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“Heather” by Rebecca Hicks

Heather

Rebecca Hicks

Looking through the miscellaneous sale items, I hide behind a wall of discount toys so that I may continue to watch her. She sweeps through the toy aisle touching and laughing at everything; Mackenzie, her niece, trails behind her with a gleaming smile and rosy cheeks. Erratically, Mackenzie begins pulling on her sleeve with laugher erupting between them as she points to a karaoke machine. Before they even begin to sing, I find myself smiling at her beautiful voice that replays through my mind like a skipping record player.

“I can show you the world

Shining, shimmering, splendid

Tell me, princess, now when did

You last let your heart decide?” Her voice arches over the shelves and deeps into the aisles, pulling people from their mundane actions to investigate the serenity that can blossom when people appreciate their existences.

Gradually, a small crowd of eager children with tired parents gather around her and Mackenzie as they obliviously sing. Children turn away stomping their feet as the static in the microphones grows louder, but what kind of quality can you expect from a discount department store? She remains content though, happy in her moment and unaffected by the opinions of others, it painfully reminds me of us falling in love.

I can’t say how or when we were over, but it wasn’t at the flick of a switch with a definitive date. Instead, it came slowly like the sun sinking into the ocean and the sky being consumed by abysmal blackness. Our finality was complete; when the sky becomes nothingness there is not a switch to restore light. There is only silence and parting boats as two people sail into the sea unknowingly searching for one another.

I have come to accept I am the only one searching though. I have remorsefully accepted that she does not live by the laws of the sun because her existence is so luminescent that the sun’s brightness cannot compare to herself.

The song ends, childish clapping springs from the makeshift audience, and her copper hair cascades over her face as she bows down in a deep blush. Reaching for Mackenzie’s hand, they duck away together and disappear from my sight. Chuckling to myself I feel her addictiveness just as when we first met and I find myself creeping through aisles looking for her. The words sputter through my mind before being consumed by a lazy fog that swirls around my thoughts suffocating them. Leaning against a shelf of discount books with fading words, I close my eyes to imagine her in my life once again. The imagery does not come easy and within the struggle of it I realize my life may be meant to continue with someone else cast in her role.

“I saw you there,” a timid voice whispers from behind me.

Grinning, I turn around and begin pulling books from the shelf. They stack up on the floor beside me, but a window forms in the mass of books. Peeking through it with a dimpled grin, she looks at me with such sincerity in her eyes I forget for a moment she lives only within my memory and not my present.

She reaches through the little window, her fingers brushing against mine. Her smile falters for a moment as I look down, but her façade continues and she is once again rightfully gleaming in delight.

“Come with me,” I drop the words like stones breaking apart the stillness of water.

Gradually, we walk through the various aisles and locked doors until we stand in the warmth of radiant sunlight on the loading balcony. Leaning against the rail, I close my eyes for a second and feel the veins within my heart being pulled to unnatural lengths and I begin to shiver. My heart thumps against my ribs and suddenly I’m afraid it will crack a thin part of bone, but my heart will continue to thump. The thumping will persist, beating against the bone until a shard impales itself into my only connection with life.

“You ok?” She asks while twirling her hair between slender fingers.

I nod my head; positive I can feel a ghost of her running its fingers through my hair as we fall asleep together. Her nails tickle my neck while the whispers something outlandish, the same action she done every day for years until one day her nails were missing and her voice could not whisper, only scream.

“Aw, come on now, don’t be so shy,” she taunts with hypnotizing tones bouncing through her words.

“I loved Heather,” I repeat to myself, unsure if she is even listening to me.

“Heather this, Heather that,” she mocks with acid burning along her throat and corrupting her voice.

I turn around, twisting my hands around the railing until I feel the blood dissipating from my fingers and my knuckles shine white.

“Heather, oh Heather, I wonder where she could be,” her voice relentlessly continues, “I wonder if she’ll ever come back for you.”

Pulling in a deep breath I turn to face her malicious smile, “Heather is here, Heather is standing before me in flesh and blood and only is she missing in words. Heather is the essence of your existence and never will you be able to escape her, but I pray continuously and exclusively that she can escape you. “

“My name is Casandra. I am Casandra!” She blares with scratchy words and puffy eyes.

“I know, Heather.” I reply deadly.

Heather roughly grabs Mackenzie’s arm, pulling her along while they storm through the door. I watch them leave for a moment, consumed in her determination to be someone other than herself. I lie awake many nights wondering what led her to this ultimate downfall. We were living together, blissfully content in our own existence and engagement when one day I awoke to discover we were no longer engaged.

We may never be whole again and we may never reunite, but until she finds safety within her own existence I will continue to watch her because while she may act as someone else, that is still Heather’s body and I owe it to her to preserve it.

© 2015 Rebecca Hicks

“Second Chances” by Kristin Lemons

Second Chance

Kristin Lemons

I wonder how different my life would be if Mama hadn’t gotten herself hooked. It would be wonderful to have Mama back, or some version of her where she still cared if we’re alive. She used to care about a lot of people. She worked so hard for her fancy degrees. She taught the problem kids at my school for Christ’s sake and she threw it all away.

My name is Jessie Thorn. I’m seventeen, and I live in a small town that’s dying. It’s shriveling like a rotten apple. Soon, all that’ll be left is a moldy lump of nothing. But hey, we do have a new Walmart out by the interstate – because that will save us, right? We are in Arkansas so let’s build a new Walmart and kill the few businesses left in downtown, which is already boarded up and hollowed out except for a few antique shops and second-hand stores.

It’s getting late, and I know I should get home. The sunset is reflecting pink and gold as I stop and look in the window of a second-hand shop. The name Second Chances was painted on the window ages ago in fancy script, the green and gold paint was cracked and flaking. I lean in and cup my hands around my face to see through the window. They have a pair of little pink sequined shoes that look about Shelby’s size. Maybe if I can babysit for one of the neighbors, I can get some cash and get Shelby some new shoes. She’d love them. Mama’s not gonna do it, she probably hasn’t even noticed that Shelby’s little toes keep peeking out the side where the seam came apart.

I have three little sisters. Elizabeth, always called Sissy – I have no idea why – Annabelle, we call her Annie, and the youngest is Shelby, no nickname just Shelby.

We didn’t live in this shithole before the meth. We live in a shitty house, with a couple of bullet holes on the front porch to give it character, on a shitty street, with the occasional shooting for excitement. We have some shitty neighbors who sit on their front porches in the summer and wait for something, anything to happen. Nope, before all this, we lived in the country. It wasn’t anything special, just a run-down little farmhouse, but I loved it. Now I’m just another kid with a meth head parent in a neighborhood of kids with meth head parents. I’m not so special around here.

“Jessie.” I turn around to see who is yelling my name.

“Where have you been?” Annie ran across the street toward me.

“Jesus, Annie. I only left an hour ago.”

“Come on, we have to go,” She said grabbing my arm.

I pull my arm away. “What the hell is wrong with you?” I said looking back at the window. I wasn’t quite ready to go home.

“It’s Shelby. She was fighting again, but this time it’s bad.”

My youngest sister Shelby was trouble, and she was only eight years old. I think the problems with Mama hit her hardest. She was only six when things started going downhill. Lately, if I wasn’t at home, she’d be out in the neighborhood beating the crap out of all the other little girls. The older kids thought it was funny. It wasn’t.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Shelby’s hurt.”

“What?” I said grabbing Annie’s shoulders. “What happened?”

“You know how Shelby is.” Annie started then paused, looking down and bouncing on the balls of her feet.

“What happened?” I repeated.

“I just went to take a shower. Just a quick one. Shelby went out and started another fight with Gracie.”

“Shit. And…”

Annie took a deep breath. “When I got out of the shower and realized she was gone. I ran outside, and Gracie’s daddy come out to yell at her. He said he was gonna turn the dogs out if she didn’t get the hell away from his daughter.”

I held my breath, praying Annie wasn’t going to tell me that Shelby was attacked by the pack of mutts that lived behind Gracie Taylor’s house.

“Shelby took off running,” Annie said as I motioned for her to hurry up. “She ran right into the road. There was this car – it hit her,” she cried, “It was horrible Jessie. She flew in the air. I didn’t know what to do.”

“Is she okay?” I asked, terrified at the answer.

“Well, she’s alive, but she looked pretty bad.”

“Where is she?” I asked sitting down on the ledge of the store window. I couldn’t breathe.

“Mr. Taylor called the ambulance. They came and took her. The cops wanted to know where Mama was.” Annie grabbed my hand. “Jessie, we need Mama.”

I put my head in my hands. I was worried about Shelby, but I knew what Annie was thinking. Child services. I was seventeen. Sissy was fourteen, and Annie was twelve.

“Where’s Sissy?” I asked.

“She’s with her loser boyfriend, I don’t know where.”

I rubbed my face. Where do I start? “Okay. Try to call Sissy. If she doesn’t answer, keep calling. See if her boyfriend can drive both of you to Troy’s house. I don’t want child services to find you at home.”

“Troy’s house?” Annie asked surprised, “not to the hospital?”

“Not yet. I have to find Mama.”

“Should I call Uncle Joe?” Annie asked hesitantly.

“No,” I said firmly. “I don’t want him involved.”

Where the hell do I find Mama? I’m sure she’s with Wayne. Wayne is her boyfriend, and I blame him for this mess. She was a single mom and not perfect, but she tried. Then she fell for Wayne. I have no idea why. He’s a slime ball and drug dealer. That’s when it started. I tried to keep things at home as normal as possible for my sisters. I don’t know where they go to get high. Sometimes she wouldn’t be home for days. I’m sure Wayne has a place that he cooks, but I don’t pay attention to that. I figured I was better off not knowing.

I pull my cellphone out of my pocket. It’s nothing fancy, just a pay-as-you-go phone that I keep in case of emergencies. Please, God, let me have some minutes left. I have to find someone with a car that can help. I dread making the call, but I can’t think of anyone else.

I walk around the corner and sit on the side stairs to the Washateria. I felt too exposed standing on Main Street. I try the number three times. It keeps going to voicemail. I scroll through my contacts. If Ethan isn’t answering his phone. Junior will know where he is.

“Hello!” Junior yelled into the phone. I pulled the phone back from my ear.

“Junior?” The background noise was loud, I didn’t think he would hear me. “Junior? Can you hear me?”

“Jessie? That you?”

“Yes, where are you?”

“We’re at Duffy’s” Junior hollered.

“Is Ethan with you?” I cupped my hand over the phone so he could hear me over the background music.

“Sure is.”

I shook my head. It’s not even 8:00 pm and they’re at the bar. Ethan just turned 21 a few weeks ago. I know, I’m only 17. I don’t need a lecture. It doesn’t matter; he’s history. A couple days before his birthday, I found him with Darlene Simpson. I told him to go to hell, and since then, we haven’t talked. But… he has a car, I know he’s still interested, and I need transportation.

“Stay there,” I yelled and hung up the phone. Duffy’s was about a mile away. I started running.

I stopped short of the parking lot and bent over at the waist to try and catch my breath. I was sweating, and my feet and calves were on fire. I dig in my purse and find a tissue to wipe the sweat off my face and arms. I spray some perfume and swipe on some lipstick. I want to feel somewhat presentable before attempting to sneak in the back door of the bar.

Duffy’s is your typical small town honky-tonk with big ambitions. With the lack of jobs around here, they have all the usual promotions to get people in the bar, Ladies’ Night, Karaoke Night, and Trivia Night, anything to draw business.   It’s common knowledge among the underage kids in the area that Duffy’s didn’t watch the back door too carefully. In all honesty, I don’t think they cared, as long as someone was buying drinks.

I jogged up the back stairs quickly, trying not to draw any attention. Opening the door halfway, I peered inside. There were a couple people at the end of the hall facing the dance floor. No one was looking this direction. I slip through the door and try to blend in with the crowd.

There’s a stage in the corner of the room. It’s a triangle about ten feet wide across the front. A very drunk blond in high heels is singing “Before He Cheats” with the karaoke machine. I cringe as she warbles, it’s painful, both to watch and to hear.

I inch my way around the outside wall looking for Ethan and Junior. The place was busy for a Thursday night. I look up to see if they are sitting next to the rail of the balcony. It’s their usual spot, but they aren’t there. Thankfully, the Carrie Underwood wannabe was done. The next song started, and I heard the first few bars of “Save a horse, ride a cowboy”. I turn around and see Ethan on stage. Of course, he would pick that song. What an idiot.   I spot Junior across the dance floor, standing by the speaker waiting for his turn on stage and start in that direction.

“Hey,” I shouted touching Junior’s arm.

“Jessie!” He grabbed me in a bear hug. Junior was not a small guy. “Girl, it’s been too long.”

“I need to talk to Ethan,” I said pointing at the stage. I look up and see Ethan trying hard to look sexy as he sings. It’s not working. I shake my head and realize Junior is talking.

“Is your mom okay? I heard about what happened at the Stop and Shop.” Junior yelled.

“Stop and Shop? What are talking about?”

“Shit, you don’t know?” he said, looking embarrassed.

I shake my head, afraid to ask. He looks around to see if anyone is paying attention and pulls me toward the back hallway. He leaned in, so he didn’t have to yell.

“I heard that Duke knocked Wayne out. One punch. Right in front of the Stop and Shop.”

“What?” My brain wasn’t processing what he said. Duke was The Man around here – he was the one guy you didn’t mess with if you want to keep all your body parts intact. If Wayne was in trouble with Duke, we were all in trouble.

“Wayne is your Mom’s boyfriend, right?”

I nodded.

“Duke is pissed. I guess your Uncle Joe called in a favor with Duke on account of the fact that Wayne is the reason your mom’s a tweaker.”

I wince at the word. He was right, but it still stung.

“My Uncle Joe?” Uncle Joe is a small-time dealer who always manages to skate the edge of trouble. He hasn’t done time, yet. Uncle Joe and Duke have been buddies since high school.

“Yeah, I guess Joe told Duke about your mom and asked if he’d teach Wayne a lesson.   Duke saw him walking out of the Stop and Shop and bam – dropped him right there at the front door.”

“Was my Mom there?” I asked, afraid to know the answer.

“Yep, she threw her entire cup of hot coffee on Duke. She’s lucky he didn’t drop her too.”

Tears start to sting my eyes and I try to blink them away. I need to keep it together, for Shelby.

“It’s my turn,” Junior yelled and I realize that Ethan’s song is over. Junior kissed my cheek and started toward the stage. As they pass on the stairs, Junior leaned forward and said something to Ethan. Ethan looked in my direction, and my stomach did a flip. I can’t help it. I still care, even if he’s an asshole.

Ethan made his way across the dance floor as Junior started singing “I got friends in low places”. Ethan sidled up, put his arm around me and led me back to the hallway.

“Jess.” He said and pulled me into a hug. “I’ve missed you.”

I don’t know what to say. I don’t want to lead him on, but he was the asshole that slept with Darlene, so I don’t feel that bad.

“I need your help,” I said, trying to smile and look sweet.

“What’s up?” Ethan said leaning closer.

“Let’s go outside and talk.” As I took his arm and turned to leave, something caught my eye. Duffy’s second floor had a balcony overlooking the dance floor and stage. There was a woman leaning over the balcony railing. She waved her hands and yelled something, pointing in our direction. I couldn’t hear her over the music. So much cleavage popped out of her low-cut tiger print shirt, I was sure one of her boobs would pop out of her shirt any second.

“Wait a minute.” Realization hit me. “Is that Darlene Simpson?”

“Whoa, Jessie.” He put both hands around my waist and leaned in to whisper in my ear. “She doesn’t matter to me.”

Of course not, I thought. You only slept with her. It might not matter to you, but it matters to me.   I can’t think about this now. I need to find Mama and get her to the hospital and I don’t have a car. I glance back as we walk toward the back door, Darlene is still leaning on the balcony rail. Our eyes meet, she flips me off. I smile at her and return the gesture.

I start talking as soon as the door closes. “Shelby’s in the hospital. I have to find Mama. Will you help me? We have to find her and get her to the hospital.”

Ethan was quiet for a moment. Shit, is he going to say no?

“I’ll help you, Jess. Where do you think she is? Where do we start?”

I hadn’t thought that far ahead.

“I don’t know. Any ideas?” He opened the door to his brown 1984 Ford Pick-Up and helped me up to the passenger seat.

Ethan thinks for a few seconds. “I’m not really into the whole drug thing, but I know Duke’s guys hang out in the old Walmart.”

When they built the new store by the interstate, Walmart left the old building in the middle of town to decay. It’s had a For Lease sign as big as a billboard on it for five years now. Everyone in town knows that you can score whatever you want there.

Ethan turns into the old parking lot and shuts off his headlights before driving to the back of the store. He parks next to one of the old loading docks.

“Now what?” he asked.

“Um, I guess we go in.” I’ve heard rumors about this place for years. It’s dangerous, a lot of bad shit happens in this building.

Walking up to the entrance door next to the loading bay, I start having second thoughts and slow my pace. What am I thinking? These are not nice people. Ethan opens the door and puts his arm around me protectively.

We pause for few seconds and let our eyes adjust to the semi-darkness. I put my hand over my nose. It smells like piss, rotten food and a weird plastic smell that reminds me of when I put up a new shower curtain. I can see lights ahead to the left.

“This is creepy,” I whisper to Ethan. There are columns at regular intervals in the large space, and separate sections with temporary walls made of canvas tarps strung between columns. In the dim light, I can just see the graffiti sprayed on the walls. It’s hard to judge the number of separate areas in the shadows of the large room. I can hear people talking quietly, and the click of a lighter, but I can’t pinpoint the direction.

“Where do we start?” Ethan whispered. I shrug, take his hand and move forward into the shadows to try and find Mama.

The door we’d just come through flew open with a crash. I jumped and Ethan pulled me further into the shadow of a nearby tarp. The first thought that ran through my mind…cops.

“Jessie Thorn!” a voice bellowed into the dark room.

Ethan and I look at each other. What the hell?

“Jessie Thorn, get your ass out here.”

“Uncle Joe?” I said as I walk out from behind the tarp.

“Girl, what the hell do you think you’re doing?” Joe said storming toward me. The lines etched on his face told the story of his rough life. He looked more like 60-something than 40-something.

“I came to find Mama,” I said quietly.

“Then what?” he asked, moving closer. His nose is inches from mine. I can smell his sour breath and fight the urge to lean back. I don’t answer his question because I don’t know.

“How did you know I was here?”

“Sissy called me and told me you were out looking for your Ma, at least one of you has a God Damn head on her shoulders. You could have been killed.”

He turned to Ethan. “Get her outside.”

Ethan nodded and steered me toward the door. As we walk, I see some of the people from the tarps coming out of hiding to see what was causing the commotion.

“Jessie?”

I see her, peeking around one of the tarps. I don’t run to her, I don’t say a word. How could this be my beautiful, smart mother? I don’t think I’ve really looked at her in weeks. It’s too sad.

“Mama,” I said after a moment, but I still don’t move. I don’t go to her and, at that moment, I realize that in my heart, I’m not even happy to see her.

Joe strides over and grabs Mama’s arm. “Let’s go.”

She pulls her arm away and takes a couple steps back. Wayne appears out of the shadows behind her and puts his hands on her shoulders.

“What are you doing Joe?” Wayne asks his left eye was swollen shut and he seems to be missing a few more teeth than I remember.

Joe didn’t answer. He just grabs Mama’s arm again and starts to guide her toward the door.

“Get your hands off her,” Wayne said stepping forward.

“Move back Wayne,” Joe said through clenched teeth. “You don’t want to piss me off right now.” Wayne takes a step back and Joe continues to move Mama toward the door.

As soon as we are outside, Joe tells Ethan to take off. Ethan throws an apologetic look my way but doesn’t argue. I watch the taillights of his truck as he drives away.

I help Joe lift Mama into the cab of his truck, climb in and shut the door. She doesn’t ask questions. She doesn’t even look at me. I take her hand, “Mama, there’s been an accident. Shelby’s hurt, she’s in the hospital.”

Still no reaction.

I look at Joe. “What do we do?”

Joe digs some pills out of his pocket and hands them to me. “Make her take these, it should sober her up. Maybe she can pull off half-ass normal.”

“What are they?”

“Xanax,” he said. “Christ,” he said shaking his head as he looked at his sister, “you need to get your shit together, right now, or you’re going to lose your girls.”

Mama sat in the middle, she didn’t speak, she just stared out the windshield of the truck, looking the back of the old Walmart building. I look at her face and think I see tears in her eyes. But maybe that’s just wishful thinking

© 2015 Kristin Lemons

“The Bathroom Stall” by Rockin’ Writers

The Bathroom Stall

Rockin’ Writers

I sit in on the toilet seat of my high school’s bathroom, the door locked after receiving the news during class that I have detention. Rain patters on the tin roof erupts my thoughts, as they get louder along with the thunder. The weather matches this oh-so-perfect-day. The graffiti on the back of the stall door dare me to stare at them. It says “Eleanor is a hore” along with many other writings of “fuck you.” I agree, bathroom stall, my only fucking friend, which is so freaking stupid, I’m so luxurious that my best friend is a fucking bathroom stall. Wow. New progress for me.

I lean against the cool stone wall and tuck my chin to my knees, my bones shaking like an earthquake because I’m still a little bit dizzy from that vodka I sneaked in and drank during History II, which luckily I didn’t get caught because Mr. Mongoma is the most oblivious teacher ever and too dedicated to the idea of Natizis which results in the Boringest History Class In History, so it doesn’t really matter any way if I take just a little sip to calm my nerves. Now I have a slight head ache and a something exciting buzzing in my chest, like I have something trapped inside me.

I’m hoping that is the reason why I’m in for detention, but I know it’s not, and it’s not even my freaking fault. I’d rather it’d be my fault for breaking the rules of alcohol on campus rather than I being the accused for what happened, and it not even being true. The lies are deep in the soles of my finger tips, trying to scratch their way out with the dirt from my backyard’s garden (which only has weeds but Dad says I have to pick anyway, but he’s always a little high, so it doesn’t matter if he seems crazy to other people, because it will always be normal to me), trying to get chipped away, but I have to keep the lie, or else my life will be even more worse, because how worse can it get? Always more, freaking always. In my life, nothing can’t turn out worse.

My scruffy bangs are in my eyes again, burning their blue Oceanside. I shake them out of my eyes so I can close them and try to focus on the silence in the bathroom rather than the loud gossipy voices, high pitched and laughing, chattering so much it reminds me of when you speed up the music and sounds like screeching eagles on a record player and put it on the wrong record size. It sounds like time will never slow down. Every time I hear a high-pitched voice, or footsteps coming closer, my stomach squeezes until I think I’m going to throw up and I push my head harder against the wall even though it makes my head hurt worse.

If feels weird to have my eyes itch so regularly now from my night shifts at the cheap no-one-ever-goes-to-except-loosers (drop out seniors) and old grandmas discount department store. I get minimum wage, which fits me and I’m okay with because I’m sure it’s going to go out of business soon, and Marlin, the retired but-works-part-time at the department store because she’s always bored at home, has no grand kids, lives in a quiet house, and has to go over to her daughter’s house every weekend to help her because she has a disability and can’t pay all her bills. So, some people have it worse than me, and because of that possibility, which is always stained in my mind like the permanent black rings in my coffee mug I always take with me on Tuesdays, the one day every week I go to work from 4-close, which is 11:59 every Tuesday only because Marlin and I can’t work the day shifts.

I mean, I can connect to Marlin, because she’s a nice lady and would be a great grandmother, even if she might be a little shadowy to some people on the streets, but she means well, and works hard for her small pay check at the end of every week. She actually works all week, but only one night shift, which is on Tuesday because of me. Tonight Marlin’s not going to be there (so I’ll be a loner, and bored, because no one freaking comes to a discount department store at 11:59 P.M. On a school/work night, especially on Tuesdays) because she recently got news that something happened to her disabled 40-year old daughter and she has no idea what, so it’s an emergency. So I’m just going to be sitting on the counter in the darkness of the small, weird, smells-like-leaking-rain-and-mold-and-random-grandmother’s acne soap, which doesn’t even work because have you noticed? Grandmas don’t really need acne soap. I’ll just put m ear buds in and listen to The Beatles sing about the sun and continue reading Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass.

The first time I discovered the “inner true poet in me” and decided to become one, was when I read Walt Whitman. He’s my dream hero to words. Some people have special tree houses, or man caves, or closets, or secret rooms or some “special quiet place” to go to when they are emotionally corrupted, but my special place, isn’t so much a place, but creating them with my own imaginary mind. I’m not saying I’m a freak that’s seventeen year old, a teenage girl in high school that still has an imaginary friend and creates imaginary places, because I’m fucking insane, I’m saying my special go-to-place are words. I’m a poet by heart, but mostly hand, so it’s my mind and hand that connects the telephone line to the pen tat makes it real. When I was six, I wrote my first poem because my class was learning how to write poetry, and I fell in love with it, so I told my shitty parents that I was going to become a poet and they shitted all my dreams and imaginary unicorn bullshit back at me and ruined everything.

“Who do you think you are, Bree? You’re never going to become successful at anything, so why the hell do you want to write for a living? You need a job that will get you rich, like us, honey.” Yeah, Mom, you’re both fucking drunks for a living and don’t even pay your bills, so how can you say I’m freaking not going to be successful when you don’t even know what the word means? Any way, when their words finally stomped me out, I quit trying until in high school, we had the assignment to write a poem and so of course I did and mine turned out so good, my English teacher pulled me aside and asked if I’d written more. I told her I kept some in this one journal I always keep with me in my back pocket with a sharp old-point black pen and so I agreed to show them tot her. Later, she asked me if I wanted to get published in the school newspaper, and I told her no, because I didn’t want anyone else to read my words again, and tell me how I couldn’t succeed and I was silly, just like my parents did. She told me I could go anonymous, and finally, after a month with nagging, I agreed.

They were instantly everywhere at school, and the poems became written by the mysterious anonymous famous writer, who is like a celebrity in secret at our school. The greatest thing is that I’ve been able to keep it up, and it gets better and better and no one would ever guess it be me, especially because I’m short, easily over-seen, invisibly normal with a gray sweatshirt, skinny, avoiding eyes, and long fingers with dull finger nail tips. My bangs hide my face well. Everything about me is a closed door, except when I write, which breaks everything inside me into something I could never even be able to describe in my poems except it makes me feel infinitely larger, stronger and definitely full of light, like even if no one is watching, I’ll always be a glowing light for everyone to find if they get lost.

But here I am, sitting here wailing away at how shitty my boring life is. I guess that’s how things role. I get detention because I was seen drunk in some club, singing bad karaoke and almost puking my guts out. I figure it was Michelle Taylor who ratted me out. The one with the long blonde hair, dark get-lost-in beautiful eyes, that smile that rips guys hearts out right with one handful of a twisted mouth and teeth. The girl who just happens to be my ex’s girlfriend. I remember that night all too clearly even though I was a drunken coward, and even though now I’m scared that I’m turning into my parents.

I was sitting at the bar, drinking some scotch, (I knew the guy who owned the place. It was right next door to the discount department store.) after my shift was done, and of course he walked in, Michelle tucked under his arm and in his hands, their mouths intertwined as if time didn’t even exist and… gosh what a bitch time is.

I swung away from them, trying to disguise myself among the others sitting at the bar, but of course she say me. Her eyes transformed into a nice little glare, one that I didn’t give back (sometimes, I’m a freaking dumb ass) and she stirred him over to the bar, and with a little persuasiveness of her large cleavage, they got drinks. I prepared and waited for what was to come next, but all she said to me was “Hello, Bree.” I smiled shyly back and then turned to stare at the almost-empty-bottle of scotch.

I had a thing for alcohol, not because I’m a drunk, but it mends the pain. Sometimes it even helps the physical pain, when the bruises turn eggplant purple and even when it’s summer I wear sleeves. There’s always cuts, too. I don’t like the bruises, but I know I have to get used to the pain, so I cut along my wrists so I can still wear short sleeved shirts because I have thick bracelets on.

I didn’t say anything to her for a while until the doors swung open and the cool air blew in, the rain filling the bar with the aroma of it.

The truth was, I was at the bar so I didn’t have to go home and hear my parents argue. That day was the anniversary of Mom’s first baby’s death, when she had fallen from a balcony railing three hundred feet high. Whenever I imagine it, I don’t think of it as a tall building, or a railing that was a little too loose and a baby girl falling, and not being able to learn how to fly, instead I think of her falling with her eyes closed, and floating, but I know it never worked that way, because death isn’t that easily not scary. I know she didn’t scream because she didn’t know how to, and probably didn’t even know what was happening at six months.

I knew they’d be past out, or drunk, and I didn’t want to have to be the one to hear their mourns and help them to bed, because it hurts to see your parents falling apart, instead of being strong and helping you. And I don’t stay away because they’re depressed, because I know that’s stupid, because that’s what Emma did, my 32-year-old-rich sister, who lives in New York and drinks champagne every Friday because she has work parties at her mansion or whatever and sleeps probably with a different guy every week even though she kisses her beloved “soul mate” husband, Kevin in her above-knee dresses left them, left me, so I am the only one that can support them. It’s the only reason why I work at the discount department store: so I my parents can be happy and see me successful; so I can pay the bills; feed us; and so I can save up to go to college and major in English to become a famous poet and write poems for the New York Times and write to inspire people, and succeed. Even tough I know I will never able to save up enough money with paying the bills, but I still work any way, for a dream that’s not even going to come true. It feels better trying to work for something knowing you won’t be able to work for it, than not trying to reach for your dream at all.

Yeah, so that was when my parents came into the bar, half drunk and the other half high, swallowing in slurs of laughter and words. My tumbling fingers fled straight through me, continuing to dig their fingernails into my guts. In that moment I wanted to scream, as they turned and waved, slurring my name. Their laughter shrilled me up into pieces, my breathing became short and erupted. I watched Michelle in the corner of my eyes, her face coming up into a smirk. I finally formed the words,

“You can tell any other rumor about me, except for about my parents being drunk. Please?” Her eyes stared mischievously at me, and finally she gave me a nod.

I ran out of the bar, still lightly buzzed, my parents and ex and my ex’s girlfriend and everyone laughing at me, as I got to my car and drove home, even though I knew it was illegal, I didn’t care.

Michelle kept her promise, but it didn’t make It much better that she had told the principle that I’d driven to school drunk. Now, as I sit here, reading the back of the stall door as if it were a newspaper, fucking this and fucking that, just like the black-sharpie graffiti said to.

I know going to college (especially now with my thirteenth detention this year) is just a dream I’m chasing. But I can’t help but keep going and working that crappy night-shift and the even sitter discount department store, waiting to become someone famous, someone that I’m not nor that ‘ll ever be.

I pull my hair up into a bun and pull out a black sharpie pen. I write, “Fuck the broken happiness.” I cap the pen, feeling pretty satisfied. There, I wrote something and no one can write in the same damn spot that I wrote there.

Someone knocks on the stall door, and I suddenly jump.

“Hello? Is someone in there?” I barely smile before I unlock the door and walk past the girl staring at me as I whisper, “I want to get better.”

© 2015 Haven & Coral Worley

“Last Night on Earth” by Paul E. Halley

Last Night on Earth

Paul E. Halley

The first thing I remember being aware of was that I really, really had to pee. And it felt like my right arm had fallen asleep. And the sound of someone being skinned alive nearby.

The curtain of tequila, Japanese sake and Xanax began to part just enough for me to figure out where I was. I was in a mildewy, smoky karaoke bar in Owl Creek, and my arm was around a beautiful Japanese girl named Hisako, or Hitachi, or something like that. And that wasn’t the cries of someone being skinned alive, it was some manicurist from Stewartville croaking out her best rendition of the theme song from “Titanic”.

Hitachi was leaned in, talking into the ear of her girlfriend, who sat across the table from me, drinking Coors Light through a straw. The girlfriend’s date, a tall, thick-looking guy with a crew cut and a Crimson Tide sweatshirt, had an unlit cigarette dangling from his lips and kept patting his pockets, looking, presumably, for a lighter. “Hey, Jimmy,” he said, “Got a light?”
“No, man, I don’t smoke,” I answered, clearing my throat. “Excuse, me, Hitachi,” I said, unfolding my right arm from around her shoulder. “I really need to find the bathroom.”
“It’s ‘Hisako’,” she said, looking at me with a curious mixture of pity and disgust, as if I were a stray puppy, cute but possibly flea-ridden. “And the bathroom’s over there.”

“-Hisako, right,” I said. “I’ll be back in a minute.”

I slid out of the lurid vinyl booth and made my way, somewhat unsteadily, to the men’s room. The walls were lined with banquettes, like the one I had been sitting in, upholstered in a horrid shade of eggplant. They probably looked elegant at one time, but now they just looked old, faded, and repaired with duct tape. The center of the room contained a few forlorn-looking tables, all empty except for one. The place smelled permanently of tobacco and cheap gin. There was a hastily-built “stage” at one end, lit by a row of feeble track lights, which, along with a few sputtering candles on the tabletops, provided the only light in the murky, windowless room. I managed to find the bathroom just as the manicurist was starting the second verse.

Later as I washed my hands, I looked up at myself in the mirror. Man, I looked like hell. My hair was a big mess, my shirt was stained, and my face was all flushed and sweaty. “Happy 25th birthday, Jimmy,” I said to myself, shutting the water off and looking, in vain, for a paper towel. I wiped my hands on my pants and tried to remember how I had gotten there.

Things had started out normally enough. My best friend Carlo had picked me up and we went down to the Hard Times Pub, which is pretty much where we always go. It could have been any night of the week, I guess, except it was my birthday and everybody kept buying me drinks and shots. I was getting loaded pretty fast, and then this girl Marcie that I know from the bodega on the corner gave me one of her little brother’s Adderalls. Half an hour later, I felt like I was wide awake, even though I had probably already had too much to drink.

That was when I met Cheryl. I actually heard Cheryl before I met her. She was standing behind me and I heard her laughing at something. It was probably just the buzz I had going, but her laugh sounded like something other than a laugh. It sounded like music, or like wind chimes or something. So I turned around, and there she was. She was beautiful.

So, I actually started talking to her, and what do you know, she actually talked back. It was probably the Adderall or something, but I was feeling pretty confident. After a while, Carlo came over and took me aside. “She’s into you, man!” he told me. “Go for it!”

I think that was the last I saw of Carlo.

After I while, I remember leaving the Hard Times with Cheryl. She said that we were going over to some “hardcore” bar on the east side, but when we got there it was nothing but poseurs and frat boys from the suburbs. Besides, it seemed like Cheryl had decided at some point during the taxi ride over there that she didn’t really like me after all, and once we get there she let me buy her a drink and wandered off with some guy named Cooper, and didn’t talk to me anymore after that.

I had at least one more Cuervo there, I think. This is where my memory of things really starts to fade in and out, so to speak.

At some point while I was there, I hooked up with Hisako. Somehow or other, she had found out that it was my birthday, and I guess I became her “project” or something. She was so pretty, and she smelled like jasmine, so I figured what the hell. Next thing I knew, we were outside at a food truck getting pizza and espressos, and then we were at the karaoke bar, with her girlfriend and the jock from Alabama State.

I took a deep breath and left the men’s room. I found my way back to our booth through the gloom and cigarette smoke, and just as I slid back in, the manicurist from Stewartville was wrapping it up. Despite the fact that she had been an absolutely terrible singer, the dozen or so patrons in the bar applauded politely, and one guy in the back whistled. The next thing I knew, someone was pressing a microphone into my hand.

“You’re up, Jimmy,” said Hisako.

“What?”
“You signed up! It’s your turn. Get on up there” she said, licking her lips like a lioness sizing up a tasty gazelle. She handed me another cup of sake. I drank most of it down in one gulp.

“Umm, OK,” I said. I made my way up towards the stage, thinking to myself that I didn’t even know what song I had signed up to sing.

Turns out that it was “Jet Airliner” by the Steve Miller Band.

At first, I thought to myself, “Great! I know that one pretty good. I sing along with it on the radio all the time.”

It only took a few seconds to realize, though, that just because you think you sound pretty good, singing along with your favorite band on the radio or while you’re in the shower, that doesn’t mean you’ll sound good singing karaoke, when you’re drunk, your voice is amplified, and you suddenly can’t remember any of the words.

I was horrible.

“Jet Airliner” runs approximately three minutes and thirty-eight seconds. That doesn’t really sound like a long time, until you find yourself on a stage in a seedy karaoke bar, singing a song nobody likes to a bunch of drunks who think you stink. Three minutes can last a lifetime, believe me.

When at last the song was over, you could have heard a pin drop in that place. Despite the fact that they had just practically given a standing ovation to Cindi the singing manicurist, who was awful, not one person clapped when I handed the microphone over to the emcee. The guy in the back coughed and said, “You suck.”

I made my way back over to our table. The booze and the drugs and the clove cigarette some asshole had just lit were really getting ahold of me now. My ears were ringing and the room was beginning to spin. Hisako and the other two were just sitting there, looking at me, not saying a word.

“I think I need to go now,” was all I said. I finished the last of my sake and found my way to the door.

It completely took me off-guard when I walked out of the murk of the karaoke bar into full, glorious, blazing, daylight.

“Jesus Christ!” I said to myself, shielding my eyes. Once they finally adjusted, I was able to make out 09:15 on the bank clock across the street. 9am! Man, it had been a long night.

I just started walking. I wasn’t completely sure what part of town I was in, really, but I knew that if I just wandered around a bit I was bound to figure it out. I just turned left and began walking for a couple of blocks.

Let me tell you, you will never be more acutely aware of the fact that you look, walk, and probably smell like a drug addict derelict than you will be when you’re walking around town after a long night out, stumbling and reeking and wearing last night’s clothes, while everyone around you is showered and mouthwash’ed and is heading out to their respectable jobs at insurance companies and consultant firms, or jogging. People were actually crossing the street to avoid me, and after I turned and caught my reflection in a shop window, I can hardly say I blame them. My mom would have said, “You look like you’ve been rode hard and put away wet.”

That’s when I saw her. It was Beth, my ex-girlfriend. Well, actually I saw her walk, long before I saw Beth herself. She always had this kind of bounce in her gait, like she was doing a little curtsy every time she took a step, and a thick head of bright red curls. And that’s what I saw, two blocks ahead, was Beth’s curly red hair bouncing towards me as she curtsied her way up the sidewalk.

I call her my ex, but she was pretty much the only girlfriend I ever had. We dated for the last two years of high school, and things got pretty hot and heavy for a while there. We even talked about getting married and moving away together, but then one day, three months after graduation, she came over and told me that she was breaking up with me because I wasn’t “career-oriented” enough.

OK, whatever.

Then I caught another glimpse of myself in a window, looking all pasty and sweaty, and I thought to myself, “Holy crap, I can’t let her see me like this!” She was getting closer by the second, I had to do something right away. So, I turned and entered into the building on my right through the first door I came upon.

Just as the door was closing behind me, I heard, “Jimmy! Wait!” She had spotted me!

It took a minute for my eyes to adjust from the bright sunlight of the street to the bluish, artificial fluorescent light inside. The air smelled like laundry soap and disinfectant and soft pretzels, and I heard a watery, saccharine Muzak rendition of, oddly enough, “Jet Airliner” being piped in through tinny speakers. My eyes finally adjusted to the light as an old man in a blue vest came limping towards me, waving.

I was in a WalMart.

“Jimmy! Is that you? It’s me, Beth!” She was closing in. I had to do something. I ran for it.

Through the menswear and the sporting goods.

“Jimmy! Yoo-hoo!” A mess of auburn curls bouncing their way towards me.

Through the automotive and the Misses Department. All the way to the back of the store. The up escalator was on my left, and the down escalator was to my right. In between was a balcony, which overlooked the floor below.

I ran out of places to run.

“Jimmy! Hi!”

It’s funny the things you remember. I mean, I could hardly remember half the things I had done that night. I couldn’t tell you the name of that lame nightclub that Cheryl had brought me to, or what color dress she had been wearing; but one thing I do remember is the railing on that balcony.

I had run out of places to run. Beth was behind me, ready to grab me and try to “fix” me, or else pity me, or laugh at me. But what I was thinking was, “Wow, look at that railing. It’s nice, kind of ornate. Hardly looks like it belongs in a place like this. And it looks like I could just climb on top of it…”

And the next thing I know, I didn’t see the railing any more, and Beth was still behind me but now she was screaming. And I was falling, falling through thin air.

Some people say that just before you die, your entire life will flash in front of your eyes. That’s not exactly true, at least, not for me. What is true is that time becomes sort of elastic in those last few moments before you die. So, even though the entire time it took me to fall, or jump, from that balcony to the tile floor below took no more than, say, a second and a half, I still had enough time to have this conversation with myself:

“Oh, man, really? Did I just jump off that goddam balcony?”
“Yes. Yes you did. Genius move.”

“Shit. So, this is it then, isn’t it?”
“Yup. This is it.”
“Shit.”
And then, nothing. That was it.

You know what? It’s all OK, though. I’ve had a lot of time to think about things since all this happened, time to ask myself the really big questions. And time to think about the answers.

Like, I asked myself about regret. That’s a pretty big one. I had managed to survive for twenty five years, what were my biggest regrets?

I could only come up with two: singing karaoke, and Beth.

So, I figure, if those are the two biggest regrets that I can come up with, things must not have been that bad after all. I can live with that.

© 2015 Paul E. Halley

“The Ex-Employee” by Rosie McKinlay

The Ex-Employee

Rosie McKinlay

The ex-employee has been hanging around again. You will know she’s there when the heels of your shoes click click click down the aisles as usual but with a subsequent shuffling after each step. You will know when unfamiliar customers say things like, “It’s good to see you again,” or “You are looking well.” The artificial lighting starts burning your eyes and your heart races for no reason at all. You will begin to have a hard time with your handwriting and with the spelling of words. Not that you need to do much of either anymore. You will know that the ex-employee is there when the days begin to blur together, and at night as you fall asleep, you can only think of pretty things you would like to buy on your lunch break the next day.

You’ll notice a smell, too. It smells like four things: vanilla candles, tissues, spaghetti sauce, and something else that you almost remember. It will be hard to put your finger on, but think back. Think about that time you set off fire crackers in your backyard as a teenager. Maybe one got stuck in the laundry on the line or maybe it landed in a pile of debris but poof, flames. You grabbed the hose and sprayed everywhere and then breathed in the plumes of steam rising from the earth and learned a valuable lesson. That’s what the ex-employee smells like. Vanilla candles, spaghetti sauce, tissues and valuable lessons. You should know, too, that burning candles is forbidden at the discount department store, as is eating. And tissues don’t smell like anything.

The ex-employee had worked at the discount department store in the scarf section for 30 years. You were hired as her replacement. On the back wall of the storage closet was a frame that read In Memoriam – A True Consumer, A Loyal Worker in golden cursive. Inside was an old list on a page torn from a date planner, it read:

To do Today –

  1. Send Mary a birthday card
  2. Pay American Express (minimum payment $28.76)
  3. Pay Barclay (minimum payment $57.32)
  4. Pay Visa (minimum payment $42.88)
  5. Pay Master Card (minimum payment $65.40)
  6. Order new Clinique colors for Fall
  7. Book tanning appointment
  8. Buy a new watch
  9. Refill prozac, xanax, etc.

Legend has it that the list was from the day that the ex-employee had, sometime around 5pm, taken the elevator to the courtyard sunroof on the top floor of the building across the street, stepped over the balcony rail, and jumped, landing on a bus stop surrounded by commuters waiting for their ride home. They didn’t get to go home until very late that night. The buses were shut down for hours. People say that she was still alive when she landed and that she said, “I have wasted my whole life, but don’t you like my dress?” before her eyes fluttered closed.

One day, the old man who sings karaoke on the street corner outside the big automatic doors at the entry of the store, stops singing right at the crescendo of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”, grabs your shoulders and looks into your eyes very deeply as you are eating a sandwich.

“Oh no oh no oh no. Hold on baby. Hold on real tight.”

“Sir?”, you say chewing a bit more slowly.

“It’s you. Or anyway, it’s her.”

“Is there something you need, should I call–” The old man clutches his chest and runs away, leaving his speakers and his karaoke machine and even his bucket full of change. You watch him as he goes, eating your sandwich with the fervor of a bulimic ghost.

The discount department store is heavily adorned. Bejeweled, shades of magenta and orange. Tinsel and mirrors. Mirrors forever. You can never get away from your own reflection, and each one shows you in a different light and angle. It is awful. In one mirror you’ll see a round ass, in the next an aging neck. You compulsively primp 9 hours a day, running a circuit of the mirrors peaking out behind bowls of alpaca mittens and hollow glowing counter tops and butterfly wing earrings from Nepal (they don’t kill the butterflies, they wait for them to die). You race around, chasing the right reflection.

The store is full of dust and women. Shopping and analyzing their choices as a means to ignore the reality that they still work here or they still work there, or they’re still with him, or they wish they hadn’t left him. How long have you been working here? It will be hard to say exactly how long it has been. Tearing Made in China labels off mock Bali-printed scarves, gluing the arms back onto porcelain figurines. Days go by, but you’ll get the feeling that time has given up its passing around you. You say this to your co-workers and they scrunch their noses, whisper to each other, and ignore you for the rest of the week. So you try not to say anything like that again.

A thousand people a day will see your face, and since you are a fixture here, another oddity amongst all the oddities, they will comment on you. They will say things like, “I have a niece about your size, maybe a little smaller, do you think this pendant would get lost in her breasts?” or “I like to shop here because it empowers women by giving them a job.” It is very exhausting work, being seen all day. Lately, when you feel overwhelmed, you make little to-do lists to hold in your hand and look at. You feel better all day, knowing that you have things to do. You feel better at night too, having gotten all the things on your list to take home with you. Lipstick (I’m still looking for THE red, but this is pretty close), a blouse (so billowy and flattering!), a black leather bag (I just really need something for the every day, ya know?), a floral perfume (new season, new scent, new me.)

In the Winter, it’s quiet at the discount department store. People outside forget about shopping for a while and go about their lives. The quiet is immense and it crawls around and rings small bells and knocks things over. Sometimes, for hours at a time, you can only hear the tinny and distant sound of decade-old pop hits. You try to talk to your co-workers, but they don’t really feel like talking. You look around the store for something to buy, but it’s all so ugly. It’s dark when you leave at night and when you get there in the morning. One day you are the first to arrive for work and while straightening and checking the store, a small older woman steps out from behind a tall rack of the pashmina scarves. It should startle you, but it doesn’t. You’ll know the ex-employee is there when nothing takes you by surprise.

“You’re not supposed to be here yet. We’re not open.”

“Oh, I just HAD to buy this little coin purse I saw in here yesterday. I simply had to!” the woman clasps knobby manicured hands together and grins. Her lipstick is the perfect shade of red.

“Well you can’t be in here. How did you get in here?”

“What do you mean, honey?”

“How did you get here?”

“On the bus.”

“No, but how did you get HERE. How did you get here?”

“Sweetie, I don’t quite understand what you mean. I’m always here.”

“You’re going to have to wait outside until 9,” you say, gesturing to the door.

“Oh, I can’t go out there.”

“Listen lady, you need to go outside and wait for the store to open just like everyone else.”

“I’ll try. But I tried to leave so many times and then after awhile too much time had passed and it just didn’t make sense to leave anymore.” The woman walks away and fades out somewhere in the brownish shadows cast from the streetlights and when you hear the doors open, you shrug and continue straightening.

You see her later, running her fingers through the scarves. And again, chatting up a woman who is trying on hats. Then she is in the basement staff bathroom. As you wash your hands, you examine the reflection of the reflection of the mirror on the opposite wall and adjust your bra straps, straighten the back of your hair. She’s there, behind you, brushing something off of her skirt.

“This bathroom is for staff only,” you tell her, still facing the mirror.

“I’ve had just about enough of your smart mouth. I was once as young as you,” she scowls back at your reflection.

“You need to leave. I’ll tell security.”

She laughs then, “If anyone is looking for me, I’ll be on the sunroof across the street having my lunch,” and walks out of the door.

“I doubt anyone in the whole world is looking for you,” you whisper into the mirror.

As you turn to leave you see that there is no mirror on the opposite wall, no reflection of the back of your head. You scream and can’t find the door. You claw at the walls. The door was right here. The mirror was right there. You can’t get out. You can’t breathe. You dig and dig and suddenly there is sunlight. There is street level. Air whistles in from somewhere. At first breathing feels unfamiliar. This is not my air. These are not my lungs. But still you gulp it up and then you see it. The big screen. An aerial view. A snapshot of everything. All the roofs, the dirt roads, the scenic routes, all those trees, oceans, fields, blinking hillsides, peaks and plateaus. People sleeping, people dancing. As the crow flies, compasses would explode. She’s on the balcony, clutching the rail. You will know the ex-employee has left when you give your 2 weeks notice.

© 2015 Rosie McKinlay

“She Drives Me Crazy” by Kathryn Hughes

She Drives Me Crazy

Kathryn Hughes

I didn’t expect to spend my birthday picking through the racks at Dave’s Bargain Bonanza, Andi called and I couldn’t tell her no.

She’d greeted me with “Kristy, hi, don’t hang up!”, which was insulting.  If I’d wanted to not talk to her, I’d have just let it go to voicemail.

“Hi, Andi. What’s going on?”

“I need you.”

I rolled my eyes. “What?”

“I got an event dumped in my lap this morning, and it’s for tonight.  I need your help.”

The fact that she hadn’t yet said what she needed made me suspicious, but realized I was also mentally reviewing my calendar for the day.  My silence encouraged her.

“It’s a graduation party, and it’s right up your alley.  Shakespeare.”

I glanced at the Complete Works on my desk.  She knew me so well.

“Go on…”

She explained in a rush how her coworker who had been handling it was currently in the hospital with a broken foot, and what there was still left to do, which was a frighteningly long list for only one person.  She ended with, “Please, Babe. Please.” And it was so heartfelt that I found myself asking what I could do before I’d consciously decided to help.

“Get down to Dave’s and pick out our costumes.”

“What, go shopping at Discount Dave’s for some rich kid’s party?”

“It’s Dave’s kid’s party.  Yes, that Dave.  He said we can use anything we want in the store for free as long as he can still sell it in the morning.  Which means the budget he gave us for this is zero, Kris.  I need all the help I can get.”

I sighed.  I had the day off work, and no other plans until the evening.

“Okay, fine.  I’ll go costume shopping.  What do we need?”

We needed everything.  All the costumes.  For Romeo and Juliet.  When she told me it was set in the ’80’s, I almost backed out right then. Eeesh. But, it might be a decent adaptation, one never knows.  Besides, before I could gather my wits, Andi had already hung up.

Not long after, I found myself pushing a cart with three rogue wheels and a squeak, looking over a rack of not-quite-magenta pants, picking up and discarding several jackets with buttons too far to the left, and going through a rack of shirts with one sleeve longer than the other.  At least those, we could roll up the sleeves and they’d look fine.

An hour or so later, I had several choices in varying sizes, because Andi didn’t know anything about her actors.  Based on the options available, the Capulets were going to be in hot pink and the Montagues in neon green.  I also picked up some double-sided tape for holding the tags down, since apparently we couldn’t take them off, and a couple of toy swords for the fight scenes.  I was headed to the checkout when my phone buzzed.  It was Andi.

“Need balcony Out of ideas Hlp, plz”

Seriously? I texted back. “I’m not a carpenter. Sorry.”

Seconds later, her reply: “No need to b weight bearing just something 2 stand behind”.

Well, the gods of the theater must have been smiling on her.  I looked up from my phone to wind up staring at a box for a kid’s soccer kit, and one of the kids was standing behind a goal made of PVC pipe and netting.  Ignoring the fact that clearly whoever designed the box didn’t know how to play the game, or how tall a goal should be, it was still a pretty good idea.  I detoured to the home section to see if they carried piping.
**
The production was apparently happening in the “Bonanza Cafe”, in the basement of the store.  The walls were each a slightly different shade of yellow.  It bothered me.  I was also sort of amazed that Dave would be willing to forgo the income from hungry shoppers for a day, since the clerk at checkout insisted that I pay for the double-sided tape.  He couldn’t donate $2.89, really?  But at least I didn’t have to fight the cart past customers to reach the backstage area-if “stage” was the right term for that tiny raised platform at one end of the room.

Backstage was controlled chaos…without much control.  I found Andi by following the sounds of yelling.  She was standing in the middle of what was probably a bathroom, waving her ever-present clipboard and issuing orders to anyone who crossed her line of sight.  She’d dyed her hair a brassy sort of red and she was more tan than I remembered.

“Kris! Hi!” When she saw me, she sort of flung herself at me.

“Oof, hi.”

“You made it!” Also insulting.  I said I’d be there, didn’t I?

She did that thing where people hold you by the shoulders at arm’s length.  I’d never met anyone in real life who actually did that, until her.

“You’ve put on weight, are you feeling okay?”

“I’m fine, Andi.” She saw the cart and changed topics in a heartbeat.

“Oh, you brought the costumes, fantastic!  That’s a lot, how many did you bring?”

“About two and a half for each role, you didn’t tell me how many actors you had.”

“Oh, wow!   You memorized how many characters are in the play?  You’re fantastic, Kris.”

I shook my head. “Wikipedia.”

“Okay, well, let’s get everything started, then.  I need you to be in charge of the backstage and the actors, and-“

“Andi. It’s my birthday.”

“I remember, babe. Thank you so much for giving up your day to help us out here.  It means so much to me.”

And before I could marshal any other arguments, she was directing me to supervise the fitting and distributing of costumes.  I never planned to give up my day; she’s just lucky that I didn’t have a party that evening.  It’s tough to have a birthday on a Wednesday.  I got the actors into a line and eventually got almost everyone sorted into something resembling an outfit, with a few more trips upstairs to get a better fit.  Andi grabbed me before I could finish with Mercutio and steered me toward the front.

“Go talk to the caterers, babe.  They can finish up here.”

“I have no idea what I’m doing with caterers! I don’t know anything about this event!  You’re the one hired to make it come out right, why can’t you talk to them?”

“Because, I need to make sure the playlist is right.”

The what? And then she was gone.  I was going to need to get quicker about saying “no” to her.  There was a man in a chef’s jacket standing next to the coffee counter, looking impatient, and a brunette woman wearing a blue sleevless dress standing near the door.  I glanced at her again.  Where did I know her from?  The chef came forward and shook my hand.

“Hi.  Where do you want everything?”

“Um.” I looked around.  “Along that wall?”

“All of it?” the incredulity in his voice had me suddenly very worried.

“Uh, yes? Why?”

The lady stepped in and rescued me.  “We’d better split it up, half on this wall and half on the other.”

The minute I heard her speak, I knew who she was.  I’d seen her playing Nurse Ratchet just last week.  She had good stage presence.  I still couldn’t recall her name, but I felt better having placed her face.  To my delight, she took over seamlessly with the caterer.  I made my escape, but I didn’t get far.  The pile of pipes and connectors I’d brought in were all over the “stage” with three teenagers and Andi standing around staring at them.

“Kris, perfect!  This is your baby, you’d better be the one to put it together.”

I protested that it wasn’t my anything, but she insisted that I’d been the one to have the idea and therefore it was simpler to have me be the one to put it together.  Only my hands could make reality match my vision, apparently.  Arguing with her was impossible, so I started attaching pieces.

I was sitting there, fuming at the world and moments away from just walking away and leaving Andi to her own mess, when I smelled her coming up behind me.  Despite having broken up months ago, one good whiff of her perfume still set my heart racing.  I turned.  Even better, she had a salami sandwich and a coke.

“Here, you started getting scowly, so I figured you probably needed lunch.”

“Thanks, Lem.” I hadn’t intended to call her that, it slipped out in a moment of gratitude.

**
Post-sandwich, I felt much better.  I got the balcony assembled without too much trouble, though we were running out of time.  It looked something like a metal version of a baby corral, adult size, and with only three sides.  I figured that would be easier than trying to make a single rail be somehow self-supporting.  I’d picked the darkest color of pipe they had and in the dim lighting, it looked almost like something you’d see in New Orleans.  Not too shabby, for being made of nonstandard lengths.

Somebody bellowed at me to move. I picked up the balcony and swung it out of the way for a pair of guys wheeling in what was unmistakably a karaoke machine.

“Andi! What’s going on?” I gestured to it.

“The party’s…” she beckoned me closer so she could whisper.  “The party’s for two guests of honor. It’s a graduation and an anniversary; he wanted to throw them one party together.  They couldn’t agree on a theme, so he mashed them together.”

Well, that explained the 80’s Shakespeare.

“That’s an odd combination.”

She pointed to the chairs, where the audience was starting to trickle in. Front and center was Dave Himself, wearing his trademark alligator cowboy hat, flanked by two women who looked nothing alike.  On his left, Nurse Ratchet, watching the last minute activity on the stage. It seemed she’d gotten things sorted with the caterer.  On his right, someone I would have cast as Peroxide Blonde Number Four (the non-speaking role), in something purple with sequins.

“Okay,that’s an odd pair.  Which is which?”

Andi fidgeted.  “The blonde’s his wife.  His third wife”

The clarification was unneeded.  The woman on Dave’s right couldn’t possibly be anyone’s mother- she looked like she was not yet drinking age.

“How old are they?”

She checked her notes. “Daughter, Amanda, graduated with a masters of fine arts 25, wife, Rachel, 22.  It’s tehir first anniversary.”

Okay, so she was actually old enough to have the glass of wine in front of her.  I walked away to prevent myself from saying something I might regret.  Andi came back moments later with another coke.

“Babe, I need you to run the karaoke machine.”

I stared at her.  I wanted no part of this farce. I had dinner plans. I was not going to do it.  She pushed the can into my hand.

“Please. Kris, I know it hasn’t been the greatest day for you, and I’m sorry, but I really really need you.  You’re the only person in this building who’s competent.  I’ll make it up to you.  Somehow.”

Those pleading eyes. I sighed. I gave in.  She hugged me and for a moment, I wondered why we’d broken up.

“Great, go talk to that guy and get the playlist, here’s your cues.  I need this to be perfect, so can you, just, like, look it over and make sure you’ve got it?”

Ah, yes.  That was why.  I pulled out my phone and texted Jackie. “Stuck doing something else, sorry.  Can we postpone dinner?” She replied a few minutes later. “Yes, of course.  It’s better this way, I’m beat, worked a double.  Happy happy day, favorite cousin!”  I smiled.  She called all of us her favorite.

**
The cues and playlist were a disaster so bad it actually became pretty great.  Every scene had a song to go with it.  Mercutio’s speech about Queen Mab was followed by “Rock Me, Amadeus”, although I might have chosen “White Rabbit”, but that was a 60’s song, I think.  The scene where Juliet waits for her Romeo was followed with “Like a Virgin”, and the climactic scene, where Romeo poisons himself and then Juliet kills herself with his dagger, was followed with “I Just Died In Your Arms Tonight”.

As the final words from the prince settled into our ears, I hit “play” on the last song in my queue.  The prince grabbed the mic and took a shaky breath.

“Love lift us up where we belong, where the eagles cry… On a mountain high…”

It must have been set to start at the chorus.  Andi and I looked at each other.  I remembered dragging her to see romantic plays when we were together.  She smiled at me.  I smiled back.  With all the love in the air, even though the actors were really amature, I was still feeling ike I could forgive anyone.  Andi reached out like she wanted to hold my hand. The prince went on.

“The road is long, there are mountains in our way, but we climb a step every day…” We’d had some good days, she and I. The song ended, everyone bowed.  Andi mouthed “thank you” at me.
While everyone was filing out, I was feeling pretty good.  I’d helped a friend out of a jam, and I hadn’t even killed anyone.

And then Andi shattered it.  “Kris, don’t go yet, I need you to help get everything cleaned up and put back.”

I held my hand up to stop her.  “Andrea. I am tired.  I have been here, all day, at your request.  I cancelled my plans.  I have fitted costumes, made a balcony railing, and spent more time in this building than is healthy for me, I’m sure.  I.  Am.  Done!”

She reached in her purse and offered me a cigarette.

I shook my head.  “I don’t want that.”

“Yes, you do.  You haven’t had a smoke break all day, no wonder you acting like a- like this.”

I gritted my teeth.  “I quit, Andi.  Thirty-nine days ago.”

She placed the cigarette in my hand. “Oh, that’s why you’re looking chubby.  Just go have this one, you’ll feel so much better.  It’s just one.”

She never smoked.  She still carried those around for me, unless her new girlfriend smoked my brand.  But she had no idea what she was asking.  I did want it.  I wanted that thing so bad my teeth itched.  Again, I couldn’t tell her no.  I took it.

Standing outside the back door, I realized I didn’t have a lighter.  I was debated between going back in to find one or simply chewing on the cigarette, when I heard the door open behind me.

“Here.” It was Dave’s daughter, the actress.  I looked at what she was offering.

“Gum?” She tipped the package so I could see the label.  Ah.  Nicorette.  “Thanks.” I took a piece.

“I heard what happened.  I’m quitting, too, so I know how it is.”

“Thank you.  I’m Kristy.  Happy graduation

“Amanda. Thanks.”

The night was a little chilly.  Somewhere a dog barked.

“I saw you in Cuckoo’s Nest.  You were good.  Sorry your party came out like that.”

She smiled.  “Thank you.  I liked that one.  As for the party, it was more for my dad than me.  My graduation’s not even until Friday, but he insisted that he wanted to celebrate tonight.” She rolled her eyes.  “Probably so he can ‘celebrate’ with Rachel on Friday.”

Andi called after me. “Kris? Are you ready yet?”

I glanced at the door, looked back to Amanda.  “Well, I hope your actual day is a good one, then.”

“Did I hear you say you’d canceled your plans?”

I was embarrassed.  “Just postponed, my cousin and I always have birthday dinners together.” I mumbled.

“Today is your birthday? Well, let me make it up to you.  Come have dinner with me on Friday, we’ll celebrate both of us.  Without karaoke.”

I laughed.  “Sure, that sounds great.”

“Can I get your number?” I nodded.  “My phone is in my car, though.” She gestured to her dress- no pockets, no purse.

“I’ll walk you to your car, then.” I smiled.  Andi would be fine without me.

© 2015 Kathryn Hughes

“Just Like Heaven” by Heidi Sterling

Just Like Heaven

Heidi Sterling

 

There’s really no end to this, the ice roads, the linty snow collecting on the windshield, the reverberation of winter, a song that keeps playing over and over. Driving slow and hunching forward, trying to understand where to turn the wheel.

I’ve missed the turn again. She said not to come over. Never call again (texted in all caps). My face is unwelcome. The key didn’t turn in the lock. All of my things were in boxes on the front landing, neatly packed. She even used tissue paper and bubble wrap.   I couldn’t stop crying. The snow keeps moving, another universe unravelling, and I am lost.

*******

Thursday nights at Drapek’s I would order an Old Fashioned and try to hide in the corner, but I was always rooted out. It was my hair—buzzed short—and my multiple ear piercings—my gender-neutral attire. Hanes T-shirts. Cargo pants. People didn’t know if I was a boy or a girl. I confused the women coming out of the stalls in the cramped restroom. I didn’t jive with the small-town, by-the bootstrap clientele. Bush/Cheney bumper stickers on the back of pickup trucks. I wanted to take it easy and have an open mind. Some folks were friendly and treated me like one of their own. Mostly women, but some men. They tried.

I could have gone anywhere else in the city, but I kept finding myself here. Every week. Because of her.

She would sing karaoke every Thursday, and her church-pure voice was worth the harassment I sometimes got as I nursed my Old Fashioned in the far corner—puffy seat, red and shiny, cloudy Formica table top.

She wasn’t what anyone would call beautiful, but she had large eyes that seemed on the verge of tears, always. That appealed to me on a visceral level. I couldn’t stop staring. Her face was uneven, her hair thin. Sometimes it was dyed blond, other times a garish red that made her features appear shadowed and ghostly. The night she talked to me, it was deep brown, like Midwest soil in the fall. At some angles, she looked very young, almost like a little girl. Others, she looked older, more worn down and wounded.

“You always order the same drink, sit in the same place.” She smiled shyly. There was years of pain behind the smile. Her skin was mottled. She carried herself small even though she was a rather tall girl. Her fingernails were bitten to the quick. Despite that, her hands looked royal to me, dainty and careful. I wondered what kind of childhood she had survived.

I had replied, “What can I say? I’m a creature of habit.” I took a sip of my drink and tried to calm myself down. Talking with her suddenly made me feel like I had made the right choice to stay in Brenton and continue working at the discount store. Everyone else left and went to college. I had no idea what I wanted or needed to do. I would paint until 1 am, drink, fall asleep, clock in at Scratch and Dent, start over. There was no real direction. My mom would call daily, crying. “What are you going to do, Amanda?” I never could figure out the answer.

I liked it when people called me Mema. It fit me better. My brother Ty gave me the nickname when he was a little tyke and couldn’t pronounce “Amanda.” He died when he was 16. Aortic aneurysm. I’ve never recovered. I still sleep in his Chicago Bears T-shirt. I still rage and cry. It’s been 4 years.

She got used to me coming Thursdays, and sometimes would sing my requests, usually Tom Waits or Nick Drake, and occasionally The Cure. She sang “Just Like Heaven” fervently. It was her favourite, and she would stand up tall and become more animated and girlish when I asked for it. I didn’t request it often, just so I could keep it special, like a memento you take out of a box every now and then to look at, savour, remember, and then put back. The old would always stay new.

***

Drapek’s had two levels. The second storey contained a dance floor, as well as a secret balcony that only the staff had access to.   She took me there one night after closing. 3 am. The snow was falling in white gusts and the streets were iced cakes, frosting and shimmer. She was wearing a pink coat with a fake fur collar—soft rabbit—and brown corduroy pants. She was shivering, her arms folded across her chest—the way I used to fold my arms over myself when I was in line for communion but didn’t feel worthy enough to receive. Arms folded—a signal for the priest to bless you instead of giving you the Host. I felt the blessings through my whole body. Hands gently placed on my head. Peaceful. I was rarely touched as a child—no contact. So little affection. The communion wafer meant nothing to me. The blessings became a habit, a need. I kept going to church just for that reason.

On the balcony she looked at me and said that I was “so different from everyone else.” We had talked a little off and on, but never for more than a few minutes at a time. The snow felt warm, cottony. I leant against the balcony railing and tried to appear composed, but my heart was wild and hot. She looked like a child again, quivering and sad. I attempted to take her hand, but she turned away and looked down into the street below. Cars were moving slowly, headlights glinting off crystal. “Mema,” she murmured. “No one here would understand that kind of love.”

***

Two months later I was walking to work. February, and the ground was brutally hard, dirty grey ice, sheets of cracked glass. She suddenly appeared, corner of Valley and Tyler. I hadn’t seen her for weeks. I had disappeared, retreating to dark spaces to paint, drink vodka, and wander in and out of uninviting taverns with no sweet voice or corner booth, no balcony and aching need.

“Kitty?” I said. I think it was the first time I had ever spoken her name aloud. She nodded and burst into tears. I found myself pulling her into my arms, her thin form shaking, her skin touched with rose oil, her face wet and cold. I didn’t bother calling my manager to explain my absence from work. My apartment was two blocks away, worst part of town, bars on the windows, but she didn’t seem to notice.

It was warm inside—radiator heaters ticking, hot water gurgling. I made coffee, and she drank it down quickly and asked for another cup. Her eyes were rimmed with red, dark underneath, violet with lack of sleep and heavy emotion.

“Why haven’t you come to see me sing?” Her lower lip was quivering violently.

“I just thought that one night when you said—”

“I don’t care what I said. It was stupid what I said.” She began crying again, but waved me away when I tried to comfort her. “I pushed you away. It’s my fault for being so scared and cowardly.”

I approached her again, more carefully now, and this time she accepted my advance, my arms cautiously enfolding her, my hands touching her hair, now dyed pink with streaks of purple. I kissed the top of her head, then her cheeks, her closed eyes, her soft mouth. She had been drinking, some kind of sweet wine. I kissed her again, and she put her arms round my waist.

“I don’t know what to do.” Her voice was imploring.

It was so soft, so delicate. Her love. She was quiet and timid. Her eyes were calm. My room was cluttered, paint brushes and canvases everywhere, bed unmade. The sharp scent of oils and turpentine. Winter was cold, winter was warm. Snow and flannel sheets, blue walls, coffee, paint, and nights at Drapek’s. Her portrait—I was so careful, using only the finest brushes. She held my hand in public and ignored the stares. We had pie at Shari’s after she got off work. I drove her around in my old Buick Wildcat. She thought the interior was “swank.” No one ever used that word anymore, and I laughed. It made me miss the days before mobile phones and computers, even though I was born into the rush and clatter of it all. She made me miss things before my time, made me miss everything and yearn for it again.

***

A year later I was hardly ever at my place, always at hers. Downtown, a large flat above a trendy department store. We could hear the cars and people, a human stream, endless. The lights moved past her lace curtains and hardwood floors, made patterns over her searching face. I could sense her love was fragile. It could shatter at any moment. She sang four nights a week now at Drapek’s, and I saw her less and less. I took an extra night shift at Scratch and Dent to help pay off my credit card debt. My mom stopped calling. Stopped trying. I still got letters in the mail from colleges I had applied to years before, but had forgotten in the midst of my feverish love and confusion.

Kitty had followers, mostly men. One of them kept coming round, bought her drinks, spoke sweetly to her. He was older, had a moustache, talked real slick, was a fixed part of the ilk of the pub. I could see her mind working, wondering if she wouldn’t be better off with a more conventional set up, a big strong man with a cowboy hat and a clean, safe truck that ran decent, and money to spare. House out in the country. Kids one day. She was slipping away, and my rage for Ty’s death was slowly being supplanted by my rage for Kitty’s waning affections. I couldn’t sleep at night. She moved to the couch and let me toss and turn in her big double bed.

Cowboy hat talked to me one evening. “She’s a special one.” He was drinking whiskey and watching her sing with that leering glint that men get when they know they’ve won. His moustache was slightly wet. He had deep grooves in his cheeks and a stubbled square chin. He looked like he had done hard time.

“She’s mine,” I said quietly, but he didn’t notice and kept on drinking and leering. He smiled to himself, glancing at me sideways.

Kitty didn’t come home that night. Or the next. Her phone went straight to voicemail. She didn’t show at Drapek’s for a week. “On holiday,” the bartender said and shrugged.

***

Saturday I was ringing up a customer’s items at Scratch and Dent, throwing the items into the bag, hard and thoughtless. “Young man,” the woman said sharply. The top of the paper bag cut into my arms and wrists—all kinds cuts and scratches, like I was a junkie. Paper bags and sharp reprimands. “I’m not a man,” I mumbled. She took the bag and sneered. My manager called me over later and said I needed to work on smiling more, following the protocol listed on the sheet taped to the side of the registers: Smile. Ask if the customer has found everything they were looking for. Thank them for their business. 1-2-3. He squeezed my shoulder and tried to look concerned.

Midnight. The door to her place opened and closed softly, but the sound ripped me out of my sleep.

“Where the fuck have you been?”

I realised I had never really loved anyone romantically in my entire life. Kitty was the first. I was smothering her, possessing her, unable to stop the jealousy and fear. She looked startled and pale, shocked by my cursing. She was wearing a new dress—something tight and red and gaudy that clashed garishly with her fragile, unconventional ways—something that was someone else’s idea of femininity. The dress cut into me. It felt it like a knife pressed against my throat.

“I left a note.”

“It explained nothing.”

“Mema—”

“Don’t call me that.” I started to cry for the first time since Ty died. “Don’t call me that after leaving here for a fucking week with no explanation.”

Kitty cleared her throat and watched me dispassionately. “The people here keep talking,” she started to explain. There was no emotion in her voice. She was already a husk, scooped out, replaced with another version that fit into society nice and smooth.

“Shut up.” I knew what was coming. I grabbed my backpack, stuffed my wallet and keys inside, a few T-shirts, stalled for a moment pretending to search for something, hoping she would stop me, beg me to sit down, but she just watched me as if I were a flickering image on a screen. A passive image that you could turn off when you were done, ready to move on. The tears turned to silent sobs.

The night was deep blue. The Wildcat took 20 minutes to warm up. I scraped furiously at the windshields with a palette knife I found underneath the driver’s seat. My hands were frozen and throbbing, and I could barely hold onto the wheel. I drove for an hour, then parked at Scratch and Dent and slept in my car, turning it on periodically to run the heater when the cold became unbearable, using an old paint sheet for a blanket, and a wad of T-shirts as a pillow. I had no place to go. I tried calling my mom, but it was 2 am and she would never have her phone on this time of night. I dialed Ty’s old number, and it went to a stranger’s voicemail—a loud, perky girl with an airhead accent full of exclamation points telling me to leave my message at the beep. I hung up and wished I had taken my bottle of vodka with me. Somehow sleep, and then morning, and then remembering everything, and I just kept driving.

***

A few days later I went to Drapek’s and found my booth empty and ordered two shots of vodka. She was singing a Garth Brooks song. Cowboy hat was there watching her with an easy comfort. He was drunk and laughing loudly with some friends. I approached him during a cheesy Bette Midler request, grabbed him by the arm, spun him around, and hit him hard in the jaw. He chuckled, rubbing his face, and said he didn’t know a queer could pack such a punch. I found myself being carried out by two heavy men with plaid shirts and hard boots. One of the men I recognised—someone Ty used to go to school with. “Eric?”

“Yeah, Amanda, I’m sorry.” He blushed and lowered his eyes. “My manager—”

“I know.” I stumbled on the ice and waved him off. “Forget about it. I’ll never be coming here again.” He tried to help me up, but I pushed him away angrily. “I said I’m fine.” His face looked ashen, same as the wet snow crushed around our feet. He disappeared, and I sat hunched in the cold for many minutes, unable to move or feel or care.

Her all-caps text message ordering me to never call her again came shortly afterwards. All caps meant she had already forgotten the quiet words she had used with me, the slow days reading books or watching TV, the ice cream cones and morning sweet rolls, the hot summer skies caked with clouds, the necklace with the two stars entwined, the balcony, the brave nights we danced close in the crowd, the park, the hotel swimming pool after hours, the roses, the baths, bare feet touching, her picture in my wallet, her portrait, her face, her eyes, my eyes, my hands, my love, and everything else.

*******

I finally see the turnoff. A skinny dirt road 5 miles outside of town—a quaint name: “Knoll Brook.” Large white house with a wrap-around porch and a swing.. A Christmas tree glows in the window—all white lights. I see nothing of her here. I picture her as a ghost floating through the large house, unable to find her way out, weeping helplessly. I feel my heart clench. It’s been a month. I need to stay away, but I have to try one last time.

The doorbell is charming, a pleasant tune. For a moment, I can hear her voice singing “Just Like Heaven.” I remember she used to laugh at the clumsy way I danced. She liked my brown skin. She didn’t understand why I wanted to stay in Brenton. “You,” I would say. “You.”

I hear someone approaching, light feet, her feet. The cadence, the same way it sounded on her hardwood floor downtown. I suck in my breath and stiffen as the door opens. Our eyes find each other, hold on to one another for a second, then break away.

“Amanda,” she says unsmiling, but something in her eyes is moving, breaking. She looks older, more shattered. Her hair is platinum blond, cut short, exposing her sharp jaw.

“Kitty.” It’s all I can say. My voice is choked, there is no breath, no more words. I struggle for several moments, then finally, “This was a mistake. I’m sorry.” I hear a man’s voice from somewhere deep within the pristine universe of the house, and I turn quickly and break into a jog towards my car. The cold is alive, biting, sterile and absolute.   It freezes my eyes over, holds them open wide and fierce.

When I reach for the car door, I feel a tentative hand on my arm. “Mema.”

Kitty turns me around. “I’m sorry.”

“You love him?”

She doesn’t move or speak. Her eyelids sink closed and silvery tears slip down her tired face. “Will you still come watch me sing sometimes?” She doesn’t look up. Her tears turn to silence again. The blizzard engulfs us quietly.

The man’s voice calls. She moves her head slightly, a child being ordered home, turns back to me and says she has to go, then slips back into the house. The door closes, a slow shutting down of the world, and she and I become ghosts again. Just like we always were.

I climb inside the Wildcat and drive away, my tires leaving deep black wounds behind me in the fresh snow.

© 2015 Heidi Sterling