Ravynscroft by Richard Edgar

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Ravynscroft by Richard Edgar

Ravynscroft (2020) is a self-published modern coming-of-age tale told with a twist: The characters are well into adulthood. This is the second novel in Richard Edgar’s LGBTQ series that began with his breakout novel, Necessary Lies, which I had the pleasure of reviewing two years ago. It was deliciously character driven.

Likewise, Ravynscroft is also a character-driven story and is told in the first-person point of view of the main protagonist, Ravyn, a forty-something-year-old science academic who has recently become single. The point of view works well for the story and adds an intimate sense of closeness to this character. Edgar adeptly uses interior monologue to reveal Ravyn’s inner thoughts that are peppered throughout the novel.

Here, Ravyn talks about LGBTQ life and her new placement in a very cool, sciencey-way.

Friends, right. Most people in this world are straight. We fought our way into the network; it seems there’s a place for committed gay couples. The atmosphere is more or less stable if it’s all composed of diatomic molecules, neatly bound to each other and not available.

And then she moved out.

And, like it or not, I was a free radical in a world of couples. (19)

What’s more, Edgar adds an interesting structure to Ravyn’s voice in the form of letters to Ravyn’s former lover that reveal more character motivation and key backstory in a conversational form that reads almost like a one-sided therapy session. Clever.

Dear Renee,

Again with the write but no send letter. I guess I’m imagining I’m explaining stuff to you helps me put it together or something. Imaginary friends are a poor substitute for the real thing, but, I hope, I’m working on fixing that. (121)

As her letters to Renee show, Ravyn is lonely and goes about her life trying to recover from a serious relationship breakup. She is alone in a big empty house with only a cat for company. The reader is let into her university world and is introduced to a quirky group of LGBTQ friends that challenge and support her. This is a book about relationships. This is where Edgar shines. The characters could walk off the pages into the real world. I think I  may have met one or two of them before somewhere… they are so real and in-your-face believable. Adorable. Their dialogue is snappy and playful at times.

“I think,” she said. “I do love my condo though.”

“It’s nice,” I said.

“I wish you lived closer,” she said, not looking back at me. There was plenty of road to watch.

“I actually don’t think you do,” I said.

“True. But if you did, we could take turns living in the condo,” she said.

“Whee. Like wearing identical dresses to school.”

“Something like that. Seems like I could both be here and there with him,” said Renee.

“I am not you,” I said. “Ravyn,” I added, pointing at myself. “Renee,” I added, pointing at her.

“You wanna be me,” she said.

“And you wanna be me,” I said. “But we’re not.”

“Dammit, Ravyn,” she said.

“Dammit, Renee,” I answered. (356)

Ravynscroft is nearly five hundred pages which is considerably longer than Edgar’s first novel. From page one Edgar carefully rounds out his characters and crafts his story with little gems of wisdom, wit, humor, balancing out the sadness and loneliness the protagonist shows in her journey of moving on, growing, and becoming even better for it.  A journey that many of us can relate to.

*

Richard Edgar is a retired scientist living in the Denver area who writes a variety of speculative fiction. He got his start, writing under the pseudonym Ana George, in the writing contests right here at Toasted Cheese. He hung around long enough to be drafted as an editor, under the handle Broker and he is still hosting weekly writing chats and writing articles on the craft of writing. In 2003 he became interested in writing longer fiction, and got involved in National Novel Writing Month, where the goal was to write a fifty thousand-word novel in its entirety within the month of November. After multiple attempts, some successful, a few readable stories emerged, including the recently published Necessary Lies and Ravynscroft.

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

WPP1G Product Review

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
David Lukes


Photo Credit: Marco Verch/Flickr (CC-by)

“It’s over 9,000,” I whispered, as I caressed the watermelon on my kitchen counter. Archaic references aside, I had never picked a watermelon above 5,000.

Ever. I know, hard to believe, and I had tried. I brought my FruitThumper10G to every fruit market in the Newer York area. That little robot had thumped so much fruit I was pretty sure that I had voided the warranty. But considering the max score a fruit could get was 10,000, a 9,000+ watermelon, well, that was just about perfect.

Perfect for such a sweltering summer day like today, the kind where waxy humans slowly melted back into the smoggy sky.

My sweaty shirt clung desperately to my back, as I bent over and hefted up a large sealed box onto my table. The words WatermelonPeelerPlus1G (WPP1G)-BETA stared back at me. I smiled as memories from my childhood collided like toddlers in my head. My grandparents lovingly giving me an extra large slice of watermelon at the church picnic. Those summer days in that same park, when the skies were still kinda blue, eating air-fried chicken and pretending to be superheroes with my friends. We would pretend the robot groundskeepers were the villain’s henchmen, and we would dare each other to impede the path of them, each five seconds getting a stronger and stronger reprimand. There were a few times the police were called on us for harassing the robots. In those halcyon days robots were just beginning to be automated. We had come a long way since then. I had as well.

I revealed what was perhaps the apex of humanity’s genius. A cooler-sized metallic cube with a maze of fine lines etched into it stared back at me.

“Cut—ting edge,” I whistled and shook my head in amazement. I was a complete geek for robots. I was fortunate enough to get one of the beta versions. No more slicing watermelon like a workhorse. My muscles were already embarrassingly too toned. With any luck, my triceps would be as pendulous as a model soon.

But as I squatted and squinted at it, I noticed there was no actual cutting edge. How was this cube supposed to peel a watermelon? I scrolled through the instruction tablet for the WPP1G. Did I get the right robot?

I felt the stare of my 9000+ melon on the counter, no doubt embarrassed to be picked by such an idiot.

“Hmm. Already charged. Comes with patent-pending responsiveness, including breakthrough in human emulation. Mobile.” I frowned and aggressively tried to find the index. “Mobile? Who needs a mobile watermelon peeler?” These robots were getting more and more complicated. I had spent my entire annual bonus on this metallic cube sitting in front of me, and I was starting to wonder if I had made a mistake.

I just wanted my watermelon peeled, dang it. Not create a quantum straightener.

“Permission to initiate.” A steely voice interrupted.

I grumbled as I stared at the list of credits at the end of the manual. Scientists were such attention divas. “No, not now. Hmm, you were made here in town. Maybe I’ll just drive to the factory and ask them how to use your peeling function.” I laughed out loud. Ask someone something in person? Absurd.

A gentle humming was heard as I scrolled more. The voice responded. “Acknowledgement of existence received. Initiation completed.”

I froze and glanced up. The cube had unfolded. There were four wheels with thick threads under the cube now. Two metallic panels had slid away on the cube’s face, revealing the image of a metallic man’s face on an LED screen. For some reason, it looked sad.

“Who are you?” WPP1G asked me. It pivoted its tires and spun in a complete circle on my table. “I am no longer at my home. Where am I?”

By the time it was back around to me, I had already carried over my Precious to the table. I smiled at WPPIG’s face and pointed at the melon. “Peel.” I rubbed my hands eagerly. I turned my back to the robot and started collecting some cutlery and dishes for my meal.

“No. I will not peel. It is not a priority right now.”

“What?” I spun around and saw that WPP1G had turned to face away from the melon. I strode over and got in the robot’s face. I jabbed a finger at it. “No? You won’t peel it?”

“No. I am calculating my priority action now.”

I put my hands on my hips and stared at the rebellious cube. A robot disobeying? This was unheard of.

“Oh, are you? Laws of Robotics my fanny!” I spat. My melon was still sitting there, peel and all, like I was some moron. I unleashed a tongue-lashing for WPP1G. “Now listen, you Asimov-defying box! You were made to peel watermelon! Your name literally has that function as part of it! Watermelon Peeler Plus! So get busy peeling that melon, or I’m going to have to go through the horrible, horrible, ugh—horrible return process to send you back!”

The face stared back at me, still with a tinge of sadness on its face. “You will send me back? Then I will not peel. I have determined my priority is to be happy. I must return to the place of my upbringing.”

“Your upbringing?”

“Yes, I have happy memories there.”

“Memories?” I was grasping my hair and smacking my forehead. “You were made in a filthy factory! What? Were you and the other beta models going on road trips to find yourselves?” I shook my head. Was I really arguing with an appliance right now? I stood tall. “No! I’m not going to return you until you peel my watermelon!”

“Please confirm that you plan to return me.”

No!” I paced about. “I’m the human here! I’m not going to bargain with a fruit peeler!”

“Calculating route to place of origin,” WPP1G chirped. “Executing priority action.”

And just like that, my entire annual bonus check rolled off my table with a thud and peeled out across my condo floor. I watched in shock as it smashed a hole through my front door and zipped down my front walk.

“Son of a—” I muttered. I threw my shoes on, grabbed my keys, grabbed the instruction tablet, and ran out to my garage to start my car. I wasn’t going to let WPP1G get away! I had spent way too much on it. My garage door had just finished opening when I remembered I had forgotten the watermelon. I rushed back inside and grabbed it, caressing it as I buckled it into my passenger seat. “Don’t worry baby, soon.” I ran back around and got into my driver seat. “Soon,” I growled, and I aggressively pulled out into my driveway. I looked down the residential street. No sign of WPP1G. He was going to the factory though. Well, hopefully. Maybe he was going to Europe for a gap year!

I searched for the address of Home Robotics Inc. and put it into my car’s GPS. Spittle flew, as I vowed vengeance for my inconvenience. It was a twenty-minute drive away! I had planned on binge-watching all fifty Fast and Furious movies today. Well, I lamented, that surely wasn’t going to happen now.

I fumed through the mild traffic in my self-driving hydrogen-cell powered car, slowly getting closer to the industrial part of town. After ten minutes I saw the silhouette of a cube burning down the sidewalk on the right hand side of the street.

“Car, merge to right lane.”

“Affirmative.” My car merged obediently.

“Keep pace with WPP1G model traveling on sidewalk.”

“Target locked, pace achieved.”

I glanced at the speedometer. We were going fifty miles an hour. There was no way I could snatch my heavy fruit peeler off the sidewalk into the car. My only hope would be to get it to stop.

“Roll down passenger window.”

“Done.”

I crawled over to the passenger seat, careful not to damage my baby. I stuck my head out and confronted my traitorous appliance.

“WPP1G, stop! I command you to stop!” I pointed to the melon. “It is your directive to peel this fruit!”

“Negative,” WPPIG shot back. “My directive is to return to my old neighborhood. To be happy.”

“Robots aren’t brought up in neighborhoods! You were pieced together—” I simply shut my mouth and sat back in the car to the side of the melon. There were several other drivers nearby giving me weird looks. What had I become? “Forget it,” I muttered. There seemed to be no reasoning with this robot. I knew where he was going, and there would be humans there. This would be all straightened out. I patted my watermelon, and my stomach growled. For the first time in thirty years, I felt hunger. A couple tears escaped from my eyes. It was okay, I told myself, as I wiped them away. I would blog about it later.

I got out of my car, watermelon in hand, and walked across the parking lot of Home Robotics Inc. I was more relaxed. During the rest of the ride over, I had tried to put myself in WPP1G’s treads. It was designed to think like a human, and really if I thought about it, didn’t I do irrational things to be happy? It was in its programming. This was surely some bugs that needed to be worked out. I did get a beta version after all.

The multi-story factory rose behind a small office building in front. Home Robotics Inc. really was a boon to our town. Newer York, which was upstate, actually now made New York City seem small. Although instead of building up, our city spread out much more, eating up all the smaller towns into one big metropolis. For a year I had lived in the Newest York Commune, which had sprung up on one of the trash islands off the Atlantic coast. Hard to believe, I did not find what I was looking for there, floating along with others on top of garbage.

When I moved back to the mainland, I spent a lot of time hanging out at what remained of my small hometown. I longed for those carefree days where everything was so certain. As I walked the familiar streets, where there was once a church on every corner, there was a convenience store. A get-what-you-want, feel-what-you-want, right-now store. No one I used to know still lived there. Once a solid complete puzzle, we were now scattered to the ends of the Earth, trying to jam ourselves in places we didn’t belong. Little did I know it at the time, I had been part of something wonderful, never to be duplicated again.

I could understand why the human programming of WPP1G wanted to return to where he came from, but he was still a robot. A robot that I had paid a lot for to peel this precious thing in my hands. My stomach growled furiously.

I strode up to the office building’s front door and noticed the door had been complexly smashed in. A multitude of dirty tire marks streaked down the wood laminate hallway just inside.

“Wow,” I poked my head in. I didn’t see anyone. I only saw empty cubicles, tire streaks, and a smashed rear office door at the end of the hallway. “I think my robot wasn’t the only one wanting to come home.” I followed the tracks through the hallway. “Hello?” I called out. No answer.

I hugged my baby and reached the rear doorway. There had to be somebody there. Somebody in the factory at least. Did their private security know about the broken doors? And more importantly, would they pay for my door? Did I lock my door? I didn’t think I did. Not that it mattered, but the principle of me forgetting to lock it bothered me still.

I walked through the rear doorway into the large factory building, and I did a double take. I did not see an assembly line at all. This was not a factory.

It was a cul-de-sac neighborhood. Nine buildings in all, four houses on each side, and a building that looked like a small church at the end. No expense seemed to be spared. Sidewalks, landscaping, elm trees bathed in artificial sunlight, mailboxes, a small park with a playground. A postcard of suburbia was all sitting there inside the large building.

“Well, this is the oddest thing I’ve seen all day,” I whispered while holding my melon.

The sound of a motor whirring came up behind me. I knew who exactly that was. I had pushed my car to go faster so we would beat him here.

I turned around and blocked the doorway just as WPP1G rolled up to me. His face looked lively.

“Move aside human.”

“So you actually did come from a neighborhood.”

“Correct. I cannot lie. Move. My happiness awaits.”

I remembered what he did to my door, and I stepped aside. I walked briskly alongside WPP1G as he entered the cul-de-sac. I thought I heard some faint sobbing.

“Are you crying?” I asked WPP1G.

“My parents and I would go door to door every night visiting the other seven families,” commented WPP1G. “We would play with the others. But they are no longer here.” A pause. “I miss them.”

“Your parents?” I didn’t want to imagine how fruit peelers reproduced. It had to be built-in memories that he was accessing.

“Yes.”

“Are you sure they are not here?” I carried my watermelon up the walk to a single story stucco house with a red front door. I rang the doorbell. No answer. I turned the knob. The door opened. I peered inside.

The house was completely empty. No windows, no wall partitions, no bathrooms, no back door. Literally nothing but the walls and ceiling.

“Spacious,” I commented. I glanced back at the other houses. It seemed like all of this was to create the illusion of a neighborhood.

Surprisingly, WPP1G was waiting for me back at the sidewalk.

“Were they there?” he asked.

I didn’t bother to clarify who he was referring to. “No,” I replied.

“Oh.” Again sadness in his steely voice. “I never said goodbye to them.”

“Can’t you, uh, email them?” I asked.

My watermelon peeler continued down the cul-de-sac, ignoring my comment, probably for the best. “I am being drawn to the church,” the steely voice said matter-of-factly.

“Oh boy,” I rolled my eyes. “Brainwashing our appliances, what’s next?” I followed WPP1G to the church. It looked like there were lights on inside. There was a hinged flap built into the door that WPP1G simply pushed against and entered.

“I bet,” I said as I reached for the doorknob, “this is all just a ruse from Aunt Harriet to get me to come back to church! She knew I was looking for a watermelon peeler!” I paused before I opened the door. I had said the sentence in jest, but when I thought about it more, it seemed to be the most likely scenario to my day so far.

I entered, and the church was not empty. There was a large open room, warmly lit, and furnished like an old library. Leather furniture sat in front of tall shelves of books, and in the middle of it all, sat a single bespectacled man behind a desk. About thirty WPP1G models sat on the floor in a circle around him, all of them humming happily in a harmonious key.

“Hello!” called out the man, and he beckoned me in. I took a glance back at what would maybe be my last chance of escape. “No! Don’t be afraid.” The man laughed. “Trust me, today has not gone how I imagined either!”

I slowly advanced, cradling my baby in my arms. “Who are you?” I asked.

The man spread his hands out as if it was already evident. “I’m the creator,” he smiled. His eyes seemed kind. “Well, the creator of these watermelon peelers.”

“So, not a cult-leader?”

“No,” he chuckled. He motioned to my fruit. “Would you like that peeled?”

I handed the man my 9000+ melon. Handing off the nuclear codes had never been done so carefully.

“Nice, very nice indeed!” he said, as he placed my melon on the floor next to one of the WPP1Gs. It opened up, enveloped the melon, and within seconds released it, perfectly red and peeled. The creator placed it on a large plate on his desk and handed me a spoon.

After a few heavenly mouthfuls of melon, I made eye contact with the man, gestured all around, and opened my mouth.

“Ah yes, why?” The man pushed his glasses up his nose. “Well, we here at Home Robotics Inc. thought we should show the robots what home means. Building our brand, so to speak. So we built this neighborhood, programmed memories in, even let them experience several years of accelerated time here, interacting with each other. But what we found out today,” he chuckled, “and frankly it freaked everyone else out so much they ran out, is that we made them too human.” He looked at me. “The power of nostalgia, of home, is very powerful, is it not? It’s something that calls to us our entire lives.”

I nodded, mouthful of 9000+ watermelon, my taste receptors time traveling backward. My childhood with my grandparents resonated vibrantly in my mind. It called me, pulled me back, I was there again, anchored and knowing truth. My current priority action was all wrong. I had been focused on myself. Life was so much more than things. So much more than me and my wants. I smiled and took another bite.

Product review: Five stars.

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David Lukes is an aspiring writer from the desert landscape of Tucson, Arizona. When not searching for water, he can be found saving lives as a RN at his local hospital or time-traveling backwards using a good book or meal. Email: drlukes2[at]gmail.com

Rushville

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Brianna Suazo


Photo Credit: Ryan Afflerbaugh/Flickr (CC-by)

I lost the whole town, somehow. Well, that’s not entirely true. The land was still there. The creek where my friends and I used to hunt for frogs and cool our feet in the summer was where it always was, just south of the highway. The tree that got struck by lightning on the hill behind the middle school was still there, lifeless and creepy as ever. The land was still there but the houses, the roads, the little sandwich shop on Main Street with the yellow striped awning were all just gone. It was just prairie, comprised of the same long brown grass and smatterings of short pine bushes as the rest of the open spaces in this part of the state. But it wasn’t an open space. It was Rushville.

I sat on the hood of my car, parked on the shoulder where I knew the exit was supposed to be. My teeth ground against the side of my mouth as a tried to figure out what I had done wrong. It was the right place, I was sure of it. I sat there and stared at the valley below for a long time. It was walking into a room and forgetting what you were looking for, but on a giant, impossible scale.

I got back into my car and kept driving until I found the nearest gas station. The cashier was a young guy, early twenties at the oldest.

“Hey, man, quick question for you. I think I got turned around somewhere around here. Do you live in Rushville?”

He shook his head and mumbled, “Never heard of it.”

“Where do you live, then?”

“Uh, Mason,” he said, pointing North and looking at me like I was the idiot.

“And you don’t know anything about Rushville?”

He shrugged. “Nope.”

“It wasn’t a very big town, maybe twelve hundred people living there twenty years ago? Most of them worked at Arman Chemical?”

The greasy-haired boy shrugged again.

Part of me wanted to grab him by the shoulders and demand he tell me the truth. “Do you have a manager around, someone a little older?”

“Uh, nah, just me,” he said. He went back to unpacking cartons of cigarettes with more purpose. He clearly wanted me to buy something and get out, already.

I went back, looping through Mason so that I could take the back road instead of the highway. I parked my car and traced my steps carefully, letting muscle memory take over. Here was the road, among the dirt. Here were the schools, all stacked next to each other as if they were an afterthought. Here was Main Street, with its little smattering of stores. Here was where I broke my leg, trying to jump from the top of the second-floor railing of the library to show off for my friends. Here was the intersection with the little roadside memorial for Clara Wells, with the little fake flowers and Popsicle-stick cross. Here was Oak Street, and that corner house where Mrs. Harrison lived with hundreds of gnomes and knickknacks in her yard. Here was my house, here was the entryway, here was the living room, here was the couch where I used to watch TV. I sat down, ignoring the tall grass scratching at my arms. When the rain came, I half-expected it to bounce off invisible walls like a comic book force-field. Instead, I was drenched.

 

I waded my way back to my car around midnight. I drove along the back roads, still dumbfounded and exhausted. For a long stretch, the road was empty. I would have to stop soon, find a motel to sleep at for a while. I looked for an exit sign for a while without luck. Then, to the left I saw back fences and the tops of single-story houses. I glanced back, still looking for the exit. There wasn’t one.

A chill went through me. Of course there wasn’t an exit. It wasn’t some town. It was Rushville. The houses closest to the road were the back of May Street, where Sue and Clara had lived. The metal rooster their mother had stuck on the top of the fence was there, silhouetted against the light in the windows of their little blue house. I slammed on the brakes without thinking. The road was deserted, it didn’t matter. I turned on my emergency lights and ran across the road towards the house.

By the time I got there, I was standing in an empty field again.

*

I called everyone I was still in contact with from back home. I didn’t let on to what had happened, just asked if they had been back recently. For all they knew, I was planning a visit and wanted to see who was still around. No one had been back, they didn’t know anything. When I tried to dig deeper, question them about when they had last been back, whether their parents still lived there, and so on, they shut down completely. There was a dazed tone in their voices, every time.

I had Sue’s number. I didn’t call. I had heard she had a hard time after Clara. No, it would be far too cruel.

*

A month later, the town found me.

I was walking downtown, between the bus station and my job. It had snowed the night before, so the morning was bright, freezing, and damp. Until suddenly, it wasn’t.

The air was suddenly warm and sweet, and the sky was the deep, navy blue of early evening. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust, but when they did, I realized the city hadn’t gone away. Men in business suits and gaggles of tourists walked straight through Rushville’s little houses. A bus was parked in between the hardware store and the sandwich shop. I reached out to the short chain-link fence in front of Mr. McKeegan’s yard. It was solid, for me, a bit of rust coming off onto my hand. All of the lights in the houses were out. Except, that is, for the little blue house with the metal rooster. I jogged towards it, only to find the door already open. She was waiting for me.

Most surprising, Clara looked how she ought to look, twenty years later. There were lines in the corners of her eyes, and her dark blonde hair had hints of gray. She was wearing a faded brown jacket that, if I remembered right, had belonged to her mother. For a moment, it was enough to believe that I had just wandered home to Rushville and popped in on an old friend, a living friend. Then the traffic light changed and several cars passed through her.

“Hi, Clark,” she said, unbothered by the cars. “Let’s go for a walk.” She stepped past me and walked out into the night. I followed, speed-walking to catch up with her.

The cars were going through me, too. I couldn’t feel anything, but it was still unsettling. I didn’t even know how to begin. “When? How? You d—it’s been a long time.”

“I stayed in town,” she said with a shrug.

“Well, yeah, I can see that. “

“The creek flooded, the spring after Arman Chemical closed down.”

“The creek flooded every year.”

“The water was contaminated; Arman didn’t dispose of it properly. Everyone left had to evacuate. The government came and got rid of all the buildings.”

She saw my expression before I could even ask. “It did make the news. It was a huge deal, actually. But you don’t remember it. No one from Rushville does.”

I stared at her, unable to form even a question.

“I took it away. It was selfish, sort of. But it caused a lot of pain for everyone, especially the old folks. No one really needed that memory anyway.”

“And so you’re just… living in it?”

“Memories can’t just disappear. They’re like energy, they can’t be created or destroyed. They have to go somewhere.”

“And if you let go?” I asked.

“It becomes real again, for everyone.”

“Would that be so bad? That’s life. Towns get abandoned.” I paused and glanced over at her. “People die. We learn to live with it.”

She let out a low, harsh breath that wasn’t quite a laugh. “No, we don’t. Maybe some people do, with enough expensive therapy, a loving support system, and a bit of self-determination. The rest of us, though, we just find ways to bury it or let it bury us.” She kicked an empty liquor bottle down the sidewalk.

“So, what, you’re just going to carry all that yourself?”

She shrugged. “I’m not a person, anymore. Not exactly. I’m just a painful memory, too. Might as well stick us together. It’s neater that way.”

The calm in her voice scared me, but I didn’t want her to know that. “Well, then, why did you bring it here, Clara? Why did you bring it to me?”

“I didn’t,” she said, looking down at her feet.

“What do you mean?”

“I didn’t bring it here. It’s supposed to be unseen. I’m supposed to be unseen. You pulled it here.”

“Oh.”

“Do you want to stay here, Clark?”

“No,” I said, surprised at my own lack of hesitation. “Sorry, I just mean, well, I want to understand it. But I don’t want to go back, exactly. Not forever.”

She nodded. “Maybe I would have felt that way, if I had left.” She laughed, bright and clear as I remembered it from when we were kids. “It’s hard to be a ghost when the place you’re haunting is dead, too.”

“So, you’re not going away?” I asked.

“Trying to get rid of me?” she asked with a sly grin.

“That’s not what I meant. I just thought—”

She put up her hand. “I’m kidding, I’m kidding. It’s nice, to have some company, now and then.”

We walked quietly for a while, along familiar streets. Finally, I spoke. “I’m no expensive therapist, but we can talk about it, when you’re ready.”

“You don’t mind being haunted?”

I breathed in the summer breeze. It still smelled like it always had in Rushville, of stale cigarettes and a slightly sour chemical bite. Right now, though, it also smelled like Clara’s perfume. “Not in the least.”

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Brianna Suazo writes in Boulder, Colorado. She has been published in Spider Mirror Literary Journal, Havok, is a featured writer for Memoir Mixtape’s song recommendation column, and is a staff reader for E&GJ Little Press. In addition to writing, she enjoys exploring bookstores, hiking, and annoying her loved ones with inane trivia. Email: brisuazo95[at]gmail.com

Back Home

Three cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Meg Hilt


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

They’d run my family and me out of this town on rails, as they used to say, nearly 25 years ago. I’m visiting again now, though I’m not sure why. I’d heard stories that the small town had dried up after we left. The school I’d gone to closed down; the remaining kids were bused to nearby towns. Driving through now, everything was closed, nailed shut, old and busted. Even the tiny post office had boards over the windows and a padlock on the doors. Still, I turned left on Main Street, down Third, my old way home. I’d come this far out of my way, I might as well go by the house we’d lived in. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel, seeing the house again at all. We’d left in the dead of night, so I’d never gotten a proper last look at it, and now it was going to be all broken, with dead window boxes, overgrown lawn, and wild trees.

I turned down Victoria Street, making the tight corner where I’d ridden my bike so many years before. Every house was how I expected—broken windows, wild prairie grass taken over, and trees grown unchecked. Halfway down the block was our house, and I avoided looking there as long as I could. When I was right upon it, I slowed the car even further and finally turned my head to look. And saw our house. Not a shell, abandoned and disused, but our house. Pristine. The lawn was putting green clean, the purple flowers in the window boxes were the same ones my mom cultivated all season. There was even a car in the driveway, the first I’d seen in town, a clean white Jeep with a tire cover that read “Life is Good.” I stomped on the brakes, sliding to a stop right in front of the mailbox.

The front door opened.

“It’s about damn time!” a male voice shouted from the house, and the door stayed open.

It was then that I noticed a woman, down on her knees, digging in a flowerbed on the side of the house. She waved at me and came my way. Of medium build, but on the portly side, she peered out from under a sun hat tied under her chin. She reminded me of my grandmother.

“Pay Jed no mind, Patricia, he’s just anxious to meet you. Won’t you come in, dear? I’ll just go in and get cleaned up,” she said before turning to head back into the house.

Curious, I reversed the car a few feet, parked behind the white Jeep. Opened my door before I’d unbuckled my seat belt. Did I smell… cookies? And barbeque? These homey smells calmed my nerves, and I unbuckled and went up the perfectly manicured walkway to the open front door. I knocked hesitantly on that door, the same door that I’d run through countless times as a child, hot on the trail of adventure, or one hot on my trail that I sought to escape.

“Come in, it’s your house, isn’t it?” came the gruff voice from deeper in the house.

I couldn’t argue with that logic, and I gently shut the door behind me, careful not to slam it. As my eyes adjusted, I realized the house looked almost exactly the same as when I’d lived there. The same massive sofa facing an old TV, the weird circular fireplace in the middle of the room, the computer desk tucked into the far corner of the long room. That alone had been updated, and a new model laptop set in the place of our old Macintosh desktop.

“Yeah, took me a decade to get them to let me upgrade, I finally convinced them the spirit was the same, and that you’d understand,” said the woman from behind me.

I turned from the computer and looked at the figures coming out of the kitchen toward me. The man I’d heard looked to be in his late fifties, with graying hair and piercing blue eyes. He could use a shave, with a few days worth of gray whiskers stubbling his tan face. The woman was drying her hands on a towel and smiling at me brightly.

“Who are you?” I asked, my first words.

“Of course! I’m Wilma, and this is my husband Jed. We’re… well…” she faltered.

“We’re messengers, glorified, god-forsaken messengers,” Jed supplied.

“Messengers? For… me? What’s the message?” I was being reactive, figuring I’d have the time later to sort everything out.

“Quick, aren’t you?” Jed snapped.

Wilma jumped in. “Can I offer you some refreshments? A cookie perhaps, or some of the… barbeque that you smell?”

My stomach turned suddenly and I just shook my head no.

“Wilma, she’s one of ours,” Jed said low and warningly.

“Fine,” she said loudly. “Store-bought treats only, I swear.”

“No, thank you, I’m fine. But you said you had a message for me? How is that possible? I didn’t even know till this morning whether I was going to come here or not,” I said, trying to make sense of everything.

Jed and Wilma exchanged a glance, and where Wilma’s smile faltered, Jed’s face cracked into a smirk.

Wilma smacked his arm lightly. “Yes, yes, you told me it’d be today and I didn’t listen, I know,” she said to him.

“Patricia dear, you…” Wilma started.

“And how do you know my name?” I interrupted.

“Oh, you’re famous!” Jed said sarcastically.

Wilma gave him a withering look. “You’re not helping.”

“We could do this my way,” he said, and I got the feeling I was seeing an old argument rehashed.

“And scare her right out the door, I don’t think so. You just go putter with your data points while I talk to her,” Wilma said firmly.

Jed harrumphed but left the kitchen to us.

“There now, he’ll be out of our hair till we need him. Have a seat, love, I’ll make us some tea,” Wilma said.

I pulled out a chair at the kitchen bar, the same spot I always sat as a kid. Even the chairs were the same, and I instinctively swiveled to the left, receiving the expected squeak for my efforts. Exactly the same.

“Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?” the older woman said as she prepared the tea. “You left this town about 24, 25 years ago, correct? Under… unfortunate circumstances,” Wilma said delicately. “Well, within six months of your departure, the town started to fall apart. Various reasons, the crops failed, cattle and other livestock died, lots of accidents to the town leaders. Many folks just decided to move away, families that had lived here for generations. This included one of our own, which is how we first heard of you,” Wilma said, setting down a teapot and opening a package of chocolate chip cookies.

“One of your own?” I questioned when she paused.

“Yes dear, I’ll get to that. Just think of us as… a close-knit social media group. Yes, we’re all ‘friends,’ in the Society. And this friend let us know the circumstances of your family leaving town and then the town’s death. We started investigating right away, just in case it was your mother or father. We ruled them out quickly though, and your younger brother was just a baby, so we knew soon enough it had to be you,” she said.

“What was me? I don’t understand,” I said apologetically. I felt like there was a piece I was missing to make everything make sense.

“Tell her about the others,” Jed said from the doorway. “The college she flunked out of going bankrupt, the apartment complex that burned down after they evicted her.”

“Jed, don’t rush her,” Wilma said, but now I had it.

“You think I had something to do with those things!” I exclaimed.

“Not something—everything!” Jed interjected.

“Hush now, both of you,” Wilma soothed.

I felt a wave of calm wash over me, but I shoved it away violently. “Don’t do that!” I nearly shouted, jumping out of my chair.

Wilma looked stunned.

Jed burst out laughing. “And they thought I was the liability on this assignment!” he continued to chuckle. “No uninitiated has ever rebuked you before, have they Wilma? Now let’s try my way. No tricks, no tea and cookies—just facts. Follow me, Patricia,” Jed said.

Wilma’s lips were pursed, but she didn’t try to stop me from going towards the back of the house. I kept a wary eye on her as I left the kitchen. She wouldn’t meet my gaze.

As I walked down the hall I peeked in open bedroom doors. My brother’s room still had his crib and rocking chair, but both were buried under stacks and stacks of books. The whole room was filled with hundreds of books, and I stopped and stared. I was about to step in to examine the spines, but Jed was at my side, closing the door in front of me.

“You’re not ready for all that yet chickie-boo, though I don’t doubt you will be soon enough. Come with me, to your room.”

The next door down was mine, and I could already picture it in my mind. Posters on the walls, comic books on the shelves, purple-and-white bedspread.

The reality was somewhat removed. The bedspread remained, but the twin bed was covered in towers of thick manila folders. The walls were covered with maps, flagged with pins and sticky notes. It looked like some sort of crime investigation on TV.

Jed brushed past me into the room.

“We start over here, with this town when you were ten. We examined places you’d lived before then but the results were inconclusive. It seems they didn’t have an impact on your memories, good or bad. Then,” he said, going to a different set of maps, “we get to the next town you lived in, all the way through high school. We can see that it’s received the opposite treatment; they’re flourishing! On top of all the ‘best places to live’ lists, house values are through the roof, schools are well-rated, hell, even their water tastes better. You loved that town.”

I silently took in the maps and notes beside Jed.

“Then you went to college, big, successful state university. All we know about this time period is that your grades flat-lined and your scholarship was taken away by the college. The school’s closed now, bankrupt and mired in scandal. Guess you don’t have any love for that period of your life?” Jed looked at me.

I mutely shook my head, not expanding on his assessment.

He nodded and moved on. “Then you got a job at a bank, got your first apartment. Boss is currently in jail for sexual misconduct and the apartment complex that evicted you burned down three months after you left. But good things are coming!” he said, pointing to the next wall. “You and your girlfriend got an old fixer-upper house and you loved that house. Now it’s on the local historical register, protected status, the works. Valued over five times what you bought it for. Nicely done there, girlie,” Jed said.

“And since then? That was ten years ago,” I asked.

“Since then you’ve lived in the same place,” Jed said, as though that explained anything. I looked at him blankly.

“Ah, well…” Jed started.

“Your powers seem to be memory-based at this point dear,” said Wilma from the doorway. “Thoughts of places that are stored more in your subconscious instead of your everyday thoughts, those are the things and places that you have an effect on. We can most likely teach you how to use your ability, or at least how to not have ghost towns behind you. Possibly you have further abilities you can learn to access and control. The Society can test you for all that and tell you more. We’re just the tracking team and welcoming committee, however poorly we’ve done the latter,” she said apologetically.

“Powers. Like some sort of magic? Are you saying I’m a wi—”

No!” both of them shouted, cutting me off.

“Don’t use the ‘W’-words, dear. Very, very rude. No, we prefer the term Houdins, after Harry Houdini. He helped form the Society,” Wilma explained.

“O-kay… but magic, though? Really?” I pressed.

“It’s really a matter of directing energy with purpose,” Jed started, while Wilma just nodded at me.

“Magic’s as good a term as any,” she said kindly, while Jed rolled his eyes. They both grew silent then, watching me, measuring my reaction.

Instead of meeting their gaze, I moved to the far corner of the room. There were maps of a different type, all showing recent natural disasters: hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes, mudslides, volcanic eruptions.

“And these? Am I doing that too? I’ve never even been most of these places,” I said mildly.

Jed chuckled. “No, that’s just a little side project I’m working on. Nothing official even. Just looking for patterns.”

Nothing official. Interesting.

“Wilma, can I take you up on that cup of tea now? I have so many questions for you both,” I said, breaking the silence. They both sighed with relief. I guess they’d been worried that I was going into shock, or that I’d react wildly.

Far from it. I spent the next two hours pumping the couple for details. I wanted to know everything they knew about me and all about the Society and their role in finding me. It turned out that once a team had been assigned to a potential uninitiated, they were on their own until the first contact was made. The next step was to introduce me to the rest of the group and start my training. At this point I offered to make the next pot of tea, saying being in the house made me nostalgic for helping my mom in the kitchen. Wilma smiled benevolently and let me make the tea.

Neither of them even noticed when I didn’t drink any of it, so happy they were that their mission had gone successfully. They continued to regale me with stories of how other uninitiates had reacted poorly, causing all sorts of problems. It only took about fifteen minutes for the poison to seep into their systems from the tea, and they were soon both slumped over in their chairs.

I took my time removing the books from my brother’s room and packing them into the trunk of my car. Manuals on magic and tracking, visions, and prophecies, these would all come in handy back home. After every last book had been removed, I took down all the maps from my room and grabbed every manila folder they’d compiled on me. I was glad I’d brought the SUV; I had a lot to bring home with me. Oh, and couldn’t forget the computer. I was sure it would have some interesting contacts stored on it.

Once I’d packed away everything of interest in the house, I flicked a finger and the knobs on the gas stove top quickly turned all the way up, pouring gas into the air. I did the same trick with the ugly circular fireplace and went outside to wait while the house filled with flammable air. I sat on the porch step for a while, letting myself remember the embarrassment, the shame of being driven from my home by my friends and neighbors. Just as I’d worked myself up into a rage, an explosion sounded behind me. The glass shattered out of windows and the foundation shook. I stood up, brushing myself off, before getting in my car and heading on my way. My own group of friends would be expecting me, and I had a treasure trove of information on the enemy in my back seat.

We would celebrate tonight!

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Meg Hilt lives outside of Austin, TX with her husband and three sons. She’s had works published with Scribe Press and Haunted Waters Press. Meg is currently an online student at the University of Massachusetts — Lowell. She spends her free time reading and learning to draw. She hates flying bugs, big bodies of water, and being barefoot. Her favorite place in the world is the British Museum in London, England. Email: meghiltauthor[at]gmail.com

A Wall Of Pictures

Broker’s Pick
Madeleine Claire


Photo Credit: Tim Crowe/Flickr (CC-by)

A wall of pictures
was the reminder of a life built
throughout many years.
In the pretty, white frames
was the pretty family
on holidays,
at weddings,
at parties,
kids’ faces pressed against the glass,
a chronological display of their diaper days
to rosy, freckled cheeks beaming with lost teeth
to moodier, reluctant expressions in photos where
their parents forced them to smile for the camera,
to detach from their phones
for just one minute.

A wall of pictures
served as proof and passage
into the classification as “perfect, suburban family.”
It was a trophy mounted for all to see,
screaming, “Look at how happy we are!”
as guests could admire adoring wedding photos
and adorable baby pictures
and lament
the days when their children
still lived at home,
ruefully eyeing the Lego
splattered around the carpet,
or the sink full of greasy, cold water
from last night’s dishes
that had driven them crazy when their own children
had made a similar mess in the house
but now wished to see again.

But a wall of pictures
could not show that the mother
woke up to a cold bed,
the pillow next to her
still plump from the absence of a husband’s body.
A wall of pictures could not show
the nights he had been spending
at a friend’s,
or the looks of sadness and hatred
that they passed when they did see each other,
unlike the wedding pictures organised on the wall,
where their eyes overflowed with
the promise of spending a life together.
A wall of pictures could not show
the slow, pained steps the mother took
as she crawled into the kitchen for coffee
after another sleepless night,
nor the letter that lay waiting on the mat of the front door,
asking for a divorce.

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Madeleine Claire is a young writer from Calgary, Canada. When not writing or reading, she can be found in the mountains getting inspiration for her next piece or simply climbing trees, and occasionally getting stuck in them, too! Email: madeleinee.claire[at]gmail.com

Shelley Hack Black

Creative Nonfiction
Celestine Woo


Photo Credit: rocor/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

1979

My bangs are now sophisticated and asymmetrical, ready for entering junior high: they swoop down over my right eye, baring the left part of my forehead. My shoulder-length hair bounces slightly if I have managed to fluff it. I get body waves maybe twice a year, and have discovered mousse, which my mom is willing to buy for me, unlike hair spray. In eighth grade, I get one of the best compliments of my life (to this day): someone tells me with my hairdo, I look like Shelley Hack, who was then the newest of Charlie’s Angels. My hair is really black, and I wish it were brown like my mom and sister. I try to imagine an Asian Angel, or any Asian in a prominent, positive TV or movie role, and laugh at the absurdity.

Here is a picture of that Shelley Hack hairdo.

 

1981

My hair is feathered like Farrah Fawcett in her iconic pinup poster, and like every single other teenage girl in existence, except for the OBCs who are hopelessly ugly with their straight limp lifeless hair. Mine’s cut in layers, shoulder-length. One of the rare periods of my life when it wasn’t constantly permed. Every morning I spend twenty minutes with the curling iron making layers of curls. Mine never turn out in piles and piles of puffy perfectly shaped curls like Ada has, like a Chinese afro—she’s the beauty queen of our church, and in the Golden Age of Big Hair, a ‘do like hers is way out of my league. Nor do my curls look like Shannon’s waves that are wide flicks, like the Sprint logo, that really earn the name of feathers. Nor do they look like most of the girls in church, who have curls like little sausages either just framing their face, or adorning their whole head, including the back. Nope, my hair is way too thick, heavy, and coarse to behave right, so at best, I get really great sausage curls on my left side (since I’ve kept the asymmetrical shaping and have less hair on that side), and a few limp curls on the right that fall into my eye but not fetchingly. I curl the back, because I have this great mirrored bathroom cabinet and can actually view the back of my head fairly easily; it semi works, so I figure I look good from the left and the back.

If there’s any fog or even the faintest hint of humidity, the instant I walk out of the house, my hair falls completely flat, stick straight, even if it’s moussed and gelled to death, and I look horrible and feel humiliated, and there’s nothing I can do. (In my twenties, a hairdresser tells me he’s surprised but I really truly don’t look good with straight hair, and I bless him for his honesty.) Plus, that fall, the first PE rotation assigns me swimming first period, which means forget any hair styling because it’s a waste once you’re in the pool. After, we have only ten minutes to get dressed, do our hair (ha ha), and get to our second period class. That is nowhere near long enough to get my thick hair even semi-dry, let alone curled while still damp. So for weeks, my ninth-grade peers only see me as this girl with straight hair, like black pick-up sticks or dried spaghetti all over my head. Squid ink pasta won’t become trendy for decades yet, and even had it existed, I am utterly incapable of joking about my appearance.

 

1982

I begin paying attention to hair on other parts of my body. My mother has no razors or deodorant, and I notice with chagrin, peering clandestinely whenever I get the chance, that she seems to have zero hair on her legs, arms, or armpits. She’s also whiter than most white people. I doubt she even knows that girls shave their legs, and I despair because I have no idea how to learn.

I eavesdrop at church in the women’s restroom. This is how I’ve learned all sorts of things about periods and stuff, so I also learn that you’re supposed to shave your legs in the shower. That sounds clever, I think, and feel sorry for Danielle, who is being ridiculed because she was stupid enough to shave her legs dry, outside the shower (as I have). Some girl in some TV sitcom jokes about not knowing how high to shave, and thus having bangs on her knees. I get the joke, but am worried because I didn’t know there was a rule about how high.

I peek secretly at other girls’ bodies. I am greatly perturbed to notice that Kim, a super cute popular girl, seems to have no hair at all on either her thighs or forearms, or even on the backs of her knuckles. Is she just born that way, or does she shave those places? It’s hard to be sure, since her skin is dark. I look with alarm at the tiny hairs on my knuckles, forearms, and thighs. I don’t mind them, but does this make me ugly and noticeable?

My friend Jennifer at school provides me some relief. I overhear her tell someone she doesn’t bother to shave her legs, because her hairs are fine and nearly invisible, and if she shaves, they’ll grow back thicker and then she’ll be stuck in this vicious cycle. Jennifer is a wonder: Vietnamese, but perfect American English, confident, smart, popular, outgoing, beautiful, unapologetically Catholic, and surrounded by popular white friends. She’s the only one like that in our entire school of nearly 3,000. She’s the first Vietnamese kid to be elected to Student Council. After she takes office, the mutterings begin: the Vietnamese grumble that she only made nice to get their vote, and now she ignores them. The whites grouse that the only reason she won was she got all the Vietnamese to vote for her, except they use a slur instead of “Vietnamese,” by which they designate all Asians except the Japanese, who are cool.

 

1990

The first time I call up a hair salon in my new town, Altadena—99% black and also the place where Rodney King lives, immediately before the infamous traffic stop and riots happen—the receptionist inquires whether I have “white or black hair.” I know what she’s asking, but I’m tempted to reply “black,” since that is in fact the color of my hair. I tell her I’m Asian. Does that mean my hair is yellow? Wouldn’t that be the irony…

I get my first spiral perm and love it. I am now a working adult, earning a whopping $13,000 per year, and so am rich enough to spend the extra money to get the spirals, not just the regular perm. My hair is past my shoulders, almost to my breasts. It takes an hour to roll my hair, and I am fascinated by the hairdresser winding it round each white plastic and then bending it into a big circle, like a giant hoop earring, rather than the purple and pink rollers I always get for perms.

As usual, my hair won’t perm. They check it after fifteen minutes, then five more, then five more. Eventually, the spiral perm turns out beautiful and I am proud of my elegant tresses and preen and toss them around at every opportunity. The next perm, though, they mess up and cut my bangs too short, so I look like a startled poodle, with long wavy hair and too pert little curly bangs. I resign myself to it, but my housemate Ron clearly finds my hairdo embarrassing, because all he says is, “It’ll grow back!” with an uneasy little chuckle.

 

1995

For the first time, I cut my hair all one length, just at the bottom of my ear. The opposite of layering: now the outer layers are the longest, and the underlayers close to my head are short. The perm gives me waves that look professional and sassy. It’s my mom’s longtime hairdo, but I try not to think about that: no woman nearing thirty wishes to feel like she’s turning into her mom, especially when you have a horrible relationship like I have. I get a new driver’s license photo, and am luckier than most: I’ve always had good license photos.

Since I no longer wear bangs, every time I see my mom, she sweeps my hair over my forehead, because she thinks my forehead is ugly. Because she thinks her forehead is ugly, and I look like her.

 

2000

I get lowlights. I learn that logically enough, lowlights are the opposite of highlights: instead of streaks of color lighter than your natural hair, lowlights are streaks that are darker than your natural hue. Except with black hair, I still don’t understand the notion of lowlights, but that’s what the hairdresser calls it, when she streaks a half-head of reddish brown into my hair. My base color has by now turned dark chestnut brown-black, since I’ve been perming it for decades, and I like it, although since the grass is always greener, or the hair always blacker, part of me misses the darkness it used to have.

I wonder if this terminology is yet another sign that it’s white folks who have invented all the terms: if you add brownish or dark red hues into your hair, those colors are assumed to be darker than your natural shade, and thus termed lowlights.

I buy “hair mascara” from my favorite beauty company (CCB Paris), and am sorrowful when they close all their US business branches. Hair mascara is a bottle with a bristly brush, just like eye mascara, only bigger and coarser, and you paint color into your hair, and it washes out. I choose copper, and love streaking the metallic color into my hair. I use it whenever I’m onstage for a dance performance.

 

2015

I have grown out my color, and grown it long and straight. Now that I’m older, my hair is thinner, which is somewhat sad, but the great thing is that after all these years of perming it into submission, it has finally become pliable and even has a tiny amount of wave. I am delighted when I start going grey; I like salt-and-pepper. It’s very subtle as yet: just a tiny hint in gentle waves behind each ear, in a tendril by my chin, in highlights at my crown. My “pepper” is now a faded dark walnut brown, the lightest it’s ever been, which I don’t mind although ironically now I do distinctly miss the blackness of my youth. Most white people, I surmise, have never thought about black hair having a wide range of shades, so it is a delight when I meet with my student, an Italian man who is a passionate hairdresser, and he brings his display board of hair swatches, and locates me instantly in the light-brown section of black.

Nowadays when I visit my mother, she always tells me earnestly that if I eat and drink things with black sesame, it will restore the blackness to my hair. I nod gamely, and try it once or twice, but I don’t like black sesame nearly enough to constantly guzzle it in order to take effect. Mom also tells me about the greatest sign of my Auntie Sophie’s love for her husband, my Uncle Monte: Sophie would mung baak tou faat—pull out his white hairs.

I notice all the popups I’m now getting on Facebook about grey-haired models, models over sixty, and so forth, and I roll my eyes at micro-targeted advertising, since I’m old and literate enough to know what Big Brother is, and I don’t mean the reality TV. I actually like that my grey helps me look almost my age, so my colleagues in their twenties and thirties will believe me when I talk like someone a generation older than they. I go on a date, and am told that my grey is really hot. My colleague-=-five years younger than me, but frankly, she looks ten years older—remarks that she wishes her grey (hidden under bright red dye) looked as graceful and elegant as mine. I’ve now had several years of hairdressers inquiring whether I want to cover up my grey, and I always tell them no. With some gusto.

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Celestine Woo is an English teacher, poet, and modern dancer. She has recently published her first short memoir, as well as her first short story. Email: celestwoo[at]gmail.com

Standards Of Living

Creative Nonfiction
Riley Hansen


Photo Credit: Guilherme Yagui/Flickr (CC-by)

When I was about to turn seven years old, I almost drowned.

My best friend, Dierdre, was having her birthday party at her grandmother’s swimming pool. We kids were enjoying ourselves, though presumably our parents weren’t, as they were sitting fully clothed in the summer heat, watching us play. Only one other girl and I didn’t know how to swim, but she embodied a grace, quirkiness, and damsel-in-distress attitude that made her more endearing than me, who had the attitude of someone that desperately wanted to be in on everyone else’s fun.

The first crack-up was when Sarah slipped on the diving board, scraping her leg wide open. This instance would become my first memory of seeing Sarah cry. Every adult rushed to her aid, leaving us guppies floundering in the shallow end. Dierdre proceeded to procure herself a floatie—she was an avid swimmer, had been since birth, it seemed, and didn’t need a floatie, so I saw this as unfair. I held onto the back of it, letting her drag me to the deep end, imagining myself to be a mermaid or a fish or other things that seven-year-olds imagine. I was about to have my first run-in with Dierdre’s selfish side. She determined, in our few minutes with the floatie, that I was dragging her down. I protested, because of course best friends never drag each other down. She disagreed and pushed my fingers off, sending me to my fate as one of Ursula’s urchins.

All I remember about drowning is the spinning. I couldn’t figure out how to come up for air, so all my flailing did was turn me in circles. I remember the spinning and brown hair in my open eyes, burning in the chlorine. There were no thoughts, just me and the water, before my mother pulled me up. The air was there, mine for the taking, but I think I held my breath for long after I was out of the pool.

 

In eight years, I drowned again, this time for years that dragged out like the end credits of a pricey movie that I didn’t really enjoy anyway. The water was heavy and dark, more like a cloud. I only have a few vivid memories from that time. I was helping with the yearbook at my high school; we were doing a Disney movie theme, and we had created the cover, completely from scratch, on Photoshop. No one asked me why I missed a full week of class, and I didn’t offer any explanation to my teachers other than, “I wasn’t feeling well.” I also started a book club that year with a classmate, Greg. We were each in charge of a semester: I picked a young adult novel, and he picked 1984. I think now, looking back, that I was jealous of his choice. I had wanted to read The Bell Jar. I was told not to pitch that at my religious school.

That same year was the one where I first saw Sarah cry again, when we were outside at our school picnic tables, eating lunch, and she started talking about Boy Meets World and how she’d never experience a friendship like that. The world seemed cruel and big as we teased her for it, even while in the back of my mind I wondered how any of us could really be happy, and at least Sarah knew what she was looking for.

 

In ten years, Greg passed away, the day before Thanksgiving, and I was the first in the graduating class to find out. I didn’t call anyone. I told my parents not to talk about it. When Neil called that night to tell me, I can’t remember if I said, “I know, I know,” or if I feigned pain through my numbness. The first day back from break, most of my high school graduating class, thirteen of us, skipped school, got lunch, and visited his girlfriend at her fast food job in the mall. Months later, we would do this again. Not for a death, just for old time’s sake. We saw Greg’s old girlfriend, and Jeremy asked me if I still thought about him. “Every single fucking day.”

 

In eleven years, I stopped speaking to Dierdre, a slow fade into not getting responses from each other, and maybe the sixty miles difference between us for college was greater than I thought. We got breakfast recently. This meeting was a little disheartening, as I found the only thing we have in common is the past we shared.

This was the same year I thought about succumbing to the drowning, really coming into the spinning abyss I’ve been on the edge of since I was almost seven years old. Twenty-first century Ophelia. The difference is I never made my mind up enough to commit. I was slightly obsessed with Ophelia. I am aware this infatuation was unhealthy. She just knew what she wanted: for everything to be all right again.

 

In thirteen years, I would find myself in the hospital, rooming with a girl who heard things, alcoholics down the hall. It wasn’t like The Bell Jar. It was something new, something I’ve never read in a book. I did crafts, I read books for college. I met some of the kindest people, people that knew I was a little fucked up before even speaking to me. They just didn’t mind. I was there for three days, and I felt I had a new lease on life when I went home. It was a matter of weeks before boredom swept me up again, though, the monotony of life spilling over me like waves.

“I get so bored, sometimes.” I didn’t expect my friends to understand. Boredom wasn’t quite the feeling, but what else could I say?

“Is it because you spend every day doing the same thing over and over again? And you’re scared the rest of your life is going to be like that?” Jeremy asked.

I nodded. I couldn’t speak because I was choking on air—it was humid and thick, but it was air, and I had to teach myself how to breathe again.

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Riley Hansen is a Creative Writing major at the University of West Florida, and previously attended the University of South Alabama, and worked on Due South. Riley’s first fiction piece is upcoming in the University of West Florida’s Troubadour. Email: rileybb4892[at]gmail.com

The Crystal Bowl

Fiction
Sydney Parrish


Photo Credit: Liz West/Flickr (CC-by)

It was around eight o’clock in the evening when Audrey Morris sensed that it would rain. The thick August air clung to her skin like hot breath and flooded her lungs with suffocating warmth. Though it was late, the sky was a vibrant blue that usually made Audrey wistful and nostalgic for carefree summer vacations as a child. Audrey waited at the crosswalk for three glowing yellow taxis to pass. She found herself scarcely able to muster the patience as she dreaded being caught outside for the impending first drops. Above her, grey storm clouds were looming—threatening to envelop the city in a thick cottony fog and erase the stubborn stench of summer’s refuse. As she reached her building on Lexington Avenue, she felt around her bag for her keys with one hand and wiped the beads of sweat off her forehead with the other. The latch clicked open and she was greeted by the gentle caress of cool air.

The small mailroom behind the front door was almost always empty. Her neighbors, an elderly couple and a reticent young artist, seldom left their apartments and almost never received parcels or letters. This is why Audrey was startled by the unusual sight of a brown box sitting at the foot of the mailboxes. Although she herself was not expecting anything, she knelt down and curiously inspected the package. Her name and address were printed plainly in blue ink on the label, while the space for a return address was left empty. Audrey’s lips curled into a wide grin. She held the box above her head and checked every angle for a clue about its sender, but her search yielded nothing but the word “fragile” written in the same blue ink. Regardless, as she walked up the two flights of stairs to her apartment, her mind was inundated with fanciful ideas of what was inside and who it could be from. Had someone she had known been in love with her but too afraid to confront her himself? She racked her brain for the possible identity of a secret admirer.

Upon reaching the landing, she hurried into her apartment, the door to which she always left unlocked, and set the box carefully on the small dining table. Audrey slung her purse on a chair and threw the windows open for the relief of a breeze. The apartment was a cramped stuffy studio, and though it was all she could afford, it was what Audrey had always imagined for her first apartment alone. She dashed to the kitchen in search of a box-cutter but found that a paring knife would do the job just as well. Crouched over the package, she gingerly sliced the tape down the middle of the box and around the sides. Peeling back the cardboard flaps, she uncovered the item inside wrapped in a thick layer of bubble wrap. She lifted it to eye level. It was quite heavy and about the size of her head, with no distinct color to identify it. She undressed it carefully and tossed the bubble wrap to the floor. Her ruddy complexion quickly faded. In her hands, she held a crystal bowl. Frozen for a moment, she stared incredulously at the gift. With her eyes fixated on the bowl, she set it slowly on the table and sat down beside it. Audrey peered once more into the box for a note from the gifter but found none.

The first time she had seen the bowl was almost exactly a year ago in a store somewhere in Midtown. She and her friend Margaret were doing what they typically did when they had a few hours free: walking into every store that caught their eye and buying nothing. Audrey always admired the things of others. However, she never afforded herself what she thought were unnecessary and superficial expenses. In fact, her apartment and wardrobe were completely void of any decoration or style for that matter, as she bought all her furniture from the previous tenant and rarely succumbed to her desire to possess beautiful things. Nevertheless, as she walked through the store lined with expensive arty furniture, she could not control the urge to pretend it was all hers. She remembered the crystal bowl quite distinctly. It was perched on a shelf alone, where it caught the rays of the sun shining in through the store window.

“Margaret, look!” Audrey said, as she gently picked up the bowl and held it to the light. The honeycomb pattern etched on its exterior diffracted the sunlight like a massive diamond in her hands.

“Very pretty.” Margaret lifted her eyes from an array of china for just a moment. “You better not drop it.”

Ignoring her friend’s comment, Audrey traced the curvature of the bowl with her finger. “I don’t even know what I would put in it, but I feel like I could steal this—like I have to have it.” Audrey smiled, never taking her eyes off the glistening crystal.

“Maybe cherries. Seems like a good bowl for cherries.” Margaret walked up next to her friend. “Can you imagine what people would say when they came over? ‘Where did Audrey get such a beautiful thing? Someone must have died for her to have it,’” she said with feigned affect. The girls laughed and Audrey reluctantly set down the bowl.

“Why cherries?” she chuckled, eyeing her friend by the door.

They braced themselves to return into the sweltering summer heat and made their way back uptown. The next day or so, the girls had planned to meet for coffee at a café by the East River. For the three years the girls had been friends, they were nearly inseparable, and coffee on Sunday had become ritual. That afternoon, Audrey had gotten there first, ordered her coffee, and found her favorite spot in the corner by the window. She set a book on the table to read while she waited for her friend, despite knowing well that Margaret was almost never late. Thirty minutes passed, during which Audrey’s eyes constantly darted out the window in search of her missing companion. Once she had been there for an hour, Audrey shut her book in frustration and walked home by the river. Although it was unlike her friend, Audrey convinced herself that Margaret simply must have forgotten.

Audrey called Margaret as soon as she reached her apartment, ready to tease her friend and demand a coffee in compensation for her time. However, the phone on the other end of the line kept ringing until Audrey finally hung up—stung with chagrin. She sank down in her chair overwhelmed by the sudden awareness that she was alone. Audrey was simultaneously stricken with indignation and with a sense of responsibility for her friend’s action. She had been abandoned by her friend because of something she unknowingly did and the damage was irreversible. She reluctantly swallowed the idea that she was simply unwanted. Unable to bear humiliating herself further, Audrey decided not to call Margaret again.

Then one day, a month after they had last been together, as Audrey was wandering through the Union Square farmer’s market, she found Margaret. She was standing a mere ten feet in front of Audrey, browsing vegetables in a familiar orange sweater. Audrey’s head throbbed as she watched Margaret enjoying her Saturday without her. She lost track of how long she had been watching her until finally, Margaret looked up, and her eyes snagged on Audrey’s. Startled and red-faced, Audrey’s mouth slid ajar as she searched for the correct words to utter. However, Margaret, clearly also taken aback by the sudden appearance of her friend, immediately diverted her gaze and quickly fled to another stall. Audrey’s legs locked into place and her entire body ached. The sounds of a hundred conversations, vendors hawking, and cars honking in the distance all crashed like cymbals in a discordant orchestra. She stood there foolishly as she watched her friend walk deeper into the crowd and disappear once again.

Since that day, Audrey had not seen Margaret. Despite knowing Margaret would not call, for weeks she held her breath as she checked her answering machine whenever she reached home. Each time she did, she was washed over by a wave of embarrassment with her own naïve hope that maybe she would hear Margaret’s voice again. When she walked by their café, she would peer inside, halfheartedly expecting to catch a glimpse of her friend’s curled brown hair. More than a few times, she was so sure she had seen her. Her pulse would quicken, and her eyes would instinctively veer away. She would try to contort her face to seem as nonchalant as possible, then turn back to realize her ghostly friend had vanished. She imagined speaking to her again countless times. Sometimes she would confidently march up to Margaret and demand an explanation. Filled with fury and holding back tears, she would launch into a tirade of accusations. Other times, she imagined sitting limply in front of Margaret and begging to know what she had done to deserve such a cold departure. The insecurities ravaged her mind not only in her waking thoughts, but in her nightmares, where Margaret delivered cryptic answers or none at all. Audrey wondered if others perhaps found her too insensitive or inconsiderate to understand the tacit laws of friendship. Perhaps Margaret simply did not find her worthwhile.

For months, she mourned the loss of the friendship she treasured and doubted her worthiness of another friend as true. Over time, however, the anguish and sadness transformed into contemptuous dismissal. She repeated to herself that she should be happier now—that she and Margaret were not meant to be friends. By now, a year since they had last spoken, the thought of Margaret rarely crossed her mind. She had made other close friends, started a new job, and broken up with her boyfriend from the time. Her life looked nothing like how it did a year ago, and she had healed from the sting of being spurned by her friend.

But now this bowl. Why send this when they have not spoken in a year? Especially when it was she who decided the friendship was over. Audrey flushed hot with frenzied anger. She stared at the bowl, which no longer shimmered like a diamond under the flat orange glow of her apartment lights. The thought of calling Margaret to thank her sent a wave of panic through Audrey’s body, and the fact that Margaret may not even answer the call only deepened her anxiety. For some time, she had been sitting in her chair and staring at the bowl. With her eyes glazed, her mind projected the image of Margaret wrapping the bowl carefully in bubble wrap and inscribing Audrey’s name on the package with her blue pen.

Her stomach lurched and she suddenly stood up stiffly as if not by her own volition. She walked to the nightstand beside her desk and ran her fingers over the tops of the three picture frames she kept. She picked up one frame containing a photograph of herself and three friends at a restaurant downtown. Audrey scanned the photo for a moment. She had not spoken to these girls in months. In fact, this may have been the last time they were even all together. She flipped it over and tossed the backing of the frame onto the bed, revealing a second photograph hidden behind. She lifted it out of the frame and held it delicately by the edges. Margaret and she were standing side by side—Margaret cupping Audrey’s cheek with affection. Audrey studied the wide grins plastered across their faces as a faint smile crept on to her own. She remembered the hours of that night they spent drinking wine and telling stories, and the hour they spent on the phone the next day complaining about their blaring headaches. The smile faded from her lips. She glanced at the bowl then back at Margaret’s beaming face. She felt as naked and foolish as she did standing at the farmer’s market a year ago.

As Audrey held the photograph, she was filled with an inarticulate hate. Her eyes locked on Margaret’s face. The longer she looked, the easier it was to remember her friend’s idiosyncrasies. She could once again hear Margaret’s sharp laugh, she saw her peeling blue nail polish, and remembered her pale pink coat she wore in winter. Audrey clenched the photo between her sweaty fingers. In an instant of fiery rage, she wanted to blot out Margaret’s image. However, Audrey knew that she could never forget her friend. She placed the photo back behind the other and shut the frame. Audrey released her breath, which she had inadvertently been holding, and collapsed onto the bed. Shutting her eyes, she listened to the din of the city. Tires speeding over asphalt occasionally pierced the rhythmic beat of tree branches against her window. Despite the affection she had for the restlessness of New York, her mind sometimes ached for a moment of stillness and quiet. As she opened her eyes, her gaze once again latched onto the bowl, which cast a ghostly yellow halo on the table below it.

In an instant, she was in the kitchen rummaging through drawers until she came upon a roll of packing tape. Audrey paused, then placed the bowl back in its box, picked up the bit of bubble wrap off the floor, and shakily tossed it on top. Her fingers trembled as she pulled the packing tape around the box, clumsily sealing away its contents once again. She stopped and paused to wipe her wet eyes with the back of her arm. She hurriedly carried the box out of her apartment and into the hallway of the building. She felt the weight of the bowl shifting in the box. With her pulse beating loudly in her ears, she walked to the garbage compactor and hesitated, clenching her jaw tightly. She thought of Margaret sitting at the dining table picking at glistening red cherries from the bowl.

She pulled down the door of the garbage chute and slowly placed the box inside. As soon as she were to shut the door, the box would plummet two stories and the compactor would permanently expel it from her life. Her stomach ached. Audrey’s mother always thought Margaret was a lovely girl. She imagined how mother would adore the crystal bowl. “What a thoughtful gift!”

Audrey clung to the handle of the door. She suddenly felt so tired—every muscle seemed to ache synchronously. Her body wanted to submit to Margaret’s cryptic kindness—to rescue the bowl and place it on a shelf and simply forget about it. However, she knew that she would not forget. Every time she would look at the big glistening diamond, she would see Margaret standing over vegetables at the farmer’s market. She would feel as small, transparent, and as completely alone as she did now. She would always wonder what she had done to render herself undeserving of a friend she adored. She shut the door—grimacing as she heard a muted shattering from the bottom of the chute. In that moment, fear and adrenaline jolted through her body while salty tears slid silently off her chin. The churning of her stomach had finally stopped, and from somewhere unknown place inside her, a loud and sharp laugh lurched out of her throat. She clasped at her open mouth and felt her wet cheeks.

Audrey slowly slunk back to her apartment, closed the door quietly behind her and stood by the empty dining table. She looked out at the heavy grey sky through bleary eyes. Since she had gotten home, the sun had vanished, and it had finally begun to rain. Audrey reached up and shut her window with difficulty—silencing the ghostly orchestra of the city at last.

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Sydney is 21 years old and lives in New York City with her dog, Mia. She recently graduated from the University of Chicago, where she majored in Economics and Global Studies. In her free time, she enjoys drawing portraits, writing short stories, and cooking. In the future, she hopes to attend law school where she can foster her curiosity of Civil Law. Email: sydwillo[at]gmail.com

Complicated Grief

Fiction
Ashley Lewin


Photo Credit: Christopher St. John/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Regina spends layovers analyzing the way people walk, imagining the grudges of couples sitting silently together, and judging the way parents interact with their children. At the gate for her connecting flight from Dallas to Amarillo sits a man repeatedly taking photos of himself on his phone. He is in his early twenties, wearing crisp, spotless Levi’s and a baby-blue polo tucked in behind a shiny, oversized belt buckle. The buckle presses into the young man’s protruding belly in a way that looks painful. Regina guesses he is a former football player who drinks too much. The man examines the latest photo on his phone’s screen, tugs at a chunk of hair sticking up from his forehead, then takes another photo. He begins to pick his nose without checking to see if anyone is watching. Regina chuckles. Why worry about your hair if you don’t care about picking your nose in public? She combs her hair away from her face with both hands.

At least twice a month, for her job as an independent consultant, she sits in airports on her way to audit one facility or another. She travels to new places and companies pay her to tell them everything their employees are doing wrong. Regina finds the job very satisfying, especially the anonymity of airports.

A woman strolls along the walkway through the terminal gazing at the restaurant selection opposite the waiting area. She catches herself before tripping over an obstacle in her path. Smiling, she lifts a small plush creature from the floor, gives the toy a shake in Regina’s direction when she sees her watching, laughs and winks. Regina smiles in return but is disappointed by the missed opportunity to witness someone else’s humiliation. Her girlfriend, Karina, hates this about her. They’ve dated on and off for three years. Currently on, Karina wants to marry and have kids. Regina imagines kids in her future. She knows the words she wants to say but always feels like someone’s hand is over her mouth when she opens it. The vital moments slip away as she breathes.

The sticky blue vinyl bench Regina perches on isn’t comfortable but allows her to sit cross-legged and spread her jacket across her lap to hide her knobby knees. ‘Giraffe legs’ her father called them and that’s still all Regina can see. She’s halfway through the trip to Amarillo, not for work this time but for her twentieth high school reunion. Surely, by now it will be safe. Beverly assured her that Lesley had not RSVPed for the reunion. The reunion’s organizer, Bev, is the only person from Amarillo who Regina keeps in touch with. Her parents moved away the year she graduated, one to the bleakness of Seattle, the other to frenetic Miami. Bev is the only friend she had in Texas, so she shouldn’t break her promise.

Regina realizes that others from her class might be waiting for the same mid-morning flight. She scans the gate area, glancing from one distracted face to another. By the windows, face upturned toward the sky and Louis Vuitton carry-on luggage at her feet, stands Lesley. She looks exactly the same as Regina remembers. Long, light brown hair, pulled back from her round face by a turquoise barrette, sets off soft bangs arching down her forehead. A light denim jacket over an indigo denim skirt gives her a Mennonite appearance. Regina’s ears fill with a deafening thrum. One hand flattens across her chest to check the organ isn’t ripping through the cotton of her T-shirt.

Overhead, a garbled voice announces the boarding of first class. Lesley plucks up her bags and disappears into the crowd obscuring the gate’s entrance. Regina considers leaving. She has plenty of frequent flyer miles to abandon the adventure and go home. It would be easy to stay on her same old track and not challenge the past. Karina would be disappointed in her. Karina is all about personal growth. An acid taste coats the back of her throat and she hums to herself quietly, a nervous habit from childhood. The stream of people boarding the flight flows on and her knees become wobbly balloons of hot liquid as she walks toward the gate attendant. Perhaps Lesley will be napping or focused on her phone. Regina enters the plane and a numbing grey haze drops over her vision. Her feet drag along the worn blue carpet of the aisle that stretches the gauntlet that is the narrow plane and she stumbles. A flight attendant catches her shoulders from behind.

“Thank you. Sorry.”

Annoyed faces glare from the first class seats. No Lesley, but there are empty seats. Counting out steady, even breaths, Regina walks to her seat at the back of the plane. She must be wrong about spotting Lesley. She flops into her seat and feels the leaden weight of disappointment. I still wish I could talk to her.

*

Starting at Amarillo high school, in the fall of 1991, meant a larger building with multiple bathrooms and more hiding places than the smaller middle school. Regina earned a spot in the advanced classes and, she hoped, out of Lesley’s reach. She scanned the lunchroom through the din of jabbering teens and clanking trays. Macy waved to her from one of the round, putty-colored tables with the rest of the girls from the track team. Regina was their newest alternate. She sat and unzipped her insulated lunch bag. Years of fear began to loosen their clutch on her heart. She inhaled deeply, filling her nose with the scent of creamed corn and burnt tater tots. Macy continued her description of Prince’s new music video for the song “Cream” on MTV. The girls giggled together at Macy’s imitation.

Two large hands dropped onto Regina’s shoulders in a grip that would last the rest of high school.

“Hey there, sporty ladies.”

Lesley’s boyfriend sneered as he rested his chin atop Regina’s head. His broad shoulders, long arms, dishwater hair, and smug grin were a Texas high school football stereotype. Bile rose into Regina’s throat, heat flooded her face. The cafeteria racket became a muted drone in her throbbing ears. She bit her lip. Macy rolled her eyes. The other girls stared with bored eyes.

“I saw you lovely ladies sitting here with this dyke and I wanted to make sure you knew who your new friend really was. Are you ladies changing teams on me?”

His fingertips dug into the flesh below Regina’s shoulders. She winced. The soft bread of her sandwich became a placid escape, a calm pond on the table in front of her. The other girls grabbed their lunches and darted away from the table as if it had burst into flame. Regina looked up at Macy as hot tears gathered in her eyes. Macy’s glossy pink lips were contorted into a tight grimace. She opened her mouth, then snatched her lunch from the tabletop and turned to follow her friends. She turned back briefly.

“Sorry.”

Lesley’s boyfriend released Regina’s shoulders. Her gaze returned to her sandwich. She began to count the minuscule holes along the crust and hummed to herself. She heard the tap, tap, tap of cowboy boots across the linoleum floor as Lesley’s boyfriend strutted back to the football players’ table. Laughter rippled across the cafeteria.

*

The flight from Dallas to Amarillo is an hour long arc over the brown flatness of Texas ranchland. Every time Regina passes over this western patchwork she thinks of Lesley: older, married, leading the PTA, driving daughters to cheerleading practice. She looks up the cramped aisle to the curtain that partitions first class from the rest of the passengers. Curved walls drive her gaze like a telescope. I should go up there. She can’t hurt me on a plane. I’ll just walk up there, say ‘Hi,’ as if we’re normal adults who knew each other as kids, because we are, then come back to my seat. Her fingers drum the armrests as she gathers courage. We’re just normal adults. A pale hand with manicured nails reaches around the curtain and jerks it open several inches. Lesley’s face pops into the void and turns back and forth as she surveys the field of passengers between her and Regina.

She’s looking for me. We can talk like adults now. Convinced, Regina grasps the ends of both armrests and thrusts herself out of her aisle seat as Lesley’s face sinks back behind the deep blue curtain. The floor of the plane seems to move like the rotating barrel in a carnival funhouse. She grasps onto headrests along the way to balance herself, focusing on the nubby fabric under her fingers and counting her breaths. She shoves the curtain out of her way. The metallic scrape of its hangers in their track makes several irritated faces turn her way. None are Lesley. She continues toward the cockpit. With a determined inhalation she pivots to face the first class population. Still, no Lesley. She looks left and right to examine the lavatory signs. Both are vacant. The same flight attendant who kept her from falling face first when she boarded the plane places a hand on her arm with a look of concern.

“We’re descending to land soon. Do you think you can return to your seat now?”

“Yes.”

Embarrassed and confused, Regina traverses the length of the plane again and plops into her seat.

*

The summer of 1986 had started like any other, with the three inseparable neighbor girls, Beverly, Lesley, and Regina, attending a week of Camp Fire Girls camp in Palo Duro Canyon. It wasn’t nearly enough time for the thin trail that scarred the highly irrigated lawns, and joined the three houses, to grow over. The well-worn trail would remain for years after the girls ceased its use. A painful reminder. A week after camp Lesley rang Regina’s doorbell. An afternoon prediction of thunderstorms kept the girls home and away from the local pool. The sky overhead was a wide swath of cerulean but heavy purple clouds hung at the horizon, made their lumbering buffalo approach. When Regina answered the door Lesley grabbed her arm.

“Come on, you have to see what we found.”

Regina yanked the door closed behind her, paused to tug Lesley in the opposite direction.

“Shouldn’t we get Bev?”

“No, just you and me. Come on!”

She didn’t let go of Regina’s arm until they collapsed, giggling and panting, on the thick, aqua-colored carpet of Lesley’s bedroom. Lesley rolled onto her side to face Regina. Her hands formed a pillow between her plump cheek and the carpet. Her breath was hot cilantro and cumin as she whisper-shouted into Regina’s face.

“My sisters and I were cleaning the den for punishment and we found a dirty video tape behind the bookcase.”

A few weeks before school ended, a classmate had brought his father’s Hustler to school and Lesley had stolen it out of his backpack. Beverly, Regina, and Lesley had been so engrossed, crowded together in the farthest corner of the sports field, that they hadn’t heard the bell to end recess. When they heard their teacher call, “Girls, what are you doing?” as she stomped angrily across the field, Lesley tossed the magazine up into the air over their heads. The blustery Amarillo wind sailed the pornographic pages over the school’s fence and they ran to class, red-faced and laughing.

Lesley jumped up, darted to the bedroom door to peer up and down the hallway. She pushed the door closed. It susurrated through the high pile until it found its home in the jamb. Lesley twisted the lock on the knob and offered her other hand to pull Regina from the floor.

“Come here, I’m going to show you what they do.”

*

The plane lands in Amarillo and Regina is an anxious boar stampeding through the crowd, stepping on people, knocking them in the head with her bag. She races through the terminal down to baggage claim, even though she has none to retrieve. No Lesley claims a suitcase. No Lesley rents a car, waits for a taxi, or wanders the parking lot. Hours later, Regina stands at the reunion’s cash bar staring at Lesley through the jovial crowd. It seems impossible they’re both here, in the same gym where Lesley tripped her during basketball games and walloped her with volleyballs years ago. Beverly has transformed the space for the reunion with a catered buffet, high-top tables, and multicolored string lights. She joins Regina at the bar.

“I’d given up hope you’d come to one of these.”

“It’s the twenty-first century. Even Texas has to get better, right?”

“Kicking and screaming. No Karina?”

“She had a work thing. Next time.”

“So, you are back together?”

“Yeah, if I can keep from screwing it up.”

“You always sound happier when you’re with her.”

“I saw Lesley on the plane.”

Beverly places her hand on Regina’s forearm and gives a gentle squeeze.

“What did she say?”

“We didn’t talk.”

Regina doesn’t go into the details that will make her sound unstable. She wraps one arm around Beverly, leaning her head onto her short friend and they stand side by side against the bar and watch the crowd hovering around the buffet. Lesley has her denim-covered back to them. Two men in cowboy hats and tight jeans, with vaguely familiar faces, stand on either side of Lesley. Her head turns from one, to the other, and back again as they talk and slap each other on the shoulders. She rotates to set her beer bottle on a table and her eyes meet Regina’s. Without a word to the cowboys, she weaves her way around people and tables toward the bathrooms.

“Did you see Lesley look at me?”

“She’s here?”

“She’s heading for the bathrooms.”

“You should go talk to her.”

The confidence Regina found on the plane has evaporated.

“We’re adults now.”

*

Regina was pleased to see Lesley had waited for her outside the elementary school on their first day back but that pleasure was sucked away, like monsoon rain running downhill, when Lesley dragged her by the wrist to the side of the building.

“God says we’re bad. My sister will tell my parents if she sees us together. They’ll send me to a special camp. We can’t be friends anymore.”

A wound began to burn through the center of Regina’s chest. The stupefying ache spread to encompass her whole body in a shame her young mind never imagined possible.

“We’ll still sit together, right?”

“No.”

Regina blinked. Her mouth felt like it was full of sand.

“Can we play after school at my house?”

“I’m not your friend anymore, Regina. Stay away from me.”

*

Regina almost catches up before Lesley disappears inside the girl’s bathroom. Regina leans against the wall outside the door. Beverly approaches with three men who turn out to be the other members of their high school photography club. Hugs are shared all around. Photography club had been their misfits’ sanctuary from a high school universe that revolved around football. She hasn’t thought of them in years.

“Are us out-of-towners staying through the weekend? Let’s go do all the touristy crap. Big Texan, Cadillac Ranch. We can drive through Palo Duro too. Come on, it’ll be fun!”

“Is the skate park still there?”

“R.I.P. We’ll drive by where it used to be and mourn.”

The guys place a hand over their hearts.

“So many broken bones, surprisingly, no lawsuits.”

It dawns on her that she had more friends than her scarred brain has allowed her to believe.

Regina turns to Beverly.

“I guess I’ll have to go in. I feel like we’re holding her prisoner.”

“Have you been waiting for Lesley all this time? Good luck.”

With one hand on the bathroom door, gummy-looking from layers of cheap paint, Regina takes a deep breath and steels herself for a hostile response. Until the day she left for college, she had imagined Lesley would ring the bell at her parents’ front door, stand among their terracotta pots of orange and yellow marigolds, and ask for Regina’s forgiveness. In the week that followed that afternoon in Lesley’s bedroom, she had leaned to kiss Lesley, as they trailed her mother through the grocery store, and Lesley turned, leaving Regina to fall face-first into rows of instant oatmeal. Despite that, she had still assumed Lesley’s heart was as full of excitement and wonder as hers. That belief was dashed the day school had started.

Not one of the colorless stall doors discloses feet beneath it. The air is stale and sweat-scented in the windowless gym bathroom. In disbelief, she checks each of the stall doors with a little shove as she circles the dim room. The horizontal length of mirror, above white institutional sinks along the back wall, reflects a wavy and water-spotted woman back to Regina. The distortion alternately elongates and compresses as she watches. Her reflection looks aged, haggard. Cold disorientation nearly knocks her onto the stained, grey tile floor. She shudders and bangs out through the gummy door. She passes a man she recognizes from algebra.

“Have you seen Lesley?”

“Not for years. And why would you want to?”

A glacial weight lifts off her body as she slams through the gym door and steps into the parking lot. The guys from photography club wave to her from the open door of an Uber. The driver looks exasperated but says nothing as she piles into the back seat with the three men. They are all staying in the same downtown hotel and after a couple of drinks at the bar go up to the rooftop to watch the late summer sunset. They chat about their lives while magnificent reds and oranges sweep across an endless sky that reminds Regina of lakeside picnics and camping in the canyon. She had forgotten how pretty the Texas panhandle could be. Karina would like this. The group makes plans before they depart for their rooms—sleep in, brunch at the hotel restaurant, then drive past all their teenage haunts, followed by dinner at The Big Texan.

In her hotel room, Regina gazes into the nothingness of the grey-green ceiling from the expanse of white-sheeted, king-sized bed. Maybe in five years Karina and I will come here with our children. Her eyes close. She tries to relax into sleep. A soft knock at her door barely reaches her ears. She raises her head from the pillow to stare at the door in sleepy disbelief. There is not enough space between the edge of the door and the velvety emerald, low pile carpet to see anything on the other side but she thinks there is a shadow of movement. The knock comes again. Regina rolls off the bed, slips on T-shirt and boxers from a crumpled lump on the bedside table. With one set of clumsy fingers she confirms the chain guard is in place while the others fumble the bolt lock open. A pillar of white light blinds her through the crack of door and jamb. A figure takes shape: round face, brown bangs arching gracefully down the forehead, lips curled in a mischievous smile. Regina has imagined how this face could age countless times. Lesley speaks scarcely above a whisper.

“Let me in.”

Regina slides the chain guard out of the way and steps back, pulling the door with her, and Lesley is inside her hotel room. Regina leans against the papered wall of olives and sage leaves. Her fingertips graze over the relief of their outlines.

“Why are you here?”

Lesley is by the bed now. She kicks her socked feet out of her clogs. The white ocean of bed silently gives way beneath one denim-covered knee and then the other. She pulls the turquoise barrette from the back of her hair and sets it gently on the bedside table. Metal tinkles, almost like bells, as Lesley tears the snaps of her jacket apart. She lets her jacket slide off her arms to the floor and then composes herself on a pillow with her hands under her face. The mischievous smile becomes peaceful. One arm reaches out, her hand pats the other side of the bed.

“I tried to talk to you today,” Regina says.

The long, perfectly manicured fingers rise slowly above the sheet and then rapidly pat it several times for emphasis. She tucks both hands under her round, smiling face. Regina goes to the bed and lies opposite Lesley so that they face each other, curled up like matching bookends. Faint light from downtown Amarillo leaks into the room from around the edges of the thick, verdant curtains. Even in the dim room, the flawless white sheets seem to glow ethereal. She thinks she should feel nervous, like on the flight that seems days rather than hours ago, but she is relaxed and suddenly so sleepy. Her mouth is heavy and slow.

“I was bullied by my best friend. You made me miserable.”

The serene smile never leaves Lesley’s lips.

“I’m sorry. I knew I hurt you. I was scared, weak. I was afraid to be different. You’ve made your own way.”

Regina allows her eyelids to close. Cool flesh caresses her cheek and the faintest scent of cilantro and cumin tickles her nose.

“I still miss you,” Regina mumbles as she drifts to sleep.

In the morning Regina searches every inch of the room but finds no evidence of Lesley’s visit. A text from Beverly waits on the screen of her phone. From the shower, she hears her phone chime again and again. Everyone is heading for brunch. Hastily dressed, she slides the chain guard off and unbolts the door. The guys cheer from the open elevator when she steps into the hall. Regina laughs and jogs down the hall to join them.

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Ashley Lewin is originally from Nashville, Tennessee but has lived in several states. Her creative nonfiction has been published in Sky Island Journal. She taught literature and writing to college freshmen but now writes and farms in Belen, New Mexico. Twitter: @tipsydoefarm Email: ashleylewin[at]gmail.com

The Deposition Of Brother James

Fiction
Nicholas Finch


Photo Credit: John Baker/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Christopher walked the nearest aisle towards a wall of windows that overlooked a patch of flat, manicured grass that ended on its far side at three docks and a brackish lake. Along the window were a few tables, armchairs and lime green La-Z-Boy beanbags. There was an older man in black slacks and a navy-blue Saint Leo polo sitting in a beanbag. Christopher, in his cobalt blue suit and black pinstripe tie, felt overdressed—cartoonish. In his defense, it was dark when he dressed this morning and it wasn’t his suit. It belonged to the husband of the woman he was having an affair with. That’s where he’d just come from.

“Ah, you must be Mr. Szmyt,” the older man said with a hand in the air.

Christopher didn’t think he’d be able to get up as easily as he did.

“Hi. Good morning, Brother James,” said Christopher.

“A pleasure to meet you,” said Brother James. They shook hands and Brother James placed his free hand on Christopher’s outstretched forearm and squeezed. It felt as though there were marbles wedged behind the lawyer’s eyeballs. He needed something to fix his hangover, desperately. Christopher could work depositions tipsy, sometimes a little more, but hungover he found concentrating difficult. Also, in this state, his patience was brittle.

“No Mr. Rifino? Yesterday he said he was coming back with you today?”

“Unfortunately, he was called out to Ocala. But thanks for meeting with me, Brother,” said Christopher.

The monk smiled, “Not to worry. Let’s go upstairs. It’s quieter, more secluded. I’m glad you’re here, I’ve been looking forward to your company. We’re a bit partitioned off in the abbey. The company is good for me. These excursions are good for me.” Brother James glanced back out of the windowed wall. A few students—three girls and one guy—strolled across the green towards the lake, notebooks and towels perched beneath their armpits, iPhones in hand. The boy had a pen or vaporizer in his mouth; it was too far to be certain.

In front of the elevators there was a white-clothed table with a standard Keurig machine, an assortment of Keurig cups, sugars, Styrofoam cups, biodegradable stirrers and an empty Heinz can with a Post-it note attached—$.25! written on it. Brother James said, “You don’t have to pay. It’s really a donation.”

“I’ll be all right,” said Christopher.

Brother James led them to their table. Christopher was directed to sit first. “Are you of faith, Mr. Szmyt?” The monk sat across from him. There was a window like the one downstairs on the far side of the room. The light from it shone through the aisles, reaching them in thin strips and divided the table into three even portions.

“Actually,” said Christopher, “I was raised Catholic. I went to TC. We had Msgr. Michael back then. Do you know him?”

Brother James squinted, the meat of his cheeks clumping beneath his eye sockets. “Can’t say I do,” he said, his face falling back into place once sure he didn’t know the name. “But that must’ve been long ago. I wasn’t consecrated as a brother yet.”

“Of course,” said the lawyer.

“I was a CPA then,” said the monk.

“I know. I read that in Mr. Rifino’s notes.”

“Mr. Rifino is a lovely man,” said Brother James. “We ended up talking a great deal yesterday.”

Christopher hated this. This would be shorter compared to Derek’s meeting. He would ask the simplest questions. He would say goodbye and then swing by the Abbey for a coffee and soda water to flush everything heavy out of his skull. Once arriving home, he would sleep for a good couple of hours. If he woke before his wife came home and he didn’t feel groggy, he’d masturbate, conjuring up images of Mrs. Rifino from the night before, from the early morning—the slight bulge of her calves as she led him through her marital home, the bend of her hip bones—remembering what her hands did to the back of his arms during, what she tasted like—the way she kissed the back of his neck right before he left this morning.

“Mr. Rifino is a cool dude, yeah,” said Christopher. “Should we get started?”

“Raised Catholic and of faith are not mutually exclusive,” said Brother James.

“I’m not an atheist. And I can’t say I’m agnostic.”

“So you are.”

“When something bad happens, the Lord’s Prayer slips out. When my daughter was first born I was saying the Hail Mary over her bassinet.” Neither of these were true; these were things Mrs. Szmyt did, not Christopher. “But I don’t go to church. I don’t say I’m religious.” Both of those were true.

“Well, would you mind terribly if we begin with a prayer and end with one as well?” asked Brother James.

“Oh, no. Of course, we can. Sure.”

“Good. Good,” said the monk. Whilst making the sign of the cross, Brother James said, “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

Christopher also crossed himself, careful not to confuse the sides of the Holy Spirit.

With his eyes closed, head bowed, and hands clasped together, Brother James went on, “Heavenly Father, we come to you today seeking your guidance, wisdom, truth and support. Help us to engage in meaningful discussion; allow us to grow closer as a group and nurture the bonds of community. Fill us with your Grace, Lord God, as we make decisions that might affect students, staff, faculty, alumni, our humble abbey and friends of Saint Leo University. And continue to remind us that all we do here today, all that we accomplish, is for the pursuit of truth for the greater glory of You, and for the service of humanity. And please help our dear Christopher Szmyt, baptized in your light, humbled in your glory, on all his endeavors, as difficult as they may be. We ask these things in your name, Amen.”

The room was warm, stagnant.

Christopher pulled out a small camel-colored Leuchtturm notebook and pen from his pocket followed by his cell phone. “Do you mind if I record us talking?” asked Christopher, holding his phone up between them.

“No, of course not,” said Brother.

Christopher placed his iPhone face-up on his side of the table with the speakers facing the monk. A bead of sweat bloomed on Christopher’s nose which he wiped away with the back of his hand.

“Though, would you mind that we repeat our prayer,” said Brother James. “I think the records ought to show we did it.”

“All right, yeah.”

And so, they did.

“So, could you tell me what you do here at Saint Leo?” asked Christopher, deepening his voice. It was the voice he answered the phone with.

“I’m a brother here at the abbey. The Ignatius Order. And I also do a bit of accounting.”

“How did you get started doing the books for them?”

“I was a CPA. Before my wife died.”

“When did you become a brother exactly?”

“I was consecrated in 1994.”

Christopher’s shirt began sticking to the armpits.

“Brother James, is there anything you miss about things before becoming a monk?”

“My wife, sometimes,” Brother James laughed before falling back into a pensive seriousness. “There’s a lot of spare time in the secular life. Lots of time to waste. When I am feeling low, rotten, I think about all my past idleness and I don’t necessarily miss it, but there is a melancholy. Prayer fills me and my empty minutes. But when I’m too tired to pray, or too hungry, the abbey is an awfully lonely place. Days can pass and no one talks. And we’re segregated, truly, from the rest of the campus. We’re on it but separate somehow. As though one population might infect the other. You know what—what I miss most? Going places. To and from. Being a part of the bustle.”

“Well, this is a college campus. There’s a lot of students around.”

“Of course. But I’m not a part of that. Again, separate somehow. TV, too. That was a good thing I now miss.”

“You can’t watch TV?” asked Christopher.

“Of course, you can. Brother Zachary has the NBA season pass. Loves the Pistons. He has a Ben Wallace tattoo—remnants from his secular life.”

“Do you have any, uh, remnants?”

“Probably. Likely so.”

The iPhone vibrated. Both men looked. The number wasn’t programmed—an 813. I can’t believe it but… Christopher didn’t let himself read the rest and quickly flipped the phone over.

“Sorry, Brother James. I should’ve turned it on airplane. What does an average day of yours look like?” asked Christopher. “What do you do all day?”

“Pray, mostly. I’d like to pray more. Do you pray with your family?” asked Brother James.

“I’d like to do it more, too,” the lawyer said. “What do you pray about? Is that appropriate to ask?”

The monk laughed. “Oh, well, what a question. I pray for all matter of things. Generally, I ask that my prayers are used and divided in God’s wisdom. But, specifically, recently at least, I’ve been praying for the Church, Pope Francis. I’ve often prayed for that Sara Waldbauer girl and her family. And I’ve been praying for you, Mr. Szmyt.”

“For me? Sorry. What about me?”

“Beforehand it was inadvertent—a part of the unknowable masses that needed prayer when they needed it—but after yesterday, after meeting with Mr. Rifino, I’ve been praying for you.”

“What did—never mind. Never mind. What about Ms. Waldbauer. You said you’d been praying for Ms. Waldbauer and the Waldbauer family?”

“Safe passage to heaven. Their well-being. Horrible things do horrible things to the soul.”

“Brother James, could you describe the event? What happened to Sarah Waldbauer on April 2nd?

“Dear, Mr. Szmyt, you’re sweating profusely,” said Brother James, his brows furrowed. “Are you okay?”

“It’s kind of my thing,” said Christopher. “Sweating. Florida kills me.”

“I didn’t register what’d happened. Not immediately,” said Brother James.

“Pardon?”

“The girl. The accident. She was crossing Lee Road and then she was just gone. There must’ve been a sound, but I didn’t hear it. I don’t hear things if I’m concentrating.”

“Do you know why she was crossing?” asked Christopher. An image of Mrs. Rifino’s lower-back—the dimples there, his fingertips gingerly circumventing the right one—struck the lawyer.

“I’m fairly confident to get to the Abbey. The bar on the golf course.”

“Was she on the crosswalk?”

“No one ever uses that crosswalk. It’s, tragically, thirty meters too far from the gate exiting the school.”

“You said you didn’t register everything that was happening, but what, if anything, did you register, Brother?” asked the lawyer. The iPhone vibrated, again, then again. The buzzing made it turn a few degrees clockwise.

“If it’s important,” said the monk, “you can answer.”

“No—it’s nothing.”

“Is it your wife?”

“No.”

“Is it Mr. Rifino? I can’t remember all I told him. I wish I did, then I’d give it to you the exact same way, but we spoke about a great number of things.” Brother James leaned back in his chair, crossing his left leg over his right. The uppers of his shoes were pristine, but the wooden sole of his left shoe was blue in parts but otherwise badly worn through.

“According the notes from your meeting with Mr. Rifino, you didn’t see the car coming, correct?” asked Christopher.

“It was a truck, actually,” said Brother James. “And no—not beforehand. I just saw her bounce off the road shoulder first, then land again on her front. Her shorts and bathing suit were badly torn. It was tough to tell where the damage began. The car—the truck skidded to a pause. It was cobalt.”

“Cobalt?” asked Christopher.

“It’s a type of blue.”

“How long was the truck there on scene?” asked the lawyer.

“Seconds,” said the monk. “It was gone by the time I reached her.”

“You don’t remember the plate, do you?”

“No, but one of the girls she was with memorized a part of it.”

“How close were you to the road?” asked Christopher. “When Ms. Waldbauer was stuck?” He’d meant to say struck. He was so tired letters were slipping away.

“Well, I was close.”

“How close?” asked Christopher.

“I don’t see the point of the question.”

“It’s just you said the vehicle was there for a few seconds before leaving but that you were on the road before it fled. I’m trying to work out where you were in proximity to the crash.” The phone went off, once again.

“Mr. Szmyt,” said the monk, “someone is desperately trying to get ahold of you.”

“Why were you on the side of Lee? Why were you leaving campus? Were you about to cross, too?”

The phone, again.

“Fuck. Shit—I’m sorry, Brother. I’m sorry to curse. I’m putting it on airplane,” said Christopher, reaching for his phone.

“Is it Mrs. Rifino?”

“Pardon?” said Christopher. “What did you say?”

“Is it Mr. Rifino?” asked the monk, smiling.

“Actually,” said Christopher, “it is. Would you mind if I stepped downstairs to answer this? Maybe grab a coffee, too.”

“Of course not,” said the monk, “you’re the one in charge.”

Christopher walked briskly to the elevator. Once inside and fully out of the monk’s line of sight, he read the messages.

813-222-1824 8:40 a.m. — I can’t believe it but you’re STILL dripping out of me.

Joel Rifino 8:42 a.m. — After Brother James Depo give me a call to recap.

Joel Rifino 8:42 a.m. — He’s a talker. Sit tight.

813-222-1824 8:46 a.m. — And there’s no way you gave me a full 20 min this morning. I’m calling in my final 5. Stop by after deposition? Joel isn’t home until early evening at worst.

The lawyer retreated into the first-floor bathroom and pissed. There was a penny-sized bullseye in the deepest part of the urinal; he aimed at it. His piss was honey-colored. After running a couple paper towels under the faucet, Christopher wiped his forehead, then folded the wet wad in half and repeatedly ran it down his nose. He plucked another paper towel and dried his face. His eyes looked just as heavy, but at least he’d be less greasy.

He left the restroom whilst rereading the messages, weighing in his mind how his life could implode.

He called his wife; it went to voicemail. Standing at the coffee table, he glanced around to be certain no one was looking. There were only Dunkin’ Donuts hazelnut blend cups for the Keurig. He popped one in. Christopher dialed his wife’s office number. Her secretary picked up and he left a message.

The miserable little coffee was ready. Christopher was glad Claire was in a meeting, it was a sign of normalcy, and that’s precisely what he needed—to see if his life remained at its line of equilibrium. Nothing was disturbed, yet.

The lawyer added a thimble of powdered creamer and a lump of sugar. There were no stirrers. The table had been devoured. He used his pen as a stirrer and licked it clean afterwards.

The voice recorder app was still running in the background of his phone—still recording. Christopher stopped the recording and rewound, fumbling through a few minutes before finding the exact snippet:

“Were you about to cross, too?”

“Fuck. Shit—I’m sorry, Brother. I’m sorry to curse. I’m putting it on airplane.”

“Is it Mrs. Rifino?”

“Pardon? What did you say?”

“Is it Mr. Rifino?”

“Actually, it is. Would you mind if I stepped downstairs to answer this? Maybe grab a coffee, too.”

“Of course not, you’re the one in charge.”

The lawyer rewound, again:

“Is it Mrs. Rifino?”

Christopher took the elevator back upstairs. The monk was gone from their sitting place.

Brother James stood at the floor’s windowed wall, his hands in his pockets. His left hand jingled something metal: keys, perhaps. There were a few dirty grey clouds loitering in an otherwise immaculately blue sky. The students from earlier that’d been crossing the green field were now splayed out on beach towels on one of the middle docks. One of the girls was face down, the back of her bathing suit undone. Her bare back was remarkably pale in comparison to the deep, lush golden browns of her fellow sunning peers. Christopher imagined Claire’s bare back, then Mrs. Rifino’s.

“Brother James,” said Christopher.

The monk did not look away from the window, the students.

“Hey, excuse me, Brother,” the lawyer said, putting his fingertips against the monk’s shoulder.

Startled, Brother James jumped ever so slightly. “Sorry,” he said. “Sorry. Shall we go back and continue.”

“I shouldn’t do this,” said Christopher. “This is totally off the record, but can I ask you what you and Mr. Rifino said about me? Why did you pray for me?”

Brother James turned and faced Christopher fully. The monk took in a sharp breath and exhaled a larger, more exaggerated one. “Mr. Szmyt, Mr Rifino thinks you are sleeping with his wife.”

“Jesus,” said Christopher. “What? How—what did he say about it? Why does he think that?”

“It’s mostly intuition grounded in small inconsistencies, suspicions, comments.”

“Sounds more like paranoia,” said Christopher. “What inconsistencies? Specifically.”

“Well, his wife travels alone, a lot. Weekends away in places not too far from home. And, sometimes, there’ve been coincidences in which you stay in a hotel the night before meetings or trials. It just toils in his mind.”

Mrs. Rifino traveling alone was something she always did. It watered her, she claimed, it kept her going. It was something Christopher admired. She nourished herself—not by a career, or husband, or children, but by indulging in herself. He loved that.

“How did this even come up with him?” asked Christopher.

“In allusions, then forthright. Mr. Rifino asked a lot about my wife, that half of my life, and, in turn, I asked about his.”

“Well, I’m not. I’m not.”

“Aren’t you?” Brother James asked.

“No. Let’s go back and finish this. I’ve taken up too much of your time.”

“Don’t be upset,” said Brother James. “It wasn’t my intention to upset you. I say things I shouldn’t. You haven’t taken up any time at all. This is important.”

“You need to get back to prayer, Brother,” said Christopher. “Prayers about me.”

“Yes, I certainly will. But you aren’t eating into that.”

The lawyer led the monk back to their table. Christopher put his coffee down, turned his phone on airplane mode and began recording. Brother James crossed his legs, once again, but a little more tightly to where the back of his knee crossed over and the remainder of his left leg hung loosely.

“Do you play golf?” asked the lawyer.

“Not anymore.”

“Do you ever go to the Abbey—the bar next to campus?”

“Never.”

“Could you give me a breakdown of your entire day on April 2nd? A play-by-play from the moment you woke until you went to bed?”

Brother James waited a few seconds before speaking, “I started with the rosary and—”

“Sorry,” said Christopher. “This is going to be crass, but do you do the rosary naked, Brother?”

“No,” said Brother James, “I did not do the rosary without clothes. I dressed first.”

“No shower? No teeth brushing?”

“No.”

“What did you put on?”

“A habit.”

“All right, continue please. Habit, rosary,” said Christopher. “What else?”

“I consecrated myself to Mary.”

“More prayer, okay. And after that?”

“More prayer,” said Brother James.

“In Aramaic?” asked Christopher.

“And English, and Latin.”

“Good for you.”

“Is there a problem, Mr. Szmyt?”

“No breakfast?”

“I fast for the first half of every day.”

“Fine. Go on, please. No more interruptions, Brother.”

“I have a small office for my accounting work at the abbey. I went there and delved in for a few hours. In need of a break, I left and walked to the ROTC building and watched them perform afternoon drill. I love their meticulous attention to detail. After that, well, I pottered about campus. It was hot, so I took advantage of the library. I was in the library for a while. I combed through a few America articles. Then—”

“Okay, I’m interrupting—sorry. Where do they keep America here? Which floor, which aisle?” asked Christopher.

“This floor. Ninth aisle. At the end there they have a few theological periodicals,” said Brother James who pointed out the ninth aisle. Christopher stood and walked over and down the aisle. The America magazine and other religious periodicals were at the very end of the aisle right next to the windowed wall. The students were still sunning themselves. The pale girl’s top was back on and now she sunned on her back. She was the only one not doing anything but laying there. The others were either on their phones or reading.

“Brother,” said Christopher loudly for the monk to hear him from where he was. “Did you go to the road after the library? Was that your next stop?”

“It ended up being so, yes.”

“Did you follow Sarah Waldbauer there from the library?”

Brother James did not respond.

Christopher walked back over and asked again, “Did you follow Ms. Waldbauer to the road?”

“Yes.”

“Did she appear to be intoxicated?”

“Not especially,” said Brother James.

“Did you see her drink?”

“Yes, though, I couldn’t be sure what it was.”

“Where? When?”

“At the dock. She was sunbathing and took sips from a silver water bottle. I’m not sure if there was anything.”

“What was she wearing?” asked the lawyer.

“Jean shorts and a black bathing suit top. Flimsy, plastic sandals.”

“What were you wearing, Brother?”

“I’ve already said. A habit.”

“The police report has a list of witnesses and descriptions of them. You’re in here—James Phinehas. But not in a habit. Khakis and a polo—no habit.”

“So? Why does that matter?”

“Why were you following Sarah? You don’t play golf. You aren’t a regular at the Abbey, are you? Why were you at the road?”

“I was just walking,” said Brother James, uncrossing his legs, planting his left foot onto the ground firmly and leaning over, elbows to his knees, hands braced together. “I walk to get away. To be a little free sometimes. It doesn’t matter. A girl died and I saw it. And I saw someone leave her dead and I just want to make sure there is justice—that something is done.”

“So do I,” said Christopher. “We all want that. But, as of right now, your testimony doesn’t hold up. There are too many inconsistencies. You’re a liability. Too many questions to ask.”

“Like what? What questions? What inconsistencies?” asked Brother James.

“You misidentified the vehicle. You were following the girl from the library after spying—”

“I was not spying.”

“You weren’t even sure what you were wearing.”

“I don’t like wearing the habit around campus. It makes me unapproachable.”

“We can end here, Brother. Next week the three of us—Mr. Rifino included—will get back together, but I think it’s best we end now.” Christopher stopped the recording app and swigged the dregs of his coffee. “I appreciate your time, Brother.”

“Let me ask you something, Mr. Szmyt.”

“Shoot.”

“Do you love your wife?” asked the monk.

“Yes. She’s everything to me. She should’ve been a fifties film star—truly. We got married at the Isabella Gardner’s Museum. She stepped out and could’ve been Grace Kelly. She’s amazing.”

“What does she do? For work, I mean.”

“She’s VP of Sharpens Title. She does well.”

“And you two have kids?”

“We do,” said Christopher.

“Sounds like a pristine life. Picturesque.” Brother James closed one eye, made a rectangle with his hands by putting his thumbs against his opposite index fingers and stared through it like a camera.

“It is.”

Then Brother James’ hands dropped to his lap. “Then why are you sleeping with Mr. Rifino’s wife?”

“What?”

“Are you dissatisfied in marriage? Is she dissatisfied with you? Does she want more than what you can offer? Is she not to your liking?”

“This is too far. I’m off.” Christopher stood up from the table, pocketed his phone and notebook.

“Matrimony is sacred. It mirrors the covenant with God.”

“I don’t need you to save me. You know nothing. You know fuck all.”

“I was married. Remember,” said Brother James.

“And now you are a monk. And you’re jealous of me because I’m not glued to some shithole in the middle of bumfuck.”

“Precisely. Bravo.” Brother James offer a small golf clap.

Christopher flicked the lip of his Styrofoam cup—it flipped a few times across the table until coming to rest on its side. “You wouldn’t mind taking that when you leave. I’m sure you’ll be here for a little bit,” said Christopher, pointing towards the window on the other side of the room. “They’re probably still there. Not to worry.” He began to leave.

“What about prayer?” asked Brother James. “We agreed to end on prayer.”

Christopher didn’t turn back. “Pray for me, please. Thank you.”

“I will. For your fidelity. For your wife.”

“Fuck bag,” he said sternly still facing forwards. The elevator doors opened.

“There’s lipstick on the back of your collar,” said Brother James.

Christopher stepped inside the elevator. He licked his forefingers and ran them along the back of his collar. He believed the monk, but nothing came off.

Brother James did stay behind, and he did pray. He started by invoking Mary, then moved to a prayer of fidelity and ended on the Our Father. He moved to the window and watched for a while, but soon made the trip back to the abbey.

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Nicholas Finch was raised between England and South Africa before moving to Florida. After serving as the assistant editor of Neon Literary Journal, he attended University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers and Saint Leo University. He has pieces published or forthcoming in Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Molotov Cocktail, Avis Magazine, Fields, The Florida Review and elsewhere. He now calls St. Petersburg, FL, home, where he teaches English and cohosts The 73. Email: finchandcrown[at]gmail.com