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“The Ghost of the Spire” by Joe Vance

The Ghost of the Spire

Joe Vance

“Let me get this straight.” He coughed, a bit theatrically, hand cupped at his mouth. Gathering himself. Trying not to offend me, though everything in his demeanor was patronizing.

It wasn’t just the incredulity, but the concern in his features. Like I needed help, but not the kind I was asking him for.

“You don’t believe in ghosts, but you think a ghost killed her.” He stroked his moustache, probing me with his faux detective gaze. “I need you on the record if I’m going to reopen this investigation. I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt. I realize you’re dealing with a lot of grief, but you have to meet me half way.”

I met his gaze, unwavering. “I believe there was foul play of a kind I can’t explain. That’s how I would word it. I don’t need another investigation, I just want permission to view the tape.” At this point I looked down. “For myself.”

The security guard scribbled something on his legal pad. “Have you considered that you might regret this?” His chubby face brightened to a red, painful-looking hue. He reached out a meaty hand, impromptu, and clasped it on my shoulder from across the table. “Some things can’t be unseen, son.”

Not only did he think he was an FBI agent, but my father as well, apparently. I gave him what I thought was an appreciative smile, and felt relieved as the weight of his hand fell away.

“That’s what they’re saying, I just want you to know.” He oozed certainty, this consummate chief of mall intelligence. “The kids. Younger than you, I mean. The kind that more or less live here, you know the kind.”

I did know the kind. Knew them well at this point. They were punks.

“I know they’re just punks, but the story is that the ghost of the Spire murdered your girlfriend.” He sputtered. “Sorry, your ex-girlfriend. And now I’m thinking it’s you who’s gotten this started. These tales. You need to think about her family, son.”

I wasn’t going to belabor the nuances of love with a mall cop who couldn’t remember my name ten minutes into a conversation about my dead girlfriend. Excuse me, ex-girlfriend. But the ex, mind you. The one against whom all others will be measured. You cannot inventory the contents of the heart with Facebook statuses, no matter what the mall urchins whisper behind my back.

“I think about her family all the time,” I said. “One more reason why I’m here. I know she didn’t kill herself. And no one else was around, apparently. So she either fell, or…”

His face inflated even more, like a puffer fish. Expectant.

“I don’t think the ghost of the Spire murdered my ex.”

The truth is, I did. Because when every other possibility falls away, at least all the emotionally accessible ones, you go ghost hunting.

I needed my Exhibit A. “Please let me see the tape.”

He unfolded his arms. “The tape was the property of the state. Now that it’s been determined a suicide, it’s settled, as much as that might hurt.”

He rose from the table, twisting his mouth in a constrained way. Like an awkward uncle. “You couldn’t see it then. You’re not a relative or a spouse. Now it’s property of Spire Inc., which probably means the same thing.”

I rose too. We were done here, it seemed. He ushered me out of the room with a paternal paw on the small of my back.

I looked behind me for just a moment, at the screens. They lined the entirety of an enormous wall, every one displaying a crisp, black-and-white scene of tranquility. The commercial status quo buzzing along.

Except for the one, an anomaly flickering among the others. Its image was the balcony, cordoned off. The iron railing looked treacherous to me now. I had leaned on it with her maybe a hundred times.

“I’ll let you know first thing Monday morning,” he said, closing the door and breaking my trance. “But I wouldn’t get my hopes up. There’s no valid reason to allow it. Ghosts, or whatever unexplained phenomena, don’t count.”

Dejected, I trudged through the Spire, always odd at closing time. The bustle dying by degrees. The footfalls of customers, assimilated into the collective noise by day, took on a singular quality now. They echoed off the walls, themselves distorted in a fluorescent light that now seemed gratuitous. This place did not sleep. Not truly.

When you left the Spire, you left civilization, for it was the alpha and omega of this ghost town. Its existence was a contradiction, this sleek, massive shopping mall in the heart of nowhere. And yet flock to it the residents did, with money summoned out of shadow.

To exit the Spire at this time of night, you had to leave through its crown jewel, the Quickness discount department store. Its sales were to die for. That was one of a growing number of its tag lines. Its profits accounted for more than 80% of the mall’s revenue. It was so successful that it spawned a chain of such stores in malls the world over. Even more than the Spire itself, Quickness is the greatest success story this town has ever known. The only success story.

So when Emily told me that she was going to take a break after high school to work as a cashier at Quickness, to save up money for college, it seemed a respectable decision. When one year became two, well, there was a recession going on. But when two bled into three and I watched her solidify into a fixture under those fluorescent lights, I became restless.

I mean, you can’t put off life forever. And I found myself doing that. For her. Staying in a dying town I had vowed to leave as soon as I was old enough to conceive of the notion. I worked in a factory for three years, and I despised it. I left work every night with bile rising in my throat. Then I would go to the Spire, and up the escalators past intricate maps and garish sale signs and zombie greeters, to the Quickness.

There I would find Emily laughing with some mouth-breathing customer, good-natured after eight hours of drudgery that should have been driving her mad. Eventually I snapped. For the both of us.

The night I drew my line in the sand, the night I put a deadline on our arrested development, was typical enough at first. The custom was to party in the employee break room after closing. This was against policy, something to which our dutiful security agent must have turned a blind eye. I am convinced there are cameras even in there. The Spire is nothing if not adequately surveilled.

We sang karaoke, one among a rotating set of mundane pastimes. Anything to drown out the sadness. If anyone were actually quiet, especially in the preternatural calm of the Spire afterhours, they would have to confront their own broken dreams. No one’s going to do that, so we mimed played-out songs on a karaoke machine “requisitioned” from the Quickness audio department.

The one thing that made it worth it was her. That night she sang “Bohemian Rhapsody.” She hit every note with effortless precision, swaying, drunk yet graceful. She was so happy, and so beautiful. But too content. Watching her there, shining amid such ruin, I wanted to weep at the tragedy of it.

She belonged on a stage in Manhattan or Los Angeles, playing to sold-out crowds. She deserved the universe, and she was settling into a comfort zone-sized coffin. Her empty friends enabled her steady decay. It made their own rot seem permissible. I drank far too much and told her all of this, in those words.

We stood alone, my hands clammy against the cold of the iron railing. The endless empty storefronts of the Spire fell away beneath us, floor after floor after floor.

She made some excuses, things I had heard before. Things I had even begun to tell myself in moments of weakness, when the hum of the factory’s engines didn’t seem so oppressive. I told her if we did not move within the year, I would go without her. That I loved her, but I had to.

We both had tears in our eyes, thickened by intoxication. She said that I was asking too much. That to issue such an ultimatum meant I did not love her. That we should break up.

Neither of us wanted this. Even as I agreed, I felt the pull of that perverse magnetism that compelled us together.

I felt it pulling me back to her as I rode the elevator to the ground floor of the Spire. I shot down the bright, empty floors at a speed that seemed to dwarf its day-time velocity, and I looked up through that glass capsule at her. A solitary figure, a beautiful ruin teetering over the balcony, fading away into a silhouette.

That’s all I can bring to mind now, even as that magnetism still drives me toward a dead girl. Just her silhouette, despite the years of intimacy. That, and a picture in my head of her mangled, splattered corpse strewn about the bottom floor of the Spire like a piece of performance art. A thousand different flavors of crimson, lovely even in death. I never saw her body, but if that scene exists I am certain it has been repurposed as some sick commercial for Quickness. For the Spire. For this house of consumption and death.

The legend of the ghost of the Spire began at its inception, when it was no more than a skeleton of mortar. I passed by it every day on the way to school, marveling at the possibility. The raw act of creation. But the construction workers, once stoic in their jackhammering, began to drop away like flies.

They had to overhaul the construction, hiring a separate company with a gilded safety record. The deaths and mutilations slaked off, but not entirely. And although the building was completed, fortified upon that sea of blood, the ghost did not relent.

The disappearances and acts of random violence at the Spire are themselves becoming the stuff of legend, launching our town’s per capita crime rate into the stratosphere. We make a lot of dubious “Top Ten” lists on the internet, mostly thanks to the ghost.

Or so the gutter punks who never leave the mall would have everyone believe. They cornered me, breathless in their starchy, still-tagged clothing, exhorting me to believe. That Emily was clearly the ghost’s latest victim.

I love her. Not in a wistful way. I still actively love her. So when they said that to me, their eyes huge and buoyant, my skeptic’s heart at last began to melt.

It’s always the ghost’s fault.

I’m staying in this town. I knew that the second I learned of her death. That there was no moving forward, ever, now. I might even get a job at Quickness. And if I am going to be one of them, I should join them in their belief as well. It must be the ghost. Because otherwise it’s me, and I can’t abide that. I can’t have her sweet blood on my hands.

On Monday morning I sit in the waiting area of the Spire’s security complex, a fortress unto itself. Listening for the familiar, husky breathing of its chief official.

The police investigated thoroughly. Their forensics team examined her corpse. We have people of some skill on hand, attracted by the mounting death toll. White knights, riding in with their cavalry to tell me she killed herself. I don’t think so. They aren’t looking for the right clues.

Their protocol is confined by reason, as mine was before the specter of this place lodged itself in my bones. They search only as the light permits, when they have to probe the shadows. Things unseen.

“Good morning,” I say.

He shuffles into the room, and despite his panting his face is a chilly white. He never looked at the tape until now, it occurs to me. Only the police did.

He grabs my hand abruptly and places a zip drive in it. When he does this he curls my fingers about it, ensuring my grip is tight.

“Go home and watch it,” he says in a voice that is half whisper. The assuredness that was his trademark has fled him. He is fat and scared. A protector of a house of blood, and he has only now realized it.

I am scared too.

“Do not tell anyone,” he says, enunciating each syllable as if I were a child. “The police, I think they were paid off.” His breath is so shallow I worry he might faint. “It’s Spire. They don’t want any bad PR. Any more stigma. They’re burying this, and they’ll bury us with it, if they have to.”

I stare at him as I backtrack out the door. Afraid of what’s in my hand, but afraid of him, too. That he might be insane. That this detective stuff has gone to his head.

But as I close the door and make my familiar trek through the Spire, I think perhaps he is right.

I can feel the pulse of its evil heart, even now in the day time. I can see the opiate spell it places upon its victims, the far-off look in their eyes as they try on shoes, stuff pretzels in their gaping mouths, and salivate on each other among the benches.

The unnatural light is fiercer than ever. It sears into my eyes, demanding fidelity. I dart into the Quickness discount store and buy a new phone. It’s my fourth one this year. How it shines. I think that the ghost is happy. That maybe he’ll call me soon. Or at least text.

I do not think I will watch the tape. To do so would be to blaspheme against this temple that is my only source of succor. If I exorcise its dark heart, its infrastructure might crumble entirely, and we would all fall with it into the black earth.

We would join her.

And as much as I love her, I cannot do that. I am too busy to die. I am saving up for college. Or a new tablet computer. I can’t remember which.

My shift starts soon. If you’ll excuse me, I must clock in.

© 2015 Joe Vance

“The Things That We Touch” by Anna Doogan

The Things That We Touch

Anna Doogan

The light at Checkstand Two was perpetually broken. That meant that a decent part of Tina’s shift was spent waving down the customers impatiently shifting their weight at Checkstand One and inviting them into her line.

“I’m open over here.”

The customers would look up then, hesitate just a moment before making eye contact with each other and sorting themselves out without words. You first. No, you. Please, I insist. Then a few of them would shuffle over to her line, the fluorescent light of the discount department store making them look more gray and haggled than they might outside of the store’s double doors. Gray like crumpled newspapers, cold steel and storm clouds, passing rains.

“Find everything you were looking for?”

She asked each time, even though she didn’t particularly care if they had found what they needed or not. She probably wouldn’t see them again. The question was standard practice and helped her earn the paycheck every other Friday. And anyway, it seemed a ridiculous question—the thought that anyone would possibly find what is was they were truly looking for among the crowded and dusty aisles of Stark’s. A cavernous miscellany of jumbled items, unused pieces reduced and priced to sell. Unnecessary belongings waiting for someone to take them home, wrap them in memories, stitch them into stories. Memories and stories that might sting someone under their skin in just the right way one day, choke their throat with emotion and wistful thinking when they remembered. Until then, they’d sit awkwardly on the white metal shelves, gummy red stickers advertising dollars and cents.

Today, the small woman with the curly white hair shook her head.

“Do you have any more of these?”

She held up a tiny porcelain figurine shaped like a mouse, wearing a green sweater and boots. Tina wiped her hands on her black Stark’s apron and took the figurine from the woman, turned it over in her hands.

“I can check.”

She turned around and called to David, the sulky manager with the greasy blond ponytail and permanent scowl.

“Do we have more of these?” She held up the mouse in his sweater and boots. A chunk of curly brown hair flopped into one eye and she smoothed it back up into her bun.

David wrinkled his forehead and frowned. He shrugged his shoulders, his plastic nametag clicking as it brushed against a button on his shirt.

“I’ll look in the back.” He slunk away to scan the dark shelves in the back of the store.

Tina turned back to the woman, the porcelain mouse still warm in her hand. Suddenly waiting in the awkward silence of strangers searching for words. She scanned the line of customers. Arms loaded down with folded sweaters, marked down pillows, ice cube trays. Shaggy footstools and frivolous apple corers. Poorly fitting slippers, hand weights that would never see the light of day.

A woman in a red turtleneck sighed and tapped a foot, juggled the plastic wrapped bedding set in her arms.

“So…do you collect those?” Tina asked the woman with the mouse, attempting conversation to break the silence. A man in line impatiently thunked his heavy garden Buddha sculpture to the ground, frustration and sweat beading on the surface of his salt and pepper hair.

The woman nodded. “For my grandchildren,” she said, wrinkled lips cracking into a smile at the connection.

Tina nodded, looked at the woman’s pale blue cardigan buttoned over her thin frame, her knobby knuckles reaching for her wallet.

“I like to have something for them when they visit.”

She opened the wallet, held out the photograph of three children posed around a rocking chair. Tina looked at their hair styled into braids and ribbon twists, their missing teeth. Those poses of hands on shoulders, chins tilted at just the right angle into the camera flash.

Tina turned over the mouse in her hands, scratched at the price tag with her fingernail. Someone pays to have these things, she thought. Small shreds of connection, instant threads of family.

David reappeared from the back just then, his mood turned sour from energy spent rummaging the crowded back shelves.

“We’re out of those things,” he called loudly over his shoulder, moving on to the gardening area and more interesting matters.

Tina nodded, then shrugged an apology to the woman as she folded her grandchildren’s photos back into her worn brown leather wallet.

“I guess we’re out.”

“Okay then,” the woman said. She handed a soft five dollar bill over the counter.

Tina punched buttons on the register, made change in coins. Tucked the mouse figurine into a small paper bag, folded over at the top. Stories in objects, she thought. Fragments of fear stuck to a yellow teapot. Scraps of old sadness folded into blue linen napkins. Years of grief in the stuffing of furniture, heartache coming unstitched on the edges.

“Here you go.” She pressed the bag into the woman’s hand, thought about her giving it to her grandchildren the next time she saw them.

“Thank you.” The woman walked off. She moved slowly, but stiffly, Tina thought. Like a jagged edge, rigid reeds emerging from water. Tina didn’t stop watching until she was out the door.

Hello?” The voice cut sharply, made Tina jump in her skin. She blinked at the next customer, a woman with a splintery bob haircut, a pile of lacy bras over her arm. She raised an eyebrow at Tina, antsy.

“Hello, sorry.” Tina rang up the items and removed the hangers, the impatient clicking of the woman’s nails prickling on her skin.

“Find everything you were looking for?”

The rest of the customers flowed through after that. A child with a thick mystery novel, his brown eyes shining with excitement. A woman with a set of matching washcloths, barely looking up from her cellphone while paying. Two men chatting animatedly about organic gardening. Two neckties, a hammer, and a red egg timer between them.

Tina looked up at the clock, minutes ticking steadily towards quitting time. She was about to loosen the knot in her apron when a vaguely familiar voice floated past.


The woman had dark hair flowing over her shoulders, rippled with streaks of gray. A black fleece zipped up to her throat. She was close to Tina’s age, maybe older. Tina studied the lines of her tanned face, frantically tried to place her.

“Sandra. I’m Jake’s sister.” Her eyes were heavy, little half-moons of fatigue settling underneath them.

She set her packages down on the counter. A lopsided stack of packaged underwear and fitted sheets. Two lint rollers.

Sandra! How are you?” Tina smiled, started scanning the items into the cash register, grateful for the recollection forming in her brain.

Jake’s sister.

Tina and Jake had dated for one summer, years ago, after high school. The heat swelled and spiked that August, the hottest in decades. People talked about the dog days of summer, and Jake and Tina laughed and made wishes on Sirius the Dog Star when it rose and set with the sun. Speckles of constellations, the brightest star in the night sky. And the days and nights of that summer were muggy and humid and sultry, and they stayed wrapped in each other. Sweat on their salty skin, always touching, poetry dancing on bodies.

Sandra had already been away at school then, although she came home to visit occasionally. Tina had always envied her swagger and confidence, her black boots and eyeliner. Even though she didn’t talk to her much, sometimes when Sandra would whisk away into her room, Tina would catch a glance of her world. Morrissey piping out of the stereo, posters of places around the world that Tina dreamed about visiting.

After the break up, Sandra and Jake’s family felt distant to Tina as she gradually grew apart from them. Those summer evenings and memories slipping away. A soft fraying rope. Grains of sand glittering, scattering on wind.

But now, here Sandra was again in front of her. It had been years since Tina had thought of Jake. The ex. Ex seemed like such a funny word now as it rattled around in her brain. A life so far off and removed, old associations. The broken webs formerly interlaced with another.

“How is everything? How’s your family?” Tina asked, shaking open a plastic bag to hold Sandra’s items. “It’s been so long.”

Sandra’s jaw was tense, held hard like granite. Her dark eyes flickered with a wave of something that felt wrong, unsettled. Tina wondered if she had overstepped some invisible boundary by asking.

“You don’t know.”

She didn’t say it as a question, but more like she felt sorry for Tina.

Tina shook her head, her stomach twisting to a sickening knot. She set down Sandra’s things in slow motion, suddenly not wanting to hold someone else’s underwear when receiving bad news. Something so intimate, that clinging against skin, thin fabric.

“Jake is dead,” Sandra said softly, her voice tripping over the last syllable. “He was killed last year.”

Tina felt the breath jolt in her chest like a punch. She opened and closed her mouth, but no words came out.

“I thought you knew,” Sandra was saying.

Behind Sandra in line, a woman clutched a floral printed ironing board, raised up on her tiptoes to get a better view of when the transaction would be finished. She cleared her throat loudly.

Tina nodded, forced herself to keep ringing up Sandra’s belongings. “I hadn’t heard. I’m so sorry.”

The two women looked at each other, grief hanging raw and unpolished between them.

“It was a car accident,” Sandra whispered as she paid for her sheets and underwear. “A drunk driver. Up on Montgomery Road.”

Tina knew the way that road curved softly before jutting out sharply like a hip. She thought of smooth bone snapping, crashes that broke like ocean waves, spinning metal and tires under indigo sky. Late summer constellations, limp bodies counting last breaths.

“I’m so sorry,” she said again. She had no other words to offer. She handed Sandra her bag and change, their fingertips brushing. Tina wished that she had something to give other than home goods on sale.

The woman with the ironing board lost patience.

“Are we here to exchange pleasantries, or is someone working around here?”

Tina drew in a sharp breath, felt the fiery urge to snap something nasty, but Sandra put a hand on her arm.

“I need to get going.” She gave Tina a weak smile, the skin around her eyes crinkling. “It was good to see you.”

The words tumbled out of her mouth like rocks, and they both paused there awkwardly. Both knowing that it wasn’t really true. The brief recognition of their faces triggering waves of fresh wounds, tiny undoings.

Sandra walked out of Stark’s, never looked back over her shoulder. The woman paid $19.99 for the ironing board and told Tina to keep the change. The line at Checkstand One looped and wrapped back to the shelves of pots and pans. Tina waved a hand in the air.

“Open over here,” she called, gesturing them to her burnt out light.

She stepped out of the bathroom ten minutes later, cold water splashed on her face. Into the employee lounge where she pulled off her black apron and folded it, placed it in her backpack. Punched out her timecard on the clock.

Her co-worker Sarah was outside on the narrow balcony, the only designated smoking area for employees. She waved Tina over.

“Another day, another dollar, right?” She pulled a fresh cigarette from the pack, held it out for Tina, even though Tina reminded her every day that she didn’t smoke. “How was your shift?”

Tina shook her head at the cigarette, then leaned over the balcony railing, watching cars pass below, slipping in and out of lanes. Scattering off to their various locations, like leaves along the sidewalk, new ashes over the ocean.

There were smeared handprints along the railing, and she tried to match her fingerprints to them, wondering about the people who had stood there before her, hands in the same places.

“Same old, same old,” she said finally with a shrug, deciding against telling Sarah about the news she’d received.

Sarah turned her back to the wind, cupped her hand around her lighter as she tipped her head to the side to inhale.

“Yeah.” She ran a hand through her spiky black hair, a stripe of purple streaking the bangs. “Hey, want to go out with us tonight? We’re singing karaoke at Wildcat.”

Tina shook her head, letting go of the thick metal railing. “I’m going to have a mellow night. Thanks anyway. See you tomorrow?”

Sarah nodded without speaking, sucking on her cigarette. She exhaled and the smoke curled into a halo behind her head before disintegrating into the air. “See you tomorrow.”

Tina tossed restlessly that night, partly from sticky heat and partly from her raveled thoughts. She’d slip into half-sleep occasionally, turbulent dreams that felt tense and unsettled. Images without words, faceless strangers. Mysterious music, short phrases of movement. A glove in a box. A hairbrush on a table. Weeping willows swaying in the wind.

The glowing numbers of her bedside clock read 3:34 when Tina got up for a glass of water from the kitchen. She filled the glass from the faucet in the dark, the hum of the refrigerator buzzing through the otherwise silent kitchen. She sipped the water as she leaned against the black counter, her mind wide awake.

She remembered something just then, set the glass down on the counter with a clink. Bare feet padding down the hallway, her hair loose and billowing around her pale nightgown. She went directly to the bedroom closet. Standing on her toes, she shuffled boxes around on the top shelf, pushed back piles of sweaters.

The black shoebox, the one with the sale sticker on the side, all the way at the back of the closet. She pulled it down and set it on the bed, lifted off the lid.

She had almost forgotten about it, and she lifted the objects from the box one at a time, feeling them in her hands. A stack of letters tied with a thin leather cord. The bud of a rose, petals crisp and dried. Two stubs of tickets to The Pixies. A white envelope of Polaroid photographs. A wooden bracelet painted to look like a zebra, her favorite animal, two pointed ears and a face gently carved into the wood.

He had hand carved that bracelet for her, painted it himself, tied it into a box with a piece of twine.

“Each zebra’s stripe pattern is unique,” he had said when he put it on her, like she didn’t already know.

She had put it in the box after the breakup, tucked away with the letters and remnants of things that she didn’t want to touch for a while. Pushed away behind boxes and stacks of old books.

She held it now, felt the smooth sides of the sanded wood, noticed the delicately painted details of the zebra’s black eye, the curve of the bracelet like a winding mountain road. Tried it on and felt the weight of it one last time before setting it on the windowsill above the bed. She’d be able to see it from time to time. Pieces of things that were lost now.

She climbed back into bed, the early morning sky rising with shades of periwinkle and black through the windows. A single thread of sunrise beginning to peek across the room, moving shadows. Her black apron hung over the back of a chair, ready for today’s shift. She thought about last images that might come just before death. The final memories on skin. Warm gravel and damp earth, bloodied pavement and moist night mist.

All of the things, Tina thought as she finally drifted off towards sleep. So many things.

Framed paintings with crooked brushstrokes, the artist distracted by a model’s mouth. Earrings in a crushed velvet box, a child sorting through them like pennies. The wide golden leaves of a sunflower, picked and left on a front porch in apology.

Love notes folded into thirds, buried underground where lightning has already struck. The last of the good china plates, passed down through families.

And there were soft pages of lyrics passed between lovers, and words that felt wet when they slipped off of tongues.

© 2015 Anna Doogan

“The Merry Go Round” by Nicole M. Bailey

The Merry Go Round

Nicole M. Bailey

I came back to Little Tree to live with my brother, Grover. We’d decided to move our father into a home. Not because he was old, but because he’d been a drunk for over thirty years, and his brain amounted to a pile of ooze inside his skull. My brother had dealt with enough over the years, so I came home. I thought I could help him make ends meet. I knew he couldn’t afford Dad’s room at Vida! – neither could I – but at least we could split the mortgage, and maybe I would figure out what I was going to do with myself.

My brother managed the discount department store in Little Tree known as Acheson’s. Acheson’s had almost everything you needed as far as clothing and housewares. The nearest Sears or JC Penney was an hour away, which made Acheson’s convenient and necessary. Grover offered me a job at the store while I looked for something permanent. I’d been a legal assistant in a small law firm, but Little Tree had only one law office, and it wasn’t hiring. Besides, I hadn’t really enjoyed that type of work. Coming home was going to be a fresh start for me. That’s what I told myself.

I’d been home for two weeks when I met Linda. She came in to Acheson’s with her boyfriend, Russell, one Saturday while I was restocking the Fiesta Ware. Grover was behind me with a clipboard counting the dishes as I unpacked them and arranged the display in a happy, ceramic rainbow.

“I’m looking for one of those juicers,” she said. Linda had a nasally voice with an unnatural pitch.

Grover turned around, and looked over his glasses. This small gesture made him look much older than his twenty-eight years. “Hey, Linda,” he said flatly. “Hey, Russell.”

Grover shifted his weight to his heels, a subtle nervous habit I recognized.

“What kind of juicer?”

She was reapplying a terrible shade of orange lipstick. Her hair was a faded lilac, and the eyeliner on her left eye was smudged all to hell. “The one that’s always on TV – what was it called, Russell?” Russell’s phone was inches from his face. He didn’t answer. Linda turned around and slapped the phone out of his hand. “What the fuck?” he said. Linda smiled and said, “Baby, what was that juicer called? The one on TV?”

He bent down to grab his phone, and said to the scuffed linoleum, “How am I supposed to know?”

“I think you’re asking about a Nutribullet,” I said. Grover turned to me with relief. “Would you show Linda where the Nutribullet is?” he said.

I nodded. “Follow me.” She looked to be in her thirties at least. She was wearing a potent citrusy perfume that itched my throat. Russell trailed us. As we were winding through the department store, Linda said, “You must be new around here.”

“Not really,” I said. “I was born here. I moved away for a while. Grover’s my brother.”

“Oh, you’re Elaine.”

“Yep,” I said and pointed to my name tag. It was a sarcastic gesture, but she didn’t get it.

“Is this what you’re looking for?” She chewed on her bottom lip, studying the box and the surrounding juicers. Russell’s head was down, his thumbs flying across the screen of his phone. No one answered my question.

“Well, I guess if you need anything else, you know where to find me.”

I walked back to Grover, puzzled. “That was weird. What was that about?” He did not look at me. “It’s not important.”

“Come on tell me.”

He sighed and took off his glasses, pinching the bridge of his nose. My brother was so clean-cut he looked like he walked off the set of Leave it to Beaver. Not a hair out of place, not a wrinkle anywhere. “I’ll tell you later. Let’s finish this and get out of here.”

At the end of our shift, we climbed into dad’s muddy, dented pickup.

“So…” I prodded.

“The thing is Linda’s kind of my ex.”

I couldn’t help it. I started to laugh. Grover rolled his eyes and yanked the truck into gear. “I knew it,” he said. “I can’t tell you anything.”

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” I said, wiping my eyes with the back of my hand.

“You dated her?” I tried to keep disdain from my voice. I heard it anyway.

“A year ago,” he said.

“What happened?”

“You might have noticed she’s a bitch,” he huffed.

“Yeah,” I said, “but what happened?”

During my fifteen minute break earlier that morning, I was thinking about the way we’d left our father at Vida! a week before. No one was more relieved than Grover to have Dad out of the house. Dad’s mind was so deteriorated I was convinced he was not a wet brain but rather in an advanced stage of dementia. The doctors at Vida! and my brother assured me that this was not dementia. His mind really was goo. His coherent moments were unpleasant. My dad was calling Grover “Pussy Pants.” Since I’d been home, my father had not used Grover’s name. I determined then that something must have really gone off the rails while I was gone. Grover was the kind of person who kept his emotions balled up in his fists. I couldn’t ask him where this new name had come from. Even as we left our broken down father in his new home, his face so worn, his nose a red beacon, he’d called out after us, “So long, Pussy Pants. So long, Sweet Pea.”

“The Linda story is a long story.” I got the feeling he wanted to talk about it anyway.

“Let’s hear it.” He cleaned his sunglasses with his Acheson’s polo shirt, and put them on his face with a deliberate flick of his wrist.

“Fine. You know the Merry Go Round?”

The Merry Go Round was a well-worn establishment in Little Tree. The bar was filthy, the floor sticky, and it wasn’t common to leave before midnight. Linda was starting to make sense if this story began at The Merry Go Round.

“Well, they’ve got a karaoke night now. I was pretty into it. Don’t make that face, Elaine. We both were. I mean every Friday and Saturday that’s where me and Linda were – singing karaoke. It was a nice release. You weren’t here. You don’t understand how bad Dad was getting. He could barely put a spoon to his mouth without dribbling everywhere and mumbling some goddamn nonsense.

I was spending a lot of time with Linda, sleeping at her place. I started to feel guilty because I was pretty sure I’d come home to him dead. Then I started hoping I would come home to him dead. That’s beside the point. I’m talking about the karaoke. We would pick some songs during the week and practice our asses off. We would bring the house down! I mean it – we were very popular. All the sudden, Dad stopped drinking. Maybe something inside him was waking up. Maybe he felt his own mind slipping. He hadn’t had a drink in two weeks!”

Grover was so earnest his voice had a tug to it. The longer he talked the less I wanted to laugh. Inside my throat, the little pebble I carried around grew into a boulder. Grover pulled to the side of the road. I suppose he was getting emotional. He was difficult to read, his emotions opaque and distant, but there was a tension rising in the car so unfamiliar I was haunted by it.

“So why’d you break up?”

“One afternoon, we stopped by the house so I could check on Dad. I was trying to encourage him, keep him accountable. I’d also been policing the house for booze. I wanted to help him. My phone rang. It was my salesclerk, Jerry. He’d stepped out for a cigarette. The shit head locked his keys inside the store. So I told Linda to go in and check on Dad while I went all the way back to the store and let that asshole in.”

Grover took his hands off the wheel. He opened and closed his hands. Maybe part of my brother’s impenetrable personality was the result of his name. A name like Grover did not go unpunished in Little Tree. It was our father’s name.

“I was gone an hour and a half at the most. When I got to the house, I saw Dad and Linda on the balcony.” Grover scratched at a blister on his palm.

“What? And it didn’t collapse?”

The balcony off the second floor bedroom was an addition my mom demanded over twenty years ago. Our Uncle Bud added it to the house. Uncle Bud wasn’t exactly a professional and the balcony was deemed unsafe around the time our mother left to live with her sister in Los Angeles.

“Yeah, they were on the balcony, six shot glasses and a bottle of Early Times lined up in front of them. Dad was leaning on the balcony rail and hollering gibberish as I came up the drive. I was so angry. I was sweating. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe I trusted her, maybe even loved her. And him! Where had he gotten that booze? Still a mystery to me. And yeah, Linda’s trashy, and she’s crass, and the karaoke thing was dumb. Still, I enjoyed it. For a little while, it was nice. When I saw her up there drinking with him, something in me snapped.” His voice had gone low and cold.

“What did you do?” I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.

“Well, I went up the stairs and out onto the balcony. Dad was bent, leaning over the rail and trying to tell some joke, I guess. Linda was giggling like an idiot. It happened so fast, but the next thing I know I was holding the son of a bitch by his waist over the railing. Linda was behind me screaming and clawing at my shirt, trying to stop me. I kept dangling him over the rail. I wanted to drop him like a sack of rocks. I was shaking him out like he was full of change. And all the while, the only lucid thing to leave his gummy lips was, “Go ahead and do it, Pussy Pants.”

My brother had taken his sunglasses off. He was squinting through the windshield.

“I wish I would have dropped him.”

Two times in my life, I’ve been at a literal loss for words. Once on a camping trip, my father was drunk and angry because we’d been playing while we were supposed to be packing. He got in the car and left my mom, Grover and me behind. I remember the truck squealing and swerving away, the sound of the creek singing behind us. When he came back an hour later, I wasn’t sure what to say to him. I wasn’t sure I would ever know what to say to my father again.

In the silence of this moment – as my little brother told me about the time he tried to drop our father off the balcony – it wasn’t that I could not understand him any longer, but that I truly did.

“I guess you broke up with her after that?”

“No,” he said. “She broke up with me.”

“And the karaoke?”

“Not anymore.”

Grover started the truck again and pulled back onto the road. I thought about offering to sing with him at The Merry Go Round some time. But how could I make that offering? We passed flower beds, children on bikes, and dogs tethered to yard stakes. I wondered how different life could have been if our father was someone else.

Sometimes there isn’t a right thing to say. Sometimes you can’t have a fresh start.

© 2015 Nicole M. Bailey

“The Federalists, Willing to Duel, Willing to Die” by Kris Lovesey

The Federalists, Willing to Duel, Willing to Die

Kris Lovesey

Maggie-Part 1

Maggie moved to Portland to leave Philly, because she killed Rob, a long time member of another motorcycle club. She felt bad for his family as Rob’s brother died in battle as an active duty Marine, just a year earlier. This sad reason was why Rob was drinking too much the night he himself died.

Rob made two passes at Maggie earlier that night, at Cookies Tavern. His third pass at Maggie involved pushing her up against the wall in the narrow hallway leading back to the bathroom.

“You just lit the wrong end of my fucking fuse, you, fucking shit covered dick.” Maggie pushed and bounced him off the opposite hallway wall. “If you want a piece of this, well then, come and get it!” Maggie yelled loud enough for half the bar to hear.

“I’ll fuck you!” was the reply she got from Rob.

She left Cookies, and came back in brandishing a 100cm braided bull-hide horse whip. And she looked bent on choking Rob with it. Rob was back to his can of Rolling Rock and his couple of friends, when Maggie stomped right up into his personal bubble.

“This is a chase game. You hit my bike and I’ll kill you. Whip me twice, and I am going to fuck your brains out on the side of the road.” Maggie spoke loud enough for Rob’s friends to hear the challenge. The two of them had bumped heads before. Rob was actually a big reason why Maggie joined The Federalists, and not the Pagans.

Poor Rob had been seeing red all night, and now Maggie had the same angry eyes. Rob wasn’t ten paces behind Maggie, when she threw in the key, and kicked her Frankencycle into a grunting smoke-coughing dragon. She was going to have a hard time outrunning Rob’s Triumph. Rob’s bike wasn’t the beautiful piece of machinery which rolled out of the famous English factory doors- as the cylinders had been bored out to make it sound loud like a Harley.

“Feel free to wear that to your grave.” She yelled over the noise of both the bikes, throwing her bra at Rob. Rob yelled some very terrible things. Maggie came back with some terrible predictions of what Satan would do to Rob, in Hell, before sunrise.

ISBN-Part 1

This is a public service announcement, by the ISBN:

We don’t watch you. We read you, All of you. And we answer your prayers.

Maggie-Part 2

Rob caught up with Maggie on the Walt Whitman Bridge. No one asked too many questions. Rob’s blood-alcohol level was twice the legal limit. He had also taken some pills. Rob’s bike had a chain until he spent too much money converting it to a belt system, and boring out the cylinders. Maggie wasn’t planning on letting Rob live without apologizing for what he did back in Cookies Tavern. Maggie never told anyone she threw her knife into his drive belt. That son-of-a-bitch should never have hit her seven years ago.

The Nepalese Gurkha’s all keep a knife called a khukuri. Every member of Maggie’s motorbike club had such a blade. The blades varied but all were once used in the initiation ceremony- and it is only unsheathed for blood. Hers was a PackLite Skinner, the handiest little American made Buck Knife. They are cheap and sharp. Luckily, she keeps a spare PackLite in her saddle bag because luckily- her knife was never found.

Before going to bed that night, she initiated her new knife by using it to open up the scar on the side of her belly, bleeding on a ten dollar bill.

She threw the bloody bill into the Delaware, wrapped around a rock with a rubber band.

The Federalists have a motto: Willing to duel, Willing to die.

Maggie had a good thing going on in Philly. She had a great boss and a shitty job, the best of a bad combo. She worked security for a shitty department store. She wore aviators all the time. When Maggie explained to her boss she had to quit and move, Ms. Breaker offered to fire her, so she could collect some unemployment, to help her settle into a new life outside of Philly. Ms. Breaker owned and operated Breaker’s Security. Maggie had been working for the company for five years now, slightly longer than she had been in the motorcycle club.

“Good luck.” Ms. Breaker lit a cigarette, something she never did in her office.

“I’ll let you know what happens, but I’m going to take a month off and disappear for a minute.” Maggie turned as she left the office to take another look at Ms. Breaker in front of all those familiar little T.V.s. “And, thanks for firing me. You didn’t have to do that.”

“I’d do a lot for you. Just let me know.” Ms. Breaker shut her door.

Luckily The Federalists never became rivals with The Pagans over Rob’s death. Maggie sold her frankencycle to a fellow club member, bought a pickup camper. She then drove the piece of shit pickup all the way to Portland, and got a job working with special needs adults. The Federalists had a Portland chapter. She fit right in, kind of, and she still wore her aviators to work.

ISBN-Part 2

Powell’s Books, in downtown Portland, is the North American H.Q. for the ISBN mafia.

ISBN assassins come from a lineage of half humans who trace their heritage back to St. Christopher, a half-human/half-dog giant made popular by the tales of early Christians. Besides being assassins for the ISBN mafia, they are still involved in protecting travelers and pilgrims. Not much has changed for this community of assassins and saints in the past five-hundred years, except more recently they have been enjoying illegally-registered muscle cars from the 70’s and 80’s.

Maggie-Part 3

Maggie registered her new 45 Beretta and her new ’67 Firebird Trans AM, in the same week. She had sold the pickup camper, and had been walking to and from work to save up cash.

The car had no previous accidents, only two previous owners, and two black racing stripes down it’s white body. It was quickly named the H.M.S. Alexander Hamilton, and everyone got to spit on it for a day. That’s the way the Federalists initiate new cars and bikes to the club. Some people gave up dipping long ago, but still dig up the dirty habit for a friends new bike- because some people are just assholes. It is also expected that the next time anyone sees the new vehicle, it’s spotless.

Two F.B.I. agents came to visit Maggie at her job, soon after she bought the car. They wanted to talk to her because the gun, the car, and her involvement in a well known [and extremely political] motorcycle club.

“You are aware of what’s been going on with the Republicans. Can you tell us what you know?”

The two F.B.I. agents and Maggie sat awkwardly in the front meeting room at Project Grow, the vocational center for special needs adults, where Maggie had just been working for three months now.

“I know the Republicans piss plenty of people off, so you two must be real busy.” Maggie replied, gazing out the window. “How many meetings like this you got today?”

The meeting went nowhere, and luckily didn’t last very long. Working in a vocational center like Port City gave Maggie a hundred and fifty alibis. She always parked the car out front, right there on Williams Ave, so there were plenty of alibis for the car as well.

As far as the case went, a light colored T-Bird with dark racing stripes, and a couple other crime-scene clues were all the F.B.I. were working with.

The murders all involved; heads of the Republican party, they had all been carried out in the cleanest of executions, and the only clues left have been copies of Steinbeck’s, To A God Unknown with homemade replicas of a Ray Johnson postcard tucked inside. The only writing on the postcards was:

From: the ISBN Mafia


ISBN-Part 3

“You see,” the old man said, “it must not cry. It doesn’t know. The time is nearly here, now.” He took a thick short-bladed knife from his pocket and tried its edge on his palm, and then his left hand stroked the pig’s side and he turned to face the sun. It was rushing downward toward the far-off rim of fog, and it seemed to roll in a sac of lymph. “I was just in time,” the old man said. “I like to be a little early.”

-Steinbeck, To A God Unknown

Jeb’s grip on the balcony railing loosened as he sliped quietly to the cool stone floor. A top ISBN assassin always does the job in less than two minutes. The assassin inserts a custom made oyster shucking knife between the seventh cervical and the first Thoracic vertebrae, severing the spinal chord. A round adhesive patch the size of a beer coaster laced with a neurotoxin gets placed over the incision.

The Prairie Chapel Ranch wasn’t known for it’s sunsets, but tonight it was a postcard from Heaven. Jeb wouldn’t die, but he wasn’t gong to do much living, and he was instantly retired from continuing on the campaign trail.

Maggie-Part 4

Maggie was saving up money to buy her own eighteen wheeler, and studying for a C.D.L. Project Grow wasn’t paying much, but she had a New York client interested in more of her illustrations. She was charging him a little extra, just to pad her bank account, but her illustrations were still worth every penny.

Maggie had a run in with her boss about making spanking paddles in their wood studio. Her boss was a hard case, and people either got along with Hillary, or they didn’t.

On her way home from work she came across a hiring sign in the window of a dispensary. The place was called Dab Star, and it was a newly opening pot shop, just five blocks from her place. A quick Google search only brought up a poorly written help wanted ad, posted on some obscure job board, written in all capital letters, with an exclamation point after every sentence.



This phrase stood out like a thorn, but luckily instead of being assholes, Maggie met the three ladies who run Dab Star; Ms. Bechdel, Jay, and Kristie.


The four sat in the front waiting room, casually grilling each other. Ms. Bechdel asked the most questions. Maggie couldn’t help blushing a bit when Jay asked her stuff. Kristie just didn’t talk much.


“I don’t think I need you for the desk position, but we are getting a chocolate maker from Belgium. We could use you on the chocolate side, starting in three weeks.”


“Are you fucking kidding me? Howd’ you know I like chocolate more than weed.” Maggie replied. “What do I have to do?”


“You already passed the Bechdel Test so just call me B from now on.”


Maggie giggled. The interview was done- the job was in the bag.


Maggie put her two weeks notice in to Project Grow. She shaved her head and got her Oregon food handler card. Her going away party was on a Tuesday at Sloan’s Tavern.   She took a week off, and got her tattoos touched up. All her tattoos reference the artist Ray Johnson, people have always asked her about that.


ISBN-Part 4

The assassin on the Republican Job, his name was Thunder. He only listened to The Go! Team while working. Only ate strawberries while working. Notably, he saved more lost hikers in the past year than the U.S. Parks and Rec. had in the past ten years. He also swam from Japan to San Francisco during the summer of 2007. Thunder was an ideal ISBN assassin.

The Republican Party and the Nation was in crisis. The next day three more Republican candidates for the 2016 Presidential Race were reduced to a vegetative state.

Thunder rolled all week long.

Maggie-Part 5


The Unknown God smiled on Maggie. She knew her life would be hard working in the weed-chocolate kitchen. She knew the Belgian chocolatier was a more-racist foreign version of the worst boyfriend Maggie ever had- one of dead Rob’s good buddies. The Unknown God had better plans for Maggie.

Maggie had just finished singing Show & Tell, by Al Wilson. The Unknown God decided it was a great time to pull her out of the realm of people, right in front of half the members of the Portland chapter of The Federalists. They were getting high and drunk, doing some D.I.Y.-Youtube karaoke.

Maggie started to glow. The glow became brighter, and brighter, until no one in the room could even face to see her expanding into a beam of cosmic energy. Maggie shot through the roof terrifying club members with falling timber debris. Ear-drums bled from the sonic boom. The cops came expecting the remains of a meth-lab.

The Republicans never won another Presidential election.

And Maggie started a new existence.

© 2015 Kris Lovesey

“The Back of the Store” by Donna Renee Anderson

The Back of the Store

Donna Renee Anderson

Clove-scented smoke floats from my mouth and rushes away from my face. My lips wrap around the Djarum Black filter and curve into a smile. The steel of the balcony rail cools my sweaty palms. I am a genius. If the party people of New York City and Chicago can host empty subway cars for moving parties why can’t I host roving warehouse parties? It was a fantastic idea requiring little overhead and not much upfront cash. All I had to do was find a discount department store with lots of warehouse space. The proceeds would contribute to the owner’s rent and we’d move the party to a new location the next month. Customers’ daytime shopping trips would morph into nighttime schlepping bottles of craft beers.

I look down on large floor space cluttered with naked and gaudy street-clothed mannequins strategically placed around the room mingled with clothes racks strewn with neighborhood cast offs. Glass display cases hold brown and clear alcoholic spirits as well as the kegs of craft beers. There’s no traditional bar with stools. There are old chairs from dressing rooms and benches and stools from make-up counters—good old warehouse décor.

I always wanted to open my own club—women only, fluid sexuality. It used to be called slummin’; hidden in late night adventures to lesbian bars. But now some women’s open experimentation brings them a soft gentleness unfulfilled with a man. No more hiding for them or any other woman for that matter. Girls night out has a new more free meaning—bi-curious I believe it’s called. I finger my cigarette, dropping ashes into my portable ashtray. I saw Hercule Poirot use one during my late night PBS binge watching.

“You better not be smoking up there!” came a blaring over the sound system.

Marybeth, my fiancé, didn’t like me smoking and I didn’t have the desire to quit. I’d decided I’d give it a go before our wedding. We were finally getting married. I found someone and someone found me.

“Come on sweetie.” I crooned. “You know a night club’s got to have the scent of cigarette smoke and alcohol to feel right.” I laughed.
“Put it out and get down here. We’ve got to test this karaoke system you said we just had to have.” She said and blew me a kiss through the air and my left hand caught it, placing it over my heart.

“It’s the best money can buy for what we want to do and sweetie I got it for you at a decent price.” I said.

Opening a late night roving club, bar, pub or whatever I wanted to call it became an entry on our joint bucket list and Marybeth wanted mandatory karaoke nights. She says every woman should experience the joy of singing karaoke, shouting her wild inner being to a song of her choosing. I call it primal scream therapy.

The view over the main room from the upper balcony is better than a camera. However, of the two balconies this one wasn’t ready for seating yet. Someone could get hurt. The other balcony had a balcony rail wider and thicker; great for a DJ box. Marybeth’s voice drew me from my mind-wander as she began singing K.D. Lang’s Once in a While in her full-heart voice. The sound system would not be bullied, withstanding the force and timbre of her voice. By the time she’d sung the line, I’ll drive you crazy, I was at her side and kissed her quiet.

“Beautiful babe, simply beautiful.” I whispered.

“Thank you honey.” She cooed.

A noise from the second floor balcony startled us and a woman walked from the shadows. She was tall and pale, thin sharp features with a severe ponytail; not attractive, just mean looking.

“Who is that?” Marybeth asked grabbing my arm.

Her applause of three slow beating hand claps preceded her, “You two should be proud of all this.” Spoken in a smoke-scratch voice.

“That’s the ex who took back her investment; the ex-business partner.” I spoke loud into the room.

“You girls…” she began and I didn’t let her finish.

“We’re not open yet and you don’t get an invitation. You might want to come down from that balcony.” I said and squinted at more moving shadows below the balcony.

“We don’t know how you got in here but we’ll escort you out.” Said a strong female voice from the shadows and two uniformed female police officers walked into the light.

“Our guardian angels.” Marybeth whispered.

The ex, hung her head, walked down from the balcony and one of the officers escorted her from the building.

“I’m Tango. Nice place you’ve got here. My partner Cassidy and I wanted to know if you could use the security we’d like to work for you.” A statement with a smile.

“That would be wonderful.” Marybeth said shaking the woman’s hand. “I’m Marybeth and this is Maggie, my fiancé.”

I gave Tango our business card with an invitation for dinner on their next off day to go through logistics and security protocols.

“You know we’ve not settled on a decent name for this place.” I said.

“I like what’s on our business license and we won’t need a sign. The Back of the Store.” Marybeth said matter of fact as she turned on the music.

We held hands and walked through the rough dressed mannequins, the liquor filled display cases to the dance floor singing karaoke to K.D. Lang.

© 2015 Donna Renee Anderson