The pain screamed, stinging into her heart like a hot knife through butter…
If Mrs. Vithikazi Nhlaba had never considered herself a jealous wife, she certainly made herself one after darting into the Human Resources Manager’s office only–Good Heavens—to find Miss Simo Mahlangu, the usually calm and shy company secretary, sniggering and posturing below the very nose of Mr. Sinothi Nhlaba.
Long ago when Mrs. Nhlaba was a young wife, and had verbal bouts and tiffs with her husband over his lateness, her rustic aunt once said to her, “Don’t raise eyebrows yet.
Hold your peace. You’re a woman who works hard like an ant bear.
He can’t afford to lose you if he has an ounce of brains in his head. Not maggots or termites. By the same token, you can’t seek to kill a snake whilst it’s still in its hole, lest there’s no snake at all in the first place. Call to mind, our wise elders advised us against holding the flying ant by its head lest it flies off!” They also said: “what is horny cannot be hidden (forever). The truth will come out.”
Mrs. Vithikazi Nhlaba respected her aunt, but her head was inundated with
countless ideas and unanswered questions. Did her aunt board the bus all the way
from EMaguswini to preach such an impossible gospel? Today, I’m traveling to
Bulawayo to tell Vithikazi to be subservient to her husband. I might be rural, old
and uneducated but I know how to handle wayward men. Did she ever give thought
to what she was saying? For starters, was it humanly possible and easy not to be
suspicious when one partner’s concentration had clearly been swayed away? How
could her aunt advise her to hold her peace in the face of such a shift? Was that
shift not as bad as an act of betrayal? So she was expected to swallow up such
nonsense unquestioningly because she worked like an ant bear? What if indeed he
had maggots or termites for brains?
If her aunt put herself in her shoes for just a few days would she stand his strange behavior? After all, was she not her maternal aunt? Don’t raise eyebrows.
Hold your peace. How can peace be held when wars of disquiet are being waged
against one? Was her husband not slipping away from her bit by bit? How could she
not raise eyebrows when he was coming home late every night? And as if that were
not enough headache on its own, without an explanation or word of greeting he would slump on the couch and sleep soundly? Was his seemingly blissful snoring from the living room not her series of nightmares? Did her aunt have any idea how emotionally disconcerting the whole experience was? How could the unenviable journey of wondering where her husband had been and what he had he been up to be an easy or peaceful one?
Hold your peace? Really? What peace? Did her aunt know that she was worried to death about his safety and well-being? For example, what if street thugs pounced on him at night, how would she live with herself and her self-denial? What if he had found omakhwapheni with whom he was spending the better part of the night, and were as usual, feeding him with food spiced with shovels and shovels of their zwanamina in a bid to crown him their toyboy? Hold your peace? Still? Queries and thoughts assailed her mind, her peace, her days and nights. Maybe she was paranoid. Maybe she wanted to be practical. Was it her little cock-eyed illusions and delusions that the man she loved dearly was coming home late night in night out?
When her aunt, who to her best knowledge had been single since time immemorial, finally left for EMaguswini after a week’s stay, Mrs. Nhlaba decided to seek further advice and guidance from a number of diverse spiritual sources.
“Do you know what kind of things dogs eat?” the man in a stuffy and small hut with an herbal air to it asked.
“I’m looking for a solution to my husband’s truancy. Now I’m wondering:what have dogs and what they eat have to do with this problem?” queried Mrs.Nhlaba, trying to suppress a strong wave of impatience.
“Everything. You and I know that it has absolutely everything to do with those domestic animals. Madam. Men are...”
“Oh no, not that antiquated stereotypical stuff about men and dogs! “She found herself interjecting.
“But this is a fact of life, even our elders acknowledged that correlation, that comparison.”
“Please, not all men are like that. For example, I’ve friends, relatives and neighbors whose husbands and boyfriends are consistently loving, faithful and
well-behaved. Stop making dangerous comparisons, outmoded assumptions and
“I thought we’re talking specifically about your husband’s actions, not about the lifestyles and behaviors of your friends, relatives or neighbors. I receive and attend to a lot of people from different walks of life every day. I know what I’m talking about. The last time I checked how most of men behaved, the results were the same. Men are...”The man wearing some awe-inspiring traditional regalia was in the process of defending his theory in a defiant, bold and boastful fashion when Mrs. Nhlaba interrupted him.
“Look, man, this is the 20th century. Rise from the dead and start to live again. Get a life and wake up. I can clearly see that your view of the modern world is retrogressive. It’s reeling under a sick, old, parochial and patriarchal ego. You need help because you’re a patient languishing from a terrible chronic ignorance. Let me tell you this for free: you’ve another think coming if you’re entertaining any single idea of ever convincing me that men are nothing else but dogs in disguise. You know what that’s called? It’s a lame, lousy and loud excuse for lacking true manly qualities. Last week I wasted my precious money and time funding the trip of my pastoral aunt from EMaguswini all the way to Bulawayo, hoping she would help me deal with my man’s delinquency in a mature, fresh and fair manner. Alas, it wasn’t to be. Upon arriving, guess what, she categorically told me not to raise eyebrows, but to hold my peace. What audacity. What impetuosity. As if that were not enough joke, you’ve seen it fit to waste my cash and time. I’ve just paid a consultation fee here only to hear you harp on a silly and archaic connection between men and dogs. How does that solve my problem?”
She questioned rhetorically as she stormed out of the circular mud-walled, grass-thatched room, whose herbal odor had given her nostrils something to contend with. The traditionalist was startled by Mrs. Nhlaba’s unceremonious departure.
Undeterred, she sought the services of fortunetellers and traditional doctors
like she was possessed, like they held the key to her happiness. It was as if they
held the epicenter of her life and future in their concoctions, in their invocations, in their pronouncements and in their rituals, and even on their horizons and crystal balls.
“What’s your husband’s favorite food?” asked one female herbalist.
“He relishes isitshwala with okra or isitshwala with beef stew.”
“Great! Then I’ve a panacea to your quagmire.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Actually, the remedy lies with what you’ll have to do.”
“Yes. You should claim your husband back with your hands.”
“How, doctor? Follow him like a shadow, and then drag him back home?”
“No. It’s simpler than that. Your urine, saliva and lizards’ tails will do the
“You just need to follow the short procedures and prescriptions, and the man
will rush back and fall at your feet, begging for forgiveness and love. The die will be cast. Don’t you want to be her irresistible queen again?”
“Yes, I do. Mmm ...but my bodily excretions like urine and all.. ngeke bantu!
Honestly, my belief system, my conscience...both don’t allow me to...”
“Madam, this is not about your religion. This is about finding a solution to
She left in a huff.
One day one confident and flamboyant prophet gave her what he called his never-failing anointed seawater, and vowed that in the next two days, Sinothi Nhlaba would be back in her warm arms as soon as he had knocked off from work.
It was not to be. In essence in the following two days, Mr. Nhlaba bettered his past record of lateness by arriving home after 2:00 a.m. and 3:00 a.m. respectively. Mrs. Nhlaba’s anxiety reached boiling points. She would dig into Mr. Nhlaba’s pockets and briefcase with the hope of stumbling on some evidence to link it with his sluggishness to be home. There was no mark of feminine touch on his face, no sign of lipstick, except for his lazy eyes that rolled in their sockets each time he arrived.
It soon turned out that Mr. Nhlaba’s unpunctuality was none other than the crazy result of his newly-found love—BEER. However, that day when she caught sight of Miss Mahlangu seeking to draw the attention of her husband like a magnet would a drawing pin, her aunt’s words speared through her head before disappearing into obsoleteness. She concluded that Miss Mahlangu’s intentions were far from being venial. She was a ‘devious temptress’ playing her devilish cards in a dangerous fashion. Nothing more, nothing less.
As for Miss Mahlangu, she was comfortable and free in her garments. In her thinking, some ‘nosey, crazy and judgmental’ rank marshals, drivers and touts at
advice and guidance from a number of diverse spiritual sources.
“Do you know what kind of things dogs eat?” the man in a stuffy and small hut with an herbal air to it asked.
“I’m looking for a solution to my husband’s truancy. Now I’m wondering:what have dogs and what they eat have to do with this problem?” queried Mrs.Nhlaba, trying to suppress a strong wave of impatience.
“Everything. You and I know that it has absolutely everything to do with those domestic animals. Madam. Men are...”
“Oh no, not that antiquated stereotypical stuff about men and dogs! “She found herself interjecting.
“But this is a fact of life, even our elders acknowledged that correlation, that comparison.”
“Please, not all men are like that. For example, I’ve friends, relatives and neighbors whose husbands and boyfriends are consistently loving, faithful and well-behaved. Stop making dangerous comparisons, outmoded assumptions and conclusions.”
“I thought we’re talking specifically about your husband’s actions, not about the lifestyles and behaviors of your friends, relatives or neighbors. I receive and attend to a lot of people from different walks of life every day. I know what I’m talking about. The last time I checked how most of men behaved, the results were the same. Men are...”The man wearing some Egodini Emergency Taxi Terminus, or at any other part of an African city who had gone to the extent of tearing off skimpy dresses worn by ‘fashion-conscious’ ladies were a mere joke, not a deterrent. According to her, whether those ladies left little to imagination was no big deal. She claimed to be her own master when it came to choosing what clothes to wear. She was no stranger to insults hurled at her on the streets.
One Monday morning when she was alighting from a city cab, a tipsy emergency taxi tout had remarked, “You’re like a twin cab limousine cruising to a palace, girl. Submarine maybe. A loaded bazooka doesn’t come any close to this. A top jet-fighter! Yeah!! I’ve not been to any airport in the world, but I think you fly beyond the furthest clouds, you cruise at 130 000 feet... whatever! Assets, is your middle name. If you were sweets, you would be a packet of chocolate. If you were a TV set, you would be that big plasma; I mean a big flat screen. If you were music, you would be an LP, not a 7-single disc. No! And if you were a bed, you would not be a double one. You would be a queen bed! I want to crown you my beautiful big bumblebee baby. My beautiful queen. Tell me, how do I become the king caretaker of that beautiful wealth eh? Please make me rich!”
That morning she decided to cough out her anger on the man.
“Nx! Who are you talking to, hopeless, mannerless drunkard?”
“Obvious, to you big beautiful queen. How can you ask whether the goat is
female or male when its back is facing you, baby?”
“Get the hell out of my sight. You must be a mentally sick dirty daydreamer.
A walking dead thing. I’m not you type. Ok? Fuck off, maan! A piece of discarded,
smelly and tattered cloth!”
“Take it easy. Easy. You’re right 101 percent. I’m sick. I have
amatheketheke in my veins, in my body. Once I remove them, and get umvunsankunzi from ikhehla from edladleni, I swear I will be grand and back for you. Shame. There will be thunder without rain! Hehehehe, I’m Mr. Mkhonto, for your own information. That’s my nickname. I can sense a beautiful lady from a distance. Suppose you’re on the fiftieth floor, coming down in an elevator for queens and beauties and I’m on the first floor, I can tell with my eyes closed that you’re landing down, girl. That’s me! My heart’s hooter is blowing and going: LOVE HELP ME, LOVE HOLD ONTO ME, LOVE FLY WITH MEEE PLEASEEEE!!! I can feel your presence like a good computer detecting a WIFI router. That’s me! In fact, I’ve a special love wireless extender in my body that makes me see you from afar! There’s a good connection between you and me. Listen to your heart now. Love has no type, no class, no size because it is blind. Do you catch me there? I think you were born for me, and that you’re my kind of cow, you know. Don’t say I am a piece of tattered cloth. I am helpful. I help drivers and commuters. I am connected.
You don’t know that if you become my queen you will have free rides every day because I know all the kombi drivers here. You will have fresh eggs, cheese, steak, macimbi, pies, pizza, ox-tails and tongues of fat cattle, legs and wings of proper chickens from the rural areas and all the choice meat you can dream and think ofnevery day. Not the tasteless chicks you see around here. Maybe you talk like a high class official yet you chew vegetables every day like a rabbit. That will be a thing of the past. I know all the butcher men in the city centre. Let’s not talk about my job. Let us talk about our future. Let me oil my engine... Sting. Sting. You will see. Boom! Explosions. Boom! Explosions. Mngci. Mngci...”
Her claim as a fighter for her rights, though not completely immune from street obscenities-- coupled with her dress code was a bold statement about yearning for a certain feminine freedom, dignity and expression. Of course, many a careless and salivating man had used her skimpy dress code as a scapegoat to feel the immensity, elasticity and gentleness of her ample backside. No surprise, then, that she had hurled some unscrupulous men to the courts of law or rained scorching slaps and fists upon them.
When Mrs. Nhlaba unceremoniously walked into her husband’s office, to her shock and surprise, Miss Mahlangu was strategically bent over a small cabinet file, her sky-blue mini-dress revealing a filmy multicolored undergarment that left little to the imagination. Mr. Nhlaba considered himself as being physiologically normal. No matter how he tried to look away from Miss Mahlangu’s backside, he found his rather dizzy glances falling on her, the whole sight playing a game of electricity with his unsuspecting hormones. His body was interiorly battling with a certain tempting chemistry he loved to hate. In SiNdebele, they say eyes are so insatiable they cannot be served with enough food, meaning that even if one told himself to look away from something or someone, more often than not, curious eyes tend to be stubborn and misleading. As hard as he tried to look away, his gaze riveted to Miss Mahlangu when Mrs. Nhlaba lurked about like a cornered snake.
Mr. Nhlaba’s wife was not prone to being at the centre of various offic imbroglios, but she felt obliged to act on what she considered to be her husband’s secretary seductive ploy and antics. She had to nip such wayward behavior in the bud, or else she would remain holding to a little feather when the bird had slipped through her clasped hands. The way her husband’s eyes seemed to feast on Miss Mahlangu backside made Mrs. Nhlaba insecure and suspicious.
Mrs. Nhlaba used to have a big frame when she was a child. In her twenties, because of the constant hype about the beauty of a slender body promoted and propounded by glossy magazine lifestyle editors and several local and international tabloids, she jumped into a dieting regime. Her daily gym sessions worked wonders as she shed kilos and kilos over a period of six months until she was a lean young beauty. She met her husband Sinothi at the Luveve Gym Trim Centre, who would later shower praises upon her. Then when they started dating, he called her his SSPP, an acronym for Sweet Slender Portable Possession.
“What the heck do you think you’re doing, Simo?”
“I’m doing my work?”
“Your eyes must be deceiving you!”
“Don’t be silly, what are you trying to achieve?”
“To meet today’s aims and objectives in the most efficient and effective
“Do those aims include showing off your extra-large bums right under the
nose of my husband?”
“I’m doing my work, please respect that.”
“Nonsense! Mannerless slut, get your damn lazy ass off this office!”
“Have you forgotten that l work here, and that l don’t report to you? Please
don’t push me too far!”
Mr. Nhlaba who had been following the heated exchange of words between the two ladies with interest, suddenly found himself saying, “Please Simo, excuse us.” Though his voice had authority, it was devoid of any tinge of harshness or anger. His wife continued to stand in the doorway with her arms crossed over her chest.
Miss Mahlangu looked at him with exaggerated disbelief. She took a cursory look at Mrs. Nhlaba before forcing out a little unhurried cough. As if she were pausing and pondering, she strolled in a wearisome-couldn’t-care-less attitude towards her handbag which rested on a small three-legged wooden circular table.
She picked it up and then made a leisurely turn. All that acting and dilly-dallying seemed like ages in the eyes and mind of Mrs. Nhlaba. In fact, her blood pressure rose. Her heart seemed to be on the verge of bursting. For a while she was inarticulate with rage. As the drama unfolded, she turned her body into some kind of blockade. She told herself that she would discipline Simo in a way she would not forget for the rest of her life. How could she have the nerve to cat-walk in her husband’s august office!
“Vithikazi! Vithikazi! Stop causing a scene here!” bellowed Mr. Nhlaba. He rose unsteadily from his comfortable rocking arm-chair. Like a concerned fireman trying to put out a raging fire, he raced towards the two ladies. They stood there glowering at each other like two world heavyweight boxers sizing up each other before a crucial match. He wedged himself in between them. Mrs. Nhlaba tried to get around him and attempted to land a scathing punch on the oval face of Miss Mahlangu. But her husband took hold of her arm, and pushed her away.
“So you are protecting your girl with oversized bums, eh?”
“So, this war is about my big backside? Shame on you jealous old woman.
Why don’t you get your little twin tennis balls surgically boosted? Surgeons can add some flesh!” Miss Mahlangu retorted.
“Shut up, big bitch with gigantic bums!” Vithikazi snapped.
“l thought Bible-carrying grandmamas don’t stoop so low as to use such vulgarities!”
“Sinothi l`II skin your idiotic lady of the night today!” Vithikazi tried pushing her husband out of her way, to no avail.
As Vithikazi was busy seething with anger—Miss Mahlangu sauntered away,for an early lunch break, putting the whole ordeal behind herself. For now.
Amatheketheke: bodily impurities.
Edladleni: a slang term for home or the village.
Ikhehla: an old man.
Isitshwala: a stiff dumpling made from corn or grain.
Maan: a bastardized word used to emphasis something.
Mkhonto: a spear.
Mngci: a way of swearing.
Macimbi: mopani worms (considered a delicacy in Zimbabwe and South Africa).
Ngeke bantu: No ways, people.
Nx!: an expression of disgust or disapproval.
Omakhwapheni: literally meaning “those who hide under the armpits”, these are side chicks or secret lovers.
Umvunsankunzi: literally meaning “that which wakes up the bull”, this refers to an aphrodisiac, usually a traditional herbal concoction.
Zwanamina: literally meaning “taste me”, these are man-stupefying concoctions.
Keith Burkholder has been published in Creative Juices, Sol Magazine, Trellis Magazine, Foliate Oak Literary Journal, New Delta Review, Poetry Quarterly, Scarlet Leaf Review, and Birmingham Arts Journal. He has a bachelor's degree in statistics with a minor in mathematics from SUNY at Buffalo (UB).
Her feelings are strong of other life in our solar system
Cora can feel extraterrestrial life on planet Earth. She has been getting these feelings for some time now.
She gets these urges where she feels life from other worlds in the solar system. She gets these urges at night before she goes to bed.
Does extraterrestrial life exist? This is a question most people want to know. However, Cora believes in this concept greatly.
In fact, a few nights ago, she spotted extraterrestrial life at park nearby where she lives. She spotted it in a large meadow.
She hid behind a tree to take notice of this phenomenon. She spotted life that looked like humans coming out of its spaceship.
The life that came out of the spaceship, stayed in the meadow for a short period of time. They were just analyzing the area in the park.
The park where Cora goes to often is large. The alien life took some time taking pictures of what they noticed here. They were able to take pictures at night with equipment that allows them to do this.
Cora stayed behind a large tree and took everything in before this life took off and went elsewhere in the solar system. She was amazed by the whole experience.
Cora has never told anyone about this. She still has a hard time understanding this herself, but it did occur.
Cora wonders if she will ever see this life again. She has had more experiences she felt before going to bed but has not been sure if they were true.
Extraterrestrial life is unique in so many ways. It has been spotted by some, but nothing has really come to fruition.
Cora feels he may come in contact again with this life. She feels he will see it and the same events may take place. As far as contact, meaning, she has seen it firsthand.
Cora has no real friends to tell this to. She likes to be alone and just explore life this way. This is a lot easier for her.
What will come of her future with regards to spotting extraterrestrial life? This is a question that is hard to answer.
She has no idea when or it will happen again. However, she will act on the urges she gets in the future. She has nothing to lose by doing this.
She is scared if the extraterrestrial life is hard to read. She doesn’t want to upset the life and possibly get killed in the process.
There is nothing more she can think of. She believes that anything is possible on planet Earth. This is the case throughout the entire solar system.
For now, Cora will just keep an open mind. She will do what she can alone and just experience all that she can this way.
Extraterrestrial is what it is. There are people who believe in it and others who don’t. Keep an open mind and just let life go its course. This is how Cora thinks, and it is good to pass this on to others. This is the solar system, and anything can happen. Take care, Cora, and go forward and keep your mind open as you can and in time you may spot this life again and see what comes of it the best way you know possible.
The Solar System Expanding Past Pluto
A shift in the Big Bang Theory now allows planets to exist beyond Pluto. The life that is beyond Pluto may exist because there is another sun to shine in the part of the universe.
This new domain or universe is amazing. There is a sun here that allows even planet in our present universe to feel real warmth.
Warmth was hard to come by for Pluto in our present solar system. It was so far away from the sun for so long.
This new solar system has nine planets like the contemporary one. However, there is a new sun in this new universe.
This new universe, again, allows Pluto to have warmer temperatures. It is now a planet where life would like to visit because of this phenomenon.
This phenomenon is amazing to know and understand. Keep an open mind and let the future be great in this fashion.
The new universe past Pluto is amazing to look at. It is a domain that is completely new and interesting in its setup. This is thanks to the Big Bang Theory.
The Big Bang Theory is amazing and will continue to evolve. This is the case here with this new universe past Pluto. For now, keep an open mind as time passes and a new evolution continues in the new solar system now.
Jayden Martin is a twenty-one-year-old Canadian writer who deals mostly in horror, suspense, surrealism, and drama. Working in literature, photography, and music, his artistic endeavors play off one another, lending themes to each of his works. He is currently working on a novel at his residence in New Liskeard, Ontario.
He sat inside the narrow stall, the walls closing in on him. The door hung on a slant and tended to sway at the bottom regardless of whether it was shut and locked. He loathed the desk to which he would inevitably return. Gerald had become immobile in his life – he was stuck in a rut. He stood carefully and straightened out his suit before lurching out of the washroom in a half daze. He returned to his cubicle through the sea of heads and maze-like walls, enduring the constant clacking of keys, indistinct whispers, heavy breathers, and the like. He melted in his seat and rolled over to his computer. The cubicle was bland and undecorated. Gerald had nothing: no family to speak of, no car, no pets…
Gerald powered on his monitor. The bleak, generic corporate logo filled the screen. The cubicle walls grew upward, imprisoning him, then began closing in. All outer noise – be it the clacking of keys, indistinct whisperings, or the constant low rumble beneath it all – progressed, growing in intensity, vibrance. The cubicle came in, incinerating all but two feet of his desk, fitting perfectly his slouched, depleted body, his chair, and his computer. Gerald scrolled through the files, searching for “the right one” when something caught his eye.
Although his mind was plagued with utter despair, the realization that this was it – life would always be a dull, stagnant routine, he couldn’t help but hesitate at the file of Deborah Kilner. Something about this name seemed so familiar. In a distant section of his mind, he knew Deborah Kilner.
He grabbed the machine by the sides and allowed his iris to leak into the keyboard. His eyes throbbed and reached out towards the screen, flowing through the air. His teeth, tongue and lips followed suit, and it wasn’t long before the tip of his nose and the skin of his cheeks and forehead sucked their way to the screen. As his elongated skull settled into place, his entire body died, falling limp to the desk.
Kilner's file was erratic, disorganized — it was like nothing Gerald had ever seen. Straggling bits of data floated freely in wide, abysmal depths of digital green. In far corners stood towers of peculiarly stacked, assorted sub-folders. Something was not right about this file. Gerald could feel it in the pit of his stomach. Something more than just the chaos of what should have been neatly alphabetized, linear stacks of folders, files, documents, and the like. Gerald, in his disembodied form, could feel a pulsating energy; something familiar, but almost alien to him. Obstacles, corrupted files, bits and bytes floating aimlessly through the Netscape.
Somewhere in the distance, another familiar peculiarity rang out in soft, off-pitch harmony. A nerve, estranged to him, began vibrating negative and he followed the sweet, sorrowful tune. Racing through the bleak green at a fiberoptic pace, Gerald felt his mind beginning to unravel. He began falling out of synchronization with The Motherboard, his head vibrating the cathode ray tube interface. Blood vessels burst in his serpentine eyes, his mouth, agape, collected the blood trickling down from his nostrils. Gerald realized, finally, that the melancholy music was that of a piano. He was ripped from the interface, thrown back in his chair as his box expanded back into its natural form, now a mundane cubicle in the run-down office building of the Welles Corporation. He slumped forward in his chair, blood running onto his desk and the floor, heaving, coughing, spitting. He grabbed a handful of tissues to wipe his face and hands, wondering who Deborah Kilner was, why he was so drawn to this file. He wiped the tears from his eyes and averted his foggy gaze to his watch — 4:52. Almost time to punch out and go home. One more trip to the washroom would end the day.
The walk home was excruciatingly long. No one seemed to mind his bloodstained shirt and tie, nor his swollen, sunken eyes. No one paid any mind to the broken man in business attire. Gerald trudged on through the barren streets, each step pulling him deeper into the ground, churning up bits of sidewalk. His mind was racing, head swimming. body aching. Blisters formed and erupted on the soles of his feet.
Gerald arrived at his apartment block and knew his vicious journey wasn't over — why not get a car? use public transit? get a new job? a new home? Those thoughts were destructive, and he knew to avoid them — he just didn't know how. The elevator was out of service, it had been for going on three months now. The eight flights of stairs were unforgiving. A man alone with his thoughts in the echo-chamber of dismay that was this run-down, disturbed stairwell was dangerous. The sorrowful, off-pitch piano tune filled his head, reverberating throughout the enormity of the stairwell, digging into his brain. The eight flights would drag on for eons.
Sitting in his tattered easy chair brought Gerald some peace of mind after the chaos of the day. He sat back, loosened his tie and threw it across the room. He lay his heavy, throbbing head back against the hardened headrest and let out a wincing sigh. The dark room pulsated and droned out into oblivion as he drifted off.
A sea of deep greens — exploding dull hues. An electronic hum filled the empty, digital chasm. Spinning through the Netscape, Gerald was uneasy. Something was wrong: the ominous droning buzz, the wide empty field of green, the complete and utter lack of files, documents, data of any kind. A figure appeared off in the distance, dark and unformed. This was all too real for the Netscape — the interface never provided such realism, such limitless sensation. The figure wandered rightward through the big, green nothing, twirling and bouncing, flowing like water. It swirled and settled, lowering into position behind a large, undefined apparatus.
Gerald lurched toward the figure, setting course and blowing through the Netscape like a bullet from a gun. A single note rang out at a mind-bending volume, destroying all sense of direction, deflating his being. As he spiraled out of control, the long, hard note rang out and that soft, swelling tune permeated his brain, forever to be in the back of his mind. The green began to shed away like old wallpaper, tattered remnants of green being engulfed by black.
The figure grew in both size and clarity, bobbing and swaying to the rhythm. Appendages danced along the apparatus as Gerald felt the skin of his face tear against his motion. He shot through the remnants of the Netscape, accelerating at an incomprehensible rate, knowing that time was limited. As he neared the figure, it erected itself and moved away from the apparatus — from which the sound carried on — and resumed its twisting, leaping routine.
Screaming, rolling forward at supersonic speed, Gerald broke through the Netscape and plummeted into his old easy chair, scraping back against the floor. The chair met some unknown obstacle and fell onto its back, tumbling Gerald onto the short hallway floor. Gerald worked himself to his hands and knees, tears of blood falling between the floorboards. He stood up and wiped his face, smearing bright crimson down his cheeks. He stood the chair back upright and ran his fingers along the deep grooves in the floor. If those were real, so must have been the dream.
Gerald made his way to the window and drew the curtain back. Blinding light tore through his retina through which he saw himself sitting at an old upright piano, laughing and smiling, looking back to the owner of the hand on his shoulder — the owner of the sweet, soft voice that caressed his inner ear. He had slept through the night. What time was it? He checked his watch — 9:04. He was already late.
Gerald staggered off to his bedroom and pulled a fresh shirt and pair of slacks from his closet, tossing the ones he was wearing into a small pile of dirty clothes on the floor. He dressed himself and made his way to the bathroom where he washed the dried blood from his face and hands.
Arriving at the office, Gerald was met with curious stares. He clocked in and poured himself a cup of coffee with a shaking hand. Pressing his eyes with his thumb and forefinger, he gulped back half of the cup, dumping what was left in the break room sink. He went into the washroom to give himself another look over before appearing in front of his peers. His condition had not improved since the previous afternoon. His sunken, bloodshot eyes; pale, sagging cheeks — Gerald looked like a man fresh off a three-day bender. He splashed his face with cold water and straightened out his shirt — that's about as good as it gets.
The uncomfortable gazes seared into his skin, the chatter a swelling, diving cacophony fit for an insane asylum, the clatter of keyboards fell silent. He made it to his desk, tired and beaten, and rubbed his eyes once more before powering on the monitor. The buzz of the ominously toned fluorescent lights burrowed into his skull as his cubicle shot up and inward towards the heavens, closing in on him, incinerating all but that which was absolutely necessary for production. As the bleak corporate logo filled the screen, he dismantled his skull, leaving an elongated sloppy mess; his irises drained out onto the keyboard as he slithered his way into the interface. His dry, cracked lips parted and split as his chalky tongue, so unfamiliar to him, squeezed through his teeth and inched forward. The interface embraced him, awaiting his arrival.
Files flashed in front of his eyes, subliminally pulling focus. Each file name seared into his brain. After a while they all seemed to blend together until the file of Deborah Kilner appeared. He tried to ignore it and kept racing through the system, but the name appeared once more. It appeared several times in somewhat distant succession, closing into a close repetition until all files were that of Deborah Kilner. There was no escape. He flew through the files, searching fruitlessly for at least one name that was not that of Deborah Kilner, but was sucked in, regardless of how he resisted.
Gerald drifted aimlessly through the broken sea of green, that horrible tune reverberating throughout the deep, empty chasm. Free floating, a cosmonaut lost in space, he allowed a gravitational force to pull him along to some undefined destination. He spun and flipped through the endless void, hoping to seem indifferent to whatever entity was running the show. As he turned over, unsure what direction he was facing, Gerald caught a glimpse of the phantom and her large apparatus. He was being dragged back toward her. He would not resist – he could not resist. The tune plucked at every nerve, worming its way into his consciousness as he fell into the void.
The situation was much deeper, much more elaborate than Gerald knew. Had he known what was to come, he would have blown himself out of the interface, never to return. But with his innocent ignorance intact, he carried on. Still flowing down the river, he closed in breaking the directional disorientation. As he stared into the bland green-black horizon, Gerald zeroed in on the figure. Aromas, distantly familiar to him, filled the cybernetic air, drawing him in, relaxing him, nearly easing him into a deep unconsciousness. Home cooked meals — something that had nearly left his memory completely. He hadn't eaten a proper meal in what seemed like years. He had lost all recollection of recipes, skills to use in the kitchen. He had lived off bread and butter, ramen noodles, frozen pizza, and cheap Chinese takeout for as long as he could remember. He knew no other way.
"Gerald," a soft effeminate voice called off in the distance. "Gerald, where are you? Are you coming?"
The tune rose and fell, teasing a crescendo that never came. The figure rocked and swayed behind the apparatus as Gerald grew near and the music swelled. As he arrived behind the hazy figure, her hands fell on sour notes that rang out. She turned her head, tears rolling down her foggy face. "Why?" She asked, her voice raw and broken, "Why would you do this to us?"
"What—" Gerald started, hesitantly, "What do you mean?"
Her obscured face fell to the grips of decay and decomposition. Motionless and beautiful, she fell away to earth and dust. A disembodied scream echoed through the Netscape, crisp and bold. Gerald rocketed forward into her gaping mouth, wide as an overpass tunnel, as her tongue rotted and followed him down her concrete throat. His cubicle exploded out as he shot out of his chair, to the floor, writhing and screaming. Stationery flew clear across the room, an upward blast left it floating down, passing closely by his contorted, bloody head as it snapped back into form. He writhed and twisted on the floor, gasping and bleeding, as his co-workers went on about their day.
Gerald grabbed his desk and pulled himself to his feet, grimacing, and hunched over his desk coughing out the blood that found its way to his lungs. As though it were routine now, he grabbed a handful of tissues and checked the time, wiping the blood from his face. It was 3:06. The days were growing longer, becoming more difficult as he isolated himself — not that he had a large social circle to begin with. Gerald sat back in his chair and dug his thumb and forefinger into his eyes. He took a breath and stared at the mass of papers that covered the cubicle. He turned to the calendar that hung loosely on the wall, trying to remember where exactly he was in time.
"Gerald?" A stern voice called from behind. He turned to the doorway to see what whoever was there wanted. His direct superior, whose name eluded him, was in the doorway to his cubicle. "Can I see you in my office?"
"Certainly," Gerald started, his eyes dancing about the papers, "Could you give me a moment to get this all sorted out?"
"Never mind that. Just come with me, please."
They sat on their respective sides of the desk, on top of which sat a plaque bearing a gilded inscription reading "Mr. Hannigan" with a smaller inscription below it which read “Branch Manager”.
"Gerry," Hannigan started, carefully, "I know you've been going through some hard times for the past few months, and quite frankly, I'm beginning to worry about you — we all are."
"I appreciate the concern, Mr. Hannigan —"
He chuckled, humorlessly, "You know you can call me Scott."
"Well, I appreciate the concern, Scott, but, honestly, I'm fine."
"Have you taken a look at yourself, lately?" Hannigan bellowed. He leaned in towards Gerald and nearly whispered, "You may be something, but whatever it is, it's not fine." He sighed, "Your behavior has been erratic lately. Christ, Gerry, you were nearly an hour late today. You haven't been a minute late for the entire time you've been with us."
"Am I to be reprimanded?" Gerald was becoming anxious, fidgeting and twitching.
"No." Hannigan put his head in his hand and began to fidget with a pen. "No, you won't be reprimanded. You're being given a warning, and I'd like to ask you if you would accept two weeks of paid leave."
"I can't do that, Scott," Gerald huffed, "I've got a lot of work to do." Gerald stood up,
"May I be excused, now?"
"Sure," Hannigan sighed, shaking his head, "I'll see you around." He waved his hand to the door.
Walking through the field of cubicles, Gerald realized the expressions behind the glances of his co-workers: concern, sorrow, fear, disgust. Something was happening. He was unsure of what but was determined to decipher the mystery.
Gerald sat at his desk fidgeting, fearful of the interface, not wanting to face what was inside. His eyes shifted from the monitor, to his pen, to the paper laden floor. He glanced at his watch — 3:47.
Gerald rhythmically tapped his fingertips on his desk in contemplation. After a few moments he gave in and turned to his computer terminal. He powered on the monitor and sat, staring at it blankly before accessing the database. He worked his skull into a gelatinous, serpentine mass and locked into the interface, gritting his displaced teeth. His cubicle transformed back into its two by two cell, and his body fell to the desk.
He found himself in a never-ending corridor, following the horrible sound of that soft, off-pitch tune. "Gerry?" a voice called out, "Gerald!" He snapped forward to a room at the end of the corridor and found himself — at least a version of himself — sitting at the source of the tune, fingers crawling on keys, limbs dancing and flailing about. The tune fell dead on sour notes as he watched himself stand up, rubbing his flushed face in frustration. He watched himself walk out of the room, straight through him and down the long dark corridor until he disappeared into the black.
Gerald disengaged from the interface, leaving the Netscape with more ease than he had in quite some time. The greens, blacks, flashing multi-colour lights all faded away as he pulled his skull back into its natural shape and his cubicle reformed to its usual mundane, undecorated, grey box. He turned in his seat, troubled by the experience, and looked to the papers which carpeted the floor. He decided that the collection and reorganization of this dated data could wait until a more fitting time. He walked back over to Hannigan's office and knocked at the ajar door.
"Come," Scott's voice bellowed.
Gerald opened the door, "Hey, Scott—"
"Oh, Gerry. How're you doing? Come on in."
"Actually, I was wondering if I could just head home now. I don't mean to be a hassle, I'm just—"
Scott looked up at him, the wan smile vanished from his face now wrought with concern, "By all means. Go ahead."
"Thanks," Gerald said, weakly.
"Will we be seeing you Monday?"
"Yeah. I'll be in at nine. Have a good night Scott."
"You, too, Gerry."
Gerald walked through the sea of heads in the office and likewise on the street. It was a long, hard walk. He was overcome with paranoia — a nagging thought that he was being watched – but his suit had only been lightly stained today, so it was unlikely that passers by had even taken notice. The eight flights seemed to drag on longer than ever. He got into his apartment and immediately stripped and headed to the bathroom. He hadn't showered in what seemed like a week. Maybe that would make him feel human again. He stood in his small shower stall, cool water rushing over his face, contemplating recent events — the only ones, it seemed, that he could remember. Everything leading up to this point seemed garbled, like a corrupted file floating throughout the Netscape.
The cool water did what it could to fend off the thoughts, the perceived realities in which Gerald was living, but such a feat seemed near fruitless. As it poured over his puffy flesh, stinging and soothing, he tried hard not to reflect on the events of the day. The song had lost the soothing quality it surely once had. It now hung in the air like an unsettling, pungent odor, clinging to everything it touched and trailing along behind. The keys would invade your ears like mice behind a wall, scratching and pulling at nerves. He could stave off the thoughts behind the song, but one could only guess for how long.
Gerald stepped out of the shower, pulling a towel around his bare, bruised body. The tune seemed hollow, no longer existing within his skull. Sound spilled in through the open bathroom door. He looked in the mirror and saw the poor, depleted face behind it — pallid, sagging cheeks; three-day stubble scrawled across his face; sunken, black eyes, buried deep within his skull; a line of yellow-black fangs hanging from his mouth. He knew that he was looking into the face of a sick man, a man with nothing left to lose. He looked at the decimated face that stood inches from his own and he knew that he didn't stand a chance.
He turned away from the man in the mirror and refocused his attention to the piano. Never had it sounded so fluid, so true. He followed the sound out the bathroom door to the short, darkened hall, but when he closed the door behind him, he found himself in a new land. He shook his head and rubbed his eyes to no effect. He was in a home that felt vaguely familiar. The tune carried on as he eased down the hall. He looked through the archway to the right and saw himself sitting at an old upright piano in a quaint dining room. Behind him stood a woman with her hands on his shoulders, swaying gently to the music. She leaned forward as his hands ran across the keys and played high, harmonizing, single notes, allowing them to ring out. They played, swaying, rocking, and his hands fell on a cacophonous combination of keys. An immaculate silence encapsulated the room.
"Okay, I've had my fill," he said with a sigh, standing upright, and continued as he worked his way around the bench, "You can give it a whirl." He smiled and kissed the woman on the forehead. She promptly sat and began working the pedals. As her fingers began to relax on the keys, the scene came back to life.
Gerald walked behind her, grabbing a tumbler from the cupboard, and made his way to the liquor cabinet. He poured himself a half glass of bourbon and sat at the table, facing the window. The cool evening breeze wafted in through the window as the psychedelic skies washed away at a slow crawl.
Gerald could tell by the look on the apparitions' faces that this tune, to them, was one of reassurance — one that stated plainly for them that they had already climbed the mountain; they were through the thick of it. As each note bore into him like bloat fly larva, it built them up, shielding them from any misfortune.
The scene was picture perfect. Gerald felt as though he were viewing his own life through a television screen. The facade ended when her hands fell on sour notes. Gerald watched his face grow weary as the woman tried fruitlessly to find the right keys, but the harder she tried, the more difficult the song seemed to become. His other self put his head in his hands and slumped over the table, the woman immediately appearing at his side. She laid her hand on his shoulder, the vaguely reminiscent comfort telepathically transferring between versions of himself.
The floor gave way beneath his feet and rocked him back and forth until he sank slowly through the vacuum, falling to reality. He stood alone in his dreary kitchenette and fell back toward the wall. He slumped to the floor, tucked his knees to his chest. And sat there in the cold, dark corner waiting for an end.
Monday morning came. The sea of talking heads, clattering keys and vacant stares seemed no different than any other day. Scott had reverted to Mr. Hannigan. It seemed the Friday debacle of bloody flailing limbs and soaring reams of paper had been long forgotten.
Gerald worked his way into his cubicle, which had remained untouched. The few remaining physical files lay strewn about amongst the bloody tissues; dried blood spatter on his keyboard and monitor. He powered on the monitor, the insidious corporate logo filling the screen and infiltrating his conciseness.
Behind a large drop of blood, Gerald noticed a stray icon. Generally, there would only be one icon on a company computer, being the corporate database, but far off in the bottom right corner of the screen stood in solitude a single shortcut named "Kilner's File".
He powered down his monitor, turned to the entrance of his cubicle and let out a deep sigh as he stared down at the bloodied files coating the floor. Gerald's mind raced incoherently as he slid off his chair and knelt to pick up and organize the files. There was no real need for these old files anymore — most of these cases had long been closed. He wondered why they hadn't been digitally archived, but he supposed it may have been a long-forgotten responsibility of his from when the company had replaced its hardcopy case organization system. He wondered if he had created the shortcut to Kilner's file when he had last trekked through the Netscape. The memory was hazy, distorted by time and circumstance.
He slouched over the mass of papers, skimming pages, organizing them on the floor by recurring codes, numbers and names. He compiled what he believed to be the entire case file of Edward Cambridge and the corresponding file folder. Turning to his desk to put the files away in the nook which sat above his computer, Gerald watched the monitor hum in and out of consciousness. He stood to place the file in its designated nook and shook the computer mouse. The monitor fully powered on as he expected, so he turned it back off.
The remaining files lay on the floor, semi-organized, in several sporadic piles. Gerald's stared down at them and rubbed his head. The day would surely drag out for what would seem an eternity. As he dropped back to his knees, the room fell away to linear deep greens based in black — floating rubble, disheveled files, fallen towers, burnt out multicolour lights. His knees hit the solid green floor and he was launched forward to his hands, suddenly faint, fatigued.
Stricken with fear, Gerald nearly collapsed, his heart raced as perspiration began to roll down his face. Hyperventilating, he yanked at his tie to loosen it. He was becoming claustrophobic in the vast endless Netscape. He had never felt it with his physical vessel. He clenched his eyelids, taking deep, meditative breaths.
He opened his eyes as footfalls approached him. He stared at the ground, shaking, until a shadow befell him. A washed out, silhouetted figure walked to him. Bare feet planted themselves within his sightlines, and he raised his head to see long, smooth, familiar, legs clad in well kempt, side-split, red dress. He tried to catch a glimpse of the person who stood before him but was blinded by the light which wrapped around the figure.
He looked back to the ground and wiped his face
"Gerald?" Mr. Hannigan called. He stood in the entrance to the cubicle, looming over Gerald's frail, crumbling body. "Are you doing alright? Feeling any better after the weekend?"
Gerald looked up. Hannigan's face was riddled with concern, pity, disgust. He grabbed the desk and pulled himself to his feet. "Yes, sir. I feel quite fine, thank you. I'm glad to be back."
"Good. That's good," Mr. Hannigan breathed sharply, "I only ask because you seemed a little rushed on your way in — and, well, you seem rather flushed. Are you—"
"Oh, no worries, Mr. Hannigan," Gerald fixed his tie, digging for enough pep to make himself seem at least somewhat believable, "I was just replacing the files that fell last week. I, uh, got kind of hot."
Hannigan's expression turned to blank confusion, "Okay, good. Glad to have you back. Carry on."
"Thank you, sir."
Hannigan turned on his heel and walked back toward his office. Gerald slumped back into his chair, let out a sigh and rubbed his eyes.
"Gerald?" He heard, deep in the back of his skull — a surreal, faded echo. "Gerald? What happened to us?"
"Stop," Gerald said shortly, not lifting his head from his hand, "Stop this." He looked at the monitor, the standby light slowly fading in and out.
"Gerald, we could have had anything."
"I said stop it." His short breathing pleas became grunting, growling demands. Her voice echoed in and out, half phrases breaking and falling through the tumult of a dozen others, swelling into the forefront of his consciousness, filling his head and beating against his skull. It took everything in Gerald's power to keep him from screaming out in pain and frustration.
His world began to fall around him. The skies fell from the windows as the glass exploded into the office lacerating the unwitting sea of heads. The walls and ceiling cracked, bleeding a deep green sludge. Bits of paneling and insulation rained down, mingling with the shards of glass and sludge as the cubicle walls shattered, falling to the floor.
"We could have had it all, Gerald," the voice carried on, "We could have been happy."
"No," he cried, "Don't do this to me."
Rubble continued to rain from the vast, bleak nothing above once the ceiling had dissipated completely. Gerald stood in the middle of what was once his cubicle, the sludge pooling up around his ankles disappearing the carpeted floors. The walls fell in and sunk into the unknown depths of the sludge. He looked around and saw none of the strangers that he called coworkers. Their interfaces, computers, desks, filling cabinets, family photos, campy calendars, tacky motivational posters — everything —had succumbed to the sludge. Hannigan's small enclosed office was nowhere to be found.
Gerald was in a vast black void, left to wade through the green muck with nothing in sight but his interface. He was certain that if he were to run as hard as he could in any direction, all that he would find would be endless muck and screaming pleas from this Deborah Kilner.
Her cacophony faded to nothing and Gerald felt her hand caress his shoulder. This was no longer a comforting feeling. It was cold, heartless — a sure signal for the end of days. She leaned forward, parted her lips and whispered in his ear, "I need you, Gerry. I need you to come and find me – save me," and her translucent green figure whipped over his shoulder, compressing to no more than a thin stream, and shot into the interface. She pleaded, "Help me."
Gerald looked from side to side. He looked around to ensure that what he was seeing — what he was feeling — was real. Although he wasn't satisfied with the results, he knew that he had to take it for what it was to possibly put an end to his suffering. Otherwise he could endure the endless swamp in which he would undoubtedly reside for the rest of his days.
He ran a finger around his monitor and powered it on. There stood a lone icon in the center of the screen, boldly labeled “Kilner's File”. Gerald opened the file and the interface filled with what seemed to be a linear green-black mould of his face, so he reared his head and shot it forward with all the force he could muster.
Gerald tumbled through the apocalyptic Netscape, flying past crumpled towers of information, free-floating debris. He shot in a straight line towards an absolutely radiant figure. Second by second, the figure grew as it twirled and bounced about its small circle. He waited for the digital embrace of the woman who he had spent weeks trying to understand —trying to revive from the cold depths the Netscape. The soft piano tune played, but there was no fear or apprehension. It gave Gerald a warm nostalgic sensation. A sense of home. He knew that he was lucky to be there. He was sure, now that this was not the end of days, but the end of suffering.
Hannigan rushed out into the center of the office as soon as he heard the scene of destruction. Gerald was towering over his cubicle, red in the face, screaming frantically, throwing the hardcopy files about, smashing his interface to the floor.
"Fine!" He bellowed, "It was me! I did it! It was my fault! Just make it stop!" Tears were streaming down his face. "Just let me be! You've proved your point!"
Hannigan did all that he could to get Gerald's attention, but all attempts were fruitless. He could see nothing but the image of his wife lying mangled in a pool of glass and blood as the rain beat down on her corpse.
Still in the front of his mind he heard only that sweet piano tune.
They were at the dance hall, swaying to the sweet sounds of Andre LaCotte's third piano score. He and Deborah had decided two months — or four date nights — earlier that they would try to decipher his angelic performance and recreate it on their old beat up upright piano.
Andre had been playing at Bowerman's Lounge two nights of the week for nearly a year by now. When he had first played his newest composition, some three and a half months prior, Deborah and Gerald began to regard it as his Magnum Opus. A tune that rang out through the large dance hall and reverberated beautifully throughout the vast acoustic perfection.
"We almost have it now, don't we dear?" Gerald said softly into Deborah's ear.
"We do," she smiled. "It's about here that we need to work on." The tune swelled to a crescendo.
"Why don't we just bring in a recorder next time?" He laughed, "Maybe that'll be what it takes to get the peak."
It really was too bad that they couldn't bring a recording device as they were banned from the hall. It's difficult to recreate such a delicate piece of art by memory, but they had done it well up to now.
These regular dates had been Gerald’s idea to “rekindle the old flame” – as it were. Their marriage had taken its share of stress over the course of the past ten years or so and Deborah thought it was time for a change of pace. Gerald decided that fronting the bill on an expensive dinner on a biweekly basis might repair some of the damage they had taken – most of which was by his own fault. His idea had done better than he expected, giving their love for one another a new sense of vitality.
Gerald was well lubricated by this point. He had three drinks with dinner and two or three more since they stepped away from their table. Deborah had shared a bottle of Cabernet with him, drinking most of it herself, so by that time their cheeks were flushed, and the casual sway of their tightly pressed bodies had turned to more of a stagger.
They gave a generous applause when LaCotte finished his number and returned to their table for a quick dessert. New York cheesecake, water for Deborah and a black coffee for Gerald.
Around 9:30 the night came to a close when the waiter brought them the bill with a few mints. Gerald thanked him, checked the bill — a staggering two hundred fifty dollars, not unusual for them — and left the cash on the table with a fifty-dollar tip.
Gerald thanked the maître d’ as they walked past, for holding their standing reservation, as he did every other Friday night. He grabbed their jackets from the coat check and helped Deborah with hers. He held his own over their heads as they splashed their way across the parking lot, and opened the passenger side door, closing it when Deborah was securely seated.
Gerald got into the car and turned it on. They sat in the parking lot for a few minutes, allowing the cab to warm up, as a curtain of rain fell over the windows. It had been a long winter and the rain was a pleasant change of pace.
"I had fun tonight, Gerry," Deborah cooed, and they got underway. Gerald turned on the radio to his favorite jazz channel and it played a constant stream of classic hits.
Being so early in the year, ten o'clock looked like midnight. In the brief moments where the wipers cleared a full view, the road looked like black glass. Headlights and traffic lights shone and gleamed through the downpour, reflecting sharply. Gerald looked at the road as a dazzling laser light show like the ones he had seen as a teenager.
"I had a wonderful time," Deborah repeated a few minutes into their drive.
"I did, too, darling." He reached for her hand, brought it to his face and kissed it.
Gerald switched the station when New York, New York came on — the one Sinatra song he couldn't stomach. It landed on an easy listening channel, mostly big band instrumentals.
"The wine was fantastic," Deborah smiled. "How much was it."
Gerald laughed, "You don't want to know, honey. But you can never go wrong with a Californian Cabernet."
They listened to the music in silence for a moment as they rolled down the main drag. Gerald grew weary and bore his thumb and forefinger into his eyes and tossed a mint in his mouth before taking Deborah's hand again. She took her other hand and caressed the side of Gerald's face. "I love you, darling."
"I love you, too, Deborah." They leaned into one another and kissed. Sweet hints of cheesecake and wine. He looked into her deep green eyes, smiled, and sighed in disbelief. "We ought to —"
Two bright lights closed in behind Deborah's head.
“Gerry?” He must have grimaced or widened his eyes.
Gerald slammed on the accelerator, trying to swerve.
The transport's horn blared, and its tires shrieked against the asphalt as it locked on its breaks. They were struck behind the door — metal ground against metal. The front fender whined against the pavement as the car was sent into the air, churning, twisting, spinning.
The hood crumpled as the car briefly stood on its nose, and Deborah's face was sent toward the dash. Strobing multicolor lights invaded the cab as the frame twisted and bent. Over and over, and round and round. Short glimpses of the blackened world around them. Glass flew about the cab as they tumbled across the intersection and windows continued to shatter one by one.
More screeching tires and grinding metal filled the air as vehicles collided with Gerald's Lincoln and the Mack that was still attempting to come full stop. The Lincoln spiraled, like a football, through the air, and came down hard on the front right fender, rolling onto its roof.
Deborah flew through her window, shattering it with the sheer force with which she hit it, and skidded and rolled across the pavement.
Gerald regained consciousness and swiftly scanned the cab. All the windows had exploded, and the dash and roof were coated in blood spatter. Gerald rubbed his face and the ringing in his ears fell silent to the screams around him, the rain beating on the pavement, the glass tinkling against the roof of the car and the road beneath. He had completely come to now and was swept with panic. "Deborah," he cried. He fell to the roof as he released his seatbelt and twisted until he could crawl out of a window. "Deborah!" The smell of gasoline filled the air. He worked himself to his feet and staggered a few steps looking at his surroundings then fell back to the pavement. There was a Ford Focus, the entire driver's side completely obliterated.
People were running from their cars to help the passengers of the Focus and the Mack. Two or three had pulled out their cellphones making calls, and one was stooping in the middle of the intersection, screaming for an ambulance.
Gerald got back onto his feet and a passerby grabbed him by the arm. "Are you alright?" The man shouted. "We have to get you out of here.”
"Deborah," Gerald breathed. Blood and tears trickled down his face, nearly unnoticeable through the constant stream of rain. "Where's my wife?" He began to raise his voice, "Where's my wife?" He staggered toward the man who was crouched in the middle of the intersection. The man at his side decided there was no use in fighting him and began to help him over.
Deborah's body lay twisted and mangled, staring up at the sky, blood and rain pouring down her face. Shards of glass has shredded through her arm and face. Her right eye was filling with blood – gruesomely accentuating the depths and flecks of green. Gerald crumpled down beside her body as she drew her last agonizing, gasping breaths.
Gerald wept until three police cars and four ambulances pulled up to the scene.
Gerald's trial went through with a unanimous guilty verdict for one count of driving under the influence of alcohol, one count of reckless endangerment, and three counts of vehicular manslaughter. He would have served two life sentences in a maximum-security prison, but he was found to be in a catatonic state at the scene of the accident upon medical examination. He served his sentence in a minimum-security mental facility, from where he would be transferred to a prison if and when his condition was to improve.
It never did.
Presently, Gerald sits in his wheelchair, being spoon fed nutritional supplements by his attendee in the cafeteria of Armstrong Memorial Mental Institution. He hasn't uttered a word in six months, at least. His communication has devolved to grunts and growls of displeasure. But not of his surroundings.
It seems he'll live out the rest of his life in the cyclical hell of the Netscape.
KJ Holliday has been actively self-publishing stories for over a decade. During that time, she's gathered a modest following that she i nteracts with on her website, blog, and Instagram. She recently signed contracts with Inkspell Publishing, and has two books scheduled to be released in early 2021.
FIVE YEARS OLD
“It’s easy. See, I’ll show you. You take your laces like this, and you loop it like that…”
Anita O’Connell was walking down the cramped hallway of her home, a basket of dirty laundry on her hip, and a profound uncertainty about whether she’d be able to wash the mountain of her family’s laundry by the end of the day. A family of four, especially a family with two little girls, seemed to produce an endless supply of dirty clothes, sometimes to the point where it seemed impossible to keep up with it all. Still, even with the monumental list of housework that needed to be done, she found curiosity welling up inside of her as she overheard her youngest daughter emphatically narrating how to tie a pair of shoes.
She peeked around the corner of her daughter’s room, curiosity spiking as she listened to the five-year old’s angelic voice. The tiny girl sat in the middle of her bedroom floor, surrounded by a semi-circle of dolls and stuffed animals. Sun peeked through the open window, casting filtered rays across where her daughter sat. Dust danced through the beams in squiggling wisps. The scene was picturesque, ideal, set as though someone had meticulously crafted it just for her. The only thing that caused concern was that where someone should have sat, patiently watching as Katie explained how to tie the laces of her shoe, there was only emptiness.
The tinkling bells of Katie’s voice continued as she spoke to the room around her. “It kind of looks like a bunny. See?” the little girl quipped, pushing her hands holding the laces out for inspection.
Anita let her eyes bounce to each of the corners of the room. She and her husband Mike had owned the Riddle Register, their small town’s local newspaper, for nearly a decade, and by that time, she was well accustomed to following her instincts. To improve the quality of the paper, they had both taken investigative training. That training, coupled with the protectiveness she felt for her daughters, caused her to push her head farther into the room, eyes scanning from corner to corner.
There was nothing out of the ordinary. The closet door was wide open, forgotten. From where she stood, she had a clear view into each of the hidden places in her daughter’s room. Her older daughter Polly was at a friend’s birthday party. There weren’t many children in the neighborhood Katie could have invited over, and with that in mind, she could safely say that she was correct in her initial assessment that Katie was alone. There was no one else in the room. No one her daughter could be talking to except the mess of toys and the warmth from the sun.
Once her inspection was done, calm washed over Anita. She adjusted the awkward weight balanced on her hip and focused back in on her daughter’s blonde curls. “Honey, who are you talking to?”
Katie’s head turned, her large green eyes jumping to her mother in surprise. Her small hands stalled over the faded white canvas of her sneakers. “My friend, Mommy,” she answered simply before turning her attention back to the task at hand and continued to narrate the correct way to tie a shoe.
A little laughed puffed from her lips. She shook her head and continued her path towards the laundry room. She had just enough time to start a load of laundry before Mike got home. Which meant she needed to start dinner. With that in mind, she left the thoughts of her daughter behind her. Content to let her enjoy the whimsy of her youth.
“I think Katie has a new friend,” Anita said later that evening as she sat across the dinner table from her husband. He had gotten home later than usual that night, and she had long since put Katie and Polly to bed. The girls had protested when Anita sternly instructed them to brush their teeth and change into their pajamas; but they were five and seven, they complained about everything from what they wore to the lack of chocolate in their regular milk.
Michael wasn’t fazed by his wife’s statement. His hand didn’t falter as it sawed his steak into pieces. “Oh yeah?” he murmured through the mouth full of food.
Anita wrinkled her nose at her husband’s lack of manners, but she didn’t say anything. Instead, she laced her fingers together on the table top. She had eaten with the girls earlier that evening, so the place in front of her was markedly empty. She didn’t need to sit and watch her husband eat, but he’d been so busy lately working late hours, following up leads on a string of burglaries that she thought it was important to take the time to share about their day when they had the chance.
“One of the neighbor kids?” Mike continued, picking up his beer bottle. The red label with white lilting script mocked her as he took a drugging swig. It wasn’t his first of the night, and it certainly wouldn’t be his last before he stumbled upstairs and fell into the pillows. When she didn’t reply, he finally stopped long enough to give her a questioning glance.
“An imaginary one,” she clarified with a breezy drawl.
A little laugh tumbled from his lips as he speared a forkful of potatoes and shoveled it into his mouth. “Yeah? What’s her name then?”
“She calls him JJ.”
SIX YEARS OLD
They were screaming again.
Their voices echoed off the walls of the house, reverberating through the wood, through the cloth, through the stone. It ricocheted into the deepest, darkest, forgotten corners where no one could hide from them. Outside, the shrill voices were muffled by the insulation, masking the inner turmoil mounting inside of the pristinely landscaped colonial home, but there was no escaping it within its four walls. Katie’s mother’s voice was so piercing when she yelled it could perforate through skin - straight to the bone. It was all they did anymore: yelled, fought, screamed. He was half convinced they didn’t really know what they were fighting about anymore. They fought simply to fight. They fought so they could revel in projecting their own misery onto each other with no remorse for who else it might affect.
Jason (JJ) Turner sat crossed-legged on the edge of Katie’s bed. A heavy patchwork quilt was wrapped around her tiny shoulders, her blonde hair peeked out from the folds of the blanket, and her ruddy face was cut with tears. He could barely see the ears of her favorite teddy bear clasped tightly in her arms. It was the white one. The one with the bell in its tail. The one she had got as a Christmas gift from her grandparents when she was four. The one she always grabbed when she was upset. He hated it when Katie cried. He hated that her parents couldn’t think about their two daughters enough to hide their fights.
The night was warm. Summer was still in full swing, and the heat that had risen throughout the day still lingered on the second floor. Despite the palpable warmth, Katie pulled the blanket tighter around herself as she attempted to hold herself together. They’d been put to bed with a quick kiss and a ‘goodnight’ by Anita nearly half an hour earlier, but Jason knew that she wouldn’t be sleeping anytime soon. He didn’t blame her. Who could sleep with all of that yelling?
Jason watched her, watched as the tears spilled over her eyelashes and onto her pale cheeks. Every time the fight would reach an elevated pitch and their voices would swell, she would flinch as though it was a physical blow. He knew Katie loved her parents. She wanted them to be happy. She wanted all of them to be happy. Together. That was all. Was that too much to ask?
“It’s okay, Katie. They’ll stop soon,” Jason reassured her as he adjusted his legs so that one hung over the side. It didn’t reach the ground. At six, he wasn’t tall enough, yet he found himself pointing his toe to try and reach the extra few inches to the floorboards. He couldn’t.
She didn’t answer him, simply let out a miserable sniffle and laid her cheek against the top of her bear’s head. He’d do anything to take her away from here, from them. Katie didn’t deserve this. She didn’t deserve to have her heart broken time and time again. She pushed a fistful of hair out of her eyes as she looked at him, trying, and failing, to give him a watery smile.
The screaming grew louder. “WELL, MAYBE WE WEREN’T MEANT TO BE TOGETHER, MIKE!”
The sobs of her mother were punctuated by the unmistakable sound of shattering glass.
She buried her face into white fur, tears coming faster as her body began to rock back and forth. Jason moved forward, sinking onto his knees, his hands inches away from where her legs were crossed.
“It’ll be okay, Katie,” he promised her. “Someday, all of this is going to be over. Someday, we’re going to go somewhere that they can’t get us.”
Her small voice whispered into the night, unheard by all except the crickets chirping incredulously outside her window and him. A sad melody mixed with cracking tears. “You promise?”
SEVEN YEARS OLD
The wind whispered lightly through the trees. Birds chorused sweetly amongst the branches, composing a medley that would forever play in his mind. The sickeningly sweet smell of sap hung in the air as he ran as fast as he possibly could, chasing the blonde girl before him.
“You can’t catch me. You can’t catch me!” she taunted, her blonde hair like a beacon weaving in and out of the tree line in front of him.
She didn’t stop running while she laughed, even when she slowed to try and catch sight of him. She didn’t know that he’d run to the side, arching his way around to cut her off. She was predictable and always took the path that led to the park. By the time she turned the corner, he’d already be there. Within moments, he darted from behind the left bank of trees, nearly running into her, stopping her in her tracks.
“GOT YOU!” he proclaimed proudly.
Katie laughed, her tiny lungs surging with the unspent energy of youth. “Only this time, JJ. Next time you won’t.”
He rolled his eyes as he turned and looked through the trees toward Katie’s house. “You say that every time, Katie, but I always catch you.”
NINE YEARS OLD
She sat on the swing, her pigtails bouncing behind her as she pumped her legs back and forth, trying her best to get higher. “They think something’s wrong with me,” she said as she continued to push the ropes, and her legs, harder.
Jason’s heart clenched a little as he watched her. He worried about Katie. She was brash sometimes, reckless when it came to possible danger. It was easy to get caught up with her enthusiasm. At nine years old, and a nine-year-old boy to boot, why wouldn’t he want to get caught in his friend’s mischief? That’s the point of being a kid! But sometimes, sometimes Katie took it too far and got hurt. He never got hurt, never felt pain. Not the way other kids did. When Katie got hurt she cried, and he hated it when she cried.
“Why on earth would they think that?”
“Because of you,” she answered, but her words got lost in the moment.
She had reached the top of the rope’s allowance, and the swing started to bounce when she reached her peak. She was smiling so brightly that he stopped himself from warning her the way he wanted to. She didn’t get to be happy that often, not since her parents had gotten divorced. When he could, when it was harmless, he did his best to let her have fun.
Then, she let go.
He watched her fly through the air in slow motion. Panic bloomed within him as she hit the ground and rolled, her limbs flailing and her blonde curls spiraling across the thick grass. He was on his feet and scrambling after her before she’d come to a complete stop. “Katie!” His voice was shrill as his knees struck the hard ground beside her.
The fall didn’t seem to faze her. Instead, with a goofy grin and grass-stained knees, she propped herself up on her elbows, rolling her eyes. “I’m fine you big baby.”
“You need to be more careful. You could hurt yourself.”
She scoffed, giving him an unamused look before flopping back down on the grass. His gaze followed hers until he was staring up at the brilliant blue of the sky. He followed her lead, maneuvering his body to lay on his back, his head resting next to hers, his hands folded over his chest.
“It’s because of you,” she repeated softly. Her voice was sad. He angled his head to see the frown tugging on her lips.
Confusion spiked through him. “What is?”
“That they think something’s wrong with me. I overheard Mom talking to Dad on the phone yesterday. I’m ‘too old to still have an imaginary friend,’ they want to have me checked out.”
He could feel the look of absolute incredulity that pulled his features at her words. Katie was the most normal person he had ever met. Not that he’d met many people, he couldn’t, but he’d seen enough of others to know certain things. Andy Korr, the next door neighbor was annoying, Polly was too convinced of her own importance to care about anything that didn’t directly affect her. Katie liked sunshine, and mashed potatoes, and reading. If that wasn’t normal, then he didn’t know what was.
“They’re the crazy ones.” He turned his head to once again inspect the clouds in the sky. If he screwed his eyes up really tightly, one almost looked like a rabbit. Katie would like that. He almost pointed it out.
She sat up quickly, derailing his idea. “I know you’re real. I just don’t understand why I’m the only one who can see you?”
There it was. The very thing he’d wondered himself countless times.
He shrugged a little, doing his best to keep how he felt hidden. “Because that’s just the way it works.”
He hadn’t been given much information the day he was brought to Katie. Being five years old, he didn’t remember much about that day, or about the primly dressed woman who had explained things to him. He tried to remember lots of things. Things like what the woman had said, what her name was, where they had come from, even what his life was like before he became Katie’s companion. All he knew was that it was his job to be the tiny blonde’s friend. He was supposed to be her reprieve from her tumultuous life, her confidant. Only hers. No one else would ever see or hear him. No one else would believe he existed.
Over the four years that he had been with her, he had learned very little about the way things were. Without someone to ask, every bit of information he gleaned was the result of trial and error. He couldn’t move anything, he couldn’t touch anyone, and when she wasn’t thinking about him, she couldn’t see him. But he was there. He was always there. Sometimes, he was able to read books. He didn’t know why that was, they just appeared to him, and he was grateful for that. He liked reading and found that the more he read, the more he wanted to read.
Katie gave him another sad smile. “The other kids at school call me crazy.”
Irritation prickled at the underside of his skin as he fought the urge to curl his hands into fists. He had often thought about why he was brought to Katie, why she needed a companion in the first place. Sometimes, when they were joking around, she’d even wondered the same thing out loud. He’d never tell her, but he’d figured out what brought him to her. It had taken him a long time to realize the reason, and he knew that if he brought it up it would simply make things worse. The reason that Katie needed a companion was that Katie was sad. She was lonely, and she needed someone to be on her side because no one else in her life was. She needed him, and he was all too happy to be there for her.
It still amazed him that she didn’t have any other friends. In his opinion, she was remarkable. She was the best at writing poetry, she could sing really, really well, and had one of the nicest laughs in the world. Most of all, Katie was unbelievably kind. She wouldn’t hurt a butterfly, and he could attest to that with every level of conviction that he had. He had seen it! He’d seen her save a butterfly’s life from a horrible boy in the park who was joking about stepping on it.
“The other kids at your school are idiots,” he muttered sourly, shaking his head.
She looked hesitant, unsure, and he hated it. “Maybe I should stop talking about you. I can tell them I don’t see you anymore. It’ll be our secret.”
A wave of uneasiness clawed at him from the inside. He didn’t like that idea. He didn’t like that idea at all. He didn’t know why the prospect of Katie pretending that she didn’t see him set his nerves on edge, but if it was what she wanted, then he’d go along with it.
He faked a smile, one that made an answering grin bloom across her face. “Sure. Sounds okay to me.”
ELEVEN YEARS OLD
“I hate Mrs. Carson! She is the absolute worst teacher! She made me write ‘I will not talk out of turn in class’ a hundred times today! It was only because I stood up for Emma when she told her that she couldn’t go to the bathroom. It isn’t fair.”
She sat underneath one of the massive trees behind her house. The leaves were wilting in their final hours, transforming into brilliant yellows and oranges. It wouldn’t be long before they fell from their branches to the grass below.
As time passed, the place they had chased each other in their youth had become their safe haven. Katie couldn’t be seen talking to herself, or him, so when she had the chance, she would escape here. A place where it would be just the two of them and they wouldn’t have to worry about well-meaning parents and uninformed judgment.
Jason loved these moments.
“It’s a part of growing up. You’re eleven now. Your teacher is supposed to help you reign in some of your stubbornness.”
“I am NOT stubborn, JJ.”
His eyes met hers from his perch in the tree directly above her, his expression showing every bit of his belief in her protestations. It amounted to about none. “Really?”
He watched with amusement as she dusted off an imaginary bit of dirt from the skirt of her sundress, primly lifting her nose in the air. “Really.”
“And how many times have I asked you to stop calling me JJ?”
Katie crossed her arms with a huff. “Oh please, you really aren’t going to use that as an example are you?! Jason sounds so stuffy, JJ sounds like my friend.”
“Whether or not YOU like it is not the point, it’s the fact that I asked you to use my real name and you still refuse that makes you stubborn.”
She threw her hands up in exasperation, but she shot him a look that betrayed her amusement. “Fine! I’ll call you Jason. Are you happy now?”
Despite what she said, he was completely convinced she’d continue to call him whatever she liked. He gave her a small, affectionate smile. “Very.” With the matter closed, he deftly changed the subject. “What are you reading nowadays?”
“Romeo and Juliet.”
He scrunched his nose.
Katie seemed incensed by his reaction. “Typical.”
“What, because I don’t think two thirteen year old kids should kill themselves over each other?” He tossed his hands out to the side.
“No, it’s typical. Like every other boy, you fixate on the tragic ending without recognizing the story that brought them there.”
Jason’s mouth hitched up in an amused grin. “Really, Katie? Are you really comparing me to other boys?”
Her expression softened at his quip, at the reminder of their situation, as strange as it was. “Why not? You act enough like one.”
He rolled his eyes, but he couldn’t help feeling pleased. He liked that, despite everything, he was still somewhat normal, at least in her eyes.
He waited a beat, then two before he continued. “I suppose you fancy yourself as Juliet.”
She gave him a little laugh before she pulled her legs into her chest, tucking them under her chin. “I don’t fancy myself anything.”
He didn’t like the sad sound of her voice. He reached out, plucking a leaf from the tree and placing it behind his ear. “I’ve changed my mind. I think I fancy you as Juliet.”
“You better be careful. I might be stubborn enough to insist you call me that from now on.”
He tensed his features into a painful expression, clasping his hand over his chest in mock agony. With enough theatrical acclaim that even Shakespeare would be impressed, he wailed, “Her words! They pierce!”
They laughed then, hard enough for him to feel the pressure in his sides as tears rolled down her cheeks. When the chuckles subsided, a comfortable silence settled as they simply sat there simply reveling in it.
“I still hate Mrs. Carson,” she pouted.
He couldn’t help the answering laugh that bubbled up. “I hope for the sake of everyone else, you don’t have any daughters.”
This time Katie, scoffed in mock offense before scrambling for a pine cone and launching it at him. I didn’t hit him. They never did.
THIRTEEN YEARS OLD
Time seemed to go slower after that. With each year that passed, Katie’s time with him grew more and more scarce. It was always precious when she’d look over her shoulder and give him that smile that could rival the sun. He looked on in contentment. He watched each day pass as she became more confident, more beautiful. As a thirteen year old boy, he’d be blind not to notice.
Katie had always been his best friend.
Katie had always been his.
She turned thirteen without thinking about him. He watched on as an invisible bystander as she unwrapped her presents, one after another, with the patented Anita O’Connell approved amount of excitement: a present at a time, the wrapping paper folded neatly and placed to the side. It wasn’t until she opened her last present, a highly coveted pair of shoes she’d been eyeing for ages, that she lost her composure. She squealed excitedly as she clasped them to her chest in delight and her mother looked on with pursed lips. He had never been more proud of her outburst.
As the party began to wind down, and the other girls left for home, he followed Katie and Polly as she carried the armful of presents up to her room. They scattered them on the bed, no care as to where they landed. He resisted the urge to roll his eyes as she unscrewed an atrocious shade of pink nail polish and began sloppily painting her toes.
It was going to be a long night of girl talk and noxious fumes, so he figure he’d ignore the entire affair by finding his book and settling into the chair in the corner. He brought his hand up to scratch his face when his gaze went right through it. He staggered back in horror.
It was faint, barely noticeable, but he could see through his hand.
He shook his head, then his hand, trying and failing to restore it back to the way it was supposed to be. He hoped it was like a Polaroid picture and if he shook it, it’d develop faster. It didn’t. He grabbed his hand, fear racing through him as he stared at Katie who was still blissfully oblivious to his presence.
Good god. He was disappearing.
FOURTEEN YEARS OLD
Jason Turner did not like Rose Blanchard.
It wasn’t because she was considered classically pretty, or that her family had a lot of money, or that she seemed to make the town of Riddle bend to her every whim simply by the crook of her finger. No, if he were being honest with himself, and he was (there was no else he could be honest with), he hated Rose Blanchard because she was Katie’s best friend.
Rose had moved to town a few days after Katie’s last birthday. At first, Jason didn’t really think anything about it until the brunette caught Andy Korr’s attention one day during football practice. He knew because Katie spent that night crying into her pillow. The realization that Katie had a crush on Andy was like a punch to the gut. She’d never said anything to anyone about it, not even to the silence of her room at night. Jason had spent nearly every day following her around, making sure she was okay, watching her pretty smiles and bouncing ponytail. How had he not noticed when Katie’s gaze strayed to Andy and held for longer than it should have? Or the significance of the funny little laugh she’d been doing over the last couple of months whenever he was around?
Once Andy and Rose officially became an item, and Katie had mended the pieces of her broken heart, the two girls struck up an unlikely friendship. They laughed together, schemed together, and played together. They did each other’s hair and makeup. They talked about boys and school. They called each other Kay and Roe. It was all entirely inconsequential girly stuff that Jason couldn’t care a whit about. He didn’t care about any of those things, except for one:
Rose Blanchard had seemingly come along and took the place that Jason had claimed as his years prior.
Without knowledge, and without trying, she had given Katie someone to confide in, someone to hug when she was sad, someone to laugh with. Which was more than he had ever been able to give.
It made him jealous.
It made him sad.
As time went on, more often than he liked to admit, he would imagine what it would be like if he were real. He would have warned Katie when she tried to sneak out that her mother was going to catch her, that she’d get grounded for a month, and that Rose was a bad influence. When Riddle’s resident mean girl, Ginger Weller, had been teasing Katie about whatever she deemed Katie’s flaw to be that week, he’d give her a hug and tell her everything would be okay. He’d tell her that boys like Andy Korr were worth as much as a ratty old sock and that she could do way better than some brainless jock who couldn’t see what was right in front of him.
They would watch movies, and sit close on the couch, sharing popcorn and secrets. Just like old times, just like they had when she could see him.
That’s exactly how it would be. If he were real.
FIFTEEN YEARS OLD
He sat in the clearing behind the O’Connell’s house. He found himself coming here more and more often lately. He still walked with Katie, and watched over her like he was supposed to, but it wasn’t all the time anymore. She hadn’t seen him, or needed him in ages, and there were only so many prom committee meetings and cheerleading practices a teenage boy could endure.
The only extracurricular activity she participated in that Jason found any interest was her work on the school paper. The minute she walked into the abandoned office of the Green and Gold, she went from average All-American teenager to a hard-hitting Editor, Reporter, Investigator, and Photographer. It took a little while, but once she’d managed to work out the kinks of printing and distribution, she ran the paper seamlessly. He loved watching her work: the way she gnawed on the wood of her pencil until it was nearly unrecognizable, the way she would read and reread her sentences out loud until they sounded just right.
With her penchant for poetry and her talent for journalism, he thought that she might be planning to follow in her parents’ footsteps and turn it into a profession. She was definitely positioning herself for a career in print. Whatever that might be, he had no doubt she would be brilliant. The thought of hard-hitting investigator Katie O’Connell made him smile.
Even with her responsibilities mounting, and the moments she got to relax dwindling, Jason found himself increasingly needing time to himself. It wasn’t just the drain of watching her participate in dozens of clubs and afterschool activities. It was that she only managed to get five hours of sleep a night (if she was lucky). It was her mother obsessively counting the calories on her plate at every meal. It was watching her friends continually disregard her opinion like she didn’t have a voice. It was having to watch her wilt like a cut flower that had been left in the sun too long, and not being able to do a thing about it.
He searched for solitude from the reality that the most important person in his sorry excuse for an existence was oblivious to him.
He went to the place they’d once deemed ‘theirs’ what seemed like a lifetime ago. It should have made him feel sad or empty. But it didn’t. It had been so long since they’d been here together that he should just consider it his place now.
No, he fought firmly, this was theirs. It would always be theirs.
He looked to his left, to the spot at the bottom of the tree trunk that belonged to Katie. He could almost picture her with her pretty hair pulled back, eyes dancing as she teased him.
With a blink, the vision of her dissolved and the clearing dimmed. It was funny how the world around him darkened without her in it.
He heaved a shaky sigh, fingering the frayed edges of the book in his hand. The tattered cover with worn purple letters glared up at him. Romeo & Juliet. He gave the spot beneath the tree one more wistful glance before edging his finger in between the pages and opening it to the dog eared page.
“My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.”
SIXTEEN YEARS OLD
Something was wrong with Katie, and she’d been acting peculiar nearly all day.
From the moment she’d stepped out of the bathroom that morning, he’d known something wasn’t right. He steadfastly remained by her side as the day passed. He followed next to her tentatively, eyes trained on her face, cataloging the tightness of her mouth, the quick darting of her eyes, the irregularity of her breathing. It was terrifying, the way her expression was both vacant and overwhelmed at the same time.
The countless people she passed on the streets and in the hallways didn’t seem to see anything wrong. Rose breezed past Katie’s locker without a single word. Andy had tossed her a greeting, but hadn’t bothered to stick around to see if she replied. It was like she was just as invisible he was to everyone around her.
He wanted to yell, to grab someone and shake them as he screamed, “Can’t you see something’s wrong? Somebody ask her. Smile at her. See her. Somebody. Anybody!” But no one would hear his desperate pleas, and the day went on in a horrifying example of modern empathy, or lack thereof. Katie was quiet, withdrawn. It was so different from her normal bubbly enthusiasm; and because she was quiet, the world, and the people in it, ignored her. It wasn’t until cheerleading practice that everything came to a head.
They were doing a full run of their routine before the football game the next night. Rose stood before the formation of girls, counting loudly, snapping her fingers as they moved through their choreography again, and again, and again. Jason sat on the bottom bleacher, elbows on his knees, hands crossed over one another. His eyes were fixed on Katie’s face. Even her usually overly expressive eyes were blank. She was literally just going through the motions. An empty shell with pom poms.
It scared the hell out of him.
Rose stopped the routine with an echoing stomp of her expensive tennis shoes on the polished hardwood. “NO. NO. NO. This is awful. If you guys can’t figure out how to stay on beat, then we won’t even be doing a routine tomorrow.” A few girls grumbled, clearly exhausted from the continuous repetition. Rose shot them a venomous glare. “Again,” she spat. There was an answering chorus of protests. “I SAID AGAIN!”
Even though she was Katie’s best friend, Rose Blanchard needed to take a long walk off a short pier.
The girls listlessly shuffled into position. After a harshly punctuated countdown, they went through the routine again, each perfectly timed movement executed one after another. He thought he’d watched them so many times that he could probably stand in for one of the girls and no one would be the wiser. Their hips rocked, pom poms bounced, and somersaults were completed with ease. When they were done, Katie’s cheeks were flushed, her hands curled into fists on her hips, and her chest was heaving slightly.
There was still no emotion on her face.
“That’s enough. We’re done. Tomorrow you better bring it. It’s the biggest game of the season, and we need to be on point.”
The girls broke, each proffering a heavy sigh of relief before making their way to their bags. Katie silently brought up the rear of the group, waiting while the others cleared out before delicately plucking the strap of the navy gym bag at his feet and lifting it over her shoulder.
“Katie, wait up,” Rose called, jogging across the gym towards them. Jason stood, positioning himself directly behind Katie’s right shoulder. It was a position that clearly said anything that was said to Katie would be said to both of them. Or it would have been, if she could see him.
“What’s up, Roe?” Katie said, her voice flat.
“Are you okay? You were off today. Like really off.”
Oh, you’ve noticed. Well done. Give the girl a cookie.
Katie stuttered, and he found himself furrowing his brow at her loss for words. She never stuttered. She had always been able to think of something to say. “N….no. Everything's fine.”
“Are you sure? Tomorrow’s really important, and I know you have a lot going on. Maybe you should take a break from the squad for a little while.”
Fury rose within him at the no-so-subtle suggestion.
“Are you kicking me off the team?” Katie ground out through gritted teeth. He’d never seen her face so dark, he’d never heard her voice so harsh.
“No. I’m just saying that if you are doing too much, you should take a break.”
The words were nice, full of misplaced faux friendliness that might’ve suggested Rose was only looking out for Katie’s best interest. But the delivery made it evident that Katie’s need for a break was secondary to Rose’s own agenda.
How dare she, he seethed. How dare she.
“Thank you for your concern, but I’m fine.”
She didn’t wait around for Rose to reply, possibly to stress her point again and convince Katie to simply agree. She adjusted the strap on her shoulder and walked swiftly out of the gym. He followed with a final sharp glare at Rose.
When she hit the hallway, her pace increased, her feet clipping so quickly along the tile that he had to jog lightly to keep up with her. By the time she turned the corner, she had broken into a run, and he pushed himself to fall into step behind her. She flew through the door of the Green and Gold, forcefully shutting it behind her. The wood panel passed through his body, but he didn’t feel it. He never felt anything.
Her breaths were coming in gasps and it took him a minute to realize that there were tears streaming down her cheeks. He took a step forward, and she moved back, away, as though she saw him in front of her and ran from the extension of his hand. Her hip hit the corner of a desk and she toppled to the ground with a loud slap of skin against vinyl. Her body racked with tears and she grappled with the floor, scooting her body back again and again, until her back was sandwiched into the far corner of the room with her knees pulled into her chest.
He moved forward, helpless, kneeling before her destitute figure in solidarity. He spoke even though his words fell on deaf ears.
“It’s okay Katie. Please don’t cry. You’re going to do great tomorrow. I know it. I’m here. It’s okay. We are going to make it through this.”
He wished she could hear him. He would have given anything in the world to comfort her. He prayed. He prayed to whatever was out there: God, Buddha, to the lady that had brought him to her. Just this one time, just this once, let her hear him.
She continued to let the cries wave through her body, and he felt an answering pain in his chest. Desperation to take her pain away increased every moment that she didn’t calm.
“Come on, Katie. Breathe. Please breathe. You know I hate it when you cry.”
But his words did nothing. Nothing at all except bring tears to his own eyes.
She brought her palms out through her hiccuping cries, wrists up, hands shaking. Weakly, she uncurled her fingers. The sight of blood smeared against alabaster nearly stopped his heart. He held his breath as he looked at the welling blood, the rust stains crusted under fingernails, the half-moon wounds stabbed into perfectly pure skin.
Tears flowed freely now. His voice choked with his emotion, his despair, his failure.
He’d failed her.
“Oh god, Katie no.”
SEVENTEEN YEARS OLD
It had been four years, nine months, and sixteen days since Katie had last seen him. Had last thought of him. Had last wanted him around.
He looked on feeling weak, despondent, because each year that passed made him less and less visible. He was fading away. He was fading away because she was forgetting him and he was powerless to stop it. All he could do was look on in agony.
Agony. He could not think of a better word to describe it.
Katie had grown more and more beautiful with every day that passed. Each morning, without fail, she would emerge from the bathroom and his chest would ignite. Fire would lick through his veins, and an overwhelming pressure would settle between his lungs. With her blonde hair groomed away from her face, her brilliantly expressive green eyes, the curves of her lips, the slope of her body, she was stunning. In his mind, she was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. She was a thousand times more beautiful than any old Rose Blanchard. She was pretty in a quiet way; a way that he thought only he was meant to notice. It was easy for him to accept that, somehow, in the course of his seventeen years, he had fallen in love with her. Perhaps he had always loved her, even before he knew what love really was.
He kept his eyes on her hands. She normally kept them hidden beneath long sleeve shirts and sweaters; but at night, when she was asleep on her side with fingers lax, he could see the scars. He breathed easier when they were faded. His heart ached when they were fresh. It was proof of the weight of her suppressed feelings, carved directly into her skin. It was an escape, a way to assert a semblance of control back over her life, a coping mechanism. He should have been able to recognize one. After all, wasn’t that what he was meant to do?
With seventeen came new firsts. She got her first car, her first cell phone, and much to Jason’s disdain, her first boyfriend. Needless to say, Jason hated him.
As a jacked-up jock with an overly adorned letterman’s jacket and a complete lack of brain cells, he was the most pompous, arrogant, smarmy jerk Jason had ever seen. At first, when Rose had offhandedly mentioned that Caleb was asking about Katie, he didn’t think much of it. A few days later, he watched the two of them walk down the hall hand in hand. Jason shook his head in disbelief before muttering, “Really, Katie? Really? He doesn’t even know that the Titanic was a real life event and not just a movie.”
Caleb Matthews was nothing but an empty head with slicked-back hair, an ignorant chortle, and roaming hands. He didn’t deserve Katie. Not in a thousand years would he ever come close to deserving her, and Jason had been so entirely disgusted that he could barely even look at the two of them together without wanting to vomit.
He hated that Caleb got to hold her hand. Hated that he was her first kiss.
It had been four months since they had become official, and Katie was getting back home later and later each night. Jason didn’t follow her anymore when she went out, because most of the time it was with him. His eyes flicked to the alarm clock next to her bed, taking note of the time – 9:37 – thirty seven minutes past her curfew. Katie had better hurry or her mother would wake every household in town trying to figure out where her daughter was. The red analog number flicked to 9:38. The door burst open.
She flew into the bedroom, slamming the door closed behind her and flinging herself onto her bed. He stood immediately, hands clenching and unclenching at his sides as he tried to disassemble the scene. Muffled sobs immediately filled the room and he felt his shoulders droop. Something must have happened. He should have gone with her. Then, at the very least, he would have known. Not that it mattered. There was nothing he could have done about it anyway.
She cried, and he felt every heavy shake of her body. Her pain was his pain. It always had been.
He sunk to the floor, leaning back against her dresser, his head in his hands. Silently, impossibly, he tried to will some of his strength to her, to offer every bit of his energy for comfort. He pressed the palms of his fading hands into his eyes and he listened to her muffled cries.
It happened like lightning, like the hottest spike of electricity igniting over his skin. All at once, he knew. It had been so long that he had forgotten what it felt like. He was stumbling to his feet in a second, eyes wide, voice uncertain. “Katie?”
She lifted her head from her pillow, her eyes met his. The sweetest taste of relief he had ever felt coursed through him. It felt like he had finally come home. He looked at his hands to finally find them solid again. He spoke again, his voice cracking, “Katie?”
He willed his legs to work, and with jagged steps, he moved forward until he was dropping down next to her on the bed. He memorized every plane of her face, every freckle in her eyes, the way her lips parted ever so slightly as she looked up at him. He wanted to remember every moment of this, every moment of what it felt like when she saw him.
She shook her head, watery eyes clouded with confusion. “I fell asleep.”
“No. You aren’t asleep, it’s me. You finally remembered.”
She wiped the backs of her hands over the tears marring her cheeks. “I forgot about you. I haven’t thought about you in…”
He didn’t answer, he couldn’t. His throat swelled heavily. “It’s been a long time,” he said carefully.
She sniffed but didn’t say a word.
“What happened?” he questioned softly.
A fresh wave of tears spilled over, making wet, crooked paths down her irritated skin. She broke with a whispered gasp. “I thought he loved me.”
She told him everything: how Caleb had cheated on her, how he had humiliated her by drunkenly making out with Ginger in front of everyone at Rose’s birthday party. She cried, her face pressed into her pillow, her blanket tugged tightly around her, just like when she was a little girl. It reminded him of when he would sit with her and promise that everything would be alright, and that he’d take her far away from here someday. He was filled with anger and relief. Sadness and contentment. Anger at Caleb, relief they were no longer together, sadness at her pain, contentment that she remembered him.
How anyone could think to want another person after having Katie baffled him. She was iridescent. She was perfect in all the ways she wasn’t perfect.
Jason had always known that he loved her, but until that moment, he hadn’t known how much. He loved her enough to hate his fate. He hated the fact that he couldn’t pull her into his arms, hated it more than all the Calebs and Roses of the world combined.
He soothed her the best he could, with his words, with his voice. “If I were out there, Katie, he never would have hurt you. I wouldn’t have let him. He’s just a boy. A stupid boy from a small-town who has nothing but mediocrity ahead of him. He could never be enough for you anyway. You’re going to leave this place and everyone in it behind. You’re going to conquer the world. You deserve more than this. You deserve everything.”
He meant it. He meant every word. He loved her.
“I wish you were real. You would be the perfect guy.”
I would. I would for you. I’d do anything for you.
“You believe me, don’t you?” He waited, watching. He was always watching. She gave him a small nod - Yes.
Then she said the one thing he’d been waiting to hear his entire life: “I love you, JJ.”
Tears pricked behind his eyes, an all too familiar pressure when it came to her, when it came to thinking about how they’d never be together. They were star-crossed lovers, separated by more than just feuds and misunderstanding, but actual planes of existence. In his opinion, it was a tragedy infinitely more heartbreaking than any old Romeo and Juliet.
“I love you too, Juliet.”
He had never meant any words more.
He talked to her until she dozed, telling her about all the beautiful places he wanted her to visit. Talked about the books he thought she’d like to read. He talked to her until her breaths became even and her world faded to slumber.
He reached out, his hand hovering over her cheek. Slowly lowering it, he prayed to feel something, anything.
He felt nothing but air.
EIGHTEEN YEARS OLD
She’d done it.
He knew she could; he’d never had a single doubt. Graduation day invigorated the townspeople of Riddle with a resounding new energy. The sun was shining, the breeze gentle and serene. It was the perfect day. The long-awaited day. The day that led to the rest of Katie’s life. The girl herself was practically vibrating with nervous excitement as she made her way to the stage.
Top of her class, valedictorian, cheerleader, and chair of the Riddle events committee, Kaitlyn O’Connell was the whole package. He watched with a beaming smile as she walked across the stage and accepted her diploma.
That’s my girl, he thought.
After that night in her room, he began to fade the very next day. Maybe she didn’t remember it, him. Maybe she had really believed it was a dream. Every night since she had told him that she loved him, that she’d remember, he had hoped she’d see him again. But she didn’t. He continued to fade, and she continued to thrive.
Katie took center stage, giving a little wave to the photographer and the place that her mother sat teary-eyed, hands clasped in front of her mouth.
A crack jolted up his spine and his eyes snapped to hers.
She blinked a few times, like she didn’t really understand what she was seeing. Then, all at once, she understood. She gave him the smallest of smiles, a smile that was meant for him and him alone.
She knew he was there for her.
He’d always be there for her.
The grin that split his face was all-consuming, but it was short-lived.
Everything became too intense, too loud, the ground began to shake and Katie walked away, off the stage, towards her seat.
Didn’t she feel it?
It felt like the apocalypse, like the end of the world. He screamed but knew that no one heard him. He kept screaming nonetheless.
And then there was nothing but white
He blinked against the light. It was too bright, too much. His eyes opened in slits, his head pounding as the world began to once again come into focus.
Suddenly the pain, the discomfort, ended and all he felt was numb.
His eyes met a familiar face. A primly bespectacled woman that he had not seen in thirteen years.
She sat behind a neatly organized desk, hands folded primly, one on top of the other. He was seated across from her, arms balancing along the white leather of the armchair. It was uncomfortable, and the way she looked at him, it was like she knew it and didn’t even care. Save the two of them and the desk, the room was empty, just four blank, white walls.
“Well done, Mr. Turner. You’ve completed your assignment wonderfully.”
He stared, trying to grasp some semblance of his sanity. “My assignment?”
“Yes. You’ve stayed with Kaitlyn until she’s forgotten you. You’ve done your job as her companion. You’re fully dissolved now.”
Katie. Where was Katie? Was she okay?
“What? No, she hasn’t forgotten me. We just saw each other? She saw me just a second ago.” His left hand came up and motioned behind him.
The woman smiled, but it wasn’t a real smile; it had all of the mechanics of a smile, but on the face of the woman before him, it looked more like a grimace. There was no emotion there: no happiness, no Joy. “I assure you, Mr. Turner, that isn’t true.”
Fury rose within him. He pushed himself to his feet, his eyes bouncing around the room for an exit. There were no doors, only walls. He only saw an endless expanse of white. He turned, and turned, and turned.
“This is ridiculous. How do I get out of here?”
“And go where?” the woman asked sharply.
“Back,” he spat, tossing her a look as malevolent as the tone of his voice.
She gave him an unreadable look, leaning back and folding her fingers together in her lap. “There is no going back, Mr. Turner.” Her voice sounded hollow, and he couldn’t stop the panic that welled up in his throat.
“What are you talking about?”
“From now on, you will reside here with the rest of The Forgotten.”
Here? Where the hell was here?
She stood, motioning for him to come forward. He didn’t move a muscle, simply stared at her expectantly, waiting for her to clarify.
She motioned again and he took a hesitant step forward. He couldn’t shake the feeling roiling within him. Something wasn’t right here. Something was very seriously wrong. A door inexplicably appeared before him and the woman turned him towards it. He went, begrudgingly. When it opened, there were thousands of people. They were all varying ages, races, heights, sexes. There were thousands of people neatly organized in long metal tables. The only thing they had in common was that they were all wearing the same clothes: a white t-shirt and blue jeans. The same clothes he’d worn his entire life.
They were all different, but they were all the same.
What was this place?
“You didn’t think you were the only one, did you?”
My name is Shauna Checkley. I am originally from Chaplin, Sk. but have made my home in Regina, Sk. for many years.
I work at Regina Public Library. I am deeply involved in local cat rescue and cat charities (how I spend my free time besides
reading and writing). I live with my family and have one daughter Patricia. I am also quite active in a local church.
Blundering into the kitchen, Rusty shrieked like a lead singer, “It’s those lights again!”.
Saoirse’s fingers which had been working deftly making jewelry suddenly seized. Joan froze with a cup of coffee in her hand. They bolted to the French doors and nearly crashed into one another as they piled onto the outdoor deck to have a look.
Frasier, their golden retriever, let out one excited bark.
The summer sky was a flourish of twinkling grey as dusk settled in. It reminded Saoirse of an old Hallowe’en costume, sparkling princess, that she wore for several seasons when her body declined to outgrow it.
“Where?” Joan cried. “Where are the lights?”
Rusty pointed to the east and said, “They were there a minute ago.”
Mother and daughter paused, exchanged looks.
As a sweet waft of whiskey slapped them in the face, Saoirse said, “Are you sure it wasn’t just stars, or a falling star, or something?”
Rusty stared deep into the heavens above. Then he returned to his deck chair and the cigar he had been puffing on. Under the illumination of the deck lights, he appeared to glow. Frasier settled at his feet.
Both women went back inside.
“Dunno. He might be going crazy from the whiskey. Who knows?” Joan said flatly.
“Like Uncle Hoyt,” Saoirse added
Joan returned to the evening news in the front room while Saoirse resumed making jewelry at the kitchen table.
Sable, her pet cat, leapt up, batting at the coils of outstretched wire and attempting to sit on the whole enterprise, thoroughly jealous of anything that held her mistress’s attention.
“Get down,” Saoirse said.
But as the overweight tabby refused to budge, with butt firmly planted in Saoirse’s face, she gave up. I’ll finish it later, she judged. Saoirse hugged and held Sable. The cat purred deeply. Like the low rumbling of Todd’s truck when he pulls into the driveway.
Then like she had stumbled into the well outback, Saoirse plunged deep into thought. She saw Todd in her mind’s eye. She even smelled that mix of cigarette smoke and cologne that hung on him like a bent halo. And she felt longing and doubt rear their twin heads and babble dubiously in her mind, that same poetic quarrel as ever.
What should I do? Should I keep feeding him sex and money like he wants? Or should I just cut him off? It would be trying, of course. But she judged that she should be able to stick to her guns and do it. Gotta stop submitting to him and kick his ass instead, kick my own ass too.
Yet, she envisioned the ginger hair and the smooth, innocent skin, pale alabaster delight, and she sunk deep into her own private wonderland of desire. The fourth of next month marks five years that we have been together, Saoirse marveled. But where has it gone?
Digging his claws into her bare arms, Sable purred and kneaded. Saoirse let go of the cat.
“Ouch.” she said
Sable scampered away.
Saoirse returned to her mound of jewelry. She was making matching necklace and ear ring sets. She sold them at the local store and whenever she went into town. Should I branch into making brooches too? Not so in style anymore. But she thought it might be worthwhile at any rate to make a few extra bucks.
With her fingers moving as adroitly as ever, she worked on a piece that in the end resembled a Celtic knot.
Hmm, nice. Maybe I’ll set that one aside and give it to mom. Poor mom, she needs a pick-me-up of sorts. With dad drunk and raving all the time, Blair complaining steadily, and the girls gone now, who wouldn’t need a treat? Besides, she’s Irish, too, so that should mean something, right?
Mind you, speaking of knots I have a Gordian knot of my own troubles. And how she wished that she could slice right through it then.
Making a bee-line for the front room, Saoirse presented it to her mom, “Made especially for you.”
Joan beamed. She plucked it and held it in her hand like some sort of charm or talisman.
“E`poustouflant.” Saoirse remarked. It was her favorite French word, one that she used sometimes.
“Thank you, it’s lovely. And it looks just like a Celtic knot. We’re you trying to make one?” her mom asked
“Not really…It just turned out that way in the end.” Saoirse said. “What does Saoirse mean in Gaelic again?”
“Freedom.” Joan said.
As her eyes had become as small as the beads that she worked with, Saoirse stopped. Had enough of this for tonight. So, she went to her bedroom and laid down.
But even though her hands had stilled her mind hadn’t. I need to do another round of baking tomorrow, she thought, slightly dismayed. Still, she was glad that she had these side hustles, secondary sources of income to rely on.
At least I’ve got that little bit, along with my job. And if I continue to save, if Todd would stop being such a leech, then I should be set when school starts in two years. Why can’t he ever borrow from his buddy, Ward, or someone? Why always me?
She sighed. Why does it have to be such a long wait to get into my course? Two years feels like forever to have to wait for school or anything. I just want life to start now! I just want to have to stop postponing living!
Saoirse thought of her two elder sisters, Bryn and Bronwyn. How lucky they are? Both attending the University of Toronto. Both in the big city having the time of their lives. They have each other and they have lives already in motion, dynamic and flowing, not static and stagnant such as her own.
But was that true? She recalled their phone calls about the unaffordability of rent, the scramble to try to get around in that metropolis. Homesickness. Armies of strange, street people that seemed only to grow.
Yet, Saoirse heard only her own hushed whims, her own deep longings, that inner voice that cried daily and dreamed nightly. A victim of her own imagining’s, she had always been. Even as a child she longed to be a fairy or princess or something, the offspring of a movie star. Anything that would release her from the prairie spell of monotony and flat fields, wild winds like harbingers of desolation.
Saoirse rolled over. She imagined the wildest scenarios she could. Life as a mole person in the tunnels under Vegas, a punk rock denizen of CBGB’s in the 80’s, that town where carnival oddities go to retire, Berlin any decade. Comet tails of cocaine as we rode with Captain Fantastic, Ziggy Stardust, and Major Tom. Our souls of bitumen, raw disco glitter. Why couldn’t I be in one of those cool, colorful surroundings? Why do I have to be stuck on a farm in Saskatchewan, limping along with my cottage industries while the world whirls by without me?
She frowned in the darkness.
You’re my dreamer that’s for sure, head stuck way, way up in the clouds, her mother would often say. It was more just an observation rather than a complaint, as Joan usually saved her lamentations for the others in the clan, especially the men folk. But Saoirse heard it, that everyday refrain. Like it was the punchline to some sad joke. Her life.
But Saoirse knew her mind was her release valve. Like when lightning crashed to the ground, that same random illumination. It was just part of her fleshy construction. That’s all.
For she knew that she wasn’t just a daughter, farm maid, office worker. Rather, she was the foolish mermaid that had come on land, traded her fins for legs. She was the falling star that settled, burned. She was the foundling that peeked out from the orphanage of dreams and decided to become Joan of Arc or Blondie, Shirley Muldowney or Gianna Jessen. She rode the wings of glory. She was the unsung story. Someday she would no longer settle. She would be heard.
Lying in bed, she enjoyed resting. She also enjoyed being unfettered by logic or time. The moon hides herself once a month. So, why shouldn’t I?
Saoirse let her prairie landscape meld with her own dreamscape. She imagined those strange, glowing lights that her dad occasionally claimed to see grandly lighting up her northern sky. Like “Starry, Starry Night”, that classic painting. Or a wondrous explosion of fireworks like Canada Day but sans the special occasion. Yes, it would be something like that.
But is there really going to be a tomorrow? The world she knew was quickly going away. Old stock Canada was dying and drying up. All those wars and rumors of war, shouts of planetary collapse, this age of anxiety screaming to her vis a vis the 24-hour news cycle, social media posts like shot gun blasts. It all a heady rendering of hysteria and excess, truth and half-truth bleeding into one black hole of madness. Even when she went to church there were whispers of End Times, clarifications as they munched on egg sandwiches and cupcakes afterwards. It all acted to plunge her ahead then backwards.
She alternated between wanting so very badly to live and to experience to just feeling ready to give up. It was like when she rode the bus and the driver hit the brakes. Then she was suddenly jerked forward and then returned to her spot when the bus sighed back down on its’ wheels. She felt displaced by the very times in which she lived.
But she learned just to cope. Blocking all that depressing, Doomsday narrative out, she focused on mundane matters. She hoped to lose enough weight to fit back into her skinny jeans. She hoped to get her groove back. Yes, then she would be made over and fine-tuned, sparkling, glowing just like a girl asked to dance. It might even re-ignite things between Todd and I, who knows?
She recalled the first time she ever had sex, which was with Todd, her only lover to date, and feeling relief when it was finally over. That was one of her initial misgivings with life it seemed. For if that s-e-x that they chased and tagged each other with on the playground, that caused raucous hysteria and pure fascination disappointed in the end, then what would truly deliver bliss? She didn’t know.
Feeling Sable leap on the bed and snuggle at her feet, Saoirse enjoyed the warm bundle that was her cat. She laid especially still as to not disturb her purring bedfellow. Then she, too, slept.
Having rechecked the accounts for errors and satisfied there were none, Saoirse closed them off. She was at work at the Town Office, the sole employee in fact. It was her part-time job. It was the main reason that she continued to live at home. As she could live for free and save up her pay cheques for her upcoming course.
It was Tuesday afternoon. The start of her work week. Only two more afternoons then I’m done, she thought, gladly. She only worked three afternoons in the tiny town office. Yet like many part-time jobs, she easily found herself with a full-time workload. Not fair, she groaned, inwardly. And yet she complained to no one as she was grateful for employment of any sort. Can’t wait until my course starts in two years, then I can lose this stupid job along with everything else.
She stared at her work computer. She was just about to start playing solitaire online when the door of the town office burst open.
“Heya,” Todd called. He strode up to the front desk where she sat.
“What’s up?” Saoirse said.
He wore the red ball cap and baggy jeans that was his trademark and smelled heavily of tobacco.
Standing over top of her at the counter, he said, “I’m on coffee break so I thought I’d swing by and see you.”
“And I brought you some licorice,” he said, holding up several rainbow-colored sticks.
Probably jacked it, Saoirse thought. But she murmured, “Thanks.”
Todd pumped gas at the service station on the highway. But he spent most of his money on VLT’s, poker games, though he claimed to make a lot of it back by selling things on eBay. Saoirse was skeptical, however. Yet she knew that he had that rash, risk taking nature that allowed for such dalliances.
They were a study in contrasts truly. She had that roaming imagination that took her to the peaks and valleys of fancy. But Saoirse was also cautious by nature, dutiful, disciplined. Her life was a quiet revolution really. Just baby steps until success, she believed.
Todd, however, was that unpredictable force like a prairie storm that seemingly rises from nowhere. That one sure flies by the seat of his pants, Joan remarked as she shelled peas on the back deck. Saoirse recalled her and Joan watching as Todd sped wildly out of their driveway and down the unpaved road, spraying gravel that flew like shrapnel, in a vain attempt to make it to work on time.
Saoirse loved Todd but also had misgivings about him too. Wish he wasn’t so rough around the edges. For Todd was one of those bachelors that slept with no sheets on the bed, washed only the tops of plates, ate chocolate bars on his way to work, relying on candy to see him through the better part of the day. He wavered from one grudge or money making scheme to the next. It was all nonsensical, extreme. He rode on the edge of reputation, a calculated interplay of cool and tough. Yet Saoirse sensed that underneath it all he feared that someone would discover what a feeble fraud he was. Still, she appeased his insecurity and his canny need for thrills and admiration.
“Hey, can I ask ya for a favor?” he said
Oh, right, here goes. I should have known!
“Can I borrow money for a new starter for my truck? Payday is Friday so I’ll get it back to you then.”
Saoirse shook her head, groaned inwardly. Why does he always expect to use me as a line of credit?
He appeared hopeful, beseeching. “Aww, c’mon. I’ll get it back to you.”
“How much is that? That’s a lotta money I’m sure.”
“Prob about two hundred bucks. But I can get it back to you payday. Then I thought with my truck fixed up. We could go on a little road trip to the States or something, maybe.”
Saoirse gave him a long stare. Should I? Though she had resolved not to enable him, the prospects of escaping somewhere that summer spoke to her with a longing and an intensity that was hard to deny.
However, summer was the busiest time of the year on the farm. Trips, even short ones, were never taken during those frantic growing months. Rather, all hands converged to ensure a successful crop, a golden harvest.
She gently sucked on the bottom of her lip and paused.
Todd laughed. “What’cha thinking about? I’ll pay ya back. Don’t worry about it.”
“Why not ask Ward or somebody?” she suggested.
He shrugged his shoulders.
She looked at him sternly and said, “Why does it have to be me all the time? And why don’t you budget so you don’t even have to ask?”
He said nothing. Then he shook his head lightly and said, “Alright you win. But I better get back now. Call you later, bye.”
Saoirse watched as he walked out without looking back and got into his eggplant purple truck and drove off.
Having caught up on things for the moment, she began to play solitaire on-line. She watched the digital cards flip into place.
Cradling the cordless phone up against her ear, she held the unrelenting, cuddly, Sable. Saoirse listened intently to her father.
He was talking wildly, garbled almost.
Even over the phone she could hear the heaviness of his breath, the syrupy slowness of his speech, Rusty was dead drunk as usual.
“What!” she squealed. “Flying saucers?”
“Come get us! I wanna see!
Stomping back into the kitchen and then standing with her arms akimbo, Joan said, “What’s all this?”
“Dad says there’s a crop circle or something in the field. He’s coming to get us.” Saoirse said, the pitch of her voice excitably high again.
“Really?” Joan said dumbfounded. “Are you sure he’s not just drunk and seeing things? Why is he driving anyhow?”
“Sure hope he doesn’t end up like Hoyt.” Joan groaned.
Uncle Hoyt was her dad’s brother and was presently strapped to a wheelchair in the local hospital, drying out as ever. Uncle Hoyt was the benchmark for badness, the poster boy for drunken foolishness and someone Joan referred to frequently, her near daily refrain, in a desperate attempt to keep her own children on the straight and narrow path. Don’t go like Hoyt! As their family life dealt in both alcohol and the absurd, in near equal measures, it was a frequent cry of Joan’s, the long-suffering wife and matriarch of the clan. That’s a generational curse we just don’t need!
But mom’s not without her flaws either, Saoirse noted. Saoirse had recently begun to believe that the often-wild battles between her parents were equally fueled by his alcohol and her discontent. She didn’t think that her mother was truly unhappy but just dismayed by aging, by the loss of the stunning beauty she once had and the claustrophobic life she led situated out in the middle of nowhere. You can’t even get a good map or a decent pair of shoes around here. For mom was stuck in a small life with puny dreams and drama, Saoirse realized. But then aren’t we all?
Then they heard Rusty’s truck pull in, the crunch of gravel. They hurried to the back door.
Rusty burst through it. His blue eyes were wide and glassy. Weak, yet overbearing, he was almost possessed by an insistent emotional energy that clung to him like dust from the fields.
“Ya gotta see this!” he cried
Saoirse and Joan exchanged quizzical looks and followed him back out to the truck. Frasier, their dog, ran behind it. Big pink tongue hanging out.
Rusty drove them over a bumpy, back path that led out to an adjoining field.
“Lookit that!” Joan exclaimed, pointing to a huge indentation in the field.
Though the vehicle had not even come to a full stop, Saoirse scrambled out of the truck and ran to it.
There was a beautifully symmetrical shape cut out of the glistening, golden fields. The early evening sun was already in retreat, fleeing the scene. Saoirse was near mesmerized the first instance she saw it. Walking the circumference of it, she was careful not to step on the mandala-like shape, to mess it or disturb it in any way.
“E`poustouflant,” she said under her breath
By then, her parents were standing near it, with her dad gesturing wildly.
“Hold Frasier back!” Joan shouted.
Rusty did, cradling the bulky dog in his arms.
Blair pulled up in his red Dodge Ram truck and got out. He whistled lightly at the sight of the stylized figure eight in the wheat field.
“Kinda looks like uh a Celtic knot or something.” Joan said
Her silvery gray eyes were wide with astonishment.
Rusty grinned. Shook his head.
“It’s awesome!” Saoirse exclaimed “I love it!”
Blair frowned. “I dunno. It kinda gives me the creeps to be honest.”
“Aww, c’mon”, Saoirse said, “This is the coolest thing to happen in years.”
Shivering involuntarily, Joan said, “I think I’m with Blair on this one. I don’t like this at all.”
Joan took a step backwards. “But I think we should get some pictures of it. And maybe phone the police. I dunno.”
A ripple of agreement went through the group. They took pictures. Joan and Blair taking turns, documenting it from every angle.
“Wonder how it looks from high up in the sky, from that vantage point?” Saoirse remarked, finally starting to come down from the initial high of first seeing the crop circle.
They all stared in silence at the crop circle. Like they were held hostage by its’ curious presence. Moments past. Saoirse could barely take her eyes off it as they walked back to their trucks.
Then they all drove back home.
Reluctantly, Rusty phoned the police and reported it at Joan’s urging.
Joan immediately put on a pot of coffee. Though no one drank it in the evening, she always did so when life was somehow out of the ordinary like it was right then. Saoirse knew that this was bound to go down in the family annals like other freakish events (the time the two-headed kitten was born or when the pipe burst in the middle of the night or when Uncle Hoyt rolled his truck and drank until he shit his pants). This will likely become a new mythology. The time the little gray men made a crop circle out back.
Rural life was full of the unrelenting supernatural. Haunted houses, witching for water, apparitions here, specters there, bedeviled creatures, it all made for a folk noir that was surely the country cousin of the urban legend. And of course, the House of Larkin was no different than any other farm family. Their late maternal grandmother, Ruby, had always asserted that banshees and bad fairies had followed the clan from Ireland to Saskatchewan. Ghosts imported from England of course.
Smelling the delicious aroma of fresh coffee, Saoirse poured herself one.
The phone rang.
“Wonder if that’s the cops calling back?” Saoirse called as she hurried to answer it.
“Hello,” she said.
It was Todd.
“Todd, you’re not gonna believe what-“
“Listen, Saoirse, we need to talk. I borrowed from Ward and we’re working on my truck tonight. And then him and I are gonna go down to the States this weekend.”
Saoirse shifted her stance, from one leg to the other.
“Oh…Okay, I guess. But I thought we were going to go down.”
“Yeah, uh. Listen, I need a break. I’m not saying breakup or anything. But, just like uhh, I need a break from things, from this relationship, from everything really.”
Saoirse was startled. That excited high she was floating on had suddenly crashed and she felt grounded, floored.
“Yeah I’ve been feeling like this for a while, just didn’t know what to say. I just do need to take a break, ‘kay.”
“Whatever,” she spat. She slammed the phone down.
Then she turned on her heels and stomped to her bedroom. But as the police were just pulling up to the house, no one took note of her or what had just transpired. Rather, her parents and her brother formed an excited huddle.
Saoirse collapsed into bed. She wept briefly. She found herself angry more than anything. Fucking douche. For an instant, she considered going to Blair who would likely confront Todd, perhaps even punch his lights out. But then she decided against it. I’ll just leave it be. Who knows, it’s likely even for the best. Besides, we have enough going on here with the pod people and all.
Playing with strands of her hair, whirling it around her index finger, Saoirse then felt self-doubt flood in. Am I not attractive enough to keep him? Or is it just that five-year itch or ten-year itch or whatever it’s supposed to be? What is the deal anyhow?
In the distance she could her the baritone voices of the police, her father’s own excited banter. Frasier occasionally letting off excited yips. Yet she had no desire to join in the melee.
Saoirse had always been woefully lacking in self-esteem. She remembered being called a troll in grade school and the childish taunt seemed to haunt her forever. It was an appellation she even said aloud sometimes when she examined herself in front of the full length mirror in her bedroom. But she had recovered from the injury to her psyche somewhat by their lengthy courtship. She had felt pride and dignity in the length of their coupling.
But now he had broken up with her on the eve of what would have been their fifth-year anniversary. Why did he have to go and do that? Probably because I wouldn’t lend him the money. But who knows, really?
Even though he had framed it as time off, that he would likely not return. She understood him well enough to know that he could be just as decisive as he was flighty. It was his skewed nature. That’s all.
Whatever. That’s that.
That raging, poetic quarrel within took an intolerant turn. She wanted to hate him, hate herself, and hate everything. It felt like she had swallowed night whole, darkness and blackness in one endless, indigestible mouthful.
Yet she just burst into tears again. She wept for what seemed like an eternity, as she hoped to expel all her demons in one full sitting. I’ll just let it out, she thought, as she roared into her pillow. She just curled into a baby ball and considered all.
As the storms of emotion stilled, she realized there was no use hating anyone. Todd or herself. She knew that humans were prone to error, to betray, to disappoint. It just finally happened. And she knew, most of all, that life often took unexpected turns, with plans often failing or falling short. So, our coupling appears to be over now, what of it? Relations sour all the time. People are full of heightened mischief; life is just inescapable sorrows. That’s all. Why not just accept it?
She heard the police finally leaving and things settling down. She waited a little longer until she judged the coast was clear. Then she emerged from her bedroom and left through the front door.
It was a beauteous late summer night, warm, still. Yet with a rural freshness that was undeniable. There was Baudelaire’s moon overhead, casting just enough light to guide Saoirse’s way as she headed back to the field, as she sought that mystical touchstone again.
She could hear Frasier panting as he walked beside her.
Don’t disturb it for heaven’s sake, Saoirse could still hear her mother’s entreaty from earlier that day.
But what was she disturbing really?
Coming to the edge of that great, deep indentation that was vaguely visible under the moonlight, Saoirse smiled.
Frasier licked her hand.
She strode to the center of the crop circle and laid down. Frasier, of course, trotted right along with her and laid down beside her. She could feel his big, black, wet, bulbous nose as it grazed the hollows of her neck.
Funny there’s not the usual hum of bugs. They must have their phones on vibrate. It struck her as odd to be jocose right then. Why, with a cosmic oddity like this literally underfoot, I should be fearful if anything. But she felt peace instead.
Saoirse stared skyward. I’ll just let go of it all, Todd, everything. And feeling a new and great mystery all about her, she closed her eyes and marveled at the wonder, the intrigue of it. She felt like one connecting to the pattern, dying to the weave of dots. She felt free.
THE NUTTY CLUB
Shaking the bag of peanuts under the sprawling Maple tree in the park, Brenda Lee hoped the sound would alert any squirrels in it. She knew from experience that it seemed to be their home base, their favoured tree in fact with a nice big hole in the trunk that they would pop in and out of. But nothing today. No sighting of the furry little friends that had become like a new family to her, just the gaping wooden hole like an empty womb.
Oh well next time, Brenda Lee thought as she dumped the contents of the bag on the ground, peanuts a happy brown sprinkle everywhere. She smelled the reek of a homeless man that walked past. Then she left the park.
Driving home, she had one of those blissfully, blank times when her mind seemed to be on auto pilot itself, not just the steering wheel set to cruise control for that five mile passage to their acreage outside of the city. It was a welcomed respite and it felt like a light had taken rest upon her. She sighed. Relaxed.
But as she pulled into the driveway, she saw that Tim’s motor cycle was already parked there. Uh oh…Wonder what that’s about? For they saw or heard little of their son, just cryptic phone calls late at night, the odd bits of forwarded mail, dwindling traces of a personage that had grown distant, remote, apart from them. How did that even happen? She wasn’t certain.
They had seemed like happy enough children, Tim and Andrea too. Summers spent at the West Coast of Canada, the Kootenai region in the interior of British Columbia. Family gatherings that came and went with the seasons. But then in the slowest of increments, like how dusk settles in the evening unbeknownst to the naked eye, a darkness descended upon her children, an unfathomable mass of disparate energy that left them anxious and insecure, lost and reeling. Then she found herself Mother to a pair of seeming strangers. Youths that became friendless or followers. Youths that lost themselves in so many other things. Diets. Dope. Romantic intrigues, real and imagined. Or whatever.
Seeing dusty prints on the floor of the front entrance, Brenda Lee fretted. Who tracked that in? I just did the floors! But hearing raised voices coming from below made her attention shift abruptly and she descended the basement stairs.
Henry, her husband, was seated across from Tim looking flushed and determined at the same time.
“How come you never help me out?“ Tim asked.
“I have helped you many times,“ Henry countered.
Reaching for the glass in front of him that Brenda Lee hoped was Canada Dry ginger ale but suspected was Canada Club, Henry took a measured drink.
Neither of them looked up to acknowledge her. Brenda Lee wasn’t sure if they even knew she was there. That is, until Henry shot a sideways glance at his wife but didn’t speak.
“You’re always feedin’ Andrea money. Don’t think I don’t know about that,“ Tim whined.
Shifting in his seat, Henry said, “ Come, come, she’s your little sister, “.
“I wouldn’t call thirty little,“ Tim scoffed.
Tim thrust his jaw forward and said, “What about the car loan then? You don’t know how many times I’ve almost been picked off on my Harley, “.
“ Sell the damn thing and buy a car then!“ Henry exclaimed, tossing his hands in the air.
“What a beater?“ Tim sneered.
Henry shrugged. He seemed angry, powerful, removed, like he was poised on Mt. Olympus and ready to bear down. Henry took a long pull from his glass before setting it back down.
The air was strained and yet Brenda Lee said nothing to ease the situation even though it was her nature to do just that. But an unspoken agreement existed between her and Henry to never interfere where he had already laid claim, especially with regards to family.
Henry believed Mothers were too soft on children, although had she wanted to, Brenda Lee could have given lots of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. Still she was beyond arguing that point or any other one because the fight had been taken out of her long ago. She only craved peace. She suspected that Henry blamed her about the children, about everything in fact. Yet she also knew that he would never admit to colossal failure, be it a botched surgery or an errant child. He was only able to allow truth to come to him in degrees, in small patches like light that slips between the slats in a window blind, fingers of light that occasionally pointed the way. But not too often.
Watching the Homeric scene before her, Brenda Lee suddenly longed for the park, for the spacious peace of the outdoors, for the hushed, pedestrian humanity, the sense of utter unity under a sublime and sheltering sky. She exhaled helplessly.
She stared at her son. He gave her a nervous, guilty glance. But said nothing. Brenda Lee thought she could smell Tim, the slightly sour scent from an unwashed body, nails blackish, uneven. She was reminded of the homeless in the park and shuddered.
Turning to go back upstairs, Brenda Lee wished only to extricate herself from the scene, for it was like creation had erred somehow before her, devious dna that bloomed into disease, flowered into tricks of nature that no one had anticipated. She didn’t want to give witness to it, just as she stared straight ahead when visiting Henry at the hospital, daring not to turn her face to see the sickly in all their contorted poses, their juices and spittle flowing free. Like a study in death masks so it seemed to her. Ghastly.
At least I got my squirrels fed today, Brenda Lee thought, though the notion seemed like a consolation prize.
Standing at the top of the stairs, Andrea beamed down. Wonder what she wants? Though Brenda Lee knew that Andrea had a penchant for drama herself, a wildly vivid imagination that seemed to drive her inner workings and that led her to become especially animated in trying times like these.
“ What’s Tim doing? “ Andrea whispered to her Mother when Brenda Lee reached the very top.
Brenda Lee shrugged. She did not wish to inflame things. Yet she knew that Tim revolved around two poles, the need for money and the desire to cast blame, pivot points for his reality, like ties that held his very being into place. And tonight it seemed to be a mixture of both, Brenda decided.
“ Who tracked that in? “ Brenda Lee complained when she was confronted by the sight of the dusty footprints once again. She brushed the edge of the prints with her sock foot.
“ Dunno, “ Andrea said. She stared eagerly down the stairs, not even returning her Mother’s gaze.
“ That’s not what I meant! Stop twisting my words! “ Henry suddenly bellowed
“ Aww fuck, “ Tim replied.
Brenda Lee whirled around and stood listening.
Andrea shot her a quick, excited glance. But her daughter resembled an eavesdropping child more than the woman of thirty that she was.
“ Well I’ve had enough of this nonsense! “ Henry roared, as he stormed up the stairs with tumbler of whiskey still in hand. Moments later, Tim bounded up the stairs behind him, taking two steps at a time.
Mother and Daughter had discretely moved out of the way and were now standing in the living room, listening still but trying to valiantly give an impression otherwise. Brenda Lee dropped her gaze. Andrea fumbled with her phone.
“ Y’know Tim, I’ve just about had it with you, “ Henry began.
The two men, father and son, had squared off and were facing each other.
“ Why? “ Tim challenged.
“ You’re a drug addict! “ Henry exclaimed.
“ You’re an alcoholic! “ Tim returned.
There was silence.
Andrea giggled. Brenda Lee frowned at her daughter whose eyes suddenly resembled blue flames.
“ You’re a drug addict! “ Henry shrieked.
“ You’re an alcoholic! “ Tim shouted.
Andrea broke into laughter, though she quickly covered her mouth with her hand. The oversized thumb that seemed to be the bane of her daughter’s existence stood upward. Her eyes shone gleefully as she continued to watch them.
Should I say something? Brenda Lee wondered. Then it occurred to her. What would she even say to an exchange like that? Yet she knew from experience that it wasn’t always prudent to intervene, that it was wise to pick and choose your battles, especially where this bunch was concerned.
Brenda Lee studied the two men. Henry was adamant, with the steely surgeons visage, the elegant dress clothes, the bearing of nervous exhaustion about him like a tarnished halo. It occurred to her that Henry saw little demarcation between the battlefields of home, work and life. Though not lacking in sentiment, it all just blurred and blended into one grand fight, one great moment of tension in the O.R. or the dining table or even as he weaved through the traffic like a net all about him on his way to and from work everyday. She understood his fear of losing. She knew that he would battle things all the way. His inner spirit plainly visible during the day. Henry donned his armour without hesitation. He was a David clashing with the Goliath which was the world. That much was evident to her.
But with Tim it was a different story. He was growing even more remote. He was a teasing riddle to her, to them all really and always had been when even as a child he would have mysterious, moody outbursts, like a growing discontent lurked under the surface and was straining and poised to breakthrough. Here he stood like Absalom, defiant, decayed beauty , then he opened the door and left.
Henry sighed. But he quickly recovered into his drink, into the nightly news that he followed with a religious fascination, even calling out to the T.V. his disbeliefs and dissatisfactions, sometimes seemingly deluded notions that even worried Brenda at times. Could that be part of his whole eye tic thing? She worried, wondered.
Andrea, now fully animated, followed Brenda Lee from room to room. Her mother recognized the aura of wonder about her daughter, the same nervous energy that propelled her as a child, the high strung excitability that made her laugh and pee and cry in succession. It wore Brenda Lee out back in the day and she still found it disconcerting. For it made Andrea unseemly and child like, with a cruel, cagey docility like one hoping to be witness to a scene, the grand and magnificent unravelling of Mount Olympus, as they fell to the ground one by one.
Walking in tandem with her Mom, Andrea leaned over and whispered, “ Wasn’t that hilarious? “
Brenda Lee frowned. “ Not funny in the least, “.
Andrea stomped to her bedroom. But Brenda Lee hardly noticed as she set to work removing the offending footprints at the front door. One. Then the other.
Once they had recouped their space and the mood settled into the usual cool, regularity, the nightly rhythms of television and small talk ensued with the flatness of a truce.
Brenda Lee sipped the last of the day’s coffee. She wouldn’t make another pot in the evening, never did unless company came and that was becoming less frequent all the time.
“So what did he want?“ she finally asked.
“What do you think,“ Henry said, the irritation evident in his voice. He kept his face glued to the T.V. screen and remained silent.
Over the years, Brenda Lee had had as many imagined conversations with Henry as real ones. Sometimes she thought their relationship existed in the abstract, in fevered imagination as much as the banality of the everyday, for when she feared to confront him in person, when she wished only for peace, when she strained to get through the everyday that was when she would take their exchanges to another level, to her silent inner world for judgement and adjudication. It was as comforting a tendency as it was reflexive. Even now.
She studied her husband. While he sank into spirits and the latest episode of The Simpsons, she juxtaposed their inner world with their outer reality and found a disconcerting collage of raw emotion and ugly intent like their world had fallen under the hands of some mad artist.
Had Henry given up on Tim, on everything? No. Henry would never give up, though he may just opt to survive, to just get through things. Henry always strove for a higher ground, for a wider settling of affairs even if success per se was eliminated somehow. He was always fond of saying, “ We’ll make the best of it.“ And he did. Shouldering huge back logs of operations, dwindling medical budgets, whatever fired raged on the home front, he persevered.
She sensed that he held it all delicately in check until holidays came, and they fled for the beaches on the West Coast or elsewhere and he transformed overnight into “good-time Hank “, clad in ball cap and sandals and with the ubiquitous beer in hand, roaming, exploring, the irreverent teller of bawdy tales and recycled jokes, slumping over in hot tubs and hotel rooms, bloated, pontificating.
Was he ashamed of Tim and the rest of his family? She wasn’t certain. But she didn’t think so. Henry was no snob. He had come up through the crucible of the working class, admitted to medical school narrowly after several attempts and only on the grounds of a maternal grandparent who had been a physician in Ireland, so elitist were the policies in Canada that hard work and ambition were inconsequential, while family connection was everything. Brenda Lee knew that after his own long struggle to achieve, Henry couldn’t understand why his family didn’t do likewise. Why didn’t his kids chase after the brass ring like he did? Why didn’t they at least try? Blue collar Tim with his heroin habit and his dry walling gig, indifferent to academics, too small for athletics, it seemed that he sought nothing, settled for anything while Andrea flitted from one artsy endeavour to the next, milliner, potter, documentary film maker and now even selling home made crafts on Etsy. Brenda Lee knew that it made no sense to Henry and he was just as apt to shut it all out. Sometimes when Henry said, “ They’re motives are selfish as usual, “ she heard herself agreeing inwardly. For they never followed his lead, they never listened to their parents, wilful tots that became disaffected adults. But where did it all begin? Brenda Lee wondered.
Probably the very worst of it was Tim stealing pills from Henry, left over pain meds, whatever he could scavenge from his Dad’s office, pretending to be there on a friendly visit and then grabbing wild handfuls and stuffing his back pack. How old was Tim when all of that started anyhow? 12 or 13. Yet he had been raiding Henry’s bar long before that when at the age of ten he mistook a cooler for a soda and drank it and to his delight found that he preferred it to regular pop. The rest was history of course.
Brenda Lee knew that she and Henry were as much to blame, however. Somewhere in their affirmative years, their progeny had realized their father was not a God but very flawed and mortal and that their mother was not an angel but something sideways, something else. They had never forgiven them for this realization apparently. Would they ever?
Rubbing her temples with her thumbs, Brenda Lee then had an even darker thought. What does Henry think of me? She remembered the dismissive glance he gave her when Art and Laurie pulled into their driveway to say hi on their way back from their Mediterranean cruise.
Laurie emerged with a near glowing tan, recounting one comic anecdote after another while Art, a friend and fellow surgeon, stood by beaming with his usual aura of silent pride. Laurie, the over achiever who set real estate records and who managed to volunteer at the art gallery on the side, always elicited such a response from their circle, though it seemed to be shrinking by degrees now. Did they even have a circle anymore? Brenda Lee wasn’t certain but she doubted it.
But they aren’t part of the sandwich generation in the same way that Henry and I are, Brenda Lee fretted. Laurie’s parents passed away a long time ago while Art’s parents are making a long, slow, dignified climb to agedness, still attending church, still part of polite circles that live in their own homes and frown at new fashions and worry about weeds out back.
That’s in no way comparable to what Henry and I are going through with our elderly, crazy parents! Old Joe, as Henry referred to his Father, drinking himself into diabetes and dementia and having to be forcibly placed into a Care Home where he raises a daily ruckus over smoking indoors. And my beloved Mother, who haunts her neighborhood pub to play vlt’s, still living in her own home, still crooning to her old country records, especially to my namesake Brenda Lee, yet with her fine, rickety frame and the icy Regina streets, the sheets of sleet that continually pour down, it’s a worry to know that she hurries to and fro there all the time.
Watching as Henry’s one eye fluttered involuntarily as it did from time to time, Brenda Lee wondered just how long has that been going on for now? Is that stress? Or is that the forerunner of something much worse? Should I bring it to his attention, he is a medical man after all? Or is it just a trifle I can overlook?
Yet as she heard some slamming, Brenda Lee’s gaze shifted from her husband to the direction of the noise. She went to investigate it.
Upon entering the kitchen, Brenda Lee saw Andrea who promptly frowned.
“ What’s wrong? “ Brenda Lee queried, though she sensed it was just a continuation of earlier events as so often happened in the Kilbride household, passion unfolding exponentially.
Brenda Lee watched as her daughter was making a juice cleanse concoction, something filmy looking and sea foam coloured and she then frowned also. Does Andrea live off those drinks? When was the last time I saw her actually eat?
Between blasts of the blender, Andrea spoke. Her tone as sharp as the blades though.
“It’s just that-“
“Whenever I try and bond with you-“
Done with the blender, Andrea poured the liquid into a tall glass and began drinking it, all the time eyeing her Mother suspiciously.
Brenda Lee paused thoughtfully. “Bond?“ she asked.
Rinsing the glass out and setting it in the dishwasher, Andrea said, “Ya like talk, joke, anything.“
“How do you mean?“ Brenda Lee asked, careful not to vary her tone of voice and be subsequently accused of being defensive or hysterical or a myriad of other contrivances.
“Like when I tried to joke with you earlier,“ Andrea complained.
“When?“ Brenda Lee asked.
“Like when they were yelling at each other,“ Andrea said.
“Th-that was hardly funny,“ Brenda Lee sputtered.
Andrea looked at her Mother sternly but remained silent.
“You’re not just living off those drinks are you?“ Brenda Lee queried.
“Oh for Chrissakes,“ Andrea groaned and she turned and began to march out of the kitchen but bumped into Henry instead.
“What’s wrong?“ he asked upon seeing her darkened countenance.
“Oh she’s accusing me of starving myself again,“ Andrea cried. Then she flounced past
her father and stomped up the stairs to her bedroom.
Henry sighed. Topping up his drink with more Canada Dry, he paused next to Brenda Lee and said, “I wish you wouldn’t say things to set her off. That’s all I need.“ The veins on his nose, a whiskey nose for certain, had spread like pink tendrils along the skin of his face reminding Brenda Lee of the light tread of flowers in the park, near her squirrel feeding tree.
“I-I didn’t,“ Brenda sputtered.
Henry looked at her flatly, sipped his drink.
“I just asked if she was living off those drinks, that’s all,“ Brenda Lee insisted.
Shaking his head ever so slightly, Henry said, “But you know how even any mention of food- “
“Well what was I to think!“ Brenda Lee barked though she was horrified by the sound of her voice even as the words leapt from her throat, a shrill runaway tone that caught her as much by surprise as anyone.
“I haven’t seen her eat in days. I just asked is all,“ Brenda Lee remarked in the most even tone she could muster.
Staring hard at her, Henry said, “I see her eat all the time. Always taking yogurt cups up to her room…You know how she has to do her own thing all the time.“
“Well I didn’t know that,“ Brenda Lee began, “It’s not like anybody tells me these things.“
“ Oh for God’s sakes Brenda no one has time for that, “ Henry grumbled as he left the kitchen. She watched him return to the T.V. in time to see Grandpa Simpson sitting on an oversized egg and hatching it.
With her mind rushing like some runaway train, Brenda Lee sought to regain her bearings. Too late for more coffee, it’ll just keep me up. Too late now for a walk or even for a night feeding, she also decided. Rubbing her temples once again, she just hoped that she wouldn’t develop that funny eye twinge thing that Henry had. You just never know…
Settling into bed with a book, Brenda Lee tried to read but soon tossed it aside. Her inner voice was a restless spirit that entreated. Do the kids hate me? Maybe Tim. Probably Andrea. Children sometimes hate their parents. They just do. And with both of them still unattached it doesn’t help matters, they are still mired in the past, still cast in the role of child, though grown now, carrying baggage and roles and identities that haunt and cling, divide and conquer. Brenda Lee believed that experience was the cure all. We forgive our parents because we become our parents. It was as simple as that. But not in their case of course. Nothing ever seemed to settle into happy equal measures in the House of Kilbride. It had begun to feel like they were a part of some doomed ancient lineage, damned medieval dynasty of blood curse and attrition. Does everyone feel like this? Maybe sometimes.
She closed her eyes. She sank into the stillness of being. Effortlessly, she returned to the park, to that particular tree where she fed the squirrels, to the lake where she hand-fed bread to the gathered fowl and then that old abandoned building on the outskirts of the city, on the way to their acreage, dotted with rabbits that she brought bags of organic cilantro and carrots, feeding her ever growing flock like she was a saviour on the prairies, apostle of the plains. Gophers too. It had become her mid-life passion. I’ve exchanged my skin kin for a furry family, she thought, though somewhat sheepishly. For having eschewed the company of humans, she had become an urban wildlife rescuer, feeding them, making phone calls over creatures in distress, a Canada goose injured and separated from the flock, a beaver waddling unceremoniously up the main drag, a baby mouse that she mistook for a glob of pink chewing gum that she scraped off the sidewalk and nursed to health at home. Whenever Henry asked why she descended so freely into the realm of animals, Brenda Lee would just casually say, “Because people are fucked.“ Why else? People are fucked, aren’t they? She believed so, at least from the experience of her fifty five years. Her family. Everyone on the news. Most everyone in fact.
Sometimes she believed that she belonged to a secret underground of care givers, a hidden railway of support that would be canonized at some future date, saints that lived with cloisters of cats, an enclave of rabbits, that hushed sense of good will that sprinkled itself like holy water across neighborhoods of the nation. It would give her a momentary rush of excitement. Then at other times she felt the cutting edge of curious onlookers and blushed instead.
But tonight she just body surfed through a sea of memory, with scattered bits of affect washing up like driftwood on the shore. Visionary strays. Wanton wildlife. Brenda Lee had put aside the hopes and fears, mortifications and pleasures of the day and wished only to glide to sleep. That’s all.
Then she heard a knock at her bedroom door.
“Come in,“ Brenda Lee said.
Expecting Henry, though she wasn’t certain why, Brenda Lee was surprised to see Andrea as the door swung open. They all had their own bedrooms and Brenda Lee assumed that her daughter had retired for the night, though not necessarily surrendered to sleep but rather yielded to a romantic grandiosity that often reached full-flower in the evening, enabled by chick flicks, late night talk shows and of course, the shopping channel. Along with her sweeping artistic visions, it was enough to fill Andrea with a dreamy preoccupation, spellbound within her own inner sanctum, that strange world of eating disorders and fashion, tics and T.V. But not tonight it seemed. Emerging from the minimalist splendour of her bedroom, Andrea appeared bent on a mission.
“Did you actually like that last batch of crafts I marketed? Be honest?“ Andrea bluntly asked.
“Of course,“ Brenda Lee said.
Standing over her, Andrea appeared almost bemused. With her Ophelia hair hanging in wildly untamed locks, she had the same sonorous cast as some feral creature captured, cornered except that in her visage, in the firmness of her jawline lay a sort of repressed savagery, the deliverance of the beast.
“You do beautiful work!“ Brenda Lee insisted.
“Really?“ Andrea asked, though her tone was weak, doubtful.
“Really,“ her Mother replied.
They paused. Andrea slipped her hands into her housecoat pockets and simply said, “I don’t believe you.“
Brenda Lee stared at her daughter. She saw the eyes like cold gray steel, the unflinching face, that same tireless expression of sorrow, an insecurity that ran raw and epic and deep like she was cleansing and fasting from the depths of her soul rather than from cellulite. It unnerved Brenda Lee. Just like the shadows that slowly crawl up the wall at night, it, too, seemed to surround her.
What was the root of her daughter’s colossal self consciousness? Was it really the over sized thumbs, the toe thumbs that Tim had teased her about when they were children? The thumbs she took pains to down play and even keep hidden from sight as she was doing now with her hands thrust deep into her housecoat pockets? Shouldn’t she be over that now? You would think so as they had gotten her therapy for her low self esteem after all?
Is she bingeing again? Brenda Lee wondered, though she dared not broach the subject. Not with Andrea feasting steadily on a diet of recriminations.
Rather, Brenda Lee straightened up in bed and said, “You do lovely work and you know it. I’ve always been so proud of you for it. And how you haven’t uhhh…succumbed like so many others your age. “
Andrea looked at her quizzically.
“What do you mean?“ Andrea asked.
“Oh you know, all those poor gals who flash their boobies online for money,“ Brenda Lee explained , in reference to the sort of obscene cottage industry that had sprung up on the web, one that she had learned about through documentaries on T.V.
Andrea erupted into shrill laughter.
“At least you just sell arts and crafts online and nothing else,“ Brenda Lee explained.
But as Andrea tittered, Brenda Lee’s face fell.
“You’re funny,“ Andrea remarked.
“I’m so grateful that we have money so you don’t have to resort to all that,“ Brenda Lee explained, warmed by her very own words.
Andre paused. She stared at Brenda Lee hard.
“So you’re saying that you’re propping me up then?“ Andrea said.
“Of course not,“ Brenda Lee replied.
“Well it sounds like it,“ Andrea said.
Brenda Lee stiffened in bed. What is with her tonight? Is she giddy from low blood sugar, a lack of glucose to the brain? She searched Andrea’s face for any sign of softening, for the ease of conciliation but saw none. Instead, her daughter’s cool eyes had darkened and narrowed, her jaw was set as firm as a trap.
“Oh for God’s sake,“ Brenda Lee sighed, looking about helplessly.
Andrea was adamant.
“You know what I mean,“ Brenda Lee insisted.
“No I don’t,“ Andrea sniffed.
“Look what I mean to say is that I’m just glad you’re not as desperate as some. That we are able to help if need be,“ Brenda Lee explained.
“Sure,“ Andrea scoffed.
“Look Andrea, did you come into my room to give me a headache?“ Brenda Lee asked.
Andrea did not reply. Then after a calculated pause, Andrea said, “I hear you saying that you guys are just propping up my business. I suppose that’s why Tim’s nose is so out of joint these days. “
Exasperated, Brenda Lee said, “You’re making me dizzy.“
“Mom!“ Andrea wailed.
“You kids are killing me,“ Brenda Lee said, shaking her head.
“You always say that whenever I try and talk to you!“ Andrea cried.
“Would you like me to have a stoke or something?“ Brenda Lee whined.
“It’s always a stroke, cancer, brain tumor…fuck,“ Andrea said as she wheeled about and stomped out of the room.
Opening her end table drawer, Brenda reached in and felt for the pill bottle inside. She plucked it out and swallowed the sleeping tablet down in one, hard, dry lump. The very meds that Henry had prescribed for her out of sheer exasperation when she had slept fitfully on end for weeks, even leaving their acreage some evenings to haunt late night diners and donut shops. Won’t let any wife of mine end up one of those Tim Hortons freaks, Henry opined as he handed her the scrip before rushing out the door to work one morning. It had become part of her night time ritual along with prayer and flossing her teeth.
But tonight she opted to dispense with all routine. She shut her eyes. She sought sleep. That’s all.
The next morning as they nearly collided at the front door, Henry leaving for work and Brenda Lee leaving to do her urban wildlife routine. He paused when he saw her holding the bags of feed, loaves of bread for the birds, big plump cabbages for the bunnies and a Nutty Club bag of peanuts for her beloved squirrels. Henry frowned. But he brushed past her and hurried to his car as he was already running late.
Brenda Lee, who was just daring him to challenge her behavior, did feel relieved by his silence. She just didn’t feel like a scene, at least not first thing in the morning. Because then she really did feel like she was experiencing a stroke or something. Rather, she just strode in the opposite direction to her truck, setting the bags on the seat beside her and driving off.
She watched Henry driving ahead in the distance. The golden Lexus faintly gleaming under the morning sun, elegant carriage carrying him off. She marvelled at how little she felt towards him. Though they had a shared history, Brenda Lee felt only a spotty connection, a grand unravelling as indifferent as it was meandering, like the prairie road full of pot holes that she drove on.
But it had become like that with all of them really. Her kids too. She sighed in a pained sort of relief when she found herself all alone at home, when Henry was working late and Andrea had gone out. For then their abode that felt like it was built on top of Ur became hushed and tranquil and affirming once again. She loved that sense. But it was all too rare these days, she noted.
When she finally reached the park, she sought that familiar tree. Ground zero. The morning light was climbing down from the heavens like an angel descending. Brenda Lee shook the Nutty Club bag of peanuts and the plastic crackled noisily. She looked for the squirrels but saw none. What nobody up yet? Oh well, it’s still early she decided. Then she sat down on a nearby bench and waited. She closed her eyes and smiled.
Walking down the hallway from the bathroom to Katie’s bedroom, I felt more like I was moving in a wavy, dream world. It was dusk. The evening hush had settled in making all a shadowy, netherworld of sleepy, passionate release, reality down. Willow wrapped around my legs a few times. I could hear her purr and feel her sonorous touch. I could see her outline in the growing dark, even though she was black as night itself.
I’ll just say goodnight to Katie, tuck her in. That’s all. Same as ever. Maybe Nate’s with her already, I think, reading her a bed time story, settling her in. Feeling a fog of fatigue, I just wanted to get to bed myself, let Morpheus drag me under with his clasped hand. The day had been long and now I wanted the night to be even longer still.
Opening the door, I see his penis. Pink and vulgar and exposed. Then I feel a crash of night falling in my brain, a sudden darkness deleting all.
“What the fuck are you doing!” I shriek
Nate bolts upright. Katie stirs in her sleep.
Instantly, he drops and covers his exposed member with his bathrobe.
I lunge at him and he ducks out of the way. Hitting the bed face first, the softness and warmth doesn’t register, though, not the teddy bear quilt I become tangled in. Katie rolls over, still asleep but murmuring.
“Nuthin,” Nate protests
“Nothing!” I whoop
Katie sits up in bed. I turn to her. “It’s okay baby, go to sleep.”
She lays back down.
Nate leaves the bedroom heading down the hallway. I hurry behind him and shut her door quietly in frantic hope that she stays asleep.
Mid-way down the hall, I tackle him from behind.
“What the fuck are you doing?” he cries, as he shakes me off him.
Stumbling backward, I almost fall.
“What in the fuck were you doing?” I seethe, whispering now.
“Nothing! I was just whacking off because I was too lazy to get up and go to our room. I was just too comfortable to move. That’s all. Besides, she was asleep anyhow.” he whines
In the dark, he looks almost like an outline, a brief sketch rather than a full-fledged human.
“Bullshit,” I snort
“Oh come off it,” he scoffs. He walks to our bedroom and lays down.
Then he rolls away from me.
Staring for a moment, I am at a loss. Should I keep talking to him about it? Should I phone the police? Or should I just plunge a butcher knife into his throat like that reptilian portion of my brain is telling me to? I don’t know…
God knows, I’m not certain what just went on? Could he be telling the truth? Could it just be poor judgement, sloppy impulse management as he contends? He is obtuse enough as the next. He is capable of incredible acts of indiscretion and just plain stupidity, that’s for certain. I’ve seen enough of that over time.
But I doubt it.
Feeling like one frozen in time, fossilized as amber, I can’t move. I just stand and stare at him lying in our bed.
Finally, he says, “Oh come on…just come to bed already. Everything’s fine.”
I turn and leave the bedroom. I shut the door ever so quietly. As I walk to the kitchen, I feel rather that I’ve stumbled into some surreal, new world, plunged unawares down the rabbit hole. I shiver first. Then I begin to plot what to do.
Feeling the rain misting down as I hurry to load the car, I curse under my breath at this liquid insolence. Why in the fuck would it have to start raining on top of everything else? Go figure…But I grab all the absolute necessities, the keep sakes too, my purse and phone and lap top, photo albums and a box of special things put away high in the hall closet. Next, I load the cat. Her dish and litter box also. As could be expected, Willow fights like a tiny, mythical demon. But there’s no way that I’m going to leave her behind. Then I begin to load the trunk with some of Katie’s clothes and things. Her special Pooh Bear. Though my mind is cracking like the thunder overhead, I try to be as methodical as possible. Finally, I rush back into the house to get her.
Gotta get out of here before he realizes what’s going on. More than anything else, I just want to make a clean getaway. No drama. No melt downs. Nothing untoward or out of the ordinary that will traumatize my toddler or even make her question the security of her existence. She’s only three years old after all. I must do as much damage control as possible.
Scooping her up, I carry her to the car. She still smells fresh from the bath and baby powder I had given her earlier. Luckily enough, she stays sleeping and I’m glad that she has always been good in that respect. I buckle her into her car seat and drive off.
Just as we pull out of the driveway and spill onto the street, I glimpse Nate coming out the front door in the rear-view mirror. Exhaling deeply, I hit the pedal.
Glancing down at the gas gauge, I’m relieved to see that it’s three quarters full. Good, that should be more than enough to get us to Moranville. It was the next town over, nearly a small city in fact with its growing resource sector. We’ll check into a hotel. Don’t want to bother calling anyone this late, even though the truth was that I didn’t have too many people to call anyway. Besides, Missy or Carol, there wasn’t anyone else and things were always hit or miss with the latter anyhow.
I just want to leave fast. That’s all.
So, I drive to the highway and leave the ashes and ruins our town had suddenly become. The rain began to pour. I heard the hard cracks of thunder. Willow growled from inside her cat carrier. Through the windshield I saw the magnificent illumination from streaks of lightning, bolts falling like Satan. The night was gothic, primal, unrestrained. All was black, expansive. It was the time of ending as evening tends to be, this darkly closure. I had the eerie sense that life was moving and mounting against me, reality inverted. But I drove on. Into this new uncharted territory that my personal reality had become, I steered.
Yet like nagging demons, my concerns revisited me. Could he have been telling the truth? Probably not, I decide and even if he was honest, who needs to be around someone so careless and myopic anyhow? It was just too much. Besides, there was the issue of his phone, the computer room.
Nate never let me touch his phone. Then he would disappear into the computer room sometimes for hours. Probably perusing porn, I knew. Most men do. For it was a cultural stain that left few untouched, aren’t there ten-year-old porn addicts these days, a thought that made my stomach suddenly pinch? Yes, it was all too likely, I feared. But at least he wasn’t assaulting Katie, I told myself consolingly. Or had he already?
Hit by that staggering, juggernaut of a thought, I nearly drove off the road. I quickly had to swerve and readjust to return to my proper lane. OMG! What next? Just what Pandora’s box had been opened?
I cry quietly. Not wanting to wail as I believe that I could, I just keep it down to a low, bubbling sob. I don’t want to wake Katie and upset her after all. It’s always about the child, isn’t it? At least for me it is, though I can’t say the same for many nowadays though.
Pulling into Moranville the rain has ceased, I see a puddle of light gleam in the glow of my headlights. From raging, inclement night it has settled into an almost twinkling, Impressionist like cityscape, as trickster nature teases and emerges.
Upon checking into Imperial Motel, I scurry to get us set up in our room for the night.
“Momma,” Katie moans, then begins crying. She clings tight to me as my purse inadvertently spills on the counter ledge, all a sideshow of Smarties and breath mints and Handy Wipes. I set the cat carrier beside it. Willow peers out, black velvet with flashing, gold eyes. She hisses. The front desk attendant looks at me bemused. I catch a waft of his breath and it smells like fruity alcohol. Then I spy a supersized, travel mug behind the desk and I know. We’re not the only ones’ harboring secrets in the night, now are we?
It’s almost the prototypical, shit, prairie motel seemingly in the middle of nowhere. But it will do for the night or maybe even for several as I scramble to get a plan, a new life in motion. The floor tiles are cracking. Several of the neon letters advertising Imperial Motel have burnt out, spelling IMP Motel instead. I stand in some sort of strange afterglow, tubular red and blue. Then a new fear hits me.
Fuck, I hope my credit card works as the Front Desk Attendant feeds it through the machine. I hold my breath. I, so, don’t want to have to give him a hand job or something. And I nearly rejoice at the mechanical ring of verification.
We hurry to our room. Number 6.
Katie is screaming now. I feel the tears streaming down her cheeks pasted wet upon my neck. A big glob of saliva slithers onto my breast bone. Her baby blonde hair is fly away, messy.
“Shh, it’s okay baby. Momma’s here. Go to sleep.”
Frightened by the sudden nocturnal intrusion of these unfamiliar surroundings, I rock her in my arms back to sleep. She doesn’t resist long, though, sleepy as she is.
Next, I release Willow and she springs out like a caged tiger. The cat runs from corner to corner, from bedroom to bathroom exploring the new place. Thank God I could find a place that accepts pets, I think, grateful that the universe had sent even the smallest of mercies my way.
When things have finally settled down and into place, I exhale deeply. I feel like crying again. But I reach for my cigarettes instead.
Though I know that I should not smoke near her, I’m too drained to slip outside. So, I puff away in the dark. Then I realize that I’m doing just what Nate did, performing a vulgar and dangerous act near a child. That realization makes me feel cross not enlightened, however. As like most of us, I don’t want to meet my own contradictions period, be it in the dark or the light of day. Not ever. And especially not now of all times…
Just enjoy this smoke I tell myself and soon I’m engulfed in my own fumes.
Then sitting up in the bed. I begin to think hard. Yeah, Nate can’t fool me. I know he’s hauling some big ass secret, some baggage like a bundle of bricks, like most of us do. Like he’s a pervert or pedophile or something. Like him. Like me. Like now.
God knows, I carry a back pack of vice with me too. It’s just that I’ve done perhaps a better job of concealing it, from Nate, from everyone in fact. Whoever would have thought that when he and I met that fateful afternoon in a car wash in Calgary that it would end up in as a twisted trajectory as the one I’m now hurtling along? Go figure…But that’s life for you, I sigh.
For when this world first fell we all broke with it. We became the remnants of a broken paradise that shattered and scattered far and wide, shards that scrape us like Job, then even further fragments sweeping, dissolving into dust.
I blow a smoke ring. It seems to hang extra-long in the dim motel room.
The cat has joined me now in the bed. Having satisfied her curiosity about her new surroundings, Willow curls into a ball at my feet and seems to instantly sleep.
Yeah, I’m no saint. That’s for certain. The embezzlement. The hidden bank account. All of that before Nate and I even met, then keeping it secret from him and everyone. Like any other worldly traveler, I trade in secrets and devices, passions and vices. And you thought girls were all just sugar and spices, right?
But at least I have that little hidden nest egg for Katie and I. So many times I’ve tried to rationalize my crime, saying to myself in those most lonely, confessional hours that it’s just a normal event these days. Even nuns now get sent away for embezzlement hahaha. Everyone seems to be ripping off work then hitting the casino, right? Yet my rationalizations just don’t seem to stick, though. Deep down, I know that’s just not the case.
So, what is it then, that led to my most foul deed? Was it just the imp inside me? Or was it just naked opportunity, a raw practicality that hit me full frontal like nothing has ever struck me before. Could it be the promptings of a darkened soul, a wandering mind?
Who knows, maybe that’s why I did it in the first place? Maybe my subconscious prompted me to embezzle as it knew that I would be needing it for a rainy day like today? Go figure…But that’s not what I think just happened.
It smacks more of karma than anything. Yes, the cosmic wheel had turned another rotation. From when I ripped off of my former employer, crazy old Leo Danks, who wasn’t even aware of what I had done, to now being forced to flee after tonight’s grand rupture. It serves me right. That’s all I can say. But I wince upon that realization, however. For there is just one sticking point.
Katie. That precious little bundle on the other side of the bed. How could I ever involve her in such shenanigans? It’s just not right. That’s the one thing that I do know for certain in such a sordid mess as this. That’s my one regret.
I stub my cigarette out.
Then I lay down and try to get some rest in this so very longest night. In the dimness, I feel pin pricks from the cat’s claws every now and then.
While the fluorescent light overhead stared like a fixed eye, the class seemed as lifeless as ever. There were the usual rustlings of paper, binders thrusting and snapping, an occasional yawn. It was Homeroom B. It was the middle of the afternoon, study period in fact.
“Okay class, this is catch up time. So, take out any unfinished assignments and finish them please.” Mrs. Cline addressed the class.
She sat at the teacher’s desk at the front of the room. Mrs. Cline clutched her pen tightly. Though she had a mountain of papers in front of her to mark, she couldn’t concentrate.
Am I staring too much? she feared. Sure hope not…
But Mrs. Cline knew that her senses were in over drive and there was nothing she could do about it. She swore that she could hear her heart beating, the clock ticking overhead, everything. Like she had morphed into some super hero character, so it seemed.
Mrs. Cline tried not to glance front and center. As much as she could, her gaze swept to the left or right, to the rows of desks on the outer edges of the crammed classroom. But every so often her gaze would land front and center. It had to, just to balance things out and keep up appearances. That’s so important, she knew, especially at this stage of the game.
“Were we supposed to hand that art thingy in?” Logan asked
“Two days ago.” Mrs. Kline replied
The class laughed.
All heads turned towards Logan who preened, basked in the attention.
What a stupid little shit, Mrs. Cline thought. What does Adam see in him anyhow?
Then she forced herself to focus on the stack of papers before her. She began scratching corrections like a Mother Hen in the dirt. Better get myself caught up if I’m going to tell them to do the same, Mrs. Cline thought, ruefully. Practice what you preach…
Though she waded through the murk of book reports, grammatical errors and misspells, a grimy language all its’ own. Mrs. Cline plodded along. It was the unholy union of a young adult adventure novel and an English assignment. Sure fodder for restless, impetuous youth. Yet all the while she dutifully marked, a certain back story ran through her mind. She imagined herself as the protagonist, the heroine of the novel, who was hiding out in Marrakesh amidst scandal and danger. It was a story and setting that she found scintillating. It was a tale that spoke to her through and through.
But then someone farted. The classroom erupted into peals of laughter. Mrs. Cline looked up and frowned.
“Ewww!” Logan barked
Mrs. Cline scanned the classroom. She saw Adam look up from his notebook, then return to it. Adam’s so mature, she thought approvingly. Then she resumed marking her stack of papers.
When the home time bell finally sounded, Mrs. Cline looked up pleased. She was through a third of her work. But more importantly, the day was over and who knew what night would bring?
“Class dismissed!” she exclaimed
Mrs. Cline stared hopefully as the after-school melee began. Some shot out the door without hesitation. Good, she thought. Get lost. Others lingered about. They reminded her of the grayish, filmy embers that floated aimlessly above a camp fire. Why won’t they go? Just leave already, she thought, as several clusters remained, mostly girls who couldn’t tear themselves from their clique of friends.
Yet as Adam met her gaze, finally looking up from the open notebook which Mrs. Cline realized was now only being used as a prop and smiled coyly, she felt as if the floor had opened underneath her and a million, exotic, Marrakesh-like vistas had escaped. Her breath caught. She trembled.
“Mrs. Cline, do we need to bring that camping permission slip in by tomorrow?” Carni asked. A tall, hefty girl with a mound of dark curls was now partially blocking Mrs. Cline’s line of vision much to her dismay. Mrs. Cline balked inwardly at the intrusion.
Nodding, Mrs. Cline strained to return to Adam’s gaze.
But then Logan grabbed his friend by the shoulder and said, “Come, I wanna show you my new hoverboard.”
Adam’s face fell. He let himself be led away by Logan who jabbered loudly and non-stop about the merits of hoverboards versus skateboards.
Aww shit, Mrs. Cline thought.
By this time, the remainder of the class had filed out too.
She found herself alone at her desk and felt that exciting trap door snap shut once again. She knew her evening would be comprised of a crock pot stew meal and then whatever the twins had devised for the evening. It would be a dull, dutiful affair that she would likely carry off mostly on her own while Peter, her husband, tinkered about on his computer or car. Things varied little in their household, it seemed.
Mrs. Cline sighed. Maybe I’ll just finish marking these, she decided. But the words now seemed only a vulgar scribble, an alphabet of longing, amidst syllables of despair. She slapped down a final grade of B- on many of the reports. That’ll just have to do, she thought. Brecia, don’t be hard on yourself, either.
After rounds of Candy Land, a game she used to play herself as a child, Brecia began to feel weary. They were playing on top of the dining room table. Good, it’s 8 p.m., she thought, checking her cell phone.
“Bed time now. So, have a quick bath, brush your teeth, get your pajamas on and go to bed,” she instructed her twin seven-year-old girls, Maya and Madison. The words sprang from her mouth with a certain joyous release much the same as when she called home time, dismissed at school.
The twins disappeared to do as told. One thing she was grateful for was that they were such good girls and she had no issues with them. She didn’t know if her thirty-one-year-old frame would be able to handle life otherwise.
Collapsing on the couch, Brecia considered turning on the TV. But there was nothing that interested her. She had watched all episodes of the few shows that appealed to her and was now in a viewing hiatus. She sighed.
Then Peter walked past her with an armful of gadgets, colorful wires dangling like licorice. What in the hell is he doing now? Yet she knew better than to ask as he would then give a long-winded account of the joys and necessities of his latest DIY project. It was something she would likely regret, taking experience into account. Still, his distance towards the rest of them angered her. Why couldn’t he have played with the girls tonight? Why did he seem to be more bonded towards technology then the rest of them? It was his hobby of sorts, puttering about and at least he wasn’t one of those husbands with a neglected Honey Do list. Yet he was more absorbed in that then her. In fact, he seemed oblivious to all but whatever was presently piquing his curiosity.
When was the last time we made love? Had a date night? Or anything? She struggled to recall.
Even the times when they sat and watched a movie together, she still felt that sense of loneliness. She couldn’t enjoy the movie as a couple when such a huge disconnect existed between them. Rather, it was like she was sitting on the couch alone, staring at the screen.
May as well just be curled up with the cat, she sniffed.
Brecia had begun to resent him in his entirety, the graying hair and emerging pot belly, his nerdy interests, especially this newest fixation with the paranormal. She wished that he hadn’t started following TV shows on the dark side. What was that about anyhow? It was laughable as far as she was concerned. Spirits. Poltergeists. Demons. Was he fancying himself a Ghost Buster now? He had begun to even get paranoid about always waking up at 3 a.m., the purported witching hour, about that closet door in their bedroom that sometimes pops open. She stifled the urge to laugh out loud. What next?
Yet it was her neglect, her unmet intimacy needs, that made her feel a keen need for revenge on Peter. Is this how golf widows feel I wonder? Prob. Same shit different pile. That’s all.
Then she decided to check on the girls, bade them good night. Someone around here should, she thought, crankily.
Peter and her nearly bumped into each other in the hall. But when he mumbled and barely looked up, Brecia retreated to the bathroom. Fuck him, she thought.
Flipping the bath tub taps on, a torrent of water gushed out. Brecia undressed then looked at her cell phone coolly. She thought of Adam. Though alone, it was like his presence never left her side. She could summon him in her mind’s eye, conjure the smooth, blonde vision that dropped as easily as a celebrity sex tape. She posed and took a selfie. She sent him the nude pic. Almost instantly, he messaged back to her. A heart emoji.
She felt herself melt in the tub. Amidst bubble bath like bridal lace, she soaked, thought. So, glad that I have Adam. So, glad that I found him. Whoever would have thought? I never would have guessed that amidst that lack luster parade of fourteen-year old’s, there would be a shining star like him! Then she recalled their last encounter.
With his head nestled on her shoulder, they sipped watermelon coolers in the back of her SUV just as they always did.
“Yeah, so it’s like they don’t get along at all, my mom and dad. That’s why they split up I guess. But I’m at my Dad’s place mostly just because my Mom can be so roar. I’d rather live with my Dad. He’s so much easier.” Adam explained.
Yet Brecia thought she caught an edge in his tone, a quiet desperation that belied this seemingly matter of fact account. It made her want to nurture him even more.
She stroked his head. Poor guy, she thought…
He looked up and smiled at her. That smooth, boyish, blonde visage that was like a super nova and star burst all in one.
Continuing to run strands of his corn silk like hair through her fingers, she spoke, “I know what you mean. I can’t stand it at home any more either. It’s just so…empty…I dunno.”
They continued to chat and drink. They compared lives and stories and found curious similarities. Sounds like his mom berates him like how my dad used to treat me, Brecia thought, bitterly. Bastards and Bitches. Whatever…
She listened patiently until his lips finally found hers. Then they exploded in a frenzy and continued til her head dropped to his lap and she undid his zipper.
With her eyes closed, she continued to soak in the tub and wonder at her own behavior. Was it just lust or true love? Brecia wondered. Maybe a little of both…But how is what Adam and I are doing any different than what other teenagers are doing all the time? How is it any different than when I was his age and we were all sneaking around behind our parents backs? History repeating itself. That’s all…
Brecia had always tried to be the fun teacher, the popular one. So, she volunteered to coach cross country running, go on camping field trips. If you’re with them all day long, she reasoned, you might try and blend in and get along. Really, that’s a no brainer.
Finally emerging from the tub, she slipped on her housecoat and left the lavatory. Yet that incessant fantasy life of hers burst forth and trailed her like the steam from the bath. Adam. Beauteous blonde angel. Like a living figurine.
“Gotta take my anti-depressants,” she then remembered. She swallowed the capsules with some ice water. Having been diagnosed with a mood disorder, she took meds to even her emotional keel, waxing and waning affect that kept everyone guessing, including herself sometimes. Am I falling in love or just having a manic episode? For that volatile mix of attraction, infatuation and intensity combined with her own affective excesses made a curious gel at the best of times. One that she mused about but dared not tell her physician.
Standing in the kitchen with glass in hand, Brecia was approached by Peter.
“Hey I’m going to drive home for the weekend and take the girls. They’ve been bugging me for a while to see Nana and Pops. Do the grandparent thing y’know.” Peter announced
He smiled broadly at her.
“Oh okay…uh that’s sudden…Y’know I have a lot to get caught up on at school and things around here. Maybe I’ll just stay back this time,” Brecia said, sensing a possible opening for her and Adam and feeling a tingle of hidden glee.
“Okay, maybe help them pack. We’re taking off right after work tomorrow.” Peter said
Like a chandelier suddenly lit, so Brecia felt. Hurrah! They’ll be gone the whole time. She felt like a cat with feathers under its tongue.
Without hesitating, she packed the twins a bag and left it stationed by the front door.
Then she prepared herself for bed. With that familiar fantasy, glorious back story raging in her mind, as she brushed her teeth, checked to make sure all doors were locked, then collapsed under the covers. Yes, her inner screen was lit up like a million Mardi Gras, Carnival for certain. It teased her with a tormenting delight until she carried it right under to sleep.
Brecia dreamt of Adam. In a wildly abridged nocturnal scape that consisted of half-truths and longing, guilt laced with gusto, she saw a kaleidoscope of images, fleeing to a private island and setting up house together, all sunshine and aquamarine colors, white tiles everywhere. When Brecia awoke, she felt that split-second disappointment at having re-entered reality and promptly tried to go back to sleep and return to the same dream. But to no avail. So, she just arose instead.
Still her day seemed frantic and surreal anyhow. Cornering Adam first thing in the morning, they conspired in a deserted hallway.
“So come over tonight, okay. We have the place to ourselves.” Brecia urged, offered
Adam nodded, smiled. “I’ll tell my Dad that I’m staying over at Logan’s or something.”
Brecia smiled back. Then he whisked away. Elegant looking and mild mannered, he seemed like some sure-footed Prince rather than a school boy.
The back story raged in her head as she taught science to the class, fierce fantasy ready to manifest, spring to life. It was difficult for her to focus, relax. She felt like a child counting down the days before Christmas. But she persevered.
“Bristle cone pines in times of stress hoard all their life in one streak while the rest dies. It’s a pattern we often see in nature,” Mrs. Cline instructed the class.
She noticed that Carni and Logan were doodling vigorously in their respective notebooks rather than taking notes. But she didn’t mind. For it allowed her to steal occasional glimpses at Adam who sat near them.
When he looked up and winked at her, Mrs. Cline felt that familiar trap door underneath her snap open again. And she plunged through what felt like stories.
Their weekend together was a revelation. It was a glorious descent into a sensory wonderland of smooth skin and body heat, utterances and sweet divulgence. Brecia felt like she was fourteen again. Like young love had way laid her and took her on a trip down memory lane.
After their tryst, it was hard to settle back into routine. Monday morning found her at her desk nursing a cup of black coffee. It was 8:40 a.m. School hadn’t started yet. She sipped her coffee and began revisiting her fresh, new set of weekend memories. But then her cell phone jolted her back into awareness.
It was Peter.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing!” he shrieked, barely audible
“Fucking li’l pervo in our bed!” he screamed
“What?” Brecia said, feigning innocence
“I have it on film for fuck’s sake,” Peter roared. “I set up a camera in our bedroom to try and film any ghosts or anything and I-I-I got you two instead!”
Like the chill of a thousand winters suddenly set on her, Brecia felt fear like a cold, cutting force. Her blood raced. Her heart jumped.
“Yeah, and I’ve already phoned the cops so just letting you know they should be on their way soon.” he said, then he laughed bitterly and hung up.
Brecia dropped her cell phone on the desk top. It landed with a dull thud. Then she felt that trap door give away once again. Busted.
M..E. Mishcon’s fiction and poetry has been published in: The G.W. Review, The Arkansan Review (Spring 2020), Aaduna, Blue Unicorn (Spring 2020), Boston Literary Magazine, The Literary Nest, Girls Gone 50, The Berkshire Review, and Urthona. Her essays have appeared in The Women’s Times, The Artful Mind, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Albany Times Union, The Berkshire Edge, among others. Her novel, Just Between Us, won first prize from Birmingham Southern University’s Hackney Award. Her work has also been noted for commendation by Serpentine (1st Prize), and New Millennium.
She is a practicing psychotherapist, and lives in The Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts.
It started a while back. One of those gradually and then suddenly thing. It was the 80's and The Prez seemed to think that mental illness wasn’t chronic. Like he could wax medical because he had played a doc in some B movie in the ‘50s. He claimed long term hospitalization was inhumane (A.K.A., pricey) and set everybody free. No plan beyond opening the gates. It wasn’t a problem until it was.
I guess, there have always been some folks living on the street. For a while it had even become, sort of, fashionable. In downtown/uptown galleries there were things constructed from match sticks or gum wrappers displayed on marble pedestals tagged, Outsider Art. Absurd given that standing apart from the crowd was the point for most artists. This trend combined with the fact that hipster outfits strolled up Columbus or down Prince made out of burlap, consciously disheveled and frayed ‘just so’ looking, for all the world, knocked off the guy huddled in a doorway.
Of course, you couldn’t actually say this out loud. The homeless thing was on a long list of politically incorrect subjects.
Truth was, I was a sort of envious in a perverse way.
Street life seemed the ultimate free-lance position. Way better than being an independent contractor (copywriter, like me) because, at the end of the day, there need not be a material end product. Street life was the end product. Street people said what they wanted, slept where they would, answered to no one. I’m not totally romanticizing it. There was plenty of injustice out there. Especially for females. The term, bag ladies, for example was discriminatory. These women were out there, same as the men, living their commitment to the environment, recycling. Anyway, point is, even though there were obvious drawbacks. I felt there was something to be said regarding the merits of career vagrancy.
There were other advantages. Living on the edge cuts down on the need for entertainment. There was the low over head to consider, of course and potential networking. Over all, bums represented an admirable philosophical construct, the kind we used to discuss at college when we should have been studying. Life on the street was existential. Simone and Jean Paul could have guzzled café au laits and debated ‘c'est ou ca’ ‘til the cows came home. But street people lived the life.
Sure, most street people got this way being down on their luck. You’re not born homeless, and if you were, the big ‘THEY’ stuck you someplace so awful the street seemed better. Once, most street folk had jobs, homes, families and lost them someplace. Maybe they served in the military, PTSD, Semper Fi, all that. But it maybe it was exciting not to know exactly what was going to happen every minute of the Filofaxed day. Granted, this also involved not knowing where your next meal was coming from, but every choice had a down side. And okay, many street people hadn’t actually chosen this path. Street life may have been thrust on them, a result of cruel circumstance. But, that was true for a lot of us.
But this wasn’t about bums in general. Just one particular bum. My bum.
Many neighborhoods had an artful panhandler on the corner who came back and back again to the same spot no matter how often the cops ousted them. That was his slice of the Big Apple, possession being nine tenths of the law or some shit. He or she had squatted on a four foot square, claimed it as their co-op, no board approval necessary. After a while, you stepped over that spot with the person in it as naturally as you might a pothole. This wasn’t good, just true.
The bum in question, my bum, was Angelo. Angelo might have been any age between 30 and 60. Outdoor life, sans sun block, had a tendency to age you. Angelo’s ethnicity wasn’t clear. Maybe he was Italian, Semitic, Hispanic, Iranian, Armenian, Asian, or all of the above. He stood about 6' 2", usually bare chested, pants hiked high, cinched tight featuring that paper bag waist that GQ advertised last spring. He tended to keep his chinos cropped mid-calf and traditionally sported a pair of wing tips without socks. His hair was sparse, grey at the crown, and he was often smiling as if someone just told him a good joke. Not many teeth though. He should have flossed more. Shouldn't we all?
Angelo spoke several bona fide languages at the same time mixed in with one that I was, pretty sure, he invented. Also, the man was incapable of modulating his voice. When passing him on the street he boomed: "Hey you gotta humedheda, por favor. carfulata the man okay?"
"Yeah, if you say so Angelo," I was liable to reply, waving. I had learned to decipher what Angelo said because the key to the code was this: Angelo wanted to be helpful. He liked to ward off any potential threat, for example, warn me if a non-neighborhood street person was heading my way, say. A few times he alerted me to a friend of mine coming down the street. His communiques tended to be salutary if somewhat stentorian. When not busy bellowing, Angelo divided his time between petting poodles or gophering coffee for the tethered doormen on the block. Sometimes he swept garages for the attendants too busy playing cards to bother with car shelter cleanliness. In short, Angelo made himself useful. He was the local Boo Radley, as omnipresent as a view of the river and just as liable to be overlooked on a daily basis.
One day my husband came home from his office life job and after he greeted our dog he kissed me and checked for signs of goat cheese in the Sub-Zero before asking, "Have you seen Angelo lately?"
Although I liked Angelo, he had not been upper most in my mind. He had always seemed a safe street person, but a street person, none-the-less, making me a bum bigot. This was not good.
"Angelo?" I repeated trying to think where I had seen him last.
"Yes, our bum, Angelo. Have you seen him? Because I haven't."
Clearly, I had been less than diligent. Did I misplace Angelo? Blame shifting, I thought ruefully that Angelo had neglected to inform me of his comings and goings. When next I spoke to Angelo, I must chastise him for not mentioning his whereabouts.
I said as much to my husband who frowned, "Maybe he moved to a new neighborhood."
"Why, what's wrong with our neighborhood?" I say back, offended.
It was at this moment that I glanced out the window at our street. It snowed a few days ago and the stuff had gone from white to grey/black piled high against the curb. Litter was blowing about, sticking to street ice. Cars were backed up for miles blaring their horns in a cacophony of motor vehicle expletives.
"Maybe the traffic got to him. How should I know?"
Having been through Transcendental Meditation in the 60's, E.S.T. and Freudian Analysis in the 70's, and now, firmly entrenched in aerobic classes and Responsibility Counseling, I put an arm around my husband's shoulder.
"Maybe he just needed a change of scene, some time off. He'll be back."
My husband looked dejected. "This isn’t good," he said shaking his head. "Vagabonds don't take vacas."
"Babe, drifters drift," I rejoined but my husband just closed his eyes, breathed deeply. He knew when he was being comforted and condescended to because he has been through all that self-care junk too. Luckily, it is past 7 o'clock and time to order Chinese. Soon we were up to our ears in Moo shu, steamed dumplings, and cold noodles with spicy sauce.
* * *
The next day I was setting out to walk the dog when my doorman stopped me. "Hey, Ms. G. do me a favor? Bring me back a cuppa...light?"
"Sure," I said, then remembering the conversation with my husband the night before add, "By the way, have you seen Angelo lately?"
"No I haven't and I don't mind tellin’ ya I miss the crazy old coot. Worried too. Cold out there."
At that moment someone entered the building letting a door full of January air in with them. Angelo had a tendency to forgo outerwear and, for all I know, underwear as well. Not good. I set off with my dog, Chumly.
Chumly looked to be a cross between a teddy bear and a terrier. It was not uncommon for strangers to stop us, cop a feel of his wooly head. But not bums. Bums were not dog enthusiasts as a rule. Angelo had been the exception.
Angelo often bent over and scratched Chumly's furry neck. The pair always carried on a lively, if loud, conversation. Angelo shouted phrases like, "Gooobog yea, yea,yea...", while Chumly's tail ticked back and forth like a fuzzy metronome. Chumly seemed to understand Angelo perfectly. So when I turn to Chumly and said, "Let's look for Angelo," he agreed.
I looked into every alley, cubbie hole, and nook within a ten block radius. I checked with our block's Korean green grocer who shook his head. Likewise the Asian nail salon lady and the Chinese Noodle shop owner. They all said, "No. I not see Angelo. Where he go?"
Even Bob and Bob, the city wise garage attendants shook their collective heads, look puzzled. "Yeah, where he at?"
I stopped to ask all surrounding Irish, Indian, Hispanic doormen, Pakistani cab driver, young/hip/fit bike messenger, Italian pizza delivery guy, Gypsy palm reader, Russian dry cleaner, Armenian hot dog/pretzel/hot chestnut/sugar coated peanut vendor, and would-be-actor/dog walker in the vicinity. Everyone on the street uttered the same sentiment. "Yeah...where was Angelo?"
Definitely not good.
It was at this point that I considered calling the police. But what would I say? 'Officer, I'd like to report a missing bum.' It just wouldn’t fly. Contacting local hospitals would be futile as well knowing Angelo only as, Angelo. I was not, after all, his next of kin.
Finally, I stopped at a phone booth, looked up the number for the Salvation Army, told the tale. They we’re real nice but pretty busy over there. This city numbers a lot of Angelos. The upshot was that Angelo wasn’t even listed in their registry. I ended up pledging fifty dollars.
My last stop was at Sarge's. The Jewish deli guy offered me the traditional shrug to my question about Angelo. I headed home with the coffee for my doorman and a bagel with a schmear for me in a brown bag.
I handed the doorman his coffee out of the bag. He thanked me nicely enough, but asked what took so long to walk the dog.
"I was looking for Angelo," I said using my hand with the bag of bagel in it to point outside.
My doorman ripped a hole in the plastic lid of the cup, took a sip. "The super just told me that he heard that Angelo froze up from sleeping outside three days ago."
My doorman looked away from me, drank his coffee. I stumbled over to the elevator, pushed the button, waited for the car to take me up. I don’t remember putting the keys in any of the four locks. Instead I collapsed on our Ethiopian tribal rug still wearing my coat and wet boots, dropped the small brown bag, Chumly sniffing at the bagel inside.
* * *
6:30. I’d been waiting to tell my husband all day. I hadn’t had the heart or nerve to call him at work. As soon as I heard the door I started towards it, faced him. "I found out what happened to Angelo."
There was a pause. "Did he move?"
"He froze a few days ago. Exposure, hypothermia."
"Oh," he said quietly, then added, "let me get inside. Get my coat off."
That was the thing about having a home. When something bad happened, you have someplace to go to take your coat off and stay warm.
That night my husband, Chumly, and I sat in our apartment starring at the floor. We did not talk. We did not order in food. It was Thursday, night of good shows. If we missed stuff, we missed stuff. Tonight we didn’t do anything.
* * *
They say time heals. Whoever 'they' is also says that life goes on and I guess it was true.
Revoltingly soon after hearing this news our lives resumed a normal course. I free-lanced, walked Chumly, bought brie, ordered in food or cooked blackened redfish which had become passe but I just didn't seem to care anymore. Winter became spring and spring turned into summer. Which is what happens if you are not paying attention or even if you are.
One particularly blistering day I was taking Chumly for a walk. It was so hot that the street melted, actually gooey as fudge sauce, heat rising from the pavement in wavy lines. Hot town, summer in the city.
Okay, I was feeling sorry for myself. I was probably the only person who has ever leased a Volvo left amongst the skyscrapers. Everyone else had long since, and wisely, abandoned the place for more bucolic settings. The only people remaining this side of the Hudson were tourists, bums, and me.
Stepping over an unusually sticky patch of sweltered roadway, watching my feet to make sure I didn’t stick, I looked down into a familiar toothless face.
"Angelo!" I screamed for once equaling his acoustical level. "How are you? Where have you been? We heard...we were so worried!"
The truth was that this was the longest sentence that I had ever uttered to Angelo which was not good, when you stopped to consider. But Angelo did not seem to mind or even notice. He just smiled, scratched Chumly's head.
After a bit of this, he pulled himself up, ambled on, arms dangling at his sides, and bellowed something incomprehensible at someone across the street. I watched him go off and thought, hey, this is good. God was in his heaven and all was right with the universe once again.
Well, to some extent, anyway.
The passing streetlights orbited Orlando’s wet glinting eye. His eye was watery from motorist fatigue.
Crashing his steel-canned energy drink into the cup holder, fireworking energy drips of preternatural red about its ring, he dipped his head and raised his eyes to the night sky through the BMW’s windshield. It’s really beautiful, you know, here. Didn’t I tell you? I dipped. He had. Back in San Francisco. Eight hours later we were cresting the Grapevine on a drive that should have taken six hours but would take us eleven at Orlando’s plodding rate. The sky had so many stars that had not been there when we began. The same stars over all the mountains and towns and cities of the world, the great cities that mirrored them back with their burning lights. Clearly, if I looked enough, I would find a star in every apparent moment of blackness. The sky more star than space.
Now Orlando was not the kind of dude you would expect to take much stock of the night sky. He lived in LA, with his Colombian girlfriend. Well, in Santa Monica actually, on the beach, he said. But he didn’t like it. The convertible top was up, thank god, but he liked the windows cracked, so the cold freeway wind lacerated my face.
He prepped cars for display at auto shows. The frequent air travel for the auto shows, at least during the auto show season, coupled with whatever absurd appellation that had been appended to his name at the dealership, ‘Manager of Inventory’, or some such thing, and his Panamanian (as it sometimes went) girlfriend and purported beachside home and BMW convertible, made him sound like a guy who pretty much had life by the titties, as a favorite phrase of his went. But the Beemer was fourteen years old, and ran rough, and his girlfriend was unemployed and had just been DUIed, and they shared a cramped one-bedroom – probably the only basement apartment in Santa Monica – and his job was poorly-paid seasonal work. Even the air travel was not a boon to Orlando, a man who dreaded flying. He drove whenever he could, like we were doing from San Francisco to Los Angeles. His next destination, St. Louis, had him brooding about the weather report, which tagged it in the single digits, nearly unfathomable for a California boy.
So when he had said that about the night sky over the Grapevine, in the midst of banter about the Golden State Warriors, it surprised me. I’ll be honest – I wasn’t entirely sure how to read the guy. But his eyes bespoke pure earnestness. He said I had never seen anything like it. Ok, ok, Orlando, I said, but I have seen a country night before, for god’s sake.
His eyes now were satellite dishes searching the sky. His chin nearly rested on his hands, steering twelve o’clock. The elliptical silhouettes of hills undulated against the sky. He had been talking continuously since San Francisco, but for a full minute there was only the engine’s drone. Then Orlando said, I wonder how far those stars are.
Actually, I said, I think most of those stars are dead.
Dead? he responded, nonplussed. He still looked skyward, discoursing with the stars. What do you mean? I mean, they don’t exist. Don’t exist? Bro, what the fuck you talking about? Ok, he was irritated. Generally, I thought of him as an affable guy, but now I decided that I only thought that because I was inclined, by default, to think of people as disagreeable – and he wasn’t disagreeable, so I had assumed he was the opposite. But I also couldn’t recall him ever seeming particularly happy. In any case, it was surprising that he cared this much either way.
I mean they don’t exist – anymore. How! How can they be dead if I’m looking at them right now? They’re shining, aren’t they? That’s their light, bro? He pulled his head back under the top, then turned to look at me briefly, with white-hot intensity, right in the eyes, like they did in films and TV shows when there is little need to actually pilot a vehicle. Like, well, a lot was riding on my answer.
He had a point. I was no scientist, and the rationale that I had once been exposed to in some distant magazine article, some distant day, started to become hazy. Well, you’re seeing light. But the light is there, coming from, like, really far way away. Light years away. My voice cracked a bit emphasizing ‘light’, and I began to feel a kind of intellectual panic – what was a light year again? You know, light years? After the star dies.
He was quiet again. Another endless minute or two of engine drone. He seemed… sad? Like I had taken the blanket of the night sky and undulated the stars off like dust. Like I had just murdered the poor, vulnerable, naked stars one by one with my bare hands.
Eventually, he dipped his head again. He did seem to trust me, even though he was unhappy about this development. Well, where does the light go? What do you mean? I mean— what happens when the light hits the ground? Now I was truly stumped. I had never considered this particular question. It seemed at the same time a perfectly absurd and perfectly reasonable question. Confusion streamed over me. When the light hits the ground? I paused. Uh. Well, what happens to any light when it hits the ground? I now had images of epic waterfalls of light tumbling among the hills.
He didn’t acknowledge my response.
Another moment and I said: firmament. It was something unhelpful that had just flashed across my mind. What? They used to call it the firmament. Huh? Never mind.
He undipped his head and looked at me with that white-hot intense look again. Fear, was it? My hope in these moments was that whatever it was, it would dissipate before we careened off the highway.
What about from an airplane? What do they look like from an airplane? When you’re up there in a plane? Stars? I said. What do stars look like from an airplane? I mean, I knew he didn’t like flying, but he had flown in a plane once or twice.
As we approached LA in the next hour, the hills gradually gave way from hushed rolling shadows to slowly gathering suburban lights, until finally we summited a rise and saw the fierce, brassy lights of the LA night in the valley below. I dipped my head a final time to see a hazy glow that had absorbed all but a few of the brightest stars.
Toby Tucker Hecht is a writer and scientist who lives and works in Maryland, USA. Her writing credits include fiction that has appeared in The MacGuffin, The Baltimore Review, Epiphany, The Summerset Review, New Plains Review, and other print and online literary journals. When not writing she can be found at the National Cancer Institute where she works to turn molecules into medicines for the benefit of cancer patients.
My father and I had been driving since morning, eastward across Ohio, miles from home, not speaking. Silence was normal for us. He rarely had anything to say to me, and I often couldn’t find the right words to discuss anything with him. But today I wanted to talk, and I needed him to listen.
I was fifteen years old and heading to college. If that seems ridiculous to you, it was terrifying to me. I had skipped several grades in elementary school and although I was academically prepared for university level work, I was socially backward even among my fifteen-year-old peers.
I blamed my lack of worldliness on my family; I had no role models. From the time I was old enough to go to the bathroom by myself my mother was mostly absent from my life. She’d performed one exceptional solo concert with rave reviews, and afterwards nothing was the same. She was never around to participate in any of my school events and seldom home with the family for holidays. She was off in the Czech Republic now, which was why my father, begrudgingly, had taken charge of this current trek. My mother’s only legacy to me was my hideous name: Hortense—the name of her first cello teacher.
My father didn’t know how to make up for my lack of motherly love. Either that, or he chose not to. He was a fusty man, who wore long-sleeved, white monogrammed shirts even in warm weather, and was too busy trudging up his own career ladder—first as a full professor, then in short succession: dean, provost, and college president—to pay much attention to me, an unseasoned girl. When he wasn’t wrapped up in his academic pursuits—his expertise was in antiquities—he tended to the needs of my two older brothers, both geniuses in their own way, and with whom he could better identify. I’d come along eight years after the younger of the two and I suppose everyone thought I could raise myself by watching my brothers as examples. Which was okay to a point. But I was powerless, a nothing, and without an opinion that counted. I wanted desperately to count.
The music on the radio was soft—a string piece I should have recognized, but didn’t. I looked for an entry to a conversation, but each time I opened my mouth, it appeared my father was too involved in the music to listen. Finally, I reached forward, shut off the radio and said, “When I get to school, I’m going to tell everyone to call me Ginger.”
I’d been thinking about changing my name since first grade, when I understood that it was different from those of other girls in my class. It wasn’t just old-fashioned; it was ugly, like a mean character in a book, a name you’d give to someone you didn’t love. Since then, I’d spent a lot of time thinking up a new one, going through baby name books in the library and I thought I’d found one that fit, given my red hair and freckles.
For a moment, I assumed my father hadn’t heard me. The expression on his face seemed to be one of searching—perhaps for the music that I’d turned off, wondering why he wasn’t hearing it.
His large hands were balanced on the steering wheel and his gray unblinking eyes stared ahead through the windshield as if in a trance. I waited. I anxiously wanted some sign of his approval and understanding.
“Hortense,” he said, “When you are twenty-one, you can go to court and change your name to Fluffy, Puffy, or Spot. But until then, you’ll keep the name Mother and I gave you. Ginger, good God!”
The trees whizzed by—lush sugar maples tinged in lemon and scarlet. In another hour I would be at the college without my family, without my father telling me what I could and couldn’t do. Where did I ever get the idea I needed his permission?
My father looked hurt, but it was hard to tell with him; his eyes were perpetually sad, even when he smiled. For years he had presumed I would stay home and attend Kingsfield College, the small Midwest liberal arts school where he presided and where I would have had free tuition. Instead, I chose a larger and less prestigious state school in the east. It was like a Lexus salesman whose wife insists on driving a Chevrolet—somehow cheapening his life and livelihood. But in a way the choice liberated me. I lived in a family of intellectual and talented giants and, although I did well in school, compared with them I was a midget. My mother had set about to turn me into a vocalist, and so when I was eight, I was sent to a private academy for the musically gifted. But once it became clear I had no voice, I was removed, transferred to the local public school, and tested into a higher grade. All I wanted was for my parents to be proud of me and for this to happen I had to find my own place in the world, as far away from string quartets and Grecian urns as I could get.
We found my dormitory after consulting a map. Because of my father’s duties at his own institution, I had been given permission to arrive early and few students other than the athletes were already on campus.
We moved my suitcases and computer into the dorm room, which was plain, with brown linoleum tiles on the floor, a functional bed, desk, and chair, but a beautiful gothic-style window with lead-edged glass overlooking a garden. I instantly felt at home. My roommate had her own bedroom and we would share the small bathroom between us. The connecting doors were open and I saw that she had already moved in, but was not in her room.
“It’s okay if you leave now,” I said.
My father looked at his watch and said, “In a few minutes. I want to make sure you’re settled in good and proper.” He sat on the straight-backed chair and jiggled his leg up and down while I unpacked a suitcase.
“Really, I’m fine. You can go. It’s a long trip.”
A commotion out in the hallway—keys fumbling, raucous laughing, banging into a door—stopped our conversation, and the next thing that happened was that a girl burst through the adjoining bathroom. It was my roommate; she stood there in front of my father and me almost entirely naked. Behind her was a boy with not much more clothing on him. I couldn’t tell if they were in bathing suits or their underwear.
“You must be Hortense,” she said. She’d pronounced my name in two exaggerated syllables that sounded like whore and tense.
“Yes, but call me Ginger.” I had forgotten that we had received the names of our roommates in the mail several weeks before.
“I’m Greeley Silk. And this is Carter Mason,” she said, referring to the person now entering my room. Carter’s sweaty legs had bulging calf and thigh muscles. “We were out sun bathing on the lawn,” she said, yanking back into place a strap that had slipped down her arm.
All this bare flesh was embarrassing, and I could only imagine that my poor proper father must have wanted to throw my belongings back into the suitcase and get me out of there fast. Kingsfield College still maintained separate men’s and women’s dormitories.
“And you must be Hortense’s father,” she said, smiling and extending her hand, forgetting about my change of name.
My father stood. “Dr. James Lowell,” he said, stiffly.
“Well, nice meeting you,” she said before disappearing into her own room with Carter and locking the door on her side.
I expected a lecture or some indication that the housing arrangement was not suitable, but my father sat back down and asked about my academic schedule, something he and my mother had gone over several times before it was finalized. He seemed less inclined now to rush off.
With the dorm so quiet, it was impossible for sounds of flip-flops dropping to the floor and bedsprings squeaking rhythmically not to penetrate the walls. After a while a throaty voice—I assumed it was Carter’s—moaned, “Oh baby,” over and over. Then it was silent again. I’d never heard my parents having sex, but I’d seen enough movies and read enough books to be pretty sure that’s what was going on. Throughout all this, my father read emails on his cell phone and tapped away replies. When he was done, he rose, patted me on the head and said, “Well, I’ll be running along now. Enjoy your classes.”
After my father left, I continued to unpack. When everything was set up or hung up, there was a knock at the door and Greeley came in. Her hair was wet, and she was in a bathrobe.
“Good looking dad,” she said.
“Are you and Carter going steady?” I asked.
“What era are you from, Hortense? Really! Of course we’re not going steady, whatever that means,” she said. “What gave you that idea? I just met him yesterday.”
“Sorry, I thought… Well never mind. He seems nice.”
“Yes, he is. He’s on the soccer team. I met him at the field. I was trying out as a walk-on for the women’s team, but I got cut the second day. Too weak on defense, according to the coach, although he did say I had great ball skills.” She laughed, flipped her damp hair off her shoulders and said, “I think I’ll let Carter hang around for a while. I like them big, and he is.”
Other than his leg muscles, Carter wasn’t particularly big and certainly not tall. Both my brothers and my father were over six feet, so I knew height.
Once classes began, I didn’t see much of Greeley other than what she left lying around on the bathroom floor. She was taking economics and sociology and I was thinking of majoring in one of the sciences. We’d talked several times during the first weeks, although she rarely said much about herself. She seemed interested in my family, what my parents did, and wanted to see pictures of my brothers. When I showed her a family photograph taken after one of my mother’s performances with the Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall with us all decked out in formal wear, she looked carefully and said, “You sure you weren’t adopted?”
My introductory biology class was held in one of those huge auditoriums with a balcony. Most of the students were freshmen, but as I left the lecture hall the second week of class I noticed Carter walking down the aisle. He saw me, waved, and came over.
“How come you’re taking a freshman course? Aren’t you a junior?” I asked.
“I have to take a science in order to graduate and I thought, stupidly, that this would be an easy one,” he said. “Well, I’m off to practice and then on the road to a game.”
“Good luck. I hope you win.”
“Thanks. Tell Greeley I’ll see her when I get back. Bye, Ginger!”
That Carter used my preferred name made me fall in love with him right on the spot.
Once the routine of classes settled down and I was well into the rhythm of studying, eating, and sleeping, I realized that all around me girls in my dormitory were involved in non-academic activities: dating, socializing with each other, bar-hopping, and joining sororities and clubs. I was too young or too intimidated to do many of those things, and as the semester deepened, a creeping feeling of isolation and sadness swept over me. The only person I really talked to was Greeley, but she was usually off somewhere, and, when she wasn’t, I got the impression by her amused sarcastic tone that she thought I was some weird alien who had come to college to learn how real girls lived. When Carter was over, unless it was late, I often went to study in the library. The noises coming from the two of them were now magnified ten-fold the level they were when my father was in the room. I was getting an education in things I never expected to learn. But when I was in the dorm, Carter never failed to knock before he left to say, “Hey Ginger! How’s it going?” Those moments kept me from calling my parents and telling them I had made a huge mistake and wanted to return home.
It was after mid-term exams when I finally phoned to say I had done well, that my father told me he had to be at my college the following week for a university administrators’ conference. He would be available to take me and my roommate, if she was willing, out to dinner. It was the first real conversation I’d had with him since he’d dropped me off at school; I’d been emailing both my parents with short messages since the semester began and they wrote back with even shorter ones. But now my father sounded excited to be visiting and I hoped it was because he missed me and wanted to hear about my studies.
I was certain Greeley would laugh in my face when I invited her to dinner, but she said, “Sure. Dorm food is getting on my nerves.”
We would be dining at a French restaurant downtown—a bistro with linen tablecloths and napkins. I dressed up in a jade wool sheath dress with a self-fabric belt, stockings and flats, and pulled my hair back into a ponytail with a velvet ribbon. When I looked in the mirror, what stared back at me was something that resembled a giant string bean. I knocked on Greeley’s door.
“Coming,” she said.
When she opened the door, I was stunned. She wore black leggings and a long diaphanous white shirt covering a black lace bra. Her hair was tousled and she had on lots of eye make-up and crystal earrings that looked like miniature chandeliers.
“We’re meeting my father, Greeley,” I said.
“So?” she said. “He’s not my father. Worry about how you look.”
When we were seated in the restaurant with our menus, Greeley summoned the waiter and asked about one of the entrees, in French.
“Your accent is excellent,” my father said.
“My mother was from Villejuif,” she said. “French was my first language.”
I stared at her. In all the conversations we’d had, she’d never mentioned anything about this. I wondered if she was making up a story to impress my father. Because if that was her aim, she succeeded. From that moment on, he hardly spoke to me at all. During the meal, he asked Greeley about her family, her classes and career plans. She focused completely on him, and when he gave her advice about courses to take the following semester, she smiled coyly and said, “Thank you, sir.” He leaned back in his chair and sipped his wine. It was the most relaxed I’d seen him in a long time. I wanted to tell him about my biology class and how excited I was to have finally decided on a major, but I sensed that whatever I said would be acknowledged briefly and then ignored.
I got up to use the ladies’ room. I felt slightly sick. When I returned to the table, my father had paid the check and he and Greeley were getting on their coats. He drove us to the dorm, but when we arrived, Greeley said, “Would you mind dropping me off at Carter’s on the way back to the hotel? I promised I would stop over tonight if it wasn’t too late.”
She opened the rear door and moved into my seat up front.
“See you tomorrow, Hortense,” she said.
I ran up the steps, flung open the door, and immediately removed my stupid dress, wadding it into a ball and tossing it to the bottom of the closet. I never wanted to look at it again. How had the evening—so anticipated, so ripe for family role changing—turned out to be such a disaster? I lay on my bed for what seemed like hours, until I drifted off to an uneasy sleep.
At the end of biology class the next day, Carter stopped me as I was leaving the lecture hall.
“Ginger, I did horribly on the midterm. I just didn’t get some of the concepts. And the last few lectures were harder. Mitosis—piece of cake. But meiosis—forget it! Now I’m worried about not passing. I hear you’re acing everything, so I wonder if you wouldn’t mind coaching me a little.”
“Sure, anytime,” I said. My voice sounded hoarse and I could barely catch my breath.
“We could go to my apartment where no one would bother us. How about Thursday evening after my practice? I can pick you up at the dorm.”
I could barely believe what was happening. I would be alone with Carter—Greeley’s beautiful, sexy Carter. I’d been having dreams about him, dreams I’d pushed away from my waking thoughts. And one of the dreams was exactly what had just occurred—Carter asking me to come to his apartment.
“I think I’m free on Thursday,” I said, guessing that was the grown-up, sophisticated thing to say. My face was hot, though, and I was sure anyone could see how embarrassed I was.
As I returned to my room, I heard Greeley on her cell phone using the syrupy voice she reserved for special people. “I miss you, too… I can’t wait to see you… Sure… Bye.” I wondered to whom she was talking. It couldn’t have been Carter, who would have been at practice. Maybe someone in her family, although I couldn’t imagine saying that to anyone in my family. I sat down at my desk to try to plan how best to teach Carter the ins and outs of sexual reproduction.
After class the next day, I went into town and bought some clothes with the credit card my parents had given me for emergencies. This qualified. The saleswoman helped me pick out some skinny jeans and a soft black sweater that fell off one shoulder. Next door, I shopped for some boots and found a walk-in salon and had my hair cut in a more up-to-date style. I even stopped at a lingerie boutique where I bought some pretty underwear, not like the thongs Greeley wore, which seemed impossibly uncomfortable, but French-cut lace panties and a padded bra. As I was about to leave, I noticed a cosmetics counter and purchased an eyeliner pencil, mascara, and a blusher. No one in my family had ever encouraged me to improve my appearance. My mother was hardly glamorous in her dour velvet recital gowns and severe chignon, but her talent and celebrity outshone her plainness, and in her estimation, that was all that counted. But now that I was on my own and had learned that other things mattered as well, I wanted a change.
The evening I was supposed to tutor Carter, I showered and dressed in my new clothes. Putting on eye makeup felt strange and I had to take it off and redo it several times. The liner looked too thick and I hadn’t bought a sharpener. The blusher was also a little too deep for my fair skin. In the hallway, I turned from side to side before the full-length mirror; overall I liked the effect. I wondered what my father would say if he saw me now. When I returned to my room, Greeley emerged through the bathroom.
“And where do you think you’re going?” she said, leaning one hip on the doorjamb.
“I have a study date.”
“Oh really? Well, you look awful—like a pre-teenage hooker. Get that crap off your face.”
“You’re giving me advice?” I said. “That’s funny.”
“I’m older than you and have more experience,” she said.
I glanced at my watch. Carter would be downstairs any minute. I collected my books and the materials I would need to demonstrate what chromosomes did during the process of forming eggs and sperm.
Greeley didn’t move. She eyed me up and down and said, “In a way, you’re lucky. When a guy wants to be with me, I never know if it’s because of me or because he just wants my body. That would never be the case with you.”
I stopped what I was doing and stared at her posed smugly in the doorway. Hatred swelled up in me and I wanted to hurt her, but I had no idea how without getting into terrible trouble.
I rushed down the stairs and out the door. My eyes stung and I could hardly swallow. But then Carter drove up, put his car in park, and grinned.
“Sorry for the mess… and the smell,” he said when I opened the door. He threw his soccer gear onto the back seat. “I got us some Thai food. Hope that’s all right.”
By the time we arrived at his apartment I was calm and had a plan. We ate the lukewarm Pad See Ew from a plastic container, passing it back and forth between us, using a single fork. Carter opened a can of beer and offered me a soda. After we finished, I spread my notes, textbook, and a package of different colored modeling clay on the table.
“Okay,” I said. “What do you need me to explain?”
“I understand how cells divide, but I still can’t grasp how, or even why, meiosis occurs.”
“The whole point of meiosis is halving the chromosome number for sperm and egg cells—so that when they join during fertilization, you get back to the same number of chromosomes that’s in all your other cells. If there was no meiosis, each time fertilization occurred, the number of chromosomes would double.”
“I get that,” he said. “But what the hell is crossing over?”
I unwrapped the clay and rolled two red and two blue cylinders of different sizes. “The red chromosomes are from your father and the blue ones are from your mother. In meiosis, the DNA in the chromosomes makes copies of itself.” I cut all the clay pieces lengthwise with a plastic knife, but kept the pieces together. “Then the short red one and short blue one line up together as do the long red one and long blue one.” I moved the pieces of clay together. “And then something interesting happens,” I said. “A piece on one side of the little blue chromosome and a piece on one side of the little red chromosome do a do-si-do and exchange places. It takes place before division and is called crossing over.” I pulled off a chunk of each short clay piece and reattached it to the opposite color chromosome. “So now when the chromosomes finally separate during the two divisions of meiosis you get a mixture of genes in each of the sex cells.” I demonstrated this with the clay model.
“Four different cells from the one you started with?” he asked.
“You got it!”
“Things that didn’t go together before now do. I get it…I get it…I get it!”
Carter pulled me off the chair, hugged me tight, and began to jump up and down, lifting me off the ground in great celebratory swoops. My heart thudded and an electric buzz surged from my chest into my face and legs. It felt like liquid fire. I understood now what burning desire meant. I looked into Carter’s eyes and without thinking I pulled his head down and kissed his mouth. I had never kissed a boy before, didn’t know if I was doing it correctly, but I didn’t care.
He pulled himself away and sat down on the bed. “Ginger, I’m sorry. It’s all my fault.”
“No. It isn’t,” I said. I could feel tears stinging my nose. I waited until I could gain some control and then said, “I’ve never been with a boy before and I want my first time to be with you.”
“You’re only fifteen. You have lots of time before you should be with a boy that way.”
“I’m almost sixteen. Next month is my birthday. Besides, there are tons of girls my age who’ve already had sex.”
“But they aren’t you.”
“You mean they’re pretty.”
“No, of course not,” he said. “It’s just that you should be concentrating on your work, not sleeping around with boys. You’re going to do big things in your life. I can tell. Don’t mess it up.”
“Please sleep with me,” I begged.
“Is it because of Greeley? Are you in love with her?”
“It’s not about Greeley.”
I could no longer hold back my sobbing. I wondered if all the mean things Greeley had said to me were true. I sat on the bed next to Carter. He pulled me into a lying position and held me like a parent comforting a child. I stopped crying and after a few minutes fell asleep.
Carter tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, “It’s getting late. I need to drive you back.”
“I’m so sorry, Carter,” I said. “Please don’t be mad at me.”
He smiled. “I’m not.” He handed me my jacket, picked up his car keys and said, “Let’s go.”
Greeley was in her room with the connecting door open when I got back to the dorm. I dropped my books and gear on my desk, and entered.
“You know, if you’re going to wear eye make-up, you should probably get the waterproof kind,” she said, laughing.
I looked in the mirror and was horrified at the sight of my face—blotchy and smeared with mascara—but I wasn’t going to let that sidetrack me.
“I slept with Carter,” I said.
“Well, yay for you,” she said.
“You’re not upset?”
“I’m not with Carter anymore. Haven’t been for weeks. Not terribly observant, are you, little miss scientist.”
I felt like a balloon with all its air leaking out.
“In fact,” she said, “I’m dating someone else.” She picked up a towel and left the room to shower.
I was about to retreat to my own room when Greeley’s cell phone rang. As it chimed its merry tune, I picked it up from her bed and looked at its lit-up face. The name across the top was Jim. Then I recognized the number; it was my father’s. Why would he be calling Greeley at this time of evening, or at any time? Standing there staring at the phone, it took all my self-control not to grab it, punch the accept button, and say, “Hi Dad.”
Back in my room, I kept turning over what I knew, what I thought I knew, and what I didn’t know, but what made sense. I could come to only one conclusion: my father and Greeley were having an affair. But Greeley never left the campus and my father was four hours away. And yet I knew that was not insurmountable.
I took a deep breath and barged into Greeley’s room. She was wrapped in a towel and drying her hair.
“Are you and my father…” I could barely stomach saying the words, “…seeing each other?”
She turned off the hairdryer and faced me. “Seeing each other?” she said. “Why yes. I am seeing quite a bit of him and he is seeing quite a lot of me.” She laughed at her own joke. “You might even say we’re going steady.”
“You’re disgusting! Don’t you have any shame?” I said.
“Shame? Well aren’t you the little Victorian,” she said.
“My father is married,” I said, “to my mother.”
“Well, good for them.”
“And he’s fifty years old.”
“Let me tell you something. I didn’t go after him. Your father’s been obsessed with me since the day we met. I like that he’s a college president and can’t stop thinking about getting into my panties. It’s exciting and powerful. And about the age difference…older men don’t pop off as early—like your friend Carter.”
“Shut up! Shut up!” I yelled. I ran back into my room, slammed and locked the door between us, and smashed the clay on my desk. Over and over I pictured my father’s face and punched my fist into the amorphous mass until the blues and reds became purple, until my arms became too exhausted to continue.
I wanted to ruin him. He deserved it. I didn’t blame Greeley, entirely. She was what she was and never tried to cover it up. But my father—that smug hypocrite. One phone call would do it. I sat at my computer searching for the members of the Board of Trustees of my father’s college, trying to decide whom to call first. But it was almost midnight, not an acceptable time to phone. Then I remembered—my mother was in Finland where it was daytime and early enough that she would still be in her hotel room. I dialed her mobile number. As it rang, a faint ding alerted me to a new text message. It was from Carter. Hey Ginger. Worried. How RU?
I stabbed the button to end the overseas call. Outside my window wafts of nighttime snow—a harbinger of winter—glanced the lead-edged panes. My first semester away from home was almost over.
I turned off the phone. I didn’t need to say anything to my mother or to anyone. Greeley would eventually tire of the infatuation and move on to someone else. And my father would know that I knew; Greeley was bound to tell him. She wasn’t as smart as she thought she was. I would have power over him, like the Sword of Damocles. Better to keep it than to use it.
Calm Among the Storm
The metal door opened with hurried whispers as two men dressed in police uniforms scurried out from inside. Each held a cylindrical tube slung across their backs. They stepped to the side, out from the small light’s cone, and sat on the cobbled stone. Their hurried breaths subsided with time, but their eyes grew more frantic, darting in either direction.
“How long we gotta wait here for?” Renton asked.
“Till they shows up,” Tony said, “and not a second more.”
The two sat in silence. Tony shifted the canister on his back, allowing him to lean against the cold brick wall. He tilted his head back until it rested against the wall and closed his eyes.
Renton sat hunched over. His cylindrical canister was placed neatly on his lap. His paranoia began to subside as his eyes rested on what he held. Without taking his eyes off the black cylinder, he began twisting the cap off one of its ends. Minutes passed as the cap gradually became looser until finally, it came off in his hand. Placing the lid on the ground, he reached around and pulled out the stack of coiled canvas inside. The smell of old dust filled the air as he set the now empty canister on the ground and began to unfurl the pages.
“What are you doing?” Tony asked.
Renton’s head darted towards his companion, instinctively pulling the canvases in the opposite direction.
“I just wanted to take a look,” He said. “Everything happened so fast in there. I didn’t get a moment to appreciate what we was stealing.”
“Put it back,” Tony said. He reached out for the coil of canvas on Renton’s lap. Renton jerked away. “Come on. I don’t wanna know what he’s gonna do to us if he finds out what you’re doing.”
“Just a quick look. It ain’t like it’ll take long. Besides, when else we gonna see this again.” Renton said. He stood up, careful not to let the canvas in his hands hit the wet ground. Walking past, he noticed that Tony was also standing, his canister still closed shut, held tightly to his chest.
He reached the light that illuminated the alleyway and unraveled what was in his hands. A stack of canvas paintings met his eyes. There were six in total, though he dared not look at the ones behind the first due to the risk of dropping them. The painting he had stolen last was displayed prominently before him. A small sailing ship was being tossed around at sea. The skies were dark and foreboding, save a portion that allowed the sun through. Waves crashed into the tiny ship, their frothy white mist blown into the air. The craft held twelve people. No, maybe thirteen? Either way, it was too many, and the ship felt overly crowded.
Behind them, headlights flooded the alleyway.
“Renton,” Tony said. “Renton put it away, put it away now.” He quickly rose to his feet and grabbed the empty canister and cap on the ground, and began walking back to his companion.
Renton hadn’t seemed to have heard Tony’s warning. He sat on his knees, holding the painting in front of him, his eyes still piercing the canvas.
“Renton,” Tony said. The urgency in his voice bled through to his words. If there were anyone awake at this hour, they would have looked to see what was happening.
Tony crouched down and waved his hands between Renton and the painting. He nudged him to stand up, trying to force the canister into his hands. Headlights came closer, their general fan of light giving way to more focused beams. The car stopped a few feet short of the two men. Tony began walking over to the car, muttering apologies and excuses as a large man in a black suit and leather gloves rose from the back seat.
The man shoved past Tony as two hands from inside the car reached out to receive his closed cylinder. Puddles splashed off the man’s hard leather dress shoes, sending droplets of mist into the air. He walked toward the still kneeling Renton, his face expressionless as he began pulling out a long, jagged knife.
Renton was transfixed on the seascape. He made no move to collect the cylinder Tony had dropped next to him, nor did he flinch as the well-dressed man approached. The shine from the headlights had made new details in the painting come to light. There were thirteen people on the ship. Ropes and sails flew carelessly in the wind, unable to be cinched. Everyone seemed to be distraught, their faces contorted in pain and despair. All except one, who sat on the back of the ship, a halo illuminating his face clearer than the sun could display the others. He knelt with hands clasped in prayer to God as his disciples scurried about, his expression loose and calm during the rising storm.
His jaw clenched shut as the knife pierced his back. It was long enough to protrude out the front of Renton’s blue police uniform. Blood quickly stained his shirt, and he watched as a single droplet of red landed on the face of the praying man. Thick and warm, it hovered for a moment before seeping through the paints and canvas, the man’s face becoming stained with red as he prayed to God.
M. E. MISHCON
TOBY TUCKER HECHT
WILLIAM KEVIN BURKE