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“A Sight for Sore Eyes” by Daniel Granias

A Sight for Sore Eyes

by Daniel Granias

 

1.

The dorms inside Wabash Juvenile Correctional Facility were as expected: cold, steel, bare bones bunk frames and foam pad mattresses that smelled of mildew, reinforced plate windows set sealed in concrete walls, and the yellowing linoleum floor, scuffed and scrubbed and buffed and waxed to the point of mirroring every flickering fluorescent tube exposed overhead.

Halsted thought back to his bed at the Cottage Grove Home for Boys. Miss Ashland knew he liked corners, so she found a room with a special nook with three sides in which his mattress fit perfectly. Halsted was the only boy in the group home with a single room and was the envy of the other residents, but nobody wanted to bunk with Halsted anyway because of his staring; he’d just sit there, hugging himself, rocking back and forth, squinting his eyes towards one boy or another, muttering under his breath.

At Wabash, Halsted was bunked with five other teens. Nobody made any attempts at greeting their new roommate but when Halsted began to rock and stare, a smiley sixteen-year-old boy named Morgan asked him, “Hey, you that fortune-teller kid they been talkin about ain’t you?”

“Maybe.”

There were twelve residents in the upper-school division of the Cottage Grove Home for Boys. Miss Ashland ran a strict house and if anyone wavered out of line, she’d never hesitate to lock him up or dismiss him to the streets for the night. As rigid as she was in punishment, she was just as fierce in her love when it was earned. Every boy had a different fable she’d tell to serve as a moral compass. All the upper-school boys had been there since they were young, so they all knew their stories by heart, though some had chosen to reject their fantasies for the bitter reality that faced them the day they turned eighteen.

“I heard about his case,” Morgan told the other bunkmates, “Something about a drug dealer and his bitch, yeah. They’re saying Squinty here assaulted her!” Morgan theatrically gyrated his pelvis to emphasize the ridicule.

“You really think that kid would attack a hooker?” a bunkmate asked incredulously.

“Man, I don’t know but I don’t want nothing to do with this woo-woo-ju-ju crap of his! Who does he think he is, Merlin the Martian? I heard he got sold out of his house for a dope deal, dude, and been kept in this basement measuring bags and shit for some drug lord.”

Growing up at Cottage Grove, Halsted spent most of his time reading mythic folklore, books on mysticism and astrology, and collected the horoscopes from the newspaper every day. When given the opportunity, the fourteen-year-old would fixate on an individual and mutter in a rapid monotone whisper, “Saturn is in your rising house and the Wood Element of the Dragon in your Third Quadrant burns under the Fire of Aries. Your temper will elevate under rising atmospheric climates, but your wealth will prosper as the Moon reaches its Fourth Quarter Phase.” To which he was often met with responses like, “Man, YOU’RE the one making my temper rise! Shut up and leave me alone!” Or was simply punched in the belly while Miss Ashland wasn’t looking.

In Wabash, Morgan asked Halsted to read his fortune.

“You’re not going to believe me,”

“Naw man, it’s not like that! Besides, what else are we gonna do in here?”

“Very well,” Halsted squinted at Morgan, “Your moon is in Virgo, and the bravery of Mars will introduce you to highly influential people. The Water in your Sixth House will bend the time between your present and your future.”

Halsted was the youngest of the twelve upper-school residents at Cottage Grove. The oldest was Harlem, who’d spent his entire life there since the day he was delivered as a newborn—the only infant Miss Ashland had raised from scratch. Miss Ashland may have controlled rule of the house, but Harlem was the ambassador to the people. Harlem’s second-in-command was Austin. Once, when Cicero and Pulaski, the twins, got sent to the Lock Shed for breaking the lamp in the dining hall, Harlem got Austin to distract Miss Ashland with a ballad of “Amazing Grace” and “Clementine” while he picked the pantry lock and smuggled four boxes of M&Ms to the pale-skinned troublemakers through the broken plank in the back of the shed. He’d had a lot of time to work on that opening; being Miss Ashland’s oldest ward also meant Harlem had spent a great deal of time in isolation.

“Remember, Halsted,” Miss Ashland would say, “Every dream needs a dreamer. Every story needs a teller. Your story is to tell stories. Help people see who they are by telling them who they can be.”

“And to help you see these stories better,” Miss Ashland reached for her purse and pulled out a black, oblong case, “They’re not exact, but judging by how I’ve seen you reading, these should help.” The lenses were nearly half an inch thick, perfectly circular, and set inside equally thick tortoise-shell plastic frames of dark amber checkered with black, yellow and chartreuse spots. The frames were loose and slid down Halsted’s nose, magnifying the lower half of his eyes as if he were a crocodile peering over the waterline.

After he got his glasses, Halsted was even more of a bug-eyed pest than usual. His rocking became more aggressive and he’d rub his arms as if he was freezing, and his stare became even wider, rounder, and unbroken, magnified by his lenses, as if in constant shock. The other boys’ patience quickly diminished, and led by Harlem, they plotted to get rid of Halsted for good.

The boys all attended the public high school together and were expected to keep quality grades, though they all struggled, Harlem the most. In detention, Harlem grew close to a girl named Kedzie who did business with a drug dealer named Clinton in the same neighborhood as Cottage Grove. In addition to distributing, Kedzie often accompanied her trades with her abundant teenage sexuality, and Harlem decided how he could use her.

That afternoon, on their way back to Cottage Grove, Kedzie met up with the boys.

“Who’s this?” She asked, winking at Halsted and wrapping her arms around his shoulders, “Cute specks!”

Nervously, Halsted stared back at Kedzie and adjusted his glasses, saying, “B-b-by your expressive demeanor and f-f-flirtatious ph-phy-physicality you must be a f-f-fire sign l-l-like a, a-a L-L-L-Leo? Women born in the sun of Leo tend to be quite g-g-greg-reg-gregarious and express-ss-ssive.” Halsted shrugged to shake Kedzie off his shoulders and began hugging himself as they made their way home.

“Oh my gawd, you’re SO cute I love it!” Kedzie feigned, “My cousin is totally into astrology and all that, I think that’s the coolest thing evah, tell me more!”

As Halsted continued stuttering about prosperity in her seventh house, Kedzie once again wrapped her arms around his shoulder, this time gracefully sliding a bag of weed into Halsted’s backpack, secured the clasp, and kissed Halsted on the cheek in one swift motion.

“Later boys! Bye Haaaa-aalsted!”

Once in sight of Miss Ashland, Cicero and Pulaski started pushing Halsted back and forth between them. Once they grabbed her attention, Cicero ripped Halsted’s backpack from his shoulders and threw it to the ground at Miss Ashland’s feet, spilling its entire contents on the front lawn.

“Whoooooo! Dang man!” Austin called, “now we know where our little fortune teller been getting his ‘inspiration’!

Miss Ashland stood motionless, stone-faced. In a low, steady tone she spoke slowly, “Everyone to your rooms. Halsted, come with me.”

“B-b-b-but Miss Ashland! I-I-I I don’t— they did— it was—!”

“Now, Halsted.”

The rest of the boys ran inside to watch from the kitchen window as Miss Ashland took Halsted by the arm, heaving and sobbing, to the Lock Shed. As she locked the door, she glared through the window and the boys scrambled to their rooms, but Harlem stayed, holding her gaze as she pocketed the key and came back inside.

As dusk began to fall, Harlem cued Austin to ignite a quarrel between Cicero and Pulaski, drawing Miss Ashland to the other side of the house. Quickly Harlem stole straight to the key hook opposite Miss Ashland’s bedroom door, ran downstairs and opened the shed. Surprisingly, Halsted was quite calm in the tight quarters, staring thoughtfully out the narrow opening in the roof at the emerging stars on the horizon.

“Mercury is in retrograde. You’re not supposed to sign contracts or travel for the next three weeks, you know,” Halsted whispered.

“Oh you’ll be traveling alright,” said Harlem as he gagged and beat Halsted and bound his wrists and wrapped his arms to his torso with an orange extension cord. Outside, on the other side of the chain-link fence that bordered the Cottage Grove property, Clinton and Kedzie stood waiting. They had bent and pried the bottom of the fence enough to slide Halsted, limp and listless, through to the outside, but not before Harlem snatched the tortoise-shell glasses from Halsted’s weeping face.

“Just take him—” Harlem said as he slid the bag of weed he’d repossessed from Miss Ashland’s room back to Kedzie through the fence, “and we’ll call it even.”

One hour later, the boys came crashing into Miss Ashland’s room and presented the lone glasses, claiming they found them in the open Lock Shed. Frantically—and to Harlem’s envy—Miss Ashland spent the night on the phone with the police reporting a lost minor—something she’d never have done if he, Harlem, had ever left unannounced from the Cottage Grove House for the streets.

“…and the Crow’s nest grew riddled with pesky mites, which just happened to be the Field Mouse’s favorite treat; and even though the Crow liked to do everything himself, and would rather have eaten the Field Mouse for dinner, he learned to be humble and ask the Field Mouse for help saving his home. Can you understand why he did that, Harlem?”

“Mr. Morgan, get me tomorrow’s voter summaries and catalog last week’s briefs from the meeting with the state Board of Education, please. And make sure you get approval from legal before sending the tax deductions to the accounting office.”

“Yes sir, Senator Clark. Where would you like these files for the last eight years’ polling trend forecasts?”

“How are you at reading that data?”

“Awful sir.”

“Yeah, me too. Ever meet anyone who’s good at that kind of thing?”

“Actually sir, I think I might know just the guy.”

“Hey Squinty!” yelled the Wabash guard, “Your presence has been requested in the warden’s office. Get a move on, stat!”

“Adam Halsted, your sentence has been abbreviated for good behavior and you are to report to community service at the campaign office of Senator Madison Clark starting Monday next week. Any questions?”

“Mr. Halsted, I’ve heard a lot about you. I understand you did time in Wabash with Mr. Morgan?”

“Y-yes sir, Mr. Senator, sir. B-but I can explain why—“

“Mr. Halsted, please. I don’t concern myself with that kind of thing. What I’m concerned about is this campaign and how you can help me, do you think you can do that?”

“I suppose, sir, but I’m not really sure how…”

“I hear you have a knack for telling people’s futures, is that right? Reading signs and what-not?”

“Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that, sir.”

“That’s exactly where you come in, Mr. Halsted. And Jesus, Morgan, help this guy get a decent pair of glasses, will you?”

And so Halsted became Senator Clark’s data analyst, studying past campaigns’ demographic returns, donation summaries, and poll forecasts. With Halsted’s help, Clark was able to steer his campaign in all the right directions, targeting communities that would have gone undetected without Halsted’s savant study skills.

By this time, all the upper-school boys who had accompanied Halsted at the Cottage Grove House had since turned eighteen or older and had heard news that Miss Ashland had contracted cancer and could no longer run the house on her own. Harlem had been living in an auto garage in exchange for helping with repairs, and it was there he rallied Austin and the twins to discuss what they could do to help Miss Ashland. Austin had since been working at the homeless shelter and had heard about a new government assistance program to help fund homeless and foster youth centers in the city. None of the men knew how to tap into the program formally, so Harlem decided they go straight to City Hall to tell their story. The secretary at the mayor’s office told the boys to contact the governor’s assistant, who would contact the assistant to the senator. After a week of filling out paperwork and signing affidavits on behalf of Miss Ashland and the Cottage Grove House, Harlem, Austin, Cicero and Pulaski finally met with Senator Clark’s personal assistant, a finely dressed individual in sleek designer lenses.

To his dismay, the four Cottage Grove boys did not recognize Halsted, and when he read their request to save the home, Halsted decided to test his foster brothers’ newly presented integrity.

“Your temper will elevate under rising atmospheric climates, but your wealth will prosper as the Moon reaches its Fourth Quarter Phase.”

“Tell me, Mr. Harlem,” Halsted asked, “How many of you were there when you lived under the authority of Miss Ashland?”

“Twelve, sir. Well, eleven, after—we lost one.”

“I don’t see any reports of that in your affidavit, Mr. Harlem. What do you mean by that?”

Harlem bowed his head. “It was our fault, sir. We were young. We got rid of him. We regret it now and hope he’s alright, don’t we guys?”

The others nodded quietly.

“Well Mr. Harlem, I’ve heard all I need to hear. I’ll present your case to Senator Clark and will have notice sent to the address listed within the month. You may go now.”

“Thank you sir.”

As the four men made their way for the door, Halsted took off his glasses, squinted his face, and shouted back at them,

“And guys? Does Miss Ashland still keep kids in that tiny Lock Shed in the backyard?”

 

© 2014 Daniel Granias

“Sister Stew” by Corey Fawcett

Sister Stew

by Corey Fawcett

 

A short but powerful spiral of dizziness lurched through Diana’s head as she stepped out of her Oldsmobile 88. All she’d consumed during the 300 miles from Las Vegas to the abandoned military base now just yards in front of her were six miniature bottles of Malibu Coconut rum and fifteen Menthol cigarettes. The addition of the dry 105 degree heat gave her the strange sensation of being pulled in two different directions: her head to the sky and the rest of her body to the center of the earth. She was empty, anxious, and exhausted, but more relieved than she’d ever felt before. She knew her twin sister was here.

“It’s Gretchen. But you probably already knew that. Leave a message!” Diana had heard this recording upwards of one hundred times in the last three weeks. When she was afraid Gretchen might have been dead, the sound of her voice triggered Diana’s immediate tears. Now that she knew her sister had been ignoring her calls and living on a commune in Satan’s Asshole, Nevada, she could only feel rage. The rum did not help.

“I found you Gretchen. I’m fucking here,” she said into the phone as she paced around her car, accidentally kicking an empty bottle of rum underneath it. “I actually read between the lines of your obnoxiously cryptic letter and fucking found you. I went offroading for you. For like, hours. God, I can’t believe this. Oh, P.S., Dad probably won’t recognize you at this point, so good job with that.”

She threw the phone into her purse and turned to face the compound. Encased by a rusty chain-link fence were six rows of crumbling army barracks. She could see a handful of figures moving between them in the distance, some carrying baskets and one of them, what looked like a small child. “CAUTION: RADIATION HAZARD. DO NOT TOUCH SCRAP OBJECTS” read a sign on the fence.

“Idiots,” Diana muttered under her breath, hoping her anger would slow her heart rate down, which was beating faster by the second. Faces began to crop up in the windows of the barracks, and they were all looking her direction. She felt exposed and decided to open one more mini bottle of rum before walking towards the fence.

Diana wasn’t here to simply pluck her sister out of her new home and usher her back into reality. She had let go of the idea of Gretchen being a reliable fixture in her life years ago. When she moved away after barely graduating high school, she would go incommunicado for months on end, leaving Diana and their father Larry hanging for all the typical reasons: drug benders, obsessive romances, and sometimes a simple refusal to replace a nonfunctioning phone until Larry wired her money to do so. The irony of Gretchen’s current situation? The man who introduced her to the commune was someone she had met during a rehab stint. For years, Diana had the utmost sympathy and patience for Gretchen, which was fueled by her guilt-ridden feeling that even though they were identical twins, Gretchen’s youth was tainted by suffering in a way that Diana’s wasn’t. But now, things were different. Gretchen still caused Diana many sleepless nights – especially recently – but now she reserved all her sympathy for Larry, whose rapidly withering brain could no longer remember how to get him to the grocery store. Diana was head of the family now, and she was going to make damn well sure Gretchen knew that.

She swirled the rum around in her bottle as she watched more and more faces appear in the barrack windows. A lithe figure was pressed against the chain-link fence, looking in her direction, and then swiftly moving toward the opening. Diana shot her hand into her purse and fingered the long blade of the butcher’s knife resting at the bottom of it; the last thing she took from her apartment in Seattle before leaving for Vegas. As the figure came into focus, its scragginess grew more startling. The woman’s billowy pants that clung to her limbs revealed legs and arms biggest at the joints. The hair, though long, was thin and ratty, but Diana would recognize its warm auburn hue anywhere.

“Gretchen,” she said, anger petering out of her at the sight of the gauntness in her sister’s face. All traces of fat were scooped out of it and dark circles cradled her eyes. She was a skeleton. Gretchen threw her arms around her sister’s neck and leaned into her, crying.

“What is this place?”

“I can’t believe you’re here,” she sobbed into Diana’s neck, ignoring her question.

“Really? Because I told you I would find you. I sent you letters. Texts. Maybe forty voicemails.”

Gretchen shook her head, looking through tears into her sister’s eyes, which were at the exact same level as hers. “I don’t have access to external correspondences.”

Diana could feel a familiar stoniness coming on. “Is that so? There was nothing you could do? Don’t you just have to suck your leader’s dick to get what you want? Isn’t that how it works in cults?”

Gretchen was still shaking her head and looking down, her tears dotting the ashy dirt beneath them. “You don’t understand.” She was whispering, even though they were far out of earshot from everyone else.

“Well, Dad is dying. Early onset Alzheimer’s. Last time I visited him he was wearing a tux.”

Gretchen stepped back, open-mouthed. Diana waited for her to say something, but she remained speechless. She looked over her shoulder at a tall, bearded man who was now walking in their direction. Gretchen flung her arms around Diana again and put her mouth right on her ear.

“You need to leave now. NOW.”

Diana tried to push her off but Gretchen quickly grabbed her arms and feigned a loving embrace. The man was almost in earshot.

“You’re two breaths away from being vulture food. Fuck if I’m leaving here without you.”

“Saul, this is my sister Diana,” Gretchen said cheerfully, turning to face the man. “She’s come to cleanse herself.” Diana inhaled sharply ready to deny this but Gretchen dug her fingernails into her arm. The tip of one of them broke off and fell to the ground.

Saul was also skeletal, but moved with more buoyancy than Gretchen. He crossed his arms, accentuating his bulbous, knotty shoulders. “Oh, yes?”

Gretchen nodded vigorously. “Twins share a spiritual connection that transcends communication. We are stones nestled together under the river of time, and I could feel her becoming dislodged, so I cried out to her.” Gretchen beamed vacuously at Diana took her hand. “And she heard my call.”

Saul’s face remained unchanged. He looked at Diana.

“Yes, I knew Gretchen was in a better place,” she said, struggling for words. “And her…her calls…helped guide me here.”

Saul didn’t say anything for a long time. “Welcome to nowhere,” he said flatly, looking down his nose at Diana. “Starting today, you are nothing. Follow me and we will begin.”

Gretchen held Diana’s hand tightly as they followed behind him. Hordes of people spilled out of the barracks as the three of them walked past. They were wearing normal street clothes, but they were worn and faded by the sun. All the people were varying degrees of thin – from lean and sinewy to emaciated assemblages of skin and bones. Clothes lines hung between the windows and jugs of water sat next to the doorways. They looked frightened and somber, and the shadows in their faces reeked of sleep deprivation. There were no blissed out smiles, no plant life in anyone’s hair, no acoustic guitar players strumming about oneness and Earth power and peace and love. All was deafeningly quiet and colorless. In the distance, Diana saw thin, black wisps of smoke trailing off a large hunk of burnt metal. She glanced over at Gretchen, who was directing her unwavering gaze ahead. Diana thought they were leading her to the large tent at the end of the barracks but Saul took a sharp turn to the left and stopped above a large hole about ten feet in diameter and gestured to the ladder leading into it. Diana peered in and saw nothing but a half-empty jug of water at the bottom. “Go on,” said Gretchen with a smile. She widened her eyes minutely, and Diana recognized the urgent plea in them. She climbed down the ladder.

“This will be your home for the next two nights,” Saul said, crouching down at the top of the hole. “To become nothing, you must do nothing. You must consume nothing.” He paused for questions, which never came. “Soon you will be able to survive on air, light, and water alone, as the universe intended. But before you embark on your spiritual journey, you must rid yourself of the poison that is currently running rampant inside of you. Speak naught. Think naught. Eat naught. After this trial, you will be on your way to needing nothing and thusly purifying the earth of your artificial self. Every day we will get closer to obliterating that self.” Saul held out his hand. “The handbag may not accompany you on this journey.”

Diana gripped her purse tightly and stood up. “You know what, I think I’m good, actually. I don’t know if I’m ready for this yet. So if I could get out here, please.”

Saul threw his hands up. “We cannot force the sun to come up, or the birds to change their patterns.”

“Wow,” Diana said sardonically, the rum emboldening her. “That’s very true. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’d like to talk to my sister for a bit.”

Gretchen shook her head almost imperceptibly.

“There is no privacy here,” said Saul. “We are bells uncast. We have no shells to hold secrets.”

“Well, I’d like to discuss our dying dad with her, if you don’t mind.”

“Ah, yes. I’m sorry about the suffering your father’s disease has caused you. But you must remember, he is not returning to oblivion, for he already is oblivion.” Diana briefly considered the idea that Saul might actually have some sort of psychic ability before she realized he had probably been listening to Gretchen’s voicemails.

“Hmm, yes. Very comforting. Gretchen, can we please just walk together for a bit? Am I not owed a moment’s reunion with my twin sister?”

Saul grabbed Gretchen’s shoulders and pointed her towards the large tent to their right.

“Here, we are all siblings, and all not-siblings, and there is no hierarchy of bonds. You are free to go. It’s the car or the hole.” Saul tightened his grip on Gretchen’s shoulders. The skeletons were watching from afar, and for a second Diana considered dragging her sister away as she thwacked her way through all of them with her butcher’s knife. They would probably drop like flies. But then she caught the eye of a young boy peering out from behind a woman’s wiry leg.

“Fine,” she said, stepping back toward the hole.

“The bag.”

She handed it over to Saul, who slung it over his shoulder knob. She hoped he couldn’t see the car key in her front pocket. Her stomach lurched as she watched him push Gretchen toward the tent and zip up the opening behind them.

Diana lowered herself back into the hole turned her eyes to the cloudless sky to consider her options. She couldn’t run back to her car to drive away and leave Gretchen in such a place. Maybe she could bring the car back around to the tent and –

“Saul, please reconsider!” Gretchen cried after Saul as he ferociously reopened the entrance to the tent and stumbled out of it holding a rag, a lighter, and a plastic carton. Gretchen clutched the waist of his shorts where he had stuck Diana’s knife. He pushed her off and sprinted through the barracks. She ran over to Diana, who was halfway out of the hole.

“A baby died…yesterday,” she panted. “Malnourishment…he doesn’t want anyone to know…we can’t leave…he blew up our only car yesterday…we’re stuck here now…no more supplies.” An explosion sounded in the distance. Diana, squinting through the blurry layer of heat on the desert floor, saw clouds of orange bursting out of her Oldsmobile 88. The blood drained from her face. “I have to get back before he sees me. Get down,” she demanded, palming her sister’s head and shoving her back into the hole. “This is for tomorrow. Don’t let him see!” She tossed a vial to her sister before scampering back into the tent.

Diana huddled into a crevice and held the vial up to her face. It was narrow with a golden brown body and black, nipple-like top. The fluid looked clear.

She heard footsteps and stuffed it down her shirt. Soon enough, Saul’s bearded face peered over the hole. “Ridding ourselves of such monstrous attachments is the first step to obliterating the self. You will understand in time.” Diana nodded, suppressing the desire to give him a mordant thumbs up.

“I do understand,” she said softly. Saul nodded and disappeared.

A wave of hunger surged over Diana and she closed her eyes, trying to hold back the tears knuckling their way out. She had always been the more stoic sister, laughing, yelling, and crying far less easily than Gretchen. It had been like that since infancy. “One of you is a blazing fire, and one of you is the steady earth,” their mother Karen would say, poking the girls in their stomachs with a playful finger. The mantra rung true throughout their childhood and early adolescence, which Diana passed in quiet, studious solitude and Gretchen spent breaking rules and chasing after boys. Most of the time they were together was when Gretchen was grounded and forced to stay in their shared bedroom which Diana voluntarily and frequently inhabited. But despite their differences, they understood every fiber of each other. The two of them snapped together like puzzle pieces and they lived off each other in an emotional symbiosis; one igniting and the other dampening. But after Gretchen found their mother’s body hanging in their basement from an orange extension cord, Diana lost all power over her sister’s volatility. For years, the color orange was enough to send Gretchen into a fit of distress. Larry, whose affair with a coworker was exposed just before Karen’s suicide, was treated like a pariah by both of the girls in the aftermath. But Diana, bound by the same sense of duty to her family members that had just landed her in a hole in the middle of the Nevada desert, succumbed to his desperate need for their love and forgave him. Gretchen, however, had never come close. “I need to see her,” he’d pleaded to Diana after he informed her about his diagnosis. “She’ll come, won’t she? She has to come.”

Diana unscrewed the top of the vial and peered in. The pure liquid looked and smelled like water. “If this is acid…what a cliché,” she muttered to herself. There was only one way to find out. She used the dropper to wipe a tiny trace of it onto her finger and dabbed it onto her tongue. She sat back and wiped the sweat out of her eyes, waiting for something to happen. She thought she could feel some tingles but wasn’t sure if it had something to do with her empty stomach, which was changing from nauseated to ravenous and back again with the rhythm of a pulse. The last time she did acid was in college, and she’d spent most of her trip trying to keep a posse of Whitman-quoting, be-poncho’d white boys from driving down to the train tracks. “Never drop acid with anyone in a poncho,” Gretchen had told her, laughing, during a rare phone call. Just when Diana was afraid her sister had completely gone off the deep end and given her a vile of water, a black squiggle caught the corner of her eye. She jumped up, suddenly recalling that the Nevada desert was full of rattlesnakes. Another black squiggle. And another. But every time she looked, it wasn’t there. She settled back down into her crevice. The sky was a deep sapphire. Whatever the morning would bring, she was ready.

“Guest, it’s time.” Diana opened one eye and saw Gretchen and Saul peering over her at the edge of the hole. Gretchen was holding the handle of a wagon, which was filled with kindling, jugs of water, a bag of rice, and a large pot. “The newest guest brews our daily nourishment. After you prepare it as it pleases our wise leader, you will watch us consume it and return to the hole. In one day, you too will be able to partake. However, if you prepare it incorrectly, it will return to the earth and you will have to keep trying until you get it right.”

Diana climbed out of the hole and followed them to a fire that was already alive and well. Along the way, she positioned the vile so it stood upright underneath the front hook of her bra and screwed off the top, which she shoved down her underwear. The other skeletons, about thirty of them, were gathered around the fire in a circle, which Gretchen joined. Saul paced around her as she fastened the pot over the flames.

“So am I making like, rice tea here?” Diana asked as she opened the bag of rice. Saul just smiled. Diana looked over at Gretchen, who held a finger up to her lips. She hoped this wasn’t strike one. She slowly raised the bag to the edge of the pot, hoping a feigned reverence would gain her points. Before she reached for a jug of water, something in the pot caught her eye. The legs of a shimmering onyx beetle stuck out of the grains. She looked up at Saul, whose expression betrayed that he was anticipating this discovery. He was standing right in front of Gretchen, completely obscuring her face. Diana reached down and plucked the beetle out of the rice, holding it up by a leg for all to see, and bent as far into the pot as she could go to gently lay it back down where it came from. As she did so, the acid spilled all over the rice.

Diana let the water boil for a few minutes before putting the fire out. She turned to face Saul and clasped her hands behind her back, stepping aside to show that it was ready for his examination. She swore she saw his brows furrow slightly as he stared at the pot. But after a few languishing moments, he held his arms out and addressed the skeletons. “Come one, come all. And as you drink, remember you are weak. Remember you have so much left to accomplish.”

Diana ladled the rice water into cups and the skeletons filtered through wordlessly. Saul was the last one in line, and he swallowed his in a few gulps before withdrawing her butcher’s knife from the waist of his sagging shorts and pointed it into her stomach. “I’ll escort you back to your hole,” he said. Diana held her breath as grabbed her wrist and turned her around to guide her back to where she came from.

“I know she told you,” he seethed into her ear they walked, weaseling the tip of the knife further and further into the tough muscle of her lower back. Diana shook her head vigorously, which he ignored. “You can’t lie to me.” They were standing at the edge of the hole now. He twisted the knife ever so slightly, and Diana cried out. He breathed heavily into her ear. “This is for the best,” he said, his voice breaking a bit. “This is – ” he dropped the knife and spun to his left.

“FIRE!” he screamed, pointing with a quaking finger at Gretchen, who was running toward them. “FIRE! FIRE!”

He dropped to the ground and rolled back and forth, back and forth, getting further and further away from them. Gretchen picked up the knife and we escaped into the desert. I let her blaze the trail for us.

© 2014 Corey Fawcett

“Best-Case Scenario” by Vincent Rupp

Best-Case Scenario

by Vincent Rupp

 

“I don’t ever want to get old and weak!”

Two runners had joined the path at the end of the park, four blocks away. They were at the playground now, close enough for words to drift to Richard’s patio on the insistent wind that was showering the first leaves out of the trees. The speaker was a young man who was now doing pull-ups; a young woman was waiting for him impatiently.

The path continued around the park and exited by his house. When the young man ran by, he’d see Richard on the patio and their eyes would meet. Richard would smile and give him a nod. Embarrassed, the young man would look away quickly and keep his eyes fixed ahead with false casualness.

The phone rang inside. It’d be his daughter, calling after church with the usual disappointment that he hadn’t found religion this week. If he hurried, he could get it before the machine. This week though, he felt tired. He turned his head, waiting for the message. His gaze fell on the extension cord he’d forgotten to put away the day before. He used to trim the bushes by hand, but nowadays the electric trimmer was easier.

“Today’s sermon was really great. It was about forgiveness, and I just know you would have liked it.” Susan and her husband had been at it for over a decade. Lately they were trying the soft sell. Maybe if they’d started with that.

The cord was easy to overlook now, but when new it had been bright orange. The pigments giving it color were large organic molecules, embedded in the rubber. They were stable, designed to last, but every now and then, a tiny photon on a nuclear-powered journey from the sun hit just right and the carefully-manufactured orange faded just a hair.

“Anyway, we’re thinking about bringing the kids to the park later, maybe we could have a barbeque on your deck? One last summer celebration!”

She worried about him, body and soul. In the morning, the kids would go back to school, but for the first time in fifty years, he wouldn’t. He wondered where he’d be instead.

He looked at the playground again. The young man was trying to manage sit-ups on the slide, and the young woman was still on the path, now with her arms crossed. “Can we go?” she asked. How young were they? Maybe if he were their age he could tell from this distance.

Pretty young though, for him to say something like that. He wouldn’t say that if he was old enough to notice the occasional knee ache was part of a trend, to finally spot the shift in a hairline, or to need the handrail on a staircase. Yeah, they were young. Probably not even thirty.

Thirty. The number seemed important. What year was it? He took a deep breath; this winter would be thirty years.

Everyone told him it wasn’t fair, like he didn’t already know. Looking back now though, he figured he shouldn’t complain. Even though her brother had implanted wrong, rendering her perpetually an only child, Susan had always been healthy. And they had fifteen years with her before Carol found what else had been growing inside her.

Still, some days seemed less fair than others, like those when they found they hadn’t beaten the odds. The leaves were falling then too when the doctor finished flipping through the folder and gave them a serious look. Richard took Carol’s hand, held in the space between their chairs. “The good news is the surgery went very well.” They waited, breathless, for the bottom line. Did he think the good news would relax them? “But it has spread. If we start chemo right away, there’s a good chance…”

Richard squeezed her hand, as he would at every subsequent glimmer and maybe. She looked over at him, wanting the reassurance of their connection. He focused on the doctor, listening carefully to every word. If he looked at her, she’d see the fear he’d been fighting down; he couldn’t risk seeing the same in her.

At the playground, the young man started running again. Maybe feeling petulant, the young woman was now stretching on the grass by the chain-link fence. Her body would be firm and healthy, full of life. She was probably too young to appreciate that. The young man stopped and turned around. “Are you coming?” Richard imagined she said she had waited for him. Tit for tat, the hallmark of a good relationship.

Before the cancer, he and Carol always had a good relationship. They could talk things over and laugh the little things off. But there he was, just two days after she was admitted, walking in near seven o’clock. He opened the door to see her laughing with Susan.

“Hi, dad!”

“Hi, sweetie. You been here long?” He knew the answer; she’d come right after school the previous day too.

“Hi Richard, good to see you.”

He was sure she saw his hesitation, just a fraction of a second, before he said “Good to see you too.” Processes that began forty years ago brought Carol into adult- and mother-hood, made her muscles strong and kept her skin supple. Forty years of beauty, dissolved in under two months, like a sugar cube in cold water. “Sorry it’s so late. It’s been hectic at school this year, and I probably told you I’m covering chemistry part-time too.”

At the sight of her now, he squinted away the tears and looked around the room. She didn’t need that from him; she needed him to be there for her, to support her and make sure she knew she was loved. But nothing he tried could get past the sight of her so thin and sick, and he just ended up crying, making a mess of everything. He fixed his gaze on the TV, but Susan had already turned it off.

“That’s okay. Are those for me?” Carol’s manner invited him in, asked him to share his pain as they’d done all these years. She’d hold him and tell him it was okay, but it wasn’t. She was the sick one, and Susan was still a child. He was the head of the family; he was supposed to take care of them.

“Yeah. Your favorite.” He moved Susan’s textbooks out of the way and sat down on the bed. He kissed her sharp cheekbone and took her hand in both of his. He’d stopped at three florists on the way. Even from the road, the first two had appeared closed, but visiting hours went until eight, so he’d checked anyway. Ashamed, he muttered to the bedspread “I’m glad you’re studying.”

The young couple was bickering now. Richard cocked his head, listening. The branches of dry leaves rustled with the wind and brought the young man saying “You always do this!” Her reply started with “That’s because you never”, and the breeze kept the rest. Always and never: their problems were serious. He closed his eyes and imagined their angry words and recriminations, rising and falling with their breathing, still hard from the exertion of running

Every year, Richard had his students measure their lung volume and then estimate how many molecules of oxygen they inhaled with every breath. It’s an incomprehensible number. He diagramed how it entered their blood, deformed the hemoglobin that picked it up, and spread to an unfathomable number of cells. There were so many tiny things, all conspiring together so exactly every second simply so they could take another breath.

He’d never wasted such perfection arguing in the park. Well, not this park. The one at the school though, near the end of that term. Richard shouted that he didn’t need to take time off; what he needed was to keep working, needed something to occupy his mind. He panicked at the thought that if he wasn’t at work, there was only one place he could be.

He’d forced himself to calm down. Then he apologized and promised to be more attentive. It’s only two weeks left, Richard pleaded. The superintendent looked around; the students were all gone, no one had seen. In the end, Richard had pulled it together; the night before that had just been hard.

The mood had been different at the hospital. Carol told him what she’d decided. She hadn’t used him to talk it over first. He’d really looked at her then, searching her face, trying to understand without asking. “How long would you be there?” He didn’t really know, or want to know, what hospice care meant.

She reached toward him, her smile sad, becoming a grimace from the effort. “Probably not very long.” Richard shook his head and pulled her close, anything to keep from looking at this wilted parody of the woman he loved, to keep himself from shuddering with the uselessness she didn’t need to see. But being pressed so closely, he felt his hands over her bony ribs over her struggle to breathe and sobbed into her, unable to either hold it back or pull away.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I love you forever. No matter what.” She said she knew and she loved him too. She tapped her wedding ring on his back. Without counting, he knew it’d be eighteen times. From how loose it was, he knew there’d never come a nineteenth.

The young couple’s fight seemed to be ending, but without apology or affection. Richard wished one of them would stop, realize how inconsequential this episode was, and say how much they cared. Then they’d share a hug and a laugh, thereby excising the anger from their hearts. Instead, they’d added to it, spreading more hurt through their history so it could keep growing. Unchecked, their relationship would be terminal.

He and Carol had just that one moment of communion; this young couple would disappear from each other’s lives without even that.

Inside the house, the phone rang again. Four long rings, then the machine. “Hey, it’s me again. Scott seems to think last time we were there you were low on propane. We can bring our spare tank if so, just let me know.”

This call was about propane, but it could have been about anything. Some calls though, the kind you get deep in the night, you know what those are about and still can’t prepare for them.

He had trouble waking up, couldn’t find his keys, didn’t know what to wear. He dressed himself in his suit, the one she always said he looked so nice in. But what to do about Susan? She shouldn’t be there for this. She’d be angry if he didn’t tell her. If he told her, he couldn’t stop her from going. He was about to knock on her door but then changed his mind and went to the car. He sat there for a few minutes with the key in the ignition, then went back inside to wake her.

“Just park in the handicapped spot!” she commanded. It’s probably too late, he thought. She rushed inside with him following closely, to Carol’s private room with the soothing green walls. In this place, there was no hum or whirr of machines, just a single tube to her arm. She was propped up, eyes closed but breathing. She’d waited for them. Could she sense he wished she hadn’t? He tried to smile through the tragedy of all she was losing and cursed himself that she’d probably thought she lost him too.

Susan, really still Susie back then, went to her, overwhelmed with grief but somehow still functioning. She took her mom’s hands and calmly, though through tears, told her she was beautiful. Richard kissed her forehead, stroked her cheek, and felt like an intruder when he joined his hands with theirs. He said he was sorry it took them so long, and choked out that he loved her.

Her sunken eyes – he’d once told her by the side of the Seine that they out-sparkled the river – moved with difficulty between them, then focused on Susan. They both leaned closer, but there were no last words. Carol smiled, closed her eyes, exhaled, and with that, for Richard, it was the premature extinguishing of the sun. All the warmth suddenly vanished; the world went dark.

He collapsed in a chair, his head in his hands, shaking for the loss of his wife and the infinite regret of having abandoned her when she needed him most.

The young couple resumed their run, toward the house. The young man made a comment about the leaves crunching under their feet, trying to reestablish normalcy over the feelings beneath. Overnight, it would rain, dulling the burnt orange leaves, turning them to mush. By next spring they’d be gone, rejoined with the dirt. It happens to everything, someday. The lucky ones were those who saw more of it.

As the couple neared the house, Richard sighed. The young man heard him and turned with surprise. Embarrassed that his argument had been seen, the young man looked away quickly, but not before they shared a look. In that moment, Richard thought, the young man realized there are worse things than getting old, and worse ways to be weak.

© 2014 Vincent Rupp

“A Life Inside” by Carrie Padian

 

A Life Inside

by Carrie Padian

 

When they tried to reconstruct Alice Anderson’s final days on Earth, the police were surprised at how little her coworkers knew of her whereabouts.  Many of them had been in town only for the weekend, a company outing full of beer and drunken small talk.  Now they were all lined up, a row of white men in starched white shirts in the station waiting area, heads buried in their phones or talking on their bluetooth headsets.  Alice’s boss was called in first.

The hallway down to the interrogation room was cold and institutional.  The concrete block, aging paint, and reinforced glass all reminded Arthur Kelly of his elementary school.  35 years ago, life was simple and Art was the king of the dodgeball court.  He missed it.  The other kids shrinking away from him in the hallways felt like power, and Art loved every minute of it.  Managing a bunch of finance hacks came close — their lives in his hands, just a little bit — but it couldn’t match that old primal feeling.  Now, with a cop at his back and an industrial steel table blocking the exit, Art was looking for outs.  It was game time.

“Can I get some coffee or something?” he asked with a smile.  The detective on the other side of the table was young, with slicked black hair and a smug, smarmy face that made Art’s knuckles itch.  He was studying a file in front of him, Alice’s file.  Art made a point of clearing his throat until the man looked up.

“Yes, yes of course,” he said, “though between you and me, calling that stuff coffee is an act of extreme charity.”  He gestured to the uniformed officer by the door.  “Uh…Williams, would you mind?  Cream and sugar?” He turned to Art.

“Black.”

“Two black coffees, if you please.”  His eyes followed her out of the room.  “So, Arthur, what can you tell me about Alice Anderson?  Have you known her long?”

Art sat back in his chair, a metal folding number that creaked beneath his bulk.  His back was sweating, and he didn’t know why.  “No, I wouldn’t say that, exactly.  Well, Alice worked for me for about three or four years but I can’t say I ever really got to know her.”

“Oh no?  Why is that?”

The officer returned and set a steaming cup on the table in front of Art.  He sipped at it and stared into the black for a long moment, considering his answer.

“To be honest, I can’t really tell you why.  Alice was a pretty girl and a good worker but sometimes that just isn’t enough.  Sometimes the human side is missing a little, if you know what I mean.  You can try but they won’t let you in.”  He looked up at the detective.  “You get what I’m saying, kid?  Sometimes you can’t get to know your coworkers as well as you’d like to, is what I’m saying.”  He cast a meaningful glance at the girl who had brought the coffee.  She met his eyes and then stared at the floor.  Art sipped again at his cup.

——

I admit it, in fact, I’d be the first to admit that I’m not that easy to know.  Sometimes I don’t know how Ben, my fiancé, ever puts up with me.  “Quirky”, is what my mom always called it.  Dad would say “independent” with a sigh, as if that’s the worst quality a woman can possess.

I didn’t want to go to Chicago in the first place.  Sure, the firm paid to fly me in, put me up in a pretty nice hotel, and then set up this whole party thing, but if I’m being honest, I would have preferred to just spend that time at home with Ben and the cats, reading books, watching movies.  I don’t like socializing, and it doesn’t like me.  The idea of hours on a rooftop with Art and the gang making small conversation while they get drunker and drunker, pretending not to notice when their gazes linger just south of my collarbone or their fingers graze my ass as they’re walking by, pretending I think it’s funny when they call me “token bitch”, well, no.  That doesn’t sound like a good time to me.  And yet, after last week’s pointed conference call where Art blustered on about being “the head of this family” and that it was breaking his heart that our sales numbers weren’t higher and we needed a few good “team players” out there, well, I had no choice but to go.  Despite everything, I knew the only girl on the team would be the first on the chopping block when Art went looking to trim the fat.  No pun intended.

——

Detective Matthew Savits rubbed his eyes.  Never before had he spent so much time talking to so many smart looking men who knew so very little.  Many of Alice’s coworkers seemed to know even less about her than he did.  Not a one of them had seen her leave the party.  Most of them hadn’t even known she was engaged.  He stared at the twin photographs in front of him, one a headshot from Alice’s driver’s license.  She was white, blonde, early thirties, and her stats put her at five feet seven inches and just under 200 pounds.  A solid woman.   Physically, Alice was average as could be.  Unremarkable.  She was smart though, he could see it in her smile, almost a smirk at the camera.  This was a woman who could know things just by looking at you.  What happened then?  How does this smart, savvy, solid woman end up like that?  Matt touched the second picture with a gentle fingertip, tracing the orange electrical cord wound around Alice’s neck.

——

It was the longest flight of his life.  “Just over four hours, gate to gate!” the attendant chirped into the intercom.  Ben Stadt felt his insides clench.  He couldn’t decide if he wanted to actually get there.  As long as they were still in the air, maybe Alice was still alive.  Maybe that was some other dead blonde girl the police were calling about.  Some other poor sap’s fiancée.  Ben shifted in his seat and felt the armrest digging into his hip.  He welcomed the pain.  It helped him feel less dead inside, in the parts that wanted to join Alice wherever she was.  The world felt so empty without her in it.  He felt a hand on his arm.

“Do you hate flying as much as I do, sweetheart?” came a voice from his left, the woman in the window seat he had only barely looked at when he boarded the plane.  He took her in now, a soft, round, motherly brunette.  She was staring at him with imploring eyes, practically begging to be of use to him in his time of need.  And she didn’t even know how much he needed right now.  Alice would have ignored her, maybe put headphones on or buried her nose in a book.  Ben nodded and patted her hand.  “Yes, thank you, I do, I hate flying.  It’s the absolute worst.”

——

Ben didn’t always hate flying, you know.  I remember this trip he and I took to Acapulco to celebrate our second year together and you should have seen him on the plane.  His face just lit up like a kid on Christmas, so thrilled with the excitement of flying through the air.  He was so giddy the woman next to us asked if it was his first time flying and he said “nope, I’m always like this.”  He was, always like that, and I loved him for it.  I was the one who hated it.  Flying seemed to me like an exercise in giving up your human rights.  First, they pack you into this tin can with maybe a few square feet of personal space, tops, then they tell you when you get to use your own laptop, when you’re allowed to drink something, when you can use the bathroom, what angle your seat back should be.  It’s torture on the best of days, when I’ve got Ben to distract me, but flying alone is just awful.  They always sit me next to some chatty lady, or worse, some dude who spreads his knees as wide as possible until they’re pushing into my leg space, like somehow he’s entitled to it, and then he spends the whole damn flight telling me about his very successful business or his sweet, loving family and I try to nod a little to be polite, but not so much that I’m encouraging him to keep talking, because doesn’t he see that I have this book in my hands?  No, he doesn’t seem to notice.  He never does.  He just wants an audience for a few hours and since we’re on a plane there’s nowhere I can go to escape.  No escape.  Now, that sounds familiar.

——

The Q Hotel was downtown, right in the middle of everything, which meant parking was going to be a bitch.  Matt circled the block a solid ten times before giving in and pulling up to the valet stand.  If only he was driving a black and white.  He could park that thing anywhere he pleased.  But hitting the hotel on his way home meant taking the Hyundai and that meant parking like a civilian.  He flashed his badge at the attendant as he handed over the keys.  “Uh..take good care of her, yeah?”  Sometimes that worked.  Man, he loved flashing that badge.  Maybe they wouldn’t even charge him.

Matt pushed through a revolving door and found himself in the 1960s.  Everything in the Q lobby could be characterized as “groovy” or “far out”, from the flashing lights to the white leather furniture.  On his left, the hotel bar was a cluster of giggling, chatty drinkers and Matt could feel rather than hear the music pouring out of the speakers scattered every few feet.  It made him feel old, which he wasn’t.  Not for a detective anyway.  Just four years on the force before he took the exam and passed it in one go.  A fluke, really.  Matt had always been good at tests.  Unfortunately that skill didn’t always translate very well to field work.  After more than a year at it, he still felt like a rank amateur when it came to the detecting part.

He approached the front desk, manned by a tall, thin kid who couldn’t be more than twenty.  He flipped open his badge again.  “Chicago PD.  I was told you’re holding Alice Anderson’s room?”

The clerk was maybe a little too eager to please.  “Yessir, we’ve been waiting for you to come take another look.  We’ve got it up there just as she left it.  I told housekeeping not to go in there, not to even touch it.  Like I said, we’ve been waiting for you.”

Matt shot him a look, preparing a response along the lines of eff you, kid. I’ve been busy until he thought better of it.  It might help to have a guy on the inside. “Well, I’m here now.  Can you show me?”

Alice’s room was on the fifteenth floor, a double room which was odd only because her colleagues all asked for kings.  “I’ve never really had so many people from one group insist on a king bed before,” the front desk kid said, “I wasn’t entirely sure we wouldn’t run out but it turns out we’ve got more kings than doubles even.  And the doubles are cheaper so they go faster.  In the end, it was harder for me to find her an open double than it was to find all those kings.”

Matt nodded, considering.  “Why do you think she wanted a double then?”

The clerk leaned in and pushed the door open.  “See for yourself.  I think she might’ve just wanted someplace to spread out.”

1504 was a typical upscale hotel room with a few major differences.  The ceilings were high with exposed ductwork and piping which gave the space an industrial, lofty feel.  The walls, ceilings and all the furniture were stark white.  It made Matt not want to touch anything for fear of griming it up.  There was an unplugged floor lamp on its side in the middle of the room. On the wall across from the slept-in bed hung a lightbox with words printed on it:  Life is not about discovering yourself.  Life is about creating yourself.

The second bed was covered in paper, stacks of typewritten pages lined up meticulously along the edges of the mattress.  Air coming through the a/c vent had blown a few of them out of place.  Matt bent down and squinted at an errant page.

“Huh.” he said.   “So she was a writer?”

“It looks like it.  I mean, her name is on all of these pages.”  The clerk picked up a sheaf of them and flipped through it before Matt could stop him.  “What is it, though?  A novel?  Maybe a dissertation or something?”

Matt took the pages from the clerk and moved toward the bathroom’s better lighting.  He heard a squish and looked down.  The carpet was saturated.  “Did something happen here?” he asked.

The clerk crouched next to the spot and prodded it with a long finger, watching the short pile carpet disappear under the water and reemerge again.  “That’s a lot of water.”  He looked up just as a cold, fat drop splashed on his face from above. “Aagggh!  Right in my eye.  Thanks man.”, he said as Matt handed him a towel.

“Is that normal?”

“I don’t think so..I mean no, of course not.  I can get one of my plumbing guys to take a look at it.”

“Don’t do that just yet.  I want to have our guys look at it first.”  He glanced at the pipe above.  There was a discolored gap in the stark white paint. “Actually wait.  Do you have a ladder I can use?”

——

Please don’t ask me about the book.  I really don’t want to talk about the book.

——

Art watched the sun set over the rooftops from his grand mahogany desk, stiff-backed in an antique Persian leather chair that cost more than his car.  The temperature in the office remained a steady 68 degrees but Art was still sweating.  He ran a finger underneath his shirt collar and loosened the choke hold grip of his necktie.  He should never have talked to that cop without a lawyer.  What a stupid, amateur move.  At least he didn’t lie.  No he didn’t.  No, not really.  Alice was a hard bitch to know.  So many times she shut him out.  And he had tried, really tried with her.  So many second chances when her numbers were down.  So many other ways he had given her to prove her worth to the company.

He walked to his office door and pushed in the lock.  With any luck he’d have a few hours before the cleaning staff came in.  On his desk sat a laptop with an open document on the screen.  The margin text read “What Happens Next: a novel by Alice Anderson.”  He scrolled to the first page and began to skim.

——

The Q Hotel was generally quiet at night, and that was the way José liked it.  The late night party people usually kept their partying to the hotel bar or the dive joint down the street, which meant the people who asked for things after hours were the quiet ones, the lonely introverts who preferred dinner alone in their rooms with a good book to seeing and being seen out on the town.  José’s people.  He loved to bring a little cheer into the lonely traveler’s life, be it a bit of friendly conversation or an extra fudge brownie sneaked in on the tray.  No request was too big or too small.  After all, lonely travelers were exceedingly good tippers.  But José told himself he wasn’t just in it for the money.  He liked the feeling at the end of a long night shift that he had done a little good in the world.  He had served someone, with every ounce of meaning that word entailed.  José liked to think of himself as the lonely traveler’s trusted friend.  And no one in the world, no one else ever needed to know about it.

——

“Biff Johnson was a powerful man, and he never let you forget it.  He moved about the world like a movie star with an entourage, young, impressionable girls hanging on his every word.  He could have had any one of them in any combination he wanted but Biff was a hunter and he liked a challenge.  He’d spot his prey across the room and sidle up to her silently, like a leopard stalking a gazelle.  And then he’d attack, not with teeth but with effusive charm that made her feel like the most beautiful prey animal in the room.  She’d be dead before she even realized he was watching.”

Matt lay the stack of pages on his lap.  Well, that was thinly-veiled as all hell.  Was this supposed to be fiction?  He flipped to the back, the final words on the final pages.

“Serena heard the door shut behind her and only then could she let loose the torrent of tears pricking behind her eyelids.  Such a helpless feeling.  Of course she knew he’d make a horrible father.  He was a weak man, deep down.  Not at all the kind of partner who would stand by her side and face life’s challenges.  Not like Dan.  Dan had always been the only person she could ever count on.  But if he knew…if he knew what she was, what she had done…  Serena choked back a sob as she realized Biff was now out in the world with intimate knowledge of her secret affairs and nothing at all to stop him.”

“Oh, crap”  Matt picked up his phone and dialed the station.  “Hey Lanie, listen, I’m going to need someone to pick up Art Kelly for further questioning.  Can you send a car?  Office and home.  Yeah, now please.  I’ll meet you there.”

——

The book is dumb, right?  You can tell me.  I can take it.  No I know, the book is dumb.  I’m so terrible at writing fiction.  But I had to get it out.   What can you do when your life becomes a freaking melodrama?  What else can you do when you realize you’re the stupid girl in this equation, that despite all your desire to become someone interesting and special, your life has become the biggest cliche?  Yeah, I screwed my boss.  I did it.  Me. I’m the dumb girl.  Wow, it almost feels good to get that off my chest, or I guess it would if it wasn’t too damn late for any of that to matter.

You know what happens next though, right?  To Serena?  Yes, she offs herself.  She should have gone after Biff and made him pay but she’s selfish and stupid and she ends her life with a gun.  And so would I have too, if I’d had one.  But when you’re traveling you have to make do with what you’ve got.

——

The morgue waiting area was surprisingly cheerful.  The walls were a creamy blue with sunset landscape paintings every few feet.  The symbolism wasn’t lost on Ben.  If he ignored the death smell lingering in the air, he might have been able to pretend he was at the dentist’s office waiting for a cavity to be filled.  Alice would have appreciated this room.  She would’ve wanted to write about it, how we strive so hard to find the silver lining of death, how that blinds us to the fact that we’re all going to die, some sooner than others.  He clenched his fingers into a fist, stifling the empty cry that was waiting just inside his chest.  He had done this.  He had failed her, failed to save her.  Now it was all too late.  Ben heard someone calling his name and walked toward the waiting room door.  Dreamlike.  Nightmarelike.

——

It had been a mistake to go back to the room that night.  José knew that.  After all, the guest had ordered steaks and scotch for two and usually that meant do not disturb for the rest of the evening.  But there was something in her look when he delivered the tray, something wild and unsettling that José couldn’t put out of his mind no matter how hard he tried.  So he waited for a lull in his evening calls and up he went, under the guise of retrieving the room service tray and seeing if there would be anything else for the night.  His light knock went unanswered.  José paused, ear pressed to the door for some sign of life.  He heard a wail from within and a crash and that was plenty.  He knocked again, louder this time, then used his key card in the lock.

——

i never wanted to be a parent.  Did you know that?  Or a wife, for that matter.  When we were first dating I told Ben that all of that family stuff would just interfere with my grand plans to take over the world.  I was joking but not joking, if you know what I mean.  I told him having kids felt like erecting a giant chain-link fence around your life, an unbreakable barrier between what you are now and what you might someday want to be.   So we kept it casual.  We kept it so, so casual, so we could both live our lives and be free.  He used to say he didn’t want kids either but I think he was lying about that.  He liked to tell me what he thought I wanted to hear.   But then his sister had kids and he became the fun uncle and I think he really loved it.  He wouldn’t say, but I think playing with those kids made him feel more whole somehow, and even engaged, our life together looked so empty by comparison.  So barren.

——

Alice’s body looked small under the sheet.  It reminded Ben of the way she’d sleep, curled up into a compact ball next to him on the bed, her body disappearing among the pillows.  She loved pillows.  She’d surround herself with them like a moat of feathers, keeping the interlopers out she once said.  It bothered him that she did that but he never said so.  Sometimes it was enough of a job just to keep her happy without bringing his own complaints into the mix.  Sometimes she was just so sad that he couldn’t even reach her.  Not with hands.  Not with words.  He stood, now, just out of reach.  It felt right to keep his sorrow some distance away.

The morgue attendant met his eyes and then pulled back the sheet, displaying Alice’s shoulders and head.  Ben exhaled a long, slow breath he’d been holding since he entered the room.  It was her, he was sure of it, but she looked so different here.  He used to watch her face when she was sleeping.  There was always a tension in it, a vigilance she held onto and couldn’t let go.  This face here was serene Alice.  Alice at peace.  Alice who had finally gotten the freedom she wanted from this tortured world.  That’s what she would have said anyway, if he had been able to ask her.  Ben nodded at the attendant.  She replaced the sheet over Alice’s head and asked “Oh, have you been up to see the baby?”

“The what?”  Ben was stunned.  “I…don’t know…what baby?”

“Alice’s baby.  Up in the NICU.”

Ben’s face must have been a mask of confusion because the attendant nodded and left the room, then returned with a counselor in tow.  She spoke slowly and in soothing tones.

“Hello Mr. Stadt, I’m so sorry for your loss.  I know this is a difficult time, but if you’re ready I’d love to take you up to meet your daughter.  She’s been waiting all day to meet you.”

“My what?” Ben resisted.

“Your daughter.  Come on.”  She took Ben’s elbow and guided him toward the door.  “I think you’re really going to enjoy meeting her.  And I’m pretty sure she’s got your nose.”

——

So yes, in the end, José the friendly room service clerk saved me.  He pulled me out of there, called an ambulance, put me in it and saved me.  Not my life of course, my neck was broken.  I  was too far gone.  Jose saved the important part of me, the part that mattered.  My baby girl.  Something of me to leave behind for Ben.  Something for him to love and care for in a way I would never let him love and care for me.  Sometimes I come back and watch the two of them through the chain-link fence.  They are living a life, a beautiful life, to be sure, but a life that was never meant for me.  I belong on the outside of this fenced-in world.  All I ever wanted.  I am free.

© 2014 Carrie Padian