Memories from Franklin County, Missouri

Savage Mystery ~ Third Place
Jay Bechtol


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

The old woman twitches in her hospital bed. Her feet move with the nightmare pulsing through her sleep. In her dream she is a small grey rabbit. Her back feet kick up dried leaves and fallen twigs as she zigzags through a pasture. A growling mongrel gets closer despite her frequent turns. The beast’s jangling collar gets louder and louder with each moment. She darts under a fence where the pasture ends and through a tangle of thorn bushes. The dog gains. She cuts hard at a stone structure made by humans; it smells of things burnt. There is a sharp bark as the dog’s snapping jaws miss her haunch.

The grey rabbit is not as clever as her wild cousins, nor does she have the endurance. One last cut toward a stand of trees. The dog’s snorts so close now she can feel its breath pushing through her fur. She dashes toward a small hole at the base of the largest of the trees. She stretches. Behind the dog lunges, aware that the small creature is about to escape. A snarl fills her ears.

She tumbles sideways through the hole under the tree. The dog’s forepaw tripping her last stride. She rolls to a stop, spiderwebs and dirt matting her coat. A long gash in her leg. She lies on her side, tongue out panting, her eyes slashing back and forth in wild terror.

Outside the tree the dog skids to a stop. It barks and scratches for a time. Then her ears pick up the sound of the brute wandering off.

The woman starts awake. Morning filters through the floor to ceiling windows of the long term care unit. An orderly stares down at her.

“Having a dream, Ms. McKenzie?” The smile on his face hides his concern.

She gathers herself, swims through the fog of her dreams, the on-rushing dementia, her guilt, and tries to smile back. “Miguel? It is Miguel, right?” She is relieved to see him nod. “Yes. More of a nightmare.” She tries to focus on the room. Sterile but cozy. “I think I’d like to sit by the window today, Miguel.”

He helps her to her chair and wheels her across the room. The second floor window on the long term care unit looks out across the small town and to the farmlands beyond. He tucks a shawl around her legs.

“Thank you, Miguel. You are kind.” She smiles. “Could you bring me my book?”

“Sure, Ms. McKenzie. Would you like some breakfast, too?” He places the large scrapbook in her lap.

“Breakfast would be lovely. Thank you.” She glances out the window for a moment and then drops her eyes to the book. She opens to the first page, filled with an article from the St. Louis Post Dispatch, Monday, September 3rd, 1962. Almost sixty years since the disappearance. Sixty years of not knowing. She flips a few pages and stops at an article from the Franklin County Tribune.

September 1, 1962

Massive Storm, Tornadoes Across Franklin County Friday

Staff Writer Frank Lamar

A massive storm rushed through wide swaths of Franklin County on Friday afternoon and well into the evening. The storm damaged buildings and property throughout the region and into St. Louis. Local Fire Departments and Police Stations have been flooded with calls of missing persons, lost animals and missing items. Residents from Union and surrounding towns reported seeing funnel clouds touching the ground. The U.S. National Weather Service tracked fourteen separate tornadoes…

She reads a bit more before turning her focus back out the window. Her brain is clear and she lets her mind wander.

*

Claire McKenzie stared at the empty rabbit hutch, glanced at the sky, and scanned the farmyard across the large pasture with its white fence, past the stone incinerator on the other side, and into the trees that surrounded the acreage. The tops of the trees swayed. “Colleen!” she hollered. “We need to get inside, sweetie.”

The young girl stepped from the shadows of the barn and waved, “Over here, mama, just helping daddy makin’ sure the stables are secure.” Dust coated her overalls in contrast to the smile that brightened her face.

“You tell your father he needs to hurry along as well.” Claire glanced back at the hutch. “Do you have Clover?”

“Clover?” The little girl’s smile disappeared. “She should be in there.” She trotted toward her mother. “I haven’t had her out all day.”

Claire turned and examined the large enclosure again. The door swung lazily in a breeze already beginning to show signs of turning into something stronger. She took a step closer and bent, trying to see inside the small wooden shelter. Maybe Clover was tucked away in the back under some hay.

Colleen ran past and dropped to her knees at the side of the hutch. “Clo-ver,” she sang. “You in there, Clover?”

Claire turned her eyes skyward again. The afternoon was darker than it had been minutes before.

“She wouldn’t go far, mama, she doesn’t like to hop away from here unless she’s with me.” Colleen spun on her knees searching across the open areas of the farmyard.

Claire sighed; there wasn’t time to get the barn and the farm secured and send out a search party for a missing bunny. “Clover will be fine, sweetie, we’ll find her after the storm passes. She’ll get in under the barn or under a bush and ride it out.” She hoped she sounded convincing. Rabbits weren’t the hardiest or smartest of animals.

“What if Ray-Ray or something else chased her off? Clover could be hiding somewhere scared and alone.” Colleen’s words started to have that quiver indicating tears might not be far behind.

“Bradford!” Claire called toward the barn. “You got Ray-Ray?”

From inside the barn her husband’s voice came back. “Yep. He’s in here somewhere.”

Claire looked down at her daughter, “Ray-Ray’s in the barn. We haven’t seen a coyote around this entire summer.” She paused, trying to figure out the next thing to say. “Clover’s a smart bunny. She’ll be fine.”

Colleen gave her mother a look of distrust. “It could have been Ray-Ray. I’ve caught him staring at Clover through the chicken wire.”

As if on cue the large dog ambled from the barn. Part hound, part something larger, overly friendly and more inclined to romp and play than pose a real threat to anyone.

Claire rubbed her forehead. “You’ve got five minutes, sweetie. Then we are going in.” Claire headed for the barn and hoped the rabbit would appear. She was not interested in riding the storm out with a daughter anxious about a missing bunny rabbit.

*

In her hospital room she flips through a few more pages of the scrap book. Her hand hesitates on an article from the Franklin County Tribune, its edges yellowed with time, the clear plastic sheeting offering limited protection.

September 2, 1962

Local Girl Among the Missing

Staff Writer Frank Lamar

Franklin County Sheriffs have not given up hope of finding the youngest reported missing person after the storms Friday night. Friends and family members gathered at the McKenzie farm to help with the search for eight-year-old Colleen McKenzie. Making the project more challenging are the numerous downed trees and power lines hindering rescue vehicles and communication.

Colleen’s father, Bradford McKenzie, is coordinating the search. Her mother, Claire, is also…

She stops reading and wishes the dementia was more cooperative. Or at least would filter out the guilt. Her doctor has reminded her numerous times that, in her fight against the disease, painful memories are as important as the positive ones.

*

The wind had increased in intensity for the past half hour. Each gust rattled the house and sent echoes down the creaky wooden stairs to the basement where they huddled on Claire’s grandmother’s old couch.

Colleen sobbed into her mother’s chest and rubbed Claire’s gold locket between her fingers, “She’s not going to make it, mama. She’s too little and she’s never been in a storm before.”

“Hush, child,” her mother repeated, kissing the top of Colleen’s head. She raised her eyes to Bradford and wrinkled her eyebrows up and down.

Bradford recognized the expression, the “do something” signal when words weren’t available. He shrugged his shoulders and raised his own eyebrows back, his “there’s nothing I can do” response.

Bradford knelt on the cement floor and patted his daughter’s back. “Are you sure you didn’t open the door to her hutch today and just forgot about it.” A big gust caught the side of the house and something outside crashed.

No!” Colleen’s voice hardened between gulps. “I already told you.” She turned her face toward her father, her glare as hard as her voice. “Why don’t you believe me?”

“Bradford,” Colleen’s mother said, “let’s not worry about who opened the cage. Let’s remind Colleen that rabbits are resourceful, clever little creatures and…”

Her point was interrupted as a second violent crash came from outside followed by a gust and the tinkling of glass, barely audible over the sounds of the raging storm.

Bradford winced. “That sounded like the front room.”

“And,” Claire continued, “bunnies are good at hiding. So Clover is going to be just fine.” She stroked her daughter’s hair. “Right, Bradford?”

“Yes,” Bradford grimaced. “Clover is going to be just fine, sweetie.”

Colleen covered her ears and snuggled in closer to her mother.

*

Claire stirred and her eyes slowly opened into the darkness of the basement. She raised her head off the back of the couch and fumbled for a flashlight. The wind and storm seemed to have died down to something more manageable, although the house still creaked and vibrated above them. She pressed the switch, covered the front of the flashlight with her fingers and aimed it at her watch. A little past midnight. The flashlight’s filtered glow illuminated the sleeping shapes next to her, huddled under a blanket.

She debated turning on the new transistor radio but at this hour news was unlikely. She peered through the dimness toward the other end of the couch, barely able to see the rise and fall of the blanket under which Bradford and Colleen slept. She rubbed her eyes and tried to adjust her position.

“Hey,” her husband whispered. “Still blowing out there?”

“Yes,” Claire replied, “but calming down. Not looking forward to cleaning up in the morning.” She sighed. “How you doing?”

“In and out. Hard to string together more than an hour at a time of real sleep. How’s Colleen?”

“What?” Claire sat up and pulled her fingers from the front of the flashlight. The beam hit the open wood of the basement’s ceiling and created a glow around the well-worn couch. “Isn’t she under that blanket with you?”

“No, I thought she curled up with you.”

Bradford leapt to his feet. “Colleen?” he called.

Claire jumped up, too, waving the flashlight frantically. “Colleen!

Another gust of wind battered the house.

*

In her hospital room the day outside continues to be bright. Sunlight pours in and warms the room. Her memory is working well today. A nurse pops in and smiles with the practiced cheeriness of many of the staff on the long term unit.

“Can I get you anything, Ms. McKenzie?” the nurse asks.

She shakes her head in polite denial and returns to the pages before her. She flips a large group of five or six together. The cellophane coating crinkles in response and lands on a page with multiple scraps of newsprint. From multiple newspapers around the St. Louis area. Some cut and creased, others torn. All obituaries.

December 26, 1974

St. Louis Post Dispatch

Obituaries

Bradford Adams McKenzie born July 1, 1931 died December 14, 1974 in an accident on the family farm. He was born in Mercy Hospital Washington, the son of Beatrice and Charles McKenzie, one of three children. He was raised on the McKenzie Family farm outside Union, MO. He is survived by…

She stops reading and runs her finger along one of the accompanying pictures. It’s a good day for her dementia and she can remember the feel of his face, coarse with stubble, after a long day working the farm. She lets her finger trace the lines of his jaw. She closes the scrapbook and clutches it close to her chest. The warm sun cloaks her.

*

Claire’s flashlight fought the darkness. “Colleen!” she screamed. The wind shoved the words back into her throat, choked her.

“You should go back inside.” Bradford directed. “If she comes back, someone should be there to make sure she doesn’t go out again looking for that damn rabbit.”

Claire understood what he said, but pointed to her ears and shook her head. “Can barely hear you. I’m going to check the barn then the pasture.”

“Claire!” he shouted.

“Bradford!” she hurled back.

He slumped. “Fine. I’ll go around behind the barn and check back into the fields.” He clutched her arm. “Be careful, I don’t want to lose both of you.”

“You aren’t going to lose either of us.” Claire leaned against the wind and gave him a small peck on the cheek. She turned into the gale and lurched toward the rabbit hutch. It remained empty. She hoped Colleen might have curled up underneath. She hadn’t. Claire circled toward the barn, called her daughter’s name, screamed it, tried to make herself heard above the storm that stole her daughter.

On the far side of the pasture, past the fence and the incinerator, a sharp crack pierced through the night. Splintered wood, a moment of silence, then an earth-shaking whoomp as a large tree came down. She aimed the flashlight in the direction of the sound and was hit in the face with a stinging blast of dirt. She staggered forward both arms outstretched, the beam of the light catching the side of the barn in its shine. She leaned against the wall, steadied herself against the force, and wiped her sleeve across her eyes.

Somewhere behind her another tree crashed to the ground. The heavy sound put her more on edge. “Be careful out there, Bradford,” she whispered into the wind. “Colleen!” she cried out again, barely able to hear her own voice above the withering scream of the winds.

She pushed forward, into the pasture, and left the barn behind.

*

The sun has almost disappeared and her dinner tray is empty. It has been a good day fighting the disease that is slowly erasing her memories. She has spent the entire day leafing through the pages, able to connect almost all of the dots. She rubs the cover of the book and stares out the window toward the distant farmland.

The door behind her pushes open and an orderly enters her small space. “Ms. McKenzie?”

“Yes,” she answers trying to place his face. “Miguel? Isn’t it?”

“Yes, ma’am. You have a visitor. I was wondering if you are interested in seeing anyone this evening.”

She searches her memory for someone that might come to see her. “I suppose, for a few minutes can’t hurt.”

The orderly pushes the door open. A man she thinks she recognizes comes in carrying a manila envelope. He raises a hand in nervous greeting.

“Good evening, Ms. McKenzie. I’m not sure if you remember me. I’m Jim MacLeod, my father Lloyd bought your family’s farm back in ’75 after Mr. McKenzie died.” He raised his eyebrows expectantly.

“Yes, of course.” She was certain she held some vague recollection of his face and his name. “Mr. MacLeod, how are you doing?”

“Very well, Ms. McKenzie. Thank you.” He hesitates and looks at the orderly. Miguel nods to continue. “I spoke with your doctor and he felt it was a good idea to share this with you. He said all memories are helpful.” He steps forward, holding the envelope in front of him like a protective shield.

She takes the gift and turns it sideways, sliding its contents into her lap. A small golden locket and a Polaroid.

“My daughter took that picture. She has one of those old-fashioned cameras. She loves to snap pictures around the farm with it.” He waits for a response then continues. “At the back edge of the property, back where it’s just trees and brush, we found… remains. Under a downed tree. We are clearing, getting ready to expand the farm, bought the property next door…”

He stops when she lifts her hand. She waves him closer and opens the cover of her scrapbook to the first page. He looks over her shoulder.

St. Louis Post Dispatch

Monday, September 3rd, 1962

MISSING GIRL FOUND ALIVE!

By Craig Jameson

In a scene from a Hollywood movie, eight-year-old Colleen McKenzie was found Sunday afternoon almost forty hours after she went missing during the recent spate of storms and tornadoes that cut through Eastern Missouri. According to her father, Bradford McKenzie, young Colleen had ventured out to find her pet rabbit during the height of the storms. Miraculously, she found the small pet and then crawled into the bottom of the family’s incinerator to escape the gale.

One of several large elm trees on the property uprooted during the storm and fell on top of the incinerator. The sturdy stones of the fireplace protected the girl. But the debris and destruction made it difficult…

…the search continues for Claire McKenzie who was last seen the same night hunting for her daughter.

She looks over at the man who has come to visit her. She rubs the chain of her mother’s locket.

He tries to explain, “There was a small ravine—”

She interrupts. “I took Clover out.” A loud sob escapes. “I’ve never told anyone, not my father.” Hiccups and tears impede her words. “No one. I got distracted and forgot to put Clover away. Dad blamed himself, said he shouldn’t have let her go searching for me. He died thinking it was his fault.” Her tears splash onto the cellophane protective covering.

“I’m sure that it wasn’t…” the man offers, but stops when Miguel touches his shoulder.

She peels the plastic sheet back and slides the Polaroid onto the page next to the article. A picture of a ravine and some fallen trees. She presses the covering back down and strokes the plastic.

She weeps. Happy that it has been a good day fighting the disease. Happy she can remember. Happy to know.

pencil

For the last thirty years Jay has been a social worker. He has learned that everyone has a story, and more often than not, several stories. His work is in multiple publications including Penumbric, A Rock and a Hard Place, Crystal Lake and Toasted Cheese. He can be found online at JayBechtol.com and on Twitter @BechtolJay. He can be found in person in Homer, Alaska. Email: bechtoljay[at]gmail.com

Mystery at the Museum

Savage Mystery ~ Second Place
Morgan-McKay Hoppmann


Photo Credit: Dennis Jarvis/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

“I don’t do bones,” Dr. Helen Coultier said, slipping a bit on the damp leaves. The smell of rain still hung in the air. “You’re the forensic anthropologist. Why do they need me?”

Dr. Thomas Lucknow, her colleague at the Southeastern Museum of Antiquities, offered her a hand so she could step over a fallen tree. Last night’s storm had brought down a good many. The wind was still blustery, making the surrounding trees creak alarmingly—she didn’t trust that another wouldn’t come down on top of them.

“You know as much as I do,” Professor Lucknow said, voice gruff as they approached the area cordoned off by yellow police tape. Dr. Coultier waved her pass at the police officer standing by, who nodded and lifted the tape for them to walk under. Up ahead a giant oak tree had toppled, roots reaching for the sky like the gnarled fingers of an old hand. However, it wasn’t the tree itself that was the focus of the two men crouched beside it, but the gaping depression left in the ground by its absence.

The man not in uniform glanced up and immediately straightened. “Lucknow, fancy seeing you here.” He grinned. “And you must be Dr. Helen Coultier, the antiquities expert. Detective Green.” He peeled off a latex glove and extended his hand. She shook it.

“Pleasure,” she said. If she was too curt, it was his own fault—he was much too chirpy for this hour of the morning.

“You say that as if you weren’t the one to call me here,” Lucknow said. “Bones in that hole?”

Detective Green took off his other glove, balling them up. “No bones. Something else.” He jerked his head to the pit. “Take a look.”

The detective’s companion, a younger police officer clearly eager to please, offered Dr. Coultier a box of latex gloves.

Professor Lucknow’s brows furrowed in confusion. “Then why am I here?”

“Connections to a previous case. Remember the museum security guard who was murdered, oh, four years back? Found his body last year?”

Pulling on the gloves, Dr. Coultier approached the edge of the pit.

Ah.

So this was why they called her.

Professor Lucknow grunted. “Skull caved in, struck with something heavy. Member of a smuggling ring, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah, well,” Detective Green said. “We found his stash.”

Artifacts.

She crouched to better see, hand going out to the tree’s roots to keep her balance. A Ming Dynasty porcelain vase. A tribal wood carving from sub-Saharan Africa. A cylindrical seal that she already knew was done in the Sumerian style, making it thousands of years old.

And that was just the beginning. Her eyes ran over the rest, calculating origin, condition, price. “Four million,” she said, chuckling as she shook her head. “At least. Your smugglers knew what they were doing.” She glanced up. “But why here?”

“We think they were using the museum as the staging area before shipping out the artifacts to their final buyers,” Detective Green said. “The security guard was their inside man. You’re here, Lucknow, because I thought you might have some additional insight concerning the crime scene, considering you helped out at the first one. And I miss your sunny personality.”

Professor Lucknow grunted noncommittally, circling to the other side of the pit and peering in, hands clasped behind his back. “You think the accomplice killed him and hid the loot while waiting for things to cool down?”

Detective Green shrugged. “Or the other guy hid the loot and his accomplice murdered him before finding out where. It’d explain why it’s still here.”

A chill wind rushed through the forest, setting the trees creaking again. Dr. Coultier glanced up at the swaying trunks. “Well, it’s not staying here any longer. I want a team. And a tent. We’re doing this right.”

Detective Green nodded. “I expected nothing less. But no press.”

She gave him a look. “I don’t do the press.”

“Good,” the detective said. “I don’t want this getting out. As far as we know, the partner is still out there, and we don’t want him deciding to take back what he views as his.”

“You don’t have to worry about us,” Professor Lucknow said.

Dr. Coultier pushed herself to her feet. “Then let’s get to work.”

 

The sides of the tent shook in the wind. Dr. Coultier finished making a note on the log, then placed the carefully-wrapped piece of jade jewelry into the plastic container.

“You done with that?” she asked, glancing at Detective Green.

The detective turned the Phoenician carving over in his hand. The museum had one very similar to it in its collection. “Think this could be used to bash someone’s head in?”

She held her hand out. He placed the stone in it. “Would you find evidence on it four years later if it was?”

“You’d be surprised,” Detective Green said. “Fingerprints can last over seven years on surfaces, as long as they aren’t destroyed. Furthermore, our forensic team has the ability to reconstruct the shape of the object off the impact wound. But I don’t want to bore you with trivia. How long have you worked at the museum?”

“A little over three years.” She made a note on the log and began packaging the carving. “I had nearly a decade of hopping across archaeological sites around the world. I knew the museum from a few previous visits, so it was the logical place to settle down.”

“So you remember the investigation of a year ago.”

“Vaguely. I didn’t start working at the museum until after the security guard had been killed, so the police saw no reason to question me.”

“How do you feel about Professor Lucknow?”

She snapped the lid onto the container and turned to the detective. “You suspect him.”

Detective Green peeled his gloves off, tossing them into a waste bin in the corner. “He started working at the museum fourteen years ago. The timeline fits with when the smuggling ring first became active.”

“But I thought the dead guard was your inside man. Wouldn’t you need someone from the outside as the connection?”

“See, though, I don’t buy that the guard was the inside man.” Detective Green shook his head. “He had a life, a family. I think he was a witness. Saw the true inside-man making a deal or moving the merchandise, and was killed so he wouldn’t talk.”

Dr. Coultier motioned for the detective to pick up the plastic bin, then undid the straps holding the tent flap closed and stepped into the blustery day. “That’s why you brought him here. To watch him.”

“Right you are,” the detective said cheerfully, starting his tromp through the woods towards the road.

She followed. “What were you hoping from me?”

“Your eyes,” he replied promptly. “If Lucknow is our smuggler, then there’s a good chance he hid the murder weapon in this stash of artifacts, and he won’t want that falling into police hands. He’ll try to get it back. I want you to keep a close eye on him, and notify me if you find any artifacts that might have been used to kill the guard.”

She nodded, casting a glance at the clipboard in her hands. She added one last item to the list—Tefnut statue, Egypt. “We should be finished inventorying the stash later today. I’ll contact you with a list, and you can send one of your specialists over to examine the most likely objects.”

“Thank you, Dr. Coultier.” They had reached the road. Two police vehicles were still parked along the median, along with the green minivan the museum had sent to transport the artifacts. Detective Green paused beside the minivan and glanced at the bin in his hand. “Now, how did I end up carrying this?”

“You volunteered.” She shrugged, opened the back of the van, and he slid the box on top of one of the others. One more, then she’d take them back to the museum.

“Well, thanks again for your help.” Detective Green cast a too-sunny smile at her. “I’d hate for any more antiquities to go missing.”

 

So.

He suspected Lucknow.

She paused wiping down the Tefnut statue—a lion-headed ancient Egyptian goddess—and cocked her head to the side. She supposed she could see his reasoning. However, she wasn’t quite sure why he supposed Lucknow would have waited four years to retrieve the antiquities if he had known where they were the whole time. Still, something to keep in mind.

The anthropologist walked up to her. “How’s it going?”

“It’s progressing.” She handed him the Tefnut statue. “Would you put that on the table?”

He did, and she peeled off her gloves and leaned against her worktable. “Would you say Green is an effective detective?”

Professor Lucknow crossed his arms. “I suppose. I’ve known him since before he got his promotion, so I’m not the most objective person to ask.”

“Oh really?” she asked.

He shrugged. “A lot of police officers will pick up extra shifts working museum security for a little extra cash. So I’ve known him, what, thirteen, fourteen years?” He shook his head. “And he’s as annoying as ever. Anyway,” Lucknow glanced around, “I’m here to help.”

Dr. Coultier found her clipboard and tugged it out from beneath some other papers. “Here’s the inventory list if you want to double-check everything is here.”

He accepted it, glanced it over. “I’ll do that.” He began walking down the aisles and, starting with the Tefnut statue, marked down items.

Dr. Coultier frowned a little as she watched him, thinking over Detective Green’s words once more.

Oh.

That was it.

Detective Green thought the guard was innocent. That meant he wasn’t just looking for one more suspect, but two.

If he thought there were two smugglers still out there…

She shook her head and turned back to her worktable. Hopefully it wouldn’t pose a problem.

 

“We have a problem,” Dr. Coultier said.

The museum curator sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. “How many?”

“Six,” Dr. Coultier answered. “Detective Green has already been notified.”

“Who was on guard last night?” Professor Lucknow paced down the aisle between the exam tables where the artifacts sat for cataloguing.

“The detective posted one of his men outside the door.” Dr. Coultier drummed her fingers against the table’s metal surface where, the night before, she had set the Tefnut statue. “With the possibility of the murder weapon being among the artifacts, he decided museum security would benefit from the additional presence.”

Professor Lucknow cast her a look, heavy brows drawing close. She kept her gaze fixed on the curator. Did he realize Detective Green suspected him? Perhaps.

The door opened.

“Okay, I’m here, I’m here,” Detective Green announced, sliding out of his raincoat and hanging it on the coat rack. “Sorry, just catching up with my man. Seems we have a bit of a dilemma.”

“More than what we already have?” Professor Lucknow said drily.

“Indeed.” Detective Green marched forward. “It seems that only three people entered this room last night, and none of them left with any object or bag large enough to hide an object.”

“Which means the antiquities must have been taken before they reached the museum,” the museum curator said.

“Impossible.” Dr. Coultier shook her head. “I inventoried them upon arrival and they were all accounted for.”

“I can attest to that,” Professor Lucknow said in his gruff voice. “I aided in the process.”

Dr. Coultier glanced at the detective. “Who were the three people to enter the room? Or two people, I should ask, seeing as how I had to return for my car keys, and I assume your officer counted that.”

Detective Green bowed his head in a nod. “He did. The other two were myself and Mr. Sunny Personality here.”

Professor Lucknow scowled. “Your humor is not appreciated.”

“You’re welcome,” Detective Green said. “But what I want to know is where are the antiquities, seeing as how no one could have taken them.”

Dr. Coultier motioned to the hundreds of yards of shelving that stretched up and down the room. “Obviously, then, they never left.”

The museum curator released a sigh. “Are you sure? What would be the point in hiding something in the same room where it already was?”

Dr. Coultier shrugged. “Confidence.”

Detective Green nodded, casting a glance at Professor Lucknow. “Once the investigation was concluded, assuming he wasn’t caught, the thief would be free at any point to return and collect the items he had hidden away.”

Professor Lucknow nodded a head towards Dr. Coultier. “Or she. No offense, Helen.”

Dr. Coultier smiled, just slightly. “Let’s test that out, shall we?” She turned to Detective Green. “If the thief, and your murderer from four years ago, did indeed hide these six objects, that must mean your murder weapon is among them. Find these artifacts, and you find your murder weapon.” She gestured to the shelves. “We might as well start alphabetically.”

 

Dr. Coultier and Professor Lucknow were not allowed to participate in the search, of course, although their expertise was certainly called upon regarding whether the antiquities matched the labels. She supposed she couldn’t fault the police officers for that. Not everyone could tell the difference between a Ming Dynasty and Qing Dynasty vase.

Or, in this case, a Bastet and a Tefnut statue.

“You’re sure?” Detective Green turned the statue over in his hands. “I seem to remember Bastet being a goddess with a cat head, which this one has.”

“This one has the head of a lioness,” Dr. Coultier corrected. “That makes her the lesser goddess Tefnut, rather than Bastet. My guess is that the Bastet statue that was previously here will be found in a more obviously displaced position, with the goal that we would mistake it for the missing Tefnut statue.”

“Which means this is most likely our murder weapon,” Detective Green concluded.

“You’ll have to run forensics to be sure,” Dr. Coultier cautioned, “although it is a very distinctively shaped object.”

“And our dead guard had a very distinctively shaped dent in his head,” Detective Green said. He handed the statue to the young police officer behind him and turned to her. “Thank you very much for your help, Dr. Coultier. You are now under arrest.”

Helen stepped back abruptly. “Excuse me?”

“You heard me. Hands, please.”

“Oh dear,” the museum curator said, clearly out of her depth.

Dr. Coultier held out her hands and the detective snapped the cuffs on. “I—I don’t understand. You have to check the statue for prints. You can’t arrest me on no evidence.”

Professor Lucknow stepped forward. “No, Helen. You wiped the statue clean and then handed it to me, making sure my prints were the only ones on it. You were trying to set me up.”

“No, I—I suppose I did, but that was just because I wasn’t really thinking—”

Detective Green chuckled. “Give up the act. The whole thing was a trap.”

Dr. Coultier froze.

A trap? But that meant—

“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” the museum curator said, fingers flittering nervously in the air. “Surely this must be a mistake. Dr. Coultier has been here for the past three years—”

“Three and a half years,” Detective Green corrected. “Becoming a permanent staff member six months after the murder of that security guard. Oh, and she made a brief visit to the museum six months before that. What did you do? Kill the guy because he wanted more than his fair share of the loot?”

Dr. Coultier tried to chuckle. “Coming back to the scene of the crime would be awfully stupid of me, don’t you think? Besides, you said you thought the guard was innocent.”

“I lied.” Detective Green shrugged. “All part of the trap.”

“The trap,” she said flatly.

The detective nodded. “See that lovely Tefnut statue you led us to? Lucknow here found it miscataloged three weeks ago. Since he worked on the original case, he knew the general shape of the murder weapon and thought to send it to forensics. He was correct. And yes, we checked for fingerprints, and yours were indeed on it.”

Dr. Coultier rolled her eyes. “So what? I’ve worked at the museum for over three years. It’s no surprise if something here has my fingerprints on it.”

“Exactly,” Detective Green said. “Hardly enough evidence for a conviction.”

“Wait, wait!” the museum curator said, looking between Lucknow and the detective. “How could you have found the statue miscataloged when the tree wasn’t blown over until just a few days ago?”

“Because there was no stash under the tree,” Lucknow said. “That was the trap.”

Ah. So that Phoenician carving had been from the museum’s collection.

“After pulling your fingerprints,” Detective Green continued, “we asked ourselves: What could prompt a murderer who so clearly got away with it to return? Obviously, the answer was money. You killed your partner before finding out where he had hid the stash, and you had come back to try to fix that problem.”

Dr. Helen Coultier released a long sigh. “And so you accessed my travel records and reconstructed what might have been in the stash based off where I had been. You bet on the fact that, four years later, I wouldn’t remember exactly what I had smuggled out of those countries.”

Lucknow nodded. “And you didn’t.”

She finally let the edge of a smirk sneak onto her face. “So you let the detective put the idea in my head that Lucknow did it, and the murder weapon was still among the stash. The moment I retrieved the statue from the shelves and handed it to him, you had proof I did it.”

Detective Green shook his head. “Actually, the moment you wrote Tefnut statue on the log of items found in the stash, we had proof you did it. Because we had placed all those antiquities under that tree. And we knew there was no Tefnut statue.”

She couldn’t help it—she laughed. “I suppose I did.” She cocked her head, smiling at the detective. “But since that was the stash you planted, I take it you don’t know where the real stash is?”

The detective motioned for her to start forward and she did, slowly, in no hurry to be put into the jail cell. “No clue,” the detective said. “That remains a mystery for another day.”

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MM Hoppmann is a junior at Coastal Carolina University. She is an assistant editor of the Weekly Intelligence Brief and has been writing fiction since she was 14. Email: mmhoppmann[at]gmail.com

Off Your Block

Savage Mystery ~ First Place
Cara Brezina


Photo Credit: CJS*64/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

“So this all started with a fairy house?” Vanessa asked, skepticism and perhaps a hint of derision in her tone.

“No, not in the least,” I assured her hastily. “Well, maybe. An idea for a fairy house. There was a cavity at the bottom of the root mass of the fallen tree that formed this little triangular recessed nook. It would have been perfect for maybe a table and a couple stools. All biodegradable material, of course. Bark and twigs bound together by grapevine, maybe a woven coaster as a rug…”

I shut my mouth. I wasn’t winning her over with my interior decorating schemes.

“Here, look.” I tugged on the leash to bring Penny to a stop and located a picture on my phone. “See what I mean?”

“Hmmm.” She peered at the image of the fallen tree, a magnolia in the courtyard of my apartment building. Cicero, her pitbull mix, pulled at his leash and whined. Vanessa and I were dog friends. Our dogs had fallen in love at first sight—despite both parties being neutered—and we’d established a routine of walking the dogs together after work.

“I’m still not clear on how this leads to you turning up with a black eye gabbling about Toby jugs,” she said as we continued down the sidewalk. “I looked them up on the Internet. Those things are awful, Russ. What happened, did one of the fairies punch you out after you tried to install a Toby jug in his house?”

“Ha. Ha.”

It had really all started a couple nights ago, I told Vanessa, with a storm that brought a spectacular lightning show, torrential rain, high winds, sustained peals of thunder, and a freaked out black lab quaking underneath the covers of my bed. I immediately noticed the downed tree in the courtyard when I stepped outside the next morning.

Seen from the bottom, the roots of the tree splayed up and outward in a vertical semicircle, forming a hollow partially nestled into the ground. Penny and I were both intrigued by the possibilities. Fairy abode, I thought.

Excavation, she thought.

“Penny!”

I made a grab for her as she began to dig in the gooey mud, then froze in place as my hand tightened around her collar. She’d uncovered an off-white curved contour of an object buried a couple inches down.

A shard from a shattered skull, my imagination supplied.

A second glance revealed that the object was perfectly circular and coated with glaze. I scrabbled down and drew out a medium sized flat bottomed bowl of handmade pottery. I turned it around in my hands, trying to figure out a scenario in which it had ended up underneath tree roots.

Penny was still digging.

“Enough, girl.”

She didn’t listen, and I failed to stop her before she thrust her snout deep into the mud.

“Penny!”

When she emerged, she was triumphantly clenching the remains of a boot in her jaws.

I didn’t attempt much forensic work on the pair of boots other than observe that the soles were probably a bit larger than my own size eleven, but I made some interesting observations when I washed the bowl. The bottom was decorated with a black pawprint, and the artist had signed and dated it. Tara Pratt, 1999.

The Internet informed me that Tara Pratt was a multimedia artist living in Houston, but she’d graduated from Copley College close by my neighborhood in 2001. From the photo on her Etsy page, she looked more like a CEO than the burlap-clad sort of person I’d pictured working a potter’s wheel.

“Yeah, I did sell dog bowls back then,” she told me over the phone. “At rummage sales, school fairs, going door to door. Anything to earn a buck for tuition.”

“I don’t suppose you’d remember if you ever sold one at my building?”

“I doubt it. I sold so many of them, so long ago.”

I mentioned the address, and there was a moment of silence. When she spoke again, there was an edge to her voice.

“Does the name Maria Fosco mean anything to you?”

It was my turn to fall silent.

“Oh, my,” I finally said.

“Exactly.”

Vanessa broke into my account. “The woman can’t be that bad, really.”

“She can, indeed. Her first complaint against me came the day that I moved in. The movers were being too loud.”

Maria Fosco had lived on the top center apartment of the building for more than thirty years. Her hobbies were cosseting her pair of Yorkies and amassing grievances against neighbors.

“Fortunately, she likes animals a lot more than people,” I said. “Penny is my saving grace, in her eyes.”

I’d never knocked on her door before. I came bearing an offering of pastries bought from the bakery around the corner. Her home health aide showed me into the living room.

“Of course I remember buying that dog bowl,” Maria told me. “I special ordered it from that art student, but it took the girl three tries before she got it right.”

I nodded in commiseration. I’d heard the same report from Tara Pratt.

“What happened to the bowl, do you remember?”

She looked at me over her glasses dubiously.

“It’s right there.” She pointed toward the kitchen.

“That’s not possible!” I blurted out.

Her dog bowl, although similar to the one I’d unearthed, was smaller and darker brown. It was also decorated with pink hearts surrounding the paw print.

“But…” I brought out my cell phone and showed her an image of the bowl. Her face softened.

“Oh, that poor little girl. That was such a tragic loss.”

“What happened?”

“Her little beagle puppy was stricken with parvovirus and died. Milo never even had a chance to grow up to drink from that bowl.”

“Was this about twenty years ago?”

Her eyes narrowed. “How did you know?”

I thought that it was pretty obvious that the girl, Caitlin, had buried her beloved pet in the flower bed and planted the magnolia as a memorial. No way, according to Maria.

“Watts would never have allowed it, not even for a sweet little girlie like her. Plus, all those magnolias by the building were planted at the same time. That tree wasn’t planted special for Caitlin.”

Upon reflection, Maria was right. Our landlord probably wouldn’t have allowed his tenants heat or running water if it wasn’t required by law.

“You know what happened?” She rapped her knuckles on the coffee table. “Derek Gillespie. No good ever came of that kid, but he had a good heart. He did odd jobs for Watts and he was probably the one who planted those trees. If Caitlin had asked him to bury Milo under a magnolia, he would have done it for her.”

As I was leaving, Daniela, the home health aide, followed me out to the landing. She glanced back nervously toward Maria’s apartment.

“Would you mind if I came down and took a picture of the bowl?” she whispered. “I’m a contributor to Off Your Block. I think this would make a great local history piece.”

Off Your Block was a local news site. It was notable mainly for the ferocious slugfests found in the comments section for each story.

“Um, sure.”

Daniela carefully arranged the bowl and the pair of rotted boots on a table in front of a sunny window in my apartment as if she were a curator at the Met. She thanked me profusely after taking a dozen pictures, and I walked her to the door.

When I looked back toward the window, one of the boots was gone.

“Penny!”

I retrieved the reeking boot and told her that she’d make herself sick chewing on that particular delicacy.

Less than an hour later, my doorbell rang. I took no notice. Usually, it was food delivery for one of the other apartments.

The ringing persisted. I finally went over to the intercom.

“What?”

When I opened the door, I was perplexed to find that my visitor was a teenage boy. He introduced himself as Connor and asked if he could see the artifacts.

“The what, now?”

“The artifacts, you know?” He held up his cell phone. I saw a picture of the dog bowl and boot under the headline: “Storm uncovers unbelievable artifacts.”

“Right. Wow. This way.”

I’d put the boots in a plastic bag and hung them up high by the back door. I brought them down for Conner to examine. His eyes darted from the boots to the bowl and back again.

“Can I borrow them?” he finally burst out as if he’d been working up to the request.

“Why?”

“For— for a school project.”

“What kind of project?”

He bit his lip. “Uh, science. Or maybe history.”

“But it’s summer,” I said in confusion before realizing that whatever reason he had for coveting the artifacts, it had nothing to do with a school project.

I told him that I’d consider it if he brought a note from his teacher.

“Probably a dare,” Vanessa put in.

“Knock on a stranger’s door and attempt to obtain their newly-discovered dog bowl by chicanery? It’s not the sort of thing teenagers do today.”

We’d reached my building, and I could see the prone magnolia next to the walkway.

“Hey, want to come in and see the spectacle?”

I unlocked the gate and let Penny off her leash. Vanessa followed suit with Cicero.

“So maybe it’s a weird dare for a teenager,” she conceded as we entered the courtyard. “But do you have a better explanation?”

“Ah. Wait until you hear what happened next.”

The doorbell rang. I tensed and hoped that it was just somebody else’s food delivery. Once again, the caller sat on the button.

Instead of buzzing them up, I went outside to the gate in the courtyard.

I expected the same pudgy teenage boy with the unfortunate skin. Instead, it was a pudgy teenage girl with a spray of freckles across her face. She introduced herself as Olivia and asked if I was the guy who’d found the buried stuff.

“I was wondering if maybe I could borrow the artifacts. My brother’s really into local history, and he’d love to see them, but he’s sick.”

I probably would have assented without a second thought if I hadn’t already had another visitor trying to finagle the objects away from me.

“I’ll certainly consider it, but I’m a little busy right now. Maybe you can give me your email address and I’ll get back to you?”

“That clinches it,” Vanessa said. “Definitely a dare. The first kid failed, so Olivia came along to see if she could do better.”

We were standing by the hollow below the root mass of the tree. Vanessa was attempting to restrain Cicero from diving into the churned up ground.

“Did you dig any deeper, see what else is down there?”

“Well, no. I didn’t really want to find the bones of Caitlin’s little puppy.”

“Good point.”

“Anyway, I still say it wasn’t a dare. I haven’t gotten to the part about the Toby jug yet.”

Midnight, and Penny began barking, deep and resounding.

Penny never barks. I half fell out of bed, threw on a robe, and followed the sound of her voice.

As I staggered to the back of the apartment, I became aware of a second voice, this one thin and human.

“Good dog, good doggie, be nice…”

The back door was wide open, and a figure was sprawled on the floor in front of my kitchen cabinets. Penny had him at bay. The intruder scrambled to his feet when he saw me and rushed for the door. Penny sprang past him, and he pitched over onto my back stairs. I dashed forward as he regained his footing. Penny bounded toward me in excitement, and my shins met her flank. I toppled.

“Ow, ow, ow…”

“So that’s how you got the black eye,” Vanessa surmised.

“Yeah. Probably from the edge of the door. The intruder was gone by the time I got to the stairs, but I know who he was.”

I waited for a gasp of anticipation. I was disappointed.

“One of those teenage kids. Gotta be.”

“Well, yeah,” I said, nettled. “But I have proof. He dropped his cell phone in his tussle with Penny, his unlocked cell phone. The name’s Connor. Connor Gillespie.”

“Okay. As I said, one of the teenagers.”

“With the last name of Gillespie. Just like Derek Gillespie, the one-time handyman who planted the magnolias.”

Maria Fosco sounded bleary when I called her around eleven the next morning.

“Maria, yesterday you hinted that Derek Gillespie got into some sort of trouble. Do you happen to know the details?”

Her voice became more animated now that she had the opportunity to dish out dirt.

“Yeah, the kid was arrested for breaking and entering a house here in the neighborhood. Terrible thing. He stole a whole bunch of valuable collectibles and they were never seen again.”

“Do you remember the name of the person he robbed, by any chance?”

“Of course. Arlene Voss, a lovely woman. She still lives around here.”

I brought up the online newspaper archives through the public library and confirmed that Maria’s account was partially accurate. Arlene Voss had reported a robbery twenty years ago and accused Derek Gillespie of stealing her prized Toby jug and several other collectible toys and curios.

The Toby jug was a bizarre piece shaped like a rabbit’s head, with its ear functioning as the handle of the vessel. I couldn’t imagine a teenage boy breaking in to steal it any more than I could understand the recent adolescent interest in possessing the dog bowl.

Derek denied the crime, the police could find no proof, and the items were not recovered. But my eyes fastened on one final detail, an unproven claim made by Arlene Voss. The police had found footprints in the soil outside the broken window. She was convinced that they had been made by Derek Gillespie.

“Wait, you’re not saying that those boots—” Vanessa broke in.

“Exactly, Watson. Derek Gillespie steals the Toby jug and other goods. Then he hears about the footprints and decides to get rid of the boots. He’d just helped Caitlin bury her poor little puppy, so he knows where there’s a large, deep patch of soft soil where he could bury them very easily, never to be seen again. Are you with me?”

She didn’t say no.

“Then, twenty years later, his nephew Connor Gillespie reads about the boots resurfacing and figures out what happened. He tries to get the boots away from me, first by asking, then by breaking in. I’m sure he got a copy of the master key for the building from his uncle. It should have been easy—just sneak in the back door and grab the boots. But Penny heard him come in, and I’d moved the boots down to my storage locker in the basement anyway. They stank.”

“Russ, have you reported all of this to the police?”

I hesitated.

“Not yet. I’m not really sure what to do about Connor. I don’t really want to see the kid arrested for being loyal to his uncle and maybe sort of stupid.”

“But considering what you told me about the boots—”

“I haven’t told you all of it yet,” I said hurriedly. “The name Voss sounded familiar to me. And this is why.”

I showed her a note on my cell phone: the name Olivia Voss, along with her email address.

“Connor Gillespie wanted the boots so that he could keep them buried for good. Olivia Voss wanted them so that she and her grandmother, Arlene Voss, could take them straight to the police.”

Before we parted, I promised Vanessa that I’d talk to the police the next day. But as it turned out, it was unnecessary. That morning, a breathless Off Your Block article linked the boots to the unsolved robbery. The police were examining the evidence.

Flummoxed, I went down to my storage locker. The boots were gone.

The cased was to remain unsolved. The police determined that the rotted boots did not serve as sufficient proof to link Derek Gillespie with the robbery.

I changed my dog walking schedule and route. Within a week, however, Vanessa caught up with me.

“Hey,” she said, too cheerily, as I strode grimly through the park.

“‘Sup.”

The silence stretched between us. I was the first to crack. “So, what’s the deal? What’s your connection to Arlene?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about!” she said unconvincingly.

“You were the only one who knew were I’d stashed those boots.”

“Ok, she paid me five hundred bucks.” It came out in a rush.

“Huh?”

“She saw us together in the courtyard that day, and approached me wondering if I thought you’d be willing to give her the boots. I said that you’d already refused two people, so she asked if I’d be willing to help her out. Russ, do you know how much I owe in student loan debt?”

I didn’t have anything to say to that.

“Anyway, I thought you’d want to know the last few details of the story. You almost got it right. But Olivia actually wanted the boots to stay buried, too, as it turns out. Arlene Voss wasn’t Olivia’s grandmother. She was her step-grandmother. Big difference. Arlene Voss threw Olivia’s mother out of the house on her eighteenth birthday and refused to let her take along several items with sentimental value that had belonged to Olivia’s real grandmother.”

“Such as a Toby jug?” I put in despite myself.

“Exactly. Olivia’s grandmother had used it as a vase for flowers. Arlene Voss put it in a locked display case. So Derek Gillespie volunteered to reclaim the goods.”

“Breaking and entering runs in the family.”

“Apparently so. Anyway, I’m glad you didn’t report Connor to the police. It’s refreshing to meet someone who’s willing to forgive.” Her tone was insinuating.

“He didn’t profit from his crime, though.”

“Neither did I, in the end. Arlene’s son visited me yesterday. He told me how his mother’s mentally ill and not competent to handle money. Asked if I’d consider returning the five hundred bucks.”

“And you agreed?”

“I wasn’t feeling great about the deal anyway. So, back to our usual dog walking routine tomorrow?”

I watched the dogs romping. Cicero lunged for Penny’s throat. Penny knocked him violently to the ground. They looked ecstatic.

“Sure, sounds good to me.”

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Cara Brezina is a freelance writer who lives in Chicago. Email: borealisblue[at]gmail.com

An Eligible Life

Broker’s Pick
DRC Wright


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

The residents of Brookside Hospice were a colourful bunch, a living oral history I was fortunate to engage with daily that summer. I called it my internship but that was a bit of a stretch. I had no intention of pursuing a career in medicine or any such profession, although I’ve always found enjoyment in helping others. And while the myriad of stories were both inspiring and fascinating, the job could be downright depressing. But that’s the way it is with end-of-life care.

Of all the residents—we didn’t like to call them patients—Henry was my favorite. When I first arrived, he was cantankerous to the point of cliché. Mumbling, growling, and calling me “boy” every time he wanted or didn’t want something.

“Come now, boy, I asked for that water an hour ago.” (It had been two minutes.)

“What did I say, boy? No onions in my salad!” (They were radishes.)

Then he’d get flustered and wave his hand, shooing me away with a grumbling bah. I guess I saw something of myself in him.

Some of the nurses referred to him as Scrooge 102—on account of his room number—but I never saw the humor in it. It only made me question why they chose such a line of work in the first place.

Much to everyone’s surprise it took just three weeks for Henry to finally warm to me and I told them it was on account of my radiant smile. It was a Wednesday afternoon when he finally came around. I knew before he opened his mouth that a kind word was coming. I could tell because that acidic glare of his was no longer there. His eyes had let me in. It’s always in the eyes.

“Excuse me, son, may I ask you a question?”

“Of course, sir. That’s what I’m here for.”

“That’s actually my very question.”

“Sir?”

“What are you doing here? I am of course aware of what your job function is, so I guess the better question is why are you here?”

“I’m here to make the residents more comfortable. To help with—”

Henry raised a palm. It wasn’t the first time he cut me off in this manner, but he did so in a much gentler way. “No, son, that is the still the what. You sound like you’re reciting a job description. I am curious as to why you chose to do this work. Why you have chosen to surround yourself with death on a daily basis? Why deal so much with the ending of lives when you are at the beginning of yours?”

It was a question many people asked me and something I seldom answered truthfully. But I wanted to be honest with Henry, so I told him the story of my brother.

“When Francis passed away, even though he was only eleven, he was ready for the end. And even though I was two years younger, so was I. But without the palliative care he received, neither of us would have survived that day.”

I rarely spoke about Francis to anyone. Not even my parents. But that summer I spoke of him a lot. I told Henry about the time we got lost in the woods overnight and about the treehouse we built in the forest behind our house. I told him how Francis could multiply in his head any two-digit numbers faster than I could type them into a calculator.

Henry shared tales from his childhood as well. He told me stories from throughout his life, often with his eyes closed, and I felt like I was there just as much as he did. Whether through embellishment or some form of eidetic memory, his recollection of detail was as extraordinary as it was poetic.

As we neared the end of summer I knew there was still one story left untold. But I didn’t want to pry. So far I hadn’t directly asked him anything. Everything just flowed naturally into our conversations and he seemed to prefer it that way. And so did I.

But there had been signs that Henry and I wouldn’t share too many more stories. His coughing grew harsher and more frequent. His eyes grew heavy sooner and his mouth got parched after fewer and fewer words.

“Is there something you want to get off your chest, sir?” I thought I knew what it was.

Henry looked at me. He was lucid and awake and his eyes were sad and yearning for someone or something.

“Maybe some other time.” I shrugged. “But you told me all about college, about your work, about your incredible travels, but you never told me if there was someone special. You never got married?”

Henry chuckled. “Not for me, I’m afraid. I’m not really the marrying kind.”

“You mean like Thoreau?” I smiled, teasing him.

“I was hoping you saw me more as an Al Pacino.”

He laughed so I decided to risk it. “My grandfather used to say there are only two kinds of lifelong bachelors: womanizers and homosexuals. But he got married at eighteen.”

“And you don’t see me bunny hunting at the Playboy Mansion, is that it?”

“I don’t know too many people who would fit in at the Playboy Mansion, but I don’t think there’s any shame in being yourself. Especially nowadays.”

“I’ve led a careful life, son. One that, unfortunately for me, exceeds discretion. Perhaps I’ve finally let my guard down talking with you these past months. And don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed it. It even now feels liberating to a degree, but my family is a different matter altogether. They have never had—and never will have—the slightest inkling about my orientation.”

“Well, sir, I’d hazard to wager that your family has known for a very long time.”

Henry shot me a startled look, almost defiant, but he quickly conceded and I noted a glint of introspection unfolding beneath his brow. He sat silent, pensive, quickly scrolling through a reel of eighty-plus years of memories. He winced halfway—focused and concentrating—slowing to review frame by frame a moment in his life. How far back had he gone?

Reading my mind, Henry picked lint from his lap and answered. “It was 1961.” He shook his head. “So long ago.”

“Over fifty years.” I used the obvious to fill the echo of silence that followed.

“For so long.” He sighed. Lifting his eyes to meet mine, he stiffened his jaw. “You’re right, you know.”

“Right about what?”

“All this time. The swinging sixties, selfish seventies, and excess eighties. Even the nineties when gay became en vogue, I remained in the closet. And this new century—when nobody even gives a damn—what was I thinking?” He closed his eyes and dropped his chin. “What have I missed?”

“Are you okay, sir?” I had pushed him into a place he didn’t intend to go, perhaps ever, and it was not a comfortable place for him to be. A knot of compunction swelled in my chest and I silently prayed for the return of his dignified smile.

“I’m so foolish. Who did I think I was fooling? Evidently I was only fooling myself. All these years—these decades—I guess I’ve been quite the joke to those who know me.” There was no smile.

“Sir, I’m sorry if I—”

“No, no. Please, none of that.” He spoke softly, raising a frail palm from beneath his robe; the mauve silk sleeve hung loosely from his wrist. Then I bore witness to catharsis. Embracing some long-dormant introspection he mustered his composure and his jawline relaxed. “In fact, I should thank you.”

“Thank me, sir?”

“Most certainly. For a stubborn old weight has been lifted from my chest. You’ve outed an old man, albeit one who was apparently never quite in except to himself. But now, for whatever time he has left—be it weeks, months, or years—well, he can at last be himself. Who he truly is. Who he always should have been.”

“Sir—”

“Would you please, please, stop calling me sir? You make me feel like a withered old schoolmaster. Call me Henry for god’s sake.” He smiled. “I think you’ve earned that right.”

“Okay, Henry—” I adopted my most challenging tone. “—tell me about 1961.”

He looked out through the thin glass of his bedroom window, then focused on its white wooden frame. “The paint is peeling. Has been for years.”

“If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine. Honestly. We can talk about something else.”

He lingered a moment longer on the window and I saw a faint tug at the corner of his upper lip. The charming dimple of his younger years was still visible among the gentle corrugations of a modest yet comfortable life.

“Peter.” He was distracted as though observing someone on the lawn. “His name was Peter.”

“The man in 1961?”

“Man?” He chuckled again. “I guess he was. I guess we both were. But in my mind we are just boys, it was so long ago.”

“How old were you?”

“I was twenty-seven; Peter was a year younger. We had both left our suffocating small towns in search of fresh air. In search of freedom. In search of each other is what Peter used to say. He wrote that to me in one of his impromptu poems during coffee and Eggs Benedict overlooking the bay in Sausalito. I still have it you know, the napkin he wrote it on. A cloth napkin, if you can believe that. It’s in a small wooden box in my dresser’s bottom drawer.” Henry’s smile fell. “Hidden away like some dirty little secret.”

“All important keepsakes are hidden away. It simply makes them precious, not dirty.”

Henry gave me his wryest smile. “How old did you say you are?” He quickly raised his hand. “Don’t tell me. I feel ancient enough as it is.”

“You must have loved him.” I was hesitant to pry but the urge was too great. Not for my own curiosity but to help Henry reconcile a seminal piece of his past. “What happened? You didn’t stay together?”

His face paled with somber introspection. We had unearthed long-buried feelings and I felt guilty for digging.

“No, we didn’t stay together. We had planned to. Oh, how we had planned. Peter was a remarkable dreamer.” He paused, eyes shut with a closed-lip smile. “First a trip to Europe—Paris and Rome. And Greece, of course. Then back to the Bay Area to open a bed and breakfast. That was one of the plans. Another had us in New York with a bookstore in The Village. It all sounds so cliché now.”

“It sounds nice.” I smiled because it was true.

Clasping his fist he spoke with sudden fervor. “The young dreamer, full of potential, must not risk becoming a lifetime of missed opportunities!” He blushed then lowered his hand and smoothed his lap. “Another thing Peter used to say. Especially when I’d start in on him with my stifling rationalities—how would we pay for this? How would we pay for that? Romantics are not the ideal match for pragmatic men.”

“Everybody needs romance.” It sounded glib and my cheeks got hot but he was kind enough to keep talking.

“He fancied us as another Sal and Dean, you know, from On The Road, when truth be told we more like Oscar and Felix. But somehow we made it work. For a while at least.”

“Oscar and Felix?”

The Odd Couple? Are you serious? It was a play that became—oh, it doesn’t matter. Opposites attract, isn’t that what they say? He had long hair, you know. Can you believe that? Long hair.” His sigh unfurled into a grin overflowing with adoration. “Perhaps it wasn’t long by today’s standards, a snip below his ears, but in 1961 it made quite the statement. And he would toss his head back to the side and he seemed to move in slow motion. Like a shampoo commercial before there were shampoo commercials. Shiny, chestnut brown and so straight. Not a wave in it. Not even a ripple.”

I pictured Peter in my head, affording Henry a spell of quiet to reminisce.

“It garnered a lot of attention. Unwarranted of course but you know how people can be. Especially back then. He got a lot of looks. Whispers, sneers, and sideways glances. But Peter didn’t care. I think he actually fancied it.”

Henry grinned at the memory of his whimsical lover, and I knew he had recovered a long lost part of his heart. He had me invested as well and I dared to pry a little more.

“So what happened between the two of you? If it’s not too…” I draped the words across our freshly-found confidence, still offering a way out.

“I killed him.” He said it softly but firmly.

It was not the answer I was expecting. “You what? What do you mean you killed him?”

“Not directly, of course.” His frail hand waved away my nonsense.

“What do you mean?”

“How can I put this delicately?” He paused a moment. “Before Peter, I had never—”

I let another moment pass before lifting the silence that had fallen upon us like a heavy winter blanket. “You had never been with a man?”

“Been with anyone.”

“Oh?”

“Yes.” He nodded, a slight blush on his forehead. “I was a virgin. A double virgin, I guess you could say. I’d never had a girlfriend, even in my youth. Actually, I hadn’t been attracted to anyone. All through high school I’d not had a single crush, boy or girl. Isn’t that a little sad?”

“I guess so—well, no. That’s pretty common, I guess. Maybe.” I shrugged. It was a lot sad. “But how did you, or why did you…?”

“Kill him?”

“Yes.”

He exhaled and began. “Seeing as I had never been with anyone before I was naturally quite hesitant. I was afraid. Heck, I was terrified. Peter and I met in the spring of 1961. On April Fools’ Day if you can believe it. We connected immediately. Right from the beginning we were close. Intimate, but not in a physical sense. Peter knew I was a virgin. He knew everything about me. So we took it slow. But by August he was growing impatient. Justifiably so, I’d say. So one night after enjoying a wonderful dinner and two bottles of wine at our favorite restaurant, his patience had seen fit to expire.”

I knew where this was heading and half-raised my hand. “You don’t need to—”

“Oh no, my God no. Not what you’re thinking. Peter would never do anything like that. He was fit and strong but he wasn’t a violent or forceful man. No, but we did have an argument. Right out on Market Street walking home from the restaurant.” He closed his eyes, took a breath, then looked up at me, almost apologetically.

“We’d both had more than enough wine. We were both yelling. Saying hurtful words we didn’t mean and careless words we did. When I tried to walk away he grabbed my arm and yelled how much he loved me. How he couldn’t live without me but he needed more. He needed me. It was time. Some men on the other side of the street, complete strangers, caught the end of our little fracas. They saw me struggling to get away and thought he was trying to force himself on me. So they came running over and they stopped him. And they beat him. They beat him so bad he fell into a coma. He was in the hospital for three long days before he died.”

Had they been spray-painted on the wall behind him I could not have found the words. “Henry, I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine. I don’t what to say.”

“Thank you. But really, it was a long time ago. Certainly well beyond the window for condolences.”

“Regardless.” I was in shock but needed more. “Did they catch the men?”

“It was 1961. There were no men to catch. They didn’t run. They thought they’d rescued me from a sexual deviant. So did the police. So did everyone.” His cracking voice slipped through a whisper, like a song fading out at the end.

“So you never met anyone else?”

“I had already met my soul mate. Where can you go from there?”

“I guess. So your whole life, you’ve never—” I was confused, but then again I hadn’t met my soul mate.

“Never had sex? No, never. And you may think that’s the saddest thing of all. But I didn’t view it like that after Peter died. It’s possible that I’m the only octogenarian gay virgin to ever walk the Earth.” He winked. “Something of a miracle I guess.”

We shared a smile.

“I don’t know about that, Henry. It’s a big world. And quite a few people have walked upon it.”

“That is very true.” Henry looked off the side of his bed. “Do me a favor, will you? In the bottom drawer, under the green sweater.”

“The box?”

Henry nodded and I freed the small wooden box hidden deep beneath his clothes. He lifted the lid and gently removed an old cloth napkin. He didn’t unfold it. He didn’t need to. A hitherto unseen serenity transformed his demeanor and he wore it well. I’d never seen him look so relaxed. So at ease. Unguarded. And content. He passed away three days later, his secret safe with me.

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DRC Wright lived across Canada before settling in Japan where he lives with one leg, two kids, and his wife. This is his first published story. Email: drcwright[at]hotmail.com

Sienna

Beaver’s Pick
Laura Mazzenga


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

I’m in therapy. Technically, it’s one incident that landed me here. The baby started crying, and it wouldn’t stop. I forced myself out of bed and pulled it out of the bassinet. I let it nestle in the crook of my neck, bounce in my arms, and spit down my chest. I don’t know for how long. It wouldn’t take formula. Shushing and humming seemed to infuriate it. Jake said he woke up and saw me, arms extended, shaking it like an old piggy bank.

The next morning, I sipped my coffee black and pretended to look through the bay window at a passing bird. I watched Jake fidget behind me in the reflection of the glass, trying to find his words. Finally he said “Um, about last night.” That’s why we’re here.

The office is in the same building where we consulted with a fertility doctor two years ago. It couldn’t be more different from that sophisticated suite we visited, with screens emerging from flat surfaces and espresso on demand. There was so much hope in that room, and whether or not it was false, I liked the feeling of being there.

Family therapy was my suggestion, but I’m questioning it with each minute that passes. It happens in a tiny room on the ground floor, with a drab color scheme of browns and grays. It smells of day-old soup. The therapist is a thin, fragile lady with round frames on her powdered face. She wears pastel cardigans and speaks in a soft voice that I imagine all therapists were instructed to speak to patients with. She sits across from us, behind a small, lamp-lit desk. There is a window behind her desk, too small for me to even fit through, which faces the parking lot. I see a dumpster just a few feet away and wonder if that’s where the soup smell is coming from.

She starts the session by asking how life has changed for us since we became parents. I hate her first question, but I run through the list. No sex, no sleep, no sanity. Today, I could barely find a bra under the heap of diapers and onesies and burp cloths my own stuff was buried under. I’d love a cocktail, a cigarette too. I could go on, but I already sense that these observations aren’t being received well. I stop myself and course correct, say something like “less time for me.” Jake nods and puts his hand on my lap, as if we’ve had this conversation before in private. He says that it’s been “particularly tough on Marla.” The therapist wants to know more about that, but I can’t find words that will satisfy either of them. What I really think, I am not ready to say. I think the baby and I have a mutual dislike for one another.

In the hall, I can hear the faint ding of the elevator, the sound of the doors opening and closing. I can’t help but envy the people out there, with medical problems that have solutions. Bad joints can be replaced with artificial knees and hips. Dermatologists can scrape off a troublesome mole. Plastic surgeons can laser off belly fat or chisel down a bumpy nose. But there is no cure for this. I want to go back to suite 306, where the pretty people are, with the lattes and the jazz music. Even if they will lie to me and tell me I have a chance at my own kid, I’d prefer it to this.

The shaking incident comes up halfway through the session, but only because I bring it up. Jake and the therapist had been waffling, dancing around it for twenty-five minutes, so I put us out of our misery. I shook the baby, I say. I am waiting for the questions to start, the same ones that have been swimming around in my own head, which I have no answers for. I expect I’ll be escorted out of therapy and taken directly to some inpatient facility to get my head examined properly. There’s no way I’m going back home.

But the therapist looks caught off guard by my admission, frozen for a moment, and then her eyes dart from me to Jake. Maybe she thought she’d have to slowly work that confession out of me, and I’ve taken that opportunity away from her. If there’s a certain choreography to these sessions, I’m certainly disrupting it. Jake shifts ever so slightly next to me, and I hear his chair squeak.

There looks to be a trace of empathy in the therapist’s eyes, but it’s intended for Jake, not me. She nods slowly and leans forward in her chair. She tells us that shaking is dangerous because babies’ craniums aren’t fully formed yet. They’re soft, so when you shake them, the brain bounces around in the head without anything to absorb the shock. Jake listens like he’s never heard this before, but of course we both already knew this. All new parents are warned of the dangers of shaking a baby. Is this what we’re paying $220 a session for, I joke. No one laughs.

Again, I have said the wrong thing at the wrong time. Jake is looking down, his neck a deep shade of crimson. His knee bounces, while the rest of his body is oddly still. I look past him, to the framed photos on the therapist’s desk. They are all of her and the same woman, in various places: sitting on the beach, at some event in cocktail dresses, lying on a hammock with a furry dog between them. No kids. I wonder how she could possibly be qualified to tell me not to shake my baby.

Session two, Jake does most of the talking. He has come prepared this time, summarizing the whole history of our failed attempts at IVF, and the subsequent adoption process. He is the person who keeps track of details. He knows all the dates, all the specialists and procedures, the amounts of money that corresponded with each exhausting step in the process. I remember less. I wanted a baby, more than anything, but the memory feels so distant it’s paper thin. It’s like when someone tells you of something you did when you were drunk. You were there, you know you did it, but you can’t touch the memory in any meaningful way. All of it, the miscarriages, the doctors, the poking and prodding and inserting, even the disappointment, feels like a distant dream. I can only remember suite 306, when I still believed I’d make a good mother.

What I had wanted was a baby of my own by 33. Preferably a little girl. I would name her Sienna. What I got was a three-month-old boy, a virtual stranger off a waiting list. He looked so alien—bald with bulging gray eyes that always drifted desperately beyond me. We named him Nicholas. By the time we got him, I was 36 and it was already too late. The grueling path we’d taken to become parents had already changed both of us. It had made Jake ashamed and passive. It had made me sarcastic and inconsiderate. One of us would have probably left if that baby hadn’t arrived when it did.

I am still here though. There is a gentle tap on my forearm, and I realize they are both looking at me. Sorry, I say, I’m tired. This time, the therapist seems annoyed. She doesn’t smile, but instead she flops back in her oversized chair as if I’ve exhausted her too much to even sit up straight. It has always bothered me that the doctor gets the nicer chair than the patients. We are sitting on creaky high-backed chairs that wobble when we move. I notice a piece of cardboard shoved under the left leg of my chair. I don’t remember the chairs in suite 306 but I imagine they were ergonomically designed for women struggling with fertility. She says she would like to know how I see myself as a mother. I look at the clock above her head. Still fifteen minutes left.

I give my clumsy answer, trying this time to be honest. It’s been hard for me to see myself as a mother, I say. I still don’t feel like the baby is mine. The therapist writes something on her pad, then looks cautiously from her notes to Jake’s face. He does that close-lipped twitch that passes for a smile. It means I’ve said something less than satisfactory. It means “sorry about her.”

The therapist reassures me that people often panic when they finally get the thing they have wanted for so long. It’s overwhelming. She says it’s natural to feel depressed that being a mother is not what I thought it would be.

I suppose she is right. It’s not what I thought, because the baby isn’t mine. We all know it. On some level, even the baby knows it. I want to tell them that I feel lonely, and that every time I walk into the room the baby seems to detect my smell and wrinkle his nose like the room is filling with noxious gas. In my arms, he is a fussy, squirming thing, never content. I don’t want him, and he knows it. I want to run away, leave both of them, but I don’t even have the guts to do that.

Thanks, I say. I think you’re right.

On the way home, Jake cuts someone off on the highway, then curses under his breath when they honk at us. I am sure it’s because of something I did or didn’t say in therapy, but he won’t talk to me. I wish he’d yell, or do something to show that he’s in pain too. I’d give anything for a good fight. But he’d never do that. At some point, around the third miscarriage, he stopped saying what he was thinking.

Session three, I resolve to tell the truth. I won’t let Jake or this holier-than-thou therapist bully me into saying what they want to hear. I’ll be real and raw and fearless, no matter how much it hurts me, or how much it scares them. The only trouble is that we are doing some ridiculous show-and-tell exercise, which feels like another attempt to get us speaking from scripts. We’ve been asked to bring in photos of the baby and discuss our selections. We are to say how the photo makes us feel, why, and what we perceive as obstacles to our fulfillment as parents. The therapist warns us to avoid blaming language—“you” statements—and instead focus on our individual experiences/feelings as parents—“I” statements. I practice in my head.

I am not good at bullshit nursery school hand-holding exercises.

I find it impossible to express myself without getting steamrolled by two sets of judgemental eyes.

I want to run away and leave this entire nightmare in the past, before I do something I can never come back from.

Predictably, Jake goes first. Always prepared and eager to please, Jake has brought exactly the photo I expected he would. It’s a photo his mother took from the week we brought the baby home. In it, he’s sitting on the couch, cradling it robotically beneath the white muslin blanket it’s wrapped in. He is smiling, but I know that particular smile means he’s nervous. His mother is the type to stage photos with frilly pillows and accent pieces to “add dimension.” She’d been sliding around furniture and adjusting lighting. She’d put a vase of lilies in the background, making sure everything was perfect for the photo. The only thing she’d forgotten was me. Not that I cared.

This photo makes him proud to be a father, he says. It makes him want to be a better person for his family. Looking at it now, it occurs to me that the baby looks a bit like Jake. Just by chance, they have the same coloring. In the future, people will probably say things like “he takes after his father.” I don’t have the same Nordic features. I’m darker, with wiry hair, eyes that are a shade shy of black. I look like the one who doesn’t belong in the family.

When the therapist prompts him about obstacles and fears, he keeps his eyes on the photo, his voice shaking as he speaks. There is a worry in his heart that he will be raising this baby alone, he says.

“I feel like Marla is not giving this baby a chance,” he says.

I am stunned. Somehow Jake has found a loophole around the language rule. He found a way to attack me while using an I statement. I want to attack him back.

I never had a mother or anything that even resembled unconditional love.

I wanted to start my own family more than anything.

I can’t help my past, just like Jake can’t help that he was raised by a cow who wears pearl necklaces and talks down to busboys.

Instead I present the photo I picked. It’s a close-cropped photo from the christening ceremony, just before he was dunked. I hadn’t wanted to have a christening—we aren’t church people—but his mother insisted. He resembles a little old man in the white collared onesie I got him, and for once he appears content in the priest’s expert hands. It went as these things always do. The priest takes the baby, holds it underwater, everyone watches with bated breath, waiting for him to lift it out. Then the baby emerges, sputtering and crying, but alive and saved. The guests applaud, relieved.

What are you feeling, the therapist wants to know.

During that sliver of silence, when the baby was underwater, I could finally breathe. I felt the air fill my lungs completely, and my heart expand. Relief stretched over me like a warm blanket. I never wanted it to end. Looking at the photo, I can almost inhabit that moment again. I run my fingers over the baby’s glossy image, his face and hands, the lip of the water basin just barely visible at the bottom of the photo. I’ve been chasing that moment for weeks and months, but I can’t get there.

“I think Jake is right. I cannot do this,” I say.

They tell me I am strong. That I am so much more capable than I think.

There is nothing you cannot do, the therapist says.

You have everything you could ever want, Jake says.

Those are not I statements, I want to point out, but the therapist is relentless with the script. Why. The next question is why do you feel that way.

Most nights when he cries, I squeeze him so tight that he can’t make any noise. I feel his arms struggling to free himself, fighting against me like a weak little puppy. The more he struggles, the harder I squeeze. Sometimes I feel bad after. Other times I’m just more angry. But I always let go, eventually.

“I don’t trust myself,” I say.

There’s something in me that’s growing stronger, more powerful everyday. It’s suffocating that other part of me, the tender, loving part. The part that would let go and stop myself before it’s too late. Every day the hopeful girl from room 306 gets smaller and smaller. And the angry, orphaned, resentful, infertile version of me expands to take her place. Soon there won’t be any way to contain her. Soon the old me will be gone.

“I’m scared that something will happen, something of my control. I will hurt it.”

I’ve said it, I think. It’s all on the table now and there’s no taking it back.

The therapist takes a long breath, removes her glasses and uses the corner of her cardigan to wipe a smudge. When she puts them back on, her face is rearranged, from confusion to understanding. I sense a shift in the room and automatically I feel better, an ounce lighter. Jake has turned his head to look at me, but I’m pretending I don’t notice.

The therapist rarely takes notes, but now she’s scribbling on a pad, nodding with more certainty as she goes.

“I’m writing you a prescription,” she says.

She slides it across her desk but I don’t touch it. The letters are long and neat, but my eyes won’t focus. I’ve been on plenty of meds in my life. Clomiphene citrate. Xanax. Bromocriptine. Paxil. I am certain there is no prescription for fear that I will strangle and kill my baby.

Lack of control is a common struggle, she says, and it’s typical among new parents.

I want to interrupt her. She’s misunderstood, again.

But now Jake has chimed in to agree. He is nodding and squeezing my hand in that really genuine way and I can feel his relief that we have finally found the source of my neurosis and a pill that can fix it.

The photo explains a lot, she goes on. You’re afraid that you’ll fail as a parent and leave your child in a vulnerable position. That some kind of harm will befall him because you aren’t doing enough. “That’s why I recommend these exercises,” she says, clearly proud of herself for her unfounded diagnosis.

I am so pissed off that one hot angry tear slides down my cheek, followed by another, then another. Jake tenderly wipes them away. The therapist beams and praises my vulnerability. She says that the raw emotion I’m sharing is where healing becomes possible. I think she might actually start clapping. Jake gathers me in for a hug. I love you, he whispers. It’s going to be okay. He hasn’t said that in months. When we separate, his smile is toothy and pleading. It begs me not to correct him.

I give a brave nod and swallow my feelings, tucking the photo into my back pocket. I can’t bring myself to pick up that Rx paper from the desk, but Jake’s eager hand extends to take it before I have a second to waver. We stand and say goodbye, Jake holding onto me tighter than he did on the way in.

Thank you, I tell her, smiling through tears.

Inside I am screaming, as the last trace of that hopeful mother-to-be fades away.

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Laura Mazzenga is an MFA student at San Diego State University and the associate editor at Fiction International. She writes short fiction and non-fiction, and is currently finishing her first novel. Email: lrmazzenga[at]yahoo.com

Sunday

Fiction
Caleb Martin-Rosenthal


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

Despite fixing her disposal eleven times, repainting her peeling bedroom walls with a favorite shade of blue, and buying (on a whim, last week) a sprawling cactus for the foyer that she promised she wouldn’t let die, Avery’s apartment didn’t feel like home. She wondered if perhaps it had something to do with the architecture of the place. High, echoey ceilings evoked a soundstage, each room a different set, dressed up to resemble something lived-in. The narrow hallway to her bedroom, which she often thought wouldn’t be out of place in a hedge maze, begged for the family photos that after eight months, still sat untouched in their boxes at the back of her closet because she wasn’t sure if she could nail into the wall and even if she could, she didn’t want to be a nuisance to her neighbors.

A sudden text from her mother reminded Avery why she had wandered into the kitchen.

— hi, land at 6 pm Sunday.

A pang of anxiety. Her therapist would chuckle at the whole situation. At how, in a panic before work this morning, she had dusted all the furniture and bought a month’s worth of toilet paper on her way home, just in case. She needed Mom to know that this was working. She tapped out a quick reply.

— great! excited!

She hesitated for a moment, wondering if that sounded too childish. Her mother hadn’t used any exclamation marks. She made a change.

— Wonderful. Looking forward to it.

Avery understood that not everything could be perfect for Sunday night. However, one thing could come close. The meringue. The meringue could be perfect. She imagined this moment, after dinner, as her mother carried on about something from a magazine nobody reads, when Avery would duck away into the kitchen and return with this beautiful, gravity-defying creation. An adult’s dessert. Sophisticated. She exhaled as she set up her stand mixer (a gift) and cracked three eggs into its bowl. A soft, patient whir filled the room as she switched the machine on.

The teacher of the cooking class Avery had taken when she first moved had monologued about the beautiful, sacred process of aeration. “Fold careful little pillows of air into the eggs. Two minutes exactly,” he would say.

After nearly ten minutes of waiting, Avery furrowed her brow. She didn’t see any aeration. She didn’t see any bubbles at all. Just a loose, yolky puddle still slinging around the bowl. She stared at her watch, puzzled. Why couldn’t she get this right? As she reached for the egg carton, expecting to find an overdue expiration date, Avery was struck, suddenly, by an alarming realization. She couldn’t breathe.

It was a maddeningly confusing sensation. Her lungs didn’t burn, her eyes didn’t water, her throat wasn’t swollen shut. She opened her mouth in an attempt to slurp up the muggy kitchen air, but there was nothing. It was indescribable, unbelievable, a complete lack of intake. There was no air to breathe. Wiping her palms on her shirt, Avery wasn’t panicked. This explained the meringue, but as she poured the egg mixture slowly down the sink, she thought just how inconvenient it all was, especially with respect to tomorrow’s plans. So, although it was late, she decided to call her landlord.

He picked up after a few rings. “What.”

Avery opened her mouth to speak but, unable to draw breath, found she couldn’t make a sound. She rolled her eyes and marched out into the hall. “Hi. I’m calling about an issue in my apartment.” She felt a bit silly. This was how her mother talked. “I’m having trouble—”

“What’s the unit number?”

“Thirty-one.”

“And what’s the problem?”

“I can’t breathe in my apartment. There’s no air.”

The line was silent for a moment.

“And it’s unacceptable,” she added, with a cautious shred of finality in her voice.

“I can have someone up to take a look by Wednesday at the earliest,” the landlord said, launching into a speech about how the building has lots of tenants and that she’d need to wait her turn like everybody else because if he started giving her special treatment, he’d have to give it to everyone.

“Thanks,” she grumbled, and hung up.

As she lay in bed, ceiling fan spinning uselessly above her, Avery noticed the silence. It was heavy and thick and eerie. She couldn’t hear the bustle of the street or the hum of the fluorescent bathroom light. For a moment, she considered calling up a friend with a couch and asking to spend the night, but she couldn’t think of anyone. Under her covers, with no need to inhale or exhale, Avery’s chest remained perfectly still, which made her feel useless, like a corpse. She thought about her cactus in the foyer and wondered if it might die. And then Avery wondered if, on Sunday, her mother would notice right away a dead cactus next to the door. She probably would.

In the lobby the next morning, after checking her mailbox (nothing), Avery ran into Diana, the curly-haired woman from twenty-seven.

“Oh, you poor thing,” Diana said.

“I’m sorry?” replied Avery, looking up from her slippers.

“Your apartment. The air? Everyone in the building is talking about it.”

Avery felt her face redden.

Diana continued, “It’s appalling, frankly, if you ask me. I mean, what happened to tenant’s rights? Even if it was your fault, I think there are ordinances that protect you from this sort of thing.”

“It wasn’t my fault, I—” Avery started, but Diana didn’t hear, having pivoted to a dull anecdote about how, with her husband and her kids, sometimes she also felt there was no air.

Back upstairs, and sufficiently mortified, Avery tried to think of another dessert for tonight. She wanted to cry. Or move away and set this lonely, unlivable tomb on fire, though she wasn’t sure that would even work. Avery felt a tear leak from her eye. She needed so badly to gasp and scream and yell, but she couldn’t.

Wiping her face, she walked to the window and noticed thousands of little dust particles suspended in the morning light. It was sort of beautiful. Avery wondered if this was what outer space felt like, a moment frozen neatly in time. Maybe it didn’t matter what everyone thought. This was her apartment and her life. Her work in progress. She thought about the gossipy neighbors, the landlord, and her mother (probably boarding by now) and started to feel a sort of calm. They were out there and she was safe in here, swaddled by quiet and the warm yellow-white sun.

Later in the afternoon, as she watered the cactus by the door, Avery noticed a slight jiggle of her doorknob. She swung the door open to find a green balloon tied to the outside. Attached was a note.

air from the park. thinking of you.

It was from the family in nineteen. Avery tugged the balloon inside, casting a vibrant green shadow on her living room floor. A few minutes later, to her surprise, another arrived. A nylon purple one. Then another, and another. By five pm, the fading evening light glinted off of dozens of balloons of all colors, shapes, and sizes, suspended majestically throughout the silent apartment. Each had a note from a different neighbor and they contained all types of air from all over the city, from the sea, the museum, the subway. Avery felt appreciated, if a little embarrassed.

Suddenly, her ears perked up. A slight hissing cut through the silence. Avery followed the sound, ducking past balloons (careful not to get tangled in string) until she reached its source. Her cactus had punctured a small, yellow balloon. She leaned down slowly, feeling the cool jet of air on her face, and took a euphoric breath. Avery plucked a spine from the cactus and set about popping every balloon, watching the dust swirl as the room shuddered slowly back to life.

As she pushed the last of the balloons into the trashcan, she reveled in the sound of their soft crinkling. Avery inhaled deeply, smiled, and noticed a text from her mother, who, rather excited to be in the city, said she’d prefer to eat at a restaurant and then go back to her hotel, if that was all right.

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Caleb Martin-Rosenthal is a writer, composer, and filmmaker from Boston, MA. He writes short fiction, screenplays, and songs—sometimes all at once. He recently graduated from Tufts University. Twitter: @_calebmr Email: c.martin.rosenthal[at]gmail.com

All the Bells and Whistles

Fiction
Linda Griffin


Photo Credit: rawdonfox/Flickr (CC-by)

My name is Wren, and I’m an alcoholic. The first part of my story will sound pretty familiar to all of you, but then it gets weird. I started drinking in high school. Casually at parties at first and then I’d get my brother to buy a bottle for me. I never got drunk enough to feel out of control, but that doesn’t mean my judgment wasn’t impaired. I never got hung over and I was sure that meant I wasn’t doing anything wrong. Yeah, right.

I met Noah at a party the night I turned nineteen. My judgment was definitely impaired, but it might not have been the alcohol. Noah was very seriously adorable. I’m not exaggerating. Tall, sexy, curly black hair. He was a social drinker, and I used to hide the bottles so he wouldn’t know how much I drank. We got married six weeks after we met. Part of the haste was that he had been offered a really great job in Australia and he wanted me to go with him. So we got married and we were crazy in love and very happy for about six months.

I liked Australia at first, but it was a long way from home, and I never really adjusted to the differences. Noah caught on that I was drinking more than I admitted to. He was the first person to tell me I was an alcoholic. I was sure he was wrong because I could have quit anytime I wanted—but I wasn’t going to let him tell me when. Reality set in, and we started to fight a lot. He was still adorable, but it wasn’t fun anymore being married to him. So, I raided our savings account for a ticket home. I remember I was pretty drunk when I got off the plane.

Flash forward a couple of years, and I’m married to Michael, and he’s a great guy. Not as cute as Noah, but solid, a good husband with a good job, the whole package. I really got lucky that time, because I was still drinking way too much, and my judgment was far from perfect. Michael is an alcoholic too, but he would quit and go to AA for a while and then backslide. Even when he was going to meetings, he didn’t give me a hard time. He never drank as much as I did, but I was fine; I just had a higher tolerance.

Then one day, Noah shows up out of the blue. He was in the States for a few days on business. He called my mom, and she told him where to find me. He just wanted to say hi, but I offered him a drink, and next thing I know we’d had a few, and he was looking more adorable every minute. The sex was always the best part of our relationship, and there’s something about your first love that you never get over. Having sex with your ex-husband is a whole different thing from sleeping around; it doesn’t even feel like cheating—at least not after a few drinks. He went back to Australia, and I didn’t even tell Michael I’d seen him. He knew about my first marriage, of course; the Australia adventure made a good story.

A lot was going on then—money was tight, and Michael’s father was ill, and so on. My periods were always irregular, so I was pretty far along before I realized I was pregnant. I should have worried about fetal alcohol syndrome, but I was too preoccupied with finding myself in the middle of the hoariest of soap opera plots: Who’s the daddy?

I did quit drinking—it was the first time since I was fourteen that I had gone as much as a week without a drink. Michael took me to a few meetings, but I don’t think I was ready for it yet. I stayed sober for a few months and then convinced myself the crucial period was past and it was safe to drink again. I was still more worried that the baby would have Noah’s aquiline nose, dimples, or curly black hair, than the possibility of birth defects or brain damage. Michael had never even seen a picture of Noah, but my mother knew he had been in town about the right time, and I knew she wasn’t likely to keep her mouth shut if the baby resembled him.

Okay, so the baby was born, and it was a girl, and she was just about perfect. No fetal alcohol syndrome facial features, no brain damage, no dimples. She looked like me. I was still worried—I had read that babies don’t start to look like their fathers until they’re about eighteen months old. Yeah, really, it’s an evolutionary thing, so the dads will know the kids are theirs when they’re at the age they get active enough to interest them.

Meanwhile Michael’s father died, and a lot of things changed. He left Michael enough money that we were able to buy a wonderful house, but it also meant that my mother-in-law moved in with us. Oh boy. My drinking got seriously out of control—of course it always was, but even I could tell the difference. She drove me up the wall every minute of every day, especially when it came to the baby. She knew best; left to myself I was going to ruin her.

The house is roughly what I always imagined my dream house to be. It’s a big, old, two-story house on a nice, quiet street in a semi-rural neighborhood. It has a curving staircase and a wrap-around porch and lots of odd little cubbyholes and nice, deep closets. Character and charm to spare. My mother-in-law hated it.

So now it gets weird. The first thing was the whistling. I heard it several times before I figured out where it was coming from: the baby’s room. When I went in the room, it would stop, and the baby would be lying in the crib gazing up at me. Nobody else was in the room; it had to be her. Michael kept telling me babies don’t whistle. He implied that I was imagining things, that my drinking was affecting my mind. I knew better. One of my favorite books when I was a kid was Karen by Marie Killilea—Karen was nicknamed Wren, so we had that in common. She was extremely premature and in an incubator for a long time, and Marie would whistle lullabies to her, and Karen started whistling when she was about seven months old.

But Julie wasn’t even two months old yet, and nobody had been whistling to her. Maybe the gardener a time or two outside her window. It had no tune to it; it wasn’t exactly musical, but it was a human sound, not like steam pipes or anything. I could never catch her doing it, but I knew it had to be her. Once I heard it in the middle of the night. Her room was right across the hall from ours, and I tiptoed in, and as always, the whistling stopped as soon as I opened the door. Julie was awake, kicking her little legs, not crying or fussing at all. She was always a good, quiet baby, and apparently she could whistle, even though she wouldn’t perform for an audience.

Next it was bells. Even I couldn’t imagine that Julie was responsible for that, although it did seem to be coming from her room. Yeah, bells, little tinkling bells, any time of the day or night. I told Michael the house was haunted, and he said I was haunted. I wasn’t afraid—if a ghost or spirit or mysterious entity was in the house, I didn’t think it could mean any harm with a repertoire of bells and whistles. I’d always read that there would be cold spots when ghosts were present, but if anything, the nursery was unusually warm.

Then my mother-in-law drove our car off the road and into a ditch in the middle of the night. The car rolled over, and she didn’t have her seat belt on, and she was killed. Nobody could figure out what she was doing on the road at that hour. She was a very timid driver as a rule, and she had nowhere to go in the middle of the night. Michael was devastated, and everyone was stunned and disbelieving. The police said no skid marks were found, as if she had done it on purpose, and their first theory was suicide.

They kept investigating and came up with another theory: somebody else was driving, somebody who deliberately sent the car into the ditch and escaped. It didn’t take long for me to figure out who the chief suspect was. They took my fingerprints and asked me to take a polygraph. I was upset, insulted, but I wasn’t worried because I knew I hadn’t done anything. I was secretly glad to have her out of my hair, but I was sorry for Michael’s loss, and my conscience was clear.

I passed the polygraph, but my fingerprints showed up in very suspicious places. I knew for certain that I had been asleep in bed with Michael when the car went off the road, but the police believed otherwise, and they had even Michael looking at me suspiciously. I was an alcoholic whose consumption had recently spiraled out of control. I had never had blackouts before, but the police were convinced that I’d had one that night and that I had murdered my mother-in-law.

Only one thing was wrong with that theory: I had quit drinking the week before. Yes, I know all the buzz words. Denial. Prevarication. And I was stone cold sober the night my mother-in-law died. I’d swear on my daughter’s life. And yes, I know an alcoholic will do that and lie through her teeth. But I didn’t. I’m not. The police developed a pretty convincing case. It convinced everybody. It almost convinced me. But I had still been sober, asleep in bed with Michael, with no memory of anything else, not even a bad dream.

Beginning the night of the accident—murder, if you will—there were no bells and no whistling coming from the baby’s room for at least two weeks. I was out on bail, and the case wasn’t going to be tried for months, so I was home every day and every night, and nothing weird was happening.

The day after it started up again, the phone rang in the middle of the night. Michael went downstairs to answer it. The phone was apparently defective—it kept ringing after he picked up the receiver, and nobody was on the line. He banged it down a few times, and it finally stopped ringing. It was only because he was downstairs at that moment that he saw the flickering light outside the window. A fire was blazing in the garage. The fire department put it out before it could spread to the house, but the garage was gutted, and the car we’d rented was destroyed.

The police investigated, and yes, the fire was arson, and yes, my fingerprints were found in suspicious places. I was still sober, and Michael could swear that I was asleep in bed beside him when the phone rang. The police said I’d had time to go back to bed after I set the fire, but Michael didn’t believe it—he was never that sound a sleeper.

The thing that puzzled even the police was the lack of motive. If I had wanted to destroy evidence of murder, I would have had to torch our own car, which was locked up in a police impound lot. Why would I, or anybody else, want to destroy the rental car? They weren’t puzzled long; they figured I was a crazy drunk and probably forgot which car it was.

The worst part was that the judge revoked my bail because I was suspected of another crime, and I spent the next few weeks in the county jail. Most of us have been in drunk tanks, but this was worse. I wasn’t allowed to see Julie at all, and when Michael visited I could tell he didn’t know what to think. Fingerprints are hard to argue with.

Okay, there’s one thing I haven’t told you yet about high school. When I was sixteen, I went to a party and it got ugly, so I decided to leave. I was responsible enough to know I shouldn’t drive, so I set out to walk home, and I was abducted—yeah, by aliens. No, I’m kidding. Aliens might have been friendlier. The stepbrother of the girl who threw the party followed me out and offered me a ride home. He seemed okay, so I said yes. As soon as I told him my address, he pulled off the road, dragged me out of the car, and raped me. He was very rough and seemed to get pleasure from hurting me. I thought at first he had broken my wrist. When he was finished, he reminded me that he knew where I lived and promised that if I told anyone he would kill me. Not a nice experience and one more reason to drink myself into forgetfulness.

I never told and even though I remained friendly with his stepsister I never saw him again. While I was in jail awaiting trial for murder and arson, this guy turned up dead. He had been murdered in a pretty grisly way, and guess what? My fingerprints were all over the place. Excuse me? I had the best alibi in the world.

That little surprise got me out on bail again. The police were in a quandary. All they could think was that somebody was trying to frame me—somebody too stupid to find out that I was safely locked up. Michael was the most obvious suspect, but he had an alibi, too, and no motive. He didn’t know anything about the stepbrother or the rape.

While I was gone, Michael had hired somebody to take care of the baby, a nice, motherly woman worth her weight in gold. After about five days she quit. She said something was wrong in the house, something evil. Michael tried to pin her down, but she kept shaking her head. She wouldn’t say if she’d heard bells or whistles or what. He had to get somebody else who wasn’t as good, and we were both very glad when I could take over again.

With everything that was going on, we decided to move Julie’s crib into our room. The result was that I started hearing bells and whistles from both rooms, but never when I was in them. If I was in our bedroom, I would hear whistling in the nursery, and when I was in the nursery I might hear bells tinkling in our room. Michael didn’t hear them, but he does have a slight hearing loss from working in a noisy factory when he was younger.

I had been sober for a couple of months, but I started drinking again when I got out of jail. I knew I needed to keep my wits about me, but I convinced myself I could think better after a couple of drinks. You know the drill. Two drinks became five and five ten and so on, and I was hiding bottles all over the house, and Michael went back to AA and started giving me ultimatums. I was powerless over a lot more than alcohol.

One day I was in the kitchen and I heard bells upstairs, not the usual tinkling, but a horrible cacophony. I ran up the stairs, and as usual it stopped when I opened the door. Julie started to cry about the time I got there, and it turned out she had somehow twisted around in the crib and got her head stuck between the slats. She wasn’t hurt or in danger, just getting a little confused and frustrated. I figured wow, if this is a ghost, it’s a friendly one. If it wasn’t serenading us, it was giving me a warning.

Then I made the connection that it was friendly when I was drinking, and when I was sober my fingerprints turned up at crime scenes and the nanny quit because of something evil in the house. Oh boy, what a great excuse to keep drinking! Alcohol wards off evil spirits. It can save your life. Sobriety will land you in jail. I bet you all knew that. I was a slow learner.

So, what happened next? Oh, yeah, I told you Michael had an alibi for the stepbrother’s murder—you didn’t question that, and neither did I at first. The time of death was in the wee hours of the morning when he should have been in bed, with only Julie in her crib in the room with him. Surprise: his alibi was the babysitter. What? We couldn’t afford to hire a babysitter when Michael was home with Julie; we could barely afford it when he was at work. Well, gee, I guess she wasn’t getting paid. I guess she volunteered. I guess she volunteered to keep my side of the bed warm while she was at it. Bottom line: I kicked Michael out, and he moved in with his deadbeat brother.

So I was alone in the house with baby Julie and Casper the friendly ghost and a lot of half-empty bottles. I heard whistling and the tinkling of bells so often that I didn’t really pay attention anymore. It was another presence in the house, something to keep us company, nothing to worry about.

My mom came to visit and stayed for a few days, and while she was there, I didn’t have a drink. I went out to get groceries one morning and when I came back, she said something was wrong in the house and she was getting the creeps. I didn’t get it. It always felt perfectly comfortable to me, warm and inviting, the house of my dreams. I asked if she’d heard bells or whistles, and she said she’d heard something once, but didn’t think it sounded like what I had described. She said it was more like a grinding noise.

That night we all woke up at the same time. I assumed it was an earthquake, but Julie was screaming, so I didn’t investigate. Another shake and a very loud boom followed, and my mother came running in—she was sleeping in what had been the nursery. We went out together to look, and a huge fire was burning two doors down. A few more booms followed, as if explosives had been stored in the house. By the time the fire department arrived, it was totaled, and the houses on both sides had been damaged. Fortunately, it didn’t spread to ours.

The fire department investigated. It was arson. Explosives were found. And guess what else: my fingerprints. I didn’t have a motive. I barely knew that neighbor, and the worst grudge I could come up with was that their little boy had once looked cross-eyed at Julie. My alibi was soft: my mother asleep across the hall. As for means—the arson was skillfully done, and the explosives had been stolen from a construction site.

I politely suggested that the perp might be someone in the police department—who else would be so good at planting fingerprints? I don’t think the police were amused. If I hadn’t been in jail when the stepbrother was killed, they would have been sure I was both a serial killer and a serial arsonist. The real puzzler was who, in or out of the police department, would know about the connection between me and the stepbrother? I hadn’t told anyone. Maybe he had?

By the time the first case—my mother-in-law’s death—came to trial, most of the evidence had mysteriously disappeared. The wheels of justice move very slowly in this country. Julie was about eighteen months old by then. And yes, she was developing a dimple, and her hair, which had been sparse and light brown, was getting dark and very curly. Oops. And—I know you’re not going to believe this, but I swear it’s true: her first word was G’day.

My mother kicked up a fuss, but in the end, it saved my marriage. Yeah, I was in the process of divorcing Michael for adultery, and when he found out we got into a huge fight that ended in both of us swearing our undying love and agreeing to forgive and forget. Sometimes two wrongs can make things right. He loves Julie to pieces, even if she isn’t biologically his, and he didn’t want to lose her. We had her blood type checked to be sure and then put it behind us.

The arson cases came to trial, and the judge threw them both out because the evidence was tainted—fingerprints that had also shown up at the scene of a murder I couldn’t have committed. A scandal ensued about security in the evidence room—you may have read about that. Yeah, that was me. People got fired because of it, but investigators had no leads to whoever had committed the crimes. I was off the hook with the police, but we were totally out of luck with the insurance companies. We had to pay out of pocket to rebuild the garage and replace the rental car, and we couldn’t get fire insurance after that to save our lives.

The babysitter Michael cheated with? She fell down the stairs of her apartment house and broke her neck. She didn’t die; she’s in a long-term care facility, hooked up to machines and paralyzed from the neck down. She told the EMTs she was pushed, but police found no evidence, no fingerprints, no witnesses, and later she said she couldn’t remember saying it.

Three weeks ago, Michael finally heard the bells. They were louder than usual, clanging more than tinkling, and he hunted through the house for the source. It sounded to me like it was coming from the nursery, where Julie was sleeping again, but he wasn’t so sure. The acoustics of an old house like that can be tricky, and the sound might have been coming through the vents. He checked every nook and cranny. When he got to the basement, the sound suddenly stopped. There was an old boiler down there that we weren’t even using because we’d had a modern heating system put in. The basement isn’t finished, and we hadn’t stored anything in it except a few boxes of books and Christmas decorations.

Michael yelled to me to come down, and I was at the top of the steps when the boiler started hissing and rumbling. That wasn’t what Michael had wanted me to see though. Graffiti appeared along one wall, which we were sure had been blank when we were last in the basement. It was a crude drawing of some kind of machine—like maybe a boiler?—and scrawled across it in black letters about two feet high was one word:

RUN

We ran—up the basement steps and up the stairs to the nursery to snatch Julie up from her nap and back down the stairs and out the front door, leaving it wide open, and halfway up the street, right down the middle without even checking for traffic. The house went BOOM! It didn’t burn down, but the boiler shot up two floors, took out Julie’s crib, and went right through the roof. Pieces of it were found two blocks away.

The repairs are going to cost a pretty penny, and we’re probably going to have to sell and find a smaller house. In the meantime, we’re staying with my mother. It’s pretty crowded, and she finally got wise and found all my hiding places, so I stopped drinking altogether. I’m tired of the whole roller coaster, and I know my Mom is tired of having us underfoot. Plus a few days ago her cat died. I never did like that cat, but she’d had him a long time.

I’m finally ready to get serious and really do this AA thing. I’ve been sober for five days and… twenty-three minutes. I’m a little worried though. There’s a pattern here. Bad things happen when I’m sober. People around me get hurt. Where are you going? I’m joking!

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Linda Griffin retired as fiction librarian for the San Diego Public Library in order to spend more time on her writing. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Eclectica, Thema, and the The Nassau Review. The Wild Rose Press published her romantic suspense novels, Seventeen Days (2018), The Rebound Effect (2019), and Guilty Knowledge (2019). Twitter: @LindaGriffinA Email: lindagrif[at]juno.com

Excavation

Fiction
Sarah Clayville


Photo Credit: Sarah-Rose/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

She hides herself in small pieces around the flat, bracing for the worst. The day where she will not be around to tell her story. When a new person lives there, wiping down the granite countertops and spilling blackberry tea by the sink, they will find her in enigmatic bits. The I love you note jotted down on a napkin with lipstick staining the edges. A bent yellow barrette he gave her from their trip to Clifden. The broken china figurine, a mermaid with no head. Whoever finds these pieces will be clever, like she is. They will lay them out on a linen and reconstruct her as if she were a dinosaur reduced to dusty bones.

“Rosemary, I cancelled my weekend plans,” he calls from the shower. The steam seeps into their bedroom as if the morning mist has broken through the walls.

She remains in bed, sore from the night before. Her shoulder pulses when she moves it right or left or down.

“I told my sis I’d spend Saturday with her, if that’s alright?” Rosemary answers.

She retreats deeper into the warm blankets and shuts her eyes. Something hot presses against her neck. She can’t decipher if it’s the steam or his breath. Then he speaks, and the monster has burrowed its way inside her nest.

“It’s not alright when I’ve upended my schedule to make you happy.” His voice is a terrible ringing in her ears. She stays still. In her head the familiar pendulum swings back and forth between the right thing to say and the painful thing to say. But courage is a rotten drug, dragging her kicking and screaming to the wrong side.

“I’ll be happy if I see my sister.”

Rosemary’s voice is the lighthouse beacon drawing his rage.

“Then I’ll go away alone, and you’ll be pleased?”

He gently kisses the arch of her neck the way he did on their wedding night as he nudges her over onto her stomach.

“Tell me when you’re happy enough,” he whispers.

This is where she silently counts the hidden objects in the flat, as he forces her face into the pillow. Her body begs to thrash. No fighting, she tells herself because he will not stop until she is limp. A few kicks of protest and then she must be frozen as the air leaves her lungs. His hand is iron on the back of her head. All she can do is think of those hidden pieces he’ll never touch. In the back of the kitchen cabinet. Behind the toilet in the guest bedroom.

“Rosemary?” he asks in a different voice, like he’s changed his suit.

She parts her lips, pressed against the bed. He frantically checks her pulse. Flips her over carelessly. Places his lips against hers and forces air. Once she stirs, he drops back to his side of the bed, moaning.

“Visit your sister during the week when I’m preoccupied.”

He rushes to slip on his jacket.

“I’m late for work. Decide where you want to go. Anywhere within a day’s drive. You deserve a holiday for all you put up with.”

Once he’s left, she reaches into the nightstand drawer and pulls out a fractured charm bracelet missing two links. He loves taking her away because there is never violence until they return. He blames it, like a curse, on their home. In Aberdeen, London, or Hebrides, he is a proper man. Rosemary can say and do as she likes, but he records the moments. Stocking them up for the storm season when they return.

Rosemary pulls out the travel guide. A bed and breakfast along the coast catches her eye. They bring you fruit crisp in bed, and at night nothing can be heard over the howling of the waves. When she phones to request a reservation, only one with a small twin bed remains vacant.

“It’s more of a closet than a room, to be honest,” the concierge on the other end chuckles. “But it’s got the best view of the town and a castle nearby. Real hidden gem.”

“Yes, please.” The urgency in her voice startles them both. “How long is it available?”

“For the foreseeable future,” he tells her.

Rosemary used to believe in signs. She fell in love with her husband because she discovered him reading her favorite novel on a sunny day in the park. And their flat appeared as if by magic the morning they got engaged on a want ad tacked to a post by the chapel. But slowly he cured her of the silliness, tearing down those signs, word by word.

Except now, the man on the phone tells her that she can hide herself away like the broken artifacts.

“Please hold it. Until this afternoon.” Rosemary’s voice trembles. She jams her suitcase full, simultaneously texting her sister and work to let them know she’s leaving.

When he returns home that night, he is furious that the door’s been left open. How irresponsible. How unsafe. How perfect. Then he realizes she is gone, and the tornado hunts for its target. But as he howls like the waves, all he discovers are the pieces of her that he broke over the past two years, while she sleeps by an ocean lulling her to sleep with its roar.

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Sarah Clayville’s work has appeared both online and in print in several dozen journals, including Toasted Cheese Literary Journal. Email: sarah.clayville[at]gmail.com

Carriers

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Matt Boyle


Photo Credit: ocegep/Flickr (CC-by)

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

“Fucking ads.”

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

“What the hell am I doing here?”

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

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

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

She nodded at his phone. “Congratulations.”

“…for what?”

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

“Uh, no. It’s… just a malicious ad.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Congratulations,” the grey woman echoed.

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

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

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

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

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

She nodded. “Congratulations again.”

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

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

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

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

“Con… congratulations.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What the fuck is happening to me?”

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

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

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

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

A Guiding Light

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
H.B. Bendt


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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

“Frankie is fine.”

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

“Maybe.”

“How so?”

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

“What are you studying?”

“LLB. Torts. I’m not sure why.”

“Why do you think?”

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

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

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

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

Frankie inhaled sharply, blinking all of a sudden.

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cider and black, please.”

“Pint?”

“Yeah. Why not.”

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

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

“Um—excuse me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The cliff?”

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

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

“You know what’s beyond that cliff?”

Frankie shook her head.

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

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

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

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

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

Frankie shook her head.

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

“What is?” Frankie asked.

“The thing about the kid.”

“What kid?”

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

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

“Do you know who?” she asked.

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

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

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

“Lighthouse?”

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

“Why?” Frankie asked.

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

“Committed suicide?”

“That is the story.”

“Why?”

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

“Was he bad?”

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.

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

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

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

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

She turned and ran.

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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