Tag: fiction (Page 1 of 3)

Desert Seas

by: Anca Segall

Lars’ baby blue VW bug, rusty and dented, came to a stop in the rutted parking lot at the trailhead into Dark Canyon. Covered in nearly as much dust as the car, we both tumbled out into the scrub desert, already parched in May. Fable Valley had enough flash floods to make leaving our names at the BLM box prudent, though it was still early in the season. Eager to stretch our legs, we shouldered our backpacks and started down the steep trail into the valley.

We had driven down from Logan and stopped in Provo for a Saturday fair in the city park, where Lars did a brisk business drawing portraits of fair-going kids. He’d kept them captivated with stories on a rickety stool as he rendered their character in strokes of charcoal and Conte crayon. At midday, while families lunched and the kids trickled in more slowly, Lars had me pose for him, to pass the time and entice paying customers.

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GWENDOLYN

By: Dylan Schifrin

CAST OF CHARACTERS
Alex – 25 years old, recently suffered from a devastating breakup. Wants to absorb himself in his work and avoid all human relationships, but ultimately falls for Gwendolyn.
Gwendolyn – A cactus brought to life in Alex’s mind. Very sweet and simple at first, wants to be with Alex and comfort him. Progressively becomes manipulative and cruel to Alex.
Louie – Alex’s friend, got Alex his job at Scratchopolis. Affable yet over the top at times, wants to help Alex move on from his breakup. 26 years old.
Honoria – Robotic, logical, somewhat arrogant. Dislikes human interaction, but secretly craves a level of intimacy. 30 years old.

SETTING
Alex’s office at Scratchopolis, a company that manufactures and distributes backscratchers.

TIME
The Present

SCENE 1

SETTING:Alex’s new office at Scratchopolis, a backscratcher company. There is an office chair and a desk with a phone and a computer on it. On the wall there is a poster depicting a backscratcher with the slogan “Scratchopolis: Ditch Your Itch!”

AT RISE: We hear a phone ring, and lights come up on ALEX, sitting in the office chair. He answers the phone.

ALEX: Thank you for calling Scratchopolis, home of all your backscratcher related needs. How may I assist you?
       (pause)
I’m sorry you’re not satisfied with the Itch eradicator It’s our top of the line model. May I ask what difficulties you’ve encountered, sir?
       (pause)
It burst into flames?
       (pause)
Look, how about I just send you a new one?
       (pause)
I’m glad we were able to work this out. Thank you for calling.
      (ALEX hangs up and looks around nervously before quickly picking up the phone again and dialing a number. He waits a bit and then begins nervously leaving a message)
Hi, Katie? Hi. I guess you’re not home now. I know we aren’t supposed to, you know, talk. But just ‘cause we broke up, there’s nothing wrong with checking in, right?
      (he gets a call on the other line)
Gotta go!
      (he switches to the other line)
Thank you for calling Scratchopolis. How may I assist you?
       (pause)
I’m sorry to hear you lost your backscratcher, ma’am.
       (pause)
No, I don’t know where it is.
       (pause)
Ma’am, please, calm down. Watch your language–oh, you found it. Ok. You’re welcome. Bye.
       (he hangs up, then quickly redials Katie’s number)
Hi Katie. I forgot to say…this is Alex. So, uh, anyway, call me back, if you want.
       (he hangs up, but immediately redials Katie’s number)
It’s me again. You’re probably wondering how I’m doing. I’m doing great. I bought an ottoman.
       (pause, ALEX picks up a little object shaped like a hand from his desk and begins to manipulate it)
Anyway, I’ll see you soon. Wait, I guess I won’t. But I’ll talk to you, maybe. You know, probably. So…bye. I guess. I mean…it’s Alex.

       (ALEX hangs up)

       (HONORIA enters stage right)

ALEX: Hello?

HONORIA: You’re new here.

ALEX: Yes.

HONORIA: I don’t care for change, Alex.

ALEX: Oh, you know my name.

HONORIA: Your deductive skills are commendable. Now let us proceed to the topic at hand. I wish to present you with a proposal.

ALEX: (uncomfortable, lamely) A proposal? You’ll have to buy me dinner first…(he laughs nervously, HONORIA stares at him expressionless)
You were saying?

HONORIA: Every workday at precisely 10:14 I depart from my office for a brief 3.75 minute break where I consume five-eighths of a banana and some nonfat ice milk. The shortest route to the kitchen from my workspace is through this office. I feel you must know this lest you become startled by my daily commute.

ALEX: So, you’re going to come through my office every day?

HONORIA: I’m afraid you have no choice, Alex. Cutting through your office shaves roughly ten steps off my commute both ways. Assuming one step takes approximately 0.5 seconds, that’s five seconds saved per day, translating to 1300 seconds, or 21.7 minutes, saved per year. Now, to the second topic at hand.

ALEX: There’s a second topic?

HONORIA: Mr. Delafontaine has requested I improve my relations with my coworkers. He feels I am unable to connect to others on a personal level and am inept at understanding various social cues.

ALEX: Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. You know, I had a cousin who-

HONORIA: (abruptly cutting him off) During every morning trip to my break I shall say, “Good morning, Alex,” and you shall respond, “Good morning, Honoria.” Upon my return trip through your office, I shall bring up a common topic of conversation. We shall discuss it briefly, and then I shall exit. Is this clear to you?

ALEX: Sort of.

HONORIA: My break is starting. Good morning, Alex.

ALEX: Enjoy your break.
(HONORIA stares at him)
Is something wrong?

HONORIA: (annoyed) I must insist you stick to the prearranged agreement. Say “Good morning, Honoria.”

ALEX: Oh, right. “Good morning, Honoria.”

(HONORIA stares at him for a bit, then exits stage left)

(ALEX continues to look at the magnet, when suddenly LOUIE enters stage right)

LOUIE: Hey, Alex! Welcome to Scratchopolis, buddy!

ALEX: (startled) Oh! Hey Louie.

LOUIE: What’s wrong?

ALEX: I just met someone named Honoria.

LOUIE: We like to play a little game around the office called “If Honoria Sees You, Run Like Hell.” Remind me to teach you the rules sometime. Anyway, tell me, how’s your first day as Executive in Charge of Quality Control?

ALEX: I’m still settling in. I can’t believe I already have an executive position.

LOUIE: Yeah, we use the term “executive” pretty loosely here. Steve, the unpaid intern, is Executive in Charge of caffeine retrieval.

ALEX: Well, thanks, Louie, for recommending me for the job.

LOUIE: No problem, pal. You needed a fresh start. And nothing can give you a fresh start like the nation’s third most successful backscratcher company. Hey, I almost forgot your office-warming present!

(LOUIE runs off stage right)

ALEX: Present? Louie, you didn’t have to-

(LOUIE returns with a sad-looking cactus)

ALEX: (CONT’D) Oh. You got me a cactus.

LOUIE: Last night it hit me that I hadn’t gotten you anything for your new office! So, I wrote “buy Alex gift” on my hand so I wouldn’t forget. But it must have washed off in the shower or something, because in the morning, the only letters I could make out spelled “Blift.” “What the hell does Blift mean!?” I thought. It was the scribblings of a madman! But then, when I was cutting through the alley on the way to work, I remembered! Blift! Buy Alex gift! And–just my luck–I saw this beauty, sitting all alone in the alley next to a urine-soaked mattress. It was fate.

(LOUIE plops the cactus down on ALEX’s desk)

ALEX: Uh…thanks.

LOUIE: It’s just that you both could use a little love.

ALEX: It looks like it could use a little sun, too.

(ALEX takes the cactus and places it on the window sill)

LOUIE: (catching sight of the hand magnet) Oh, no. Alex, don’t tell me you still have this!

ALEX: (uneasy) Louie, please don’t touch that.

LOUIE: I thought you were trying to get over Katie. Keeping her gifts won’t help that!

ALEX: It’s the only thing I have left of her.

LOUIE: Whatever. But tonight, I want you to come out with me and some people from the office.

ALEX: I don’t know, I mean I have to go home and, you know, throw out some expired yogurts–

LOUIE: Come on. It’s been forever since you’ve felt any kind of joie de vivre.

ALEX: Sorry, Louie.

LOUIE: Fine. But at least promise me you’ll forget about Katie.

ALEX: I can’t promise that.
(he clutches the hand magnet)

LOUIE: Oh God, you didn’t leave her another message, did you?

(Suddenly HONORIA bursts in stage left)

HONORIA: Chinchillas are the softest rodents and have been hunted nearly to extinction. What are your thoughts on this matter?

LOUIE: (annoyed) Hello, Honoria.

HONORIA: (to LOUIE, not looking at him) Don’t try to engage me. I haven’t the time for multiple discourses.

LOUIE: Looks like it’s my lucky day.

(LOUIE exits stage right)

HONORIA: (as soon as LOUIE is gone, to ALEX) Your thoughts, please.

ALEX: What?

HONORIA: Your thoughts. On the chinchilla matter. I’m trying to have a conversation, Alex. Remember our agreement.

ALEX: Well, I guess that’s pretty sad, that they’re hunted and all.

HONORIA: Goodbye.

(HONORIA exits stage left)

(ALEX types something on his laptop, then stands up and gets a cup of water from the water cooler. He drinks half of the cup and pours the rest on the cactus. ALEX then exits stage right.)

(While Alex is gone, the cactus on the windowsill transforms into GWENDOLYN, a young woman in a green dress. She sits on the windowsill, where the cactus was, with her feet in a large cactus pot. No one can see or hear her but ALEX.)

(ALEX enters stage right and sits at his desk.)

GWENDOLYN: Psst. Hey! Alex!

ALEX: …Who said that?

GWENDOLYN: I did. Over here.

(ALEX turns to GWENDOLYN and looks at her in disbelief)

GWENDOLYN: (CONT’D) Hi there.

ALEX: (after a pause, calmly) Oh, look. The cactus is talking to me. Hm, either I’m dreaming, or this is what a mental breakdown looks like.

GWENDOLYN: You’re not having a breakdown.

ALEX: Oh, ok. I’m dreaming, then.

GWENDOLYN: No, you’re not dreaming.

ALEX: What? How is this even possible?

GWENDOLYN: My name is Gwendolyn.

ALEX: Cactuses have names?

GWENDOLYN: It’s “cacti.”

ALEX: I thought it was “Gwendolyn.”

GWENDOLYN: No, I mean the plural of cactus.

ALEX: What’s the plural of cactus?

GWENDOLYN: Cacti.

ALEX: Oh. Definitely a mental breakdown.

(he rubs his temples)

GWENDOLYN: Sorry. I should have realized this might be confusing for you.

ALEX: You think?!

GWENDOLYN: I apologize if I scared you.

ALEX: (warily) So…have you always been able to talk?

GWENDOLYN: I’m not sure. I’ve never tried before.

ALEX: Then why am I the lucky guinea pig?

GWENDOLYN: I guess I haven’t really had anyone to talk to before. People tend to keep their distance from you when you’re a cactus. It’s all the spines, probably.(pause)
I liked it when you watered me. It made me feel good.

ALEX: Well, uh…you’re welcome. You looked a little thirsty.

GWENDOLYN: I was.
(then)
Can I trust you?

ALEX: What, you mean not tell anyone what a talking cactus says? It’s a pretty safe bet I’m gonna keep this to myself.

GWENDOLYN: Thanks. No one’s cared for me before. That’s what you’re doing, right? Taking care of me?

ALEX: I guess. It’s no big deal.

GWENDOLYN: Well, that’s a start.

ALEX: Start to what?

GWENDOLYN: Our relationship.

ALEX: What do you mean?

GWENDOLYN: Don’t you want to be friends?

ALEX: Uh…sure?

GWENDOLYN: (smiling) Thanks. I’ve never had a friend before.
(beat)
I’m sorry about Katie.

ALEX: (defensive) How do you know about Katie?

GWENDOLYN: I heard you and Louie talking. I’m sorry she broke your heart. Do you want to talk about it?

ALEX: No. Especially not to a plant.

GWENDOLYN: Alex, we’re friends now, remember? You can trust me too. What happened?

ALEX: (stares at GWENDOLYN for a moment, then gives in:) What the hell. Katie and I had been dating for a year, and everything was going great. Then, one day while we were playing miniature golf, she turned to me and said that I just wasn’t enough for her anymore. Who does that during miniature golf?!

GWENDOLYN: I’m sorry, Alex. I’d hug you, but, you know, spines.

ALEX: I gave her everything. I was kind, I listened to her, I made her soup when she was sick, I drove her to the DMV, I drove her mother to the DMV, and when her cat ran away, who do you think scoured the neighborhood all night in the rain, only to come back and find Peaches asleep on her face? I did everything I could to make her happy. And it still wasn’t enough.

(he picks up the ceramic hand magnet)

Before it happened, she made me this little ceramic hand. She made one for herself too, and she put magnets in them, so that when they were finished, we could stick them together. Our two hands, forever touching.

GWENDOLYN: (moved) That’s so sweet.

ALEX: We worked together, but being around her was too painful, so I had to quit my job. Luckily, Louie was able to set me up here.
(then)
Wow, it’s getting late. I better get home.

GWENDOLYN: (disappointed) Really? Oh. Well, I’ll be here, I guess.

ALEX: I can’t believe I’m saying this, but…thanks for listening.

(ALEX starts to exit)

GWENDOLYN: I like listening to you. Oh, and Alex–
(ALEX turns back and looks at her)
–thank you for the water.
(ALEX exits)

BLACKOUT

 

SCENE 2

SETTING: Alex’s office at Scratchopolis.

AT RISE: ALEX enters stage right, hangs up his jacket, and turns on the light. All of a sudden:

GWENDOLYN: Good morning, Alex!

ALEX: AH!

(Pause)

GWENDOLYN: I hope you didn’t forget about me.

ALEX: I tried to by taking lots of medicine.

GWENDOLYN: Remember how we talked about Katie, and how we’re friends now, and that you can trust me?

ALEX: Oh. Right. We’re friends now.

(ALEX sits at his desk and begins inspecting a backscratcher)

GWENDOLYN: You don’t want to be more than friends?

ALEX: …What?

GWENDOLYN: Well, if you don’t want to…

ALEX: Like a relationship?

GWENDOLYN: We have a relationship. But I was thinking of something more.

ALEX: You mean a romantic relationship?

GWENDOLYN: If you want.

ALEX: I’m sorry, Gwendolyn. This is really weird.

GWENDOLYN: Oh. I should’ve known.

(GWENDOLYN is sad, ALEX sees her and is moved)

ALEX: Look, I don’t know if I’m ready to be with another woman.

GWENDOLYN: I’m not a woman. I’m a cactus.

ALEX: That doesn’t make it less weird.

GWENDOLYN: All I want is to be with you so we can take care of each other.

ALEX: (pause, touched) I just can’t handle being hurt again.

GWENDOLYN: (re: her spines) I won’t hurt you. Unless you touch me.

(GWENDOLYN reaches out to ALEX, ALEX impulsively reaches out to touch her but then, seeing her spines, he grabs a backscratcher and touches her hand with it. They have a moment together)

(Suddenly LOUIE enters stage right)

LOUIE: Alex! Where were you!?

ALEX: (startled, drops his backscratcher) Here, why?

LOUIE: You missed the meeting!

ALEX: Wha-what meeting?

LOUIE: The entire company was there to hear your report, and you were a no-show!

ALEX: Oh my god! No one ever told me!

LOUIE: This is a complete disaster! Boy, is Mr. Delafontaine furious with you! And now I look like an idiot for recommending you!

ALEX: I’m so sorry! This job means everything to me! What am I gonna do?

(LOUIE starts laughing)

ALEX: Why are you laughing?!

LOUIE: Oh man, I really got you!
(he sees the look of pure terror on ALEX’s face)
Alex, I’m just kidding!

ALEX: I thought I was going to lose my job! Why would you do that to me?

LOUIE: Now breaking up with Katie doesn’t seem so bad, does it? You’re welcome!

(HONORIA enters stage right)

HONORIA: (not looking at either of them) Good morning, Alex.

ALEX: Good morning, Honoria.

LOUIE: Good morning, “Gonorrhea”.

HONORIA: You misspoke. My name is Honoria.

LOUIE: Oh, so the “G” is silent.

HONORIA: (to LOUIE): If in past encounters I have conveyed the impression that I enjoy your company, said impressions were fraudulent.

(HONORIA exits stage left)

LOUIE: Hey, I wanted to show you something.
(LOUIE rolls out a blueprint revealing a detailed drawing of a backscratcher)
I drew up blueprints for a new backscratcher model. It has a reinforced carbon fiber arm, a solar-powered scratching mechanism, and, through my addition of an extra finger, its productivity is increased by 20%. This is going to revolutionize the entire industry. Can you feel your heart pounding with anticipation?

ALEX: Yes, because you almost gave me a heart attack earlier. What did Mr. Delafontaine think of it?

LOUIE: I haven’t told him yet. But when I show it to him, I’ll finally be promoted out of the sales department and into–
(his eyes aglow)
–mid-level management. This is my big break.
(then)
Hey, you missed a fun time last night. We got kicked out of three different bars.

(ALEX grabs the hand magnet and starts squeezing it)

ALEX: Sorry I wasn’t there.

LOUIE: You really need a good time like that. You gotta put yourself out there. What are you doing tonight?

ALEX: I’m busy.

LOUIE: Calling Katie?

ALEX: (defensive) No. I have a date.

LOUIE: (incredulous) Oh, yeah. Right. You have a date. What’s her name?

ALEX: Gwendolyn.

LOUIE: Gwendolyn? You couldn’t have come up with something more believable?

(GWENDOLYN looks at LOUIE angrily)

ALEX: It’s true! Her name is Gwendolyn. And it just happened.

LOUIE: Wow. Well, that’s great! You gotta introduce me to her.

(GWENDOLYN begins frantically miming “no way” to ALEX)

ALEX: I don’t know…she’s kind of, uh, shy…

(ALEX’s phone rings)

LOUIE: Well, if Gwendolyn does exist, I’m happy for you, pal. You should bring her when we all go out and celebrate my promotion!

(LOUIE exits stage right. ALEX answers the phone)

ALEX: Thank you for calling Scratchopolis, home of all your back scratcher related needs. How may I assist you?
(pause)
No, ma’am. Our backscratchers are unable to treat crippling depression. You must’ve misread the label.
(he hangs up)

GWENDOLYN: Did you really mean it, Alex? Are we dating?

ALEX: I just said that to get Louie off my back.

GWENDOLYN: (disappointed) Oh…
(pause, then:)
Well…do you want to?

ALEX: I don’t know. Do you?

GWENDOLYN: I do if you do.

ALEX: This is crazy. I mean, we’re two different species.

GWENDOLYN: So? Lots of mixed couples are very happy.
(pause, ALEX looks at her)
I won’t leave you like Katie did. You can feel safe with me.
(referring to her pot)
I’m not going anywhere.

ALEX: That sounds nice.

(beat)

GWENDOLYN: Now that we’re dating, would you mind putting Katie’s magnet away?

ALEX: (picking up the hand magnet) Um…

GWENDOLYN: Please? It would mean a lot to me.

ALEX: (he thinks about it) Okay.

(he drops the hand magnet in a drawer and closes it)

GWENDOLYN: That’s better.
(then)
I don’t like how Louie treats you. That joke about the meeting he played on you was mean. You don’t need people like that in your life.

ALEX: I guess he did go a little too far. But he was just trying to help me.

GWENDOLYN: Don’t you wish there was some way you could get back at him?

ALEX: Get back at him? What do you mean?

GWENDOLYN: I know what you should do, Alex.

ALEX: What?

GWENDOLYN: Steal Louie’s backscratcher model.

(HONORIA suddenly enters stage left)

HONORIA: Genetically modified organisms are a much-debated subject in today’s modern society. What are your thoughts on this matter?

ALEX: Honoria, this really isn’t a good time.

(HONORIA stares at him)

Fine. I think more research should be done on genetically modified crops. Happy?

HONORIA: Joy is an illusion. Just stick to our arrangement.

(HONORIA exits stage right)

ALEX: (CONT’D) (to GWENDOLYN, aghast) You want me to steal Louie’s model?!

GWENDOLYN: Well, don’t think of it as “stealing”. Think of it as “liberating” it from someone not as worthy. Show it to Mr. Delafontaine and say it’s your idea. Then you’ll get a raise and a promotion!

ALEX: I can’t do that to Louie!

GWENDOLYN: Then do it for me.

ALEX: I don’t know…

GWENDOLYN: You have no ambition, Alex. Don’t you want a promotion?

ALEX: I’m already an executive!

GWENDOLYN: So is Steve the intern! Besides, all you do is inspect backscratchers and converse with the insane!

ALEX: Come on. This is a criminal act!

GWENDOLYN: I thought you cared about me, Alex.

ALEX: I do care about you. But this is morally wrong. I can’t betray a friend. He gave me this job. He gave me you!

GWENDOLYN: He found me in an alley! Besides, I’m your more-than-friend. What matters more to you: him or me?

(ALEX is silent)

You have to do this. You deserve that promotion more than Louie does. And deep down, I think he knows it. I believe in you.

ALEX: You do?

GWENDOLYN: Yes.

(pause as ALEX contemplates his course of action)

Oh, and Alex? Maybe you can use the raise to buy me a new pot? A nice, Italian one? With a polka-dot pattern?

ALEX: Sure, Gwendolyn.
(then)
Whatever makes you happy.

(ALEX exits stage left)

BLACKOUT

 

SCENE 3

SETTING: Alex’s office at Scratchopolis.

AT RISE: ALEX is sitting at his desk, perhaps with a new jacket to indicate his promotion. GWENDOLYN sits happily with her feet in a new polka-dot pot. LOUIE enters stage left and looks resentfully at ALEX.

ALEX: (nervously) Oh, hi, Louie.
(LOUIE just stares at him)
What’s up?
(LOUIE doesn’t answer)
Louie, let me explain–

LOUIE: I know exactly what your deal is: you’re a back-stabbing double agent from our competitor Scratch-Co, sent here to uncover Scratchopolis’s darkest secrets for your own nefarious purposes!

ALEX: What? If I was from Scratch-Co, why would I have shown your model to the head of Scratchopolis?

LOUIE: Enough with your mind games, Alex, if that is your real name. I don’t have to stand for this! I have dignity!

(LOUIE stomps his foot and a large amount of backscratchers falls out of his jacket)

LOUIE(CONT’D) I was going to assault you with those, but now I’ve lost the element of surprise.

ALEX: I know what I did was terrible, Louie. But please–

LOUIE: We were friends, Alex! I trusted you. And if that doesn’t mean anything–

ALEX: It does!

LOUIE: I never want to see you again! You’re scum!

(HONORIA enters stage right. LOUIE starts to exit stage right and encounters her. They both freeze)

LOUIE: (CONT’D) (disdainfully, to HONORIA) You!

(LOUIE exits stage right)

HONORIA: Good morning, Alex.

ALEX: Good morning, Honoria.

(HONORIA exits stage left)

ALEX: (CONT’D) (to GWENDOLYN) What was that? You said deep down Louie would think I deserved it!

GWENDOLYN: Please. You wanted to believe me. Besides, you still got away with it, didn’t you? What’s the problem?

ALEX: I’ll tell you what the problem is! Louie thinks I’m scum!

GWENDOLYN: Well, maybe you are.

ALEX: What?!

GWENDOLYN: I don’t like how you keep inviting Honoria in here.

ALEX: Inviting? She invites herself! It’s part of her “social interaction proposal”.

GWENDOLYN: I think you’re spending too much time with her, Alex. This is supposed to be our space! Our sanctuary!

ALEX: Don’t tell me you’re jealous of Honoria!

GWENDOLYN: Do you think she’s prettier than me?

ALEX: Of course not!

GWENDOLYN: Flattery won’t save you this time, Alex. You need to assert yourself! When she returns you have to stand up to her and tell her never to come back here again.

ALEX: Why would I do that? Sure, she’s annoying, but she’s not hurting anyone.

GWENDOLYN: She’s hurting me. I thought we promised to take care of each other. But if you don’t want to anymore…

ALEX: No! I do!

GWENDOLYN: If you really loved me, you’d get rid of that thing you call Honoria. I’m the only woman in your life.

ALEX: Woman?! You live in a pot!

GWENDOLYN: And you live in the past! I thought you wanted to move forward. I thought you wanted to make me happy.

ALEX: I can’t keep pushing people away!

GWENDOLYN: The only thing Honoria cares about is herself. You’re just a means she uses to improve her hopelessly awkward social skills.

(A pause as ALEX absorbs what GWENDOLYN is saying)

ALEX: Fine. I’ll do it.

GWENDOLYN: Good. I knew you’d see things my way.

(HONORIA enters stage left)

HONORIA: The sensation of touch results from the repulsion of the electrons between two surfaces. Therefore, true contact with anything is technically impossible. What are your thoughts on this matter?

ALEX: Honoria…can I talk to you?

HONORIA: Yes. That is our agreement.

ALEX: No, I meant talk to you about something other than electrons.

HONORIA: To deviate from the selected topic?

ALEX: Yes.

HONORIA: I don’t know what you did to Louie, but his broken emotional state filled me with a satisfying schadenfreude. Therefore, I shall allow you to deviate temporarily.

ALEX: Honoria, I hate to do this, but I don’t think you should pass through my office anymore. The truth is, I lose work time due to our conversations.

HONORIA: Interesting. So, in my attempts to maximize my social productivity, I have caused you to sacrifice your work productivity.

ALEX: Exactly. I hope you understand.

HONORIA: I understand. I respect your opinion and furthermore withhold my disappointment that our conversations have not been a pleasure for you as well. Goodbye.

(HONORIA begins to exit stage right, but ALEX stops her)

ALEX: Wait, are you saying you’ve enjoyed talking to me?

HONORIA: Yes. Mr. Delafontaine was right about social interaction. It can be an enjoyable experience.
(pause, then somewhat sorrowfully)
Upon my next visit I was to ask you, “What makes you happy,” and you were to reply, “Truly it would be a crime not to hear your magnificent answer first, Honoria.” I was then to respond, “Human interaction has proven an enjoyable experience,” and you were to finally reply, “never have my ears been tickled with a grander response. Brava, Honoria.”
(beat)
But I won’t detract from your productivity any longer. Goodbye.
(HONORIA begins to exit stage right, then turns back)
Oh, I almost forgot. I overheard Louie saying something about getting you fired.
(ALEX’s phone rings)
I suspect that phone call pertains to the situation. Goodbye.
(HONORIA exits stage right)

ALEX: (answering the phone) Hello? Yes, Mr. Delafontaine?
(pause)
I understand. Thank you for everything.
(he hangs up)
(then, devastated)
Well, Gwendolyn, I hope you’re happy.

GWENDOLYN: Happy? How could I possibly be happy?! How will you provide for us now?

ALEX: This isn’t my fault! Stealing Louie’s model was your idea.

GWENDOLYN: It wasn’t my idea for you to get fired!

ALEX: And Honoria did care about me. So did Louie. But now I’ve lost both of them.

GWENDOLYN: So? You don’t need them. I’m the only one you need.

ALEX: You?! You’re just a cactus!

(GWENDOLYN pauses for a second, then retaliates viciously)

GWENDOLYN: What are you going to do now, Alex? Who’s going to hire someone who would willingly steal a fellow employee’s work?

ALEX: You manipulated me!

GWENDOLYN: You could have stood up for yourself! What are you, jobless and weak?

ALEX: Gwendolyn, stop!

GWENDOLYN: (bitterly) Maybe you could ask Louie for another job–oh that’s right, Louie hates you. Well, maybe you could try Honoria–oh wait, she hates you too. Hey-maybe you could ask Katie to help you out! Oh, wait, she’s hated you from the start.

ALEX: Gwendolyn! Please!

GWENDOLYN: I can’t believe you didn’t foresee any of this. You must be jobless and weak and stupid!

ALEX: GWENDOLYN! SHUT UP!

GWENDOLYN: I know exactly what Katie meant, Alex. You’re just not enough. And you never will be.

ALEX: I AM ENOUGH!

(He pushes GWENDOLYN out of the window; she screams, and we hear a crash. The lights immediately come down)

HONORIA (O.S.): Alex? Alex?

(Lights come up to reveal ALEX slumped over at his desk)

(HONORIA enters stage right)

HONORIA: Are you dead? Because that wasn’t part of our arrangement.

ALEX: Honoria…you came back. I could really use a friend.

HONORIA: Well that’s unfortunate. I’ve been assigned the task of escorting you out of the building. Now please gather your belongings.

(ALEX continues to lie pathetically on the floor)

Are you quite certain you’re not dead?

ALEX: Fairly certain.

HONORIA: Good. Now please hand in your Executive in Charge of Quality Control ID badge and follow me.

(she starts to leave)

ALEX: Ironic, isn’t it? That I was Executive in Charge of Quality Control, when I’m such a mess.
(HONORIA turns back)
I’m defective. I should be thrown in the reject pile with those deformed backscratchers that look like they’re giving you the finger. I feel terrible about what I did to Louie. I lost control. I thought working here would help me get over Katie. I thought it would help me move on with my life. But I guess I couldn’t outrun my demons.
(he looks out the window that he pushed GWENDOLYN through)

HONORIA: You’re babbling.

ALEX: I’m sorry, Honoria, for what I said. If I still had an office, I would let you pass through it whenever you wanted to.

HONORIA: No, Alex. It is I who is sorry.

ALEX: (sitting up) What?

HONORIA: When you requested that I not pass through your office anymore, I started to contemplate my interactions with others. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but my social skills are not what you might call “normal” or “even remotely appropriate.” Faces move so quickly. I think someone looks happy, so I say something, but then all of a sudden, they’re mad, or annoyed, or sad. People push me away all the time and I don’t know why.

ALEX: It’s not your fault. Your social challenges aren’t something you ask for. They’re something you’re born with, like…like spines on a cactus.

(he stands up)

HONORIA: You know…spines are often utilized in nature for protection.

ALEX: You shouldn’t have to protect yourself. If people can’t accept you for who you are, then it’s their problem. Not yours.

HONORIA: I had hoped that my experiment with social interaction would have allowed me to become close to you.

ALEX: Really? You still could.

HONORIA: I better stay on task of escorting you out of the building before your inevitable tazing by security.

(ALEX begins gathering his things)

HONORIA: (CONT’D) You never answered my discussion question.

ALEX: What was it, again?

HONORIA: I asked you, “The sensation of touch results from the repulsion of elections. Therefore, true contact with anything is technically impossible. What are your thoughts on this matter?”
(pause)
If touch is fundamentally just repulsion, then why even bother trying to connect with people? What good is intimacy if the conceit of it is false?

ALEX: (holding and manipulating the hand magnet) We all want intimacy to some degree, and the thought that it might not be real is scary. But believe me: there is something real there. Maybe the individual atoms themselves don’t touch, but there must be something in the space between them. Maybe it’s love–you can’t quantify that. But you have to be open to it by embracing the people who accept you for you, and letting go of those who don’t.

(ALEX places the hand magnet on his desk)

HONORIA: …Thank you, Alex. I was going to ask you a question about tapeworms, but I think I made the right choice.

ALEX: (finishing gathering his things) Ok, I’m ready to go.

HONORIA: You forgot something on your desk.

(she starts to retrieve the hand magnet)

ALEX: Leave it.

(He takes her hand; a spark of light flickers between their hands)

BLACKOUT

END OF PLAY

 

Dylan Schifrin is a playwright and musical theater writer from Los Angeles. He is currently a senior at Yale University. His work has been distinguished by the Blank Theatre Company, the California Young Playwrights Contest, the Foundation for New American Musicals, and the National YoungArts Foundation as a 2016 Finalist in playwriting. Check out more of his writing at www.youthplays.com or at his website, https://dylanschifrin.com

 

STONE, WATER, FIRE

BY: Patience Mackarness

Fire was essential to their weekend plans because the child with them was a known arsonist.

While the adults carried supplies into the house, Peter stood under the mantel and looked up the blackened chimney. He pointed to an ancient chain hanging over the hearth and asked, “What’s that?”

“It’s where they hung their cooking pots in the old days,” said Gwen. She set a crate of wine on the oak table next to Maureen’s multipack of cigarettes. 

“Are we doing that?” Peter asked.

“No, there’s a gas stove now,” said Gwen. “And we won’t need a fire indoors as it’s so warm. But we’re having a bonfire tonight.” She and Maureen exchanged glances.

Peter and Maureen went off to explore the little wooded stream valley while Gwen set out chairs and a table in the garden. Once home to hill-shepherds, the cottage was built of the grey slate found all through North Wales. Its garden was separated by a dry-stone wall from rough grassland roamed by wild ponies and sheep. No other buildings were visible. The evening light was all green and gold: bright moving leaves on the taller trees, dusty-golden shafts of sun below. The hill facing the house was in shadow, but the sky above it was a pure and limitless blue. Gwen, who had adored this outlook since childhood, breathed slowly and felt the familiar stealing-in of a peace touched with awe.

Maureen and Peter came up the hill, stepping over tussocks of marsh-grass. Maureen, a chain-smoker for forty years, breathed hard. Peter had found a long stick and was using it to lash at bracken and nettles. He was a small, wiry child, straw-haired and pale of skin.

Gwen poured red wine for herself and Maureen, Coke for Peter. Maureen sighed, leaned back in her chair, lit a cigarette, and took a great luxuriant swallow. “Your place is fuckin’ lovely, Gwen. I could stay here all week.”

Peter rocked his chair, gouging the grass.

“Bit different from Liverpool, isn’t it, love?” said Maureen. This was an understatement; the street where they lived had no grass or trees, and its backyards were more notable for trash than flowers. “Listen how quiet it is,” she said. “Everything’s dead old, too. Gwen’s nan lived here for years. Didn’t she, love?”

“My great-aunt,” said Gwen. “Yes, all her life.”

Peter went over to the pump by the back door and tried to work its rusted handle. There was a screech, followed by an ominous, terminal clank. The boy gave Gwen a sideways look, both sly and challenging. It was a look she, and their neighbors, knew well.

“That old pump must have been a pain in the arse,” said Maureen heartily. “Just think if you had to go out there every day for your water. In winter too.”

“It was even harder when my great-aunt was little,” said Gwen, picking up her cue. “They went all the way down the hill with buckets. Like Jack and Jill,” she added, though she doubted that nursery rhymes had featured much in Peter’s short life.

“To the river?” Peter asked, returning to his Coke.  

“No, a spring. That’s a place where the water comes right up out of the ground, so it’s better to drink than the stream water.”

“I want to see it,” said Peter.

“I—don’t think it’s there any more,” said Gwen.

Peter, who rarely looked adults in the eye—whether teachers, police officers, or his mother’s succession of sinister boyfriends—fixed Gwen with a steady pale-blue stare. He demanded, “Where’s it gone then?”  

“I mean,” said Gwen quickly, “it’ll be covered with brambles and nettles and stuff.”

“There’s snakes, too,” put in Maureen. “Poisonous ones.”

“No, there aren’t,” said Gwen. She gave Maureen a stern look, meant to remind her they had agreed not to lie to Peter this weekend. “But the spring’s probably so overgrown, it would be hard to see.”

“We can find it,” Peter said. “I’ve got me boots.” Maureen had bought him a pair of Wellingtons especially for this trip, the first he had ever owned. She had also equipped him with a small backpack, a waterproof jacket, and a toothbrush.

Gwen looked at Maureen, who gave a little nod.

“All right,” said Gwen, “we’ll look for the spring tomorrow. There won’t be time tonight. It’ll be dark soon, and we’ve got to build our bonfire.”  

Plenty of their neighbors in Liverpool thought the weekend project was misguided, mad, or both. “Why are you taking him away to Wales?” demanded Kitty, who lived next door to Maureen. “He breaks windows, he starts fires, he leads other kids into trouble. Why not take the good kids, the ones that deserve it?”  

“Because he’s family,” Maureen said shortly. She and Gwen were sitting on Maureen’s front doorstep with glasses of wine. Kitty stood on her own step, arms belligerently folded, looking down at them.

“And because Peter needs it more than the others,” said Gwen. As Kitty was a churchgoing Catholic, she added, “Like the Prodigal Son.”

Kitty pursed her mouth, as if to say that a mere Protestant had no business quoting the Bible at her. “And why are you calling him Peter? Everybody calls him Hobsy.”

“Hobsy’s a bad-boy name,” said Gwen. “We want him to leave that behind.”

At that moment, the child himself passed on a rusty bike, pedaling along the street with a mob of young children running or riding behind. Kitty sniffed. “You’re wasting your time with that one. He’ll end up in prison, soon as he’s old enough.”

It was true that ten-year-old Peter Hobson was a local legend. Everyone had seen him running over the roofs of parked cars, scrambling up drainpipes, lobbing bricks at feral pigeons, or smashing the windows of empty houses. Gwen herself had found him crouched in the back alley with a lighter, about to kindle a heap of garbage, and had chased him off. But as Maureen said, people like Kitty were also keen to blame him for things he hadn’t done.

“Ol’ bitch,” said Maureen under her breath, after Kitty had stalked back into her house. She’ll never understand that kid.” She topped up Gwen’s glass, lit another cigarette, and leaned forward, the way she did when she had confidences to share. “Him and me are the same—we don’t take shit from anyone. It’s like when I was a kid, in the tennies.”

“Tennies?” Gwen’s Scouse vocabulary was growing, but she still needed Maureen to translate for her at times.

“You know, the old tenements in town. Back then, we had to fight for everything.”

“Yes, but lighting fires—”

It’s how he gets people to notice him, isn’t it? The police, and the other kids, and everyone else round here. That fuckin’ useless smackhead mother of his. She’s off her head half the time, but he still idolizes her.”

“You’re a psychologist, Maureen,” said Gwen.

Peter helped them collect wood for the fire. He was too small to swing the axe, but he liked breaking dead branches by jumping on them. He watched gravely as Gwen showed him how to build a bonfire in the approved Girl Guide manner. Then he struck a match and lit the center of the little wigwam carefully, standing well back while the flames took hold.  

Later they burned an old armchair, its covers chewed and stained by the mice that overran the empty house in winter. Gwen and Maureen carried it out between them and tipped it into the bonfire’s red-hot core. It was then that Peter let out a kind of whoop, so loud and sudden he even seemed to surprise himself. Gwen thought he should be dancing round the fire, like the Lost Boys in Peter Pan. Instead, he stood staring and staring as the chair shot yellow, hissing flames up into the dark.

“I hope,” Gwen murmured when the boy had gone for more wood, “he’s not in a police station some day, and they say, How did you come to burn that house down, Peter? And he says, I just lit it the way Gwen showed me. Maureen cackled.

By ten o’clock, the bonfire had burned low. When Peter yawned, Gwen saw that some of his teeth were black. She must remember to speak to Maureen; maybe the hopeless mother could be persuaded to take him to the dentist.

Peter and Maureen slept upstairs in the front bedroom while Gwen had the little room below, the one Great-aunt Miriam had used when she couldn’t manage the stairs any more. There were a few minutes of murmuring voices overhead, then the house went quiet. Gwen sat up a while, in the room they used to call the parlor.

Little had changed since the long-ago visits, which had felt to younger family members like entering a book by Enid Blyton. The furniture was heavy dark oak—cage-backed chairs and a Welsh dresser, the long table still smelling faintly of ancient beeswax—making the room resemble a badly curated heritage museum. Neglected by Miriam’s nieces and nephews, its joint owners, the house’s decline tracked that of the old lady: solitary and inexorable, punctuated by visits from affectionate but busy relatives.

In the morning, the sky was clear. They had breakfast in the garden, Maureen inhaling the glorious views along with her first cigarette of the day while Peter was devouring a bacon sandwich oozing ketchup.

“You’re hungry this morning,” said Gwen.

“Isn’t he?” said Maureen proudly. She had told Gwen the fridge at Peter’s home was empty, that it was a fuckin’ disgrace, and she often had to feed him herself. “So you’re not his actual grandmother?” Gwen had asked, trying again to map the sprawling Scouse tribe that was Maureen’s family.

“Fuck, no,” said Maureen. “His dad was me cousin’s stepson.” Maureen adored her own children and grandchildren, but she also had a fondness for needy strays. These included Peter—and Gwen.

When breakfast was cleared away, Gwen said it was time to find the lost spring, and Peter jumped up so fast that his chair tipped over. While Maureen poured her second cup of coffee and lit her fourth cigarette, the other two put on their boots. Gwen gave Peter gloves and loppers. She carried the scythe, which, like the axe, was too large for him to use. She pushed away the disturbing image of an adult Peter, six feet tall and swinging a well-sharpened blade.

They picked their way down the slope into the valley. Although everything was more overgrown than in the storybook summers when Gwen and her cousins had scrambled about with shrimping nets and muddy knees, the spring was not hard to locate. Underneath dense bog-willows was a miniature jungle, where reeds and marsh flowers grew, tangled in thick vegetation that scratched and stung. Out of it twisted a thin brown channel.

Gwen told Peter to cut off the willow branches that reached nearly to the ground, and she used the scythe on brambles and nettles. They worked mostly in silence, Gwen saying from time to time, “Are you all right there, Peter?”—the boy responding with a nod or a grunt. If a branch was too thick to cut, she noticed that he would neither leave it nor ask for help, but worried at it with the loppers until it yielded or until she came to give him a hand.

The idea for this weekend had, naturally, been Maureen’s. One evening at the start of the summer vacation, when the hard-nut kids of the neighborhood were running in packs with the boy Hobsy at their head, as usual, Gwen told Maureen about the cottage. How remote it was, how she and her cousins had always thought it magical and the little old lady a sort of benign witch. How through the misery and confusion of her own divorce, and the ill-planned move to Liverpool afterwards, this house had been her refuge, the place that had saved her from total despair. She was going to add, “You saved me, too,” because it was true; without Maureen she would still be wounded and lost, a stranger in a city of alien voices and alien customs. But Maureen’s mind had skipped ahead; she said suddenly, “You know what?”

“What?” asked Gwen warily. She had learned that You know what? signaled one of Maureen’s Big Ideas.

“We should take Hobsy there. Just me, you, and him. Get him away from all the shit, give him a fuckin’ big dose of nature. That’ll straighten him out.”

Gwen, who in her teaching career had organized plenty of trips, brought up the question of parental permission, and Hobsy’s behavior, which his headmaster described as “challenging,” and the possibility that he would burn the ancestral cottage to the ground. But Maureen, who was unstoppable once gripped by a Big Idea, had answers ready. “His mum’s always saying she can’t cope with him; she’ll be made up if we take him off her hands for a bit. Hobsy’s good as gold with me. He never gives me any shit. And he can light fires there, proper fires, can’t he? Get it out of his system.”

The neighbors were skeptical, but Maureen was sure she could deal with them. “I’ll use me psychology, won’t I?” Kitty might be a lost cause (“Hobsy could grow wings and a halo, that bitch would still swear he’s the devil”), but most of the others could be brought round. Anne from the next street, who had a soft spot for Peter, was told he was a lovely lad who just needed time and space to bring out the good in him. Tommy, two doors down and retired from the Army, was told the weekend would be filled with discipline and structure. “We’ll have his day all planned out, Tom, plenty of chores, everything at the right time. And six o’clock’s the time for me wine and me ciggy, har har!” Those who still doubted would, Maureen said confidently, come round when Hobsy returned from Wales a changed boy.

By the time Gwen and Peter uncovered the spring, a wet and gleaming mudhole, they were nettle-stung, bramble-scratched, and spattered with mud. The hole filled slowly with rich brown liquid. Peter stood silent, staring down. He said nothing, but Gwen guessed he was disappointed.

“Well, we can’t drink from that the way it is now,” she said. They went up to the house and fetched jugs to use as bailers.

“Fuckin’ell,” said Maureen, “look at the two of you! You look like you’ve gone ten rounds with a pig.”  

They scooped mud from the spring and, to make it more well-like, lined it with blocks of slate they found stacked behind the house. With another child, Gwen would have tried to make this educational. She would have talked about quarrying, shepherding, the hard and solitary lives of Great-aunt Miriam and her forebears among these hills. But Maureen had warned her against trying to educate the boy. “Forget you’re a teacher for now, love; you’ll just turn him off. Him and school don’t get on, trust me.”

Gwen did trust Maureen. She had trusted her since the day, nearly a year ago, when a mob of children laid siege to her house. Gwen’s accent, posh London with a touch of Welsh, signaled her foreignness to the neighbors and especially to their kids. In bleaker moments, she wondered if they smelled her fear, like river piranhas attracted to a leaking wound. In the first few weeks after moving in, her car was scratched, trash dumped on her doorstep, poorly spelled graffiti scrawled on her windowsill. That particular day, a gang—some of them only eight or nine years old—crowded round her front door, jeering and hooting. Gwen tried talking to them, but they only yelled louder and pushed in closer. She retreated inside; they hammered on the door and windows, and she feared stones would follow. It was then that Maureen, whom Gwen had spoken to only once in a short exchange about bin collections, came charging along the pavement like a bleached-blonde avenging angel. “Ey! That’s me friend’s house, now piss off!” To Gwen’s astonishment, the kids dispersed like a flock of urban starlings, even their small leader, the boy they called Hobsy. And they never came back, for Gwen now had the protection and friendship of the character most neighbors called Mo, the local champion to whom Kitty referred sourly as Queen of the bloody street.

There was some truth in that, for everyone knew Maureen. All local life—deaths and family feuds, births and break-ins, people leaving and people moving in—were her personal business. Most of all, Gwen saw how she made the kids her business. “I love ’em,” she said, her voice sentimental and slurred while she and Gwen shared their now-customary bottle of red wine one summer evening, watching the life of the street from her low front wall. “They’re little bastards, but I love ’em all.”

Gwen, though she failed utterly to love the kids, went along with Maureen’s Big Ideas for keeping them occupied and clear of trouble. The two of them organized litter picks and flower planting, street parties, pavement art with colored chalks. Neighbors called across the street, “You’re doing a boss job there, girls!” and congratulated them on how much cleaner the area had become, how much safer the old people felt in their homes. Gwen, too, felt safer as Maureen’s friend. More, she started to feel that she belonged in Liverpool.

Only Hobsy never joined in. He would hover, waiting for the adults to go indoors, then try to reclaim his position as gang leader and mischief-maker-in-chief. Maureen took his resistance as a challenge because she hated to fail and because, to her, Hobsy was the prize of prizes, the child she wanted most to save. “He’s a lovable rogue,” she said to Gwen. “You know what?”

“What, Maureen?”

“I’m going to tame him.”

By mid-afternoon, after a lunch break for sandwiches, Gwen and Peter finished their well chamber. It was more or less square, with three slate block steps leading down. The blocks did not fit together precisely, and fine dark mud seeped in, making the water grainy and brown.

“Now, we leave it to settle,” said Gwen. “We’ll come back tomorrow and see if it’s clear.”

They went back up the hill, Gwen wondering if their shared labor constituted a bonding exercise. As they stood together at the sink, rinsing the last of the mud off their hands, the boy pointed to an old sheet of paper pinned to the wall and said, “That’s me dragon.”

On their way here, in a roadside café, Maureen had bought Peter a keyring. The fob was a lump of slate, to which was glued a metal disc enameled with the white and green of the Welsh flag, the red dragon commanding the middle. Looking closely at the paper, its curled corners held in place by rusty thumbtacks, Gwen saw that Peter was right. The sheet had faded to the same dirty yellow as the wall, but the creature, once scarlet and now pinkish, was unmistakably a dragon passant, with its clawed foreleg raised, its arrowed tongue stuck out. She said, “Oh, yes! One of my cousins drew that when he was quite small. I remember how pleased my great-aunt was. She must have kept it all those years.”

Maureen and Peter—whose energy was inexhaustible up to the moment he collapsed—had an early night, but Gwen stayed up again, breathing the atmosphere of the house and her own past.

Some children’s books stood on the oak shelves, alongside Great-aunt Miriam’s cookbooks and family Bible. The books were old friends, though blotched and brittle with time. She took down The Silver Sword. On its yellowed paper cover, a rough-headed boy, the orphan Jan, stood amid bombed rubble, his box of treasures clutched to his chest. Gwen knew suddenly that Peter, in another time and place, would not be a criminal nuisance, but a hero. He would scale walls, scavenge for food, slip past Nazi guards, maybe lead his own tribe of Lost Boys into a post-war future of safety and hope. More hope, perhaps, than he had in twenty-first-century Liverpool.

These thoughts could not be shared with Maureen, whose love of her city was proud and fierce, who would be outraged to hear it compared to a war zone. Nor could Gwen say, “Remember The Silver Sword? Or the kids going feral in Lord of the Flies?” For Maureen had been a mother at sixteen, a grandmother at forty, and there had been little time for reading.  

Maureen was up first on Monday morning, watching the dawn with childlike wonder and her usual cigarette. After breakfast Peter and Gwen checked the water in the well, finding it clear and icy cold, floored with fine brown silt. A few leaves and dead insects floated on top, but Gwen showed the boy how to dip an empty Coke bottle upside-down, then turn it upright so the water bubbled in clean. He stood up, holding the bottle like fairy gold.

“Try it,” said Gwen. “It should taste great. Really pure.”

Peter tilted the bottle and took a cautious sip.

“Is it good?” Gwen asked.

“It’s all right,” said Peter gruffly, and then he was off, bounding up the hill, calling, “Come and try me water, Mo!”

“I don’t do water, love,” said Maureen, but under Peter’s expectant stare, she poured an inch into a wine glass and sipped. She suppressed a shudder, nodded slowly, and pronounced it “fuckin’ good water.” “You done a good job there, love,” she said. “Come on, give’s a hug.” And Peter did. Over the top of his head, Maureen gave Gwen a look of misty-eyed triumph.

They went for a long walk that last day, taking sandwiches and following footpaths and pony tracks higher and higher until they could see the peaks of Snowdonia piled up, hazy and far off. Gwen marveled again at the boy’s persistence. He never complained of tiredness, and whenever Maureen wanted to rest, he would fidget until they got moving again. His color was better than when they had arrived, and Gwen thought his cheeks had filled out too.

When Peter was brushing his teeth that night, Maureen said softly, “It’s working.”

“Do you think so?”

“Fuckin’ right I do. Getting him away from the shite at home. All the open space. Giving him proper jobs to do, like the wood, and that well of yours. It’s calmed him right down.”

“For now,” said Gwen. “But he’s had years of neglect and running wild. One weekend won’t fix that.”

“It’s a start. You know what? We should bring other kids here. The scallies, the ones that’re always in trouble.”

“Well, that’s not happening,” Gwen said firmly. “My nerves wouldn’t take it. But there are organizations that do that sort of thing, you know. Youth clubs.”

“Not like this,” said Maureen. “Not the way you and me have done it with Peter.”

“Sign up as a volunteer, then,” Gwen said quickly. “Show them how it’s done.”

“Fuck off, Gwen,” said Maureen. “You’re not turning me into some fuckin’ youth worker, so don’t try.” This was an old discussion, frequently rehearsed on the sidewalk over wine, and much enjoyed by both. Maureen believed in handling problems locally, without involving the authorities, most of whom she dismissed as “a waste of fuckin’ space.” Gwen would counter that to get things done you had to work with the system, follow the rules. Maureen would say, slyly and provocatively, “Rules are made to be broken, Gwen,” and describe local crises she’d averted through deviousness and well-crafted lies. She boasted of the time she’d stopped one of Peter’s worst arson sprees by telling him the back alley was strewn with addicts’ needles. No fires were lit for weeks afterwards. Gwen found it hard to argue with this and rarely tried. She had learned that friendship with Maureen meant adjusting her own moral compass, a few points at a time.

Peter came out of the bathroom in his pajamas. Maureen asked, “Sleepy, love?” Peter shook his head. “Want to go out and look for shooting stars then?” said Maureen. But the boy wandered over to the bookshelf. He seemed to be scanning the titles, and Gwen held her breath superstitiously when his hand brushed The Silver Sword, but it was C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books that drew his eye. He took the boxed-set down carefully. Maureen said to Gwen, “You don’t mind if Peter reads your books, do you, love?”

“Of course not,” said Gwen, though she wasn’t sure how well Peter could read.

Peter took the seven books out of their box, laid them on the carpet in a fan shape, and asked, “What’s this one?” On the cover, a dragon-headed ship flew before the wind with full sails and streaming pennants, white foam around its bows.

Gwen said, “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Three children go on a long sea voyage in a world called Narnia, where there’s magic and animals can talk.”

Peter touched the figurehead with his fingertips.

“On one island,” Gwen said tentatively, not sure if she had his attention, “a boy called Eustace gets turned into a dragon.”

“How?” asked Peter.

“He falls asleep in the dragon’s cave, on top of its treasure, thinking greedy thoughts. And when he wakes up, he’s a dragon himself.”

Peter picked up the book and, not looking at Gwen, handed it to her.

“Um, do you—I mean, would you like me to read a bit?” Gwen asked. Peter nodded. Over his head, Maureen’s eyes went wide. “Come on then, sit down.”

Peter sat formally upright between them on the couch. His tousled hair smelt of woodsmoke. His eyes stayed on the ship until Gwen opened the book, then moved to her face.

She read about Eustace’s transformation into a dragon. How, without language, he struggles to show his shipmates who he really is. How he becomes useful to them, lighting their campfires with his burning breath.

“Fuckin’ good, that,” Maureen remarked, yawning. “I’d never need to worry about losing me lighter if I had a dragon at home, would I, love?”

When they reached the part where the lion Aslan plunges Eustace into a magic well and turns him into a boy again, Gwen hesitated. She had always found this episode a little too blatantly Christian and wondered if Peter would lose interest once the dragon was no longer in the story. But he listened intently, right up to where the Dawn Treader sails away from Dragon Island and into the East. Gwen closed the book and said, “That’s the end of the chapter, Peter. But you can borrow the book if you like.” Peter shook his head and went slowly up the stairs to bed. Maureen, mouthing an astonished Fuck! over her shoulder, followed him.

As they got into the car on Tuesday morning, Maureen said, “It’s boss here, I could stay forever. Couldn’t you, love?” But Peter had gone silent, bundled into his new jacket in the back seat, with his dragon keyring in one hand and a bottle of spring water in the other.  

As a child, Gwen had hated these departures; they were like leaving Narnia for the dullness of the ordinary world. Now, driving away from the house along the stony track, she was flooded with grief again.

On the way home, they visited a slate mine made over for tourists. Gwen assured Maureen it would be fun and nothing at all like school. They watched the grandsons of old-time quarrymen deftly splitting roof slates, followed a guide through lamplit caverns, and skirted a lake glowing with colored lights. Maureen breathed, “Wow, fuckin’ magic!” while Peter held her hand, wide-eyed. In the flickering light of a replica miner’s lamp, their guide recounted the legend of two dragons, one red and one white, doing battle for the soul of Wales in a subterranean cavern. The red dragon of the Celts triumphed, incinerating the white dragon of the Anglo-Saxon invaders with his fiery breath.  

When they took Peter back to his mother’s house—front yard piled with binbags and smashed furniture, doorbell broken, dirty net curtains sagging in the windows—no one came to the door. Gwen waited in the car while the two of them stood outside, the woman in her denim jacket, the boy with his backpack, knocking and knocking. Eventually they turned and came back to the car, Maureen rolling her eyes at Gwen: No surprise there. Bitch.

“Peter’s coming back to mine for a bit, aren’t you, love?” she said when they climbed back into the car. “Just till your mum gets home. We’ll have beans on toast.”

September came, and with it, the frantic activity of a new term. Gwen had little time to call on Maureen or sit out drinking wine in the street, and she rarely saw Peter at all. She wondered if their intervention (a word she could not use with Maureen, who would have snorted “Why don’t you speak fuckin’ English?”) had had a lasting effect. Parents of other kids at the boy’s school reported little change. They spoke of vicious playground fights and frequent truanting. But in their street, gang activity and vandalism did seem less. “That’s because Peter’s calmed down,” Maureen said confidently. “Yesterday he came to my door with a bike someone had robbed, asking if I knew whose it was. He used to be the one robbing bikes. Isn’t that boss?”

Gwen agreed that it was boss.

“And when he’s chilled, the other kids are chilled too. You know what?”

“What, Maureen?”

“There’s more things we can do with those kids. Street parties. Planting flowers. And a muriel, like they’ve got in Toxteth.”

“A what?”

“You know, one of them big pictures on the wall. The kids help paint it.”  

“A mural.

“That’s what I said. We could do a dragon, a big red fuckin’ dragon. Peter’d be made up. I bet he’d join in with the others too.”

“That would be brilliant.”

“Gwen?”

“What, Maureen?”

“We did it. You and me.”

One night in early October, Gwen was woken by an explosion that shook the house. It wasn’t in their street, but it was close. She was bone-tired, and there was school in the morning, so she stayed in bed, knowing she could get the news from Maureen later. But a blaring of fire engines followed and a skirl of police sirens, so she put a jacket over her pajamas, went downstairs blinking and groggy, and opened the door. Maureen was on the step, fully dressed. In the orange streetlight, her face looked unlike itself, drained of color, fearful.

“It’s Peter,” she said. “I fuckin’ know it’s Peter. Come on.” She set off running.

“How do you know?” Gwen cried, hurrying after her. “What happened?”

“Shit happened,” panted Maureen. “The usual shit, only worse. His mum got took into hospital last night. She’d got herself some new feller, some drug dealer. They had a fight, and he hit her so hard he broke her nose.”

“Shit,” Gwen echoed.

“Soon as I heard that, I knew. I thought, it’ll all kick off now. Hobsy’ll get the bastard back. She might be a bitch, but she’s still his mum.”

They came to the cross street that junctioned with their own and turned the corner. Two hundred yards along, by Hobsy’s house, a car was burning. Fifteen feet high, the flames lit the street from end to end. There was fire on the ground too, spilled petrol snaking over the tarmac toward a dumpster that overflowed with garbage and building debris. Seconds later, with a quick throaty whoosh, the whole thing was alight. A listing wooden fence beside it caught fire; the flames streaked along the fence like a trail of gunpowder, heading for a rickety shed half-collapsed against the house wall. People stumbled out of their doors, hammered on those of their neighbors; there were shouts and screams, scared voices and excited ones.

The fire engines had already arrived, and as Gwen and Maureen drew closer, two giant hoses deluged the car and dumpster with Class A foam. Black smoke bellied up from mounds of frothing white. One hose was turned on the trails of burning fuel, another on the busily crackling fence and shed. Bulky-suited firemen tramped along pavements and into yards, pursuing secondary fires.

Tommy, the ex-soldier, was standing by the roadside in a little knot of neighbors, arms folded and mouth set hard.

“Who was it, Tom?” Maureen asked, though she knew.

“That Hobsy,” said Tommy shortly. “The car belonged to his mum’s feller, the dealer. Someone saw the kid put a petrol bomb under it.”

I heard the feller was in the car,” said a man standing by Tommy.

“Oh, fuck,” said Maureen.

“He got out,” the man said, and added, “Too bloody bad.”

Tommy grunted, “It’s attempted murder anyway. He’s too young for prison—they’ll put him in Redbank first. But he’s on the road now.”

Maureen drew a sharp breath, ready to stand up for Hobsy as she always did, but from behind them, Kitty’s voice said triumphantly, “I could have told you what would happen if you took him away to Wales. Try to help scum like that, they laugh in your face.”

“Fuck off now, Kitty,” Maureen snapped without turning.

Police officers were moving along the street, shining torches down alleyways and up the sides of houses.

“They’ll find him,” said Maureen. “Course they will. Where’s he gonna go? He’s ten fuckin’ years old.”

“I can see him,” Gwen said suddenly.

“Where?”

“Up there, look.”

Where their street branched off, a small dark shape moved swiftly over the roof-slates, clambering up toward the chimneys. As they watched, it straightened up and balanced, arms spread, along the topmost ridge of the terrace.

“Bloody monkey,” said Tommy with something like admiration. “Where’s he think he’s going now?”

“Peter!” Maureen bellowed, off again at a run with Gwen following. “Come down off there. You’ll break your fuckin’ neck!”

The small figure hesitated, wobbled, turned toward them. At this distance, and in near-darkness, they could not make out his face. Most of the police had heard Maureen shout; now they converged, torch beams bobbing, on the littered alley from which Peter had begun his climb. Two officers ran round to the front of the terrace. The senior fireman gave rapid orders to his team. Overhead, Peter moved steadily forward. Three more houses, three more rooftops, and he would reach the vertical cliff that was the gable-end.

All eyes were on the child now. Police, fire crews, neighbors, late passers-by. Maureen’s hand gripped Gwen’s arm painfully. Those below knew this could only end in one of two ways. Upturned faces showed their fear, wonder, horror, anticipation. Gwen knew what Maureen was seeing: a small broken body on the tarmac, a memorial stone in the cemetery, Our little angel at rest.

There was no third way, but still Gwen’s mind reached up to where the child stood poised on the ridge, black against the faint orange of a city sky, arms wide as wingtips.

For a second, she saw what he saw, felt what he felt: the chasm below, the power and the rage, then a graze of bronze claws on roof-slates, a swoop and a rise, a leathern-winged torpedo out of darkness.

She thought, We did it.

THE END


Patience Mackarness lives and writes partly in a cottage in Brittany, France and partly in an elderly VW camper van. She spent many years in Liverpool and has also lived in Portugal, Kuwait, and Bahrain. Her work has been published by many literary magazines, including Brilliant Flash Fiction, Every Day Fiction, Pure Slush, and Peacock Journal.

Monkey Mountain

BY: Kali VanBaale

The brothers first heard the screaming one morning as they fed calves. The piercing cries echoed from the timber above the dairy farm, a bluff the family had called “Monkey Mountain” since the boys were little. Startled by the sound, Jamie and Eric straightened in unison and turned toward the dark woods.

“What the hell was that?” Jamie’s breath billowed against the flat pink horizon.

“Shh.” Eric frowned.

Seconds passed. A cold gust funneled between the white fiberglass calf huts and swirled late spring snow into Jamie’s face.

Another screech splintered the air. Several calves scrambled to the back of their huts.

“Is that a woman?” Jamie whispered. He shivered inside his winter coveralls.

Eric shook his head. “It’s an animal.”

“What kind of animal sounds like that?”

Eric tossed an empty calf bottle into the back of the utility wagon. “Some kind of big cat. Bobcat, maybe.” He paused. “Or a mountain lion.”

“Bullshit!” Jamie threw an armful of hay into a pen and brushed off the front of his denim coat. “You’re lying.”

“No, I’m not.” Eric cuffed his red nose. “We get ’em here sometimes. A couple dozen in the last twenty years or so. Look it up on the DNR website if you don’t believe me.”

Jamie didn’t need to. He knew his brother was telling the truth. Eric was only eighteen, two years older than Jaime, but he’d always seemed to be some version of a responsible adult. He could’ve picked on Jamie anytime he’d wanted to, but he never did.

Eric pulled another empty bottle from a pen. “We should tell Dad.”
“Why?”

“He’ll want to kill it. Big cats are hunters.” Eric mounted the four-wheeler and started the motor. “Let’s go,” he said. “I got homework to do.”

Jamie straddled the back of the seat, trying to imagine a mountain lion strolling through Iowa hills and pastures, hunting for its dinner, but couldn’t. The idea seemed ridiculous.

#

Two days later, Eric and Jamie donned their camouflage hunting clothes, loaded their 12-gauge shotguns, and started for Monkey Mountain in search of the animal. Once again, they’d heard the screaming during evening chores, and their father agreed with Eric that it sounded like a big cat. Bobcat or lion, he didn’t care. He wanted it dead before it started picking off livestock or their mother’s beloved dogs.

The boys crossed the frozen Fox Creek, trekked up the snow-dusted bluff, and hiked deep into the trees. Eric was a good shot and had been hunting the timber most of his life, but Jamie didn’t much like hunting and only did it when his father made him during deer season. He’d never killed anything and hated the sound of gun blasts, but sometimes it had to be done, he was often reminded. They needed meat, rabid animals were dangerous, and dying cattle shouldn’t be made to suffer. It was part of farm life, and eventually he would have to accept it like any other necessary chore.

The boys silently entered the section of timber that had spawned the nickname Monkey Mountain—a copse of non-native catalpa trees that had been there since Grandpa Chuck bought the farm in the early thirties. No one knew who planted them. As children, Grandpa Chuck told Jamie and Eric an absurd tale about some circus performer planting the trees to attract monkeys with the catalpa’s long, browned banana-looking seed pods that hung from branches all winter. The boys readily believed their grandfather, and the name Monkey Mountain stuck long after they outgrew the story.

Eric stopped and brushed his gloved fingertips over a short, crooked trunk. “I love it up here,” he said. “This is my favorite place on the farm.”

Jamie rested his gun against his shoulder and plucked a pod from a low branch. He crushed it in his gloved palm. Jamie and Eric had camped amid the trees many times on warm summer nights in a little yellow dome tent. He’d always felt safe here, when it was just the two of them in isolation.

“Do you really think there’s a mountain lion up here?” Jamie asked.

Eric shrugged. “Maybe.” He tilted his head back, staring up into the branches. “I sure wish Grandpa’s story had been true.”

“Which one?” Jamie chuckled.

“That there were monkeys up here. It was always my favorite story.”

“Yeah, that was a good one.” Jamie dropped the pod pieces and switched his gun to the other shoulder. His favorite story from Grandpa Chuck had been his claim that once during a dust storm, he’d witnessed a flock of birds flying backwards to keep from getting dirt in their eyes.

“Are we resting or what?” Jamie asked.

Eric exhaled, sounding tired. “Just for a minute.”

Eric had been up since four for the early milking. He’d milked the morning shift before school for years, and Jamie and their father milked the evening shift. Soon Jamie would take on the evening shift by himself. That was the plan. The brothers would eventually take over the farm in a partnership, accepting the reins from their father.

Jamie’s toes grew cold inside his boots, and he stamped his feet to get some blood flowing. He studied his brother’s profile in the fading light. Maybe it wasn’t fatigue in his face. It was something else. He seemed distracted or worried. Heart harried, their mother called it, whenever Eric became pensive and quiet, as he often did.

An ear-splitting scream spooked the brothers, and Eric reflexively trained his gun in the direction of the sound. Jamie fumbled with his own weapon, struggling to get the safety off and the recoil pad comfortably settled against his shoulder. They waited, fingers on triggers, steel barrels side by side, until another scream tore through the trees.

“God damn,” Jamie whispered, “that sounds like a woman being strangled.”

Eric shifted his weight and leaned forward.

The screaming continued, a demented, painful growl that echoed off the hillsides. A half mile away, maybe less.

“It is a mountain lion,” Eric finally said, his voice low. “Female. She’s in heat.”

Jamie’s muscles strained to hold his gun up, and the end of the barrel wavered. “How do you know for sure?”

“I watched a YouTube video last night.”

Jamie widened his stance for better balance on the uneven terrain.

“Stop moving,” Eric said.

Several minutes passed before another screech echoed, farther away this time.

Eric lowered his barrel. “She’s heading east.”
Jamie looked at his brother. “Will it come back?”

Eric patted Jamie’s shoulder. “Just remember that you’re the one carrying the gun.”

#

During their second trip into the timber, Eric tracked fresh scat and paw prints in the new snow. The trail led from the creek straight into the heart of Monkey Mountain.

There, the brothers hunkered down in the fallen needles and seed pods, huddling close to a catalpa with fresh claw marks on the trunk.

It was even colder this evening than the previous, and Jamie wished he’d thought to bring a couple of warming packs to stick in his coat pockets. He shivered and clenched his jaw to try to mask the chatter of his teeth.

Eric burrowed down deep into his coveralls until only his eyes were visible over the collar. “This is funny,” he said.

“What’s funny?”

“We’re in Iowa hunting lions in a place we call Monkey Mountain.”

Jamie laughed softly.

Eric yawned and rubbed his face. Last night, after the boys returned from the timber empty handed, Eric and their mother had walked out to the milking parlor where Jamie and their father were finishing up the evening shift. Their mother told Jamie to go into the house so the three could talk, and they stayed out there until nearly midnight. When Eric finally returned to the house, he’d gone straight to bed without a word. The silence had continued through breakfast. Jamie knew better than to ask what was going on and get in the middle of it, but the tension between them had been like a taut wire strung across the room that he could’ve reached out and plucked. Despite not knowing what was up, Jaime felt the ground beneath him become unsteady. It’s how he always felt when Eric seemed unbalanced.

The sun made its final descent below the horizon, basking the fallow fields and barns in a soft orange light.

“The farm looks so small from up here,” Eric said.

“Yeah,” Jamie said. “But I like that you can see it all from one place.” He picked up a stick and scratched at the hard ground. “What’s going on between you and Mom and Dad?”

The timber was quiet but for the occasional rustle of the wind gently rocking the catalpa pods hanging above their heads.

After a pause, Eric said, “I had to break some news to them.”

“What news? You get someone pregnant or something?” He laughed but Eric did not.

“I told them I joined the Marine Corps last week,” he finally said. “A four-year enlistment. I leave for boot camp at the end of August. In California.”

Jamie dropped the stick. He lifted his face to the sky and watched the brown pods sway back and forth.

The Marine Corps.

California.

Four years.

His throat tightened and he turned away. Eric hardly ever cried. Jamie had only seen it a couple of times in his whole life. Once, when Eric had to put down his old sheep dog, Dolly, and once at their Grandpa Chuck’s funeral. But Jamie choked up all the time it seemed, no matter how hard he tried not to.

“Did you hear what I said?” Eric asked after some time, but Jamie didn’t answer. He kept his gaze high in the canopy, blinking the tears away.

“I signed up ’cause I just want to do something different for a while,” Eric said. “Something on my own.” He kicked at the snow with his boot. “It’s hard to explain. Mom and Dad don’t understand.”

Jamie didn’t understand either. He couldn’t understand why his brother would want to leave this place, their home.

He tried to imagine the house without Eric for four whole years or doing chores every day without him just an arm’s length away to talk to and make the work go faster.

“Are you coming back after you’re done?” Jamie asked.

Eric shrugged. “I don’t know.”

Jamie picked the stick back up and chipped at the ground. “Monkey Mountain is such a stupid name,” he said.

“It’s just a nickname, Jamie.”

“Well, it’s a stupid nickname.”
As Eric opened his mouth to respond, a screech echoed over the bluff just above them, and the boys scrambled to their feet. It was close.

Eric lifted his gun to his shoulder and silently motioned to the top of the bluff. He tapped Jamie’s chest and pointed right, then tapped his own and pointed left. Jamie nodded, and the boys split up.

Jamie made his way up the western side of the steep hill, taking slow, silent steps. His shoulders and biceps began to burn. Tiny flakes of snow drifted through the trees dotting his face, making his skin itch. Another screech, this one even closer. His heart hammered in his chest. He stopped and fumbled with the rifle to double check that he’d taken off the safety, that it was, indeed, loaded.

He hadn’t fired it in months, since the last time Eric took him target practicing. Had he cleaned and oiled it after the last time? He couldn’t remember. Maybe he did oil it. But maybe he oiled it too much and the gun would jam if he tried to fire it. Maybe he would shoot more accurately with his gloves off. He bit the tips and pulled his hands free, leaving the gloves where they landed on the ground.

Just as he repositioned the stock against his shoulder, his peripheral vision caught a sliver of movement. Jamie turned his head toward the bluff, and there she was. Ten, maybe twelve feet away. She stared back at him, perfectly still, poised with one front leg bent, ready to pounce. She was beautiful with a light cinnamon-colored coat, dark-tipped ears, and black-lined eyes. So much bigger than he’d imagined.

Monkey Mountain was quiet. Jamie and the lion remained locked in a staring contest, like he and Eric used to play when they were kids.

Jamie pressed his cheek against the cold stock and squeezed his left eye shut, sighting with his right. His index finger curled around the trigger.

Shoot it! Jamie’s mind screamed at him. Just shoot it!

 

The lion lowered her paw to the ground and took a few steps backward. Maybe she was retreating. If she turned and ran, he wouldn’t have to fire at her.

But in a blurry motion, the lion launched from the top of the bluff straight at him. Jamie cried out and squeezed the trigger. One, two, three times, the violent punch of the butt slamming his shoulder with each shot. The lion screeched and hit the ground hard, front legs buckling, her face plowing into the fresh snow. She tried to stand, staggered sideways, then collapsed with a thud.

Jamie lowered the gun barrel, his ears ringing. Acrid smoke drifted into his face and clogged his nostrils. The lion lay just a few feet in front of him on her side, unmoving. He waited until her shallow breaths ceased and took a step toward her. Her glassy eyes were fixed on nothing.

Two small red circles dotted the left side of her neck.

He kneeled next to her and laid his bare hand on her warm belly, stroking her coarse hair.

Footsteps pounded down the hill above him.

“Jamie!” Eric shouted, panting. “Jamie!”

Eric halted, mouth agape, when he saw Jamie and the prone animal. He crouched next to Jamie and lay his shotgun down on the ground.

“I got her,” Jamie said quietly.

The snow fell thicker now, covering everything in a smooth white blanket. Jamie lifted his face to the sky and let the cold flakes gather on his eyelashes. He loved it here, too.  

Tears streamed down Eric’s ruddy cheeks. “You did it,” he said.  

Jamie gave a small smile.

“Sometimes it has to be done,” he said. For once, he didn’t feel like crying.


Kali VanBaale is the author of the novels The Good Divide and The Space Between. She’s the recipient of an American Book Award, and Eric Hoffer Book Award, an Independent Publisher’s silver medal, and is represented by Dunow, Carlson & Lerner for a third and fourth novel. Her short stories and essays have appeared in Midwestern Gothic, The Chaffey Review, Nowhere Magazine and others, and she’s the assistant editor of the essay series Past Ten. Kali holds an MFA in creative writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a faculty member of the Lindenwood University MFA Creative Writing Program. She lives in Iowa with her family. www.kalivanbaale.com 

Going Backwards On Ice Skates

BY: Adam McDonald

Rebecca had climbed through my bedroom window Saturday night, and we undressed ourselves in the dark. Pretty much the only thing she said the whole night was, “I’m sorry about the blood,” and we fell asleep not touching under the covers. Both our first times—a mutual understanding, a scratching of each other’s backs, checking off that box so many of our friends had checked. I imagined it was hard for her to nudge me awake and whisper into my ear, “I have to go home.”

She braved the cold and rushed for her clothes on the floor, reaching out to amorphous clumps, bumping furniture, jostling my things. I could see the shadow of her arms circle around to clip her bra then rise above her head for her T-shirt, sweatshirt, then coat. She was graceful in her shadowy figure, wholesome in her weight. She left the window open on her way out. The snow blew in and melted on the floor. No kiss; no goodbye.

My clock showed 5:38, and I watched the walls brighten to blue, then level off to gray with the rising sun. My room was quiet; my ears rang. I felt like a misunderstanding had taken place, like the people I loved were already disappointed. Like I had done something bad and irreparable.

At best, Rebecca and I knew of each other. We’d see each other at parties, make eye contact, smile without our teeth. We had mutual friends and second-period English together. When it was convenient, we said hello. Never went out of our ways. I wouldn’t say we knew each other the way our parents would’ve wished.

My sister in the next room exhaled audibly as she transitioned to another pose on her yoga mat. She did yoga every day and wanted to live closer to the ocean and work in a studio. She was sick of country living—“Out grown,” she said.

I got out of bed, shut the window, and stood over the heater holding my shriveled-up self. In the corner, Rebecca’s purple panties were scrunched up in a little ball looking like a giant piece of lint you find in your pocket after a wash. I laid them on my bed. French-cut. I smelled a fusion of feminine juices and fabric softener. Shameful of me, I know, but I was only acting out what I saw lustful men do in the movies.

Then, from deep down inside, out of an unknown place, an urge lurched to escape. I slid them on. They felt good licking the tops of my thighs with their lacey softness. The tightness around my buttocks and the way they dipped down beneath my pubic line—I had nothing to compare the feeling to, and for a moment, I was able to enjoy them for simply being wrapped around me. Then, the questions flooded about what it meant. Questions laden with shame and a self-loathing I could feel in my fingertips.

If it wasn’t for my mom yelling, “Forty-five minutes before church!” I would have played sick, stayed hidden underneath the sheets. But in my family, the only way you could skip church was if you were dying, in which case the bishop would come to your house and fill you in with acute detail about that morning’s service.

I took them off quickly and tucked them underneath my box spring.

***

There I was, suffering in my ironed Sunday clothes, looking down at my crotch, completely powerless over wanting them on again. I didn’t hear a single word the priest said. My thoughts were all I could hear, and I’m pretty sure he knew it, too, since every time I looked up at him he was staring back at me with that omniscient look on his face like he could smell my deviance from the pulpit—I needed to get some fresh air.

“Gene?” my mom said as I bumped her knees. She touched my arm, her eyes heavy and watery.

“To the bathroom. I’ll be right back, I promise.”

“Can’t it—”
“It’s urgent.”

“This is—”

“I will, I will.” I could see worry in her eyes now. I could see how much she believed this was good for me to hear. It wasn’t a secret she believed church would provide me stability and fulfillment once I left for college. That wasn’t me, but I admired her for revealing her conviction to me in this way. She had to have known we had different belief systems, but she wasn’t afraid of appearing vulnerable, soldiering on with what she thought was best for me even though she hadn’t a clue.

The fresh air on my cheeks was remarkable, and so was the sight of Lindsey leaning up against a wall smoking a cigarette. When she saw me, she dropped it in the clean snow and buried it with the heel of her boot.

“What are you doing back?” I said. “I thought winter break was over for college students.” We hugged briefly. I felt her hand slide off my back and down my arm.

For years, we went to this church, and ever since I started liking girls, I liked her. But I knew it would never happen. She was known around school as the Rifle because she went through new boyfriends like bullets from a semi-automatic—after one fired, another filled the chamber. But I didn’t care for that. I just wanted a chance that never came before she left for college.

“I’m on a reprieve at the moment. You know, recalibrating,” she said and looked down at her cigarette in the snow.

“It’s okay if you smoke,” I said. “I won’t judge.” I put my back on the wall, shoulder to shoulder with her.

She lit a new one, puffed twice and passed it to me. I held it but I didn’t smoke it, not really sure what to do with it. I passed it back after a moment. She held it between her first knuckles.

“So, are you thinking about college?” she asked.

“Northwestern, State as a backup. My mom’s hoping it’ll be Catholic. You never answered my question about school.”

“I’m taking a semester.”

“What happened?”

“Just wasn’t ready for it. They say that can happen during orientation, but you never think it’s going to be you that can’t hang.”

“You never think you’re going to be the bad exception.”

“So many things all at once. Freedom from so much. You pick your classes, a new selection of friends, of boys, a new you, new home, and no one telling you what to do or keeping tabs on you. No more church on Sunday.”

“You stopped going to church?”

She looked at me. “It’s like everything you thought about yourself gets thrown out the window and you’re left to redefine your life, to chisel out every detail, and it’s all at once.”

“Sounds stressful.”

“You’ll see,” she said. “Me, I just needed a little break. In the spring, I’ll know what I’m getting myself into.”

I said I should be getting back.

“We should hang out while I’m back, catch up proper.”

“That sounds good,” I said.

We hugged and parted ways.

“What took you so long?” my mom asked as I bumped her knees.

“I ran into Lindsey.”

***

In the car, my sister kept looking at me with a smirk, and I knew she knew about last night. I made a face, and she shrugged and returned to the blue haze of her phone.

My sister, Liza was her name, was 2 years older than me. She was enrolled in community college waiting to hear back from universities in the spring, just like me. She wanted to do philosophy and ecology. She especially enjoyed getting our mom worked up about public universities along the coasts, but there was a good chance we’d both end up at State because the tuition was cheap and it was a good school. We weren’t close like best friends, but she looked out for me so we tolerated each other.

“You’ve been awfully quiet back there,” my mom said, and we made eye contact in the rearview mirror.

I shrugged.

“How’s Lindsey?”

“Fine,” I said.

“Quiet today, just like your father.” She looked at my dad in the front seat, who hadn’t said anything this entire morning, and placed her hand on his knee. He nodded to my mother’s musings and placed his hand on hers.

He really was a taciturn fellow. Some people joked by calling him Stone-cold Jackson because his name was Jack. He was a normal guy. Held a steady job, went to church every Sunday.  Loved golf, grilling burgers, knew how to drive stick-shift, and didn’t smile much because of his teeth. He was predictable in a way that after church, you could count down from fifteen seconds from entering the house to when my dad would turn on the TV, a hushed announcer murmuring while a man putted surrounded by green fields. However, this Sunday, the Winter Olympics were on for my mother. She loved to watch downhill skiing, luge, curling, figure skating, whatever was on. It was her weekend with the TV, and she and my dad sat on the couch watching, commercials and all.

I had gotten a bottle of sparkling water from the fridge and was headed for my bedroom when my sister blocked my path to the hall. She squinted at me; I could see in her tight face she was on the verge of saying something out loud that had very little evidence of being true but huge potential for hurt. I ducked under her arm, my feet thudding against the hardwood floor as I ran to my room.

“Hey!” she called after me. She caught my door from closing. We were face to face, our noses nearly touching.

“Let me in,” she said.

I didn’t say anything but backed away from the door. She went straight to the window Rebecca had crawled through last night and looked out to the street. I sat on my bed and waited for her to talk first. She nodded her head and I nodded mine. She laughed kind of. I could see her shooting phrases, lessons, aphorisms through her curly hair, trying them out in the universe of her brain.

We were silent for a long time. She slowly paced with one hand holding her elbow and the other nibbling her nails. “I never thought I’d be in this position,” she said.

“What position?”

“Being the one you have to talk to, I guess.”

“There’s nothing to say.”

“There are mistakes to be made, Gene.”

“I’m not going to make any mistakes.”

She sighed, and a silence settled over us.

“You’re right. Everyone’s mistakes are different.”

“Thank you.”

“I just feel I have a responsibility to warn you.”

“Not with this, Liza, please.”

“Fine. If you want to go it alone, then fine.” She stood there hawking me like I was damned. She said, “I think you should know yoga helps, a lot.”

“Jesus!”

“Take deep breaths, Gene.”

She closed the door. I lay on my bed and spent the rest of the day pondering my life’s new toughest question. I combed through my past like counting blades of grass looking for an explanation. I had had a normal childhood. Loving parents and friends. I played baseball in spring. I did well in school. And there was Rebecca, too. I debated if I should call and tell her I had a good time. I wanted to call, but there was a resistance, a block between last night’s me and today’s me, who worried until my stomach bunched up and I couldn’t eat.

Throughout dinner—I skipped lunch—I zoned out, barely said a word, unconsciously feeling my face and neck for poppable zits until my sister nudged me. “Stop touching your face.”

“Are you okay?” my mother asked.

“I’m fine,” I said.

“You don’t seem fine.”

I excused myself from the table. “I’m not feeling well,” I said and rushed down the hall to quickly secure myself in my room.

My mom knocked on my door. “Gene, may I come in?”

“I just need time to be alone.”

“I’d really like to talk to you, honey.”

“Not now, Mom. I just need some space.”

She tried the handle. “You’ll let me know if you need anything, won’t you?”

“I will.” She shuffled off back to dinner.

I lay naked under the covers, the door locked, and thought obsessively of the underwear under my bed and the feeling of liberty they gave me. It was like I was suddenly the correct version of myself. Yet, I was a man, I liked girls. I knew this. I felt this. It was too much for me to understand. They didn’t teach the intricacies of sexuality in school. All we heard was cross-dresser, transvestite, she-man, he-she, as though these people were lepers or miscreants. There was just what was normal and what was unwanted, which was everything else, and then we moved on to a different topic.

Rebecca texted me later in the evening, asking if she had left her underwear at the house, and then Lindsey called me about the same time.

“Want to hang out?” she said.

“I don’t know. Now may not be a good time.”

“I’m outside in my car.”

“You can come in if you want, but we can’t be loud.”

“I’ll be quiet.”

Helping her in, I held a finger across my lips and pointed towards the wall I shared with my sister. She nodded and began undressing her outer layers.

“You have a bigger bed than I imagined.” She sat down. “I’m sorry for barging in on you like this, I just didn’t know where else to go.”

“Did anything happen?” I said.

“Just my parents getting all over me about college.”

“It’s fine. A little surprising is all.”

“What do you mean?”

“Nothing, I just wouldn’t have expected you to call me out of everyone you’ve been close with.”

“I don’t want to see any of them. I was never close to anyone. Nobody really talks to me.”

“It’s tough in high school.”

“It’s the same in college.”

We sat side by side, our hips touching. I was reminded of when we were younger, before the crush and boys. We’d play in my room or hers doing this or that, our world miles away, making up everything to suit our adventure. She got up and turned out the light. The streetlight trickled in through the frosty window. She started touching my thigh, gliding her hand up, biting her bottom lip. Her smile glowed in the night, and I could see the gap in her front teeth, which I had always loved. I felt disoriented. I thought of Rebecca. I wanted to ignore it. Ignore the shame, the confusion. Fuck it, I decided.

She asked if I would undress her. I did, slowly, thinking of the way I’d want to be undressed. I took everything off, leaving her underwear for last. Then, I slid those off her hips, and I held them in my hand while, with the other, I touched myself. It was as though I was alone, with only myself to think about, and not a few moments later, it was all over for me—all over me. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

“I’m sorry,” I said, catching my breath.

“What?”

“I’m so sorry.”

“For what?”

“I can’t do this.” My pants deflated.

“You got me naked!”

“Ssssshhhhhhh.” I looked back toward the wall.

Lindsey covered herself with my sheets. “What’s going on?”

I dropped the underwear on the floor and kneeled, feeling the wet spot sticking to my thigh. I told her how long I had waited for the moment I would be the one undressing her. It was the truth, or at least it would have been before this morning.

She understood. “Too soon.” She looked depleted. After a long silence, it looked like she made up her mind. “I still don’t want to be alone tonight.”

“It’s okay if you want to stay,” I said.

She gathered the clothes she could without revealing herself and put them on under the covers. I gave her underwear over easily, so as not to make a scene. “Can I smoke in here? By the window?”

I pulled up a chair and she lit a cigarette for the both of us. Her in the chair, me on the windowsill, we shivered while she talked of moving to Los Angeles, talking down our small town and the tourists that come during fall to pick their own apples. Talked about religion like a liquid. I didn’t know what to believe anymore, but wanted to believe.

***

I dreamed the strangest dream:

I was alone out in the deep wilderness, coming to the edge of a frozen lake in ankle deep snow. The pain in my feet was nearly unbearable. The lake was smooth and glassy, undisturbed. It reflected perfectly the tree line from the opposite side. In the moonlight, wearing a tuxedo, my dad was figure skating. He jumped and twirled and carved gloriously forwards and backwards, his hands flying out to his sides. His reflection on the ice doubly beautiful, chasing his every move. He was completely silent, like his dancing took place in a vacuum. He leaped up into the air and spun so fast his face blurred, then came back into sharp focus. I watched him secretly in the woods for what felt like hours and hours going around and around.

***

I woke up late and hurried to get ready. Lindsey begged for 20 more minutes, and I decided to leave her there hogging the sheets. I told her to shut the window when she left.

I didn’t even try to focus during first period, and I showed up a few minutes late to my next class to avoid Rebecca and left right at the bell. Speed walking down the hall to the cafeteria, I took refuge knowing she wouldn’t approach me with my friends.

I realized I hadn’t slept too well the past couple of nights, so the plan was to go home and rest and hope for this weekend to blow over to a time when this would all become a funny story I told at parties. Everyone would laugh and see me in a better light—better than the nervous, introverted kid who spent too much time under the covers in his dorm. Facing the cold, I trudged home, feeling the compression of snow under my boots, listening to the grinding salt.

Rebecca was waiting for me at the stop-sign intersection where her house was right and mine was left. She leaned on the aluminum pole looking down at her phone.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey.” She took her earbuds out.

We stood underneath a canopy of oak trees. The wind sometimes blasted through this natural tunnel, but today it was still. I felt protected. I debated quickly if I should keep her underwear. It was between the right thing for her and the right thing for me, and I chose me because I really needed a win and I was certain they weren’t her only pair.

“A lot going around right now,” she said.

“Did you tell anyone?”

“I told Jennifer. I needed to. You know, it’s a big deal for a girl.”

“I know, it was a big deal for me, too.”

“Did you really sleep with Lindsey last night?”

“No,” I said. “Who said that?”

“Jenny and Tyler. You know Lindsey. She posted pictures of herself in your bed on Facebook and everywhere else.”

I knew then word would get around. Mothers who snooped their children’s social media would see Lindsey’s posts, and it would get back to my mom and dad, and they’d bar my window and force me into seminary.

“What’d she say?”
“She said she wasn’t too impressed.”

“We didn’t sleep together.”

“Why would she say that?”

“I don’t know. She came over and we smoked a cigarette and fell asleep.”

Rebecca looked down. Her face was expressionless, and I assumed she was either ashamed for believing the rumor or worried she’d chosen a womanizer to be her first. I wasn’t a womanizer, I knew that much. I also knew my track record thus far wasn’t doing me any favors. “I don’t really care what people say. I’m out of here in less than a year,” she said. “But I’d like to keep going out.”

“Can I walk you home?”

We held hands, and I told her about the dream I had with my dad. It seemed I could with her. That she wasn’t someone to use it against me.  

“I don’t know,” she said. “Do you think dreams mean something?”

“I think so,” I said.

“What if you didn’t dream it?”

“I think I definitely dreamed it.”

We stood out front of her house. “Maybe you’ll dream the answer tonight. Or maybe you’ll never know and you’ll keep guessing your whole life. Or maybe you’ll just forget about it like the rest of our dreams.”

She kissed me even though her parents were probably watching through the window. I stuck my cold hands in my pockets and walked backward until she went through the front door. I didn’t know what I was doing with her, but it felt good to start something. Make one last stitch before we all headed our own ways.

Almost home, my phone buzzed.

Rebecca: if u have my underwear u can hold on to them

Me: they r safe w me 😉

I dropped my backpack on the floor and sat on my bed. The house had an empty feeling, like listening to the inside of a seashell. I closed my door gently because the house felt gentle.

I undressed myself the way I wanted to be undressed by Rebecca someday. I wanted to bury my face in her bosom and take refuge in the clouds of her body. I slipped her underpants on and those feelings of boldness, bravery, and confusion came rushing back. I handled them all at once, no idea how to sort the emotions, but I didn’t need to know right then. All I needed to know was that I liked wearing them.

I went to the kitchen for a sparkling water. The ground was cold on my feet; the peach fuzz on my chest rose. When I closed the fridge, my dad was standing dead silent looking at me, my private hairs peeking out. We stared at each other, blinking and thinking God knows what. I expected him to erupt. A small part of me wanted to finally hear what his anger sounded like. To see a side of him I had never seen.

He swallowed, then cleared his throat. “Are those your sister’s?”

I shook my head. “No.”

He let out all the air in his lungs. “That’s fine,” he said and looked me up and down, grinning, showing all his crooked teeth. “That’s fine.”


Adam McDonald lives in Toronto with his partner and two cats. He is the 
Managing Editor for Patchwork Mosaic magazine, an online publication for 
new and emerging writers. His work can be found in Allegory Ridge’s fiction 
anthology, Archipelago.

Hotels

By: Rachel Smith

The party was on a Thursday night. The guests came flushed with cold, carrying six-packs of Stella Artois. They unwound their scarves and lay their coats on Cici’s bed. As with all New York buildings in winter, the sixth-floor walk-up was overheated. Still, some guests kept their coats on. As each person arrived, Cici’s panic mounted. She’d invited women. Where were they? The work friends who had said they’d come? At half past seven, fifteen men stood in the tiny living room drinking. They threw glances her way as they talked to each other—about what? What could they have to say? None of them knew the others. She’d slept with them all.

Cici felt that they understood this. In the low, flickering candlelight, Brandon leaned toward Momar to speak. Steven drifted toward the window, tapping a pack of American Spirits on his palm. Frank and Hervé followed, reaching into their pockets. She glimpsed them from the open kitchen, where she was frantically browning meatballs. She saw awkward politeness in the way they moved across the room. But why be nervous? she asked herself, as she piled mounds of spaghetti on each triple-stacked paper plate. What could they say that would make it worse?

She delivered the food and moved among them, dipping into conversations, offering more beer. The apartment was deeply hot now and the last coats had been shed and tossed on the couch. She began to almost enjoy herself. The act of eating seemed to simmer them down. Then Luke came close and whispered, Sweetheart, I can’t compete, and dumped his plate in the trash. As he let himself out, he waved at her with his leather-palmed gloves. A sense of permission rippled through the room. Frank went to the bedroom for his coat. Hervé took his scarf from a hook on the wall. Soon the apartment was empty, candles burning down, a scattering of garbage. They were gone and she looked at the clock. It was nine.

 

How had it happened? she wondered again, three nights later, in the hotel room with Jean. He was a bulge breathing loudly beside her. She moved her legs and felt the milky soft sheets. To some of the men she’d barely mentioned the party, not even invited them. But mentioning a party was an invitation, she realized now. And she’d known that. Possibly she’d mentioned it out of fear no one would come. Or only two or three people would come. Some humiliatingly small number of people who would regret taking the train all the way up to 111th Street.

A clicking sound came from the gas fireplace in the corner. It was off now. Earlier she had lain on the thick carpet, bathing in its little heat. Jean always rented the Royal Suite when he came to the city—an indulgence she associated with his age—and the luxury made her feel spacious. It made her wonder if it was the squalidness of her apartment that had set her party up to fail. Whether a Chesterfield and a coat of Farrow & Ball would have changed the composition of the guests, made everyone drink more, and given the party that natural feeling good parties have. But this wasn’t about her apartment, she thought, turning over, pushing a pillow aside. It was about something more difficult. She had become one of those women who didn’t have friends.

Well. There were worse things. She was young. She probably had time. Light leaked around the cracks of the door to the bathroom and Jean’s shape was seal-like under the covers. She reached under and touched his arm.

Nn, he grunted. Cold.

Jean, she said, rolling onto her side.

Asleep, he said.

Why are you interested in me?

I was asleep, he said, opening his eyes.

That’s good, she said. You can go there again. But what made you interested in me? She was propped up on her elbows now.

He turned on his side to face her and said, Why are you asking?

I think I’m realizing something, Jean.

Well—he breathed and seemed to come more awake—I like being around you.

She fell back onto the pillows and thought about that for a moment. Or didn’t think about it, but felt it. The feeling was something like satisfaction.

I’m realizing—she said, and looked down at him. His eyes were closed. Jean? She nudged him with her fist. In the dim light, she studied the round outline of his face.

 

She half-woke when he left, before seven. Her alarm sounded at eight. The morning dark had given way to grey. Not light, exactly, but visibility. The room seemed to have been uncloaked. She stretched, cold under the sheets. The covers were heaped on the floor.

I used to go to the palace to meet with the son, he’d said at dinner the night before. He meant Baby Doc, Haiti’s president-for-life who’d fled to France in ’86. Half a decade, almost, before Cici was born. On a U.S. Airforce flight, by the way, Jean had said. They were in the hotel restaurant with its white tablecloths and dark damask walls. Jean had his fingers pressed on the base of his wine glass, his face lit with good humor. When I used to go meet with him, he said, twisting the glass a half turn, he would sit at the desk like a walrus in his beautiful suit. But he would never stand to greet you. You see, it was hot there, even in the palace. If he stood, you would see he was sitting there in bare legs and shorts.

Cici thought of this as she looked down the bed at her own thin legs. She’d lost weight when she visited Haiti, where she’d met Jean four months ago. She’d lost her period. The trip had left a spiritual mark on her, like a thin, white stripe on a plain beach rock. But whatever the mark was, she couldn’t talk about it. She couldn’t really say what it was.

She reached for her phone to text Jean and opened an unread message. In meetings until late my bird but done TODAY if things go well. There were three fingers-crossed emojis. Idea: would you like to go to Maine?

Reading this raised a vague tenderness within her. She thought of Maine as a place that had kept its wildness, a place artists liked to go to paint little boats against a sea that bled into the sky. It must have been three months ago that she’d explained her wish to go there. They were at a hotel in Washington, where Jean lobbied for his textiles. I know I have a romantic idea of Maine, she’d started out, in her matter-of-fact way. It was one of the first nights they’d spent together. He folded his newspaper and looked at her blankly. As she went on talking and got more into the thrall of her own thoughts, she’d said, But that’s the point of travel, isn’t it? Romanticizing? Isn’t that what gives you pleasure?

The memory embarrassed her now. It made her feel exposed. It showed something unguarded that she would have rather him not have seen. When they were together, she was aware of the outer life she presented. She tried to allow no opening, to control his impression of her. She thought that this made him like her more. But thinking of him now, when they were apart, she felt that her inner self was exposed—was always open to him—in some elemental way.

She texted: Maine! Yes. 

When she got out of the shower there was a reply: But can u take off work?

She dried her hands on a bath towel and typed back: Of course.

 

Light and fine as salt, snow drifted over the park. She jammed her fists in her pockets and snugged her coat tighter. Horses and carriages lined up on 59th Street and the drivers huddled together smoking. Cici turned out of the park onto the sidewalk. She walked close to a dun horse and touched its neck.

Ride for you? a driver called out. He moved toward her, dropping his cigarette in a puddle.

She shook her head. The horse flared its nostrils and she felt its wet breath.

Beautiful day, he said. Snowy day—though the snow had nearly stopped—Today half price.

I’ve read about your horses, she said, moving her fingers over the mane. They don’t get to go to pasture. Their stables are too small.

Your titties are too small, he said, smiling.

You can’t even see my titties, she thought, walking on. When she got to the corner she wished she had said that. And as she turned down Fifth Avenue and pushed the heavy doors open to the lobby and took the elevator to the 32nd floor, she was dogged by an indistinct sense of regret.

She went to the boss’s office and asked for the rest of the week off.

No, he said. His desk was polished and bare, nothing on it but a MacBook and a package of Red Vines. You’ve already taken more time off than we allow, he said, fixing her with a perplexed gaze. He pushed the Red Vines toward her, as though offering consolation.

She went to her cubicle and turned on the computer. But as she thought about it, she felt that it was unfair. She had worked there the six years since college, taking no extra time off until this year. Her trip to Haiti shouldn’t count, since one of the organization’s pillars was “service.” She’d gone there after the hurricane to volunteer. They’d written her up in the company newsletter. She looked down the hall and saw the other copywriters staring into their computers, wearing earbuds. She stood and took her coat off the back of her chair.

 

She had met Jean at the Oloffson, the hotel from The Comedians, with its grand, weathered approach: a cement path with tall palms at each side. White balconies with rows of thin, ornate balusters. Flat patches of grass shored up by cracked, pale walls. The hotel had a kind of weary elegance that had slipped into being something else, something more like fluky endurance.

She was supposed to be in the south, where the hurricane had blown roofs off—in Les Cayes—but hadn’t figured out how to get there. So she was here, in Port-au-Prince, blowing a hundred bucks a night on what amounted to an oddly thrilling vacation. In the day she wandered the streets downtown. She bought bottles of Coke out of ice-filled coolers. The vendor handed her a tall glass bottle and wouldn’t let her leave until it was empty and she gave it back. People climbed on their roofs to repair leaks from the storm, and in the narrow alleys power lines were clumped haphazardly along cement block walls. Children bathed in plastic tubs and sold Chiclets and called out, Give me one dollar! Women sold fruit and men sold cell phone chargers and batteries. Blan, they yelled at her. Hey, Blan.

She drank rhum punch at the hotel bar. She swam in the pool, the one where the dead man had been found in the Graham Greene novel. On the porch, at breakfast, she listened to conversations. The third morning, a man near her spoke rapidly in English and French. She heard the words compliance assessment and you knew they were Koreans. The man wore short sleeves. He picked up his water glass and set it down again, as though his speech were so important he couldn’t pause to drink. Across from him, a woman sat hunched over a flat omelet. When she got up to use the bathroom, she dropped her napkin on the ground.

The man rocked back on the rear legs of his chair and addressed Cici. I usually go to the Hotel Montana, he said. But there are some people you must always meet here.

Why? Cici asked.

He waved a hand toward the empty chair. She hates it here, he said. So I have the advantage.

The woman returned and took out her pocketbook. Non, ma chére, he said. He turned his cheek for her to kiss. As she walked off, the sound of her heels made the waiter, in his billowing white shirt, glance up.

Jean turned to Cici then and asked what she was doing there. She explained that she didn’t know how to get to where she was meant to go. That evening she was in a private car, with a hired driver, on her way to Les Cayes.

 

Cici walked up Fifth Avenue, weaving back through the stream of commuters. It wasn’t yet ten. She went to the bookstore. She was standing, staring blankly down the aisle before she knew what she wanted. The Comedians had given her her first idea of Haiti: a country doomed and fertile, with dusty streets and paintings in bright colors. The image wasn’t so far off what she had experienced when she went there. She wanted to revisit that now.

When I think of all the grey memorials erected in London to equestrian generals… Something like comfort spread within her at the formal, rhapsodic sound of the words. And there, near the bottom of the first page, was a line she remembered underlining ages ago: There is a point of no return unremarked at the time in most lives. The words had thrilled her. She’d been in college, in her tiny dorm bed, curled with her back to her roommate. She’d wondered if that was true—the point of no return—and if it was, when it would arrive for her, or if it already had, and those questions had made her life seem to unfurl into the future, full of mystery and consequence.

There is a point of no return unremarked at the time in most lives.

The words seemed more like a trick now. They seemed meant to coax her into a false sense of things mattering more than they did. They seemed cheap. The comfort she’d gotten from reading the first lines turned over on itself and darkened.

But why cheap? she wondered, as she closed the book gently and tucked it under her coat, under her arm.

And here her thoughts became confused, because the truth was that she felt both things at once: the sense of mystery the words had given her before, and also this new suspicion of cheapness. And there was something else, something swimming below the surface of her thoughts that she couldn’t get at. She walked in the direction of the door.

Excuse me, a man said, as she passed the sale table. He put his hand on her arm.

She stopped. She felt her face outwardly compose itself and she smiled at him.

Sorry to bother you, he said, in a cautious way. But I bet you’re my daughter’s age. I’m looking for a gift.

She waited for him to go on. A violin concerto played softly, coming from the cafe. She thought he must be well past sixty, the same age as Jean.

What books do you like? There was helplessness in his voice, as though he’d already been there, scanning the shelves for a long time. I want to get her the right one.

Don’t get a book, Cici said, clutching the zippered edge of her coat. She watched his face crumple. Get her anything else.

 

The snow had stopped. The air was cold through her coat. She felt the hard brick of the book against her ribs as she walked toward the train. Only when the doors had closed did she move it to her bag. No one saw. There weren’t many people going uptown.

She opened the door to her apartment, everything in order but dingy, and felt for a moment that no one lived there. It smelled like the natural, bergamot-scented spray she bought online. She crossed the living room to the window, the one the men had used to smoke at her party, and worked it open. In the pocket of her coat, her phone sounded, and she took it out and saw it was a call from her job. She turned the phone off. She left the window open as she packed a suitcase, even as it got cold. For a moment she stood in the doorway with her coat and luggage and the inexplicable sense that she wouldn’t come back here. She turned the lights off. Then, as though to guard against that odd feeling of finality, she switched the one in the kitchen on. 

In the hotel room, Cici slept on the pale, striped couch until Jean came. She felt him moving around the room, heard drawers opening. Then he was in the bathroom clipping his nails. He was on the phone, ordering room service, when she opened her eyes. She stretched, arching her back, and when he saw her, his face changed. It gave him pleasure to see her wake up. 

Did you have a good nap? he asked, coming close to kiss her hair.

Yes, she said.

He went to the mirror and undid his shirt buttons with the usual attitude of vigor and purpose. As she watched him now she wondered if this quality was something he’d cultivated against the fact of getting old. It made her feel sympathy, and admiration. She pushed the feelings aside. They weren’t the ones she wanted to have.

I accomplished my goals today, he said.

Good. She swung her feet to the floor. Her legs were bare. She stood and walked around the couch and lifted her shirt to see her midriff when she passed the mirror.

You’re thin, he said.

So? she said, dropping her shirt again.

He turned his body to profile, showing his beach-ball stomach. I didn’t used to be so fat, he said, and smiled. He took off his undershirt and looked at it. These are good shirts, he said. He opened his suitcase and took out a plastic-wrapped package. Want one?

She stayed where she was, leaning against the wall, and put her hands out.

He tossed it in her direction. This is what we’re making in my factory now. 

What are you paying these days?

That’s why I like you, he said. You have a conscience.

She pulled off the plastic wrapping and let it fall to the floor. She held the shirt by its two shoulders and shook out its folds. 

Five dollars a day. Twenty-five percent over the minimum wage and five times what people are making all over the country. He said this in a salesman voice that irritated her.

Mm, she said.

Mm, he said, with a finality that made her feel she should not say more. He walked into the bathroom. She heard the shower turn on.

 

She picked up the plastic from the floor and took out the cardboard insert that clung to the inside of the shirt. The cotton had a new, slippery feel, and it smelled like chemicals. She ran the fabric over her arm. Presently there was a knock, and she pulled her jeans on and opened the door. While the girl set up their trays on the folding stands, Cici took cash from her purse. It was money Jean had left that morning for her to take a cab.

Thank you, the girl said, and Cici nodded. The girl asked if they needed anything else.

Cici shook her head and softly closed the door. 

She looked at the trays. The plates were covered, and—she put her fingers to them—hot. She lifted the napkin from the bread basket and took out a piece of baguette. She spread it with butter, and stood there, next to the table, eating slowly.

She says she’s hungry, the driver Jean had hired told her, as they moved through the slow traffic on the way to Les Cayes. They were watching a woman walk alongside the cars with her hand out and pleading eyes.

Many people here have need, the driver said. But we also have fakers.

You think she’s a faker? Cici said.

The driver shrugged.

A man in the car in front of them rolled down the window and yelled something.

The driver laughed.

What did he say? Cici asked. The woman had fixed her eyes on their car now and was thrusting her open palm at Cici.

Nothing, the driver said. He says nothing.

Cici handed the woman a coin.

Put up the window, the driver said, and she did. The car in front of them moved and he drove on, gathering speed.

What did that man say? Cici asked again, after they’d traveled a few bumpy miles. The driver smiled and turned his clear eyes to her. You want to know?

Cici nodded.

The lady says mwen grangou. I’m hungry. That man puts his window down and says, Go have a fuck. It will make you forget about it.

He turned the radio up and drove on.

Cici was eating another piece of bread when Jean came out of the bathroom. My factory got two contracts today, he said. He had recovered his jolly mood. One is a big label. We have not been working at full capacity since we opened. Now we will, almost. Oh, good, he said. The food is here.

Jean produced a candle from a small paper bag and lit it. He moved behind her and pressed his mouth to her neck. He pulled out her chair. Before he lifted the lids off the plates, he took her hand between his and rubbed it. The portions were small but he had ordered lavishly. French onion soup, mussels, filet, green beans.

You know, he said. Since the factory opened after the earthquake, we’ve created almost two hundred jobs.

Cici thought of her own job with a swell of resentment. You don’t mind spending money, she said, surveying the food. You could pay them more.

You liberals, he said soberly, you always use the same lines.

What are you, she asked, a conservative?

I’m an industrialist. I’m a business man. And—he picked up a steak knife—a champion of my country. Mwen grangou, he said, as he cut the filet in half. He spoke Creole, she understood, to show that he knew more than she did about his own people.

He began talking again after they had eaten for a while in silence. I went to a good private school, he said. We spoke French at home. We were raised to be—he waved a hand—cosmopolitan. By the way, they teach French in the schools all over Haiti. Only they don’t teach it well enough for anyone to come out understanding. He took a bite of bread and Cici waited as he chewed.

Our class went to an assembly in an outdoor arena, he said. This was with Papa Doc there, running the country—he pointed in the direction of the coffee table—like in your book. Terrible times. Though if you were not political, and not unlucky, you were not so desperate then as the people are now. I mean in terms of money. He cut the last green beans on his plate, picked up his water glass, and set it back down. When he spoke again it was with hesitation, as though she’d asked a difficult question. We sat in a row on bleachers. In front of us a man was blindfolded. The Macoute came out wearing their sunglasses, holding guns. Ten of them, maybe. They line up. There is no speech about the man, nothing. No sentence. Nobody coughs. This man is there, of course, for a political reason. But we don’t understand. We’re eight years old. I was wearing my navy uniform with shorts. He paused, then made his fingers into the shape of a gun. He looked toward the window, as though looking away from the image that had come into his mind. Can you imagine? he said. This was what we watched at school.

 

In bed, Cici pressed her body to his, touching the hair on his arms, the band of his cotton underwear. She couldn’t sleep. She had napped too long. She thought of the tent city in Les Cayes, where she had helped a mission group hand out water bottles and plastic toys. The local people had left her with varied impressions—resignation, friendliness, shock, dignity. They had warned her not to wear her flip-flops in the mud because of worms. The day before she left, she had wandered through the corridors, among the tents and tarps, snapping photos with her phone. As she reached a small clearing, away from the foreign workers, a man in a loose, sleeveless shirt had come up to her, slapping his chest and yelling in Creole. He took a rake that stood against the fence and waved it at Cici, heckling. He came close and backed away, dragging the rake over the ground. The only word she understood was white person, blan, but she saw what was underneath the words. It was pure—almost appealing—anger. And there was something sexual in it that confused her, something to do with power.

A woman in a Médecins Sans Frontières jacket stopped and stood beside Cici. He says, Look at me, she translated. Go ahead. Take my picture. Isn’t that what you want? Take it home with you. Take my picture when I’m—the woman searched for the word—in squalor? In her lovely French accent, the woman remarked, Next time you might want to ask.

Later, Cici stood with the same woman near a small garbage fire, and she said, You know what the problem is with this country?

Cici shook her head.

The corruption, the woman said. The elites. There’s money here. But it goes—she held her fingers up as though she’d taken a pinch of salt—to this many people. They rob their own country blind.

Cici thought of this now, in the bed, as she touched Jean. She had a rush of feeling that she tried to untangle. It had risen from his story of the execution. He had seemed sincere. But in that sincerity, she sensed something else—as though his feelings about it were rooted in something more personal than watching a man be shot. But who was she to doubt the depth of his feeling? It had made her suspicious. But why? She knew nothing about Haiti. Or business. Jean had only been kind. Yet she couldn’t dismiss the sense that he should not have money, being from a country that was so poor. She fell asleep wondering if there was logic in this, or if it was naive, or whether it mattered at all.

In the morning, he brought her coffee in bed. It’s a beautiful day for a drive, he said.

She looked to the window. The patch of sky between buildings was gray and there was a steady drumming of rain. Why are you so happy? she said.

Did you ever go to Cité Soleil? he asked.

She shook her head.

He shrugged. I thought maybe you had, because all the do-gooders like to go there. I used to have a factory there. But when the government changed, we started to have gangs. I kept operating, losing money every day, my workers being shot at, bullets coming in through the walls. Everyone lost their jobs. I had to close the factory down.

With the new factory, I’m useful again. And what happened yesterday, the contracts—people can rely on me. It will be the first time we’re on steady ground. He touched his hands together, then drew them apart. I feel a weight is gone.

Cici allowed herself to be swept up in Jean’s sincerity. She gathered the covers around herself and said, I like you.

Why, my bird?

I like the way you talk about what you do, she said. But—she felt herself speaking from someplace else, saying things that were possibly not true, yet at the same time were pleasing to say aloud—There’s a part of me that might say I like you because of your money. I like the hotels. The plates with the silver covers. The fireplace and the good sheets. It doesn’t take much, she said, for me to feel happy.

A wounded look passed over his face, but he quickly recovered.

He came close and put a hand on the side of her neck and said, We have our own reasons for enjoying each other. At my age, the enjoyment is what matters. The details matter less.

He turned his back to her and she felt as though something had fallen within her, as though he had won.

She put on the clean, chemical-smelling t-shirt he’d given her, and felt her own uneasiness as they hauled their suitcases down in the elevator and loaded them into the rental car. She knew better than to romanticize having nothing. And yet, she was cutting the pieces of her life down to nothing. No friends. No job. No money. She would go on the trip, she thought, and after that she would not see Jean. As they drove north in silence, with the windshield wipers flying back and forth, she understood the difference between them, and for a moment it eased her suffering. He had passed the point of no return, and she still had all the time in the world.


Rachel Smith’s writing has appeared in The AtlanticThe Seattle TimesThe Rumpus, and Brevity. She has been a recipient of the Wallace Stegner Fellowship and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Elizabeth George Foundation. She lives with her husband and dog in a cabin in the wilds of the North Cascades. 

Nicky Heads Home

by: Eli Ryder

November 2005

All Sara could remember about rock bottom was hopelessness, begging, and the rough smell of burnt hazelnut mixed with an unidentifiable herbaceous funk. She sprawled on the floor and locked eyes on the dirty hypodermic needle that lay six inches from her nose. If the floor sways just right, she thought, it’ll leap right into my eye. Then she slept.

 

December 2005

Sara laid behind the dumpster in the snow, crumpled and hollow, for so long that the cold left her stiff and slow. Not numb, though. She had hoped that the burn would turn to sore and the cold would drain whatever was left, but numb didn’t come.

Standing wasn’t good. Walking wasn’t better, but making sure she stayed upright distracted her from the pain. She could still feel him over either shoulder, a shadow just out of reach. He was a blur at the edge of her vision, and then he was gone. His voice echoed in her, deep and harsh, and she could smell rock bottom on her clothes. His smell.

She was still drunk. She stumbled, regained, and spilled out into the yellow light on the sidewalk. She felt the sideways burn of onlookers.

It was just a half-mile shuffle up the boulevard past sidewalk diners to the rough end where the storefronts were barricaded with rolling steel gates.

She stuck her key into a battered door between two of the gates, opened it. Inside, she flipped a switch and a sterile fluorescent buzzed on. The carpeted stairs swayed in front of her, and she braced herself on the brass mailboxes that lined the wall.

She lifted a foot onto the first step, and pain flared white. Each push to the next step torched higher, and halfway up the stairs she realized she was screaming.

Right about now, numb, she thought. Any time, numb. I’m waiting.

In the hall at the top of the stairs, she dodged sleeping addicts curled in front of locked doors, banging her shoulders against the walls. She started to feel shadows creep in at the corners of her eyes and pinched her forearm. The shadows shot back behind her, and she found her door.

Inside, she left a trail of purse and keys and torn skirt and shredded nylons, bra and top and heels, leading to the bathroom, where she slid into the cold tub and curled her hands under her cheek.

 

March 2007

Nicky had already spun the lid off the bleach when Sara slid into the kitchen. She snatched the bottle away, splashing a little on his face. Instinctively, he slapped the wet spot with a clumsy hand and spattered it around—his clothes, his eye, his lips—and then sucked in a belly full of air, shooting the bleach into the back of his throat.

Sara had time to wonder if skin stained and corroded the way his clothes would, and then Nicky was choking, gagging, screaming. She ripped him up off the floor and shoved his face under the faucet. Hold his eye open, don’t drop him, he’s squirming—

Nicky whipped his head away from the faucet, cracking against the divide between the basins. Sara gasped and went cold—what the fuck did I just do—and then he screamed again, eyes shut tight. She propped his eye open, praying the deep red there would rinse away.

Nicky threw up thick bile, choked, and kept screaming.

In the emergency room, waiting patients split their attention between their injuries and her tattered son. She held him tight to her chest, silently begging Nicky to forgive her, but the other patients’ glances burned fiery holes in her, rekindling her guilt. Nicky was close to nodding off, but the lump on his head from bashing against the sink was huge and she didn’t want to let him sleep. Every time she woke him, his screaming renewed and her heart broke a little more.

Nicky’s nurse had only just taken him when Sara heard a cold voice behind her. “You really should have latched all the cabinets.” A woman in a severe suit looked down at her from behind a clipboard.

“I have child latches on the cabinets. A baby gate, latches, and supposedly a childproof cap on the bleach.”

“And you took your eyes off him, left him alone because you ‘knew’ he was going to be fine?”

“No! I left him—”

“Left him. I have that part.”

“Goddamn, let me finish. I left him asleep in his playpen—the walls are higher than he is tall—and I went to the bathroom. That’s all. I came out and heard the cabinet door shut and he already had the damned bottle.”

“Really.”

“Fuck you. I’m doing this by myself, what the fuck do you know about it? Working,

taking care of a kid? Alone. It’s a miracle we have what we do—in the beginning, I had nothing, and now we’re good, we’re doing good. I own my place, I’m not taking handouts. I’m working—I run my department, I’m fucking working.” Sara’s voice echoed through triage. A few people stared.

“First, stop shouting. Not great for your ‘I’ve got it all together’ argument. Second, I’m just going to file the report. I don’t make decisions, your yelling at me will get you nowhere at all.” She paused. “It just goes in my report.”

Sara swallowed the threat and said nothing. Severe Suit stared her down a moment longer and then left. Sara put her head in her hands, trying not to cry through the stillness of the moment.

 

December 2013

Mrs. Nolan was a pleasant woman, always sweet on the phone, but Sara still couldn’t help sneering when she spoke. Something about her thick voice, like cloying honey, stuck weird in her ears. Sara’s mother would have said that voice raised her hackles, which Sara always thought was funny, picturing hackles like porcupine quills on the back of her neck that stabbed straight out when raised.

She felt the back of her neck, rubbed a little, making sure nothing spiked out.

Mrs. Nolan flipped another drawing to the top of the stack. “There’s this one too, which doesn’t seem so terribly bad, but in conjunction with the others—”

“There’s a theme, you’re saying.”

“Yes, a theme. And maybe not one that we should be concerned about, but we tend to notice patterns in these kinds of things.”

“Yes.” Sara flipped through the drawings. Each was a crude landscape, drawn in Nicky’s clumsy crayon hand. A set of rolling fields, corn rows, mountains, a beach, each scribbled darkly and barely recognizable. In the top corner of each, a waxy black sun, and directly under the sun, standing on whatever surface the landscape afforded, a black goat. It would have been indiscernible from a dog or cat, or bear for that matter, except Nicky had spiked two horns and a goatee on the heads in each drawing. Sara smiled—it really was just a stick figure, each stick scratched repeatedly into black grooves in the paper. But the horns, the goatee, they were delicate. Shaky, still, but delicate and precise. As though Nicky had been afraid to take as little care with them as he had the rest of the animal.

“At his age,” Mrs. Nolan said, “we normally see pictures like this, with family and pets. Very common actually, especially if the child is troubled about something.”

Sara felt a tug of sadness. She remembered her mother proudly displaying her crayon drawings of family on the refrigerator, remembered painstakingly drawing each yellow strand of hair in her clumsy hand and then convincing herself she had gotten it right. Why wasn’t Nicky drawing her? She made a mental note to plan some time off. She’d been busy with work, maybe too busy, she thought. They needed some family time, just the two of them.

“He’s fine. And we don’t have a goat.”

“No, of course not. I just wanted to bring them to your attention.”

Sara looked up and couldn’t see anything but real concern on Mrs. Nolan’s face. She stacked the drawings together and stood up, trying to shake the feeling that her hackles had spread like wings. “Thanks for letting me know. I’ll have a talk with him.”

Mrs. Nolan smiled. “If you feel that’s necessary. He’s a bright young man, sensitive too, and his acting out has calmed considerably.” Sara saw the concern flash into judgment for a moment, then return. “Not entirely gone, but we never expect perfection, do we?”

She’d been trying, and despite her territorial instinct that begged for her to punch Mrs. Nolan in the throat for pushing her nose where Sara thought it didn’t belong, she was grateful that her efforts were recognized. Happier still that Nicky might learn to get along.

“Thanks again.” Sara turned and left, not slowing when she passed Nicky in the hall and grabbed his hand. “Let’s go, kid. You. Me. Ice cream. And tell me about the goat.”

At home that night, Sara stood in the doorway of Nicky’s room and watched him sleep. His nightlight cast star patterns on the walls and ceiling. Sara never could figure out how the slow rotation of their positions didn’t make Nicky sick. He lay still, sucking on the neckband of his pajamas, the stars revolving around him.

Sara smiled at the image, but thought he might do better with others if he didn’t think of the world as revolving around him. She reminded herself to have her assistant replace the nightlight with something less astral. Maybe a yellow sun just plugged into the wall, something that didn’t move, something that didn’t so obviously indicate that he was the center of the universe. He was the center of hers, though, and she dismissed replacing the nightlight entirely.

“His name is Billy,” he’d said in the car. “Billy is my goat-friend and he’s been to all those places.”

“How do you know him?”

“He tells me about all those places, about the people there—but I can’t draw the people, just Billy and the places.” He split his attention between her and the world blurring by outside the window.

Hackles again. “How do you know him, honey? Why can’t you draw the people?”

Nicky smiled at the window, and Sara thought the conversation was over. Her back stuck to the leather, the heated seats suddenly overdoing their job. She thumbed the off button and flicked a finger across the car’s touchscreen radio controls, finding Nicky’s favorite Pandora station, and braced herself against the onslaught of Disney-themed Christmas songs. Sara watched him in the rearview, bobbing his head and conducting. She started listing in her head the night’s tasks, and then the next day’s, a habit she’d gotten into when she’d been given her first executive position.

She added bedtime stories to the list. He was sweetest then, when he was curled up and listening to her Dr. Seuss and Berenstain Bears voices.

“Because they’re in the hole, Mommy. Billy keeps them in the hole.” Nicky was still looking out the window, his voice barely hovering above the saccharine bounce of Disney tunes.

“The people are in the hole?” It was an odd thing to say.

“The bad people.”

“Where are the good people?” she asked.

“What good people, Mommy?”

 

November 2014

Sara’s eyes snapped open and Nicky was standing at the foot of her bed. Her clock’s red LED display shone on his face, his flat expression glowing fire in the dark.

“Jesus, Nicky, what’s wrong? You scared me.”

Nicky just stared, his breathing regular and smooth. Not a nightmare, Sara thought, not a bad dream.

“Do you need something? Water? Feeling okay? What time is it, honey?” She glanced at the clock. 2:59 a.m. Far below, the sparse sounds of the devil’s hour on city streets—the rare horn blaring, a siren or two—gave the only indication that anywhere outside the bedroom actually existed. She could scream and no one would hear, she thought. She shuddered.

Nicky didn’t answer, just stared, and Sara was smacked by a rush of cold. A puff of condensed breath shot out of his nose and he blinked. Sara looked down, saw that her breast had spilled out of her nightgown—so cold, if that nipple gets any harder it’ll break, she thought—and felt his eyes there. She covered herself in a flash. The air warmed, she couldn’t see his breath anymore, and he turned away. Nicky backed away from the foot of her bed, still blank, still staring. He turned away, and the clock’s red glow flared on his profile.

He was naked. He still had a child’s belly, but his shoulders and arms were the sculpted thin that hinted at impending adult dexterity. He was going to be strong, she thought, and then saw his erection. Impossibly large for an eight-year-old, and she thought she saw a gleam of pre-ejaculate jeweled at the tip. Her breath caught and she shivered, praying he wouldn’t notice and turn back to her.

His bare feet clomped on the teak floor in the hallway. He shut the door to his room behind him.

 

October 2015

Nicky stared out the window and Sara watched him, punctuating her phone conversation with questions he didn’t answer. The back of the limousine was wide enough that Sara could barely reach across the seat to touch his scraped knuckles, but she tried anyway. He moved, the smallest twitch of avoidance, such that he was just out of reach. She hung up the phone, counted to ten and reminded herself that personal time was part of what a CEO gave to her company, and turned to Nicky again.

“Honey, you can’t keep avoiding this. There aren’t any more schools we can send you to.”

Nicky didn’t answer.

Sara tried to make a note in her phone to book a vacation, just the two of them, but it rang again. Nicky looked at her and rolled his eyes, sinking his thin frame farther into the soft leather.

That’s something at least, Sara thought, something better than silence and a complete lack of acknowledgment. At least he noticed she was there.

They turned into the massive driveway that half circled the front of the estate. She gasped and dropped her phone.

Red and blue lights swirling from the emergency responders splashed over everything. They scrambled to put out the fire. Her hedges and the stone wall circling the property had kept the flames hidden, and the night sky obscured the smoke, but there was no hiding the blaze once inside the perimeter. The entire front of the sprawling colonial house was engulfed.

Sara looked at Nicky. His eyes glowed orange.

 

November 2015

Millie sat on the floor, hands covering her face, but she was unable to keep from dripping blood all around her. Sara stood frozen, unable to process what she had just seen—Nicky smashing his nanny in the face with Sara’s empty San Pellegrino bottle—and instead wondered how much the hotel would charge for getting blood out of the carpet.

Nicky’s shoulders jumped up and down, his hands were folded over his belly, and he barked and snorted deliriously. In a moment, he was doubled over with it, then down on the floor, rolling back and forth. Millie’s whimpers of pain ramped into growls of anger, and Nicky laughed harder. Millie stood, raging through her clenched jaw. She wiped her hands on her jeans and locked eyes with Sara.

“Fuck him, and fuck you,” Millie said, nose still bleeding. She snatched a towel from the bathroom and slammed the door behind her.

Sara looked down at him, then at the blood spattered on the plush floor, then back at Nicky. Still laughing, he took off his shirt. He dipped his fingers in the blood spangled around him and drew the familiar scribbled goat in blood on his chest. Nicky looked down at himself and chuckled.

Sara stared at him, searching, and eventually had to look away, unable to find a remnant of the child she loved in the unknowable monster in front of her.

 

December 2015

For the fifth night in a row, Sara closed her eyes and saw that bloody smear on Nicky’s chest behind her eyelids. Sleep might come, she thought, but that’s what I’ll see there.

Since the Millie incident, her dreams had been vivid and disturbing, but explainable. She watched her son smash his nanny in the face with a liter-sized glass bottle, and then draw with the blood. Perfectly understandable that she carried that around for a while, she thought. It had all but obliterated any of the positive memories that Sara clung desperately to. Those small moments when Nicky hugged back, when he looked her in the eye and smiled, when he expressed joy in her presence—at her presence—happened, they were real, but they had become ghosts just behind the terror and frustration that a violent child engenders.

The last few nights, though, her dreams were becoming darker. There was the smear, the glass, Millie’s curse on her way out—each dream it was something different. Most recently, Millie just spat in her face and hissed, but something else was creeping into the corners, becoming more and more tangible every night. Nicky had been especially difficult the last few weeks, scrawling black scribbles on every surface in his room, destroying everything that could be destroyed, and then sleeping in a hollow scooped into the wreckage.

She was locking Nicky in his room now. She was surprised at first that he didn’t protest, but these days she was grateful for any respite from the constant battle that sharing his space had become. She tried to tell herself that she was doing the right thing to protect Nicky from himself, even tried justifying locking him in as protection against the furniture that she just had her assistant order, but the weight of failure bore down on her and she couldn’t deny that locking him in his room was also a way for her to avoid dealing with the problem. If she didn’t have to fight with him, if she didn’t have to worry about his breaking bones on the furniture—if she didn’t have to look at him and see everything she thought she should have done better for him shining in his face—then she’d be fine. She was going to be fine.

Except for the dreams. She was cold again, hollow, and trying to stuff that ancient memory back into the hole from which it came, but every night the cold grew stronger, the hollow in her bigger. She barely slept at night, barely noticed the sterility of the empty rooms in the new house that they hadn’t yet filled, barely noticed the thick animal smell coming from Nicky’s room. In a daze, she submitted her Leave of Absence to the board and didn’t even register their surprise. She was already halfway home when they called to grant their approval, and she let it go to voicemail. There was nothing else in the world beyond exhaustion and the shadows that crept in when she slept, the shadows that whispered Nicky’s name.

Sleep did come, though. It was shallow, and she couldn’t tell whether she was asleep or not. There was just snow, and pain, and the whipping smack of gleefully administered beatings. She couldn’t see, but she heard the clomp of hooves and the snort of dead breath, and screams—so many screams—and the weight of shattered parents trying to piece themselves together after having their souls ripped away drilling right into her. She couldn’t breathe. The taste of spoiled meat and unwashed fur filled her mouth, she choked on it, and shot upright in bed.

Breathing in wasn’t good. Expelling wasn’t any better, but she had to empty her lungs. She choked out bristled hair in tufts and spat out sour saliva. She heaved in and out, begging the burn to fade to sore and then to numb. And then she heard him.

“Hello again.” His voice, deep and harsh, ground through her ears. He sounded like he was pulling his voice from the deepest parts of her bowels, where what she’d eaten bound itself up and refused to be voided, rotting and corrupting instead. “You’ve done well,” he said.

He was seated on the edge of her bed, his black suit blending into the dark so that his face seemed to float on the thick fear she was sweating out. He looked the same: angularly handsome, sharp features just barely inhuman enough to still be called exotic. He smiled, not showing teeth, and something tore inside her.

“You,” was all she could manage.

“Yes, me. Well, me and.” He glanced over his shoulder, daring her to look. She could only make out a silhouette: horns and titan-wide shoulders, wiry shags of fur, thick hooves.  She closed her eyes before she could see more.

“It’s time,” he said.

Sara let confusion crowd fear out for a moment. “Time?”

“Our bargain, Sara.” His thin smile didn’t waver, but Sara felt his patience wane. It was like holding ice, cold but present, then gone.

“You already made good on your end. I’m doing fine, we’re doing fine, I’ve got everything I need for as long as we’ll need it. I don’t need you anymore.” She started to cry toward the end, her voice shaking.

He laughed. “Sara, you sweet dumb girl. You owe. Not me.”

“What? But the alley—I let you—I paid, I paid you!”

“You offered your body, yes.”

“That was the deal!” Sara’s fear was taking over again, tinged with anger. “That was the deal.”

“Yes, it was. And we used your body. In the moment, that was for me.” He giggled. “For funsies. But what came after, that was for him.”

The silhouette emerged from the shadows. He was ancient, his beard thin wisps of brittle hair that kinked away from his chin. His eyes were clouded, his snout scarred and dry. His shoulders, still strong, hunched when he came away from the wall where he was leaning, and his back slumped down under the weight of unfathomable age.

The dark smell of impending death shrouded him, and when he came closer that shroud enveloped Sara too. Underneath that smell, Sara felt his exhaustion and its thin hold on his urges. To kill, to maim, to take—all barely held back by the little life he had left.

Nicky came into the room, chest again painted with that scrawled goat, erection pointing straight up. When he saw the beast, his eyes glowed red. Sara saw his posture change, his muscles twitch, and she screamed.

The black-suited man shoved his fist into her mouth, choking off the sound. She could barely breathe but managed to squeak air in through her nose. He still smelled the same, like burnt hazelnut and exotic, clinging aromatics. Nicky approached the beast, bolder with each step. It opened its mouth and growled. Generations of suffering pulsed in that growl. Her own voice swirled there, every word she should have said, everything she should have done. The bad people wailing their bad choices into a symphony, and Sara was the virtuoso soloist.

Nicky took it in, smiled, and then nodded.

“We’re going to go now,” the black-suited man said. “It’s been a pleasure doing business in you.” He giggled. “Sorry, with you.” He pulled his fist out of her mouth and stood.

“Wait—”

“I often wonder why everyone, every single one, tries to undo a deal,” he said. “You got what you wanted. You all always do, every time—too bad none of you think about what you’re asking. Tsk-tsk.”

Sara wanted to protest further, betrayal-fueled rage building in her, but then—Nicky was a monster, wasn’t he? A walking nightmare, inhuman and uncontrollable. She shook her head. He was her son, of course she loved him, and she refused to be relieved he was being taken.

The black-suited man giggled again. “No take-backsies, Sara. What’s done is done. And you did it well.” He winked at her. “I’d fair say you earned this, even. Every last bit of it.”

Nicky put his hand in the beast’s scraggly paw and Sara wailed.

Not for the nightmare she’d lived with, not for its disappearing, but for the son she knew hid somewhere in that monster child, stealing smiling glances at her from deep behind its glowing eyes.

The beast turned toward the door to the bedroom, and Sara’s screaming intensified. It stumbled, and Nicky shifted into the crook of his arm, keeping him upright. The black-suited man looked back over his shoulder.

“We appreciate his name,” he said. “You couldn’t have known, but it was a nice touch.” He winked, and they disappeared down the hall.

Sara’s sobbing drowned out their footsteps and the front door closing, but the man’s voice echoed long after they were gone, long after she stopped crying, and long after she cut herself.

She could still save him, the him that curled up for bedtime stories, the him that still knew the word Mother, and leave the demon around him in Hell.

She waited in the tub, the veins in her wrists open, for that old sour smell to mark the beginning of a new negotiation.


Eli Ryder writes dark fiction and teaches college English. His work has appeared online and in print, and he is a co-founder of www.automatareview.com. He stole his MFA from UC Riverside’s low-residency program in Palm Desert, and is an avid lover of all things twisted.

Stray Cats

by: Maggie May Ethridge

Meet me in this hotel at this time? We can go to this restaurant?

I Googled and found an image of the hotel restaurant, a frozen image of the bartender caught throwing a drink midair, grinning underneath a pirate mustache. Finally, I texted back.

OK I’ll meet you at this time. See you then. Weird, huh?

He texted, Yup.

I didn’t like that. I texted back, Are we sure about this? I didn’t like that either. He texted, Of course not!—That was true. I left it there.

 

I slept next to my husband and woke from a dream where Thoren was drinking pistol-steely gin and laughing at something. His hand lay warm on my thigh while he laughed, and I woke wet and anxious. I had dreamed of Thoren more nights than not for a year. One year of birthdays, office parties, holidays, sick days, teeth brushing, cooking, cleaning; one year of a full and blessed life. One year where my sexual desire for a man I had never spoken to had worked free from dreams and long car drives and penetrated even the most mundane moments.

I started shaving. When my husband felt the bare heat, he smiled calmly. This is new, he said, neither approving nor disapproving. I turned away immediately to pee, or so I told him. In the bathroom I made faces at my husband and whispered under my breath that he was a mutant, a shit heel, an idiot, a robot. Back in bed I said I had a bladder infection and went to sleep.

My next dream of Thoren was of him licking me clean exactly as one licks a dinner plate when no one is looking. Long, strong, deliberation without a thought to the plate. Yet then I did not mind being unconsidered. If I was not being seen, being worshipped was a desirable replacement.

Thoren is Scandinavian and his name comes from Norse mythology—god of the sky, god of fertility, Thor. In his photos and videos, Thoren is tall, broad-chested, thick-thighed, with arms that were made to work. He is so white-blond that it almost turned me off. He could be an elderly man from a distance. Yet on the held gaze, I saw his hair is coarse and wavy and surprisingly thick for one so light. He rarely shaves, and his facial hair comes and goes without much thought, it seems, and he has an assertive nose; flashing, secretive eyes; and an expressive mouth. He often has a wry twist to his eyes and mouth, as if he is enjoying a private joke. When we text and he makes these private jokes, I understand. When I make sarcastic remarks, he understands. When I make a cultural reference, even just a few words, he already knows what I am referring to and where I’m going with it. I feel that his expressions now include me. His secrets include me.

He moved from Scandinavia for a girlfriend in 2014 and stayed for America. He fell in love with Bruce Springsteen in concert, tattoo shops, the beach scene on the West Coast where we live; he fell in love with the idea of “youth in America” running wild and free; he fell in love with vineyards and Brooklyn accents; he fell in love with himself as a brave, young man in a strange country, left heartbroken by his girlfriend but forging ahead into a new, meaningful life.

We met through a friend on Facebook who had bought a painting from Thoren. Thoren made pen-and-ink drawings, watercolor paintings, and sculptures, and after breaking his leg falling off Oceanside Pier, he had been astonished at the out-of-pocket expenses he was expected to pay. With a friend, he put together a Go Fund Me, and offered a piece of art to everyone who contributed fifty dollars or more. When our mutual friend posted his painting, I liked it and commented,

This is fucking amazing! Wow. Thoren commented back, Thank you.

An immediate friend request followed. He liked a few of my pictures over the next month, not too many, including one of my husband and me. In the photo of my husband and me, we are on vacation and I am in a bright orange bikini, beaming and looking lithe and luminous. My husband is in shorts and a long-­‐sleeved shirt, having been sunburned the day before. He holds me close and his nose shines pinkly.

Thoren liked this and commented,

I love this beach, it’s never too crowded (for San Diego)

I liked his comment.

A month or so later, I went to his page and commented on a post about environmental poisoning. It was a long, passionate tirade, if somewhat lacking in meat. An hour later he responded in agreement with what I had said, and I liked his response. Then I got a Facebook message,

What’s your number?

I sat for a minute, twisting my mouth around. I could ask why. It seemed rude to just say Why? but then I thought it wasn’t feminist to think about being rude, or to worry about asking a perfectly reasonable question. Then I thought that it also wasn’t wrong to care about being polite. Then I thought that he had already seen that I viewed the message and was now probably wondering why it was taking so long to respond to a straightforward question. Then I thought, so what? He can wonder; it won’t hurt him. Maybe I’m saving a child from choking to death. Maybe I’m vomiting. Then he messaged.

I’m not a stalker, or nuts, or trying to hit on you. Just wanted to talk more about your comment and hate these messages. No big deal if you aren’t comfortable, I get it.

I shook my head. It seemed very complicated. I’d have to tell my husband. Or maybe I only needed to tell him if I gave my number and this guy flirted? Then I’d need to tell him, otherwise who cares if I’m texting about deforestation and water pollution and the coral reef emergency. I tapped my number in and then added.

It’s just my number so no, not a big deal. It’s fine to talk, I have guy friends!

Which was a lie. Every single guy that I had been friends with had distanced himself from me since I had married David. That is, every single guy. The married ones were more comfortable around me now. I had a band and a husband and their wives were more comfortable, too.

He texted me immediately.

Hey! It’s Thoren. I’m 6’2, I like water-­‐sports, large cats, aggressive rodents of unusual sizes, travel and long walks on the beach.

I texted back a laughing face with a devil face next to it. This, I thought, perfectly conveyed my message: Haha, you are funny, you funny funny guy who isn’t hitting on me because we just get along well and wink wink isn’t this fun you funny guy I totally get what you are doing pretending you are trying to date me when clearly we both know that’s exactly not what you are doing so yeah, haha.

He texted back a long paragraph continuing our conversation about the environment. He had strong opinions that I could tell were not formed overnight and which were backed with information. He was intelligent and had read many more books and articles and blogs than I had on the subject. Still, I was somewhat informed and deeply concerned and so we went back and forth easily for quite some time, until I had to go back to work.

Over the months we spoke through text once a week, then twice, then daily. Short, friendly texts that had little subtext until suddenly they did. We had texted for hours one night; David was on a work trip and I was drunk off of brandy and a little stoned, too. Thoren had texted me,

Left bar, so stupid, you up?

I texted back,

yup up way highhhhh

Thoren replied,

haha ok then. The bar was boring. Some girl’s tank top, or tube top or whatever popped off when she was dancing, and this asshole grabbed her tit, and her boyfriend rushed the guy and a fight happened. After that it just felt suddenly like I’d been awake forever, but once I left, I immediately woke up.

I texted,

mmmmm fascinating

He texted,

Am I boring you?

No smiley face. He rarely if ever used icons and I liked this. I admired this.

YES! haha I’m so drunstoned

He texted,

I think that is a Norse legend

I texted,

Yup I’m Norwegan and we are related

He texted,

You spelled Norwegian wrong and we are definitely not related…I’ve never thought my sister was hot.

I felt immediately an enormous sexual desire that I knew was going to absolutely consume me. My pussy swelled up and pressed like a heartbeat into my thighs, hungry, starving, desperate for this dick. I wanted to text back,

please give it to me

I stared at his comment and texted,

Ok haha

I felt limp. I was without sass. My breasts ached so that my nipples exclaimed in tiny nipple voices for the pain, the beautiful pain.

I thought of David and David’s sex schedule, so that we could be “fair” and each one of us “get a turn” and I felt ashamed and cruel. I also, overwhelmingly, felt horny. I thought of David’s small cruelties, his lack of passion beginning at such an early stage of our marriage, his infuriating conservatism, his devotion to me parceled to a manageable level so that he could have balance. Who the fuck cares about balance when your forty-five with no children and no debt and not a crack in the gleaming lining of this lovely life we had worked fifty-hour weeks to claim? Not me. I cared about deep dicking. I cared about sex beyond tricks and toys; I wanted more than anything to be obliterated inside desire and to emerge back into my body unaware of what I had wanted, what I had done, what I had said or begged or whimpered; I wanted to be consumed by a context beyond reality and without drugs or drink. I wanted to goddamn transport myself along with another human male who understood adult secrets, desires, who understood the difference between “good sex” and ecstasy. I was telling the story of death approaching in middle age—the story of delirious sex as an antidote to the fear of death. Death before dying! I wanted to eat up my aliveness, to be flung apart into the salt water and stardust of elements and re-formed, exhausted, rivulets of snot, semen, and sweat running over all my skin, to become reacquainted with myself and my body. To be ravenous without shame, and to allow my body to be used in a way that cannot be captured in a porn or a dirty story: to be reborn by a beautiful, hard, ravenous dick. And to be desired to distraction by the man attached.

Thoren texted back,

It’s true. You know, I will say one time, just once, I promise I’ll never bring it up again unless you do, so we are clear.

Yes?

That I am insanely attracted to you. I would meet you anywhere at any moment that you request. That’s it.

I texted back,

OK, yeah, just don’t say it again. Like you offered. Because yes, and, I am married.

He texted,

Absolutely.

And that was it for another few months. David and I began therapy with an older, white male who was fixated on personality types as the answer to all our problems. When I tried to talk about ravenous sexual desire, he patted his face with an actual handkerchief that he pulled out of his coat pocket and said, well, that’s part of life, monogamy is hard. When I replied that the lack of elevation beyond day-to-day life patterns was a problem, that David and I no longer had a dark life (What is a dark life, the sweaty therapist asked, and I responded, a life beyond the daytime, a life of secrets together, good and bad things, but mostly things that are in some way immoral or subversive or achingly intimate; where we share a state of being together in the world that is about our hearts and our sex only, the two of us, and nothing else, and he responded, I see) and that I had to have that or nothing else (communication of various kinds, fun activities, remembering the reasons you fell in love) was going to make a dent, when I said that, the sweaty therapist replied with a quick, silent look to David.

 

We should have seen an old woman, I told David, who would remember. Remember what? said David. These desires, I said, these feelings, this need. David looked straight ahead and drove without response. What are you feeling? I asked. That everything is about you all the time, he said. I said, Yes, but that’s because you don’t seem to need anything! I do, David said, I need you. His face was drawn and sad. I accept that this is what happens when people have been together for so long, he said. Well I don’t! I yelled. I am sorry, I said, for yelling while you are driving. But I don’t. I need us to be—David interrupted, and said, I know what you need. You’ve said and said and said. I wanted to slap him but I did not. I refrained.

 

David stopped taking work trips and we went on an overnight trip to Los Angeles and saw a play and watched a porno. The porno night was disastrous. We watched porn and had sex in different positions and David was trying to please me. The entire placement of his body, his mouth, his touch, the porno sounds, the bed, the lighting, David’s eyes—was wrong, and my nipples retracted and my clit was tucked inside my uterus and I was dry. David’s penis stayed half-hard and I started to cry while he thrusted behind me. He lay down and I lay on his chest and kissed his face wet and he put his short, muscular arms around me and we eventually fell asleep and in the morning I said I love you and he said I love you and we limped back home.

 

The next few weeks we talked but I began to see that David could not get himself to give me what I wanted because he could not access or work to access the energy that I wanted to unleash from inside of him, to see the raw, unclean places of David as an adult man, the tender meat—a little out of control, a little scared, powerful through the release of control—he could not, would not. Perhaps he was afraid of undoing the exhausting work of becoming an adult man. Perhaps he did not love me as much as I wanted him to. Perhaps he had changed in such a profound way that he had nothing else but these exteriors to offer.

 

It’s about sex, I told him, but it’s also about what kind of life I want to live. I need exalted states and I want to go there with you. This was our agreement when we married. We had an unspoken agreement.

 

David laughed. I hated the entirety of his physical self during and just after that laugh. The lines of his lips, slightly chapped, his slight goiter that he still hadn’t checked out, his carved cheekbones that normally were so pivotal to his good looks, his dark gleaming hair, his goddamn hairy knuckles!

I hated him. Laugh, fine, I thought. The next day I texted Thoren,

I want to meet.

The dreams had been continuous and vivid. I had never spoken to him but I knew his complicated relationship with his medically-­ obese mother, her refusal to properly treat her diabetes; I knew that his father was hilarious and a great cook and had left the family when Thoren was small; I knew that Thoren’s sisters had both moved across the globe as well, and that at Christmas they took turns flying to each home; I knew that Thoren was afraid of spiders and unafraid of sharks; I knew that sometimes he could not sleep and he listened to Springsteen’s Nebraska when he was sad, and felt even worse—until he made a painting, and felt better. I knew that Thoren worried deeply about his mother, thought of his dad as a great friend but resented him more than he realized, and adored his sisters.

And Thoren knew much about me, a little of everything it seemed, except my marriage. I did not talk about my marriage or David at all.

Thoren texted back,

Yes.

The dreams became more detailed. Sometimes I’d wake up midorgasm, unsatisfying and meek, pattering in my vagina as if I were walking circles in the kitchen at night, an unsatisfied housewife. I dreamed of nothing romantic, no declarations of love, no sentimental talk. I simply wanted him to want me and to fuck me and fuck me and fuck me until I was elemental.

I wanted one more thing, I realized. This was to look in his eyes and see that he was on fire for me.

The time and place arrived and David believed I was meeting a best girlfriend for a weekend. I flew to our destination and dreamed of Thoren on the plane.

When I arrived I went immediately to the hotel room, a half hour early. I turned off all the lights and changed from my shirt to a negligee and wore this with my jeans and no shoes. I added a small dab of perfume behind my ears and had a beer. It was dark outside. A knock on the door. I sat up, stomach quickening: yes?

Hello, he said. I recognized his voice from video. He walked in and shut the door and I hoped he would let me lead. I stood and placed my beer down and walked directly to him, almost touching him but not. I looked up, he is much taller than I, and I put my hands on his chest, underneath his nipples, spreading my fingers across what felt to me to be a massive rib cage. He dropped his bag (the sound of a packed bag dropping will forever be a bell ringing for sexual desire) and I stood on my tiptoes. I could feel that the energy was absolutely correct. We were in the same place, in the same room, seeing each other the same way, with the same desires that could only be scented or touched by hand or articulated in some other language than one’s own. He smelled right. His hand touched me just as I had known it would.

Thoren growled. It was unmistakable, it was as if a panther had leaped from a tree directly in front of me, placed his enormous jaws around my neck, and made a noise of pure pleasure, a noise of impending feast. Thoren growled like a cat, a mix of a meow and growl.

I meowed back. He lifted me up and I wrapped my legs around his waist. We kissed violently, I felt my lip split open on his tooth. He began undressing me. I began undressing him. He stopped me and took off his own pants and shirt; I was taking too long. Now we had only socks and underwear on, and we pawed each other to get to the hot places where the smells of sexual desire were thick and rising, then stopped again to remove our socks and underwear, and then finally freed, threw ourselves on each other. It was almost silent but for the occasional sound of a cat.

We fucked for two hours.

It was every single thing I had imagined and wanted and driven myself half-mad dreaming of. I came four, five, six times, each harder than the last. I came with his mouth on me, his fingers dipped into my pussy and anus, I came with his dick and my fingers, I came on the floor, on the bed, I came with loud growls or soft purrs. Thoren came twice, the second time his jism exclaimed with delight from his jerking hand behind my ass all the way to the tips of my ears, where it hung, white and hot.

After this, I turned on a tiny light and lit a cigarette. You want one, I asked him quietly, Thoren? I wanted to say his name out loud.

He reached his hand out and smiled at me playfully. Meow, he replied, as if saying yes. I laughed and handed him the cigarette.

After a moment I said, I can’t think of a single fucking thing to say. I laughed.

Thoren laughed too, and then meowed at me, eyebrows raised. I said, But what should we do tomorrow? Will we leave this room at all?

Thoren shook his head and said, meow. I wrinkled my nose. OK, I said, haha. Funny. Now talk to me, really, in a whole year I’ve never talked to you.

Thoren growled at me, stubbing out his half-smoked cigarette. Come on, I said, you are freaking me out. He leaned over, his chest enormous over my rashed breasts, and kissed the tips of my nipples, which then kissed directly the center of my vagina-heart. Thoren, I said, come on. But I was hardly trying. He ran a finger around my hipbones and I was arching and gone.

An hour later I was fully awake and determined to make him talk to me. Thoren, Thoren, let’s talk. He closed his eyes and waved a giant hand at me. Meow, he said sleepily. Soon he was asleep, or pretending to be. I was not afraid of him, so I fell asleep as well.

Late in the afternoon we rose and showered together and as the soap bubbles popped on his erection, I said, Look, I won’t have sex with you again unless you speak. He growled at me and I felt annoyed that my entire body responded, drawn to him, cell by cell, each one a traitor. No, really, talk to me. I gave him a persuasive face; I knew I looked lovely in the hot shower, body-flushed and buzzed with lack of sleep and full of pleasure, my hair slicked back and my cheeks cherry red.

Thoren looked at me. Eye to eye, I stood with this stranger, naked in a shower. For a moment I speculated on what was beyond lust. I should be feeling guilty, I thought. I should be thinking about years of showers with my husband. I could force the thought; I could not force a single, bright emotion. My head was making a loud humming noise. A bright shout of goosebumps appeared down my torso and legs. I shivered underneath the hot water. He growled, and put one finger on top of my pussy, and began to move it. I came in minutes, and we fucked for the next two hours.

We woke again in the evening and when Thoren leaned over me and meowed, I was suddenly filled with anxiety and I began to cry. I want to go home, I said, getting out of bed. I pulled on my clothes. Thoren sat up and opened his arms to me. Meow? he asked.

I left quickly without the hug or backward look and on the elevator my phone pinged. Thoren texted.

I thought we understood each other . . . it’s a game, we were having fun

I texted back,

You are freaking me out

Thoren texted back,

It’s just a game

I replied,

Meow meow meow, meow. Meow? Meow, meow-­‐meow. xo

So this is what it is, I thought on the plane ride home. I could feel my cheeks burning. I thought that because I was not in love, or pretending to be, or involved with a man who was in love with me, that this would be under my control. That it would be what I imagined it to be. Astonishing that at forty-five, successful and experienced, I could think such a thing. Had I really believed that I knew anything about this man from a year of texting? I could not know myself. Either I thought I knew him well enough, or I was happy to believe that I did because I wanted the sex. That you can talk to someone for twelve months and then be entirely shocked by their person was in retrospect obvious. And I had slept with him repeatedly, despite the constant purring and meowing in place of words. I had not known that sex was this important to me. I knew it mattered. I had always loved sex, needed sex. I was a surprise to myself. I deleted him from my phone, my socials, and my life.

In therapy with David later we talked about my affair. I had apologized and I promised, never again, and I meant it. I would leave before I would cheat again. The therapist was beginning to annoy David and David was beginning to liquidate. I could see him losing control of the situation. He could not understand all of his emotions nor could he any longer shame me for my desires. The affair, I was ashamed of. I was done with defending what I had to have to be a person without rotting parts trailing behind me as I lived. I was done feeling ashamed for wanting a deep dicking on a regular basis. I was done feeling badly that sex was such an enormously big deal for me. I was done wondering if I was a freak or just a terrible person. I knew that my marriage had been decaying and that David was happy to allow it to decay and that one day he would have woken back up possibly in a rush of late-life hormones and shaken off his languor and looked around for a great fuck and his wife would have been dead.

I stayed because I loved him. I stayed because ten years of his hand on my thigh as we slept. I stayed because I believed that ugliness would come no matter who I loved, and I stayed because I was curious about what was possible. Months passed and David and I began to collide. I could feel him heating and cooling and trembling and I began to hope. We had moments and then we had minutes of time where we were strange together, unusual, and this was good. One night I came home and David had moved all the living room furniture outside onto the patio. I wanted to, he said. OK, I replied. We left it like that for a few weeks until it rained.

He made the expected derisive remarks about Thoren: wasn’t I happy now that I’d had my fling, was that what I wanted? We were at home undressing and the therapy had been especially boring and expected and depressing. I had to be honest when I replied that while I actually wanted David to give me what I wanted, the affair-sex had been what I wanted. David left the room and I followed him, angry. I had not been angry at David in a long time. It felt good. David, I said, I could have a great orgasm with many men at this point in my life. I’m horny. But I want, and have always wanted, you. I want you. I want you.

David looked at me and instead of doing the things I waited for him to do, he nodded and said, I know.

Oh, I said. I didn’t want to press my luck.

David said all the angry hurt things he could think of and was exhausted and I was exhausted and we slept deeply and were quiet a lot but it was a peaceful silence, with no tricks, no sharp corners. We considered each other. I felt David weighing secrets, and I was glad he had secrets, and that he was allowing me to see this in his face, his eyes passing over the world and his hands moving surely or insecurely over his body and his voice faltering, moving from weakness to strength, testing the waters.

In January it rained, and January is a depressing month of suicides and car accidents in the snow and people declaring bankruptcy. But David and I had each other.

One night in the dark David and I lay down instead of turning on the reading light and we breathed loudly at each other in a silly way. I rolled over and don’t you ever, ever, think of telling him, but it just came out and I couldn’t help it, and I wasn’t even thinking of anything but David, my David’s big, hard dick and his strong body and his hands moving me apart like waves that close back around him and his smell and his energy driving me into my bed deeper and deeper fucking until I feel like Alice that I am to fall into a dreamhole and then I opened my mouth and said

Meow

And David my husband did not laugh or stay silent or puncture me with words, but he growled, and growled, and pounced on me I cried myself silly with relief and joy when he said with his wide, warm mouth inches away from my own,

Meow.


Maggie May Ethridge is a writer in San Diego, California. Her memoir Atmospheric Disturbances: Scenes From A Marriage, about marriage, love, and bipolar disorder, was published with SheBooks in 2014. Her high school biography of Marie Curie was published in 2017 with Cavendish Publishers. Maggie has work published in Guernica, The Guardian, Marie Claire, and The Rumpus, among others. Her novel Agitate My Heart is almost finished being polished.

Just a Thought about the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile

By: Ben Loory

I had a friend who used to drive the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile around. But honestly, who cares about that? Some great big fake hot dog cruising around the country? Hate to tell you, it’s just a big billboard ad.

But I guess somehow, because it moves—because it’s a car—that makes it seem like it’s actually something else. Makes it seem like it’s romantic, like it’s from some other world.

Some other world where they drive big hot dogs around.

 

But as for me, I don’t care. Or maybe I do a little—but hey, I try to keep it under wraps. Not that I’ve ever even seen the Wienermobile.

But if I did, I wouldn’t look away.

 

I mean, if it was standing there, like, parked in some parking lot, and they were asking passersby if they wanted tours, I’d probably say yes? Go in and look around.

I mean, okay, why not? I’d say.

 

And what if I was in there, and it was only me, and somehow, the drivers went away—like maybe they got a call, or had to go to the grocery store?

If the keys were in it, would I drive it away?

 

Would I fire up that hot dog and slam the thing in gear, barrel it on out of the goddamn lot? Head out to the highway and stomp down on the gas?

Give it absolutely everything it’s got?

 

And what if I was out there, going ninety miles an hour, and it turned into some kind of high-speed chase? Would I carefully and apologetically pull that thing over?

Or would I say Fuck it, I’m going out My Way?

 

Would I point that hot dog straight toward the ocean? Would I drive it off that cliff as best I could?

And would I scream and laugh and cry and dance the whole way down?

Probably not.

But I wish I would.


Ben Loory is the author of Tales of Falling and Flying (Penguin, 2017) and Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day (Penguin, 2011). His fables and tales have appeared in The New Yorker, Tin House, Electric Literature, and Fairy Tale Review, and been heard on This American Life and Selected Shorts.

Downstream

By: Rob Bowman

The SUV had an ugly blue-and-white smear down the side where it had scraped against the police cruiser. The tires were worn thin on the edges and began to slowly leak just after they edged the police cruiser over into the gulch, whereupon it rolled over and ground to a halt. The officer, who had undone his seatbelt to try and more effectively remove his sidearm to shoot the men whose vehicle matched the description of the bank robbery across town, the men who had shot a security guard twice, once in the foot and once in the back, was trapped in the crumpled folds of the car. The officer, Soto, had fallen out of his seat when the car flipped, had been crushed there between the ceiling and the steering wheel, had been on his way back to the station house for a shower and a stretch of three days off, during which he was helping plan his daughter’s quinceañera. There was a father–daughter dance to be rehearsed.

The side of the SUV was dented and crushed in so far that Andy had found he couldn’t open the door when they eventually stopped and he had to awkwardly wiggle out the other side.

“Shouldn’t have shot that guard,” Tom said.

“We needed to shake them up.”

“I don’t mean the foot. I mean when we was leaving, the shot in the back.”

“Aw, hell,” Andy said. “He was calling in. You saw his hand on his radio,” Andy spat out the window. They had rolled them both down to hide the crumbled edges where they had been broken, pushed the gritty little geometric bits of glass out onto the road.

“Hand on his radio? There was already gunfire. Cops were called already. And you don’t think any of those tellers know how to use a phone? You don’t think that manager could still do it with a busted-in face?”

The manager’s eye socket was destroyed by the butt of a pistol, bruises were at that moment raising around his throat where he was briefly strangled, bent backward over the counter, looking out with his one remaining good eye at Sarah, one of the newer hires, a gun against her head, the same gun that had just punched a ragged hole through Albert’s foot. The man already had bad feet, his gout had made standing during his duty nearly impossible. But Albert, a proud man who insisted nothing needed to be adjusted for him, had scorned the chair they had given him. And now these two had put a hole straight through Albert’s comfort-fit shoe while he wore it. They had smashed in the manager’s face, were choking the life out of him on the counter while they put that gun against Sarah’s temple and the manager, David, could see her heartbeat in her other temple, her eye makeup running in dark trickles down her face, not quite parallel streams, tainted and black.

A rule of bank security is don’t let them behind the counter but they had already shot Albert in the foot, had him standing there like a flamingo on one leg, with a gun to his head, said if that door didn’t open, a bullet was going through the old man’s brain. David let them in. They raided the drawers, filled their backpacks. David opened the gate to the small vault. This wasn’t a major branch, just a satellite thing in the parking lot of a strip mall. Four teller windows, one guard with bad feet, and a small vault without safety deposit boxes, just reserve cash for large traffic days. One man cleaned out the drawers while the other kept his gun against Sarah.

They filled their backpacks and were leaving, sirens audible in the distance (they had hit the panic button, of course) when one of them shot Albert through the back as he lay on the ground. His air wheezed out of him. Then they were gone, tires squealing down 42nd. The tellers went to him and placed hands on his chest and back, trying to hold the old man’s life in.

Tom and Andy drove straight onto the highway, following the speed limit and driving as responsibly as they could when Officer Soto saw them and pulled alongside, lights flashing. Officer Soto in the ditch, Albert wheezing his last, Sarah wiping her face, feeling the lump on the side of her head from the pressure of the gun, David trying to explain to the police his understanding of what happened, gauze wrapped around his head, keeping his eye in place until a specialist could try and fail to save it.

“We need to get out of here. You really fucked this all up. Killing that guard. Fuck.” Tom was furious but trying to hide it. Robbery is one thing and murder is another. They would both carry full charges. Maybe make it to the border. Sneak into Canada; lay low. Do they have extradition there? Isn’t that in movies? Is that just Mexico? Mexico is two thousand miles away. Canada is maybe twenty? No question which sounds better.

Andy looked coolly at Tom. What difference did it really make? If they get caught it’s bad for them. What is really the difference between twenty years and thirty when it comes to prison? With one of them you are an old man with no chance of anything when you get out and with the other you are an even older man with no chance of anything when you get out. And both carry a major if one gets out.

“Whatever. We just need to take care of us. Nothing really changed. You weren’t going to work Monday and neither was I,” Andy said.

 

The call came in that a dead moose was half in the stream. It had died violently, maybe. Lots of gore; entrails and viscera splayed off into the water and undulated with the current. But that may have been after death, scavengers picking at the belly, getting at the most vulnerable places, or it could have burst in the sun, bloat and rot, uncontrolled, reckless. Usually the more vicious scavengers leave their mark, dung and vomit when they have gorged themselves beyond capacity. Then eating more.

Mickey had seen plenty of dead animals as a forest ranger and usually left the animals where they lay but an animal in the water causes serious problems downstream. Accordingly, she always kept a shovel and some bags in the back of her truck. But a fully grown bull moose? She would need to get some heavy equipment up there, somehow. Or just post notice, maybe. May have been a bear, maybe.  Usually they aren’t so aggressive as to take on a moose. The moose seem gentle, look like sweet, kind of dopey things, awkward and strange, like some kind of faulty design but they are actually fifteen hundred pounds of anger edged with antlers and hooves and can do real damage and the bears stay wary of them. Hmm, Mickey thought. A bear this aggressive will have to be accounted for. Then again, the moose may have already taken care of things. Broken the bear’s jaw. The bear would starve.

Mickey parked in the space marked RANGER PARKING, unlocked the door and went to her desk, typing the notices and sending emails regarding the moose. She hit print, multiple copies. She would have to hang these around, particularly the campgrounds, the hiking trails, and the spots where no one was supposed to hike or camp but always did; it wouldn’t do to just have it on the bulletin board outside of the station. Mickey loved the job. Loved the peace of it, the feeling of custodianship over the world even if it was just giving tours, talking to families, even explaining that the name tag said Mikayla but her friends called her Mickey and anyone who wants to learn about the forest is a new friend. Hokey but she liked it. They always smiled and then said it out loud. “Mickey,” they’d chorus, as though it was the magic word. An open sesame for the forest. But lately she had started to hate the quiet. It was what brought her to the job at first but now she spent uncomfortable amounts of her income on audiobooks and satellite reception for the sake of a little noise. Mickey turned on the television. On bad days only stations that played soap operas and daytime talk came in. The clouds somehow choking out all of the interesting stuff. It was a bad day.

A woman on the show was lamenting a broken heart given by a man with an eye patch.

“Well, you screwed yourself when you screwed him, didn’t ya?” Mickey pushed an errant lock of hair out of her eyes. It mostly was pulled back but growing back out a short haircut meant assorted strands kept wiggling their way out. She pursed her lips and blew it out of her face. Between the printer and the television and the hard puffs of breath, she hardly heard the door open.

Two men.

They were sweating but trying to seem calm. Thirties, maybe, hard to say, deep lines in their faces, bad color. She didn’t know but they were coming down from one panic-adrenaline surge and ramping up into another. They had bags under their eyes. They smelled bad. One had a couple of spots of blood up near his hairline. Sweat stains blooming under their arms. They each wore a backpack that looked heavy, zippers straining.

Both were holding guns.

“We need your truck.”

Mickey quickly rolled it all through her brain. She had been out inspecting the moose and left the radio in the truck after having dropped it into creeks, canyons, various piles of shit through the years. There was probably an alert to be on the lookout. Probably described them in some vaguely exciting way but seeing them now it was clear that they were just two people who weren’t good or bright or decent doing bad, stupid, terrible things.

“You can take it.” Mickey threw the keys at the taller of the two, who caught them with a snatch out of the air.

“And you’re coming with us.”

Mickey blinked hard and wished rangers carried guns on them at all times. Her rifles were locked in the storage closet. They were each designed to solve a very specific problem—one of them was for small nuisances, birds who were dive-bombing picnickers, another was for medium problems, like a rabid raccoon. Then there were the two monsters, an elephant gun for extreme needs, and a hypodermic gun. Any of them would have been tremendously helpful.

Mickey thought. If she went back to get them, they would never let her go by herself and if they saw them, they would take the guns for themselves. And no situation seemed to improve by adding in more guns. So she decided to let them stay where they were.

 

Andy was driving and Tom was in the back seat with Mickey, who had tried to tell them that staying on the trails would be the best thing but they insisted off-road would be better.

“That will be harder for them to track,” Andy said.

“What? That doesn’t make any sense at all. There’s new ruts in the grass then. And the trees are going to block you over and over again. You’ll probably kill the truck in a couple of miles,” Mickey said.

“Shut up. I know what I’m doing. I’m sure you have other rangers out here. Tourists and families and bullshit. They’ll see us.”

This was undoubtedly true and Mickey had hoped to get them noticed in precisely this way but worried that if a family saw them before someone else the family would be hurt. And she didn’t want that. Even so, the advice she gave them was accurate and she didn’t say anything as they bounced and jounced and jostled down through the forest, lifting up and slamming down over and over. It had once been a good truck but was now just another worn-out government vehicle. She also didn’t say anything when the entire drivetrain dropped out of the truck only a couple of miles later.

The two men took turns lying under the truck while the other watched her, trying in vain to push the shattered truck back together. She still had her flashlight with her, a long-handled thing loaded with enough D batteries to make it heavy. But that was it. Even her animal mace was back in the office. She was riding highs and crashing through lows as adrenaline rushed through her, faded, rushed up again. It was making her teeth hurt. She realized she had been clenching and unclenching her jaw over and over the entire time.

Andy and Tom were panting, covered in grease and dirt. Andy stomp kicked the side of the truck and left a dent.

“Shit. Truck is goddamn shot. Piece of shit.”

“You drove like an asshole, Andy. How far is it now?”

“You’re asking me? How would I know? Hey, Mikayla, how far is it to the border?” Tom used the name on her name tag. Mickey had not gone into her now-we-are-friends routine with them.

“From here?” Mickey thought for a moment. Probably at least 150 miles. Almost impossible on foot. Angry bears. Cold nights. No water. No food. Impossible. But she couldn’t tell them that. It would infuriate them. And they’d want to go back to the road for a new car, and who knew what that would lead to?

“Maybe ten miles,” Mickey said. “Not too far. Walkable.”

“Ten miles?” Tom looked uncertain. He was thinking about the weight of that backpack. Ten miles would be tough. And what about when they actually got to the border, what then? It’s not as though there would be someone waiting for them there.

“You’d be walking across no matter what. None of our roads go through. Couldn’t, of course. Border crossings and all of that. You know.” Mickey tried to look helpful.

“Ten miles? Shit. Can’t handle ten miles?” Andy grinned at Tom.

“Maybe ten miles. Probably closer to five.” Mickey nodded as she spoke.

“Then start walking. Lead the way.”

 

Mickey tried hard to visualize exactly they were and to strike up a fast pace, not quite a run, but quick. She was certain these two, Andy in particular, couldn’t bear to be outpaced by a woman and wouldn’t tell her to slow down.

Tom marched behind her and Andy kept scrambling ahead and then falling back. He would realize how far back he was and then jog back up, keeping just a few steps ahead of her. He was hacking up phlegm and coughing, spitting up chunks of snot. He sounded like a toothless old man, full of dust and rot. They both had their guns shoved into the waist of their pants. Every so often Andy would take his in hand and walk that way. Then he would tire of the extra weight in his hand and put it back.

“How far is it now?” Andy was breathing hard and trying not to show it. They hadn’t gone far but were going steadily uphill, over rocks, fallen trees.

“We have only gone a couple miles. But it isn’t far. We just need to keep going.” Mickey still needed to come up with some kind of plan. They would catch on that they had more ground to cover and it felt less and less likely that someone else would just stumble upon them. And even then, it might be worse.

Mickey wanted to get her hands on one of those guns.

“We need to rest. No good walking tired and rolling an ankle,” Tom said. He sat down on a nearby stone, pulled off his backpack and set it in front of him, between his legs. He moved the guns from the front of his pants, to the back. They all sat down.

“I’ll be right back,” Mickey stood up and began to walk toward Tom, then turned to go behind him.

Andy was up on his feet instantly, gun up. “What are you doing?”

“I need to pee.”

Andy considered this for a moment. “Fine. But just behind that tree. If I see you go farther than that, I’m coming after you. Get me?”

Mickey nodded and walked over to the tree he had pointed to. She noisily unbuckled and quietly rebuckled her belt. She would bend here, wait for Andy to look away, and then run up onto Tom, grab the gun. But if Andy still had his, and he was clearly the more dangerous of the two, what then? Mickey bit her lip in thought. She would have to grab Tom’s gun and then, in one move, stand and shoot Andy.

Jesus. Am I ready to shoot a person? Probably best to just not think about it.

Mickey felt weirdly optimistic. She felt fresh and alert, excited in a way that she didn’t know what to make of. Another wave of adrenaline was coursing through her; every cell was screaming. Her eyes had dilated into saucers.

She looked around the tree. The men hadn’t moved. They both sat, spent. Tom wasn’t far away—fifteen feet? Mickey crouched and thought. A few long strides if she was running. Or a lot of small, quiet ones if she tried to sneak up. She ran.

She bounded across the distance and was reaching out to grab the pistol out of the back of Tom’s pants when Andy yelped and fired his gun into the tree just next to her head. A splash of splinters shot out.

“Don’t you fucking move,” Andy was staring her straight in the eyes.

“What was that?” Tom looked as startled as Mickey, more so.

“She was going to take your gun. We look like a couple of assholes to you? A couple of idiots? I’m not an idiot. Did you hear me?” Andy moved toward Mickey, who was standing as still as possible, save for her shivering. Andy grabbed Mickey by her hair and pulled her forward. “I should kill you right now.”

“You can’t kill her. She knows the way out and we don’t,” Tom said.

“Horseshit, we just use the sun. North, right?” Andy looked up to figure out what direction was which.

“Except it isn’t just north. You want to find yourself on the edge of a huge lake? Or do you want to be just a few hundred yards from a road so you can cross over and then hitchhike in?” Mickey realized she needed to make herself valuable fast.

Andy nodded and smiled. He had a perfect, gleaming smile. Mickey thought of all of those movies with ugly, gray-toothed, snaggled grins on bad guys. In real life they could look like anything at all. There were simply bad guys everywhere.

“So, we will have two new rules,” Andy said.

“What?” Tom said.

“Procedures. First, you will walk in front, Mikayla.” Andy spat the name, as though it actually tasted bad. “Second, we need to make absolutely certain that we avoid this problem in the future.” Andy switched his hand from Mickey’s hair to her right wrist.

“You going to hold hands all the way there?” Tom said.

“Hold your gun on her. Listen,” Andy said to Mickey. “This is going to hurt. But not nearly as much as what we will do after another problem.”

Andy grabbed Mickey’s right index finger and pulled back on it until the joint snapped.

Mickey screamed a short burst and then began gasping.

“I suppose one could use their middle finger for a trigger, right?” Andy asked Mickey and then snapped that one, too.

Mickey looked at Tom. She thought for sure he would be playing good cop here, looking out for her but she looked into his eyes and saw an absolute cold. Tom watched her yelp, waited for her to catch her breath and then flatly spoke to Andy.

“She could be left-handed.”

And then Andy, methodically and without hesitation, broke the two fingers on Mickey’s left hand as she squirmed and gulped and gasped.

“Okay. Let’s get going, campers,” Tom said.

 

Mickey knew that she was going to be killed. She had lied in saying where the border was. They were smart enough to avoid the roads. No one probably even knew yet that she was in trouble. And her hands were now useless. Every small bounce hurt, she was walking with each hand tucked under the other arm to try and keep them from moving but it was hurting her balance. She fell and tried to catch herself at one point and found she had wrenched back and twisted her broken fingers in the process. It all seemed pretty well doomed.

“Hey, Mikayla. We need water. Isn’t there some spring water or some shit around here?” Tom could feel the grit of the forest on his tongue. His steps were dragging. He could have shot Andy for putting them in this. And now a hike with no supplies at all? They should have ransacked the ranger station. Goddamn Andy, Tom thought. And now they were going to have to kill this woman. She knows their names, knows where they are going. Tom didn’t like the guard’s being killed but it had narrowed all future options for them and he wasn’t going to prison. But first they had to get through this goddamn, fucking forest.

“What?” Mickey was in her head. She was trying to slowly lead them east, hoping to hit a campground and then make a run for it but she knew this was a bad plan. In fact, she had slowly made them gently u-turn back toward the ranger station. They were about a mile from it right then.

“Water. Water? To drink. We’re dying out here.”

Mickey thought. She did know where a stream was.

“Yeah. I know where a stream is. We have to cut over a little.”

“Is it far?” Andy was still suspicious of her. “How out of the way is it?”

“It’s not far and not very out of the way. Will add maybe a mile, all told. Not much.”

She began to lead them toward the stream.

 

The stream ran clear and cool. The men drank deeply, laughing, washed their hands and faces, slurped and dribbled. Tom brought handful after handful to his face while Andy gave up on the cupped hand technique and knelt down to drink like a horse.

“That helps. That’s good.” Tom lay back, rubbed his dripping hands over his face again.

“Good God. I feel like a new man,” Andy said. “Hot shit.”

“Andy, I swear to God, the next time we do a job we need to stop by the store first. So goddamned hungry now,” Tom said.

“Drink up. You’ll feel better. Ten miles? Hell. We can do that in no time. We will find us a nice steak restaurant and eat like kings. Find us some girls.”

“We already have one. What do you say? You think you want to join us?” They both looked over at Mickey.

While they were feeling transformed by the water, she hadn’t drunk a drop, instead soaking her swollen hands in the water. It was better than nothing, but even so gentle a roll as this small stream was knocking her fingers around terribly. Mickey looked around her. In truth, they were still just a couple of miles from the ranger station. She had made them zigzag endlessly. A straight line back would be pretty easy for her but almost impossible for them. And, she hoped, that their day was about to get a lot worse. But how long would that take? She figured she would stay with them until she saw a sign, a clue of some kind. Or until they began to act on their uglier notions. And then she would run for it.

“We really need to keep going if you want to make it there anytime soon. It gets cold at night. And the animals are more active.”

“Why do you care so much about us making it?”

“When are you going to let me go?”

“When we get to the border.”

“Well, there you have it.”

They kept walking, Mickey leading them through more and more loops and jags.

       

“Let’s stop here.” Tom was sweating heavily. He looked pale. At the very least, they weren’t used to this terrain. Andy looked at her again. He had made sure to walk immediately behind her. She could feel his eyes all over her and a knot was growing in her stomach. What she wouldn’t give for the animal mace at that moment.

“How close are we now?” Andy was edgy, torn between his basest instincts and cruelest machinations. He wanted something to happen. It might not matter what.

“Close. A couple miles. You guys could make it the rest of the way yourselves. Just let me go now. Just go straight ahead. You’ll cross in no time and then should hit a road just a mile past that. Turn left and you will be in a town. No problem.” Mickey hoped panic wasn’t in her voice. She hoped it sounded natural and true and not like desperate bullshit. She had been going over everything in her mind. Why would they let her go? She knew their names, knew where they were going, knew what they looked like. They had almost certainly already been on the news. Everyone knew who they were but not where they were. And these were guys who learned crime from the movies. Even their small talk was all clichés and chest puffery.

Tom kept dabbing at his brow with his sleeve. The sweat was coming thicker. He was groaning. Andy was slowing but still moving along at the same pace he had for most of the afternoon. Mickey decided it was now. She had to run. Make it back to the station. Get the mace. Get the gun. Get the radio and her phone. Get to the road. Get away.

Andy looked at her and grinned. They had both been keeping their guns in the waist of their pants at first but then traded off who kept their gun out and who put it in their backpack. The guns had started to dig into their skin, were catching stray back or belly hairs and causing little yelps when they were pulled out. Tom’s gun was in his belt. Andy’s was in his backpack.

Mickey walked up to Andy, tried hard to smile though it felt more like a grimace. She started to raise one arm as though, in a step or two, she would pull him close. He watched her hand rising and then she kicked him square in the crotch. He howled and crumpled as she turned and ran, sprinting down the rocks. Andy pulled his backpack off, opened it, and fumbled for his gun, coughing, gagging, and then firing into the trees Mickey had just run through.

Tom saw everything and was beginning to clutch at his gun when an overwhelming pain gripped him in his gut. Vomit swirled in the back of his throat and he felt his bowels loosen. He gripped the gun and tried to aim but couldn’t keep himself from vomiting. He collapsed and lay on the ground, shamed and shocked, his pants fouled and reeking, bile in his nostrils.

Andy caught his breath and ran after Mickey.

“Bitch! Get back here! I’ll kill you! I’ll goddamned kill you!”

Mickey was going in a nearly straight line, scrabbling down the rocks, frantic to get back. She knew where she was going, and she knew the terrain, but Andy was fast. She could hear him closing the gap. This wasn’t going to work. She looked around for a place to hide. Nothing decent. She pushed back behind a tree and tried to slow her breathing. The station was still a mile away. She lay back against the trunk of the tree and wished she had the use of her hands.

       

He was pushing down the trail. Still shouting and yelping, crashing through the bushes. She tried to time it until he was right beside her. She turned from behind the tree, swinging her elbow with all of her weight behind it. She wanted to catch him in the eye or mouth, knock out his teeth, pop out one of his eyes. She barely caught his ear. He spun, yelped, tripped on a tree root and fell. Mickey fell on top of him and put her left forearm into his throat, punched her right elbow down into his eye once, twice, a third time before he pulled her up and back by her hair. She tried to grab at his face, claw out his eyes, but her fingers wouldn’t work.

Andy threw Mickey onto her back. She tried to crab away, scooting on the heels of her hands as Andy stood and pulled up the gun, coughing and blinking and trying to focus his eyes. One of them wouldn’t focus at all, a field of red streaks. He closed his left eye and Mickey came back into focus.

“Well, that’s that.” Andy fixed his aim onto Mickey. And then his stomach gave out. He bent in half and bile shot from his nose and mouth.

Mickey ran.

Andy wasn’t keeping up. Mickey couldn’t hear him after just a hundred feet or so of running, but she continued at a sprint. She could see it, the peeling cream paint of the ranger station. Still no other cars there. No one knew.

She found her way into the station, grabbed the phone, and unlocked the gun cabinet, holding the key against her ring finger and thumb. She dropped the keys twice and only managed to get the door open on the third attempt. She propped the biggest rifle across her desk, aiming straight at the door as she waited. Mickey picked at a roll of masking tape in her desk with her thumbnail and managed to loop the tape around her broken fingers, then lodged her ring finger into the trigger loop. Mickey knocked the phone receiver off of the cradle, dialed the police with her pinky, and turned on the hands-free function, told them where she was, what had happened. She kept one eye on the door but wasn’t worried.

Mickey’s eyes drifted over to the printer in the corner. It was whirring and humming, impatiently beeping every few minutes. It had run out of paper after printing only half of the notices. After the police came and swept the area, she would still need to post all of them everywhere to make sure people knew.

Beware:

Clear Doesn’t Mean Clean

Tainted Water Kills

Do NOT Drink


Rob Bowman teaches high school English and has written for architecture magazines, film- review magazines, literary journals, and various public relations positions. He co-hosts the film and pop culture podcast Reel Disagreement. He moved to the Coachella Valley from Denver with his wife and two sons. He is working on his second novel, Inheritance.

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