Archives For Fiction & Flash Fiction

Travis awoke at first light and paced from one side of the trailer to the other. As the sky turned from blue-gray to eggshell, the daylight illuminated the labels on his boxes of supplies. Jars of pickled vegetables, canisters of dried milk, and sealed packages of meat jerky he had hunted and preserved himself. He didn’t trust food in tin cans, even though he knew that a supply of those would last him longer. One of his magazines had an exposé on mind-altering hormonal chemical agents in can liners. It was too big of a risk.

He stepped outside and curled his feet on the cool dry leaves around the trailer. Travis shivered. It was a cold autumn. Even cooler here in the hills. He watched the light in the eastern sky for its sailors-take-warning glow. It seemed to him like every sunrise was red these days. Always a reason to worry. As he walked down the hill to the outhouse, he listened as birds began to call out. The sun touched the treetops. On his way back up, yellow light pooled in gaps in the branches. Travis hadn’t used a clock in a long time, but if he had guessed the time he would think it was a little past eight.

Back up the hill, he took stock of his supplies. Food and water were plentiful, medical supplies were in full stock, but he had used some of his gas on the chainsaw when gathering wood. It was an antique that ate through twice the gas for half the work and still seemed to break down when he needed it most. He had the urge to drive down to the hardware store and replace it, but he worried about his presence in town. Besides, Rudy’s Hardware had gone under months ago, replaced by one of those corporate chains. Travis was sure that just a short trip might get him noticed. Hidden security cameras or a DNA sample from a cash transaction might mark him. No, he would have to make do. As a boy, his grandfather told him stories about his ancestors who cut through the land when it was wild. They didn’t need gasoline or chainsaws. These were just modern conveniences, illusions of ease that would disappear. Reliance on technology was like a drug addiction. An articles in one of his magazines explained this:

What better name for a network that traps its victims than a web? A world wide one no less. No one thinks that this web could have a spider ready to devour their will, but an insect that is ignorant to the spider is the easiest to snatch. The brain becomes reliant on computers and machines. There’s a high that comes with it. Soon its convenience becomes necessity and the person is caught in the web of the system.

While there was a chance to still resupply, Travis figured it was better to keep his stocks full than to let them dwindle. He took count of the empty canisters and went into the trailer to check his cash box. Travis had turned most of his money in for supplies. Whatever goods he needed to barter for when the time came would be with the gold coins and remnants of jewelry he had bought or collected. As much as he loathed the printed bills—their serial numbers and government-imposed value—he knew that some would still be needed for the time being. He only handled them with latex gloves and carefully cleaned each bill before using it in a transaction. His father taught him that some smudge from his hand or a hair follicle could be used to match him up in a database. Other days, his caution was geared more to the substances used in government ink. These bills were mostly safe due to repeated sanitation and only required the gloves as a precaution. He counted out what he needed and returned the rest to his lock box.

At the truck, he loaded and holstered one of his pistols. Always a last resort but only a fool doesn’t come prepared and those who don’t deserve everything they get. One of his father’s lessons, his wisdom before he was taken away. His father’s advice was the last thing Travis thought of before climbing into his truck and starting the engine.

*

At the gas station, the attendant stared at Travis’ latex-covered hand as he counted the bills. The reflection off the attendant’s thick bifocals made Travis feel like an ant under a magnifying glass. The man breathed heavily. His large round abdomen expanded and contracted against his tight belt. Travis recognized him from the last time he had come into town. He remembered the name, Warren, pinned to the man’s shirt beneath the gas station chain logo. Travis preferred this attendant over the others since he was one of the few people that didn’t try to make small talk. Several months ago, an older woman, Carol, tried to start a brief conversation about the weather—a downpour that day. Travis only nodded, tapped his foot and rushed back outside with his purchase. Warren seemed uninterested in him. A good thing.

At the pump, Travis heard the sound of radio news, whether it was projected from another car or from hidden speakers near the pump he couldn’t tell. While he didn’t trust mainstream news, he liked to listen once in a while, to see what lies the public were being fed and to read if any signs could be given of the inevitable future. There were always signs. The report was the usual: acts of congress that were just a show for the cameras, fluff pieces to distract, and a discussion of wars and unrest that were just a precursor to the true world conflict in the works. He tuned it out by the time he’d filled the first canister.

Halfway through, another truck pulled into the pump next to him. A young man in a baseball cap, loose tank top stepped out. He paid at the pump with a credit card and watched Travis with his hands in his pockets.

“Boy, that’s a lot of gas,” the man said.

Travis nodded and looked away.

“Is there a storm coming? You don’t see people stocking up like that every day.”

Travis looked up at the man as he moved the nozzle from one canister to the other. The man dressed as though it were still summer though there was a chill to the air. Travis was nervous about his questions and he knew that small things out of place were never good. The man was out of place—enough for anyone to notice but not so distinct to draw suspicion. He was the perfect spy.

The man watched him for another minute but, when he saw that Travis wouldn’t answer, he didn’t pursue it any further. The man’s truck had filled at about the same time Travis had finished securing his canisters. Travis watched the man pull out onto the road behind him, not letting him into his blind-spots. As Travis drove, he checked the rear-view mirror. The man’s car behind him. He glanced back for signs of pursuit, or for observing faces in the driver’s seat, but couldn’t get a good look beyond the windshield. Soon after, his pursuer turned onto another road. The cars on the road diminished as he drove up country roads into the hills. In the last several minutes of the drive, Travis sat alone on the road for as far as he could see.

*

The next morning, waking with the sun, Travis made his way out into the yard. The morning had less of a chill than the day before but it still felt unseasonably cold. As he had neglected his patrols the last few days, and since the incident in town had shaken him, he started the morning with a walk. He kept his pistol and one of his hunting rifles with him. For the time being, he used the smaller guns, resorting to his assault rifles and larger caliber guns only during target practice for fear he might attract unwanted attention or waste good ammunition. The time would come for him to need it, but not yet. His grandfather used to say that there are only one or two right tools for the right job.

In the woods, about a mile from the trailer, Travis heard voices. He readied his rifle and crept closely up a nearby hill. As he came closer to the sound, he could tell that they were boys—ten, maybe thirteen years old at most. Each boy had a .22. One shouldered his gun as soldier would. The other, a chubby boy, had it propped against a tree. He sat beside it slumped over. The third boy was taking aim in the nearby woods.

“C’mon you faggot,” said the aiming boy. “We didn’t come here for a nature hike.”

The boy sitting by the tree was shaking. “Ned, I don’t know-”

The boy with the gun on his shoulder swayed. “Feeling sick, Bill?”

“He’s just being a pussy, Roger.”

The crack of the boy’s gun and a flutter of birds out of the surrounding tree made Travis’ blood run. A gun fired in his domain without his permission. He breathed slowly. No need to reveal himself yet.

The boy punched the air. “Got one!”

The boy named Roger laughed. “Good shot, Ned!”

The confident boy looked over at the chubby one. “Your turn, princess.”

The child quaked harder. From a distance, Travis thought the boy was seizing.

Ned groaned. “You said you wanted to come shooting with us.”

Roger knelt down. “Come on Bill, it’s easy. They’re just dumb birds. If we don’t kill them something else will.”

Bill’s face was hot red. It was a beacon for Travis, even at his distance. He remembered learning how to shoot with his father. The feel of the gun in his small hands, the anticipation of the kickback—the sound. He was much younger than this boy. He was taught that a boy ought to learn how to shoot before he even learns to read.

Bill shook his head and buried his face in his hands. Roger looked up at Ned and shrugged.

“If you don’t stop crying we’ll leave you here.”

“Ned, come on, that’s harsh.”

“Well I’m not going to put up with his crying if he can’t control himself.” The boy shouldered his gun and began to walk away.

Roger looked at his departing friend and back at Bill. “Are you coming?”

Bill shook his head.

The other boy’s voice called out through the trees. “Come on. I’m not waiting for him. I won’t wait for you either.”

Roger leaned in close. Travis could hear him mutter to his friend. “I’ll slow him down. Don’t take too long though.” With that, the boy got up, shouldered his gun and followed after the first boy.

Travis wanted to drive away these trespassers, to scare them as he did with others that wandered into his woods but, as he saw the boy alone, paralyzed with fear, he felt he didn’t need to.  The boy wasn’t just helpless, he was helpless without any way of knowing that he could change. Pathetic and weak. Was this what the human race had come to?

The boy sat huddled against the tree, sobbing to himself for some time. Travis watched, waiting for him to run back to his friends until it became clear that he wasn’t going anywhere. He contemplated what he should do. He was too close to the trailer. He didn’t want people—children or not—to invade his perimeter. Let one person slip in and he would be inviting eyes and mouths to give away his position.

Maybe he could help this child, he thought. He could teach him not to fear his weapon but to trust it as one of the few things in this world worthy of such. Travis could teach him what was necessary in this world. He felt a lump in his stomach as he watched the boy. It grew so large that he couldn’t stay where he was without feeling sick. He got up from his observation point and slowly walked down the hill. He walked carefully, trying not to startle the child but making himself open to see. The boy didn’t even notice until he was a few feet away.

The boy raised his red face to see Travis. Somehow it became even redder. He made a horrified breathless gasp and scrambled to get up. Instinct kicked in Travis. He saw the boy scrambling to his feet with a rifle leaning against the tree beside him. Travis grasped the gun at his side, ready to raise it, but the boy was panicked. The intruder scrambled away, forgetting his own gun, making hoarse cries as he fled. Travis tried to call out but a lightheaded sensation washed over him. He braced himself.

As the sound of the boy’s rustling faded through the trees, Travis stood at the sight of the abandoned gun. For a while, he wondered what to do with it. The extra ammunition couldn’t hurt. More supplies before the end begins. Travis leaned in—careful not to touch or get too close for fear of leaving some microscopic trace. He figured that the boy or someone else might come back for it. It was better to leave no sign. Better to be thought of as a ghost in the woods than to reveal himself. Worse was the thought that this was some kind of setup. Boys sometimes wandered into his woods and usually just the sight of him was enough to scare them away. He never before had the urge to talk to one of them, even help them. Travis thought of all the subtle means of control he had read about. Chemical and electromagnetic means to manipulate the brain. Had that been what he had experienced? He was relieved that the boy ran away before he could say anything.

Another day, another trespasser chased off. None of it was new to him but he couldn’t shake the feeling that there was more to this encounter. He had been taught to read signs and trust his gut suspicions. They had not failed him before. Yet, as his heart slowed and the situation became clearer, Travis could only think about the sudden and cold wind. The wind chill, he thought, had made today feel colder than the day before. His father used to say that every day of autumn is a little colder than the last.

*

For the next few days, Travis remained confined in his trailer. The chill of the previous few days had penetrated under his skin. He burned some of his winter wood to help combat the shivering. He knew he would have to replenish it later. There were moments where he did not even have the power to make it to his outhouse, and was forced to rely on his emergency bucket. He also worried about his ability to defend himself outside of the trailer in his current state.

The illness had given him time to reflect and connect the dots. He was convinced that the boys were the cause—either the three of them together or just the boy who saw him.  The man at the gas station had something to do with it as well. He tried to recall signs—the logo on the man’s hat, the clothes the boys wore, and other connections that he could piece together. Marks of the Beast, Illuminati, Freemasons. There were different names but it all amounted to the same, regardless of what the puppeteers called themselves. When he couldn’t find the energy to contemplate this puzzle, he took stock of his food and supplies again. He cycled through contingency plans in the event of attacks or disasters.

He did not speculate on the end—or rather, the beginning. For all of his planning and preparation, he knew that the collapse and destruction of the outside world would be impossible to predict. Some of his radio programs said that this was because those in charge wanted to keep it a secret until the final moment. Magazine articles that guessed the endgame always cautioned that their prediction might be based on deliberately false signs or changed to compensate because the secret was revealed. It seemed a fool’s errand to Travis. Collapse was coming soon but no one would kindly inform him. Better to be at the door early, his grandfather used to say, than to try to stumble down the staircase on time.

The more he stayed in his trailer, the more Travis thought about the end. The radio would be his first clue. It would pick up only static or the frantic propaganda’s last cries before the net came down. Travis had always imagined some grand apocalyptic sign for himself. Some days he thought he would see a great mushroom cloud in the distance, like the first sign of a sunrise on a day that would never end. Other times he imagined he would make a supply run in town only to learn from the wreckage or from the New World Order rounding up everyone too naive to know the truth. Last year, Travis thought the end had come when he saw FEMA trucks in town. He learned instead that a flood had washed out a town to the south and that shelters had been set up—at least that was the official reason given.

He remembered how his father and grandfather used to argue about it in their cramped and crowded trailer. His grandfather quoted scripture about how no one knows when the end will come. Travis could not remember the exact words, and he did not own a Bible. His father was adamant that the time was near and all the signs were apparent. He saw the end as the act of man alone. Sometimes their arguments became fierce.

“Just look at how everything is massing together,” his father had said. “You’d have to be blind not to see it.”

“The world is full of strife,” his grandfather had said. “That is why we wait for salvation.”

“You’d wait until we were in chains!”

In his early memories, they used to sit together and drink beers when talking about these things. That was before his father learned that alcohol was used to keep the masses dull witted and slow and banned it from the trailer. They would all need to be sharp for the future.

It struck Travis how much easier it would be if they were both still with him. Even in the last few months with just his father, the extra person was great comfort. He had never known any other family. His father said that he had saved Travis from a life of slavery. Travis’ grandfather told more, but was just as vague. He was told that he was born and raised in sin. It was his grandfather that taught him to read and taught him numbers. What he knew of other subjects mostly came from the books and magazines his father and grandfather read.

One morning, while his father was on patrol, his grandfather asked to drive him to town for supplies. Travis only remembered later how worn his grandfather looked that morning, afraid even. On the drive down from the hills, his grandfather asked what he knew about the outside world. Not knowing where to start, Travis recalled government plots and secret control methods.   His grandfather seemed disappointed. He asked if he ever wanted to see these things with his own eyes. Travis told him no.

His grandfather sighed. “Sometimes I wish you had.”

At the market in town, his grandfather asked to be left in the car. By the time Travis returned, he was dead. Without knowing how, the gears of the system turned. An ambulance was called, his grandfather was taken away in an official vehicle by men in uniforms. Travis’ father refused to talk to him for days for abandoning his grandfather’s body to some unknown evil. He still felt responsible for it.

Travis regained some of his strength the next morning. His fever was breaking but he was still too ill to wander far from the trailer. Taking his pistol as a precaution, he used the time to check the weatherproofing he had done. Travis could only think of winter. Today was warmer than the last few days, but he knew it would not last. When the snow became thick, he only left the trailer on patrols, and even those were shorter than in summer. He feared leaving tracks. He had improved the cabin insulation and covered the worst drafts but there would still be more. Every winter brought new problems. Travis didn’t mind the discomfort. Comfort, after all, was an illusion used to gain power and control. His father would remind him that a lamb is made most comfortable leading right up to the slaughter.

As Travis inspected a crack on the outer wall, he felt lightheaded again. He needed to sit down, but he knew that if he fell outside—exposed to elements and other forces—he might not be able to get back up for some time. It might be the perfect opportunity for anyone watching him. Propping himself against the wall of the trailer, he made his way back inside. When the door was safely locked, he snatched the waste bucket with his shivering arms and vomited. He crawled to his bed and curled up into it.

Travis didn’t sleep. He had thought that he would once off his feet. Instead, he lay awake, listening to the sound of the wind outside. He imagined agents and observers moving between the rustle of dead leaves around the trailer. He was alone and vulnerable. If attacked now, he would offer pitiful resistance. Whether through feverish doubt or simply the time to second guess, he thought how hopeless it seemed even when able-bodied. He thought of the last time he had seen his father, taking his truck out to town for a repair part. A police cruiser arrived later. Police were the lowest peons of the system. Maybe not all of them knew the tyranny they enforced, but enough of them did to be a threat. Their presence in the yard felt like a manifested nightmare. When he saw them, he thought that he should ready the defenses, that their resistance had been discovered. All of their weapons were loaded and ready for just such an attack. There were only two. Quick action, the element of surprise, were all that he needed. But as he saw them approach in a casual stride, their weapons holstered, he felt reluctant. What if they were the innocent ones? He knew that his father would punish his reluctance if he ever found out, but every time he thought of their arsenal he shook. He had never killed another human being before. He knew one day that he would have to. It was something he had secretly feared about the future—something he had never told his father.

The officers explained that his father had been arrested after pulling a gun on an officer at a routine traffic stop. They asked how well he got along living out in the hills and whether his father had ever sought psychiatric treatment. He didn’t know the answers to all their questions, but cooperated out of fear more than anything. He watched the uniformed men the whole time, Officer Lewis and Officer Montgomery, expecting them to draw their handcuffs and guns. They spoke to him in calm, sympathetic voices as they advised him on what he could do. They mentioned bail money and told him about public defenders.

Travis thought he too would be dragged away to some prison or mental ward—subdued and crushed between the gears of an enormous machine. Some days he imagined torture chambers where the masters of the system inflicted every pain imaginable. Other nights, in his dreams, he found himself trapped in a windowless cell neighbored by infinite windowless cells—left to decay alone and in the dark.

He was shocked when the officers left without trying to take him away. The officers had offered to get him in touch with people from county for local assistance. They told him that they could help, but he turned them down. He knew how to survive on his own. Travis spent days afterward searching the trailer and the property for anything suspicious. He anticipated probes and bugs left to monitor him. He worried that soon they would come back for him.

Maybe his father was still alive in some cage—possibly sedated by drugs and mind control. He spent weeks imagining how he would find and rescue his father, but his plans always fell apart. There were always too many variables, too many ways to draw attention back to themselves. Any rescue would require finding a new place to hide. He didn’t know if there were any other safe places left in the world. His father had taught him that survival was paramount, that if he were ever taken or killed that he should continue the cause on his own. Even when he thought he had concocted a strategy, he couldn’t imagine avoiding having to kill someone in the process. He gave up, fearing that any more thought on the matter would erode his resolve completely.

Travis’ heavy arm reached for a wind-up radio. Were he to be taken or killed today, he didn’t want it to be in silence. In the early days, his father and grandfather’s voice used to comfort him. His father warned him of lurking dangers beyond their perimeter while his grandfather told him stories of better days gone by. He missed them both, but he knew the day his father was taken away was the day he’d truly learned to fend for himself. In his weakest moments, Travis thought most about his grandfather and his stories. These moments scared him when he regained his senses. He knew dwelling on the dead would only make him weak.

The AM radio host outlined evidence of secret government death camps out west. He even had an escapee on the phone, detailing the horrors of his experience. The voices comforted Travis, not for their content, but for their sound. The more he listened, the less he could hear of the moving leaves. Shielded from their movements, he soon fell asleep.

*

Travis recovered completely over the next few days and set out to replenish the supplies he had consumed during the illness. He hadn’t been that sick in years. He was convinced that his illness was part of something sinister—a new biological or viral weapon perhaps or the side effects of some other attempt to control or silence him. Once back to full strength, he stepped up patrols and monitored the area for signs of disturbances. The boy’s gun was gone from the place he’d left it. Travis was unsure what to make of this.

While out one morning to replenish his firewood, the chain on his saw broke. He had no replacement. There were axes and handsaws amongst his tools but he kept them in reserve for the latter days. One day, when the end truly began, he would run out of gas with no means to replenish it. That would be the time to resort to the old ways. It would be a rebirth into the old manner of doing things, the ways his ancestors worked. No, those tools couldn’t be worn or blunted yet.

He thought about the big corporate box in town that had become the hardware store. Entering it would expose him to a host of threats. There were security cameras, climate controls, and the audio system. These alone were enough to terrify him without thinking about the other customers. Hundreds of herd-like people would see him in just a ten-minute trip. He thought about driving through neighboring towns, maybe finding some small shop not yet homogenized but he knew that they called the box stores “chains” because they shackle a whole region to their control. Finding one would require leaving the trailer for hours.

Travis started his truck. As he pulled out onto the country road he thought about his approach to the box-store. It was a long drive down to the town. The drive would clear his head. Maybe he would imagine some other solution along the way. Dozens of different plans for countless different scenarios and yet Travis found that this was not one he had considered. When Rudy’s Hardware went under, he was convinced that he had everything he needed. The mistake amplified in his mind as he pulled onto the main roads. If he had made this one small miscalculation, what else could he have forgotten? Rather than considering his options, Travis could only think of what lurked in his blind spots.

It was mid-afternoon when Travis pulled into the parking lot. The store stretched out across the asphalt. He examined the surrounding rows of cars. He heard the squeak of shopping carts. Travis took a deep breath, shut the engine, and stepped out of his truck. If he kept his head low, acted casual, and didn’t linger he could slip in and out unnoticed. Only the cashier would get a good look at him and even that would be just one in the line of mindless customers.

At the entrance, the slide of the automatic doors made him shudder. He eyed anti-theft scanners as he moved quickly past them. On the steel beams of the warehouse-style ceiling, he watched the black-domed cameras. Just to enter such a place is to be noticed. He would have stepped back out the door and retreated back to his trailer if he didn’t believe it was too late. Travis walked the numbered aisles, thinking about his level of exposure, trying to drown out the music echoing across the vast building.

When he found the replacement chains, he made his way quickly back to the cash registers, but was stopped at the end of the line. There were three people ahead of him, each with a full cart. The beep of the scanner timed the slow pace of the cashier at the front. Travis counted seconds between each scan. He couldn’t imagine a more intentional way to wear him down—to make him wait for others. Worse, it was a wait just to service the machinery of the corporation. He felt like a mouse at the mercy of a cat—toyed with before being eaten. Then he wondered if he had been sent here on purpose. A small part of Travis still believed that God, not darker forces, had control over the world. It was his chance to view the future without resistance. His grandfather wished for him to see the world he was escaping—to know the real dangers rather than to live sheltered from them. This thought still didn’t make the wait any easier.

The cashier was a broad middle-aged woman with dyed brown hair, “Candice” according to her corporate name tag. She scanned the code on the chains and brought up the total. Travis reached into his pocket and pulled out the wad of bills.

The woman smirked when she saw him counting out the bills. “Whoa, big spender huh?”

Travis looked up at her, not understanding, but unwilling to ask. He looked back down and continued to count. When he had the full amount, he laid it on the counter in front of her, like a card hand, and picked up the chains. He was careful not to touch the surface of the counter. Candice took the money, counted it and placed it in the register. Travis watched her robotic sorting of the bills into the right drawers. As he turned to leave, she called back out to him.

“Sir, your change?” She held out a few coins between her thumb and fingers. An instinct took him—one that would have gladly stepped back, extended his hand and taken what he had forgotten. It lasted less than a second. He didn’t even notice, aside from another bought of lightheadedness. Some instincts can be disciplined away. Not all instincts are for survival, he was taught, some even contradict it. Travis waved his hand, shook his head, and walked out the door.

Before he reached the parking lot, he made certain to tear off the tags, bar-codes and remove any other numbers or identification. On the walk back to the car, the shrill electric whine of a siren rose and fell in the distance. He shuddered. Official vehicles on the move, striking out against someone or something.

On the road, he passed the source of the disturbance: a terrible car accident at a major intersection. Broken glass and shards of plastic and metal carpeted the asphalt. As an officer waved Travis’ truck around the disturbance, he saw a covered body being loaded into a blinking ambulance. It reminded Travis of the day his grandfather was taken. The memory nearly caused him to veer into a taped off area. The officer’s urgent cries returned him to his present situation and current danger. He corrected the truck’s course and made his way back to the hills.

*

On the third day of restarting his usual patrols in the woods, Travis was jolted to attention by the crack of a gunshot. He dropped down and scanned his surroundings, expecting enemies to encircle him. His trailer and patrol path were too close to the road to encounter hunters. Their shots were an echo at best. After a minute of lying on a bed of leaves, he heard gunfire again and saw a few birds scatter away. Not far from the hill where he had spotted the boys over a week ago, he found Bill, the crying boy, shooting into the bare trees. The barrel of his gun quaked as he fired a third time, causing another small group of birds to flee. He shouted a curse as they rose into the distance.

Travis crept nearby, hiding in thin underbrush by a tree. Watching the boy search the trees, he thought about his earlier suspicions. They had made so much sense before. As his father used to tell him, coincidence is just a word to excuse people who refused to open their eyes. But as he began to question just what this coincidence actually was, Bill’s face burned red and wet with tears. Travis couldn’t tell if it was from crying or if it was simply a reaction to the cold air. When his third shot failed to make its mark, the boy shouted and threw the gun down in a tantrum. Travis had assumed some trick or lie was at work but as he watched the boy failing to hit his target he wondered about the other kinds of coincidence, the ones his grandfather had insisted were meant by God.

As Bill sat on the ground, defeated again, Travis crept closer. Something about the boy reminded him of himself. Not for nostalgia of his childhood—he was far more competent and confident in his abilities even at half this boy’s age. No. The isolation was what interested Travis. He had returned on his own for this. Maybe, Travis thought, he had crept back alone into the woods, knowing the full danger, to retrieve his gun in the first place.

Without warning, Travis emerged from his hiding place. He held up his free hand, and extended his rifle arm, holding the barrel up and perpendicular to the ground to show he had no plan to use it. Bill was still terrified at the sight of him. This time the boy was not so blinded by fear to forget his gun. He went for it as a ringing in Travis’ ears urged him to raise his own weapon.

“Wait.” Travis called out.

Bill froze, his rifle grasped but not ready. He stared at the strange man in front of him. The boy’s voice was a whisper and a pubescent squeak.

“Who are you?” the boy asked.

“Travis,” he said, not knowing what other identity he could give. Travis had never given his name to anyone before. Even first names could be traced.

Bill tried to speak but, of all the questions racing to escape into the air, only one surfaced.

“What are you doing?” Bill asked.

Travis struggled with this question. It was even harder to answer. His good sense screamed into his skull that to reveal anymore, to let his defenses down would damn him in ways that would only be clear when the traps were sprung.

“This is my property,” he said.

“I didn’t see a sign,” the boy whispered. The last time Travis revealed himself, the boy shook. This time he was frozen like a startled rabbit.

As the trespasser remained, a thought came to Travis—one that was extreme even to him. He realized how easy it would be to kill this boy. Travis needed only to clasp his rifle, aim, and fire. It would be possible to burn or bury him in some remote place in the hills. He could think of several places right away. Or maybe he could use the boy’s own gun—make it look self inflicted. Accidental or intentional—it didn’t matter. It might avoid all the unwanted visitors, hundreds of unwanted eyes in his woods. It was only a possibility, he convinced himself—just one of his countless contingency plans for when all his preparation was thwarted.

Bill’s breathing went from silence to gasps. Whatever force had suspended him in fear had given way to a convulsion. He struggled to breathe and collapsed to the ground. Travis lunged toward him, trying to diagnose the problem. He saw the boy reaching in his pocket. Travis recoiled, fearing some trick, only to see the boy pull a small inhaler from his pocket. Bill placed the device into his mouth and clamped the button. After a moment, his body and breathing relaxed though the boy remained on the ground. He stared at Travis with a terrified, but did not move.

Travis remained still. The boy’s medicine had changed everything. Before, he was a lone scared child who could be molded. Now Travis could see that there was nothing he could do. The boy was dependent on their drugs, addicted to their treatments and order. He literally could not live without the system, which made his position all the more pitiable. But Travis could only feel rage. Now the man shook. He had imagined when the end came that civilization, with all its foolish and naïve sheep, would tumble into ruin. He hadn’t dwelt on the undeserving—the ones too young to have a choice or made too dependent by the system to know any better. He knew these things would weaken his resolve, which is why they had been so far from his thoughts. In front of the helpless boy, he could not escape them.

*

Bill slowly regained his energy. He was shocked to find the man standing beside him, helping him to his feet. The stranger even handed him back his rifle. Only when the man was sure that he could stand on his own did he truly let go. Bill watched him, uncertain what he would do next. The man’s face changed from that of a concerned parent to a man holding back tears. Then, his face hardened.

“If you come back here again,” the stranger said. “I will kill you.”

The boy didn’t stop to think about the man’s strange shift. He could only think to run away. It would be an hour later, when he recalled the care the man took to help him to his feet, that he decided not to tell anyone what he saw and to heed the man’s threats.

*

Travis had said those words many times before to the children and teenagers who wandered into his patrols, but this time his heart raced. This was the first time he truly meant it.

Back in the woods, Travis made his way to the trailer. Unlike his previous patrols, he returned straight to the trailer, heedless of throwing potential trackers off his path. The sounds of the woods formed an audience in his mind that whispered and commented as he stumbled his way back. At home, Travis ate a meager dinner from his rations. Less than usual that evening on account of a poor appetite. To distract himself from the encounter on his patrol, he took count of his remaining food supplies. When he finished, he reviewed some of his pamphlets and newsletters to remind himself of threats. Before bed, he wondered whether magazines or radio programs ever mentioned how to wean others from the system—if the countless epidemics they proclaimed ever came with a cure. He fell asleep before he could think of any that satisfied him.

The next morning, a later dawn than the day before, he stirred early and turned over in the dark of his trailer. In these hours, the forest was quiet. All but a few hardy birds had left for winter, and even those few woke with the sun. In these moments between sleep and waking, dark and morning, he imagined himself as the only living thing on Earth. In his mind, the forests of the hills around his trailer, the towns in the valley below, and all the lands beyond were silent and empty.

 

Eric Notaro’s works have appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Pleiades, and Fiddleblack. I have lived in interior Alaska and southwest Colorado for the past few years and currently reside in Merrimack, NH.

En homenaje a Gabriel García Márquez

Vera Domani, seven and a half months pregnant, sat upright on the sofa bed, fully dressed and wearing her good shoes. Near dawn, she heard her husband’s footsteps on the stairs, but the sound brought no relief, only another wave of dread. She’d been waiting this way for hours, ever since Carlo had left with a crazy notion to rob the Knights of Columbus register. Now, as he stepped through the door – right before her eyes – she felt as if she were waiting for him still.

Vera stared at the bulge under his red flannel shirt. She let out a gasp.

“Quiet,” he hissed, raising the back of his hand to her.

Without a flinch, she sprung from the bed and fell forward, pinning the hand to his shoulder in an awkward embrace. She snuffled into Carlo’s knuckles, barely resisting the urge to kiss his fingers, and a moment later, the urge to bite them. Something hard pressed lengthwise against her belly. She moaned, clutching at the worn fabric of her husband’s shirt, and managed to calm herself.

“I must’ve fell asleep sitting up,” she whispered. “I dreamed you come back all covered in blood.”

Carlo snickered. He freed his hand, placed it on Vera’s shoulder, and forced her back to a sitting position. He unrolled his shirt and something long and round dropped onto her knees. She caught it before it fell to the floor.

It was maybe a foot long, made of dark wood, smooth and warn. Two tapered segments, joined by a double ring in the middle. It reminded Vera of the dowel her mother had used to hold paper towels, and nearly as often, to threaten her for mouthing off.

She grabbed the pack of Newports from the kidney-shaped ashtray by the lamp. Carlo had left the bathroom door open, pissing like a firehose into the toilet she had just cleaned. She put down the dowel and lit a cigarette, still studying it with her eyes.

Carlo returned without flushing or washing his hands. He gestured towards her belly.

“You’re going to stunt its growth,” he said.

“What the hell is this?” she whispered.

“The spoke,” he whispered back. “The spoke they keep on display. From the steering wheel of the Santa Maria.”

Vera lifted it before her face, cigarette dangling. She could picture it now, one of ten or twelve spokes encircled by a gigantic wooden wheel. She rolled it around in her hands. With her thumb, she found the hole at the bottom, where it’d been held in place with a drywall screw.

“What else?” she asked.

Carlo plucked the cigarette from her lips and took a drag. He emptied his pants pockets onto the bed – penlight, jackknife, lock picking tools. It now seemed impossible that – a few hours earlier, when he’d come home drunk, babbling about a wedding reception, a cash bar, an easy haul – Vera had agreed to go along with it. But he’d sounded so sure, like he could really pull it off. And they did need the money.

Carlo sighed. “There was nothing. The register was empty. Even the cigarettes and the good liquor were cleared out.”

Heat rose behind Vera’s ears. Inside her, the baby rolled awkwardly.

“If Vesprini had caught you, he would’ve skinned you alive. And here I am, up all night, worried sick. Did you even think about that? Every noise in the street, I thought they was carrying you home in a body bag.”

Carlo let out a low growl, a sure sign Vera should back off. But the heat had spread to her cheeks now, spurring her on.

“All that risk,” she said, “all that worry. For a frigging dowel.” She lifted it with three fingers, like something rotten she’d found in the fridge.

Carlo snatched it away. Vera braced herself, expecting him to take a swing at her. Instead, he stepped around her, grabbed his lock picking tools, and knelt by the lamp. With his fingernails, he pried at a loose floorboard. He put the dowel and toolkit underneath it, then gently set it back in place.

“I told you,” he said calmly, “I was there over an hour. There was nothing.”

“Then you shouldn’t have taken nothing.”

“Getting in was the hard part,” he said, crawling into bed. “I had to come out with something.”

“But why take that?” Vera said. “Of all things.”

Her voice trailed off. She was exhausted, worn out with worry. Whatever Carlo’s answer, she knew it wouldn’t make sense to her. Instead of arguing, she took three deep, cleansing breaths. She slipped off her shoes, clicked the lamp, and lay so she was facing him in the early morning dimness. His eyes were closed, underlined by dark circles that made him look older. Nearly as old as her.

Carlo yawned. Vera yawned, too – she couldn’t help it. She scooted closer until her round belly pressed against his flat one. She tucked a leg between his knees.

“Were you scared?” she asked.

“Who, me?”

Vera smiled. “I would’ve been scared shitless.”

Carlo smiled back, his eyes still closed. “Maybe a little. I had to piss so bad, I thought I’d explode.”

She brushed the hair from his forehead. After a few minutes, his breathing became slow and rhythmic. She should’ve stopped him, should never have let him leave. Now, all that mattered was he was home in one piece. And that he hadn’t taken anything of real value.

#

Later that morning, Carlo awoke with a vise gripping his skull. His mouth tasted of bile. Vera was in the kitchen, opening and slamming cabinet doors. He dragged himself to his feet, stumbled to the bathroom, and bent his head low over the sink. He blasted the cold water, scooping it onto his face and the back of his neck. He took a long, satisfying drink from the tap. When he straightened up, Vera was behind him in the mirror, wringing her hands.

“A bunch of them are out front,” she said, “talking. For twenty minutes now.”

Carlo paused, then brushed past her. He found his pants on the floor.

“Where you going?” she asked.

“Out front,” he said, pulling on a t-shirt. He passed Vera again, wet his hands, and combed his fingers through his hair.

“Wait,” Vera said.

Carlo froze still. “It’ll be worse if I stay inside. Suspicious.”

Vera seemed to consider this, her forehead scrunched like a pug’s. He hated when she made that face. She looked like somebody’s mother.

“I’m coming with you,” she said.

Outside, a dozen people were milling around. Half of them, the women, formed a semicircle on the sidewalk, chattering like hens. The rest were kids in church clothes, chasing each other in the street, plus two old men arguing in Italian. A typical Sunday scene in the Village, the bisnonno of Hale’s old-world neighborhoods. Only today, something was up.

“Theresa,” Carlo called. The tallest girl came towards them.

“Careful,” Vera whispered.

Theresa was the youngest of five sisters. The father, an Irishman, had run off when she was still in diapers. The oldest sister, Angie, sometimes made eyes at Carlo, though he hadn’t seen her around the neighborhood in months.

“What’s going on?” he asked, flipping his chin towards the women.

“Somebody broke into the Knights of Columbus,” Theresa said.

She seemed to know the whole story. How they’d picked the lock on the back door, then cleaned out the place, walking off with everything that wasn’t nailed down – the barstools, the dart boards, even the vending machine. Throughout her account, she fiddled with the hem of her dress, speaking so matter-of-factly that Carlo started to believe her. He pictured a gang of thugs, three or four of them, ransacking the joint.

Mrs. Rostoni, in a worn but colorful housedress, waddled over from the group.

“Can you believe it, Carlo?” she asked, hands lifted to heaven. The girl Theresa returned to her friends. “What kind of a world, I ask you!”

“Unbelievable,” Carlo said. Vera clung to his arm, hiding herself behind him like a child.

“There was a wedding reception last night at the hall,” Mrs. Rostoni said. “Honey Giunta’s nephew, Robie. You know him? Anyways, they had a cash bar, and it cleared out maybe two in the morning. Vesprini went over to lock up, of course. But it was so late, he didn’t think to empty the register.”

Carlo almost corrected her – the register had been empty – but he caught himself.

Mrs. Rostoni rolled her eyes. “Those bastards come in sometime after. Made off with two or three grand, the way they figure it.”

“Who was it?” Vera asked.

“Nobody knows who,” Mrs. Rostoni said to Carlo. “But I’ll tell you one thing. It wasn’t nobody from this neighborhood. First of all,” she said, extending a bony finger, “there are no thieves in the Village. Everybody knows each other.” She shot a sideways look at Vera, who came from Chelsea.

“Second,” she said, another finger, “on the way out the door, you know what they stole? You know the display when you first walk in? The piece they had from the ship’s wheel of the Santa Maria?” She crossed herself. “That was a gift from Chickie Matteo, when they first opened the hall. His own father brought it back years ago, from that Haiti.”

The bile taste returned to Carlo’s throat. Chickie Matteo was the Grand Knight of the main Knights of Columbus in Hale. Like Carlo, he’d grown up in the Village. But now, he lived in a mansion on the North Shore. His whole family was connected. Carlo had forgotten that the spoke had anything to do with him.

“Word is,” Mrs. Rostoni said, “they ain’t even going to tell the police. Chickie will find them, God bless him.”

“Did anybody get a look at them?” Vera asked. “The robbers.”

For the first time, Mrs. Rostoni looked directly at her, eyes tracking down towards her belly, then slowly back to her face. After what seemed like an eternity, she turned back to Carlo.

“All the men are at the Knights of Columbus,” she told him in Italian. “You should go. See if you can help.”

#

Back inside, Carlo shot up the stairs two at a time. Vera couldn’t keep up. When she reached the apartment, he was already inside, buzzing from room to room. He reminded her of a housefly – small and underestimated. Determined to keep moving or die trying.

Vera turned the deadbolt. “What’d she say to you? At the end?”

“To go down the Knights of Columbus.”

“Good idea,” Vera said, still catching her breath. “Take the dowel with you.”

Carlo flashed her a hateful look.

“If it’d just been the money,” she said, “they’d probably let it go.”

“There wasn’t any money.”

“But no,” Vera went on. “You had to take the dowel, too. That the mobster’s father got in Haiti.”

“I never heard that story.”

“Well, I never heard it either. But I ain’t the one who’s from here. How am I supposed to know when a piece of wood from the goddamn Santa Maria – which is bullshit, by the way – how am I supposed to know it’s got sentimental value to the goddamn Godfather?”

Carlo grabbed her by the wrist, twisting so hard she thought her arm would snap in two.

“Lower your voice,” he said through his teeth.

Vera tried, with one great effort, to wrench herself free. But Carlo twisted even harder.

“Okay,” she whimpered, almost in tears. “I’m sorry.”

Carlo held the wrist another few seconds, then let go. She shouldn’t have pushed him, she told herself. Sometimes, he forgot his own strength.

“There was no money,” he said calmly. “That’s just a rumor. Second of all, with the Santa Maria, I never heard nothing about Chickie Matteo. But by the fact they want it back so bad, maybe it is worth something.”

Vera rubbed her wrist. “So you really believe,” she whispered, struggling to match his calm, “that a piece of the real Santa Maria, instead of being in some museum, wound up at a Knights of Columbus in Hale, Massachusetts? Held in place with a screw?”

Carlo slanted his eyebrows like an angry child. Despite her aching wrist, a feeling of pity rose in Vera’s chest. He hadn’t always been so rough with her. Things would get better once the baby came. Once he got his license back and settled into a job.

“Who would you sell it to?” she asked, reaching for her cigarettes. “How many pieces of the Santa Maria can there be, floating around? They’d figure out –”

“They ain’t going to report it,” Carlo said, as if this had been part of the plan all along. “Anyways, all that comes later. First, I got to get down there.”

Vera blew smoke towards the ceiling. “You’re shitting me.”

“It’ll be okay,” he said, unconvincingly. “They think it was a whole crew, working together. And if I know that place, they’re talking about anybody who isn’t there.”

“What if they’re waiting for you?” Vera said, surprised by the panic in her own voice. “What if that old witch is setting you up?”

“If they had any idea, they’d be down here already.”

“Yeah,” she said, “with pitchforks.” Vera thought a second. “What if I go and – ”

But her husband raised a hand, cutting her short. “We both know this is the only way. I’ve got to find out what they know.” He lifted his red shirt from the floor.

Vera shook her head. “Get one from the closet. In case anybody saw you.”

“I just told you, if anybody –”

“We don’t know yet,” she said.

Carlo put on a different shirt. Vera watched closely as he buttoned it. She was fifteen years older than him, but at the moment, felt old enough to be his mother. They’d met at Revere Beach, him tooling around with his pack of friends, her finally comfortable being alone after so many bad relationships. She hadn’t been looking for someone. In fact, she’d all but given up on marriage, motherhood. But the timing had been perfect – her turning heads like never before in a bikini, him bold enough to hit on an older woman. What balls, she’d thought at the time, half-amused, already half in love.

Carlo fixed the last button.

“Be careful,” Vera said, fighting the urge to clutch at him. “Good thing I paid your dues for the year.”

#

Carlo entered the Knights of Columbus hall by the front door this time, a little light-headed, as if in a dream. Once inside, he was yanked back to reality by loud voices and the stench of cigar smoke.

“And another thing,” Vesprini was telling a group of ten or twelve men, “Hale ain’t that way no more either. It used to be, seventy, eighty percent of the people you seen was Italian. The rest was Irish, with maybe a few Pollacks thrown in. Nowadays you got everything under the sun.” The men grunted their agreement.

Vesprini puffed on his cigar, running a hand over his balding scalp. “Now in the Village, it ain’t so different from when we was younger. Most of the families’ve been here for generations. Carlo here is still living in the house him and his brother grew up in.”

They all looked to Carlo, the youngest in the room by thirty years. His heart jumped. He imagined his Corvette, all fixed up and roaring down the road, blowing this tomato stand forever.

“The same with you, Victor,” Vesprini said. “The same with my cousin Al. For years, we left this place unlocked at night and never thought twice about it. And I can’t remember the last time I seen a nigger or a spic so much as set foot in the Village. Main Street, on the other hand…”

A murmur of joyless laughter, followed by nodding. Two side conversations broke out and Vesprini made his way towards Carlo.

“It’s good you come,” Vesprini said, shaking hands.

“I just heard,” said Carlo. “I had no idea.”

“Naturally. I didn’t know myself until they come to set up for Sunday school, and the door was half-open.”

Carlo shook his head – he’d meant to pull it closed. “What’d they take?”

“Everything. They cleaned out the register. They even took the spoke we had from the ship’s wheel of the Santa Maria. Can you believe that?”

Carlo gazed into the high ceiling. The Knights hall had once been a chapel for Saint Agatha’s church. Under the glitter of daylight, it was hard to believe anyone having the nerve to steal from this place, as he himself had planned to do.

“How much did they get?” Carlo asked.

“Who knows?” Vesprini said, waving the question from the air with his cigar. “The register was still full from the wedding reception last night. Usually, I clear it out when I come in the morning.” He puffed on the cigar – nervously, Carlo thought.

“What can you do?” Vesprini added. “Money’s money, you know what I’m saying? The real problem is the spoke. All the little kids used to rub it when they come in the door, you remember? And the newlyweds, they’d rub it for luck. It was something small, but it meant a lot to people. You can’t replace a thing like that.”

#

“It was him,” Carlo told Vera a few hours later.

She was folding laundry on the sofa bed when he rolled in, stinking of cigar smoke.

“That son of a bitch Vesprini took the money for himself,” he said. “I’d bet anything on it.”

“Keep your voice down,” Vera whispered. “What makes you so sure?”

“Because he was the one who locked up last night. He was the last one alone with the register. And it sure as hell wasn’t there when I come along.”

Vera could tell that her husband had been drinking – to keep himself quiet, until he could share his suspicions with no one but her. At moments like this, she knew exactly what kept them together: Carlo needed her in more ways than he could imagine.

“Why would he risk it?” she asked, smiling a little. “With the money that runs through that place, I’m sure he could get his hands on more than one night’s bar receipts.”

“That’s exactly why,” Carlo said. “It’s nothing to them. Easy money. That’s why he thinks he can get away with it, the thieving bastard.”

Vera creased a bath towel. “You’re funny.”

“What?” Carlo said, clenching his fists.

“Think about it,” she said gently.

Soon, Carlo was laughing. He sat beside her and leaned back. “You should’ve heard him going on about the other thing.” With his chin, he pointed at the floor under the lamp.

Vera dropped what she was folding. “The dowel? What’d he say?”

“You’d think the goddamn ‘Last Supper’ had been stolen. He’s sly, Vesprini. He’s got everybody talking about the spoke instead of the money.”

A hollow feeling rose in Vera’s chest. She put a hand on her belly.

“Don’t worry,” Carlo said, placing his hand over hers. “We’ll lay low for a few weeks.”

Vera felt a stirring inside. She pulled her hand free and put it on top of her husband’s.

“Wait,” she said. “Did you feel that?”

Carlo looked at her blankly.

“There,” Vera said. “You feel it? The baby’s kicking.”

He waited a few seconds, then shrugged his shoulders and pulled his hand away.

Slowpoke, Vera said in her head, scolding the baby. You’ll learn.

“Anyways,” Carlo said, “when the dowel doesn’t turn up, they’ll remember about the money. And believe you me, if I can figure out it was Vesprini, so will Chickie.”

#

Over the next week, life returned to normal. Vera went to work at the drycleaners each morning and was home each afternoon by four-thirty. She’d quit her night job cleaning offices at the start of her third trimester. Carlo hung around the house, sleeping in and staying up late. On Wednesday, when the Hale Gazette came out, he went through the want ads, circling a few jobs he might apply for, though he never did.

On Thursday night, Carlo headed to the Towne Line Tavern to play pool with his friends.

“You need money?” Vera asked.

“Nah, I’m rich,” Carlo said. “I’ve got the three grand.”

Vera gave him a tired smile, then handed over a ten and a few ones.

Carlo came home that night after two, a little drunk. Vera was already asleep on the sofa bed. She’d left the bathroom light on for him, and caught in its soft glow, her face looked young and angelic. Before they’d gotten married, he’d never even seen her without makeup. These days, she only dressed up for work. But now she looked like his Vera again, the girl he’d fallen in love with. If he stared at her from the right angle, he could even ignore her belly, focus on the curve of her newly enormous breasts.

Carlo wondered if Vera was really asleep or just faking. He undressed loudly – dropping his shoes, clanking his belt buckle. But she kept still, even snoring a little. He crawled into bed and ran a hand up and down her leg – gently, he hoped. Before he could take it further, he passed out cold.

#

The next afternoon, Vera burst through the door out of breath. “They caught somebody.”

Carlo lowered the book he’d been reading, something about the life of a pool hustler. He put his beer can on the table by the lamp and reached for the empty pack of cigarettes. Vera pulled a fresh pack from her pocketbook, tossed it over.

“Well?” he asked. “Who is it?”

“A black guy,” she said. “A kid, really. They saw him wandering around the neighborhood on Saturday, just after dawn.” She paused so Carlo could grasp this – how easily he himself could’ve been spotted at that odd hour.

“They say Chickie’s got him, locked in a basement someplace. The poor bastard.”

“Poor bastard?” Carlo snapped. “You’d rather they had me?”

Vera knew better than to answer. She lit a cigarette, unpacked her pocketbook, tidied up the kitchen. After fifteen minutes, she felt ready to burst.

“They was searching houses,” she said, drying a bowl. “Knocking on doors, muscling their way in. Even Vesprini’s place, I heard.”

Carlo leapt to his feet. Vera stopped wiping.

“I’m going out tonight,” he said. “See what I can find out for myself.”

“You went out last night,” she said. “You didn’t hear nothing then.”

Without answering, he disappeared into the bathroom. After a minute, Vera heard the shower turn on, and let out the breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding.

They ate supper in silence, sitting far from one another at the tiny kitchen table. Carlo’s hair was still wet. When he tipped forward, Vera could make out the start of a bald spot.

While she was doing the dishes, she couldn’t help thinking, what if he does have the money? Could he really keep a thing like that from her? She wanted to trust him, to believe in him. But in so many ways, he could be as selfish and shortsighted as a teenager.

While she was drying, she heard his footsteps. He’d put on cologne and a fresh shirt – handsome again, like a young Dean Martin.

“You have any money on you?” he asked.

“Nothing extra,” Vera said.

“I thought you got paid today.”

“I did. But the rent is due.”

Carlo snickered. “Big deal. We’ll pay it next week.”

“It’s due Monday,” she said. “I don’t like for it to be late.”

“Vera,” he said. He spoke her name so rarely, the sound of it made her wince. “The landlord is my brother, okay? He ain’t going to evict us.”

“All the more reason to pay it on time.”

Carlo stormed from the room. Vera followed.

“Why don’t you stay home for once?” she said – shrilly, even to her ears.

“Why don’t you mind your own business?” Carlo said.

He grabbed his keys from the table. For a moment, he lingered by the door. He was waiting for her to give in, to hand over a twenty. Instead, she folded her arms across her chest.

Carlo leaned towards her. “I’m never coming back.”

“Good,” Vera said. He slammed the door so hard, the walls rattled. “Have a nice life!”

But once she was alone, she began to tremble. Her eyes welled up and she let out a croaky gasp. Somewhere deep inside – behind the baby, behind her heart – a clock began to tick, counting down the minutes until his return.

#

Carlo didn’t make it far. With no real plans, he stopped dead on the sidewalk in front of the house. He couldn’t call his friends for a lift, not without a dime in his pocket. He should’ve forced the money from Vera. But going back for it now would feel like a defeat. So he started walking, leisurely at first, until he settled on someplace to go.

Two blocks away, he unlocked a garage door, first on the left among a row of four. Parking was at a premium in the Village, especially for houses like his with no driveway or alley. This spot had been in his family since his father’s first new car, a Delta 88. He remembered bouncing around its gigantic backseat, dying for the day he could take the wheel.

Carlo lifted the door with a great rattle and there it was, gleaming silver, his 1982 Corvette Collectors Edition. He paced back and forth near the hood, trying to block out the dull maroon of the rear-end, the only repair he’d managed since the accident. With a decent paint job and nine hundred dollars in exhaust work, it’d be good as new.

Outside, the sun was setting, gleaming over a smudge on the right fender. He untucked his shirt and carefully rubbed at it. Owning a vette had always been his dream, a dream he’d realized when he’d let his brother buy out his half of their parents’ house. What did Carlo need with property? His brother owned three or four rentals. He’d always have someplace to live.

Carlo kept working at the smudge. The day he’d bought the car, in cash, the entire Chevy dealership had kissed his ass, kicking off the happiest summer of his life. Cruising Revere Beach with his buddies, money to burn. Hooking up with Vera, her body tight and tan as anything in the pages of Hustler. Then he’d stopped short and that old geezer had plowed into him. At the time, Carlo had been on such a good run – plus, so wasted – he’d literally burst out laughing. But when the cops had come, the laugh had been on him. He’d blown the breathalyzer, lost his license, plus his job running parts for Tecce’s Garage.

He rubbed the fender harder. His suspension would end soon, but who could afford a new license, plates, insurance, let alone repairs? Where all that cash from the house had gone was hard to figure. Like it was hard to imagine Vera – looking older and more swollen by the hour – ever squeezing into a bikini again.

Carlo heard voices. He quickly tucked in his shirt. Four or five girls passed the garage, one by one, each peaking at the Corvette. The last one slowed to a stop, staring right at Carlo.

“Hey,” she said. “What’s up?”

“Not much,” he said.

She stepped inside and he recognized her – Angie from the neighborhood, Theresa’s older sister. Short and slender as ever, cute but not pretty.

“I love this car,” she said, sliding two fingers along the hood.

Carlo nodded, fighting the urge to wipe away the prints.

Outside, the other girls circled back. “Angie?” said a bleach blonde, squinting into the garage. “Angie, let’s go.”

“Hold up,” Angie said. “I know this guy.”

“Oh yeah?” the other girl said. “Maybe he can give us a lift.”

“Two seater,” Carlo said, pointing at the car with his chin.

“Too bad,” said Blondie. “C’mon, Ange.”

“Wait,” Angie said. Then, to Carlo: “Come with us?”

He paused, but only for effect. “Why not?”

They left the Village on foot, crossed Main Street, and eventually reached a place called Sinagra’s that Carlo had never been to. It was packed. By the time they wormed their way to the bar, he understood why: he was probably the only one there with a legitimate ID.

“What’s our poison?” Angie asked.

“Nothing,” Carlo said.

She pouted. “Come on. You ain’t driving. Live a little.” She stared into his eyes, then looked away. “My treat, okay?”

“It’s not that,” Carlo said. “I’m hungry.”

They ordered appetizers – chicken fingers, potato skins, mozzarella sticks, all barely warm. Angie’s friends descended like vultures, then scattered when the plate was empty. She ordered two rum and Cokes. As the bartender handed back her ID, Carlo snatched it away. The girl in the picture – Madeline Sacco, age 22 – had similar hair, but a fuller, rounder face.

“Looking good, Maddie,” he said. Angie blushed.

By their sixth round, she was practically sharing his barstool, clutching his forearm whenever she spoke. “You have pretty eyes,” she said.

Despite her attentions, Carlo felt bored, unable to get a good buzz going.

“You belong to the Knights, right?” Angie said. “You must be happy they caught somebody. Even if it is the wrong guy.”

He stared at her. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

She looked over her shoulder, then leaned in closer. “The kid they grabbed, Damaso? He hangs out here sometimes. Spanish, a real smoothie.”

“Spanish,” Carlo asked, “or black?”

Angie snickered. “What’s the difference? Anyways, last Saturday, this friend of mine, her parents were in Atlantic City. She took Damaso home with her. He was still there when the Knights got broken into.”

Carlo took a long drink, trying in vain to wash down the lump in his throat.

“She should tell Vesprini,” he said calmly.

“Are you shitting me?” she said. “Her parents would kill her – literally kill her – before letting something like that get out.”

Carlo knew he should be relieved. Instead, he felt like he’d been swept out to sea, his chin just above the waves. He didn’t like knowing the kid’s name, or that he had a legitimate alibi. All at once, he felt tired enough to curl up on the barroom floor.

“I need to pee,” Angie said.

The crowd had thinned. Angie’s friends were long gone. If Carlo took off now, he could sneak away without a big scene. Vera would be asleep. If he was lucky, he wouldn’t need to deal with her until noon. He took a quick swig of his rum and Coke, then another.

A warm hand touched him on the shoulder.

“Okay,” Angie breathed into his ear. “Take me home.”

It was well past one when they reached Angie’s place, a typical Village three-family. She left Carlo standing outside for what seemed like an hour. He thought again about ditching her. He thought about the spoke – who he might sell it to, how much he might get. About the work his Corvette would need, every last detail. Anything but Vera. Or the kid Damaso.

Finally, Angie returned. She led him through a side door into the basement, to a colorful beaded curtain. Behind it was a dimly lit room, a space heater humming softly in one corner. There was a stereo, a TV, a twin bed, and in the corner diagonal to the heater, a baby’s crib.

Carlo straightened up.

“Don’t worry,” Angie whispered. “He’s a good sleeper. And as long as he’s in here, nobody will bother us.”

She took Carlo’s hand and led him to the bed. The room smelled of incense and sour milk. He couldn’t stop staring at the crib, expecting the baby to pop up any second, jack-in-the-box style. Eventually, he sat down.

Angie wiggled between his knees, swaying as she unbuttoned her blouse. Carlo watched the fabric fall from her shoulders, followed by a lacey bra. Her breasts looked swollen, too big for her body, capped by obscenely long nipples. He leaned over to click off the lamp. But Angie put her hand on his forearm, shook her head no. He closed his eyes.

A few hours later, the baby began to cry. Angie rustled around a minute, then whisked it from the room. Carlo rolled over, his throat dry enough to crack. He fell back asleep.

When he awoke, the sun was up and Angie’s warm body was nuzzled against his. He propped himself onto an elbow. The baby was gone.

Angie made a purring sound, groping for him under the covers.

“I have to go,” Carlo said.

“Stay,” she said, a little whiny. In the morning light, she looked even younger than he remembered.

Carlo fumbled to his feet. “I can’t.”

Angie sat up, covering herself with the sheet. “Come back later?” she asked.

“We’ll see.” He hustled into his clothes. He couldn’t head home, not yet. On mornings like this, it was best not to see Vera right away. Maybe he’d stop by the Knights, clean off a little in the bathroom, hear for himself what had gone down.

Angie let the sheet fall from her breasts. “Stay with me?” she asked.

Carlo held back a smirk. She really was very young. “Sure,” he said. “Forever.”

Angie gave him a helpless look. Her cheeks flushed and she covered up again. “Wise ass.”

#

Vera arrived at the Knights of Columbus hall around nine. She’d had trouble sleeping, even after convincing herself that Carlo had crashed for the night with one of his degenerate friends. She woke half-exhausted, but today was the spaghetti luncheon for the Jimmy Fund, to raise money for kids with cancer. Last summer, when she and Carlo had still been new to each other, she’d volunteered, mainly to show his neighbors what a good person she was. This year, she did it to spite them.

Vera was glad to be busy, to have something to keep her mind from her troubles. It wasn’t unusual for Carlo to stay away for a night, especially after a fight. But last night, he’d gone out alone, penniless as far as she knew. She imagined him wandering into some dive bar, some young skank shaking her ass in his face. Then it struck her like a premonition: what if he never comes back?

As if on cue, Carlo appeared, just inside the doorway to the main hall, talking with Vesprini. She could tell he had no idea what he’d walked into. Vesprini was convincing him to lend a hand. She crept closer, careful not to catch his eye.

“There you go,” Vesprini said, handing over a box, clapping Carlo on the back. “That’s a nice boy.”

She lingered nearby as Carlo set up folding chairs, then helped move a table. He looked ragged, like he’d slept in his clothes. But to Vera’s pride, he pitched in without complaint. At one point, Vesprini returned to his side.

“You hear we got him?”

“Yeah,” Carlo said. “Where?”

“Never mind where,” Vesprini said. “The point is, we’ll get it all back. Even the spoke.”

“Unless he sold it,” Carlo said. “Or threw it in the Mystic River.”

Vesprini gave him an odd look. “Why the hell would anybody do that?”

Vera got to her feet. As she started in their direction, the entire hall went quiet.

Chickie Mateo had arrived. Though she’d never seen him in person, she knew right away it was him – a tank of a man, with an oversized head and hands as wide as dinner plates.

Vesprini hustled over, the fastest she’d ever seen him move. He whispered something to Chickie, and Chickie raised both arms. Everyone in earshot froze still.

“I just want to say,” he boomed, in a voice deeper than Vera could have imagined, “that you done a good thing in coming. This here Jimmy Fund, I hold dear to my heart. We got a nice community in the Village, full of good-hearted people who do the right thing. And nobody…” he paused.

“Nobody,” he said, even louder, “can take that away. God bless.”

He shook a few hands, nodded in several directions, then passed through the propped double-doors into the entry area. Every eye in the place seemed to stay on him. When Chickie reached the empty display for the dowel, he stopped. He looked to the ceiling, lips moving, then exited onto the street.

Vera found Carlo, lost among the hushed voices. She crept up behind him, extended two fingers, and jabbed him hard in the kidneys.

He whipped around. “Christ,” he said. “What are you doing here?”

“Jimmy Fund,” she said coldly.

Carlo patted at his empty pockets. Vera rolled her eyes, then produced a pack of Newports.

He smirked. “You’ll never learn.”

“Don’t I know it,” Vera said.

#

Before lunch was served, they headed home together. Carlo still felt tingling in his fingers and feet, like they’d fallen asleep. This had happened before: When his mother had died. After Vera had told him she was pregnant. A few weeks later, after the JP had pronounced them man and wife. And again today, while Chickie Mateo had lingered over the empty display.

Halfway home, Vera took his hand – all pins and needles.

“Carlo,” she said, glancing over her shoulder. “A few people mentioned the dowel to me. I think they really miss it.”

“I know it,” he said. All week, he’d been trying to figure out how to sell the spoke. And still, he had no idea where to start.

“Let’s give it back,” Vera said.

A group of teenagers came up on the other side of the street. They both went quiet.

“I guess so,” Carlo said, back in the apartment, as if no time had passed. “Only how?”

“We could leave it someplace,” she said. “Out in the open, where they’ll be sure to find it.”

“That depends who finds it,” he said.

Vera agreed. “Also, it wouldn’t clear the black kid.”

“Damaso,” Carlo said.

“You know him?”

“Yeah,” he said. “He looks like me, only darker.”

“Don’t be foolish,” Vera said. She sighed. “How did we ever get mixed up in all this?”

Without warning, Carlo felt drained again, grimy and exhausted. All he wanted was to take a shower.

“I can go back to two jobs, you know,” Vera said. “I’m happy to work, as long as I got the strength. Only promise me: after the baby comes, no more taking chances.”

Carlo was barely listening. “We’ll figure out something,” he said.

#

For the rest of the afternoon, they steered clear of one another. After showering, Carlo closed the sofa bed and planted himself in front of the TV. The only time he moved was to adjust the rabbit ears, or for another Miller High Life from the fridge.

Vera shuttled up and down from the basement, doing laundry. At one point, she scooped up Carlo’s clothes from the night before. They stunk of sweat and alcohol, which was no surprise. But underneath, she swore she smelled something else. Another woman, maybe. On the stairs, she rested the laundry basket against her hip and started to cry. But the baby gave her a sharp kick, jarring her from self-pity.

“You’re right,” she said, drying her eyes on one of Carlo’s clean shirts.

Around ten, Vera told Carlo she was tired. He opened the sofa bed for her. She turned off the light, trying to relax under the soft glow of the TV. The apartment stank like a brewery, but eventually, she nodded off. At one point, she woke up to find Carlo fiddling with the rabbit ears. She drifted off again.

The next time she awoke, the TV was off. She heard rustling in the pitch black, near the head of the bed. Her husband was not beside her. She clicked on the lamp.

“Carlo?” she said. He was squatted down, fully dressed and wearing his shoes. In one hand, he held the dowel. In the other, the lock picking kit.

Vera leapt from the bed, hurtling herself against the door. “Not now,” she said. “You’re too drunk. You don’t even know what you’re doing.”

“He’s driving me crazy,” Carlo said, the words slurring together. “Haunting me, the bastard.”

“They’ve kept him around this long,” Vera said. “Please, Carlo. We’ll leave it someplace tomorrow.”

“Tonight,” he said, shoving the toolkit deep into his pocket. “Now.”

She spread her arms, grabbing both sides of the doorjamb. “Over my dead body.”

“Move,” Carlo said, with a half-hearted swipe at her arm.

“You fucking moron,” Vera said through clenched teeth. “What you was born with in looks, you got shorted in brains.”

Carlo grabbed her by the hair, pulling until her head bent forward. For a moment, she felt she could stand it – forever, if need be – and her fingers stayed locked to the molding. But Carlo kept twisting at her hair until the tears began to choke her.

“You’re hurting the baby,” she said. “You’re killing it.”

Her fingers popped loose and Carlo dragged her to the sofa bed, flinging her onto the mattress like a sack of laundry. When he turned to go, Vera leapt onto his back, wrapping her arms and legs around him. They both fell backwards onto the mattress, huffing and puffing.

“I’ll scream,” she whispered in his ear. “Not one move. I’ll wake the whole goddamn house.”

Carlo growled, then hit her on the kneecap with the dowel. She yelped in pain. He hit the knee again, then rose to his feet. Vera tried to follow, but her injured leg burned and buckled. From her knees, she clutched him around the thighs, still pleading.

“Tomorrow. I’ll take it myself. No one will know.”

He inched towards the door, dragging Vera with him.

“I’ll tell them it was me,” she said.

Carlo reached for the knob. As his right hand swung forward, his left swung near Vera’s face. She released his legs and grabbed for the dowel, pulling it close. She bit her husband on the hand, hard, not letting up until she tasted blood.

“Son of a bitch,” he said. He seemed to pause, then punched her full force on the side of the head. Vera hit the floor with a thud. Carlo shot through the door.

Vera stayed on the floor, dizzy with pain, waiting for something to happen inside her belly. She could hear the muffled voices of the second floor tenants, arguing about whether to call the police this time. She bit her bottom lip, trying not to cry.

Soon, she struggled to her feet, slowly regaining her sense of balance. She closed the door and turned the deadbolt. It echoed with a sharp crack. Then, favoring her knee, she limped towards the closet and pulled out a battered suitcase. She couldn’t go on like this. She loved Carlo, loved him dearly, and she was sure he loved her, too. But she had to think of the baby.

She looked to the ceiling, wishing for the strength to pack, to leave. Wishing so hard, she might have been praying. But prayer was for people who believed. Vera knew there was nothing. Just you, alone in this world, bobbing on an angry sea. You and whoever you clung to.

She pushed the suitcase aside and sat next to it on the sofa bed. The fire in her had died out. She folded her hands, hung her head, and resumed her wait.

#

Half a flight down, Carlo stood with his back to the wall. Maybe Vera was right. Maybe he should hold off until morning. Any second now, she would burst from the apartment, plead with him to come back inside. Maybe, this one time, he would listen.

Instead, the door closed. The deadbolt clicked. There was no turning back now.

He continued downstairs, a little unsteady. He hadn’t meant to hurt Vera – not this time, not even a little. But something had happened to him since the night before. Hearing about Damaso was like a weight around his neck, digging into his shoulders, sinking him down. Being around Angie’s baby – screwing her with him in the room – had made it worse. And seeing Chickie Matteo in the flesh had made it unbearable.

He exited onto the dark street, stumbling towards the Knights of Columbus hall. Ready or not, he would be a father soon. Even if he did get his Corvette running, even if he took off for good – no better than Angie and Theresa’s deadbeat old man – he couldn’t let somebody else take the fall for him. At least if he returned the spoke, they’d see Damaso couldn’t have had it. Maybe then, Vesprini would stop bullshitting about the money. Maybe Chickie would show mercy.

Even without a flashlight and with his hand sore from Vera’s bite, the lock was easier to pick this time. For a fleeting moment, Carlo wondered why they hadn’t bothered to change it, to install a proper deadbolt. But he let it go, kept moving.

As he entered the main hall, unable to see two feet in front of his face, he was overwhelmed by a feeling of righteousness. Growing up, his parents had focused on his brother, never expecting much of Carlo. But despite his faults, his many mistakes, at least he was trying to put things right. That must count for something.

He took a few more steps and his thigh banged against a hard edge. Behind him, a scrambling sounded. Then a click and the entire room went bright.

“Okay,” said a nervous voice.

Carlo turned slowly to face Vesprini, who was holding a shotgun. Behind him, in the back corner of the hall, lay an army cot with a tangled blanket.

“You,” Vesprini said. He lowered the barrel a little. “What the hell are you doing here?”

Carlo, arms thrust wide from his body, tried to think up an excuse. Instead, he tilted his head towards his left hand, where the spoke dangled from his fingers.

“I see,” Vesprini said. “I see.” He returned the shotgun to its original level.

“I’m bringing it back,” Carlo said.

“Sure,” Vesprini said.

“You’ve got to believe me.”

“I do believe you, Carlo.” The barrel stayed fixed on a spot near his heart. “What about the money?”

“The register was empty,” Carlo said. “It was empty and you know it.”

Vesprini blinked a few times, then let out a snort. “Carlo,” he said. “Carlo, Carlo. There was at least twenty-six hundred dollars in that register. Mainly tens and twenties would be my guess.” His lips spread into a wide smile.

“It was already gone,” Carlo said. “You know it was.”

The numbness overtook him again – a tingling that started in his fingertips, traveled through his wrists, up his arms, and settled into his chest. The sensation of a curtain being lifted, unveiling all the ugly ways of the world.

“Alls I know,” Vesprini said, “is I’m gonna call Chickie Matteo, probably wake him up from a nice sound sleep. And pretty soon – either right here in this hall, or shoulder to shoulder with your nigger friend – you’ll get the chance to tell your side of the story. How there wasn’t no money to steal. How somebody’d beat you to it, maybe me. And Chickie’s gonna listen. Then him or one of his crew will explain to you that, when you steal from Chickie – spokes, cash, it don’t really matter – you pay it back times fifty. They’ll start by taking that shitbox Corvette of yours. The rest, they’ll take out of your ass. And you’ll deserve it, Carlo, you really will. Not only for being a thief. But for being a goddamn fool.”

 

Jason Manganaro is a graduate of the MFA program at The Ohio State University, where I worked extensively with Lee K. Abbott, Melanie Rae Thon, Michelle Herman, and Bill Roorbach. My fiction has most recently appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Washington Square, The Journal, Shadowgraph Quarterly and Red Rock Review, among others.

After the dinner party, Jon went into the bathroom, took two Adivans and washed them down with a fifth of vodka. His body was vibrating and he knew he’d never be able to sleep without chemical assistance. It was some kind of neurological disorder but none of the doctors he went to could pinpoint the cause. They kept sending him for expensive tests that came back negative. Nights were the worst. He would lay there and shake, and the vibrations were so strong he was amazed Kayla didn’t complain he was making the bed move.

She was wandering around the kitchen not doing the dishes, which were piled haphazardly on the countertops. Uneaten meat congealed into hard, malicious lumps.

“I thought it would be more fun,” she said. “I mean, they’re our friends. We haven’t seen them in what . . . a few months?”

“Seventy-six days.”

He wondered if he should mention what he saw or let it go. There was something to be said for either option. He hated conflict. He hated conflict so much he would rather cage the bad thoughts in his head than let them escape. On the other hand, people shouldn’t be allowed to get away with stuff. Fair play and all.

He walked over to the sliding door and opened it. The night air was humid and rank. Nothing stirred.

“How are you feeling,” she asked. “You barely said two words all night.”

“Fine.”

“Do you want more pie or should I put it away?”

“No thanks,” he said, wanting to take the peach cobbler and mash her cheeks into the sticky orange filling.

When he met Kayla he was working at Sports Authority, unloading merchandise from trucks, piling it on shelves in the stockroom. He’d only been on the floor that day because a co-worker had called in sick. Kayla wasn’t pretty but she had an asymmetry to her features that pleased him. He used to think he could flat leave her any time he wanted, but now he saw that wasn’t going to be possible. He felt his veins pulsing, tiny vibrations invisible to the eye.

“I saw you,” he blurted out.

Her face crumpled a little, like a tissue that was still usable. “What do you mean?”

“Before. With Jen. “You were in the kitchen and I came in to get another beer. You didn’t know I was there.”

“I told you all that’s past. I’m with you now.”

He tried to read her expression but her face had closed up into angles and planes. Unreadable. The shape of it diluted his anger a little.

“Then why were you kissing her?”

“I don’t know.”

She sounded sad.

“Come here.”

She walked over to where he was standing by the door.

“Does it feel like I’m shaking?”

Her fingers closed around his fist. His whole arm was bouncing, like there were tiny beetles inside him, struggling to get free. Tremors. Discrete, involuntary movements following a seismic event. He’d looked it up.

He put his other hand on top of hers and squeezed, transferring the pinging sensations from his body to hers, as though he were jump starting a car battery.

“Can you feel that?” he demanded, watching the color drain out of her face. “Good.”

He needed her to know what was real.

 

Beth Sherman received an MFA in creative writing from Queens College, where she teaches in the English department. Her fiction has been published in The Portland Review, KYSO, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Sandy River Review, Blue Lyra Review, Gloom Cupboard and Panoplyzine, and Delmarva Review and is forthcoming in Rappahannock Review and Sou’wester. Her poetry has been published in Hawaii Pacific Review, Hartskill Review, Lime Hawk, Synecdoche, Gyroscope and The Evansville Review, which nominated her poem, “Minor Planets” for a Pushcart Prize this year. She’s also written five mystery novels.

Ella couldn’t fall asleep and demanded a story. Although I was out of practice, I felt obligated to come up with something.  In our new custody arrangement, I only get to see her once a month.

There’s a water stain on the ceiling of her bedroom in my rental apartment. The roof leaks and the stain reminds me of a dragon’s wings. That got me thinking about medieval times. I told her about an ogre who searched for stolen bones. He wore a leather vest and had a pet bat which sat on his shoulder. People heard him prowling around their orchards at night and hid under their beds. They believed he was the devil. But he was just misunderstood.

What does he want old bones for? Ella asked. She’s a logical child. When we told her about the divorce, instead of asking why it was happening she wanted to know if we would be poor and whether she would have to attend a different school.

He takes the bones and grinds them into magic powder. If you inhale the powder your wishes will come true.

I glanced at her expectantly, waiting for her to say she wished we’d get back together but she was silent.

One day, the ogre found a suit of armor lying beneath an apple tree. Above the breast plate was a family crest showing a serpent coiled around three roses. The ogre put on the armor and discovered that no one recognized him.  People invited him into their huts and served him porridge and honey cakes. They let him dig holes in their fields and smiled when he passed.

Wasn’t the armor heavy? How could he tell which bones were stolen?

I didn’t know. It was a throw-away line and I was riffing, as usual. I was a poor excuse for a father, my ex-wife insisted to anyone who would listen. The one time I took Ella to the park, she’d wandered away and I’d come home without her. We had to call the cops, who found her hours later wandering down Rt. 39.

He couldn’t be sure about the bones. That’s why he had to search so long.  

The bucket was nearly overflowing but Ella refused to let me empty it. She was conducting some sort of science experiment, which was just as well since the superintendant was nowhere to be found.

The ogre took off his helmet, stuck out his tongue and tasted the magic powder. 

It was cold in the bedroom. Ella wrapped her arms around herself.

Then what happened?

He turned pale green. Everything began to get soft and blurry but in a weird way he kind of liked it. It felt like he was disconnected from his body, from everything on earth. Like instead of bones, he’d stolen a big squishy dream.

Ella nodded and I waited for her to fall asleep. The only sound was rain falling into the room.

 

Beth Sherman received an MFA in creative writing from Queens College, where she teaches in the English department. Her fiction has been published in The Portland Review, KYSO, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Sandy River Review, Blue Lyra Review, Gloom Cupboard and Panoplyzine, and Delmarva Review and is forthcoming in Rappahannock Review and Sou’wester. Her poetry has been published in Hawaii Pacific Review, Hartskill Review, Lime Hawk, Synecdoche, Gyroscope and The Evansville Review, which nominated her poem, “Minor Planets” for a Pushcart Prize this year. She’s also written five mystery novels.

They are both fat. The bigger, balding one with the cigar does most of the talking; he must be the owner. The one who told her she could audition is the day manager. He never smiles. Neither of them smiles. Nor do they watch her performance, even as she plays up a seductive sashay from one pole to the other, in part to distract from the fumbling unfastening of her bustier from behind. They would not let her play the music she brought, an Amy Winehouse number she covers on her most recent demo. Instead, when the bustier finally drops, she stretches for the highest point on the pole she can reach and whips her legs around in an awkward bid for centripetal harmony with Nicki Minaj. She is not in great shape, never has been. An effort to support her body horizontally ends in farce, with her skinny thighs scissoring open and both heels hitting the stage with a thud. Though sober, her subsequent struggle to stand is like a drunk reaching a truce with a very slim hammock.

“Very good,” the bigger man says as the song comes to an end. “Do it again.” He resumes his conversation with the manager while she puts her outfit back on.

She was late to the audition because after picking her kids up from school she had to drop them with their father and deal with his mini-fit about taking them on short notice on his “one night of freedom,” as he put it, the shithead. Emily and Byron are their names, eight and ten. She named them believing in the redemptive power of poetry, although the actual reading of poetry has always been a craving too meager to indulge.

If they ask her to dance any more she’ll also be late for a session with the combo she recently reunited with, a year to the day after the breakup that followed their fateful meltdown at Maxine’s. Gripping the brass railing, her reflected hands in the mirror make her wish she’d worn fake nails, because her real ones are short and uneven. Despite having large pretty blue eyes, she isn’t very appealing as a dancer. She’s too thin, for one thing, her breasts too small to play much of a role in men’s fantasies. Duty, however, is the ultimate motivator—duty and survival. A friend who had once danced for six months told her the pay was better than she could expect anywhere else, that she’d make enough to support her kids working just two nights a week if she kept her daytime job waitressing, and could spend the remaining nights working on her songs. So, for one year and one year only, she’ll strip, that was her compromise. She rationalized it as just another form of showbiz. The art of performance. And, indeed, she pledged to devote every ounce of excess energy not spent with her kids in that time to reviving her moribund singing career. This was the year she would put her life back together.

Her plan depends upon these two meaty, middle-aged men hiring her despite her unpolished appearance and commonplace skills. Aware of her chances, she decides to wow them by sliding down the pole head first, a maneuver she witnessed another girl do the day she came in to ask for an audition. It isn’t pretty, her positioning herself upside-down, like a test monkey in some drug experiment gone awry. The song ends with her hanging there, unsure how to right herself, thinking how sore she’ll be tomorrow. That she neglected to take her outfit off doesn’t seem to matter to the men, who appear more interested in the smudges on the mirror than her reflection in it. Her ex- has nothing, so Plan B is to ask for a loan from her sister in Little Rock and take a second waitressing job.

“Good job, honey,” the one with the cigar says when she’s finally able to stand. “You’re hired. I need someone Monday and Tuesday nights.”

She wobbles on the strapped heels she bought just for this occasion and says “Really? Are you sure?” immediately thinking what an idiot she is. She regains her composure enough to ask about pay.

“Sky’s the limit. You’ll be an independent contractor like all the girls. You pay ten bucks for each dance on stage. After that, you keep sixty percent of whatever you bring in. Couch dances are twenty. Two hundred for half an hour in a VIP room. These girls make bank, believe me.”

She needs to believe him. She calculates she can do it if her roommate will put the kids to bed twice a week. The same song, on a loop, replays from the empty music booth. She steps down to shake the men’s mitt-like hands and says: “I’ll take it.”

*

Her frenetic schedule turns tardiness into routine. She was late to her audition, late to her session with Cameron, Parker and Ross, late to pick up the kids from her ex-, late again on her first night at work at the club.

No one at The Cheetah seemed to care. Most of the girls were habitually late. By the end of the first month, after the anxiety of removing her clothes had worn off, she came to feel more at ease there than at any other station in her hectic life. Dancers are allowed to accept drinks from customers. At first, mindful of her responsibilities, she didn’t drink alcohol. One night, however, after a saucy exchange with a customer at Fran’s, the restaurant she worked at during the day, and a subsequent reprimand from the general manager there, she ordered, instead of her usual Red Bull at the club, a gin pickle, a Fran’s favorite she had to explain to the snickering waitress who had asked the guy she was with if he wanted to buy her a drink. Later, she ordered another. Her burly companion, who called himself Dave and claimed to work for the railroad, gave her her first VIP dance. Although she’d been assured by her friend that nothing overly sexual went on in the VIP rooms, she’d had her doubts, and was relieved when the guy didn’t press for anything more than a show and some harmless groping.  She would never stick around if more than that was for sale. Reassured, she had to admit the job held potential for decent money. By the time she left, she’d cleared three hundred dollars, by far her best shift ever. As the kids were with their cousins that night, she went on a bit of a bender.

Before long, a pattern developed. She’d have one or two drinks because it loosened her up enough to talk freely with the men, who generally didn’t have much to say themselves. Most of them didn’t listen too well either; they had the dancer on stage or another girl on their minds. You can’t have thin skin in this business, she learned that early. Still, rejection affects your self-image over time, and the drinks dulled the sting. Once in a while a man would be taken by her alcohol-induced chattiness, and that’s when her resiliency paid off.

“What do you do?” was how she usually started when she sat with someone.

“I’m a student at the college.”

“I thought about going to college. I loooved books. As a kid, I had a library card for a while and brought home books every week. Not one person I knew had a library card. Okay, maybe I didn’t finish all those books, but I did read the ones about music. My stepfather . . . now he was a bourbon man. Not the good stuff, either. Used to waltz right through that front door and see me leafing through some history of rock-and-roll, or some biography of Besse Smith, or whatever, and he’d laaaaaugh, and say, ‘Girl, read all the books you want, it ain’t going to make you any smarter.’ Like he knew. He had some funny ideas about right and wrong, believe me, but he was right about one thing: school was not exactly my strength. I figured out it wasn’t going to be books that would get me out of that town, it was going to be my voice. Mother went behind his back to get me lessons. She always said, ‘Girl, that beautiful voice of yours is your ticket. You keep singing.’ And I still do. I keep singing. Not that country stuff those rednecks listened to, either. I’m talking blues, jazz. Billie Holiday. I know the difference.”

The men who listened usually ended up agreeing to a couch dance or two. The couch area, like the rest of the room except for the stage, was lit dimly in red. From the ceiling hung fixtures covered with paper lanterns in swirling phallic configurations.  The rules forbade the men from touching while the girls rubbed against them. Couch dances were bait for the VIP rooms. Sometimes a man would touch her on the couch in violation of the rules and she would back away. Occasionally she’d let one of them get away with it for the whole song if she thought it increased the odds of getting him into VIP, or sometimes if she was just a little drunk or lonely and the guy was nice, or if she just didn’t care. She got far fewer VIP opportunities than most of the other girls.

One night she sat down next to a man named Clayton. That was his real name, she learned later, not a made up name like a lot of the men and all of the dancers try on. He was heavyset, but solid, not gross.  A scraggly half-beard from what she estimated as three days’ growth seemed out of place with his nice sports jacket, dress shirt and shoes, and the fact that everything matched and fit right. At first, she didn’t feel an urge to order alcohol with him, even though it was about the time she would usually start. She ordered water instead. Unlike other men, Clayton looked right at her while they talked instead of at the girl on stage or the ones working the room. He asked questions as if he were really interested in what she had to say.

“Willow, I think I’ve seen you before,” he said, after they’d talked for several minutes. Willow was the stage name she’d chosen. “Not here, on the real stage. Are you an actress?”

She tried to read from his eyes whether he was putting her on or not and noticed instead that they appeared, in that unnatural light at least, to be two different colors. The left one gleamed.

“I used to sing,” she said.

“That must be it. At Harling’s, right?”

She shook her head. “A place called Benny’s, usually. It’s kind of a hole-in-the-wall on the West Side. Mostly jazz and rhythm and blues. Some pop.” Then, in a more sober tone, she added: “I sang at Maxine’s once.”

“Is that right?”

“It was more like an audition.”

The waitress came by. This time Willow ordered a real drink, not to loosen up or dampen the sting of indifference, but because having revealed an episode she had long fought to suppress, she needed a drink to dilute the memory. When he told her he’d certainly heard of Maxine’s, she remained silent. On stage, Jasmine demonstrated her flexibility by pressing her palms to the floor. Clayton stared at Willow and smiled.

“What happened, they didn’t like your voice?”

“They liked my voice.”

She crossed her legs and straightened the one on top, deciding that her feet might be one of her best features. The waitress set down her drink. Clayton watched as she stirred the gin slowly with the pickle.

“What?” she said, turning her head.

“You don’t want to talk about it?”

“Maybe I don’t.”

“Well, maybe I don’t want to hear about it,” he said, turning toward the stage, arms crossed. But he was smiling, and then she was smiling too and said: “I’ll tell you after a couch dance.”

While she rubbed against him on the couch, he looked only at her face, never at her body. He smiled the whole time but gave no other indication of arousal. She wondered if he might have been injured or something. When it was over and he paid, she asked carefully, “Was that alright?”

“Fine. I didn’t really want a dance. I want to hear your story.”

Though she’d promised herself she would look forward from now on, not back at her mistakes, that she had goals now and a program for achieving them, she would have told him the story of Maxine’s that night because he was easy to talk to, and she liked him. Just then, however, her name was called, and by the time she’d finished her two stage dances, changed outfits and got back onto the floor, Clayton was gone. He emerged from a VIP room a little later followed by Carly and walked straight out the door, head bowed. Carly, she noticed, changed into street clothes right afterward and left the shift early.

*

All the girls tell you not to get emotionally involved with the customers. Seeing them outside the club is technically forbidden, but even though it’s a rule that is never enforced and often broken, not one of the girls had a good story about a healthy relationship that lasted. Simply enjoying a man’s company enough to want to talk to him again, as Willow wanted to talk to Clayton, can only lead to disappointment, because you never know when, or if, he’ll return. Everything is on the man’s terms.

As it turned out, Clayton came back the very next night. It was early in her shift and no men were there yet. She was sitting in the long booth with Gemma, one of the only dancers she could really talk to. She’d decided the reason the others had been so cold was that she had ambition and they didn’t, and they resented her for it. Gemma went to college during the day to study communications. Clayton dressed casual this time, in a polo shirt and shorts. He still hadn’t shaved.  He took a seat at the other end of the booth and waited for her to come over.

“Want company?” she offered, standing with her legs against his.

When she sat down, he said he wanted to hear about Maxine’s. She asked for a dance first, but he wasn’t going for it this time. As there was no money to be made elsewhere—little, in fact, to be made on these early-in-the-week shifts generally, as she was learning, the occasional big spender notwithstanding—she thought, what the hell, maybe this is how to plant the seed that will blossom into her first good-paying regular. She wanted to tell the story. Talk is therapy, as an aspiring therapist friend of hers always said, the same friend who had recommended she try stripping.  Besides, Clayton had a sympathetic manner and he remembered what she drank. He ordered her a gin pickle when the waitress appeared, without her even asking.

“Maxine’s is big time,” he said, all it took to get her started.

“Best gig in town if it’s regular. Jazz, soul, blues, a little of everything. Parker got us the audition, our drummer. He knew someone who knew someone who knew the manager, or whatever, and they gave us a tryout after someone there must have seen us at Benny’s. Monday’s their tryout night because it’s so slow, like here.  Only that night it wasn’t slow, there was this big crowd. The first set, they loved us. But then, at the intermission, we got involved in this . . . incident.

She stirred her drink with the pickle. He waited.

“We were at the bar ordering drinks, laughing and feeling real good because everything was going the way we wanted. All of a sudden this country-and-western-looking guy pushes his way up there next to me like, you know, like his shit doesn’t stink. You can tell he’s there on the wrong night. Seems pissed off about it, too. We’re doing a jazz set and he’s no jazz lover. Real bushy mustache. He’s drunk, you can tell, because he’s talking too loud so that everyone can hear how smart he is. He’s got a big glass of whiskey in his hand. I kind of ignore him and keep talking with my friends, but he doesn’t like that. So he says, ‘Hey, dummy, I’m talking to you, can’t you hear?’ And he puts his hand on my thigh like this and tries to spin me around. They get all kinds in Maxine’s, that’s what’s so great about the place, usually. At that moment I wasn’t thinking about how great a place Maxine’s is, I was thinking about punching that asshole in the nose.”

Clayton laughed. “Feisty. I like that. Did you do it?”

“Not exactly. He leans in close to me like this and kind of whispers in my ear, ‘You’re lookin’ real sexy in that dress. You know where that dress would look even better?’ And I said ‘No, where?’ And he says, ‘On the floor.’ That’s when I threw my drink in his face.”

“Ha!” Clayton rubbed his leg. “You was askin’ for it,” he added, in some strange accent, as if he was imitating someone to be funny, but it wasn’t clear who or why.

Willow continued. She related how the man grabbed her in a headlock, how her friends and the guy’s friends got in a scuffle that ended with them all getting kicked out, herself included, after the manager saw her kick the main creep in the ribs while Ross had him on the ground. The police showed up, made a couple arrests, and, well, that was the end of her audition. They didn’t call back.

She told him she and the band were practicing together again after a long separation with the goal of getting back to Maxine’s. They had asked for another audition and were turned down, but she figured if they got good enough and were persistent, eventually the manager would have to give them another shot. She told him how hard it was balancing kids, two part-time jobs, her music, how tired she was all the time, and broke. She also expressed her determination. He listened to it all and encouraged her. He didn’t buy a dance, however. Instead, when McKenzie came in and winked in his direction, he made an excuse and followed her into a VIP room. As he closed the red curtain behind him, Willow could hear him growl.

After that he came in every couple weeks. He would inquire about her kids, her progress with the band. She liked the way he rubbed his leg when he got really interested, and even looked forward to the occasional gleam in his eye, which at first had been so disturbing—was it a glass eye?—but came to represent to her, in light of his unusually good manners for that setting, a tender distinction. He never asked for a dance. Their conversations always ended with his retreat to the couches or VIP rooms with another girl.

One night she decided to press him about it. She hadn’t been making nearly as much money as she’d hoped at this job, and hadn’t had more than one or two shows with the band, both at Benny’s, which paid next to nothing. Recently, she’d learned her son would probably need braces. For the first time, she’d had to borrow cash from her sister to pay rent. And this guy, loaded as he obviously was, just wanted to talk?

“How come you get dances from all the other girls but you never ask me?” she said one night, emboldened by the effects of an increasingly common third gin pickle.

A big smile revealed all of his unnaturally white teeth. “Maybe you’re not like the other girls,” he said. “Maybe I’ve got something special in mind for you,” he added cryptically.

“Oh do you now?”

He told her he was friends with the owner of Maxine’s, Michael Reiner, and could get her another audition. He pronounced his name Ree-ner.

She leaned back and eyed him suspiciously. “You never told me that before. I thought his name was Ri-ner.” 

“No, uh-uh. Ree-ner.”

“How do you know him?”

“We belong to a couple of the same organizations.”

“Like?”

“Like the Crossroads Neighborhood Association. Heart to Heart. Friends of the Zoo. I didn’t tell you because I wanted to get to know you better. See what kind of person you are. Hear you sing. I heard you at Benny’s last week.”

“I didn’t see you at Benny’s.”

“I didn’t want you to see me,” he said, revealing his bright teeth again. “You can sing. I want to help you. I help you . . . and you help me.”

“Ok, I get it,” she said immediately. “I don’t do that sort of thing.”

“You don’t understand.” Before he could explain, however, Sofia, one of the more cutthroat girls, sat on the other side of him, and soon she and Clayton had disappeared into a private room. Willow was on stage when they finished. He left without looking her way.

*

Because he’d been a prominent businessman in town for years, a lot of information could be found on the web about the owner of Maxine’s. Willow learned that Michael Reiner had in fact been vice-president of the Crossroads Neighborhood Association, a board member with Heart to Heart, a Friend of the Zoo. His Facebook page even listed those exact organizations in that order. Although nothing she could find indicated any member of those groups named Clayton, it wouldn’t be unusual for a man to be using a phony name at The Cheetah. Willow knew enough not to ask any of the girls directly if they’d rendezvoused with Clayton outside the club. She did, however, try to feel them out for general information.

“He’s harmless,” Carly told her in the dressing room. “Some kind of bigwig developer. Seems honest.” But in the mirror as she dressed, Willow could have sworn she saw Carly wink at Savannah conspiratorially, and the two of them seemed to be suppressing giggles when they walked out.

The night Clayton returned, Willow had been rebuked again that day by the manager of Fran’s. While having her shift drink, she complained too loudly about a table that had stiffed her. The manager warned her he’d have to let her go if she continued to offend the customers. At The Cheetah, she hadn’t forgotten about Clayton’s offer. She asked for details as soon as she sat down.

“No sex,” he said. “It’s not like that.”

“What is it like?”

“It’s a little embarrassing.” He crossed his legs. “I just want to watch you . . . change clothes. Into these outfits you wear here. Into and out of them, one after another. It’ll be like I’m evaluating them, helping you decide which ones to wear.”

“That’s it?”

“I know it’s a strange fantasy.”

“I’ve heard stranger.”

“That’s what I’m counting on,” he said, with an odd little chuckle.

They watched Crystal’s entire dance in silence. Then it was her turn and she stood up and said she was sorry but she’d have to decline his offer. He opened his wallet and handed her his card. “Just think about it,” he said. The card read:

Clayton Blank

President

Blank Properties, LLC

Weeks passed before he returned. Her money problems multiplied. Her combo had nothing scheduled and she’d missed two practice sessions in the previous week alone, one because of a hangover, the other because of a sick child.  She was dancing in front of an unusually large crowd, most of them part of a rowdy bachelor party, when Clayton finally came in. Before even taking a seat, he approached the stage and placed a fifty dollar tip on it for her. When she later sat down with him she asked what he would pay, theoretically, if she were to take him up on his offer, and where they would go.

“A hotel,” he said.  “A nice one.” He had to raise his voice to be heard above the din of the party. He practically yelled his proposed payment—“Three hundred dollars!”—before things finally quieted down enough for him to elaborate on his fantasy.

“I would be in my underwear the whole time. No laws would be broken. I don’t want that.”

Her answer was still no, but she had to admit to herself she was tempted.  She asked around again, this time posing a hypothetical in the dressing room to Mercedes, one of the more experienced girls, describing details of the proposition.

“Are we talking about Clayton?” Mercedes laughed. She wouldn’t admit to having been with him, claiming instead to have heard about his fantasy from others.

“Don’t worry about that freak. He’s harmless.”

“Does he do what he says? He just watches?”

“Ah. Oh, he might kiss your leg or foot or something weird like that, but he won’t hurt you. He tips big, too.”

After that she didn’t see Clayton for more than a month. She’d had only one gig in that time, at Benny’s again, before a sparse crowd. A week later she lost her job at Fran’s for drinking on the clock. The night Clayton finally returned she’d had to get a ride to work from a friend because her car had broken down. On her third gin pickle she plopped into the booth next to him with less subtlety than usual.

“You look more beautiful than ever,” he said, after sizing up her condition.

She said, “I want four hundred dollars.” Actually, she slurred it.

*

From the parking lot, the hotel he chose appears much older than it is. A torn red awning over one of its balconied windows flaps audibly in the wind. The neon sign on the roof announces Hotel Brighton in zesty Broadway font, except the first t is burnt out.

They meet in the lobby. Sober tonight, she’s having second, third and fourth thoughts as she waits beneath a dusty chandelier while he pays for the room holding a paper sack under his arm. In the elevator, he turns sideways and examines her tight skirt and shoes. She stands in the corner clutching a gym bag full of the outfits he’d requested she bring. An intermittent clanging noise in the elevator shaft accompanies their ascent, like a secret code in a prison.

“That doesn’t sound so good,” she says, laughing nervously.

There’s an awkward silence. She wants to remind him of his promise to talk to the owner of Maxine’s after this is all over, but the timing isn’t right. She can see in his bag the red cap on a pint of Beefeaters and a small jar of gherkins. Following her eyes, he raises a smile on one side of his mouth and says, “I brought your favorite.” She just nods.

In the room, she’s relieved when the décor shows reasonably good taste, an effect mitigated, unfortunately, by its haphazard arrangement—a print hung well above eye level, a recliner with no room to recline, the bed resting at a peculiar angle—as though the decorator had been improvising and was interrupted mid-design.  The muffled cry of a baby echoes from somewhere down the hall. The man plops an envelope on the bed and sits in the chair facing her as she stands fast against the bureau.

“I guess how I see this going at first is for you to change. In front of that mirror over there.”

His manner is more direct than it ever had been at the club, less giving. Sober is the word that comes to mind, even though in the elevator she’d detected liquor on his breath.

“When you’re done, parade around a little. I’ll rate your outfit and then you can change into another one.”

She opens the unsealed envelope and counts the hundred dollar bills.

“Glasses,” he says, all of a sudden.

“Pardon me?”

“I forgot glasses. I bet they have cups.” He rises and skirts past her toward the bathroom, where he adds “We’re in luck!” before emerging with two translucent plastic cups. He pours them both a drink and tells her she can go ahead and get started with the frilly cowboy number.

By the time she’s changed into her third outfit and modeled each in the narrow path between him and the bed, they’ve had two drinks apiece—gin with a splash of warm tap water and a floating gherkin. They’re awful but she drinks them anyway, to blur the unpleasant sight of him gradually disrobing down to his underwear, a process no less disconcerting for his having prepared her in advance. The next scenario is more unsettling. She sits on the leather chair pretending to text her friends and ignores him while he gets on his knees and massages and kisses her calves. His movements are mechanical. He doesn’t appear to be aroused, which makes her wonder again if he’s suffered some sort of injury. His only words are commands: Cross your legs, or Stand up, turn around and sit down again, or Text someone for real but don’t tell them what’s going on. All of which she does, her only undirected movement a sidelong reach toward the desk to pour a drink, which she downs without pickle or water before pouring another. With his approval, she lights a cigarette, her first in the week since she last quit.

She thinks this might be a good time to remind him about Maxine’s, but when she mentions the name he closes his eyes and says “Shhhhhh. ” After a long silence with him at her knees and her nervously scrolling through contacts on her phone, she unconsciously begins to hum—My Baby Just Cares for Me, part of her standard set. Clayton stops what he is doing, looks up with cloudy eyes and smiles wryly.

“That’s right,” he says. “You’re the jazz singer.”

She is: the jazz singer. Not a whore. She isn’t stupid, she knows where this is going. “Listen,” she says, standing and gathering her things. “You said you were going to help me but don’t even worry about that now—” She cuts herself short after he spins and crawls speedily away from her on hands and knees, like an animal in flight. She grabs her bag.

“No no no,” he says. “Stay.” When he reaches what he’s after, his pants crumpled on the floor, he removes a slip of paper from the back pocket. “The guy I know at Maxine’s,” he says, holding it up. “Maxine’s, right?”

She doesn’t say anything, but doesn’t continue out the door, either. He stands with difficulty, grimacing from some indeterminate pain. He seems much older than he does at the club, here, in the light.

“What about it?”

“He’ll give you an audition,” he says, getting to his feet.

“Who? Michael Reiner?”

“Yeah yeah, Reiner. Come over here.” He holds out the paper.

“How do I even know you know him?”

“What does that say?”

She takes the paper and reads it aloud: “‘Michael Reiner.’ And a phone number. Big deal, any—”

“I want you to take off that outfit now. Right here, not by the mirror.”

“Why? What is this?”

“I want to try something different. With your back to me, facing the bed.” They are a couple feet apart. She inhales uneasily.

“You said—”

“We’re halfway done already. I just want to hear you sing.”

The words freeze her. He looks ridiculous standing there in his underwear. She feels like dashing from the room, down the stairs, half-naked into the street. But just as suddenly she has a paralyzing thought: What would she be dashing toward?

“Come on. I’ll put the pants on if you’re so worried.” Which he does, while she reaches for the gin.

“Are you going to throw your drink in my face or am I going to get you this audition?”

“Tell me again how you know Michael Reiner.”

“The Neighborhood Group thing,” he says, sounding a little irritated. “The charity. We’re old friends, okay.” He gently nudges her shoulder with an open palm until she’s turned around. “And friends do friends favors, don’t they?”

“Yes.”

“Aren’t we friends?” he says softly into her ear from behind.

She doesn’t answer. Instead, she drinks the cup of gin in one long gulp. He waits for her to set the empty cup on the night table before asking, “What’s a good one? What would you sing at an audition for Mike Reiner?”

Her knees touch the bed as he slips both hands under the thin strip of fabric around her hips. “I’d have to think about that. His name is pronounced Ri-ner, by the way. I asked around about that.”

“Let me help you,” he says, sliding her bottom down.

She grabs his wrist. “I’m not comfortable with this—”

“Okay . . . Okay.” He pulls his hands back.  “You do it then,” as he guides her fingers to her hips. “What about My Funny Valentine? You know that one?”

She doesn’t answer. She grips the straps but doesn’t pull the bottom down or up, instead holding it in place.

“Sing it. My funny valentine . . .

“This is not what we talked about.”

“I bet he’d like to hear My Funny Valentine. Mike Ri-ner.” Then he gently cups his hands around hers and directs the G-string slowly downward. She offers some resistance but says nothing. “Go ahead,” he says. “Sing . . . Sing.”

She begins to hum softly.

“No, sing it. Out loud.”

She can faintly hear the sounds of a couple arguing in the hall.  She begins to sing in a soft voice, haltingly—My funny valentine . . . sweet comic valentine—as he takes over the task of removing her bottom. When it’s at her ankles, she tiptoes carefully out of it, as if inching toward a steep cliff.

You make me smile with my heart. Your looks are laughable— 

He rises and gently places one hand on her shoulder to nudge her torso down and forward, the other hand guiding her hips back toward him with practiced care.

“I don’t—” She turns her head, looks him in the eyes.

“Shh, shh, shh, shh, shh,” he says, so gently. “Sing,” he whispers. “Like we’re at Maxine’s.” She lets herself be turned forward, toward the blank wall.

Unphotographable. Yet you’re my favorite work of art. 

When he has her fully bent over he lets go of the piece of paper he was holding and it drifts onto the bed at her side. The phone number, she notices now, is one of those fictitious ones they use in the movies that begin with the prefix 555. It’s too late to question. She’s halfway through the song. She closes her eyes, her elbows supporting her weight on the blue chintz quilt, and she keeps singing, imagining herself on stage at Maxine’s before a crowd of applauding men of all ages.

“That’s it. Pretend it’s an audition,” he sighs.

Is your figure less than Greek? Is your mouth a little weak when you open it to speak? Are you smart? 

The man’s zipper coming undone sounds a little like a jazz riff as her voice quavers. It turns out he wasn’t injured after all. What happens next makes her forget the refrain.

 

Corey Mertes grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and received his bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Chicago, in Hyde Park. He earned a Master of Fine Arts in Film and Television Production from the University of Southern California and a law degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. His short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in many journals, including American Review, 2 Bridges Review, Green Briar Review, Sundog Lit, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Bull: Men’s Fiction, The Prague Revue, and Midwestern Gothic. He’s been nominated multiple times for a Pushcart Prize and was a semi-finalist for the 2016 Hudson Prize.

In that moment he forgets who and where he is: slowly closing his eyes to escape the sunlight, suddenly John is eleven years old, standing in his basement, smelling the dank linen and dusty, discarded boxes of books—alone in the darkness. Standing over the sealed glass jar, an inadvertent god, surveying a world he’d unwittingly created, catching his breath as the stench closes around him, indicting him: that dark mass of slowly moving forms…

Quickly, he forces the memory away and he’s back—himself again—opening his eyes to cars on every side, to the synchronous sound of slowly shifting gears.

***

He looks up at the makeshift billboard hanging beside the road, a solicitous beacon calling out to the commuters:

ONLY 5 REMAINING!

STARTING IN THE LOW 500’S

COME SEE THE DIFFERENCE!

What difference? he thinks. The construction of this project coincided with the then-tolerable commute to his new job. Now, less than two years later, it’s completed, proving if there’s money to be made, houses and highways and buildings could sprout up like weeds through concrete. Maximum occupancy, he thinks, measuring the methodical lines of brick townhouses. They called them townhomes now. The more congruent and indistinguishable modern homes became, the greater an effort these canny developers exerted to create the illusion of autonomy—a wistful compensation for the fact that these particular models were stacked judiciously, utilizing every available square foot of space.

CONVENIENT AND CLOSE TO WHERE YOU NEED TO BE!

How inviting, John had thought dismissively upon seeing one of the more intelligence-insulting ads. And a first-rate view of the freeway! All that stood between the houses and the cars was a broad granite wall, at once a decisive and dubious boundary.

This is the spot where traffic comes to a standstill each morning. John catches himself clenching and slowly retracts his jaw, running his tongue along the roof of his mouth. This was a habit he’d developed in college, where during particularly stressful times he was prone to grinding his teeth while he slept. When he took his new job, the irritating compulsion returned, only now he was doing it (often) in his waking hours as well.

“You’ll grind them down to chalk,” his dentist warned him with the smug authority of a man who had so mastered his profession and personal hygiene that such imperfect habits were beyond his comprehension. As a remedy John found remarkably state-of-the-art despite its almost comical simplicity, a plastic mouth guard was designed from a mold of his bite imprint. But he couldn’t bring himself to wear the expensive apparatus. It was too ridiculous, too embarrassing a concession of weakness.

Unconsciously inserting his tongue between his teeth, John stares at the gray wall which seems, the more he sees it, an extension of the development rather than a barrier. Had it been designed to lull these new homeowners into forgetting they were practically spitting distance from one of the most inefficient highways in America? Breathing the fumes of a million cars. Perhaps this was the payoff for living in the suburbs, ensconced in the cocoon of oak trees and manicured lawns and shopping malls, away from the squalid strain and strangeness of the city.

How do they do it?

When he pondered this question, it usually bolstered a certain disdain: an awareness that he was not one of them. Increasingly though, he found that this reassurance was necessary in order to assuage a creeping disenchantment: uncertainty about his job, his commute (which there was no rationalizing or denying, it was hideous), and the unnerving sense that somehow he was missing something; that he’d failed to attain what everyone else seemed in possession of. So he’d repeat to himself, like a mantra, that he knew who he was, that the choice had been his, that he had control over the decisions he made; that he was, in short, his own man.

Staring at the gray wall, it occurs to him, seemingly for the first time, that there were real people inside those houses; people who wanted to live there, and who very possibly were at that moment looking out their fashionable bay windows, watching him in his car—inseparable from the infinite array of shining steel shapes—scoffing at his participation in this tedious ritual. And to his sudden, not quite disbelief, he finds himself entertaining the viability, the practicality of these houses, and the sagacity of the folks who chose to live in them. I bet those people don’t have to wake up an hour earlier just to get to work on time! The voice rings mockingly in his head.

***

The cars begin to creep forward and the sharp blast of an impatient horn terminates his reverie. He starts awkwardly and upsets the coffee that was balanced lazily in his lap. “Damn it!” The spill splashes on the seat and another horn reminds him that his response time is inadequate. “Okay, shut up! I hear you!” He forces his door open roughly and throws the styrofoam cup, sending an unintentional spray of lukewarm coffee onto the car beside him. He feels stares from all around him and his stomach tightens as he accelerates out of any potential confrontations.

The forward progress lasts for a few minutes and then stops again. He looks in his rear view mirror, speculating how many tons of machinery presently surround him. A carbon monoxide factory, he thinks sardonically, measuring the dark shapes that stretch back as far as he can see. A factory that produces noise. And pollution. I’m probably dying right now, he thinks, abruptly rolling up his window. Every man for himself. That voice, again. Taunting him, as always. “Every man for himself,” he repeats out loud. Bottlenecked on the freeway each morning, like a bunch of crickets (and again he recalls that afternoon and the stench that greeted him as he descended the stairs…).

“No,” he shakes the recollection away. Ten more minutes. You’ll be out in ten minutes.

He considers the debates he used to have with Missy, and how eagerly he embraced what he’d learned as the better way, the only way. There are people who wake up, are hungry, and they eat; and when they are tired, they sleep. What had only a few years ago sounded like a trivial observation now seemed unsettlingly profound. Those are the people we call primitive, he thinks, eyeing the stretch of cars in front of him, all emitting their smoke signals of stalled progress.

***

He’s been playing a lot of golf.

The acclimation to a new routine had been gradual and difficult: straight out of college and its nourishing social scene, slowly grasping the notion that from the moment he woke up until he came home for dinner, five days a week, every week, this block of time was spent. Immutable. And more often than not he was too tired, or irritated after a full day of work and the requisite trek home (which was never as long as, but always worse than the morning commute, because the desire to get home was significantly stronger) to find the motivation to do much with his free evenings.

Naturally, he’d forged some friendships with co-workers, and within a month found himself enjoying three things he had never before done, or remembered having any desire to do: drinking vodka martinis, smoking cigars, and playing golf.

Everyone, it seemed, played golf. It was simply another rite of passage, especially for the cultivated denizens of the cubicles, wherein these individuals, en masse, somehow convinced each other that a good game of golf was panacea for the strain and chagrin that accumulated over an honest week’s toil. Indeed, some of the converted did not limit their therapy to weekends, and got out on the links as often as possible, weather permitting. It was as though the act of being outdoors, partaking in this activity—ostensibly a sport—provided the opportunity to chat, met all the needs which were unattended to, and prevented by, office labor.

The interaction on these excursions was often a combination of braggadocio and empathy, invariably concerning the gripes and slights they suffered in their underappreciated existences. Accordingly, the discourse was often as curt as it was banal.

“Hey, you’re still over in accounting, right?”

“Yeah.”

“How is that treating you?”

“Oh, great…nothing to complain about I guess…”

or

“Hey, what’s up with Missy?”

“Oh, things are good. Real good. She’s great…sure…”

or

“Hey, what have you been up to?”

“Not much.”

“Keeping your nose clean?”

“It’s not my nose that I’m worried about…”

or

“How’s that commute treating you?”

“I hate it.”

“Yeah, I hear you, and it just gets worse, you know…”

“It sure seems like it.”

“I saw these two guys get into a fight the other day…did I tell you about that?”

“No, you didn’t.”

“Yeah, it was crazy. And these weren’t kids either, they were old guys, like my father…”

“What happened?”

“Well, they had pulled over to the side, but when I drove by I could see them going at it…”

John imagined what this must have looked like, and the image stayed with him. Two men in their expensive suits, exchanging blows while their ties flapped in the air. He had visualized his own father; then himself; and worst of all, himself in twenty years, bitter and fed up to the point where he’d actually run someone off the road to confront them face to face.

“Hey, good form!”

“It feels good…”

“Yeah, your game is looking great, have you been hitting the driving range?”

“Yeah, a couple of nights a week, after work.”

“Good man!”

and

“Hey, did you guys see that idiot in our building this morning?”

“What idiot?”

“You know, that joker that harasses people all the time…”

“Oh, you mean Uncle Sam!”

“What, he’s back?”

“Hasn’t been around in a while…”

“Maybe he got arrested or something…”

“No, he goes from building to building, all over the city…he always comes back. As long as he doesn’t actually touch anyone, the cops have to leave him alone…”

“Yeah, my supervisor said he’s been seeing that guy since he started working here.”

“How long is that?”

“A long time…”

Everyone who had worked in the city for a short while knew Uncle Sam.

Just as life was often a pale imitation of the movies made about it, this man was a rather unconvincing character compared with the famous figure from posters whose stare followed you wherever you were. This Uncle Sam, second-rate as he was, could not be accused of failing to put forth his best effort however: he had the red and white striped pants and pointed white boots, the blue silk tuxedo jacket, the familiar top hat, even the fake white beard hanging down around his chest.

No one knew who he was, or how he decided marching outside of office buildings excoriating weary working stiffs was his calling, but he seemed to have found a niche, and the bemused commuters came to depend upon his presence. One rumor had it he was a veteran, disenchanted with the country he’d faithfully served; another story went that he was a schizophrenic who escaped (or been kicked out of) the mental hospital; yet another proposition claimed him as a homeless man with nothing better to do. John’s personal favorite was the joke that he’d been hired by the government to antagonize people (or amuse them, depending upon one’s perspective), and he served to remind everyone not to take their moderately well-paying jobs for granted. The fact was that no one knew for sure.

John’s most memorable exposure to Uncle Sam had taken place his first day at the new office. As he strutted through the parking garage, the leather briefcase (which had been his graduation gift) in one hand, the morning paper tucked under the other arm, he was approached from behind.

“That’s right son, I’m talking to you! You’re a slave! Did you know that? You’re a pawn of this big machine,” the man cried, waving his cane in the air.

What surprised John was the fact that people walked by, indifferent to the scene this character was making.

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation!” he bellowed, moving from John to a young lady beside him, who didn’t stop to look up as he brandished his cane in her face.

As John got into the elevator, he watched the man work his way across the garage, pointing at people, yelling “You are dead! You, yes you! Did you know that you’re a slave laborer? A slave! I’m here to remind you…to help you…”

“I can’t believe they let him get away with it, just accosting people like that…”

“Why not? He’s not hurting anybody.”

“He’s a freak…”

“Yeah, but that’s not a crime, right? I mean, look at you.”

“Very funny.”

Everyone talked about how nice it was, getting out to the golf course: unwinding, being able to do some male bonding, sharing their hang-ups, et cetera. But John noticed his buddies weren’t especially forthcoming, and he didn’t perceive any cathartic effect. Perhaps, he thought, it’s because these guys are content. Or maybe they weren’t. Maybe they would appreciate it if he came out and shared a secret with them, made the first move as it were. Maybe that would enhance the sense of solidarity, instill some faith and trust. Perhaps he should share how each morning, after spending an hour in traffic he stopped in the bathroom before entering the office. How he’d splash cold water on his face, rubbing his hands together to stop them from shaking. Then again, perhaps not. Wouldn’t be good form.

***

The drive is identical every day.

John has the routine memorized to the point that he fancies seeing the same cars beside him each morning. (In any event, the faces all look the same).

And it’s only been eighteen months…how do people do this for forty years?

He feels a pain in his stomach, reminding him of the previous evening. The debacle. He thinks about the half-eaten prime rib and envisions red meat sitting in his belly, slowly decomposing as it worked its way through his system. He feels bloated and unfit. There just isn’t enough time. This lethargy seemed inescapable, brought about by his new lifestyle.

He observes that has grip on the steering wheel has made his fingernails white, and examines his face in the mirror. The familiar voice, antagonizing, chides him: You’re just feeling sorry for yourself because of what happened with Missy last night.

He shuts his eyes and remembers.

***

John had courted Missy resiliently throughout college. Whenever she was between boyfriends they became closer and always seemed on the verge of commitment, but some inconvenient development always prevented the consummation of a serious relationship. Then they graduated and both landed jobs in the city, promising to keep in touch.

Whether it was insecurity adjusting to their new worlds or the maturation of their desires, they began seeing a lot of one another. They commiserated about the culture shock, having been transferred from the guarded unreality of college to what grown-ups had always called the real world.

John found he was having the tougher time of it. The more they shared, the more he suspected that many of her objections were half-hearted, and mostly for his sake. It provided him little comfort, for instance, when she complained about having to wake up early each day, or how she feared she was drinking too much coffee, because he was not exaggerating when he explained that he felt the reward for graduating (with honors) had been forfeiting his identity for a paycheck.

“I try to assimilate, but my mind keeps resisting…I don’t feel like I’m as comfortable as the others, the people I work with…”

“Well that’s the trick,” she replied. “As soon as you lose your will—when your spirit is broken—then you become comfortable in the corporate world.”

Often, when he griped, she would just smile and nod her head. Lately he couldn’t help wondering if this gesture was an expression of solidarity or of sympathy.

“You could be a lot worse off,” she reminded him (unnecessarily). “Think about your friends who can’t afford health insurance.”

But as often as he complained, he found it comforting to have someone in whom he could confide his fears and frustrations.

In college, he’d always enjoyed a certain, smug superiority. An economics major, there was a verifiable cause and effect in his discipline, real answers for real questions. As for the liberal arts, reading old books and writing research papers, watching movies! What was being accomplished there? It was entertaining, sure. But it wasn’t reality. Philosophizing couldn’t put money on the table, unless of course one had an interest in teaching, a vocation for which he had difficulty comprehending the allure.

Yet when he teased Missy about her love of literature and the arts, or asked her how her passion (as she called it) would translate into an occupation, she always seemed unfazed. She possessed a quiet confidence, rendering her impervious to the expectations of others. Where he once saw a whimsical drifting, he now observed a conviction that he’d never thought attainable, or desirable. And he found that he was more than a little envious of her serenity.

He’d begun to sense, during the wretched daily commutes, that he was ensnared in the life he’d chosen, that all his days lay ahead, waiting for him in calendars, marking the days and weeks and months before anyone actually lived them: it would always be Monday or Thursday or Saturday, and he could never step outside the way he’d been taught to view the world.

As he sat in his car, he’d frequently contemplate the individuality he’d endeavored to acquire. Now he felt insanely trapped in this constructed actuality.

He recalled Missy’s senior thesis, concerning cultures that held entirely different concepts of space and time. He had dismissed her enthusiasm. “Everyone used to be that way,” he explained. “But then we evolved, we progressed beyond that.”

“But imagine the possibilities of not measuring life in minutes and days, but as one continuous cycle,” she said. “Jobs and schedules and careers, those have all been developed, invented in order to occupy all the extra time. Now there are just too many people…that is what you’re calling progress.”

“Well, would you rather live like them? They’re primitive. Savages.”

She said nothing, and simply smiled, nodding her head.

It frustrated him that he couldn’t connect with her. She was different (which was fine), but she didn’t seem particularly impressed by, or interested in, his business acumen. He was, after all, the one on the fast track. In recent weeks he’d resisted a suspicion that while he was becoming progressively more dependent upon Missy, she’d seemed steadily more aloof and distant.

“Now I don’t want to put any pressure on you or anything,” he explained the night before in between bites of his prime rib. “But I wanted to let you know that…well, I’ve noticed you’ve been kind of preoccupied the past few weeks, and I wanted you to know where I’m coming from…I see us being good for each other and (he observed that she was looking around: at her plate, at the tables next to them, at the waiters that drifted by but—not at him—she would not look at his face, and he felt a sudden shock of foreboding: that this romantic dinner was not going to celebrate their decision to finally embark upon a monogamous relationship, as he’d hoped, but he quickly pushed the thought aside—inconceivable—and hurried on) I need you, I mean, I need you to know that I appreciate what we have…” and then he stopped because now she was looking at him.

“John,” she said, burning his eyes with her concentrated stare. “I feel terrible that I haven’t been up front with you, because obviously I’ve been giving you mixed signals…”

“No,” he interrupted. “You haven’t (he spoke quickly, mentally shifting strategies, before she could continue) I shouldn’t be so forward, I mean, I don’t want to make a big thing out of it, not at all, all I’m saying is…”

“John,” she held up her hand, and the look of discomfort on her face forced him to give up all hope and listen. “John, I’m so glad we’ve become such close friends, you’ve always been there for me. But I’m so busy with…things right now, I can’t even think about any type of commitment, it wouldn’t be fair…to either of us.”

He felt the defensive fury welling up uncontrollably, and the voice inside warned him: Don’t blow it, just roll with this and tell her you understand, then see how she feels in a week. But he remembered his previous resolve and decided that after five years of near-misses, it was precisely his mealy-mouthed complacence that had stymied their chances every time, and tonight was the night, once and for all, to erase the past and dictate the future.

“Look Missy,” he began in a strained voice. “I know you’re scared. I am too. But love has to be scary to be real, I am convinced of that, and I apologize for holding back. I owe it to you, you deserve to know exactly how I feel…”

“John, please don’t…”

(And the voice inside reminded him: If you say it now you’ll never be able to take it back—but he closed his eyes and cleared his head.)

“Missy, I love you,” he said softly, looking at her. “I think I always have.”

She looked down for a moment, then reached out and took his hand. “John, you don’t love me, you just think you do…”

(And in that moment he knew: his worst fears confirmed. Once again it wasn’t going to work for him, and he felt the anger, that anger he knew so well, moving to the forefront and crowding out all other options.)

He shook his hand away. “Listen, you may not give a shit about me,” he hissed. “But don’t ever tell me how I feel.”

She drew her face back, as if he’d spit on her, which of course only made it worse. “John, I’m sorry…I didn’t mean to…”

“Yeah, you’re sorry all right. You’ll be sorry because this is it, this was your last chance.”

And that had been it.

She had refused to drive home with him, even after he calmed down and apologized. Augmenting his humiliation, she asked the waiter to call her a cab while John sat there helplessly.

He had made it through the night by reassuring himself that at least now the truth was out. The worst part was over.

But upon awakening, he knew he’d been kidding himself. The worst was most definitely yet to come.

True, the blow had been delivered, but in the aftermath (the lonely aftermath) who would he talk to? Upon whom could he unload his diatribe of concerns, real or imagined? There were so many things he suddenly needed to share. Who could he explain himself to? Yes, the worst lay ahead. The past few months had been endurable almost solely because of the time spent with Missy, and his resilience had been linked to the attachment he’d cultivated.

He felt defeated: to have to accept, as fact, that the past five years had indeed been for naught. He’d always have to remember how the worst-case scenario had played itself out, mocking him as he sat impotently, his dream incinerated.

***

He thinks about this and feels a sudden, seething hatred for Missy. He resents the lost time. How many potential soul-mates had he overlooked, or snubbed because of his fantasy? Was he hoping for too much? Wasn’t real love attainable? Or was it another illusion, another cliché exploding in the uninspired script his life was beginning to resemble?

And then the familiar voice, the unsolicited judge and jury, blithely reminds him:

You can blame Missy if you want, but you never had anyone else knocking down your door.

And he knows it is the truth.

Is this who I am?

***

“John Johnson?”

That was the question everyone asked, and he was obliged to reiterate, yes, his name really was John Johnson.

His father, a conservative bureaucrat—the archetypal patriot—never was at a loss to explain to his only son how unique his name actually was. “How American can you get?” he would ask, with a red, white and blue grin. “John Johnson: now how many people do you know with that name? If you think about it, you really are one in a million.”

And in spite of the good-natured grief his name occasionally invited, John never felt constrained; if anything, it lent motivation to the desire to stand out in the faceless crowd of his peers. He often imagined the greatness that lay in store for him, and he believed the visions of prosperity and power that frequently visited him as he sat in the classroom, or listlessly in front of the television, were messages from God, who was secretly communicating the big plans He’d already designed.

As he grew older, his ambitions crystallized, guided by his father’s constant reassurance that he had every opportunity to live the American Dream, so long as he worked hard and played fair. So he played the appropriate sports, went to church faithfully, studied diligently, and for his efforts wore the obligatory varsity letter jacket, enjoyed membership in his high school Honor Society, achieved an above average score on the scholastic aptitude test, and was consequently accepted to the college of his choice.

In short, he’d done everything expected of him, following the course which had seemed charted especially for him.

So how did you end up here?

***

He doesn’t remember getting off the exit ramp, but he has pulled up, mechanically, in front of his office building.

“That’s bad,” he thinks. “I could have plowed into a school bus and not even known it. What the hell is wrong with me?”

And that voice, again: You need help.

He enters the parking garage and slowly backs into his assigned space. He’s already fifteen minutes late, but he doesn’t get out of the car. He sits in silence, gripping the steering wheel trying to regain his composure. His eyes are shut and the recurrent image races into his mind. This time he’s incapable of resisting it, and once again he is eleven years old.

***

He didn’t know what had given him the idea to conduct the experiment, but his curiosity had been sparked upon learning about data and hypothesis in school.

He imagined himself a scientist as he captured the crickets and collected them in a glass jar. When he put the lid down—which he’d methodically punctured with holes— he wasn’t sure what to expect. Would they suffocate? Fight? Multiply? It was exactly this hopeful uncertainty that provided his hypothesis.

With great anticipation he checked their progress the following day, and was disappointed by the lack of any remarkable drama. The crickets were crowded together, stepping on top of one another, jockeying for space and position. When he put his face up close to the glass there seemed to be one fluid mass of black, not ten separate insects. Then he noticed one of the smaller crickets was limping; somehow it had lost one of its legs. Or had it been torn off?

It was then that John felt a premonition of the horror he’d constructed, and a voice he’d never heard before admonished him to turn the jar upside down and let the crickets free. But curiosity and expectation overruled this aversion: it was survival of the fittest. The strongest would thrive and the weak ones would perish, that was all. That was science, and it was the way the world was. He was content that he so fully comprehended these objective doctrines at such a young age.

It was his contentment, perhaps, that caused him to forget about his experiment for several days. He’d raced home from school the afternoon he remembered, eager to examine what had occurred.

Breathlessly he’d crept into the basement and held the jar up to the light in order to better inspect his data. The first thing he noticed was the smell. The jar reeked of whatever had transpired during his three day absence. He put it down quickly and the crickets began jumping, agitated by the commotion he’d caused. He peered inside and his stomach tightened in revulsion: half of the crickets were moving; they scurried and bounced over the other half, whose lifeless bodies lay in pieces in the middle of the jar. As John looked more closely he was overtaken by a combination of disgust and fear—a primordial response to the unalterable laws of life and death. The weaker crickets had not merely died; they’d been killed, and eaten. John was cognizant of cannibalism, but even as an eleven year old he knew crickets did not naturally subsist upon one another. He understood as he looked down they were only acting out of the desperate will to survive because of the environment in which he’d placed them. And the idea that the crickets were slaughtering each other as they struggled in a pile of their own waste and limbs induced a self-loathing doubt. Again he was overwhelmed by a desperate urge to take the jar outside and smash it on the ground so the remaining crickets could escape, and live.

But he resisted the impulse, this time not because of scientific detachment, but fear. He was afraid to touch the jar because he suddenly sensed that the crickets were aware of his presence and were staring at him, hating him. He was momentarily subjected to the image of being inside the jar with the crickets, fending for his life with nothing but brute instinct to defend himself, and the unendurable stench filled his nostrils, until he turned and ran out of the basement, scared and ashamed.

***

John opens his eyes and quickly wipes away the tears that have streamed down his cheeks. The idea of making it through a full workday is unimaginable. He contemplates calling in sick, but the thought of getting back on the freeway upsets him more than the prospect of his cubicle.

He walks through the garage, and in spite of himself, can’t help smiling sardonically as he approaches the familiar figure standing in front of the elevator.

“Hey there Uncle Sam. Another tough day at the office?”

The man looks at John hesitantly, as though unaccustomed to being spoken to, or even noticed.

“It must be hard work, salvaging the souls of us weaker brethren,” John says, holding out his hand. “I’d like to thank you.”

The man frowns through his grubby white beard, saying nothing. As John steps past him, he notices for the first time how strained that simulated face seems.

“Just don’t pretend that you aren’t a slave too, all right?” he says as the doors close between them.

***

He walks through the office, trying not to make eye contact with anyone. He almost runs into his supervisor and looks up sheepishly. She stares at him with a mixture of disapproval and concern. “John, you look exhausted. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” he replies, forcing himself to smile. “Sorry I’m late.”

 

Sean Murphy has been publishing fiction, reviews (of music, movie, book, food), and essays on the technology industry for almost twenty years. He has appeared on NPR’s “All Things Considered” and been quoted in USA Today, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Forbes and AdAge. In addition, he is an associate editor at The Weeklings, where he contributes a monthly column. He writes regularly for PopMatters, and his work has also appeared in Salon, The Village Voice, The New York Post, The Good Men Project, All About Jazz, AlterNet, Web Del Sol, Elephant Journal, Punchnel’s and Northern Virginia Magazine. He is currently the writer-in-residence at Noepe Center for Literary Arts at Martha’s Vineyard. Murphy’s best-selling memoir PLEASE TALK ABOUT ME WHEN I’M GONE was released in 2013. His novel NOT TO MENTION A NICE LIFE was published in June 2015, and his first collection of non-fiction, MURPHY’S LAW, VOL. ONE, in spring 2016.

To learn more about Sean Murphy’s writing and to check his events schedule, please visit seanmurphy.net/.

This is a movie. There is no music, no soundtrack, no artificial sound effects. There is sound, but it is natural, created by the moments that occur in real time. We don’t want to affect your interpretation of the moment by playing melancholic notes that elicit sadness or joyful arpeggios that evoke some kind of happiness. We don’t want to frighten you with piano stabs that jar the ears or shake the soul. We don’t want to give you the solitary violin solo when the protagonist dies or loses a lover. What you feel should be real and true, it should be influenced by nothing other than the action at hand. Life does not have a soundtrack. Life is not a movie.

This is the opening sequence. Text flits across the screen – names of actors (known and unknown), producers (known and unknown), director (new and unknown), other behind-the-scene bit players who are instrumental in turning this dream into an onscreen reality (all unknown). The text itself is plain and tells you very little about the movie you’re about to see. It gives no clues as to which direction the narrative will flow. The white-lettered words fade in, solidify, fade out, all against the backdrop of a cityscape at night. The camera moves down the street as if driving a car, capturing the sidewalk moments as it passes.

A couple on the left stumble and laugh as they hold tight to each other. A solitary figure on the right walks with his head down, smoking, his features hidden by his own exhalations. He wears a black peacoat, collar upturned to block the chill of the night. A plaid scarf lays wrapped around his neck, its ends hanging low against his stomach, a fashionable noose in reverse. His face reveals nothing – it is placid and calm, devoid of any emotion or hint of thought as he walks.

The camera breaks off as if exiting the car still in motion. The camera swoops on to the sidewalk, comes up behind the man and follows him. His steps echo in the night against the backdrop of rowdy bar patrons and cat-calling streetwalkers hoping to fill both their nightly quotas and themselves. The view changes; the camera faces his left side as he walks. A smile breaks as he waves off the hookers, tells them no thank you, continues to smoke his cigarette.

This is the protagonist. You will watch him rise and fall and possibly rise again in the course of the next ninety-seven minutes. He contains personality traits that you love, he contains personality traits that irritate you. In some ways he is you; in others, he is someone you know, someone you have loved in a previous life. Through the hand of someone else’s imagination, you have felt yourself connected to this person that does not actually exist except on screen. That this person is not real does not sever the emotional connection. That this person is not real does not stop you from choking up at the key moments of high emotion.

The litany of names and Hollywood entities that have collaborated to create this motion picture stops scrolling across the screen as he enters an apartment building several minutes later. The camera remains outside, pans up, follows the protagonist’s climb up the windowed stairwell of the building. The walls inside are dingy white. In places, the paint peels – it is an older building, but a nice one despite the apparent lack of upkeep.

The view changes to a closer angle. The camera is now inside the darkened apartment, facing the door as it opens. The protagonist steps in, drops his keys in an unseen bowl that chimes, and walks towards the camera in the dark. A refrigerator light illuminates a small part of the kitchen. Shown in the light: a counter top, a few dishes, some silverware, a spice rack, a tiny wall-mounted stereo above the backsplash. This is where he does his cooking (very little), eats (a great deal), and listens to the news on the radio (often).

The refrigerator door shuts, the kitchen lights are flipped on. A note, hidden by the dark, is held up by magnets on the freezer door:

Don’t forget, it reads, simple and vague, in a woman’s handwriting. The handwriting is from the protagonist’s love interest, though he does not think she feels the same towards him. The camera pans in, focuses on the note and the pictures surrounding it, pictures of the protagonist and a pretty woman with long dark hair, a wide, genuine smile, and eyes deeper than sound.

In this camera shot: four photo booth pictures of the couple stacked on top of each other, each one sillier than the one before it.

In this camera shot: a group photo where she is piggy backing him, both laughing with open mouths, her arms wrapped tight around his chest.

In this camera shot: a night out. They stand together, posing, with her in a stylish black dress and him clad in two parts of a three-piece suit: the slacks and the vest.

The protagonist removes a tumbler from the cabinets, fills it with ice and then tops it with a brown liquor from one of several bottles littering the countertop. He lets the glass sit and sweat on the counter as he removes his coat, tosses it onto the back of a chair and rummages through his mail, which he tosses into the trash immediately after.

He grabs the drink and settles onto his couch. The camera angle changes, is now seemingly sitting on top of the television and focused on the protagonist as he drinks and flips through the channels, the light of the idiot box filling the dark living room. The camera fades to black.

*          *          *

Daylight. This is the beginning of exposition and the first hints of rising action. The camera moves from scene to scene showing a city waking up. Food vendors setting up shiny, steel-plated breakfast carts, joggers running through parks, other city-dwellers crammed tight on public transit lumbering through the cityscape. The camera moves through the subway crowd, finds the protagonist holding on to the ceiling rails and trying to make himself as thin as possible for the other riders squeezing in around him. If he is currently uncomfortable or annoyed, his face does not reveal it.

The camera follows him when he exits at his stop, follows him up the stairs leading to the street, follows him across avenues and alleyways until he arrives at a nondescript building. He enters through the glass doors, passes a security desk with a wave and a smile to the guard on duty, hustles into a quickly-closing elevator. The camera focuses in on the doors closing only to have them open again four floors later where he exits.

The camera angle moves in parallel along the opposite side of the office, follows the protagonist on the far side of the room as he maneuvers his way past interns and staff, finds his cubicle to begin his day. The angle changes, focuses in on the top of his work station as he hangs up his coat and drops his leather shoulder bag to the floor: one stapler, random paper clips strewn about, papers of various color in various trays denoting various levels of work completion. The computer is booting up and a light blinks on his desk phone. He lifts the receiver and dials, listening to a message you can’t hear. The camera pans up to his face, which remains unreadable until he raises his eyebrows and the hint of a smile plays itself across his face.

*          *          *

This is where the plot thickens, expands, adds complications where none existed before. This is where the narrative arc peaks and then dives, only to peak again later. Exposition as filler occurs, giving you (the viewer) more to watch as events unfurl behind the visible scenes. This is where a montage of mild action scenes occurs, following the protagonist through the motions of moving from his desk to another on a different floor. This is the video montage where the protagonist meets new people, creates new confidences in the new strangers around him. This is where new characters are introduced; coworkers, friends, colleagues of a different sort. Some will remain as key players while others will play ancillary roles in the life of this fictional character, flitting in and out randomly. They will be there to help him suss out the necessary solutions (or inadvertently create more complications) regarding his actions and thoughts from here on out. These are the necessary moving parts that give momentum to the bigger story, which has yet to reveal itself, though you can sense the real story unspooling as the movie plays on.

*          *          *

Night time. The protagonist talks on the phone, pacing his living room as he tells his female friend about the surprising promotion he got at work that morning. It is a little extra money, he tells her, with a little more responsibility and a larger cubicle on a different floor. By the tone of her voice, you can sense that she is sincere in her excitement for him. He agrees to meet her for drinks, hangs up, and leaves the apartment.

The camera goes dark before opening up on a scene of two drinks on the bar: a rocks glass and a martini glass, both sweating from the chilled liquid within them. The protagonist’s voice comes from out of frame followed by the voice of his female friend. The banter is quick and playful, sometimes flirty but never overtly so. What you, the viewer, deduce is that these two have known each other for a very long time or they are at least very close.

You’ve seen this game play out before, seen this narrative in thousands of movies that have come before and yet it still evokes the same kind of feeling in you when you actually connect with the characters on screen. Fight it all you want, but the bubble that grows and rises in your chest moves up to your throat. You see them together finally and realize they look like a perfect match. You want this for them; you want this for you because it feels right. This is the truth found in the viewable fiction.

The camera focuses in on the drinks again, the liquid inside having sunk lower and lower. New drinks are placed behind the old ones, ready to be guzzled down. Their speech slows down as if their minds have been filled with molasses. Stuttered words and slurred ideas slink through the theater speakers. The audience knows what the characters are trying to say as they speak past each other, each trying to intimate their intentions towards the other, but the absolute want deflates in the air before it ever reaches the ears. The flirting becomes awkward, stilted. This is the nature of the third shared drink; poor attempts at smooth verbal acrobatics. You cringe at their lackluster mating dance.

The fourth drink arrives, and truth with it. Halfway through, her hand reaches out for his, wrapped around the rocks glass. The protagonist looks up at her, first confused and then understanding. He lays his free hand over hers wrapped around his wrapped around the glass before leaning in to whisper something in her ear. You cannot hear what he says, but by the way she lowers her head, pulls loose strands of hair behind her ear, and leans into the whisper while smiling, you get an idea.

*          *          *

The camera is back in the protagonist’s darkened apartment, focused squarely on his door. Light from the hallway spills through the cracks on every side. The sound of keys jangling against the lock and then being dropped on the hallway floor is clear, though slightly muffled beneath drunk, whispering voices. The sound of shoes on wood flooring, fabric on fabric, keys against glass bowl. No symphonic strings, no ache-inducing arpeggios, no melody other than that of the physical courtship taking place in the dark. It is late and the protagonist stumbles into the hallway followed closely by his love interest, light spilling in behind them and filling up the screen, silhouetting the two before the door is shut behind them again. The sound of walls being bumped into and bodies smooshed against each other. A light flickers on and the apartment becomes dimly lit as the camera follows the protagonist and his love interest into the kitchen.

This is the scene where they are alone, where the chemistry between person and person becomes tangible and real and makes them one. This is where the soft touch of anxious lips nearly meet. This is where your heartbeat picks up, quickens, delighted that the protagonist is getting something he wants because it is the only true thing he knows or believes in. This is where the protagonist feels the butterflies in his stomach flit back to life for the first time in a decade. This is where the heat from hands and fingers is electric, where each touch, each connection, sends vibrations through him as if this were the first time his affection had ever been returned.

This is the sound of papers pushed to the floor off counters, of hair being pushed aside by wanting hands, of clothing rubbed against clothing as want rubs against want. This is the sound of the protagonist’s lips against the love interest’s neck line, against her clavicle, against the divot in her chest that hints at other curves in need of attention. This is the sound of ravenous desire, unimpeded by some orchestral addition, by some music plucked and bowed intentionally to evoke a certain emotion from the audience. You know these characters now; you know what you want for both of them.

This is the love scene done in alternating shots in the dark, the standard images of lovers wrapped up in each other, a flurry of roaming hands and shared kisses as they move through the apartment, the camera moving from wide-out shots to close-ups with increasing frequency, the change happening rapidly over and over to mimic the passion of the moment. This is their clothing being removed hastily, thrown about without a care. This is him shirtless; this is her bra falling to the floor. This is the two of them staring at each other, smiling, as pants come unzipped and crumple around ankles. These are the sheets thrown off the bed as hands and lips drink in the skin, everything about the moment a lustful explosion of need and sweat, each tongue fumbling to taste the other wildly. There is a brief moment where his hands hover over a scar-shaped birthmark along the left side of her abdomen. Her hand covers his, moves it down her body to where she wishes.

The camera darkens, leaving the lovers alone to their privacy…

*          *          *

…then opens up on the next morning with the protagonist waking up. She is gone, as is the clothing she left scattered throughout the apartment. A weird smile plays across his face (both confusion and joy) as he buries his face in the pillows, inhales and smiles because they still smell like her, the sheets more so. He rises and cleans up the kitchen and the hallway leading to his room before he showers and heads to work, forgetting to eat a quick breakfast.

This is a wide-out shot of the city. Sunlight reflects off the glass of corporate buildings downtown. The view pans down to street level as the protagonist enters one of the hundreds of structures. He carries a non-descript coffee cup and wears a smile that everyone seems to notice. His wave to the security guard as he passes by is more animated than usual. That he is crammed into the elevator with others, all unsmiling or who sigh in exaggerated ways at the start of a new day, does nothing to diminish his mood.

The camera follows him as he exits on the fourth floor, strides to his desk, powers up his computer and spins once in his chair, trying to mentally hold on to the previous night’s luck, hoping to remember every stitch of happening that occurred over the course of several hours. He replays the highlights in his mind, forgetting completely that he is at work. He spins in his chair again, staring up into the camera that hangs above, capturing his glee.

A coworker arrives. His clip-on nametag says Lionel as he leans against the cubicle wall, laughing at our protagonist. Morning greetings are shared, a milder, work-safe version of the previous night’s activities is recounted as the camera moves down from the ceiling to pan out and include both men in the shot. The conversation ends as the camera pans out to a wider shot of the entire office, finally stopping behind the desk of another, as yet unknown, coworker several cubicles away.

From the angle, it is clear he can overhear the conversation. His hands stop typing as the phrase “birthmark shaped like a scar” is uttered. His fingers freeze in the air, tremble just enough to show that he is affected. The camera shot becomes his line of vision; we, the viewers, become him. He balls his hands into fists and looks over the cubicle walls, only able to see Lionel standing above all the other surrounding walls.

The unknown coworker stands up as if to get a refill. He looks around and sees the look on our protagonist’s face. The camera pans out wide, sees both men lock eyes for an uncomfortable few seconds, then the unknown coworker strides out of his cubicle and out of the scene to some other part of the office, his reaction revealing nothing. The protagonist returns back to his typing. The camera darkens.

*          *          *

The camera opens up on dusk in the city. The sunset through the buildings is a bright and brilliant orange. If there were music in this movie, this might be the place to play the minor keys with extra spaces between notes, hinting at some kind of sadness on the way. On a subconscious level, the music would tell you how to feel, but as a viewer, you already know how to feel. The director has given you little bits of information for you to decipher, an emotional puzzle that puts you directly in the protagonist’s shoes. You worry that the coincidence is too much, too easy, especially in a city that size. What are the chances that would really happen? And yet, outside of the movie theater, outside of the movie screen, that same kind of coincidence can, and often does, happen.

The camera pans out from the cityscape and seems to go right through the protagonist’s window, focusing on him lounging in his living room. The television is on, but the volume is turned down. A glass of amber sweats on his coffee table as his thumb bounces across the buttons of his phone. The camera focuses in on the screen where we see that his texts to his love interest have not been responded to all day.

The camera follows him as he stands, polishes his drink. He heads to the kitchen to pour another and turns out all the lights in frustration. This is his body language and facial expression showing that the morning’s joy has been ushered out of him through her silence. Fade to black.

*          *          *

Fade in. Our protagonist is still in bed. The late morning sun spills into his room, turning his white sheets brighter. His eyes are barely open, but he is awake, head turned on the pillow as he stares at his phone on the night stand. The screen is dark, the implication being she still has not called or texted back. An exaggerated sigh passes his lips before he closes his eyes again. It’s Saturday, so the need to leave the bed does not exist.

He picks up the phone and thumbs it open, knowing full well she has not replied while he slept. He runs his thumbs over the numbers, debating whether he should call or text again. He knows she has received his other messages, so would sending another help? Or would it, ultimately hurt? The anguish on his face is obvious and understandable.

He turns to the window, sees and hears pigeons on his windowsill softly cooing at each other. He closes the phone, chews on the corner of it anxiously, fully knowing that another message will not make her reply any faster. Eventually, he tosses the phone across the room into a pile of laundry and turns back to the pigeons at the window, soaking up their softly-cooed lullaby. Through careful editing, the screen mimics his heavy-lidded eyes struggling to stay open before finally fading back to black.

*          *          *

The camera opens up on the apartment. It’s hinted that several days have passed as the camera pans across the living room and the breakfast nook and the kitchen before moving slowly down the hallway to his bedroom. Each area seems disheveled, disorganized. Normally tidy, our protagonist’s apartment has become a refuge for empty pizza boxes and nearly empty bottles of both liquor and beer. He has become a cliché of the lovelorn, the stricken, the emotionally dispossessed.

The camera moves up towards the ceiling facing down, showing him to be splayed out like a starfish on his bed wearing nothing but underwear. His face is covered in stubble and he stares up into the camera as if trying to make an emotional appeal to the audience with only his eyes. They are wide and red-rimmed as if he has not slept or, if he has, his sleep has been exceedingly poor.

The sound of soft vibration through the camera. The protagonist struggles to stand, does so slowly as if his balance is in question. Does he remember where he threw the phone? The audience does, but we watch as he plods around the room, nearly indifferent to its sound, rummaging through clothes both dirty and clean, rummaging beneath piles of mail, lifting his bed sheets and shaking them out. Still the phone vibrates and then? Silence.

Eventually, he finds the phone and flips it open. The camera pans in to the screen and shows “Unknown Number” across the top. He holds the phone close, staring at it as if wishing for a prayer to come true. The vibrations stop. No message is left. No number is given. His knuckles redden as his grip tightens around the phone.

*          *          *

This is the sound of his imagination running wild. This is the sound of him imagining her with someone else. This is the sound of her laughter ringing in his ears, the sound of her breathing against his chest. This is the sound of him pacing the apartment, filled with equal parts of adoration and disdain for her, vacillating between the two endlessly.

This is the sound of him trying to explain away her silence, trying to put logic before passion and failing miserably. This is the sound of him talking to himself, wondering why she couldn’t simply call, or even text, him back. This is the sound of his apartment cowering in fear, wondering if it will be the unwilling recipient of someone else’s fist through one of its walls again.

This is the sound of waiting silence. This is the sound of bare feet upon carpet covered in opened mail. This is the sound of seconds ticking by like hours. This is the sound of flies landing on empty pizza boxes in the kitchen. This is the sound of silent days lasting too long, of the time spent at work in a cubicle feeling more like time spent in a prison.

The camera moves to the ceiling, faces straight down to show the entire room. Stop motion photography will show us the movement of our protagonist as he paces the room, sleeps on the couch, sits staring blankly at his television, or makes attempts to read to take his mind off of her.

Eventually, he’ll come to understand that she won’t be returning his call. Time will move normally again. His will be the sound of productivity, of moving on, of putting her out of mind. Time will be back in his control at some point, but he does not believe this worldly truth right now. He cannot think rationally beyond the moment.

*          *          *

The camera fades in to show our protagonist’s apartment building. Months have passed; it is winter now. Mounds of snow sit perched on every window sill of the building. Wind passes, carries with it tiny flurries that drift along the currents and makes it feel like it is snowing all over again despite the storm having stopped late last night. The world glistens and sparkles.

The camera comes closer to the building, seemingly passing right through the protagonist’s window and into his bedroom. He is dressing in front of a full-length mirror perched precariously on the floor and leaning against the wall. He wears dark jeans, thick wool socks, and a button-up dress shirt that he will cover with a beige and red sweater he received for Christmas.

We watch as the camera follows him to the bathroom where he checks his hair, spits mouthwash out into the sink, and then heads to the living room to put on his coat and boots. The camera moves to the hallway where we watch as he exits, locks the door, and heads down the stairwell out into snowy weather.

He turns his phone on, chooses a playlist, and slides a knit stocking hat over his head, covering his ears and headphones. The music is minimal, crystalline. A piano score from some movie that the audience can barely hear. The camera follows him out into the snow, his breath coming out like smoke from a raging fire within him.

A woman walks on the other side of the street. He doesn’t recognize her, but she is his old friend, the one who has yet to ring him back after their summer tryst. Her presence barely raises a blip on his internal radar, and so he continues back on his way to work, the volume on his headphones turned up loud enough to drown out anyone speaking on the bus.

The woman sees him, instantly recognizes him across the traffic. She yells his name several times to get his attention, but she thinks he’s ignoring her as he doesn’t stop, but keeps walking on, trudging through the snow. She waves her hands in the air over and over to no avail.

An older man walking his dog looks at her funny as his dog does its business. The dog finishes and leads the man down the sidewalk. The man whistles some old song that she can remember, but just barely. It sits on the tip of her tongue, just out of reach. The song will play in her head all day as she wonders why her friend did not turn around to greet her.

The camera moves, a close up to her face, and records the confusion in her eyes and the slowly disappearing smile before turning back to watch the protagonist walk down the sidewalk and turn the corner.

Fade to black.

 

Adam “Bucho” Rodenberger is a 37 year old writer from Kansas City.

He has been published in Agua Magazine, Alors, Et Tois?, Aphelion, Bluestem Magazine, BrainBox Magazine, Cause & Effect Magazine, Cahoodaloodaling, Crack the Spine, Eunoia Review, Five Quarterly Magazine, Ginosko Literary Journal, Glint Literary Journal, The Gloom Cupboard, Hamilton Stone Review, The Heartland Review, L’allures des Mots, Lunch Box, Meat For Tea: The Valley Review, Offbeatpulp, Penduline Press, Phoebe, Poydras Review, The Santa Clara Review, Serving House Journal, Sheepshead Review, Slice Magazine, Up The Staircase, Fox Spirit’s “Girl at the End of the World: Book 1″ anthology, and has been shortlisted for the Almond Press “Broken Worlds” fiction contest.He blogs at http://triphoprisy.blogspot.com

The high-pitched and melodic vibrations from the Cambodian khim musical instrument drifted under the heavy tree canopy like spirits floating through time and space, marking entry into a new and spiritual world. Double and triple vibrations beckoned casual tourists, their shirts matted with sweat even though it was mid-morning, toward the sound and the young boy playing. A few stood in front of his meager stand, fanning themselves with floral hats, tugging on shirts to release the moisture that clung to their bodies. It was better to keep walking, to keep what breeze there was flowing to cool off warming bodies. And so they moved on, kicking up the dust from the well-worn trail.

The young boy’s stand was a few hundred feet from the front of the ancient temple. He sat here almost every day, playing for American, Chinese, and European tourists eager for limited and safe adventure in the temples, reassured with the knowledge that air conditioning and diverse buffets awaited them back at their luxury hotels in Siem Reap. A few stood silently watching the young boy play, aware for the moment at least, that they stood atop a sacred place. The music was the invitation to linger and listen longer. Echoes of centuries past whispered in their ears, inviting them to release their material form and embrace that of the spiritual. Those few felt their cultural and spiritual equilibrium fluctuate and this unnerved them. For that moment they were placed between two sets of worlds: West and East, physical and spiritual. They, too, moved on.

The young boy wore a white button-up shirt over black shorts. He sat cross legged behind the khim, holding the two bamboo sticks tipped with leather in each hand, allowing them to dance in unison over the strings attached to the wooden trapezoid. Over time, the young boy had learned to play this way for hours. Here he sat on top of wooden planks and under the plastic tarp to shield him from what few solar rays penetrated the green trees, trees that were aware of the coming summer rains and longing for the life it brought.

Leaning against the stand were two small metal crutches. These were prominently placed in front so all of the tourists would see them, feel bad for the young boy, and drop a few dollars, which were accepted in the country, into the nearby pot. Not all of the tourists donated. Some suspected a scam, that the boy was not really crippled. Others rejected out of guilt. How much to offer? What was enough? If an American only dropped in a five dollar bill, would this be taken as Western arrogance, knowing that the tourist could afford much more than five dollars?

The fact was that the boy needed the metal crutches. Born with a clubbed foot on a leg that was shorter than the other, he hobbled around for much of his young life until a local charity donated the crutches that dramatically lifted his spirits and allowed him to at least pretend he was like the other boys in his village. He would not play soccer on the field behind the village that had been cleared of hidden land mines from the Khmer Rouge era, but he could at least watch them and have the sensation, through imagination, of running with the other boys.

The young boy stopped playing in the late morning, as the last tourists left the temple grounds on the buses that would take them back to their hotels, before the afternoon showers dumped a cascade of relief onto the dry and dusty ground. The next wave would return mid-afternoon after the rains ended for the day, where they repeated the same performance as the morning visitors, straining to hear their local guides, taking a barrage of photographs with their phones attached to vanity sticks, all while trying to avoid mud and puddles lest their shoes become dirty.

He lifted the khim to one side, away from the crutches, and slid to the edge of the wooden planks. His legs dangling over the elevated edge, he grabbed ahold of crutches planting them firmly into the ground. Making certain that they were stable in the dirt, the young boy lifted himself up. The air was sticky with the promise of rain. He knew that he only had a little bit of time before his mother came by with lunch. After that, more playing through the afternoon was required.

He swung the two crutches ahead of him, followed by his one good leg. A few disheveled and bored security guards watched him move around the stand with relative ease, something he had done hundreds of times before. Each swing of the crutches was matched by a poff sound upon striking down on the dirt. No longer interested in the young boy, the security guards chuckled to themselves and watched the last of the tourists leave, the women removing the sweat-soaked shawls that covered their bare and snowy white skin right as they lifted their legs onto the bus, showcasing alabaster mixed with speckles of dirt and dust.

Lost from their consciousness, the young boy made his way down a back trail. Swing and poff. Swing and poff. There was only one thing that captivated him at the moment, holding him hostage to the present: the desire to find a fighting cricket.

Not just any fighting cricket would do.  It needed to have good legs capable of springing on its opponent once the divider in the cage, keeping the two crickets separated, was lifted. The other boys challenged each other after soccer matches and the young boy wanted more than anything to be a part of this. He could not run or kick a ball, but he could have a cricket jump for him.

The best places to look for fighting crickets were deep in holes in the ground. There was a great deal of caution needed here because cobras sometimes used these holes as nests for their young. His mother always warned him not to put his hand down a hole, not knowing what lurked there, waiting for him. When she was young, a boy from her village had become partially paralyzed after a cobra bit him twice when he stuck his hand into a hole on a dare. His parents were too poor to pay for the anti-venom after a local doctor withheld treatment until they could afford to do so. The boy was lucky to be alive at all, the young boy’s mother often told him, needing to remind him of the dangers of the forest.

Beads of sweat dripped from his forehead. He wiped them with the back of his hand, careful to keep balance with his good leg and other crutch. The ground was littered with underbrush, twisted limbs and gnarled roots, providing shade and nutrients for the creatures below it. There was likely at least a few holes nearby.

He used one crutch to push aside the ebullient vegetation just off the trail. Crickets liked to hide underneath it. One boy from the soccer field said crickets wanted to avoid the heat of the day and therefore sought out cooler places for food, like old leaves and other organic matter. He did not know if this was true or not; sometimes the boys from the soccer field liked to tease him and play tricks on him. A good fighting cricket might make them accept him and stop teasing him.

Not finding a hole, the young boy looked up and down the trail. He stood still, a look of deep thought etched on his face. His eyes slanted and his mouth puckered out. He tapped the ground off-trail to his right with a crutch and then again on his left. A look of hesitation replaced contemplation. Again he tapped the ground off-trail. He cast his eyes several meters ahead in the direction of an old tree.

The vegetation crunched under his crutches as he took his first step off the trail. A well of confidence slowly filled up the closer he swung himself to the tree. There would likely be a fighting cricket somewhere close, especially since the ground was densely tangled with decaying leaves and worn-out limbs that once lifted up and touched the sky. Steps away from the young boy, wrapped face-down in the thick vegetation, lay a discolored red sign featuring a grinning but faded skull intersected from behind by two bones. Above the skull were words in the Khmer script.  Below were two words in English: “Danger!!  Mines!!”

The young boy saw a cavity partially hidden next to the tree. He heard a lone cricket chirp. A smile erupted on his face as he itched with excitement with the possibility that this cricket would make his dreams come true. Dreams of acceptance. Dreams of friendship. He took a step.

Click.

The boy froze, his eyes opened wide.

The world stopped.

A loud explosion gonged out over the temple grounds. Then there was silence followed by the stampede of footsteps toward the deafening and once familiar sound.

The afternoon rains began.

**************

The tuk-tuk’s motor whizzed to a stop on the side of road, fresh from the afternoon’s rains. Two green jeeps and one brown truck, blending in with the mud, sat just ahead under the cloudy and despondent sky. The tuk-tuk driver, his shirt wet, pointed out to the adjacent field. Looking back at his passenger, he nodded solemnly at the figures standing in the distance.

“Mines.  Danger,” he said.

His passenger leaned his head out of the tuk-tuk­ for a better view. He squinted through his glasses at the scene in front of him. Three men, one dressed in fatigues with a padded blue vest, and the other two wearing khakis and loose, buttoned-up shirts, hovered over something below them. The passenger strained for a better look, uncertain if he should leave his seat. He looked at the driver and nodded to the ground outside the tuk-tuk.

“Yes,” he asked.

“Yes, yes. I wait. Very important.” The driver nodded vigorously. The scene was something that the driver wanted to show his passenger.

The passenger stepped out and casually stretched each leg. He had not been travelling long, but he was tall and the backseat of the tuk-tuk­ was not built for people his size. He was curious. On his flight from the United States, the passenger had read about the war in Cambodia decades earlier starting in 1975, when the Khmer Rouge seized the capital city of Phnom Penh, unleashing one of the worst but least known genocides of the 20th century. He fell asleep soon afterwards, dreaming of starvation and the killing fields. Now, standing on a muddy road kilometers outside of Siem Reap, in the northwestern part of the country, his dream had manifested itself, creating a reality for him and allowing passage into a daily reality for the people who now gathered along the outskirts of the field. They were spectators like himself, but ones who could not escape an uncomfortable reality by jumping on an airplane.

“What are they looking at?” the American asked his driver.

“Cow. Look.” The driver, turning off the motor, stepped out of the tuk-tuk. “See,” he pointed to a mound of flesh a few meters from where the three men stood. “There,” he moved his finger to the other side of the men. “And there.”

The American surveyed the field for other mounds of flesh. As his eyes acclimatized to what was happening in front of him, his understanding crystalized. A hind leg here and part of a head there meant one less source of income for a family. Distant sobbing drew his attention to the locals gathered on the other side of the vehicles. A diminutive man, his face lined with years of experience and hardship, held a sobbing woman closely. She held her hands in front of her face, her head shaking with disbelief. The American stared at them, uncomfortable in his voyeurism but unable to look away. He understood that their life had now become even more difficult to navigate.

A petite woman in fatigues and a blue padded vest that covered her entire torso appeared from the other side of the jeep. She wore a helmet with a raised full-face visor. A ponytail bobbed from underneath the helmet as she strode to the three men, hollering out to them.

“What did she say?” asked the American, surprised to see a woman.

“Boss,” the driver grinned.

The American smiled to himself but quickly deleted it, worried that it might be misunderstood by the locals. He was surprised to see the woman not because he thought women could not lead men, but that he had never heard of a woman leading a de-mining effort. Ignorance is never bliss, he chastised to himself. Women are just as capable as men.

The woman stood next to the three men, shorter than each, but greater in stature. A conversation continued with all four nodding and scanning the field. The woman looked back at the mourning couple. She said something to the other three who again nodded and made their way back to the vehicles, leaving the woman alone. Granite-colored clouds gathered thickly over the horizon, billowing with another spasm of rain. The leaden look and feel in the air contrasted with the verdant field and surrounding trees, renewed with the welcome and daily storms.

The American was mesmerized by the woman standing alone, silhouetted by a peak of cobalt before that was swallowed up by the ghostly-moving clouds. The strength this one person displayed captivated him and, if as he privately admitted, aroused him too. He was afraid that this was simply the Western-perceived exoticness of Asia. He did not know this woman. He did not even know what she looked like. But something about how she carried herself pulled him to her.

The woman turned her head and met the American’s eyes. The hair on his arms and the back of his neck stood at attention, whether from the approaching rains or her eyes locking onto his, he could not perceive. Nor did he really want to. For the moment, there was an endless possibility and endless rewards.

The woman disengaged and walked to the mourning couple. Several locals had their arms around the couple, patting their bony and labored shoulders. The woman removed her helmet and set it on the ground. She brought the palms of her hands together and slightly bowed her head. The mourning couple and the rest of the locals responded in kind. A few words were spoken between the woman and the mourning couple. After another bow, the woman picked up her helmet and walked toward the three men and the vehicles.

“You want to leave now?” the driver asked, snapping the American back and breaking his absorption of the woman. The driver was getting antsy looking up at the approaching rain.

“Not yet,” the American began, “but soon.” The American did not believe in fate, but he did not necessarily believe in random chance, either. At least it was always preferable not to believe in random chance. Otherwise you lost the value of free will. For him, the next step after acquiescing free will was blind religious zealotry. However, it was not just religious zealotry that he disliked, but blind political zealotry too. Both had been barriers to civilizational progress.

The woman stopped before the vehicles to look over at the American. She spoke to the man in the fatigues and handed him her helmet. Then she walked toward the American who quickly forgot about the driver and the coming rain.

“American or European?” she asked in flawless English. He was not certain what had struck him the most, her English or the pristine and angelic features of her eyes and delicately angled chin.

“American,” he stammered out. “Christopher Macleod.” He extended his hand before snatching it back to bring his palms together. He bowed slightly, “Sues-day.

She laughed and met his greeting with her own. “Sues-day,” her voice rang. “My name is Srey.”

“Just Srey?”

“For now.”

Christopher smiled and grasped ahold of the freshness and vibrancy that Srey possessed. She was immediately like an elixir to him, working to cure him of his awkward Western perceptions.  Srey was the liminal gate between two worlds, potentially allowing him access to one and a better understanding of the other and his place in it. This epiphany was sudden and electric and filled him with a new awareness. This both exhilarated him and alarmed him.

“What happened?” he asked and quickly wished to take the question back as it was obvious what had happened here.

Srey tilted her head. “Locals thought they cleared the field of mines. They didn’t. A family lost a source of money. Life is now more difficult for them as if it weren’t already.” Her face dropped and a devastatingly sad look claimed its surface. She looked back at the mourning couple who were now shuffling from the field and down the road. “Many rural Cambodians live on less than one dollar a day. If they are fortunate. Had we been called, my team could have cleared the field for them. We would have de-mined it completely.” Christopher felt the frustration in Srey’s voice.

“What would de-mining entail? How does it happen?” He thought it best to keep the conversation moving technically and away from the sadness, knowing full well that this gesture might be misread. Srey reconnected to him, her eyes drifting from time to time to the darkening horizon.

“We clear the brush, and then grid the area out. Next we use metal detectors to scan the grid. If we hit on something, we’ll carefully prod into the dirt until we confirm that there’s a land mine underneath. Once the area is cleared, we trigger the mine. There are six million mines left in Cambodia. We have much work to do.” Srey’s voice was distant, having gone over this hundreds of times in her head and in front of Western and Chinese non-profit organizations, hoping for the necessary funds to continue the process. Rising out of bed every day to remove these hidden horrors of a bygone war conveyed great passion and commitment on her part. A commitment to the future of her country and the future of her culture. Srey’s focus was on the future.

“The jungles must be a dangerous place,” mused Christopher. The rains were closer.

Srey saw him truly for the first time. “No, it’s not the jungles that are dangerous. It’s the civilization that brings its wars and conflicts that is dangerous.” As the clouds continued to darken the sky, ready to burst, there was great clarity in what Srey said. “We believe in srok and brai. The village and the forest. Civilization is where man dominates but the forest is where the spirit dominates. The Khmer Rouge believed that they were saving the forest by empting the cities and murdering teachers. They were wrong. They brought their version of civilization to the forest and destroyed it and my country. And now we continue to pay the price of their arrogance.”

Christopher was at a loss for words. Here stood a woman of complete purity of devotion with an essence intoxicating and overwhelming. Regardless of what he did in his life, it would not compare to what this woman did every day of hers.

“Your family?  How do they feel about this?” He usually avoided asking personal questions of people he met, or even had known for years. Every person had a story and often those stories were deeply personal and not for sharing, regardless of social media and pop culture norms.

“My brother is always worried. One day, long after we had cleared an abandoned field behind our village so the children could play soccer, I asked him this question: Do you remember hearing the explosions from the field when we were children? Yes, he replied. I then asked him if heard them now. No, he replied. This is why I do this. So that children can be children, and run and play free from death and despair. This was our life. It does not have to be theirs.”

Christopher felt warm internally. A breeze had arrived, the precursor of rain. He felt deeply attracted to this woman he had only met a few minutes earlier. But he felt that he had known her for far longer. Life offers moments, that briefly flutter by, to seize, that define the rest of one’s life. As the first trickle of rain dropped on them, he gambled and reached out to seize this moment.

“I know this may not be appropriate given where we’re at,” he waved his hands toward the field, “but I’d like to know more about what you do. If you’re not busy, may I buy you dinner?”

Srey’s head jerked back, surprised at Christopher’s words. She smiled.

“Yes.  I’d like that.”

The afternoon rains returned.

*************

“There wasn’t anything you could have done,” the woman replied, her French accent emphasizing the first consonant in each word. “These things happen.” She brushed a few strands of wet hair from her forehead, short blondish-brown hair that absorbed the sun’s rays. A lithe but athletic arm reached out of the pool for her drink, revealing a tiny happy Buddha tattoo on her right shoulder. “It’s best to just try to forget and move on.”

The man floating next to her in the pool nodded and smiled. “You’re of course right. I just wonder if I didn’t commit some sort of faux pas.”

The French woman shook her head him. “No, not likely. And if you did, mistakes like this happen.” She sipped her red-colored drink and licked the remnants from her lips, moistening them again. “There are two different worlds at play here, Christopher. East and West. No matter what we like to think about the benefits of globalization, these divisions often reinforce themselves to counter its effects. We all like our social media,” she motioned over to her phone on a bamboo chair under a small canopy, “but it is nothing compared to the power and memory of historical forces.”

Christopher gazed deeply at Sophie’s face, memorizing the freckles that dotted her nose and the curve of her lips when she smiled. He mentally took inventory of her, not wanting to forget any line or curve of her eyebrows. She was welcome distraction for the moment and one he sorely needed.

A Chinese couple walked along the pool with their young daughter. The man was portly and covered this with a t-shirt. His wife wore considerably less, obviously impressed with her own less-than-perfect figure. The daughter exuded a carefree spirit, carefully monitored by both of the adults on either side of her. They took ownership of a few reclining bamboo chairs under an umbrella near the rear of the pool. Christopher smiled as they passed. Only the young girl met his eye and offered the tiniest of smiles in return.

Sophie finished her drink and met the eyes of a hotel staffer. He came over to the side of the pool, bowed and brought the palms of his hands together. “Un autre, s’il-vous-plait,” she said, handing him the empty glass.

Oui, mademoiselle.” The hotel staffer took the empty glass and looked at Christopher, one eyebrow raised.

“No, thank you. Not right now.” The staffer nodded once and spun around, disappearing in a side door that led to the bar inside the hotel.

“Just look at this hotel, Christopher,” Sophie continued. “This hotel alone is symbolic of the divide between East and West, between the have-nots and the haves, reminiscent of the old colonial world.”

Christopher shot a quizzical look, not wanting to appear ignorant, but not understanding where Sophie was going with this line of thought.

“Surely a professor of government and religion has noticed this,” she teased. Before Christopher had the chance to stumble out an answer, Sophie continued. “When we met last night at dinner, didn’t you feel it?” She floated closer to him. “A physical and cultural difference between two worlds separated by windows and two doormen. On the inside we have comfort and plenty of food. Just through the windows overlooking the front courtyard and past the entry arch, there is hardship and poverty.”

Christopher acknowledged this, noticing it last night as well. The table that they shared was next to a window on the second story. From this angle, they could see through the entry arch and to the jangled and chaotic street below. There was a great dichotomy between dining room and street, separated by less than fifty meters. “The bug in the glass,” he whispered, not wanting any of the hotel staff to hear even though there were none within earshot.

“Yes!” Sophie’s arm shot out and grabbed Christopher’s shoulder. Exhilaration rippled through him, offering both arousal and guilt. Was this all it took now? “I had already forgotten about that,” she laughed.

The night before at dinner, a hotel waiter had filled up Christopher’s water glass. A tiny bug surfed its way from the pitcher into the glass. Christopher immediately noticed it. He caught Sophie’s eyes and brought them down to the glass. “Tell them,” she said. Christopher felt awkward for thinking about it. Who was he to ask for a different water glass just because there was a bug in it? Thousands of Cambodians every day drank water that likely contained a lot more than one lone bug.

Christopher raised his eyebrows slightly at the waiter who had patiently stood close to their table, attending to any need. He weakly smiled at the waiter and looked back down at his water glass. Curious, the waiter approached the table and saw the bug. A look of shock amplified his calm demeanor and he swiftly apologized and took away the soiled water glass.

A splash of water behind him jerked Christopher back to the present. The young Chinese girl was grinning up at her father from the pool. He sat down on the edge and dangled his legs over the side, flicking water from his feet at her. Behind them, Christopher could hear the chirping of the mother talking on her cell phone, oblivious to the scene in front of her or not caring.

“What do you make of this?” Christopher asked of Sophie. The night before at dinner, over Angkor beers and rice and fish amok, he had learned from his French companion that she had a deep interest in French colonialism in Southeast Asia. It had been fortunate that both were seated together and elected to make the most of it. Sophie offered a different take on colonialism than his colleagues in the United States.

The hotel staffer returned with a fresh drink for Sophie and rested it on the edge of the pool. She thanked him and he bowed, before scurrying off to the shade of a coconut tree within the perimeter of the pool grounds. He glanced up and saw the approaching clouds.

“What do I think?” she began. “I think that we in the West can no longer feel guilty about the effects colonialism has had on parts of the world. This does not mean that colonialism should be absolved.  No.” She sipped her rose-colored drink. “Colonialism laid the foundations for problems, certainly. But there comes a time when these countries must be held accountable for their own actions since their independence.”

A larger splash crashed as the Chinese father jumped into the pool. The daughter giggled and pulled herself up onto his shoulders, trying to push his head under. A European couple strolled by the other side of the pool on their way inside the hotel. Western acknowledgment connected the four of them in ways that were never realized in Europe or America.

“So Cambodia is responsible for the genocide then?” Christopher tried to recall what he had read on the plane. So many unfamiliar names, acronyms, and places. So many dead. So much life wasted. Tyranny of the mind, he once read.

“Terrible to say, but yes, Cambodia is at least partially responsible for the Khmer Rouge. I struggle with blaming the people of course, how could they know what was to come? They were caught between one corrupt and paranoid leader and a cadre of other corrupt and paranoid leaders. But colonialism can only go so far.”

“Cambodia’s poverty and everything that we see here, including the children selling postcards in front of Angkor Wat, is the fault of the people?”

“No, it’s the fault of their leadership. Leadership in power since the early 1980s. Who knows where Cambodia might be without Pol Pot’s ‘Year Zero’ in 1975? Today’s challenges are the product of April, 1975. The Year of the Hare in the Chinese zodiac. French colonialism is no longer at fault.” Sophie took a deep drink from the glass, emptied it, and set it back down. “Perhaps things were much simpler during the French Protectorate.”

Christopher was incredulous. “Simpler? For who? Certainly not the Cambodian people!”

“Maybe. There was stability and at least some level of enlightened leadership as opposed to Sihanouk, Pol Pot, and today, Hun Sen. I’m not saying that it was perfect, don’t misunderstand me. But nothing changes, Christopher. The Cambodians have always accepted authority, from Angkor until now. Where we believe in expression, they as a whole believe in obedience.”

The hotel staffer walked to the side of the pool to take Sophie’s empty glass. “Un autre?”

Non, merci.”

He smiled graciously and made his way to the Chinese woman, still engaged in combat on her cell phone. She waved him off, annoyed at the interruption. The hotel staffer bowed and approached the father who shook his head. The first drops of rain plopped on the clay-colored tiles. Soon there would be the afternoon deluge.

Christopher felt intellectual attraction toward Sophie. He did not agree with everything she said, but he admired and respected her passion and commitment. He also felt sexual attraction as well. With every movement of her right shoulder, either picking up or setting down the glass, or touching his shoulder, the happy Buddha peaked over, almost grinning him on to make a move. He had already done this once with someone else while on holiday. He was reluctant to try again.

The rain picked up on the far side of the pool. It struck the angled roof tiles and fell over the side, like a small but emerging waterfall. As the water tumbled over the side, a thin sheet of rain separated the hotel room balconies from the outside world. The force of the rain moved the trees, like dancers performing on stage. Soon the entire pool area would be under the clouds.

The Chinese woman yelled something at the father and her daughter. She picked up a towel and held it above her head, clutching her cell phone tightly and running for the door that provided entry into a sanctuary from the rain. The father and daughter just laughed and splashed each other while the rain fell on them.

Sophie saw the rain. It had not yet made it to their side of the pool. She placed a hand on each of Christopher’s shoulders and brought him closer to her. He could smell the faint trace of alcohol on her breath and felt her even breathing.

“Nothing changes, no?” he asked. Sophie shook her head and held his gaze tightly. “Why did you agree to sit with me last night?” It had been gnawing at him all night and day. She had plenty of tables to sit at by herself of maybe with someone else. Any man would have made room for her.

“Your clothes. You didn’t look like a homeless tourist in shorts and sandals.”

“My clothes?”

“I like a man who has good shoes and can wear a nice pair of slacks to dinner.”

“Even though he sweated up a storm in those slacks?” He could feel a moment drawing near.

“Especially.”

The first sheet of rain marched halfway across the pool. A wind had picked up. The rain would last many hours.

“Do you want to see a different world?” Christopher asked.

Sophie nodded slowly. Taking her hand in his, he inhaled a deep breath and plunged under the water, bringing her with him. She did not hesitate and came excitedly. Weightlessly their bodies softly flowed together, legs tangling and teasing, like seaweed lost in a current, swimming to the middle of the pool. They raised their eyes and could see the tiny cosmic explosions each drop of rain made on the surface of the water.

Christopher tugged Sophie to the surface and the roar of the rain greeted them as they reunited with the moist and renewing air. He brought her close to him, no space allowed between them. They kissed each other long and hard.

The afternoon rains purified.

*************

The gnarled but rhythmic chanting of the Buddhist monks penetrated the once still air surrounding the local village wat, or temple. Inside, a dozen orange-robed monks kneeled, palms clasped together, delivering the morning prayers that cleared any negative acts from the past. Their faces revealed only a little of their age, young to old, as they were united in color, belief, and shaved heads. Sweet-smelling incense danced up from their burning sticks on the front altar, a small statue of Buddha anchoring both it and the focus of prayer.

The back of the temple itself was open, as were the side windows. A gentle breeze drifted in through the back arches. This cooled the monks, allowing them to hold concentration. It is moments like these when the intellect steps aside with a gentlemanly flourish, allowing the soul and the sacred to merge and intertwine, reminding the person watching and listening to stop and experience an ancient and mystical design. But these moments are always fleeting. Once the person is aware of it, intellect swiftly demands justice, and there is a return to modernity and the present day.

The building itself was unremarkable compared to those in the cities or in the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat. Nonetheless, it served its function well and was the spiritual centerpiece for the local villagers. Built on closely-packed stone that helped elevate it from the annual floods, the light-sherbet colored exterior was surrounded by a few stupas that housed the ashes of local monks on their way to samsara or nirvana. Several fruit trees and a small vegetable garden, tended to by monks and the local children who were always willing to be the side recipient of a mango or two from a smiling elder, guarded the perimeter from evil spirits whether encased in man or newly departed. A few other buildings populated the grounds, used for sleeping or meals. Across the road that ran outside of the complex was a well-used soccer field, a mixture of dirt and small tufts of green.

After the morning prayers were finished, the dozen monks rose and made their way to daily duties, tending the garden, sweeping the grounds, or sneaking off, especially the young ones, to make a call on a contraband cell phone. Even in a sacred place, modern technology cast a shadow. This, however, did not dilute the sanctity of the wat. The elder monks understood the temptation that followed the younger monks. In time the younger monks would either leave behind that world, or return to it fully, their memory as a monk fading with age.

The man held the hand of the little girl as they both crossed the temple grounds. The prayers were finished, but the chants and incense still lingered. They walked up the steps to the temple, stepping over a spotted grey cat that had sprawled out across them. This was sanctuary even to a cat. A young monk, not yet twenty years old, smiled at them broadly before resuming his sweeping. Both the man and the little girl removed their shoes and walked up to the altar. In front of them sat Buddha, sitting in the lotus position, hands in his lap with his eyes closed. The man took three unlit incense sticks from the altar and gave them to the little girl to hold. He picked up a lighter from the altar and lit each one. A strong perfume of sandalwood drifted up from them. The little girl placed the sticks down in front of the Buddha statue. After a moment of silence, they walked around the altar to the front of the temple and sat down at the top of the stairs. The soccer field lay in front of them.

Several minutes passed. The little girl looked at her father and then back down again. Several more minutes passed.

“Daddy?”

“Yes, dear?”

“Will I die like Mommy?”

The man looked at his daughter. He had avoided this question in the past when she brought it up. He no longer believed that he could continue avoiding it. He also no longer believed that he should continue avoiding it. Her mother had died giving birth to this little girl.  He loved this little girl with everything in his heart, in his mind, and in his soul. She now defined him in ways he never considered before.

“Daddy, will I die like Mommy?”

“Yes, Srey.” Christopher nodded more to himself than to her. “But not for a very long time. You have much life in you. So much to give.”

“Will you die?” Srey’s demeanor darkened.

“Yes.”

“Why?”

He paused. “Because we all must die. Nothing is forever. Nothing lasts. This is why it’s important to value what you have now. To always appreciate it.”

Srey’s face crunched up as she considered what her father had said. The concept was difficult for an adult, let alone a child.

“I should always be nice to people, right?

“Yes.  Earning merit is important.  So is remembering your mother.”

Srey nodded.  This was something she could wrap her mind around.

A loud explosion of laughter from the soccer field shook them. Father and daughter looked up to see an old soccer ball roll to them. A little boy, not much older than Srey quickly followed. He stopped and stared at Srey.

Srey looked at her father. He smiled. She turned her attention to the little boy.

“Hello! Bonjour! Sues-day!” she said.

The boy laughed and waved his arm from her to come play with the rest of the children on the soccer field.

“Go and have fun. I’ll wait here. I will always be here,” Christopher smiled.

Srey jumped up and kicked the soccer ball back to the ball. They both ran to join the others.

Clouds darkened in the horizon. There would be rain this morning.

The children would play in the rain and it would be all right.

 

Brian Cravens teaches federal and state government at Blinn College, a community college located in Central Texas. This story is inspired by a trip to Cambodia in the summer of 2016.

Forty-five in the shade, so hot the whitewashed warehouses vapored. Heat pressed down like a boot kicked hard. Josh felt it mostly in the crown, thinning there – and still so young too – but the heat made everything older and slower. He’d burn and peel; that fair skin had once seared during an Irish summer, the crown peeling off like a kipa. He wanted to be inside, get something to eat, but the restaurants in Stone Town were closed during Ramadan. Josh and his new bride had just exited an uncomfortably cold air-conditioned theatre, watching an enjoyable yet farcical Greek comedy shown as part of the international film festival, and were now aimlessly wandering the tight cobbled streets toward the beach, the stone buildings giving to bleached adobe shacks, and the sea. Could smell it like tears. Would float in it for days until discoloured by the waves, returning to land as a boneless thing, renewed.

Josh clutched Debs’ hand, unwilling even in this heat to separate his connection to her, like they’d cease to exist if the join were somehow severed. Two days in Zanzibar and this the first time they’d ventured out of their hotel room, this hermetically-sealed, chiselled and colonnaded resort – the new tucked and stretched face of an old dame.

Debs glanced at the sea but something rustled and jaunted the fronds of a palm tree above them now. A boy shimmied down the trunk and stared into her face, those sapphire blue eyes of hers. He drilled a hole through a coconut’s eye and slid a straw into it and placed it in Debs’ hand, his twiggy fingers holding hers a lingering moment.

“This is best coconut I find all day,” he said. “It is lucky coconut because I do not fall picking it.”

His knees and shins scabbed and pale-scarred. Debs lifted out of her shoulder bag a five-dollar bill. The boy pincered it and sprinted off, feet embroidering little stitches on the wet sand.

Josh should have chased after the boy and retrieved the note. It was dangerous to give so much, be so frivolous with their money – they’d been warned. Instead, he held her hand tighter, joined in some magnetic way, unable to break free. Never wanted to let go. She was his. He was hers. Youthful, fresh out of college. Could almost pass for teenagers. And madly in love. Madly, unequivocally entwined from the first moment they met, drawn to each other at a recital a semester ago.

She was watching him, his brown eyes like tough leather, then the softest velvet. He had to just had to kiss her and danced her a ways so their feet chimed in the wash of waves discoloured by sand.

Debs lifted an opalescent shell, rinsed it off, put it in her Louis Vuitton shoulder bag. They walked hand in hand for a stretch of coast, coral fringing out there, then came to the harbour with its grimy touts, stevedores and puttering cargo ships. Gasps of pungent sumac odour. They strolled on towards the jumble of Stone Town, the musk of warm bricks, and the spires of St Joseph’s Cathedral which heralded the location of their resort hotel where staff served western food anytime during Ramadan.

This narrow street of tall anorexic buildings, donkey droppings, cracked cement, clove-y breeze, sidewalk-less, women-less, pillared by couplets of tobacco-smoked men. Stone Town’s a warren; not like Zanzibar at all. More real. Diminished – yes, bygone and trodden … but real, realer than the modern facelift stretchmarks of the city.

Paradise, and he knew it too.

“I shouldn’t have been worried,” Debs said. “Everything you said about here was right.”

He recognized this street and in fifteen minutes they’d be back in their room. These ancient buildings heaved and wheezed, leaning, crouching over, like old men.

She said, “It’s all so quick.”

Joshua slowed his pace, but she chuckled.

“Marriage, you goof,” she said. “Leaving Ireland. Travelling, just us two alone, together.”

He met her eyes. Pulled her to him. Kissed. Hard and fast and full of fire. People were staring over, glaring. They’d been warned about that too – public displays of affection.

Josh led on, not knowing if this was the correct direction, these streets all the same. But he didn’t like the way the locals were pointing in their direction, and now he just wanted to get back to his room, have a beer. Debs’ grip tightened; she didn’t recognize this street either. He glanced at his watch, could see they’d been walking longer than they should have; and this street was deserted, just them walking on it, holding hands (warned against that too).

“That kid got five times what the coconut was worth,” he said. “I couldn’t afford that markup back in Dublin, but out here … we’re all rich. Like you.”

Debs came from old money, the type of fortune protected by the pre-nups he’d been forced to sign by her father.

She reached into her shoulder bag and lifted a makeup compact out, powdered her pale somewhat luminous face. Her sarong worn all the way to her ankles fluttered in the gasp-y breeze; she also wore a veiled blouse to ensure she was completely covered (as per the tour operator’s instructions). She scratched at the collar, revealing her Star of David necklace. Josh reached to tuck it out of view, but something came at them from behind. A buzzing drone like a vuvuzela. A dried pea rattling inside a can. It was a moped barrelling towards them –

at them.

Josh looped his arm around Debs, dragging her back against the wall. The moped slowed, driver and passenger glaring over, studying them. The passenger held a small gas canister. Both young men, shoeless, tattered rags for clothes. The moped sped up, rounded a corner and disappeared.

Light glinted off Debs’ necklace and Josh tucked it inside her blouse. Then they met each other’s eyes, and her lips turned up at the corners, revealing a beautiful grand piano smile, and then they were laughing, hanging off each other, barely able to catch breath.

Then silence.

A moped buzzed towards them. The same moped. The passenger upended the contents of the gas canister, a clear liquid dousing the couple, then sped off.

Josh stared after it, wondering about this bizarreness. Hoped to catch Debs’ eye and laugh about it.

But she screamed. Grabbed at her face. Blue smoke coiled off her cheeks. Melting. Too unreal to be anything other than a movie effect. Like that scene in The Wizard of Oz.

Josh yelled, collapsing to his knees. Chest, back, hands burning but no fire there – no flames. The liquid seared like acid.

She clawed at her face and her hands melted too. Her clothes disintegrated. People all around, now. Lifting them. Hoisted by many hands. Traversing the shaded streets, then careering into the light. Josh cannonballed into the water, twisting farther out into the sea, the waves slapping him, taking the burning away.

Debs was sitting cross-legged on the edge of where the ocean met the beach, arms out like a child reaching to be lifted. Water had been splashed over her and the burning now was gone. She couldn’t understand why those around her were wailing and crying, and she shushed them, saying Please calm down, everything’s fine. Skin hung from her face in ribbons.

*

Fire woke him. Hurt pulsed through his torso, ending at his neck. The acid had missed his face. His arms, hands and chest were bandaged. Needed to rip it off, let the fire escape.

A nurse entered his room and took his hands and placed them by his side, speaking in a language he didn’t understand. She put her hand on his head, ran it through his soft brown curls. Then she went to the IV drips and changed the bags.

“Where’s my wife Debora? Is she…?” His voice was croaky. “Deborah Malloy, my wife, take me to her.”

He struggled to sit up and collapsed back onto the bed, panting, and he shuddered as if he were crying except there was a hollowness within, and no wetness in his eyes. The nurse called out and went to the door. A tall black man wearing glasses entered, his lips pressed tightly into slits. He went alongside the bed and filled a glass with water, placed a straw into it and helped Josh upright enough to drink, and he drank greedily but the doctor took the glass away before he consumed more than a few mouthfuls. Josh wept, chest shuddering, eyes hot as tar pits.

“You are too dehydrated to cry,” the doctor said. “But drinking too much too soon will make you sick.”

He explained about the attack that used sulphuric acid from a car battery. He said there was almost no morphine used and the reason Josh did not feel much pain was that his nerve receptors were so entirely damaged they no longer functioned. They would never regain. A serious trauma, yes, but he would survive. And lucky, too, that none of it had gotten on his face.

And then the doctor looked far off, at some point in the distance, unable to make eye contact while he spoke about Debs.

*

A porter pushed Josh’s wheelchair into Debs’ room and then went back out. She wouldn’t look at him, eyes downturned off to the side fixed on a spot on the white plastic-y wall, focused as if reading words. Her entire head was bandaged, hands and upper body. Even the exposed skin around her eyes was blistered and raw, an oozing wound.

The television was tuned to the BBC world news service:

A young Irish couple on honeymoon have been attacked by acid in Zanzibar, Tanzania. It follows an identical assault on a Catholic priest a month previous. Two men on a moped hurled battery acid at them. Locals came to the couples’ aid, immersing them in the sea.

Josh recalled a short man splashing water in Debs’ face and rubbing it on her face, growling each time he splashed her face with the sea water. Unfortunately, the sandy water wasn’t as effective as the water farther out from the shoreline. The acid had burned her for longer than it had burned him.

“When I close my eyes, it’s like I’m watching a news report,” she said. “Like it’s someone else’s story on TV. Nothing’s real anymore.”

“That’s morphine,” he replied. “Makes it seem like a dream.”

She said, “I want more morphine.”

It all felt like a waking dream to Josh too. He couldn’t understand why they were targeted, why them in particular? They had dressed appropriately. Hadn’t openly shown they were Jewish. What could have provoked this attack?

“I don’t know,” he muttered. “I don’t know. I don’t. I really don’t. Don’t know.”

“They targeted us,” she said. “The way they stopped, to look. They were looking for us.”

She glared at him, a distillation of hurt and fear in her smoky eyes. Then she picked a spot on the wall and stared absently.

“They carried me up on their shoulders and brought me into the water and washed me, and all I kept thinking was why are we doing a mikve, why now?”

Josh’s hearing hummed. A lead weight creaking pendulously through his skull.

“Just before the moped, why did you check your watch?” she asked.

“I knew we’d been walking too long,” he replied. “Should have been at the hotel already—”

“You checked your watch,” she said with realization, “and then led me onto that deserted street. I knew it was the wrong way but didn’t say. But you took me onto that street, and checked your watch … like you were late for something.”

He glared at her. “I had nothing to do with that attack,” he hissed. “I can’t believe you’d ever think I could have… Are you serious?”

Her shoulders bunched up and she whimpered, tears disappearing like steam.

*

The nurse dialled the number and passed Josh the phone, which he held awkwardly to his ear, hands wrapped like mittens. He was in his wheelchair at the nurses’ station. The hallway was various shades of white, hard to tell the walls from the floor, and an elderly man with a walking stick wavered near the doorway, wet gushing from his gown, pooling around his feet, lapping along the hallway. A porter went to him.

The call connected and a man spoke curtly. It was Josh’s father-in-law Michael. He had wanted to speak to Sarah, had always gotten on better with her. He took a short breath, scar tissue banding his chest.

“Did you get the flight booked, Mr Resnik?”

Michael sighed. Cleared his throat. “Oh, it’s you.”

“Is Sarah…?”

He’d never before heard a woman wail so ferociously; this guttural, animal-like scream, and then the phone had fallen away, cracking on the ground. She’d been yelling for Michael then, and the two of them sobbing, and the line had disconnected. Josh had tried several times since then, always getting a busy signal. Until now.

“I’ve spoken to Police Commissioner Faki,” Mr Resnik said. “Got the real details from him. All the details.”

“Debs, she’s saying some crazy things, Mr Resnik. Saying I’ve planned all this, Michael. I need your help.”

The line clicked dead.

*

Josh’s wheelchair banged into the doorjamb and he slung it to the side, crashing through the double doors and exiting into the hospital car park. He fumbled at a pack of cigarettes he’d purchased from the gift shop with money he’d borrowed from his nurse, tearing the plastic off with his teeth and chewing the paper and foil off in a chunk, rattling the packet until a cigarette fell onto his lap. Double-handed, he lifted the cigarette to his mouth, glanced at the box of matches, and wept uncontrollably. A short fat man came alongside and laid his bandaged hand on Josh’s back; he’d been the one who had rubbed dirty water in Debs’ face. The woman with him put Josh’s cigarette in her mouth, lit it, drew smoke deep, then placed the cigarette in Josh’s mouth. He puffed and puffed like a locomotive, the coal a red eye. He hadn’t smoked in three months, since meeting Debs, and now spluttered, the cigarette coughed to the dirty cement. The woman lifted it and put it back in his mouth.

This wedge-shaped man, this fat man with a moustache that looked like a fat fly squatting above his lip, had he taken Debs out a few feet more into the clear ocean waters, her face wouldn’t have been ruined… Josh made fists, those fist already in boxing gloves. He’d been a Golden Gloves champion. Knew how to clatter some fat little man like that.

“You helped us,” Josh said. “Thanks.”

The man licked his lips and wiped them on the back of his bandaged hand. “You’re Irish and a Jew,” he said.

With the news, strangers knew everything like they were friends.

Joshua Malloy. Irish.

“I’m what you might call a Catholic Jew.”

“Something like that, shouldn’t have happened anybody,” the man said. “Nobody deserves to be burned.”

The woman said, “Did you really pay to have your own wife killed?”

*

Josh was hunched over in his wheelchair, the pain in his chest like magma, stealing the wind from his lungs, and a thick-shouldered man with oily black skin dragged a hardback chair closer and sat. They were in the hallway near the toilet, where he’d been sicking up for the past few minutes. This commanding man wore a black beret and a brown short-sleeve shirt with an official insignia stitched across the lapels.

“I am Police Commissioner Samuel Momose Faki.”

“Did you catch them?” Josh’s words tumbled out. Had to repeat himself after Commissioner Faki raised a thick eyebrow and lilted his head to the side like a puzzled Doberman.

Josh had described his attackers to a police artist and the image had been transmitted on the news stations. They looked more ominous that he remembered, more vile.

Commissioner Faki sucked his teeth. “We will capture these men. Then we will have the truth from them. The whole truth.”

“Debs was wearing a Star of David. They saw it and attacked us.”

Commissioner Faki sweated profusely, his shirt wet from the armpits out, almost connecting to the dampness at his chest. He fanned air in his face with a newspaper but did not remove his beret. The headline on the newspaper: Husband Implicated In Newlywed Wife’s Acid Attack.

A police line had been erected at the hospital entrance to keep reporters out. A dozen of them camped outside. They had climbed up to his window and shouted questions inside. Now, he had to keep it shut. The heat, it made everything soft and out of focus. Just like he felt.

He heard the paint-can-marble rattle of the moped. Those bastards, they smirked at each other, smirked, he saw it now – glared at me and Debs, then dumped battery acid on us. It was no accident. Those animals were looking for victims, searching.

He needed them found. Needed their confession. Needed Debs not to hate him for this. Without her he was nothing, and he’d already considered the sturdy metal railing above the toilet to attach a belt loop and end it all.

“If you think I did it, arrest me then. Get it over with.”

“I do not believe this to be a religious crime,” he said. “And I will find the truth. And it will take the time it takes…”

Commissioner Faki stood up and peered into the toilet, glancing up at the metal railing near the ceiling. Then he moved in front of the wheelchair and placed his meaty hands on the armrests, leaning into Josh’s face, reeking of spicy, bitter onions.

“I read a story in a newspaper about a newlywed couple on honeymoon in Turkey,” Commissioner Faki said. “During this honeymoon the wife she dies, she is murdered. It is a senseless crime. Seemingly unprovoked. But it is later discovered that the husband kills his wife for her money. For her money.”

*

Debs’ parents were clinging to each other outside Debs’ hospital room. Sarah was borrowed into the crook of Michael’s neck, and when she stood back his shirt was sooted with mascara. Michael straightened and moved in front of his wife, like he was expecting to protect her from attack. Josh was nearby, and backed off a step, considered running away. But there was a commotion in Debs room, with several nurses and porters inside.

Josh stared pleadingly at Sarah, whose mouth was turned down at the corners as if she wanted to speak, to intervene, but instead made a choking noise like a cat about to hairball.

“You’re moving Debs,” he said.

“For reconstructive surgery in London,” Michael snapped. “She’ll get the best help there is.”

“I’ll pay whatever I have,” Josh said. “Whatever I have, all of it, I’ll give it.”

Michael brushed past and Sarah trotted after, then she stopped and returned, leaned close to Josh and kissed his cheek.

*

Josh entered Debs’ room. She was sitting upright in bed, staring off to the side, looking at some spot on the wall. The nurses and porters left, wheeling out a medicine cart. A nurse lingered at the door, and Debs’ glanced at her, pointing her eyes off. The nurse left.

“In London, they’ve scheduled five surgeries,” she said. “For starters.”

He went to her and fell onto her side of the bed, leaning across, and he was muttering about everything being okay and how they’d pull though all this if only they stuck together, trusted each other. They had each other and that’s all that mattered. Whatever else, they’d get through it.

“Look at my face,” she said. “I couldn’t be with someone like me,” she said. “Leave me and I won’t hold it against you.”

“I won’t ever leave you. I promise.”

“You don’t really even know me,” she said. “We’ve only known each other a year. Only really known each other three months. You don’t know me at all.”

“I know your favourite colour’s green. Your grandma taught you how to knit. You want to learn how to spin yarn. You watch My Big Fat Greek Wedding when you’re sad. And you’ve never had a TB shot—”

The television was muted but the news report was about them. The suspects were still at large.

She said, “Tell me you didn’t do this to. Not for money.”

*

In a couple of hours, Debs would be airlifted to a specialist trauma unit in London. Her father entered Josh’s hospital room, carrying a briefcase.

Josh said, “I didn’t hurt Deborah. I’d never let anything bad happen…”

But it was too late for that. The badness had already occurred and now it was time for resolution, such was the stern countenance to Michael’s grey face. He placed a contract, three-pages long, printed in a dense paragraph-less stream, on the sliding table Josh had yet to use, having refused to eat since the attack.

Michael Resnik was lead partner in a lawyers firm in Dublin. He said that Josh could have the contract looked over, but the gist of it was that by signing it he’d receive fifty thousand pounds. Sign it, and Deborah would be out of his life forever.

He placed a pen in Josh’s mitted hand.

He said the settlement was at Deborah’s request. If Michael had his way, this vile little bastard would never see a penny. Even if he wasn’t involved in the attack, he’d failed Deborah, couldn’t protect her. What kind of man was that?

Josh pushed the page off the table and dropped the pen, then picked a spot on the wall and stared at it.

*

Police Commissioner Faki issued an arrest warrant for Muslim extremist Sheikh Sulaiman al-Suhaymee, who had incited the violence that led to the horrific acid attack. Five men had been arrested, linked to Al Shabeeb militants, who had also been implicated in an acid attack on a Catholic priest a month previous.

“An hour before the acid attack,” Commissioner Faki said, “a woman fitting your wife’s description got into an altercation with a local woman. She had been singing, which is not permitted during Ramadan.”

Debs would never sing in public. It wasn’t her. And they’d also been in the movie theatre.

“However, the two men on the moped were incited by Sheikh Sulaiman al-Suhaymee and went looking for anybody who looked like this woman. Your wife looked like her.”

Josh fell to his knees, only now realising he had gotten out of the wheelchair, and fatigued he stood up, stumbling against the wall, then lurched into the hallway and his chest thrummed, banded by scar tissue hard as steel, but he ran anyway and was next to Debs’ bed and all he wanted to do was take her in his arms, hold her. I won’t leave you. Won’t ever let you go. No matter what.

 

Michael McGlade’s been published in Shimmer, Saturday Evening Post, Downstate Story, Spinetingler, and Grain. I hold a master’s degree in English and Creative Writing from the Seamus Heaney Centre, Queen’s University, Ireland.  He is represented by Isobel Dixon of the Blake Friedmann Literary Agency.

They’d been warned about the priest.

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here to…” He stopped and looked down at the little beaten book in his hand.

Swaying slightly, he flipped pages, cleared his throat, and began again, the faint smell of bourbon drifting over to Margo, who stood next to him. She took a small step back. Her hat lifted in the hot, humid breeze, and she reached up to hold it, feeling the hat pin that held it to the reddish-blond braid that wound around her head. The charms on her bracelet rustled as it slipped down on her thin arm.

Their mother had insisted on the private service, the hat, and the pin, a little black pearl dangling on the end.

“Your head should be covered,” she’d said. “And you shouldn’t be wearing jewelry, particularly not that bracelet. It’s too…” She’d never finished her thought.

Margo wasn’t sure why it mattered, didn’t argue, and kept it on. Momster, Andra had named her when they were young. They both called her that. They, Margo thought. No more they.

August had not been kind. The family cemetery plot rested in deep shade beneath a canopy of ash, oaks, and maples. At least here it was cooler. The Momster stood at Margo’s side, cringing within her black Chanel suit, her blue eyes invisible behind her oval dark glasses, her blond hair swept up beneath her black hat. Aside from the two of them and the priest, six black-suited pallbearers from the funeral parlor were the only attendants.

The priest glanced up when he found the right page. “We have come to lay to rest Andrea Olivia Martinard, our sister in Christ.”

“It’s Andra,” Margo corrected. The priest vacantly stared at her. “An-dra, our sister in Christ,” he said. He didn’t know her sister. He didn’t know any of them; the best they could get on short notice. Margo couldn’t remember the last time they’d been in a church.

“We should be bloody well done by now,” her mother whispered, glancing at her watch. Margo had wondered how long her mother would last. She’d never had much patience for Andra, and that wouldn’t change now that she was dead.

“We could have lunch afterward,” Margo had suggested that morning. She wanted to talk. They could tell stories and laugh like other people who say good-bye. Maybe even cry. But her mother wasn’t like other people. Why had she even bothered coming? Perhaps this was one ritual even her mother couldn’t avoid. Now she lived with husband number three, who had more interesting children, and had better places to be. No, Margo and her mother had gotten off separate planes that morning, and they’d be back on separate ones this afternoon. Smooch, smooch, bye, bye.

“Enough of this charade. I’m leaving. Call me later.”
“But it’s not…” Margo started, but her mother had already turned and walked back to her limo. Sighing, Margo returned her attention to the priest. He coughed in the middle of his sentence and lost his place. He fumbled once again with pages and stared at the page.
“Ashes to ashes.”
Andra to ashes.
“Dust to dust. We comment her body to the ground to sleep until the rise of all God’s creatures.”
She let it go. The priest’s voice became a hum, his words sloshing back and forth as he dribbled them from the prayer book. A fine spray of spit launched itself into the air and fell in front of her.
“Amen,” he said, looking rather confused at the empty spot next to Margo where her mother had been standing.
“Amen,” Margo repeated.
“I am so…sorry for your loss,” the priest said, pressing his hand into her own as if that would be of comfort. His bald head glistened with sweat. He had very blue, bloodshot eyes. “Sweet lady,” he said and toddled off back to his own car, thankfully with a nun behind the wheel.
“We’ll be returning now, Miss Martinard. May I escort you to your limo?” the head black suit asked.
“No, thank you.” Margo looked down at her sister’s coffin blanketed in a carpet of red roses and listened to the fading sounds of the car engines as they rolled away. When she looked back, she was alone except for the limo waiting silently up the hill. Time to go. But Margo couldn’t get her feet to move. Andra’s life was over. Margo’s relationship with her was over. What had happened to that?

A long time ago, when it was just the two of them, a string of houses to explore and nannies to torture, it had been wonderful. She looked down at the pale pair of Jimmy Choo sandals she’d bought for the occasion. Modest in terms of heel height. Horrible choice, her mother had said. So inappropriate to wear sandals to a funeral. Andra would have laughed. The amber color went so well with the bracelet.

From the corner of her eye, something moved. Turning, she saw a young man sitting on a marble bench off to the side beneath a huge tree, just outside the square border of their family plot. He sat with his elbows on his knees, looking at her, his eyes partly hidden by a mass of brown, curly hair that covered his forehead. A shovel leaned against the bench next to him, and a cigarette burned between two fingers. The gravedigger. Had to be. He sat not more than fifteen feet away and she hadn’t seen him.

“You can start whenever you like. I don’t mind,” she called.
He held his position and just kept looking.
“I said…”
“I heard you, Miss,” he said, flicking an ash. “I can wait while you pay your respects.” He took a drag on the smoke.
“I didn’t respect my sister,” she said. That sounded wrong. Andra hadn’t respected her. Had she respected anything? Reliably unreliable. She fingered the bracelet.
“Must have been sudden,” the gravedigger said.
“What? Oh, yes,” Margo said. “We thought she’d end up doing something stupid.”
“Heard she was young.” The digger didn’t look old himself. Mid to late twenties. Fair yet a bit leathery.
“Twenty-seven,” Margo said.
“Young.”
Margo nodded. “Our nanny used to say we were Irish twins,” she said. “Fourteen months apart.”
“Must have been pretty.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Because you are,” he said. He took another draw on his smoke and then crushed it beneath his boot.
“You’re flirting with me at my sister’s funeral?”
“Just stating a fact,” he said, looking at her.
Margo looked back at the blanket of roses. “We didn’t look much alike.”
“Sisters always say that, don’t they?”
“You an expert on sisters?”
He chuckled. “Got five of them. All say the same thing. Put them next to each other and they look like a set.” He pulled a red thermos from beneath the bench and filled the top cup with coffee. “Want some? I haven’t touched it yet.”

She walked the distance between them, sat down, and took the cup from him. “Does it have sugar in it?”
“No. Just milk.”
She took a sip. “Thank you. It’s good.”
“Got something a little stronger if you’d like,” he said, pulling a pint bottle of Jameson from his back pocket and setting it down on the bench between them. She shook her head but he left the bottle there.
“She had very dark hair, almost black, with very hazel eyes. The kind that changed with what she wore.”
“You close?”
“When we were kids,” Margo said. The stone felt cool beneath her thighs. She tried to hand the cup back to him but he shook his head.
“Was she sick for a long time?”
“An overdose. So I guess you could say she was.”
He shook his head. “Shame.”
“Andra didn’t believe in limits.”
“Was it intentional?”
“Oh no, just carelessness.”
He nodded.
“Truth is, we don’t really know. My mother said no, anyway.” But the Momster would be the last to know anything about either of them.
“Your mother must be broken up.”
“I don’t know. She’s never broken up over anything.” Margo wished she could be like that. She touched the bracelet again, the damned bracelet.

The coffee smelled of cinnamon. She looked at him closely. He had a nose that seemed to flow directly out of his forehead. His eyes were a very pale gray, his brows dark, straight lines above them, his chin crusted with sparse reddish stubble. He had a birthmark in front of his right ear in the shape of a tear. A nice face for a gravedigger. If she’d been Andra, he’d be laughing by now, doing something her sister wanted him to do. Dancing, drinking, fucking. All of Andra’s usual possibilities. But she wasn’t Andra.
“So have you been doing this kind of work long?”
“It’s my second job. They call me when the other guy can’t make it.”
“The other guy?”
“Pete. They’re having a birthday party for him at the Grange. He’s eighty-one.”
“That’s old to be digging, isn’t it?”
He laughed. “He drives a backhoe. Still, it’s old.” Margo didn’t see a tractor, just a faded green pickup back behind a thicket of juniper bushes. “Only Pete gets to drive it.” He tapped the shovel that leaned up against the bench between them. “I get to dig.”
“You weren’t invited to the party?” Margo said, taking another sip of coffee and eyeing the Jameson.
“I’ll head down when I’m finished here.”
“I’m holding you up?”
“Not really. Let’s just say I like Pete, but his friends are as old as he is, and his grandkids and great-grandkids aren’t that good-looking.”

She glanced at the bottle. They’d started with Jameson that night in New York, a big-girl drink, Andra had said. Come on, Sissy, let’s get hammered.
“So why is your sister buried here?” he asked.
“My whole family is here. This whole square,” she said, pointing to the area in front of them. All the graves rested near a tall needle of pink granite on the far side. Gathered around it were more than a dozen rectangles of granite trying to look as if they somehow went together, “Martinard” on most of them. “My father is over there. That’s my great-great-grandfather under the big one; he was married three times, so all his wives are here, most of their kids, though a few of them got away.” Andra almost did, she thought. “How did you know she was young?”
“Pete told me.”
“So he knew about my sister?”
“Probably not. He just said: ‘Hey, Jed, we’ve got a young one today. Can you do her?’” He looked down. “Sorry. That didn’t sound right.”
“It’s okay. My sister would laugh at that. In fact, if my sister were sitting here right now, you’d probably want to.”
“Ah.” He held up the thermos. “More?”
She nodded. “Perhaps something a little stronger,” she said.
He unscrewed the bottle of Jameson.

Margo felt the edge. Not on the edge but the edge itself. Sitting on this bench, the dense green of the trees above her, the hot, solid air pressing in. She’d stepped up to this particular edge three, four times in her life, always with Andra. One more step and you can’t go back and be the same person afterward. The morgue had taught her that. One more lesson from her sister. Time to move on, she thought. But where?

Andra had danced on this edge so lightly. A prima ballerina of edges. Where had Margo gone? Her music. A budding collection of art books. The occasional lunch with Momster when she was in town. Was that all bad or, even worse, dull? If you didn’t bungee-jump your way through life, did that make you lifeless? She liked New York, her clean, white apartment, her half-mangled rescue cat, her job at the gallery, Saturday nights at the poetry club, the occasional fumble with the odd poet, the more frequent tussle with words. Wasn’t writing bad poetry enough? It should be, shouldn’t it?

She held out the cup, and he tipped the Jameson in. “Thank you.”
“My pleasure.” He smiled, a solid smile full of slightly overlapping, nicotine-stained teeth. She looked at the shovel. “Do you have another one of these?” she asked.
“I couldn’t let you do that.”
“It’s Margo,” she said, extending her hand.
“Nice to meet you.” His hands bore hard, dry calluses. “Jed.”

She took off the hat and laid it down on the bench, sticking the pin through it. “I want to do this.”

He fetched another shovel from his truck and handed it to her. Together they lifted the rose blanket off the coffin and set it aside. Using a small crank that squawked as he turned it, he loosened the straps that cradled the coffin, lowering it into the hole. They pulled the Astroturf off the mound of dirt and began to dig.

Margo could feel the back of the shovel beneath the center of her sandal as she pushed it into the dirt, an awkward motion at first, the handle feeling like a long elbow that wouldn’t tuck in. The sound of the dirt hitting the coffin sounded like a snare drum, but it didn’t take long for the sound and surface to disappear. She worked at one end and Jed at the other. The dirt was dark, like the tree bark around them, and felt loose and easy to move. Push, tilt, lift, dump. After a while she found a rhythm. She thought of Andra laughing, saying, I always knew you could get dirty, Sissy. When half the mound was moved, she stopped, stepped over to the bench, and took a long swig of the Jameson straight from the bottle. He joined her.
“Why do you have this?” she asked.
“Medicinal purposes.”
Margo nodded. “One of my sister’s favorite medicines.”

When they went back to work, the smell of dirt seemed stronger. The sweat ran now down her back, in between her breasts, in tiny rivers. The bracelet stuck to her arm, the dirt clinging to the sodden charms.

* * *

She’d lost it, or thought she had, the last time she and Andra were together in New York. It had been a humid night in September, unseasonably warm. They’d gotten caught in the rain in the park between bar stops, a flash downpour, her sister opening up her arms, Burberry raincoat flapping, head tilted back, mouth open, the lightning flashing behind them, their hair plastering their faces, Andra pulling Margo out from under a tree to dance in wide circles on the footpath by the pond, as if the two of them could drink up all the power of the storm.

They laughed and laughed and laughed, squishing together into the cab, dripping all the way back to Margo’s place, and then stripping off their clothes, leaving them in puddles on the floor, pushing each other into and out of the shower. That moment when Andra pulled her in, held her, the warm water running down their backs. Kissed her for too long. The taste of wine on her tongue. And Margo held on. Time had disappeared, drunk on the whole night. She remembered drying her hair, her fingers shaking. They’d passed out and when she’d woken up, Andra was gone.

She looked for it first around the apartment and then downstairs and back through the bars she remembered from the night before, saying the same thing again and again: It’s a Pandora bracelet, you know the kind? It’s a thick silver cord, and on it are these round charms. There are a couple of onyx ones and some with amber-colored stones, a couple of tiny snakes too, only they look more like tightly coiled springs. Her mother had given her two of the charms, and she’d collected the rest herself with her own money. Her favorites were the amber beads locked in a tiny silver circle that looked like a crown. She had two of everything.

The stupid bracelet. Andra denied it and Margo believed her. She always believed her. No limits, Andra said, but there should have been some, as least where Margo was concerned. Who decided the other was too far gone? Margo had done that but it was Andra who hadn’t returned her calls. Andra bailed on the trip to Boston. They’d always been terrible on the phone.    

What’s the point, Margo? I’m letting you off the hook.
What if I don’t want that?
You know, all Pandora had left was hope. That’s really a curse.
You took it, didn’t you.
Did you just figure that out?
You are not hopeless. You can give it back.
Too late, Sissy. I love you. I hope you know that.
Why? Don’t go. I love you too.

Music played in the background and a man laughed. The call ended, a click that explained nothing. Months later she’d gotten the call from the doorman. The morgue, her sister on a gurney, a white sheet pulled back, and a gaunt, blue-lipped face. The envelope, her effects they’d called it, contained a red wallet, keys, a hard pack of Kools, and the bracelet. An odd feeling of relief and the guilt that trailed it. Now the bracelet’s charms, crusted with earth, stuck to her skin. Why had she worn it? How could she not?

* * *

“Hey—take it easy there,” Jed said. Margo’s shovel hit the tarp at the bottom of the dirt pile. She stopped, breathless, that horrible moment clinging to her like her sweat-soaked dress. Jed took the shovel and Margo went back to the bench, sat down, and took a drink.

“Are you all right?” Jed asked. She nodded but didn’t want to answer. She felt hot and dizzy. He left her, produced a rake from the back of his truck, and pulled the remaining soil off the tarp on the ground and onto Andra’s grave. Margo watched the smaller mound form over her sister. As Jed folded up the ground tarp, flattened grass reappeared.

There would be a headstone with Andra’s name, the dates, and perhaps something else, but right now Margo couldn’t think of anything that would capture the essence of her sister.

She and Jed placed the flower blanket back over the center of the grave mound and stood side by side, looking at it.
“Looks pretty with the flowers, doesn’t it?”
“It does,” he said, handing her the bottle of Jameson. “I could get you a job digging if you’re interested.”

She laughed and took another swig, handing the bottle back to him. She looked down at the blisters rising beneath the dirt on her hands.
“I have a place we can clean you up if you’d like,” he said, handing her the bottle again. “Just down there.” He pointed to a path. “See that little chapel? Well, it’s really our tool shed. We’ve got water in there.”

The bottle rubbed against her sores. The little stone building looked like a miniature church. Far enough to drive. Taking another swig, she looked at him and saw it all play out.

Andra would have taken his hand, climbed into his truck, and driven with him down the hill. She would take off her clothes slowly so that his eyes could follow the white curve of her hips, and feel the cold water on her skin, and use his callused hands to wash her breasts and her back, to scrub her clean. Her hands through his hair; she would feel him harden against her when she kissed him on the mouth. Her blistered fingers would run over that well-muscled back, those thighs, up those calves, while the light flared into color around them, the stained-glass windows catching the afternoon sun, and the smell would be of lawn mowers, leftover grave dirt clinging to shovels, and rakes still holding pieces of dried grass. Margo could see Andra, her face wet with rain, her thick, black hair plastered to her skin. Yes, Andra would have done all that.

Margo held the bottle of Jameson up to the light. “Here’s to you, Andra,” she said, upending the bottle of Jameson on the grave. Only a drop emerged.
“So, you want to come and meet Pete? He’ll like you, Margo Martinard.”

The birthday party. She’d forgotten about that. It didn’t need to be all the way Andra would have had it. It could be different.

Before she had time to think about it, she walked up to him and kissed him. She tasted the liquor on his tongue, felt his arms move around her, solid against her back. She let it last, the feeling of holding someone, being held. And he didn’t pull away until she let him go.

“Sure,” she said, already thinking about the suitcase with a clean dress and a plane ticket she could use some other time. She nestled the empty bottle on the grave among the flowers. Then she had another thought. She unclasped the bracelet from her wrist, wiped it off at the hem of her dress, and fastened it around the bottle’s neck.

They collected her things from the waiting limo, the driver starting the engine and moving along. She climbed into the cab of the beaten green truck and looked back. She could see the blanket of red roses and, just beyond, the hat on the bench, the little black pearl dangling from its crown, brim lifting in the breeze.

 

B.P. Greenbaum holds a B.A. in English from the University of Hartford, an M.A. in secondary education from St. Joseph College, and an M.F.A. from the University of Southern Maine Stonecoast. Presently, she is the creative writing teacher at a public magnet arts high school in Willimantic, Connecticut. In addition to teaching fiction writing, flash fiction, poetry, and advanced script writing, she is also involved in local land conservation efforts. In 2011, she was awarded a Teaching Arts Fellowship from Surdna, now known as the National Arts Teachers Fellowship (NATF), to develop a memoir. Her poetry, short stories, and creative nonfiction have been published in The Louisville Review, Massachusetts Review, Eclectica, Hawaii Pacific Review, The Alembic, Forge, Hog River Review, Inscape, Verdad, Pearl, Willow Review, Underwood Review, The Dos Passos Review, Prick of the Spindle, MacGuffin, Fiction Fix, Noctua Review and Penmen Review.