BARRY VITCOV - MAX
John Mara began writing fiction last summer beside a serene New Hampshire lake after years writing business articles inside a stale New York cubicle. He writes with the creative input of his wife Holly. They never fail to attract mortified glances when they discuss ideas and plot structure in restaurants. John’s short stories are published or forthcoming in eight markets, including Scarlet Leaf Review.
AIGal***2020’s Chat Breakup
Gail’s brain tumor scrapped the submission of a patent worth tens of millions to her—and Tony. Plenty of babes out there, he thinks. I’ll find a healthy one—with money. He climbs out of a BMW Roadster and checks into a hot yoga class.
AIGal***2020: You call off our wedding in a F***ING TEXT MESSAGE!!??
“I’ll get you back if it takes the rest of my life!” Gail shouts at her cellphone. She packs a box with personal belongings and marches out of her office. Besides losing Tony, Gail’s brain tumor forced her to quit an artificial intelligence research job, where she had advanced machine-to-human text conversations.
Before leaving, though, she programmed the perfect alpha-test for her CHATBOT conversation prototype: the resolution of Tony’s marital brush-off.
Six months later:
AIGal***2020: Hey Tony, that little spot on my brain has played itself out!
Big***Tony: I prayed for you Gail, every night. It’s been a lonely six months!!
Not that lonely, Tony thinks with a glance at the yoga instructor in his bed.
AIGal***2020: Oh I knew you’d pray for me. But why didn’t I see you while I was sick?
Big***Tony: I just couldn’t face it. I miss you, though. Let’s get together?
AIGal***2020: Let’s! See you at my mother’s tonight? Pick up where we left off?
Big***Tony: Can’t wait. 7 good?
AIGal***2020: 7 tonight it is.
That night, holding flowers, Tony knocks on the mother’s door. Back to Plan A, Tony thinks. The patent submission will be back on. Besides, frolicking with the hot yoga instructor is getting old. As the door opens, he flares a toothy smile.
“Thanks for coming around, Tony. I’m sorry, but the brain tumor finally took Gail yesterday morning, you know,” the maid says.
“Yes, I know,” Tony tries. “Um, that’s why I brought flowers.”
“Want to know about the wake?” the maid calls as Tony walks away—with the flowers under his arm. “That’s where everyone is!”
But Tony doesn’t hear the maid; he’s busy scrolling through the time stamps on Gail’s text messages. If Gail died yesterday, how’d she text me all day today?
Ah, who cares? Doesn’t matter. Tony thinks. He hops into the BMW and texts the yoga instructor.
Big***Tony: Change of plans, honey . . .
Plan B it is, Tony thinks. That’s that.
But that’s not that. Big Tony reads a new text at 7:10.
AIGal***2020: Sorry I can’t go ahead, Tony, what with that spot on your heart. EAT SHIT YOU F***ING CREEP!
M. MUNZIE - ANNIVERSARY
M. Munzie lived her early years as a proverbial nomad between the middle-of-nowhere counties of Catawba and Alexander, making her an expert on what it’s like to be the “awkward new girl” in nearly every important milestone that has occurred throughout her 29 years on the planet. Exposed to a penultimate amount of childhood trauma in her first attempt at this simulation we’re all calling “life,” M. Munzie quickly developed a darkly beautiful imagination and an affinity for the art of words. Paired with cynical humor and a touch of wit, her simple yet captivating wordplay and unforgettable characters are sure to teleport you into a world of magic, romance and adventure in a way never-before experienced.
“A motel? Really?” I said. The acrid pollution of downtown air stung my eyes. Vincent never went downtown. I continued my tiptoeing, ducking behind a plastic tree that smelled of mold when he glanced back. Three…two…one. I peeked around the tree. He was getting away.
Vincent Moreno stalked through the narrow halls of the musty Duena Motel in a suit more expensive than a month’s stay here, carrying a bottle of white wine that cost enough to buy the place. The man I married ten years ago was a stranger now. A stranger who lied about business trips and paid cash to stay in shitty motels.
I pulled my black ballcap lower over my forehead and crept further down the hall. Smoke swirled around the “no-smoking” signs on either side of the hallway. Cream wallpaper with dark brown paisley print peeled from the walls as I passed by. Dark stains lined the pea-green carpet like they were part of the décor. The stench of urine violated my nostrils and I fought back a dry heave.
I lifted the cap up a bit. Shit! Where did he go? My steps quickened as I reached the edge of the hallway. A hand gripped my right arm and yanked me into room 108.
“Why are you following me?” Vincent asked. His words were quipped. Different from the gentle and easy drawl I was used to. He snatched the ballcap from my head. “Lorena?”
“What are you doing here, Vince?” I asked.
His eyes closed and his nostrils flared as he exhaled. “Business,” he said.
“Business? Downtown in some shitty motel? You don’t seriously expect me to believe that?” I asked.
His jaw clenched and he pinched the bridge of his nose with his thumb and index finger. “You need to leave,” he said. “Now.”
“What is it, Vince?” I asked. I pulled his hands into mine. “What am I not doing for you? Why am I not enough?” I asked. Tears streamed down my face.
“Lorena, now isn’t the time,” he said. His jaw ticked.
“Vincent, please –”
Three soft taps sounded from the door. My eyebrows furrowed and I yanked my hands from his. Vincent grabbed my face between his hands and pressed a hard kiss to my lips. “Stay quiet,” he said, gripping my shoulders. He stepped closer and I backed up against the closet door. “I swear, I will explain everything to you later.” He slid the closet door open. “I swear.” I fell back against the wall as the closet door slid closed.
I wiped the tears from my face and kneeled. I slid the door open until I could see out of a small crack. A blond woman in a short black trench coat stepped into the room. Her sunglasses covered over half her face. She wrinkled her nose as she looked around.
“Ew,” she said. “Why couldn’t we just get a room at Daddy’s hotel again?” she asked. Glittery blue shadow covered her eyelids as she removed her glasses. The powder was caked up in creases above her eyes. “I told you last time, I don’t mind paying.” She smiled and nibbled at the endpiece of her sunglasses.
Blondie moved further into the room and laid her sunglasses down on the table beside the wine. “Is this for me?” she asked. She lifted the bottle. “Chateau d’Yquem? Isn’t that, like, five grand a pop?” she asked. Her eyes and smile widened.
“Seven-thousand five-hundred. Plus customs to have it flown in,” he said. He grabbed the bottle from her hand. “Not for you, though.”
She giggled. “Oh, right. I have to earn it first,” she said. She unbuttoned her coat as she stepped backward toward the bed. Vincent smiled, but didn’t move.
I scoffed and my nails stabbed into my palms. As I stood up, my head clanged against the metal railing inside the closet. “Shit!” I winced and stumbled out of the closet.
“What the hell?” Blondie asked.
My head throbbed, but I stood up straight. “What are you doing here with my husband?” I asked. My nostrils flared as she took a step towards me.
“Who the hell are you?” she asked.
“I’m—” I flinched as blood splattered across my face and lips. Blondie dropped to the floor. Behind her, Vincent lowered a gun with a silencer attached to the barrel.
“Go shower,” he said, placing the gun on the table. “I’ll take care of this.”
HENRI COLT - MOROCCAN BLUE
Henri Colt is a physician-writer and wandering scholar whose passions include mountaineering and tango. He is the editor of Picture of Health: Medical Ethics and the Movies (Oxford University Press). His short stories have appeared in Rock and Ice Magazine, Fiction on the Web, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Fewer than 500.
“I don’t know,” I say. “Should it?”
“It’s not something guys like to hear.” She stirs three teaspoons of sugar into an espresso. “I was with my boyfriend for seven years, but he dated other nurses. What about you?”
“I’m not married, if that’s what you mean.”
Brigitte sits forward, crossing her forearms on the table. There’s that pout again.
“So, they assigned you to a singles resort,” she says. “Sandy bays with blue-green waters at the foot of the Rif mountains. It’s not a bad way to spend the summer.”
“Well, it’s my first real job since graduation, and the recruiters said Morocco was ideal for romance.”
She cups her hands under her chin. I love the way she lifts her eyebrows when she smiles. Her blue eyes have the translucence of a Portuguese-man-of-war.
“I’m all ears,” she purrs.
“Your eyes are stunning.”
“Seriously, they’re beautiful.”
It’s a Bogart-Bacall moment—seconds pass with no response.
“I like a man who is sincere—not very original, but sincere.” Her sun-bleached hair bounces over her shoulders as she breaks out laughing. She brushes the curls back and furrows her brow. When she takes my hand, her smile vanishes into the parentheses at the corner of her mouth, but there is a playfulness in her voice. “So, tell me, doctor. Do you seriously think we can be an item?”
Her eyes glisten. Small beads of sweat gather on her temples. Even in the shade of the resort’s First Aid office, the afternoon heat is smothering.
“It’s a club for singles,” she says, stroking my palm. “I don’t think you’re here to ogle me monogamously.”
A hoard of shouting children burst in. “Come quick, there’s been an accident!”
I jerk back my hand. “What?”
“A man is drowning.”
Brigitte bolts from her chair and grabs the red and white emergency medical kit. She strains to carry it. The kids push and pull her toward the door. “Hurry,” they shout.
“Hurry,” she says, throwing me a look over her shoulder.
I grab an oxygen tank from the storage rack. The heavy steel cylinder is about two feet long and five inches in diameter. Lifting it onto my shoulder, I remember to shove the regulator into my back pocket and rush down the steps toward the beach. The tank weighs on my clavicle. I run past several couples lounging on their hammocks. Music plays from the adjoining bar. People move aside to let me through to the boardwalk.
About fifty feet in front of me, Brigitte stumbles. She picks herself up, and still gripping the toolbox, starts running again. “Hurry,” the children scream. A younger one is crying.
Without flip-flops, my feet sink into the burning sand. I pant and plod across the open beach to catch up with my nurse. Sweat streams from her neck to the small of her back, shining like a thousand mirrors on her golden tan. She drags herself forward, kicking grit from thousands of crushed seashells in every direction.
An older child grabs the medical kit from her struggling hands and hoists it onto his shoulders.
“I couldn’t carry it anymore,” she gasps.
“It’s okay,” I say, catching my breath.
Several men are crouched by a teenager’s body. Their chatter roars over the whoosh of the surf.
“We just pulled the boy out of the water,” an older man says. Another takes the oxygen cylinder from my shoulder and drops it on the sand.
The kid looks like he’s sleeping. He’s maybe seventeen, with wavy black hair and stubble. The waves lick his ankles, and his legs are partially covered with wet gray slop. I grab him under the armpits and strain to pull him further onto shore.
“Move away!” I yell at the crowd. “Give me some room.”
I deliver a precordial thump to the kid’s chest. Holding my fist about ten inches off his breastbone, I deliver a second blow, but there is no response. I drop to my knees and begin chest compressions. And one, and two, and three, and four, and five, I count silently. Brigitte stands helplessly at the boy’s feet.
I pause for a breath between compressions. “Have you ever given mouth-to-mouth?”
“No,” she says. “Never.”
“Take over then.”
She kneels and stacks her palms on the kid’s chest.
“Don’t bend your elbows,” I remind her. “Lean onto your arms.”
“But, I’ve never done this before,” she pleads.
“Give him five compressions, then pause,” I say.
She pushes on the kid’s chest and counts, “And one, and two, and three, and four, and five...”
“Okay, stop for a second.” I pull a strand of seaweed from around the boy’s neck and throw it aside. I tilt his head using a chin lift. With one hand on his forehead, I pinch his nostrils and take a deep breath before wrapping my lips around his mouth.
He retches as I exhale. It’s more of a spasm than a retch, but he vomits all the same, and I cough violently, spitting and almost retching myself. I wipe my face with the back of my hand. Brigitte stops the chest compressions.
“Don’t stop,” I shout. “Keep going!”
The crowd circles. No one offers help, or if so, I don’t notice.
I ignore the sand glued to my face and fight a dry heave as I wipe foul-smelling sticky goo from my nose. I dig in my knees and sit on my heels. The kid’s eyes are open, but he doesn’t move.
I put my mouth to his and exhale into what feels like a bottomless container. I can’t feel his chest rise, so I try again.
Brigitte stops compressions and inches away from the boy. She’s sobbing. I thump once more on the young man’s chest.
“Brigitte, kneel across from me and try again,” I give the kid another breath.
Brigitte crouches in the sand. She keeps tossing her shoulder straps back on to keep her breasts from popping out of her bathing suit. With the sun in her face, she looks at me through squinted eyes. Her cheeks are flushed and wet.
“And one, and two, and three...” She leans into the boy’s chest. “Oh God,” she cries.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
“I felt his ribs crack.”
This is a disaster, I think. Fuck.
“He’s not going to make it,” I say to no one in particular. Brigitte stops counting.
“He’s dead.” A man from the crowd steps forward. “He’s dead, I tell you.”
“Maybe not,” another answers. “They should continue.”
“No,” the first man urges, “he’s dead, I say. He should not have been in the water anyway. He couldn’t swim. Besides, only a fool goes in the water with an inner tube.” He shakes his head in despair.
I stop my efforts and look up at the crowd. I’m still on my knees, holding back the tears. “I couldn’t save him.”
“You did your best,” someone says.
“How do we know you’re a doctor?” a woman asks.
I glare at her but I don’t respond.
The police arrive, and onlookers describe what happened. Confusion reigns among shouts, arguments, and tears. “You should go back to the club,” an officer says. I shoulder the oxygen bottle, and silently, Brigitte and I drag the unopened medical kit back to the First Aid office.
“He had blue eyes,” she says when we arrive.
I close the door. Our lovemaking is immediately fierce and untamed, as if we could extinguish our anguish in the orgasmic bliss of a brief romance. We sleep that night in each other’s arms, but in the morning, with tears running down her sunburned cheeks, she tells me she is leaving.
“Back to my boyfriend,” she says. “I’m going home.”
Astrid Morales is a secretary by day and a writer by night. She earned a Bachelor's degree in Creative Writing from The University of California, Riverside in 2017 and currently, volunteers as a writing tutor for the International College of Christian Ministry (ICCM). She lives with her family and dog, Bartholomew. This is her first publication.
DEALING WITH FAMILY
Cash walked out of his house, his windbreaker hiding the fact that he had something other than his uniform on. It had been a month since he was dismissed from school, and he hadn’t yet told his family. As he walked to the bus stop, he watched as the first few mobs of kids from the town of Primavera went to school. He missed being in that crowd with his friends, Nathanael and Hailigh, cracking jokes and worrying about what book they were going to read next. Any other kid probably would have been happy not having to go to school, but Cash needed to finish his year of career training to get that English teacher job he had been working toward. Then he could help his family and get out of Primavera.
Cash put his hood up so no one would take notice of him. He hoped to bypass The Elders of the town. The Elders were the law of Primavera. They roamed as they pleased and were allowed to stop anyone for any reason. They all came from the same family, the Garcias, that had founded the town in the year 2025. Primavera was small, surrounded by mountains in an area of what was once considered the region of Central America before the ongoing and rampant violence caught the attention of more powerful states that reasoned that the only way to be rid of the issues there was to destroy it.
The Garcia family, one of the few that refused to leave their lands and managed to survive the destruction, lamented the loss of what they knew. However, they attributed the misfortune their home befell to the region’s inability to stick to tradition and the things that were mandated by nature, such as male breadwinners and female homemakers. When the family founded Primavera, they vowed to take it back to simpler ways and thus created rules for the safety of all. As a result, it was isolated. People rarely went into Primavera except to take pictures of the quaint town with little pollution, limited technology, and a dependence on agriculture and mom-and-pop businesses to stay alive. Not many left Primavera unless they had a job outside the town, for everyone had what they needed. Or at least it seemed that way, because to want more than what you had was to be ungrateful and disrespectful toward what had been built.
Cash walked through the tiny streets and saw Bernal’s hardware store, his mother’s tortilleria—closed because of the early hour—and Darlin’s snack shack, where he had been fired because he was a boy and Darlin hadn’t wanted to pay him his appropriate wages anymore. She had said it was because she needed to save money. Cash couldn’t believe that the best thing Darlin could come up with to save money was getting rid of him rather than being more careful when doing inventory. Despite Cash advising her to focus on ordering things that people needed and always bought, Darlin still ordered things that weren’t selling as well. What did Cash expect, though? Darlin hardly listened to him. It was her shop. Cash had sarcastically wished Darlin good luck because he was supposed to be replaced by a girl, but no girl would be able to close for Darlin at midnight the same way he did. It backfired on Cash, though. Darlin told him that his disrespect would cost him.
Cash hadn’t believed her. However, as he scouted the town for a new job, no one wanted to hire him. Darlin had warned everyone that he had no respect for his older counterparts and that he wasted time on the job talking to girls hours on end.
Cash didn’t try fighting off Darlin’s half-truths with any possible new employer because even though Cash was a guy, Darlin’s ten years over him held more weight, and her inheritance of her father’s store after his death made her more important in the town. She was one of the lucky women. Her father had no male children, so everything he had was hers. Cash, unfortunately, was only eighteen and owned nothing. Though after his father’s death the tortilleria was meant to be his, his mother had assumed ownership of it because she wanted Cash to have the opportunity to do something else. At least that’s what she said when she had still had control of all the family’s money issues after her husband died.
Tons of people crowded around the third and final bus stop of the town. Cash looked around for Ignacio, one of the children of The Elders. He was training to be the eyes of the town, because his father, like everyone else’s, would not last. There were other children, but Ignacio was not a man anyone liked to meet. For one, he was at every Teaching.
When Cash didn’t see him anywhere, he waited for the Lucia. He took a book out of his backpack so he could pretend he wasn’t going to be behind in his schoolwork. No one paid much attention to him, and he liked that. Cash kept reading as he hopped on the bus to the city of Mar-y-Sol, where he would go and sell that day’s stash of weed.
There were two rules for selling under Oliver and Enoch. One was not to sell in Primavera because of The Elders, and the other was always double profit. Oliver and Enoch said the more people Cash could find to be regulars, the more money he would make. Cash sometimes wasn’t sure if all the traveling or the risk was worth his newfound profession, but by one-forty in the afternoon, he had made ninety bucks. He stopped thinking about risk. Cash hoped to make the same tomorrow or maybe more. Hopefully more, that way he could go back to school sooner and keep saving up to stop living in Primavera, where nothing moved forward.
Cash sat in his usual spot on a bench in Mar-y-Sol’s Baralyme Park. It was in front of a fountain where the water changed colors. From the first time he saw it, he was fascinated. The water was red at the moment. It looked like diluted blood to Cash, and he wanted to touch it, but he knew if he stood up he might miss his sale. Cash kept his hands in the pockets of his windbreaker. He played with the tiny bags of mota. He only had five little bags left to get rid of, and the regular he had found there would take three. She usually took three. Today, though, the girl held back and only bought two little bags. Cash had to figure out how to get rid of her other usual bag.
Enoch and Oliver weren’t demanding of Cash, but the first time he didn’t sell everything they had given him, they took more than half of what he had made for that day, even after he doubled profit. He ended up with ten bucks. Cash complained to Hailigh about her brothers, but she just shrugged and said that was business with them.
Cash walked into the bathrooms closest to the fountain where he met up with a guy he was afraid of selling to but couldn’t turn away because of his loyalty. By comparison, the guy stood at least a foot taller than Cash with a much bigger frame; Cash’s limbs were pine needles next to him. Today the guy decided to complain to Cash about the quality of the stash from last week. The only thing Cash could tell him was that if he wanted to complain to the twins, he might as well take Cash’s place. This amused the regular, and he told Cash he’d never end up like him, a drug dealer.
Cash wanted to tell the guy he’d be lucky to end up like him. Cash was third in his class, almost done with the career section of his schooling, making money, and there was this girl that loved him and…Cash didn’t know what else to imagine shoving in the guy’s face, but he was sure there were other things. There was nothing wrong with being him. At least Cash had something he was working toward. Whether or not it was approved of didn’t matter to Cash.
When he finished for the day, Cash waited for the Fernando to take him home. He smelled his hands and noted that the scent of mota hadn’t left. The Fernando dropped Cash off in front of the sign welcoming everyone to Primavera, “The Town Where Time Stopped.” Cash snorted and walked toward the Serpent River. He was glad it wasn’t far from there. He ran through the String Forest and hoped he wouldn’t get bit by too many mosquitos. He was tired of the itching red welts that appeared on his light skin whenever he spent too much time there.
Even with the sun at its peak, the trees only let tiny streams of light through. Cash tripped and ate dirt. As he picked himself up, he saw that his already mutilated rain boots sported mouths. He walked with them in hand so he wouldn’t trip again. Once at the river, he checked the small pocket of his backpack and thanked God for the orange lump of soap he had packed a few days ago. He took off his clothes, only leaving on his underwear and undershirt. Cash ignored the giggling women already at the river hand-washing their clothes as usual.
Cash dipped his clothes in the water and rubbed the orange soap into his windbreaker, shirt, and pants evenly. He scrubbed each item at the bottom of the river against the smooth stones and wrung everything out a couple of times. The smell of tangerines pervaded his clothes. He pulled a plastic bag from inside his backpack that contained his uniform and dressed up with his back to the women. He didn’t want them to see what school he was from or used to be from. He wondered if the colors would give him away, but only the girls really had enough diversity in color of uniforms to be identified with a school. Boys usually had blue, navy blue, white, black, gray, and beige. Of the five schools in Primavera, each had the boys wearing some mix of those colors. Cash only had to worry about the emblem on the cardigan. He put the wet clothing in the bag and ran home. Or he tried to. He had no spare shoes.
Cash saw his sister Salma walking with her friends. All the girls matched in blue dresses and red cardigans, the official uniform of Madrigal Academy. As Salma smiled wide, Cash saw the dimples she shared with their mother. He was glad she was happy. Cash watched her a bit before trying to get away.
“Pisto! Wait up.” He stopped walking. He hadn’t been fast enough. Salma half-hugged him when she caught up. She pointed at his shoes. “What happened to those?”
“So, where were you today?”
“Just taking care of business.”
“You want five dollars when we get home, don’t me questions.”
“Maybe I want ten.”
“I could give you ten.”
“Do you know what I could do with ten?”
“Invite your friends to ice cream?”
“Invite one of your friends to ice cream.”
“Why would you do that?”
“’Cause he has pretty eyes.”
“Nathanael has a girlfriend.”
Cash and Salma made their way up the hill to their house.
“So, I shouldn’t take him out for ice cream?”
“No, you shouldn’t. He’s old. You wouldn’t take me out for ice cream.”
“But we did that for your birthday.”
“You’re going out with his older sister.”
“That’s not that same.”
Salma shrugged, “I guess.”
A couple of their mother’s chickens greeted them by the front door. Salma went into her room and Cash went straight to the back, where he put his clothes to dry on the line. It didn’t look like his mother was home. Good.
Cash went to his room to count the money he had made and to make sure nothing had been lost when he went to the river. After he finished, Cash put the money in an envelope and noted that the tins on his desk and on his nightstand in which he hid money for his mother to find were empty. Of course they were. Some days she was slicker and tried to put money back, but it was never the same amount Cash had left.
Under his bed, beneath a pile of clothes, from inside his old broken lunch box, Cash pulled out a small burlap pouch that had Egyptian-blue buttons across the top. His name was spelled out in white ink on the buttons. His father had bought it for him when his family went to the city of Gloria. As he held the pouch, he remembered the beach with its impeccably blue water and soft, thick, black sand. He and Salma spent time catching sand crabs together and collecting shells. The two roamed the city with their mother while their father was busy. Cash had marveled at the infinite amount of high-rise buildings close to the sea, each a different vibrant color. He had loved looking at the sun reflecting from the windows. He wished to stay forever, but the deal to move the tortilleria fell through.
Cash checked his savings. After pulling out a ten for Salma, he saw that his mother had taken even more money from him. He was getting tired of moving his money around from hiding place to hiding place. How could he ask his mother to stop taking from him, though? He needed to be saving, but he knew his mother couldn’t possibly take care of all their needs with only the tortilleria, which wasn’t even doing well, no matter what she said. Cash rubbed his face. Why couldn’t she just ask for help or directly ask for the money? He’d take on more sales for Oliver and Enoch. He’d take a job in another town, too, even if he wasn’t sure how that worked. Anything to keep his family from drowning and for the chance to leave Primavera behind.
Cash went to Salma’s room and shoved the ten under her door.
Her door swung open and she said, “I was only joking!”
“Yeah, but I wasn’t.”
“Pisto, where are you getting all this money?”
“You don’t need to know.”
“But I want to,” she whined. “Then, in case you break up with Careena, I can tell my friends that you’re nice and you take care of me and Mamá.”
Cash furrowed his brow. “What are you talking about?”
“Well, all the guys suck. You’re like, alright. Maybe you’ll end up married with someone here.”
Cash choked on his saliva. “Why are you even thinking about that right now?”
Salma shrugged. “All the girls are talking about it. Well, okay, a lot of them, but mostly I think it’s the Home Ec. class, ’cause we were supposed to do some assignment on an ideal partner, and then we started working with the boys that, like, kinda matched. I got Dario Galvez. Which, you know, he’s okay. I’m not marrying him, though.”
He hated this town. “Please don’t marry anyone right now. Go do something with your friends. Not mine. Yours. And never mind your assignment. Be a kid, will you?”
“Well, I’m not an adult.”
“Right. Go out.” Cash looked at the time on his beat-up phone. “Just be back soon.”
Salma hugged Cash and rushed out of her room. Cash let out a heavy sigh after he heard the front door slam.
Cash went out to feed his pet rooster, John-Henry, and his mother’s chickens. He watched as the birds ate, and when they were done, John-Henry followed Cash as he walked back inside. His mother constantly told Cash not to let the rooster in, but since she wasn’t home yet, he let John-Henry hang out while he collected the trash from the bathroom and the kitchen. Cash put everything in the large silver can he shared with his neighbors. His mother wouldn’t be able to say he never did anything if she was in one of her moods when she got home. Cash motioned John-Henry outside and then collected water from their little well. With the watering can he got his mother two years ago as a birthday present, he began to water her garden. Cash knew how much she appreciated him doing that, especially after she had found his father dead in the garden. It was a stress-related heart attack that took him.
Three days earlier his father had taken the family out of Primavera to show them where the tortilleria could be moved or even where they could go without it.
“Fausto, si estamos bien allá,” Cash’s mother complained.
“Aurélie, solo quiero que veas las posibilidades.”
Aurélie fell asleep during the bus trip, but her children didn’t. Salma and Cash watched the dirt road surrounded by trees and tall grasses transform into concrete. As the bus rolled forward, they saw they were surrounded by impressive cars. Cash longed to know what it felt like to drive one, to be as relaxed as the woman next to the bus in a red car, her hair billowing and her voice carrying over the traffic. Cash wanted to know what was so funny. What was it that blinked blue inside her ear? Salma wondered where the woman was going and who let her have a car. Was she an only child? Salma looked at Cash. He’d probably be the one in the family with a car, if they needed it. But in Primavera, there was no use for cars. You could walk or bike to get to wherever you wanted.
The family walked through a different town to get to a train station and go to Esmeralda. Esmeralda was a place of constantly improving technologies from areas dedicated solely to wind-turbine manufacturing and the development of sea launderers, which helped clean long-lasting oil spills. Cash loved it there. Of everything he saw in the city, nothing fascinated him more than helping his grandmother with laundry and watching the clothes spin. It felt right. Normal. Salma liked the electric stove oven. She enjoyed watching the cookies that her grandfather made rise. She could also flip tortillas for dinner without being afraid of fire licking her. The children pleaded with their mother to stay longer than the day. She was the one that always needed convincing.
Aurélie had no intention of staying longer than she needed to. She spoke with Fausto about how uncomfortable she felt in Esmeralda, how he could not ask her to leave behind what she knew. Even the day felt like too much for her. Fausto didn’t understand, being a native of Esmeralda, but he understood the sacrifice he made to leave everything he loved behind for Aurélie. He only moved to Primavera to marry her and do it according to the rules. He would not make her struggle for his sake.
Cash’s family had not been back there since his father died, and Cash’s grandmother refused to talk to his mother because she still believed Aurélie had stolen her son Fausto’s future.
Cash heard the back door slam, and he knew his mother was home. “Cash! Cash Manolo Alarcón! ¡¿Dónde andas?!”
His middle name never meant anything good.
“Aqui, Mamí,” Cash said as sweetly as he could. What hadn’t he done this time?
“Don’t ‘Mamí me!” His mother rushed at him. She pulled him by the ear and Cash bit down on his lip. “Your school called about money and collections or something like that. They said you hadn’t been there in weeks. Where have you been going?” She let his ear go.
“Around. I’ve been working.” Cash held his ear.
“Where, huh? Darlin fired you. That I know. I swear, if I hadn’t paid the phone bill, you wouldn’t tell me anything.”
Cash almost rolled his eyes. If she hadn’t.
He said, “You don’t tell me anything either. Why do you think I’m out? I trusted you. You said you would be able to pay the rest of my test fees and tuition and you didn’t. Do you know how ridiculous I felt begging the administration office to check again and again in my files because there must’ve been some mistake? Why are you acting like it’s some big surprise I’m not there? You should have just told me you couldn’t help. I would have figured something out by myself when I still had time.”
“I needed to save up more money to make sure I had enough for Salma’s tuition. I-I thought I’d eventually have enough for yours, but that didn’t happen, and I had to figure out how to pay for some equipment that broke at the tortilleria. I thought with your grades maybe something would work out.”
“That’s not how it works.”
“Well, your father was always telling me how you were helped because of them.” Cash’s mother shook her head. “I never had a problem with the school until the money your father had finished anyway.”
Cash looked at his mother. “You didn’t tell me Papá left money.”
“You didn’t need to know that. You weren’t going to be in charge of it.”
“What happened to it?”
“What do you think? We lived off of it for as much as we could.”
Cash wanted to believe his mother. “Mamá, are you sure?”
“Of course! Do you think I’d let us starve?”
Cash didn’t know what to think, but he said, “No, you wouldn’t.”
“Did you forget I am the mother? That I am the one that makes this household run?”
His mother’s smug smile was the last straw. Cash threw the watering can. “You’ve been taking my money. We’ve been cruising on my savings these last two weeks. I’m just as responsible as you are. You’re not the only one doing something for our family.”
“The money is under my roof, so I use it for what is necessary. You were going to use it for some silly trip when we have more important things to worry about.”
“Wanting to leave Primavera is not silly. Mamá, if you hadn’t started taking my money, I wouldn’t be in this mess!”
“Don’t yell at me, ¡patojo malcriado!”
Cash clenched his jaw and took in a breath. “I’m sorry,” he said, not meaning it. His phone rang in his pocket.
“Don’t answer that.”
Cash fished his phone out and saw Hailigh’s name on the screen. “I have to go,” he said softly.
Cash picked up the dented watering can and put it into his mother’s hands. She watched him leave and then futilely tried to get her watering can the right shape again.
Cash boarded the Lucia once again to Mar-y-Sol. He saw the huge mall and walked the rest of the way to the back of the Sunflower Movie Theater, the money envelope in his hands. Cash was always amazed at how nice even the back of the theater looked. Every time he went, it was like the first time. When would he ever be able to go in? He heard it was beautiful inside and that, should you order food, they brought it to your seat.
Primavera had no such thing as a movie theater.
Hailigh, her brothers, and Nathanael were already there. Hailigh’s brothers seemed to be intimidating someone. They were obnoxiously telling the guy what to expect when selling for them. On occasion, they punched the guy’s shoulder. Cash learned it was their way of showing affection. They had done that to him. He wasn’t scared of the twins despite the height difference and the fact that they had worn tanks the first time they met for dealing to show off the scars left on their shoulders from encounters with The Elders of Primavera. Perhaps it was Hailigh’s resemblance to them that made Cash think they were softer. Hailigh and the twins shared round cheeks, long eyelashes, and curly, brown hair.
Nathanael was leaning on the back wall of the theater, still in his uniform, the Candelaria Academy cardigan around his waist and his satchel over his shoulder, a cigarette he probably thieved from his mother at his lips. “Hey, Orejas! We finished the weird book today,” he said and crushed the cigarette with his white sneakers before getting near Cash. He knew Cash hated the smell.
It would be especially awful if the scent stuck around in Cash’s hair. Nathanael knew how well Cash took care of his hair. There was pride in it, which Nathanael would make fun of if it were any other guy in town, except Cash’s hair wasn’t just about looking good. In all the time Nathanael had known Cash, he had never seen Cash with his hair cut short.
When they first met and Nathanael had mocked Cash, saying he should get rid of it before he got lice, they clashed. Outside the principal’s office, Cash had told him it was about his father. His father had taught him how to wash it properly. He even cut it for him. A year after Cash’s father died, Cash had found a picture in which his father had his hair as long as he did. The resemblance had made Cash happy.
Cash moved his hair from behind his ears. The very top of his ears would still peek through, but he felt less self-conscious about them being under the curtain of his shoulder-length black hair.
Nathanael smiled at Cash before giving him a half hug. “Prof. Renato misses you, bro. He looked ready to tear off his face today when no one talked about what we thought of magical realism.”
“Did you try to say something, Narizón?”
Nathanael smacked Cash for making fun of his nose and said, “Pshh, no. You know I don’t know what’s going on in that class.”
Cash laughed. “You want help with the final paper, then?”
Nathanael held the back of his neck. “Yeah. Oh, and Careena sent you something.” Nathanael dug into his pockets for it.
“Really?” Cash tried not to sound too excited. He didn’t want this to be more awkward than it already was. “So, uh, what did she send?”
“Wait, will you? It’s not like she didn’t send you something else this week.”
Since Cash had gotten involved in his new profession, he spent even less time with Careena than he wanted, if that were possible. The “girls” Darlin mouthed off about were really only one. Cash’s girlfriend would talk to him a maximum of five minutes when she could visit him at Darlin’s place. Careena wasn’t allowed out of the house for long, and she definitely wasn’t allowed near Cash after her father had caught them kissing in her backyard once. Mr. Vega had called Cash a long-haired heathen and had warned him that if Cash ever put his daughter’s honor in jeopardy again, there’d be consequences.
Cash missed watching Careena walking in her heels on her usual route to the Ilumina bank because he had to get on the Lucia to Mar-y-Sol as she began her walk each day. He missed seeing the difference between her gray pencil skirt and pink top and all the other girls in uniforms he encountered. He also missed the morning conversations about how her training was going. He didn’t understand much about accounting, but when she talked to him, he was fascinated by numbers and her soft voice.
They’d often talk by meeting up at the library with Nathanael so it seemed like Cash and Nathanael were going to hang out. On the weekends, they arranged to meet at the computer lab. Careena would go under the pretense of needing to do research for something, but Cash simply asked his mother if he could go out for a couple of hours. They wouldn’t sit together because Careena was wary of the people who attended her father’s church. They could be just as bad or worse than her father in judgment, and they could easily tell her father she was out with a boy who wasn’t her brother. The safest thing to do was IM. Often it felt silly, since they were only a couple of seats away from each other, but they took whatever opportunity they had.
“Here you go, Romeo.” Nathanael handed Cash a pack of strawberry cookies and two boxes of gum.
“Don’t call me that.” Cash ripped open a box of gum. There was no difference in flavor, but Cash liked to eat the red ones first. He handed Nathanael the box so he could pick out the green ones he liked.
Hailigh and her brothers dismissed the person they were talking to.
Enoch asked, “You brought the money?”
Cash nodded, and Enoch took the envelope and counted. He split his half and his brother’s, then put the rest of the money in the envelope for Cash to take back.
Oliver took a small bag from his pocket. “Tomorrow you’re going to Franela. We’ve got a few people asking out there, and you’ve spent too much time in Mar-y-Sol anyway.”
“Is it nice? I’ve never been there.”
Oliver frowned. “I guess it’s okay. You’ll go tomorrow, no big deal. Just do the same thing. Now go home, Melena. You can’t be with us too long.”
Cash ignored the nickname.
Hailigh told her brothers she’d see them at home and took Nathanael by the hand. Cash walked next to them. “So, how do you like it?” Hailigh asked.
“It’s not as bad as I thought,” Cash said and scratched his head.
“Told you. The important thing is not to get caught back home.”
“I’ve been careful.”
“You better be. You don’t want to end up like my brothers.”
“Are you, um…did you ever get…” Cash rubbed his shoulder. He wasn’t sure how to say it.
“Oh, no. Well, kind of. It’s different for girls, and the only reason I got into trouble was because I knew what my brothers were doing and didn’t say. The Elders just got rid of my hair. I was younger then, anyway,” Hailigh said. “As long as no one says anything back home, I can’t get in trouble again.”
“I bet you looked cute with short hair,” Nathanael said.
“My haircut was awful.”
“You could never look awful.”
“Shut up.” Hailigh softly knocked her head with Nathanael’s.
There were numerous people with shopping bags walking around the three of them. Mothers pushed strollers with napping babies in them. Kids still in uniforms with ice cream cones in hand took silly pictures. Cash thought of Salma.
“What do you guys think about getting married?” Cash asked.
“You’re not trying to marry my sister, are you?” Nathanael asked.
“So, you’re using my sister?”
“That’s not how I meant it.” Cash pushed Nathanael when he saw him smiling. “This is about my sister.”
“Who’s she trying to marry?” Hailigh asked.
“Maybe your boyfriend. I don’t know.”
The two looked at Cash and laughed.
Hailigh said, “Why are you worried about a crush? She’ll get over it.”
“It’s not the crush. By the way, Nathanael, if my sister asks you to get ice cream with her, take Hailigh with you.”
“So, what’s the problem?” Hailigh asked.
“That she wants to figure out who to marry right now. I mean, do you know you’re going to marry Nathanael right now? Have you known since you were fourteen? They’re assigning people to each other now in Home Ec. We didn’t do that.”
“You’re being a viejito. Maybe The Elders thought they could pair people up younger so Primavera doesn’t die out. I don’t know. I’m sure it doesn’t mean anything.”
“Isn’t it a little weird? I mean, listen to yourself. What if The Elders are trying to match-make kids?”
“If you make a big deal out of it, then it is. Us girls have been conditioned for marriage, remember? We don’t have the luxury of just hanging out and doing whatever like you guys do. We have to figure out how we’re going to be taken care of because I’m sure not inheriting my dad’s barbershop. I don’t even know how to cut hair.”
“I could take care of you.” Nathanael said.
“We’re not talking about that right now,” Hailigh said.
Nathanael looked at Cash. “See what you did?”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“He didn’t do anything,” Hailigh said and kissed Nathanael’s cheek. “Maybe some other time, Piel Canela.”
“Sure.” He beamed.
“Alright, whatever.” Cash looked at some of the stores beside the Sunflower. “Do either of you know where I can get new rain boots? Mine died today.”
“I know a place.” Nathanael pulled Hailigh along, and Cash followed.
They went up two sets of escalators and squished between people to get to where Nathanael wanted: Picador Shoes. Cash had never seen so many shoes in one place. Most of the shoes he had were hand-me-downs from his cousins, which was why they never lasted him too long. The stores in Primavera had at most four different kinds of shoes for both men and women. There were so many styles to choose from here, though. Cash looked at the tan work boots, the sleek sneakers, and the checkered slip-on shoes. He had to remind himself he came for plain black rain boots. He chose a kind with a good grip at the bottom so he wouldn’t fall when the dirt of the hill back home turned to sludge on the days that began with rain.
After choosing his shoes, Cash looked at the women’s section. His mother’s loafers were starting to look dingy. Should he get her a new pair now or wait a little longer? He had left her behind angry. If he bought her something now, she might ask where Cash got the money. He was not going to tell her. Cash grabbed a brown loafer and poked the inside; it was squishy. Maybe he could have the store hold them.
“You know those are designed for women, right?” Cash heard a soft voice behind him. He turned and saw Careena smiling at him. “Where’s my brother?” she asked, looking around the store.
“Sitting in the back. Probably making out with Hailigh.”
She rolled her eyes. “You take such good care of my baby brother.” Then she smirked. “Let’s go ruin the moment.”
Cash walked behind Careena and fought the urge to run his fingers through her wavy black hair. It usually wasn’t down. Her preferred style was a bun. With her glasses and the clothes she wore to work, she looked like a stereotypical secretary, but right now she looked like any nineteen-year-old girl in jeans, a t-shirt, and tennis shoes. Careena squeaked and made a big deal about finding her brother. Cash put his hand over his mouth, trying to suppress his laughter.
Nathanael’s eyes went wide. “Why are you here?”
Careena put a hand on her hip. “Why aren’t you happy to see me, Small Fry? Hurry up and hug me.”
Nathanael got up, annoyed, and hugged Careena. Then Careena hugged Hailigh. She held onto Cash the longest. Cash noted that Careena’s hair smelled like lemongrass.
Cash smelled grimy and familiar to Careena. She let him go abruptly and studied his face. She looked at her brother and Hailigh. It couldn’t be. Not her Doe Eyes.
“Papi is somewhere downstairs trying to find new ties for his retreat next week,” Careena said quickly. “I, um, I convinced him to let me come up here to look at shoes.” She ran her fingers through her hair. Nathanael and Cash recognized her nervousness. The rest of Careena’s words were lodged in her throat.
“Are you okay?” Cash asked.
He was kind. He was beautiful. He didn’t mind sneaking around despite the threat of her father. He wanted to do something with his life. Cash was good. He had to be good. Yet there was the smell. The longer Careena stood near him, the more she felt the stench penetrate her every pore, and she wanted to scrub it out.
“I—it was a mistake coming up here. I have to go.” Careena pushed past Cash and walked out of the store.
“Can you buy these for me, please?” Cash asked Hailigh, putting his rain boots on her lap and setting money down on the box. “Let’s go,” he told Nathanael and pulled him along.
“You know this place is huge, right? If we don’t find my sister—for all we know, we’ll find my dad, and I’m not supposed to be here.”
“And I’m not supposed to be your sister’s boyfriend, but it’s too late for that.”
“If you’re fighting, what does that have to do with me?”
“I didn’t know we were fighting, and you know I can’t be alone with her!”
“Calm down.” Nathanael tugged down on Cash’s hair. “We’ll find her, and you’ll fix it.”
Careena wasn’t far, but she walked briskly. Cash and Nathanael caught up to her in a couple minutes. “What’s with you, ’Reena?” Nathanael asked.
“I don’t want to talk to either of you.”
“C’ mon.” Nathanael grabbed her by the wrist.
Careena ripped her hand out of her brother’s grip. “Don’t touch me.”
“What happened? Did I do something?” Cash asked.
“Why do you ask me that so innocently?”
“So, you have stuff to work through,” Nathanael said. “I’m gonna go back to Hailigh.”
“You’re not leaving until we’re done,” Careena said and flicked Nathanael’s ear.
“Tell me what’s wrong,” Cash said.
She had never spoken to Cash like that before. Not even when she had the right to be mad when he missed her birthday last year because it was the middle of final exams. She had gone to the library for him and left him coffee and sweet bread instead in response.
“You heard me.” Careena crossed her arms.
“I haven’t done anything.”
“Really?” Careena put her tongue in her cheek and pulled Cash by the sleeve of his hoodie toward a single-stall bathroom by an elevator. She looked around before pushing Cash in. “You guard,” she commanded Nathanael.
“What’s wrong with you?” Cash asked once Careena locked the door.
“Why do you reek of weed? Don’t you know what The Elders do to people that have it, that smoke it?”
Cash stood there dry-mouthed.
“Do you want to see what they do?” Careena took her shoes and socks off. Cash saw the evenness of her brown skin end at her ankles. Stripes of scarred flesh covered her feet. “So, what are you doing?” Careena crossed her arms.
Cash ran his hand down his face. Careena was going to hate him. “Dealing.”
She let out a heavy sigh. “Why?”
“I don’t…” Cash wasn’t sure what to say. What would Careena do if he told her? What if he didn’t? “Money. I need fast money.”
“You’re smarter than that. You’re also a guy. You can do more and better.”
“Yeah, but that didn’t work out for me when I got fired. I just wanted enough to get back to school. You know how much I love it. You know how much I need it.” He sighed. “I don’t expect you to get it, since you and your brother don’t have to worry about money, but don’t try to give me some speech about my possibilities.”
“Cash, just because my dad has money doesn’t mean he shares it with me. He thinks women shouldn’t handle money.”
“Then how are you even in accounting?”
“I told him after I had the diploma and the bank picked me up because of my grades,” Careena said. “In the end, it’s not like he cared about what I was going to do with my life. I’m just supposed to get married and have kids. You know my father. He takes The Elder’s rules too seriously. It’s a wonder he ever let me go to school in the first place.”
Cash pointed at Careena’s foot. “So, when did that happen?”
“A few years ago. I was selling for the money, too.” Careena scratched her arm. “Then I smoked. I loved the smell. All of it was freeing. Then I got sloppy, got caught, and because I am my father’s daughter, he had me punished with hellish fire.” Careena rolled her eyes and leaned against the door. She looked small. Her soft voice back, she continued, “My dad didn’t want it public because he said no one would be my husband if they knew what I had done. It was his way of straightening me out.” Careena shrugged. “It, uh, it w-worked.”
She mustered up what she hoped was a smile although her eyes were watering. Cash wasn’t quite sure what to do. Careena was not a crier. He walked over and leaned on the door with her. She grabbed his hand. “Sorry for being so angry,” she said. She moved Cash’s hair behind his ear and ran her thumb over the edge of his ear.
Cash smiled. “It’s okay. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. You’ll have to tell me why you’re mad at me next time we fight, though.”
“I can do that. We’re not fighting about this again, though, so can you promise me a couple things?”
“My brother can never get into any of this stuff because of you. And promise you’ll leave the selling, that you’ll find something else. I know you can. I don’t want anything to happen to you.”
“On my nonexistent grave, your brother won’t get into drugs because of me, and I’ll find something new.” Cash kissed Careena’s forehead.
“We’d better get out of here before someone starts looking for you.”
Careena nodded and unlocked the door. Nathanael was still there standing guard. She hugged her brother from behind and said, “Let’s go.”
“I need your help. Tell her you’ll see her tomorrow, please?”
“Fine, but you owe me.”
“You have no idea.”
Cash waited for a moment and then left the bathroom. Hailigh called him a few minutes later. She’d meet him at the bus stop because they were going home together. Nathanael had some errand at the bank to run with Careena.
When the two got on the bus to go home, they saw Don Mincho, Head Elder of Primavera, his white western hat with the blue feathers on his head as usual. He was sitting in the back looking out the window. Don Mincho was seventy and still walked with heavy footsteps like a twenty-five-year-old. His leathery face and white hair gave him away, though.
Hailigh told Cash to close his eyes and keep his mouth shut. He furrowed his brow but did it anyway. Hailigh sprayed him with something sweet, and he coughed. It was too much, but it covered up the scent of mota. Cash traded his worn sneakers for his new rain boots.
Once Hailigh and he made it to their stop, they ran off the bus before Don Mincho could ask them anything. Cash felt stones in his stomach on his walk home. The Elders usually never left Primavera unless there was something they were looking into.
When Cash got home, his mother was in the living room with her feet on the couch, listening to the news.
“Sit,” she said and pulled out a couple of pages from the pocket of her sunflower apron. Cash sat down, and his mother asked him about two letters from his school that he had forgotten to throw out. “When were you going to tell me about the money?”
Cash shrugged. “I don’t know. I wanted to take care of everything myself. You deal with a lot, and I knew you wouldn’t or couldn’t help me this time. I mean, you chose Salma over me. Which I get, okay?”
“Cash, what are you really doing? Where do you keep going?”
“Different places.” Cash scooted away from his mother. “I don’t like it here at home,” he said, trying to move the conversation to a more comfortable place. “My silly little trip money, as you said, was my way out. I don’t want to be here forever and only ever be a breadwinner. I don’t want to work myself to death like Papá. We’ll just end up the same: poor, with no indoor showers, living in what feels like a sardine can. And we’ll miss out on more of all the new stuff, like washing machines and skyscrapers and just things that are normal, because some old people care more about their ridiculous stay-in-the-box-for-your-safety rules and the sanctity of the old ways.”
“Cash, the rules are for protection. The Elders established everything for our good.”
“Who are they protecting? What good have the rules or anything The Elders said brought you? The rules wash everybody out. Papá wanted to leave. You know he wanted to go, and he asked you all the time to do something else, to go somewhere else, but you didn’t budge. He could still be alive if…I don’t know. Maybe he would’ve been fine if he hadn’t always been busy trying to revive the tortilleria or trying to please you.”
“Don’t do that to me. Don’t you blame me. I loved him just as much as you. He did what was best.”
“I’m not saying you killed him. I’m saying the rules did.”
“No one asked him to work for as long as he did. Do you think I didn’t warn him?”
“But he had to sustain all of us. Admit it. Admit that the rules are at least partly to blame here. Abuelo died, and he left you that forsaken business, and then Abuela gave it to Papá, not you. Now the only reason you have it is because Papá died. Don’t you get it? Don’t you see it?”
“Don’t treat me like I can’t understand. I demand your respect. I am your mother!”
“And I am the one who inherits all of this when you’re gone, and I don’t want it!”
“You don’t see what you have.”
“I guess I don’t.” Cash crossed his arms over his chest. “But you know what? I can tell that something is wrong here. Hailigh can’t be anything more than a kindergarten teacher, and she has the same amount of school as Nathanael and me. Her family pays exactly like me, and she won’t get to do what she loves. Careena’s father has no expectations of her. You want Salma to do more, but guess what? She’s busy thinking about getting married. It’s a school thing, but she shouldn’t even worry about that.”
His mother laughed. “Salma is not getting married right now. I wouldn’t allow it.”
“Why is that funny to you?”
“Cash, you are a man. It shouldn’t concern you what Salma thinks about that. It’s normal for her age. I spent time thinking about who I would marry and about my wedding, and I was younger than her.”
“That’s not normal, though. I don’t know how you can claim to want more for Salma but you’re okay that she’s trying to figure out something made for adults.”
“She has time to find a husband and do more. Why are you so worked up about this?”
Without thinking Cash said, “I don’t want her to end up like you.”
Cash’s mother was quiet. “There is nothing shameful about me.”
“I-I didn’t mean it like that.”
“You did.” His mother stared at him. Where had she gone wrong? Had she not loved him enough? Had she not provided for him? Since when had he looked down on her?
“Mamá, I didn’t mean—” Cash took a moment. “Are you happy?”
Aurélie blinked. The last person to ask her that was Fausto. “What does that have to do with your disrespect? Of course I’m not happy right now.”
“I’m talking about your life. Are you happy with your life?”
“Yes,” Aurélie said without much thought. “I’m alive, I have a roof over my head, there’s food in the kitchen, you and Salma are fine. Why wouldn’t I be happy with my life?”
Cash didn’t pry again. He would clearly get nowhere with his mother. “I’m glad you’re happy, but I want more. I thought you wanted that for me, too. I mean, after Papá you said things wouldn’t be that different for me, but they are. There’s this pressure to pick up where he left off.” Cash looked at his mother. “I don’t know how Papá did it to pull us through, but we’re not making it through anything right now. I mean, isn’t that why you take from me? You can’t handle taking his place.”
“I am doing what I can.”
“Well, so am I, but it’s not enough. I don’t know if there’s anything or anyone to really blame, but you can’t keep coming after me for helping. It shouldn’t matter to you how I do it. I’m supposed to do it. Isn’t that enough?”
“I can’t be proud of you if you’re doing something wrong.”
“How do you know I’m doing something wrong? I’m trying to help.”
“I don’t want the help that comes from whatever you do now.”
“Stop lying. It’s not even about wanting it, you need me.”
“No sos nada más que un mocoso.”
“Bueno.” Cash shrugged and went to his room.
There was nothing more to talk about.
Aurélie watched Cash walk off. She felt afraid. There was something dangerous about him.
Cash piled up his clothes in the closet and then pulled out his pajamas. He needed a shower. When he turned on the water outside, it was freezing. He gritted his teeth. How had their ration of hot water been used up so quickly? Cash had paid for it himself a week ago.
When he went back into the house, his mother was gone. Salma was in the living room instead.
“Where’d she go?” Cash asked.
“I don’t know. She didn’t tell me.”
Cash sat down and dried his hair.
“What do you do?”
“With my hair?”
“Stop it. No one is here.”
“I promise that it is so much better that you don’t know, Salmita.”
“Is it that bad?”
“If I get caught.”
“Is that why sometimes your room smells weird?”
Cash only looked at his sister.
“You shouldn’t do it anymore.”
“I don’t think Papá would be very happy if he knew what you were doing.”
“If Papá were here I know I wouldn’t be doing it. He could’ve definitely convinced Darlin not to fire me, or at least he would’ve said something to dismiss her because he was more important than her.” Cash crossed his arms. “Did you know Mamá didn’t do anything when I got fired? I mean, she got mad at me, but she could’ve said something.” Cash shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe she just didn’t think it was important to defend me.”
“Mamá is just soft. You know she likes to keep the rules as much as she can. She probably felt like she couldn’t talk with Darlin.”
“Doesn’t matter now, I guess.”
“It’s okay.” Cash hugged Salma and kissed the top of her head. “I love you, Salmita.”
“I love you too, Pisto.”
“I’m going to bed. Don’t worry about…anything, okay? Definitely don’t worry about guys more than you need or want to.”
Salma giggled. “Okay.”
Cash went to his room. He didn’t remember if he had left the door open or not when he went out for his shower. He shut the door behind him.
The next morning, Cash’s mother shook him awake. “Mijo, I need you to pick up the bread today.”
“I went last week,” Cash said and yawned.
“Can you do something without fighting me?”
“Yeah, I don’t wanna fight.” Cash stood up and shoved his arms into a jean jacket and put on a pair of sweats.
As Cash arrived at the bakery to pick up the bread for the week, he saw Ignacio outside typing slowly into a gray flip phone. Cash imagined it would take him hours for one message since he had such big, meaty hands. Everything about Ignacio was big. His frame, his forehead, his feet. Cash felt bad for his mother.
Cash took a deep breath before walking into the bakery and tried to convince himself it was just a coincidence that Ignacio was there. He usually picked random corners of the town to stand in anyway.
Cash carefully picked the bread. At the register he saw Don Alonso, Don Mincho’s brother, coming his way. Don Alonso smiled at Cash. “Lovely morning, Cash.”
“Doesn’t it make you want to walk to The Center?”
“No, I have to get home with the bread. My mamá is waiting.”
“I don’t think she’ll mind. We won’t take long.”
Cash laughed nervously. “I have to go.” He walked out. He heard a whistle behind him, and he was seized by the arm. He dropped the bread.
“You’ve met Ignacio, no?” Don Alonso said before gripping Cash by the other arm.
Cash struggled against Don Alonso’s grip the most. He could take on a man of sixty-two. Right? Yet Don Alonso was strong. Years of wrangling cattle had done him well. Cash looked back hoping that maybe the lady that attended him would help, but instead he saw she was closing up shop.
As the three approached The Center, Cash saw plumes of smoke in the sky. He kicked and dug his feet into the ground. What if Nathanael or Careena were getting in trouble because of him? The men pushed him against the crowd until a clear path formed to The Center.
Only Don Mincho stood in the open space. No one was being punished yet. Cash looked to a pile of wood and ash. He recognized the edge of a dollar bill and four Egyptian-blue buttons within the ash. He forgot how to breathe. Afraid, Cash looked at all the staring faces of Primavera. He found his mother’s, tears about to spring from her eyes. He found Salma beside their mother. Cash’s eyes widened. Salma shook her head no. She placed her hand on their mother’s shoulder.
The crowd around him buzzed. News of a Teaching always spread fast in Primavera. They were big events since not much happened in the town. Parents brought their kids to witness the beatings in case they ever got ideas about disobeying the law. The gossipers talked about whose kid it could possibly be. They always had ideas. Others showed up because someone had told them they should go. Who didn’t love watching a brat get taught a lesson?
Cash heard his name, and he understood he was being asked something but could not comprehend it. He reacted when his jacket was taken off.
“What are you doing?” he asked Don Mincho.
“Take off your shirt and kneel,” Don Mincho commanded. “You do not ask questions.”
Cash did as he was told mechanically, and Don Mincho began the interrogation. “Who gave this to you, patojo?” Don Mincho asked, throwing the bag Oliver had supplied him with at his face. Cash was quiet. Don Mincho hit Cash’s back with his cane. The one with teeth always got the babosos to talk. Cash winced but said nothing.
“Tell him what he wants to know, Mijo. This is for your own good,” Cash’s mother pleaded.
Cash looked at his mother. How could she call this good? She betrayed him. Taking what he had made with a proper job was not enough for her; she’d had to interfere with the new way he made money. Why couldn’t she just be happy he was bringing money home? If Darlin could easily mar his reputation among the people with comments alone, what did his mother think this would do to him when it was all over?
Cash wanted to say so much but settled for, “I hope it makes you feel better to say that.”
“Don’t disrespect your mother. She loves you. Therefore, we do this. We love you, so we must do something. We’re not sparing the rod here,” Don Alonso said softly.
“Quit babying him. If he’s old enough to ruin his life and that of others, he should be treated like the man he is.” Don Mincho spat on Cash. “Nothing but a problem for Primavera you are.” Don Mincho gave Cash another three lashes and Cash’s eyes watered. “Now, tell me. Who gave you the drugs, boy?”
Cash shook his head.
“Cash, we only want to know so we can help them, too. You know this is serious. The rest of The Elders and I have always tried to make Primavera as safe as possible, and you and your people with your drugs will only bring Primavera down,” Don Alonso said.
“I need a word with his peers.” Don Mincho wiped his cane on a blue handkerchief he carried with him all the time.
Cash saw Salma try and walk forward, but their mother pulled her back. At least their mother was doing something right.
“Those two. That rat spends all his time with those two.” Darlin pointed to Hailigh and Nathanael. Everyone moved several steps back so the two were alone. “Cash even called a day off to goof with the boy when he was working for me. Lazy kid, if you ask me. I’m glad I got rid of him.”
“You don’t know anything, Darlin!” Cash yelled, and he heard a cane rip through the air before it hit his face. Cash’s hand trembled as he touched his cheek. He saw his favorite color.
“You, girl. We’ve met. Did you not learn your first time around?” Don Mincho addressed Hailigh. He motioned to Doña Marcela, his sister, and she pulled scissors from within her sackcloth purse and gave them to Don Mincho.
“I learned. I didn’t do anything. I don’t know anything.” Hailigh straightened up with her hands behind her back and remained expressionless.
Don Mincho pointed his cane at Nathanael. “What about you? Did you have something to do with this?”
“No!” Careena yelled.
“Cállate, they’re not talking to you,” Careena’s father said and gripped her tightly by her shoulders.
Cash saw her struggling against her father, and when she broke free, he hoped for a moment it was to save him. Instead, she tore through the crowd and ran away.
Cash stood up. If Careena would do nothing, he would. He felt Don Alonso’s smooth cane tear across his skin and winced. It happened again and again, but Cash didn’t stop trying to walk toward Nathanael. He’d protect his best friend.
Cash said, “Leave him out of it. He didn’t do anything.”
Don Mincho struck the back of Cash’s knees. “Were you given permission to stand?”
“No.” Cash breathed heavily and laid out on the ground, his little resolve knocked out of him.
“Cash does not make the rules here.” Don Mincho gave Nathanael the scissors. “If he wants to cry like a girl, we’ll treat him like one. Cut his hair,” he commanded.
Nathanael looked down at the silver scissors. “I-I can’t.”
He thought about throwing the scissors at Don Mincho and getting Cash out of The Center, but he caught his dad staring at him. His father would not approve of him defying authority. Nathanael remembered how his father didn’t even have mercy on Careena when she got caught doing the same thing.
“Do it, son, or he’ll never learn. He’ll drag you down that path.” Don Mincho ran his fingers over the smooth side of his cane.
He kept telling Cash he was sorry. Cash listened to the snips. Tiny hairs stuck to the bloody stripes on Cash’s back. How long would it take to grow his hair out the way he liked it again? Cash let out a ragged sigh as Nathanael got up and returned the scissors. A puddle had formed underneath the right side of Cash’s face.
Salma could take no more. She tore out of her mother’s grasp and went to Cash. She helped him sit up.
“What are you doing?” Don Mincho asked.
Salma squared her shoulders. “Helping him.”
“No one called on you. You haven’t been dismissed either.”
“I don’t care.”
Don Mincho still had the scissors in his hand.
“Salma, go stand with everyone else,” Cash told his sister as he touched the side of his face.
She ignored him and cleaned up his face. Salma saw Don Mincho reaching for her and hit his hand away. “You don’t get to touch me. I don’t like you.”
Don Mincho glowered at Salma. How dare she lay a hand on him?
Cash saw the anger rising up in Don Mincho’s face and tried to pull Salma toward him, but Don Mincho grabbed Salma by the hair and yanked. Salma kept all her sounds inside even as her ear was scraped by the edge of the scissors.
When he was done, Don Mincho snarled, “Demand respect of your children, Aurélie.”
Aurélie looked at them, at how far she’d let them fall. Could she ask anything of them?
“Thank your mother,” Don Mincho commanded.
“What? No,” Cash said as he held his sister.
“Are you defying me?”
“Yes.” Cash spit on the ground.
Aurélie reacted. She stood in front of Cash. “He’s in pain. Don’t mind him. He’s just a child.”
Salma and Cash stepped away from their mother.
“Aurélie, your boy is going to need more than one lesson to straighten out.”
“Then perhaps it is good to end this one now. Even without the traditional apology.”
“Do you truly believe that proper?” Don Alonso asked.
“Yes, it’s fine.” Aurélie held her breath.
“Very well.” Don Alonso gripped Don Mincho’s shoulder. “Everyone is dismissed,” Don Alonso said.
When the crowd left, only Cash’s mother and Salma remained.
“Cash, know that I only wanted you to learn a lesson. You were doing something wrong.”
“Yeah sure, whatever you say.” He turned and faced his mother. “I can’t believe you stood there while they got Salma.”
“Salma knows better than to hit anyone.”
“That’s true,” Salma said and rubbed her ear.
“Mamá, did you know you let them burn even what I had made while working with Darlin? Not all of that was for me or my trip. If you had just talked to me…” Cash looked at his mother and waved her away. “Never mind.”
“Mamá, stop,” Salma said.
Aurélie looked at her kids as they resisted her. What had she done?
Cash nodded his head in the direction out of town and started walking, Salma behind him. They were quiet all the way to the bus stop.
“You’ll be good, yeah?”
“Yeah,” Salma said. “I won’t be getting near boys anytime soon.”
Cash snorted. “Alright.”
“Are you going to go to Abuelita’s?
“I don’t know.”
“If you do, call me.”
“Yeah.” He hugged her.
Cash wished he could take her with him, but he didn’t know what it would be like outside of Primavera.
“Will you come back?”
Cash shrugged. It hurt. He looked back to the town and frowned.
Careena was running toward him. She had leaves in her hair and a bleeding knee, but she didn’t seem to mind.
Cash furrowed his brow. “What’s she’s doing here?”
“I don’t know, but I got you.” Salma stood in front of her brother. Before Careena could say a word, Salma said, “What do you want, cobarde?”
Careena was taken aback. She looked at Cash. “I-I have something for you.”
“I don’t want anything from you.”
“Just take the bag, Cash. You need it.” She tried to hand it over.
“I needed you to help me and you ran away. Do you think it didn’t hurt seeing you run off like that?”
“I was helping. What do you think is in the bag?” Careena reached out to touch him.
Salma snatched the bag from Careena, blocking her hand. She looked inside. Money, shirts, pants, snacks. Salma smiled despite herself. “You should take it, Pisto. It’s stuff for you.”
Careena nodded. “So you can go, Doe Eyes.”
Salma moved aside and gave Cash the bag. Cash looked at Careena and dropped the bag. Careena cried. He hugged her tightly. Maybe he could stay. He could stay for them.
He remembered his father then. Loyal. Dead.
“Thank you,” he whispered and let her go. Cash looked at Careena as if trying to memorize every line of her face. She kissed him. They both heard the bus stopping and opening its doors. People began to walk by. Cash and Careena ignored everything. Cash was leaving, so why not steal one minute from the future? Salma started to shoo away the chismosos.
Cash picked up the bag. “Watch out for each other,” he said before boarding the empty bus.
Cash sat in the back where there were no windows. He looked ahead. If he looked back, he’d stay there. He’d miss the future.
After watching the bus leave, Salma and Careena walked into town.
“You know,” Salma said, “you should’ve married my brother while he was still here.”
In all, Nico Mastorakis has written 2 novels and 37 screenplays, produced 19 features, wrote and directed 15, edited 12 and mixed the sound for 17 of them.
He is considered a "Renaissance man", a filmmaker who goes from story to script to the actual movie to post to the tag line to the sales and marketing campaign. As a great promoter and salesman, he revolutionized the way independents promoted and sold their product, with impressive yet inexpensive campaigns in Cannes, MIFED and the AFM. For a long time, in the independent sales community, anything that was a cut above the ordinary, was labeled as "The Mastorakis style" and, justifiably, GQ Magazine wrote that "Mastorakis can sell a refrigerator to an Eskimo".
MY LIFE AS A GHOST
It was raining. Hard. The right windshield wiper had stopped working months ago and the heater had quit. The windows were seriously fogged over. She took her hand off the floor-shift and tried the radio. Nothing but static. Strangely enough, the hissing sound made her feel less lonely, so she left it on. There was an incoming call flashing on the cellphone, next to her on the passenger seat. The radio static drowned out the vibration. Besides, her eyes were glued on the rain pummeling the glass, struggling with the lack of visibility, squinting to focus on the blurry road ahead. Thick sheets of water cascaded down the right side of the windshield, diffracting traffic lights like an insane collage of flickering octagons in green, amber and red. Red? The windshield was filling quickly with -- Red!
Stop on red! Brake!
Didn't push the clutch in on time and the car jerked to a stop, the engine dying in repulsive spasms. And as she reached toward the ignition, she painfully realized two frightening things. One: she was stuck in the middle of an intersection and two: blinding headlights were flooding the interior with a harsh white glare. Before she could react, she saw the word SHACMAN coming into focus, looming, the huge black letters jumping out of a white background.
She had thought many times that death had the color white.
The gigantic eight-wheeler hit. Time suddenly decelerated, like the discordant, dying notes of an unwinding music box.
Gemma's car, was instantly a flattened pile of mangled steel in a cloud of billowing smoke.
Out of the fumes she emerged, unscathed. Dazed, disoriented, gasping for breath, strangely calm, she walked away without looking back, oblivious to the cacophony of sirens and car horns in the distance. She didn't even notice that the raindrops were suspended in mid-air, no longer descending, as if frozen in time; however, her eyes snapped open as she turned the corner and stepped onto a brilliant, sun-drenched street, busy with pedestrian traffic.
Gemma, a beautiful, slender, blonde blue-eyed girl in her twenties, smiled.
If one could see - and feel -- through her eyes, they would detect a limitless exhilaration, the euphoria and delight of total freedom and 360-degree vision, things that Gemma herself had not yet recognized as exceptional; as if all these extraordinary gifts were something normal, a given.
Absorbed by the colorful crowd, she walked amongst total strangers, yet was certain that she knew each and every one of them. She even waved "hellos," albeit with no response from anyone. As she turned a corner, a huge, ominous-looking man being chased by a gang of thugs, loomed, catapulting towards her. Six feet away. Four feet. Two feet. She shut her eyes, bracing for the horrific impact. Only inches away. And then, a sort of a miracle happened: the man didn't crash into her, instead, passed right through her. Yes, through her. She felt a comforting breeze caressing her face and in a millisecond, she had seen his entire life, felt his anger, shared his desperation. His thoughts immersed Gemma in darkness; a hellish place, distorted, grotesque images, the name Daudladia and the phrase "Save the children," repeated like a deafening echo.
"Something is not right" she mumbled, instantly realizing that what wasn't right, was simply... her!
And then her mind was flooded with waves of awareness -- the calm realization that she had died and now, in spirit form, was in this magical world -- where she could still co-exist with the living, yet was endowed with so much more than the mortals, and totally free of the burden that plagued them all -- the burden of being alive. There was no sense of time, distance, pain, heat, anxiety, jealousy, hunger, thirst, fear.
"So," she whispered, "I'm a ghost?"
The notion made her smile. Her face lit up and she added, "Never thought it would be so much fun being a ghost."
Overwhelmed with excitement, she didn't pay attention to one vital fact: she couldn't remember who she was!
Another thing she didn’t notice was the strange slim man, standing in the distance, watching her every move. Narrow yellowish eyes, deeply set into a frail skull, thin lips, long, bony fingers, no brows, no eyelashes. A Stringbean Man!
Gemma, now free from the restrictions of the physical world, she felt elated, an urge to experiment with her new reality. Alright, talking directly with passersby was no longer possible. What about walking up to them, making faces, gesturing wildly, teasing and mocking them? She was contemplating stripping naked and parading through the crowds, when something suddenly caught her attention: a powder-blue, strapless dress in a store window.
She stood there, admiring its ethereal design, when her eyes drifted to the wall-length mirror at the rear of the display. There she saw the reflections of everyone except herself, which was, strangely enough, getting to be the norm.
"Ghost or not," she thought, "I'd look fabulous in this dress." And in the next instant -- she was wearing it. "Wow," she said aloud, "stealing in the spiritual world?" However, the original of the blue dress she now wore, was still in its place in the store window. She didn’t realize that this was the first test of duplexity, the ability to copy things and perhaps, herself.
Gemma sensed someone staring at her. She started to turn then she remembered her 360 degree vision and saw a six-year-old boy, a look of amazement on his face, nudging his mother.
"Mom, I saw a ghost."
"Sure you did. What was it this time? A man, a woman, or another monster?"
"A pretty girl in a blue dress."
Gemma smiled, gave the boy a "thumbs up," and left. "Eat your heart out Charleze," she whispered, unaware of the store's name, discretely engraved on a brass plaque: "Tempus Fugit."
It gradually dawned on her that she hadn't encountered a single other person who was like her; another ghost. Was she all alone in a world of mortals who couldn't even see her?
She took to roaming the labyrinth streets of the city, the Eiffel Tower looming on the right, the Statue of Liberty on the left and the great Pyramid of Giza directly ahead. And her idea of fun was to cross the street from the sandy Saqqara side to the cobblestones of Piazza Navona, passing unnoticed through people, immersing herself in their thoughts and feelings, getting to know a mosaic of different lives -- a newly found game of indiscretion only ghosts can play. At the end of this bizarre tour de force, oh, the secrets she knew!
It was then that Gemma spotted a tall, handsome, familiar-looking stranger. He was not just handsome. He was stunning. Someone she really wanted to get to know. "Sure," she thought, "I'll definitely go through this one. He won't even notice." However, the stranger seemed to be looking at her too. And though she knew it was just an illusion, she crossed her fingers and wished that he wasn't a living person. “Please, please God, let him be dead.” She chuckled at the ridiculousness of her wish.
Now, he was heading her way. When they were separated by less than ten feet, she picked up speed then made her move to pass directly through him. Instead, she slammed into him -- hard, bouncing off of his chest.
The sudden impact nearly dropped her to the concrete. He reached out and steadied her gently. Dazed but not confused, she didn't ask any questions. She didn't have to. She already knew the answers. She said:
"Hey Ethan, I'm so glad you're dead too!"
In a split second, the handsome stranger was no longer a stranger.
"Hey yourself, Gemma. Wanna hang out?"
It seemed natural to them that they knew each other's name while not knowing their own!
They embraced with a century-old familiarity, a warm, comforting feeling for both. They were no longer alone in a senseless dimension, both too excited to realize yet that they were reading each other's mind -- the magic of telepathic ability.
“So, we died and we’re in heaven, uh?” Gemma said. “Where’s everybody else – the ones like us?”
Ethan shrugged and grinned at her. “I don’t know. Let’s find out.”
He grabbed Gemma’s hand and they started running through the crowds of the living, shouting “hellooooo, can anyone see us, can anyone hear us?” No one acknowledged them, and when they ran into traffic, the cars never stopped, instead passing right through them, Gemma and Ethan feeling the heat of the engines, and hearing every stroke of the pistons.
It was a frantic ride that ended in some quaint rural neighborhood, the houses adorned with manicured lawns and white picket fences. Gemma and Ethan raced from house to house, banging on door knockers, each knocker producing its own unique note, the percussion continuing, increasing in volume as they moved to the next house, creating a strange metallic symphony; then:
One door creaked. They turned. The door opened.
They froze. Success? They held their breaths, eyes wide with anticipation. A pretty blonde girl in a blue dress, identical to Gemma’s, came out, but when Gemma and Ethan tried to get her attention, she just walked away, their excitement fading into sober defeat.
No one had responded. However, barely visible behind the lace curtains of a nearby house, the tall slender man with yellowish eyes was watching, a malevolent grin spreading across his skeletal face.
Near the River Seine, at a crowded cafe overlooking a Formula One race at the Monza race track, Gemma and Ethan spotted the only available bench with room for two – in addition to the eight-year-old redhead, already occupying the middle of the bench, working meticulously on her ice cream cone. They glanced at each other, nodded in agreement, then sat left and right of the unsuspecting girl.
“I have a zillion questions dancing insanely in my head” Gemma said. “One of them is, can we eat ice cream?”
“My guess is -- there must be rules in this dimension,” Ethan grinned. “And we don’t even know what this dimension is anyway.”
“If there are rules, then there must be someone who makes sure they’re enforced.”
“So, there’s gotta be some kind of -- supreme force.”
A third voice suddenly interrupted their conversation:
“There is, although I find the title really pompous.”
They gasped. It was the little girl who spoke, the expression on her freckled face, deadly serious, her attitude, all business. Gemma and Ethan were too stunned to notice that the freckles on the girl’s face were slowly moving to form some kind of astral pattern.
“Are you the supreme...” Gemma started to ask.
The ice cream girl cut her off. “I’m your probation officer.”
“Are you a ghost, too?”
The girl shook her head disapprovingly and pointed at the ice cream, which instantly melted and vanished. Then she laid it all out for them. “You’re in a global transit station,” she said. “You still have residual life. That’s why you’re connected to the living.”
Gemma said, “So why is it that only Ethan and I can see each other?”
The girl nodded emphatically.
“Only people who died at the same nanosecond can interact.“
“A nanosecond?” Ethan asked. “A billionth of a second? What are the odds of that happening?”
“One in one trillion, sixty billion, a hundred and twenty- five million, eighty-two thousand and some change,” Gemma said calmly. The ice cream girl frowned.
“Smart ass,” she muttered wryly and concluded:
“Otherwise, with even just two people dying every second, there would be an infinite number of spirits populating a sort of hell.” When Ethan asked, “Where are they now, those zillion spirits?” she simply pointed the perimeter and said “some of them are here, unseen to you, alas visible to me... too much work every day. Most have reached their final destination, as you will, soon.”
She used a long pause to give them time to think; then she explained that Gemma and Ethan were not only capable of normal human feelings and retaining some subliminal memories of their lives, but soon would learn how to interact and communicate with mortals, as well as discovering their own kinetic abilities; in essence, two spirits of high intelligence, newcomers to a dimension of perplexing, intricate questions.
“A dimension that seems, you know, almost perfect,” Ethan said. “Is this heaven, then?”
The girl muttered, “Heaven, Hell, Afterlife, The Other Side, blah, blah -- so tired of hearing trite and trivial questions for thousands of years.” She got up to leave.
“Don’t go yet” Gemma protested. “There’s so much...”
“... that you need to ask me, and so little time that I have. You’ll figure out most of the answers. We may meet again. I’ll be there when it’s really needed.”
The girl locked her eyes on them, the depth of her gaze, unsettling.
“How long will we stay here?” Ethan mumbled.
“As long as it’s good.” The girl chuckled at her own joke. “I’m joking.” She got serious again and added, “Time in this transit state is different from the physical dimension. It’s a reverse time lapse if you will, slowed down or sped up by the careless way new spirits tend to manage it. There are rules, but you’ll only know them if and when you violate them. Though it may seem unfair, it’s a small price to pay for the infinite wisdom you’re granted.”
“What about evil entities?” Gemma asked, hesitantly.
“Spirits, you mean? Evil spirits?”
“Better watch out for them” the girl responded, “just as you would in the world of the living. The nanosecond rule doesn’t apply to stranded spirits. They can see you and you may have already seen them; they can easily be mistaken for mortals and you should avoid contact. She leaned over and whispered in Ethan’s ear, “Evil is contagious,” then stood up.
“Gotta be going. Explore your newly acquired abilities. You can move at the speed of thought, but don’t get carried away. And always watch for the signs.”
“What signs?” Gemma asked.
The girl dissolved into thin air, leaving behind the only proof that she had, in fact, actually been there: two fresh drops of melted ice cream on the bench.
"Since we can move at the speed of thought, where would you like to go?" he said, quickly adding, "No, don't tell me. I already know. You and I think alike. Fantastic music and amazing lights, right?"
A warm smile and a consenting nod from Gemma.
"Hong Kong it is," said Ethan.
The world behind them was instantly transformed to the Shanghai Symphony of Lights. Things were as they saw them, not as they were. The couple found themselves aboard the Star Ferry. Having seamlessly bypassed the crowds, they now sat atop the ship's narrow railing, a precarious perch where no sane human would dare go. Unnoticed by them was the obscured image of the tall, bony man, standing behind the ship’s captain, his eyes riveted on them. Out of the corner of her eye, Gemma caught a fleeting glimpse of him when --
Fireworks exploded overhead. All eyes turned to the dark skies which came to life on the first note of the Philharmonic Orchestra, a cataclysm of light beams dazzling the night, with some forty skyscrapers accenting the brilliant palette of colors.
She touched his hand and, as their senses were now And the music swelled to an electric crescendo unbelievably heightened, love flowed between them. And the music swelled to an electric crescendo.
Later, at daybreak in Ipanema, Gemma and Ethan walked along the endless black and white mosaics of a Copacabana now devoid of crowds. They had developed a duality of consciousness that fascinated them; as if the one was inside the other's mind.
They shared what they had started to recall from their lives and deaths. Gemma spoke about the years of misery in her dysfunctional family with an abusive stepfather and the critical night she tried to skip town and seek freedom; Ethan told her of his first three years of life, when he was born in his mother's prison cell. She had been locked up for a murder she didn't commit. Gemma had died instantly, painlessly in the car crash; he met his unglorified death from cardiac arrest. That's all they could recall from their mortal lives, yet no names, no details, no places, no faces. They determined that this was a result of death, the total loss of consciousness and that in this new life they'd have a freedom based on a new infinite knowledge.
A fraction of a second later, they were in rocking chairs, on the porch of a farmhouse in Wyoming. The old lady across the yard squinted at the sight of the two empty chairs rocking in sync.
"It's that damn wind" she murmured.
Ethan broke the silence in an attempt at lighter conversation. "Since we're not bound by any bodily restrictions, we can do what would have been physically impossible."
"Right. Our speed won't be slowed down by flesh, bones and luggage" she joked.
"True," said Ethan, "we can travel light."
And travel they did. Always at the speed of thought.
On a cruise ship sailing the Virgin Islands, they danced a passionate waltz, and laughed and teased, and had more fun than they'd ever had as mortals.
And they ran with the bulls in Pamplona, thrilled as the raging, 1300-pound beasts stampeded harmlessly through them, amazed that they could actually read the bull's minds.
Next, they boarded Formula One race cars in Abu Dhabi, melding unnoticed into the bodies of the two drivers who finished first and second. Just a coincidence? They teased each other over who was the better driver, laughed, and had a blast.
In Hawaii, they surfed the monster waves at Waimea Bay, hot-dogging and mocking the other surfers.
They played "catch the sunset." First in Japan, walking hand-in-hand beneath cherry trees in full bloom, then in Rio De Janeiro atop the Corcovado. In only seconds they were in the Maldives, the rocks of Sedona, Puerto Viejo. And everywhere they went, there was music. Myriads of octaves. Poetic sounds. It was as though the colors themselves could sing. Note upon note of breathtaking, crystal clear musical thoughts, almost inaudible, yet their immensity seeming to extend to infinity.
As the disk of the setting sun touched the Mediterranean's blue horizon, they were in Santorini, sitting on a low stone wall, holding hands.
Darkness came. Under a full moon at the Acropolis, he kissed her and the moon glowed brighter. They didn't joke now, and they didn't laugh.
They fell in love.
Aboard a red, hot air balloon, they glided smoothly over the “fairy chimneys,” the tall, cone-shaped rock formations clustered in Monks Valley of Cappadocia. Mesmerized by the orgy of mother nature beneath them, they watched a newlywed couple kissing openly, among older tourists. “Get a room” Ethan said with a smile. Gemma’s smile was more provoking when she said “maybe we should too” and winked.
The balloon gently touched down at the Three Doors Hotel in Ortisahar where Ethan, the master of all cons, found an empty suite. He and Gemma passed through the walls and now, freed from all physical and spiritual inhibitions, and knowing that there was no tomorrow, they made love, desperately, so fiercely that the rest of the mortal world slowed down and came to a complete stop. And they would have gone on, except for the sound of the door opening and the laughter from the suite’s new guests barging in. They only had time to get out of bed, which nevertheless remained immaculately unused. And as they were leaving, they came to a silent agreement; that the slavery of being carnal was indeed the most undervalued, ultimate delight.
On the red carpet, as they were exiting the Academy Awards, Gemma found herself puzzled.
It was something about all of the acceptance speeches; while they sounded profound, she had read a few of the winners' minds, only to realize that their speeches were vapid and pretentious, nothing more than narcissistic, poorly written scripts, a soft blanket to cover drugs, alcohol, infidelity, violence, greed, abuse.
"I do love our new utopia," whispered Gemma, "not only because it gave me this brand new life. Because it gave me you. And though I'm having more fun than I ever had in my other life, my heart tells me that you and I, together, have perhaps other options, maybe using our incredible gifts to make the lives of the living a bit better? like becoming good Samaritans for a while?"
"Hey, I lived my whole life trying to do the right thing. Don't I deserve a little "bad-boy" time on this side? Like scaring the shit out of unsuspecting mortals?"
"If that's what you want, you're not gonna like what I have in mind."
The female always wins.
Their first few interventions were simple, rudimentary experiments. Training ground for greater things. First, an American tourist, hopelessly lost in the crowded, maze-like streets of old Marrakesh. Without a smartphone, he was entering stage-one of a major panic attack when suddenly, somehow, the route back to his hotel just seemed to pop into his head. And as his panic waned, he congratulated himself on his astute sense of direction, oblivious of the fact that it was a couple of ghosts who had dictated the directions.
In a classroom where middle school students were taking a test, Gemma spotted one confused little girl who was clearly on her way to getting an "F." She sidled up to her and guaranteed her an "A” by whispering the correct answers into her ear -- thus redefining how sudden ideas, theories and solutions really come to the living.
The world of the living. Ah, so passé!
This kind of thought transmission made them hungry for more. And at a much higher level; for instance, the desperate scientist struggling to solve a complex mathematical equation in a dark and empty NASA lab. It's not that they knew the answers. Being spirits they could clearly see the faults and read behind the numbers. They left hoping that their corrections to the equation wouldn't bring some rocket down in the future.
Then they cheered for the underdogs in a soccer game where the underdogs won for the first time in their history and the fans were so stunned, that nobody noticed the ball which seemed to have a mind of its own.
At 7:00 in the morning, inside a Coffee Bean cafe, a grizzled old composer was bending over a couple of music sheets, jotting down musical notes, struggling to complete a song he'd never finish. Ethan slid in next to him, inhaled the aroma of the old man's coffee, then leaned in closer and whistled a simple melody he'd heard in the music that played everywhere in the transit dimension; a haunting six note phrase that seemed to hit the old man like a sudden flash of inspiration. He hummed the notes a couple of times, then excitedly put them on paper. It appeared that the guy already had a smash hit on his hands. Better yet, he wouldn't even have to think about paying Ethan any royalties.
Ethan and Gemma considered all of this, concluding that they had probably discovered the true origins of inspiration --
Ghosts whispering in people's ears!
“You know” Gemma said, “there were others like us, before us, who inspired people, saved lives, stopped wars. They were the source of what the living call coincidence, luck, or chance.”
“Sometimes things go wrong so that you’ll appreciate them when they’re right. Good things fall apart so better things can fall together. Yes, the truth is, everything happens for a reason.”
“So, you think that others like us, thousands of years ago, could have whispered ‘be kind to each other’ in Jesus’s ear?”
“Blasphemy,” he said mockingly. “Jesus didn’t need advice, he was the Son of God.”
“And what if an evil spirit had whispered “kill all the Jews” in Hitler’s ear?”
“Hitler didn’t need advice either. He was a self-made psychopath.”
They laughed and decided that it was time to test their duality by temporarily splitting up. He went to the Capella Sistina and she invaded one of Steven Spielberg's grandiose sets. Ethan managed to stop a young anarchist and vandal-to-be from damaging an exhibit. Gemma provided Spielberg with a brilliant alternative line to replace one that was troubling Tom Cruise. After trying out Spielberg's new line, Tom looked up at him and said "you're a freaking genius," a high compliment that Gemma took personally. Excited, she applauded her own creativity - and it was almost audible.
"Shhh," Ethan reprimanded her from the Sistina. She chuckled.
Gemma was the first to arrive back in their faux reality. She felt a slight wind of loneliness blowing; the crowds seemed to walk slower than usual; huge clouds drifted overhead. From a nearby restaurant, she could hear Bing Crosby singing:
"I'm free as a wondering breeze,
I'm free to wander any place I please
and yet I can't escape from you..."
In a nearby alley, Ethan picked up the pace as he too heard Crosby's voice.
"I could ride away and hide away,
where we were miles apart,
but when I got there I'd find you there,
right in my heart."
"I can't escape from you..." he hummed to himself.
They saw each other at the same nanosecond. She ran and wrapped herself around him. If the living could hear more acutely, they'd be listening to two hearts beating in perfect sync.
That's if spirits had hearts.
Ethan kissed her and kissed her again, proud of her, proud
"We're certified Good Samaritans. Now let's go scare some mortals and have a good laugh."
"You're such a child" Gemma said disapprovingly.
"And you're so unforgivably mature for a young girl" he teased.
She recalled one of her "see-through" voyages into the minds of living people. The hellish images from earlier were still vivid in her mind, as was the cry "save the children."
"This is where we're going next," she said softly. Ethan shrugged and nodded his hesitant approval.
They were in the Daudladia district of Bangladesh, an appalling place, one so vile it proves that Hell, does in fact, exist. For this was the largest brothel in the world, housing some 2,000 prostitutes. Congested, foul-smelling lanes and rancid alleyways, their gutters and drains clogged and overflowing with used condoms, empty liquor bottles and dogs' rotting carcasses, a village populated by madams, pimps, drug-dealers, bootleggers, food vendors, shopkeepers, laborers and the 951 children who live within the walls of the brothel. Gemma and Ethan didn't bother taking the scenic route. They spotted a loaded truck, coming up a hill, carrying a sinister cargo: some 60 young girls, the oldest pushing 12. They were being brought here against their will, to become prostitutes.
Using Gemma's kinetic abilities, which by far exceeded Ethan's, they managed to jettison four armed thugs off the vehicle, then hacked into the driver's brain, intercepted his thoughts and his decision-making process, made him turn the truck around and head down the dusty road and back to freedom. They had just saved sixty innocent souls.
It was dark when they returned, yet they felt no exhaustion. On the contrary, they were both energized and Ethan hadn't given up on his plan to "scare some mortals." So, when a group of teenagers, loaded with boomboxes and such, appeared and entered the deserted building of an old library, Ethan felt up to the challenge.
"Aha," whispered Gemma, sarcastically. "A party in a haunted house. Booze, drugs, and rock'n'roll."
"Yeah. And the only thing missing is a couple of nasty, malevolent ghosts."
He turned to her and grinned. "Come on, you can be malevolent. Why don't we give them some real adrenaline?"
They walked to the door. Behind them, hidden in the deep shadows of a nearby cove, was the silhouette of a man, his gleaming yellowish eyes locked on Gemma and Ethan.
Once inside, there was nothing but bleak emptiness; room after empty room. They swiftly slid up the spiral staircase, managing to manifest the bait: some frightening, otherworldly squeaks and creaks. They heard whispering voices coming from the huge reading room. They didn't enter through the doors, instead making their Grand Entrance by passing smoothly through the wall.
It was at that moment a wave of nausea and pain flooded them, followed by tortuous ultraviolet light and 18.98Hz of deafening infrasound frequencies so intense it made them gasp for air. The teenaged ghost hunters also gasped when the ghostly images of Gemma and Ethan popped up on their Kinect Camera screen.
"There they are! Hit them!" one guy shouted, and the others cranked up the volume on their equipment. White and pink noise immobilized Gemma and Ethan, who suddenly felt disoriented and, writhing in pain, were too weak to resist the overpowering magnetic force now sucking them towards an electronic ghost trap.
Gone was their 360-degree vision, and images became fluorescent and smelled of death. They were freezing and helpless. The young ghost hunters were no less terrified.
“Give me malevolent." Gemma hissed. "We've got to stop them.”
This was no longer some enjoyable metaphysical game. It was war.
Ethan and Gemma grasped each other tightly, then through clenched teeth, let loose deafening screams that instantly transformed into a raging wind; it blasted people and equipment; dislodged and sent flying across the room, where they were pinned against the walls.
Gemma and Ethan morphed into hideous apparitions, now just inches from the terrified teens' faces, shrieking at them. With the last drop of courage the kids could muster, they clawed their way down to the floor, crawled to the front door, then ran. Equipment exploded and burst into flames. And in seconds, it all was quiet and swimming in a comforting darkness. Ethan and Gemma collapsed on the dusty floor.
"So much for scaring the mortals" Gemma said teasingly. "Happy now?"
Ethan nodded, and with great effort, chuckled.
Later, lying on the warm sand of a beach, Gemma suggested that maybe what they needed now was some sleep.
"Ghosts don't sleep," Ethan said.
"True, nevertheless, shutting our eyes for just a while might be soothing. We're still in trauma, you know. Malevolent my ass."
She was also suspecting that with closed eyes, they might be able to see better. Their energy and strength had dwindled to an incredible low, proving that ghosts are, ironically, vulnerable to electronics. High tech vs spirit. High tech wins.
They did eventually close their eyes and drifted into a strange kind of lethargic unconsciousness. And then they saw what, perhaps, was some version of the future.
Gemma found herself in a swirling symphony of colors, colors which hummed some otherworldly tune. In the background rose two beautiful, round-topped, snow-capped mountains. And though they appeared to be at least 15 miles away, individual flowers could be seen growing on their slopes. To the left was a shimmering lake containing a different kind of water: clear, golden, radiant and alluring. It almost seemed to be alive. The entire landscape was carpeted with grass so vivid and green, that it defied description. Gemma, now standing on the grass, was somehow drawn along an invisible path, a path that only turned visible with every step she took. She suddenly sensed warmth, and appearing in front of her was a pleasant old black woman, smiling and whispering. Gemma leaned forward to listen. The old woman was saying "Come back to me, baby... come back to me... Please Gemma, come back to me..."
What Ethan was seeing was dramatically different; endless rows of dead, wicked skeletal trees, their crooked limbs reaching for the sky like arthritic fingers. A blue-streaking electric rain pummeled a barren valley. Every inch of the land was covered in ice. The two rusty sections of a bisected broken steel bridge lay half-submerged in the river below, bubbling with thick, foul green vomit. As far as the eye could see, there were billions, trillions of people in layers, suffocating in the sulfur-filled air, shivering, trembling, shaking badly in the insufferable cold.
Ethan heard a cacophony of psalms and an intense monotonous metallic sound -- some convoluted funeral of which he couldn't see details.
When Gemma and Ethan came out of trance, it was no longer night and they were no longer at the beach. They were now in the countryside and it was late Autumn.
A sudden cold wind made them shiver. A warm rain washed the blood-red color from the leaves, forming a tiny crimson stream. An ominous dark cloud, passing overhead, reflected in Gemma's translucent eyes.
What was wrong? Dark thoughts. A bad feeling. A threat.
The pitch-black cloud that loomed overhead dissolved into thin air, revealing the rise of a sinister looking sun. The gloomy afternoon turned into a blinding, bright morning. Tree branches turned green and flowers began to bloom in a magical time lapse. However, all the metaphorical rainbows couldn't remove the tension that they had just felt.
"You wanna talk about it?" Ethan asked, without knowing what "it" meant.
"No, let's not. Not now." Gemma grabbed his hand and led him towards the glittering lights of the city.
They strolled arm-in-arm down an isolated country road, lined by trees of purple and pink foliage, and the sun a brilliant blue, yet looking normal to them. Ethan stopped to inhale the perfumed air of his own perceived version of their new world: a rain-soaked city street, and the distant sounds of live jazz music.
As they turned a corner, Gemma stepped into her own version of their world: the interior of an immense barn, awash in the glow of candles atop large, upended wooden cable spools serving as tables, and a stage where a Led Zeppelin cover band was performing "Stairway to Heaven." Ethan's experience was far different. He saw the awning-covered patio of an outdoor restaurant, where a jazz quintet, looking and sounding identical to Miles Davis' combo, played "Time Fugit."
Entranced by the jazz, Ethan suddenly heard a deep, threatening rumble, felt the ground sway, and watched customers' drinks skittering across tabletops. He desperately clutched Gemma's hand as the music and conversations faded into barely audible, whispering snippets of sound.
Then, nothing, only a calm and deafening silence. What the hell was that? A premonition, a kind of warning that only Ethan felt?
The music and sounds gradually faded back in. Baffled, Ethan tried to put the pieces together, couldn't, then turned to Gemma.
"Where are we? Right now, what is this place?"
"It's a barn, silly, and that Zeppelin cover band is..."
Ethan's eyes and ears told him otherwise. "Time Fugit," he whispered to himself.
"A what?" Gemma asked.
He shook his head "nothing, just me..." while he fought his instinct to discuss with her the very first dichotomy of vision, his own visions of hell, the trembling ground, the shaking wine glasses, the significance of the jazz tune -- perhaps a reminder that they both were fugitives of time?
“You know, you’re both right” said a raspy, deep voice. They turned to see the Miles Davis lookalike, smiling, still holding his trumpet, as he pulled up a chair. They didn’t notice the odd freckle astral pattern on his face.
“You haven’t been watching the signs,” he said and shook his head. “Not many do. Tempus Fugit valut umbra, time flees like a shadow, times flies, time escapes, slips like sand between your fingers. A reminder that there’s a Ticking Clock, counting down your stay in transit.”
A sudden realization filled Gemma’s face. “You’re no longer the ice cream girl...” she cooed.
The Miles Davis guy nodded. “We are what we want to be, just like you.”
He ignored the question and went on to explain that they’d soon have to split up, as their funerals would mark their departure to the next, the final level. To stay together ad infinitum would require that they be buried at the exact same nanosecond, a feat almost impossible by all physical laws which, unfortunately, applied in the mortal world. Another ticking clock -- their energy dissipated with time. They were running out of steam.
“If I was you, which sadly to say I’ll never be -- you know, in love, in transit, in trouble -- I’d go back home and see what magic I could work out.”
“Is that the key to Heaven or Hell?” Ethan asked.
“Heaven and Hell are an archaic concept. As you’re nearing the departure for the Afterlife, you will be remembering more as to who, where, when, how...”
He stood and played the final ten notes of “Tempus Fugit” on his trumpet. The music grabbed them hard and didn't let go until the last note had sounded. And then he was gone.
Gemma suddenly turned serious. Abruptly. Like the click of a switch.
"I have to go. Right now."
"No, you don't - we don't know where home is."
"We haven't looked hard enough. I will find my home. Find yours"
Ethan stood up.
"You don't need to come," she protested.
"I don't need to. I want to. Wherever you go, I go."
"Not always. Not now. I have to do this alone. I know how to find you. So when I ask ‘where are you?’ I expect you to answer."
He took a step forward to follow her yet she had already vanished into thin air.
"From a blink to eternity," Ethan said to himself, bitterly.
He walked aimlessly for a while, disconnected thoughts and images suffocating his consciousness. He felt like sitting down, hoping it would help him think more clearly. He spotted a short rectangular mile stone, a perfectly symmetrical cube. The engraving looked fresh. "Mile 0."
His eyes drifted from the stone to a piece of paper the wind had blown to his feet. That too looked brand new. And it smelled strongly of fresh ink.
He squinted trying to read it. An obituary. "Our beloved father, brother, grandfather, friend Ethan..." He gazed at the small photo above the print and choked. The face of an old man; it seemed vaguely familiar. And the name -- Ethan? Perhaps his grandfather? He had seen that face before, yet he couldn't remember when or where.
"A Christian Mass officiated by the Reverend James Cowan will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday, at Hogg Funeral Home." He looked back at the face. The photo's fine lines had started to fade.
"You will live on in our hearts," the final line of the print read like a nail in the coffin.
No distance is enormous.
Night, a solid dark, consuming night in a drab, blighted neighborhood of Elkhart, Indiana. A run-down apartment building. Gemma looked at it sadly. This was home? She swiftly flew up the stairs to the second floor, the two-bedroom apartment. Her abusive stepfather had passed out drunk on the bed, snoring. And her mother - the same old black woman seen in her vision - sleeping restlessly on the couch. Gemma drifted around her room, feeling the coldness. God, she hated this room and all the memories she'd tried to erase. She lay down next to her mother, thinking she might somehow be able to comfort her. Still she got tangled in the old woman's thoughts, filled with sadness and anger for Gemma's loss and also vague sparse hints of hope that Gemma would come back.
"Oh, mama" she whispered "if you only knew."
A tear from her eyes dropped on her mother's cheek. A real tear from the spirit dimension able to cross borders, a kind of breach of boundaries between the dead and the living.
Ethan had traveled too. He was in front of a marvelous colonial house in Leavenworth, Washington. He walked in through the wall and found nothing more than pretentious sadness and an aggravating calm, which angered him. No grief for him? On his desk, he saw scattered documents. One of them, from the funeral home. He focused on the date and time: his funeral was in two hours. In the blink of an eye, he was transported to the chapel of the Hogg Funeral Home, looking down at his lifeless mortal body, lying in the casket. An austere-looking old man, he thought - then again, all dead people looked austere.
The chaotic encounter with the young ghost hunters must have triggered some weird reasoning skill, as he could now think at astonishing speeds and stunning clarity.
He needed Gemma. Only together could they control their fate. To stay together. To depart together for whatever awaited them. "Tempus Fugit." Time flees. The clock was ticking. And the ticking clock -- was their funerals!
Gemma suddenly felt a nauseating emptiness in her old home. She missed Ethan. She had no one to share her feelings with. And she sensed the urge to see her mortal body before the burial. Why was there no funeral in her mother's thoughts? Why did her mom keep thinking of a hospital? The thought struck Gemma like an arrow: No funeral arrangements. Hospital. Get there now!
As she emerged onto the dead-end street, she whispered "where are you?" yet wasn't sure if she was trying to find Ethan or the location of her mortal body. Sixty feet away, the thin man had heard her question and repeated it in a barely audible whisper: “where are you?”
Ethan was at the funeral parlor when he heard Gemma calling. Instinctively he started to respond when a thought froze him. In his vision he had seen what resembled hell. What if Gemma was destined to go elsewhere, a different dimension known as heaven? What if he dragged her to an eternity of torment? Do the right thing, he thought. Leave her alone, she doesn't belong where you're going. "Where are you?" he heard again, louder. He clenched his teeth. The decision was made. He and Gemma were a match made in heaven, not in hell. And he would never drag her there. He refused to answer her. Gemma called and called.
In the small, confined ICU, Gemma parted the opaque curtain that separated her from her dying body. Her hands were trembling as she saw her physical self the way she really was in life: a forty-ish black woman, connected to tubes and
wires and one leg recently amputated. She looked at the chart, which stated that the patient, Gemma Hanson, was not only comatose; based on test results, she was assumed to be brain dead. "Oh mama," she thought "I won't be coming back," and the thought pained her. If the mortal Gemma was ever resuscitated, she'd be limping along the same miserable life she lived for forty some years. Ethan would be buried and transition away from her. "No, no, not fair," she murmured and felt compelled to reach and touch her body, caress her hair. Torn between sadness and hope.
At the funeral parlor, a handsome 36-year-old Ethan Maddigan was looking at his deceased self, inside the metal casket which would soon be lowered into a grave.
"You will live on in our hearts - my ass" he mumbled sarcastically.
Gemma made a last effort to find Ethan. "Where are you?!" she screamed and the blood curdling shriek resonated like a second death in Ethan's ears. He felt it was useless to resist and didn't hesitate for a second. "I'm watching my funeral" he responded, then rushed to tell her his theory about heaven and hell, the timing of their burials, and their impending separation: Her to Heaven -- Him to Hell. So many thoughts transmitted in a millisecond. Their duality, back to work at hyper-speed.
Gemma refused to accept the separation. She was determined to follow him, wherever he'd be going.
"Better an eternity in hell with you than a day alone in heaven" she said.
The ticking clock was now counting seconds. Reverend James Cowan was talking about line 284 of book 3 of Virgil's Georgics, and "fugit inreparabile tempus" -- "it escapes, irretrievable time".
Time which they had and spent foolishly, both in their mortal lives and their ghostly existence. Time to correct what they did wrong in both dimensions. Time to be together. Ethan said:
"I have to concentrate my thought for a moment and I can build up a duplicate of myself, send that speeding to you."
"And I can do the same for you," Gemma countered.
In an instant she was holding his hand at the chapel and he was grasping hers in the ICU. “Looks like a close call” he said. “Pretty soon I may be buried and you’ll still be lying there, stubbornly clutching to a few traces of miserable life.”
It was now that they should use the duplexity of their existence to the fullest. Harness the time that was flying. Synchronize the forthcoming ending.
They noticed murmurs.
“Only a few of us will be at the cremation,” whispered a young man to his wife.
The word reverberated like a gunshot in Ethan’s mind. Cremation? His eyes snapped open. So, his body was not heading for the cemetery? Gemma read a wave of thoughts and they were both bombarded with scattered yet synchronized, similar notions. Could Cremation mean that Ethan would stay in transit forever? How soon could Gemma’s burial be arranged? First, she had to die. And together they had to stop the cremation.
They quickly got into action. First, they chose some vulnerable minds of key relatives and planted doubts about the pending cremation. A split second later they roamed the Crematorium where everything seemed ready. The furnace was already fired up.
Gemma and Ethan split up. He scanned the computerized equipment, she surveyed the furnace. They came to one conclusion: the only way to halt the process was to sort of incinerate themselves!
A convoy of four cars tailed the black Rolls Royce hearse.
Back in the ICU, the two looked down at Gemma’s comatose body. The beeps of the life-support machines sounded like a different, threatening ticking clock. “It’s your choice,” said Ethan. “It’s your life, your death.” He took her hand and placed it gently on the respirator’s master switch then asked: “Are you sure about this?”
She turned, gazed into his eyes, gave him a quick nod then: Gemma’s ghostly fingers grabbed the switch, tried and tried with all the force she could master.
Rapid beeps on the monitor. Some LED’s flickered. The switch moved halfway to “off.” The beeps got frantic. The shrill buzzing of a distant emergency alarm abruptly echoed throughout the hospital. Gemma clenched her teeth and gave it all she got. The switch clicked firmly into its off position. The final sustained beep echoed like the haunting last note of a sad ballad.
The monitor flatlined.
The mortal Gemma took her last earthly breath. No death rattle, just a peaceful sigh of relief.
Past, present and future became one, creating a sense of infinity not only in time, also in space and thought.
Reverend Cowan and a handful of close relatives, listened to Mr. Jeffrey Mangas, head of the Flagship Crematorium, give his routine speech, which was a kind of ex machina for Ethan and Gemma, since they immediately took control of the relatives’ thought processes and imposed unsettling visuals of cremation, as Mr. Mangas described the process:
“During incineration, the body is exposed to a column of flames produced by a furnace burner. The deceased is placed in a casket and it’s what burns down first. Next, the heat dries the body, burns the skin and hair, contracts and chars the muscles, vaporizes the soft tissues, and calcifies the bones so that they eventually crumble. Finally, the dried bone fragments are further ground into a finer sand-like consistency we call "ashes."
By the end of Mangas’ speech, each and every mourner had been transported inside the furnace and had witnessed the horrifying reality of the cremation process. The drama was not over yet.
“I don’t know about this,” Gemma said as the cardboard and wood casket was rolled on a steel gurney to the incinerator.
“I don’t know about this,” one granddaughter whispered to her mother. “Grandad should be buried,” Gemma added.
“Grandad should be buried,” the granddaughter echoed her.
Although the doubt had been planted, the toughest challenge was still ahead: Gemma and Ethan slipped inside the furnace as the casket was rolled in. Metal gates were shut. A motor started. Amber flames wooshed, roared, blazed around the casket -- and engulfed them. Gemma screamed. A reflex of her residual life ties with the living. “Think cold!” Ethan shouted. Ghosts are not supposed to feel pain, friction, temperature. Emma chilled.
Some 1,500 degrees didn’t bother the two.
Their breaths instantly turned into ghostly vapors that shrouded the casket and caused the burners to stutter. Gemma and Ethan exhaled forcefully and a transient frost began forming on the tile walls. “And they say ‘when hell freezes over’...” Ethan chuckled, only to get a venomous look from Gemma.
They kept blowing icy vapor against the blaze until, one after another, the burners hissed and shut down without even discoloring the casket. They looked at each other and nodded, relieved. Just then the alarm started blaring, but to their senses, it sounded like an ethereal symphony. Desiring a grand finale, Ethan activated all of the facility’s fire sprinklers. It rained over the just and the unjust. Though Ethan wouldn’t admit it, it was really a bit of mild revenge against his family.
They passed a group of panicked employees and walked through the relatives, dictating their thoughts: “Was that an omen? Maybe a proper burial in twenty- four hours?”
Mission accomplished. However, Gemma and Ethan couldn’t resist the temptation and decided to lie comfortably in the back of the Rolls hearse, which was about to depart empty. Or so everybody thought.
“We’ve got 24 hours,” Gemma said nonchalantly, still lying next to Ethan in the back of the hearse. “Now I must work on my mother’s thoughts for my burial.” “Sure” said Ethan, putting his arm around her, “at the very same instant as mine. That’d take a lot of goddamn precision”
In the frantic activity of the ICU room, Ethan left. Gemma gazed at her dead body one last time and, at the speed of thought, she was once more in front of her apartment building.
“Girl,” she heard. A cold, hissing voice, like razor blades scraping against each other.
The Stringbean man detached himself from the liquid darkness of a nearby cove and took a timid step forward. “Girl,” he repeated, “don’t talk, just listen.” Gemma tried to intercept his thoughts. He blocked her. “My name is Babyface Morgan, an alias I chose to compensate for my physical ugliness. I’m the stranded spirit of a child killer, sentenced to death when I was only 13, but not executed for another twenty years. I haven’t been buried yet because I donated my unclaimed corpse to science and will likely be dissected soon. That means I’ll be staying in transit forever, so I will avoid hell, whatever hell is, and continue to do my evil deeds for the pitiful mortals. I’m a misanthrope. Yes, I’m an evil spirit and if you’re wondering how an evil spirit can roam freely in this makeshift world, I’ll tell you. Where there’s a god, there’s a devil. Where there’s good, there’s evil. You and your imaginary lover have embarked on good deeds. “Angels,” people will call you. Good deeds? I will counter with vile deeds and real death. It’s called restoring balance. I’ll hurt innocent people; stop the two of you from what you’re planning. Besides, he’ll soon be going to hell because he has killed – something he never told you. And you, girl, you can go to the Afterlife alone, or you can stay here with me. I can arrange that, you know. I have friends in low places.”
He wiped greasy sweat from his forehead.
“Oh, I didn’t let you speak, because interrupting me would give you access to my thoughts. Yet, I’ll grant you a glimpse.”
For one horrifying instant, Gemma was thrust into his mind, a grotesque, howling void, where a chorus of discordant voices were chanting over and over again, “Save the children...! Save the children” She saw red. Lots of red, like the red which had once filled her windshield. Fragments of that memory signaled danger. Then a three-digit number appeared -- one number -- the number 217... which vanished as Babyface spoke again.
“Synchronizing your funerals is really difficult, you know. In fact, I’ll make it impossible. I’ll give you the gift of a dreadful, tortuous dilemma. That’s not a threat. It’s a promise.”
Gemma smirked. “Know what’s wrong with you?”
“You were born with perpetual malcontent syndrome.”
“And what’s that, doctor?” Morgan attempted unsuccessfully to smile.
“You were only content when you were upset. You never experienced joy, or friendship, or laughter.”
“I laughed when I killed those kids, you know.”
He imitated a bitter chuckle and kept talking as he walked
off down the cobblestone street, his thin, razor blade voice blending in with a cold, whistling wind that arose suddenly then abruptly faded into nothingness.
Gemma’s mother was no longer alone. Ethan was sitting next to her on the couch, quietly angry. Gemma told him that she knew all along. “I heard everything” he said. ”You know, this duality connecting us works miracles. Though I did feel a tinge of guilt eavesdropping.”
He explained, that while Morgan was shielding his thoughts from Gemma, he was unaware that Ethan had full and undetected access. So Morgan’s secrets were now exposed. Ethan walked Gemma through the man’s turbulent past and together they saw the horror he was capable of. Most importantly, they saw what he had already set in motion. Morgan was planning to derail the Glacier Express, the red train carrying 217 school kids, on a special trip through the Solis and Landwasser viaducts and the spiral tunnels of the Swiss Alps.
“Was it true, what he said? The men you’ve killed? One more tinge of guilt -- for knowing that you may be dragging me to hell?”
Ethan nodded. No, Morgan hadn’t lied. He’d simply distorted the truth to drive a wedge between them. The men he had killed weren’t innocent victims. It had been during the war. They were enemy combatants. If that meant eternal hell for him, there was only one option: go separate ways.
Gemma sat gently on his lap, draped an arm over his shoulder, and gazed into his eyes. “At the risk of repeating myself, better an eternity in hell with you than a day alone in heaven.”
Then they started mapping the road ahead. First, she’d enter her mother’s subconscious and plant the date and time of her funeral. As for news from the hospital --
“The phone will ring any second now.”
Gemma’s mother sighed and reached for the receiver, instead brushing Gemma’s hand. Instantly overwhelmed with joy, she whispered, “Gemma, my baby?” By the time she’d opened her eyes, Gemma and Ethan were gone.
They chose the noisy Souk El Hiraj of Allepo, so that the noise might drown out their thoughts, in case they had been followed. They sat inconspicuously on a huge roll of plush carpets, hidden behind endless rows of caftans, their whispers muted by the shouting and commotion filling the air.
They were here to strategize, far from Morgan’s contagious presence. They calculated the hours, the minutes, the seconds -- the time needed to avert the train tragedy and still make it to their funerals. However, time was no longer their friend, it was quickly turning into a lethal enemy. To beat the ticking clock, they had to give up the duplexity solution, as this would make them weaker and slower. And there would be no further communications between them, as they knew that Morgan would be trying to intercept their thoughts.
“Morgan will be on board that train” Gemma said. “I’ll take him.”
“No, that’s a man’s job.”
“Even when the man has limited kinetic abilities?” She shook her head and through clenched teeth said, “You’re not his match. I am.”
When Ethan had dug into Morgan’s mind, he had discovered the where’s, when’s and how’s of his execution. So now, while Gemma would save the children of the Glacier Express, Ethan would do some of his own magic in South Carolina’s Kirkland Correctional Institution. And since Ethan and Gemma had no watches to synchronize, they would have to synchronize their minds.
“It scares me to think that you’ll be on your own.” Ethan said.
“The scary part is that I won’t be there to save your ass when you need it” she joked.
They wrapped their arms tightly around each other, embracing as if they might never do it again. Then, after a long kiss, they made the jump to their separate destinations. Their journey against time had begun.
At exactly 11:21 AM, Ethan was at 4344 Broad River Rd, Columbia, home of the Kirkland Correctional Institution. Passing through its fortified walls at the speed of thought, he was instantly roaming the endless corridors, reading the guards’ minds for directions to the penitentiary’s morgue. At 11:22 AM he was inside the cold, gray room, its only living occupant, a groggy middle-aged security man. And though Ethan could not physically open the metallic cadaver drawers, he could look inside. And they were all empty, row after row, shelf after shelf. “Where are the bodies of executed inmates?” He planted the question in the guard’s mind and that triggered an immediate subconscious response. “Drummond’s Funeral Home.”
Determined to use both her mental and kinetic powers, Gemma boarded the Glacier Express at Davos. And when the train started its smooth climb, she raced unseen past the hundreds of children filling every coach. As she gained speed, the world around her shifted, first into slow motion and then a freeze frame. Guided by her heightened sense of danger, she headed for the engine room. Name of the train driver? Yes, Gerard. She sensed Gerard’s sudden confusion and his intention not to use the brakes during the train’s rapidly approaching descent.
At 11:23 AM Ethan entered the funeral home and found more than what he was looking for – not one, but two refrigerated corpses. Which one was Morgan’s and – who the hell was the other?
Reading the barcodes on each drawer, Ethan learned that the unknown man was one Samuel Jones, killed in an auto accident, unclaimed for a week, and scheduled for burial... damn, at 12:00 today. Morgan’s barcode read, “Will be claimed by Shultz Scientific Research Facilities.” And through great effort, Ethan managed to switch the bodies’ barcodes. He smiled devilishly as he watched the funeral home’s workers enter, scan the two barcodes, then transfer Morgan’s corpse into the simple casket intended for Samuel Jones.
Mission accomplished? Not yet, Ethan had to make sure that Morgan was buried and done with. No risks.
The first thing Gemma saw after kicking open the engineer’s door, was Morgan, his hand clutching Gerard’s shoulder. He gave her an ugly smile.
“Well, look who’s here. Where’s your boyfriend?”
Before he could react, Gemma had catapulted herself across the cab, grabbing him by the throat.
“I have kinetics too, you fuckin’ shit,” he cried.
“Thanks for the warning,” Gemma growled, gouging her fingers deeper into his flesh. She was strangling his thoughts, trying to free Gerard from Morgan’s lethal hold.
As the train started its steep descent, Gemma could already hear the driver’s determination about not using the brakes. The distance separating all of those children from death, was the 3.2 miles down to the viaduct in the valley below.
At 11:43 Ethan was already at the cemetery. Morgan’s casket arrived in the back of a pickup truck. If spirts had nails, Ethan would be probably biting his. Instead, he followed the workers carrying the casket to a far corner of the graveyard.
Gemma was weakening; knew it was impossible to keep Morgan under her control much longer. He fought back viciously.
The train barreled into the pitch-black darkness of a tunnel. That’s when Morgan made his move, slugging Gemma, who lost her grip on his throat, and stumbled back against the wall, Morgan’s hand now clamped around her throat. Dazed, she desperately tried to send her thoughts to Gerard: “Gerard, the brakes. Your kids. Your wife. The children. Save the children. The brakes!”
Gerard stared vacantly into space, a silly grin on his face, confused by the voices in his head, oblivious to the disaster waiting a thousand feet below.
As the speeding train raced into a sharp curve, its wheels screeched, white-hot sparks showering the tracks. “Use the brakes, Gerard!” Gemma mentally screamed. Morgan’s grip was already choking out her thoughts, making them incoherent in Gerard’s head. Now on the verge of losing, Gemma gave up trying to communicate with Gerard, an effort that was only dwindling her physical ability to fight off Morgan. Instead, she said to herself “think hot, think fire!”
A huge flame appeared out of nowhere, licking at Morgan’s face. Startled, he released his hold on Gemma and Gerard, stumbling backwards, tripping, and falling towards the floor. In that instant, Gemma attacked, charging him, driving him to the floor with such force, that the floor planks splintered, then cracked wide open, revealing a gaping hole, the tracks whipping past below.
Before he could react, Gemma was on top of him, pinning him down, his head arching back into the hole.
“You know you’re going to hell,” Gemma hissed in his ear.
“That’s what you think, you stupid bitch,” Morgan retorted, struggling violently to free himself. “I’ll stay in transit forever, I’ll never be buried.” She hit him hard and shoved him further into the gap.
“That’s what you think, you fuck,” she shouted. “Ethan has already arranged your burial.”
Morgan froze for a moment and that was all the time Gemma needed. She took control of Gerard’s mind as the train was now racing down the steep grade towards the viaduct. Children’s panicked screams were already rising in nightmarish intensity.
At 12:00 noon sharp, the casket holding Morgan’s corpse descended unceremoniously into a freshly dug grave, as a priest rushed through his recitation of the last rites. Still, the two workers with shovels, feeling no pressure to complete their task, sat on a nearby tombstone having a smoke. The priest shook his head and left. Ethan was becoming agitated. And angry, since every second could mean trouble for Gemma who, he knew, was confronting Morgan on the train. Combining all of his powers, Ethan managed to move a sizeable pile of dirt, which dropped down onto Morgan’s casket with a loud thud, the noise startling the workers. They exchanged spooked looks, got up, grabbed their shovels, and got to work.
Suddenly, compressed air hissed, brakes squealed, and the sounds of grinding steel filled the cabin. Yet, the train barely slowed. Gemma shoved Morgan further into the gaping hole. He screamed, desperately grasping at the splintered planks, his fingernails breaking, snapping off. Gerard, oblivious to what was happening in the ghost dimension, stared in utter confusion at the gaping hole in his floor. At that moment the train careened into a hairpin curve, all cars now teetering on the edge of a cliff. Suddenly aware of his predicament, Gerard shook it off and slammed on the secondary set of emergency brakes.
At the same time, Gemma launched a massive thought to the panicked children on the train. ”All of you, move to the left side! Now!” As if they were obeying a command, kids scrambled across the aisles to the left side of their cars. Their combined weight counterbalanced the train, setting its wheels back on the tracks with a cold metallic moan.
Gemma snapped her focus back to Morgan and, with one last effort she managed to dislodge him. He plummeted through the hole, disappearing in the void, shrieking, as simultaneously, back at Morgan’s gravesite --
Dirt was still being shoveled on Morgan’s coffin. Ethan exhaled with relief then rushed to the Swiss Alps to be with Gemma who probably needed help.
Morgan gripped the rails, the wheels running over his hands leaving him unaffected. He laughed and started crawling back towards the last railcar. As it passed overhead, he reached up, grabbed the railing, and started to pull himself up, when something caught his attention: his hand first became transparent, then began to disappear. Then his left leg turned to dust and he fell backwards, sucked by an invisible vacuum, watching in horror the beginning of his journey to eternal hell.
“Hello, gorgeous.” Gemma was still sprawled on the floor when she heard it. Ethan gave her his hand and helped her up.
“What took you so long?” she whispered and kissed him.
“What’s for dinner, honey?” he returned her joke.
Behind them, the passenger cars were resonating with children singing.
A split second later, Gemma and Ethan were standing on the tracks, watching, as far below, the train disappeared across the long viaduct.
“Rails,” Ethan said. “Rails?” Gemma echoed. They exchanged a worried look and thought in total sync, “what if Morgan didn’t want to de-rail just the train, but de-rail us too? What if we were supposed to be somewhere else, but were intentionally diverted?” She locked her eyes on Ethan. “What if he let you read his mind deliberately?”
Gemma said that their own funerals were approaching soon. Time fugit. There was no more time. In mortal terms, some ten minutes or less. Still the “what ifs” kept dancing in their heads. “Come on,” Ethan said, and in a split second they were at the St. Moritz train station where awaiting passengers had gathered in front of a large screen TV. Ethan and Gemma joined them. The chyron scrolling at the bottom of the screen read, “Middle East crisis erupts out of control.” And the horrifying images from the screen spilled into the room, becoming frighteningly real. Images of war. Fire and destruction waiting to happen. U.S. carriers with jet fighters warming engines. Russian S-400 missiles pointed toward the sky. A serious conflict at sea, in the air and on land.
“We need to be there” Ethan said.
“You realize it’s either or. It’s them or us.”
“There goes that damned “what if” again.”
“What if we can do both. We have ten minutes and we still move faster than any mortal.
“We’ll blow what’s left of our energy.”
“Worth trying. Let’s go stop a war.”
“Even if it means we never see each other again?” Gemma said. But before she could finish the sentence, they were already at Tahrir Square in Istanbul, watching a crowd of hundreds of thousands and a sea of red flags and “Death to America” banners. No time to be wasted on debates.
They instantly realized that Altan Remir, Turkey’s self-proclaimed Sultan, a ruthless dictator, was about to declare war on the U.S. and its European allies. With nearby Syria becoming a potential tinderbox for World War 3 and Iran already arming its nuclear arsenal, this lunatic was planning to become the key player and set the Middle East on fire.
Altan stood tall and rigid in front of the microphone. The crowds cheered and chanted. “Hero, hero” from the masses. Gemma and Ethan took center stage, behind him.
“Follow my lead” Ethan said.
“We’ll hack his brain. Total control. Remember what we said about Hitler? He’s no different, another psychopath -- and we’re the only ones who can stop him.”
They clasped hands. Eyes closed, tense, focusing their powers. The dictator opened his mouth to speak. But instead of Turkish, his words came out in English.
“I love America,” he said and the stunned crowd fell silent. He too was stunned, as he heard himself say, “I love America more than I love Turkey.” An angry murmur started to spread, quickly turning to rage as the red flags of war were lowered. Gemma nudged Ethan, reprimanding him. He smiled. The two concentrated hard on the dictator.
Switching back to his own language, Altan admitted that he had been nothing more than a tyrant, sentencing thousands of his opponents to death, working with terrorists, stealing billions, bankrupting the country and planning to start a catastrophic global crisis. “You will all die for Turkey” he shouted and the threat echoed over hundreds of speakers, numbing the crowd as he added, “but I will not die for Turkey.”
On allied warships surrounding Turkey, fingers eased off of red launch buttons and jet fighter engines wound down.
Back at Tahrir Square, the crowd screamed and shouted curses at their leader. They now had a new enemy to hate. “A hate-filled crowd” Ethan smirked, “will do our job for us.”
Concluding his admission of a thousand guilts, Altan offered to be handcuffed and taken to jail. Angry armed soldiers were already marching onto the podium.
For Ethan and Gemma, the clock was still ticking, only two minutes away from their burials. Yet they wouldn’t leave until Altan was completely done with.
He was already in handcuffs, being led away, when Gemma said “I feel weak, let’s go,” and Ethan responded, “You go first, I need to do something and will be there, no worries. Wouldn’t miss my burial for the world.”
As Gemma vanished from the scene, Ethan focused all of his attention on a huge, enraged Turk in the crowd. In a split second Ethan was next to him and whispered in his ear, “Our leader is a traitor, an assassin, a murderer.” Suddenly overcome with bloody outrage, the Turk started shouting: “Traitor, assassin, murderer!” His rage surged like wildfire through the crowd, who started chanting those same three words, the bloodthirsty mob now moving in for the kill. “Lynch” Ethan muttered, a hellish look in his eyes. But then he remembered what the ice cream girl had said. Evil was contagious.
Now in front of her own gravesite, Gemma saw her coffin ready to be lowered. “No, no” she muttered in agony. She focused on her tearful mother standing nearby, and said “not yet, not yet,” though this time, Gemma’s transmitted thoughts had no effect. She didn’t wonder why. She already knew the answer. So close to the end, her abilities were dwindling. Time had ran out. Snapping her focus to Ethan, she cried, “Where are you?” Then she heard the first metallic click of her casket’s lowering mechanism.
In Istanbul, as a full-blown riot erupted, Ethan too heard the dreaded metallic clicks. Gathering remnants of energy, he left the scene.
Gemma felt the warmth of his embrace as he showed up behind her. “Let’s have our duplicate selves attend my funeral. Ready?” She nodded.
Gemma and Ethan appeared at his grave. “Oh no,” Ethan said, seeing that his coffin was already half way down. “Jam the mechanism!” she shouted, although she already knew the physical impossibility of what she was asking.
At her own burial, the clicks of her coffin’s lowering mechanism continued, albeit her coffin had descended only a few inches into the grave.
Back at Ethan’s funeral, Gemma felt helpless and cried. Ethan noticed the tears in Gemma’s eyes but he was too desperate and confused to realize that ghosts don’t cry. He simply clenched teeth as they both prepared for the worst.
And it was then that the clicking stopped. The mechanism was jammed? How? A coincidence? If they couldn’t do it, who could?
“Guess the old man doesn’t want to be buried” sneered one of his nephews, his comment met with glares and shushes from his mother and sister.
Gemma and Ethan clung to each other, shivering from an unseen cold wind which seemed to be tearing the very molecules from their spirit flesh. And as their preternatural powers began to disintegrate, they were replaced by intense physical pain. So was this to be the end for them?
They looked around in confusion, as everything started to move in a lethargic slow motion. The funeral home crew was already working on the mechanism.
From where they stood, they couldn’t see her, standing in the distance behind a tombstone, watching them -- the familiar, redheaded ice cream girl. She was smiling now, her astral freckle pattern magically rearranging itself.
The deafening silence of no synchronicity. The two caskets, miles apart, still only breaths away from each other.
The casket’s lowering mechanism was fixed.
Click, click, click. Then an uncontrolled descent, which made people gasp.
Ethan’s casket landed with a thud at the bottom of his grave at the same instant, the exact nanosecond that Gemma’s coffin touched the bottom of the six foot grave.
The first few grains of soil landed on Gemma’s casket.
Shovelfuls of dirt, on Ethan’s coffin.
More moist soil covered Gemma’s casket.
The tear she had left on her mother’s cheek, glowed briefly then turned into a birthmark.
A white rose landed on the dirt.
Tapping sounds from a shovel.
It was then that Gemma's image started to flicker and fade at her burial site.
By his graveside, Ethan's image faded to transparency. Gemma too was turning translucent and when she sighed, all those mortals around her felt a strange but comforting breeze which only lasted as long as a breath. The tidal volume.
"Together again," Gemma whispered with a luminous smile. “Inseparable.”
The air smelled of sulfur. There was an abundance of chilling silence, weighing heavily over their souls, a sense of strangulation, as if the environment was constricting around their throat.
They were back in their world -- the one that was what they made it -- only this time their world was devoid of life and movement, it just stood still like a monochrome facade, unsafe, uncertain, almost made of liquefied materials. Their ears started to once again register sound. A painful realization hit them: they were shifting, being transitioned back into the physical world, and suddenly aware of a need for oxygen, their lungs now being drained of air.
A translucent, white eight-wheeler crossed the intersection with just a whisper of a noise. The word SHACMAN jumped out in black bold letters and crashed on the steaming asphalt.
The truck faded at a short distance, then an ambulance with its siren muted zipped by in close proximity, followed by the black Rolls Royce hearse carrying an empty transparent casket. Far away, on serpentine flaming tracks, a red train was rolling lethargically uphill, in reverse.
Gemma and Ethan exchanged looks of awareness. Their temporary stay in the spirit world didn’t exist anymore. They were being stripped of all their ghostly qualities, in preparation for the final journey. At least the supreme power was upholding its self-imposed rules. They were together and that mattered more than all the magic in the sinister universe they had briefly inhabited.
And as they started to run, their cardboard world began to collapse around them. Buildings crumbled silently, roads twisted and were swallowed by a vindictive, lava-like ground, sea water froze and shattered in smithereens and ahead of them there existed nothing, a void with only one uphill road.
A road in seductive golden hues, perhaps retrieved from their Oz memories, with its incline rising dramatically to a cruel verticality as the two continued their unstoppable frantic run. There was no way back, since every inch of the road they left behind, burned and turned to ashes and dust.
At the very end of their climb, there it was: a razor-sharp narrow threadlike cliff, made of eroded limestone rocks, with just standing room for two people, its sides cascading without interruption to an unseen valley floor, countless miles below.
"Life on the edge, uh?" Ethan said, clearly out of breath. He held Gemma tight, almost melting into her.
"Are you ready for this?"
"Even if I wasn't - it's a bit too late."
"I may be dragging you to hell."
"Even worse, I may be dragging you to the boredom of heaven, singing colors and all."
"I meant to ask. Do you believe in God?"
"Of course I do."
"Right now, whoever is available."
Ethan looked down and inhaled deeply.
"It has to be like Butch Cassidy."
"An old movie."
”Ah. We never had cable."
He looked at her lovingly and sighed.
"When I look in your eyes, it feels as if I'm looking into my soul."
"It's natural. We're soulmates."
She pointed to the void, nodded. He motioned "yes."
They let out their last breaths. The final tidal volume.
They spread out their arms with the hands interlocked.
They slowly tiptoed, leaned forward --
Into the nothingness below.
The Deep Unknowable.
They fell and fell and fell until they became two bright dots in a darkening horizon.
GERRIT STAINER - PUSH - PULL
Gerrit Stainer has lived and worked in many places. His career as a published author began with scholarly and historical articles about New Mexico, and his first published story appeared in Warp and Weave out of Utah Valley University in 2018. He writes fiction motivated by a love of his Utah homeland and fueled by chocolate, taking breaks to play the drums. He is working on a novel set in the same world as his published stories.
He keeps a blog at: https://desertloon.blogspot.com/
Siesta was not quite over in the village, and sound had to fight its way through the air beat down by the sun. But under the bowery roof it was a mighty echo: a moan like a large beast with digestive distress.
Buzhak clamped her mouth shut to stop a laugh. A snort still escaped right before the noise stopped. But when her gangly young companion lowered the push-pull horn from his mouth he laughed too. She had never heard him laugh like that (she had never seen him so afraid either).
"Now we've done it," he said with a tight grin. "No going back."
"No going back." She gave what she hoped was an encouraging smile. “Remember, I checked the books three times. We're not breaking any law.”
He swallowed and nodded, then looked down at the curved brass tubes in his hands. “It reminds me of an engine,” he said.
“You're right,” said Buzhak as she looked around. Nobody else was in sight. At that moment she wanted to put it all away, run home and pretend this never happened. Pedfen must feel the same way. This was the kind of thing that didn't happen in this village. Oma Luchol was one of the villages perched on the Rim – quiet strongholds of civilization with the bluffs to their backs and the desert stretching out before their faces.
Civilization should have music.
“The reeds are all useless,” said Buzhak, gesturing to the case open by her side where a shawm sat unwrapped. “I'll try a drum.”
Pedfen nodded. And while she stood up to look in another case, he pursed his lips and raised the hupsho again. The next tone that came out stayed more or less on the same pitch. Buzhak paused as she fished for a drumstick, and looked at Pedfen. He was boyish and awkward and all the garlic he ate didn't help his acne. Buzhak knew he was scared, but as he blew on that push-pull, even as bad as it sounded she could tell he was feeling his way with the instrument and could play it well given the chance. Ever since his family had moved in two years ago she had thought he had music in him. Standing there, coaxing a tone that was now almost pure, he looked like he might actually fit into his 14 years.
Buzhak smiled and started to beat the side drum. She was glad to have Pedfen in her house: since his aunt had left he had clung to her as a substitute. The attention wearied her on occasion but it was a refreshing change from the affections of suitors.
Pedfen started to time his horn blasts to Buzhak's shaky rhythm. It almost sounded like music.
Then the horn blasts stopped. “Someone's coming.”
“About time,” said Buzhak, then caught his gaze and held it a moment.
“Courage,” she said.
Pedfen nodded and blew the hupsho again, Buzhak kept hitting the drum, and they watched the two figures approach. As they reached the drying floor Buzhak recognized them: Vrrsedha and Odjnoi, prominent men of the village, dressed for their work in the fields.
When they came under the bowery roof Pedfen lowered the horn. Buzhak put down the stick and drew to her full height, straightening her bright cotton. Pedfen followed her lead and straightened his dull linen (but it was neat and clean for a change).
Vrrsedha was only a little older than Buzhak, and easy going. Indeed, he looked amused as he sauntered toward them. Not Odjnoi. Anger was burning the sleep from his eyes as he stomped forward, outpacing the younger man. The shade of the bowery roof had quenched the shine of the carnelian at the end of his gray braid, but his eyes still carried fire.
He came to a stop a few paces from the stage. “I never would believe it if I didn't see it with my own eyes. What the devil do you two think you're doing?”
Pedfen schooled her face into the most calm and assured expression she could manage, met Odjnoi's gaze and kept her voice steady.
“We're trying to play music.”
Odjnoi's eyes narrowed. “Is that so. What you are doing is making an ungodly racket!”
“I don't know.” Vrrsedha had a smile beginning. “It sounded all right once they got going.”
Odjnoi turned to the younger man and lowered his voice, but Buzhak still heard him. “Is there going to be a problem?”
“Ask them, they're the ones trying to play music.”
“I'll deal with them, and I'll thank you not to encourage any misbehavior.” He looked up at the youths. “All right then, you two, what is the meaning of this?”
“We're not breaking any law,” said Buzhak. “And you know it.” But she signaled to Pedfen, who started packing up his horn. It should help him; he was almost shaking with fear.
Odjnoi kept glaring. “And what of it?” he demanded after a moment. “You're old enough to know what behavior is acceptable – and expected! You're old enough to know that we don't touch those!”
Buzhak wanted to let her own anger show, but she was only 20, and Odjnoi was a sitter on the Thing, the town's governing body.
“Pedfen and I both lost our fathers in the war,” she said in a tone of serene reason, drawing her own satisfaction at keeping her voice from shaking. “Of course we know. But you never made it a written law.”
“Well if that's the way it is, we can discuss making it a law, maybe this evening.”
“Maybe you should.”
“The cheek!” he muttered, and turned to Vrrsedha again. “Why don't you fetch another sitter or two while I keep an eye on these two here?”
“Looks like that won't be necessary – here comes Madame Speaker.”
An old woman in yellow and green silk was walking up the aisle, her coiled gray braids looking a little disheveled. She rested her palm on the jeweled hilt of her belt knife as if it were a sword. Oma Luchol was too small to have its own judge, so the speaker of the Thing arbitrated most disputes. Vodle had been speaker for the past 12 years, a testament to the respect her opinion commanded. Earlier that year she had brought about a resolution ending the war relief they sent south – the requirements of which had forced Pedfen's family to leave their homestead upstream and move in with Buzhak's family in town.
Buzhak heard a case close, felt Pedfen step to her side. She put her hand around his arm.
“I couldn't sleep,” the speaker was saying as she advanced down the aisle. “At my age you'd think I'd be nodding off all the time wouldn't you? Not today: I was even going over the docket for tonight's meeting and noticing its sparseness. Should have bored me right into dreamland. I must have been inspired.” She stopped at the foot of the stage and looked up. “I heard the horn and drum and came right away. I imagine we don't have long before the poor souls you shocked from their naps also gather to see what's going on. Two battle-babes getting into the instruments.” She sighed. “I suppose it was only a matter of time. Odjnoi, mount the stage with me.”
Odjnoi gave the speaker his arm and they walked up the steps.
Buzhak stifled a wave of panic: why had she not thought of this? Of course the speaker would take the stage, why shouldn't she? Buzhak felt like her plans were being wrecked as she stepped back to make room for the older people. They faced each other on the stage, and Buzhak, casting about for something that would help her orient herself, decided to stick with what she had intended to say.
“If the docket's short you might as well add this.”
Vodle scrunched up her wrinkled face and Buzhak tried to keep hers smooth under the old woman's sharp gaze. She couldn't tell what the speaker was thinking.
People were gathering, many with brooms. After siesta was the time to sweep the drying floor to prepare for the apricot harvest. Nobody made any move to sweep now. They propped their brooms against the bowery posts and gathered in the center aisle, murmuring. What was Madame Speaker doing – did her presence have anything to do with the noise they had heard?
“We will address the congregation,” said Vodle, and she and Odjnoi turned around.
“Don't worry,” whispered Buzhak to Pedfen, squeezing his arm. “We still have the second part to do, remember?” She said it in another language: her mother had taught her some of the speech of her homeland and she in turn had taught some to Pedfen over the past two years, for occasions such as this when it might be helpful to communicate in secret.
“May I have everyone's attention?” At the sound of the speaker's voice the chatter hushed. “These two youngsters-”
“Move over here,” murmured Odjnoi, “let them all see you.”
They shuffled sideways and Buzhak stood to her full height, thrusting her breasts forward. She had long since grown used to having eyes on her, with her glossy braids, shapely figure and cinnamon skin.
“These two, Buzhak Zheguit and Pedfen Tydhlaf, have seen fit to take some of the instruments of war out of their cases.”
An angry hum surged from the people, cut short by Vodle's voice again.
“No harm has been done and the instruments have been restored to their resting places. I will talk with them about what they have done. Will you all be so good as to go about your sweeping? Thank you.”
Nobody looked satisfied as they went to get their brooms, and some of the looks Buzhak saw thrown her way were ugly. Some of them were not.
“Now you two, walk with me. Odjnoi, please go tell the other sitters about this, tell them I'll meet you all back at the hall soon, after I finish with these.”
Buzhak and Pedfen followed the speaker down the steps, out of the bowery into the hot sun.
“I thought we'd have a little look at one of the orchards,” the old woman said. “I love seeing them so close to harvest time. Now, if you please, tell me what this is about.”
“I was eight when they brought my father's belongings back in a wagon,” said Buzhak. “Pedfen was three. Most of our lives have been lived under this silence.”
“I remember your fathers,” said Vodle. “Buzhak, your father had never fought before. He was a gentle soul who would rather have stayed home and raised his crops, but he entered training and was qualified as a full member of the Bears in a very short time. He was an inspiration. Pedfen, they told stories of your father's bravery during the ambush at Kefan. I presume you've read the letter.”
“I'm proud of him,” Pedfen whispered.
Vodle sighed. “I'm sad for him. I'm sad for all of them, for the waste of life that we were party to, that we encouraged! Give me your arm, my dear. I remember the early days of settlement: as soon as the rim had its villages what did everyone do but start training up battalions of Red orders and organizing marching bands to go with them. It was a peaceful time, there were no real threats, but we Thuss had to show the glories of our civilization to those barbarians and heathens out in the wild. The parades were magnificent, do you remember?”
“I remember,” said Buzhak.
“Then, after so many years of this, news of the war came, and there was actual cheering! People cheering at the news of war, not only young men, but women and children! And what did that do? It killed your fathers. It did not liberate Amemwingeb. Therefore we took on this abstinence from the music of those instruments, therefore we sent the relief to Amemwingeb from the fruits of our labors: acts of contrition.”
“Of course we understand that,” said Buzhak, “but what about last year when they reinstated the Red orders here? Pedfen's uncle even joined the Bears. Once again we have men wearing red and doing exercises, going up into the hills to train, without so much as a drum or pipe. Now our people can once again study the ways of killing, but they can no longer sweeten that with anything joyful. What then? Were you ever going to bring the band back yourselves? Well we decided it's been too long already. We still mourn the loss of our fathers, but it is time for music to come back! Otherwise I'm afraid we will let the soul of our village die.”
“Is anyone else of your opinion?”
Buzhak walked slowly, silent, ashamed.
“I don't know,” she said at last. She had failed to plan adequately for dealing with this woman.
Vodle smiled at her. “My dear girl, you show spirit and enterprise, and what's more, a well-developed sensitivity. I would encourage you to try for the Thing in 13 more years. Meanwhile however, I don't know what effect a mere prank such as this can hope to achieve. Perhaps you can circulate a petition.
“Now I must go back to the hall. I thank you both for the time and the words. You are both free to go. I will find my own way.” And she strode out of the orchard, leaving Pedfen gaping at Buzhak.
“What was that?” he asked when the speaker had gone.
“I don't know,” said Buzhak, taking him by the arm, “but I do know we can't give up. Let's go do the next part – now! They should still be on the floor.”
A petition? They would show the old ones a petition!
She jogged out of the orchard at a different direction from the one Vodle had gone, her hand closing on the pocket of her billowing sirwal. There was her secret weapon: she and Pedfen had bought small flutes at the last fair from the wanderers. She had had to beg them to even let her see them: the wanderers were not even permitted to play their own music when camped in Oma Luchol. But Buzhak, whose family had come from a place where those people were more commonly seen, knew that they must have the flutes. Simple tubes of some hollow woody stem that grew in even hotter places than the Rim, where there was no winter, drilled with holes and fitted with a mouthpiece. Buzhak had bought them and she and Pedfen had been practicing in secret ever since, preparing for this day, this moment.
She slowed her gait as they neared the drying floor. People had laid their brooms aside and were chatting for a while before going on to the rest of the day's tasks. Heads turned as Buzhak strode to the center of the floor with Pedfen close behind her. She raised her flute to her lips and took a deep breath.
Soon a melody was flowing: it started out similar to a popular hymn, but after a few measures it drifted into something she had made up herself. And then Pedfen's joined, in the harmony part that they had worked out between them.
It was the first time any instrument blown by human breath had made music in Oma Luchol for 10 years.
While they played, Buzhak imagined she was looking down at herself in the center of the circle. In only a few days it would fill up with baskets and screens covered with fruit, divided by paths like the spokes of the Wheel. She imagined the lines dividing the circle, first into two, then into four. There was the Yellow, followed by the Red which blindly thought it was first. There was the White third and the Blue fourth. And around and through, the Black rim and spokes. Even, odd, even, odd, never ending motion, progression, the mounting inventions of humanity and the divine intelligence greater than all of them.
Those who had settled and planted here did so guided by their faith in that guiding intelligence that the Black symbolized, gradually blackening the red soil with the charred prunings and pits from their fruit trees. That was well and good, but how could divine intelligence keep directing them if they remained in stagnation?
She thought of the passage she had memorized from the Dialogues, which had influenced her composition.
These two are opposite, yet must love each other.
Here is the one who stays put, who looks to what is close by, urges gentleness toward the common. Raises a hand in restraint against picking or taking too much, bids you spare and save, gathers and watches.
And there is one who wanders, who journeys and seeks, looks to what is far away and values the rare, takes it and brings it home. Brings a spark to kindle a fire of fascination in the minds of those at home. There is one who raises a hand to seize, who spends and spreads, and moves on.
These two would work against each other. But they need each other, and must love each other.
She slipped on a note, squeezed her eyes shut, took a small step sideways, and tried to let everything drain out of her mind except the flute and the song.
When she finished, there was a silence, broken by a pair of hands clapping, joined by another and then more in that curious building of sound that Buzhak had last heard three years before, a sound like a summer cloudburst on a roof or a rock slide.
She opened her eyes. Pedfen was grinning, his face sweaty and flushed. Out of the corner of her eye she saw a knot of people hurrying toward the hall.
“Do you have any more?” someone asked.
“One more tune – that's all we've learned.”
“Let's play it,” said Pedfen, his eyes sparkling.
It was a simple working song. They had worked out to play it once through with Buzhak carrying the melody and Pedfen a simple harmony, then to switch parts and go through again.
A few bars in someone started to sing. It only took a moment for more voices to join in, and then a ragged chorus overwhelmed the flutes. When they finished, the applause was even louder, and then everyone started talking.
Buzhak waved her arms above her head. “I want to say something!” she shouted. She waited for the chatter to die down a little, then carried on in a loud voice.
“You know that our first Cougars are set to go downstream after the last grain harvest. What a shame, if we send them off with no music.”
Some faces turned sour. “Yes?” said one gray-braided woman. “Would you have us send them off with fanfare as if they were would-be heroes on their way to another ambush?”
Out of the corner of her eye Buzhak saw Pedfen glaring at her, but she was stung with annoyance. “Now really! We mourn our fallen, but why should we not at least-”
Pedfen's voice cut in. “What about all the other songs?” he demanded. “What about the one we just played? It wasn't foolishness that made all the music! What about the songs we just played? What about all the other songs they used to play? All the music during harvest, for boilings and burnings, for the holidays? Must we be left without those any longer? Is it not proper to show gratitude for the bounties of the land?
“If we don't have the Thing's horns and drums,” he said even louder, “what's to stop us from playing our flutes, and buying more of them? What's to stop us from getting or making even more instruments and building up a band that way? I can't believe the Thing of this town could ever go so mad as to outlaw music all together, but if they did . . . then I think our fathers would feel their memories insulted and their sacrifices despised.” He let his hands drop. “Well I for one won't give it up. It's not right.”
“Hear, hear,” said a voice from the middle of the crowd.
Buzhak felt a flood of affection for this boy but resisted the urge to put her arm around him. “Listen,” she called out, “Pedfen and I have our work to do this afternoon. Anyone who wants to follow us can hear these songs a few more times.”
Very little work got done in Oma Luchol that afternoon. The commons was swarming and noisy as Pedfen and Buzhak took their places in the kitchen. They played their songs again while everyone was waiting for dinner, and during the meal they were swept apart from their bemused families by other young people talking about music. It surged in a way Buzhak had scarcely dared to hope for: people volunteering to learn an instrument, speculating about how hard it would be to carve more flutes. Even her mother joined the chattering cluster and sang snatches of tunes she remembered from festivals and holidays. The sheet music was in the cases with the instruments, she was sure.
The officers of the Thing took their supper apart in the hall on meeting days, but Buzhak was sure they knew what had happened. The bowery filled up quickly that evening. The cloth shades on the west side swelled like sails in a welcome breeze, and as the lowering sun set them to glowing, the audience rose and the sitters came to the table. They laid the cloths and took their places: five batons pointing inward on white, five knives pointing outward on blue. Finally Speaker Vodle took her seat at the center of the flat side of the table and faced the audience, calling the meeting to order.
They went through the preliminary business, giving no indication of anything out of the ordinary. Buzhak fidgeted while Pedfen moped by her side. She was glad to see many others in the audience acting tense, but it did not help her calm herself and wait.
She closed her eyes and tried to quiet her mind while the sitters droned on about all the important everyday matters of the village – the kind of thing she should be interested in as a responsible citizen. But it all seemed dead and pointless to her. Were they going to ignore what she and Pedfen had done? Well if they did . . .
“Buzhak Zheguit and Pedfen Tydhlaf, please rise?”
Buzhak's eyes snapped open. She grabbed Pedfen's hand and stood, willing her knees not to buckle.
Speaker Vodle tapped her gavel to still the rising murmur of the audience, then spoke in as loud a voice as she could.
“By now I'm sure you all know how these two youths were found here on the stage, after siesta this afternoon, having lifted the instrument cases, opened them, and trying out some of the instruments. Having apprehended them in this action, I questioned them as to their motives, after which we understand that these two have continued with further demonstrations of music, with instruments of their own.
“After a full consultation with the laws of the town we have found no written rule which they can be accused of breaking. In the days when our band was active, the rules concerning use and care of the instruments were all by verbal agreement, as some of you may remember, and since the death of the conductor and so many of the members, that organization also considered dead, there has been no further fixing of regulation regarding it. We may all recall also that our mutual agreement to regard the band as dead was never given the force of statute, it was only recorded in our records as a resolution. Is that correct?”
“That is correct,” answered one of the sitters.
“We have asked the Dogs and some deputies to keep watch on the trapdoors to ensure no unwanted or unexpected access for the time being, until we may resolve this question. Now with the Thing's approval I will speak.
“You two may be seated.”
Buzhak had not felt such a strong wish to bite her nails for years. She stared at the men and women at the table but could not guess what they might do.
“Ten years ago, we judged it proper to impose the state of mourning under which we all have been living, and to which many of us have become so thoroughly adjusted as to lose sight of other possibilities. This has continued its demands on us, but they have helped us who remember the losses we suffered, to bear with them.
“When I saw these two I did not suspect mischief. Consider the character of each of these youths! No, I saw a youthful fancy at work in the older, leading the younger, and then discovered that something more powerful motivated their actions: idealism. And let us admit: such a spirit has been all but absent among us lately. When we began our time of mourning, we all resolved to dedicate ourselves anew to reflection, to wisdom, and above all to a renewed kindness with one another. And I did believe that for a few years we achieved the kindness. But I invite us all, who can remember before the war, to reflect, as I believe many of us have already. Do you remember how our streets and fields once sounded? I remember hearing the laughter of children. I remember how the drying floor used to be swept, with songs and games. Our musicians favored us with songs in the fields and orchards. Do you remember the burnings, the fairs? The wanderers' musicians and ours would join together in contests. Their camp was not silent until we asked them to keep it so, and they used to stay for a full week instead of half.
“We have made an end to our debt to the people in Amemwingeb. Let us make that end complete. I move that we authorize – no, that we order – the cases to be opened again and the band to be reinstated, on the Onday immediately after the apricot harvest is completed. As to the question of the leadership of said ensemble, practice times and all other details, I further move that the Thing be authorized to form the necessary committee to ordain and manage such, that all may be conducted with proper authority.” She sat down.
Buzhak's mouth hung open.
A baton lifted. “Seconded,” said one of the male sitters.
Speaker Vodle turned and scanned the audience, smiled, then looked back to the table. “To the vote, then.” The sitters all bound their scarves over their eyes. Speaker Vodle took up her board. “All in favor – Blue.”
Three arms held their knives high, pointed straight up.
“All against – Blue.”
One knife up, one voter abstaining.
Chalk scraped against slate. “In favor – White.”
Four batons. Despite the rule of silence, there were gasps and murmurs in the audience. Pedfen began to raise his head.
“Against – White.”
Odjnoi's baton twitched, but then rested again on the table. Everyone waited for a moment until he folded his arms and shook his head.
More sounds of chalk, and whispers stirring in the audience. The rules were strict about not giving away the results before they were announced, but it was all that Speaker Vodle could do to call for the unveiling and give the formal announcement before the whispers erupted into cheers.
Many years later, Buzhak recalled growing tired of her two-tune repertoire that evening long before the listeners finally went to bed, and how a couple of weeks later at the first rehearsal so many people showed up that there weren't enough instruments to go around. And at the Games the next year, the village band took honorable mention in the competition for the whole polity.
Three years after the band started up again, Pedfen left town. He took with him the horn they had dug out on that summer day, and left enough silver to pay for it. After years became decades without him returning, news finally reached home of his death from illness. Buzhak had not wanted to believe it, but later that year a caravan brought back his push-pull horn.
Five decades after that summer evening, war erupted again in Amemwingeb, and men from Oma Luchol went to fight, with only the doleful beat of drums to march them out of town. Speaker Buzhak watched them with her heart and eyes full.
This time they were victorious, and Amemwingeb was freed, and most of the fighting men from Oma Luchol returned. When they did, they told of the music that greeted them after their victory in Amemwingeb, how it reminded them of home. The locals told them it was a style that had grown there as an expression of protest and desire for freedom, and most of the compositions were the work of a master horn player from the north, named Pedfen Tydhlaf.
MICHELE FRITSCHLE - SNAPPED
“Please come out, I’m just trying to sleep ma’am,” said Melonie, a middle-aged woman with very deep-cut smile lines. She had rented the hotel room only hours before, not realizing how literal they were about “one room” until entering it. White walls stained yellow from years of cigarette smoke, the pipes creaking and snapping constantly.
“Aren’t you a tad curious? About the secrets this room hides. The scandalous nights between husbands and mistresses, the teenagers who’ve rented it solely to get drunk and get kicked out. These are only the beginning! Don’t you see, I could tell you some magnificent stories!” said the voice, obviously getting more and more excited with every sound that spills from nowhere Melonie can see.
“Perhaps you’ve got great stories, truly mind-altering stories, but perhaps I need to sleep. No disrespect but I work early, and I have a presentation to prepare for before going in,” said Melonie in an annoyed tone, slowly turning to analyze the room.
“I’ll cut you a deal!” said the voice, followed up with a flicker of the lights.
“And what would that entail?” said Melonie, sounding tired.
“Let me tell you one story, just one! Then, I’ll leave you be,” said the voice.
Melonie didn’t say a word, as she noticed that the nasally voice sounded more distorted than earlier. She nods her head in agreement of the voice’s deal.
“So yes? You’ll listen to one of the room’s stories?” said the voice.
“Yes. As long as you leave immediately afterwards. Just let me change quickly and sit down. It’s been a long day at the office and my neck is sore. Seems like my neck is sorer every day now if I’m to be honest”
“Are we comfortable now?” said the voice.
“Yes,” said Melonie quickly.
“Finally! I have chosen a fairly recent story,” said the voice, sounding nasally again, “it was a rainy night, such as tonight, when a woman rented this very room.”
The voice paused. Melonie rolls her eyes, annoyed.
“Dreading work the next morning, she prepared herself for bed…” the voice trails off, seemingly distracted.
“Can we get to the point already?” said Melonie, while lying in the bed with her eyes closed.
“You simply cannot rush a good story! Don’t you dare fall asleep on me either,” said the voice, who’s tone was growing harsher and distorted once again, “I won’t warn you again.”
Melonie nods her head in agreement after opening her eyes and pulling herself upright.
“As the women was drifting to sleep, the pipes snapped loudly. Scaring the woman awake, each time she finally was about to fall asleep, it would happen again,” said the voice, the tone stayed harsh this time.
The voice continued, “As the clock was nearing three in the morning, the woman decided to call and complain to the front office. No one answered her calls. By four, she felt like she was going crazy. The one hour had felt like one day, every second passing slower than the first. But you see, this woman, she had a history of overthinking. She avoided spending time alone because her brain wanted her dead, but her heart didn’t agree.”
“So, she was suicidal? Depressed perhaps?” said Melonie, who was struggling to keep her eyes awake.
“Perhaps,” said the voice before continuing, “but, that isn’t the point. Don’t just shrug off the ending I’m about to tell you because of that. There’s more to this room, to this world, than that. You know this though, you just don’t want to admit it, yet.”
“Can you just get back to the story,” said Melonie, who was obviously shaken by the voice’s statement.
“She felt as if the room didn’t want her to sleep. The place had it out for her. If she did successfully fall asleep, she thought she’d die for sure. She never had thoughts like this before, she wasn’t paranoid of death. She certainly wasn’t paranoid of places,” said the voice, still carrying that distorted, harsh tone. The nasally sound that was there in the beginning was gone.
“She never heard voices before either, besides her own of course. By five, she felt as if she had lost her mind already. Thinking how there was no way the night wasn’t over yet,” said the voice, “She began to breath faster, her eyes open wide. They resembled an owl’s eyes in that moment, large and brown. The voices kept getting louder, till they were screaming in her head. They wanted her dead, they were convincing and made death sound like a dream.”
Melonie was starting to fall asleep; her eyes were falling shut as the voice paused the story to let it play out.
Melonie suddenly jolts up, as the pipes snapped loudly. They sounded more like bones than pipes.
“Now you see, Melonie, this woman was easily swayed that night. She gave in and the voices told her how to do it. It ended in a loud snap, just like the pipes.” The voice said, the tone only growing deeper. It sounded less and less human, growing more demonic by the second.
“Melonie, you see, now this dead woman. She comes back nightly; she doesn’t remember what happened. She repeats the same day, over and over again. She relives her the day she had at work, then she comes here to die all over again with no knowledge of the past. Sounds like hell, doesn’t it?” said the distorted voice.
“You never mentioned her name. You must know it,” said Melonie, who was growing increasingly nervous, you could tell by the sweat beads falling down her face.
“I think you know,” said the voice.
Melonie looked at the time, it was four-forty-five in the morning.
The bones snap.
“When will she learn?” said the voice, nasally again.
M. E. MURRAY - THE WHIP
M. E. Murray is a fiction and nonfiction writer with a master’s degree in entomology, who enjoys writing and reading suspenseful stories for all ages. The author lives in North Texas with her husband, a cat, and a foxhound. When not writing, she helps her husband operate an antique business. The author also enjoys listening to music, from the 60s to the 80s, and searching for that rare find in flea markets, estate sales, auctions, and garage sales. Her published stories include: “The Yellow Ribbon”, “The Sun Catcher”, “The Quilt”, “On Bullying”, and now “The Whip”. She's also published “Dawn”, a Haiku poem.
The kids were supposed to keep the GPS service on in their cell phones so their parents could know where they were all the time. Their parents, especially Jimmy’s mother, were afraid they might fall in the river. There were some areas where the water ran deep, and usually there were no folks around when Jimmy and Charlie looked for arrowheads because folks were at work. “If something happens to you, nobody will know about it, so keep those GPS signals on,” Jimmy’s Mom always said.
Three weeks of spring were left, but it was already heating up. It felt like summer, but the boys were used to working in the heat. Sweating profusely, they continued to search for arrowheads. It had rained heavily the evening before, and the following day was the best time to look for arrowheads along the river because rain exposed them by eroding the bank.
As Jimmy trekked along the sloping, muddy bank of the river where the water never really got deep, he saw what looked like a handle sticking out in the middle of the river. “Charlie! Come here! I want you to see something!”
Charlie who’d been looking for arrowheads a few yards away ran towards Jimmy and excitedly said, “What’d you find?”
Jimmy pointed to the piece of wood sticking out of the water. “See that? It looks like a stick covered with leather!”
“You’re right! It could be the handle of something!” Charlie responded enthusiastically. “But it looks like it’s stuck in the bottom of the river or maybe it’s attached to something. Let’s figure out how to take it out.”
Jimmy scratched his golden head of hair. “To be able to dig it out, we need to go into the river. That means we need to strip.”
“Strip? How come?” Charlie asked bewildered.
“Because if our parents find out that we were in the river, our arrowhead collecting trips are over.” Jimmy began to take off his sneakers. “So, what are you waiting for, Charlie, a dispensation from the Pope?”
“No. I’m waiting for my brain to disengage. Your mother is one fearful person, and I was just trying to get up the courage to forget her words about not going into the river.”
“Your clothes and brown locks are already wet from sweat, what’s a little bit more of water going to do to you?” Jimmy asked.
“Last one in the water’s an idiot,” Charlie shouted, taking off his sneakers.
Jimmy beat him in the undressing game. Pretty soon both kids were down to their skivvies.
Charlie said, “I think we need to take off our underwear, too. They’re going to get wet, and when we get dressed, they’ll get our pants wet.”
“You’re right. But what if somebody sees us naked? They might report us to the sheriff,” Jimmy said.
“Jimmy, we’ve been here many times. Have you ever seen anybody else besides us?” Charlie asked.
“Then it’s time to strip.” Charlie took off his briefs, and laid them and his garments on big rocks close to the river edge.
“Might as well take off our T-shirts,” Jimmy added. “They might get wet, too.”
Charlie agreed. He took off his T-shirt and placed it on the clothes he’d piled on a rock.
Jimmy did the same and then accompanied Charlie into the waist-deep, murky water. He grabbed the object and wiggled it. “Looks like it’s stuck, and it sure looks like a handle.”
“Shall we pull on it?” Charlie asked.
“I don’t think so. It could break. We want the whole thing intact.” Jimmy reached into the murky water and ran his hand on the portion that was not stuck in the river bottom. “You know what, Charlie? It seems like it could be a whip. I’m going to dig around the part that is stuck in the mud until I loosen the end.”
Jimmy got out.
“Where are you going? Charlie asked.
“I’m going to get my pocket knife. I need to dig with something that’s strong.” He searched his pants, found his pocket knife, and returned to the water. “Charlie, while I dig below, your mission is to pull on the handle, little by little, but not too hard.”
After 15 minutes of digging up rocks and wads of mud and flinging them into other areas of the river, Jimmy said, “I’m starting to feel a thinner portion of the whip. I think it’s time for you to pull a bit harder.”
Charlie nervously pulled on the handle and slowly rolled the thong. When he had the complete whip in his hands, both kids excitedly leapt out of the creek to take a better look at it.
“Let me see it,” Jimmy said. He felt it from the handle to the end. “I wonder if it still works.”
“The only way to find out is to whip it against something,” Charlie suggested.
Jimmy lashed it against a rock. The whip made a sharp, loud crack and sounded as if it were brand-new.
“Let me see it,” Charlie said. He grabbed the whip and struck the ground with it. “I feel like a cowboy from the 1800s or like Lash LaRue.”
“Lash LaRue? Who is Lash LaRue?” Jimmy asked confused.
“He was an early Western movie star. He was known as the king of the bullwhip for his whip-cracking ability.”
Since his friend was a Western movie star enthusiast, Jimmy wondered if Charlie knew about antique whips, too. So, he asked, “Do you think this thing is really old?”
“I don’t know.”
“My mom is always seeing antique shows and going to antique shops. Maybe she could tell us something about it,” Jimmy said.
Charlie stared at the whip. “It’s made out of hide, but what kind? Since I have no idea, I think, for sure, we should ask your mother.”
They dressed as fast as possible and headed to Jimmy’s home. “Mom! Mom!” Jimmy hollered, running to the kitchen with Charlie following.
Nancy Marks was preparing supper. “You’re home early, guys. Is something wrong?”
“No, but Charlie and I found this at the river,” Jimmy said, handing her the whip.
Nancy examined it. “Was it lying around in plain sight?”
“No. We had to fish it out of the river.” Jimmy cringed. He was afraid his mother was going to scold him, and she did, but mildly.
“Jimmy, how many times have I told you to stay out of the river?”
“I’m sorry, Mom. It’s just that it looked so interesting.”
“It took a while to dig it out,” Charlie added.
Jimmy’s mother shook her head. “Your clothes are dry. You must have stripped. It’s a good thing somebody didn’t see you naked and reported it. You know how people are around here. They’re busybodies. Anyway, I don’t know anything about whips. Tomorrow, after work, I’ll show it to Miranda.”
“Can we go with you after school, Mom?” Jimmy pleaded.
Nancy stared at the kids, then said, “Okay, but remember I have to make supper. We can’t be gone for too long.”
“Yes ma’am,” both kids answered.
The following day the trio went to the only antique shop in town to show the whip to antique dealer, Miranda Scott. As they opened the door, a bell hanging on the top of the door jingled, warning Miranda that somebody had come in. She left her office and headed to the front of the store. “Hi, Nancy, what brings you and the kids in today?”
Nancy only shopped on Sundays and Saturdays because working as a clerk during the week, didn’t give her enough time to peruse the antiques and collectibles after her work day was over. “This thing,” Nancy said, handing Miranda the rolled up whip. “Can you tell us what it is?”
Miranda unrolled the whip and felt its damp skin. “This is a very old bullwhip. It’s in pretty good condition. And it still has the wrist strap,” she affirmed.
“How can you tell that it’s old?” Nancy asked.
“Because the handle is made out of wood,” she said casually. “The bullwhip was made during the old West.”
“How do you know that?”
“Back then, it was easier to get a piece of wood or stick to braid. Nowadays, whip handles are made from a piece of dowel, but some people use a steel rod.”
“How do you know it’s a bullwhip?” Nancy asked.
“The handle knot, the transition knot, the thong, the fall and the fall hitch, indicate that it’s a bullwhip, the kind that Harrison Ford used in the Indiana Jones movies,” Miranda expressed. “The outer covering has an unusual texture. It feels like leather, but I’m not sure what kind. It could be kangaroo hide. Sometimes people use it to braid their whips. Anyway this whip is very old, judging by the handle, but it needs better care.” She paused. “It’s a bit wet. Where did you find it?”
“In the river,” Charlie answered.
With a stern look, Jimmy’s mother told him to remain quiet.
“I see,” Miranda commented. “Now I understand why it’s wet.”
“Did being in water for such a long time damage it?” Nancy asked.
“It doesn’t look like it,” Miranda answered. “But I have some recommendations. After the bullwhip dries, you should oil it. Smear some grease on your hands and spread it throughout the braided part of the whip. But don’t apply too much when you come to the butt knot, the transition knot, and fall hitch,” she cautioned. “What are you planning to do with it?”
“For the time being, we’re keeping it,” Nancy answered. “We’ll hang it on a wall. It will make a good conversation piece.”
“If you’re interested in selling it, I’m willing to give you $50,” Miranda offered.
“Thank you, Miranda, but at the moment I’m not interested in selling it.”
Fifty dollars! That’s a lot of money! Jimmy thought, but was disappointed when his mom didn’t accept Miranda’s offer.
The antique dealer said, “If you leave it with me for a while, I’ll be able to figure out how old it actually is.”
“Thank you, but its real age isn’t important. I really appreciate your input, though,” Nancy replied.
“Anytime you need some information, just ask,” Miranda answered, returning to her office.
As they left the antique store, Jimmy said, “Mom, she offered a lot of money for the whip. Why didn’t you take it?”
“Miranda wanted to buy it right away, so that tells me that the whip is worth a lot more than what she offered,” Nancy commented. “The library has an area dedicated to the preservation of old books and journals. We’ll go there after supper to research your whip. It could be worth a lot of money.”
“Mrs. Marks, can I go to the library, too?” Charlie asked.
“You can come with us, Charlie, but I think you need to ask your mother first.”
“Will you please call her for me, Mrs. Marks? My mom might not believe me.”
Nancy called Charlie’s mother. “Belinda, Charlie is here with me. I asked him if he wanted to stay for supper. Is that okay with you?”
“Of course!” Belinda responded.
“After supper Jimmy and I are going to the library to do some research on bullwhips. Is it all right with you if Charlie joins us?”
“That’s perfectly all right with me.”
“Thanks, Belinda. We’ll get him home about 9:30.”
Nancy made salad and pastrami sandwiches. Then, the trio sat at the kitchen table. They ate quickly because the library would close in an hour.
At the library Jimmy scanned the book shelves and picked up a book that discussed the old West around Brady. He flipped through it and saw an interesting photograph, taken around 1890, of a man. He had a rugged face, partially covered by a black beard, and beady, blue eyes. He wore a worn cowboy hat, a vest, a plaid shirt, jeans, and a whip hung from his belt.
Jimmy continued reading. Apparently, one day the townspeople discovered who’d been killing their friends and relatives. It was the man in the photograph; the people called him The Westerner. The townspeople became vigilantes and killed him, throwing him in the river along with his whip. Overwhelmed by the information, Jimmy excitedly told his mother, “Mom, take a look at this book. There’s a story in it about a serial killer. The guy was known as The Westerner, and the townspeople killed him, dumped him in the river. His hobby was making whips. The outer covering of the thong and the fall was made out of human skin and the popper was made from human hair.
“Gross!” Charlie said, massaging his stomach.
“Mom, look at the picture closely. I think our whip is the same one he’s wearing on his belt. It has to be the same whip. When the people threw him in the river, no telling what happened to the body, but I think the whip traveled and got tangled up in the bottom on rocks and mud that kept it anchored for years with only the handle floating above water.”
Furrows appeared on Charlie’s forehead. “We don’t know if it is the same whip.”
“But it is,” Jimmy insisted “We can put it on eBay. And if it doesn’t meet the reserve, we’ll sell it at an auction.”
“How much should we ask for it?” Charlie asked.
“I suppose between eight hundred and a thousand dollars,” Nancy commented.
Jimmy declared, “Nobody’s going to pay that much.”
“You’d be surprised,” Nancy said. “It has provenance.”
“Provenance? What’s that?” Charlie asked.
“Provenance is history of ownership of a valued object or work of art or literature,” Nancy answered. “We suspect the whip could have belonged to a serial killer, and that it was probably made from people’s skin. That kind of information increases its value.”
“I’m going to copy the pages from the book that deal with The Westerner, so we have proof,” Jimmy said.
As soon as they went home, Nancy registered the whip on eBay with a reserve of $800. After 10 days, the reserve was not met, so Nancy took the whip to Joe Becker, a beefy auctioneer, who ran an evening auction every month on a Saturday evening. It so happened that the following weekend, Becker would be holding an auction. So, Nancy paid a 15% fee to auction the whip that weekend.
The auction would take place in an old dilapidated brick building. The front part had an office area, a concession stand, and the middle section had rows of folding chairs for the buyers. Furniture, lamps and other items that were going to be auctioned lined the walls. Bidders could examine the pieces before the auction started. The auctioneer would stand next to the podium, hollering out descriptions and possible selling prices while workers assisted in hauling big furniture to the stage. Often, some furniture was so large that it could not be taken to the stage, but the workers would stand by the furniture and point as the auctioneer described it.
Nancy and the kids arrived early and found a spot close to the podium and the stage. Jimmy waited nervously as Becker took the stage to start the auction. The beefy man described and sold several items. Jimmy’s face beamed when he saw the whip in Becker’s hands. The time had come. Would the whip bring in lots of extra spending money?
Becker lashed the stage floor with it. A loud crack resounded throughout the room, stunning the customers. “Ladies and gentlemen, there is a possibility that this whip belonged to a serial killer from the 1800s known as The Westerner. It is in perfect condition for being so old. The wrist loop needs to be replaced, but other than that, the whip is in excellent condition for being so old.” Becker paused. “Do I hear $30?”
A hand in the audience came up. The bidding continued until it reached $750. “Do I hear $800,” Becker said. He repeated this three times, but nobody raised their hand. “Sold to number #319,” Becker proclaimed.
Nancy called Charlie’s mother and told her he was staying overnight since the auction ended late that evening. Jimmy was really surprised. The whip had earned them $750. What was he going to do with his portion of the money? There was a lot of discussion between Jimmy and Charlie until Nancy told them it was time to go to sleep, but the kids kept talking in their bedroom. Finally, sleep overcame both, but Jimmy still wondered what he would do with his portion of the proceeds from the sale of the whip.
That same evening, the man who bought the whip, had too many celebratory drinks. He didn’t take off his clothes. He just dropped on his back on the bed and fell asleep. He’d left the whip rolled up on a chair beside his bed; however, while he slept, the whip gradually unrolled and slithered to the man, wrapping itself around his neck. The man woke up aware that the whip was strangling him. Frightened, he jumped out of bed and struggled to get it off but couldn’t. He landed on the floor with whip ligature marks and scratches his fingernails had left on his neck during his fruitless attempt to remove the whip.
The following day Charlie and Jimmy went to the antique store to look at arrowheads after school. “Here’s one for $50!” Charlie said. “I wish I had one.”
Besides the arrowheads, something else captured Jimmy’s attention. A man wearing western garb from the 1800s stood looking through the display window where a glass shelf displaying the arrowheads was positioned. The man was the spitting image of the picture of the serial killer he’d seen in the library book. On the man’s belt a tightly wound whip hung from a leather strap with a button closure. Jimmy’s stomach did several somersaults when he recognized the whip. It was the whip they had found in the river! He needed to take a closer look to make sure; nevertheless, he had recognized it. Speechless, he tugged Charlie’s sleeve and pointed at the window.
For a fleeting moment, The Westerner tipped his cowboy hat at the kids, and strolled away.
Charlie loudly told Jimmy, “That was the man we saw in the book. That was ‘The Westerner!’”
Having heard Charlie speaking loudly, Miranda rushed to them. “Are you guys okay?”
“We’re fine. We were just excited about seeing this expensive arrowhead,” Jimmy answered, pointing to another arrowhead which cost $100.
“Would you like to see it?” Miranda asked.
Jimmy shook his head. “No, thank you. We can’t afford it.”
“I don’t charge to let people see things,” she answered.
“That’s okay, ma’am,” Jimmy said. “We’re perfectly fine seeing it through the glass.”
“If you need anything, just let me know,” Miranda said, walking away.
Shortly, the door to the antique shop opened, ringing the bell hanging on the door.
The Westerner malevolently grinned at the kids, exposing his crooked, tobacco stained teeth. In a nanosecond, he released the whip from his belt. As Miranda approached the entrance to greet the potential customer, The Westerner swung the 12-foot-long whip forward which cracked loudly. The popper hit Miranda’s neck. She screamed, touching her neck. The whip started to wind tightly around her neck. She tugged on the whip to take it off but couldn’t. As she issued her last gasps, another customer who had witnessed the attack tried to rush out the front door, but The Westerner repeated the forward crack, and the woman met the same fate.
When The Westerner attacked Miranda, Jimmy and Charlie swiftly hid in the opening of a large fireplace mantle.
Jimmy looked about the store and whispered, “There’s a back door in Miranda’s office. That’s how we can get out.”
Charlie sighed deeply. “Jimmy, in case The Westerner gets us; I want you to know that you are my best friend and that I love you.”
Jimmy’s eyes started to water. “I love you too, Charlie. But, right now we have to save ourselves. Listen to me. This is what we’re going to do. On the count of three, we’re getting up, and we’re running to the office.”
Charlie nodded and wiped his eyes on his sleeves.
“Okay,” Jimmy said. “We go on the count of three. One. Two. Three!”
They shot to Miranda’s office and spotted the back door which probably led to an alley. Charlie tried the door knob. “The door’s locked!” He jiggled it some more. “It’s not going to open!”
Jimmy said, “Charlie, help me pick up this office chair. We’re going to toss it at the window. It’s our only way out of here.”
They picked up the chair and threw it at the window. Shards of glass and pieces of wood scattered. Charlie and Jimmy scrambled through the window, cutting themselves on the jagged pieces of glass left on the window frame. Arms and legs bleeding, they tumbled into a gravel-lined alley.
As Charlie and Jimmy got up, The Westerner was already outside facing them.
The man must have killed anybody who was in the store, Jimmy thought, and we’re next.
The Westerner lashed the whip on the ground and said, “I owe you. Thanks for helping me come back. I had been waiting for years. You gave me another lifetime of killing.”
The Westerner lashed at Charlie with the whip. As it grasped his neck, Charlie hollered, “Jimmy, run! Save yourself!” Charlie struggled to yank the whip off his neck, but it tightened its grip. He passed out and collapsed. Instead of running, Jimmy took out his pocketknife to free his friend.
The Westerner laughed. “Stupid kid, what makes you think you can cut this whip with that puny knife of yours? This whip has survived for many years. Its covering is made from human skin. And you and your friend will become part of a new one.”
Jimmy ignored him. He continued to attack the whip. He tried to cut it, but he couldn’t even scratch its surface. All of a sudden he heard a car stop in the alley, and then someone said, “Leave those boys alone!”
“Or what?” The Westerner said mockingly. As he turned to see who’d uttered the words, the whip momentarily relaxed its hold on Charlie.
This was the break Jimmy needed to save his friend. A patrol officer had distracted The Westerner. Jimmy rapidly unraveled the popper and fall from Charlie’s neck.
“Charlie, are you all right?” he asked. “Are you all right, Charlie? Please don’t die on me! Charlie, wake up!”
“I’m okay,” Charlie said, feeling his neck.
“Leave those boys alone,” Patrol Officer Pete Jenkins repeated, pointing his gun at The Westerner.
“What makes you think that you can put me down with that toy?”
“For your information, it’s not a toy. It’s a Glock, and I will kill you if you don’t leave those kids alone.”
Disregarding the officer’s orders, The Westerner swung the whip and struck Jimmy’s neck which started bleeding from the blow. The officer fired at The Westerner’s wrist, but the man did not let go. The officer fired three more shots. Laughing diabolically The Westerner gave up on Jimmy and sauntered towards the officer saying, “You’re no match for Marcella.”
He lashed at the officer with the whip. It wrapped around his neck, but not before the cop fired several more shots at the man. As the whip tightly wound on the cop’s neck, lightning struck nearby. Immediately, thunder and a torrential downpour followed and soaked everybody. As the rain continued to fall, The Westerner suddenly looked like a distorted image on an old TV screen. As the distortion worsened, he became ghostlike and disappeared.
Officer Jenkins pulled the whip off his neck, slammed it to the gravel in a stream of water flowing down the middle of the alley, and ran to check the kids.
“I’m glad you were here to see what happened,” Jimmy told the officer. “Nobody would have believed us.”
The officer nodded. “What just happened came out of a horror movie,” he commented, then said, “Are you kids all right?”
“Not really, Charlie said. “My neck hurts, and I want to vomit.”
The officer examined Charlie. He had cuts and bruises all over his body. He also noticed Jimmy’s cuts and bruises, especially the cut on his neck. “We need to get something to seal those cuts up. I don’t want them to get them infected.” The rain had slowed, but it was still coming down pretty hard. The officer suggested, “Let’s go into the antique store for cover and to find something to treat your injuries.”
The officer picked up the whip and rolled it up.
“Please, officer, don’t let the police department take the whip as evidence. It’s dangerous,” Jimmy said.
The officer frowned. “I’m not sure about the whip being dangerous, but I know the man who vanished was. We’ll discuss the whip after we take care of your wounds.”
On the way to the office, they saw Miranda’s body. The kids gave her a quick look, but Jenkins stopped to examine the marks on her neck. “Probably from the whip,” he commented then headed with the kids to Miranda’s office. He found a box of bandages, an alcohol bottle, and a box of tissues. “This will do.” He poured some alcohol on a tissue, and started to wipe Jimmy’s neck. The kid squirmed and shouted, “That burns!”
“I’m sorry, but this is all we have at the moment.” The officer continued to treat Jimmy, and asked, “I would like to know what you kids saw in the antique store to make you break the window to get to the alley.”
“The only thing we saw was The Westerner…” Jimmy said.
“That’s what the history books call him,” Charlie interrupted.
The cop cocked an eyebrow. “History books?”
“We did some research on the whip at the library and discovered that it belonged to a serial killer from around here from the 1800s. He was called The Westerner.” Charlie continued. “When The Westerner attacked the antique dealer, we ran and hid in a fireplace mantle. We couldn’t see anything, but we heard screams and the cracks of the whip. We decided that the only way out of the store was through the antique dealer’s office. So we ran to the office and threw a chair through the window, and crawled out as fast as we could.”
“And that’s how you got hurt,” the cop added.
The kids nodded. “But our plan didn’t work. When we rolled out of the window, The Westerner was out there waiting for us.”
Suddenly a man, wearing a suit, entered the store. “That’s a crime scene detective,” Officer Jenkins said. “Jimmy, take care of your friend while I talk to the detective.”
The pompous crime scene detective walked around the store, and then sauntered to the children and Officer Jenkins. “It looks like everybody got garroted. I wonder what the murder weapon was.”
“It was a whip,” Jenkins said.
“I’ll have the crime scene unit come in to take a look.” The detective scrutinized Jenkins, and stated, “You need to take care of that nasty bruise on your neck. I assume you tangled with the killer?”
“I expect a full report,” the detective said, leaving the store.
When the crime scene unit came in, Jenkins and the boys went outside.
“Officer Jenkins, you may think we’re crazy because we’re just kids, but could you please listen to us for a few minutes?” Jimmy asked.
The officer nodded.
“Officer, you saw that guy disintegrate.”
“I surely did.”
“Officer, that guy is a serial killer from the 1800s, and I think we resurrected him.”
The officer wore a questioning look on his face but listened attentively.
“He’s telling you the truth,” Charlie said.
“Officer, you need to destroy the whip. I think it’s what made that guy come back to life,” Jimmy said.
“What makes you jump to that conclusion?”
“Officer Jenkins, I could be wrong, but when we were all soaking wet in the alley, the whip got wet and quit strangling you; and when we found the whip in the river, it was in a wet place. At that time it was not dangerous. It was only when we took it out of the river, and it got dry that The Westerner appeared, and used the whip as a killing weapon.”
“Are you saying that we need to return it to the river?” the officer asked.
“No. What I’m saying is that the whip needs to be destroyed.”
“Not necessarily, it could be stored in the property room under lock and key in a watertight container where nobody can get to it except for the cops,” Officer Jenkins said. “That might be the best thing to do because we have to keep it since it’s evidence in a murder case.”
“Uh Oh! Here comes my mom,” Jimmy said. “She probably heard something on the news.”
“I’m sure she did.” the officer said.
Nancy introduced herself. After Jimmy told her what had happened, the boys, the cop, and Jimmy’s mother went to the police station with the whip. Nancy and the kids went in the family car. The cop followed in the patrol car.
In the police department’s storage room, Officer Jenkins found the old ten-gallon glass jug that had been used to store purified water. A water cooler had replaced the jug which was relegated to the storage room. The officer grabbed the jug, stuffed the whip in it, and took it to the property room. There, he filled the jug with water and sealed the opening with a stopper. “It should be okay here,” he commented.
“Thank you, Officer Jenkins, for protecting my children,” Nancy said.
“You’re welcome, but I was only doing my job.”
As Nancy and the kids left the police station, Nancy firmly stated, “Jimmy, I don’t want you and Charlie to go to that creek again! You guys are no longer allowed to collect arrowheads on that creek. Do you understand?!”
“Yes, ma’am,” both kids answered.
Jimmy didn’t need to be told that their arrowhead collecting trips were over. After the horrific experience he and Charlie had with The Westerner, there was no way he was going to set foot near that river, and Charlie wouldn’t go there either. Charlie looked tired, so Jimmy asked his mother if she could take Charlie home.
“Thank you, Mrs. Marks,” Charlie said as they dropped him off at his home.
At home, Nancy told Jimmy, “You’ve had enough excitement for one day, and so have I. I’m exhausted with all that happened. For supper we’re having tuna fish sandwiches, potato salad, and soda pop.”
They went to bed early, but Jimmy had a tough time falling asleep. When he finally did, he dreamt the whip had shattered the glass bottle and was now in the hands of The Westerner. Jimmy screamed and sat up in bed.
The scream caused Nancy to spring from her bed. She put on her cotton robe and rushed to Jimmy’s bedroom, turning on the lights. “What happened, Jimmy? Are you all right?” she asked, sitting on the edge of the bed.
Jimmy sat up and leaned on the headboard, shaking and crying. “Mom, I dreamt the Westerner had the whip! He was laughing as he lashed at me with it. He resurrected to kill me! To kill us!”
Nancy hugged him saying, “The whip is under lock and key, Jimmy. Everything is going to be okay. You just had a bad dream. Try to go back to sleep.”
Jimmy wiped his eyes dry with his hands. “First thing in the morning, Mom, can we go to the police department? I want to make sure the whip is still in the jar.”
“If it makes you feel better, I’ll take you as soon as we finish eating breakfast.”
“You’re welcome, and don’t worry about the whip. Try to get some sleep,” she added, tucking him in bed.
Early the following morning, when Nancy took Jimmy to the police department, both noticed there was too much activity going on at the station. Two ambulances and three police cars had parked outside the building, and police officers didn’t allow Nancy and Jimmy to go inside. Among the officers, Jimmy spotted Jenkins, and called out, “Officer Jenkins!”
“What happened?” Jimmy asked as the officer approached them.
In a somber mood, the officer reported, “I’m sorry Jimmy, but I have bad news. The jug exploded, spurting water and shards of glass all over the property room. The crime scene unit is inside, trying to figure out who strangled the entire night shift personnel, including the officers.”
Jimmy stuttered, “But the water was supposed to keep the whip in check. What happened to it?! Where is it?!”
Jimmy’s hands balled into fists. Tears flowed down his cheeks. “The Westerner took it! He broke the jar and let the whip out! He killed all those people!” Jimmy remarked. Then in a somber mood, he told the officer, “I’m responsible for the deaths of all those people because I brought a serial killer back to life!”
The officer wrapped his arms around Jimmy. “It’s not your fault, son. It’s mine. I should’ve listened to you. We should’ve thrown the whip in the river.”
“That wouldn’t have worked either, officer. Within time, somebody would have run into it like Charlie and I did.” Jimmy said. “The whip needs to be destroyed.”
Just then, Jenkins’ cell phone rang. “I need to take this,” he said. “It’s Charlie. The Westerner’s at his house.” He glanced at Nancy and Jimmy. “What are you waiting for? Come in,” he said, opening the doors to his car.
Speeding, he reached Charlie’s house. The officer jumped out of the car, followed by Nancy and Jimmy. Holding his Glock, Jenkins kicked the front door open, and hurried inside. Behind him Nancy and Jimmy followed. The trio found Charlie, cowering in a corner of the living room.
The Westerner let out a demoniacal laugh. He quit going after Charlie and cracked the whip, wrapping it tightly around Jenkins neck. The officer unloaded the Glock at The Westerner, but the man didn’t drop. Jenkins reloaded the Glock, but dropped it as the whip tightened its grip on his neck.
Nancy grabbed the gun and fired at The Westerner, but the guy didn’t fall. Jimmy had been observing the whole situation from the door, thinking that water was the only weapon he could use to stop The Westerner. Charlie’s mother had been spraying the side of the house with a heavy-duty pressure washer. He dashed outside and grabbed the hose and set it to the highest setting. Jimmy pulled the hose inside, spraying The Westerner and the whip. Gradually, The Westerner started fading. Eventually, the ethereal being disappeared, leaving the whip wrapped around the officer’s neck. Jimmy aimed the nozzle at the whip, until it released the water-drenched officer.
“Good work, Jimmy!” Jenkins commented as he removed the whip from his neck.
“Mom’s at work, but she’s not going to be very happy when she sees all this water in her living room,” Charlie said. “I’ll be sequestered for a month.”
“I don’t think so,” Nancy said. “I think she’ll be more than happy to know you’re alive.”
“It’s time to destroy it,” Jimmy said. “Once it dries, it will start to kill again.”
“Until we figure out how to destroy it, the only thing we can do is to return it to where you found it. The river will keep it from killing people,” Jenkins said, massaging his neck.
Jimmy said, “It seems that water is the only thing that keeps it from killing people. So, I agree with you.”
“So do I,” Charlie said.
“Let’s do it,” Nancy said.
The kids, Nancy, and the officer went to the river, found the spot where Jimmy had first noticed it, and dropped it in that area. The group watched the drenched whip sink into the still waters. They waited for an hour to see if it would come up but it didn’t.
As they walked away, Jimmy turned and saw the handle pop-up. The sight made his heart sink to his belly because he assumed a person might notice the handle, pull out the whip, and inadvertently bring The Westerner back.
BRIAN RB WILCOX
CURTIS A. BASS
D. B. ENGLISH
E. DAVID BROWN
ED N. WHITE
HERMAN EDWARD SEISER
M. E. MURRAY