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“Saddlebrook” by Sarah Kindler

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

Saddlebrook

By Sarah Kindler

In Saddlebrook, the first freedom we all learned was how to leave town. The second was how to lie about it. Usually this happened around the age of sixteen if you had a friend with a brother with a truck, or sometimes younger if you were particularly ambitious and not averse to bicycling several miles of dusty shoulder. The lying was important because there was nothing outside of town. The town limits divided some acres of cornfield from some others far before you got to another main street. But still there were places you could go, out of view of the road and nondescript enough to seem like you had discovered them. Places that couldn’t be found. Places that could be anywhere. So when you told your mother that you were going to Josie’s for dinner and when Josie told her mother that she was going to yours, you were safe in that secret spot. Safe and free.

Once we started lying about where we were, we began to invent entire personalities. We stole pieces of lies from the internet, from television, or else concocted them in the boredom of always going to the same secret places and having nothing secret to do. We had a set of lies for our parents, a set for our teachers, one for our siblings and one, carefully and painstakingly constructed, for our friends. We held each other to them, judged each other by how good they were and how convincing you could be and how many people believed you. Eventually, everyone believed.

Wanda really had made it all the way to Chicago over the summer break. Harry had found a two-headed deer flat and dead on the side of the road. Kim was meeting a secret boyfriend from the rival school when she disappeared on weeknights and was late for class the next morning. We could be anything when we lied, so we lied about what music we listened to. We lied about who we knew. We lied about the weather and what day it was and what time the party was starting. We didn’t question or second guess or doubt. If you were the only one who showed up to Tom’s, you told him that you were looking for his sister, and if she was home, you asked her what the math homework was and she made something up and you did that assignment.

We thought at first that we were the only ones who knew how to lie, but some of us were paying attention and noticed that the adults did it too. They weren’t flashy about it and usually wouldn’t contradict the obvious, but Josie did notice that her mom always said she’d be home half an hour sooner than she ever was. Michael’s dad was never angry, even when Mike’s little brother sank the lawnmower into a flooded gully and wrecked the motor. We supposed that the lying had always been there and we hadn’t noticed sooner because we’d been brought up to respond to it, like animals to our trainers. It was easy to be obedient to a lie because the lying was instinctive. Sometimes we’d catch them trying to remind us that honesty was the best policy, but honestly who were they kidding.

It was after Kim stopped showing up for class altogether but before the time Tom spent the night in jail that the Lowells moved to Saddlebrook. Their daughter Alicia was our age. We knew she was a little funny right off because although she had learned to drive (proved when we saw the license Mike once swiped from her wallet), she never left town. She never went anywhere. She said she liked to eat dinner with her family. She said she didn’t know anyone in town well enough yet to go to Tom’s party. Naturally we figured she was lying. That’s when someone said that the Lowells knew the mayor’s family, and then everyone claimed to have gotten to know her. After a few weeks though when no one had seen her at any of the places we all were, we didn’t know what to think. That’s how we figured she was telling the truth.

We started asking her questions to see if she’d keep doing it. Where was she from? Chicago, well actually just outside it. We couldn’t substantiate. What did her parents do? Her mom was a veterinarian and treated livestock. Her dad wrote for the news station in Dubuque. We caught a glimpse of his name in the paper the next week. What was the English homework? Read the next two chapters of The Great Gatsby. We were all surprised, the teacher included, when the whole class had done the correct assignment.

The third time Alicia didn’t show up at Tom’s, I decided she needed help. Maybe she just needed someone to show her how things worked in Saddlebrook, and anyways even though I still saw a lot of Josie and Wanda it had been a long time since they felt like friends. But I didn’t say that, because by all accounts we were thick as thieves. Even though the general consensus was that I had probably never been to Chicago like the other girls had. Even when I tried to say that I had been south to St. Louis, not to Chicago. I wasn’t the best of liars.

Saturday morning, my older brother Bobby said he was driving to a friend’s house, so I asked if he’d take me along and if we could pick up Alicia Lowell on the way. I was pretty sure he was headed out of town. He looked me over, rolled his eyes, and said, “I’ll need money for gas.”

“I only have four dollars,” I told him, even though I had about twice that in my pocket.

“Give it here. You can get me the rest later.” I agreed and handed over half my crumpled bills. When we pulled up to the Lowell home, Alicia’s father was weeding in the front yard. I nodded to him as I went to the door. When Alicia opened it, one eyebrow raised, I asked if she wanted to go for a drive.

“Where are we going?”

“Oh, couldn’t say,” I smiled. She sighed.

“No, I guess you couldn’t. Sure.”

“You want to?”

“Yes.” I was delighted, rare as it was to get a straight answer.

“Come meet Bobby. He’s driving.”

We set off, going west to the freeway. It was a nice morning for a drive, sunny and not too cool. We chatted about a class we shared and Bobby chimed in with what he remembered from taking it the previous year. The cornfields flew by. Alicia was easy to talk to. Direct. I found myself starting to imitate the way she spoke by the time we arrived in Waynesfield.

Bobby pulled into the Eat N’ Pump and let us out by the front door, giving me his order (“Tuna melt, a side of eggs, glass of milk. Whole.”) before going around back to fill up. Inside, we sat down in a booth. “Get a doughnut,” I urged Alicia after I placed my order. “They’re why I come out here. They’re the frozen kind, but they heat ‘em fresh every morning in real oil.” Alicia got a glazed and a black coffee. I liked to load up my coffee with cream and no more than four sugars, and my doughnut was a big jelly-filled thing covered in sprinkles and powdered sugar.

“Don’t eat that,” Bobby said, sitting next to Alicia. “You’ll get my truck all sticky.”

“What am I, eight?” I said through a mouth full of confection. Alicia ripped her doughnut into chunks before dunking them in her coffee and popping them into her mouth. “Good, right?”

“Yeah.” She paused. “Is this where people are always going to? Places like this?”

“Nah,” was Bobby’s reply. “The Eat N’ Pump is kind of slow.”

I scoffed. “Sometimes we do come here at night. It’s open late because of the motel down the road. We come out here to meet all sorts. Real night owls and folk.”

“How do you get out here in the middle of the night, little sis?”

“Wanda knows how to drive stick.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. One time she came here by herself when she was real mad at Harry and got picked up by a guy who plays for the Badgers. The handsome one.”

“What was he doing here?”

“Passing through.”

“Uh-huh.” He scooped the last of his eggs onto a piece of sandwich.

“She has his watch.”

“He probably paid her with it.”

“Jerk.”

“Dweeb.”

Alicia slurped her coffee. “I’m sorry I asked. I’m always sorry that I asked.”

I turned to her. “What do you mean?”

“She means that she’s new here.” Bobby looked around at her impatiently, then stood up. “C’mon, let’s go.” Once his back was turned, I left the remainder of my money on the table and then followed my brother outside.

“I’m dropping you off,” Bobby told us when we were back in town. “I have people to see.”

“Yeah right. You’re probably just going to drive around until it gets dark.”

“Later,” he said as I shut the truck door behind me. Alicia watched him drive off and then turned to me. “No one here just says what they mean.”

“Sometimes they do. Or at least even if they don’t you kind of get it anyways.”

“Don’t you get tired of not being able to trust anybody?”

“You learn how to trust people. Take Bobby. I’ve always known that he’s never done what he says he has.” Alicia crossed her arms.

“Or he’s always done what he says he hasn’t.”

“Hey. He’s my brother. You don’t know him.”

“Sorry,” she said.

We moved on and then parted for the day, but afterwards I saw a lot more of Alicia. She remained straightforward, which was reassuring. Slowly I found myself confessing things to her. Just small things, whispered things, but things I had never told anyone before. I started to feel like I could tell her anything. She kept calling that trust, but I was starting to feel less trusting of everyone else. When people laughed or smiled or were angry, I wondered why, really. And I wondered why we didn’t just say.

Alicia told me things too. She told me that she was angry with a guy who kept bugging her at school, but that mostly people had started to let her be. She found that as long as she said less and paid attention more, people lost interest in making up things about her. I asked her why she minded the lies. “Because who cares, right? It’s not like any of them really tried to know me. They just made things up. Why would anyone care about the things people make up?”

Wanda and Josie thought she was weird and didn’t understand why I was hanging out with her. “You never go anywhere,” they complained. “You never do anything anymore.” I tried to make up something but I knew they had decided not to believe me. Besides, it was true. I wasn’t leaving town as much except sometimes just with Bobby. I wasn’t going to parties much.

I didn’t go to Tom’s party, the one he threw despite being on probation. The one where afterwards they found Kim in a ditch, thrown from his crumpled station wagon.

The adults all said it was an accident, a tragedy, a real shame. Everyone agreed they hadn’t seen this coming, not Kim, not in this town. Quite a shock. Tom was in deep trouble, the poor thing. It was almost too much–they were dating, didn’t you hear? Losing his car and his girlfriend in the same night. I had heard a hundred versions of the night’s events before Alicia stepped forward. That was when I found out that I had really been the only person not to go to Tom’s that night.

Alicia said she had been there and it was true. Everyone had seen her. So when she said that she had seen who had gotten behind the wheel of Tom’s car even though he had hardly been able to walk, they all believed her. And all eyes turned to my brother. Bobby, who could always be trusted to have done what he said he hadn’t. Bobby didn’t graduate from high school that year. Already eighteen, he was tried as an adult.

I didn’t speak to Alicia much after that. After the trial, somewhere between school and home, I confronted her because I thought I trusted her to have told the truth, but once we were face-to-face I didn’t know. I looked at her standing there in the street and I couldn’t place her. It wasn’t that Alicia always told the truth, but it wasn’t like she was honor-bound to her lies like the rest of us. I had never known when she had lied to me, and I had no way to tell if she had. All I knew was that she had taken my brother from me, and what was worse, I had no idea that he didn’t deserve it.

© 2013 Sarah Kindler

“An Animal Tamer” by Patricia Robertson

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

An Animal Tamer

By Patricia Robertson

Despite a decade’s experience as an animal trainer, Olivia didn’t know much about instructing owls. She focused on large cats during her career. She made her reputation training lions for the movies, and enjoyed the dangerous edge to her famous career. She was fond of the felines but appreciated their wildness and never had a serious injury. She never considered training avian predators.

It started with a mysterious letter from Mr. Horace Sned offering a job as an owl trainer. The purpose of the training was to teach owls to carry messages. Her initial interview did not describe the company’s product beyond “agrarian enrichment”. It offered a $2,000 a week and since jobs training lions were scarce, she decided to pursue this opportunity further. She needed to expand her skills anyway, why not work for an agricultural firm to train owls?

First she drove around rural Oregon– searching barns and cornfields to observe owls in their natural habitat. She spent 4 dollars on a used Audubon society guidebook to owl behavior. She spoke to several top ornithologists and developed a novel program for owl behavior modification.

Her first day at the FOOD corporate headquarters revealed very little about the company. The sleek metallic training dome was larger than Olivia expected, even given the avians’ needs for exercise and a large room to practice sending the birds on messenger missions.  The facility’s entrances were guarded with massively armed and uniformed guards. Despite her qualms, she agreed to train the owls. She initially offered mice as positive reinforcement, but eventually found donuts to be a superior reward. The owls were easier to train, but at times could be reluctant to perform on command. Her supervisor, Horace Sned quizzed Olivia extensively on her methods. Despite working more one month, she never met another employee. MOre worrisome was that after several weeks she noticed subtle changes in the owls behavior. They became more territorial -even aggressive.

One day she decided to learn more about FOOD. She secretly trained one owl to flush the guards to interior hall. The she dashed past them as her main owl hooted and flapped the interior guard.

In a secret darkened office she found a glowing screen. She thought quickly. After several dead- ends she entered the successful password “corn syrup”.  The screen flashed rapidly through an frightening algorithm.

Olivia had uncovered the master plan to feed the owls genetically modified seeds. These owls would then function as distributors. The seed would get “deposited” over the USA and cause widespread and a crash of the US economy.

She had to act quickly as some owls had already departed.  She furiously snapped pictures using her iPhone.

That evening she debated how to best use the information. She tossed all night, then turned on her computer. After she typed the last word, she signed off, satisfied that she had made the best use of her information.

Her u-tube video “Don’t eat that” went viral and alerted the world to the dangers of consuming crops from the the FOOD corporation.

© 2013 Patricia Robertson

“Holly Springs” by Pree K. Kastelic

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

Holly Springs

By Pree K. Kastelic

“Frances? Are you Frances Miller?”

Even though he sat next to the swamp cooler, the sound of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” was not masked beneath the whirring, displaced air of the fan. Frank detested Journey, and his aching headache throbbed against his jaw as he gritted his teeth. Willing his hands to stop shaking, he raised the third cup of black coffee to his lips. If he were to sit in the tiled lobby of “Holly Rollers” doughnut shop long enough, he would hear this 1981 chart-topper three times or more, and each time his entire body thrummed with intense annoyance. Instead of looking immediately at the stranger, who had pounded through the door only moments before, he continued staring down at the pages of his Tom Clancy book, raising it to keep it in eyesight as he lifted his mug for a noisy sip. With a defeated, heavy sigh, he set the open book on plastic pink laminate tabletop, avoiding the circle of moisture left from his mug.

He already knew what this was about. Frank had thought he was through with this particular chapter, after the visitors into town had dwindled to nothing almost three years before. Never supposing he would have to deal with this conversation again, he had begun going ritualistically back into town to run errands on Sundays.

There’s no protection in having habits, Frank decided.

“I suppose you’re here about that night?” he said, gesturing toward the door where the man had come. “No need to look surprised. I had a lot of visitors that first year, when people around town were still gossiping about it. Just sit down, boy, and let’s get this over with.”

The boy visibly hesitated, watching him beneath a head of slightly unkempt blonde hair. After a moment, he pulled out the chair with a gentle screech across checkered tile and sat, pulling his backpack over one shoulder to cradle on his lap, his jaw set and his gaze uncertain.

“My name is Matt Hanson,” said a mouth surrounded by gruff stubble. Though the man looked young and boyish to Frank, he placed his age somewhere in the mid-20’s. Hardly a boy at all. A bright-eyed, sturdy-jawed man sat in front of him, watching him, less nervous as he settled into his seat.

“Well, it seems you know who I am– and I know better than to tell you to shove off,” Frank said, putting his down coffee cup as he paused. “Nope, that never worked. Just… Tell me, first. Why all the interest? Why come all the way to Holly Springs, Mississippi to talk to a man about crop circles? Don’t you have something better to do?” Frank’s voice conveyed just how old this topic had become, and he had by then received a wide array of answers to this question, most of which bored him within the first few sentences. Stories of alien abductions and searches for the truth against a governmental conspiracy were frequent and, by this point, expected. This man, however, was pulling out a notebook and didn’t seem to hear him for a time, his hand scrambling around the bottom of his bag.

When he finally spoke, his voice was nervous no longer. He had the clipped voice of a professional, staring the older man straight in the eyes until Frank’s gaze trembled and darted away. “I’m a Master’s student at the University of Texas. My professor and I are currently studying the mental phenomenon of alien hallucinations and other paranormal stories,” he disclosed.

“Well, Hansen, I don’t know anything about aliens. I never saw any aliens. I’ve been telling people for years– it was a bolt of lightning. I put out the fire with a central pivot irrigation system.”

This seemed to snap the man out of polite courtesy. “I don’t eat that!” he reproached, defiant. “Not even for a second.”

In his hundreds of interviews, Frank had never received this reaction. It made him stop mid-sentence, suddenly, his mouth suspended in time. As he closed it, Matt Hanson continued to speak, unhindered by the near interruption.

“I’m telling you, Mr. Miller, it’s a phony story. You’ve rehearsed that exact explanation, hundreds of times, but you’ve never explained just how you managed to find the fire at two o’clock in the morning, walk a mile from your house, move the central pivot to the correct positioning, and put out the fire before it spread more than eight meters across. I’m not here to be dismissed so easily.” Clearly, he had been anticipating this explanation, and he was gaining confident fervor every moment while the greasy, slightly dirty man in front of him watched in disbelief. “Tell me. Please. What really happened that night?”

For a moment that dragged through the doughnut shop, Frank’s thoughts were like a chugging locomotive. The blonde man’s gaze held him steadily, he could feel them taking him in– sizing him up. Frank wondered how he had been described by whomever had pointed him here. “Long hair. Thick facial stubble. Clothing, dirty. Fingernails, dirty. Jeans, torn. A ruddy drunk escaping into mystery novels and shoving doughnuts into his face– may explain why he’s been thickening around the middle, too. Can’t miss him.”

Pulling himself back to the present, Elton John’s “Guess That’s Why they Call it the Blues” wailed from a pair of old speakers. The fan whirred on, raising goosebumps on the thin arms of the man in front of him. Finally, Frank let out another long, smooth sigh. “Alright, kid. You win. I’ll tell you. Just go on up to the counter and get a bear claw. Listen… The least you can do is spend $4 and support a family business– not many people travel this way since the Bankhead Highway’s been sidestepped.” Frank was standing, heading for the door, but he left his paperback on the table.

The sun beat off the asphalt like a living organism, the air thick and humid as the few cars in the lot twinkled metal sunlight his direction. Frank stretched himself on a seat outside the window, his brow glistening instantly with humidity. The door swung helplessly on its hinges as Matt Hansen emerged, holding a plate full of large pastry.

“You won’t find a better bear claw a hundred miles around,” Frank said, conversationally. As the man began tearing doughy pieces and flaking sugar glaze from his treat, Frank watched him, succumbing with a tired hand through his greasy hair. “I’ll tell you everything I remember.”

~~~

Frank was unaccustomed to the uncomfortable feeling that follows a great-grandparent’s death. Knowing it would happen eventually, and not being particularly close with his mother’s grandfather, he found himself the newest resident of Holly Springs, Mississippi. Within the town that reports a smaller population each year, he was forced to accept the condolences from strangers with a somber grace. An awkward, forced interaction would ensue, consoling memories fondly shared by many residences of the small town regarding his great-grandfather’s work ethic. Though Frank hadn’t visited Mississippi often as a child, he was now suddenly put in charge of the “family farm”. His mother, an only child, had called him one morning to tell him the news. She had a career, she said, travel plans, and had no intention of leaving California.

His mother looked a little different every time he saw her. The money she garnered from her third husband, a medical lawyer, during the crux of their dark divorce supported her desire to remain young and wrinkle-free. She barely resembled herself, all lips and chest. Frank never knew what to talk to her about, but she usually filled a conversation without requiring any discourse. Each phone call became a steady stream, Frank holding the receiver and waiting only long enough for a pause to promptly end the conversation.

In the weeks that followed, repeated phone calls and classic Catholic guilt had removed any choice Frank, thirty at the time, may have had otherwise. There was no one else to move across the country, to Mississippi, to attend the property and continue the family tradition. Plus, with his Bachelor’s degree in English, Frank had worked only hard enough to support his drinking habit as he received rejection letters from his writing exploits. He had no family, no obligations, and he had spent his twenties penning dark poems in bar corners. The plot of land had passed through the generations since the late 1800’s– any thought of abandonment was utterly out of the question.

Each time he spoke with Brittany on the phone the first year away, she told him how rarely their mother was home. His sister was not completely self reliant at twenty-five, due to her location on the Autism spectrum– Frank knew she needed supervision and guidance, and their mother had no space in her life for maternal cares.

Frank had to admit that he was only marginally superior as a caretaker. He often left her alone too long, and would find her still camped in front of the television where he had left her, sinking into the cushions with a sagging air of complete despondence. Opening another beer by skillfully pivoting the neck against the countertop, he took a long guzzle as he went to the pantry for some noodles and canned spaghetti sauce for dinner. He had never learned to cook much else.

They learned early on that there is very little work associated with corn farming. They worked only a few days a year, it seemed, and the rest had cadenced in a severe and depressing boredom. He would often tune out her incessant rambling about what she watched on television, but sometimes he could only scream to keep from despising his sister, his only company on this desolate island of farmhouse amidst the windswept waves of government-subsidized corn crops.

It seemed, after five years or so, that the rest of the world had abandoned them. Television, hangovers, and beer became his daily ritual, and he gauged a successful day by the amount of hours he spent outside the house. Sometimes, he would look out from the porch where his grandfather had often camped, surveying the acreage with bored resignation.

When he was young, his first exposure to death had shaken him for weeks. He had been riding his skateboard down the sidewalk when he stopped short, suddenly, feeling the concrete beneath his sneaker to cease his momentum. Abandoning the skateboard, it rolled into the weeds of the field and waited. He took to his knees and found himself suspended above a baby mouse, back broken, helplessly feeling the world with blind sweeps of its impossibly tiny front legs. Its mouth opened and closed in silent screaming, wordlessly desperate cries for help.

He had been too horrified by the macabre of the scene to turn away. He did nothing but watch, his cut-off shorts and ACDC t-shirt, the sun above baking the skin underneath. His father had once gone, alone, put their cat to sleep when it was diagnosed with feline leukemia. “Put to sleep” was such a nice thought, an animal being put in a state of perpetual, peaceful resting. This was different. The mouse on the impossibly hot sidewalk was suffering in every jerky, wretched movement, and he was utterly helpless to assist. The mouse was better off dead, he realized. It would never recover from such a debilitating injury– even its mother had known that in some way, some cognitive understanding, before she left her baby on the sidewalk.

Throwing himself into the bushes, he kicked weeds aside in search. When he found a sizable boulder, a shadow of possibility passed over him. Slowly, his knees buckling under the weight of the boulder beneath him, he made the march back to the sidewalk with his heart helplessly pounding in his chest. It was merely a matter of positioning. Of letting gravity do the solemn task for him. He sat on the boulder and sobbed into his dirty hands.

The memory of that hot afternoon came back to him that night in the living room, his sister’s arms jerking involuntarily as she shook and jolted. Heart in his ears, he could only sit there and watch the seizure, his sister’s body jolting on the corner chair. A choking sound had alerted him, and he perched himself nearby, leaning against the arm of an old green sofa. The farm was nearly an hour away from Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis, but he sat there with her and ran a drunken, mental inventory of everything they would need to make the trip to Tennessee. When her seizing stopped, she was quiet and still. He tried to sober up for their journey, and all he could say as he sipped water next to his barely-conscious sister was, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”

Frank didn’t breathe until they were in Memphis. Though the two of them stayed overnight in the hospital and underwent a staggering number of tests, the two of them quietly left the next afternoon without solid answers. Life changed very quickly, then. Something inside of him had snapped to attention that night– perhaps the realization that things could have easily dissolved into chaos, and he had not been in a clear state of mind to deal properly with an emergency. Or, perhaps, in that moment when he watched his sister, helplessly immobile on the couch, he couldn’t stop the vision of a tiny, helpless mouse. He realized how deeply he loved his sister, and how broken and lonely he would be without her presence.

A month later, he was watching Brit’s smile, wider than he had seen in many months. She laughed and cried in happiness when the service dog moved into their dilapidated farmhouse. Trained to alert him to potential danger with his sister’s health, the animal became a steadfast commodity in the wake of two more seizures. His sister and the dog became instantly attached to one another, and Keen spent most of his time positioned near Brit’s feet. Before long, Brit and the dog were taking long, silent walks around the farm. There was a marked improvement in her ability to communicate– whether it was the changes in Frank’s behavior, or the presence of the dog, he was entirely uncertain.

The biggest change, however, was Jackie. Precisely one month before the crop circles appeared, an exquisite dog trainer from Memphis came to visit the farm for the first time. Only poets and philosophers could comprehend the sheer volume of Frank’s emotional investment in a woman he had barely met. Yet, from the first moment he opened the door and stared into those pale blue eyes for the first time, he was transfixed. Captivated. Enraptured.

She was everything a man could tick off on his fingers. Frank’s afternoons after that first Wednesday were spent in silent reverie. Beautiful, but not vain. Kind hearted, but not weak. With a smile wider than the rolling hills and a tinkling laugh that went straight through him. A polite, articulate angel who gave commands with unabashed assertiveness.

For the first time in seven years, he opened the pages of an old composition notebook that had been buried amidst the rabble of his belongings. The handwriting within had been inked by his college self, the frantic scratching of a youth that could not translate thoughts onto paper swiftly enough. Just like that sturdy-jawed, wrinkle-free man of his past, his lamentations came freely, filling page after page.

Frank’s awareness of composing a sonnet for this woman hadn’t formally been realized. Yet he found himself on hot afternoons planted on the back porch, jotting down lines to translate into iambic pentameter, and time stopped. Brit brought him a glass of lemonade with a smile, and sat next to him. Silent, for the first time in days, she perched herself on the steps in front of him, blinking in the sunlight. They sat there a long time, and a wave of contentment washed over his cognizance.

The writing desk in the upstairs hallway was full of his great-grandfather’s stationary, relocated deep in the recesses of his memory on one of his initial explorations of the old house. Frank penned the final product in careful cursive, discarding ruined attempts in crackling heaps, and when he held the finished product in front of his face at arm-length, the overall effect filled him with pride.

Though he had only met this woman four times, he knew — somehow — that their souls had met before. Perhaps hundreds of times. Perhaps thousands of times. It was this absolute knowledge that bade him to stop her near the door before she left. Blinking, she took the letter with a slightly dubious politeness, tucking hair behind her ear as she shouted final goodbyes to Brit and the dog. Frank followed her white sneakered feet out the door, and watched her climb into her small green Neon, blowing dust behind tires as she distanced herself along the road, away from the farm.

That was the last time he ever saw Jackie. Jacqueline, the song of his pen and the pathetic, tiny heart inside his chest. The entire week, he anticipated her Wednesday arrival. His pulse beat like a caged bird beneath skin when he thought of her, reading his poem, realizing what a beautiful treasure she held. Positive that she would be overjoyed to see him, he attended to himself. Shaved his face. Cleaned his fingernails. When he looked in the mirror that morning, his face had grown far more gaunt, wrinkled, and tired than he remembered. In fact, he barely recognized the face in the mirror. Getting older wasn’t supposed to feel this way– he had intended to age gracefully, to accept the lost functionality of his body with wholehearted fortitude.

Yet, when the doorbell sang through the old house, he did not find the slender-legged Jackie standing there. A man, instead, young and vibrant, smiled widely at him from the porch. No explanation was given. It appeared this person was newly assigned to the dog’s training in Jackie’s place– calling himself Park Kingsley, speaking sweetly and depreciatingly to Brit. As they settled in for a session in dog training, Frank went straight to the garage.

No drink had touched his lips since the night of Brit’s first seizure. From the moment he had understood, with clarity, the reason for Jackie’s countenance during their last meeting, he felt shattered. Ruined and utterly despondent. The alcohol helped as it clouded his vision, the fourth drink in his hand. He wandered directionless through the house, lost and vacant. Immune to the sound of Brit’s constant inquiries, he tuned out the sound of her voice with skill born through years of daily practice.

When Brit helped him into his bed, the sagging ceiling above him spun like a vortex. Somewhere between the despair and desolation, he must’ve fallen asleep. He dreamed the window was ferociously rattling in its pane. He jolted upright, eyes snapping to the window to investigate. No sooner had he stood than his spine arched backward in sudden, crashing drunkenness and he immediately lost his balance. A floodlight appeared through the window, blinding him. He was falling backward as his eyes strained against it, and suddenly his feet no longer touched ground.

Neck snapping backward against the force, he found himself propelled against the atmosphere in front of him. He was flying toward the window with alarming speed– no time to react against the collision. Holding his forearms in front of him to brace for impact, he grimaced with tension and gritted his teeth. Yet, the seconds passed and the collision never came. Opening his eyes, he found himself in bed once again. His body shaking with adrenaline, he sat up and did not recognize the scene that suddenly encompassed him.

This bedroom was unfamiliar, with neat furniture and white drapes slapping in the morning sun. Something stirred next to him, and he found a complete stranger sitting up  to reach for a nearby pair of glasses. She was pretty, with short black bangs, sleepily smacking her lips as she pushed a pair of thick-rimmed glasses up the bridge of her nose. He went to the floor-length mirror, and didn’t recognize the face as his own. It was fuller, refined, framed by short clipped hair. More rattling from the window drew his eyes outward. Four barred owls watched him from the casement, each making guttural, deep-throated hoots. They grew outward, each of them with thin arms and hands, reaching straight through the windowpane. Their eyes were impossibly wide, black, and vacant.

When he woke, he was still completely intoxicated. He sat up on the mattress, holding his spinning head in his hands. The house was silent, though he wasn’t sure how much time had passed since he lost consciousness. Like a shell of a person, he held himself against the bannister as he blundered clumsily down the stairs. The dog barked suddenly from the doorway of his sister’s room. The sound visibly startled him, but didn’t hinder his progress as he walked to the side door in the kitchen, leading to the garage. The dog was left barking at the door, barred from pursuit.

He had stacked the matches atop a red plastic jug earlier that day, and found it easily in the dark. Feet slapping gravel, then grass, he abruptly plunged into the rows of corn without reluctance. Yellow and dry from the heat of summer sun, only a week from harvest, corn stalks towered high above his head. His feet clumsily led him forward, sideways, east and west. He was blind amidst the stalks, the sloshing of the black-spouted jug disturbing his balance further as it hung near his knees.

Unsure of his location and unaware how long he had been traveling, he stopped suddenly. Unperturbed, he splashed nearby crops and sloshed the ground ahead of him until the jug ran dry. Carefully sidestepping the liquid, the strike of the match illuminated soaring walls of crops all around him. With a sudden flick of his wrist, the sliver of burning wood soared through the air. The shock of sudden, audible`flame made his stomach catch in his throat. Within moments, the intensely bright orange fire was licking the stalks of corn crops. Turning with the jug, he ran.

Directionless and scrambling, he did not see the deep irrigation ditch until it was too late. He found himself on his knees in a current of muddy water sweeping his waist, two shallow walls of concrete on either side of him. Frank looked upward toward the smoke rising from the direction he had come.

“No…” he breathed.

Standing against the force of irrigation water, he urgently located the sprinkler system some yards away, far above his head. “No,” he repeated breathlessly. “No, no, no…” Clambering out of the ditch, he located the nearby crank in the dark and scrambled toward it, finding the metal cold and rusted beneath his calloused hands. Suddenly the crops to the north and south were showered with buckets of hissing water. He realized, with sudden purpose, that the line of sprinklers would have to be moved above the flames in the distance.

No memory resurfaced, when he woke suddenly, on precisely how he had managed to drown the fire. He must’ve lost conscious on a tangle of broken corn crop, his jeans wet and swampy around his legs. The sun had risen to the east, and far above him the sprinkler system was still pumping water. Frank laid in the squelching mud that was streaming excess moisture into sizable puddles. Too debilitated to move, he was suddenly aware of a persistent, throaty sound nearby.

A pair of perfectly round, vacant, obsidian eyes watched him from between the crop rows. A deep, guttural, rumbling sound issued from the small bird, and he recognized it immediately. For a moment suspended in time, they watched each other– he and the owl in a stand-off, each refusing to back down. The creature was close, wind ruffling lightly over brown feathers as it observed him, unmoving. Without warning, it suddenly took flight and left him, sweaty in the sun, a headache pounding his forehead unceasingly.

When he entered the farmhouse, Brit was sitting at the table. The dog barked viciously, growling, from its place by her feet. “You came back!” she cried, suddenly grinning. “I had a feeling– I had a feeling they would give you back.”

~~~

Holly Rollers doughnut shop sat on a lonely road on the skirting edge of the small town center. The parking lot still beat the energy from the sun against the two men sitting in front, an empty plate on the floor next to Matt Hansen’s feet.

“You were right,” said Frank, defeated. “It wasn’t lightning. And now you know how I found the fire so fast at two o’clock in the morning. Are you satisfied?”

For a long time, Hansen watched him. He seemed to hesitate, unsure. “I must admit. That wasn’t the story I was expecting to hear.”

“If you go around with expectations, Hansen, life will beat you down… Every time.” Voice quiet, he pulled his hair off a sweaty neck, licking moisture off his upper lip. He leaned back against the chair, watching the younger man flip to a page in his notebook. Locating what he was searching for, he pointed knowingly at the page.

“Well. It’s just not the story your sister told me, that’s all. It doesn’t match up.”

Frank had never discussed that night with his sister. She had never mentioned it again, even when a crop-dusting airplane had reported the scene and alerted the local authorities. There was no end to the questions, and Frank maintained his lightning story in each retelling. This admonition of his sister’s knowledge surprised him, silenced him, made him turn his entire body toward the other man. “What do you mean?” he said, his voice gruff and challenging. “What do you mean?”

“She… Well, she said she went into your room because she heard an odd noise. ‘Frank talks about owls when he’s in his drink,’ she said. She showed me the taxidermic owl above the fireplace, and said you often stood in front of it with a horrible glare on your face. She’s an awfully nice girl, isn’t she? She stopped doing the dishes to serve me lemonade, and she told me everything. ‘That night,’ she said, ‘I saw them take Frank straight by the chest– out the window!’ I asked her if she was afraid… She said she wasn’t. The Owl People, she called them.”

A loud eighteen-wheeler blew past on the empty road, leaving the air rife with rumbling silence behind it. Not a word was spoken between the two of them, each staring out at the ramshackle parking lot. Clearing his throat, he wiped the sweat from his face into the bottom of his t-shirt, revealing a pudgy belly underneath. “You shouldn’t listen to everything my sister says. You’d go deaf if you tried. I guess the most important thing… Is what you want to believe.”

“That’s not the most important thing,” said Hansen.

“Oh?”

He was standing, and Frank could hear what sounded like deep, guttural hoots issuing forth from the man. His blood ran cold as he looked up, the air around them hanging like wet sheets. Hansen’s eyes looked wide, dark, utterly vacant in their sockets. “Every moment you stand at the precipice between what you’ve been in the past, and who you will be, going forward. The most important thing… Is what you do now.”

Frank didn’t need the theatrics. “I know,” he said. “I know.”

© 2013 Pree K. Kastelic

“Friends of Dorothy” by Will Keyser

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

Friends of Dorothy

By Will Keyser

Even though she was dizzy, Dorothy still had enough sense about her to know that something was very wrong. Though she’d failed her prerequisites for the Butterfield branch of the Kansas criminal investigations unit, she still had the savvy to understand that great pools of blood were, more often than not, a sign that trouble was afoot.

“Sweet Wynona,” she whispered, taking care to hold herself steady, steeling her nerves in order to process the scene around her. “Oh, Toto! What in the world’s happened to this place?”

Toto glanced up at her, his tail wagging at the sound of his name. Once, not so very long ago, her ruby-red slippers glowed in brilliant contrast to the sweet, golden yellow of the famous brick road her and her friends had skipped down, arm in arm, singing songs of friendship, of hopes and dreams. Now, her shoes were barely noticeable amongst the malignant swatches of blood that smeared nearly every inch of the road she now stood upon. The air was thick with the scent of iron, and swaying from the tree limbs like limp, aimless vines, what could only be entrails hung and twisted aimlessly with the breeze. Toto, noticeably less phased by the carnage than Dorothy, patted over to one side of the road and began to gnaw on something small, chewy, and decidedly munchkin-like.

“Toto! Don’t eat that! That might be a friend of ours, or at least a part of one! You stop that right now!” Barking his dissatisfaction, he backed away and rested at Dorothy’s feet, unhappy to have had to quit his meal but obedient none the less. “We have to find our friends, Toto! We simply have to!” She paused, noticing the castle far off in the distance, a glittering jewel washed in the radiance of a thousand dreams. It was just as she’d remembered. “And I know just who’ll be able to help us find them! Come on!”

As if she were a bolt of lightning from the sky, Dorothy raced along the once yellow brick road. As she ran, she noticed carnage strung all along the length, transforming the once flat, polished brick into a sort of grim obstacle course. Here, the severed head of a flying monkey. Jump! There, the exposed chest cavity of lollipop guild member. Jump! Hop! Jump again! In no time, Dorothy and Toto both found themselves running out of breath.

“My goodness!” Dorothy exclaimed. “I wonder if this is what the obstacle course for the Butterfield investigations unit would have been like! Maybe it’s a good thing I failed that test where they make you take a number one in a cup and then test it for drugs and whether you’ve been saying your prayers or not. I don’t think I would have been able to do it!” His tongue hanging from his mouth, Toto panted in solemn agreement. Another couple hundred yards behind them, Dorothy slowed her pace, looking around at either side of the road. What had once had been fields of flowers and grass had grown wild and unkempt, looking less like a meadow than a malignant, snarling grip of weeds.

“These look like the cornfields after Uncle Henry’s spent too many weeks in the barn making his special cigarettes,” Dorothy mused. “I wonder what…”

There was a rustling beyond the thresh hold of the meadow, a far off swooshing of overgrown weeds and grass. Dorothy and Toto stopped. His ears pricked, Toto burst off into the brush, yapping as he headed toward the sounds of something moving.

“Toto, no!” But it was too late. A four legged bullet, he was here and gone before Dorothy could so much as take two steps toward him, vanishing out of her sight as easily as a shadow. She listened to the sounds of his barking until they abruptly stopped. Dorothy’s heart sank. “Toto! Oh! Oh, you silly dog, I can’t follow you in their! I’ll get lost for sure! And I have to find out what’s happened here! I have to see the wizard!” As if in response to her declaration, the rustling sound grew louder, fiercer, and decidedly closer. Wasting not another moment, Dorothy took off running once again.

“Oh, Uncle Henry, I so wish you were here,” Dorothy spoke aloud as she ran. “Or Aunty Em, or Hunk, or Zeke, or even that nasty Miss Gulch! I…oh!” Worried more about being alone than paying attention to where her feet were landing, Dorothy tripped over the legs of some creature and found herself flailing. She hit the cold, sticky surface of the road with a thump.

“Bother!” she hissed, swatting the folds of her dress as she righted herself on the ground. She kicked at the creature that had caused her to spill, crossing her arms and glaring. “Oh, just look at my dress! It’s ruined now, and it’s your entire fault! These are blood stains, do you hear? Blood stains!” She stared at the tiny person on the ground, still merrily dressed and otherwise presentable save for the top of his head, which was utterly missing. Dorothy huffed. “Oh, you don’t care about my dress at all, do you? You’re just like those silly old barn owls that keep leaving dead mice on my window sill every morning, no thought for me at all!” Picking herself up, she heard the unmistakable rustling again, the sound of someone or something out of site coming at her. She stumbled several footsteps back, lashing her head back and forth, desperate to find something she could use for protection.

“Nothing around here but slippery insides and popped eyeballs and oh, nothing I can use at all!” The sound grew steadily closer and faster, until Dorothy could see the weeds rustling in front of her, could hear the heavy footfalls coming at her, until all at once the weeds were flung apart and a great creature burst out onto the road.

“Cowardly Lion!” Dorothy exclaimed! “Oh, it’s so good to see you! I thought you were whatever it was that caused all of this!”

The Lion shook its head, fanning its paw out in front of his face. “Oh, Dorothy, I’ve been trying to catch up to you since you got here! Oh, it’s terrible, terrible, terrible!”

“What happened here, Lion? I’ve been all alone and scared ever since Toto took off into the field after you! Did you see him?”

“Maybe,” the Lion replied, looking up into the emerald sea of sky that covered Oz like a blanket. “And by maybe, I mean yes, I saw him. And by saw him, I mean that I ate him. So sorry about that.”

“Oh, no! Not my Toto! You ate my Toto!” Dorothy stepped forward and gave the Lion a sharp swat on the shoulder. “Bad Lion!”

“Look, I’m a Lion and he’s a dog!” said the Lion in defense. He paused, giving Dorothy a long, thoughtful gaze. “And boy, I’m gonna guess that if I didn’t eat him you would have, eventually. You’re not exactly at your fighting weight these days, Miss Dorothy.”

“Oh, that’s a wicked thing to say!” Dorothy said, giving the Lion another swat on the arm. She paused, looking down at herself, rubbing her hands down the length of her hips. “Aunty Em’s let this dress out three times already. They built a doughnut shop less than a mile from the farm, Lion! I guess I have been helping myself lately. I make four dollars a month working on Uncle Henry’s farm, and I spend it all on those gosh darned doughnuts. But they’re the best in all of Kansas!”

“You should have stayed there!” said the Lion. “Things have gone crazy around here since you left.”

“I can see that! I just got off the last tornado and as soon as I did I saw all of this! Oh Lion, is there another witch? There is, isn’t there? We have to find the wizard! And the Tin-Man, and the Scarecrow!”

Lion let out a deep sigh, his face twisting as the weight of bad news settled upon it. “The wizard of Oz is dead too, just like your Toto, minus the “me” eating him part.”

“Not the wizard! Oh no! What sort of witch could do all of this, Lion? Tell me, who?”

“It’s not a witch, Dorothy. It’s your “friends” the Scarecrow and the Tin-Man! They did this! All of this! Oh, bother!”

Dorothy threw her hands up to cover her mouth, disbelief shaking her from the inside-out. “Oh, Lion, oh no. No, they couldn’t have done this. I don’t believe you!”

“Believe it, Dorothy,” the Lion said. “After you left, and the Tin-Man got his heart and the Scarecrow got his brain, they both decided that having one heart and one brain wasn’t enough, so they started taking everyone else’s. Everyone’s! And as it turns out, no one in Oz can do a whole lot when a six foot steel robot with a hatchet decides to start hacking up the residents. And the Scarecrow? A lot stronger than anyone thought. Stronger, and oh! So much meaner!”

“But he’s just made of straw,” Dorothy protested. “How could he be that strong? Couldn’t someone just pull him apart?” She paused, considering. “Unless he’s been lifting weights, getting into shape, maybe doing…”

The Lion shook his head. “Don’t say it, Dorothy.”

“Maybe doing a lot of… Crow-dio vascular fitness?”

“I said don’t, Dorothy.”

“And then supplementing that with…Scare-oids?”

“Dorothy…”

“Probably learned how to build up his muscles from a “STRAWNG-Man” competition?”

“You’re on your own now, Kansas. Have fun getting your brains smashed out.”

“Oh, Lion!” Dorothy said, grabbing him by the arm. “I was just trying to make a joke! It’s so scary here, and I just lost my Toto, I was just trying to make us both laugh.”

“There’s a killer Scarecrow and Tin-Man on the loose,” Lion replied. “I’ve been hiding in these fields for weeks now. I don’t feel so courageous any more, and I certainly don’t feel like laughing. All I want is to get as far away from this place as possible!”

“Why, I can do that!” Dorothy took the Lion by the hand, pulling him close to her. “Just like before! Why, all I have to do is click my heals together three times, and we’ll be back in Kansas!”

“Oh, Dorothy! You’ll take me with you?! Oh, that would be wonderful!”

“Of course I’ll take you with me,” Dorothy replied. “You’re my friend, and I can’t leave you here to all this. This is no place for a formerly cowardly, presently talking Lion!”

“Are there a lot of talking lions in Kansas?” asked Lion.

“You’ll be the very first in the whole wide world!”

“Oh, goody! Goody, Goody Goody!”

“Now, just wrap your arms around me, Lion,” said Dorothy. “And hold on tight. Close your eyes, too, if you feel like you have to.” The Lion wrapped his arms tightly around Dorothy, closing his eyes with a smile.” “You’re the very best friend I’ve ever had, Dorothy.”

“Oh, Lion, aside from Aunty Em, Uncle Henry, Hickory, Zeke and his longtime companion Don-Fredo, and Toto before you ate him, you’re the very best friend I’ve ever had, too. Now, quiet. I have to concentrate on this part.”

Dorothy stood still, the Lion hugging her tight. She too closed her eyes and then said, quietly, “there’s no place like home…there’s no place like home…there’s no place like home…” And the grim, bloodied world of Oz vanished away from them.

“You sure about this, young lady? Aint a whole lot of talking lions running around the word, at least not that I’ve ever seen. You might get a better deal taking him someplace bigger and better, say, New York or Chicago.”

Dorothy glanced at the man standing next to her, the scent of hay mixed with dust swirling around her. Somewhere, not so far off, she heard the unmistakable cry of an elephant’s trumpet, the air shaking with the power of it. “I’m as sure as sugar,” she replied. “Have you trained very many lions before?”

“Oh yeah, yeah,” the trainer replied. “Been all over Africa and Asia, parts of Europe too, and I’ve trained as many lions as people have come to see them perform. Never one that could talk and carry on like your lion though, that there’s a first. I feel like a regular heal, only giving you two hundred dollars for him. ‘Course, you can come in for free whenever we’re in town, see the show. Complimentary peanuts, too.”

“Oh, that would be grand!” Dorothy replied. “I’ll just say my goodbye’s and then I’ll be out of your hair!” Dorothy walked away from the trainer and toward one of the large, striped tents that covered the ground. She entered, making her way toward a cage at the far end, where a familiar face sat waiting for her.

“Dorothy!” the Lion cried. “How could you?! Oh, just how very well could you?”

Wrapping her hands around the bars, Dorothy offered him her sweetest, most innocent of smiles. “Oh, Lion. Don’t be a grump! After all, it’s your fault that you’re here, not mine.”

“Mine? How in the world could the fault be mine? I warned you about the Tin-Man! And the Scarecrow! I verily saved your life!”

“You also didn’t laugh at my jokes,” Dorothy said. “And before that, you called me fat. This, of course, was right after you ate my dog. My dog, Lion. You ate my fucking dog.”

“Dorothy!” the Lion said, his eyes wide and moon-like. “You’re language! You’re no better than the Tin-Man and the Scarecrow!”

She shrugged. “Oh, don’t worry about me, Lion. You just worry about you and all the traveling you’ll get to do now that you’re part of the show. Like I said, you’re the only talking lion in the whole wide world! You’ll get to work for the very rest of your life! Your whole life, Lion, your whole life!”

“Dorothy!”

“You’re not in Oz anymore, Lion.” She smiled, clicking her heals three times while turning away from him. “Welcome to Kansas.”

© 2013 Will Keyser

“Smart Pups Support” by Erica Korer

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

Smart Pups Support

By Erica Korer

Whenever a call pops into my queue, the first thing I say is “Good morning. Thank you for calling Smart Pups. My name is Matthew.” That isn’t my real name, though, and where I am it isn’t morning; but none of that is important. “How may I help you?” I say.

My first customer today is Suzanne Thomas from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. I know this place. I look at my American map beside my monitor and place my finger there. Steelers, I think. Super Bowl champions 2009. Suzanne Thomas has a complaint. Her Smart Pup is having problems with his navigation capabilities, she says. “I was in New York last weekend and told my dog to lead me to Madame Tussaud’s, but we ended up in the Lincoln Tunnel! I thought that couldn’t be right, but I trusted my Smart Pup. I was nearly flattened by a commuter bus before I figured we’d better turn around.”

I ask her to read me the numbers on her Smart Pup’s e-collar, and she does. “Hold down the reset button,” I say. I tell her to repeat loudly after me: “Madame Tussaud’s New York,” I say. “234 West 42nd Street.” When she’s finished repeating, I tell her to release the button and to give her Smart Pup an organic chicken flavored Smart Treat. “Tell him ‘good boy’”, I say. I ask her if there’s anything else I can help her with, and she says no. “Well then,” I say, “have a good day.” Remembering my Entertainment Culture training, I add, “and please do enjoy the News Room’s wax figures of award winning journalists Anderson Cooper and Barbara Walters.”

“Well I’m actually home now…,” she begins, but I’ve already ended the call. I realize my mistake and sit for a minute with my face in my hands. These calls are recorded for quality purposes, and if Mr. Khan listens later I’m going to get a note in my Employee File if not a stern talking-to about Professionalism and Conscientiousness as well as a reminder of all the people outside who would kill to have my position; and this isn’t an exaggeration. Last September a young, quiet agent who used the name Jason was found tied up and floating face down in the river, and before the body was even identified a cousin had showed up to take his place.

For the rest of the night I guzzle tea and answer calls, determined to deliver customer service beyond reproach. I resolve all of my customers’ issues without having to escalate them to a Smart Pups Customer Support Supervisor. I make all the right jokes and laugh at the right moments. I even manage to sell five Upgrade Packages (for just 4 extra dollars per month), which is well above the average of two Upgrade Packages per day. At 6 a.m. my shift officially ends, and I can finally clock out. I shut down my station and start to leave, but before I reach the door I’m intercepted by the mustached head of Mr. Khan, sticking out of his office, calling my name. “Come in here for a moment,” he says.

I take a deep breath and do as he says. I’m going to act cheerful and innocent. I’m going to pretend not to know what he wants to talk about. “Hello, Mr. K!” I say. “How’s it going? How is the family?” There’s a picture on his desk of his sons, two fat boys in their school uniforms. “Ah,” I say. “Are their studies going well?”

“Huh?” Mr. Khan says, distractedly putting papers in his briefcase. “Oh. Yes, yes.” To my surprise, he pulls a crystal goblet out from his desk along with two brandy snifters. “Please,” he says, “have a drink with me.” My confusion is obvious, and before I have the chance to respond, he says “Fine, fine. You don’t drink. That’s okay. Here.” He pushes a flimsy box across his desk. “At least have a doughnut.”

“Oh,” I say. “Okay, thank you.” The doughnut, though, is hardly a special treat. The boxes have long been a fixture in the employee break room. It’s part of our Culture Training, they told us. Americans eat doughnuts, so we should also eat doughnuts, and then we can develop a rapport with our customers over doughnuts. I don’t particularly care for these doughnuts. However, I dutifully select one with black and white icing and sink my teeth in. “Mmm,” I say, suppressing a shudder.

“So I wanted to bring you in here,” Mr Khan begins, and the bite of doughnut sits like a lump on my tongue, “to make sure you know you’re invited to come out with us guys after work.” I manage to swallow. It’s not what I expected him to say. “You’re so quiet. Man!” he says, “You should get out more and socialize. That is, of course, unless you don’t like us. We aren’t going to force you to spend time with us and be a team player if you don’t like us.”

I assure him that I like him, them, very much. Today, though, I tell him, I have dinner plans with my girlfriend, Meena, and her parents, so I really must go rest up beforehand. Tomorrow, I promise, I’ll go out and be social. I tell him I can’t wait and thank him. And then I make a beeline for the door.

My workday normally ends just before the sun has a chance to rise, and the walk to the edge of the Smart Pups campus is usually quiet, save for the singing of birds and the last hoots of a few owls. The guard opens the gate for me, and I’m spit out into the city. Outside the gate there are five regular beggars in various states of dismemberment. One man is missing a leg. Another’s missing both legs. A woman has somehow lost half of her face. They immediately swoop in with their hands out. They tell me they’re starving, that their children are starving, that anything will help. As usual I keep walking, feeling humiliated, feeling unreasonably angry. “What do you think I owe you?” I think but don’t say.

The gated community where I live, where a lot of the Smart Pups employees live, isn’t far away. I scan my key card at the gate and then at the door of my building and take the elevator up to my apartment on the 16th floor. I shut the blinds to block the rays that have just begun peeking through. In a few hours, the city will be roasting, but fortunately I have an air conditioner. I flip it on and collapse onto my bed without taking off my clothes.

I wake some time later to my shirt being unbuttoned. Despite the closed blinds, it’s bright in the room. I squint and see Meena naked next to me. “What time is it?” I ask. I hazily remember we have plans with her parents at some point, but I’m disoriented.

Meena kisses my chest. “It’s noon,” she says. “This is my lunch break. We have an hour.” I’m quite groggy, but I rise to the occasion, and afterward we lie breathless underneath the AC unit. “Our new lab assistant started today,” she says. “I don’t think he’s going to last a week.”

“Shhh,” I say into her hair and pull her in close. Since I started at Smart Pups on an American schedule, it hasn’t been easy for Meena and me. We’ve made many sacrifices, but on the plus side, we realized, we can make love in the middle of the day and sleep together in my bed, something that otherwise wouldn’t be possible, with her living in her parents’ house. I’m already drifting back to sleep, but I can tell Meena’s restless. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m just not very tired.” I tell her it’s okay, that I should get up and try do get some things done before dinner. She dresses, and we kiss goodbye. I then begin my weekly process of transferring funds- some for my parents, some for my younger siblings’ educations. Some for my older siblings and their children’s educations. Some for the nurse who looks after my grandmother.  Some for my sisters’ weddings.

By the time I arrive at Meena’s parents’ house for dinner, which is really my breakfast, I’m tired again and a bit cranky. “Hello Mrs. P. Hello Dr  P, I say, and then we sit down to eat an admittedly delicious meal. Though we used to see each other often, that hasn’t been the case lately.  They want to know if I’m still at “that place.” They want to know if I’ve had any promotions. When I say no, they look at each other and ask if I think I might have a promotion soon. I quickly lose my appetite and push food around my plate. Meena fills the silence. She talks about the latest political news, she talks about fashions, she talks about the incompetent lab assistant she started speaking of earlier. “I swear. I really don’t think he’ll last a week.”

Back at work, I throw back several cups of tea and for an extra sugar buzz even eat a doughnut. “Good morning. Thank you for calling Smart Pups. My name is Matthew. How may I help you?”

“Yes, hello, Matthew” an older man says on the other end of the line. “This is Arnold Franks.” I recognize the caller. We’ve talked before. I pull up his record in my system. The last couple weeks, it appears that his Smart Pup has been standing in his house, barking at absolutely nothing. I ask if it’s the same issue, and he says yes. I tell him we’re going to try something new.

“Press the control button on her e-collar” I say, “and when the tracking beams appear in her eyes, let me know.” When he does, I ask where the beams land. They’re landing on the bookshelf this time, he tells me, but her gaze is weird, he says. She doesn’t really seem to be looking at the bookshelf.

“Okay,” I say. “I want you to press the blue and green buttons on her e-collar simultaneously and then go and lightly touch the part of the bookshelf where she’s looking.” He tells me Okay, that he’ll be right back. It seems he’s calling from a landline rather than a cell phone. I wait. When he’s back on the phone I tell him to press the green and yellow buttons now and then go back to the bookshelf and call her. In the background I can hear him calling his Smart Pup. He calls her “Lucy.” “Here Lucy,” he says. In a moment he’s back on the line. “Did she come when you called her?” I ask. She did. “Feed her an organic chicken flavored Smart Treat,” I say. “Tell her good girl.” I ask him to please call back if he has any other questions or concerns. I give him his case number. I tell him to have a good day.”

The rest of the night drags. I have to escalate two cases to a Smart Pups Customer Support Supervisor, I sell zero Upgrade Packages, and I have a lady tell me she can’t understand my accent and insist on being transferred to someone else. This is something that hasn’t happened in months. I had been relieved and had begun to assume it wouldn’t happen again, so I’m disheartened now.  When 6 a.m. rolls around, I just want to go home and crash, but in a flash Mr. Khan appears beside my desk and asks if I’m ready to go. I say yes and force a smile, and we walk together out of the building.

Outside an auto rickshaw is waiting. Two other Smart Pups Agents, Raj and Haroon, are in the vehicle. We all say hello and I shyly take a seat across from them. “Curry Club,” Mr. Khan tells the driver. I’ve never heard of this place, but nobody else asks any questions so I don’t either. We drive to the campus gate, and when it opens we speed past the beggars and rip through the city streets. The wind makes it too noisy to talk, which I don’t mind at all. Mr. Khan passes a flask around. What the hell, I think, and I take a sip.

We pull up to Curry Club as the sun starts coming up. From the outside it looks like a foreigner bar, and I quickly realize I’m right. However, since it’s now morning there are only a few straggling ,wrecked -looking foreigners, and the place is mostly empty. Mr. Khan says he assumes I’ve never been here. I nod, and he tells me not to worry. It may be quiet now, but in a while it will be Smart Pups Central, he says. That’s why they stay open all the time. They make their money off the night owls, and then they make money off the day owls. He laughs at his own non-joke.

Three very young foreign girls are sitting at the bar. Haroon orders a round of six drinks, three whiskeys and three cocktails with fruit and umbrellas, and motions for Raj and me to follow as he carries the drinks to the girls. I dumbly trail behind, and when the girls see us they look at each other and laugh. Haroon sets the drink tray down. “Hello Ladies,” he says, and again they laugh. The blonde asks if the drinks are for them, and when it’s confirmed, she says thank you and lifts one of the cocktails to her mouth. “Wait! Don’t drink that!” one of the other girls, a short brunette, says, and her friend nearly drops the glass on the floor.

You’re not supposed to accept drinks from strange men, the girl instructs all of us. It could be roofied. If a guy wants to buy you a drink, she says, the bartender should make it and then hand it right to you. Her friend pouts and picks the fruit garnish out of her glass. “Don’t eat that!” the same friend yells, and this time everyone laughs.

The tall brunette tells us, fine, they’ll come have drinks with us if they drink the whiskey and we drink the fruity drinks. “Yeah, okay,” Raj and Haroon say, and we join Mr. Khan at a large table.

Mr. Khan says he has a surprise for us and winks. He walks across the room, grabs a microphone from its stand, and music begins to play. Club Curry, after all, is a karaoke bar. The song is an old one by The Carpenters. I vaguely recognize it. “What the world needs now,” Mr. Khan sings, “is love, sweet love.” It’s bad, and he’s making things awkward by gesturing at our table.

“Where are you from?” Raj asks the girls. They look at each other and smirk. They appear to be having a very hard time drinking their whiskey. “Chicago,” they say. Chicago Bulls, I think. Lake Michigan. Windy City.

 

Lord we don’t need another mountain. There are mountains and hillsides enough to climb.

The Chicago girls have set their drinks down and are exchanging glances. They’re trying to communicate, I would guess, that they should make an excuse to leave. Haroon elbows me. “Say something,” he whispers loudly.

Lord we don’t need another meadow. There are cornfields and wheat fields enough to grow.

It’s 8 o’clock in the morning, and I’m in a karaoke bar, nursing a tropical drink. I just want to go home. I look at Haroon and Raj and shrug, lost for words, and then I think of something: “Do you eat a lot of doughnuts?”

For a moment, everyone looks at me in shock. Haroon guffaws while Raj covers his face with his hands, and the girls collectively get up and storm out, but not before the blonde picks up her whiskey and dumps it in my lap.

There are sunbeams and moonbeams enough to shine. Oh listen lord, if you want to know. What the world needs now is love sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of. What the world needs now. Is love, sweet love. No not just for some, oh but just for every every everyone.

© 2013 Erica Korer