Daniel Davis - "Everyone Knows What We Bring"

 

            They argue about it the day before, while Kyle is out in the yard.

            "We can't leave him behind," she says. "My mother is expecting him."

            "She just says that," he tells her. "It isn't a lie. She is expecting him."

            "But what she'd like is if we didn't bring him."

            "You said it, not me."

            She throws a dishtowel at him. He hadn't noticed she was holding it.

            "How can you say such a thing?" she asks. "Seriously, what kind of man says something like that?"

            He shrugs. "It's the truth. You see the way they look at him. The other kids are afraid of him."

            "He's just antisocial."

            "They're afraid of him, Kelly. They don't make fun of him, they run and hide from him."

            "Stop being so melodramatic."

            He looks down at the towel. "Oh?"

            "Seriously, Marty. Why don't you love your son?"

            Because he's not lovable would be the perfectly wrong answer. The impossibility of ever uttering it waters in his mouth.

            He says, "I'm not saying I don't love him. I'm just saying some of your family doesn't. Don't shoot the messenger."

            She gives him her look, the one he's grown immune to. She turns back to the sink and watches their son out the window. He's in the sandbox, crashing toy trucks together. Martin things maybe Kyle is getting too old for the sandbox. Martin can't remember when he gave up his sandbox. After a moment, he can't remember if he ever had one. Better the sandbox than elsewhere. Kyle was alone in the sandbox. He couldn't get into too much trouble alone.

            "He's one straw way from getting suspended," Martin says. "You know this. Even the school therapist thinks he needs more help."

            She turns around. "Don't bring that woman into this."

            He sighs. Always some other woman. There's always that. Soon she'll bring Marianne into it. The other sister, the first sister. Always some other woman. Can't be another woman on the face of the earth, it has to be Kelly and always Kelly.

            "She's poison for him," Kelly says, and Martin isn't sure she means it but she says it anyways. "Maybe we should put him in a different school."

            "Again?"

            "He's going," she says. "We can't get a babysitter on short notice."

            "He's run them all off is why."

            She shakes her head but cannot come up with a solid refusal. On this, he has her.

            From his chair across the room and farthest from the window, Martin can hear their son making gunfire noises with his mouth. Pew-pew-patchoo-pew. He shivers a little but there isn't anything unusual in it. At Kyle's age Martin had shot robins and squirrels with a BB gun until the sheriff took it and broke it against the side of a tree. Or maybe it'd been a deputy. A big man with a badge grabbed his gun and gave it a whack against a maple trunk. Followed by a lecture about not shooting people's dogs, though Martin had done no such thing. He told his parents the gun had been stolen. They said they cared but they didn't buy him another.

            Martin stands and feels his knees pop. He raises his arms above his head and says, "All I'm saying is we shouldn't bring him. We'll enjoy ourselves more that way."

            "Maybe you will, but I won't."

            He glances at the Felix the Cat clock on the wall. God how he hates that thing. But Kyle loves it and so does Kelly. A wedding gift from her mother. Marianne saying, "Marty, seriously, burn the house down."

            "You go," he says. "It's your family. Jack won't miss me much anyways. I'll stay home with Kyle."

            She smirks. "Like you'll miss a chance to see Marianne."

            He closes his eyes and shakes his head, sighing. There's no venom in her voice this time but it doesn't matter. He turns his back to her and goes into the other room, sits down in front of a blank television and stares at the reflection of the pictures above his head. Their families, intermingled. His parents next to hers but in separate frames. Her kin, his. He leans his head against the back of the recliner and stares at the ceiling fan twirling slowly overhead. They need to get the air-conditioner fixed. It's not balmy out, but it's supposed to creep up after the weekend.

            "He's coming," she says from the kitchen. "He's my son and I want him with me. He's coming."

            So the next day Martin straps Kyle into his car seat while Kyle asks where they're going even though Martin has already told him four times. Martin says, "To see grandma," to which Kyle smacks his lips and laughs.

            Martin drives while Kelly and Kyle play I Spy. Kelly forces Martin to participate but not too hard; she wheedles him into it instead of commanding, which he takes to mean she feels bad about their argument the previous day. He does too but participates grudgingly, picking something he know Kyle will guess. Still, his son gives him the run around, avoiding the obvious. Maybe unaware how much Martin hates this. Maybe not.

            They head south, and the fields give way to forest, the road curves, the flat country starts to rise and fall. They pass a sign for the state park and Kyle claps his hands and squeals. Sometimes, Martin forgets his son knows how to read. Forgets he's almost eight in fact. Kyle acts older or younger; he does not act his age. Even a moment like this is not spontaneous at all; Martin is sure Kyle remembers where they are going.

            He pulls into the park and the trees crowd over the car. Kelly rolls down her window and the smell of flowers and maple overtake them, mingling with a faint moldy smell from last week's rain. Martin can even smell the lake though it is a half mile distant and out of sight. He rolls down his window as well and switches off the a/c. It isn't too warm out. Tolerable.

            "Mine too Daddy," Kyle says, and Martin obliges. The window only descends two-thirds of the way before it cuts short. Kyle asks for it to go farther. Martin tells him it won't. Like always.

            Kelly puts her hand on his thigh, just above the knee, and squeezes gently. "It'll be fun," she whispers. "It's so beautiful out here."

            Martin nods. Doesn't say what he's thinking, just, "Well, let's hope Jack's in a good mood."

            Jack is, because it's his turn to grill. He shakes Martin's hand and doesn't squeeze too hard. He waves his spatula, already coated in barbeque sauce, and says, "Dinner'll be ready in twenty. You showed up just in time."

            Kelly's mother hugs her grandson because she's supposed to. Kyle hugs her back because she smells like cookies. It's her perfume. She bought it after becoming a grandmother. Kelly once told Martin, "I think she's waited all her life to be a grandmother. I think she was born for it. I think she's disappointed it wasn't Marianne first."

            Marianne is there as well, she's always early. She's standing by the grill and waves at them. Kyle runs over to hug her, too. Also the contingent of aunts and uncles that slowly makes its way up from the volleyball pit. The children over by the playground do not come over, though some of them wave. Martin thinks about this and opts to say nothing at the moment. Possibly not ever, because he isn't quite sure what words he would use to express it.

            Martin settles himself at the pavilion. They've brought along a cooler with soda and some cookies Kelly doctored up to look like from scratch. Martin bites into one of the latter and swallows the chalk with a swig of root beer. A cousin walks over and asks if he knows the Cardinals score.

            "I don't know why I come to these," the cousin says, who's maybe twenty-five, twenty-six, still pimply and decked in a loose-fitting heavy metal t-shirt and carpenter jeans with razor cuts and bleach stains around the knees. He's got thick brown hair that could easily be shaped into a professional Wall Street look if he took the time and had the ambition. Martin isn't sure what his name is or what he does for a living.

            "The food's okay when Jack cooks," the cousin adds, "but hell, the kids just stare at you. My mom wants me to have one of them, too, you know? Why do I want a little mini me around who's just going to stare and drool all day?"

            "You're twenty-six?"

            "Seven."

            "Your mother's Geri?"

            "Ginger. Geri's no relation. She just shows up."

            Martin pegs Ginger for the redhead. He said, "That's mine, the one in the purple shirt."

            "He stare a lot?"

            "Speaks sometimes, too, when he wants something."

            "You come to these things before?" the cousin asks. "I don't remember you."

            Martin nods. "Every year."

            The cousin walks away and Marianne walks up. She says, "Tell me how my sister's doing."

            "I suppose you'd get a better response if you just asked her."

            Marianne smiles like she does. "A better one, yeah, but not an honest one." She stands beside him and watches the playground with him. Kelly and her mother and Jack by the grill in the way. Marianne says, "We don't talk a lot anymore, Marty. I don't know how to talk to her."

            "Open your mouth and use words, just like with anyone."

            "Bastard."

            "She doesn't talk a lot," he says. "She's going through a phase. I think it's Kyle."

            Beside him, Marianne nods in agreement but doesn't say anything. Kelly notices them watching and waves slowly. Martin wonders what's in her mind at this moment. He thinks, not for the first time, that it was a bad idea to marry her. He loves her and is mostly happy with the life they've led, but it was still a bad idea. He should never have looked at her twice. All sorts of trouble would have been avoided. Kyle perhaps being the least of it.

            "Shit," Marianne says. "See that redhead over there, the one in the overalls?"

            Martin does. Little kid hanging off the edge of the slide. Confident like children are, but even from a distance he can tell the child doesn't have as good a grip as she thinks she does.

            "Damn fools can't even watch," Marianne says as she runs off to help.

            Martin debates following her but instead sits down and talks to people as they wander over. He recognizes most of them, mentions names when they come to him. Most of these people, he remembers, he actually likes, in a distant sort of way. He's never fit into Kelly's family and he's never tried to either. But most of them are okay with that. They have enough problems amongst each other that they welcome an outsider in their midst. Someone new to hear their stories and their disagreements. Martin has learned to soak it in. One day he might write a book. He's given it some serious thought.

            He notices Kyle playing off by himself, in the abandoned volleyball pit among dead leaves and what hopefully isn't sumac. A couple of kids are watching him warily from a distance. One of these kids is holding his arm close to his chest, cradling it gently. Kyle takes no notice, turns sand over with his hands as though he's hunting for something. Getting his clothes dirty like his mother told him not to. Martin watches Kelly watching their son, her look of disapproval mingling with one of utter affection. She is the only one looking at her child in such a way. The other parents are content to drink beer and tell dirty jokes that they otherwise wouldn't. They trust the children to look after themselves, even with Marianne standing beneath the dangling redhead, begging her to just let go, I've got you, go ahead you're okay. Martin looks at the boy holding his arm again, who's turned away from Kyle and is talking to another kid. About what, it's hard to tell. The conversation appears decidedly serious, until the other child breaks into a grin and the two take off for the swing set. The first kid's arm swings freely and carelessly.

            There's a cooler nearby full of Coors Lite. Martin told his wife he wouldn't drink but he grabs a beer anyways, not even bothering to see if she's watching. He takes a few swigs and winces at the taste, but the sun has started to come down stronger and the cool liquid feels good on his tongue. He gets himself another when the first is gone and plays with the bottle cap, using the seam to edge crude drawings in the table.

            He sees Kyle walking up but doesn't lift his head in acknowledgement. He gives the cap a flick; it lands out in the grass, where in theory anyone barefoot could step on it.

            "Can we go on a walk?" Kyle asks. "I want to catch frogs."

            "Toads," Martin says, and glances at his wife. "Did you ask your mother?"

            "Yes."

            "Did you really?"

            "No."

            "Okay. Give me a minute."

            Martin grabs another beer and follows his son to the trees. Kelly glances at them, and Martin waves at her to let her know he's got this. Doesn't realize until after he's done so that he waves at her with the bottle. He doesn't catch the look on her face, which is probably for the best.

            It's cooler in the trees, but the air feels denser and Martin begins to sweat. Kyle says, "There's a creek this way, Daddy," and he runs off before Martin can ask how he knows this. He wonders why his son even bothered to invite him along. Why Martin and not another kid like the one with the sore arm.

            Most young boys fantasize about being firemen or soldiers or paleontologists or professional athletes. This, Martin surmises, is a healthy way to grow up. He'd never had such aspirations, at least not until college. As a child, he'd wanted a son of his own. He knew better than to tell anyone, and by the time he was capable of producing one, the urge had passed. But between the ages of seven and eleven, Martin had played house with Alyssa, the pigtailed blond next door. Nothing their parents would have frowned at, at least not that Martin could remember. Alyssa had always wanted a sister, and Martin was willing to play along. Maybe his parents had questions they never asked; maybe they truly hadn't known, though he doesn’t see how that's possible. He went over to Alyssa's house after school three days a week and they raised a family of her dollies. She let him name the male doll Andrew.

            Martin watches the back of his son's head bobbing along the trail. He isn't sure what he expected actual parenthood to be, once he knew enough, but he knows it wasn’t this. Endless parent-teacher conferences. Checks written on the side to avoid bringing in lawyers they couldn't afford. Laying awake at night listening to his child climb out of bed and roam the house. Kelly sleeping through it beside him. She knew but she saw nothing wrong with it. She lied to herself until she believed it, and then she tried to feed him the lie. Martin wonders if her denial will tear their marriage apart. He wonders what will become of Kyle then. If the boy is perhaps already beyond help.

            "This way," Kyle yells, and points to something Martin can't see. "Down here Daddy!"

            "Stay where I can see you," Martin yells, as Kyle disappears from view. He can hear his son splashing in water. That is good enough.

            Martin leans against a tree and closes his eyes. Takes a deep pull from the bottle. He empties it and tosses it aside. He inhales the odor of the forest, feeling nature on his skin, gnats alighting on his arms. Something crawling in the underbrush. Kyle in the creek, laughing and tossing rocks. From a distance, the sound of the cookout, children screeching and the soft hum of human chatter. They haven't gone as far as he thought but he thinks maybe they've gone far enough. A bird calls softly overhead and he hums in answer to it. He shouldn't have had the third beer but it's okay because he's finally smiling.

            "You're happy," she says.

            He opens his eyes, unsurprised. She's standing back the way they'd come, her hands hooked into her pockets and that smile on her face. Auburn hair brushed casually over one shoulder. She's asked him if she should cut it and he's told her she shouldn't. She wouldn't look right if she did. She looks the same, she's always looked the same since they met and he can't figure it out.

            She inclines her head to the side, and they step off the path into the trees. She says, "He's occupied?"

            Martin nods. "He is. You save that girl?"

            "Call me Wonder Woman," she says, and she puts her arms around him and brushes her lips against his. His hands go to her thighs and up underneath her shirt. His sweat mingles with hers, his scent and hers, he can't tell who smells of what as he pulls off her shirt.

            "Quick," she says, biting his ear. "You can be thorough later. I want the preview, not the matinee."

            His pants come off, then hers. He whispers Marianne in her ear like he used to, as though the word is difficult for him to choke up. She has her hands on him and guides him inside her, exhales against his face as he pushes her back against a tree, rubbing her flesh against the bark. He asks if it hurts and she says yes and he thrusts again.

            Martin turns his gaze skyward as she kisses his neck. He can't see the sky from here. He can feel the sunlight but he cannot see blue, just green and brown and faint early autumn orange, burnt into the edges of the leaves as they loosen their grip on the branches. He wonders if they'll fall now, on top of them, burying them. He hopes they will. He hopes they'll never have to climb their way out.

            It isn't a sound that makes him stop. It's a sensation. He knows what it is and still he keeps going for a second because he cannot control himself. But when he does stop and turn, Kyle's face is expressionless, devoid of surprise or horror or joy or confusion. It's a blank mask that frightens Martin and he feels himself begin to wilt inside of her.

            "Oh," she says, pushing Martin away from her. "Oh."

            Kyle runs. He waits until he's at the top of the trail before he begins shouting about Daddy and Aunt Marianne and no clothes and moaning. His voice carries back through the forest, filtered but strong. His pitch high but no amusement in his voice, just duty. Nothing Martin can hate, which makes him hate all the more.

            Marianne frees herself and looks at him with eyes wide and blurry. She shakes her head and says something that he can't hear because of the blood rushing to his head.

            Kyle still shouting, and Martin finds himself smiling and even laughing. It's coming from somewhere deep within him and he has no idea why he's laughing and he wants to stop but he can't. He thinks maybe Kelly will finally understand, now she'll finally get it because what kind of child does something like this. It's a hard lesson but Martin feels some vindication because at least now she'll know he was right.

            Marianne tells him to stop laughing. She says this isn't funny. Martin nods, agreeing with her, but he keeps laughing until he has to rest his head against the tree to stop. Even then the laughter spills out onto the forest floor, as he sinks to his knees and Marianne dresses herself and runs down the trail into the forest. Martin thinks of following her, then of going back and throwing Kyle over his knee. In the end he does neither. When he can't laugh he cries, and when he can't cry he just sits half naked in the mud and leaves. He wonders what he'll say, and when he's found the perfect words he puts them on the tip of his tongue and waits to speak them.

 

Daniel Davis is a native of rural Illinois. His work has appeared in various online and print journals.

 

Rasmenia Massoud - "Hummingbird's Monster"

 

The late August sun slowed down the days and invigorated the nights in the neighborhood. In this heat, a strange smell would start to linger around the doors of the crawlspace unless Kirk finished digging the hole tonight. He sat on the porch, surveying the street while the television blared from inside the house behind him. His old man was too far gone, fallen into the murky, twisted fractures and ruined places in his mind; settled too deep into the couch cushion to observe anything unless it happened on the TV screen, and even then his reaction was never more enthusiastic than a blink or a mumble. On good days, he'd wander into the kitchen to forage for snacks. On not so good days, he'd sit in the chair next to his bedroom window, staring into space. Either way didn't matter to Kirk, as long as he could take care of his father without sending him to one of those old people homes.

On the rare occasions when a neighbor made eye contact with Kirk, he read the words written in their eyes. Rumors of what he did and didn't do. Blame for his father's condition and the man Kirk broke in two. Admissions of fear. The recognition of his strength made them nervous. Good. He sat on his front porch step wearing jeans and white tank top, elbows resting on his knees. This pose served a purpose. He'd practiced it in front of the mirror until it was perfect. He looked relaxed and casual, but kept his pecs and biceps flexed. A subtle reminder of what he was capable of. Kirk knew it was better in almost any situation to keep people far away.

Except for Mandy. He'd promised to keep her safe.

Every day since he made that promise, he'd kept it. He was still keeping it, and tonight, he'd go down into the crawlspace and finish digging. Then he'd cover up the dirt with a tarp from the garage.

Mandy had seen him as human. From his front porch step, Kirk had a view of everything. Across the street and three doors down, sat the square, dark grey house where Mandy lived with her mother. For months, he heard Mandy's drunken waste of a mother screeching at her. Throwing things. As the days grew longer and everyone began keeping their windows open, the sounds of their never-ending clash became worse. The shrieking and banging never ceased until Mandy flew out of the house, screen door clanging shut behind her.

Every couple of days were like that. She'd flutter past Kirk's house and give him a look. Not the apprehensive expression he usually perceived on the faces of passersby. Mandy's face was all curiosity and a question waiting to be asked. He wanted to stop her, to touch her tear-streaked cheeks and fold himself around her. She scared him. She was so broken and small. They way she flitted around the neighborhood fast and frantic, her fire-engine red hair trailing behind her reminded him of a hummingbird. Quick, delicate, and startling. Stopping at one house before flying off to another.

Most of the time, Mandy made a beeline for Shawn's house. Shawn with his stupid little ponytail, and his Van Halen painter's cap. Shawn was twenty-eight and drove a rusted yellow Fiat that only had a driver's seat. Kirk watched as Mandy crawled into the car and they drove off to the liquor store, the top of Mandy's head so low that it appeared Shawn had a child in the car.

Kirk did not approve of drinking. He had no patience for drunks. His job required him to sit on a stool at a noisy bar, checking IDs and listening to their slurred stupidity. He wanted to warn Mandy about the dangers of alcohol, but Kirk knew this could make him appear petty or jealous. He was twenty-two and didn't even have a shitty car with no seats.

The same thing happened every time. Kirk watched the Fiat disappear down the road, until a short time later, the car returned and parked in the driveway across the street. Mandy unfolded from the floor of the car with a brand new bottle of something in a brown paper bag. Shawn and his dumb hat disappeared into his house and the Hummingbird flew down the street to another neighbor's house for the night.

Kirk often watched her go inside Chuck and Carol's dilapidated gray house, a few doors up the street. He wondered why a middle-aged couple would want to hang around with a seventeen-year-old kid. It was possible they were kind and providing some sort of refuge. But, Kirk suspected they were up to no good, letting Mandy get drunk at their house and spend the night.

Once, he even saw her go into the house next-door to his own, where Dale the mailman lived. Kirk was lying in bed, still wound up from his doorman shift at the bar when he'd heard the shouting coming from next-door. He leaped to the window in time to see Mandy running from Dale's house, sobbing as she vanished up the street, into the darkness of the pre-dawn hours.

The next morning, Kirk saw the scratches on the side of Dale's neck when he left for his mail route, wearing his stupid little mail carrier shorts.

That morning, Kirk vowed he would always keep Mandy safe.

Kirk took his protein shake outside to the porch step. It didn't matter how long he'd have to sit there. He'd fed the old man, who was secure in his spot on the couch, and didn't have anything else to do except wait. He didn't mind waiting. Patience was one facet of mental strength and mental strength is even more important than physical strength. Kirk knew this. He'd had plenty of practice at doing nothing aside from observing the passage of time.

In the bright spot of morning when the sun had risen and burned off the hazy pink dawn, the little Hummingbird came darting out of Chuck and Carol's house. Kirk braced himself. He took a deep breath, willing himself not to be nervous. He remembered the vow he'd made to himself only hours ago, and in the instant she passed by his house, he managed to speak.

"Hey, you." He sat up straight, hoping he sounded cool even though he felt so fucking lame.

Mandy stopped. She turned toward him and tilted her head. Her bright red hair needed washing and she had a purple bruise on her cheekbone underneath her left eye.

"Hey."

"What happened to your eye?"

"What?"

"You got a pretty good shiner, there." He gestured at the area on his own face.

"Oh. Nothing. You know. Shit happens."

"Yeah." He nodded. "I do know. Let me put it another way. Who hit you?"

Mandy blinked several times. Her eyes darted toward Dale's house, then back to Kirk. "Is it true what they say you did to that math teacher?"

He shrugged, hoping he appeared nonchalant rather than caught off guard. Most people didn't have the nerve to ask about the incident. "I dunno. They say a lot of things. Some's true. Some isn't."

She took a few steps closer to the porch. "Well, the story about how when you were a freshman, you picked up Mr. Matheson all the way over your head and body slammed him on the ground. Is that a true story?"

"That's a short version, I guess."

"And you got locked up for it?"

"I did. You scared of me now?"

She took another step toward him. "No. You're not scary."

"No?" He relaxed and let out a laugh. "Well, you are."

"Very funny."

"Not being funny. Hey, you had any breakfast?"

 

They sat at the square Formica table in the bright yellow kitchen that Kirk's mother had painted the same year she died. The same year Kirk turned eighteen and had to be transferred from juvenile prison to the adult prison. The same year his old man's brain decided to check out. Kirk made eggs and toast and instant coffee, keeping his hands busy in an effort to conceal his nervousness while Mandy rattled on pleasantly about all the gossip she'd heard about him.

"You were like a legend at Southeast, you know." She took a bite of toast. "We all heard about you, even though I was still in middle school then. By the time I was a freshman, you were long gone, but still, we all heard about you.

"Is that right?"

"Yep. You know, until you got out, I started to think you were like a Yeti, or Loch Ness Monster."

Kirk laughed and felt himself relax. "Sorry. Just a guy. Disappointed?"

She shrugged. "Kind of. I've always wanted to see a Yeti."

"What about you?" He poured some more coffee in her cup. "You still in school, or what?"

"Start my senior year after the summer's over. I'm almost done."

"Good. What's the deal with you buzzing around the neighborhood, going from house to house, getting black eyes, and riding around on the floors of rusted-out Fiats?"

Mandy leaned forward. She nodded her head toward the living room. "What about him? That your dad? Is he listening to us?"

Kirk shook his head. "Nah. He doesn't even know we're here."

She continued staring into the other room for a moment as the muffled television sounds filled the silence, then her attention returned to Kirk and her breakfast.

"Shawn's a goofy dude, and his car is seriously fucked up, but if I come by after three o'clock on Monday, Wednesday, or Thursday, and I have money, he'll take me to the liquor store to buy booze. He'll do it for anyone who's underage unless they come by at the wrong time."

"What's he get out of it?"

Mandy shrugged. "Nothing. Just doing it to be cool."

Kirk didn't believe this, but right now he had no interest in confronting her about the mistakes she was making. "And you booze with the old couple up the street?"

"Yeah. Chuck and Carol are drunkies. But, they're nice and let me crash on their couch when my mom kicks me out. Especially if I show up with a bottle."

Kirk looked down at his hands. "Your mom does that a lot, huh?"

"Yeah. Different kind of drunkie." Mandy's face changed, then. Her shoulders slumped. As if everything inside her slowed down, like a robot that was losing power and shutting off. Before Kirk could think of something comforting to say, she rebooted and began shuffling eggs with her fork again.

"So," she said.

"So."

"What's prison like?"

"Boring. Really boring. Not as exciting as you might think."

"Is it true that Mr. Matheson is still in a wheelchair?"

Kirk nodded. "You ask a lot of questions."

"I know. So do you. I'm just trying to sort out the truth from the rumors. I prefer the truth."

He looked at her. Her bright green eyes appeared almost illuminated from underneath her bright red bangs. The iris of her left eye was both green and brown. "I never noticed before that you almost have two different colored eyes."

She beamed. "Guess you never really looked at me before."

Kirk sipped his coffee, thinking that this morning was the first time anyone had ever really looked at him at all. He wanted to ask about the scratches he'd seen on Dale's neck early that morning, and her bruised face.

Instead, he said, "You know, I'm home most of the time. If she tosses you out again, don't hesitate to knock. Not trying to make move on you. But you know, we're neighbors."

He wasn't making a move, but he wanted to and wished he knew how to. He imagined what it might be like to wrap Mandy's tiny body up in his arms and protect her. He wondered if she would feel as fragile and light as an actual Hummingbird. It occurred to him that she might be more like a piece of broken china that had been glued together over and over again; so many times that to try to touch it would mean shattering it all over again.

 

A few nights later, Mandy did knock. A couple of nights after that, she knocked again. She knocked until it became a habit. They sat on his porch and she asked him questions. She smoked cigarettes and he lectured her about taking care of her health, even though she had been drinking less and he was proud of her. She promised to quit eventually and asked him more questions.

They sat at his kitchen table and he fed her because she didn't seem to eat very well otherwise. He'd try to ask her questions as they ate, but she always managed to flip the topic of conversation back toward him.

When she had nowhere to go at night, they'd sit on the couch and watch TV after he helped his father to bed. Sometimes, they'd watch TV with the old man, who would look at the two kids from time to time, smile or wave, and then return to his attention to his show. Other nights, the two of them tucked themselves away in his room reading books, her on his bed, and he on the floor, until they fell asleep.

Kirk wasn't sure if they were falling in love, or simply becoming best friends, and he didn't care, because either one was a new and wonderful thing that he'd never experienced, and had always felt sad about. She didn't judge him, and that was enough.

Then came the evening when they were sitting on the front step of his porch and Mandy finally came up with a question that was difficult for him to answer.

"Why is it you've never tried anything with me?" She wrapped her arms around her legs and pulled her knees up to her chest, keeping her eyes pointed down at her feet.

He stared at her for a moment, willing himself to come up with a smooth response. Something more cool and charming than admitting he's never tried anything with anyone; that the fear of touching her overwhelmed him.

"I like you too much for that," he said, almost whispering.

"Oh, come on."

"It's true. I mean, it's not that I don't want to, I just don't need that from you. It's enough to sit next to you."

She looked up, turned to him and moved a strand of bright red hair from her strangely colored eyes. "You're scared."

He nodded.

"Me too." She wrapped her arms tighter around herself and said, "Your neighbor, that Dale guy—"

"Yeah," he said. "Dale the Mailman."

"Yeah. He did something. He invited me over, telling me that some friends were coming over to hang out and we could all just have a few beers and stuff, but… no one else showed up. Then he—"

"Hey." Kirk stopped her. "It's okay. I know. You don't have to say any more. Unless you need to, I mean. I know."

She looked at him again, blinking.

"You know?"

"I do. It's okay. He won't hurt you again."

Mandy started to cry. Soft, quiet weeping as she rested her head on knees. Kirk moved on instinct, reaching for her, but stopped, leaving his hand hovering over her back. He took a breath, and then lowered his hand, touching her for the first time. Mandy moved over an inch or so closer to him, so that their legs almost came into contact with one another.

They remained in that moment together for a while, saying nothing, comfortable together in their mutual discomfort.

 

Near the end of the summer, they found the courage to sleep in the same bed together. Always partially clothed, and never touching, aside from the occasional hand holding or accidental grazing of a toe or a knee. It was on one of these nights, the two of them on their backs, staring at the ceiling, when Mandy said, "My mom started seeing Dale the Mailman."

Kirk propped himself up on one elbow and turned to look at her. "Are you serious?"

Mandy nodded.

"But, that isn't right," he said. "Not after what he did to you."

"She doesn't know about that. Me and her don't talk. The only good thing is that she doesn't care what I do, so I just avoid my house and it's fine."

"You mean he's always there?"

"Not always, but most of the time. You haven't noticed? I thought you noticed everything on this street."

"I used to." He smiled. "Been too busy noticing you."

Kirk stared at her for a moment. Her strange, two-colored eyes. Her crazy red hair. The smooth skin of her cheekbone that had been an ugly shade of purple the morning they had first spoken with one another. The morning they'd finally looked at one another.

"You should move in here," he said.

"What?" Her gingery eyebrows raised.

"I didn't mean it like, you should, like I'm trying to tell you what to do. I meant it like, you could, if you wanted to. You can stay here."

"What about your dad?"

"He doesn't even know I'm here half the time. He won't bother you. He likes you."

"Oh, he doesn't bother me. I've gotten used to him. I thought maybe he wouldn't like it. He might notice more than you think."

"He won't mind. It's okay. Think about it, though. It's not a good place to be, over there at your mom's. Especially now."

"I'll think about it. I'm here most of the time, anyway, except when you're at work." She rolled over on her side to face him, her red hair looking even brighter against the white pillow case.

"If you want, I can even go over there with you to get your stuff," he said.

Mandy smiled and her eyes narrowed. "You'll protect me?"

"Always." He lay down, still facing her, and took her hand in his own. They stared at one another and saw nothing else until they both fell asleep.

 

The next day, Mandy left after breakfast. "School starts soon. I have to go register for my classes. Then I'm gonna go pick up my stuff from my mom's house."

Kirk put a house key in her hand and folded her thin fingers around it. "Wait 'til later. I'll go with you."

"I'll go when no one's there." She touched his arm on the way out and said goodbye to the old man, who blinked in response and continued staring at the TV.

Mandy didn't come home before Kirk left for work that night. When he returned home after the bar closed, he looked down the street at the house where Mandy's mother was now shacking up with Dale. It was almost three o' clock in the morning, but it appeared as though every light in the house was on.

Next door, Dale's house was dark. Kirk decided to take a walk, see what he could see. Maybe Dale was asleep in his own house and Mandy wanted to try to get her things on her own, or talk to her drunken mother for some reason.

He hadn't walked very far before he could see the front door of the little house was wide open and the screen door was ajar. Something was off. His pace quickened without him realizing it. When he reached the house, he looked around, then peeked in the front door. He called to Mandy. No answer.

Pushing the screen door the rest of the way open with his foot, he stepped inside, even though the rational part of his brain was screaming at him to turn and hurry back home.

He called out again, quieter this time. He peered into the kitchen. Dirty dishes cluttered the counters and sink, but he guessed nothing was out of the ordinary about that. In the living room, he observed a similar condition, but assumed things looked much like this at any time in this house. He called out a tentative "hello" again before moving down the hallway. The air around him reeked of booze, bodies, and cigarettes. He even caught a whiff of what smelled like piss. The first door led to what had to be Mandy's room. It was also the only room that was neat and orderly. He wanted to go in, to stop and look at her things, to see another part of her inner world that was yet unknown to him. He was about to continue on down the hall when a duffle bag on the floor of Mandy's room caught his eye. Its zipper was open. Some of Mandy's clothes and toiletries had been carelessly stuffed inside. A sock hung over the edge of the opening and at the sight of that little green sock, his heart began to pound harder. The fear that something had happened to her felt more real than the sense of worry and concern that had been eating at him up to this point. He bent down and picked up the sock. A memory of her feet in these green socks, resting on the coffee table in his living room while they sat on his couch watching TV, making fun of a stupid movie, broke the dam inside him and his hands began to shake.

"What are you doing here?" A man's voice behind him wanted to know.

Kirk turned around and found himself looking at Dale the Mailman leaning in the doorway. His short brown hair tousled as though he'd just woken up. His eyes had the red, heavy-lidded look of the drunks Kirk dealt with at the bar night after night. His moustache covered most of his mouth, but he wore his smug sneer with his entire face.

"Where's Mandy?"

"Not here." Dale spread his arms, gesturing around the room.

"Where's her mom?"

"Passed out. Like usual."

Kirk took a step toward his neighbor. "Where. Is. Mandy."

Dale shrugged. "Dunno." His sneer intensified. "But she was here. She was right here." He grabbed his dick.

Kirk clenched his fists, and felt the little green sock still in his hand. Mandy. Keep her safe. He turned and returned the sock to the duffle bag, zipped it, and slung it over his shoulder. He pushed Dale into the hallway. "Get out of my way."

Kirk made his way down the hallway, back through the cluttered living room, and out the front door. Dale staggered after him, taunting him.

"She liked it, you know. She's a lying little bitch if she says anything different."

Kirk felt something like an electric current flowing through him, enabling him to feel every hair on his body as each one stood up, and pulling every muscle taut as he concentrated on the simple act of moving one foot in front of the other in the direction of his house.

"She's a whore. She'll fuck every goddamn loser on this street. And you're the biggest loser for miles around, convict."

Kirk stopped. They were almost back to his house, now. He turned around. "What's your issue, man? Go back where you came from and pass out with your girlfriend." He spun on his heel and continued toward home, praying to something that he didn't believe in to please, please let Mandy be there.

Dale went on and on. "She fucked that dipshit in the hat. And she fucked Chuck and Carol. I just wanted my turn."

As soon as they reached Kirk's house, he dropped Mandy's bag on the porch and turned around. He knew he should keep going, get inside, shut the door and leave his drunken neighbor to sleep it off.

But, he couldn't. The Mailman would never sleep it off completely. Because he was malicious and selfish and cruel. He would torment Mandy for as long as he could. If not her, then someone else. Kirk didn't care at all about Mandy's mother, and resented her deeply for everything she'd put Mandy through, and part of him felt like it would be easier to let them make one another miserable. But, he couldn't go inside.

"You think you can keep me from her?" Dale stepped off the sidewalk, into the dry grass of Kirk's tiny front yard. "I'm right next door. You can't watch over her every minute of every day."

Then Kirk remembered how easy it had been, with Mr. Matheson. Lifting the math teacher over his head, letting his body drop to the floor, hearing the thud and crack at the moment his spine was wrecked.

"You're right." Kirk said. "I can't." He darted toward his neighbor. He reached up and grabbed the other man's throat and pulled him down to the ground, knocking the wind out of him. Kirk put a knee on his chest.

"You know what? I've figured out what your problem is. You're suicidal."

Dale gasped, trying to sputter out something that sounded like, "Get off me," but Kirk ignored him, looking up and down the street. All the houses were dark, except for the house where Mandy's mother was passed out, which was still lit up in almost every room. If anyone had noticed anything happening, they weren't reacting. Unless, they were being sneaky and peeking through their blinds. Then again, he was certain they hadn't been very loud. He and Dale hadn't shouted at one another.

Could it be that no one had seen them?

Kirk decided to take the chance. He put more pressure on the other man's chest, put one hand over his mouth and squeezed his nose with the other, and waited. When it was over, he dragged his neighbor to the backyard.

 

Mandy sat down next to him on the porch as he contemplated each step of his plan to go down into the crawlspace tonight and finish digging. He looked down and noticed the pair of green socks on her feet.

She handed him a cup of coffee. "You got up early."

"Never went to sleep."

"Thanks for getting my stuff last night," she said.

"No problem. I went over there looking for you."

"I was there, but I left because Carol needed someone to cry to. Chuck walked out on her again."

"I must've just missed you," he said. He still didn't trust Chuck and Carol, but decided to mention it some other time. "You were fast asleep when I came in. Didn't want to wake you up."

Mandy smiled. "You look terrible."

"You don't." Kirk stood up. "Guess I should fix Dad some breakfast."

"I'll help you," Mandy said, jumping up to her feet.

He took a long look at her, deep into her strange green-brown eyes. He wondered if he appeared as human in her eyes, or if she knew he was a monster, and accepted him that way. Whichever it was, he couldn't tell, but at that moment, for the first time, Mandy wrapped her arms around his waist and put her head against his chest. He flinched, feeling his fear of her surge through him again. She responded by squeezing him harder. Then he let himself be held, and folded his arms around her, just like he'd imagined doing a thousand times before.

They remained this way for a long moment before stepping inside, where his father sat at his usual spot on the couch. Upon hearing the screen door close, the old man turned his head and when he saw his son, he hugged himself and began weeping. Kirk went to his father, who recoiled and shrunk away from him. He stared at his son with his aged, wet eyes. Kirk read the words written in them and they told the story of a forgotten old man who'd seen everything. 

Rasmenia Massoud is from Colorado, but after a few weird turns, ended up spending several years in France. Once she learned all she could about cheese and macarons, she went to England, where she writes about what she struggles most to understand: human beings. She is the author of the short story collections Human Detritus and Broken Abroad. Some of her other work has appeared in places like The Foundling Review, Crack the Spine, The Lowestoft Chronicle, Literary Orphans, The Molotov Cocktail, Full of Crow, Flash Fiction Offensive, and Underground Voices. You can visit her at: http://www.rasmenia.com/

 

Isaac Simons - "Something's Wrong"

 

           The coffee tasted poor. It was good coffee. It wasn’t the coffee. But everything tasted bitter on his tongue. The coffee, the milk, the dime-store bread they’d toasted.

            “It’s not good?”

            Celia had this habit. She’d ask him things she knew: You don’t want more? You didn’t sleep? You aren’t going to brush your teeth?

            “Something’s wrong,” he said.

            She tasted the cup herself and left the rim clean of lipstick and gloss. She wore neither.

            “You’d prefer a tea? You’d prefer a juice?”

            He cracked the window against the heat. They had no tea. They had no juice.

            Celia cleared the plates and stacked them in the sink. She didn’t pause to consider the mess. Didn’t gaze out at the cul-de-sac. Simply poured the cup into the drain and put the plate on top of last night’s dinner.

            He stared beyond her, out the window to where sand had gathered at the margins and piled on the curb. It had been windy last night, and Celia had breathed out her open mouth through the whole of it.

            She shrugged her shoulders, rejecting a hand he hadn’t offered, and sat on the floor of the entry to yank at her sandal straps. She said something about going to lunch with a friend, and Wall was calculating his response when the door latched closed behind her.

#

            The AggriGrow was doing well. Not the company, but the seeds. Each plant seemed frozen in ecstasy, branches wide, pods moist and blushing.

            The company, meanwhile, was going to shit. Prepping for another move, another merger, another rebrand. Employees were given smiling severance speeches via uplink by suited executives boasting expertise in interpersonal relations.

            “Mr. Korbitz, I’m sure this comes as quite a shock. Hell, I know how you feel. Had an uncle that farmed, myself, back on the Major Plane. Don’t let the suit fool you; I’ve been in your shoes.”

            Wall looked down at his mud-encrusted bare feet. He’d considered correcting the man about the shoe comment, but wasn’t sure if the comm booth was equipped for talkback. It was an impromptu setup, thrown together at the edge of the vast soilbed for this specific purpose--to communicate the company’s sympathies to employees who may or may not be wearing shoes.

            “I assure you,” the suited man went on, “once the merger settles down, you’ll be considered for work on the satellite colony. Remember, skilled labor is AggriGrow’s greatest asset. We need you just as much as you need us.”

            Wall rubbed the dirt between his toes and waited for the man to finish and the screen to go blank.

#

            Leffy looked depressed, his shoulders slumped against the bar. But Leffy always looked depressed. He simply had too much bulk to appear any other way.

            He bought Wall their first round and didn’t bother to make a toast. Wall sniffed his drink for traces of AgriGrow; that sharp, not-quite-normal smell. Typically, he tried to ignore it, but today he thought it deserved special attention.

            “S’bullshit,” Leffey said, gesturing beyond the bar at the map of the Minor Plane. Their colony was labeled brightly, as though some source of celebration, its rings each drawn in a different shade of pink. “They built the new satellite way off on the back end. We couldn’t afford to get there if we tried.”

            But Leffy was going nowhere and had never intended to. None of them had. This wasn’t the kind of job you took if you had places to be going.

#

            At home, Leffy watched the shows. He decided to forgo his two-drink limit somewhere between the soap about the Empress and the thriller about the banker. He’d been thinking about drinking more since he first got home, but hadn’t made up his mind until just then.

            He enjoyed the shows. Sure, they didn’t offer you much, but a man deserved a certain level of enjoyment in his day. You couldn’t sit around with a full glass and watch only the ceiling. Especially his, all pitted and stained as it was. Couldn’t stare at the carpet either, sand dried into little clumps from when he’d passed out and forgot to latch the door.

            Sooner or later he’d move down-ring. Rent a nice place in a wetter, cooler clime. Save up and call Rimmy to tell her he had two tickets for a place they could walk the streets unmasked and leave the windows wide all night. She’d come over wearing a patterned skirt or something nice and they’d drink and talk it all out the way they should’ve years ago.

            Leffy poured himself another as the thriller about the banker started up. Then went and got the bottle so he could really settle in.

#

            There was no easy way to say it, but Salcah was getting old. She knew it herself, Mae could tell. The strain weighed on her worse than ever. Even back when she’d worked those fifteen-hour days done and the night shoots and the promos in every major colony, even then it hadn’t been this bad. She’d seemed indomitable, back then. In full command of her talent, starring in two or three serials a season.

            And it wasn’t just Salcah’s crow’s-feet or the gathering of smile-lines--that all got smoothed out long before the show was beamed to the outer rings--it was her demeanor which had begun to worry Mae.

            “Sexy Salcah,” who had at one time charmed the Colonies as the lead in Slave of the Minor Planes and If Only To Dream of Light, had finally been miscast, and she seemed to be aware of it. Just look at the way she trudged through her scenes! Listen to how she tripped over her lines! And a banker? Sexy Salcah as a banker? Why she had passed the script along in the first place, Mae could not remember.

            Yet here they were, agent and actress, equally at fault, and both facing what was shaping up to be the real true disaster of their adult lives.

            How they would manage it, Mae hadn’t a clue.

#

            Wall sent Celia for more tape when they ran out. He washed the dishes while she was away, the ketchup stains and Aggri-mash chipping dry into the sink.

            Dust and grit flowed in to the room and formed a film across their boxes. He’d left the window cracked, but who cared? The unsealed boxes were mostly old clothes anyway. Suits he’d purchased from AggriGrow, Inc.--two for chemical work and one for the rain rooms. He’d even purchased an operator’s jacket for the T-rig. You had to work your way up the ladder before you got to pilot the rig, but he’d bought the equipment anyway. Even the goggles and the gloves. Celia had said you had to pave the way for the outcome you wanted. You had to make room for your dreams. They’d believed in that stuff then.

            Wall pushed a box into the entryway to clear a path. They were donating the shorts and sandals, the visors and tank tops. AggriGrow, Inc. had set up a credit system so they could offer their clothes to the next crop of workers arriving On-Plane. That made Celia happy, to imagine some new person wearing her jumpers and tops. She’d wanted Wall to donate his as well. Every ten pounds of clothing was a week’s free screen services, after all.

            “Imagine!” she’d insisted. “Us all cozy in a new apartment up-ring, beaming the shows or a fireplace and dancing to music all night long. Remember?” Celia had asked him. “Remember how we liked to dance?”

            Wall went back to stack the dishes along the crowded counter. He washed his eyes under the faucet and wet the space behind his ears. Celia was walking up the drive, hunched tight against the wind. She spotted the open window and gestured with both arms, yelling through her mask.

            Wall went and closed the window and turned back to the little kitchen, as cramped as when they’d arrived and just as piled with junk.

            He scolded himself silently and tried to focus on the bright side. Celia didn’t like his little moods, but he was struggling against the flow here.

            They weren’t even taking the dishes he had cleaned.

 

Isaac Simons is currently living in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter, where he spends his time sitting in traffic and directing commercials, though not simultaneously. He also plays a mean guitar but is loath to brag about it. His fiction has appeared in Storgy Magazine and Five on the Fifth.

Links to some of Isaac's work: 

http://www.fiveonthefifth.com/vol-2-issue-11-story-3

https://storgy.com/2017/08/04/fiction-good-idea-by-isaac-mitchell-simons/

Commercial work: http://www.isaacsimons.net/