Charles Hayes, a multiple Pushcart Prize Nominee, is an American who lives part time in the Philippines and part time in Seattle with his wife. A product of the Appalachian Mountains, his writing has appeared in Ky Story’s Anthology Collection, Wilderness House Literary Review, The Fable Online, Unbroken Journal, CC&D Magazine, Random Sample Review, The Zodiac Review, eFiction Magazine, Saturday Night Reader, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Scarlet Leaf Publishing House, Burning Word Journal, eFiction India, and others.
Ester (A Mother)
The years following World War II were a time of beginnings. Peace was beginning, families were beginning, and America was beginning to take a new shape. It was expected that people would try new things and go new places. But among the ancient mountains, known as the Appalachians, things did not take on change like the rest of the country. Few roads were built through the mountainous hardwood forest of this rugged area. Life held on to those things that could provide the most relief from an isolated existence. In the areas where coal was found, men mined it, lived by it, grew old and died by it. Their women raised their children and provided the men with what they could as the trains and trucks carried the product of their labors and most of the money out beyond the mountains to the growing cities of the Northeast.
Some of that coal began its journey near the little town of Matoka, West Virginia. Located along the train tracks that carried much of the traffic, Matoka was the home of a family of merchants that owned and ran the town's only feed store and a small movie theater. Of that family was Ester Williams and her two older sisters. There had been an older brother but he had gone down in a bomber during the war. Ester's father was also deceased but her mother still lived and managed the two small businesses. They were an industrious family that knew the value of money. Ester, however, was the least business oriented among the family. Instead, she was more interested in music and loved to play the piano and sing, leaving the matters of business to the rest of the family. Her family supported her in this and considered her to be more or less their contribution to the arts. Consequently, she became quite good. In the tough environment of the coal fields such an individual could hold a place that was, while rather different, respected and sometimes admired. The struggle of mining life sometimes required a softening of the hard edges that necessarily developed. Music could do that.
Ester was unusual in more ways than just her avocation. She was a twice married single mother. Many years earlier, she had eloped with her high school sweetheart, a handsome but penniless boy named Ben.
During the heights of the great depression Ester and Ben returned to Matoka after marrying. Neither had any way to earn a living. Ester’s family had enough to help them out some but Ben came from a poor family who didn’t have enough to even pay off their debts at the coal company store. Plus Ben hated coal mining and could not hold a mining job. Mining was tough.
It wasn't long before Ben, whose character strengths did not match his good looks, succumbed to depression, borrowed a gun, and shot himself.
He was buried following a small funeral with only his mother and father and the Williams family in attendance, his prior popularity having vanished among the staunch conservative community. Ester’s family paid for the funeral and burial. The expenses were never discussed between the two families nor did they stay in contact. It was like nature had annulled the marriage between Ester and Ben. Ester returned to her music and the rest of the family continued their trade while Ben’s little family, now childless, returned to their life in the coal camp. The great depression was no respecter of persons--life was luck and it must go on.
Sitting on the front porch of the family home in an old rocker, Ester recalls the days of her marriage to Ben and wonders if they played a part in her leaving Buddy, her second husband and the father of her two year old son. Determined to let the past be the past, she quickly tries to dismiss this thought. But Buddy is her son’s father and that is different. It will never be the past.
She can’t help but remember the day that she left Mathews, Virginia for good, Or the letter and phone calls from Buddy begging her to come back. She felt sorry for him but told him that it was over. Did she do the right thing? Like a film in her mother's movie house, it plays in her mind, different parts and times flashing forth like a Picasso.
A naked baby boy barely able to walk, struggles toward the ocean waves, falls face first into the sand, giggles, and rights himself. The brilliant blue and white mixes with the wind and sounds of surf to flood his senses. As he nears the froth of the receding surf Ester suddenly runs to the water's edge and grabs him. Ester is a stoutly built woman wearing a modest bathing suit of the post World War II era and the child is Charles, her son. Telling herself that she had better keep a close eye on him, she looks to the sky and determines that the sun will soon be too hot. Holding Charles, Ester bends down and picks up the little shovel and bucket and carries them to the grassy top of the sand dune where a little red wagon sits. Putting them and her belongings in the wagon, she pulls on a smock, puts cover on her boy, and pulls the wagon along a sandy street that runs through the seaside fishing and farming community of Mathews, Virginia.
Ester and Buddy, a fisherman jack of all trades met after the war at a USO social in Bluefield, West Virginia where Buddy was awaiting military discharge. Ester had wanted a child beyond all else. And Buddy in his Merchant Marine uniform seemed like a God send to a young unmarried woman from a small town. Both were in their thirties and looking for a place to enjoy the expected peace and prosperity that would come. Times were giddy and, though they were from different backgrounds, they married quickly and headed to the Virginia shore where Buddy was from. However the good times never really had a chance because Buddy was prone to drink and many times the money that was needed to make ends meet was spent in the local fishermen’s bars. Plus the crab boat that Ester’s family bought them for a wedding present was hardly broken in before Buddy got drunk and sold it for far less than it was worth. Even though she was granted her wish and became pregnant, that sale broke Ester’s will to keep the marriage going. She left Buddy and went back to Matoka to have Charles.
Buddy, a father removed, kept phoning and pleading for her to come back until, against the advice of her family, she carried Charles back to Mathews and tried once again to make a life for them. But Buddy seemed little different than before except that his drinking was more confined to the local area and seldom did he stay out more than one night.
Buddy had been medically discharged from the Merchant Marines because he had fallen from a mast and burst his skull. A metal plate was inserted to replace part of the bone and it was said that this contributed to his behavior. His family tried to make allowances for him but they were just able to make ends meet themselves. But he was one of their own so most of them tried to keep Ester on board for his sake. This proved to be hardly enough for Ester. She had made sacrifices in order to return to Mathews. She had liked watching her baby, studying music, and playing her mother’s piano. In Mathews they could barely afford the rent for the little shack that they lived in, let alone a piano. Or even a good record player. But she had wanted to prove to her parents that they could make it so she tried to endure. It was not long though until she decided that their life could not go on like that. They were on borrowed time. This cast a feeling of melancholia over their relationship and the resulting resentment prevented both of them from honestly trying to come to grips with the situation. Frequently they would exchange guilty looks and quietly drift farther apart, each seeing their own vision of a doomed relationship.
Walking along the rutted beach road, pulling the wagon and Charles behind, Ester thinks about what will be waiting for them when they get home. When they left for the beach they saw Buddy by the station house talking with a large black man in fishing boots. The station house is a favorite place for those who like to pass a bottle around while discussing fishing or the hog prices over at the farmers auction. As Ester nears the place where the beach road joins the regular street she hears laughter coming from the direction of the station house and decides to bypass it, hoping to avoid seeing Buddy drunk.
Evening is quiet and Ester remains anxious when Buddy fails to come home for dinner. She and Charles listen to the radio until it is his bedtime and Ester tucks him in.
Suddenly a loud crashing sound comes from the front stoop.
“God Damn it Ester, how many times have I told you to keep the fucking toys out of the doorway!”
Ester hurries to the entrance and helps Buddy regain his feet. He had tripped over the wagon, knocking out one of the door panels.
“My God Buddy, the doorway is plainly clear enough for anyone who can walk straight. You smell like a brewery, serves you right. I suppose you drank up the money we were going to pay the rent with.”
“Fuck the rent we’re going to move anyway," replies Buddy as he lurches across the room and flops down in his favorite piece of furniture, a huge pink arm chair.
Ester’s eyes fill with tears.
“Just where to. We don’t have any money and the last time I checked there are no places around here that are rent free. It’s just another one of your moves because you drank up the money. I told you Buddy I can’t keep moving. It’s not good for Charles and it’s not good for us. We need a place we can count on.”
“Hell Ester, don’t start that got to get ahead bull shit again. We can take that little garden cottage behind John’s. He says that I can work on his boat to make it up plus a little extra money besides.”
John is Buddy’s older brother. He fishes for anything that he can sell off his truck over in Gloucester, mostly crab. He needs help setting and retrieving crab pots--it is hard work bringing them up and setting them from the back of his small boat. And Ester knows that Buddy can’t do it.
“You can’t stick to that. You’ve tried it and Lord knows you can’t. Besides that cottage doesn’t even have a bathroom. I told you when I came back here that I would not live like that and you promised that we could have our own place. You said it would be different. They don’t even like me. They think I’m stuck up. Buddy listen to me--I won’t do it!"
Ester is crying.
Buddy stands up, pointing his finger.
“You are stuck up and you’ll God damned do what I tell you to do!"
Ester, rushes over to Buddy and grabs him.
“Please, Buddy, please don’t do this. I won’t do it...I can’t do it...I’ll leave you, I’ll take Charles and I’ll leave. And this time I won‘t come back. Can’t you see that?”
There it is, the unspoken thought that inhabits their lives, finally said out loud.
Buddy looks down at her as she clings to him and for a moment they hold each other’s gaze. As if to terminate any tie that holds them together, Buddy pushes her away.
“Go on and leave then! You never belonged here anyway...too high and mighty for the likes of me...go on, leave, I’m tired of never being able to please you! Take the kid with you...going to turn out to be nothing but a momma’s boy anyhow... you wanted a kid...now you got one. Call it my contribution, go on, leave.”
Ester stumbles backwards and falls over a foot stool, landing with a loud thud as her bottom hits the floor. Lowering her head into her hands, her soft sobs are broken by the sound of another louder cry. In the bedroom door stands Charles, his big teary eyes searching first the face of his father and then that of his mother's.
Ester quickly stands and takes Charles back into the bedroom while Buddy, looking bewildered and lost, slowly walks out the front door. Looking at the light coming through the broken door panel, Buddy mutters, “Oh what’s the use," shoves his hands in his pockets, and makes his way toward the station house.
Ester knows that the greyhound bus to Richmond will pass through shortly. She also knows that this has been a long time coming so it may as well be now. She will take Charles and return to her family with the money she received from them earlier and hid away. It was enough to get them on the bus to Richmond. Enough will be leftover to go by train from there into West Virginia. She doesn't know the train schedule but she knows that the major coalfields of Southern West Virginia call for much rail traffic. And that includes some passenger trains that bring the big coal company executives, their families, and the coal business in and out of the region. Along with the rich in their sleepers, there will be room for the poor in coach. They might have to spend a night in the station but that is nothing she and Charles have not done before.
There is not much to pack---a small cardboard suitcase and a small bag of toys along with a jar of peanut butter and half a loaf of bread. Ester places the food and toys, along with Charles, in the little red wagon and pulls them behind her as she carries the suitcase.
The bus stop is about a mile away and it takes her about 30 minutes to walk the distance to the shelter and bench beside the highway. She doesn't have long to wait before she sees large headlights in the distance. It has to be the bus. Nothing else that big runs through here. Stepping near the edge of the road and waving, Ester watches the bus slow and pull over.
The driver gets out and looks over at Charles setting in the wagon.
“Heading toward Richmond,” he asks, “just you and the kid?"
“Yes," replys Ester, “we have a train to catch."
“You're not going all the way into downtown Richmond,” the driver asks, “want me to drop you at the train station?"
“Yes, please. That would save us some trouble making the connection and it would be much appreciated.” Ester is glad that the driver is willing to do this. She can't spare cab fare.
“No problem at all," the driver says as he stows the suitcase under the bus and looks at the red wagon.
“Sorry I can’t take the wagon without charging you extra. The company is very strict about that. Want me to load it as well?”
“Just leave it," replies Ester.
She feels a moment of sorrow but immediately pushes it away. The wagon had served them well and Charles had few toys, she will have to get him another one. Or maybe something a little more complicated like one of those toy cars that you can pedal.
Lifting Charles and their few belongings from the wagon, Ester pushes the wagon to the side of the shelter and hopes that someone will make use of it. She pays the driver and learns that Charles can ride free as long as he is carried aboard.
Finding a seat not too far from the front of the bus and getting situated, Ester hears the swooshing sound as the driver closes the door and pulls back on the highway. A family of three is once again only two, starting a journey that is as unclear as the dark countryside beyond their window. Holding Charles in her lap as he falls asleep, Ester wonders what she can do once they reach Matoka. Her family will of course take them in but they will also expect her to find something to do with herself. Ester thinks of her music and how she might use that to make a life. Maybe she can teach.
At the station house Buddy sees the bus in the distance slow down and stop for a few minutes before continuing on. Maybe someday he can take his family on that bus to Richmond and they can have a real holiday---eat in a good restaurant, and stay in a nice hotel. Ester has complained and threatened before. One time she even left him, but she had come back fast enough. He knows it is hard for her but she will just have to give him a chance to prove to her that he can handle it. Just a little more time is needed. A man has to sometimes do things that people don't understand. That takes time. What things those are, Buddy can't quite figure. He loses his train of thought and doesn't remember where he started. Looking around and suddenly realizing that he is the only one left on the platform, Buddy gingerly slides from atop a large barrel and stumbles toward home hoping Ester will be in bed. He doesn't feel like arguing tonight. It will all get straightened out tomorrow.
As Buddy nears home he sees that the lights are on and tries to ready himself for more complaints. Noticing the broken door but not remembering how it got that way, he goes inside. It is all too quiet. Why has Ester not turned off the lights before going to bed? Only the bedroom is dark. He goes into the bedroom and switches on the light to find the bed and the old makeshift crib empty. The drawer where Ester keeps her clothes is open and empty. And the shelf where she keeps the few things for Charles is bare. A knot slowly begins to form in the pit of Buddy’s stomach and he begins to feel sick---a wild kind of scared sick. He looks all around, panic in his eyes. He even runs outside and looks under the house to see if they might be hiding there. Coming back inside, he notices that the wagon is gone. Maybe they are just walking around somewhere but why would they do that. The unusual stop of the Greyhound bus suddenly dawns upon him. In a full panic, he half runs, half walks to the bus stop to find no one there. Nothing.
As Buddy is bending over to catch his breath he sees a flicker of light in the shadow of the shelter and draws closer to see what it was. At first only the handle bar lying in the dust is visible. But the whole thing becomes visible as Buddy further examines the object. It is a child’s red wagon. The realization that while he was getting drunker he had watched Ester and Charles leave him hits him hard. Moaning from deep inside, he slowly sinks to the bench, curls like a fetus, and cries until he is unconscious.
Slowly rocking back and forth, again aware of the quiet Matoka street that she overlooked, Ester closed her review of the past and looked to her child playing along the porch nearby. She had done the right thing and she would prove it. With a resolve as hardy as her love of music, she set her jaw and swore to herself that, even if it killed her, she would make a life for herself and her son.
Ester Williams Hayes enrolled in a nearby teachers college and studied music. Through many years of moving around to substitute teach during the school year, while completing her teaching certificate during the summer months, Ester raised Charles as a single mother and lead many a school band as its conductor.
It was not easy. Away trips for state High School band competitions had Charles, still very young, donning his small band uniform and marching in the ranks, pretending to be the smallest music maker. There was no money to do it any other way and Charles played his part well enough that no concerns were raised. The travel and mix of older people stretched him in ways that were not so obvious at first. Later they led to a more liberal leaning in his nature. A fact that sometimes puzzled the more conservative Ester.
Charles’ father was no longer in the picture, but when Charles graduated high school Ester loaned him her car to go back to the Chesapeake Bay area and look for him. Finding only his father’s brother, Charles learned that Buddy had faded from even his own family’s picture. The last anybody knew about him was that he was in an old soldier's home somewhere. It seemed that not much had changed through those years. Fishing and hard work left little time to keep up with those beyond the immediate family.
Charles returned to West Virginia and, as Ester grew older, went forth carrying those obscure parts of his father that would bedevil him and Ester throughout life. They were the products of the hard rocks of Appalachia. Where coal was king.
A Bad Lot
Watching his laying hens chase the cracked corn, Luke Oleman worries that his decision to skip college and a draft deferment to stay home with his family and help manage their Dairy business had been the wrong one. Having graduated with the high school class of 1965 a few months earlier, he couldn’t see then how the Army would be interested in a Virginia farm boy who hated any kind of killing. But lately he was learning that temperament made little difference to the local draft board when it came to filling their quotas. Some of the older boys that he knew had been called up recently. Tossing the last of the feed, he kneels to pet his old border collie, Beau. Enjoying his love for his dog and animals in general, Luke remembers how a couple of their dairy cows had gotten nailed by a marauding bull when he was in grade school. And how he had stood up to his dad when his dad had wanted to slaughter the calves to save the milk. His dad had finally given in and let Luke raise the calves with their mothers separate from the rest of the herd. A year later he and the calves had won best of a new breed at the fair. And the State University had paid big bucks to have them in a new program at their Agricultural College.
Noticing the mailman pull up and stick something in their box, Luke smoothes Beau’s coat, stands, and goes to the mailbox with a foreboding that seems to dog him more every day. After knocking the beginnings of a wasp nest from underneath it, he opens the flap and withdraws a white envelope with a blue Department of Defense Seal printed on it. Standing in the diminishing dust from the mail truck with his stomach sinking, Luke stares at the letter that he knows is his draft notice. Slowly opening it, he tries to brace himself by thinking that Nancy will still be in college during his service. Just get it out of the way for their life later he tells himself. Reading the dreaded word “Greetings”, Luke confirms that it is his induction notice. Unable to casually continue his chores, he lowers the letter and looks down at Beau. Sensing that all is not right, Beau cocks his head slightly, lifts a paw, and whines softly.
Nancy Childers had been looking forward to her weekend visit home and the chance to spend a little time with Luke. Since starting college she had missed the boy that she had loved as far back as she could remember. Now, since getting his phone call and the news of his draft notice, there was a sadness about the coming weekend that she couldn’t quite shake. Telling herself the same things that Luke was saying---that it’s only for two years and she’ll still be in college all that time--she snaps her bag and goes to catch her ride with another student going her way for the weekend. Nancy has never really been away from home before and it will still be nice to get back to old familiar ground for a little while. The little town of Smithville doesn’t have that much going for it but it is where she and Luke had spent their lives living on adjacent farms in the outlying area. And it was their home.
Waiting for her ride, she recalls how they had fished and picnicked together through the years and how they had come to love the quietness and solitude that they shared roaming the rolling landscape around their farms. How the dying patches of snow, like little white islands in a sea of green, provided their avenues for hiking and loving over the land. Maybe Luke was right, two years could fly by and so far lots of draftees were getting stations other than Vietnam. But Nancy was no wonderland Alice. She knew that lots were not.
Luke, riding a big roan gelding and Nancy, mounted on a smaller chestnut mare, let their mounts amble and graze along the creek that runs for miles to empty into the much larger Shenandoah. Quietly they try to enjoy this last ride before Luke leaves for the war. Despite all their hopes, it had been short schrift for Luke once he finished boot camp. A draftee and no years of training to bring him up to par for specialized jobs, he was slapped with the infantry and posted to the central highlands of Vietnam to help fill the void that the increasing demands of the war were placing on America.
Coming to their favorite swimming hole, a clear pool of still water with reflections of the large sycamore trees that shelter its banks, they let the horses drink, dismount, and tie them off to some smaller trees coming up in the nearby meadow.
Just inside the lee of the sycamores there is a small raised grassy plateau that overlooks the creek and provides a look out through the trees to the meadow and land beyond. With only blankets under their arms, Luke and Nancy leave the horses and silently make their way to their grassy love spot. There, without words but with an understanding that years of togetherness has brought them, they lie together.
Under the sycamores young moist bodies dappled by the soft filtered sunlight lounge side by side, touching along their length as if one, staring through the treetops to the patches of blue beyond. Lovely and placid they are in their repose until a sudden mutual hunger, fueled by memories and uncertain futures, brings their eyes back to one another.
“I love you,” Luke says, as he watches a tear fall from Nancy’s lash. “I can not remember a time when I didn’t. You are my all and all to no end.”
No longer immersed in the tranquil moments of after love, Nancy begins to cry openly as she swings her leg over Luke and takes him in.
“Oh my God Luke, I love you. You are my soul, my future. Please come back to me. I’m empty without you. Don’t get killed, please God don’t get killed.”
Breathing fast, and bursting with his own emotions, Luke lets it out as well.
“I’ll be back dear love, I’ll be back, through heaven and hell I’ll be back. Wait for me, I promise I’ll be back.”
Both weeping, their love tuned to a crescendo of passion and catharsis, Luke and Nancy truly escape the ordinary of their young lives.
Out in the meadow the roan and the chestnut lift their heads from the grass and look toward the trees as the duet of a piercing cry reaches their ears.
Amid the defoliated landscape of shattered tree trunks and shell craters, Luke and an older kid from the Mississippi Delta, known as Big Daddy, bear one of the dead to the medical evacuation helicopter touching down in the A Shau Valley of Vietnam. Rocking slightly upon impact, the chopper sends a splash of blood over the edge of the deck onto the two as they load a lumpy black body bag on the slippery deck. Covered with mud and blood, the pair quickly shove the body in past the crew chief to the other waiting crewman.
Running low as the chopper lifts off, they are clear of the rotor blades when Luke suddenly stops and heaves up a stream of vomit. Big Daddy looks on as Luke, doubled over and trying to regain his stance, instead, vomits again.
Sniffing the heavy smell of puke, cordite and smoke as if they opine his thoughts, Big Daddy says, “That’s right, get that blood gut outside ya where it belongs. I went through it first time too….God damn them that do this war and never see it…never smell it....never taste it stuck in their craw like a rotten chicken gizzard……God damn them all!”
Giving Luke a modicum of privacy for his sickness, Big Daddy looks to the sky and shakes his head.
Finally catching his breath, Luke straightens up and seems to see his stretcher mate for the first time.
“You been through this before? I didn’t think anything could be this bad. Else I would've gone to Canada.”
Big Daddy chuckles and lays his hand on Luke’s shoulder.
“Sure you would’ve, sure you would’ve. Just liken a frog woulda growed wings if he’d knowed he would bump his ass so much. People like me an’ you can’t go to Canada. We’re home boys. Now come on, let’s get the rest of these bagged boys back to their homes.”
Luke hadn’t had much experience with people like Big Daddy, but they grew tight. And when they shook hands and locked eyes for the last time as Big Daddy was getting on the chopper to leave the war and go home, much had passed between them.
Setting in the door of the chopper with his feet dangling above the skids as it revs up, Big Daddy slaps the top of Luke’s helmet and screams above the rotor noise, “Luke, you my man, you be ok now, no sweat, but you and me and all these other poor son a bitches around here, we ain’t never gonna be the same. Of all things remember that….farm boy.”
Watching his smiling friend waving from the door of the rising helicopter, Luke feels a big sorrow yet a certain jubilation that Big Daddy is making it out. And he knows that his last words are true. He will make it too…..and he will never be the same. Standing there, watching the chopper shrink to a dot on the horizon, Luke calls back a time that seems to come from another world. He remembers Nancy and their last ride together.
Newly discharged from the armed forces of the United States and still in uniform, Luke makes his way through the crowded Richmond International Airport, a choking feeling in his throat and unease in his step. The funny dress and long hair all about is a bit unsettling to the rigid standards he had adapted to during his army tour. And some of the looks he gets are down right hostile. But the worst is the way the people seem to be going about a business that somehow excites them, gives a purpose to their steps. What is it that moves them in such a way, makes them laugh and mingle together. Luke now knows in the main what Big Daddy meant about not being the same. Here, back in the world, it spooks him as he pretends a purpose--making his way to the baggage claim to get his duffle bag.
Standing near the baggage carrousel eyeing the passengers as they retrieve their luggage, Nancy, dressed in wild colors and bellbottoms, waits for Luke who doesn’t know that she is there. She has driven all the way from her Northern Virginia school to surprise him and welcome him home..
Looking at the stream of people coming to the baggage area Nancy spots the uniform first and then the tall young man that she loves. All other earthly thoughts and feelings disappear as she runs toward him. A flash of brilliant hippie color, Nancy cries out her welcome as she draws near.
“Luke! Welcome home my darling love!”
Seeing only a pretty young woman wearing wild colors and beads, Luke at first doesn’t recognize Nancy and shies from her approach.
Startled almost to disappointment and feeling a little hurt by his cool reception, Nancy stops shy of her lover and searches his face for signs of something wrong.
“Are you alright, baby? You look scared.”
“I didn’t recognize you,” Luke replies. “It’s just this crowded airport and all the people. Makes me nervous.”
“Well grab your bag and let’s get out of here. We’re going home in my new car.”
Not really knowing the import of a new car compared to an old car, Luke shoulders his bag and listens to Nancy’s excited chatter about school and the life that lies ahead of them. And as they make their way to the parking lot, the unease that has dogged him since his return to the world sits on his shoulder, telling him in one ear that there is something wrong with him, while he tries to hear what Nancy is saying with the other.
“Can you feel it in your legs?” Luke says. “The horses are getting old.”
Seeing Luke more like his old self, Nancy smiles and tells herself it’s going to be OK.
“Maybe a little,” she says. “I’m not the horse person that you are. But no doubt they are older.”
For some reason Luke considers her reply inadequate and feels a bit slighted.
“Well, you don’t need to be a horse person to feel a difference in your old mount.”
Noticing his curtness, Nancy lets it pass and changes the subject.
“Do you think our spot by the creek will be overgrown?”
“Don’t think so,” Luke replies. “That’s the nice thing about sycamores. They have a natural moderating effect on their surrounding soil when it comes to overgrowth. But never mind, there is no such thing as overgrown where I been. The more there is, the better.”
A tinge of selfishness in Luke that had never been there before brings Nancy to only smile and nod. Maybe she can feel the difference in him. But again, she tries to ignore it.
About a hundred yards from the little raised spot among the creek sycamores Luke heels his big roan into a full gallop and yells to Nancy, “Come on babe, follow me and let the wind color your cheeks for pretty pleasure.”
Having no real choice since she is only a sometimes rider and since the chestnut pairs with the big roan on instinct, Nancy barely hangs on to the saddle horn as both horses gallop to their old hitching spots.
After tying up the horses Luke takes Nancy’s hand and pulls her inside the trees and up the small overlook.
Pulling her down roughly, Luke fumbles with the buttons to her blouse with one hand while trying to take her pants off with the other.
Feeling overlooked like never before, Nancy tries to get Luke to take a little time.
“Luke please, slow down. At least let me take my boots off first. I can take the rest off as well.”
“Oh darling,” Luke replies, “ if you only knew how many times I dreamed of this.”
“Me too Luke,” Nancy replies as she removes her clothes and smoothes the blankets. Lying back on the blankets, Nancy becomes a little anxious to find Luke still dressed and just staring at her nakedness.
“Aren’t you going to get undressed?”
“No need,” Luke says, as he pulls his pants down and forcibly mounts her.
To her horror, when Nancy tries to stop him, she is simply overpowered and used in a rush.
Handing Luke the reins to the chestnut after the long silent ride back to the barn, Nancy avoids his eyes and turns away. Going to her car with tears flowing down her cheeks, she gets in, starts it up and drives off. Looking ahead to the road and resisting any urge to look up to the review mirror, Nancy feels crushed and humiliated. Even now she is telling herself that this could not have happened.
Not watching her go, Luke stables the horses and heads to the dairy barn. An older and grayer Beau sits at the barn door. When Luke reaches down to pet him the old dog whines and moves away.
Eighth graders, all eager to get out of the classroom for the day, fidget and squirm as Nancy, their science teacher, tells them not to forget to study the small critters that live near their homes. As the final bell sounds, the commotion signals the end of another workday for Nancy. Feeling tired but with a sense of accomplishment, she is ready for the weekend break.
Putting away her books and charts, Nancy notices a figure at her door out of the corner of her eye. Turning in that direction, she is surprised to find a much thinner Luke standing in the doorway.
“Luke?…………What are you doing here?”
Trying to come up with the right words, Luke lowers his eyes for a moment then looks up.
“I’m sorry, Nancy. I made a terrible mistake, did an awful thing. Can you ever forgive me?”
Thoroughly surprised by this encounter, Nancy pretends to attend to her books while she too looks for an answer. Finally Nancy faces him and says, “Yes, you did Luke. And I don’t know. I know that you had a bad lot compared to most of the rest of us. But to become so hardened, what have you got to show for your sorry?”
Though glad to see that Nancy still has her spirit and confidence, Luke has to admit, “Not much, I’m afraid. Just a strong desire for us to be the way we used to be……………before I thought the war gave me privileges that were wrong. I had everything wrong but……. little by little, I think I can get it right…………..if you will help me. Can you find it in your heart to do that Nancy? We go back a long ways. ”
Walking across the room to study Luke’s eyes, Nancy ponders her reply and after a long silence takes Luke’s hand.
“Maybe Luke. Just maybe. After all, I am a teacher. Come on let’s go get some coffee and talk about it.”
Walking down the corridor and out the doors of the school, Luke Oleman and Nancy Childers emerge into the bright afternoon sunlight, like old souls from a shadowed cavern, young hearts that will smile, beat on, and accept the challenge of coming home again.
Standing there with her books, smiling to herself as she turned her face to the autumn sun, she looked like a photo queen hugging catalogues of pricey wear. But when she looked aside and caught my gaze, her lips uncurled and her eyes caught mine. Beyond a need, or one that mattered not, she held on. While people brushed by to and fro, all attuned to the crosswalk glow, I held on too.
Blessed by Starbucks all about, we fell aside the crossing push to sip a cup and let it be. As cups with frothy tops passed by, their holders watching other palms, she told me that she taught, and asked about me. I told her that it was another world, I did shows for culinary flair, pleasant couples, no needs at hand, smiled and watched me play.
It was fun being with her, the scent of ivory towers brought back a time afore, and her nice looks with a mind to match, made an edge of interest something more. My wayward ways she did not seem to mind, the reach of her eyes told me that. When it was time to go, I ask for her number as we dusted about, two colors of one ilk. But she made it easy as if there was no other way, and handed me her card. She said that the number was on the back.
I called so many times but it was all for naught. Only muzak voices that asked for a note had anything to say. The disappointment was sharp at first, but slowly slid to dull, like those that had passed that way before. Time moved on to a steady click, and I just let it go.
After needy clinks of china, and mindless chatter with bellies full enough to watch, I did OK. And a fan that sometimes hung on for more to do, passed my time a little bit. But a lot I roamed the walk, that crossed the avenue. Balmy autumn, shades of orange and green, turned to windswept grey and shadows darker still. She was gone.
One night I dropped a line when I looked out and saw her smiling on. An elegant gent was at her table too. I did my show by rote, and kept my eyes where they belonged.
While walking home alone, feeling anger that she had put me on a stage, I crossed the avenue, to find a taxi parked along the curb. As I neared, the dark glass slid down to show her face, just as it had been that day we met. She said that her father had to go, would I show her where I lived?
When she left she said that she would be in touch, not to call. So deep in, with little choice, I almost smacked her face. Don’t be a spoil sport she implied, my other fans would tide me by. It was late and even if no father was, things would have to be. I took her words to heart, and it hurt to see that it was not so much.
Only fans, him and her, and me.
Matthew Lyons is probably taller than you, not that it's a competition or anything. His work has most recently been published in Out of the Gutter, The Molotov Cocktail, Animal, Abstract Jam and more. Complaints can be filed on twitter at @reverendlyons
This Modern Romance
To be fair, when they first got together, Doug did tell her he was into some kind of weird shit, but walking out of the hotel room after their third date, Steph wishes he'd been a little bit more specific about that.
First time they went out, it was nothing major, just a local pub, basic Tinder shit, getting to know you, getting to know you're not a psycho. Usual routine. Steph ordered a vodka tonight, which she hates, just so she'd drink it real slow. Doug ordered a Guinness but he wasn't pretentious about it, no poseur talk or typical beer-bro bullshit about It tastes better in Dublin, but any port in a storm, I suppose, nothing like that. He just ordered it, let it settle, and spent the next hour asking her about her. It was refreshing. He was refreshing. He wasn't arrogant, he didn't really seem to have any ego at all. Cute, too. Really cute, in that sort of rumpled mid-late 20s kind of way, like he was perfectly capable of getting serious about adulting whenever he wanted, but would only do so when he was good and ready.
He seemed chill. He was chill. That was why Steph stuck around, honestly. He didn't seem interested in impressing her, or anyone else. He was just there to... find out more, or something.
So, yeah. Steph stuck around.
Their first date lasted three whole hours, with each of them probably asking more questions and ordering more drinks that they should have, but by then it was too late to keep score, anyway. They were just having fun, and that's what it's all supposed to be about, right? So fuck it, whatever.
Looking back, though, that was probably how they first started talking about sex stuff. It was fun, and they were too drunk to worry about it, and anyway, there's some secret thrill in asking about someone's fetishes when they were a total stranger a couple hours ago. It's fevered, like a beautiful, secret sickness. Except when they got off her and moved onto him, he just shrugged and said, It's kind of weird.
"I can handle weird."
He blushed then—he actually blushed!—and shook his head.
"I'm not so sure about that. Nothing personal. It's just, I'm into something pretty, uhm, specific?"
Steph narrowed her eyes at him and gave her best sultry smile and said, "Well, now I have to know."
He grinned at her in that charming Doug way and drained his beer, knocking away the swell of pink-red from his cheeks. "Maybe next time."
Steph played offended, pressing the flat of one hand against her breastbone.
"Why Doug, what makes you think there'll be a next time?"
But he just gave her that smile again and ordered another beer, and moved the conversation along to something a little bit safer.
Date #2, they went to a movie, some Harry Potter ripoff that they didn't either of them really see because they were too busy making out like fourteen year-olds in the back of the theater. It was hot, and totally ridiculous, and way too much fun, and by the time the credits rolled, both of their jaws were sore, and that made it kind of hilarious, too, which was sweet, but it also didn't stop Steph from going home and masturbating about it all. Twice.
The wednesday after that, he texted her asking with winky faces if she wanted to know how weird he really got.
Of course she said yes.
His next text, a couple hours later, was just a time and a place: HOTEL CLINTON, ROOM 36C. FRIDAY, 11PM. After that, nothing. Not even when she texted him back Can't wait, you fucking weirdo with a bunch of emojis of her own. At first she was offended, then after a while just figured it was part of his whatever weirdness. Okay, fine, cool. Let's see how weird he gets. If it's too much, she can always bail, despite the little coal of feeling she's been carrying around in her chest ever since he kissed her outside the bar. She doesn't think too much about that if she can help it. It doesn't help anything, anyway. As if she needed things to be any more complicated than they already are.
Fucking feelings. Stupid.
Steph powers through the next two days at work then heads home after on friday, skipping happy hour with her friends to go shower and pick out her outfit and everything. She goes through most of her closet trying to decide on the perfect thing and even though she finally finds it, it doesn't even matter because when she gets to the hotel room (on time, naturally), there's a note on the door that says
TAKE YOUR CLOTHES OFF AND
LAY ON THE BED
FACE DOWN, ASS UP
THE DOCTOR WILL SEE YOU SHORTLY
And she knows she should turn around, right here, right now. She knows that it only gets weirder from here, and after this, she can't go back to not knowing what kind of weird actually means.
But still. Fucking feelings.
She can't help herself.
She goes in.
The hotel room is as nice as she expected—or at least, the parts of it she can see are. The lights are all off inside. Awesome. This isn't creepy at all. She's standing in some kind of foyer hallway whatever it's called, next to the bathroom door, shut tight but clearly occupied, a blade of orange light sluicing out from between the door and the floor. Steph suddenly feels very very exposed and alone but she's here and that's, I mean, this is happening, right? She's here. They're doing this. Fuck everything anyway.
Yeah, they're doing this.
She's doing this.
She strips all the way down, peeling off her carefully-curated slinky underthings and kicking her heels off to the side. She didn't notice it before, but the AC in here is going full-blast. They foyer-hallway-whatever tile is icy underneath her soles and she tiptoes deeper into the dark, completely naked, feeling her way to the bed, which she finally stumbles upon when she barks one shin against the pressboard frame. It hurts like a bitch in the amplified cold, but not wanting to shatter whatever illusion Doug's created here, she doesn't cry out, just clamps down on the inside of her cheek 'til she tastes blood. She chokes it back until the taste runs clear and hopes that that's the worst thing she has to swallow tonight.
Steph climbs onto the bed on all fours and wriggles toward the center and positions herself the way Doug's note said to. And then she waits. And she waits. Then she waits some more. She's not 100% on how long she's crouched like that, the AC vent over the bed goosebumping her bare ass, making her both feel kind of drowsy and like she's maybe sort of got to pee, but just as she's about to drift off to some kind of weird half-drone sleep, she hears the bathroom door click open. For a second, the whole room washes weird-orange and then Doug hits the lights and it's all dark everything. Steph lists and tilts, unmoored and disoriented.
He squeaks when he walks, like he's wearing galoshes or something. He doesn't say a singe word, not even when she tries to break the tension by making some stupid quip, Took you long enough or something. He just goes Sssshhhh and circles the bed, just outside of her already-limited field of vision. He might as well be invisible. Steph holds still, telling herself over and over, It's not weird, he's not weird, I can handle weird though, that's what I said and I meant it, this is normal, don't kinkshame, people are allowed to be into whatever they're really into and it doesn't necessarily make them bad people, it's just that he seemed so sweet and ordinary and I really liked him I mean like I really like him so please please don't let this be too fucked up not that I'm judging or anything.
The squeaking goes quiet and she loses track of him until she feels a hot puff of breath tickle between her cheeks and hears him go Hmmmmm.
There's a plastic unscrewing sound, like a jar being opened, and a second later there's a chilly smear of something plopped, yep, right, jesus christ, right on her asshole. He rubs it in with one finger, going in circles until he's apparently satisfied, then takes a step back and Steph hears something metal (oh my fucking god) clacking in his hand. A second later, a cold steel tongue slips right up her butt and she feels him working some mechanism, and centimeter by centimeter, she starts spreading open.
Okay, that's an old-school speculum. What the fuck. What the fucking fuck.
It's not like she isn't into butt stuff. Everybody's a little into butt stuff. She just wishes he'd've given her a little heads up. It would have been the polite thing to do. But, okay, whatever, she can roll with this for now.
She lays there and lets herself be opened up, so, so ready for this to be over already, and when he gets her to the right dilation, there's more rubber rustling and then, a few long seconds later, he starts shouting.
He starts shouting right into her asshole.
"ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?"
It takes Steph by surprise, and she wants to jump, but she feels anchored to the spot by medical-grade metal lodged firmly up her. "ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?!" he screams again, his strong, low voice reduced to a panicky screeee. She doesn't know if he's talking to her or not, but decides it has to be the latter when he immediately follows it up with:
"I NEVER WANTED TO PLAY BASEBALL IN THE FIRST PLACE!!"
Okay. Yeah. This is weird. Get me the fuck out of here. I'm done.
"YOU ALWAYS CHEAT AT SCRABBLE, YOU STUPID SLUT!!"
He goes on and on and on like this for another minute, and his screams are soon joined by a fleshy rustling that can only be Doug cranking himself off. Awesome. Things go pretty fast after that. Not long after that (honestly, not long at all, what the hell) Doug's spent and sprawled on the floor, gasping for air, but at least he's not barking about little league or board games or go-karts anymore. Steph has to collapse and ease the speculum out of her own ass and drops it wherever, she can't see in the dark. Gets off the bed and crosses to the foyer and dresses in the dark. Close enough. Doesn't even bother putting her shoes on at this point, hotels have lobbies for a reason.
She opens the door to leave and when the light from the hallway spills in she finally sees Soug, smiling at her from the floor, clad in a latex bondage approximation of a doctor's smock and nothing else.
"I'll call you, okay?" he says, the joy in his voice obvious and oozing and idiotic. Looking at him like that, the coal inside her chest sputters, then goes dark and cold, just a dumb lump of nothing. Steph leaves.
On the subway home, she matches on Tinder with a guy named Mike. He looks nice. Maybe they should go out and get a drink or something.
Debra Brenegan serves as an Associate Professor and the Graduate Program Director at Mount Mary University. Her work has been published in Calyx, Tampa Review, Natural Bridge, The Laurel Review, Cimarron Review, Phoebe, RE:AL, The Southern Women’s Review, Knee-Jerk, Literary Orphans, and elsewhere. Her novel, Shame the Devil was named a finalist for Foreword Reviews 2011 Book of the Year Award for Historical Fiction.
Rory and Abigail Go to a Wedding
It was a competition that Rory knew would end badly, yet he couldn’t help but dive into it like a crazed teenager plunging off some bridge into a rock-racked river. Rory and Abigail were in it together, seemed to be from the moment their eyes first met, wryly, during their adjunct university lecturer orientation three years earlier. But, Rory would emerge the victor. That much he knew.
Walking across the quad toward the grand-columned, secretly-mildewing 150-year-old English Department building, Rory mentally outlined his story. Tabitha, absent for two weeks because of “illness” (Rory would be sure to use finger quotes) finally showed up to Academic Writing class and asked innocently, “Have I missed anything important?”
Rory’s retorts pushed against his teeth. No, we just sat around and watched TV and waited for you to get back. No, when I found out through your roommate’s friend, who happens to be in my other Academic Writing section, that you were sick, we all donned black crepe armbands and sat outside your dorm door, praying for your recovery. No, Tabitha, darling, you of all people should know that nothing important ever happens in this class; it was wise of you to skip it and spend a few weeks shopping online and watching YouTube.
Rory burst into the faculty lunchroom, the smell of garlicky tomato sauce overpowering the oily odor of the constantly humming copy machine. Abigail was already there, her dark hair shining blue under the awful lighting. She was tucking into her usual Tupperware salad, a bottle of pink Vitamin Water half downed, next to the Tupperware. She motioned for Rory to sit opposite her. “Oh my God,” she said, holding her hand over her mouth.
Rory dug into his messenger bag for his slightly smashed PBJ. “What? Who?”
“I told you about Mick, right?”
“Not him again.”
“Well, today, not only does he raise his hand and volunteer that he didn’t read the ‘stupid story’ again, but after our discussion got going, he actually wanted to participate.”
“What? Without reading?”
“He said he had an opinion based on what people had told him about the story.”
“Sort of like only seeing the movie trailer. No – worse. I hope you gave a quiz.”
“Should have. Wasn’t thinking. How about you?”
Rory’s eyes brightened as he related his Tabitha tale.
Abigail laughed, hand over mouth, over the Tupperware. “Is her last name Moody?”
“Moony,” Rory said.
“That’s it!” Abigail said. “Big blonde mane?”
“I failed her last semester. She had it all – mysterious illnesses, a dying grandmother. Car trouble. Boyfriend issues.”
“Anything to avoid writing a paper,” Rory offered.
“Exactly. Watch out for her.”
The next class period, Tabitha rushed in two minutes late. Rory was a stickler about tardies and he marked the red ‘T’ next to her name without losing his train of thought. It was due day for essay number two and the students’ hair was collectively greasy. They had deep rings beneath their bloodshot eyes. Nearly all of them had donned flip flops. Rory told them to put their rough drafts beneath their final drafts and to label them as such. He told them to put their annotative bibliographies underneath the drafts. He told them to bring their packets to the front table and to stack them neatly in a pile in front of his messenger bag.
The students came forward with their essay offerings, except for Tabitha, who sat near the back of the room, her chin tucked into her chest.
Rory explained the details of essay number three and released the sleep-deprived darlings fifteen minutes early. They scampered out.
Thanks, Dr. Quincy.
Tabitha sat at the back of the room, blinking rapidly as Rory jammed the essay packets into his messenger bag. He shoved one arm, then the other through the sleeves of his thin khaki jacket. He glanced at Tabitha. “You okay?” he asked. He didn’t relish the excuse he knew was coming, but felt it would be unfair simply to walk away without giving her the courtesy of a listen.
“My grandmother,” Tabitha said, sniffing.
Rory rolled his eyes the slightest bit. “Yes?”
“She may die.”
“We all may die, Miss Moony. What does that have to do with essay number two?”
“I mean soon.” And with this, Tabitha broke into gentle wincing tears, the mascara gathering beneath her lashes like ineffective sandbags.
Rory remained neutral. “Would you like to take another late? One more week, downgraded a whole letter grade. Another letter grade off for each extra day.”
Tabitha smiled. “That’d be great.” She lifted her head suddenly, to better show the smile, and Rory noticed the sparkly pink lip gloss fairly dripping from her lower lip, the child-flushed cheeks, the pale green eyes. “Thanks so much,” she added. “You’re really an understanding teacher. I mean, compared to some.”
“Well, I . . .” Rory stammered. He was strangely stunned by the child/adult combination, by the ludicrous lip gloss, the fresh, naturally-rosy cheeks.
Tabitha glowed at him. “So, one week?”
She stood, rolled her shoulders back like a soldier, exposing her chest. “Call me Tabby,” she said. “Professor.”
Rory snapped back to cynicism. Professor. Was she mocking him? Everyone knew about the rank and file who covered the basics at most universities. And Tabby, oh sure. It sounded like a pet’s name, maybe some funky index card, not what any sane couple would intentionally name a daughter they wanted anyone to take seriously. Rory’s mouth puckered. “One week.”
The next week, during office hours, Rory was roused from his usual flurry of grading by a timid knock on his open door. There stood Tabitha, a low-cut, glittery tee-shirt strained over her chest, a flutter of papers dangling from her fingers – presumably essay number two.
“Ah, one week exactly,” Rory said, holding out his hand for the essay.
Tabitha’s face twisted into what looked like a grimace, but was probably meant to be a smile. She had the usual gobs of pink slimed over her lips, but her cheeks were pale and her eyes puffy. She placed her hand into Rory’s outstretched one and batted her eyes.
Rory snatched his hand away as if from a hot stove. “Your paper, Tabitha. That’s what I’m looking for.”
Color flooded her cheeks. “I’m sorry. It’s just . . .” Tabitha’s eyes filled. “I’m sorry, Professor.” She handed him the paper and fled. Rory could hear her clumping down the hallway all the way to the elevator. He didn’t hear the elevator’s arrival ding. Likely, she had continued running and had taken the stairs. It was only six flights.
Rory glanced at Tabitha’s essay. As he guessed, it was abysmal. The introductory paragraph alone had both a Wikipedia citation and something from dictionary.com.
Later, in the faculty lunchroom, Abigail’s eyes danced as she held her fingers over her chewing mouth. Rory’s ass barely touched the chair opposite her before she sputtered, “Denise.”
Rory had to wince. “Not again.”
“Ah, Dr. Johnston, can we get extra credit for watching the State of the Union address?”
Rory rolled his eyes. “They should want to watch it.”
Abigail’s nostrils flared. “Only if there’s something in it for them.”
“Their parents probably gave them a dollar each time they brushed their teeth.”
“Blew their noses.”
“Wiped their asses.”
“Say, maybe that’ll be in our job descriptions next year?”
“That and another furlough.”
Abigail stabbed at her salad, her jaw tight with chewing.
“Fuck,” Rory said. “Hey, listen to this one.” And he told her the latest about Tabitha, but the irony somehow came out flat, the dialogue stilted.
Abigail stopped chewing, drilled her eyes into Rory’s fluttering ones. “Oh, she’s good. Look at you.”
Rory cheeks tensed. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing. Except that she’s working you. Big time. You’d better watch out.”
Rory took a massive bite out of his PBJ and chewed savagely, suddenly ashamed he had noticed the mascara sandbags, the emptiness where the ding of the elevator should have been. The only thing he should be noticing about Miss Tabitha Moony was whether she plagiarized, was tardy, absent, or traumatized.
He stopped chewing, oddly wondering if she was traumatized. Her pale face. The pathetic hand holding. Maybe it had been a shake. An awkward hand shake. Maybe he had been the one to misconstrue.
“Knock Knock,” Abigail said, her salad finished and her fingers working hard to divide a piece of chocolate cake with a plastic spoon. She pushed a napkin with a half slice of cake toward him. “So, what about it? Can you go with me or not?”
And that’s how Rory realized he would be Abigail’s non-date date for her cousin’s wedding. His stomach cramped. He wolfed down the cake and smiled a chocolate smile. “Round two,” he called over his shoulder as he bolted out the door to his next class.
Rory taught two sections of Academic Writing on Tuesdays and Thursdays (a combined total of 48 five-page papers every three weeks) and two sections of an American Literature survey course (70 students total, two short papers, midterm exam, final exam and a honking research number at semester’s end) on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Between the prepping and the grading, he had precious little time to work on his book, which was his golden ticket to a real job as a real professor. He also had a nonexistent social life. A date with Abigail? He was weirded out. Even though it was a non-date date, he was still weirded out.
Rory bumped down the long hallway toward his classroom. He startled when he saw Tabitha leaning back against the doorframe, a hulking guy lurking over her, staring down her top, smiling with only his lips. Tabitha looked pale again, half-way between frightened and sleepy. Was this guy bothering her?
Tabitha snapped to attention when she saw Rory, pushed the hulk away from her. “Professor Quincy!”
“Tabitha,” Rory said, pulling out his keys. “Are you coming for more Academic Writing? Most of my students get enough of it the first time around.”
Tabitha’s cheeks flamed. “No, just walking my boyfriend to class.” And that’s when Rory noticed that the hulk was Jeremy Piper, another of his struggling students. He made a mental note to read Tabitha’s late essay number two with greater scrutiny.
Jeremy suddenly lunged toward Tabitha, grabbed her face with one hand and kissed her deeply. Rory averted his eyes but couldn’t help noticing Tabitha’s squirm.
“See you later,” Jeremy said as Tabitha first slid her eyes toward Rory, then trotted down the hall.
The future non-date date occupied Rory’s thoughts more than it should have. Would he have to buy Abigail drinks? Meet her parents? Pretend to love her?
Abigail noticed his reticence, struggled to ease it. “I’m not selling anything,” she told him. “You’re just a friend. That’s all. Don’t freak out about it. You’re freaking me out.”
Of course, Abigail was one-hundred percent right. Rory had done things like this before. Non-date dates were a part of life. What was his problem?
The Saturday before the wedding, Rory went to Kohl’s to look for a new tie. He was browsing among the purples and teals, wanting desperately to achieve a non-date date look that was creative but not kooky, stylish but not worried, when he heard a sweet-throated hello. He instantly knew the voice, could feel pink-glossed vibrations emanating just beyond his left shoulder. He turned toward Tabitha, sure he’d see the infamous sticky lips, the rosy cheeks, those pale eyes. But, instead of the Tabitha he knew, an imposter had taken her place – the pink cheeks were still there, looking very much like she’d just gotten in from an afternoon of sledding, but her face was refreshingly bare and her mass of blonde curls was confined in a low ponytail. Tabitha wore jeans, sneakers and a comfortable-looking sweatshirt. Most discombobulating, though, was what she grasped in her hands – the handles of a wheelchair with an elderly woman leaning left within it.
“Tabitha!” Rory exclaimed, more animatedly than he intended.
Tabitha’s cheeks flared. “Professor Quincy. This is my grandma.”
The woman in the wheelchair roused herself a little and smiled. She held out her frail fingers for a shake. “Pleased to meet you. Tabby, is this the professor you told me about?”
“Yes, Gram. He’s been very kind to me.”
Rory stammered concessions, denials, something incoherent and then launched into a much unneeded explanation about how he had been invited to a wedding and was picking out a new tie.
“Get the blue one,” Tabitha said. “It matches your eyes.”
“And the striped shirt,” Grandma added. “Nothing worse than a new tie with an old shirt.”
Rory glanced down at the rumpled number he was wearing and felt his face ignite. He grabbed the blue tie and the recommended shirt. Nice seeing you. Nice meeting you. Good bye now. Good bye. He raced to the check-out line.
Afterwards, in his apartment, Rory unwrapped the shirt and ironed it. He hung it carefully in his bedroom closet, the tie folded neatly over an adjacent hanger. What a spectacle he’d made of himself. He was obviously in serious need of a social life if he was so unnerved by an 18 year old. The wedding would be good for him. Would reconnect him to the human race. Maybe he’d even meet someone there.
For the next week, Rory avoided both Tabitha and Abigail. He conducted class, grinless, and spoke to his students like the cogs they were. He was affable and articulate but drew the line at anything that could remotely be construed as kind. Between classes, he devoured his sandwiches in his office, the door closed, the lights off. What was wrong with a little mid-day space, some peace and quiet amid the chaos of academia?
Abigail texted him on Thursday. We still on for this weekend?
Rory felt a headache starting. Of course!
That Saturday night, Rory took a taxi to the reception hall. Abigail had mentioned it was open bar and he didn’t want to have to worry about the possibility of driving home. Rory straightened his new tie in the lobby mirror, then entered the throng of bare shoulders and polished shoes. Gardenias and roses perfumed the air, violet ribbons curled around banisters and candelabras. A cake towered in the corner. Abigail appeared at his elbow. “Hi, Handsome.” Her eyes glittered wetly. She’d already had a drink or two.
Rory followed Abigail to the bar and after three J&Bs on the rocks, he felt comfortable meeting her college roommate, her ex-boyfriend, her father.
Henry slapped Rory on the shoulder. “Abby tells me you work with her at the university,” he said.
“Yes, Sir. Abigail and I have worked together for several years now.”
“And are you also raking in $28,000 a year?”
“No offense, Son. I think it’s criminal what’s happened to the state of education these days. At that pay scale you’ll pay off your student loans with your social security checks.”
“But what’s money, anyway?” Henry said. “Just something to keep track of.”
“I’ve got my loans almost paid off,” Rory blurted.
“I’m sure you have.”
Abigail interrupted with a couple of glasses of champagne. “Daddy, are you harassing Rory?” She handed Rory a glass, spilled a little of the sticky on his hand. “He’s a bully,” she told Rory. “Just ignore him.”
Abigail had lipstick on her teeth. Henry motioned to her that she should wipe it off and she handed her glass to Rory, then scrubbed her teeth with her finger. “Better?” she asked Rory.
Rory nodded, handed back the glass. Henry grinned like he knew a punch line.
“Ignore him,” Abigail said and steered Rory toward a more welcoming circle, a group of her old college pals, some single, most married. Rory eyed up the available women and abruptly concluded that none were possibilities. So he stuck by Abigail, Abby to everyone else, and they matched each other drink for drink. Or so Rory thought. He actually lost count.
Later, he guessed he was drunk when Abigail was throwing him out of her apartment. “You disgusting pig,” she slurred. “You pervert!” They were naked, had almost certainly attempted sex. Rory’s perceptions were mixing up with his sensations. Abigail was drunk, too. She staggered and lurched. She threw things at him to get him to hurry up with his dressing – small pillows that had landed on the floor, the condom wrapper, then the condom. Yes, they had attempted sex.
Rory ducked the first two, got slapped near the eye with the last. Still, he understood what she accused him of, suddenly remembered most clearly. “It was Abby,” he insisted as she threw his new, blue tie at him, pushed him toward the door. “I didn’t say Tabby.”
“Pig!” she screamed and Rory scurried into the hallway, stumbled outside into a damp night. He walked. The dark slapped his senses into focus. Abby had accused him of sleeping with his student. He winced, took a shaky breath. He had had thoughts, sure. But didn’t everyone? Have thoughts? Have thoughts about everyone else? He had never . . . He would never . . .
He reached into his pants pocket, found he still had phone, wallet, keys. He looked up at the road signs, got his bearings. He called for a yellow cab.
Tabitha was especially bright and eloquent in class the following week. Her words spun from her lips like cotton candy, entrancing, mentally-stimulating, pink. Was this the same student? Or was he somehow blinded to this version of Tabitha, or maybe to the other one?
She was exploring euthanasia for her final paper. Her research, for a freshman, was significant. She had scanned the library’s data bases, had found the latest statistics, opinions, theoretical posturing. But she wanted more, she said. She wanted to really understand.
She concocted an elaborate survey – Rory had approved it – and administered it to her grandmother and 99 fellow Laurel Oaks Senior Community members. Tabitha stayed after class to discuss her findings. Most of the residents favored the practice, although almost as many were equally afraid of the aftereffects.
“Such as?” Rory asked.
“Having their doctor punished. Stressing out their survivors.”
The way Tabitha had said survivors impressed Rory. The word was thrown so off-the-cuff, so matter-of-factly that he knew she was seriously immersed in her research. This was every teacher’s dream – to spark the love of learning in young breasts. Er, young hearts. Probably young minds was a better way of thinking about this. Rory’s upper lip grew damp.
During his lunch hours, Rory slumped in his office chair, his heart pounding, hands shaking. What was happening to him? He wolfed down his sandwiches, the peanut butter sticking thickly to his tongue. He deleted email.
Abigail found him near the end of the week. “You are so obvious it’s insulting,” she said. She stood in the doorframe of his darkened office. He had forgotten to lock the door.
Rory stood, flipped on the light, opened the door completely.
“I could report you, you know,” she said. “Report you both.”
“What has she done?”
Abigail narrowed her eyes.
“What has either of us done? Nothing’s happened, Abby.”
Rory sighed. Abigail looked to be made of steel. Her jaw clamped tight like a hinge, her dark hair gleamed like metal under the fluorescent lighting. Rory wondered where his friend had gone. How had their relationship come to this? “Don’t do this,” he said. “Really. Sit down. Talk to me.”
Abigail’s face melted a little, enough to permit her eyes to glisten. She sat in the chair opposite Rory’s desk. “Okay,” she said. “Explain.”
Rory told it all, how nothing had happened, how maybe he’d been weirdly curious about Tabitha, but hadn’t let that interfere with his teaching duties. In fact, he’d probably been tougher on her, more judgmental anyway. And what about this other elephant in the room – the one called Rory-and-Abigail-go-to-a-wedding?
Abigail blanched, sat blinking like a mechanical toy.
“What about that?” Rory repeated.
“That has nothing to do with this.”
And that’s when Rory knew, could see it as plain as the lipstick on Abigail’s face – she had hoped for more. She had hoped for a real date.
Rory breathed slowly in, then out. “Abigail,” he said. “I hope we’re still friends.”
Abigail’s face collapsed. Then it shored up again into angles and planes. It was a face that Rory hoped was more realistic. Abigail was a smart woman. She understood things. She had taken a chance and it hadn’t shaken out. But it wasn’t like she had been the only one working the risk machine. He’d taken a chance, too. He’d had to play verbal ping pong with her father. Meet all of her friends. Buy a new outfit. All for free drinks. All in the name of opportunity. For the possibility of a social life.
“Okay, then,” Abigail said. “But, just humor me, will you?”
“If her research paper is on euthanasia, flunk her ass.”
Rory startled. “But, why?”
Abigail’s lips pursed. “Because that’s the paper I found out was plagiarized. Written by a grad student, probably, and for sale at termpapers.com. It was way too detailed for a college freshman, especially that college freshman.”
Rory’s lips felt parched. He licked them, but they dried out again. He fumbled in his desk drawer for lip balm while nodding. “Wow. Geez. I mean, the nerve, right?”
Abigail watched him circle his lips with the balm. Her face softened, began to look a little like the old Abigail’s. “Just let me know if that’s her topic and I’ll help you nail her. With another honor code violation, she’ll be expelled and neither of us will have to worry about her again. Deal?”
“Deal,” Rory said and stood. He glanced at his watch. He swallowed air. “Round two.”
The semester ended a little over a week later. After Rory’s last course of the day, he stayed behind in his classroom, his messenger bag stuffed with student research papers and final exams. He turned out half the lights, sat in the artificial dusk with his hands shaking. He rummaged in the front pocket of his messenger bag and found a cellophane-wrapped peppermint from some restaurant. He unwrapped the peppermint and popped it into his mouth. Tabitha’s final essay was nestled in his bag, along with 117 others. He had glanced at it briefly when she had handed it to him. “Euthanasia – The Final Dignity.” Even the title seemed lofty.
Rory opened the messenger bag and pulled out the stack of papers from Tabitha’s section. He found her paper and put it on the top of the pile. He bit down hard on the peppermint, crushing the minty splinters between his teeth. Then he smiled. Paragraph one had a very inelegant citation from dictionary.com in its opening sentence. He scanned the rest of the first page. Plenty of high diction – psychological inevitability, familicide, palliative care. Rory’s lips felt dry. He licked them until they were peppermint cool. Ethical approximation, self-deterministic, doctrine of double effect. Finally he saw it – a statistic direct from good-old Wikipedia. If a grad student had written this paper, Tabitha had had the sense to doctor it up. He thought about her pushing her grandmother through Kohl’s, her hair pulled back into that ponytail, those pale eyes gentle, even innocent. He thought about the handshake, or clasp. He thought about Jeremy plunging his tongue into Tabitha’s mouth in front of their mutual professor.
He thought about Abigail. A second honor code violation.
You’re really an understanding teacher. . . compared to some.
Maybe Tabitha had done her own work. Isn’t that the premise he usually brought to his essay reading? Innocent until proven guilty?
He packed the papers back into his messenger bag and hurried to the parking lot. As he came to his car, his stomach dropped. Abigail stood leaning against the driver’s door. “Hello, Stranger,” she said. She attempted a smile, but her eyes weren’t in it. They were stricken, frozen. Abigail’s body was equally rigid and Rory got the funny sense that she was frightened.
“Finally over,” Rory said, making a show of exhaling. “And, oh, I took your advice.”
Abigail cocked her head.
“About Tabitha. I watched her like a hawk. And, you know, at first, she did pick euthanasia as her topic.”
Abigail lit up. “No! You’re freaking kidding me.”
Rory licked his lips. “Can you believe it? And so, I started giving her the evil eye. You know, staring at her list of sources and exclaiming how remarkable it was that she, a college freshman, could design and administer a graduate-level sociological survey to a group of nursing home residents.”
Abigail snorted. “Oh, well, that’s a new addition. Wonder where that came from?”
Rory rolled his eyes. “Anyway, I think she got the point, because lo and behold, what does she turn in today?”
Abigail faced glowed in anticipation. “What?”
“‘The Media’s Portrayal of Gender Stereotypes in Music Videos.’”
Abigail clapped her hands. “Oh my God.”
Rory took out his keys, which signaled Abigail to move from in front of his car door. He held his finger up in the air for emphasis. “Complete, no less, with a riveting opening paragraph loaded with authoritative definitions from—”
“Wikipedia or dictionary.com?”
Rory turned to her like a maestro delivering the final baton cue. “Both!”
Rory grinned. “Oh, yeah. First class,” he said. “A solid C+ effort anyway.”
Abigail eyes shined and, for the first time in weeks, her smile seemed genuine. “Hey, I’m sorry,” she said.
Rory raised his eyebrows.
“I’m sorry I accused you. I’m sorry I doubted you.”
Rory shook his head, held up his hand to avert the praise.
“You’re a good teacher, Rory,” she said. “I let my own stuff get mixed up in this.”
Rory’s cheeks flushed. “And you’re a good friend. It was right of you to warn me. Professional.”
Abigail nodded, bit her lip.
“Say,” Rory said, throwing his messenger bag into the back seat. “Get in. Let’s go get a beer.”
Rolling clouds tumbled through the blue abyss as Sophie's cheerful voice echoed through the dense forest. “96,97,98,99,100!” Sophie's eager eyes peeled open as she scanned the dimming horizon; a ruffle of leaves set her ears off in the direction of the lake. She crept over the autumn leaves and into the looming forest. Unnoticed, a dark black shadow slunk through the leaves. She gasped. Heavy and raspy breathing flooded Sophie's right ear and she shakily turned around to be met with the face of the dark shadow… the shadow of her nightmares.
Her body bolted upright. Her nightdress was flooded with icy sweat. A dim golden light dribbled peacefully through the curtains. Her pillow lay in the corner of her room and Sophie's blanket was slowly descending off of her metal bed, onto the rigid oak floor beneath her. The buzz of traffic outside her window tuned in to Sophie's ears as the bedraggled girl dragged herself from her bed.
Her wooden closet leaned against the molding walls and the clothes she had set out the night before lay on her chair, immaculately clean. Just as she had left them. “First impressions count” Sophie reminded herself; for today she was to go out around the town with the Cullins. They were the the family she had heard so much about. She had heard the sad story of how their only Daughter, Poppy, had come down with cancer and how she had stayed in a perril and paralysed state for 2 years, stuck in her room unable to move. Sophie felt a terrible weight of sadness push through the room. But this was her big chance. Her only chance. Her chance to change her life. But somehow, just somehow, she felt as if the shadow of her nightmares would make an appearance...
My name is Summer Rayne Tilman I grew up in a small town in Montana. Although, I was born in Salt Lake City, Utah. I have always been a fan of writing and reading short stories, and books. My favorite authors are Stephen King and John Green. While reading, and writing never came to easy for me I still liked it. I grew up with dyslexia and things didn’t change until high school came around. By the time I was in high school I was reading, and writing better than I ever have before. In those years, I was going to school in Southern Utah and that’s where I graduated from high school. In my last year of high school, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do for my future career or schooling. That’s when I decided I wanted to go online and get my Bachelor’s Degree in Creative Writing. So, now I go to school through Full Sail University.
Dark hallways, creepy footsteps, and black mold growing in the bathroom next door. All these things described the Vandercamp’s Hotel. The faint smell of dust and rat feces lingered in the air. It was strange that the dark mysterious hallways overtook the hotel. Drab carpets with wine stains… whispers within the hotel believe them to be blood stains.
Little knocks and claw sounds echo the halls. I tell people that this rugged building is haunted and full of unpleasant and unwanted spirits. Sad news to the people that don’t believe me. Oh, well. I don’t get a lot of guests here and when I do it’s a blessing. I have one expected reservation for some time today until the end of the week. As I think of my guest arriving a person comes up to the front desk and blurts out, “Hello, the names Johnson. I have a reservation.”
Finding a single name on my computer screen I click on it and go from there. “Okay, here you are Mr. Johnson. Do you want a twin or a queen with your stay?”
Without hesitation, he replies, “preferably a queen please!”
I hand him the keys to the room and say, “enjoy your stay sir.” He doesn’t notice my sarcasm while I say my statement. This hotel is anything but enjoyable.
After giving him the keys and thinking he’d just walk away as most guests do… he doesn’t. Instead he continues the conversation, “I hear this place is haunted… is that true? Because I work for a ghost hunters web page and was going to do a blog review on the Vandercamp hotel.”
I don’t want to lie to the poor guy. This hotel is not welcoming nor peasant in any manner. The hallways its self-made you want to get up and leave. Realizing that I have not answered his question yet I say, “Yes, it is. Some say that the hotel was built on ancient Indian burial grounds. The land has been cursed for centuries.”
He got all wide eyed and frightened, “okay okay okay g-g-g-good s-sounds,” he gulped loudly, “t-t-t-t-thanks for your t-t-time miss.” Terrified and scared he walked quickly to his suite without any other words spoken between us.
Published to Fiction on the Web.
This is the link to the Publisher
NT Franklin - I write after my real job hoping one day to have it be my real job. When I’m not reading or writing short stories, you might find me fishing or solving crossword puzzles.
Me and Bart and the Baseball Team
It was a crisis. Not a crisis in the making, but one right now. Tommy Agee was moving away at the end of the school year. One month from now. We liked Tommy. He was the best hitter on the team and made sure everyone knew it. The crisis was his dad supplied equipment for our summer baseball team. Catcher’s mask, chest and shin protectors—the lot. He even bought a few extra bats and lots of balls for the team. No Tommy Agee, no baseball team. We needed Tommy, or at least his equipment, but everyone knew it was me and Bart’s team. Without a baseball team this summer, what would me and Bart do?
Me and Bart were on Tommy’s baseball team. We didn’t have enough kids to make more than four teams, and sometimes not four whole teams. We practiced almost every day. Really, it was more like playing a game with whoever showed up at the diamond. But every Wednesday and Thursday we had real games at one and three PM. We got to use the scoreboard at those times. One year the town recreation department provided a retired teacher for an umpire for the games, but we liked it better without one because he didn’t understand all of our rules. Like imaginary runners when Dale Owen’s mother showed up and took him home in the middle of a game. A ball into right field, it was an out. Stuff like that. It was pretty clear to all of us. Me and Bart were about the only ones who never missed a game. I don’t know how many games we won or lost, but some of the time we were better than Stinky’s team and once we beat William’s team. I think. William wasn’t there and neither were some other really good players, but I’m pretty sure we beat them. William’s team never seemed to lose; they had the biggest and best players.
But what would we do with no baseball? We could still play if we were a little shy on players but had equipment. Mom said to quit moping around and that baseball wasn’t life. Like she’d know. She never played.
The news buzzed through junior high like mad. Guys on the other teams were worried because even though our team didn’t always have enough players, they at least played every Wednesday and Thursday. Can’t do two games with only three teams. I guess stuff happened in class that week, but I don’t remember.
Me and Bart racked our brains for answers. None came. Baseball, not bedtime was important since Bart was sleeping over, we had all Friday night to come up with a plan. He spent Saturday over too. When his dad was gone on business, which was a lot, his mom had lots of parties and people over. She was really pretty and dressed in the latest styles, not the way my mom did. I thought my mom was pretty, but everyone thought Bart’s mom was pretty.
All weekend, we got no ideas, no nothing. Another week at school and another one hundred questions about if we were going to have a team.
The whole week was like that, but Friday night Bart came tearing across the road to my house.
“We got a baseball team!” he shouted.
“What? Really?” I asked.
“Yup. And we’ll have the coolest uniforms ever.”
“Uniforms? Nobody has uniforms. Are they even legal in the league?”
“Who cares? They’ll be so cool. A guy visiting my mom asked what was wrong and I told him about Tommy Agee moving and the team and all that. He spoke right up and said it seemed like our team needed a sponsor.”
“A sponsor! Like the major leagues?” I asked. But Bart continued right on.
“The shirt’ll have sleeves that are a different color than the shirt, and they’ll say “Family Grocery” on the front. And catcher’s gear and new bats.
“The sleeves that don’t go all the way down, just like the major leaguers?”
“Yup,” Bart said. “And we can get a smaller bat so Robert’s little brother might be able to get a hit this year.”
“This is going to be the best season ever. Wait until the other teams get a load of our uniforms,” I said.
School finally ended for the year so it was baseball time. Me and Bart didn’t tell anyone about the uniforms so the other teams wouldn’t go out and get a sponsor. We knew William’s dad would sponsor his team. His dad sold new cars in town and had more money than everyone else in town put together.
The team met at Bart’s house before the game and he handed out uniforms. Boy, did we look sharp. We rode our bikes to the baseball diamond at school and heads turned the whole way. We rode real slow so everyone could get an eyeful. I was so proud it was hard to steer my bicycle. We were a team.
As usual, we were slaughtered by William’s team the first game, but we looked good and were happy. They piled on runs when they didn’t need to because they were fuming mad about our uniforms. Robert’s little brother wouldn’t even slide because he wanted to keep his clean. Our moms had to wash the uniforms but that was no problem.
The games went great. The whole team, even Dale Owen, never missed a game. It was the uniforms. We won about as many games as before but looked good doing it. Robert’s little brother got a hit in a couple of the games, so that was a big win. Even William’s team settled down and didn’t run up the score on any team.
Tragedy hit the last week of the season. We couldn’t wear the “Family Grocer” shirts any longer. We could keep the bats and gear.
“What? That can’t be,” I said. “We have two games left in the season. We need our uniforms. The sponsor told you we have to give them back now?”
“He didn’t say that, my mom did,” Bart said. “I haven’t seen around him for a while. But I have a plan. We’ll wear them for the next two games and then give them back. Mom said we have to have them to her before Dad comes home.”
“At least we’ll have had them for the season,” I said.
“Well, they wouldn’t fit next year anyway. That’s what we’ll tell the guys.”
We kept them for the next two games. Everyone met up at Bart’s house after the last game and rode home shirtless. His mom put them in a black garbage bag and that was the last we ever saw of them.
It was the best baseball season ever because of the uniforms. And there is always tomorrow.
Me and Bart and the Fourth of July
July was here and it was swimming and baseball weather. But me and Bart had no time for that because we were making big plans. The Fourth of July town festival was in two days—it was like the county fair without the rides and cows. The parade was always great because they blew the horns and the sirens on the firetruck most of the whole way. Sometimes my fastball hit the mark at the dunking booth and someone dropped into the water.
The watermelon-eating contest was my favorite event to watch. It was such a big event that nothing else was going on during it. Everyone watched the contestants. Now that we were teenagers, we could enter. Jimmy Polaski lived one block over and won the contest last year. He was one year ahead of us in school, wasn’t very nice, and could hit a baseball farther than anyone else. If that wasn’t bad enough, all we heard in school and on the baseball field was he won the watermelon-eating contest.
“Boys, you old enough to enter the contest this year? Hey you two, will your mom’s let you enter the contest? You old enough to play with the big boys?” Was all me and Bart heard from Jimmy.
“Yeah, we’ll be there. And I’m gonna spit some watermelon seeds on you when we beat you,” Bart finally shouted back.
Now there was no turning back. After Bart challenged him, we had to not only enter the contest but we had to beat Jimmy and everyone else. Me and Bart were going to enter and win this year. Now that would be an accomplishment to be proud of. The ribbons for the three fastest times were the biggest ones of the whole festival. One of those ribbons would look so good on my bulletin board.
Bart had a plan to win and we had two days to get ready. His mom bought six watermelons for us so we could practice. Bart cut one-inch center slices and put one on a paper plate, just like in the contest.
“Okay, how many years have you watched the watermelon-eating contest?” Bart asked.
“As many as I can remember, I guess.”
“Then eat the slice, just like you see everyone doing it in the contest.”
I put my hands behind my back and started chowing down. Five minutes later, I was just over half done.
“Never going to win like that,” Bart said.
“It’s hard to get started in the middle and eat the red all the way to the rind. Spitting out the seeds is slow,” I answered.
“So watch me. Time it,” Bart said as he sat down to paper plate with a watermelon slice on it.
At the sound of “GO,” Bart took a bite of the rind and spit it out. Three times. The red watermelon was exposed! He ate the watermelon like munching rows of corn on the cob.
“One minute and thirty seconds. That’s a winner! But where are the seeds?”
“Chewed ‘em up,” Bart replied. “Faster that way.” Bart looked funny with red bits of watermelon on his nose and a seed stuck to his cheek. But one minute and thirty seconds was fast.
“Let me try.”
I managed to get my slice eaten in under two minutes, so I was pretty happy with myself. The seeds weren’t as bad as I thought they would be and if I didn’t let the rind stay in my mouth long, it wasn’t very bitter. And breaking two minutes was fast, too.
“We’re goin’ win ribbons our first year in the contest. My mom’s gonna be proud.”
“Come on, we have to practice more,” Bart said.
We practiced more after lunch and managed to eat three of the watermelons between us.
“Tomorrow after lunch, same thing. You need to pick up your time.”
I really wasn’t hungry for supper but tried to eat something. Because I wanted to surprise my Mom with a ribbon from the summer festival, I couldn’t let on about our practicing or entering the contest. She had to work during the festival so it be a total surprise.
The next afternoon was more of the same. Bart got his time down to one minute fifteen seconds but I couldn’t break one minute forty-five. I was still pleased because I cut over fifteen seconds off my time.
“Let’s not do the last watermelon,” I said to Bart. “Your mom might want one and I’m full of watermelon anyway.” If the truth be known, having eaten five in two days, I was ready to never see a watermelon again.
“Okay, the contest is tomorrow morning; we need to be there early to sign up and to scope out the competition. I know fat Kenny Williams will be there,” Bart said.
Being early for the contest wasn’t a problem because it was fun to walk around the festival. Besides, we were the first two to sign up. And then Jimmy Polaski came strutting up.
“You’re the third person to sign up. That’s the best you will finish this year,” Bart was really letting Jimmy have it.
Eyes bulging and arms down his sides with clenched fists, Jimmy had to unclench his teeth to speak, “You little punks. You know the last’s year’s winner always signs up first.”
“No such official rule. I checked,” Bart volleyed back.
Jimmy stomped off and I exhaled. I didn’t realize I was holding my breath. “When did you check the rules?”
“I didn’t,” Bart answered while smiling.
The time for the contest came and thirty places were at the long tables all set up facing the audience. This was going to be great. There were even girls this year. We had to beat them. And Jimmy Polaski.
Bart had the first seat so Jimmy sat next to me. Two girls sat in the seats beyond Jimmy. After that, it was a blur.
“Make sure you don’t get beaten by a girl, Jimmy,” Bart called over. After that, Jimmy looked mean staring at his plate. Oh boy, just what I need, more pressure.
The announcer talked and made jokes with the crowd while a thick slice of watermelon was placed on each paper plate in front of every contestant. They looked like fat Frisbees. I’ve never seen grownups move so slow when me and Bart needed to move fast!
Finally, the announcer said: “Eaters, on your mark, get set, GO!”
Bart chomped down and spit out the rind and was into the red in no time. He munched his way through his slice and was blowing everyone away. I was doing okay, too. There were actually people cheering for the contestants. Bart stood up, raised his hands and opened his empty mouth.
“One minute eleven seconds,” was the cry from the announcer. The crowd cheered.
The watermelon wasn’t as tasty as the practice ones and I almost gagged on the third bite of rind. It was so bitter I thought my tongue was going to roll up and stay in the back of my mouth. And seeds, I wasn’t sure if there weren’t more seeds than watermelon on my slice. I thought about sneaking a peek at Jimmy, but didn’t. You make errors in baseball when you take your eye off the ball. I’d hate to lose to Jimmy because I took my eyes off my plate. I had to bear down if I was going to get a ribbon. Nerves were agitating my stomach.
I stood up and opened my mouth after what seemed like ten minutes.
“One minute, forty-two seconds,” was the announcement. The crowd was cheering for me. I won second place! Jimmy hadn’t hardly broken through the middle of his piece. He was soundly beaten by both of us.
Sally Miller finished a distant third—she was over three minutes! Me and Bart were first and second and were going to get the two biggest ribbons.
Me and Bart and Sally got to stay standing while the others finished their slices. Only Bart didn’t just stand there quietly.
“Jimmy, I see a girl beat you. Maybe you should make room on your baseball team for her,” Bart said. The more Bart went on, the more the crowd laughed and the redder Jimmy’s face became. I smiled so I wouldn’t laugh.
Bart quieted down and the last three gave up with half still on their plate. It was cool to stand there smiling to the crowd as winners. By at the end when the last eater gave up, Bart didn’t look so good and I didn’t feel so good.
Me and Bart and Sally were paraded to the grandstand to get our ribbons. Sally was grinning from ear to ear, but Bart still didn’t look very good and I didn’t feel any better. While the announcer was going on about Stewart Farms donating the watermelons for the contest, Bart started wrinkling his nose. I stopped listening at Stewart Farms have more watermelons for sale at their stand and watched Bart wrinkle his nose more and bend over and then straighten up.
“ACHOO!” Bart let loose a sneeze like you’ve never heard. I even saw a watermelon seed come out of his nose land in Sally’s curly red hair. I wasn’t going to say anything.
The crowd went silent and all eyes were on Bart bending over on stage. He straightened up and then he sneezed again. This time, chewed-up watermelon shot out from his nose and spewed all over Sally’s yellow dress smearing down the front of it.
“GROSS!” Sally screamed. She wailed “Get it off! Get it off!” between screams of “EWWW!” Sally was shaking her hands in the air and looking even paler than usual. The more she screamed, the more upset my stomach became. I didn’t have a strong stomach and it was really gross. And she didn’t even know about the seed in her hair. My stomach was half-way up my throat and threatening to continue up, even without thinking about the seed in her hair. But there it was, shiny black with bits of red watermelon stuck to it. It seemed to pulse in her curls when she screamed and I swear the seed was getting bigger threatening to fling off her head.
The scene was escalating into chaos when, WHOOSH, I threw up all over the stage. Well, partly on the stage, but mostly on Sally’s dress. I had no idea girls could make such high-pitched loud noises. Then everything went quiet.
The announcer dove and caught Sally as she passed out. I don’t think she would have hit anything on her way down, but the announcer gently laid her on the stage and yelled, “Paramedics!” Not knowing what to do, Me and Bart stood still on the stage. With the help of two paramedics, Sally came around in about a minute, looked at her dress and promptly started screaming again in the ear of one paramedics. He jumped back holding his right ear and tumbled off the stage. He let out a shriek when he landed on his ankle wrong, still holding his ear. Sally settled down when her mother came on stage and calmed her. This allowed the other paramedic to tend to his injured partner.
With Sally quieted, we were quickly escorted off the stage. I think there were more cheers for us as we left than for us during the eating contest.
Totals for the event were: one ruined dress, one shattered ear drum and one badly sprained ankle, but we all got our ribbons. I was wearing mine on my shirt when mom came home and she gave me a big hug. She couldn’t stop sneaking looks at me and smiling at me all evening. I was proud, too. It was the first thing I’d ever won. Me and Bart, taking the top two places, no one can take that away from us. I’m sure my mom would hear about Sally and the paramedic from someone, so I figured there was no need to tell her right away.
I hung my ribbon on the bulletin board in my room. I’ll always be proud of it ‘cause I did win it fair and square. No one seems to remember that, they only talk about me barfing all over Sally at the ribbon ceremony. That will live on forever. Still, it was a good day and who knows, there is always tomorrow.
Michael S. Crupi is attempting to satisfy his massive ego by studying creative writing in Orlando, Florida. He's a born and bred Jersey boy who's hobbies include the vast consumption of all forms of media and mastering the craft of self deprecation.
Leaving his home at the break of February thirteenth, music blasted into the young man’s skull from a worn-out pair of headphones. His early morning exodus had stopped a second before stepping on the box that laid at his feet. Each face was adorned with pink hearts and a healthy application of glitter. A note hung by an identically pink ribbon, sat atop the prize. It read simply, For you! in even brighter pink ink. Under the written directive was the imprint of lipstick matching the supple lips of a stranger. His heart skipped several beats.
Opening the box revealed a letter inside written in the same color and script as the tag. It smelled of perfume sprayed on generously for effect. The message was standard fare for anonymous love letters. It spoke of looking from afar and rising urges. They were the kind of words he kept secret within his notebooks. It was signed, The Admirer, with hearts dancing all around the letters. His face flushed redder than the ink while the note found a home in his backpack. The bus ride to school was spent in meditation. He had to find out who wrote the note. Then what?
Inside his locker was another message. It was taped behind the single coat hanger and read similar to the previous installment. A thousand, a million, thoughts raced through his head. Was this how he would find his first high school girlfriend? He couldn’t hide the innocent smile on his face, but those around him began to step away at the sight. With the melodic shield over his ears, he was oblivious to their judgment.
The rest of the day was spent in disregard of education with no song to supplement his focus. He couldn’t get the love letters out of his mind. He wondered if he should buy one of the anonymous carnations the school sold. There was no name on the letters so there was no one to address such a rose to.
As he retrieved his belongings at the close of the day, a scrap of paper lay at the bottom of the locker where his bag had been. One hand pulled the headphones over his ears and the other picked the parchment up. It read, Tomorrow. His heart leapt within its cage. There was nothing he could do but wait.
The next day, he strolled into school with a violet pool beneath each eye. How was he supposed to sleep? He had spent his elongated morning dressing the best he could. No band t-shirt ripping at the seams, beat up sneakers, or old jeans. He came in steamed slacks and a polo shirt that hung loosely off his frail frame. He walked in time with his morning playlist with a confidence he did not typically display amongst his peers. When he came to his destination, he reached up carefully to crack the code of his padlock and pulled the locker open. A torrent of trash came rushing out. A half-filled bottle, old homework, used napkins, pencils, pens, crumbs, and just one hairbrush fell out in sad little rush. There was no note inside. He stood there for a moment with his hand still on the latch as leftover iced tea soaked into his once clean shirt. Behind him an audience had formed to watch the show. He could not see the faces nor hear the crowd laughing. He didn’t need to.
A minute later he was huddled in the gap below the farthest stairwell he could find. It would have been easier if he could just cry, but the tears wouldn’t come. When he came out of his trance, he noticed a familiar girl had sat a few feet away. He must have seen her passing in the hall before, but he never saw her take that seat beside him. It was as if she simply appeared. His first instinct was to leave, but he was not sure why. He had been there first and deserved his solitude. Against his potent introversion, he spoke first.
He ripped the headphones off and said, “Uhh, hi.” The words were lined with leftover panic and adrenaline. A long pause followed his first attempt at speech. “What’re you doing?”
“Hiding from someone,” she said. Her voice was dull and her body slouched where she sat. In her hands was one of the carnations he had toyed with purchasing. A note was tied around the stem, but he could not read it from his angle. “What about you?”
“Hiding from everyone,” he replied. The answer came naturally.
“Hmm.” Her pneumonic passed and the two sat there in mutual silence without a word or sigh passed between. “Can I ask you for a favor?”
“Sure. What is it?”
“Can you take this rose? I mean, like off my hands? I feel like it’s too mean to throw away, but there’s no way I can keep it.”
“I can manage that. I just hope he thinks I’m pretty.” The remark was dryly delivered and came automatically. He expected nothing from it, but then the girl was trembling. She was giggling uncontrollably, in fact. Then she burst open and he was laughing all the same. The two held their sides as they mined humor from the vein of a worthless joke.
“I’m sure he’ll see something in you,” she said. A smile lingered on her lips as she spoke while her eyes were moist with the prelude of tears. The bell rang for homeroom throughout the flooded halls and students filed away. The girl was one such student who bolted from her seat under the stairwell. In a flash, she had vanished around the corner and left the young man holding a lone rose that was not his. As he sat embracing his tardiness he was oblivious to three things: the thorn digging into his palm, the headphones that had broken moments ago, and the fool’s grin he shamelessly wore.
Esomnofu Ebelenna is a Nigerian writer. He read English and Literary Studies at the University of Nigeria. His stories have appeared, or are forthcoming, in AGNI, Kalahari Review, African Writer, Storried, DNB Stories, Elsiesy, and elsewhere.
ON A SATURDAY
When I was serving Nigeria my country in Kebbi State I saw a black snake at the foot of my bed, scurried out in alarm, tripped and then fell most inelegantly, my NYSC cap and Harry Potter spectacles and files, into the heart of a guitarist named Aisha. This girl was everything I was not - Northerner, Muslim, twenty-three, mind-bogglingly beautiful like a red rose in solidifying water, obdurate, valiant. How she found me appealing never ceased to raise our fellow Corps Members' eyebrows.
"What's the matter?" she shouted as she hauled me up.
"A snake," I said, painting.
She marched into my room with the confidence of a soldier and came out with a lock of hair- the snake that had frightened me. It belonged, she said, to a Yoruba girl who had passed out of NYSC. I thanked her in pastel sentences, and since that Saturday evening there was never a day we did not meet to talk, eat, laugh. But now she's gone.
I am seated on a rock by the Idemili river at Oba, my hometown in Anambra - I left the north last week. My Service Year has ended. But how can I stop thinking about NYSC - a scheme that brought Aisha into my life?
As I think about this astonishing girl that made my parents uproot me from the family, I dab my watery eyes with my white hanky, and look, as always, at the star-filled sky.
Perhaps you are wondering why I - a twenty-four year old Igbo chap - taken by the stars. Perhaps you are wondering why I am sobbing by a riverside at this time of the night. Perhaps you are wondering why I fell in love with a Muslim.
Aisha, this girl I love more than the air I breathe, is dead - let it be said. Aisha is dead. Dead and gone.
The angels were envious of my woman and that's why they contrived to snatch her away from me. But why did God permit them? Why does God let elegant people wither like roses, dry up by religion and be carried away by the cold hands of Death?
Bob Dylan's words come to me: "The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind."
"You are the best thing that has ever happened to me, Obinna," she told me one frosty Sunday night at Kamba-Kebbi state when we were peering at the rising moon like two silly children and listening to the soft classical music on her iphone. "I love you deeply, Obinna. Please don't trample my heart in the dust."
I was surprised to see fear flit across her eyes because she was brave. She was the bravest northern woman I ever encountered. And I am nothing but a bespectacled petulant coward.
"Why do you love me?" I asked, hoping that the moon would not illuminate my quivering lips for her to discern that I was nervous. "Are you here, Aisha? Why do you fancy me?"
"Don't be ridiculous, please." And she freed her petite hand from her strawberry-coloured hijab and playfully slapped my cheek. She put off her phone, grabbed her guitar and played for me, her voice softer than the summer rain and her eyes moist with love and extravagant joy.
I listened to her hypnotising music. I watched her dance, her curvaceous waist moving to the rhythm of the music like a snake-fish in a river, until my own eyes filled with unabashed tears. God, I was madly in love with a guitarist!
Aisha never explained to me why she loved me until she joined her ancestors on a Saturday.
I am a common man with common parents. I attended a common primary school at Nsugbe and a common secondary school in my hometown of Oba in Anambra State. I studied English and literature in a common university. I dwell in a common house. I wear common clothes and eat common foods. I say common things; I do common things. And if I die I will receive a common funeral. There will certainly be no memorial statue of me in any part of the nation. I, like every inconsequential man, will be forgotten in a hurry when I am gone. So why did Aisha, an uncommon girl, love me?
I twitched off my Harry Potter spectacles, blinked away the liquid in my eyes and watched it drop on a green plant and slid down its leaf. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine her in my arms. It did not work. I tried to imagine her showing me the awe-inspiring rainbow in the sky, as she used to do with a grin. It did not work. Aisha is dead and gone, I thought with a shudder, and then I fiddled in my faded trouser pockets. Nothing. Where is my handkerchief?
I dried my eyes on the sleeve of my food-stained shirt and look at the mood.
"Look into my eyes, Aisha, and you will see what you mean to me," I said to her picture in my hands, my tears trickling down my cheeks and pouring onto the picture. I folded the picture and imagined me and Aisha in a boat fishing in that tea-coloured water which flowed from Dole- Kaina, Kebbi state, and into Niger Republic. I imagined the two of us in that Francophone country gobbling apples and watching the locals in strong disapproval. I imagined Aisha playing her guitar on the commercial bus as the vehicle sputtered from Gaya to Kebbi-Nigeria. My imaginations sent new tears to my eyes and I blinked them away.
"Obinna, our Service Year has almost come to its expiration and we've not done any remarkable thing for Kebbi state," she asked in her sing-song voice one windy morning in her sweet-smelling bedroom."We are always busy kissing and touching like two idiots; we don't deserve any NYSC discharge certificates."
I nodded my acquiescence.
"You concur?" she said, her eyes wide with wonder. "Well, well...Now what are your plans? After Service, I mean."
I told her that I would hunt for jobs everywhere (even in the bush!), that I would then fly to her Borno state and propose to her because I loved her so much. I also told her my devout Anglican parents furiously threw their glasses of orange juice against our peeling wall when I disclosed to them that I was in love with a Kanuri Muslim girl who played guitar and sang sweet songs, that my only sister cried in the kitchen when I informed her.
"My Muslim parents hated the idea of an Igbo Christian, of course," she said to me when we were washing ourselves under the shower."You remember that I went to see them last month? You do. But it's nice of you to pretend...Well, when I trudged in, Mother introduced me to one pot-bellied minister who they say will marry me."
My heart jumped. But I wanted to tell Aisha that my father and my four siblings have all deserted me because I wanted to marry her - a Muslim. I wanted to tell Aisha that my mother has lost her mind and she's dying because I pushed her down from her bamboo chair when she called me a prodigal son because I loved Muslim. I wanted to tell Aisha that my daddy had begun to gulp gin and vodka again because I loved a northerner. But my tongue could not move.
She continued: "The obese millionaire wanted to kiss me...Can you imagine!...I ran away from home, of course. And here I am again. With you."
"Aisha..." I trailed off.
"My parents have disinherited me, Obinna," she said. "But I don't care. I want to be with you. Forever."
I brushed her wet strand of hair behind her ear and lowered my head to kiss her. When or quivering lips met, she shivered and our worries dissolved. Outside, birds - pigeons and peacocks - began their evening songs.
"Those birds sing better than you do," I teased her, and she giggled and hit me with a pillow. We were naked in bed, our bodies glistening with sweat. I grabbed my own pillow and hit her head, shoulder and bottom. Screaming, she snatched her guitar and chased me round and round the room and into the bathroom. But when she caught me, she did not hit me back. She just smiled and slobbered a kiss on my nose. Nothing and then I was jabbing and she was moaning. The tepid water from the shower kept pouring down on us.
I remember that when we finished, she hurried off to her CDS meeting and I took her portrait and gravitated to the window. Have you ever loved somebody violently and irreversibly that when you look up into their eyes or stare at their pictures, tears fill your eyes?
Tears filled my eyes.
I remember that I didn't leave the window until God switched off His Torch and darkness enveloped the town of Kamba. But the mood eventually appeared - to torment me. The moon always reminds me of Aisha's face when she smiled. There was a night - please don't laugh at me - I looked at her face, looked at the moon, looked her face, looked moon, looked at her face and then said honestly, " You are more beautiful than the moon, Aisha!"
She slapped my cheek playfully then. "Naughty loverboy!"
I remembered a sultry Saturday afternoon when we were under a neem tree, listening to our heartbeats, and she said that she'd die on a Saturday. And on a Saturday she died.
"You're poetically pessimistic, Aisha," I said, trying stuff anger into my voice.
"I'm serious, Obinna. I see my death approaching; it's imminent - next Saturday, perhaps. I saw it in my dream. Tragic things always happen to me on a Saturday. Ahmed, my first boyfriend, died on a Saturday. His boat capsized and he drowned. I was raped on a Saturday - a day I lost my virginity to armed robbers. And, funny enough, I was born on a Saturday."
"Balderdash!" I chuckled. Then, solemnly, "If you die on a Saturday, Aisha, I will assume you committed suicide. And people who do that go to hell - as the Holy Books say. And if you go to hell for taking away your life, Aisha, I shall drink poison and join you."
"God will compel you to stay in heaven with Him." She put out a mocking pink tongue at me.
I waved off that her tongue."If God locks me in His Paradise, I'll break the chains and window and escape. I will drop, shoes and all, into hellfire to be with you. Aisha, it's better to live in hell with you than to dine in heaven with the angels."
Her mouth hung open. The minutes ticked on and she said nothing. A purple-and-yellow butterfly came hovering over the lilies in the garden. We watched this exquisite creature as if we had never seen it before until I thought it necessary to break the lugubrious silence.
"Tell me more about yourself, Aisha. The more I know you, the more I want to know."
She nudged me. "Don't talk rubbish again!"
"Aisha, you are my nose - without you, I cannot breathe. I want to grow old with you."
She sighed. "Lest I forget, Mr Poet, I will fly to Maiduguri to say happy birthday to Mum." She crossed her flawless legs and adjusted her sunglasses."My parents said they've forgiven me; They asked me to bring that poor Igbo Christian who made me turn down a minister's marriage proposal and run away from home. Amazing, eh? You will accompany me, I conclude?"
I answered her with a kiss.
The following week, we were walking hand in hand at Korongilim - a village that's so close to Chibok. We were pontificating about the strictness of Abdulmalik, the Local Government Inspector, at Kamba, as we lumbered towards the bleak bungalow she said was her parents' residence.
Suddenly she halted and gasped. I stared at her.
"Can you see that mosque over there?" she said."It is on fire."
I craned my neck to look. Yes, she was right: it's in flames . And worshippers were fleeing!
I turned sharply to her. "Let's zoom off, Aisha! That is ostensibly a religious crisis!"
"No!" she shouted and dropped her luggage. " That is a fire outbreak, most likely."
"Let's run away, Aisha!"
I pulled her with a trembling hand and she yanked it off.
"Don't go there, darling, please!" I said. "It's dangerous. And you know today is Saturday!"
"My father might be one of the men praying in the mosque, you coward!" she was already running toward the mosque. It had begun to drizzle. I stood there shivering in the cold rain as my love--my fearless love--dashed into the mosque with a bucket of water she had just snatched from an almajiri that was passing by.
Five minutes later, she hurried out of the mosque. When the villagers saw that she had quenched the fire, they applauded and hugged her rapturously. A happy wind came, swirling the women's hijabs and raising brown dust that powdered the leaves and my luggage. And I smiled with pride: my love's a heroine.
Then something I will never forget till I depart from this world happened: something hammered on the zinc of the mosque. I scurried off like a man pursued by a knife-wielding demon, my shoes and Harry Porter glasses flying off in the air. A bomb exploded; the world shook and vibrated. Rooftops soared to the sky, as if they were in a hurry to report this inhumanity to God and His angels. Black fire curled in the thick air like a comparative work of Art.
Later, the survivors returned to the scene to meet soldiers and police officers who were looking at the corpses with narrowed eyes. People's dislodged heads and legs and hands were strewn everywhere like chunks of meat in unscrupulous butcher's slaughterhouse. Blood carpeted the ground.
I scanned the wailing crowd in quest of Aisha. I did not know that she was no more until I saw a sparkling gold necklace I brought to her on her twenty second birthday around a dislodged leg. Her leg. And her head - my God! - was behind me; I had just seen it. Her hand lay in the front - like a shrivelled yam. And her intestine, yes her intestine, curled around her legs inviting buzzing flies.
I took Aisha's blood-covered head and said, "You're my voice when I couldn't speak. You gave me a pink rose on the 14th of February and showed me the rainbow. You sang me songs and fought playfully with me in blue waters, Aisha. But now you've left me. You are lifeless, Aisha, but I will not cry!" But I was crying. I was crying like a five-year old schoolboy. I saw a corpulent soldier turn his head away to hide his tears. I didn't hide my own tears. I wanted them to know that I loved Aisha, that I loved her hair and hands and legs and lips and eyes and finger and everything. I wanted the world to know that the beautiful, dead flower on the dusty ground was my love and I was incomplete without her.
"Boko Haram is a curse to the world," a sobbing pregnant woman was saying." My husband is gone! Allah will never forgive all those nefarious Islamist Extremists!"
I took Aisha's necklace, wiped my tears on my sleeve, put on my Harry Potter spectacles and turned to the sun.
The moon was now receding. I am still seated on the rock at the riverside. As I glance at her countless portraits in my trembling hands, an idea flashes through my mind. The idea is to extract my BlackBerry and Google the calendar of 1990. I do that without hesitation and, to my utter amazement, I discover that I was born on a Saturday - just like my woman. I've lost her. I've lost my parents' love. I've lost my siblings' love. I am forbidden to enter Daddy's house in the village - or in Onitsha. I'm on a rock by the river, lonely.
I toss the phone into the bush, pick the necklace Aisha was wearing that Saturday she fell and perched on the rock that is now my home. It is drizzling and the bamboo trees are swaying this way and that way.
If I had read these coincidences in a novel, I would have tagged the writer "an amateur writer" and flung the book into the toilet. But I am not a character in fiction.
I shut my eyes, wishing that the rain would carry me, to somewhere. I wished, also, that our president would push out all the faceless Boko Haram terrorists in the nation. He had crisscrossed swathes of Northerners in his boisterous election campaigns, vowing to rebuild our politically turbulent Nigeria as he addressed Change-singing crowds of supporters in Northern states that were struck by deadly bombings.
On the portable radio that was my only companion at this riverside a lady with a BBC accent announces:" The president of Nigeria will visit Nigeria next week..."
I fling it into the river and watch the water swallow it, vomit it, swallow it. I debated whether to sleep on the savannah grass or check if Nigeria got her independence on a Saturday. Finally, I lay on the grass, sniffling and wishing so desperately that death would emerge from the river and take me away so that I can meet Aisha in the Paradise and tell her, with a kiss and tears in my eyes, that I was also born on a Saturday.
With a passion for storytelling spawning before he even could write, Pete Cotsalas, a Massachusetts native, does not feel accomplished unless he has written daily. Fiction is his passion. With a BA in English/Creative Writing he hopes to milk all the use possible out of this basic credential, and dreams of the world reading and enjoying his work. He is an avid reader and researcher in his spare time. To inspire himself, he often contemplates “If it exists, I can write about it.”
Within the threshold of the Death Realm, Froman prepared his coterie for the Wayward. Standing at the edge of the vast writhing sea of distraught souls, he pontificated. “Walking through the Wayward will be rather pitiful, saddening, and unnerving.” He pointed backward. “Remember those poor, stabilizing souls? These are those who surpassed, or beginning to. Wayward have begun regaining composure, but lack guidance or comprehension. They have started to accept that they are dead, but do not understand where they are. As they process, they sporadically wander, calling for deceased loved ones, asking one another what it means. My advisory is not to address them. Ignore them as we pass. Anything we can say will only befuddle them further. Let us make haste.”
Entrance through the Wayward was unsettling. Myria squirmed as she walked. Glee grunted. Nobody attempted to harm them however. It was a solid mass forged from loss. Thousands roamed aimlessly. Not one of them appeared knackered. With no destination, all of these dead elves, dwarves, men, goblins and so forth moved in a continuous random rotation. Icy grip of a hand grasped Ivanna’s arm. She gasped. A wide-eyed Guardsman stared at her, wearing colors of the Mactor province, a gaping gash in his chest. “Please Milady,” the dead Guardsman spoke desperately. “Nobody will answer. Have you seen my brother, Ignal? He was killed in a mining accident long ago. I want to find my brother.”
Out of compassion, Ivanna shook her head apologetically, gently pushing the Guardsman’s hand away. “No, I am sorry… I do not know Ignal.”
The Guardsman’s eyes wandered, as he walked past in a daze again. “Thank you for answering,” he said.
Fearfully, Myria remained near Froman at the front of their formation, as they navigated through the Wayward. “Where do we find the Manticore?” Myria asked Froman.
Glaring impatiently, Froman reacted with sarcasm. “Track down the local census-taker and inquire as to where… Wait, we cannot do that. There is no governmental structure in this Realm, only unpredictability and fear!” Irritably, he kicked a Wayward imp out of his way. “Manticore could be anywhere in this plane. I guarantee, since they were exterminated centuries ago, that they are much deeper into the realm, far beyond the Wayward.”
Nonchalantly, Myria retreated from Froman, leaving Glee to walk next to him. She returned to Ivanna’s side. The latter remained chilled by the look of that Guardsman. “Froman’s embitterment is becoming heightened, is it not?”
Ivanna shrugged. “I think he is just focused. This is as much his goal as it is ours. Follow behind Glee. He is getting far ahead.”
Carefully pushing through some mumbling, sobbing spirits, Ivanna led the way toward the reddish fabric she believed to be the back of Glee’s Enforcer tunic. It was not. Catching up to the moving garment, she and Myria saw it was a loincloth covering nether-regions of a Wayward ogre. The handmaiden and the Enforcer stood, looking side to side. Neither of them saw Glee or Froman, only solid walls of unfamiliar, stoic faces. Half of their party was nowhere in sight. Frantically they called their names, to not response. “We have been separated,” fretted Myria, biting her finger, gazing at lost dead.
Urgently, they chose to follow the skyward twilight in the general direction which they ventured. With relief, they saw a break in the crowd. Nearly at the end of the mass, Ivanna was surprised to see a familiar likeness. “Hult, is that you?” Ivanna called. The deceased manservant from Palace Dli stood by the edge of The Wayward. That gray-bristled mustache was distinguishable.
As they approached, Hult was perplexed. “Princess Ivanna, is it really you?” he grasped her arms. They embraced. “I did not dare believe it for a moment. Understand I have been walking around this place for some time. It has merely been us two. I hallucinate that you, your father, or even your sisters are among these faces… I do not understand… Why are you dead? What happened?” The loyal caretaker appeared concerned.
“No Hult, Myria and I are not dead,” explained Ivanna. “We needed to gain access for…” Trailing off her explanation, Hult’s words resonated with her. “What did you mean us two?”
Reluctantly, Hult turned and indicated a human woman on the outskirts of the Wayward. Until now, no smiling face was visible in the Death Realm. Levelheaded and patient, she knelt, helping a dead sprite the size of a rabbit regain control of its tiny feet. It was Neekena. Speechless, Ivanna had never been consumed by so much awe. “M-mother,” she croaked lamely, approaching. Neekena did not give Ivanna a second glance, seeming to not recognize her daughter.
“Give her a moment,” whispered Hult. “When one has been dead some time, they forget components of their life, sometimes crucial parts.”
As she approached, Ivanna’s long-deceased mother stared, blinking her eyes, like embers flickering in a fireplace. “Oh, uh, Ivanna,” she said, smiling. “Yes, you are my oldest daughter, Ivanna.” Tone suggested she just barely recollected the name of a very casual acquaintance. Taken aback, Ivanna was not expecting this type of reception. “Forgive me. I was trying to help this poor thing.” Steadied on its feet, the sprite rejoined the Wayward. “I was philanthropic in life. And I remain so in death. Sometimes I console lost souls, giving comfort. Unfortunately, it is nothing to be forced.”
“Mother, Father has been poisoned,” Ivanna was reluctant to tell her mother. Given the situation it seemed proper.
“Walden?” asked Neekena. “My beloved Walden is here?!” Expectantly, she looked around.
Ivanna shook her head. “No, he still lives, he is just very ill. We have reason to believe Hemmy poisoned him.”
“Hemmy?” Neekena repeated. Confusion rather than shock was in her expression. “Hemmy… That name is familiar to me.”
“Your youngest daughter,” Ivanna said, diplomatically. “She was born three years before your death, mother.”
Embers of familiarity flickered in her eyes again. Neekena nodded. “You mean the baby. Yes, I have very distinct memories. I have been attempting to recall her name for a long time. Yes, Hemmy, that was it.” Whistling, she resumed tending to the souls charitably. Barely looking up, she escorted the bewildered soul of an old goblin toward the group. “Poisoned Walden,” Neekena sighed. “I would gamble upbringing by royal nannies contributed that,” she said. “It is not the same for a child with the absence of a mother.” She continued her attempts to speak with individual souls, as if unfettered by this news.
Dumbfounded at her laconic mother, Ivanna looked at Hult. “She seemed so… uncaring,” she said, feeling a tear. Immediately she fought it back into her tear ducts.
Hult sighed and patted her back. “Princess Ivanna, try and comprehend,” he said tenderly. “Your mother has little reason to feel empathetic, because she is no longer alive. Simply, she does not view such living conflicts as her issue any longer. Liken it to a fish jumping out from the deepest, inaccessible depths of the ocean, informing you his school is under attack by a shark. You do not know this fish. His school under siege does not affect you. There is little which you could do to help. It is not Neekena’s fault. Death is a vicissitude, as is life. Souls reshape and readjust continuously.”
Not abiding that rationale, nor accepting the analogy, Ivanna retorted. “Difference here, is I was never a fish. My mother was once among the living.”
“Perhaps that comparison was inadequate,” Hult admitted, nodding.
Reminding herself of her endeavor, Ivanna asked. “Hult, do you know of Manticore? We need them to save father.”
“Manticore have a colony,” Hult said. “They do not accept outsiders normally. It is a strenuous walk, through those trees. I estimate it is equivalent to a six-hour hike. However there is little conception of time here.” He looked blankly up at the bleak sky. “Twilight is perpetual. Along the way, be weary of The Spirit. He can be unfriendly.”
“Who is The Spirit?” Ivanna asked of Hult.
“That is what many long-dead souls are accustomed to calling him,” Hult disambiguated. “Others, such as the Chimera, call him, and the others, Creator. In the living realm, we referred to them as the Warlocks.”
“Did you say others?” Myria asked, gasping. “Do you mean all Warlock dictators are in this realm?” She looked around frantically.
“As I understand, that was how the Death Realm was created,” Hult said. “Founders created a separate dimension of existence in which to banish their foes.”
“Then why did deceased souls begin arriving?” Ivanna asked, looking at them surrounding them.
“I am uncertain,” her deceased servant admitted. “My best assumption is some allure. Warlocks basked in death’s glory, and added to its essence. Therefore the dead were drawn to here with them. Good luck to you.”
Quite a ways west along the perimeter of the Wayward from the discouraging mother/daughter reunion, Glee and Froman stood at the edge of the forest, foregoing their movements. After separation from Ivanna and Myria by the dense crowd, Glee was irate. “You lost them! How did that happen?”
Glee paced in anxiety, while Froman sat on a boulder, lounging in the twilight. “Enforcer, I was drafted to navigate this expedition, not to supervise it,” he rationed. “Fear not, they are resourceful. They will find their way to us.”
Red in the face, Glee advanced on Froman. “Fault lies with you, you deranged, mangy son of a-,”
Glee was silenced as Froman leered and growled. Two canine fangs descended from his upper jaw. “I warn you, Enforcer. I am unsure what happens exactly when a living being is killed in the Death Realm. But I am curious.”
“I apologize, I was out of line,” murmured Glee, recoiling. “Reminds me something has been on my mind. I did not want to voice it in front of Ivanna, but… Even if we are able to find the same Manticore which dispensed the poison that crippled Walden, can souls even bleed?”
Froman sighed. “Honestly Enforcer, I do not know,” he admitted, shaking his head. “That was not high on my list of inquiries upon my first visit. I imagine that they produce a facsimile of blood.”
Unexpectedly, a voice called out. “Well, I have long awaited Froman of Carvin’s death.”
From a clearing in the trees, a young man with unkempt hair approached them. Mark of the Kinship displayed on his shoulder. The youthful Wolf strutted with a defiant arrogance, and unfaltering sneer, strange for a deceased soul. He and Froman stared at each other with mutual distaste. “Hello Kunnar,” Froman said with a short, almost sarcastic nod. “It did not occur to me that I would happen upon you in here. I suppose you have alerted the rest of the dead Kinship to my arrival.”
Kunnar scoffed. “Please, you and your brother can take choke on your puny Kinship. Since death, I found stake in a more practical, better governed society, with a mission statement that makes The Kinship’s look like a farmhand’s chore list. You are indirectly affiliated with them actually, Froman. They knew your father quite well.”
“The Warlock Loyalists,” Froman sneered, lowly.
Kunnar pursed his lips, smugly. “We usually say The Loyalists in this realm. It is a prominent group. They have recruiters ready all around.”
“Wolves walk among The Warlock Loyalists in the Death Realm?” Froman was astonished.
Folding his arms, Kunnar furrowed his brow. “See we are all members of a unified category of souls in here, Froman, quite bipartisan. Spend enough time in here, and for most, the labels of being human, Wolf, dwarf, or goblin shed.” Cockily, Kunnar stood close to Froman, and leered into his eyes. “When the Warlocks retake the living realm, all will gather in unity, as we souls.”
With a snatch, so fast it made Glee gasp, Froman seized Kunnar’s throat. The latter gagged and coughed as he was lifted by the neck. Froman growled. “You have been dead for quite some time. I am certain that you know where we can find the Manticore.”
Gasping, Kunnar looked up at Froman. “Manticore, what could you want with those mongrels?”
“Where are the Manticore?” snarled Froman, tightening his grip on the younger Wolf’s throat.
Remarkably unafraid, Froman’s former acquaintance sniggered. “If you recall you have already killed me once before,” he said, looking down at the hand which was grasping his throat. “It seems wasteful effort to attempt it again, here in the land of dead.” Releasing the throat, Froman continued to leer. Rubbing his neck, Kunnar indicated the trees, eastward. “Through that forest, the Manticore have claimed an entire valley. Us others in the Death Realm know of it. Deep-rooted trees will lead to a cliff overlooking their claim.”
Before he and Glee followed his directions, Froman accosted Kunnar further. Wolf claws extended from his fingertips. He dragged the long, jagged, claw of his index finger across Kunnar’s throat. The young Wolf howled in pain. Glee watched a trickle of blood, a shade closer to black than the typical crimson, dripped from the small gash in his throat. Froman turned to Glee, revealing the streak of black blood on his hand. “That answers our question about bleeding souls. Shall we proceed Enforcer? With Ivanna’s resources, it seems possible she and Myria have already ventured beyond this.”
On his feet, Kunnar wiped some blood onto his own hand, looking down at it. As Froman and Glee walked away from him, he yelled. “Froman, if you wanted to know whether or not souls in the Death Realm bleed, I could have answered,” he called after them. “As you correctly indicated, I have been dead for a while, and have you to thank for that! Clearly you still live. I dare say, this provides you with leverage in whatever this venture is?” Maniacally he laughed behind them as Froman and Glee continued walking without a glance back.
“Who was that, Froman?” Glee asked. He had been hesitant, but his curiosity prevailed.
“A member of The Kinship, in life,” Froman spoke, keeping his gaze forward.
Glee nodded. “Was he among those executed by the archers after your Legion Assault?”
Froman closed his eyes, and shook his head. “He was dead long before that,” he replied slowly.
Confused, Glee cocked his brow, walking with Froman. “I assumed when he said that you were responsible for his death that was what he was referencing.”
Froman glanced at Glee. “Yes, you assume a good deal, Enforcer… If you must know, when he proclaimed me blameful for his demise, he meant literally. Kunnar was loyal to my brother, Lucano. When The Kinship polarized between us, it did in spirit, before it actually parted ways. Even before then, Kunnar was a cocky renegade with his own agenda. I could not have that in my Kinship. So I thrust a silver spike through his chest.” Neither of them said another word for quite a while as they progressed in the direction Kunnar articulated.
The path cutting through the wood, as the slain Wolf stated, delivered them to a high cliff. Before arrived upon it, their route was obscured. A bellowing growl echoed and a large beast pounced onto the path. It was twice the size of the Chimera they encountered before entering the Death Realm. Teeth, claws and yellow eyes caused Glee to cower. “What on Fathach is that?!” Glee yelled, staring at the fearsome monster as it spread a pair of bat-like wings.
“That is a Manticore,” Froman said.
Gary Ives lives in the Ozarks where he grows apples and writes. He is a Push Cart Prize nominee for his story “Can You Come Here for Christmas?”
What Old Men See When They Close Their Eyes
Now the only time Amos sees clearly is when he closes his eyes. Macular degeneration has for years diminished daylight vision to a blur around an empty tunnel. Night vision, well that’d gone decades ago. Only after he commands the eyelids to lower as he relaxes in the big chair or on the little hickory bed he’d made sixty years ago for his twelve year old son Robert, only then is clear vision restored. Think about what you see through your closed eyes at three AM; I’m sure you can understand.
With less than ten percent vision left to him after Tilda passed, Amos had had to enter a care facility, a horrible place that paid minimum wages to coarse men and 250 pound women in stretch pants to handle him rough, a place where the food prepared for their meals should have been dumped straight into the toilet as it was already shit before it was served to the sorrowful residents. God bless his stepson Peter, Tilda’s son from her first husband. Peter, a good and popular vet, had his principal business coming from large animal care, yet never refused care to pets -- any dog or cat, from puppies’ and kittens’ vaccinations to their euthenasia, Saint Peter, thought Amos, the soul of compassion and care. He’d offers a place for Amos on his ranch near Wing, California. There is a hook. Peter has fallen into a desperate financial situation by way of a miserable fuck story of a divorce. He is in danger of losing his ranch. Can Amos help? For Amos this is a godsend and he has no qualms about signing the General Power of Attorney. You may think, “Oh no this will go south, sure.” Shunting poor Amos out to humble quarters in Peter’s barn? But such is not the case. Just two slight rooms, all that he requires and Peter fixes these into Amos’s quarters in his barn. Amos chooses to live out in the barn. That’s right, the little apartment in the barn was Amos’s idea. Cozy. Private. The larger room once the tack room; here Amos has his chair, a table, the little sink and microwave. The smaller room is just big enough for the small bed, toilet and shower. Peter has mounted safety rails by the toilet, in the shower, and on the wall from the bed to the chair. Amos is quite at home here. He loves the smells of the barn; the horses, the hay, and that good, rich smell of hemlock saturated with years of horse piss. Amos loves it all, the cozy gemütlich of the small quarters and especially the solitude. On warm mornings he takes his coffee and dozes seated in the painted captain’s chair on sunny side of the little deck under the old carriage shed. Peter ensures that there is safe heating, plumbing, and personal care for his generous stepdad. Each evening Peter brings a hot meal and spends a few minutes visiting, though lately Amos eats very little, his appetite on the wane for some time now. Amos thinks of Peter as compensation against his rotten son Robert.
Two nights earlier Tilda, his wife, now dead for eight years had appeared. The two were on the dock by their cabin in Maine cleaning fish they’d caught that afternoon. Tilda scolded Amos for not thoroughly rinsing out the fishes’ cavities after gutting. The both of them had loved the outdoors, especially fishing, and they loved eating fish, preferring fish to meat, actually. In his reverie Amos smells the freshly caught crappies and bluegills and the hint of gasoline and oil mix from the little five horse boat motor. With the back of her knife Tilda edges the heads and viscera into the lake where musk turtles will assemble to feast.
All of a sudden he’s back on the minesweeper he’d served aboard in Viet Nam. Within sight of a tiny coastal village, just a few shacks under palm trees with a few boats hauled onto the beach, his crew is cutting the fisherman’s net from the dinky little one man craft, tossing dead fish willy-nilly into the South China Sea as the boatswain’s mate and his pal Andy reluctantly heft the young prisoner aboard the minesweeper. The ship patrols the shallow coastal waters, its mission termed “harassment and interdiction,” boarding boat traffic to search for countraband, and to gather intelligence. Amos argues with the Vietnamese liaison officer, a cocky lieutenant named Dai Hui Duc; behind his back the American crew calls him “Duck the Fuck.” “We can tow his little boat in.” But standing orders require us to follow the ARVAN’s direction in matters dealing with prisoners.
“No, no. Sink boat! No identification paper. Cong. He Cong. Sink boat! Now!”
So small is the little round boat that two rounds from the boatswain mate’s sidearm splinter the frail deck, scuttling the young man’s livelihood. There is no countraband, just a few fish. The prisoner is young, maybe seventeen, eighteen, tall for a Viet because he is half French this boy, unwanted, a left behind from the colonial days. That’s why Duc is arresting him; it’s that strong prejudice against miscegenation, a person of mixed race so despised by those bereft of compassion. We take the boy to Tiger Island, the ARVAN prison compound. This boy will be put in a cage, interrogated and tortured. In his tiny village women will weep for him and their rice will have no fish. It’s the same all over, Amos thinks. They told us we were fighting for freedom. What a fuck story. The ARVANs are as cruel as the VC and we, are we any better? At the enlisted club in Cam Ranh Bay he’d seen a Marine Lance Corporal showing off severed ears strung on a pull ring from a grenade. War sours everything it touches including the future. Including Amos’s dreams for decades to come.
Below this vision Amos’s subconscious wants his vision to return to the tranquility with Tilda at the lake but he cannot. He awakens, gets up to pee, then moves from the bed the big chair.
Peter’s hired man Pablo Ochoa who comes to help him bathe and to bring clean clothes leaves a thermos of coffee with his cup on the window sill by the big chair. Some afternoons Pablo comes by just to visit and share a joint or a drink with the old man. For thirty years Pablo had fished in the sardine fleet out of Ensenada. Sea stories bonded the two men. Pablo is retelling the story of the time he lost his net to a stupid Gringo submarine. The men have heard each other’s stories multiple times, but a listen easily and always confirm their validity with an appreiative nod or single syllable as if it were the first time. He respects Amos’s age. Mexicans, Amos thinks, are souls of courtesy.
The old man pours a cup and settles back, hoping for Tilda again. But once again it’s their son Robert. Robert in the back of the police car, the officer telling Amos that his 17 year old son is under arrest for shoplifting a Sony Walkman at Walmart and for possession of a controlled substance, to wit: four marijuana cigarettes and pills. He and Tilda go to the police station where a fat booking sergeant tells them to sit down, pointing to the row of orange plastic chairs against the wall. Before them cops walk back and forth, their hips at eye level, their belts laden with radios, handcuffs, pistols, mace, batons. Amos thinks how uncomfortable it must be, especially for the fat cops, one so fat that Amos notices that his service belt is actually two web belts sewn together. Tilda is so worried. This is the third time for this shit. He tells her that Robert’s had plenty of warning. He can spend time jail. He’s overdue. Maybe the shock will work, because mercy and leniency have sure the hell failed. Both of them stopped liking their son a years ago. He is a shit. He lies, he steals, he is cruel to animals, and he mocks his parents. Tilda, while she dislikes Robert still loves him, as mothers will do. Amos thinks through this late night fog that he would gladly swap his son Robert for the hapa-haoli Viet French prisoner from forty years back. He tells the detective and booking sergeant to go ahead and transfer Robert to the county jail, fuck him, we have grown too tired of dealing with his shit. When’s the court date? Will we be there? Maybe. Tilda wipes tears onto the shoulder of Amos’s Levi jacket.
Amos nightly considers his life in sections: boyhood, his years in the Navy, then the twenty years in the National Park Service, and ultimately retirement,--each compartment with friends and lovers, places, high and low points. Although the people, happenings, and places during his forties through his sixties when he’d worked as a park ranger and supervisor, he seldom sees. No, Tilda, the Navy, old friends and ships he’d served aboard, these were the visitors that mattered and which moved Amos.
Sometimes, though not often, he can see exactly what he wishes, and soon Tilde visits for a second time that night. They’ve known one another but for a short time and still she blushes when Amos says fuck or shit or calls someone an asshole or dipshit or dickhead, the way sailors talk. Within a couple of years, Tilde too will cuss like a sailor but only with the two of them alone. They’ve just finished the six pack and thrown the last can from the cab of the truck into the ditch alongside the road; she’s driving and laughing. They’re headed to an outdoors bluegrass festival where Peter’s little band “Crowbar” is playing. It’s a jolly Friday night and Amos has filled two silver flasks with Jack Black for their enjoyment. It’s okay, they’ll sleep in the camper, then have breakfast at the IHOP in town with Peter and the two old men who play in the band. For Amos and Tilda, drink makes things like this all the sweeter. The band playing just before Peter’s set comes across rough, and when Tilda remarks that that band is one sorry bunch of assholes, they burst into a fit of laughing.
Then things change and Amos himself is on the stage of the Cherry Club in Olongapo in the Philippines. The ship has rented the club for the Christmas Party. Everything has been fun: lots to eat and more to drink, and great entertainment. There is a decent band and variety acts. First a little boy and girl, tumble and juggle, then four young men sing just like the Beach Boys. Then a stripper does a funny dance jerking off a bottle of San Miguel beer which she spews all over the executive officer. But just now everyone is laughing uncontrollably, laughing at him, Amos on stage with the Filipino hypnotist who has convinced Amos to cackle and scratch about like a hen. Andy is laughing, Andy the best friend Amos has ever known, the two of them tight as ticks; they were buds who ran together, laughed together, drank together, sang together, and whored together. Most painful is that Andy Anderson is laughing the loudest and pointing at Amos and imitating him flapping his elbows and kicking his left leg like a chicken. Afterwards Amos comes close to starting a fist fight with Andy over this silly issue, but realizes that his head has been fucked up by the beer and that cocksucker of a hypnotist.
So often with clarity his vision has to parade such embarrassments. It is probably right, Amos thinks, and serves to keep a man modest. The clear images of the Cherry Club fade directly from the crew’s Christmas Party to a working party two mornings later on the rainy docks of the Naval Station in Olongapo. A Seal Team is boarding their minesweeper for passage back to Nam, and the minesweeper’s crew is loading their rubber boats, diving gear, and ammo.. We will take them to the mouth of the Bassac River for some hush--hush mission. As we are loading the last crates of 57mm recoilless rounds, lightning strikes. A fireball explodes on the main deck. There is complete confusion. Amos with several sailors is blown into the drink. By the time these men find a way up from the bay three piers down Amos hears the radios and sees the flashing lights of fire trucks and ambulances. Back at the ship hospital corpsmen are zipping what is left of Gunner’s Mate Second Class Andy Anderson into a black bag. He has no left leg. The blast has blown his dungarees off, burning him crisp over the entire front of his body reminding Amos of the crispy duck he and Andy had eaten from a food stall on Bogey Street in Singapore. He turns away so no one can see his tears. The board of inquiry will later affirm that the crew was lucky to have lost only two men and that the ship was able to meet mission requirements on time.
Amos hears mice scurrying above. Once or twice barn mice had dropped down into his bed, but that bothered him not. He recalled when he and Tilda were rewiring a ceiling fan and a nest of dead rats fell into her hair. Then he remembered being in bed with a hooker in Pusan when a rat fell from the thatched roof straight onto his neck. He’d jumped up and stepped onto the chamber pot spilling piss all over. The hooker laughed and told him rats always came with thatched roofs. Fat rats meant good luck, she said.
When Peter tells Amos he doesn’t like the look of that lump on his neck, Amos chuckles and says he doesn’t care; he’s not dating these days. However Amos knows this lump very well as it has been steadily growing for months. Truly he welcomed Mister Lump, and as there had been no pain, well why worry? But just a few days after Peter’s caution, pain settles in, first as a throbbing stab, then maturing to a constant burning. Since then every night from his chair he smokes a generous pipe of weed, a home grown gift from Pablo, which is an effective palliative with a glass of wine. Whether due to the pot, the wine or the pain, he does not know nor does he care, but Amos begins having vivid recurring visits.
As he dozes Tilda rolls into the crushed oyster shell driveway of the little cabin in Maine. She honks the horn and yells, “C’mon, sailor. Let’s go!” But something delays his getting to the pickup, He can’t find a shoe, or his teeth, or glasses before Tilda drives off. Each night after Tilda drives off Andy Anderson shows up with the Viet/French boy saying that they are starting a fishing lodge up in Maine, can Amos and Tilda come in with them. Yes, but first he has to think it over. “Well,” Andy says, “Don’t take too long, Amos, we’re ready, aren’t we Tuan.” After the fourth or fifth repeat of this dream however, he knows full well that he is indeed ready.
Peter, just as Amos, knew with absolute certainty that the lump would, sooner rather than later, prove fatal. Peter had told Amos it would be easy to prepare the injection, and he would have it ready to spare Amos a wicked final pain. All he was waiting for was a nod from his beloved stepdad. Thus when he found the old man at final peace in the chair he felt grateful to have been spared the merciful task he’d been ready to assume.
At the last visit from the big chair, Amos had no trouble reaching the pickup. Tilda was laughing at the wheel. In the pickup’s bed Andy and the Viet boy were drinking beer and Andy is teaching the boy a sweet slow Beatle’s tune; they’re humming together softly.