BRILLIANT flash fiction

Issue 11: September 2016

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Ernesto
By Melissa Hunter Gurney

Ernesto left his wife and she forgot what flowers looked like. He used to buy her flowers on Sundays and she became so used to them she hardly saw them anymore. That’s why he left—she didn’t see him. She saw the workings of their life together. The way he woke up before her and the coffee was already made—a cup placed on the space between burners. Now, there was no cup, no coffee, no freedom from rolling over into the middle of the bed. The middle wasn’t a luxury anymore, a place to spread out. Now the middle was merely empty and she stayed on her side unless she was having one of those crying fits where she throttled herself onto what used to be his side hoping to catch his scent engraved in the fibers. When he left she didn’t change the sheets for 2 months. They were white and her body stained one whole side beige—his side was crisp and un-festered. 

She didn’t realize how little Ernesto spoke anymore. Because when he did speak she was usually in the midst of something—cleaning the kitchen, dusting, watering the plants, folding the clothes he left on the chair that morning. She used to follow her mother around the house when she was young—her mother was a tinkerer who spent her time fixing and admiring her fixings. She moved decorative pillows and throws from couch to chair while her father stacked wood and mowed the lawn. No one really listened to her, they just let her follow them hoping she would pick up some of their intricacies—the pride that came with the look of things. Her mother spoke about her son with disappointment, “He didn’t learn anything we taught him about keeping a place nice. He lives in a room with a bed and a cat tree. How could he expect I’d want to stay there—the mattress literally sat on the floor.” Her family communicated by fixing things, building things and putting things together beautifully. That’s how they showed love. At night they’d sit around the dinner table and admire their work. She wanted Ernesto to be proud of what they had created too, to fix things, mow things, create nooks that came together like magazine pictures. Ernesto grew up in a house where clutter was the aesthetic—the droppings of a life showed beauty. He liked a simple, cluttered home with signs of human movement. A half-smoked pipe next to a bag of tobacco. Wilted flowers hovering over what used to be a glass of orange juice. The smell of arepitas and carne asada left over from the night before. Atahualpa to bring it all together and nights of dancing tango in the living room looking at each other instead of the clutter. He disliked white sheets and white walls. He wanted every room to be a different color, “Baby, colors inspire emotion—white is colorless, emotionless—it kills smiles,” he said, as he hugged her and squeezed her ass to get a laugh. Even though they were together for over 10 years every time he squeezed her she got that nervous smile—he loved it—it might have been his favorite part of her.

Ernesto liked making breakfast. He would lightly fry the edges of cured ham, waft his hand over the toaster to smell the bread as it burned and pop it out so that it flung above the toaster onto the plate looking up for accolades each time. He danced salsa in the kitchen and his good mood in the morning annoyed her. She read the New Yorker, blew her nose into the crumpled up tissue she kept by her bed at night like her mother did and held her coffee close to her mouth blowing on it as she sipped. She wore glasses in the morning, a T-shirt and underwear. She never wore pants around the house when she didn’t have to. Ernesto liked this about her. When they first moved in together he would come up behind her as she poured her coffee, pull her underwear down as she laughed nervously and stick his hand between her legs before entering her right there in the kitchen—her hands against the stove. Ernesto loved having sex in the morning and after he came he would hold her from behind and move his hips slowly to the music singing in her ear. Eventually her coffee spilled from the stove onto her leg and burned her. She screeched and pulled away from him—he got a damp, cold cloth and cleaned her up—kissed her legs and apologized. After that they didn’t have sex in the kitchen anymore. He tried once but she denied him and that’s all it took for him. He wasn’t the kind of man who begged. He did lovely things until you told him not to and then he would never do that particular thing again. Even if you asked. At the end of their relationship she tried to have sex with him in the kitchen again but he denied her this time and she felt what he must have felt every time she denied him—sadness, loss, disappointment, betrayal. When he left he was already gone. The man who loved her and danced in the kitchen moved on years ago and she hadn’t even noticed. Now she was alone and she noticed everything.


I’m the Entrepreneur in a Bad Neighborhood
By Daniel Aristi

Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, 2007

I was thirteen both only and already, too, because, like the tropics, a tough borough does hasten growth. A childman, thus—un niñombre—and my role was clear enough: I was the tinkerer, the fire-maker, the one carving totems out of lampposts.

It was early summer and I imagined these hi-fi skulls where the eye sockets were two black-welled loudspeakers; the dial ran across the teeth and the iPod you just slotted in the back, like an execution—

Música & Muerte in equal measure … our barrio lives forever on these two inexhaustible tits.

I showed my sketches to the compadres foraging for crack. They said ándale and puto and ay, carajo and chingada. Then they decided to finance my prototype with 200 bucks:

– Half meth, half coke, all Reserva Federal!

I told Chato that with my invention he’d be able to listen to corridos looking just like Hamlet. Looking just like your mother, ése, he laughs shaking wildly, him, a squall of tattoos.

I finished my musical skull with papier-mâché at Don Tito’s piñata shop. The very first test—22 July it was—and a slap of reggaetón suddenly burst out. IT’S ALIVE! Don Tito said. Don Tito once got a bullet straight into his pacemaker. For years he wondered whether God intended to kill him and missed, or if He had saved his life instead.

We attached the skull to the hood of Chato’s Opel and drove it straight like a hard-on.

We cruised—oh, we cruised—until the battery died off, and just then someone else also died some blocks away. We heard The Three Gunshots:

Uno al busto,
Dos por si aca, y
Tres por gusto*

Música & Muerte, in equal measure.

* “One to the bust, Two just in case, and Three for fun.”


The Watchband
By Richard Krause

She lost interest in me soon after I bought an alligator watchband. She said it was not me. That there had been nothing about it that even remotely suggested that I should have that strip of leather on my arm, even to tell time.

She knew I didn’t even like Florida, the clammy warmth of its climate, the almost year-round humidity, the heat and swampiness. She said she knew I wasn’t made for everglades, that there was something deciduous in my personality, that the air I needed was brisk, bracing, and seasonal, that a part of me had to be shed periodically, not cut from in strips, torn away for profit. And too she knew that there wasn’t anything stubbornly hidebound about me, that nothing in me could be flayed and dried in the sun and stitched together into a handbag, shoes, much less a simple watchband.

Yes, she did admit that I had rather large bumps on my head, that my cranium had certain prominent orbits that heightened the roundness and protuberance of my eyes. And, yes, too there was a certain underbite, a certain prognathous jutting of the jaw that until I had the watchband on she had never noticed before. And my arms, they had never seemed so short, and the froglike fingers now that she noticed them were webby, and stumpy, that’s what she said, and when I smiled at her she seemed to notice my teeth for the first time, the incisors elongated into a silly grin that nothing could wipe off.

But it wasn’t until I suggested that we go for a swim, even though it was at a lake and admittedly a temperate climate up in New England, that she hesitated and for the first time I read fear on her face.

Never before had I seen such an emotion on a woman. My awkwardness on land had always been a joke between us. She always took it as a kind of embellishment to her own grace. And though she knew I was a good swimmer—at least I told her I had represented my high school on the swimming team—she never put the two together, my talent in the water and my awkwardness on land with the alligator band I was now wearing. But she only repeated, “It’s not you,” as if to assure herself.

She looked at me as I grinned at her and I could sense how she lengthened further my already large nose into a snout, how the nares floated up in her mind long before we were to enter the water and already became large breathing vents that alone were enough to give also the impression that my eyes were lidlessly drifting up the side of my head depriving me of bifocal vision. And not even I could see how she then imagined a thick tail, and the convulsion of disgust that rippled through her body as my skin grew more reticulated, swelling my midriff so that someone could ride me in the water, and tame me, that too she turned away from, as from my white underbelly.

She wanted power in a man, but not the kind that would at one swift and unexpected stroke snap its head with the strength of ten men and dismember the person on top—even if it were someone holding onto my neck for a joke. She turned away from that as if wreathes of blood were already garlanding a lost limb in the water that was hanging onto the body only by the whitest pretext of a solitary tendon.

She sat there on the beach, me with my robe still on, and smiled at my two legs deceptively exiting from the hem and said, “Don’t you think you’d better take your watch off—looking at the alligator band—before you go in the water?”

“Oh,” I said looking at her with a train of thought as long as the body the rest of the band had been cut from. “No, it’s waterproof.”


A Penguin’s Predicament
By Fiona McPhillips

It was Bulger, the singing salesman, that gave it wings, so to speak. Bulger, with his cocked hat and loosened tie and his leather briefcase, strutting past the presses on the factory floor, warbling the top of the pops over the clatter of the machines. He’d been up above in the office with the young ones, the three of them pressed against the glass, laughing, as I’d staggered back from the toilet. Christie, the one with the shaggy dog hair in her eyes, waved to me and the other one with the necktie put her hands to her face as Bulger opened his arms and his mouth as if performing an aria for the plebs below. As he passed my press on the way out, he sang “Goodnight Mr Penguin” to the tune of “Goodnight Sweetheart”. It was only when he tipped his hat to the girls upstairs and the knowing smiles against the window that I got the joke.

I’d just returned to work after the operation that had stuck my pelvis back together. I’d have stayed home longer only I was getting under your feet and you still needed space to get over the baby. At least the car crash had spared you any physical pain so you could wash and clean and clear away the remnants of it all. So while you were busy being tough enough for the two of us, I waddled back into the factory and became Mr Penguin.

I’ll be honest, at first I couldn’t take to it at all. I was nothing but a cripple with a nickname, a fish out of water, a rebel without a cause. It was all I could do to stay on my feet and keep the presses rolling. I’d try to bat the words off with a laugh and a joke but they kept coming, hitting me in the gut until I just let them. In the end, it was your idea. You swear blind you’d never have suggested such a thing but I remember.

“If they keep calling you Mr Penguin then why don’t you act like a fucking penguin, see how they like that?” Maybe not your exact words but you always did get excited when you were making a point.

The cup came first, a dumpy wee creature with startled eyes and an orange beak. There’s a great solace in the right cup of tea and that little fella refilled my spirits every day. Then there were the everyday Christmas jumpers, bold and bright, loud and proud, just in case there was any doubt. You rolled your eyes at the cuddly toys and the pictures but you always made good use of the corkscrew.

Long after Bulger had moved on from printing to cars, his famous penguin songs were sung in my honour. I wish you’d spent an evening there, machines dormant, voices and beer in full flow. Maybe you’d have understood the jubilation, the acceptance if you’d seen me with my flock. Penguins are social birds, they need camaraderie and friendship to survive. There was little of that at home, just the silent stares of the birds and the bottle.

As we struggled to know what to do with each other, Mr Penguin became known at the grocers, the butchers, down the market. The postman delivered letters addressed to him, callers on the phone asked you if they could speak to him. An official name change was then surely no more than an administrative formality. You wouldn’t have ceased to be my wife, my home was always your home, nothing would have to change. But it turned out that change was what you wanted or maybe it was what had been happening to you right under my nose.

I thought you’d take it all with you, the memories, the loss that you bore for both of us. But you left it behind, hidden amongst the cuddly cushions, the egg cups and the tea pots. It was the elephant dressed as a penguin, the same one that had sat between us for almost twenty years.

I want to let you know that the penguins are going. Some to the museum, others to the children’s hospital and the charity shop. I want to make room in the house for other things, new things. For you, if you want it. But Mr Penguin, I can’t let him go. I can only be what I am. And that is either a shrunken, broken man, a joke soon forgotten or someone simply fulfilling his destiny and making a name for himself by adapting to adversity.


Linda Love Less
By Shawne E. Steiger

I have always pitied Linda Loveless. How could she help but live up to her name? In elementary school, the kids called her Love Less instead of Linda and she always played alone at recess.

*

When I first saw the name Linda Lovelace on my boyfriend’s father’s porn DVD, I thought it was the same girl I knew. I thought, wow, Linda Loveless got famous. Maybe, now that she’s famous, she’s finally loved. But the girl I knew wasn’t a porn star. And my Linda Loveless was only in high school in the nineteen seventies. Linda Lovelace made Deep Throat in nineteen seventy-two. Of course, even if Linda Loveless had made a porn film, that isn’t the kind of thing that gets you loved. You don’t go putting it on Facebook so all your friends can “like” you.

*

At lunch in high school, Linda Loveless sat on the grass hill outside the cafeteria with her cello and her books and watched us play Go Fish and Bullshit. We laughed a little harder, aware we were performing for Linda Loveless. We hugged each other more and made sure to watch Linda Loveless watching us get hugged.

*

At the senior prom, I was busy dancing and showing off my prom queen crown. I was busy laughing with my friends. I was busy making sure everyone knew how popular I was, kissing the prom king and making out in his car. I think Linda Loveless was there, huddled in a corner watching everyone have a good time. I’m certain we all imagined she was. Poor Linda Loveless invisible in a corner and there we were, surrounded by friends. It made the prom more special—the idea of her there watching us and being unhappy while we had a good time.

*

The last time I saw Linda Loveless was in The Gap at the mall eight months after high school graduation. She came in to browse the blue jeans and at first I didn’t recognize her. She’d gotten a haircut and was wearing makeup. My Linda Loveless never wore makeup, but this one, this post high school Linda Loveless did and she looked pretty, but she was still completely alone.

*

“Linda,” I practically yelled. I gave her a big hug and she sort of hugged me back, but not the way my friends used to hug. She pulled her hip away so we wouldn’t touch and gave little taps on my back. I guess Linda Loveless didn’t learn how to hug properly in high school despite all that watching she did.

“You look great,” I said.

“I’m okay,” she replied and I tried to think if her voice had always been that husky and, well, sexy. “I’m going to community college now, majoring in music,” she said.

I told her about my baby and my husband the prom king and how he was working at my father’s bar. I told her about my Gap friends and high school friends I still saw. Linda smiled and nodded and it felt so right to have her there as my audience. This Linda Loveless watching me be happy while she stood on the sidelines, alone.

It was the first time since I got pregnant and my dad gave me a black eye and made us marry and my prom king started drinking that I truly, truly felt happy. I couldn’t believe how happy seeing Linda Loveless made me.

“Hey, if you ever need a place to stay, we have an extra room,” I told her. “You could rent from us.”

I gave her my number. It would be so great, having Linda Loveless alone at the end of the table while I feed my baby and kiss my prom king husband and get ready for my job at The Gap.

I hope she calls.


Rehab
By KJ Hannah Greenberg

Frank, Elisa’s soldier son, recently returned from Kordestan, yelled from the tent that he had “secured” the cookies. Elisa sighed. Perhaps bringing him to Burning Man was not the best reintroduction to civilian life.

In balance, the playa was located in a familiar milieu, a desert, attendees willingly shared food, booze, and intimacy, and, scheduled activities notwithstanding, the “city” was both dynamic and protected from corporate hostilities via its adherence to decommodification. Frank ought to feel both comfortable and liberated.

Elisa shook her head at her boy, who had emerged into the sunshine wearing a feathered skirt, a white T-shirt, and his dog tags. Two of his subordinates had been killed in the Iran-PJAK conflict. The USA was not supposed to have participated in the Baneh clash. Black Rock City’s ARTery wasn’t supposed to feature desiccated cows.

A girl a few years older than her boy also emerged. She, too, wore feathers and a T-shirt. Some sort of crystals glistened in her updo. “Mom,” she beckoned, extending her hand toward Elisa.

“I read The Jackrabbit Speaks. I don’t have to,” responded Elisa. “My ‘radical self-expression’ involves sitting here until my sunscreen needs to be reapplied. It’s restorative to do nothing.”

Frank shrugged. The girl shrugged. He put his arm around her shoulder. She put her arm around his waist.

“Think of it as an alternative sort of prom,” Elisa self-counseled. “After all, they’re heading toward a concert hosted by Esteban and the Clowns.


WE HAVE TO TALK
By Emil Draitser

“We—have—to—talk,” she states, stretching out her speech.

Oh—oh. I hear these words, coming from her, and I have a bad premonition.

“What about?”

“You’re a writer. Written many stories. Why not even one single story about me?”

I laugh.

“What’s so funny? I’m totally serious. You write about God knows what women in your life, but not me? We’re an item for over ten years now, yet not a line about me. Why?”

I laugh again. But she’s dead serious.

“Well, you see,” I say, “writers write about their beloved in remorse. Usually about lost love. Or unattained. Look at Petrarch. If his Laura would have reciprocated his feelings, there would have been none of his beautiful love sonnets.”

“So, what of it? You’re not in Petrarch’s predicament. You’re a lucky man. Your feelings are reciprocated, aren’t they? Your excuse sounds lame to me.”

I laugh a bit less enthusiastically.

“Well,” I say. “You know, writing is mostly a subconscious process. The need to write about some stuff gets into your system without much effort on your part.”

“So, what you’re trying to say is that, despite ten years of happiness, I failed to enter your subconscious?”

The tone of her voice does not sound too jolly. I try to backpedal as fast as I can, as if I am in a rowboat heading for a waterfall, suddenly looming in front of me.

“All right,” I say. “Give me some kernel of an idea. What’s my story about you supposed to be about?”

“About how much you love me.”

I snicker. But she does not seem any bit amused. I make an effort to keep a straight face.

“Well, there’s no story here,” I say. “Typically, in a story, there should be some conflict, some problem that the protagonist must overcome.”

“Since both of us should be in the story, who has to have a problem? You or me?”

“Whoever.”

“That’s easy. All right, tell me how much you love me. On a scale of one to ten.”

I try to stay on a safe side and say ten.

“No good,” she says. “Give yourself something like eight and a half.”

“Why not ten?”

“Because,” she nods confidently, ”you have to have room for improvement. For growth. Here you have it. Plenty of a problem to overcome. No more excuses.”

I’m cornered. It looks like I no longer have a good excuse.

“Wait a minute,” it suddenly dawns on me. “If I write down this conversation, it’ll make quite a good story about you. You can’t deny that!”

She mulls it over. Says after a short pause:

“Why is it so short?”


An Occurrence at Osceola Avenue
(A Contemporary Retelling of Ambrose Bierce’s An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge)
By Ran Walker

“I can’t breathe,” Jarius Jackson said, as he struggled to rotate his thick 6’3” body away from the bear-strength arms of the police officer behind him. “I need my inhaler!”

The officer jammed a knee into the back of Jarius’ leg, causing Jarius to fall into a kneeling position. The sidewalk screamed at his kneecaps, which only intensified the burning in his lungs.

“Don’t move!” the officer behind him shouted, and out the corners of his eyes, Jarius could see at least two other officers approaching him on either side, guns drawn. “I’m warning you, big guy. Stay down!”

Jarius wheezed hard, trying to take in as much air as he could. “Can’t breathe!”

“He ain’t even do nothin’!” a woman yelled from beyond the officers. “Y’all just want to mess with him ’cause he big and black. Shame on y’all!”

Jarius tried to lift his head to see the growing throng of people forming a semicircle around the police officers, but the burning in his chest was starting to draw his body into a ball.

“Everybody stand back!” one officer yelled.

“He already told y’all he can’t breathe! Y’all gon’ let that man die out here?” a guy in the crowd said.

Darius felt the panic set in. He had only been without his inhaler once during an asthma attack, and he thought he was going to die. He survived that episode because his mother got him to breathe into a bag and calm himself until they could get to the local pharmacy and refill his prescription. Still it had been a close call. Not only were there not any paper bags around, he was acutely aware of the guns pointed in his direction.

The burning in his chest intensified with each breath he attempted. Maybe if he could just stand up and stretch, then he could get enough air to calm himself a bit. He just needed to summon the energy to get to his feet. His hands were outstretched and empty so there was no reason for the officers to think he was armed.

Jarius grunted hard, like the engine of an old car coming to life, and he began to rise, lifting the officer draped across his back with him. Just as he reached his full height he heard a loud, sharp popping sound. Startled, the excited crowd began to scatter. It was in this melee of animated bodies that Jarius took a deep breath and began to run.

He could barely feel his feet beneath him as he sprinted on the balls of his feet around the corner and down through an alley. He could hear the walkie-talkies and sounds of the police officers pursuing him, but he refused to look back. That’s how you tripped and fell and let them catch you, he thought.

He reached the end of the alley and turned left, racing down the block. He could no longer feel the tightness in his chest as he ran. His adrenaline drowned out the pain. If he could just get home, he could get to his inhaler—but even more importantly, he could get to his wife. Osceola Avenue was roughly six blocks from his apartment. He was determined not to let anything stop him.

The crackle of the walkie-talkies persisted, so he cut right, racing through a courtyard between two large brownstones, and leaped a fence at the back of the enclosure. At this point, he could see his apartment building in the distance. In a flat-out sprint, Jarius propelled his body down the street, seeking to close the two-block distance with the strides of his long legs. He could no longer hear the police officers behind him. He patted his pockets, searching for his cell phone to call Yvette, but couldn’t find it. It must have fallen out, he thought. But just ahead in the remaining block, Jarius could see her walking down the steps of the apartment building.

“Yvette!” he called out, running towards her.

She looked up and smiled.

With his arms outstretched, he closed the remaining distance and reached for the warmth of his wife’s embrace.

Suddenly, the crack of a single gunshot pierced through the cacophony of police officers and onlookers on Osceola Avenue.

Jarius Jackson, who had just risen to his feet, fell forward, face-first, toward the concrete and into the waiting arms of his wife.


Congested Traffic on the Third Ring Road on a Thursday Afternoon in November
By Craig Loomis

The next day’s newspaper—page two, column three—will have a lengthy description about what happened: how traffic was moving just fine for a November’s Thursday afternoon when suddenly the red wink of brake lights was everywhere, followed by horns honking, traffic slowing, slower, stopped, backing up as far as the Mishref turnoff, and now bigger and longer honking; and how an armada of police cars—flashing redandblue lights, loud speakers blaring—insisted drivers get out of the way, slow down, get ready to stop, etc. And some of those drivers heard and obeyed, while others, thinking the gravelly unused emergency lane is there for a reason, veered to the left, and in a spray of windshield-shattering pebbles hurried on. But never mind, because by now some have even pulled over to get a better looksee. One red SUV—family of one boy and one girl parked neatly, picnic-like on the shoulder—the little girl, one hand firmly attached to her mother, the other straining to touch the sparkly white clothing at her feet, at everybody’s feet. The mother, knowing all there is to know about such clothing, lets her daughter grab. Meanwhile, the father with son are content to watch, thinking, perhaps, that this sort of browsing is best left to the women. In fact, the boy—ten or eleven years old, who’s to say with boys these days—thinks this is funny and turning red-faced towards his father says something that starts out being serious but—he can’t help it—ends up being full of laughter.

The road is littered with the stuff—from here to there; a large wooden crate has fallen from a truck, splintering, its fresh, white wood filling the road with a colorful collection of bras and panties, a roadway of white other clothing that has not stopped twisting and turning in the traffic wind, swirling desert heat.

Meanwhile, again, the police have arrived to, finally, make the problem go away, this sort of reckless display of lingerie, along with friendly scavenging. But of course it is too late, and tomorrow’s newspaper will read: how this unfortunate spillage resulted in a long line of congested traffic as lingerie clogged the roadway. And so, police officers step out of their cruisers to consult with one another. Blueandred lights forever flashing as they finger their holsters because their police training tells them you never know. Eye-balling the situation, they radio for advice: need they retrieve the clothing if it is already off the road? In the end, police headquarters tells them that yes, officers are to leave their cruisers and to collect the clothing, to pick it up and push the broken crate to the side of the road. All done fingering their holsters, for the time being, they advance on the lingerie.

As the police do their duty, car windows are being rolled down with heads peeking to get a better look. Meanwhile, the desert winds care nothing for things like this—a pink bra (cup size 34A, if truth be told) is seen cartwheeling over the highway, closely followed by two, no three, purpleandwhite panties (sizes unknown). The police walk faster to capture these pieces. Haram.

A big white car jerks to a halt, and the driver—Indian, maybe Sri Lankan—bounds out to gather a handful of brightly colored clothing, and just when he thinks he has done his duty, he turns to the car as if being spoken to, listening, nodding—windows tinted, talker unknown—and now backs up to claim what looks to be a candy-caned bundle of softness; he has it and looks back again, and yes, that’s right, now back to the car and his real job as driver.

But never mind, because by now the police have sealed off that part of the road and all is well, and as they slowly begin to collect the lacy field of lingerie, using their dusty boots to push all to the side of the road, and traffic begins to restart, crawl forward, as people, one last time, lean to take photos, before accelerating into the hot Thursday afternoon, giving one final honk for good measure.


Unlucky
By Gareth Vieira

Johnny Smyles was the unluckiest bastard that ever lived. Do you want to know how unlucky? He was so unlucky our town passed a bylaw restricting Johnny to his house. Which he accepted poorly with a grunt, which wasn’t unusual as Johnny was an Orc, and the last of his kind. And let us be real about what happens to Orcs in the end?

Johnny’s head sat on a permanent angle like he cracked it one too many times. His posture was quasimodo and his fingertips were stripped of skin from dragging across the pavement. He could smell a fart from a distance—his eyes would squint upon the scent and his cheeks would muscle up. He’d breathe in, filling his chest with air, letting the putrid smell run up his nostrils like a line of coke.

Mrs. Adams and her husband Frank, the Town Crier, argued at town council that for the good of the community, Johnny Smyles should be locked up in his house with only matters of life and death as an allowance for him to come out. And Madame Carto, the local psychic, forewarned of imminent danger, the kind that leads to mythic proportions, if Johnny Smyles walked the streets. Madam Carto’s prediction was as good as a guilty confession from a repeat offender. Council’s vote was unanimous. In fear of Johnny’s bad luck turning into an epidemic he was quarantined.

That was a year ago.

*

Johnny’s days are spent smoking Camel straights and peering out of his living room window. The neighborhood boys would be out playing road hockey mimicking their favorite players in the NHL. Every five minutes a car would drive by and the boys would have to pick up their nets and move to the side of the road, but they hardly minded. Interruption is part of the game.

The goalies wore a single knee pad, as only one boy owned a pair. The girls skip rope, singing repetitive songs that burrow into Johnny’s head and comes out gruffer and creepier and more animalistic than it began. Johnny knew all the songs by heart and sang them long after the kids had gone home and the streetlights came on.

In the evenings fathers stood on the porches smoking pipes, thinking things that fathers think when they have a moment for themselves. Mothers’ voices were heard through open windows chatting loudly on the phone.

Yes, Johnny Smyles’ one consolation was his Camel straights and the view from his window—that is, until an eagle swooped down and hit the glass, smashing it into pieces and cutting poor Johnny’s wrist. On the way to the hospital the ambulance broke down on Concession Road. A storm brewing all day erupted with a bang and Johnny lay in the back of the ambulance on a gurney, his face a thunderous cloud.

The power went out at the hospital. The generator smoked a fuse. The nurse at reception printed out the wrong wristband and the doctor mixed up his files. Johnny was operated on by a surgeon who stitched him up, forgetting his scalpel inside.

When Johnny came home his house was on fire and the fire truck collided with a van. (It seems Johnny forgot to put out his cigarette when the eagle landed.) Johnny found a blanket and placed it over himself and tried to sleep beneath the stars. He saw a falling star whip across the sky and wished on it, but it just kept falling, hurtling through space into our atmosphere, plummeting down, a ball of fire that landed and burnt poor Johnny Smyles alive.

R.I.P. you unlucky son of a gun.


Bird
By Robert T. Krantz

You walked out of the house looking like a little girl, head nodding down toward the sidewalk with your curly brown hair bobbing in your eyes, one hand behind your back. When you stopped at the end of the walkway, I noticed your floral pattern stretch pants, not because I normally notice these things, but because one leg was crossing behind the other as if you were off balance or ashamed. The police car flashers weren’t on and it was noon, so I didn’t think it could mean that much trouble. But one officer stood outside your bedroom window and another—at the opposite end of the house—guarded the door by the garage. Four cruisers! That’s a lot for a Tuesday afternoon.

I paced in my living room with the front door open. The pacing had nothing to do with you, but I did feel awkward. The whole affair seemed private. And who was I to be watching you anyway?

For your sake, I hoped Richard wasn’t drunk again. I know how mean he is to you when he’s been drinking. It probably wouldn’t go over well with the boys in blue if I walked out of my house with Martin’s old shotgun like I had to last summer, when Richard threatened to kill you and you came to my door crying. Truth be told, I don’t keep that gun loaded anyway. I’m not much of a gun person. I hoped those days were over for you when he started to go to meetings. I have to say, for a while I noticed him leaving your house every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 7:40. I figured he was making the 8:00PM meeting down at the Arid Club just west of Squirrel Road. Then I guess I just stopped noticing whether he went or not.

So I see you have a new boyfriend. I saw his lean torso and tattooed arms just yesterday as you two walked from the car to the house. Today when you came out he wasn’t with you. Maybe they were waiting for him at the bedroom window and garage door. Still, there was nothing dramatic about the thing at all. You reached the end of the walkway looking like a little girl. Then you talked to the policemen for a while and got into one of their cars.

When you entered the backseat of the cruiser, your hands were still behind your back or was it only one hand? It was hard to tell if you were cuffed or not, because by then I was peaking through the blinds of my window and trying to act inconspicuous. The other three cruisers stayed for a long time after you were taken away. But there were no sirens, no Richard, no guns, and I guess no boyfriend.

Orange-breasted robins bobbed their heads in my yard, pecking for grubs in the lawn. I wondered if the fertilizer I had spread just yesterday was what brought the robins. They haven’t been around much before today. One of the robins flitted and flew up and landed on Bucky’s roof next to my porch. He was about eye level and I thought he was looking at me.


A VEIL OF COBWEBS
By Pat Slattery

It is a good Summer. There is a blackbird singing in the old ash tree. The air is filled with the scent of the rich vegetation all round me. So different from noisy, smelly Yonkers. I stand in the laneway. The house is not as I remember it. It looks smaller. The door is held by one hinge and is partly open, sagging. I enter the garden, overgrown, grass intermingled with weeds up to my knees. I am apprehensive, fearful almost. I do not want to reactivate the memories. But I have to. I have travelled too far. They have all gone, my mother, my father, my one brother. The earth has claimed them, as it will eventually claim me.

I enter the kitchen cum living room through the front door. The solitary hinge breaks off when I manage to push the door open. There is enough light through the open doorway for me to make out the ancient rusty range, the remains of the old dresser, the sink with one tap. Someone must have removed the other one. I turn on the remaining one, no water, then I remember there is no electricity, therefore no water pump. The tattered remains of a net curtain hang in the window. I remove it and there is a veil of cobwebs. I rub them off with the curtain. There is more light. I open the door leading to the big bedroom. It doesn’t look very big now. The room is empty, no bed, no wardrobe. This had been my father and mother’s room. The one other room had been mine and my brother’s. I feel a lump in my throat. I do not look inside that room. I look again at the kitchen sink, covered in dust and plaster that had fallen from the rotting ceiling. I can see my mother standing there washing the dishes. She had lived in this house from her twenty-first birthday until she died aged seventy-nine, fifty-eight years in all. How many times had she washed dishes in that sink? Three times a day, 365 days a year, multiplied by fifty-eight, by my rough calculation sixty thousand.

The Sacred Heart picture is still on the wall, together with the little red candle-like electric bulb underneath it. We had knelt, my mother, father and I, before that picture. We were afraid and pleading for help. The accident. Michael was dying. We were not given the answer to our prayers that we had pleaded for. That was in 1955, when Michael had been seventeen.

Tears now run down my face and I go out into the laneway. I turn and look once again. Addressing the rotting house I say to myself, “You too are preparing to return to the earth.”

I turn and walk to the car. I do not look back.


Rough Finish
By Martha Clarkson

The hardwood floor refinishers took five days to complete the work, when they promised three. Shar and Michael were forced to spend extra nights in the tiny cabin advertised as Cattail Cottage, the place they began to call Frog Hovel not too long after arrival. “Forced,” maybe, was not the right word, because they chose to rent, rather than stay with friends. It seemed less constrained, cheap, and close by.

The floor being refinished was dark walnut they’d paid dearly for ten years ago and the floor refinishers—brothers Hank and Robel—had only experienced oak. They commented on finding a walnut floor installed in the Pacific Northwest and asked Shar if she was from Philadelphia. She was not.

In the small town of Oso, two hours northeast, a catastrophic mudslide took place while Shar and Michael were huddled in the Frog Hovel. Perceptions of mudslides as mild gushes that occasionally blocked train tracks were shattered nationwide. News agencies tracked the body count, and labeled the others missing. But everyone knew they weren’t coming back. Mud had rushed in at sixty miles an hour, swallowing houses, cars, and loved ones.

Shar became obsessed with the disaster’s media coverage, especially the way her favorite evening anchor was put into a yellow anorak and placed at the nearest Grange hall. Shar and Michael watched the news mostly in bars, because the $50-a-night Frog Hovel was the size of a thimble, so low-ceilinged you felt like Alice when she grew, so they tried to return just before bed. They felt homeless, vagabond, transient. The feeling was uncomfortable; they were too old and settled to need to feel this way. When Shar and Michael returned at night, usually drunk, there were one to six frogs clinging to the front door. The rest were unison-croaking in the wetlands behind the cabin, so loud the freeway noise was gone, swallowed.

Hank and Robel left the key on the mahogany buffet after calling to say they were done. Shar and Michael took their shoes off on the porch and let their stocking-feet slide onto the wood. Light poured in from the den window and immediately illuminated an ill-selected refinisher. The beautiful walnut was rippled, and it was not buffer marks. They could feel the ripples on their cottoned soles. Like a foot massage. They smelled the remnant poison gases of the applied stain, but that was nothing compared to the ripples. Those were for good. Shar began to cry.

“At least we’re home,” Michael said, taking her elbow and pushing her forward into the dining room to see the extent of the amateur job. Shar turned the TV on. The mudslide counts now included the number of homes lost, mortgages that would still require payments. Pastor Celia tied ribbons on a bridge railing and said to the newscaster, “Yellow ribbons mean they’re coming home.” This wasn’t some Vietnam hope Tony Orlando and Dawn could sing about. No one was coming home. Who was “Dawn” anyway, Shar had always wondered. It was a sadness to tie those ribbons, in Shar’s mind, as if you could will the missing to appear. It called to mind images of arms flailing above the brown muck, or worse yet, not flailing, but still, a dead forearm, gold band visible on a finger.

Michael and Shar slid on the wood floor in the socks they’d worn at the Frog Hovel, which inexplicably demanded shoe removal for its vinyl floors. Shar speed-dialed Robel about the ridges and he said, “Put the furniture back—well, not for three days, but when you do, you’ll never notice it.” They had not been told three days for putting the furniture back, and Shar’s mother-in-law was due for dinner on Saturday. Shar wailed and threw the flip phone at the CNN crew on the screen, who she felt didn’t belong in tiny Oso. She grabbed the remote, a more comfortable device, and tuned in her anorak anchor, who really had nothing to report.

The ripples were real. The floors would need refinishing again. Michael would calmly retain the check he planned to mail, but they’d be moving out again. Transient, homeless, probably for more days than estimated. This time they’d stay with friends. Shar imagined wine, dinners the friends would fix, long conversations. The way they should’ve done it the first time. Who knew when it all would be taken away, the house, the friends, the very idea of life?


A Ride to the Trees Place
By V. Joseph Racanelli

Me and my Man, we went out when it was still dark, before the big light ball comes up. Usually we go after it comes up, but this time it was different. I couldn’t smell why at first.

We used the moving box. Usually, it takes us to the trees place, which I like. Sometimes to the woman who smiles but she looks in my mouth and sometimes hurts me. Thing is, I can never tell which way we are going by the look of Him. I don’t know why my Man takes me to the smiling woman. I love Him.

That day my Man looked around. He looked around again. I looked too. Nothing. Then He put a big bag into the back of the moving box. I jumped in. There was a smell—in the moving box—that I’d never enjoyed before. Like bad food, but not so bad that I would not eat it.

We went to the place with the trees. I love it there. My Man dug a hole! He does not do this a lot, but I love it when he does. I dug one too. I wanted something, a bone, anything, to put in my hole.

He took the big bag out of the moving box. That was the smell! How did I miss that?

He had a hard time moving the big bag. I barked. I wanted to help him. But my Man made the bad face and put a finger to his lips. I never understood this thing He does. Never. And I have tried.

The big bag flopped over, opened and another man fell out of it. This new man smelled like a man I saw in my Man’s sleeping place before the big light ball came out. This man didn’t talk like he did before. He didn’t move either.

I had an urge to mark him but I did not. My Man would not like this. He dropped the quiet man in the hole and began to yell at the man in the hole! My Man made the bad face, the one I don’t like. But this was not for me. So I remained happy.

The man in the hole didn’t say anything back. I didn’t know why the man in the hole would stay there. But he did. My Man covered him like a bone. I liked that, but He did not do a good job. I wished that He would let me help. But then He wanted to go and ran quickly back to the moving box.

I thought it was a game so I ran too and checked out some trees and bushes on the way. He said the thing that means I should come to Him right away and I jumped back into the moving box.

My Man smiled at me and said quiet things to me. I like that.

Then we took the moving box back to the sleeping place. Inside He gave me a nice chewy snack. I love Him. I can’t wait to go out again with another man in a bag.


Impassable
By George Vivian Paul

“So our entire unit was deployed,” said my father, reclining on his chair with a slight smile as he sipped his military standard issue rum.

My mother was in the kitchen preparing supper. My sister and I sat on the couch in the TV room, listening to one of my father’s daily anecdotes at sundown.

Supposing what Father said was true, Rajiv Gandhi, Prime Minister of India, was advised to wear a bulletproof vest in the politically charged atmosphere of the 1980s. The government of the day decided to import a bulletproof vest from Italy. It would cost an exorbitant amount of money and, of course, it had to be quality-tested before the Prime Minister wore it.

Who was better qualified to scrutinize the vest than the Indian Army? The station where my father was posted got the job, a prestige assignment. Back then not many, even in the army, were acclimated to wearing apparel that could repel bullets, and no one knew what to do with the thing. Nobody was willing to wear the vest facing a fellow soldier firing ammunition. The thought of explaining to the widows what had happened made the senior officers refrain from giving stern orders.

They couldn’t just hang the damn thing up and shoot at it since the bullet impact registered would not replicate a natural scenario.

Eventually, a Sepoy came up with an idea that the Station Commander accepted. The vest would be put on a stray dog—a test subject—tied to a post. If the physical examination of the dog showed no signs of damage after the completion of the exercise, it would prove that the vest worked.

Consequently the dog, clearly bewildered, was given a bath and strapped into the million-dollar vest. The Sepoy tied the dog to the post. Men at a distance armed with assault rifles took positions, aimed at the vest and waited for orders to proceed. The Station Commander from his tent at the edge of the training ground gave the nod, and shots were fired.

BANG!!BANG!!BANG!!BANG!!

Everyone’s eyes watching the exercise were focused at the spot where the assault rifles were pointed, and they heard the shrill burst of a shriek by the understandably surprised animal.

The moment the dog heard gunshots, it must have decided “OK, THIS IS IT!!! I’M DONE WITH THIS POPPYCOCK. SO LONG, FOLKS!!!” and broke loose, bolting like lightning into the wilderness on the outskirts of the training ground—leaving the Indian Armed Forces, the biggest “voluntary” army on the planet, staring cluelessly at the post with a broken strand of rope attached.

It took some time before the men recovered from the shock. My father, adjutant of the unit, was summoned to devise a strategy ASAP to capture the runaway tyke and seize the missing vest.

“So our entire unit was called out,” said my father.

All four companies in the unit were deployed. Those who were getting ready to leave were stopped, and those who’d returned to their families after the day’s duties were called back. Every soldier in the cantonment was alerted. Equipped with jungle-warfare gear, the men followed the dog took into the wild.

The men spotted the animal on multiple occasions but it somehow always managed to escape. They tried firing at it, but the bullets did nothing except toss the dog a little in the air. Evidently, the Italians had not been joking after all and the vest worked as advertised.

Meanwhile all the senior officers in the station were running out of “fish stories” to tell Army Headquarters about the missing vest. All deadlines were breached and the scale of panic in the camps grew exponentially with the passing of every hour. Those unable to cope with the stress were admitted to the Military Hospital.

Finally, the search parties found a vigorously shuddering, tired and hungry dog that had collapsed under a very old tree. The dog got a hero’s welcome when it was brought back to the unit. Still shaken, the mongrel protested little when the vest was removed. It finally calmed down when the Sepoy who had handled it initially arrived with a large packet of glucose biscuits from the unit’s CSD canteen. The vest was cleaned and sent to the Prime Minister’s security squad.

To commemorate the success of this mission, a statue of a mongrel wearing a vest and sitting upright obediently (a work of fiction, to say the least), was presented to the colonel of the unit by Station Headquarters. It is now on display in the officers’ mess. There is no text on the statue, for reasons best left unexplained.

“You mean to say this is true?” I choked.

My father—now a colonel—nodded with an almost childish grin on his face. My sister’s eyes, and my mouth, were wide open in amazement.

“Really?” quizzed my sister.

“DINNER IS GETTING COLD!!!” bellowed my mother from the kitchen.

“Hold on, we’re coming,” my father replied.

He finished his drink and led the way to supper as my sister and I tiptoed behind him. We were still taken aback by the entire episode. My mother stood beside the table and looked at her children with a frown.

“Eat dinner and go to bed. Both of you have school tomorrow,” she said.

I was not sure how to sleep after what I just heard. It seemed too real.

“How was my gasconade?” asked my father.

“What was it this time?” quipped my mother. She just needed keywords to recollect my father’s stories.

“Bulletproof,” answered my sister.

“Papa! Be real. Is this one of your cooked up stories like the one about Bhutan?” I asked.

“Were you even in the service during that time?” interrupted my sister.

My mother, sister and I looked toward my father for a definitive answer.

With an unusually content face, he burst into whooping roars of laughter.


Coup D’oeil
By Taylor Jordan

“When I sit real still, I can feel myself shifting,” Nina said. We were lying on her parents’ deck, the cicadas just starting to howl. “Like my bones and my guts are all moving around, and sometimes I think they’re just gonna fall out and there’ll be none of me left.”

“That’s impossible.” I never believed Nina when she started talking about stuff like that, weird stuff that made no sense. She liked to make up stories, to lie, but we’d been friends since kindergarten and that’s just not a bond you break. “People can’t feel things like that.”

“I do,” she insisted, propping her head up on a smooth elbow and pointing at a place on her stomach. “This is my spleen, and right now it’s doing a backflip.”

“Shut up,” I laughed, and she squealed when I gave her stomach a tiny punch—barely touching her, just in case. I didn’t want to be the one responsible for her spleen oozing out of her belly button.

We were nine when Nina first told me about shifting. At first it was just a silly thing. She’d tease me about feeling her stomach acid dissolve the grilled cheese she ate for lunch, or getting a cramp when her kidneys decided they were bored and wanted to switch places. But then sometimes she scared me. One time—Nina told me—it felt like someone was crushing her between two hands, so hard a rib snapped and poked a hole in her lung and she slept upright in the rocking chair every night for a week, panting like a sick dog. Another time she swore someone tried to pull her spine up through her mouth and she threw up so quick she didn’t even make it to the bathroom, just coughed the watery slime into her hands. In it was a tooth she kept for a week and then showed me under the covers at a sleepover: “See, I’m disappearing,” cupping it like her biggest secret. And she didn’t know why or when it would finally happen for good, but she did know these things were happening because she was changing. Shifting.

“Mama says they’re growing pains.” She said the words like they actually did pain her, guttural and raw in the back of her throat. She stood at the vanity, brushing pieces of hair that fell down her back in straight sheets of pecan-pie brown. I sat on her bed with my knobby white knees tucked up under my chin and played with the corner of a fraying blue quilt, watching her under my eyelashes. Nina threw the brush down and twirled around suddenly on her toes, arms up over her head like a ballerina performing onstage. “But if that’s true, how come you don’t have any?” She spun until her hair wrapped tight around her head and she fell into me, tangling our fabrics and our fibers. She smelled like watermelon Pop Rocks and worn-out scrunchies.

Nina moved away after seventh grade, and the time in between then she stopped telling stories about her body. It was like she had made a movie and asked everyone to watch it, memorize it, and now she wanted the movie returned, burned, and forgotten. As we grew older we traded scrunchies for eyeliner and Pop Rocks for Pocky that we pretended to smoke like cigarettes. We said we’d try the real thing before high school, but then Nina went away.

We took turns calling each other at first. Every time, I wanted to ask about her growing pains. I craved her old made-up stories, the way she embellished with her hands and her arms, how she ran right to me with her face all pinched up when she was feeling something. I missed her energy, the clatter of her mind. One day I got up the courage to ask her about it. She had just turned thirteen; my birthday was still a month away.

“What’s shifting?” she asked. I could almost hear her throat wrinkle up with the word, and I wondered how she would have described it.

“You used to talk about it all the time,” I said. “How you felt things moving in you.”

“Oh, that.” She laughed into the phone. “I forgot.”

“Does it still happen?”

There was a ruffling through the receiver, and the sound of her breathing. “Why? You never believed me anyway.”

She hung up and didn’t call again.

I phoned for a while, but she never answered and I slowly forgot. And when I did remember to think of Nina, I didn’t call but stood in front of the bathroom mirror with my shirt off, tracing the ridges between my ribs, cupping the tiny hills of my chest; I peered around at the curve of my back, felt the small bulge of my abdomen just above my pelvis, peach fuzz grazing the tips of my fingers. I held my breath and listened, wanting to hear and see her in me, feel her coming out of my body and changing me from the inside out the way she herself had changed.

Nina was wrong. I remember the day she spun around like a top in her room, pivoting and spiraling while I watched her, secretly wishing she would fall. That’s when I saw it, so quick that if I’d blinked I’d have missed it. While she was spinning her body around the last time, the space around her and within her cracked and splintered, and she was gone, a static blurry void of Nina—her hair, her skin, her being—there and then not. All of her, vanished, confetti-colored dust swirling in her place like shadow molecules in a lazy pirouette.


INTO THE BASEMENT
By Robert Garner McBrearty

As we walk on the nearly empty outdoor mall on an early Sunday morning, Christmas coming on soon, no snow today, but cold in the air, my wife’s shoulder bumps mine and we both teeter a bit and she says, “This is really bad. We’re both having nervous breakdowns at the same time.”

“I know, I know,” I say, “don’t worry about it, move on.”

“We’re only doing this because we’re crazy,” she says, “you know that.”

“Of course I know that, what do you think I am, crazy?” I look ahead and to the side and see a man huddled against a storefront wall, a blanket over his shoulders. His breath comes out in white puffs in the air. “Look, there’s one there. Grab him.”

“Jesus,” she says, “that’s not the right approach. Invite him.”

“Hell, I don’t know if it’s such a great invitation. It’s just a lousy basement.”

At first we just gave the street people food, but we’re upping our game. We have some resources that we might as well use since our own children are grown and gone and doing well on their own. They live far off across the country. They don’t visit much. Sometimes they call or send an email. We were on Facebook with them for a while, but I think they unfriended us. Maybe we need somebody who needs us. We have a big basement and the homeless shelter is full, so we’re letting some of the homeless crash for the winter.

“Maybe we’d better pass on this one,” my wife says. “We have ten now. What if they become unhappy with the basement? I heard shuffling around last night.”

We have friends who have warned us we’ll be robbed or murdered if we’re not careful. But our visitors seem like friendly people. They like it when we bring down breakfast and fresh towels. But we keep them in the basement. “Don’t worry. I’ll shoot them if they come up the stairs.”

“God!” she says. “Don’t say that! Are you nuts! This is all because we feel guilty.”

“We have too much.”

“We could just give it away.”

“Then we would have nothing to give away. We’re selfish. We like having something to give away.”

“Maybe there’s a better way of doing it.”

“We’re old. We’ll probably be dead by this time next year anyway. And I still can’t decide whether I want to be buried or cremated.”

“God, would you stop saying depressing things like that!”

“Sorry. Maybe I haven’t had enough coffee this morning.”

“If you would just for once stop saying these depressing things.”

“Okay, okay, you’ve made your point. Cremation or burial are both fine with me. Whatever works for you. I want to make it as easy on you as possible.”

“Forget it. Let’s go invite him.”

Side by side, we steer our bodies toward him and stand over the fellow. A cold wind blows against our backs and we almost topple over on him. He looks up, a stoical expression turning frightened. He’s been left in the cold too long.

“What’s your name?” we ask.

His eyes go wide. He lifts and spreads his empty hands as if it’s a tough question.

“I know,” I say, “I know. I can hardly remember my own.”

“Stop it,” my wife says. “Do you want the man to think we’re crazy?”

“We want to offer you a place in our basement,” I say. “Just until the weather warms up. It will be a little crowded. There are already some others down there.”

His lips tremble. “You know my name.”

“We do?”

He stands, raising himself on creaky knees, adjusting the blanket like a serape thrown over his shoulder, giving him a faintly Western gunslinger look. Now that he’s standing he looks younger than I first thought, maybe in his thirties. “I lived in that basement.”

“You did?”

“I’m Jeffrey. Your son. You almost killed me off in that hell hole. You forgot about me down there and let me rot. Fuck your basement.”

He stumbles away, a certain weaving dignity to his steps. We watch him all the way to the corner, crossing the street to the next section of mall.

My spine tingles. My wife’s shoulder feels jittery against mine.

I stare after the man, though he’s already disappearing behind some trees on the mall. I lick my dry lips, set my brow in thought. “We didn’t have a son named Jeffrey, did we?”

She breathes out hard. “Stop it! Of course not. Do you want me to think you’re losing your marbles?”

I take her elbow. “Let’s head home.” My steps are determined now, forceful, I know where we are and what we are doing. A winter’s sun shines brightly. “Of course we didn’t have a son named Jeffrey,” I say. “Of course I knew that.”

The mall is beginning to pick up with people now, more morning strollers, a street magician starting to prepare his gear for the show. We have seen his show before. He can swallow a whole burning sword and pull it out his ass.

A sudden wind blows dead leaves across our path, the swirling taking us by surprise. We fall against each other. “We didn’t, did we?” Her voice is rushed, anxious. “Tell me we didn’t.”

“We didn’t.”

She’s near tears. “It’s not a hell hole. It wasn’t. Our children were happy. Weren’t they? Weren’t they?”


Sons and Mothers
By Sophia Li

Her hips sway in the way that makes gentlemen cough politely and others, those who have not been reared with proper etiquette, stare and—if they’re really looking to get their heads bashed in—whistle like she’s the star of their favorite adult movie.

Of course things never go well for the latter group because every night that goes like this continues on in the same manner: You grab them by the collar and slam them up against the nearest wall; you lighten your grip (for that split second when you can hear their gasps for breath) only to slam them back up again, this time harder so you can hear that extra crack! rip through the air as their skulls go through the wood.

By then, the bartender has called the cops, and the men in blue, protectors of the people (and yet, where were they when those men were thinking filthy, filthy thoughts about the most wonderful woman in the world?) have forced you to the ground, gripping your arms behind your back, cuffing your wrists so they can take you down to the precinct and process you like you’re an actual criminal. Like you’ve committed a real crime.

Sometimes the officer on shift, Rick or Dennis, will recognize you and sigh because it’s not the first time that you’ve done this, and they’ll threaten you with judges that condemn assault with five years in the slammer and lawsuits and punitive damages, things which cost money that you don’t have and the one thing that doesn’t relate fiscally but hits you hard all the same: Who would take care of your mother?

In the end, when they’ve finished the rant that you’ve heard a hundred times over, they’ll slap you on the wrist, and tell you to call someone to pick you up, and that they won’t book you this time, but if you ever do something like this again, you’ll be sorry. They say these words like they mean it, and you nod as if you believe them. Because anyone who has met your mother always falls in love. And that is why you keep getting in trouble.

But this time when you arrive at the precinct, Rick and Dennis aren’t on shift. It’s this new guy, and he treats you like he treats any man with a black eye and metal cuffs on his wrists. During the night as you lie on the jail’s cold metal bench, you pray to God that your mother has gone home for the night, and has not done anything stupid just because you got arrested again. You can handle jail for a couple of days, call a friend and beg for a favor. You don’t need her to suffer tonight for your sake. So you close your eyes and promise God that you will never commit a sin again if only your mother is at home right now with nothing—no one—in the bed except a pillow and that $600 maroon comforter you bought for her last Christmas. (It took you weeks working in the motor shop to make enough money for that one purchase, but the smile on her face makes it worth every penny.) And even though you don’t believe in God, your hands still fold together in prayer, and you sleep through the night with pleas for His salvation.

When you wake up in the morning, your dread reprises its spot in your mind because your mother is down here at the precinct, and she’s posting your bail. You’re let free with a court order, and when the two of you walk towards the car, you don’t ask her about where she got the money that she doesn’t have because if she does, you will kill someone. You will find that man and stab him forty-two times in the stomach, twenty-five in the face. You will hack his dick off, and shove it down his throat. So you don’t ask. Because if you do and she replies, you will be locked up for the rest of your life. You will lose everything.

That would be okay with you except for one thing: You cannot lose her.


World’s Best Grandpa
By Karin Britt Gall

Grover Cleveland Smith looked at the ‘World’s Best Grandpa’ T-shirt in Hazel’s hands. The shirt depicted an elderly man with a few wild gray hairs dotting his head and black horn-rimmed glasses. The man held a baby bottle in one hand and a newborn infant in the other.

Grover looked nothing like the man on the T-shirt. That man was white, and Grover was a black man whose belly threatened to overrun his belt.

A six-year-old child sat before him playing with her breakfast cereal. “Better drink your milk before you go to school,” Grover said, pointing to a glass sitting on the kitchen table. Kelly was his neighbor Hazel’s youngest. “It’s a long time before lunch.”

“Okay.” The child smiled up at him with clear brown eyes.

When the neighbors first met, Hazel had invited him over for coffee one morning followed by dinner later in the week. Now, they met regularly. Despite their age difference, he liked talking to Hazel and seeing her two kids laugh and play. He missed his own family and she missed hers. Her husband had abandoned them for another woman.

“Bye, Grover,” Kelly waved as she followed her brother out the door to the school bus.

“Be good today,” he called out to them.

“Look, Grover,” Hazel said, holding up a white T-shirt with a decal on it. “This is what I’m sending to the kids’ grandfather for Father’s Day. He lives in Colorado.”

“That’s real nice,” Grover said.

“I can get you one.”

“How much is it?”

“$29.95 plus shipping.”

“Nah, not right now. Rent’s almost due.”

To Hazel’s credit, she hadn’t asked any questions about whether he was a grandfather or not. Grover liked that about Hazel. She wasn’t nosy.

*

Two weeks later, Hazel was ordering the shirt for a friend, and she mentioned it again.

“It’s half-price now and free shipping,” she said. “On account of it’s past Father’s Day.”

“That’s a good deal, ain’t it?” He sipped his coffee and thought for a few minutes. “You know, I think I’ll take one of them shirts. I’ve always wanted one.”

The next day, Grover arrived for their morning coffee and counted $15 out onto the chipped Formica counter. It was a mixture of crumpled dollar bills and quarters.

When the shirt arrived, Hazel presented it to Grover. He knew he looked like a kid opening a present at Christmas. It’d been a long time since he’d bought himself a gift. It brought back memories of happier times. Before the knife scar.

He hadn’t seen his daughter and son in over 25 years. Both were married with children now. Grover tried to contact them after he arrived back in the city, but neither of them returned his calls. Their mother divorced him shortly after the trial and then remarried. He hadn’t seen his children since.

His pastor told him people made mistakes and that the main thing was to learn to forgive yourself and to change your ways. Grover had tried to do that. He read the good book every day and stayed out of trouble.

*

Today, Grover had an appointment. He opened the door of the Franklin County Rehabilitation office and gave his name to the girl behind the desk. “I’m here to see Kevin Barrows,” he said.

Grover lowered himself onto a blue plastic chair, set his legs wide apart, and waited. When his name was called, he entered the inner office and sat in a stiff-backed chair.

Barrows, a middle-aged white man with a receding hairline, smiled at Grover. They reviewed what happened since their last meeting and talked about Grover’s job as a janitor.

“I like your T-shirt,” Barrows said, pointing to the silkscreened image.

Grover knew the man was trying to use some psychobabble bullshit so he would talk more about his past. “It’s nothing. I got it on sale.”

The parole officer persisted. “I know you miss your family. I’m sorry.”

Before Barrows could speak again, Grover cut off his words. “My family is none of your business.”

Barrows leaned forward and lowered his voice. “It’s part of my job to make sure you’re happily settled. I’d like to help.”

“I’m fine. Are we done here?”

Barrows nodded. “Until next time.”

Without another word, Grover grabbed the edge of the desk in front of him and pulled himself upright.

On the way out of the building, he patted the front of his shirt. He’d be a great grandpa if they let him. He’d call his kids again tomorrow. Maybe this time, they’d give him a chance.


Shaking Heaven
By Huang Guosheng

This morning those who celebrated last night’s Middle Autumn Festival still tasted the balanced deliciousness of moon cake on their lips, though the moon had been hidden in heavy clouds because of the typhoon and rain.

In the hall of the ancestral house of Zhou Haonan, at Nawu Town, the western Canton Province, Haonan’s mother E’shen slept silently. Her corpse had been dressed in the fancy blue clothes Haonan had chosen for her. Her eyes and mouth were closed; her face was made-up and her white hair was well combed. Her expression was so calm and peaceful that Haonan felt she was just still asleep.

After one group of villagers left, another came to honor her.

Haonan walked out of the house alone. The eight restless days of taking care of E’shen, inseparable as a shadow following his body, made his step heavy, but his heart was heavier still.

He took out his mobile phone, calling a manufacturer in Shenzhen. “I’d like to purchase a glass box of these dimensions,” he said. “Two meters long, one meter wide, one meter deep. Can you also send six gallons of Formalin?” The manufacturer named a high price, but Haonan agreed to pay. “Please send my order by express delivery. It must reach me no later than tomorrow.”

Haonan’s older brother and his son had journeyed to a nearby mountain to find a place of entombment for E’shen. When they returned, E’shen’s family and villager friends stood in front of the house discussing how to manage her funeral. The older brother wanted to summon the Taoists to prepare a ceremony, but Haonan stopped him.

“I don’t want to put her in a tomb,” Haonan said.

“What do you mean?” His older brother stared at him.

Haonan was silent; then he told his brother about the supplies he’d ordered—the glass box and the Formalin. He explained that although he knew their mother had passed away, an undeniable fact, he didn’t want her to leave. He still hoped to see the figure of his mother whenever he returned to their hometown. Thus he quietly announced a heaven-shaking plan, to store E’shen’s body in a glass box, kept in the hall of their ancestral home.

As though a giant meteorite abruptly fell from the sky, family and friends were staggered by this plan and looked at each other dumbly.

One villager asked, “Aren’t you afraid her body will decay?”

Haonan replied, “I’ve researched it and, provided that Formalin is applied properly and the body well-sealed, my mother should be preserved forever.”

The older brother intervened. “A corpse lying in the hall will bring bad luck.”

“I don’t think so,” Haonan said. “Our mother will certainly protect us.”

“But no one in the history of our village has done anything like this,” one of the countryside fellows still doubted.

“Yes, but others have treated their dead parents as if they were still alive. Let me tell you two stories,” Haonan said.

He continued: “In the ancient Wei and Jin dynasties of our Chinese nation there was a man named Wang Pou from Shangdong Province, and his mother feared thunder more than anything. After his mother died, a thunderstorm was coming, so Wang Pou hurried over to his mother’s tomb in a nearby forest, consoling her, ‘Your son is here now, so don’t be afraid.’ This is the story of ‘Hearing Thunder and Sobbing in Front of the Tomb’.

And there is an additional legend of ‘Carving Wood to Worship a Parent’. Lore has it that there was a man named Ding Lan from Henan Province in the ancient Eastern Han Dynasty, who missed his dead father so much that he carved a likeness of his parent from wood. Every morning he refused to eat until he’d worshiped his ‘parent’, and he also reported to his ‘parent’ every time he left the house. It is said that later on he saw the carving shed tears … ”

Despite Haonan’s recitation of these stories, E’shen’s family and friends still didn’t agree with the strange idea of “Storing Mother in a Glass Box”. By the following day, however, his older brother became convinced of Haonan’s sincerity in wanting it done and bowed to his wishes.

In the hall of the ancestral house, E’shen slept face upwards in the glass box, covered in red shrouds. Her expression remained so calm that it seemed she was only sleeping.

Whenever Haonan returned to his hometown from Shenzhen, he could see his mother and when he did, he fell on his knees to kowtow three times with his forehead touching the ground.

Many years later when Haonan died, the villagers buried him with his mother in the same tomb in a nearby hillside so the beloved mother and son could stay together forever.

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