Carriers

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Matt Boyle


Photo Credit: ocegep/Flickr (CC-by)

“Congratulations,” said a tinny voice from David’s phone. He glanced at the screen and saw a spinning roulette wheel flashing quietly; it blinked, promising him Walmart gift cards and other riches. He sighed and restarted the phone.

“Fucking ads.”

He sat alone in the Colton Library stacks—nothing but books, quiet, and cold. He pulled his jacket tighter, breath pluming, and glanced out the window at the snow holding the campus in its grip. A single brave soul walked through the storm, head down against the snow, like a character from a silent film. David glanced at his phone again, then remembered it was still restarting and laughed at himself. He sat there, rather impotently, and shook his head.

“What the hell am I doing here?”

And then a young woman’s voice said, “Hey.”

David jerked around. The woman wore a muted grey sweater, a surgical mask, and studious glasses. She held up a hand nervously, and David grabbed for his own mask and fumbled it on.

“Um,” he managed to say. “Can I help you?”

She nodded at his phone. “Congratulations.”

“…for what?”

“You won an award, didn’t you? Didn’t your phone congratulate you?”

“Uh, no. It’s… just a malicious ad.”

She peered at him, not hearing him through his mask. “A what?”

He raised his voice. “A malicious ad. I probably went to some site I shouldn’t have. Just your garden-variety internet scam.”

“Oh, oh yes, I see. But… I still have to say congratulations. I, ehm…” She blushed, almost seeming to shrink on herself. “…you see, I navigated to some sites I shouldn’t have… and I picked up a virus too.”

He stared at her. “Miss, no offense, but that joke isn’t exactly in good taste these days.”

“God, I wish it was a joke. It’s not. I picked up a virus from my computer. Now whenever an ad pops up on someone’s device, I have to help advertise it.”

David blinked. He didn’t say anything. He was on a campus where almost everyone had decided to learn remotely. Those still on campus mostly hid in their rooms, or in corners of the library. He hadn’t seen his family or friends outside of a tiny box in a computer screen in six months. His mother had nearly died the month before, and he hadn’t even been able to leave the state. He didn’t know if he had the bandwidth to navigate this conversation.

Hell, he didn’t even know what this conversation was.

The grey woman pointed at his phone miserably and said, “Congratulations. You’ve won a free gift card to Walmart. There’s a message in there from Mary Stevens, from Omaha. She says, ‘I just got mine in the mail. Thanks!’”

David looked down at his phone again. Sure enough, the spinning roulette wheel was back, lights blinking silently. Mary Stevens from Omaha said the same words the grey woman had. He tried to hit the back button on his browser and the phone refused; it just refreshed the page and congratulated him again. The voice sounded exhausted, as if it could barely muster the energy.

“Congratulations,” the grey woman echoed.

David looked at his phone and then back at her. He did it one more time, then said, “I think I should go.”

“Yeah,” she said, and sighed. “I’m really sorry.”

“No, it’s ok,” he said, standing up. “I’m just… I’m tired. Why are we even studying here anyway, right? With this weather? We wouldn’t be if there weren’t a pandemic.”

“That’s the modern world,” she said sadly. “So easy to stay in touch nowadays. Can’t have a snow day if you can learn from anywhere.” She slung a book bag off her shoulder and sat at the other side of the table. “Do you mind? I have class and the network is better here.”

He shook his head. “No, you take it. I’m headed back to the dorms.”

She nodded. “Congratulations again.”

“Sure,” he said, and waved goodbye as the grey woman unfolded her laptop and booted it up. He walked along the stacks, his footfalls quiet and lonely, then he stopped before the elevator, blinking in confusion.

He felt an irrepressible need to… turn back. He had to…

“Congratulations,” he blurted out, almost a sneeze.

He stared down at his mask in confusion and something like horror, then realized that he was turning around and walking back to the grey woman. His silent footfalls followed him as he arrived back at her table, his eyes wide and confused. She looked up from her laptop screen, her face lit with colored lights of awards and ads that no doubt blinked at her from every link she clicked. He tried not to say anything, but… he couldn’t.

“Con… congratulations.”

She stared back, her eyes mournful. “I’m so sorry. Looks like you’ve caught it too.”

“Caught what? This doesn’t make any sense. You can’t catch a malicious ad. Human beings aren’t… aren’t…”

The grey woman didn’t say anything. She stared at him patiently.

He swallowed, feeling something coming up from his gut, like vomit. The words burst from his lips and he spat them out. “…congratulations,” he said again, feeling tears begin to form in his eyes, the words spitting from his mouth without his consent. “You’ve won a chance for a free PS5. You’re… the five-hundredth visitor to the site.”

The grey woman smiled behind her mask. “Thank you.”

“What the fuck is happening to me?”

The grey woman shook her head. “This is what we are now. Carriers. Of one virus or another. We can’t get away from either.”

David stared and looked up at the window. It had become dark in the past ten minutes, and all he saw was a silent snowstorm. Inside, the fluorescent lights hummed as the grey woman tried to exit out of the ads on her computer and start her Zoom call. All around them, he realized, the library’s computers were turning on, connecting them to the world kept physically distant, cutting through the pain of the lost human touch, offering their weary reminders that they were all in this together in these uncertain times, and that if they would just sign up now, all the riches of the world could be at their fingertips.

“Congratulations,” said the grey woman to the people in her computer. “We’re all winners.”

pencil

Matt Boyle works in instructional design at a university that allows students to choose how they want to learn during the pandemic. He doesn’t actually think flexible learning is like a malicious ad though, 🙂 Email: magicrat008[at]gmail.com

A Guiding Light

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
H.B. Bendt


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

The wind had shifted from a low murmur in the underbrush to a chilling howl racing around the steep drop of the cliffs. It carried an uncomfortable cold settling in one’s very bones, filling up the veins with ice, and freezing muscles until the skin turned blue and numb. The sparse grass beneath her shoes cracked with each step, stems frozen solid and glistening in the dim light coming from an overcast sky. Rain and snow mixed in a drizzle, settling in her hair and clothes, creeping into every exposed crack or corner it could find. She blinked, almost blinded by the curtain of flakes, some bright white, others translucent.

Despite the uproar of the storm, the cliffs themselves lay quiet and tranquil as ever. They flanked the bay on each side, reaching three hundred feet at the peak with slopes and jagged edges on the way down to the water. Dry bushes sat scattered along the path leading up, patiently enduring the cold. Enduring months of darkness and winter storms building up above the open sea and making their way landwards. Whatever hoped to survive up here wasn’t beautiful, but tough. Thick-skinned and rooted deep into the rock and black soil, not to be blown away whenever the wind violently shook the ground. The barren, dark sprigs of spring squill grabbed at her ankles as she walked on, scratching at the exposed skin shimmering pale from underneath the long button-up shirt reaching barely down to her thighs, and the open coat flapping in the wind. She passed through the shadows, across a patch of plain, frozen earth trampled flat by the stream of curious tourists venturing up here every now and then, and on towards the cliff’s edge. Moving billows of clouds overcast the sky, the sole sources of light being the dim, swallowed shine of the moon—and a slow, deliberate whoosh, whoosh, whoosh streaming from up above. On, off, on, off, again and again, at a comfortable, steady pace.

Grey waves crashed into the cliffs with a clangor, white foam riding along and dissolving into the many nooks and crannies buried in the hill. Rocks and earth crumbled, drizzling down the slopes underneath the tip of her shoes now peeking over the edge. She looked down at the dark water with its dancing crowns of foam.

Behind her, like a shining sentry, the lighthouse rose into the sky.

*

The door to the office creaked open at 3:47pm, seventeen minutes later than planned. Dr Lowes was a scrawny, balding man in a tweed jacket and glasses that sat at the very tip of his nose. The smile that slipped on his lips the moment he spotted her sitting in that olive corduroy armchair was genuine, broad, and warm. The whole room smelled strangely of liquorice. Books littered every available surface, including the floor, and on the windowsill, wedged between all sorts of potted plants, sat a model brain sporting a thin layer of dust. A Post-it pinned to it said I, too, can hurt in a shaky, cursive handwriting.

“You would have to be Francesca,” Dr Lowes said.

“Frankie is fine.”

“Frankie.” He sat down on a stool opposite her, looking her up and down for a moment. “So, Frankie. You believe you might be depressed.”

“Maybe.”

“How so?”

“Well,” Frankie inhaled. She had mentally jotted down a list on the way here. The list she had methodically put together in long hours surfing the internet, looking up all the common symptoms and signs. She wasn’t here to hear someone else tell her she was depressed—no, of that she was sure—but she needed professional chats to get her hands on prescription medication. “I feel a lack of energy and motivation. I sleep too much. I feel numb, occasionally. You know, just—empty. I’m not sad, but I do wonder about the point of, well, everything, really. I have noticed that I have recently started to neglect myself but I don’t have the energy to change anything about it. My diet is largely cuppas and Twix bars—”

“You have made it here today,” Dr Lowes interrupted her.

“Yeah, today is a good day apparently.” She smiled thinly.

Dr Lowes leaned back on his stool, his spine softly hitting the edge of the desk behind him. He crossed a leg over the other, looking at her over the rim of his glasses. “Tell me a bit about yourself. You are a student?”

“Yes.”

“What are you studying?”

“LLB. Torts. I’m not sure why.”

“Why do you think?”

Frankie paused. The go-to answer she had been telling everyone and their mother wouldn’t cut it anymore, would it? Therapy was all about honesty after all. “It seemed reasonable,” she said eventually. “Sensible. It’s not bad being a sensible person.”

“No, it isn’t. Being sensible can very well keep you out of trouble.”

“That is it, isn’t it? Being no trouble.”

“Being out of trouble or being no trouble?” Dr Lowes asked. Frankie didn’t reply. “You believe you are trouble to someone?”

Frankie inhaled sharply, blinking all of a sudden.

“I’m trying not to be. It’s just—well, I have this thing where I feel like I can do everything perfectly and it’s still not good enough.” She felt her face contort, nose scrunching up, chin quivering, cheeks rising. The dam broke.

Five minutes into her first therapy session she had believed she needed only for the meds and she sat bawling her eyes out. Dr Lowes looked at her for a while, the gentle, not quite but almost pitiful smile of an understanding old man on his lips, before he reached behind himself and held out a box of tissues to her.

*

The sessions that followed didn’t go any better and it wasn’t until the sixth one that she could sit through the entire hour without crying.

That same evening she stepped out of the office doors and into the cool, crisp November air. The winter storms had slowly begun to pick up, white clouds lazily moving across the sky until they would snow down somewhere above the Black Mountains. Leaves in desaturated hues of orange and brown danced across the sidewalk, illuminated by a sparse row of street lights, and the breeze from the sea smelled humid and salty. The walk from the university to town, down a rather steep hill and with no bus driving regularly enough to wait, for once didn’t appear all that daunting. Frankie thought of socialising. That by now uncomfortably familiar feeling of existential dread was still sitting in that corduroy chair in Dr Lowes’s office. A shapeless little form she could leave behind for the night.

She was halfway down the hill when she first noticed the pale beam of light coming in a short burst from the coast. A second one soon followed, then a third. Frankie stopped, looking ahead. A party was the thought that first crossed her mind, but the light hovered over the entire town for a moment and disappeared again. It didn’t come from the old, Victorian seafront promenade either but gleamed somewhere to the right, near Constitution Hill. Whoosh. Whoosh. Slowly, deliberately. No party lights were bright enough to illuminate the town and half the beachfront. Frankie stood wondering for a little while longer, before she shrugged and continued down the road.

By the time she had reached the bottom, snow had begun to drizzle down in thick flakes. It whirled around her head, dragged away by the wind coming from the sea, and Frankie popped up her collar and tightened her scarf against the cold. In a few weeks’ time the snow would turn back into rain and cover the entire coast in a grey, solid mist. The cold would linger however. As would the wind. And once Christmas came around, the town would be deserted until late January. Small wonder, she thought, that people became gloomy around here. Old, Victorian-style house fronts rose at each side of the road, wooden patterns gleaming with an orange shine from the street lamps. The Ghost of Christmas Present lingered around here, only it didn’t outright show itself, but instead crouched in the shadows, following her around.

Penglais Road turned into North Parade and Frankie cut right down Queen’s Road. Soon enough a familiar sign with a raven on it, hanging above a dark door, came into view, and she pushed inside, away from the snow and cold. The pub was packed. Not unusual for a Friday night. Some students liked to flock here for a game of pool or two before heading onwards to the pier or to whatever dates they had set up for the night.

Life could have been good, she figured. A sense of opportunity. New life. Start over. Get going. ‘You’re young, you have it all ahead of you. And remember, Frankie. Always remember: it’s not about your own personal happiness. It’s about their happiness.’

It had started when she had moved off campus and into a shared apartment with a friend, hadn’t it?

The fatigue. The sluggishness. That first spark of a little thought asking what’s the point? over and over again. It had been faint and quiet in the back of her head at first. Nothing but a murmur that came and ebbed away again. Truly bad days had been a long shot ahead into the future then, but it was when it began. Now, a little more than a year later, it was a good day when she managed to take a shower and brush her teeth.

“What’s it gonna be for you, luv?” The pub owner’s voice came slurred to her, words registering slowly and unevenly through the fog of noise in the pub.

“Cider and black, please.”

“Pint?”

“Yeah. Why not.”

“I’ve seen them, too, y’know. The lights,” another voice said. “They don’t come from the beachfront.”

Frankie jumped. At the bar next to her, apparently out of thin air, a boy had appeared. First year, from the looks of it. Fresh out of home, he should have been rosy-cheeked with an excited gleam in his eyes. Yet there was nothing. Dazed and hollow, a walking skeleton holding a glass of ale.

“Um—excuse me?”

“The lights. It’s not the seafront. It’s not the pier, y’know.”

Y’know. No, she didn’t know. “I’m sorry, who are you?”

“It’s weird, nobody seems to know what they are. I asked, they don’t know any lights. But they’re there, right? All over town.”

“I’ve never seen them before,” Frankie admitted.

The boy stared out a large, dark window. The snowfall outside had grown thicker by the minute.

“First saw them maybe a month ago? Every second day or so, that’s how it started. Now they’re out there every day, shining when it gets dark. ‘S to let us know there’s the cliff there, y’know.”

“The cliff?”

“Yeah. Says there’s the cliff, right there.”

Frankie then involuntarily glanced out the high windows, too. Far across the village lay the seafront in quiet blackness, perhaps occasionally disturbed by students passing by, shouting and celebrating. There was nothing out there but cold and dark; nothing compared to the warmth and comfort and noise within the pub. The boy smiled at her. A strange, lopsided smile.

“You know what’s beyond that cliff?”

Frankie shook her head.

“Nothing,” the boy smiled. “Just peace and nothing.”

Said warmth and comfort of the pub suddenly pressed upon her like an iron-cast corset. It was as if the very air had been sucked out of the room all at once, leaving her suffocating on the bright lights and the dozens of voices shouting over the small, helpless whisper in the back of her mind praying for silence. Please. Just blissful silence for a change.

Let it be quiet, please, please, let it be quiet. Let it end. Let there be nothing.

The boy’s smile had turned strangely serene. The image appeared amusing enough and Frankie felt the corners of her own lips twitch involuntarily.

“I gotta go,” he said. “Y’know that feeling? That pull?”

Frankie shook her head.

“I’ll just go,” he said, the smile sitting on his face like a mask. “Get beyond that cliff, y’know.” He got up from his seat, his pint of ale still half full and left on the bar. Frankie followed his disappearing form with her eyes. She looked at the windows again. The bright whoosh, whoosh, whoosh then streamed into the pub brighter than it had before. Nobody seemed to notice.

*

In the darkness of her room, something whispered in her ear.

It began as a low murmur, rising and falling like the tide rolling towards the shore and back again. Quietly it crept into every pore and filled her veins up with a nightmarish restlessness. A low whoosh, whoosh, whoosh that her dreams turned into words she could understand. The whisper moved, a creature hidden in the dark, climbing on top of her bed until it sat quietly by her feet; glowing eyes staring at her. The voice in her mind rang soft and gentle.

Come now, Frankie. Come out. Let me show you where the cliff is.

*

The regular six o’clock evening lecture came and passed by without Frankie paying attention. Most of the lecture she had spent drumming her pen on the notepad, noticing vaguely that her brain was lagging behind. As usual, she had ignored questions she had known the answers to, her body too unmotivated and tired to raise first her arm, then her voice. That, too, had only gotten some vague attention. Like the clear, white snow outside, her thoughts had turned into grey slush ready to melt away for good at some point. The words ‘why bother’ repeated themselves in her head like a mantra.

When she stepped onto Penglais Road, the snowfall from the previous night had turned into a thicket, almost blocking her view. Ice caked the way down the hill and she stepped carefully, not feeling any rush anyways. It was the dark, she supposed. The never-ending wall of grey clouds that blocked out all sunlight and turned daytime into some kind of perpetual twilight before it would grow dark again. The bus passed her by, spraying slush and mud, followed by the first wave of whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. The lights had never appeared this early before. Frankie looked around, studied the faces of students flocking down the hill left and right of her. None of them noticed. Or perhaps they did, but then nobody cared. She looked ahead at the lights flooding across the town in regular, slow circles, and wondered whether she perhaps had gone entirely mental.

She got down to the old campus, grabbed a sandwich from the gas station and bought a few chocolate bars to go with it. Something nagged her in the back of her mind. The same invisible whisper buried in her brain, pulling her towards the pier like a puppet on strings. Her feet moved at their own volition.

Frankie made it as far as the end of Pier Street, where the road was suddenly blocked with railings and yellow tape. The winter months brought storms and high tides with them with the waves often flooding the seafront entirely. Every now and then the town officials would declare it too dangerous for people and close off the entire seafront. Only this time there were the flashing lights of an ambulance and by the cliffs, far down to the right, stood a firetruck on the promenade. A few men in yellow uniforms hosed down the rocks. Frankie stood and watched. With all the rain and snow splattering against the cliffs one might think there was no need to clean them. No need whatsoever.

“Terrible, innit?” A police officer guarding the barrier appeared by her side, stuffing crisps into his mouth.

“What is?” Frankie asked.

“The thing about the kid.”

“What kid?”

“Some kid killed himself last night. Jumped off the cliff.”

Something froze. Whether it was time or Frankie’s entire body, she couldn’t tell. But things moved in slow motion, rolling past her like tumbleweed in an old black-and-white movie. Some kid.

“Do you know who?” she asked.

“Some freshman at the university. I heard a couple of people say the saw him at Scholars last night before he offed himself. Can you imagine? Going for a pint and then deciding to jump off a bloody cliff?”

Yes, she thought. Yes, I can imagine that. And she began to understand what he had meant when he had talked about that pull. To go beyond the cliff. Because the lights had showed him where it was, hadn’t they? The lights that still, lazily, drenched the town in a bright flash going in circles. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.

“Guess he must have jumped from the spot where the lighthouse is.”

“Lighthouse?”

“Yeah. Y’know the old thing. Not been in use for ages but it’s a good jumping spot, I suppose? It’s high up, steep, nobody up there to stop you. Guess the way down’s not so good though. Cleaning up those rocks each time? Now that’s a bitch for you.”

Frankie felt something churn in her stomach, followed by a sudden urge to vomit.

*

In the deep of the night something knocked on her window. A sleep-addled, hazy brain told her it was impossible; a fourth-floor window wasn’t reachable without a ladder, but the soft graze of nails against glass continued on in a steady rhythm. The weight that had previously pressed down on her feet had disappeared. Big eyes now instead glowed from the window, lanterns in the darkness, searching the room for her shape. She couldn’t move. Stiff and frozen underneath her covers, all that Frankie did was stare back at the dark thing looking in.

A beam of light started from the right, dragging across the landscape outside.

Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. Come now, Frankie. Let’s go.

When it hit the window, the creature disappeared. It returned once the beam moved past.

*

“Dr Lowes?” Frankie sat cross-legged in the corduroy armchair, her fingers curled around a cup of tea. She had not showered in four days. Dry shampoo and deodorant fixed whatever could be fixed, the oversized jumper sleeves covering her hands only so far to reveal chipped polish on her nails. She was here to get better. She wanted to get better. Didn’t she? “Do you know anything about the lighthouse?”

Dr Lowes had been taking notes, scribbling away on the yellowed writing pad sitting on the armrest of his chair. He looked at Frankie over the rim of his glasses again, brows arched.

“Lighthouse?” he asked. “The one further up from the train? Yes, as far as I know that thing has been out of order for a few decades now.”

“Why?” Frankie asked.

“Well, the story in town is that the lighthouse was closed off after the last keeper committed suicide. The door has been locked and it has been out of use since.”

“Committed suicide?”

“That is the story.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know for sure. Some people say he was a closed-off man that couldn’t quite fit in. You know what it’s like in small towns like this, people write you off as strange and shun you for it.”

“Was he bad?”

Dr Lowes shrugged. “I couldn’t say. Perhaps he was simply lonely. People do all sorts of horrible things when they feel lonely.”

“A boy killed himself up there two days ago,” Frankie said. She watched Dr Lowes scratch his neck with the end of his pen.

“Yes, well. I moved here about thirty years ago and the old lighthouse has been a popular spot for suicide even then. Three, perhaps four times a year someone would jump,” he paused. The look of minor discomfort on his face changed to what appeared to be concerned suspicion. “Frankie, you are not thinking about suicide, are you?”

From the corner of her eye, Frankie saw something shift in a darkened little spot somewhere behind Dr Lowes’s chair. It took no shape, but remained a vague, blurry outline of something that, at some point, may have had a body. Or might one day form a body again. A cold breeze reached for her neck, sending a shiver down her spine, and the whisper echoed softly in her ear. When the shapeless thing in the shadows turned, a pair of big, round eyes, bright as lanterns gaped at her.

“No,” Frankie said. In that very moment, the slow, rhythmic whoosh, whoosh, whoosh began again.

*

In broad daylight the lighthouse looked like nothing more than a crumbling ivory tower, removed from the rest of the world behind a solid layer of old age and isolation. A ‘No Trespassing’ sign in both English and Welsh was the only evidence of a human being ever having been up here. Other than that, the stone walls may have just grown out of the cliff by themselves one day. Low shrubs surrounded the once-white bricks and there was nothing eerie about the place other than the sharp howling of the wind coming from the sea. The entrance wasn’t as locked as Dr Lowes had suggested, but rather boarded up loosely. Little effort had gone into keeping people out. Frankie imagined the best repellent to be the story about the people who had killed themselves.

A few feet above her head something moved behind one of the dark windows of the lantern room. A cloud of mist that billowed behind the thick glass, roaming back and forth like a caged animal waiting for the opportune moment to break free. In the light snowfall it may have been nothing but a mirage; a trick her mind played on her to accompany the uneasy feeling creeping up from the rock below her feet, spreading through every fibre of her body until the hair at the back of her neck stood and gooseflesh crawled across her arms. Something whispered in her ear again. Frankie closed her eyes and when she opened them again, she stood in a round parlour within the tattered walls of the lighthouse.

High up, snug below the roof was the glassed lantern room, barely visible through the cracks in the floor boards. From there a stream of light illuminated the dim room in slow chants of whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. A shadow flitted across the cracks in a hurry, making no sound. Frankie cautiously stepped into the centre of the room, following the trail of whatever was rummaging around above her. She went where it went, the scurrying shadow a guide across the room, moving back and forth in seemingly random directions. Every now and then the bright stream of light blinded her, but soon enough she found the little shadow creature again and continued her invisible pursuit. It felt familiar. A soft, comforting presence luring her in, that turned the cold, damp room around her into a cozy dream where nothing bad could ever touch her again. Sadness had no home here. And most importantly, there was no corduroy armchair in the corner.

Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.

Come now, Frankie. Come see what is beyond the cliff. Let it be quiet, let there be nothing.

The beam spilling through the floorboards turned the room into bright white. Frankie raised her arms, blinded again for a moment, stumbled backwards, and cold and ice grabbed at her ankles, biting into her flesh. She shrieked. The silent movement of the creature above her stopped; a pause so heavy, it dropped on her like a thick, suffocating blanket. The creature leapt forward. It sprinted across the boards, raced to the hatch leading down, and when she turned along with the noise, Frankie found those two glowing eyes stare at her from the top of the stairs. Bright as the oil lamp of the lighthouse itself did the eyes shine in the black around her, big and round, disappearing and reappearing with each circling motion of light.

The creature moved. Slowly, quietly, creeping down the stairs, the nothing that formed it coiled like springs, ready to pounce. It slipped across the floorboards, a clicking sound, guttural almost, coming from a set of teeth crunching away in an invisible jaw. With it crept the cold towards her, reaching for her ankles as if the creature itself extended its claws to gently grab her. The snapping mixed with a low purr.

Frankie. Frankiiiieeee. Here now, Frankie. Let’s go.

She turned and ran.

The whisper followed her through the dust and rot, a thundering, hollow sound of quick steps on the floor, while outside the wind howled around the lighthouse, chasing billows of snow in every direction. She broke through the boarded-up door, almost tripped, and fled down the path without once looking back.

*

Depression could manifest. Frankie had once read that in some esoteric article published on a mental health website. In dreams it might take shape, form a body that suddenly becomes palpable. Some experienced it in the form of a massive spider, others suddenly found themselves hunted by a pack of wolves in the darkened woods. For a while Frankie had believed her depression was merely her own face. Staring back at her in the mirror now, pale with dark circles under her eyes, the greasy, unkempt hair clinging to her cheeks. She knew her clothes stank. The steady rumble of her stomach had long stopped, hunger had turned into pain and cramps, but she could quench those with a cup of tea. The cup hadn’t been washed in two weeks.

The display of her phone lit up. 11:20 PM flashed, below the date that said Wednesday, 23 December. And a text message from her mother.

Not coming home for christmas is cowardly. I’m sorry but there is no other way to say it. If you are sick, then you need help. It is not an excuse to disappoint me or your father the way you did. I have never been more ashamed in my life.

That night Frankie slipped into her bed in a button-up shirt she had dug from the farthest corner of her closet. She pulled the covers over her head. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh came and went and came again. The steady flow that by now had grown so familiar. It soothed her mind, wrapped her fears into a warm cocoon. Darkness scurried over from the window and something heavy settled down on her chest. She didn’t need to lift the covers to see those lantern eyes staring down at her. To hear the soft clicking of teeth ringing close to her ears.

Come now, Frankie. We’ll let there be nothing. We’ll let there be quiet. We’ll go to the cliffs. We’ll let it end.

*

More bits and pieces of rock crumbled under the soles of her shoes, tumbling down the steep drop off the cliffs until they disappeared in the black below. The waves crashed a steady rhythm against the shore, beating on the glistening stone. Within the howling of the wind, she heard the whisper humming sweet nothings into her ears. There would be quiet soon. By her side crouched the little nothing, its glowing eyes gawking at the deep, deep drop. Frankie inhaled and stepped forward.

At the top of the deserted cliff, like a shining sentry, the lighthouse rose into the sky.

pencilHannah is a previously unpublished writer in her early thirties, finally taking the passion to the next level to turn it into a profession. She is a native German speaker with English as a second language, and anything suspense is her personal homebase. Email: bendthb[at]gmail.com

The Cold Face of the Mountain

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Karen Sheard


Photo Credit: Bureau of Land Management/Flickr (CC-by)

I came to Alaska in search of the wild bear but something else found me in the wilderness. I now need to get down from this mountain before I starve, or the winter storms set in. But the worst thing is, I’m still heading towards the top of the mountain. I know that, even if I were to turn around now, I might not make it back down. What drives me on? If only it were that simple to explain out loud.

It was a few weeks ago that I started to sense its presence. As I hiked across the mountain of the sleeping lady I began to think back to where I had left. When I had been at home, with my wife, my mind had been constantly wandering to the mountains here. I had pored over photos of this very range of hills—when seen from a distance they are shaped like a naked woman lying in the snow. Down here, though, on the hills themselves, there was no such comfort, no warmth—either from the wife I left behind—or from the cold lady that tempted me here. Here, the peaks that form her soft curves were sharp and hard on my feet. No other travelers but I braved the weather forecasts this winter. Even the bears have stayed away this year. My camera card is empty of any images but blank snow and the paw prints of animals too shy to show themselves. I had a sense, tingling the back of my shoulders, that there were living things watching me pass, just outside the range of my sight, hiding in the mounds of snow and scraps of trees. Maybe my footfalls scared them away, as there is no other sound here except the wind that comes at night and the deafening quiet of the snowy land that stretches on in every direction. Still, I walked on, hoping for a sight of something. I descended into a valley between the mountains. Here, a shadow swept over the path, like a descending fog of gloom.

At the basin of the valley, I came across—I would like to call it a camp, but in truth there was nothing there to see. Just a lingering smell—a familiar sweet-unpleasant fragrance—that gave me the feeling that someone had been there just before me. A certain change in temperature, as if the place had recently been occupied by another creature. In the world of society that I had left behind, such changes would go unnoticed, but here among this vast nothingness, they rang out to my senses as clearly as if I had seen some outward sign. Something had been here not moments ago—a sense of it still remained here among the tall pines. Had I thought that it might still be there watching me, I may have been less keen to stay, but as it was, I chose to camp there. I had taken this trip from an urge to be alone, but now the sense that there was another being in this vast alien expanse, comforted me.

I set up my tent to face the direction the aurora borealis could be seen over the dark mountains beyond. The nightly dance of turquoise and purple haze had become my only sense of the movement of time. I found it a comfort to know that the world still moved on out there somewhere, for me to rejoin if I chose.

As dusk fell, my fire was all I had beyond the writhing glow in the sky to light my meal. As I sucked all I could from the last of my over-ripe fish, I watched the wind blow out the dregs of the fire. The light show has slowed to the occasional flash of blue, before the deep darkness set in for the short night ahead. In darkness, other senses take over, you hear phantom footfalls outside your tent, the wind takes on strange tongues that seem to moan your name. The temperature drops at nightfall—it’s winter here. A cool breeze blows over everything.

I lay in my tent, staring into the darkness of my own thoughts. I could not sleep. My mind was still wandering over the facts that the food was running low, and my feet were covered with wounds and sores. Moisture from my own breath was collecting across the canvas of the tent coating everything in a cold sweat.

And then I felt, rather than heard, the motion of the zip of my tent-flap being drawn slowly open. I felt the cold begin to seep into the tent, stinging my clammy body. I listened, with held-in breath, and finally caught the quiet sound of the zipper begging dragged gradually upwards. I drew back in my sleeping bag instinctively, my throat paralyzed, regretting taking off my boots and outer clothes, that might have offered more protection against attack. For some incongruous reason, against my control, my stomach rumbled, the sound deafening in the darkness, making whatever it was outside stop in its tracks. I clenched my stomach, but it went on, and I felt my bowels push against my bladder in sudden fear.

The tent flap tore open.

Before I had time to register the shape of the intruder, it fell inside, landing heavily on top of me in a cold, pungent hard mass.

I cried out in shock.

It had the weight of dead flesh, pinning me down by its bulk. For a moment, I froze in fear, until instinct made me brave enough to feel the shape of my intruder for fur or fang. Not a bear. But an animal of some kind. This was a man. A man, emaciated and cold. He smelled of the toilet and the forest. An almost inhuman, dog-like smell, that made my stomach heave the taste of the rotten fish back into my throat. I pulled away from under him, and threw my blanket over him, more in distaste than charity.

“My God help me,” the man suddenly exclaimed, shivering next to me, as if my warmth had awakened him. They were the first words I had heard for weeks. His voice rasped and I finally understood what people meant when they say that a person’s breath rattles. The man was clearly ill.

“My God what are you?” I said. Getting tongue-tied my haste, I obviously meant to ask: Who are you?

“Arnold Clever,” he said. The name made me shiver, though I could not say why. Maybe it was the small voice in which he uttered it.

“How are you here? There’s no one being on these mountains for miles. I would have seen you.”

“I hardly know where I am, I have been wandering. Wandering for so long. I am so hungry.”

I had little food myself; I had recent knowledge of what it meant to fear hunger, and it would have pained me to watch, as it would to experience it myself. So, I said I would share with him what I had, but even then, I secretly hid a portion of what I had in the depths of the tent. The reason for this I can only put down to the selfish instinct of survival that dogs all men.

I could not see his face in the darkness, and there was something of wildness about his manner, but I was put somewhat at ease, when he explained he was an adventurer, heading out to conquer the mountains in the distance. Such men as he and I have a wildness in our hearts that can make us strange to company. To such I put down his wild air.

When he had eaten a little, I began to ask after his strange appearance in the middle of nowhere, with no tent or provisions.

“I have been running,” he said. “Running and jumping over river and forest. Running for so long my feet have been on fire, and may turn to hooves.”

He said all this so piteously, I resolved to help him back to health. I hoped his delirium may pass with food and sleep, so I told him to rest in the tent and we would talk more in the morning. But he was feverish and vocal throughout the night, so that neither of us slept much. He kept complaining of a strange voice in the wind. But not only could I hear no voice, I could hear no wind. I attempted to reassure him that the night was calm, but he kept complaining.

“It calls my name; oh God help me. Do not let me go. Do not let me go to him.”

I assured him that if he did not want to go outside the tent, then nothing could make him.

“You don’t know what it means to hear it call your name,” he argued. “God pray you never know what it means. I have seen him, and he wears my own face.”

After long hours, he wound himself into a fitful sleep. I dozed a bit, but felt a strange unease, and so sat up to watch over my new charge till daylight came.

But as I watched, and saw his face reveal itself in the shadows of the dawn, I was horrified to see that I had been sharing my tent with an imposter. The man looked half-starved, yes, but there was more than that, something almost indiscernible about his hard cheeks, and sharp frame that made me think that this man was not human… No even worse—that he was not quite human.

I recalled the first thing I had asked upon him entering my tent, not: “Who are you?” but: “What are you?” It was like, even in the dark, I had sensed something was not right about this stranger that I had let into my tent. I cannot say that I was terrified immediately, but the feeling of something uncanny being at stake here, spread until my body started to shake… until I could not bear to be in the same space as this unknown man.

I slipped from the tent, though not dressed for the outdoors. The thing about the mountains is that you camp in one place, but when you wake up, you never know what scenery awaits you when you step through the flap. The terrain changes as the weather desires. I ran out into a world of white snow, hardly knowing where I was, or where I was going. I ran into the woods, falling in the ice as I tore over thorns and through sharp fir trees. But I could not stray too far from my tent, or risk being lost forever in the white.

I waited long hours among the trees, desperately clinging onto one large trunk till my hands grew bloody with the bite of its sharp bark. Despite the cold, I had sweated through my clothes in my panic and now they froze against my skin. The thick canopy of trees blocked the sun, so I hardly knew how long I shivered there. I hid until the cold got too much, and then peered out to see if the intruder was still at my camp.

The place sounded and felt still.

I stepped back to my campsite cautiously, like a wild moose snuffling for food in wolf territory. I clenched my fingernails into my palms in dread as I approached the tent. I lifted up my tent flap to see… oh God.

The man was still there, but his shape had changed. He now looked healthier, though he was still fast asleep and still as marble. The man I now looked upon was me! In every detail the man had taken on my form. His clothes were still those he had worn last night, or I should have gone mad with fears I was no longer myself. In such wild times, anything seemed to be possible.

I ran. I ran and ran, hoping to get myself lost from this madness. But a man can only run for so long in the cold, before they must face the fact that to run further would be to die. So, I stood, petrified as to what to do. Until I heard a cry from the campsite, like that of an animal set upon by a beast. I ran back, to get my gun, when the man, his face now his own again, thank God, ran at me, wildly.

“He is here. He is here.”

“What is happening? Who?”

He looked behind, fearfully. But rather than running away, he ran towards the source of his own terror, into the dense trees, and beyond my sight. I heard a cry, and then the howl of a wild beast, though whether that sound was from the stranger, in his wild state, or from something else, I could never tell. When I rushed after him, he was gone. I traced his steps in the snow, but could find no sign of him in the woods, only long scratches in the trees around where he had been lost.

I gathered up my belongings, leaving many items at the camp in my haste to be gone. I ran wildly in any direction until my heart punched against my chest and I had to stop to gasp for air. As my breath returned in cold gulps, the sharp sting of cold air in my lungs brought me to my senses. In my calmer state, I went through the events of last night and made sense of much of what had happened. The tree scratches I had seen were clearly a trail blazed by past travelers to find their way back, by the traditional means of marking a tree with your axe. The stranger, after all, probably had belonged to some party of climbers. Climbers never travel alone.

I became regretful at my cowardice at running away. As I picked through my remaining belongings, I saw that in my haste, I had left behind the majority of my food. I grew indignant that my fear had induced me to abandon so much of what was mine. I had allowed myself to be terrorized by some stranger that had, somehow, taken on the form of my own face. I was struck by an unshakable idea that I must get back my face from this man, or be lost forever, running in fear from what I had seen. I would not return to my wife, a lesser man than I had been, but I would return home a taller man than before.

I eventually discerned, some distance away, that the snow had been disturbed by something traveling across its surface, leaving a mark across its smooth skin. On closer inspection, I found shoe tracks traveling north, towards the mountains; these were the tracks, I surmised, of this stranger. I was determined to follow them, to reach some conclusion of this strange ordeal. I resolved to be the hunter, not the hunted, across this great land, and conquer this terrible thing that had intruded upon my peace.

As time went on, the space between each footprint grew longer and longer as the stranger traveled, as if he had been striding in impossibly long bounds. After time the footprints started to become startlingly far apart from each other, at impossible lengths. I followed them, seeing that the prints became bloody as if he had worn out his shoes and ran on his bare feet to the point of drawing blood. Good, that would make him easier to track. Then, another set of prints started to appear alongside his, or in place of his—it was hard to tell. They appeared to be some kind of hoof-prints, like the feet of a moose but only in sets of two, as if a large-hoofed creature had run on its hind legs behind, or in front of, the man. The man’s footprints finally disappeared, as if he had been taken up by this large beast, and the beast’s prints carried on, bounding up the mountainside, like the hoofs of a large goat.

I knew I should turn around. Go back. But I was driven on by the urge to get my own face back. No, not just that, but to reach the mountain top. As if I had taken on my strange visitor’s obsession with conquering the mountain, I could not leave without solving this mystery of what this man had seen to drive him so wild.

As I climbed further up the mountain, the air seemed fresher. I was able to climb faster, leap higher. I could smell the scents more clearly up here. I could smell the moss underneath the snow. I could hear the heartbeats of the goats hiding in the rocks. I could hear the sound of the wind, that seemed to call my name, goading me onward.

I discarded my boots, I didn’t need them here, the snow here did not hurt my feet. Even when they began to bleed, I could feel nothing but a gnawing hunger that only resolution to this hunt could fill. The hoof prints drew me on, always one step ahead of my own. I ran on, knowing eventually, if I ran fast enough, I could catch up with this thing that I sought.

As I reached the final precipice of the mountain I could see the bodies of mountain goats frozen in the ice. My hungry stomach pleaded that I stop and eat, but I sped on. Their faces stared at me blankly as I bounded on. I would not freeze in this cold through all of my fur.

I scaled the last heights in one bound, falling on the ice in an ungainly flop, onto the top precipice. Here I saw at last the creature that I had been seeking, amidst the growing fog. I almost backed away and fell down the mountain in my awe. Here was a large, horned creature. Hoofed and upright like a faun. Furred like a moose but with a face so drawn and angry it looked like the devil itself. He turned to look at me—recognized me with its grey dead eyes, and I felt the hunger in my stomach turn to knots.

I heard a woman screaming beneath me, and looked down into my hands to see the face of my wife staring up at me, my hands on either side of her head. Blood poured from her ears as I crushed my hands together.

“What are you doing?” she screamed, and I realized that somehow I was back home, in the warmth of our kitchen, but I was still cold, and ravenous.

I looked at her lovingly, and hungrily.

“What are you doing?” she said again.

“I have been running for so long,” I told her gently, as I began to show her what that meant… to see the Wendigo.

pencilKaren lives in London, UK. She has written short horror stories for anthologies, and published a book of short stories, It’s Dark Inside, under the pen name Karen Heard. Karen also writes and directs fringe theater, and is working on a TV pilot. She is always open to discuss collaboration ideas or writing projects. Email: karendsheard[at]gmail.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

The Shave

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Emma Williamson


Photo Credit: Chris Michaels/Flickr (CC-by)

Quarantine ends tonight, and my husband has decided to celebrate by shaving his beard.

I watch as he sits on a folding chair underneath the old oak tree, balances the shaving supplies on his lap. His thick, full beard gleams reddish brown in the rich afternoon light.

Our three acres grew unchecked during the year of quarantine. Sprawling wild rose bushes climb the sugar maple; untended grass and shrubbery tangle in the field. The overgrown copse of cedar to the east shimmers in the August heat. And up high in the branches over my husband’s head is the papery husk of a wasps’ nest that I was supposed to destroy, swaying gently in the breeze.

I frown, hoping he’ll sense my distress. Tell me he’s changed his mind about the beard.

Instead he stares at himself in the tiny hand mirror. He pulls at his beard, sets his jaw. Turns his head this way and that.

“Just tell me why,” I say.

He angles the mirror with one hand, maneuvers the scissors with the other. Hacking away at his beard, a sound like so many whispering blades.

“It’s itchy,” he says.

He rubs his chin as if to prove it to me.

“But you know how much I love it.”

A breeze ripples the foliage, tall grass brushing my bare legs. My arms prickle with the sun’s heat.

“I just want to,” he says finally.

“You just want to.”

He splashes his face with water from the plastic bowl.

“Yeah, I just do. Okay?”

He pumps shaving gel into one palm and rubs his hands together to get a thick lather. Then pats down the remaining bristles.

“Look, Anna. The pandemic is over. We start work in a couple of days. Everything is going to go back to normal.”

“So?”

“So,” he says, “I can’t fucking stand this beard anymore. I want it gone before I go back to the office.”

I press my lips together, thinking of my own return to work.

The drive: forty minutes in my aging Toyota Camry, travel mug of coffee beside me. Talk radio blasting opinions on how the government fucked up its response to the pandemic. The death toll. What to do with all the bodies.

The office: dull cinderblock walls and fluorescent lighting that make my fine lines look like trenches. Tupperware of soggy greens and cherry tomatoes, a listless chicken breast.

And the people: Karen and Maude, constantly asking me why I’m not pregnant yet, and James, my lecherous boss, his eyes sliding neatly to my breasts. Irate customers beaming their misery directly through my headset into my brain.

And I can’t forget the other banal details of living. Obligatory pedicures during sandal weather, monthly trims and root touch-ups. Scrolling through the endless glossy posturing of social media. The bright beep of each grocery item as it moves from the conveyor belt into my cloth sack.

The rest of my life.

“Where’s the razor?”

“What?”

“The razor,” he says. As though I don’t know what a razor is.

“I’m sorry, I forgot.”

I can feel his eyes burning into my back as I walk through the yard toward the house, tall wild grass tickling my forearms.

Sunlight flashes on the upper windows as I reach the back deck, like the house is blinking its glassy eyes. I’ll miss the way our home comes alive with light as the day unfolds.

Then I imagine it—the house—waiting for me to return from my cubicle every day. Like a barren womb, empty and useless. Waiting to be filled with life.

*

Inside the house is thick with hot, stale air, the loamy scent of earth and foliage. I’ve stopped caring, but it’s impossible to ignore. With a day of air conditioning and a wipe-down with lemon pledge, maybe it’ll go away.

The razor is in the medicine cabinet, as expected. A straight razor, gleaming in the daylight filtering through the bathroom blinds. The drugstore sold out of the plastic ones early on. This is all we have.

I unfold it and press the blade to my finger, watch a thin line of blood seep out. I’m not sure how the razor is this sharp when he hasn’t used it in months. He might cut himself.

That might not be a bad thing. Maybe it would force him to reconsider the shave.

I find myself opening the vanity drawer, where last year’s used pregnancy tests sit. Row after row, all negative.

That’s when he’d started working late. Looking at me as though I didn’t exist.

I close my eyes, watching as his long, achingly romantic text message history with the other woman unfurls behind my eyelids from memory. It still hurts, all these months later.

But I know it’s all over now.

After all, she’s dead.

She was one of the first to die, bringing back the disease from a girls’ weekend in Miami. I read about it on Facebook. There wasn’t even a funeral because gatherings were banned at the time.

I never told him about her death. I assume he knew, though. Shortly after the woman’s mother posted her obituary, my husband went completely blank. He didn’t eat. Barely slept. Once I heard him sobbing in the shower.

I waited for him to get better with the patience and commitment that only a wife can provide. I continued snapping the tomatoes off the vine and chopping them for the salad and barbequing the fish he’d caught and smiling and stroking his beard and massaging his neck. Eventually we started having sex again and I forgot all about her.

Other than wondering where her body would be stored until the morgues re-opened.

I squeeze the blood from my finger, watch it drip into the sink and slide slowly down the drain.

I remember his beard from the early days. When we first started dating. The pleasant roughness when he kissed me, my lips raw and aching afterwards. Its scrape against my skin when he moved down my body, pleasure throbbing at the edge of pain.

When his scruff started growing a few weeks into quarantine, I swallowed my excitement. My husband breaks anything I love too much. Better not to mention it at all. But I longed for that beard under my fingertips. In bed, I gripped it in one hand, pulling him in. Eyes closed, so he wouldn’t see how greedy I was. How much I needed him.

*

My husband strokes the razor down his face as I hold the mirror. I gulp the swampy air, trying to dispel the pressure building in my chest.

There are so many lasts.

This is the last day I’ll wear that old embroidered caftan from my college days. The one he hates me wearing in public.

The last day I’ll let my hair dry into wild, beachy waves.

My tan will fade.

There will be no more long, leisurely suppers by candlelight. No more fish from the river, no more evening games of Scrabble. No more silence.

He’s already disappearing from me, bit by bit.

The power’s supposed to be up and running by tonight. By tomorrow morning we’ll hear the hum of the combines from the neighbour’s field, distant strains of morning traffic from the highway. Our charged phones will bleat with text messages sent months ago. Grass will be mowed. Stores will open.

I’m teetering on the precipice of a world that I will never be able to escape.

“What do you think?”

I snap to. It’s worse than I expected.

I’m staring at a stranger. His cheeks are gaunt and sunken, his brow more pronounced without the balancing effect of his beard. All these months of eating no processed food, of hiking and fishing. He’s lost weight, maybe ten pounds.

I make a sound somewhere between a laugh and a sob.

“It can’t be that bad,” he says uneasily. “Hard to do it in front of a hand mirror, but I think I did a good job.”

This was the face she saw. She looked into this shorn face and she pressed her hands to these bare cheeks. And that smooth, hairless chin pressed between her legs as he fed upon her.

You see me like no one else does, he had written to the other woman.

Was that true?

I’ve always wanted to ask him that. Is that true, what you wrote?

“You missed a spot,” I say, pointing to his throat. It’s a tiny patch, no bigger than a quarter.

“Aw, shit. Really?” He moves to feel it.

“No, don’t touch it, it looks sensitive.”

“Ok, can you hand me the mirror?” He sits down, motioning to the tray.

“I’ll do it for you,” I hear myself say.

“Thanks, babe,” he says.

He sits back down, and I stand before him. He hands me the straight razor. It sits heavy in my palm, the metal warm from his touch.

A wasp investigates, possibly drawn by the shaving cream’s cloying scent. The cream has melted into the bowl of water, leaving a scummy sheen on its surface, but the smell still hangs in the air. Or maybe it’s us, our bodies ripe with sweat. The insect buzzes lazily around my husband’s head. He swats at it aggressively.

“You’re making it angry,” I say.

“I thought you said you got them all,” he says nervously. “Do you have my epi-pen?”

“It’s in my pocket,” I lie.

“Can I have it?”

“Hold still.”

I pat water on his neck, watching as his jugular pumps blood steadily, wondrously. I prod his springy flesh. I marvel again at the fact that we didn’t get sick, that we are still here. So fully alive.

“Well, come on,” he says. “What are you waiting for?”

I swallow. “I just want to make sure I do this right.”

“It’s not rocket science, for fuck’s sake.”

My fingers itch to feel it again, that bristly tuft of hair. What I’ve held onto all these months of quarantine.

I press the razor to his skin, trying to get the angle right. And I see myself—like I’ve skipped a few slides ahead in the film reel of my life—plunging the razor deep, watching the blood spurt from his clean-shaven neck.

His eyes are huge, terrified. His fingers paw at his throat, slippery with blood. His mouth opens in a strange sort of grimace. The metallic smell of his blood mixes with the heady floral scent of the yard.

I could do it. It’d be easy. He trusts me. Perhaps then he would understand how important the beard was, how much it mattered.

He raises his eyebrows, gesticulates. As if to say I should get on with it.

“This is the problem with you, Anna,” he says. “You take forever to do anything.”

I stare back. I don’t know why, but I’m thinking about the Polaroid tucked into a picture frame by our bed. My husband and I on our wedding day, framed by a silky-looking Jamaican beach. I wear a pure white slip dress, hair loose; he’s in khakis and a white collared shirt. It’s always bothered me, that photograph. His smile is wide, earnest, his cheeks pinked with sun. To any casual observer, he looks happy.

But if you look closer, you can see it.

His body, his hips, are angled slightly away from me.

The razor trembles in my fingers. His artery pumps. I am standing outside of myself, looking down at him. I’m floating, fading away. The sun moves from behind a cloud, drenching my body with light.

I see my long wave of hair, the light cotton caftan skimming my knees.

I see my hand held to his throat.

And I watch as the wasp circles him, me, us, its buzzing violent and electric, like the thrumming of my heart. Almost as though it’s deliberating which one of us should kill him first.

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Emma Williamson is a Canadian lawyer turned emerging poet and fiction writer. She is a graduate of Queen’s University, the University of Toronto School of Law, and the Humber School for Writers. Emma is working on a novel and several short stories, and was recently long-listed for Canada’s prestigious Alice Munro Short Story Prize. Emma lives in Toronto with her husband and son.

Morning Run

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Justine Gardner


Photo Credit: Corey Butler/Flickr (CC-by)

The fragrant main dish lies steaming on the restaurant table: a cat, whole and deep-fried, and still alive. It purrs when she pokes its crackling skin with the knife—

Something nudges her, leaving a moist slick to cool on her chin. She rises out of the dream, gasping, fingers in her cat’s fur. Listens to its purrs. Her husband’s congested snores that move his body, the bed, with every inhalation. She counts the seconds between his breaths, measuring his need for oxygen. Her watch says it is five-thirty. A glance at the monitor shows the baby smooth with sleep.

She gets up. She pads to the bathroom, then the kitchen, feeds the cat before taking her own half-cup of thin coffee. Her ten almonds, the bite of dried fruit. The jar of apricots is nearly empty. The snip of sky out the kitchen window is dark, but tinged with the early glow of sunrise.

She pulls on leggings, a tank top, straps on her phone. She slips out the apartment door, easing it closed behind her. The hall is ripe with the smell of the overflowing trash closet. The super has been sick, she heard. She hasn’t seen him since last week. Or is it the week before? She can’t quite remember the last time she spoke to a neighbor. The last time she heard the children crying from 6D.

She adjusts her mask, her hands already in their latex gloves, and takes the stairs. Fifth, fourth floors quiet, the lights out on both landings, the bulbs smashed. On the third floor, she smells fried fish through her mask and she thinks of that purring, crusted cat from her dream, feels the sour sip of coffee at the back of her throat. On the first floor there is a man sprawled in the stairwell, mask half slipped from his face, a bottle of vodka spilled from his hand. She does not recognize him as she steps over his prone body—but then there are so many people in the building it is hard to know for sure. He could be a stranger off the street; it wouldn’t be the first time.

She walks briskly through the lobby, pushing open the glass doors with her elbow. The air feels lighter outside; it moves with a slight breeze. The streetlamps are bright against the indigo sky. She breathes, as deeply as she can through the mask, feeling it tighten against her face and then bowing out on the exhale. She smells her coffee breath. And then under that, the rich, moist stink from the garbage bags piled at the base of the thin street tree. Soon, she thinks, there will be a wall of trash. A rat burrows through one bag, looks at her as she looks at the trash and then digs back in, stringy tail the last thing she sees.

She starts to run, slowly at first, letting her muscles warm themselves. She is sweating already. At dawn the air is cooler but it is still August, it is still eighty degrees at six a.m. She runs, faster now, catching sight of the park, the park she cannot enter—not since June—so she will run alongside the stone walls, imagining herself within.

Leaves crunch underfoot, making her think for a moment of that crackle of fried skin, the purring cat. She keeps running, her pace growing comfortable, her legs feeling their place in the usual rhythm. She adjusts the face covering, keeps it from sliding too far forward, although part of her wants to let it slide all the way, untie it, and throw it in the gutter with the bags of spilled trash and let the heavy August air encase her. Maybe she’ll take off her gloves, her clothes one piece at a time as she runs, dropping each item on the curb, her crumb trail home, until she is naked and sweating, pores open, ready to absorb everything around her.

She keeps running, the mask in place, counting off the red posters set intermittently on the park’s low walls. She can read only a bit as she passes each one, but she knows what they say: Closed until further—by order of—the Department of Health—and Mental Hygiene—Do not enter—Penalty can include a fine and—or arrest.

She doesn’t want the fine, or to be arrested, although that last part she knows is a lie—the jails were emptied out months ago and not by an order from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. As for the fine, they would have to catch her to give it.

She smiles, considers this as she runs, approaching the nearest entrance. There is no way to seal it, not completely. A police car will be stationed there, waiting to stop anyone trying to slip through with their dog, their toddler, their bottle of vodka.

But there is no one at the entrance—no police car, no soldiers. The barricades are open slightly as though someone pushed against them, sliding in. She pauses, looks left, right. The streets are empty. She wonders: has she seen anyone at all? Not a single car driving down the avenue, not one siren heard crying in the distance.

She slips between the barricades and runs, faster now, across the main road toward the glinting flash of lake. How long has it been? Three months? She can’t remember. She can’t think of the last time she went this far from their apartment—this far alone, even. But now that she is here, inside the park, she feels something brighten within her, wake up. She runs, enjoying the pound of her feet against the pavement as she nears the water.

The lake is still, and barren. Where are the geese? The birds? And then she remembers: they’d been removed by the same force behind the red posters. Known and probable vectors. She runs faster, the mask slicked to her face with sweat, her throat dry. Still, she runs. Who knows when she can do this again? Who knows if they will catch her, return her to the apartment, to her sick husband, her baby, her—

A cat streaks past on the path, a wiggling kitten in its mouth. She jumps, startled, and stops, panting, hands on her thighs. She watches the cat dip into the brush and vanish from sight. A cat is alive. A cat is alive in this park where the birds are all dead and the humans forbidden.

She starts running again, around the edge and down the steep hill. She catches a smell through her mask, something deep and chemically sweet. There is a fog rolling at the base of the hill, the sound of a motor; she sees a truck’s shape through the cloud. She stops. Backs up, watches the slow progression of the gray vapor as it seeps up the hill, creeping toward her. She turns back the way she came, running now, the mask slipping from her face. She pulls it up, holds it to her nose, her throat burning with that sweet, too sweet smell.

She crosses the road, races out the park entrance and crashes into the armored chest of a soldier.

“What are you doing here?” the soldier yells through their gas mask, eyes wide behind their goggles. “Didn’t you get the order—” They clip something at their collar. “We have a civilian at the east gate—”

She runs, faster than she has ever run before, her legs flying over the concrete. She runs and runs until she is at her building and up the stairs, panting and coughing her way over the body of the man and his vodka, up and up and up until she is at her front door, pawing for her keys in her pocket. She sheds her clothes on the doormat, there in the hall, leaving everything, even her underwear, her sports bra in a heap, and slams the door behind her.

It is a long time before she can breathe normally again. Ten minutes? Twenty? She leans her bare skin against the wall, feeling the searing in her chest, her trachea sandpapered and salted. Finally, she takes in air, a gulp, then another. But the smell is on her, that sweet, sweet smell.

She lurches toward the bathroom and runs the shower, standing under water that is too cold, scratching at her skin with the thin piece of soap.

She emerges, eventually, wrapped in a towel, shivering in the air-conditioning, her throat burning. She enters the bedroom, her husband just sitting up, looking at her with sticky eyes.

He points to the window, toward the tips of the park trees they can just make out over the roof of the building opposite. They are glowing, gold, orange—they’re burning.

She sits down on the bed next to him, watching the flickering, the rising smoke. He coughs, and leans against her. She puts her arms around him, kisses his cool forehead. Behind her the baby cries out on the monitor.

She thinks of the cat, the kitten it carried. She wonders if it knew before she did that it was time to run.

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Justine Gardner is a former dog trainer, past pizzeria proprietor, and current freelance editor and writer. She was born, reared, and still resides in Brooklyn, NY, along with her husband, young son, and two cats. Her story “Nature Will Provide” was a finalist in Regulus Press’s 2018 Literary Taxidermy Competition and published in the contest anthology, Telephone Me Now. Her story “Blood, Bone, Feather” appears in Issue 51 of the quarterly NewMyths. Follow her on Twitter @JBGrumpstone. Pronouns: she/her. Email: justine.gardner[at]gmail.com

Staring At The Sky

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
C.A. Rowland


Photo Credit: John Brighenti/Flickr (CC-by)

Sarah’s gaze was drawn to movement outside the window. Dawn had broken, but there were still more shadows than light among the oak trees that were beginning to fill out their branches with delicate light green leaves.

She’d looked up from the sewing machine where she was adding the last stitches to a face mask. A child-size face mask of bright colors of oranges, yellows, and greens, which she hoped would help banish some of the fears and illness that had swept through Virginia, as well as the rest of the world.

What Sarah had seen outside was more substantial than the waving of a branch when a bluebird launches itself into the air. A spotted brown deer maybe, since they wandered early in the morning hours, seeking out the moist leaves of the deep green hostas that had burst through the soil to reach for the summer sun.

As she watched the trees and shrubs, nothing else moved. She hadn’t yet opened the window after locking it for the night since her nearest neighbor was half a mile away. Still, she should have been able to hear a few birds singing in the new morning.

She brushed off the feeling of unease, attributing the movement to the shadow of a large bird soaring about the treetops, which were twice the height of the three-bedroom house she lived in. Sarah got up and moved to the window, wondering if maybe Al had been right about curtains.

He hadn’t cared that they were surrounded by woods or a hundred yards from the county road, he wanted windows with coverings. To reduce their utility bills, he’d said. She’d removed them shortly after he died, but she now realized that anyone could see inside if they wandered the property. See her and that she was alone, four years now and counting since he’d passed.

With each minute, the light filtering in through the dark bark of the pine and oak trees strengthened until it warmed and cheered her, chasing away any thought of what might have been there. She moved back to the sewing machine and the rhythmic hum of the needle moving up and down, piercing the fabric and then pulling out, lulling her into calmness.

Sarah looked up, her aching back and the growing stack of face masks, letting her know it must be close to noon. As with all her quilting circle friends that were home sewing as well, she’d stocked up on food for the next two weeks. She was well inside the virus’s target zone of those over sixty-five, although she had no underlying conditions that the virus might use to weaken her system. A ham and cheese sandwich with a few chips was on the menu today.

Sarah moved to the kitchen, where she busied herself. Over the sink, a small square window looked out over the backyard and the rust-red stained deck. She and Al had searched for several months for a green aluminum table and rocking chairs that would blend into the surroundings. They’d spent many a summer evening outside around that table.

As she turned back to the sink, her arms filled with the lunch makings, she looked out, her mouth dropped open, and she jumped, spilling everything from her arms to the floor. For just a quick second, Sarah had thought Al was sitting here. Much as he’d done when he was alive, basking in the sunlight while drinking a cold glass of tea.

The man sitting there was not Al. He was skinny like Al but seemed bonier, almost like a drug addict or someone deep in the throes of the last stages of cancer or other disease. His head was turned toward the forest behind the house, with a beige cowboy hat shielding him from the growing heat of the day.

His camouflage backpack sat beside him, leaned up against his blue jean-clad legs. He seemed relaxed.

What the hell was he doing there? Would he leave on his own, or would she have to run him off, or maybe call the police?

Who was he? A drifter?

Sarah remembered her grandma telling her stories of the Depression. If there was anything Granny knew how to do, it was stretch a meal. Six kids and an alcoholic husband who didn’t always have work, she pinched pennies. She also had an open back door for those down on her luck.

With three growing boys, she’d had no worry about any stranger getting out of line back then. Most had just been grateful to partially fill their bellies and move along. Was that what Sarah faced now? Someone just down on their luck as the pandemic fears caused businesses to close and workers to lose their jobs or worse?

The man seemed cleaner than Sarah expected. If he had no home, it hadn’t been for long, or he had a few resources to call on.

Times had changed. Last year, a man had been seen wandering the woods behind several houses after he lost his home to foreclosure. There’d been break-ins before he was caught. That was when Sarah began sleeping with the pistol underneath Al’s pillow.

Sarah hugged herself. She’d been raised by Granny to help those in need. Was this her time to step up, or would going outside to confront this man be foolish? She wished Al was here. He’d know what to do. No doubt he’d step outside and talk man to man with the person.

Could she live with herself if she failed to act? She might never know if one gesture from her might make a difference. Or would he just leave?

Sarah looked around. Safe in her house. Making face masks for unseen recipients—safe from the disease ravaging the country. Safe. Safe. Safe.

What would her mother do?

She’d been a child of the Depression, and it had had an impact. Her mother saved every penny and spent as little as possible.

But her Granny—there was no doubt that she’d lend a hand if she could. She wasn’t stupid or careless, but she never turned down those in need, even when it meant she went without.

Sarah had always hoped she’d be like her. Now, she had the choice to step up or not.

She watched the man for another couple of minutes. Then she picked up the food she’d dropped, stalling as she struggled with the decision.

Sarah turned and headed down the hall to the master bedroom. This room had no curtains on the windows either. She grabbed some jeans and a long sleeve shirt to replace her thin t-shirt and shorts.

The closet was the only room that didn’t have a window, so she changed there.

Exiting, she stared at the bed for a moment before she moved to Al’s side. She stared at the pillow.

She’d never liked guns. She’d never wanted to own one.

Al had insisted when they bought the house. Too many animals around that could be a threat. Plus, their neighbors were even further away back then. Al wanted her to be able to handle any situation. Now she was glad she’d been to the range to shoot. She still hated the idea of killing anything, but she was on her own and wanted to think she could protect herself.

She removed the gun. Checking that the safety was on, she tucked inside her jeans in the center of her back, the cool metal sending chills up her spine. She pulled the shirt tail over the top of her jeans. She might not be able to get it out as quickly as she needed, but Sarah was still quick for being sixty-eight years old, and she could run if she needed to.

Sarah headed back down the hall and out her back door onto the deck. She closed the door with a click so that the man would hear her coming. Sounds carried in this area of the county.

She took a few steps forward and approached him from the other side of the table. Keeping her distance, both for safety and because the last thing she needed was to be so close to someone, she could catch the virus.

“Can I help you?” Sarah asked.

The man’s movements were slow as if he was aware that she was being careful. He turned and lifted his head to stare at her.

“No, ma’am. Just stopped to rest my feet a while. I’ve been traveling some through the night. Didn’t mean to bother you.”

Sarah wasn’t sure whether she could trust that. At the very least, he was polite, although knocking on her door to ask permission would have been the ordinary courtesy.

“That’s fine,” Sarah said. “You from around here?”

“Was.”

That wasn’t so helpful.

“Planning to move on?”

“Sure.”

The man reached down to pick up his backpack. He looked back up at Sarah as if to ask her if she meant right now. His stomach growled.

“Have you had anything to eat today? I was about to make myself a sandwich. Making two is no trouble.”

“I’d appreciate that, ma’am.”

“I’m Sarah. I’ll be right back.”

Sarah turned to walk back to the kitchen, her nerves on edge. This was her most vulnerable time with her back to him.

“They call me Leon.”

She smiled, and her shoulders relaxed a bit. Names were important to know.

In the kitchen, Sarah quickly made two ham and Swiss cheese sandwiches. Each went on a paper plate with some potato chips. She grabbed a bottle of water for him as she took the plate out to Leon.

Still careful, she laid the plate on the table with the water and stepped back.

“Thanks.”

“If you don’t mind my saying so, this seems like a bad time to be traveling,” Sarah said.

Leon reached across the table and dragged the plate so that it was in front of him. He lifted the water and took a long drink.

“That sure tastes good.”

Leon took a bite of the sandwich.

Sarah waited. Her Al had been like this. Slow to answer and precise in what he said. He’d loved to tell a story, but you had to get him talking first and in his own time.

“Had a room in a house down the county road. I’m a day laborer, and the work dried up. She and her husband had lost their jobs, and they were barely able to put food on the table for the family.”

Sarah frowned. She knew times were terrible, but the folks who were her neighbors wouldn’t usually put someone out when everyone was struggling. Still, she could detect no guile in his manner.

“Sit as long as you like. There’s water from the spigot on this side of the house, from the well, so it’s fresh and cold.”

Leon nodded and took another bite.

Sarah turned and headed back in the house, placing her feet carefully, her back rigid with some tension still left.

Inside, she ate her sandwich standing up at the kitchen window.

She watched Leon finish his food and drink the last of the water. He set the bottle on the paper plate and stared off into the woods.

Sarah made sure the kitchen door was locked and headed back to sew.

A few hours later, she headed to the kitchen. She had some left-over chicken salad she’d planned to eat for her supper.

She checked the deck. Leon was still sitting there. She sighed. She’d hoped he’d have left so she didn’t have to face him again.

A man down on his luck. She’d seen a few in her lifetime. Al had brought a few home to work around the house, helping him with projects that were more than one man could do. Sarah had fed them all. She could do no less now.

She filled two paper plates with the salad and grabbed another water bottle. Sarah headed outside.

“I was fixing myself some supper. I expect you’re hungry as well, so I fixed a plate.”

Leon turned toward her and smiled. It didn’t quite reach his eyes, but it seemed genuine enough.

“Ma’am, thank you. It’s been a few days since I’ve had more than one meal.”

“You’re welcome. You mentioned you’d be moving on.”

“I will. I’m wondering if you’d mind if I spent the night on the deck. I’d be no bother. It just beats being in the woods.”

Sarah swallowed hard. She’d hoped her hint would mean he’d move along.

What could it hurt?

“I guess that’d be all right.”

Leon nodded and began to eat. Sarah picked up the lunch plate and water bottle. There were only crumbs on it, but feral cats, raccoons, and foxes might be drawn by the smell of food. She’d be back for the supper plate once Leon had finished eating. No sense asking for trouble.

Back in the kitchen, Sarah realized that if Leon attacked her or tried to steal from her, no one would know about it. She headed to her sewing room, where her phone was beside the machine.

She texted her best friend, Linda.

Sarah: A man stopped at the house today. I’ve fed him. He is sleeping outside on the deck tonight.

Linda: What? Who is he? Are you safe?

Sarah: I think he’s harmless and down on his luck. I’ll call you in the morning. But if I don’t call, call me just to make sure nothing’s wrong. If you don’t reach me, call 911.

Linda: I don’t like this. Should I come over and stay? Should I send Jeffrey?

Jeffrey was her neighbor. He was ten years older than both of them, and a turtle would win in a race with him. But he was a good man who’d do anything for Linda.

Sarah: No. Just being careful. Doubt anything will happen.

Linda: I’ll be calling at 7.

Sarah laughed as she put the phone down. Just a few texts and she felt better already. Someone would be checking on her if they didn’t hear from her. Not entirely safe but a bit of net, just in case.

Back in the kitchen, Sarah looked at the window and saw Leon had finished his meal. She went outside and picked up the plate.

“Need anything?” she asked.

“No, ma’am. I’ll just bed down here for the night. Gonna be a clear sky with stars. Better than any T.V. show.”

“All right then.”

Sarah headed back inside and locked the door. She checked all the windows and doors to make sure all were secured and walked to her bedroom.

She knew most of the sounds that the house made, but she quickly realized any noise was going to keep her awake. She turned on her book reader and scrolled through the unread novels. She needed something light, so mysteries and suspense were out. A soft light on the other side of the room was on, and she decided to leave it that way. She’d slept with it on before, and she’d do that now.

In the end, Sarah found an old favorite classic and began to read.

*

For the next three days, Sarah and Leon kept up the routine. She fed him lunch and supper each day. He sat on the deck during the mornings.

In the afternoons, he’d wander the property. He had a few pruning tools in his backpack, and she saw that he understood plants. A clip here and a clip there.

Sarah understood. Just like Al and a lot of the men she had known over the years. Unwilling to take a handout unless they found a way to pay their way. Leon was paying her for the food in the only way he could.

Every morning and evening, Sarah checked in with Linda.

Each day, Sarah got her mail and ran an errand or two, which took her away from the house. She checked to make sure the doors were all locked, and that nothing had changed each time she returned.

Linda: When is he leaving?

Sarah: Don’t know.

Linda: I don’t like this. I’m going to come over with Jeffrey so he knows you aren’t alone.

Sarah: No. I’m fine. I’ll ask him to move on.

Linda: Tell me when you do that.

Sarah headed out at lunchtime with a hamburger and chips.

“Seems like someone might be missing you. Don’t you think you should be contacting them or going to see them?”

Leon looked up at her from under the brow of his hat. He shook his head.

“No. Nobody to contact. But sounds like I need to be moving on. Tomorrow okay with you? Looks like its gonna rain.”

“That would be fine. I have a tent in the garage. Why don’t I get that out for you? You can use that to keep some of the wet off you?”

Leon smiled.

“That would be very kind of you.”

Sarah headed back inside, kicking herself for making the offer. She knew almost nothing about this man. He’d probably spent many a night in the rain throughout his life. Why on earth did she say that?

Because she liked him. In Leon, she saw what she’d loved in Al—the slow movements, his respect for her, and his paying her for what she was doing for him.

Sarah realized she was sad and a bit lonely, but not so lonely as to do something stupid like bringing him into the house.

In the garage, Sarah located the camping tent and a sleeping bag. Al had been an organizer, and she’d left it all where he’d carefully placed things. The tent and bag were dusty from being left in storage, and she shook them both, the polyester bright blue waving like flags in the wind.

When she took out the supper meal, she made a second trip with the camping gear.

“You can put this up in the grass if you’d like. Anywhere back here is fine.”

“I’ll do that shortly. Maybe by the garage so that the house breaks the wind.”

“That would be fine.”

Sarah pulled out a rocker and sat down.

Leon looked over at her.

“I come out most nights to watch the sunset. Thought I’d join you if you don’t mind.”

“No, ma’am. I didn’t realize I’d kept you from seeing the sky.”

“I don’t always do it, but with the storm blowing in, I thought I’d sit a few minutes.”

Leon went on eating.

Sarah realized it was peaceful, partly because she knew this was the lull before the rain and wind would arrive.

In the end, she got up and picked up the plate.

“Good night, Leon.”

“Good night, Sarah.”

Sarah closed the kitchen door and locked it. She headed down the hall to her bedroom, which shared a wall with the garage.

Sarah: I’m headed to bed. Leon is leaving in the morning.

Linda: I’m relieved. Text me when he leaves.

Sarah: Will do.

A few minutes later, she heard Leon pounding the stakes into the ground to hold the tent in place for the night.

She found her book reader and clicked it open to the novel she was reading. She’d always had trouble sleeping during storms.

Sarah sat up straight in bed, realizing she must have dozed off. Her reader was dark, but the light across the room was still on.

“Dammit, get off me. You bastard, I’m gonna kill you.”

It was as if the shouted words were inside the room. Sarah realized that they were coming outside the walls.

A man screamed.

Leon.

Sarah was up, grabbing yesterday’s jeans and shirt.

Pulling them over her flimsy gown.

She jerked the pistol out from under the pillow.

Jamming her feet in shoes, she ran down the hall.

Grabbing her phone.

Through the kitchen she ran, hitting the light switch that turned on all the outside lights.

Down the pathway to the garage area.

Around the corner of the house.

Sarah could see the tent was askew. As if something had attacked it.

The wind?

No.

Leon was on the ground outside, with two of the largest raccoons she’d ever seen around him.

They snarled, and he was fighting them off.

Sarah clicked off the safety and shot the gun in the air.

“Out. Get out,” she yelled.

Four sets of gleaming eyes turned to look at her. Then they turned back to Leon.

Sarah could see scratches on his arm where they had gone after him. The pants on one leg looked to have a large wet spot—from the rain or something worse.

Sarah moved so that she could shoot away from Leon.

She aimed and fired near one of the animal’s legs.

The ground poofed where the bullet hit.

She aimed again.

Fired.

The raccoons ran.

Sarah fired again—behind them but making sure they didn’t return.

She hurried to Leon’s side, leaning down to check for wounds

“Where are you hurt?”

Leon moaned and leaned back on the ground, his arm over his eyes.

“Those damned raccoons scratched my arm and leg. One bit me. Shit, that hurts.”

“You need a doctor. I’m calling 9-1-1.”

“No.”

Leon almost screamed the word, and Sarah fell backward.

“What?”

“They’ll take me to the hospital. They’ve got the virus there. I’ll die if I go there.”

Sarah had heard there were such fears. Linda knew someone who had a relative die because they wouldn’t seek treatment.

“You need bandages. I’ll be back.”

“No ambulance. You hear me?”

Sarah ignored the words. She’d already risen and was hitting typing the numbers on her phone.

In the kitchen, Sarah pulled out dishtowels and some plastic gloves. She headed to her sewing room, grabbed scissors and an old bedsheet she used as a foundation for quilt blocks.

As the operator answered, Sarah gave her address and told her what had happened. She had hung up before she was back out through the kitchen door. Leon was getting help whether he wanted it or not. Raccoons didn’t attack unless they were rabid. He needed a doctor.

Back around the house, Sarah dropped everything on the ground. She pulled the gloves on—the ones she used while washing dishes. Not ideal, but they’d have to work.

Sarah cut the bed sheet into strips. Leon had lowered his arm and was watching her.

“Your arm is bleeding. I’m going to put a towel over it and tie it off. I’m going to need your help.”

Leon nodded.

Sarah folded the red-and-white checked dishtowel and placed it on his arm where the deepest scratch was. Leon held it in place while she tied it off with a strip of the bedsheet.

She moved to his leg. It was by far the worst.

Sarah picked up another dish towel. She stared at it.

“What’s wrong?”

She shook her head.

“Nothing. It’s one my mother embroidered for me.”

Sarah laid on it on the leg. It couldn’t be helped. A man’s life was more important than a keepsake.

She slid a bedsheet strip under his leg and brought it to the top. Tying it off, she moved to his chest and side.

“All of these need to be sterilized and treated. I’m not a nurse. I can only do so much,” Sarah said.

“No doctors.”

Sarah continued to put towels over his wounds and add some pressure to try to stop the bleeding. Leon laid still, his breathing labored from the battle he’d fought, and his eyes closed.

As the first sounds of the ambulance siren rang through the night, Sarah wondered what had brought the raccoons out. She hadn’t seen any signs that they were rabid.

Lights flashed as the ambulance turned into her driveway.

“Dammit. I said no doctors.”

“Raccoons can carry rabies, which is much worse than the virus. I had no choice.”

Leon opened his eyes.

“There’s always a choice.”

“You’re on my property. I’m not willing to let you die or become sick because I didn’t do anything.”

Doors slammed, and two uniformed male attendants hurried over.

“What happened?” a tall, young blond-haired man asked.

Sarah explained the situation.

The second man leaned down and began examining the wounds, pulling up the dishtowels to see below.

“I don’t want to go to the hospital,” Leon said.

“Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you,” the blond-haired man
said.

“No.” Leon took a swing at the dark-haired attendant with the unscratched arm.

The dark-haired man opened his case and pulled out a syringe.

Stuck it in Leon’s arm as he continued to struggle. Then he went limp.

“We’ll be taking him to General Hospital. You can follow us if you want, but with the virus, you won’t be able to come in,” the blond-haired man said. “We can give the hospital your phone number if you want.”

“He’s only passing through. I won’t be going there.”

The two men nodded.

They pulled a stretcher from the back of the ambulance, placed Leon on it, and loaded him inside.

As they pulled away, Sarah wrapped her arms around her waist. She stared at the vehicle until it turned onto the county road and drove away.

She walked back to the house and washed up, throwing the gloves in the trash. What had happened outside while she slept?

Sarah walked back to her bedroom, knowing she’d never get back to sleep. She took a quick shower and sat on the bed, staring at the wall.

A couple of hours later, as the sun streamed in, Sarah changed into her clothes for the day and headed back outside. She took a new pair of gloves, just in case. The tent and sleeping bag would still be there.

As she rounded the corner, she caught her breath. The grass was torn up. The tent had deep tears down one side as if someone had cut it with a knife. Likely the raccoon’s claws. But what were they searching for?

Sarah took a couple of steps closer. Two empty tin cans were at the cloth door of the tent. Leon’s backpack was open, and more tins were inside the tent and in his pack.

What were they doing there? They reeked of days’ old chicken.

Not five feet away was her trash container. Why hadn’t Leon thrown them away?

All her care in making sure no trace of food was left on the deck, and he was storing these cans?

That might have been what drew them. It was like he’d sent out a smell invitation for the animals.

It didn’t matter. He was gone. Sarah needed to clean this up.

She moved to the waste container and threw the top open.

She gathered up the cans, the sleeping bag, and the tent, and tossed them in.

She slammed the cover shut.

Sarah had saved the backpack once she removed the tins. It held other things of Leon’s that he’d likely want, including the pruning tools he’d used on her plants.

Which meant he’d probably be back.

And none too happy with her.

Sarah picked up the backpack and raised it to her nose. Still smelled of food.

She took it inside. The last thing she wanted was to violate his privacy, but it couldn’t be helped. She emptied it and made sure it was washable.

Sarah texted Linda while the backpack churned in the washer.

Sarah: He’s gone. Had a run-in with raccoons and he went to the hospital.

Linda: There’s a story there. Are you okay?

Sarah: Yes. Just sad. He was scared.

Linda: But you couldn’t do anything else.

Sarah: I know. Still feels awful.

Sarah signed off and went to sew. She’d always found that her mind cleared when she sewed. Today, she kept wondering whether Leon would be back, and if so, how angry would he be. She’d decided to put his backpack on the aluminum table on the deck once it was dry. She’d leave it out all day, bringing it in each night.

Sarah didn’t sleep well that night or the next one. Not knowing if Leon would come back angry left her with keeping the light on at night and reaching out at times to make sure the pistol was there under Al’s pillow.

Two days later, Sarah returned from grocery shopping. As she placed her cloth bags on the counter, she glanced out the kitchen window, just as she had several times before.

The backpack was gone. In its place was something white. Sarah headed out the kitchen door.

The white was a dish towel with some light red stains, but it was clean. She turned it over, and a shiver ran up her spine. The towel was embroidered. Leon had returned the towel her mother had made for Sarah.

Sarah looked around, wondering if he might be watching from the woods. She figured she’d never know. What she did know was that Leon had forgiven her for sending him to the hospital. She knew he’d had to travel ten miles to return the towel, as well as he’d taken the time to wash it. No one did that who held a grudge.

She looked up at the sky and smiled. She wasn’t sure she could handle anything or anyone that came her way, but she knew she’d never question meeting a challenge like this again. She could stick to who she was and wanted to be, and be able to meet whatever came from that.

Sarah hoped Leon found his way to another who would help him, a place where he could watch the sky and was safe. That’s what she’d be doing tonight on her deck—watching the stars and the sky.

pencil

C.A. Rowland is a recovering lawyer turned writer. Raised in Texas, she now calls Virginia home—a place of history, folklore and inspiration. She’s published short stories and non-fiction articles and her first amateur sleuth mystery set in Savannah, Georgia, “The Meter’s Always Running,” is being published in June 2020. She has stories in the Fiction River anthologies, Spies and Stolen. You can keep up with Ms. Rowland’s upcoming fiction and travel adventures at carowland.com Email: carolyn94549[at]gmail.com

Small Town Magic

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Jennifer Pantusa


Photo credit: atmtx/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

“When are you going to tell him that you don’t like magic?” Dot questioned as she flipped through the channels. Dot sat, as always, cross-legged on her beloved ottoman.

“I am not sure that is something he ever needs to know.” Maggie and Sam were a new item. Maggie had fallen in love (well, strong like) with Sam for his hangdog expression and, in part, the sheer geekiness of his embrace of legerdemain. She loved rescues, just not the animal variety.

“Why is he in small town Easton if he is trying to get his career going?”

“He is honing his craft.” Maggie replied as she sank into the sofa opposite Dot.

“He is honing something.” Maggie threw a pillow at Dot and dug into the kettle corn that Dot had brought back from the Farmer’s Market.

Maggie and Dot had been roommates for long enough to have been through a few Mr. Rights for both. They were waiting tables in Easton on Maryland’s Eastern Shore at the Kitchen Table, a new restaurant in town. Maggie was taking classes at Chesapeake College for the time being. Sam had joined the circle when he came on as a cook at the Kitchen Table. After watching the news recap, Maggie and Dot got ready for work.

On the way in for the dinner shift, the three wandered into the Gallerie de Folie, one of Easton’s ritzier boutiques. They giggled as Sam re-arranged what appeared to be ceramic Lego people. “Which hand is it under?” he said in traditional magician patter.

The salesperson was not amused. “Kindly do not touch the objets d’art,” she commanded. The three philistines left the store duly chastened, almost not laughing at all as they headed to the Kitchen Table.

“Did you see the price on those? One hundred dollars each! Insane!” Dot remarked.

Colleen had started the Kitchen Table as an homage to home cooking. Easton was a small town full of retired people who love to eat out. It was a good place to launch a business, but could be risky in the long term. The Kitchen Table was a little kitschy—avocado refrigerator laden with magnets and children’s art near the entrance, waitresses in robes and moccasin slippers. Her concept might have sold better with a slightly younger demographic but things were coming along. Thursday nights were meatloaf night—a popular night. Her staff rolled in at 3:30 and started their prep work.

As they worked, Maggie and Sam grinned at each other over the counter separating the actual kitchen from the front of the house. Colleen and Dot rolled their eyes at each other. Colleen went over the specials based on what she had found at the Farmer’s Market that day.

Around 4:30, people started shuffling in. And then more and more. Soon they were in the weeds and the side conversations stopped.

Maggie enjoyed working with most of the customers. She figured the small talk and smiles were good practice for her future as a nurse. Having a fun group to work with made it that much better. A busy night did not just mean extra money; it meant the time rolled by faster.

As the evening wound down, Officer Smith strode into the restaurant. Dot looked up as the door swung open. “Officer Wiggum. How are you today?” Officers were given complimentary coffee to encourage their presence.

“Is that a comment about my superior physique,” Officer Smith said, patting his slight paunch ,”or my superior intellect?” Middle age was starting to soften the edges of Officer Smith, and as tough as it could be on his vanity, he found he liked himself a little better as a person for it. He walked in and helped himself to a cup of coffee at the counter. He chuckled as he added milk from the full gallon of milk from the refrigerator. He smiled at “You guys do really capture the kitchen table experience.”

“We aim to please,” called Colleen from the kitchen.

“What’s new in the law and order business?” Maggie asked.

“Actually, we have a case,” Smith announced.

“In Easton?” said Maggie and Dot in unison.

“Pickpocket at the Farmer’s Market.”

“No way,” Sam said, walking out of the kitchen to get himself a coffee.

Three people had reported their wallets stolen this afternoon. Sam made an exaggerated reach for his back pocket. “I still have my wallet but all my money seems to be gone,” he said brandishing the empty wallet with mock horror.

“You didn’t have anything there to start with,” retorted Maggie.

“Oh, right,” said Sam as he retired to the kitchen.

“Pickpocketing seems to fit with your skill set, Mr. Magic,” said Dot archly.

“Sure, blame the new guy,” he shot back.

“You are stealing too much of my roommate’s time,” complained Dot. “That alone makes you a thief.”

The conversation took a turn toward other pressing Easton gossip as they cleaned up and closed up for the night. Their laughter echoed on the empty street as they headed home. All talk of the robberies was forgotten. The magic of a quiet, small town night was restored.

“Check it out,” Maggie announced the next day as she was entering the apartment with a copy of The Star Democrat. “There has been another robbery. One of the objets d’art from Gallerie de Folie. I don’t know if I feel safe living in Easton any more. I mean, the crime.”

“Like you have anything to steal. Wait, you mean the shop we were in yesterday?” Dot scrutinized Maggie’s face. Maggie could feel herself blushing. She knew exactly what Dot was thinking: Sam. But there was no way that awkward, bumbling man-child was a stone-cold criminal. No way. She rolled her eyes and went back to her homework.

Later in the restaurant, Colleen broached the subject awkwardly with Maggie after Maggie could have sworn she saw a glance fly between Colleen and Dot. “So, how much do you know about Sam?”

“We’re not getting married yet,” Maggie shot back a little more aggressively than necessary. She looked at Colleen’s worried eyes peering out under salt and pepper bangs. The concerned scrutiny made her squirm guiltily. How much did she know? But then, how much did she really know about Colleen or Dot or even herself? Maggie’s thoughts ran in philosophical rivulets, allowing her to evade the question at hand momentarily.

“Did you know that Sam is not even his real name?” Colleen’s question yanked Maggie back into the practical, concrete present.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that it is not his first nor middle name. It is not even a version of his last name—McGill.”

“How odd,” said Dot entering from the kitchen and staring pointedly at Maggie. Maggie kept rolling silverware in napkins.

Since Sam was not working that night, and the restaurant was slow, the thought was able to fester and send noxious tentacles into Maggie’s thoughts. Her mind developed labyrinthine plots that alternately indicted and exonerated him.

Sam showed up to walk Maggie home. Dot had left early since it was a slow night.

Why do you go by Sam?” Maggie asked hoping to sound casual, as if she had not spent the last four hours trying to decide how to ask.

Sam blushed. “Well, I adopted it as a kid because I thought I should have a stage name.”

“Why Sam?”

Sam hesitated. “It is so geeky. I thought I was being clever. It stands for the Society of American Magicians.”

Maggie’s laughter rang out against the brick walls. Her relief made her want to applaud as if he had just pulled off a masterful sleight of hand. Then she felt ashamed at the thought of the wasted anger and fear of the past few hours spent inventing reasons simultaneously to fear Sam and to be angry at him. All was right in her little world.

The following Wednesday was Sam’s stage debut at the Avalon Theater. Maggie sat next to Dot in the small theater, and the newly minted girlfriend was possibly more nervous than the performer. With her eyes, she followed the art deco design up the wall along the stage and over the stage and down the other side. Circle, triangle, flower… how do people generate these random designs? Do I even like these colors together? How did they pick the colors? What if he is awful? Should I be honest? I really don’t even like magic, and I am picky about comedy. Her thoughts fluttered around like leaves, unable to cluster and form a critical mass needed to start a conversation.

Mercifully, Dot excused herself to go to the restroom. Maggie could just sit and let her mind spin for a few minutes. Conversations ebbed and flowed around her. A classmate called and waved from the balcony, and Maggie managed a wave and smile. When would this show start? When would it end? Dot made her way back across the room. Maggie could see her wiggling her way through the conversations straddled across the aisles. Then Dot was back, and the house lights were going down.

Sam tripped onto the stage. Literally. That was part of his thing. Every ounce of his awkwardness was poured into his stage persona. Tricks went horribly awry to emerge as a different, still awesome, trick. And there was a collective holding of the breath as the audience decided. Maggie could not hear his spiel. She could only feel the room deciding. She almost held her breath. There were a few awkward, pity laughs. And then suddenly, magically, roars of laughter and the occasional gasp and round of applause. They had decided. They liked him. And she could relax and enjoy the show.

Maggie and Dot had planned to meet Sam at the bar next door after the performance. Maggie watched Sam work through the crowd over to them. He shook hands with people congratulating him on his show, remarking on some random detail they had in common, and asking fruitlessly how he performed this or that trick. He grinned at her. She grinned back and raised her wine glass.

Meanwhile, near the bar there was a disturbance. A woman was yelling ,”I know I had my wallet. Somebody here stole it! You need to check them.”

“Ma’am, I can’t search everybody at the bar,” the police officer was calmly explaining. “Are you sure you didn’t leave it at home accidentally?”

“I think that is our cue to leave,” Sam said, arriving at Maggie’s side.

“No kidding,” agreed Dot.

The three headed out the back door into the relative quiet of the night time street. Maggie enjoyed that hush, that release of pressure on the ears that always accompanies leaving a crowded bar. She was not really a crowd person and was glad her compatriots had been ready to leave. But later in her bed she wondered—had Sam had an ulterior motive for wanting to leave?

A few days later, Maggie got back to her apartment from jogging to see an officer on her stoop. “We are asking you to come down to the station; we have a few questions.”

Maggie panicked. “Like this?”

“It’s not a fashion show.”

Maggie grabbed her purse and followed the officer. She answered the questions that seemed to be about everybody from the restaurant. She giggled a little at the thought of grandmotherly Colleen pickpocketing the well-heeled gentry of Easton. The officer did not seem amused. It just seemed so absurd that anybody in her circle could be involved in the recent spate of robberies — Sam’s skill for sleight of hand notwithstanding. But they kept circling around to questions about Sam. And Maggie couldn’t help feeling that they knew something that they were not telling her. If he was a risk, shouldn’t they tell her?

On the way out, Maggie saw them escorting Sam in. He gave her a sheepish shrug. She spent the ride home deconstructing that shrug. Does he know something? Was he admitting guilt? Did he just assume as Maggie did that the whole thing was misguided?

Maggie went home and showered and sat glumly at the kitchen table trying to study. Dot came in and slumped across from her. “So, they questioned you, too?” She asked.

“Yes. It just seems unreal.”

“Small towns are magical, aren’t they?”

“What are you trying to say?”

“Nothing. I kind of like it. Finally, something interesting is happening here. Maybe thanks to your boyfriend.” Dot flounced off to the shower.

Maggie sat drowning in confusion and terror. Sam texted her and she ignored it. What am I supposed to think? She asked herself. She tried to convince herself to study and stared unproductively at her text books. For an hour. Then another hour.

Suddenly, there was a loud banging on the door. Maggie answered it to find a sea of police officers.

Confused, Maggie assumed they were there for Sam. “I swear he did not do anything. And he is not even here.”

“We know. It’s Dot.” They were already swarming past Maggie ,”Dorothy Detrich, you have the right to remain silent.” Maggie watched feeling underwater as officers flooded her apartment.

“We had you all under surveillance from early on,” explained Officer Smith, the one friendly face in the swarm. “And we really thought it was Sam, but then a review of some of the surveillance tape showed that Sam was not even at the Farmer’s Market on one of the days with the most thefts. Luckily the tape surfaced because he did not have an alibi. You were in class. We checked with your professors.”

“How…” Maggie’s jaw yanked on its hinges as she watched the officers pull the stolen items out of the ottoman, the very ottoman Dot sat on daily. Maggie consciously closed her mouth and stared in amazement asking silently how her roommate had done it, seemingly right in front of her.

“Ta da,” announced Dot, taking an awkward bow as they led her away in handcuffs. “It’s magic!” And Maggie’s mind went through all the times her mind had attributed guilty motives to Sam when Dot had done or said the same things. Sometimes it was Dot herself misdirecting like any good magician. What a trick.

Maggie’s phone lit up with another text from Sam: Why aren’t you answering? Are you okay?

“Hard to say,” she thought as she watched her roommate leave in cuffs.

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Jennifer is a teacher, mother and wife who lives on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where she arrived by way of New Jersey,  France, Indiana, Florida, and Louisiana. She has been published once before in Toasted Cheese.  Email: jpantusa[at]talbotschools.org