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“The Girl Who Lived with Purple Trolls” by Mia Robertson

The Girl Who Lived with Purple Trolls

by Mia Robertson

 

Once there was a girl who had bright green eyes and flaming red hair who lived with purple trolls. She had no memory of her parents. The oldest troll and the head of the family taught her to eat like a troll, make beds like a troll and shake hands like a troll. But as Poppy got older she had to do more and more chores, and of course her little sister didn’t have to do any. The trolls were the last of their kind. One day she received a letter from an elementary school.

 

Dear Poppy,

You are invited to Piewall School.

Principal Cookie

 

The next day she went to Piewall School. The troll family gave her tragic troll dust to transport her. She worked very very hard. BRRING! The recess bell rang. Children came piling out of the school.In the schoolyard there was a swing set, monkey bars and a playhouse. There was a chain link fence surrounding the schoolyard. Poppy swung from the monkey bars. When she got on the swings, the bell rang to end recess and send the kids inside. They did more math worksheets. Finally Poppy went home to the trolls.

When she arrived home, she had snack of salami because purple trolls only eat meat. Then she played princesses with her sister. After playing Poppy had a dinner of am burgers without buns. Then they plugged in their new tv with an orange extension cord. They watched a cooking show. Poppy was squinting the whole time because they bought the tv from an antique store and the picture was blurry. The purple trolls own an antique store. They disguise themselves as humans and use troll magic to transport back to their secret home cave in the mountains. At last Poppy went to bed.

The next morning Poppy found herself in an orphanage!!!!!! Poppy and the purple trolls were worried that someone at school would learn that she lived with trolls and harm them. So the trolls used their magic troll dust to send her away. Five other girls lived at the orphanage and were playing chess. So Poppy decided to join in. They were playing chess happily until a very tall woman entered. She was the head of the orphanage. They played chess for a few more minutes. They ate lunch and then played tag in field. Then they had broccoli, noodles and chicken for dinner. Then they slept in their bunk beds.

A couple months later her troll sister found another purple troll and got married. She had purple troll babies. Poppy created a community to keep purple trolls safe from humans.

© 2014 Mia Robertson

 

“Extraterrestrial” by Sarah Robertson

Extraterrestrial

by Sarah Robertson

 

“Go away, Kibbles!” I didn’t have an alarm clock, so my pet pug woke me up each morning instead. Please don’t question his name, I got him when I was eight and wasn’t very creative. As you can see, I wasn’t a morning person, and I still consider myself a night owl. Forcing myself out of bed, I grabbed my glasses and attempted to drag brush through my curly red hair before slowly walking down the stairs, Kibbles at my heels.

I walked into my houses small bright yellow kitchen. I squinted from the light as the room slowly came into focus. My eight-year-old twin brother and sister, Alex and Alice, were sitting at the breakfast table, bent over their newest prank. My mother was humming to her self as she hurried around the kitchen, cooking a quick breakfast. I sleepily sat down at the table, pulling one of my younger sisters perfect caramel brown ringlets just because I knew it would annoy her. Alice glared at me as our mother placed a plate of scrambled eggs on the table before she rushed out to work.

“ Ava’s in charge!” My mother yelled to my siblings before stepping out the door. Even if she was the head of the family, I seriously doubted my mother’s judgment on that decision. Alex and Alice would now do whatever possible to me today to prove that I wasn’t their babysitter. The week before, they had raided my candy stash, destroyed Kibbles dog toys, and then convinced my mother it was my fault. Before the twins could get a chance to harm me in any way, I had Kibbles on a leash and was safely away from my house, claiming to be taking Kibbles on a walk. I lived in Shawnee Mission, Kansas which was a farmland surrounded by city. I was walking Kibbles to an old abandoned farm. In front of the barn, there was a large field that was perfect for Kibble’s favorite game, fetch. Next to the field there was a cluster of trees, but I had never gone past them because of the stories that a group of witches that feasted on twelve-year-old children lived there. I know I shouldn’t belive everything I hear, but most kids at my school wouldn’t even go within twenty feet of the farm.

Crawling, I followed Kibbles under a hole in the chain-link fence that surrounded the old farm. I sighed in annoyance as I brushed chunks of dirt of my jeans. Kibbles placed a tennis ball by my feet, waiting for me to throw it. Instead of chasing after the ball, Kibbles turned in the opposite direction and growled. Eager to see what had made the pug so upset, I spun around to see the strangest creature. It was small, plump and as bright yellow as my mothers kitchen with four little feet and two huge, adorable eyes the color of a perfectly toasted marshmallow. As soon as the creature saw me, its eyes widened and it sped of into the cluster of trees. I followed it, branches hitting my face as I ran through the miniature forest. Okay, maybe it wasn’t miniature. What had appeared to have been a small group of trees on the outside was more like a vast forest on the inside. Before I knew it, I had lost sight of the little yellow creature and it was getting dark. Panting, I retraced my steps through the woods and back to my house. Opening the front door, I saw my mother standing behind the door, looking as if you could fry an egg on her face.

“ Ava Elizabeth Oakley!!!” She started, “ You were supposed to be watching your brother and sister today, and I come home to and you are no where in sight! I-“ She was cut off by my younger sister.

“ Alex, Ava, and I were out in the backyard, and Kibbles escaped through the gate. Ava went off to catch him.” She lied.

“ Oh.” My mother said, walking off to cook dinner.

“ You owe me.” Alice stated. I groaned and grabbed a chocolate bar from the (newly hidden) candy stash in my bedroom closet. Alice’s eyes lit up when she saw it, quickly taking it out of my hands. I leaned down and whispered in Alice’s ear:

“ You can have another if you cover for me tomorrow.” Alice nodded eagerly, scampering off. My mother eventually gave up on whatever she was attempting to cook and just ordered pizza, which was delivered half an hour later. As the family sat down to dinner, I noticed Alice was jittery, she couldn’t sit still. She had quite clearly already consumed the candy bar.

I went to sleep early, Kibbles curling up by my feet. The next morning I got up early, writing a note to my mother, saying I was taking Kibbles on a walk.

I repeated my steps from yesterday, climbing underneath the fence, entering the woods. I had been walking for a little while when Kibbles pulled his leash from my hands, bolting away from me. I chased after him, racing deeper and deeper into the forest.

“ No Kibbles! Bad dog!” I yelled trying to catch the dog. I tripped, and as I fell, I vaguely remember seeing the little yellow creature from the day before….

When I woke up a group of odd creatures where huddled around me. They looked just like the little animal that I chased the other day, but these where different colors of the rainbow. One was red, one was blue, another was purple, and yet another was green. I also spotted the little yellow creature standing to the side.

“ Who is you?” Said the red creature, who seemed to be the leader of the strange group.

“ Who are you?” I responded. The leader thought for a moment, before shrugging.

“ I is Fizzwizz, blue Shroom is Filp-flop, purple Shroom is Bopitty-boo, green Shroom is Puff, and yellow Shroom is Wheezy, and we are part of the first ever Shroom colony.” He said with authority.

“I am Ava Oakley, pleased to meet you.” I said putting my hand out to shake.

The creatures looked at me like I was crazy. I quickly lowered my hand.

“ So where do you come from?” I asked as the creatures as they began leading me somewhere. The blue creature handed me Kibbles as she began to speak.

‘ Come from planet Shroom . Fly here fifty year ago because planet go BOOM!” She said sadly. The other Shrooms nodded.

“ This is Shroom colony.” Fizzwizz stated as we entered a clearing. Marshmallow shaped houses stretched s far as the eye could see. Shrooms darted from house to house, chattering in an unfamiliar language. In the center of it all, a giant metallic building wrapped in what appeared to be an orange extension cord stood. Wheezy followed my gaze.

‘ That is Shroom shuttle,” He said pointing to a square car driving across a golden paved road. “ That is my house,” He pointed to a pink marshmallow house with a small garden, “ And that is old spaceship.” Wheezy finished gesturing to the metal blob in the middle of the city. The Shrooms gave me a tour of the city, so I got to try a special        Shroom food, called Puffuzzfizz ( Shroomian for orange muffin cake.) and I even got to meet the Shroom president, King Bonkers. I had an early dinner of Puffuzzfiz before slowly realizing it was getting dark out.

“ I have to get home!” I squeaked, grabbing Kibbles.

‘”You no go home, you no tell humans of Shrooms!” Fizzwizz said and he slowly began to grow fangs, and doubled in height. I grabbed my backpack and ran, Kibbles at my heels. I ran out of the forest, under the fence, and back to my house.

It was the last time I visited the alien colony for many years.

Little did I know that a little yellow Shroom had followed me home.

 

The End

© 2014 Sarah Robertson

“Tin Violin” by Matea Wasend

Tin Violin

by Matea Wasend

 

My dad came home for the first time in two years four days after my fifteenth birthday. He usually brought something along with him from wherever he’d wandered to, and this time was no exception: he brought Amaryllis, and Tulip, and Daisy Mae.

You might be imagining him knocking on the front door and presenting me with a bouquet of birthday flowers or something, but let me paint right over that picture. We don’t have a front door; it’s more like a front curtain that just hangs down from the crossbeam we managed to shove into the side of the mountain. It’s no good for knocking, but it’s okay for keeping the house flies and fruit flies and every other kind of fly out while letting the breeze in, when there’s a breeze to let.

Also, Amaryllis and Tulip and Daisy Mae weren’t in a bouquet, since they’re people. Well, two people and a dog.

How it happened was this: Rex and I were fixing dinner and our grandmother was wiring a tin guitar when from outside there came floating in three notes of music, sweet as a spoonful of canned peaches. I dropped my knife with a clatter and Rex whirled around so fast he knocked pieces of slimy onion all over the floor. Only grandma did nothing, since she’s almost entirely deaf. There was a split second where Rex and I both stared at each other, and then we tore through the front curtain and down the narrow trash-packed lane towards the whistling.

Dad!

Rex was up in his arms, whirled around, then deposited back on the ground. I was too big to whirl but we hugged and I touched his long beard, which made him look the consummate drifter, and he laughed as Rex and I asked ten questions each, stumbling over each other like uncooperative partners in a three-legged race.

Slow down, he said. You’ll use up all the question marks.

Come inside, I told him. We’re just making dinner.

How’s your grandma?

Grandma was our dead mother’s mother, and she didn’t much like our father on account of how his wanderlust had dragged him off the mountain and away from our mother for the first time when I was just a baby, and again and again in the years since. But they got along okay by sticking to polite basics whenever my father was around.

She’s fine, I said. Come in and you can see for yourself. There’s junk all over your bed, but while you’re here we can—

Actually, kiddo—I’ve got news for you, he said, and his face split into an infectious grin that jumped over to mine faster than the plague. I’m staying for good this time.

Are you serious? said Rex.

Dead serious, he said, and crossed his heart. Hope to die. Which is why I got my own place.

Your own place?

Yeah. Over by the fence.

Why’d you get a new place? We can all fit here.

Well, he said. This place is a little nicer.

He’d never had his own place before. I pictured his nicer new place—maybe it had wooden walls, and a real front door. Maybe it even had electricity; there were lights and power lines along the broken-down chain-link fence that had once, decades before, contained the trash, though now the trash contained the fence.

It’s a lot bigger, my dad went on. Two bedrooms, and a living room.

I thought about this. Having a real bedroom would be a definite upgrade, even if I did have to share it with Rex.

Perfect for three people, said my dad.

Three people? I said. What about grandma?

Grandma? my father said, as though he hadn’t thought of this. And I supposed he was right—she could stay by herself. Come to think of it, she probably wouldn’t want to leave her instruments anyway; in the last year alone her workshop had been looted three times, so she’d finally moved them all into the house so she’d be there to protect them if someone came calling. Now there were bits of makeshift tin can violin and tuba and guitar and clarinet hanging from the walls and ceiling and cluttering up the floors, to the point where I sometimes felt I was living in the stomach of a large beast with a musical appetite.

Just then a little dog came racing around the corner, tongue lolling, ears flopping like the wings of some awkward flightless bird. It had an orange extension cord tied around its neck for a leash, which was trailing along the ground behind it, and as it neared us the cord got tangled up in its paws and it face-planted right at my feet.

Tulip!

A girl came running after the dog, which had by then righted itself and started jumping up against my legs and slobbering all over the place. She almost tripped to avoid running into my dad. He caught her and righted her.

Zee, Rex, he said. This is Daisy Mae, and Tulip.

Which one’s which? said Rex.

Tulip’s the puppy, said the girl. I’m Daisy Mae.

I stared at her. She wasn’t from the mountain, that was obvious; nobody half so clean or half so beautiful lived here. It was an odd kind of beauty, since she was covered all over with pink splotches, like someone had splattered her with bleach and then laid her out to dry, but the spots only drew attention to the perfection that was her face.

I tore my eyes away and I waited for my dad to offer an explanation, but he didn’t seem to be in any hurry. Rex came to the rescue with his standard forthrightness.

Why are you here?

My mother is Amaryllis, she said, as if another flower explained everything. Then a woman came walking around the corner—a pale and wispy vision of a woman, like something off the kinds of scrap advertisements for laundry detergent my grandmother used to hang around the house for decoration.

This is Amaryllis, said my father. My wife.

You better be careful of that dog, Rex told Daisy Mae, not seeming to blink an eye at the addition of two people and a dog to our family tree. People’ll eat dog around here, if they can get their hands on it.

***

Neat, huh? said my dad, as Rex plugged and unplugged a small television into a power cord and the screen flickered on and off. Place came with a television—can you believe it?

I sat there on the bed with my arms crossed, feeling as though someone had stuffed my eyes with pins. Every movement was excruciating; everywhere I looked I saw what my father had bought for his new family, and not for me. The place had electricity, like I’d suspected; it had a small and functional-looking kitchen area, two queen-sized beds in the bedrooms, and fake flowers tacked up all over the sturdy walls. I couldn’t tell one flower from the next, but I wish I knew which ones were the daisies.

You can come on over whenever you want, alright, bud? my dad told Rex, and ruffled his hair so he looked like the roosters our neighbors kept in a pen behind their house. It’s as good as yours.

Awesome! said Rex.

My dad turned to me. You too, kiddo.

Right, I said. Thanks.

I was thinking, my dad said. Maybe tonight you guys could come over for dinner? Zee, you could bring your violin. I’ve told Amaryllis and Daisy Mae all about how good you are on the fiddle.

He did, Daisy Mae put in enthusiastically. He said you’re like a prodigy.

I stood up. I have to go, I announced. I flicked Tulip off my bare feet, which he’d been licking as enthusiastically as if they were covered in molasses.

Where? said my father. School doesn’t start for another hour, does it?

I’m not in school anymore, I said.

Then where are you going?

His eybrows went up. Work? You on a crew now?

The Riddler’s, I told him. In spite of my anger I actually looked at him for a moment, to check for the pride in his eyes. I found it. The Riddler was one of the best collection bosses on the mountain, and even my dad knew that

That’s great, he said with an electric smile. Good for you, Zee.

I turned off my face before my own smile could appear. Yeah, well. I better go.

Hey—I have an idea, said my dad. Why don’t you take Daisy Mae with you?

My stomach fell faster than a tumbling trash-slide.

What?

Yeah, he said. You can show her the ropes. Let her see how things are done around here.

Dad, I said. I—she can’t.

Why not?

She’s—she’s not on the crew. She can’t just—

Why not? You’ll increase your haul. Just swing by the Riddler’s and ask. I’m sure he’ll say yes.

That’s not how things work, I said. It took me months to get in. You don’t—

If he says no, you can send her back home, said my dad, who was obviously in one of his irrepressible moods.

But dad—

I realized suddenly I was putting on a whining show to rival Rex’s long-ago toddler tantrums, and stopped myself with an effort.

You know what? Fine. I turned to Daisy Mae. Let’s go.

Thanks! said Daisy Mae, and she practically bounced to her feet. Can I bring Tulip?
***

Tulip seemed not to have learned to walk very effectively yet. He tripped over the extension cord just about every thirty seconds, which was why after five minutes or so Daisy Mae ended up scooping him into her arms.

How can you find your way around here? she asked me, gazing around at the trash landscape that was the mountain—that particular glinting gray that, if you squinted at it in just the right way, became a prism of color. It all looks the same to me.

I ignored her question.

Wait out here, I told her when we’d reached the building—the only cement structure in a five-mile radius of refuse. This was where the Riddler lived, which put him among the elite percentage of mountain residents who didn’t have to put out buckets when it rained.

That’s okay—I’d rather come in with you, she said.

I clenched my teeth.

I nodded to a couple of other collectors inside, then headed for the Riddler’s office. He was on the phone when I stuck my head inside the door, but he shoved his hand over the receiver mouth to block out the noise and mouthed What Is It?

My dad’s in town, and he’s got—well, this girl is with him, and he wants her to come collecting with me today to get to know the mountain, I said, gesturing at Daisy Mae behind me.

The Riddler frowned and I felt vindicated for my earlier whininess.

I told him you wouldn’t like it, I added quickly. If you say no, I’ll send her back home.

Daisy Mae stepped into the office beside me, Tulip still in her arms, and it was like she’d brought the sun in alongside her the way the Riddler’s face brightened. He pointed at her as if to say This Her? and I nodded. Then his waving hand said Take Her Along.

I wouldn’t have been surprised if there’d been smoke coming out of my ears. I stomped all the way back down the hall, out the front doors and halfway to my route-start before I realized I’d forgotten my basket and had to go back for it.

***

Daisy Mae carried Tulip in one arm and a bushel of questions in the other. She slung them at me one after another and I offered up the bare minimum in return.

What are we looking for?

Anything valuable.

Like what?

I bent and snatched up a gleam of silver, which revealed itself to be a necklace with a teardrop pearl hanging on by a tenuous broken clasp.

Like this.

I dropped it into the basket on my back.

What do you do with it?

Take it to the Riddler.

And what does he do with it?

Sorts it.

Then what?

Sells the good stuff.

To who?

People, I said, not knowing a more specific answer.

Unders?

I guess.

You’ve been under, haven’t you? Your dad told me. He said you got to play the violin in a real concert hall.

The audition that could have changed everything settled in over my eyes like a layer of film strip, the fancy stage chair and the snob-nosed judges and the sparkling water they’d given me to drink afterward that had made my throat burn. My grandmother had been hopeful, my father certain to the point of using words like When and Next Year. That had been just before the last time my father had left, and I’d been half-sure he’d been so disappointed that he’d never come back.

I’d love to hear you play, said Daisy Mae.
I don’t really play anymore.

Why not?

I sighed. Look—it doesn’t really make sense for us to search the same spot. We’ll just end up in each other’s way. Why don’t you go over there? Anything you find, just make a pile and I’ll come get it later. Yeah—all the way over there by that flag.

I directed her far enough away that she couldn’t talk to me without shouting. As I watched her for a moment, thrusting her clean hands into the garbage while Rex began digging enthusiastically beside her, the discolorations on her face seemed to squint and wink at me under the blazing sun.

***

Zee?

Hmm?

I’d found a treasure trove—a bag of old mobile phones. Some of them were damaged completely beyond repair, but a lot of them looked like they’d hardly been scratched. I was sorting through them and placing them carefully in my basket, not wanting to damage them.

I think I might have found something.

Just wait, I said, and sorted through the rest of the phones. Then I walked over to where Daisy Mae was sitting with Tulip in her lap, pleased at my haul for the day; I’d get a good return. I found myself returning her smile automatically on the high of my own discovery.

What is it?

I’m not sure, she said. She gestured at the briefcase leaning against her leg. It’s just got paper in it, but I—

Paper? What kind of paper?

She undid the latches and flipped it open. Inside were stacks of green bills, the kind you’d be lucky to find one of in a month. I reached out and grabbed one stack and flipped through it—at least thirty twenty-dollar bills, all their balding puppy-eyed Benjamin Franklins looking up at me in quick succession.

What do you think? said Daisy Mae. Tulip found it.

Tulip found it, I repeated. My voice shook.

Yeah, said Daisy Mae. Think it’s worth something?

I threw the stack of bills down into the briefcase and stared at Daisy Mae’s eager face, at the beautiful contrast between perfection and malformation. I found that I was near tears.

This is worth more than everything I’ve ever hauled in put together, I said. Period.

Seriously?

Seriously. You’ll get a huge payoff for it. I turned away. Congratulations.

Me? said Daisy Mae. No—it’s yours, Zee. I was just helping.

You found it.

Tulip found it, she said. And you told me where to look, anyway. You told me this was a good spot. It should be—

It’s yours, I snapped.
I’m—

Look, I said, turning back to her. That’s just how it works here, okay? You found it, you collect the money. I don’t want your charity.

I’m sorry, she said. I was just trying to—

Let’s go, I said. You need to get that in before someone takes it from you.

***

My father took us all out to dinner at one of the slightly respectable mountain versions of a restaurant the next night—really just a set of broken-down picnic tables under holey umbrellas—on Daisy Mae’s money.

To Daisy Mae! he said exuberantly, raising his beer in a toast, and the rest of us echoed To Daisy Mae, me just lip-syncing along.

And her incredible, fortune-finding dog! Rex added.

It wasn’t really a fortune, of course; it wasn’t the kind of find that could get you off the mountain and down under, into a life of air quality control and soft towels and fresh meat. Old paper currency was worth only a fraction of its original value. But it was definitely the biggest haul any one person had made in a year or two, and made all the more remarkable by the fact that Daisy Mae had found it on her first day as a collector—as my father reminded us all through dinner and over the course of three post-dinner drinks.

He was slurring a little by the time we made our way back to his, Amaryllis’ and Daisy Mae’s television-containing house in the fading light.

Good on ya, kid, he said, his arm slung around Daisy Mae in a fatherly way.

I saw the way she looked up at him, and knew that here in front of my own eyeballs was the very look I’d worn so many times before. My father was larger-than-life, and when he turned his gaze on you it was hard not to feel like you’d been singled out for a miraculous destiny. It hit me that I was watching my life on repeat, only played out by an un-scrawny, un-dour-faced version of myself. At first I’d hated Daisy Mae for stealing my father, but now I realized I hated her for how pathetic she was—the way she ate it all up, every little lie he promised her, just like Tulip scarfing down whatever half-rotted food he could get his little teeth on.

And I hated her extra because she did pathetic more beautifully than I ever could.

***

Once I’d realized this I stopped going over to my dad’s house as his daughter, and went over as an outsider to his family. And as an outsider, I could see all the telltale signs, starting about five weeks after my fifteenth birthday.

First my dad got all big-spirited and expansive, doling out affection and compliments and taking us all to the leveled trash pit beyond the fence to kick around a soccer ball, where he made dramatic diving saves while parodying the commenters we’d heard on his new television.

After that it was snappish irritability, and a cold detachment that lasted for a few days.

Then there were about twelve hours of cruelty, during which he hurt nobody physically but emotionally bruised everyone but me, me being pretty much protected by my new truth-seeing eyes.

You okay? I found myself asking Daisy Mae as we scavenged on the far end of my assigned route. The Riddler had made her my permanent collecting partner after that first day, and usually she asked the questions and I fended her off, but today she seemed to have left her voice at home. The night before, my dad had made a jibe about the discolorations on her face that had set her to blushing and petting Tulip in a pitifully transparent attempt to hide the fact that she was crying.

I’m okay, she said, and I wondered suddenly if she had a good singing voice. She sounded like she would—or maybe it was that she looked like a love song.

I was just thinking about our old home, she went on.

Where are you from? I asked, realizing that I didn’t know. My dad tended to dominate conversations, both as speaker and topic.

Colorado, she said.

I nodded, having no idea where that was. What’s it like there?

Beautiful, she said. Trees and flowers and mountains—real mountains, not made out of trash. You would love it.

Do you think you’ll ever go back? I asked, a large part of me hoping she’d say yes.

Never, she said.

Why not?

Beauty isn’t everything, she said. The land is sick there. The people are sick. My mom… She trailed off, and I thought about Amaryllis’ big, glassy eyes and sickly demeanor.

That’s why I have this, she said, pointing at her discolored spots.

Zee? she asked me a few minutes later. Can I ask you something?

What?

Why’d you stop playing the violin?

Though I felt like I’d kind of fulfilled my quota of Daisy Mae-outreach when I’d asked her if she was okay, I somehow found myself answering her with a portion of the honest truth.

No reason to play, I said. And nobody to play for.

What about Rex? And your grandma?

That’s not what I meant, I said. I meant—nobody important. Nobody who could make a difference.

We dug in silence for a while.

I think family is important, Daisy Mae whispered, but I pretended I hadn’t heard her and I said What?

And she said, Nothing.

***

After the cruelty, my father got drunk and repentant.

I’m not good enough to be the head of this family, he slurred to me outside the mountain’s closest approximation to a bar at two in the afternoon, after I’d been informed he was making a scene and left my route to go drag him home. Or any—any—any family. I’m not a g-g-good man. He swallowed hard, like he was force-feeding himself this guilt. I don’t deserve a f-family.

Well, you have two of them.

He nodded, and then vomited his repentance all over the trash mountainside.

***

I woke in the middle of the next night to a scuffling at our front curtain, and my hand was on my knife before I was even sitting up straight. But then someone whispered my name. I stepped outside to find Daisy Mae crying fat tears under my flashlight beam, Tulip looking sleepily up at me from where he sat on her foot.

Daisy Mae? What’s wrong?

My—your dad, she said. He’s—he’s gone.

I looked at her in exasperation.

You came all the way here to tell me that? It’s the middle of the night, Daisy Mae.

I—I thought—Daisy Mae looked down at the ground. I thought you’d want to know.

Why should I?

Because, said Daisy Mae. He’s your dad.

Not since you came, he’s not.

Zee, I—

You thought he’d stay for you? I said. Because you’re pretty and always get what you want?

She just looked at me. Tulip gave a little yip.

You’re an idiot.

I tried to slam the curtain, but it just flapped in the breeze.

***

Daisy Mae wasn’t at our meeting place by the chain-link fence the next morning, and I spent the whole day trying not to think about her, which meant I thought only about her—the flashlight hurt I’d glimpsed before I left her standing outside my house in the sweltering heat. I’d thought her a fool for expecting him to stay, but how many times before had he told me he was staying for good? He was a born salesman, my dad; he could sell a glass of water to a drowning man, just by flashing his pearly whites. And there was irony in that, since he could have made a good living at the mountain as a crew boss like the Riddler, if only he didn’t have that itch inside he could only scratch by staying on the move.

Even seeing all that now, it still hurt that he’d stayed longer for them than he ever had for me.

***

Three days later and Daisy Mae hadn’t showed up, so I grabbed Rex after school and we went over to the house that was my dad’s and now just belonged to the dried-and-pressed flowers he’d left behind: Amaryllis, Tulip, and Daisy Mae. Nobody answered when I knocked, though we heard Tulip barking and someone shuffling around inside.

Daisy Mae? I shouted.

Daisy Mae? said Rex. Open up! It’s us! It’s your family!

There was nothing, even though we knocked for five minutes and Tulip didn’t stop barking the whole time.

Come on, I said to Rex. I have an idea.

***

Rex was a smarter kid than I’d ever been at his age; he’d told me he’d known dad was leaving for days.

Whenever he starts complaining about the smell, said Rex. That’s when he leaves.

You mad? I asked him, as we walked back to our house.

He shrugged. I just hope Daisy Mae lets us back in so we can still use the tv.

 

***

 

The sky was darkening by the time we made it back, but we had our flashlights—all three of us, since grandma had insisted on coming along when I’d picked up my long-silent tin violin.

I miss your music, she said, as she’d told me every day since I’d quit, but this time I allowed myself to truly consider it.

Why?

She chuckled.

Nobody else plays my trash instruments quite so exquisitely.

What about me? said Rex, clutching his own, smaller grandma-made clarinet.

Except you, darling, she said, and it was a kind lie because Rex was abysmal at the clarinet.

We stood outside the house by the old chain-link fence, and the smell of rotting trash rose up around us in the heat, and somewhere my father step-by-stepped away from us to wander once more, and I played my violin until Daisy Mae opened the door.

© 2014 Matea Wasend

“Appreciate the Wrapping” by Jacqui Pitt

Appreciate the Wrapping

by Jacqui Pitt

 

“Where did you go, you piece of wannabe origami!” Grumbling, Travis Voiche reached under the bed, carefully keeping the weight off his right knee as he grabbed the elusive paper that he had knocked off the desk Stephan kept beside the bed. Straightening back up, he sat on floor by the bed, and looked at the creamy piece of folded paper. The words printed on the front shook him to his core.

“Stephan!” Travis’s voice croaked out of his throat. Trying again, he called out louder,

“Stephan!”

“Yeah?” Stephan Rocxiv answered as he stopped just inside the bedroom doorway, leaning against the jamb as he dried his hands with a dishtowel. “Hey, why are you on the floor? You know you’re supposed to be resting.” He moved toward Travis.

“What is…” Travis’s voice trailed off as he looked at the leaflet in his hands. Unable to get the words out, he waved it at Stephan, who immediately turned pale.

“Wh-where did you find that?” Stephan asked quietly.

“I knocked some stuff off your desk, and it fell under the bed,” Travis replied in a near whisper.

“I didn’t know whether the stuff was important, so I picked it up.”

“Instead of calling me?” Stephan asked, walking over. “Trav, you’re still recuperating from some major surgery. Bending and twisting isn’t good for you.”

“I know,” Travis said. “But, what is this funeral paper all about?” He waved the leaflet in the air.

“Well,” Stephan said, taking a deep breath. “I’m not sure how to explain…”

“You aren’t sure how to explain?” Travis exclaimed, tearing up. “I suggest you figure it out, Stephan!”

Stephan looked at his best friend and the leaflet the other man held.

“I think it’d be better if I showed you,” he replied, holding his hands out palm up, and wiggling his fingers toward Travis.

“Showed me?” Travis looked up at Stephan, confused. When Stephan just wiggled his fingers again, Travis reached up and grabbed his hands.

“Carefully,” Stephan warned as he started to pull Travis up. Once both men were standing, Stephan leaned over and lifted Travis into his arms.

“What are you doing, you idiot?” Travis cried, smacking Stephan on the shoulder.

“Doc said no strenuous movement, Trav,” Stephan replied, carrying him into the living room and placing him carefully on the sofa next to the two dogs who had been napping on the cushions.

Straightening up, Stephan moved over to the shelving beside the television and DVD player, and grabbed a slim case. Silently, he transferred the disc inside to the DVD player. Holding the case, he walked back to the couch, nudged the dogs off the couch, and sat down on the opposite end. His hand trembling, Stephan slowly held the case out to Travis so he could see the cover. When Travis took the case, Stephan leaned over to the coffee table and grabbed the remote. Placing the remote on the couch by Travis, he stood again.

“I need a drink,” he said quietly. “Want one?”

“Yeah, water,” Travis whispered quietly, still staring at the DVD case. He was still staring at it when Stephan returned with two icy bottles of water and handed him one.

Returning to his seat, Stephan picked up the remote and asked, “You ready for this?”

“Y-yeah,” Travis whispered, not looking at Stephan.

Sighing inwardly, Stephan started the video, then leaned back, his focus on Travis’s face.

Upbeat music started playing, grabbing Travis’s attention in time for him to see the words

“Welcome to Celebrating Renae’s Life!” form across the screen. Travis gasped as the screen filled with happy people at a sun-filled meadow party in the wooded area behind Stephan’s house.

Whoever had the camera was dancing around the meadow, catching people laughing, eating, and dancing. Several minutes conversations played on the screen, most filled with laughter. About ten minutes into the DVD, Rick, Travis’s brother-in-law raised his hands to his mouth and let out an ear-piercing whistle.

“Hear ye, hear ye! One and all! ‘Tis time to begin,” he shouted. “So shut yer yappers and take a seat!” He motioned dramatically toward an arrangement of seats that faced a wooden podium made of – Travis looked closely.

“Is that my sled and dresser from my parents’ house?” He asked, a small smile on his face.

“Yeah,” Stephan replied. “Rose made it.”

“Rosie?” Travis’s voice wavered slightly as he watched the video.
“She said it was important to do it this way,” Stephan replied.

“Do what?” Travis asked, still staring at the screen as the last few people took their seats.

“Watch,” was all Stephan would say as Rose walked up the aisle between rows of seats to stand beside the podium. Turning to the camera, she motioned.

“Stephan! Get up here!” The image jolted a bit before becoming still as it was attached to a stand. Stephan’s image then came on screen and walked up to stand behind the furniture podium. Facing the crowd, and squinting into the sunlight, he started to speak.

“Thank you all for coming today to help us celebrate the life of Renae Marie Voiche,” he welcomed the group. “We all know that when Travis finds out about this, well, the shit could hit the fan. But we’ve all loved Renae for so long, and we need to celebrate what she has brought to our lives, and how she has gifted us with her presence.” As Stephan’s voice began to break up, Rose wrapped her arm around him in a side hug and spoke up.

“We asked that you all bring items that remind you solely of Renae, wrapped up in biodegradable wrapping – we don’t want Travis to murder us for killing the planet! – “ she grinned as everyone laughed, then continued, “and I know a few people want to share what she meant to them and why they are putting certain things in our time capsule of sorts,” she patted the side of the small dresser that acted as the podium. Looking around, she smiled as a single tear rolled down her cheek.

Watching Travis, Stephan saw a matching tear rolling, and quietly handed over a tissue.

“Renae has been my twin sister for our entire lives,” she grinned at the group through her teary eyes. “We had a sucky childhood, since you all know our parents,” she laughed at the shouts of agreement. “And we all know that our father, ‘the head of the family’ as our mother liked to call him, was, is and will always be a nut job.” Rose reached into her pocket and pulled out a huge nut that was covered in colorful paint.

“We found this the first year we went to boarding school,” she held it up for everyone to see. “And we painted it to look like our father on one side,” she swiveled it to show the image. “And our mother on the other side.” She swiveled it again. “And made a promise that when one of us had broken free from the nut house, she’d give it to the other. And when the other had broken free, too, we’d bury it. I broke free when I married my Rick,” She smiled at her husband in the front row. “And now Renae is free from the nut jobs we knew as parents.” Smiling, but with tears tracking down her cheeks, Rose opened a drawer in the small dresser, tossed in the nut, and slammed the drawer shut. “And good riddance!” She cried out. Still smiling through her tears, she walked herself and Stephan over to sit by Rick.

An older man moved slowly up to stand beside the dresser. Turning to face the group, he removed his broad-brimmed hat and held it, worrying the brim as he spoke.

“Miss Renae and Miss Rose were like daughters to me the whole time I worked on the gardens at their parents’ house,” he said. “Miss Rose always managed to blossom in the horrible growing conditions at that house, but Miss Renae never managed to do anything right in their blind eyes.” He glowered for a moment. “She always tried to help, but something would go wrong, or she’d get the blame for someone else screwing up. Including me,” he admitted. Reaching into his hat, he pulled out a length of orange extension cord that had been clipped and woven into a circle.

“A few years ago, my eyesight started to go really bad, and one day while trimming the edge of the lawn, I trimmed right through my extension cord,” he told the crowd. “Unfortunately for me, the head nut job of the household saw it happen, and decided it was enough to send me packing immediately.

“Now, I wasn’t able to pack all my items up, as I was ejected from the estate pretty quickly, but that evening during dinner, my wife and I had a visitor. Miss Renae had packed all my items up for me, and snuck them out of the house,” he told them. “She even brought me the broken extension cord. She said it was to help me celebrate getting out of that evil place. She said that it was a sign that I had broken free from hell,” He sniffed and dug out a handkerchief. Dabbing at his eyes, he continued,

“She told me I wasn’t to worry about my income, as she had taken care of it. She even had a part-time job lined up for me, so I wouldn’t get bored,” he chortled, motioning to where Stephan was sitting by Rose. “Apparently, her young man had bought a piece of land and had no idea how to take care of the plants.

“When I heard that this celebration was happening, I took a piece of that cord and wove this,” he held up the orange circle. “It’s to signify that she broke out of hell, too, but found herself in the process.” He quickly stuck it into a drawer and started moving to sit down.

Stephan stood up, walked over to the old man, and helped him sit where Stephan had been listening. Turning, Stephan walked back to the dresser-podium, and turned to face the crowd again. Lifting his hand, he shaded his squinting eyes, and looked at the group.

“I think that if this gets maudlin, I’m going to definitely be murdered when Travis eventually sees the video,” he smiled softly. “So, I’m going to be the last official story today, and ask you to write yours out on the paper on that table,” he motioned to his left. “and put it with your item when you put it in the dresser. That way, it can be told without more people crying.” He grinned at the laughs.

“My item is related to how Renae and I met,” he held up a piece of wire net, grinning at the laughs that came from certain members of the audience.

“When Renae and I were in sixth grade, we met at the chain link fence behind my school. Renae and Rose were home from boarding school for once, and were walking down the block by where my friends and I hung out after school.” He grinned at the memory.

“Leon, my best friend, saw them, and had a huge crush on Rose immediately,” Stephan teased the huge man sitting in the back of the crowd by his wife. “And climbed the fence to meet her.

“Well, I had to join him – hey, we were sixth grade guys!” he protested the laughs. “And my shoelace got wrapped around a broken part of the chain-link at the top of the fence. So, I ended up falling over the fence, but my shoe stayed on, so I ended up just *ahem* hanging around while Leon hit on Rose.” He grinned at the groans.

“Renae climbed the fence to help me get free, and became my other best friend from that point on,” Stephan said. “After she helped me down, she fist bumped me at that chain-link fence, said ‘hey’ and then walked off with her sister.”

“And that’s when he fell in love with Renae,” Leon called out.

“Absolutely – which surprised me most of all!” Stephan called back to more laughter. He grinned and told the group, “Later that night, I went back to that very spot with my daddy’s wire cutters and clipped a chunk out. I knew I’d marry the owner of those gorgeous green eyes someday!” Stephan put the chunk of chain link fence in a drawer while everyone else laughed and whistled. When the group had quieted down again, he continued,

“Feel free to bring your items up whenever. We’ll bury the dresser and sled in this meadow after Travis gets home from the hospital and the doc says he can come out and see everything,” Stephan paused for a minute, took a deep breath, and said,

“We all know that Travis might get pissed about this, and I promise that I will make sure he sees the video when it’s time. I will do everything in my power to help him understand that we aren’t making fun of him with this. Renae has been an important part of our lives for many years, and we are all so happy to have Travis now, but Renae’s his past. She’s also ours. She was the first form of Rose’s twin, and the first way I got to meet my best friend and my true love. We get Travis from now on, but we needed to celebrate Renae for the gifts that she brought to us. It’s my hope – well, our hope,” he motioned to Rose and Rick, who moved to stand beside him. “It’s our hope that Travis will come to celebrate Renae with us when he’s ready, and will see how much our love for her let us love him so much. Thank you for coming.” Rick held up a remote and pushed a button, and the lively music from the beginning of the party started playing again.

For the last few minutes of the video, Travis watched those he considered friends and family move to put paper and items in the dresser and then start to dance and laugh again, celebrating Renae.

Travis’s gaze remained glued to the television screen for several moments after the video ended. Turning to Stephan, he asked,

“Why? Don’t you want me this way?” He motioned to his body.

“Travis,” Stephan scooted to the middle of the couch where he could reach his best friend. “I love you, no matter what shape you may take. Three eyes, fourteen arms and legs, talking hair, anything.”

“Then, why?” Travis asked, anguish spilling from his every pore. “I hated Renae. She was so wrong for me.”

“I know, Love,” Steven replied, gently pulling Travis to him. “She was the wrong shape for you, but that’s all she was – a shape. She was just part of you, your childhood. You have always been Travis, just trapped in a Renae-shaped body. But that body is part of so many memories for so many people. They – We – needed to celebrate those memories. Trav,” Stephan thumbed away the tears streaming down Travis’s face.

“We love Renae because she is part of your foundation. Your experiences as her made you so very strong, and made our lives so wonderful. I know you are Travis, and I can’t tell you how happy I am that you can finally be who you are meant to be, and I love you – and always will.”

“But you love Renae, too?” Travis asked, confused. “How is that possible?”

Stephan wanted nothing more than to snuggle Travis close, but he knew that his best friend – his true love – wouldn’t allow it until he explained things better.

“Trav,” Stephan began carefully. “You know how whenever you get a present, you take forever to open it?”

“Yeah,” Travis nodded, letting Stephan pull him a bit closer to rest his head against Stephan’s broad chest.

“Why do you do that?” Stephan asked quietly.

“Because the way the gift is given matters, and the packaging needs to be appreciated, too!” Travis answered, leaning his head back so he could look at Stephan’s eyes.

“Exactly!” Stephan exclaimed.

“Huh?” Travis questioned.

“Travis, you are the most important gift I’ve ever received – in my entire existence – I hope you know that,” Stephan said. At Travis’s slow nod, he continued, “Well, for twenty-six years, you were wrapped up in a Renae-shaped package. That’s how I got you.

“You see it as you spent so long in the wrong shape and type of body, right?” he asked.

“Yes,” Travis replied. “It was like being in a prison – I was supposed to act by one set of rules, according to the body that people saw, but it wasn’t right. Not for me.”

“And I get that, I do,” Stephan reassured him. “And I’m glad that you finally get to be your true self, Love. But you need to understand that while Renae represents hard times to you – times we all wish you could have avoided – to many of us she was the wonderful wrapping that surrounded the world’s best present for over two decades.” Moving Travis back gently, Stephan took a tissue and wiped the tears that freely flowed down both men’s cheeks.

“You don’t resent my having the hormone injections or the surgery?” Travis’s chin trembled.

“Never!” Stephan told him. “Actually, when you told me that you were trans, I was a bit relieved.”

“What? Why?” Travis exclaimed as Stephan blushed.

“Well, before I met you as Renae, I knew I was gay,” Stephan admitted. “I was so confused when I fell for someone who appeared to be a girl. I had a bit if an identity crisis.”

“For how long?” Travis asked.

“Big time, for about a week, when I started to think about it,” Stephan said. “But when you sat me down to have that talk, I didn’t know that it was at the very back of my mind under mental laundry until I went home that night with a strange sense of relief. Though I was glad to realize that my Gran was right – I fell in love with you, not with the shape you took.”

“I can’t tell if your Gran is the wisest or the corniest person ever to live,” Travis teased Stephan.

“Oh, both,” Stephan reassured him. “Definitely both! So, are you okay with the celebration now?”

Travis sat quietly in Stephan’s arms for several minutes. Then, taking a deep breath, he nodded.

“Yes, I think I am.” Leaning back a bit, he asked seriously,

“Is that how all those people felt?” Travis waved his hand at the television screen and the video they had watched.

“Did you see the last line?” Stephan asked.

“No, I don’t think so,” Travis admitted. “Things were a bit blurry by then.”

“Here,” Stephan used the remote to the point in the video he wanted to show Travis. Pushing play, he waited. The end of the party was playing and it faded to black. After a few seconds, the screen reverse faded back to the party scene, but this time everyone there was gathered behind a huge piece of paper that spelled out in large, colorful words,

“Appreciate the wrapping. Love the gift! We love you, Travis!”

Pausing the video, Stephan and Travis sat and stared quietly at the image. After a few minutes, Travis mumbled something.

“What did you say, Love?” Stephan asked.

“Appreciate the wrapping,” Travis repeated, squeezing closer to Stephan.

“Love the gift,” Stephan replied, gently hugging Travis.

“Love you.”

“Love you back.”

© 2014 Jacqui Pitt

“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

“A Life Inside” by Carrie Padian

 

A Life Inside

by Carrie Padian

 

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

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

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

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

“Black.”

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

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

“Oh no?  Why is that?”

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

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

——

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

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

——

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

——

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

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

——

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

——

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that normal?”

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

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

——

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

——

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

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

——

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

——

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

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

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

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

——

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

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

——

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

——

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

——

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

——

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

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

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

“Alice’s baby.  Up in the NICU.”

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

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

“My what?” Ben resisted.

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

——

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

© 2014 Carrie Padian