CB Droege is a fantasy author and poet living in Munich. Recently his fiction was collected in RapUnsEl and Other Stories, and a selection of his poetry appeared in the Drawn to Marvel anthology. His first novel, Zeta Disconnect was released in 2013. He recently edited Dangerous to Go Alone! An Anthology of Gamer Poetry.
Learn more at manawaker.com
Transcript of Call Recorded by Gamma-Ovantia
Orbit Guard Station
Mayday Mayday Mayday … This is the Damned Engine requesting assistance from any nearby ship or station. We have been dropped from Quantum Space by apparent collision. We are drifting powerless, location unknown, last heading [static] tunnel en route to City Station Gamma-Ovantia. One other ship involved in collision, visually identified as the Calypso. Remaining fuel unknown. Captain Clyde Harbone requests –
[station outbound transmission] Damned Engine, this is the Gamma-Ovantia Orbit Guard. Please state your position and size of your ship.
Mayday Mayday Mayday … This is the Damned Engine requesting assistance from any nearby ship or station. We have been dropped from Quantum space by collision, and are under attack by a ship [static] as the Calypso. SPS shows our position as within Gamma-Ovantia orbit, [static] megameters forward of station. Captain Clyde Harbone requests immediate assistance from [static] Orbit Guard.
[station outbound transmission] Damned Engine, please repeat your position, and state the size of your ship.
[static] Mayday Mayday … This is the Damned [static] assistance from any nearby ship or [static] attack by the Calypso, and have been boarded. Repeat: we are [static] and have been [static] our position is within Gamma-Ovantia’s orbit, 300 [static] of [static] Harbone requests [static] from Gamma-Ovantia Orbit Guard.
[station outbound transmission] Damned Engine, please repeat your position, and state the size of your ship!
Mayday Mayday Mayday … This is the [static] any nearby ship or [static]
Nicole Janeway is a recent graduate living in Barcelona where she looks after a passel of children and writes a travel blog. Her fiction can also be found in Cicada and caravelbooks.wordpress.com.
The Old Hotel
I empathize with this building. It collapses into itself - built of cobwebs and dark, and held upright by the last of our hopes. I drift down the halls and am not alone. There are other figures who wander and seek. What are they looking for? An old shoe, a forgotten secret, a lost love. I do not know. I let these imagined stories of their search fill my thoughts, consciousness seeping outward like fog, until the mind is inseparable from the space it inhabits. The building keeps me from drifting off completely. Its creaking and settling is like breathing, inhaling and exhaling once or twice each night. If I cannot remember who I am, it is because my identity is seeping into the floors my feet shift silently over without disturbing a carpet of dust.
There is a partly torn photograph lying by crates of moldy bedding and a curtain that used to hang across the stage. Two people, a suit and a dress. She stands tiptoe on feet that remember dancing. Terpsichoreans blur the backdrop and to the far left light glimmers off instruments belonging to the Bantam Brass Boys. It is a wonder that I know the musicians' name and not my own.
I have wandered that room, I have stood where they stood, laughing, fresh faced from dancing. It is in the base of this hotel. I am bound to the building and to the photograph, to the girl. I am looking at a familiar face in passing and get a feeling of deja vu. I do not look at the man's face; that pain is for the living.
Tonight I feel a hand on my shoulder. I have forgotten how to touch, how to be touched. It is one of many, but not the most important of the things I have lost. Soft music floats around us, rich and smooth. Jazz has always sounded navy to me. One last dance, I understand.
This could all exist within my own mind, I think, but I look at him and forget. He has the eyes from the picture, gazing out with such earnestness. Lilly, he calls me, and as he says it I can see this place as it once was. The dancing couples around us are revelers in their own living. The talented musicians play over the sound of glasses of bootleg alcohol clinking. Feet I once considered light press against the gleaming wooden floor.
If I had breath to take away, I would have been left gasping by this specter of the past.
It's almost dawn, I want to say, but the words are shadows fleeing the light. They are strangers I will never know. For a moment, I despair. I have had an unwanted excess of time, a parade of nights, and now I have too little, for who knows if this glorious fantasy will exist tomorrow.
He squeezes my hand. How can he steal the air from me? He guides me gently into a dilapidated lobby where jazz music still envelops my ears. He keeps walking toward the doors though I hesitate and my fingers slip. He is a kite spooling to the end of my reach, but after so long letting everything slide away, I hold on. We step into light that laps at us like waves.
Jack Avani- we've now officially scraped barrel bottom. Little Jackie once bought a tugboat and now he thinks he's Captain Ahab. Well, it'll take more than peg-legs, birds, and eye-patches to learn that lesson that you'll be swashbuckling with the best of them. We will no longer weep over spilled milk or wet crayons, but, fascism notwithstanding, we will whittle a lie longer than your most walked meridian.
ALONG THE VANISHING COAST
It must have been around four when the man lurched awake, unsure which side of the slurry between sleeping and waking the explosion came from. Whether the night-tearing screaming from his dream culminated in such a violent impact that he awoke, or that the shaking of his house was preceded by some kind of missile that shred into his dreaming. Either way, by the time he reached the quarry at the back end of the property boundary, the sun had begun to disperse the thick oceanic fog that was characteristic of the late summer mornings. A fog which left the house without power before he had set out to find the cause of the still steaming, cannonball-sized hole in the side of the recliner and the blackened streak across the concrete floor, trying to keep Fang, his white shepherd from stepping on any of the broken glass strewn about the unlikely scene.
After grabbing some bread and what strips of pork he still had refrigerated, and heating up day-old coffee on the stove, the man grabbed his bow and arrow, his coat, and walked outside into the cold, wet air, Fang in tow. They crossed the grass lawn which gave way to gravel in a jagged border of unlandscaped right angles, heading for the garage. The man decided to take the land cruiser out to the quarry—propelled by too eager a curiosity to walk. It took twenty or so minutes of rounding up the various containers, the last remnants of gasoline strewn about the garage. He tried not to think of the potential consequences of using up the last of the fuel. The 1962 Toyota Land Cruiser was typically reserved to ferry the man between the property’s mulched dirt roads and the chevy parked on the side of the highway a few miles west of the house. A necessary go-between to surrounding towns when he needed supplies.
Fang hopped in the passenger seat as the man sat behind the wheel. He punched the clutch a few times, letting the nearly ancient vehicle warm up before reversing out the garage door. It still opened automatically.
Butterflies danced across the hood of the beast as it bounced and rolled across the rutted dirt road. The grill of the cruiser pushed down the long dried and yellowed grass in the middle of the lane, down from the house’s low-sloped hilltop perch to the flat bottom of the valley towards the ridgeline of his destination. The vehicle bounced along smoothly, kicking up dirt clouds behind, dry dust mixing with the wet morning mists. He passed one of the nearby hunting cabins of boarded up windows, dilapidated and demure, front door slack-jawed, roof slumped, deflated.
Condensation gathered in the man’s beard and on his face. There was no windshield to deflect the wet air. Yep, this thing’s been rolled no less than three times, s’a miracle she still runs so well. He wasn’t thinking of much as he drove, rocking on the cruiser’s squeaking suspension, still somewhat rousing himself out of sleepiness. But as he passed the sepulchral chimney column that stood within a square of crooked fencing, he found himself thinking of his first tour of the property. Him in the passenger seat, Matt driving and telling him about a family dispute that led to this house being burned down, them fleeing in the night, never to be heard of again.
They, the man and his dog, passed a fork to the left which went on for about twenty feet before disappearing into a slough of blackberry bush that used to connect the two adjacent valleys under the Madras-Trask title. That road’s neat, and uh course by neat I mean if it had steel tracks, it’d be considered a rollercoaster in some states. Yeah, well if it was considered a difficult pass back then….
The cruiser pulled to a stop, Fang lifting his head from his paws. The man yanked a lever in the center of the dashboard, putting the beast into a lower gear before the steep ascent over the ridge to the backside of the property. Fang sounded a loose gurgle of a growl, and the man looked over into the canine’s line of sight. He reached slowly for his bow on the passenger side, simultaneously drawing an arrow from his back. By this point they were watching, two looking at two: man and dog with austere and near-sordid intent; blank and black eyes above muzzles paused mid-mastication. As the arrowhead cleared the quiver, he pulled it forward and set the bow in front of him, and all in one smoothly controlled motion, gathered the string into the nock and rested the carved wood on his finger along his eyesight. But, just as he began to pull the string back, muscles taughtening under the full draw weight of sixty pounds, they fled, bounding into the forest. Fang lurched to go after them, but the man grabbed the dog by the flank. Together they watched them bound away. Lady, he said, a habit he picked up from Mark, a sign of respect. He punched the clutch and made to drive off. Used to be that taking down a flat-top was not only illegal, but dishonorable to the hunt. But it seemed to him that if the eschaton of man would have him kill out of desperation rather than sport…well more than just some rules, codes, would have to be abandoned.
As he ascended the ridge, fighting with the manual steering over the ragged terrain, hints of sunlight began to filter through the fog, creating an orange glow and casting uneasy shadows in the spaces between trees, shortly manifested whispers beckoning before disappearing into the parallax.
Manzanita bushes lined the road’s steep edge, their red roots holding the gravel path back from sliding down. This precarious stretch of road always reminded him that the First Cruiser lay somewhere down at the bottom of the steep side of the ridge. He had never gone to look for himself. Supposedly a body was never recovered from the wreck.
At the bottom of the valley’s steep road, he veered right along the property’s edge, regarding the pond he’d damned up and stocked with fish from a neighboring property years ago. It was at the lowest point of the year. From the road he could see the dithering fish and even bushels of eggs, their sky bearing down on them, bringing closer whatever void they might imagine exists above the water-line. He jerked his attention back to the road as a good portion of it had slid out toward the pond and he fought to keep the cruiser sinking down into it.
Rounding the back edge of the property now, he came upon the quarry and the backside of the ridge between him and the house. This place doesn’t exist. There was a time when, to dig, even if on your own property, and to use the gravel, you needed a mineral license from the State of California. Out here, things like that really weren’t taken so seriously, the intensely sloped terrain of the valleys making this place as remote an area as any, a natural deterrent to governing bodies.
He parked the jeep in the quarry and began to hike up the river of stones that gradually grew and led up to the rock face on the south side of the ridge. As he pushed himself up the steep incline, the fog began to dissipate and the sun came down in its full August force. He was soon sweating and breathing heavily. Fang loped up the hill behind him, an old man in his own right, each jump made in methodic succession, panting harder than his master. The man used the surrounding Madrones to pull himself upward, his gnarled, rugged hands gripping the trees and pushing off the few papery flakes that remained on their smooth red skin.
Before long, there were no more trees along the rocky slope. The man nearly had to crawl up the hillside, the sun pouring right down onto his head and back. With each step rocks and dry detritus slipped out from beneath him, making for slow progress.
As he got further up the hill, the rocks grew in size, making for easier foot- and hand-holds. He noticed that they also seemed to get warmer, some hot to the touch. He cleared the last slope, the rock face composing the top of the valley’s ridge coming into full view. The massive wall of rock was pulverized, sunk in to itself like some great withered mouth-piece of the world.
The man stopped and looked up at the concavity of rubble seeping steam into the morning air. Fang came up beside him as he leaned against a large boulder. In between bouts of panting, the dog whimpered. Taciturn, the man continued up, climbing up and toward it, his nose and mouth filling with the acrid allure of an alien thing.
Suvojit Banerjee has seen twenty seven summers, but he doesn’t remember all of them; his existence is torn between the suburbs in India he grew up in, and the cities he lives in. The cities adorns many masks, and so does he, while roaming around its streets with the eyes as a journal and his soul as a pen. He is searching for answers in this surreal yet slimy maze, but the questions keep on changing every time.
He started writing early, but found his niche in his early twenties. His works have been published in many Indian and International journals and magazines. He currently works in a software company, and is a lead writer/reviewer for a technology website. His blog however represents a more chronological evolution, or decay of his writings.
He observes, sometimes giving up consciousness in return. It is a dangerous thing, this silent stalking of nostalgia, but he has a maddening urge. He follows the trail, from decaying jetties to swanky corporate buildings, picking up little breadcrumbs of memories and then giving them their due place in white and yellowed out papers.
La Douleur Exquise
There was a city so full of herself that she forgot to grow up. Rickety trams still ran through its potholed roads, and yellow cabs played hide and seek with passengers. The city smelled of ruin, like the abandoned villas at its limits, derelict, mossy, but like any old house it reeked of nostalgia and love. When the whole world was moving on, this city, this old place by a grey river happily stayed in its own bubble, slowly disintegrating brick by brick.
Thousands of miles away, two eyes looked at an old photograph and longed to return to that city of his dreams. In his dreams he rode the clouds and hovered over the railroads and houses and green fields and radio towers. He read books and text messages with the same inquisitive eyes. He searched for love at the wrong places, going through memories.
The photograph was yellowed, and dogeared, and had words written on it that through the test of time had smeared into a mound of illegible symbols that hardly made sense. But to him that was a sigil, a portal into this city he craved for. Like the lanterns tied to the fishing boats in the river Padma, the consciousness lit up old memories momentarily, and then swayed to others. The handwriting didn't belong to someone from the city. It was from another far away place, a place nested in the caring hands of the Himalayas, its inhibitants as hardy as the mountains, and as vivid as the rhododendron. He had been a visitor there on a summer, eons ago, searching for a cure. His madness was in full youth then, a raging bull that rammed anything that purveyed the course of sanity. In the Thankas of Shangri-La, he had found a spiraling heaven that only talked to him in cryptic languages, giving him hints of an antidote. Packing his bags, he had left the dying city, boarding the wooden train that ran on diesel.
He arrived at the place with black smoke in his heart and a complete lack of conscience. The city had molded him for twenty seven years. Purity was like poison to him – his sins festered in pollution. When the sunlight glimmered on the top of Kanchendzonga and dazzled his eyes, he thought the attack on his senses was a deliberate one.
Miffed, the man asked the Sherpa, "Is it always so bright around here?"
The Sherpa, a man in his late forties had a smile of a vicar and the tenacity of a mountain goat. He was wondering about this citybred creature ogling at the mountains with ravenous intensity. To him, this man was so lost in the swirling mess of his mind that Naraka was but a playground for him. Old legends always told to be wary of such a man : for he could do what normal people could not.
Chewing a yak-milk toffee, the Sherpa replied back with another question "Do you know where you are?" He wanted to be sure that this soul was truly beyond recovery.
To forget that he made an awful decision to travel to these unknown lands, the man had decided to take refuge in the fumes of weed. The visions were vivid in that world. There, he saw the voice call him again, asking him to desert every mortal thought he ever had. But our man was a coward, and his thoughts often ventured towards the lustful and the grotesque, and this time as well, he veered past these haunting visages.
Two days later, he found himself inside a damp, cold stone prison. The thick walls were incensed with emotions and ancient fragrances. The walls rejected the light of the sun like an old vicar, and only orange glows of the candle were permitted. In that fade light, the walls showed their true colour – outlines of sculptures emerged, once neatly curved, now made mortal by the scions of time. Many of those stone idols had half-closed eyes and curly hair.
It was here that he had found his solace. A little lump of sanity neatly tucked inside a human interface. For the next few weeks he had blindly followed that light, while his black mind had warned him time and again about mirages. Then on the night of the blood moon, his solace had finally found a voice that he could understand.
"I can't be with you." it had said.
"You are the cure" He had insisted. "Your longing is not for me." the voice had returned to darkness, tearing the silence into pieces.
Seven years later, when he was leaving the dead city in an airplane to the land of fallen leaves, he was holding the very same photo. It had come on that very day unannounced. The picture was of a woman dressed like a monk, with short hair and doe eyes, on a backdrop of silver tipped mountain peaks and mauve valleys underneath.
On the back it said "May you find the love you seek."
When the plane was taking off, he felt a pain that he had never felt before. This city, that woman, they didn't reject him, but he wasn't accepted either. The long walks on the road by the cathedral, the lying on the lap of someone in park and looking at paintbrushed clouds on a blue sky, the getting wet in rain – these were thoughts carefully created by his own mind, with elysian elaboration. His world was as dark as the city, and the city grew in him like an infestation.
The notion that he and his kind could never be happy made him smile, even though he felt like an elephant had sat on his chest. When he had landed in that foreign place, he found brown and golden leaves stuck on his messy hair, and saw a world around him that wasn't dead yet. It was just beginning to wither.
So our hero, a man with age unknown, a soul with la douleur exquise took it upon himself to cure the world from withering memories. Only that picture reminded him of who he used to be. The rest he had forgotten, like those fallen leaves.
Yoann used to be a professional tennis player but found his true passion in making up stories. He now writes and looks after his chickens on a full time basis in the Welsh countryside.
The castle’s stone floor felt like rough ice under Alena’s bare feet. She hopped to catch up with her Mistress; the woman was quick as a panther, and cruel as one too.
“When did you last bleed?” she asked, increasing the pace.
Alena thought. The cold numbed her wits and the steep staircase had driven the air out of her lungs. Every breath burned the back of her throat. She tasted metal on her tongue. Think, she reminded herself. Her minute hands held the parchment case tightly against her flat chest. Her fingers’ bones chilled her blood and skin; an unexpected shock and they would snap like matchsticks.
“A week and a fortnight, Mistress,” Alena whispered and was blurred by her steaming breath.
She skittered behind the Mistress–all underlings had to. Only equals could walk side by side.
“So,” the Mistress said, tapping her fingers to her violet lips. “You should be bleeding already.”
“We must move quickly, then. I’ll call on Valerio after the audience.”
Underlings mated to produce more underlings. It was the perfect way to ensure an unending line of bonded servants. The firstborn went to the female underling’s owner–to compensate for putting up with nine months of pregnancy–and the secondborn to the male underling’s owner, with the proceeds from a sale shared between both owners.
Alena had mated with Valerio’s underling twice. The Mistress had thrashed her for not being with child, but Alena preferred the beatings to the pain of pregnancy and condemning a soul to a life as underling. A kind marketwoman had sold her a curse-delaying philtre for the price of a loaf of bread. With that in her belly, Alena could go to bed with a relative peace of mind.
The audience hall was only slightly warmer; the tall windows faced South and the sun shone high in the sky. Alena removed the miniver cloak from the Mistress’ shoulders. The woman’s body heat was still trapped in the white furs; it warmed her hands on the way to the cloakroom. Alena reluctantly hung it and returned to the hall. She ignored the lords and earls and gentlemen milling around her just as well as they ignored her.
As the petitioners came and went, Alena admired the green hills and lush valleys through the windows. Gulls and crows scanned the skies in a silent glide. She longed for a better life–a freer life. Most people didn’t dream of a life as a tanner or hardworking labourer, but Alena saw the beauty in free work. Anything seemed more appealing than an underling’s life.
The lords and ladies pushed their solid oak chairs and stood up, signalling the end of the audience. Alena rushed to the cloakoom. She unhooked the Mistress’ cloak but stopped. It was heavier. She slid a hand in the left pocket and her fingers met a stone. She peeked and saw a clump of firestone. Or at least what she thought was firestone in its raw form. Shiny as a ball of molten bronze. Heavy as pure gold. With some grinding and warming, it would become the most precious – and dangerous–powder in the realm: firedust. A single grain could burn for hours.
It was a forbidden substance across the Three Kingdoms. Simply possessing it was punishable by disembowelment.
People walked into the cloakroom. Other underlings. Alena wrapped her fingers around the stone and deftly dropped it in the pocket of her cotton tunic. For once, she was grateful to be ignored. She walked to the Mistress. Her heart pumped frantically and warmed her body. The Mistress kept on chatting with a gentleman as Alena wrapped the shining white miniver around her Mistress’ shoulders. She didn’t notice a thing. Alena’s suspicion was confirmed. It had not been there when she first hung the cloak.
Alena studied the room. Underlings standing awkwardly about their masters. Masters laughing and frowning and chattering. One of the Mistress’ acquaintances, Lord Aspen, checked his side pockets, then his inside pocket, and then his underling’s pockets. He had lost something.
His mantle had been next to the Mistress’ cloak.
Alena looked away and followed the Mistress out of the hall.
The biting cold air slapped her face but she didn’t let it distract her. Alena knew this stone was her chance to flee. The key that would unlock the last door. The possibility to escape had never struck her until she’d felt the stone. Escaping was sheer madness, and many an underling had been ripped to pieces for attempting it. Alena had no choice but to bide her time. The opportunity would not be rushed.
True to her word, the Mistress called on Valerio and the next day Alena was summoned to the man’s manor. The normally sweet philtre had tasted bitter–perhaps because she’d hoped it would be her last. She did her duty in silence–as always.
A full moon and a week passed before the opportunity finally emerged. The King honoured the Mistress with an unexpected visit to her late husband’s manor. He announced the need to discuss matters of the State; that was enough to make the Mistress’ imagination run wild. She ordered everyone about, panicked a good deal and slapped Alena twice to release her tension. Alena was to look after the King’s every need.
And so she did. She was so nervous she didn’t listen to the conversation–until the King mentioned a firestone. He gestured to Alena to pour some mead into his goblet.
“The Institution charged with enforcing the firedust ban has announced the disappearance of a great deal of firedust,” the King said.
“Oh my,” the Mistress gasped, covering her mouth with her hand.
“I’m told it was seized during a raid. In an underground laboratory.” The King took a bite of boar sausage. “The illegal workers have all been sentenced to death, naturally.”
Alena’s ears prickled, and her hands trembled as she reached for the decanter. To reach the ears of the King, she imagined the stolen amount to be substantial–a hogsheadful, perhaps even a barrelful.
“How did it happen?” the Mistress asked.
“It’s a rather unimpressive story. The stone was simply lost. I suppose it’s but the size of an egg, so it can be easily misplaced, but I will have to request the Institution heightens its security measures.”
Alena carefully poured the mead into the King’s goblet.
“Lord Aspen must be losing his mind over this,” the Mistress said.
The King nodded. “Especially since the stone was under his direct supervision when it disappeared.”
Alena spilled some mead onto the King’s lap.
He jumped out of his chair in shock and striked Alena with the back of his hand. The Mistress shouted and swore at Alena. The underling’s face grew purple with embarrassment, and no matter how often she apologised, her words rose and slumped to the ground as silently as a leaf. The Mistress led Alena into the hallway and hit and striked and smacked her face until her hands bled.
‘Out of my sight!’ the Mistress cried. ‘Out!’
Alena obeyed–to the word. Her time had come. The Mistress returned to the King and would remain there for a moment. No one would be looking for her until the evening. Alena ran to her room and pocketed the firestone. She didn’t need anything else; the stone would provide for all of her needs.
Alena ran out of the manor and into the streets. She wiped her bloody nose with her tunic’s sleeve. The air smelled different. It was heavy with horse dung and smoke–and freedom. But the smell turned acrid when she thought of what was next.
Her face was disfigured. Her broken nose ached. Nausea seized her stomach but she kept it in. The bloody tunic stuck to her skin. If she didn’t change quickly, her clothes would give her up; anyone was authorised to turn in a fugitive underling. She had nowhere to sleep, nothing to eat, nothing to buy with, and only one thing to sell–but who bought illegal substances?
She remembered a man in the marketplace. A man who appeared to sell everything, and never the same thing two days in a row. She found him when he was about to leave the marketplace. She asked if he bought things.
He eyed her as if she were a different person. “Depends. What can an underling possibly have of value?”
She looked around her, as most criminals do. “A firestone?”
He raised his eyebrows and adjusted his woolen skullcap. “Show me.”
She looked around her again, dipped her hand in her pocket and unwrapped the rag with the stone in front of the man. He raised an eyebrow and a smirk stretched across his lips.
“You see these men, there?” He pointed to two men wrapped in black cloaks. “They’re guards of the night watch. Under the direct rule of the King. In one shout, I could have you killed. Or you can sell it to me for one large copper.”
It was a ridiculous offer. This stone was worth the world to the right person. Alena was desperate for real coins; she needed to get out of sight, and change her clothes, and buy some shoes. All that, before the Mistress’ men caught her. Or before anyone suspected her of fleeing. The man sensed her anxiety because his grin widened.
“Two large silvers,” she said. It would be no good to him if she were caught with the firestone. The leverage wasn’t all his.
The man smiled. He looked her up and down, then glanced at the guards, and he nodded.
“You’re lucky you found me.” He winked as he handed the two large coins.
Alena fled. She went to the first clothing stall she saw and bought the first robe she could put her hands on. With the change, she bought a pair of leather slippers. It brushed against her calloused feet. She disliked the feeling. Her pocket held enough money to feed her for a few days, perhaps a week. She ran faster than she had ever run.
A shepherd was herding his sheep through the city gate. Driven by instinct, Alena placed herself behind the shepherd and followed him out of the gate as if she were with him.
The city guards were too busy prattling their day away.
As she left the gate, a rush of relief hit her. She was free.
The air was cold and the sun was about to set, but she didn’t care. She would spend the night under the wintry stars if she had to.
A sudden crave for honey gripped her. The next market town was leagues away. The crave was strong. Too strong not to worry her. She would’ve done anything for a drop of honey–even turn around.
A thought struck her then. Her breasts were swollen, and she had felt nauseous twice in two days. The underling of the Mistress’ sister had told her about these types of symptoms.
And then she knew.
The Mistress had avoided her belly in the latest thrashing.
Somehow, the Mistress had found her philtre. It had never tasted bitter before; it was a sweet concoction. She could easily have switched it.
And she had.
Alena was free, but with child. With no coins, and no stability to care for a child, she now hated her freedom.
Louis Abbey is a retired Professor of Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology from VA Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from VCU and has published both poetry and fiction in journals such as Indiana Review, The MacGuffin, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Georgetown Review, among others. He has also been published online in Grey Sparrow, Wild Violet, twice in Toasted Cheese and in Zero-dark-30. One of his poems was anthologized in Blood and Bone, Poems by Physicians, Angela Belli & Jack Coulehan, Eds. U. Iowa Press, 1998. He currently lives and writes in Revere, MA.
Owen leans back in the creaky swivel chair and looks up at the wall above his desk. To his left hangs a perfectly preserved Brown Trout mounted in mid-leap on a varnished plaque. To the right is a framed Audubon print of an Ivorybill Woodpecker.
After his mother died, Owen sold his family’s homestead, with all the furnishings, and moved to the seashore. He had just settled in when a carefully wrapped package arrived that contained the woodpecker print, the mounted trout and a note from the people who had purchased the house: “We have no place to put these pieces. Thought you would like to keep them.” So Owen tried several locations, finally settling on the wall above his desk. He would like to keep them, but no matter where they hang, he senses they are staring at him… not with curiosity but scrutiny.
He opens the desk drawer and removes a black and white snapshot of a stone bridge spanning a brook with trees and brush in the background. The bushes beside the brook are very dense. Could it be possible somebody or something is hiding in those bushes and looking out at me? Something made me stop packing that day and take this picture. He draws a deep breath. Staring into the photo, he relaxes back in the chair and closes his eyes.
Owen grew up in a white colonial on Main Street, the only child in the neighborhood. His mother, a homemaker and excellent cook, claimed she had read most of the books in the lending library. Like many men in town, his father worked at the mill. But he came home for lunch because no sandwich could match the hot meal Owen’s mother prepared.
“Everyone knows everybody else and the kids never get far without somebody noticing” is how Owen’s mother described life in the small, rural town of Wannamaker. People listened when President Eisenhower spoke on the radio about “the enemy” and “vigilance.” Outdoors, they glanced warily at the sky for Russian planes. Owen’s father joined the Civilian Ground Observer Corps. The school held duck and cover exercises. Spy rings tumbled out of cereal boxes and food cans rusted on cellar shelves. The Cold War was frequent dinner conversation.
When Owen was nine, a new family bought the colonial next door. The day after they moved in, Owen’s mother baked a fresh apple pie that she and Owen delivered to the new neighbors. A young boy answered the door, introduced himself as Will then led them to the kitchen where they met his mother. She was friendly and bustled around while she talked. It was hard for Owen to follow the conversation.
Over apple pie and coffee the two mothers talked and Owen and Will listened. Both of Will’s parents had been to college. His mother knew Latin and Greek and made no secret of how she hated cooking and cleaning. She talked lovingly about words, as if they belonged to her. Will’s father worked for Shell and was often “on the road.” Sometimes he even flew to Chicago for meetings. He read books about history and war, watched birds and insisted on quiet after supper while he listened to classical records on a sound system he’d built. Will smiled when his mother mentioned that he liked to go birding with his father.
Before long, Will and Owen learned they had been born a year apart on the same day in October. Will called Owen his birthday present. Owen thought perhaps they were meant to be brothers.
Over the next couple of years, though in different grades at elementary school, they stuck together, shot marbles as a team and had the largest collection in town. They played practical jokes on other kids. Owen was the distractor and Will would sneak up, take a book or a lunchbox and hide it. Will took full responsibility when he was caught, never implicating Owen.
In warm weather, the boys built cities and cliff dwellings in a sand pit behind Owen’s house. They invented civilizations with elaborate histories and adventures. When Will’s father was away, they combed his books on war for battle scenes to reconstruct with Will’s tanks and toy soldiers. One summer they built an air force from model kits. In winter they strapped on skis, shouldered hand-made rifles and played ski soldiers in the woods and fields.
On Owen’s eleventh and Will’s twelfth birthday, the mothers gave their sons a combined party. Will’s father presented him with a framed Audubon print of an Ivory-billed woodpecker. The mothers gave their boys new bicycles and Will and Owen proceeded to explore every back road and woodland trail in Wannamaker. To the mothers, hills and bicycle rides were a natural prescription for a good night’s sleep.
One late October Saturday in the bicycle year, Owen and Will stalked a Red-bellied woodpecker to a clearing in the woods where they came upon a boulder with many small, dark-red crystals on the surface. Owen removed a few with his pocketknife to take to school the following Monday. Convinced they’d discovered treasure, they vowed to keep it a secret. Their teacher said they’d found garnet crystals and asked the boys to lead a field trip to the rock. Neither Owen nor Will could remember how to get there.
The following spring Owen’s father suggested the boys go trout fishing, since they had their own transportation. Both of them thought it was a great idea. But when Will asked his mother to advance him his allowance to buy a fishing rod, she said a young man of twelve should start earning his own spending money. His father agreed.
So the boys hatched a plan to mow lawns in the neighborhood on weekends before school let out for summer vacation. Grass grew well that spring and business took off. Smiling neighbors supplied lemonade and water and praised the quality of the yard work. They soon had made enough money to buy fishing rods, reels, hooks and sinkers at the variety store, just in time for fishing season.
Everyone knew Paris Brook was the place to go for trout. Down the dirt road behind where the boys lived, a stone and brick bridge crossed some rapids in the brook. A small parking area at one end of the bridge was a well-known nightspot where teenagers brought their dates. It had long been a site of exploring and adventure for Owen and Will. The bridge was the natural place to begin their fishing experience.
Early on the first Saturday morning of fishing season Owen and Will rode their bikes to the parking lot at the bridge. They carried poles, bait and a creel and walked quietly to the edge of Paris Brook.
“I practiced this last night,” Owen said softly while threading a writhing worm onto the hook and tossing it into the stream.
Will dug a worm from the can of dirt and threaded it onto his hook. “There, I got it on, Owen.” He said. “Just like you.”
“OK, now toss your line into the water but not too close to mine.”
“Think the worm feels the hook when I stick him?” Will asked.
“No…but who cares? It’s only a worm.”
Will shrugged, stroked the worm with his finger then tossed his line in the water.
The first few trout flipped off in the shallows. Will discovered that a strong yank just after the bite would set the hook so the fish couldn’t fall off. By mid afternoon they had eight “keeper” Brook trout.
“I think that’s enough.” Owen said.
“Really?” Will said. “They’re pretty small. Maybe my mom will cook them for us if my father’s not there. He hates fish.”
They walked their bikes so the trout didn’t fall out of the creel. Owen stopped once to look inside. The sleek dark grey fish lay side-by-side, eyes as dull as worn glass, gills not moving and they’d lost all their black, brown and pink spots.
Will’s father and mother were busy so the boys went next door where Owen’s mother taught them how to clean the fish.
“Would you like to stay for dinner, Will?” Owen’s mother asked. “I can call your mom – tell her where you are.”
“Sure! I’ve never had trout.” Will said.
Owen and Will watched her roll each piece of trout in corn meal and place it in hot bacon fat that spattered like applause. When she laid the last golden brown fillet on the tray, she called Owen’s father and served up plates of trout, fresh beets and potato. Everybody loved the fish and soon the plates were clean except for bones. Then Owen’s mother brought a fresh blackberry pie from the pantry and Will got the first piece. After dinner, the boys stretched out on the living room rug to listen to Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders on the radio.
“I want to stay over with you tonight,” Will said.
“How come?” Owen asked.
“So I don’t have to go home.”
“They’re having one of their discussions.”
Owen pressed closer to the speaker; Bobby Benson was missing.
“I never know what to say.” Will continued.
Owen didn’t respond; the B-Bar-B boys were forming a posse to search for Bobby.
Will raised his voice. “Howard keeps yelling at Mom. She looks scared and it makes me sad so I start crying.”
The name, Howard, penetrated Owen’s concentration and he blurted, “Howard. Who’s Howard?”
“Howard’s not my real father.”
Owen turned to face Will. Bobby Benson faded.
“Mom married Howard just before we moved here. My real father died in a car wreck when I was young. His name was William, like me. Mom told me he wanted to call me Will, not Billy, or Bill or even William, just Will. So that’s why I am.”
“You never told me about Howard. I thought he was your real father. Are you lying, Will?”
“I’m not. I’d never lie to you. Now, can I stay over?”
“I guess so, but I...” Owen said, still distracted by Bobby Benson.
“Come on, Owen, let me stay, please? It’s been OK before.”
Owen thought, if I say yes, his mom might not want him to stay.
“Maybe your mom and stepfather will think you’re trying to hide here,” Owen said. “They might want you home.” He paused to check on Bobby Benson, then continued, “I’ve got a plan, Will.”
“We’ll walk back to your house and listen outside. If we hear your stepfather, then you can stay over. Mom won’t mind. If it’s quiet, you can go in.”
After the radio show, they walked to Will’s house, listened and all was quiet.
Over the next couple of days, Will didn’t say much. Owen saw him only in school. He refused to play marbles at recess and looked down when Owen tried to talk to him. After school he stayed inside. Something told Owen not to call. But on Friday, Will called him and they made a plan to go fishing the next day.
Will was mostly silent on Saturday morning during their ride to the bridge over Paris Brook. They left their bikes in the parking lot.
Owen spotted a familiar baby carriage on the bridge.
“Maureen’s back, Will.” Owen loud-whispered.
Maureen, a regular summer baby sitter from New York City, was leaning out over the bridge wall; her red shorts stretched high on her hips. In past years, the boys hid in the bushes and shouted insults, then raced away on their bikes.
This time Owen felt no such inclination. A few more steps and he elbowed Will. Their eyes locked, grins spread across their faces.
Will mouthed, Maureen, let’s get outa’ here and they doubled over laughing.
She straightened up, turned smiling and said, “Oh, hi.”
Fishing was forgotten. So with the rapids chuckling under the bridge, the three of them spent the entire morning talking and joking. Finally Maureen had to leave. Owen and Will walked their bikes home.
“Something about her was different,” Will said.
“Yeah? You think she’s forgotten the names we used to call her?” Said Owen.
“She was nicer than I thought.”
“I saw you look at her legs.”
“You think she saw me?”
“I hope she’ll come back and talk some more,” Owen said.
“Maybe she will or maybe she won’t,” said Will.
A couple of days later, Will rode into his yard carrying his fishing rod.
Owen saw him and ran next door shouting, “Where were you, Will?”
“Oh, I don’t know. All over I guess.”
“No, where’d you go fishing?”
“Bridge, that’s all. No luck. Here, take a look.”
Owen opened the creel. “I rode to the parking lot looking for you.” Owen lied. He’d been hanging around the playground, hoping Maureen might be out walking the baby.
“No you didn’t. I would have seen you.” Will said, and then added, “You know, Howard moved to another town yesterday.”
“What? You mean he left? Just you alone with your mom?”
“Yeah…they had a big fight, yelling at each other. He pushed mom down. She started to cry. I don’t think they knew I saw it. Now I’m scared and mom looks sad all the time, cries a lot at night. Sometimes I wake up and she’s arguing on the telephone.”
“Is he ever coming back?”
“I don’t know.” Will shook his head. “Is he even my father any more?”
“What does your Mom say?”
“She says he’s mad that I told you about him and I can’t visit him.”
“Can you still go birding with him?”
“No. Mom said no. She worries when I go out with you.”
“Is she afraid of him?”
“Maybe, but what can I do?”
On the last day of school, the boys walked home after lunch.
Owen clapped Will on the back, “School’s out, Will! Summer vacation! We can fish every day.”
“Yeah, sure.” Will said. “See you later.” He opened his front door and went in without another word.
Over the next two weeks, Will was aloof and fished mostly alone. Owen, torn between wanting to be with Will and trying to run into Maureen by accident, didn’t fish at all.
One afternoon, finally out of patience, Owen ran over to meet Will when he rode his bike into his yard.
“Will, are you meeting Maureen or anything?”
“No! She’s your friend, not mine,” Will said with a scowl. “I want to do stuff my own way, not with you or Maureen or anybody here. Don’t ask me again! And don’t follow me!”
“You never talk like this, Will. Why can’t we go fishing together?”
Will turned without answering and went into his house, slamming the door behind him.
The next day, Owen followed Will when he left for the bridge. Slipping silently through the bushes Owen hid in the dense brush at the edge of the parking lot. Will tossed his line into the rapids, laid his rod down, climbed up to sit on the wall, then jumped down behind the wall to pee and returned. He picked up a stone and threw it as far as he could up the brook, staring after it like he was looking for something or someone. Once, he waved and shouted, “Hey.” The birds grew silent. Finally he picked up his pole and went on fishing.
“What’s he looking for?” Owen whispered to himself.
Two days later, Will phoned Owen.
“Hey Owen!” He shouted through the receiver. “Come on over! We’ve got to enter the Twelve and Under Fishing Contest.”
“Yeah, my dad told me about it, but I didn’t think you’d want to.”
“We’ve got to, Owen. If we catch the biggest fish they’ll stuff it and mount it on a plaque. I think we can do it.”
“I’m under twelve. But what about you?”
“Owen, it’s twelve and under. I’m twelve until October, and you’re OK, so we can do it. Sign up at the Variety Store. If we start early, we’ll win, I just know it! Hurry up!”
“OK, be right there.” Owen hung up.
They entered the contest that day and the next morning headed for the bridge over Paris Brook – no fish the first day. But they went back every day, Will insisted. After a week of little or no luck, Owen was bored.
“What are you going to do, Owen, quit?” Will scoffed.
“We just started fishing this year, Will. Other people have a lot more experience.”
“You’re a quitter! Can’t stick with it. Go on home, find Maureen if you want. I’ll never quit until it’s over — either I win or lose.”
Will’s outburst hit Owen like a slap.
So they continued to fish together. Owen pretended to have fun and Will talked constantly about winning, claiming he was as good a fisherman as anybody. Owen listened. Luck did not improve.
The afternoon before the last day of the contest, Will propped his fishing rod on the bridge wall. His line drifted under the bridge through the rapids into the pool. He refused to talk, so Owen skipped stones in the parking lot and watched Will stare into the trees upstream. The rapids slushed and rattled in the background.
Suddenly Will’s reel screamed. Line streaked out.
“Owen!!” Will shouted.
The rod bent nearly double. Will dropped it and grabbed the line. Owen rushed over while Will hauled hand over hand feeding a tangle of black line onto the ground. Fierce splashing echoed under the bridge. Together they pulled and wrestled the yanking weight.
“It’s gotta be big!” Will shouted.
“Careful, Will! Keep the line tight and don’t let go!”
“This might be the winner!”
The fish broke water ten feet below them and whipped frantically all the way to the top of the wall where it caught on the stone edge. Owen reached out, slapped the fish into the air and it landed on the dirt roadway flipping madly, finally coming to rest on its side, eyes wide and angry, mouth agape, belly heaving.
“It’s all dusty, Owen,” Will said. “But the biggest ever.”
Lodged deep in the fish’s throat, the hook raked up guts when Owen yanked it free. They carried the prize to calm water and rinsed the dirt off. The bright pinkish, white-ringed spots gleamed on its back. Owen pictured it mounted on a varnished plank.
They rushed to the variety store for official weighing and measurement. It was longer than the ruler. An eighteen-inch brown trout, weighing two pounds was recorded in Will’s name. They left the fish at the store to be kept cold for the last day of the contest. Owen glanced at the other entries.
Will was the winner. After the ceremony they took his picture, holding the fish high over his head. Then he handed it to the taxidermist and ran to catch Owen in front of the variety store.
“I’m going to give you the fish when it’s mounted,” Will said.
“No! It’s yours—you caught it. I won’t take it.”
“You have to. I’ll leave it on your steps.”
“I’ll bring it back.”
“I told my mother I was giving it to you.”
“No, I can’t take it, Will, you’re the winner. It’s your prize”
“I never wanted it mounted or anything — just to catch it and win. Howard would have liked it, but now I’ll never give it to him. What would I do with it? I don’t even want my picture of the Ivory bill any more. I’m sick of everything. I hate it here. I caught it for you! You’re the only root I have.”
Scowling, puzzled, Owen stared at Will and said, “Keep it for a while. You’ll get to like it.”
“I’ve got something to tell you, Owen. But you have to promise never to tell anybody, OK?”
Owen shrugged and nodded.
“Remember, I went fishing alone the day after we saw Maureen?”
Owen nodded again.
“Well, I was leaning on the bridge wall thinking when something splashed behind me and a voice said, ‘Hi.’ Scared me – thought it might be you or Maureen, but it was a blond girl, walking right up the middle of the brook.”
“That’s weird. I never saw anybody around here like that….” Owen puzzled.
“No. Listen, Owen, I’m telling the truth. She spoke to me. ‘You fishing?’ she says. Climbs right up beside me. ‘Let me do it,’ she says. So I let her. She pulls in a small one and throws it back.”
“So what else did she do, Will?” Owen asked with growing doubt.
“She had blue eyes. And she knew stuff, Owen, like about the garnet rock. Grabs my hand and says, ‘Let’s go there.’ I said I couldn’t because I had to get back to mom.” Will paused, took a deep breath and rubbed his hand over his face. His eyes were dark and wide open.
“She asked me stuff but never said about who she was, only that she lived in the woods. Then she had to go. I asked her to come back or something. She said she’d find me – but I had to be alone. ‘Look…Look for me and I’ll be there,’ she said. ‘If you follow me, I’ll disappear forever.’ Then she jumped into the water and walked away up the middle of the brook.”
Prickles ran up the back of Owen’s neck and he shivered. They stared at each other for a moment without saying anything.
Then Owen said in a flat tone, “I don’t believe you, Will.”
“OK, so don’t. But I never lie to you.”
Owen knew that was truer for Will than himself.
“I was waiting for her the day you followed me but she never came. Next time I saw her, I asked why she didn’t come back. She grabbed my hand. Said she’d hid because you’d followed me. She’s real, Owen. You’ve got to promise me, no matter what happens, please, please, don’t ever tell anybody, even if they try to make you.”
Confused, Owen nodded his head, opened his mouth then closed it. Finally, “OK, I promise. I won’t tell. They’d never believe me anyway.”
The next afternoon a police car parked outside Will’s house brought Owen and his mother running.
Will’s mother rushed out to meet them on the porch, “Will’s missing!” she sobbed and flung her arms around them. “He left a note, said he was fishing at the bridge. We looked, searched the bridge — banks of the brook—no trace of him or his gear. Footprints, but I couldn’t tell his. He’s gone!” She drew a ragged breath. “Nobody’s seen him all day!” Then she dissolved into more tears.
Owen was stunned. He remembered Will’s words — I hate it here — then opened his mouth to talk but nothing came out.
The police had already interviewed Will’s mother and Howard, who had rushed back to Wannamaker.
They questioned Owen’s mom and dad together then talked to Owen alone.
The policeman took his hat off and sat down at the dining room table across from Owen.
“Tell me your full name, son.” He wrote notes on a yellow pad.
Owen’s face froze in a scowl. He felt a mile away, head separated from his body, like when he had a bad cold. The policeman seemed to speak with an echo. Owen just nodded or shook his head no. He’d been out riding along Ridge Road that morning and had run into Maureen.
After the police left, he refused to talk to anyone.
Late in the afternoon, finally free, Owen grabbed his bike and raced away. He pedaled fast and hard, round and around racing somewhere – anywhere. Dry breath raked in his chest and throat. Vision blurred—pump, pump, pump—he flew up and down the narrow roads and skidded to a stop near the garnet rock, dropped the bike and stumbled through brush to the clearing. Leaning on the rock he caught his breath, closed his eyes tight then opened them.
“Will?” He called softly, scanning the clearing. Was that a movement in the trees? Frantic, he checked again, nothing. A shroud of silence drew around him. Leaning forward, palms on the rock, sweat dripped from his chin. A garnet glinted red. He yanked out his knife and gouged gem after gem, shoving them in his pocket. His shoulders shook and he began to sob and cough and sob. Phlegm clogged his throat and tears streaked his face. Dropping to the ground he ripped out fistfuls of mossy forest floor throwing clots of dirt and plants behind him – grip—rip—grip like a dog. Arms heavy, fingernails split, eyes blurred, he sagged then straightened up on his knees. The trees whirled around him in a blur. Sucking in a breath, he stood up, cupped hands to mouth and shouted long and loud, “Wiiillll!!”
Then he rubbed his eyes and scanned the clearing from side to side. Low sun shadows made movements everywhere. A flit caught his eye — no, gone or never was. Inhale. A smile tugged the corners of his lips—long exhale. Wiping sweat from his face with a muddy hand, he turned, picked his way back through the bushes and rode home.
His mother had the lights up high in the house.
“You’d better clean up,” she said. “Dad had to go back to work and finish some things. Supper is on the stove. You can eat after you wash. Are you all right?”
“Yes. I know what I have to do.”
“I’m so worried about Will,” she said. “Out there all alone, his mother and father are frantic.”
“Will is fine,” Owen answered softly.
“Hurry up now. I have to go next door.” She said.
“And Howard’s not his father,” Owen added.
She glanced at Owen, surprise in her eyes. “You look exhausted. At least I’ll sit with her. Go right to bed after you eat.”
The next day Owen slept late. When he finally got out of bed and dressed, he headed straight for the bridge at Paris Brook. Radio calls blurted through the open window of a police car in the parking lot. He crept silently around the guard to the brush-lined clearing where Will would have gone fishing. Their footprints were everywhere. He reached to touch one of Will’s prints. He rolled out the hollow log from under the bush where they stowed their gear when fishing was interrupted. He reached inside one end, felt cloth, fingered it aside and there was Will’s fishing rod and reel.
“…please…please… don’t…ever…tell anyone…no matter what happens…” The words rang in Owen’s ears. No matter what happens, he thought.
“OK.” He said softly and rolled the log back.
Over the next few days, the police interrogated everyone, even strangers and Will’s classmates. Wannamaker’s few ex-criminals shook their heads but they were under observation anyway. Maureen cried all through her questioning. She even called Owen afterward, but he avoided her. She went home early that summer and never returned to Wannamaker. The town dammed the brook and drained the pool below the rapids. Owen joined search parties to scour the woods upstream and down. Will’s mom even had a séance but that failed to contact Will. Theories abounded, neighbors gossiped, congregations prayed.
Weeks passed. Finally, Will’s mother held a memorial service to celebrate Will’s life. Sadly, she handed Owen the mounted brown trout and the framed picture of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. “Will wanted you to have these, Owen.”
Owen pictured Will laughing at all the crying, especially his stepfather.
Days and weeks became years. Owen remained deeply sad and focused on homework and chores. He advanced through high school where talk about Will grew less frequent every year and finally ceased. It made him angry that people assumed Will was dead. Owen would bring up Will’s name at odd times, just to keep it alive. They never found a body so Owen refused to refer to Will in the past tense. He gave up fishing, rarely visited the bridge and graduated from high school.
One day, late that summer, while packing for college, right in the middle of folding a shirt, a strong feeling of having forgotten something important washed over Owen. He thought a moment – I know, that’s it, a last picture of the bridge. I’ll take it tomorrow before I go. The need to take the picture continued to nag him like a broken promise. So with a shrug he retrieved his camera closed the suitcase and headed for the bridge.
The birds were silent. He looked around – nothing unusual. Get it over, he thought, raising the camera. He framed the bridge and the rapids with the trees in the background and pressed the shutter, click. Something caught his eye – a bird or movement in the brush? He shrugged. The log that contained Will’s gear was still there. Owen reached inside and pulled the rod out a few inches. Prickles shot up his back. A new hook was fixed to the line, two barbs, same as Will had used. Owen smiled.
Owen went to college and graduated with a specialty in marshes and migrations. At commencement, his mother pleaded with him to come back to Wannamaker and help her care for his father who had been too sick to attend. So Owen packed up and they returned to the homestead.
The house on the hill looked the same. Next door, Will’s house was little changed but a new family lived there. Owen was surprised when his father told him the town had demolished Paris Brook Bridge. A newspaper photo showed the broken pieces lying in the stream.
Owen worked hard to keep the house in good repair and helped his mother care for his father. That first winter brought an unusually deep and persistent snowfall making everything more difficult. His father died that March. They had a funeral, but postponed the burial until after the spring thaw. This was particularly hard on his mother.
One day early in the summer following his father’s burial, Owen’s mother decided to go for a walk along Paris Brook. Owen was sanding and painting storm windows so he turned down her invitation to come along. Anyway, he wasn’t interested in seeing the demolition site with its old memories. So she went alone.
When she failed to return at suppertime, Owen, an anxious lump in his throat, hurried down the road to Paris Brook to look for her. He found his mother wedged between two fragments of the bridge. She was dead, having apparently slipped and hit her head on the stone while climbing over the broken remnants to reach the other side. Owen paused a moment with tears streaming down his face and listened, then ran back to his house and called an ambulance.
His mom had planned her funeral and burial ahead of time making it easy for Owen. Once she was in the ground, he felt a release of pressure creep out from under the edges of his grief. He tied up all the details of his parent’s estate, cleaned the house and sold it, furniture and everything inside using the cash to purchase his new home on the seashore.
It was time to go. He felt a sad relief driving in the light rain down Main Street for the last time. He slowed the car and stopped at the dirt road to the bridge—just one more look, he thought.
Trees and vines had taken over the parking lot. The broken pieces of the bridge startled him, conjuring up a brief vision of his mother’s body wedged between two fragments. He crossed the stream carefully hopping from one fractured remnant to another.
A thicket had grown up where the clearing used to be. The hollow log, Will’s rod, reel and the enveloping cloth were gone, utterly without a trace. A new pool had formed upstream from the bridge fragments. The rapids had a harsher rasping voice replacing the old soft chuckle.
I am alone, he thought. I will make a new start in the new place.
Owen shakes his head, rubs his eyes and sits up straight in the swivel chair. The trout and the woodpecker stare down at him from the wall. He still holds the photo of the bridge and the woods in his hand. Turning the chair he looks out the picture window. Low, thick clouds make the ocean grey and wind crumples the surface. On the horizon a navigation light winks.
He has met a few neighbors and worked hard at his job, maybe too hard. When the end of the day comes, he sometimes catches himself finding reasons to stay late at the office. At times it is difficult to pay attention to anything but work. Now and then he finds himself thinking of another life. What would it be like if he and Will could have grown up together, if Will had not vanished?
He stares deeply into the photograph in his hand. The bridge, trees and bushes are frozen in time… a time he and Will knew together. The underbrush is deep, layer upon layer it marches back further and further. The three big trees in the front row hide trunks of trees in the layer behind them and branches on the low bushes are really there, just hidden by the ones in front. Someone could hide in the second or third layer of bushes, or behind a tree obscured by a tree in the foreground. If Will was there then, he’s still there, maybe hiding behind a rock, you never know. Owen feels a sense of clearing behind his eyes. Mother and dad are dead and in the ground. They are part of the ground. Will vanished without a definite end, in the ground or anywhere else. For that, he’d have to die and no one has ever found his body.
So he must be somewhere. Everyone has to be somewhere – in thoughts, memories, behind a tree or a bush or deeper behind the next tree or the next bush. The trout, the woodpecker and this picture are where Will is. They are not just memorial representations but openings to where Will lives, very much alive.
CB Droege is a fantasy author and poet living in Munich. Recently his fiction was collected in RapUnsEl and Other Stories, and a selection of his poetry appeared in the Drawn to Marvel anthology. His first novel, Zeta Disconnect was released in 2013. He recently edited Dangerous to Go Alone! An Anthology of Gamer Poetry.
Learn more at manawaker.com
How It Really Went Down
Okay, look. I know you’ve heard a lot, but you weren’t there, so you don’t know how it really went down, okay.
You want to know what really happened? Yeah, Elly killed that ship’s captain, but it wasn’t for revenge or anything like that, and it wasn’t “premeditated”. It was all on the up’n’up, and she did it in the course of her duty to her crew.
I see you disbelieving me, but it’s the Earth’s honest truth. That video that you keep seeing all over the net, the one that shows Captain Clyde spacing Elly’s little sister? Elly didn’t even see that video until after we’d taken Clyde’s ship, I shit you not. I was there, man. I watched it with her after the poindexters found it on the ship’s computer. I tell you this: She wasn’t even mad. She even laughed a little, which freaked me out a bit.
I said to her, “Captain, ain’t that your sister?” Everybody there recognized her. I mean: Just like you, we’d all seen the reports on the net after she went missing.
“Sure is!” Elly said without looking at me.
Then that idiot Odie said, “At least you know what happened to her now,” and tried to put his hand on her shoulder, like she would need comforting or something. She damn-near broke his wrist. She didn’t say nothing else, though. Just walked out to finish putting claim to the spoils on Clyde’s ship.
I don’t think she liked her sister all that much, or she may even have felt like Clyde did the right thing. I saw the whole tape, mind you, not just the forty-five second clip you’ve all seen. It was more than ten minutes long and included a short trial, and a sentencing, and everything. It was a by-the-code thing that Captain Clyde did when he spaced that girl. That’s what the news-nets don’t get. There’s a code out here, and we’ve all got to follow it.
I don’t know why Clyde kept the thing to himself after he done it. Maybe he feared Elly’s revenge, just like everybody thinks, but if he did, he should’ve known better. Elly’s the most honorable captain I’ve ever served, and that’s all I have to say on the matter.