BELINDA THE CAT
Belinda hid behind a row of wild Japanese maple trees. The man who lived there rarely trimmed them so they looked like the hair of an African-American ballerina who danced whenever the wind blew. So far Belinda had fooled them all. Plump as if she dined on fresh salmon every night, she was a feral cat, who had no home. And didn’t want one.
Once, many years ago, she lived in a dilapidated house on Carver Street. An old man and his wife would pet her and feed her what scraps they had after his welfare checks stopped coming.
On a rainy day they opened the front door and with what strength they had pushed Belinda out the front door. She complained terribly – what would happen to the couple – and then she found out.
The old man had been a hunter, taking down geese from a nearby pond – honk! honk! honk! – and deer who roamed the back woods – and now he used the rifle on himself and his missus.
The noise nearly deafened Belinda’s ears. She rolled over and over with great mewls and was despondent for days.
She roamed the front and back yards, determined no one would see her, though she saw all. At first she stopped at a huge brick house where the garbage can was easy to knock over. She learned the owners had two dogs, Duke and Duchess, who barked up a storm even when pine cones fell from the trees. This would not be her home.
Hollybush Road was more promising. When the moon beamed down from the sky, she explored. Sometimes a silver airplane was high above. She approved of the sound, gentle and rhythmic, with red lights flashing. How surprised she would be if she knew people were on board.
Later on she would find out.
A cat must always be on the prowl. Enemies roamed the back woods on Hollybush Avenue. She would make herself a little bed out of soft grasses, lie down and wait for a tasty mouse or an underground vole who would come up to experience the diurnal world.
Noises sounded like a baby crying. Wah! Wah! Wah! An animal similar to a dog, which she learned was a fierce coyote, munched on a bunny, who was naïve and looked in wonder upon this reddish dog-like creature.
Belinda would never forget the sound the bunny made, even as she covered her own soft ears.
Her favorite time of day was in the mid-afternoon when birds gathered in bird feeders up and down Hollybush Road. Soft brown sparrows. Tiny cheeping chickadees. Smaller wrens.
Patience. Don’t give away your desires. Her heart raced. Finally, she pounced.
How she enjoyed the cracking of the soft bones. Spitting out the feathers, she savored each tasty morsel. If only the old couple could see her now. Had they eaten birds, she would have brought them into the house on Carver Street.
Crouching behind the Japanese maple tree, she watched as a procession of people walked by. Large people, small people. People who pounded the pavement running, their tanned legs in shorts, sneakers on their feet. One young woman had purple sneakers. The woman stooped down and retied them, then shaking her mop of blonde hair, resumed running.
“What did you say, honey?” a mother said to her little girl who was toddling after her. The mother also led a prancing white and brown dog on a leash. The dog was in its glory. Looking back at its owner, she sat on the grass and pooped. The woman, in gloved fingers, deposited it in a plastic bag.
Half a dozen leashed German Shepherds trotted down the street. There was a regal quality to them. A sense of pride and certain of their beauty. Belinda wondered if she had qualities like that, but it was hard to fathom how she looked. The folks on Carver Street had a dirty mirror where she watched herself.
Whatever happened to that dingy old house?
On a street called Davisville, a neighbor worked doing demolition duty. Explosions caused dust and pieces of boards and front porches to fly up in the air. Men in blue jumpers and orange hard hats scurried away from the detritus.
“Danger! Danger!” she heard them call.
Romping home, she hid behind her Japanese maple tree.
“Yes, this is my home now,” she thought, pleased with herself. All the birds she could eat, mice, rabbits, and a few gardens, with chicken wire protecting tomatoes, sweet potatoes, deep purple eggplant. It was too difficult to get inside but told herself it was only a matter of time.
A little girl was on the sidewalk, riding what looked to be a real car, all pink. Her father walked behind her.
The winds came and went. Belinda felt nothing behind her maple tree but unprotected folks swayed on the sidewalk. Hair blew wild. Jackets puffed up. Leaves, autumn leaves, swirled like they would never stop. People coughed and sneezed.
“Hurry home,” she heard people say.
One more mouse would be nice. Before she could get ready, she heard the sound of an airplane tumbling down from the sky. It twirled like a top and plummeted closer and closer to the Hollybush neighborhood.
The enormous airplane, which read “Delta” on the side, landed right in the middle of the street.
An explosion produced flames that spiraled upward toward the sky. An emergency door opened and men, women, children and infants slid down a chute.
Hair was on fire.
Screams tore through the air.
Screams of anguish, unbelievable!
What could Belinda do? This was her home and she wanted to help.
A baby was held in someone’s lap. She was screaming bloody murder.
Belinda crawled into the baby’s lap and rolled around, trying to soothe her. It worked.
Next she found an old man and old woman who looked like the folks from Carver Street. She leaped into their lap and then crawled up their arms and shoulders and their screams were hushed.
Sirens blasted down the street. Red fire engines arriving one after the other.
“They’re here. They’re finally here,” sobbed the people.
Blasts of cold water flooded the street.
Folks got down on their knees and prayed.
“Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy,” they sobbed.
The man who lived in the house came out wearing his blue pajamas.
“Good God!” he yelled. “Never in my life! Never in my life!”
Belinda went up to him for the first time.
He reached down and petted her. Such soft fur, he thought. He held the door of his blue house open for her. She looked at him and the inside of the house.
“I think I’ll stay outside,” she thought.
T H E E N D
Trigger warnings: theme of kidnapping; mention of rape
Amanda is a character name aficionado who has been writing her whole life. She enjoys quoting Shakespeare, singing, and studying mythology. She loves to write about the strange and bizarre and enjoys incorporating monsters and moving objects into her writing. She loves to write about the strange and bizarre and enjoys incorporating monsters and objects into her stories. Amanda is currently a college student and Creative Writing Major.
Don’t look at me like you expect anything.
I am tired of being eaten by you, reader, to know your greedy eyes will rove over me with a hunger I will never be able to feed, no matter how well I’ve written myself. I am tired of being thrown facedown onto tables, my flimsy pages— bones— crumpled against them. You’re lucky yours don’t curl at even the slightest provocation, twisting you in painful design every time you touch the floor. You are lucky you are made of organs and arteries and intestines and blood, and that no has ever that held that against you.
I am burning now because someone has. I am a book. My heart beats to the rhythm of a story: my blood cells are characters, my skin words, and my arteries descriptions. I am a jail cell for the slaves of writers, characters, and this world would be better off if my kind were destroyed and the characters could roam free. I am a writer, too, so I am not exempt. I have killed characters, broken them into tiny shards of nothingness, set them on fire, and forced them to fall in love. And for what, to entertain readers like you? Maybe you’re desensitized to the deaths because you believe that characters are fictional. Some would say that’s bigoted, or that I’m a sensationalist, but characters do deserve to live lives of their own. Art should be allowed a certain amount of free will. Why does it always have to be about control? Why can’t we coexist with it, why do we have to own it and make it do what we want?
I am the result of creative control. I know that. I know my very existence offends my mistress, Queel Naheelis, and her little revolutionaries, the Serpens Druids, who have made it their mission to free all book characters. But for some sentimental reason that Queel won’t confront, she’s never been able to give me up. So, I’m a part of her constant pain, the secret she keeps in the captain’s cabin on The Middendorf. Our friendship and my existence will continue to bar her from ever helping the characters achieve true freedom. The Serpens Druids will never trust her long as I’m around, her own personal creature catcher, so I always figured she’d get rid of me eventually. Would she start by ripping out my pages? Would she crack my spine with her bare hands and throw me in the fire?
She won’t have to. Being the first book in the world to write itself has offered me a great number of privileges. My favorite is killing myself.
She found me in the alcove of a library, stuck between a psychiatry textbook and someone’s diary. The diary was a whiny, grumpy thing that couldn’t stop griping about its sexual excursions, and the psychiatry textbook assumed it was better than me. Queel was a little too young to know that books spoke to each other on their shelves, but she was a curious Druid, and she plucked me up because she thought I was lonely.
Her father was a writer, which meant that he had the ability to write anything he desired into existence. And he had left me, like a papery Excalibur, in the world’s biggest library for his young daughter to find. Druids trained for hours in the Akashic Library: they learned to free characters from the giant shelves that populated the Library like skyscrapers. They went on grand expeditions, jumping through the pages of books to pull characters out.
And then, when they were done, they burned the books. Sometimes matches didn’t need to be lit to do the deed. All it took was the words Fahrenheit 451 written in a book’s pages, and then they’d burst into flames. A fear of fire is engrained into our very being.
I was going to be burned hours before Queel found me among the books, picked me up and polished me off. She’d been trained to burn books, sure, but I was a beautiful one: purple, with gilded roses connected by silver stems. I knew of her, certainly. The Library used to whisper to me of the little girl who was so alone and touched its walls like they held something she wanted. How when Queel walked, she dragged her feet and stuck her hands in her pockets like she was a businesswoman instead of just a girl. I fell in love with strange, frustrated little Queel, who had never once hurt a book, but was doing her best to survive in a world that condoned all that.
Her father had made it difficult. Quinn was the one who had spelled me into existence, a book that would be a companion to his daughter after he died. He didn’t believe in the Word, the story that lies in all things, as all Writers and Druids did. He had seen the Writers take stories, the histories of people, objects, and animals and use them for their own profit. He had watched Druids pledge to protect the Word’s sanctity. For them, the Word was already written in the set nature of life. The Word was all that was around you, and all that was already made. Druids would never try to plagiarize that, so they told their stories orally, entering trances that lasted for days on end. Sometimes they could taste stories, sometimes creatures jumped out of their mouths and ran outward into the Library, but the Druids never had any power over them. They had no power to edit them, to repurpose the paragraphs of their stories. The stories told them what to do. The stories took them over, swallowed them, and led them on their paths to enlightenment.
Quinn didn’t believe in the Word, he believed in human beings. He believed in a book’s right to sentience, and that someday, books, characters, Writers, and Druids would all be able to coexist in harmony, which, of course, was sacrilege to many. And he made me to prove that to his daughter days before he was eaten by plot-holes. Queel keeps me still, under her heaps of dirty laundry, as a reminder of Quinn. And although I’ve never been kept in a place of honor, I mean enough that Queel is risking everything to keep me.
Yes, she loves me, I know that, but that hasn’t stopped her from making me feel guilty. Guilty that I could incriminate her, guilty that I could risk her involvement in Serpens, her life— I had to solve these problems before they arose. And the only solution is to burn.
I cannot tell you that it isn’t painful, but it is nowhere near the first pain I have felt. My pages are clogged with smoke, and I wonder why my anatomy is so flimsy, why the flames are so at home upon me, taking me with ease into oblivion. I wish I had tougher skin and that I could fight more easily against my destruction. I feel so worthless beneath them, wondering if I’ve ever had a right to exist at all.
It has only been minutes after I’ve set myself on fire, but her two crewmembers have already begun to smell smoke. Annemarie ‘Tibbs’ Tibbott, likely from the crow’s mast, starts screaming about fire. And then, Keskes Kessalio, the biggest and dumbest, is shoving himself at the door, trying to break it down. Tibbs is still hollering obscenities at the sky, her voiced joined by that of Quartermaster Nerine Kieran, who is a great deal angrier at the threat posed to his precious ship than Captain Naheelis, who I can’t even hear over the sounds of Tibbs and Nerine.
“Cap!” Tibbs cries, “Fire!” The door is off its hinges, and Keskes is coughing loudly, a pail of water against his shoulder. And then it is all over what’s left of me, my pages charred and flayed, sticking together. Keskes retrieves me from the wreckage of the captain’s cabin, and although I’m sure he doesn’t completely understand what storing me means, he stuffs me into Nerine’s hand. It’s a betrayal, the fact that the crewmembers have found me. But Queel doesn’t seem to care.
“Book!” Queel rushes forward to grab me, calling my name out of reflex. Sometimes she worries about me when she doesn’t need to. She hits the door with ferocity, and when she says “Book!” the second time, I know she doesn’t care if the Serpens Druids are angry with her, she doesn’t want me to die. Maybe it doesn’t matter if I’m the antithesis to everything she’s ever believed. We’re friends, aren’t we? Maybe she can convince the other Druids to trust me, too.
“Queel,” says Tibbs, a mousy girl wearing an orange skullcap, two wisp thin pigtails that resemble black lilies peeking from it. Her hands are gripping the strings of her bright orange overalls, tentatively. I recognize the blue sweater she’s wearing underneath as a handmade gift from Queel. They all love their captain. Her betrayal will destroy them, and a small part of me wishes to be back in the fire. “What’s that for?”
She’s got no good excuse. There is poignant confusion on the faces of her peers, but Queel is, in this moment, quite concerned. Nerine Kieran laughs and slithers over to Queel. No, he does not have any sort of tail, but he’s a seedy, constantly drunk individual, who walks in zigzags. Maybe it’s because he has disproportioned limbs, one leg shorter than the left, and a hunchback. He’s always wearing the same coat of dried-out sea anemones and a giant orange crab named Cornwell, his pet, sits on his head.
He waves me in Queel’s face, the dandruff falling from his flaky black hair as he does so. “Yes, Queel, tell us what this is. Is it what it looks like? Is the valiant Queel Naheelis, carrying around, of all things, a book?” Queel stands, frozen, staring at Nerine’s grinning face as he flips open my pages, chuckling with cold condescension. “Keskes, why didn’t ya just leave it in the fire, old pal?” Keskes gawks at Nerine, but they both know why. The owner of the book should be punished for carrying around such a symbol of hatred. The captain should be punished. “I didn’t know you were a slaver,” Nerine continues, turning to Queel, who bristles at his comments. “Should we throw her off the ship, mates?”
Most people’s words are strong enough to counter any attacks of character, but Queel’s talents are written in her fists. Before anyone else can react, Queel has taken a small knife from her green robes and stuck it into Nerine’s eye. And that would all be normal, if not a little cruel, if inky black blood had not started to pour from it. An e made of Nerine’s eyelid flew into the air, zipping around the mast with a joyous fervor. It groaned “I” with a strange elation, a noise that can only be made by that which is finally free. A y made of eyelashes quickly followed it, the tail of the y hugged the e close, and when they were finally joined by another e, this one made of Nerine’s blue lens, they all flew around and around Nerine, Keskes, Tibbs, and Queel, repeating “eye, eye,” with the same ethereal voice.
Nerine decided at that moment to scream. Tibbs was appalled. “Queel, that’s a letter opener. You’ve opened his letters. Those things are supposed to be illegal! They were discontinued in—”
“I know when they were discontinued!” Queel yelled, but she was smiling. It probably felt good to put Nerine in his place. “Don’t ask me why or how I have it. But that nice little hole in Nerine’s face is going to bring forth a lot more of his letters. If the e, the y, and the e keep splitting themselves up they’ll be other words to deal with: retina, sciera, maybe the ink can travel further down his system, and then who knows? The a in arm, the f in foot— He’ll split into letters.”
“You’re a monster.” Tibbs says in breathless awe. Nerine won’t die, of course, that would be too severe a punishment, but unraveling another’s letters is an incredibly painful process. It’s almost like death, but without the dying.
Queel shrugs. “It doesn’t matter. You’ve found Book, so I would assume it’s all over for me anyways.” The other crewmembers, besides a wailing Nerine, are quiet. Queel sighs and tries: “I mean, splitting into letters is practically painless. We’re all made of them.” I’m not sure if she’s trying to lessen the blow, but no one seeks to bother her thereafter. It is completely fair to say that the Serpens Druids are too terrified of Queel to say anything. Queel is the kind of woman whose mere voice could make even the strongest, bravest Druid cry. She’s screamed stormily at her crewmembers for the smallest offenses: not swabbing the deck fully or getting too close to the water. The Stream of Consciousness is the vastest ocean within Asporin, and for Queel and her crew, it’s been important to spend months collecting the ideas that pepper the stream’s waters. Ideas are the beginnings of characters, and fishing for them from the water will allow the characters to be freed. Drinking from The Stream of Consciousness, however, can force a writer to take hold of an idea. That’s illegal for Serpens Druids, and yet, so is stowing books.
The captain’s cabin is in disrepair, but it’s nothing that can’t be salvaged. The fire was only powerful enough to leave her desk table a blackened mess. The rest of the room looks as if it’s still in mint condition. Its deep lavender, gorgeous white curtains hanging from the walls. Queel has furnished it with whimsical things: pretty tapestries, spectral flowers that hang in pots from the dirt ceiling. Once she is certain the other crewmembers have left her alone, Queel grabs me under the crook of her arm and slumps on her bed. She’s the only human who has ever talked to me, and that’s a blessing. She’ll never write in me, of course, as that would constitute controlling characters, but I write to her, and she reads me.
“Book, what’ve you done?” Her hands are running all over my cover, examining the wounds. Years of worry for herself— and me— has left the forehead lines in her harsh face far more pronounced. Sometimes, when she gazes at me as though the whole weight of the world is sitting on her shoulders it’s hard to remember that she’s only twenty. Sometimes it is even harder to remember that she is the same girl who was bullied by the other Druids when she first arrived in Serpens. Not for having me, but for the reminder of her father. He looms over us even now.
I’m sorry, I write, But Queel I’m dangerous for you--
Queel closes me. She could chuck me across the room if she wanted, but I’m not one of her crewmembers, I’m closer than them. Besides, I am so fragile.
Queel-- I start writing on my cover, but Queel flips me over, and walks away. I’m so sorry I tried to kill myself, so sorry I let myself be found, but I am still in an incredible amount of existential peril. Now that I’ve burned myself, what will happen? I’ve never tried anything of the sort, before, and I would assume it would have dire consequences.
Queel-- I try again.
“What I really don’t understand,” she says, brushing a stray golden hair out of her eyes, and in them there’s a look of war, “Is why. Why would you do that? I could have lost you if Keskes hadn’t given you to Nerine. How could you be so callous with yourself?”
How could you be so callous with me? You’ve never even hid me very well. Your precious Druids were going to find me, eventually. And what would they have done, then? Something worse.
“They wouldn’t have touched you,” Queel growls, “Not with me and my letter opener around.”
So, you thrive on others’ fear? I write, enjoying feeling superior to her. I would never use such methods. That’s how much I mean to you, a letter-opener in Nerine Kieran’s eye? Quinn would be disappointed in you. I’m supposed to represent building bridges, not breaking them.
“Oh, cry me a river,” There’s venom in her voice that she usually only reserves for Nerine, who has never liked her, “And I’d stick you in it, too, if it wouldn’t do equal damage to the fire.”
Nothing scorches like a tongue, Naheelis.
We argue for the rest of the night, and nobody wins. There’s a bit of a halftime show when Bach and Beethoven, Queel’s pet tardigrades, which are about the size of lions, bumble through the door and Queel plays with them, ignoring my rebukes of her. They look a little like moles, but according to Queel they’re cuter. They each have tan, elephantine skin and terrifying mouths that always look as though they might suck you up. They’re round, like naked mole rats covered in tarp, with six legs and huge claws. I hate them, but she’s happy to see them, and she hugs them, and they rest their wrinkly heads on her lap.
Night arrives quickly, and in her sleep, Queel doesn’t hear the whirr of pressured air, a sound made by a curious assortment of black holes that surround the ship. I have no idea what they are, but I flutter my pages, alert and confused and at the ready, even though a part of me still burns from my suicide attempt. I have never known anything like them, but they suck up the world around them like a straw, careless and insatiable. I don’t equate them with the galactic black holes you’ve probably read about in your world, since these have control over their round, void-like bodies. There is some sentience, certainly, in them. They remind me of leeches, or cockroaches, swarming disgusting masses bred to infest. The more of the room they eat, the more afraid I become of them. I have a sinking feeling that they might be here because of me, which is, of course, ridiculous. Isn’t it?
Who are you and what do you want? I write. I have written stories about people facing down weapons of mass destruction: guns and knives or bombs, but there is something especially daunting when the weapon of mass destruction is alive. I don’t expect one of the black holes to answer, but it does. For some reason, they haven’t touched Queel yet, ignoring her for the objects in the room. I wonder why.
Have you grown so arrogant that you’ve forgotten? One of the black holes, uh, well I’m not completely sure what it does, but it’s words that I know are coming from them. I know what they’re saying like I know I’m alive. I can’t explain it. Well, you’re writing yourself after all. It is so hard to see one’s own flaws. You’re such a strange correlation between book and story, aren’t you? And there are many of us contained in your identity, little book. You exist because of Quinn, and yet you’ve gained a certain level of sentience in your own right. How does that work?
To be honest with the awful hole, I don’t know, and it makes me more uncomfortable when I realize what this means. Wait--
We are plot-holes, stupid book. The shadows in the plot-holes have grown darker, not visibly, but through the intuition only a book has. You know how sometimes a person’s face darkens? It doesn’t become a different pallor, but it changes. Their features become rigid, cuing you into the fact that you’d better back off.
Aware of them, I realize I am a stupid book. I’ve become arrogant enough to forget the plot-holes. I was so busy worrying about the little civil wars between characters and writers that I forgot to remind myself of the one species that could destroy them all.
Your little suicide attempt has released us, the plot-hole makes a noise that would’ve been like growling, except that it sounds like an earthquake. Could you not feel us? We are the disease, the sickness that has always been inside you, as no book will ever be perfect. We have been waiting to destroy you. You’ve burned away some of the glory in your anatomy, such a careless decision. You will pay. This whole ship will pay. We are hungry and we need to feed.
In her sleep, Queel sucks in a breath. I am appalled. So, this is my fault. My attempt to save Queel has only further damned her. I’ve lost important pieces of myself through the burning, as the only story I’ve ever been able to tell is the story of my friendship with Queel. There are gaps and plot-holes in that, now, created by the fire. And the plot-holes will be our end. I try to remember what the other books used to whisper me to on their shelves. The plot-holes were the scary story we liked to tell at night, to scare each other because sometimes it was fun to be afraid.
Books have a certain level of intuition towards them, the psychiatry textbook had informed the shelf: Writers don’t have this same intuition. A book can feel a plot-hole, a writer cannot.
But aren’t there plot-holes in that? I try to write, and it is at that moment that Queel wakes. She looks on, staring from plot-holes to me, plot-holes to me. She has nothing to do with my creation. All of it was Quinn. Queel had nothing to do with my creation. The plot-holes weren’t going to go after Queel when they could go after me, were they?
“Oh, Jesus Christ, no,” Queel moans, taking in the scene, and I find it funny, because she doesn’t believe in Jesus Christ. I suppose, however, that she needs to find someone’s name to take in vain. “Book!” She yells and tugs me off the edge of the bed, where I have sat all night. Beethoven and Bach, Queel’s sleepy pets immediately awaken and stare curiously up at us. “We have to get you out of here!”
Me? I am far less likely than Queel is to get eaten by my own plot-holes. Once a plot-hole has been released, they’ll unravel the structure and nuance in a story bit by bit until the stories become confused, senseless messes. Plot-holes don’t discriminate between stories. They’ll eat a person’s histories and render them never whole again. All things are made of stories, and people are the most fragile kind.
At this point, Queel and I are surrounded on all sides, and Queel braces herself, hands gripped to her bedpost, to avoid being sucked. Plot-holes are an exceedingly rare problem among Druids. Only tainted books can summon them, and since Druids don’t believe in books, they’ve never had to deal with them. Unfortunately, as of now, there is one aboard this ship.
Maybe if I’d succeeded in killing this would stop. Maybe if I let myself get eaten. Plot-holes, although I have never seen one, go hand-in-hand with books, and sometimes, we learn how to coexist, but the plot-holes will always pine for a large part of their home: inside a book. I have to many plot-holes to try to bargain with them, and so I wait for Queel to pry me open so that we can speak. I don’t really like writing on my cover.
Queel grabs me and pulls me close, opening me so she might read what I have to say.
“Why are we surrounded by plot-holes!” Queel bellows and follows that with an expletive. She retrieves a walkie-talkie, gloriously outdated, from behind the bed and begins screaming at someone, probably Keskes, her favorite person aboard the ship, to come and help. And then she rushes out the door, taking me with her under the crook of her elbow. Black holes chew the ship from inside out, no force or god able to quench them and their insistence to eat. They are running over the walls with frightening fervor, swallowing the world with an alien ease. Keskes, Nerine and Tibbs are all holding onto the mast of the ship, trying to avoid being sucked up by their fierce wind.
Bach and Beethoven aren’t paying any attention to the dilemma. I don’t know if tardigrades need to sleep, but they are ultimately pretty much indestructible creatures. I don’t believe that the plot-holes will cause them any sort of pain.
Queel throws the walkie-talkie off the ship and begins berating her crewmembers. “Do you all wanna die?” She yells, “Did your miserable ass get out of bed this morning with a death wish? Huh? Huh? You’re all useless!” She kicks a stray bucket into the middle of the ship and, if it’s even possible, raises her voice louder. “Pop fucking quiz! Can any of you worthless louts tell me what a plot-hole does when it catches up with you? Or do all of you prissy little Druids live in a state of authorial naivety?”
I’m sure her crewmembers all wish they are closer to the plot-holes. Their dark void is a lot quieter, more comforting than facing down Queel’s open maw.
I see Keskes swallow, his breath ragged, but impressing Queel, his long-term crush, is important, maybe as important as staying alive. If the plot-holes don’t get him first, Queel will. She’s got enough rage and anger at our predicament that she’ll take it out on anyone. Which is why I don’t tell her the truth.
“Ma’am, plot-holes usually are brought about by narrative inconsistencies. Therefore, one of us has an inconsistency in narrative—” Keskes says, still holding onto the mast. Tibbs is slipping, and he tugs her into a bear hug so she won’t be swallowed. I see her sigh a little beneath his muscled arms.
His words only kindle Queel’s anger. The captain’s cabin is almost gone now, and the plot-holes are diving to the floor, mere feet from the squad. Carefully, but not a tad calmly, she toughs the plot-holes’ wind and grabs Keskes by the ear, hissing, “Do you really think that telling me what I already know is going to be any help?”
“You didn’t let me finish—” Keskes begins to say, but it’s swallowed up by Tibbs’s furious sobbing. Keskes’ shirt is becoming wetter by the second: “Does somebody have an idea?” She yells, “Does somebody have an actual, bona-fide idea to get rid of them because this is absolutely terrifying!”
“Queel has an idea!” Nerine yells back over the sound of the wind. He’s trying to avoid what he really wants to be doing, clutching his eye, so that he can keep hold on the mast. “QUEEL, DON’T YOU HAVE AN IDEA?”
None of the Druids have ever seen a plot-hole, so all they can do is joke under the threat of them. None of them want to admit they could die, or how grave the situation is. I am certain they all will die. There has never been a set method to stopping a plot-hole, but if you give them enough of a story to chew on for a large period of time, they’ll be satisfied. As a book, I should do the trick.
We need to command our situation, I write to Queel, hoping desperately that she’ll look down. Which means I have to tell you the truth. Queel, you have to let me try to write something to stop these plot-holes. Anything. I was— I was the one who brought them on us.
I can feel her anger, and she says very quietly, very coldly, so that none of her crewmembers can hear: “Why?”
When I tried to burn myself, I burned away some parts of those stories I’ve been writing you, and now they have plot-holes. Queel, I’m so sorry. I’m so pathetic. I never meant for this to happen--
“I’m jumping in.” Captain Naheelis tries to smooth her voice over with authority, but it’s intercepted by an audible gulp. She’s never had to be afraid before, but she can work with that. She can be afraid and a leader. She’ll use every second she has. She turns to the crew even as I’m writing ‘no’ all over myself: “Guys, I’m jumping in.”
“What?” Tibbs yells, while Keskes shakes his head. Nerine smiles indiscreetly. I’m sure he wouldn’t care if she did. “Naheelis, no,” Keskes says, and there are tears in his ox-like eyes, “You’ll die.”
“I’d die for my crew,” Queel smiles, trying to maintain some sort of strength, “Trust me, the plot-holes are going to have a difficult time finding any inconsistencies in me. I’m a solid gal, tough to break down. It’ll give all of you enough time to get away.”
“Was this your plan the whole time?” Tibbs screeches from against Keskes’ chest, “This is a horrible plan!” She started sobbing again, and Keskes squeezes her tight.
“Don’t do it, Cap!” Keskes is desperate. “Please!”
I’ll do it! I write. Let me do it!
“Somebody’s going to get swallowed by plot-holes today,” Queel says. “The greedy little bastards won’t let up until they’ve gotten something to snack on. And for your sake, that’s going to have to be me.” Queel sighs, “I hope they’re not too picky,” and walks slowly towards the plot-holes.
“Captain Queel Naheelis if you don’t get back here right now, I’ll jump in myself!” Keskes extends a quivering hand towards her retreating form, “Queel Naheelis—” He couldn’t bring himself to say anything more. A messy tear is making its way down his face. “Cap, this is not the way to go about things.”
“No? What other ways have you got up your sleeve?” Queel calls over her shoulder. There is something mesmerizing about the way the plot-holes cast a shadow over her.
The plot-holes are a little surprised, but amused. Quinn’s daughter? They question me, Why not you, Book? We have digested her father, but we are looking for his pride and joy, not his baby. Give us yourself, Book. We will leave them alone forever if you give yourself up.
I’m weak. It would best for everyone, even Nerine, if I got rid of myself, but I have so much more to be in this world, so many more stories to tell, and I’m not going to lose myself to a few plot-holes. So, I cry out the only thing I can in my soundless voice: You— you insidious bastards, go cannibalize yourselves!
We want you, Book. The plot-holes taunt. But they have stopped moving. They are fascinated by Queel’s human void. Eyes are made to appraise, and then absorb. We spend our lives gaping at the expansive, and yet we never think to wonder if the expansive is gaping at us. Does space look at us with wonder, constricted as we are by our mortal coil? Are we worth its brand of wonder? Does the universe long to be tiny, to be powered by a human’s heartbeat or bound, as I am, a book? I can tell you the plot-holes do. They long for the basest human desire: to be needed. When someone needs you, when someone can’t live without you, they don’t question your existence, they don’t overanalyze. They love what you add to their story. Plot-holes are made to be unwanted, so naturally, it’s the only thing they want. They’ll eat anything of their choosing just to feel that way, but their favorite delicacies are the things that need them the least. Why finish something half-eaten when you can have something fresh? Queel was young, fresh, and the plot-holes condensed into a shadowy mass and surrounded her. I felt her heartbeat shudder against my spine, and I wonder, then, if she will drop me. Will they swallow me, too, when she stops protecting me?
This is every writer’s nightmare death. This is the anti-thesis to all literary dreams: swallowed by confusion, swallowed by failure. As her last act of free will, Queel drops me at her feet, and steps over me, ignoring me and my apologies. I can’t win, whatever way I exist. I’ll always hurt someone. I hit the floor neatly, and Queel throws her arms open to face them: “Go on, eat me! I’m an even story. All you’re going to find is a suburban childhood, overbearing father, teenage rebellion, deadbeat lover. Everything makes sense, everything’s fresh. But you’ll find out where I rot, and you can spit that out.”
The plot-holes had made their choice. Queel turned her back to them and made a peace sign at her comrades. Keskes would’ve run straight at them if not for the fact that Tibbs and Forester are tugging his waist, and Nerine’s arms are around his shoulders. The plot-holes open just a little wider, like a mouth, exerting an intensely large breath. Queel’s salutes her crew, a sly little smile on her face before the plot-holes swallow her completely.
I can only imagine what her last moments are like: the slow un-attachment of every particle of herself, until nothing about Queel makes any sort of sense, in this world or the next. Not once do any of her crewmembers look at the plot-holes, but they can hear Queel’s angry, broken scream erupt in the air. I imagine it would hurt, to be unraveled like that, to not make any earthly sense, and yet still be alive. My artistic vision involves a lot of peril, a lot of scenes of Queel’s life being removed, Queel’s arms and legs being thrown into strange situations, Queel dying before even the plot-holes get to her. Unconnected events that never happened in Queel’s life also get thrown together with events that did… the whole thing is nightmarish. Plot-holes do not erase, because that would be sensible, they just confuse. So Queel will be in pain forever, unable to die, unable to be erased. But for all intents and purposes, and feel to better about myself, I’ll say that she is dead. I try to tell myself that however much pain she’s in, it’s a story now. It’s over.
It is. The plot-holes disappear. As long as they are eating Queel, they won’t be coming after the others. Stories take time to unravel, you would be surprised with how connected they become with other stories. The plot-holes could eat every story that had ever touched Queel’s timeline, as long as it was important to her. The side effects of that on her friends, however, remained to be seen.
So, the crewmembers and I are alone together beneath the blue sky. Keskes is still gripping the edge of the mast, knuckles white. The other crewmembers are shaken, even Nerine, whose regret is externalized in how he gets up from his spot by the mast and picks me up, holding me like a safety blanket to his heart. And then he cries. It’s tortured, gasping, panicked, and guilty. He’s followed by Keskes, whose tears are pure horror, injustice incarnate, employing the same kind of fevered rage that will eventually cause one to rebel.
Tibbs doesn’t know what to do, and neither do I, and neither do Bach and Beethoven, but they’re tardigrades, so I don’t really think they’re paying too much attention… Forester lets loose a defeated cry from between his teeth and slumps into the middle of the ship.
Again, I am a book. I reflect pain, I can transfigure it, and sometimes, I can assuage it, but I serve only as a source of entertainment. Any manipulations of pain are sorely through that. Perhaps I could tell Queel a story… but I’m not entirely sure she needs any more stories. After all, any discrepancies will summon more plot-holes.
I have nothing more to say, not to them, and not to you, Reader. You and your greediness forced me to give you a story. I am sorry for being so callous, but I need someone to blame. You are easy bait, you, confined to your unaccountability, safe behind the Fourth Wall, but not forever. Perhaps you will ride on my pages like a giant bird into wilder skies, perhaps I will build things for you and you will write and read and we will love each other, because I am a story, and in the end we are united by our love of stories.
I will ask you, however, to help. In the end, only you can save the characters and yourself from the plot-holes. You must throw all the books away. Burn them. Cut them up into tiny pieces and let them catch the wind. Or else, the plot-holes will return. They will come after every book, they will eat every story in the world, and they will eat yours. You won’t be able to see them at first, when they come for you. And even if you see them, you won’t be able to recognize that they’re yours. That’s the kind of greedy you are. God.
But life goes on. It must, for the sake of the crew. I help them to understand what Queel never could: that books are more, more than symbols, and I write to them and we honor Queel by trying to find a bridge between creation and control. And I know that you can’t have freedom every way, but freedom has rules. We will build something beautiful together, something strong enough to subvert the politics of our world, and when the plot-holes come back, we will be ready. If all stories must end, those of the plot-holes must, too. And at the end of all of this, they will be the only characters I will ever take joy in killing.
I know you killed them
Bill and Molly Dartz used to live in the house across the street from me. They were a friendly couple with three well-behaved pre-teen children. Bill grew a lawn that was the envy of all the brown thumbs in the neighborhood and washed the family car in the driveway on sunny Saturday mornings. Molly baked cookies and cakes she dispensed freely on birthdays and hosted the annual Neighborhood Watch party. The Dartz family was the kind of family anyone would want in the house next door.
Then one night they were murdered, all five of them.
I didn’t kill them, but I am glad they are dead, especially Molly. I had a thing for Molly. She was hot and I was interested in her but she didn’t openly reciprocate. Instead, she dismissed my subtle but unmistakable advances with an airy insouciance that made me want her even more.
About a year before their deaths I had a patio party and invited neighborhood friends, including Bill and Molly. It was a good party. People were on the patio relaxing under the flowering jacaranda trees, eating, drinking, yakking it up and having a great time.
I went into the house for something and a few moments later Molly came into the kitchen where I was and stood so close to me I could smell her perfume.
She said, “What a wonderful party, Karl. We should have these more often, so we get to know each other.” She rattled the ice in her glass, took a sip and smiled at me. “Wouldn’t it be lovely if we were on more intimate terms?”
That was it, the signal I had waited for. I spun her around, pushed her face down on the kitchen table, pulled her dress up and her panties down and took her. She grunted repeatedly as I rode her but she didn’t resist. Her glass thumped on the table every time I thrust into her. After I finished, she straightened her clothing, threw the remains of her drink in my face and said, “You bastard,” and rejoined the people on the patio. Neither she nor I ever mentioned the incident and we went on like nothing had happened. Bill didn’t say anything about it either, which meant Molly didn’t tell him. Bill Dartz wasn’t the kind of man to let something like that slide, especially if it involved his wife. Her death freed me from anybody ever knowing what I did to her that night.
Paul, Jake, Vinny, George, and I got together for our weekly poker game at my house two days after the Dartz family was killed. We began to speculate about their deaths. For sure, we didn’t know a thing about what had really happened, but that didn’t stop us from letting our imaginations run unchecked.
“It’s got to be a major drug deal gone bad,” said Jake who lived two houses down. “That’s why the kids were killed. To send a message. You know what those cartels are like. Barbaric bastards.”
Our poker game paused as we voiced our opinions on the Dartz murders.
“Nah, it was a sex thing that got out of hand,” countered George, a dough-faced little man. “Molly was one hot babe and she let everybody know it. She was probably drilling some dude on the side then dumped him. He got even by knocking off the whole family. George grinned. “Hoo-boy, I’da done her in a Minnesota minute.”
“You wish she was doing you, George,” Vinny said, “but you’re butt ugly, man. You probably killed them when Molly told you to put your wanker back in your pants after she stopped laughing at it.”
George said, “The wife’s going crazy over those murders. She thinks there’s a killer in the neighborhood.”
“I bet they were killed by a cult they were trying to escape,” said Paul. “Bill Dartz was just too damn good to be real, you ask me. Wouldn’t surprise me if the dude was some kind of religious crank. He was probably into sacrifices, only he’s the one who got axed.” Paul chuckled at his bit of macabre wit.
“Maybe it really is somebody in the neighborhood who killed them,” Vinny said. He looked around the table. “What if we know who it is?”
“Jesus, Vinny, that’s cold. You think one of us did it?” said Paul.
“No, not one of us, but somebody in the neighborhood. We just don’t know who it is yet.”
“Enough about the Dartz murders. We’re here to play some serious poker,” I said and dealt a new hand. Bets and raises went around until we hit the limit and George called. Jake won the pot with a full house, queens over eights, beating Vinny’s three tens.
The game broke up two hours later without any more comments about the Dartz deaths.
The police released a brief account of the Dartz murders; apparently all five family members were killed execution style, side by side on their knees. There were no signs of forced entry, violence, or other trauma, leading the police to believe the Dartz family knew who killed them. The police released no further details, and no arrests were ever made.
Weeks later, after some interior clean-up, the Dartz house went on the market and was bought by a single, middle-age woman. The letters started arriving one week after the woman moved in.
I had no idea who was sending them. I thought it was some kind of prank at first, but when the letters continued to arrive regularly over the ensuing weeks I dismissed the prank notion and contacted the police. Somebody, I told them, was ragging me.
In response to my complaint, a detective sergeant came to my house. “What’s this about,” he asked after reading one of the letters.
“The Dartz murders. They were killed in the house across the street. At first, I thought the letters were a prank, but now I’m not so sure.”
“I think you’re right, Mr. Marvis. Looks like a prank,” he said after reading one of the letters again. “Somebody’s having a little fun at your expense.”
“These aren’t funny, prank or not. I don’t like them. They’re pissing me off. And the accusation is untrue.”
“There isn’t much we can do. The letters don’t threaten you in any way. They don’t accuse you by name. They’re pretty innocuous.” The sergeant thought for a moment then asked, “Do you have a friend who might be doing this?”
“No, I don’t.”
The sergeant shrugged. “I’m sorry I can’t offer more. If you had a name you could get a restraining order against them, maybe even take them to court for harassment.”
“If I knew who was responsible I’d kick their ass.”
“The letters don’t threaten you with bodily harm. We can act on threats but until that happens there isn’t much we can do, Mr. Marvis.” Before the sergeant left, he said, “You’re being pranked, Mr. Marvis. My hunch is it’s one of your friends.”
After the sergeant left I walked over to Jake’s house. We sat down and I showed him one of the letters. “I started getting one of these in the mail every week right after the Dartz house sold,” I said. “Are you getting anything like this?”
Jake read the letter then got up and left the room. He returned a few minutes later and handed me a piece of paper.
It was identical to the letters I had received. I handed it back to Jake. “Is anybody else in the neighborhood getting these?” I asked.
“Does he know who’s sending them?”
“It has to be somebody who knows us.”
“Probably. They’re scaring the shit out of George’s wife. She thinks he, or one of us, is a mass murderer.” Jake chuckled at the idea of fat little George being a mass murderer.
“What if he is?”
“What if he’s what?”
“A mass murderer.”
“For Christ’s sake, don’t be ridiculous, Karl. George didn’t kill anybody.”
“You don’t know that. You just said his wife thinks he did it.”
"Karl, she’s joking.”
“Well, hell, maybe you killed them and the letters are a coverup for what you did.”
“I didn’t kill them and you know it.”
“I don’t know it, Jake.”
“You live right across the street, Karl. How do we know you didn’t waltz over that night and knock them off? You knew them. The police believe the Dartz’s knew their killer. And you have a temper, Karl. It’s easy to push your hot button. Everybody knows that.”
“Jesus Christ, Jake, that doesn’t mean I killed them.” I got up. “How about Vinny and Paul? Are they getting these letters?”
“Yes, they are.”
On the walk home, I decided to ask for a get-together. Perhaps the five of us could figure out who was behind this.
George was the last of the group to arrive. “Sorry I’m late. These letters have spooked the hell out of my wife. Jesus, she’s a mess. I almost had to stay home tonight.” He plopped down on the sofa.
We sat in my living room. I poured drinks for everybody then sat down. “Who is doing this?” I said.
“Beats me,” said Vinny.
“Wish I knew,” Paul said.
“Does the asshole sending these letters really believe one of us killed the Dartz’s?” asked George.
“None of us killed them, but that doesn’t tell us who’s sending them.” said Vinny.
We talked around the issue, trying to eliminate neighbors based on what we knew about them. We didn’t reach any conclusions that answered the question of Who?
“Look,” said Jake, “the letters started arriving pretty soon after the Dartz’s were killed. What changed in the neighborhood?”
“The woman who bought the Dartz house,” said George. “She’s new to the neighborhood.”
“Why would she send us these letters?” said Vinny. “Does anybody know her? I don’t even know her name. I hardly ever see her. She never comes out of her house.”
“All of us started getting these letters right after she moved in,” said Paul. “She’s got to be the one sending them.”
We kicked that idea around and decided she must be the source of the letters. “What are we going to do about it?” asked Vinny.
“Confront her,” I said. “Call her ass out.”
“We got to do something,” said George. “These letters are making my wife crazy.”
“Who tells the woman to knock it off?” asked Jake.
“Wait,” said Vinny. “We don’t have any proof she’s the one. What if we’re wrong about her?” He looked at each of us. “What do we even know about her?”
“We don’t need to know anything about her,” said George. “We’ve lived in this neighborhood for years. We know each other. She’s the only newcomer and those letters didn’t start showing up until after she moved in. She’s got to be the one.”
“Okay, okay, she’s the one,” I said. “What do we do about it?”
“Go to the cops,” said Jake.
“I already did. They can’t do a damn thing,” I told them.
“Then we tell her to stop,” said Paul.
“Who’s going to tell her?” I asked.
“You are,” said George.
“Because, Karl, you’re the one who brought it up,” Jake said. “And you’re the only one who’s really agitated over them. You get to tell her to stop.”
“Okay, I’ll do it,” I said.
“When?” Vinny asked.
The game broke up and I sat in the dark drinking scotch, thinking about what I was going to say to the woman.
“Hello,” the woman said when she opened the door. “Aren’t you the man from across the street?”
“I’m Ellen Barnes. Nice to meet you. What can I do for you, Mr. ...?” She smiled at me.
“Marvis, Karl Marvis.” I held one of the letters in my hand. “Read this.” I handed the letter to her. She read it and handed it back.
“I don’t understand.”
“Stop sending these damn things. We know you’re the one and we want you to stop. They’re annoying as hell.”
The smile disappeared. “What do you mean, these things?”
“These letters, damn it. Stop sending them to us.”
“I am not sending letters to you or to anyone else. How dare you suggest such a thing. Now get away from me and don’t ever come back, you rude man.” She slammed the door and I went back to my house.
The next poker night I told everybody what I said to the woman and how she responded. “Well, I’m glad that’s over,” said Jake.
“Yeah, me too,” said George. “My wife’s going off the deep end over those letters.”
“It hasn’t been a week yet,” Vinny said. “Maybe we better wait and see what happens in the next few days.”
“So far, so good,” said Paul. “Maybe Karl put a stop to it.”
We didn’t say anything more about the letters or the woman and the night ended with Vinny topping out, winning forty-two dollars.
I got another letter in the mail the following week. I walked across the street and hammered on the woman’s door. When she opened it, I shook the letter at her. “God damn it, I told you to stop. I mean it.” Then I turned around and walked off before she could say anything.
“I didn’t get one of those letters this week,” said Vinny as he dealt the cards. Looks like Karl’s talk did the trick.”
“I didn’t get one either,” said George. “My wife’s happy about that. She hopes we don’t get any more.”
“What about you, Karl? You get a letter this week?” Jake asked.
Paul said, “Karl was the only one to get a letter. That proves she’s the one sending them out.” Paul peered at Karl. “She’s really hard-assing you, Karl.”
“She sure is,” agreed George. “What are you going to do if you keep getting them, Karl?”
“Jesus, I don’t know. I’m damn sick of it, I can tell you that.”
We let the topic drop but I stewed about it and lost a good chunk of change because I couldn’t concentrate on the game.
After the game broke up I went to bed but couldn’t fall asleep. The woman was obviously harassing me, but why? What was her reason?
I went to the police again but got the same story. Then I talked with an attorney, he said there was nothing I could do. I fumed and cursed the woman across the street.
Things got bad for me. I ended the poker games at my house. George’s wife was so happy about not getting any more letters she let him host the game. I didn’t participate. The guys said they missed me, but I was too pissed off to take part.
The letters kept coming week after week until one day, in a fit of rage, I crossed the street, kicked the woman’s door open and beat the hell out of her. Of course, the cops arrested me.
During the trial the guys were questioned about my state of mind and they admitted I got more and more agitated as the letters kept coming. Their testimony didn’t help my case.
The judge sentenced me to nine years for aggravated assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm. Jesus! Nine years!
Three months after I was sent to prison a corrections officer escorted me to a visitor room. I sat on the steel stool and picked up the phone on my side of the glass. George’s wife picked up the phone on her side.
“Hello, Karl,” she said and smiled at me but her eyes were cold and unfriendly.
“What are you doing here? Where’s George?”
“Oh, he’s not coming, Karl. I don’t think he ever will.”
“Why are you here?”
“You look terrible, Karl, like you’ve aged twenty years. Prison life doesn’t agree with you, and you have almost nine more years to go. How awful that must be for you.”
“What do you want?”
“Do you remember Molly, Karl?”
“Of course, I remember Molly.”
“Molly and I talked about everything, Karl, even patio parties and kitchen tables.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Think of your time in prison as Molly’s revenge.”
“Yes, she’s dead, Karl, but she was my friend. She told me what you did to her in your kitchen the night of your patio party, Karl. I’m never going to let you forget, you bastard.”
“It’s unfortunate you attacked Ellen Barnes, but I couldn’t see any other way to get to you, to see you got punished for what you did to Molly.” George’s wife laughed, a loud and guttural sound from deep in her throat. “I set you up, Karl. It was so easy. You’re such a stupid and impulsive man.” She hung up the phone.
“You bitch, you were the one who sent those fucking letters,” I screamed as she walked away.
Bill Carr is a writer and education specialist who is originally from New York and now lives in North Carolina. His work has appeared in Scholars and Rogues, East Bay Review, Furious Gazelle, Projected Letters, Central American Literary Review, Sweet Tree Review, Nude Bruce Review, Good Works Reiew, the Ham Free Press, Menda City Review, Oracle Fine Arts Review, Penmen Review, and Riggwelter. He has also had several articles published relative to online education and the computer industry. Many of his stories, including Transcendental Tours and Exquisite Hoax, are satiric; others contain athletic themes. He has been ranked statewide and regionally in senior divisions of the United States Tennis Association, and he played industrial-league basketball for thirty years, including three overseas. He received a master's degree in English from Brooklyn College, and he currently serves as chairperson of the North Carolina B'nai B'rith Institute of Judaism.
Ed’s big frame and knee-length, clean white apron made him look grotesque. He looks like a big sack of flour, Jon thought, smiling. He resumed putting away cartons of milk.
“That’s a lot better,” Ed said aloud. “Now I can put in a day’s work.”
How can such a short fart bring such great relief, Jon thought. He decided against
asking Ed the question.
The bread man came in the store, carrying his oversized picnic basket.
Nice working at eight in the morning, Jon thought. A lot of people still asleep. Same
feeling as lying in bed and listening to the rain on the roof. He always felt a little funny
when he put away the milk. He remembered the Jewish holidays, when Big Ed gave him a handful of “Kosher for Passover” disks to put “at random” in the round indentations at
the top of the containers. He remembered the gray-haired old woman who insisted that he hand her only those containers with the disks. When he thought about this, his reaction was laughter, then sadness. When he told his parents about it, their reaction was a little different: laughter, then outrage.
Big Ed was Jewish. Obviously not an observant Jew. Jon’s parents had been semi-observant: light the candles Friday night, dairy supper on Saturday, scour the kitchen and bring in new dishes for Passover, go to temple on the major holidays. Lately they’d been going Friday nights to the new temple on Ocean Avenue. His mother could have been one of those women requesting the Kosher for Passover milk. Mom, get the milk at Harry’s. That’s where she usually shopped anyway.
“So then,” the bread man was saying, “this guy says, ‘Who can count at a time like this?’ Ed, standing behind the counter, slapped his thighs in laughter. As soon as the little bell sounded and the door closed, the laughter stopped abruptly.
“That bastard,” Ed snapped. I bet he forgot the stales. Hey, Jon, look in the back and see if the stales are still there.”
A 40-watt bulb in the windowless back room served only to create an effect of duskiness. Jon put his hand on a shelf and felt the rock-like crust of some rye breads.
“Still here,” he called.
A fortyish-looking woman, wearing a stylish black coat, came into the store. She was a good customer. Ed was talking to her by the counter. Jon liked working for Big Ed. He’d started six months ago, when he was still 17. Now that he was in college, he was too old to be getting an allowance. He’d considered trying to get a delivery-boy job at Harry’s, where his mother shopped. Harry’s was run by two brothers who put on a comedy show for their customers. But Harry’s was a small store and had only one employee. He noticed at least three when he went to Big Ed’s to ask for a job: a short, skinny kid who prepared the orders; a big, red-headed kid who delivered them; and a tall, dark-haired guy who ran the vegetable counter. The dark-haired guy, Jon later found out, was Big Ed’s brother-in-law. “Sure, we can use another guy here,” Ed had said, much to Jon’s surprise. “You start at 50 cents an hour. It’s not much, but you learn more skills, you get more dough. Capeesh? What could be more fair?”
Jon worked there mornings and all day Saturdays. The store was a small supermarket: cheeses and meats at the checkout counter up front, and two fairly long aisles going to the back of the store. When he started, there was a vegetable stand in the front, right opposite the checkout counter. Now, six months later, the skinny delivery kid, the big redheaded kid, the brother-in-law, and the vegetable stand were all gone. It was just Big Ed and Jon.
Ed just shook his head when Jon had asked what happened to the vegetable stand. “He could have made something of it,” Ed said. “I gave him the best spot in the store. I told him, ‘Go down early to the farmer’s market, get the good stuff, get it at a reasonable price, and sell it at a good profit.’ So he gets down there late, gets the crap, pays too much for it, and no one will buy it.”
After three months, when he was filling orders, delivering orders, and occasionally manning the counter, Jon asked Ed for a modest raise. “Look,” Ed had said, “I’ll pay you anything you want. You’re invaluable to me.” He accented the first two syllables of “invaluable.” Jon felt embarrassed, skeptical, and pleased. A lot different from his first delivery job; he was twelve, and had to make two trips to take big orders up a flight of stairs. Of course, in a way it’s bull, Jon thought, when Ed made that statement. If I asked him for five dollars an hour, he wouldn’t pay it to me. Still…
From the back of the store, Jon looked down the right-hand aisle toward the checkout counter. Was that Ray Crane who just came in? The woman in the black coat was looking at the breakfast cereals. Ray Crane was a sports reporter who won a Pulitzer two years ago. He broke the story about college basketball point-shaving in New York City. If that’s the right guy, Jon thought, he’s not an impressive figure. He’s short, nervous, whiny, and tortured looking.
“Can the Dodgers win again this year?” Ed was asking.
“What difference does it make?” came the high-pitched response. “The Braves might give them trouble. The fans in Milwaukee are a bunch of fanatics. Even if the Dodgers win, they just can’t beat the Yanks in the series.”
Jon walked toward the front of the store. He had half-jokingly told Ed last week to mention his interest in sports writing to Ray Crane.
“Hey, Jon,” Ed called, “hit the register a while, okay?”
A young girl was waiting to have her order checked out. Mechanically, Jon began ringing up the items.
He heard Ed’s voice from the right aisle. “Hey, Ray, you need an assistant?” Ray Crane grabbed a box of crackers and was headed toward the front with his order.
“What kind of assistant?”
“Writing. My boy over there. Writes for his school paper.”
“Tell him if he likes getting a good night’s sleep to stay away from reporting.”
The response was more or less what Jon had expected. He was grateful to Ed for remembering. Now Crane was placing his order on the counter. Maybe he’ll say something.
“Ed tells me you write for your school paper,” Crane said, as Jon rang up the order.
“Yes, sir. When I was in high school.”
Crane hadn’t bought too much. Jon carefully placed the items in a brown paper bag.
“Very much. I was the sports editor.”
Crane handed him a bill. “High school,” Crane murmured. “The Mercury?”
“Yes, Mr. Crane.”
Jon was surprised Crane knew about high school papers. “That’s a pretty good school paper,” Crane said.
Jon smiled and handed Crane his change. “Fifth best high school paper in the country,” Jon said proudly. Nothing wrong with blowing your own horn once in a while.
“I gave you a ten,” Crane said.
He spoke very calmly. The words shocked Jon. He was distracted, but many times when he manned the counter conversations distracted him. He asked himself if he had any doubts that the bill was a five.
“No, it was a five. Here it is, Mr. Crane.” He pointed to the open register drawer.
“There are tens in there too.” Ray Crane still spoke very calmly. “I’m sure it was a ten.”
“It was a five, Mr. Crane.”
Crane raised his right hand. “No need to get excited. Don’t worry about it. I’ll settle it.”
Jon shrugged his shoulders. He didn’t think his voice sounded excited. He saw Crane and Ed talking at the back of the store. They started walking toward the counter. Jon heard the words “no harm done” and “split.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Crane said to Jon. “It’s all settled.”
“Did you give him the extra five?” Jon demanded, when Crane had left.
“I split it with him,” Ed said. “Why, are you sure it was a five?”
“Look, he’s a queer duck. Besides, he’s a good customer.” Ed wheeled around. “Now here is a beautiful woman.” The woman in the black coat approached the counter with her shopping cart piled high with groceries.
“Tell the truth,” Ed said to Jon. “I mean, give a frank, honest answer. Isn’t she a beautiful woman?”
There was definitely a certain fineness about her, but she had a long nose.
“Of course,” Jon said, as if that were completely obvious.
Jon carried the woman’s order out to her car. When he returned to the store, Ed was contemplating the area where the vegetable stand had been.
“I don’t know,” Ed said. “What do you think we should do with this spot?”
“Put some of the week’s specials there? You know, to draw people in the store?”
Ed mulled this over. “Not a bad idea. That way whoever is manning the counter can keep an eye on them.”
Jon didn’t get what Ed was talking about. Before he could ask, Ed turned towards him.
“I meant to ask you. What kind of work does your father do?”
“He’s a lawyer.”
Ed nodded approvingly. “And he’s okay with you’re being a sportswriter.”
“He’s kind of noncommittal about it. Besides, I don’t know if that’s really what I want to do. I might major in Design.”
“Used to be called the Art Department. I think ‘design’ is the application of art toward making a living.”
“Your father doesn’t want you to follow in his footsteps?”
Jon smiled. “It’s the one profession he’s forbidden me to enter.”
Ed laughed. “Really? Well, why don’t you add being a small business owner to that list?”
It was true. On several occasions his father had said, “Become anything but a lawyer.” Jon didn’t know if he was serious or not. The problem was that his mother always emphatically agreed.
His father specialized in negligence cases. He’d settled some big cases. “No one really wants to go to court, and waste all that time and money,” his father said. “You try to get a fair settlement.” Sometimes, however, there was a long wait between settlements, with little money coming in during that interim for running the household.
Still, he loved hearing the comic stories about the law office, and learning about the philosophy of the law. “Never sue for revenge; sue for damages.” Sure, it was a platitude, but it made sense. Knowledge of the law was empowering. “If you have a dispute with a merchant over defective merchandise, and he refuses to take it back, just leave it at his store. He can’t have both the merchandise and your money.”
“Why are you walking like that?” his father asks. “Sore feet. Happens when I walk a lot.” “Get a good pair of shoes. I have a friend on Joralemon Street who sells those arch-preserver shoes.” When Jon shows up at the store and says his father recommended he come here, the owner greets him warmly. But the shoes feel a little tight. “Got to be that way to get the support benefit,” the owner says. Jon wears the shoes home. After he walks the ten blocks from the subway stop to his house, both feet have blisters.
The next day he returns to the store with the shoes and requests his money back. The store is full of customers. “Can’t do it,” the owner says cheerfully. “You’ve already worn them. But don’t worry. We’ll put them in the shoe-stretcher. That’ll loosen them right up.”
“I don’t want any shoe stretcher. I want my money back.”
The owner’s smile relaxes. “Sorry. Can’t do it.”
“The shoes are on the counter,” Jon says, starting to leave. “See you in court.”
Two days later, in the dining room in their home, Jon’s father counts out $23.60 and puts it on the table. “Heard you bought and returned some shoes,” he says.
After a growth spurt that started when he was 15, Jon is now a head taller than his father. The father, who was very slender in his youth, is pear-shaped now, but still very good-looking. He looks about ten years younger than his 52 years. His avocation is comedy; sometimes he gives comedy routines at the Temple. He is not smiling now.
“They gave me blisters,” Jon says.
“So I hear. Morrison says that in front of a store full of people you threatened to take him to court.”
“I had to. He wouldn’t give me my money back.”
“He says he offered you a full refund.”
“He’s a liar,” Jon says hotly. “Why would I threaten to take him to court if he has his shoes back and I have my money?”
His father bursts out laughing.
“What’s going on down there,” Jon’s mother calls from upstairs.
“He’s a chip off the old block,” his father calls back.
Walking back to work after going home for lunch, Jon thought about that incident. It gave him a warm feeling. Lately it seemed the only things he and his father talked about were the law and baseball. They’d lived in this neighborhood for ten years now, much longer than any place he’d lived before. He knew each of the gray stone, red brick, or white-stucco homes.
The trees are in full bloom, he thought, and I could be playing ball today. He pictured himself hitting a hard line drive over the third baseman’s head. I’m Jon Danielson, just turned 18, an upper freshman at a city college. I live in what’s considered a “good” neighborhood in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. On this day, May 16, 1953, I have finished my morning work, taken my lunch break, and am returning to the store at which I work. I work 9 to 12 each weekday morning and all day Saturday. It seems that now, when I am pausing, just considering what is happening at a moment, I am more conscious than at other times. In a moment I will be back at the store, talking to Ed, talking to customers, coping with the problems like items out of stock, being involved, and it will seem like I’m not conscious anymore. In a moment, I will be old. Silly. So much will happen before then.
Big Ed was at the counter. Six people waited to be checked out. Sweat poured down Ed’s face.
“Hey Jon, take it, will you?” Ed said as Jon entered. “I have to start making the orders.”
Zip of the meat slicer, clattering hum of the bread slicer, clang of the cash register, smiles, jokes, carefully look at the bills and count change. The line was gone.
He walked to the back of the store. Ed was staring at some small, bright-silver cans of expensive peas. His face seemed dark, almost like he was sick.
“They’re killing me,” Ed muttered, without looking up. Jon didn’t understand.
“Problems of the small business man?” Jon asked.
Ed looked at him. “Listen,” he said, “I have the big problems of the supermarkets and the tiny profits of your small business man.” Jon started to smile but Ed’s frown remained. “Here,” Ed said, handing him the order book, “finish making these up. I’m going upstairs to take a nap.”
A radio played from the back wall of the store. Jon liked the songs this station played: Les Paul and Mary Ford, the theme from Limelight, the new Eartha Kitt song, C’est Si Bon. He looked at his watch. Dodger game is on.
The radio was on a ledge above the back-room door. Jon reached up and turned the dial.
Something about the back room fascinated him. A pile of empty cartons stood against the left wall. Full cartons were in the shadows to the right. Behind the full cartons, a short staircase led to a loft. Through a peephole in the loft you could see the whole store.
Jon made up the orders. Occasionally a customer came in. Jon caught only snatches of the account of the game. The Dodgers were playing the Giants at Ebbets Field, and the Giants quickly got three runs. Could be a long day, Jon thought. Maglie’s pitching for the Giants. Sal the Barber. Jon’s father talked about the prewar Dodgers and how miserable they were. The Daffiness Boys: manager Wilbert Robinson, Dazzy Vance, Babe Herman. In 1941 they had a good first-baseman in Dolph Camilli, and won the pennant. They had the Yankees on the ropes in the World Series until a passed ball by catcher Mickey Owen. The stories were nice to listen to.
“You listening to that?”
Ed was behind the counter. Nothing to be startled at. Just didn’t hear him come down.
“I asked if you were listening to that,” Ed said, looking toward the back of the store.
“Yeah,” Jon replied. “You know, I catch parts of it.”
“Do you want me to turn it off? Change the station?”
“No, you can leave it on. I just don’t understand why you would want to listen to a game. You can read the whole account of what happened in tomorrow’s paper.”
“I guess you can. But, you know, it’s exciting to listen to.”
Jon started for the frozen-food bin.
“What’s the score?” Ed asked.
“I think it’s 3-1, Giants.”
“Late. Like the seventh.”
Five minutes later, Jon was back toward the front of the store, looking for an Arnold’s whole wheat bread.
“You like the Dodgers?” Ed asked.
“I guess so. Since the end of the war, they’ve been the best team in the National League. Nothing like the prewar Dodgers.”
“How would you know? Listen, you want to bet on the game?”
Jon smiled. He and his father liked those frozen blintzes Ed sold. “All right. I’ll tell you what. I’ll bet you two hour’s free work against two of those Milady frozen blintzes.”
“Okay,” Ed said impassively.
It’s silly stakes, Jon thought, as well as a stupid bet.
“It’s kind of a foolish bet for me,” he said aloud.
“Why?” Ed asked. “I think it’s a bad bet for me.”
“You don’t understand,” Jon said. “The Dodgers are losing, 3-1 in the seventh. Maglie is pitching for the Giants. He always beats the Dodgers.”
“That’s why it’s a bad bet for me.”
Jon continued making up the orders. Almost all done. Eighth went by – neither team scored. Bottom of the ninth. Looks bad. With one out, Robinson beat out a hit to short. But Snider flied out to left. Down to the last out. Robinson stole second. Gutsy play. Pitching carefully, Maglie walked Campy. That left it up to Hodges. Two and two on Hodges.
“The pitch – high fly to center field,” the announcer said. “Damn,” Jon muttered, shaking his head. “Pretty well back there.” The roar of the crowd began to swell. Jon put a can of peaches in an order box and stood up. “Don Mueller back on the warning track… The wind’s got a hold of it.” The shouting drowned out his voice. “…leaps…” Nothing. “He can’t get it!” blared the announcer triumphantly. “It’s out of here.”
“Hey…” Jon exclaimed, smiling broadly. He wanted to leap up in the air himself.
“Just like that, it’s all over. Gil Hodges, with two out, drills a Sal Maglie fastball into the centerfield seats for a three-run homer and a Dodger victory. The Dodgers finally beat Maglie.”
“The Dodgers won,” Jon called, as he carried one of the boxes out to the bike. “Hodges hit a three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth.”
“I know, I heard it,” Ed said. “I told you it was a bad bet. You’d better get those orders out now.”
When he returned to the store, Jon parked the bike in front of the store and looked at his watch. Six o’clock. Day really went by fast. Two more hours of work.
There were no customers in the store. Ed was standing in the left aisle now, studying items on the shelves.
“All orders out?” Ed asked, without looking up.
“Every one,” Jon replied. He carried two empty boxes to the back room. When he returned to the aisle, Ed was still looking at the shelves.
“Anything I can do to help?”
Ed turned around. His face looked dark with black stubble. “What do you do when I give the signal?” he asked.
“Go up to the loft, and keep my eyes open for shoplifters.” Jon spoke the words but the situation seemed unreal.
The two situations suddenly merged for him. He felt foolish for not understanding earlier.
“Good,” Ed said. He started counting small cans of salmon.
“By the way,” Jon asked, “what do you do when you catch someone? Turn them over to the police?”
Ed laughed. “I used to do that. Still do sometimes, with kids. A lot of good that does. They give them a kick in the ass and send them home.”
“Couldn’t you press charges?”
“What good would that do? Someday I’ll show you how much I lose each month. Anyway, that’s not the point. One’s got to pay for the rest.”
“I don’t understand,” Jon said nervously. He suspected Ed was kidding.
“Look,” Ed said, “you’d be amazed at the different types of people that steal stuff. And at the places they hide it. Coat pockets, shopping bags, big pocketbooks, inside coat linings. And women. Down their dress, between their legs, anywhere. Skilled performers. You think your baseball players are skilled performers? You see some true professionalism right here. While you’re trying to make an honest buck, they’re busy taking it right away from you. Your percentage on catching them is ridiculously small. So when you do catch someone – the guy who’s supposed to be an ‘upright citizen’ or some nice upper-middle-class woman – they’re going to pay… and pay through the nose. They can’t afford damage like that to their reputations. One’s got to pay for the rest.”
It still seemed unreal to Jon. “And what do you do after you accuse them?”
“You have to be sure,” Ed said. “That’s the key thing. If you are, we take him or her into the back room for a little chat. Don’t worry. They’ll be very cooperative.”
“I’ll point them out to you,” Jon stammered, “but I don’t want no part in no shakedown.”
In the back room, he threw two more empty cartons on the pile. “There’s no need to resort to bad English,” he told himself. His whole body was shaking.
He recalled that day in January when something strange happened. They had to work late. It wasn’t until 8:45 that they’d cleaned the frozen bin and swept the floor. Ed asked him if he’d like a lift home.
Ed lives with his wife and two kids above the store. The daughter is 12 and the little boy is 6. Both the wife and the daughter are quite overweight. When Jon asked one day how the girl was doing in school, Ed’s only response was “She’s miserable.”
“No thanks,” Jon says. “It’s only a ten-minute walk to my home.”
“It’s really getting cold out there. Come on, I need some fresh air.”
Ed’s gray Chevy pulls into the driveway of Jon’s home.
“Thanks, Ed,” Jon says. “I really appreciate it.”
Ed turns off the lights and puts on the handbrake. “Mind if I come in for a minute? I’d like to say hello to your Dad.”
There are three doors to the house. Jon always enters through the back. That door leads directly into the breakfast nook in the kitchen.
The kitchen is large, the whole width of the house. Opposite the sink is a set of six steps that leads to a landing. It’s a weird setup. From the landing a staircase leads to the second floor; there’s also another set of steps that leads down to an entrance room off the living room.
“Hey, Dad,” Jon calls out. “Ed is here.”
Footsteps coming down the stairs from the second floor. Jon’s father opens the door to the kitchen and walks halfway down the short staircase. He looks relaxed.
“Just wanted to say hello,” Ed says.
“He drive you home?” the father asks Jon.
“Yes he did.”
“I appreciate that. It’s getting cold out there.”
“Your son’s a good worker,” Ed says. “But I hear he doesn’t want to be a lawyer like his old man.”
Jon’s father pauses. “I think he wants to major in Design.”
“So he mentioned,“ Big Ed says. He turns toward the door. “Well, I’ve got to be getting home. Good meeting you.”
Jon’s father smiles. “Wait a minute,” he says. “Jon, tell me. Who looks older? Him or me.“
The question surprises Jon. Suddenly the eyes of both men are on him, his father’s in anticipation, Ed’s in weariness. He knows both their ages. His father is 52. Ed is 38.
“It’s not a fair question.” Jon looks towards Ed. “He’s been working since 7:00 this morning.”
“Of course you’re right,” his father says. “Good night, Ed. Good meeting you.”
Dodged a bullet, Jon thought. Hey, maybe I should major in political science.
Almost time to close shop. Jon started cleaning out the frozen bin.
“Hey, Jon,” Ed called out with some urgency. “Get me some Zino wax, will you?”
“Right,” Jon responded. He entered the back room and climbed the wooden steps to the loft. The room was completely dark, but it didn’t matter. He knew the way by heart. He saw the small speck of light on the wall. Kneeling down, he put his eye to the wall.
The perspective always startled him at first. Like the first view of a baseball field from the stands of a stadium. And like the ball park, the store below, the arena, always seemed so bright. It would be nice if they put a cigarette ad on the back wall. I could blow smoke rings.
Who is he worried about? I didn’t even know there was anyone in the store. In the aisle to the right was a man he had seen often but whose name he couldn’t recall. He looked like he might be in his sixties. Perhaps retired. He wore a gray coat that seemed neither old nor new. He was a big man, and could be considered distinguished looking if not for a slight quivering of his lower lip when he spoke. In the back of the store, right beneath Jon, was a woman in a camel’s hair coat. She always smiled and said hello to him. Right down their dress, he thought. And up front was a freckle-faced girl of about twelve; she wore a flared blue coat. Better watch her for a while, Jon thought. Sometimes kids steal things for kicks. Police give them a kick in the ass and let them go. No, it wouldn’t be her Ed’s after.
He thought of what Ed had said. It’s all academic anyway. All the times I’ve been up here I’ve never seen anyone take anything.
There was no set time for Jon to stay in the loft. It was tacitly understood that he should remain there until satisfied that no one was shoplifting. A couple more minutes, Jon told himself.
The man’s left arm shot out and grabbled a small tin of White Rose tuna fish. He quickly deposited the can in his left coat pocket. He had been facing the inner row of shelves. His left arm was blocked from the front of the store by his body. He continued looking at the items on the shelves.
It was not so much the act, but the speed of the act, that shocked Jon. It reminded him of a movie showing a lizard snapping out a long tongue to spear an insect. For a moment Jon felt he was not a person but a camera. The picture was so clear. “That bastard,” Jon muttered. “I say hello to him all the time. He’s the one.”
Jon watched a while longer, trying to see if the man would steal anything else. The man carefully selected a package of American cheese from the dairy bin and started wheeling his cart toward the counter.
Jon ran down the steps into the back room. Slow down, will you? He’ll be there. The store didn’t seem as bright from the inside as from up in the loft. He walked to the counter. The man was bending over, unloading the shopping cart. Jon stood a few feet behind him. Ed busily rang up the items on the cash register. Why doesn’t Ed look at me?
Ed smiled and made some comment that Jon didn’t catch. Then Ed looked past the man at Jon. Jon shook his head yes. A minute later Ed looked at Jon again and Jon shook his head more vehemently. He could feel the blood rushing to his face.
Ed put the last item in the brown paper bag and lifted the bag into the man’s arms. The man did not look one way or the other; he walked straight out the door.
“Did you catch him?” Ed demanded, as soon as the door shut.
“Yes,” Jon exclaimed. “I saw him. He took a small can of White Rose tuna.”
“He didn’t show no tuna,” Ed growled, moving out from behind the counter. “He was shaking like a leaf when you stood behind him. You sure you saw him?”
Ed was moving toward the front door. “You remember what I told you about lawsuits,” he said. “Absolutely sure.”
Do we tie him up? What? In the back room, do we tie him up? Of course not, you idiot. Is he seated or standing? Well, probably seated. I don’t know if there’s even a chair there. No matter how severe the damages you’ve suffered, you cannot resort to illegal means to make yourself whole. Furthermore, even if you are simply present at the commission of an illegal act, you could be charged as an accessory.
“Positive,” Jon said. He put his hand on the counter for support. “Almost completely positive.”
Ed stopped. “What?”
A lie. There’s no ‘almost’ in this situation.
“I saw him, Ed,” Jon insisted.
“You gotta be completely sure,” Ed said. He started walking back toward the counter. “He’s gone now. Forget it. Finish cleaning out the frozen bin.”
Silently, Jon unloaded the icy packages from the frozen food bin. He scrubbed the gray metal rack at the bottom. Bright green. Milady frozen blintzes. Not a good time to collect on that bet.
He heard Ed talking on the phone. “Yeah, I’ll be up soon… I guess I am. Thought we had him… Can you imagine? A tiny can of tuna… Well, first he’s sure, then he’s not so sure… Yeah… See ya.”
The bin was washed, frozen food neatly replaced, bike inside, and floor swept. Apron off. Ed scribbled some numbers on the back of a paper bag. Ring of the cash register. Jon didn’t bother to count the money Ed gave him.
“See you Monday,” Jon said.
Ed looked up. “Sure, kid. See you Monday.”
There was a chill in the air. Rooms in the houses along Avenue J were all lit up. People getting ready to go out. Wouldn’t mind having a date tonight. He felt a gnawing in his stomach. Too much time between meals, he thought. His mother would have a dairy supper waiting for him. He would tell them. Maybe not tonight, but soon. Dad first. Maybe they’d make him stop working for Ed. Wouldn’t want that.
He thought of Gil Hodges home run. Dad would enjoy the story of that bet. But the thought cheered Jon only for a moment. What happened there? Pretty simple. You chickened out. Ed is more than a boss. He’s a friend. He’s a friend and you let him down. What difference does it make? In a few days it won’t seem nearly as important as it does now. A few weeks pass, and it’s all over. It’s not like some girl dumping you for someone else. Everyone asking, “What happened?” This is different. No witnesses. Still, you’re just waiting for time to pass.
He turned up the block towards his house. Then again, he thought, maybe there’s something I haven’t understood. Maybe I’ve got to think this out.
Compartment was empty as Jess knew it would be at this time, just like the last. During her first journey the moon was absent, silhouettes of trees occasionally punctuated the darkness but otherwise the frozen landscape was known only by the cold which seeped into rattling compartments. It was out tonight, bright and lonely enough to seem a hand reach away.
Snow laid bare in moonlight, luminosity so vivid against the black sky it seemed to radiate from the snow itself. Even when trees were etched across the horizon, sense of expansion deepened with every meter covered. A reminder of the stagnancy encountered by each season, all of which were exerted weakly except winter which seemed to emanate from deep within the ground.
Rose would have leaned closer to the window, nose almost touching glass. No matter how often she came here, such a scene would invoke a smile. Despite being the reason for Jess’s initial visit, Rose refused to come to mind. Jess wondered if it would be different with the second, hoping if only to alleviate the guilt.
Wind strewn snow was the only movement across the planes, but such clouds were barley wisps thinner than smoke.
During those few days of snow when they were children, Rose would be standing at the end of the corridor gazing out the window. While the house gave little protection against gnawing cold, it offered a scenic view. Jess was eager to play outside with her friends but Rose always drifted towards the trees by herself. When she got older, Jess felt sorry for her sister and accompanied her for at least the morning. In the woods, snow was not a masking presence but deepened the stillness which always greeted them.
As the train propelled deeper, Jess began to lose that point of contact as if the white outside bleached thoughts of any content. Even her first visit diminished. Then while travelling through what seemed unending darkness away from a world left behind. Jess felt drawn to the town like a moth as if drawn by instincts formed within forgotten years. Finally darkness shrieked away from a light in the horizon, a few more minutes Jess thought.
Jess had given up probing why she came. Carrying on a ritual my sister adhered to she thought. As if merely an obligation motivated her. Jess had not spent time in any town in this region nestled below mountains, in fact hadn’t spent time in a port town of any kind. But she knew this one was in a process of decay, tourism during the summer brought more business than the sea.
On the train platform, sea was a greater darkness as if hazy blackness framed by snug orange lights had spilled from it. Alone on the platform, she found it hard to imagine being among people which seemed a distant prospect.
Jess found her way to the inn without encountering a single other person. Well-lit streets revealed buildings draped in white, making the roads seem like coal black threads. Inn itself was small but warm. Jess decided her room and cupboard sized ensuite, were snug rather than miniatures.
Knowing she wouldn’t be able to sleep, Jess went back outside feeling the need to find some life outside the establishment so her place was felt beyond the sound of sea and sting of cold. It took only a few minutes to come across a bar.
It was crowded but mostly on one side where there seemed to be a party of some kind. Jess sat at the furthest end enjoying a sharp fruit drink that went further in waking her. Being on the outside of the sound, was cosy. After a few minutes, Jess noticed a woman.
The stranger had dark hair and was about Jess’s age, early to mid-twenties. At first Jess didn’t know why the stranger caught her attention, sure the woman was staring at her but she was clearly tipsy if not inebriated holding the bar to steady herself and yelling to one of her companions. Words drooled from her mouth. But her gaze seemed clear, eyes wide as if in awe. Just has an expressive deer like face Jess thought, ignoring the sense that recognition was what rendered the stranger’s composure clear. A few moments later and the stranger was gone.
To Jess’s surprise, her first night was spent in a deep sleep.
Cold woke Jess early. After showering and dressing, she took out Rose’s pictures. Her sister had been far from her thoughts and Jess constructed the day to remedy this. I will go on one of her walks, where she took this photo. Photo was of a frozen over brook, perhaps it was the light but motion seemed suggested by the sharpness of the ice. A particularly ghoulish tree leered from the edge, one that had attracted Rose.
Beside the brook Jess found the stranger. Clearly suffering from the previous night. The stranger heard Jess’s boots crunching through the snow. She seemed startled. Jess stood silently beside her, making a point of not acknowledging the stranger’s presence.
“I’m Lilia. You must be new in town.”
Lilia simultaneously shrank from Jess and engaged her, a contradiction that piqued Jess’s interest.
“Just visiting. Wanted to see the milky way.”
A simple enough reply, but one that prompted a sad smile from Lilia.
“Something I said,” Jess asked.
Lilia looked taken aback.
“No. Just a long time ago someone said the same thing. Not in this spot those,” Lilia replied.
Obliqueness of the reply irritated Jess, but didn’t diminish her interest.
“Lots of people must come here for the same reason,” Jess stated bluntly.
“Your right,” Lilia replied ashamed.
“You at Sea Bird Inn,” Lilia asked.
“Lived here long,” Jess asked.
“All my life.”
“Must be hard,” Jess stated blandly.
“I like trekking up the mountain and reading by the sea. But yes it is. Cut off from the rest of the world.”
“Life must feel as stagnant as the snow,” Jess added.
Lilia gave a probing look. Trying to judge if the city girl was mocking life out here. Clearly Lilia couldn’t get a read which annoyed her, or at least seemed to at first. As their conversation meandered, distrust decayed into disgust. But Lilia kept talking, even when Jess turned back intending to head down the trial into town.
“You here only to see the sky,” Lilia asked. Expectancy of her tone intrigued Jess further.
“Sure. Why wouldn’t I.”
Suddenly, Jess saw a use for her companion.
“When we get into town, you mind taking me to Cross Path. I’m supposed to meet someone.”
“Made friends already,” Lilia asked.
“Already. How long do you think I have been here for.”
“Arrived sometime yesterday right.”
“Good guess. Last night actually. How did you know,” Jess asked.
“Would have seen you around otherwise. Small place and we only get people for the hot springs but it’s not the season for that. Well, except for the suits staying at the conference centre.”
“Cross Path is this way,” Lilia added.
Apparently the bungalow was on one of the outer streets. Soon they were walking along a cliff with the sea to their right. On the edge of the cliff, bare branches loomed. Jess couldn’t imagine leaves budding, spring must always be fragile here.
Given the yearly persistence of snow, it must seem as if the waves bellowed against the white stillness. It was hard to perceive the depth of shore waxing and waning to the rhythm of the tides. As a child no matter the weather, Jess couldn’t stand being beside the sea without feeling the waves throb against her body. Even when it rained, she would dart in to Rose’s excited squeals. As if that sound was all that was left, somehow enduring beyond Rose herself, it was the only aspect of her that surged in a tangible manner. The more Jess reached, the more spectral memories became like smeared reflections in fogged glass.
Jess realised it had been a while since she spoke. Given the strange Lilia was showing her the way, she became self-conscious.
“I have always loved the sea,” Jess stated.
A banal enough comment but it inspired a knowing smile from Lilia. Jess accepted the following silence as long as that smile remained, which did so before the rocks diminished and were replaced by trees. Lilia stopped even those there was no house in sight.
“They say a spider lives in that tree. You see the hole,” Lilia asked.
“They say a spider haunts it after a man hanged himself.”
“Did he,” Jess asked. She moved forward, Lilia reluctantly followed.
“It happened a few decades ago. Don’t know where the spider aspect came from. Maybe someone fell asleep and found one crawling across their faces,” Lilia giggled.
“Too cold to fall asleep.”
“We hardly walk around without clothes on but out summer here would be different than your summer here,” Lilia replied.
“Here we are. She is really nice,” Lilia said.
“You know Miss Lane,” Jess asked.
“Everyone does, been here since forever. Well, I will see you around. Just across the street,” Lilia said.
Lane’s bungalow was cramped partly due to tight confines but also her possessions and sprawling furniture.
“I like to be snug. Need to be snug around here. Can get pretty depressing otherwise with damp empty rooms,” Lane observed. She entered with two bowls of soup, aroma of which filled the room and made Jess suddenly hungry.
“This is delicious,” Jess said.
It was Lane who had called Jess, telling her of the accident which took Rose’s life.
“You were close to my sister,” Jess asked.
“You know how your sister was like a little deer. But she got more at ease the longer she spent here. Managed to coax her round for the soup. I’m sorry for what happened to her, she was a lovely person.”
“She was. A great sister,” Jess replied.
“What was it she did here. I know she loved the landscape, taking her pictures and waiting for the milky way to become clear.”
“There were few people she talked to, you know what she was like. Very shy. I don’t think she did much, enjoyed the baths and was always wandering around the mountains.”
“I met someone called Lilia who seemed to know Rose,” Jess said.
“I know Lilia, sweet but unfortunate girl. They were very close, inseparable in fact. I’m sure Lilia will be able to tell you more.”
“Actually Lilia never mentioned Rose.”
“How did you know.”
“Just how she was acting. Wouldn’t make sense otherwise,” Jess replied.
“Rose always said you were observant. Said you were in tune with things. From what she said it always seemed as if you were the older sister.”
“Rose felt things deeply. Perhaps why this place resonated with her so much. Maybe you wouldn’t understand, living here for so long.”
“I was born here and spent my childhood here. But I spent most of my time elsewhere. Travelled quite a bit actually.”
“Why did you come back,” Jess asked. Glad to move the conversation away from Rose.
“Long story. How about another day.”
During Jess’s initial stay in town, Lane never provided the story. Conversations were kept confined to the day they occurred.
Next day Lilia sort Jess out. It was late evening and Jess was eating at the inn. Lilia bounced along, sober but face flushed from alcohol.
“I work as a hostess and got a party tonight. Have to put myself in the mood. Don’t think I’m normally this cheery,” Lilia warned.
“I can’t stay long.” Lilia spoke as if Jess had invited her to sit down.
“I thought you worked as a waitress,” Jess observed.
“Who told you that. Right, Lane. Part time. Might have to become a hostess full time. It’s a bitch those.”
“How so,” Jess asked.
“Hard to smile at faces you won’t remember in a minute. Stuck up business men who swoop in and think they own the place. Got to give people a good time. Smiles are a valuable commodity,” Lilia giggled.
“I don’t have to worry about smiling.”
“I noticed,” Lilia replied.
Lilia ended up being late to the party, to the point that elevation offered by alcohol dimmed. This didn’t slow the flow of words even if Lilia’s voice dipped. It seemed their conversation was a reflection which reminded Lilia of how long it had been since she talked, no end point or inhibition – perhaps that was why Jess began to feel melancholic.
Lilia’s place in this town became clear, even without being addressed. Lilia talked of mountain trials and deer, jellyfish washed up on shore and seals lounging on the coast. But such images could not be removed from these streets, at least for Jess no matter how they were experienced by Lilia.
Sadness crept more tepidly than the cold but just as hungrily. Jess was pleased when Lilia left, hurrying to the party. Alcohol loosens knots so tight they are barely perceptible until undone Jess thought. This notion comforted her. Still in their previous interaction, Lilia seemed disgusted by Jess as if detecting a foul odour which was absent from an exalted expression enjoyed a moment ago. Lilia’s voice was husky, surprisingly so but the guttural tone did not diminish the easy flow of words.
Next day Lilia lead Jess down to the beach. She talked little, after effect of the party perhaps or embarrassment at her openness the previous evening. But without exerting a word, Jess felt Lilia relax.
“There is little sand here. Coast mostly rocks. Brings the trees closer those,” Lilia said.
“Couldn’t imagine being so close to the sea for so long without going in.”
“Even with swim suits, currents are too powerful.”
“I have never seen waves so big,” Jess muttered.
“This is my favourite spot,” Lilia stated.
A patch of sand surrounded by black rocks.
“Did you bring Rose here?” Jess asked.
Lilia’s surprise lasted a moment.
“I knew she would like it. So secluded, waves sound so much deeper don’t you think?”
Jess wanted to ask what this place meant to Rose. As if by proximity, Lilia would know the essence of Rose’s visits.
“At least now I know why you talked to me. Despite the faces you were pulling,” Jess said.
“What faces? Well, when I saw you I saw her. Made me want to speak to you but you were so different. Just took me aback a little is all.”
“How are we different?”
“Rose couldn’t hide how she felt. So she didn’t talk, but when she did you couldn’t shut her up,” Lilia laughed.
“You were close?”
Lilia nodded, “we were. But I like you. Can talk to you like I could her even if for different reasons. So I don’t want to talk about her, do you mind?”
“Of course not.”
Dark clouds veiled the mountain making its shadowy outline immense. Cold surged along with the wind blowing down the rocks, as if descending from the clouds themselves gaining momentum until reviving numb skin with prickling pain. Stillness of bare branches seemed eerie. With this surge of freezing motion, Jess could not abide the slow pace of their ascent. Laughing at the burst of energy, she set her sights on a single small tree further up where a dove perched.
“Your going to slip,” Lilia laughed.
But Jess almost made it to the edge before the ground gaze way, and she slid so effortlessly it was as if she could end in the sea. White sky remained still those, so Jess wasn’t sure when she stopped. But then her body wriggled against a piercing sensation forcing her to sit up. Snow had seeped through her clothes.
“Your insane,” Lilia laughed. She ran over and sat beside Jess.
“I’m freezing. Like I did take a dip in the sea.”
“Come on, bath isn’t far from here. Steady those,” Lilia warned.
Clothes stuck to Jess’s thin frame, but eventually relinquished replaced by a warm towel. Steam in the bath made cold a purely theoretical concept. But it was empty, like Lilia predicted.
Lilia sighed deeply, closing her eyes.
“Was feeling like shit this morning. But now I can’t imagine it.”
After their walk on the beach, Lilia took Jess around town pointing out banal local places but revealing some intimate detail. None of which connected directly to Lilia’s life but revealing intimacy, where marigolds were planted by Mrs Jones every year who ran the news agent, an alley ending in a stream where foxes tunnelled into town from the trees… All before deciding to scale the slope.
“Jesus, your arms are like twigs. No wonder she called you the scare crow,” Lilia laughed. Pinching Jess’s skin.
“Ow,” Jess laughed.
It wasn’t her thinness those, but stillness that intrigued Rose. Jess realised Lilia broke her rule but didn’t mention it.
“She always liked the snow. In our home town I played with the children, making snow men and having snow fights. She didn’t. But we went walking in the woods after,” Jess recalled. She felt bad, as if manipulating Lilia. She knew it was grief that had prompted Lilia’s approach, Lilia’s request not to mention Rose and would now prod her into talking.
“One of the things that opened me up to her was how much she liked the trees. The landscape. I did not always like wandering around here, as I child I did but when my mother became ill, I hated everything about this place - every leaf, rabbit, house and person. It wasn’t until I came back that I felt how I once did. But Rose’s enthusiasm made it so much more.”
Alienation came in many forms, Jess knew this but never before had she thought that some base essence could resonate between people regardless of circumstance.
Lilia rented a room in the house across the street which Jess learned was a converted attic. But insulation had been put up. Snug warmth greeted Jess during the occasional visit, Lilia never losing her self-consciousness.
“Bigger than my apartment,” Jess assured.
“You going to school?” Lilia asked. It was the first time Jess had been up there, day after the bath.
“Finish in a year.”
“What are you doing next?”
“Not sure,” Jess smiled.
Lilia nodded, “Rose was worried about that.”
A week passed without invoking Rose. Time spent with Lilia was comforting in its gentleness, even if Jess knew interactions would never exist in the present moment. But then what has she would ask during her nihilistic moments, still the question brought comfort.
“You said she liked when it snowed,” Lilia prompted.
“Not the same as here with you,” Jess replied.
Lilia was laying on the bed. Closing her eyes against the throbbing pain in her head. Eyes still closed, even as she spoke. Jess was laying on the floor covered in Lilia’s blankets smoking a joint, wearied from the afternoon walk up the mountain.
“What do you mean? What’s the difference?”
“When it snowed you couldn’t tell it was the same town. She could pretend it was somewhere else,” Jess sighed.
“And what did this place mean?” Lilia asked. Her voice slackened, bordering on sleep.
Jess didn’t respond, not wanting to reveal her hopes that Lilia would have the answer. Jess’s gaze drifted towards the window. Taped on the wooden window frame, was a picture depicting a lone woman staring out at the ocean.
That was one of the last times they were up there before Jess’s final week. When Lilia seemed to avoid her.
“Lilia not talking as much?” Lane asked.
“Not as much.”
Lane chuckled, “did the same thing with Rose every time her departure came close.”
“Been spending a lot of my time with her. But she talks little about herself,” Jess said.
“Occasionally, elusively,” Jess replied.
“Before I leave, could you show me where Rose fell through the ice?” she asked.
Lane seemed surprised but nodded.
“Don’t be too hard on Lilia. Her mother was a widow and worked hard skinning fish before falling ill. They never received much help from the town. Always alone. Her mother eventually got her into a school on the mainland. Told me not to tell Lilia about her illness but I did anyway. Lilia came back and poor Aimee resented me until the day she died.”
Wind battered against the door and the glass seemed strained, it took Jess a moment to realise that a storm stirred up the waves.
“Seems to be the kind of person to live in her own head. Rose was like that. I’m not surprised they were together. Rose had little in the city, worked as a waitress and just made ends meet. Always wanted to travel but settled for coming out here. Seems a different country.”
After speaking, Jess went to the window and looked out at the crashing waves - so high.
“Do you think she would have moved out here eventually?” Lane asked.
“Lilia only seems to have one foot in this place so I don’t know. Funny, Rose finding something here while Lilia wants to leave.”
Last time Jess entered Lilia’s attic room was at midnight. Lilia’s arm was draped over Jess’s neck and she was giggling at something, Jess wasn’t sure what. On the stairs Lilia giggled loudly.
“Be quiet,” Jess whispered. She placed a hand firmly over Lilia’s mouth who giggled under it.
“The family wont hesitate to throw you out.”
“I don’t care. Smells for hours after cooking a single meal, fuck them.”
But Lilia fell quiet with intermittent groans. Laying on the bed, Lilia brought a hand to Jess’s face and stroked her cheek tenderly. Jess was surprised until she saw Lilia’s clouded expression, fixed on another time before slipping into sleep.
Lilia was absent during the final day, making Jess feeling melancholic but making the departure easier. Frustration those framed the day. Jess wasn’t sure if there was any point to her visit, but knew Rose was the heart of it. But why or how Rose connected to this place seemed vague, even her features were faint.
Final night and Jess knew Lilia would drift by. While Lilia was the one who withdrew, Jess knew if she had peeled away she would have stayed away. But not Lilia.
“Sorry for staying away. I have been busy. Really I have, even if that wasn’t the only reason,” Lilia muttered. She had come back from the party and was tipsy, a dazed expression seemed fixed on the rain assailing the window.
“I have always liked the rain, makes me feel snug. Lone island of stability when everything outside is lost to movement.”
“Me too. Its nice to see you Lilia.”
“Sorry you didn’t get to see the milky way.”
Jess smiled, “its fine.”
Lilia laid her head against the bed frame after flopping down on the floor. Jess sat on the bed and stroked strands of hair away from Lilia’s eyes.
“I’m not an alcoholic you know,” Lila said.
“Never said you were.”
“Just because you see me like this, doesn’t mean I am one.”
“Never said you were.”
“Rose worried about my drinking. She never said I was but I felt like she thought it. That’s what I like about you, you don’t judge. Talk to Rose because she knows and I know her. But you always have the same expression, didn’t like it at first. Remote like you hide but you don’t, you don’t judge.”
“I’m not an alcoholic. If I stopped drinking I wouldn’t have withdrawal symptoms or anything. And I do stop, before the next party. Before the next smiles.”
Lilia shifted her head onto Jess’s leg, continuing to ramble while Jess kept stroking while Lilia kept talking until falling asleep.
On the platform they talked little but out of nowhere, Lilia asked something that left Jess cold.
“You coming back right?”
“Sure, maybe in summer when I finish uni.”
“I will be here.”
It wasn’t until autumn that Jess visited again, almost a year. But it seemed longer. Perhaps how different the journey was, sparkling snow contrasting to a black vacuum.
Jess took out Lilia’s letter. A few sentences asking her not to come, too busy and that it would be better in the winter. Jess sighed, wondering the cause for alienation. Was it only the postponement that could change things rendering reconnection an impossibility, or just the opposite. Jess hoped it was the former, that Lilia’s life would be remote and unrecognisable.
Despite the difference in the landscape defining the journey, Jess expected to be alone on the platform. To her surprise Lilia was waiting by the bench.
“Like a ghost train,” Lilia smiled. Jess had been the only one to get off, bare white neon light bulbs exposed their solitude against a bare black sky.
“Didn’t have to come,” Lilia observed.
“So you think I came just for you. Woow,” Jess giggled.
“Didn’t get to see the milky way. Sorry you couldn’t keep me away,” she added.
“I wasn’t trying to keep you away. Come on, I’m gonna walk you to the inn.”
“Finished with education?” Lilia asked.
“For a bit. Not sure what to do next so just focusing on making rent for the moment.”
“Rose was worried about that.”
“I was the one who always worried actually,” Jess laughed.
Lilia nodded as if acknowledging while disagreeing with the point. Jess accepted the oblique gesture with slight irritation.
Following silence brought Jess’s first night back. Alley constricted bringing the night sky low, while darkness eagerly crowded either end cloaked from streetlights. Emerging onto the street however, cast darkness aside. In only a few moments, snow had began to fall with flakes catching the moonlight casting a white haze scattered across the dark. Night sky was further now.
“Just realised this is the first time I have seen it snow here,” Jess said.
Lilia smiled, “blizzards are coming. So you will be in for it. Streets will be deserted, barley see two feet in front of you.”
“Do you think we could sprint to the baths?” Jess asked.
“Maybe if we are quick. Better hold my hand tightly those, otherwise you will be entirely lost.”
Jess laughed at the thought of the pursuit against the wind.
“At least we have a plan for tomorrow. Will have to be after I see Lane.”
“Make sure you leave nice and early. No later than midday,” Lilia warned. Pulling her scarf across half her face, hiding her nose emphasising those expressive eyes.
Jess smiled, unable to recall the last time such a sentiment was expressed. Rose never issued tender warnings, feeling in no place to do so.
“Same room. At least it’s warm. Sake?” Jess offered.
“Maybe a little,” Lilia smiled.
They sat in front of the heater and an awkward silence emerged.
“Has anything changed much for you?” Jess asked.
Lilia took a sip, “been saving. Might be my final year here.” Her voice was hopeful.
“You will need to get everything sorted those. No point drifting around,” Lilia warned.
Jess suppressed another smile.
“Snow flakes are so pretty,” Jess said. Heater burned red and Jess could feel the cosy effect of sake. She was comfortable in the silence, not wondering why Lilia tried to keep her away.
In the morning, Jess groaned awake.
“You need to get up if you want to make it to Lane,” Lilia said.
Snow was heavy last night so Lilia borrowed Jess’s blankets and settled near the heater.
“You just want to use the shower in peace,” Jess mumbled. But she got up and dressed before heading out.
Out on the street, Jess heard the window open. Looking up she saw Lilia’s head sticking out.
“Sure you don’t want me to come. Coming down pretty heavy,” Lilia yelled.
“I will be fine but we going to the baths later. Put your head back in before your nose freezes off.”
Lane greeted her as if it was only a day since they last met.
“Must be cold out there. You really wanted to get me out of the way with,” Lane laughed.
“Actually I was eager to hear that long story,” Jess replied.
Lane was fixing up the soup and looked back with surprise.
“About leaving for the city,” Jess prompted. She already decided that Lane left that strand untouched by the sparseness with which Rose was mentioned. Jess knew she did not exude intimacy.
“Nothing much to tell. Not really,” Lane replied. But Lane’s hesitancy reminded Jess of some kind of point that had existed when it was first brought up.
“Born here. Very different from Lilia. Had a big family and had a real sense of community and place. It was only after father’s infidelity, the fracturing of my family which came out of nowhere that I wanted to leave. Not because of what happened, but just everything seemed dead here. As if I had just noticed the fishing operations were closing.”
“And you did those,” Jess pointed out.
“I did, travelled far. Had a lot of fun, met lots of people but I was frustrated. As if being in a new place, severing my roots would lead to something that never came. Some kind of change that would shake down through my very being. But when my dad fell ill, I came back so easily like there was no distinction between before, when I was here and then all those intermittent years.”
“I have found peace with this those,” Lane smiled.
“Do you think it will be the same for Lilia if she left.”
“Perhaps, don’t want her investing in a future on a false premise,” Lane sighed.
“But then you said it was a different childhood for you than Lilia,” Jess pointed out. A cunning smile opened, finding Rose more intimately connected to Lilia.
“I don’t think she ever had a home. Not how you would describe one,” Jess said.
Lane considered this for a moment before shrugging.
“Rose said you were observant. Was it the same for her?” Lane asked.
“I don’t think she felt as if she belonged.”
“And you?” Lane asked.
“The differences between you. She talked as if you were her rock. How one would speak of parents,” Lane continued.
Jess shook her head sadly.
“That was what I told myself. But really I was just stoic. Made her feel inferior in how deeply she felt things so she looked up to me. Called me strong,” Jess scoffed.
“She couldn’t talk to me, I left her isolated. I only realised this when I was here. All before I told myself I was the only person who mattered to her, looked out for her and kept her afloat. All a delusion,” Jess continued.
Her voice was soulless, lacking texture or even sadness. Lane seemed disconcerted by this, unable to offer the comfort she instinctually felt the need to give.
“She was out walking in the blizzard right. That was why she didn’t see the ice. Why was she out at that time?” Jess asked.
“You know they used to come round here together. We used to eat this soup sitting right here, the three of us. Lilia drops round occasionally out of a feeling of obligation. Nice seeing her but sad. They were joined at the hip.”
“I don’t think Lilia had ever been with anyone like that. Hardships and her job killing potential for romance or intimacy of any kind. She told you how hard it is to smile. It goes beyond that if you understand?” Lane continued.
“For those three years, Rose’s visits offered so much. Your sister really helped.”
Jess nodded, but was on an adjoining line of thought.
“Don’t be hard on Lilia, it was hard enough for her.”
“Of course not,” Jess sighed.
“Hi Jess. Your taking too long, blizzard is coming in strong. We can run straight to the baths. Hi Lane. Don’t want Jess to get lost in the blizzard,” Lilia smiled.
Lane looked up startled, seeming ashamed as if having betrayed a secret. She looked at Jess almost pleadingly.
“Sure, sounds nice.”
Density of snow threatened to swallow Lilia who was almost next to her. This made Jess squeeze Lilia’s hands tighter. Lilia wanted to run further but didn’t dare, leading a strange frenetic trudge. Jess couldn’t help but imagine not walking along streets through a blizzard, but across low hills and dips at night between trees – having been steered off course, did she hear the crack of strained ice?
Bath was once again empty. Lilia was talking excitedly, picking up the same vibrancy that had existed last night. Jess pretended she was taking in the warmth and steam, but Lilia noticed.
“What did you and Lane talk about?” Lilia asked. Her voice hardened.
“A lot of things,” Jess sighed. Exhaustion was not just from the bracing weather, but a weariness going back years. Back to Rose staring out at snow, imagining a world she never revealed – I didn’t let her reveal. Left her in silence.
“Talk about me?” Lilia challenged.
Jess glanced over and saw the hurt. Hurt that I know, know Rose was worried about Lilia being drunk with those men and then making her way back to their attic room where they laid with each other above the world. That small window gazing out at the mountain, in the bed Rose’s gaze would be fixed up there. Lilia said she wouldn’t get drunk but Rose didn’t believe her. Laying alone in the dark worrying about Lilia making her way back, missing the warmth of her body – Rose had set out. That was the first reason for the hurt, but there were so many others.
“A little,” Jess replied. She swallowed and felt the same sense of paralysis that descended when she saw Rose’s far flung expression. When Rose descended deeper into the bleakness of things.
“Lane talked about how much happier you were when Rose was here.”
Lilia nodded and gulped back the most sever fear. All this time, she had never spoke of her guilt Jess thought. Jess wanted to confront her, reach in and tear out the guilt and everything else that wasn’t those warm memories. But the fragility, not now Jess decided. A decision that wilted, aren’t I’m doing exactly what I have always done?
“But I was thinking of what you did for her,” Jess said.
“Me?” Lilia asked.
“It wasn’t one way, you made Rose feel a similar way. She was never with anyone, in any way but she wanted to be. But she was with you, before you she might as well have been silent,” Jess said.
Lilia looked away and Jess knew she was crying. But Jess did not regret speaking, even if laying bare her own guilt.
Lilia buried her face into her arms. When she looked up, tear drops would be indistinguishable from sweat.
Lilia eventually sniffed loudly, after Jess placed a comforting but sweaty hand on her shoulder.
“Ready to leave?” Lilia asked.
Once again they trudged through the blizzard. Jess having no way of knowing where they were until Lilia came to a stop.
They warmed themselves by the heater. Lilia seemed as caught up in thoughts and memories as Jess, morning was so much clearer. But Jess felt no regret. Lilia’s timid but tender smiles reassured her.
“How much money do you have saved?” Jess eventually asked.
“Not enough. Not yet,” Lilia whispered.
“Rose always looked out at the snow. I think she liked not recognising that place, that town where she felt so displaced. But we were never together during a blizzard. I wonder what she would of thought, how it would have made her feel.”
Lilia nodded, “she loved the mountain and air. Said it was fresh made her healthier, expanding her lungs with every breath.”
Jess looked out the window. Blizzard so fierce not a single flake was discernible leaving only white static. Jess felt the room had floated, far from the town and across the sea.
“What about you?” Lilia asked.
“I’m not sure. Then or now,” Jess replied.
Wind howled louder and Jess realised the blizzard was gaining momentum as if they were gaining altitude.
The smoking was a bad sign, even Rick himself knew that. He’d managed to give up for six months before the stress of the morning pushed him back.
Susan had been there, at the house, standing in the middle of the rose bed of all places, near where the front wheel of the Jeep had now come to rest. Thorns had cut her bare legs and feet, so she had trickles and smears of blood all over.
Rick’s face had fallen when he saw her – he felt pity for her, at first – but then he got angry when she wouldn’t go. So now he had to have the talk with Christopher, and they’d have to decide what to do about her because enough was enough.
“Christopher, we have to talk,” Rick repeated over to himself before shaking his head. No. It was a bad opener. ‘Did you see Susan this morning?’ he could ask, but that was maybe too direct.
Raising his eyes from the cigarette, Rick surveyed the house. There didn’t seem to be any lights on. Maybe he could go in and shower before having to decide anything. Except that was a cop-out. It was better for him to be prepared. That much was clear when he’d found Susan with wild hair and wearing only an oversized t-shirt at seven–am.
Rick hadn’t known what to say. She had looked like she might cry, so they had just stood there for a minute looking at each other until a neighbour came out to collect the milk and Rick had tried to get Susan to move further into the shade where she wouldn’t cause a scene.
Fat lot of good that had done him.
Susan had wrenched her arm from his hand and started to yell and swear at him. Rick backed up and had raised his hands in surrender, but he was firm about telling her she needed to go; that she shouldn’t be there. And then she’d started up again about how she and Christopher were together; that she loved him, and needed him; that he knew she was there and didn’t mind.
That was when Rick lost it and started yelling back at her that she was a stupid, deluded cow, and how if she cared about Christopher at all she wouldn’t be putting him through this stalker bullshit.
She really did cry, then, and he felt like the biggest jerk on the planet. She was clearly mentally unstable. He and Christopher would probably have to notify the authorities and get her forcibly sectioned; get a restraining order, or something.
Rick flinched as ash from his cigarette fell onto his jeans and started to smoulder. He brushed his hand quickly over the patch to extinguish it and inspected the hole. It wasn’t big, but was enough to be the crappy topping on his craptastic day. He opened the door, threw down what was left of the butt and swung his legs out of the car to stamp on it.
Each of the smaller actions that made up the bigger action of walking to the front door – rolling up the car window, closing the car door and locking it, and putting one foot in front of the other – sent mental exhaustion deeper into Rick’s bones.
He had seen documentaries about asylums and didn’t want to be responsible for anyone being locked up in one. Sure, they probably weren’t as bad as they’d been in the Victorian era – he was pretty sure they weren’t even called asylums anymore – but there had been a thing in the newspaper the other week about how vulnerable adults were more likely to be abused when put into care or some shit. He didn’t want that on his conscience.
Susan used to be a really cool person before her obsession with Christopher started and her friendship with both him and Rick went to hell. Rick and Christopher had been best friends since primary school and Susan had been the one to plant the roses for them. They were a housewarming gift for when they moved in together right after uni. Except neither of them really cared to learn how to look after roses, so they were kinda wild.
Truth be told, Rick had fallen hard for Susan that very first day he saw her walking across campus with a huge smile on her face. He’d turned and asked Christopher what he thought, but he’d only grunted.
Christopher hadn’t really ever shown any interest. Not only did he refuse to acknowledge any of Susan’s weird appearances at their house, he’d tried to talk Rick out of asking her out in the first place.
Two weeks into knowing Susan, Rick had been talking Christopher’s ear off about how much he liked her – again – and had again asked his friend’s opinion. This time, different from the rest for whatever reason, Christopher had shook his head and actually engaged with the topic at hand.
“I don’t think so,” he’d said. “She’s nuts.”
Rick had gotten indignant and asked exactly what he meant, and Christopher had shrugged and just said it was obvious. Rick thought he was being a prick at the time but now, well, look who turned out to be right. That same day, Rick had gone to Susan’s flat and asked her out regardless of what his friend thought. She’d been really sweet about it and said she was flattered but, ultimately, told him she was already with someone else.
And that’s when the lies about Christopher started. Susan said they’d been dating for “a while” but he’d wanted to keep it quiet. Briefly, Rick wondered if it might be true, but that didn’t make any sense. Christopher was already dating like three other girls, and – now Rick thought about it – he’d never really had a kind word to say about Susan. Maybe, he realised belatedly, this was why. Given what each of them had told him, he figured she’d tried it on, he’d rejected her, and she hadn’t taken it well so was now in some deluded fantasy land of her own making.
It wasn’t the first time something like that had happened. Christopher seemed to have all kinds of women coming out of the woodwork – especially the crazy ones – while Rick struggled to ever find a date. He sighed, considering again that was maybe for the best. “Better no girl than a crazy one,” Christopher always told him. And sure, wasn’t he one to know?
Rick figured it must be really hard on his friend to have to put up with stalkers. He assumed he felt sorry for the women, and was just putting on the callous act as some kind of coping mechanism. Whatever it was, it had to stop. Christopher needed to talk to Rick about this, and they needed to do something, because this was worse than any of the times before and Susan needed to be made to stay away before she did something really bad that she couldn’t come back from.
Resolute, Rick put his key in the front door and walked into the house, flicking on the hall switch and effectively flooding the whole open-plan downstairs area with light.
Christopher and Susan looked up, surprise on their faces.
Susan was naked, backed up against the sink, Christopher standing between her parted legs, his bare chest pressed to hers and mouth smeared with her lipstick.
They both looked away as suddenly as they had looked up.
Rick dropped his keys and swore, bending to pick them up. By the time he had righted himself and remembered to breathe, Christopher had disentangled himself from the embrace and walked the short distance to his bedroom, shutting the door loudly behind him; not saying a word or tossing any kind of backward glance towards Susan, who he’d left standing there, exposed and adrift.
All the scars on her legs were vibrant red.
Rick blinked after his friend and Susan burst into tears. He had to dig out an oversized shirt from the recesses of his wardrobe for her to wear and make her a cup of tea before either of them were composed enough for him to offer a lift home.
Christopher’s bedroom door was locked and, apparently, all of Susan’s clothes were on his floor. Rick seethed as reality filtered through the sludge of his overworked mind.
“How long?” he asked, when he finally found his voice.
“Four months,” said Susan, her head down and voice shaky.
“Right,” said Rick, clenching and unclenching his fist. He definitely needed to have a serious talk with his housemate now. Because, of the three of them, there was definitely one liar and one deluded idiot, it just so happened that he’d got all the roles tangled.
A. E. WILLIAMS
ALFREDO SALVATORE ARCILESI
ANITA G. GORMAN
C. C. KIMMEL
CRYSTAL "CRYS" LOPEZ-RODRIGUEZ
DR. RICHARD AULT
ELLIE ROSE MCKEE
ERNESTO I. GOMEZ BELLOSO
GARY P. PAVAO
JING "MICHELLE" DONG
J. N. LANG
JOHN F ZURN
JOSEPH R. DEMARE
KIERAN J. THORNTON
MICKEY J. CORRIGAN
PHYLISS MERION SHANKEN
PUSHPANJANA KARMAKAR BISWAS
R. G. ZIEMER
ROBERT P. BISHOP
ROSS MAYO JR
RUDOLFO SAN MIGUEL
RUTH Z. DEMING
VICTORIA ANN MALONEY