Evan McMurry graduated from Reed College and received his MFA from Texas State University-San Marcos. His fiction has appeared in more than a half-dozen journals, including Post Road and Euphony, and his reviews have been featured in Bookslut and elsewhere.
That Wasn’t Me
Stand-up bassist, Shelly typed into the prompt, six-ish feet tall, brown hair and beard, black-rimmed glasses, playing with The Self Portraits last night at Igor’s, staring at me the way I’ve never been stared at before. If this was you, email me.
Shelly shut her eyes and pressed submit. It was so unlike her to do something like post in Missed Connections (friends lamented she was too shy); she’d spent most of the day talking herself up to it, terrified someone she knew might spot the post and connect it to her. And of course it was nonsense to expect the bassist would actually read those things. What were the odds--
That was me, arrived a reply a few minutes later, and her pulse hastened. Drinks?
She met the man the next evening at an outdoor beer hall. “Paul,” announced the smooth-cheeked man with receding copper hair.
“You’re not the bassist,” Shelly said.
“But you’re beautiful.” He almost winked. “I’d stare at you the way you’ve never been stared at before.”
“Monster,” she said, grabbing her purse.
That was me, waited another email when she returned home.
Name a song you play, Shelly replied, and the response did indeed include a song from the band’s set list. But the man she met at a taqueria after work the next evening looked nothing like the bassist, soot-black coiled hair, stocky, a five-o’clock shadow falling across his face. “I found one of their albums online,” he said to account for his knowledge of The Self Portraits’ repertoire. “What does it matter? You’re Shelly, I’m Jeremy. What are you into?”
Three more emails waited for her when she stormed home. Tell me the key of the first song you played, Shelly instructed them, and was told F, A minor and B Flat major. She didn’t know the answer herself. She challenged them to name the brand of stand-up bass he played, got back real names of both bass manufacturers and local artisans, which she also discovered via quick search. Prove you’re you!!! she demanded. One sent a detailed description of the club. Another, his favorite bluegrass tunes. The third tired of the game and vanished.
Six more suitors awaited her the next morning. Shelly dared them all to provide singular, unknowable facts. A variety of improvised details soon overran her inbox. Some of them got off on the questions, delighting in elaborate backstories, little fictions posing as whole alternate biographies. Others asked why she was being so difficult, come on, they were nice guys. A few called her names, stuck-up bitch, cunt, worse. Finally she just told them to reply with a photo. Two stole an image from the band’s website; one attached a photo of the lead guitar player by mistake. A few didn’t bother but continued to ply her.
Shelly stopped answering; the responses eventually trickled off. For days she burned with private embarrassment, feared each man she met in line at the coffee shop or in the hallway of her apartment building had been behind one of the false responses, saw the bassist in any man with beard, mocking her. She vowed to never do anything like placing the ad again.
Then a new message appeared in her inbox: That Wasn’t Me. It continued in the body: But I am a stand-up bass player, and I do have brown hair and a beard and thick-rimmed glasses. Seems worth a shot?
They agreed to meet at a tejano bar the next afternoon. Shelly recognized him quickly; he did not look exactly like the bassist, but had been cast in the same mold; his hair was a bit bushier, his face protruded where the other’s had been sculpted; this one had loose jangly limbs, not the muscular forearms of the original. He introduced himself as Art. As they made awkward small talk his fingers poked walking basslines on the table, just as she’d imagined the other bassist doing when they finally met.
“Do you usually respond to messages for other people?” Shelly asked.
“My friend saw it and thought it was me,” Art told her. “He figured I’d filled in for a different band or something. He put me up to this.”
They watched his spindly fingers crawl along the wood. He was the first of the respondents who seemed as nervous as she’d been when she’d hit submit.
It turned out they lived nearby, had probably seen each other before at the local market or coffee shop. He’d spent summers near her hometown by the border working on an uncle’s ranch, knew how to ride horses; she hadn’t learned growing up, a regret; he promised to teach her. He was soft-spoken but affable where she had imagined her bassist dark and brooding, yet seemed all the more genuine for this. By the time they exchanged phone numbers the original bassist had taken a step back in Shelly’s memory.
She and Art met for ice cream a few days later, which they ate on a knoll by the lake. He kissed her, she kissed him back. On the third date she slept over at his place. Soon he was introducing her to his buddies at the bar, not quite calling her his girlfriend but clearly wanting to, conspicuously layering his lanky arm around her shoulders, bragging whether anybody was looking or not. When he left to buy another round his buddies confided in her that they’d never seen him happier.
Shelly never told him that she wasn’t sure the bassist had been staring at her, not even a little. He’d been facing her general direction as he’d methodically, almost passionlessly fretted his notes. But he might have been looking at a girlfriend one table back, or trying to catch the attention of the sound guy, or just gazing into the distance, seduced by the strut of his low end or even bored from its repetitive stroll. Shelly spent the set trying to convince herself he was looking at and not through her, that she was someone a guy like him would notice rather than the middle distance he would settle on. She tried to catch his eye nonchalantly; after their set she took forever to finish her beer to give him a chance to approach her. Finally she biked home, replaying her fantasy in a nasty loop, because she was lonely, because nobody in the world looked at her the way she’d wanted to believe the bassist had. The next day Shelly posted in the Missed Connections as she’d seen others toss coins into a mall fountain. She prayed nobody would catch her in the act of begging the universe.
After six months Art proposed. “I know I wasn’t who you were looking for,” he said, “but I hope I look at you the way he did.” Shelly shut her eyes and said yes. From then on the original bassist appeared irregularly in her darker visions, to tell her this life she’d bumbled into was a shadow of the one she’d wanted. Art would ask what was wrong as she squinted against his apparition, and she would linger in his gaze before lying like all the men who’d typed that was me had lied to her.
Owen Woods is a full time creative writing student and book junky. He lives in Orlando, but keeps true to his Colorado lifestyle. Owen has been published for his story, ‘Till Next Time. His writing covers all bases of drama, horror, comedy, and everything in between. You can follow him on Twitter, @spitefulwoods
The shadow lurched from behind the garbage can, claws and blade bearing their gnarled teeth. Oliver was thrown off his own equilibrium and she was now standing over him. The knife showing itself in the midnight hue of street lights.
“Get up!” she yelled, almost shrieking.
“Look,” he said. “Just put the knife down.”
“Sh-sh-sh-shut up, shut up!” she said, slouched over, like a vile hermit. A meth-toking hermit.
The sores on her cheeks swelled and ebbed like lungs taking in a long, raspy breath. He was afraid that they would burst onto his face. He imagined the yellow coagulant exploding into his eye, stinging and blinding him. It wretched around in his stomach.
She moved closer to him, pushing the knife against his neck.
The smell was worse than the knife.
She needed another hit, another bowl, another toke, another piece of crystal. It was sad, pathetic even. If anything, he was feeling pity for this woman. When he looked at her, he saw what she once looked like. She was beautiful with long brown hair that curled and rested on her shoulders, full red lips, and a body that was beautiful with healthy curves.
As he looked at her now, her hair was thin and greying at the roots, her eyes were bloodshot, her lips dried and split down the middle, her skin was like stretched leather, and her hips jutted out from underneath her tattered hoodie.
“Just give me your wallet man, and-and-and-and, you-your shoes, too.”
Oliver stood and watched her shake and shiver with the knife hanging with desperation in the hollow of her palm. It looked more like a shiv than a pocket knife. It was rusted and jagged, pricks of dried blood rested on the bottom of the blade, blue flakes were sprinkled on the edge of the blade from where she’d used to it to crush the meth into a powder fine enough to travel through her nasal cavity with ease.
“Fine. Fine. Can you just get that thing out of my face? I don’t feel like losing an eye today.”
“Yeah, yeah, j-j-just hurry,” she said. “I don’t have all fucking day.”
“All right. All right,” Oliver curled his arm around his body to reach for his wallet, the woman reeled back and hit him with the butt of the knife. “What the hell was that for?”
“M-m-mmm-move slower. Don’t pull any fast ones on me.”
He rubbed the cut on the back of his head and saw a hepatitis shot in his future.
Oliver hoped some good samaritan or hopeful police officer would walk by this street and step in. He knew those chances were slim. Who would save a junky from the clutches of another? Perhaps a third junky? A junky vigilante? Saving the streets from junky on junky violence, sweeping the streets with the faces of all the laughable heroin dealers and crystal whores.
What made him better than her?
Oliver took pills.
He snorted them.
Took ‘em with whiskey.
Took ‘em with vodka. (That was his favorite).
He’d do anything for a pill when he was low. Suck a dude off. Kill some crystal crackhead without a name. Hold up an old couple off Broadway Avenue. If it meant getting his fix, he’d do it. The real difference between he and the woman was that he could function on his medicine. He knew what he was doing.
Oliver didn’t recognize that he had a problem. For all he cared, he didn’t.
“Okay, yeesh. Just… I’m gonna reach behind me and grab my wallet, I’m gonna hand it to you, then I’m gonna bend down and take off my shoes. I’ve got Converse on so, if you want ‘em soon, I’m gonna have to unlace ‘em. Can you trust me long enough to let me to do that?” he spoke to comfort her, to make her less on edge.
“Yes,” she said.
“Then can you back up just a few feet and let me do this. Please?”
“Y-y-y-y-y,” she stopped herself. “Fuck. Y-y-y-y-y,” again. “Fuck! Y-y-y-.”
“Yes. I get it. Jesus Christ.”
“Hey, fuck you, man! You try doing this with this f-f-f-fucking stutter.”
Oliver had to hold back his laughter. It showed on his face and the woman cowered with embarrassment.
His eyes shifted up to her face, he felt emotion welling in his tear ducts. He caught himself from showing her sympathy. He’d rather withdraw for a whole week than care for a meth junky. The lowest of the low.
Next to the heroin addicts.
Oliver handed over his wallet. There was no less than a thousand dollars in cash in the billfold. That was a month’s worth of Xanax, two weeks of Oxy, six months of Adderall, or a year of high powered Ibuprofen. It wasn’t worth his life. He was sober enough to realize that. Just high enough to not care about being materialistic. It was just paper after all. She had taken the beautiful cash from the billfold, tucked it into her bra, which, by the looks of it, didn’t conform to her cup size any longer. Or it was a bra that wasn’t even hers. Whatever the notion, it made Oliver queasy.
The woman had lost focus of the task at hand and lowered the knife to a comfortable resting place at her side. Oliver made sure he was out range. He bent down to untie his shoes. He wanted to be rid of this woman and in a hurry, but if he moved too fast she would get jumpy.
Meth’ll do that to a person.
One shoe off.
It went under her arm. Safe and sound.
Another almost off and Oliver lost his balance. He reached out to catch himself, just happening to catch her bony, sore riddled leg.
She cried out.
Her arm went to the sky.
The knife came down with a hollow thump.
It found its new home in Oliver’s brainstem.
Not wanting to recreate The Sword in the Stone, the junky woman took the remaining shoe and left the knife.
Christian Sorensen was born in Corpus Cristi, Texas in 1992. Christian and his family moved to the Chicagoland area when he was two years old. Christian has lived in Chicagoland ever since. Christian attended grade school in St. Paul Lutheran Grade School, located in Brookfield. Christian attended high school at Walther Lutheran (now Walther Christian Academy). He attended college at Concordia University Chicago. It was at Concordia where Christian got serious about his creative writing. After graduating from Concordia, Christian enrolled at Chicago-Kent, a law school. He is currently attending Chicago-Kent part time. When Christian isn't doing homework or studying for class, he enjoys watching movies, long distance running, playing board games, and reading young adult novels.
A Serious Conversation at the Coffee Shop
Allison, a seventeen year old high-school junior, sat alone at a coffee table. She undid her ponytail and sighed. Allison’s brown hair flowed down and rested on her shoulders and upper back.
Allison looked at her watch. It was 11:40 am. She was waiting for her friend to arrive. Allison’s friend was supposed to arrive in about five minutes.
Allison’s hands shook as she took a sip of coffee. A drop spilled onto her brand-new jeans.
“Shit,” she said as she frantically tried to wipe the stain off. The stain was tiny. You couldn’t really see it unless you tried. But to Allison, the stain looked huge.
After fruitlessly wiping the stain, Allison said, “Oh well. She’s not gonna see it.”
“She” – that was her friend, Gloria. Allison and Gloria go back. Way back.
Allison remembered the day she met Gloria. Allison was four years old.
It was pre-school. Kids screamed as they ran all over the place. Boys were chasing girls, girls were chasing boys, boys were chasing boys…and there was even a girl chasing a girl. Allison covered her ears as she stood all alone. She continued to cover her ears as she went towards a toy-box. She took a plastic pirate sword out of the box. A boy shoved her to the ground and took the sword from her. Allison’s eyes watered as he ran away with the sword. She sat down and looked at the ground.
“Here,” a girl said. Allison looked up. A girl with black, wavy hair and glasses stood over Allison. The girl had a Barbie doll in each hand. She offered one of the dolls to Allison. Allison took the doll and stood up.
“Hi,” the girl said. “I’m Gloria.”
“I’m Allison,” she replied.
Ding! The door chime rang as a customer entered the coffee shop. Allison looked up. It wasn’t Gloria.
Allison checked her watch. 11:48. Gloria was already three minutes late.
Just then, another customer almost tripped on Allison’s backpack, which was on the floor, near her seat.
“Jesus,” the customer said, “put that thing away before someone gets hurt!”
“Sorry,” Allison said.
She put her backpack underneath her seat. A volleyball slid out of the backpack and onto the coffee shop’s wood floor.
Allison picked up the volleyball. She put the ball on her lap and stared at it. She spun the ball around. She was now looking at the writing on the volleyball. The letters were smudged, but readable. The letters said, “To: Allison. From: Gloria.”
That was from my seventh birthday, Allison thought. She spun the ball around again.
Allison again thought about pre-school.
It was May, almost twelve years to the day.
It was nice and hot out, so the pre-school teacher let the kids play outside, on the playground. The kids screamed with joy as they rushed out the door. They ran towards the swings, the sand-pit, the slides, the merry-go-round, and other parts of the playground.
Allison and Gloria ran side-by-side as they went to the playground.
“Let’s go to the swings,” Gloria said.
Allison and Gloria ran to the swings. All of the swings were being used, and about four kids were waiting to get on a swing.
“I want a turn,” a kid said as he waited to get on a swing.
“I’m still on my turn,” a second kid said as he rode a swing.
“Your turn is taking too long,” the first kid said to the second kid.
“Let’s go to the merry-go-round,” Allison said.
There were lots of the kids on the merry-go-round, and they were making the merry-go-round spin very fast. Gloria tried to get on the merry-go-round, but it spun so fast that she couldn’t get on. She fell down, on her stomach.
Gloria wailed and started to cry. Allison helped her back up and said, “Gloria, are you okay?”
Allison wiped away a tear from Gloria’s cheek. Allison said, “There. Now you’re okay.”
Gloria started to grin.
Just then, a kid-sized volleyball rolled up to Gloria and Allison.
“Hey!” An eight year old boy ran to Allison and Gloria. He pointed to the volleyball and said, “That’s mine.”
Gloria picked up the volleyball and gave it to him.
“Thanks,” the boy said.
The boy ran across the street, towards the grade school’s playground (there was a grade school across the street from the pre-school). Allison and Gloria saw the boy playing volleyball with his friends.
Gloria turned to Allison and said, “Allison, let’s play a game just like the one he’s playing.”
“You mean the one where you hit the ball in the air?” Allison said as she pointed at the boy playing volleyball.
“Yeah,” Gloria said.
“Let’s play,” Allison said.
They went to the pre-school teacher, who was watching the children dart around on the playground.
“Mr. Ford,” Gloria said to the teacher, “can we play a game like the one they’re playing?”
“You know, where you hit the ball in the air, like those big kids over there?” Allison pointed to the grade-schoolers playing volleyball when she said this.
“Of course you could,” Mr. Ford said. “Wait right here.”
In a few minutes, Mr. Ford came back with a kid-sized volleyball.
“Thank you, Mr. Ford,” Allison and Gloria said.
The two girls looked at the grade school volleyball players, just to see how they hit the ball.
“I’ll go first,” Gloria said. She tried to serve the ball to Allison, who was standing about six feet away from Gloria. Gloria’s serve was way off the mark. The ball landed two feet away from Allison’s right foot.
“My turn,” Allison said. She tried to serve the ball back to Gloria. Her serve rolled on the grass and ended at Gloria’s feet. Gloria picked up the ball and served. It went way over Allison’s head. Allison had to run eight steps back in order to get the ball. Allison served it back to Gloria. The ball landed a foot in front of Gloria. Gloria served the ball back to Allison. Gloria’s serve was on target…but Allison didn’t react fast enough, and the ball hit her on the nose.
Allison yelped as the ball hit her. She fell backwards, on her butt. Gloria went to Allison and wiped Allison’s cheek with her finger. Allison wasn’t crying, but Gloria wiped away a “tear” anyway.
“You’re okay, Allison,” Gloria said. “You’re okay.”
Ding! Another customer entered the coffee shop. And again, it wasn’t Gloria.
Allison checked her watch. 11:54.
Weird, Allison thought. Gloria’s never late.
Allison picked up the volleyball and looked at it again. She then looked down at her T-shirt. Her T-shirt was white, with green letters. The letters said, “Walther Christian Academy, 2014 Regional Champions.” The shirt also showed a girl hitting a volleyball.
Allison reached into her backpack. She took out a medal. She turned the medal around and looked at it. “2014 Regional Champions, Girls’ Volleyball” – that’s what the medal said on the back.
Allison again reached into her backpack. She took out a flyer from the Regionals tournament. She immediately flipped to the pages that covered Walther Christian Academy. The pages listed Walther’s roster and starting lineup. Allison was listed in both the roster and in the starting lineup.
Allison put the flyer back into her backpack. She put the medal around her neck. She looked at the medal and sighed. She then stared at her volleyball again.
Allison again thought about that day when Gloria first played volleyball with her, in pre-school. As she looked at her medal and volleyball, she began to wonder if any of it – high school volleyball, being a starter, that Regional Championship – would have happened if Gloria hadn’t played volleyball with her on that day.
Buzz! Allison’s cell phone vibrated. She took out her phone and looked at it. It was text from Gloria. The text said, “SO SORRY. Dad has the car, so I had to take the bike, then I had to refill the bike’s tires with air. That’s why it’s taking so long. So sorry.”
Allison put her phone away. She looked at her watch. 12:06.
A few minutes passed. Might as well have lunch until Gloria gets here, Allison thought. She went to the counter and said, “Hi. Can I have a grilled cheese sandwich and a chocolate chip muffin?”
“Sure,” the clerk said. “That’s…that’s $8.75.”
That’s pricey, Allison thought. Whatever. She handed the clerk a ten dollar bill, got her change, and went back to her seat.
A minute or two later, Allison went back to the counter and got her food. Her grilled cheese sandwich and muffin were on a green, square plate. The sandwich was cut into two halves. Allison picked up one of the halves.
It’s like they want me to share a piece, she thought. Share…
Allison began to think about fourth grade gym class.
Allison and all the other kids were seated on the gym floor. The gym teacher stood over
them and said, “Okay, kids. Today, we’re playing kickball. I’m gonna pick two captains, and the
captains will pick their teams. Okay?”
The gym teacher pointed at two different students and said, “Rick, Anna, you’re
captains.” Rick and Anna got up and went towards him. “Anna,” the teacher said, “you’re first.”
Anna pointed at a boy and said, “Ted.”
Rick pointed and said, “Gloria.” Gloria got up and went to Rick. She whispered in his
ear, “Pick Allison.”
“Allison?” Rick said. “No. She sucks!”
“Just pick her. Come on.”
It was Rick’s turn again. “Dave,” Rick said.
Before long, most of the kids were picked. Only Allison and two other kids remained.
“Sandy,” Anna said.
Now it was just Allison and someone else.
Gloria whispered, “Just pick Allison, Rick.”
Rick sighed. “Fine,” he said.
Rick pointed and said, “Allison.”
Allison got up and went to Gloria. “Did you see that?” Allison said. “I’m not last!”
“You’re welcome,” Gloria said, smiling.
In about an hour, gym class was over. The class was now eating lunch in the cafeteria. Allison and Gloria were sitting next to each other, at a lunch table.
“So,” Gloria said, “how did it feel, not being last?”
“Good,” Allison said.
“Great.” Gloria opened her lunch box.
“What do you have?” Allison said.
“An apple,” Gloria said. “And a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.” Gloria took the sandwich out of her lunch box. The sandwich was cut into two halves.
“Can I have one?” Allison said, pointing to the peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
“Sure,” Gloria said as she gave a half to Allison.
“Thanks,” Allison said. She took a pack of Fruit Gushers out of her lunchbox and said, “Here, have some.”
“Thanks, Allison,” Gloria said as she took some Fruit Gushers.
Ding! The doorbell rang. Allison looked at the door. Someone just left the coffee shop. It wasn’t Gloria.
Allison looked at her watch. 12:22. She looked down at her plate. She had already finished her muffin. Only the muffin’s crumbs littered the plate. One-half of Allison’s grilled chesses sandwich remained on her plate. The half was untouched, without a single bite.
Allison pushed the plate away from her.
Just then, the door chime dinged. This time, it was Gloria.
This wasn’t the Gloria from pre-school, that’s for sure. Those glasses were gone. Now, Gloria had eye contacts. She also straightened her hair and started to wear black eyeliner.
Allison wasn’t thinking about Gloria’s new look. Instead, Allison was thinking about Gloria’s body. Gloria was rail-skinny. She had no arm muscles – her arms were just skin and bone. Gloria had no waist at all, and her boobs were non-existent. Not to mention that Gloria’s “skinny pants” looked saggy because of her thin legs.
Gloria wasn’t quite a walking skeleton. But she was real close.
Gloria’s starving herself again, Allison thought.
Gloria went to the counter and ordered something. A few seconds later, the clerk gave Gloria a cup of water. No food.
Not the first time that Gloria starved herself, Allison thought.
It was seventh grade. Allison and Gloria were eating lunch together, as usual.
“Want some Fruit Gushers?” Allison asked Gloria.
“Sure,” Gloria said as she took some.
Gloria took something out of her pocket and put it on the table.
“What’s that?” Allison said.
“Tickets to a Jonas Brothers concert,” Gloria said.
“The Jonas Brothers?” Allison said. “No way!”
“You wanna come with?”
“Of course,” Allison said. “When’s the show?”
“This Sunday at seven, in Soldier Field,” Gloria said.
It wasn’t long before Sunday came around. Allison’s dad dropped her off at Gloria’s house.
“Thanks, Dad,” Allison said.
“Alright,” he said. “Have a good time.”
Allison went to the front door. She was about to ring the door bell, but stopped herself because she heard arguing. Gloria and her parents were arguing. Not loudly, but they were arguing.
“Just take the train down there,” Gloria’s dad said. “That way you don’t have to worry about parking or traffic.”
“But I don’t like the train,” Gloria said.
“Dad’s right,” Gloria’s mom said. “Maybe we should take the train.”
“But I hate taking the train,” Gloria said.
“Why do you hate taking the train?” Gloria’s dad said.
“I just hate it.”
“Well,” Gloria’s mom said, “I guess we could drive to the concert.”
“Yes!” Gloria said.
“You wanna drive down there?” Gloria’s dad said. “Okay, fine. But just saying, the parking’s insane, and so is the Ike.”
Allison rang the doorbell. Gloria’s dad answered it.
“Hi, Allison,” he said.
Allison went into the house. She met Gloria and her mom in the living room. Gloria was wearing a self-made T-shirt. The shirt showed the Jonas’ Brothers’ faces, and the shirt had “Jonas Brothers” written on it as well. Gloria finished the look with tight-fitting (not saggy) jeans. And those jeans actually fit her, too.
“Ready to go?” Gloria said.
“Yeah,” Allison said.
“Great,” Gloria said. “Let’s go.”
Gloria’s mom was driving on the Ike, towards the city. The traffic was moving, but it was bumper-to-bumper. The highway was so crowded that drivers couldn’t easily change lanes.
A Ford pick-up truck cut in front of Gloria’s mom.
“Moron!” she screamed. “Geez, Dad wasn’t kidding when he said that the Ike was insane.”
Meanwhile, Allison and Gloria were listening to the Jonas Brothers’ music on an iPod. Gloria had one earpiece, and Allison had the other earpiece.
“So,” Gloria said, “which song do you want to hear next?”
Just then, the car’s windows shattered. Shattered glass fell on Allison and Gloria. They instinctively put their arms up to shield themselves from the glass. The car skidded to a stop, in the middle of the highway.
When the girl’s looked up, Gloria’s mom was hunched over the driving wheel. Blood covered her forehead. Shattered glass lie all over the dashboard and the front seats. Some of the glass was in Gloria’s mom’s hair.
“Mom?” Gloria said as she reached out and shook her mom. “Mom? Wake up! Wake up! Oh God!”
Gloria and Allison were now in the hospital. They were seated in the hospital lobby. The girls had minor cuts and bruises, but nothing major.
Gloria’s dad was pacing himself in front of Allison and Gloria. Tears ran down his face. Sweat stains were on his chest and underneath his armpits. He held his hands together, as if he was praying.
A nurse went to Gloria’s dad.
“How’s my wife doing?” he quickly asked. “Is she gonna be okay?”
“She suffered a severe concussion, and – ”
“Is she gonna be okay?” Gloria’s dad said, almost screaming.
“Your wife is fortunate,” the nurse said. “Her injuries were less severe than they could’ve been. She’s in serious condition, but she’s expected to survive.”
Gloria’s dad breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank you, God,” he said. “Thank you.”
Gloria’s dad knelt down in front of Allison and Gloria while the nurse walked away.
“You girls want anything from downstairs?” he asked.
“No,” Gloria said.
“No,” Allison said. “Wait. I guess an orange juice would be nice.”
“Okay,” Gloria’s dad said. “I’ll be back.”
Gloria’s dad turned around and started to walk away. Gloria looked at the ground. A tear went down Gloria’s cheek.
“Are you okay?” Allison asked.
“It’s my fault,” Gloria said.
“It’s my fault Mom got hurt.” Gloria put her hands into her face and started to cry. “It’s all my fault.”
“What? No it isn’t,” Allison said.
“Yes it is!” Gloria said. She turned towards Allison. Gloria’s face was wet with tears. “Mom got into that crash because I said I didn’t like the train. We took the highway just because I didn’t like the train.” Gloria stopped to cry for a few seconds. “If we took the train, Mom wouldn’t have crashed and gotten hurt. Because we took the highway, Mom got hurt. And the only reason why we took the highway was because I told her to not take the train.” She again stopped to cry. “So she got hurt because of me, so it’s all my fault that she got hurt.”
“No it’s not!” Allison said. She hugged Gloria and said, “It’s not your fault Gloria!”
Gloria’s face rested on Allison’s shoulder. Gloria was still crying.
“It’s not your fault, Gloria. It’s not your fault.”
Allison tightened her grip on Gloria. “It’s okay, Gloria. You heard them. Your mom’s gonna be okay. It’s gonna be okay, Gloria. It’s gonna be okay. It’s gonna be okay.”
More than two weeks passed after the car crash. Allison and Gloria were eating lunch together. Allison offered Gloria some Fruit Gushers.
Gloria shook her head and pushed the Fruit Gushers away.
Allison took her Fruit Gushers back and started to eat them. Gloria had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (cut in two halves), a yogurt, and a Quakers granola bar. The sandwich and the yogurt were untouched. Gloria was only eating her granola bar. Very slowing eating it.
Allison put her hand on Gloria’s shoulder.
“Gloria, don’t worry,” Allison said. “Your mom’s okay. She just got released from the hospital, right?”
Gloria barely nodded. She didn’t look at Allison.
“So your mom’s home now. Don’t worry. She’s not in the hospital anymore. She’s okay.”
Allison again offered her Fruit Gushers. Gloria pushed the Gushers away.
“Gloria, don’t worry. It’s gonna be okay.”
Gloria didn’t answer.
“Gloria, are you okay?”
Gloria turned to Allison. “Yes,” Gloria said.
That’s the first time she talked to me since the accident, Allison thought.
The bell rang. Lunch was over. Gloria put her lunch back into her lunch box. Gloria’s granola bar was half-eaten. Her sandwich and yogurt were completely untouched.
On the way back to class, Allison held Gloria’s hand. You’re okay, Gloria, Allison thought, You’re okay. But Allison didn’t believe her own thoughts. She was worried. About Gloria.
Allison was doing homework, at home. She was thinking about Gloria not eating her Fruit Gushers, and about Gloria not talking to her.
The phone rang. Allison’s dad answered it.
“Hello?” he said. “Yeah, it’s…what? The hospital? Okay, we’ll be there.”
Allison’s dad went to Allison and said, “Gloria’s in the hospital.”
“What?” Allison said.
Allison and her dad rushed to the hospital. They made their way to Gloria’s room. Gloria was lying in a hospital bed, unconscious, with an IV attached to her. A doctor was in the room, standing over her.
“What happened?” Allison’s dad asked.
“Gloria fainted from lack of food,” the doctor said. “It looks like she’s been starving herself.”
“Starving herself?” Allison’s dad said.
“Yes,” the doctor said. “We found nothing unusual with Gloria, besides her lack of food. That means that Gloria was starving herself.”
“Is she gonna be okay?” Allison said.
“Yes,” the doctor said. He pointed to the IV and said, “She’ll be better once we’re done feeding her.”
After a few seconds, the doctor left so that he could meet with his other patients. Just then, Gloria’s dad entered the room. He was crying, and his shirt was stained with sweat.
“Hi, Tom,” Gloria’s dad said as he shook the hand of Allison’s dad. “Thanks for coming.”
“Don’t mention it,” Allison’s dad said. “So… Gloria’s starving herself?”
“Yeah,” Gloria’s dad said. “Ever since the accident, she wouldn’t eat anything. I don’t know what it is.”
The dads continued talking. While they were talking, Allison went to Gloria. Gloria was still unconscious. Allison put both of her hands on Gloria’s hand. Allison’s eyes started to water.
“Don’t worry, Gloria,” Allison said. “You’re gonna be okay. The doctor said so. You’re gonna be okay. You’re gonna be okay.”
Present day, at the coffee shop.
“Allison?” Gloria said, into Allison’s ear. “Allison. Allison!”
Allison jumped after hearing Gloria yell into her ear.
“Shit, Allison, you scared me!” Gloria said.
“Yeah! You were staring out into space, like this.”
“Oh, sorry,” Allison said, feeling sheepish. “I was…thinking. Thinking really hard.”
“So…you’re okay?” Gloria said.
“So,” Gloria said, “you needed to talk to me about something?”
“Yeah,” Allison said. “We need to talk.”
The uneaten half of Allison’s grilled cheese sandwich was still on the table. Allison pushed the sandwich towards Gloria. Gloria pushed it back towards Allison.
Allison sighed. A few calories wouldn’t kill you, Gloria, she thought. God knows that you need them.
Allison started to eat her grilled cheese sandwich. While she ate, she spoke.
“Gloria,” she said, “um…well – ” She stopped herself after she couldn’t find the words.
“What’s wrong?” Gloria said.
“You’re starving yourself again,” Allison said, “and I’m worried about you.”
Allison was right to be worried.
It was just three weeks before the meeting at the coffee shop. Allison and Gloria both went to the same high school, Walther Christian Academy. However, they didn’t see each other very much because they didn’t have the same classes. They barely saw each other during the day. They really saw each other at lunch. Allison and Gloria continued to have lunch together.
One day, during lunch, Allison sat next to Gloria and handed her a gift.
“Happy birthday,” Allison said.
Gloria unwrapped the gift. It was Four, the latest book in the Divergent series.
“Oh, you remembered!” Gloria said. “Thanks.”
“No problem,” Allison said.
The two were silent for a few moments until Gloria said, “Allison?”
“You’re still going to my birthday tomorrow, right?”
“You kidding? I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
Gloria smiled at Allison. Gloria took out a photograph and gave it Allison. Gloria was in the picture, with another guy. The guy was a head taller than Gloria. He was white and had short, blonde hair. He wore a sleeveless shirt, so you could see his muscles. Gloria pointed to the guy and said, “That’s Bill.”
“Bill,” Allison said. “He’s that football player you’re seeing, right?”
“Right. He’s coming to the party. Maybe you could meet him.”
“Cool,” Allison said as she gave the picture back to Gloria. “Can’t wait to meet him.”
It was after lunch, near the end of the school day. Allison was at her locker, getting her books. She saw some short blonde girl holding hands with a guy that sort of looked like Bill.
Wait, Allison thought. That guy doesn’t look like Bill. He is Bill.
She saw Bill and the girl hug each other in the hallway. Then Bill headed off to class.
Bill’s cheating on Gloria, she thought. I gotta tell her. But not now. And not during Gloria’s party tomorrow. I can’t just tell her that her boyfriend’s cheating on her on her birthday. No, I’ll wait a week or two after her birthday. Then I’ll break the news to her. I just can’t do it now.
With that, Allison shut her locker and went to class.
Gloria’s party was at her house, with her parents out of town. The party was surprisingly safe, for a bunch of reckless teenagers. Sure, they brought beer, but it’s not like everyone was drunk.
Allison was drinking punch (she was one of the few who wasn’t tipsy) when Gloria and Bill met her. Gloria and Bill were locking arms.
“Allison,” Gloria said. “This is Bill.”
Bill quickly reached out and shook Allison’s hand.
“Um,” Allison said, “nice to meet you, Bill.”
“Nice to meet you,” he replied.
Gloria and Bill walked away before Allison could say anything else.
Forty minutes later, still at the party. Allison was talking to a black girl named Brittany. Allison was drinking yet another cup of punch.
“How’s softball going?” Allison said.
“It’s going okay,” Brittany said. “We had a game just yesterday.”
“Did you win?” Allison said.
“No. We lost nine to one.”
“Yeah. Too bad that’s normal for us.”
“What’s normal?” Allison said.
Allison smiled and tried to suppress a laugh.
“How’s volleyball?” Brittany said.
“So far, so good. Well, it’s the off-season now, but we’re excited for next year.”
“I bet, with that Regional championship and all that. You know, I’ve seen you play before. You’re really good.”
“Thanks. I’ve been playing since preschool.”
“What?” Brittany said. “Since preschool?”
“Yeah. Well, not for any teams – not until grade school, at least – but yeah, I’ve been playing with Gloria since preschool.”
“Like, playing in your backyard?”
“Yeah, stuff like that,” Allison said.
Just then, that blonde girl (the one that Allison saw in the hallway with Bill) went to them and said, “Where’s Bill?”
“I don’t know,” Allison said. “I haven’t seen Bill in a while.”
“I think I saw him head upstairs about half-an-hour ago,” Brittany said.
The blonde girl went upstairs.
Allison followed her upstairs. The blonde girl headed to Gloria’s room. Allison watched the scene from the top of the stairs.
Gloria and Bill were sitting on the bed together. They were holding hands. The blonde girl went to them and said, “What’s this, what’s going on?”
Allison couldn’t help but overhear the conversation. The blonde girl said that she and Bill had a date that evening, and that she got worried when he didn’t show up. Bill explained that he had to go to Gloria’s birthday party. The blonde girl continued to rail at him.
Gloria then asked Bill if he was dating the blonde girl.
“Yes,” he admitted. “I’m seeing both you and her.”
Gloria went out of the room, her face in her hands. She was crying.
Allison went to her and gave her a hug. Gloria slipped out of her grasp and went downstairs.
Allison sighed and looked at the ground. Maybe I should’ve told her about Bill and that girl…
Back at the coffee shop. It had been three weeks since Gloria’s heartbreak at that birthday party. Since then, she had lost weight. She was starving herself again, just like after the car crash.
Allison reached across the table and put her hand on Gloria’s shoulder.
“I know you’re going through a hard time right now,” Allison said. “I know you’re still upset about Bill. And I don’t blame you.” Allison stopped to sigh. “But I’m worried about you, Gloria. You’re losing weight again. I’m just scared that you’ll end up in the hospital, like last time.”
“Thanks for your concern, but I’m fine,” Gloria said.
“Gloria, you have to eat,” Allison said. “You can’t starve yourself just because you’re upset, okay?”
Allison reached into her pocket and took out a pack of Fruit Gushers. She offered it to Gloria and said, “Here, take it.”
“No,” Gloria said as she pushed Allison’s hand away. “I’m not hungry.”
“Take it, you need it,” Allison said.
“Thanks, but I’m fine.” Gloria got up and left the coffee shop. Allison followed her out of the shop.
Gloria started to unchain her bike. Allison stood over Gloria and said, “Gloria.”
Gloria looked at her.
“Just…just take care of yourself, okay? I don’t want you to end up in the hospital again.”
Gloria got up and hugged Allison.
“Thanks for your concern,” Gloria said. Then she mounted her bike and rode away.
Allison watched Gloria ride away. Once Gloria was out of eyesight, Allison looked at the ground and started to walk home. Just take care of yourself, Gloria, she thought. Just take care of yourself…
Allison was now home. She was in her room, doing homework.
The phone rang. Allison’s dad answered the phone.
“Yeah?” he said. “Yeah, it’s…what? Again? Alright, we’ll be there.”
Allison heard her dad rush into her room.
“Gloria’s in the hospital again,” he said.
Allison and her dad rushed to the hospital. They were in Gloria’s room. A doctor stood over Gloria as a machine beeped. An IV was attached to Gloria’s arm.
“How’s she doing?” Allison’s dad asked.
“Not so good right now,” the doctor said.
“Did she starve herself again?” Allison asked.
“Yes,” the doctor said, surprised. “She…she passed out while riding her bike.”
“She’s gonna be okay, right?” Allison said. She’d better be.
“Yes, once we’re done feeding her,” the doctor said.
Hours passed. Allison’s dad was in the hospital lobby, talking to Gloria’s parents. Allison was all alone, holding Gloria’s hand.
Allison heard someone enter the room. It was Bill. He had a bouquet of flowers.
Bill went to Allison and asked, “How’s she doing?”
“Not so good,” Allison said.
“Sorry I wasn’t here sooner,” Bill said. “I didn’t know she was here until now.”
Bill sat down next to Gloria. He put the flowers on Gloria’s stomach and looked at her.
“I hope she’s alright,” he said.
She’d be alright if it wasn’t for you, asshole, Allison thought. She looked back at Gloria. Gloria’s breathing had quickened. She was breathing better now than she was an hour ago.
“Don’t worry,” Allison said. “She’ll be alright. Trust me.”
Bill started to head to the door.
“I’ll be in the lobby,” Bill said. “Let me know if she wakes up.”
Allison sat back down and took Gloria’s hand. Gloria woke up and turned towards Allison. Gloria was, sort of, smiling.
“How’re you doing, Gloria?” Allison said.
“Okay,” Gloria said. “Thanks for coming.”
Allison tightened her grip on Gloria’s hand. “Don’t worry, Gloria,” she said. “You’re gonna be okay. The doctor said that you were gonna be okay.”
Allison leaned over and tried to hug Gloria. “I’ll be there for you, Gloria. Don’t worry. Anything happens to you, I’ll be there.”
“Just like you’re here right now?”
“Just like I’m here right now. Just like I’m here right now.”
Allison took out the Fruit Gushers pack and offered it to Gloria. Gloria took the pack, opened it, and started to eat.
“Need anything else?” Allison said.
“No, not now,” Gloria said. “But I’ll let you know if I need anything.”
Allison smiled and offered her hand. Gloria reached out and grabbed Allison’s hand. Allison and Gloria stood there, hands interlocked, as Gloria ate the Fruit Gushers.
John Sullivan received the "Jack Kerouac Literary Prize," "Writers Voice: New Voices of the West" award, AZ Arts fellowships (poetry / playwriting), Artists Studio Center fellowship, WESTAF fellowship, was a featured playwright at Denver's Changing Scene Summer Play (Changing Scene Theatre), and an Eco-Arts Performance fellow from EMOS / University of Oregon. He was Artistic/Producing Director of Theater Degree Zero, and directed the Augusto Boal / Theatre of the Oppressed focused applied theatre wing at Seattle Public Theater. For the past decade, he has used Theatre of the Oppressed with communities in the Deep South to promote dialogue on cumulative risk / environmental justice issues between communities and NIEHS environmental health scientists. He was selected as a juried poet for the 2016 iteration of the Houston Poetry Festival. He has had work published in various journals including: Hayden's Ferry Review, The Lucid Stone, Black Bear Review, OVS, Oddball, California Quarterly, Steel Toe Review and Tumbleweeds: Writers Reading the West.
“If I thought my life could cleanse you
of the hurt, of the memory, I would open
up my shirt and let you take it from me.
But it won't – we’re too much the same now …”
Manny runs his finger up and down the furrow of his long scar. Across his left cheekbone and down his lower jaw, he runs his finger up and down, and strokes the vestige of his left earlobe like fur down the back of a nervous cat.
He thinks: I can still feel it. Smooth and cold, like rubber, yeah … rubber. The scar tingles underneath his finger.
He thinks and strokes and his fingers remember that ghost ear that once hung down full from his skull. Before he prowled the La Drang Valley twenty years or so back. He feels that steel kiss his ear like a barbed tongue, again … and so hot it was all around, so hot, and that flash of light, too.
He smiles at that old ghost in his mind, and that old ghost smiles back.
He thinks: good thing I ain’t a woman. No place left up there to screw in a bangle. He smiles and runs a knuckle back and forth against his chin.
Ear’s such a sweet spot on a woman, he thinks, and smiles.
He strokes the scar again. He always plays with his scar when he’s jumpy, or feeling stiff and froggy for a woman, or drifting in a sea of ghosts that sham as memories. Right now, he’s on edge for his plans to payoff. He plays his scar up and down like he’s vamping up and down the long neck of a standup bass.
Manny set up in the burned ruins of the Boree Market a full two hours back. With a clear view of Main Street from one of its punched-out glassless windows, he scans the street in quadrants, slowly, north from the old Territorial Hotel to the Exxon station out along the south highway that leads down to Tucson. He hears those crazy flying pinto beans – monster, brainless June-bugs – whack against the same block wall he leans against, and imagines them knocked-out on the pavement, then kicking on their backs until they lurch over upright, take off in another drunken spiral, and smack into another wall. He hears the deep thrum of ghostly Luna Moths swarming: hears them, first, as a low pervading echo. Feels, then, deep vibrations like their huge wings are beating inside his own body. He can almost gauge which storefront bulb harbors how many moths by the cast of light and the depth of that communal hum. He learned to see and hear, that precisely, shooting from a sniper-blind along the DMZ.
He squints through a telescopic sight mounted on his .243 Marlin. The Marlin rests on a bipod, propped up on the sill of a square hole that once held a window. He adjusts the sight’s focus and squints through it again. The sight is trained on a pale fire of reflected halogen light a few feet south of the front door of the Idle Spurs, open late on this Saturday night.
He thinks: this shot’s in my blood. I seen this shot every night I spent inside, behind the walls, and the wire. You hear me, Peso Man? I seen this shot every night when I closed my eyes. I seen it on the walls when I woke up. All the while I took the fall you rigged for me, I seen this shot. I don't need no scope for this shot.
He fiddles with the focus ring, and smiles again.
He thinks: this shot’s in my blood. I just want to see your face up close. When it hits you.
As he watches, a black El Camino pulls into a parking space in front of the bar, and sits there with the engine still on. Two young Pima girls climb out from the truck bed and reel toward the door like blind, crazy windmills. One falls, and the man that’s running them leaps out of the cab and picks her up, and cuffs her through the door into the bar. Then a man and woman come outside to jam their tongues into each other’s mouths, and paw skin in a corner where the jagged light from the neon bar sign doesn’t show much, and the streetlight doesn’t reach.
He thinks: you’re a damn horny bastard, Frank Short.
Here you are about hosin’ Rae on the street while your old lady steady frigs herself out in Valley Farms. Least I know you’ll keep your mouth shut ‘cause you ain’t supposed to be here, and I just cut the phone. But that won’t save your ass from the long haul. I still owe you a good one, deputy, and it’s coming down.
And not ‘til you’ve forgotten why.
Frank Short throws his head back, and laughs. Rae stands up against him, on tip-toes, and kisses, then bites, his exposed neck. They tussle; they walk away from the bar and its lights, north, toward the Territorial Hotel. He watches, as they veer back and forth across the sidewalk, clasped together on unsteady legs.
He imagines a big drunk insect, and laughs.
He watches other people come and do their business, and their passions, but none of these are the right people. He waits specifically for Tommie Borquez, the Peso Man of Florence, and his latest main puta, Trink.
The front door of The Spurs opens, and another, this time just slightly wrong, person steps into the crosshairs. The Suicide King stretches out his spidery arms underneath the light, reaches into his shirt pocket, pulls out a smoke and lights it. He balances on the curb and looks around - cautious cat that he is - to his left, to his right, then stares across the night toward Manny’s invisible set up in the Boree ruins, and sniffs the dusty air laced with acacia and creosote. He steps off the curb and walks toward his jacked-up 4X4, all in one easy move. Like he’s always got that strut going on, you know, he’s always got to stick it out like he owns it all. There’s no one on the street, but he waves his cigarette around like he’s talking to someone while he walks.
Manny thinks: stupid mother-fucker don’t own a thing he ain’t strong-armed or borrowed on the sly. Not a thing.
He laughs. It comes out like a soft sigh.
Look at how he holds that smoke and waves it in the air like a damn piece of chalk.
He looks like a damn school teacher pointing that piece of chalk at one face, then another, holding forth, reading it all off the ceiling.
The Suicide King opens his Silverado and hops in. Manny watches him ease out onto the street and cruise away south. He sees that King has kept the same logo on his driver side door: a pointy looking full face King of Hearts: the Suicide King that jabs himself in the neck with his own sword. But he’s changed that Red King’s look to suit his own delusions. This new version on the pick-up door has sharp cheekbones, red, white, green and yellow plumage like an Aztec king, and black eyes with no bottom, just red points in the center. But just like in the old school, that broad sword in the King’s neck is still up to its hilt in blood.
Manny thinks: Ol’ King’s gonna’ shit real blood when he finds out I’m back. Yeah King, it’s you and me and the Peso Man, moving back into balance, once again. Staying close to prophecy. Just like time was.
Now, a moth hums a few inches from his own ear. The thrumming sound reminds him of a bad pulse. A thready pulse you get from someone who’s lost a lot of blood, whose body is sliding into deep shock. Manny reaches out to wave the moth away. It’s soft body snags against his spread-out fingers. He holds the moth in his palm, close to his face. In the strong glow from the halogen streetlamp above Boree’s storefront, he sees flecks of soft dust coating the moth’s body, wings covered in the same dust, and one of those wings is bent over, and damaged. He drops the moth on the concrete slab, regards it for a moment, and steps on it, grinding a little with his boot heel. He leans back into position at the scope and retunes the focus. At that moment, Tommie Borquez and Trink step into that ring of light outside the Idle Spurs.
Manny grinds his tongue against dry lips, breathes deeply a few times for balance, and shifts his head, shoulders and hands into position.
He thinks: a hot night for crazy bugs, for soft, dusty moths and Kings that don't know nothing. A night for steady hands to brew up a big old surprise for the Peso Man. This shot’s in my blood, Peso Man, this shot’s good as done. Written down in prophecy, already.
Tommie and Trink survey the main drag, it would seem, self-consciously, and adjust their hair, and hats and other accesories. Tommie lights a smoke for Trink, one for himself, and moves his smoking hand through the warm night air in a slow spiral. Like he’s telling a story.
Playing to the crowd, again, thinks Manny. You never make a move without the jive-weight and cheap-ass elegance of you – just you! – being there for all eyes, smack in the first row center of your mind, do you, Mr. Peso Man?
A hot itch moves across Manny’s scar, but his fingers are busy elsewhere. Like a magic harp that plays itself, my own scar, he thinks, my instrument of memory, my bad need, my hammer. I hear you playing them old pay-back blues, he thinks and smiles. His scar burns and itches as he calms his body down for the real work.
He checks the scope a last time.
So beauty reaches out to life just a little, now, Peso Man, he thinks. And we both understand how much this ride is worth, no?
He breathes out slowly and squeezes the trigger. Tommie Borquez’s left knee explodes in a welter of blood, bone and jagged tissue, and he collapses hard onto the sidewalk, his face twisted up in a knot of pain. Trink screams and grips her ears and her temples tight with open palms, looking to block the reverb from that shot, Tommie’s groans, her own full-throated scream, maybe, looking up and down Main Street like a scared cactus jenny wren.
And just a quickly as it all went down, she stops.
She bends down and falls to her knees, and gently cradles Tommie’s head in her lap: worried mother, aching lover, loyal soldier. Like love, need and loyalty could even help.
Manny smiles a tight, no-kind-of-fun smile, all lip and way too tight. He removes his shooting gloves and smells his hands, instinctively, for powder trace, as if no one would know.
He can’t decide, so after he stashes his weapon and his other gear beneath the false bottom in his Trans Am’s trunk, he washes his hands in gasoline from a Gerry can. He dries his hands on his jeans, climbs into the driver’s seat and fires up the engine. He crawls through the alley behind Boree’s on fast idle, and pulls out into Main Street.
He thinks: now comes the sweet part, Mr. Brother Peso Man. Now I get to do this part quick and hard. You and me both know how it goes. Like the last time … at China Wash, that’s how.
He pulls up in front of the Idle Spurs. He gets out and puts on a long, black canvas duster, deliberately. He notices the jumpy crowd of faces in the glass window in the front door of the bar. Different people shove their heads in the window, jostling for a peek at the scene on the sidewalk. They look all spooked like stupid, nervous horses, peeking out timidly, just a few seconds each. So he adjusts his coat’s lapels, again deliberately – we all got to strut our bad presence for them first row seats, my brother - and pops a new white Resistol on his head, adjusts it in his side mirror, just-so.
He thinks: they all need a good look. They need to see how quick prophecy can come down on a man. Let ‘em all know where it’s coming from, and who’s the Right Hand of The Word, now. They’re going to keep their mouths shut, ‘cause that’s the rule, but they’ll hold this moment in their minds for years.
Finally, he cranks up the volume on his car stereo: something with a bass thwap, wrangling lead arpeggios in sheets like a hard monsoon rain, with a lot of gnashing teeth in the mix. He leaves the window down and the engine at idle, and swagger-steps over to the stricken pair, huddled on the pavement. He looks down on the bleached-out, bloodied form of the Peso Man and his woman on the sidewalk. Looks down on them like a horned owl with the ache of hunger in his belly.
“Peso Man,” he says. “What’s this funky-ass mess you making on the sidewalk?”
He points at Trink and talks to Peso Man.
“This your bitch’s time of the month, huh? Shit man, you best get you a better class of bitch than this one. Tu sabes.”
Trink cries harder. She winds her arms tight around the Peso Man’s head.
Manny leans his long body close to the Peso Man. He bends a little at the waist so they can both get a better view of each other’s face. The Peso Man’s brow, cheeks and hair drip sweat. His pupils are near blown, and his body jerks now and then, as if a strange electric rhythm pulsed inside it. But not too damn strange, and certainly not fatal.
He thinks: you should die so easy, Peso Man. Can’t rightly screw a man if you just kill him outright.
“Don’t sweat it my man, you gonna’ make it. I wildcatted that load my own self. Just enough juice to make its point.”
And stay jammed up in your memory, he thinks.
He nudges the Peso man’s left leg with the toe of his boot. Tommie Borquez screams in spite of his instincts. He bites down hard on his lip to stop that sound and opens another wound. His face returns to its blurred half-focus. His eyes seem to wander somewhere off behind Manny’s right shoulder: toward the dark mass of the old Boree Market, or Gibby’s Restaurant, or the harsh glare of the Arizona State Prison…
“I see you get the point,” he says and crouches down in front of the Peso Man. He runs a finger up and down the length of his itchy, burning scar and looks directly into the Peso man’s eyes.
“You shoulda’ finished it, brother. When you left me in the sand out in China Wash with three big bags a’ chiva, when you cut my leg out from the back … I remember you said, King, you said, c’mon man, leave the motherfucker. He’s gonna’ bleed but he’s gonna’ make it. The county’s comin’ real soon. Got it direct from la chivata, but you already know that.”
“Then you laughed at me. You turned to King and laughed at me, and you said, “maybe Frank Short’ll find his ass before the ants do. Whatever’s left of it. Ha – ha – ha.”
Manny pries Trink’s arms from around the Peso Man’s head and pushes her aside. She lays there on the sidewalk in a tense ball and squalls as he grabs the Peso Man’s “lapels” with both hands and jerks him up, abruptly, into a painful sitting position, and pulls Tommie’s contorted face closer to his own and whispers.
“I heard that laugh every night and every day when I was inside. I can hear that stupid laugh right now.”
Again, abruptly, he drops the Peso Man back onto the pavement. He crouches close to Tommie’s face, runs his pointing finger up and down the length of his scar, and watches as the Peso Man’s chest heaves up and down. Tommie Borquez makes a weak, barely audible groan, and Manny smiles.
“You didn't finish me when you had the chance. But you’ve got to see how nothing but fair this is. I know you ain’t one to get all rattled by a little fair retribution. Your heart’s been weighed in the balance, and you come up a tad short, brother. And now, this dog’s done runnin’, that’s all.”
He leans closer, breath to breath.
“My brother, this dog is home again. Resurrected. Changed by war and prophecy, and two years in the tomb. This dog is home and, now, this dog wants back in. You gonna’ take this ol’ war dog back in, hermano?”
He pokes his pointing finger into the Peso Man’s ribs, sharply. Tommie Borquez exhales another groan, and another. Trink crawls back over to him, keeping one arm over her face. She kneels behind him and carefully places his head back in her lap and rewinds her arms around his neck, and rocks slowly back and forth on her knees, and moans as she rocks.
Manny gazes down on Trink as if no one else existed on that street. His lips curl upward into a weird, abstracted smile, and he winks at her. Then he turns his concentration back to the Peso Man.
“You got that, brother? This ol’ war dog wants back inside the big man’s house. You go ahead and tell King, the dog is back and it’s all gonna’ split three ways, again. You hear me, Peso man? We all gonna’ live close to prophecy. Just like time was.”
He reaches into his duster and pulls out a clasp knife, and unfolds it, and holds the point close to the Peso Man’s face. Trink gasps and cringes back from his slow extending knife-hand. She nearly drops the Peso man’s head in her scramble to move backwards.
“But first, I got a little more work to do. Time for this motherfucker to count some coup.”
He cuts away the Peso Man’s eponymous sterling belt buckle with the Mexican gold piece circled by turquoise and silver flute players with their jet eyes, and their lightning. Then he saws off the silver coins that Tommie Borquez keeps tied around his booted ankles like slave bracelets. He stows these relics in his duster pocket, folds up the knife and slips it back in the pocket against his chest. He lowers his head, again, face to face with the Peso Man.
“Now I gotta’ borrow your bitch for a minute, too.”
Manny grabs Trink by the hair and pulls her head toward his mouth. She drops Tommie Borquez and his head hits the pavement. He twists her around to face the Peso Man. And slowly, with deep concentration, even delicacy, and a glazed-over look, he licks her earlobes. He pushes his fat tongue deep inside her ear and, again, pushes, and again, even harder, pushes and sighs from inside his chest, while Trink shivers, and her eyes jerk open and shut in r.e.m. -like spasms.
He finishes, and shoves Trink back onto the pavement. He wipes spit from his lips with the back of his hand and stands up, looking down at the Peso Man.
“Now it’s almost back to steady, eh? Close to prophecy. Like back in the day.”
Manny spreads his fingers, pushes out wide with his splay-fingered hands and his arms as if swimming though the parched air and the dust.
“I love you, my brother. I love you so much more that you can ever know. But without this, the world ain’t never steady, never balanced, and we can’t leave it go. Sun might never rise again. Think on that.”
Manny spits carefully onto Trink’s smeared and rouge mottled check.
Trink cries softly, now. She presses Tommie’s head against her chest with one hand. She presses the other hand against his wound to stanch the bleeding.
“You and me, Peso man. It's up to you and me to raise the sun.”
He walks deliberately back to his vehicle. The song on his radio is a slow love ballad, Townes van Zandt or Billy Joe Shaver or … something like that, something he can always come on to but can’t pin why, and he smiles, now, like a cat that’s caught something sleek and awful, and killed it slow, as he removes his duster and the white Resistol, and tosses his props in a heap on the back seat. He closes the door, carefully, and burns rubber down two blocks of Main Street, heading south. He turns off the main drag at Butte, and heads down the mostly empty Adamsville Road toward Coolidge. He turns off the radio to plan his next move in peace.
He thinks: I’ll stop at the 7-11 in Coolidge and buy ol’ Peso Man a get well card. I’ll send it to him care of County Hospital. They’ll cart him over there and, hell, them little chica nurses won't know how to keep their hands off his cute little butt. I’ll drop it in the mail before I leave town. Then I’m movin’ in with Cheree Antone up in Olberg. Pimas up there know me. And they know better how to keep their noses out of my business. No one will find me back in those hills. Or, maybe, up top the Estrella’s: a man can see all the way south to Tubac, all the way east to the western edge of El Paso del Norte. I’ll wait ‘em all out. I’ll wait up there and just see what comes to pass.
Manny smiles as he imagines and rehearses his next act with Cheree: all her naked goods spread out across the bed, throbbing like a hot star just for him. He barrels through the creosote and acacia flats alongside the Adamsville Road. He sees, then feels, the sick pulse of Phoenix, its thick haze rising just off behind the curve of the San Tans. And sees the lights of the Attaway gin in the cotton fields, southwest of the highway. And, always, always, the bitter quadrangle and gun towers of the prison ride shotgun with him in his side mirrors.
He thinks: we keep goin’ around, Peso Man, you and me, like we’re dancing or something, like we’re dancing and we can’t stop the music. Don’t forget, my brother, the righteous man, the beauty boy, the lame dreamer, who forsakes his own body, even the broken fighter, all live outside prophecy. All just limp along together like hungry ghosts following the same sad beat. But we catch ghosts. We got proud and deeper music, and we got that dance down cold. It won't stop until we’re dead, brother, the both of us. It’s how we stay steady. Living close to prophecy. It’s up to us to raise the sun.
Again, Manny glances in his side mirror. The joint seems to float above the horizon like a bright cloud of evil, or the glow of a steel furnace, for sure, all the time lit up like the inside of a boiler or a furnace.
He thinks: you left me there, Peso Man. Two years, you left me there naked. It’s goddamn bad to be so naked in a place like that. Those lights bore through your eyelids all night. Even deep down in the block, the buzz and whine from those hot lights scald your ears. Pretty soon there’s nothing left, outside, inside, nothing but naked … and that hot light … always, just that hot light.
Manny runs his fingers up and down the length of his tingling scar. He passes through a forest of hoodoo cactus, their arms frozen in his high beams as they gesture at the moon and the stars, maybe gathering their nerve to spring out and snatch him from his car. He barrels through this strange frozen forest, and the dust, laden with the acrid whiff of creosote bush and devil’s claw, opens and closes around his passing.
Born in San Antonio a month beyond her due date, Jewel Hart still prefers to do things on ‘Texas time’. Unconventionally conventional, her personal Alpha-hunk, two boy children, and assorted fur-babies keep her grounded when she's lost in her latest sappy romance, quirky suspense, or future urban legend.
Laughter, tolerance, and chocolate are daily necessities. Puns and irony are a few of her favorite things. When not reading or writing, her other hobbies include collecting useless trivia and poking bears.
Check me out at www.jewelhart.com
The Wheelhouse's worn stool fit Mia Clark's rear as if it had been molded to her. She'd been coming to this neighborhood bar six months but it already felt like a second home. The outdated music and the smell of nicotine took her back to her childhood. As usual, the muted TV over the bar was tuned to the local station where, currently, the late news aired. She read subtitles and nursed her vodka tonic, scrunching her face after each sip. She never liked the antiseptic taste but the bubbly burn kept her from overindulging. The daughter of an alcoholic, she remained conscious of the risk.
Augie, the bartender, leaned an elbow on the counter. "Did you hear about Jack Whitlock?"
She gave him a puzzled look. "What about him?"
"He up and left his wife and kids last week. Just like Blake Martin a few months ago. Did you know Blake?"
She shook her head. As a writer, she spent most of her time in the quiet country rental her publisher arranged. Her circle of friends was limited to The Wheelhouse’s regulars.
"Didn't think so. Anyway, Jack copied Blake’s disappearing act right down to the Dear Jane letter. Mailed it local so the wife can't know which direction he went."
Mia fingered her swizzle stick. "From what little I knew of Jack, his wife's better off without him."
Augie reached for a rag and wiped drink sweat off the bar. "Probably, but she don't think so."
"Came by asking questions."
She chewed her lip. "Did you give her answers?"
Augie nodded. "Didn't want to, but she wouldn't drop it. Last I saw him, he was headed to Teddie's. "
The gentleman’s club is a few miles down I-35 and does more business than a town this size should warrant. The pastor’s car had even been spotted there on occasion. It's unlikely he was there for spiritual guidance.
An image drew Mia’s attention to the television. Augie followed her eyes. As if conjured by their conversation, the pretty blonde on the screen had been a dancer at Teddie's. Her body was found last week. She'd been raped and murdered. There was a reward for information.
He absently returned to wiping the bartop. "You think Jack coulda done something like that?"
Mia scowled at her drink. "Jack was a jerk, not a killer."
Augie shrugged. "I guess." Then he stopped to give her his eyes. "But you're too trusting. It's a dangerous world out there."
"Thanks for the bulletin."
He snickered. "Saw you with Brady last week."
Her cheeks turned to hot coals. "What of it?"
He slid a hand over hers. "I worry about you."
She carefully extracted her hand. "Thanks, Augie. You're sweet. I can take care of myself."
"Brady's got a temper."
Saving her from more awkward conversation, the waitress set her tray on the bar and called out the drinks she needed. It was a busy Friday night at The Wheelhouse—at least fifteen other folks in attendance. The shift from the sanitation plant had let out early. They huddled around the pool tables, still in their work clothes.
Two stools over, another customer bellied up.
Augie greeted, "Be right with you."
The man laid a twenty on the bar. "I'm in no hurry. I'll take a Shiner when you're free." He glanced to the side, noticed Mia, then did a double-take. "Excuse me. Are you Mia Clark?"
She angled toward him but didn't answer. About thirty-five years old, dressed preppie, with soft-hands and sharp eyes, he had an average-guy appeal. But how does he know my name?
"You're a writer. Right?"
She eyed him skeptically. "You know my work?"
"Sort of. I never read them, but my wife always had your books laying around."
At mention of his wife, her gaze went to his left hand. No ring.
Understanding, he raised his hand and forced a tight smile. "Ex wife. Old habits. One of these days it'll sink in." His shoulders dropped when he tracked to where his wedding ring should be. Tenderly, he placed his palm on the bar, still focused on his ring-less digit.
She hadn't brought it up, but seeing the man's melancholy struck a soft spot. She took a healthy swallow of her drink and sighed. "I’m at a disadvantage. You got a name?"
His mood improved instantly. If he'd been a dog, he'd have been wagging his tail. "Jim. Jim Spenser." He slid over and held out a hand.
She took it. "Nice to meet you, Jim."
Next to them, a Shiner plopped on the bar with enough force to make it foam over. Augie eyed Jim. "Haven't seen you in here before."
"Haven't been in before."
"What brings you now?" The question had an accusatory quality.
Mia rolled her eyes for Jim’s benefit. "Geez, Augie. Your hospitality sucks. No wonder this place is never packed."
Jim masked his chuckle with a cough, but Augie wasn't amused.
She jerked to face him.
"Don't forget what I said."
Crazy, overprotective Augie. She lowered her eyes to her drink and mumbled, "I remember."
From the other end of the bar, someone called for a refill. Augie backed away slowly, glaring at Jim long enough to issue a silent warning.
When he was free of the bartender’s leer, Jim tilted to Mia and whispered. "I think I’m growing on him."
Caught by surprise, she barked out a laugh, which triggered giggles and earned them curious glances. She waved them off to bask in a rare bout of levity with an interesting man.
Once they got to talking, Mia and Jim had an easy rapport. He told her he'd been contracted to teach management techniques at the sanitation plant. Pretty boring, but Jim was funny and relaxed.
As the night wore on, Mia considered inviting him home, but the opportunity passed when he checked his watch and announced his departure. He had an early class in the morning. Mia watched him go. Had she missed an opportunity?
Augie reappeared in front of her. His mouth was twisted into a hateful snarl. "You have a good time?"
Her brows furrowed. "What's with you tonight?"
He put his face close to hers and growled, "Tired of watching you throw yourself at that schmuck."
"Who I talk to is none of your business. I'm a paying customer."
Quick as a rattlesnake, Augie grabbed her arm. "Don't toy with me, woman!"
Her mouth fell open as she tugged back, but he had a tight grip. "That hurts!"
All eyes turned toward the commotion and Augie let go.
Shaking, she dug around in her purse and tossed some bills on the bar.
Augie's expression softened. "Look, I'm sorry. I shouldn't—"
"No! You shouldn't have." She practically ran to the door, not stopping until she was safely in her car. She sat there allowing the sound of her own breathing to soothe her. She wasn't prepared for Augie’s assault, but he'd darn sure never touch her like that again. When her anger subsided, she started her Jeep and pulled away.
The drive home took her past Teddie’s. She slowed to a crawl as she passed the sinful club. Each car in the lot represented a wife or girlfriend pining for her man to come home. Most would be happier if they didn’t. Her father used to enjoy such places.
She pushed him out of her mind and sped up.
The rental house was well off the road, sufficiently isolated to meet her publisher’s deadlines. She committed to six books in two series and she'd already finished five. Soon, Mia would have to decide whether she’d stay for the remaining six months on the lease, or return home to downtown Dallas.
Emotionally exhausted, she climbed the porch steps to unlock the door. Most locals didn’t bother with locks, but it was her routine after years in the city. Still, the rural life had dulled her senses.
Too late, she felt the wood shift beneath her feet. Then, pain erupted.
Everything went black.
She woke, tied to a kitchen chair, with a nasty headache. Music played from somewhere else in the house and someone was standing across from her. The figure was too blurry to make out. She blinked to focus, but rendered only vague shapes and colors.
"I didn’t mean to hit you so hard. I got carried away."
She knew that voice. "Wha-" She swallowed and tasted blood. It coated her tongue. She used it to check her teeth. All were intact. A small boon, but she’d take it.
She tried again to speak. "Why…"
"Why you? Your realtor was at Teddie’s the other night. Told everyone about the secluded hideaway he’d rented to a pretty lady. Right then, I knew you’d be my next victim."
His soft hands came into view.
Next? Her throbbing head felt light and heavy at the same time.
Jim bent close and grinned. "Too bad you won’t live to write about me. I’d make a great villain. You’re my tenth. No—make that eleventh. But you're my first celebrity."
She could see him clearly now, but only with her left eye. She probably had a concussion. "You’ve killed eleven people?"
"Women. I only kill women. My wretched wife was first. Had to make it look like an accident. Now I can take my time. You’ll see." He spotted the wine the realtor gave her for housewarming. "Lets start with some vino."
He rummaged through the kitchen drawers. "Where's your corkscrew?" At the third one, he stopped. Staring for a beat before he reached inside.
When he brought his hand up, he held an eight-inch knife. Not the kind most people keep in a kitchen. More like for hunting. The quarter-moon shape was serrated on one side and smooth on the other.
He examined it, then picked at deposits trapped in the handle’s grooves. As he rolled the extracted bits between his forefinger and thumb, he stumbled toward Mia. When his toes bumped hers, he stopped and cocked his head to the side.
Mia kept her gaze focused on Jim’s face.
He parted his fingers and frowned at the bloody bits. "Huh."
He was about to say something else when a bag slipped over his head. The knife dropped, narrowly missing Mia’s foot.
Jim bucked and spun. He grabbed at the bag. He backed into cabinets and walls, trying to disengage his assailant. His aggressor held fast, but his efforts waned. He had no stamina. His office job made him soft. Finally, his struggle ended and he went down.
Jim woke, tied to a spindle chair exactly like the one he bound Mia to—maybe the same chair. There were more shadows than light, but, along with the piercing stench of rot, dank earth and chalky concrete suggested he was in a basement. He turned his head to assess his prison.
From behind him, a girl yelled. "Mom, he’s awake!"
Quick footsteps overhead grew louder, then she was on the stairs. She toggled a switch, and there was a flash of light before darkness endured.
“Darn. Baby? Would you run around and flip the breaker?”
“Sure, mom." The girl bounded up the stairs. "Don't start without me.”
As casually as if they were back at the bar, Mia mused, “Kids. So much energy. Only fourteen and she bested you.”
She came around him and he glimpsed the angled blade.
Her tone chilled. "You really should have read my books."
The light flipped on and what he saw caused warmth to run down his leg. He couldn't know them all, but he recognized Jack Whitlock among the mutilated bodies.
Mia bent close. "My villains are always female."
Madeline W. James is a lady of refinement, a rugged adventuress and a memoirist whose travels across God's green earth have scarcely begun to be relayed. She calls no land home, but her heart lies with verdant, mountainous Cuzco. Her talking parrot is named Bartleby.
Several Judgments and Adventures
Courtesy of the Young Ms. James
Madeline W. James here and, borrowing my maidservant's enormous dust brush, I have just dusted away and shoved off the many unfortunate woman characters known to yourself and I.
I moved aside the miserable-housewife characters, the anonymous-tough-girl characters. The tempting-mistress and well-meaning-lady-of-the-night-time characters. The women-named-"girl"-on-the-cover-type characters. I particularly took aim at the inspirational-yet-spayed-historical-woman characters. The childhood-friends-become-love-interest characters. And let's not forget the 30-some-odd pixie who falls for the middle-aged boor. All these storefront mannequins have been removed to storage by the indefatigable Madeline W. James.
With that done I may begin my rousing journey into the Far East with only my ruggedest clothes and a knapsack containing 12 hard crackers. I do this after spurning not one but five admirers from the neighboring estates.
I pilot a sailboat across the sea, and, in the course of events, I am named Empress of Macedonia.
With a passion for storytelling spawning before he even could write, Pete Cotsalas, a Massachusetts native, does not feel accomplished unless he has written daily. Fiction is his passion. With a BA in English/Creative Writing he hopes to milk all the use possible out of this basic credential, and dreams of the world reading and enjoying his work. He is an avid reader and researcher in his spare time. To inspire himself, he often contemplates “If it exists, I can write about it.”
At an Enforcer outpost outside Eon they met Glee. Ivanna’s timid Enforcer partner sat in the pub drinking a tumbler of papaya cider, looking sallow. News Ivanna sent him in her phoenix message greatly troubled him. Outside, they mounted their steeds. “I was devastated to hear King Walden was poisoned.” Solemnly Glee spoke, unrolling the notice. “Manticore venom, you say? Although costly, venom of Manticore can be bought freely at apothecaries. Your sister does not want his condition made public, from fear of preserving the Throne?”
Latching her foot in the stirrup, Ivanna nodded. “Leave it to Trilna to save face rather than seek help. She is correct. Word spreads Father is on his deathbed, every Nobleman in Dli commonwealth will be vying for the Throne.”
Glee latched his feet into stirrups. “Suitors have contacted Trilna, soliciting courtship since before she could ride horseback yes. You told me you once received dozens of courtship queries weekly.”
“Indeed,” said Ivanna, kicking her nag. “Fireplace in my bedchamber warmed for a fortnight because of those parchments. Power is cheese rats congregate around. Nonetheless, by default this makes I or Trilna regent ruler.”
Interjecting, Froman maneuvered his pony alongside Ivanna’s steed. “Entering the Death Realm may save your father’s life. Antidote for the venom of Manticore is the blood of the same Manticore. Like Chimeras, they were obliterated following The War. Find the Manticore. Find your father’s cure.”
Myria gasped, causing her nag to stir while it trotted. “Milady, he suggests making your father’s life pretext…” However, Ivanna knew Froman was correct.
After days of venturing through the forests of Fathach, Ivanna’s Enforcer tunic and cloak, normally professional and svelte, were dirtied a shade darker. Underdressed she looked beside Glee. As they rode northward, Glee admitted he would be hesitant if he had not seen firsthand overtake of Enforcers by the Loyalists. “Captain Zill has become a lackey for the Loyalists. Nothing is safeguarded during this uprising. I would have alerted the Grand Legion, but it is likely they would believe a captain’s word over mine. If Loyalists conscript Enforcers, anything is possible. Further evidence is required before addressing the Legion caucus.”
Ivanna watched him fiddle with his Enforcer weapons in his saddle. “Glee, you sharpen your dagger so much it may cut your sheath.”
“Nervous,” he admitted. “There has not been a Chimera on Fathach in centuries. If one truly resurfaced as you say, communication will be arduous. We are more likely to be torn to shreds. Four hominids cannot outflank a treacherous beast of old.” Physical ineptness of bookish Glee was redeemed by profound intellect.
Raspy chuckles of Froman taunted him. “How did such a ninny become an Enforcer?”
“Insolence precedes you in reputation, Wolf,” grunted Glee, embittered.
“Indeed, Milord,” mocked Froman, referencing Glee’s cleanliness, and posture, likening it to a monarch.
Breaking up rigidness between their male companions, Ivanna stated. “That hut by the birch copse will likely be the last commoner residence for some time. We tread into desolate territory.” Shortcutting through a grove of blossoming trees, they attempted to escape the sultry air. Soon after, they encountered a large skeleton of an animal. Dismounting, Glee examined the bones. “Bear,” he announced. “A Cavernous Bear, adult, sixteen feet long. Nothing known on Fathach smaller than a dragon could devour such a beast.” Accurate, Glee’s description seemed. Coats and cloaks made from hide of the Cavernous Bear were so large they were marketed primarily to ogres.
Pacing the ground around the skeleton, Froman nodded. “However Enforcer lad, an extinct large predator, returned from purgatory easily manipulates the food-chain. Chimeras had appetites, greatly outweighing their size.” He sniffed the dirt along the roots beside the picked carcass. “This soil absorbed Chimera urine. Perhaps you also note we have not seen so much as a grackle in some time. Even birds have fled before the Chimera. We draw near.” Gesturing ahead, through the corridor between trees, he indicated more animal bones, seeming to create a trail. “Shall we?”
Farther into the woods, Ivanna recognized the Caverns of Eagla, formerly The Forbidden Caves. Depths of these caverns were believed to house fearsome dragons, and other frightful creatures. Although commonly believed to be tradesmen hearsay, this was primary reason that they remained barren of visitation. It was plausible that something such as a vortex could remain, undisturbed. “Deserted draws lawlessness,” warned Glee. “Remain cautious of brigands.”
Following the animal remains, they came upon an abrupt downward hill leading toward a series of precipices. Terrain being too narrow and steep for horses to handle, the band of travelers had no choice but to leave theirs behind. Beyond the precipices, an open copse met them, with dense forest on the far end, and a wide field of purplish flowers alongside. This seemed out of place beside the Eagla Caverns. That cave did not. At the mouth of a cave sat a bundle of soil, tree branches and animal fur. “That must be the cave Faraoise spoke of,” said Myria. “The Chimera nests there.” It appeared like any other cave mouth. There had to be more to the entrance. Even Glee’s vast intellect fell short of this knowledge. This was similar to finding a crucial door, but not having the necessary key. All four minds were aware they needed to make haste. The displaced dead Chimera would certainly return. Animal bones collected in the nest were indicative of what they anticipated.
Gusts of wind brushed the tree limbs above. Froman looked up and sniffed the air. Wolf sense detected a familiar scent. “Ugh, no,” he scoffed. “It is the ubiquitous boulder again.” Sure enough, Chliste appeared, standing on a high mound of rocks beside the mouth of the cavern. “Golem, have you nothing more pressing to do than harass those trying to preserve the wellbeing of Fathach?!” snarled Froman. “Leave us in peace.”
Clueless, Glee’s eyebrows furrowed. He and Chliste had yet to meet. “Who is this?”
“I am Chliste, the Sorcerer,” the glittering Golem introduced. Nodding to Glee, he added “You must be the wise Enforcer accomplice I have heard much about. Allow me to help your endeavor. Exiting the Death Realm into ours is relatively easy from here. It is a matter of encountering the orifice at the correct time, as the Chimera did. Entering the Realm however, is more trying. You essentially must ride into the Realm. Life of a creature must be taken, similar to sacrifice. You must bind yourselves to the evaporating life-force as it gravitates into the Realm. It will not be particularly easy.”
“Will any creature suffice?” Ivanna asked. “What if we were to kill say, a squirrel?”
Chliste shook his head. “Life force of a squirrel is the size of a squirrel. It will not be strong enough to support conveyance of one of you, let alone four. You need a much larger creature.”
“Pity golems cannot be slain,” Froman growled. Chliste ignored Froman’s snide ploy. Alertly he sniffed the air. Looking toward the dense shrubbery behind them, he announced. “Chimera approaches.” Immediately the Enforcers placed hands on sheathes. Even Myria fingered the dagger on her belt, which she had yet to draw. Glancing behind her, Ivanna saw Chliste had vanished.
A four-legged beast, twice the size of a lioness stepped into the clearing. Illustrations in centuries-old books did not do justice to the likeness. Fearsome fangs hung from moist pink gums. Reddish tincture validated intimidation of the spiky coat of fur. Upon her back, sat the fabled second head, that of a horned goat. The beady eyes stared, no less sinister than the piercing orange irises of the foremost head. “Visitors in my realm, how delicious,” a deep feminine voice cooed. Large feline nostrils widened and thinned, the Chimera looked at Froman curiously. “I am certain these others are human. You puzzle me. You look human, but smell like dog, why?”
Froman scoffed and chuckled, sniffing in the Chimera’s direction. “Out of respect, since we may ask assistance, I will not tell you what you smell like to me,” he drawled.
Ivanna welcomed the Chimera. “We are glad to have encountered you,” she said.
“Likewise,” the Chimera said, taking small steps toward them. “Ooh, I am thrilled to see you. Since I have dwelled in these woods, I have subsisted on elk, rabbit, and the occasional bear.” Her smiled grew. “But that is about to change, I see. I have not tasted the sweet flesh of living humans in centuries… I do believe I have quite forgotten what the flavor is like.” She eagerly smacked her furry lips. The she-beast sneered. “Once our creators were banished, people whom they ruled made it a course to kill off my kind, the Manticore, and Griffins. I was brutally slaughtered in my nest as I slept. I returned to consciousness moments before dying, in time to see them dangling the decapitated head of my mate before me. Finding a way to regain entry after centuries was bliss.”
Pretending she did not hear this, Ivanna continued, remaining confident, ignoring the sensation they were outmatched. “Would assisting us for a greater good not be fulfilling to you, Chimera? Our noble goal is to save Fathach from darkness. Your soul would be enough to escort us into the Death Realm, to find our quarry.”
Glee stared at Ivanna in astonishment. “Are you actually negotiating an assisted suicide?” he asked, in a whisper.
Ignoring him, Ivanna, reasoned. “You are meant to be dead… Would it not be satisfying to assist in saving the continent simultaneously?”
Chimera considered the proposition. “Help three humans and a dog hybrid by allowing them to slay me?” she summarized. “I think I would much prefer to devour you four!” The lion-like jaws extended four times their circumference. A roar emitted which echoed through the woods.
The four of them ran. The Chimera galloped behind them. Goat’s head on her back bleated in triumph. A fireball shot from the goat’s gaping mouth. Ivanna screamed and ducked beneath the billow of flames. Anxious, as they ducked into a hiding place in a patch of ferns, Ivanna asked Glee if he knew how to kill a Chimera. Glee’s fearful trembling appeared comically manic, like a royal Harlequin impersonating an extreme emotion. Glee whispered, so the stalking Chimera would not hear. “Killing a Chimera has something to do with one of the heads. I cannot remember.”
“Which bloody head?!” Ivanna shouted. Unlike Glee, she did not attempt to keep her voice down. “There are two!”
Froman and Myria ran in separate directions. Sprinting into the wide meadow of thistles, Myria kicked purple flowers into the air in flee. Froman bellowed, warning her not to run in an exposed area. Chasing Myria, the Chimera galloped through the meadow, uprooting grass and thistles violently. Panicked, Myria climbed a tall mahogany tree. The Chimera lunged at the tree. With an effortless push, she bent the trunk.
“Please, do not!” Myria begged as the Chimera cornered her, licking its fury chops.
“Ooh, I do love being back in the Realm of Living,” the Chimera said. “I so missed prey begging for its life. It was not the same in the Death Realm.” Forepaws held Myria’s shoulders securely to the ground. “Hmm, there is no abundance of meat on you,” the Chimera observed, discouraged looking over the much smaller Myria, top to bottom. “No matter, I am sure sustenance from you will provide energy to chase down your three delicious friends!” A forked, serpent tongue flickered in and out of her mouth as the three rows of sharp teeth descended toward Myria.
Instinctively, Glee sprung from behind the ferns, pulling the crossbow from his shouldered bag. The arrow struck the Chimera in her side. Groaning in pain, she was not crippled. Promptly as the arrow hit, the thistle pasture became a battlefield. Defending their handmaiden friend, Glee, Ivanna and Froman charged through the field, weapons drawn. Without warning, Chliste rematerialized behind the beast. Everyone else startled in their footsteps. Promptly, the Golem waved his hand and transformed a single uprooted thistle beside the Chimera. It extended into a long-bladed saber, so sharp it sliced several other flowers from their stems. Wasting no time, Chliste seized the saber and leapt at the Chimera. One blow, the goat head aback the monster was severed. Blood spewed volcanically. The appendage emitted one life-draining bleat as it soared several meters overhead, landing a distance away, like a thrown discus. With a whimper, the Chimera froze. Slowly, she collapsed on her side, eyes blankly staring into a mass of purple thistles, indisputably dead.
“Only way to kill Chimera is sever the goat’s head!” Chliste informed. Dropping the saber, it reverted back to a tiny thistle. It looked like a wounded soldier returning home from battle. Bloodstains only distinguished it from the rest.
Others all glared at Chliste. “You chose a convenient time to vanish, Chliste!” Ivanna shouted. “We were almost killed for food!”
“I was observing how you handled the situation,” Chliste explained. “Intending to cross into the Death Realm, you will be surrounded by vengeful creatures such as that Chimera. Many have not walked the surface of our world for many centuries. I was impressed.” He looked at Myria. “I intervened only when I saw you truly needed assistance. I did not wish to see you harmed.”
Froman stared at Chliste, with a bewildered expression. “Chliste,” he said, cautiously. “Was that… empathy I heard?”
Despite Froman’s words, Chliste said urgently “You four must prepare. This Chimera possesses a life force sufficient to carry you into the Death Realm. I can sense that her soul is composing, similar to ghosts, spirits and specters.” Chliste raised his hands, spreading them across the quartet. “This spell is very strong, and quite intricate. Attaching your physical presence onto a departing spirit’s energy is profound magic. Brace yourselves.” He uttered the enchantment. “Leanuint Teorann Spiorad Gabhail!” Instantly, everything surrounding them changed appearance.
A peculiar fuzzy luster encapsulated the world. Everything felt distant, apart from the four of them. Ivanna felt as if her form was compressing. Chliste’s voice sounded like a distant echo, although his blurry profile stood close by. “I suggest you follow the Chimera’s energy into the Realm. Once you cross the veil, abandon it as fast as possible. Since I cannot accompany you, remember to say these words when ready to detach the bond from her spirit: Banna Sos. Normally only a sorcerer can perform such magic, but in the Death Realm many rules which we take for granted cease application.”
Ivanna shook her head, looking down at her hands. Unlike everything else which surrounded them, her hands seemed to remain solid. “How do we follow the Chimera’s energy?” she asked, looking to either side of her, between Glee and Froman. The two males also remained with any haze.
Glee pointed. “Over there, by the carcass,” he said.
Beside her blurry, mangled carcass stood an apparition of the Chimera, remaining solid as the four of them. Indistinguishable from her lifeless corpse upon the ground she was, apart from her facial expression, and hue. Redness of her textured lion’s coat and green color of the scales along her tail were now reduced. The beast who minutes before declared that she would eat the four of them manifested almost transparently. Instead of presumptuously voracious, as she handled herself in life-form, this rendition looked bleak, timid, lost. In fact, her face seemed vacant of expression. Even the goat head, reclaiming its place aback the spirit, appeared dispassionate. This was the first time Ivanna observed a freshly expelled spirit, ready for departure to the next realm.
As if beckoned, the Chimera turned her head toward the mouth of the cavern. Slowly shifting her paws, she walked, without a word. Evidentally Chliste’s spell worked. An unseen force pulled them along in the Chimera’s wake. They walked paces behind her, aligned, driven by the invisible pull. The she-beast paid them no attention as she strolled, not realizing that she had company. Her eyes fixated on the cavern, annulled of any expression. As they drew closer to the caverns, even more company than themselves walked alongside the Chimera. These woods were filled with expired souls gravitating toward the cave mouth, previously invisible to them. Nearly all of them were animal souls, as if a massive herd migrated toward a lagoon to drink. These spirits of animals frolicked, flew, crawled, hopped, even galloped. Seldom had Ivanna seen anything like it. Elk, moose, rabbits, squirrels, bears, beavers moved as a single unit, not attempting to attack or avoid one another. A pair of coyotes walked side by side with a doe, gracefully and peaceably.
Glee was the first of them to comment on the spectacle. “Astounding, this is the most majestic, and possibly the most unnatural sight I have beheld.”
“Go forth friends. Remain alert at all times,” Chliste’s echoing voice warned from behind them, with rare encouragement. “This is no sanctuary. It is more cause for vigilance.” Ivanna saw his already hazy appearance dissipate into the air out of the corner of her eye. Ivanna and company approached the gaping cave with hundreds of dead animal spirits. Blackness which would transfer them into a plane precious few ever returned from.
Crossing the veil was much swifter than Ivanna imagined. Rather than into a stalactite lined corridor, or labyrinth of passageways, the entryway of the cave simply led to a wide, bleak expanse of land. Trees, sky, even mountains in the distance looked exactly the same as they would in their plane, against a backdrop of twilight. Entirety of the Death Realm, upon first glance, was doused in the same reduced shades of color which the Chimera appeared in. Everything was solid to them however, unlike within their own reality. Mouth agape in astonishment, Ivanna imagined how scholars at the University in the capital would feel about this. Once they breeched the veil which Ivanna, Froman would be assuming role of navigator. When they fully entered the Realm, the initial factor which Ivanna noticed, was the complete lack of wind. The atmosphere was as still as a statue.
“Is there air in this Realm?” Ivanna asked Froman.
Froman looked at her in exasperation. “Princess, what possible use would occupants of this Realm have for air?!”
“How will we survive?” Myria asked, frantically.
“Settle down,” Froman told her. “Although we are alive, while in this Realm, excluding distinguishing components, for intents and purposes, we are dead, as well.”
“Wait… Chliste killed us?!” Myria shouted, as they were dragged along by the Chimera, momentarily without notice.
Impatiently Froman barked. “No, he simply converted our physicality. His spell reduced our density to temporarily reflect those of departed souls. We are incognito.”
If not so bleak, the appearance of the Death Realm would have been breathtaking. The Chimera female continued, in the direction of a large crowd scattered around the trees to their left. Dragged along, they almost neglected to sever the tie. “Uh, Banna Sos!” Glee shouted. Like snapping fishing line, they were broken free of their transportation. The Chimera stood amongst the diverse group of spirits, coming to stop beside another Death Realm resident, an ice troll. The she-beast resumed stationary stance, and vacant stare, interchangeably from this large crowd. This consisted of several men, and women, elves, dwarves, trolls. Ivanna even saw a young boy, and an ogre, nearly as tall as the tree which he stood beside. Like the Chimera, they appeared mundane, without direction.
“What is this?” Glee asked, in fascination. The elderly elf woman whom he stared into the eyes of did not acknowledge him, not as much as blink.
“Precursor of what lies ahead,” remarked Froman. Across a dank pasture, they encountered an unsettling spectacle. Expansive as an ocean a crowd of souls extended beyond. No end to the mass of moving heads was visible from where they stood, shy of the mountains. Not a single blade of Death Realm grass was left exposed. All crushed under feet. Aimlessly they walked, almost all speaking. However, no conversations transpired. Every one performed private soliloquy. “These are The Wayward,” Froman explained. “Individuals lost thus far. Hence, they manifest near the veil. These are the recently dead spirits, essentially in shock. Eventually some recover, and venture deeper within the confines of the Realm. Now, they are lost, and numb. They have not acknowledged their death. Some never will.” Ivanna noticed gory details. A young dwarf nearby had an arrow shaft jutting out from the base of his skull. Another creature was unrecognizable due to sever blackened burns from head to feet. Like a commander briefing a legion, Froman prepared them. “To procure the Manticore blood, we must venture deeper. Manticore have been dead for centuries, and thus dwell in the bowels. We must breech the Wayward. It will not be a pleasant trek, I warn you.”
Colin has been published in Cooper Street Journal, and Lehigh Valley Vanguard. He writes both poetry and prose. He is a teacher, coach, and husband. He lives with his wife Kaitlin, in PA. He also has a wonderfully sweet pitbull named Madson.
War in the Dark
“Making Heaven on Earth,” Sergeant Foley spit out a beam of mucus-yellow phlegm, “one dead pigeon at a time.” The room erupted in thunderous applause, as Sergeant Foley stood stoically and looked out over the crowd of recruits. The speakers, to the left and right of the stage, began playing our infantry marching tune. Each cadet clapped along with unanimous rhythm as the trumpets cackled out over the oversized black speakers.
I trained for six months, been beaten with a club nine times, broke four ribs, fractured my wrist--and now with that same splinted wrist--I clapped along with my fellow soldiers.
“Hewitt,” Private Tucker, my bunkmate, was running up behind me, “that speech, huh? Tomorrow’s the day, man. Gonna pop me some pigeons, pow, pow,” he gestured as if he had a rifle in his hands,”right outta the damn sky.”
I nodded in agreement with his fervor. The only thing I had told my recruiter on the day I signed up was, “I don’t care what the Resist and Fight (what we call the Wage for Future Peace Infantry) is all about, I just wanna kill some goddamn pigeons. “
“Are you on the first truck out to the mountains, tomorrow?” We walked through the rosey garden where the steel colored clouds canvassed the sky.
“I just got my letter from the General Draper’s office,” pulling it from his pocket, “I haven’t opened it yet.” The fingers on his hands shook with excitement, and the sideways grin on his face grew as he pulled the seal from the envelope.
Stopping short, just as we were walking past the artillery cannon garden ornaments, he read the note slowly, and calmly aloud, with precise annunciation. It read:
“ATTENTION, PRIVATE TUCKER,
IN ACCORDANCE OF W.F.P.I (Wage for Peace Infantry) RULES AND ORDINANCES, YOU ARE HEREBY NOMINATED FOR FIRST CLASS SHOOTER. YOUR EXAM WAS PASSED AT THE 98TH PERCENTILE, AND YOUR INTERVIEW WENT THROUGH THE BOARD WITHOUT QUALM OR QUERY. CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR PROMOTION.
P.S FIRST TRUCK LEAVES SUNRISE TOMORROW. UNDER YOUR COMMAND AS OF THIS MOMENT
SIGNED, GENERAL THOMAS DRAPER”
The look on his face resembled that of a small boy, not sure how to react after given a surprise puppy. Speechless, he looked from the letter, to me, then back to the letter again, shaking from the steel tip of his black combat boots to the button that adorned the top of his camouflaged hat.
All I could say was,”Tuck, congratulation,” I smiled for him, “you deser-”
“Sir,” still smiling, he looked at me, “call me sir.”
That night all the recruits headed to the shooting range for a morale booster. Sergeant Foley came to address us before our guns were loaded. Striding back and forth, like a caged bear, he spoke with no microphone, but could be heard through the entire encampment, “Pigeons men, pigeons.” There were a few scattered bits of applause to which Foley beamed, and stuck out his chest.“In the morning you will come face to face with the beasts. The enemy will surround you, and take it from me gentlemen, you may want to void your bowels where you stand.” Bursts of laughter mixed with naysayers dismissing the idea were heard far and wide in the shooting range. “But you won’t, will you?” Shouts of never! And cries of we’ll wring their fuckin’ necks! were being blasted from mouths, drunk off the emotive high of foreseeable violence. Foyle raised his hand to the crowd. They quieted.
“This is a full blown assault against us men. If they had the power, technology, or brains, God knows they do NOT... they’d do the same to all of us! Bad blood men, must be eradicated. Bad blood must be wiped clean from our earth. Tomorrow, you’ll be the broom, the mop, the brawny rags of sudden action! Sudden change!” All was quiet, the men around the range were struck with awe, as though they had been bludgeoned over the head by a hammer. Red faced and sweaty, Foley closed his speech with these four words, “NO PIGEON LEFT ALIVE!”
The big players now had gone, and the place was quiet--except for the hundreds of gunshots ringing out at the targets. The targets were what a pigeon would look like, or what we could expect to see when we confronted them. They were blocky shaped, and not more than five feet tall. Their noses were hooked like a falcon’s claw, and they had boyles and black pock marks scattered all over their green fleshy faces. I loaded, and blew a hole through the right eye of my target. After cleaning my gun, back at my bunk, I slept like a child after a summer night.
Loading up my pack the next morning, before sunrise, I could not help but stop and marvel myself in the mirror. Wrapped around my shoulders were twenty bands of machine-gun ammo. The silver and gold plates on the bullets shimmered like sun off of the water, as the light came from my bunk lamp. My helmet had a blade stitched into each side for easy access, just in case a pigeon came too near. They looked like bullhorns. They looked perfect.
Some other soldiers were making their way to the shooting range for an hours worth of practice before the trucks would go. I followed the crowd.
I picked a good target (one that was not too full of bullet holes) and I came to one knee to load my gun. Tucker was walking the rounds of the range, not speaking. The bunk was quiet without him last night. I hoped he would see me this morning, and he would wish me luck, or give me a salute. I finished loading my gun and set my sights.
One shot, boom, right eye gone. Two shots, boom, boom, one through the abdomen, the other through the heart. I cocked, pulled, for the third time as Tucker was walking by. With a boom, the bullet flew from the barrel, and struck the metal ceiling of the range. It echoed like a steel beam dropped from a skyscraper.
“Hewitt!” Clomping, metallic sounding footsteps came from behind me.
I stood erect, “Yes, Sir?”
Tucker came nose to nose with me, “You call that shootin’ soldier?”
“I assume so, Sir.”
“He assumes!” Tucker put his hands on his hips, and looked around the range, laughing as he did so.
“Something wrong, Sir?”
“You, Hewitt. You’re what’s wrong! Up to our tits in pigeons is what we’re about to be! Shoot straight, or go home, Hewitt!” The veins were popping from his temple, pulsing a plum red.
I stood under his anger, and felt unable to rise, as though I was in a well looking up at Tucker in the sun. “Yes, Sir,” is all I mustered.
Men were making their way for the trucks. Tucker turned from me and was calling for his battalion. “Tucker Battalion, Truck 1A,” he shouted, “1A!” He never looked back.
The ride out of camp was very uncomfortable. Fifty or more of us soldiers were placed in the back of a truck meant for no more than twenty-five fairly thin soldiers. Our bulk of backpacks, turret guns, and grenade launchers made it a makeshift pile of green, black, and brown abstract bodies.
The road was no less easy to handle. Our paved walkways, and cemented streets of camp were in stark contrast to the muddy, crater filled road to the mountains. Some men grew ill, and the green, black, brown bodies gained a hint of whitish pink from vomit.
Nine trucks rode out today. All had at least fifty men aboard. Our briefing the day before told us to be prepared for a colony of pigeons. That could be anywhere from ten to fifty pigeons. We would out-number them for sure, but one could never be too cautious around these creatures.
One of the other cadets, to my right, I was not sure of his name, was speaking with another cadet sitting across from me curled up between an ammunition box, and a bazooka. “Last time they was out here it was fer about a hundred of em.”
The other cadet, I believe his name was Byron, squirmed between the two objects, “Oh yeah? Where’d you hear that?”
“Foley. Said when they got there, the pigeons was eatin’ three men from the next village-human men. Said they been stealin’ the villages food, now they just killin’ and eatin’ the men there.”
Byron tried to anchor himself against the wall of the truck to give his back a rest, “I guess you’ll see for yourself.”
The cadet to my right pulled out a plastic bag filled with a huge ball of pink chewing gum. It had teeth marks in it, and it was marred with black-greenish splotches that looked like moldy flakes of grass. “Gum?” he gestured the bag towards me.
I shook my head. He stuck his meaty hand into the bag and the gum came out with a schlurp sound as he peeled it from the plastic. He looked me up and down, “We don’t share the same bunk territory, do we?”
Trying not to look at the gum he was massaging in his hand I said, “No, I roomed with Tucker, over at lot 48. He’s got his own battalion now.”
Byron was staring at me now, and looked like he had something to say. He looked like he had an itch in his brain. “Tucker?” he said, “I know him. You’re Hewitt, right?” I confirmed as much. “He gave you a verbal beatin back at the range didn’t he?” He continued to look at me sideways.
“Bad shot,” I said.
The other cadet tossed the baseball sized piece of gum in his mouth and started gnawing on it. “Still,” he said between chomps and slurps, “not right to yell at ya like that.”
“It’s fine,” I said.
Byron started to speak then was interrupted by a call from the front of the truck, “One hundred yards to drop off and closing!” The men of the truck said prayers, some shook hands, while others kissed the butt of their guns. All had the look of killing on their faces--except for Byron.
The speed of the truck began to slow, and so did the bumps. The trucks were in a perfect line as they came to a stop. Outside all that could be seen was the walls of brown mountains, with snowy white caps. Tucker jumped out of the truck, stopped behind our own. I waited for the call.
“All men, load and go, load and go,” Tucker rallied around the trucks, sprinting.
Cadets poured out around me, carrying case after case of guns and ammo. I felt a hand reach out and wrap around my right arm--it was Byron. Men climbed out all over, and around the two of us.
Leaning in close to my face he said, “Do you think you’re ready, Hewitt?”
I looked into his eyes, they were a frozen, granite gray. “Yes,” I murmured.
“Not my first time, Hewitt,” he looked around to scan the area which they stood, “Not Tucker’s either.” Men were still pouring out around them, some cheering death to pigeons!, some shouting, one dead pigeon at a time boys! All were radiant, and feverish with anticipation.
Byron continued to hold my arm. He looked into my eyes with an icy death gaze and said, “Tucker already knows, and so do I, so I guess I’m just as bad as him. But when you go in there with the pigeons...well Tucker was mad at you because you shot high. Go in shootin’ high.”
I felt like I had just been doused with ice water, “What do you mean not Tucker’s first time. How is it not your first ti-”
A trunk of grenades, held by two excitable cadets, smacked Byron in the back and knocked him into my face, he paused a moment, “The thing is, Hewitt,” he said, “the W.F.P.I needs cheerleaders; trainers for the weak if you wanna call us.”
Troops were approaching the target area, and I was left behind with Byron. “So...you’ve done this before? You’re not a cadet?”
“Just shoot high Hewitt. Follow the ranks, but shoot high.”
With that he released me and was running out with the others. I stayed frozen, confused like a frostbitten sloth for a moment, then I picked up my rifle and followed.
Tucker’s battalion was the first to circle where the pigeons had a holding. The men were silent, and now followed the hand signal orders of their battalion leaders. My leader was a young soldier who had the face of a vaselined baby’s bottom. He waved us into formation, and we followed Tucker’s group.
I looked for Byron as I fell to the right of the line, but he came to a spot near the far left. His eyes never left that forward gaze.
Next to me, however, was the gum chewing cadet. He was trying not to choke up a wad of backed up bubble gum spit. I looked towards Tucker, he was surveying the crowd. His eyes caught mine, and I felt the cold harshness in them and they struck me like a fallen icicle. Looking away, he rallied in front of his men. They walked forward towards the cave’s opening.
My lanky battalion leader had his helmet cock-eyed on the top of his shaved head. The skinny dome of his skull let the helmet teter, and jostle about on top. He motioned us forward.
Tucker’s men were in the cave now, and the darkness of it was closing in around us as we progressed. Complete pure darkness was the cave.
Bang! Came an echoing sound of gunpowder from the heart of the cave.
Bang! Bang! Bang! Sounds of howls, and victory calls could be heard from Tucker’s men.
Like a random flush of knee-high waves, our battalion was being breached and broken through.
“What the hell? Shoot em, it’s pigeons! Game’s on, boys!” hollered the gum-chewer.
In the dark, roll of tunnel came the loud popping of gunfire, and with it the flashes of radiant white-yellow bullet glow. I felt a small pigeon come through my legs, panting and sighing as it ran. I readied and cocked my gun. I could hear the pigeon running, I gave chase. It tripped and fell over blackened rocks, and invisible pot holes. The smell of black powder ignition was everywhere around me. Little fireworks of man-made ballistics lit up the back of the pigeon as it ran. I held my gun out in front of me, the butt against my shoulder, the barrel in my hand.
The pigeon made it’s way back to the opening, where the light showered bright against the ring of blackness at the entrance. I shot, but the light of the gun barrels shooting behind me grew dim, and I shot into the invisible rocks. The bullet ricochet went bouncing from the walls. My brow now bent, and my cheeks hot with pinpoint rage. Twenty yards towards the light, fifteen, ten, finally out into the field and valley of the mountains.
It stood at the threshold and came face to face with seven more battalions ready for any attempts at escape. The pigeon turned back towards me. My gun sight to my eye, with a loaded hammer. The screech from it’s voice filled my head with the sound of buzzing. It was like the sound of a playground, real and alive.
Finger on the trigger, it’s face in my sights. I locked onto it’s nose. It’s nose. A soft nose, glistening with sweat in the daylight. There was no curve, only two small huffing nostrils and a grape sized circular tip. The skin of the pigeon--pink, and white, and, red and, smooth, and soft-- tears running down the canals of its cheeks; over it’s beautiful rose colored lips. Strands of auburn-sunset hair across its face and stuck to the dewey tear soaked cheeks.
The pigeon, only a child. A little girl no more than seven years old. My gun, now to my waist, and throwing my hands up to the other troops not to fire. My gun fell to my feet and I started running towards the little girl. My helmet bounced from my head to the ground. With arms wide to embrace her, falling to my knees.
Sweeping my arms around her, there was nothing but air. She collapsed there in front of me to the ground. A bullet hole through her right eye. She dropped like a side of beef, with a thud to the ground.
“No! It was a little girl! You killed her!” Screaming , and turning around to face Tucker.
“A little pigeon tried to flee the coop, Hewitt. We put her down together, thanks for chasing her out,” Tucker tucked a handgun back into the waist of his pants.
More battalions were ran past into the cave. No eyes watched., Tucker, me, and the dead girl on the ground. Gun shots were still ringing out a terrible call. Another “pigeon,” this time a boy no older than five ran crying--shot down by the gum chewer. He shrieked with delight.
Tucker knelt beside me. “Hewitt, do you know why I had to yell at you back there at the range?” He said looking out over the hills, picking at his fingernails. “Byron told you to shoot high?” He asked, but was not looking for a response. “These...things, they’re a cancer Hewitt. Children of immigrants, children of murderers. Some of these kids even were orphaned by drug addicts. We don’t need more of those people, do we?”
My lips felt stapled shut. More than twenty children lay around me, dead and bleeding out in the dusty field. Battalions let out screams of joy, and others patted each other on their backs. The sun sat high over a glossy green field turning the brown mountains a shimmery gold. The running wind swept across my face, and dried my sweat and cooled my skin.
Tucker reached out, touched my arm, and gave me an all tooth smile.
Smiling back, the gun barrel on my chin, the hammer on my finger. My teeth flew into the breeze, and hung for a just a moment.
Qassye Hall is a write of fiction and creative non-fiction. She is currently a student in the BFA and BA programs for Creative Writing and English at Arkansas Tech University.
For Right Now
Zach stares into the mouth of the fireplace with everything he owns in two hands: a duffel bag full of clothing and his computer box.
“Zach, can I get your help in here? Zach? Please?” The irritation in her voice brings him back into focus. “Will you reach and grab that bag of cat food and whatever else is up there? That’s where the extra pots and pans are going.”
The cupboard is stuffed with random things other than cat food: a stained white tank top, a bag of grandma’s sewing utensils, and a photo album.
“Hey, Madison, come look at what I found.” He motions for her.
The two of them flip through each page taking a minute to admire memories that were almost forgotten.
“Look at dad’s hair.” She laughs at Dad’s mane of curls, and Mom’s purple Cinderella gown.
He continues to flip through the album: more prom pictures and wedding pictures, more of Nan and Pa, more baby Zach, more baby Madison. It’s all here.
He flips back to the prom picture letting out a small sigh.
“Let’s hang it up with the rest of the pictures in the hallway.” She takes it out of his hands, puts it in a frame that once held a picture of mom and Aunt Maria.
“What about the picture of mom and Aunt Maria?” Zach hands it to her.
“Honestly, it’s not that important. I’ll go set it on Aunt Maria’s night stand.” Madison walks out of the kitchen with frame and picture in hand.
He returns to unpacking and cleaning.
Madison peaks her head around the corner, slowing her breath down. “Zack.” She jumps from behind the wall.
“Fuck.” Zach slams his fist on the counter causing Madison to laugh hysterically.
“Why don’t you go get your stuff from the living room and go claim a bedroom. Nan has given us free reign over any room that isn’t hers.”
He rolls his eyes and puts away the extra pots and pans and groceries. The pizza rolls are the last grocery that is put in the freezer when he notices Aunt Maria’s note:
“Make sure you clean the oven and polish the silver above the China in the dining room.” “Make sure Nan’s stockings are clean. Her legs are starting to swell again.” “The cats need their nightly dose of their dewormer. It’s getting really bad and gross in their litter box.”
Zach tosses the note on the counter, grabs his stuff and finds a room.
Nan’s house is only one story, but the walk to the back of the house seems like an eternity. The bedroom he picks is furthest away from any sign of life, and Zach is okay with this. An escape from reality sounds perfect.
The room is small. The walls are gray with white trimming at the top.
When Pa died, Nan kept everything: years of old shirts, old jackets, old socks and shoes not getting washed. It started to pile up in the corner of this bedroom. Musk and grandfather’s cologne haunt the air.
After getting a moment to breathe, Madison starts checking things off Aunt Maria’s list.
“Clean stockings…” Done and on her bed.
“Deworm the cat children…” Done with scratches all over my arm.
“Make sure to be at the diner at 4:30 PM. I need to go over somethings that have changed in before I put you on the floor.” She glances at the clock above the door way – 3:25 PM. Time to get ready.
Madison stares at herself in the mirror disappointed by her oversized uniform swallowing her chest whole. She finishes her make-up and walks down to Zach’s room.
His door is wide open and he’s made himself at home. His shoes put on Pa’s old shoe shelf. His duffle bad under the chair in the corner. His dirty towel on the floor in front of Nan’s old, oak dresser.
Madison sits on the corner of his bed. “God, what is that smell?”
He smirks. “What? Don’t like old man scent?”
Madison rolls her eyes. “Hey, take me to work.” She glances at her phone. “Aunt Maria needs me there in about thirty minutes.”
“Sure, but how are you getting back?”
“I’ll ride with Aunt Maria.”
The drive is too familiar to her: the pressure of gravity as the car turns, the dollar store where dad would let her buy her fish a decoration for its tank, the community center where she got her first kiss, and her family’s first house.
It was a quick glance, but it brings back a soft smile and mom. Madison’s smile faded as quick as it came.
Her mom made French Toast and scrambled eggs with cheese every Saturday morning. On Madison’s seventh birthday, she and Zach attempted to make mom and dad breakfast in bed. She fought with Zach on who was going to make the eggs. She won, and her rewards was a microwaved bowl of cheesy eggs sprinkled with shiny shell bits.
“Delicious, my daughter.” Madison remembers the brittle approval mom gave her as each bite crunched the unwanted egg shell.
As they pull up, Madison’s mouth drops. “Wow, this place looks so different.”
“Yeah.” His voice rose in response.
This is not how she remembers it. The outside of the diner has aged tremendously. Vines are growing up the side of the building. Weeds claim the employee side of the parking lot as their own. Around the corner, the parking lot is full.
A rope of jingle bells announces her presence. Her aunt yelled for her name – “Hey sweetie, come help me roll this silverware.” Madison nods her head and sits down in front of her.
Due to so much redesigning, it is hard to remember what it looked like before. The walls are now a plain, beige color to create “the illusion of more space.” The bar stools and booths are black. The counter is a navy blue. Weird paintings hang on the walls throughout the diner.
Even though Madison appreciates Aunt Maria keeping the old juke box, it all clashed. Who let her think that this was okay?
“Tonight, I would like you in the back with Cynthia.” Maria nods toward the kitchen as she rolls the last set of clean silverware.
“Cynthia?” Madison looks puzzled.
“Yes, Cynthia, don’t you remember her?” Aunt Maria stares at her. Madison’s can’t shake a memory of what Cynthia looks like.
“Yes, I –”
Maria cut her off. “Cynthia… Come out here.”
Madison quickly remembers Cynthia: the big, curly hair, the long acrylic nails that glow neon, and that god-awful perfume that reeks of cats and mothballs.
“Hiya, sweetie. How could you not remember me?” Her raspy voice pierces Madison’s ears.
“Oh, no, I do. You’re the psychotic lady at all the family Thanksgivings.” Maria kicks her underneath the table.
Cynthia let out a smoker’s laugh. “You betcha, always Aunt Marry’s plus one since the high school days.” She slaps Aunt Maria on the shoulder. “Where’s your brother?”
“Home.” Madison walks into the kitchen.
Aunt Maria’s voice mumbles in conversation with Cynthia. Madison can’t make out much except that Aunt Maria is ready to see Zach.
The second bell rings. He sits in the back and watches Mrs. Holiday write on the board. Fuck group assignments.
“Do you guys want me to assign you to groups or pick your own?” Mrs. Holiday has bags under her eyes and a stapled smile.
“Choose our own.” The class spoke collectively.
“Alright, remember to choose wisely.” She lumbers back to the desk.
Before Zach even got a chance to think about his group, Clayton and Will put their claim on him.
Clayton was the selected student ambassador who was asked to show Zach around. There was an immediate connection, but Zach pushed the idea out of his head. Clayton would never. He’s too much of a jock, a cool kid, a lady’s man. He was Zach’s first friend here.
As Mrs. Holiday walks to each group to check their progress, Clayton began making jokes underneath his breath that Zach and Will couldn’t help but chuckle at.
“Hey, Zach, five bucks that Nathan will stare at Mrs. Holiday’s ass again if she bends over.”
“You’re on, but I’m not paying you five dollars.”
“Okay, class, some of you are not pacing yourself very well. You only get this class period to work on it.” Clayton chuckles as he dropped a pencil near her feet. “Now, Mr. Matthews... Here.”
Overlapping her voice, Zach’s eyes immediately flash over to Nathan. The perverted senior’s eyes were glued and his mouth hung open.
“You’re such an ass.” Zach chuckles as he pushes Clayton’s shoulder.
As they finish the packet, the bell rings.
“Class, put the packets at the front, and have a great weekend.”
Zach heads toward the front doors to the car rider line – “Hey Zach.”
He turns around to see Clayton waving at him. “Hold up. Where are you headed to?” He sounds out of breath.
“Headed outside to wait on my grandma. Probably go home and game. Why?” Zach raise his eyebrow.
“Oh, boring, come check out football practice with me and Will. Text your grandma, and I’ll drop you off afterwards.”
Zach shrugs. “Sure.” He pulls out his phone and walks outside.
“Hello, Starla here.” When someone calls Nan, she never looks at who it is.
“Hi, Zachary, I’m out here whenever you’re ready.” She hates how plain Zach is.
“No, I’m not ready. Some friends are asking me to go to football practice. Please say no.” His nerves are giving him gas.
“Why would I say no? Go have fun. Make friends.” Nan let out a chuckle. “You get your shyness from your mother. If they want to take you home, have them drop you off at the diner. I’ll be there bugging your sister and Maria.”
“Okay, Nan, I will see you after practice.”
Nan’s chuckle turns into an outburst of joyful laughter. “You have fun now, babe. Love you.” He ends the call.
After being in a few classes with Clayton and some of the other football players, one would think that Zach would be okay. Wrong.
“Let’s go.” Zach looks back at Clayton and his smile is more of a snarl.
After lunch rush, Madison walks straight to the sink. She is sweating from all the running around and is feeling nauseous from the special food of the day: bratwurst covered with sauerkraut.
The jingle bells sing as someone yells in the diner. “Where is my favorite granddaughter?” Madison drops the scrubber and throws the cloves down into the sink.
“Nan!” Madison wraps her clammy, soapy hands around Nan’s face.
Nan chuckles as she pushes her away. “You’re so disgusting.” She lets out another chuckle.
“Where’s Zach?” Madison questions.
“He wanted to go to football practice, so I detoured for some good food and a visit with you." Nan’s voice reminds her of mom.
She makes an effort to compliment everything now that they are together every day: her long, thick grey hair that never grew past her shoulders, her too red lipstick that was too red, her shirts with personified flowers on them, her bright yellow crocs, even her old lady perfume.
“Ma, what brings you here?” Aunt Maria walks from the office with open arms toward Nan.
“Oh, ya know, just wanting to stop for lunch with Madison if you don’t mind.”
“I do mind. Madison is here to work.” Aunt Maria’s half smile fades fast. “You can see her tonight at home.”
Nan quickly shoos her away. “I want my special: chicken fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, topped with white gravy and Tabasco sauce. And Madison, what do you want?”
“Ma, Madison needs to –”
Nan tells Aunt Maria to shut up by putting her hand in the air. “Madison, what do you want to eat, sweetheart?”
Madison’s palms are still sweaty. “French Toast and chocolate milk.”
Maria doesn’t bother to take down their order, but, oh well, Madison focuses on the good that came with Nan’s presence.
Nan reaches over and places her hand on top of Madison’s.
“You remind me so much of your mother: your smile, your hair –” Madison runs her fingers through her hair and smiles. “– those little dimples too. I’d take you, ugly ducklings in. You are more my children –”
Nan is interrupted by her own cough turned violent. “My inhaler…”
Nan is having a hard time getting the words out, and Madison began to panic. Nan throws her purse onto the table. “My inhaler…”
Oh, inhaler, yes, Madison hastily throws everything on the table in order to find her inhaler. Success.
Three deep inhales, three deep exhales, and two puffs of the inhaler, Nan is alright.
“Oh my god, I’m not ready to die just yet.”
Madison lets out a nervous laugh. “Are you okay, grandma?”
Nan starts to giggle. “Yes, sweetheart, this happens all the time.” Madison suspects her to by lying. She hasn’t coughed that bad since they moved in. “Don’t worry.” Nan’s laughs and smiles are contagious today. It causes Madison to feel a small ounce of relief.
There is silence until Aunt Maria brings food.
As she set the food on the table, she made direct eye contact with Madison. “When you’re done, there’s a dead rat waiting for you in the back.” There is frustration in her whisper.
Madison buttered her French Toast.
He is a natural. They took one look at his string bean shoulders and named him kicker.
Zach heads to Clayton’s game room outside in the backyard. Will brings the beer, and they all tell stories. Prepping and bonding for the last time this season. Each senior gives a toast about another senior; Drunk Clayton chose to speak to Zach.
“I was assigned to show you around the school, but little did I know that you actually turned out to be cool.” He put his arm around Zach’s waist. “So here’s to you and wherever our future may lead us.” He slaps his butt and took another drink.
“To Garcia.” Everyone cheers and shotgunns their beer, except for Zach.
Clayton makes his weekly rounds of sentimental hugs; Zach hopes to get one.
As Clayton stumbles over the coffee table and the rug one too many times, he gives up and sits down on the ottoman. “Hey, Zach, come here.” Reaching his hand out toward Zach for help to stand, Clayton embraces Zach. It is longer and awkward, but Zach didn’t want to let go.
“You okay, Clayton?” He nods and motioned for Zach to come closer.
“I have to tell you something.” Zach felt heavy inside the embrace of Clayton.
He leans in. “There is something so different about you. I wish I knew what it was.”
Zach pulls away in time to make eye contact with Will.
“Oh man, thanks, you are too.” He lets out a nervous laugh, a pat on Clayton’s shoulder, and heads straight for the bathroom to call Madison.
“Hey.” Zach straddles the toilet with his face against the wall, so his arm can rest on the tank.
“Hi.” Zach stays quiet. “Is everything okay, Zach?”
“Madison, I’ve got to tell you something.” No time to pause and think. “I have feelings for Clayton.” She doesn’t respond. “Do you remember the first I introduced you to him, and he spilled Coke all over Nan’s carpet?” Zach chuckles, but still nothing from Madison. “Well that’s when it started. I didn’t know what to do, or what to say. The feelings keep getting worse, and tonight –”
Someone tries to open the door. “There’s someone in here.” Zach waits a second before he starts talking again.
“Are you there?”
Zach sits in the floor with his back against the vanity. “Yeah, I am.”
“Okay, good, and I already knew, Zach.” Madison’s response is soft.
“When he’s over, you light up.” Madison’s quiet again. “Hey, I’m gonna go, Zach. I’ll see you at the game tomorrow. Have fun. Love you.” Zach wants to be relieved, but Madison’s voice makes him choke.
He doesn’t respond in time when she hangs up.
Will’s standing close to the door when it’s opened. “Did you hear that?” He points to the open bathroom.
“What? Oh no.” Will looks dazed. The beer must be setting in for him now. It was enough to convince Zach.
“Ah, never mind.” Zach flashes a smile and walks around the corner. He stops to take one more deep breath. His heart races. He forces more air into his lungs than they can handle.
“Hey Schmidt…” Zach hears Will’s deep voice vibrate the wall that separated the hallway and the bathroom. “I think Garcia’s gay.”
He walks around the corner and stops at the bathroom’s open door before Will can say one more word.
“No, I’m not.” Will tries to laugh causing Zach to push him against the wall. His arm pressed against his throat. “You better watch who you’re talking about.” Zach’s finger is in Will’s face when he finally let’s go.
“Matthews, I need my coat.” Clayton is asleep on a pile of jackets.
Clayton moves. “Why did you just call me Matthews?”
“I’ll see you at the game.” Zach avoids eye contact.
He slams the door behind him.
It’s been six months since the football season ended. A new year is here freezing the last year in a memory. Living at Nan’s is a challenge. She’s been sick a lot recently and finding it harder to walk. Maria’s list of things for Madison and Zach to do is longer and irrational.
“Don’t talk to Nan. There’s no reason to. If you need to, I’ll pass on the message.” “Make sure you pull the ticks off the cats.” “I need my laundry done soon.”
Each list becomes a new game of trash ball for Zach.
Madison cleans the kitchen from breakfast when Maria wanders in. Madison watches as she opens her discolored, pink robe to readjust it. Her tank is covered in coffee and pizza stains. There is a rip in the collar. She ties the robe back up, grabs her ice cream cones, and sits at the kitchen counter staring at Madison. Her stare burns.
“Madison –,” Aunt Maria raises her voice at Madison causing her to drop the dishes back in the sink. “Go make sure Nan has her taken her meds, then change her bandages. After that, I need you to go to the diner soon. You need to make sure everything is under control. You’ve been home too long.”
“Okay, whatever, fine.” A lot of time has been spent being bitched out by this woman, Madison is about fed up with it. “Can you at least call Cynthia right now and tell her I’ll be late?”
“No.” Her aunt continues to munch on the empty ice cream cone. “You needed a job here; I gave you one. You need help running the damn store, you call Cynthia.”
Madison flinches on every “you” and “I” that explodes out of Aunt Maria’s mouth.
“You two kids don’t realize the shit that I do for you. I took you in. I feed you. I gave you a job.” Madison can feel heat building up in her cheeks.
She pushes Maria’s voice out of her mind and focuses back on putting away the clean dishes.
“Madison, Madison,” Madison zones back in when Aunt Maria starts snapping her fingers, “since we are talking about your job and your responsibilities,” Aunt Maria waves her finger in Madison’s face. “I am going to have to cut your pay even more –”
“Cut my pay even more? I am already pulling doubles every day to keep the doors open.”
“Well I have to do it. You don’t understand the stress I have to go through every single day. Mom is not getting any better. The diner is most likely going to close. You are taking advantage of me and Mom, constantly needing attention, and Zach with money. I can’t stand to look at you two sometimes. Your mom is all I see, and it makes me sick to my stomach –”
“I can’t do this anymore!” Madison drops the dishes, grabbed Nan’s medicine, and starts to walk out of the kitchen. “Oh, and the ‘money situation’ with Zach is quiet funny considering everything comes from my pay check – unless that’s yours too?”
Aunt Maria continues yelling at Madison as she closes her bedroom door.
Tears start to blur her vision. She needs space from her.
Off-season conditioning for football is the absolute worst. The football players do nothing but weight lifting, running, and run over new plays.
“Garcia.” Coach is assigning weight lifting partners. “Matthews.”
“Fuck.” Zach whispers to himself.
“Get to a place, and we’ll rotate clockwise.” Coach blows the whistle.
“Are you ready?” Clayton ignores the fact that it has been months since they last hung out. Zach quickly reminds him.
“Zach talk to me. This is pathetic.” Clayton lays down on the bench. Zach’s eyes scan over his body.
“There’s nothing to say. Just let it go, and let me go.” This whistle is blown again.
Not one more word spoken the rest of practice.
“Alright, this is short and sweet today, hit the locker room, seniors.” Coach points with his thumb for all of them to get out.
The whistle is blown and the pack of underclassman hustle by. He walks out from the field and to the locker room.
Avoiding eye contact with Will as he leaves the fieldhouse, Zach rushes his shower like he has every day since the season ended. This game is getting old.
As he dries off and changes back into his school attire, he hears Clayton on the other side of the lockers. He stops moving, so he could hear them better.
“Clayton, can I ask you something?” Will fails at being quiet. “What is going on with you and Garcia? You guys don’t hang out anymore.”
“I don’t fucking know what the hell Zach’s problem is.” Clayton’s voice gets louder.
“Okay, well I overheard Garcia on the phone talking about you and how he really liked you. I think he’s gay.”
“Really?” Clayton’s higher pitch echoed off the walls.
“Yeah…” Will’s voice cracked. “Do you like him?” There’s a nervous laugh. “I’ll be your friend no matter what.”
“No, I’m not. Why the hell would you think that?” Will says nothing. “If Garcia wants to start homo shit, he’s got another thing coming.”
A locker is slammed followed by footsteps that headed in the direction of Zach.
He makes eye contact with Clayton as he put his shirt back on.
Zach smiles back at him. A sense of confidence and adrenaline rush through his body, he is ready for this.
Aunt Maria fires two more people. One has quit. Madison is the only waitress, Cynthia the only cook. They work for nothing. There hasn’t been a customer in three hours. She is getting fidgety. The phone rings.
“Hello. Oh, hi, Maria.” She’s acting like a horse chewing that gum. “Madison is sitting here doing nothing. She has been for a while now.”
“What the fuck did you just say?” Madison mumbles it; Cynthia doesn’t respond to her.
“Okay…Okay…Uh-huh…Alright, we’ll close down, and yes, I’ll let her know.” Madison still hasn’t grown numb to the rasp yet. “Bye.” She places the phone back on the wall.
“Your aunt said if you sit around anymore. You won’t have a job.” Cynthia adds another piece of gum. “Oh, and Nan’s o-okay.” Madison doesn’t acknowledge her and gets ready to close down the store.
Counting the drawer, closing the blinds, mopping and sweeping, putting away clean dishes, and putting away extra food, Madison comes across food that has an expiration date for almost three months ago.
“Cynthia, what is this?” Madison pulls out the expired hamburger meat from the refrigerator and holds it out for her to see.
“I know. It looks bad –” Cynthia reaches for the meat, but Madison pulls it away.
“No, it is bad. Why is all of our food in the refrigerator and freezer way past their expiration date? Have you and Aunt Maria checked? Ordered more food?” Questions fall out of mouth; her cheeks inflamed from anger.
“Madison, calm down.” It makes her hands shake, her pulse pound. “I brought this up to Maria. Only use what we need, it would last long enough.”
“Why can’t we order fresh food?” Madison holds her breath then exhales.
“Maria said that she would take care of that, and I guess she never did. I imagine that with this little bit of money flow here recently it’s been hard to pay for it.”
Madison couldn’t believe this. “Alright, well I need to go get Zach. Lock up.” Madison slams the door behind her causing the jingle bells to scream and shake chaotically.
Zach does his best to avoid Will and Clayton. He’s been skipping out on workouts and math class. He takes the bus home, instead of Nan or Madison coming to get him. Anything that helps him stay out of sight is what he wanted.
As he walks out of the bathroom when his phone starts to vibrate.
It is a text from Clayton: “Hey, I don’t remember what happened or what I said at the party, but I’m really sorry, Zach. I want my friend back.”
Then another message: “Also, I need to talk to you about what Will told me. I know you overheard the conversation. Let’s meet up tonight at the same house, say 9PM?”
He feels uneasy about this but responds to the text in agreement.
It is time to be open with Clayton; maybe, he felt the same way. Zach has to rely on time to tell.
“Hey Zach, I’m here to get you.”
“Okay, I’m coming.”
No words are spoken. Zach flips through radio channels and taps his foot.
“How was your day?” Madison said nothing. “Madison, what’s wrong?” Her frustration over Aunt Maria, the diner, the expired food ended in a yell that intimidates Zach.
“Well, what’re you going to do?”
“Talk to her as soon as we get home.” Madison needs to focus on something else. “How was your day? How are things with Clayton?”
“It was good, and we’re fine.” His thumb rubs up and down the cracks on his phone screen.
“Are you actually talking to him?” Madison raises her eyebrow. “Zach?”
“Yeah. I’m going to meet up with him tonight. I don’t want to think about it.” Zach is annoyed by all the questions Madison is asking.
Madison and Zach sit in the drive way for half an hour talking about what Madison should say without triggering anger.
“Are you ready to do this?” Zach’s hand on the handle. She nods and took a deep breath.
When they enter the house, no lights are on, no sounds but the air conditioner.
Madison leans into Zach to whisper. “I’m going to go check on Nan. Go find Aunt Maria.”
Zach walks into the living room to find Aunt Maria sleeping in the recliner with NCIS on the television. He turns around and goes to Nan’s room.
Zach walks in as Madison is telling everything to Nan. “I’m not sure what to do, Nan.”
Nan has never looked so disgusted. “And to think, we ate that food.”
“I want to talk to her now.” Madison looks to Zach. “Where is Aunt Maria?”
“In the living room, sleeping in the recliner.”
“Nan I would never take advantage of you. Maria’s been such a jerk since you hurt yourself, and the diner is falling apart. She talks to us like she is doing a favor for us, and she’s constantly reminding me that Zach and I are no obligation to her.” Madison starts crying.
“I can take care of this.” Nan shuffles underneath her sheets trying to unwrap herself. “Get my house slippers.”
“Do you want us to go with you to talk to her?” Zach drops them at her feet.
“No, son, don’t worry about it, I’ll wake up Maria, and you guys go do homework or something.” Nan forces them out of her room.
After a few minutes, Zach leaves Madison in her room to eavesdrop on the conversation. He hears a slap, and Nan yell. He couldn’t understand what she was saying but understands the word “diner” and “failing.” This doesn’t sound good.
“I am so disappointed in you. How could use feed our customers expired food? How could you be so rude to your niece and nephew? How could you disrespect your father like that? What’s your plan, Maria?” Silence fills the house. “Are you not going to answer me?’
Zach hasn’t heard Maria’s voice once.
“Fine. If you want to act like a child, I will treat you like one. You’ve lost everything to the diner. Tomorrow, it’s mine –”
“It’s not going to happen. The diner is being foreclosed.”
There is nothing but silence.
There is no response, but footsteps…head down the hallway.
Zach rolls into the bathroom, waits a second, and then exits back to Madison’s room.
Madison asks about how the conversation went.
“The diner is being foreclosed.” Zach drops his head.
“I knew this was bound to happen sooner or later.” Madison gets up from the bed. “Shouldn’t you go get ready now?”
His watch reads 8:30PM.
Zach pulls up to the house a little after nine. This is a mistake. Clayton could never like someone like Zach. He even said that he’s not gay. Zach began to wonder why he was here, but Clayton is waiting. He took a deep breath and got out of the car.
Zach tries to open the door; it’s locked. Something about this doesn’t feel right.
“Are you looking for Clayton?” He turns around to be greeted by a manic smile, Will. “What, you embarrassed? You thought your love bug was going to come ‘talk to you’ about ‘his feelings’?” Laughter wraps around Zach. Will walks closer to him.
“Awe, gay boy doesn’t have anything to say?” He doesn’t move. Will is within arm’s reach. The smile covers more of Will’s face. He cackles. “That’s how you want to play it – quiet and still?”
Zach closes his eyes as one fist cut through the air hitting his rib. “I think I can beat it out of him.” A kick to the back of his calf; Zach is on the ground.
Zach refuses to fight back. Each heartbeat pulsating in his skull.
Someone picked him up by the collar of his shirt forcing him to his feet.
“Let this be your only warning leave. We don’t want your disease…” A warm, wet feeling traces the outside of his cheek and down his neck. “…If I ever see you around Clayton again, it’ll be worse next –”
“What the fuck is going on?”
Zach tries to open his eyes but can’t see past the engorged flesh.
“We were teaching fag boy a lesson.” Will’s cackle turns into an anxious chitter. “Clayton, why don’t you hit him?”
Zach can’t hear through the pulse. His knees aren’t supporting his weight. A hand goes around his waist before he collapses. Finger tips applying pressure. It hurts. Zach allows the pull to direct him.
“Oh, so you’re a faggot too?” Laughter crowds Zach’s mind.
“No, Will, I am not gay. In fact, neither is Zach. How crazy and pathetic is for you to assume shit? Really fucking –”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa…” Will’s voice causes Clayton to halt causing more pain for Zach. His head pulsating from ache. “That’s not what you said.”
Heavy breathing, his body feels heavier.
“What are you talking about, Will? What conversation? You and I don’t hang out outside of class.”
Clayton puts pressure back on Zach’s waist and leads him to the car.
Madison traces each crack on the kitchen table when there’s a hard beat on the door. Maria turns the knob as Clayton pushes through.
Clayton’s jacket presses against Zach’s head. Dried blood outlines his cheekbones. His bottom lip separated by a small red river that has stained his shirt.
Madison puts her arm around Zach for more support. Nan is still in the kitchen.
“What the fuck happened, Clayton?” Madison leads them to Nan’s bathroom.
“Madison, what’s going on? Who is this boy?” Nan cleans off her glasses.
“I’m Clayton, Zach’s friend from school.” He sticks out his hand, letting go of Zach.
Madison panicked. “Clayton, he needs to sit on the toilet.”
“What happened to Zach?” Nan pushed her way through, but Madison pulls her back. “Get the gauze.” She looks back at Nan. “Biking accident, Nan, nothing to worry about. No hospital trip or anything, we’re just going to put some gauze on him. It’s not too bad.”
Zach lets out a groan. “Hurry up.” Every word is a mumble. “It hurts.”
Madison finishes taping the gauze, gave him four ibuprofens, and helped him into bed.
“Are you sure he’s okay to sleep?” Clayton panics.
“Yes.” Madison closes the door. “Let’s get a drink, then explain to me what happened.” Clayton nods.
As Madison pours some soda for the two of them, Clayton explains what has happened; how he knows about Zach; the feelings were mutual, but nothing can never come of it.
“Why?” Madison is offended.
“Because I’m not ready, and my parents would disown me.” Clayton sips from his cup.
“Yes, I do.” Madison doesn’t ask why. “I am always intrigued and fascinated in everything about him. I want to get to know him better, but I refuse to let anything come of it.”
“I get it, Clayton, but don’t lead him along.” Madison doesn’t give Clayton enough time before she leaves to the kitchen to check on Zach.
Madison confronts Maria about the foreclosure on the diner. Offending her in the process, Maria starts to blame everything on Madison and Zach again, but this time, Madison refuses to let her get her way.
A small argument starts to heat up but is immediately interrupted by shattering glass.
“Nan…” “Mom…” Both yells overlapping one another, running into Nan’s bedroom.
Her night stand was turned on its side. There is a broken lamp next to it. Pills are scattered out of its bottle. Her right arm is covered in shards of glass from the broken lamp. Her left arm holding her chest.
“Did she have a heart attack?”
“I don’t fucking know. Go get help.” Maria reaches down to check her pulse and immediately loses all brown complexion.
Time speeds by the moment Madison hung up the phone. Sirens resonate outside of the house. Men in navy carry Nan out of her room. Madison stands there until a pull on her arm leads her into the kitchen. Aunt Maria follows the men in navy outside leaving Madison alone.
After Mrs. Holiday lets them out of class, Zach packs up and follows Clayton out to his car.
“Hey, Clayton,” Zach puts his hands in his coat pockets. “I want to talk to you about something.”
Clayton slows down. “Yeah, man but get in the car.” He turned the keys in the ignition.
“Madison told me everything you said.” Zach stares out the windshield. “Clayton,” he wants to tell him for himself, “I don’t like you like that. I’m sorry. I never have honestly.”
Clayton’s hands fell into his lap. “Alright.” Zach looks at him. Clayton’s smile is gone.
His chest tightens. “Okay, I have to go. Madison’s waiting on me.” Zach opens the door and look back at him one more time. “I’ll text you later, okay?” Zach smiles.
As he walks away, Zach focuses on the tears that covered Clayton’s eyes to make it look like glass. The squealing tires behind him cause him to flinch. He knows lying was wrong, but it was the best decision for both of them.
At the will-reading, Madison and Zach sit as far away as they could from their aunt.
“Starla Jean Hickman has stated in her will that she has put away money that no one knew about in order to make sure inheritors were taken care of after her passing.” The lawyer begins the read. “Maria, Mrs. Hickman is leaving you with $10,000. Madison and Zach, Mrs. Hickman has left you both with $20,000 each to attend college.”
“Okay, well what about the house?” Aunt Maria’s frustration causes a panicked outburst.
“Yes, well, Mrs. Hickman has left the house and everything in it to …” Silence fills the room. “Madison and Zach.”
“What? How is that?” Aunt Maria rips the will out of the lawyer’s hands, and there it is. Nan’s signature in black ink.
Aunt Maria storms out of his office.
“Mrs. Garcia, I have a letter from your grandmother for you, specifically.”
Madison reads it and tears streamed down her face. The letter explains why she felt the need to leave her and Zach the house: her love for them, how proud she is of them, the sacrifices Madison makes for Zach. She feels that Madison is going to benefit more from the house than Maria could.
“Let’s go home, Zach.”
“Why don’t we stop and go get some food and go bowling?” Zach changes the subject. “We haven’t had any brother/sister time in a while.”
Madison agrees. It should be fun.
When they get back home, Maria and all of her belonging are gone. There is no explanation, and Madison doesn’t care for once. She is happy to be Maria-free.
Madison stares into the fire place as Zach ignites the flame. Both stare at the flame surrounded by everything they own.
This is their home.