The Night on the Rock

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Christina Hoag


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

Richie coasted down the hill in his Plymouth Duster and turned into the shopping center. Three cars were parked in the middle of the empty lot. Their drivers lolled against the fenders with ankles crossed, smoking and drinking from bottles in paper bags like they owned the asphalt. Richie knew them from school, who didn’t? Mark Ambriano, Lenny Wosniewski and Butch O’Brien. They’d just graduated.

Richie cranked up Lynyrd Skynyrd on the eight-track, checked the windows were rolled down and pressed on the gas. The engine rumbled. As he sped past the three guys, he glanced in the rearview mirror. They didn’t even turn their heads. Douchebags.

He spotted a parking slot under a light. He braked and spun the chrome steering wheel with the heel of his hand, so the Duster stopped within the white lines. He got out and stood for a second to admire the wax job he had spent the afternoon on. The car gleamed. He had bought it three months ago with his dad pitching in a thousand bucks for his seventeenth birthday. So it wasn’t Mark’s 357 Mach II Mustang, Butch’s black-and-gold Trans Am or Lenny’s metallic blue Challenger with a white double-stripe, but that was why he had signed up to take auto shop as his senior year elective instead of art. He’d make his ’72 Duster into something those assholes would have to look at. Deck it out with a spoiler, jack up the rear suspension, give it a cool paint job with the money from his job at the car wash.

Twirling his keys on his forefinger, he sauntered over to the blacked-out storefront of Palace Games. It was just after nine and summer’s darkness was settling into a Friday night thick with invitation. The manager was ushering the last customers out of the supermarket and locking up. The arcade and a dusty fabric store were the only other tenants in the strip mall. The rest of the windows bore “for lease” signs and whitewash curls.

Richie swung open the door to Palace Games and was greeted by a blast of cigarette smoke and the driving bass line of Ted Nugent’s “Cat Scratch Fever.” He fished a couple quarters out of his pocket and jingled them in his palm as he roved. Clicks from the air hockey tables and the tinny bells of pinball filled the air. Kids crowded around the new Space Invader game machines. Keith wasn’t around. He was probably at the Dairy Queen waiting for Charlene to get off work. He’d been asking her out for two weeks and she kept turning him down. Richie had told him to give up already, but as Keith pointed out, what did Richie know? He’d never had a girlfriend.

Richie knew all the kids from school, by sight if not by name, except for two girls wearing tight Sasson jeans playing Star Trek pinball. He was good at pinball. That and welding sculptures out of scrap metal with his dad’s oxyacetylene torch. Everybody thought his stuff was weird, except for Mr. Sampson, the art teacher, who was always encouraging him to enter contests. He had won a couple. But the prizes didn’t mean much to his father, a welder at the Ford plant. His dad would stand with his hands jug-handled on his hips, head cocked, as he considered his son’s contorted shapes. “Good seams,” he’d say finally.

“But what do you think of the form, Dad, the expression?” Richie would ask. That was how Mr. Sampson talked. He’d say things like the “expression of the piece,” “the evocation of emotion,” “the resonance.”

“Well, it’s a piece of fine cutting, just like I taught you,” his dad would answer. Then he’d take Richie to the salvage yard and they’d pick out bits of metal for Richie’s next welding “practice.” At least, Richie got to keep making his sculptures, but he wished that just once his dad would see the creation, not the welding.

Neither girl looked up when Richie sidled up to the machine and shook out a Marlboro from the soft pack, plucking it out with his lips. He shot a look at them over the lighter’s flame. The one playing had wings of brown hair hanging in front of her face as she leaned over the machine in concentration. She was as tall as Richie. The other was baby-faced, shorter, with a dirty blonde Dorothy Hamill haircut.

The ball rolled into the chute. “Game over” flashed on the board.

“Agh!” the one playing threw up her hands.

“You did good. You scored a lot more than last time,” the short girl said.

“I did shitty.”

“That’s not bad,” Richie said. They noticed him for the first time. “Mind if I take a shot?” They moved aside and he slid a quarter into the slot. As he hoped, they stayed to watch. The silver ball popped into the launching chute. With the cigarette dangling from his lips, he pulled back the spring-loaded lever as far as it would go and released it with a twanging thud.

The ball zinged from pillar to pillar as bells pinged. Aware he was on show, Richie put extra effort into swiveling his slim hips to the rhythm of the flipper button he pressed and thrust his pelvis forward when he hit both at once. Points mounted to an impressive total at game’s end.

“You’re really good at this!” the short girl said.

“I’ve been playing a long time.”

“Oh, that’s why,” the slim one said.

“I haven’t seen you ’round here before. What school do you go to?”

“OLPH,” the short one said.

The local parochial school.

“How ’bout you?” the slim one asked.

“Indian Hills.” Richie jerked his thumb in the general direction of the high school.

“What grade are you in?” the slim one said.

“Senior. Going to be.”

“We’re sophomores,” the short one said.

“So, ah, what are you girls doing tonight?” Richie looked at Spock’s ears on the machine’s backboard and felt his own ears get hot. “Want to go for a ride?”

The girls looked at each other. The slim one leaned into the short one’s ear, then straightened.

“We have to be back by eleven-thirty,” the short one said.

“Sure, no problem. I’m Richie, by the way.”

“Lisa,” the slim one said.

“Vicky,” the short one said.

They walked out into the parking lot. Richie looked for the muscle-car trio, but they’d gone. Figured. Just when he had girls to show off.

“Our parents think we’re at a birthday party tonight,” Vicky said. “They’d never let us come down here by ourselves.”

“So, you’re playing hooky.” Richie got in and leaned over to pull up the passenger side lock. He was glad when Vicky slid in first on the bench seat, then Lisa.

“Can you cop us some beers?” Lisa was combing back her feathered hair.

His hand accidentally-on-purpose brushed Vicky’s knee as he put the car into drive. “Er, sure.”

Richie drove down Oakland Avenue, past the car wash where he worked, to the DQ next to the bowling alley. He hoped Keith was there. He’d know what to do. He pulled into the DQ lot. Keith’s Chevy Nova was parked three slots down from the entrance, as usual. He exhaled.

“Shit!” Lisa slid down in the seat. “Why didn’t you tell me you were going by the bowling alley? My dad bowls every Friday night. Get down, Vicky. He knows I’m with you.”

She grabbed Vicky’s arm and tugged her down. “Don’t worry, Lis. He’s probably inside.”

“I’ll be right back,” Richie said.

Keith was sitting with a soda and playing drums with straws on the table. Charlene was wiping down the counter.

“Hey, man,” Keith said.

“Hey. Any luck?” Richie gestured his head toward Charlene.

“She’s coming round.”

That’s what he said every time.

Richie slid into the booth and leaned over the table. “I got two chicks in my car ready to party.”

Keith stopped drumming and looked out the window. “I don’t see anyone.”

“They’re on the floor in the front. They’re scared their old man might come out of the bowling alley and see them.”

Keith grunted and resumed drumming. Richie slapped his hand down on the straws. “They want to get some beers. What the hell do I do?”

Keith removed Richie’s hand and resumed drumming. “Go hang out at the back door of Oakland Liquors and ask someone to buy you a six-pack.”

“I never did that before.”

Keith gave him an oh-come-on look. “Man, you are such a dork.”

“Come with. Charlene’s not going with you and you know it.”

Keith looked at her bobbing ponytail as she wiped down the ice cream machine. “What do they look like?”

“Real foxes.”

“I have first dibs.”

“Done.”

Keith slipped out of the booth. “Later, Charlene.”

She looked up surprised. “Hey wait, Keith…” The door closed on her voice.

They laughed. “‘Bout time you showed her, dork,” Richie said.

*

Richie struck out twice with asking people to buy him a six-pack. It wasn’t as easy as Keith had made it out to be. One man gave him a dirty look. Another told him he should know better than to drink at his age. Richie lit a cigarette and inhaled. Smoking scratched his throat, but he liked hanging out with the cool crowd in the smoking courtyard at school, so he kept doing it.

Laughter rippled from the car. He glanced over.

“Hey, what’s taking you?” Keith yelled.

Richie shot him the middle finger.

A Harley pulled in. A guy and a girl dismounted, pulling off their helmets. Bingo.

Seven minutes later, Richie trotted back to the car with a paper bag containing two six-packs of Lowenbrau. Much to his annoyance, Keith was sitting in the backseat with Vicky. Lisa was riding shotgun.

“Party time!” Richie sang.

Keith grabbed the bag and handed the girls beers as Richie put the car in gear. “Let’s go to the rock,” Keith said.

“At night?” Richie said.

“It’s summer, man,” Keith said. “Live a little.”

“We’ve never been to the rock, have we, Lisa?”

“No, let’s go,” Vicky said.

“Don’t worry, man,” Keith said. “The trail’s easy. Here, have a Lowie. Loosen up.”

“I have a flashlight in the trunk, I think,” Richie said.

Lisa shuffled through his eight-tracks in the glove compartment and held one up. “I love this album.” She slid the tape in. The Allman Brothers’ guitar riffs twanged as they passed the “Welcome to Oakland, New Jersey” sign and wound up the mountain.

When “Ramblin’ Man” kicked in, Richie belted out the lyrics while Keith air-drummed. The girls laughed and joined in the chorus. Richie chucked his empty out the window as they rounded a bend. Keith did the same and then plucked the bottles out of the girls’ hands and tossed them.

“I didn’t finish that one yet,” Vicky protested.

“Spit and foam at the bottom. Have another one.” Keith stuck his head out the window and wolf-howled. Richie howled even louder. Keith was right. There was something about a summer night that stretched the possibility of everything, made life large.

Richie pulled into the entrance to the Ramapo Mountain Reserve, parked and got out. He was pretty sure his father had a flashlight in his emergency kit. He opened the trunk and found it. He switched it on and shone the light around the lot. The beam caught three parked cars, cars he knew.

“Let’s gooo,” Keith called.

They followed the cone of light along the path. The rock lay a mile up on the mountain ridge. It was a huge slab of stone that sloped down to a lake surrounded by pine trees. The trail narrowed as it grew steeper and stonier. The girls panted and stumbled. The boys grabbed their hands and pulled them along.

“This is really far,” Lisa said.

“It’s kind of creepy,” Vicky said.

“Almost there,” Keith puffed.

The climb finally gave way to a “Swimming Prohibited” sign. They stood at the water’s pebbled edge catching their breath. The moonlight glistened on the lake’s black surface surrounded by the dark silhouettes of trees. The air was still and summer-sticky. Richie’s spine prickled. A whoop of laughter from down the shoreline invaded the silence. Richie remembered the cars.

“Party up ahead. Let’s go.” Keith started down the narrow track along the shore. Richie and the girls fell in behind him.

A few minutes later, they climbed onto the rock. Richie looked around. No one. Then a grating rumble sounded. He shone the flashlight up the slope. Three beer bottles rolled down, then a voice called out of the darkness.

“Hey, move. You’re in the way!”

The group shifted to the side. Mark Ambriano, Lenny Wosniewski and Butch O’Brien came into sight as they raced after the speeding bottles, which hit a stone at the bottom with clinks.

“Mine won!” Mark said.

“Who’re you fooling, man, it was mine,” Lenny said.

Butch leapt down to the stone where the bottles had rolled to a rest and smashed them against the rock. Only Keith laughed.

“Butch, quit that shit!” Mark said.

Lenny walked over to them. “You guys wanna party?”

“You got the brewskis, we got the weed,” Mark said.

“It’s decent stuff,” Lenny added. “Sinse.”

Richie, Keith and the girls followed the three guys up the slope. Lenny, Butch and Mark sat next to the girls, leaving Richie and Keith sitting next to each other across from them in the circle. Keith looked at Richie, twisting his mouth as if to say, “This is bullshit.” Richie shrugged.

Lenny expertly rolled a joint from a baggie of pot. A bottle of Jack Daniels came from somewhere and was passed around. Richie felt like he was floating above the scene. These guys would never give him a second look at school. Now he was partying and bullshitting with them like they were buddies.

After a couple joints, shots and a beer, Richie’s head was fuzzing. Voices blurred. His closed his eyes and saw the star-speckled sky on his eyelids. He opened them and wondered vaguely how he was going to get back to the car. He looked around. Keith was lying on his back. Butch was rolling another joint. Mark’s arm had disappeared around Vicky’s back and she was leaning into his shoulder. Lenny and Lisa were making out. The night that had seemed in the palm of Richie’s hand had slipped from his grasp. He elbowed Keith.

“Let’s get out of here.”

“Yeah.”

They stood. Richie’s head swam. He grabbed the flashlight and lurched down to the lake. He splashed water on his face. The cold wetness broke his stupor. Keith stumbled behind him. He threw some water on his face and shook his head.

“That reefer was wicked.” Keith’s voice sounded like it was in slow motion.

They started down the trail. The moon had brightened, silvering the lake. Richie switched on the flashlight, took a few steps then heard a retching noise. He turned and shone the flashlight. Keith leaned on a tree trunk and and wiped his mouth with his T-shirt.

“You okay?”

“Yeah, now that I barfed,” Keith croaked. He walked to the lakeside and splashed more water on his face.

The flashlight was faint. “Not much battery left,” Richie said. “If we hurry, we might make it before it goes dead.”

A high-pitched scream pierced the air. Richie and Keith froze.

“Hold her!” Butch.

“Leave her alone!” Lisa.

Another scream.

“Shut the fuck up!” Lenny.

A girl’s sobs. “Leave us alone!” Lisa.

“Shut your fucking mouth! It’s your turn next.” Butch. A slap. A cry. “I told you, shut it.”

Keith and Richie looked at each other. “Jesus fucking Christ,” Keith said in a loud whisper.

“What do we do?” Richie whispered.

“Fuck!”

“We got to go back.”

“Are you shitting me?” Keith snatched the flashlight. “They’ll think we’re part of it.” He set off down the trail. Richie was paralyzed. “Richie, they’re just goofing off. Come on.”

He hesitated, then followed Keith. They skidded down the first steep stretch, then Richie paused and listened. Crickets chorused, nothing else.

Keith turned. “What the fuck are you doing? Come on, man. We don’t want those guys on our asses.”

“I don’t know.”

“Those girls were going along with them. You saw.”

Richie couldn’t move.

“Listen, if you want to be a dork, that’s your fucking problem.” Keith moved off at a fast clip.

The flashlight’s beam bobbed into the darkness. Keith was probably right. The girls were looking for trouble. He’d go back and find them all laughing. He’d look like a real douchebag. Richie jogged to catch up with Keith, but a lump formed in the pit of his stomach.

*

The rest of the weekend, Richie worked his hours at the car wash then slumped on the couch in the basement watching All in the Family reruns.

“You feeling all right, Richie?” his mom called down the stairs.

“I’m fine, Ma.”

As the laugh track played on the TV, Richie played the night over in his mind. The screams. The crying. “It’s your turn next.” Something bad happened. He should have gone back. He should have told Keith it was a lousy idea to go to the rock in the first place. Why did he ever listen to him?

Maybe it was just the pot that spooked him. Those guys would never have done anything to the girls, would they? They were just roughhousing, got carried away, like Keith said. And those girls really did ask for it. They wanted to go to the rock. They were making out with those guys. He wasn’t responsible for them. Or was he? He drove them there.

Richie felt a weight on his chest that made it hard to breathe. He’d experienced that once before, when he was ten and playing in the sea at Wildwood, letting the waves dance him around like a piece of driftwood. It was fun for a while, then the waves got rough, crashing over him and clawing him under. As soon as he got his head above surface, another wave slammed against his body, submerging him. He kept swallowing saltwater and his throat was burning. He thrashed and flailed but he couldn’t get his head above the surface. Then suddenly he was breathing air. He couldn’t remember how he got out, but he was able to swim to shallower water and walked back to his towel and collapsed.

*

Monday was a good day at the car wash. Richie made fifteen bucks in tips. Feeling lighter than he had all weekend, he strode into the kitchen after work and opened the fridge.

“Get out of there. Dinner’ll be ready soon.” His mother spoke without looking up from the newspaper she was reading at the table.

He grabbed the milk carton, poured himself a glass and gulped.

“There was a gang rape of some teenage girls up at Ramapo. They’re looking for the suspects.” His mother turned the page. “I always told you kids got up to no good up there.”

Richie spluttered on the milk.

His mother looked up in alarm. “You okay?”

He wiped his mouth with his forearm. “Went down the wrong way.”

He rushed into his bedroom and flopped on the bed, burying his face in the pillow. Gang rape.

He was responsible for two girls getting raped by three guys. Was he an accessory? An accomplice? A witness?

Richie didn’t feel like eating, but he didn’t want questions from his parents, so he shoveled down his dinner and retreated to the basement. Laverne and Shirley was starting when he heard the doorbell. A minute later, his mother opened the basement door. “Richie, some boys are here to see you. Mark, Butch and Lenny.”

His stomach clenched. “I’m not home, Ma.”

“I already told them you are. They said it’s important.”

Richie hauled himself up the stairs and out to the front porch, carefully closing the door behind him. His parents were in the living room, playing along with Jeopardy.

Mark stood on the porch. “Hey Richie, got a sec?” Mark cocked his head toward the driveway, where Butch and Lenny hovered. They walked over. Richie shoved his hands in his pockets.

“So, ah, you know the other night, well, nothing really happened, you know,” Mark said.

“You didn’t see nothing anyway, right.” The way Lenny phrased it, it wasn’t a question.

“We’re just saying because those girls were real wasted, and they might be going around saying stuff, but they were real easy, real teases, you know. Nothing happened like they might be going around saying. And you were there, and your buddy Keith, so they might have got all us guys mixed up. It was real dark, you know what I mean?” Mark arched his eyebrows.

Yeah, Richie knew. He was trapped. He wanted to knock that smart-ass look off Mark’s face with a right hook like his dad had taught him with the punching bag slung up on the tree in the backyard. He slapped at a mosquito on his arm instead.

Butch took out a hunting knife and cleaned his fingernails with the blade tip. The steel glinted. His old man was the police chief. Mark’s dad was a lawyer. And Lenny, rumor had it that his father was in prison for killing someone. Richie’s chest felt tight. He cleared his throat. “I really don’t remember much of that night. I was pretty shitfaced.”

“That’s what we kinda figured. We just wanted to make sure,” Mark said. “So now we got that all straightened out, we’re cool, man, okay?”

“Yeah, yeah, sure.” Richie’s skin squeezed his bones.

“Let me know if you want some help with that Duster,” Mark said. “We could do a real cool paint job on her, a racing stripe or flames on the fenders even.”

“Yeah, sure,” Richie mumbled.

Keith. He waited until they left, then he got in the Duster and cruised down to the Dairy Queen, keeping right on the speed limit although he wanted to go faster. As he walked to the door, Richie could see Keith through the window, scarfing down ice cream at a booth. Charlene was serving cones at the walk-up window.

“How’s it going?” Keith’s spoon clattered into the empty banana split dish as Richie sat across from him. Keith pulled a napkin from the dispenser and swiped it across his mouth.

Keith leaned over the table. “Charlene’s going out with me after work. Told ya I’d get her. Take it from me, girls like the chase.” He grinned. “I took a bottle of Southern Comfort from the liquor cabinet. The old lady’ll never miss it.”

“Cool.” Richie grabbed the salt shaker and spun it. “So Butch and them just came by my house.”

Keith lowered his voice. “I told them I didn’t see nothing, hear nothing, I was wasted off my ass. I don’t even remember how I got home. That’s what happened.”

“But we heard them, the girls screaming and all that.”

“Richie, we left. We didn’t hear jack. End of fucking story. You say any different, we’re going to land in a major pile of shit, capisce?”

Richie tipped the shaker and poured the salt onto the table. There was something soothing about watching it flow into a perfect white mound.

“Would you quit that? Charlene’s going to think I did it.” Keith glanced over his shoulder and brushed the salt on the floor under the table. He grabbed the shaker out of Richie’s hand and set it aside. “Besides, no one’ll ever believe us over them. One of them’s old man is the police chief.”

“It was your fucking idea to go to the rock.”

“Don’t dump this shit on me.” Keith jabbed his finger at Richie. “You were the one who begged me to go with you. Those girls were sluts. They were looking for trouble and got what they deserved.”

“Keith, I’m closing out the register. I’ll be done in five,” Charlene called. “Can you bring over your dish?”

“Sure.” Keith stood. “Think about it, Richie. You’ll see I’m right.” He grabbed the dish and walked to the counter.

Richie drove home and opened the garage door. He fished a wrench out of the toolbox and unscrewed the Duster’s rear bumper. He put on the welding mask and gloves and fired up the oxyacetylene torch. He twisted and melted the bumper into a contorted figure until his arms ached.

The next night after dinner, Richie went into the garage and dismantled the Duster’s front bumper and grill and started welding. His mother peered through the half-open door as she wiped her hands on a dish towel. Her brows knitted. A few minutes later, the door flung open. His father marched in, a rolled up newspaper in his hand.

“Son, what in God’s name are you doing? Have you lost your mind?”

Richie focused on his seam.

His dad whacked the newspaper hard on the tool bench. “Richie, you pay attention to me when I’m talking to you! Turn that torch off!”

Richie didn’t stop.

His father took two steps and yanked off the spigots on the oxygen and acetylene tanks. The torch’s flame fizzled. “Get in the house!”

Richie, still wearing his welding mask, got up and turned on the tanks.

His father’s face looked like all his blood vessels had burst.

“Richard. Get. In. The. House!” His dad’s arm shot out toward the door. Richie lifted the torch. Its 3,000-degree blue flame spit directly at his father, who reeled back and crashed into the garbage cans.

“I never should’ve given you the money for that car. You’re goddamn spoiled!” He hauled himself up and went into the kitchen. “Jesus Christ, he almost killed me with that torch! I don’t know what’s wrong with him.” His dad’s voice floated into the garage.

“It must be girl trouble,” his mother said.

The door closed. Richie kept welding.

The next night, Richie came home from the car wash, took his dinner plate into the garage and started working on the hub caps. His father entered and sat on a milk crate.

“Son, you can tell your old man. You got some girl knocked up?”

Anger rose in Richie’s throat. He wasn’t going around knocking up girls. He ignored the question.

“Jesus, Richie, this is crazy.” His father combed his hair with his fingers. Then he got up and retreated to the kitchen.

“It’s that goddamn art teacher,” he heard his dad say. “I’m going to fix this once and for all.”

The next night, Richie went into the garage and flicked on the light. There was an empty space where his welding equipment and sculpture had been. He got into the Duster and banged his forehead against the steering wheel. He slid the key into the ignition and backed out the driveway. He roamed downtown for a while, feeling his rage descend into a dark but stable mood, then decided to head to Burger King for a shake.

“Hey Richie!” Mark, Butch and Lenny were sitting at a table with trays of burgers and fries. Shit. He considered walking out, but he’d look like a wimp. He nodded at them and ordered a chocolate shake, then added a Whopper and extra-large fries that he didn’t want. Maybe they’d be gone by the time his order was ready. But they weren’t.

“Richie, over here!” Mark waved at him. He twisted toward them, pulled by the string of obligation, and sat at their table. “We’re going to borrow a swimming pool, if you want to come.” The others chuckled. “The Politanos are away so we have a little swimming party there at night. The house is set back. No one sees us.”

“Sure.” Richie heard himself say. His chest constricted again, the waves buffeted him, closing over his head. He couldn’t breathe.

“Let’s pick up Veronica on the way,” Lenny said.

“We know what that’s about,” Butch said.

“You betcha!” Lenny wiggled his eyebrows.

They all laughed.

Richie tried to smile, to go along, but he couldn’t. He knew his father would kill him for sneaking into someone’s yard. Did he really want to turn into another Mark, Butch or Lenny? Did he really want to join their club? Then memory struck him like a lightning bolt. It was his father who had plucked him out of the ocean all those years ago. Dad had deposited him in shallower water where he could safely swim to shore.

He stood up. “I just remembered. I gotta do something.” He walked off.

“Hey, you want your food?” Butch called.

“You can have it,” Richie said.

He drove home and entered the living room. His father was in his recliner, watching Wheel of Fortune, a folded newspaper on the table beside him.

“Dad, you gotta minute?”

pencil

Christina Hoag is the author of novels Girl on the Brink and Skin of Tattoos (Onward Press). Her short stories and essays have been published in numerous literary reviews including Lunch Ticket, Shooter, the Santa Barbara Literary Journal and the San Antonio Review and have won several prizes. She is a former journalist for the Miami Herald and Associated Press and Latin America foreign correspondent. Email: choag24[at]gmail.com

Boys Will Be Boys

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Robin Kirby


Photo Credit: rockpool73/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

“I think Toby Gardiner lives in that house.” Miranda pointed at a low-set fibro beach shack, set in an overgrown garden. “Do you want to see if he’s home?” The house itself was unimposing, but the places along this stretch of dirt road backed on to the open sea. My parents’ beach house was a luxurious high-set with views forever, but it didn’t have that mesmerising sound of waves breaking on the shore night and day.

It struck me that Miranda may have contrived staying with me for the sole purpose of putting herself in the path of Toby Gardiner. She had mentioned this latest crush when we were discussing our plans for the summer holidays.

“He’s such a doll.”

Toby Gardiner was a year older than us and had attended a different school. He would be going to university down south soon. Miranda had met him through a friend one weekend and had watched out for him when we attended the end of year inter-school swimming carnival. Neither Miranda nor I were very sporty, but we’d been in the cheer squad, dressed to kill in short skirts and tight T-shirts. During their animated conversation, she’d found out that he was an only child and that his father had recently died of a heart attack. She had also found out that his family beach house was walking distance from mine.

“OK,” I replied, “but if he’s there I don’t want to stay very long.”

Miranda sauntered to the screen door. “Anyone home?”

“Hey, Miranda, isn’t it?”

I had to admit that Toby was pretty cute. He had a bit of a surfie look about him: bleached blonde hair, bronzed skin. A shame all his attention was on Miranda. Boys always seemed to go for Miranda. She was my best friend and all, but really, she wasn’t what you’d call beautiful. A little on the chubby side, baby blue eyes, blonde curls. I guess buxom was the word that fitted best, maybe even voluptuous.

It turned out that his mother was due home in a few minutes, but would be at work the next day. While she was away, some of his mates would be coming over for a game of cards and a few drinks. Toby said it would be fun to have a couple of girls there as well. How about it?

“Bingo,” said Miranda as we meandered back home. The sun beat down relentlessly on our bare heads, but we hardly noticed as we giggled together and concocted a plausible story to tell my parents about what we’d be doing the next day. I wondered what the other boys would be like.

*

“That’s it for me,” said Shane, throwing his cards into the middle of the table.

I had been checking him out for a while. He was the one who owned the dust-streaked car outside Toby’s place. He had been intent on the poker game and his restless eyes rarely left his cards. The boys had started with piles of coins in front of them, but his had now dwindled away to almost nothing. They were drinking beer from cans and laughing about the fun they’d had last night when Shane had hit 100 miles per hour down the straight stretch of Harbour Road.

It felt like Miranda and I were privileged to be on the sidelines. I didn’t know what to make of the third boy. They called him ‘Cliffo’ and when we sat down, he announced with a perfectly straight face, that he had a certificate proving he was sane. He didn’t sound like he was joking, so I repressed my desire to giggle. I had no experience with mental illness. He might be for real.

Shane and Cliffo had been hurling the empty cans through an open window in some kind of ‘who can get his can the furthest’ competition.

“Hope you’re going to pick those up,” said Toby.

“Ya going to make us?” said Cliffo.

“Thought my mum scared you shitless.”

Shane shrugged and wandered outside and collected the cans, put them in the rubbish bin, then grabbed his car keys. It turned out he was off to meet his girlfriend in town. Drat. The three boys had a muttered conversation near the door, there was some skylarking and laughter and I heard the car spin its wheels in the dirt as it took off.

Toby came back to the main room with Cliffo. By now, Miranda had gone to sit on the lounge and Toby sat down close beside her. There was some desultory conversation about holidays and school and how hot it was. I could see that Toby had an arm around Miranda and I tried not to watch as his hand surreptitiously slipped inside her blouse. She blushed and moved side on so we couldn’t see.

Cliffo watched unblinking for a minute and then went and got himself another beer from the fridge. He came and stood right in front of me and I noticed for the first time that he was tall and that his eyes were an intense blue.

“Let’s get out of here,” he said.

Suited me. I just wanted to get away from the embarrassing situation of sitting around watching my friend being seduced.

“Alright.”

Cliffo walked through a doorway and I automatically followed. He closed the door. We were in a starkly furnished bedroom. I panicked, but then realised that there was probably nowhere else to sit down in the small beach shack. At least we couldn’t see the others.

We both stood in silence. He took a few sips of beer then handed me the can.

“You finish it. I’m not supposed to drink ‘cause of my medication.”

I walked to the window but couldn’t see the sea, just bushes. There was no breeze. The room was stinking hot. No fans. No air-con. I’d never actually drunk a full can of beer before. It was bitter on my tongue, but at least it was cold. Perhaps I’d relax a bit more and be able to string more than two words together if I got a little tipsy. I gulped it down and put the can on the sill. Cliffo was still standing, just watching me.

“Did they tell you why I was in the funny farm?”

“No. No one said anything.”

“Tried to commit suicide.”

For some reason, that made me feel better. I could relate to depression and suicide. Not like madness, which to me was a scary kind of unknown.

“Oh. Sorry.”

The room was starting to spin a bit and I felt a little woozy. I sat on the edge of the bed. Cliffo lay on his back and stared at the ceiling.

“It’s OK,” he said. “I’m not going to jump you or nothin’. You can lie down.”

It was tempting. I was decidedly dizzy by now, so I carefully stretched out, keeping to the edge of the bed.

After a few more minutes of silence, Cliffo propped himself on his elbow.

“You’ve got a nice belly.”

I was wearing black footie shorts and a midriff top. Yeah, my stomach was toned and tanned. Looked pretty damn good really, despite the sheen of perspiration.

“Can I touch it? Just gently?”

What could be the harm? It wasn’t like a sexual thing. And anyway, he was suicidal. If I said no, I might hurt his feelings.

“OK, but nothing more. Alright?”

Up ‘til now, I had only experienced some sweaty handholding and a couple of sloppy kisses from pimply youths at school. I was starting to worry a bit about being left on the shelf or that maybe I came across as an ice princess or something. I was nearly sixteen, after all.

He lay a hand on my stomach. It was warm and not unpleasant. After a few more minutes, he gently began to draw small lazy circles around my navel. I closed my eyes. I felt less nauseous that way. And I could almost imagine he was someone else. Some romantic hero from that shadowy world of my imagination.

The lazy circles slowly, slowly expanded and a distant part of me was aware that disembodied fingers had ever so gradually pulled down the elastic waistband of my shorts. Those sensitive fingers were now trailing across my lower belly, creating pulsating tingles lower down. The beer had certainly relaxed me and I experienced these new sensations with a dazed sort of detachment.

Something in the back of my mind was tugging at me, bothering me. It was that irritating goody two-shoes part of me demanding to be heard, to remind me that this was wrong, and nothing like the romance of my imagination.

He wasn’t the one. This person beside me had discoloured teeth and I was becoming increasingly aware that he smelled of stale beer, cigarettes and rancid sweat. While I tried to summon up the wherewithal to somehow extricate myself from this situation, I lay inert like a rabbit in a spotlight. The problem was that a wilder, more untamed part of my nature that I barely recognised was willing me to continue, to keep exploring the sensuous mysteries that Miranda was no doubt experiencing in the other room.

I felt a clumsy, inexpert fumbling between my legs. OK, enough was enough. This was downright tacky now and most definitely not what I wanted. I started to pull away but he was big and heavy and kind of pinning me down. There was a rough probing into the area my mother euphemistically described as my ‘private part’ and I finally galvanized into action and yanked frantically at his hand while desperately trying to pull my shorts up. God, surely that wasn’t the end of my virginity.

Without warning, he leapt off the bed and headed out the door, gleefully shouting to the others. I sat up, stone-cold sober.

“I win. I win. Fingered her. Come on, Toby, pay up.”

I felt my face flushing. I ran from the room, not caring what state of undress Miranda was in. Slamming the screen door, I pushed blindly through the bushes to the road, hoping against hope that Miranda would follow.

She did. “Are you for real? You let Cliffo do that?”

I couldn’t help myself. I couldn’t bear the thought of her judgement or her pity. “He was lying. He just touched my stomach. That’s all.”

“Didn’t sound like it,” she said.

“I didn’t want to say anything back there, because I felt sort of sorry for him. You know, because of the depression and suicide and stuff.”

“What? He told you he was suicidal?”

“Yeah.”

“The lying toad,” said Miranda. “Toby reckons he’s a bit of a psychopath. Really weird if he’s off his meds.”

“So, it’s because he’s insane that he made that bet with the others?”

“Nah. Boys will be boys. That’s what a lot of them are like.”

That was the initial turning point of my summer. It hurt me right to my very core that the other boys had gone along with the bet, that they’d laughed about it and thought it was a great joke. I was deeply ashamed about the way my own body had betrayed me. Deep inside, I knew that never again would I put myself in a position where I could be humiliated by anyone. I didn’t care anymore if boys thought I was a prude or if I became an old spinster. No male would ever make a fool of me again.

“So Miranda, what about you? Was Toby trying to win a bet too?”

“God no. Toby and I are in love.”

Later, Miranda and I sat on the warm sand watching the dancing, foaming waves as the shadows lengthened. Tears rolled down my cheeks and I told her the truth about what had happened.

“You should report him,” she said.

“Who to? It’s not like I kicked and screamed.”

“But you didn’t say yes and you certainly didn’t know he was just doing it for a bet. That would have to be deception or false pretences or something.”

“You know how embarrassing it would be to tell a cop? Or my parents? Anyway, he’d probably say I led him on.”

“Yeah. I get what you mean. Guess you’re just going to have to live with it.”

*

A few weeks later and the humidity was almost unbearable as the torrential rains of the wet season threatened. Miranda and I were back at school, and it wouldn’t be long until Toby left for university. I didn’t care what Cliffo or Shane were planning to do with their lives. I hoped I would never see any of those boys again as long as I lived. I received sporadic reports from Miranda about Toby’s phone calls and the frenzied trysts in the back of Shane’s car, on the occasions when Toby could borrow it.

On my way out of the house one oppressive morning, I glanced at the daily newspaper on the dining room table. The macabre picture of a smashed-up car caught my eye. The impact had been so forceful that the car had split into two and the roof had peeled back, as if a giant had opened a can of sardines.

Toby Gardiner and Shane Walker had been killed in the single vehicle rollover.

For a moment, I could scarcely breathe. Miranda would be devastated. Then it was almost as if a switch had been flicked, and I turned and walked into the mind and spirit of my more mature self. I breathed deeply and was calm and in control. I would be Miranda’s support. I had been a part of her idyllic summer and we would weather this together. I understood. I was the only person who had known the unfolding of her first real love. I knew I could do this.

*

The small church was filled to overflowing for the double funeral, despite the teeming rain. Miranda and I stood at the back and vainly scanned for spare seats.

“We should be up at the front with Toby’s mother,” whispered Miranda.

“But you’ve never met her, have you?”

“Yeah, but I was his girlfriend. Do you think I should introduce myself before the service starts?”

I instinctively knew that would be a disaster. I had noticed a woman come and sit in the front row by herself and guessed it would have to be Toby’s mother. She moved like an automaton, face drawn, eyes dead. And so alone.

For a few moments she sat staring at the two coffins. I felt that she was trying to work out how she would ever bear the dreadful weight of the deaths of first her husband and now her only child. Then people came and surrounded her, hugged her, kissed her cheek. Cliffo was among them. I shuddered.

Miranda and I remained squashed among those standing at the back. We sang the hymns and said Amen at the right times in the prayers and then the eulogies started. A petite slip of a girl came to the front. She looked Eurasian to me. Thick black plait, liquid eyes. She took a deep breath and began:

“For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Raya. I’ve been Toby’s girlfriend for two years and we were the world to each other.”

There was an audible gasp from Miranda, thankfully drowned out by people fanning themselves with their service sheets.

“Of course, there was another woman in his life…”

I felt Miranda stiffen.

“…his beautiful mother, Leila, who is heartbroken.”

Raya went on to explain about Toby’s mother sending a telegram to her in Malaysia, where Raya had been caring for her sick grandmother. She talked on about the plans she and Toby had made for opening a mental health clinic for disturbed youth once she and Toby had qualified, plans to volunteer overseas, to marry, to have a family.

I whispered in Miranda’s ear. “Do you want to go?”

She tearfully nodded and we quietly sidled out into the damp churchyard and found a sheltered seat on a low brick wall.

“I think I need to set the story straight,” said Miranda. “I think Toby’s mother and Raya need to meet me, to know that Toby had fallen in love with me.”

I was silent for a minute. It was clear to me that Toby Gardiner wasn’t the Mr Nice Guy everyone painted. He had been quite content to keep his exotic princess as his long-term plan but to have fun with my friend Miranda while Raya was off the scene. This was a powder keg just waiting to be ignited.

“No, Miranda. What good will it do?”

“It would make me feel better. Less like a bloody stupid idiot.”

“I know you’re hurting. But if you tell them, then three people will be hurting. It’s not like Toby’s mother or Raya did anything wrong. They knew Toby for a long time and shared heaps of experiences with him. You’ll make their memories of those times ugly and distorted. Would that be fair?”

Miranda dabbed at her eyes with a damp, twisted tissue. “Guess we’ve both learned a lot about boys this summer,” she said, with a weak smile.

More than that, I thought. We’d learnt a whole lot about life.

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Robin Kirby followed her heart and studied English Literature at University in Townsville. It taught her to appreciate great writing. A Creative Writing course gave her the practical tools to try herself out as a freelance writer. As a result, she was fortunate to have a few short stories published but that was many years ago and it didn’t seem she could make a career of it. She turned to other professions and also saw a bit of Australia, moving from Townsville to Darwin, then on to Perth and finally back to the Tropics again. Working as a psychologist in a psychiatric unit gave her insight into personality and behaviour; university administrative positions encouraged her to be meticulous and to respect high standards; teaching piano lessons opened her eyes to the rhythms and cadences of expression. Family? Well, family is her reason for being. Full circle. Now she’s back following her heart, but with a lifetime of experiences to add colour and authenticity. Writing. Email: robknibb56[at]hotmail.com

My Virginity and Other Losses

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
April Vázquez


Photo Credit: dianne.dacayana/Flickr (CC-by)

The first thing Kyle Mayhue says to me when he opens the door of the trailer where he lives and finds me standing on the front step is, “You look tough with your hair like that.” He pooches out his mouth in a pucker and nods approvingly.

I haven’t seen him in over a year, since he dropped out of high school and stopped riding my bus. He looks older, like an adult almost, with a sparse reddish beard and tan, muscular arms. His curly, dark auburn hair is a little longer, but his face is unchanged besides the beard: coarse, with a wide nose and a long, deep scar on his right cheek that crinkles into a dimple when he smiles. I probably do look different to him, with my eyeliner and bizarre clothes. My hair is shaved down to an inch on one side, and down to my chin on the other.

Kyle works third shift at the factory at the bottom of the road. He lives here on a dirt hill with his grandmother in the wasteland of shacks and trailers that lie between the factory and Kingstown, the Black neighborhood at the edge of Larrimore. Even from the doorway, the place smells like fried food and cigarette smoke. Behind him I can see a box of powdered sugar donuts on the kitchen table among a mess of papers and clothes, under a glaring light bulb with no shade. A dreadlocked dog shuffles around the dusty yard on a long rope.

I’m here, ostensibly, to buy weed from him, but what I really want is to get into the habit of seeing him again. What I’m buying is his time.

“Come in,” he says.

I visit him once a week all spring, buying marijuana every time. When I’m there I smoke a little with him, but what I buy I don’t smoke. I scatter it out in the woods and rake leaves over it with my foot, then I wad up a piece of notebook paper around the baggies. The truth is that I don’t really like to smoke it. It’s just a way to justify my visits.

Kyle’s grandmother, Marlene, is loud, vulgar, and good-natured, with a raspy voice and wheezy laugh. She has a big bosom and disproportionately small waist, and she draws on her eyebrows in thin, brown pencil lines that give her face a quizzical look. She chain-smokes Marlboro Reds and loves the Jerry Springer show, which, because it conflicts with her work schedule at Ruby’s convenience store, she watches when she gets home at night. I’m here in time to see her today because it’s a teacher workday.

“You gonna tape Jerry for me or what, Kyle?” she says, twisting her lips to exhale out her cigarette smoke to the side.

“Naw. I’m sick a you watchin’ that shit. It’s embarrassin’.”

“You know what’s gonna happen if you don’t tape it,” she says, balling up her fist and shaking it at him.

This is their shtick. He gives her a hard time, but he tapes the program for her. He even watches it. One day I arrive in time to catch the last part of the show with him. Two surly brothers are in love with the same girl, a scrawny, pasty-looking child from Alabama, not yet in her twenties. They scream and curse one other as the audience chatters like primates, urging them on to an open brawl.

“Ain’t this sick?” Kyle asks, yawning.

“Yep,” I say. But we keep watching it.

As time goes on, I stop buying weed from Kyle, and he eventually stops offering it to me, even to smoke. Instead we watch TV or play video games or listen to CDs. To listen to music, we go into his room, where the stereo stands between a weight bench and the bed along the far wall. At first we sit on the floor, which is covered with thick, orange carpet and smells faintly musty. Then we sit on the bed, on top of an old green sleeping bag, then eventually we lie on the bed, though we don’t touch. I begin to visit every day, inventing excuses for being out in the afternoons. I say I have activities after school, science club, Spanish club, National Honor Society. Or that I go to Becca Bradham’s. I know my mother won’t check up on this story; she considers Becca’s family beneath us.

Kyle never touches me. He lies on the bed and smokes cigarettes and softly sings Pink Floyd songs, occasionally getting up to change the CD. He waits until I’m ready.

*

On the day I’ve chosen, I skip school. Anyway, it’s winding down now; the seniors are out already, leaving the rest of us restless and indignant about having to show up. We’ve come to the purgatory of post-yearbook signing and academic awards, with nothing to look forward to except interminable exam reviews and, finally, the exams themselves. Crestdale High can spare me for the day.

I spend the morning at Don’s Pancake House, having a leisurely breakfast, then on a bench under a maple tree at the city park immersed in The Bell Jar. I wake Kyle up at just after one o’clock, knocking softly, then louder, on the door of the trailer. It’s hot as hell, the hottest day this year, the kind of sultry summer day that makes the whole outdoors feel like a sauna in central North Carolina. The top of Kyle’s Buick radiates heat in squiggly waves, and as I stand on the cinder block step, sweat beads on my upper lip and brow and makes a pool in my bra.

He comes to the door bleary-eyed, with a slight flush to his skin. He’s wearing only pajama bottoms, emblazoned with the Duff’s Beer logo. “Why didn’t you come earlier?” he says, squinting into the sunlight, grinning. He closes one eye, scratches his chest. “Come in, lemme brush my teeth.”

When he comes out of the bathroom, he has little drops of water on his face. They glisten in the sunlight. I walk over to him, stand in front of him, closer than I’ve ever stood before, and with one finger wipe a drop of water from his cheek down through the groove of his scar.

“Be soft with me,” I say, biting my lower lip. “It’ll be my first time.”

His skin is salty. He keeps his eyes closed, and I see that the lashes are longer than I’ve ever noticed before. His back gets slippery with sweat, there’s more hair than I thought, and a dog howls, far away, from the direction of the factory. The air conditioner rattles. It hurts, but not too much.

When it’s over I notice there’s a little blood on the sleeping bag. “I’ll tell Grammaw it’s motor oil. She prob’ly won’t even notice,” Kyle says, kissing my nose. I decide I’ll keep a tally, I tell myself we’ll do it twenty times. Surely once you’ve done something twenty times, you know how it’s done.

This is how I begin, but the weeks spread out into months, and I lose count of my tally, knowing the number was well beyond what I’d planned. There’s nothing I can really pinpoint that I don’t like about Kyle. I keep waiting to tire of him, not to want to see him anymore, but the feeling never comes. So not seeing him has to be a planned act, a decision. Just like going to bed with him was, but harder to make. Anyway, it’s summer, and the ungodly heat seems to have trapped me into a sensual lethargy. Like Daisy Buchanan on the day in New York City when Jay Gatsby challenges her husband, I can’t imagine taking any serious action, making any change in such heat.

I keep it up till September. It’s only when the mornings grow cooler and the first leaves show a pale cast of pale orange and yellow that I begin to imagine letting Kyle go. On the day I’ve chosen, it’s raining.

“I can’t see you anymore,” I say to his shoulder as soon as I walk in. I look up at his face, where his grin has frozen, then, in an instant, he’s made his expression blank. He takes a step back, his movements stiff. I watch him pick up his denim jacket where it’s slung over the arm of the couch. A fine white cat hair sticks out from the collar, reminding me of the thistles I used to get stuck in the cuffs of my pants when I played outside as a child. Like tiny archery arrows.

“You getcha a boyfriend?” he asks. “A rich one, that you don’t have to sneak around with?”

“Yeah,” I say softly.

“That’s cool. I’m just gonna run out to the store, get me some cigarettes. I’ll see you around.” He doesn’t look me in the eye.

While he pulls on his jacket and gets his keys, I look out the window at the drizzle hitting the leaves of the nearest tree, light green but veined with red-purple lines that bespeak the cold to come. I feel it already, in all the blueish veins that lead to my heart.

Kyle leaves without another word. He’s never looked as good to me as when he walks out the door.

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April Vázquez is the winner of the William Van Dyke Short Story Prize and Carve’s Prose & Poetry Contest, and her work has been nominated for Best of the Web, the Orison Anthology Award, and two Pushcart Prizes. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in dozens of publications, including Salon, Ruminate, The Windhover, and Sweeter Voices Still: An LGBTQ Anthology from Middle America. Email: aprilsosaso1111[at]yahoo.com

House Cats

Fiction
Ann Zhang


Photo Credit: Helen Haden/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

My second cat Janie has some rudimentary understanding of physics. Ever since she got spayed she’s been moving like a lizard, her neck a downward slope from her elfin shoulders to her head, which looks larger than usual wrapped in the vet’s semi-translucent cone. She’s tried rubbing the front of her body against wooden objects, moonwalking until her hind legs hit the kitchen wall, and if no one had invented Velcro, her tricks would be working.

I was too young to remember the weeks after my parents took my first cat to the vet. Meow-Meow was a grey tabby who liked to catch flies in his mouth, sometimes a wasp of below-average mobility. In his middle age, he impregnated the cat two doors down the street, whose owners demanded one hundred dollars and Meow-Meow’s punctual castration, or at least that’s what my brother told me. Before he told me that, my brother counted the stitches on Meow-Meow’s stomach aloud, explaining in psychedelic detail how the vet carved the balls out of our cat. He said to imagine my own balls as walnut seeds.

Sometimes I can’t help but think about Janie in terms of Meow-Meow: her eyes far bluer, her existence a touch less ordinary. She has a downy white coat that makes her the feline equivalent of a very pretty girl. Just then Janie begins grinding her cone-ridden head against the maple leg of an armchair where Meow-Meow used to sit, licking his stomach while my brother tapped out one-handed rock covers on the electric keyboard.

The one thing my brother was really good at was speed stacking, that game where you build pyramids out of cups and then take them apart in the smallest possible number of motions. He set a world record in the 3-3-3 stack, actually. There’s a video online with thousands of views and adults in the comments raving that he’s the fastest eleven-year-old they’ve ever seen, and that he should consider learning classical guitar.

On the edge of the table across from Meow-Meow’s favorite armchair, my brother kept a bright blue place mat and a special timer that he would smack with both hands whenever he finished his routine. Plastic cups splayed across every flat surface of the house like party aftermath, memorialized: a red set, a purple set, a glow-in-the-dark set the color of honeydew. By now my parents have donated boxes of my brother’s stuff to our younger cousins who wanted to catch up with him, never came close. Although a kid from Korea soon stuck a new world record.

Around the time we thought about adopting Janie, my parents and I were the only ones left in the house. My brother had wrapped up his high school legacy of state-school grades, skipping homework to drive into the night with such urgency that I suspected he played a pivotal role in some secret mission to save the world. Turns out he was visiting girls’ houses as soon as their parents left town, and now he was somehow off to West Point. At the animal shelter, my mom kept asking me which cat I wanted. I cried on the cool, paw-printed floor because I couldn’t bring myself to choose.

Four years later, we came back, and my dad helped me calculate the shelter’s nicest cat. Janie liked to brush her face against my hand, which my dad deemed a signal that she wanted to befriend me. She’s been trying harder than ever to befriend me these past few days, probably since she can’t quite scratch her own face with the cone. I have to itch her myself, especially the bald patches in front of her ears, the solid bridge of her nose. Afterwards, I run to the sink to wash my fingers of the wet crust that tends to accumulate around the inside corners of her eyes.

My brother sends home bi-monthly updates about his life at West Point. Last I heard, he was in the middle of survival swimming, a unit that consisted of leaping with all your clothes and equipment into a simulative pool of massive waves. For the final test, his superiors hoisted the crests even higher, added lights and fog for limited visibility, recordings of machine guns and people screaming. When my brother couldn’t unclip his vest, he had to drop his rifle and use both hands. He would be required to retake the course in the spring.

I remember that right before Meow-Meow died, the poor cat started crapping in different rooms around the house. Back then I was spending a lot of my free time tracking tropical storms, probabilities blazoned in yellow, orange, red. A hurricane swept into Texas from the Gulf of Mexico on the same day that we found Meow-Meow motionless, curled into a ball inside the walk-in shower that my brother and I used to share.

The main reason my mom eventually drove us back to the animal shelter was not that she had in any way pardoned my lack of resolve, but because Meow-Meow’s body was decomposing beneath the peach tree in our backyard. On the ride there, my mom kept asking if my brother ever texted me. He didn’t, and I couldn’t figure out how to lie to her. While my dad led me through the aisles of cats in cages, on suspended platforms, crouched around metal bowls, I spotted my mom holding her hand out to a litter of grey tabbies. Bird-sized things that wouldn’t stop shrieking as we left the room.

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Ann Zhang is a student at Yale University. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri. Twitter: @annleezhang Email: annleezhang[at]yahoo.com

Zookeepers

Fiction
Minh-Tam T. Le


Photo Credit: Dan Weisz/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Kalisa straightened the black silk ribbon wrapped around her red straw boater. Pinching the wide-brim edge, she balanced it on her silver head and smiled as it found its usual landing. She waved at the director—a man young enough to be her son.

“We’re almost ready Mrs. Lomidzei. One minute,” said the director holding up an index finger.

She nodded and turned to fix Hubert’s bowtie—ocean blue with diagonal red stripes. Even in their seventies, she still wanted them to look splendid. After all, the animals were counting on them.

Hubert grinned at her through a suppressed yawn. He had stayed up late with their great-great grandson Leo working on a tropical rain forest diorama.

Staring out at the crew around them, Kalisa felt like a coral reef fish in a glass bowl. She was used to being in front of crowds, but this was different. The audiences would be invisible, tucked behind their screens.

“Let’s lock it up,” yelled someone.

“Pictures up,” said another.

“Rolling, rolling, rolling.”

A girl with a pixie haircut and crew uniform held up the clapperboard in front of the camera. “This is scene 1, A, take 1.”

Kalisa made a mental note to google some terms. Hot brick. Clapper loader. Strangely, that reminded Kalisa of the flappers. Her grandmother was a flapper. Always with a neat bob and an almost tangible Georgian accent. Although she didn’t touch alcohol after pancreatic cancer became a thing, Bebia hung onto the Slims until her last breath.

“Marker.” The pixie hair girl snapped the stick shut and moved swiftly from the camera’s view.

Kalisa smiled at the camera, despite the butterflies in her stomach. She leapt into her rehearsed intro. “Good morning animal lovers. I’m Kalisa Lomidzei.” After a few seconds of silence, she glanced at her husband, snoring loudly beside her in the velvet loveseat. Nudging him, he sat up straight as a board.

“And I’m Hubert Lomidzei.”

“We’re the zookeepers of Bonnie and Clyde.” They grinned as practiced in front of the bathroom mirror at least three dozen times.

Kalisa watched the subtle shift of the camera onto the two songbirds.

Hubert tugged at his bow and smiled. “We’ve been the proud zookeepers of the Grand Adventure Zoo for forty-three years and we can’t wait to see you during the next three Sundays.”

Together, they animated the discussion of their roles with Bonnie and Clyde singing and hopping from one shoulder to the next. They repeated it in segments another three times before the director was satisfied.

“Cut. That’s a wrap. Good job everyone,” said the director. He sprang from his black chair and shook their hands. “My children are fans of your bird shows.”

Kalisa sighed with relief as the air lost its tense vibrations like the exhale of a child after spotting a ruby-throated hummingbird over honeysuckles.

After the director left, she turned to Hubert. Kalisa’s eyes softened. He was already asleep. The birds were nestled in his silver waves. Well, more like silver strands. She missed those days, running her fingers through his wavy mahogany locks. They were once thick and soft like plumes of a young ostrich. Leaning down, she kissed his nose.

Hubert stirred and opened his eyes. Moonlight broke on his lips. “The show’s over already?” he murmured.

“Yes, darling. Let’s go home.” Instead of driving to their bungalow at 21 Privet Drive, Kalisa parked their Volkswagen van in front of the zoo. She grinned as sunlight burst from a flock of clouds onto the zoo’s entrance. They were blessed as the zookeepers, aka “badass guardians of Grand Adventure Zoo.” That was Leo’s name for them.

Hubert puffed out a burst of air between snores as if in agreement.

Kalisa leaned back, feeling the soft hum of their love and chuckling at the image of them in a squad with Jane Goodall and Steve Irwin.

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Minh-Tam Le is a primary care physician assistant in Winston-Salem, NC. Her most recent publications are in Brilliant Flash Fiction, Down in the Dirt, and Literary Juice. She won a place in the Writer’s Digest’s 87th and 82nd Annual Short Story Contest, Mainstream/Literary category. From 2012-2019, she served as a blogger and then a board member of Sparks Magazine, a student-run, mixed-media platform for the Asian and Pacific Islander American (APIA) community. Twitter: @takikoazn Email: tamle.nihon[at]gmail.com

The Rabbit’s Head

Fiction
Omid Fallahazad


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

At first, she didn’t want to leave the house. He had to threaten her, then entice her, both tactics involving how much screen time she would get on his iPad, and she finally yielded. He thought they needed to go for a walk, with all that was on the news, just to get some fresh air.

It had rained all night, soaking roof shingles and leaving the tree bark a shade or two darker in color. Now it was drizzling with the confused wind of late March. He took their umbrellas from the stand. She giggled when opening the umbrella. He, too, felt childishly giddy going through the motions—the soft, springy release button, the way the canopy opened with a flapping sound, the gentle pitter-patter of the first raindrops landing overhead.

But then a gust of wind blew from behind and snatched his umbrella. For half a second the handle was out of his grip, the umbrella suspended in the air like magic. The man clasped the handle just in time and drew it back. The girl screamed. The wind was lifting her umbrella too, pulling it until the yellow, duck-faced canopy popped inside out. The metal ribs rattled hard. He turned about and gave instructions, yelling. She managed to point the top of her umbrella against the wind. It instantly popped back into shape, dignified, as if nothing had happened. The wind suddenly dropped, and he recovered his umbrella, too. He told her to pay attention to the treetops, to watch for ripples in unmoved puddles, any sign that helped to read the wind. She listened intently.

“You stick to me if we see someone’s coming our way, you understand?”

She nodded.

“And don’t say hello. No hellos.”

She held the handle close to her face, white-knuckled, wide-eyed, and nodded again.

They walked through the long U-shaped suburban neighborhood without a word. On the outer side of the curve, the sloping lot, stood colonial houses, imposing and a bit too angular. Water sprouts were shooting from the pruning wounds of a large birch tree. There was a bicycle left on the pedestal of a stump near a mailbox post. Opposite, on the flat surface of the inner side, was a handful of snug ranch homes, each surrounded by a modest but manicured lawn and dark-soiled flowerbeds. A couple times, the man had to stop for the girl to catch up with him. No matter how slow he strolled, she kept falling behind. As he waited, he stared at the picture windows of the houses, drawn to the eerie serenity of their dim interiors.

“Faster,” he called, and twirled the umbrella handle. Large droplets flew off the rib tips in a helix pattern. The air smelled of pine cones. In fifty yards or so, they would reach the main road. Time to decide. Should they turn around and retrace their path through the neighborhood to get back home, or go ahead and complete the loop by taking the main road, which connected the two ends of the U? Similar lengths, but one with possible predicaments. Predicaments, if anyone else decided to come out during that hour, like the lean bandit man the other day. But even an eager jogger like the bandit man could do without such miserable, spitting drizzle. That was what the man hoped for.

The girl was in no rush. The sleeves of her parka were wet up to her shoulder seams. He could see why. She was carrying the umbrella bindle-like, drifting along the edge of the grass, talking to herself, or to the imaginary characters in her head.

He walked up to the main road and scanned the sidewalk all the way to the bridge over the muddy river. It looked deserted. Nothing moved in the rain-slicked, single-lane road either. Regardless, the decision had triggered a fluttering in his chest, and he knew it wouldn’t go away until they’d reached the next corner and veered off back to the safety of their neighborhood. She was still lagging behind by ten paces or so. There was no sign of the jogger.

Last time, he had appeared from the other side of the road, apparition-like, and crossed the empty street with nimble side strides. Red-faced, forehead glistening in sweat. Workout layering all in black, like a thin-limbed bandit, except that he had no mask, nor scarf. The man had acted by instinct, placing himself between his daughter and the jogger’s projected path. He had assumed that the jogger would jump over the curb into the bike lane to maintain some distance between them, but he didn’t. He stayed his course and came at them. It felt like watching the act of predation from the prey’s point of view. The man put his arm around the girl and made a shield of his body for her. The pull caused a stumble in the girl’s quick steps. But then she did the unexpected. In a singsong voice, she blurted out: “Hello!”

The response, a massive, guttural “Hi” that the jogger barked back at them, shocked the man. His body went slack. He saw a stream of sweat and spittle shedding off the jogger’s jowls, or so he imagined in his nightmarish replays of the encounter. It was like the old Gatorade commercials in which athletes’ blue and orange sweat went off flying into the dark. Dribbling sweat while dribbling the ball, all shot in an artistic rim light. A recent viral video showed how laser beams were employed in some darkroom lab to highlight airborne spittles issued from a person speaking. The phosphorus light traced the particles just short of the microbial level. Amazing how far they traveled, how many of the concentric circles they reached. Who knew that death would become the human body’s most easily transmittable trait? Death, not love, not intelligence, not happiness. Death and disease, spreading like a yawn.

“Look at this!” the man called, standing before a rain puddle on the sidewalk.

At first, the girl couldn’t see what he saw. At her height, the reflection of the clouds masked everything. He held his umbrella above the puddle.

“What is it?”

“Look!”

But he lost it, too. He could only see a pine needle afloat pointing northward, compass-like. A little squinting, a little bending, and the grainy asphalt came to focus. A tooth-size piece of gravel. A few bits of wood chip, mulch or not, cinnamon-colored and fibrous.

“What is it?”

“A worm.”

“A worm?” She squatted down with a sympathetic moan.

“It’s dead,” he said.

“It moves.”

“Water makes it bob,” he said. “It doesn’t wiggle.”

She reached for a twig at the edge of the lawn.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s go.”

“Wait, Daddy,” she murmured. He could hear her swallow as she prodded the flesh-pink worm with surgical focus. Her dark curls, raindrops beaded in them, covered the nape of her neck.

He began to walk away, irritated with himself for showing her the worm. Perhaps it was habit rather than impulse. Every walk was punctuated with pauses like that, to point out the living things: a bird, a bug, dandelions, shoots, bumblebees. Now that he thought of it, maybe it was more to marvel at dead things. Yes, the dead. The hollowed tree trunk oozing decomposed cork powder. Rustling dry leaves clawing the pavement in the wind. The squashed bird, bones and feathers matted up under the sun, turning into a dusty felt whose mere proximity made their skin itch. A long-legged frog’s carcass, so hardened black that he thought there must be something he could make from the leathery piece, a patch of armor or a knife sheath, if only he had inherited the artisanship of some ancestors from a buried civilization. Dead ants by the dozen, belly-up roaches, coiled spiders. Bees, curled up as if stabbing themselves in the heart with their stinger, in seppuku, maybe. Did they even have hearts, the bees? And if they did, could they die from a heart attack? Another peculiar thing he could puzzle over. How had his eyes managed to see such things in the first place? Like this dead earthworm, putrid pink in the bottom of a rain puddle. It could be mistaken for anything, for a stringy, red root, or a tender, leafless offshoot, snapped when the wind made branches cross sabers. Or even a piece of yarn, a snagged thread of a sort, discovered as giggling guests got out of their car and rang the bell, bottle and chocolate dessert in hand. It must have been a cold evening, a Christmas party, when the wife spotted the red snag on the husband’s ugly sweater and yanked it right before the jolly host opened the door and invited them inside. The snow buried the small piece of yarn, and now that the ice had melted away, it had re-emerged, soiled and faded in the puddle. It could have gone unnoticed, plastered to the pavement until its total disintegration by the elements, except that it hadn’t. More importantly, it wasn’t a snag. It was a worm, a dead one, and she was carrying it on her tiny stick, her face crinkled up in the needling drizzle.

“You’re bringing it? What for?”

“For a funeral, of course.”

A funeral? He smirked, dumbfounded, but then turned, alarmed by the syncopated pop, pop, pop of a car’s exhaust. He saw the vehicle in the distance, a white pickup truck about 500 yards away, on the bridge. It swerved violently to the opposite lane, and its fat tires under the extended fender flares hit the sidewalk curb. The wet surface of the road bled red with the reflection of the brake lights. It must be something in the current, or maybe the lapping river itself, that had caught the driver’s eye.

“Hurry up.” He grabbed the girl by the wrist, but she cried in protest, and he had to switch to her other hand, the one that held the umbrella, not the stick.

“Can you run,” he asked, “just to get to the corner?”

She couldn’t, not with her eyes glued to the worm dangling from the stick. The truck was creeping back to the left lane, straightening itself. He knew that they wouldn’t make it, that there would be some overlap, them being on the sidewalk and the truck passing by. He could hear the fizz of tires on wet asphalt louder, nearer. Mist clouds plumed around the truck, and he suddenly had another fit of anxiety, this time at the prospect of an accident: he saw a steel object, something polished like the head of a golf club, coming off the spinning truck, going airborne with an impossible trajectory toward his daughter’s skull.

“Run!” He pulled her and the truck kept coming towards them. Ten yards from the corner, they passed each other. He locked eyes with the driver. They looked puffy, menacing, a day-long wrangle in them. The stubbled young driver had one arm in a sling. And of course, there was a dark-haired woman in the passenger seat, disturbed-looking, clinging to the dashboard. The truck looked sleek and unused.

The man and his daughter turned the corner, the noise quickly fizzling out behind them. From there he could see his lawn, cocooned in the quiet of the U-shaped neighborhood.

“I dropped it,” the girl whimpered. “I dropped the worm.”

“Look there.” He pointed at another puddle, this one on the neighborhood’s sidewalk, elongated and murkier than the first one. The girl immediately squatted down next to the water and began scraping the mud with her stick. The man’s toes felt cold in his dampened shoes. He checked his pocket for his phone, then remembered that he had left it at home on purpose, not so much to protect it from the rain but to save himself from the news. He’d had enough of the news. If it wasn’t the charts and radiating maps, it was bystander footage of refrigerator trucks and body bags forklifted onto them, or selfies of racoon-eyed nurses during their “mask break,” or scenes of burials with undertakers in all-white, resembling a moonlander crew. That could drive anyone insane, could force them out of their homes, drunk or not. And if you’re in the middle of a domestic fight, driving recklessly on an empty road, a muddy river was an invitation to darker thoughts. Better keep certain things out of people’s heads. Dissection wasn’t meant for everyone. Leave some stones unturned, some stuff unstudied, like the rabbit’s head.

He had come across the bloody head about a week ago, during one of their furtive walks. It sat on the sidewalk, its exposed front teeth just an inch from a pea pod of dark droppings. The head was missing the lower jaw, so cleanly severed it looked like a pencil drawing in a zoology textbook. He rerouted the girl to avoid the scene. But the eerie mystery of it, the Wiccan composition, bothered him. Why the droppings? Were they the predator’s? A coyote’s, perhaps? How could the rest of the carcass vanish without a trace of blood, without a tuft of fur?

Pop, pop, pop. The noise had returned. He eyed the main road. The girl was trying to dislodge a rock with the ferrule of her umbrella. Rain dripped from her springy curls. The loud engine sound caromed through the nearby houses. He saw the pickup truck drive by again, churning up mist clouds, tires hissing on wet asphalt. He saw the woman’s face. It was squished against the side window, not in a playful pig snout but in profile, cheek flattened on the glass, an eye contorted shut. And he registered the movements, the flailing hands fighting his arm that repeatedly hacked at them. That, he saw.

He came over to the girl. Under her umbrella, she was absently cooing at some living things. He picked up the wet rock and returned to the corner. The truck had stopped on the bridge in a peculiar position, two wheels on the road and the other two propped up on the curb. The rear windshield wiper was running fast. The door on the passenger side opened and closed. The man could make out a deadened yelling. Again, the door flung open, and the woman’s head and shoulder appeared with a jerk and disappeared inside the car. That happened a few times, like a cuckoo clock, each time the torso swinging out with a greater force until her hips were pushed off the seat, suspended in the air. But she hung on to the cab, hands clinging to the frame and heels hooked behind the sill.

Hey,” the man yelled, taking a couple steps forward. The woman found a moment to pull herself back inside and slam the door shut. Whether or not the driver was watching him in the rearview mirror, he could not tell. He squeezed the wet stone in his fist, muddy water dribbling through his fingers.

“Daddy, Daddy!”

He waited still. The truck door stayed shut. Then the red and white taillights came on in succession, a sign that the driver was working the gearshift.

“Daddy, hurry up,” his daughter called.

He glanced at the first house, the one closest to them, at the shut, quiet door behind strands of water dripping from the eaves.

“Daddy. Daddy.” The girl was walking to him. “I need to save them.” She had left the umbrella by the puddle. In the muddy cup of her hands, he saw the worms, two dirty filaments of flesh twitching violently.

“Away from the road,” he waved her off. “Go, get your umbrella, go!”

“I need a jar.” She gave him an exasperated look. “Why don’t you listen, Daddy?”

He cocked his head in the direction of the bridge. He didn’t know what to expect—a screeching over-steer for takeoff, or a slow, reluctant dispatch. He wasn’t sure how to account for any of those possibilities.

“I’m going home,” the girl announced and marched off, leaving her umbrella on the ground. It looked like a spinning top at rest. Her parka glistened wet all over. The man waited at the corner, listening to the drum of rain. Finally the truck moved and tires slowly came off the elevated curb, one at the time.

He watched the truck for a few more seconds, a last attempt to decipher any characters on the license plate. Pointless. Then he turned and started toward the yellow umbrella. A mellow gust of wind got ahead of him and teasingly tossed it into the puddle. About four houses farther, the girl had stopped to pack some more dirt around the worms in her hand. The man was in no rush. For once, let her be the one who had to cool her heels. Just as he reached the umbrella, the wind picked it up again and sailed it over onto the neighbor’s lawn. Uneasy, he invaded the lawn, but the wind swept the umbrella again, and it landed behind a sphere boxwood. Well, there was life and there was death, and there were all things in between, ridiculous things. Better get a hold of this umbrella before it turned into a circus. This time, he zeroed in on it with open arms and a wide-based gait, as if trying to catch a wild turkey. He snatched the handle, and, much relieved, shook it and collapsed it closed. Things in between, whatever it meant, he needn’t get doubly drenched like that.

When he returned to the sidewalk, he saw that the girl had stopped again, this time one house before theirs. She was holding out her arms, showing her precious finds in the palm of her hand to a bent-over, beaming bandit man.

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Born and raised in Iran, Omid Fallahazad is a bilingual writer. His works of fiction in Farsi include a novel and two short story collections, all published in exile. He has also been a contributor in a number of Iranian diaspora publications and media outlets by giving interviews and as a writer of reviews and essays. His English writings have appeared in literary journals and anthologies such as Paul Revere’s Horse, World Literature Today, Tremors, and My Shadow Is My Skin. His short fiction, “Arrested,” won a prize and was published in Glimmer Train Magazine in 2016. Email: omid.fallahazad[at]gmail.com

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.”

pencil

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