Sienna

Beaver’s Pick
Laura Mazzenga


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks, I say. I think you’re right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wanted to start my own family more than anything.

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

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

What are you feeling, the therapist wants to know.

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

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

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

There is nothing you cannot do, the therapist says.

You have everything you could ever want, Jake says.

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

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

“I don’t trust myself,” I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you, I tell her, smiling through tears.

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

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

Sunday

Fiction
Caleb Martin-Rosenthal


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

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

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

— hi, land at 6 pm Sunday.

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

— great! excited!

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

— Wonderful. Looking forward to it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s the unit number?”

“Thirty-one.”

“And what’s the problem?”

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

The line was silent for a moment.

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

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

“Thanks,” she grumbled, and hung up.

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

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

“Oh, you poor thing,” Diana said.

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

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

Avery felt her face redden.

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

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

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

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

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

air from the park. thinking of you.

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

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

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

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

All the Bells and Whistles

Fiction
Linda Griffin


Photo Credit: rawdonfox/Flickr (CC-by)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RUN

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

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

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

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

Excavation

Fiction
Sarah Clayville


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll be happy if I see my sister.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He rushes to slip on his jacket.

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

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

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

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

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

“For the foreseeable future,” he tells her.

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

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

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

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

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

Carriers

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Matt Boyle


Photo Credit: ocegep/Flickr (CC-by)

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

“Fucking ads.”

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

“What the hell am I doing here?”

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

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

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

She nodded at his phone. “Congratulations.”

“…for what?”

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

“Uh, no. It’s… just a malicious ad.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Congratulations,” the grey woman echoed.

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

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

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

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

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

She nodded. “Congratulations again.”

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

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

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

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

“Con… congratulations.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What the fuck is happening to me?”

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

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

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

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

A Guiding Light

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
H.B. Bendt


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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

“Frankie is fine.”

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

“Maybe.”

“How so?”

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

“What are you studying?”

“LLB. Torts. I’m not sure why.”

“Why do you think?”

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

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

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

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

Frankie inhaled sharply, blinking all of a sudden.

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cider and black, please.”

“Pint?”

“Yeah. Why not.”

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

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

“Um—excuse me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The cliff?”

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

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

“You know what’s beyond that cliff?”

Frankie shook her head.

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

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

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

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

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

Frankie shook her head.

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

“What is?” Frankie asked.

“The thing about the kid.”

“What kid?”

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

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

“Do you know who?” she asked.

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

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

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

“Lighthouse?”

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

“Why?” Frankie asked.

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

“Committed suicide?”

“That is the story.”

“Why?”

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

“Was he bad?”

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.

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

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

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

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

She turned and ran.

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

The Cold Face of the Mountain

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Karen Sheard


Photo Credit: Bureau of Land Management/Flickr (CC-by)

I came to Alaska in search of the wild bear but something else found me in the wilderness. I now need to get down from this mountain before I starve, or the winter storms set in. But the worst thing is, I’m still heading towards the top of the mountain. I know that, even if I were to turn around now, I might not make it back down. What drives me on? If only it were that simple to explain out loud.

It was a few weeks ago that I started to sense its presence. As I hiked across the mountain of the sleeping lady I began to think back to where I had left. When I had been at home, with my wife, my mind had been constantly wandering to the mountains here. I had pored over photos of this very range of hills—when seen from a distance they are shaped like a naked woman lying in the snow. Down here, though, on the hills themselves, there was no such comfort, no warmth—either from the wife I left behind—or from the cold lady that tempted me here. Here, the peaks that form her soft curves were sharp and hard on my feet. No other travelers but I braved the weather forecasts this winter. Even the bears have stayed away this year. My camera card is empty of any images but blank snow and the paw prints of animals too shy to show themselves. I had a sense, tingling the back of my shoulders, that there were living things watching me pass, just outside the range of my sight, hiding in the mounds of snow and scraps of trees. Maybe my footfalls scared them away, as there is no other sound here except the wind that comes at night and the deafening quiet of the snowy land that stretches on in every direction. Still, I walked on, hoping for a sight of something. I descended into a valley between the mountains. Here, a shadow swept over the path, like a descending fog of gloom.

At the basin of the valley, I came across—I would like to call it a camp, but in truth there was nothing there to see. Just a lingering smell—a familiar sweet-unpleasant fragrance—that gave me the feeling that someone had been there just before me. A certain change in temperature, as if the place had recently been occupied by another creature. In the world of society that I had left behind, such changes would go unnoticed, but here among this vast nothingness, they rang out to my senses as clearly as if I had seen some outward sign. Something had been here not moments ago—a sense of it still remained here among the tall pines. Had I thought that it might still be there watching me, I may have been less keen to stay, but as it was, I chose to camp there. I had taken this trip from an urge to be alone, but now the sense that there was another being in this vast alien expanse, comforted me.

I set up my tent to face the direction the aurora borealis could be seen over the dark mountains beyond. The nightly dance of turquoise and purple haze had become my only sense of the movement of time. I found it a comfort to know that the world still moved on out there somewhere, for me to rejoin if I chose.

As dusk fell, my fire was all I had beyond the writhing glow in the sky to light my meal. As I sucked all I could from the last of my over-ripe fish, I watched the wind blow out the dregs of the fire. The light show has slowed to the occasional flash of blue, before the deep darkness set in for the short night ahead. In darkness, other senses take over, you hear phantom footfalls outside your tent, the wind takes on strange tongues that seem to moan your name. The temperature drops at nightfall—it’s winter here. A cool breeze blows over everything.

I lay in my tent, staring into the darkness of my own thoughts. I could not sleep. My mind was still wandering over the facts that the food was running low, and my feet were covered with wounds and sores. Moisture from my own breath was collecting across the canvas of the tent coating everything in a cold sweat.

And then I felt, rather than heard, the motion of the zip of my tent-flap being drawn slowly open. I felt the cold begin to seep into the tent, stinging my clammy body. I listened, with held-in breath, and finally caught the quiet sound of the zipper begging dragged gradually upwards. I drew back in my sleeping bag instinctively, my throat paralyzed, regretting taking off my boots and outer clothes, that might have offered more protection against attack. For some incongruous reason, against my control, my stomach rumbled, the sound deafening in the darkness, making whatever it was outside stop in its tracks. I clenched my stomach, but it went on, and I felt my bowels push against my bladder in sudden fear.

The tent flap tore open.

Before I had time to register the shape of the intruder, it fell inside, landing heavily on top of me in a cold, pungent hard mass.

I cried out in shock.

It had the weight of dead flesh, pinning me down by its bulk. For a moment, I froze in fear, until instinct made me brave enough to feel the shape of my intruder for fur or fang. Not a bear. But an animal of some kind. This was a man. A man, emaciated and cold. He smelled of the toilet and the forest. An almost inhuman, dog-like smell, that made my stomach heave the taste of the rotten fish back into my throat. I pulled away from under him, and threw my blanket over him, more in distaste than charity.

“My God help me,” the man suddenly exclaimed, shivering next to me, as if my warmth had awakened him. They were the first words I had heard for weeks. His voice rasped and I finally understood what people meant when they say that a person’s breath rattles. The man was clearly ill.

“My God what are you?” I said. Getting tongue-tied my haste, I obviously meant to ask: Who are you?

“Arnold Clever,” he said. The name made me shiver, though I could not say why. Maybe it was the small voice in which he uttered it.

“How are you here? There’s no one being on these mountains for miles. I would have seen you.”

“I hardly know where I am, I have been wandering. Wandering for so long. I am so hungry.”

I had little food myself; I had recent knowledge of what it meant to fear hunger, and it would have pained me to watch, as it would to experience it myself. So, I said I would share with him what I had, but even then, I secretly hid a portion of what I had in the depths of the tent. The reason for this I can only put down to the selfish instinct of survival that dogs all men.

I could not see his face in the darkness, and there was something of wildness about his manner, but I was put somewhat at ease, when he explained he was an adventurer, heading out to conquer the mountains in the distance. Such men as he and I have a wildness in our hearts that can make us strange to company. To such I put down his wild air.

When he had eaten a little, I began to ask after his strange appearance in the middle of nowhere, with no tent or provisions.

“I have been running,” he said. “Running and jumping over river and forest. Running for so long my feet have been on fire, and may turn to hooves.”

He said all this so piteously, I resolved to help him back to health. I hoped his delirium may pass with food and sleep, so I told him to rest in the tent and we would talk more in the morning. But he was feverish and vocal throughout the night, so that neither of us slept much. He kept complaining of a strange voice in the wind. But not only could I hear no voice, I could hear no wind. I attempted to reassure him that the night was calm, but he kept complaining.

“It calls my name; oh God help me. Do not let me go. Do not let me go to him.”

I assured him that if he did not want to go outside the tent, then nothing could make him.

“You don’t know what it means to hear it call your name,” he argued. “God pray you never know what it means. I have seen him, and he wears my own face.”

After long hours, he wound himself into a fitful sleep. I dozed a bit, but felt a strange unease, and so sat up to watch over my new charge till daylight came.

But as I watched, and saw his face reveal itself in the shadows of the dawn, I was horrified to see that I had been sharing my tent with an imposter. The man looked half-starved, yes, but there was more than that, something almost indiscernible about his hard cheeks, and sharp frame that made me think that this man was not human… No even worse—that he was not quite human.

I recalled the first thing I had asked upon him entering my tent, not: “Who are you?” but: “What are you?” It was like, even in the dark, I had sensed something was not right about this stranger that I had let into my tent. I cannot say that I was terrified immediately, but the feeling of something uncanny being at stake here, spread until my body started to shake… until I could not bear to be in the same space as this unknown man.

I slipped from the tent, though not dressed for the outdoors. The thing about the mountains is that you camp in one place, but when you wake up, you never know what scenery awaits you when you step through the flap. The terrain changes as the weather desires. I ran out into a world of white snow, hardly knowing where I was, or where I was going. I ran into the woods, falling in the ice as I tore over thorns and through sharp fir trees. But I could not stray too far from my tent, or risk being lost forever in the white.

I waited long hours among the trees, desperately clinging onto one large trunk till my hands grew bloody with the bite of its sharp bark. Despite the cold, I had sweated through my clothes in my panic and now they froze against my skin. The thick canopy of trees blocked the sun, so I hardly knew how long I shivered there. I hid until the cold got too much, and then peered out to see if the intruder was still at my camp.

The place sounded and felt still.

I stepped back to my campsite cautiously, like a wild moose snuffling for food in wolf territory. I clenched my fingernails into my palms in dread as I approached the tent. I lifted up my tent flap to see… oh God.

The man was still there, but his shape had changed. He now looked healthier, though he was still fast asleep and still as marble. The man I now looked upon was me! In every detail the man had taken on my form. His clothes were still those he had worn last night, or I should have gone mad with fears I was no longer myself. In such wild times, anything seemed to be possible.

I ran. I ran and ran, hoping to get myself lost from this madness. But a man can only run for so long in the cold, before they must face the fact that to run further would be to die. So, I stood, petrified as to what to do. Until I heard a cry from the campsite, like that of an animal set upon by a beast. I ran back, to get my gun, when the man, his face now his own again, thank God, ran at me, wildly.

“He is here. He is here.”

“What is happening? Who?”

He looked behind, fearfully. But rather than running away, he ran towards the source of his own terror, into the dense trees, and beyond my sight. I heard a cry, and then the howl of a wild beast, though whether that sound was from the stranger, in his wild state, or from something else, I could never tell. When I rushed after him, he was gone. I traced his steps in the snow, but could find no sign of him in the woods, only long scratches in the trees around where he had been lost.

I gathered up my belongings, leaving many items at the camp in my haste to be gone. I ran wildly in any direction until my heart punched against my chest and I had to stop to gasp for air. As my breath returned in cold gulps, the sharp sting of cold air in my lungs brought me to my senses. In my calmer state, I went through the events of last night and made sense of much of what had happened. The tree scratches I had seen were clearly a trail blazed by past travelers to find their way back, by the traditional means of marking a tree with your axe. The stranger, after all, probably had belonged to some party of climbers. Climbers never travel alone.

I became regretful at my cowardice at running away. As I picked through my remaining belongings, I saw that in my haste, I had left behind the majority of my food. I grew indignant that my fear had induced me to abandon so much of what was mine. I had allowed myself to be terrorized by some stranger that had, somehow, taken on the form of my own face. I was struck by an unshakable idea that I must get back my face from this man, or be lost forever, running in fear from what I had seen. I would not return to my wife, a lesser man than I had been, but I would return home a taller man than before.

I eventually discerned, some distance away, that the snow had been disturbed by something traveling across its surface, leaving a mark across its smooth skin. On closer inspection, I found shoe tracks traveling north, towards the mountains; these were the tracks, I surmised, of this stranger. I was determined to follow them, to reach some conclusion of this strange ordeal. I resolved to be the hunter, not the hunted, across this great land, and conquer this terrible thing that had intruded upon my peace.

As time went on, the space between each footprint grew longer and longer as the stranger traveled, as if he had been striding in impossibly long bounds. After time the footprints started to become startlingly far apart from each other, at impossible lengths. I followed them, seeing that the prints became bloody as if he had worn out his shoes and ran on his bare feet to the point of drawing blood. Good, that would make him easier to track. Then, another set of prints started to appear alongside his, or in place of his—it was hard to tell. They appeared to be some kind of hoof-prints, like the feet of a moose but only in sets of two, as if a large-hoofed creature had run on its hind legs behind, or in front of, the man. The man’s footprints finally disappeared, as if he had been taken up by this large beast, and the beast’s prints carried on, bounding up the mountainside, like the hoofs of a large goat.

I knew I should turn around. Go back. But I was driven on by the urge to get my own face back. No, not just that, but to reach the mountain top. As if I had taken on my strange visitor’s obsession with conquering the mountain, I could not leave without solving this mystery of what this man had seen to drive him so wild.

As I climbed further up the mountain, the air seemed fresher. I was able to climb faster, leap higher. I could smell the scents more clearly up here. I could smell the moss underneath the snow. I could hear the heartbeats of the goats hiding in the rocks. I could hear the sound of the wind, that seemed to call my name, goading me onward.

I discarded my boots, I didn’t need them here, the snow here did not hurt my feet. Even when they began to bleed, I could feel nothing but a gnawing hunger that only resolution to this hunt could fill. The hoof prints drew me on, always one step ahead of my own. I ran on, knowing eventually, if I ran fast enough, I could catch up with this thing that I sought.

As I reached the final precipice of the mountain I could see the bodies of mountain goats frozen in the ice. My hungry stomach pleaded that I stop and eat, but I sped on. Their faces stared at me blankly as I bounded on. I would not freeze in this cold through all of my fur.

I scaled the last heights in one bound, falling on the ice in an ungainly flop, onto the top precipice. Here I saw at last the creature that I had been seeking, amidst the growing fog. I almost backed away and fell down the mountain in my awe. Here was a large, horned creature. Hoofed and upright like a faun. Furred like a moose but with a face so drawn and angry it looked like the devil itself. He turned to look at me—recognized me with its grey dead eyes, and I felt the hunger in my stomach turn to knots.

I heard a woman screaming beneath me, and looked down into my hands to see the face of my wife staring up at me, my hands on either side of her head. Blood poured from her ears as I crushed my hands together.

“What are you doing?” she screamed, and I realized that somehow I was back home, in the warmth of our kitchen, but I was still cold, and ravenous.

I looked at her lovingly, and hungrily.

“What are you doing?” she said again.

“I have been running for so long,” I told her gently, as I began to show her what that meant… to see the Wendigo.

pencilKaren lives in London, UK. She has written short horror stories for anthologies, and published a book of short stories, It’s Dark Inside, under the pen name Karen Heard. Karen also writes and directs fringe theater, and is working on a TV pilot. She is always open to discuss collaboration ideas or writing projects. Email: karendsheard[at]gmail.com

1984 from Julia’s Perspective

Baker’s Pick
Mari Carlson


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you okay?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Happens to the Atheists?

Fiction
Samyuktha Iyer


Photo Credit: Li Luna (Public Domain)

When my mother, named after the goddess of abundance, got cancer, the irony of it clung to my skin like a fish hook, or an old hunger churning in an acid belly. Everyday she grew thinner, the way reeds dancing on muddy riverbanks shrivel up when monsoon fails to arrive, or jasmine blossoms close their petals with withered sighs. My mother grew infant-like, small and curved, her bald head speckled with hair like newborn rice in a field, and her tongue wavered when she laughed. One day, her chest collapsed when she coughed, as though someone had reached into her lungs and stolen her breath, and along with it, I collapsed in grief as well. She cradled my head in her arms and ran her bird-bone fingers through my hair with a pained smile, but she no longer had anything to say.

When my mother got cancer, no one had anything to say. Their voices withdrew, an animal attacked, and turned towards the ones who do not need words to know. I could not imagine who they were praying to—even my mother mumbled her way through the rudraksha malai, each of the beads leaving a fine indent on her fingertips. Soon the prayers got desperate—my father’s hair grew white and my grandparents grew translucent with anxiety. Aunts and uncles and cousins poured into the house, as unending as the beads on the rudraksha malai and brought offerings to place before the deities of the hearth. I followed them silently, like a beaten animal or a shadow, and echoed their words, though they sat uncomfortably in my mouth and tried to uproot the other faiths that had already taken bloom there.

As my mother began to fade and blood frothed in her saliva, my hope turned to anger. In silence I cursed those gods that would allow her to suffer this way, and I knew then that never, never would I learn to have faith in their ineffable actions. But the frenzy in the house grew wilder; pati began lighting candles in the dargah and appa draped shawls over the shoulders of Buddha. Chitti kneeled at pews raising incense sticks and begging for her sister’s body back while maama offered prayers five times a day in the direction of the temple. The goddess of the house is dying, they whispered, please, return her to us whole. Their tongues twisted and writhed and the marks of religion receded from their skin and soon, I could not recognise what language they prayed in. Only I sat in silence at my mother’s bedside, where she ebbed away, inch by inch, and I turned my face away from the sun, ate my meals facing north, slept with my legs stretched towards the altar of the household gods. When my family rebuked my blasphemy, I curled into a ball at my mother’s side and let her defend me in weak assurances.

One night, when I awoke, I heard appa at her bedside, holding her shivering hands, chafing them to warmth, while my grandfather fetched her more blankets. I turned over to my side, and pressed my tears into flattened flowers against my pillow. Then, guiltily, I wondered what I was wishing for—when the goddess of the house is dying, do you ask for her to get well, or do you ask for the misery to end? I swallowed these thoughts, more blasphemous than anything I could have said, and they hung heavy at the back of my throat, as though awaiting the right moment to split my lips open and fall out.

Everyone prayed. They moved day and night between her bedside and the hospital rounds and the unending streams of visitors who came with reassurances and fruits for her. And I slowly allowed her to slip away, having no hope to hold on to, leaving tear tracks in my wake. Then suddenly, she was able to sit up. Blood stopped bubbling in her mouth when she coughed and one day she ate a whole meal without throwing up. My grandmother and her sisters bought offerings to every temple they had made promises at, and gave praise with quavering verses of devotional songs.

Nearly a year after the first time she had collapsed, the doctor told us she was getting better. She would beat the cancer.

Everyone rejoiced.

I found, to my horror, that I couldn’t. As though hope, that had been wrested away from me when I needed it the most, faith, that should have sustained me and given me relief now that it had succeeded, which I did not have—as though these things that set me apart from the ones that could believe that God was watching them, was merciful and generous, had also taken away the succeeding deliverance, the sense of liberation that came with it.

I couldn’t recognise my mother any more, while everyone fretted over her. The ghost returning to life was something beyond my knowledge of this world. While the ones who believed in God welcomed her back to life, I receded into disbelief and confusion. The ones who have faith, they can traverse life and death. What then, happens to the atheists?


Glossary:
(terms taken from Tamil)
rudraksha malai — a rosary made of dried rudraksha seeds, used to keep count while chanting; generally used by Hindus
pati — grandmother, older woman
dargah — a shrine built over the grave of a revered religious figure, often a Sufi saint or dervish
appa — father
chitti — mother’s younger sister
maama — uncle, generally the mother’s brother, or the mother’s sister’s husband

pencil

Samyuktha Iyer was born and raised in India, and she is currently pursuing her undergraduate studies in English Literature. She writes about the world she sees and the ways of the people she has lived with and of questions she struggles with herself, both in verse and in prose. Email: samyukthaiyer2019[at]gmail.com

Free Coffee

Fiction
Joey Dickerson


Photo Credit: Andrew Huff/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Greg took another sip of his coffee in a futile attempt to add interest to another Monday morning. He had sweetened his daily breakfast with six packets of sugar to make it bearable, and though the powdered non-dairy creamer only served to make the drink taste more like printer paper, the now-ancient ritual of dumping in a heap of the stuff seemed unavoidable. Greg was a man of routine, and this one he had enjoyed for over eighteen years at Barney Light Corporation, or “BLC.” There were several others: waking up slightly late after snoozing the alarm a few times, the mindless forty-five minute commute, slowly eating a turkey sandwich and bag of chips while listening to a podcast in his Toyota Corolla during his exactly-one-hour lunch break from 11:30am to 12:30pm, going to the restroom around 3:00pm, and leaving the office a few minutes early, because who would notice (and if someone did, Greg would say he was trying to beat the traffic—he never thought he had to beat the traffic, but he had heard someone say it once when he was new and thought it sounded smart). But Greg liked the coffee ritual. He felt it was distinguished. Tomorrow, Greg would be fired from his job at BLC, ending his eighteen-year career in corporate marketing, and he never would have guessed the coffee ritual would be the only bit of it he missed.

Greg had never been a coffee drinker. He had started as a Marketing Coordinator at BLC right out of college, and on his first day the girl from Human Resources had given him a tour of the office. When they reached the break room she asked him if he drank coffee. He said he did, because it seemed like the right answer from someone who wanted to work in an office. She said it was the last stop of the tour, so he was welcome to make himself a cup and head back to his cubicle to complete the onboarding training they had set up for him. So he did. He grabbed a thick paper cup, pumped in some coffee, and added a packet of sugar and some powdered non-dairy creamer. He took a sip, tried not to make a face, added another packet, and took another sip. He repeated until he was six packets in and began to wonder if the other three people in the break room were starting to get suspicious.

After arriving at the office on day two, Greg got to his cubicle, docked his laptop, powered it up, and when he realized he had no idea what to do, he figured he might as well go make himself a cup of coffee. Six sugars and a heap of powdered stuff. Stir, take a sip. Back to the cube. Greg liked it. He didn’t really care for the coffee, but he had something to do. So, each day Greg would start with his coffee. After several days, the real work began to pick up. He would get tasked by his boss or coworkers to do this or that, and being an excited new employee navigating the mysteries of corporate life, it felt good to be productive.

Those first six months flew by. Oddly enough, the transition from excited productivity to numb tedium wasn’t gradual. It was at just about that six-month mark when Greg first hit the snooze button in the morning. He hadn’t reacted negatively to the shrill buzz of his alarm. He was simply uninterested. He wasn’t upset or frustrated or demotivated. It wasn’t even a front-of-mind, conscious experience. The excitement generated by a new chapter of life had simply vanished without him noticing. He had experienced this before, but there had always been the thrill of the next chapter sitting on the horizon. No such view pervaded Greg’s day-to-day, and it wasn’t until a few years later when that fact punched him in the gut. He carried on, of course. A job was a job, and this job was even a good job.

“I have it good,” Greg would remind himself after leaving an exceptionally long day at work. Barney Light Corporation was one of the top exit and emergency light distributors in the country. It was a good company, and he brought home a good salary. The people he worked with were good people. And after a few years Greg was promoted to Marketing Manager and later Sr. Marketing Manager. He never felt like he was managing anything or anybody, but he was doing well for himself. He had it good. And there was free coffee.

On this Monday, there was a familiar thickness to the air of the office that usually came with the invasion of some foreign entity: a highly-paid consultant brought in by the executive team, or perhaps a visit from members of the board. The normal office conversations were punctuated with aggressive whispers. People walked with long strides and stiff motions to show a greater sense of purpose. Greg didn’t pay it much mind. He had seen it all over his long eighteen years at BLC.

Greg took his coffee back to his desk and checked his calendar. It was relatively open for a Monday. He began responding to emails, and at 9:09am, exactly one hour after Greg had arrived at the office, his desk phone rang. It was his cousin Denise who worked in accounting. She was the one who got him his good job over eighteen years ago. She only ever called if there was some office gossip that she assumed concerned him, though it never did.

He picked up the phone the same way he picked up every call: “This is Greg,” he said, solemnly.

Denise responded the same way she always did: “I know, I called you,” she said, sarcastically.

“So, what do you think is going on?” she continued, sounding like she definitely had her own thoughts about what was going on, and also had no interest in hearing any of Greg’s.

“With what?” he asked calmly.

The fact that Denise hadn’t immediately launched into her own musings indicated she was legitimately surprised by his response.

“I assumed you had already heard about the layoffs,” she whispered, and uncharacteristically paused for his response.

“No,” he replied.

“Seven already this morning,” she whispered again. “On a Monday. In August, Greg. What the hell?” she said with her volume back up to its normal level requiring an inch between Greg’s ear and the receiver. If BLC had a bad year, layoffs would normally take place between Thanksgiving and Christmas, after the following year’s budgets had been set. There were quarterly all-hands meetings that gave everyone plenty of heads up as to what sort of year it was shaking up to be. This year had been going extraordinarily well for BLC, making the idea of layoffs more out of place, however Greg wouldn’t have known that. He would usually doodle during the all-hands meetings, or let his mind wander to what he hoped to have for dinner, or something he had heard in a podcast or seen on TV. Greg didn’t trouble himself with what he figured was out of his hands. He did the work he was tasked with, minded his own business, and enjoyed the free coffee.

“Yeah, weird.” Greg tried to think back to the previous layoffs he had seen over the years. He thought there may have been five or six. He couldn’t recall when they happened or which positions were axed.

Denise went on, “And we’re having a really good year! It doesn’t make any sense, Greg.” She sighed deeply. “No one from accounting so far, thank God, but Sheila has been completely on top of everyone all morning. She is freaked, out! I can’t even imagine. I mean, I know I’m safe, I’ve been here twenty years, like they would let me go. Oh my God, Sara though. If they’re cutting anyone, it’s going to be her. Poor thing. I say that but honestly wouldn’t miss her. Well, I would miss her, just not her freakin’ broccoli crap she microwaves every other day for lunch…”

At some point Greg stopped listening and went back to his email. If he could get through them before ten o’clock that gave him an hour and a half of pretend-to-work podcast time before his lunch break. Denise finished whatever she was still freaking out about, told Greg she’d let him get back to work, but made him promise he’d call her if he heard anything more before hanging up.

“Of course,” he said.

Greg made it through the day without the thought of layoffs returning to his head.

Greg arrived at the office on Tuesday and went to get his coffee. He lifted a thick paper cup off the top of the stack, held it under the big thermos, and pumped. It gave a sputtery exhale, but no coffee. He must have been later than usual today. He looked at his watch: 8:11am. Huh. No, not that late. He put the cup under the second thermos (what he had called “backup coffee” in these rare occasions) and pumped. The same sputter, no coffee. His cup looked wounded, spattered with Monday’s cold remains. In eighteen years, there had never not been coffee.

A man was learning on the nearby counter and had noticed Greg’s pumping efforts. Greg turned to him and gestured toward the man’s steaming cup.

“Eh, tea…” the man said, lifting his cup with a slight shrug. Greg recognized his face but couldn’t name him.

“No coffee?”

“Guess not.”

“There’s always coffee,” Greg said, mourning his empty cup.

“You might check the other break room.”

There was another break room? Greg nodded to the man and went back to his desk. He couldn’t concentrate. This made no sense. Who would he even ask about this? It all seemed very wrong. He booted up his docked laptop and tried to focus on getting through his email. How was he supposed to work like this? he thought. Maybe there was someone he could talk to. He looked at his calendar. Empty. Well, that’s good. He couldn’t imagine sitting through a meeting at a time like this.

Just as he had collected his determination and stood up out of his chair to find someone who might help him, Lorraine from Human Resources was at his cubicle.

“Hey Greg, got a minute?” She was smiling but looked like someone was poking her with a needle.

“Yeah, hey, I was actually just coming to find you. There’s no coffee in the break room. Not sure who, uh…”

Lorraine was nodding furiously. “Okay, yeah… hey let’s head to my office if you have a minute.” She gestured out of his cube and down the hall. Greg walked with Lorraine trailing behind.

“Yeah, I don’t know who does the coffee… It was empty, though. Both of the things. I, uh… is there a person, or…” Greg looked back to ensure Lorraine was still close behind. She was. Can she hear me? he wondered. They were almost to her office when he stopped and turned around. “Hey, look… Who do we need to talk to about this?”

She looked startled but kept smiling. “Uh… let’s chat in my office, okay?”

“Huh, why? The break room’s over there. Or is there someone else we need to get?”

Lorraine’s smile faded and she squinted in visible confusion.

“Um, my office, okay?” She gestured behind Greg.

Greg turned and went into Lorraine’s office. Sitting in the two chairs facing Lorraine’s desk were Greg’s boss, Director of Marketing Joyce Ackerman, and the CEO of Barney Light Corporation, Ted Sillis.

Lorraine extended her hand toward the third, smaller metal chair to the side of her office while she took the seat behind her desk. “Why don’t you have a seat, Greg?”

Greg sat down. Thank God, he thought, these guys will want to hear this. “There’s no coffee in the break room. Both of the things are empty.”

The two boss’s brows furrowed simultaneously, and they looked at each other. Ted’s face quickly shifted to a soft smile as he looked back to Greg. Joyce mimicked him.

Ted cleared his throat and began to say something about Greg’s long tenure at Barney Light.

“I don’t know what they’re called. The pump things,” Greg interrupted.

Three faces twisted with shared confusion stared at Greg.

Greg continued, “Every day there’s coffee. I don’t know why there’s no coffee today. If you don’t believe me, I’ll show you.”

Joyce turned her head and said something under her breath. It was either something about Greg’s mental state, or she was agreeing with the urgent need to investigate the missing coffee.

Looking stern, Ted slapped Lorraine’s desk with enough force that the other three in the office bolted upright, startled, and looked at him. It caused the case of the missing coffee to vanish from Greg’s mind. He was here now, in this little office with his boss, the lady from Human Resources, and the guy at the head of the entire company. Greg wondered if he had ever been in this office before. It smelled as though someone was trying to cover up the stench of dirty gym clothes with patchouli. One of the long fluorescent bulbs was buzzing and flickering, and the one next to it was dead. The lights sat in a flimsy fixture recessed into the false ceiling that was hung an inch or two too low. The other set of lights were on steadily, but should have been brighter, Greg thought. The carpet was a soiled burgundy. It must have been in the office since before Greg started there. He looked to his right, through the thin yellowing blinds which hung over the one slender office window next to the closed door to confirm more of the same hideous carpeting. He had never before noticed how unpleasant it was. The walnut-veneered door was peeling around the edges, and Lorraine’s gunmetal steel desk was worn on every corner, like it had been retired from a downtown police interrogation room. Ted’s slap had rattled the entire thing like a gong and caused a dry echo through the air vent. Greg suspected it was heard some distance outside the office.

Was he losing his job today?

Ted tried again, his concern for Greg’s feelings were quickly replaced by his concern for his own time, “Greg, you’ve been with Barney Light for a long time, but regrettably today is your last day. Due to the company’s new direction your services will no longer be required. We wish you the best of luck.”

Not a full second after Ted finished speaking Lorraine shoved a manila envelope toward Greg. He slowly took it. She had opened her mouth to say something, but the words had halted in her throat.

“I’m being laid off?” he asked in disbelief.

“No, actually,” Ted responded, emotionless. “You’re being fired. We’ve increased our performance standards, and you’re a bottom-quartile employee.”

There was a moment of silence. Not the awkward social silence each participant is praying to have broken, but instead a mournful silence, like those for the recently deceased. A respectful silence each person knew would end soon enough.

Ted stood up; Lorraine and Joyce followed suit. “Lorraine will need your badge and she’ll walk you out,” Ted said and then opened the door. “Take care,” he said finally.

Greg stood up, fished his badge from the left pocket of his baggy khaki slacks and placed it on Lorraine’s desk. He walked out of the office with Lorraine following close behind. The foul smell wasn’t unique to Lorraine’s office, Greg realized. There were no windows in this place. Bare tobacco-stained walls served as the only backdrop to the ash gray cubicle walls.

Greg picked up on several active conversations as they walked out, none of them carrying an ounce of joy. There were hushed whispers of fear or frustration, louder phone conversations of absolute disinterest, or coworkers forcing dull small talk to fill an uncomfortable air.

Lorraine said nothing as she closed the side exit door behind Greg. The harsh click of the automatic lock startled him. He took a few steps out toward the parking lot and turned around to take in the freshly-painted gray facade of his single-story home of the last nearly two decades. He had never noticed the rolling strip of well-manicured lawn that wrapped around the building, with evenly spaced young, full-leafed maple trees calmly swishing in the light summer breeze.

Bottom-quartile. Greg spent the forty-five-minute drive home in silence thinking of the work he could have done, or not done, that would have placed him in the “bottom-quartile.” Who was he even up against? The rest of the company? His boss assigned work, and he did it. His colleagues emailed, called, stopped by his desk, and he responded.

Greg pulled into the nearly empty single-car garage of his condominium. He needed a plan before he went inside. He grabbed his phone, hit a job website, and searched for marketing jobs in his area. After reading through several postings, one part of Greg’s plan became crystal clear: he would not be getting another marketing job. Whatever he had been doing the last eighteen years was certainly not what the rest of the world considered “marketing.”

Greg chuckled. He laughed out loud. Tears came to his eyes as he cackled to himself over the absurdity of the situation. The absurdity of the last eighteen years. He fell asleep at twenty-two and woke up at forty. Thank God, he thought, that he woke up at forty, and not at sixty, or eighty, or never at all.

The door leading to his home opened, and his wife’s smile filled the doorway. She was glad to see him but lifted her hands and shook her head in annoyed surprise.

“You came home early for your birthday!” she laughed. “Dammit, Greg, you ruined the surprise!”

Today is my birthday, thought Greg for the first time that day.

Her radiance had him speechless. She was gorgeous. And she knew him, he realized, likely far beyond how he knew himself. He had grown with her for the last twelve years. They shared a life. But where had he been? he wondered.

Greg got out of the car, and she hugged him with an authentic embrace that told him he was exactly where he needed to be.

He laughed.

“What?” she asked, suspicious.

“Do we have coffee?”

She had been busy. An over-the-hill party pack had exploded across his condo. She put on a pot of coffee and frantically attended to the other preparations while detailing out the elaborate scheme she and Greg’s friends and family had been plotting for the last four weeks. Greg listened intently, enthralled.

The coffee pot had not filled when Greg found two mugs (guessing wrong twice at their location) and poured in the steaming joe. The smell was new, and pleasant. He lifted the mug to his face, gave a short blow to cool his sip, and gave it a try. It tasted like life, not death. He smiled.

He put two teaspoons of sugar and a little bit of milk in each mug. He knew that’s how she liked it and was glad for that. He took another sip. Bliss.

She was stringing up a paper “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” sign across the door to the patio as he leaned over the kitchen counter and watched her. She really made this home, he thought. Their condo would be cramped if it wasn’t so cozy, entirely attributable to her presence, her design. He took a deep breath.

“I got fired today,” he said, beaming.

“What?” She looked at him to see if she had heard wrong, and his expression affirmed her assumption.

“I got fired today,” he said again. The paper birthday sign fell to the floor. Greg laughed.

“This is really good coffee,” he said.

pencil

Email: wjdickerson[at]gmail.com