Reframing the Story

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

Photo Credit: Nicole Pierce/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Nicole Pierce/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

“I know what I’m gonna do tomorrow, and the next day, and the next year, and the year after that.” —George Bailey, It’s a Wonderful Life

The movie It’s a Wonderful Life is a holiday staple. You’re undoubtedly familiar with the premise since it’s been recycled many times. On Christmas Eve, George Bailey, a man whose life hasn’t turned out as he planned, wishes he had never been born. In response to his wish, an angel appears to show him what the world (or at least a small slice of it) would have been like if he never existed.

Along the way, viewers are shown what events led to this low point and how his absence would have changed the lives of others for the worse. Of course, the movie concludes with George taking back his wish, everything being restored to status quo, and his community coming together to bail him out of his current dilemma.

It’s presented as a heartwarming tale where George is shown the value of his life as “the richest man in town” as his younger brother, Harry, puts it. Figuratively speaking, of course, since his lack of money is an ongoing issue and the crux of the dilemma that opens the film.

The first time I saw this film I took it pretty much as intended, albeit with a little side-eye at the writers for imagining the worst fate that could befall George’s wife, Mary, in the alternate universe would be ending up an unmarried librarian. With each subsequent viewing, though, the story started unraveling for me.

The dilemma George’s neighbors and friends save him from isn’t one of his own making, but it is one he would have taken the fall for had they not stepped in. Their saving him is less a selfless act of generosity than one that ensures he’s still around to take advantage of in the future; he wouldn’t have been much use to anyone in jail. And on December 26, everyone will return to their lives doing what they want, asking George to save them when they need rescuing—and George will still be stuck in Bedford Falls.

George wanted to travel, to go to college, to build bridges and tall buildings. He didn’t want to get married (or get rich quick selling plastics). Instead, he never left the small town he grew up in, ended up married with four kids, and spent his life trying to keep the family business afloat out of a sense of duty to everyone around him. Which is not to say that any of those things are inherently bad, but none of them were what he wanted from life.

And so the heartwarming tale turns out to be a horror story of a man who is trapped by invisible shackles. Each time he makes plans to leave, something intervenes to make him stay, to keep him there, in his small-town prison. It’s okay for everyone else to leave—Harry does, Violet does, Sam Wainwright does, even Mary does for a time—but not George. George must stay. Staying—or returning in Mary’s case—to the small town of Bedford Falls is proof of their goodness.

The It’s a Wonderful Life storyline has become a pervasive trope in our culture. In one of the most common variations, a protagonist who has achieved great success in their career after moving to the Big City (evil), returns to their small hometown (good) for some reason. They are either single (and therefore their life is incomplete) or in a relationship with some unfortunate city person who will soon be dumped. They quickly reunite with someone from their past who has never left town, and decide to stay and pursue a warm fuzzy scaled-down version of their previous career while raising a family. And even if most of us really do live in cities not quaint small towns and our lives are nothing like this, the power of storytelling is such that, at least for the duration, we find ourselves going along with the premise that this narrative is the one path to true happiness.

Storytelling is more powerful than any lecture. Stories have the power to convince you not only that this is the way things should be but make it seem like this is the way they are, an incontrovertible truth, not just one possibility. As writers, it’s our challenge to step far back enough from the familiar story to see alternative ones. One change can change everything. What if instead of George wishing he’d never been born and seeing a world where everything fell apart in his absence, an experience that cemented him even more deeply to the status quo, he wished he’d done the things he dreamed of and saw that things turned out okay for everyone else anyway. Subvert the sad librarian trope and show Mary thriving in her career as a librarian in the city. A wonderful life can take more than one direction.

pencilEmail: beaver[at]

Undertow by Eric E. Wallace

Shelley Carpenter

Undertow: Stories by Eric Wallace

Undertow: Stories by Eric E. Wallace

Eric E. Wallace’s short story collection, Undertow, is one of the best collections I have read. Eighteen stories filled with so much “story.” The writing flows with authority in its language and with characters so richly rounded, so soulful. They laugh and they cry. And they strip down and bare themselves, sometimes bleeding on the pages, beginning with the first story, “Jericho,” where Wallace introduces readers to a former musician who has lost his way. The story climaxes in a moment of true clarity:

The improvisations soon took Jericho far away. He closed his eyes and was swept through all the years he’d missed, the brightness his life could have been.

Jericho is a complex character touched by grace. A character who knows himself well and makes no excuses. Beware! He’s a heartbreaker. He teases the reader with hope and yet remains true to his nature no matter where his choices lead.

Wallace conducts his stories similar to his main character, Petrie, in “Maestro”—

like a master, teasing with unpredictable progressions … challenging with unusual key changes, turning dissonance into joyful surprise, interweaving melodies of grace and beauty.

Such gorgeous prose! The stories are so intriguing and so rich that I can honestly say that I do not have a single favorite among them—I have many favorites. That’s a rarity for me. Typically with short stories I might like one or two, yet this is not the case with Undertow. The stories pulled me in and stirred me much like the “undertow” of the title.

I usually space out time between stories to savor each experience and reflect, but on a few occasions I decided to read just one more. Moments after pondering Jericho’s fate I was introduced to Maddie, the cab driver from “Meter Running,” a “wordy” story that drove me to distraction with its punchy main character and quirky sidekick characters who come and go in Maddie’s cab. Maddie thinks deep thoughts, dolling out little acorns of wisdom while avoiding pedestrians and squirrels and indecision in her sharp little Prius cab. What a character! When I stepped out of her story, I had a moment of reader’s déjà vu. I wondered if perhaps Jericho from the last story had taken a ride with Maddie, too. Maybe off-script, when I wasn’t reading…

How many times have I sat in traffic waiting for a signal from the flag guy in the orange vest?  I met that guy, who has it all figured out, in a story called “Road Work” and then I read about another guy who is trapped, a wounded veteran who suffers from silent injuries. He sees perhaps the ghost of his future self in the “Long Road Home.” Other stories were wickedly funny. “Under the Hood” got me with the first line: “What was in the baby carriage?”

Wallace’s collection is also filed with couples—couples who are stalled like the composer and the mathematics professor, classy Edgar and Sylvia, with their snappy dialog and old-fashioned appeal, who, unlike the flagman, don’t have it figured out and who face some perilous situations in “Loch Ness Monsters.” And then there are those cozy young southern sweethearts in “Playing Doctor.” Carolee and Jiminy. They had me in the third paragraph: “She put one of her least favorite dolls down range, right there for Jiminy to shoot at with his twigs and rubber bands.” Then along comes a skunk and that changes everything…

The title story, “Undertow,” was all about setting and another couple whose story—I had the distinct feeling—would not end well for one or both of them. It gave me the jeepers.

A small white butterfly meandered over the opening. From underneath came a rush, a snarl, surging thunder. Fat, briny tendrils reached up, enmeshed the unwary creature, held it high in split-second triumph. Then the dark grasp of gravity dragged wave, foam and the insect into the slurping abyss.

Wallace’s technique is spot on. Eric Wallace’s stories made this reader fall in love with the short story form all over again.


Eric E. Wallace writes fiction, plays, poetry and humor. Eric’s work has been published in many journals and periodicals such as Alaska Quarterly Review, The First Line, Garbanzo Literary Journal, Pol Journal, Rosebud Magazine, Writer’s Digest, Idaho Magazine, Toasted Cheese and more, in eight anthologies, and online at, where he has won several international short story competitions. Eric’s full-length drama, Syd, was produced at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland. His shorter plays were read in seven northwest cities. Of recent years, Eric has concentrated on writing short fiction. A second collection of Eric’s short stories, Hoar Frost, was recently published by BookLocker in September 2015 and a third collection is in the works. He is currently researching a psychological novel set in contemporary San Francisco. Eric is a member of the Idaho Writers Guild. He lives in Eagle, Idaho.

pencilShelley Carpenter is TC’s Reviews Editor. Email: harpspeed[at]

Sister’s Pact

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Clarissa Pattern

Photo Credit: Scott/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Scott/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

“Do you think Mr. Grece is really a necomanner, Avice?”

My little sister’s hand felt a little more sweaty, a little harder to hold onto, in my grip.

“Necromancer. The word is necromancer.” I was trying to maintain the body language of someone marching forward with purpose. Which is difficult when you’re creeping more sideways than forward in the not-quite-black shadows before dawn, following a man who you’ve never said more than ‘Good Morning’ to before.

I took a deep breath, determined to maintain my role as big sister. The one in charge. “His name is pronounced Gree Ce.”

“Gracie,” she said. Her voice was quiet by her standards, but, oh, at a time like this it was still too loud.

“I know you could say it properly if you wanted to. Why do you persist in pretending that it’s adorable to not be clever, Beatrice?”

My eyes darted around everywhere as if they were expecting someone to be following us following him. Which was not complete paranoia. After recent events there were less than six hundred of us left. Five-hundred-and-eighty-eight. Everyone watched everyone else. We have to look after one another, they said. Are you dangerous? Could I kill you if I needed to? they thought.

And then he’d arrived. Or he’d always been here. But no one knew anyone who knew him. But no one could remember anyone who’d lived in the old End Cottage before him.

Beatrice’s singsong chanting bled through into my thoughts.

“Gracie Grecco Gracie Greasy Grecco…”

“Stop that!” I squeezed her hand in mine. Too tight. I knew and regretted immediately that she was hurting, by the fact she didn’t yell out, or whine. She stood up a little straighter and stared ahead.

It would have hurt her dignity to acknowledge her pain by an apology, instead I said, “We need to stay focused.”

“You believe he is can do… those things?” A visible tremor went through her body.

It surprised me that Beatrice who, when it suited her, could already swear in curses that made me blush, carried the village superstitions that talking in any detail about black magicks would damn your soul.

I didn’t tell my sister that she was asking the wrong question. That all questions were wrong. Because it was too late. It couldn’t benefit us to know what he’d want in exchange for raising the dead. It couldn’t make this journey any easier to be certain of what his necromancy involved. It would make it worse.

I knew in my heart that this cold morning shivering in pursuit of a stranger, with my sister’s hand in mine, could be the last moment of paradise for me.

“I explained to you. You know, that there are very precise rules about when you can approach a sorcerer and ask a favour.”

“Da says they’re just made-up stories to make life seem more interesting than it really is.”

“Well, we will ask Mr. Gre’ce and then we’ll know for sure, even if nothing else comes of this night.”

“Where is he?”

“Who? Where’s who?”

“The skinny Gracie man.”

I looked around desperately.

“You’ve lost him. You’ve lost him,” she said with real glee.

I managed to stop myself slapping her. “This was our chance. This was our chance. Don’t you understand, you stupid little girl?”

Something tapped me on the shoulder. It was definitely a something. I was slow to turn. Nothing there. But when I looked back at Beatrice, he was standing next to her, and he was holding her hand. I didn’t remember letting go.

“Perhaps your chance is still alive if you are a clever little girl.” His voice belonged to midnight, a sound that you hear waking from a nightmare in the darkest hours, something that you know you heard but you pretend was just imagination.

Before this moment I was certain we’d exchanged greetings before, the same as with any neighbour, but now it was as if I’d never heard or seen him before.

“We were following you,” Beatrice looked up into his face. “Did you know? Avice says we have to approach you at the exact right time to ask you our favour. If that’s right, can you change that time to after lunch. It’s too cold and too dark now.”

I wondered how she could gaze into those pale eyes without flinching.

“Were you going to the graveyard to dig up bodies for your magic? Or are you making an undead army?”

A second ago Beatrice would not have spoken such things aloud to me. Let alone someone worse than a stranger. Something had happened. And I’d missed it.

“Neither of those things,” he replied.

“You are a necromancer though, aren’t you? You do do black magicks, don’t you? I hope so, otherwise there’s no point us being here.”

“If you listen to the stars they always lead you to exactly where you’re meant to be.” In the shadows I caught a glimpse of what might have been a smile on his face.

I took a deep breath. Or rather I tried to take a deep breath. The cold night air did not touch my lungs. I felt for my pulse. There was nothing. On the outside I moved like normal, on the inside everything was completely still.

“What have you done?” I demanded.

“What do you wish me to do?” he replied.

I opened my mouth to scream at him to make me breathe again. But no. I had more restraint than to lose myself in front of a necromancer. I had to have. This was the moment. He had asked me what I wished for. The wording had to be perfect. Anything less than perfection would be… unthinkable. But I couldn’t think. All the words I had perfectly formed and polished and cared for and preserved awaiting this moment, all those words had turned immediately rotten and maggot ridden in his presence.

“My Daddy is dead,” I blurted out.

He yawned.

“I mean our father has passed. The… the thing that happened. He was one of the ones that got struck.”

He tilted his head. “So it was not a natural death.”

“Dad says all death is natural and nothing to worry about,” Beatrice piped in. “Dad knows…”

“She talks like he’s still alive, ignore her, she’s too young to understand,” I quickly interrupted her. “We need him back.”

The man clearly winked at Avice. She grinned back at him.

“Why not your mother?” The man turned his pale eyes on me. I almost preferred him winking at my little sister.

I swallowed. Except I didn’t. My mouth was dry as if all the water had been sucked out of me.

I had to say it. Nothing else would do. “Girls aren’t safe alone in this world. There’s people that’ll hurt girls if they think you’re not protected.”

He laughed, hearty and joyous. Beatrice giggled along with him. “I prefer women who know how to look after themselves, not ones that quiver in fear.”

If there was any water left in my body tears of rage would sting my eyes. “I don’t care what you prefer, just name your price and bring my father back.”

He continued to laugh, but his eyes flashed serious for an alarming moment. “What you are asking me, child, is against the universal laws of all land.”

“You don’t care about things like that, you are the scum who crawls along the bottom of misery and feeds on grief and deprivation.”

He shrugged the pointed bones of his shoulders. “You’re right, Avice, I don’t care.”

He walked away. With Beatrice happily skipping alongside him.

If I was capable of shouting, the whole world would have heard my cry.

Before the early morning mist swallowed them, Beatrice turned back and spoke in a voice of midnight wind. “The price has already been paid. Dad says he prefers being a ghost, but don’t worry I’ll talk him into returning to you.”

I fell to the ground and waited. I wouldn’t smile yet. But I was so lucky, there was no certainty that he would actually want the little brat. I had succeeded. I did smile.

pencilClarissa Pattern only exists when she writes. She writes through the night. Through the day she’s an essence in the mist of dreams. Her writing appears in books, online, and in little places where you’d least expect them. Email: clarissapattern[at]

The Garden

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Mark Neyrinck

Photo Credit: Drew Brayshaw (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Drew Brayshaw (CC-by-nc)

Plants, logs, and even trees whose roots gripped masses of earth raced each other down the brown, soil-laden river. The forest throbbed in the bright, humid air with the sounds of insects, birds, and whatever else the warm weather had brought from the South.

Eve had not needed a pelt on her morning stroll for over a month, it was so warm. She rested for a moment on a rare dry promontory of the trail next to the river, after managing to pass a particularly deep patch of mud.

Suddenly, her uneasy feeling became tactile. The ground was shaking; deep cracking sounds were all around. The ground supporting her began to slide. The river was breaking it off.

Almost before she was fully aware of the situation, her instincts had carried her waist-deep, back into the patch of mud she had so carefully circumvented. She watched the ground she had been on moments ago, carrying several small trees, break off and crumble into the river downstream.

When she returned to the village, she immediately called a meeting of the Council, but stopped first at home to wash off.

“Sorry,” she said to her husband, who had flinched when she entered the yurt. She must have been quite a sight, covered with rich, sun-caked mud, her eyes unusually ferocious.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, putting down the spearhead he was whittling.

“The Melt,” she said, softening the mud on her arms with some clean water. “It’s going too far. The river trail I have walked for so many years is now impassable. The river nearly carried me away with a chunk of earth this morning.”

“Oh, no, are you okay?” He moved the bucket of water closer to her, and helped her wash off.

“I’m fine. But the glaciers are not. The mammoths are not. I’m even afraid for the village; the river’s too close now.”

“You want to move the village uphill from the river?”

“For a start, yes. But the Melt needs to stop.”

“That is not for us to say.” His face tightened.

“Isn’t it?”

“We cannot question the Yahweh’s actions,” he said. His mud-cleansing caress slowed to a crawl.

Her eyes flashed. “We must get rid of it.”

He pulled his arms away, and whispered urgently. “It knows even our thoughts.”

“I’m not convinced of that,” she said.

“How many times have we discussed this? You know that without the Yahweh, we all would have frozen to death generations ago. And we owe so much else to it…” He gestured to the bucket of fresh water from the well, cleaned by the magical device the Yahweh had given to his grandfather. He then pointed to the magical hearth, so crucial in the winter. They had barely needed the hearth last winter, though.

“Yes, it seems so. But our tribe has survived horrible winters before. And it has been five generations since it saved us from freezing to death. Supposedly. How are we to know how bad that winter really was?”

“Do you accuse our ancestors of lying?”

“No, but truth has a way of evolving.”

He squinted at her, and sighed.

She grimaced, and whispered, despite herself. “The village up to the north. It was building its own fires, making its own tools. The rockslide that destroyed them was no accident.”

“If the Yahweh did that, all the more reason to be quiet. We are happy. We have not struggled for many years.”

She huffed, flaking the last of the visible mud away. “Adam. Maybe you’re content. But every time I bring an interesting creature home for study, it dies within the day, of no apparent cause. It’s so frustrating.”

“Our village has prospered…”

“Prosperity is subjective. We don’t have time for this argument. I called a meeting of the Council, and we can discuss it with the rest of them.”

“You might have told me that earlier,” he said, rising to change into his heavy formal cloak, despite the heat.


“I’m going for a walk,” Eve said after the meeting, as the Council exited the village’s large communal yurt, toward their respective homes. She squeezed her husband’s shoulder in conciliation. “Thank you for promising to try communication with the Yahweh.”

He smiled. “Anything for harmony, and for you.”

She turned away, toward a mountain trail. “Anything for” her, indeed. His concern for her was genuine, she knew, but even in trying to reassure her, he said “harmony” first.

As usual, the Council decided on no major action. But this time, they promised a major effort to repair the river trail. And, finally, Adam was going to attempt communication with the Yahweh. He was acknowledging that the situation had become important. Why would it only commune with him? Maybe it was not just the elected one that could commune with it. But that possibility could not be tested, since representatives from all the villages guarded it strictly. No one but each village’s elected one was allowed near it, and women were not even eligible for that role.

Eve had not scaled this mountain trail since last summer. The changes were even more dramatic than along the river. In her parents’ time, no one ventured up here, onto the giant ice mass. Now, though, only a few glaciers were visible. It was true, the location that supposedly the Yahweh had indicated to build the village was quite safe, not downhill from any rock or ice fields. But the river grew ever closer, and was almost as deadly. She had worked out that even next year, the rising, moving river could threaten the village. Thus far, the Yahweh had apparently volunteered no recommendation to move the village, but she had insisted that Adam bring up the topic.

She was not quite as nimble as she had been as she had been as a child, when she had carved this trail into the newly uncovered ground. The landscape was now a bit different on each hike. There were some new tricky spots, but she managed them. The trail even smelled different than before. New meadows were sweet with wildflowers. She had to admit some of the changes were good. But there was too much, too fast.

She reached an area where even last summer, there had been a glacier. Now, there was no sign of it. There was no trail through the new ground, so it took all her concentration to make her way through. Jumping across a gap, a loud hiss startled her. In her focused rock navigation, she had nearly trod on a snake, the venom on its fangs glistening in the sun. She backed away slowly, and made her way on an even higher route.

She reached a giant outcropping of red rock, also apparently uncovered just this year by the glacier. It was one of the biggest rocks she had ever seen, many times bigger than the village’s communal yurt. She decided to climb it, even though it had few handholds on its round, strangely smooth surface. It was as big a challenge as she had hoped.

At the top was a charming baby tree, maybe an apple tree. Delighted, she looked all around. This was perhaps the highest elevation she had ever reached on this trail. She could see almost the entire river that had nearly swept her away that morning. It sinuated all the way from its glacier-fed source to the horizon. She could see a distant mountain range that she had only seen a handful of times before. She could see maybe to the end of the world.

Satisfied, she began to make her way down the outcropping, when, for the second time that day, she heard a deep cracking sound, and felt the outcropping shift under her. She quickly determined a safe way off the outcropping, and landed nearby, with only a couple of scrapes. The round, giant rock outcropping seemed to remain intact, but she could see a few small rocks from its base tumble down the mountain.

Barely having recovered from that shock, she saw a short sequence of flashes of blue light below. Several seconds later, she thought she heard a corresponding clap of thunder. Squinting, she made out the source of the light, which she had not noticed before: a large silver dome. Was that the Yahweh? She had heard stories of unrighteous people throwing rocks at the Yahweh, in the form of a silver dome. According to the stories, the rocks had become blue light upon impact, and the blue light somehow destroyed the assailants. She had not been destroyed, as far as she could tell.

She looked in wonder at the giant rock that had nearly taken her down the mountain with it. A fissure, which apparently she had made, had developed between the rest of the mountain and the outcropping. She wondered what would happen to the Yahweh if the whole, huge rock had tumbled down the mountain, instead of just a few tiny pieces of it.

With enough adventures for the day, she made her way home, as tranquilly as she could.


It had taken a several-day pattern of nagging, and abstaining from nagging, to get him to go, but Adam at last had gone to commune with the Yahweh, and now returned.

He was looking at the floor. Not a good sign. “I raised the two important issues: the question of moving the village farther from the river, and whether the Melt was still necessary. It was the most aggressive I have ever been in a communion, and I sensed irritation about my audacity. It did not address our concerns. I tried all manner of offerings. I’m sorry, my love. There hasn’t been what I would consider a successful communion for over a year.”

She had never seen him so emotional; there was distress, fear, and even anger. And toward her, there was only love. She gave him a long hug. “That’s a shame.” The frequency of successful communion was low, but she had thought the urgency was as high as it had ever been. She noted that his words had seemed carefully chosen. “Did it say anything else?”

“As you know, often its messages seem to have nothing to do with what we find important.”

“What happened, Adam?”

She thought she could even see tears in his eyes. “I did have a vision. I saw you, casting red stones at it. Then, you perished in blue flames. I have never seen a particular person in a vision before.”

She snarled. “Am I correct to think that it was threatening me?”

“Yes, I believe so.”

“And you think that’s ok?”

He was shivering in anger. “No, I don’t.”

“Will we do nothing, then?”

“What can we do?”

“How about a hike, to clear the mind? I know of a place with a great view. We might be able to shake free a solution.”

pencilMark Neyrinck is a cosmologist in Baltimore, MD. He likes to write creatively sometimes, as a break from scientific writing. Email: mark.neyrinck[at]


Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Matthew Boyle

Photo Credit: StudioTempura/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: StudioTempura/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

“…there’s only one rule, and it’s not a hard one to follow.”

Ellie nodded, smoothing out her scrubs. She looked past Mr. Fletcher, at the dark, filthy grime beyond the portal, at the endless hallway filled with enormous eyes and shivering, gaunt bodies. She swallowed.

“Miss Williams?”

“Yes. Yes. I’m listening.”

“Good,” Fletcher said, sniffling once. “Because this is important. You have 10,000 hours of service to complete. It should take you about three years. There’s only one rule you must follow. If you break it, we’ll send you straight back to your cell, where you’ll live out the rest of your sentence. Which, in your case, will be about 48 hours.”

Ellie clenched her jaw. “I know my own sentence. Let’s get this over with.”

She tried to walk past the enormous guard, but he seized her jaw. He leaned over her and frowned. She cringed, hating herself for it.

“No, little girl,” he said. “I don’t think you do understand, so let me explain it to you one more time. We don’t care if you kill anyone; most of them are going to die anyway. But it’s very important that they think you’re a medical professional. If you admit to anyone that you’re not a doctor—if you so much as whisper the words ‘I’m not a doctor’—we’ll know. And it will violate the terms of your parole. They need to believe you’re there to help.”

Ellie slapped his hand away. “You mean it’s important they think our government is helping.”

Fletcher stood back up, unconcerned. He folded his hands behind his back and looked at nothing in particular.

“There’s nothing anyone can do, Miss Williams. As I said, most of them are going to die anyway. Sending actual medical personnel would be a waste of resources and training. All they really need is someone to give out blankets and change IVs.” He smiled. “You can do that, can’t you? Needles shouldn’t be too much of a problem for you?”

“Fuck you, coward,” she said, and immediately regretted saying it. She stepped backwards, but Fletcher just let out a short laugh and turned his shoulder towards the portal. He nodded in its direction.

“Dr. Williams.”

Ellie gritted her teeth and looked at floor rather than look Fletcher in the eye. She brushed past him, and then walked through a pool of rippling blue into another world entirely.


One Year Later

Ellie leaned against a wall, wishing she were asleep. It was two o’clock in the morning, and the sounds of the hospital were muted. The hallway was filled with beds, IVs dripping into the arms of the sick, a forest of poles reaching towards the ceiling. Ellie folded her arms over her clipboard and stood back up.

Her anklet only counted hours when her full weight was on her feet.

“Please, doctor, there must be something you can do?”

She looked at the broad-shouldered man, tried to remember his name, and failed. She pasted on a professional look of sympathy instead.

“We’re doing everything we can, sir. We’re keeping her comfortable and hydrated. At this point, it’s just a waiting game.”

The man stared down at his thick-knuckled, grimy hands and shook his head. “That’s what you said about my daughter.”

“Sir, I will do everything I can.”

The man lifted his shaggy head. “Yeah?”


The man whispered thank you and turned away, walking over to his son’s bed, just one among many. He said “thank you” again and again as he stood there, as if afraid any kind of silence might change Ellie’s mind. Eventually, she turned and headed towards the on-call room, walking through a sea of quiet coughing.

The people were sick with bacterial meningitis, Earth A strain. For ten years, scientists had known how to travel between parallel universes. At first, it was an exciting discovery for both sides: meeting alternate versions of history, people, and reality. But soon it was discovered that the biology of both Earths was just a little bit different—not much, but enough to turn illnesses from one world into death sentences for the other.

Travel between worlds was immediately restricted, but it was too late. On Earth B, where Ellie was stationed, bacterial meningitis spread like wildfire—95% of the infected died. The WHO of Earth A would likely have responded, but by then they were dealing with an aggressive complex-strain rhinovirus, a common cold from Earth B. It wasn’t nearly as bad as the meningitis nightmare, but it was bad enough to be fatal in almost 20% of all new cases. In only a short time, Earth A cut down medical aid to Earth B to a pittance.

And then, since it didn’t matter who they sent, they just started sending convicts in lab coats. Medical parole, it was called, and all you had to do was pretend to be a doctor. They simply did a few tests first to make sure your biology was close enough to Earth B’s so that you wouldn’t die right away. The tests were shit, of course. Most of her fellow convicts had died already. Sometimes, it seemed everyone in this world was dead.

Ellie entered the on-call room and sat on the lower bunk. She rested her head in her hands and began to quietly cry, saying over and over the same thing she said every day, desperately trying to break whatever rule kept her over here.

“I’m not a doctor,” she sobbed. “Please, I’m not a doctor. Please God, I’m not a doctor. Get me out of here.”

But, like always, nothing happened. And, as always, she remembered back to that sniffle Mr. Fletcher had had when she left her own world, and she wondered if there were any rules left to break anymore.

pencilMatthew Boyle is an adjunct English instructor who has worked at many community colleges, small private colleges, and small writing centers throughout the northeast United States. He writes quick stories in between classes and when traveling to classes at other institutions. It’s a nice way to relax, even when you’re writing about the end of the world(s). Email: matthewboyle1742[at]

On Death and Dying

Creative Nonfiction
Theresa Kelly

Photo Credit: Anathea Utley (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Anathea Utley (CC-by)


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about dying.


When my mom and dad had been dating for about three years, his dad passed away from pancreatic cancer.

(To be honest, it took me about five minutes to remember what my grandpa had died from. A bad memory and four grandparents dead before I was born makes it a little difficult to keep it all straight.)

My mom told me, “Sometimes death pulls people apart, and sometimes it brings them closer. I really think this brought your dad and me closer.” Shortly before the finals week of his senior year of college, my dad suddenly went home for the funeral. His teachers mailed him his finals. He didn’t walk in graduation from Penn State.

He was twenty-two, and his dad was dead. He wasn’t the head of the family now though. He had three older brothers and an older sister. He was the baby, and his dad was dead.


I’m the baby of my family as well. I’m twenty-two and in my senior year of college.

When I leave to go back to college, I hug him—hard.

At night, when he kisses me on the head, slightly to the left of where he normally does, I tell him, childishly, “wrong.” He kisses me again, in the center, where my part meets what would be my bangs (if I still had them), where he always does. It feels like home.


When I was in tenth grade, I wrote a novella inspired by the stages of grief. I went to the local library and checked out the book On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. In it, she interviewed dozens, if not hundreds of cancer patients. She analyzed how people deal with dying—and death. She went through the stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Kübler-Ross explained something in that book that stuck with me to this day. The stages are fluid. Sometimes we’re roaring with anger, sometimes we can’t believe it’s happening, sometimes we can’t get out of bed, and then sometimes we’re angry again.

There’s no right way to deal with death and dying.


When she was twenty-two years old, in the middle of the night, Sarah’s father died of a heart attack. I’d known Sarah since I was in middle school. We met through my best friend’s family.

I found out through a generic Facebook, “I’m so sorry,” post. I texted my best friend, “Is something wrong with Sarah?” She texted me back, “It’s awful. Her dad is dead.”

I gasped and felt secondhand grief burn the corners of my eyes.

At the wake, a few days later, I walked through the line. Sarah’s uncle looked perplexed when he saw me. “I’m—I’m friends with Sarah,” I explained, gesturing towards her. I wished I was wearing a different outfit, instead of my stupid roughly black shirt that I wore to work all the time. It seemed too festive. I could hear Sarah’s mom wailing down the line.

His face lit with recognition. “None of Sarah’s other friends went through the whole line. They just went straight to her.” I winced at the wake faux pas. You were supposed to say your sympathies to everyone in line.

My mother—behind me, always, in support—made a sympathetic noise.

“I— sorry,” I said, hesitant, unsure of how to make it better.

He made an it’s-okay type of movement with his shoulders, and I went down the rest of the line. When I got to Sarah, I was already tearing. “I always cry at these things, I’m sorry. I feel like I’m supposed to say, ‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ but that sounds so stupid.” I really wanted to say “fucking” stupid, but I had seen her small cousins running about.

She laughed, and I was stunned. “It’s okay.” She looked at my tearing eyes. “Wow, you weren’t kidding.” She seemed rather nonchalant, but she always did, so it was hardly something new.

My mom murmured an apology and moved aside. I talked to Sarah for a few minutes, while there was a break in the line. I couldn’t tell you what about. What do you say to someone whose father has just died?

I feel like I remember her mom hugging me, but then again, maybe I hugged her. She was sobbing, barely supporting her own weight. I remembered that Sarah’s dad had taken a heart attack in the middle of the night, and I wondered how someone woke up next to their dead husband and didn’t just scream and scream and scream. I was sure the horror movie scream woke Sarah up.

I had never asked her. I never will.


When I was a little girl, I used to cry in the middle of the night because I didn’t have grandparents. My mom and dad would come in and comfort me: It was okay that Keri, my best friend, saw her grandma every week. It was okay.

I pouted though. It wasn’t fair.

My dad told me stories about my mother’s mom. She was always baking, and he was sure—he whispered, like a secret—that she was flying around in heaven with peanut butter stuck to her wings. I giggled, they tucked me in, and I fell asleep.


Years later, I made a reference to peanut-butter winged angels. My parents didn’t remember.

It’s strange, how things that comfort some people don’t comfort others. It’s strange how I never had grandparents, but they didn’t have parents, and they’re the ones who comforted me. Maybe that’s what parenthood is all about?


The first time I saw a dead body, I was in elementary school, and Keri’s grandpa had died. I knew I had to go to the wake; she was my best friend, but I was terrified. I hid near the back of the room, while my mom went to the front and murmured to her parents that I was here. Keri, delighted, ran back to me. I told her, “I’m really sorry about your grandpa.”

She told me, “It’s okay.”

I was already crying—always a sympathetic crier, in a room aching with grief—and she handed me tissues. I looked down at her sneakers and black jeans and wondered why my mom had said I had to dress up, if Keri didn’t have to.

Her grandma came over to me then, and she grabbed my hand. “Come on, Theresa.”

Eyes wide with terror, I looked for my mom. She shot me a look that quite clearly told me she didn’t know a polite way to extract me. Her grandma—for a reason I’ll never understand—led me straight to the casket and put my hand on her dead husband’s face. Grief makes people do funny things, but I wasn’t sure why it was necessary for his granddaughter’s best friend to touch his face.

I cried regardless.


In twelfth grade, I took genetics. I filled out a family tree and asked my mom to confirm how my grandparents had died. I felt stupid for not knowing, but then again, she had no idea how most of my great-grandparents had died. Thirty-some years had faded the grief.


Late in my high school career, sitting at my desk, listening to Taylor Swift, I was interrupted by a knock on my door. Slow and solemnly, my mom sat on my bed. “What’s wrong?” I asked her. If something wasn’t wrong, she would’ve just stood in my doorway. I muted the music.

I don’t remember how she told me, what words she used. My Aunt Karen—though—she was definitely dead. My eyes welled instantly, and I covered my mouth. “How’s Daddy?”

“He’s— okay,” she said, hesitantly, slowly. She told me what had happened—or I guess she didn’t, because they didn’t really know. Aunt Karen had died in her sleep. She wasn’t old per say, but when my mom was in the hospital having me, Aunt Karen was having a brain aneurysm and a stroke and becoming permanently physically disabled. She was “lucky” she hadn’t died eighteen or so years ago.

My tongue felt thick. “Should I… talk to him? I don’t want to make it worse.” Relatives had died before, but never someone this close to my family. Never someone I had seen every Christmas and every Thanksgiving.

She told me she thought he would like that. I walked down to the kitchen, slowly, where my dad was facing the window at the sink. “Dad,” I said—and swallowed, hard.

He turned around, and he was crying—real, big tears. It was the first time I remembered ever seeing him cry.

I did the only thing I knew how to, and I hugged him.


I’m still thinking a lot about dying, and a lot about what it means. There’s no right way to deal with death or dying—and maybe there’s no right time to start dealing with the potential for death or dying. Maybe I’ll never know the most comforting thing to say, and maybe I’ll never stop crying at funerals and wakes.

My dad lost his dad when he was my age. My parents were both orphans by the time they were thirty. I look at a calendar, think about the next eight years of my life, think about my parents, think about death and dying, and think about the fact that I’m crazy paranoid (knock on wood), and know they’re likely to live another thirty years. I hope my future children know them.

I don’t know why I think about things like this.


I think, maybe, I’m afraid.

pencilTheresa Kelly is a senior at West Chester University majoring in English literature secondary education. She is the editor-in-chief of her school newspaper. Theresa has previously been published by Lip Magazine, Daedalus Literary Magazine, and Literati. Email: theresajoykelly[at]


Shopping at Von Beck’s

Deb Smith

Photo Credit: Classic Film/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Classic Film/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

I want to tell you what I remember. It used to be very different, being taken shopping by your mother, going downtown to the big department stores. I’m not sure what age exactly, but at some age more than five and less than fifteen, my mother started taking me shopping with her. We would have to dress up, not going to church dressing up, but stylish. For my mother that meant a trim skirt and a twin set or, if we went with one of her friends, one of her nicer dresses with a matching short jacket. For me it meant a pleated skirt, a blouse with a Mary Jane collar, loafers, and clean white anklets. I didn’t know why she wanted to take me with her. At the time, I took it as some kind of instruction she felt she had to perform to make sure I grew up to be a proper young woman, but I was not an apt pupil. I hated shopping and thought it was stupid.

“Let me look at you. Stand up straight.” She would lift up my skirt and tug on the tail of my blouse until it was as tight as a straitjacket.

I clenched my teeth as she brushed the snarls out of my hair. When she nodded her acceptance of my appearance, I would sit on the end of the bed while she went into her bathroom to finish putting on lipstick. If she would ask me if I wanted to go shopping with her, I would always say no, but it wasn’t really an invitation. I didn’t whine or fuss or make a scene, but I began to resist in silent ways, wearing socks with holes in the toe, torn underwear, or cleaning the dirt from under my nails except for one.

I know this sounds like it’s going to be a long story, and I will try to get to the point, but I want you to understand how it was. The ritual of going shopping downtown and the relationship with my mother is important to understand why what happened on one particular trip was so startling to me and why I want to tell you about it. I have never talked to my mother about this and I don’t think I ever would.

When we first started going on these shopping trips she would wear gloves. Ladies still wore gloves as part of an outfit whether it was cold or hot. When we got in the car she would always check her purse to make sure she had her gloves. When the fashion changed and she decided that she would no longer wear gloves, she continued to check her purse for the gloves she no longer wore, but still carried. I would check the pocket of my skirt to make sure I had the dollar I had been given to buy candy at the counter. This was real candy in jars and bowls behind the glass of a display case. When you picked what you wanted, they would weigh it out on a candy scale, and pour it into a fancy white bag with the store name on it. It would make my brothers crazy jealous when I came home with a white bag of department store candy, but if I made too much of it my mother would make me share.

On shopping days we would drive the half hour to downtown and park in the ramp next to Von Beck’s. The entrance was on Lincoln Avenue and we had to climb up a spiral ramp, power steering of the wood-paneled station wagon crying at the tight circle, until we got to the public parking levels. The sides of the ramp were open with only a steel pipe between the car and the edge of the pavement. When I got older, I had recurrent dreams about riding in the car with my mother in parking ramps in which she would always drive through the barrier and off into space. These dreams frightened me at first, but after a while I just felt frustrated.

If we were shopping for school clothes or anything for my brothers we would usually go to Schuster’s Department Store. It was nice, but not the quality of Von Beck’s. Everything went on that metal charge plate with my father’s name on it. I had no sense of whether what we bought cost a little or a lot. We just came home with bags of whatever we needed, towels, socks, white shirts for my father, or a vase for Aunt Claire’s birthday.

The only thing good about being pressed into service as a shopping companion was that we always had lunch at the fancy restaurant on the fifth floor of Von Beck’s. This is probably something else you don’t know about. Back when there were big department stores like Von Beck’s downtown, they always had a nice restaurant on one of the upper floors so that ladies could have lunch. The restaurants were always quite large, not so much because they had scads of ladies lunching, but for the fashion shows which were a part of lunching at the department store. There would be a small stage at one end of the room. At regular intervals models wearing what was newly arrived at the store would appear on the stage and a description of the ensemble would be read as the model showed the garment to its best advantage, sometimes opening a coat or removing it, sometimes adding a scarf or taking one away. The tables with the diners were spaced widely enough so that once the demonstration on stage was finished, the model would walk around the room and visit the tables, emphasizing the important fashion trends that the outfit represented.

I don’t want you to think that I enjoyed going to lunch at Von Beck’s because I found the fashion shows fascinating. I did not. I paid very little attention as a general rule. I liked going to lunch at Von Beck’s because they had a great open-face roast beef sandwich with mashed potatoes. My mother and I had somehow worked out this arrangement, although I have no recollection of having a discussion with her about it. I would concede her right to require that I accompany her on these shopping trips as long as I was free to order the roast beef sandwich. Sometimes I would order the club sandwich because I liked the looks of the triple-decker cut on the diagonal with those long picks with the cellophane frills on top, but I almost always went for roast beef. It was such a thing of beauty, the corners of the white bread peeking out from under the slices of beef and the shiny thick gravy, a perfect ball of mashed potatoes on one end of the plate, and a few overcooked peas or carrots in between. I have no idea why having that plate of food set in front of me was such a big deal, but it felt like winning first prize.

That roast beef sandwich was a big reason why I didn’t pay much attention to the fashion shows. I was too busy composing the perfect forkful of bread, meat, gravy, and potatoes. By the time I finished my lunch, my mother was already checking her makeup and getting ready to leave. My mother was not a dawdler, lollygagger, or dillydallier. By the time I took the napkin from my lap and put it on the table, my mother would be halfway to the exit. Eventually, we would haul our bags to the car and make our way home.

This is probably not good storytelling and I hope you will bear with me. I just needed to explain how things were so that the rest of this would make sense to you. The story I really want to tell is about one of those shopping trips with my mother, one in particular. I hope you won’t be disappointed because it is such a little thing really, but for me it was a beginning.

I was eleven and I had been invited to a Christmas party by one of the girls in my class. It was important to my mother that I make a good impression. I knew it was important to my mother because she said it was important for me that I make a good impression. The good impression that was to be made required a new party dress. A trip to Von Beck’s was scheduled and even the promise of a roast beef sandwich did not lessen the degree to which I did not want to go. Being made to do something I did not want to do was not a new thing and it is certainly something that most children are familiar with. That is not the point of this story and I don’t want you to think that this was the epiphany that marked a change in my life.

We went on a Thursday. My mother wore her black dress with the white belt and full skirt. I wore a blue jumper. We breezed through the first floor, not stopping to browse purses or cosmetics. We started in shoes. It surprises me that dress-up shoes for girls of that age have not changed very much, black patent leather or plain white, and a strap. Some might have just a little heel or a bit of bow on the toe, but they are basically the same. My mother noticed that I had worn socks with a hole in the left one. I’m sure nobody else noticed her notice the hole, but I did and I knew that had probably set the day off in a bad direction. Sometimes I didn’t always think through the consequences of my silent resistance. Her revenge was immediate and shocking. She told me to remove my socks and use the footie things because I would be wearing these shoes with hose. I wanted to wail, but I knew I had earned this.

After selecting the black patent leather with a buckle bow, we went next to the third floor to look for a dress. I wish I could tell you what they called that department. I don’t even know what they call it now. For a while I think they called it “Juniors,” but it seems to me that at the time at this store it was “Young Miss” or something like that. We went straight to the racks with the dresses.

Usually, when my mother shopped she stopped at every rack and every display and did a thorough job of inspecting everything being offered. This time she walked right past the skirts, past the blouses, and past the crisp shirt dresses. She went to the rack with party dresses and found my size. She pushed the garments back along the rack so we could view them one at a time. The plastic hangers rattled and clacked against each other. She took the first dress by the shoulder and turned it to see its fabric and decorations: not acceptable. Zszszek, the dress was rejected with a quick slide back along the rack.

“This is cute. I like the little chains on the front. What do you think?” My mother kept her eyes on the dress. It was a deep green with an empire waist.

“It’s got those puffy sleeves,” I whined.

Zszszek. Next dress. Zszszek. Next dress. Zszszek.

“I like this. Pink is such a good color for you.” The dress had an oversized collar and large white buttons on the front.

And so it went. At least three racks of dresses. After the first two racks I stopped responding when she asked if I liked the dress she was holding. I knew that between the two of us this was an act of open hostility, but I just couldn’t help it. In the end, she pulled five dresses from the possibles and shoved me and them into a dressing room. I pulled the first one over my head and looked at myself in the mirror. My eyes were open and I knew that the image in the mirror was me wearing the dress, but no matter how hard I tried I could not see myself. All I saw was a hideous dress. I dutifully tried on one dress after another, walked out of the dressing room and paraded up and down for my mother to see. No matter how many times she told me to stand up straight and to pick up my feet when I walked, my shoulders slumped and I trudged as if I was slogging through mud.

I changed back into my clothes and came out of the dressing room holding the dresses.

“I think the pink,” she said and pulled that one from the pile in my arms.

“I won’t wear it.” I said this to the floor.

You can’t imagine how surprised I was that I had said it. My mind raced through a thousand permutations of how this situation might resolve. Would I end up with the pink dress or would she make a strategic retreat and come back to this later? I fumbled with the dresses and hangers.

“Give me the dresses. Go get the bag with your shoes from the dressing room.”

By the time I came back from retrieving the shoes she was halfway to the elevator. At least I wasn’t going home with the pink dress. I caught up with her as the elevator door opened. She pressed the button for the fifth floor and I felt relieved. Maybe by the time we finished lunch I would have worked out a plan.

I don’t want you to get the wrong impression. I loved my mother. I love my mother. I think she was disappointed that I was not more like her, or anyway I felt she was disappointed. People said we were too alike, and other people said we were too different. I always knew she loved me, but I didn’t think she liked me very much. I think I was too much like my father, which you would think would be a good thing, but it turned out not to be. I was in no hurry to be grown and off on my own, but I did know that at some point I would leave her and my days of shopping trips and threats of pink dresses would be behind me.

The hostess directed us to a table by the window. My mother asked for coffee and I ordered iced tea. The dining room had tall windows on the east and south walls. The sunlight and the flowered wallpaper made it feel like a garden even though it was well into winter outside. The tables had white tablecloths and a small vase of white daisies and baby’s breath. Although it was barely noon, the room was already two-thirds full. The sound of spoons in coffee cups added a soft percussive background to the voices and restrained laughter from the other tables. We ordered lunch and my mother read over the program for the fashion show. I sat quietly and fondled the dollar bill in my pocket.

“Hello, ladies. I hope you are enjoying your lunch. We have a number of new winter ensembles to show to you today. The trend continues to be fine woolens and muted plaids are making an appearance in today’s outerwear. Let’s begin.”

The woman who ran the fashion show sat on a stool behind a podium with the Von Beck’s logo on the front. A young woman wearing a somewhat oversized coat walked onto the stage. She was tall and had shoulder length black hair that was brushed away from her face and curled under at the back. The woman at the podium started describing the coat. My mother picked at her chef’s salad. I was busy composing succulent forkfuls of roast beef.

I’m sorry to go on and on about the damned roast beef sandwich, but in a way it was my only respite on these excursions and it seemed almost a part of who I was. I was the girl who ate roast beef with her mother in the dining room at Von Beck’s. You see what I mean? I was and then all of a sudden I wasn’t.

About halfway through lunch the waitress came and topped off my iced tea. I put down my fork and put the napkin to my lips. At just that moment, the model in the oversized coat came to our table. She put her hand on the back of my chair and I turned to look at her.

“This Burberry coat and scarf are available in the women’s outerwear department on the second floor. The coat comes in grey, brown, and a muted blue plaid.”

I rarely looked at the models who came to the table, but she had drawn my attention with the pressure of her hand on the back of my chair. I turned in my seat as she stepped back from the table and unwound the scarf that cowled her neck. Then she unbuttoned the coat to display the quilted cream silk lining. My eyes followed the movement of her hands and when she held the coat open I saw that she was wearing a pink dress with large white buttons. For a moment I thought my mother had put in the fix with someone, but I knew that couldn’t be so. Then, I saw the woman’s face. Behind the makeup, the perfect hair, and the Von Beck’s fashion show smile, she was crying. Her eyes were glossy with tears and her lips could not hold the smile steady. She turned quickly and I saw my mother admire the detail on the back of the coat. I also saw the woman slip a handkerchief from the pocket and duck her head for just a moment. When she turned back to face us, she made eye contact with me and then hurried away.

I had never felt so sad, but I had no idea what I was sad about. I picked at my lunch until my mother scolded me to stop slouching in my chair. I asked to be excused to the toilet and my mother told me to go ahead, but not to wander off. The ladies room was empty and I flopped into one of the high backed chairs in the lounge where ladies fixed their makeup. I kept seeing the woman’s eyes. She had been struggling not to blink. I never knew a person’s eyes could hold so many tears without them spilling down her cheeks. She had been drowning in tears. I wanted to tell her not to be sad about having to wear the pink dress, but as soon as I said that to myself I knew that was not it at all. It was something more disappointing, perhaps even desperate.

My world up to that point had been my family, school, and my best friend, Sally. The rest of the world seemed too unrelated to me and somewhat abstract. Sally had cried when she fell and broke her wrist, but that was not the same as this at all. In so far as I had thought about becoming an adult, I thought about it as a time when my mother would no longer tell me what to wear and I could have roast beef sandwiches whenever I wanted them. Now that seemed so foolish and I was embarrassed at my own childishness.

When I came out of the ladies room, I saw some of the models through an open door at the far end of the hall. I walked towards them, keeping one hand on the wall. I wanted to know if my model was going to be all right. When I got far enough down the hall, I could see into the changing room. There were half a dozen women putting things on and taking things off. As they moved around and away, I saw my model sitting at a makeup table, looking out a window and smoking a cigarette. The pink dress was draped over a chair next to her. She crushed the cigarette into an ashtray and began touching up her lipstick. She brushed her hair back and gave the mirror the showroom smile. I felt tears building in my eyes.

Things felt quite unsettled over the next few weeks. I could tell my mother felt it as much as I did. I was being too quiet and spending too much time sitting in places which were invariably in her way. She ordered me outside, she ordered me to my room, and she ordered me to the corner store for milk. Coming home with the milk I wondered how she felt about how things seemed to be changing. It occurred to me that it might be hard for her.

She still made me go shopping with her, but I stopped wearing socks with holes in the toe. It was now her turn to resist silently.

pencilDeb Smith is a retired criminal trial lawyer. What she knows about fiction writing she learned from the Madison Writers’ Studio. She is grateful for their support and guidance. She was a 2014 finalist in the Lascaux Review 250 Flash Fiction contest and received honorable mention in the 2014 Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition. She continues to write short stories, but has recently jumped into the deep end of the pool and started a novel. Email: deborah8smith[at]

Rogue Mint

Maithreyi Nandakumar

Photo Credit: Rowena/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Photo Credit: Rowena/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Mira gripped the tall rails over the Avon Gorge and looked below at the silky waves of silt. A part of her wanted to jump on the wall and have an unhindered view of the landscape around her, with the metallic curves of the Suspension Bridge on the left and the Severn Bridge in the foggy distance on the other side. It was low tide and the shallow water snaked along heading to the Bristol Channel not far from here. She liked feeling that sense of briskness in her body—to feel that she could stretch it, twist it, and bend it any which way. A headstand on the rails—now, that would be fantastic. She was having these visions lately—of herself flying, diving or gliding over the gorge. They were scary but she preferred them to the X-rated ones she used to have of the man who was currently in her bed, sleeping.

Mira let herself into the house, careful not to wake him. Revived and rejuvenated, she was ready to face another day on her feet. She picked up the to-do list that she’d written the night before, secured under a fridge magnet that said the vaguely uplifting words, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” A friend had given it to her when she’d started this business. Five long years later, she was still doing the same thing—preparing sauces and chutneys, clearing up and assembling things to do it all over again day after day. At night, it was paperwork and applying to farmer’s markets and festivals for a stall. Or an uncomfortable sleep squeezed into a friend’s sofa after a long ride along unknown country roads.

Dear Eleanor Roosevelt—I do believe in the beauty of my chutney, Mira muttered as she climbed on top of the stool and fetched another set of jam jars. She kept them stacked in every available shelf in her kitchen. Arranging them with care in the dishwasher for a hot rinse, she went back to check her list. Her task was laid out for her—she knew what she had to do but she needed to see it on paper. She went into the potting shed with a pair of scissors. The place was packed with herbs growing in every possible corner. A jungle, he called it. He had to stumble through the sacks of compost, growbags, and plastic pots to get outside for a smoke.

She remembered when she would spend long snatches of time just inhaling the scent of the different mints she grew—she was transported to her grandmother’s kitchen in Hyderabad on one of her few visits to India. Her tall, temperamental father, the maestro of the veena had met her mother, a Bohemian from Vienna with Italian blood, in England. Unable to control the frequent explosions, they went their separate ways when she was seven. These days, her father lived in France and her mother in Upper Austria. Mira’s global genes clamoured to know their true identity, but she’d learnt to work with what she had, as best she could. No theatricals, no high-octane emotion—just focussing on her business was all that was required, for now. This was ammama’s recipe that she’d modified with a fair amount of success. It was mint that she needed today—bucket-loads of it. For that she had to step out into her garden where it grew wild. She’d had to get rid of the Korean lilac, the camellia, the magnolia, the holly and the ornamental palm to accommodate these herbs, now essential to her livelihood.

“You’re such a philistine—where’s the love for the English garden?” he’d asked, laughing at her. The sun caught the red in his chocolate brown hair, and Mira’s heart beat faster just seeing him in her space. No, she was not a free spirit like him.

“My business plan told me they had to go,” she’d said. Just yesterday, she’d gone around carefully looking for the rogue herbs that stalked her path, imitating the parsley and the mint. They appeared innocent enough but had a nasty taste when mixed with the original. Wicked things—who would’ve thought that plants could be devious?

She hacked at the stalks with her scissors, realising she was still tense despite her morning exercise. She packed it tight, filling the carrier bag she’d tied to her waist till it was full and went back into the kitchen, emptying the leaves onto the worktop. All of a sudden a grizzly face was nuzzling into her neck.

“Ouch, you prickly specimen,” she yelped, automatically leaning back and absorbing his strength, relaxing her tense muscles against his warm bulk, easing her shoulders against his chest.

“You just want a massage,” he said, chuckling, understanding her need and pressing expert fingers where required. She surrendered to the bliss. “Will you wear that pretty dress we bought at the weekend for your stall today?”

She became jumpy again. “Tomorrow, not today—the bottles are just getting done now.” Mira sprang into action. She hated feeling this brittle when he was around.

It was at the spiritual music festival in Fez that she’d first watched the magic of his elegant fingers as they flew over the fingerboard of his guitar, his face rapt in a kind of trance. He’d captured Mira’s heart in a tight clutch of melodious beauty. Seeing her standing transfixed after the crowd had left, he came up to chat. He told her he was sure that it was destiny that had brought them together.

Zohar stopped her brisk fingers shredding the mint and lifted her hand and pressed a kiss to her knuckles. “You’re creating something—don’t ever forget that,” he told her, looking intently into her eyes. Tears sprang at the homage he was paying her and she closed her eyes for a moment and swallowed, smiling brightly, wanting desperately to believe him. She liked him a lot—who was she deceiving, she adored him.

She rushed to get going—pulling the last bunch of leaves from their stalks, dunking them in water, rinsing them of mud and grit and repeating it once more till she was convinced it was clean enough for use. She’d tried to paint at one point in her life. Her mother, the reclusive artist would take a quick look and dismiss it as unworthy of her attention. Mira’s path lay in more mundane areas. She pulled out her round spice box and measured out two types of lentils, red and green chillies, ginger, and finally a pinch of asafoetida. If only they knew how many chillies went into this chutney, she thought. She roasted them on a low heat and added the mint leaves and kept turning them, waiting for the aroma to lift out of the pan. Doing this preserved it longer and removed the raw, green taste of chlorophyll.

She could hear Zohar strumming his guitar—he was warming up, conducting a sub-conscious ritual that took him to far off places in his mind. The music teased and chatted to her from outside the kitchen—she smiled as she carried on her work and at one point had to shout, “Cigarette break—I’m turning on the blender!”

This time Zohar walked past tapping his cigarette against his matchbox, oblivious to her—in a world of his own. She should stop feeling so needy all the time—why would he want to cuddle when she’d kicked him out to the garden? She hoped he was taking her out to dinner as she couldn’t bear the lingering scent of chutney in her house after she was done.

The leaves and the lentils went in to her heavy duty blender along with a big lump of tamarind and she seasoned it with salt, priding herself on getting it just right each time. Adding water, she watched them get blitzed and then as she left the machine on, they ground to a thick deep green paste. Satisfied and relieved at the sight, Mira dipped a teaspoon in to taste the mix. When the distinct bitter taste hit her palate, she screwed her face in agony. The rogue mint had found its way in and she was in trouble. She heard Zohar open the door to the potting shed and step in. He must think I’m a neurotic wreck, she thought, trying hard to compose her wretched feeling.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, taking one look at her face.

“Nothing, it’s all fine,” she said, busying herself with taking pots and pans to the sink to start the washing up. She didn’t see him dip the spoon in to have a taste.

“It could be my cigarette breath—but this tastes a little weird,” he pronounced.

“I know that—dammit,” she said with gritted teeth.

“Hey, what have I done?”

“Nothing—you’ve done nothing.” For some reason this became something else and she was hissing and breathing fire at him. He looked annoyed but persisted in changing her mood.

“I know what you could do—just cook it some more—squeeze some lemon juice, add some brown sugar. Voila—Masterchef prize!”

“You don’t need to tell me how to run my life,” she shouted.

“Run your life—I was rescuing your sauce, pesto, chutney—whatchamacallit,” he said, doing a good job of the English accent.

“Go away—play your music, go to your glamorous overnight gigs and endless jam sessions—just don’t upset me so much.”

“I can pack my guitar and get out, Mira—is that what you really want?” he asked her.

“What I want is some support, some sympathy,” she cried.

“You have it—you don’t have to get all emotional about that.”

“You are bloody clueless—there you go, swan in, say sweet nothings and disappear—do I get a text or phone call? Nothing!”

“Right—this is really not the conversation we should be having now. Your chutney needs to be repaired—I have a meeting in an hour’s time and then I thought we could have dinner together before I left tomorrow.”

“When will you be back?” The words slipped out before she could prevent them. She watched him shrug, which said, who knows?

The bitter chutney went down the toilet and Mira spent the rest of the afternoon making a fresh batch, scrutinising every leaf by rubbing them between her fingers and checking for any un-minty smell. He kept out of her way and brought back a take-away meal. They made love and Mira knew this was the end—it wasn’t her paranoia. She tried to meet his eyes and he didn’t look back, rolling away to go to sleep.


Jamie Cullum was raving about someone’s latest album on the radio. The cubed aubergines were roasting in the oven with some crushed chillies. A Sicilian recipe for Pasta Alla Norma—it was named after an opera. The music kept her company as she went in and out of her kitchen and to the garden and back. In her hand was a clutch of fresh oregano. Her ears pricked at the sound of a guitar tuning. Even before it started, she knew it was Zohar. He was playing live in the studio. It was so close and immediate—he could be in the living room. She stood in front of the radio, as the music began to pick up tempo. Closing her eyes, she let it engulf her and felt it seep through deep into her soul. She was happy for his success. In those precious moments, she paid homage to his talent, to what they used to share and made peace with the person she was then. When it finished, she smiled.

She watched the sauce simmer. She’d started to appreciate the smell of the dense oregano again. This batch was going to be perfect.

pencilMaithreyi Nandakumar writes fiction and is a journalist working in print and sound. She has worked for the BBC in radio and television and lives in Bristol. Her short-stories have been published in anthologies (Bristol Tales), broadcast on radio (BBC World Service), online (Over the Red Line) and made the last 16 for BBC Opening Lines 2014. Her completed novel Stirring the Pot is awaiting fame and fortune. Email: mitesn[at]

Unsung Courage

Kim Farleigh

Photo Credit: Pavel Tcholakov/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Pavel Tcholakov/Flickr (CC-by)

The funerary directory George and I were working in faced Victorian flats, stairways rising to red and yellow doors from tree-shaded footpaths, the silence highlighted by wind in leaves or by our hearses taking the deceased to their graves.

George’s small, round glasses covered his kind, considerate eyes. His small mouth looked unnaturally contracted, the yellowish skin under his thin, greying eyelashes resembled what tobacco and death do to flesh, but his eyes always relaxed me.

The company’s director’s note to our last annual accounts delighted him: “Although the national death rate has dropped by 12 percent, the future is still bright, because the company is buying cemeteries and crematoriums.”

“The future is still bright!” George said, chuckling. “And he’s serious!”

He explained his new smoking regime: “One at breakfast. One driving home.”

Reducing smoking meant delaying your work colleagues seeing you dead on a slab.

“My wife,” George once said, “will get twenty-five percent off my funeral. So now, apparently, I’m useful.”

The first time I entered the morgue was to give him a message. “Colin, Colin, come in, come in. Let me show you around.”

Between corpse-covered slabs, pallbearers in grey suits had been eating fast food and drinking Coke; their disregard for health reflected their wit: “I hope I look better than him when Reaper calls.” “After ten pints last night, I looked like him. I should have been driven here this morning in a hearse.”

Slabs holding refrigerated corpses could be pulled out and carried to the embalming tables. An old woman’s yellowish tone resembled the skin between George’s eyelashes and his eyes, death seemingly reflected in George’s face. The woman’s eyes resembled matte glass of infinite emptiness. Escaping consciousness had stolen the glow that once gave that glass the sheen of eyes, she now as inanimate as the slab she lay upon.

The dead exuded something eerie, like a view into our darkest secrets. You felt they were watching you from elsewhere, troubling reverence dominating mood. Even combat veterans felt the dead’s charisma.

Experience had helped George defeat that disquiet that the dead created. The worst thing he’d ever seen was a twenty-four-year-old woman who had fled out of a flat after arguing with her boyfriend to be hit by a double-decker bus. George prepared her for burial. The embalmers had tossed coins to decide on that one. The ambulance men had warned them. If they do that, you don’t want to see it.

“I slowly pulled up the sheet covering her body, so that the feet got exposed first,” George said. “Purple and green bruises covered her legs, like intergalactic gas clouds. Should I continue?”

“Go ahead,” I replied, his kind eyes under death’s flesh confirming my curiosity.

Although curiosity defeated squeamish delicacy, mentally my teeth gritted.

“Her ribs had been smashed so that everything had collapsed,” he said. “It got worse as the sheet went up. A breast was half hanging off. Do you want me to continue?”

“Go ahead.”

“An eye was hanging out of a socket. The eyes were looking in different directions. They were beautiful, blue eyes. It’s much tougher dealing with the young.”

His voice’s steadiness reflected his fight to subdue the swirl of frightful memories. His ability to speak about the traumatic without gesturing increased the impact he created without expecting people to admire his experience. How often do people raise their voices, throwing their hands around, to describe trifles? No such problem with George.

One morning, ambulances appeared in a steady flow. People appeared at windows along the street, disaster fascinating because the greatest dramas involve survival, our main consideration. Why else does disaster ignite such curiosity?

People hiding behind curtains were oblivious that others, too, were spying. Their shyness came from the charge of nosiness, but at the deepest level, it was their business, for suburbia’s chains can snap suddenly and anyone can end up in an ambulance at any time.

A bomb blast in a train had caused numerous deaths and injuries. Human remains were being brought into the mortuary; the window observers would express their dismay to eager listeners who would be shocked at not having their unconscious hope for survival appeased.

George’s wife rang. Worry cracked her cultivated tranquility. People didn’t have mobile phones then.

“I know you and George must be very busy,” she said, “but I really have to speak to him as quickly as possible.”

Politeness magnified her voice’s urgency. We didn’t have a phone connection with the mortuary. If George faced what had to be faced then I had to as well.

I entered the mortuary. Blood covered the floor. George’s vest looked like it had been dipped into a trough of blood. The silence gyrated with that troubling reverence that death produces, as if steel wires connected to hell had been touched so that the wires zinged with a million volts. My temples and insides revolved: that had been human, but I couldn’t believe it.

George’s eyes radiated perturbation rays. I indicated towards the office. I wasn’t going to eat meat for months. I avoided butchers’ shops for weeks. Hanging meat inferred severed limbs, blood-soaked palms, ripped open torsos… I got out of there fast, George racing behind me, his mouth twisted, like a face I’d seen in the morgue, the cast of horror placed onto that face just before death.

George paced around as the phone rang, staring with that twisted-mouth grimace, his eyes radiating internal radiation’s fallout.

“No, he hasn’t rung here,” he said. “Be calm, sweetheart. At the moment, there’s confusion and no information. I’ll let you know immediately if I hear anything and vice versa, okay?”

After he hung up, he said: “Please let me know immediately if she rings again.”

He knew I wouldn’t have hesitated; but something profound had caused him to speak. We faced each other for a second that resembled an evolutionary epoch. His normally smooth brow was creased with lines that imitated broken aerials.

“Of course,” I said.

“Good, thanks,” he replied.

His eyes dropped; his head began turning.

“What is it?” I asked. “George…?”

He hesitated, then said: “Later, okay?”


He dashed back into the morgue. I faced the suburban dream that wishes to annihilate unpredictability. Few could imagine the contrast between what I faced and what I had just seen. Bay windows stood at regular intervals between painted concrete steps. That Victorian facade’s ordered structure resembled a pleasant lie offering comfort against our deepest fears and fear had wracked George’s face. Not pusillanimous cowering or cowardly reluctance but concern’s flinty sheen. His expression had come from something apart from the horror that had awaited him. I felt hollowed out by that horror; but someone had to break open the bags the police had put the smashed-up remains into; someone then had to clean those remains for identification and burial. Someone who had to inhale deeply, wearing detachment’s mask; someone had to clean up someone else’s wife, husband, brother, sister, daughter, son, friend or lover; someone, bringing to bear all the resilience within, with the courage to do a job few could do, a job that was essential.

The phone rang.

“Colin speaking,” I said.

George’s wife.

“Can you tell him he’s rung and he’s fine?”

You didn’t need to be a sound engineer to detect her relief, the auditory equivalent of sunshine after weeks of rain.

“I’ll do it right now,” I said.

“Oh thank you, thankzzzz.”

If gratitude became liquid, a flood would have burst out of the phone. Because fate had given me the privilege of being the bearer of great news I felt grateful as well.

“Your son?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied. “He catches that train to go to university, but this morning he missed it; he was on the next one. It’s a miracle.”

“Incredible,” I said. “Look, I’ll tell George now. He looked desperately worried.”

“Please do.”

I raced into the morgue, now prepared for reality. I accepted that sacrifice for the privilege of being relief’s messenger. Of course, the million-volt zinging zinged.

“George,” I said.

His eyes blasted out hope’s lasers.

“He was on another train.”

He gritted his teeth to avoid euphoric screaming, too self-effacing for indulgences. His eyes became awash with tearful relief as he bowed his head. Ambulances were still bringing in the dead. All the embalmers had been pulled into work because of the extra work that that disaster had caused. One, a beautiful woman called Julia, hugged George who placed his face into her left shoulder. A smile of sensitive wonderment shone on her face amid that horror. George had been spared from discovering his son’s possible death by direct means. Every time he had opened one of those bags, not letting the others accept his responsibility, his hands had shaken, horrified by terrible possibility.

He wiped the tears from his eyes and said: “Thanks Colin. Thanks for everything.”

He then continued working. He could have said he wasn’t up for it that day, but he had continued, the worst faced without the glamour that courage often brings.

pencilKim has worked for NGOs in Kosovo, Iraq and Palestine. He takes risks to get the experience required for writing. 130 of his stories have been accepted by 81 different magazines. Email: fazzzzz15[at]


James Butt

Photo Credit: Kyle James/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Photo Credit: Kyle James/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Mark was fired that morning. I’d known he would be since Tuesday when Justin, our manager, took me aside.

“We didn’t make forecast again,” he said.


“I’ve been directed to let someone go. You and Mark are close, I wanted to give you the heads up.”

It wasn’t a heads up, it was a test. Another of Justin’s stress tests.

Mark had been my cubicle neighbour for three years. Each morning he would come to my desk and chat. I’d never got chatting as a thing, but he’d be there every morning, chatting, about sports mostly. I couldn’t say who his teams were or who his money players were; that’s what he called them, money players, like he had a vested interest in their performance.

I’d known for three days, but didn’t tell him. I thought I might; we were friends, in a sense. He had us over for dinner once, me and Angie, and I think that’s where Angie and I unravelled, emotionally, that time we went to Mark’s for dinner.

That’s not why I didn’t tell him about his being let go. It wasn’t his fault; Mark didn’t break us up or anything like that; he and Lisa were great hosts for dinner. It was their baby, more than anything. I didn’t think about it while we were there, but it became clear to me in the car after, on our way home. Angie didn’t want to go to dinner that night, but I pushed it. We still had points to make and sides to take at that time. And I pushed it.

It was a little after ten when Justin asked Mark to see him in the boardroom. They left together and I knew how these things go, that Mark wouldn’t be allowed back to his desk. Someone from HR would come down soon enough and put all his personal effects, all those little items to make his workspace viable, into a nondescript banker box, to be shipped off to last known address. Before that, before the HR person appeared at Mark’s desk, I snatched one of his sports figurines from his computer monitor and put it in my desk drawer.

It was exactly like many of the figurines inside Mark’s house, the one I took off his computer. They were of sports stars, their likeness trademarked for their reproduction in as many poses for as many sports I could name. His house was filled with them. Collectibles, he called them.

“It’s a bit much, I know. And with the baby, I’m starting to trim the numbers back, but it’s hard to let them go, when you’ve been doing something for so long,” he said. “Ten years now, or almost. That’s a long time to be invested in something.”

Lisa and Angie got along just fine. They talked about the baby. Mark and I chatted about something, but I was distracted by the figurines. Thousands of them, and they took up so much of everything, their presence was oppressive.

“The baby’s fussing,” Lisa said from the kitchen, returning me to the conversation. “He’s been fussing all day today. Is it all right if I bring him out here while we eat?”

Angie looked at me. I nodded to both her and Lisa. “That’s fine,” I said. I hadn’t heard him fussing, but I wasn’t listening for it either.

Lisa disappeared deeper into the house, and soon came back with the baby and placed him in his crib next to her chair. He made baby sounds that I could’ve got used to, but I guess it was considered fussing. Angie moved closer to the crib and looked down at the baby. She looked at me, and I think I still loved her at that moment.

“Is it okay if I pick him up?” she asked Lisa.

“Of course.”

Angie raised him out of the crib to her shoulder. She bounced a little and made her own cooing sounds, sounds I knew I would’ve loved to be used to. She stayed that way for most of the evening, that’s what I remember, with the baby at her shoulder, no longer fussing, just cuddled into her body. I think we had soup for dinner.

On the way home, Angie was quiet and stared out at the black night that sped by her window.

“To be honest, I was freaked out by all the figurines,” I said, to kill the emptiness between us. “And who serves only soup for a dinner?”

She didn’t respond, but kept her focus on the blur outside the car.

“The baby was cute, though, that’s for sure.”

Angie didn’t say anything right away, she let my words hang there around us. The view outside continued to wind away without a true image, blackness broken by moments of bright only so often.

“He was beautiful,” she said after a while. “Perfect.”

“I could try the pills again,” I said. “Doctor Adams said they could help, once the stress is controlled. It’s just the stress, Angie. Once I get clear of that, we can try again.” She never took her attention away from the window.

I don’t regret not telling Mark before they fired him, that he was about to be fired. It wasn’t personal, at least that’s what I’ve told myself. I debated telling Angie about Mark when I got home. It probably wouldn’t make any difference to her.

pencilJames Butt is an Information Architect for a telecommunications company in Halifax, Nova Scotia. A graduate of Dalhousie University, his time is split between the excitement and spontaneous nature that is family life, and the crafting of short fiction based upon those experiences. Email: james.butt[at]