Matthew Scarpa is a screenwriter and student at Full Sail University. His stories have been published in The Scarlet Leaf Review, and he enjoys writing, reading, and studying children's cartoons, to prepare himself for his dream job at Cartoon Network. You can follow him on Twitter at @RichardScarp or his blog at msscreenwriting.blogspot.com
The Ride Home
“I’m sick of your shit, Tyson.” Glass crashed against the kitchen wall as cups sailed through the air.
“And I’m sick of you, Miranda. Get the fuck out of my house.”
“Your house? I’m the only one who worked for the money to pay for this, you get out.”
More fights. Always more fights. Ever since mom had re-married, she’d been at her wit’s end, and I could tell it was getting old fast. I’d been just making sure my little brother stayed away from everything that had happened. It seemed like it was time to take him for an ice cream.
“Tyler,” mom said, as if on cue. “Can you take Nick out for a while?”
“Yeah, sure thing.” I snagged the keys off the hook and went to go find my little brother. He was in his room, playing with Legos, like any ten-year old should be. He shouldn’t be dealing with this, especially at his age.
“Oh hey, Tyler. Look what I made.” He held up a monstrosity of bricks that looked like it should’ve been too heavy to stick together, but somehow it did, and he was proud of it.
“Nice work, little man,” I squatted next to him and rifled through the bin of plastic bricks. “Hey, what do you say we go get some ice cream? That sound good buddy?”
“Oh boy, that’s the third time this week, can I get chocolate this time?” He asked, oblivious.
“Sure thing, Nick. Anything you want.” I stood up and Nick followed suite, running downstairs and out to the old Cadillac parked out front. I followed, giving my mom a concerned glance as I left, but her eyes said the same thing they always did; I know, but what else can I do?
In the car, Nick asked the question I’d always dreaded hearing.
“Mommy and Tyson fight a lot. Is that… is it my fault, Tyler?”
“No, no way Nick. Mom and Tyson, they’re just stressed out all the time. Don’t you ever think this is your fault.”
“Oh, okay.” Silence hung in the car for a few moments. “Can I help?”
I looked at the innocent little face in the rearview mirror, his round cheeks and eyes bright with hope. “Yeah, you might be able to buddy, why don’t you call mom and ask her what flavor ice cream she wants? I bet that would cheer her up,” I said, fishing my phone out of my pocket and passing it to him.
I heard the ringing from the front seat: once, twice, then the answering machine. “No one picked up, Ty,” Nick said, passing me the phone.
“Well then let’s get home quick, so we don’t keep her waiting okay?”
Nick nodded as we pulled into the Baskin Robbins parking lot.
About thirty minutes later, we were headed home, with ice cream headaches but happy faces. As we turned down our street though, both melted away. Police cruisers and an ambulance were outside our house. In the back of one of the cruisers was Tyson, handcuffed and furious. In the ambulance, was my mother.
I brought Nick to my next-door neighbor, then followed the ambulance to the hospital. The entire drive, my hands were white from how hard I was gripping the steering wheel. I met one of the nurses outside mom’s room.
“Is she going to be okay,” I asked.
“She will, dear, but she’ll need to heal for a while. Whatever happened, she got hurt really badly.”
Whatever happened, my ass. I know what happened. Tyson happened, and he blamed it on a burglar. Turns out though, he had a good enough lawyer to at least get him out of the cell for the night, and he headed back home. I made a mad dash to beat him there.
My dad left me a box, roughly three pounds, and small enough to fit under my bed, that I had to dig out. When Tyson got home, I was waiting for him, parked in the old Cadillac out front. I wanted to catch him before he stepped foot back inside, and lucky for me, I didn’t have to wait long.
“Hey, Tyson,” I said, sticking my hand in the box.
“Oh great, what the fuck do…”
He trailed off as he saw the old nineteen-eleven my dad gave me. He made me swear to never use it unless mom or Nick were in trouble. Well now they were.
“Oh, you think you’re so brave huh? You think you’re going to stick up for yourself, that you’re that tough?” His voice shook. I held the gun, just like dad taught me: two hands on the grip, arms outstretched but flexible, eye on the target. Dad told me to never aim a gun at a person, but I wasn’t. I was aiming at a pile of garbage as I pulled the trigger.
Anastasia Hanna is an undergraduate student from Temple Hills, Maryland, pursuing a BA in Creative Writing for Entertainment at Full Sail University. Her passions include creative fiction writing, poetry, drawing, and video games. Just Bad Sketches is her first published story.
Just Bad Sketches
Robert slipped a box cutter from one of the front pockets of his stolen Boston PD uniform and narrowed his eyes as he cut along the edges of the gold frame. The black gloves he wore made it hard for him to cut with better precision, but he couldn’t take them off, not unless he wanted to leave prints. A sudden, loud crash startled him, and he cursed as he cut a piece off the painting. It chipped, fell to the ground, right next to some shards of glass. He sucked his teeth and whirled around to the man across the room.
“Damn it, Charles. Can’t you be any quieter?” he said, and Charles turned to face him, a lazy smirk on his features.
“You’re the one who wanted to take the extra paintings.” He used the box cutter he was holding to sweep away any remaining glass from the frame. Robert furrowed his brows and shook his head.
“But why come for just one painting? I mean, look at all of this,” he said, outstretching his arms as if to emphasize his point. Charles shook his head and pulled the frame from the wall. The inscription on the frame read ‘Vermeer, The Concert’. He held it out in front of him, took a moment to look it over before laying it flat on the ground and cutting away at the edges.
Robert rolled his eyes, but didn’t return to removing the painting. Instead, he stared at the chipped piece next to the pile of glass. “Which one did he want again?”
“The Chez Tortoni,” Charles said. “It’s a work by Edouard Manet.” Robert hadn’t remembered all of that, however, the Chez whatever was supposed to be in the Blue Room on the first floor when they got here. It wasn’t. So, he insisted they take some other paintings instead.
Rembrandt’s paintings were familiar and famous enough. The Degas paintings weren’t very impressive, but he figured those were the ones that went for the highest price anyway. He stared down at a Degas painting. Program for an Artistic Soiree, it read. He winced. His three-year-old daughter could have drawn this if it hadn’t been labeled and displayed in an art museum. Was this all art really was—bad sketches and poor shading? No. He shook his head. He took that back. He liked the Rembrandt paintings. The one with the boat and stormy sea was his favorite so far.
“Hey.” Charles’s voice cut through his thoughts. “That’s 12 total. Want to keep going?” Robert stood with the Degas in hand and grabbed one of the cardboard boxes they’d brought up earlier. For some reason the paintings wouldn’t roll, so they had to improvise. He paused to check his watch. It was 2:43 AM. He shoved the painting into the box and shook his head.
“Nah. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
They left everything as it was and exited the building. A cold wind blew at them, compelling them to hurry to their car, a police vehicle. If they were going to dress the part then they might as well go all the way, right? They stuffed some paintings in the trunk and a few in the backseat, then got in themselves.
“All right. Let’s go,” Charles said as he turned the key in the ignition. The engine roared to life, and then his cell rang. He answered it. “Hello?” A moment of silence filled the car, and Robert fidgeted in his seat. He checked his watch again. It was 2:48 AM. Charles’s cell came into view next to his watch. He looked at him, but Charles wasn’t looking back. He took the phone.
“Robert.” He paled.
“Of course. Did you get my painting?”
The car jerked as it moved away from the curb. He looked to Charles again, but his eyes were on the road now. He attempted to swallow a hard lump in his throat. “No.” There was a click followed by a dial tone. He stared at it, looked to Charles, who gawked at him. Those shitty Degas paintings flashed in his mind—bad sketches and poor shading.
My name is Stefan Moussignac I was born in Brooklyn New York in august 29 1997. But I spent most of my life in Haiti in school, I had to move out and live in Florida where learned and practice to become a better writer.
"Dammit," a man said as he was being pulled over the police.
"License and registration please."
"Am I being detained."
"No, I just need your license."
"There’s no law that requires me to give you license."
"I am a sovereign citizen and as one I have the right to walk this land freely according to the articles of federation."
The cop was confused and didn't know what was going on, until he remembers that he mentioned sovereign citizen. As he remembers Sovereign citizen are a group of who in their mind think they can do whatever they want because of some outdated laws.
"Ok sir, I would like you to calm down and just give me your license."
"You do not have the right to do that," the man said "can I speak to your supervisor"
"No sir, we can't do that it’s going to take too long just give me your license"
"You are impeding on my rights, what you are doing is illegal."
"Ok, that's enough just give me your license or we could do this the hard way."
"No, I am a freeman and I can travel where I can go."
"Ok then, get out of the vehicle."
"I am not driving a vehicle, I am traveler sir."
The officer was getting angry and was having enough of this, so he grabs his night stick and broke the car window of the car.
"Help, help this is illegal," the man cried "you can't do this"
The officer was silent and opened the car then he dragged the man out kicking and screaming and putting handcuffs on him.
Tommy Vollman is a writer, musician, and painter. He has written a number of things, published a bit, recorded a few records, and toured a lot. Tommy was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for his 2016 short story, “Jimmy.” Recently, he’s had stories appear in Two Cities Review, Palaver, Pithead Chapel, Gris-Gris, and Per Contra. He was selected as an Honorable Mention for Glimmer Train’s “Family Matters” and was a finalist for Glimmer Train’s “Short-Story Award for New Writers”. He has some black-ink tattoos on both of his arms. Tommy really likes Kurt Vonnegut, Two Cow Garage, Tillie Olsen, Greg Dulli, Tom Colicchio, Willy Vlautin, and Albert Camus. He's working on a novel entitled Tyne Darling. Tommy released a new record, These Ghosts, in November of 2016. He currently teaches English at Milwaukee Area Technical College and prefers to write with pens poached from hotel room cleaning carts.
A few months prior to what should have been the end of my final year of undergrad, my then-girlfriend told me she was going to study abroad in London.
It was the middle of the spring semester, but any identifiable aspects of real spring had yet to hatch. The air was a rusty knife—unwieldy and dangerous—and the whole city tossed and turned under a thick, grey duvet of clouds. My then-girlfriend was set to graduate, but I wasn't; I needed 12 credits and fourteen thousand dollars. The 12 credits didn't include foreign language, and the 14 grand was for unpaid tuition and fees, which triggered a hold on any future registration. Despite all of that (or maybe in spite of it), I planned to go to London, too. My hold, though, prevented me enrolling via the regular study abroad channels.
Going to London was important. It was as if something fragile had to be held in place and my going to London would hold that fragile something exactly where it needed to be. I guess I sort of figured I'd be able to sort everything out once I arrived. Of course, I thought everything could be sorted out when the time came. Everything.
The first two weeks I was in London, I bounced between a half-dozen hostels. I had nowhere to live since housing arrangements ran through one's sponsoring school. Because of my hold, I had no sponsoring school, so I had no housing arrangements. The other American students—the ones officially enrolled in the study abroad—gave me a nickname: homeless. It was a joke between the dozen or so of us—my homelessness—and I suppose that since I was 23 years-old I should have known better, but I didn't.
Near the end of my first month in London, I finally got a room in a flat up in Northolt. The sub-letter was a woman, a blackjack dealer at some casino out along one of the autoroutes. She worked almost every night of the week, so she and I were on nearly polar-opposite schedules. When we did cross paths—no matter what time it happened to be—she always seemed to have on some sort of satin robe or gauzy coverlet, which was usually untied so that I'd catch momentary glimpses of her negligee or bra (always lacy and fire-engine red) or (on at least three occasions) naked breast. I moved out of her place in the middle of the night after only about a week-and-a-half because she 1) sneaked up behind me in the kitchen one morning, pressed me against the counter, tongued my ear, and whispered You know you want to fuck me (which I most definitely didn't) and 2) barged into my what-I-thought-was-locked-and-probably-was room late one night to see if I wanted to shag her from behind while some other guy watched (which I likewise wasn't at all interested in doing).
When I told my friends about her and her come-ons, they agreed that it seemed I'd been better off homeless.
And now, almost two decades later, that same word, homeless, is clattering around inside my brain, and the only thing I'm thinking is, How many students are even at this school?, which is pretty fucked up given what I've just been told.
A voice suddenly stabs forth from the center of our little group. It's the President.
"A hundred and two?" she asks.
I think she hopes, like me, that she's misheard the figure. Sadly, she hasn't.
"Yes," the counselor repeats, "a hundred and two."
The counselor's name is D'Marne, and she looks quite young and has on these shiny, patent-leather heels with long, narrow points at the toes. Her blazer is cinched tight by a single, diamond-shaped button that wrenches her torso just above her waist. She seems uncomfortably off-balance and disproportionate to both herself and the space around her.
Her lips twist awkwardly around the words she speaks, but I don't want to notice this twisting since it seems so awfully inappropriate given the implications of what's being said.
"The latest data," she continues, “and we're swimming in data, indicates that we have one hundred two homeless students."
As she speaks, my chest collapses. Of course, it doesn't really collapse because nothing that trite happens outside of movies or short stories, but I am given time in the slow, beating movements of blood and breath to think about what, exactly, D'Marne's statement implies. I'm uncomfortable with this, uncomfortable considering the explicit awfulness a reality where one hundred two students at a single Milwaukee public high school are homeless.
I'm standing in the massive, open-concept, glass entry way that anchors the north and south wings of Leslie Tech, part of a little huddle of administrators from the handful of four- and two-year colleges that dot the map in and around the city of Milwaukee. I see students in classrooms crammed with a complicated array of technology. The students—at least a majority of them—seem distracted. It's as if they've been teleported here from bedrooms or isolation booths or places where this type of stimulation is foreign and rare and so overwhelming that it almost posits a complete shut down of all cognitive processes.
And now D’Marne is talking about something else, but I can’t pay attention; I can’t shake the thought of one hundred two homeless high school students. This thought bothers me because I don’t know what to do with it. Holding it feels so heavy that I’m afraid I might slip and tumble right off the edge of the Earth. Not holding it, though, seems reckless. Not holding it seems irresponsible and convenient. I shift and squirm and stand and look at them—girls, boys, men, women. How many of them, I wonder, are homeless? How many of them have nowhere to go when the bell rings at 2:45? How many of them are included in that number: one hundred two? I wonder how the one hundred two survive. I wonder how they even show up, day-in, day-out, and do whatever it is they’re doing. I wonder how me or anyone else can expect them to do anything different than whatever it is they're currently doing. I mean, just by being here, they've accomplished a hell of a lot more than I ever would or could if I was in their position.
It's a raw deal they've been dealt. It's unfair, untenable, indigestible, and like a single spark that grows and multiplies and lights the darkest depths, I want to do something about it.
I need to do something about it.
Conversations erupt all around me—educrat talk about co-requisite acceleration and retention, about support and testing.
But fuck all of that.
I want to say something—anything—to get us all back to the point that matters, the one we’re all working so hard to ignore. But I can't. All I can think about is the number one hundred two and the way D’Marne’s voice shuttered like a slightly torn sail as she spoke it only moments ago.
I'm restless and furious; I’m scared I might explode. But I can’t—I won’t—explode.
What, then, can I do?
What can any of us do?
There are so many peaks and canyons tucked into these insurmountable mountains. I hate myself for not being brave, for not having answers that don't exist. The only response me and my privilege can muster is to tuck both of my hands into my pockets and stare anxiously down at my boots. I got them in Los Angeles from a store on the corner of Lincoln and Venice Boulevards. I didn't pay for them, but I know they retail for $559. Five hundred fifty-nine is a big number. It's far, far bigger than one hundred two. And even though these two numbers (559 and 102) are seemingly unrelated, it's their current, conjoined context that seems to inspire everything. I wonder as I stand here and stare at my boots, how I can be so concerned with one hundred two when I care so little for five hundred fifty-nine?
There's weight behind five hundred fifty-nine, but it's different than the weight attached to one hundred two.
I live in Wisconsin where minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. A Wisconsin resident who works 40 hours-a-week at minimum wage earns a gross, weekly paycheck of about $310. Taxes and pay-ins take a little less than 20%, which essentially means that a minimum-wage Wisconsin worker pulls home roughly $268 each week.
Sources that seem mostly credible report that the average American spends about half of their weekly income on housing. Most of these same sources state that between one-third and one-half of the remaining amount is spent on food. That means that after housing and food, a minimum wage Wisconsin worker has about $89.33 left in their pocket for other things, both essential and non-essential. It's pretty clear what category my boots fall under, but let's just—for the sake of argument—pretend they fall into that other category. If a minimum-wage Wisconsin worker wanted to purchase my boots at the price they retail for, they'd have to work for 6.26 weeks and purchase/pay for nothing but food and housing. 6.26 weeks of work equates to 250.4 hours or 15,024 minutes or 901,440 seconds, which is a fucking eternity, especially when you're thinking about how one hundred two students at a single Milwaukee high school are homeless. It's even longer, I suppose, when you're the one who's actually homeless. The truth is I have no idea how long anything is when you're homeless since I've never been anywhere close to homeless except in the tentacles of my most furious and terrible nightmares. There, of course, and at the butts of bad, tasteless jokes short on consequence, but long on insensitivity.
I wonder how many seconds I could last if I were actually homeless.
It sure as fuck wouldn't be anywhere close to 901,440.
And even with all this, I still can't manage anything but silence in the face of one hundred two homeless 14 to 18 year-olds.
I have so many words for so many other things. I throw words away, toss them around like disposable capital, and yet I can't make a single, goddamned sound for any one of those one hundred two.
So, as I stand here in this massive entry way, the number one hundred two careening through my skull, I think about my the cost of my silence.
But it's hard to talk about cost.
From a manufacturing standpoint, my silence has no cost since nothing is expended in its production. By all intents and purposes, my silence is the very absence of production.
From an economic standpoint, the cost of my silence is nearly impossible to determine since it's unclear what's lost as a result of it. Also, what's the perceived, apparent, or relative value of my silence? That, too, is nearly impossible to determine. I can't, after all, retail my silence. It doesn't actually exist in a physical, quantifiable sense. The argument, of course, can be made that it exists in a quantum sense—that it has weight and utility and the ability to occupy space—but that discussion is theoretical. This discussion, on the other hand, is real.
The truth is that I don't say anything because I don't have to. I can afford to remain silent. I want to say something, but I don't know what to say or how to say it and because I don't actually have to say anything, I remain silent.
These students—the ones in front of me, all around me—they can scarcely afford my silence, especially those one hundred two.
But none of them know what to say, either.
Their voices don't work; they can't and won't form words because what are those words, anyway? I mean, how can anybody—especially them—possibly begin express the awfulness of homelessness at 17. Or 16. Or 15. Or 14.
So they embrace their only seeming alternative, they manifest their voices through their actions, their demeanors. I stay quiet, they rage silently, and we all burn like some junkyard tire fire. How can sentences be strung together, sentences that would become paragraphs and whole essays on injustice and privilege and opportunity (or the dire lack thereof) when words aren't available?
And whose fault is it? Theirs? Mine? Is it the fault of the schools? The administration? The parents? Who's to blame, after all? The system?
It has to be something, doesn't it?
Something has to be to blame for this; something must be at fault.
The awful truth is that it's not the fault of any of those aforementioned things. It would be nice (or at least convenient) if it was. I mean, then we could point to one or two things (maybe even three or four) and assign blame. That would give us all something quantifiable to work with, something physical and manifest. Then we could all dive in, right up to our necks if we wanted to, and fix matters. We could solve the problem and insist that all it took was a fresh perspective, a willingness to get one's hands dirty with organized effort. We could talk about how it really wasn't that difficult, after all. Then, if our solutions proved faulty, we could look for other, less apparent elements—ones that hadn't before emerged—and we could reassign blame to them. Or, we could blame some aspect of the process. We could analyze the process, gather more data, and see where things went wrong. Eventually, we'd really know what or who or how to blame. And that, we'd agree, would make all the difference.
But we can't do any of that.
I mean, we can (and we do) do all of that (and more), but we really shouldn't. We shouldn't do any of it since none of those things—those convenient, quantifiable things—are actually to blame.
It's the silence, really. The silence is the problem. The silence is to blame.
The silence is guilty—mine, yours, their's, everybody's. Our collective silence is fucking criminal.
And my boots with their $559 price tag?
Well, they're innocent.
After all, they're the only ones talking, the only ones making noise.
I hear their sound every time I take a step.
And it's so fucking loud against the backdrop of my silence—against the backdrop everyone's sickeningly ridiculous silence—that I can hardly stand it.
I hear my boots all the time, echoing louder and louder with every single step: Privilege. Privilege. Privileged.
David Turton has extensive training in Journalism, Marketing and Public Relations and has been writing as a career for over fourteen years. A huge horror fiction fan, particularly the works of Stephen King, David has written several short stories, all centred around dark tales of horror and dystopia. One of his short stories is set to be published in C.P. Dunphey's Body Horror Anthology in 2017. He is also in the final stages of his first novel, an apocalyptic horror set in the near future.
The Six Snake Setter
Jake Marwood sat in his armchair and took three deep, sharp breaths on his respirator. After spending thirty years tackling fires, smoke had been his mortal enemy. He’d fought hundreds of fires, dragged unconscious people from buildings that had been consumed by hot flames and pungent, deadly fumes. It was ironic that it would be a different kind of smoke that would eventually take his life; the cigarette smoke that he’d put into his own lungs, not only deliberately but with some satisfaction. He’d spent his life fighting one kind of smoke and embracing another, but it was all the same in the end. Smoke was a killer, plain and simple.
He looked over at the awards, accolades, newspaper cuttings and photographs that adorned the area above his fireplace and rolled his eyes. Jake had been a hero in his career, the saver of lives and the protector of the community. A man of trust and integrity. But it had all started out in dull fashion. Young and excited to get stuck into burning buildings, Jake had begun his duties with just a few road traffic accidents and some animal rescues. It was a year on the job before he was called to a real fire, an empty warehouse that was under control within minutes. Ten years went by and Jake’s firefighting career consisted of a few large blazes that were dealt with easily, several smaller kitchen fires and countless road traffic accidents and animal rescues. The banter on Sierra Red Watch was great and it kept his spirits and his interest up, but the lack of real heroic firefighting began to eat away at him. That all changed with the Six Snake Setter in 1997.
The first call was a block of flats. Jake had stood outside for a split second and gazed at the burning building. It was like looking at a vision of what he expected this job to involve when he’d dreamed about the career – the motherload. The twenty-five-storey building was engulfed in flames, people were running past Jake and his crew, all screaming. He ran inside the building, clad in his protective equipment and breathing apparatus and bounded up the stairs, pushing past fallen beams and waving thick plumes of smoke away. He jumped up the stairs, every inch of his leg muscles thrusting him powerfully up the incline. He burst into a flat where he heard screaming, first checking the door and then ploughing into it, shoulder-first. Jake saw three young children and their mother, trapped by flames. He rushed past the flames and scooped up the small children, grabbing the mother by the arm and pulling her onto his shoulders. He quickly but carefully descended the stairs and put the stricken family by the side of the building. Ignoring calls from his crew, he rushed back in. There were more people to save; men, women, children. Jake saved twelve people in total, including seven children under the age of ten. Other crews rescued more residents and, unbelievably, there were no deaths. Although he received a stern warning from his Station Manager for reckless disregard for his own safety, it made no difference once the media picked up the story. Jake was a hero, single-handedly responsible for saving the lives of twelve souls. He became the poster boy for the Fire Service’s brilliant handling of the fire.
Sat in his small flat with his emphysema respirator across his mouth, Jake gazed at one of the cuttings above his fireplace. HERO FIREMAN SAVES TWELVE IN ARSON BLAZE. He smiled, remembering the effect it had in the weeks that followed. People recognised him in the street, bought him beers in bars, hugged him. He was a local hero, a minor celebrity. He gave national interviews and was a regular face in the news. And, just when it looked like calming down, it happened again.
On the east side of the city, an office complex went up in flames. Jake was on duty again, on Sierra Red Watch’s night shift. There were less people to rescue, but Jake still managed to bring three security guards out unharmed and, again, there were no fatalities. There was more media attention, but this time Jake’s heroics were slightly overshadowed by a revelation and the launch of a huge criminal investigation as it was revealed that both fires were linked. A fire setter had caused both blazes. Fire investigators found stubbed out cigarettes at both scenes, something in itself not exactly incriminating, but the brand of cigarettes was rare – Six Snakes – a defunct Japanese brand from the 1960s with an image of six snakes intertwined on the side of the paper. Both fires had been set in exactly the same way, with diesel and a rag. It was official – a city-wide manhunt took place to find what the media had dubbed The Six Snake Setter. Police interviewed all cigarette collectors in the area. They brought in all known arsonists over the previous twenty years. The investigation took several months and was unsuccessful. Then it happened again and this time, it was fatal.
The arsonist had upped the stakes, targeting a 24-hour Supermarket. The fire started in a storeroom, which had been locked, allowing the fire to build before bursting out of the door in a huge explosion and quickly engulfing the entire store. Jake wasn’t on duty this time, but rushed to get his equipment and join the Green Watch who tackled the fire. He had run into the store and grabbed one of the workers, pulling them out and laying them on the grass outside the store. He spent twenty minutes giving the woman mouth-to-mouth but it was too late. Twenty-two people were lost in the fire and this time Jake – the community hero - had failed to rescue any of them. Investigators again found the calling card, a stubbed-out Six Snakes cigarette outside the store. The police ramped up the investigation but again came up short.
Bloody useless coppers, Jake thought to himself as his sat in his chair and brushed his hand through the thin grey strands that remained of his hair. Couldn’t find a boot if it kicked them up the arse. The attacks stopped then. Every now and again the media mentioned the fires and the police followed more lines of enquiry but still it came to nothing. It seemed the Six Snake Setter had hung up his diesel, his cloth and lighter for good.
Jake took off his respirator and stood up with a loud wheeze. He put out his hands and grasped the mantelpiece to balance himself, his head spinning with the effort of standing. As his eyes came into focus he looked at the large silver axe hanging on his wall. A retirement gift that commended his bravery, his name was engraved on it. Several medals sat on the mantelpiece including his OBE, which he received from the Queen – the single greatest day of his life. Jake smiled and reached for his pills. No smoke would take his life, not today, not ever. He would control everything, like he always controlled the smoke. He had beaten the searing, lapping flames of fire and its deathly smoke all his life and he would beat this one too. He emptied the bottle of pills into his mouth, tipping his head backwards until all forty tablets were in his mouth. He grabbed a glass of tepid water and swallowed, painfully feeling the bulky mass of tablets pass down his throat and into his stomach. He stifled a cough until he was sure that all the pills had entered his system and then he let go, coughing thick phlegm with a smattering of blood onto his hand.
He walked over to his cabinet and reached into his pocket for the key. It took some effort to wrap his gnarled fingers around it and unlock the cabinet but he managed it after a couple of clumsy attempts. He reached into the back of the cabinet and opened an old tin. One more cigarette before I go, he thought to himself and smiled. He grabbed the pack of cigarettes and an old Zippo lighter and stumbled back to his armchair. He put the cigarette into his mouth and lit it, the initial harsh intake of smoke causing him to cough violently. The smoke hurt but the thick, warm feel of it in his throat and inside his wrecked lungs felt comforting somehow. As a warm, drowsy feeling came over him, Jake looked down at the burning cigarette in his hand and admired the green snakes on the side of the paper. He closed his eyes and was dead before the cigarette burned out.
Todd Sullivan has lived in South Korea for eight years. He has taught ESL, studied the Korean language, and is currently working towards a Master's level in a Korean martial arts. He hopes to sell his current novel based in Jeju, NATURAL POLICE, before the end of 2017.
Mok Ha’neul didn’t know how long the night breeze carried the plaintive mewling before she eventually became aware of it. At the foot of the alley winding through Dongmun neighborhood, she sat in a semicircle of old women on a hard wooden board balanced on a wide flat rock. She hadn’t uttered a word all night. Instead, she listened as the other women gossiped about their kids who had grown into adults and now raised children of their own. Trading anecdotes of failures committed by progeny adrift from the traditional ways, the old women shared green bottles of white makgoli that they drank from flimsy paper cups.
The pitch of the mewling increased, slipping through the quiet moments of conversation. Ha’neul inclined her head in the direction of her son and daughter-in-law’s home where their only child slept, alone, her parents at a nearby hof-jip drinking beer and soju with old friends from high school.
She sighed in frustration. They shouldn’t have left the girl by herself this time of night. Not with the way that child wrestled with gwi’shin.
Taking a deep breath, Ha’neul placed her bony hands on the wooden board and slowly pushed herself up. Taking care not to topple over, she accidentally bumped a bottle of makgoli and sent it rolling into the semicircle of old women. The conversation dropped down to abrupt silence until one of the women bent over and set the bottle back upright. None of the others made note of Ha’neul leaving as she gingerly stepped off of the board into the mouth of Dongmun alley.
An ancient neighborhood, Dongmun was surrounded by Seoul, a megacity boasting towering steel buildings that easily dwarfed the ramshackle houses built low and made of rough blocks of uneven gray stone. Time had stopped in the concrete alleys snaking through these decrepit homes, and Ha’neul navigated the narrow, lightless lanes with a sure shuffle of her feet. She removed her slippers at the heavy brass door of her son’s home, grasped the round handle, and pulled it slightly ajar to slip inside.
Moonlight barely illuminated the small house. Ha’neul stepped lightly across the hard floor to where her granddaughter slept in Pororo pajamas on a thin pallet against the plaster wall in the central room. She reached the girl and placed her hand on her forehead, but the silhouetted form did not stir. Her granddaughter didn’t acknowledge Ha’neul’s presence, or the rough touch of her calloused fingers. Several seconds passed before realization sank in.
The child was still in a deep sleep, but the mewling persisted, emanating from a source slightly above the girl’s prone body. Ha’neul noticed the bright glint of moonlight on a silver blade hovering near the child’s neck. Her breathing died to a whistled wheeze as her eyes travelled up the handle to the pale hand gripping the sharp knife. Up the pale hand to the steady arm, the slender shoulder, the graceful neck, the beautiful female face cowled by long black hair. And finally to gaze into the figure’s cool eyes staring directly at her. Only then did the mewling stop, the slight part of the figure’s red lips closing.
The stranger wore all black. Ha’neul could barely make out the outlines of a short skirt and shirt. She looked young, in her late teens or early 20s. She gazed without blinking at Ha’neul, no emotion crossing her lovely, cold face. She leaned in slightly and said, “I don’t want to kill this child.” Yet at the same time, she pressed the tip of the blade lightly into the girl’s neck, drawing a sliver of blood that slid down into the cuff of the Pororo pajamas. Ha’neul’s granddaughter stirred, her eyes flickering behind her closed lids, a spasm of pain twisting her petite features, but she did not wake.
Ha’neul took several deep breaths to calm herself before speaking. She’d made a promise to protect this child from all the dangers hunting the night, but this was the first time she’d faced a being this evil and this close to snuffing out her granddaughter’s life.
Licking her dry lips, the old woman worked her jaw for several moments before finally opening her mouth and asking, “So what do you want?”
The surprising answer came quickly. “Help.”
The child beneath the blade stirred again, and the stranger reached out with her free hand and brushed back strands of damp hair from the girl’s sweaty cheek.
“She’s adorable,” the stranger said, genuine hints of remorse audible in the tone of her voice. “I’d hate to hurt her further, but I will.” Warmth fell from her gaze when she looked at the grandmother again. “Take my threat seriously.”
Ha’neul nodded solemnly. She knew what hovered over the child was an apparition of death. She’d heard whispers in her ancestral town of Jeju, the island at the southern most tip of Korea. Her mother’s mother also wrestled with gwi’shin, and she’d learned secrets from the ghosts of the different types of damned doomed to torment humans after death. This stranger before her, a drinker of blood, imprisoned by the night, represented one of the most powerful, and secretive, undead beings. She would torture the child to get what she wanted, and mourn her loss of humanity even as she exhibited her lack of morality. The old woman had no doubt about this, and knew she must do everything in her power to best this monster wearing the guise of a human.
“I’ve been chasing secret words,” the stranger said. “In Jeju, I learned an old incantation of power, but it only works there. Off the island, I need a way to activate ancient artifacts here. In Seoul, in Busan, in Daegu. Wherever my travels take me in Korea, I need a way to protect myself.”
Ha’neul swallowed in a dry throat, and pointed out the irony. “So even monsters are afraid of the dark?”
The figure scowled. “There’s always something bigger, meaner, and more deadly in this world.” She pressed the blade against the child’s face, and with a deft flick of her wrist, flayed a centimeter of flesh from the girl’s cheek. The child’s eyes shot open, and she whimpered, tears flooding her eyes. The stranger laid a pale hand on the girl’s shoulder and whispered, “Stay still, little sister, and remain silent.”
The child froze, her small body trembling as she stared out into the dark room. Ha’neul wanted to rush to her granddaughter, wanted to shield her with her own body, let the blade work her wrinkled flesh instead. But the stranger’s steady gaze told her that any sudden moves on her part would end badly for the girl, and so she restrained herself with many deep inhales.
“Even if I found an answer to give you,” she said between labored breaths, “what makes you think you’d be able to understand it?”
“Because I’ve used an incantation before.” The stranger closed her eyes briefly as if trying to remember something existing right outside of her consciousness. “And because I have to try. Just as you have no choice in telling me, I have no choice but to find the answer to my question.”
Ha’neul pictured the stranger’s head in a guillotine, a cloaked figure standing by the lever ready to snatch her undead life away.
“Jeju Island people are more in touch with the mystical elements than us city people,” Ha’neul admitted. “Korea’s greatest shamans once lived there, though even on the island it’s a dying practice kept up only by the very old.” She tried to keep despair out of her rasping voice. “I wasn’t born there, I’m too far removed from the ancient ways of my people.”
The stranger tensed, the girl beneath her squirmed, but before the knife could do more damage, Ha’neul hastily added, “But a gwi’shin. Find a gwi’shin, and it may have learned what you seek while in communication with others of its lost kind. The dead often talk to each other. Who else are they going to converse with?”
“How do I find a gwi’shin?” the stranger asked. She adjusted her stance, the blade now only loosely held against the child’s cheek. Her hand on the girl’s shoulder, however, did not relax, and the old woman watched helplessly as her granddaughter, lips quivering, eyes wide, seemed on the verge of breaking down.
“They can exist anywhere, but are usually visible nowhere.” Ha’neul’s voice rasped up from her dry throat to fall from her mouth into the dark room. “Gwi’shin are products of unfilled want, willing to do anything to justify an existence they no longer have.” She stared pointedly at the stranger. “You must search out reflective surfaces, for you and the gwi’shin have much in common.”
The stranger nodded. “We do,” she admitted. “But grandmother, you must help me. My patience is short, and I don’t have the time to wander the crevices of Seoul seeking out the other dead. You have to help me accelerate the process.”
The knife disappeared into the darkness, but Ha’neul did not heave a sigh of relief. She’d known all alone that the blade had only been for theatrics, like the mewling that’d led her into the home. If legends spoke truth, the stranger possessed the strength of dozens, and could easily rip apart her granddaughter with her hands alone.
“I will return tomorrow,” the stranger added. “By then, have thought of the place to view my reflection so that I can find a gwi’shin. Don’t disappoint me.”
She caressed the child’s cheek one last time, gently, and when she removed her other hand from the girl’s shoulder, the old woman’s granddaughter opened her mouth wide and let out a long, piercing shriek.
Darkness consumed the stranger as voices picked up in the surrounding houses. The child’s piercing wail went on and on, ripping the neighborhood’s late evening silence asunder. The stranger slithered across the floor to the window, slipped through, and hauled herself up the short brick wall to the blue aluminum roof. She quickly leapt over the narrow alleys of Dongmun until she reached a wide boulevard separating the old neighborhood from the modern city towering around it. At the edge of Dongmun stood a red brick church on a steep hill. A western style cemetery sloped down from the hill and ended at Gwanghuimun gate.
She leapt to the tall church spire, then over to the top of Gwanghuimun. The arched gate’s heavy door stood open to a cobbled stone courtyard, and along the stone battlements stood dozens of protective bow-legged, monkey men statues. They stared ahead with hungry eyes, their tiny feet splayed on the bright red, tiled roof. The stranger nestled in the shadows amongst the statues frozen in midstride, withdrew the knife, and licked the blood from the blade. Tingles of pleasure helped numb the distaste she experienced in having to hurt the child. This wasn’t who she wanted to be, but she had no choice if she wanted to protect her best friend from the monsters of the world.
Tucking the blade back into the sheath strapped to her inner thigh, she dropped down from the Bright Light Gate, and crossed the street out of the ancient Dongmun neighborhood into modern Seoul towering around it. Yellow and silver taxis, mopeds and motorcycles raced down the wide avenues. Dongdaemun Design Plaza billowed up ahead of her, and the stranger quickly maneuvered through a stream of people crowding the busy sidewalks. She went down a steep escalator into the nearest subway and took the green line headed to Hongik University. Male eyes attempting to catch her gaze was a sharp reminder that she hadn’t properly fed that night. The youthful child’s blood had stirred her hunger so that it threatened to engulf her, but she employed all of her training to suppress her desire. After meeting her best friend, she’d hunt down someone some where in a secluded area to drink.
The stranger got off at Hongik, and went up the stairs alongside university students streaming out of the subway. Though only Wednesday, Hongik’s sidewalks bustled with young Koreans enjoying the late spring weather. Short shirts and shorter skirts had come out of closets, and deep beats from speakers at storefronts vibrated the air. Cars honked at pedestrians sprinting across narrow streets, and taxis lined up along curbs, top lights blinking for passengers. Cherry blossom buds had awoken in trees to paint their branches bright pink, and thin petals swirled between sneakers and high heels marching from restaurant to bar to club in Hongik’s bustling neighborhoods.
The stranger headed to Bar Na located in a strip of bars, and stepped inside a dim staircase. She went up two flights of stairs where her friend should be waiting for her. She pushed open the wooden second story door and entered a long, narrow bar cluttered with tables and chairs set opposite each other against the gray walls. At the end of the bar on a raised platform by a window overlooking the busy streets below, the stranger saw her best friend, Kang Sori, as Sori saw her.
“Kim Jung Hyun!” Sori smiled brightly, and waved from where she sat on the bench. “Come meet my new friends!”
Two guys sitting at the table turned, and stood as Jung Hyun approached the group. Both wore slim fitted, stylish clothes: blue jeans and a buttoned down short-sleeved shirt for the taller one, black jeans and a red t-shirt for the shorter one. The taller guy’s lightened hair swept down over his left eye, while the shorter guy had perfectly mussed black hair.
“I was sitting here by myself waiting for you,” Sori explained, “and these guys decided to come over and keep me company.” Her eyes brightened as her gaze lingered on one, then the other. “But if you want, I can tell them to get lost,” she teased, and both guys, playing their parts expertly, gave pained sighs of heartbroken disappointment.
“Don’t be cruel,” the taller one begged, shoulders slumping in mock grief. “Please, let us join you. We’ll be good boys. Promise!”
The shorter one gave Jung Hyun his best puppy dog look, and she playfully giggled, covering her mouth with her hand as she imagined skinning him alive and hanging him up from the ceiling by a hook through his ankles as a warning to all those of her kind who threatened the friend who she loved.
“Let me buy the first round of drinks,” the taller one said, and motioned to a willowy Japanese waitress in a long blue dress. To the girls, he asked, “What are you having?”
“Just beer,” Jung Hyun replied with a shrug.
“Don’t be boring.” Sori slapped her shoulder. “Order a cocktail.”
“Yeah, it’s on us,” the tall guy reminded us. “Sky’s the limit.”
The Japanese waitress suggested whiskey, which they all ordered on the rocks. When she brought their drinks over several minutes later, they clinked glasses, and took sips of the strong alcohol.
“Delicious,” the tall guy announced, and his shorter friend nodded in agreement.
“So,” Sori said, “are you students?”
The two guys shook their heads. “Detectives for Seoul Metropolitan Police,” the tall guy replied, and Sori’s mouth dropped open in amazement.
“Are you serious?” She looked from one to the other. “You two are detectives? Isn’t that dangerous?”
The short guy laughed, and the tall guy replied, “Very. But we can take care of ourselves.” He sipped his whiskey. “We’re actually working a big case now. Chasing a fugitive.” The tall guy lowered his voice and leaned in close to Sori. “Serial killer,” he said in a sinister whisper.
Sori clutched Jung Hyun’s hand. “Really? You’re not joking?” She waited for confirmation, but when both guys gave solemn nods of their heads, Sori faced Jung Hyun.
“Can you believe it?” she asked. “Here in Korea, a murderer.” She glanced around Bar Na as if the perpetrator would materialize out of the shadows to attack them now. “He could be anywhere.”
“That’s the surprising part about this case,” the tall one continued. “It’s not a guy.”
Jung Hyun’s hand tightened on her friend’s, slightly, so as not to hurt the girl. She conjured her most surprised look at this gender revelation, playing along with the two male Gwanlyo agents sitting in front of her.
“What will you do with her when you catch her?” Sori asked.
The tall guy tapped his whiskey cup with the tip of his nail. “She’ll get a fair trial, of course. But the evidence against her is overwhelming. Abduction. Murder. She’s one of the worst of the worst.”
Jung Hyun kept her face placid even as fury built within her. How dare they insinuate this in front of Sori, when the undead organization posed the true threat in their desire to hire her best friend as one of their employees? The bloody face of the young girl from earlier in the night flashed in Jung Hyun’s mind, the ease with which she’d cut the girl in order to get what she wanted. The Gwanlyo turned humans into monsters, powerful and twisted. Jung Hyun would do anything to save Sori’s humanity and prevent her from joining the organization.
When they’d both lived on Jeju, Jung Hyun had used shamanic rituals of protection that she’d coerced out of elders in rural fishing villages dotting the island’s coastline. But the undead organization’s ways were many, and they’d offered Sori a job in Gangnam as floor manager at Lotte, Korea’s biggest luxury hotel chain.
Sori had leapt at the chance.
Jung Hyun drained her whiskey and placed it with a thud on the table. “So what options does the murderer have now?” she asked. “Just turn herself in?”
“If she’s smart,” the taller guy said, with the shorter one nodding his head in agreement. “But after all she’s done, we’re not exactly sure how sane she is. Right now, Seoul Metropolitan police simply considers her actions to be unpredictable.”
Sori shivered, and finished off her whiskey with a noisy slurp. “Let’s change the subject,” she announced with a nervous laugh. “You two are scaring me!”
Jung Hyun put an arm around Sori’s shoulder. The two guys agreed, and after another round, Sori excused herself to go to the bathroom. Behind them, the bar had quieted, though more voices drifted up from the second floor. The Japanese waitress sat on a stool, head bowed over her smartphone.
The three undead Gwanlyo employees stared at each other.
“So you left the island,” the shorter guy said, speaking for the first time. “We were sure you wouldn’t. But Kang Sori. She’s a different story.” He leaned in towards Jung Hyun, his slim frame tense, menacing.” You haven’t told her the truth, have you?” He gazed into her eyes without blinking for several false breaths. “So you aren’t that insane. Yet.”
“She’d never believe me if I simply told her,” Jung Hyun replied with a shrug of her slender shoulders. “And showing her what I am…” She paused, her words trailing off. Showing Sori the monster would lose her friend. Or worse, entice her to become a night’s shadow also. Neither of these risks was Jung Hyun willing to take, so she’d kept the secrets to herself, and had diligently worked to discover ancient secrets to protect her friend from the Gwanlyo.
“So what now?” Jung Hyun leaned back against the window behind her. “Do you think I’ll just turn myself in?”
The tall guy laughed, and the shorter guy said, “You’re dangerous on Jeju, that’s for sure. Everyone we sent after you to that damned island never came back, and we still don’t know why.” He tried to suppress hints of respect when he added, “You’re a formidable rogue employee. You found some old power locked away in the locals there, right? Some ritual you used against your own kind.”
Jung Hyun shrugged, though elation soared through her. She always feared that the Gwanlyo would torture the right person on the island and learn the secret of the shamanic statues on the island. It seemed that they still hadn’t managed it, though, which left her with her powerful advantage.
The shorter guy’s hands closed into loose fists. “Just what we’d expect from a rogue employee. Your madness consumes you.”
“I’m not crazy,” Jung Hyun said, and conjuring Sori’s face, she thought, I’m in love.
“With a human?” The short guy said in disgust. Jung Hyun bit back a flinch. She’d been carefully monitoring her thoughts so that the two agents wouldn’t read her mind. The last thought had been too strong, it seemed, and had slipped out to be scooped up by the employee.
“Your reasoning is irrational,” the short guy said in frustration. “When she’s hired, when she’s one of the Gwanlyo, then she’ll be fit to love. As a human, she’s just subsistence. Something to be fed upon.”
Defiant rage tore aside her caution, and Sori ballooned in her thoughts. All of the small moments that filled their friendship. The human moments that captivated Jung Hyun. The way Sori grew quiet when the waiter at a seafood restaurant set a gutted fish on the table, its black eyes staring blindly out at the world it’d never experience again. She loved the taste but still wanted to honor the dead animal in some small away.
Or the way she paused at musicians playing in Hongik, and would self-consciously rush forward to drop a 1000 won into a guitar case or brown cardboard box. Sori was notorious for helping tourists she met, whether in Jeju or now here in Seoul. She spoke several languages, being a natural linguist, and she always looked for ways to lend a hand to those in need.
Jung Hyun let these acts of kindness and compassion that her friend selflessly gave to the world fill her thoughts, and she hurled them at the two Gwanlyo agents sitting across from her. I’ll never let her become like us, she hissed in her mind. Never let her become callous, indifferent to the suffering of humans. Never force her to drink blood for the rest of an eternal undead life.
The two guys blinked rapidly as if the passion behind Jung Hyun’s visions created a blinding light that hurt their eyes.
“The Gwanlyo will take the girl,” the short guy insisted, though the confidence he displayed earlier seemed shaken, if not broken. “The question of how depends on you. Fight us, and she may be killed in the crossfire.”
She still had a chance, if the old woman came through with a protective power to defeat Gwanlyo employees. Jung Hyun suddenly deflated as if defeated, her shoulders slumped, her head dropping in exhaustion. “Ok,” she said. “Tomorrow night, I’ll give her to you.”
“Don’t mistake this last chance we give you for stupidity,” the short guy sneered. “Tonight we’ll hire her. No more tricks. No more deceptions.”
“And me?” Jung Hyun kept up the act, imagining herself a rat in a trap’s steel jaws.
“You methodically obstructed official Gwanlyo business and have wantonly killed Gwanlyo employees. “ The short guy burgeoned on the verge of ecstasy as he listed the litany of her sins. “You spurned every chance to come back into the fold, and forced the organization to push back ancient schedules to compensate for your violations. I am not your judge or jury, but I speak with conviction when I say,” he gave her a pitiless smile, “death becomes you.”
Jung Hyun sighed, and with supernatural speed unsheathed the blade at her thigh and lashed out at the shorter guy, slicing cleanly through his throat and splaying blood across the table and wall. The tall guy’s eyes opened wide in disbelief. All three of them knew that a wound like this, while potentially fatal to a human, would only slow down the short guy. But for her to attack them like this, in a public bar, breaking the Gwanlyo’s most sacred rule of secrecy, seemed too much for the tall guy to digest.
“You are insane,” he whispered as the short guy bent over to hide the wound from the Japanese waitress still sitting on the stool looking down at her smartphone. They heard footsteps on the stairs, and Jung Hyun quickly slid from behind the table and rushed to meet Sori coming back into the bar, waving brightly, and slightly inebriated, at her.
“I think the drinks should be on us now,” Sori said, but Jung Hyun took her hand and spun her back to the exit.
For Sori’s benefit, Jung Hyun said over her shoulder to the guys still seated at the table, “We’ll be right back.” She didn’t pause going downstairs into the crowded Hongik streets.
“What are we doing?” Sori twisted her head towards Bar Na growing distant behind them as Jung Hyun went to a line of taxis.
“I just got a call,” Jung Hyun lied. “There’s someone I’d really like you to meet.”
“Tonight?” Sori got into a yellow cab, and Jung Hyun slid in beside her and said to the taxi driver, “Dongdaemun.”
“Jung Hyun?” Sori tapped her shoulder incessantly. “What happened? What’s wrong? Who do we have to meet this time of night?” Confusion swept across the petite features of her face, and for a moment Jung Hyun thought Sori might demand the taxi to pull over until she got an explanation of the night’s strange detour. But beneath that confusion, Jung Hyun sensed a deep trust her best friend held for her, and she had to focus to keep the blood tears from filling her eyes.
Smiling reassuringly instead, she said, “It’s nothing. I have an errand I need to run in Dongdaemun, that’s all.”
“Dongdaemun? Are we going shopping this late?”
Jung Hyun laughed. “It’s nothing like that. I just want you to meet an old friend.” She glanced at the taxi driver, who’d eyed them several times as the conversation had proceeded. Soft music floated from the radio, a female singer whose voice rose and fell as if the lyrics she sung rode the perpetual waves slapping against the beaches in Jeju.
They said nothing else until Jung Hyun told the driver to stop in front of Gwanghuimun gates. She paid the driver, and led a confused Sori out into the quiet street running by the historic site. The western style graveyard with its gray headstones poking up out of the green grass sloped up to the towering church at the top of the hill. Opposite the hill stood squat Dongmun houses, their doors and walls splashed with bright colors and abstract images of birds and fish. A young man sat on a stoop in front of one of the homes, a beer at his feet, his head bowed over a smartphone as a baseball game emitted clearly from tiny speakers.
Sori looked up and down the empty street, then up at Gwanghuimun gates, the graveyard, and the church with its tall spire. “I’m getting scared.” She sounded like a child, her words trembling. “I just…” She touched Jung Hyun’s hand.
“I’m sorry.” Jung Hyun intertwined her cold fingers with her friend’s warmer ones. “I didn’t think I’d have to involve you in this. Tomorrow night, I was going to meet a grandmother to find a way to protect you.” But now that wasn’t going to work, and Jung Hyun had no choice but to coerce the old woman to help her tonight. And since she couldn’t let Sori out of her sight, she had to do what she had to do in front of her best friend. She had to release the darkness alive inside of her and let her friend see the monster lurking right beneath the human façade.
She’d tucked the bloody knife back in its sheath strapped to her thigh when they’d rushed out of Bar Na. Even as her hand now grasped her friend’s gently, she knew she could—knew she would wield the knife to skin off the little girl’s face if the old woman resisted.
As if the intensity of the violent image sent a warning sign to illuminate the night sky, Ha’neul exited one of the narrow alleys leading out of the Dongmun neighborhood. She approached them at a fast hobble. Jung Hyun also noticed the guy listening to the baseball game now standing, and with a nod to the old woman, he disappeared into the colorful house with his beer.
Very clever of her, Jung Hyun thought, and wondered how many people in the neighborhood she had enlisted the help of.
“Come on,” she said with a slight squeeze of Sori’s hand. “It’s almost over.”
She led her friend past the graveyard to the cobblestones beneath the historic city gates. Two stone haetae guarded Gwanghuimun’s entrance and offered the late night guests frozen, malevolent, sharp tooth grins.
“Tomorrow,” the old woman gasped when she was still feet away from them. Sori, just now seeing her, started towards her with concern, but Jung Hyun kept her friend firmly beside her, not letting go of her for an instant.
“Tomorrow,” the old woman repeated, “I told you to come back.”
Jung Hyun nodded to her left. “But they didn’t want to listen.”
Sori and the old woman both turned to the two guys swiftly walking towards them. The shorter one had changed his clothes, and except for an angry red scar marring his pale neck, his throat had otherwise healed. The two of them turned apologetic smiles to Ha’neul. If they were surprised to see her out there this time of night, it didn’t show as they bowed low to her politely.
“Grandmother,” the taller one said respectfully, “please, go back to bed. It’s late, and you must be tired.”
Ha’neul did indeed breathe heavily after her quick ascent to the gates. Her wrinkles pulled the flesh of her face towards her ancient eyes. Though she looked exhausted, the spirit of determination burned within the gaze that she swept over them all. They would not hurt her granddaughter. Her very being solely existed to protect the child from the terrors of the night.
The old woman took a deep breath, and licking dried lips, said in a breathless voice, “You monsters, full of violence.
“You come here for my help,” she directed this comment to Jung Hyun. “I have spoken to gwi’shin of a past long gone, and they revealed to me…”
The words slipped from Ha’neul’s lips as a low, musical chant. Jung Hyun tried to move, but the rhythm slithered around her like chains to hold her fast to the ground where she stood. Above her, on the Gwanghuimun gate’s bright red tiled roof, the sound emanated of dozens of tiny pattering feet rushing forward towards them. Jung Hyun strained her neck to look up, and heard tendons in her neck stretching beyond their breaking points. She had to see, though, what was coming towards her and the other Gwanlyo employees rooted helplessly to the cobblestone square.
Ha’neul’s chants grew stronger, and Jung Hyun watched with horror as the bowlegged monkey-men leapt upon her, their shrieks piercing her mind creating a crescendo of pain that would have had her writhing on the ground in pain if her body had been capable of falling. Through the torture, she sensed the two Gwanlyo employees suffering the same fate. The power she had sought, now used against her.
The monkey-men swarmed over her, and tore at her pale skin with their stone claws. Jung Hyun screamed, and heard her cries as thin whimpers uttered through slightly parted lips.
She tried to look at Sori, but could not incline her head in her friend’s direction. Their hands still clasped each other, and it was only her frozen stance that had spared her friend from crushed bones and pulverized flesh.
“What’s going on? Why are you crying?” Sori tugged at her, but Jung Hyun remained paralyzed. The phantom statues, invisible to all except those whom they tore and ripped and clawed at, howled in triumph and started to pull her across the cobblestone square. The two guys had already fallen and were being dragged, faces frozen in silent masks of anguish, across the ground and up the wall to the temple’s tiled roof.
In-between the chants, the old woman begged Sori, “Let her go, let her go!” She stumbled to Sori, but could not say more without breaking the spell and ending the attack.
Sori looked from Jung Hyun to the grandmother, and back to Jung Hyun again. Tears fell from her eyes now, her fear overwhelming her. The two guys, reaching their destination above them on the gate’s battlements, finally managed slightly louder whimpers as the stone bowlegged statues, with gleeful shrieks, ripped them apart and to be drunk down by the blood red tiled roofs.
“Let her go,” Ha’neul managed with one last breath, but Sori only shook her head.
“I can’t,” she whispered. “She’s my friend.”
The old woman gazed into the young girl’s face and saw trust and devotion for this monster disguised as a human. Looking back at Jung Hyun, she realized that somewhere within that dead body, good must exist. Pure evil could never create the expression of love shining through the confusion and fear twisting the girl’s haggard features. The chants slowly died from Ha’neul’s lips. Strength and power drained from her, and there was nothing more she could do.
Jung Hyun fell into her friend’s sobbing embrace, and for several moments she just inhaled Sori’s scent with deep, false breaths. She didn’t realize until she pulled away that she hadn’t noticed the smell of her best friend’s blood the entire time.
“Old woman,” Jung Hyun hissed, her eyes glowing in rage. “You’ll teach me that power, or I swear…” She let the threat hang in the air, not wanting to speak the actions she’d take in front of Sori.
Ha’neul licked her dry lips. “I can’t,” she said, her throat so dry it hurt to speak. “I had to seek out gwi’shin older than my mother’s mother’s mother, but they could not teach me the words. I’m not strong enough.” She took a deep inhale. “They can speak through me, but I cannot speak for them. I am only their vessel.”
“You lie!” Jung Hyun leapt at her to wrap her fingers around the old woman’s neck, to lift her up, to hurl her away from her in disgust. Her hands went through Ha’neul’s body, touching nothing. Jung Hyun froze, and beside her, Sori asked, “Where did she go?”
But Jung Hyun still saw the gwi’shin, who, with a fatigued sigh, turned from her and hobbled back to the mouth of an alley winding out of Dongmun neighborhood. “We share the same burden.” The old woman’s voice drifted on the late spring night breeze to chill Jung Hyun to her core.
“Protecting the life of a loved one with all the powers of the dead.”
Christopher Roche works in the telecommunications industry. He spends most nights and weekends writing fiction. He is supported by a loving and patient family that includes his wife, two sons and Nitro the Wonder Dog. They live outside Dallas, TX.
The clock on the mantlepiece went “tick-tock, tick-tock.” A dog down the lane barked twice. Mummy’s fork went, “scra-aaa-pe” on her plate, and Daddy made a sour face.
“Kitty, please,” he said, “you set my teeth on edge.”
We ate our supper quietly, and I listened to the tick-tock clock because there was nothing else to listen to. Mummy took care with her fork, and the dog had quieted. Just then, Mummy turned to the window, startled.
“Would you just listen to that damn dog? I do wish the Farmers would muzzle it, or bring it in-doors at night.”
I looked at Daddy and he gave me that face that meant I should not say anything, even though I wanted to.
After supper, I asked permission to be excused, and Mummy said, “Yes, baby. Give Mummy a kiss good-night.”
I coloured in some books a while, then turned out the light.
Somehow the darkness of my bedroom gave me super-hearing. I could turn my ear wherever I chose, and hear anything. But that’s an exaggeration. I could only hear inside my house, and sometimes, if I really concentrated, the neighbours'.
Mummy and Daddy had switched on the telly, and watched a news show. They liked the news shows. Maybe it gave them something to discuss: politics and culture and wars. But they did not talk, at least not while the program was on. Sometimes Mummy would say something like, “Oh, that Obama! What a nice face he has!”
Daddy would remind her that liberals could enjoy their moment in the sun, but the nonsense would not hold.
Daddy had a man that came each morning to drive him to his office in The City. Daddy worked in science, with the Anglo-German Biotechnology Institute, but he wore a grey suit and a tie to work, not a white lab coat. One of these days, he promised, he’d take me to his work. Mummy had worked for a while as well, where she removed other people from their jobs. It used to upset her; and then it didn’t, so she quit.
Tuesday nights Daddy went to the pub with his mates, and would return home late, take a shower to wash off the whiskey and tobacco smell, then come to my room to say prayers with me. Sometimes I did not want to say my prayers, so I pretended to be fast asleep. Daddy would sit on my bed, and say his prayers anyway.
That was how I learnt that Mummy was dying.
She died on a Saturday morning, in the summer-time, sitting by the swimming pool in her robe. Her head was covered turban-like with a towel, as if she’d been bathing, but it was to hide her baldness. Some men came to take Mummy. Daddy told me I should stay; the neighbours would look in on me, and I was to be a sturdy lad.
With Daddy away tending to Mummy, and the neighbours rattling about in the kitchen like a pair of raccoons, I went to find a place to cry. No place seemed suitable. Each room looked like an ad, or a posh hotel. The furniture was all clean and square and no dents were in the cushions. The curtains hung just so. Even the bric-a-brac on the table-tops and shelves were straight and polished. There was a horse head, and a brass scale, some old-timey books, and a magnifying glass. But we did not ride horses. Mummy and Daddy did not read old books, and as far as I knew, nobody in the house ever went around looking at things closely through a glass.
I was never, ever allowed to go into Daddy’s study in the basement. It was verboten, a German word he used, with a wink. Daddy trusted I would obey — he did not even lock the door — and I always had, 'til then anyway.
I crept down the stairs. I opened the door and poked my head in.
It was all ordinary. There was a desk, a chair, a computer and a rug. I sat on the chair and spun around in it until my head was dizzy. I tapped on the computer keys, with a pop tune in my head. I had my cry, but I will not say more. That’s private.
There was a stainless cupboard in the corner of the study that looked like the refrigerator in the kitchen, except it had four tall doors in the middle, two short ones along the top, and a giant one across the bottom with holes cut out of it. It hummed and clicked and made other noises, just like the machines in Mummy’s room — not the master that she used to sleep in with Daddy — but the one made up just for her when she got sick, and where she stayed for seven months, two weeks and four days.
I had to have a look. I picked a door to open. It flew, light and easy and with a clang, like my locker at school. Hanging on pegs were two motorcycle outfits, with helmets and boots and pants and jackets. This surprised me because Daddy and Mummy did not ride motorcycles. Everything was covered in thin blue lines, like veins. No, they weren’t like veins at all. They were like the lines on the circuit board of a computer that my mates and me had found in a bin and smashed to bits for fun.
I did not see Daddy very much for a while. He sort of disappeared, but I understood. He was “licking his wounds,” as Granny explained, and needed to busy himself with work and such. So, I did not mind that he spent so much time downstairs working. I was becoming quite a sturdy fellow after all.
He stopped going to the pub on Tuesdays, and we no longer said our prayers together. Daddy must've been quite cross with God for what He did to Mummy. I was cross too, but said my prayers anyway. It would not do to make God cross with me. Or Daddy. So I asked God every night to please be patient with us.
Months and months of this, and now I was losing patience with Daddy. I hoped that God held His patience, or we were done for.
Then, just like in stories, everything changed. Daddy whistled and sang around the house, and gave me lots of hugs and called me names like “Sport” and “Champ.” He asked me to sit with him in the living room, and I did so, on the edge of the sofa, careful not to touch the fabric with my hands.
“It’s been an ordeal, these past few weeks and months, what with your mum being gone and all,” he began.
Something wasn’t right and I was suddenly very frightened.
He sprang up and held out his hands for me. “Do you believe in miracles?”
I nodded. In truth, I hadn’t thought much about them. But a nod seemed proper. How would Daddy have proceeded if I had said no?
“Your mother is — well, how exactly do I say this? Your mother is — back. Don’t ask me how. She just is, and she’s coming home. Mummy is coming home!”
It was a miracle. My head spun, and my brains tumbling around and around in there, like the clothes in the dryer. Was it possible? Of course it had to have been. Daddy would never tell such a big lie. He had said not to ask how she had come back to life, and that was just fine with me. I worried that I would not like the answer.
Daddy and I danced. Daddy played pop songs from his phone through the stereo speakers. We laughed, held hands and danced into the night until we were exhausted and sweaty.
Mummy came back home on a Wednesday.
We were all so very happy! I could not stop hugging Mummy. I held on and on and squeezed. I never wanted to let her go. Then Daddy said Mummy was still frail and we should not over-do it.
“My baby,” she cooed, and kissed my hair.
For weeks, Daddy and Mummy held hands everywhere they went. They never, ever watched television after sending me to bed. Instead, I heard them talking. I felt silly, smiling all to myself while I lay in bed in the dark, listening.
“Remember that on June 20th, in 2011, we were on bicycles in the country. We took photos of the bluebells, and your tire went flat. Do say you remember it.”
“I remember it.”
“Remember that on December 25th, Christmas, 1999, we went to see a Tom Cruise film in the evening, and you wore the green coat I gave you. Do say you remember it.”
“I remember it.”
They talked for so long, I fell asleep with their voices in my ears.
By the time summer rolled back around, and Daddy rolled the tarp off the swimming pool, and days were hot and wet, things had settled down a little. Daddy no longer danced or whistled or called me “Champ” and “Sport.” He watched the news after my bedtime. Tuesdays were pub nights again.
I wondered if Daddy still believed in God. Surely so, after the miracle. Maybe he just lost the habit of saying his prayers. I no longer waited for him to join me when I said mine.
On such a Tuesday night, as I kneeled and prayed, there came a strange odor from somewhere far off. It smelled of burning flowers. I tiptoed down the stairs and the stink was even worse, coming from the kitchen. There was no fire on the stove. Mummy was perched on a barstool, smoking a cigarette. It was small, and she had it pinched between her fingers, like she was plucking a splinter. Her eyes were half closed, and she wore a goofy smile.
“Hey, baby” she said, but oddly, in slow motion. “Are you hungry? I’ll make us something to eat.”
I shook my head; even if I had been hungry earlier, Mummy’s stinky cigarette ruined my appetite.
“Well, I am starving,” she said.
The clock ticked and tocked. Mummy nodded her head, and answered, “Yeah,” really soft, and I was puzzled, because I hadn’t asked anything.
Daddy noticed Mummy’s smoking too, and he was not happy about it one bit. One morning I watched them quarreling. Daddy fussed at Mummy. He crossed his arms, and bowed his head and sometimes held his breath. Mummy called him a “right-angled twat,” and that made Daddy so mad he left the room. When he’d gone, Mummy flipped the bird to the empty spot where he’d stood.
There were many such quarrels after that. But the topper was when Mummy had gone out on a Friday night with her mates and stayed out until morning. She told Daddy her mobile got lost in a taxi, but then the pocket of her new tangerine jeans chirped out a merry ringtone. Much of what they said afterward made no sense, and it seemed like the quarrel would fizzle out, like so many others. But Mummy stood on her toes and stared directly into Daddy’s eyes, said something about her and her mates meeting up at a Labour rally, and he was free to join or not, she didn’t give a shit.
Later, I told Mummy I was hungry. She asked if I fancied a burger, which, of course, I did! She said she knew a spot in Tottenham whose burgers were “ridiculous.” She was right. The food was very good. And the spot was very lively with Indian and African and American music, and everyone shouting around us in foreign languages, and laughing out loud like nobody cared. What I couldn’t figure out was how Mummy would know about it. We’d never been to Tottenham. I had a feeling that if Daddy learnt we’d gone, he’d lose his temper.
Mummy was looking over the top of my head like there was someone behind me, but all that was there was a wall plastered with posters for bands and naughty words.
As if in a trance she said, “On April 16th, in 1983, we met in the back of a VW Bus. You had been on the road-side, and looked as if you hadn’t eaten in days, which was true. Fred picked you up though I protested. Gavin, sitting up front with Fred, said something dirty and I slapped the back of his head. I thought you were handsome and kind. We stood on the corner, pebbles in a stream of angry pedestrians, passing out flyers. People spat in our faces and called us every name in the book. Late in the night, we took discards from a rubbish bin behind the McDonald’s and feasted. Gavin finally shared the pot we knew he had all along. We got so very high. That was the night we met. Do say you remember.”
As far as I know, our Tottenham adventure remained Mummy’s and my secret. Nonetheless, Daddy’s mood darkened more and more. The odd part is, he no longer shouted, or tried to argue with Mummy. He sulked, like a child, like me. Except I had grown out of that phase, or so said Granny.
He spent most of his days, and many nights downstairs in his study. I crept down to sneak a look at what he might be doing, but the door was closed and locked. I put my ear to it. Daddy was talking out loud, but the words he used were all so scientific I cannot even mimic them without making me, and Daddy, sound dumb. Then there was a second voice, belonging to a man. Some parts of what they said I understood.
Daddy said, “Karl, what you’re suggesting is not just wrong, it’s monstrous.”
Then Karl said, “It worked with Kitty.”
“Did it? The essence particle was intact. The core cognition functions worked brilliantly. And the physical specimen is gorgeous. But the personality mapping went haywire. She's stunted. I just don’t know anymore. This is madness.”
“We knew something like this might happen. And now that it has, we adjust. You’ve over 1,500 hours in the suit. I say you're ready. Still, it's your call.”
“I won’t do it. I won’t subject my family to what we already went through. My God, what about my boy? He has to go through this twice? I won’t allow it.”
“Well then, what will you do?”
Two weeks after that, Daddy left home. Granny moved in to take care of Mummy and me, and never said a single kind word about Daddy. It upset me to hear her go on about all the ways that Daddy had ruined Mummy’s life.
She said, “He off and joined the system! And it sucked his soul out through his arsehole, and stuffed cash into the void from the other end.”
She was angry at Daddy, and might have been telling lies so that I would be on her side, but I did not want to choose sides.
Mummy was sad when Granny was around, but cheerful when she wasn’t. She took a regular job, cleaning up and running the register at Costa Coffee. She was learning to make the drinks and this made her very happy. Her Costa mates came around to the house from time to time. They were much younger than Mummy, and way younger than Granny, but everyone got on great. I even spied Granny smoking outside in the garden with two of Mummy’s friends.
I still missed Daddy terribly, and prayed every night, with my hands squeezing hard and my brain trying to shut out any other thoughts, so that God would bring him back, just as He had brought Mummy back from the dead.
It was Sunday morning, and Granny had gone to church but Mummy had to work at ten, so we stayed home. Mummy did not feel like cooking, so she asked if I minded just a bowl of Weetabix. Yuck. But okay.
Mummy watched me eat with a sort of dreamy look, the sort she got when she was remembering things. Not the way that Daddy used to help her remember, but the way it really was.
“Mummy,” I asked, “when did you and Daddy ride motorcycles?”
She laughed. “What?”
“I know I wasn’t allowed in Daddy’s study, but I snuck in there when — one day.”
She wagged her finger, tutted at me and winked. “Naughty boy.”
“I saw black leather motorcycle outfits, with squiggly lines. I didn’t know that you ever rode motorcycles.”
There was a long pause, and I stirred my cereal because I was nervous. My spoon clanged on the edge of the bowl. Mummy looked all around her, and leaned in.
“Those were not motorcycle suits, baby,” she whispered.
“What were they, then?”
“Those suits are for remembering.”
“Remembering what?” I asked.
“All that is worth remembering.”
“But how does it work?”
Mummy shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“He knows a bit more than I.”
“Alright then, what’s my favorite book?” I asked, just to give her a little test.
“Peter Pan, of course. I bought it for you at that booksellers on Southampton Row. It was such a cold and blustery day. A Monday. I was worried because of the chill in the air, and your little cough. The man who sold it to me was named Raoul. It said so on his name tag, and he wore a tight grey T shirt under blue suspenders. His glasses were on the top of his head.”
Then it was my turn to remember. Mummy went shopping in Bloomsbury, and brought me along. It was cold as ice, and I was making a scene. We ducked into a bookshop, where a lady was leading story-time with other kids, and I joined them on the carpet. Mummy stood behind, saying "hello" to some of the other mums. It was hot inside. Mummy unzipped her coat and removed her wool cap. Underneath was another cap. It was slick and black and covered in blue lines like computer circuits. The other mums stared and stared. Mummy blushed and told them it was for skiing; she sometimes wore it to keep her sensitive ears warm. I turned back and listened to the lady on the floor, as she read:
“…with that smile on his face and a drum beating within in. It was saying, ‘To die will be an awfully big adventure.’”
I had a smile on my face too, because it was a day that had started off dreadful, and turned out very good.
"Mummy," I said, “Is it worth remembering how to not quarrel with Daddy?”
She held my hand. “It's worth more to remember who I am. And it's worth more for Daddy to remember who he is.”
I took a mushy mouthful of the Weetabix, and chewed.
“Mummy?” I asked.
“Where has Daddy gone? Has he gone to hospital too, like you?”
“He’s there to remember.”
She smiled. “What a smart boy you are.”
“And will he remember who he is? Will Daddy get better?”
“I hope so, baby.”
“And then he’ll come home?”
The clock on the mantlepiece went, “tick-tock.” Once, twice. The dog down the lane barked once, twice. The doorbell rang.
Abraham Myers is 42 years old and has a passion for helping others, and a love for all things literary. Focusing on stories about everyday people living everyday lives, he hopes to shine a spotlight on those that are often overlooked. His work has recently been published in the June 2017 edition of Adelaide Literary Magazine, and will be published in the November 2017 edition of Down in the Dirt Magazine. He resides in Michigan with his wife and two beautiful autistic children.
I stare at the white canvas and wonder at its simplicity, its perfection. One small stroke and the beauty is ruined. I am in my studio, and it is morning. I am nervous about meeting Chloe this afternoon, nervous about what to say, what to do. Looking at the white canvas, I imagine Chloe's face, her body...I think I am in love with her.
I walk down Main Street, past the bars in hibernation. It is hot, and the summer sun is bright on the sidewalk, but I enjoy the heat. Michigan winters are hell—an icy hell. Everyone here worships the burning. Memphis Smoke is on my left, and I walk through the double glass doors, the cool air hitting my face.
The first thing I notice is that Chloe is not there, and I realize I'm a little nervous that she won't show. An attractive waitress with hair the color of charcoal and the body of an early Rubens seats me in a booth in front of a large window. Flashing dark eyes at me, she asks what I'll have. I order a mudslide. When she is gone, I lean back in the booth and look at my watch—it’s past noon. Where is she?
The place is empty, except for three women in a booth across from me. I feel like they're staring at me, and I want to look at them, observe what they're doing, but I'm afraid they'll notice. People hate to be stared at. Instead, I watch the bartender. He isn't doing much—my mudslide his only excitement.
"This seat taken?"
I know the voice—it’s Chloe.
"I thought at first you weren't going to show," I say.
"Yes you are, and I'm starving." I look around the room for the waitress.
"I almost didn't come."
"Why not?" I ask.
She looks down at her napkined silverware. "I don't know. This is crazy."
"We're having lunch. He wouldn't get pissed about that."
"He'd be suspicious."
"He isn't jealous of me."
She smiles. "But are your intentions honorable?"
I smile back. "Of course. But after what we did the other night, I don't think it's a big deal."
"That was different. He was there."
"I know, but I don't think he sees me the same as other guys. We're like brothers, no, closer than brothers."
"I still think he'd be suspicious."
"Well, I don't know why. We're not doing anything."
The waitress comes to the table, and Chloe has a pasta plate with blackened chicken and I a barbecued pork sandwich, no pickle. I hate when they put pickles on the bread—the juice permeates the bun.
I've never told Chloe the truth about David. I think she deserves to know, but I feel guilty saying anything. I don't want to start any trouble. It puts me in an awkward position, and I almost feel like I'm lying for him. I hate cheating, but he would be mad at me if I told her.
"So why did you kiss me last night?" she asks.
"I wanted to."
"You wanted to?"
I am looking at the bartender again, but when I hear the tone of her voice, I look at her.
"I like you," I say.
"You know that's not good."
"I know, but I can't help it."
"What happened the other night was supposed to be for fun," she says. "Feelings weren't supposed to be involved."
"I know, but feelings were involved before that."
Her face is serious. "Really?"
I nod. I look back at the bar, back at the lazy bartender. I am embarrassed about kissing her. I wanted to do it, but now I think maybe I should have left it alone. Sometimes it's better that way. I think of that white canvas again.
"Why didn't you ever say anything before?" she asks.
"What was I going to say: 'Hey Chloe, I think you're cute, and I want to date you.'"
"No, but you could've...well...I don't know."
"You're probably right. It would have sounded funny."
"It would have sounded ridiculous."
"It was his idea about the other night you know," I say. "He was the one that came up with it."
She smiles. "And you agreed."
"Well, I'm not crazy. I wasn't going to turn down a dream come true."
"I think you're exaggerating."
She gets serious again, and her eyes are full of light—the afternoon sunshine from the window.
"So, do you like me?" I ask.
"Yes, of course I do. I wouldn't have agreed to do that the other night if I didn't."
"But do you really like me?"
"Enough to leave him, no."
"I wouldn't have you do that."
"I love him too much to let you leave him. It would devastate him."
"I know. You patched us up just a month ago. If you liked me so much, why did you do that?"
For the last few weeks, I had been asking myself the same question. I want to tell her that I shouldn't have, but I don't. Instead, I just say: "I don't know. He was crying. I had to."
The waitress brings my mudslide and a diet coke for Chloe. I look at her, at the way the sun shimmers off her dark hair, bringing out the sparkles on her milky skin. She always seems to sparkle like this. I asked her about it once, and she told me it was a kind of makeup she wore, but I think it is something else—I think she is different and special.
"I wanted to kiss you that night too," I say.
"The night you two were fighting, and you were crying, and you put your head on my shoulder. Your lips were right there, and I just wanted to kiss you."
"I would have freaked."
"I know, that's why I didn't do it."
"But it would just have been unexpected. The kiss last night--I liked that."
I touch her hand, enfold my fingers over hers. "Maybe we can do more than that sometime."
"Why not, we already have."
"But that's like cheating."
I consider, then nod. "Yeah, I guess it is."
"Not that I wouldn't want to."
It is almost as if she's begging me to stop and begging me to go on at the same time. I have the feeling she wants this as much as I do. I take a drink of my mudslide--feel the cool, milky texture hit my stomach, the vodka and Kahlua dull my mind—and I just stare at her. There is something about her, something about the way she smiles and holds her mouth that makes me want to love her.
"So, have you painted anything recently?" she asks.
She's changing the subject, and I wonder if I've embarrassed her. I decide to go with it—I don't want to push.
"A few landscapes," I say. "But I want to do a portrait. I want to do a portrait of you."
I can't believe I just said that. Oh well, too late now.
"Yes, a nude portrait," I say. "With blue lighting."
She's looking away now. Oh man, did I screw this up? I've been thinking about painting her for months. I can see it in my mind: her body posed beneath the blue light, her skin exposed, mouth open slightly. I will curve one leg back and let her put all her weight on her right hand in front of her, fingers splayed. It will be provocative, but the blue will make it tranquil.
"You think David would go for that?" she asks.
I take another drink of the mudslide and think about it. "Sure, I don't see why not."
"But he's never painted me in the nude."
"He does mostly landscapes and still life. He loves nature. If you were a tree, he'd paint you."
She laughs. "See, he never talks to me about that kind of thing. Never about his work."
"He's a private person."
"But he tells you."
"That's different--we work together, share a studio. Like Gauguin and Van Gogh."
"Which one are you?"
"Which one are you, Van Gogh or Gauguin?"
"Van Gogh. But I'm not an impressionist. Gauguin was too angry."
"So, does this mean you're going to cut your ear off for me?"
"Let's not get carried away. I like my ears. Where did that story come from anyway? I've read about Van Gogh cutting off his ear, but never about it being for a woman."
"I always heard it was for a woman."
I shrug. "If anything is going to make a man cut his ear off, it's a woman."
Our food arrives, and we eat and talk more about art. The barbecue sauce on the sandwich is spicy, and it burns my nose every time I lift it to my mouth. The conversation doesn't turn to David anymore, or to what happened three nights ago. It feels like it never happened—like a fantasy. When he first mentioned the idea, I thought he was joking. But then he picked up the phone and called Chloe and before I knew it there we were. It wasn't really a strange experience. I thought I would feel funny having sex in front of another man, but it was natural: like it had never been any other way. Afterward, we all lay in bed together and laughed and talked.
"I want to see you tonight," I say, as I give the waitress the money for the bill. She offers to bring back change, but I tell her it's all set.
I nod. "David's got a meeting with Kate. She says she's going to be able to sell some of his work."
"He didn't say anything to me about it," she says.
"Probably didn't think about it.”
I want to tell her that David is actually sleeping with Kate, but I can't. He would hate me for it.
"Where do you want to go tonight?" she asks.
"The studio. I want to paint you."
"That's crazy. He'll see the painting."
"So, it's innocent. It's only a painting. He's an artist, he'll understand."
She looks apprehensive.
"Don't think about it, just do it," I say.
Her look doesn't change.
"How about this? How about you come over, and we'll talk about it more? If you don't want to do the painting, you don't have to."
"And that's it, just talking."
"That's it. Of course, I wouldn't mind another kiss."
"See, you're starting already."
I laugh. "No, seriously, we'll just talk."
She leans back in the booth, and I can tell she's thinking it over.
"Okay, I'll go. But are you sure he's got that meeting?"
"I'm positive. He'll be busy all night. And he's got to get up early in the morning anyway."
"Okay, what time?"
"Eight o'clock good?"
She nods. I kiss her lightly on the lips, and she leaves the bar.
Main Street is empty, and the sun blinds me. It's been a while since I've been down here and I notice that they've put a used bookstore in where Mackey's bar used to be. I go in and look at a few books to kill time.
I find an old hardcover copy of The Great Gatsby, and I thumb through it. I can't get Chloe off my mind, can't get her image out of my head. She looked so good sitting across from me; just her and I--that had never happened before. Not that I would have had a problem if David had been there, but it was just different without him—more intimate. I think she felt it too. It probably scared her. I know it scared me: a beautiful, tingling feeling. But I have to remember what I'm doing, have to keep control of the situation. David is my friend—my best friend and a fellow artist. I love him, and I don't want to hurt or betray him. But I'm not betraying him because I know how he feels. I know he doesn't mind sharing her with me. We are locked somehow mentally, and I don't think he sees us as separate people. I know he would understand. But I don't want to share her with him. I scan the pages of the book, and I wonder if it's wrong to feel that way. It probably is, but it's the way I feel. She's my Daisy Buchanan.
I buy Gatsby--I already own two copies, but this one has the old-style dust jacket, and I can't resist. I leave the bookstore. Halfway home it starts to rain.
I enter my studio at 7:45 p.m. The smell of turpentine and linseed oil suffocate me, and I open a window. It is still raining out. I take the white canvas off the easel and replace it with my latest landscape. I sit on my painting stool and wait for her.
The landscape is good. I like the composition—the way the tree in the right foreground spreads its limbs across the green field beyond. There's a house in the left corner, and it is far off in the distance and blurred and barely visible. At first, I wasn't sure, but now I realize it's Chloe. She's the house, and she seems like a dream—blurry and beautiful. David is the tree. But who am I?
The doorbell rings, and I answer it. Chloe stands in the rain with an umbrella.
"Hello," she says.
She's wearing a plain white dress that makes her look like a ray of sunshine, or possibly a beam of moonlight. She comes into the studio and looks at my landscape.
"I like it," she says, after a few minutes.
I nod. "It's okay."
"You think everything you do is just okay."
"No, I don't. I hate some of it."
"So, have you decided about the painting?" I ask.
"And I'm going to do it."
I smile at her. "Good."
I lead her to a rug I've arranged on the floor for her to pose on. I walk past the lamp with the freshly purchased blue bulb and select my brushes and paints.
"Do you want me to strip now?"
"Yes," I say, looking at my paints, trying to decide on a color scheme. I can see her out of the corner of my eye, and I try not to let it distract me—but I want to watch her undress. I worry that it might make her self-conscious, so I focus on the task at hand.
"How do you want me to lay?"
"I'll position you in a second. Hold on, let me turn on the lamp."
I turn around and click the black button on the cord of the lamp. She's standing on the rug in her bra and panties, the blue light illuminating her skin, and I decide she's more like a moonbeam than sunshine. I smile.
"Don't laugh," she says smiling. "Don't you laugh, or I'll put those back on."
"I'm not laughing," I say, trying not to smile. "Are you cold?"
"No," she says. "How do you want me to lay?"
"Take those off first; then I'll position you."
"Position me first."
"You don't trust me, do you?"
"Yes, but I'm embarrassed. Just position me, then I'll strip and get back in the same position."
"Okay," I say, thinking that she is adorable.
I put her in position and back up to look at the pose. She seems in the process of coming toward me. It's seductive. The blue diffuses the eroticism. I nod.
"Okay," she says, standing up. "Now you turn around and do what you were doing before, and I'll take these off."
I laugh softly and go back to choosing my paints. I'll go with a seven color palette—Alizarin Crimson, Pthalo Blue, Flake White, Yellow Ochre, Cad Yellow, Van Dyke Brown, Midnight Black. Two flat hog's hair brushes and two sable rounds to start. I pick up my palette and turn to face Chloe.
She's in the pose again on the rug, and this time she's nude. Her white skin reflects the blue, and she shines--her black eyes and hair are shimmering, just like they were at the bar today.
"Don't move," I say, and take the landscape canvas off my easel. I put the blank canvas I was staring at this morning in its place, pour the turpentine and linseed into their cups, and get ready to paint.
I start by studying the contour of her body. I want to block in the mass of the composition and slowly build from there, layering colors one over another until she comes alive on the canvas.
"Have you ever painted anyone like this?" she asks.
"Only in a drawing class I took last year. But I didn't like the model."
"What did she look like?"
"Dull, boring. No life."
I dip the brush into the cup of turpentine and smear the Van Dyke Brown onto the palette. When it reaches a liquid consistency, I block in the shape of her body on the canvas. It always amazes me--looking at that first stroke--that a painting begins in a mess and ends up balanced and beautiful. But again, I wonder if the white of the canvas isn't the greatest achievement of any artist. Like the experiment in the garden, the idea is always better than the creation.
"What are you going to do with this?" she asks.
"Same as with the rest of them. Hang it in the house or the studio—or burn it."
"You burn them?"
"I have. But not often."
"Why don't you paint over them if you don't like them."
I shake my head. "I don't like that. The painting underneath seems like it's always there, destroying whatever you put on top."
I finish blocking in the body and start to push the paint around, finding the light with a little pressure. I look back at her on the rug, and I suddenly don't want to paint her. I want to touch her.
"Are you comfortable?" I ask.
"Yeah, I'm okay. Is the pose right?"
I think about the question. Is she inviting me to touch her, or to change the pose? Does she want me to touch her? Will she be angry if I do? Will David be angry?
I set the brush down on the palette, walk past the lamp, and kneel down next to her. She looks at me, and her dark eyes are full of the blue light. I touch her chin and run a finger down her cheek. She doesn't say anything. I kiss her, and her lips are soft and wet. Her breath is in my nose--a unique smell that can only be described as her smell. I touch her leg and run my hand up the back of her body, feeling the smoothness of flesh and realizing the wonder of it, the intense joy of touch--so much better than oil and pigment on canvas. I clutch the back of her head and kiss her harder. She puts her arms around me, and I lay down next to her.
"What are we doing?" she asks, as I pull her on top of me.
"I don't know."
I kiss her again and move my lips down to her neck. My hands explore her body.
"You promised," she says.
"I can't help it."
I continue to kiss her neck, her ears, her lips. She pulls away and stands up.
"I can't. Not without him."
I lie on the floor and look up at her—watch the blue light travel across her body as she gets dressed.
"I love you," I say.
She nods and starts to cry.
"I'm sorry," I say.
She nods again and walks to the door. I hear it open, close. She forgot her umbrella, I think to myself, seeing it lying against the wall. I want to chase after her, to tell her how I feel, but I know it will only make it worse. I walk to the bay window and watch her get in her car and drive away.
I want to go out and walk around in the rain, let it clean away the pain, but I don't; instead, I lay there on the floor and think about art. The ceramic tile is cold beneath me. She is gone, and there is nothing I can do about it. I look up at the canvas, at the blocked in figure of Van Dyke Brown, and I close my eyes and remember the morning and try to hold on to the white.
Celeste Mohammed is a lawyer, emerging writer, and mother of a gregarious toddler. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University, Cambridge, Mass. and lives on the Caribbean island of Trinidad.
In the kitchen, setting the table, when I hear Mr. H open the front door. I hear when the li’l metal feet on his briefcase touch the coffee-table. I hear the fabric rustle when he pass through the brocade dividing the front room and bedroom; and then I hear the click-clacking when he pass through the beaded curtain into the kitchen. Now he grabbing my waist and biting my neck. “You good to put in house, girl!” he saying. And I giggling, the way I’s always react whenever he trying to talk like he from ‘round here, from Pleasantview. Still though, the moment he mention putting me in house, my heart start flapping like a hummingbird wing. I can’t wait to tell him the news. My mother say I shouldn’t say nothing; but she wrong – she don’t know the man like how I know him.
I start dishing out the food and I feeling Mr. H eyes following every-which-way I turn. He love me, I know it, he does always tell me. And I love him too, in a kinda way. I mean, it hard not to feel sorry for him: the poor man been living a lie he whole life. Except when he here with me. Early o’clock he did tell me the whole story ‘bout he and he wife, Mona The Witch. When he was twenty, the marriage get arrange but, because all the money did come from she side, she family treat him like a dog. He stick it out for the children, though. And now, the only reason is because he and The Witch so tangle-up in the cloth business. “Divorces are rare in the Syrian community,” Mr. H does say, “it’s simply bad for business.” But he been putting some money away - for years now - and one day soon he should have enough to say “Fuck it!” and start a new store and a new life. After all, he only fifty-nine, he always saying. Mr. H come just like me: longing for a new life bad, bad, bad.
I rest down the spaghetti in front him and ruffle the li’l semi-circle of hair he still have. I watch him make the Sign of the Cross and then he start attacking the food. He does come round once or twice a week and, every time, I does make sure and cook something from that Italian recipe-book. The one I did borrow from work and photo-copy after he did say how much he love pasta. Poor thing: Mona don’t cook, and all he does get home is maid food.
Slapping the plastic tablecloth now, he bawl, “My God, Gail! This Bolognese is divine.” Then he keep-on smiling and glancing over the wine glass at me while we eating. I want to tell him, I want to tell him, but I know is better to wait till he finish the food and the wine and he in a nice mellow mood.
“You’re really improving with those…the cutlery,” he say. “Almost natural.” But he don’t know how I did beg my friend, Crystal, to teach me to eat with knife-and-fork; and how much I does practice when I here by myself. I want Mr. H to see I could learn new things, I could blend in good with his lifestyle. Just because I start off in Pleasantview don’t mean I bound to stay here.
Now, he swallowing the last mouthful. “Well, boy am I glad I came straight here,” he say. “I hate keeping all that cash from the store on me – especially in this neck-of-the-woods – but I was starving and this was excellent, darling.”
I pour Mr. H a second glass of wine – is his favourite. The name on a paper in my wallet, just in case I ever have to ask somebody in the grocery. But sometimes, while I brushing my teeth, I does pout in the mirror and practice it in a sexy voice: “Bow-jho-lay”.
He loosen his pants button and push back from the table. He patting his knee. “Come here,” he say, “that meal deserves a kiss.” He licking the last drop of sauce from the crease of his mouth. His tongue and teeth red too, from the wine, and when he flash a broad smile and pull me down in his lap, I don’t know why but my mind run on Dracula.
I let Mr. H shift me round to make room for his pot-belly. “You putting on a little weight?” he ask. He did say the same thing last week but I didn’t take the test then, so I didn’t want to jinx nothing by talking before I was sure, sure, sure. Now I certain.
“Yeah,” I giggle, “and is all your fault.” I start stroking his scaly white scalp and kissing his forehead. My child-father, my child-father. Look how far we come, nah. Look how I manage to turn things ‘round from where we did start-off.
Last year, when I did just get the cashier job in Textile Kingdom, the first impression I did have of my boss, Mr. H, was that he look like a hunchback from the movies. Ugly: short, squat, with pudgy, hairy hands and I could tell the rest of him was cover-up in the same coarse hair. It had a day I went in his office, to collect the cash-drawer to start my shift. When he grab me and pull me so, on top his bulging crotch, I was really surprise – I nearly bawl out. But by the time he wrap his hand in my hair and drag my face down to his, I realise what was coming. I let him have my mouth. And when his tarantula-looking hand crawl up under my skirt, although I did stiffen up with fright, I didn’t push it away. And when he bend me over the desk, I just bite my lip and grip on the edge till it feel like the skin over my knuckles was busting open. Yes, I small in body; but I bear that man weight and I never flinch. I did switch-off. I was picturing my mother, Janice, and hearing the advice she did give me the day I leave high-school: “Listen, you is a sexy girl; any man go want what you have between your leg. Put a price-tag on it and find a man who could pay that. Don’t be stupid like me and waste your life on no Pleasantview man.” And I was already thinking I would let Mr. H to do this thing again. And again. And again. No matter how he ugly. No matter how it hurting. And I was telling myself is not rape if I could make him pay me for what he take. Make him give me a new life outside Pleasantview.
I take a deep breath and push the air up my nose-hole, up inside my head, trying to push out the memory of that first, scary time. With the air come Mr. H smell: cigar and dusty cloth. It don’t usually bother me but tonight it upsetting my stomach. I hear that does happen to some women in this early stage.
He nuzzling my neck, rubbing my back, teasing in his Pleasantview accent, “Is too much nice life. Ain’t?”
Yes, Mr. H truly, truly give me a nice life over the last year. Soon after that first time in the office, he did make me throw out my room-mate, Crystal, and he start paying the full rent here. Then, Mona The Witch, did find out ‘bout us and fire me from Textile Kingdom. Mr. H lie down next to me, that very same night, tracing the star-shaped birthmark on my leg. He say, “When I was your age I wanted to be an architect. I designed that white house, you know.”
“For true? It nice, man,” I did say.
Turning on his elbow and stroking my face he ask me, “What you wanted to be when you were a little girl?”
“A chef,” I did say.
“Yes, I should’ve guessed,” he smile. “You do love to cook.”
Two days after that talk, Mr. H pick me up – not in the big Benz that Vishnu, the chauffeur, does drive; but in the smaller one he does drive himself – and he take me to meet the Wallaces, the people who own the snackette where I working now. “You will be safe with Uncle as your boss,” Mr. H did say. “He is eighty-something. Too old to pull at you. But if he tries it, let me know.”
For Carnival, Mr. H parade me, like a beauty-queen, through the VVIP Section of almost every big-shot party. Then, for Easter we went to that hotel, in Tobago, where all the foreign white-people does go. Parasail, snorkel – man, I do all kinda thing Mona The Witch never do with him. “I forgot how to feel like this,” Mr. H did say when we was walking the beach one evening. “She stole my best years. But you, Gail, you’ve given me back my youth.” And for my birthday, just last month, Mr. H give me a ring. Custom-made by his jeweler, he say. A single garnet solitaire – my birthstone – it look like the most perfect drop of blood just happen to land on a circle of twenty-four-karat gold. When he slip it on my finger, he say, “I wish this were a diamond. But one day it will be, my darling.”
All this in my mind now, as I sitting down here in his lap, and I feeling so excited. No more stepping over shit-smelling drains, no more bullets popping all hours of the night, no more wondering when the garbage truck will pass, no more feeling shame to write my address on a form. Me and my child go be up the hill, on a quiet street, playing on a green, green lawn and just waiting for “Daddy” to come home from his new store. I will have a proper family. Which woman in Pleasantview have that? No running-down man and showing up on man job to cuss for pampers and milk – none of that for me. I have Mr. H and he have me and we going after that new life, starting tonight. With both hands, I gather up Mr. H cheeks till he looking like a big baby himself. I lock-on to his eyes, like I’s a doctor checking for cataract.
“I pregnant,” I say. “Eight weeks.”
They get wide, and wider, and wider still; then suddenly they smaller than ever - a squint. He shaking off my touch the way a dog does shed water. “You’re kidding?”
“No. I very serious.” I grinning still, watching him like how people does watch for eclipse.
But then Mr. H jump up and start pacing the kitchen, questions clattering the air like fireworks. When did I find out? Have I been to the doctor? Who have I told besides him?
I was expecting this kinda interrogation and walking ‘round, like if he name Matlock. Oh God, this man could be so dramatic sometimes! I answer everything - calm, calm with a li’l smirk - because I know that’s his way: he can’t listen unless he know every single detail.
Finally, Mr. H stop wearing out my rubber-tiles – “linoleum”, he does call it. He sit down, pulling the chair closer till our knees touching, then he sandwich my hands as if we praying the Act of Contrition – like he does sometimes insist after we done make love. The white, crinkly leather on his face shaping-up a smile. In a tender whisper he say, “Not to worry, my darling. We’ll solve this. I have a guy. Best in class. He’s quick and discreet. I promise: you won’t feel a pinch.”
A cramping start up in my belly. I want to pull away but Mr. H have my fingers lace-up with his.
He saying, “I’ll even go with you…I’ll be right there…”
The cramping turn into a stabbing – a inside-out stabbing. I understand exactly what the man saying, but I don’t understand why he saying it. I start crying and I hear every sentence coming out the same way, “But you say…But you say…Ain’t you say…” But Mr. H have a plaster for every sore tonight: he too old; he can’t get divorced because of the business; he don’t have enough money put away.
“But you say is a fresh start you want. Together. So you would never have to go back to that big, lonely house…Ain’t you say you have so much regrets? That you wish you did married somebody like me? That you wish you could go back and be a better father? You don’t remember? This is what we been talking about, this is our dream!”
“Good God, Gail! Don’t be such a child! Think. Do you know what would happen if people pursued every silly dream they ever had?”
I run to the bedroom, my panty-drawer – the place I does keep everything important – and I pull out the li’l cardboard box with the garnet ring. I push it right up in Mr. H face. “What happen to this? Eh? You did wish it was a diamond. We have a good reason now.”
The man skin-up he nose like I is something dead in the road. “Clearly, I’ve put too much faith in you, Gail. Don’t you grasp the difference between birthday tidings and a marriage proposal?”
I pelt the ring box and watch it bounce off he greasy forehead.
Well, is now the man get vicious! Spitting venom like a cornered cobra: “What the hell were you thinking? Why didn’t you protect yourself? Are you trying to trap me?”
Trap? Like he forget: I used to buy the pills and take them…most days…nobody perfect. And is I used to beg him to be careful, to wear a rubbers; but it had so much times he did get carried away, bawling how he need it skin-to-skin. So, how he could blame me? I didn’t plan this. This is God work.
I trying to tell Mr. H these things, but it useless. I never yet see him get-on so. All of a sudden he like a raving monster – not the nice hunchback – a real monster. And he just twisting everything, ripping through our whole relationship and I don’t know what magic words go make him turn back into the prince I know. I double-over in the chair and start bawling my liver-string out.
“Shut up! Before your neighbours hear,” Mr. H say. And I try. I really, really try. I clamp my own hand over my own mouth, until the only noise coming out is the kind you does hear sick people making in the hospital. No, no, how he could do me this? How?
Mr. H ain’t saying nothing. But his face the colour it does be after sex and his lips is a tight, white line. Outta the corner of my eye, I watch him leave the kitchen and walk through the bedroom - past the king-size bed he did buy for Christmas - to the front room where his briefcase is.
I have this twitch – like a false-start in the blocks – to run behind him. But I don’t hear the door so I wait. I tell myself he just cooling down. He rethinking all the nasty things he just say. He regretting them. He feeling shame. “Is ok,” I tell him in my mind. “Just come back. I forgive you. We have a family to think ‘bout.”
Mr. H back now, holding a white envelope and a piece of note-paper with a ugly, ragged edge where it tear off. Like a TV magician, he bring the envelope down, eye-level, and start flicking a pile of hundred-dollar bills. Then, he fold-up the note-paper and tuck it behind the cash. In a deadly tone he say, “Gail, I will not step foot in this apartment until you call this doctor and make the arrangements. You have a month. Then, I stop paying rent.”
With that, Mr. H gone.
Four hours later, I still by the table. Is like when you trying to wake up from a nightmare but you can’t move - like something holding you down - and you can’t scream neither. Every time I look at this damn envelope I know it was real. But then what was fake? Everything I ever hear him say? Everything I ever see in his eyes? No! I not crazy, I didn’t make it up. Nobody could lie so good. Fake real tears? No! It must be something I do wrong tonight: I choose the wrong words maybe.
Or maybe you just wrong, a voice in my head pipe-up. Maybe Janice was right. She did warn me not to tell Mr. H I pregnant. She did come out and say it plain, plain, “Girl, if you know what side your bread butter on, you will throw-way that child and keep your man. It too early for that. You ain’t really get nothing much from he yet. Make him mind you till you get house and car and your bank-book fat. Then you could take the risk.”
I did get vex when Janice tell me that. “I shoulda know you would say so,” I did tell her. “Children was always disposable for you. Like maxi-pad, ain’t?”
It wasn’t a nice thing to say. Every Friday night, my father, Luther Sr. used to come home drunk, beat her and then cry, “Oh Gawwwd! Ah love yuh, Janice! Why you does make me have to beat you for? Eh? Why, Janice?” One night, after he beat she till she face twist, she move out and leave we. I was twelve, Luther Jr. was seventeen – old enough to know we couldn’t really blame her. But still, I woulda never do my children that. I don’t want to be like Janice. I not throwing away my child. I want my child to have a proper family.
I go fix this, I have to fix this. It can’t end so.
I ain’t sleep whole night. The tossing and turning; the crying. And Mr. H words in my head like a record sticking. And his face. Oh God, that face: a white cloud turning grey with rage. I don’t understand it. The man give me a whole year of words and feelings and everything heading in one direction and then - Bam! - last night, U-turn.
I throw open the top half of my kitchen door. Is only 7:00 but the sunlight barging in, as if it was waiting on the back-step whole night. Is the kinda heat does make green things turn brown and dead. Through the glare, I peep up by the back-house to see if Miss Ivy windows open yet. I been thinking bout her since 4 o’clock when I did get up to pee.
I need help. I need advice from somebody who know Mr. H longer than me. Yes! The windows open and the flowered curtain tie-up in a knot.
On the first knock, Miss Ivy answer. “A-A! Gail, what happen doux-doux? How your face hang down like Tom Dooley so? Something wrong?”
Miss Ivy talking like she surprise but, underneath, I getting a vibes like she was expecting me. It have me uncomfortable and I almost make a excuse to leave, but I don’t know nobody else to ask for help. I steady myself and tell Miss Ivy I have a urgent problem so I need her to read the cards and tell me what to do.
“Come in, nah,” she say, like she excited.
I sit down on Miss Ivy cream-and-yellow couch and, almost right away, my thighs start sweating till they glue-down on the clear plastic that covering the cushions. While Miss Ivy knocking pan and kettle in the li’l makeshift kitchen, I take in the whole place. I never been in one of these back-house apartments before. Miss Ivy have it neat and clean but is just one room: only a wobbly fiber-board screen blocking off she jail-style bed; and she does share a toilet with Mr. Winston, the old man living next-door. Through the thin paneling I hearing his TV on that Seventh Day Adventist program. I wonder if he might hear what I telling Miss Ivy? But I have worse things to worry about: if I don’t change Mr. H mind by month-end, I might be making baby in one of these cardboard-box apartment. Nah! No, Jesus, not my child. Not my half-Syrian child.
Growing up in Pleasantview hard enough if you poor and black; but it worse if you light-skin and have good hair. Then everybody know some high-colour man did take your mother for a ass, and that you have a fine, respectable Daddy who don’t want you. You come like a double-joke. No, not my child.
Miss Ivy reach back now with the deck of cards she does use to see the future. She rest it down on the wobbly centre-table between us. “Give me the full story,” she say, “and don’t ‘fraid to call name.”
I start talking and then I start crying but the old lady just sit down there, stoneface, sipping she orange-peel tea. She never once blink and when I done explaining, is me who have to drop my gaze.
“What it is you really want, m’child?” she ask.
“How you mean, Miss Ivy?” I stutter. “God bless me with a child and a child-father who could take we outta Pleasantview. I have a chance for a proper family. I want my family, Miss Ivy.”
Resting down her mug, she say, “Gail, doux-doux, God will never bless you with a next woman husband. And I could put my head on a block: He ain’t bless you with Mr. H.”
“How you could say that, Miss Ivy? You ain’t even watch the cards yet and you talking so negative?”
“I don’t have to watch the cards to tell you ‘bout Mr. H. I clean that man toilet for twenty years. It have nothing I don’t know ‘bout he. That’s why I could tell you, straight to your face, the man is a womanizer. Don’t fool yourself – you is not the first.”
“Oh, but I is the last, though! I know he had girls before - he confess and tell me all that. But he was just searching. It different with me and him. The connection –it just…special. Even he say so.”
“Special? Ha, Lord! You think you special, li’l girl? So, you better than all them other li’l girls who did come in here and sit down right where you sitting down to tell me the same story?”
“Yes, Miss Ivy. I make myself different to them. I learn from Mr. H and I try to uplift myself.” And it have other reasons I could give her too, reasons why I know me and Mr. H meant to be together. Like how he does hold on to me and cry sometimes, telling me I’s the only innocent thing he ever know, I’s the only girl who never beg him for money and that’s why he trust me with his life. And how he does tell me all his personal business: it hurt him bad, bad that he never had a son; and he does feel guilty ‘bout his last daughter, Kimberley – they never get along and he feel that’s why she turn lesbian. The man have a hard shell but a melting heart. He grieving for a family – just like me. But I can’t tell Miss Ivy all this - is none of she damn business - so she and me just sit down here, watching one another hard.
“M’daughter,” she finally sigh – loud, loud - as if she so wise and I so stupid. “You want the child or you don’t want the child? Decide your mind. Because you ain’t getting the man. Forget that. Soon, he go cut you off and pass you straight like a full bus. Mark my words.”
“You was with him, nah?”
“Talk the truth, Miss Ivy. You fuck Mr. H, ain’t?
She not answering and suddenly she can’t watch me in my eye. The bitch jealous, oui. Just like Janice. Two old quenk who bitter with how their life turn out so they trying to poison my chance for happiness. I not taking the bait.
A week pass in a whoosh on the calendar. But in my mind it feel like a year.
Through it all, I had to try and stay hopeful. I didn’t miss a step at work and I never tell nobody my troubles. In fact, I didn’t talk much at all; I was busy listening. For Uncle to call my name and hand me a telephone message from Mr. H. For the big Benz to pull-up on the street and for Vishnu to wind down the glass and say, “Come. The Bossman want to see you.” At home, for the ring of the phone, the honk of the horn. I was jumpy, jumpy whole week: running, at the sound of every big engine, to peep through the louvres. I never once stop listening – not even in my sleep.
And when I wasn’t listening, I was thinking. Geez, I been thinking! Till I get a permanent headache.
But now is Friday morning, start of the second week, and still no sign of Mr. H. I in the bathroom getting ready for work but my mind far. I studying what to do. I didn’t rush the man, I give him time to mellow and I give myself time to figure out what I do wrong that night. I was aiming too high, telling Mr. H to leave Mona. That’s what scare him: divorce. He frighten ‘bout the money, the business. I feel he woulda react different if I did say we coulda just continue how we was going: him visiting, minding me…and the child.
I soaping my skin like I trying to rub off the stink of all the things he did say that night. I dip in the bucket, full the old butter container with water and soak down myself. Suds rolling off my body and I lean against the wall, into that clean, clean feeling.
I lock-off the pipe. Decision-time: I calling-in sick. Today, today, I walking up in that cloth-store and facing Mr. H. Not to make a scene or nothing. But to let him know I seeing things different now. He’s a proud fella. I’s the one who need to make the first move here. And today is a good day for that. Mona don’t go in on Fridays – tea-party day. Mr. H will be alone in the store. We go have the office to weself. Miss Ivy say I can’t have the child and the man. Well, she wrong: with a li’l compromise, I keeping both. And I not leaving Mr. H office until he say, “Go ahead, start looking for a bigger place.”
Ten o’clock is the best time to slip in the store without being too noticeable. I leave home at quarter-to and flag down a taxi heading north, to Pleasantview Junction. A straight road and I in the front-seat. For the whole drive, every time I glance up I seeing Mr. H white mansion far up on the hill – it come like “N” on a compass. Mona must be inside, with she friends, nibbling pastry. I don’t want what is hers. Only what he promise me.
As we reaching closer and closer to the Junction, my heart start beating faster and faster. I rehearsing in my head everything I want to tell Mr. H. Muscles clenching everywhere – my hands, between my legs, my jaw. I get out the car in front Textile Kingdom and stare at the sign for a second. I did stand up right here last year - for the job interview – and I did feel the same way, like all my hope hanging on this one conversation.
A deep breath, then I push the door. Timing perfect: the store busy enough that the sales-girls all distracted, jostling one another for commission. I slip-in, between the bolts of cloth, and head down to the back of the store.
The office have a huge window, one-way glass. Mr. H could look out but people in the store can’t see in. I wonder if he seeing me now. I know he in there: I smelling his Hong Wing coffee. I sure he have the newspaper spread open on the desk.
I reach the office-door. It have a glass panel with some plastic mini-blinds. The rule is: if the blinds open, you just knock and walk in; if they close, you knock and wait.
The blinds close this morning. But through the crooked, curl-up strips I getting a side-view of Mr. H potbelly and the top of some woman head. I seeing enough to know that I shouldn’t walk in. That I should spin ‘round right now and leave the cloth-store quick, quick. But only one thought pounding in my head, heavy, heavy like a bass-line: Is my fault, is my fault. I wait too long.
Panic, all over my body, making me feel hot like when I did have dengue. I wring the doorknob and burst in the room. They hear, so they start scrambling. The girl ducking under the desk, Mr. H trying to fix his crotch. Then he spin his chair all the way round and, finally, he see me.
“Gail,” he say, face ripening like a mango. He tapping under the desk. “You can go now, Sandy.” She crawl out the room like a stinking cockroach.
“Is only a week,” I say. “What you doing?”
“Well…I…” Mr. H start to say something in a shaky voice, then he stop.
We staring down one another. Inside, I telling myself to focus, begging myself not to get side-track by what I just see, reminding myself that I come with a higher purpose.
Then, is like Mr. H get over the shock of me appearing in his office. His tone change, getting rougher. “So why are you here, Gail? I hope to tell me you’ve come to your senses?”
“Yes,” I say, pressing my thumbnails-and-them deep down in my finger-flesh. Just say it, Gail. Just say it.
“Well?” Mr. H ask.
I swallow the gallon of spit in my throat. “You don’t have to leave Mona.”
“I was wrong to pressure you. I know your situation. I sorry.”
Mr. H nodding, giving me a li’l half-smile. “Apology accepted. Now let’s move on, shall we?” He showing me the chair on the other side of his desk.
I sit, feeling a li’l more at ease. “That’s what I come to tell you. You does treat me good and I grateful. I ready for us to move on. Nothing really have to change. I not going and ask for more. Only thing: I was hoping we could get a bigger place now – with the baby coming, nah.”
He blinking plenty. Now Mr. H talking slow, slow, like English ain’t my mudder-tongue too. “Gail, have you made arrangements with the doctor?”
“No, I thought…”
“Why can’t you get it?” He spring up, slamming he two fist on the desk. “I don’t want any fucking child!” Like a bad pit-bull breaking the chain, Mr. H rush round the desk and coming at me. He grab my arm so hard I feel every one of his fingertips and he talking with his teeth lock-up like a gate. “What I want, Gail, is for you to stop dreaming. I want you to get your ass up, get out of my office and go call the fucking doctor. Now!”
He pulling me out the chair. Pulling hard.
“No,” I say, trying to free-up my arm. “I not going nowhere!” I try to make myself heavy. I grip-on the handle but Mr. H so strong he make one pull and the aluminium chair spinning a half-circle. “No! No!” Another big tug and I land on the tile floor. Damn hard: my insides shaking-up; I picturing purple jello. “Oh God, the child!” I say.
I try to scramble to my feet. My arm slipping from him, so Mr. H grab my pony-tail. I crying and kicking, still screaming “No! No!” but he dragging me to the office-door.
He screaming too, “Security! Security!” Footsteps running-up behind us. Two man grab me – one each side – and they pull me up. “No! No!” I refuse to walk so they carrying me through the store. My legs dragging on the ground like a invalid. Everybody watching – customers, sales-girls – everybody. The fuckers dump me outside on the pavement, in Pleasantview Junction, like a bag of stinking garbage. I cry out one long, last, “No!” and I pelt my shoes behind them.
As the taxi reach the apartment, I practically run out and kick-down my own front door. It still swinging on the hinges when I charge through the front-room and head straight for the old cedar chest-of-drawers - the one thing Janice ever give me. I remembering her advice now and yes, I know what side my bread butter on. I not bringing no innocent child into this world - this ketch tail world - call Pleasantview. I not watering down milk and rationing pampers - have the child crawling ‘round with shit in he batty for half day - ‘cause I don’t know when next I could buy. No sick child - snatty-nose turning pneumonia – deading on my hand ‘cause I can’t pay for doctor and medicine. Nah! Before it come to that, let me just done everything right now! Put everybody outta they damn misery!
I start groping inside the panty-drawer. My fingers knocking camphor-balls – Clax! Clax! – against the wood. Tiptoeing, I reach deeper and feel the box with the garnet ring. Then, I feel a long lump near the top right corner. That’s it! I pull-out the white envelope, rip the side open and the notepaper fly-out, sailing down to the floor like a parachute. When I bend for it, all the cash in the envelope tumble out and settle round my foot – a blue, paper puddle. I step out of it and grab the cordless phone from next to the bed. I dial, but my fingers trembling so much, I have to start over. I make the appointment with Dr. Narayansingh – Tuesday at 10:00.
I make another call right afterward. To Mr. H cell-phone. Vishnu answer, “Nah. The Bossman busy.” He hang up.
I curl up on the bed, cordless in hand. I call back a million times but no answer. I just want this whole thing to be over. None of this woulda happen if I didn’t get pregnant. I just want to go back to normal, like how it was before last week - before the baby - when I was the person Mr. H love, instead of the person he hate. But as I pull the coverlet over my head I have this sinking feeling: things might never be normal between me and Mr. H again. Not even if I go Tuesday. Is like something slip outta balance between us today. It have me asking myself if I could ever lie-down under the man again, now that I know he ain’t ever going to give me the price I calling. For what he taking. For what he did take that first day, in the office.
Is the feeling that I peeing-down myself that wake me. My eyes open to a room full-up with shadows – I must be sleep through the whole afternoon. I swipe inside my thigh. Wet. Sitting up, I stare at my fingers. A black water, black like Coca-Cola, but more thick. I smush it and it thin out enough for me to see it actually red – a dark, Beaujolais red. Blood. And something more spongy. Clots? Flesh? I feel another big whoosh pass from me. I jump off the bed and run to the back-door screaming for Miss Ivy.
She find me on the floor, clutching my ball-up cotton dress like it could ever plug this leak.
“Father! Tell me you didn’t try for yourself,” she say, grabbing a kitchen towel.
“No,” I say, “I was sleeping when...the blood…it just come down...”
“Don’t worry,” she say, “sometimes they could still save it.”
She bawling for Mr. Winston - he have a car - and they help me in the back-seat. By the time I rest my head on Miss Ivy lap, the towel between my legs soak-up and it have blood everywhere: on the upholstery, the glass, Miss Ivy robe; on Mr. Winston hands as he easing the vehicle out the long, narrow yard. My blood? The baby blood? It have any difference? Our blood. We losing too much.
I start screaming, over and over again. “Allyuh hurry up! Please! Please!”
I don’t care one ass ‘bout Tuesday. All I know is that it have a baby – a real, live baby – right now in my belly. The two of we is a family right now, and we didn’t have to ask nobody permission for that. And I know that I never, ever in my life want anything more than what I want right now: to not lose this child, this chance for love. Every other fear done leak out and gone with all them clots.
Finally, the back-tyres drop from the grassy yard to the road. Mr. Winston hands shaking as much as mines, but he bawling, “Don’t worry, don’t worry. My sister does work Casualty. I know the nurses-and-them. Don’t worry.”
“No! Not the General Hospital,” I say. “Santa Marta Private. It closer. I have money. Reverse-back, reverse-back! Now!”
I squeeze Miss Ivy hand. Finally, I know the answer for what she did ask me last week. Decide your mind, she did say. Who you really want, she did say. So I tell her now, “The child, Miss Ivy, is only the child I want. Run quick. In the drawer by my bed: a white envelope.”
Eli Jacqueline studies creative writing for a living and does odd jobs in her spare time. She could be a leader of the free world some day, if she could just find her house keys. Look out for an official blog, coming soon.
This is the very first time he’s been to her building, or even to her side of town. He checked three times that his car is locked, and he walked along the sidewalk with his eyes shifting to look out for thugs. He urgently knocked on her door.
“Nathan! I didn’t think you would really come,” she smiled. She let him inside and closed the door. “You didn’t have any trouble finding the place, did you?”
The first answer Nathan thought of, he did not say. Everyone knew how to get to this side of town because everyone carefully avoided it. There was a joke among the people who lived on the East Side; to get here, all you gotta do is take a left on 8th Street and keep going until you lose all hope and dignity. He just shook his head in response.
“Well, I’ve got manicotti in the kitchen that’s not going to eat itself.” Grace motioned for him to follow her.
Away from any possible threats lurking in the dark streets, Nathan finally noticed her apartment and that it was a stark contrast to outside. It wasn’t anything fancy, but it was bright, cheery and colorful. Objects were arranged in an organized mess. Each wall was painted a different color and none of the furniture matched. The floor was blue! If his mother saw this place, her perfect, coordinated world would explode.
He sat in a rickety chair in the kitchen, which had, not just pink walls, but pink plaid walls. Pots and pans were hanging on display and the counter was cluttered, just like the rest of her apartment. The smell of manicotti filled his nostrils and he remembered why he dared himself to come here.
A very loud bang sounded outside and Nathan jumped. “Did someone just get shot?” he panicked.
“That was a firework, Nathan. It’s the Fourth of July, remember?” Grace laughed.
The two chatted at the kitchen table about anything except the elephant in the room. Until a car alarm (not his, thankfully) started blaring outside and he just had to ask.
“Why do you live here? I’m sure you could afford somewhere nicer; somewhere safer,” he said. He shoved manicotti in his mouth.
“I really can’t, and I don’t want to,” Grace responded. “You East Siders are so ignorant.”
Nathan choked on his fork. “Ignorant? If I was ignorant, I wouldn’t even be dating you in the first place. I’d just find some society girl my mother picked out for me.”
“Oh, lucky me! The rich boy thinks I’m different from the hoodlums he’s heard about in his scary bedtime stories,” Grace scoffed.
“You are! So, I don’t understand why you choose to live here,” Nathan argued.
Grace set down her fork and took a sip of wine. “Let me tell you something. I’ve lived here all my life, and I don’t want to be anywhere else. Yes, there’s drugs and robberies and shootings, but so what? The people I’ve met here have been some of the nicest people I’ve ever come across. I can’t say the same for when you took me to your side of town and I met all of your friends,” she replied.
“Now this is about my friends?” Nathan asked incredulously.
“No. It’s about thinking that one side of town is better than the other. Thinking that one group of people is better than the other. Everyone has to live somewhere, and instead of shaming people about where they live, why don’t you try understanding them?” Grace argued. Her torso moved closer towards him and her eyes shamed him with a single look. “Let me ask you something. If we had met here instead of 5th Avenue, would you still be interested in me? Or would you look at me like I’m just another poor girl you can throw your charity money at without thinking twice about it?”
Nathan’s mouth opened, but no sound came out. And he hated that. He hated her for pointing out the awful truth.
“Look, I’m not saying to go walking the streets at two in the morning, but give people a chance. Who cares if it makes you uncomfortable at first? There’s beauty everywhere, Nathan, even in the bad parts of the earth. You just have to look for it.”
On the drive home, Nathan didn’t see the trash everywhere, the boarded-up windows, or the gang members circling each other in dark allies. He saw children playing underneath the illuminated sky and parents smiling at them from their terraces. He saw homeless people emerge from behind dumpsters to watch the sparks fly. He saw people trying to enjoy life as much as anyone else.