Richard Krause’s collection of fiction, Studies in Insignificance, was published by Livingston Press and his epigram collection, Optical Biases, was published by Eyecorner Press in Denmark. Propertius Press has accepted his second collection of epigrams, Eye Exams. His fiction has more recently appeared in The Alembic, The Long Story, J Journal, Red Savina Review, and Eastlit. Oddville Press and Brilliant Flash Fiction have also
accepted his fiction. He teaches at Somerset Community College in Kentucky.
Out of State Plates or
Why did he come to me? It would just involve all of us. No one would be free, everyone would be implicated even if you were not born yet. That doesn’t stop the guilt leaping generations. In fact it is in everyone deep down. The least suspecting don’t get a free pass. I impressed upon him that he didn’t and he admitted it. Yes, he was part of it. So was I. We all are as distant and heinous and unthinkable as it was, they all were. He had touched something in me; that is why I endured the two hours, didn’t cut him off when it got too gruesome. In fact it must have entertained me, well, that’s not the word, absorbed is closer. It soaked into me like a spreading stain, like body fluids that include everybody, carefully drained, wiped up, or left spilled carelessly. There were thirty-two to be exact, he said, and there may be more.
He was sent to me because I was recommended by two people. They said I was the one he needed to see about the structure, about shaping the material, his seven years of research. He said he took to it like he was involved, then he stopped talking and mused. It was over a half century ago that they took place.
He admitted he didn’t know why exactly he was drawn to it. It could have been the Black Dahlia but he didn’t want to get involved with Mickey McCarthy, or his family, he said. He knows Mickey’s dead, but still his family is alive. No, he said. This seemed cleaner and the horror deeper. Or was I thinking that after he described his research?
He had wanted to be a State trooper, or in the medical profession, he said. But then his cousin after a few weeks on the job got into a gunfight and almost got killed and that changed his mind, and so he said this is the closest thing.
“I enjoy digging into old records, police files, FBI reports, newspapers, True Detective magazines reconstructing these crimes. They happened in one area,” he said, “well two, in a straight line between Cleveland and east of Pittsburgh in New Castle.”
“And you did the background checks, the leg work?”
“Yes, I searched the railroad records, many are destroyed or incomplete, or stored in different locations, I hunted them all down. I’ve been at it for seven years.”
“There were all these murders,” he said.
“Of whom?” I asked.
“Transients. They had no names, except for two, or maybe three we have names for.”
“There must have been many more,” I said.
“Yes, but the way they were killed. That’s the thing. Their heads were all cut off,” he said.
“Yes, and disarticulated.”
“What else? The genitals?”
“Yes,” he said, “and they’d take off arms and legs, and use a red chemical on some, burned off their fingerprints. They’d be placed in separate bags, or thrown in the river. That was his profile.”
“And this is between 1921 and 1950,” he said.
“Thirty years is the vital part of a man’s life. When he does his life’s work.”
“Yes,” he said.
“Were there women?”
“About a quarter were women. Jane Does.”
“Were there any signs of sexuality, semen?”
“No,” he said.
“But it must have been sexual, too.”
“The genitalia was removed on the males. Sometimes they were just tossed nearby.”
“Any breasts on the women.”
“No, they were intact.”
“And these were all transients?”
“Yes, drifters. I tracked down the death certificates. They were unknown except for like I said two, or three. One was a prostitute, the other a pimp. The third she was black, but other than the one there is no evidence it was racial.”
“And it happened all along the railway line?”
“Yes, between Cleveland, Ohio and Newcastle, outside Pittsburgh. The trains ran between the two cities twice a day. Thirteen were found in New Castle and twelve in Cleveland.”
“The twelve murders between 1935 and 1938 were credited to the Cleveland Torso Murderer, also called the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run, an area of overgrown weeds, piles of garbage, abandoned cars and makeshift frame houses. Kingsbury Run was called prime real estate for hobos, and one area was famous for whorehouses and gambling. The victims were drifters from the lower class found in the Jackass Hill area.”
“The first one Edward Andressy was a known drunk who procured young girls for prostitution and admitted having male lovers. He died from decapitation. He was alive at the time, bound hand and foot and struggled violently. The second was a John Doe, and the third victim, Florence Polillo, was called a local drunk and prostitute. Her head was never found but a hand in a bundle made identity possible. The fourth and fifth were John and Jane Does decapitated alive, their heads were never recovered. Neither was the sixth victim’s head found. One Jane Doe called Lady of the Lake was discovered on the shores of Lake Erie, but her head was missing. Some dubbed her victim zero. The next Jane Doe was the only black victim. She was found under the Lorain-Carnegie bridge. A rib was missing but the head was recovered. She was later identified as Rose Wallace from dental records.”
“John Doe VII and Jane Doe VIII were pulled out of the Cuyahoga River but their heads were never found. A Jane and John Doe were found in the Lake Shore Dump. The latter’s head was found in a can. One of the John Does was called the ‘Tattoo man.’ He had six tattoos on his body, the name ‘Helen and Paul’ on one tattoo, and initials W.C.G. in another. On his undershorts were the initials J.D. His morgue and death mask were seen by over a hundred thousand people at the Great Lakes Exposition in Cleveland in 1936, but nobody ever identified him.”
“The murders in New Castle, Pennsylvania and in boxcars near McKees Rocks took place in 1936 and 1940. Bodies were also found in nearby swamps between 1921 and 1934 and 1936 and 1942. The so-called Murder Swamp Killer was credited by the New Castle News with 17 murders, almost identical with the Cleveland, Ohio murders. All appeared connected with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad line. A decapitated body was found in Cleveland as late as 1950, he was a man living on the fringe of society with a drinking problem.”
“The New Castle junction where the homeless squatted in cardboard boxes and shacks was a swampy nightmare called Hell’s Half Acre by the locals. There were murky pools, tangled underbrush and slime covered bogs. Officials believed the New Castle killings were planned, not crimes of opportunity. The killer was thought to be strong and skilled with a knife or a saw who knew the swamp and didn’t worry about the discovery of the bodies. Like in Cleveland the skilled decapitation indicated medical training. Authorities thought there was one killer. None of the New Castle victims were identified. In one boxcar where a headless corpse was found there were two newspapers from the Pittsburgh Press and Cleveland Plain Dealer linking the two areas. That the victims were often mutilated and the males usually were castrated made police think the killer was bisexual.”
“The police often went undercover into hobo jungles and into the rail yards of New Castle where vagrants had tents and wood shacks. In 1940 when the three men in boxcars were found, on the chest of one of them ‘NAZI’ was scrawled.”
“They all fit the same profiles, and the others I discovered along the rail lines. I found information about those not previously linked. I made another discovery of my own that was overlooked. The boxcars had numbers with white lines drawn through them. No one ever questioned that. These were cars destined for McKees Rocks to be destroyed. Here’s a photograph of one of them, detectives taking out the body parts wrapped in burlap bags.”
“Oh, and something else,” he paused and said, “The women were treated differently. There was no signs of sexual mutilation but the women were bisected,” he said, “and later there were some males that were.”
“They were cut in half at the waist.”
“It must have been someone skilled, a physician,” I said.
“Maybe,” he said, “at least someone with medical training.”
“Couldn’t this be sexual?”
He didn’t know, he said. One of the victims was mentioned as being homosexual.
“It could have been the sexuality gone awry, someone who doesn’t accept themselves killing someone like himself.”
“It seems it was territorial,” he said. “That was the way with transients. Food and space were jealously protected.”
“Yes, the times were difficult in the Great Depression. But that the crimes were similar is fascinating.”
“Yes, there seems to be a progression, the bisecting didn’t come until later.”
“This is the worst kind of crime, physically. You can destroy someone emotionally, psychologically, but physically it doesn’t get any worse than cutting off their head and genitals.”
“Yes,” he said, “and erasing the fingerprints.”
“There must have been tremendous anger, or else breathtaking detachment, the absence of any feeling, to do this over thirty years, assuming it is the same person, and the profile of the killings appears to be. Why are you interested in this?”
He was a tall, strong man, exceedingly polite. He had a beard that didn’t
disguise his relative youth, yet he seemed burdened by the crimes, but his broad shoulders looked more than capable of carrying all the bad news.
“I can’t understand it myself, but I can’t get my mind off of it. All the victims, the secrecy, the questions, they haunt me like a mystery that I have to deal with.”
“The injustice of never finding the killer?”
“Yes, that’s it, but at the same time I seem to know him intimately, though I wasn’t even born yet, but it is as if I carry him around with me, so that every movement could at any moment reveal something, when I am eating breakfast, or with my girlfriend, or right before I fall asleep, then it is sometimes the worst, even when I’m sitting in a restaurant alone someone will look suspicious and I imagine there’s a clue there. No matter where I am I’m thinking about it. It’s a relief even to talk about it. I can’t tell you how many nights I just lay there staring at the ceiling imagining different scenarios. My girlfriend thinks I’m lucky that I found something I love.”
“You are,” I said, but thought how odd that she accepted such a bizarre passion,
an alternate love interest. I almost wanted to say “mistress.”
“Do you feel somehow responsible uncovering all of this?” I suddenly asked.
He looked at me, steadying his gaze.
“Yes,” he said. “I want to identify the person responsible.”
“And the transients,” I said. “Are you interested in them?”
“Yes,” he said. “I need some justice, to find who did this to them. Tell their story, who ended their lives so disgracefully, and why that haunts me I don’t entirely know. Detective Merlyo wrote a book. He was Eliot Ness’s hire. He was on the case for eight years, but he never quite came up with anyone. He rode the trains between Cleveland and Pittsburgh disguised for years obsessing over the killer. I can understand him. The case almost drove him crazy, spending every free moment to track him down. He wrote that he began to see the killer everywhere, in every inadvertent gesture, half-feint, in the least inappropriate smile or packed in someone’s look of disgust. There were two people of interest at the time, one was charged.”
“The prime suspect for the murder was an Irish doctor, Francis E. Sweeney. His family was poor and he lost his father and mother at a young age. In World War I he received a severe head injury and worked as a medic learning about amputations. He received a partial disability pension when he returned to the States and worked his way through medical school in St. Louis. He became a surgical resident at St. Alexis hospital close to the Kingsbury Run area in Cleveland. He married in 1927, but was estranged by 1933. His wife filed for divorce in 1936. Sweeney had a drinking problem and he was alleged to have been abusive towards his wife and two children. Rumor had it that he was also bisexual. Sweeney was a large, strong man, some say powerful enough to carry the body of Edward Andrassy down the steep embankment of Jackass Hill in Kingsbury Run. Others said he was too soft to ride the rails between Cleveland and New Castle. In fact he was briefly associated with the Raus Funeral Home that had a laboratory where such things might have taken place. I even went there, but all I found was a vacant lot.”
“When Cleveland Mayor Harold Burton put Eliot Ness on the Kingsbury Run case Ness confined Sweeney for more than ten days in the old Cleveland Hotel. It took three days for Sweeney to dry out, and then two polygraph tests were administered in secret and Sweeney failed twice. The inventor of the polygraph Leonard Keeler gave the tests and told Ness, ‘That’s your man.’ But Ness had no hard evidence to hold him. Sweeney’s brother Congressman Martin Sweeney was Mayor Burton’s political enemy. He objected to the Ness investigation. Martin Sweeney was also friends with Cuyahoga County Sheriff Martin O’Donnell who then engineered the arrest of Frank Dolezal, a Bohemian bricklayer, for the murder of Flo Polillo. Dolezal had lived with Polillo for a time. He knew Andrassy and the third identified victim, the petite black woman named Rose Wallace whose torso was washed up on Lake Erie.”
“Frank Dolezal confessed giving precise details as if he were coached. Before the trial he was found hanged in his cell. The autopsy revealed six broken ribs while he was in custody. Before his apparent suicide he recanted his statements and said he had been beaten until he confessed. The police wanted to close the case and Congressman Sweeney wanted the attention off his family name.”
“Francis Sweeney some said lived precariously, riding the rails as he saw fit and checking himself periodically into mental hospitals. The Cleveland killings stopped once he committed himself just a few days after Ness’s interrogation. But Sweeney would voluntarily leave for days and months at a time. He was known to venture off to other parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania as well. By 1955 Sweeney was committed to Dayton Veterans hospital.
“Even in the Dayton Hospital Sweeney was free to wander around the neighborhood writing prescriptions for himself and friends until the hospital campaigned with the local pharmacists and cut off his drug supply. He finally died there in 1964. Ness had believed until the end he’d identified the Kingsbury Run Butcher and that he’d got away with murder because of his family and political connections. The man who had brought down Al Capone could not bring down the Butcher of Kingsbury Run.”
“Something I found what was not reported. It seems like a new piece of evidence. Sweeney’s house was not far from one of the burial sites outside Cleveland. When he returned from World War I his wife who was divorcing him for heavy drinking got a lawyer to stop his veteran benefits. Soon after a woman was found mutilated. I don’t know if there is a connection.”
“Even Eliot Ness couldn’t solve the case. It destroyed him.”
“That’s where you come in,” I said.
“Yes, Eliot Ness, famous for taking down Al Capone and bootlegger gangs in Chicago, was made Cleveland’s Director of Public Safety in 1934 after Prohibition was repealed. He was in charge of both the city’s police and fire departments. In 1938 two mutilated bodies were discovered in a ravine plainly visible from Ness’s office. It seemed Ness was being purposely taunted. Two days later police raided the shantytown of Kingsbury Run arresting hundreds of vagrants and on Ness’s orders burned the shacks to the ground. Ness received a lot of criticism for that. The murders stopped, but the Cleveland Torso murders were never solved, though many speculated who the Mad Butcher was.”
“Frank Dolezal, by the way, who carried knives and often threatened people when drunk, and who had lived with Flo Polillo, was arrested after a search of his home turned up dried blood. The papers claimed The Butcher was captured. But later the dried blood was determined not to be blood, and his confession was riddled with holes. The Butcher was also loosely linked to Elizabeth Short, or the Black Dahlia murder in L.A. Her body also had been cut in two.”
“Eliot Ness’s career plummeted because he never got over the taint of the unsolved murders on his reputation. The last decade of his life was full of poverty. He who had destroyed the bootlegging gangs ironically became a heavy drinker himself and suffered from poor health. He resigned as Cleveland Public Safety Director after a scandal. In 1947 he ran for Cleveland Mayor and was badly defeated. A year later he was turned down for a $60 a week job.”
“Sweeney wrote rambling letters and sent post cards to Eliot Ness into the 1950s which seemed to implicate him in the Cleveland murders. Ness in his memoirs thought Sweeney’s cousin the U.S. Congressman reached a deal to accept incarceration in a mental hospital.”
“Ness met Oscar Farley towards the end of his life and collaborated on The Untouchables, but its success never reached him as he died at 54 a broken man the same the year the book came out in 1957.”
“The last torso was found in a Cleveland lumber yard in 1950 with head and genitals removed and was said to resemble exactly the torso murderer. I forgot to mention at least three decapitated bodies were discovered in 1925, all had their hands removed, two were male and one female. One journalist commented that the killer simply slipped away and vanished into the mists of time. Some believe that some of the victims still walk the area, and the specter of the Butcher himself may walk there as well, perhaps he never left.”
He then pulled out the seventy pages he had already completed to show me. He was going to write on 22 of the cases, he said. I suggested that he chart where each body was found, the time and the exact type of mutilation to see if he could establish a pattern. He had black and white aerial photos of the places the bodies were found, white dots along the rail lines from Cleveland to Pittsburgh, and additional photos of the police removing bags from the boxcars and the police reports.
“What do you hope for in your research?” I asked.
“Justice,” he repeated, “and to be able to sleep at night. These seven years have been rough. I want to give faces to the unknowns, to those insignificant lives cut so brutally short. Just ordinary people, even if I don’t know their names, or never find them out.”
“But if you could identify the perpetrator?”
“Yes, that would go far towards naming them, if I could identify the killer who disarticulated them, who disgracefully removed their heads or cut their torso in two, methodically removing limbs, and their manhood, depriving them of the two pieces of identification, their fingerprints and face. Who’d cut a woman in half, and why?”
It was as if he, Jack Jackson, were probing himself sitting in my office, with scalpel and clamp, each bit of evidence, cutting away tissue, removing layer after layer of skin, fat, teasing the mesentery free, the muscles snapping from their attachment to bone, the bone ready for the hacksaw, or a simple osteotome. My office was suddenly a laboratory, as if he had already entered the medical profession, his eyes concentrating, beady, even in my office chair telling his story, and his hands I noticed since he came in always moving as if he were somehow reenacting the thirty-two murders, trying to trace back the gestures of the gruesome perpetrator. Nothing he said could slow his hands down. In fact, talking only accelerated his hand movements. I couldn’t tell if he was taking them to heart. His own sympathetic beats joining with the perpetrator’s reenacting the scene, as if he with the victims is frozen in time like Dr. Gross’s medical team in Eakins’ Philadelphia painting over a hundred years ago, but this time with each individual head, limbs, removed, then him standing up, arms akimbo, hovering over his work, looking over himself, his hands covered in blood, his looks pierce his own motivation to follow the path of each and every crime. He unmerges himself, his face, from the murky recesses of old paint. How carefully it not be totally his own fabrication is testified to by painstakingly following the evidence. But he can’t help following himself, the same impulses every human being possesses buried inside a simple murder investigation that unsolved leads back to the investigator. How otherwise can he enter the head of the perpetrator. What must he be party to to disregard all the lost time? He had to be there, by sheer will place himself at each scene with the awful responsibility of bringing everything back into focus. He went to Raus Funeral Home next to Dr. Peterka’s office, a practice he briefly shared with Sweeney to try and reconstruct the lab Sweeney may have had access to but only found thin air.
When we look too deeply into anything we follow, we can’t help it. We find ourselves, not sitting, thinking, absently observing, but an outright participant sucked into the murderer’s heart muscle, beating frantically out of control; we are deep inside his brain for the adrenalin rush of what we have not yet discovered about ourselves, recreating our worst nightmares, our most private moments, attributing to ourselves those substitutes just so we can find out. Yes, it was his own humiliation too following so many heinous murders that he internalized, following what had happened to him so that he too unwittingly took part. He probably didn’t even know it, but it was reflected in his inability to sleep, to sit still, to stop moving even sitting in my office telling his story, to even stop investigating so many outrages to the human body, multiplied, that was unprecedented, how could someone fifty years later internalize them and then carry on even the semblance of a normal life these past seven years? Lucky! No, he was cursed. How could the girlfriend not be affected, I mused. She must have known she was short-changed, must have glimpsed the stranger in him popping up, what he was turning into, and that in the end she must have known she too was dead meat. These were not simple murders he was investigating, but the most profound outrages to the human body on record.
They involved her, as an innocent victim, partner to lucubrations she gave
the impression of admiring. How could one person possibly endure them, without reliving each disarticulation, feeling a twinge in his own bicep, or forearm? How could he look at his woman on the other side of the bed intact, all in one piece? The word “disarticulation” he pronounces with such precision it seemed eerie. It distanced what he thought only brought him closer, the horror of so many profoundly senseless removals of body parts. Not even thinking about the heads! Anyone would wait for the blood to flow after the so-called disarticulation. It blindsided every cut that we are equipped ourselves to avoid. Like unexpected paper cuts. But the blood still comes as if out of nowhere intent on its own ferocity.
“Some of the victims were drained elsewhere,” he suddenly said.
It reminds us of what’s inside everyone, ready and poised, begging to surface, to bead or spurt. He must have felt distanced from the actual cutting, but perhaps sought relief talking about it in my office. But I knew otherwise, we all do, intimately. There is little access until someone like this gentleman, what’s his name, yes, Jack Jackson, walks into your life, your office, whose very name almost begs you to overlook the incest. After all this is Kentucky where an unspoken admission of bloodline is always one remove from polite conversation.
These are not simple murders, they are violations of all men and women, the
sanctity of bodies we live with and struggle with daily. These violations were so stupendous that the mouth dropped like we were only a cut or two away from chunks of ham, what one person thought she identified when she discovered body parts in a burlap sack--the same ham on platters we carve up at Thanksgiving or Christmas. What sharp tools mercilessly cut off the heads, arms, legs, and penises, plied through the resistant muscle, to bone with osteotome and hacksaw in a hidden laboratory where some concluded he performed his gruesome rituals, then dumped the bodies off. Bodies he was strong enough to carry. Could it all be in this gentleman’s brain, this Jack Jackson? Is that the reason for his investigation? And why am I listening to him, for what I find in myself?
His hands are still moving fast, and I notice too shaky leg syndrome. He doesn’t even know it. He has to be up to something. I slide the truckles of my chair noiselessly back, just a hair. I don’t want him to notice. I am ready for something. I don’t know what he is after with this avalanche of information. Maybe to be buried myself in accusations. His politeness is suspicious as if he is hiding something else. Is he really only coming to seek advice? Can it be as simple as that?
I know that he must tell someone, get it off his chest, seven years of it. I know too the mild boastfulness that accompanies his narrative. But what remains is who could have cut those women’s bodies in half, and men’s too. What centaur dreams dominated the perpetrator? It’d be mythical were it not so gruesome. But everyone knows mythology is sanitized, has to be cleaned up to be passed on. Just where do those distorted shapes in Satanic books come from? Is it something universal that now
struts so pedestrian, crossing cultures, entire oceans, springing up out of the earth centuries, millennia later, walking the streets of Cleveland, of New Castle, tucked in
the most ordinary houses, down basements, or does it spring right out of the cellars, or shantytowns, on the banks of the Cuyahoga River or the shores of Lake Erie? Erie yes, what a wonderful sounding name! Has he made that connection? Is it in the vegetables, the local fruit eaten, the minerals and trace elements that enter the brain, certainly it is in the animals we kill, entangled with all those complex strands of protein. And the cuts were so surprisingly precise, everyone claimed he was no amateur. The limbs weren’t just hacked off, they were surgically removed. You couldn’t tell if anger was involved, molten rage, or the most icy demeanor. The latter is more frightening, making it infinitely harder to detect the trail gone cold.
It is as if Jack Jackson sitting there were probing himself so doggedly that there was not enough room in my office between us; that I was drawn into murders I knew so little about is undeniable. Oddly I found space there, while he was a font of holy water sprinkling what I was trying to bottle so I could feel something proper, a restoration to my own dignity, a defensive sanctity, hearing of all the victims while at the same time something vile still loomed, that I felt contaminated sitting in my own office and that he already was contaminated, or why would he be here polluting my mind with these stories, why would he be so interested in such disgusting treatment of other human beings? Something then whispered in my ear, Justice is not enough. There was something absolutely ghoulish in this string of murders, unified by the B&O Railroad, by the inexorable repetition of the sound of the wheels on train tracks, a rhythm found in our own blood highlighted by his seven year investigation. It stained red any Monopoly board I’d ever play on with my kids. Certainly the four railroads I rarely was interested in anyway.
I moved back even further despite his relative calmness when all at once he stood straight up and his voice grew, deepened remarkably; there was a kind of chill that echoed the imminence of attack, so much stronger than my just sitting there, a willing auditor, soaking up all the gruesome details, the multiple body parts, the severed heads, all seemed to tumble inside me that I strained in my mind stumbling to my feet as if I had a bag over my shoulder. It was all I could do to sit there preserving my demeanor when he stood so precipitously hovering over me that I thought something was going to fall from my bookshelves in response, my mother’s book on witchcraft or Christian Science or her History of Orgies. It was almost as if I were taken unawares and his fervor did not one whit diminished the horror.
It was as if my listening so intently stoked the very flames that brought added detail to each victim, stoked the fervor of his investigation, fueled it, and tapped into the anonymous killer and on into each of his victims, as if something in myself wanted to rise up and challenge him for exactly what I didn’t know, but it had the nature of an assault I couldn’t quite identify but knew it was happening, though I sat there cowardly, timidly, and unmolested. I didn’t go on the attack. I was beaten down by the thirty-two victims, by the overwhelming description, the sharp instances of cutting remarks, even the simple mention of his word “disarticulation” not aimed at me, but it threatened, pointed, brandished itself nevertheless, as if each missing body part had touched me. I recalled how I never liked leaving a knife lying around the kitchen, out in the open, and always felt something in my past might have provoked such an irrational fear.
The unknown perpetrator of these crimes was present, even if only in the pile of research, in the black and white photos of the victims, but that he and I were too somehow part of it. My evening meals I knew would never be the same. No matter what I told my wife and son that night, I could never convey what I felt when a platter of meat was on the table. Who would have thought looking at the two of us in that office that what was unidentified fifty years ago was still present in all its horror, manifested by the most unspeakable crimes before either of us were born, well him anyway, but yet that had found a need inside him to seek justice that he hoped would emerge from this dogged scratching away at the past? Who would have thought he’d stumble onto something in himself, through me! Or that I’d discover something in myself! He was like a pig nosing around the very worst offal, the long decayed remains of his own species. His raised voice made me afraid for his girlfriend and that he had gotten so far inside the head of Sweeney or Dolezal, or whomever he’d come up with, that he didn’t know he’d resurrected inside himself a copy cat. That’s what he didn’t see, but I did when he stood up, the force of personality to commit such horrors himself was there in his voice, in the pertinacity of his exhaustive labors.
Believe me, this is the last thought I want to have. It was a horror that stayed with me since I lived alone in Vermont, sometimes not speaking to a single soul for two or three weeks. You wouldn’t know it from just looking at me. Then I would travel to visit my mother in New York City, Washington Heights, close to Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital and all those medical facilities reaching over the Hudson and the broad expanse of land under the George Washington Bridge not just for picnics, but where anything could happen, not just to get lost in, more underbrush than anyone needed even in a city, and those intoxicatingly tall buildings jutting high up where you couldn’t see inside or out clearly enough, they were so high, labs full of perfect instruments, and here I’d walk right in unmolested with my license plate under my arm, my imagined pass. I must be on official business for one the top surgeons, his runner maybe, or my roommate’s father in college I would tell the security guard. I’m here to see Chief Surgeon Crikelair. See I wanted to be identified and stopped so I could tell my story.
In Massachusetts I’d stop and change the license plate from Vermont to New York plates, so my car wouldn’t be a target of vandals in New York City. Washington Heights was after all the crack capital of the U.S.
The nagging vision that license plate left in the darkest recesses of my brain when I was bent down screwing one off and the other in, more than once someone’s look interrupted me, gave pause as if they wanted to report me to the police. Little did they know! I was often unable to sleep with those rectangular license plates in my mind. I remember one person looking at me at one rest stop so hard that he inspired a spasm of anger that right then and there I wanted to commit some crime that I knew required secret preparation, but I only threw the license plate hastily into the trunk of my Escort and drove away. The gall of him looking at me like that!
Little did anyone imagine the calm calculation that went into who I was, or realize what was not behind removing that license plate but built up from the loose metal in my hand. I couldn’t get out of my mind its convenient sharpness of what didn’t even look dangerous, but still it frightened even me, a weapon in disguise unlike the knife left on the counter in my own home. There was something in my past, dreams of dark fields of meat where Goya’s “Colossus” sits and those tiny covered wagons pass, dreams crowded with vivid chunks of fresh meat, purportedly animal but actual chunks, torsos, of human beings, I had had that dream often throughout my life, and the license plate played right into it. It frightened me, its faux sharpness that in fact could easily, surgically, cut flesh, and not only flesh but a head clean off. That’s what gave me comfort, it was something I could get away with, that nobody would suspect. With a license plate! No way. Until that is you looked carefully at it, or had the experience of a paper cut.
He did what? Not me, but the imagined perp, the Mad butcher of Kingsbury, the Cleveland Torso Murderer. I know I am nobody, but it is just that that accumulates inside anyone and can with little effort identify Jack Jackson. Would he ever find the killer? It would be like finding himself. And I sensed he knew that. If he could get out of the way, he would have the killer cold after all these years. It is in every investigator, every sheriff, policeman, detective, amateur sleuth. They themselves point the way if they only let themselves. It is themselves they are hunting but removed when they admit that they find the killer. It’s true even if you think this license plate story is a lot of hokum, it is not, it just translates the violence to the civilian population behind all that police brutality, behind all the guns drawn, the knives, hacksaws wielded, the license given even to soldiers in foreign lands, the infinite hours of boredom to kill inside the devil’s workshop, the horrors are there and in the civilians they fight for, in the idle minds in their local communities, only it bursts out, periodically, in places like Cleveland and New Castle.
Of course I am somebody with a fertile imagination and a past of soiled yellow underwear rubbed in my nose by the old woman who took care of me when I’d be bathed sitting at the kitchen sink. I am one who has endured the pinches of my mother who visited so infrequently, or all the humiliations by those bigger, stronger, smarter boys in the orphanage, the beatings at night, the sacking in the balls, the constant flagging of my self-esteem, the later humiliation of all those rejections by women, all turned into my bare, white-knuckled grip on the license plate that belied even the screw driver in hand. It was too crude. The license plate with its large-lettered identification, and there I was incognito, only effecting a simple exchange. I scoffed at the identification being associated with me and the blood I could wash off afterwards. The deed would be done already before the conscience would kick in. In fact I was proud of the license plate, living in the Green Mountains of Vermont, and New York, the Empire state of mind. I straddled them both. And besides no one would be alive to register. Fifty years hence I too would not be discovered. All I needed was to get started. The first two I imagined would be the most difficult.
I didn’t imagine myself a bad person, maybe it’d be an internet contact, a transient not along a railroad track, someone I picked up in town or on the highway traveling to New York City or Rutland, Vermont, someone whose head I’d remove with the out of state plate. In some vague way I understood why Jack Jackson came to me and why too I indulged him, something similar in both of us must have already been identified by the idea of nameless transients, an inexhaustible well of violence in all of us that we could get away with, the unidentified swamp life poking through with a mouth full of teeth, for the harm stirring in each of us, even if we are required to cover it up for seven years or suppress it a lifetime sitting passively in an office surrounded by books, when suddenly it breaks through a gesture, an inadvertent moment hovering over you with raised voice, recognized by someone who has already found himself but hasn’t admitted it, who has discovered criminals everywhere, in fact hiding thinly veiled in the past along a railroad line. The wild goose chase ends in identifying one perpetrator to tell our own story to to postpone finding it in ourselves. Putting off the assault as long as we can, the urge to go out with a bang. Yes, we all want attention. You’d think more people would do something. Through all the research to dredge up too in myself thoughts about the suitability of an otherwise harmless license plate from New York or even Vermont that needed changed just so I or my car would not be the target of crime in New York City. We all need protected.
Matthew lives in San Antonio with his family and during his free time he likes to read, play games or incessantly tease his wife, whom he credits for every positive aspect of his life. While he never turns down a good story, his favorite authors are Brandon Sanderson, Michael Crichton and Larry Correia.
In the Room
He sat numbly, staring without seeing, mind racing without thought. The lamp over her bed flickered, briefly dimming the small hospital room. She lay perfectly still, chest rising and falling in a slow rhythm—too slow. Within the room silence pressed in like an unseen waterfall, even as bits and pieces of distant noise filtered through.
As he blinked, he again heard the screeching of tires, smelled burning rubber. An earth shattering impact then… nothing. Now there was the chair, the bed, and her. Nothing outside the stark room mattered, and he didn’t have the capacity to remember how he had gotten there, how long he had been staring at her, waiting for her to wake up.
She was perfect as she lay there, stripped of everything superfluous. Bathed in uneven light with no makeup or jewelry or fancy clothing and yet gorgeous. Even moreso because of the lack of it, he thought, admiring the curves of a face peaceful and free from worry as it so seldom was. Despite the heavy burden that had settled on his shoulders, he felt a contentment as he waited. It seemed that for as long as he could remember, he had been sitting there lost in the feeling that being in her presence brought.
The light dimmed again as the door softly opened and a nurse in tidy white scrubs stepped in. “Have you made a decision, sir?” she asked kindly was she walked to the other side of the bed. The nurse didn’t glance down, only looking at him. It was as if she pointedly ignored everything else in the room. He glanced up, confused. “A decision?”
“Yes sir. We’ll need to know when you plan on leaving. Given the circumstances the staff will be happy to bend the rules and leave you in here a bit longer, but I’m afraid we can’t let you stay indefinitely.” The nurse looked at him expectantly, smile unwavering but with insistence in her eyes.
He felt an anxious lump form inside his stomach. He hadn’t given any thought beyond the current moment, couldn’t fathom the world outside the tiny room. How long had he been here, anyway? Since everything had gone sideways it had been difficult to think through the quiet maelstrom swirling around his head, and the inconsistent light was an ever-present distraction. He felt that, once he moved through that doorway, he would simply lose himself. Outside was madness, but he had an anchor in here; she was a beautiful tether holding onto him in a way he didn’t even understand. He mused that it had actually always been that way.
“I’m not sure. I’ll… I’ll get back to you.” His voice was a whisper. The nurse gave him a long look before quickly nodding and disappearing outside. The room settled back into stillness as the door clicked shut and the lamp steadied. He once again sank into the chair and became little more than a living statue, filling his eyes with the only thing that seemed to matter anymore. In the silence he could hear disembodied voices, apparently speaking about him.
“He hasn’t left, but I don’t know that he’s all there.” It wasn’t the nurse but a different speaker, probably the doctor. “We’ll leave him be for now. I wanted to make sure you know the injuries are severe. It might be a good idea to make sure you’re prepared.” The voice was hushed but thundered across his ears nonetheless; he couldn’t hear the response over the booming echo of those words. It was strange, though. For all that talk she looked imminently peaceful, with no bandages to speak of or scratches marring her soft features. He knew that the nature of injuries that you couldn’t see were something to be truly feared, even she looked as perfect as she’d always been.
He closed his eyes and felt himself drift. He latched into the feeling of her, the soft warmth that had taken residence within him from the first moment she smiled at him. That was a smile you could feel as much as see; you could hear it in her voice as easily as a bird chirping on your shoulder. He considered it a true tragedy that something so wonderful seemed at times a well-kept secret. Still, it was his secret and he clung to it, something to keep him present and above the turmoil he felt inside.
The warm feeling spread though him, pinpricks moving down his arms and into his hands. Through the haze he could almost feel her gripping his hands, holding him, her strength giving him strength. With effort, he used that strength to open his eyes, finding the lamp dancing fitfully between light and dark and felt a sudden anger bubble up. That damn light! Didn’t she deserve better than to spend this time under some shoddy lamp? Why couldn’t he have this time alone with her, uninterrupted or distracted by a flickering bulb, without silent eyes watching him from beyond his sight. It was a simple request, and he couldn’t have even that.
The anger melted into frustration as the light continued to taunt him, and he felt hot tears move down his face. When he went to wipe them away he found nothing but dry skin; it seemed he had already used up his tears. With the light finally calming, he again reached into his memory for the feeling of her embrace and felt his pulse slow, the waves of emotion temporarily smoothing. Everything around him stilled, while the well of anxiety slowly filled.
He felt them coming. He knew they wouldn’t let him stay—he had been there too long already. He also didn’t know what to do, what the next steps were that needed to be made. As he pondered he heard the door click open, felt the presence of bodies enter the room. “Sir, it’s time. There’s nothing more you can do; you need to leave now,” said the nurse. Unable to take his eyes from the most precious thing he had known—knowing deep within that if he left her side he would never see her again—he felt hands gently encircle his arms. As they began to tug him away he fixed the image of her resting there in his mind, her hair fanned out and framing her face, too slow breathing easing her hands up and down on her stomach. The embodiment of every good decision he had ever made.
“No. I’m not leaving.” He struggled against the hands, which began to pull more earnestly. The lightbulb finally gave up and slowly began to dim, leaving the shadows to slowly encroach upon her. That wasn’t fair. She deserved better than that, to be left alone with the darkness. “Leave me be. I need to fix that lamp.” It was the only argument he could think to make, weak as it seemed. He moved toward the bed but felt himself come up short, held back and moving inexorably to the doorway.
“I said no!” He struggled against the strength in those hands, feeling suddenly like he was moving through tar. The nurse chimed in, “It’s time to go, sir. There’s nothing left for you.” He knew that wasn’t true. She was still there, being covered by the darkness as the light failed. She had always been everything he needed, and he felt a tearing sensation the further away he moved from her. He pulled harder, fighting against the iron grip. Only now did he realize that no one else was actually in the room, that the nurse’s voice was simply there, and that some unseen force had decided it was time for him to leave. He would not be taken away.
Very slowly he lost his fight, pulling against the force to no avail with his feet dragging on the floor. The light got dimmer, her figure becoming obscured, and the low murmur of voices swelled around him. He blinked—squealing tires. He stepped forward. Blinked again—screeching metal. Another step. Blink—bone-shattering impact. Step, blink—the heat of a fire. Step, blink.
Her smile, twisting all the way to the depths of his very self. And he found the strength to wrench free.
The force disappeared. No slow fade, but a sudden vanishing sending him rocketing forward to the bed, the darkness retreating at his steps. She was still there, her warmth spreading within him once again as the lamp grew stronger still. Through his chest, his arms, his legs. He felt her phantom grip before he was close enough to touch her hands, felt the dry tears on his cheeks once again. He pulled up short of the bed, the bulb almost blinding next to his head. He took her still, peaceful figure in once more before slowly reaching out with a shaking hand to touch her face.
The light exploded with the brilliance of the sun.
* * *
His eyes felt like they had rust on them. He could swear he heard a creaking sound as they slowly, slowly opened. The brightness retreated to the edges of his vision, and as it did the blurry haze resolved itself into a face hovering inches over his. Her face. Her hands gripped his like vices, her eyes were filled with wonderful relief, and large tears dripped down onto his skin. Her smile was larger and deeper than he thought possible, so wide that the memory of it would never be able to fade from her face. She wrapped him in an embrace and whispered into his ear, “You came back.”
He shifted on his hospital bed and slowly shook his head. “No.” He looked into her eyes, sank into her warmth. “You brought me back.”
Norbert Kovacs is a short story and flash fiction writer who lives in Hartford, Connecticut. He has been published in Squawk Back and has a story forthcoming in Darkrun Review.
THE ISLAND INTERIOR
After being used to separate lives before they married, Henry Reynolds, forty-eight, and Helen Strom, forty, strove a long time to become a close couple and now they gave themselves an abundance of reasons to think they had achieved it. For one, they made it a point to do things together regularly, telling themselves that many couples did not. They always sat down together for breakfast and dinner. They walked as a pair around their upper middle class neighborhood; on late afternoons and the weekend, they tended their garden sharing the tasks of planting and weeding, and remade and repaired their home as part of their own self-styled “weekend team”. They found many, simple spontaneous ways to enjoy one another, besides. On Saturdays, Henry woke in bed and talked to Helen quietly as she dozed and replied to him in lazy, half murmurs. They made a game of shuffling happily past each other in and out the bathroom door in the morning and laughing that this was “their morning routine”. On the spur of a whim, they had random dinners out when Helen or Henry felt it would be exciting. And they made interesting conversation. They discussed the direction of Helen’s corporation, their friends' lives, their colleagues, simple plans to visit a neighbor two houses down. They exchanged jokes, sometimes about a slip of the tongue, sometimes a mild embarrassment; the two found this humor a relief more than once in their else demanding lives. Sometimes, the two volunteered together to enjoy a kind of pride in altruism. They tutored the remedial students at the high school where Henry taught math and science.
Of all their bonding episodes as a couple, their favorite had been finishing the bathroom off their bedroom. Around the sides of the great hot tub, Henry smeared grout, thick and wet, in small sections as Helen set in tiles of blue and white. Henry had plastered a small section of the tub at a time to allow Helen a proper chance to cover each before the grout dried. Henry scooted or crouched to give Helen room as she set the small blue and white squares one by one into a neat pattern. He spoke to her as she worked and as he smeared the new sections on the outside of the tub. Their movement was coordinated and slow as they listened to each other, neither rushing nor feeling to rush. Helen talked about her hopes for the tub’s new facade and the fun of trying to set the tiles to stay. "Don't move!" she told them once in jest. Henry smiled listening to her. They proceeded, crisscrossing one other and asking for permission to set a tile here or to add some grout there. When they were done, the two stepped back to the bathroom door and admired their labor. Henry had thrown an arm around Helen, kissed her, and said “Beautiful.” He had meant the tub but looked at her when he said it. For a long time afterwards, he would think of the fun they had with their "tile talk."
The pair had spent three calm years of marriage together when Henry sensed Helen starting to have a problem with their state of affairs. She strained during dinner and was terse when they spoke. She lost interest in the garden that she had loved to tend, regularly buzzing over its roses and lilies. She even seemed tired when they had over their friends who used to please her. Worried, Henry tried to draw her back out by being upbeat, talkative, generous. He bought her books by an author that she had hoped to have but never had owned. He took her to the Shubert to a musical undergoing a revival; he knew the play had put her in a good mood a long time ago. Helen answered these efforts tepidly. "Maybe another night for the play," she told him when he pressed on the theatre. Thereafter his effort bore little fruit. When Henry suggested they volunteer together at his school for a pep rally, Helen accepted but her politely smiling and quiet face told him she wished to do else. She agreed to remodel another room in the house with him but excused herself halfway through the task.
The reason Helen changed became clear the night the two went to a large Christmas party hosted by one of Henry’s fellow teachers. In the weeks leading up to the event, Henry believed he and Helen might have more fun at the party if they danced as well as the others going, so he asked Helen to dance lessons. It seemed to Henry that her face sunk a little at the question but she collected herself almost at once, as if to dispel the impression, and said, "It might be fun." She even gave him what seemed a bland smile. As they practiced dutifully twice a week at a ballroom across town, Henry trusted Helen’s mood improved despite her recent glumness. The two went to the party on the night and after an apparently good time mingling with the guests, they danced and danced to the music that started on the stereo. The two moved decently and people said their dancing looked fun, which sent Henry’s happiness skywards.
Henry returned from the party feeling he must have been wrong to suppose his wife ever was dissatisfied with him, so he was surprised when after he parked in the garage she went into the house without waiting for him to exit the car. He came to her shortly after in the living room saying, “Everything went so well tonight, I’d--” But he did not finish his sentence for he discovered Helen seated on the couch with her face in her hands crying.
“It’s too much,” she said hearing him enter the room. “I can’t be happy in anything and I won’t pretend any longer that I am.”
“Helen, what are you talking about?” Henry said, drawing beside her.
“Our acting like everything has to be perfect between us. I can’t.”
“What are you saying?”
“You must know. I was just like a little doll smiling with all that over-sugared happiness at those people. I talked so much bright, fluffy nonsense. Even when we were dancing, it felt like I was giving a performance.”
“You weren’t performing, honey. We were having fun. Or we meant to.”
“Oh, we mean it all the time. When we make eager fixing the house, I feel I could crumble. We talk about hitting the newest play and I feel horrible inside. Is this any way to keep on?”
Henry found Helen was more displeased than he had guessed. He sat beside his wife on the couch and clasped her. “Then we won’t. We’ll do things differently. I promise.”
Helen did not resist his touch even as she failed to face him.
That night, Henry lay awake, fretting how to repair things with Helen, and guessed at answers, afraid not to have one.
In the morning, he proposed to Helen that they go on a vacation. It was the winter and they would enjoy going somewhere warm and sunny. He thought but did not say that Helen might forget about her ill feelings if she had a good diversion. Helen agreed to his plan and Henry arranged them a two-week vacation at a Caribbean island for January. Neither of them said a word about how the trip would fix their relationship.
Their first day on the island, Henry and Helen visited the open-air market in the town where they stayed. Festively decked, the market stood amid bright, white adobe buildings on a long, sun-flooded street. Clothing stalls blazed a rainbow of colored shirts and pants, and an aroma of spices from food vendors filled the warm air. Henry walked close beside his wife and was eager to talk about the island, the town, anything. But Helen, despite offering some words to his, never drew out his thread of conversation very much.
“How nice that there are all these people out in the market,” Henry said in a hopeful burst.
“Do you think?” Helen said dodging past a pair of folk coming toward them.
The two walked down a couple of stalls. Henry came beside her and fingered a well-polished, mahogany colored bracelet on the stall they were near. “This one looks nice.”
“Yes it is. But maybe not right for me.”
Henry was about to offer her another, one of brilliantly interfused woods, when Helen excused herself to go elsewhere. Henry let her for he was able to see where she went so could follow her if he wished. He became absorbed in a rack of postcards spotlighting the beautiful streets of the town and soon was imagining which he would visit. When he looked toward his wife next, Helen was studying the items of the stalls, her eyes quiet before the many colored figurines and strings of beads. Indeed, her face was pouting and she walked aimlessly. Henry rejoined her fearing for some reason that she might leave the market without him.
The two walked slowly together toward the market’s edge. As they reached the last stalls, a mob of elderly tourists swelled around the corner into the street. Some cruise ship had stopped there in Newport and discharged its load of American travelers for a few hours of sightseeing and souvenir buying. The swell surrounded Henry and Helen as they reached a stall near the street’s end that was selling scarves. The scarves were many colors, black, green, yellow, and pink, emblems of the warm Caribbean island the two were visiting. As if newly moved by these, Helen inched through the tourists to inspect the scarves for herself. But the many newcomers were in a frenzy of reaching and grabbing at the scarves and made it difficult for her to stand and evaluate the goods for sale. An old tourist with huge sunglasses made loud comments to the black woman selling them. Hands shoved money at the vendor and she parceled them scarves quickly. At last, Helen managed to get to the stall side and asked to have a certain black and green scarf. She extended the money for it as a blue-haired tourist shoved forward a hand with a scarf and cried, “How much is this?” Helen retreated with her new scarf to a quiet place, folded her item in quarters, and pushed it into her purse. Henry observed the whole episode from the stall side and thought their island shopping had turned out pretty bad.
The sun shone hot and a pleasant sea breeze ran along the hotel beach. Henry had come ahead of Helen and with his red and white umbrella staked a spot for them in the sand. His balding head and long, thin body under the umbrella’s shade, he waited for his wife to appear. The hotel beach belonged to a beach shared with the neighboring hotels it turned out, and many tourists were wandering in from down the shore. Their easy, buzzing chitchat and movement convinced Henry that the beach would be a pleasant, stress-free place.
Henry had lifted his head several times to check for Helen when he spotted her descending from the hotel. She was in a black bikini that made her pale, slender limbs stand out clearly; the two shapely curves of her breasts pressed snug against the fabric. When she arrived by him, Helen reached for a long towel from the bag at his side and spread it on the sand by his chair.
“Good weather for tanning,” he said.
“Yes good weather.” Helen sounded calm but sullen. She took the tanning lotion from their beach bag, squeezed some into her hand, and began the intimate process of rubbing it into her face, arms, and legs. Then, she donned a pair of sunglasses and lay out beside him quietly. As the beach warmed, Henry became encouraged in the thought of Helen being so close to him and thought to reach with his hand and touch her on the shoulder. But he considered if Helen would welcome it. I might mark her skin now she’s getting toasty, he thought. And then she might wish this moment for solitude, he added. She had seemed to want it and this might be a private experience he would be best to respect. Henry broke from this thought as a volleyball rolled to Helen’s side. A shirtless, college age man came up to fetch it but stopped a few yards away; he seemed to wait for Henry to throw the ball to him so he would not have to come any closer to the lounging pair. With a struggle, Henry got up to oblige. “You don’t have to move, Helen,” he said. He went to the other side of her and with an underhand throw, sent the volleyball up the hill toward the young man. The ball made an awkward bounce in its path that made Henry somehow self-conscious.
It was a long while after he sat down again before the idea of touching his wife returned to Henry. He decided that his touch might be nice to her, however he had believed earlier, and extended a hand toward her in fact. At that point, a clamor of voices arose behind his beach umbrella.
“Good a spot as any.”
“Lay the towels out there. Ned, please give me my water bottle from that bag.”
“Can we toss our Frisbee around here?”
“I need tanning lotion.”
A family of tourists with children had taken post and ended Henry’s hope of privacy. Henry settled his hand back on his armrest with a plop and asked his wife, “You’re not getting too warm?”
“No, I’m okay dear.” Helen turned and lay on her stomach, her face pressing flat.
That night in their hotel room, Henry said their day on the beach had been fun and that Helen had tanned well. He hoped to put his wife in a positive mood, which she had not shown much of since their vacation started.
“On Sunday,” he said, “how about going to the festival in town? There’s supposed to be a parade with marchers, musicians…”
“—and more crowds like in the market?” Helen said dully. “I'd much rather not put up with them again.” She walked from the small table where they had been sitting.
Henry was beside himself. “Helen, I didn’t mean to upset you. If the parade sounds that bad, I’d be happy going anywhere else.”
“I don’t know where else to go. Maybe we should stay in. I can catch up on my book.” She fingered the spine of a short novel lying by the bed.
“That’s not why we came on vacation, Helen.”
“I agree. So suggest what we can do.”
Henry considered for them both. “Well, we could go to Freetown across the island.”
“Would it be a long drive to Freetown?”
“I guess four or five hours.”
Helen’s voice gained a note of interest. “We’d have to cross the middle of the island on the way, wouldn’t we? On some open road bundled amid the wild palms and the wayside towns.”
“We’d have to.”
Helen went and sat on the couch. “Then let’s go to Freetown Sunday.” She turned on the TV and zoned out her spouse in the other room.
Henry was glad finally to find Helen interested in their trip.
The sun shone bright on Sunday as they hoped. Henry had rented a Jeep and the two loaded it with lunch and gear for their trip. They left Newport on the dirt road that went into the country hills. The land by the road was small farms and fields, cut with green crops. Men wearing only dark pants hoed the earth; they sweated with their toil and their muscled bodies glistened with it. Women in colored dresses carried baskets of beans and corn from the fields; they moved slowly in the hot sun. Beside the farms were the people’s crayon-color homes, small and squat, red, green, or blue with corrugated tin roofs. Clotheslines with the women’s other dresses and the men’s washed shirts hung like flags over the backyards. Henry would have commented on the busy farms. But he held silent discovering Helen look calmly and steadily toward the dark, broken forest in the hills beyond the tilled fields; why she did Henry could not guess nor felt her dreamy eyes invited him to ask. Rising into the country, the Jeep cut past many dark trees and emerged in a stretch of open land; there the light burst on them and brought Helen’s attention back into the car. A farm comprised most of the open land by the road here and at the dirt path before it, a pink-frocked woman sat in a chair by a cart loaded with watermelons and a sign that said “SALE”.
“Why don't we stop at this farm for a watermelon?” Helen said with eagerness. “It’s about lunch time anyway.”
Ready to oblige this first request since leaving town, Henry turned off the main road onto the farm path and parked. The two walked to the woman's cart and inspected the firm, round melons for sale. Helen picked up a smaller one and weighed it in her hands. “I like this one.”
“Then we’ll get it.”
“How much for this?” Helen asked the seller.
As Henry took out his wallet and handed her the money, the seller said, “We have tables over there where you can eat.” The tables were about twenty yards from the melon stand on very green grass. “You and your wife could eat and look at my farm.”
Helen turned toward the spot. “Thank you. We will.” Helen brought their melon to a table and Henry went to the Jeep and fetched their lunch, some plates, and a knife. The couple sat, Helen on the bench facing the planted fields, Henry across her and facing a few, low trees where the hill rose. Henry devoured his wrap made by the hotel staff, hungry after all his driving.
“These are pretty good,” he said. “Don’t you like yours?” Helen had taken only a bite from her sandwich.
“Sure.” But Helen’s voice was quiet and distant. Henry faced sideways and saw the wide field of the farm before her, its long, rows of green melons and the very green grass that ringed it all.
“I feel free for some reason,” Helen said suddenly addressing the land. "This place is not like home. I can imagine it might be a relief living here." Self-consciously, Henry studied his wife then the dark waving canopy of wild palms that crowded the hilltops. Helen continued, “I could love this free-ranging growth and greenness in the hills. The people must be different in this place.”
Henry puzzled over his wife’s remark. Could she feel this much over some open jungle?, he wondered. He made to lighten her mood. “Maybe we should eat that watermelon.” He fetched it from the far side of the table. Taking the sharp knife he had brought, he plunged it blade deep into the fruit and sawed through its rind. The two halves of the cut melon rolled apart on the tabletop making a small puddle of pink juice. Henry and Helen each took a half melon for their plate and began to eat it with spoons he had brought. The melon was very fresh and sweet, and Henry thought to remark on it when Helen raised her eyes from her fruit and met his.
“Thank you for buying me this," she said.
Henry smiled but felt more self-conscious than at first. He ate the rest of his melon in slow, small bites, without again lifting his face.
The two left the farm and took the road further into the hills. They passed several rolling fields with houses set far from the road and hills of open, green grass before they reached the top of the ridge. The sky opened wide and blue at the height from where the hills declined toward the other side of the island. At the crossroads they reached a sign with an arrow pointing rightward for the main road to Freetown, a hard dirt way that fused with asphalt a quarter mile down. The long, neat train of grass went beside it and the forest far down and below, even a good distance into the mountains.
“There’s our road,” he said.
“Why that one? What about the road left?”
“The road left?”
Helen pointed to the sign. Henry saw there was a left arrow he had overlooked which said “FOREST ROAD—alternate route to Freetown.” The distance given was an extra hour of driving as compared to the main route. Henry looked down the stretch of the forest road as it entered a growth of lush, fat palm trees. It would be dirt all the way to the town, he thought.
“Why don’t we go that way?” Helen said. “It leads where we want and would be more interesting than the highway.”
“It’d be longer than the highway. We’d lose time for sightseeing in town.”
“Well, is it that important that we get to the town by any time? I’d like to encounter some nature on the island instead. The forest has hugged the edge of the hills the whole way we’ve driven and I keep thinking it’s where we should go-- because we haven’t. We’ve traveled the highway, by the farms and the inside of one town already. The forest we don’t know however.”
Henry felt his plan for the day trip derailing. But he recognized that the alternative route would satisfy Helen.
“An hour more on the road won’t kill us,” he conceded.
The forest stood near the thin margin of low grass along the new road the two travelled. The great tall palms of the forest were old, their fronds grown fat and long, their bodies scaled thickly. Amid these rose tall, branched trees, thin, dark, and high, draped in massive webs of vine. Dead, grey, branchless trunks towered hard and stone like in the general green. Far beyond the road, low palms formed a dark, overlapping mat of foliage that blocked wide swaths of the forest behind it from view. Henry felt small beside the many dark, old trees, as they went wild stretch after wild stretch that had no bounds. He thought of the great space it all must represent then observed Helen studying the dark innards of the forest. She rolled down the window on her side of the Jeep and let her arm rest on the door comfortably.
Following a curve in the road, Henry broke the Jeep suddenly. Right before them loomed a curtain of vines hanging from the mahogany trees. The vines were long, green ropes covered in dark, heart shaped leaves. Their hanging down into the path seemed a strange thing, as if the dark life of the forest, contained at the roadside, had sprung at them. When the shock of the event wore off, Henry advanced the Jeep slowly. The car nudged into the vines so that they draped like loose threads over the Jeep’s hood then pulled onto the windshield. Their heart-shaped leaves showed slick as they patted the glass like small hands. At last, the leaves slipped up the windshield and the vine curtain was behind them.
“Close, weren’t they?” Henry asked.
“Yes, they were very," Helen said, somehow calm.
The two drove on silently. After another four miles spent in the dark forest, Henry emerged into an open area where the palms did not cross above them. They went only a short distance when they heard and saw a flock of rainbow colored macaws, flying overhead. The birds flashed red and blue as they flew up the road into the distance. Henry thought the birds going a long way, and imagined the great expanse of sky they must cross. He tried to picture where the birds might go.
"Maybe they are heading for the canopy where they nest."
Helen's face grew wistful. "I bet it is a good way in here."
They drove another ten minutes when they heard voices far back in the woods.
“Who could it be, here of all places?” Helen asked.
Henry pulled the Jeep to the roadside and turned off the engine. Far in the dark trees, the voices rose again. Their words did not carry to the Jeep but Henry made out at least two people calling. One who seemed a man called with a strong, deep voice. The other voice was younger and more like a boy’s or a teenager’s. As the two voices called across a wide stretch of forest, the voice of the younger became louder and Henry thought the boy must be approaching the area of woods near the Jeep. At last, two figures appeared by the dense mat of palms one hundred and fifty feet from the road. The two were a young, shirtless boy of about ten and a taller boy about fifteen in a white shirt and dirty, flayed pants. The two were carrying a plank of freshly cut wood, the teenager at the front end. The two of them were poaching Henry figured, but thought they were too young to have cut the wood themselves. However the man, who called them and was perhaps their father, might have. Henry smiled. I bet they aren't worried at all about being caught out here doing what they do, he thought. Of course, there would be no one to give them trouble anywhere close by. He realized a strange kind of pleasure to think this and imagined that, here on the jungle road, he was somehow in league with the boys and the man calling deep amid the palm darkness.
After Henry drove them another ten, very slow miles, Helen said, “Why don’t we pull over and walk some in the forest? We won’t get to walk it at all if we go straight to Freetown.”
Henry who had wished for another break from driving seconded her idea quickly. He stopped by the roadside and the two stepped from the Jeep into the rich jungle. Around them tall palms with trunks striped by aqua colored moss sported dark, overlapping leaves at the tree canopy. Waist high ferns spread broad, green fronds. Mahogany logs lay broken on the ground spilling forth dead wood pulp. Insects buzzed and sailed through the thick air. Henry saw no clear, definite path to take anywhere. "We'll have to march in here blind," he told her. They walked ahead awkwardly.
The two soon came to a leafy, thick tangle of trees with many low branches and hanging vines. Henry was considering how to make their way here when Helen said, “What’s that?” She walked up to a large patch of red peeking from a low tree branch twenty feet away with Henry following. The red turned out to be a tree bloom, much like a great medallion with its diamond shaped petals and ring of gold pistols. Taking a stand by the tree, Helen bowed her face to the flower to smell it. Henry saw her cheek light up red with the bloom’s beautiful color.
Then he lifted his face. A long, lime colored snake hanging in the branch above Helen slowly descended through the air. Henry realized what would happen and moved. He seized a hard, long stick from the ground and called to his wife, “Drop!” He brought the stick down hard as Helen faced him and fell with a scream. Henry hit the snake square on the neck and sent it twisting into the dirt, where its long S of a body landed hard and lay lifeless. Henry turned to Helen gaping at the creature.
“I had to do that,” he said. “Are you ok?”
Helen drew a breath. “I am.”
Henry helped his wife off the ground and together they walked deeper into the forest. Helen’s fright subsided as they passed tall, towering trees and heard the strong pulsing whir of insects. The two breathed more easily. Henry swelled with confidence as they of went onward through the shaded land.
Henry led Helen back to the Jeep and started again down the road. They had gone a few minutes when the road ended in a grassy patch by some low-standing trees. Henry slowed and stopped the car. A dirt-streaked sign nailed on the trees there read, “Work to continue in the spring." The sign was weathered and its painted letters faded. Henry guessed it had been there more than a year.
“We’ll have to turn around,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll make Freetown today either.” His words sounded strange to him in the still car with the trees right before the Jeep’s nose.
“Then might we hang out awhile before going back?”
Henry faced her. “Hang out?”
“Well, we could sit on the beach towel I brought and enjoy these surroundings. We don't have to go any further. Not at once.. The spot seems right, luxurious with these palms and flowers.”
Henry looked past the window outside. “Yes, it does. Maybe you're right. I’d rather not return to town at once either.”
Helen got out of the car, fetched the beach towel from the back seat and spread it on the grass beside the Jeep. Henry stepped out and the two sat on the towel with a few inches of cloth between them. Around them massed the branches of the dark leaved trees, low, dripping with ropy vines, and bushes, fat and short, that sported wide-petalled, purple flowers. Henry felt closer to Helen due to the crowding flora.
“Beautiful here, isn’t it?” he said.
“Yes it is.”
The two sat quietly beside each other. As they drank in the heat, Helen said, “I don’t know about you but I'm tired. I’m going to lie down.” She turned, put her back against the beach towel and faced the sky as Henry continued seated upright beside her. He listened to the myriad insects and the far off cries of birds and considered that no breeze came to stir the warm air. The sun was white on the palm fronds but it did not take away their dark green.
Hoping to relax like Helen, Henry stretched on the towel beside her. “I wish we could stay in this forest,” he said.
Henry rolled onto his shoulder toward his spouse. He discovered her eyes had lowered comfortably from her time lying on the blanket. She smiled at him with a sleepy expression. She appeared beautiful.
“Do you suppose anyone will come while we’re here, Henry?”
“I don't. Not a soul.”
“What might we do here?”
He brought his arm around her chest and drew her body to his. "We might discover something." He kissed her and thought, I bet this is what she had meant in getting away. He felt like the journey too.
Charles Hayes, a Pushcart Prize Nominee, is an American who lives part time in the Philippines and part time in Seattle with his wife. A product of the Appalachian Mountains, his writing has appeared in Ky Story’s Anthology Collection, Wilderness House Literary Review, The Fable Online, Unbroken Journal, CC&D Magazine, Random Sample Review, The Zodiac Review, eFiction Magazine, Saturday Night Reader, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Scarlet Leaf Publishing House, Burning Word Journal, eFiction India, and others.
Dark colors of wind swept silk blush, as the ao dai birds around the alabaster pants. Pump clad feet stride with poise and purpose, youth an essence of their track. The Lunar New Year at hand, firecrackers burst and rocket high, while her smile reveals hope, and dark eyes climb with the sizzle of a rocket’s flight. Watching it blossom, like a birth from slip to slap, she knows her wishes need only such a time. Her heart is big.
Crossing the wood floor, a rough cut of aged wear, the after sound of a New Year sizzle, mates the green pop of a wood stove fire. And though I be here, I am with her, where the moon is new, and hope is simply a matter of time. Her dark hair has glints of star light, her boned cheeks an olive glow. Holding a window of pearls, her face turns to the cordite sky as she sits beside me, her bamboo bench for my feet.
Filling my glass, time and again, her eyes seeing only what she can see, ne’er a frown nor crease of disdain, she comforts me. As I drift, her hand cradles my drink from a limp grip, and sets it near.
Watching the clusters of color above her ville, her step is light, but that is not all. Like her dreams, so clear when time is new, though she strides a tad, it is only forward for her to be, for me. A thin wire, like a viper's sting, sticks her shin and calls her eyes below. As sizzles sound above, a click she hears afoot. And echoes of echoes, lights of lights, spray the New Year Night.
Puffs and booms, throwing shattered colors across the heavens, carry this New Year throughout the ville, the pungent smell of nuoc mam, atop the cordite odor of happy lights. Along the path an ilk of sound, more profound than those beyond, calls a syncopated beat. Like a heart that pumps an extra time, a mist of red balloons the air, and an ao dai, it's dark blush limp, over alabaster pants, a crooked bent their avant-garde, marks the spot we meet.
Nadja Maril grew up in Baltimore and lives in Annapolis Maryland. . She is the author of hundreds of feature articles for newspapers and magazines, two reference books on antique American lighting, and two children’s books illustrated with paintings by her father, Herman Maril. She has served as magazine editor at publications that include Victorian Homes, What’s Up? Media, and Chesapeake Taste but her first love has always been writing poetry, fiction, and memoir.
Trying to be Normal
I found the lump while taking a bath. My thoughts on the night ahead and the Halloween Party, I lie back enjoying the warmth of the water as I soap my chest. That’s when I felt it—a raised lump on the inside of my left breast. Right over my heart.
Figures, just when I thought that nothing worst could happen something does. I find a lump. Cancer? If it’s cancer I may die a slow lingering death. Even if I recover there’s a lot of pain involved. Surgery, chemo, radiation…looking like shit.
What am I talking about? Do I even know I have cancer? What I know is there’s a lump. It might not be malignant. It might be benign. The lump in my groin, it wasn’t even a tumor, it was a hernia. And I was so worried. This might be something similar, maybe just a cyst. The lump on my chest, the lump over my heart, might just be a benign cyst.
Somewhere I read most lumps women find are benign. We just hear about the bad ones. They’re the lumps everyone talks about.
It’s Saturday night and I’m about to go to a Halloween Party. Then there is Sunday. No doctor sees patients on Sunday so why am I thinking about what may or may not be. I have to wait until Monday to deal with this and then who knows, how long before they give me an appointment. I might have to wait weeks.
I do have a family history. My mother. She ‘s still strong and living, but she did have cancer. Not that she was ever going to directly tell me the entire story of her diagnosis and treatment. It was something she didn’t wish to discuss.
“I’ve been scarred,” she told me when I attempted to ask her what had happened, “grossly disfigured.”
Would a 12-year-old child know to ask directly, “What do you mean by that?” I knew she’d been in the hospital for days and that when she got home she was not allowed to drive. I knew she thought she was going in for a routine surgery to have a benign tumor removed but the plans changed, once the doctors opened her up and looked more closely. I felt my parents’ worry and my mother’s anger so I decided to keep my questions to myself.
I discovered the prosthesis in the bathroom. My curiosity caused me to examine it because I wanted to know the truth. It felt heavy, weighted; something was sealed inside of it, an imaginary bosom enclosed in the soft nylon of her padded bra. My mother, a small-breasted woman, always wore padded bras. I did the same, wore bras with padding. With a Miracle bra, you can suddenly have a large, ample bosom; even create cleavage when you have none. Before miracle bras there was just plain padding. .
The girls in junior high school made fun of me. They knew I was flat chested, suspected it, and one day one of them came behind me and unhooked my bra. The others laughed. I was certain there were big wet circles of moisture under my armpits that everyone could see. I was so embarrassed. I’m glad that at least those days of unbalanced hormones are over.
My mother lost her breast before the days of breast reconstruction and before the days when there were choices. You went to have the surgery and you woke up, sometimes to find your breast gone. Gone without any prior discussion. Gone because some important older male doctors wearing long white coats had taken a cursory glance at the tumor’s shape and made a snap decision that they knew what was best. I’m sure they thought breasts were not really necessary, particularly for a woman over forty, so they cut into the muscle and the tissue, neatly stitching everything up and said, “Now you have nothing to worry about my dear.”
I don’t like it when people call me dear. It feels and sounds as if they’re looking down their noses at me when they speak, as if they know better. They don’t. If I call you “dear” it means you’re making me angry but I’m too polite to tell you so.
My mother never had radiation. It was in the early days before chemo became a part of everyone’s vocabulary. She needed no other “treatment”. She just has to deal for the rest of her life, with the ugliness of the scar and the lack of balance between one side and the other when not wearing her prosthesis and the worry that maybe the cancer will return. That maybe cutting off one breast had not been good enough to save her life.
She also worried about her secret. The word cancer was a dirty word. It was a disease that often signaled death, and no one likes to be associated with the dying. To the outside world she wanted to look as normal and as healthy as possible. She developed a preference for turtlenecks and jewel collars. It was safer.
I don’t want to tell her about this lump, don’t want to worry her. She didn’t want to worry me, back then, and I don’t want to make her worry now. Who do I tell? No one.
I would be telling my husband but he’s dead. Isn’t that ironic? Not from cancer, no he’s dead from a car accident. The good news is I don’t need to worry about causing him any anxiety. Where he is now he has no worries. If I believe in God and an omniscient universe then Michael knows it all, can see me here lying back in my bathtub, the water temperature growing cooler by the minute.
But the scarier thing is I’m a parent. If I am sick, if I’m dying who will take care of Brandon? He’s only four years old.
Life sucks. . What am I going to do since I can’t call my mother? Talk to a ghost?
The good news: Her breast cancer was not lethal, maybe it wasn’t even really cancer and they just removed her breast out of convenience.
I have to keep telling myself what I think is good news, to balance the bad.
If I tell no one, is it real? It’s when you start telling people about things and you repeat the details over and over, that’s when they become solid. If you don’t talk about something, if you minimize its importance, it kind of disappears.
I feel my chest. The lump is still there, sizeable and firm.
I pull myself out of the now chilly water and reach for a towel, rubbing myself vigorously. I will put on my black cat costume with my long tail and ears. I’ll help Brandon get dressed in his tiger suit and we’ll go to the Ford’s up the street and I’ll throw down a couple of cocktails and I’ll forget all about this episode in the tub. I’ll just live in the moment, focus on the present,
I’m wearing my black padded bra, black leotard, black tights, black ballerina flats, my kitty cat ears and my tail. I’ve painted whiskers on my face and on Brandon’s face and he looks adorable.
“Charlotte, you look spectacular!! I wish I looked so good in a leotard!” Amy Ford tells me when I walk in the door. She is always so kind, easily bestowing compliments. I give her a gracious smile.
“You don’t think it’s too much?”
“Are you kidding? With your figure you can get away with it.”
Amy is dressed as a witch and her husband Dave is wearing a white shirt and long black cape. Blood is painted on his face dripping from the corner of his mouth. I think he is trying to be Dracula. I look around the room and I see no other adults wearing costumes. I feel out of place.
Brandon quickly finds his friends.: a devil, a magician, and a policeman. They are diving their hands into a large bowl of candy corn. Someone, a mother I don’t know, is setting up a tin washtub filled with apples.
“Hey,” Dave Ford calls to the woman. “ Susannah let me help you set that washtub up in the kitchen. I don’t want water dripping all over the wood.”
His comment reminds me of my husband Michael always worrying about our wood floor. Like Michael, Dave probably sanded their floor right before they moved in and doesn’t want to do it again. Can I blame him?
But I would do it again, relive the past. I think of Michael and myself ripping up the carpeting in our first house, pleased to find oak floors underneath, popping open a bottle of champagne to celebrate. My throat starts to tighten and the knowledge of what I have lost punches me in the gut. I feel slow and heavy, weighed down. I feel myself sinking into the place I call “my pit of despair.” If I let myself sink down into the pit, I might never get out. .
I want to leave the party. I’ve just arrived and Brandon is having fun. I have to tough this out.
I look around the room. Jack O’ Lanterns cast a warm soft glow and there are screams of delight from the kitchen where the children are playing their games. I feel distant even though I’m in a crowd. I see clumps of adults standing in groups having conversations. Maybe there is someone I can talk to who will let me into their circle. I focus on the people I know. I see a couple with their new baby and start making my way in their direction but am intercepted.
Charlotte. Is that you?” Standing in front of me is Pamela Hardart, a real estate agent who lives down the street. “ What a surprise. I thought for sure you might have moved in with your mother, so she could help you with Brandon.”
“Pamela dear you didn’t know my mother works full-time? She wouldn’t be much help. ‘
She gives me a big artificial smile and pulls a card out of her pocket. “Well if you do decide to sell your house, please keep me in mind. I have lots of clients for this neighborhood.”
My sadness has now shifted into anger.
I need to get away from her quickly. Just behind her in the corner I see Leslie, my old classmate from Zumba dance class, which I haven’t been attending since I Chloeis2gave up my gym membership trying to economize. Leslie and I had both struggled to learn those Latin dance steps and we’d laughed together at our clumsiness after class was finished. She’d be a safe person to talk to because usually our conversations centered on beauty and fitness.
She must have a new hairdresser, I think to myself, who has given her a miracle treatment. Her hair is lustrous, healthy, shining and straight yet full of body. I have to tell her how good she looks.
‘Leslie you look wonderful.” I greet her. “I love your new hairdo.”
She beams. “Thank you Charlotte,” and smiles shyly, evidently touched by my compliment.
“So tell me. You must have a new hairdresser, who is it? Or a new product you’re using.”
“Oh nothing really,” she answers. “Are you still going to Zumba?”
“Gee no. I guess you’ve been playing hooky as well, but Leslie really what is your secret?”
“You really want to know?”
I nod my head enthusiastically.
“It’s a wig,” she whispers, “I’m being treated for cancer. The chemo…. “ Her voice trails off, “but the prognosis is good. I only needed a lumpectomy, then the chemo, then the radiation. “
“I’m so sorry,” I stutter. I can feel my armpits growing damp.
“Don’t be, with all you’ve been through,” she tells me.
Then I remember the lump. This might be me in a few months.
I’m embarrassed. “I think I need a drink, Can I get you anything?”
“I’m fine,” she replies.
Relieved I walk towards the porch and cool air thinking why did I have to be
so pushy? Leslie doesn’t want to talk about her cancer with me. She has come to this party, wearing a wig to pretend that everything is fine.
Isn’t that why I came? To pretend I’m normal.
I see Brandon playing with his friends and he looks happy, without a care in the world, I feel a sense of relief. No worries. He’s living in the moment, which reminds me that’s all that anyone of us can do. Brandon. Leslie. Me.
I drink a few sips of wine and hear music playing, “The Monster Mash” a Halloween rock n’ roll favorite. I walk quickly across the room, take Leslie’s hand and we start to dance.
Chris O'Halloran is a young writer living in the lower mainland of British Columbia. He is a trained actor pivoting his art and taking it in a new direction.
It was almost enough to make a man swear off drinking. The sight of thin, gory cables being pulled from the arms of my good friend Thom made me more than sick to my stomach. It sent my feet to prickling and my pits to leaking.
Thom and I were good friends, or as good as two men making a habit of saddling their fat asses up to a bar every other night could be. We had muttered criticisms of various topics from the state of the Republican Party to which glam rock stars were actually queer or just dressed that way as I drank away my workers comp check and he the lump sum he made from selling his computer program to Google the previous year. Do not be mistaken though, his newly amassed wealth was not accompanied by a new sense of generosity. The prick sucked down top shelf vodka while I sipped cheap whiskey, waiting for him to offer me a taste of the good life. Thank God I didn’t hold my breath.
Whether it was his stinginess or the drink that kept me planted to the concrete behind the dive bar, leaky dick in hand, I do not know, but there I stood as the closest thing to a best friend had his veins and arteries removed from his body.
I had begun pissing all over the chain-link fence that separated the bar lot from the bail bonds agent next door when a charming British man strolled up to Thom as he was walking to his car. “Hey bruv, know if the number five still operates this late? I need to get back to my mate’s flat and I really don’t want to have to call an Uber.” When Thom looked up to inform the man about the broken state of our transit system or, as was more his nature, tell him to “Fuck off,” the man’s palm flashed out at lightning fast speeds striking his heart three times in rapid succession. He grabbed Thom as he fell and dragged him into the alley I was pissing in. Thom gasped for air as his hand tore at his pressed silk shirt like a man whose heart was burning up inside of him.
“Let me help with that, chum,” spoke the Englishman and ripped Thom’s shirt open. Buttons popped and Thom’s flabby gut was exposed. As far as I knew, Thom’s assailant hadn’t seen me. My dick began to shrink as the adrenaline began coursing through my body, my fight or flight instinct in a state of major fucking confusion. The Englishman pulled Thom’s arms out of his sleeves and spread them along the chain-link fence, letting the expensive shirt fall onto the dirty ground. He pulled out two thick zap-straps from his jacket and secured Thom’s wrists to the fence.
When he pulled the blade from his pocket and flipped it open, I began to tuck myself back into my pants. I didn’t move fast; attracting attention was extremely low on my list of priorities. The man began to slice into Thom’s left wrist, precisely, like a highly trained surgeon cutting into very specific tissue. Thom’s skin parted and blood seep from the wound, obscuring the incision. He turned pale and gasped like a fish plucked out of the lake it had previously assumed safe.
The man reached into Thom’s flesh, plunging his fingers into the mess and hooking his forefinger around one of Thom’s blood vessels, pulling it out. I am in no way a medical professional, so I cannot say whether it was a vein or an artery. All I know is all that shit is supposed to be inside you and this charming stranger was intent on getting it in the open.
He pulled on it like a bow string, stretching it away from Thom’s bone and flesh. It shone red in the light of the cheap bulbs in the back of the bar. He placed the knife back in his right pocket and reached into his back pocket, pulling out a stainless steel clothes pin. With the gentle touch of an expert maid hanging clothes to dry he secured it to the vein/artery before reaching into his left pocket and removing a shiny zippo lighter.
With his left hand he flicked the lid open and sparked the flame, creating an unnatural large streak of luminescence and heat I felt from at least twenty feet away. He held the vein in his right hand and carefully stretched his neck out, baring his teeth. A long and shiny incisor bit down on the vein and tore, the pinched length falling against Thom’s wrist and the other side held closed between the Englishman’s thumb and forefinger. He touched the flame to the end of the blood vessel and placed his mouth against Thom’s before he could scream.
I smelled Thom’s skin cook and it sent shivers up my spine not because it was disgusting, but because it wasn’t. The smell was almost pleasant, conjuring up memories of cookouts with cheap hot dogs and thick potato salad. “Here we are,” the man said, soothing Thom as he moaned. The man had pulled his lips from Thom’s and there was a smear of blood around his lips.
Thom seemed to be hovering on the edge of unconsciousness when the man pulled a hypodermic needle from his pocket and stuck him with it, depressing the plunger. “You’re going to feel an odd sensation. If you experience any pain, try and let me know in a manner that doesn’t alert the patrons of this fine establishment you treat like a second home.” Whatever serum he had injected seemed to have a hardening effect on the blood vessel. It stiffened and blanched, turning from a deep crimson to a pale pink.
The Englishman grabbed the end of Thom’s vein secured by the clothespin and began to tug it slowly away from his wrist. He slowly pulled it towards himself and the freshly cauterized end disappeared into Thom’s body. The bloody rope coiled on the ground as he pulled it out, and I cringed at the thought of all the dirt and bodily fluids Thom’s innards were now resting on. My buddy fainted and sagged downwards, held up by the zap-straps fastened to his wrists. If he had any circulation the straps would be cutting it off, but his entire body was grey.
This stranger kept pulling, amassing a sizable coil of blood vessels at his feet. Thom did not bleed much, but his body seemed to deflate as he had bits crucial to survival stolen inch by inch. I saw the flesh tug as the man slowly pulled and had thoughts of a spider, tied down, its silk harvested from the hole in its ass.
After a long procedure, the cauterized end of the vein pulled through Thom’s body as he hung lifeless from the cold metal fence. The Englishman scooped up the mass of blood vessels and threw it over his shoulder like an electrician transporting a power cord to his van. He began to saunter down the alley away from me when I made the mistake of zipping up.
He stopped in his tracks and turned towards me, eyes lit up and a lopsided grin stretching towards his right ear. I stood shaking with terror as he began to take steps towards me. There was enough time to picture the same treatment happening to me, and I hoped I would faint before feeling the tug in my arms as the man got his second harvest of the night. I prayed to a God I had not believed in since my childhood that I would feel no pain, no sharp sensations of heat as this stranger performed an impromptu vein removal on me.
When he arrived at my feet I found I had still had some piss left in me. My bladder let go and the thinnest stream of urine shot down my thigh, leaving a dark streak like a loose thread. The man had shiny black hair, slicked back low along his scalp and he smelled of pomade and peppermint. He was a handsome man, clean shaven and fresh looking, his pearly smile showing no signs of stereotypical British dentistry.
“Please,” I whimpered, “Don’t take my veins.” It sounded pathetic, but I was quite drunk and feeling cowardly. “I’m a drunk. My blood is bad, I think. Sometimes I feel my heart skip a beat and I have to take medication for a bad back. None of my organs would do you any good.”
The man chuckled and adjusted the heap of blood vessels on his shoulder. “You think your mate was in any better condition? Vessels are vessels, my friend.”
“Are you a vampire?” I asked, stalling for time in the hopes that a passerby would glance into the alley and call for help. My voice was shaky and beads of sweat chased one another down my forehead and off the tip of my nose.
This question sent the Englishman off into gales of laughter. His head rolled back as he guffawed into the cool night air. When he composed himself, tears were in his eyes. “Of a sort, sure. I like to think of myself as a sort of salesman.” With his free hand he reached inside his jacket, a smart looking blazer as dark as his hair, and pulled a business card out between two gore streaked fingers. He held it out to me. “Lucky Vincent, An Acquirer of Sorts,” he said, introducing himself.
I mustered up the strength to take the card from him, avoiding touching the blood clots and runny plasma dripping from his fingertips, and saw those exact words typed across an off white card in raised lettering along with a phone number.
“My name is Jake Roberts,” I said. I had read somewhere that attackers were less likely to harm you if they knew your name. Something about showing them that you’re a real person with a real identity. Humanizing yourself to them. It seemed to have worked, because Lucky stuck out his right hand for a handshake.
“Pleased to meet you Jake. Like the wrestler?”
I shook his hand weakly, nauseous from the feeling of Thom’s slick blood and thankful that there was no more liquid in me. “Born a few years before his debut, but yeah.” His grip was strong and I felt embarrassed at how warm and sweaty my hand must have been. The fact that my shame was greater than my terror amazed me later, but at the time seemed natural. I felt like a junior associate, making conversation with a member of upper management before an interview or big presentation. “Are you going to do what you did to Thom to me?” I asked him, pulling my hand away and wiping it on the back of my jeans.
He smiled at me like a father would smile at his son, full of naiveté. A young doe standing in the shadow of a big strong buck. “Depends. How useful can you be to me?”
I thought it over. My life up until that point had not been one of note. I had fucked my back up at work two years previous, slipping on an oil spill while carrying a 55 lbs. bag of concrete and the resulting settlement had kept me in the money while giving me plenty of spare time to wallow in my lonely existence. Was it worth selling myself out to this strange murderer? Was my hollow presence worth being in his debt, doing whatever nefarious deeds he asked of me?
“Useful how?” I asked him, mentally agreeing to any task he placed in my responsibility.
“I am tired of staking out shitty places like this, waiting for lonely people who won’t be missed to show themselves. It requires a lot of research on my part, a fair amount of time sitting and waiting, figuring out which patrons had families or friends. People to file missing person’s reports. If you were to tip me off to any friendless individuals you met in your own whiskey fueled self-destruction I would be quite grateful. Not only would I spare you tonight, but you would get a nice commission to supplement your disability check with each...lead you brought me.”
“You know about my disability check?” I croaked.
“Like I said, I do my research. Who’s to say you wouldn’t be the one strapped to the fence if I had seen you first tonight?” I glanced over at Thom and immediately regretted it, picturing myself hanging in that position, pale and clammy, the blood vessels pulled from my body as I slipped out of consciousness. I would like to say I thought about Lucky Vincent’s proposition for a time, but my desire to live overpowered any morals or sense of dignity I had.
“I can do that. Whatever you need, I can do.” I said, slipping his card into my pocket next to the dark streak of piss.
He smiled once more at me and strode away. “I look forward to your call, Jake.”
“Wait!” I exclaimed and he stopped in his tracks.
“Yes?” He inquired over his shoulder, not turning towards me.
“What are you going to do with those?” I asked, meaning the tangled coil of bloody rope. He stood for a moment, thinking the question over.
“You ever hear of ne'er do wells stealing copper piping and selling it to recycling centers? Same basic concept, just with customers you’re less likely to see operating a cash register,” he replied and turned the corner, disappearing around the side of a pawn shop.
I was left alone with my old drinking buddy, shivering out of cold, fright, and a sick sense of excitement. For a second I felt bad for Thom, his last moments spent in a dirty alley smelling of fresh piss and littered with heroin needles and used condoms. The moment passed though as I recalled his miserly attitude.
“Cheap fuck,” I muttered and headed off in the opposite direction from my new business partner, the usual consistent ache in my back surprisingly quiet in the strange night air.
Edith Gallagher Boyd is originally from Philadelphia, the youngest of the seven Gallagher children. Her short fiction has been published in Potluck Magazine, The Furious Gazelle, No Extra Words, and Phoenix Photo & Fiction. Her non-fiction appears in Thought Notebook Collection, and her work is forthcoming in The Rain, Party, and Disaster Society. Edith and her husband live in Jupiter, Florida.
Peeking Through The Curtains
Jack didn't share my interest in our new neighbors. He had chosen our house without my seeing it. There simply wasn't time. His transfer came up so quickly, and I needed to give notice to the hospital before the move.
From the day we pulled into the short driveway, I had an eerie feeling about the place. Jack was able to read me so well, I avoided eye contact during our first tour of 19 Turner Rd.
The rooms were small, and the place felt choppy. He said, "Kim, I know you prefer open space and a great room, but in this neighborhood, that's hard to find."
I pulled him to me and said, "Jack, It's fine. I'd be happy with you on Saturn or Mars."
In his haste to find something, he accepted a year's lease in a furnished home. My first day alone, I sat in each of the over-stuffed living and dining room chairs, feeling a little like Goldilocks. I meant what I said to Jack about my happiness, but the house was really creeping me out. And I felt myself drawn to checking out our neighbors.
During one of my early trips to the supermarket, I met Charles and Anna, or more accurately, I met Charles, and studied Anna, her pale drawn face and flat eyes. Boisterous in his greeting, Charles introduced himself and his wife, and repeated Jack and my names in his welcome. Anna neither smiled nor spoke. He cradled her elbow as he led her to the car, and opened her car door. The courtly gesture both touched and rattled me.
As Jack and I lingered over our chicken marsala, I brought up my meeting the neighbors.
Clinking his wine glass to mine, he said, "So Charles opens the door for his wife, and this is a problem? he said, his full wattage smile letting me know how silly I sounded.
"I know they're older and all....but she seems like, I don't know......a shell or something," trailing off, knowing Jack was under scrutiny from his supervisors, and needed to unwind and relax.
Shifting gears, I took his hand and asked him about his day.
The next day, I watched Anna walk slowly through her side yard, her face devoid of any expression. Her husband didn't appear to be home, and I nearly walked out back to strike up a conversation with her, but chickened out, determined to mind my own business.
Knowing that my interest was growing into an obsession, I chastised myself one rainy afternoon, when the buzzer from my oven startled me from my perch at the window. I wanted to know what was up next door.
Having no time to make friends, I went to my desk and retrieved the yellow paper from the waste basket. Written in neat block letters, an invitation to a Potluck Dinner a few doors down from us. While not my thing, and less so Jack's, I felt it may be a way to get to know Charles and Anna Butler.
Before I could change my mind, I called the number to accept and offer to bring lasagna.
Katie Dowling answered during the second ring.
When I introduced myself, her warmth seemed to flow through the phone.
"Kim, we'll be so happy to see you and your husband. We didn't want to barge in, and ...we planned it, hoping you'd come. I was going to drop by tomorrow to invite you.
Don't worry about bringing anything...just yourselves. Do you two drink wine and beer?"
"Yes. Thank you, Katie," I said, relieved by her welcome.
As soon as I hung up I called my sister Carolyn to tell her about it. First, I apologized for being a phone stalker, as I'd been bugging her since a week before the move.
"Good for you, Kim. And when you find a job, you'll meet lots of people."
I told her I thought the woman next door was under some kind of a spell or something.
“Kim," she said, in her older sister voice, "I hope you're not blowing this up in your head. Has the move been hard on you?"
“No. Carolyn, I'm fine. I just don't want to bother Jack right now. I can see his mind whirling with his new job, and he doesn't need me dragging him down," I said.
I asked about her husband and kids and when I hung up, I felt that... all is right with the world feeling my sister gave me.
Later that evening, Jack surprised me with flowers, wine, and an upbeat reaction to the gathering. "Sounds good," he said, as I was placing the soft yellow roses on the dining room table.
As it turned out, Jack was unable to free himself from a working dinner, so I ventured to the Dowling's party alone. Clutching a chilled bottle of chardonnay, I tapped on their door, and heard a chorus of "Come in!"
Multi-colored balloons surrounded the couch and dining room table.
The Dowling children darted from room to room, jumping up to show me the balloons,
"Careful, you guys," Katie said, through a big smile.
Each balloon said "Welcome," and Katie guided me to see the cake her kids were clearly ready to eat. It said, "Welcome Kim and Jack."
I blinked back tears, and wished Jack were with me to feel the warmth and sense of community. Maybe our rental would become our long-term home.
reached into my purse to take a picture of the cake, and remembered to ask my hostess.
"Snap away," she said, "before the kids destroy it."
Both Jack and my sister Carolyn would be pleased.
My joy was dimmed by the sight of Anna Butler, seated alone on the back patio, while Charles was in the center of a circle of neighbors, gesturing like a boxer, animated while expressing himself.
After cutting the cake amid snapping cell phones, I walked a piece out to the patio and sat across from Anna.
"Charles doesn't like me to eat sugar," she said, while attempting to smile.
I restrained myself from commenting, hoping she would elaborate.
"He doesn't like belly fat," she said, while patting her skeletal torso, under her dress.
Carolyn would diagnose me as missing my job as a psychologist, but I retained the blank look I had with my patients, as I tried to draw Anna out.
When she offered nothing further, I said, "I saw Charles inside."
"Charles doesn't like me to be around other men," she said, as if she were mentioning a sale at Macy's. As if the comment were innocuous and normative, as one of my colleagues was fond of saying.
"Are you comfortable with that, Anna?"
"Why wouldn't I be?" She asked, looking at me directly for the first time.
"I'm Kim," I said, ready to extricate myself from this strange woman.
"Yes. Your name is on the cake," she said, and I started to wonder if she were one beer short of a six-pack, as my cousin Aidan would say.
"And your husband let you come alone?" She asked.
Dying to call Carolyn, yet again, I said, "Yes, Anna, He did."
The interaction soured me, making the potluck something I had to endure, rather than enjoy. Every time I heard a burst of laughter in the vicinity of Charles, I lost my appetite, knowing my hostess was checking to see if I was trying the assorted dishes.
Sensing she was a romantic, I pulled Katie Dowling into the kitchen and told her I had a surprise for Jack, and needed to leave.
"Enjoy," she said, with genuine warmth.
She fixed me to-go food in tupperware containers, which I promised to return during the week.
I waved good-bye to the neighbors, thanking them for their welcome. I let myself stare at Charles wanting him to know he may have an audience. He narrowed his eyes, a hint of menace clouding his features.
The Dowling children distracted me, as they each handed me a small gift, and I shook their outstretched hands, smiled, thanked them, and left.
Thrown by my encounter with Charles, I was relieved when the timer lights Jack installed popped on in our new home. So eager was he to excel in his new position, he revved up his natural thoughtfulness in little things, to make our transition easier.
Feeling safe as I entered, I was determined to be rid of the feelings that horrible man brought out in me. What business of it was mine if a long marriage was alien to me? If Anna enjoyed her servitude.
I popped open a beer, and settled into our living room, channel surfing for something funny. I found a Seinfeld re-run and it worked its magic on me, until I heard Jack's voice and bounced up to greet him.
His enthusiasm about his new position was infectious, and we enjoyed a special evening together. When he asked me about the party, I edited the negatives, my obsession with Anna, my revulsion with Charles. Never had a cake received such rave reviews.
A few days later, after washing my neighbor Katie's containers, I decided to drop by, hoping to seem more friendly than I was at the end of the party. The light green buds on the maple trees were sprouting, along with the pink azalea bushes during my short walk to her front door. I tapped gently, and she opened the door quickly.
With a glint in her eye, she said, "I hope our loss was Jack's gain the other night."
"It was, Katie."
Closing the door behind her, she threw up her hands and said, "Kids! What can I tell you? My house is a mess. Kim, we've started a community vegetable plot on Rider Street around the corner. It's our first year. Who knows what it will produce? Please join us. Most of us make a point of being there Thursday mornings so we can catch up. So far, none of the guys are interested."
Sensing a friendship forming, I told Katie I planned to drop by Blair Nursery to pick up some seeds and some gardening tips. And I did just that before picking up a roasted chicken, one of Jack's favorites.
Still feeling a little like a party crasher, I hesitated when I approached the gardening plot on Thursday morning. I recognized a few of the women from the Dowling party, and was ridiculously pleased to see Anna Butler digging in the dirt. After greeting the women, I knelt across from Anna, and using my trowel, began to plant some seeds. After a few minutes of digging, Anna turned to Katie and said, "Charles loves tomatoes. I started them inside six weeks ago. He only eats red ones, so I hope these are red and juicy."
"Anna, Charles will love your tomatoes," Katie said.
Katie's response was so heartfelt, her eyes crinkling with joy, I felt as if I may have the wrong idea about Anna. Maybe I was lacking in wifely devotion....Maybe Jack was missing out on something from me.
Feeling as if Anna would be more open to Katie, I asked Katie if she would consider the three of us walking here together, and then, red-faced with adolescent angst, I withdrew the offer.
"I'll ask her, Kim," Katie said, her lips drawn in an anxious line.
At that moment, I knew Katie was on to Charles and the situation.
Lying with Jack that evening, he noticed the change in me.
"You're getting to like it here, Kim..the ladies..I mean women..the gardening. I'll quit this job tomorrow if you're not happy. "
"And we'll live on my non income?' I said, knowing it was stupid as soon as I said it.
I made sure his eyes met mine when I told him how much his saying that meant. And that I was making friends and loved digging in the dirt.
A month into our walks to the plot, Anna was smiling and even teasing a bit with Katie. Her husband may have warned her about me, after our non verbal sparring at the potluck dinner. But he obviously had not proclaimed an edict that she avoid me.
And one day, when she saw me working in my own little garden, she called over to me, "Kim, enjoy yourself!"
I felt as if her sense of inclusion with the neighbors had opened her, as it had opened me.
My sister Carolyn felt the move had thrown me off kilter and the RX for me was a job.
Maybe in the mix, was her early motherhood's interfering with her education. But she had a profound respect for my degree and profession.
"I need this break, Carolyn. Jack's doing well, and we planned I'd give myself some time to unwind. Taking on peoples' stuff is draining."
"I hear you," she said, able to let go of her own opinions.
En route to our gardening plot, I mentioned Carolyn's feelings about my working to Katie and Anna.
Anna spoke so quietly, we barely heard her.
Katie spoke up, and asked Anna what she had said.
"Charles would never let me work," she said, looking down, knowing it would bother us.
Months ago, at the Dowling dinner, she didn't seem to get how bizarre her comments about him were. If she were one of my patients, I would have noted her embarrassment as growth. I tried to catch Katie's eye, but she rapidly changed the subject, clearly not wishing to gang up on Anna.
But during one of the following Thursdays in the garden, Katie met my eyes when Anna remained silent, looked drawn and gaunt, the slight luster in her cheeks fading, her progress appearing to reverse.
I sensed that Katie may be ready to speak about the situation honestly.
That afternoon, Katie answered my text, and surrounded by her animated children, we sat drinking iced tea in her kitchen. Her kids endeared me to them, as they were as natural and delightful as their mom.
Katie excused herself to put on one of the kids' favorite recordings, which had blasts of noise and plenty of action.
"They rarely listen, but will, if they sense our mood," she said, as she settled back down in the latticed kitchen chair.
"To be honest, Kim, knowing you are a psychologist makes me afraid to say something stupid or out of it. But truth be told, when the Butlers moved in these kids," with a quick thumb point toward the noisy playroom, "were babies, and I slogged around here craving sleep and paying no attention to the neighbors. Nobody warned me how much work kids could be."
"Well, obviously a job well done, Katie," I said, surprising myself with my affection for them.
"Thanks, Kim, she said as she put her finger to her lips, went to the arch in her kitchen and shot a glance into the playroom to ensure our conversation was private.
"I noticed how you reached out to Anna at the potluck which sparked my idea of including you in the veggie garden where we get to know our neighbors."
"In my practice, I've learned to trust gut feelings, and I felt an eerie feeling when Jack and I pulled into our rental. I didn't voice it, as I knew Jack had chosen it, and we try to be good to one another.....always."
"Yes, we do too, but I know what you see in Anna's deference to Charles is different than that," Katie said solemnly.
"Do we have grounds for an intervention?" I asked her, hoping for a yes.
"There is no battery, and no proof of any kind of verbal abuse...so, no, I think we just try to befriend her," Katie said kindly.
I left Katie's that Thursday afternoon feeling that Katie's life was so rich with her family, she didn't have as much room as I to dwell on strange neighbors. But I did, and I wanted a chance to untangle Anna's knots to help her to blossom. But my instincts told me I wouldn't get that chance.
The Thursday before the 4th of July, Anna wasn't in front of her house, and I went directly to Katie's. We both thought it was odd, as Anna had taken to texting Katie occasionally, if she was unable to attend a neighborhood event.
Katie reminded me that Charles was out of town on business, and maybe Anna had joined him. My gut told me that wasn't the case. That Charles would not allow it.
After a poor night's sleep, I couldn't shake the sense that something was wrong with Anna, and that I should follow my instincts and investigate.
Shortly after Jack left for work, I decided to stop by the Butlers' household.
After ringing the bell, and knocking, I turned the door knob, and found it was open.
Her home was very quiet. I stood in the foyer breathing deeply, and calling her name.
"Anna, it's Kim. Are you home?"
Knowing her bedroom was on the first floor, I inched along the hallway.
I felt her, before I saw her.
She looked peaceful; she looked sad; as she lay there lifeless, a note by her side.
I screamed and started to go to Katie's, but called her instead.
My years of watching crime shows helped me resist the urge to touch her, or read her note. There is a blank in my mind of what happened in the minutes before the police arrived.
I will always remember the expression on Officer Wilson's face, when I asked him to read me the note, and his "Sorry, Ma'am, it's personal...to the husband. Seems she disappointed him," the catch in his voice grounding me to the realization, that he was as upset as I. That his work had not blunted him. That he knew some people were too timid for this life, and we should notice them, show the courage to reach out to help them, to show them their strength ......while they are still among us.
Rylee is a student at Western Washington University; she is studying Creative Writing, Film, and Political Science. She enjoys writing about what she imagines the average person doesn't want to talk about. This is Rylee's first time being published and she is thrilled.
Yesterday marked the fifth anniversary of my sister Mary’s death. Every year my parents and I go to dinner, but this year we forgot. My mother called me this morning to apologize, saying she and Dad were so busy with the remodel they just forgot. I didn’t forget, but I was not going to remind them.
“It is fine Momma, I’m sure she doesn’t mind,” I lie.
“You’re right, our Angel is too busy running around,” Momma says.
“I’m sure she is.” I know she wants to get off the phone; she just wants me to confirm she wasn’t a bad mother for forgetting her child’s death.
“Well Honey, Dad and I are off to brunch with the Nelson’s, so I’ll talk to you later. Love you Sweetie, say hi to Brandon for us.” she says, hanging up. I throw my phone on my desk, at the head of my bed. I sit on my dorm bed at Western Oregon and stare at my favorite picture of Mary and me.
When Mary was four she fell off the deck. I jumped the three feet to the ground, a cloud of dust puffed around my bare feet. I giggled and knelt next to her; she was still facedown in the dirt. She hadn’t been crying just breathing into the ground. I pushed her shoulder and she didn’t budge. I pushed her again, harder. Finally, I pushed her over; she landed on her back with a thud. Her legs were twisted, one was under her butt, and the other looped under the opposite knee like some wrong crisscross applesauce. Mary lay there and stared at me, tears welling in her eyes.
“Momma!” I screamed. I felt the tears that fell on my dusty cheeks.
The picture’s glass makes a noise like it is going to crack so I release my grip slightly. I feel the sting in my nose like I’m going to cry and toss the picture on my bed. It lands on my pillow with a soft puff. I cannot keep myself from looking at it again. I bring my fist down on the pillow next to the frame. The words on the frame seem foreign or just ironic; “Sisters Forever” blazes in purple glitter, like neon against the black background. In the picture two little girls sit on either side of a giant teddy bear; one is five, one is nine, one has a breathing tube and sits straight-backed in a wheelchair, one doesn’t.
I hear my phone vibrate on my desk. I get up and look at the lit screen.
Brandon- “Hey Babe, you didn’t come to Econ today. You good?”
Me- “Yeah I just overslept.”
Brandon- “Alright, well I can stop by when I am done with class if you want.”
I sit back down on my bed phone in hand. Brandon knew better than to ask about yesterday or Mary, but he still worried. I glance at the photo like something about it might be different. Like maybe both the girls will me standing holding the bear. One is standing, one still straight-backed.
The year after Mary was paralyzed was the best year. New ‘Angel Mary’ brought so many perks with her: free movies, toys, candy. My parents took me out of school to help with Mary. My Momma was a high school teacher, but she quit to teach Mary and me. Then she would teach a GED class at night for extra money. Dad was a lineman and he took as much overtime as he could get to pay for everything. Every Saturday we got to go to the movies and we got to sit in the handicap seats, which were always the best. We would laugh and play throughout the movie and no one would say a thing. I ran up and down the aisles during the trailers. Mary screamed “Faster Katie, run faster.” During one game I tripped and hit my head on the armrest cup holder. Mary screamed with laughter as I stood and tried to clean the blood from my forehead with the back of my hand. The backs of both my hands were covered when I had to give up and get paper towels. They only had hand dryers. I reemerged in the theater clutching a wad of toilet paper to my head.
“You have to do that every time! It was so funny. You have to fall every time now Katie,” Mary squealed.
“But it hurt Mary,” I said.
“I don’t care. It was too funny,” she smiled back. I didn’t want to go to the movies anymore. I begged Momma to stop taking us. She only smiled.
After the movies stopped, Mary and I would spend all day watching Cinderella and acting out the ballroom scene. Mary was always the prince because she had the throne. I would wrap a towel around my waist and spin her around in her chair then she would scream “midnight,” I would whip off the towel and fall to the floor, pretending to clean it. Once she noticed the authority she could have, it never stopped. For a while I played along but then she started trying at the worst times. Late at night I would hear Mary’s voice through the baby monitor next to my bed “Midnight,” she would scream. I would awake suddenly and lie there until she said it again, “Midnight,” and I would eventually get up, walk into her room and pantomime sweeping her floor. She would giggle. All I could think about was my parents hearing their daughter yell “Midnight,” every night for a month.
I lean forward, letting my face fall onto the pillow. I feel the frame slide down the pillow and rest against my right cheek. I hold my breath as long as I can until letting my hot air fill the pillow, heating my face and forcing me to lift my head. The picture shifts as I sit up and then rest with my back against the wall. I hear a knock on my door and Brandon lets himself in. “Hey I brought you half a muffin but if you don’t want it I totally understand and I will eat it for you,” Brandon says, his mouth full. He kisses me and I can taste the poppy seed on his lips.
I giggle, “No you can have it.” He stuffs the rest of it in his mouth.
“Thanks Babe. Hey, want me to help you with your math?”
“No that’s ok maybe later.” My eyes are still glued to the photo but he doesn’t notice.
“Want me to help you out of your pajamas?” his terrible attempt at trying to seduce me.
“No,” I laugh, “I haven’t even brushed my teeth yet.” I smile at him.
“Alright,” he sighs, “then do you mind if I study for a while? Spanish is muerto-ing me.”
“Yeah sure.” He kisses me again. Then settling at my desk he opens his books and puts in his headphones. I stare back at the frame. My sister and I stare at me from their snapshot of happiness and I wish it were a picture of someone else's family.
For my tenth birthday my parents finally agreed to let me have a party. Since I didn’t go to school all the kids from the neighborhood came. Six kids and I could not have been happier. Dad got called in to do some overtime so it was just Momma, but she said it would be fine. My mother set up musical chairs for us. We ran in circles around chairs screaming and squealing. In the third round my birthday crown fell off and I was out, but I didn’t care because all those kids were there for me. It was down to two, Brandon Mitchell and Stephanie Ferguson. I watched Brandon as he ran around our dining chair. Then I heard her. Mary screamed in anger suddenly from the corner.
“It’s not fair! I can’t play, make them stop!” She yelled. Brandon and Stephanie ran in circles, waiting for the music to stop. Mary screamed at the top of her lungs until she was gulping for air. The music didn’t stop but everyone else did. The giggles ended and all that was left was Mary sobbing. My mother took Mary into her room. We all just waited, unmoving until my mother reappeared.
“Katie, you have to ask all your friends to go home, your sister isn’t feeling well,” Momma said to me. My heart dropped to my stomach and I thought I was going to scream or be sick. They were all standing behind me when my mother said it so my job was done for me.
“Momma, no all I want is this. Please, please don’t send them away.”
“I’m sorry Katie.” I turned around and saw they were all already putting on their shoes. I handed each of them their goodie bags, of a pencil, a Chinese finger trap and a kazoo, as they walked out the door. Each of them said nothing as they left. Brandon was the last to leave.
“I’m really sorry Katie, maybe next year will be better,” Brandon said as he walked out the door. I tried to smile at him. I knew there would be no next year. I knew there would be no party, ever again. That night I sat in my room and ate one slice of cake. I heard a knock on my door. My father stuck his head in, “Hey Katie, Mom told me what happened.”
“She ruins everything.”
“Now Honey, imagine how she feels. She only gets to watch everyone play. She will never get to be like you and your friends.”
“What friends?” I snapped, “After today I don’t have any.”
“Now I’m sure that’s not true. I know you are disappointed about your little party but you have to be Dad’s trooper now ok?
“Ok,” I growled.
“Great! Can you help feed Mary some birthday cake? Thanks Hun,” and without another word he left.
From age 8-15 my life was taking care of Mary, little angel Mary. I bathed her, fed her, dressed her, sat with her late at night, and gave up my childhood for her. My parents stopped seeing me as their daughter, I was just an extension of Mary’s life machine. They couldn’t see anything but Mary and she demanded it was that way. She thought the world owed her a new body but instead she got a family to run into the ground. The only time I left the house was to go grocery shopping with Dad. Neither of us ever spoke because I think we knew it would only hurt. Dad use to buy one bottle whiskey a week, but after the second year it was three. It is ok to be tired of a job or tired of the season but you can't get tired of a person, not a person that is only alive because of your efforts to keep them that way. The doctors always said she wouldn’t live past six. I think on her sixth birthday we were relieved that we got to keep our angel. As the years went on it started to feel less like a blessing and more like a fake expiration date.
When I was 14 I asked my mother if I could take swim lessons.
“How do you think that would make your sister feel?” I wasn't the one that was paralyzed but I might as well have been because I had to pretend. Sometimes I wish it had been me instead of Mary. Then she would have to take care of me. Only I wouldn’t make her life horrible. I would thank her; I would thank her and my parents everyday for caring enough to keep me alive. I would be content with my spot in the corner because I was alive. Once I found my mother crying in the laundry room. She had collapsed next to the dryer; she had a pile of dishtowels in her lap that she had been folding. She hadn't heard me come in.
“Momma?” She looked up suddenly.
“Go check on your sister for me, ok?” she sniffed, and dried her face with a dishtowel. I ran from the house. I sat at the end of our driveway and cursed Mary under my breath. She was killing all of us and it wasn’t fair. It wasn’t Momma’s fault she fell off that deck or mine or anybody's, why was she punishing us? Three of the neighborhood boys rode by on their bikes and I wished they were some mean biker gang, I could have jumped on the back of one of their bikes and just be gone. One of the boys stopped in front of me, Brandon.
“Hey Katie, what’s up?” Brandon said.
“I’m planning my escape,” I said.
“Oh yeah? To where?”
“Anywhere, wanna come?”
“Sure,” he laughed, “we can go wherever my bike can take us, so about to the end of the street and back.”
“Let’s go.” I stood and stepped up in front of his bike. I put my hands next to his and prepared to push myself up to sit on the handlebars.
“Hold on,” he said. As we were about to set off for the end of the street my mother came running out of the house.
“Katie! I need your help.” She ran back into the house before I could have said anything.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” I said.
“Hey it’s cool, we can travel the neighborhood some other day. Bye Katie,” Brandon said and then rode off towards his house at the end of the street. I walked into the house and to Mary’s room. Mary was screaming at my mother. I stood in the doorway for a long time staring at them.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Mary doesn’t want to eat again.”
“I’m not going to fucking eat until I can walk again!” Mary screamed.
“That doesn’t even make sense Mary, you haven’t walked in seven years, how is starving yourself going to fix your spine?” I said. My mother tried again to put a slice of banana near her mouth. Mary allowed the banana in her mouth just to bring her teeth down into my mother’s fingers. My mother screamed and jumped back from her daughter. Mary spit the banana at her. My mother cried and clutched her hand to her chest.
“Katie, can you just, please,” Momma said between swift inhales. She left the room. She always left the room before she cried in front of us. I stood at the end of Mary’s bed and looked at her in complete disbelief.
“What?” she spat at me.
“You are such a fucking bitch.” I regretted the words the second they left my mouth. I knew it was the one to punish in this. She could have bitten her finger off and I would still be in trouble. I wanted to be grounded. I wanted a reason to spend days in my room, days away from her.
“You can’t say that to me,” she said.
“Why?” I kept talking; no punishment would be enough, “What are you gonna do? Run after me? Hit me? All you can do is yell for Momma, all you can do is make everyone hate you more.”
“Momma!” she yelled. I heard a cupboard in the kitchen slam and footsteps come back down the hall. My mother re entered the room.
“Katie called me a bitch and made fun of me for being paralyzed and, and she hit me,” Mary lied.
“Katie, you can’t,” my mother began.
“I know,” I cut her off, “I am deeply sorry for my words and actions Angel Mary,” I recited like I had so many times before. I walked across the hall to my room and flopped onto my bed. At least I would be free for a few hours.
I hear the click, click, click, of Brandon’s pencil bouncing on the desk. I try to stare at the bear instead of the girls in the photo, I want him to comfort me, to steal my attention away from the two, but my eyes keep darting from her face, to mine, to the bears.
When I was fifteen I snuck the boy from down the street into my room. Brandon had been the only kid from the neighborhood that had stayed my friend. He never asked me about Mary. He only cared about how I was doing. In the moments I was with him I forgot about Mary. I wasn’t thinking about what to make her for breakfast, or of getting up at 4am to change her diaper so she didn’t have to sleep in her own filth all night. I was thinking about this boy’s hands under my shirt and his mouth on mine. I began thinking of ways to keep him there as long as I could, ways I could escape Mary just a little bit longer.
“God, you’re so fucking hot,” he said with his lips on my neck. I didn’t say anything I just let my breath quicken. I would let him do anything, as long as this goes on forever. Moments later the baby monitor on my nightstand said “Katie,” in my sister’s voice. I sat there, the small speaker saying my name over and over while he looked at me, confused. I threw my pillow at the baby monitor. The pillow caught it and my lamp. They both fell to the floor and broke to pieces. I stared at the mix of plastic and glass on the floor.
“Should I go?” he asked, as he pulled his shirt back over his head. I said nothing I just kept looking at the mess at the floor.
I sat there until he left out my bedroom window and until I could hear Mary crying from her room. I entered Mary’s room at the same time my mother did.
“Momma, Katie didn’t come for 15 minutes,” Mary said.
“What is it you need? Angel,” Momma replied.
“I want another pillow.” My mother did as she was asked and walked back to her room. I watched her go she looked so tired. I knew there was a time she didn’t look so tired, didn’t look so defeated, but I didn’t remember when. She hadn’t even seen me as she closed the door behind her, leaving me with Mary. I looked at Mary. I moved towards her, not making eye contact.
“What are you doing here?” she asked in a tone like she hadn’t just called me in there. I said nothing and pulled the pillow out from under her head. Her head fell back onto the one pillow she had before.
I put the pillow over her face and pressed down. I expected her to struggle but she couldn’t. She only made muffled cries from beneath the feathers. I left my weight on the pillow for what seemed like an hour before I lifted it. In that instance she looked like my sister again and not like a tyrannical clipped bird in a tube and wire cage. I lifted her head and placed the second pillow back under her.
“I just wanted my sister.” I kissed her cheek. The doctors always said it was a miracle she lived past six. My parents grieved her lose like any parent would, but they were just a little lighter than before. My parents chose not to question it and told everyone she went peacefully in her sleep to run with the angels.
Mary and I were running in a field of grass along the coast, only she was four again. She bobbed next to me, her sandy pigtails flopping on either side of her head. She kept up and even passed me. Even though I was almost twice her size. I was happy for her. She smiled at me and I smiled back.
“Katie! I wanna run fovea”
“I’m not sure I can keep up.”
The night after her funeral I awoke in a sweat. I got up and walked into Mary’s room. Momma was sitting on the edge of the bed like she would when she was telling Mary goodnight, “Goodnight my Angel, goodnight my star, one day you will fly so far.” It wasn’t the best rhyme but Momma made it on the spot when Mary was still in the hospital.
“Oh, hi Baby.“ Momma looked at me and I expected to see tears in her eyes but they were dry.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Nothing, nothing. I was just thinking.”
“Bout’ what?” I sat on the bed next to her.
“That last night. I keep trying to think if there was something different. If I didn’t turn her air on enough, if it was too high, if, oh, no I know this must have been God’s work. He didn’t want to watch her suffer any longer. He must of needed another runner for the pearly gate track team huh?” she laughed. Momma wasn’t the best with jokes. Her sense of humor kind of broke with Mary’s neck.
“I had a dream about Mary,” I said, changing the subject.
“And what is our Angel doing?”
“We were running.”
“Good. She must be happy. She was sending you a sign.” I don’t think my mother could have known how much I would hold on to those words.
My parents and I went out to eat almost every night in the following month. We did all the things we wanted and never could. Mainly we just walked. We hiked, we climbed stairs, we just walked unashamedly and without guilt. The first time I saw true happiness on my parent’s faces was when I told them I was accepted to Western Oregon University, they wanted me to do everything. More than that they wanted to do everything.
I get up and start changing into real clothes. Brandon looks up to watch and I stick my tongue out at him. Running a brush through my thick dark blonde hair I say, “You wanna get some lunch?”
“What?” Brandon yells over his music. He takes out one headphone and I can hear the metal expand from the tiny bud.
“Mmm. Si!” He gets up and closes his book and stands in the doorway. I replace the picture on the shelf above my desk. Maybe Mary is running with the Angels, or maybe she is in that chair in Hell. I smile at Mary for a second, she and I smile back, so unaware and happy.
Charles Hayes, a Pushcart Prize Nominee, is an American who lives part time in the Philippines and part time in Seattle with his wife. A product of the Appalachian Mountains, his writing has appeared in Ky Story’s Anthology Collection, Wilderness House Literary Review, The Fable Online, Unbroken Journal, CC&D Magazine, Random Sample Review, The Zodiac Review, eFiction Magazine, Saturday Night Reader, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Scarlet Leaf Publishing House, Burning Word Journal, eFiction India, and others.
Picking his way through the darkness of the banana palms near the Philippine Sea shore of Guiwang, Carloi approaches the white cinderblock house at the edge of the jungle. Although hating himself for spying, he must answer the question that has troubled him for some time: is his wife having an affair with the white foreigner that lives here?
Leaving the cover of the banana trees, he studies the stars and remembers how he and Rosa led their tribe of Sama-Bajau sea gypsies by the stars. And how those same stars married them and helped them raise a son. A son to assume their mantel of leadership and the lead banglo, or family boat, when they retired to the Cebu shore, still young. Trying to put his finger on when it began to change, Carloi remembers how they were quick to adjust to living ashore, yet continued to live from the sea with their knowledge of the fish runs and a good outrigger. How together they pulled nets of tuna from the dangerous deeper waters and celebrated with love in the isolated island coves afterward. Feeling a sudden wave of shame, Carloi must remember how it’s been lately before he loses his will. How his age began to show and a younger Rosa seemed restless. Then came the little tell tale signs of cheating: fuzzy explanations, unexpected absences and reports from friends that Rosa was seen in this area. And Carloi’s own sighting of her and the foreigner at an eatery in Dalaguete yesterday while he was completing an errand on the bus. Then tonight another disappearance.
Rosa, telling herself that this must be the last time, looks both ways along the highway to make sure she is unobserved. Stepping off the paved road onto a grassy path that cuts through the banana trees to Robert’s place, Rosa wonders how she ever became involved with the American. Maybe it was his older looks and secure manner or maybe she was just feeling a little unappreciated at home. Whatever the reason, this whole thing is just too dangerous. The American knows and understands nothing about her…..except maybe her hormones. And he is not the kind to put any stock in to begin with. Let alone jeopardize her marriage for. This will be it.
Having tried yesterday to end it in Dalaguete, she was met with manicured resistance and somehow convinced to come by his place this evening for a final goodbye. She knows what to expect, and for the life of her, she can’t help feeling excited by it. But this time she has to choke it.
Quickly covering the trail through the trees and the wet growth from a recent rain, Rosa enters the brightly lit porch. Feeling her heart in her throat and hating the bright light, she kicks off her sandals and pecks on the door. Listening to the night sounds of the jungle, she tells herself to be steady in her resolve.
Watching the door open to reveal a candle lit Robert, dressed only in Navy shorts, Rosa catches the scent of Jasmine as soothing twangs of sitar music drift from a back room. Despite these nice extras of the tropical evening Rosa tries to buck up and keep her mind in gear but Robert is quick to engage her with another kind of attention.
“Rosa, how beautiful you are glistened by the night dew. But your wet, sit down, I’ll get a towel.”
Moving to a chair, Rosa sits and at the same time realizes that she likes the nice things that Robert has. It is nice here amongst his things. And comfortable, despite her resolve.
Returning with a towel, Robert pats down her hair then moves lower to her arms, lightly massaging as he goes. Dropping to his knees, he lifts her feet to his lap and gently brushes them off before continuing up to her short clad thighs.
Seeing him touch her with such care while her feet touch his firm warmth, Rosa’s resolve begins to slip. Sensations that ask for a little more time tell her that a little longer will hurt nothing. Maybe even make it easier.
Dropping the towel, Robert gently spreads her legs and kisses each thigh. Lifting his eyes to her face, he sees in her expression what he has always been good at delivering. Taking her hands and rising, Robert looks upon this lovely creature, primed and sculpted to a tee.
“Come Rosa,” he says, “let us say goodbye like the world is ending.”
An uncommon need leading her, Rosa simply pulls to.
Lowering his eyes from the sky, Carloi gauges the distance to the house and it’s dark exterior. From one of the back windows a soft light shows below the partly raised shade. Thinking that this is his destination, Carloi circles the small yard and comes to the window with the jungle at his back. Fully committed now, all his senses center on the moment. Crouching below the window, he at first hears only the sounds of a stringed instrument. But on the shade above him a shadow expands and contracts. Or perhaps two shadows seesawing into one. When the music suddenly stops and begins to recycle he hears the soft kittenish sounds of a woman’s abandonment mixed with the sounds of a man’s voice. No doubt left in his mind, Carloi knows the woman is Rosa. His heart turned numb, he stands and looks in the un-shaded lower part of the window. On a large bed, cast against the flickering glow of a nightstand candle, Rosa and the foreigner are coupled in a delirium of pleasure. Braced by pillows under her lower spine, making herself more accessible, Rosa whimpers and cajoles the foreigner mounted atop her to do what must be done while he, at the same time, coaxes her to come.
Shattered to an almost surreal consciousness at first, Carloi just stares, frozen. But as the death throes of his spirit surfaces, a primal scream like none this jungle has ever heard issues from his soul. And for a moment the night is dead.
As the window implodes in a shower of glass and bamboo and the shade crashes to the floor, Robert and Rosa leap from the bed and run from the room, leaving a bloody Carloi halfway in the window. Falling back to the ground, Carloi does not hear the jungle come alive with sound as Rosa flees naked into the banana trees. And Robert locks himself in the toilet with a bolo, praying that Carloi will go after Rosa.
Slowly becoming aware of the jungle panic, and having glimpsed his naked wife sprinting towards the highway, Carloi begins to crawl toward the banana trees, leaving a trail of blood as he goes. Reaching the edge of the trees, he stands and again looks to the sky. Offering a Shepherd's staff instead of his usual hunter’s bow, Orion boldly stands out. Clearly seeing the sign but unable to consider what it portends, Carloi disappears into the banana trees, tortured by a new reality. Now he knows.
Quickly crossing the dark highway and disappearing into the rice paddies on the other side, Rosa follows the network of paddy dikes to the small track that leads to the Sea and their native cottage. So far unseen, she manages to get to the coconut grove and into their home without being exposed to others. Quickly she throws on some clothes and dons a pair of slippers while stuffing some essentials in a nipa carrying case. Grabbing a paddle by the door on her way out, she throws her stuff in the smaller outrigger, unties it, and prepares to drag it across the sand to the water. But which direction does she go once she hits the water? Suddenly feeling overwhelmed as her actions begin to catch up, Rosa looks to the stars. And stops. A thousand different directions are there in their lights, all leading to the same place-----where she stands. A hundred baths in salty brine nor a thousand leagues of ocean can erase the humiliation and regret that she feels. Nor the terrible mistake that she has made. There is no place to go to escape what is. Looking to the Sea and the fuzzy glow of Tagbilaran across the Bohol Strait, Rosa sees that her only chance to live with any face is to stay and live with what she has done. The stars will be a party to nothing else. With surrender and guilt filling her up, Rosa re-ties the outrigger, shoulders her belongings and returns to the cottage. Stowing the gear inside the door, she sits on the stoop and looks to where the stars are un-obscured by the palms. Carloi will come from that direction.
The distant sound of a barking dog signals that the quiet of the night is starting to ebb. The call of cocks follow not much later, sending and receiving battle cries from all over the barangay. And the lights of lanterns grow larger upon the dark waters of the Sea as the night fishermen paddle towards shore.
Having dozed fitfully, Rosa lifts her head from her knees to see a blood covered Carloi shuffling through the grove toward the Sea. Ignoring, or not seeing her, he passes, stripping his ragged clothes as he goes to the water. Naked and knee deep in the tide, Carloi tumbles forward and rolls to his back. Floating on the gentle swells of an incoming tide, he uses what’s left of his shirt to wipe his wounds, sometimes screaming as he does so.
Having followed him to the beach, Rosa stands by the boats and watches until he stands and walks from the water, again ignoring or not seeing her. Passing close enough for Rosa to see his cuts, Carloi stubbles to the cottage and closes the door. Shaken from her guilt, Rosa runs toward the Barangay Hall screaming for help.
After a hundred and thirty stitches and a trip to Dalaguete to purchase them and the necessary medicine, Rosa and the doctor leave an unconscious Carloi and walk the right-a-way track leading to the highway. Rosa learns what to do and is assured by the doctor that she is capable. And that the clinic is always free, though equipment and medicines, many times, must be purchased elsewhere……if they can be found. Knowing only that the cuts were not the result of an assault, the doctor does not press Rosa for details. Rosa’s obvious fragile condition tells her that details might be an uncomfortable place to go. And her position as the Barangay Clinic Physician does not require it. Let sleeping dogs lie. The pair say good-bye and part company at the highway when the doctor catches a trisikad for the short ride to the clinic.
Returning to their cottage, Rosa can see that Carloi’s fever is still bad. It likely will take a steady dose of antibiotics to break. Luckily they are readily available over the counter and cheap. But still there is her guilt. What can she be to her husband after such a betrayal? That is their sickness that has no medicine.
Coming ashore in the late afternoon after dropping a nice load of tuna off at their distributors, Rosa tries again to established something resembling a relationship with the man that she lives with.
“A good day for tuna, huh, Carloi?”
Carloi, looking at his still beautiful wife under the large conical hat, simply replies over his shoulder, “It was OK.”
At least receiving a reply to her comment, Rosa senses an opportunity.
“You know, Carloi, it reminds me a little of those times when we first left the tribe and came ashore.”
Having spoken more in these two sentences than she has spoken in a day, Rosa holds her breath as she watches Carloi, his back turned, roll a small net.
Finished with the net, Carloi pauses in his movements before turning to face Rosa. Her hat now in hand and rich black hair down over deeply tanned shoulders, framed by a Sea alive with sun diamonds, Rosa is the girl he chose to ride the lead banglo with many years before. Holding her eyes for the first time since he almost died, Carloi says, “Me too………..but that was before.”
Knowing what he means but seeing an opening that might not come again, Rosa says, “Before what, Carloi?”
His gaze not faltering, and seeing that determination in Rosa’s eyes that first drew him all that time ago, Carloi simply replies, “You know what.”
“Say it, Carloi.”
“Yes you can. Say it!!!
“Before you fucked the American!!!!”
Sinking to the hull of a neighbor's blocked dugout, Rosa looks away but can feel the fire of Carloi’s glare.
“Yes,” she says, “and I want to die each time I remember it.”
As if planted in the sand around his feet, Carloi drops the net, clinches his fists and looks to the small lump of Siquijor on the horizon.
“How many times?”
“All that time,” says Carloi, “and only three times?”
Beginning to cry, Rosa says, “Yes, I wanted to surprise you. I was doing his house work, trying to make enough money to buy a gift for our son’s wedding anniversary. Robert……..the American was very persistent. He knew what he was doing. And I was shamefully negligent of myself…..and you. I would do anything to make it just a bad dream. And then I would still want to die.
Moving to sit on the gunwale of another boat, Carloi fingers the deep scars across his chest and stomach. Glancing at Rosa before letting his eyes drift afar, Carloi finally asks the hardest of all to know.
“Do you love him?”
“No! I knew he was no good, a predator. I hear he is since deported for young girls in the city, and rightly so. He fascinated me with his stories and his things. But I knew he was a snake. Please Carloi, give us another chance. I am sorry…..by God above, I am sorry.”
Shaking his head, Carloi stands and walks toward their cottage before turning to face Rosa.
“I wanted to kill you.”
Rising from the dugout, Rosa moves toward Carloi as if to shorten the chances of rejection. Searching his open but haggard face, Rosa begs for her self in the simplest way she knows how.
“Please don’t kill me Carloi. Forgive me.”
As evening rapidly settles, Carloi, turning his back again, replies, “If I can.”
Ominous skies, rough seas, and a signal 3 storm flag flapping over the Barangay Hall tell Carloi and Rosa that there will be no fishing today. A typhoon cutting across the Northern tip of Mindanao will soon hit Cebu and its Central Visayan neighbors. Already the wind and rain bends the palms, whipping their fronds like green crape.
The day is spent collecting enough food and petrol to hold them and moving the boats within the grove. Their native cottage, anchored in concrete footers, and partially protected within the trees, will or will not make it. Such risks come with the territory of airy economical housing.
As evening closes in, the power goes and the winds start to howl. Sitting on separate sleeping mats, nursing a large candle on the floor between them, Carloi and Rosa watch a corner of their roof disappear. The sound of the Sea slapping against the footers below their windward main window signals that the storm is at its peak. Suddenly a large coconut crashes through the grass roof and smashes to the floor, crushing the candle. Groping in the dark, Carloi locates another, lights it, and unsheathes his bolo. Bracing the nut on their heavy breakfast table, he shears the end off with two swings of the blade and offers the fruit to Rosa. With a nod, Rosa turns it up and drinks thirstily. Wiping her mouth on the back of her hand, she returns the fruit to Carloi, watching as he drains it and rolls the hull to a corner.
With not much to do but wait out the storm, they draw closer. Like his recent brush with Rosa on the beach, Carloi is reminded of the resourceful woman that helped him and their tribe survive. Finding it harder to condemn her for being human, he sees a woman of poise and beauty that would be coveted anywhere. How could he have been blind to that?
Rosa, watching the soft light play on her husband's weathered face and its character, forgets the winds and missing pieces of roof. More important than that, she knows that she and Carloi will survive. But, as she moves her eyes over his jagged scars, she also knows that this kind of man will only happen once. When she was a girl only in her teens she knew that. Now a woman, it can be no different.
Long into the night, as the winds begin to abate and the Sea recedes, jeep headlights swing across Carloi and Rosa’s coconut grove. Knowing who it must be, they do not move. Wrapped in separate blankets, they hear the Barangay Captain call out, “Is everybody OK here?”
A little sad that the official end of the storm has arrived, but thankful just the same, Rosa yells back, “A little chilled is all.”
Seeing the touch of melancholy in Rosa’s eyes and feeling much the same Carloi shouts, “Thank you, Captain. We are fine.”
As the jeep’s headlights swing back toward the highway and the Sea and sky crack with a pale glow, Carloi stands and looks down at his wife.
Lifting her eyes to her husband, Rosa is reminded of his morning stance over the banglo bed before going aft to shoot their tack. Lowering her eyes, she moves the candle and pulls the mats together while Carloi watches. Raising her eyes to him once more, Rosa follows the flickering light on his face and opens her blanket.
The beautiful girl that added a splash of brown to the coral colored waters of a lagoon is still there, treading water for him standing above. Going down, how lovely it all is. How nice to be back.
A graduate of the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design University, Susan E Lloy has published in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia and the United Kingdom. A writer of short fiction living in Montreal, her short story collection, But When We Look Closer, will be published by Now Or Never Publishing April 15, 2017.
That Screaming Silence
“Maggi Brody! Well… that one can charm the fins off a shark.”
That’s precisely what her neighbour, Coleen, had said when she paused with her dog to inspect the truckload of garbage that had been dumped on the edge of the property line.
“How do you know it’s her?”
“Listen, Edie, I know you’re a recent addition to these parts, but that family is a problem and they don’t give a damn about anyone but themselves.”
“But, Maggi seemed so nice when I moved in. She even brought me a pot of fish chowder and a sponge cake. A welcome gesture, so she said.”
“Oh… I’m sure she did. Smiling away, all the while those sons of hers’ were getting up to all sorts.”
“But, I have no proof.”
“You just wait. It’ll fall at your feet.”
She watched Coleen and her dog, Molly-Moo, head up the hill to the bluff where the open sea resides just beyond the cove. She had moved here from Montreal two months prior and it wasn’t the first time there had been garbage cast on her land. About five weeks ago someone had discarded an old fridge and sink with a dozen or more garbage bags. It irritated her then, as it did now.
She flew down five months ago after viewing the property online. There weren’t any neighbours directly next door, which was exactly the privacy she
craved. She had been dreaming of quiet for the last four decades after living the inner city life most of her adult life. The real estate agent said she would find peace here, yet this persistent dumping was making her blood boil. It wasn’t until later that she had discovered the real estate agent was, in fact, Brody kin. There was also continuous noise from revving car engines and ghetto blasters. Once, when she walked by the Brody place, one of the sons grinned at her as she looked on with a dismayed expression hoping it would resonate that this noise was upsetting her. Nevertheless, he only returned a cocksure smirk rubbing a wrench along his groin as if to say, ‘Come get it’. She then knew the only thing he was capable of respecting was a cold beer or a willing slut.
She continued up the hill to her older cape that hung back from the road with its generous lot just a bit more than an acre. It had worn blue shutters that could close against bad weather. The temperature remained warm for September, yet, she fortified all her windows in an attempt to find some degree of quiet simultaneously barring entry to the briny sea air she loved so much. The house itself had a calm atmosphere with white painted walls and exposed wooden beams throughout the main living area.
The space was splashed with vivid colours from relocated items that had been collected throughout the years: Turkish and Iranian rugs, antiques, old
doors from the street dripping in worn paint suggesting abstract paintings. Photographs and books.
She rarely played music, but here in her detached abode free from bothering neighbours with thin city walls, she went to the stereo and put on an old favorite. The Sex Pistols blared throughout the house. She imagined dozens of hardcore punks ambushing the Brody residence. Smashing ghetto blasters, stapling their heads, blowing up vehicles, wiping the grins right off their arrogant faces. This vision brought a smile to her lips as she stirred milk into her cup of tea.
It also brought back treacherous thoughts about her old city neighbours. There had been a family of the worst sort that lived directly across the alley. One could say the bottom of the barrel. They were a family of eight with five barking dogs, a daughter that kept popping out offspring and various cousins or other acquaintances that all lived in a flat not one hundred feet from her.
They had been at war for ten years. The hillbilly offspring had thrown bags of frozen dog defecation from the street at her windows; a brick had been thrown through her kitchen pane one Halloween and they had used her patio fence as a hockey net. When the spring came she was unable to open a window for fresh air because of their screeching and banging, and Mama Hillbilly could shatter every window on the block with her harsh, biting francophone shriek. They went away for three weeks every August and she
had dreamed of them scattered all over the highway following a fatal encounter.
Though, she thought herself a good person. ‘Yes, I’m good. I always offer help to the blind and give up my seat to the elderly or any pregnant woman on
the Metro. I’ve supported a few from the street. If someone looks lost with a map I’ve always offered assistance. Yes, I’m good.’
She sat at the table and viewed her laptop. She was reading a Hollywood gossip site advertising Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love’s former LA apartment being rentable for the night or by the week for a hefty price. One could even take a bath in the same tub where he wrote Heart-Shaped Box. She supposed the ordinary folk of Los Angeles had neighbour troubles too, but didn’t know how to deal with her own.
It was the first house she had ever purchased, which made her more protective towards it than her former rentals. Still, because she was besieged by noise and garbage it brewed up a storm of restlessness and a need for retribution. She had thought this the perfect retreat, safe from world terrors, as one could hardly imagine any extremist group feeling the need to ambush a small, seacoast village. The only thing here to terrorize was the odd fisherman or random lobster. Nevertheless, it felt menacing with that Brody clan just down the hill.
She called a local truck company to collect the debris hoping this would be the end of it. For it was to be her last time copping up money for garbage collection and as soon as she could prove who was doing this, she would face them. When she first came here it was winter and the persistent snowstorms had camouflaged the junk on the Brody land. When she arrived back in early summer old rusted cars, washing machines, snowmobiles and most disturbing, a bag of four drowned puppies were mixed within the other chattels peppering the yard. A sad Labrador mix tied up in the yard barked endlessly constantly chewing at itself as if it was infested with ticks or fleas, or both. So she attempted not looking in their direction as it made her depressed; however there was always some racket that drew her to them.
She had friends here; old friends from childhood who, when she complained about the Brodys advised her to take action. However, it was easy to say when they lived an hour and a half away surrounded by civilized folk who were perhaps far from perfect, but seemed so in comparison.
The truck had hauled off the junk for a price with money she really didn’t have managing on a limited pension. Her nerves had become electric anticipating the next heap of litter or some shattering clamour to commence at any second; she decided the best thing to do was drive into the city and have dinner with a friend, feeling the need to escape this once dreamed of haven.
She took the coastal route even though it was slower. The sun had burst through the fog and the sea glistened. The seaside towns appeared sleepy and subdued and she imagined polite folk smiling on the streets offering a wave to a neighbour, a smile to a passer by. At least that’s how she remembered it, when she lived here forty years ago, for she was an outsider now even if she had been born here. She rolled into the driveway of her friend Stella who lived outside the city close to the sea.
The house smelled of homemade bread and stew. Stella had never worked and had perfected her baking and cooking skills to high art.
“Edie! So great to see you.”
They hugged each other tightly and sat down at the table, the woodstove blazing close by. Stella opened a bottle of wine and Edie took in the silence of the still house.
“It’s so nice here. Can’t hear a sound.”
“I know, it’s hard to beat. Is it really as bad as you say?”
“Worse. I don’t know what to do. I just got settled, but I feel like selling. You know it had been on the market for some time. Now I know why. That cunt of an agent! I feel like letting her have it, but I know it’s a waste of time. She’s probably at their place right this minute having a laugh that she finally sold that house she conned me into. I hope she get’s vaginal warts.”
“And anal warts as well!”
“Well Edie, it’s good that you’ve kept all your angst. Sounds like you’ll need it.”
They ate and talked about old times; sexual escapades of their youth, hallucinogenic travels, failed marriages and Stella’s long lasting one. Stella had been fortunate. Her husband had never insisted she work even though they could have used the money. She had been able to stay home with the children long after they were gone and had marriages of their own, leaving Stella free to garden, cook or do just about anything she felt like. Edie had always been a little jealous, but she loved Stella and really couldn’t imagine her any other way except sitting here serving up one of her lovely meals in this cozy dining room.
“Shall I open another?”
They settled before the woodstove watching the fire dance Flamenco.
“You know, Stella, I don’t know what to do, I’m starting to get really distraught. This house was to be it for me. Finally, something of my own and I hate it there. I hate that family. All my money is tied up in that place.
“Edie, first, you need evidence. Why don’t you buy yourself a security system? They’re not that expensive and then you’ll know for sure. You can take it to the local authorities.”
“Then they’ll know it was me. It’ll start an all out combat. Don’t think I can face that again. That hillbilly clan in Montreal and I were at it for years. I called the cops countless times and we didn’t even look at each other except to shout insults. I need refuge now.”
“I get it, but if you’re planning to stay there you better do something about it.”
She had slept over at Stella’s and did some shopping the following morning. Driving back from the electronics store her thoughts turned to Henry. Henry was a boy with Asperger’s who lived on her old street and when he reached adolescence he honed in on her, his reason hidden. He had pitched snowballs at her windows, played knock off ginger repeatedly and threw empty plastic containers and garbage in her yard. When her giant sunflowers finally reached their zenith each September he’d break and twist them, their large brown faces ending up beaten down and submissive. She couldn’t figure out why he chose her, but she had become the focus of his boring and friendless world. All of his entertainment geared at her torment. It got on her nerves, yet, she could never really be angry with him and felt a deep compassion for his lonely life. Even so, when the last box was loaded on the moving truck she thought, ‘The fuck out of this place’, after nearly a quarter of a century of life on that city block.
She bought two Spy Pen Cameras with video and audio that were total Double 007. They could record day and night conditions and the Brodys would have no idea that they were being monitored. She couldn’t believe that things had amounted to this; still she saw no other way out and didn’t have the energy or will to move again. After all, she liked the atmosphere of this house and had put money into the place with small improvements and a renovated bathroom. Plus, she adored this spot, with the soft rolling hills, the sea less than a five-minute brisk walk from the house and a quaint little town that waited fifteen minutes away by car. The only things wrong here were them.
She had done some snooping at the local library and it appeared they had roots that went a ways back. Their great grandfather had been a captain of a sailing ship that had brought supplies up the coast from Halifax to ports along the South Shore. The following generation had stayed back from the sea and ventured into logging and other avenues. Finally, this lot appeared to do little else except loaf around wasting their hours away, fixing old cars and hauling off junk here and there.
Edie had published a small chapbook of poetry in her youth that had received some attention, but since that time the work hadn’t progressed in any form. It was as if it had been a one-time wonder. She became stuck, unable to grace a single line of verse to the empty page. This place was to be the renaissance of the written word, her well of fertile process, a place to reclaim the past. Sitting at her writing table, she had a view of yard and the scent of the sea beyond. A spectrum of Lupines swayed in the morning breeze. There was an idea that had been free falling. Little fragments floating here and there. Now was the time to reel it in, confine it to the page. I never knew how you found this voice built of pick axes and chainsaws…
The minute the words were placed on the screen a burst of hullabaloo could be heard from the open window. The Brody dog began to bark hysterically and the sound of metal clashing against metal ricocheted throughout the house. She moved to the kitchen to obtain a clear view of the Brody property. Two of the sons began unloading equipment and some sort of car parts off the truck. The dog continued to bark and one of the sons shouted, “Shut the fuck up!” The dog yelped turning its bark to a low whimper. ‘Those cunts’, she thought as her recaptured words evaporated from her mind. She barricaded the windows and was so angry she had no resolve to create, thinking only of retaliation and bloodshed.
On one level, she’d like to kill them just for keeping their dog tied up. What kind of life is that for the beast? ‘We are rural inhabitants, so why can’t the poor thing run around and enjoy its freedom?’ It was held hostage for the sounding of thieves and intruders. Although, she couldn’t get for a single minute why anyone would want to make off with his or her junk, especially one of Maggi Brody’s diabolical lawn gnomes. One of which carried a baseball bat and blew a huge piece of pink bubble gum out of its grinning mouth.
The barking Brody dog brought back horrors of her past. She had lived in the city centre with everyone bunched up next to each other for thirty some odd years. It seemed that nearly every other neighbour had some sort of yapping mutt. The ones directly across the street from her had this minute terrier, who only stopped yapping for a brief microsecond in order to catch its breath. She had hated the dog and wished it dead and relayed this information to Henry, who in turn, immediately delivered this report to the owners.
Regardless, they just looked on as it eternally yapped without intervention. Once, as the owner walked this annoying creature, she fiercely hissed like a sac of rabid rattlers behind her overgrown cedar bushes at a squirrel that had been digging up her plants. The neighbor of the dog looked at her with extreme alarm as he passed her front gate when she returned a full mouth smile and offered a friendly wave from her open living room window. In reality, she had been surrounded by barking dogs on both sides as well as to the back of her and so this Brody critter returned all of her former anguish.
She headed to the bluff hoping the sound of the open sea and wind would soften her fury. Upon arriving she saw Coleen and Molly-Moo rumbling along a trail. Colleen repeatedly threw an old stick and Molly-Moo smiled making a run for it. Colleen waved her arm high in the air and Edie joined her.
“Edie, nice to see you. How’s everything?”
“Awful. I hate that family.”
“I know… they aren’t very considerate. I’m grateful I live further away and can’t hear or see them. What are you planning?”
“I don’t know. I don’t have any solutions or can even begin to come up with a strategy. I bought some tiny video cameras and was thinking of secretly filming them and taking it to the authorities. But, I know it would start a feud and I just don’t have it in me for this.”
“Edie, why not just talk with Maggi Brody. What have you to lose?
“Yeah, perhaps, you’re right.”
They chatted about local plants and shrubs and where the best cranberry and blueberry bushes were located along the rugged shoreline.
Edie returned from town with all the ingredients for her famous Coq au vin, which was intended as a calculated bribe. She began to prepare the dish when a hot flash ensnared her. She remembered humid city summers and sleepless Montreal nights, when life seemed a fine line between cognizant and inanimate. How she had roamed her former flat in an attempt to shed the heat like a lost wanderer observing the neighbors from her sofa. One directly across the street from her had habitually walked naked through his living room. Stretched and caressed his expansive stomach. Scratched his arm, groin hair visible. He had gazed in her direction and could have cared less if she’d seen him. On several occasions she had noticed his teenage daughter lounging on his lap. He was unclothed from the waist up and because of his sitting position she could never determine if he sported underwear of not.
There was also the sociopath française, who had befriended everyone on the block. Then from one day to the next never said bonjour to anyone. Hurting all she had bedazzled, with disregard for children, hearts or consequences. And, she couldn’t forget Cowboy Boots, who lived directly next-door and stomped to and fro with his great heels on the hardwood floors, often so hard that her photographs fell from the wall.
She got on with her cooking and prepared fresh tea biscuits to accompany the chicken. Not long ago Maggi had been in the yard hanging up clothes and had yelled something to her sons and Edie hoped this ambush of kindness would pay off. She brought the dish down to the Brodys in her pricey Le Creuset cooking pot. As she approached the dog began to bark, more excited than aggressive, wagging her tail with each wail. Edie approached the dog offering her a piece of boneless chicken and a biscuit, which she gobbled down feverously returning a wide smile. “That’s a good girl”, Edie murmured rubbing her head and back, which was in need of a good bath and brush, then lightly knocked on the side door.
“Well, hello there, Edie”
“Hi Maggi. Just wanted to return the favor. Your fish chowder and cake were delicious. I wanted to thank you with this chicken dish.”
“That’s very kind of you. Want a cup of tea?”
Maggi invited her to sit at the kitchen table, which was cluttered with condiments and dirty dishes.
“Here, now. Let me tidy these up. Been busy all morning with the washing.”
Maggi cleared the table and took a big sniff of the Coq au vin.
She placed the deep, blue pot on the counter.
“Maggi, I’m not quite sure how to say this, but I moved here for quiet and there’s constant noise coming from your place. Is there any way that your sons could keep it down a bit?”
“What do you mean… keep it down?”
“OK, is it really necessary for that ghetto blaster to be playing so loud all the time; this combined with all the auto mechanics, and let’s not forget about the countless times there’s been garbage dumped on my property. Is it your guys that are doing this?”
“Listen dear, we’ve been here a long time and you – you just got here. That’s how my family makes a living. Collecting and selling parts, so if you don’t like it, I suggest you just pack up and leave or learn to live with it. Cause, we’re going nowhere or changing nothing.”
“I’m just saying, because maybe you’re not aware of the noise level. Perhaps the former owners of my place didn’t mind, but I do. I need quiet. That’s why I moved here.”
Edie was still sitting in the chair when one of the sons burst into the kitchen and with a greasy hand picked up a tea biscuit, stuck it in the Coq au vin, hauled out a piece of chicken and shoved it in his chops as if this was his last moment on earth.
“Leonard. Edie here wants us to keep it down.”
“Does she now.”
“Yes, I’d appreciate it. I don’t always want to hear your music. It’s so loud and sound travels, as you know. I’m a poet and require a degree of calm to write. Leonard kept stuffing the chicken into his mouth.
“She’s a poet and don’t know it. You stink and I know it”, chuckling to himself as Edie stared open-mouthed in disbelief at the two of them in wait of some polite response that never came; she took one last glance at her expensive cookware as she headed out the door.
“Well the nerve of her!” blasted Maggi.
A recent Nor’easter had passed through the land leaving heaps of snow and cold in its wake, but with it a blanket of calm. The Brodys were only seen shovelling or going to and fro in one of the family trucks, one of which had a plough. She imagined this provided work throughout the winter months. Often, when she was working the snow in her own driveway she watched them clearing the road withholding the offer of a single snowflake removal.
The months befell and the winter storms called, obscuring the land with giant hills of white. She took long strolls along the coast sometimes running into Coleen and Molly Moo on their daily walks. Often, she stopped at an old cemetery whose worn tombstones tilted in the crisp sea air from age and assaults from the sharp Atlantic gales. Most of the engraved names were smooth and illegible, yet a few had withstood the barrage and one stood erect with Brody stubbornly centered on the grey weathered stone. The date was more than a hundred years old and she imagined it to be the great grandfather sea captain.
The months had dragged in slow succession, though it never bothered her, for it was the first time her nerves had settled since arriving here, although she recurrently heard the Brody dog crying in the cold as it was always tied up and left outside for hours on end. Her sad wail made her hate them even more. As a diversion, once or twice a month she had dinner with friends in the city. Stella had visited and she herself had produced a rather dense volume of violent verse about death, revenge, serial killers and the like. Edie had been surprised by these dark outbursts and the poems were a mammoth departure from her earlier works. A chill ran through her when she read, impassioned words that conversed with the old creaking house. The winter quiet had been a welcome companion and the thought of the impending spring brewed up feelings of heartsickness and anxiety, for she knew what awaited.
Sure enough, when the warm breezes graced the land and the snow melted there was yet again, rubbish old tires and such in all its glory bursting through the last bit of snow. Revving car engines competed with loud music for dominance. The sinister lawn gnomes grinned once more at her from the Brody yard. She flirted with the idea of calling a real estate agent, but knew it would be a hard sell with all the wreckage and noise that seldom stopped.
The following evening as she watched the news headlines and world horrors on her flat screen, she reflected on what exactly humans required to sustain life: food, shelter and a clean water supply. Well-poisoning has been practiced since antiquity…what if some critter found a way into their well? On her last big hike she had noticed a dead skunk and a sizable racoon carcass, both in close proximity to each other. Their deaths appeared recent, remaining well preserved under the winter freeze. She loaded them in her wheelbarrow storing them in the extra freezer in the mudroom.
Edie waited, worried that she might never have her chance until early one fog thick morning two weeks later she saw Maggi all dolled up and her sons looking somewhat respectable, heading out in two vehicles. The Brody dog was left tied up. She took a big section of cold roast beef and the remains of the dead down the hill to their property after the last bit of road left their tires. The well was off to right side of the house with its beach stone base and flat lid. A basket of clothespins rested on top.
The dog barked and wagged its tail when she approached repeating, “Now, now there girl, look what I’ve got for you.” She gave her the meat and released her from the chain. The dog smiled, gobbling down the beef in two seconds flat, joining Edie at the well, sniffing the bodies and wagging her tail. Edie pushed the lid aside just enough to drop the corpses into the darkened, deep drop.
The dog remained quiet in Edie’s cape when the Brodys returned the following afternoon. It didn’t utter a sound when the truck doors slammed. Edie had fed, bathed and brushed her; removed six bloated ticks from her skin “Lets just see, hey…” She didn’t venture outside, for she didn’t want the dog to bark after her and only peeked out the windows at random intervals. She walked the dog to the side of the house where they went unnoticed.
The Brodys continued about their business the following days, but by the week’s end not a sound could be heard except the birds and crickets, the soft sway of the leaves in the afternoon breeze, a gull shrieking in the sky above. The sun had nearly set bestowing a regal hue on the horizon. The Brody house was unrecognizable, enveloped by the evening fog. She put on loud music dancing to the Ramones’ Blitzkrieg Bop, stopping only briefly to scream in the long awaited silence.