai slings his guitar case over his shoulder and I can tell that our conversation is at an end.

“I must go. Great to meet you, Zack.” Jai holds out his hand and I take it firmly.

“Good luck, Jai.” I smile and he smiles back.

Jai ascends the stairs and the man in the dark suit exits behind him.

I mull over our conversation for a few minutes until the bartender rings the bell for last call. Paying my bill, I return back up the stairs I had entered from earlier. It must be around three in the morning and there are no signs of a taxi. Luckily, it is a warm summer night to walk off a beer buzz.

As I step out on the street, I can hear two men laughing at the end of the block behind me. It is Jai, holding his guitar case, and the man with the dark suit. The man in the suit is all smiles and holds out his arm motioning towards the opened back end of a limousine. Jai shakes the man’s hand and ducks into the open limo. The driver closes the door behind them both and pulls down the boulevard.

Instead of being shocked, I find myself laughing, and turn back to face the outside of the bar. The owner shuts off the sign, leaving the alleyway almost in complete darkness. The only light comes from inside the pawn shop over that white Stratocaster. “Rock and roll in America.” I laugh. How could he fail?

I kick along a beer can that has escaped from a trash bin in the alley. I finally reach my apartment and spread myself onto the sofa, staring at that big blue canvas. The curtains are drawn closed and the metallic tubes of oil and suspended pigment are squeezed completely dry. I can see the city’s lights slowly dimming as morning comes to greet the island in the sun.

As my head finally rests on top of the pillow, a faint banner of white streams across the sky outside the window. I think of Jai and the white Stratocaster, how he must have felt finally stepping into that limo. I watch the wet dabs of blue dry into smaller and smaller skewed circles as a great sense of accomplishment descends upon me. The painting is not finished; it will never be finished. It is a process which only builds and removes more and more layers. This canvas will always require more paint, more paint that I will have to get tomorrow.

pencilAlexander Drost was born in New Jersey. He is a twin. He has a B.A. in Creative Writing and Sculpture from the University of Colorado. You can find his work online in Blotterature Literary Magazine and 3Elements Review. He currently lives and works in Boulder, Colorado. Email: amdrost[at]hotmail.com

When We Still Knew What It Meant to Be Kids

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Krista Varela

Dirty pool
Photo Credit: Éole Wind

That summer before high school, the desert was ruthless.

The weeds had become overgrown, shooting up through the ground to graze our ankles and lodge themselves in our socks when we’d run outside. They sucked the ground dry of its nutrients, leaving cracks in the dirt like the cracks on our chapped lips.

The sun bruised our skin red. Our shoes baked on the pavement, the plastic on the tips of our shoelaces melted as we dragged them across the sidewalks.

The hot winds blew and tried to stir things up, but nothing changed; dirt and sediment settled on the bottom of the stagnant swimming pool, turning the water murky and thick.

There were days when it was so hot, our dreams flickered in front of us like mirages on the blacktop, disappearing the closer we got to reaching them.

And yet, there was still the mural of horses painted on the front of your house; mustangs and appaloosas, spotted browns, whites, and blacks, bucking and prancing through a field of lush grass and unfastened wooden fences, an entire other world painted against a pink wall—giving us hope that there was life beyond this place we were living.


Do you remember how we met? I’m not sure who was the first to say hello in that year before high school. We shared a lot of the same friends back then, because you were in band, and I wished I had been cool enough to be in band. My parents had just officially divorced, still battling custody issues while they fought about my dad’s drinking, and my mom couldn’t afford for me to rent an instrument. I still hung out with the band kids anyway. But the fact that your parents were divorced too was what drew me to you at first; I didn’t know anyone else who had a family like mine.

We spent much of our free time roaming around your neighborhood and exploring the alley because we were on the threshold of something, but we didn’t quite know what. Mostly I think we just tried to stay out of the house so that your mom wouldn’t make us do chores.

You also introduced me to a lot of music I had never heard before. We spent hours listening to your stereo because iPods didn’t exist yet. We’d play music with the volume turned all the way up, and your mom would pound on the wall for us to turn it down when she was hungover and had a headache.

Before we knew each other that well, you asked me once if I had ever been molested, but you didn’t use that word. It was in that shy roundabout way that kids ask when they’re not sure how to talk about things—do you remember what you told me? You confessed that your grandfather and uncle had shown themselves to you before with a strong smell of whiskey on their breath. But you could already hold you own. You knew how to handle and talk to drunken family members in a way that I hadn’t learned yet. “Put that thing away, old man,” you’d said. I never told you, but it scared me when you told me that. It scared me when I’d see your uncle at your house with a beer in his hand, and I’d wonder if he would try it again. I knew I wasn’t as brave as you were.

We were at your house once, just the two of us, watching a movie. You got up and went to the kitchen to get something to drink. You probably don’t even remember, but you asked me if I wanted a wine cooler from the refrigerator. I had never tried alcohol before. I didn’t know what to do. I never told you, but when you asked me, my stomach seized up in knots, worried about what we were capable of, even though it was no worse than what I knew other kids our age were doing. It’s not like you were offering me the wine in the cabinet above the fridge, or the bottle of gin under your mom’s bed. We’d both grown up watching our parents drink and saw the emotional extremes that came with it—the carefree elation and the utter despair, the hard fall from one to the other. That was the moment I realized that could be us someday, so overwhelmed by life that it was the only way to cope.

I wasn’t ready.

I didn’t know then that our first drink together would be almost a decade later in Las Vegas celebrating our twenty-first birthdays. But at thirteen years old, I just wasn’t ready. “No, thanks,” I said, and you came back to join me on the couch with a glass of water instead.


My dad would tease you about the different colors that you’d dye in your hair, and you’d tease him right back. None of my friends had ever done that before; they were always too intimidated by his gruff voice and sarcasm. My dad knew that your own father wasn’t around, and he tried to fill in as a role model in your life. Even though he spent night after night taking shots of tequila while he cleaned up the bar that he owned and only saw us a few times a week, that had to be better than being away from your kids across the country right? My dad still asks about you, says he loves you like a daughter.

My mom loved you too because it was impossible not to, but she probably thought you were a little too wild for me at times. Remember that evening at my house when we sprayed the walls of my room with hair glitter from a can? I never told you, but my mom pulled me aside before we took you home and asked me if we had been drinking. The smell from the aerosol can had smelled like alcohol to her. I’m not sure if she believed me when I said no, even though I let her smell my breath. There were days after that when I’d be sitting in my room, and the light would catch just right, and the glitter would sparkle on the walls.


That ruthless summer before freshman year, we were in your backyard swimming in the pool. The radio was on, and “The Boys of Summer” by Don Henley was playing. I knew the song because The Ataris had recently come out with a cover of it. Your mom was outside with us, barefoot on the patio, and she was dancing with her eyes closed and a cigarette in her hand. She swayed side to side, slowly waving her arms in the air, and there was something so beautiful about the way that she moved, as if the song could have played forever and she’d have just kept dancing. Your mom had gained weight since I first met her, probably from the alcohol, and her face had stretched into wrinkles from smoking so many cigarettes and worrying about paying the bills, but in that moment you couldn’t see any of that.

Before school started, your mom lost her job, and she stopped nagging you to clean the pool. She couldn’t make her mortgage payment so you would probably have to move, so what was the point of keeping it clean anyway? I was surprised by how quickly it got dirty. In a matter of weeks, the bottom was completely covered in muck. The longer it went, the less clean water there was, and eventually, you couldn’t even see two inches below the surface.

We managed to get a block of dry ice from the grocery store once. Chipping off pieces onto the pool steps, we watched the water around it bubble and the dirt scatter, leaving a small ring of clear water around the ice. There was something so dangerous about handling the dry ice ourselves, but there was something so harmless about placing it in the water, and something so comforting about seeing a small bit of clarity in an entire pool of filth.


The desert was ruthless that summer, but the fall was even worse.

I remember the day your mom died. It was just after Halloween. I was in freshman English class, and I got a slip calling me into the office. I was led to the counselor’s office, where I saw you sitting at the table with someone I didn’t know. Everyone was looking at us with gentle smiles, in that way that people do when they know bad news before you do, looking at us if we were fragile and already broken.

You were in shock; you weren’t crying. Maybe you had finished crying before I got there, or maybe you couldn’t cry yet. The reality that our lives had changed permanently wouldn’t sink in for a long time. Until then, alcoholism was this vague term that we knew our parents fit in to somehow, but just referred to the everyday bullshit that we had to put up with, like when your mom slept in every day until noon or when my father got road rage for no reason at all.

But after that, alcoholism became real—a real disease that caused liver failure and bleeding ulcers and took parents away from their children.

The next day was my mom’s birthday. I asked her if I could see you that night. I could tell she was disappointed that I wasn’t spending her birthday with her, but she understood. Somehow it didn’t seem right to celebrate with my mom when you could never again be with your own. I think about you every year on November third, a day that was both a beginning and an end.


We’ve never again had a summer quite like that one. You moved across the country to live with your dad, down south where the air was wet and thick. Life still wasn’t easy, taking care of another parent that bounced around from one job to the next holding a bottle in a brown paper bag, but you managed. You knew how to hold your own. A few years later I left the desert too, to spend my summers gazing out into the Pacific and share my new home in rolling green hills with cows and wild turkeys. But I still watched from afar as my own dad lost so many things because he refused to throw out the bottle of tequila on his desk: his job, his driver’s license, half of his front tooth.

The last time I drove by your house, the mural of horses was gone. The people living there now painted over the entire wall with a dull gray. Perhaps the horses moved on to greener pastures.

Every time I hear “The Boys of Summer” on the radio, I think of that summer when we still knew what it meant to be kids. I think of that day we spent in the pool, swimming until our fingertips wrinkled and the tips of our noses turned red. I think of the smell of chlorine, the sound of cicadas singing in the trees. I think of the hot concrete, the way our feet burned as we dashed across the yard to turn up the radio. When I hear that song, I picture your mom, and wonder if she too was thinking about being a teenager when life feels both so immediate and so nostalgic. I can see her so clearly, her brown hair shining in the Arizona sun, in that eternal moment, dancing.

pencilKrista recently graduated with her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Saint Mary’s College of California. She currently resides in Concord, California with her partner and their miniature dachshund. This is her first publication. Email: kdvarela[at]gmail.com


Beaver’s Pick
Rori Leigh Hoatlin

In Open Fields of Wildflowers - Lupine and Daisies IMG_2123
Photo Credit: John Britt

It surprised us when our Advanced Biology teacher, Mr. Reef, told us, “Millions of years ago glaciers cut through Hudsonville, Michigan. Everything, covered by water. Over time the glaciers melted into lakes, then those lakes trickled down to streams, and those streams sank into the earth creating the well-watered dirt we call muck.”

This surprised us. We attended Unity Christian High School and this was the first time I ever heard an adult say the world we lived in was millions of years old. We’d been taught to fight these sort of proclamations—how old the earth. We were taught to quote Genesis. One week, one literal week, was all it took for God because he could do anything. We must have been caught off guard. We didn’t expect this statement to come from our science teacher. He wasn’t looking for a fight. He didn’t ask us how old we thought world was. He gave us the facts.

This had been an impromptu field trip. The fifteen of us shuffled out of the classroom and boarded one of the six buses our school owned. We rode down Oak and Van Buren streets, past the fairgrounds and over the railroad tracks.

I looked out the window and surveyed my hometown, a flat place with the exception of a two-mile ridge of oak and maple trees to the west, a place made of muck fields—waterlogged mud that the Dutch were persistent enough to till. A place of celery, onions, and corn, wet all year long, but green in the spring. Purple and yellow wildflowers grew at the edge of the vegetable fields. Even on sunny days, the air smelled like a wet forest floor.

I tried to picture what it looked like “millions” of years ago. I imagined the land underwater. I imagined rivers cutting banks, foliage growing and dying. I reconstructed the enormity of the blue-and-white glacier, imagined that it covered the lowland. Wolverines roamed the tundra and howled at the black sky. But then again, there was probably nothing, just silence and ice.

At the time, I saw this trip as an escape from school. A moment when he taught us factoids about the earth, about our home. But it would have taken years for me to find out this information if he hadn’t given it to me. I wish I could return to that moment, poke myself in the ribs, and demand that I recognize its importance.

Would that version of me see?

Time opens up before me, a cavern of impossibly stretched space. We believed God made the earth in seven days. But Mr. Reef didn’t waver, he didn’t say God’s time might be different from our own and maybe seven days for God was millions of years to us. We knew what our arguments were and he knew them too. It was more important that we learn something new rather than regurgitate the same old lines we’d been fed. He needed to remind us that the world we lived in was older and filled with more complexity than we could fathom. He knew that at seventeen, we felt large. We were going to graduate and be a part of the world—he needed to remind that we felt grandiose, but in fact, we were very small.

pencilRori Leigh Hoatlin is a Teaching Fellow of English composition and literature at Georgia College and a Summer 2013 Teaching Consultant at The Lake Michigan Writing Project in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Her work has previously appeared in Young Scholars in Writing, Prick of the Spindle, and is forthcoming in Steel Toe Review, Superstition Review, and Tampa Review Online. Email: hoatlinr[at]gmail.com

Stats for the Living

Broker’s Pick
Sandra Fees

Summer Night Softness
Photo Credit: mtnbikrrrr

for Yehuda Amichai

For every person in a hurry to die,
there are three to pull her back.

For the dying who can’t die,
the living to push them through
and the dead cajoling.

For the weary,
plenty of shoulders.

For the lonely,
those who will take their money.

For morning people,
the unrelenting hunger of goldfinches
and garbage trucks rattling
up and down streets with unwanted
tins and wrappers that can’t breathe or stop breathing.

For evening people,
there is the memory
of what no longer loves
but can still be loved

and there is sleep,
crowded by cicadas,
by dreaming and you.

pencilSandra Fees is a poet and minister. She studied creative writing at Syracuse University in the 1980s and was editor of the Harrisburg Review from 1994-2001. She’s an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister and lives in Reading, Pennsylvania. Email: sandrarfees[at]gmail.com

Negative Space

Baker’s Pick
Sandra Fees

negative space
Photo Credit: mollybob

When sand is so hot on the feet
you forget how to walk

and when prayer is the shape
of a teacup

Because the young woman tells her boyfriend:
negative space is cool

and because the room is too big
and the world too small

After you drink holy water
in the Narayan temple

and sacrifice what was
for what is

Then everywhere is a tree
wanting to be climbed

and everywhere arms press
into sleeves of air.

pencilSandra Fees is a poet and minister. She studied creative writing at Syracuse University in the 1980s and was editor of the Harrisburg Review from 1994-2001. She’s an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister and lives in Reading, Pennsylvania. Email: sandrarfees[at]gmail.com

The Entourage

Clare Kane

Komachi in the Graveyard
Photo Credit: Asian Curator at The San Diego Museum of Art

What use did I have for a boyfriend? Was I supposed to be grateful that I could pin down some guy who would look up from the porn on his smartphone long enough to give me an empty compliment or capture an oaf willing to buy me a steak on Valentine’s Day in return for me dressing up as a cheap hooker at home? I had no use for a boyfriend. But boys, yes, I did have some uses for them.

The system made sense to me. First of all, girls were so boring. All they ever did was talk about boys. So I happened on the idea that by directly hanging out with the boys I could avoid all talk about them forever and ever. And so I did. When I was at school they tried to paint me as a slapper until they found out I wasn’t even having sex with all those boys but just leading them in what my mother called “merry dances” and then the girls all froze me out. So what started as a lifestyle choice pretty soon morphed into a lifestyle.

By the time I graduated from university, I had perfected the rotation of what I called “the entourage.” I suppose they weren’t really an entourage as they were never together at the same time, but they were my own personal shower of rogues. They could never be fewer than four (if the numbers dipped, emergency action was required) and it was easiest to see the same guys on the same days of the week. So in my first year as a real grown-up I had Tom the management consultant for Mondays, Tuesdays for myself, Alex the mysterious Russian with unlimited funds on Wednesdays, Pierre the French banker on Thursdays and the weekend was usually divided between old faithful Robbie, who I had known since university, and whoever had snuck a short-term term pass into the group. Some of the women at work would look at me oddly as I applied my lipstick and said I was going on another date, asking “But don’t you want a boyfriend?” And my God, that was all they wanted. They spent hours discussing wedding dresses and babies’ names and how much a three-bedroom house would cost while filing their nails and sleeping their way through emails and all of them were totally, pathetically desperate. If only they knew that what drew men was total indifference, aversion to marriage, and the vague knowledge that they were just one of several possibilities, one star in a big, shiny galaxy. They were so dull, the jeunes filles a marier, that I always sighed with relief when I left them for the day, winding my way through London’s Tube tunnels to another date.

But then there was Harry. I met him when I was out scouting for a fifth member of the group after the incumbent, Scott, announced he was going to return to California and marry his high school sweetheart. I wished him well and immediately bought a listings magazine. I saw there was a poetry reading at the Japanese embassy and although I had no liking for poetry (at least not on the surface, perhaps down in my most secret recesses the pulse of emotion did still beat), I did like embassies. Just the kind of place to meet worldly foreigners. Guys from other countries were key to the mechanics of the entourage, as they had smaller networks in London and were less likely to know each other. So I set off for the embassy, a dark cloud of doubt above my head, which always happened when one member had dropped out.

I don’t want you to think that I wanted Scott to be my boyfriend or that I even wished for a single second that it was me he was marrying and not some blonde beach bunny. After all, I had cohabited with a man most of my life—my father. His moods and petty jealousies and heavy, male demands convinced me that living with a man was perhaps the worst fate that could befall a woman. He had confirmed this view when he left my mother for a woman just five years older than me after twenty-six years of marriage. You couldn’t put your faith in relationships. Bank notes (at least not Zimbabwean ones), jobs and real estate would be the bricks of my security. I would work my way to the top, gathering savings and men as I went, enjoying the lack of reliance on one person because there was always another to fill their place.

The poetry reading was surprisingly populated. None of these people had dates to go on, obviously, and time enough on their hands to waste listening to other people read words aloud. I slipped into a chair near the front. There was a panel of experts sitting on a small stage, holding thick books and serious expressions. The hubbub of conversation died down and the first man, an older Japanese with half-moon glasses, introduced the young guy next to him.

“This is Harry Wilson. He’s just completed a PhD in Japanese poetry. He’ll begin this evening with some readings.”

Harry, who looked very student-chic in light chinos and a thick sweater, moved to the front of the podium.

“It’s been a pleasure translating these poems,” he said. “Let me begin with some work by Ono no Komachi, a poet whose unusual beauty brought her a lot of fame, though she suffered from a deep sadness.” His voice was soft and melodious, like water running past my ears. Maybe he was from up north.

“How hollow
Are tears upon a sleeve
In gemlets;
For mine cannot be dammed
As a surging flood!”

There was something in his tone that almost made me laugh, as he read out the most private depths of female misery in his confident, male voice. I watched him to the end, feeling my breath getting tight in my chest. What was wrong with me? It hit me like scaffolding falling from above. I found him attractive. I never found men attractive—life was too short for that kind of nonsense. I only liked men who liked me. Who were these women that chased men? Didn’t they know how society worked? But I liked him. And I wanted him in my entourage, like the insect collector might keen for an exotic butterfly. So after the talk, I walked over to congratulate him.

If there was one thing I was good at it was flirting. I could take the slightest flicker of interest from a man and turn it into ardent desire that would stop him sleeping, eating and, in one extreme case, breathing.

“I just wanted to say I loved your poems. I’m afraid I have to run but I was really blown away.” Always. Leave. Them. Wanting. More. Ladies who give up your kisses and words and beds so quickly, you have a lot to learn.

“That’s a disappointment,” he said with a short laugh. “You must be the youngest person here by at least ten years.”

“I’ve come to poetry early,” I said. “Oh, I don’t mean to be rude. Kate.” I stuck out my hand and he shook it softly.

“Pleasure to meet you, Kate.”

“Thanks again. Bye-bye.” I had walked two steps before he stopped me and asked for my number.

I couldn’t fit Harry in for a week. Alex, the Russian whose parents were involved in some mysterious business that allowed them to support him in a Chelsea flat while he loafed around London, wanted to take me to Scotland for the weekend. I know, if I had been the son of a Russian oligarch, I would have preferred Saint Tropez too, but the rich are often depressingly banal in reality. Alex was the perfect kind of unattached soul for me to have around, a drifter on a raft of money, who needed nothing else to cling onto in this life. Almost Buddhist, really. So we went to Edinburgh and then to the Highlands and stayed in a cute little hotel and got drunk in the evenings and I pretended to enjoy rainy, windy walks and a tour of a distillery. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. I wasn’t with Alex for his money. I was going to make my own. But there was no harm in the occasional Tiffany bracelet or shopping trip to Harvey Nichols. That was what lots of people had boyfriends for.

Before my date with Harry I felt strangely nervous. He had suggested meeting during the day, i.e. the opposite of romance, and I wondered if he really just thought I was a poetry buff. I put too much hairspray in my hair so it was as stiff as the blue rinse on an old woman’s corpse and my lipstick was too red. But I went to the British Museum, where he met me with a smile in his eyes and another handshake.

“You look nice,” he said and I felt a sudden flush, wondering if he was laughing at me. But we walked around the museum in an amiable silence occasionally broken by his comments about the Meiji era or some other Japanese-related thing I pretended to be interested in.

“So what brought a girl like you to a Japanese poetry reading?” he asked as we walked outside, the grey canopy of London opening for us.

“What do you mean?”

“You just seem like more of a girl about town. Someone who might eat sushi, but your appreciation for other cultures would stop there. I don’t mean it in a bad way.”

“I would have thought you of all people wouldn’t judge a book by its cover,” I said. I was taken off-guard by this boy. I should never have come. He was right. A girl like me had better things to do than read poetry and walk around some chilly museum with a lonely PhD poet.

“I don’t. In fact, when I look at you I think of another one of Komachi’s poems. I don’t know why.” He stopped walking and cleared his throat.

“How sad,
To think I will end
as only
a pale green mist
drifting over the faraway fields.”

“And they say romance is dead!” I retorted haughtily, but inside I felt a stab of shame. It was like he was undressing me with his eyes, not in the way other men did, but to peer right into my soul. Bring back the trashy guys who just wanted to drink cocktails and dance too close to me, I thought, because I’m drowning here in Harry’s unwavering attention. We said goodbye and he didn’t even attempt to kiss me. As I watched him slip into the cavernous mouth of Tube station I conceded a point. The boy had game.

On Sunday I spent the afternoon with my mother. She had blossomed into the most superior example of single womanhood. She lived in a small flat in Bayswater with a Persian cat and a perfectly-tended window box. She ushered me in and I breathed in the sweet tranquillity of living alone. It was beautiful. While she shuffled around making tea I saw a smile playing on the corners of her mouth.

“You’re quiet. Something on your mind?” she asked.


“Come on, who’s the latest victim?” She winked.

“I met a new guy. But it’s nothing serious. You know I’m still playing the field.” I bristled at her questioning. I knew there was something unorthodox in keeping a collection of men as though they were rare stamps and I didn’t like having to justify it.

“I know, darling, but I really could leave this world much happier if I knew you were with somebody. I’d like to see you settled. I hate to think of you all alone once I’m gone.” It was true that I didn’t speak to my father and his new wife, who still hadn’t had the decency to turn thirty. But my mother didn’t need to worry, because I would snuggle up to a hard pile of cash in my old age. I was totally self-sufficient.

It took Harry four days to get in touch with me again. The wonderful thing about having an entourage was normally I didn’t notice that kind of thing. I always woke up in the morning to at least one tender text message and spent my day fielding calls and invitations from various suitors. If one guy dropped off the radar, there was always someone to fill his place. But I felt Harry’s absence deep in my gut and I panicked. I had to convince myself that we couldn’t be together. This had happened to me once before, when I had thought about ditching the group for just one man. But justifications were easy to come up with—he’s the same age as me, he’ll want someone younger in a few years; he doesn’t earn much money and I don’t want to support him; he chews gum too loudly. With Harry the reasons were myriad—he was working as a freelance translator, living in east London, he probably had a fetish for foreign poetesses, he didn’t appreciate me because he was taking so long to get in touch with me. When I had my date with Pierre the French banker that week he noticed I was distracted.

“It’s nothing,” I said. “But Pierre, have you ever noticed anything funny about me? Like there might be a valley of sadness inside me?” I couldn’t get that line about green mist out of my head.

“A valley of sadness? Um, no.” I saw the look on his face. I’d made that same expression a million times. Please take your emotions to someone who cares. “Is this about us? Because I’ve told you I’m not looking for anything serious.” What had just happened? Was he really feeding my classic line back to me?

“Believe me, I’m more than happy with that,” I said. But I wondered if any of the rest of them had ever spotted the mist of misery that swirled around me, ever wondered if there was something more to me than pretty lips and words dripping in honey.

Harry took me for a drink to the kind of place I normally abhorred, where women rolled up the ends of their jeans and men tended their facial hair like they were watering plants. Low, depressing music played on the speaker and I didn’t know how to pronounce the names of any of the cocktails.

“I don’t want to mess around,” Harry said suddenly, putting down the drinks list. “I like you.” This was the worst thing that could happen. The first rule of entouraging was to block any kind of commitment conversation.

“I like you too. You’re sweet.” Sweet was a word that would normally stop even the most macho of men in their tracks.

“You know what I mean, Kate. I want this to be something only you and I do. Exclusive.”

“What, having a drink? That might be quite hard to manage.” He was taking me for a fool, I thought. I had years of experience. Trying to beat me was like playing tennis against someone who used both hands. You would always be outmanoeuvred.

“Can you please stop trying to be so cool? You can take the mask off with me.”

“I don’t want a boyfriend.”

“Who broke your heart?”

“Nobody. Ever. And I intend to keep it that way.” I pointed at a gin cocktail on the list. “I’ll have that one.”

“I don’t want to see you if you’re not even going to give it a try. I want to be someone’s boyfriend, not a toy.”

I felt a little chill when he said that. Had another member of the entourage set him up? How did he know that I was just playing with him, warming him up to sit on the bench?

“Fine,” I said. “If you must know, I’m not willing to give this a proper try. We can hang out and have fun together but I’m not looking for a relationship.”

“Then I don’t want to see you anymore,” he said, scraping his chair back loudly enough that a girl with a buzzcut turned to stare at us. Without another word, he walked out the bar, leaving me gawking after him. Had I just been rejected? Who did he think he was, this lowly, Japan-obsessed translator, proclaiming about the green mists of my mental state? Well, he would never get another chance with me. Too embarrassed to stay under the watch of the people in the bar, I left a few minutes after, a face full of shame.

The next week I was a bundle of anger and embarrassment. I couldn’t let that cheeky chino-wearing intellectual break my game. I would find another person to fill the hole. I even went to a networking event for young professionals, with the sole purpose of finding a new entourage member as different to Harry as possible, someone who would never wear a jumper with holes in it. I was seething. This might sound overdramatic for a boy I’d met three times, but the entourage was my bedrock. My happiness depended on an equal and even rotation of players in the game. After a few more painful days, I received a text message from him:

“I was just reading one of Komachi’s poems, thought you might like it:

In reality
You must do it, I suppose;
But even in my dreams, too,
Hidden from prying eyes,
It pains me to see you do so.

Remind you of anyone?”

With furious thumbs I replied: “I wish someone had created a succinct way to express eye-rolling over a text message.” He didn’t respond. I became obsessed with the poem, re-reading the lines every night before I slept, wondering exactly what he meant by it. I had to extinguish Harry.

He waited another week before calling me.

“So, Kate, you win. I want to see you again. Have you had a chance to think about what I said?”

“Yes,” I said, my voice strangely strangled.

“And has absence made the heart grow fonder?” he said, the hint of a laugh in his vowels.

“I thought you didn’t want to play games.”

“Let’s meet this weekend. But only if you’re serious.”

And to my astonishment I found myself saying: “Yes, I am.” I slept soundly that night, not even glancing at the poem before drifting off.

Scott was leaving for California at the weekend and wanted to see me one last time.

“What about the girl you’re going to marry?” I asked, but secretly my heart was pumping with joy. I still had it, even with men betrothed to someone else.

“I’m not married yet, am I?”

Maybe I knew what I was doing when I suggested the place. My therapist is always telling me that we can act on an unconscious level, so maybe deep in the layers of my skin, where the green mist had clogged into a bitter fungus, I knew what would happen. But when I told him to meet me on Thursday at the same bar where Harry had so spectacularly abandoned me to a lonely cocktail, I really didn’t think anything would go wrong. I hadn’t even liked the place, but I thought Scott might. That was how I justified it to myself.

When I arrived, Scott was already waiting for me, his freckles hopeful and his hair shiny. I walked in and waved at him, feeling a looming presence from the other side of the room. Harry was working on a laptop with a big book spread out in front of him. It was one of those moments when decisive action is called for. I could have bolted from the place or calmly spoken to Harry and told him I was meeting a friend called Scott. But instead I sat opposite Scott and felt my body turn numb as he seized my hands and kissed me across the small table.

“You look great,” he said, his tones booming and American. “What’re you having?” I couldn’t see Harry, but I could feel him and my heart tugged in his direction. I had sacrificed him upon the altar of the entourage, abandoning something that made my blood run more red and my heart beat more joyfully for a boy who was leaving the city forever to marry somebody else. I felt like an observer outside myself, someone who was wagging a finger at me and saying: “You silly, silly girl.” I couldn’t hear the words Scott was saying to me, my stomach was so black with the fear Harry would come over and say something.

“You seem distracted,” Scott said, just as I heard footsteps behind me.

“Well, congratulations. You’ve made your point, Kate.” I turned slowly to meet his eyes, the swivel as slow as I could manage, hoping he would disappear. “You were never going to change.” He dropped a piece of paper on the table, hiked his laptop under his arm, and left. I felt like my whole body had gone to sleep as I watched him leave.

“What was his deal?” Scott said and I just shook my head, unravelling the note in shaky fingers.

Another Komachi poem for you:

Placing burning coals
To my body hurts less than
The sorrow of
The capital and island shore

Well, never mind, I thought, scrunching the paper into a ball.

“I want a drink,” I said to Scott and he nodded. He was a proper entourage member. He never questioned. And I would always be able to find another one like that.

pencilClare Kane is 25 years old and has over two years’ experience as a financial journalist for Reuters news agency in London and Madrid. She is currently looking to publish her first novel, while working on her second, which is set in 1930s Shanghai. She recently had a short story published on website Londonist, as part of the London Short Fiction series. Email: clarelouisekane[at]gmail.com


Jack Herbert

The Birthday Girl
Photo Credit: Maria

Have you ever seen yourself when you’re immersed in virtual reality? Trust me, you look like an idiot. Mouth slacked open, a line of crusted drool running from the corner of your mouth all the way down your neck, your eyes frantically rolling around under closed lids , and (if you were too cheap to spring for the neural blocker) your arms and legs twitch every so often because your body is too stupid to know that the impulses being generated by the brain are only supposed to apply to the fake world you’re living in and not the reality of you strapped to a bed covered in wires and tubes. Even so, I would trade places with you in a second.

It’s my first stop of the morning and I’m about to ruin someone’s life. The repo paperwork got me through security into this guy’s apartment and now I’m standing over his living corpse while his brain is currently somewhere else. Unless you’re one of the ultra-rich trust fund crowd, you have to make time to earn a living while you’re inside. More often than not, people get too caught up in their electronic fantasies and forget there are bills to be paid out here in the real world. If you happened to buy your VR rig on credit (and everybody buys their VR rig on credit), then you’ll probably wind up on my call sheet so I can ruin your life, too.

I took another look at the paperwork: Scott Degman, age 36, no wife, no kids, payment five weeks overdue. We don’t even bother sending reminder notices any more.

They would have just ended up in the mountain of mail I had to climb over to get into the place. Once you’re that deep into the sim, nothing out here matters any more.

I pulled up the status display and it was pretty much what I figured. He’d been under for almost ten weeks, hardly a marathon session but enough to get you in trouble. I tabbed over to the portal view so I could see what was going on in this guy’s fantasy. Yes, it’s a major violation of privacy, but I was well within my rights and I just loved to torture myself this way, to see exactly what I was missing out on. Good ol’ Scott was currently in the midst of an orgy with a who’s who of stacked starlets, women like Marilyn Monroe and Scarlett Johansson heaped into one big writhing mass of naked flesh.

Of course it was sex. It’s always sex. Everyone swears they will take the high road, that they will have the mature fantasy encounters windsurfing off Hawaii or climbing Mount Everest or discussing politics with Abraham Lincoln, but it doesn’t take long for your baser natures to start running the show, for your trip to the Forum to turn into a party at Caligula’s place.

Of course, it was originally designed to be just a vacation, but what was supposed to be a relaxing getaway for a few hours quickly became days then weeks then months. Those with the resources to do so took up permanent residence while everyone else figured out how to turn in just enough work to keep up with the payments so the fun would never end.

I really can’t complain. I was just as bad and, given the chance, I’d be right there with them. Thanks to an aneurysm, the docs tell me that going back into VR, even for a minute, will almost certainly kill me. There are days when that seems like a pretty good trade. So, yeah, I get a great deal of perverse pleasure in the unplugging process. Chalk it up to misery loving company.

I kicked off the shutdown sequence and then kept an eye on Degman’s vitals. This guy was pretty young for a heart attack, but being yanked back to reality against your will can take a pretty hefty toll on both the body and the psyche.

“Wha… who… what happened?” Scott’s eyes were half open, his face skewed by disorientation.

“Sir, can you hear me?” I asked as I shined a flashlight in his eyes to check the pupil response. It didn’t look like brain damage was an issue, at least not yet.

“What happened? Why are you in my house?”

“Repossession, Mr. Degman. If you buy stuff on credit, you need to make the payments. I have been authorized to take your VR equipment with me today unless you can pay me the balance due right now.”

This is the part where it starts to get embarrassing. People swear the payment must have been lost, that their bank was the culprit, that they would have the money in a couple of days if I could just wait. But, of course, it’s almost always a bunch of desperate lies from people trying to hold onto their dreams just a little bit longer, the addict trying to keep the fix going. Trust me, once you’ve spent that long inside, reality will never be enough to make you happy.

Degman went through all the expected excuses and even made a couple of half-hearted phone calls. The first told him his bank account was overdrawn and the other informed him that he had been fired from his job for not showing up. Ten minutes later, I had his rig strapped to my handcart and was heading for the front door.

“What am I supposed to do now?” Degman asked.

“Try living for a change,” I responded as the door closed behind me. The next stop was halfway across town, but thanks to a nearly complete lack of traffic, it hardly took any time at all. These days, the streets are almost deserted even in the middle of the day. Newsweek called it “The Ghost Town Effect” in their big cover story about how VR was destroying America. Not that it did any good. Two weeks after that article ran, both houses of Congress voted unanimously to hold all future legislative sessions in VR. Good riddance.

Next up on the call sheet was Luis Sanchez. I took the elevator up and entered his apartment with the master I picked up from the building manager, just one more stop on the Loser Express.

Right away, I could see this was going to be a bad one. Sanchez was completely emaciated, nothing but skin and bones. I checked the drip and saw that his IV feed bag was bone dry which meant that no one had been by to replace it in weeks, probably because he had also stopped making his maintenance payments. While his brain was off partying, his body was back here starving to death.

My first surprise came when I noticed the sticky note stuck on the screen that simply said, “Please let me die.” Great. Just great.

I peeled the note off, then pulled up the status display. This guy had been inside for almost seven months. What a mess. If he had been able to make just one more payment, he would have successfully managed to off himself before I even got there. I wondered what fantasy could be worth dying for and pulled up the portal. It wasn’t sex. It was so much worse.

Sanchez was sitting at his kitchen table next to a small girl in a frilly dress and a woman I assumed was his wife. A birthday cake was aglow with candles and they were telling her to blow them out. I looked through his paperwork and then wished I hadn’t. His wife and daughter had been killed in a car accident eight months ago. Two weeks later, he had bought his very first VR rig.

I hated him for a moment because he reminded me of myself. I understood all too well what it means to torture yourself with the unattainable, but also knew what it meant to try and hold onto it, too. I knew what it was like trying to grasp your dreams then wind up with nothing more than a fistful of smoke.

On the screen, the scene shifted to a park and a family picnic, Frisbees being tossed and everyone laughing. Abrupt transitions like that are a sign of neurological issues and a quick check of his vitals bore that out. His brain activity as erratic, his vitals were sketchy, and it was nothing short of a miracle that he was still able to maintain the sim. He probably just willed himself to remain conscious, to keep living with these ghosts, these bits of unreality that were the last remnants of his life before the fickle finger of fate took it all away.

I felt something new as I stared down at this man: pity. I actually felt sorry for him. Trust me, that’s the last thing I expected, too. I kicked myself for going soft, but still stood motionless, letting this go on minute after minute. Anyone else would be awake now, the paramedics checking his credit to see if he could afford medical care while I whistled a jaunty tune and took away his box of stupid dreams, happy to shatter his perfect little fantasy and drag him back into the real world with the rest of us working schlubs.

The scene on the portal switched to a swimming pool, the three of them splashing around on some nice sunny day sometime before he was left alone with his grief, unable to let go of the family he should have had until he died. I guess that was the real fantasy here, what he was trying to accomplish. Why couldn’t this guy just eat a bullet or become a raging alcoholic like anyone else? Why did he have to end up here on my call sheet forcing me to drag him out of this?

As if someone had flipped a switch, my mood crystallized and I suddenly hated my job, all of the wonderful bitter joy I got from unplugging people suddenly lost. Screw it. I don’t get paid enough for crap like this. I scribbled “unable to access residence—revisit in 30 days” onto the work order then walked out and locked the door behind me.

Maybe I’d get lucky and my next call would be living out some really perverted sex fantasy. Buoyed with that small bit of hope, I climbed into my van and got the Loser Express back on track.

pencilJack Herbert’s work has previously appeared or is upcoming in a number of publications including THEMA, Tales of the Talisman, Bloodbond, and Down in the Dirt.  He currently lives in Chicago. Email: janetsch11[at]gmail.com