ISSUE 8: JANUARY 2016

IMG_5797A Pain Artist
By Leland Neville

Before YouTube and reality television there was a brief but passionate interest in pain artists. I performed in the cutthroat Rust Belt. Local TV news crews were often present. Men laughed uneasily, women screamed, and children watched open-mouthed. The occasional groupie would even follow me from an Econo Lodge in Buffalo to a Super 8 Motel in Detroit and back again. I posed for photographs and signed autographs. Times really have changed.

My boss, a serious-minded operator, never ad-libbed. “Ladies and gentlemen, according to the FBI you will probably be stabbed, shot, or raped at some point in your life. And if—God forbid—you should resist and injure the man who is attacking you … ” My boss melodramatically paused. “If you should harm that man who wants to kill or rape you, well, you will probably end up in jail. And what will happen to him? He will get your house. He will get your life savings. He will be entitled to a lifetime of government benefits … ”

The complimentary chicken dinners remained untouched. All eyes were fixed on me, standing off to the side, stoic.

“In my pocket,” said my boss, “is the user friendly state-of-the-art devise that will save your house, your money, and your life.”

He withdrew the silver Taz-2000 from the right front pocket of his pants and held it over his head. The stun gun glowed but the potential customers in the first row of tables continued to stare at me. I was of average height and build. My looks were forgettable. I was an acceptable everyman.

“The Taz-2000 is guaranteed NOT to cause your assailant to suffer permanent injuries. Guaranteed. You will not be sued by some slick lawyer for the crime of saving your own life.”

Disgruntled murmurings escaped the stifling meeting room.

“Don’t worry!” shouted my boss. “He will suffer! He will pray for death! Guaranteed!”

Polite applause ensued. They thought they understood pain and revenge. The Taz-2000 was about standing up and pushing back. It was not about hoping for the best and believing in tomorrow.

I took two steps forward and folded my arms across my chest. The florescent lights brightened, the temperature rose, and there was a churchlike silence.

“We need a volunteer victim,” said my boss.

He ignored the raised arms and always selected a small middle-aged woman from the first row. As my boss praised the technology of the Taz-2000 I surreptitiously moved to within six feet of the intended victim. I lowered my arms and stood at attention.

“Now fire!” my boss commanded. “He’s prepared to attack. Aim and fire.”

The “victim” inevitably looked askance at the Taz-2000 that seemed to have mysteriously materialized in her tiny trembling hand.

“Just pull the trigger, honey.”

“But what if I miss?”

“Impossible. The electrodes in the darts are equipped with infrared homing sensors, just like the Navy uses on its Sidewinder missiles.”

“But … ”

“He’s a bad man, dear. He’s a convicted felon. I’m certain you’ve encountered bad men before. He’s a school bully. He’s a pervert. Buffalo isn’t getting any safer.”

The initial shock always felt like a vicious and unexpected kick to my stomach.

“Oh my!” The woman’s voice trembled.

My knees buckled and I gasped; the sour air was too thin. I lost control of my bladder, but remained conscious and aware of my surroundings.

“I think you have put the fear of God in him,” said my boss to my would-be victim.

I welcomed the pain. I burned and twitched. My head bowed into my chest. I moaned and shrunk into a helpless ball of flesh.

“Is he going to be all right?”

The gummy floor stuck to my face. My hands grasped at the unrelenting waves of misery.

“Should we call an ambulance?”

My eyes welled with hot tears. I was an artist, articulating the immediate. The pain intensified and the ineffable became visible.

“Ladies and gentlemen, he’s going to be better than ever.”

Perhaps I had perceived my soul or essence. Maybe I had witnessed the arrangement of my neurons. Regardless, it was a moment of undeniable authenticity. The more you try to avoid pain, the more you will suffer.

There was applause and a few cheers as I rose to my feet. Cameras flashed. Bleary eyed, I scanned the crowd. Had my pain and art been nothing more than a freak show? I never learned the answer and it probably never mattered.

The boss and I then proceeded to sell the Taz-2000s. The three-year warranty was extra.


IMG_5905Ice and Avalanche
By Cari Scribner

You hear the horn toot before the guy on the motorcycle waves. You are on the sidewalk at 4:01 p.m., leaving work, Tuesday. There is black ice so you are walking duck-footed. That’s the thing about black ice; you never see it until it knocks you on your ass.

He recognizes me from behind, you think. Then you remind yourself of how he knows you from every angle: he knows you as a young bride, in orgasm, birthing babies, sobbing at his mother’s funeral, losing jobs, gaining weight, howling over a suspicious mammo, screaming, laughing, mocking, satisfied, sarcastic, gone.

You were married to him for 26 years before things collapsed in on themselves. All your shared history was swallowed by a chasm in the wake of a runaway avalanche. Poof.

Earlier, a couple months ago, he drove up to the curb leaving his truck running to drop off the child support check. Wearing the blue T-shirt with the sailboat you gave him for his last birthday. Now, he guns the engine of his motorcycle, a non-Harley, his gift to himself after the failed marriage.

You no longer send out Christmas cards, post pics on Facebook, stop for milk at the corner Quick Mart. You avoid the old life that hits you in the face every time you look at your sons, talk to your mother, find a kindergarten craft made with sticky glue by the boys, hear any song from the ’80s, dream, weep.

The ice is slick. Startled by the horn, you almost fall over, toppled by something called grief.


Cerise
By Nod Ghosh

I lost a pair of shoes that day. Blood red with killer heels.

You said people don’t notice things by their absence. But I do.

It was the day Escobar disappeared. I haven’t seen my red shoes, the heinously expensive ones trimmed with diamanté bows, since that day. You told me other cats went missing that day—too scared of their own shadows to know left from right. I thought Escobar would return through the yellow dust and torpitude that enveloped us, if only to save me from the agony of imagining his twisted body crushed like grain between fallen rocks. The earth opened like a book that day, revealing granite lungs and a low lying peridotite heart.

Escobar never came home.

Most of what we lost that day was invisible. A carefree will. The spontaneity of kisses. Most, but not all of it. We lost a community of Saturday-neighbours, who would cluster like mushrooms around candlelit carafes of wine, prophylactically dousing hangovers with bread and laughter. An enigmatic cat who licked toes through socks. A pair of crimson shoes in a box.

But those shoes. I loved my shoes, so elegant, so inappropriate. Hardly worn. Tabletop high heels, impossible to walk in. Their cardboard box swallowed in a mound of empty cartons, discarded like a chitin shell. A box amongst boxes, packed with things no one wanted. Unnecessary things. Dated things. Abandoned things in an abandoned home. Yesterday’s dreams wrapped in the transitory tissue of forgetfulness. A pair of cerise dress shoes slotted one against the another. Yin and yang. Two halves of an incomplete puzzle. The forgotten scent of leather, manure fresh, sharp as a pencil.

The shoes lie in a torn house. Our house. It perches like a predator on a vertiginous slope, ready to drop. Its windows boarded, fairy-tale vines eating into mortar like serpents. Rats and mice roam freely through gaps widened by neglect. With cabuchon eyes and tattered tails, they skitter past the red notice taped to the door, oblivious.

Entry prohibited …

Like robbers, the red-eyed rodents feast on tattered papers and last year’s clichés. And there are chips. Fat slivers of potato that fell into cracks on a careless Tuesday. Rats nibble year-old food and line their nests with adverts for caravans and sensual massage. Ovoid droppings decorate dusty corners, like colonies of woodlice locked in a loveless dance.

Tonight I pick a crimson dress from a sagging rail. A semi-lucid memory jumps into focus. The killer instinct that drove me to pounce on dagger heels. Hemoglobin-red, with silver buckles that could slice flesh. They were meant to be mine. I nearly shed someone’s blood to have them, swallowed in a stampede for bargains. And still they went beyond sensibility. But you bought them for me. For your birthday, you said, though it was months away.

It’s only when I can’t find the shoes tonight, that I remember they must be in the house on the cliff, with discarded mattresses and my discarded youth.

I slide black ballet pumps over my stockinged feet. They’re scuffed at the heel. I slip my arm through yours. The shoes are not right with this dress, but your arm fits mine like a key in a lock. Escobar’s ghost slides between us and offers a benediction.

New shoes. Old life. New life. Old shoes.


IMG_3698Harold & June
By Kirby Wright

Harold hated June for flying to Boston to visit her mother. He couldn’t keep her by his side during summer months, despite the lure of living in Hawaii. He knew her brand of love had conditions. Love to her was not really love at all unless she received financial advantage or the promise of something valuable. She’d been his target at Harvard. She was poor. He knew the money she smelled in his future was what drew her to him, not his looks or his bravery in the war or the love poems he recited beside the Charles River. “Opportunist,” he whispered, switching off his study lamp. He forgave her because he was an opportunist too, a man pursuing a virgin a decade younger. A bird’s cry echoed through campus. He guessed it was an owl. He considered June a naïve girl-woman, a child he could mold and shape to satiate carnal urges and his lust for control. He considered her soul. He’d quit believing in god yet sensed some spiritual life in her, a sacred power beneath the skin. He knew this force gave her a few pounds of courage.

June slipped out of the covers to escape Harold’s snores and deep mumbles, sneaking into the kitchen to boil water for tea. This was the start of it, that first night she’d left him by himself in bed. “His dreams can keep him company,” she muttered. She eased into the pantry, pulled out a box of chocolate-covered almonds, and created a chocolate-nut-and-tea sanctuary in the dining room. She felt safe there. He would never dig up the secret buried deep in her soul. That secret was hate. It was a hate so powerful it melted his looks, reducing him to a hunchback tucking pillows under her ass. She closed her eyes as the hunchback pumped away. The hatred within her burned with a savage fire. Everything she was inside, everything she’d become, begged for his death. He moaned pulling out. “Shower time, June.” She felt numb stumbling the narrow hall down to the pink bathroom. She thought about life. Would she have turned out a different woman married to another man? But being with Harold made her hate all men. June turned on the shower, pulled a rubber cap over her hair, and ducked under the stream. The midnight water made her skin burn.


IMG_1818Mascot
By Jason Half-Pillow

Jasmine felt the beginning of beads of sweat forming along her hairline and went to rub them off before they truly started itching. But, upon raising her arm, and raising it only slightly, she realized she was trying to bring a huge duck paw up to a giant duck head and the paw was much heavier than a mere feather-light hand. Each hand of her costume had three, pudgy fingers and something resembling a thumb. How was she supposed to hold the bullhorn by her feet? She wasn’t even a duck.

She saw the white, costume paw pass before the eye slit that wasn’t even where the eyes were but down at the bill. The slit kept slipping sideways, and everything looked framed kind of like in a war movie when someone is shot and is dying at the end, and you see what they see in slowed down silence, the sounds fainter and fainter, until almost completely enveloped in a tunneling kind of echo.

She heard pass by some kind of whisking and the energy made by it almost knocked her from her webbed feet. She was too near the track, so she backed up like a drunk just punched very hard in the face. As she righted herself, the slit tipped even more sideways, and though she was upright, watching the string of black, huge-legged women flying by her again at supersonic speed, though still clear, not in a blur as one might expect (given her state of sensory alteration) they looked to be sprinting to safety, away from the earth’s sudden opening. The roar of the crowd she took for their terror at being left behind, or maybe just the rumbling roar sounds that gurgle below the earth’s surface, not at all atypical of the usual 9.9 quake.

She felt the sweat now itching, not yet running, and was half-certain that mixed in with it were little, barely visible bugs suddenly awakened and now crawling. Why not? This mascot uniform was ancient, built for a huge, lumbering man. She was here subbing for some idiot pretending to have a head cold. There has to be some kind of Title IX violation going on here, she thought, and saw zooming past her sideways two black women with what looked like jelly wobbling thighs. Just after them trailed the Ukrainian from USC whose participation in all of her track events that day was taken to be symbolic, in tribute to her village in a Russian majority province now in smithereens from bombs said to have come from Putin himself. He denied it, speaking from a huge ceremonial chair in a bright, gilded ballroom. The back of the chair seemed ten feet tall and he looked almost like a midget. When he was done, he reached over and shook the Secretary of State’s hand. He too had a huge, unwieldy head.

Then came a whole pack, mostly black, but she saw some thin white girl with a glued-on head of black hair like a flapper, in the middle of the pack, whose posture was almost that of one of those weird walkers from the early morning competition, when she was sitting in the middle of the field in the center of the track, the stands mostly empty, trying to figure out how the snaps of the duck head worked on the white collar of her too big uniform that kept folding down, which presaged it simply falling off.

She eventually asked a man twirling a starting pistol around a finger if he would help.

“It’s not my job,” he said. “But what the hell, huh? It’s not like anyone’s looking.”

And he took from her the huge, cavernous duck head and, facing her directly like a tailor seeing some slight asymmetry in the shoulders of a suit, slowly lifted the duck head over her own, and as it was coming down, she saw passing her a gaggle of bobble-headed white men passing like they had to get somewhere quick but for some reason couldn’t bring themselves to actually break into a real run.

They wore ever-shifting contorted, pained expressions, like they were at a nighttime Luau and running across an infinite bed of glowing hot coal, each little brick of it pulsing steadily as if animated by the heart of some singular beast.

“All right,” Jasmine said. “I’m ready.”

She wiggled her shoulders and took in a breath and down came the head. She heard her breath echoing.

“I feel like Darth Vader,” she said.

She heard nothing. Was the man with the gun even still there? She saw the shadowed steps of the morning sun touching the stands and then the bobble-headed men again passing. They looked like crazed puppets, their limbs rattling off.

“Discombobulated,” Jasmine said suddenly, excited to have recalled the word. “They’re really falling apart.”


The Sandwich
By Frank Beyer

Over the top of my sorting case I noticed a half-eaten sandwich in someone’s cubby-hole, and on closer inspection it turned out to be Donna’s. As the morning wore on everybody was mentioning this sandwich sweating in a triangular plastic package. Donna claimed it wasn’t hers. One of the managers got told about it, but she said it wasn’t her job to throw it out. So for the next couple of days it stayed there. Donna just worked around it, waiting for the bastard who put it there to grow a conscience. Then Saturday, out on my run, I found the sandwich in the side compartment on my electric mail delivery vehicle—a Swiss made ‘Kyburz’. I knew John was the culprit; he was the practical joker around the depot. I was so busy that I forgot to throw the sandwich out at the end of the day and we had Sunday off (in case you were wondering). Monday the sandwich was still there, but my Kyburz didn’t smell as much as I had feared. I went to put the sandwich in John’s vehicle—he caught me in the act—so I threw the thing at him. He picked it up and put it in Donna’s Kyburz. It began thus.

That sandwich kept doing the rounds between the three of us—a good balm for mail sorting blues—your mind on where the sandwich might be in your vehicle. Once it got found you could put some thought into the next hiding place. However, one day in a fit of anger I threw the sandwich out. I had found it under my seat—its plastic container now held together by a couple of the rubber bands usually used to secure bundles of letters. My rage? We had flag referendum letters to deliver—that would take ages—and I’d been in trouble with the team leader that morning.

I could have been in trouble for being late, for not wearing the uniform properly, for having wet undelivered mail drying on my case—but no, all that was too organic—it was a graph of my performance versus the standard that was the problem. The standard showed the times needed for sorting daily mail volumes over the past month. It was a line graph fluctuating greatly between heavy Fridays and light Tuesdays. My performance times followed these fluctuations but were consistently above the standard line. Part of it was how I was filling out my docket, not capturing lost time or putting in my breaks—but, basically, I was too slow and THEY knew exactly how fast I had to be … I wasn’t in trouble really—just given a message: hurry the fuck up. I thought I was going fast enough already, shit … So I threw that sandwich in the bin.

Game over. It was one battle I thought I’d win.


IMG_4588Depository
By Charles Rammelkamp

After the murder-suicide next door—Mister Pilachowski drowning his kids in the bathtub and then shooting himself—all kinds of people started driving down Linden Avenue, just parking and staring. It’s a dead-end street, so they had to go out of their way to do it.

Everybody knows everybody else in Potawatomi Rapids, but nobody really knew the Pilachowskis. They came here from Detroit six years ago. Mister Pilachowski worked at the microchip plant. The oldest boy was five, the twins were two. Mrs. Pilachowski died in a car accident about a year ago—blindsided by a truck—so there wasn’t any question why he did it. It was grief, obviously, but still it was like there was more to find out, some dark mystery nobody knew, some secret buried somewhere that would explain it all—but irretrievable now as Mister Pilachowski himself was, right?

People my parents hardly knew called to ask questions. What was Mister Pilachowski like? Were we surprised, had we suspected anything? Because we lived next door, everybody thought we knew the Pilachowskis, even me, but I’m sixteen, so why would I know any of these people?

“I don’t know,” my father would say patiently into the receiver, shaking his head as if the caller could see him denying any knowledge. “I just don’t know.”

Once Mrs. Pilachowski waved at me when she was getting out of her car and I was walking up to our house. But she’s been dead over a year, so that doesn’t count. She was a very attractive woman, and everybody said it was a real tragedy when she died.

I remembered when we went to Dallas to see my aunt, and my dad made a special trip to Dealey Plaza to see where Oswald killed JFK. He stared up at that window in the book depository, trying to figure the angles.


IMG_5062Saltwater Remedy
By Kathryn H. Ross

“Hey now, hey now, don’t dream it’s over … Hey now, hey now—”

I kill the alarm with a swipe of my finger and lay back against my pillow. It’s early, 4:30am, and my room is dim—darkness shot with the pale blues of morning. I rub my eyes with my knuckles, phone still in hand, and try to remember the dream I was having before Crowded House serenaded me into waking. I try to re-imagine the dream, but it’s dissipated into a blur of static, like the VHS tape of your favorite movie that no longer plays. All I’m sure of is that he was in the dream, again. I feel it like a presence, this overwhelming certainty that he was so close to me only moments ago—but by now I know how powerful the mind is, how real it can make someone feel when you step out of reality and into untamed, subconscious wanting. Sighing, I look at my phone and see that a few minutes have passed. I put it aside, kick off my covers, and swing my legs over the side of the bed.

Somewhere down the hall the clock chimes five times. I sit at the breakfast counter with a mug of warm tea and a plate of eggs, listening to the slow silence as the chimes, reverberating on the air, fade into nothing. The house breathes around me in unison with my sleeping family, unaware of the rising sun or the gold-flecked sky or the dew forming on the lawn—the irrelevant things—the things you don’t remember or care about nine days out of ten. The things that go unnoticed until they change. I wish I could say it was the same with him—but he was the one I thought of ten days out of ten, the one that was there until he was not, the one whose absence I felt and feel like a missing piece of body and soul. I rub my temples, shut my eyes, try to forget. Taking a last sip of my tea, I put my dishes in the sink, grab my keys and bag, and head out the door.

Damp denim blue, the horizon lifts its eyes like a veil being raised from the earth. It watches me coming ever closer, running to meet it on swift legs. The sharp, salty smell hits me, beckons me forward until I am flying—no longer soul bound in car. The machine wraps around a hill and I see it—an expanse of brilliant blue taped to the sky with a strip of burning sunshine. I maneuver my way into the beachy suburbs, past sleeping homes and early risers walking their dogs in the chilled air. They take no notice of me as the car glides silently by, their eyes on the ground or in the sky, thoughts so detached I can almost see them floating away.

I park away from the homes and begin my walk to the beach. A man sits in a booth where people pay for parking, snoozing against the glass. I pause, wondering if I should wake him, let him know I’m here, but I decide against it and move on, clutching my sides and feeling as if my small hands are the only things holding everything inside.

The ocean breathes like a lover fast asleep. I can hear its great lungs working as the tide pulls in and out, over and over again, on the dark sand. The sea and the sky hold fast to the sun, knowing it is the only thing connecting them to one another for these few moments at the start of the day. It is bright, almost white, and it is not warm. All I can feel is the wet wind as it blows across the shore, breaking down great rocks with each air current—tiny teeth eating away at stone and glass, forming sculptures before my eyes that I’ll never see to completion.

I remove my shoes and socks and walk, feet numb, on the sand toward the water. I imagine myself in my bright mustard sweater, nothing more than a blot of paint, a second sun on the canvas. I remember with a pang that he’d always liked this sweater; I think of him, thinking of me, thinking of him—an endless reel of disillusioned hopefulness.

Hey now, Hey now … Don’t dream it’s over—don’t dream it’s over—don’t dream it’s over—

I say this, an ironic mantra, and think with each repetition of his eyes, his lips, his hair. I think of his hands and how they felt in mine. I think of his arms and how they gently held me. The sea bites my toes, swallows my feet, laps at my ankles. The calm scene sounds suddenly tempestuous with eyes closed, each wave a wailing voice on the wind, crying on every shore on every continent until someone takes notice. I think of his own voice and how it washed over me. I think of his scent, his laughter, his hopes, his dreams—everything he poured into me, I pour out into the sea.

Beyond my eyelids I can tell the sun has completely risen. The wind moves around me, caressing my skin, dusting my hair with salt and water, and I speak, dropping his name into the surf, allowing the current to pull it out to sea. The bottoms of my jeans are wet and my boots begin to feel heavy in my hands. I step back, feel the ocean hold me, then gently let go. My feet touch dry sand and I keep moving, backwards steps, keeping my eyes on the horizon line—

I can almost see him, driftwood bereft on the water, floating out into oblivion.


IMG_9779A Kitten
By George Everet Thompson

Our rooms were dripping torrents of water through their ceilings making them dim, watery caves where nothing could live, where it would all rot, so we moved outside.

Sitting on the bench Tony pulled out his handkerchief to mop his nose and it came apart in his hands. Everything has been wet for days, a palpable thick dampness that penetrates making everything soggy and waterlogged.

An old man on a bicycle came by us, moving so slowly he had to jerk the front wheel this way and that way in order to stay upright. He watched the wheel carefully as if its movements had nothing to do with him and he was studying them for scientific purposes. I studied him instead. He was bearded and small, hunched over the bike wearing a ridiculous hat, the kind comedians wear to impersonate Europeans, too small with a decorative border on the rim and a tuft of something unrecognizable in the hatband. He had a coat to match again with a band around the edges and his pants were bright blue and tight giving him a spindly look. Then I noticed his shoes, heavy green hiking shoes that were strapped to the peddles of the bike like a bike racer would. He paused the bike a moment and teetered on it, moving the pedals back and forth very slightly to stay upright, and I saw it. His foot—or his leg where a foot should have been—came out of the green shoe. There was no foot at all at the end of his leg. A thin brown sock was pulled over a pointed stump. Then the old man slid the stump back into the shoe and was pedaling again, moving on down the street. I wanted Tony to see it, but it was too late, the scene had passed.

Later, after we had taken the bus and were sitting on a bench near the pencil bridge Tony began to tell me again about the time he visited Montreal and it was sunny and he walked to this antique store near the docks where a kitten was asleep in the sunbeams of the doorway and his brother bent down and took a picture.


IMG_9367Edge of Insanity
By Pat O’Rourke

Right now, you could take him. It’s just you, Mr. Tourist, and nature, the unspeakable witness.

He’s sitting with his back to you, guzzling God’s majestic gifts. His lanky legs dangle over your precipice as he photographs your birds, swooping in and out of your caves, in your little slice of heaven.

He’s wearing sandals and shorts. The back of his pristine white T-shirt is smothered in the fifty stars of the good ‘ol U.S. of A.

A black rucksack is by his side—half opened. A bottle of orange has rolled out onto uneven grass. A pack of sandwiches rests alongside his refreshments. It’s thirsty work this photography business, you mutter.

A cloudless sky reflects onto calm receptive waters that stretch out to infinity. You take another step forward. You glance left, then right, shielding your eyes from the midday sun. You stare across to the mainland that juts out unevenly. White bungalows and tiny cottages are dotted along the periphery of black cliffs leading all the way up to the last portion of headland. Next stop America.

A small fishing boat glides serenely through the bay towards the island—your island, your home, and the sanctuary that is rightfully yours from cradle to grave.

It will be interesting to hear the decibel level when his body meets water. Will it be noisy? Will he cry out as he hurtles towards this dramatic denouement?

Questions swirl about your head. Is he on holiday? Does he have a family? Has he really travelled all this way to your island? Will they miss him? Whoever they may be. Will they eventually find his body—or will it be forever lost in this vast Atlantic nothingness? Could it even end up from whence it came? Hardly.

There’s still time to change your mind. But the devil inside you rises up again. He won’t take no for an answer. He’s dictating your next move—your every move. He has a stranglehold of your senses. He’s refusing to compromise.

Do it now, man. Don’t change your mind. Push. Push. Push. Gentle or hard. Whatever it takes. Don’t turn back. You can’t fail. It will be over in a second, a second that will alter the course of your miserable existence. You don’t even have to look down afterwards. The deed will be a perpetual scar on your soul.

With sweating palms, you lift the cap from your head to wipe your brow. Trickles of sweat find a route to your eyes. Delirium eats away at your core. Primed, you clench your hands. Paradise is whispering your name. The whisper grows louder. And louder. The echo reaches a crescendo.

You’re just six feet away now. Five. Four. Three. Two. He swivels around. His face is twisted in shock. Horror screams from his lips. The juggernaut inside you won’t yield. Heeding the devil’s audacious command, you lunge at him, tip his chest delicately and send him spiraling into blue oblivion. Beauty is restored.


IMG_5278A Family Sunday
By Paul Sherman

I press the doorbell and the chimes beget bedlam inside, activating four children and a dog.

The door inches open. Ten-year-old Rachel stares at me though the gap.

“You’re late.” Her accusing eyes are dire.

“Got held up,” I lied, although if you accept a conversation with a guy in the pub over a couple of pints, it could be true.

Rachel opens the door and I enter the hall. Somewhere in the house, Miles Davis is playing Summertime on the Hi-Fi.

I do not get as far as the dining room when eight-year-old Henry and six-year-old Daniel hold me up with their toy guns. I could never understand how a liberated couple like Dick and Laura could allow their children guns, albeit toys. Nevertheless, I am shot dead where I am standing, and clutching my entrails, I fall to the floor with screams of agony, delighting my juvenile ambush.

Two-year-old Luke, shorts and nappies around his ankles, his face red-stained, appears and studies me philosophically. Topping it all, mad-dog Soppy Moppy sweeps in, all tail, legs and claws, and licks my face.

Dick rescues me.

“Hello, old man. Got you did they? Come and have a beer.” This is massive, florid Dick with the prominent teeth that show when he laughs, which he does frequently. We shake hands and enter the kitchen. Dick and I go back a long way, much further than his wedding to Laura. There is no sign of Laura. Barbecue food lays waiting—steaks, burgers, corn-on-the-cob and sausages.

Dick hands me an ice-cold can and we go into the garden. It is one of those rattling hot days when you can’t believe this weather could ever happen in England. Laura approaches, having just finished some gardening. She is wearing gardening gloves and holding pruning-shears. She could never look as beautiful as she does now. I think for a moment she might go up on her toes and kiss me a welcome, but I am disappointed. Laura wears her dark hair in a bob and has an incredible figure for a mother-of-four. Her eyes are her most significant feature; they say everything Laura ever needs to say. She never gives anything away.

It is an idyllic day. Dick and I set about getting the meat on the barbecue. I can see Laura through the window, making an abundance of salads.

I think she is avoiding my gaze, but it might be my paranoia. I wave at one point, and she tosses her head, smiles generously and waves back. I cherish the moment.

Later, we sit round the picnic table and eat. Dick and I consume considerable quantities of wine and exchange loud humour. The way Laura tends to the children is masterful. She is a wonderful mother. I ponder for the umpteenth time what making love to her would be like and glance at Dick, immediately feeling guilty.

After the meal, Dick snoozes noisily. The children are in the garden somewhere, easily traceable by their riotous assembly.

“So,” I say to Laura, ineffectually, “How’s life?”

Her expression is troubled, but she will never voice any discontent.

“How is it with you?” she counters.

I want to tell her just how it is with me. I long to get my feelings off my chest. I need to say how much I think about her every day and every night. I need to give voice to the terrible ache that is consuming me.

“Boringly familiar,” I say.

For a moment, the garden is quiet, apart from birdsong. Rachel has abandoned the boys and is stretched on her stomach, reading Harry Potter.

Laura reaches for her wine. Her exquisite fingers hold the fine wineglass delicately and she sips. I lean across the table and wait for her to put her glass down so that I can cover her hand with mine. Suddenly there is screaming from the house. Luke is in trouble. Soppy Moppy rushes barking into the garden, as if to confirm the fact.

“Uh-oh!” Dick wakens momentarily, shifts his position, and goes immediately back to sleep. I cannot help but notice the look that Laura gives him.

She and I are both in the house in an instant. Luke has tried to crawl onto a kitchen chair to investigate what is on the table and has pulled the chair over on himself. He is a little grazed, but not seriously hurt.

He comes to me for ministrations rather than Laura. This is merely house-politeness, I think.

“I love the way you get on with the children.” Am I mistaken, or is there a hint of something in her voice?

She kneels down beside me, lovely Laura, her beautiful eyes more than I can bear. But Luke is pulling me into the garden and the moment is lost. I look back at Laura, but she is already elsewhere.

Later, when it is time to go, I formally say goodbye to each of the children in turn. Dick sees me to the door. Some impulse makes me rush back to the kitchen, where Laura is clearing up. She reaches for me and kisses me on the side of the mouth. I can feel her quick breath and her urgent heartbeat.

My hands long to touch her, my fingers to caress her, my mouth longs to explore hers. But I walk away. Out of the house and down the road, past the semi-detached suburban Joneses and Browns and Smiths.

As I depart from this promise of Elysium and turn to wave, I can see Dick and the children, but Laura is noticeably missing from the scene, although the rest of this nuclear family wave until I reach the corner.

It doesn’t matter. The brief contact was enough. It was a heart-stopping moment in paradise. It will sustain me until I next see her. I do not wish to break up this family.

I do wish to take Laura from where she rightfully belongs. Not now.

Not at this particular time.


IMG_5243End of the Road
By Eileen Herbert-Goodall

The old man was ready to go. I could tell ’cause I spied his suitcase leaning against the open door, which was letting a slab of sunshine tumble in across the floorboards. The light snatched at dust particles floating through the morning air. I stepped forward, then looked out across the stairs. It’d been raining, but the weather had cleared and the street twitched with wet light. Up against the curb, the old man’s blue Falcon stood gleaming in the sun. Me and that vehicle shared a whole lot of memories. I’d done my first driving lessons in it, and there were them times when we’d head to the movie drive-in as a family. Best of all, I remembered cruising through town around Christmas. We’d go at night when all them pretty lights were shining, and Maddy and I would lie down in the way back section and stare out the rear window. It was like watching some magical, upside down world pull away from us. I never wanted them nights to end.

Soon the Falcon would be gone, along with the old man.

Stepping onto the porch, I took the stairs two at a time before making my way over to the willow tree where I used to play as a kid—I’d hide under its branches, imagining I was a famous Indian, or maybe a bad-assed outlaw like Jesse James. I couldn’t say when things changed, but at some point I figured I had to get real.

Slipping under the willow’s drooping branches, I lit a cigarette. I wanted to keep an eye on things, while not being obvious about it. I had nothing to say to the old man on account of the fact he had somewhere else to be. Who was I to tie him down?

The street was quiet and birds were singing.

Looking towards the front door, I watched the old man walk from the house, suitcase in hand, his chin tilted upright.

There he was, moving on to better things, and I was fine with that, but I hadn’t counted on seeing my little sister, Maddy, run out after him. She was ten years younger than me, which made me think our parents never planned on having her. Maybe it was the same with me.

She caught up with the old man and tugged at his trousers. The gesture undid my insides in a way I wasn’t expecting.

Taking a drag of my cigarette, I watched as the old man bent down and said something. Maddy looked at him, squinting against the sunlight. She smiled, showing her tiny white teeth, and waved as he headed for the car.

I knew he’d told her a pack of lies. He wasn’t ever coming back. Not for good, anyhow.

Maddy spotted me and came trotting over. ‘Hey, Tyler.’

‘Hey.’

‘What are you doing?’

‘Having a cigarette.’

‘I heard they’re bad for you.’

There was no use arguing, so I kept quiet.

She looked at the cigarette between my fingers, then into my eyes. ‘Daddy has to go away for a while.’

‘Yeah, I know.’

‘He’s got work on, but should be home by the end of the month. That ain’t so long is it, Ty?’

Looking towards the Falcon, I saw the old man rifling through the glove box. ‘Nope,’ I said. ‘He’ll be back in no time.’

‘In no time,’ she repeated.

I must’ve let out a sigh ’cause Maddy touched my arm.

‘It’s okay,’ she said. ‘I’ll help take care of Momma.’

‘I know you will.’

Maddy knelt down and picked a white flower growing in amongst some clover. She stroked the petals, being real gentle. Seeing her act so sweet cut me up and I had to look away.

Momma appeared on the porch wearing her nightgown. As she stared out at the street, I could tell her heart was broke and hoped like hell she wasn’t gonna end up back in the sanatorium where she stayed last summer. I didn’t like the doctors there, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t like me, neither. I don’t think they appreciated the questions I kept asking. They just wanted to make their decisions and that be that.

I heard the old man’s car start and told Maddy to get ready for school. ‘I’ll give you a lift, save you catching the bus.’

‘Okay.’ Maddy ran towards the house, throwing words over her shoulder as she went. ‘You’re gonna be home for tea, right?’

‘Right,’ I answered.

Reaching the porch, Maddy took Momma by the hand and walked her inside.

I turned round in time to see the Falcon swing right at the end of the road. Letting my gaze shift to the willow’s trunk, I stared at its crisscrossed fingers of bark. It made me think of my chest, which felt as if it were being squeezed tight. I swore under my breath. What did I care that the old man had gone?

It was strange what happened next—a common grackle appeared, landing on a branch beside me. I watched as its pretty feathers caught the sunlight. Tilting its head to one side, the bird stared at me. It didn’t seem afraid. When I reached out, the grackle stretched its wings and flew away, disappearing behind the line of houses across the street.

I dropped my cigarette, crushed it beneath my boot, and walked towards the house. I went through the front door then closed it behind me. The place was quiet. For some reason my breath came out in a rush and I had to shut my eyes for a few seconds. When I opened them, I looked at my watch and saw it was time to take Maddy to school. From there, I’d head to work at the garage, where I knew I’d pretend not to notice the sadness that was already burrowing its way deep inside my chest.


Saint Piran’s Well
By Barbara Lorna Hudson

The audience is down to five. It was fifty at the start of the university year.

Dr. Martha Brown is punctual for her lecture, as she always is. And suitably dressed: navy skirt, plain white blouse and a string of pearls inherited from her mother. She doesn’t get going till ten past twelve, hoping there’ll be some latecomers; but there never are.

Try as she might—detailed handouts, apt illustrations, even a judicious sprinkling of jokes—she has failed to keep them interested. Their feedback forms tell a cruel story—it seems she lacks the certain something that her charismatic colleagues possess in spades. She fears there will have to be another little chat with her Head of Department—he’ll insist she sign up for so-called teaching development seminars, or—worse—that he will attend her lectures himself and mentor her.

The room is musty and small—out of kindness they have moved her from the big hall she was allocated in the first term. She looks despairingly at her audience. One of them has got the crossword out in readiness. She’s aware they are only here out of sympathy. She wishes she knew how to reward and thank them for that.

She stumbles through the lecture. Here and there she stammers. Sometimes she loses her place in the notes and finds she’s repeating herself. Not that anyone notices. Martha’s faint voice grows fainter as the hour crawls by. When it’s over—indeed, while she’s still summing up—the young people begin stuffing their notebooks and tablets into their backpacks. ‘Have a good summer!’ she says, and two of them reply, ‘And you!’

At last she makes her way out, eyes down, hoping she won’t meet anyone she knows. She feels relieved—no more lectures till October. If only she could afford to resign this miserable job and quit this hateful city. She’d become an ‘independent scholar’ and write her book on the mediaeval sacred wells of Cornwall. She’d buy a smallholding and keep hens and goats, and become self-sufficient. Maybe she’d meet a kindred spirit to share her life …

She gets into the Micra. Drives out and round the Ring Road and onto the motorway. At the first service station, she pulls into the car park and opens the boot and hauls out a large battered suitcase. She carries it to the Ladies’, feeling guilty—but surely this isn’t illegal? She takes possession of the Disabled cubicle, feeling guilty again; hopes she won’t make some unfortunate woman wait outside, desperate for a pee.

She takes out the dress. Cream silk, calf-length, floaty. And the transparent tights. And the cream shoes—almost too high to walk in. Then she changes. She packs away the skirt and blouse and the flatties.

Outside, she garners some stares, but she forces herself not to mind and goes to the mirrors. Slowly, hands a little trembly, she applies makeup. Not something she’s used to—she only does this once a year—but she’s had a practice run, and a professional lesson in Boots. ‘Less is more’—she repeats the beautician’s advice as she smoothes on thin layers of lotions and lipstick and eye shadow.

Then it’s back to the car and a steady drive to her destination. She makes one last stop close to the entrance and lifts the hat gently from the round pink box on the passenger seat. It’s a wide-brimmed, pink and cream creation, adorned with silk roses and long pale feathers. She puts it on and looks in the car mirror. Her bright red lips twitch with pleasure.

She drives smartly through the open gates. Unchallenged—the two officials don’t notice that there’s no car park badge on her windscreen. Then into Car Park No. 1. She squeezes the little grey Micra between a maroon Rolls Royce and a silver Merc. Fortunately there‘s a crowd just going in, chattering and laughing. The women are no more elegant than she is. She tags along as they approach the turnstiles. No one stops her. No one asks to see a ticket.

Martha enters the Royal Enclosure. Once inside, she keeps moving around—standing on the fringe of one group, then another, not wanting to look conspicuous. She clutches her designer handbag tightly. Inside is the folded betting slip.

The race begins.

‘Come on Saint Piran’s Well!’ she shouts, so loudly that her posh neighbours stare in disapproval.


IMG_1130The List
By Alan Morris

The clock alarm reads 6:57.

At 7:03 precisely the alarm will sound and propel Albert Balchin (no ‘E’) to his life as a minor tax official.

He is rudely snatched from the warm embrace of his duvet and awakes from whatever dreams tax inspectors have. His duvet dissolves, the ceiling parts, and Albert—Bertie to his few friends—is travelling, rocketing skywards. All around him, other souls are doing likewise.

He stops at the back of a long queue. He is wearing a white nightgown, his usual night attire, but so is everyone else—no onesies or pyjamas in this queue. He shuffles forward politely because he is English.

At the front of the queue, a kindly looking old gent with a flowing beard, twinkling eyes and clipboard looks him up and down.

“Why am I shivering in my nightgown?” asks Bertie. “I was looking forward to my egg and soldiers.”

“You’re here because you are on the list,” intones the old gent, “and you’re shivering because a little trepidation and awe are normal when you’re about to meet the Almighty.”

“I’m just cold,” moans Bert.

“We can arrange a warmer location, if you prefer.”

“No, no. But why me? I file my tax returns promptly and always tick the charity box, but—”

“Even tax gatherers are welcome here.”

“Where’s my wife?”

“Well … there was that indiscretion on February 16th.”

“Indiscretion? What are you talking about?”

“Can’t say. Confidentiality agreement … but you are on the list. Albert Balchine with an ‘E’, welcome to Heaven.”

“I haven’t got an ‘E’, never did have.”

“Oh, so sorry; administrative error.”

Quick as a flash, Bertie plummets back to Mrs. Balchin (no ‘E’) to meet the Apocalypse by her side.


IMG_5263The Sixth Floor
By Adam Kluger

“Welcome to your new home down on the sixth floor, Mr. Smith … it may just look like a cubicle farm—but it’s really so much more … just kidding.”

“Call me Ted, please … otherwise you’ll make me feel older than I already am.”

“You got it Mr. Smith … I mean Ted … any questions?”

“I’m sure I’ll think of a million … but none right now, thanks.”

“Isn’t that always the case.”

“Okay—here’s one question … where’s everybody else? It’s already five past nine. I hope I’m not working with a bunch of young slackers who think the world starts and ends on Facebook.”

“Actually, Mr. Smith—I mean Ted—everybody’s on a corporate retreat with Mr. B—he likes to take the entire crew somewhere warm during Winter … and actually, I think it’s Twitter, Instagram, texting and face-timing that are what’s in current vogue.”

“Whatever, kid … I’m old school—I believe in talking to people face to face … so why aren’t you with everybody else?”

“Just lucky I guess.”

“So what should I be doing then?”

“Oh, just settle in … get uncomfortable—ha-ha.”

“Yeah, it is pretty hot in here. Is the A/C on the fritz? Also, I don’t see any water coolers—where am I going to waste time and catch up on the office gossip?”

“Yeah, about that—actually, Mr. B prefers the office at a high temperature—he says he likes to see all his employees sweating—that it’s good for the soul or something like that—he’s a motivational genius … he’s got a million sayings like that.”

“Yeah, Looking forward to speaking with this Mr. B—I’ve got a lot of ideas on how he could improve things in this office—like maybe even add a window somewhere and some air freshener.”

“Ha, Mr. Smith—I’d love to be a fly on the wall for that conversation, trust me.”

“It’s Ted … Call me Ted.

“Yeah right, well I’ve got to go now Ted—but I can just tell you are going to be a lot of fun here at the Sixth Ring Corporation … says on your resume you used to have your own small law practice. That’s awesome.”

“Yeah? Why’s that?”

“Mr. B gets a real hard-on for ex-lawyers.”

“Lucky me.”

“You said it, Ted.”


IMG_8820Mexican-American Word Salad
By Alex Galvez

Ingredients:
* A whole ton of Spanish
* A whole ton of English
* Wash, chop and mix

The first two ingredients start off whole, pure, organic and untouched. Spanish is harvested first. Both ingredients are force-fed to a child by the name of Aldo, and both ingredients are in harmony.

Until he starts school.

“What are you drawing Aldo?” the teacher asks, hovering over the child.

“He is mi perro Bolio, um … he vive conmigo,” Aldo replies, showing his drawing to the teacher with pride.

“Why do you talk weird? Are you even human?” a classmate scoffs.

His teacher sighs—looking very concerned—and goes to the phone. “Yes, I want to refer one of my students to the speech pathologist. It looks like he is confusing his Spanish with his English. Aha. Yes. No problem. I’ll send him right away,” Aldo hears his teacher say over the phone. The teacher gives him a hall pass, sending him to a small office with a professional who will fix his problem.

A woman sits on the other side of a desk with a fake-looking smile, making Aldo nervous. Tests are based on conversations they have while playing boring games. The conversations and boring games continue for a few years until English gets better-tasting.

After a while, Spanish starts to rot—making his parents at home frustrated.

“Voy hacer mi homework,” Aldo says one day coming home from school.

“Que dijiste?” Aldo’s father reprimands Aldo in a stern voice.

“Voy hacer mi homework,” Aldo says, repeating himself.

“Eres Mexicano y los Mexicanos hablan español,” Aldo’s father says in a tone of anger.

This leaves Aldo frustrated because even if he tries, only a few ounces of Spanish come out. The parts that English have not contaminated.

When childhood turns to adolescence, Aldo must revive the rotten fruit of Spanish. His parents force him to take an advanced Spanish course in high school because they believe he knows how to speak Spanish but is acting dumb.

“Bienvenidos a Español Avanzado, vamos hacer introducciones primero. Empezamos con Aldo,” the Spanish teacher announces.

“Hi, I am Aldo. I live in Los Angeles,” Aldo says.

“Estas en la clase de español señor Aldo. Necitas que hablar español,” the teacher scolds Aldo.

“What’s the point? Being bilingual is dead anyways,” a classmate mutters.

The teacher stands quietly, slowly devouring the comment and doesn’t say anything for the rest of the class. Aldo knows from that moment that he wants to get rid of the class.

He rushes home to speak with his parents. “I want to drop my Spanish class,” Aldo says, looking down at the floor.

“No, porque vamos a deshacer de tus costumbres Americanas. Eres Mexicano,” his mother says in a bitter tone.

Aldo stands up and leaves, frustrated and not knowing what to do but accept that the fruit of Spanish is fully covered in white mold.

As he leaves he hears his father say, “Él es ahora uno de ellos.”


Old Crow
By Ty Spencer Vossler

Saturday:
Tulare’s a Y town. Blacks and Latins live in the ears and white folks live in the tongue. The Mexican place I eat at is on an ear street. Poor ol’ Maria—husband got his name on the sign outside, but she do most’a the work. I seen ’im all the time flirtin’ with Gloria, the cashier. I like sittin’ where I can see Maria cookin’.

Reckon she’s mid-forties—tiny woman, long black salt’n’pepper hair. Someday she’s gonna smile—sun’ll come out, dry up all that rain she got inside. That’s what I think anyway. Raul don’t pay her no mind ‘less he need somethin’ or somethin’ ain’t right—then he rattles that saber tongue like a goddamn Mexican general.

My name’s Hank—just this side’a seventy—come into Maria’s openin’ day two years back—same day Nettie kicked my black ass out for good. Never got no divorce. Drinkin’s what done it, but I’m finished with all that foolishness.

Two daughters made me a granddad when they was still kids themselves—my boy runs a body shop in town—all ’em separated or divorced. Must’a learned’a thing’re two from the ol’ man. Sometimes I gets lonely, but I got no energy to go chasin’ no more.

Sunday:
Sundays, folks head to church. I ain’t take stock in no religion. Sins don’t need no Band-Aid—better to let’em scab over, form scars to remind what you done.

Sunday is for walkin’—quiet mornin’ sun clawin’ into the sky. Don’t nobody know how many sunrises we got, so I’m out ever cold mornin’ wrapped up like a burrito.

Lots’a crows in the early mornin’. If they’s an afterlife, I hope I come back a crow. They’s black, nobody mess’s with’em and they haw-haw-haw their whole life through.

Raul’s Fine Mexican Food is closed Sundays. Passin’ by I seen Maria by herself, clutchin’ a mug of coffee in both hands. I tapped on the glass, she smiled sadly and curled up a finger for me to come in. I sat across from her.

Her eyes had black smudges and her mouth curved down, like a rainbow without no color.

“You all right?” I asked.

Sunday’s for coffee—strong black coffee. She poured me a mug.

“Raul ran off with Gloria.” Her lips trembled and she had a napkin squeezed tight in her fist. “He took all our savings.”

“Don’t you fret,” I reached for her hand, “you better off.”

Sundays’re for confession. Maria gazed out the window. Everything looked dusty and lifeless. Can’t explain it, but seein’ all that emptiness out there was a frightenin’ thing. They was a crow sittin’ on the sign outside, laughin’ to beat the band. Maria was tryin’ to keep them storm clouds from bustin’ wide open.

“I’m real sorry,” I squeezed her fingers.

She shrugged her shoulders.

“Don’t you fret none,” I said again. They was nothin’ else I could think of to say.

She nodded and tried to smile, “Drink your coffee before it gets cold.”

Sunday’s supposed to be the day’a rest, but had me an idea. After a few hours’ work in my garage, I drove to Raul’s.

Wasn’t no big deal. Maria showed up as I finished—had ‘er hands on ‘er hips and a real smile on her face. New sign read:

Maria’s Diner
Fine Mexican Food

We’s open for business. I wait tables, greet customers, work the till a bit. My Spanish’s a might better now. Sundays we’s closed. Yep, Sundays’re for spreadin’ the gospel—amen and hallelujah.


IMG_4182Time and Associated Fines
By Pavelle Wesser

Cindy stared at the gunmetal gray morning as a premonition of her own mortality dawned, followed by the realization: My alarm never went off! Jumping out of bed, she noticed her bedside clock displaying a series of red, blinking zeroes.

“Have I entered an alternate reality?” She wondered, as the clock emitted a strange pulsing sound.

Cindy wrestled with her too-tight clothes, courtesy of recent weight gain that she was in denial about. And denial, as a co-worker had quite rudely pointed out, was not a river in Egypt. Preoccupied, Cindy failed to notice a bed sheet slithering free and wrapping itself around her calf until it sliced her flesh.

“Owwwww,” she screamed, aghast that the softness of cotton could cruelly cut. With blood loss and fear causing vertigo, she supported herself against the wall, heart pounding in sync with the clock’s senseless spinning.

Feeling slightly better, she conducted a search for her missing shoe, locating instead a hammer she’d used for an interior decorating endeavor and which she now employed to shatter her bedside clock.

“So there!” She stared at its smashed remnants, temples throbbing and shadowed, sunken eyes betraying a latent depressive episode she also happened to be in denial about (that river was getting deeper). And yet, she was just turning the corner toward the slightest edge of better when a siren-like wail rose.

Cindy stood very still, her unbrushed hair forming a halo around her head as a police officerish-looking dude rose genie-like from the floor. Bluish-red police-cruiser-like lights bathed his beefy features, and the whole effect seemed so cheap movie-ish, yet she remained transfixed, her gaze one of semi-horrified fascination.

“What’s going on?”

“Assault and battery,” the dude slapped a ticket into her palm.

“Excuse me?!”

“What you’ve done to this here clock,” he indicated the debris.

“You invade the sanctity of my home on the pretext of a malfunctioning clock? Aren’t you a genie come to grant me a wish?”

“Magical thinking, Baby Cakes. A genie? Did I emerge from some bottle?” He shook his head, replete with buzz cut, “I issue fines; I’m an officer of universal law.”

“I’ve never heard of an officer of … what do you do … ?”

“Sometimes,” he tapped his holster, “I uphold universal law with this here firearm. And when I shoot, I aim to kill.”

Cindy swayed, swirling lights intensifying her vertigo.

“I suppose that shooting to maim causes more harm than killing. Go ahead and release me from my misery. As it is, I’m horrifically late for work.”

“Sorry, Baby Cakes,” he took a few arrogant, self-indulgent steps toward her, “but shooting you was never my intent. My aim (no pun intended) was only to fine you.”

“Oh,” Cindy sighed, “I suffered this strange sense of mortality earlier … ”

“That would be your own drama to uphold, Cindy.”

“Don’t patronize; my ex did that, which explains his status.”

“In the cosmic scheme, I’m nobody’s anything. Those who issue fines have few friends.”

“Right.”

“On that note, so long. Don’t forget to pay.” He swirled, disappearing into a wave of glittering dust.

Cindy remained once again oblivious to the bed sheets slithering snake-like across the room until they encircled her legs.

“Hey, get off,” she writhed as they cut her flesh. “Egyptian cotton, my ass!”

Denial is not a river in Egypt.

Make sure you pay that fine.

She wondered, at that moment, a) whether she’d gone insane, b) if the sheets would ever release her, c) how she could reasonably pay a fine when she didn’t know to whom it was payable.

The steady ticking of a clock (somewhere?) reminded her of precious time. The bed sheets had her ensnared and her white-knuckled hand gripped the ticket she had no idea how to pay. Just then, the room split into a vast number of portals leading to alternate realities, and she understood that the ticket had all along been an escape, and that the officer had in fact been a genie in disguise (which he’d denied but she’d intuited). And now, how could she recognize the ‘right’ portal (or the ‘wrong’ one—not to mention the entire spectrum ranging from marginally good to catastrophically awful) and with all the pressure, she felt like, Cindy, just pick a portal, any portal. In the end, all reality converges at one point.

And then the officer appeared in a glittering cloud of space dust amidst a mild atmospheric chill, and the Egyptian cotton sheets fell from her lacerated legs. She sighed in relief and ran her free hand through her disheveled halo of hair.

“I didn’t get your name,” she smiled shyly.

“I don’t recall,” he shrugged.

“I have no friends, either,” she ducked her head, “and I don’t even issue fines.”

“Time to leave,” he indicated the swirling lights of his spaceship outside. She followed him in and saw spinning zeros on the display.

“Where are we going?” She asked.

“Just enjoy the ride, Sugar Pops.”

“It’s Sugar Pops now,” Cindy balked.

“I don’t assign labels, Tootsie,” he shrugged, “your world does, though it’s not a universal norm.”

“So how are universal laws determined?”

“By what’s off limits: violence, property damage, abuse … like that.”

“What universal maxim dictated that you pay a call on my broken clock?”

“Not mine to question.” Another shrug.

Cindy stared pensively to the stars. “Can you turn the music up?” she asked.

“There is none,” he replied, and so there wasn’t, she realized, contenting herself with the steady ticking of the universal clock, eternal time-keeper, moral compass and guider of the mothership that transported her ever further from a psychic wasteland she’d once called home. And there in the inky darkness of deep outer space, as her former life dissipated, calmness enveloped her. Blessedly, time transformed into something other than the frenzied pace of a world where she’d seen fit to smash her clock, never imagining that through such a singular act, she might actually fine her way to freedom.

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