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!

pencil

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 Crystal Bowl

Fiction
Sydney Parrish


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pencil

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

Complicated Grief

Fiction
Ashley Lewin


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you. Sorry.”

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

*

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

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

“Hey there, sporty ladies.”

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

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

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

“Sorry.”

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

*

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

*

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

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

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

“Shouldn’t we get Bev?”

“No, just you and me. Come on!”

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

“Kicking and screaming. No Karina?”

“She had a work thing. Next time.”

“So, you are back together?”

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

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

“I saw Lesley on the plane.”

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

“What did she say?”

“We didn’t talk.”

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

“Did you see Lesley look at me?”

“She’s here?”

“She’s heading for the bathrooms.”

“You should go talk to her.”

The confidence Regina found on the plane has evaporated.

“We’re adults now.”

*

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

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

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

“We’ll still sit together, right?”

“No.”

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

“Can we play after school at my house?”

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

*

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

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

“Is the skate park still there?”

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

The guys place a hand over their hearts.

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

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

Regina turns to Beverly.

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

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

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

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

“Have you seen Lesley?”

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

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

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

“Let me in.”

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

“Why are you here?”

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

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

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

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

The serene smile never leaves Lesley’s lips.

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

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

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

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

pencil

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

The Deposition Of Brother James

Fiction
Nicholas Finch


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course,” said the lawyer.

“I was a CPA then,” said the monk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So you are.”

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

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

“Oh, no. Of course, we can. Sure.”

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

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

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

The room was warm, stagnant.

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

“No, of course not,” said Brother.

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

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

“All right, yeah.”

And so, they did.

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

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

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

“I was a CPA. Before my wife died.”

“When did you become a brother exactly?”

“I was consecrated in 1994.”

Christopher’s shirt began sticking to the armpits.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you have any, uh, remnants?”

“Probably. Likely so.”

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

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

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

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

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

“For me? Sorry. What about me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pardon?”

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

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

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

“Was she on the crosswalk?”

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

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

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

“No—it’s nothing.”

“Is it your wife?”

“No.”

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

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

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

“Cobalt?” asked Christopher.

“It’s a type of blue.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, I was close.”

“How close?” asked Christopher.

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

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

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

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

The phone, again.

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

“Is it Mrs. Rifino?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Were you about to cross, too?”

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

“Is it Mrs. Rifino?”

“Pardon? What did you say?”

“Is it Mr. Rifino?”

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

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

The lawyer rewound, again:

“Is it Mrs. Rifino?”

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

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

“Brother James,” said Christopher.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, I’m not. I’m not.”

“Aren’t you?” Brother James asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you play golf?” asked the lawyer.

“Not anymore.”

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

“Never.”

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

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

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

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

“No shower? No teeth brushing?”

“No.”

“What did you put on?”

“A habit.”

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

“I consecrated myself to Mary.”

“More prayer, okay. And after that?”

“More prayer,” said Brother James.

“In Aramaic?” asked Christopher.

“And English, and Latin.”

“Good for you.”

“Is there a problem, Mr. Szmyt?”

“No breakfast?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It ended up being so, yes.”

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

Brother James did not respond.

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

“Yes.”

“Did she appear to be intoxicated?”

“Not especially,” said Brother James.

“Did you see her drink?”

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

“Where? When?”

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

“What was she wearing?” asked the lawyer.

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

“What were you wearing, Brother?”

“I’ve already said. A habit.”

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

“So? Why does that matter?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I was not spying.”

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

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

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

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

“Shoot.”

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

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

“What does she do? For work, I mean.”

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

“And you two have kids?”

“We do,” said Christopher.

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

“It is.”

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. Email: emmawilliamson23[at]hotmail.com

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

The Letter

Fiction
Bartosz Maj


Photo Credit: Sylva K. Ficová/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

She sat in the middle of the cell. I don’t remember how I could see her but I remember she didn’t see me. The cell was filthy, but she wasn’t. Her uniform was fresh, her blonde hair straight and her pale skin vibrant. I was seven. I later found out she was eighteen.

The cell was small. Almost claustrophobic. I wanted to talk to her but I was too shy then. I knew mother was looking for me. She hated it when I wandered off. Even then I knew I had found something I wasn’t supposed to have. So I kept my mouth shut. At first out of fear of mother. After that I’m not sure.

*

My eighth birthday was an extravagant affair. More extravagant than I wanted it to be. More extravagant than it should have been. Though of course in reality it had nothing to do with me.

My memories of it clash with each other, and sometimes I can’t know what was real and what was not. It took place at our villa. It was a bright warm day, as is every day after all, and the adults were all grouped around gazing at their prized possessions.

The walls were white. Everything was white all the time. The pillars, the walls, the dresses. The world was spotless, though no one ever cleaned it. I never questioned it. A part of me didn’t have to question it; I always knew really.

I had to talk to everyone though I don’t remember anyone I spoke to. It’s impressive they were all so forgettable; our community only consisted of forty people after all.

Community.

I know mother made a speech. I don’t remember most of what she said but the word community stood out. The adults cheered for and applauded it. The clapping echoed on. No one wanted to seem ungrateful for the community. No one wanted to be the first to stop clapping. To the children it seemed amusing, but now it seems pathetic.

*

By the time I was nine I had already spoken to her many times.

The cell scared me when I saw it. In a world of polished whiteness it was the only place with grey walls.

At first it was the fear that stopped me from going back, but with time I convinced myself it showed my moral virtue. After all who was I to disobey my mother and go wandering where I wasn’t meant to? But the curiosity of a child wipes away the lies we tell ourselves.

When we spoke for the first time we were both different than when I first saw her. I had grown, but she had withered.

She was frail. Old. Too old for a nineteen-year-old. Too old for anyone really.

The first few times I spoke to get her attention she ignored me. There was a pile of books in the corner and one on her lap. She sat cross-legged in the centre of the cell reading her book, positioned so that the paper was illuminated by the sunlight that forced itself through the small slits at the top of the walls.

Later she told me she learned to ignore the voices. There was always someone talking, though no one ever spoke to her directly. Well, except for me I suppose.

*

As the birthdays went on the extravagance became obnoxious. Things never stopped being white, but with time we gained new colours. Our roads became surrounded by trees, our gardens grew vibrant with grass and our skies became more saturated. It never rained. It always rained in my history books, but it never rained for us.

Mother didn’t seem to age, none of us did. The children grew stronger, more intelligent, fiercer, but the adults didn’t seem to get old. No one got grey hairs, no one got wrinkles, and no one ever became frail.

She became frail. She was almost always frail. I don’t remember a time when she wasn’t but with time it became more than frailty. More than vulnerability. Exhaustion.

As I grew I had more time, and more access. No one ever had any jobs, but we had responsibilities. We had no builders, no plumbers, no electricians and no cleaners. I only knew of them because of their brief mentions in books I read and even then they were just that. Brief mentions. No one ever paid them much attention apparently.

We were told we were gifted and lucky to be a part of the community. Our only responsibility was to study. So I studied history.

The historians I read always seemed to feel connected to history. They were aware of their place in it, but I seemed to exist outside of it. There were no records leading up to our century. We had no century. The only time we had was our own age, and I only learned the concept of a century from the history books.

I asked mother what century we were in, she looked at me with her usual indifference and said, “We are beyond history my dear. We learned all there was to learn from the past.” It seemed my curiosity was more than just adolescent craving because I wasn’t satisfied with the answer. I was never satisfied with any answer.

I asked everyone. The librarian. The philosophers. The teachers. The students. Everyone gave the same answer as if they knew something I didn’t. The more I read the more distant I felt, though I presume that would have happened regardless of what I did with my time.

*

She listened to my stories. She listened like no one else did. I told her of the ancients. The myths of Heracles and the murder of Caesar. Of the word of Jesus and the collapse of civilisation. Alfred’s dream of England, Charlemagne’s Paris, the Hussars at Vienna and the Ottomans at Constantinople.

The Italians’ art. The Americans’ freedom. France’s blood. Napoleon’s failure. The Soviets’ prisons. Hitler’s solution.

Then came the fall from grace of humanity. If you could call it grace. A second darkness brought by arrogance. Humanity lost their respect for their gods. They lost their humility and stopped looking at themselves with judgement. They replaced judgement with righteousness, caution with blind pursuit.

My history books stop there. They talk of the fall of humanity but nothing else. Not of how we got here, who we are or where we are. But her books are different. Her books talk of what happened after.

*

By the time I was fifteen, an ocean had settled itself behind the villa. The outskirts of our community had been nothing but a white horizon before. I questioned it but no one had answers. Satisfactory ones, at least.

The adults seemed to grow stronger. With time I realised it wasn’t just that they didn’t age, but something more than that. Their youth returned to them. Their skin became brighter, their hair healthier and their bodies firmer. But still they had no answers.

With time I saw mother less and less. We were never told what the parents did. They had offices, in which they would pass their time, and then would come out to meet the others.

I remember as a child we used to have dinners. Humble but filling dinners. With time the dinners became more extravagant. We drank wine, fed on the corpses of animals, laughed with each other. At each other? The distinction was frail sometimes. I could usually forget about the girl in the cell after enough wine, though never for long. With time everything started reminding me of her for she spoke of everything, and it was impossible to separate the world I lived in from her.

She never complained about the cell. She never questioned it as if it was a matter of life that couldn’t have been any different. I complained, though only to myself. As I drank the wine I felt her around me. The sunlight reminded me of her hair and the ocean of her eyes. I never complained to anyone else. With age I began to notice the futility of voicing one’s true concerns.

*

When I was sixteen, she struggled to read, so I read for her. I would come to her every day by then. I would study during the day, drink in the afternoons and read to her in the evenings.

Her books taught me what my own could not. Of the savageness of humanity after its collapse. The collapse of community and the rise of tribes. The concept of humanity eroded with time as people became animals. It frightened me, but I couldn’t stop reading.

She would collapse many nights, fall asleep on the concrete floor out of fatigue, but I would continue reading long into the night. I was more frightened of waking up to another day than I was of reading about our cruel past.

From the savage times rose civilisation. Or at least they called it civilisation. Communities built on sacrifice. The utility of the community was in its bonds. The sacrifices of the few allowed the many to prosper in a community, though sometimes it was more than that. It was a family and the family was not free of its share of sacrifices.

*

“Have I ever told you the story of Dorian Grey?” I asked her one evening.

“I don’t think you have, no,” she said faintly. She was sitting down, leaning against the wall, doing her best to keep focused.

“He was a beautiful man, though he knew his beauty would end one day. He loved the immoral sides of life, and so he could continue enjoying them he traded his soul for eternal beauty and youth. He lived a life of pleasure and experience whilst a painting of him took the beating of his dying soul. The painting withered as he endured.”

“How does it end?” she asked.

“It doesn’t really matter how it ends. When he wants to change his path it’s already too late.”

*

When I was eighteen, mother asked me into her office. It was the first time she asked me to do anything instead of commanding it. It was also the first time I was ever in her office. It was painfully white like the rest of our community, but certain aspects were bogged down by darker shades. Her desk was black. Her walls white but her carpets grey. Her bookshelves were brown but the books were white, just like all the books I ever studied from.

But some weren’t white. Some were like the books which weren’t mine. The books from the cell. Her books.

“I’m glad you and your sister got along,” she said as she sat down behind her desk. She smiled. I had never seen her smile before. It was a tired smile. I had never seen her tired before.

“I don’t have a sister.” I looked at her, startled. I thought I knew what she meant but I didn’t want to.

“We both know that’s not true.” She looked at me with… pity? Or does she pity herself?

I paused.

“Why is she in that cell? Your own daughter?” I felt anger rise up within me. I’d never been angry before.

“And if she was a stranger’s child would it be any less detestable what we did to her?”

“We? I didn’t put her there. I was her friend, her only friend.” The anger didn’t last long, and soon something else rose.

“You didn’t think our pleasures came from nothing did you? You read the books. You read of the sacrifice.”

It was shame. Shame was rising in me. She pitied us both.

“Why is she the sacrifice?” I turned from her, walked to the windows in her office, and looked at the ocean. It suddenly seemed far less vibrant.

“Why is she the sacrifice?” I asked again.

“The community votes.”

“I never voted.”

“You don’t get to vote. You’re a child.”

I didn’t question it. I knew she wasn’t wrong.

“She’s dead,” she said.

The world became blurred like it never had before. I felt my eyes water but the tears didn’t come. It almost felt like it didn’t matter. She couldn’t have died. She never lived.

The ending doesn’t matter when the path’s already been chosen.

“Has the community chosen the next sacrifice?”

*

They gave me a pen and a piece of paper. It was more than they gave her.

I don’t resist my punishment. I feel like I deserve it. It’s not meant to be a punishment. It’s sacrifice for the greater good. It’s practical. Cold. Calculated. But it’s my punishment. I see it as my punishment. For the path I took and never thought to stray from.

I only ever write one thing and that’s this letter. The letter of my life, and the only meaningful thing I gathered from it.

Nothing is worth trading everything for.

So I sit. Like she sat. I wither away as I read all the books I could ever dream of. The books I once dreamed of, and now have all to myself.

I sit hoping one day someone will read my letter and understand it.

pencil

Bartosz Maj is an unpublished short story writer and an International Relations student at Durham University in Britain, who holds British and Polish dual citizenship. He has an education rooted in history and politics, and this heavily influences his writing through laying a foundation of ideas and events from which he draw his inspiration. Email: bmaj3035[at]gmail.com