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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

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“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

“Don’t Mistake Tenderness for Weakness” by Kate Gray

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

***

Don’t Mistake Tenderness for Weakness

By Kate Gray

If you really want to tell your story, you shouldn’t teach, honest to God, and besides, students don’t want to hear a middle-aged professor drone on and on about his sad sack of a life. You may think that by telling them, you’ll spare them something awful because you’re that kind of guy, but when it comes right down to it, keep it to yourself.

That’s what you should’ve done, but you didn’t.

At Clark Kent Community College, no kidding, a college named after a man whose parents were obsessed with Superman, when midterms happened every quarter, you got sick of everyone’s grandmothers supposedly dying and them skipping class for the funeral or elk season and their uncles taking them to eastern Oregon to bag this year’s meat, their saying, will I miss anything important? and you knew you couldn’t keep them from the thing that fed their families, and you thought, what are you, an animal trainer or something? Do you need to stand up there with a whip and a chair and make them write about an event that changed their life, like marriage or a hunting accident or yet another childbirth? No. You were not that kind of teacher.

You should have known from the start of class that the day was going to tank. You’re the type of teacher that puts students in small groups, kneels beside them when reviewing their thesis statements, actually gives a shit. At least according to what students write on Rate Your Professor sometimes. Other times they write about late papers and preferential grading. Never a chili pepper. Your students think you’re too geeky since your glasses are round like John Lennon’s and your hair’s parted in the middle. Blue button-down cotton shirts tucked into jeans and a belt don’t yell sexy, you guess. Who rates a professor according to hotness anyway?

So, when you were passing out blank sticky notes for students to write their thesis statements on, one note slapped on to each rough draft, 4 rough drafts to a table, and the third sticky had DickButt printed in pencil on it, and everyone at the table read it before you crumpled it in your sun-spotted hand, the day could do nothing but go to hell.

DickButt could have been meant for you, could have been some Holden Caulfield moment, but you’d taken the yellow sticky notes from the supply cabinet in the department workroom, and you had meant to take it home with you along with some pens and a whole ream of copy paper, and since you do so much work at home, you’re not really stealing school supplies from the college. But since you left them in your bookbag and today you spontaneously decided to collect the thesis statements from the lame paragraphs your students were writing and post them on the whiteboard, you pulled them out. Someone in some other class must have written DickButt four stickies in and returned the pad back to the instructor, and that instructor had returned the notes to the cabinet. Lucky you.

The three girls at the table, all twenty-somethings with their blond hair in ponytails, jerked their heads back from the table and, you swear, took in their breath collectively, like three elephants sucking in water from a trough. The fourth person at the table was more thirty-something and had tattoos down both arms, the swirly kind with reds and teal, and he was doodling on his paper that had one sentence and no paragraph. His pencil carved into the paper a big rose, since you’re outside the Rose City. Your eyes went from DickButt to that rose in no time. The rose had raindrops between the petals, little ones, and with the collective gasp of the three ponytail-girls and your hand crumpling the note, you leaned toward the drawing, and that’s, sure enough, when you saw the scream in each drop, Edvard Munch’s scream-face in each little drop.

“Just write your thesis statement on the sticky,” you said, not anything else. And whoever named those notes sticky must not have been a man. A man would have named them something understated and staccato, the sound of the word so damn young and effeminate, and a man with tattoos who drew roses with screaming drops doesn’t question the words he uses and probably, you think, says sticky without questioning himself.

You put a clean sticky on James’s paper and knelt beside him.

“Good save,” James said. He gave you a wink like the two of you knew each other from the gym or something.

“Nice drawing,” you said and pointed at the rose, “How about a thesis statement?”

He shrugged.

“Come to my office hour after class,” you said and got up despite your knees. Then you worried about what else might be written in the stickies when you stuck them on the rest of the papers.

But James did come to your office hour. When he entered your office, you thought a whole bookshelf had walked in. His leather smell mixed with tobacco told something truer than Moby Dick, the book you couldn’t bring yourself to read again, but your mother had bound for you when you finished your PhD. You didn’t do your PhD on Moby Dick, but it was her favorite book, which meant something. You’re that kind of son.

James had written a total of ten sentences since the beginning of WR 95, a developmental writing course that was supposed to help students connect sentences into paragraphs. For each of the five assignments, he turned in two sentences. The two-sentence paragraphs generally had to do with baking. Waking up for class after the graveyard shift at what used to be Kettleman’s, then Einsteins, now Spielman’s Coffee Roasters with some of the only boiled bagels in Portland, he stretched out in the undersized chairs, plastic and cheap, the kind of furniture that the college bought in the 90s, orange chairs and tables, furniture you hoped would reveal another identity and supersize themselves, but they didn’t. James stretched his legs out and rested his massive arms on the table, his forearms all muscle and tattoo, showing the way he rolled and shaped dough and turned doughnuts into perfect boiled bagels, crisp on the outside and malty and chewy on the inside. Chewy is another one of those words.

“Getting enough sleep?” you said.

“Plenty,” he said.

Why you expected more than one word from him was a lot like chasing a whale in a sailing ship.

“Sorry about the sticky note.”

“It sucks, doesn’t it?” he said. He hadn’t shaved in a few days, and the smile he gave you made the dark part of his cheeks move, a little like wheat when the wind is blowing.

“Oh God, not at all.”

“My writing sucks. I know.”

“No, really,” you said.

“No, really,” he said.

It did suck, but that wasn’t the point. You asked him about baking, and what he wanted to do with college. And he told you about his grandfather baking bread in Nebraska and getting to work someplace besides in the cornfields, and later, his grandfather raising him in Eagle Creek where he milled his own timber, and the two of them were all they had. And he told you about his girlfriend, how she wants to write, but he’s the one taking a writing class. She reads everything, especially dark novels by crazy writers, like Plath and Joyce Carol Something. And he asked you why you write since he knew you wrote poetry because his girlfriend wants to write something she calls savage, something so harsh and violent that people will know what they’ll get out of life.

“She’s been through a lot,” he said. “Tried to kill herself once with a shotgun blast through the gut. But she woke up. Spent months in rehab. Can’t digest right.”

“Ouch,” you said. And nothing you could say would be the right thing to say.

“Maybe she could talk with you.”

And nothing you could say would make her life right. You said, “Sure.”

“I got this for her,” he said, and he stood up so quickly in your little office, you had to lean back in your chair. James turned around and lifted up the back of his tee shirt exposing his skin. One big tattoo covered his back with writing like what you saw on bald men with beards who rode Harleys. It said, Don’t Mistake Tenderness For Weakness. The lettering on his skin was thick and script and intricate. “She’s been with a lot of bad guys, you know. Beat the crap out of her. She takes meds because her chemistry’s screwed up, but for now, she’s off them, trying to make her head right. She wants me strong, not wrong.”

With that slogan you couldn’t help but think of all the students who came to your office and rattled off the Big Book: it works if you work it, keep coming back, one day at a time. At Clark Kent Community College students showed up for class with cellophane between who they were in front of you and everything they were outside of class, the things inside them that threatened to burst through. You could see the strain and bubbles of the transparent film barely holding them together, and for James, he was trying to hold together two people. You knew that he had two people’s pain carved into his skin. And even more painful was knowing he was an artist, someone who could take on what other people felt, not just take that on, but feel it himself so deeply he could mix it inside himself and make it beautiful. He was someone who turned loneliness and terror into raindrops between rose petals. When he put his shirt back down, you thought, easy does it.

Maybe your eyes were cellophane. They filled and stretched to spilling. Something about a man trying to make up for the wrongs done to a woman stuck a plug in your throat. Your breathing got fast and shallow.

“iProf, you OK?” All the students called you that since your last name was Apple. James looked at you like he was trying to decide whether to call 9-1-1.

“Fine,” you said. “It’s that sticky note and how badly I feel about it.” And when you got flustered, you started talking, and pretty soon you told James about each of your wives, how both of them had been students, the way they looked at you like you were the first novel they had ever read, how proud they were of the story they finished, how you waited till they graduated, and for a few years, you shared words and sinks and rides to the grocery store. You were that kind of husband. But when it was over and you lost the houses and gardens, they said they never felt equal even though you put their names on everything, paid for their BAs, hyphenated your last names. They said you used your power over them. They left you for men their own age, both of them, and they didn’t keep in touch. You heard from colleagues about their marriages and children and advanced degrees, how happy they were that they weren’t with you. And you drank and drank until the pain was in the resistance to pain. And it wasn’t until you told James about your cat, his way of sitting at the window like a great horned owl, which is why you named him Archimedes after Merlin’s talking owl in The Sword in the Stone, the very first novel you finished as a kid, and he’s the only thing that talks to you in your condo, that you realized you’d been talking.

“Damn, iProf, sorry,” he said, and what you should tattoo on your back came clear to you with James filling up the office: Don’t Mistake Talking for Teaching in thick cursive, lots of ink. Teachers at a community college aren’t supposed to show students the cellophane holding their insides in.

For the second time you apologized to him, and you figured you ought to do something nice.

“How about the three of us have coffee?”

“Really?” James said. “You would?” He stroked the beard growing on his cheek.

“Sure.”

“How about Trails Inn at 3 tomorrow? My girl waits tables and gets off her shift then, and we could meet you.”

“In Estacada?” On Thursdays your last class ended at 2:00, and the drive was only 45 minutes to the small timber town.

“We live on my Opa’s land a few miles out, for now. We’ll meet you then.”

On the drive the next day to the Trails Inn Café and Timber Room in Estacada, the curves came too fast in your old Honda Civic. The cedars along the river crowded out the light, and even though you knew Ray Carver didn’t grow up there, you could see him scaling trees, using words like ballhooter and choker hooks. Teaching students who lost their jobs when the timber industry tanked meant reading paragraphs filled with longing for work, for ways that men used to use their arms, for things they did together that made a difference to their wives. James and his opa from Nebraska used to take down these trees. Driving to Estacada, honest to God, was like driving into another century, one with homesteaders and feuding cousins and old women in rocking chairs on the front porch with shotguns in their laps. Everyone in Estacada knew guns and lumber grades and pickup trucks.

The Trails Inn Café and Timber Room wasn’t hard to find, and before walking in, your nose plugged with smoke, and your gait slowed so you could catch your breath. Maybe restaurants in Estacada didn’t have to be non-smoking like those in the rest of Oregon. You didn’t mind so much since every AA meeting started with smoke from everybody nervous and lighting up outside before they walked in.

James stood up from a small table in the back to shake your hand.

“iProf, thanks for coming. This’ll mean a lot to her.”

“My pleasure,” you said. “Where’s your girlfriend?”

“Marian just texted. She had to pick something up. She’ll be here in a minute.”

The waitress in jeans and a cutoff top that showed her white belly came to ask what drinks we wanted, and not bothering to ask if they made lattes, you figured spending $4 on some Starbucks wouldn’t happen here, so you ordered coffee black, and so did James.

“Have you been drawing a long time?” you said after the mug of coffee arrived and coffee splashed on the table, and the waitress didn’t wipe it up. James said you should try the maple bars because everyone knew the ones made here were the best in the world, and he wouldn’t let you refuse.

And then he said, “I’ve been doodling as long as I can remember.”

“You’re really good,” you said and tried to look him in the eye so he’d know you weren’t saying something you’d apologize for later. “You should take art classes.”

“What for?” he said. “Can’t make a living by doodling.” He looked at the mug between his hands.

Neither of you saw Marian until she was standing by the table. She was skinny, swear to God, like a tree limb is skinny when it’s dead on the tree, all twisted and gnarled, and even from a few feet away, the cut marks on the inside of her arms made stripes. Women in my classes who wrote about cutting said they cut themselves where nobody could see the marks, and you knew what James told you was understated and true. Marian had it rough. Even James might not know how very rough Marian had it.

“Hey,” James said to Marian, “you made it.”

“Fuck,” Marian said, and she didn’t sit down. Her legs in tight jeans looked like they could snap at any minute, and she shifted between one white running shoe and the other.

“What’s the matter?” James said. He stood up and reached toward her shoulder.

She jumped away from his touch. “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” she said, and both her hands shot up to her forehead, and she spun around, and that made her elbows go out, and she looked like a beater blade of a blender turning round and round. “I can’t believe he’s here.”

Beyond the truth that you were no chili pepper, you didn’t know how to take this. When you stood up, the chair pressed against your calves. In the back of the café, you had no room to back up.

Before you, in the flesh, was the scream that the raindrops contained. Here was the rose that only James could turn into more blossom than thorn. His reason for drawing, for going back to school, for two-sentence paragraphs was twitching in front of you.

“Glad to meet you,” you said, and you weren’t, but that wasn’t the point. James wanted something from you, and his tenderness was worth a drive to Estacada, a talk with a twitchy girl. Marian looked at the hand you extended until you put it down.

“How about we sit,” James said. And the three of you sat, but Marian looked at the coffee mugs, the window, the other tables, the walls. Her legs jumped like jackhammers. The waitress returned with two maple bars, said hello to Marian who didn’t look at her when she said hello back.

The smell of the maple bar was so sweet that, honestly, it was almost crunchy. When you picked up the maple bar, it was moist between your fingers. You had it almost to your mouth when Marian yelled, “Don’t eat that!” and her hand slapped the maple bar across the room.

“Marian!” James said.

The Trails Inn Café went silent, and the other customers stared at the maple bar on the wood floor and then at Marian and then at you.

“Fuck it,” she said, and she stuck her hand in the pocket of her raincoat and leaned across the table. “I want you to listen to me, Dickbutt, listen close. We’re going to walk out of here and get into James’s truck, and you’re not going to make a sound.” From the hand in the pocket, from the bulge of it, she gestured the direction you were to take.

“What the fuck?” James said.

“Shut up, James.”

You swear to God you thought you were in a movie. Cameras and lights must have been behind the walls or outside the door, but you didn’t see them. And since you were that kind of customer, the kind that doesn’t stiff a waitress, you reached for your wallet. Marian spun toward you with her hand pointing the thing in her pocket, but then she saw you, and she said, “OK.” So, you left your only cash, a 20, and the three of you walked out of the Trails Inn Café in a line, you first, then James, then Marian. James took the lead to the truck, and Marian said, “Get in James. iProf in the middle, don’t try anything.” And you did what she wanted you to do. “Drive the old reservoir road, James.” He started the truck, backed out of the lot, and pulled on to the road.

“What the fuck are you doing, Marian?” He pulled himself toward the windshield and tried to look two places at once. Sitting in the middle over the engine, you blocked most of what he could see of her. She leaned against the door a little to keep an eye on both of you.

“You’ll see,” she said. And she drew her hand out of her raincoat, and in it was a .38 Special, something you had seen only in movies, but up close, honestly, it was something beautiful and animal and so awful it clogged up your throat. There it was, the black barrel and the wood handle and the curve that fit her hand. You didn’t know enough about guns to see a safety, whether it was on or not, or anything except how the revolver seemed muscular like a shark, and more deadly. Your breath got short.

“Calm down, iProf,” James said.

“Can’t,” you said, “breathe.”

James pulled over. On the old reservoir road the pavement was all ruts and cracks, and, you know, ever since the highway bypass went in, nobody went there anymore.

“Not here,” Marian said.

“We have to,” James said. “iProf can’t breathe.” He opened the door and slid off the bench seat. Before he took another step, Marian opened her door and faced you with the gun.

“Get out, DickButt.” You realized she meant you, and you slid toward her to get out the door. Your hands were in the air in case she thought you might do something. There was nothing you could think of doing, your mind running through the last day, through colleagues who might live out this far in the woods, through stories with bad endings. As soon as your feet hit the ground, you doubled over like somebody who finished a run and tried to catch their breath except your knees were too bad to run.

“Hands up,” she said and pushed the gun closer to your chest. “That’ll help you breathe.” And when you raised your hands, your lungs cleared, and you really could, believe it or not, breathe better.

“What’s going on, Marian?” James said. He was on your left, the two of you facing her.

“Fuck, James, fuck,” she said. “How could he do that to you?”

“Do what?”

“How could he call your writing something so bad?”

“What’re you talking about?” James said. She pointed the gun at him. His hands shot in the air, and he backed away. “Easy,” he said.

“He wrote it on the post-it note and stuck it to your writing. Your writing. Your writing. Something you created. How could he?” Any time she said the word he, she jabbed the revolver at you.

“That’s not what he meant.”

“Isn’t it?”

“No,” you said, “mistake.” Each word took one whole breath.

“Shut up,” she said and aimed the gun higher, at your face. Her hands were shaking, and she leaned on one foot, then the other.

“Tell me this, Mr. Professor Apple. Do you believe that all writers must suffer something savage in order to write something lasting?”

“Not necessarily,” you said.

“Wrong answer,” she said. And the gun popped, and a bullet hit a tree 50 feet away with a thud. “Think before you answer.” The gun had recoiled, but she handled it. With nothing to her arms but bone, nothing to her face but flesh, she knew guns the way someone without a watch knows what time it is: by living out of doors, by doing whatever you have to do to live, by defending your life with your life. All you could see was the black barrel, the shine of it, the curve. Honest to God, the eye of the gun was looking into your eyes, and what it saw was nothing. You were that kind of scared.

“Marian, listen to me,” James said, “iProf didn’t mean it. A kid wrote that note and stuck it back, and iProf didn’t know it was there.”

“How do you know?”

“He told me.”

“And you believed him,” she said. “How many times do I have to tell you? Don’t you listen to me? You can’t believe what people say, James.” And she spread her feet, took the gun in both hands. “Next question.”

“Cut it out, Marian,” James said. “Stop.” He stepped toward her.

“Back off,” she said. And she aimed the gun at his chest. The revolver was in both her hands, which were steady for the first time since you met her.

And James kept coming.

And she fired the gun, and the pop sounded fake, but James spun, and he fell, and blood poured out of his chest.

“Oh my god,” she said, “Oh my god. James.” And she ran to him, and stood over him, and both of his hands were on his chest, and the blood was pumping between his fingers, and when she kneeled down beside him, she put her hand on his chest and said, “James? James?” And he tried to pick his head up, and she leaned a little toward him, and she said so softly, “Don’t.”

And she said so softly, “I’m sorry.”

And when she lifted the gun to her mouth, stuck it in, and pulled the trigger, I said, “Wait,” but it happened so fast.

You’ve read about moments after moments like these, that there’s some weird quiet, some way that the cedar branches sway, and peace fills the gap left by violence. But that’s not this story. In this story there was no silence. James yelled, and his chest made sucking sounds, and 9-1-1 kept you talking, and you rolled your shirt into a ball and pressed it into the hole in James’s chest, and sirens filled up the reservoir, and men in uniforms made you move out of the way. The gurney clicked when they raised it, and the doors to the ambulance slammed, and the sirens echoed through the hills when they took James away.

You’ve wanted to tell this story, but if you did, you’d start missing the students who couldn’t connect sentences into paragraphs, the ones who couldn’t figure out how to hide parts of themselves, wrap them up in cellophane and keep those parts out of class. No kidding, you’re the kind of sad sack that could keep some things secret if you had to. Lucky for you you don’t have to.

© 2013 Kate Gray

“Bucket Boys” by Team Wonderbra

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

***

Bucket Boys

By Team Wonderbra

This was the third one.

Peter traced his fingertips over the symbol notched into the wooden sign post to verify it was real. The mark was simple – two “U”s side by side, encompassed in two circles; a Bucket Boy mark. Seeing it now shook Peter to his core. He felt Fitz’s presence inside the lines, half expecting to feel a pulse in the etching.

He couldn’t ignore a third one. It was the third one in six months.

The first time he saw it, Peter mistook it for a fluke. It could have been one of the many that Peter and Fitz carved together on the road. But Peter knew that Fitz had never been on this rail with him.

It was common for the hobos and tramps in the area to create monikers for themselves using the simple symbols developed by the migrant workers over the years to represent their hobo names. Most travelers couldn’t read, but they could leave signatures.

In the years following the Great Depression, hobo culture sprang to the forefront out of necessity. Both boys had been born into this society of the downtrodden, Peter’s mother dying when he was six. After that, Peter traveled with his father, a tie loader for the railroad company. Peter did odd jobs for his father’s crew and for the farmers that lived outside each town. He traveled with men much larger and hungrier than him, following the railroads in droves, searching for scarce employment and even more scarce food.

Peter only remembered a different life as a distant memory when his mother was still alive. Warm beds and hot soup seemed like a fading dream. He’d learned enough of the road rules from his father. He’d learned the codes and signs, but nothing he’d experienced fully prepared him to navigate the dangers of living tramp life. In addition to the gnawing hunger that seemed a constant companion, brutal railroad security Bulls were a constant threat.

He got lost in the tracing, closing his eyes tight. Peter remembered the first time he saw Fitz; the small boy had been in charge of water running to the fields for farmers. Peter paused his fruit picking and watched the tired boy struggle up the hill, his full buckets sloshing over his shoulders. The boy teetered and lost his balance, dropping both buckets and collapsing in defeat. The water welled up at his feet, mixing with his tears as it seeped into the ground.

“No sense in dehydrating yourself over spilled water. Get up, kid. I’ll show you a better way to carry these. Can’t let the rest of us die of thirst.”

The young boy raised his head, tears still spilling.

Peter softened, “Come on, Kid Simple. Ain’t got all day!”

Fitz met Peter with a grateful smile and followed him back to the well. He was Peter’s shadow from that day forward, and they became each other’s family.

They called themselves the Bucket Boys after their first year working as fruit tramps and begging at back doors. They’d pretend to be pirates and marauders to pass the time between their odd jobs. One morning, while riding the rail to the next town, Fitz pulled a coal piece from his pocket and drew two “U”s on the inside of the rail car.

“Bucket boys!” Fitz declared, as he circled the first U.

“We’re tramps now. Together forever,” he explained, as he drew another circle around the second U. He beamed at Peter and took his hand.

They were just boys then. When Peter’s father died, they quickly had to become men. Peter knew to find an old timer who would take them under his wing in one of the big jungle camps. King Junky Bat Man was eccentric, but his life as a traveler provided a wealth of survival education. He taught the boys the hobo codes and symbols left to help fellow travelers on poles, trees and gates along the rail line to find work, shelter, food and most importantly, avoid danger. A smiley face meant the farm up ahead would allow you to sleep in the barn. A circle with an X inside indicated there was food available. Two overlapping circles meant hobos would be arrested on site. Being fluent in hobo code enabled the boys to survive, and they began to feel at home on the rail. The orphans no longer felt alone; now they belonged.

It had been two years since Fitz went missing, and Peter hadn’t used the Bucket Boys sign since. It stood for Peter and Fitz, and now it was just Peter.

The night of the bull raid, they’d fallen asleep outside a farm camp, listening to the owls in the night. Fitz always fell asleep first. Peter liked it that way. Peter was drifting off when they heard the sound of the railroad Bulls stomping into the camps to clear out the travelers and prep the tracks for the next run of workers. Everyone scattered into the night, the sounds of screaming and gunshots echoing into the sky.

Fitz always circled back around and found Peter, but that night, he never came. When Fitz didn’t materialize after a few days, the other travelers declared Fitz dead. After that, searching was pointless; Peter had given up. Fitz wasn’t going to come back.

Now, standing in front of the Bucket Boys sign again, Peter allowed himself the luxury of hope. It was clear as day, written under the regular cross that meant, “church will give food.” Sometimes, it was written under an upside down Y, which mean “danger in this town.” It began to always accompany two rectangles, which meant, “afraid.” Looking back, Peter had realized he should have paid better attention to the surrounding monikers. Seeing a third sign meant Fitz was still alive – this realization washed over him in a wave of relief and joy and settled determination to find his dear friend.

The signs had become Peter’s new code. His map. He spent the summer picking strawberries in Bedford and followed his sign to Cooperstown during the apple season. It was fall now, and the only work to be made was a bucket or fire runner for another railroad. The fruits of summer were packed away, being sold to girls and boys with clean hair and hemmed clothes. He was tired. Carrying the buckets became harder this season. Peter had ignored the stories of where the work was and only followed his symbol. His belly ached and his legs became weak and tired. No matter how old or painted over his signal had been, it was a way to keep Fitz with him during his travels. He’d scratch an infinity symbol every time underneath. “Don’t give up.”

The markings were fading, as was his memory of Fitz. By the time he’d found them, fence markings had been painted over, grass had grown around the base of the tree where he’d last seen the carving. It had been too long. Maybe Fitz really was dead.

The infinity signs were harder to mark onto the wood. Fitz hadn’t left these signs for years. Peter was chasing a ghost at the expense of his own survival.

The last time he found it, Peter realized he had to travel back to Chadwick, right outside of where he had lost Fitz. “To find something you’ve lost, start where you last saw it,” his father once said. The easiest way was to take a cannonball, an express train that stopped in the larger cities to get medicines out to smaller towns by delivery truck. Cannonballs moved faster, but there was one every couple of days. Problem was, they were harder to hop. He knew the physical dangers of rail riding were just as prevalent as any Bull. It was common for hobos to fall under the wheels when attempting to hop the trains. If a guy was lucky, he’d lose a limb. Unsure footing meant he lost everything else.

He was consumed with the search. The long hours riding the trains gave him plenty of time to roll over the posibilies of Fitz’s wherabouts. He’d heard hobo folklore from the jungle cats about the fate of missing travelers for as long as he could recall. When he was younger, the tales of Bulls capturing young tramps and selling them at the ports to slave on ships and plantations terrified him. The road kids exchanged boogeyman stories about kids being disfigured and set on display in traveling sideshows. He remembers a particularly horrific interaction shouted at him by a old nutty lusher, “The Bull’s gonna get you street urchin, they gonna sell ya to the circus and the cats will eat yur bones!”

As he grew older, he’d dismissed the stories as old wives’ tales. He had enough real threats to worry about. He was still careful about taking food and drink from unknown jungle rats for fear of getting a lump laced with knock-out-drops. Travelers disappeared every day. Ever since the railroads had pumped up the security Bulls, life on the rails was significantly more dangerous. The older hobos spoke fondly of a time where no one bothered the travelers and they were even welcomed with open arms in farming towns. When the Bulls first were brought on by the Railroad companies, they would just round up travelers and jail them. That was before Peter’s time though. These days the Bulls seemed like more of a firing squad. The tough economic times only amplified the danger. Hunger can make people do things; bad things. Peter had even heard stories of starving boozehounds, their minds gone from Corn Bourbon, cannibalizing travelers. Now Peter revisited the boogeyman stories with a new horror.

It took only three days to get to Chadwick. After hopping off in Augusta, he

began the final walk into town, past miles of cornfields. Chadwick was the last place the Bucket Boys were together. He’d hoped to never return to this place. Losing Fitz had put a crack in his spirit…it was an emotional straw that had nearly broken his back. The knot in his stomach wasn’t from hunger alone — something about this place stood his hair on end. His senses were piqued as he scanned for hobo marks. The marks seemed ominous and he wanted to turn around, hop a train and never return. However, he was determined to find out Fitz’s whereabouts. The answer was here; he could feel it. He saw the mark for “unsafe place” directly over the sign for “man with gun”. He had to travel carefully. Less then a quarter of a mile down the road he saw more danger marks, one indicating that he should “be ready to defend”, and another urged him to “get out fast.” Just outside of town, he settled under a tree, unrolled his bindle have a bit of breakfast and gather his thoughts. As he forced down a lump of food, two small figures appeared on the horizon. Peter crouched down and soon could make out an old negro bicycle tramp and a small black and brown wirehaired mutt. The dog wore a bell that sang as he trotted down the road. Peter decided to take his chances and shouted out,“Hey Bo! Good morning to you friend!”

The old man seemed startled, and it wasn’t until the fellow closed the gap between them and stopped his bicycle that Peter saw why. His milky white eyes were those of a Blinkey. He was either nearly or fully blind.

““What business you got here, boy?”

“I’m looking for my brother. He went missing two seasons ago in Chadwick.”

The old man hesitated for a moment.

“Ain’t no lil ‘uns in Chadwick, and if you go to the place, you gon’ be gone too.”

Peter cleared his throat and willed his voice to stay steady.

“What happens to the little ones in Chadwick?”

“Some things ought not to be talked about, son.”

“I have a twenty cent that says otherwise.”

The old man pondered for a moment and shoved out his hand.

“The Aklalov place. North of town. They farm sheep. You get answers there, but God save your soul. ”

Peter listened to the bell growing fainter and fainter as he headed north. He followed the dusty roads until he saw a shack in the distance, pockets of white nestled in the hills.

Peter hunched behind the shack, but had a clear sight of the inside from a window above the storm doors. He always knew how to move with the shadows. He recognized the smell of potatoes in stew. A giant woman stood over the pot carefully, preparing dinner for what seemed like a family that wasn’t there.

What Peter recognized more than the stew was the thick footsteps of a burled man as he approached the door.

It was a Bull – his whip looped around his buckle, his hulking arms. He remembered those arms raising the whip as Peter scrambled toward the woods.

This time, his arms didn’t carry his whip. He was dragging a child behind him and tossed him in front of the woman with the missing family as he burst through the door.

The giant woman wiped her hands on her apron and said nothing. She only looked the boy up and down.

“I not give you more than four dollar. This boy hasn’t eaten in weeks. What am I to do with this?”

“Feed it. His size is not my problem.”

The boy was made of bones, his elbows jutting out from his skin. He wore his hunger on his face, eyeballing the bread on the table as the two adults bickered over him.

“Roger said five dollars. And the boy is willing.”

The plump woman stared him down.

“Boy. You can lift cart?”

The boy said nothing, continuing to stare at the bread.

“You don’t eat that. Bread not for boys with no manners.”

The boy sounded like a titmouse. He squeaked his words.

“I’ll carry anything you need carried.”

The woman sighed and tossed him the bread, watching as he inhaled it.

“Boy no better than food for tiger. He won’t even survive trip to Greenville.”

The bull shifted his legs.

“Like I said. Not my problem. He can be the Temple Circus’s next lizard boy. I heard you’re missing one of those.”

The woman reluctantly shuffled to a box in the corner and shoved money in the bull’s hand. It was an otherwise plain box with a red bear on its lid.

“It’s always a pleasure doing business with you.” His whip creaked around his buckle as he pocketed the money.

It was the bull from the night of the raid. Peter wanted to burst through the window and strangle him, as the thought of Fitz being thrown across the woman’s kitchen floor and sold to her disregard filled him with fury. But that wouldn’t get Fitz back. There weren’t any options. You don’t fight a bull. He had to head to the Temple Circus.

Greenville was seven counties over and trains didn’t run often enough. It’d be truck riding and foot to get there.

By the time Peter arrived in Greenville, his feet were blistered. He was hungrier than usual. He’d become accustomed to the feeling, but the pains in his side were roaring instead of a quiet murmur.

The townspeople had poured out into the dusty streets of Greenville to watch the red tops erect even in the distance. With so many of them out in the streets, Peter had to keep to the alleys and shanties. He hadn’t seen any signals as to whether Greenville was friendly to tramps.

Peter had never seen a circus. Tents should be easy enough to slip, with railroad hopping under his belt.

When the tents were staked into the ground, it was easier to slip in and out unnoticed. People were too busy staring at the elephants and the painted clowns, clutching their children’s hands and getting the little ones to stop squealing. The smell of lemons, roasted peanuts and cake doughnuts filled the air.

Peter found a spot toward the back, hiding under a railing. He noticed he could catch falling peanuts from the rows above him if he paid enough attention. It was dark underneath the railings, but the lights would occasionally gleam into the shadows, and digging around for them would have pinched him for sure. He stayed still, moving his arms carefully to catch the forgotten food.

Elephants danced in circles like ballerinas, and bears were kept as pets. A man smiled at the crowd, throwing back the curtain and leading out a giant orange cat. Peter had never seen such an enormous cat, its black stripes stretching around its massive muscles. A man came out and uncurled a whip to the ground, commanding the cat to stand up and bear its long teeth. The whip was longer than the ones he’d seen the Bulls use, and hearing its crack, his stomach churned, feeling sorry for the cat. But the cat listened, bearing his teeth with a roar as he’d been trained to do.

Then men crossed ropes at the top of the tent, throwing a boy from swing to swing in the air. The boy couldn’t have been a year older than Peter – his red curls reminded him of Rusty Tiptoes. Rusty had been the best car hopper in 30 counties. Peter remembered camping with him years ago, as Rusty told stories of how many cars he’d hopped, shifting his feet in the dark to change his direction, any time he pleased. East to West. From South to North. Back and forth, like the boy in the sky. Rusty had told him over the campfire that the trick was to never be afraid of falling.

The boy in the sky spun through the air and hopped on the bar quickly, lifting his toes. Tiptoes. Peter’s breath became shorter in that moment. Rusty Tiptoes, the best car hopper in 30 counties, wasn’t jumping cars anymore.

Peter slipped into the crowd as it emptied from the tent. There would be plenty of places to sleep for the night – barns and camp tents covered the plain. He picked a hay bale behind an old barn away from the rest of the action, but he could still hear the animals in the distance. There had been no Fitz. He wasn’t being tossed in the sky; he wasn’t selling peanuts. Peter wanted to resolve himself to never seeing him at all, but hope was a tricky thing, and he remembered why he had avoided it for so long. It had a hold of him now.

He had to go back. The crowds were too thick and the expanse of the circus to big for him to call it quits.

The next morning, Peter slipped into the boundary tape and walked. He’d pick up trash from time to time to look at though he was hired to do it – it was the oldest trick he had.

Crowds gathered again as the posters unfurled above a stage. The Mermaid Girl. The Bearded Lady. The Half Boy. They almost sounded like hobo names.

A man with a wax mustache called out to the crowd, enticing the ladies and gentlemen to move closer to the stage. The Crocodile Man. The Snake Charmer. The Sword Swallower.

The sword swallower was next. His amazing feats would be sure to astound.

It wasn’t a large man with muscles that entered stage left. It was a boy, younger than Peter, who stood silently as he surveyed the crowd and waited patiently for the caller’s instruction.

The blond curls, the lanky figure. A littler taller now, but Peter knew the shape has well as he knew the two “U”s in all the sign posts.

It was Fitz.

Fitz waited patiently for instruction and for the anticipation of the crowd to grow. He pulled a sword from the stage floor and inserted it down his throat. Peter wanted to gasp, but the air was gone.

The sword comes out of Fitz’s throat and he bows, shuffling behind the curtain as the crowd screams with wonder.

“Now, you fine ladies and gentlemen, who would like to come see the sights of the macabre, the morose, the stunning and the stupefying?

A fat man shoves his way in front of Peter, his coins outstretched to the stage, hungry for entertainment. Peter feels around in his pocket for his harvest money. It is his winter insurance, his blanket – all he has left. He fills his hand with all the currency it will hold and throws it in the air.

“ME! I DO!”

The caller sees the wad of bills in Peter’s hand and pauses his breathless liturgy. He points directly at Peter and makes clear that Peter is the boy from the crowd he wants to see.

“YOU, my fine young man, step right up! Come this way! Now this is what we call a hungry kid! Hungry for a show!”

Peter moves through the waves of people as they push him along, the din getting quieter as he felt his pulse. He’s lifted onto the stage as the caller shakes his hand and pulls him close and whispers into his ear.

“Congratulations, kid. I’ve never seen a better shill. You spend all the time you want back there.”

Peter slips behind the curtains, the smell of fish hitting his nostrils. He moved his way down the dark corridor, until he came to the first exhibit. He gawked at the figure. A half figure, actually. He locked eyes with the legless boy as he moved down the hall, quickening his step. He moves past the Mermaid lady, with similar disinterest, this time avoiding eye contact. He almost could have caught her confused stare.

As he approaches the next exhibit, his heart pounds. He leans against the rope.

“Fitz,” he struggled to keep his voice low.

Fitz was standing on a platform, and it took a moment for his eyes to meet Peter’s. Fitz’s eyes grew wide with recognition, and he jumped from his platform at the same time Peter crossed the rope.

They met in a hard embrace, tears streaming down Peter’s face.

“Let’s go. I’m getting you out of here.”

Fitz balked and seemed conflicted.

“Fitz, let’s go! What’s wrong?”

Fitz only stared.

“Come on! What’s wrong?”

Fitz opened his mouth as if to speak and then closed it again.

“Fitz! Talk to me! We don’t have much time.”

The sword swallower locked eyes with his friend, his eyes welling up with tears. He opened his mouth wider and stepped toward Peter into the light.

Peter stepped back in horror as he looked at the gaping hole where Fitz once had a tongue. His voice shook as he demanded, “What have they done to you?!”

Fitz walked over to the stage and picked up the sword and began to write in the dusty ground.

He etches out the symbol for “safe place” in the dust. Then “food here.”

“There’s food elsewhere, Fitz! I can take care of you.”

Fitz pauses for a moment and carves again in the dust.

Peter stares at the symbol scratched into the dirt.

“End of the road.”

“I’m not leaving you. We’re family.”

Fitz carves the symbol into the ground again. .

He looks Fitz in the eyes, and whispers,

“Bucket Boys.”

He takes the sword from Fitz’s hand, drawing their moniker into the dirt. Two “U”s inside of circles. He drops the sword at Fitz’s feet.

Peter takes a deep breath and pulls his jack knife from his pocket.

“Together forever. I hear they’re missing a Lizard boy.”

Peter pulled his tongue from his mouth, and with one fluid motion, sliced his tongue in two.

© 2013 Danielle Nichols, Nathan Davis, Denise Mullenix

“A Chance Encounter” by Kellie Doherty

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

***

A Chance Encounter

By Kellie Doherty

Isis fiddled with her bracelet, swirling it around and around. The metal bit into her wrist. A nervous habit. She hoped to overcome it as an adult and yet, she still swirled. Her apartment loomed around her. The white walls and a hardwood floor seemed to judge her. Everything seemed to judge her. Everything would for running away. Brown boxes full of her old life sat piled in the corner by the door. It hurt too much to look at them. A green wallet and pair of sneakers sat beside them. The rest of the apartment lay bare, lifeless. An ache thudded deep in her chest. She rubbed her arms, wishing she had more than a t-shirt to wear. She had already walked through the place – a single bedroom and bath down the short hallway, a small kitchen to her right – she stood in the living area, facing the only window in the entire place.

The San Francisco skyline seemed imposing, the building spires jutting into the sky and the harsh white lights blotting out the stars. Headlights flashed by from a passing car. She shielded her eyes from the glare, but the taillights, crimson in the darkness, held her gaze. Its fading light splashed on the pavement, drawing up instant memories. Blood on the road, spilling from a cracked skull, eyes slowly shutting. Pain lanced through her heart. She pressed her hands on the sill, steadying herself. Even in this chilly apartment her palms sweated. Did her father have time to break? Isis rubbed the back of her neck and forced the memories down. Shifting her weight, she sighed and closed the blinds.

“Ms. Ivori? Are you ready to sign?”

Isis Ivori jumped. She had almost forgotten the landlord. A red faced man in a bright yellow shirt and pants that barely covered his girth, he snacked too often on jerky. In her apartment, too. She smiled. She had thought of this as her apartment. Funny. How fast things could change. Too fast, almost. The smile slid off her lips. She turned to Tomas Henderson.

“Yes, I’m ready.”

Tom handed her a clipboard of paper and a blue pen. She signed quickly, not wanting him to see her half-bitten nails. Too quickly, perhaps, for the ink smeared on her hand. It was always an issue when a southpaw like herself. She wiped the leftover ink on her jeans and gave him a smile. He didn’t know her well enough to know it wasn’t sincere. No one would know here.

“I guess that’s it then.” Tom mumbled through a mouthful of beef. He took the clipboard from her and strutted out the door. A bird, exactly like an ostrich actually, strutting like that. The door slammed heavily behind him.

“Yes,” Isis replied, “that’s it.”

**

Karla sat beside an empty container of ground-up earthworms, hands covered in the brown substance. Patrick, the bearded dragon, sat on her leg and munched on the last morsel of worm, he seemed content. She stroked his back, finger running over the dimpled skin, tracing the tan patterns. Patrick lifted his front leg and circled it, the common greeting for his species. He did it when he was happy, too.

“Good boy, Patrick.” Karla lifted the reptile from her leg and placed it in the tank. She flipped on the heat light. Patrick wandered over to the stone underneath it and flopped down. “That’s it, rest up for tomorrow. We have a show to put on.”

Karla feathered out the ferns in the corner of his tank over, providing some more hiding spots if necessary, then pinned the screen top in place. She lifted a tiny bottle of sanitizer from her vest pocket and squirted some into her palm, spreading it around with the other hand. Couldn’t be too careful. Another trainer had refilled Patrick’s water bowl and scooped the soiled areas clean. Truthfully Karla didn’t even need to be here, not this late at night. But she hadn’t been able to sleep and this placed always made her happy.

At night it was the best place to be, the San Francisco Zoo. Dragging her fingers across the chairs in the center, she looked at the all too familiar surroundings She loved it here, the darkened pathways winding around the mammal habitats, the quiet hooting from the bird cages. The usual noise of the city seemed muted in this place. Karla grabbed a plate of lettuce and, humming softly, moved deeper into the reptile habitat. Cages lined the walls here. The sweet scent, the soft glow from their heating lamps, even the heavy moist air seemed comforting.

Suzi’s tank was in the back, the only alligator lizard in the habitat, a species native to California. Karla walked over to her tank, tucked in the corner of the habitat, right next to the exit door. Suzi’s tank was darkened. Some assistant had probably forgotten to turn on the light. Laughing, she placed the lettuce on the fake green grass table islanding in the center of this room. Squeezing herself between the wall and the cage, Karla fumbled with the wires. Sure enough one of the plugs lay on the dirt floor. She plugged it back in. Light bloomed overhead. Karla tapped on the glass, peering inside. She spotted her friend instantly. Suzi hid under her branch, her bright yellow and green scales standing out against the brown flooring. Movement caught Karla’s eye, she stared past the double glass panes and gasped. A women clad in jeans and black coat reached for the lettuce. The woman’s shoulder length blond hair hid part of her face, but sky blue eyes stared intently at the food. The woman snatched a leaf and brought her hand to her mouth.

“Don’t eat that!” Karla yelped.

**

Isis jerked her hand back, the lettuce she grabbed falling to the floor. The reptile spoke to her? No. She narrowed her eyes. A black haired stranger stared at her from behind the tank, dark eyes widening. What the hell was the woman doing behind the glass? Isis glanced at the fallen lettuce. What the hell was she doing? Her stomach growled. She hadn’t eaten anything since she heard of her father’s death. Hadn’t wanted to. She synched her coat tighter, hoping to quell the noise. The woman came around the cage. A black zoo jacket with McField, Animal Trainer stitched in white covered her basic white shirt. The stranger wiped her hands on her dark pants.

“It’s just lettuce.” Isis picked up the greenery and held it out.

The woman plucked the lettuce from Isis’s fingers and placed it on the plate. “It’s laced with sedative. And vitamins to make Suzi’s scales shiny. It’s not meant for human consumption.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean–”

The worker grabbed the entire pile of leaves and fiddled with the tank, dropping the lettuce into the space. Isis couldn’t help herself. Isis stared, she couldn’t help herself. The worker was very pretty, and her jeans practically warranted it. Scrubbing a hand over her face, Isis cursed herself. What was she doing? Her cheeks burned, and she folded her arms across her chest. She had no right to stare.

The worker closed the cage up, then faced Isis again. Lines creased the sides of her mouth as her frown deepened. “You’re not supposed to be here. The Zoo is closed. How’d you even get in?”

Isis scowled. Not her proudest moment, but she didn’t like the tone of the woman’s voice. Her own tone hardened. “I snuck in.”

The woman snatched the now empty plate. “Why?”

“Fifteen dollars is too much for entry. But I wanted to see the birds.”

The woman sighed, tucking the plate under her arm. “What’s your name?”

“Isis Ivori. What’s yours?”

“Karla McField, nice to meet you. Ivori, huh? The woman pulled out her phone and flipped it open. “Good, I can alert the authorities now.”

Isis stepped back, mouth falling open. Her stomach growled again, louder this time. The woman glanced down, eyeing the tightened belt.

**

Karla grimaced at the thinness of this woman’s waist. This Isis Ivori was obviously a recluse, judging from the way she shied away. Karla’s compassion built up over years of dealing with injured animals as a vet before her zoo years pried against her anger at finding this woman after hours. She did seem awfully hungry. Karla reached into her vest’s pocket and got out a crisp ten-dollar bill.

She pushed it to the woman. “Here.”

Isis stared at the money. She tentatively held out her hand.

Karla dropped the bills into it. “Buy some real food. I won’t call the cops this time. But if I ever catch you here again, Isis Ivori, you will be taken to jail.”

Isis jerked her head down and dashed away, her footsteps gradually getting softer as she ran.

Karla shook her head. “Am I crazy?”

No, she answered her own question. Just shocked to see another person here at night. Heat crept over her cheeks. And such a pretty one at that. Karla smiled. Down, girl, no need getting excited over some homeless woman. Besides her kindness had another side. She pushed against the exit door, bursting out into the fresh air. If she had called the cops, they’d wonder why she was here as well.

**

Isis awoke, her dream still wanting to pull her down. The giant hole inside the earth, the stone tablet, the tiny bouquet of lilies haunted her even here. She shook her head, stretching her arms to ease the building tension. The mattress seemed lumpier than at her home. Was that even possible? No, probably not, it was probably her who was out of sorts in this city.

Her actions of the previous night came back to her in a rush. The pretty zoo worker. The sad look creasing the worker’s face. The charity money she used to get a pathetic dinner that she hadn’t even touched. Of course she’d make that kind of impression.

But when the zoo worker, no when Karla stared at her with those bright gray eyes, Isis’s heart pounded much too erratically. She tried to shove her feelings down. No one really knew about her love for women. But that was because she hadn’t told them. She meant to, though. The ache started again, deep in her chest, shoving the air out of her lungs. She had always meant to tell her parents, always meant to discuss this aspect of her. But she never had the courage.

And now she never could.

The tightness in her chest squeezed. Her throat constricted. She swallowed the guilt down and got ready for the day.

Dressing in her best outfit – a simple pair of black slacks, an unadorned gray shirt she particularly liked today, and a pair of black heels – she locked her apartment and walked down a hallway, trailing her fingers on the smooth yellowed wallpaper. Tom had stopped by three times that night as she unpacked, once to check her water still worked, again to see if she had enough bedding for the night and a third to ask her out for dinner.

She refused, mainly because she needed to unpack, but also because he wasn’t her type. A small part of her she kept hidden from the world revolted against the man. No, he was far away from her type. She had gone out soon after. And met the zoo worker. The intensity of the woman’s gray eyes stayed with Isis. Her chest tightened. Tears prickled the backs of her eyes. She reached the end of the hallway and pushed the main door open, the chill autumn air chasing the pain away. For now, at least.

Isis passed by unfamiliar faces in this unfamiliar city, the spires dwarfing her small statue. She pulled her old black peacoat tighter across her stomach and kept her gaze to the sidewalk. It was easier that way. Reaching the building she needed, Isis went into a lawyer’s office, the only one in town that had given her a job. She slid behind the receptionist’s desk and counted the hours down until the end of day.

**

Karla clapped her hands. Patrick sauntered over to her, waving his foot around. The audience surrounding her red Showcase table cheered. A glass pane separated them and her. The protective column kept the audience members from touching her pets. One little boy smiled and tapped his finger hard on the glass, his eyes trained the lizard. Karla stared at the little boy and wagged her finger, putting on her sternest of faces. The boy backed away. Karla winked and the boy smiled again. It took very little to cheer the younger ones up. The adults though, she scanned the crowd, the adults watched passively thus far, hands on their children’s shoulders, waiting for the chance to pull them away. She tried hard to impress the older generation just as much as the younger. Her act hadn’t failed her yet.

“Patrick may be a lizard, but he’s a gentleman as well,” Karla said in a clear voice.

Karla reached under her table and brought out a tiny black top hat. She perched it atop Patrick’s head. Patrick slowly bobbed his head up and down, a sign of submission, causing the children to clap. One father raised his eyebrow, a smirk climbing up his face.

Karla continued her routine with practiced ease. “He does look very good, but he might just need a cane and briefcase too.”

She brought out a tiny cane and a matching black case, both handles coated with a sticky substance to allow Patrick for easier grabbing. She put the items next to her lizard and stroked his back. Pulling out her spray bottle, she misted the area around her pet, then misted him as well. It was their sign, that she would scare him in a few moments and to not worry. She didn’t like pushing him, but he always seemed to enjoy it. He inched closer to the toys, wrapping his claws around each item.

More adults zoned in. One mother even leaned closer.

Karla smiled. They would love this. She plucked her last item from under the table – a single bird feather. Dragging the feather across the table, she flicked it against Patrick’s tail. He spooked. Lifting onto his two hind legs, he ran a few steps, unintentionally clanking the cane on the table and swinging the briefcase in the process. For a second, he actually did look like a lizard businessman, late for a bus. The audience burst into cheers. He lowered onto all fours and his skin brightened to yellow. His happy color. Karla smile widened as the children gasped at the sudden change. She placed her hand gently by his side, stroking her thumb across the spins of his neck. He always was happiest after she spooked him. Somehow, he knew it was a game. She slid her hand under the belly, careful to curl her fingers underneath and support his bulk. His tail rested gently on her arm.

Once reassured he was comfortable, she raised her gaze. Bright blue eyes stared back. The woman from before. Isis Ivori. Still wearing her black jacket, still peering intently at her. Karla had been on the receiving end of a staring contest many times before, but, for the first time, it felt as if the other woman stared not just at her, but through her, too. Exposed, Karla dropped her gaze. The audience members clapped their hands and wandered away, the high-pitched bell ringing through the air, cutting conversations and viewings short. Karla started, like she always had this week. The new addition to her zoo would take some getting used to.

A tapping distracted her. She looked up. Isis moved closer to the pane, a ten dollar bill faceup on the glass. Isis face crinkled adorably as she smiled. Adorably? Karla shook her head, shaking that thought out of her mind. It had been a full two weeks since she’d seen the strange woman, and long since forgotten her money offering. Karla put Patrick back in his little carrying case – a gray box with holes punctured through it and bedding inside – and washed her hands in the tiny sink next to her table. She latched opened the column. Isis met her on this side, holding out the cash.

Shifting Patrick from one hand to the other, Karla took the money, trying to ignore the sudden heat in her fingers as they grazed Isis’s.

“Thanks,” Karla muttered.

“No.” Isis shook her head. “I wanted to thank you for giving it to me in the first place. It was my first night here and I didn’t really plan on getting dinner. You solved that for me.”

“You’re new?” Karla motioned for Isis to follow, leading the way down the path towards the reptile habitat. She felt surprisingly at east with this new girl. The woman looked no older than herself, twenty-five at most. Her black jacket fell open, revealing a purple shirt and what looked to be the same tattered jeans as before.

“Yes.” Isis blurted the word out quite loud. Karla raised an eyebrow.

Isis continued, her words mashing together. “I have an apartment by the Seward Street Slides. I work as a receptionist. I have money, really. You just caught me on a bad day. I had to move and didn’t plan it very well, that’s all.”

They reached the reptile habitat. Karla held the door. A blast of warm moist air washed over them. Karla breathed deep, but caught the grimace crossing Isis’s face. Did she not like it inside the reptile room? A crazy sense of chivalry pounded through Karla’s mind and, for more than a second, she wondered if they should sit outside instead. Then Isis walked into the habitat, pushing back her long hair. Karla caught a flash of something silver on Isis’s wrist. As if responding to her curiosity, Isis brought her hand up and twisted the bracelet around and around.

Karla slid past her. “What? Did some guy break your heart or something in your old town?”

“Yes, actually.” Isis stopped twirling the bracelet.

Shit. Karla pushed too far again. She cursed her stupidity. Why was she so damn curious about this woman? She tried backtracking. “Oh, I’m sorry–”

Isis interrupted her. “My dad died.”

**

Isis bit her tongue, the pain spiking through her mouth. But she had to or all the other crappy things in her life would come blubbering after. Why was she spilling her guts? In the middle of some hazy room surrounded by reptiles to some woman she only met once before. What the hell was she doing?

Isis tried to cover her slip. “I’m sorry, Karla, I didn’t mean to say that. I hardly know you.”

Karla let the lizard go back into its tank. “It’s okay.”

“No, I shouldn’t–”

Karla sat down on the padded chairs that ran through the middle of the reptile habitat. She patted the seat beside her. “It’s okay. You can talk to me if you’d like.”

Isis slumped into the chair. She leaned back, running a hand over her face. It all came back to her too fast. The rain, the slick roads, the terrible car accident and the terrible night her father died. Her chin trembled. Her dad died. She’d never see him again. She looked, unseeing, at the tanks glowing around her. She rubbed her arms, trying to warm them. It didn’t work. Shock ran through her once more and, even in the midst of all this, she put her head in her hands and cried. Much to her surprise, Karla rubbed her back.

“I ran away.” Sniffing, Isis tried to compose herself. She couldn’t breath very well. It came out in a rush, her story. “I ran away from home like a pathetic little girl. I left my mom. I just couldn’t stand it there anymore. There was this car accident, a horrible car accident, the car was completely wrecked and my dad…” Isis couldn’t finish. Her sobbing cut off her speech. She took a few steadying breaths. Her eyes trained on the dirt floor and the varying footprints embedded in it. “My father died. It was just a month ago. When I heard the news, I just couldn’t process it. So I ran away. It was stupid, I know, but I couldn’t take it. I never did it. I never could tell him that–”

Tears coursed hot rivers down her cheeks. She ran a hand over her face, tying to scrub the pain away. Her chest tightened. She hated that Karla’s hand still resting on her back felt so good. It made her cry all the harder. What the hell was she doing? Sobbing her life story to a woman she barely knew? Pathetic.

“Tell him what?” Karla asked.

Isis shook her head. She couldn’t tell some random woman. Not if she couldn’t even tell her own parents. It would be too pathetic. So she lied. “Tell him that I loved him.”

“He knew that,” Karla whispered. “Of course he knew that.”

Isis drew herself up, tightening her muscles to keep them from shaking, and swiped a hand over her eyes. She took a few more deep breaths. They didn’t help very much. “Yes, yes he did. I’m just being silly, crying all over the place.”

Karla reached over and touched Isis’s hand. Normally she would flinch away but, this time, Isis didn’t mind.

“It’s not silly. It’s not silly at all.” Karla squeezed her hand. “Hold on, wait here for a second, okay?”

Isis nodded and Karla darted out the door.

**

Karla couldn’t stop thinking of Isis as she ran through the now empty zoo. Poor girl. She skidded to a stop at the eatery – a quaint little wood cabin. She snuck inside, hinging the heavy door open so it wouldn’t squeak. It was a simple eatery, round tables on one end and an open kitchen on the other. She went around the counter and snuck her hand underneath, procuring a bottle and two shot glasses. Mike wouldn’t mind. But just in case she slapped four dollars onto the table then headed out. The stuff wasn’t even worth spending that much but at a time of need even this crap could taste okay. A father’s death warranted it anyway.

She arrived back at the reptile habitat and slipped inside. Isis looked no happier, fingers of one hand twisting through the bracelet of another. The chain snapped and the bracelet fell to the floor. Karla swooped down to pick it up before Isis could and handed it back to Isis. The simple chain with three silver charms – owls, all of them, all lined up in a row – rested lightly on her palm before Isis snatched it back.

She nodded to the bracelet. “What’s with the owls?”

At the question Isis seemed to perk up. She straightened in her chair and drew her finger across the charms. She even smiled a little. “They were my dad’s favorite creature, he always thought that liking owls automatically made him wise.”

Karla laughed. When she realized she shouldn’t, though, she stopped. “Sorry. That’s a nice way of thinking.”

“What’s that?” Isis pointed to the bottle Karla still grasped in her other hand.

Karla brought it around, the frosted glass displaying a single sweet treat. “This is doughnut vodka. Mike has some better stuff in the back, but he wouldn’t miss this for the world.”

Isis merely stared. “Vodka made from doughnuts?”

Karla laughed. The woman seemed so shocked. What town was she from anyway? She opened the bottle and poured two glasses. “They can put almost anything into vodka nowadays. What little hick town did you grow up in?”

Isis took a sip and shuddered. “Cornfields. It’s in Arizona.”

Karla eyed Isis. If only the woman wasn’t so beautiful. Even in this harsh environment, her skin seemed to glow. “And you picked California because…”

“It was close enough to home but far enough away, too.” Isis took another sip. “This stuff tastes disgusting.”

Karla downed her shot and grimaced as the liquid burned down to her stomach. “Yeah, well it’s not really supposed to taste good.”

“Then why drink it at all?”

“Because it’s better than nothing.” Karla smirked and poured herself another shot. “So, what else didn’t you tell your dad?”

**

Isis downed her shot. It seemed to be a bright idea to make more time for herself, but the stuff burned so bad she ended up hacking into her hand instead. How did this stranger ask such good questions? Her entire body seemed to ache from holding in this truth. She kept it hidden for so long, her little secret. She couldn’t tell anyone now. But she had always meant to tell her parents someday, when the time was right. What the hell? This woman doesn’t know her from Jane anyway.

Isis blurted out the truth. “I never told him I’m a lesbian.”

Karla leaned back in her chair and downed her second shot. She nodded. “It can be hard to do.”

“How would you know?”

Karla smiled. “I’m one as well.”

Isis couldn’t believe it. The second person she really talks to in this big city is a like her? “What?”

Laughing, Karla put her glass down and rested her elbows on her knees, glancing over her shoulder. “You didn’t think there were many of us around? Or that you somehow where the only one did you?”

“No, it’s just… I didn’t think I’d…” Nothing smart came to mind so Isis halted her mumbling.

“You’re not alone, you know.” Karla leaned back once more and hooked her arm around the chair, fully turning to face Isis. “If you feel so strongly about it, you should do it. Tell your father’s grave if that’ll make you feel better. He probably already knew anyway. My whole family knew before I realized it myself.” She patted Isis’s leg. “You should go home and grieve with your mother. She probably needs you more than ever right now. After that, tell her what you wanted to tell your dad, let her know how you feel. It’ll be hard, terrifying actually, but you’ll get through it and come out stronger on the other side.”

Isis marveled at this woman sitting beside her, this stranger who seemed to know her so well and say the exact things she needed to hear. “You’re very wise.”

“And I don’t even have an owl bracelet.” Kayla smiled and nudged her on the shoulder, as if to say, go, go now! A small smile pulled at Isis’s lips. She nodded. Yes, she should go home. She placed her glass on the chair, squeezed Kayla’s hand between her own, and walked out the door.

**

Kayla could only smile. She went over to Patrick’s cage and thumbed the screen open, reaching inside. Her fingers curled around Patrick’s wide belly, stroking the soft skin underneath. He curled around her hand and waved his arm.

She petted his chin. “Sometimes all you need is a little push to reach your full potential, right, bud?”

© 2013 Kellie Doherty

“Coaptation” by Giovanni Ortiz

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

***

Coaptation

By Giovanni Ortiz

There was a downpour on the window I stared out of. The city doesn’t faze me and never will. The lights jumbling up as each drop of entropy fall onto the window. The shapes outside has no form, no actual definition. Red, gold, and green seems to be all over my window. There is a Shhhh! that seems unending. Like, thousands and millions of people are outside throwing rice at the window. But, it is something beautiful and less hateful; it’s rain. I loved the rain, out in Nebraska it smelled fresher and cleaner, something man couldn’t poison with smoke. I want to stop the taxi driver and stand out there, in the middle of the street, and take a shower looking at the stars. I want the rain to fall over me and wash the sweat, tears, and nervousness off. I want to start fresh and have the rest of the day’s worries paint its picture, whether it’s abstract or objective. I want to look at everyone’s face and give them meaning. On the other hand, I need to go home. I continue to let my red eyes watch the silent movie called NYC. I’m sure he didn’t mean to break every bone in my body with only words.

I don’t think anyone would believe I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him– actually a lot of people would. I did spend the beginning of my life with him. I witnessed his first kiss. He told me all about his first time with Jessica Ramano, sophomore year, the day after they’d done it. I told him about all of my firsts. We usually told each other secrets when either he or I were on our way back home– we were neighbors– making a stop on the side of the road. You know, when you’re on the road and there’s an open field, well there were a lot of them in Nebraska. So, we’d stop and leave our school bags in the passenger seat. Then, we would chase and lose each other in the cornfields. The scent of dried grass, a field, and corn danced beneath our noses. We yelled our names, shielding our eyes from the sun, until we’re found. Usually, we’d laugh as our butt hit the ground. Our lungs, lighter and lighter, made us feel higher and higher. Is it possible to get high off of laughter? (I found out that being “high” doesn’t feel like “being high”. It felt worse. Like, a deeper pressure that made me want to cry and laugh all at the same time.) We’d whisper small secrets to each other as the sun jumps over us and dips below the corn. I’d realize I had math homework I needed to finish. My mother had a rule about being out without much permission after the sun is set. He’d guide me through the corn and find the old, faded blue 1980 impala. He’d drive home because I wanted to be in control of the radio. We never shared similar tastes in music, he was into punk and I was into classic. I wish I knew that would be one of the signs that it wasn’t going to work out. I wished we found our middle ground at the beginning.

“Excuse me, sir. Can you pull over?” I say to the taxi driver. He glances back at me, a line of sweat just beneath his hairline, black hair drooping over his forehead sticking to the sides of his face. Jeez, he was sweaty. I feel the car take a detour and my body lurch to the right. Tonight, I need something strong, to keep me away from myself. He pulls over and I ask him to wait, my box of things in the trunk reassured him. I open the door and the sound of rice hitting the window sounds like a crowd cheering instead. Opening my umbrella, I wedge myself between the two cars the taxi double parked over to get to the sidewalk. The fluorescent lights gave the store a sterile feeling, as if it’s a hospital. It’s like a morgue for wine and liquor. A middle aged man looks up at me as I walk in the store, my boots making the annoying squishy sound you get when you walk on linoleum with wet shoes. He diverts his attention back to the book he was reading.

I walk to the back of the store; I don’t know whether or not I want whiskey, vodka or gin. I was probably staring at the assortment of bottles for about two minutes. The guy shouts behind me, “You okay back there?” His voice is raspy and somewhat friendly. I grab a bottle of Scotch and went to the counter. He asks for ID, I give him money and show my ID. Maybe I need two… I grab the bag of alcohol and thank him. On my way out, I open the umbrella and make a jog for the taxi. I’m sure the hems of my jeans are soaked. I thank the taxi driver and repeat the original address I’m headed to. Cradling the bottle on my lap, I take a gander outside the window as the people’s faces blur around me. There’s traffic and I’m grateful for that. I’m not an alcoholic, I promise. But, I need something to make me feel temporarily better. Understand?

We had our first cans of beer together. I didn’t like going to parties until college, so whenever there was a party we’d sit in his basement, watch a classic horror flick, eat stale doughnuts and drink a cold can of beer we spent four dollars on. Sometimes when Dale, a senior at the high school we went to, worked a shift at the local drug store he’d let us buy cans of beer. His long pale hair sometimes mixed in with his facial hair, the drugs made him age a lot quicker than he’d have wanted, and he always spoke in a sort of whisper saying something like “Don’t drink and drive, Juniors.” He reminded me of the stoners you’d see on television with a bag of drugs sitting in their back pocket at all times. I always told him what I thought of him, too. He always said we looked more like a couple than “a pair of pair of good friends”. Actually, everyone said it. I was always first to deny, he always had a girlfriend.

I could barely imagine myself sitting in his basement, the washing machine and dryer mending the laundry, as the opening credits of a movie played. The brown carpet floor tickling my toes and the old squeaky couch sitting in front of the new-but-old television we’d saved enough money for. I would always lean back on the arm of the couch, while he sat on the other end, and let my feet touch the side of his thigh. Helen Chandler’s scream acted as background as we’d debate whether or not Bela Lugosi was the best Dracula. I remember when he realized the argument was over and that I won, he stopped talking and ruffled his hands in his brown hair and watch the movie. His hair wasn’t exactly soft and fluffy, but thin and wild, as if he’s never combed it (Probably didn’t). It still is crazy looking, from time to time. I miss spending four dollars on beer, eating stale doughnuts and watching Frankenstein in your basement.

The taxi turns the corner to my apartment. It is small and cheap. Granted that it is Manhattan, not enough space for everyone to live and breathe in luxury. I tip the driver and thank him. He looks a lot like Freddie Mercury and smells what I imagine Russell Brand would smell like if he wasn’t famous. The taxi driver helps me inside by holding my umbrella. I grab my box of things, hold on to the Scotch and make my way up the stairs. We used to live together, mainly because we were best friends and that’s what best friends did. They’d moved to New York City together after leaving their small town in the mid-west. They’d eat breakfast together and helped each other find jobs. They’d give each other ten dollar bills and felt bad when their boyfriend or girlfriend broke up with them. Best friends are brothers and sisters that were lost in the war of parenthood, and dropped into two different families by fate. That’s exactly what we were. I had to get my own apartment as soon as we realized we both grew icicles on our shoulders. There was never a warm shoulder to give anymore. We gave it a try and it didn’t work. The one thing we promised each other wouldn’t happen happened. Nothing was ever the same.

It took me a whole month to find an apartment. The movers dropped everything off earlier this morning, that’s when I realized that this was actually happening. We both moved, I moved across the city and he moved on. He probably doesn’t even care anymore. So, I try not to care and move on.

My apartment is full of boxes, the bed is bare and set up in the only bedroom and the living room is bare. I search the boxes for sheets and glasses. I walk, practically crawl, to my bedroom and sit on the floor and lean my back on the base of my bed. My feet touch the wall. The walls were white and needs a new coat of paint. Maybe turquoise. That’s the luxury I have now, choosing my own wall colors. I place the glass on the floor and pour some Scotch. I down it in one gulp. The liquor burns my throat. It always burns on the first gulp. I pour some more. Henry, the dog I’ve had since I graduated college, pounces on my lap. I lazily drag my hand across his short fur.

“I don’t need him, I only need Henry. Right, boy?” I scratch behind his ear and make baby noises at him. He wags his tail and licks my face. I grab the glass and drink the glass in a second. Another burn, only a slight tingle. He settles on my lap and huffs. I continue on a gentle stroke and decide to drink straight from the bottle.

When I was ten, I wanted to be an animal trainer. I watched all the television shows on Discovery Kids and Animal Plant. I practically begged my mom for a dog or cat. But, she was terribly allergic. I got a turtle, instead. All my other fish didn’t last long. He had a puppy. It was a golden retriever. He named her Gold, very original. I tried teaching Gold how to sit and used phrases like “give me a paw, girl!” We practically shared her. I even fed her sometimes. I really appreciated him and his family, even as a ten year old. I got Henry because I missed the way Gold licked my face. I missed how her golden fur felt soft under my hands. I even missed walking her, stepping on dog poop and having to clean my flip flops off before walking in my house. When I went to college I no longer wanted to be an animal trainer. I wanted to be something mature and sophisticated. I wanted to be something my mother could brag about, “Oh. My daughter got into this college in New York City.” I gave up my dream just to be an adult. Now, I wish I was a kid again, more than ever.

I am halfway through the Scotch; it no longer burned my throat. Henry laid across my waist as my face was stuck to the hardwood floor of my tiny bedroom. I take another swig. My head is clouded with him, him, him. I want to scream, kick, and throw. But, I can’t scream, kick or throw. I’d disturb the neighbors. I want to lie down and cry. But, I refuse to lay down and cry for my own dignity. On Henry’s collar is a small owl charm he’d bought for the dog when I first brought him home from the animal shelter. It symbolized Henry’s job as being the watchdog. Plus, the ol’ puppy had a habit of being a night owl. Henry the Sad and Lonely became Henry the Happy and Brave. I became Happy and Swooning. He became Moody and Argumentative. It was like he didn’t like the relationship part of me after a year and a half. He hated me even more after we called it splits.

I take Henry’s collar off delicately, as if it were Queen Elizabeth’s crown. I hold it up in the dim light. I have everything that I’ve given to him. He has everything he has given to me– excluding the charm, it belongs to Henry. Does he look at the things and remembers when he gave them to me and how I reacted. I remember hugging and kissing him. Thanking him for giving the charm to me to put on Henry’s collar. He was less moody and argumentative, then. He was happy and swooning. He smiled too much and his messy hair was cut short. He began to grow it out. It became the messy and scruffy mess it was when he was just a sloppy teenage boy. He still smelled like cheap cologne and talked too fast. He was angry and blamed me for everything. I’m sure Henry was happy, too. He looked happy, his tail wagging fast as I kissed him full on the lips.

Henry began licking the empty glass. “Stop!” I hissed at Henry. His tail hung low and he went into a whimper as he laid his head on my leg. It was like turning off the engine to a chopper. It died to a silence. No more whooshing. I rubbed Henry’s head. I finished the bottle of Scotch.

We went to a French restaurant. He just got a big deal for a film and was excited and happy. He was the happiest he has ever been, I wanted to cry. He knew I wanted to cry. I’ve always been an emotional fool. This was the first time we’ve ever been to a French restaurant, another first of ours. He was holding my hand. I was wearing this expensive dress my mother gave me money for. He was wearing an expensive suit his mother gave him money for. There was some violinist playing in the back and waiters with fake French accents. The room held the conversation amongst the rich. I was joking about it all in whispers to him. He laughed. Jesus, he laughed a lot. I missed that about him. He hasn’t laughed in a long time.

We ordered something that came in small portions that made us want to eat pizza an hour later. It was almost like a dream. The chandeliers and the diamonds sitting in the middle of the table were almost dream-like. I made another joke about how I wanted to dance on the tables like a drunken fool and he laughed and dared me to. I’m not a dare devil. Neither of us are. He ordered a chocolate cake that had a name I couldn’t spell or pronounce properly– he’d made sure to make fun of me for it. I was getting ready to eat a big spoonful of the cake. He dramatically gets up, green eyes wide, and nearly yells, “Don’t eat that!” I drop the spoon on the clean white table cloth. He pulled something from the food and wipes it off with his napkin. He gets on one knee and very romantically proposes. Everyone was looking and cheering us on. I did the worst thing ever and said no. His world shattered. It lasted us a month before we officially broke up. I saw it coming. It felt as if it were too late. I already denied his proposal.

The bed got colder and colder. It was like sleeping next to a ghost that haunted you. The idea of marriage scared me. He didn’t want to accept that. I blame the fact that my parent’s marriage never worked out. What makes you think my marriage would work!

He shouted at me and nagged me at everything I did. You’ll never make a good wife if you cook like this. You’ll never make a good wife if you say no to a proposal. I couldn’t take it. Neither could he and I left. We left the relationship. I had to leave the apartment. Now I miss him and wish I said otherwise. Now I wish I was booking wedding venues and tasting cakes. I wish I loved him the way he loved me. It was all my fault, or were truly never meant to be?

I wake up to Henry licking my face and the poisonous sun shining through my window. The birds are chirping a somber song and my phone is beeping along with it. I have a headache. It feels as if my head was thrown around and hitting the ground like a basketball. Then, someone delicately twisted my head right back. I groan and pull the phone out of my pocket. It’s a voicemail. I dial 1 for speed dial and put the password in, it was the first five letters of my last name. The answering machine’s voice can’t talk any faster. His voice reminds me of honey, it sweetened up my days. All he said was, “I miss you, too.”

Those four words told me that there was a coaptation of our lives. We’ll never be over because we are best friends, and by fate we are together.

© 2013 Giovanni Ortiz

“Untitled” by Team Hammertime

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

***

Untitled

By Team Hammertime

Once upon a time there was a man named Mr. Dean. He was an owl trainer. The date is August 7, 2243.

It’s so hot out today – too hot – maybe I’ll get a dry ice doughnut from VooDoo Doughnuts to cool me down and fight off this deadly heat After all, earth is only 15 billion light years away. It’ll only be a five minute trip.

In five minutes I’m in Portland, the only city with Voodoo Doughnuts . I heard 230 years ago it used to be a beautiful city full of parks and forests, but now it’s just a cloudy, crumpled city, full of pollution. I went inside. The next available person was dressed as a voodoo doctor. I ordered two boxes of doughnuts – one box of dry ice doughnuts, paid my $4, and went to work. Voodoo Doughnuts were the only thing that would cool me down from the planet’s heat.

Once I got to my work, I put the doughnuts down on my desk and started typing. Then an owl tried to sneak a box of doughnuts, but once I saw the tip of his feather, I turned around and said “SHOO! SHOO! DON’T EAT THAT!” and the owl flew away. I had to be careful. Once the radioactivity started to consume our planet, we became linked – humans and owls. If one of us died, the other died. Owl training seemed like a good job – keep them alive, keep yourself alive.

Once that was done, I moved the doughnuts in front of me so I could see them. I train owls, but I can’t trust them.

But then a black cloud flew over me. I remember thinking – “This is crazy – we don’t ever have bad weather here. It’s too hot. There are never clouds.”

But as it got closer, I realized it was a black cloud of owls – coming for the doughnuts. The heat was was getting to them too, and they knew because of my trip that there was relief in my doughnuts. I panicked, but one of owls grabbed a doughnut and split it, shooting the crumbs into the cloud of owls.

Later, an owl tried to sneak up behind me. I turned around and started to yell. A second came in and stole two doughnuts from the box and started to swallow them whole.

I smacked them away from the box, and realized it was pointless. I could just get more. The owls grabbed the doughnuts and took them to their den.

I was reading the news while I was flying back to the doughnut shop. Gah! Voodoo Doughnuts had run out of business. The batter had run out because of the pollution on earth. No more sugar would grow. No more flour. The owls would take what I had left, and I wouldn’t survive the summer I decided to make a trap for the owls.

I went to the cornfield and gathered some corn and took it home. On the way, I passed Hobby’s planet, where I bought some string, eyes, and gray paint.

I started to make a trap. I formed some corn leaves into a mouse shape, painted it gray,and filled it with corn kernels. Then, I headed out to the owl’s den. I put the mouse a few yards outside of the den and then started to make squeaking sounds.

The owls flew out of their hole and fought over the corn mouse. I dipped behind the swarm and went into the den, where I stole back the VooDoo doughnuts and went home. Finally, they were mine again.

It’s two months later, I felt sick. The owls were dead from the heat.. There was nothing I could do. Everybody I met seemed to be sick or dead. I feel as if I may die, lying here writing the last page in my journal…

© 2013 Aidan Tenud, Asher Tenud