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

Artichoke Heart

Fiction
Marie Barry


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

The phone rang at what should’ve been the crack of dawn, but it wasn’t. The amount of light streaming in through the window in the kitchen clearly suggested close to the afternoon, 11:32 according to the microwave clock.

Brian blinked slowly, cradling his mug of coffee, listening to the insistent blaring of the apartment landline. He knew exactly who was calling, and why. With a sigh, he reached for the receiver right as the voicemail clicked on. “H’lo?”

“Hello, Brian? Hi. This is Karen Wexler from BMCC. We have you on our substitute teacher list for city high schools. We need coverage tonight for one of our high school extension classes. Are you available?”

In the last three years of doing odd jobs around every inch of New York City, including substitute teaching at a variety of schools in which he hoped to never be asked to go to again, Brian had somehow never been approached to sub at a community college. It sounded intriguing, at least, even though he would still be working with high schoolers, and he could use the money towards his next rent payment.

One of these years his gigs with the band would take off and he wouldn’t have to spend hours looking up subway times and thinking of amusing stories to tell kids who always looked so bored, their eyes on cell phones clenched in fists under desks that he could see but chose to ignore. “Yes, I’m free this evening. What’s the assignment?”

“Oh fabulous, we appreciate your availability on such short notice. It’s at our main campus on Chambers Street, from 7:30–9:00. Intro to Cooking 101. We’ll forward you the assignment to the email we have on file. Please try to be there by no later than seven. Security will check you in at the entrance.”

With nothing else to say, Brian exchanged pleasantries with Karen Wexler and hung up. His coffee had grown cold in his hands, but he sipped it anyway; it was gross, which is what he had expected.

Brian’s eyes trailed towards the stove of his very small kitchen. He stared at the burners, blackened by whomever had lived there before him.

In the three years of living in his apartment, Brian had never once turned them on.

 *

The last time Brian had attempted cooking he was eighteen years old, at home, and his adventures in pan-frying a grilled cheese had resulted in his sister having to call the fire department.

She had definitely overreacted. The smoke seeping out the open kitchen windows after they had been told to leave unfortunately backed her up.

His mother had told him he wasn’t allowed to cook again until he took lessons. Brian was both a good son and incredibly lazy, so of course he obliged and stuck to a steady fare of take-out and microwavable meals.

 *

The cooking lab at BMCC was very unassuming. There were several stove tops, a wall of pots and pans and other tools, and a handful of Bunsen Burners, which seemed a bit suspicious, but Brian was none-the-wiser to how normal that was. Poking around the cabinets and refrigerator, Brian wondered how he should be proceeding. It seemed that the one ingredient he needed for the class was eluding him. There were no artichokes in sight.

The lesson plan he had received was about cooking artichoke hearts. Artichokes were a food that Brian had never cooked, never seen anyone cook, and automatically associated bad memories with—his grandmother had forced him to eat them at Christmas dinner every year until she died, choking them down with a lasagna he didn’t particular care for either.

He was beginning to wish he hadn’t answered the phone.

He was also beginning to wonder where he was going to find fifteen artichokes on such short notice.

*

Brian was ten web searches and five phone calls to local bodegas and supermarkets later when the door to the classroom creaked open. A man with a full beard, mustache, and longer hair than most of the girls he had ever considered asking out hustled into the room. He held bulging grocery bags in each hand and was muttering under his breath, the expression on his face suggesting that he seemed to be about as happy to be there as Brian did.

The door slipped closed.

“Who’re you?” the long-haired man asked.

Brian tried to ward off a frown. He wasn’t so sure that this wasn’t one of his students; most of the high schoolers he had taught before were apathetic, but a few had been rude, and it looked like this one was toeing that line spectacularly. “I’m your substitute. You can call me Mr. Sella.”

The man laughed, settling the bags on one of the tables. “I’m not one of your students. I’m Dr. Ziegel’s TA. You can call me Matt.”

Brian blinked. This had suddenly gotten awkward. “No one mentioned there’d be a TA,” he said, his voice very quiet as he wondered vaguely if having a TA in community college was normal or not. He watched as Matt began to unload the grocery bags, artichokes appearing one by one until twenty were piled closely together.

He smirked. “Everyone seems to forget I exist because I don’t have a doctorate yet. Lucky for you I’ll be teaching the cooking tonight. You just need to teach the kids about the artichoke mafia.”

Brian blinked. He really shouldn’t have answered his phone earlier. “The artichoke… what?”

Matt strode over, grabbing Brian’s phone. He typed away for a few seconds and then placed it back down, an article open with a picture of Fiorello La Guardia holding an artichoke prominently displayed. “Get reading. Most of them arrive about ten minutes early.” And with that he returned to his pile of artichokes, beginning to place one at each seat.

*

Brian learned a lot that night. First and foremost, an artichoke was technically a flower, but also a vegetable. He had jokingly posed the question: Does that make all flowers vegetables? to his students and Matt, none of whom had laughed, the latter groaning loudly in the back of the room. Second and just as important, the mafia apparently thought artichoke racketeering was a smart idea. Kidnapping, extortion, and murder were suddenly all being caused by the selling of their artichokes, and they were banned in New York during the mid-1930s. The ban lasted for a week, artichokes growing in popularity once the word was out that the mafia was pedaling them for exorbitant prices.

He had zoned out immediately following Matt’s takeover of the lesson, occasionally watching some of what the TA was up to but mostly just scrolling through his phone. Matt had whipped his hair up into a man-bun because of course he was probably edgy in that way and having loose long hair while cooking was a bad idea, but he moved with an ease amongst the students that Brian would’ve been jealous of if he was actually interested in teaching full time.

Open artichoke heart surgery was being performed by the class when Matt sidled up to him. “You want in on this?” he asked, offering an artichoke to Brian.

Brian glanced down at the plant-vegetable. “Not really. Last time I attempted to cook I almost burned my house down.”

Matt stared at him. “Are you one of those people?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“They really got a substitute for a cooking class who has no interest in cooking?”

“I have enough money to buy pre-made food. I think I’m doing just fine.”

Matt sighed loudly. “I told them I could handle this on my own. No one listens to me. Maybe if I had that fucking PhD.” He dropped the artichoke in front of Brian, heading to check on one of the students, muttering about lack of higher education degrees.

Brian looked down at the artichoke. The green vegetable seemed harmless enough just sitting there, waiting to be dissected, its heart cut out and cooked in a garlic tomato sauce. The latter was currently simmering in a pot, two students overseeing that it wasn’t burning.

He glanced across the room. Matt was busy instructing a student how to hold a knife properly to slice the outer parts of the artichoke off without getting cut or ruining the heart. He watched as Matt demonstrated the motions a few times, going slow enough to be imitated, smiling brightly when the student perfectly copied him.

He had a nice smile when he wasn’t muttering moodily.

Brian jumped up suddenly. That was not a thought he should be having now.

Matt looked up at him. “You good?” he asked, an eyebrow raised.

Brian glanced down. Apparently he had knocked the artichoke onto the floor along with two cookbooks and his cell phone. Fabulous. He scrambled to pick everything up. Glancing up, he could see Matt watching him, an amused smirk on his face.

That look was not doing anything to calm Brian’s sudden nerves. He ran his hand through his dark hair, trying to think how he could play this off.

“You know what, maybe I will attempt to cook this thing,” he announced, waving the artichoke around with flourish. A few of the students glanced his way.

Matt grimaced. “I don’t know if I feel comfortable letting you use one of these knives if you don’t know how to cook.”

Brian rolled his eyes, waving an artichoke-clenched hand dismissively in Matt’s general direction. “I know my way around sharp objects,” he announced, receiving more glances from the students and a wide-eyed stare the TA, “Trust me. I can handle a knife.”

He placed the artichoke down at one of the stations, picking up a knife. “The heart’s at the bottom of this thing, right?” he asked, slicing at the base.

A few red drops fell onto the table. Brian raised an eyebrow. Apparently artichoke hearts had blood in them. That was strange.

The room had grown oddly silent.

“You are one of those people,” Matt muttered, grabbing Brian’s bleeding hand.

*

Several stitches and half a foot of gauze later, Brian’s hand was bound and healing. He thanked the doctor and nurses and hoped the bill wasn’t going to absolutely murder his bank account. Gathering his things, he sheepishly entered the waiting room of the hospital. Matt was sitting in one of the plastic chairs, the hood of his jacket pulled up over his head. He had his phone out and he was thumbing listlessly at the screen.

Brian was standing completely in front of him before Matt even raised his head. “You’ll survive?” he asked, and while his voice was even, Brian noted humor shining in his dark eyes.

“Barely. The only cure is to never sub a cooking class again.”

Matt chuckled, rising out of his seat. “Not to insult you or anything, but I wouldn’t be expecting a phone call from BMCC again anytime soon.”

“I think I’ll be okay with that.”

They rode downstairs in the elevator in silence. Brian kept glancing at Matt out of the corner of his eye. Matt was looking up at the lights in the ceiling, a pleasant expression on his face.

Brian wondered what happened next. The night had certainly been an adventure, and he wasn’t sure if it was one of those nights you just ended with a goodbye and never spoke about again. He could also offer to buy Matt a drink, or invite him back, or something that… didn’t sound quite like he was insinuating a date.

They walked through the sliding doors onto the sidewalk. A brisk wind tousled Brian’s hair and blew Matt’s back over his shoulder. Matt turned to face him, hands shoved deep in his pockets.

“So, Mr. Sella. Where do you live from here?”

“A few subway stops north. I’m in Washington Heights.”

Matt nodded with recognition. “Washington Heights is chill. I’ve been up there with friends a few times.”

“Yeah, it’s a fun area. At least I can afford a place there.”

Matt laughed. “And that’s the dream, isn’t it?”

“It is when you’re paying for it on your own.”

“Oh, no roommate or girlfriend?”

Brian paused, taking a moment to think about the question. Matt was staring at him, looking perfectly innocent. It wasn’t weird to ask if you lived with somebody, but he couldn’t tell if Matt was just asking for the sake of being polite or if he was trying to find something out.

He sorted his words for a moment longer. “No, that’s, uh, not really my thing.” He threw in a smile, hoping it didn’t look awkward even though Brian knew he looked awkward. He finger gunned Matt for the hell of it, because what else did he have to lose that night?

Matt stared at him, with eyebrows raised. “Roommates aren’t your thing, or…?”

“Go with the or.”

“Oh.” Matt nodded, glancing away. “That’s cool. I don’t really do the or much either.”

“Oh.” Brian looked away as well. “That’s fun. Interesting how that works out for both of us.”

“Very interesting.”

“Is it interesting enough that you’d consider letting me get you a drink sometime? Or dinner? I do owe you anyway for taking me to the hospital.”

Brian chanced looking down. Matt was looking at him, his expression guarded, hands still shoved deep in his pockets. His eyes were bright, however, and that seemed to be very promising. “I would consider doing dinner,” he said slowly, his face still very smooth. “But with one condition.”

“What’s that?”

Matt paused, looking at him for a long second. A smile slowly broke over his face. “You don’t do any cooking.”

Brian felt insulted for one brief moment before he smiled back just as bright. “I don’t know if I can agree with that. I was planning on cooking you artichoke hearts in a garlic tomato sauce.”

“You ever touch an artichoke again I’ll slice your hand for you.”

Brian laughed, his insides warm. “All right. I’ll stay away from that. No cutting artichokes for me. Deal?” He reached out his non-injured hand into the space between them.

Matt’s eyes shined as he glanced down. He reached out, and their hands met in the middle. “Deal.”

It was supposed to just have been a handshake.

Brian doesn’t mind when it isn’t.

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Marie Barry was born, lives, and writes in the state of New York. She has been published in Esprit and Down in the Dirt Magazine. When not moonlighting as a writer, she teaches high school. Email: mariebarrywrites[at]gmail.com

The Silent Sentinel

Fiction
Priyadarshini Banerjee


Photo Credit: Andy Howell/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

She couldn’t recall when exactly the mango tree had been planted in the field. As a child, she wasn’t interested in acquiring that knowledge and as an adult; she had trouble finding someone who could give a reliable account.

The mango tree had always been there, facing the north-west. The only one of its kind in the vicinity. Had her father played near the sapling when they were young? She never asked. She spent summer holidays with her maternal grandparents, who lived in another town. It was a vacation filled with splashing in the club’s swimming pool as her grandmother gossiped with the neighbouring ladies, learning pottery from her experimental grandfather, colouring to her heart’s content (often, sections of the wall became canvas to her creative inspirations), additional nap-time stories in her grandmother’s public school English accent and endless, cool summer treats. But as the vacation neared its end, she would return to her one-storied house. It was a few minutes away from the field which played host to youngsters of all ages, their parents remaining indoors to escape the stifling summer heat.

It was under the cool shade of the young mango tree that their friendship bloomed. The sweet scent of the tree in summer blew over the two heads bent together, discussing their birthday presents and comparing Miss Rita’s strict rules of conduct to Savitri Madam’s variety of punishments. Upon asking her father for a bicycle so she could race with her other friends, she received a set of coloured pencils to draw one. As she rushed to her room in a fit of temper, she missed the pinched twist of her mother’s lips and the helpless sigh from her father. The branches of the mango tree bore witness to the rantings of the ten-year-old, wishing that God would grant her all that he easily demanded from his parents.

Seasons later, the tree fell prey to Officer Shastri’s wife, who felt that the garden-park could benefit from her green thumb. The economy had prospered, so the town developed. Housing societies grew along the edges of the once vast field till it shrank to the size of an extensive park. The grumpy gardener Gopal was tasked to cut down the branches that could damage the walls of the surrounding houses. The bare branches of the tree saw the girl longingly gaze at the object of her affections as he skated past the pavement surrounding the park. That summer saw the bloom of their love; hushed giggles permeated the air and the whispers of sweet promises rustled the green leaves of the mango tree. The playfulness of childhood has given way to the passion of adolescence. Reclining against the trunk, she gazed at the moon as his head rested upon her bosom, wishing for the ardour to last beyond that moment.

One monsoon, she took refuge under the umbrella of dripping mango leaves from a torrential downpour. The grey skies matched her pallor as the rain washed away her tears. She felt as though the blustery wind had blown away the foundation of her love. The yellow leaves, like the tears from her pale visage, had fallen before the biting winds of winter’s wrath. Cocooned in his bungalow, he agreed to his father’s request to finish schooling at the city’s premier institution. For ambition and talent were the roots of grand success and couldn’t be compromised for the scattered leaves of youthful folly.

She relished the green mangoes of the spring, suckling the salted pieces with one hand and caressing her protruding belly with the other. The fragrance of spring blossoms drowned the stench of the town’s gossip as she ambled along the park’s sidewalk with her widowed mother.

Under her careful supervision, the boy plucked the ripe mangoes hanging from the lower branches. Alongside the store-bought apples, they enjoyed the yellow-orange pieces of the juicy fruit after the sumptuous picnic lunch. She sat in the tree’s shade, watching her son play hide-and-seek, creating untainted childhood memories. Sometimes she read stories to him; occasionally she narrated memories from her childhood. At sunset, mother and son walked home hand-in-hand.

She never glanced back at the mango tree that had stood witness to countless stories from its birth. A weathered guardian of the realm of men, it would continue to do so until chopped away to provide land for our desires.

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An alumnus of Jesus and Mary College, Priyadarshini holds a Master’s Degree in History from the University of Delhi. A voracious reader of novels and short stories of all genres from a young age, she is passionate about literature and dancing. Being part of the editorial team of her school magazine, had set her off on the journey of writing. She loves to scribbles poems and fictional tales. Email: pbanerjee1309[at]gmail.com

Five-Thirteen

Fiction
Genevieve Allen


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

It was five-thirteen on a Sunday afternoon, and I could barely breathe through the fingers clamped over my mouth.

The day was still hot—paving stones on the patio holding the sun, warm-watered goldfish ponds furred with algae—so hot the very air felt thick. All was quiet outside of our stuffy little bubble. The orderly streets of the suburbs were almost deserted as teatime drew near, the cabbage smell of people’s Sunday lunches slowly replaced by lighter evening meal preparations, cigarette smoke and gin and lemon. In the stillness, I could just make out the warbling of the radio inside the house, the thin, laughing cries of children a street or two away, yet to be called inside by their mothers.

I breathed in through my nose, hard and quick. The potting shed smelt of wood stain, of compost and my father’s wilting tomato plants. Under my bare feet, sore with a blister from the after-lunch walk my mother had insisted on, the shed floor was gritty, and cobwebs bunched in the corners.

“You have to be quiet, Iris,” Julia whispered through a giggle, moved her hand carefully away from my mouth. Her fingers were hot and damp and smelt faintly of a lunch she’d probably helped prepare: thyme and carrots and gravy granules. “Or we’ll be caught.”

“I know,” I said, already feeling silly about the noise I’d let slip the moment Julia’s mouth had touched mine. “You caught me by surprise.”

She laughed, a soft and quiet mumble behind her lips, the cotton of my dress bunched in her hand. “Then perhaps this time, it won’t be a surprise.”

I let Julia kiss me again, my head humming blank and body hot, nose full of the smell of old wood and Julia’s lily of the valley. Her lips were greasily dry under their coat of peach lipstick, her stockings rough on my bare calf. After an immeasurable time she broke away, smiled at me before she made to slip out of the potting shed door.

“You’ll be there later, won’t you?” she said just before she left, a dark shape against the brightness of the sky, “I’ll wait for you, by The Lamb.”

“Yes,” I said, too turned around to form any other reply. “Yes, of course.”

I let her go. Not that I was able to do much else, left slackened and overwhelmed by what we’d done. I liked boys, of course I did. I’d let Tommy kiss me after he’d taken me to the pictures last week. He was sweet. But I liked Julia too, smiling into my clenched hand like a fool over her, running my lips over my fingernails like there might be a trace of her left behind.

“Iris?” my mother called from outside, and the sound of my name coming muffled through the shed walls brought me back to myself. “Where’ve you gotten to?”

Smoothing my sweatily mussed hair, I unlatched the door and stepped out, sun making me squint after the dim closeness of the potting shed. My mother’s gardening gloves, abandoned at my father’s call for the first drink of the evening, were left on the lawn by a bed of half-weeded begonias. I walked around from the back garden to the front, bare feet smarting on the hot paving stones. The tops of them were pinked from too much time in the sun, two neat, white stripes left behind by my sandals.

“Have you caught the sun, Iris love?” my mother said, touching my face as I sat next to my father on the worn tartan blanket. I thought I probably had, though I wasn’t sure how much of it was sunburn and how much of it was Julia. Unbidden, I imagined her expectant face looking up and down the street outside the pub, pale in the dusk as she waited for me.

“Thinking about Tommy Parker, no doubt,” my brother piped up with a wink, avoiding the halfhearted swat delivered from my father for his teasing. “She’s pink to the ears.”

“It’s the sun,” I said with as much tartness as I could manage, and lay back to play at flipping through one of mother’s magazines. Tommy Parker was the furthest thing from my thoughts.

I let my eyes land without seeing on thrifty recipes and tips for adjusting old dresses to new fashions, as my family continued to bicker back and forth with practised good nature. I thought of myself as I would be later that evening, teeth clean and tucked up in bed, sound asleep and wilfully oblivious. Or I could be hurriedly trotting down the high street, eyes on the pavement and hoping not to be noticed as I sniffed out that longed for lily of the valley. Try as I might, I couldn’t quite reconcile myself with either of those potential girls. Each eventuality seemed equally impossible. I wondered which of them would win out as I settled on the wilting grass to listen to my family chatter, and read an article about a hair mask made of eggs.

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Genevieve Allen lives by the sea in Cornwall, UK. Whether it’s one hundred or one hundred thousand words long, she most enjoys pieces of writing that take you out of your life, however briefly, and into another. Email: gallen52[at]hotmail.co.uk

Small Town Magic

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Jennifer Pantusa


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pickpocket at the Farmer’s Market.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why Sam?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No kidding,” agreed Dot.

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

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

Maggie panicked. “Like this?”

“It’s not a fashion show.”

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

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

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

“Yes. It just seems unreal.”

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

“What are you trying to say?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fetch the Tuna

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Jason Porterfield


Photo credit: petrr/Flickr (CC-by)

Gordon Charles always tried to make an immediate impression whenever he stepped out in front of an audience. It mattered to him if there was a crowd, and it mattered to him that their eyes turned to him.

He dressed for the attention. A purple cape spilled from his shoulders to nearly brush the floor. His suit was the bright orange of a roasted butternut squash and clashed gloriously with the scarlet fedora that crowned his stringy dark hair. Tiny bells concealed in the cape jingled as he swooshed in and assumed center stage.

Today’s stage happened to arrive at Belmont, southbound for Fullerton and onward through Chicago’s Loop, to Chinatown and Hyde Park before terminating at 95th Street. Not that he would go that far on the Red Line. He usually got off after the train left the Loop, sometimes at Roosevelt, sometimes at Chinatown. Every now and then he would go all the way to 35th Street to catch the crowds going to White Sox games. He called the run his Mobile Baseball All-Star Magic Show.

Gordon didn’t always make it down that far. Sometimes riders were indifferent or outright hostile, jeering at his card tricks, his vanishing scarves, or at Little Gus, the fuzzy black cat who rode on his shoulder and played a key role in the show. Or riders called the police on him. Or train operators called the police on him. Or the police simply happened to be around and noticed him.

It was hard to hide while wearing an orange suit and a purple cape. If they didn’t notice the colorful attire, officers were sure to hear the bells. He became swift and agile in moving from car to car, weaving through the crush of passengers and up the stairs to the street.

He always called these brushes with law enforcement his greatest trick, announcing it to his audiences the minute he spotted law enforcement on a station platform.

“My last trick is called ‘The Magician Vanishes.’ Enjoy!” he would declare to the riders, whether they put a few dollars in the fedora and applauded or booed and threw things at him. Then through the doors, whether the main ones or one of the forbidden, between-car passageways to elude capture. Up and out. Swift and nimble. He was home-free as soon as he hit the street.

In the months he had worked this route, he had never been caught. There were some close calls, and there were times when he had to retreat from the Red Line in favor of the Brown or Purple lines on the elevated tracks. A cop almost grabbed Gus once, but the little cat ducked out of his grip. Another once blocked the stairway in front of Gordon, only to have the magician winkle under his grasping arm, the cape fluttering up into the cop’s face and causing him to lose his balance. He had sacrificed more than one of his props over time. They could be replaced and new tricks learned.

His favorite working time was four p.m. The trains weren’t yet crowded with work commuters. Instead, the riders were mostly tourists or people going to or returning from some attraction. Or they were fans going to games or leaving games. He liked the tourists best. It was easy to get children interested in his cups as he played the game out on a little folding table that he would extract from the depths of his cape. They followed the ball from one to the next, never spotting the moment he palmed it and always amazed that it wasn’t under any of them. Gus would purr on his shoulder.

He had one trick he perfected with Gus. Patience and long hours of hard work were required before they got it right, and there were still times that it didn’t work right.

He called it Fetch the Tuna. He would place Gus on the El car’s floor and call out “Fetch the tuna!” and the little cat would scamper through the car, all the way to the back. Even people who weren’t engaged in his cups or his cards would turn to watch the cat’s progress, giving the magician several seconds in which to slip wallets out of the back pockets of any standing riders near him. His subtle touch never failed him. The wallets disappeared into the folds of his cape before anyone noticed.

Gus would return from his charge through the train car to leap high into Gordon’s arms. The magician would exclaim “Good kitty!” and proceed to pull a long scarf decorated with a fish-print pattern from the cat’s ear to general applause. Even hostile audiences were typically impressed with that one. It usually functioned as the show’s finale and he would get off at the next stop. There was no point in hanging around long enough for the lucky riders to realize they had been robbed.

“It keeps you in wet food, little friend,” he would tell Gus. Gus didn’t really need Gordon to justify the trick. Gus was fine with the cat food, litter, catnip, and assorted toys that their riches brought them. “It’s just until I land myself a stage show. We’ll be under the lights, in front of a paying audience!”

Fetch the Tuna was turning out to be a lucrative trick. Gordon didn’t always have a chance to stage it due to police activity, hostile riders, or Gus’ occasional recalcitrance. If Gus refused to run, Gordon would produce a cat treat from his pocket and use that to tempt the cat into his arms. The trick could then proceed as usual, but without the pocket-picking that made it so worthwhile.

It was following one of those incidents that Gordon had his first talk with Benny Chain. He and Gus pulled off the abbreviated Fetch the Tuna, the audience applauded them he picked up a hat laden with coins and bills when a nicely dressed man standing nearby introduced himself.

Gordon was initially unnerved. Benny Chain had been one of his prospective marks. Gordon had already noted the position of Chain’s wallet (right rear pocket) shape (slender bi-fold) and speculated on its contents based on Chain’s suit (gas station card, platinum credit card, loyalty card from a yuppie grocery, ID, insurance card, and $320 in cash that would be used to tip valets, waiters and doormen). At first he panicked, wondering if Chain somehow read his thoughts and was about to pound him into a brightly colored paste. But Chain was smiling broadly and offering a broad, manicured hand to shake.

Gordon extended his own, noting the number (three) and size (huge) of the jeweled (diamond, diamond, ruby) rings on Chain’s fingers and the gold watch (Patek Philippe) on his wrist as they made contact. Chain’s hand was soft and his grip strong, that of a man who worked out in the gym and wore gloves while hitting the weights.

A card sharp, Gordon decided. A fellow tradesman whose fingers were sensitive enough to detect subtle bumps on the back of each card in a deck, distinguishing suits and values based on their pattern.

Chain introduced himself and Gordon returned the favor, while Gus took up his usual position on Gordon’s shoulder.

“You’re a talented man, Mr. Charles,” Chain said as Gordon tucked his little table, cups, and cards into his cape’s many pockets as the train pulled into Grand. The hat probably had $40 in it, he calculated as he stuffed the money in place. Not terrible for a five-stop ride without the full Fetch the Tuna. “How do you feel about getting paid for a little private performance?”

Chain had Gordon’s full attention at “paid.”

“How private?” he managed to ask calmly as he passed through the doors and into the station with Chain at his left elbow.

“It’s a very exclusive party,” Chain said, dropping his voice to a low whisper. “These are people you want to know. They can open doors for you.”

Visions of entertaining appreciative audiences who actually paid at a box office to see magic danced through Gordon’s mind. He could scarcely imagine what it would be like to not have to board trains, dodge the police, and pick pockets to get by. He and Gus could shop for real, without most of their excursions to the grocery store serving as opportunities to shoplift desirable commodities such as fresh broccoli and cans of tuna. Maybe he could move out of his basement apartment, the one that his landlord had illegally rehabbed in a building that certainly wasn’t adhering to the latest dictates of the city’s building codes.

Success means different things to different people. To Gordon, it meant living a little further away from the ragged fringe of society and paying his utility bills on time.

“I like this idea, Mr. Chain.”

“Benny. You call me Benny and we’ll get along great. You call me Mr. Chain and I’ll start looking over my shoulder to see if my gramps is behind me.”

“Okay, Benny. I am very interested in your proposal. I am, as you see, a working magician. Every magician wants to be noticed. We want bigger audiences. You saw where I perform. The idea of doing magic in a place that doesn’t move really appeals to me. I would appreciate this opportunity very much.”

Chain beamed. “Magnificent!” He clapped Gordon on the back. Gus clung to the cape as the blow pushed Gordon forward. Chain handed him a business card. “Call this number tonight. You’ll receive detailed instructions. They’ll also give you a quote on a fee for your services. It will be generous. I recommend that you accept it without haggling. Remember, these people can open doors for you.”

Three days later, Gordon stepped out of a hired car and onto a sidewalk with a briefcase containing his paraphernalia. Gus rode on his shoulder, as usual. The driver glared at the cat as they got in, but didn’t say anything. Or he could have been glaring at Gordon, who was dressed exactly as he ordinarily would for one of his El performances. Half of the money for the show had already been wired to his bank account. He had already made more on this show than he often made in a year. He wouldn’t let these people down.

He was in Lincoln Park, not far from the Red Line that kept him fed. The lake was east, its harbor full of boats that cost as much as homes in other parts of the city. This street was steps from the park itself, with its lagoons, nature areas, and zoo. He wondered if this job could eventually lead to him living in a neighborhood like this, alongside doctors and lawyers and bankers.

The home he was performing in was aggressively modern, its three-story facade a ringing endorsement of natural stone and reflective, polarized glass. A man with a polo shirt emblazoned with a logo matching the one on Chain’s business card ushered him inside and through a long hallway to a room that in more formal times would have been called a ballroom. Gordon gave in to the old habit of noting exits as he walked through, his eyes taking in the edgy abstracts lining the walls and the sculptures on every surface.

A quick mental headcount told him there were more people milling about in this room than could fit comfortably in three El cars. He brought his things to what appeared to be the front, where his back would be to the French doors leading out into the backyard. A phalanx of Benny Chain’s associates were preparing food and serving drinks out there as guests drifted in and out, enjoying unfettered access to the patio.

He set up, checked his equipment, and glanced at his watch. Three minutes until showtime. Gus nuzzled his neck and he gave the little cat a treat from up his sleeve. He noted Chain’s associates ushering people into the room and the chairs lined up on the floor. Definitely more than three train cars of people. Maybe a whole Friday afternoon train’s worth of people. Gordon experienced a small flutter of nervousness that he quickly repressed with visions of not having to filch wallets and groceries.

The watch ticked down to seven p.m. Everyone was seated. The French doors closed. He was pretty sure Chain’s people were locking them. A more captive audience than usual, he mused. Chain’s people ranged around the room, standing against the walls and in front of the doors. Some were in the halls. He watched one remove a painting. Another pair hefted a bronze statue and began dragging it down the corridor toward the entryway.

The nervousness returned and congealed into dread. He had been recruited into a robbery crew.

“How’re we gonna play this, little friend?” he whispered to Gus. Gus nuzzled him again. More treats, he seemed to be saying. The best way to handle adversity was to eat more treats.

“Good thinking, most valued assistant!” Gordon told the little cat. He rang his bell and all eyes turned forward.

“Ladies and gentlemen, prepare to be dazzled!” he announced. His voice boomed in the massive room. “You will see things tonight that you will never see again!”

He performed with fluid grace, the cape billowing and the orange suit seeming to glow as cards flashed, cups moved and items vanished, only to reappear. Fetch the Tuna worked like never before, as Gus made a circuit of the vast space, the audience and the workers alike following the cat’s progress and giving Gordon ample time to unlatch the door behind him. They roared their approval as Gus leaped into his arms and he pulled the scarf from his assistant’s ear.

“Oooh boy, this cat has some serious fish breath!” Gordon announced. “Maybe it’s time to clear the room. What do you think?” They applauded. He took a deep breath. “This one is called ‘The Magician Vanishes.’ Enjoy!”

The lights went out.

Gordon was sprinting east to the lakefront when they came on again, Gus secured inside his cape. He didn’t hear the roar of applause, or the murmur of confusion that followed when he didn’t reappear. He didn’t see Chain’s people scramble around, looking for the vanished magician. Nor did he see the event’s host realizing that the caterers were trying to make off with millions in inscrutable art, or the cops coming in to arrest Chain and the crew.

No one remembered anything about the magician, other than the colorful clothing.

They slowed at the lake. Gordon took Gus from his pocket and the little cat assumed his usual position on the magician’s shoulder.

“Maybe we’ll try one of those improv theaters that hosts talent nights next, little friend,” he said to Gus. “It was nice to be still for a while.”

Gus nuzzled his neck and was rewarded with a treat.

pencil

Jason Porterfield is a journalist, researcher, and writer living in Chicago. He is still looking for the ace of spades he made disappear when he was in elementary school. Email: jporterfield99[at]gmail.com

One of Wyeth’s Two-Hundred-and-Forty-Seven

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Jay Bechtol


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

Their indifference thickens. A kid in the back row shouts an insult. Nothing too clever, something about a rabbit. Or maybe how the rabbit escaped. Doesn’t matter. The party magician is paying more attention to the minute hand on the big grandfather clock in the corner. It crawls toward the six. Three minutes to go.

He pulls the two ropes between his thumb and forefinger, ensuring they show equal length, and snips one in half.

“Can’t wait to see him put it back together,” comes from the back row, the sarcasm as obvious as the trick he is performing.

The scissors, six inches of curved stainless steel reflect the purpling sky coming in through the open French doors. All of the adults outside in the garden drinking, getting a break from the kids. He snicks the blades apart and looks across the pond of young faces. Folding chairs holding the young birthday party attendees hostage. Most sit hoping the juggler is better, a few watch with interest. A line of tweens in the back push smirks onto their faces. He scans the back row trying to figure out which of the young punks is the heckler, chooses the girl in the middle, the one with dark braids draping down either side of her head onto the shoulders of her grey turtleneck. Her smirk seems a little more… practiced.

A grin of his own appears and he locks eyes with her. Without checking his ropes, he snaps the scissors closed. Swiftly and cleanly. Slicing through the first knuckle of his pinky finger and spraying the seven-year-olds in the front row with blood.

He is happy to see the smirk on the girl’s face vanish.

*

My head is starting to hurt. The way it does when things aren’t in order. “Where’s the finger?”

A young officer not much older than some of the kids from the birthday party leans forward.

“Right here, Sir… um, I mean Ma’am… uh, Detective.” He holds up a ziplocked baggie. He may be trying to hide behind it. The red rising in his face almost matches the pink fluid sloshing in the bag of ice.  He adds, “I poured in some milk.” From around the edge of the baggie he smiles at me hopefully as if that will make up for his inexperience.

It doesn’t. “Milk?”

“They told us at the academy that if you put the… the parts… in milk it makes it easier to attach later.”

“You think we’ll be reattaching this soon?” I was young once, but Jesus, some of these kids coming out are dim.

I turn away, leaving the kid stammering, without having the heart to tell him what he can’t figure out for himself. The finger is fake, just part of the magic trick the guy created to make the heist that much easier. The blood, the screaming children, the fireworks, the whole thing. A huge performance piece. Pretty clever, really.

I hate it when I’m impressed with the bad guys.

*

He waits for the kids to start running, which they do almost immediately. Knocking each other over to get out of the living room. Or parlor. Or however these self-obsessed idiots were describing rooms these days. One of the blood-covered seven-year-olds trips on a folding chair, knocking it sideways, and sprawls to the overly polished wooden floor. The child screams. In terror or pain, he isn’t sure. Besides, the more screaming, the more chaos.

Most head for the open doors that lead into the grand backyard garden. Where all of the parents are gathered. Some run in circles.

He steps over the sprawled child and navigates the other hurdles. Red still drips from his right hand. He reaches the staircase with the mahogany bannister, its wood matching the floor in the room below. He’s up the stairs, two at a time.

At the top of the stairs a corridor leads past a sentinel of closed doors. He ignores all of them, speeding toward the door at the end of the hallway. The door into the Treasure Room, as described by the magazine article.  He doesn’t hesitate and brings his foot up, his full weight behind it, perfectly placed just to the right of the doorknob. The jamb gives way with a loud crack and splinters fly into the room at the end of the hall. The door slams open.

*

I pull out my badge. Again. It’s bad enough when men want verification that I’m the detective in charge. It’s embarrassing when women do it.

“Gretchen Skyler?” the woman reads skeptically. Her eyes move back and forth between me and her husband. He is staring at me more intently than necessary.

“Yes, Mrs. Devonshire, I’m Detective Skyler. I’m glad you and your husband and children are okay.”

“And I assume you know my husband?” Her words escape through a smile is as thin as her waist. It’s hard to determine if there is anything else behind the question.

“Yes,” I nod. “I know the councilman. Our paths have crossed from time to time.” I give him my professional smile. He’s still staring at me a little too intently. I extend my hand, “Good to see you again Councilman Devonshire.”

He takes my hand and shakes awkwardly. His hands are smooth.

The throbbing in my head increases. As soon as I get upstairs, get some alone time with the crime scene, some order will restore. The psychologist at the precinct thinks I carry too many secrets. What the fuck does he know?

I push forward, “Neither of you saw the guy? The one you hired?”

The councilman has the wherewithal to act a little sheepish, his wife not so much. “The party planner we hired took care of all of those things,” she speaks coolly, like she’s accustomed to explaining things to the help. “Came highly recommended. So, no,” she puts her hand inside the councilman’s arm and pulls him closer, almost defiant, “no, we did not know The Charming Chaz, or Clarence the Juggling Clown, or any of the servers, or…” she trails off and raises a condescending eyebrow.

I nod and uncharacteristically my own judgement leaks. “Maybe rethinking that decision to have your home highlighted in Home & Garden a few weeks back? Your gardens and statues and treasures upstairs?”

Her thin lips somehow compress even tighter.

I glance at the councilman; he appears to be studying something on the carpet. “Okay,” I say, trying to get back on track by summoning my inner compassionate detective, “can you run through the whole thing again for me?”

*

In the room at the end of the hall there’s a large clock on the wall made from the steering wheel of a sailboat. The minute hand touches the six. The clock looks to be the cheapest thing by far. He is only interested in the paintings that fill the wall with signatures like O’Keefe, Wyeth, and Winslow. He knows the value, each painting potentially worth hundreds of thousands.

Somewhere behind him explosions begin. Whistles and howls of colorfully wrapped chemicals, spewing sparks and fire. He clinches his right hand and smiles. The party planner had been right, the fireworks start right on time.

He pulls the steering wheel from the wall and begins smashing it against the only window in the room. Double-paned sheets with no latches or sashes. On the eighth strike, one of the pane cracks. In two more blows the steering wheel bursts through. His arms ache, even after such a short workout. Red liquid splashes against the wall.

The alarm is going off, barely audible behind the curtain of sound produced by the fireworks echoing in the backyard.

He clears the last of the glass and peers through the window. Dusk is giving way to night and his eyes follow the roof’s slope, down to within about eight feet of the statue garden on the side of the house. Fifty yards past that are trees and he can just make out a hint of red that is a parked car on the street running between some of these mansions in the hills looking over the city.

The fireworks continue. Fireworks. For a seven-year-old’s birthday.

He turns back to the wall of paintings.

*

I have my peculiarities.

I usually take a half an hour, maybe forty-five minutes at the crime scene. All to myself putting the pieces in place. Until my head starts to feel better. I’m pretty sure there is something I’m missing on this one, it’s too simple for my head to be hurting like it does.

The story has come together. This guy reads the Home & Garden article, does a couple of searches online and gets hired as a last-minute replacement magician. He bores the kids for a while, sprays some fake blood everywhere, grabs a painting while the preset fireworks are going off. In the pandemonium, he’s out the window and gone. No one even heard the alarm going off.

I turn slowly in the room at the end of the hall. An antique gun rack, a closet door, a vintage writing desk, several sculptures, a broken window, twelve paintings… eleven, and one space where a painting used to be.

Mrs. Devonshire told me it was the Wyeth that was taken. Probably the least valuable painting in the room. Her expression made me think she was glad it was gone.

Two things are still fueling my headache. Of all the pieces to grab in this room, why that particular painting? There are certainly more valuable things, worth so much more on the black market. I wander to the window. The steering wheel clock sits on the roof tiles with crystals of broken glass. The finger is the other thing. Not the trick specifically, figure anyone can buy a kit these days, but something about the finger still pokes my brain.

It’s strange standing in this room, in this house, a year removed. It only happened twice but those smooth hands, I can still feel them on my neck. On my hips. We had been on a city commission together for a couple of months. I made the first move, the councilman made a clever comment, and I put my hand on his knee. I regret it now, but it happened.

I wonder if his wife knows.

I try to refocus. I look at the guns. Examine the desk, probably a Chippendale. I slide the drawers out. Empty. Just a trophy.

Why the one painting?

I stare at the spot on the wall where the painting hung. There are some drips of red goo on the floor, Jesus, how much fake blood did the guy make? Really wanted to sell the trick I guess.

Why this painting? It had been featured in the Home & Garden article, but so had most everything else. He would know the value of it…

I turn and look at the closet door. Likely as empty as the desk.

I pull the door open and in an instant my headache vanishes.

The closet is almost entirely empty, as I expected. It’s not very big. Against the back wall is the missing painting. Leaning there. The woman’s face turned away and her nude image sitting on a stool. I don’t remember much about Andrew Wyeth, but I’m fairly certain the woman in the picture is named Helga. Charles, my husband, would know. He loves art.

How had no one opened this door to check? I suppose the Devonshires would not have bothered, imagining it to be empty. But why hadn’t one of the uniforms popped it open? Would probably have cleared things up right away. I will need to have a little talk with the boys later. Explain to them the finer points of police work.

It hadn’t been a burglary after all. Something else entirely. And I have drastically underestimated the fill-in magician’s sleight of hand. How clever he really is. I realize why the pinky finger is tickling my brain.

Another burglary solved by detective extraordinaire Gretchen Skyler.

All of this goes through my brain in a flash. I open my mouth to speak, but I’m not sure any words come out.

*

He crouches in the closet waiting. Knowing that when the door opens it will be over. He hopes he has anticipated correctly.

He has.

The door opens and he lunges upward, driving the shears into her midsection under her ribcage. Into her beating heart. His arm goes around her back and he pulls her close, pressing their bodies together. He sees her eyes. There is almost no surprise in them. Just understanding. He hears her breathe out. A labored gurgle as blood fills her lungs.

“Hello, Gretchen,” he whispers into her ear and lowers her body to the ground.

He sees her jaw moving, maybe trying to speak, maybe trying to scream. Her eyes are still alive, watching him. He sees the sorrow there. Meaningless now. He slides the scissors out of her body. The blood from his own severed finger mixing with hers. He holds his hand so she can see it and fully understand what’s about to happen in her last moments.

Her left hand has gone limp. He cuts through her left pinky with the shears, severing it where he had severed his own.

He drops the scissors and stands above her. Her jaw still flexes and he can see her eyes searching for his.

Detective Skyler likes her time alone at the crime scene he knows. There is plenty of time to get out the window, through the trees and to the car waiting for him. The other cops will be out front or waiting patiently downstairs. No one would dare disturb her. He’ll have an hour head start. At least. But even then, he might not make it far enough away.

He climbs through the window, his shoes crunch in the broken glass. He is surprised to feel tears.

*

I stare into the face of the man who has burst from the closet and stabbed me. Helga’s face in the painting behind him turned away to avoid seeing. His magic trick far more spectacular than I originally imagined.

“Charles…” I say, but again, no words come out. I can’t imagine how he found out.

I met him in college, we would walk on the beach and talk of the future. We were young. When he asked me to marry him, he didn’t give me a ring. He was a starving artist and couldn’t afford rent, much less a meaningless piece of metal.

From the floor I can see his hand now. His pinky finger is missing and I realize my mistake. He slices my finger off. I don’t feel it. I can’t feel anything.

I try and call to him, tell him I’m sorry, but he is out the window.

My world is going dark. But before it disappears completely, I see us on the beach. The sun is setting. “I want to marry you,” he says. “I want to love you for the rest of my life.” I see me, sitting cross-legged next to him. “I want the same thing,” I say. “Forever and ever.”

He intertwines my little finger with his own.

“Pinky swear?” he asks.

“Pinky swear.”

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For the last thirty years Jay Bechtol has been a social worker helping children, adults and families navigate the world of mental illness, substance misuse and trauma. Jay has learned that everyone has a story, and more often than not, several stories. That experience has influenced many of the things he writes. Some more than others. Jay can be found online at JayBechtol.com and @BechtolJay, and in person in Homer, Alaska. Email: bechtoljay[at]gmail.com