The Reunion

Broker’s Pick
Allison Meldrum


Photo Credit: Christian Guthier/Flickr (CC-by)

Rebecca knew that letters would command their attention. Lovingly handwritten, individually addressed letters where each stroke of pen to paper connects the reader more intimately with the sender. Words that are uniquely composed just for them.

This had to be part of the plan: to make sure that an impact was made from the very start.

Each letter was opened and devoured immediately on receipt. The words were strangely sparse and formal given the relationship of the author to the recipient: not what you would expect from the daughter, granddaughter, or sister you had not seen for five years. Whatever the content, Rebecca always had beautiful writing. She took the time to craft her letters like a work of art, even as a young child. But the message that landed on the doorstep of her parents and siblings on this particular day was far from elaborate.

I would like us all to come together at the farm on Saturday 3rd October as I feel the time has come for me to explain my recent absence to you all. Please come on your own just in time for dinner at 8pm. I sincerely hope to see you then.

Yours, Rebecca.

‘The Farm’ to which she modestly referred was the family’s extravagant six-bedroom property in rural Oxfordshire which, as well as being the home of Peter and Eleanor Stuart and all three of their children, has borne witness to a generous catalogue of epic dramas.

Eleanor Stuart was an undeniably beautiful and graceful lady who fiercely protected her dream of sitting at the heart of a happy and protected family, brimming with love for each other and driven to make the world a place of order and peace.

The reality of the passing years, with all the stubborn imperfections of those she held so dear, had led her to a very different place. A place of hidden sadness and varnished cracks.

For her husband Peter, however, the varnish had long since worn away.

“So this is how it’s going to be?” The words spat from Eleanor’s mouth with the customary dose of bitter resentment reserved for her spouse of thirty years.

“This is how we discover just how much damage your behaviour has caused to our precious child.”

Eleanor’s husband Peter Stuart registered the words but refused to take the bait. He was used to dissatisfaction from his family and well accustomed to being blamed for their varying failures and disappointments.

Peter’s well-intentioned devotion to providing his family with all the wealth and privilege they could need had led to a degree of domestic absenteeism that ate away at the once close bond the family had with their father.

Despite enjoying the classic lifestyle of a millionaire’s wife in every material sense, Eleanor’s world had recently descended into a rather familiar story of heartbreak, the kind of scenario that has no respect for hard graft, dedication, and financial gain. She had slowly but surely felt the attention of her one true love, previously reserved for her alone, drawn uncontrollably elsewhere. Her heart bled with belief that her fading beauty and lost youth led her handsome prince into the arms of another.

“It wasn’t enough for you to chase our daughter out of her family home with your constant disapproval but then you had to find solace in some convenient comfort elsewhere. Just because your wife was a bit too distracted to put you first. Have I summarised that well?”

Again, Peter Stuart remained silent. He had learnt by now that no good came from stoking the flames of this fire.

In the first few weeks and months after Rebecca left her home and everyone she knew, Eleanor clung painfully to the few words which her daughter had written for her just before she disappeared into the night. They spoke of an urgency to escape. She had no interest in living the life of indulgence that her older sister and mother seemed to wallow in with ease. She promised to correspond often enough to reassure her family that she was safe and well but did not want to be contacted or found.

These words cut through her mum’s heart to the core. They never truly made sense no matter how often she read them. Admittedly, there was no predestined path for Rebecca toward leadership of the family firm which awaited their brother, the hallowed son and heir, but her mother showed her no less love and affection than her siblings. Night after night Eleanor tortured herself with what could possibly make Rebecca abandon her family like this. Deep down she had her suspicions but blocked them out as best she knew how.

“We didn’t give her credit for finding out what a fraud her father was.” She spoke these words to Peter with such ferocity it felt like she was trying to convince herself of their truth.

“She must have been the first to discover your affair and couldn’t bear listening to your hypocritical sermons on living an honest hardworking life.” By focusing her energy on resentment towards her husband, Eleanor found relief from the gaping hole in her heart. Not only had she lost her youngest child, but she had also lost the love of her husband at the same time.

But here she was, at long last facing a reunion with the daughter she treasured so completely. In seven days, they would be sitting together around the extravagant family dining table that had witnessed so much, together once again like a family should be. But there was something more than relief swirling in her head. Something more unsettling.

“You must be happy now, Mum,” said Lucy, the elder of Eleanor and Peter’s daughters. “The mysterious wanderer is returning to enchant us all with tales of her meaningful adventures.”

Lucy was three years Rebecca’s senior and, from the moment she arrived, seemed to fit neatly into the mould of respectability expected from her family. She happily revelled in the society parties and pursuit of a ‘suitable’ husband to keep her protected from the world outside.

“Just when we were all daring to get on with our lives without wondering when the next attention-seeking letter from nowhere would arrive from our darling Rebecca.”

Lucy had learnt so much from her mother and resentment was no exception.

*

The day of the planned reunion arrived on a beautiful Autumn weekend. The splendour of the Oxfordshire countryside had fully turned out for the show to come. The trees lining the grand drive to the farm were gently shedding their leaves, lit up by the row of lamps which lined the edge of the sweeping lawns on either side. Nature had delivered a luminous red carpet to welcome the actors to the stage.

Peter had been at the house all week, attending an annual shooting party with fellow estate owners and their competitively raucous and overindulged offspring. Eleanor was the first to arrive, from their residence in London: a suitably exclusive and fashionable Georgian townhouse just on the border between Notting Hill and Holland Park. Arrangements had been made for a caterer to provide sustenance for the evening. Eleanor liked to play the role of hostess but peeling vegetables and washing dishes was rarely her thing. She wanted to devour every precious moment of spending time with her children together rather than wasting it ruining her nails with a potato peeler.

Next through the doors was elder daughter Lucy, having just left a friend’s house where she had been staying while work was completed on her own ‘lodge’ in the grounds of the farm.

“How long does it take to fit a new kitchen and bathroom? If I had known that it was going to be such a hassle I may have even considered moving in here and putting up with all the animals and strange men in tweed coming and going.” She spat her complaints with a customary sense of entitlement when her father enquired on the progress of her bespoke marble kitchen worktops sourced from Greece. Clearly the ‘discomfort’ of roughing it in the guest suite of her childhood friend’s house down the road was an unacceptable inconvenience to bear.

At least half an hour after the others arrived came the unmistakable sound of Alex, the only son of Eleanor and Peter, as he announced his presence at the event.

“Well, isn’t this just like something out of an Agatha Christie novel,” he roared at the assembled cast. “You’ve even got the fire going and some staff in the kitchen cooking up a feast! I hope one of us doesn’t get shot in the library!”

His mother giggled slightly awkwardly at his humour and Peter pretended not to hear him.

“No sign of the guest of honour though I see. Is she going to make some dramatic entrance via helicopter?”

“Looks to me like we all need a bit of strong social lubrication.” With that Alex marched towards the wine cellar protesting about being thirsty and enquiring who was “running the show.”

By this point the clock was ticking towards nine p.m. and the caterer tentatively emerged from the kitchen to have a word in Eleanor’s ear, presumably asking if they should proceed with dinner. They were quickly dismissed by the lady of the house.

Her husband, however, began to emerge from his contained silence and make his presence known. He was, after all, the head of this oddly dysfunctional household.

“Well, I’m getting a bit hungry,” said Peter, gesticulating to the dining room and apparently pretending not to notice the elephant in the room (or, to be more accurate, not yet in the room).

“Don’t be ridiculous Peter,” said Eleanor. “We’re not starting without her. She’s probably had some sort of travel delay. Give her a chance.”

“Of course, it would be enormously helpful if we could actually make modern-day contact with her through the medium of telecommunication,” contributed Lucy who was by this point on her second gin and tonic and looking bored. “But, of course, it’s far too conformist for Rebecca-the-adventurer to succumb to such a lazy modern-day curse as owning a mobile phone.”

Prompted by further criticism of his youngest daughter, Peter once again found his voice and cut through the toxic resentment. “I’d like you all to follow me.”

It was not a request but an instruction. The tone had changed and so, too, had the atmosphere. For all the family antipathy towards him, Peter clung onto basic respect from his assembled dependents who feared the financial repercussions of overstepping the mark. The only person to whom this usually meant nothing was absent. Rebecca was never one for hierarchy or inheritance and had what she described as a ‘healthy disrespect’ for traditional authority.

But it would appear, the show would go on without her. At least for now.

Conversation was, at first, relatively composed and civil, in the context of a family like the Stuarts. The only true contentment in the house seemed to emanate from Max and Barney, the two black-and-tan spaniels curled up in the hall, sleepy after a tough day on the hunt.

Before long, Peter cut across the vacuous hum around him. “I’m afraid I may be about to ruin your appetite” were the first words to pierce the forced air of togetherness.

Peter watched as his wife and two children paused and turned to their father.

“Rebecca will be joining us a little later.” He delivered this message with an arrogance that immediately rose the hackles of his wife.

They looked each other straight in the eye and something passed between them that felt visceral. Was it hatred? Was it a shared love or a shared loss? Or was it something else, unspoken but much more dangerous?

He took a large swig of Rioja, cleared his throat, and continued. “Rebecca came to see me just days before she left England. She was distraught and I struggled desperately to calm her down.” Peter seemed increasingly nervous as he spoke, but his audience were genuinely captivated by his words for the first time today and there was no going back now.

“Her hands were freezing cold as she had walked in the rain from the train station so I gently took one in my own hand and saw that she was clasping a letter so tightly that it might turn to ash in her palm. After gently unfolding it and holding her tightly on the sofa beside me, I started to unfold the paper and read the words that had been sent to her just days before;”

Dear Rebecca,

I have thought long and hard about writing to you now or, indeed, at all as I probably have no right to invade your life in this way. Whether you know it or not, you have lived a childhood of privilege and love and you have wanted for nothing. Who am I to shatter those strong foundations built around you? But, recently, my sources have led me to believe that you may not find comfort in traditional order, material possessions and the predestined position that others want for you. And, I must be honest, the hastening advent of my own mortality has had a strangely motivating effect. I once thought I could live out my life watching you from afar but alas, I’m selfishly compelled to leave you the only gift I can—which is the truth.

Your mother and I met a long time ago. She was lost and lonely, surrounded by everything she could want, but lacking in the companionship that a young mother needs the most to escape the burden of parenthood. The finest wardrobe or most indulgent gifts can not bring you comfort in a way that a listening ear or a warm embrace can. My greatest crime was simply that I could. And perhaps a little excitement and rebellion too.

I know you have inherited your mother’s beauty, but I can see the other piece of the puzzle rise from you too. I recognise the spirit of adventure, rebellion, and independence as if I am looking in the mirror as a young man.

You have been raised by wonderful parents and I could not attempt to replace them. I do not ask for you to meet with me. I do not even ask you to believe in this truth if that is your preference. You must live your life with the choices that are your own. Your mother and I knew each other a long time ago and her life is not one which would accommodate my existence easily.

I simply ask you to accept my offer of truth if it may help you to understand the part of you that does not fit the mould of those around you.

For now, I will leave you to read these words and let you decide how many more answers you want.

Yours, lovingly,

Michael.

Now unable to lift his head to meet the stares of his audience who were silent and motionless, Peter folded the letter and returned it to his pocket. His wife’s face had been drained of all colour. He simply sat back down and waited for something or someone to take the lead from here.

First to speak was his now-inebriated son who leant back in his chair and crossed his arms like a judge ready to pronounce sentence. “Well, well then, Mummy. Michael indeed? As skeletons in the closet go, that’s quite impressive! Or are you going to claim this is all the work of some unhinged nutter looking to bribe our family out of our hard-earned millions?”

“What the bloody hell are you doing to us Dad?” Lucy was next to deliver her verdict. “Mum—please tell him not to be such a fool to fall for this utter nonsense. Rebecca cannot be this desperate for attention, surely?”

But Eleanor remained rooted to the spot. How can it be, she thought to herself, that the fortress of stability and respectability that she has devoted her life to building since becoming a mother could be shattered so completely by one letter. One letter that reveals so much that she has kept hidden from her loved ones and from herself for so long.

Perhaps what she struggled to understand the most was that her own husband had been handed this poisonous secret five long years ago and had chosen to keep it locked up inside. Eleanor had pushed this terrible secret so far away from her conscious mind. It had no place in the life that she needed for her children.

“You knew all this time Peter?” Eleanor’s face was stiffened with bewilderment. Was it through some sort of loyalty to her or to his children that gave him the strength to contain this devastating truth?

“Rebecca was wild with rage, Eleanor,” Peter responded. “She came to me like a caged animal ready to attack and would have torn the family apart, so I promised her that we would come to terms with this together.”

“Did you not question this truth, even for a minute?” asked Eleanor.

“No. You see, I know you think I only have a head for success and money but I see things too. I remember that first long trip I took without you all those years ago, when I was away for months researching business locations overseas and had no thought for the solitude you must have felt. You were abandoned with two young children in an enormous, isolated house.”

Peter remembered coming home earlier than expected and finding the children in the house with the babysitter because Mummy was out having a walk with the farm manager from the neighbouring estate.

“It wasn’t just a coincidence that Michael could not look me in the eye if I ever bumped into him in the village Eleanor. I will never forget the look on your face as you arrived back home that day to find me sitting with the children.”

“If you had your suspicions, why didn’t you question me about it then? Or at least give me the chance to explain to Rebecca?” Eleanor asked.

“You may not believe me when I say this but I was protecting you. I think it would have broken your heart to see the hatred that your daughter had for you five years ago. I wasn’t protecting you when I abandoned you and our family to pursue my self-interested adventures abroad, but I had to protect you now.”

Peter continued to explain how, step by step, little by little, he had supported Rebecca through the devastating revelation of a biological father she hadn’t known existed.

“I hate her. How could she let me live a lie forever?” Rebecca had screamed as her façade of independence and strength dissolved in front of Peter. His heart had broken just as completely as hers but he’d had to be strong for Rebecca’s sake. She had been only eighteen years old and he’d had to find a way through this for them both. He’d had to step up and be her father in the truest, most selfless sense of the word.

“So I told her to pursue her own dreams of travel and adventure, go and live a life where she will come face to face with the imperfections of everyone she meets, “ explained Peter to his family. “I told her that she would learn in her own time that relationships are imperfect, and love is forgiving.”

She wrote to him often and, as the months and years ticked by, he could feel a growing sense of tolerance and understanding in the words she wrote to him.

“I told her I would come and visit her as often as I could,” he explained, betraying the true nature of the frequent mysterious absences, which Eleanor had, with painful irony, linked to his own affair. “Take all the time you need and, when you are ready, we will all come together again, try to make sense of this and try to heal.”

By now, the words were pouring from Peter’s mouth, like a dam which had finally relented its unbearable burden, letting the flood wash over everything in its tracks.

Both Lucy and Alex remained silent and Peter allowed himself to believe that their judgement of him may be shifting.

Perhaps he wasn’t the villain after all? And, as he finally found the strength to look at his wife, he could see a single heavy tear passing over the curves in her face, cutting a line through her faultless make-up. In her eyes he could see the vulnerability that he once remembered when they first met.

And, for Eleanor, an overwhelming realisation washed over her: perhaps he is my true love after all.

The sound of the dogs barking excitedly cut through the silence. The arrival of their final visitor was being announced.

pencilWriting has been Allison Meldrum’s career and passion for 20 years. After graduating with an MA in English Literature from The University of Edinburgh, her professional writing journey began in news and feature journalism before progressing to professional communication and content marketing for a number of years. During this time, Allison built a significant portfolio of published work across local, national and digital media on behalf of her clients. Allison has also had guest blog posts published as well as regularly writing for her own blog. She has recently dedicated her time to pursuing her true passion for writing fiction, with a specialist interest in Mystery and Romance. She loves a strong twist in the tale! Allison has contributed two works to an anthology of short stories dedicated to the theme of tolerance which will be self-published and available on Amazon in March 2021. Email: allisonmeldrum1[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.

pencil

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

The Pen

Broker’s Pick
Carl Leggo


Photo Credit: Paul Sullivan/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

(for Rick)

years ago when my first book of poems
Growing Up Perpendicular on the Side of a Hill
was published, my brother sent me
a silver Cross pen with my name engraved

my brother sometimes complained
I made money by writing poetry about
his mishaps and calamities (I always
explained, poets don’t make any money)

a year ago I lost the pen, and while I lose
a lot of pens, I was especially sad to lose
the pen my brother had given me, a gesture
he was glad I wrote stories, even his

on the eve of my birthday I was culling
clothes in my closet (a seasonal purging
to sustain balance amidst busy clutter)
with hope that the thrift store had room

I found the pen in the pocket of a winter jacket,
and remembered how my brother always
phoned me on my birthday with the boast,
I’m now two years younger than you, at least

for a week, since he was born one year
and one week after me, always my best friend
growing up on Lynch’s Lane, and for all our
differences, he was the brother I always needed

since he died last August, he will always be much
younger now, and finding the lost pen I knew
how a lovely mystery holds us fast, even in loss,
when my brother whispered, write more poems

pencil

Carl Leggo is a poet and professor at the University of British Columbia. His books include: Growing Up Perpendicular on the Side of a Hill; View from My Mother’s House; Come-By-Chance; Lifewriting as Literary Métissage and an Ethos for Our Times (co-authored with Erika Hasebe-Ludt and Cynthia Chambers); Creative Expression, Creative Education (co-edited with Robert Kelly); Sailing in a Concrete Boat; Arresting Hope: Prisons That Heal (co-edited with Ruth Martin, Mo Korchinski, and Lynn Fels); Arts-based and Contemplative Practices in Research and Teaching: Honoring Presence (co-edited with Susan Walsh and Barbara Bickel); Hearing Echoes (co-authored with Renee Norman); and Poetic inquiry: Enchantment of Place (co-edited with Pauline Sameshima, Alexandra Fidyk, and Kedrick James). Email: carl.leggo[at]ubc.ca

The Dunes

Broker’s Pick
D.W. Moody


Photo Credit: Bernd Thaller/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

the dust swirled around us
the house
lost in view
behind hills of sand
we ducked and hid
winding our way
through the maze of hills
unseen from the world
the others somewhere behind
lost around
one or another turn
there in the sand
that caked my skin
I touched your hair
looked into your eyes
desired what my mouth could not say
as you turned
to the sounds of the others coming
I let you slip from my hand
like the grains of sand blowing through our hair

pencil

D.W. Moody grew up between California and the Midwest, lived on the streets, hitchhiked around the country, and held a variety of jobs in Kansas and Southern California until settling into life as a librarian. His poems have appeared in Shemom, The Avalon Literary Review, and Foliate Oak Literary Magazine. As a new father, life is busy juggling the demands of work and being a committed parent: he writes when he can. Email: d.w.moodysmailbox[at]gmail.com

The List

Broker’s Pick
Joseph McGrail


Photo Credit: Ginny/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Will Tallent smoked his fourth, and last, cigarette of the day, reached over to the bedside table, took a sip of cold coffee, and got out of bed. The shower was hot, his jeans were roomy, his sweater was warm, and his slippers were soft. It would be hard to get motivated to leave the apartment, but “Doing something is better than doing nothing,” he repeated to himself. It was his mantra, a mantra more of hope than accomplishment.

Will had a blog, which some day would lead to success, and a high paying job offer, which in turn would lead some woman to fall deeply in love with him. But a blog only worked if you had fodder for it, so now he had to get fodder.

“Human interest writing,” he had told his coworker at the bagel shop, “that’s what the blog is about. Like a Charles Kuralt or a Bob Greene. I go around, talk to people, make them sound interesting, and write about them for other people to read.” His coworker looked at him with the blank, patronizing stare of the young to the old.

That day’s fodder involved a curious incident with a library book, The Twelve Greatest Ideas, which had been written in the fifties by a “Great Books” associate of Mortimer Adler. Tallent had picked it up from the sale table at the front of the library. Christianity was a great idea, as was the Enlightenment, as was Confucianism, and then Tallent lost interest. Then he saw that someone had playfully written their own list on one of the blank end pages: “The Twelve Greatest Love Stories of All Time.”

“Adler would be proud,” Tallent thought. “He was always a big advocate of writing in books.”

Some of the entries were obvious: “Romeo and Juliet,” “Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor,” “Dante and Beatrice.” Most of them displayed a literary sense, and even some Biblical knowledge: “Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale,” “Jane Eyre and Rochester,” “Tristan and Isolda,” “Lancelot and Guinevere,” “Tobias and Sara,” and “Rachel and Jacob.” And there, right after “Antony and Cleopatra,” and “Heloise and Abelard,” in the same penciled script, was the final entry: “Ilsa and Patrick Demarest.”

And who were Ilsa and Patrick? Tallent imagined them, a young married couple, the wife pretty, blonde maybe, wearing a sweater, royal blue with a simple pattern of white snowflakes, glasses certainly, she read a lot. The husband, studious as well, heavy black glasses, hair unkempt, moustache, beard or both, and since Tallent was indulging in stereotypes, a tweed jacket. The husband reads Nabokov, and not just the one with the nymphet, the really obscure ones. They are sitting at a library table, each with their stack of books. The wife is getting impatient to go, she grabs this book from his pile, starts glancing at the ideas, gets a smile on her face, and starts writing something. From time to time she asks the husband, “Who would you say were the greatest lovers in history?” He, engrossed in his reading, absentmindedly throws out an idea or two, and she writes it down.

Curious, the husband looks over at her. He’s appalled, she’s writing in a book! “It’s only pencil,” she says, “lighten up.” He looks at her list, smiles and then smiles again. Maybe he affectionately rubs her back. “We should go,” she says.

Tallent couldn’t let the list go, who was this Ilsa Demarest? What happened to her and Patrick? Where were they now? One question that might be easily answered. There was a deputy D.A. who came to the bagel shop and Tallent had heard him complain about how easy it was to look someone up in Colorado as all the voter rolls were published on the web.

“I could have sent a guy to prison,” the man had said. “He gets out, spends two minutes on Google and comes gunning for me.”

Tallent agreed. No one was ever going to come gunning for Tallent, but the thought was worrisome.

Nonetheless, Ilsa Demarest was easily found. Not so with Patrick. Maybe Patrick didn’t live in Colorado anymore, or maybe he had died. The book had been published in 1956, and there was nothing to show when the list had been written. Or maybe Patrick didn’t vote, and he and Ilsa were still together, he with his tweed jacket, she in the tasteful blue sweater.

Ilsa lived in Oak Creek, way out near Craig, as much as it was near anywhere. Too bad it was so far from Denver. But Tallent would follow through, call her and set something up.

He put in the number.

“Hello?” a woman’s voice answered, wary and cautious. It was hard to tell her age, certainly not young nor crackly-voiced old.

“Is this Ilsa Demarest?”

A pause and then, “Who is this?”

“Well, you don’t know me Ms. Demarest, but I’m a journalist of sorts and I’d like to sit down and have a chat with you.”

“A journalist of sorts?” She gave a cynical laugh. “What kind of scam is this? I’m going to hang up now, please don’t bother me again.”

“Wait, wait! I found a book.”

“What?” she said, confused.

“A book, a library book. You had written a list in it, I don’t know how long ago—‘The Twelve Greatest Love Stories.’”

She didn’t say anything.

Somehow he knew that he had made a mistake, that he was bringing up something that embarrassed her, something that should have been left in the past. He had hoped that Ilsa and Patrick were still together, an older couple whom he would meet and they would be holding hands and joking about the time she made that silly list.

She still didn’t say anything, and then, “Did Patrick have you do this? You’re friends with Patrick aren’t you? Why would he—?”

“No, Ms. Demarest. I’ve never met you or Patrick. As I said, it was what you had written in that book. That was it. I’m sorry.”

“I’m hanging up now. Please don’t call me again.”

“Wow,” he thought, rubbing his hand through his hair. “That didn’t turn out too well. I guess I’m back to searching for some other human interest deal, hopefully not one as far away as Oak Creek.”

He pulled on his jacket and headed to the coffeehouse. Maybe someone at Dietrich’s had a lead on human interest. But the normally voluble crowd was oddly quiet. The fishmonger from down the street, the fellow who actually looked like a fish, was finishing a Danish. Tallent could interview him, something like, “Selling Seafood Thousands of Miles from any Ocean.” It would only work if Tallent could include pictures, the owner posing with a redfish or something. But Tallent’s mind was far from human interest and his blog. At least in making bagels you never got the impression you had brought pain into someone’s life, poppy and sesame seeds, and onion only, never pain.

After the coffeehouse, Tallent advanced upon Mead Street Station, the Dew Drop Inn, and Twins Tavern, so the next day his hangover persisted through his shift at the bagel shop, and his afternoon nap, but was ebbing when his phone rang.

“Hello?”

“If I speak with you, you’ll write an article about what I wrote in the book?”

“Ms. Demarest?”

“Yes. It’s me. Will people read this article? Does anyone actually read your blog?”

“Yes. I have a number of readers.” The number was seven, but he didn’t need to provide details.

“You don’t know Patrick?”

“No, no, I don’t know Patrick.”

Oak Creek had already gotten some snow. Luckily the steep streets, including the one Ilsa Demarest lived on, were clear.

“Quaint town,” he said after she had let him into her frame cottage. “I like all the Victorian gingerbread.”

“Yes,” she answered. “Hard to maintain though.”

She was blonde, starting to show bits of white, and indeed wore thickish glasses. She was taller than he had imagined, and pretty. She was pretty and about fifty.

“So,” he asked. “What do you do here in Oak Creek?”

“I’m the high school librarian.”

They both laughed, and he said, “I see you’re now using your powers for good, not evil.”

She offered him tea and he accepted, and they sat at opposite ends of a green plaid sofa, a plate of cheddar scones on the coffee table. She sat quietly while he tried to think of something to ask. If he had been a real journalist, he told himself, he would have all of his questions written out on a legal pad in a clipboard or better yet, written out on Demarest.doc on the laptop he would have brought.

Instead he opened up the tiny notepad with the faux leather cover he kept in his vest pocket.

“Do you mind if I knit?” she asked, picking up two needles with a project started in grey wool.

“Not at all,” he said, happy the ice had been broken. “What are you working on?”

“Socks for my son, and no, he’s not Patrick’s child. I’ve been married twice since Patrick. Ronnie’s my son from the first marriage. The second marriage altogether, the one after Patrick.” She looked embarrassed, and Tallent thought again of how he should just have left her alone, though questions were now coming quickly to mind.

She had uncovered a book when she picked up her knitting.

Crampton Hodnet,” he said, “You read Barbara Pym? She’s my favorite.”

She looked at him as if he was a little odd, being a man who liked Pym, but it made him likeable.

“Have you ever read this one?” she asked. “It was written when she was first getting started and not quite as good as her later ones.”

“Oh. I haven’t seen it. I liked Some Tame Gazelle, the one the library had.”

She was about to say, “I could lend you some others…” but that would presume a friendship that was not there.

“Tell me about writing the list, where you were, what spurred it, did you come up with it all on your own?”

“The kitchen table with a bottle of wine in front of me, we had broken up and gotten back together, and yes.”

“Yes?”

“’Yes’ to your question, ‘Did I come up with the idea on my own?’”

“Did you realize when you were writing the list how tragic so many of your couples were?”

“Like Patrick and me, huh? Or as we turned out? No. When you are twenty-seven and in love or struggling with a love, those names look like great romantic lovers, tragedy and romance all mixed together, and tragedy…”

“Doesn’t seem so bad?” Tallent offered, “Not a lonely, depressing thing that simply leaves one miserable and ultimately may not have a point?”

She laughed nervously. “Boy, you are a cynic. But that’s how fifty-year-olds think, not twenty-seven-year-olds.”

“I’m not even sure why we had broken up,” she continued. “Maybe it was his idea, maybe mine. He moved to a small apartment in Arvada and I was still living in Denver. I started calling him, asking him to come over and have dinner.”

Tallent asked, “This was after you were married, but had broken up?”

“Yes. So we had dinner and he was in the living room of my place doing one of these complicated crosswords he liked.”

Tallent saw how her eyes were bright, and she was smiling at the memory.

“And he’d brought over a pile of library books, I’m not sure why, maybe I’d already asked him to start living with me again. I picked up one of them to look at and I’m thinking, ‘The Greatest Ideas of All Time? How about the greatest love stories?’ I have a pencil because I’m trying to teach myself to sketch while he’s there with his crossword, and I just start writing the list, planning to tease him about it afterwards.”

“Did you?”

“Oh yes, he was very teasable. He had good sense of humor. He scolded me for writing in his library book, and then laughed and gave me a big kiss…” She stopped.

After her reverie, Tallent asked, “So what happened to this greatest love story of all time?”

“Whatever happens to them. You’re my age, you know.” She gave Tallent a glance and went on. “He was very smart, but immature, and I was impatient, I wanted to get on with things, a house, children, and he wasn’t willing to work hard enough at it. I’ll often think how Patrick was when I read about men living in their parents’ basements or having PhDs and working at Burger King. Of course, he ultimately grew up, after we’d gotten divorced and I’d moved on. I’ve heard he has kids. He’d sometimes talk about wanting a small ranch in Nebraska. I wonder if he’s there now.”

“And you?” Tallent asked, glancing out to see snow falling thickly from the sky. “You ever think about getting in touch with him?”

“Why, isn’t that why you’re here?” she mocked. “Aren’t you going to put this on your blog and Patrick sees it and comes back to me? And finally we’ll have the chance to live happily ever after, fulfill the greatest love story destiny? The real answer? No. I’ve seen too much of life. I’ve been married twice more. I have a son at college. I have my job and my knitting. I even do some sketching still, animals mainly, pictures from magazines. You need more tea?”

He really should have gone, but he said, “That would be nice,” and they moved into her kitchen.

She lit the burner on a gas stove with a match.

“It’s hard to keep this place warm, drafty old windows,” she said. “When my son Ronnie was here, he’d bring in firewood all the time.”

“May I,” Tallent asked, “go get you some firewood?”

She laughed. “That wasn’t a hint; I was just feeling the cold.”

Tallent brought in some split wood from a shed in the yard. The snowflakes were larger and more numerous, and he realized again that he should leave. But Ilsa’s yellow house was warmer than she gave it credit for.

Though it had been years since he had built a fire, he placed the wood on the embers and managed to stir up the flames.

“That deserves another scone,” she said, and had him sit back on the couch. A hot mug of tea awaited him as well.

“It’s very comfortable here, but I’ve got to get going.”

He was disappointed when she agreed. “You should. This valley is hard to get out of in a snowstorm.”

“Is there a hotel in town?”

“Not really, nearest would be Yampa or Steamboat, if you get through on the highway.”

He got his coat and she helped him put his scarf on in an almost affectionate manner, or perhaps that was wishful thinking.

“I almost forgot,” she said. “When you were outside, I picked up the Barbara Pym novel and read something. Here…” She walked to the coffee table and got the novel.

He read:

A great unrequited passion was hardly in Mr. Latimer’s line, she realized, the sort of love that lingers on through many years, dying sometimes and then coming back like a twinge of rheumatism in the winter, so that you feel it in your knee when you are nearing the top of a long flight of stairs.

She said, “That’s my feeling towards Patrick, a great unrequited passion that dies sometimes and then comes back.”

“So, ‘thanks a lot,’ you’re saying? Thanks a lot for bringing it all back like rheumatic twinges?”

She laughed. “Maybe. Oh, look at it now, you had better get going.”

And then Tallent was on the road and headed out of town. Why couldn’t she have said, “Oh, look at it now, you had better stay here, I can make up a bed on that couch”? But it hadn’t happened and he was too worried about bald tires, landing in ditches, and paying for a motel to give it much thought. He would contact her again, let her review the article before he posted it, but she was too smart a woman, she could see through Tallent, realize he was a bit of a poseur of a journalist, realize the chances of Patrick seeing the blog were very slim and then she would feel foolish for having revealed herself. Unless Patrick was having his own rheumatic twinges, and happened to see the blog in a search for the long lost Ilsa. And where would that leave Tallent? Why, with another human interest article of course.

pencil

Joseph McGrail has written stories since eighth grade, and a few years ago had another story published in a journal called Inklings. He is currently at work on an episodic novel set in Nebraska and Kansas, as well as other stories. Along with writing, he enjoys drawing and being in the outdoors. He was a probation officer for several years, though little of his writing involves crime, and is now looking for other work. He resides with his family in Denver. Email: joseph.mcgrail.28[at]gmail.com

The Heart of Song

Broker’s Pick
Roger Singer


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

Two blocks into Harlem. White shirts,
black ties, flowered dresses, patent
leather shoes, tattoos and beautiful hair;
the streets are always alive.

The beat mixes up. The man
with a full beard smiles, exposing
a picket fence for teeth. Conga drums
call out the dance in people. Red and purple
cotton hats jive like released shadows.
Tired feet get the sleep slapped out of them.
A guitar strings out a solo,
drawing an applause from a child.

A warm unexpected rain washes everything
down. Clouds soon part. The city
begins again.

pencil

Email: Cabanaph424[at]verizon.net

Dry Rope

Broker’s Pick
Timothy Pilgrim


Photo Credit: maciekbor/Flickr (CC-by)

Hiking in, her weight, constant,
seven pounds, be it rain,

snow. Tented on glacier,
summit above, always curled,

her, sinuous pillow for my head—
not left out, laid straight, wet

under anemic stars, knots
pre-tied tight, night icing

each coil and twist. I confess,
I love my dry rope,

pamper her when we go down—
a warm bath, rubbed dry,

draped across the bed,
sinuous, supple, brown.

pencilTimothy Pilgrim, a Pacific Northwest poet and emeritus associate professor of journalism at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., has published over 300 poems—with acceptances from journals like Seattle Review, San Pedro River Review, Third Wednesday, Prole Press, Cirque and Toasted Cheese. He is author of Mapping Water (Flying Trout Press, 2016). His work can be found at timothypilgrim.org. Email: pilgrimtima[at]gmail.com

Night

Broker’s Pick
Richard Dinges


Photo Credit: web4camguy/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Photo Credit: web4camguy/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Flesh and breath,
sweat and oily sheen,
bald head, freed from
hair and gray,
muscles bulge then
fall flat, sag into
flatulence, hips
once were hills
to be explored, now
rounded mysteries
under frayed comforters,
night no longer
an exploration,
now a dark cavern
in which to hide.

pencilRichard Dinges has an MA in literary studies from University of Iowa and manages business systems at an insurance company. Abbey, Pulsar, Rio Grande Review, Studio One, and Common Ground Review most recently accepted his poems for their publications. Email: rdinges[at]outlook.com

Shame

Broker’s Pick
Colin Dardis


R Barraez D´Lucca/Flickr (CC-by)

R Barraez D´Lucca/Flickr (CC-by)

Regurgitated coins,
I am the worm.

A nest
thick with people,
twigs of passing nods,
a muddied thank you
and God bless.

No one else does.

pencilColin Dardis is a human thing, simultaneously capable of existence and denial. He is. He does. Email: colonyink[at]yahoo.co.uk

Whiteboard

Eileen Gonzalez
Broker’s Pick


There's a new (old) dry erase board in town...
Photo Credit: Zach

January

My first thought when Kelby walked in was he looks normal enough, and I immediately regretted it. Of course he looked—was—normal, and if he was going to live with us for the foreseeable future, I’d have to stop thinking of him as abnormal or weird or non-binary or anything besides Kelby.

Caleb set the suitcases by the door as Kelby, with his hunched shoulders and stormy features, stood there not resembling his perpetually sunny brother in the slightest.

“All right then, Kel, this is my girlfriend Simone. Simone, this is Kelby.”

I smiled and shook his hand and said how nice it was to finally meet him. Just the standard script, but I tried to sound like I meant it. Kelby said nothing, perhaps sensing my reticence, perhaps being an ungrateful brat. Caleb nudged him with an elbow, which only earned him a sharper nudge back.

“Your room is down that hall, first and only door to the right,” I said.

Kelby snapped up the suitcases.

“I’ll help you unpack,” said Caleb.

“No thanks,” said Kelby.

He stepped lighter than his posture would predict, like stomping was beneath his dignity, and disappeared into the guest room.

“Your family’s nice,” I said.

“He isn’t always like this.”

“So you’ve told me.” And told me and told me and told me. As ambivalent as he felt about his parents, Caleb had nothing but unconditional love for his mopey sibling. So when Kelby got tired of fighting his parents over pronouns, Caleb insisted he stay with us. Only after Kelby accepted did he think to ask me.

“He needs a safe place to stay,” he’d said.

“I thought he was supposed to be mad at you for saying gender-fluidity is a load of bull cookies.”

“That was years ago. I’ve been trying to make it up to him since then.”

“And it worked well enough that he agreed to live with us.”

He nodded, shuffling his big-booted feet against the strip of hardwood between the dining room and living room carpets. I opened my laptop.

“I’m not going to un-invite him,” I said. Caleb looked like he wanted to thank me, but I started typing. I hadn’t even opened a window yet, but I needed that conversation to end, so I put on my work face and faked it. When I actually worked instead of pretending to, I maintained social networking sites for several small-to-medium businesses, including the Book Worm, a bookstore in Hartford; Fluffy Friends, a toy store with outlets in New Britain, Southington, and Waterbury; and Angelo’s, a swanky New Haven restaurant. I liked working for Angelo’s best. Their Facebook page was a constant stream of scrumptious photos and recipes even Caleb couldn’t ruin. On Kelby’s first night with us, he made lasagna rolls.

“Lasagna’s his second-favorite food,” Caleb told me. “I’d make his first favorite, but then he’d know for sure I was trying to spoil him.”

“I take it that’s a bad thing?”

“It is according to Kelby.”

Sure enough, Kelby thanked his brother for dinner with a mildly suspicious dip in his brows, though that didn’t stop him from taking seconds. Caleb made valiant attempts to grab his attention as we ate.

“You know, Simone is fluent in Korean. Learning about other languages and cultures is kind of a hobby with you, isn’t it?”

“I prefer Scandinavian languages, but that’s cool.”

“That sounds interesting,” I lied. “How many languages do you know?”

“None real well.”

And that was that. Well, no one could say I didn’t try.

 

February

As a lifelong Connecticut resident, I always feel obligated to tell outsiders that I can count the number of white Christmases I’ve had on one finger. White Groundhog Days, however, are a semi-regular occurrence, and it was on one such February 2nd that Kelby marched into the kitchen, announced they had no definable gender today, and insisted we use they to refer to, well, them. I beat my inner Grammar Nazi into submission as Caleb and I nodded.

The snow had largely melted two days before Valentine’s Day. Last year, we celebrated by going to Gillette Castle, the stately home of a long-dead stage actor whose idea of fun was to put guests in one room and watch them puzzle over the door’s odd locks from upstairs via strategically placed mirrors. I knew Caleb was The One when he said he would have used such a set-up to keep the kids out of his hair.

Kelby didn’t count as a kid, at least not to us; they were a year into college and paid for a good chunk of it by working at a comic book store four days a week. They stayed in their room most of the time too, studying or texting or whatever it was they did. So when they emerged from their self-imposed solitude to make a sandwich, I figured I might as well give cordiality another shot.

“Hey, got any plans for Valentine’s?”

“Study. Play Guitar Hero. Steal some of the super-expensive chocolates Caleb’s out buying for you right now.”

I gasped and smiled at once.

Kelby raised their eyebrows in a parody of surprise. “Was that a secret? Oops.” And if the words weren’t insincere enough, they smirked as they said them, but I laughed along anyway. I mean, c’mon. Chocolate.

“No, but seriously, no plans?” I said. “You’re adorable when you’re not angsting.”

“Yeah, well, no one is interested in having a girlfriend when they go to bed and a whatever when they wake up.”

They didn’t even have the courtesy to look upset about it. At least then I would have known how to react. No, they just smiled like we were talking about spring fashion. I tried to smile back in the vain hope it would banish the burning coal lodged in my chest.

*

The next day, Caleb bought a little whiteboard and hung it on the fridge.

“This’ll make it easy,” he said, holding out a purple marker. “Write your gender here so Simone and I don’t have to worry about screwing up.”

Kelby took the marker and wrote ‘Hello, I Am They’ on the board. It remained that way for most of the month. By the time ‘they’ got replaced by a lime green ‘she,’ the Grammar Nazi was black and blue. He’d get over it. Who listened to Nazis anyway?

 

March

Kelby sat on the couch, fiddling with his dark hair while reading a geography textbook. We never had to nag him (or her or them) about homework, and any time a presentation came up, he could spend hours practicing in front of the square mirror mounted on his bedroom wall. In short, surprisingly studious for a part-time brat. He didn’t even look up when I settled in the recliner beside him.

Work that day consisted of updating the Book Worm’s Twitter feed with news of St. Patrick’s Day savings on any book by or about the Irish. Someone asked if we’d be serving free Guinness. I didn’t dare respond, so my thoughts drifted over the coffee table (was Caleb allergic to coasters?), skimmed the couch (orange floral print seemed like a good idea at the time), and landed on Kelby. Kelby. Caleb and Kelby. Weird combination. I met their parents once, and they didn’t seem the type to go all matchy-matchy with baby names. But Kelby didn’t seem the type to give himself a name that honored his brother, so…

“Is Kelby your original name?”

“Why does it matter?”

“It doesn’t. I was just curious.”

He flipped the page in a manner that suggested I was fortunate he hadn’t flipped me the bird. Awkward, but it didn’t make the Book Worm’s Twitter feed any less stupid, so I grabbed a controller and settled in for some quality video game time.

“If you want quiet, you might want to leave. Mama needs some stress relief.”

I heard him close the book. I assumed he left until suddenly he was right there, watching over my shoulder.

“You want to play too?” I said. “It’s not hard.”

“Sure.”

I handed him a controller and brought up the Create Character screen.

CHOOSE YOUR GENDER

MALE          FEMALE

“I thought you said this wasn’t hard.”

“Sorry, I never really thought about that before.”

“Well, I’m a dude today, so we’ll go with that.”

He named his character Medieval Starlight and dressed him in the most distracting outfits the game provided. I blamed his initial bout of beginner’s luck on the ridiculous reindeer pelt that wiggled its antlers every time the wearer scored a hit. I swore in Korean. Kelby covered a snort with a cough.

“I thought you said you only knew Scandinavian languages,” I said.

He chuckled and shrugged. It was the closest he’d ever come to an apology, but after pounding Medieval Starlight into the ground a few times, I felt more inclined to forgive.

 

April

Sun poured through the bedroom window in direct defiance of trusted proverbs (“April showers” my foot) and my plans to sleep past six o’clock. The glow of my muted cell phone didn’t help.

Caleb didn’t wake as I stretched far, far away from the cozy warm comfort of our bed to grab the cold, cold phone. I just missed a call, apparently. The number belonged to one of my bosses, Michelle, who ran Fluffy Friends with her sister. They were nice enough, but Michelle had to be living in her own private time zone to think anyone appreciated her predawn check-ins.

I left the bedroom, mentally cursing all the way, and hid in the bathroom. Michelle spent at least a minute thanking me for returning her call so promptly before launching into a list of toys she wanted me to plug. Lacking pen and paper, I wrote on the mirror with Kelby’s lipstick.

By the way,” she said, one ruined tube of lipstick and a barely-legible mirror later, “I saw some of your more recent Tweets, the ones plugging the computer games we just got in?”

“Yeah?”

I know Twitter is hardly a bastion of good grammar, but you keep using ‘fun for all ages and genders,’ and that always looks awkward since there’s many ages and only two genders.”

“Actually, some people identify as a third gender or as being both male and female, others shuttle between two or more genders, and still others don’t have any gender at all. I didn’t want to exclude them, so I went with ‘all genders.'”

…”

“Plus it’s easier to fit in the character limit than ‘fun for boys and girls of all ages.'”

Oh, okay. Keep up the good work, Simone.”

Yeesh. Did I ever sound like that?

I felt a little less like boss-punching by the time I joined Caleb and Kelby at breakfast. Kelby wore a plain button-up, jeans, and a face full of make-up. The whiteboard read ‘Tell HER About It.’

“Hey, babe. Hey, Kelby.”

“Hey,” they chorused. They could have been the new Queen with harmonies like that.

Kelby cocked her head. “You okay? You’re making an owl face.”

“Does that mean I’m cute? Owls are cute.”

“No—”

“You are cute, though,” Caleb said.

“—it means you’re annoyed. Owls always look like someone drank all the orange juice and put the carton back in the fridge.”

“Did Caleb do that again?” I said.

“It wasn’t empty!”

“Yeah, you left like a whole teaspoon,” said Kelby.

I left them to bicker in favor of retrieving much-needed coffee. Out the window, two squirrels chased each other across a roof. I superimposed Caleb and Kelby’s squabbling over the scurrying squirrels, biting my lip so as not to interrupt the comedy routine behind me, and forgot all about Michelle until Kelby discovered her poor lipstick.

 

May

“You are not going out dressed like that!”

“I’m not five years old! You don’t get to dress me anymore!”

“Obviously I should! Is this what Mom and Dad let you wear?”

“Why do you think I’m wearing it now?”

Kelby stormed into the living room wearing a metallic black skirt and a ruby top. Nothing looked too tight or too skimpy, but Caleb must have seen it through Big Brother Vision and I knew better than to interfere in a sibling fight for any reason short of a 7.0 magnitude earthquake. Which, by the way? Never happen in Connecticut.

“Get back here and change!”

“You’re just embarrassed that your brother wants to go out in a dress!”

“That’s not—”

Whatever it wasn’t, Caleb couldn’t say it before Kelby snatched a clam-shaped clutch off the armchair and slammed the door. That didn’t deter Caleb from yelling, “I bought you that clutch!”

“No wonder it’s so ugly!”

I finally let myself laugh, which made Caleb mope like a puppy too short to reach a burger on the counter. He spent a full hour that way, slouching over the couch until he was almost on the floor, pouting at the television, checking the clock every thirty seconds. I was supposed to blog about the wonders of Angelo’s liquid nitrogen chocolate bars, but after the fourth sigh, concentration finally slipped from my grasp.

“Would you rather she didn’t have a social life?”I said.

“No.” His tone suggested a walrus-sized ‘but’ would be forthcoming if I waited long enough. I typed one whole sentence before it came. “I just wish she’d show half as much interest in spending time with us as she does alone or with her friends.”

“Did you want to spend every night with your family when you were in college?”

“Not every night, but I didn’t run away at the mere mention of a night with them, either.”

He returned to sulking and I returned to work. Those chocolate bars wouldn’t sell themselves. Okay, yes they would, but my boss didn’t pay me to state the obvious.

*

Around eleven, Kelby came back sober, dressed and smiling. I went to bed, but Caleb stayed up to hear every detail he could drag from his beaming sister.

 

June

Caleb reached for the scarlet tie draped across his pillow. I smirked into the mirror. He wore a dress shirt and slacks every day, but it never seemed to suit him. He should have been a construction worker or a sailor instead of an accountant. A very handsome accountant, but still.

I half-expected Kelby to barge in and make the snarky comments I withheld, but they had finally given into their parents’ request for a visit while Caleb and I went out for an anniversary dinner at Angelo’s. I tried not to mention the dinner around Kelby. It made them shut down, and asking why just drove them into an hour-long sulk. I remembered their comments at Valentine’s Day and kept my excitement to myself.

“Hey, help me with this, would you?” I waved my hand at the necklace that downright refused to fasten. His fingers brushed warmly against my skin as he did the clasp, promising a night of fond reminiscing and quiet laughter and then the front door slammed.

I froze for only a moment, but it was enough for Caleb to beat me out of the room. By the time I joined him, Kelby was storming by us, eyes glistening and left cheek burning red. Their only response to our concerned inquiries was the slam of their bedroom door and the intermittent sound of sobbing.

*

Caleb and I reheated last night’s macaroni and ate in the living room, just in case Kelby wanted to talk.

*

The sound of my fork scraping up eggs may as well have been the climax of an action movie. Caleb cast frequent, furtive glances at the bathroom door; Kelby had emerged from their room an hour earlier only to vanish into the bathroom and turn on the shower before any greetings could be shared. They’d been in there for forty-five minutes when Caleb finally gave up and left for work without brushing his teeth or a word to his sibling. I promised to text if something happened.

Two minutes later, in a puff of steam, Kelby crept from the bathroom. Their cheek had faded from red to purple.

“Morning,” I said.

“Hi.” They poured a glass of orange juice and took their usual place at the far end of the bar. They drank slowly while quizzing me on the weather and my job and the latest soccer scores. They didn’t say anything about the previous evening. I didn’t ask.

When I finished my own meal I told Kelby to leave the dishes.

“No, I got it,” they said, the only sign they knew of Caleb’s and my spoiled evening.

I texted Caleb of Kelby’s emergence.

How do they look? he texted back.

They LOOK fine…

Damn.

*

Caleb must have gotten Kelby talking at some point because a week later, he whispered to me that Kelby had asked their parents to use the correct pronouns. They received angry resistance and ultimately a slap for their efforts.

He asked me not to tell Kelby that I knew.

“I don’t think they wanted me to tell you, but I figured you deserved it after what happened.”

We never talked about it again, and I certainly never mentioned it to Kelby. The bruise vanished under concealer and rouge along with any lingering hurt. I crushed the temptation to hug them and let them beat me at gender-clueless video games.

 

July

Slate clouds spat at us, though thankfully not enough to interfere with Caleb’s pre-birthday balcony barbecue. My job was to bring in the raw meats and vegetables from the kitchen and dump dirty plates in the sink. Caleb and Kelby’s job was to bicker over how well-done to make the burgers. Siblings were stupid, and so was my ‘let siblings fight in peace’ philosophy.

“Guys, you’re not gonna share the same burger. Just make one the way Caleb likes it, one the way Kelby likes it, and one the way I like it, which is nonexistent because I prefer hot dogs, which I do not see on this grill. Ahem.”

“But he likes to burn his and the smell ruins everything else,” said Kelby.

“It’s my party and I’ll burn burgers if I want to,” said Caleb. Kelby huffed an “Argh, fine” but he smiled as he said it. Caleb made a show of opening the packet of hot dogs and placing them on the grill one by one. I stuck my tongue out and disposed of the hot dog packaging.

Fight resolved. Score one for me.

 

August

I slammed my laptop shut. No more overly peppy tweeting about self-wetting baby dolls today!

Abandoning the laptop on the bed, I went to retrieve Kelby for our weekly video game mini-marathon. I almost felt guilty about planning to stay indoors on such a bright day, but we couldn’t possibly play video games outside. The TV was too heavy for us to drag all the way down to the courtyard.

Kelby’s room contained lacrosse gear, fat books, apples both natural and technical, several Beanie Babies and a stylish black coat, but absolutely no Kelby. Huh. I knew she came home on time…

Before worry could set in, Kelby returned, holding a few envelopes and a bagged newspaper.

“The old guy across the hall said he’s going to visit his grandkids for a week,” she said. “He asked me to pick up his mail while he’s away.”

George Kozlowski. He’d lived in this building since before Caleb and I moved in, and he’d probably still be there after we moved out. He seemed nice enough.

“Clearly he doesn’t know you as well as we do,” I said.

“Please. What am I gonna do, steal his AARP magazine?”

“Hey, they’ve got interesting articles.”

 

September

George came home on Labor Day. Kelby gave him an hour to settle in before gathering the bagful of junk mail and newspapers that had accumulated in his absence. She returned with a smile like summer vacation.

“He said I look just like his granddaughter,” she said, and she glowed for the rest of the day.

 

October

Kelby and I sat by the front door on barstools borrowed from the kitchen. At the sound of small running footsteps, I put on my top hat and Kelby brushed imaginary dust from his long dark dress. Yes, his. After initially resisting the Halloween spirit, he made a last-second decision to dress as Elphaba, even though he had written ‘HEre’s Kelby’ on the board that morning.

“Are you trying to make my head explode?” Caleb joked.

“It’s Halloween,” Kelby said, laughing and stealing the last strip of bacon off my plate. “You’re supposed to dress as something you’re not.”

Me, I dressed as Willy Wonka because then no one would look at me funny if I snuck a chocolate here and there (“I’m getting into character!”). Caleb just threw on a trench coat and called himself the Highlander, the lazy bum.

Caleb watched Ghostbusters while Kelby and I slowly gave away our bowl of Snickers, Almond Joys, and Hershey’s. We’d planned on giving Reese’s as well, but between the three of us, they hadn’t survived the weekend.

A knock at the door. On the other side stood Sara Hardy the pink pony from two floors down. We gushed over her cheap generic costume and gave her an extra candy for being so cute. We did that for everyone who wasn’t a six-foot teenager with a pillow case, but Sara and Sara’s Mom didn’t have to know that.

Ghostbusters ended and Caleb kissed the top of my head before disappearing into our room for the night. Kelby and I manned our posts for another half-hour. A parent or two gave Kelby odd looks, but as far as the little sci-fi villains, princesses, jack-o-lanterns and bumblebees were concerned, anyone who answered the door with candy on Halloween was fine by them.

 

November

After moving straight from my parents’ house to the apartment with Caleb (and later Kelby), being home alone still felt weird. Kelby had stayed late at school to work on a group project about the Hiroshima bombing or something equally cheerful. Caleb had gone to pick up new light bulbs to replace the dead one in the bathroom. The silence bounced around my ear canals until I popped in my earphones and turned on my Get Your Butt to Work playlist. It worked until Caleb returned, wrapping his arms around my shoulders.

“Take a ticket and don’t cut in line, sir.”

“There’s a line?”

“Yes, and this Facebook post is at the front of it. Then my email, then Scarlett Johansson, then you. No, wait. Email, Scarlett Johansson, everyone from Queen, then you.”

“Ouch.”

Caleb settled his chin on my head as I tried to think of tolerable autumn-related puns to plug Angelo’s seasonal dishes. ‘You’ll FALL for our black bean soup!’ ‘Don’t LEAF without trying our cranberry apple salad!’

“Are you trying to stimulate people’s appetites or kill them?”

“And who are you? Shakespeare?” I said, deleting the (admittedly terrible) wordplay. “Like you could do better.”

“For your information, I have a spectacular idea.”

“And it is?”

“Let’s go out. It’s been a while since we did anything.”

“Yeah.” Five months, to be exact. I missed couple time. “We could go antiquing. Because we obviously don’t have enough junk lying around.”

Caleb laughed and agreed and out we went, the wind stinging my ears with a hundred needles as we tread the familiar path to the antiques shop five blocks away. The cramped, cluttered shelves smelled of old cloth and good wood. We squeezed past ornate dining chairs we didn’t need to examine nineteenth-century jewelry boxes we didn’t want, all to the ticking of a grandfather clock that had stood in that same corner for three years now. I looked and hmmed and sneezed and critiqued but mostly I held Caleb’s hand, basking in the tranquility.

 

December

I returned from mailing Christmas cards to find the apartment looking and smelling like the world’s sloppiest bakery. Caleb and Kelby loved Christmas more than you’d expect from people who vigorously toed the line of atheism. We hadn’t even cleared the Thanksgiving dishes when Caleb cranked up the Christmas songs. Kelby dug The Muppet Christmas Carol out of his closet and we watched it that same night, snuggled under the poinsettia-covered quilt Mom bought us several Christmases ago. Sadly, that gusto failed to manifest itself as non-mutant gingerbread men.

“You know I bought cookies like three days ago, right?”

“That was the problem,” said Kelby. “We knew, so we ate them.”

Figures. Still, it was hard to argue with the scent of ginger and molasses and the sound of two very similar laughs warming the kitchen. I shed my coat and purse and leaned against the counter. The cookies looked even uglier up close. Biting their heads off would be a pleasure.

“We were thinking of giving some to our parents, but they’re a little too deformed, I think,” said Caleb.

Kelby pressed a decorative button into a cookie with unusual force. Uh-oh.

“I don’t want to go home for Christmas,” he said.

“Come on now,” Caleb said. “You agreed. We spent Thanksgiving here, so now we go home for Christmas.”

“I changed my mind. You’re supposed to have fun at Christmas, not get yelled at for ignoring anyone who uses the wrong pronoun.”

Caleb’s jaw twitched. I dug my fingers into my arm. Let it go, babe. You know you and Kelby will never agree about this. Don’t fight about it right before the holidays.

He exhaled through his nose and said, “You haven’t seen them since summer.”

“That recently?”

Another twitch. Please don’t do this, guys.

“I don’t think one day is too much to ask,” Caleb said.

“It is when it’s Christmas.”

“You agreed!”

“That was just to get out of seeing them at Thanksgiving!”

“Time out!” I said. Their boiling glares flattened into a simmer. “Now look, I know Kelby agreed, but maybe he could go home for Christmas Eve instead and then come spend Christmas with me or his friends.”

Kelby instantly brightened, turning to Caleb for approval.

Caleb threw a glob of green frosting onto a one-legged gingerbread man and smeared it around with a spoon. “Christmas Eve,” Caleb said. Serious. Confirming.

“Yes. Promise.”

“You try to weasel your way out of this one and I withhold your presents.”

Kelby laughed and nodded. The tension melted like snow on a sunny day. I smiled around a bite of deformed, lumpy gingerbread.

“Oh hey, we finished decorating the living room,” Kelby said. “Wanna see?”

I followed Caleb while Kelby skipped ahead, turning off the living room lights so the Christmas lights twinkled in the sudden darkness. The lights were strung from the fan in the middle of the ceiling, looping outward and framing that stupid grandfather clock we bought just to wipe the resigned pout from the shop owner’s face. Red and green garlands draped over bookshelves, and the small tree boasted ornaments shaped like snowflakes and superheroes and silver stars. Beneath the tree sat a modest assortment of ceramic houses nestled among white blankets, with tiny figurines spread about to bring the little town to life. Cheap plastic snowflakes shone like sun-warmed crystal.

“Wow, this is great! It looks like something out of a fairy tale.”

“‘Fairytale of New York,’ maybe,” said Kelby.

Caleb slapped him upside the head and offered to make hot chocolate.

Not being idiots, Kelby and I accepted and waited among the lights, looking around with wide eyes. Kelby turned on the radio at some point. Moments later, I reveled in the warmth of my drink and my family’s love as the first verse of a loosely familiar carol… wait.

“‘The Night Santa Went Crazy? Really?” I said, even as Caleb frowned at the incongruous violence wafting from his innocent stereo.

“It’s one of the only holiday songs I like,” Kelby said with a shrug.

“Guess I shouldn’t have gotten you that Michael Bublé Christmas album then.”

Kelby looked at me, expression wavering between suspicious perplexity and murderous intent. I managed to hold the poker face for three seconds before a giggle slipped free, and Kelby deflated with relief. Caleb took the opportunity to change stations, settling on Johnny Mathis. Kelby rolled his eyes but didn’t change it back, instead reaching for the steaming snowman mug on the coffee table. We all squished into the couch, cocoa in hand, and bickered over the music until sundown.

pencilEileen Gonzalez is a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University. Her short stories have previously appeared in The Potomac Review, Toasted Cheese and Helix Magazine. Her first novel, Jury’s Greatest Hits, will be available on the Kindle in December 2014. Email: piedpiper59[at]ymail.com