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“Give An Inch” by Jeremiah Reinmiller

Give An Inch

by Jeremiah Reinmiller

 

Molly cursed.

Not loudly, that would’ve been stupid and dangerous, but curse she did, in a ground teeth, pinched lip, sort of way. Each near silent word was delivered with some enthusiasm toward the plastic faced source of her frustrations.

There it sat, nestled snug in its ecru face plate at knee height; its narrow slits of eyes and tiny ‘o’ of a mouth staring out at her with mock surprise. As if it couldn’t possibly imagine what the problem was. She restrained the urge to punch in the tiny face, or the twin below it.

It wasn’t the power outlet’s fault. She knew that. Blaming an innocent inanimate object like that would’ve been silly.

It was clearly the extension cord’s fault!

Yes, she had come to that conclusion some moments before. The useless strand of bright orange, plastic clad wire dangled from one clenched fist. Its equally orange plug scraped against her steel toed boot. The other end ran across the floor, through the front room, and out the cracked open door at the front of the house.

She still felt the cable really should be grey like her jumpsuit, or black like, well, all of her other gear, but she also knew that regulations dictated a cable of this obnoxious orange hue. Heaven knew they couldn’t risk something as dangerous as someone tripping over a power cord. It wasn’t as if there weren’t any other dangers around them at all times. Like metric tons of high explosives, or unstable batteries the size of small block V-8s, or numerous aggressive hostiles packing god only knew what in their grubby fists.

Molly forced her hand open before something in her arm started to cramp, and stared down at the orange line dangling over the black leather of her glove.

The stupid thing still reminded her of the one her father had kept under the sink. The one he coiled in a particular way to keep it from tangling, and used for the seemingly endless string of household repairs he had to complete. They could’ve been made by the same company for all she knew. This one even felt the same.

Not that any of this did her a lick of good. The issue before her remained the issue before her. And what a stupid issue it was. She glared at the face plate again, then sighed. One more try, she’d give it one more try. Maybe she’d gotten the angle wrong last time. Or the time before. Or the time before that. She cursed again then made herself take a long, deep breath. She held it, then let the air out. It didn’t help at all, so she swore and got back to it.

She carefully planted her boots against the carpeted floor and put one hand down for balance, then crouched with the power plug in her other hand. A nice strong pressure should do it. She just needed to find a good angle and —

She threw herself forward, as if perhaps she’d catch the cord and outlet off guard and surprise them into a union. There it was. Just like before. The plug remained a rage inducing inch from the outlet.

Molly jerked and heaved and pulled with everything her small frame had. Digging with her boot heels, she pulled with both arms, threw her weight against the cable. And none of it did the slightest bit of good. The power cord was guitar string tight, and goodness knew the other end wasn’t budging. The outlet sat an inch away. Still looking surprised.

With a cry of frustration she hurled down the cord and scrambled to her feet.

It had been one of those nights; one of those weeks really. First they’d gotten lost, then ambushed, and then she got cut off from everyone else. She shouldn’t have expected anything less, and yet here she remained, stranded in the middle of middle-class nowhere, an inch away from salvaging any kind of success from a disaster of a day.

She blew stands of black hair from her face, snarled, and looked around again.

The drab, clichéd decor of the unlit room around her — a living room she supposed from the TV on the wall to her left– only served to remind her of her predicament. The smiling pictures on the walls, a monstrosity of a sofa before the TV, a small table of some kind beside her against the wall. It looked expensive and pointless. Much like her mission.

The wooden tabletop cracked as her boot heel slammed the bit of furniture into the wall. It made a terrible noise, but helped her feel slightly better.

Who built an entire room with no power outlets anyway! If the front room had contained a single one like she’d expected, she wouldn’t be having this problem. But oh no, that would’ve been too easy. She’d yanked furniture from walls, scoured every surface, and found nothing, not one outlet. It didn’t make any sense!

In her apartment — the one she hadn’t seen in over a year, and probably didn’t exist anymore if she was honest — there’d been so many outlets she’d could’ve thrown the damn cable and accidentally plugged it in. But not here. Not in some hundred year old ranch style house where people had nothing more to plug in than one TV and a refrigerator. So here she stood in the living room, with only this one outlet anywhere close to the end of her cord; tethered by a piece of government issued orange cable that regulations dictated be manufactured at one hundred feet, instead of one hundred feet, and one inch.

She looked around for anything else she could break, and froze.

There had either been movement outside the front windows or–

The screen door outside creaked.

They’d probably seen the damn orange cable. Or her Heavy at the other end of it. Her loathing for the cable aside, she had to admit that was probably more likely. Ten foot tall robots were hard to miss. Something started to say they’d actually heard the little stunt she’d pulled with the sideboard, but she shut that voice up right quick as she snatched up her rifle and darted to the side of the doorway into the front room.

The front door groaned open and shuffling footsteps followed. She waited a moment, hoping they’d go somewhere else and knowing they wouldn’t. You couldn’t get a much larger ‘over here’ sign than the neon orange one strung out at her feet. She winced then risked a peek.

Three of them, the Baugot, stood just inside the room. Bloat class. Looking ridiculous as ever.

Even knowing what she did about them, which was quite a lot, she couldn’t help it. Two years ago, when that first pod had plunked down, people had thought they looked silly, and right then, crouched against an eggshell white, flat finish wall, Molly thought exactly the same thing. There were no two ways about it, they simply induced a head scratching dose of, ‘seriously?’

Short, and thick wasted, the drones waddled into the room like the world’s largest pears with arms and legs stuck on. Their tiny heads perched atop thin necks. Tufts of hair sprouted about their faces in a kind of hair / beard combination. Centered in this mess were a cluster of black eyes. Like always, no mouths were visible. No one had yet figured out how they communicated.

Their equally tiny arms ended in tiny hands holding tiny firearms. Molly had seen bigger water pistols, but that didn’t change the fact that–

A picture frame hanging on the wall across from her decided right then it had had enough, and was giving up, and clattered to the floor. The lead alien spun surprisingly fast, and a light at the end of its gun winked red. The floor exploded. Burning bits of wood and carpeting, and what had once been a graduation photo pelted Molly’s face, dug into her skin. She scrambled back, stomach twisted tight, hating the aliens and their silent guns which left basketball sized holes in things.

If they weren’t going to investigate the entire house before, they certain were now. She had only seconds at best to find a place to hide.

The lead Bloat stuck its fuzzy pip of a head around the corner of the doorway. A number of its eyes widened. There wasn’t even time to curse.

She’d managed to keep the muzzle of her rifle pointed in the direction of the doorway. Instead of hiding, she pulled the trigger. Half sprawled on the floor she couldn’t aim, but she was so close it hardly mattered.

7.62 mm rounds might be primitive by Baugot standards, and they certainly weren’t silent, but they still got the job done. The alien stepped into the room, and popped like a twenty gallon water balloon. Something decidedly not wood or carpeting splashed over her. Something much wetter, and much, much worse smelling.

Scientists told them their absurdly proportioned opponents were 90% water and the stuff inside their bulbous bodies was almost chemically equivalent to saline. But that didn’t explain the smell, or the way the somehow both sticky and oily stuff clung to everything. Molly gagged while her ears rang from the dying echoes of six tiny explosions pounded out in two seconds.

Stunned and drained, she lay there feeling suddenly very tired. None of that mattered though, because they were coming, and if she didn’t want to quickly feel much worse, she needed to get moving.

As if to punctuate this point a basketball sized hole appeared over her head, pelting her with plaster and 2×4 splinters. Another joined it. Another. She hauled herself up and ran.

Burned carpet leapt up beside her boot, and then she could see the backyard through a hole in the far wall. She threw herself over the couch and tumbled to the floor.

The thing was a huge, maroon, faux velvet monstrosity, but unless the owners had opted for some kind of a Kevlar option, it wasn’t going to provide her much protection. Burning foam landed in her hair as one of the couch cushions erupted into half a zillion tiny bits. They clearly had not.

She sucked in a deep breath, shoved her rifle over the back of the couch and rattled off a long burst, trying to arc the fire across the room. A satisfying pop greeted her ears, followed by a wet splash. She hadn’t expected to get so lucky, but she’d take it. Especially as the last one was quickly testing the flammability of faux velvet. Turned out the stuff burned pretty well.

Molly flattened herself to the floor, coughing on the noxious fumes as a new barrage turned the couch into a polyester Vesuvius. She couldn’t stay there unless she wanted to find out what having her torso forcibly removed felt like, but she couldn’t run either. The nearest doorway was fifteen feet away and the carpet looked like a slippery sodden mess. More fingers of the fluid leaked past the edge of the couch before her eyes.

That gave her an idea. Not a good one mind you, she’d run out of those hours ago, but hey, it was better than opting for 100% organ removal via alien squirt gun.

She scrambled back against the wall, watched the last of the couch go up in an unflattering puff of yellow foam and burning maroon fabric, then dove forward with every ounce of force she could muster. She’d been right about the carpet. She shot forward on her stomach past the burning wreckage of the couch — she thought it was an improvement in design actually — and right for one surprised Baugot.

It swung its gun toward her, but even their deceptive speed was no match for the sheer velocity of an alien innards slip and slide. Its first shot landed somewhere behind her, its second closer. She flipped over on to her back mid-slide, before it could fire a third time, and then she was there, beneath the Bloat’s over proportioned body, staring up as it craned over trying to find her.

She grinned and unloaded her clip into the Bloat’s nether regions. Or what would’ve been its nethers, if they had any, which they did not, for which Molly was grateful as Baugot’s didn’t wear any pants.

Grinning was a mistake. That’s how alien juice landed in her mouth when it popped, and soaked her through. She wound up retching on the floor for a good minute amidst a truly ruined living room.

When’d she regained control of her gag reflex, Molly spat a couple more times then stood. A bit of alien glop ran down her cheek, she wiped it off and flicked it away. The aliens remained dead, looking like nothing so much as punctured balance balls with limbs sewn on.

She was lucky these Bloats had found her. There were a quarter billion of them — by scientists most recent guesses — but they were easy-ish to kill. If something else had shown up, it might’ve been a different story.

That thought had just crossed her mind, when the head of the alien family scuttled in through the front door.

Family might not be the correct term, she thought it was more like clan, or whatever Meligoup, translated too, but head most certainly was. It was hard to get that wrong when you were staring at a 3 foot tall skull that looked like a cross between an Easter Island statue and a giant baby doll head, crawling toward you on a half dozen limbs that were neither arms, legs, or tentacles. Not exactly.

The Head crawled forward a few inches at a time, its appendages writhing in creepy motion as it reached the living room door. When you’re from an alien species that snaps together like building blocks to form Ultras, those towering alien monstrosities Molly and her crew feared, she was sure being the head instead of the butt had its advantages, but speed of movement when you’re on your own wasn’t one of them. On the other hand–

The head squinted its two large white eyes, and that wasn’t good. Not even a little bit. Molly threw herself toward the nearest doorway as blue light lit the room.

She slid / tumbled / fell into the kitchen and looked back in time to see twin blue lasers carve a gash through the far wall and then wink out.

Yeah, it had laser eyes. Laser eyes! She felt exactly as terrified and amazed, and bit jealous, as she’d been the first time she saw one of the Heads light it up on the battlefield. Bodiless it might be, but that didn’t make it any less deadly. One of them had wiped out Baker squad two weeks ago, and they’d had their Heavies.

She stared at the orange extension cord where it lay, still short of the outlet, and cursed again. And here she was all on her own, feeling quite squishy and easily punctured outside of her armor.

Out in the living room the Head peered around, glowing eyes now wide. The one disadvantage with laser eyes was that you apparently couldn’t see the slightest thing while you were burning the world to cinders. That meant she had one chance before it located her and started playing human soldier disect-o-rama with its lasers again.

She could take a shot at it, but that would do about as much good as a toddler flinging peas at the wall. And would probably result in a bigger mess. For her. All her other weapons were outside, with the Heavy, and still very much out of power.

She couldn’t very well run either. Not without her heavy. She had about as much chance of making it back to base skin side out as a snow ball did of escaping a 4th of July BBQ. Besides, through some fluke in the power grid, this neighborhood was the only one that had registered any power readings before her Heavy decided to take a cold nap. If she didn’t get it recharged here, it wasn’t waking up.

On the other side of the living room, past the still burning couch, a set of stairs led to the second story. She hadn’t been up there yet, but when the options were: trapped burning death, sure burning death, or possible burning death. She had to go with the one with the least terrible qualifier, and hope she’d find something to help her, or she’d gain some kind of inspiration with another ten feet of elevation.

She snagged a kitchen towel and wiped the worst of the muck from the bottom of her boots then crouched like a sprinter in the gates. Thirty feet to the stairs. She could do that. She just needed a couple seconds.

There was no time like the present.

Molly lunged forward, feet pounding linoleum, then gore soaked carpet. The Head turned, its eyes saw her. Just one more second and she’d be past. Its eyes squinted, lit blue.

Molly tripped. On the extension cord.

Apparently the powers that be had been wrong. Apparently painting the cord bright orange had not been a strong enough safety measure. She tried to catch herself, failed, and fell wind milling. The stinking carpet met her hard, and she slid stop, just beyond the burning sofa.

Behind her she heard the sizzle of lasers slicing through housing and was sure she was dead. This was it, grilled Molly flambé served ala middle class. She squeezed her eyes shut and hoped it shot her in the head.

Only she wasn’t dead. Plaster rained down on her instead, and after the stuff she’d had raining down recently, that was pretty mild. She looked up.

The Head was down on its back, laser eyes doing a number on the ceiling. The orange extension cord hung tangled amidst its numerous hand-feet things. Maybe after all the torment it had imparted, the extension cord was paying her back. Or maybe the alien was just really top heavy and had as much trouble with safety as Molly. In either case, she didn’t have any time to sort it out, because as awkward as the alien looked, it was coming back to its feet, hands, whatever.

She scrambled up and pelted up the stairs. At the top were three doors, the one in front of her was open. She rushed through, and skidded to a stop.

Sometimes she hated the terrible generic lower-middle class suburbia she found herself in. And sometimes, rarely, she didn’t mind so much. As she stared down at the six propane tanks clustered in the corner, she had to admit she felt a little love for crazy, survivalist hoarders everywhere.

Not that it had done them much good. When the pixie dust fell, everything with so much as a pulse was reduced to nothing larger than dust on the wind, but, just maybe, their mad planning might get her out of this mess.

If she hurried.

Behind her the squishing tearing sounds meant Mr. Head was on its way up after her. She couldn’t think it was in a super happy mood either.

She seized a propane tank in each hand, and flexing every muscled in her 150 lbs. body, she drug them to the door. Then she went back and drug over two more. There wouldn’t be any time for the others. The bobbing, pale skinned ridge of the Baugot’s head was clearing the top of the stairs.

Through the dirty windows at the back of the room, she made out the backyard, long unmowed. A rusting swing set and the ever present middle-class chain link fence that marked the back of every yard. It would be a hell of a fall, but the earth couldn’t hurt as bad was one of those lasers in her chest.

The Head scuttled into the room, eyes already squinting.

With gritted teeth Molly heaved up one more tank, turned, and flung it toward the alien, then gave herself the same treatment through the nearest window.

She hurtled out past the side of the house, feeling the soft sharp sensation of breaking glass. Then the Head fired and the rest of the house joined her as a force, like the middle finger of an angry god, flicked her away from the world.

She tasted dirt. And blood, probably her own, but mostly dirt. That was the first sensation that shuddered through her mind when her brain snapped back to itself. Everything felt disjointed and wrong, and out of place.

She forced her eyes open.

The world had inverted itself while she was away. That was nice to see. It would take some getting used to walking around upside down, but that might be a nice change. She blinked, more of her brain came back online and she felt the dirt against her cheek, in her mouth, the sharp jabbing in her back, and she realized she was hanging upside down against the chain-link fence.

Using a combination of elbows and curses, she pulled herself down and flopped back to earth. Where she lay for some reasonable amount of time before staggering back up right again. After a few seconds groaning and gentle prodding, she found herself in quite a bit of pain, bit entirely intact.

She couldn’t say the same for the house. Part of it was burning, and most of the second floor had accepted gravity’s invitation and joined the first floor at a more reasonable elevation. Basically it now looked like the rest of the mostly smoking neighborhood. Or the crumbling remains of the city in the far distance for that matter.

The propane tanks had apparently done their job and sent the Baugot Head into an alternate spiritual, metaphysical, and or geographic reality. She didn’t really care which as long as it wasn’t near her. The were no signs of any other unfriendly visitors.

Through the now gaping holes in the house, her Heavy still stood, stoic, and silent on the front lawn. Bristling with and armor and weapons, and still utterly useless.

She wanted to rush over and kick it in the shin, but that wouldn’t do any good. It hadn’t designed itself with eight hours of battery life and then sent itself into a ten hour mission. Men in white lab coats and tight green jackets and done those things, and she’d be having a very serious talk with both of them when she got back.

If she got back.

Neither dead aliens or a collapsed house and done anything to solve her stupid basic problem, and until she sorted that out, she wasn’t going anywhere. It would be easier to remove a rusted sedan from a redneck’s lawn than to move the two ton Heavy a single inch.

Without anything else to do, she started back across the rubble of the house, picking her way amongst sheet rock and 2×4 remains. And there, atop a few chunks of concrete, and a bit of melted maroon velvet, lay her orange extension cord. It looked remarkably intact and unharmed for the all the chaos that had ensued around it. Beside it stood a plastic ecru power outlet, still staring out from the wall with wide eyes; perhaps located closer toward the front of the house now that the entire wall was sagging toward collapse.

It was pointless, and stupid, but at that moment, she only wanted to do one thing.

She knelt, plucked up the power cord, and plugged it into the outlet. Just like that.

It was a futile gesture, but dammit if she was going to let an orange power cord beat her.

Behind her, a tiny light came on with a soft beep. Molly’s head whipped around. It was a very small light on the back of the Heavy, but it was an important one, with an important meaning.

Her arms rocketed skyward on their own, and a shout of triumph escaped her lips. Right then she didn’t care who heard.

She’d done it! Victory was hers! She’d make it out of this middle class nowhere after all.

The metallic sound of a breaker popping somewhere within the rubble of the house was unmistakable in the silence. The light on the Heavy went out. She stared frozen, unbelieving for a very long time. Eventually her lips parted, closed, then parted again.

Molly cursed, and eyed the distance to the neighbor’s house.

© 2014 Jeremiah Reinmiller

“Foul Hook” by J.B. Kish

Foul Hook

By J.B. Kish

 

“Finding the right person is—arguably—the same as fly fishing the Kenai in July. It’s less about the salmon. Understand? There’s plenty of salmon.”

“It’s all about where you set that hook.”

*

Mary opened and closed her fist. The flesh on the outside of her index finger yawned, splaying open three cuts where fishing line had repeatedly eaten into her knuckle. She examined each wound mindlessly, picking at a few specs of dirt that had become embedded inside the flesh. She squinted and blinked wildly—only half aware of how exhausted she really was. Her eyes were sore, and they burned from all the crying. She was out of tears for now. But that truly was just for now. There were always more tears in this place.

The Central Peninsula Hospital Emergency Room was a sterile, white canvas that had been handed over to a community college art major of an interior decorator. Below was your obligatory checkerboard tile floor. Above were picturesque lake-scape paintings and a small TV that played old episodes of Roseanne. The vending machine—though she couldn’t see one, but was sure existed—was likely filled with junk food and crap microwavable burritos.

Mary—61 years old and peppered grey—was still in her waders when the doctor came out to break the news. They were tan with brown boots and clips that fastened over her shoulders. With these waders, she could walk out up to her tits and fish for salmon until her toes went numb. And she did often.

She remembered thinking that he had a familiar face. But then again, didn’t they all? Soldotna was a small town. His name was Doctor Jimmy…or…Doctor Eddie. Or something of the like. She was fairly certain they’d met on the river once or twice before. This Jimmy or Eddie always wore his backpack in the water. He never set it on the bank. He’d retie his leaders right there in the current because he didn’t want to lose his spot.

Tourists are always trying to steal what isn’t theirs.

When Jimmy or Eddie was speaking, Mary couldn’t quite make out the words. The world was stretching to a sluggish halt around her, and the man’s huge bottom lip was flapping incomprehensibly. His long, pointed face resembled that of a sockeye. And she couldn’t help but think of her leader sliding across his cheeks. She imagined herself whipping back and setting a barbed fishing hook right in ole Jimmy or Eddie’s cheek. A single, graceful maneuver.

A legally set hook.

Anywhere else, and Fish and Game would have your ass and a pretty pink fine too. Not the belly, not the back, and definitely not the tail—that was foul. A salmon had to be hooked right in the mouth for you to keep it.

Before she blacked out completely, she thought she’d heard her husband’s name—Nathan—sputter out from ole Jimmy or Eddie’s throat. She was sure she had. And she was sure it was bad too. Terribly bad. As she crumpled to the floor, all she could make out in the darkness was the phantom of a salmon. A single, beautiful fish breaching the water and trying wildly to shake the foul hook from its back.

Later, when she woke on a stiff hospital bed, Mary felt the unmistakable tickle of a cold coming on.

*

“Nathan, stop screwing around. You’re sick.” Something pricked Mary, and she frowned. The summer rain had brought the mosquitos from the woods. She slapped her neck and wiped the tiny insect onto her blue jeans.

The sky above their cabin that day was overcast and washed out. It threw no shadows, but still it covered the woods with a darkened veil. Everything—the trees, the creek, even her husband—it was all muted.

“It’s July, Mary,” said Nathan. “People don’t get sick in July.” He swung his backpack up onto the truck bed and pushed it back. Then he walked to the shed and returned with his fly rod.

Nathan’s face had always been a charming one. His chin was large and chiseled, like the edge of a cliff, and his hair was golden blonde and gently curled. He was six feet tall and barrel chested. But today his appearance was unfamiliar somehow. He was slouched and slow-moving. His nose was bright red, and that charm in his eyes was missing from his gaze. His eyelids were drooping and he sniffed a lot. Too much for a man about stand in a freezing cold river.

“Nathan—”

“—Six, Mary.” When he spoke, his voice was gravelly and congested. “They just raised the limit to six fish this morning. You know I won’t miss that.” Despite the way he sounded, his words had still come across as intended: curt and final. He turned and slid his pole into the back of the truck.

Mary sighed and crossed her arms. “Then I’ll come with you.”

Nathan stiffened. It was a single, fleeting moment, but Mary was sure she’d seen it happen. His broad shoulders slouched and he turned. “I thought you had book club today?” he asked, his tone noticeably softer.

Mary shrugged. “The book is shit anyways.”

“Won’t the club be upset?”

“Let them,” said Mary. She turned toward the shed and retrieved her pole. “Besides,” she continued, “twelve fish is better than six.”

Nathan didn’t respond. He stared at her incredulously before climbing into the truck and starting the engine.

Their trip down to the river was familiarly quiet. Mary felt like she’d interrupted her husband somehow. She got that feeling a lot lately. He was agitated of late, and typically spoke in grunts or nods. But it was probably just his cold, she told herself, handing him a hanky. She thought, he’ll be right as rain on the other side.

Nathan took the rag and blew his nose, pinching his nostrils and wiggling. He coughed—that deep, chest cough of a man who should be in bed—and rolled his window down, spitting some phlegm into the breeze. Mary smiled shyly, and then she turned to look out her window, her heart skipping a gentle beat.

They were coming up on Redoubt Avenue.

Nathan slowed the truck, stopping just before the tilted sign. The four-way intersection was empty. Straight ahead, the Kenai River awaited, along with a 6 fish limit. But the truck was steadfast and unmoving. Nathan sat with his foot on the break, the engine rumbling, and stared out the windshield. Mary smiled nervously, glancing down Redoubt Avenue. The road stretched half a mile, and there was a large white house at the end. Its enormous French doors smiled back at her. The vaulted roof wiggled like a suggestive eyebrow. There was a greenhouse along the north side next to a well and clothes line. Mary studied the house, and then looked back to her husband, placing a hand on the back of his neck. “Nate?”

Her husband’s upper lip rolled, and he sucked in through his front teeth. He took his foot off the brake and accelerated through the intersection.

 

*

 

The funeral home was surely decorated by the same person who’d done the ER. The walls were paneled with dark oak and mahogany. It conjured images of age and refinement. It said to Mary, “Only the best are laid on display here.”

“This is where the head of your family will say his goodbyes.”

Pictures of sunsets and clouds and even a painting or two of Christ lined the halls toward the room where Nathan was lying in a box. She hadn’t walked down to see him yet. She wasn’t ready for all the people and their eyes and the God damned sympathy. She’d had enough of it the past 72 hours. On top of that, her head was splitting. She felt like her brain was ballooning out against her skull. This cold had overtaken her faster than she thought physically possible, and it made thinking all the more difficult. Planning a funeral is devastating enough.

But planning a funeral on three bottles of NyQuil is next to impossible.

“Mrs. Blake, we’re ready for you now.” The funeral director was a short, balding man with a thick beard and soft eyes. He placed a comforting hand on Mary’s shoulder.

Mary feigned a smile and placed her palm on his own. This man was the closest thing she’d had to a best friend since Nathan died. He’d practically planned the entire service for Mary, and still she couldn’t remember his name.

“Try to remember the good times,” the funeral director suggested. “His touch. His smile. Perhaps talk about the first time you met.”

A single cry leapt from Mary’s throat and she cupped her mouth, nodding her head. She started down the hallway, blowing her nose into her handkerchief. She just wanted it to be over with. She wanted to be done with the whole mess. Wanted to be done with this ceremony and this funeral. As she blew her nose—her nostrils aching and raw—she wanted more than anything just to be done with this cold.

She stopped just short of the doorway and took a deep breath. From where she was standing, she could make out the top of the casket and the lectern. Nathan was lying peacefully on display—like a trophy salmon.

Mary’s trophy salmon.

She thought in some ways he was lucky for the heart attack. Some people die terrible gruesome deaths. Some get mangled or eaten. Bear maulings are not all that uncommon in these parts. But at least a heart attack kept you clean. At least it gifted you an open casket and one last chance to say goodbye.

May turned and stepped into the room. The audience of friends and family turned, and all the air was collectively sucked from the room. Mary took a step toward the lectern, nodding politely at a vast number of people that had taken puddle jumpers from Anchorage to attend the funeral. There was Bill, Nathan’s younger brother. His wife and two children. Doctor Brents was there—and old family friend. Shannon O’Riley from the salon. And there was—

Mary tripped over a long orange extension chord, and Doctor Brents leapt up from his chair to catch her. Her heart leapt into her throat, and she struggled to swallow it back down.

She was here.

The woman from Redoubt Avenue. The one from the white house with the French doors. Mary watched her from the corner of her eye, hunched over in Doctor Brents arms. Why? She asked herself. How could she be here?

Mary thanked the good doctor and corrected herself. She flattened her dress and approached the lectern, turning to face the audience. It was a good long while before she found the courage to speak. She thanked everyone for coming but wasn’t exactly sure what to say next.

“Perhaps talk about the first time you met,” the funeral director had suggested.

So Mary took a deep breath and said the first thing that came into her mind. “Finding the right person is—arguably—the same as fly fishing the Kenai in July.”

The audience laughed quietly.

Mary continued. “It’s less about the salmon. Understand? There’s plenty of salmon. It’s all about where you set that hook.”

As Mary spoke, she tried to look around the room. She tried to make eye contact with everyone in the audience. But after a few moments of painful pretending, she simply gave up. Mary was done. She wanted to be free from the weight. Free from 25 years of marriage and fishing. She flashed a short, polite smile. Then she folded her hands over the lectern and turned, looking to the woman from Redoubt Avenue.

“Nathan left another woman for me.”

An unexpected wave of discomfort rolled across the audience. Those in attendance were understandably quiet. Mary wasn’t quite sure what she was trying to say herself. She could feel a chord of snot slipping from her nostril, and she wiped it with the back of her hand. The woman from Redoubt Avenue’s expression was flat. Mary realized that she too had a bright pink nose and flushed cheeks.

“Back in California,” Mary continued. “He was engaged. Not many people know this story actually. His Fiancé’s name was Catherine. She eventually married someone else and lived in Germany for a short while. She was—” Mary took a deep breath. “—killed during a robbery. A gas station or maybe it was a grocery store. I’m afraid I forget which.”

The woman from Redoubt Avenue shifted uncomfortably. She glanced around the room.

“Nathan broke it off with Catherine in a letter. It was one week before she was supposed to return from the Peace Corps.” Mary chuckled, as if unable to believe the words coming from her own mouth. “They were supposed to be getting married, and instead we were running away together. To Alaska.” She paused to blow her nose before looking down at her husband’s face. “It was a particularly cruel thing to do. And I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. A whole lot.”

 

*

 

The chain-link fence behind the funeral home rested atop a small ridge that looked down on the Kenai River. Fisherman lined both sides of the water. Every few seconds, someone below shouted out for more room as they walked a salmon down the line. “Fish on!” they called. It was music to one’s ears. The reds were running thick—the limit still holding at six a day.

The woman from Redoubt Avenue leaned against the fence, smoking a cigarette and watching the fishermen. She was a thin, blond creature with pale skin and a mess of freckles. Mary thought her quite beautiful actually, though she wouldn’t have admitted that out loud.

Mary approached her from behind, but her cough gave her away. The woman from Redoubt Avenue turned, and her eyes widened. She bit the cigarette nervously and pulled. Mary paid her little mind and leaned against the fence. She looked down on the fishermen below.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” said the woman. Her eyes were watery. She balled up a few tissues in her palm and stuffed them in her pocket.

“It’s Interesting,” Mary said flatly.

“Excuse me?”

Mary smiled. “Just something Nathan said to me the other day. He said, ‘Mary, people don’t get sick in July.’”

The woman from Redoubt Avenue lifted her eyebrows.

“Anyways,” Mary continued. “Shows you what he knew.” She took out her handkerchief and trumpeted her nose. Then she offered it to the stranger.

The woman from Redoubt Avenue studied her closely. She licked her lips and turned back toward the river. “No, thanks,” she said with a wave of her hand. “I’m on the mend. Another day. Maybe two, and I’ll be fine again.”

Mary nodded and then—much to the woman’s surprise—held her hand out, motioning for the cigarette. The woman from Redoubt Avenue stared at it coldly. For a moment, Mary thought she might be stupid enough to argue with her. “Don’t stop sharing now,” she said bluntly.

The woman from Redoubt Avenue blinked, swallowed nervously, and handed her the cigarette. Mary placed it between her lips and inhaled. She filled her lungs with the smoke. Filled them with harsh tobacco and the taste of this woman’s lipstick and saliva. She took it all.

Below a young boy—maybe twenty or so—shouted “Fish on!” and his pole bent sharply toward the water. But he held his ground. For a second, his line hissed across the water, and Mary thought he’d forgotten to set his drag. But the boy placed his palm on the reel and it came to a halt. The women watched as he slowly began to reel and step back toward the bank.

With a sharp jerk, the line changed direction and headed down river. It was moving fast—too fast. The boy grabbed the reel, and Mary watched skeptically as the sockeye salmon breached the water, flipping marvelously through the air. The boy’s green yarn winked at them from the salmon’s back, and it crashed down into the water.

Mary took another drag. The hook was foul.

The boy’s shrinking posture was sign enough that he’d realized the same. Angrily, he fought the salmon up onto shore. It was a lengthy battle. They always are when you foul them. It’s like trying to ride a bucking bronco instead of walking it by the reins. When he’d finally pulled it up onto shore, the fish thrashed around, and threw river stones like shotgun rock salt. But once suffocation set in, the fish slowed and then all together stopped moving. The boy dropped down, placing a knee on either side of the fish. He pulled a pair of needle nose pliers from his vest and ripped the hook from the fish’s back.

Slipping his finger up into the fish’s gill, he walked it back out into the river and placed it in the water, but the salmon rolled belly up. Carefully, the boy took it with both hands and rolled it back over. Slowly, he pushed and pulled the fish through the water, forcing oxygen back into its gills. He did this five or six times before the fish snapped back to life. With a few quick jerks, it freed itself from his hands and disappeared into the river.

Both women watched. Each taking a drag.

© 2014 J.B. Kish

“Fab Moon Rising” by Lee Waverly and Madison Thorne

Fab Moon Rising

by Lee Waverly and Madison Thorne

 

Suzanne let her bicycle coast as she looked for the Clinton Street address she’d been given at the office. She was a little surprised that it led to a business, a kosher deli named “O Tannenbaum’s.” Ah, Portland.

In fact, the whole block was nothing but storefronts. Maybe the address referred to an apartment on the second floor? As  she secured her bike to the rack, a man came around from the back of the building, dragging a recycling bin toward the curb. His expression suggested that life was hard, and someone else was to blame.

Spotting her staring at the deli uncertainly, he set down the bin and said, “Can I help you?” It was more challenge than offer, which heightened her sense of uncertainty.

“I’m Suzanne Watts,” she said, “from Child–”

“Child Protective Services,” he finished. “I know. I’m Gabe Tannenbaum. I’m the one who called you.”

He shook her hand perfunctorily, then pointed a finger at the business next to his. “That’s the place, right there.” He paused, as though expecting her to charge in without delay.

Feeling as though she’d walked into a movie mid-scene, Suzanne hesitated. When no further information seemed forthcoming, she said, “Your complaint seemed to be  accusing your neighbors of child abuse?”

“That’s right,” Gabe said, nodding vigorously. “There’s a continuous stream of weirdos coming and going in there. You wouldn’t believe it.”

“Sir,” Suzanne said as politely as possible, “this is Portland. Can you be more specific?”

“You gotta see it for yourself. It defies description.”

Sighing discreetly, Suzanne persisted. “I’m not clear on how having a diverse clientele constitutes child abuse?”

Scowling, which made his bushy eyebrows meet as though plotting their next move, Gabe became more animated. “They got at least one kid in there. A little one, four or five, maybe.”

“Okaay…” she said, prompting for further detail.

Shifting his weight and folding his arms, Gabe visibly fumed and eyed her slyly, before saying, “I think… he’s working in the restaurant.”

Suzanne was young and fairly new to her job, but even she knew an accusation made up on the spot when she heard one. Glancing at the two businesses, she saw one or two customers in the deli, while the cafe next door, “Just Like Home,” was bustling. This had every sign of a business owner seeking to make trouble for a more successful rival.

Still, the complaint had to be investigated. She thanked Gabe and walked into Just Like Home.

It was a charming little place, cheerful and inviting. There were homey curtains on the big windows, checkered tablecloths, and bouquets of wildflowers on every table. A counter with old-fashioned swivel stools accommodated those who couldn’t get tables, which were mostly full.

Two servers buzzed around the room, tending to customers. She was standing at the Please Wait To Be Seated sign, figuring it was her best chance to get someone’s attention, but twice they zoomed by, holding up one finger and flashing apologetic smiles. After the second round of this, Suzanne starting thrusting out her business card in hopes of getting someone to stop and talk to her.

One of the servers, a woman of perhaps nineteen, stopped then, looking at the card without taking it. Suzanne had the impression she didn’t know what to make of it. The girl smiled uncertainly and pointed Suzanne toward the counter.

“Uncle Jorgie,” she said. Suzanne couldn’t place the accent. “He will help you.”

She made her way to the counter. An older man with thick black hair, most likely Uncle Jorgie, was chatting up the customers, who were laughing and clearly enjoying themselves.

“I can’t believe you’re going clubbing in that,” a middle-aged woman with long graying hair said to the man next to her.

“What?” the young man said, pulling at his flamboyant Hawaiian shirt. It was at least two sizes too large. “It’s not like I won’t grow into it.” He laughed uproariously. Uncle Jorgie and a man sitting on the other side of the long-haired woman joined him. The woman herself simply rolled her eyes.

Leaning forward to speak around the long-haired woman, the guy in the Hawaiian shirt said, “Tibor, I really think you should come with me. I guarantee you’d find someone to hook up with. Last week, I met the most fabulous boy.”

Tibor, who looked like the Incredible Hulk’s uglier, whiter cousin, looked doubtful. “You know I’m not looking for a boy, right, Jack?”

With an airy wave, Jack said, “Whatever. My advice still applies. There are plenty of girls looking for a ‘big’ man, if you get my drift.”

The long-haired woman snorted. “Maybe, but what happens when he takes her back to his place under the Morrison Bridge?”

Tibor’s head drooped. Jack retorted, “Well, at least we know he won’t melt if he gets wet.”

Flashing Jack a nasty look, the woman slid off the stool. “I’m outta here. I’m meeting Darren on Mt. Tabor. Full moon and all, you know.”

“No, really?” Jack replied, feigning shock. The sarcasm seemed out of place to Suzanne. She hadn’t realized it was a full moon tonight.

The long-haired woman headed out. “Thanks, Jorgie.”

“Bye-bye, Ruth.” Jorgie waved.

Jack slid over to the now-unoccupied seat next to Tibor. “So, have you seen her new boyfriend? Oh, my God! He’s to die for!”

“Wow, really?”

“I know, right? Who’d have thought a witch like her could reel in a hottie?”

Suzanne cleared her throat ostentatiously, drawing the attention of the Uncle Jorgie. He smiled broadly and came toward her.

“Yes, ma’am! I get you something?”

He spoke with the same accent as the server. Suzanne still couldn’t quite recognize it. She smiled back and handed him her card. Squinting, he spent a long enough time looking at the card for Suzanne to get the uncomfortable feeling he couldn’t read English. Just as she was about to say something, he leaned over the counter to show the card to Jack.

“Child protective services,” Jack explained in an uncharacteristically discreet tone. “It’s a government agency that shows up to make sure nobody’s hurting the kids. Why on earth are you here?” he said, addressing Suzanne. “I mean, these are good people. And they make these incredible protein shakes.” He held up a glass of what appeared to be a strawberry smoothie.

“Give her a taste,” Tibor suggested.

Jack looked at Suzanne, sniffed, then said, “I really think she’d prefer the vanilla.”

Feeling very uncomfortable, Suzanne said, “I’m sorry, I really need to discuss this matter with the family of the child in question.”

“Okay, sure,” Jack said. “Uncle Jorgie here is part of the boy’s family.”

Uncle Jorgie had been following the exchange with a look of confusion mixed with concern. Suzanne moved further down the counter, beside one of the few empty seats, for a modicum of privacy. “I’m investigating a claim that you have a four-year-old child working in the restaurant.”

“Yes.” Uncle Jorgie nodded cooperatively.

“Are you saying you have a four-year-old working here?”

“Yes!” Uncle Jorgie nodded harder, smiling. He seemed very happy with his answer.

Confused by his enthusiasm for admitting to violating child labor laws, Suzanne asked, “Where is the child now?” She didn’t see a young child working. Maybe he was in the kitchen?

His smile broadening, Uncle Jorgie pointed to a booth in the corner of the restaurant, where a little boy sat coloring with crayons.

“I thought you said he was working here.”

“Yes! Working on picture. Draws good! You see.” Uncle Jorgie came around the counter and took Suzanne by the elbow, guiding her to the boy’s booth. “Joe, show lady picture. See? Good, yes?”

Not prepared to become an art critic, Suzanne smiled at Joe, then turned to Uncle Jorgie. “Could I speak to Joe’s parents?” When the man’s smile turned uncertain, she said, “His mother? His father?”

“He’s not here,” Joe said, continuing with his drawing.

“The mother, then,” Suzanne said. When Uncle Jorgie still hesitated, she resorted to the kind of behavior she’d always detested in English-speakers when dealing with immigrants–speaking louder and slower to make herself understood. “The mother. I need to speak to the mother.

“The mother,” Uncle Jorgie repeated, suddenly smiling again. “Okay. I get. You need something?”

“No, thank you, I’m fine. I’ll wait here.” As Uncle Jorgie hurried off, Suzanne sat down in the booth opposite Joe. “Hi, Joe. I’m Suzanne.”

“Hi.” He was a slight child, with the same thick, dark hair as his uncle, and large brown eyes that were too interested in his coloring to meet hers.

“Coloring, huh?”

With the undiluted contempt that only a preschooler can get away with, Joe corrected her. “No. Drawing.”

“Oh, right. I wonder what this is,” pointing to a figure in the drawing. “I see you used a lot of brown in this part.”

“That’s my pet brother, Hank.”

“Your… pet brother?” Suzanne smiled, stifling a chuckle. Either Joe was expressing feelings of displacement toward a little brother, or had been hoping for a puppy instead.

“Hello,” said a voice beside her. Suzanne looked up into the delicate features of the most beautiful woman she’d ever seen outside of a magazine. She was tall and slender, wearing a shawl of woven silk , which somehow looked like a queen’s robe. But her smile was warm and bathed Suzanne in a sense of security and contentment. “I’m Daphne Celeste. Jorgie said you were asking for me? No, please don’t get up.” She ruffled Joe’s hair as she sat regally in the booth beside him.

Clearing her throat because it was as close as she could come to physically clearing her head, Suzanne nodded and started to hand Daphne her card.

“No, I have the one Jorgie gave me,” Daphne told her, producing it from beneath the shawl and glancing at it. “But I’m at a loss for why Child Protective Services would want to see me.” Her hazel eyes looked into Suzanne’s, calm but puzzled.

Suzanne looked from Daphne to Joe and back again, confused. Taking this in, Daphne suddenly said, “Oh, I see! You think I’m Joe’s mother. I’m his godmother, actually. Jorgie was confused. His English is somewhat lacking outside of restaurant operations.”

“Oh,” Suzanne responded lamely. This visit was becoming more and more complicated. “So, where is his mother? I really need to speak directly with her.”

“Of course,” Daphne said, smiling and standing. “I’ll go tell her you’re here.” She rose with exquisite grace and glided away.

Suzanne turned back to Joe. Might as well try to get a feel for the boy’s perception of his home life. She pointed back to the same blob they’d talked about before. “So this is your puppy-brother?”

“Hank. See? This is me. I’m taking him for a walk.” Using his finger to trace a wobbly line between himself and Hank, Joe added, “See? This is the leash.”

Knowing the love Portlanders have for their dogs, Suzanne realized the boy was describing a pet that probably seemed more like a brother to him. “So you and Hank hang out a lot?”

Getting back to drawing, Joe nodded. “Sometimes I get to feed him.”

“Wow, that’s a big responsibility.”

“Yeah. Sometimes I spill.” He dropped the crayon to grab the collar of his t-shirt, pointing out some old stains that looked like chocolate.

Suzanne wondered what kind of dog food would leave stains like that. “What happens when you spill?”

“Mama teaches me how to do it right.” Joe’s earnest eyes looked down guiltily. “Sometimes I still do it wrong, though.”

Suzanne knew that old blood stains could be confused for chocolate. She also knew that a bloody nose might leave stains in much the same place on Joe’s shirt. A distant alarm bell sounded in her head.

“I’m sorry,” Daphne said, startling Suzanne. The godmother seemed a little more tense than when she left. “Mathilde–Joe’s mother–is too busy to come talk to you right now. Maybe she could call you at another time?”

Standing, Suzanne said, “I’m afraid I really have to insist on seeing her now. I can go to her if she’s too busy to come here. She’s in the building, right?”

“Yes, she’s in the basement,” Daphne said, biting her gorgeous lip. “It’s a little… unpleasant. She’s–”

“She’s milking the pig,” Joe said, still coloring.

Both women looked to him in surprise, then Daphne laughed uncomfortably. “It’s not exactly what it sounds like.”

“Okay,” Suzanne said, waiting.

With a sigh of resignation, Daphne said, “Very well. Come with me. Joe, you stay here.”

“‘Kay.” The boy didn’t even look up.

Suzanne followed Daphne past and around the counter, where Jorgie watched in obvious trepidation. Daphne patted his arm as she passed, leading Suzanne through the kitchen to a tiny vestibule. To their left was a door that led to the street; to the right, a staircase leading up to the second floor. Directly in front was another door, to which Daphne went, pausing with her hand on the knob. “Now, I must warn you about the smell–”

From up the stairs, an elderly female voice called, “Daphne? Tea, please! Daphne? ”

Clearly torn, Daphne looked toward the stairs, then back to Suzanne. “That’s Joe’s great-grandmother. The family has an apartment upstairs.”

“You can take care of her,” Suzanne said, more confidently than she felt. “I’ll go on downstairs.”

Daphne hesitated, then started moving toward the stairs. “All right. FYI, Mathilde’s English isn’t a lot better than Jorgie’s. If you need a translator, I’ll be right upstairs.” She didn’t climb the stairs so much as ascend them. Suzanne noticed that the back of the shawl bulged oddly, and there were the tips of very expensive costume wings just peeking beneath the hem. Suzanne wouldn’t have taken the queenly woman for a cosplayer, but Portland had geeks from all walks of life.

Taking a deep breath, Suzanne turned the knob and headed down to the basement. She was nostalgic for that breath once it was time to take the next one, because the stench was almost other-worldly.  As she got to the bottom of the stairs, she was surprised to see that the smell was from just a single animal–the largest pig Suzanne had ever seen.

The pig was ignoring her from within a pen of chain link, staring off in another direction. A banging sound simultaneously startled her and disclosed the object of the pig’s fascination, as Suzanne moved further into the basement to see a short, stocky woman slapping the side of an overworked air purifier, cursing in some foreign tongue. As she straightened, she caught sight of Suzanne and smiled sheepishly.

“Not working,” she said. “Sorry for smell.”

Looking at the air purifier, Suzanne absently traced its electrical cord to the place where its plug lay next to an orange extension cord. The extension cord was plugged into the wall, but had become disconnected from the purifier.

Following Suzanne’s gaze, Mathilde barked a short exclamation and hurried over to plug the two together. Beaming her thanks to Suzanne, she returned to her original task: feeding the pig.

“Um, Ms…” Suzanne realized she didn’t know the family’s last name. “You’re Joe’s mother, right?”

“Yes, right. Joe’s mother.” Mathilde was pouring kibble from a bag of something called Flying Pig Hog Chow.

“Well, I’m Suzanne Watts from the office of Child Protective Services. I’m responding to a complaint that Joe might be working in the cafe.”

“Yes,” Mathilde said, “he’s working.” She was patting the pig, who had come instantly to the fence as the food was poured.

Keeping the frustration out of her voice, Suzanne tried again. “So, are you saying that you have Joe working as part of the cafe’s staff?”

Mathilde was engrossed in what she was doing with the pig, which seemed to involve an object embedded in his (her?) neck. Mathilde brandished an impressively large syringe and carefully poked it into what was apparently an IV port. The syringe began to fill up with the pig’s blood.

Suzanne put more authority into her tone. “Mathilde, this is very important. Is Joe working in the restaurant?”

Frowning, Mathilde said, “Yes. He works on drawing upstairs.”

“I’m not talking about the drawing!” Suzanne shouted, then stopped herself, mortified. It was unprofessional to yell at parents during an investigation. She rubbed her forehead. Maybe the stench was getting to her. That had to be it. She apologized to Mathilde and added, “Maybe I could talk to your husband?”

Mathilde merely cocked her head to one side, clearly not understanding. Maybe she hadn’t married the boy’s father.

“The father? Could I speak to the father?”

“No father.”

Suzanne was reluctant to go back to Daphne, who seemed not to be a blood relation. “Um… Could I talk to the… person in charge? The head of the family?”

Mathilde brightened. “Head of family, yes! Upstairs. You come.”

She ushered Suzanne toward the stairs and followed as they went up. Suzanne was unendingly grateful to be heading toward fresh air. “You know, I really don’t think it’s legal to keep a pig in the basement.”

“Yes, pig in basement.”

Deciding that was a battle to fight later, Suzanne said no more about the pig. Once the basement door was closed behind them, she followed Mathilde as she hurried up the stairs to the second floor.

The apartment was small and cluttered with furniture and strange decor. There were shelves on the walls filled with odd knickknacks that were clearly very old; winged creatures that seemed more appropriate to a fantasy shop than a family sitting room and figures that Suzanne could only describe as nightmarish. Fascinated, she was admiring the intricate detail of a hawk with bat wings when she detected movement in her peripheral vision. Staring at the blocky figurine that had seemed to move, it occurred to her that it bore more than a passing resemblance to the man at the cafe counter, Tibor. That thought fled her mind when a faint breeze on her cheek took her attention back to the bat-hawk.

“Oh, you’re still here.” Daphne’s voice drew Suzanne back to the business at hand. The regal woman pushed a wheelchair, in which was seated an old woman. Her hair was less thick than her relatives’ and shot through with white strands, but the resemblance was unmistakable, as was the broad smile. She sat stiffly, as though strapped into the chair under the heavy crocheted throw draped around her.

“This is head of family,” Mathilde said, “my…” She closed her eyes in concentration. “Grandmother. My grandmother, Sasha.” She then said something to Sasha in their language, finishing with Suzanne’s name.

“It’s nice to meet you,” Suzanne said, awkwardly. She didn’t extend her hand or a card, since it seemed obvious the woman was paralyzed.

Sasha said, very carefully in heavily accented English, “Welcome to our home.” It sounded as though she had memorized the greeting syllable by syllable. Sasha then simply smiled, her eyes moving first to Mathilde and then to Daphne. Suzanne thought she was probably as confused as everyone else seemed to be.

“Did you get everything sorted out?” Daphne asked.

“Not really,” Suzanne replied. She guessed it was time to bring Daphne into it, since no one else seemed able to answer questions. “I’m here to investigate a complaint that Joe has been working in the restaurant.”

“Yes, Joe working downstairs,” Mathilde said proudly. Sasha beamed.

“Uh, no,” Daphne said gently. “I think what Suzanne means is that we’ve been making Joe do restaurant work. Cooking, cleaning, waiting tables. That sort of thing.”

Mathilde processed this, then looked aghast. “No! Joe no work restaurant!” She shot an accusing look at Suzanne. “You say such thing! Not true. Not true!”

“I didn’t say it,” Suzanne corrected. “Someone else reported it.”

“You say just now!”

“No, I was…” Suzanne looked helplessly toward Daphne.

Daphne said something in the native tongue. Mathilde wasn’t assuaged, rattling off more words in response. Daphne said to Suzanne, “She wants to know what filthy, um… rat dared to make such an accusation. I’m paraphrasing.”

“I can’t disclose that, I’m afraid. But I–”

She was interrupted by a small voice. Or more accurately, a very loud voice from a very young child, coming from the kitchen. “Mama, shake now! Shake now!”

Mathilde looked toward the kitchen, then back toward Suzanne.

“You have another child?” Suzanne asked.

Mathilde nodded. “Hungry.”

Daphne put a hand to Mathilde’s shoulder. “Go ahead and feed him.”

Mathilde glanced again at Suzanne, then hurried into the kitchen.

“So, Suzanne,” Daphne said, “I hope we’ve demonstrated that the complaint about Joe is baseless. I mean, you’ve seen that he’s not working in the restaurant.”

“Joe,” said Sasha proudly. Daphne stroked her hair and smiled.

“Yes, I believe that the child labor laws aren’t being violated here,” Suzanne said. “I’m a little concerned about keeping a pig in the building. However, the initial complaint that brought me here seems unfounded.”

Daphne sighed. Somehow, she did it more beautifully than anyone else. “I’m so glad. You’re welcome to have dinner in the cafe before you go. On the house.”

“Oh, thank you, but I’m pretty sure that’s against the rules. However, I do need to look in on the other child before I go.” She walked past Sasha and Daphne toward the kitchen. She didn’t want to drag this out unnecessarily. It was getting late, and she didn’t want to ride back in total darkness.

The scene in the kitchen surprised her, which, given everything that had happened, was in itself surprising. Mathilde was at the sink preparing a bottle, and in the middle of the kitchen floor was a large dog crate. Inside the crate was a boy of about two years, repetitively shouting, “Shake, Mama! Shake now!”

“Coming, Hank,” Mathilde said soothingly. “Mama’s coming.”

Suzanne had tried to weather this entire call with as much calm professionalism as she could muster. Her mustering failed her now. “What the hell? You can’t keep your kid in a dog crate!”

Spinning around, startled, Mathilde spilled some of syringe’s contents as she was filling the bottle. Dark red droplets dotted the pitted vinyl of the kitchen floor.

Blood. She was putting blood into the bottle for her baby. The baby she kept in the dog crate. Suzanne’s mind was suddenly playing back Joe’s voice. “That’s Hank, my pet brother. See the leash?”

Hank was demanding his “shake” ever more stridently, and Mathilde finished adding the blood. As she shook it up to mix all the contents, Suzanne struggled to formulate a plan. The original complaint wasn’t valid, but it was clear she had to get the kids out of this house. She started to run through the steps needed, the calls she needed to make.

But it was really hard to concentrate after all of the things that had happened and with little Hank screaming, “Shake, Mama! Shake now! Shake, Yip! Yip yip! Yip, yip! Yip!”

Jerking her eyes back toward the crate, Suzanne struggled to process what she was seeing. Where Hank had been before, there was now a creature that looked a lot like him, but had fur on its face, arms, and legs; pointed ears; and a doglike snout. Mathilde rushed to affix the bottle–which had a long metal spout instead of a nipple–to the side of the crate, where the creature promptly began to lap from it greedily.

Suzanne felt her heart begin to hammer against her sternum. Backing up in horror, she stopped worrying about professionalism. “Oh, my God! Is that Hank? What happened to him? Oh, my God!”

“I’m so sorry, it’s an early moon tonight,” Daphne said, from behind her.

Suzanne whirled around wildly. All thoughts of protocols and phone calls had fled her mind, which was now intent only on escaping the apartment. She moved to shoulder past Daphne, who tried to stop her with a hand on her arm. “Wait, please. We can explain.”

Desperate and terrified, Suzanne pulled away, knocking the elegant shawl from Daphne’s shoulders. The wings she had glimpsed earlier sprung free, wafting with eerily realistic motion. As Suzanne moved to get around Daphne, one of the wings brushed her cheek. It felt like touching an electric dragonfly.

Suzanne shrieked. More than once.

In the kitchen, she heard Hank start to howl. Mathilde tried to calm him, but the agitation in her tone just couldn’t get the job done. It didn’t do much to calm Suzanne, either.

Daphne was reaching out to her now, trying desperately to get Suzanne to listen to her, but all Suzanne cared about was getting the hell out. She darted toward the door, but Daphne stepped into her path. “Please, just let me tell you–”

Suzanne gave her a shove. Daphne lost her balance, starting to fall, but saved herself by flapping those terrifyingly beautiful wings. For a moment, Suzanne was rooted to the spot watching them, right up to the point where one of the wings accidentally slapped Sasha on the side of the head. Her head not only turned with the slap, but fell to one side. It took Suzanne a few seconds to realize that the head was dangling from some sort of strapped contraption that kept it upright… atop the neck of what appeared to be a mannequin.

“Daphne!” Sasha’s head was crying. “Help! Fall! Daphne!”

Suzanne proved that the earlier shrieks were merely warm-ups as she lumbered toward the apartment door. She had a vague sense of being glared at, scolded, and generally disapproved of by the knickknacks as she crashed through the door. All the way down the stairs, Suzanne heard herself chanting, “Ohgod, ohgod, ohgod, ohgod.” When she reached the bottom, she discovered that the door to the street was locked (or maybe she was just too panicked to operate the knob), so she bolted through the door to the cafe’s kitchen.

Some part of her noted that the kitchen staff turned their heads in alarm before they had seen her, which told her she was still screaming. Well, screw professionalism. This was about survival.

Uncle Jorgie looked up as she barreled into the back of the counter area. Incongruously, he was smiling as though she were a clearly happy camper. “Everything okay?” he said. “You want shake now? Very good for your hair.”

With a fresh wail, she backed away from him, feeling her way around the counter. When she cleared it, she spun to make a break for the outside door, but slammed into a faceful of Hawaiian shirt. Stunned, she stared into the chest, noting that it was now much more filled out.

“Hey, what’s wrong?” Jack said.

His voice sounded different. She looked up into a face that was recognizably Jack’s, but with a lot more hair, and a jaw distended to accommodate his wolf-like snout.

“Oh, my God! You too?”

“Yeah, early moon,” he said. “Hate when that happens.”

Suzanne had been terrified enough when she’d thought that the weirdness was confined to the family. Now, she whipped her head from side to side, scanning the cafe patrons (who were now staring at her as though she were the weirdo). A pale girl at a nearby table smiled at her. Weren’t those canines just a bit too long? And did that man by the window just scoop something off his plate with his tongue… without lowering his head?

Her eyes landed on Tibor, who ducked his head and shrugged apologetically. “Troll.”

“Oh, no, no, no, no, no…” Suzanne’s feet propelled her to the door as though they had bypassed her conscious mind entirely.

“Wait, come back!” Jack called after her. “I don’t bite… women.”

 

Suzanne was already at the door, but something was wrong. She pulled and pulled, but it wouldn’t budge. This was their plan! They’d trapped her in this chamber of horrors! What would they do to her? Who at the office even knew she was coming here? Would it be too late when they sent someone to–

Her thoughts were cut short by a huge hand as Tibor reached out… and gave the door a push.

“Doors open out,” he said. “Fire laws.”

Shoving her way out, Suzanne dashed to the bike rack, fumbling with the key to her lock. The door from the apartment vestibule opened and Daphne hurried out. Suzanne noticed that she was elegant even in panic, which seemed just really unfair.

“Wait, please,” Daphne said. She kept her distance and her hands out, palms up in a supplicating posture. “Just tell me–what will you say in your report?”

Suzanne wasn’t buying the harmless act. The bitch had wings. Holding a hand in a gesture of stay right there, she said, “Unfounded! He obviously isn’t working in the restaurant.”

“Yes, but, what about the rest?”

Suzanne had finally gotten the lock open. There wasn’t time to attach it to the bike, so she just tossed it to the sidewalk. “Nothing. Nothing at all. I didn’t see a thing.”

She hauled herself onto the saddle and pushed off. It was a wobbly start, but just as she steadied the bike, Gabe Tannenbaum stepped into her path.

“What do you mean, you didn’t see a thing? They’re a bunch of freakin’ weirdos! Don’t tell me you’re just going to turn your head? Plus, I know they’ve got a pig in there somewhere!”

He looked at Daphne, who remained where she’d stopped, covered again in her elegant shawl, hands clasped in worry. Turning back to Suzanne, Gabe said, “You’ve seen what these people are like. They’re scaring away all my customers. If you don’t do something about it, I’ll have to take matters into my own hands.”

Suzanne laughed, despite herself. “Yeah, good luck with that, Gabe.”

Steering the front wheel to the left of him, Suzanne pushed off again and pedaled for all she was worth. As she put distance between herself and the cafe, she noted a big, lovely full moon visible against the fading light of the evening sky.

“Early moon,” she muttered. She started to giggle. She couldn’t seem to stop .

© 2014 Lee Waverly and Madison Thorne

“Irish Twins” by Erika Whitmore

Irish Twins

by Erika Whitmore

 

I guess it must have been a full three weeks into my new position as Senior Editor at the San Francisco Chronicle before I was knocking on the door to the office of the Editor-in-Chief, belly-aching about my beat.

Oh, by the way, my name is Lois Lane. Go ahead – get all the jokes out of your system – I’ve heard them all.

Let me explain. My parents met while enrolled in their high school yearbook club – he was the photographer, she was the reporter. If that isn’t a classic “meet-cute,” I don’t know what is.

Now, fast-forward nearly 50 years later, they’re still happily married. He became a successful electronics engineer and she, of course, kicked butt in her more than 25 year career as a newspaper journalist.

Enter me: a walking anachronism in the year 2014 – one of a dying breed – the elusive, the stubborn – the “newspaper reporter.” (Yikes. I guess someone did NOT get the memo about this whole “internet” thing). Well, I guess I can make a game out of it. We’ll see how long this French farce I call a career lasts before I start looking for extra cardboard to build my very own lean-to home under the bridge.

Suffice to say, I was doing my level best to follow in my parents’ very impressive footsteps, and so far, by the looks on my cat’s face when I brought home the sub-par generic brand cat food and by the numbers on my weekly check-stub, (less the amount our FICA friends’ take for themselves), I was failing miserably. (All I can say is, thank God my parents made their own money for retirement, because if they were looking to me to help them in their old age…well, they’d be S…O…L. Something tells me they sensed that early on with me and started saving…but I digress).

“Knock, knock…” I meekly kept tapping on my boss’s door; half hoping he wouldn’t hear me.

“Goddamn it! Come in!” Mr. Rosenthal roared at me through the door.

I winced in embarrassment. It was now or never. You GO, girl! I cheered silently to myself in the very best fag-hag inner voice I could muster. Then I winced again despite myself. I’m such a geek.

I entered into what can only be described as a hoarder’s smorgasbord. Papers, banana peels, rubber erasers, broken pica rulers and complete collections of Encyclopedia Britannica and National Geographic lay strewn among fallen ceiling tiles and telephone books from the 1980s.

Various out-dated reference books which have long since become superfluous were propped up under the weight of a wall of rusty, rickety old antique fans on their last legs. These were connected with a tangled mass of computer wires, routers and writhing orange extension cords all intertwined and conspiring together into a Jabba the Hut heap designed to supposedly cool and refresh the sweaty, gin-blossomed face of His Majesty Ralph Rosenthal, Editor-in-Chief, San Francisco Chronicle.

“Whattaya want, Lane?” he barked without looking up from his work. His grey and white comb-over was happily flapping, waving, undulating and dancing to the multi-directional blasts of air being forced upon it. Up and down, back and forth, his little scrap of rug was having the time of its life, as if this was its own little pride parade on top of the newspaperman’s head. It was hypnotic.

“Well?” He barked again. “Out with it! Tick tock, Lane Tick tock! What – do I look like I’m made of money here?”

I wasn’t sure I should answer that question. To be more accurate, I’m not sure I could answer that question.

Anyway, you really don’t need to hear all the gory details of this next part. Let’s just say, I whined, he wheezed, we wheedled and wrangled, but in the end – me? Winning!!

So, what did I win? Instead of being dumped onto my usual “Triple-A” beat this weekend – (That’s “Ask Any Asshole” beat – sorry – that’s just what we “in the media” call it…it’s time you knew)…I actually get to write a real story…something with a little meat left dangling on its bones…something about actual people.

Because this just gets old after awhile, “Hi, I’m Lois Lane from the – uh, no, (sigh) it’s not a joke. Yes, that’s my real name and no, I don’t know Superman. May I continue?”

And frankly, covering stories like this has lost that certain ‘zip’ for me: “Hello sir. I’m a local reporter here covering a story on this new underground knitting fetish. Can you tell me a little bit more about how you and your wife first discovered your sexual interest in the hobby of knitting? And, may I ask, those needles you’re holding there…are those your own or do you have to have those custom made?”

To each his own…whatever…moving on.

So, I did not risk humiliating myself at the feet of my superior without having had a plan. At least, I could tell myself that after I inevitably left his office humiliated, I mused.

I had been sitting on a story idea for a couple of months now and felt I would implode if I didn’t speak up soon. If I didn’t do the story, someone else would.

 

It was 6:12 AM as I de-boarded my plane at Portland International Airport. I felt a flurry of excitement move across my stomach and up into my throat. I’m actually here, I thought. And in just a few more minutes I will be interviewing for my subject for my story. I felt like it was prom night and my first time dropping windowpane all rolled up in one,

“God, geek out much?” I said to myself out loud. “Get a hold of yourself already.”

And with that little pep talk taken care of, I slung my carry-on over my shoulder, nearly fell backwards on my ass, looked around to check if “anyone saw that” and struck out deftly for the airport bar. Shut-up. I have my priorities. Some people wait until they get home, some people drink at the airport bar while waiting for their departure plane…I …am not some people. Don’t question me. Moving on…

Once outside, I nearly fell on my ass again, the sun was so dang bright. After finding sunglasses though, and adjusting, I was able to stumble my way to the cabbie curb, feelin’ no pain. It was then I decided to check out my surroundings. (Yep yep yep. I’m a nature lover. I just savor it. Love the great outdoors…at least what I can see of it from a tavern window – if it’s air-conditioned…if not, forget it. I’m staying home and can make my own damn cocktail. Twice as strong, half the price and no bird shit in my hair).

Anyway, I took in a long, deep, refreshing breath of the crisp, beautiful Pacific Northwest air and coughed and sputtered and gagged – I think I swallowed a fly…or gnat or whatever they have up in the PDX…anyway, I put my hand up to steady myself and wouldn’t you know it, I flagged down a cab. Ah! I smiled. I killed two birds with one stone. (Well, technically, I killed one gnat with one swallow and hailed a cab at the same time…but again, I digress).

I couldn’t help but appreciate the epic difference in both atmosphere and time it took to get a cab ratio between here and back home in Ole SF. I made a mental note. Which, let’s face it, is a useless endeavor.

“Where to?” the cabbie asked me nicely as I jumped in back.

“Uh….” I had to rifle through my giant universe purse to look for the address to my destination. Typical, I thought. WHY do I always do this to myself? I write things down on little itty bitty scraps of paper thinking, “Yeah! Now this is a good idea!” And toss it into my bag with nary a care in the world. I always think that what I have here is what is known as a “little-black-and -oh-so-chic-want for-nothing -laptop-cum-business-to-nightlife-clutch” but in actuality what I really have is a giant bag the size of a baby pachyderm into which I cram all my earthly belongings and then lug it around with me with the justification that I will be prepared for any eventuality. I think I learned this fear from my mother…which has always confused me. She wasn’t a Boy Scout, she was Scandinavian. And she learned it from her mother, and so on. I used to think it had something to do with the Depression or the war or something…but that doesn’t really explain the 42 boxes of red Jell-O we had to keep replenishing. Her mother had 42 boxes of red Jell-O and so did her mother and her mother as well, going all the way back to the Old Country. Which reminds me, I better get to the store…sorry, there I go again, tangent. Sorry.

So, there I am – a freakish, neurotic bag-lady. In fact, I could have an entire illegal family in there right now, secretly smuggling themselves across the border and I wouldn’t even know it. Or a long lost uncle…or my favorite hairbrush I lost two years ago…who knows? All I know is, as long as the bag still has the real “Chanel” logo emblazoned on it, I’m still justifying the nearly broken shoulders and hunchback I’m developing from carrying it around. Couple more weeks of this ill-advised bag and I will be the shape of a question mark. Oo la la. Rrrrear.

“It’s ok, lady.” The cabbie eventually says in pity at my mad beaver scrabbling. “You just tell me where you want to go and I will figure it out, ok?” I think he was actually getting a little frightened once I started to foam at the mouth.

I stopped mid-growl and looked up at him from my pile of tissues, hairballs and makeup, instantly ashamed. I fully expected to see a burly Eastern European squinting at me in the rear view mirror, thinking how in former Soviet Union, women were not as insolent as this. In former Soviet Union women had address prepared and in hand or women did not dare ride in motor car that day or for rest of natural born life.

But, I was wrong. Instead, peering back at me with bright, pale blue eyes was a fresh-faced PSU college kid wearing a Nike sweatshirt… and he was smiling broadly at me with white, glistening teeth like Mary Poppins or a – a- gay lumberjack or something …you just couldn’t be more Portland than that.

I felt like a jerk. Here I was in a full state of panic, flying through my purse like a wood-chipper, “’cause” as my grandmother used to say to me as a little girl, “I’m just a squirrel tryin’ to get a nut, know what I mean, dawg?”

No, wait…that’s not true, she never used to say that. I’m sorry. Shoot. That was a rapper in the 90’s. I always get those two mixed up…sorry. My mistake.

Anyway, I had to remind myself that I was in Portland, not in San Francisco or New York.

In New York cabbies will use any excuse to jettison spittle at you from the front seat and even a moment’s hesitation on the address of your destination is …well, Lord help you because you’ve definitely launched the ignition sequence – because they will usually reply to you with a high-pitched, impatient, other-worldly cacophony that only dogs and their countrymen can hear. But, the good news is, if you’ve spent enough time in New York, you can usually catch the gist of it. Usually it can be translated to something roughly along the lines of, “Oh my God!! I am going to make you suffer forever you White Demon for that which you have made my people endure if you do not give me the address in less than two seconds! Die, die, die! I hate you, I hate you, I hate you!”

Well, I’m paraphrasing.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no racist. I’m just very, very afraid of people I don’t understand. Which, I guess, if you’re gonna split hairs, is kind of at the root of all racism isn’t it? So…yeah. Well, this is awkward…moving on…

Arrived: 7:20 AM: Portland Psychiatric Hospital, Downtown Portland, Northwest side of town.

I stood outside the brick building, staring at the tall chain-link fence that surrounded it. The metaphor wasn’t wasted on me. It wasn’t that long ago I too was on the other side of just such a fence looking out, wondering if I’d ever even want to switch sides again.

“Brrrruh!” I shook my head and the memories of those dark days and collected myself. That was the past, this is the present. This wasn’t about me. Not anymore. I was here on business and that’s that. Crazy can wait.

After the usual metal detector pass-through and other formalities, I was introduced to my interviewees head nurse, Ms. Gaines. Apparently Ms. Gaines was just tickled pink to be on staff at the lovely Portland Psych Ward and she made no bones about letting everyone within ear shot know just how tickled she was.

“Hello, Ms. Gaines,” I began, reaching out toward her to shake her hand.

“Uh – huh – huh uh –?” She chortled at me, not putting her hand out, but staring down her nose at me, moving her eyes up and down my frame with clear disapproval. “Are you shittin’ me?”

“Um…excuse me?” I asked, a bit thrown off.

“I say-yed, are – you – shitting me? I only ask because, here I am, a nurse, dressed up all pretty and pressed in pristine, parched, clean white cotton” (spit flew from her lips with each pop of the letter “p” and landed deftly somewhere on my person) – and there you are…” and here she kind of stopped for a moment to take me all in, I guess. The look on her face is hard to describe, but gun to my head, I’d have to say it was frozen somewhere between appalled and horrified.

“..You’re like – this – this – person off the streets…”

“Ms. Gaines, Ms. Gaines,” I interrupted, not wanting to strain her face much longer lest it stick that way. “Ms. Gaines. I appreciate what you are saying, so let’s just skip the formalities, shall we? Ok. May I please meet my interviewee? My subject? The woman I came to speak with? A ‘Ms. Linda Johnson’? Um…please?”

Well, that snapped her out of her reverie. And it snapped her jaw shut, too, finally. Without another word or sound, the nurse spun on her heel and walked briskly down a long corridor with me behind her, barely able to keep up. She swung her arms and legs up as high as possible when she walked, almost goose-stepping and karate-chopping at the same time. Quite a unique gait, I thought.

Within seconds we arrived at Linda Johnson’s quarters – the woman I intended to interview. I half expected another delay, but there she was waiting for us, seated behind a card table playing solitaire.

Linda was in her late 30’s, blond hair tied up in a messy up-do, pretty, with a kind face and perfect skin that glowed without makeup. She had an intelligent glint in her eye, and I knew with just one look at the way she carried herself, the way she held her head atop her long neck and manicured fingernails that she definitely came from money. It was clear to me that she should be down in the waiting room, not here…alone…playing solitaire in a 10 by 10 concrete box, wearing a tattered, faded, pale, blue smock and old, used slippers without soles.

“Ok, Johnson! You’ve got a visitor! Look lively!” Commanded Nurse Gaines, shouting it into our faces a mere inch or two from hers. Her sudden, shrill bark made me jump a bit. Johnson though, was not fazed a bit. She looked up from her deck of cards and smiled at me warmly and motioned for me to join her.

“Enjoy!” Ordered Gaines. “No coffee!” Nurse Chuckles demanded this last bit as she left us in a huff.

“Wow…” I said out loud, half to Linda and half to myself. “I just can’t get enough of her soothing tones.”

Linda laughed. I shook her hand, saying, “Seriously, I am so happy to meet you, Ms. Johnson, thank you so much for agreeing to meet with me.”

“Oh, the pleasure is all mine.” She said. “You’ve already made my day by cracking me up!”

(This will sound really weird, but stick with me…I was reminded just then of the alley by my apartment back in San Francisco. There was a plaque affixed to the wall down the alley, commemorating it as a historical and literary site where a character from the infamous 1941 movie, “The Maltese Falcon” starring Humphrey Bogart (based on the popular book written by Dashiell Hammett) was shot. For some reason, the phrase, “A classy dame” came to mind. “A classy dame” is precisely the kind of thing Bogart and his cronies would have said in rapid fire succession in that film).

The moment Linda laughed at my dumb sense of humor, even if it was just out of courtesy – I knew immediately – here was “a classy dame.”

 

“Well,” Linda continued smiling as she spoke, “you’d be right about that. Very close indeed.”

Linda and I had already been talking for an hour and a half and I felt like I’d barely sat down. She and I and her brother had all grown up and gone to school together in a small town in Northern California and using that connection had been easy enough to land the interview, but I did not expect to get so lost in the reminiscing with her.

“Yeah,” I said laughing. “You guys were pretty close. I mean – scary close. We all thought you were twins from outer space or something. What was the deal there?”

“Oh, no, no.” She laughed. “Story of my life. No. See, ever since we were little kids people always assumed we were twins. I guess it’s because we were so close in age… and we hung out together, did everything together…you know.” She smiled as a particular memory hit her. “Huh. I remember one time, when we both six years old…”

Both six – wait, how is that poss…”

“-hold on, let me explain. Yes, we were both six years old at that time, but we were too young to understand how that could be. At that age, I still had to be told my birthday was ‘when the leaves turn color’ because I couldn’t grasp the meaning of Fall or ‘October’ – months of the year was too large a leap of logic for me yet, so, we aren’t talking rocket scientists here.

Anyway – we’re both sitting on the bus, side by side, and this “big kid” (probably was only in second grade or something), walks down the bus aisle and comes straight at us and asks, “Hey – I always see you two come in together every morning and ya sit together every morning. That bugs me. So, how old are you two?”

And we just looked up at him in total fear and said in unison, “Six.”

And he got this weird look on his face and said, “And you’re sister and brother, right?

“Yes,” we said again at the same time.

“So your twins, right?”

“Nooooo.” We said again, in unison.

Then this guy is getting really mad. “Quit screwin’ with me little kids!” He says. “Your brother and sister, and you’re with the same mom and dad – ya got the same head of the family, right?”

“Yeah,” we said all sing-songy like the frickin’ creepy kids on the Shining.

“And ya got the same mom both of ya?”

“Yesssss.” We answered dutifully.

“So then, how come, and I swear to God you better not fuck with me,” he says, “how come you’re the same age but you say your not twins?”

And we just looked up at him, scared to death and said, “We don’t know. That’s just what our mama told us.”

I burst out laughing. I don’t know why. Maybe it wasn’t even funny, but the way she told it had me practically on the floor. It was just in the telling. Maybe it had something to do with knowing her back then, all that sweetness and that initial innocence they both had…and then knowing the path they ended up taking.

“So anyway, to answer your question, Lois, we are eleven months apart. It’s what they call ‘Irish twins.’ We aren’t really Irish, per se; it’s just an unfortunate racial slur meaning, siblings born less than a year apart.”

“Ah…got it.” I said with a smile still lingering on my face from her story. “I don’t know how I never knew that about you guys. Hmm. So, if I may shift gears here a little bit, Linda – your brother, Gary, as you know, of course, became quite the public figure.”

Linda’s face dropped ever so slightly, but her smile remained – a sign of her excellent upbringing. She knew how to maintain her outward “cool” at all costs.

“Yes, well, Gary has always been very out-spoken, driven and extremely charismatic. He could sell ice to the Eskimos, as it were.” She beamed as she described him. “I’m not saying I always agreed with his chosen, um, direction, but, and of course, as his sister, I am biased, but, I still can’t help but admire his ability to turn a room of people to his favor. I mean – even in college – people were terrified to meet him when he would come to visit me, but when he did, they all couldn’t get enough of him.”

“Right – I remember people name-dropping him like it was some kind of badge of honor. It was a weird kind of twisted thing. No offense.

“None taken”

“You and Gary have always stood up for each other, defending each other – even as children, isn’t that right?”

“Oh yes, definitely…definitely.” Linda’s eyes got a little clouded over, but she immediately regained her composure. “You know, my family had high expectations of us both and he handled the pressure in ways that were quite different than I did…but, I think his way was much healthier in the long run. I tend to internalize everything.”

I sat and searched her face for a deeper meaning from that. Then, “Right, right. If you don’t mind me getting a bit personal here, Linda, its no national secret that you yourself have recently been battling some demons with drug and alcohol abuse, is that correct?

“Yes, oh, yes, but that’s not recent, that’s been going on all my life. It’s only been because of Gary’s public life and – activities, and recent events that, uh, that people have come to, uh, come to find out about my, uh, my, yes, as you said – the alcoholism.”

“And now, your family. Specifically, your mother and father. ..” I stopped for a moment to study Linda’s expression and she was looking in my eyes and nodding, biting her lip, then nodding some more. It was plain she was definitely struggling with an emotion or two…so I continued cautiously.

“You mother and father and brother…you all were quite a close-knit family…is that how you would characterize it?

“Uh-huh.” she said as she continued to nod her head rhythmically, like a vertical metronome, as if the repetition of it alone was keeping her emotionally at bay.

“But, now… they – your mother and father, I mean – they are no longer speaking to you at all, is that correct?”

She just kept staring into my eyes and nodding, nodding and nodding. She looked as if she was going to say something but then was unable to speak. I took this as my cue to move on.

“So, I am assuming this has something to do with the events occurring within the last year or so?”

More nodding…I felt like I was talking to one of those bobble heads on a dashboard, but she was hanging in there.

“To back up on the timeline just a hair, if I may, Linda, your brother, as we all know now, was heavily involved in the Aryan or White Supremacist movement. In fact, after graduating school he left to go to San Francisco where he rose to the leader of a well-known neo-Nazi group down there, (editorial note: removed to protect the not-so-innocent) soon amassing nearly 10,000 members from across the country. He became a somewhat of a household name. Well, if you were plugged into that whole “scene” I guess. And he did that cover story for the Village Voice…and ABC News did a feature…”

I continued: “You – you used to visit him in jail and wait all day just to slip him a few dollars instead of going to your college classes…the FBI held him there on erroneous charges because of his political affiliations, people were killed trying to get him out…”

I stopped dead in my tracks, realizing by the look on her face that I’d gone too far. She was protective of the her brother, sure, I could understand that, and I was getting carried away, remembering the idiots straight out of Darwinism like “Pappy” – one of his “soldiers” who master-minded the brilliant idea to assassinate the President and launched this full-proof campaign of his by deftly writing all about it and his on-going mass genocide plans to rid the earth of all “mud races” before the year 2020…all outlined and dated clearly detailed …and sent it to – The King of Skinheads…while he was in lock-up on charges for first-degree attempted murder. With an FBI stack of files on him taller than Herve Villechaise. Genius, this Pappy guy. I mean, what could possibly go wrong with this plan? After all, who would even notice such a thing? No one was watching Gary or was remotely interested in reading the mail he got, right? And certainly, the fact that “Pappy” – this Popeye – looking, toothless, old brainiac ended up jumped by blank panther gang and beaten to death in Golden Gate Park – I’m sure that had nothing to with it. I had wanted to talk to her about all of that and so many other stories, but I knew our time was limited, and so was her emotional state.

“I do apologize, Linda. “I said sincerely. “I will try to be as brief as possible. And again, I truly thank you for agreeing to talk to me. But, you were right there sometimes – in the thick of it. You didn’t live there with him, but you’d drop by sometimes and visit him at the infamous ‘Baker House’ …where you’d get death threats and Malakoff cocktails just winging on through the window at you…not to mention the “skin bitches trying to take you out…How – how did you cope with this? I mean – I know you, Linda – and you are about as extreme a liberal as ever a person could want to meet! How did you square this- this – affiliation with your brother – ‘King of the Skinheads’ as he soon came to be known– how did you square that with your very strong, very leftist liberal sensibilities?”

She had stopped nodding at this point and looked me dead in the eye. She was red in the face, but not with anger but with passion of conviction.

“He was Gary. I don’t expect you to understand. I can’t explain it myself. I couldn’t explain it then, and I can’t explain it now. I hated, hated, hated what he believed and I still do. I could sit here and try to defend it and split hairs differentiating how his beliefs aren’t about genocide but about preserving your heritage, etc. but that is not the point.

The point is – I loved him and I still do. People would hear me say this and snarl. Then they would meet him and then they understood. Somehow, after they met him, sat down with him, then they got it too. They still hated his beliefs, of course, and I never ever tried to dissuade people from that, but they also “got it.” They got whey why I loved him so much. They “got” why I would always go on and on about him when his name came up. Why I would do anything for him and he would do anything for me. And it was always like that. Had always been like that. Just like when he could have gotten caught smoking pot when he was 13, I covered for him. And when my dad found his report card and yelled at him for “not being more like your sister” so I immediately tore mine up before they could even see the row of straight A’s on mine. And the thing is – I always thought he was one of the most brilliant, cleverest, quickest witted and creative people I’ve ever known. He’s definitely smarter than I am. Oh yeah, by far. You’d be amazed.”

She was just beaming now. I let her talk. “We looked out for one another since day one. He always knew when I was in trouble and vice versa. If I had two dimes to my name I’d give them both to him and he would do the same for me. That’s why. Enough said.”

“Right – that bond you guys had… I remember whenever you guys would go into a bar or travel, people- would think-“

“-everybody’d think we were dating…or a couple of whatever, I know, I know. “(She sighed and rolled her eyes, half embarrassed, half proud).

“Absolutely we did. What did you expect!?” We were both laughing now. It was actually a funny image. She, at the time we were thinking about, was in her early twenties and was the exact polar opposite of him. Imagine the quintessential co-ed; tall, thin, bouncy blonde with skirts so short the world is her gynecologist, skip-skip-iddle-dee-deeing into a “wouldn’t-want-to-be-caught-there-after-dark-roughneck-biker-bar” wearing said aforementioned skirt and a see-through, low-cut top and come-f*ck me boots with her arms wrapped around her brother, just hanging on him and his every word like he were Elvis. No one else in the room even existed to her.

Meanwhile, imagine the flip side of this coin, you’re a total smack head and you happen to be patronizing this same lovely establishment – this rank and skanky biker bar, literally under an overpass in a sketchy part of SOMA in San Francisco at about 2 AM… and you’re loaded to the gills, drinking to your head, trying to forget your name, or remember – whichever – you forget – when in walks this tall, bald, badass skinhead. You immediately recognize him from the news as Gary Johnson – ‘The King of the Skinheads’. He’s wearing a flight jacket, braces, and twenty-hole, steel-toed oxbloods. And when he takes off his jacket, you see he is totally sleeved in tats – all black, no color – he’s got iron crosses, swastikas, and Odin’s face with wild blond mane of hair streaming back, bats from hell and Valhalla for heaven. You name it – it’s a veritable potpourri of neo-Nazi iconography in the flesh. Every head in the bar is staring in awe, but not just at him, but also at the intriguing young lady friend he has draped and clinging to him like a scarf.

Yep, that girl-scarf was Linda. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a single person whose first thought when seeing them together said to themselves, “Yeah, they’re siblings. You can see the resemblance.”

It’s like seeing Sarah Jessica Parker on a date with Marilyn Manson. And then finding out they’re brother and sister. Yet, with them, somehow, they made it work. And you never got the feeling it was in this sick incestual way, either. They just had a unique brother sister relationship of trust, loyalty and affection – something unique that many people live their whole lives and never experience. There was a real strength and peace in that…for both of them.

“Well, I can see we are almost out of time, Linda” I said carefully. I said this because I saw the Nazi Nurse edging her way closer toward us from the back of the hall.

“If I might, I just wanted to touch briefly on the main reason for my visit, which I am sure you may have guessed, this being the week of the 15th and all.”

“Yes, I did have an inkling.” She said in a very serious tone.

“Yes, well,” I continued. “As I was saying, this being the week of the 15th, it is of course a very important week historically…in more ways than one.”

She started in with the metronome nodding again.

“…first, you two always celebrated your birthdays together, even though they were a month apart every year, and you were born eleven months apart…”

Nodding, nodding…”right, so every year that meant we were the same age for a month. Again, very confusing for a six-year old to grasp.”

“…yes, absolutely! And this week is your 40th…”

Nodding, nodding…

“…however, this also marks nearly a year since the uh, your horrific, er, accident…which occurred immediately following your 39th birthday…”

She had a brief pause in her nodding, like a glitch in the Matrix, then recommenced…nodding, nodding again…

“And, I don’t think you mind me stating what has already been reported and is of public record…that in fact, it was not an “accident” at all, but actually a very serious attempted suicide on your part…when you rammed your car at over 120 miles an hour into that concrete embankment…no braking, no skid marks on the street, no nothing…”

She went on nodding, but now she was also rocking herself back and forth as well…her face is very red and she is showing great distress…I know I needed to wrap it up with her right away…

“And your physical therapists all say you should have died then, that you really gave it all you had– they said most people, at that rate of speed, without a seatbelt, with the damage done to the vehicle – well, suffice to say, you are extremely lucky to have survived it, and – “

Her motions were getting very frenetic now. She was speeding them up and her face was growing tighter and twitched nervously. Nod, rock, nod, rock, nod, rock…

“And just…just one last thing and I know this is very difficult for you… I just wanted to ask you – what everyone wants to know – your suicide attempt –was it, I mean, I do not mean to pry in ANY way, but, you have so much to live for, and so many people who love and admire you – you are a brilliant producer and – well, now, I mean, you’ve lost your job, and now you’re here, and your family won’t speak to you because they, well, I mustn’t dwell long on this, but as you know, they blame you, for, for, your brother’s death. …They say you were late getting to the bridge to meet him for your usual birthday lunch and that you were “drunk again” and “irresponsible and selfish” – now that’s them talking, not me, and that your brother only committed suicide because you did not show up, that he only jumped off the bridge because…well, they say you’ve always been a drunk and they blame you – they say you could have saved him if only you had been there to…”

“No!” No! NOOOO!!!! You don’t know ANYTHING!!!! It didn’t happen like that! That’s not it! It’s the way everyone thinks! You’ll NEVER GET IT! No one will!” Linda screamed at me in a voice I had never heard her use. She pounded and pounded and pounded on the desk in front of her, crying and screaming out and then she began hitting and scratching at herself – hard. She was tearing at her flesh, drawing blood and ripping at her hair, punching herself in the eyes, nose, neck and face. Making horrible guttural animal sounds all the while.

I jumped back in sheer terror, accidentally knocking over her card table just as Nurse Gaines and some orderlies came running over.

I steadied myself, trying to get my balance to stand up. Just as I did, I glanced up just in time to see some of the orderlies help take Linda away. She was in a wheelchair which I was unaware of, but more than that, and as they pulled her back out from under the card table I could see that the accident had left her legless. I gasped before I could stop myself and quickly looked away again.

She continued to cry and scream out for her brother the entire time…I could hear her bellow like an injured beast all the way down the hallway, saying I would never understand, no one would ever understand…

Just then I felt arms around me, lifting me to my feet. I was still in a state of shock when I realized it was Nurse Goines placing me back up on my feet.

She looked me right in the eye and grabbed my chin and said, “You have to go now.”

I was shell-shocked. Stammering I managed to say back to her, “Uh ok, yes certainly. Of course. Th-thank you. Is – is she going to be alright? I mean…”

“What?” she said, quite annoyed, pursuing her lips and glaring at me. “What is it?

“Um, I-I’m sorry – just…d-do you happen to know what she means? Why she keeps saying ‘I wouldn’t understand’– that it didn’t happen the way everyone thinks?”

“Yes, I do.” She said with a stony glare. “She and her brother did everything together, just like she said. They had a pact….except; at the last minute…she didn’t jump.”

© 2014 Erika Whitmore

“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