Carlo Thomas - "Backfire"

 

I only contacted Ian for company on the drive. He knew it too but agreed to come anyways. Most likely he was bored as fuck.

“Pot brownies sound good right now,” I said as Ian hopped inside my dad’s gray Toyota pickup, the one he finally got around to giving a jumpstart. A loud pop came from behind us like a runner’s pistol - and they’re off! We both jumped though I knew it was coming.

“What the hell was that?” Ian asked.

“The backfire,” I said. “This truck’s a piece of shit.”

Ian shrugged his shoulders and pulled his brown hair into a ponytail.

One week isn’t long to be home, but it can be with nothing to get a buzz or high from. My parents hadn’t kept alcohol in the house since my brother started going to NA last year. They didn’t consider alcohol to be a drug. They also didn’t want Tommy to trade one bad habit for another.

“What happened to G-Rock Radio?” I asked while scrolling through the truck’s presets.

“It’s now a Top 40 station,” Ian said.

Miley Cyrus sang to us as we pulled up to Sean’s.

***

“I saw the craziest shit yesterday,” Sean said as we walked into his kitchen. The fluorescent light shone against the faded yellow wallpaper and made my eyes hurt.

“I’m leaving ShopRite with stuff for these brownies when I hear a woman scream from the parking lot.” He pulled a glass tray from the fridge and placed it on the counter. “A bunch of us ran over and saw her beating the shit out of this dude with a loaf of bread.”

“How does that happen?” I asked.

Sean pulled a steak knife from the drawer underneath and cut off a corner of brownie. “The bread was frozen.”

“His plan backfired,” Ian said.

Sean pulled the piece apart and held the halves out. Ian and I popped them in our mouths like gumdrops.

“Pure body high,” Sean said. “This stuff will only mess with your head if you’re in a really bad place. If your mind’s really asking for it.” He picked up the knife and started cutting the brownies into squares. His arms were tattooed up and down like murals.

“So you’re back to see Tommy,” he said.

“That’s right,” I said.

“About time. I saw him in rehab every weekend until they moved him. So did Ian.”

Ian nodded, modestly accepting the compliment.

“I needed to save up money to come home,” I said as the brownie’s moist texture stuck to the roof of my mouth. The weed’s earthy taste went well with the chocolaty sweetness.

“Tommy says you’re some big shot in Denver. What have you been doing with all your money?”

“Lay off, man,” Ian said.

Sean laughed, opened the cabinet and pulled out a Ziploc bag. “Why should I? Maybe he isn’t as well off as Tommy wants us to think.”

“I’ll buy the whole tray,” I said.

“See? Now we know he’s fine,” Sean said before his elbow knocked the knife off the counter. Before he fell to the floor, screaming.

“Get it out!” Sean screamed, pointing to the knife in his foot.

I grabbed the towel hanging over the oven handle and the wooden spoon on the counter.

“Call 9-1-1,” I said to Ian as I dropped to the floor and wrapped the towel around Sean’s ankle. Blood soaked through his sneaker and dripped onto the white linoleum. Sean whimpered with his eyes shut. I stuck the wooden spoon through the knot and twisted. And twisted.

***

The weather report ran on the television fixed in the corner of the waiting room. The night’s low was fifty – unusually warm for Jersey in February. That afternoon I found a t-shirt I hadn’t worn since senior year.

“She’s so hot,” Ian said, looking down at an Esquire magazine with Scarlett Johansson on the cover.

The meteorologist – a balding man wearing a gray shirt and red tie – moved his hands around the tristate area as if kneading dough.

“That woman beat the shit out of a guy with a loaf of frozen bread,” I said, laughing.

Ian looked up and started laughing too. We started to feel that sample Sean gave us. And the pieces we stole as we followed the ambulance through the fog.

“What about the towel you used to wrap Sean’s ankle?” Ian asked. “It had ducks on it.”

“Quack, quack!” I said, imitating a duck’s bill with my hand, which had started to tingle. I jumped up, stuck my hands under my armpits and started quacking.

“That’s a chicken, you idiot,” Ian said.

“That’s because I am a chicken!”

The room started to move around me like a funhouse. I saw a woman a few seats down shake her head, not that I gave a shit. I turned back to the TV and saw the weather report had changed to a commercial. A mother pulling a plate of snacks from the microwave. She then set it on the counter where four teenage boys attacked like it was the end of the world.

“That was us!” I said.

“Yeah, man,” Ian said.

“That was us!” I yelled to the man across the room with his head in a paperback. He didn’t look up.

I turned back to the TV but something had changed, as if my brain had blown a fuse. The mother’s voice slowed and deepened. The snacks looked repulsive and I felt nauseous.

“Sean will be alright,” Ian said. I jumped because he was now at my side.

“And so will Tommy,” I said.

Ian nodded. “Which floor is he on?”

“Four.”

The commercial ended and the news resumed. Something about a heroin bust near the shore. My ears throbbed. I turned around to ask whoever had the remote to please please please please change the channel.

Carlo Thomas is a freelance copywriter and marketer originally from Manchester Township, New Jersey. When not writing for work or pleasure, Carlo enjoys concerts, bike riding, and breweries. He lives in Denver, Colorado. You can follow Carlo on Twitter @lifeofdude or contact him at thelifeofdude@gmail.com.

Christopher Woods - "Let Go"

 

The goal now, as you see it, is to get home. The front has come in early. Wind jars the car on the asphalt. The rain comes hard and cold, makes flashlight beams of streetlights. It’s hard to drive, but it’s also hard to steer. Maybe one too many boilermakers with buddies at Nightlite. But who can blame you, even if you had been good about staying on the wagon for three months, since Liza left.

She hasn’t sent as much as a postcard. You watch her credit card charges on your bill, then throw it away. You tell yourself you won’t check the mail again until it’s time for the unemployment checks to come. Four years in the sausage room at Don’s Deluxe Meats didn’t mean a thing in the end. No gratitude, no severance pay. Let go without any ceremony at all.

If you can just get home, you’ll be okay. The streets are filling with water. You imagine you are the captain of a boat in strong currents. But you do find a way to stop at Discount Package Store for two fifths of cheap bourbon. That will get you through tonight, and maybe longer.

At last you reach your street, hit the curb twice, coming to a stop in front of your dark house. You stagger up the walk, and you can hear your dogs bark. They watch you through the window. The Welcome wagon. They have waited, the faithful boys, Lewis and Clark.

You feed them and let them run outside in the rain. They come in, shake off the wet night, and lie down at your feet. You gulp the bourbon and watch them. First one, then the other, falls asleep. Let go. Begin dog dreams.

You think that dreaming is best in a warm, dry room. Better still if outside the darkness howls. What do they dream about? Old hunts, saliva, instinct. In a lurching pack under a grey dawn sky, waiting for a waterfowl kill.

Or do they dream of being human, inside a warm house on a wild night. Sitting back, plastered, watching the dogs dream.

Christopher Woods is a writer, teacher and photographer who lives in Houston and Chappell Hill, Texas. He has published a novel, THE DREAM PATCH, a prose collection, UNDER A RIVERBED SKY, and a book of stage monologues for actors, HEART SPEAK. His work has appeared in THE SOUTHERN REVIEW, NEW ENGLAND REVIEW, NEW ORLEANS REVIEW, COLUMBIA and GLIMMER TRAIN, among others. His photographs can be seen in his gallery - http://christopherwoods.zenfolio.com/. He is currently compiling a book of photography prompts for writers, FROM VISION TO TEXT.

Alison Traweek - "Room Enough, Road Enough" and "The Dry Father"

 

"Room Enough, Road Enough"

If I were in Texas I could make sense of everything.

If I had 3 hours and 215 miles of

United States Interstate 10

I would know which way to go.

 

In March the bluebonnets spread across the flat open fields

like old blue curtains carelessly dropped.

On close inspection their stalks are thick and light green,

their leaves downed with soft white fur;

they look too frail to survive in this harsh landscape.

My heart explodes with tenderness.

They have no scent but they fill the air with a promise of freshness.

In March it is too early for the grass,

swaying in a slow waltz with the cedar trees,

to have been burnt yellow by the relentless Texas sun.

 

On I-10 at night at about mile 600

I once saw God.

I was 16 and I remember I wept.

I was alone in my pickup with all my possessions,

I was leaving my mother’s house forever.

I cried because God was all I had and

because the stars were bright enough to hurt my eyes.

On I-10 at night around mile 600

the stars are blinding.

 

5 years later in my Honda

which had seen

Redwoods-

Vancouver-

2 oceans and the Gulf of Mexico-

the desert-

tornadoes-

a swarm of cicadas-

and me in every aspect-

I sang at the top of my lungs

and laughed to breathe that old Texas dust.

 

Scatter my ashes in that dust.

 

On US I-10 I know the rhythm of the road

when you get close enough to Houston to smell it:

it bounces beneath my car like a good horse in a strong canter.

I know my way by that.

On US I-10 I always know my way.

I know all the billboards and gas stations

and TruXtops

and where to get the cheapest Blue Bell Ice Cream

and how far to the next grilled cheese sandwich

and how many miles from my mother’s house to mine

and if I can make it on the amount of sleep I’ve had.

 

In Texas the oak trees have leaves like the elms have everywhere else

and grow stooped like old women bent by remembering.

In Texas I never need a scarf and coat and gloves,

just jeans and a jacket and my car.

At my grandmother’s house in Texas it was 54 degrees on Christmas Day.

 

The sky there is large enough to house my uncertainty

and there’s room left over for hope.

 

In Texas I am barefoot

I am sitting on porches

drinking sweet tea

swatting mosquitoes and dodging roaches.

I would never walk anywhere.

If I were in Texas I would be

Well On My Way,

I would be

Almost Home.

I would be tipping my hat to the white blue sky

which would tip its hat back in a slow sunset

reflected in my rear view mirror

blinding me to everything I’d already driven through.

 

Even the birds have a drawl in Texas

and wear many different hats

and respect a good pair of boots.

 

I would make my peace with God

on US I-10 at about mile 600,

halfway to everywhere.

By mile 600 I will have had enough time to pick my path carefully

and time enough left to relax.

The flowers are quiet but not shy in Texas

and didn’t I learn from them?

 

"The Dry Father"

In August 1985 we moved to San Antonio.

I remember that was when I started praying

and just before I gave it up.

I remember my father was loved in church.

I remember the air was dry.

 

In church my mother let me lay my head on her lap

and sleep through the sermon

and she didn't tell my father when I took

The Body of Christ

home as bloody medicine to save my dying dog.

I remember the incense stifling my thoughts

and I remember the air was dry.

 

Ten years later, in the desert,

absorbing the full force of the Santa Fe sun

I laughed out loud and raised my arms to heaven

because I was Master of the Universe and

powerless to change it.

The air was dry, I remember,

and my throat was dry too.

 

In 1985 I didn't know about "deserts"

or "God" or "powerless to change it"

but I remember waking up those mornings After‑

shadow of my father still heavy on my chest

shadow of impossibility slapped across my mouth.

Alone in the dry air of my room

I was praying for options

I was choking down truth‑

bloody medicine to save myself.

 

Having grown up in Houston-

port-city-

bayou‑city‑

flooding thunderstorm water to my thighs city‑

I always noticed how dry it was in San Antonio.

And that my father had at least two faces.

And I couldn't get the stink of incense off my clothes

and my dog died anyway.

One of my father's faces could only be seen at night,

the other needed water to breathe.

In San Antonio at night, I remember,

the air was always dry.

 

Alison C. Traweek, a native Texan, teaches Greek, Latin, and writing in the Philadelphia area. Her writing has been published in AmphoraQuartoThe Journal of Classics Teaching, and Women and Social Movements. She has a Ph.D. in classical studies and is currently working on an annotated translation of the Iliad.

Matt Dennison - "Indictment" and "Gallop The Bred Horses"

 

"Indictment"

His work truck leaks
transmission
brake and
power-steering fluids.
His tires sag.

Carpenter's tools
golf clubs
spare tires
clothes and
old trophies are
all locked in storage.

There is nothing beautiful or soft or living
in his house,
not even
a goldfish.

All he has,
all that he really has
is a brown-paper-wrapped
package of pornographic pictures
in his dresser drawer
beneath his socks.

His life has
collapsed
to the final flat
boring nothingness
of rage at
slow drivers
bad athletes
warm beer and
failed bets on the weather
goddamn.

If you opened his chest
you would find a little
dust,
a little rot,
a little chalky white dry emptiness
that only rattles
when he coughs
or pukes.

The beer the beer the beer
and the jokes
and the loans
have failed.

He acts as if turning forty
were someone else's
fault.

 

"Gallop the Bred Horses"

“Too grabby,” my father said
of my hands rushing to break
the earthen clods before
his final slice. I should
know better the rhythm,
the routine—cut, flop,
segment, sometimes
twice—by now, the blade
warned me with relentless
strikes not fingers from my
hands too eager to shake
the worm souls loose,
knowing  to break
is better than to slice,
that one whole soul
is better than halves
no longer wiggling
but water-logged on
hooks unable to interest
the hungriest fish we’d
be lucky to see as I galloped
the bred horses of my dreams
into dark waters, wanting only
to find fullness with fullness found,
the captured to feed that which feeds.
Years later my neighbor handed me
a telegram mistakenly delivered to her.
Without waiting for another to halve
the hidden, I sliced it open to read
the news of his death complete—
my tongue forever a tent-stake
or trowel, anchoring the lost,
shoveling the gone.
 

(this poem has previously appeared in Sprung Formal.)

Matt Dennison's bio is available at this following link: http://thewildword.com/to-be-a-street-musician/

Amber D. Tran - "Mantra", "Bottom Of The Bucket" and "Hang"

 

"Mantra"

 

She carries an odd aroma, the smell of a bad head,

something I felt as she screamed at the bed

for not being made. A story in her face, a jilted tale,

the wrinkles of her eyes because she cannot sleep on Mondays.

A girl who can walk backwards but cannot see

without some sort of filter, a film of gauze across her eyes,

a wound still healing, a hiccup in her breath every time

she takes her medicine. On her birthday

I asked her to make a wish; instead, she poured herself

into the twenty-some candles, her eyes bled fire, and she

began to sing “Jingle Bells.” It was June. I once

held her hand as we walked through a busy marketplace,

but she slipped away, a child eager for a thrill, a beast

in heat, and I discovered her near one of those fishing booths

filled with that morning’s catch, crying, sobbing, snot

all over her face, because an elder couple who passed by

moments earlier, according to her, did not have much.

 

Today I ask her if everything is fine, a phrase I use

every time she stirs honey and cinnamon into her coffee.

She smiles through the fog, says for the fourth time that day,

“I’m okay,” but her brain palpitates. She smiles again.

 

"Bottom of the Bucket"

 

There are flies at the bottom of the Ancient Age bottle.

“Protein,” you once said as you poured yourself another shot.

 

You left the front door open again.

Summer moths and lightning bugs swarmed the living room.

 

I am the only one who notices the rot in your teeth.

The patch of melanoma on your cheek looks like a raindrop in May.

 

You are an angry drunk, a creature with bloodshot eyes.

When I was younger, I listened to you beat my mother.

 

I waited for your phone call on my 26th birthday.

A foolish daughter, I only wanted to hear my name on your tongue.

 

We shot arrows into hay bales and drank Budweiser together.

That was the same night the cops took you away in handcuffs.

 

There is salt in your voice as you speak to my wounds.

You promise the world, yet give me a handful of rust.

"Hang"

 

You found me suspended over a body of salt.

When you tried to touch me there, my wounds  

spelled my name without vowels and skin.  

I am hoarse and drained, absent from your palm,

 the lisp that consumes you when you try to sing.

 Here is the breath you steal in the morning,

 the clear cloud that fills you with sugar and rain,

 and I try to sneak inside you, reciprocate some

 sort of vile compromise, remind you of that promise

 you made when you were a child. You are

 illiterate, and I am just a fractured bone.

 

 Amber D. Tran graduated from West Virginia University in 2012, where she specialized in lyrical non-fiction and contemporary poetry. She is the Editor-in-Chief for the Cold Creek Review literary journal. Her work has been featured inCalliopeSonic Boom JournalSpry Literary JournalCheat River Review, and more. She has work forthcoming in The Stray BranchMandala Journal, and more. Her first novel, Moon River, was released in September. She can be reached at her website at www.amberdtran.com and at most social media platforms as @amberdtran. She currently lives in Alabama with her husband and two dogs, Ahri and Ziggs.

Addey Vaters - "Truth"

 

I always walked by her on my way to work. I went over the Shelby Street Bridge, crossing over the murky Cumberland River with a horde of other pedestrians every day at precisely 8:30 am. She was always there, standing still in the middle of the length of the bridge, her arms spread wide and resting against the white metallic railing. I’d been keeping track. She was there every morning I walked the bridge, and gone by the time I returned every evening. In the middle of December she’d have a heavy coat draped across her sagging shoulders and big wooly gloves, the kind where the fingertips were exposed unless the wearer desired to make the gloves into mittens. In the summer she’d be carrying the coat, the sweltering humidity and heat from the sun deeming outerwear useless. Instead she’d wear only a pair of jeans and a baggy t-shirt commemorating the 2002 Country Music Marathon. She didn’t look like she was old enough to have ran in the thing, her shiny, light brown hair and smooth skin giving away her youth, although her apparent life circumstances seemed like something no one so young should have to deal with.

It was a baggy t-shirt weather type of day that I first noticed her there, grungy floral carpet bag at her feet, coat flung over the rails, and trinkets lined up on the surface of the bridge’s larger-than-life bannister. Now I noticed how every time I passed her, there were new objects lined up next to the old ones. At first it had been a small wooden cross, a dilapidated address book with what looked like two pages left inside, and a diamond ring. I assumed it was real, the ring, though I’m unsure why I thought that. It was grungy, like the girl and her possessions, but that diamond in the center shone like none I’d ever seen before. If I ever got off early from work and headed home under the noon sun, she’d be there – and her diamond ring could blind pedestrians from miles away. I wondered on occasion if she was sending out some sort of signal, casting a coded message off to someone somewhere in the sky. Maybe it was her engagement ring. Her beloved had died in a plane crash, and she now perpetually waited for him, sending signals out into the universe with the very ring he had given her as a token of their love.

But that’s just the romantic in me, and most of the time the ring wasn’t out anymore when I passed her by. Now there was a set of Matryoshka dolls in its place next to the cross, but only the largest and the second-to-smallest were ever present. They’re faces were always set towards the water, only the exuberant red, green, and blue swirls of their sarafans visible to those walking the bridge. I liked to think the ring was still there, hiding inside the tiniest doll that could still be opened. Perhaps she had given up on ever finding her Pilot lover and had decided to waste away gazing at the skies in which he had plummeted to his demise

For the last several months that had been the extent of her inventory. The wooden cross and the two Matryoshka dolls. There’d be an occasional locket, a belt buckle, or an old cloche hat in the mix every now and again, but those two dolls and the cross were a constant. I assumed that she was religious. The cross was hardly there as a fashion statement, not worn on a chain around a person’s neck and not the type to be hung on a wall or enshrined in any way. It was rough and looked like it would give whoever touched it a splinter, too large to be jewelry and too small to be much of anything else.

She stayed that way for the longest time. Those same items stacked neatly on the railings of the bridge, their owner standing solemnly behind them, arms spread out and leaning into the breeze. I walked by her every morning at precisely 8:30 am, entering into the workforce, and she was gone by 5:00 pm when I crossed back out of it. That’s the way it was from July into August, into September, into October, into November.

Until November 30.

It was the day after Thanksgiving – that horrific day Americans call Black Friday. The day everyone arrived at a retail store and got everything they ever wanted at a fraction of the price and left with only a fraction of their dignity remaining.

She was there when I passed over the bridge at 8:30 am, her dolls all lined up in a row and the cross sitting patiently beside them. This was the same. I never knew if she was there on Thanksgiving Day, or any holiday really, but her persistence during the rest of the year left me thinking she alone in life just as she was there all alone on the bridge. I passed her by in much the same way as usual. It was difficult to tell her emotions, though I always tried. Her face was always wrinkle-free and serene as she gazed out on the muddy, sometimes rough water. Her hands were turned towards the river, leaning against the white railing, the weight of the world resting upon each and every finger.

It was on the way back that I noticed something different. For one thing, she was still there, her shiny hair blowing in the chilly winter breeze. She was still, there. Watching the ripples in the water far below, the grey clouds move across the sky, and the streetlights slowly begin to blink to life. The cityscape seemed barren on this particular day – the usually bright lights in the city’s many skyscrapers dimmed on what many considered a ‘reserved’ holiday. The tall Batman building lent to the eerie feel. The town felt like a dingy Gotham from the movies.

I barely noticed her at first. Every morning I took mental stock of my surrounding, and she was always a part of that. Now as I did the same thing crossing back over the bridge, I realized that one of these things was not like the other.

It was her.

I went right by her, passing by her humanity as I always tended to do. A gust of wind came up and blew my coat tight against my body. I turned to look back, and noticed the tear streaks down her cheeks reflecting the light of the setting sun.

I wrung my hands and turned back without giving it a second thought.

“Hi.” She didn’t even turn to look at me. “Are you alright?”

She still didn’t turn. I stood there for several minutes feeling the icy air hit my nostrils, sending tiny daggers of chill into my bones every time I took a breath.

“Every day I wonder what it would be like to jump.” Her voice didn’t match her appearance. Precise and even, every syllable in its place. “Have you ever attempted suicide?”

She turned to face me now, her eyes steady on my own.

“No.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

“Me either.” She turned back to the water. “I just like to come here to think.” I could hear the catch in her voice at this line. “Sometimes I wish I could just turn it off. The thinking, that is.”  

We were both silent for what seemed like an eternity. Her gazing into the river thinking of death while I stood patiently behind her, wondering what words would come out of her mouth next.

“Well, if you’re alright…” I wasn’t sure she was, to be honest, but the tone of her voice made me think she had a level head on her shoulders.

“I’m just gonna…” I let the sentence trail off as I turned away from her chunky gray-coated self.

“Would you like to get a coffee?” The question surprised me. I turned back and there she was, still standing there, but packing up her Matryoshka dolls as if she already knew the answer.

“Sure.” I indulged her and accepted the offer despite her seeming to know what I’d say.

After she was done packing up, she made her way off of the bridge, walking right past me – burgundy and purple carpet bag in tow. I tagged along, my feet dragging along the rough cement. I felt like a child chasing after their older sibling.

“There’s a great one right on the corner of Broadway.” She flung her hair over her shoulder and looked back at me with eager eyes. “They have the best mocha lattes!”

I followed behind her the entire block to the coffee shop, wondering whether I was going to have to pay for hers or not. I was still behind when we arrived at the café, called Brewed Remarks. There were several people scattered throughout the lobby wearing skinny jeans and flannel shirts, all seated at the place’s numerous stainless steel tables. By the time I made it through the door she was already at the counter and paying for two large mocha lattes.

I went and set down my bag at a booth covered in antiqued wood. The seats looked like old church benches, all lined up waiting for the congregation to come and sing a hymn, say a prayer, and leave to go on with their week not remembering a single note from the song or a word from their plea. I shrugged off my jacket and placed it on the bench, covering the old, worn surface with purple, waterproof polyester.

The woman from the bridge picked up two steaming cups of chocolatey coffee drink and joined me, placing the cups on the table and sitting down with a swoosh on the steel chair across from me.

“You are going to love this!” she exclaimed, pushing one of the paper cups in my direction.  

Be Kind to the Earth. Recycle Me. was scrawled across the bottom in bold green type. I glanced across the table as she took a sip of her mocha latte, then sat it quickly back down and waved her hand back and forth in front of her mouth. “Oh boy, that’s hot, but oh so good!”

She took another sip, this time more slowly, sticking her lips out and slurping the liquid in. Her cup had Annalise written on it in black, loopy script. I spun my cup around to see that it said And Friend in the same hand.

“So what why are you always on the bridge at precisely 8:30 each day?” She put down her cup and placed her hands on the table, each finger intertwined with its other-handed counterpart.

I glanced down at the uniform that I was wearing, the Cracker Barrel logo embroidered on my button down. I’d never seen her look my way once when I crossed the bridge. I figured she could figure out why I was always there, though.

“Cracker Barrel, huh?” she took the plastic top off of her coffee and blew on the hot liquid, sending little swirls of tan foam swimming across the surface. “I always liked their meatloaf. It gets such a bad rep these days, meatloaf does, but it’s delicious. A complete and nutritious meal all in a convenient loaf form.”

She took on the persona of an infomercial broadcaster on that last bit and I laughed.

“I don’t think I’ve seen you smile once out of all those days you’ve crossed the bridge Ella. “ I stopped laughing at this.

“How do you know my name?”

Annalise motioned to my nametag with a smile.

“Just a good guess I suppose.”

I finally took a sip of the mocha, now lukewarm. I watched as she removed her coat and draped it across the back of her chair. She did the same with her scarf and then rummaged through her carpet back looking for something. She finally settled on a folded up piece of paper.

“You dropped this the other day, and I’ve been meaning to get it back to you.”

So that’s what this was all about.

“Thanks.” I couldn’t even remember what the paper was. I took it from her and opened it up, beginning to read. “It’s my song...” I opened my purse and grabbed my wallet, looking behind my ID. It was missing. “How did this happen?” I folded it back up neatly and tucked it next to the leathery wall of the ID pouch.

“It’s good, you know.”

Of course she had read the lyrics to my song. The one song I had actually finished since moving here six years ago. To this God forsaken place where little country seedlings went to grow into huge Tennessee magnolias.

“I’m glad you liked it.” As if her opinion counted. She didn’t look like a good gardener.

“It really is good. Have you tried to put it out there?”

I’d tried, tried, and tried again. But Magnolias weren’t the most common tree here. They’re actually quite hard to come by. And a Magnolia in full bloom, well, that’s just about as rare as a White Peacock.

“I know somebody. We could send it to him and see what happens…”

A homeless woman who had connections in the music world? Well, that might just be rarer than a White Peacock.

I stared at her for a moment. She was once again blowing on her coffee, though I was sure that by now the temperature must be more to her liking.

“What’s with the Matryoshka dolls?”

“The what?” She look at me quizzically, her eyebrows squished together and low on her forehead.

“The Russian Nesting Dolls. You have them out every day when I walk by.”

“Oh. Huh. That’s what those things are actually called?” She dug around in her carpet bag once more, grabbing the large one and pulling it out. She placed it on the table with care, both hands caressing the polished wooden exterior. “When I was younger, my dad brought a set of these dolls home from one of his business trips.”

Her voice grew soft and quiet; I could barely hear her with the din from the cappuccino machine in the background. She opened the large doll up and removed the smaller one, setting it next to its larger counterpart.

“I found this set at a consignment shop a couple blocks away. “ She paused a moment and bit her lip, stroking the tiniest doll with her thumb and pointer finger. “I guess it’s not even a set, really, is it?”

“Part of a set.” I didn’t want to tell her that there were at least three other dolls missing. It didn’t seem right.

She opened the little doll and removed its contents. There it was, the ring.

“My mom’s engagement ring.” She slipped it onto her left ring finger and twirled it round and round. “Memories of days gone by, I guess.” She sniffed. “That’s what’s with the Matryoshka dolls.”

“Oh.” It was all I could get out.

“My parents got divorced.” She looked me in the eyes now. “Well, if you could even call it that. My mom left. I guess she was tired of being a mother.” We were both silent a moment before she continued. “I found out last year that she died. Some sort of car wreck. She had another family that took care of the burial and funeral proceedings.”

I stared at my hands, folded up neatly on the table top. No jewelry or adornment, just bare fingernails and dry skin. Waitressing will do that to you, all the hand washing. The wrinkles on my knuckles were pronounced and deep because of it. I glanced up at Annalise and noticed her wiping her eyes. I handed her a napkin, its course recycled-paper material seeming inadequate for helping with the tears.

“I’m sorry.” I whispered it, almost wishing she couldn’t hear.

“That’s alright. She’s not the only one who moved on without me.” She ran the napkin underneath her eyelashes. “And to Cincinnati of all places!” She laughed and placed the crumpled up thing inside her coffee cup. We both watched as the liquid moved up and through the napkin, eventually finding its way to the very top, causing it to collapse against the side of the cup.

“So what’s your story, Ella?” Annalise re-fastened the plastic lid of her coffee cup and looked at me expectantly, no trace of the tears from a moment ago remaining.

“My story?” I questioned, unsure of what bits and pieces of life made up one’s story.

I pondered it a moment. My life. My story. It wasn’t anything unique. As a matter of fact, it was decisively generic in this town. Heartbroken song writer waiting for her big break, only to find herself stuck waiting tables, wasting her college education and youth on mediocrity.

“I’m a failure.” The words came out before I could stop them, and suddenly, I understood. The reason Annalise had so easily noticed I never smiled is because it was the truth. A truth I had somehow denied even to myself, a truth I had never even noticed about myself.

“Oh, come on. I highly doubt that.” Annalise grinned and shook her head back and forth, her green eyes never leaving my face.

“Well, it’s true. I’ve been here six years and have absolutely nothing to show for it.”

“I highly doubt that.” She said it again, and this time it was like the sound of screeching brakes.

“Well you better believe it.” I knocked back the last of my latte and grabbed for my coat, shrugging the waterproof material over my shoulders. “It was nice to meet you Annalise. I’ll see you next Monday, bright and early.” I gathered my purse and scooted out of the church pew booth seat, wondering the whole time why I’d decided to come here in the first place.

“Do you believe in God?” The question came out of nowhere and stopped me in my tracks. This place really was like a church.

“I don’t give much thought to God.” At least this was something that I knew about myself and had come to terms with. I knew that God wasn’t real to me. If he was real at all, he seemed only to care about a select few individuals out of the seven billion or so on the planet.

“Well, I think he brought us together today. I thought I needed you, but it looks like you need me more. You need him more.” Annalise moved her hands around in little circles as she spoke, and raised her eyebrows high, up to heaven, on that last sentence.

“That’s nice. I’m gonna leave now.” I didn’t need to hear any of this garbage. I got up and swung my bag over my shoulder, ready to depart for good this time.

“Wait.”

For some reason, I stopped, yet again, and waited for her to speak.

“Here. Take this.” Annalise pressed the worn wooden cross into my palm, folding my fingers around every splintery bump and crevice. “He brought us here for a reason.”

I looked at her for a moment, her hand still pushing the ancient wood into my skin. She looked so peaceful, despite the traumatic life experiences she just shared with me. I nodded, and grasping the thing for myself, gazed at the object as if it held some sort of mystical power.

And then I left.

When I came to the bridge that next Monday morning, she wasn’t there. I examined her usual spot with scrutiny, noting her absence and the fact that now the entire walkway seemed bare. The railing she usually leaned against was empty and cold. City employees were hard at work decorating every lamppost with red and green tinsel. Banners hung down from the lights with images of brightly decorated trees or wreaths and lights were wrapped around each pole.

I walked over to Annalise’s spot and stood there a moment, staring out at the river below. The water was moving quickly on this particular day, and the wind whipped my hair about in a frenzy. What was it she saw here, of all places?

The gray sky opened up and dropped fat flakes of icy white snow atop my head and I turned to pull my hood up, tightening the little elastic drawstring that secured it tightly around my face. Every time I breathed, little puffs of steam dissipated in the cold air, like the smoke from a locomotive coiling off into the atmosphere.

I put my hands in my pockets and felt it there. That dingy little cross still left in the coat as a reminder of my odd encounter with a girl named Annalise. I pulled it out and ran my gloved fingertips over every crevice. I had forgotten it was still there.

The idea of God was a funny one. I guess I’ll never understand it. I’ll never understand people like Annalise who believe so faithfully in something that seemed more or less like a fairytale. I rubbed the small trinket for a moment more, and then lifted it to my lips, giving it a kiss goodbye.

“Farewell, God.” I raised my arm up over my head, winding my aim back like a baseball pitcher ready to throw a curveball. I was about to release when I saw it. That blinding glare that shone like none I’d ever seen before.

I lowered my hand and stared at the spot for a moment. It was a rather plain old spot on the bank of the river, the grass all crinkly and yellow with mud mixed throughout just for good measure. But it was shiny. I moved my gaze back to the river for a moment. It was still moving quickly along, little ripples of brown water rolling under the bridge. Then I moved upward, to the sky overhead. It was still gray, and delicate flakes of snow still fell on my face. When I looked back the glimmer was gone. There was no more blinding shine coming from the yellowed grass on the bank of the Cumberland.

I remembered the cross still lodged in my hand, and decided that maybe God should stay. For now.

I placed the ancient wood back in my pocket, where it seemed to belong at the moment, and continued on my way to work.

I never saw her again.

 

Addey Vaters is a student and writer from Colorado. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. Addey’s work has been published in riverrun Literary and Arts Journal, Sleet Magazine, Miss Milennia Magazine, and Odyssey, where she was not only a contributor but an editor. She is currently the Poetry Editor at borrowed solace and works in higher education. She loves anything and everything related to cats and/or folk music.

Salena Casha - "The House That Tina Built"

Taking a drag from her cigarette, Tina noticed the fresh grave encroaching on her late husband’s plot. She blew smoke up and over her shoulder and tried for a moment to pretend she hadn’t seen the embossed black-ice facade. Instead, she focused on the fact that she hadn’t had a cigarette in almost a week. That standing there, inhaling nicotine in the blooming air made her feel as though she’d taken a hit from an oxygen tank. Her daughter-in-law was home for school vacation this week and so Tina’s smoking options had been limited to quick drags over the stove with the fan on full blast.

That woman’s always trying to kill me, Tina thought to herself.

She took another drag, fingers pressed to Lorenzo’s marker but she couldn’t ignore the newly turned earth inches from her loafers. The wind blew her hair and smoke back into her face.

Why has the groundskeeper given such little space for Lorenzo? What does he have against us?

Her brow pinched as she pushed herself off of his gravestone and trudged the slim four steps to his neighbor. It was too cold for bugs but that hadn’t stopped the diggers from overturning earth and installing a new landmark in the cemetery.

Carlson, she read and then crossed herself. Not even Italian.

She took a casual turn, surveying the grounds. A pond glistened 100 yards off, a beaver dam half-constructed on the water’s farthest lip. The stone-ground paths wound just close to Lorenzo’s grave before spiraling outward, looping and weaving through the green grass and scattershot trees. A wild turkey meandered by the water’s stone bridge.

It was good to be alone.

She stepped carefully around the foreign grave, her soles sinking a centimeter into the ground.

Unlike most people, she did not find death disturbing. She did not find walking on someone else’s resting place disturbing. What disturbed her, what angered her was the lack of due respect and space given to her husband.

Crossing her arms in front of her chest, she let the cigarette dangle from between her fingers. The ash was a thin column, particles angled toward the dirt below her. This Carlson stone was fine, if a bit modern for her. It was thick and sleek with a mountainous façade chipped into the right hand corner. Birds hadn’t shat on it yet and she grinned to herself, knowing what was to come.

They’ll regret choosing this place.

She blinked between the new stone and her late husband’s. Lorenzo Esposito 1922 – 2008. Nearly ten years since he’d passed and her heart tightened, more out of duty than of love, if she was truly being honest with herself. Ash fell from her cigarette and landed in the turned dirt beneath her.

And she realized it had been a long time since she’d seen even a photo of him. Sometimes - and she hated to admit it - she saw that dreadful stone rather than his face when she thought of him. She blinked, harder this time and sniffed, bending her arthritic knees until she was level with the new grave, until she couldn’t see Lorenzo’s plot. The new owners had begun to create a garden, complete with matching Micah blocks that cut a rectangle on the softened earth.

And a part of her hated it even more because she hadn’t thought to do that herself and now, people would come to expect it of her.

“Excuse me, can I help you?”

Her hearing wasn’t all bad, the voice reaching her eardrum through her cochlea in a tinny vibration, but she ignored it. Instead she focused on the dates embossed on the stone before her 1953 – 2016. Young. Around her son’s age.

Lorenzo, I will outlive them all.

“Excuse me,” the voice was louder now but not harsher. There was a quaver in it and Tina whipped her head around, eyes widened in surprise, her lips parting. This wasn’t the first time she’d acted. She leaned her cigarette-heavy hand against the grave for support.

“You scared me,” Tina said, eyes narrowed behind sun-darkened spectacles.

The person who stood before her was a girl. Not a child, no she must have been around the age of Tina’s granddaughters, maybe in college. Maybe graduated. Her blonde hair was tied back from her head, eyes watery and blue. Freckles lit her nose and cheeks.

Not Italian. Like her son’s wife. Not someone Tina wanted to get to know.

The girl stuttered. “Sorry, I just,” she bit her lip, crossing her arms in front of her chest and Tina stood up to her full height, only to find that the girl was in fact, taller than her.

“I’m old, you could have killed me,” she said.

The girl looked distressed now and she put her hands out, supplicant. “I didn’t mean to, it was just. That’s my father’s grave.”

Tina wanted to sneer at the girl. Forgiveness and most specifically, requesting it, had never held her attention.

“I know,” she said.

She could tell the girl regretted surprising her, that she was backpedaling. Tina moved aside slowly until she was just enough away from the new grave, making sure the girl noticed her arthritis, her calcified hands. The fact that she hadn’t felt young, hadn’t looked young in years.

The tension in the girl’s shoulders relaxed as her eyes flickered to the still unsprouted garden at the foot of the stone. A breeze pricked an errant hair from her face.

“I didn’t touch it,” Tina croaked.

“I didn’t say you did,” the girl replied. Her voice was drawn enough to match her face and for a moment, Tina wondered why she was there by herself. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

Tina shrugged and turned from her, heading back to Lorenzo’s grave. She had a half a package’s worth of unsmoked Marlboros in her pocket and she reached for another. She took her time to light the tip, her eyes still trained on the girl.

Ignoring Tina, the girl bent down, arranging tools beside the makeshift garden. Tina wasn’t interested in her incompetence. She didn’t have to watch her. But her neck craned a bit forward as the girl bent beside the grave.

The girl had pulled on a pair of gloves and began to pick through the dirt, adjusting here and there, checking the status of buds (or frankly, lack thereof). She was an amateur green thumb.

And a part of Tina hoped that the garden would stand empty at the end of it all, that nothing would come of it, that it would just turn into a hardened patch of Earth, wind-blown and eroded or, better yet, overgrown with weeds and grass.

She only felt slightly bad for such thoughts and even though she hadn’t prayed in years, Tina closed her eyes to slits and folded her hands, cigarette still smoldering.

I hope you can’t see me Lorenzo, she thought. And if you can, I don’t smoke anymore. Just once in a while. Because you’re not here.

She didn’t know how long she stood there, waiting for the girl to finish but by the time the girl rose and wiped sweat from her forehead, the cigarette was barely smoking embers.

“Mind if I smoked with you?” the girl asked.

Tina stared at her for a beat before she reached into her crushed velvet jacket but the girl had already pulled a ziplock baggie from her own pocket. Tina watched as she pinched the paper in half around loose tobacco, licking the edge and rolling tight. She lit the tip with a red bic lighter.  

As slow as she possibly could, Tina returned her pack to its resting place.

The girl stood across from her, arms crossed, holding the cigarette expertly between her fingers.

“You shouldn’t do that,” Tina said.

“What?”

“Smoke,” she replied.

The girl’s eyes folded together. “You’re not my mom,” she replied.

“My granddaughters don’t even smoke and they’re your age,” Tina replied.

She watched as the girl took a long, thin drag, the tip pulsing gold. With equal gusto, the girl blew smoke over her shoulder.

“How many people in here died from lung cancer, you think?” the girl finally asked.

“I don’t have lung cancer,” Tina said and the girl rolled her eyes.

“Awful defensive for someone sneaking around someone else’s grave,” she said. “Just trying to make conversation.

Tina didn’t go for another. Self-control, perhaps. Instead, she watched the girl suck and pull at the thin oddly asymmetric roll.

“What did he die from?” the girl asked, gesturing at Lorenzo’s grave.

She had a funny way of never looking Tina directly in the eye, perhaps just above her head or to the side, as if at the pond behind her. And Tina knew she should have left minutes, hours, days ago but she couldn’t move her feet. It was almost like the loam beneath her had snaked its tendrils into her shoes.

“He was just old,” Tina replied.

And what she meant to say was, he decided he was ready to be separated from his body. The mind always went first. Even she wasn’t callous enough to say to the girl that she had watched him starve to death, that he had let each of his motor functions shut down into nothing because he wanted nothing.

Or perhaps he had wanted to be nothing. The greatest and most unattainable wish of all.

“As old as you?” the girl said.

Tina frowned. “I am not old,” she replied.

The girl shrugged. “My dad wasn’t old either. He was never going to be old anyway.”

Such an absurd girl. Such a dark girl, Tina stared at her, cigarette forgotten.

“Are you going to be buried with him?”

“You really think I’m going to die so soon?” Tina asked back.

The girl shrugged. “I mean, you’ve thought about it, haven’t you? How you want to die and where you want to go after. Everyone has.”

Not at this girl’s age, Tina thought. She’d been convinced that the end was so far away she wouldn’t see it until it was just upon her. That was how they were meant to live, weren’t they?

“Like, for example, I want to come back as a tree. Like in that greek myth about the two lovers that die and wind their roots together? Oak and Linden, I think they were. It’s just so romantic.”

There is nothing romantic about trees or death, Tina thought. Life needed to be separated from it because that was what happened when it came to an end. A before. An after. When those lines blurred, people began to believe imagined realities, other spaces they could excel in, just kept putting things off until after. Because, frankly, Tina knew that if there was an afterlife, she was headed to the hellish version.

It was advantageous for her not to believe it in the end.

“So what about you?”

“What?” Tina said. “I can’t hear very good.”

“Are you going to be buried next to your husband?”

It seemed like a logical question and Tina stared once more at Lorenzo’s resting site.

“There’s not much room,” she said, pointing to the girl’s father’s grave and the girl put her hands up in surrender.

“That wasn’t the question,” she replied.

Tina had only told one other person, her son, and it had been a move she’d done out of defiance, telling him what she wanted the rest of her money spent on at the end. Not her grandchildren. Not her family. Maybe her cat, but that was given that the cat would outlive her and frankly, few things had.

“I want a mausoleum,” Tina said. She had never wanted much that was material in the word. Her clothes were decades old. Her current apartment was paid for by her son. Nothing belonged to her.

The girl frowned. “So creepy.”

“No. It’s a house for the dead. For the honored dead.”

“So you want a status symbol?”

For some reason, the words angered Tina and she glared at the girl.

“No, I want a place to stay and rest where no one bothers me, where no one can walk over me. A place that everyone can see when they visit their loved ones below the earth. A place that is mine.”

The girl didn’t respond. Just smoked her cigarette down. Touched her father’s grave once and nodded at Tina.

“I wish you the best,” she said and it almost sounded like a eulogy in that Tina knew it wasn’t true. That the best was never offered those that were gone.

As Tina watched the girl’s pink vested back recede into the gloaming light, she felt a helplessness overtake her, a disgust at the sight of it. Not so much the actual existence of the image itself but its receding quality. The pain it left when it was gone. The air tainted by wild rose perfume and tobacco. By footprints that compressed eroding earth. By people who would come later and after her and think “I wonder how those littered beneath the gravestones lived.”

Even she, however, knew, that the living only thought of the dead in terms of themselves.

And she thought, “No, you will not have me yet.”

 

Salena Casha's work has appeared in over sixty publications. Her fiction has been included in Wigleaf's Top 50 Very Short Fictions and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her first three picture books are housed under the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt publishing umbrella. Visit her website at www.salenacasha.com

Rica Lewis - "Choosing An Outfit"

 

They’re burning your body today,

Cramming the flesh-bone heap of you

Into a brick oven

Like a cold lump of meat,

A pot roast after church.

 

Nine A.M.

The clock ticks new jabs,

A suckerpunch every second without you.

I stand at the wide mouth of my closet,

Everything showing its teeth,

Threatening to swallow.

 

How does a woman choose

A tunic or a sweater?  

The dress I wore to dinner

When your eyes swam with mine

In the salty oceans of our time,

All our time.

 

You will wear metal today,

Pewter and brass,

Brushed finish,

A cruel trophy for the mantel.  

And I will wear

This dripping wound,

And perhaps this sweater

Or maybe the tunic.

 

Rica Lewis is a magazine staff writer for a lifestyle magazine in The Villages, Florida. She blogs to stay balanced at Yoga Mat Monkey.com , and is currently working on a collection of poems and essays.

Dylan Taylor - "The Un-Return"

 

Aubrey had last seen Sara at Steve Ellison’s graduation party grinding on Blake, still wearing her emerald green robe, long after the tassels had been moved to the college side, caps thrown, and St. Benedict’s diplomas spirited away by parents for framing.

“When did you get back? It’s been forever.”

“Get back?”

Sara was wearing a pleated skirt, white blouse, pearl earrings. Her haircut was fresh and short, instead of curling the haircut waved.

“I always imagined you would wind up in New York or L.A., somewhere with lucrative and diverse scholarships, those distinctive neighbourhoods.” Aubrey said.

“I always imagined you’d have three kids whose names all started with J, that have a predisposition to wet themselves in the ball pit of McDonalds, a J husband who likes the office more than home, which means more time to spend buying drinks for book club at your Georgian on Peach Bottom Road.”

“I do live on Peach Bottom! Three little ones too… Joshua does work so very hard. Girl, you’ve gotten so smart you’ve become a psychic.”

Aubrey hugged Sara, her left hand plucking at a wave. “No hairspray, jealous.” She walked to her Acura and drove north. Sara walked south and kept walking. Lots became smaller. Around Occidental Road potholes started to appear. Sara’s walk changed. She forgot to be aware of her hips. Forgot to correct. Her shoulders relaxed, turned back yet paradoxically her pace quickened. Trees gave way to leashed dogs. Two car garages got divorced, then lost their walls. Picket turned to chain-link or hedge. Some porches glowed with cherries drawing deep orange trails upon the encroaching dark. Voices carried onto Sara but you would not have guessed she heard them, even as the deep baritone cut and lifted across the grainy purple dusk.

“You lost? This ain’t you’re spot but I bet if you stop a while you’ll get a taste for the views.”

Sara passed the powerline where she threw her Chucks the day she found out St. Benedict’s had approved her scholarship. Last week she past a boy trying to get his beat-up Nikes to kiss and curl around the wire. They would not spin. Before she turned onto FDR she looked at the boy, he was beating the living shit out of the curb, vulcanized rubber flying out like shrapnel.

Sara unlocked her house. It had been bought by her grandfather at a time when a mortgage was just another mouth to feed. The walls had quieted since then. “I’m home” Sara shouted, that thirty-year habit. Sara put her resumes on the counter. Sara had a seat at the table. Sara stared at herself in the window’s reflection.

Her old dreadlocks were sitting in tight knots on top of the trash along with her Manager nametag, the M looping arches.

Exile of perception.

Imposed perception.

From Without?

From Within?

Sara sat and stared, hoping to recognize the immutable.

Sara stared.

Sara stilled.

Sara stayed.

 

Dylan is Dad who sneaks off in the small hours to write. Dylan is a writer who spends his afternoons as a dinosaur. He has work published in decomP, Entropy Magazine, The Airgonaut, Maudlin House, Literary Orphans & WhiskeyPaper. His book 101 Adages for the Millennial is available through Maudlin House. Find him on Twitter: @MacTaylor89

Matthew Dobson - "The Alcoholic" and "Thaw"

"The Alcoholic"

 

He swept us out of the room

with brooms for hands,

and welcomed us back

with bottle tops for eyes,

 

which winked

and dripped condensation

down his cheeks.

 

He told us stories that hummed

like a big fridge.

If only we could crack them open

and find the nourishment

he could

and the light

 

for his dark flat.

 

He promised us the beaches of Normandy,

all of the landing craft

with their cargo of seaweed,

but gave us Calvados apples

on his breath,

fermented and sweet,

 

rich with words that had, he said,

been ripening for years,

and which he had seeded

in us.

 

"Thaw"

 

You’re washed by the blue water

of police lights.

The air's so cold it sparkles,

your hair turns white.

 

The water cools down your heart

until its walls are stiff

and the blood oozes.

 

You tense.

Even memories

of your dead

that usually flood and roar

slow to a trickle:

 

the feathery skin

on your grandfather's hands,

which once heaved a tonne

of Northumbria coal.

 

Now clean,

light as rain.

 

The purple on your father's teeth

is odourless.

 

It smells of nothing

but river water,

black and glassy.

 

As the sirens pour away into

the city streets

your chest slackens,

the heart warms.

 

Matthew Dobson is a teacher in Surrey, England.  He studied English at university, but only began writing a few years after graduating, when he lived in Japan.  He has been published in Butcher's Dog, Neon, and elsewhere.  

David Haight - "Federal Express Blues"

 

There was a single robin outside my window pecking at my bloated liver with his clipped staccato song. I supposed I slept at some point. Most of my time was charting the changing color through the thin white drapes: black, gray black, light gray. When it settled on a milky gray-blue it was time to pull myself out of the bed. Maureen had added a rule to the already burgeoning pantheon of rules I had to commit to memory: be gone before Katelyn awoke and stay away until dinner was threatening to get cold. (And none of that waltzing in the minute the bus dropped her off either.) Our daughter couldn’t know I was unemployed.

Snatching the clothes she had laid out from on top of the dresser, I trudged down the hall, ignoring the floorboards creaking their insults at me, dressed and brushed my teeth in the guest bathroom, making sure to wash down the pink drops of blood that dotted the sink. (Even my gums were conspiring against me.) Inspecting myself in the oval mirror I realized I had a day’s growth on my face. Of greater concern were my eyebrows which were coming together like the transcontinental railroad. I tried rubbing away the offending spider’s legs but to no use. It took too many attempts to get my tie tied evenly. It was a thin, all black tie. It had been my father’s. It was all I had of his to remember him by.

I poured a glass of orange juice and sat out on the front porch. The neighborhood was still. At the end of every driveway stood plastic trash bins, some green, some brown, some were partnered with a slightly smaller companion, filled with plastic and glass objects as an offering to the earth. I had never made an offering to the earth, God or any of the well-dressed men that frequented my door asking for money. Maybe that was the origin of my bad luck.

The sun had started its ascent.

“Mike?”

“I need my prescription,” my wife said, clutching at her robe, taking the seat next to mine.

“Your medicine. You need your medicine.” I stared at the horizon which stared back daring me. “You were just in there.” I went into the kitchen, popped open the tab on the pink plastic pill container marked ‘Tuesday’, poured its celebrating contents into my hands.

“Here. I have to go,” I said handing them to her with a glass of orange juice.

“You couldn’t have brought water? That pulp makes it hard to get these down. And it’s so acidic. My stomach can’t handle it anymore,” she said taking them with a scowl. “I see you couldn’t bother to shave.”

I finished my orange juice, set the glass on the patio table, took her glass and did the same with hers.

“You have to stop going to the bar. The bills are unacceptable. Need I remind you we don’t have any money coming in?”

As the sun continued its ascent, my life continued its inverse downward arc. We did this every day.

“Mike?”

I didn’t want to respond. I wanted to shove it in that gaping space with all the other pointless endeavors that went nowhere but toppled through inner space and would continue to fall until the day I ceased to exist.

“You used to get mad because I didn’t invite you.”

“You’ve gone every day this week.”

And every day when I walk into that damn place that cunt bartender perks up and asks, “Divorced yet?” It had become a running joke. Even Phil who has never been seen with a woman was in on it now. I had little choice but go there. There was only one other bar in this shit town and I ghosted on a rather elephantine tab. They’ve been calling me looking to settle up and even sent Bobby, the over sized nephew of the owner to shake me down at the Mobil station yesterday. It would be a secret from Maureen only a short time.

“I know the day I was let go-”

“Fired.”

“Is that necessary?”

She didn’t answer.

I couldn’t see very far to my left as the street took a sharp turn and slipped away. It was for the best. That Indian man who had repeatedly called the cops on us lived up that way and the sight of him or his luxury car would send this already egregious day sailing right off a cliff. “Anyway I know that on that particular day we spent four hundred dollars,” I paused to let allow the power of the amount reverberate, “to redo Katelyn’s room, which to my eye was perfectly fine.”

“She needs to know things are stable.”

“Is that why I get up before the sun and waste my day avoiding my own god damn house? Applying for jobs from the library?”

Dropping myself into the front seat of the rusted out Dodge I avoided my daughter’s bedroom window and turned the key delicately, popped the beast into neutral and rolled down the driveway, cranking the steering wheel a hard right when it reached the street. I tried as best as I could to start the engine quietly and crept through the still slumbering neighborhood.

The route to the Federal Express Ship Center was artless and far. The two lane highway cut like a scythe through reaching stalks of corn and claustrophobic, dormant fields. Despite the autumn chill I kept the window down and the radio off. There were no other cars. No lone bike riders or joggers edging the shoulder. No sudden deer making a desperate break for it. The sun was pink like a halved grapefruit or bloodshot eye. Then without telling me it changed clothes and was a bright, some would say hopeful orange. Things are always doing that. Changing without giving notice. Katelyn has a birthday in two weeks. My wedding anniversary - my tenth wedding anniversary was in a month. (A fourth of my life had been spent with Maureen, a statistic terminal and unavoidable like an amputated stump.) A nuclear holocaust would have been less troubling.

I pulled into the Federal Express parking lot at 4:40. The building was a massive cement lung, pumping out gray air from two large smoke stacks and several smaller ones. As I entered one of the giant bay doors I was terrified that I would never be seen again, terrified that no one would care, or have anything good to say about me, that my funeral would be a series of awkward silences, and relief when it ended and roast beef sandwiches were brought out; a sense of panic rippled through me: perhaps I didn’t have any real belongings, any friends, connections that mattered, perhaps I was not a good man.

I was directed into a cramped room with a single outdated computed blinking anxiously at me.  

“You’ll have forty-five minutes. The instructions are next to the computer,” the man said and exited.

I finished in twenty-three minutes. That was bound to impress somebody. It briefly impressed me. I guess you could say I had lowered the bar on the expectations of my life.

A man in a blue uniform a different man from before a clipboard suffocating under his right arm and whose belly was itching to make an escape from the bottom of his shirt, burst into the small room a few minutes after I had completed the assessment.

“There seems to be something on your background check that will prohibit us from hiring you.”

I sat in my car and methodically smoked a cigarette. I was nauseous and furious with myself. For getting my hopes up, again. For having to disappoint my wife once more and dash our future (as she will no doubt point out) upon the rock of that late, late night and its ensuing bad judgment (did I have anything else anymore?) that is forever disinterestedly linked to me like an steel umbilical cord in some government database.

The dream, of course, was to have a moment of reckoning. In this case having nearly reached my car I would turn march back through one of the yawning bay doors, through the bustle of activity, and zipping forklifts until I found the man directing a small crew of men knock the clipboard out of his hands and tell him to fuck off and march triumphantly to my car righting the wrong perpetrated upon me and through this small act transform my existence.

I pulled into a SuperAmerica picked up two dogs, slathered them in mustard and a forty ounce beer and headed over to Sarah’s tiny little house in Needmore. I sat in her driveway staring at the bedroom windows thinking about her lying in that bed (no doubt in a pair of black underwear and nothing more) that looked so much larger than it was because of how tiny Sarah was. It was the one place in the world that maybe I belonged or at least didn’t flat our reject me. I ate both hot dogs. I cracked open the beer and knocked on the front door.

“Sarah. Sarah, my little fuckbird, it’s me,” I whispered into the door.

I went at it for some time, past the point when it was obvious, despite her car in the drive that she was home, had grown tired of me (that was apparent the last few times) and wasn’t answering the door. Making my way to the end of the driveway I sat on the curb and drank my beer laughing at the passing mothers and children and the embarrassment my presence caused them. They weren’t seeing some lost saint. Eventually (there’s always an eventually with me) a neighbor like a Greek God in human form appeared on the opposite side of the street and stood imposingly, silent. I laughed even louder, chugged the rest of the beer and tossed the empty husk at his feet where it shattered unceremoniously and left.

I directed my car home. Refused to acknowledge any notion of time or the context of my situation. I drove fast, reckless towards my home. Because in the end where else does a man run to? Despite my wife’s long grown cold heart, the eventual exile by my daughter, and all the Sarah’s in the world – what else did I have? I was relieved when I turned the final corner of the final street to find Katelyn and her mother on the corner hand-in-hand waiting for the school bus, was overjoyed watching my daughter’s face explode into the grandest supernova smile as she saw me, and (this is how perverse the world and family and our place in it both is) was comforted by that scowl of complete derision of my wife, standing not even a foot to her left, as if that moment justified the reasons she would later, no doubt divorce me. I waved deliriously and screeched away.

It will come as no surprise to you, my wife and at some point, my daughter (when recounting this to some future husband, wife, bartender or therapist) that I ended up at that dank bar. I stormed the front door like it was god damn Normandy beach and was barely inside when Ole Bess, pulling a beer from the tap, glowering like the cat that ate the bird, asked, “Divorced yet?” and I punched her square in the jaw.

*

David Haight received a degree in English and later an MFA in writing from Hamline University where he was distinguished by the Quay W. Grigg award for Excellence in Literary Study. He published the novel Overdrive in 2006, Me and Mrs. Jones in 2012 and Lemon, a collection of short stories in 2015. His second collection of short stories, Kathatina (and other magnificent disaters) with be published May 1st, 2017.

 

Alan Swyer - "Dating"

                                                                                 

Still relatively new to Los Angeles, Siegel's social life ranged from minimal on good days to painfully nonexistent on others.  Never much for bar scenes or clubs, the array of dinners, concerts, gallery openings, screenings, and off-Broadway plays that enriched his time in New York had given way to night after night spent alone in his Santa Monica apartment.  That meant catching up on books bought but long untouched, as well as films old and new on Netflix and TCM, plus series from Denmark, France, Germany, and even Finland on a cable channel called MHz Choice.

Siegel's assumption, which during moments of loneliness seemed little more than a hope, was that through work, tennis, or a casual encounter at one of the places he'd been discovering –  Amoeba Records, the cooperative health food store far funkier and friendlier than Whole Foods, or the celebrated Santa Monica stairs (which seemed to be a haven for both workouts and hook-ups) – inevitably a woman, or better yet women, would once again become part of his existence.

That seemed far preferable, and infinitely more his style, than a foray onto Match.com, eHarmony, or some other dating site.

What Siegel could not have expected was that his extended period of West Coast solitude would end abruptly due to a middle-of-the-night-call.

"Did I wake you?" a familiar-sounding voice asked at roughly 3 AM on a Friday when, having fallen asleep later than usual after finishing a novel set in Marseille by Jean-Claude Izzo, Siegel managed to grab his iPhone.

"Tina?" Siegel mumbled, not fully sure where, or even who, he was.

"I-it's me all right.  Any chance I can come by?"

"Which means you're not in Brooklyn," Siegel said, rubbing drowsiness from his eyes.  "You okay?"

"N-not really.  Would you mind?"

"My place is yours."

Texting Tina his address, Siegel threw on some clothes, put up some Sencha tea, then waited.

 

It was in Washington, DC that Siegel and Tina first met.  Prepping a documentary he was hoping to make about the Latinization of baseball, Siegel had come in by Amtrak from New York for meetings at several embassies, plus a place known as the Cuban Special Interests Section.  While the results ranged from good to excellent, the best – better than Panama, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, or Cuba – was from a country that had produced a significantly smaller list of players, headed by Edgar Rentaria and Orlando Cabrera.  At the Colombian Embassy it was not staffers who spent time with Siegel, but the Ambassador himself, who then extended an invitation to an official dinner that evening.

Among the politicians, CEOs, and luminaries from the worlds of music, theater, and literature who were present that night was a young, light-skinned black woman Siegel kept eyeing from across the room – first while cocktails were served, then during dinner.

Only when he was asked to accompany a handful of people to a local night spot did Siegel get to address the object of his attention.  But their time together proved short-lived when Tina excused herself after just a brief moment and hopped a cab.

Less then twenty minutes later, Siegel was surprised to hear something ringing on a chair near where he was standing.  Answering what proved to be an iPhone, he found that it was Tina calling from her hotel room, alarmed that it had somehow fallen from her purse.  A breakfast was scheduled for 8:30 the next morning so that Siegel, who was staying at another hotel nearby, could hand it to her.

 

Munching on over-priced granola and berries, the two found themselves laughing about the ironies of their personal tastes.  In a reversal of racial stereotypes, Tina's favorite all-time singer turned out to be Frank Sinatra, while Siegel's was Ray Charles.  Her number one spectator sport was baseball, whereas his was basketball.  And when it came to something more mundane – chicken – her favorite was the white meat, and Siegel's the dark.

Yet there were far more preferences the two of them shared.  Chinese food from places like Chengdu, Shondong, and Xinjiang.  Obscure ska and reggae groups.  Films by John Cassavetes, Sergio Leone, and a guy called Savage Steve Holland.  Chester Himes detective books featuring Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones.  Thomas Pynchon's first three novels.  A Danish TV series called "Borgen."  Reruns of "Car 54 Where Are You," for which each could sing the theme song by heart.

There was also a commensurate common bond in what each scorned.  HBO's "Vinyl,"  "Forrest Gump" and mumblecore movies led the list, followed by hipper-than-thou food trucks, David Brooks' columns, and people saying Hey instead of Hello or Hi.  Then there was the overuse of Bro and Dude, plus, above all, self-styled connoisseurs who insisted the Stones sang the original versions of "Time Is On My Side," "Fortune Teller," and "You Better Move On," or that Janis Joplin did the first recordings of "Get It While You Can" or "Ball 'N Chain."

 

Opening the door quickly when Tina arrived at his apartment just a few blocks from the beach, Siegel was shocked to find that in place of the exuberant woman on-the-rise he knew well was someone who looked like a frightened young girl.

After a hug, he took Tina's suitcase and garment bag, then ushered her in.  "It's not exactly palatial," Siegel said apologetically.

"Then Beverly Hills Hotel, here I come," Tina replied in a failed attempt at playfulness.  "Thanks."

"For what?"

"Being a friend."

"So what can I get you?"

"Cyanide?"

"That bad?"

"Worse."

"Want to talk?"

"Maybe at some point.  Mind if I take a hot shower then crawl into bed?"

"Anything you want.  And if it'll make things easier –"

"Yeah?"

"I can sleep on the couch."

"You're sweet."

"Is that a yes?"

"Anything but," Tina said with her first semblance of a smile.  "Then what would I do if I felt a need to cuddle?"

 

Tiptoeing into the bedroom a short while later with Tina seemingly asleep, Siegel climbed carefully under the covers, then was surprised when she spoke.  "About that cuddle –"

As she rolled towards him, Siegel put one arm around her, then lightly stroked her head with his free hand.  

"This is what I needed," Tina said softly.

"Want a neck rub?  A back rub?"

"I just want you to hold me."

"Anything you say."

"You won't be unhappy –" Tina said a moment later.

"What do you mean?"

"If we don't... you know –"

"Nothing in the world could make me unhappy."

Tina kissed him.  Moments later, she was off to dreamland.  

But not Siegel, who couldn't stop thinking about the strange path that led to such a night.

 

At the time of their first encounter, each of them had recently made a significant career jump.  For Siegel, it was a transition from screenwriter-for-hire to fledgling director.  For Tina, having succeeded at passing the bar exam, it was a job in the Diversity department of a TV network, where her primary task was to travel to functions her boss wished not to attend.

Tentatively at first, then with ever-increasing frequency, the two new friends embarked on adventure after adventure.  First to the Bronx zoo.  Then a ride on the Staten Island Ferry.  Next a Yankee game.  After that a circus.  Plus a double-bill of Claude Sautet's "Cesar Et Rosalie" and "Mado" at a revival house.  

Each excursion allowed them to indulge their shared obsession with ethnic food.  Though delis and soul food joints were hardly shunned, mostly they gravitated toward Third World holes-in-the-wall for Ethiopian, Uygher, Peruvian, Nigerian, or Senegalese fare.

Surprisingly, at a time when casual couplings were available even through apps, their relationship stayed quaintly chaste, with both avoiding the subject until one evening, over couscous at a storefront Moroccan spot, it came out that neither of them had ever seen Niagara Falls.

"Want to go sometime?" Tina asked.

"Sometime sometime?  Or sometime soon?"

"How about next weekend?" Tina replied, taking Siegel's hand.

 

With the Santa Monica sun signaling the dawn of a new day, Siegel was in the kitchen when Tina entered wearing his robe.  "Granola like in DC once upon a time?" he asked.  "Or eggs... yogurt... fish lips... squirrel snouts?"

"No eel elbows?" Tina replied.

"Only on Sundays.  Anything you want to do today?"

"You don't have to babysit."

"It just so happens that other than a maybe workout at some point, I've got zero scheduled for this weekend.  I mean nada.  Zip.  So if you want to grab lunch at a Oaxacan place I've been hearing about – or Langer's, which has pastrami that puts New York away – or Koreatown –"

"I probably won't be good company –"

"Le me be the judge of that."

 

Silence reigned first at Siegel's apartment, then at a tiny Korean place near Western Avenue where they lunched on a dish called samgyetang.  Despite mild protests from Tina, they then proceeded to a brightly lit dessert place for a bowl of green tea shaved ice mixed with red beans.

After several spoonfuls, Tina faced Siegel.  "In case you're worried, I didn't kill anybody."

"That's comforting."

"Or rob a bank."

"I figured."

"And I'm sorry I didn't let you know I was coming this way."

"No harm, no foul."

"Know what?  In case nobody's told you lately, you're one of the very few nice guys."

"Only with you.  Otherwise I'm a total stink bomb."

 

The rest of Saturday was peaceful, with takeout from Pollo A La Brasa serving as dinner, followed by some cuddling while watching the first two hours of an Italian miniseries called "The Best Of Youth."

As they climbed into bed that night, Tina kissed Siegel.  She snuggled under the covers as he reached to turn off the lamp on the headboard, then surprised him by sitting up.

"Remember I told you my dad took off when I was little?" she said tentatively.

"Yeah."

"Well guess who tracked him down."

"And?"

"We started getting to know each other by phone... email... Skype –"

"And?"

"We decided I'd spend a week of my vacation time to visit in Burbank, where he's been living.  The first couple of days?  Amazing."

Suddenly Tina began to tremble.

Siegel put an arm around her.  "You don't have to go on."

"I need to tell somebody.  The third night – the night I showed up here – he insisted we celebrate with a bottle of Chateau Margaux."

"Excellent taste."

"Then aged Cognac.  Then weed.  Seeing him start to get loaded, I excused myself and trundled off to bed."

"And then?"

"Sometime after I fell asleep, he crawled in beside me."

Siegel tried his best to keep from gasping, then struggled in vain for something to say.

"Soon as I realized what was happening," Tina continued after a moment, "I screamed, then locked myself in the bathroom.  Only when I was 100 percent sure he'd passed out did I grab my stuff, run outside, and call you."

"I'm really glad you did."

"Me, too."

A few minutes later, Tina fell asleep in Siegel's arms.  But Siegel had no such luck, his mind racing as he tried to understand the shock, pain, and sorrow that Tina experienced that night, and must be going through still.

 

Sunday started quietly, with a hike to a place called Wexler's for bagels and lox, followed by a stroll along the path overlooking the Pacific.

"Okay if we do something different this evening?" Tina surprised Siegel by asking when they got back to his place.

"If that's what'll please you.  Whatcha got in mind?"

"Any good music around?"

"Sure you up to and for it?"

"I've got to start living again at some point," Tina said with a shrug.  "Or at least try..."

 

Leaving early that evening in case of traffic, off they went to Hollywood to catch a trumpet player named Roy Hargrove.  Avoiding valet parkers, who generally treated his aged Volvo with disdain, Siegel found a space on a side street.  But as he and Tina ambled toward the club, they drew the attention of two black winos sharing a bottle in a brown paper bag.

"Yo, sista!" the older one shouted, which Tina ignored.

"C'mon, pretty momma," insisted the other, to which Tina still paid no attention.

"Goddammit, girl," snarled the first one.  "What's that white mothafucka got that we ain't got."

"Brains," answered Tina as she took Siegel's hand.  

 

Virtually the entire town of Santa Monica seemed to be fast asleep by the time the two of them got back to Siegel's apartment.

"Late night snack?" he asked as they stepped in.

"I've got other things on my mind," Tina said as she threw her arms around him.

"Sure you're okay with it?"

"Unless you're not."

Siegel offered no resistance as Tina led the way to the bedroom, then undressed him.

 

In the morning, Tina was sitting up in bed with a smile on her face when Siegel awakened.

"Know what you need?" she asked.

"I give up."

"A girlfriend."

"Isn't this a funny time to –"

"I don't mean me, silly.  I'm 3,000 miles away most of the time, and besides –"

"Yeah?"

"I mean a real girlfriend, not just a friend who happens to think you're sexy."

"Do I find one at the girlfriends store?  Or on Amazon?"

"I've got a friend named Natasha who's moving out here in a couple of weeks."

"Natasha?"

"She's bright, fun –"

"And light on her feet for someone 300 pounds?"

"Far from it.  She's a dancer, and extremely cute."

"You don't find this to be slightly surreal?"

"You mean with the two of us naked and likely to do it again?  Let's just say I'd love to be a bridesmaid."

"Not the maid of honor?"

"Natasha's got a twin sister," Tina explained, then she kissed him.

 

Though Natasha proved to be delightful, Tina's match-making was torpedoed when instead of romance the result was an enjoyable but short-lived fling.

It was only when Siegel got authorization to go forward with a dream project that his life began to change in a significant way.  Gaining access to a women's prison that was home to a program in which selected inmates were taught to train service dogs, he prudently selected an almost entirely female crew.

True to his longstanding credo of never mixing business with pleasure – one that became even more important after come-ons from a couple of pretty prisoners – Siegel fought off his attraction toward the blonde who was his line producer.

But that his co-worker was off limits did not mean the same was true of her roommate, a striking red-headed actress with a recurring role on a soap opera.

As days turned to weeks, then weeks to months, it was clear that no longer were Siegel's nights often spent alone.

 

 

Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, and boxing. In the field of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel 'The Beard' was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.
 

And here are some other links:

http://harvardsquareeditions.org/portfolio-items/the-beard/

http://narrative.ly/how-ray-charles-convinced-me-to-be-his-stand-in/

http://www.elboxeothemovie.com/

http://www.its-more-expensive.com/

http://degenerateliterature.weebly.com/fiction-by-alan-swyer1.html

https://www.amazon.com/Spiritual-Revolution-Ronald-Alexander/dp/B00B99PBKA/ref=sr_1_1?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1489952081&sr=1-1&keywords=spiritual+revolution

David Rodriguez - "The McMurdo Dry Valleys"

 

so goes Mars, so goes Earth

scientists goggle Antarctican briny water

under valleys swoofed iceless by winds

littered in seal mummies

dry as truth

 

send electrical currents around

the Blood Falls’

iron oxide

where there may be

origin stories in aquifers

 

see four billion years dead the red planet

waiting warm and familiar

in a penthouse apartment

noisy with

fountains

 

perhaps our species can recreate it.

I can’t. I see her

circling me, double slow,

stylish, mysterious,

permeable

 

but there is my wife

on this planet and no other.

a re-home is the way

to new longing.

that is why Mars always already was

 

it cannot be.

 

David Rodriguez is a writer and teacher based in New Orleans with an MFA from Florida State University. He has previously been published in the New Orleans Review, The Southeast Review, Poetry Pacific, The Literateur, and The Double Dealer Redux, among other places.

Rylee Langton - "Don't Ask Me"

 

The last time I saw my dad’s baby sister I was 18. We had a family gathering in Portland, Fourth of July weekend, 2013. She looked like a child, her clothes hung off her like the sheet on the clothesline, blowing wildly but forced to cling to the line. When I saw her she hugged me, pressing her face into my breasts and mumbling about me “getting so big.” I could only cringe as she made a motor-boating joke and rubbed her mouth back and forth along my t-shirt, leaving a wet line along my cleavage. My father laughed at that greeting. The Julie of my childhood had large rosy cheeks, no not rosy, I think they were just always sunburnt from her exotic life in Florida. The Julie before me looked like the survivor of a civil war confederate camp, her knees and elbows a little too sharp under skin that looked baggy and too tight at the same time, but Julie survived tongue cancer, an entirely different war. She was a different person. Well, she was the same person, her body just begged her to change.

                *    *    *

In May 2015 I sat on my ex boyfriend’s couch mindlessly watching TV when I got a text message from my father, “we are giving aunt Julie her angel wings today.” I did not reply. Consoling a parent sounded like something I could never be taught and would never be ready for.  Four hours later I got a follow up text, “Julie has joined your grandma and grandpa in heaven” and a picture of a sunset. As if Julie and the standard pattern of the sun were somehow connected. I never met my grandparents and my father is an atheist.  Again I did not reply to his message. If he wanted anything he could call.

                *    *    *    

That last weekend, in July, I woke up around 7am in my tent in the backyard as the sprinklers pelleted the side of my nylon haven. I clawed out to turn off the water when I heard Julie yelling from my bedroom window. Not yelling anything real, just the early morning yell of someone gripped by the fact the end of their life is near. My dad does it too, when he drinks too much. In the night he will wail, like the alcohol is turning to spiders inside him. I guess it is genetic. Not an hour later she was on the porch smoking her first of the day and half way through her first bottle of wine, bringing the finish line that much closer.  

                    *    *    *

After she died, my father had gone to Florida to deal with her estate and he called me daily. He would speak of no one mowing the lawn, how many frogs were in the pool filter and how my aunt and uncle had not properly hurricane protected their house, then at the end of his distracted complaints he would end the call with the question, “How could she go first?”

                *    *    *

By noon Julie demanded we play Frank Sinatra so she could dance. My father tried to dance with her but he was just holding her up. She stood on his feet and he made slow steps, like fathers and daughters are suppose to. He and I never have. By the first chorus of ‘Fly Me To the Moon’ he gave up on keeping her up and told her to dance with herself. She took maybe three steps and fell backwards into the kiddy pool on the edge of the porch. Her falling seemed inevitable due to her consuming a bottle of wine almost every hour since she woke. As she emerged from her self given baptism all she could say was “who pushed me?”

                    *    *    *

My father would call me midday everyday and recount the moment of her death and how angry he was after he had mowed the lawn, cleaned the pool, and put the house on the market. He said it wasn’t fair, the way she left. He was not referring to the fact of her death but how she looked.

“She was grey. I- I watched her face fall after they unplugged the machine.” He would pause between statements in the way someone choking back tears might, but I knew his pauses were to take another drink. The only reason he ever stops talking is to deep throat a Sierra Nevada.

“I mean that is what she would have wanted right? She just didn’t look right anymore.” He said that it wasn’t fair for her to leave him with that last image, she wasn’t his baby sister, she was some lifeless hollow thing. He said there wasn’t any rose left in her cheeks. “How could she leave me with that?”

“Don’t ask me Dad.”

                    *    *    *

Julie bobbed and swayed on her feet as the day proceeded, like she was fulfilling my father’s words and dancing with herself, to a soft drunken melody. Her dance only stopped when her cup was empty. She teetered back into the house through the sliding glass door, closing it behind her. Minutes later she came back and ran into the closed glass door, smashing her newly filled cup, coating herself in wine. She opened the door as hard as she could, trying to throw it along its tracks. She could only open it far enough to get her body through. To someone being held up by wine and cigarettes, moving a sliding glass door three feet must be the weight of the world. She emerged; sack dress stained with red wine, and closed the door behind her. She looked like Carrie on prom night. I think she would have preferred to be covered in pig’s blood than to waste wine. Realizing her glass was empty again she turned on the spot and slammed back into the closed glass door. She screamed, “Who closed that door?”

                    *    *    *

“Be nice because you don’t know when the next time you’ll see your aunt will be,” my father told me the last day I saw Julie.

“It doesn’t matter. The next time I’ll see her, she’ll be in a casket,” I told him.  

“How could you say that?” He asked me.

                    *    *    *

Julie sat heavy on a lawn chair, speaking at great lengths on living a life of rebellion, and that real health was doing what made your soul happy. She thought of herself as some sort of modern day pirate. If being a pirate meant drinking, fucking, boating and blacking out then she fit her hazy definition. It is hard to regret a life you can’t remember.  Julie thought she was living life to the fullest, denying her own mortality.  

“Rylee!” she yelled, “you really are a Langton woman aren’t you? So why don’t you have a drink?” I took a beer. Pretending to drink at her level was easier than explaining that I had no intention of becoming an alcoholic embarrassment.

“Don’t ask me,” I would say.

Rylee Langton is a senior at Western Washington University; she is studying Creative Writing, Film and Political Science. She also enjoys cooking and photography. She has been previously published at the Scarlet Leaf Review. You can check out that work right here: http://www.scarletleafreview.com/shortstoriessep2016/category/rylee-langton

Ashley Bird - "Back On The Hill"

 

“Is Kyle coming,” Josh said.

“No idea,” Nathan said, “I text him but I haven’t heard anything.”

The sun had dipped below the top of the hill by the time they had reached their camp. It wasn’t far from the village but the funeral and wake had taken longer than expected. That left them with around half an hour to get everything set up before the light disappeared.

They split the work between them. Nathan took care of the tents. Slipping the poles through the loops and hammering pegs into the stubborn ground with a small rubber mallet. It didn’t take long for him to set up the two of them so he set about getting the smaller jobs done. Digging a small fire pit using a gardening trowel, packing things away in the tents and that sort of thing.

The fire took more effort. Josh had to walk all the way to the far side of the hill to cluster of trees. On the edge of the treeline he searched the floor for sticks. Not just any sticks. They had to be dead and dry and ready to burn. In Wales this is never an easy thing to find. He was also on the lookout for two or three good size logs that would burn long and hot to see them through the cold night.

That was just the start of the battle. Up on the hill the Welsh wind was fierce. Every time it looked as though the fire had started, another strong gust would put an end to it. It took Josh getting down on his knees, using his body to shield the flames, before it grew strong enough to survive. While Josh battled the elements, Nathan set up three chairs around the small pit so they looked out over the village below. He put a bottle of beer on each of them.

Once the work was done the two friends could relax. It had been a long and difficult day. They sat, looking out over the dancing street lights at the bottom of the valley, drinking their first beer. The village looked exactly the same as when they left it. The same river flowed along the same route behind the same houses. The pace of change in this part of the world is a crawl. That is one of the reasons they spent their teenage years dreaming of escape.

Neither of them spoke for a while. They had spent most of the day talking to old acquaintances so both men were content to sit and enjoy the quiet night air. The beer was cold and as they drank they sank deeper into their seats.

“Still no word of Kyle,” Josh said after a while.

“No,” Nathan said.

A time went by without another word. Sometimes silence and a cold beer is all that’s needed. The dusk had shifted its way into darkness and the only source of light was the fire with its fuzzy orange glow. There is something about sitting around a fire at night. It is romantically primitive and can remind you of a time you never saw. A sense of it inside that has been doused by centuries of civilization.

Down in the growing dark a pair of headlights came up the country lane. Slowly they wound around the narrow bends. When the hovering lights were below the camp they stopped.

“Here he is,” Nathan said “always turns up when the works done.”

“Nothing changes. A fiver says he hasn’t brought a tent,” Josh said.

“A tenner says he hasn’t brought a tent or a sleeping bag,”

Both men laughed and watched the hillside, waiting for the new arrival.

It took him a while but when Kyle made it into the glow of the fire his old friends barely recognised him. He was skinnier than they remembered and it made his face look gaunt and stretched. All his features were exaggerated but it was his eyes that were affected the most. They looked like they were retreating back into his skull and it gave his face a skeletal quality. Shadows hung in the hollows.

“A’right boys, been a while,” Kyle said between gasps for air.

“A’right Ky, good to see you,” Josh said.

Nathan stared into the fire and watched the flames jitter. Kyle waited, letting silence take over, before moving towards the empty seat on the end of the line.

“Not that one,” Nathan said.

“There’s another one by my tent, I’ll get it now,” Josh said getting up from his chair.

Kyle stole his spot as soon as he got out of the way.

“You didn’t fancy coming today?” Nathan said.

“I had work,” Kyle said.

“Jesus, you couldn’t take a day off for today?”

“Fuck me, give me a minute to sit first. Some of us can’t afford to take a day off whenever we want.”

“Thought you’d be there that’s all.”

“Well I’m here now, ain’t I?”

“Yea, just in time for a drink.”

Both men fell silent. A gust of wind swayed the fire as Josh returned with a chair in one hand and a beer in another. He passed the beer to Kyle and, with a shake of his head, set up the new chair for himself.

For hours the group sat on the hill drinking their beers. They talked about the old days when they would go to the same spot without tents or sleeping bags. The days when all they needed was as much cider as could be “borrowed” from one of their parents sheds and an air rifle to try catching rabbits. They never did hit one but the fun was in the trying. They were simpler times back then but that’s how it is for everyone. They had their mates and their place of escape and that’s all they really needed. It is only when adult stuff intrudes that things get complicated.

When Josh got hungry he cooked for the whole group. Sausages wrapped in tin foil and pushed amongst the glowing belly of the fire. The smell of charcoal and sausages mixed with the damp earth. They also had beans cooked in tins with their lids bent back into place to keep the ash out. Even a few bread rolls to mop up the tomato sauce. All three ate fast. It was meal that took them back to a childhood spent outside. It could be cooked in a pan at home but it would never taste as good as it does from an open fire in a field. When he finished, Josh let out a satisfied sigh and took a swig of his beer.

He looked at the empty chair on the end of the row. With the beer waiting there, untouched. The wind had all but disappeared by that point and the bugs had come out. High pitched chirps filled the autumn night. There were a few bats swooping just above their heads. Every now and again one would get low enough to be caught in the fires glow. Revealing itself for a brief moment before vanishing back up into the night.

“Here’s to you Jeff boy,” Josh said raising his beer up.

Nathan did the same almost instantly. It took a glare from Nathan to get Kyle to raise his drink.

“What’s the matter with you?” Nathan said looking Kyle in the eye.

“What?”

“Leave it out boys,” Josh said.

“Whatever, I can’t be dealing this, never going to change. I’m going to bed,” Nathan said.

He got up and left the warmth of the fire without another word. His tent rustled as he climbed inside and zipped it shut. Even that sounded angry. Josh yawned and stared into the fire.

“I might as well go to bed too, been a long day,” he said “you can crash in my tent if you need to.”

“Cheers, I’ll have one more beer then I’ll come in,” Kyle said.

 

Josh woke up in the dark. The insects were still chirping and outside the tent he could see the faint glow of the fire. There was no yellow flame left but the embers still shone a deep red in a void of black. He looked around the tent but the was no sign of Kyle. It was hot and stuffy inside so he twisted himself around and unzipped the door. Shutting his eyes and he let the cold night air hit his face. He was grateful for it. When he opened his eyes he saw Kyle’s figure still sitting in the chair, hunched over.

Josh let himself free from his sleeping bag and went out into the field. He hadn’t bothered to put his shoes on and the dew on the ground soaked into his socks. Kyle looked as though he was sleeping but as Josh approached he lifted his head, a cigarette lodged between his lips. Josh took a seat next to him.

“What are you still doing up?” Josh said.

Kyle stared out across the valley. Under the moon he could clearly see the river. A silver streak winding its way through the place he called home. He knew every bend along this stretch of the Taff. Bends that hadn’t changed since before they were kids when they fished and swam in them. The same river but different waters.

“We weren’t sure if you’d show up tonight,” Josh said.

“Why wouldn’t I?” Kyle said.

“Well you didn’t come to the funeral, did you?”

“I had work.”

“Don’t give me that shit. No boss is going to stop you going to a funeral.”

Kyle reached down and picked a log from the pile beside his chair. He threw it on the fire and bright red sparks exploded skywards, pushed higher and higher by the heat.

“You could at least tell me why you couldn’t be bothered to go to his funeral”

“I didn’t get invited.”

Kyle turned in his seat so he could look Josh in the eye. They stared at each other while the last statement hung in the air between them. A gap that seemed to widen with every second that passed. On the floor the fire cracked as the new log caught. It spat a fleck of glowing ember at Josh’s feet.

“Did you stop to wonder why you didn’t get asked to the funeral?” Josh said after a while.

“Fuck you,” Kyle said

“No I’m serious, did you ever stop to think about anyone but yourself.”

“Don’t twist it around on me.”

“Tonight is why you didn’t get invited. We knew you would turn up late, drunk or high on whatever you’re into these days and you’d make it all about you. Just like you are now.”

Josh got up from the chair walked over to Kyle. With Kyle still sitting, Josh towered over him. His eyes were wide and crazy and full of frustration. He was on the edge of something. Something he might regret when the sun is up and the beer has left his blood.

“You piss and moan about everyone leaving but that’s not what it’s about is it. It’s about you staying while everyone else is off living their lives.” Josh said, finding his rhythm.

“It’s been ten years. You don’t know a thing about me.” Kyle said.

“That’s just it, you’re the same. The same fucking waster that only cares about the craic.”

Kyle's eyes flared and he took a deep breath in through his nose while he gritted his teeth. His hands gripped the cold metal arms of the chair like he was trying to anchor himself to the ground. Behind Josh the fire had grown; yellow flames jerked about making all the shadows twitch.

“Nothing’s changed for you has it. While everyone has moved on to bigger and brighter things, you stayed right her. Pints in The Rickards and smoking weed in you mothers basement. It’s fucking sad mate.”

In the flick of a flame Kyle was on his feet and moving closer. There was a crunch as a foot came down on the fire and then Josh was falling backwards. He hit the damp dirt with a heavy thud.  

One foot had landed in the fire and he quickly jerked it away. Panicking a little, he sat up and started to pat down his leg; he had to brush the glowing embers away before they burnt through his jeans. Before he had cleared the last of them Kyle was over him. The orange glow of the fire made his face look twisted and deranged as fury took over.

“You haven’t got a fucking clue. You come back here and judge us, who do you think you’re talking to. You forgot where you came from, butt? No matter how long you live it up in the city you’re still a fucking valley boy. Just like me. So don’t come at me with the big I am routine because I will put you on your arse.”

Two thick lines spread across Josh’s forehead and it was his turn to grind down his teeth on their opposite numbers.

“What, what are you going to do?” he said

Kyle gripped Josh by his collar and lifted his back off the floor. Shoulders tensed and shifted as he moved his free arm backwards. His hand clenched tight and hovered there, in mid-air, while time wavered. Both of them felt it. Like the world had stopped turning for a moment, waiting to see what would happen. Smoke from the scattered fire swirled around them. It stung the back of their throats and made their eyes water.

When Kyle turned his head the world went back to its rotation. Nothing to see here. He looked out over the valley. A pale streak of light ran across the top of the opposite hill as a new day began. The silhouettes of the houses in the village were beginning to stand out. Looking out over the place they all grew up, Kyle made his choice. He opened his fist and let Josh fall back to earth.

“I’ll see you around,” Kyle said.

Josh slowly got himself to his feet and went over to the seats. He watched Kyle walk around the small campsite gathering his things. He wanted to say something; there had to be something to say. He wanted to tell him he was sorry, to go fuck himself, he’d make it right and to grow up all at once. Unfortunately, there isn’t a word for that sentiment so he just watched as he stuffed things into his rucksack.

“Kyle,” Josh said to his back as he walked down the slope.

Kyle turned around. Still the words didn’t come but both of them seemed to understand. It was over, it had been over for a long time but now it was confirmed. They were no longer old friends. Instead, just someone they used to know. All the anger had seeped away to some sad acceptance. Kyle gave a small nod and carried on walking while Josh sat and watched him get smaller and smaller until he climbed the fence at the bottom of the hill.

He stayed in that seat and watched the sun come up, the fire die down and the first rabbits appear. He stayed there when he heard signs of movement coming from Nathan’s tent. He didn’t move while he told Nathan everything that had been said. The only response was a shrug of the shoulders. A shrug was all that was needed. It communicated everything about their trip back to the place they grew up. Deep down they both knew that it would end this way. They didn’t know each other anymore and pretending it was the good old days meant nothing. All they had wanted to do was their duty; what else is there? Together they packed away their things and poured the last of their water onto the strewn embers. They hissed and steamed fighting against a premature death. With one last look over the valley they left for good, again.

 

Ashley Bird is a Welsh writer living in Pontypridd on the edge of the South Wales valleys. He currently studies English and Creative Writing at the University of South Wales. He is new to submitting work but hopes to have more pieces out in the world soon. On twitter he goes by @ashbirdy87, to chat about anything writing or reading related.

Antoine Bargel - "Further Ado"

 

She was an old friend from high-school, whom I had not seen in about 15 years. She had known that I was in love with her, back then, but nothing had ever happened between us. We had gone to separate colleges, then, as young professionals, had reconnected on LinkedIn. Now, 30-something and both recently divorced, we had made a date for her to visit me in my country house, a few hours away from the city where we had grown up.

After dinner under the cherry tree – it was the end of summer and the nights were still warm – we had talked about our love lives and sexuality. During the conversation, I started noticing that she was attracted to me, now; probably eager, as I was, to feel sexually alive again after the loss of a long-time partner. The ever longer moments when she would sustain eye contact with a smile confirmed what I had hoped, which was that she, like I, had agreed to this private reunion with lustful ideas in mind. I remembered how, as a teenager, moments of eye contact such as these used to create in me a sensation of vertigo, even in the constrained environment of a classroom, during which I felt myself plunging through space toward her, so intensely that I forgot everything else, until she turned away. The years which had passed at least had made me, I now observed, a more stable person.

Yet they had also allowed me to experience my limitations as a sexual being. Not wanting to repeat the mistakes of my past, I decided to show some maturity and lay my cards on the table.

“You know, outside of the two people that I had those long term relationships with since high-school – when I was a virgin, as I'm sure you knew then or have figured out by now,” this eliciting a small smile from her, “I was never able to have a sexual relationship just for the pleasure of it. When I'm in serious love, I'm intense and liberated; but outside of that, when I flirted with people and we ended up naked, I was always too uncomfortable to go beyond basic preliminaries. I would either not be able to perform, or make a stupid move or comment that radically broke the mood: one way or another, it's never really worked out for me and I'm convinced by now that it is a part of who I am. Love is godly, love is pure, and I can do that. Simple human sexuality, though, seems out of my reach. So at this point, I would rather spare myself and others the embarrassment – regardless of how much desire I may feel while the encounter is only an imagined, anticipated possibility...

“But there is one way that I've been able, a couple of times, to feel sexually liberated without being in a relationship, and that was when some form of kinky ritual was observed.”

This time, she smiled widely.

“Yeah? Like what?” she interjected.

“Well, it's sort of cheapening to tell precise stories of this kind of things, but for instance –” I looked at her and marked a brief pause for maximal effect, “for instance, have you ever been tied up?”

“No!” she exclaimed with a burst of laughter. Then she stopped and thought about it. “No, but what does it do?”

“Well, what I have in mind is for one of the partners to be tied up to the feet of the bed, with knotted scarves for example, by one's wrists and ankles. Laying on one's back, able to wriggle but unable to move away or set oneself free, entirely at the mercy of the other partner who can caress and kiss and stroke at his or her complete discretion... What it does is mostly to the one who is tied up: you feel vulnerable. Although you trust the other, you have given up control of your body and, technically, your life. The other could do anything to you, and that triggers something instinctive, primal, in the form of disturbingly intense arousal.”

“When you describe it like that...” she said and left her sentence unfinished.

I drank a sip of wine, looking at her above my glass. She returned my stare without batting a lash, then reached for hew own glass.

“Would you like to try it?” I said – which made me feel psychologically naked and vulnerable already and, as such, excited, while also proud of my new strategy: talking to women, telling the truth about myself. How could I have guessed, as a teenage boy, that it was so simple? And yet impossible until I knew enough about myself.

She finished swallowing her wine and smiled again. She had beautiful teeth.

“I might...” she said. “But you get tied up first.”

While she was in the bathroom, I undressed and prepared a selection of scarves and silk ties for her to choose from, then lay on the bed. She came back, still dressed in her jean shorts and wide purple t-shirt, underneath which a black lace bra had imprinted a teasing tracery all evening long. She took off her black leather lace-up heels.

“You know how to make a good, solid knot?” I inquired boyishly.

“Yep. This girly's sailed before.” she said and knelt on the bed, picking a scarf and getting to work on my left wrist.

After I was all tied up, she stood and unhurriedly removed her t-shirt, jean shorts and, excruciatingly, bra. She had large, white breasts with dark pink circles around her pointy nipples. I was salivating. She walked to the foot of the bed and faced me, standing over my parted limbs. Staring at me all the while, she removed her black, triangular underwear, bending one knee and then the other, while my eyes darted frantically up and down. She had a fuzzy, dark bush that matched her black hair, which she presently untied and loosened unto her shoulders.

Then, casually, she touched my big toes with both hands, lingered a second, then slowly moved up to my shins with the tip of her fingers, progressively bending over the bed. As she continued higher, she brought her knees on the mattress in-between my strapped ankles, and her torso began hovering above me, her nipples teasing my upper thighs while her long, dark hair brushed my stomach and chest. I was madly erect already.

Her face came close to mine and I felt faint under the spell of her dark brown eyes. I tried to escape their grasp by looking at the beauty mark above the left corner of her mouth, the intricate design of her ears, the softest line around the edge of her cheekbones, but came back ever to be consumed by the two black suns with their matching halos of lashes.

“This is fun.” she whispered.

“Yeah...” I answered in a raspy voice.

She saw how excited I was and smiled, then broke off and sat on the bed next to me.

“So... What are we going to do with you...” she said musingly. Then she seemed to think of something, jumped up and added: “Wait just a second!”

She left the room and I heard her move around the house, opening and closing cupboards and drawers as she went.

When she returned, she had one hand behind her back and set something down by the bed, where I could not see.

“Close your eyes,” she said.

I heard a silky ruffle, then felt her tie something around my head, covering my eyes.

“Now, don't cheat.”

I could not see, could not move, could not feel her anywhere. I heard her step around the bed, then nothing. A long silence, in which I heard only the sound of my breathing heavily, and felt the warm tug of my erection, the rest of my cold skin exposed to the unknown.

Then I heard her move and felt, by my belly button, a light stroke, unnerving and slightly ticklish, like the tip of a feather. It made a few curves on my stomach, then ascended to my chest, brushing the hair and swirling sideways to my nipples, which hurt sharply when touched, stimulating all the more the blood flow that pumped frantically through my quivering cock. Then the stroke traversed my armpits, slowly probing the hairy, sweaty hallows then rising along my biceps, sending wave after wave of nervous shivers down my spine.

I was in a trance, twitching, moaning, pulsating with every muscle, every inch of sensitive skin. I felt her weight rocking the mattress, then, suddenly, at the center of my body, warmth enveloping me, beginning at the tip and descending progressively until reaching the root and, at the same time, her buttocks came to rest on my hips.

I think that I moaned for a long time, but she gave me no rest and began riding me, at first imperceptibly slow then accelerating, and I felt a now familiar stroke run on my neck and cheek, on my forehead and down my nose, on my lips, back down to my throat and into the small notch between my clavicles where it stopped for an instant, then went down my chest again, while she kept quickening the movement of her hips, the friction of her pubic bone on mine, the swallowing of my incandescent cock into her grand, volcanic vulva.

I heard a high-pitched, guttural cry, then suddenly she ripped off the scarf that covered my eyes. She was a Medusa leaning above me, her hair flowing darker than the night from all around her head, falling down, enveloping my face, enclosing us in a tunnel of musky, undulating animalness of which she was the mistress. Her dark eyes were bolted deep into mine, as deep as my cock inside her body. She saw that I was fascinated, smiled with all her shiny white teeth and slowly lifted her shoulders up, still grinding me at the hips, until she sat on me vertically and I glimpsed in her hand, where that ticklish, caressing stroke had last been, on the left side of my ribcage, a knife.

A long, silver kitchen knife.

While my mind struggled to understand, my body went burning all over with adrenalin. But before I could move or utter a sound, I saw her raise her arm beside her head, and stab with all her might toward my face.

I came, and came, and came, while the pillow next to my cheek exploded in a cloud of white feathers.

I came some more.

The rest of my body was petrified, tensed and arched back in the posture of the deadly stabbed man that I almost became, that I briefly thought I was. I exhaled the last of my breath, then felt a violent shiver all over as life started flowing through me again.

Slowly, I turned my head and looked at her, who had let go of the knife and brought her hands behind her head, stretching her magnificent chest forward. She was still making small, swiveling movements with her sex, inside which mine showed no sign of receding.

“You're crazy...” I muttered.

She lowered her eyes to meet mine and smiled, then rose up and brought her lips to my mouth, making me drink the warm confession of my own humanity.

 

Antoine Bargel is a writer and literary translator who works and publishes in France and in the United States. This is his second story in Viewfinder, make sure to check out "Third Date First" if you haven't already! More information on his past and upcoming work is available at www.antoinebargel.com

Also, please check out Mr. Bargel's previous story from Viewfinder. You can go to it from this link right here: "Third Date First"

 

 

Alex Rezdan - "That Moment When Time Stopped"

 

That moment when time stopped, I saw the future. It surprised me, because I always thought I would see the past flash through my mind before everything ended abruptly, like a film reel burning out, the blackness invading from every direction until that was all there was. Sometimes I thought of it more like when the battery on a laptop dies. It just shuts down, every circuit grasping for an electric current the way my body was grasping for air. I wished I could simply plug in to recharge, and perhaps that’s what led me to ingest those pills as if they were batteries for my soul, but instead, what I got was a glimpse of our future together.

In the park, you--whom I have yet to meet--sat at the bench waiting for me to arrive. You were tapping your foot to the music that always seemed to play inside your head and waved your arms around when you saw me as if you had been stranded in the desert for days and I had come to save you. I liked to think we had saved each other, really. You pulled out your flask from inside your coat, and I graciously took a swig before we followed the crowd into the fair. Maybe it was the drinks that did it, or more likely your terrible aim at throwing a softball, but this was the day I realized I loved you, not in that sense that movies and television have distorted the word, but in the sense that I knew I wanted you to be part of the rest of my life, and even if we strayed apart for ten years, I wouldn’t forget to contact you when I visited your city or be too busy when you came to mine.

It pained me to think I probably walked past you, too shy to strike up a conversation, perhaps several times in every variation: sitting next to you on the train, standing behind you in line at the grocery store, stealing glances at you at the bar.

In another glimpse, in that future city when I visited you, I experienced snow for the first time. I shivered in my thin jacket, and you teased me about being from Southern California. You suggested ducking into a bar to warm up and introduced me to grog, of which I was not a fan. You noticed that I kept looking at the old, beat up piano in the corner and, because the place was empty, I agreed to play a song. It was during that detuned rendition of The Entertainer that we realized this could be it. Our last day. We didn’t say anything, but I knew we were both thinking the same thing: at least we’ll always have those great memories to look back on.

Except maybe now we won’t.

My feet felt heavier as I walked you back to your apartment, each step taking more effort than the last, yet you twirled and danced, giddy from the alcohol. I wanted to grab your shoulders and shake you and scream, “Can’t you see our story is about to end? Stop being so happy!” But instead, we said goodbye as if we’d see each other during lunch the next day. It hurt to see you disappear into that stairwell, but later I realized I preferred this over the farewell hugs we gave each other all those years ago. Looking back at our last day, I wouldn’t remember us standing outside your door, trying to delay the inevitable with awkward conversation. Instead, I’d see us passing around your flask, singing The Middle by Jimmy Eat World while you led me through streets that all looked the same. That song always did make me think of you.

As I walked back to the hotel, the weight in my legs became too much. I stopped in the middle of a bridge--Schlossbrücke, you had called it--and looked into the water, the rippling reflection of stars, moon, and me, and returned to the present moment. Alone in the dimly lit room. Empty beer cans scattered on the bed and my last cigarette burning on the ashtray next to the glass of red wine I swiped from downstairs. The smoke clouded the room, and I wished I could dissipate the same way, leaving nothing but a lingering scent as a reminder that I once existed.

You--who surely must exist somewhere--were not the only thing I saw in that moment. I saw the birth of my child and the name Amelia escaping my lips when the nurse put her in my arms. I experienced the loss of my parents, bittersweet in that I never truly felt independent from them but glad they didn’t have to suffer in outliving their only child. I met other people in other countries and laughed--yes, laughed--with them. I was interrupted in a romantic pursuit due to cat hair. My eyes puffed into bulging slits of red and all the water in the world couldn’t wash away that blunder. I knew it blew any chance I had with that person, and cats forever became a deal-breaker.

Futures that could but would never be teased me with happiness. I inhaled them all until my body rejected them and coughed them into the air together with those pill-shaped batteries and acid-tasting bile. My hands gripped the itchy bed sheet as my eyes focused on the fedora-shaped water stain on the ceiling. My breath returned to me, shallow at first, then steady like a heartbeat. I turned my head to the side and watched the red liquid sway gently in the glass. I looked at time as a pearl in the oyster I created around it and imagined it dissolving in the wine until only a grain of sand was left drowning at the bottom of the glass, and then I swallowed it.

Alex Rezdan is an American writer currently living in Berlin. His short stories have previously appeared in Popshot, Literally Stories, and Fabula Argentea, along with Berlin-based magazines RHNK and Berlin Unspoken. When not procrastinating on Reddit or playing his guitar, Alex is working on completing his first interactive fiction novel.

Sean Skulski - "Brunch With Judas"

 

           It’d been a long while since I’d spoken to Judas. The dry spell in our friendship hadn’t been precipitated by an argument or anything per se, but simply, time had gotten the best of us. I had my things to do and he had his own things going for him, but I couldn’t shake him from my mind. I called him up and we decided on a date to go out to brunch.

He arrived at the diner before me, picking a booth by the window so that we could overlook the coast at Santa Monica. He waved and beckoned me over, and upon my arrival he stood and shook my hand. The days, although plentiful and busied since we’d last spoken, didn’t wear much on his face. He was as spritely as ever, and he remarked that I as well was looking surprisingly youthful, despite my recent weight gain.

“So tell me, how are things?” I asked him as the waitress, a wisp of a woman in a tacky, pin-striped dress, poured us coffee.

He dumped a few individual creamers into his mug and stirred vigorously. “I can’t complain, friend. Things are going great, you know, as I told you over the phone.”

“And the book?” I inquired. Judas was a writer, more of a contributor, of essays for pop culture magazines on the East Coast, but he’d invested in a novel, some intricate exposition about an American family. Or something like that. He’d explained the plot to me before, but the characters were too abundant for me to keep track of. I’d cut him off and had told him that I preferred to just read it when it was done.

“Great, great,” he said. “I’m almost done the first draft. You know, I’ve clocked in at 843 pages so far.”

“That’s wonderful news.”

“Yeah…after I edit it with my friend, Stinson, I think I’ll break 900. You know, I’ve got down some great stuff, but there’s a rough patch here and there. Stinson’s got my back, though. He’ll help me smooth it all out.”

The waitress interrupted Judas and we ordered our omelets and choice of toast. Judas, of course, ordered multi-grain, no butter.

“Enough about me,” Judas said, sipping his coffee. “What the hell have you been up to?”

“The usual,” I said. “Day in and day out, the same old sad life I’ve been living since Melissa left me…”

“So morose,” he laughed, shoving my shoulder from across the linoleum table that divided us. “There’s gotta be something worthwhile going on in your life. Are you seeing anyone to get your mind off Melissa?”

“Eh, not anymore. There was Rachel, but it wasn’t meant to be.”

“You have to get out more, friend,” Judas exclaimed. “You’re a good-looking, young man. There’s sure as shit a nice young lady out there for you.”

“We’ll see,” I laughed.

After we ate and the waitress dropped off our check, creased down the middle vertically and left face down on the table, I felt that it was acceptable to ask Judas about Melissa.

He laughed. “You need to stop thinking about her”

“I know,” I said. “It’s just—have you talked to her or heard anything?”

“I can’t say I have,” Judas said and he fetched the check from the edge of the table.

“Oh, let me get it,” I said, but he’d pulled out his wallet and dismissed off my offer.

“It’s my pleasure.”

He left a five on the table and we got up. On our way out, he paid for our brunch at the register.  

We strolled outside and he’d been fortunate enough to find a spot in the strip of spaces outside the diner. We said our goodbyes and he was off in his Lambo.

I walked to my car a few blocks away, pleased with the warm October weather, and I thought I deserved an ice cream cone. There was a trendy ice cream joint on the block where I parked. A small line, nothing to complain about, paralleled the counter.

I sat in the front seat of my car, windows down, the radio on, slurping the frosty mountain of plum twirl ice cream atop the cone. It’d been alright to see Judas again, and I was happy for him. His book was no longer just big talk, but it had come together. Good for him.

I was upset he hadn’t spoken about Melissa. Rumor had it, they’d been seeing one another, or at least, that’s what Brendan had told me, and I’d hoped Judas would’ve said she was well.

My ex-wife deserved happiness, even if it was with my best friend.

If the universe is fair, his book won’t get published.

 

Sean Skulski is chopping away at that MA in English he's been saying he'll get for four years now. He's been told he's eccentric and goofy, but he's too busy laughing at his own puns to even notice what's going on around him. A big traveler, he's planning to make it to Iceland to see the Northern Lights (it's numero uno on his bucket list if you were wondering). Currently, he lives in West Chester, PA.

Jonathan Phin - "Sprinklered Tears"

 

No one believed such a gaunt tree could hold the weight of a healthy eleven-year-old. But miracles do happen. Mrs. Applebaum was the first to see ol’ Charlie hanging from the dying Oak on the corner of Peach and MLK Street yesterday. She must have been on one of her early morning walks, a routine she developed after Mr. Applebaum’s passing. The town used to call her “Ghostie” during her walks when the early morning fog rose from the ground and her pale white nightgown appeared to hover over the gravel. Her neon pink kicks were the only reason she didn’t scare little children.

Charlie rides my bus to school in the mornings. Or rode—Him and his cotton-candy fluff of red hair sat in the front of the bus to avoid the cool kids at the back. I sat up front too. What went through his mind? How long did it take? Did he leave a note?

The twins Becky and Bryan seemed mighty quiet this morning. Their eyes metronomed back and forth from skull to skull. After each bit of awkward silence, accusations were exchanged.

“It’s not my fault. I wasn’t even here last Friday,” Becky said.

“But you were the worst,” Bryan said, pushing his twin. “Calling him cotton-candy head. Calling him the freckled-face-freak even circuses would turn away.”

“I never pushed him in the mud, or stole his shoes like you.”

“He was weak. Daddy said suicide was for thin-skinned pansies, and Charlie was the biggest pansy around,” Milo said. I guess that would make his mother a pansy too since everyone knew she Pollacked her brains on the back of their barn.

Milo’s arms crossed his chest tighter than his usual “cool guy” stance. If only his lips had stayed as tight.

I listened to their banter, but none of them took the blame. The bus ride to school began the silence game.

During the morning announcements, Principal Lee revealed facts about Charlie likely no one knew. He had a dog named Boo Radley. He played baseball and loved painting. I did too. Later, friends of Charlie were allowed to meet in the library for grief counseling. How many impostors would attend? I knew I wouldn’t. I knew I couldn’t.

At lunch, I sat at my usual table alone. Charlie would sit at the table across from me. Sometimes, we’d look up and our eyes would meet. His left eye was smaller than the right. He’d nod. I’d nod and return to my book. Like him, I didn’t talk to many people.

After lunch, I spotted Charlie’s mom at his locker. On her knees, she sobbed. Her soprano cries floated above the hustle of kids returning to class. Before I knew it, I kneeled beside her. My arm rose from my side and patted her on the back. My mouth whispered, “I’m sorry.”

“Were you his friend?”

My head sprinklered tears left and right on the ground Charlie would never stand on again.

 

Jonathan Phin is a MFA graduate at the University of Central Florida and works as a graduate intern for The Florida Review. His work can be found in the Viewfinder Literary Magazine and The Jellyfish Review. You can find him on Twitter @Jonathan Phin

Liam Lowth - "Salmon Run"

 

We used to bathe naked in pools of rainwater under the interstate and act like it meant something. If I sat still long enough it almost felt like Australia, with the water warm and the southern sun pressed into my neck. The traffic from the highway above morphed into conch shell waves. I could feel my heritage leaning in on me and I knew I had to leave. Times change, people follow, and before long she was bandying about insults like they meant something. She called me selfish, so I left her in a cloud of dirt at a Utah truck stop, and the image I had of her calling out through tears and dust faded as I crossed county lines.

I’ve heard my parents talk about the golden days in their relationship, the early phase where they were on best behaviour. But what they failed to mention – through hazy recollections of two eyes locked, electric kisses and a bond that held them like yin to yang – is that in the early days of any relationship you’re literally the furthest away from the real you that you’ll ever be. Once the show’s over and the lights come up - once love and all those other terms people throw around like they mean something – once it all fades out and you’re in the bathroom with your partner brushing your teeth, naked, you start to realize you’re both the same pieces of shit you were before you met. There’s something in that; something I remembered when I left that girl in Utah. I remembered it when I left them all: the Spanish girl from years back, the Mexican, the Peruvian, Parisian, Austrian, and that one Australian. Sometimes I think back and miss the way it all felt. But I know it’s not real, so I’m not coming home.

‘I can’t believe you just left her there! Here I was thinking I’d found mister right, Marcus the angel Aussie – Pffft – That’s a lie.’

She gives a coy smile from the passenger seat, slaps my arm with a playful sting and fills the car with a kind of force. I’m reminded all over again why I approached that American girl. It’s still early, and hard to say where we’ll end up. Lana and I have been driving since Seattle, carving a path through British Columbia. This impalpable sense of place, this, never knowing where we’re going or to what end - it calms me as we glide across the hard bitumen just below.

Outside, soft morning light becomes a watercolour fever dream where things lose their hard edge. The highway is lined by tall pines that shake when the wind blows through their canopy, through the open windows of the car and onto our still bodies. There’s a temperate pang to the air in Canada, but I’m still warm from my last cigarette and don’t think Lana’s passive – ‘It’s a bit chilly isn’t it’ – warrants my discomfort. I realise neither of us has said anything in the last five minutes and I wonder if my story still hangs heavy in the air, or if she’s chewing her nails over the argument we had at the gas station over how many packs a day is normal. She locks eyes with me, flashes a smile like I’m her waiter with the check, and runs a hand through her oily blonde hair. I wish I hadn’t answered the question. ‘What about you then, tell me about your last relationship?’

‘Oh it was a long time ago, hard to remember.’

I take my eyes off the rolling asphalt for a moment to let her know I’m not buying what she’s selling. She fingers the base of her chin and traces a line over its edge.

‘I used to date this guy back in Seattle, before you and I met – jealous type – that’s about all.’

‘Well what happened? Why did you break up?’

A switch flips, she freezes up. No more is she the attaché of American gall that I’d come to know - that I’d come to fall for – she’d turned to someone completely different. She was a girl with a past that followed her like shadow to body does under the light of a hot sun.

‘We were out at this bar one night. I didn’t like going because I know how it is for a girl at a bar sometimes. It was my boyfriend’s birthday though, so yeah. We went home that night and he said to me, did you know that guy at the bar? I said no, that’s just how it is for a girl sometimes, people just assume things if you’re by yourself at a bar.’

She pauses. Goosebumps now on her throat, I regret asking.

‘So he goes to the kitchen after I tell him this, like it’s nothing. He comes back with this Jose’ Cuervo bottle and smashes it over my face...’

We round a corner and the first light of morning starts shining behind Lana’s head. It lights up her stray hairs like some tangled blonde halo, and I’m thinking about the way she looks naked when I spot a small fishhook scar from her jowl to chin that I hadn’t noticed before.

‘…and it was quick, but before the glass shattered I saw him through it. You know how you look through the bottom of binoculars as a kid? It was kind of like that.’

I motion for a cigarette and she does what she’s told.

‘You did the right thing breaking up with him, that’s fucking horrible.’

‘He broke up with me. I did know he was the jealous type. I knew that, and he was. So it wasn’t surprising, it just hurt.’

‘You didn’t call it off? I didn’t take you for a pushover Lana.’

Before I’ve even finished saying it, I know I’m out of line. She squirms the sides of her mouth, chews her nails like she did through our argument at the gas station, then, a re-composure. Her smile’s so forced I can almost see the ventriloquist strings. I hit the gas and there’s a brief moment of catharsis. When I throw my cigarette out the window the embers skitter across the road until they’re almost nothing at all, and if a car drove by at that moment they’d never even know I’d been smoking.

Further, we slow down with the traffic; piece ourselves in to the static mass all trying to drive uphill at once. On the left shoulder, a mountain face cascades by the road with such immensity that at first glance it looks like it’s leaning in to take me. To the right, a crystal clear lake laps close by the pine line. It’s a huge expanse with a surface so still you could rest a coin on it. I find lakes this side of the world something of an oddity. They seem endless without time to realise, when in truth, they are separated in a sort of solitude from the rest of the world’s water. It’s a far cry from the Pacific expanse I grew up close to; an ocean that forever colours my sense of space and brevity.

It’s a symptom of the Australian condition to grow up dwarfed by things you cannot control. We used to have Christmas dinner by the beach, my family and I. We’d eat seafood by the moonlight and my father would say to us, ‘Kids, the world is your oyster.’ That was the way we were raised, to seek happiness at all costs and live the life our parents worked for. When I think back about Australia and that one girl, I wonder if she does the same for me. I wonder if she ever stares out to the Pacific some nights and cries when she realises just how far things can exist outside of our control.

‘Did you know the number of Australian expats is increasing with each decade?’ Lana says, or I think she says, when her words break through my thoughts. The gridlock stretches on around the bend as far as I can see with each vehicle nuzzled bumper to bumper; all blocked from reaching their final destination by others trying to reach theirs. The sun rises higher. People squint when rear-view mirrors, iPhones and ticking watch faces fire sunbeams at unsuspecting passengers. I’ve been looking at Lana’s scar the last five minutes now with the light; that fishhook mark I’d never noticed. She presses a button on her phone and it plays a song I used to know. I’m back in the bar where we first locked eyes; back in America, where I saw a smooth, mirror-like face, radiating a sort of force with pride. Now she’s off key when she hums the chorus and looks me in the eyes for approval.

‘Can you turn it off, it’s too redneck for me.’ I reach to do it myself anyway.

‘I’m sorry Marcus, I should have asked.’

I adjust the rear-view mirror to see how far back the traffic goes, and for a moment I catch us both in frame; Lana and I, me and the girl from Utah, me and the Spaniard, me and the Mexican, the Peruvian & I, Parisian & I, Austrian & I, and that one Australian whose presence I can almost feel when I close my eyes. We are married, two kids fast asleep upstairs, and we’re brushing our teeth in the ensuite mirror. Ten minutes earlier I yelled at her for leaving hair on the soap and she slaps her own wrist a little too hard when she apologizes. We are naked; we don’t shave anymore; I don’t suck in my stomach when I take my shirt off; she only wears matching underwear for work; we only hold hands when the kids are near. We keep doing these to each other over and over because this is where we live now, and forever.

‘I’m going to bum a cigarette, see what’s going on up ahead.’

‘That’s a few too many for today, isn’t it?’

I don’t even pause to tell Lana that it’s my right to poison my insides if I want. I just start walking away.

The sun, now dead centre of the sky, lights up every inch of my body in white heat. Down the aisles of cars, I pass mini vans and sedans with mattresses ratchet strapped to roofs; luxury 4x4’s with barely enough wherewithal to cross a puddle of rainwater; hatchbacks full to the brim with no space for fresh breath. I walk through the centre of it all while each driver sits and realises they aren’t getting where they want anytime soon. Around the bend, a rusted Camaro sits idling with two guys smoking by the hood; one tall, one short, both about my age. The taller of the two wears a Canucks cap, the shorter one wears jeans too big for him but acts like he doesn’t know it. The short one taps his buddy when he sees me approaching and they both smile like they know me.

After my how ‘bout it, the Canuck responds in a rounded vowel accent, ‘Tell you what; I’ll give you a cig on one condition.’ I immediately regret asking. ‘See my buddy and I saw you and that pretty girl at the gas station; saw you arguing in there – look, I don’t want to seem out of line, but can I give her my phone number.’

We stood there a few seconds not saying much, which was enough. If I wasn’t so shocked by his brazen attitude I would have turned to leave. The short one shuffles around snickering, points his finger over to where the car is round the mountain and gives a wave. ‘Now hold up buddy, before you ask, she can refuse the damn thing. From what I saw, it just seemed like you guys were on your way out. You never know, in ten years over dinner she could be saying, honey, remember how we met on the highway.’

There’s a myriad of things I could say to the guy, notably, that he doesn’t really know me, or her, and never will; that he can’t just take her from me like he owns her. But I say neither of these things once he lights the cigarette and hands it to me. I suck down the smoke I was promised, and watch him round the mountain bend as he yells out, ‘You never know!’ Once I’ve finished the short one says, ‘You don’t think she’ll mind? I give him a look and he continues. ‘She was standing right over there while we spoke - I waved. She had her arms crossed like she was waiting for you.’

I quickly pace back to the car, through the aisles of others, now inching their way forward around me. Whatever was causing the blockage has alleviated and one by one people return to their vehicles. The Canuck jogs past in the opposite direction to the Camaro and nods, ‘Good luck.’ Finally, the car comes into sight. Lana’s in the driver’s seat with her arms wrapped over the wheel, head down. She must have heard our deal for the cigarette. How dumb that Canuck was to think he’d have a shot. A traffic jam is no place for romance. She raises her head and we lock eyes for what seems a lifetime through the glass. There are tears streaming down her face, right over her scarred chin. I wonder if she ever looks at that scar of hers and cries because she can never leave it behind. Over and over she’s got to wake up and see herself in the mirror with that mark. Over and over she sees a bad man because it’s part of who she is now.

Cars beep and signal us to move on. I can’t change whether or not she puts her foot on that gas and drives far away, if she isn’t the strong woman I thought she was, if that one girl from Australia said I’m a self-indulgent prick or how far the Pacific goes on and on into the horizon. All I can do is sit here, very still, and hope she leaves; for the both of us. I hope she sees that scar for the warning it is, not the memory it could be.

Once the traffic is gone and the road is empty, I strip down naked and wade into the centre of the lake. It’s freezing and I’m out of breath when I get to the centre. It’s the first time I’ve noticed how shot my lungs are. When I lie on my back and close my eyes it almost feels like Australia, with the sun high in the air and an endless body of water at my back. I don’t know when I’ll come home, maybe soon. Australia is a hard place to love sometimes, but I’m trying.

Liam Lowth is a writer from Brisbane, Australia. His work has previously appeared in Tincture Journal, Writer's Edit, and Arbiter. He is currently working on a short novel, and begins teaching a screenwriters class this February in Calgary, Canada