ISSUE 15: SEPTEMBER 2017

Three Summer Flights
By Tim Love

As usual, Dad collected her after breakfast on Sunday and drove her to Dunstable downs. The hillside was already full of families.

“You first, Tracy.”

She held the bobbin of string while her father retreated with the kite. Then he threw it skyward. “It’s new!” she said, watching the dragon soar.

“Yes, I made it this week.” When she pulled harder, the kite spiralled and fell. “It needs a longer tail,” he said, “Oh well, let’s have an ice cream.” They sat on the grass, licking 99s. While he studied the other kites, which to her were heavy and drab, she watched the gliders taking off below. Winched up, they climbed steeply until they were higher than she was. She watched the cable fall away, as if in slow-motion. The ice cream finished, she stretched out on the grass and looked up at the kites against the bright blue sky. Without warning a glider filled her vision, flying very low and fast. She would always remember the wide wings, the silent surprise.

“How’s your mother?” he asked.

“All right.”

“Is she happy?”

“She’s all right.”

*

Tracy knew how George had boasted to his friends about her hobby before they’d married. In their first summer, once the days had became long enough, she booked the airfield’s plane. He was too nervous at breakfast to eat. It was his first flight with her, so she took it gently. They reached Le Touquet in time for lunch.

“When couples shout at each other for an hour they usually call it arguing,” said George, as the engine spun down.

She held him as they walked into town—his legs were wobbly after the flight. They treated themselves to seafood platters by the beach, getting back before nightfall. She’d been worried that once he’d flown with her he’d see how ordinary it was, but though he never conquered his nerves, he always agreed when she suggested trips. Friends would put in orders for cigarettes and wine to cover their costs.

*

He pulled her balloon from his trailer.

“Not many sons would do this for their mothers at five in the morning,” she said.

“What else is there to do on such a beautiful Sunday?” said Tom.

They unfolded the balloon, laid it on its side, started the slow initial inflation, careful to keep the flame far from the material. The wind was just right.

After George’s death she’d stopped flying. Instead she went on escorted holidays. As an expensive extra she’d taken a balloon flight over the Valley of the Kings. That’s what had given her the idea.

“Good luck!” Tom said, once the balloon was upright.

“Winning’s not the point.”

“Just enjoy yourself. You’ve been looking a little peeky lately.”

“I’ll phone when I’m ready,” she said. She fired the roaring flame again and again, not looking down at Tom.

The idea was to drop a sandbag as close to a target as possible. Others had a team in constant phone contact on the ground, assessing the wind at various heights. The organiser was an ex-world champion. She was still a beginner. She looked around the Cambridgeshire landscape, flat and already harvested. Not a sound.

Tom had once asked her why she’d never thought of becoming a commercial pilot. She’d told him that women didn’t do that sort of thing in those days. Actually, she’d realised that it was the freedom that she loved. Her father’s kites never were much good, but for her sixteenth birthday he’d bought her a gliding lesson. Her mother didn’t want her to get a small-plane license, which was maybe why she spent all her savings to get one. But even if she had wanted to be a pilot, life got in the way. Her father died young, then her mother’s stroke meant that she became a carer. George had never complained. After her mother’s lingering death, George’s Alzheimer’s worsened. She felt guilty for not noticing earlier. Now it was her turn to be poorly, not that Tom knew yet.

She could see cows below, oblivious to her. She guessed the horizon was thirty miles away. She wished she could just float along forever. But she knew she couldn’t. If she shouldn’t have freedom, at least she could have silence. She didn’t want Tom to neglect his young family just for her. She’d promised him it would be her last flight. She thought of phoning to tell him how happy she felt despite everything, how fulfilled she was, how proud she was of him. But she knew how suspicious that would sound.

Ahead, she could see the field, a white blanket in its centre. Far behind, she could see a competitor’s balloon. It wasn’t who was first that mattered, it was who was closest to the target. If she won, everyone would say it was a fluke, but that was okay—she wanted it to look like an accident. So she held the sandbag and jumped.


Jack-O-Lantern
By Russell Reece

An hour south of Jonesboro I passed through Bald Knob, Arkansas where a billboard advertised the upcoming Halloween festival and every storefront in town was decorated with witches, black cats and carved pumpkins.

I filled up at the Gas-and-Go, hit the head, grabbed two bottles of Snapple. I was looking for a bag of Combos. “You know, the little pretzel pieces with the cheese in the middle,” I said to the clerk.

She was an attractive woman with a round face, her dark hair fixed in a neat pixie cut. She seemed a little shy, didn’t speak, but came from behind the counter and led me to the aisle. And I have to admit I was struck by her surprisingly good figure and the easy way she carried herself as she moved across the room with a confident but somehow understated grace.

She squatted down and pulled two bags from the bottom shelf. “Nacho Cheese or Cheddar?” she said then looked up at me with huge eyes and a soft, demure smile.

And for just a moment, I forgot about the Combos, forgot about the life I had at home and the promises I had made. I looked down at this woman and wondered what it would be like to live in Bald Knob, Arkansas.

I think she read my mind, because she blushed, her smile widened, showing her gleaming white teeth, one on top, two on the bottom.

“I’ll take the Nacho Cheese,” I said.


Transformations, or Something He Said Last Week
By Rosemary Jones

The two of us are drinking tea, looking out through the window onto the street. Now and then the old pane rattles but we take no notice of that. All morning, leaves have been launching themselves from their tree branches.

“Watch me,” one of them says, as it gets up the courage and flutters away, its last hurrah.

“I don’t know about this,” responds the tree, “I don’t know if you’re ready—it could be a rough ride.” Still, leaves will be leaves and they fly off: feisty, rebellious, fully clothed, not necessarily wearing their best.

Late at night, when the leaves—or so the trees hope—are fast asleep, the branches confide in one another. Maples to oaks, oaks to birches, birches to pines, which don’t have to worry, at least not about leaves. “It’s the same old, same old,” the branches say. They skreak and groan, finding comfort rubbing against each other, muttering about the generation gap, the wild pulls of youth that end everything too soon.

“Actually, it’s worse this year,” remarks an oak. “It’s all very well when the wind comes along and shakes the daylights out of them. It’s another matter when they do it of their own volition.”

He puts down his cup to look at me, readying to make an announcement. “I might as well put my lot in with the leaves,” he says.

I smile, except it’s not a smiling matter.

“No one has ever said that to you before, have they?”

It’s true, people haven’t said so, but leaves have. The leaves have already confided in me. Not that they mention the word despair, but some of them as they whee down to the street floor send off grim epistles of a life given up too soon, momentum and vigor cast headlong into an abyss. I receive their thoughts in fragments, nodding sympathetically as I gaze out to the pavement where they fall.

But it’s one thing to nod at their leaf troubles in the leafy world outside, and another to nod acknowledgment across the table to him. I leave an enigmatic expression on my face as if I may or may not know exactly what he means. But I do. And I don’t want him turning into a leaf-soul.

“Not all transformations are necessary,” I say, as he turns again to the view through the window.

As much as I love leaves, their startled summer greens, their wild sprees of red and gold and mustard, I love him more. He sighs. He picks up the word transformations, repeats it, re-framing himself from wanting to be a veined leaf to being a veined human. Or half of each, a leaf-human—at least, I want to think so—as the light on the street shifts to golden yellow, and everyone, the branches, me, him, swivel towards the color of reassurance.


THE DAY MY GRANDMOTHER EXPLODED
By Colin Watts

No, actually exploded—blood, shit and teeth. Floor to ceiling. Windows to walls. We had to burn the sofa, the carpets, the curtains. Even so, for most of those who’d crossed her path, it was relief all round. Scarcely anyone in the family had a good word to say about her. Madge Teasedale, MYNRIP—May You Never Rest In Peace. That went on her gravestone. Her funeral orations were magnificent and manifold: ‘May your spirit live on in some remote hellhole, suffering fire and damnation down all the days.’ ‘May your arthritis multiply and clamp you rigid until the end of time.’ ‘May you suffer excruciating pangs of remorse and guilt, yet be offered no opportunity to repay your mounds of debt.’ ‘May Angels of the Lord stamp on your fingers, break your legs in many places and fracture your skull in many more.’ ‘May you suffer the agonies of crucifixion and childbirth, combined and multiplied a million-fold. Forever and ever. Amen.’

I’m sorry, but she was that bad. Imagine a combination of Genghis Khan, Myra Hindley and Margaret Thatcher, and in most people’s eyes, you’d be scratching the surface. But at least, on that fatal day, now celebrated annually with drinking and dancing into the wee small hours, she was well and truly gone. Clogs popped. Bucket kicked. Or so we thought. She had one final trick up her manky old sleeve did Madge Teasedale, MYNRIP—the Reading of the Will. We all knew the mean old dragon had stashed away thousands, never spending a penny on herself or anyone else, hoarding the fortune we knew she’d inherited from the pervy husband she’d driven into an early grave, with her forked tongue and her mean cuisine.

And then to find she’d left everything to the beasts of the fields and the fish of the sea: Cats’ Protection League, Battersea Dogs’ Home, the Blah de Blah donkey sanctuary, Save the Whale, Slugs R Us. To her long-suffering family, the sons, daughters, uncles, aunts, cousins and grandchildren, whose lives she’d made a misery all those years—zilch. A big round O. Not even so much as a lollipop to her one and only great grandson, Joseph, a vile little shit, whom she loved to distraction, perhaps because he was a spoilt brat with a tongue and temper to match her own. You should have heard the commotion. Shouting and screaming. Weeping and wailing. Swearing and banging of fists. Lamentations to the Lord. Appeals to the European Court of Human Rights. To no avail. It was bona fide. Cast in stone and sealed in wax. It all went to the dogs. And the cats. And the donkeys. And the whales. And Sam the Slug.

To her own kind, Grandma was neither generous nor kind. She never missed the chance to cut a neighbour dead, massacre a reputation, spit bile at a good deed. Though, if things weren’t going her way, she’d put on her special whiny voice and ask what she had ever done to deserve the shitty hand that fate had dealt her. Why, when she had always tried so hard to do the right thing by everyone, was no one ever kind to her, misunderstood saint that she was?

To say that she never spent a penny on herself was not strictly true. Her house was a hovel, she dressed like a drab, never had her hair done, wore no jewellery. But she did like her grub. You could have said that she ate like a horse. But no self-respecting horse would have put the stuff away like she did. You could have said that she ate like a pig, except that pigs are intelligent creatures and would eat only what they needed if they weren’t being fattened up for our consumption. Either way, she scoffed with relish and by the ton: pork, beef, chicken, fish, potatoes, pasta, rice, cheese, cakes, ale, wine—you name it, grandma wolfed it. Leaving Grandad to suck the bones. If there were any left. And the lock to the larder she kept deep in her drawers. Eventually she became gargantuan. To have called her obese would have been an underestimate of gross.

All this might have gone on for years, everyone cowed by her mean spirit, sharp tongue and bullying ways. Had it not been for great grandson Joseph, now, all these years later, grown up nice as pie and thin as a rake, she might be still effing and blinding away. On the occasion of her seventy-third birthday, to which we had all been invited on condition we cleaned her house and organised all the food and drink between us, she was lavishing affection on Joseph in the only way she knew how: plying him with our cakes and sweets and fizzy drinks. But Joseph, bless his nasty little cotton socks, high on a massive sugar-rush, raised himself up to his full two feet six inches and said in a high-pitched, but amazingly loud voice: ‘Great Grandma, you are fat; you are ugly; you are rude; you are mean and we all hate you.’

There was a gasp from all present, followed by a terrible and terrifying silence. Grandma sucked in a gasp that billowed the curtains. Grandma turned beetroot and started hyperventilating. Grandma began to swell. And swell. And swell. Buttons pinged. Stays snapped. Elastic twanged. After what seemed an eternity, the explosion occurred and on behalf of her family, bereft though they were of her riches; subjected though they were to the blood, shit and teeth that took so long to expunge from clothes and hair and eyes; for her dead husband; for her neighbours; for anyone else who’d had the misfortune to have crossed her, life itself gave a sigh of relief and allowed things to improve immeasurably for them from that moment on.

Christ, I miss her!


Hayden and Candice Are Drinkers
By Dan Nielsen

Hayden told anyone who would listen—people in bars mostly—that he worked in a control tower at an airport.

“Sure, it sounds like fun. But it isn’t. It’s damn stressful. All those planes. All those lives in my hands. One tiny screw-up is all it takes. And caplooey!”

Hayden made an exploding gesture. His hand hit the gin and tonic. It toppled over, wetting the elbows of the woman texting next to him.

“Sorry.”

Hayden righted the glass. He tried to push the lime wedge and ice cubes off the bar, but the bartender was right there with a rag.

“Sorry.”

An hour later, Hayden had no idea where he parked the car. He walked home. He heard water running in the kitchen. Was Candice washing dishes? Must be yesterday’s. Tonight’s were still on the coffee table in the TV room. “I’m home, dear!” Something was on. “Are you watching this?”

“No, you go ahead!” Candice forgot why she was in the kitchen. Then she remembered. She turned off the faucet. She finished her glass of brandy and poured another. She went into the TV room and sat beside her husband. She had nothing to say. She stared at a plate. There was a fork and a fry on it. She thought of something to say. “Why are we even married?”

“What, dear?” Hayden switched from Netflix to Amazon Prime. He scrolled through Recently Added. There were 161 of them. Amazon Prime was better than Netflix. More choices. Netflix seemed unaware of any number larger than 50.

“Nothing. Forget it.” Candice went to the kitchen. There were dishes to do. She finished her brandy and poured another.

Hayden was on 79. Nothing. All the James Bond. All the Star Trek. Nothing. He switched to Netflix. Netflix had better choices. Especially their original programming.

Candice was there again, standing in the doorway. She took a sip. “Sometimes you remind me of someone I’ve never met.” She took another sip. A big one. The glass was empty.

Hayden closed his eyes. He felt himself sobering up. It was an unpleasant feeling. “You mean like a stranger?”

Candice sat beside her husband. She put down her glass and picked up another. She’d had chocolate milk and whiskey with dinner. A little was left. She tried to drink it. It was just undissolved Hershey’s. “I hate this.” Candice stood up. It wasn’t easy. “And I hate you.”

Hayden opened his eyes. “What? I’m sorry. What did you say?” Candice was carrying the two glasses and the plate with a fork and one fry on it to the kitchen. Hayden was thinking of eating that fry. He piled silverware onto the other plate and followed Candice to the kitchen. She stopped short. There was a collision. A fork and two spoons slid from the plate. Candice dropped the glasses. Luckily, they were plastic. Then she dropped the plate with the fork and fry on it, on purpose. She put her hands on her hips. “I hate you. There, I said it.”

Hayden looked at his watch. “Can we talk about this tomorrow?” He placed the plate he was carrying next to the one on the floor. He hurried to the bedroom. He worked the late shift at the control tower. Midnight until eight.

Candice picked up the plates and glasses and spoons and fork. She left the fry on the floor. For the mice. She stared at the sink. The suds were gone and the water was brown. She reached under yesterday’s dishes and pulled out the stopper until all the water drained. She replaced the stopper and turned on the hot. She squirted new dish soap. Mountain Mist. She added today’s dishes to yesterday’s. She turned off the faucet. She let it soak. It would be easier to wash tomorrow.

Hayden was back. He wore his jacket with the airplane on the pocket. He opened the refrigerator. He closed the refrigerator. Candice took a knife from the draining tray. That’s where they kept it. It was their only sharp knife. It wasn’t even sharp. It was serrated. She glared at her husband. “We can talk about it tomorrow all you want, but I’ll still hate you.” Candice threw the knife. It missed Hayden. It hit the wall. It made a clang. It didn’t stick. It landed on the linoleum.

“What’s going on?” Hayden opened a beer. “Is something bothering you?”

Candice picked up the knife. The tip was broken off. She touched the end where the tip had been. It was sharp. She pressed down until skin broke. She made a sound.

“What did you do?” Hayden grabbed his wife’s wrist. “Here, let me look at that.” He slid the injured finger into his mouth.

Candice felt her heart flutter. Like a bird.

Hayden let the finger slide out of his mouth. It bled. Then, it stopped. Hayden looked out the window. There was no car in the driveway. He remembered not remembering where he parked it. How would he get to work?

“We should go to the bar.” Hayden continued looking out the window. “We haven’t been anywhere together in ages.” Candice looked out the window. There was no car in the driveway.

“Where’s the car?” Hayden was always forgetting where he parked the car.

“Forget the car.” Candice laughed because this was funny.

“Okay.” Candice hugged Hayden. “Let’s walk, baby.” She kissed his ear. “Maybe there’s a moon.”

“Okay, lover.” Hayden flipped his phone open. “I’ll call in.”

There was a moon. It was full. A plane crashed that night. It wasn’t Hayden’s fault. He felt bad anyway. Air traffic controllers feel bad when a plane crashes, even if it’s not their fault.


PERFECTLY ORDINARY DAY
By Salvatore Difalco

Tony took out a bowl to prepare the tuna. It was almost noon. He felt blocked up. He’d been feeling very blocked up of late. The weather wasn’t helping, recent cyclones and so on. The world had changed so much in such a short time.

He stared at his hands: they were the blue of Uranus. His neighbour, Luke, had once showed him a picture of Uranus in an astronomical book. Luke died last year. One day he told Tony he was dying of pancreatic cancer. Two weeks later he was dead.

The tuna smelled a little off. But tuna always smells a little off, Tony concluded. You probably wouldn’t want to eat it if it smelled like custard or apple pie. He chopped an onion and a cucumber. Using a discarded toothbrush, he mixed these in with the tuna.

He ground in black pepper. The pepper mill, a sturdy metal and glass tube, had belonged to an old man who used to live around the corner. On the very day he died, the very moment, Tony happened by his house and heard him groaning. He charged inside, announcing he was a First-Aider, but the old man had expired. The pepper mill was a memento of the incident. Tony felt no guilt about taking it.

He ground extra pepper into the mix. Then he chopped up two fat earthworms he had plucked out of the garden that morning. The worm bits continued writhing as he mixed them with the tuna, onion and cucumber.

Grandpa insisted on Miracle Whip in his tuna sandwiches. One time, years ago, when Tony, in a moment of distraction, had used mayonnaise, Grandpa made him kneel on popcorn kernels until he passed out from the pain.

“Tony!” Grandpa shouted. “Tony!” He had the most annoying voice in the universe. He sounded like a big dog with throat cancer. He couldn’t walk anymore. He weighed 400 pounds and spent most of his days and nights trussed up on the California king bed in his bedroom.

When Tony brought up the sandwich, he had to loosen the straps holding Grandpaʼs thighs apart. It took some doing. Grandpa smelled bad, like cheese or a rotting animal.

“Go on,” he cackled, “loosen me up.” Then he wanted Tony to apply lotion to his badly chaffed calf muscles.

“Now?” he said.

“Now,” said Grandpa.

Tony slathered medicated lotion over his thick, pimply calf muscles. While he worked, Grandpa swatted him with a gift-wrapping tube. It made a hollow thumping music when it struck his head.

“Youʼre useless, Tony. Useless.” Thump. “Look at you, still in your pajamas.” Thump thump. “What 40-year-old man spends his days in pajamas?” Thump.

Tony held his tongue. You canʼt hate someone for being a bitter fat old man. Well, you can. But what can you do about it? The past is the past. You have to move forward.

Tony looked at his hands: still as blue as Uranus. Funniest thing. They weren’t numb or anything. Just that peculiar hue of blue. Life is full of mysteries.

Grandpa grabbed the sandwich and started eating.


Gnaw
By Spencer K.M. Brown

Gnaw (nô), v., gnawed, gnawed or gnawn, gnawing—v. t. 1. to wear away or remove with persistent biting—Heather McMurphy’s body is pale white like milk because she’s afraid of sunlight and cancer and she laughs when my shoulders twitch and shake with each thrust in and out. She explained how none of this was love and just enjoy it and when her face starts to look bored my mind drifts to the rain pelting the tin roof above us. Heather’s place smells like cigarettes and rain and the thoughts gnaw away at me as I look down at her drooping breasts and fluff of brown pubic hair and ask her if it feels all right. I told her I’d never done it before and she laughed and said she wanted to show me something and took off my belt with her teeth, said she learned it from one of her friends in high school. She started to gnaw at my earlobe and I lost it right then, just sitting on the sofa, and she said it happens but just that she’d never seen it before, and that I’d be ready to go again in a minute or two—

2. to slowly corrode; consume—I’d begged Heather for a date for a few months and even showed her a few poems I’d written hoping she would find them as romantic as I did. I left one in the wait-station for her to find and carried on bussing the tables in the restaurant. Someone else found it and they all gathered and read it and laughed. Heather was sleeping with our manager Greg for about a week and then he started to cut her shifts when she started ignoring his texts and calls. She got pissed and told me about it one night because I stayed late and she was closing. When the restaurant closed early this afternoon, Heather and I were left in the Florida afternoon swimming in the humidity. She stood in the shade under the awning of the restaurant gnawing at her lime green fingernails. She said if I bought the beer we could go back to her trailer and drink but that it wasn’t a date. We drank and she smoked a cigarette and flicked ash in the dirty sink and said she was bored and hadn’t gotten laid in sometime and it was gnawing away at her—

3. Gnaw, gnawing—to consume with passion; to torment—She took off her shirt and opened all the windows of her trailer and her skin glowed and she smelled like flowers and hairspray. She said she knew that I liked her but that she wasn’t interested in dating or love, just sex is all it would be, because she was bored and it was raining. She said she had too many guys who wanted to see her and it was starting to become a headache for her; most of them were fun and knew where to touch her, and I listened and gnawed silently at my bottom lip until I tasted blood. Love has no place when it’s just sex she said, only I wouldn’t know about something like that, and could only take her word for it—

4. v. i.,—to bite persistently; to cause corrosion and ruin—Heather McMurphy lies perfectly still and my shoulders shake and she looks bored and her mind is somewhere else. I wipe the mess off her belly with a t-shirt when it’s all over and ask her about the scar on her belly. She says she’d gotten cancer on one of her ovaries and that she couldn’t have kids, so there was nothing for me to worry about. She lies naked on the bed leaning against the headboard and sucks on a cigarette leaving red lipstick on the white filter. I pull my jeans on and ask her if I should go and she says she doesn’t care. I lie down next to her and push open the shutters on the window that the storm closed and look up at the cauliflower clouds that tilt into darkness against the bruised Florida sky. I tell her that I think I’m in love with her and she says love is nice and do I want any spaghetti if she makes some. She taps gray ash on the floor beside the bed and tells me she bites her nails because she gets anxious. I stand and pull on my t-shirt and she says that she’s tired. When I start for the door she says she doesn’t want to be alone and that I should stay and I sit back down on the edge of the bed and listen to her teeth gnawing at her fingernails and listen to the rain tapping on the tin roof and wonder why things never are how I build them up to be in my head. She gets up from the bed and starts to make spaghetti and I look at her sugar white skin in the yellow light from the stove and think about how I could listen to her talk forever. She tells me she was in love once but got tired of waiting for it again. She says a real woman doesn’t wait, that she makes her own life, that despite all the shit, she continues on. I want to tell her I love her again but get distracted by the rain and I tell her angel hair sounds fine.


IF YOU GO DOWN TO THE WOODS TODAY
By Louise Mangos

‘What was that?’

Katie held her breath, as Billy’s efforts to calm his panting were thwarted by a thumping heart. She gripped his arm, her nails scraping the canvas sleeve of his duffel coat. The beeches stood like embarrassed sentinels around them, blocking their view to the trail. A startled blackbird burst out of the undergrowth, and flew a precise line between the tightly packed tree trunks, peeping an urgent warning call.

‘Just a bird,’ said Billy, kissing Katie’s throat.

He grabbed the back of her thigh, and tried to lift her leg to wrap around his hip, but Katie couldn’t move. Her feet were trapped in the jeans pooled around her ankles. Copper leaves crackled, and twigs snapped beneath Billy’s shifting boots as his hands found Katie’s smooth flesh beneath her jacket, and she gasped. The pungent smell of autumnal decay sweetened the air. She leaned back against the tree, away from Billy’s hot breath, and winced as a strand of her hair caught in the fine bark.

Billy was horny, and Katie was uncomfortable. Two very different expectations.

This was not the romantic coupling Katie Dunn had envisaged for their first time together. Her crush on Billy had blossomed to obsessive proportions. She didn’t think she would ever get his attention, but last week at the youth club disco, Billy’s eyes lingered on her as she lounged against the yellow painted brick wall in the corridor outside the cloakrooms, and her heart had leapt in her throat.

He hadn’t asked her to dance, but at the end of the evening as damp musky bodies spilled from the hall like marbles from a jar, and rolled haphazardly along the pavements to the bus stop, she saw Billy sitting on the stone wall. He raised his chin towards her.

‘When are you up for it then?’

Katie wished he hadn’t flung the question so far across the hopscotch-painted playground. His companions either side of him sniggered at the question. She broke away from Suzy and Sharon and approached him, so as not to shout out her answer.

‘Saturday. After lunch. Reynold’s Wood. By the kissing gate.’

Katie blushed furiously as she uttered the word ‘kissing,’ and Billy’s mates all chorused a three-pitched ‘Oo-oo-ooh.’ She wished she hadn’t been so brazen, and figured she probably wouldn’t turn up at Reynold’s Wood on Saturday.

But Saturday morning dawned, and Katie restlessly paced her bedroom. Her heart thudded at the prospect of seeing Billy, and she realised the draw of him was too strong. She hadn’t loved him for three years, two months and five days to end this thing now.

She sat at her dressing table and carefully made up her face. A more natural look for the daytime. Less eyeliner, and a little healthy blush on the cheeks. Pearly pink gloss instead of the usual vermilion. She pressed her lips together. When she’d finished her artwork, she stared at her fifteen-year-old face in the mirror. She looked like Christmas.

Billy was there first. Katie’s heart bloomed as she walked across the grass field towards him. He watched her approach, leaning casually on one of the gatepost Vs, swinging the gate back and forth on its hinges with his foot. It made a slow clunk, clunk, clunk as it hit the post. As she approached, Billy reached into his mouth for the gum he’d been chewing, and pressed it onto one of the middle rungs. His smile was shy, not cocky as it usually was when he was with his mates.

‘Hi, beautiful,’ he said, and Katie’s belly warmed.

He held the gate open for her, and when she stood in the V of the posts, he reached over and kissed her lightly on her lips. They walked side by side along the trail tentatively holding hands.

When they were a hundred yards or so into the forest, Billy took Katie’s hand and they veered off into the trees. The light was diffused through trees still wearing the last golden cloaks of autumn. He gently pushed her against a beech and kissed her open mouth. She tasted spearmint. She kissed him back, stale coffee seeping through the taste of his gum. With his mouth still on hers, he unzipped his fly and then hers. Tree bark dug into her back, and she shivered as her legs were exposed to the chill autumn air.

‘Oy, you two! What the bloody hell are you doing here?’

Billy jumped away from Katie. He fumbled for his boxers and grabbed the waist of his trousers, modesty quashing his boldness and passion.

‘Blimey, he has a shotgun,’ he yelled.

In a flash Billy was off, running hard, feet swishing through the leaves and pounding the trail. Petrified, Katie locked eyes with the big man holding the gun.

‘You shouldn’t be in here,’ he said.

Galvanized by his voice, Katie tripped out of her jeans, stepping on each leg to stamp them off with her feet. She ran for her life out of the woods, aiming for Billy’s flapping duffel coat in the distance.

She broke out from the trees, eyes smarting after the darkness of the forest. The misty chill of the open field slapped her naked legs. She stopped abruptly.

Katie turned and registered a row of faces. She recognised her father Arthur’s amongst them, his cheeks darkening.

A row of shotguns were cocked in preparation for the first shoot of the season, eight men’s eyes firmly fixed on the bare backside of Arthur Dunn’s daughter.


Truth or Dare
By Sarah Clayville

Emma dared her husband to kiss me, and from that dare we all fell apart.

“It was a pity thing,” she told me the next day, pouring our water as evenhandedly as she could muster. First her glass, then mine, making sure not one extra drop was spilled. She struggled to put us back on equal footing.

“What a shitty thing to say,” I told her.

“But you looked sad, and he’s been kissing me too much. It seemed harmless. I was a little drunk.”

I had the feeling she was still drunk that morning. Her hands flailed inches from my face. She’d stopped wearing her wedding band, for sympathy from our friends, I guessed. He hadn’t left her yet. In fact, he was only sleeping with me when she traveled.

“I was sad, and I still am,” I admitted. It was the sadness only a true friend would recognize, and she’d seen it painted all over me for quite some time.

I’d known Emma for years. We’d met along the eastern shore up north past where it was beautiful and instead where it was desolate. We were both drawn to the empty shell husks and sand that looked grey like a cemetery against a cool Northeastern sky and frigid water.

She knew me the way no one else did.

“I thought his kiss might ignite you both somehow.” Emma dumped her water into the sink. She reached for red wine. “All my friends called me crazy for inviting you over this morning. Slut,” she added.

The last word looked more painful to her than to me.

“Why?”

“They thought I might lose control and scratch your eyes out.”

“Didn’t anyone think I might defend myself?” I asked.

“No, not even Louis. He asked me not to be too violent.”

We sat in the foyer matching our moves, tracing back step by step how she’d lost a small piece of her husband and how I’d managed to gather it up.

At the end, we both lied.

“I’ll stop,” I told her. “I don’t even care about him.”

“I’m divorcing him,” she said. “Today, and tomorrow I’ll move to Italy and find a lover.”

“Isn’t that a movie?” I asked.

She nodded and we sat together, waiting for the other to break the silence and admit neither of us were strong enough to walk away.

*

Louis and I decide on our one-year anniversary to vacation north, because his uncle owns a cabin and we’ve lost our friends to the naked hand his soon-to-be ex-wife fashionably wears around town. The hand with no ring. The hand that deftly says we’re both rotten people.

We’ve packed his sedan with enough clothes for months rather than days, as if we can stay married to the little home with soft towels and a stone path that threatens to walk you directly into the ocean if you aren’t cautious. As if we can dismiss a bad beginning and make something fresh of it along the coast.

The first night we eat pizza and lay naked on the patio, barely touching one another. Possessed by the air and the way it settles on us. He kisses my fingers and says he can feel the fingerprints and would know me from anyone else in the universe.

“Maybe we could stay longer than three days,” I suggest.

He nods, but no pact has ever been sealed without words.

On the second night we trek to town, ignoring the stone walk in favor of a small town with reasonable Italian food. He presses his thumb against my lips, and it tastes like garlic and olive oil. We avoid the bedroom again and instead coil ourselves around one another, this time in the sitting room with the television.

His grandmother used to keep him up watching old black and white movies, and he wants to share them all with me. It’s endearing at first. He’s never shown these to another soul, I imagine. But as I see the past hazy and deliberate in his eyes, I realize he is studying men and women who act according to the rules of the 1950s.

“Let’s drive back now. Right now,” I ask him.

“Don’t be silly,” he says. “I love you.”

But his eyes are still fixed on the television.

And on the third night he makes me an impossibly enormous dinner. There are four courses. Lobster cracked from its shell. Vegetables, soft and splayed open. Bread and soup all started so many hours before the meal it’s like he’s planned this feast since the beginning of time.

“I feel like I should set extra places. You’ve invited a dozen invisible guests to our small table.”

But as we eat, the two of us devour the food. We’re both hungrier than we thought, and I drink more wine than I should because the sadness returns. Only this sadness has attached to the food in my stomach, and a million men couldn’t move me if they tried.

I remember our first kiss, his hand snaked around the nape of my neck. His teeth grazed my lip, and it lasted even in front of our friends and Emma who had prodded us on. She clearly hadn’t known what either of us were capable of.

“I’m going to stay an extra day,” I tell him. “I’d like to go back to town, and I can take the train home.”

He shakes his head no, but again, no words.

I look at him, at his eyes that are time capsules and his lips that have closed to me, and I say the only thing that can unlock us from a year of discontent.

“I dare you to go home to her,” I whisper.

And the next morning once the fog has lifted and the lobster mariners have taken to the sea to dredge the ocean for treasure, he does.


Blue Sea, Wilt Thou Welcome Me?
By Ingrid Anders

Sun glitter on the water flirts with me; wavelets lap the deck posts below.

“Jill? Down here,” says my laptop, rudely. I should have taken the conference call inside, but this view—

“Right. As I was saying, keep up the good work, Ty. You’ve done a great job these two weeks I’ve been gone.”

“Thanks, boss. So, how was the trip? Not too awkward, I hope.”

Through the open kitchen window, I can see my daughter and Lorenzo’s mother. Gemma is up on her tippy-toes on a chair, peering into an active pot; Claudia has one hand securing the toddler’s waist, the other holding a steaming spoonful of broth.

“Hot, Nonna, hot!” Gemma squeals.

“Sì, tesorina, stai attenta,” Claudia says in tranquil tones. She blows on the spoon to cool it. To Gemma, this is sorcery.

I sigh. “No, not awkward at all.”

“Wow, that’s … amazing. Well, I confirmed your flight. You’re on schedule to leave at four fifty p.m. Swiss time. And I booked your car to the airport. Did you get the email?”

I hold up the confirmation page that Lorenzo printed for me. “Yes. We’ll be ready to go after lunch.”

“Great. And you said your sister was picking you up in New York?”

“Yes, she’ll be there for us.” Ty doesn’t know I mean this literally and figuratively.

“Well, have a smooth flight. See you at work on Monday.”

The door to the deck swings open and Lorenzo pokes his head out into the Goldilocks morning. My laptop snaps itself shut.

Lorenzo: My River runs to thee. Blue sea, wilt thou welcome me? Jill, stop that! Emily Dickinson would not approve.

“Ciao, Mees Jeel,” the young man says. “Can I bring you a coffee?”

I snort-laugh. I’ve told Lorenzo countless times not to call me “miss,” but he thinks it’s hilarious to treat me like I’m still his boss. He stands there, imp-grinning, until I say, “Yes, thank you, a coffee would be great.”

“Ciao, mamma!” booms through the window as Lorenzo lifts up Claudia and kisses her on each cheek. Gemma gets a “Ciao, bella!” Now he’s back outside, handing over a demitasse of dark, eager fuel and settling down with his own diminutive cup. Together, we sip and watch the kitchen.

“Nonna!” squeals Gemma. “Can I do it?” The two of them add salt to the brodo. Claudia manages the grinder expertly in Gemma’s raw double grab.

“Sì, tesorina. Lentamente. Così guarda!”

“I’m cooking, Nonna! I’m cooking!”

“Sì, sì, amore mio.”

Claudia is a prima ballerina in the kitchen; she leads Gemma from stove to table to counter in an exquisite pas de deux.

“I’ve never seen my mother so happy,” Lorenzo says.

I’m so sorry! I want to blurt. Sorry, I failed you. Sorry, I wasn’t the grown-up you needed me to be. But I am not sorry—not for me, and not for Gemma.

Lorenzo shakes his head. “I’m sorry it took me so long to invite you here.” He tips the rest of his coffee back and swallows. “Before you came, I could not imagine seeing her. Now I cannot imagine not seeing her.”

“…”

“And my parents … well, they welcome you here anytime.”

My gaze finds the mountains across the lake: green, abrupt, and stunning like the peaks of Rio de Janeiro, yet largely forsaken for their Alpine siblings.

“Your sister will be happy to have you home, no?”

I shrug. “Two weeks of our apartment to herself and no childcare responsibilities? I am sure she enjoyed the alone time.”

“I am sure she was lonely.”

Funny Lorenzo should mention my little sister. When I first met him while visiting the Zurich office, I mentally matched him with Liz. They were the same age; he was an intern, she an MFA student. Ambition piped from them both.

Lorenzo’s father shuffles past the door with a worn leather bag.

“Nonno!” Gemma exclaims when she sees him. She and Claudia are co-slicing bread; the woman’s arms encircle the child like a cello. “Watch me, Nonno! I’m cutting! I’m cutting!”

“Bravissima, cara mia.”

Silvio’s tender words prick my heart. My own father has never said such things to her. When I announced my pregnancy, he and my mother distanced themselves, favoring their more sensible children, their more legitimate grandchildren. Only Liz stood by us.

“Vieni qui.” Silvio lifts Gemma off the stool and leads her toward the front garden.

“He’s got his bocce set,” Lorenzo says. “It was his father’s. We all used to play when I was little. I cannot remember the last time he took it out.”

Yesterday, Lorenzo took Gemma and me on the funicular up San Salvatore. From the mountaintop, Lugano was a crescent of beige Legos around a spill of mineral blue; its people, their sentiments: invisible.

“Nonna!” Gemma yells. “Come see me! I’m playing!”

Claudia pivots her head, unties her apron, and drifts out of view. Lorenzo’s eyes fall to the table and land on my airport shuttle confirmation page. He scoffs.

“What?”

He shakes his head.

“What?”

“Jeel. I know you are supposed to leave today, but …”

“…”

“I do not think …” Lorenzo’s masseter muscle distends in his cheek.

“…”

“I cannot let you go.” He stands up, paper and cell phone in hand. My airport shuttle is cancelled.

“Lorenzo!”

“Nonna!” Gemma’s voice wafts from the front garden. “Look at me! I’m rolling them! I’m rolling them!”

“Ah,” says Lorenzo, like he’s just cracked a stubborn joint.

“Brava, cara mia!” Silvio cheers.

“Ben fatto, tesorina!” Claudia claps.

The young man silhouettes himself against the sparkling lake; his back and shoulders inflate.

“Silly boy,” I whisper, “you’ll have to drive us to the airport now,” though I know I am no longer in charge.

Lorenzo’s car keys jangle in my face. Then—with that familiar, reckless blaze in his eyes—he turns and hurls the keys. A plunk in the water. A ring in a swath of diamonds.


Time Will Tell
By Karen Heslop

George pressed the call button and said “Mrs. Whitfield, you have a visitor.”

Silence.

Had he done it right? He pressed the button again and repeated his line.

“Seriously, George! How many times have I told you to stop playing with that!”

George jumped at his mother’s voice behind him. He hadn’t heard her come into the room. No wonder his sister hadn’t answered him.

“Sorry, Mum.”

She sighed and placed the basket of dirty clothes on the floor. She wiped her hand across her face as if to rub the fatigue away but all she had done was smear suds across her forehead.

“No, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have yelled at you. I understand that you and Christine must be bored here so it’s normal to want to have a little fun. Just please be careful and don’t let the Jacksons see you playing with the system, okay?”

His face brightened a bit.

“Okay.”

She moved forward to rub his hair like she used to do before their dad keeled over in the old salt factory. He missed the way she used to play.

“This will only be for a little while longer, Georgie. Just so we can get back on our feet.”

She walked back over to the basket, whipping out an article of clothing.

“We’ll survive this yet. One dirty knicker at a time!”

George watched his mother set off with the basket again, her back held straight in spite of the weight she was carrying. She turned and looked at him over her shoulder, a small smile playing on her lips.

“Oh and please let Mrs. Whitfield know that lunch will be on the table shortly.”

George gave his best bow.

“Yes, ma’am.”

He pushed the call button again. “Mrs. Whitfield, you have a visitor.” After a moment of thought, he added, “Would you like him directed to the dining area since lunch will be ready soon?”

“Very well, George. I’ll be down shortly.”

His sister had perfected the breathy, slightly annoyed, always-bored speech of the privileged. He didn’t know if she did it outside of their little games and frankly he didn’t care. He was content with killing the time until his mother got a job somewhere else. Would that change their lives for the better? He supposed only time would tell.


A Sinus of the Times
By Charles Rammelkamp

“You know, whenever I come back here to Potawatomi Rapids, it strikes me what a really pretty, peaceful place this is,” Greg Zimmerman remarked to his friend, Josh Reynolds. “But I couldn’t get out of here fast enough when I was growing up.”

“The kind of place to raise a family,” Josh nodded, and Greg looked at him sharply to see if he were being sarcastic, but no, the cliché rolled right off his tongue without a hint of self-consciousness. Josh had only left Potawatomi Rapids to go to law school in East Lansing but he’d returned to join the Beard and Lewis firm as a junior partner. Now in his late thirties, he and his wife, Cindy Lefevre, another native, had built a home on Goose Lake, which, in the universe of Potawatomi Rapids, was like dying and going to heaven. Valhalla, home of the gods.

“Friday nights used to be this endless activity of driving around town, up and down Superior and Erie, through the park, out past the lake, by the high school and college, back through town again … ”

“Aren’t you sorry you left?”

“This time you’re kidding, right?”

“Those were simpler pleasures,” Josh sighed. “Now we’ve got those meth labs out on Twenty-nine Mile Road.”

“Breaking Bad comes to Potawatomi Rapids?”

“Some of them are my clients.”

Greg was sure Josh would decline to tell him if he asked who they were, so he didn’t. He was here visiting his mother and had called his old friend to take a stroll around the park. It was early summer and his classes back in Boston had ended and he’d turned in his grades. Summer school would not start for another week. After another long winter the maples were in leaf, the air perfumed with the scents of foxgloves and delphiniums, bachelor buttons, hydrangeas and larkspurs. Peaceful, seductive—sure beat the gasoline stench of Kenmore Square. Should he have stayed in Potawatomi Rapids, as his mother had hoped he would? No, he’d have been miserable.

“You remember Juanita Mather, don’t you?”

“I’m not sure I—”

“Of course you do!”

“Father was manager at the A&P?” Caught in his lie, Greg was thankful for the dusk that hid his blush.

“Bingo. Married Tim Lawson, up-and-coming furniture store salesman at Ringo’s. You remember Tim, two years ahead of us, drove around in his Mustang? Ringo’s went bust, and he and Juanita got into drugs. Crack, smack, coke, dope. You name it. Sad.”

Greg remembered Juanita, for sure, and felt a sense of schadenfreude at the thought of her troubles. He wasn’t cool enough for her back then. Probably wasn’t cool enough now, an assistant professor of Economics at a college in Boston, Massachusetts.

“And them with two kids. All that bright future gone up their noses.”

The foxgloves suddenly smelled cloying, like dirty diapers, and the delphiniums appeared to be wilting before Greg’s very eyes.


It’s Only Words
By Fred Vogel

At home he always had something sarcastic to say. It had cost him his marriage. At work he was constantly in an argumentative mood with fellow employees as well as with management. It had cost him several jobs. In the car he would yell at motorists, demanding that they learn how to drive. It had cost him a broken nose and a chipped tooth.

His doctor tried to stress the importance of keeping his temper in check but the man had no self-control over his actions. The doctor had no choice but to put him on medication, designed to keep the angry words inside, alleviating the need to share them with the rest of society.

Once the pills took effect, he seemed to morph into a new person, no longer filled with uncontrollable rage.

He discovered classical music as a deterrent to road rage. Instead of screaming at someone who had cut him off, he would simply wave to the driver and continue on his merry way, humming along with Mozart and Vivaldi.

At work he was a pussycat, agreeing to whatever project he was assigned. He was given a promotion and a bump in salary. His co-workers were astounded at his transformation. He was asked to join the company’s bowling team, an invitation that only a month ago wouldn’t have been considered.

He joined an online dating service and became involved in a serious relationship. He was tolerant of his new partner’s opinions even when they didn’t align with his own.

He went out of his way to apologize to his ex-wife for his inexcusable behavior during their marriage. Sensing the sincerity in his voice, she found it in her heart to forgive him.

He joined a health club and got himself into better shape. He didn’t raise a stink when a fellow member forgot to wipe the sweat off the exercise bike, or when another member took too long on the elliptical.

He enrolled in an anger management group and became its leading voice. He volunteered to help any new members asking for assistance. He knew all too well the pitfalls of being angry at the world.

Life was good. He was at the top of his game. The medication seemed to be performing a miracle. Then one day it all ended. Just like that.

He slipped off a treadmill and landed hard on the health club’s thin carpeting. He went into convulsions, twisting in agony, gasping for air. By the time the EMTs arrived, it was too late. He was dead. Friends and co-workers were in shock that this man, who had turned his life around, had it end so abruptly.

The autopsy found hundreds of little objects embedded throughout his body, confirming what no one wanted to accept—he had suffocated on his own angry words.


Whelp
By Roald Dahl, aged 10-and-a-bit, as told to Paul Gray

It was a lovely day when Father brought home the puppy. It was a lovely puppy too, a Labrador, and we named him Erato after my favourite Greek Muse. He would sit on the hearthrug day after day, chewing old slippers to shreds and generally warming himself through by the fire. But it wasn’t long before Erato began to give trouble. “If this continues,” said my father, “I shall have to consult someone.” But it DID go on, and one day father announced at breakfast that the ‘Puppy Whisperer’ would be calling that afternoon.

“What exactly does he do?” asked my mother. We were all sitting around prior to the great man’s arrival. My mother was knitting two cardigans at once, I was writing my tenth short story of the day so far, and my sister Polyhymnia was concluding a letter to her pen-pal Einstein. On the sofa my Uncle Oswald sprawled, tut-tutting over a Huxley tome.

“Well, he … whispers,” said my father.

“I had gathered that!”

“Clever chap,” continued my father, watching Erato mauling an old slipper of his on the mat, “with all sorts of degrees in animal communication.”

“But what does he whisper?”

“Oh, he wouldn’t tell you that. Professional secret, you know.”

“It would be fun to sort of listen in, though, wouldn’t it?” suggested my sister, old sly-boots.

“Don’t see how we could,” said my father.

There came a snort of derision and the Huxley went flying into the fireplace. This is the inevitable fate of any book that fails to engage Uncle Oswald. We rarely need coals in this house.

“Perhaps I can help,” cried Uncle O. He has a huge bald dome such as I hope to have one day, and wet lips that slither over one another when he speaks. “I am, as you know, a brilliant inventor—I WOULD be in a family like this. My most recent invention may be just the ticket. Wait here!” And he shot off. We heard him rummaging about in his lab upstairs. Next minute he was back, holding between forefinger and thumb something invisible.

“I can’t see anything there!” complained my father, peering.

“It’s a tape-recorder the size of a grain of rice,” explained my uncle. “My idea is to conceal it under Erato’s collar and activate it with this—” he flashed something small from his pocket— “the moment he starts his whispering. Wizard idea, what!”

“If it works,” muttered my mother, needles clacking.

“Don’t worry. It will.” My uncle shot her a bitter look. They don’t really gel, those two. It is my mother’s belief that all loonies for some reason wear their trousers too short: an observable fact. Every time she reminds us, it is with a telling glance at my uncle’s lower cuffs.

Uncle O grabbed the dog, and within seconds it was done—just in time, for the doorbell chimed.

“It’s a Mr Cummin,” advised my father, straightening his service medals and arranging his Brigadier’s cap more prominently on the coffee table. He left the room. “Come in if you’re Cummin,” we heard, followed by his roar of forced laughter.

Well! What we expected I don’t know, but Mr Cummin seemed more dog than human. He had huge, wet spaniel eyes, massive floppy ears, and a shaggy mane of hair. Even his tongue got into the act, lolling queerly from one side of his extra-wide, drooling mouth. His teeth were goofy.

“Tea?” offered my mother, clearly appalled.

“No thanks,” he panted—yes, PANTED. “I like to crack on. Ah, there’s the little chap! There’s the old crotch-sniffer!”

“He’s really a delightful little fellow,” chipped in my father, “just rather—”

But Cummin held up a silencing hand. Next second he had begun his extraordinary performance. It started with him taking huge, ponderous tip-toeing steps towards Erato—even though the dog could see him coming a mile off. Then he began closing in in ever-decreasing circles, jabbering the while and flicking his fingers in and out ludicrously.

“Mesmerism!” hissed my uncle O, agog. Now Cummin was stamping up and down, rocking from side to side, tongue shooting in and out, eyes rolling like a Polynesian rugger-player doing the Haka. This went on until even Erato seemed transfixed. Then—Cummin pounced! Flopping all over Erato, his lips brushed the dog’s ear. At the same moment I saw my uncle’s hand fly to his pocket.

Then it was all over.

That was it really. The Puppy Whisperer had his cup of tea and went off, clutching his cheque.

“£1,000!” bemoaned my father, and it was left to my sister to point out that the man had been wearing ‘hush-puppy’ loafers. Then we all gathered around as Uncle O retrieved the device. With two toothpicks and magnifying-spectacles that rendered his already boggling eyes enormous, he manipulated it and we waited, rapt. What had Cummin whispered? What ineffable words of wisdom had he passed to the dog? A verse from the Upanishads, perhaps? Husbandry advice couched in some uncanny cosmic language, incomprehensible to human ears?

“Ah, here it is now!” announced Uncle Oswald in triumph. This is what we heard:

Click! “If you don’t stop p ——– on that carpet, it’s straight down to the pond with a brick round yer neck!” Click!

Pandemonium! As my sister and I collapsed in helpless hysteria, my parents wrung their hands and ran to the door. Too late! He had gone.

Next day came the headline: “Fake-Fido-Whisperer Flees After Filching Funds From Fickle Families.”

But do you know? Erato never again used the hearthrug.

He used the hall one instead.


Reservations
By Lori Cramer

Jace and I are lingering by the hostess station, awaiting the table we’ve been promised will be ready “momentarily,” when a woman seated nearby yelps and waves feverishly. She gets to her feet, revealing an enormous belly, waddles over to us, and throws her arms around Jace.

“Lucinda. Wow.” He pats her back. Three light taps. Though he’s never mentioned anyone named Lucinda, the word “ex” flashes like a neon sign in my brain.

Releasing him from her overenthusiastic embrace, she steps back and cocks her head. “Was that a ‘wow’ that we’re both in the same place at the same time or a ‘wow’ that I’ve doubled in size?”

Jace laughs.

She smacks him on the shoulder with the casual ease of someone well acquainted with his body. “I’m due in five weeks. A girl. Adele.”

Adele’s at the top of my list of baby-girl names. Not that I’ve told Jace about this list yet. Wouldn’t want to freak him out. “Beautiful name,” I say.

Lucinda turns, her lips parted in surprise.

I stick out my hand. “I’m Ellyn.”

She studies me as we shake hands, no doubt wondering who I am to Jace.

“I’ve been married two years,” she volunteers, as though hoping to coax Jace into a revelation of his own. “I wish Kirk were here to meet you, but I’m out with the ladies tonight.” She gestures toward a tableful of twenty-something women chortling like teenagers.

“We’re celebrating Jace’s promotion to art director,” I announce, knowing Jace‘s too humble to tell her.

She pokes his chest. “Didn’t I always say you were destined to be director?”

Jace colors, rubs his beard.

“I’m so happy things are working out for you,” she gushes. “You deserve the best.”

The hostess calls Jace’s name.

“That’s us,” Jace says, relief evident in his tone. “Nice seeing you again, Lucinda. Congratulations on the baby.”

I can tell by her expression that she isn’t ready to say good-bye yet. “Nice meeting you,” I say, eager to end the awkward encounter.

She nods, her eyes on Jace, not me. What does she want from him? Another hug? She stares at him for a few more seconds before finally returning to her friends.

Once Jace and I have been seated, I ask the obvious: “Ex-girlfriend?”

“Uh-huh.”

I want to find out how long they dated, how serious they were. Instead, I say, “Must’ve been weird, seeing her pregnant.”

“A little.” He opens his menu.

“Did you two ever talk about having kids?”

He clears his throat. “She wanted them, but I didn’t. That’s the main reason we broke up.”

My stomach lurches. “You don’t want kids?”

“Uh … ” His dark eyes meet mine, then dart away. “I’m not sure.”

“But you told her that you didn’t.”

“A long time ago.” He shifts his gaze to the menu.

I open mine, but the list of entrées blurs. How could he not want kids? He’d be the perfect dad. I could just picture him playing catch with a little girl in pigtails in the backyard. Telling silly knock-knock jokes. Reading bedtime stories.

Jace reaches across the table, takes my hand in his. “Sorry if that caught you off guard, meeting her like that. I would’ve told you about her, but I didn’t see the point. She’s in the past.”

Except tonight she’s in the present. Her and her pregnant belly. I withdraw my hand. “If you’d wanted kids, you two would still be together?”

He shakes his head.

“You said—”

“That’s what our last argument was about. But she and I disagreed about a lot of things. She tried to make me into someone I’m not. Somebody louder, showier.”

“Like her?”

He smiles. “Yeah.”

“You’d be such a good dad,” I blurt.

His eyes search mine. “What makes you say that?”

A woman with teal hair and multiple piercings appears at the table. “Good evening. My name’s Garnett, and I’ll be your waitress tonight. Can I take your drink order?”

“I’ll have a Yuengling,” Jace says.

Suddenly aware of how thirsty I am, I say, “Water, please.”

The waitress scribbles on her pad and departs.

“You’ve thought this through?” Jace asks me. “What kind of dad I’d be?”

“Is that bad? Thinking about our future?”

“No, but—”

“Why don’t you want kids?”

He pulls at his beard. “What if I’m a lousy father?”

“You won’t be.”

“I wish I could be as sure as you are.”

“I don’t mind being sure enough for both of us.”

The waitress comes back with our drinks and asks if we’re ready to order.

Jace tells her we could use a few more minutes. As soon as she’s out of earshot, he says, “I love the way things are between us right now.”

“So do I, but my future includes kids. If yours doesn’t, I need to know.”

“The only thing I know about my future is that you’re in it.”

“Not if you’re not interested in having children.” The words come out much colder than I’d expected. They hang there like icicles.

Jace doesn’t say anything at first, his expression pensive. Then, quietly, he asks, “What makes you think I’d be a good dad?”

“Lots of reasons. You’re compassionate and encouraging. Thoughtful. Gentle. Kind.”

“I don’t know the first thing about taking care of kids,” he confesses.

“Neither do I. We could learn together.”

He gazes into the distance, squinting as though trying to imagine himself as a parent.

I want to ask if he can see it, but then I remember the reason we came here in the first place. “Tell you what,” I say. “How about we celebrate your promotion tonight—and save the baby talk for tomorrow?”

Looking appreciative, he says, “Sounds good.”

I’m sure he’ll come around by tomorrow. And then I can give him the good news.


Ramfeezled
By KJ Hannah Greenberg

I am ramfeezled, forswunk, exhausted by overwork and otherwise plain pumped out. Although I knew that I was supposed to inherit Aunt Laura’s cache of Jupiter lobster eggs, all of which were suspended in cryopreservation, I doubt I was meant to inherit her lover, George, that three hundred year-old Balkan transplant, alleged specialist in time dilation, and would-be Methuselah, or her former research assistant, Dr. Hugo Bata, physics professor from Kim II Sung University.

It’s a pity that Dr. Laura Whitfield, lone sibling to my mother, Dr. Phlox Hakha, had gotten eaten by a marauding, amphibious space pirate. She and George should have sucked down those ova while picnicking on lobster hatchlings. As it were, she was vaporized, George was zapped back to adolescence, and the not-so-well-hidden eggs were stolen.

Mom, I mean Dr. Phlox Hakha, had counseled that romantic love, not career advancement, ought to have rocked Aunt Laura’s boat, floated her rolls, and otherwise mixed her metaphors. Mom had scolded Auntie to hurry up and marry George before Auntie aged too much. At the time of that talk, Mom was already decades older than Aunt Laura, whose physiological clock had gotten rewired when she hitchhiked to Jupiter.

No matter. Mom and Dad are long dead. Aunt Laura is gone. I’m the family’s lone heir and among the treats I’ve inherited is George.

George is spooky, not because he had the mind of a genius, enough scholarly training for multiple persons (he’s had centuries on his hands), or the body of a young teen, but because his most recent means of “achieving world domination” has been to participate in LARP. It’s tough to contain a bright kid, who truly, really, wants to attend Furmeets, comic book conventions, and the like. George’s physical chronometer might have been reset, but his mind wasn’t. He’s creative at escaping.

When Child Services called me to provide care for my “nephew,” I was introduced to a purple-haired, tongue-pierced sprog with a very bad attitude. Fortunately, I’ve found that if I let him stare at his star chart, breed enough giant, borrowing cockroaches to replace the ones that Auntie’s space lobsters had eaten, and pretend to notice his favorite, invisible gelatinous wildebeest, he doesn’t try to burn the house down more than once a week. I’m on a first name basis with the fire department.

George claims it’s his experiments gone wrong. I reply, it’s arson. Nonetheless, I could have maintained my new status quo until George returned to majority if Hugo hadn’t also showed up.

Hugo was still mad at Auntie for not taking him along to Jupiter. He had been her dedicated assistant. Most folk, including Hugo, were clueless that Auntie had traveled as a stowaway on an unmanned government vessel and that both her time on the planet and her return trip to Earth had been fraught with danger. Mom and Dad knew. I knew. Maybe, George knew, too.

Vengefully, Hugo became a turncoat, an aid to the North Korean government. New nuclear developments there, though, brought him back to beg for Auntie’s forgiveness and to become a media star by association. He hadn’t known that or how she died.

He also didn’t grasp that his former boss had hated the talk circuit, but had given herself over to it to keep her outlandish brood fed and safe from the government. A scandal, which positioned her in the middle of an adulterous triangle, and which erupted while Auntie was on route to the Solar System’s edge, combined with the scorn and ridicule she suffered, later, when trying to broadcast her findings about aliens, caused Auntie to transform from a serious scholar to productive entertainer. At the end of the day, even brainiacs have to pay for mortgage and groceries.

Regardless, Hugo jumped back from Aunt Laura’s doorway when George sprang out of it with his flamethrower. I am constantly finding more and more of my “nephew’s” weapons to confiscate.

Rather than seem alarmed, Hugo looked puzzled. “Where is Laura? Who are you, kid?” He had seen me creep up behind George.

I answered by inviting him in for tea. A few hours later, the three of us huddled together to look at the album containing Auntie’s footage from Jupiter. She had been terrible with a selfie stick.

“So, those were diamonds raining down from those clouds,” Hugo whispered. He pulled out his smartphone and sent a text. “Congratulate me. I quit!”

I shrugged. Given politics, no North Korean was coming Stateside to retrieve him. Meanwhile, Hugo could have access to Auntie’s rocket, which was sitting unused in a nearby vacant lot. He’d never collect Jupiter’s gems.

The man gets credit. He paid me wads of unmarked bills and years of babysitting time for the key to the lot’s security fence padlock.

Good luck to him! I was tired of single-handedly watching an adolescent starman and never cared about crossing the galaxy.

Whatever. I bought new security cameras and an ugly dog. I don’t fancy entertaining marauding, amphibious space pirates or having to deal with a George whose life meter gets set even closer to zero.

These days, when not chaperoning my “nephew,” or working on Auntie’s spacecraft, Hugo rests in the bodpod he shipped here. He uses that device to weather anxiety, meaning he’s inside it at least three times a day.

Fortunately, Hugo’s research interests George. For long hours, they puzzle out equations. George likes playing with math and with the starship. Besides, he’s too smart for correspondence courses and I have no patience for homeschooling.

So, I power up, daily, with Red Bull. Once my guardian duties end, I’m taking a long, Earthly vacation. In the interim, I work remotely, cook dinner for the last two people who loved Aunt Laura and think about the danger inherent in extraterrestrials. Unlike Auntie, I would have freaked out from, not “seeked out,” the intelligent Jupiter lobster that waved back from its own telescope. Fortunately, I audit taxes.

 

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