The Reunion

Broker’s Pick
Allison Meldrum


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

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

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

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

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

Yours, Rebecca.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Rebecca,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours, lovingly,

Michael.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1984 from Julia’s Perspective

Baker’s Pick
Mari Carlson


Photo Credit: smilla4/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

I willed myself to wake up before our neighbor, to pluck a few blossoms for Winston on our last day together. I usually heard our neighbor, a buxom older lady, start singing at dawn, as she carried the laundry to the communal wash, so I got up in the dark. Like bells shining in moonlight, it wasn’t difficult to find the flowers in her garden. I crept back inside, filled the hollow stem of an upturned wine goblet with water and stuck the sprig of lilies of the valley in it. We didn’t have a vase. The repurposed container was made of ceramic, glazed blue. Its glassy color mixed with the flowers’ fragrance covered up the rat presence in our little attic hiding hole.

I first saw Winston outside the Ministry of Love a few years prior. We were all staring at a telescreen. His eyes weren’t fixed on what was in front of him but beyond, to something most people couldn’t see. It wasn’t inattention, for which he would have been reprimanded; it was indifference, a nonchalance that made him seem not of this world. Drawn to those far reaching eyes, I began to follow him.

Winston was still asleep when I placed the vase on the table and climbed back into bed. When he turned over, his varicose ulcer peeked out from under the sheet. I knew that ulcer grieved him. It hurt. It was unsightly, which had never bothered him before we started spending more time together, naked. To me, it was a sign of how much he’d lived through. I wanted to live through him, to mature in his accumulated pain. I nestled back into the curve he left me.

Winston went to the community center two or three times a week after work, to drink gin and play chess. I sewed sashes for the Anti-Sex League and painted posters for our marches. From the corner of my eye, I caught him tracing the edge of his glass as if it were the bare shoulder of a lover. He pulled on his cigarette tenderly, making each drag count. I wanted those fingers, those lips. I wanted to count. Chess did not count to him; it merely passed the time. His attention was elsewhere. When he wasn’t moving pieces on the chess board, he held something in his pocket. His hand didn’t move, just lingered on something more important than pawns and kings. Whatever it was grounded him, held him fast between then and this eternal now.

He woke up sniffing my hair. He sought out my breasts and stretched out upon me. We made love and laid in our juices. Today, the rats would speak to us from behind the painting in the living room. Winston didn’t know it, but I did. Ever since he’d gotten that book from O’Brien, I knew he was coming for us. I’d been with men in the Inner Party, like O’Brien. They didn’t see me because I didn’t stand out. I blended in. I was a model Party girl, their Party girl, to do with as they pleased. I used them for the privileges, for pleasure, just like they used me. We were one and the same.

They sniffed out singularity like sharks after blood. The Party’s only purpose was to keep itself intact, a single entity with no room for diversion or innovation or idiosyncrasy of any kind. I let O’Brien give Winston that book as bait, the telltale sign of an individual. To fight either of them would have been sudden death. All I wanted was a little more time, which I bought with betrayal on all sides.

One evening at the community center, I sat on the floor, doodling on the edge of a placard, pretending to come up with a new slogan or a new design. Hate Week was coming up. We girls were busy preparing to honor Big Brother and to celebrate The Party’s many victories. I wasn’t doodling or designing. I was writing a note and planning how to get it in Winston’s hands. If I could just make myself an object for him, I would become real. He would notice me then. I put my foot on the corner of the paper when I stood up, twisting the edge off. The missing corner became trash, a mistake. I picked it up and bunched it in my hand. I pretended to throw it away, but instead, I stuffed it in my pocket. A link to Winston, a first step into his attention. A thing we already had in common.

For weeks, the note burned in my skirt. During that time I went on community hikes with the other girls. I led a few of us down paths toward a creek or into a meadow in search of mushrooms or deeper into the forest to find the source of a bird song. All for Winston, to determine a path to safety for us. I was looking through nature to find a sanctuary, a haven for two lovers.

I made up coffee, real coffee I got on the black market. Winston sat up at the smell. He put his arm behind his head and waited for me to bring it to him. Once, in bed, he said to me, “We’re dead.” I said, “No.” My legs entwined with his said the rest. No, we’re not dead, yet. We’re making a shape together that can never be unmade. We’re making ourselves into a threat. We’ll never get away with it. He could read all he wanted about the Brotherhood in that book from O’Brien, but it won’t bring back the past nor bring about a revolution. O’Brien told us not to hope for that in our lifetimes. I don’t have time for hope. I make time for experiences that stick, the meat on my bones. We sipped our coffee, then, as we did now, and waited to be found out.

Before Hate Week, I caught sight of him on the street. I fell, knowing he’d come to me. He knelt down beside me. I smelled his sour breath. One arm lifted me off the ground and the other cradled my head. I nearly forgot my task: to put the note in his pocket. To transfer my love to him.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Yes, I’m fine. I can walk, thank you.” Not to look, not to make contact, that is how to engage. It was my only defense, to look as though I didn’t care, when he occupied all my thoughts and feelings. Later, he found me in the cafeteria. He sat down across from me. Between spoonfuls of rotten stew, I whispered to him the route to a meeting place in the woods. And there it began. The beginning and the end.

We met as often as we could, every couple weeks, for a few years. Building a life apart from the dead one we waded through. The closer we got, the greater the risk, the more real our love became, sculpted from impossibility. He wanted to make a new life, to bring impossibility into reality. He became part of “the resistance,” the Brotherhood.
As Winston read aloud from the book about the Brotherhood O’Brien gave him, I feigned interest. Instead, I recorded the grid of veins on his legs, the speed of his pulse, the texture of his skin. I memorized him for when we were captured, eating him up so I could still taste him afterwards.

While I set our coffee cups in the sink, a flock of birds burst from the trees and scattered over the neighborhood, like an omen. In their wake, a nasty breeze wafted through the window. The flowers could not scatter the stink of treachery. It was time. A voice came from behind the painting, beckoning us. It was then I saw the tracks I’d left our pursuers: the flower. Unlike my black market lipstick, the joy I couldn’t wipe off my face. The calm in my gait that says I’m okay. Love had become me; I couldn’t hide it any longer. My secret weapon revealed.

Winston’s ideas didn’t betray us. We did. The threat of our love was not razor sharp, like cutting up a two-dimensional world through which we drew out thin lines of existence. No, we stood out in 3D, as round and beautiful as the coral paperweight Winston kept in his pocket. I’d led them to us.

I packed as they came up the stairs. I scanned the room, mouthing the name of every object, stuffing things into my mind like glue in a crack. They can take me, but they cannot take what I carry inside, what keeps me whole. I made the images hard, no sepiaed nostalgia. The edge of the bed, the wart on the toe, the constellation of capillaries on Winston’s calf, my name in his mouth, an ant on the windowsill, the rats in the walls that betrayed us.

We may be dead, but I’m the one who killed us. There’s life in that truth. I may never see him again. I may be tortured to the point of betraying him. I may come to forget the past. That doesn’t change the fact that it existed, that we rendered it. You and I together, Winston, memories that live in the folds of our brain, synapses like a map to buried treasure.

pencilAt the start of the lockdown, Mari Carlson, her husband and son read 1984 out loud to each other over dinner every night for weeks. COVID’s extraordinary circumstances eerily paralleled the novel. She teaches and performs violin, writes book reviews and makes art (which sometimes sells on Etsy!). She divides her time between Eau Claire, WI and Washington, DC. Her short story, “Vandal,” was published last year in The Main Street Rag. Email: mlcarlson1[at]usfamily.net

Three Poems

Beaver’s Pick
Jenny Hockey


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

Waking Up in Someone Else’s House

7.15, not too bad
and bright North Sea light
edging through the shutters.

The floor will be cold, I know—
not the floor but a granite hearth
under my side of the bed.

Nose into socks and tread right round
to the door. All the lights still on. Heating
not yet. But sun tumbles down the stairs

and a city discovers the shape of today.

Into the kitchen, a crunch of crumbs
and ease the curtains back, set Remy
scrabbling in his cage.

An odour of something
under the floorboards, here and there—
a kindred rodent at peace

Find a clean cup.

 

Unreliable Witness

I know that I cried—
I was your child,
but whether the nurse
took hold of my hand
or I took hold of hers
I forget.

I know she called me at 3 am

when the four-lane road
to the Humber Bridge
was mine.

Did she say you were poorly?
I know she lied, your pillowed face
already wax,

your forehead
skimmed by my lips
in the end.

 

Cambridge, June 1969

Elder thickened daily in the yard,
putting pressure on the windows.
It needed hacking back.

I was elbow deep, awash
in tiny bibs and socks,
cold feet on the quarry tiles.

Elder thickened nightly in the yard
muffling the strains of May Ball bands
a thousand miles away.

I was swagging nappies
on my shoulder, losing pegs
among the weeds.

pencilJenny Hockey‘s poems range from the sad to the surreal to the celebratory. A retired anthropologist, she takes an oblique view of the ups and downs of everyday lives. In 2013 she received a New Poets Award from New Writing North, Newcastle, UK and, after magazine and anthology publications from 1985 onwards, Oversteps Books published her debut collection, Going to Bed with the Moon, in 2019. Twitter: @JHockey20 Email: j.hockey[at]sheffield.ac.uk

A Wall Of Pictures

Broker’s Pick
Madeleine Claire


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

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

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

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

pencil

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

complexity on my way home

Baker’s Pick
Johann van der Walt


Photo credit: Chris (a.k.a. MoiVous)/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

wait a minute
if you speak only to hear your own voice
you waste time
you told me this back when we shared fluids
you said that we are endless seconds that end up ticking in space
a finger pointed down to our separate shadows
showing our depart seeped out onto concrete
ushering our ultimate defeat
I was all the mistakes that left your mouths unmade
and after you I’d only continue to breathe
half of me reading the signs from back to front
I wonder if we have been fooled?
is this it? lovers until thunder? strangers exchanging fallen glances?
obviously my spine bends backwards
as I collect memories to piece myself back together
how did you move forward while my thoughts drown
cast in a stranger’s image?
we are disconnected but I can’t seem to feel it
lights blur on the way home like broken shackles
always light everywhere to elucidate heavy breathing
behind the steering wheel of every moving particle
I repeat like a familiar song
a worn out duplicated complexity
unwillingly yielded to multiple worlds
but after every journey how many of us really have any heart left to spare?
how many experiences can be purchased and built upon?
every day I convict myself
I ask nobody how small we all have become

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Johann van der Walt has published his debut poetry collection in Afrikaans in South Africa (his country of birth) titled Parlement van uile (translated: parliament of owls) and also his first chapbook in the States—This Road Doesn’t Lead Home—over at Red Mare Press. Email: jlw.vanderwalt[at]gmail.com

Island

Beaver’s Pick
Jerri Jerreat


Photo Credit: robmadeo/Flickr (CC-by)

When you live on an island, you need to practice Buddha-like views on life.

The ferry will be on time, but you will arrive seconds too late. The ferry will be an hour late, and you will be racing to the market with fresh eggs and your sauces tucked all around you.

Om.

The garden will thrive and you will bake gorgeous quiches and exquisite salads to sell at the university. Or there will be heat wave after heat wave and the well will dry up. Or rabbits will eat all the leaves of organic beets and heritage carrots. A thunderstorm will beat your tomatoes into bursting; rows of squash leaves might turn white with mold.

Om.

Your partner will be a great support to you, both reading aloud from farming books at Toronto cafés for a year beforehand, excited for this challenge you truly believe in. He will learn about sheep, and care for thirty—plus twenty chickens—and you will laugh together over silly sheep stories. You will take classes in spinning, weaving and dyeing wool, then hang it up like art around your open kitchen/living area in the fixer-upper cabin that you purchased from the last farmer who failed.

Or your partner will begin to curse the sheep and kick them, tell you the chickens are your job now, and complain the wifi is never working and how the hell did you talk him into living god-knows-where with no f—ing Internet?

Om.

When you live on an island you must learn to breathe. Slowly, deeply. Five slow breaths in, five to exhale, pause. Repeat.

You will learn to drive a standard on a twenty-year-old truck, and to rebuild a chicken pen after foxes made away with all the chickens except the only one who won’t lay. You will learn to hand dig a post hole, put in a post, shovel cement around it, and breathe. You will stretch chicken wire around your large garden, then around your chicken pen. (Also along the broken fence where the sheep keep disappearing and which your partner will not repair.) He will no longer cook joyfully with you, experimenting; will come to think in terms of gendered work, which was not The Deal. You will work at learning to enjoy running a farm alone as part of your own personal journey to completeness.

Om.

 

When you live on an island you will read library books on truck engines in the second year and tinker with the ornery steering problem, though it’s likely a power fluid leak. If your partner has difficulty turning when he makes his fast Friday night trip to the city, claiming he has business in the city and will just crash on his old friend’s couch, again—and the truck can’t make that ninety-degree turn to the ferry at high speed, well he—

—should have practiced his Buddha-like views of life.

Om.

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Jerri Jerreat‘s fiction has appeared in Feminine Collective, The New Quarterly, The Yale Review Online, The Penmen Review, and The Dalhousie Review among others, and was featured in anthologies published by World Weaver Press and Edge Publishers. Her play was a finalist at the Newmarket National Play Festival in 2019. Email: jjerreat[at]gmail.com

It Will Happen to You

Beaver’s Pick
Jeff Bakkenson


Photo Credit: Jennifer Boyer/Flickr (CC-by)

“It will happen to you,” Meghan’s dad Tom, Josh’s father-in-law, once told him. Tom was standing suit and tie in front of the open freezer. He’d forgotten to get ice for the party, and now there was no time to go back out before church. So it must have been Christmas. Meghan and her sister Colleen’s footsteps ran in both directions along the hallway between their bedrooms and the upstairs bathroom. Mary, Josh’s mother-in-law, or future mother-in-law at that point, stood at the top of the stairs.

“You didn’t make a list?”

“If I could remember a list, I wouldn’t need a list.” He raised his voice as Mary turned towards their bedroom. “We can stop by Walgreens after church!”

She raised her voice back. “We’ll be late to our own party!”

Tom looked around for allies and found Josh trying to blend into the couch. “You think I’m kidding, but it will happen to you.”

A spray of magazines lay across the coffee table. Tom was constantly rearranging them, tugging their corners into alignment on an undescribed grid. Sometimes in the middle of a conversation, a headline would catch his eye, Sports Illustrated, Golfweek, and he’d lick his finger and gently, still nodding along as you spoke, open to the first page. Not to the article, not the table of contents, just two full-page ads facing each other, and he often wouldn’t get up again until he’d read the magazine straight through or fallen asleep trying.

Probably he’d been sick even then, before Meghan and Josh were married. After a second exam, he called the family together to tell them the secret he hadn’t known he’d been keeping. Or maybe he’d known on some level, thought Josh. The body knows, right?

A procedure was scheduled, and life continued with deliberate normalcy, which was why the morning of the procedure found Meghan and Josh following a guide named Mehmed on a tour of downtown Sarajevo. Why Sarajevo? everyone asked. Because it was cheap.

“Until you hear sniper’s bullet,” said Mehmed. “You do not think this is happening here.”

Despite their best efforts, they kept finding themselves checking their phones to make sure they’d have enough time to call home when the tour was done.

Mehmed’s memories took the form of snapshots vivant as he asked them to imagine families lined against a wall waiting for water. Lives remembered for their premature ending. “Here is Markale Market, site of massacre 5 February 1994, and also 28 August 1995.” “This Bosnia Dragon Street, where sniper shoot.” And once, a literal Polaroid, pulled from the crossbody pouch he wore at his belly button, of two young men sitting against a sofa pushed onto its side. “This is my cousin Harun. Lived by Markale Market.”

Miracle of miracles, Harun himself came hustling out of a cafe a few minutes later. He kissed his cousin and walked alongside him for the remainder of the tour, nodding whenever anyone spoke.

He nodded vigorously when Mehmed explained the city’s ethnic divisions.

“Bosnian Serb is in hills, shooting. Bosniak is me, shot.”

As they walked around the presidential palace, Mehmed pointed out damage left by mortar fire, as well as skyscrapers rising down the street. Meghan stood in front of Josh and leaned against him.

“This finished our tour,” he said. “But I leave you with one idea. My name Mehmed Banjac.” He pointed to his cousin. “His name Harun Banjac. Mehmed and Harun are Bosnian’s first name. Banjac is Serbo-Croatian’s last name. So Bosnia Herzegovina is both Bosnian and Serbo-Croatian.”

Both men smiled. Josh went into his wallet and tipped Mehmed in convertible marks, and as Harun nodded one last time, Josh tipped him too.

A cafe across the street offered WiFi and seemed as good a place as any to FaceTime from. They ordered thimble cups of coffee and sat side by side on wicker chairs, Meghan holding her phone out in front of them. But Tom didn’t pick up. Meghan called again, no answer. She tried her mom, then Colleen, Josh with his own phone ready in case he found a way to help. He watched her cycle again through her mom, dad, and back to Colleen. They confirmed the time difference and she tried again. Nothing. By the time Colleen called back, the procedure had already begun. Whoops, sorry. Enjoy the day, and we’ll let you know how it goes.

They sat blankly for a while. When the time allotted to the call expired, they gathered their things and walked to the car they’d rented to drive down to the coast.

They’d already had the conversation about not feeling guilty for keeping their trip. They’d had the conversation about the difficulty in not feeling guilty despite that being the correct response, and they knew to push the guilt down until they could barely feel it. They were at the point where they could look at each other and say, “I know,” and have that be a whole conversation about their guilt.

At first Meghan looked like she was having trouble swallowing. Once they’d left the curving roads of the city center, she hunched over her phone firing off volleys of texts. The procedure, Tom had told them back in that other world before the procedure began, could take a short time or a long time, depending on what the surgeons found and where they found it. Then, depending, further treatment would be advised.

“It probably didn’t even occur to them because it’s such a routine procedure,” said Josh.

“But didn’t he want to talk to me?”

“Maybe they thought it would make you worry more.”

“I’m not worried. I’m mad.”

Pocket cemeteries dotted the slopes as the city slowly faded into forest. Meghan put down her phone and rubbed her eyes. The highway switchbacked up and up and finally down the other side of a woody mountain, glances of the next valley stealing through the trees, and another mountain beyond it. On the valley floor, they passed a village set around a gleaming slab stitched with consonant-choked names.

“Didn’t Mehmed say the -ic means they’re Serbian?” asked Josh.

“Maybe we’re in Serbia.”

“Check the book please?”

The book, a Rick Steves travel guide, had an inset after the section about Sarajevo. Meghan read aloud, “As you leave Sarajevo, you will see memorials for the Serb fighters who laid siege to the city. While this seems confusing to us now, remember that the conflict… good people on both sides, etc.”

They stopped for lunch in Mostar and ordered a mixed grill plate at a restaurant overlooking the famous humpbacked bridge. A metal cross stood on a hill above, a memorial, said the book, to the fighters who’d used the vantage to fire down into the city. The bridge was a reconstruction.

“I’m kind of done with the war stuff,” said Meghan.

“Me too.”

Their waitress brought out two mounded plates, then two plates more, and two more after that.

There’d been a misunderstanding. Josh waved his hands over the table.

“No more, please.”

“Yes,” she said. “Is more!” She laughed from the back of her throat and brought out a final plate.

They ate what they could of the sausage, another sausage, chicken, thin beaten steak, french fries, raw onions, tomatoes, lettuce, and rice. Meghan’s phone buzzed with a waving emoji.

“She has to text every thirty minutes whether or not there’s news,” she said. “At least this way we’re still in the loop.”

Josh scrolled through his own messages. The last time he and Colleen had texted was on her birthday. The time before that was on his.

“Does she know you’re upset?”

When the bill came, the price was double the price in the menu. The waitress stood over them, waiting.

“Where does it say per person?” asked Josh, but she seemed not to understand.

He relieved himself of a wad of bills while Meghan let Colleen know she might be out of phone range.

Someplace between Mostar and the coast, the woods became scrubby hills. The sky cleared. Meghan played bongos on the dashboard. She folded her arms and picked at her teeth.

“Why is everything here cash only?” she asked.

“It’s real money.”

“So’s a credit card.”

A while after that, Josh heard her humming.

“What are you thinking about?”

“Not thinking, just humming.” But then, “It’s taking a long time, isn’t it?”

The road passed from Bosnia to Croatia, back into Bosnia for a few miles, and then back into Croatia. At each crossing, they stopped and had their passports stamped. At the final crossing, Josh gave a man in a kiosk the rest of their marks, and he gave them a smaller stack of kuna in return.

Meghan read some more from Rick Steves. “Apartment Maria lies steps from the Old Harbor and a secret swimming hole. Nikola is a conscientious host who enjoys helping his guests. Mention this book for a 10% discount.”

Another time she asked, “Are we sure we weren’t wrong not to be there?”

The hills in Croatia were lower, chalkier. There were no more villages with roadside memorials. They rose, descended, rose, and suddenly the ocean appeared, glittering away towards the walled city of Dubrovnik. They pulled to the side and got out to take pictures.

“Fuck!” said Meghan. She sprinted back to the car, found the baggie with the Croatian sim card, and switched it for the Bosnian one. Her phone buzzed with an overdue heart emoji.

At five, 17:00 on the clocks in Dubrovnik, they returned their rental car and caught the last ferry of the day for Riba, an island appearing as the first of a series of smudges stretching out into endless water. They sat on the top deck, bags at their feet. In front of them, a castle passed from left to right along the shoreline.

“What are we watching?” asked Josh.

“Dunno. Check the book.”

The women sitting next to them spoke Croatian. At least Josh assumed it was Croatian. He was a tourist; it was okay not to be sure. There was something comforting, finally, about listening to a voice you didn’t have to understand.

Because enough with this stuff at weddings about, I don’t feel like I’m losing a sister so much as gaining a brother. It was like that thought experiment where you replace all the parts of a boat one by one. At what point does the old boat become a new boat? And at what point do you, let’s say you’re a screw drilled in midway through the restoration, begin to understand why the sails and the rudder pull in opposite directions, what foundational assumptions and unsettled arguments they use to navigate each other? Because whatever else happened, today would be a permanent fixture in that relationship.

Riba was shaped like a goldfish cracker with a walled town at the head and a beach at the tail. Meghan’s phone buzzed just the dock came into view, and she threw her arms around Josh. The surgery was done.

They breathed deeply in and out together.

Josh asked, “You’re doing okay?”

“Better.”

As the crowd gathered on the dock inched closer, they basked in the glow of having been through a close call and coming out the other side still themselves.

“Did they say how it went?”

“He’s still asleep. The doctor will talk to everyone when he wakes up.”

“Then wake him up already!”

Nikola was waiting in the shade of the old city gate. They walked a short distance to Apartment Maria, which was really just a room on the third floor of his house.

Nikola led them upstairs and then back down to the kitchen on the second floor, where a bottle of wine and a scatter of brochures waited on the table. He poured into three glasses.

“The bottle say, Desire is stronger than love, but here there is both.

Meghan went back upstairs to FaceTime Colleen while Nikola shuffled through his brochures. If they wanted to rent a boat, if they needed a guide, his friends had the best prices.

“Now you pay please,” he said. He set a calculator on the table between them, making a show of punching in the room rate times three.

“We have the Rick Steves book,” said Josh. “The ten percent discount.”

Nikola was confused.

“Rick Steves?” asked Josh. “Just a second.”

He mussed around in his backpack and came up with the book and the line about the discount. Nikola shook his head.

“I never have discount.”

“It says so right here.”

Nikola flipped to the author’s photo at the back. Josh thumbed back to the page with Nikola’s name on it.

“This is you, right?”

“You bring this book.”

And a shrug for good measure, as if to say, We have our own set of rules. Like the war had permanently severed them from the outside world. Josh counted out kuna and dropped the money on the table.

“This is my house,” said Nikola.

“Take it or leave it. Do you know this phrase?”

He gave what he felt was a convincing look, and when Nikola reached for the money, turned and ran upstairs.

Meghan was sitting on the bed, phone in her lap, looking out the window. Josh felt a bounciness as he stepped into the room, like his feet were still climbing.

“He’s awake?”

Meghan shook her head. “Nobody’s picking up.”

“Maybe he’s just not awake yet.”

“It’s the same thing all over again.”

It’ll happen to you, Tom had said. Meaning what, exactly? It was like even when they won, they lost. Josh sat on the bed and put his arm around Meghan. The window was a vision of what they were missing, a cobblestone street lined with whitewashed and red-roofed houses, shining for a few more minutes in the summer sun. Below them, a car stopped to let out a man in a leather jacket.

“Do you think they found something bad?” asked Meghan.

According to the guidebook, a path behind the apartment led to a door in the city wall and a stone staircase leading into the water. If they left now, there was daylight left to find the door, leave their clothes by the wall, and sidle down the stairs until the water buoyed them away.

“Josh?” said Meghan.

The water would be warm, and still, and clear. They’d pinch their noses, close their eyes, and slip below the surface.

There was a knock at the door, and Meghan turned to face it.

Josh stood.

“Hello?”

In the darkness, surrounded by water, each would be a universe gently sinking. As pressure pounded their ears, their chests quivered, and finally they’d rise, gasping at each other on the surface. A sense of clarity, that trusty fight or flight, and together they’d swim back to shore.

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Jeff Bakkensen lives in Boston. Recent work has appeared in A-Minor Magazine, Oblong Magazine, Smokelong Quarterly, and The Antigonish Review. Email: jeffrey.bakkensen[at]gmail.com

Light-Up Shoes

Beaver’s Pick
CJ Maughan


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

Krista finally found them. Kneeling on the orange department store carpet, she pulled the black shoe box from the shelf and brushed the dust off the top. The lid flapped open and revealed the size eight shoes that she was searching for.

There were ruby gems embedded in the heels and there were pink stripes lapping at the tongue. Stars, rainbows, and sunlight danced along the sides. These images were the solemn promise of Velcroed possibilities. Yes, you can jump higher, run faster, longer, better than all the things. These shoes are made of magic. These shoes will make you magic.

Krista unzipped her windbreaker, tossing it aside, and slipped her feet into the shoes. The lights in the heels flickered as she stood. She wiggled her toes. There was room to grow and room to run. It would require a test, of course, and there was only one way to know their true power.

The fresh rubber squeaked, leaving a black mark where she ground her toe into the white tile of the store aisle for good luck. Heels to the block, knees to the ground, elastic in her veins—she took off.

Pumping her arms as the shoe lights flashed along the whites of the floor. Reflecting through eternity in the long store wall mirror. She saw a glimpse of herself, a blur of lights and a white shirt. Her hair billowing behind her. Her legs strong and quick.

She ran down the walkways and the aisles. She skirted around registers. She darted around strollers and jumped through clothing displays. She spun through jewelry racks and sashayed across the escalator track.

She didn’t see the ruby-lipped, ice-haired girls stepping off the elevator. The shoes were fast; they only knew two speeds: fast and faster. They did not know how to stop once started, but still, she tried.

Krista locked her knees; the ice queens watched, wide-eyed and jagged, but it was too late. Together they entered the realm of confusion, slamming into each other with a force greater than each of their lives. Blackness reigned. Terror threatened. Voices cried out. The ceiling was the floor. The floor was the ceiling.

Krista bravely jumped first to her feet. Her lungs sore, her knees scraped, but her pride intact. “Sorry,” she said, wanting to run away, but schoolyard lessons kept her locked in place.

The less-blonde girl helped the other blonde girl up from the floor. “Jesus Christ, watch where you’re going, kid.” They bent and gathered the impossibly tiny hangers that held the impossibly tiny clothes.

“Are those for your dolls?” Krista asked.

The girls held up the hangers and looked at each other. “They’re bras, kid. Haven’t you ever seen one before?”

“God, the dumb kid has never seen a bra before. How old is she you think?

“Eleven?”

“Barely.”

Krista didn’t understand.

The girls looked down at Krista, closely inspecting her white shirt. “Hey kid,” the more-blonde girl said. “You’re giving the boys a free show, you know.”

Krista shifted her feet nervously and the lights danced across the floor once more. And then there was the worst sound of all: laughter.

“Oh my god, I just saw. She’s wearing light-up shoes!”

“They still have the price tag on them!”

“Are you shopping with Mommy today? Maybe if you’re good, she’ll buy you a pretzel.”

“I think I was five the last time I wore those.”

“I know, right? What a baby.”

Krista looked down, surprised by her own feet. The lights flickered as she moved.

“See ya later, little kid,” the girls said. As they swung their hips away, Krista watched the big, bold words they left behind in their wake. She reached and touched each of these words. They were words that she never before thought about. Boys. Too old. Free show. Bra.

But there were also other words. Krista looked around, surprised to realize that she didn’t see them the first time. Embarrassed. Naked. Under-dressed. Unable and undeserving.

Ugly.

Krista crossed her arms across her chest. She didn’t understand why, but she wanted her jacket. She wanted her mother and she wanted to go home. The lights on the shoes were now a dim glow of their shadowy past.

She passed the tall mirror again and watched herself walk past. Slowly now, a distinct shape took form. Yellow hair that frizzed into a triangle. A stomach that rounded the edges of her jeans and something, two somethings, up top that she hadn’t noticed before.

“There you are,” Mother said. “I turn for one minute and you run off. I’ve been looking everywhere.”

Krista stared at the shoe box on the ground, its lid turned open like the soft pages of a book.

“Take those off,” Mother said, pulling out her cellphone as it rang. “Hello? Yes, I’m still here. Just shopping with Krista. She’s being impossible.” Mother pointed at Krista’s feet. “I’m serious. Take those off. You’re way too old for those. Yes, yes we’ll be home soon. I just need to get her a bra and then we’ll be done. No, her teacher said something. She said the boys in the class…”

Krista didn’t hear the rest. She didn’t need to know. She pulled the shoes off one by one and slowly closed the box on her childhood. The lights from the shoes flickered as she stuffed the box on the shelf. She didn’t bother looking back to watch them stop.

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CJ Maughan is a former chemist who realized she was much better at writing fiction than lab reports. She is oddly fascinated with melancholy and tends to prefer stories that are depressingly beautiful. Her debut novel, Eighteen, won the 2018 League of Utah Writers Golden Quill award for adult fiction. Twitter: @CJ_Maughan Email: hello[at]CJMaughan.com

Corrections

Baker’s Pick
Buffy Shutt


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

From an article in last Friday’s newspaper:

The article misstated that Laundry Camp was free. The fee is $25 for one class, two loads. She admits to being high when she signed up. Her building’s washer is still broken.

The article misspelled her fiancée’s new start-up. It is A Hack Job, not A Wank Job. She says he doesn’t own a tablet. She doesn’t believe he can do this on an iPhone. He popped her.

The article omitted the facts that with her new promotion, she had to kiss her boss on the cheek and agree to keep picking up his dry cleaning. She says the dry cleaner guy gave her a winter jacket that no one had claimed for three years.

Because of developments after the paper went to press, the article failed to note the landlord gave her an eviction notice as her check was returned twice due to insufficient funds. She has a car and she and her son are living there for now. They park in the back of the dry cleaner’s.

The article had incorrect information provided by her mother.

Errors are corrected during the press run whenever possible.

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Buffy lives in Los Angeles where she writes poetry and short stories. She spent most of her working life marketing Hollywood movies and documentaries. A two-time Pushcart nominee, her recent work has appeared in Bird’s Thumb, Magnolia Review (awarded the Ink Award), Califragile, Split Lip Magazine, Rise Up Review, The Hedge Apple, Dodging the Rain, Cobalt Review (awarded the Earl Weaver Prize for the baseball issue). Email: buffyshutt[at]gmail.com

Love Means Nothing

Beaver’s Pick
DS Levy


Photo Credit: Dustin Gray/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

The Tennis Champ of the Whole Wide World drills forehands at the backboard with the accuracy of a cold-hearted laser beam. The green wall with its imaginary net issues a dull echo: Thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump. The Tennis Champ of the Whole Wide World could drill like this all day. She’s a machine that never misses. Before the yellow ball ricochets off the backboard she’s already got her Ultra-Lightweight Composite Professional Tennis Racquet Endorsed by The Tennis Champ of the Whole Wide World’s extra-wide head poised to pounce. Overhead, the sun crosses. Her shadow dances west to east, the pleats on her white tennis skirt flounce up and down. Geese fly high overhead in pattern. The moon rises. Lightning bugs dodge her blistering forehands. Orion cinches his belt a little tighter. The Big Dipper looks like a ball-hopper she doesn’t need. Her boyfriend walks down the asphalt path. She hears his sneakers before catching a glimpse of his shaggy brown hair. He laces his fingers between the chain-link fence, pokes his nose through and whispers: “Are you ever, ever coming in?” The Tennis Champ of the Whole Wide World says yes, no, maybe. When you’re a winner, you have to stay on top of your game. Everyone wants to knock you off the trophy perch. “In tennis,” she reminds him, “‘love’ means nothing.” And when he trudges off into the dark, she blasts the nap of the fluorescent ball and the hollow ping it makes echoes in the darkness. The Tennis Champ of the Whole Wide World isn’t willing to lose—not even her own cold, uncompromising heart: Thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump.

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DS Levy’s work has been published in New Flash Fiction Review, Little Fiction, MoonPark Review, Cotton Xenomorph, The Alaska Quarterly Review, Columbia, Brevity, and others. Her collection of flash fiction, A Binary Heart, was published in 2017 by Finishing Line Press. Email: deblevy[at]frontier.com