Category: Prose

Walter Mondale – Dylan Wilson

Walter Mondale

He was just a lump on the side of the road when Clifton pulled into the drive in his beat up Chevrolet. Jane was gone to pick up the girls from school and he was the first one home. He sighed in frustration when he saw the furry, lifeless mass laying right in front of the lawn.

            “Oh God,” he said.

            He got out of the car and moved beside the Blue Tick Hound. He looked in both directions down the empty street only to see the neat line of homes he had seen every day before. As he picked the up, he grunted. It was an old dog. An old, heavy dog. Clifton carried it all the way to the back yard so he could figure out what to do next. He realized how hard it was to position a dead dog in any way that didn’t look awkward. He settled with putting him on his side with his arms curled up, similar to how he found him. There were a few marks that must have been from where the car had hit him, so Clifton grabbed an old, ratty towel from the shed and wrapped the dog up. He wiped his thick brow and crossed his arms across his chest. Something didn’t seem right. He pulled some lavender flowers out of the garden by the porch and put them at the dog’s feet.

            With the dog in the best position he could imagine, he went inside through the back door. In the kitchen, he got a beer out of the refrigerator and turned on the news in the den. He sat and watched from the kitchen table.

            Clifton and Jane had gotten the dog from a litter that belonged to a friend of theirs in the summer of 1983. Daisy was two and Jane was only about a month pregnant with Liz. The dog went without a name for a long time until Clifton decided they needed something to call him besides “dog” and “hey you.” He decided on Walter Mondale, after Ronald Reagan’s challenger for the presidency. This wasn’t out of respect to Walter Mondale the person. Clifton, being born and raised a very staunch conservative, thought the name was fitting because they were both “sons of bitches.”

            So, six years later, Walter Mondale the dog was laying on lavender in the back yard, waiting for the rest of his owners to come home. Clifton tried to calm his nerves by running his hands through his dark hair as he saw Jane’s station wagon pull in the drive.

            He watched as his daughters came skipping up to the front door with their mother following behind. Liz was the one who opened the door.

            “Daddy! You’re home!” she shouted as she ran to his arms. Her hair bounced up and down in a long braid. Clifton hugged her tightly but didn’t say anything.

            “Daddy, what’s wrong? Why do you look sad?” asked Daisy from her mother’s side.

            “Guys, there’s something I need to tell you,” he said.

            “Where’s Walter Mondale, Daddy?” asked Liz. “Usually he comes to see us when we get home.”

            “I need to talk to you about Walter Mondale,” he said.

            Jane sensed what was coming and put a hand on Daisy’s shoulder. She used her free hand to pull Liz to her other side.

            “What is it, Daddy?”

            So Clifton told them about the lump on the side of the road and how he positioned Walter Mondale’s arms and the lavender and before he could finish, Liz blurted, “I’m gonna get whoever did it! I’m gonna call the police right now!” She had tears in her eyes. Daisy did too.

            “There’s no way to know who did it sweetie,” said Jane. “I’m sure it was just an accident. These things happen.”

            By this point, Liz was sobbing and Daisy was doing her best to hold back tears. The family fell silent for a moment.

            “Do you girls want to say goodbye to him?” said Jane.

            They both gave a tearful, unison nod.

            Clifton and Jane let the girls go to the restroom to clean up and blow their noses while Clifton started to dig a hole in the back of the yard a few feet from the swing set. The sun was falling to the horizon and the shadows of the trees crept up to him.

            Around twilight, the girls followed their mother outside. They had both changed into black t-shirts on their own insistence. Daisy carried with her a white stepping stone that she had found in the shed. On it, she had written in big block letters,

 

WALTER MONDALE (THE DOG)

RIP

 

            Clifton took the stone from her and looked to his wife. He tried not to laugh.

            “That’s very sweet of you, Daisy,” said Jane.

            “I got him some flowers,” said Liz to no one in particular. She kept her head turned to the ground and held out a fistful of dandelions from the front yard.

            “They’re beautiful,” said her father. He laid them beside the lavender at Walter Mondale the dog’s feet.

            Clifton and Jane couldn’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t make the girls cry so they decided on a moment of silence. Clifton lowered Walter Mondale the dog tenderly into the hole and put a few shovels full of dirt on him. The girls both stood with their hands, one over the other, in front of them.

            Clifton filled the hole until all of the dirt was used. He put Daisy’s headstone just above the dirt pile and bordered it with Liz’s dandelions and his lavender. They said a prayer and went inside.

            That night, Jane made pork chops for supper. Clifton tried his best to carry on conversation just as he would any other night. He asked Daisy how her violin was coming along in orchestra class and he asked Liz if she was excited for her field trip to the science museum. They didn’t talk about Walter Mondale the dog or Walter Mondale the person for the whole meal.

            When the girl’s bedtime came around, they were less hyper than they usually were. They’d had a long day. So had their parents. When Clifton came into their room to tuck them in, they were both already under their covers with only the lamp on the nightstand between their beds to light the room. Clifton pulled up a rocking chair and positioned it in between the girl’s beds. He held a copy of “Goodnight Moon.”

            “The usual?” he asked. The girls both beamed and nodded their heads excitedly.

            As he read through the book in his normal, charismatic voice, Jane came into the room and curled up beside Liz on the bed. She propped her head up on her arm, rested her hand on Liz’s stomach and listened to her husband as he finished the story. As he read the last words, raindrops began to tap against the window.

            “Daddy, what if the rain washes Walter Mondale away?” said Liz.

            “He’ll be okay sweetie. We took care of him,” said Clifton.

            Daisy chimed in, “Yeah Liz, he’s a good swimmer. Remember? Remember when we took him swimming at the river that summer? Remember” She tried to wink at her father, but had to hold one eye open with her fingers to make it happen.

            Liz rubbed her eyes with a tubby finger and rolled on her side to face her mother. Jane tucked the covers by Liz’s side as Clifton did the same for Daisy. As he reached to turn the lamp off, Daisy said, “Mommy, sing us a song please.”

            “It’s getting late honey,” said Clifton.

            “Please?” pleaded Liz.

            So she did.

            She sat back in the rocking chair that her husband had moved and thought about a song that her mother had sang to her when she was a girl. In a calm, soothing voice, she began to sing.

Sleep, my child, and peace attend thee,
All through the night
Guardian angels God will send thee,
All through the night
Soft the drowsy hours are creeping,
Hill and dale in slumber sleeping
I my loved ones’ watch am keeping,
All through the night

As the last verse rolled around, both of the girls were motionless and sound asleep. Jane closed the door behind her and met her husband who was waiting in the hallway. Tears had even welled in his own pale blue eyes.  

Electric Butterfly, Mother-of-Pearl – by Anonymous

 

Just like a broken faucet, you drip with a grating inconsistency. There’s something pitifully self-serving about the way you handle rejection. They were never interested in anything else- you knew that, didn’t you? That’s why you drove here alone, that’s why you didn’t tell anyone where you were going… a peek out the hallway window over the city, so gray, machine-like in the movement of its cars and subways and people… they run a tight ship here, boys, no time to waste, hafta stay on schedule… so grossly efficient, all these city people…

The hallway is cold, freezing actually. You reach a hand to the filthy brick walls and stop yourself from collapsing. Your face chilled by tears and mucus and whatever the hell was in Marco’s drink when he threw it at you… threw it, yeah, with purpose, at you sitting there with your bag of oysters, pinctada maxima, little pearl factory money machines straight outta the South Sea…sure… do you think he was angry? Of course he was. He was pissed. Wouldn’t you be?

Of course you would be. You’d be furious… probably even more than Marco… he has incredible self-control, and he’s been putting up with your bullshit for months at this point, you’re surprised he’s kept you around this long… you know you wouldn’t have been so kind, were you in his position. You stumble your way unevenly down the concrete stairwell, down fourteen floors, keep going down, you know you aren’t finished yet… you reach the bottom early, you wouldn’t mind walking down a few more… at least its raining, the rain feels good to someone like you… yes, someone like you, busted circuit down here on the motherboard, fucking up the whole operation, damn it boys, we’re behind schedule now…

So that man on the cross bled for you, you know. So he suffered and died all for you, you know, just for you. He’s right up there, nailed to the wall above your bed, miserable head flung to the side, body skeletal and pale in the darkness… you can see his chest rising and falling in ragged, labored breaths… see how the heart flutters and thrashes beneath the skin, unimaginable torment, right before your eyes… stinking, rotting corpse, pleading eyes… sees you when you’re sleeping, when you wake up he sees you…

You’ve never fucked around with pearls before, only once, only once, you swear. Do you remember that room, a bunch of people you’ve never met before? Hard to forget. They didn’t care about you, still don’t. Remember what you saw hanging from the ceiling… they told you all about it, the people in the room. They answered your questions, that was nice of them. They looked you in the eyes, and do you remember what they said? They said:

 

“What’s it doing, hung from spindly marionette wires, flesh warped around the rusted iron bars of its too-small cage? Crying, probably. Jesus, shut up already.

            It’s growing, that’s for sure. Surprising. No, we won’t replace the cage. Why bother? It’ll be happy with what it has, it always is.

            Pulsating lungs outside the body beat infrequently, a busted warbling music box melody, speeding and slowing. Would you take a look at that. Keep it in there. If it can breathe, it can live. It’s happy enough with that.

            Remember how it told us to board up the windows? Not to turn the blinds down, but to actually board them up. Grinning, the skin behind its teeth, eyes wide, shaking in total ecstasy. Ecstasy.

            It yelled: “Do it! Board them up, lock me up forever!” And we did, and then how the pitiful thing wailed and cried and choked on its tears. It thrashed and banged about its cage, swinging back and forth violently, calling out for mercy, for God, for anyone. But when we came near, how it barked and growled like an animal. “Don’t touch me,” it cried, “Don’t let the sun touch me!”

            What did it study at University? It doesn’t matter, it dropped out before it even got there. It was happy to. Happy to roll around in its own shit-stink, wasting itself, wasting whatever potential it might’ve had. It really is a worm, don’t you think? Selfish. Lives only for itself. That it should be made to please others- that was the ultimate insult. It would be happier here, happier where it was right about how much of a worm it was. It is happy here.

It’s easy to be happy here, leaving the city, reaching The Sea of Tranquility, Nirvana, whatever you want to call it. This city, such a drag, concrete slab dripping tar on all of us. With so much electricity, with everything wired up, it gets tough. You can’t fuck up because the whole thing depends on everything working right. So all the losers and fuck ups might as well hide away and go swimming on the moon. No, it’s much better here. Trust us, you’ll like it here. It sure likes it here quite a bit, doesn’t it? Lighten up, we’re only joking, stop screaming…”

 

            How you got from that room into the garbage can behind the old theater on Rivers Street, you can’t remember. Maybe stumbled off, maybe got carried there. Made an ass of yourself, that’s for sure, they were all having a good laugh about you, you can count on that…

            And then you felt sunlight on your head and looked up and there he was, there was Marco standing above you, lid of the garbage can in his hand, looking down at you, wrinkling his nose at the smell. You blushed and smiled- actually smiled– glad somebody was there to see you, witness you in all your shit stained glory, happily stewing in your own filth, tears pouring proudly down your face… something pitifully self serving about the way you handle misery, so manipulative… you used it well to gain his disgust, to gain his hatred, which is what you wanted above all, to be right about something… to be right about how disgusting you are, and he obliged, he gave that to you.

            “Get the fuck out of there, Jesus Christ,” he said, and you laughed and blushed and tried to climb out but you wiggled too much and tipped the whole goddamn thing over, fell on its side with a large metallic noise, painful, you writhed… the shit was in your hair, in your teeth then… He looked down and sneered at you, no sympathy, thank god, you hate sympathy… he helped you, he saved you, and you know you aren’t worth the trash in the garbage can to him, and that’s good, that’s right, that’s right because you know you aren’t worth the trash in the garbage can to anybody… you can make him happy, you aren’t like the man in the cage. No, you can make someone else happy, you can try, is what you told yourself. So much light back then, so much glistening electronic city light. That was months ago. Now you’re home and alone and there is still light even at night sneaking through the blinds of your window, broken up in bars against your wall.

            You’re at your best when you’re like this, 2 A.M. eyes wide open on your back in bed in the dark. Will he call you again, or is this it? You hope he calls you again… you close your eyes and your cheeks flush bright red, you move your legs thinking about him… strong jaw, dark eyes when they look at you made a little brighter… it’s all over now. Why would he call you ever again, after this? After pinctada maxima fictus, after South Sea pearl necklaces from a fucking department store?

Broken sob escapes your mouth, neck arched and knees bent. Your naked body resembles a wavelength going nowhere, frozen in time before crashing against the shore. You fucked up. Forsaken. Maybe he’ll call, maybe he’ll forgive you… you can still taste his drink, his lips… that was your mistake, kissing him after showing up with them… those shitty little fake pearls you don’t even care about, it was all for him anyway. Not that they did him any good, not that fake peals ever helped anyone anywhere. Wrap yourself up in the blanket, there you go… nice little cocoon, safe little place of yours… you think about his eyes again, this time angry and his lips trembling and his voice screaming, powerful… your eyes closed, you blush and touch yourself… remembering glass against your face, how humiliating… a moan reaching its hands up from inside you, prying open your mouth, dirty fingernails scratching at your teeth… it’ll be morning soon, wonder if he’s going to call…

[X]

 

            Marco sighs, exasperated, runs a hand through hair as he stares out the window, catching his ghostly reflection in the glass. He takes off his thick glasses and curses- “Fucking piece of shit…!”- as he turns around and looks at mess on his living room floor. Just what he needed today- another fucking mess to fix. He’s behind schedule as it is, and then that kid, that kid comes here and decides he wants to fuck around. As if he weren’t busy enough.

Instead of grabbing a mop, he goes to the counter and pours a gin. A replacement for the one he wasted on blondie over there. Fucking stupid kid. After all he’s done for him, that ungrateful brat comes up and tries to foist this kind of shit on him. Well, it aint gonna work. He’s been around the block a few too many times to be fooled by some green little highschool faggot with a sack full of counterfeits, that’s for damn sure.

He takes the gin and downs it, slams the glass on the countertop. A drink or two more to calm his nerves is all he needs. Maybe he shouldn’t have been so rough with him. He is young after all, and an out-of-towner besides. Sucks dick like he invented it, too. He shakes his head furiously, grunts and runs to the window, pressing his face onto the glass as hard as he can, looking out at the town.

This town, electric everything. The whole goddamn motherboard runs on Mother-of-Pearl, and he’s the best link this town’s junkies have, the best they’ll ever have. He had his connections, but what got him this far was determination. Started as a quality of life improvement, a way for him to solve problems and make his living easier- hard to stop someone from taking your shit with a load of pearls cruising up your veins. So that’s what he’d do, load them up with enough pearls to down an elephant, wait for them to reach the Sea of Tranquility, and while they were busy talking with the oysters on the moon he’d be halfway across town in a van full of their shit, electronics, cellphones mostly. Everything electric in this city, everything. He liked that about it- no room for slow downs or ‘human error’, just go, go, go, making things run, making things happen. Soon he figured he’d cut the middleman and stick with the MoP business, dealing in pearls, making new and loyal customers almost faster than he could supply. Made a lot of enemies, got his fair share of scars to show for it, too. But he climbed his way up, damn it. He even crushed the pearls himself, with his own goddamn hands. Nobody could say wasn’t a hard worker. He worked for what he had, and you better remember that. He used to be a nothing, a nobody. But he didn’t fuck up. He was electricity. And now the place runs on him.

At last it stops raining, the clouds start to dissipate, reveal the setting sun like a curtain being drawn. His hands tremble as he thinks of all he’s done for this town. “They need me,” he says calmly into his reflection. His face, superimposed across the city’s darkening skyline. Sea foam could turn this whole place white, pulsating and rhythmic, in an instant. Crush a few pearls, go for a swim. Go someplace you’ve never been. Mother-of-Pearl. The people in this God-forsaken shithole want a way out, and he is their doorman. They want to fuck up so bad, fine. He’s no loser, he’d never touch the stuff himself. But he could move things. He could make things happen, and they know that. He alone holds the key to their salvation. For whatever it’s worth, anyway.

He thinks about when he asked one of his sources, a guy from India, about how they get such high quality pearls over there. “Pearls form by pressure,” the guy said, “when a natural part of the oyster’s feeding cycle gets interrupted by the smallest amount of some foreign object, and it builds pressure to try to get rid of it… you could encourage that. You could take a knife and cut along the tissue of the mantle, you could pry that open and pour something in there, an irritant we call it, to make the little thing go crazy. The thing doesn’t know what to do with itself, goes nuts, lays it on thick with the nacre, the stuff that it uses to make the pearls. That’s what we do, and there you have it. We call them ‘cultured pearls’. Higher quality and faster harvest, and all that leads to a bigger profit.”

‘Cultured’, huh? Whatever works. Apparently it wasn’t much of a trade secret if he was willing to say it over the telephone- you never know when someone might be listening in. Marco knew that all too well.

            Pushing himself away, he stumbles back to the counter and steadies himself from falling. Brand new marble countertop, just installed the other day. Best looking apartment in the whole shitty complex, he was proud to say. Maybe he’ll give the kid a call tomorrow morning. It’d be nice to have a prodigy, an heir. The kid didn’t use, at least not regularly. If he couldn’t tell the difference between the real deal pinctada maxima and some cheap department store knock-offs… but he could be trained. The kid could learn. Besides, Marco reasoned, a nice lay to fall back on when things get lonely aint nothing to sneeze at.

            The kid is a worm, there’s no doubt in Marco’s mind. He is a worm. But then, so was Marco, not so very long ago. He climbed his way up from the dirt and the filth. Now he sat at the top of the tower, a big electric butterfly spreading its wings over the city. He almost laughs at the thought. Instead he pours another glass and stars out the window until the sun finishes setting. He stares until the sun rises again. He stands up straight, stretching his arms out horizontally, palms facing forward, watching the light of dawn creep silently across the city.

Pigpen – by Peel Prose

I’m proud of you

Jesse’s hands were shaking. He closed the bathroom door, and braced himself against the standing sink. The basin was caked in grime, the sides lined with brown hair from his own head, and he tried to remember the last time he gave the room a wipe down with some Windex. He could hear the daytime soap opera playing in the next room, just like any other Wednesday afternoon in his apartment. He thought about the actors, how hard they must be trying to break out of daytime TV, how they probably resented the sugary, over-dramatic plot lines as much as the rest of America.

He stared as his reflection in the mirror. It was cracked, a souvenir of a small party from years past, some sort of brawl. He didn’t throw parties anymore.

A hot rush flooded his already flushed cheeks. He had done it. He had done it, he had finally done it. He pictured the scene, her apartment, her pink and white bedsheets. He smiled. Nothing could take away this feeling, this is love, this is love, this is a devotion beyond devotion. Nothing would ever be the same after this, an idea that thrilled him and also scared him beyond words. He looked down and noticed the layers of grime beneath his fingernails, the dark staining on the palms of his hands.

Clean yourself up.

He winced, and realized that this was no way to get ahead in life. Looking this way was holding him back. He reached for the electric razor he kept under the medicine cabinet and plugged it in. The moving blades caressed his cheeks and corroded the wispy hairs from his jaw and into the sink. He jumped as the blades knicked the line of his jaw, right below the right side of his mouth. A spot of blood oozed from the gash, then dripped into the sink along with the rest of his hair. One, two, three, each one coming in succession, such organization, he wished the flow would never stop.

Did hers?

He smiled, remembering the events of the previous night. How did she manage to smell so damned good every time he visited her? Like citrus and wine and cooking oil. His thoughts went back to the first time he had met her, three years ago now was it? Three years and his life would never be the same, he knew the placement of every mole on her body, understood which hours of the day she needed to be alone, noticed every inch her hair would grow. Her nails were always painted white. White because she was clean. She was pure.

What you can never be.

His thoughts raced, he turned to the shower curtain and ripped it back. He stripped, and turned the faucet on, letting the stream of water seep from the crown of his head to the bottoms of his feet. He picked up the yellow bar of soap and started scrubbing the skin of his chest. The smell of lemons coated in the insides of his nose. He drug the soap over and over the surface of his body until it felt raw. It felt good, to be clean. He remembered his grandfather and how he used to compare Jesse to Pigpen from the Peanuts cartoons when he came in from playing with his friends. His grandmother would cluck her tongue at him and tell him that he needed to wash up before dinner. They would pray before eating, to a nameless, faceless God, asking him to forgive their filthy sins, let them be bathed in the light of righteousness and other such pious language. He shuddered and switched off the water.

Hannah.

He paused and closed his eyes, cold water dripping like sweat off his shoulder blades. He remembered her how she looked last night, her brown hair all done up in a bun, circles under her wide eyes. She had looked surprised to see him. After the last time they had talked, he couldn’t blame her. The threats made, the words thrown out, he would never forgive himself for that. She was dressed in pale blue. It looked fresh, like it had been plucked off a laundry line after just being starched. Knowing Hannah, it probably had been. He had pictured taking her to the hill, wrapped in a blanket, laying on under the tree with her, weaving forget-me- knots through her curls. Jesse smiled. Looking back on it now, he appreciated the scene that had transpired. It had exceeded his wildest expectations, honestly, and even though the mess was a little much to deal with after the fact, seeing her was worth it. His grandfather always said that if he wasn’t careful to keep clean, he could end up soiling his playmates. Seeing her, bright and shining, probably ready to head outside…

I’m proud of you.

He shook his head and stepped out of the shower. The surfaces of the bathroom seemed even more grimy then they had previously. His eyes traveled from the empty condom wrappers on the floor, the dirty clothes, the streaked mirror, the toothpaste marks on the counter. He felt a familiar itch rise to the surface of his mind. He headed to the cupboard under the sink. His fingers found the bottle of cleaning solution and before he knew what he was doing, the cap was off and a steady puddle of blue was spreading across the counter. And the toilet bowl. And the shower basin, the tile floor, the corners of the room where spidershad set up their residence. Jesse soaked in the smell of the ammonia and felt like he was drowning, drowning, in an endless sea of blue, blue, like the blue of Hannah’s eyes, the forget-me-nots, the pale blue of her cotton dress…

The phone rang from the next room. He hurried and dried off with the dirty towel lying on the ground, wrapped it around his waist and ambled to the next room. The phone, on the floor and in the pocket of the jeans he had worn earlier that day, was lighting up between the layers of fabric in the front right pocket. He peeled the phone out of the jeans, which were still a bit damp, and scanned the name flashing up at him from the screen.

Hannah.

He froze.

That’s impossible.

“Hello?”

He was greeted with only heavy breathing. A ragged breath in, and an equally heavy one blowing out. Jesse felt a cold sweat blossom over his eyes, his heart picked up to a marathon pace and his stomach felt like it had dropped to his knees.

“Who is this?”

More silence. All Jesse could decipher from the other line was the labored breathing, never varying in pace, always an equal inhale and exhale. It was so ragged, he wondered if the person behind it was having an asthma attack or if, possibly…

“…. Hannah?”
More silence, and then
“I know what… you did,”
The voice was decidedly male, elderly, vaguely familiar.
“Who is this?”
“I know what you did,”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about but—“
“You didn’t clean up, Pigpen”
Jesse’s fingers clenched around the phone. No, no, he always cleaned up. He

had cleaned up. The apartment was in the same state as it had been when he had left it. Once he started something he always followed through to completion. Always. He had been raised the right way, he never left a mess.

“Who is this?” Jesse winced at the sound of his own desperation.

An electronic beep sounded and then silence. He pulled back his hand and looked at the screen.

Call ended.

His mind started spinning. He knew he hadn’t left a mess, he had picked up every article of clothing, scrubbed out every spot of blood, he had even remade the bed for Christ’s sake, folding Hannah’s dress over the side. He closed his eyes, and massaged his temples with vigorous speed. Who else could possibly have known about his visit to Hannah’s place today? His mind ran raced over the faces of his friends, Hannah’s friends, his family, her family, anyone who could possibly have been watching. Waiting in the shadows. He pulled his jeans over his legs, stepped into a pair of tennis shoes, and tripped over himself getting out the door.

The car ride over to the apartment was excruciating. He needed to know who the voice at the other end of the line was. Hannah’s phone was at the apartment. Maybe the man was waiting for him to connect the dots, to pay a visit, to clean up the mess.

I’m proud of you.

Jesse ran a red light. Two more right turns and he would be there. The second floor, up the stairs, careful to avoid the ice coating the lengths of the wood. Behind the green door, number seven, number seven, seven for completion, seven for magic, seven for some kind of understanding, some grasp—

He screeched into the parking lot, took the stairs two at a time, bursting into number seven on the second floor. The familiar smell of citrus greeted him as he stepped inside. The room was dim, with curtains drawn over the large windows, shutting out the late afternoon sun. He retraced his steps from the previous night, going from the parlor, then to the kitchen, then through to the bedroom. Everything was perfectly in place. The bed sheets were even tucked in at the corners, the clothes were all placed in the armoire, it honestly looked as if Hannah had only stepped out for a moment, that she would be back soon. That she would be back soon. Jesse laughed in spite of himself.

Memories of a few hours earlier flooded his senses, he pictured how the room had looked so different in the moonlight, how different he had felt. Hannah had been frightened, but had invited him inside anyways. She was always good about knowing what to say to calm him down. He remembered when they had first started dating, when his compulsion had been particularly bad. When she found him scrubbing the tiled floor of the kitchen with a toothbrush, she said nothing, only joined him with a toothbrush of her own. She understood when he had to

wash every dish three times, three times for luck, for the Trinity, for his grandfather and grandmother. She said nothing about it, until one day when she woke up and turned to him and told him that he shouldn’t have become so dependent on her and that his illness had crippled their relationship. That was the morning she packed a small suitcase and went to stay with her mother for a while, only that while turned into three weeks, and during that three weeks Jesse had sought the treatment he had never thought he needed, he took the pills the doctor prescribed, because if his illness was crippling Hannah then he would clean up the mess, he would clean up the mess.

Jesse bit his lip. He couldn’t find her, he needed Hannah, he told her that last night. Hannah had only moved away from him every time he had tried to move closer, she had moved her hand away when he tried to cover it with his own.

I’m proud of you.

She had told him that, when he tried to tell her all the things he had been doing, all of the medications he had been taking, all of the compulsions he was battling. She had half-smiled, but the warmth never reached the blue of her eyes. No, she didn’t understand, she didn’t understand, they belonged together. He had tried to tell her, and all she had done was reach for her goddamned phone.

Jesse sat heavily on the bed and remembered. He remembered snatching the phone from her clammy palms, snapping it between his hands like the neck of a small animal. His rage welled up inside him, he couldn’t remember thinking straight. He took lamp from the bedside table and struck her over the head in a sudden gush of anger. Hannah had hit the floor hard. A steady trickle of blood ran from her temple to her chin. She had looked up at him, eyes dilated, like a little girl’s. A little boy’s. A little boy told to clean up, wash up—

Don’t touch me, you disgusting child—
You were born into sin, you were born into sin—
God punished us by leaving you here—
Clean up this mess! Clean up this mess—
Flithy—
Disgusting—
Pigpen!
Pigpen!
Pigpen!
Jesse was transported back to his childhood, his grandfather’s voice,commanding him, condemning him. He wanted to be clean, he wanted to be pure,he needed to clean himself, he needed to be Holy, he needed to be righteous. God hated bastards, God hated the sinful, God hated him, God hated him. Before he knew it, tears were flooding his eyes and running down his face. Where was she? What had they done with her?

Sobbing, he pushed himself from the bed and through the rest of the apartment. He knocked a vase of flowers from a bookshelf, he crashed into a glass cereal bowl on the kitchen counter. Once outside, he took the stairs down, two at a time. Where was she? What had they done with her? What had they done with her?

I think you know.

He thought back, to the dead weight of Hannah’s body as he dragged her out of the apartment. How the night air felt against her cold skin. The click of the trunk locking. Jesse turned to the back of the car slowly. He reached into his pocket, and withdrew the key. He inserted the key into the lock and turned until he heard the tick of the door opening, though he already knew what he would find there. A lock of brown hair. The smell of citrus and wine and cooking oil. So clean, so clean.

I’m proud of you.
Jesse closed the door.
I’m proud of you.
He stepped around to the driver’s side.
I’m proud of you.
He put on the radio.
I’m proud of you.
I’m proud of you.
I’m proud of you.
Pigpen.

 

This is what I know happens when I leave – by Emma Carte

The girl moves from one drawer to the next. She is thin, rail thin and her hair is cut short, in a plain kind of way, but she still looks crammed into that tiny kitchen, if you could call it that. The only thing that separates it from the rest of the studio is an island that juts out from the far wall. It only has enough room for one stool, for one person to sit. I sit on the couch, in front of the round coffee table. It is painted black and has what I believe to be pineapples intricately carved into the legs.  The table functions also as kitchen table, bookshelf, and nightstand, seeing as her bed functions also as couch.

“I made a pie, have a slice. It’s apple. My mother’s recipe,” she tells me.

“Okay.” I hate when they bring up their mothers.

The kitchen cabinets open and slam. In lieu of an oven mitt, she pulls out an old dishtowel, someone’s initials on it in light blue script. Probably her mothers.

I watch her as she opens the oven. Her arms could snap under the weight of a pie. She places it on top of the stove and blows. She’s wearing a thrift store fur coat that goes to her ankles. There are slits cut into the sleeves from someone whose wrists had not cooperated with the coat. Everything in the place is busted, but she’s got this fancy new coffee maker.

            “Your heat get turned off?” I ask her.

            “I swear it’s absolutely impossible to get by in this city. One day it’s rent, the next heat, then water, then they’re asking for your goddam soul,” she says. She is trying to sound poetic but we both know it’s not working out.

            She brings the pie over to the table, cuts a slice, steaming, and sets it in front of me on a plate with a fork. It is burnt but not badly. She sits across from me on a floor pillow that was once white and she’s wearing these dark glasses, picks at her fingers. She’s all twitchy watching me, waiting for me to take a bite. Looks like she could flake away like burnt crust.

She’s crying a little so I bite into the pie and swallow it, without even chewing. It burns the roof of my mouth, but I don’t notice until later when I run my tongue across the glossy, enflamed surface. But she’s still crying, so I pull it out and put it on the table.

She doesn’t say anything, just stares at it, and walks over to me. She places her hands on either side of my face, still not saying anything, but I know she is more than thanking me. Her hands are like a child’s, soft and small and as if she were asking or begging for something I could never give her. But then she remembers why I am here and she reverts back to that crooked husk of a person.

“Pay me back next week, I’ll be back in town. Don’t make a habit of this,” I manage to say.

She shakes her head avidly, like a bobble head. “I’m getting a job. I’ve got some jobs lined up.”

I offer her the rest of my pie, tell her it’s good but I’m just too full. She declines like I thought she would. I leave without saying goodbye.

This is what I know happens when I leave the building. What I know happens when I leave every building, every two bedroom home, basement, garage with a couch and a mini fridge. She fumbles around more drawers, they always fumble around. She finds the necessary equipment. She fixes herself up until she feels the pulse in her arm, until she can practically hear it. And she falls back in love with him over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.

Joseph’s – by Jack Emerson

Betty Joe walked out the door of her daddy’s gas station and the sun shot down on her like a spotlight. The air was hot and still. She sat down on the step in front of the door and played with her hands and tapped her feet. The sun was on the side of the sky, beaming down hard on her and the dirt parking lot. The empty parking lot was connected to a beat-up highway that disappeared into the horizon in both directions. The only things you could see from her spot on the step were two filling stations in the lot, some corn across the road and a big field next door full of long grass. Betty Joe squinted down at her hands. A rusty sign creaked above her. Joseph’s Gas & Market.

“Hey Betty Joe,” said her daddy from inside.

She ran back inside. The dangling Joseph’s sign whipped behind her. The air inside was suffocating. There were a couple rows of food. Sweaty refrigerators lined the walls. Her daddy was behind the counter, sort of crouched around a shaky old fan.

He looked up from his newspaper. “What time is it?”

She pulled a brown wristwatch up to her face then looked up to her daddy and put four fingers in the air.

“Okay.” He wiped the sweat off his forehead. “I need to go up to the house for a couple minutes. You alright here?”

“I’m alright.”

“Alright.”

Betty Joe was eleven years old. She was wearing dirty white tennis shoes, blue jeans and a big white t-shirt with a blurred, red racecar and “DAYTONA 1979” in big black letters on it. She had short brown hair that never got in her eyes. She liked looking at the sky and working the gas pump.

She walked back outside and sat down on the step. Her daddy yelled good-bye and walked through the back door of the station whistling a tune. She sat with her hands in her lap and watched the sun fall down with a hard squint. She did a lot of thinking and a lot of counting. Every day in her head she counted how many cars came by the station. Today was forty-four.

Exactly thirty-two minutes later – she had just checked her watch – a gust of wind swept through and jolted her. She sat up. A car was coming down the road. As it got closer, Betty Joe saw it was a white pick-up with the windows rolled down. The truck turned into the station lot and a cloud of dirt erupted from the tires. It pulled next to filling station number two and stopped. Its white paint shot the sunlight off it like a mirror. The man inside turned off the truck and climbed out. Didn’t roll the windows up. He slicked the ass of his torn up blue jeans and tipped his black hat to Betty Joe, shielding the sun with her pale little hand. He made his way over. He was old-looking and had a thick, white mustache that looked like a rattlesnake. He had massive boots whose spurs jingled and jangled with every step. Betty Joe saw he was hobbling a bit, but she didn’t think anything of it. He didn’t seem to either.

The rusty gas station sign above her waved in the sudden wind. The tall grass flowed in the neighboring field.

“Afternoon, miss.” He stopped about ten feet from her and wiped the sweat from his face with a sleeve. “How’s things?”

“I’m alright,” said Betty Joe. “Sun’s big today.”

“Sure is,” he said. He pointed at the building behind her. “This your station?” He grinned.

“My daddy’s.” She smiled big back.

“You think your daddy could get me some gas?”

She shook her head. “He’s up at the house. But I can do that.”

“Yeah?”

She stood up and flattened her jeans.

He handed her two twenties and sat down on the curb.

Betty Joe skipped inside. The hanging Joseph’s sign swung with the door. She clicked some buttons behind the counter, put the two bills in the register and skipped back outside to the pump. She opened up the truck’s tank, took out the nozzle and pulled up the lever. She walked back to the tank and pushed the nozzle in. She squeezed the handle and felt the gas start flowing into the tank.

After five minutes of standing there and squeezing, the gas stopped and Betty Joe pulled out the nozzle. She went to put the nozzle back and the lever snapped down hard into her arm. She jumped back quietly and the hose fell to the ground. She looked at her arm. There was a cut just above her wrist about two inches long and already bleeding badly. Breathless, she walked over to the curb. When she got close enough the man saw the blood, yelled Oh Shit and did a hobble run to his truck. His spurs jangled. Betty Joe sat down on the curb and stared at the red. It was dripping onto the dirt and her blue jeans.

The man came back with a rag and threw it over the cut. He put the rag in her hands. “Press down on it.”

She pressed. “It hurts.”

“Keep pressing.”

“It hurts bad.” Now she was breathing heavy.

“You’re gonna be okay.” He sat down next to her. “I’m Paul. Okay?”

“Okay.” She grimaced. “Hi I’m Betty Joe.”

“Do you need me to go get your daddy?”

“I’m okay.”

“Have you got hurt like this before?”

“Not like this I haven’t.”

“Is it bad?”

She nodded. “But I’ll be okay I think. Like you said.”

“Okay. Try to slow down your breathing.” He turned away and looked out. “You’re very brave miss.”

“Thank you.” She turned away with him.

They sat in silence looking at the truck and the nozzle in the dirt. Betty Joe held the rag on her arm. It hurt, but not as much as she’d thought it would. And there was something calm about the old man.

She turned back to him. “You don’t have to stay if you don’t wanna.”

He looked at her. “I’m not gonna leave you til you stop bleeding. Or if your daddy comes back.”

Betty Joe leaned back and gave the best smile she could. “It might be a while.”

“No problem.”

“Sure?”

“Sure.”

Betty Joe was bleeding badly but the cloth was working. She winced up at the man. He was staring across the road. She turned back and stared with him. Another gust of wind hit and the pain started to go away. They sat there just breathing and listening. She could hear the hum of her daddy’s fan inside. Every once in a while, in the corner of her eye, she saw the man biting his nails. After about ten quiet minutes the pain was almost gone. She started to feel comfortable again and her breathing slowed down.

The man seemed to notice and broke the quiet. “Have you ever watched The Shining?” He was still staring off.

Betty Joe looked at him. “What’s that?”

“Nevermind. It’s an old movie.”

She sat up. “What’s it about?”

“How old are you?”

“Eleven.”

“Eleven, huh.” He looked at her. “What’s your favorite movie?”

“I like Gremlins.” She grinned.

“What’s that?”

“I asked you first!”

“Nevermind,” he said. “I can’t tell a eleven year old about The Shining.”

“Okay.” She squinted. “Tell me about something else then.”

“What you mean?”

“Tell me a story or something.” She held up her arm. “I’m still bleeding.”

He laughed. “You’re a smart little shit.”

She grinned again. “I’m waiting.”

“You’re putting me on the spot.”

“I didn’t put you anywhere!”

“Okay, okay. Let me think for a second.”

Betty Joe rolled her eyes.

He snapped his fingers and pointed to her. “Okay! I’ll tell you about the first time I remember gettin hurt bad. Just like you today.”

She carefully turned her whole body to him and crossed her legs. The grass next door was whistling.

“I was at a horse race with my family.” He looked back at the corn across the street and leaned forward. “I forgot most of that day. Actually all I remember is a couple seconds. I was probably about your age, maybe younger. I was going around the stadium and there was this flight of stairs and I started walking down. Don’t remember where I was coming from or where I was going. All I remember is somehow tripping and falling down the whole thing. I smacked on the ground and my whole leg was red. Had to go to the hospital. Missed the rest of the horse race.” He looked at her. “Not much of a story.”

“You don’t know why you were going down the stairs?”

“Guess I forgot.”

“That’s not a good reason.”

“I think it is.”

“I haven’t forgot anything about just now.”

He smiled to himself. “That so?”

She nodded firmly. “Do you think you could remember if you tried hard enough?”

“I don’t think so.”

“You don’t even remember the horses?”

The man didn’t say anything. He started drawing in the dirt with his finger.

Betty Joe uncrossed her legs and turned back facing the parking lot. “Well is your leg okay now?”

“Oh it’s fine. Not a scar or nothing.”

“Is that why you limp all the time?”

“No, no. That’s from something else.”

“Do you think I’m gonna get a scar?”

“Maybe. Not for certain.”

“It hurt pretty bad.”

He looked up from the dirt. “Seems that way.”

They looked down at the dirt together. The sun was shooting down so hard they had to squint. The Joseph’s sign waved in the wind above them. Betty Joe squeezed the bloody cloth around her arm and tapped on the ground with her foot. The grass next door was dancing and whistling.

He drew a circle in the dirt with his finger and looked at her. “Please don’t ask your daddy about The Shining.”

“I wasn’t gonna.” She looked down at the rag, then looked up at him. “I think I’m done bleeding now.”

“Alright.” The old man stood up and looked down at her. “You can keep that rag.”

“Alright.”

He turned around and started walking to his truck. The field of grass next door swelled in the wind.

Betty Joe stood up. “Where are you going?”

He turned around and put his hands on his hips. “My truck.” He was staring off above her but he was smiling.

She smiled back.

He looked down at his boots. “I’m going to California.”

“I don’t think I ever been there.”

“You’d likely know if you had.”

Betty Joe looked at the bloody dirt under her feet then squinted at him. “Are you gonna forget about me like you forgot about those horses?”

He laughed to himself and looked at her. “You don’t got much to remember, do you?”

She looked at him with bright eyes.

He waved Bye, then turned around and walked to his truck. He pulled the lever down, picked the nozzle up off the ground and shoved it back into its place. Betty Joe tapped her foot on the dirt and watched him.

He opened his truck door and looked at her one more time. “You better wash your arm off or something.” He climbed into his seat and closed the door. The engine roared and the truck started moving. The tires picked up dirt and threw it in the air. He blew his horn at her, and then he turned onto the highway and drove away.

Betty Joe was sitting on the curb again now and could see his shiny truck even when it was at least a mile away. Kept her eyes on it as long as she could. She could hear her daddy’s fan still shaking inside.

She tapped her tennis shoes on the dirt and tapped and tapped. The wind was gone now but the sun was still shining hard. She put her hands in her lap and whistled along with the rusty sign swinging above her. She and the grass next door never knew anything else.

 

Strikes – by Hannah Parker

“Life is like baseball, Colleen.”
Her father was full of useless metaphors. They had a tendency toward sports or astronomy, merely making them more worthless to her.
“Sometimes you strike out, but you just have to keep playing-” a long sip of beer interrupted the follow-through of his adverb. For a man with so much taste, he truly did himself a disservice by nursing that can of Miller Lite.
“Thanks, dad,” Colleen said as she reached for the bottle of red wine.

She tipped the neck of the bottle against the clear glass to make an impression of class. Her class was rudely disrupted by a maroon puddle she left on the kitchen table. As Colleen stood up to grab a paper towel her father continued.
“Sometimes you get a little dirt on your white pants, but you just gotta dust them off and keep going.” He took another swig, “maybe it just isn’t written in the stars for you.”

This wasn’t her first strike, though. It wasn’t even her third. As she entered her fourth month in her father’s makeshift basement room, Colleen was coming into a sick realization beneath those moist pipes: she would settle here.

Settling was a game Colleen knew well. She had first learned to play when she was six, packing a hot pink suitcase at 3am. She hated hot pink but no one had ever asked her opinion, just as her father never asked her opinion about leaving home. He never asked her about the stained one-bedroom apartment and Colleen didn’t ask for the restless neighborhood across the bridge. She didn’t ask for the late night homeschool lessons from a dad who should have stuck to welding. Colleen learned early on how to accept what was given, and when she was given a paint roller for her birthday, she painted her new room blue.

“One job interview is nothing, baby girl,” her father cried out over the Cash-4-Gold theme song playing on the television.
Ca-Ca-Cash for your old junk, bring it to us who would have thunk…
“I must have sat through ten interviews before I landed this gig at Lowe’s. Just give it time!”
Colleen’s fingers rubbed her eyelids and stars danced across her iris’s. “This was the seventh interview, dad.”
“They don’t know what they’re missing out on, peanut. A pretty girl like you…”

Games were harder for girls. Colleen was always picked last in elementary school for her stubby legs and pigeon toes. As her legs grew longer, she would leave for school with a tangled mane and beer-stained t-shirts her father passed down when his belly expanded.
“You look beautiful,” he’d say with his nose in the newspaper.
She never asked him how she looked, but the only other person to tell her that was the homeless trumpet player on 100th and 3rd, so she believed him. As Colleen’s body grew, being picked last grew to never being picked at all. She tried to keep puberty from happening with duct tape bras and toilet paper wads, hoping if she hid everything long enough it would go away. It never went away, and Colleen settled for womanhood. It made her father distant; he felt inadequate. He felt like he could no longer provide for her, and he felt wrong when people would see them around the city together. Her father ran to his work, and Colleen ran to Kurt.

“Seventh interview? Don’t fret, peanut. There are 9 innings in a game, remember?”

Nine months. Kurt was gone by the sixth and Colleen was stuck with a pulsing basketball belly. Without a mother, she had never quite gained the maternal instinct; the example set for her never painted a beautiful picture and she had seen a pamphlet at the clinic about alternatives. The couple first on the waitlist was a pretentious pair out of the upper East side: she wore pearls and he donned a collared shirt with a silly emblem on the pocket. They smiled a lot and told her about the plans they had for the baby’s room.
Hot pink.

Colleen stared at the glass of red wine and made small circles with her wrist, letting the liquid lick the rim. As her eyes blurred to the maroon, a drop of condensation splashed in to the glass. Her line of sight moved upwards to the moist pipes above her, then back to the glass. Colleen tilted the clear glass to her lips and she sipped, and sipped, and sipped.

 

Good Swimmers – by E. Williams

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when we lost her. It was a gradual, sneaking thing, like watching our little brother grow up. One day I looked up to find him rising miles above me, without any realization that he had been growing at all. It seems most things in life happen this way- things are rarely so immediate and life changing as people often make them out to be. Life is more of a steady lull, all the tediousness of everyday clouding your vision until you have no idea as to how you got to be where you are, only that you had kept your legs moving. This was no different. My sister Anna was a slow motion disappearing act, little pieces of herself leaving- pieces so small that their absence was unnoticeable at first, like the way she would ruffle our brother’s hair in the mornings, or the big, genuine, hearty laugh she reserved for our dad’s worst jokes. She shed these pieces of herself like dust behind her, until there was nothing left at all.

Our town grew up around a great expanse of lake, so deep and wide that it was nearly impossible to see the thin, blue, water-colored line of the other side that separated sky from glinting water. Anna and I shared a bedroom with single window facing the lake. In the summers we would creep through the window on to the overhang of the roof, tracing the line of the opposite shore with our finger. Sometimes the lake seemed so wide that we forgot it was a lake at all, instead believing was an entire ocean, that the other side of the world was lay just barely visible to us, calling out our names. We had never been to the other side, our father’s boat was old and seemingly pieced together by wishful thinking alone, good only for daytime outings and recreational fishing trips. Anna liked to tell me how it was exactly the same on the other side as it was here, only a little backwards. She described it as a kind of funhouse mirror, that there was another me and there’s another her, but all a little wrong in a way, like being inside a dream. She would tell me these things in the same way she would tell me about her math grades or the boy who wouldn’t stop calling, no hesitation or hitch in her voice that would give her away. I knew well enough that it wasn’t true- but for whatever reason, when I would look out at the expanse, I only saw this other me, terrified in the idea of her existence.

My sister did not swim. All the children in our area swam practically from birth. There had been a long history of drowning from the very beginnings of our town, so swimming safety was always prioritized. But Anna never swam. She would wail anytime my parents brought her towards the water, refusing even to drop in a single toe. While my parents were at first concerned, they decided that a child so instinctively fearful of water would never go near enough to be in danger of drowning anyway. When we were younger, she would get teased for her refusal to get into the water, but when she was older it no longer seemed to matter. She would lay by the edge, browning her forever perfectly tanned legs and making it seem as if swimming was the most juvenile thing in the world. Other girls, girls who had before taunted her, flocked around Anna, shrieking when a little brother or other such creature would splash water in their direction, reading magazines and spraying lemon juice in their hair to lighten it in the sun. But I loved to swim- something I never really grew out of like a lot of the girls my age. My favorite days were when my dad would take us out on his boat, out to where the lake seemed to be infinitely deep, where I could dive without ever touching the bottom. I would dare myself to dive as deeply as possible, to try to reach its deepest point and bring up a little sand to show to my father. But sinking below, the water turns colder and colder and the sun starts to slip away. At the furthest depths, it is only darkness and deafening silence. I would kick my legs as hard as possible, sure that this time, I wouldn’t make it back to the surface. My sister once in cruelty told me that there were sirens living at the darkest depths, ready to snatch up little girls like me, to drag them under, never to return. I remembered shouting back that she was only telling stories because she couldn’t swim before diving back under, ashamed at the fact that I had kept my eyes clamped shut, for fear of seeing a flick of a mermaid’s tail, or pale hands reaching out to me from the depths of the lake.

After Anna’s disappearance, people liked to say how she was different in a way, that she was never good at being young. This wasn’t exactly true. Youth was Anna’s best quality. She did it better than anyone I knew. My transition into young adulthood was marred by grasshopper legs and hunched shoulders, knobby knees and nervous, toothy, braces-filled smiles. Anna floated into adolescence like The Birth of Venus, beautiful and miraculous. Other kids in town would grow quiet whenever she came near, a palpable, heavy sense of equal parts awe and envy. It wasn’t just her beauty, which certainly didn’t hurt- but what they really seemed to ache for, what I myself ached for, was her ease. She walked in her skin as if it was the most effortless thing in the world. After her disappearance, people described watching as if they were watching someone swim through the air, muted and graceful, suspended in slow motion, her hair floating around her face as if it were pulled by unseen watery currents. I think when people said that she was never really good at being young, what they meant was that she was too good, that she was unnatural somehow in this effortlessness, this smooth ascent into adulthood. And maybe that’s why it took us all so long to see she was leaving us. The warning signs were never there.

It was in my fifteenth summer that my sister and I diverged. We had been almost inseparable until that summer, but then something shifted. While my sister grew into near mythological status in the town, I began to grow inward and silent. I sought out the places where no one would find me. I read and swam and daydreamed and hid from the world. My sister glittered and shone, forever followed by long strings of the envious and the heartbroken, by awe and longing. But, what I then thought of as two separate paths, I have now begun to think of as one, simply different manifestations of the same goal. It was in this summer, the one where I believed my sister to be rising to greet the world that she actually receded. It was then that we started to loose her. It was little absences that I noticed first. She stopped asking for me to braid her hair at night. She no longer crawled into my bed during the long thunderstorms that rolled in the heat of summer, when the wind and rain would shake the windowpane, when thunder drowned out the sounds of our breathing. Sometimes I woke in the middle of the night to find her bed empty. On these nights, I would stay up to witness her creep back in in the early dawn, her shoes leaving puddles on the wooden floor, trailing in the earthy smell of mud and lake water. I never asked where she went. I’m not sure why I never wondered, at least not until it was too late. I think a part of me resented her, her secrets and her ease, the life she seemed to be living. I had always felt suspended inside of my own head, as if I were sitting in a train car, looking out to see the world rushing by me, damned to be always slightly removed. My sister, on the other hand, was all action. At that time, I felt she did not shy away from the world as I did. And maybe this is why I didn’t wonder, because it was too painful to watch her live in a way that felt I couldn’t. She felt destined to me, to everyone, for bigger things. That’s what I believed that summer to be at the time, a way hurdling herself towards the sun. What had always seemed so far away and incomprehensible to me, like that thin water-colored line of the other side of the lake, was a part of my sister’s reality, an otherness she seemed to be running towards. And so I let her run.

The summer had come to its peak when my sister left us for good, like an overripe fruit, beautiful and full and sweet, but quickly fleeting. It had been the kind of day where you can sense fall waiting in the eves, a certain smell of decay clinging to the cool of the late evening. My sister had been leaving almost every night by that time, coming home just before the sky turned pink and the lights in our parents bedroom flickered on. This night was no different. I lay on my side, and watched her bed as sky outside our window begins to lighten. I watched as the birds begin to sing and as the sounds of my parents making breakfast in the kitchen rose, as the sunlight poured down the floorboards of our bedroom, slipping over the empty space where she was supposed to be sleeping. I watched as the morning lengthened, until it was morning no longer, and I knew she was gone.

            They found my father’s boat in the middle of the lake, much farther than any of us had ever traveled before. The motor had given out, as my father had always predicted would happen if any of us tried to venture out too far. From that point, from the dead center of the lake, you could see clearly to the other side. It rose like some great phantom from the water, black forests and distant mountains identical to the ones that spread themselves across our own shoreline. From that middle point, you could not tell the difference between them and us. There was no other side, just a trick, and illusion, a perfect-mirrored reflection. They found my father’s boat in the middle of the lake, but my sister was nowhere to be found. They only found her jacket and a towel, folded neatly on the center bench, as if waiting for her when she would emerge from the lake again.

            My sister has been gone now for two years and I am the same age as she was when she left us. There is a bodiless grave in a meadow near the shoreline, and a tree planted in her honor at the high school, complete with a wooden bench with a shiny plaque underneath. Closure, they said. But for me, this has never been enough. I feel my sister as if we are still connected, some strange invisible line cast out into the lake, out to the land that rises opposite us. I still trace that blue line separating land from water of the other side, but now, instead of seeing a backwards world, I only see Ana, living another sort of life, one where she and I could be different, where she is united with that strange other version of herself. Now, when I dive deep into the lake, I keep my eyes wide open, unafraid, searching for the beautiful face of my sister, for a glimpse of the flick of her tail, hair waving around her like sea grass, pale hands reaching out to me, welcoming me home.

Vegas, Burning – by Casey Suglia

He’s driving his rent-a-car somewhere on the highway out of town and I can’t remember his name. Fuck. This man is driving me away and I don’t know his first name. He looks over at me then faces the road. I stick my hand out of the window embracing the final coolness the early morning dusk has left behind, and close my eyes.

&

Las Vegas was hot in the summer; it reached 105 degrees at 12 am in July when we’d be walking into some ritzy club and sweating off our fake eyelashes. My girls and I were always looking for a way to get out of the heat in a city where it followed you everywhere. Or maybe we were looking for more.

Looking to make more.

We followed strange men into casinos, hotel bars, their bedrooms and fell victim to those desires inside of our souls that told us nothing was never enough. That’s why people came from all over, each day; that’s why everyone was in Vegas.

I caught on quickly as a preteen when I would catch Mami’s current tease of the month sneaking a peek at my slim thighs in my sheer cotton skirts.

“That’s right,” my eyes seemed to say, as I gave them a knowing glance. “You can’t ignore this.”

I wanted to follow in Mami’s footsteps since I was five and had started watching her put on her nude-colored stockings and purple eye shadow each night before I went to bed. Looking in wonder, as if being a cocktail waitress was akin to being a movie star. And I’d watch her in the mornings, too, just as the sun rose at 6 am, returning home from her night shift with high heels in hand and the fatigue of the night spreading across her face. She’d hand me my homework, kiss me on my forehead, and send me off to catch the bus, still dressed in last night’s uniform.

Our kind of smarts is learned on the streets, Magdalena,” Ma would say. “That’s the only thing you need to get by.”

 My girls and I walked across the stage of our high school auditorium with diplomas in hand, fake smiles plastered across our faces.

“If only you knew how much blow we did in the women’s bathroom the past four years,” we thought, shaking the hand of the principal, seeing him for the last and final time.

There was no thought of college, no thought of getting out of the city, no thought of being the revolutionaries in our families to break all expectations and get a degree. We had graduated from the gazes of Mami’s boyfriends to blowjobs in high school locker rooms, to the dive bars where we would wave around our fake I.D.’s for free drinks, to one night stands in bedrooms at the nicest hotels money could buy.

We weren’t prostitutes. I had too much dignity to turn to the streets and make a living out of it, having seen classmates sell themselves for a lot less than what I was giving up. It wasn’t my speed.

We just wanted more. And they gave it to us.

&

Las Vegas was home and the desert was all that I knew; dry and desperate, fast and merciless. Ma had come here for the dream: for the fast money and the way that everyone transformed into a new character every night; every new persona mirroring the ones that were endlessly clamoring out of her life since she was young. She had been a cocktail waitress since I was born, dad a card dealer. They had escaped their dull, nameless hometown in the Midwest at 18, both in search of something. Dad took a little more liberty in the searching than Mom had in mind.

There was no thought of college and no thought of getting out of the city. Being a cocktail waitress at the Aria, one of the nicest and most notorious hotels in Vegas, had its perks.

Most customers were looking for a good time, an escape. To be away from their wives and children, their bosses, their iPhones, and their agendas. They’d watch us working while they sat at the bar, their eyes following our trays and then our thighs. The nicer we were, the bigger tip we got. The compliments came subtly at first, a wink here and there, maybe a flirtatious comment. Then came the cell phone numbers written on their receipts, then the room keys. There were the ones who ordered drinks and waited patiently until our shifts were over at 3 am. By the end of the night, it was up to us to choose which one to go home with.

“That 43 year old executive from Ohio seemed nice.”
“Yeah, but he definitely had a wedding ring on, you sure you want to play with that again?”
“No sis, the 30 year old associate seemed more your speed. He kept looking at you all night like you were a steak.”

Our goal was simple: sex. Then get out of there before they catch you. No time for stories about your childhood, your hopes and dreams. Most of those men were just looking for someone to talk to anyway, and they needed someone to listen.

“There aren’t people like you back at home. Everyone is so caught up in the stock market and making money and I just want to live. I just want to be alive. Why do we have to work and make something out of ourselves? Why can’t we just be? You know, you’re such a good listener, Magdalena, has anyone ever told you that before?”

I’d smile, then follow them up to their hotel rooms in the early hours of the morning, maybe after a night of dancing at some ritzy club catered to tourists or drinks at the bar in their hotel lobby. It came naturally. Nothing was ever forced. I never put myself in a situation where I didn’t want to be, didn’t force myself into just any guy’s bed.

There was an appeal with the anonymous. My lifestyle was too fast to be tied down to just one man, always working from hotel to hotel, constantly at one place or another. Apartments were for sleeping during the daytime; the nighttime was for living.

The boys born and raised in Vegas were too slow, too dirty. I had been ignoring their catcalls since the playground. But I never said no to a second date with the men from out of town. Some waited months to return, some took a year or so but it never seemed long. We would slip back into our usual roles. Them talking, me listening, a formal dinner, a present, their hotel rooms, a goodbye kiss, and a taxi cab back to the airport and their normal lives.

&

You sure you know where you’re going?” he asks, looking to me for directions. His left hand rests on the steering wheel, his right hand on my left thigh. “How do I know you’re not part of some scheme where a pretty girl seduces me, drags me out of town, robs me for everything I’m worth, and then leaves my dead body for the buzzards?”

 “I’m a waitress, you think I’m capable of that kind of shit?” I say, half joking. The temptation to steal a watch or a hundred dollars from their wallets while they had been sleeping had always existed, but I could never live with the guilt.

“Besides, there aren’t any buzzards in this desert. The vultures will get to you first.” He smirks and retreats, placing his hand back onto the steering wheel. I rack my brain for the things I’ve learned about him over the past 6 hours. Still no name.

“You’re smart, you know that?”

“You’ve already said that tonight.”

 The clock on the dashboard changes to 5:30 and the midnight blue of the sky begins to soften behind us as we drive further away from the city and head East towards the mountains and the sun.

“You’re the one who wanted to go somewhere,” I say. “Just trust me on this, keep going straight.”
His face relaxes and he returns his hand back to my thigh.
“I don’t normally do this.”
“What’s that?”
“Meet someone, spend the whole night with them, go somewhere. I have a plane to catch in six hours.”

His white pressed cotton oxford is now wrinkled from the past hours we’ve spent together and damp with sweat, despite the window being open. He carries an air of New Yorker tension in his shoulders as he grips the steering wheel, yet seems so relaxed and at ease. He’s younger, a lot younger than the guys typically interested in me, and can’t be more than 28 years old.

“I don’t normally do this either.”
“You don’t?”
“Nope. I typically just have sex with guys two hours after I meet them.”
“Damn you’re good.”

 &

I finally had a much deserved night off.
“You work too much,” Ma would say. And “didn’t get enough time to relax.”
But work never seemed like work, although it did get tedious having to be on top of my game every night. It was all about the bigger tips, the bigger rush, and never any time to just be.

So we went out. Our nights off were never really nights off anyway. My girls and I always had to be moving, getting dressed up for each other, checking out new spots and visiting old favorites. When we had each other, we didn’t need to spend our nights apart.

I was four drinks in when I finally approached him. I couldn’t help it, my girls had encouraged it, even. He was sitting at the bar by himself, occasionally looking over to where we were sitting and he just looked so lonely. Why couldn’t I pick up a guy for once in my life? Why did I have to let them come to me?

“I’m Magdalena. Want to dance?”

He knew how to move. Our bodies moved in together, sweating alongside the bodies on the packed dance floor.

“What are you in town for?”
“Work convention this past week. Tonight’s my last night.”

“Where are you from?”
“New York, you?”
“Vegas. Born and raised,” I said, shouting over the music and into his ear.
“Sounds like a story.”
“You have no idea.” I lose my balance dancing and stumble into him. I grip his arm for stability. “Want to go talk somewhere?”

Four hours later, we’re still talking, this time in a corner of the hotel lobby bar. We’re close, my feet sit in his lap. He’s no longer drinking, but the cocktails have gone to my head. It’s quieter, the music still is audible, and the whirring of the slot machines is dulled.

“Have you ever wanted to get away?”
“How could I? Everything is so beautiful here. The lights. The mountains. The people. How could I want to?”
“Isn’t this town dirty? Suffocating? Do you ever want to escape?”

I’d heard this line many times before. Coming from a 50-year-old’s mouth it sounded forced and uncomfortable. Like when you’re in the lobby and some scam artist pervert tells you they want to make you a star. Call it cliché, but I bought everything coming from him.

“You’d love New York.”
“I don’t think you’ve known me long enough to assume that.”
“Do you have a car? Come with me.”

&

Vegas isn’t known for its mountains, but it should be. When people describe the city, they forget to tell you that the city is surrounded by the mountains and that there is a 360 degree view wherever you go. They’ll tell you about the hotels, the peep show fliers handed to them on The Strip. They’ll mention how dirty it was, how much they can’t remember, how much they can’t tell you. But they won’t tell you about the red rocks, the structures that have existed before the money and the gangsters and the casinos.

We’re deep in the mountains now, just outside of the city. He parks the car on the side of the road and we begin to climb the established paths created by hikers and frisky teenagers before. The sun begins to peek out overhead in the East. He lags behind me at a much considerable distance, despite the fact I’m wearing a dress and carrying my shoes in my hands.

“Come on, we have to find the best spot before its too late.”

 You could see the grid of the city laid out in front of us. My old high school, the neighborhoods mixed in with the shopping centers we loitered around in high school, then our first bars, then the highway, running diagonally and separating the Las Vegas I knew and the Las Vegas they thought they knew. There were the rows of hotels at the edge of town with their reflective windows, glittering in the rising sun.

“Holy shit, this view. You were right about an escape.”

I looked towards the city. Towards my past and present. Towards my future of more men, trays of cocktails, ears ringing from the bells of slot machines. Ma was never happy, never satisfied, always returning home with sore arms and smeared makeup.


Maybe I didn’t want the lifestyle anymore. The heat of the town was going to wear off eventually. The sparks would die down, they always did. There would be no more excitement left in giving people watered down drinks. I would slowly become discouraged like Ma did, craving the stability of a normal job. There was nothing glamorous about turning 40 and applying the same caked on makeup every night.

Maybe I did need to get away and experience life somewhere else before the desert sucked me dry of my youth, my health, and what little dignity I had left.

The sun began to rise over our heads and the lights from the buildings washed out with the skyline. The rest of the town was just waking up. Maybe it was time for me to.

“You coming, Mag?” “Yeah.”

Broken Strings – by Olivia Buck

Sitting in the backyard herb garden of his mother’s house always comforted Vincent Banks. The smells of fresh basil and cilantro hung in the rafters of his nose and reminded him of simple things, like watering gardens and playing hopscotch with sidewalk chalk. He’d been enclosed in the picket-fenced plot for nearly half an hour, his sketchbook on his lap and the blue pen in his front pocket leaking steadily down his chest.

The drive down from school had been full of new wave chords and still-smoking cigarette butts, two hours of complete, solitary bliss before this fiasco of a gathering that he currently found himself a part of. Going home again was never as easy as leaving it behind, and Vincent reasoned that as long as this remained a fact, he should avoid the trip as often as he could. Countless Christmases had been spent abroad or with the current-girlfriend’s family. Thanksgivings had been glided over, birthdays largely ignored.

When he did come home, it was usually only for the weekend, and he spent an exorbitant amount of time staring at the decaying condition of his boots in the backyard of his childhood home. Even when he still lived there, he was always hiding. When he was small, it was so he had time to play with his army men, then again when he stole his father’s playboy at age thirteen, and again throughout high school when he discovered the joys of chain smoking. His mother always had an understanding of this, and never used to bother him about it. She always told him that they were similar, both with light brown hair and slightly earnest expressions, both introverted and pensive. His grandfather said they possessed the same weakness, but Vincent preferred to think of it as art over war, loving over fighting.

The watch on his wrist beeped twice. Two o’clock. Time to rally, time to eat carrots and celery dipped in ranch sauce and paint his face for social interaction. He rose to his feet, stretched his legs, and gazed around him. Across from the fenced herb garden was his mother’s famed rose bushes. There was a myriad of color lining this side of the yard, yellow, red, pink, white, and other hues which Vincent had no eye for. He remembered how his mother used to know all of the meanings behind them. Red roses, for example, meant passion. White was for purity. Pink, for innocence. Looking back, he found he had trouble bringing the other definitions to mind. As he moved past them, he suddenly thought how absurd it was that roses only had thorns to protect them from the harsh weather. How absurd that sometimes, human beings had even less than that.  He shook his head, chasing the thoughts from his mind, and climbed the steps of the house.

Inside, the hallways were crammed full of people, wearing mournful attire and clutching casseroles. When they caught his eye, they immediately gazed at the ground, as if they were afraid of what they would see in him.

“Banks!”

Vincent turned around to see the figure of Andrew Tillman pushing through the throng of people surrounding him. Andrew always had a polite, dreamy expression on his face, as though he couldn’t quite pull his head from the clouds. They weren’t quite friends in school, but Vincent was the only student that could tolerate Andrew’s constant chatter at one point.  In high school, Andrew had sometimes made cameos during Vincent’s chain-smoking sessions in the garden.

“Shit, I haven’t seen you in —” Andrew began, and then trailed off, looking thoughtful.
“Would be about two years,” Vincent clarified, the corners of his mouth turning up ever so slightly.

“Damn,” Andrew let out a slow stream of breath. “Being in this house again, it makes you remember the good times.”

Vincent felt his face settle into its usual apathetic lines. If Andrew considered high school the ‘good times,’ then Vincent needed to prepare himself for one of those “Yes, I’m living at my mom’s house for now until my silent Velcro patent come through” talks, the ones that made him crave the backlit coffee house in the city.

“How have you been?” he asked, fishing for small talk, hoping beyond hope that Andrew would do the same. Vincent was sorely mistaken on that point, for after only that small prompt, Andrew Tillman proceeded to wrap up every minor event that had occurred in the past two years. About halfway through the second year of Andrew living with his parents and dating a few high school girls, Vincent’s gaze drifted elsewhere.

He caught his father’s eye from the kitchen, and raised an eyebrow ever so slightly. Mr. Banks was a tall man, slightly balding, and was known in town as an “upstanding citizen” and “a man of true integrity.” In a room full of well-wishers, he seemed strangely isolated, up against the kitchen cabinets, his wife’s wedding ring between his fingers. To anyone else, he would have been a tragic figure, a man who had just lost his partner of twenty-five years, a retired man with nothing left to occupy himself. Their house seemed absurdly big to Vincent now — two stories, four bedrooms, and only one person left to fill it. Vincent wondered whether his father could still remember a time when their family was all together, making dinner, playing board games, arguing about which restaurant to dine at. It seemed like someone else’s childhood, stories of collecting caterpillars and barefoot summers, of running back to mother when she called them home.

Vincent looked away, turning his attention back to the prattling figure before him. Andrew was just finishing up the epic saga of his latest hiring and firing from the movie theater downtown. Vincent understood that the constant stream of verbiage was meant to detract from the reason why the entire neighborhood was in his living room. Meant to tear his thoughts away from his dead mother.

“Hey man, I gotta take a piss. You take care.” Vincent abruptly ended Andrew’s autobiography, clapped him casually on the shoulder, and moved from the living room into the kitchen. Hopefully liquor could be found there, and enough of it to remove the overwhelming sense of nostalgia permeating his mind. Mr. Banks had moved from his post by the cabinets to his office, shutting himself away from the mourners there to talk to him about what a great lady his wife was. Vincent envied him. As the husband, you could go off alone, you could force others to sympathize and leave you be. Vincent, as the black sheep son that took off nearly six years ago, needed to stick around, or else they would think him heartless.

He scanned the fridge and found nothing but a jug of milk and his mother’s leftover pot roast. It was probably only a week old. Still decent enough to be heated in the microwave, though no one would dare consume the last meal she had ever made. Sighing, he closed the door of the fridge and scanned the outside of it. Almost as if nothing had changed, memories from his childhood were stuck on the surface, pictures of family vacations, his eleventh grade report card, and his sister’s five-year-old art work.

“Hey stranger.”

Vincent turned and saw his Amanda sitting up on the granite counter, her usually tousled red hair neatly pulled back at the nape of her neck.

“Didn’t think I’d see you,” he said, turning to face her.

“You didn’t think I’d miss it, did you?” Silence. Both parties were avoiding the eyes of the other person.

“Where’s Beth?”

“Who knows?” Vincent answered. He looked back at the fridge, at Beth’s artwork, and felt a strange pang echo in his chest. “Last I heard, she was moving to Malibu, but that was almost three months ago.”

“Ah,” Amanda sighed. “Shouldn’t she …”

“My father tried to reach her. It’s funny how her phone never receives calls, only makes them,” Amanda blushed, which is what she did when she could think of nothing else to do.

“I’m sure glad to see you.”

It was Vincent’s turn to blush. The last time they had seen each other, words were vehemently exchanged, and promises of never speaking again were uttered. Messes had been left for someone else to clean up, wounds expected to heal without any stitches. “Yeah. It’s been a while.”

“I’m sorry about your mom.”

“Me too.” Vincent, for the first time, looked into her eyes. They were full of sadness, but also of something else. Maybe pity. Maybe love. In Vincent’s experience, those were often the same thing.

“I don’t know what to say to you,” she said after a pause.

This was probably for the best, as Vincent had no idea how to continue the fractured conversation they were having.

“You don’t need to …”

“I do. I really do. I have a lot to apologize for, Vincent, and I never told you …”

“It’s past its prime, Amanda,” Vincent interrupted “We should just let it go. I’m glad to see you, I hope Mark’s good.”
“He’s fine,” Amanda self-consciously touched the gold band on her left hand. “He’s home with the baby.”

“That’s fine. Boy or girl?”

“His name is Peter,” Vincent felt the bile in his stomach heave up. Amanda had a husband, Amanda had a baby named Peter, a baby that would someday grow into a man, who would have his own thoughts and feelings. This wasn’t happening. Vincent was sure of it.

“If you’ll, um, excuse me, I need to find my father.”

Amanda nodded, and slid down from the counter. She stepped closer to Vincent, and suddenly wrapped her arms around his waist. He automatically fell over her, a reflex that he thought he’d gotten rid of. They stood there like that, holding each other in the middle of his father’s kitchen, for an uncountable amount of seconds. He smelled the familiar scent of citrus in her hair, he crushed her to his chest, unaware of the strings inside him breaking a little more with each passing moment.

“I’ll be seeing you,” she pulled back, looking into his eyes.

“Maybe we’ll have a smoke sometime,” he answered, and the spell was broken. She was just lost love again, someone he could place into future drawings and poems, someone to look back on in twenty years and think about what might have been. She turned on her heel and plunged back into the throng of people, leaving Vincent again to helplessly watch her walk away. He straightened his tie and shook his head.

Vincent turned his attention toward the closed door of his father’s study. Without bothering to knock, he turned the handle and hurried in, shutting the door behind him. His father was sitting behind his desk, in that chair that always made Vincent think of mob bosses in gangster movies. His head was in his hands and he hadn’t looked up when the door had opened. Vincent wasn’t even sure if his father had heard him come in.

“Swell party, huh?”

His father looked up, his face a mask of quiet grief. “I suppose.”

“Dad, are you going back out there?” Vincent asked. Mr. Banks continued to stare off into space, and he tried again. “They’re all wondering where you are.”

“Did you read her obituary?”

“Sorry?”

“Your mother’s. They put it in the morning paper.”

“Oh.”

Mr. Banks shoved a piece of paper across the surface of the desk. It was a copy of the Daily Post, the announcements section. Vincent pretended to read it, but instead studied the lines of his father’s forehead. They were canyons and valleys, traveling up and down over his eyebrows. Vincent remembered tracing them with his fingers when he was small, dreaming of the day when he too would have them. Then perhaps he could be as wise as his father, as capable. Back then, everyone seemed like a giant.

“They call her a caring citizen, a devoted wife, and a doting mother,” his father said after a pregnant pause.

“So they do,” Vincent said, pretending to scan the words,

“They don’t mention how her hands smelled like peppermint,” his father said slowly, almost as if his mouth were full of honey.

“They don’t mention how she always burned the stuffing at Thanksgiving, or how she ran away from home when she was fifteen, or that her favorite color was lilac and how she could play three instruments very poorly and …” his voice broke. Vincent looked up, startled to see tears steadily streaming from behind his father’s glasses. The once giant man now looked very small indeed.

“Dad …”

“She wanted you to come and visit,” his father looked him in the eye for the first time. “She kept asking about where you were, even at the end.”

“I know,” Vincent looked at his shoes. “I know she did. I just couldn’t see her that way.”

His father merely nodded. “It was hard.”

Vincent desperately looked anywhere but his father’s eyes. He gazed at the leather-bound books on the shelves behind him, praying that their stories would carry him far away, to a place where things ended happily and mothers didn’t die and fathers and sons had something to say to each other.

“I’d better get out there and take a look,” his father used a handkerchief to mop his face, then stood up and skirted around the desk. “Come say goodbye before you leave.” He walked out without a backwards glance.

Vincent sank into the easy chair by the fireplace. He remembered his parents as they were ten years ago, he remembered the taste of his mother’s burned stuffing and the wrinkles that crept up in the corners of his father’s eyes when he tasted it. He remembered his little sister, before she had skipped town, running around the hardwood floors in rainbow socks, playing with the dog. He remembered lying in the wet earth of his mother’s backyard herb garden, counting the clouds rolling by. Sinking into the mud, where it is quiet and peaceful and home. He looked around, over his head, out of the window. This house seemed too big now. Now that there was only one of them left in it. It didn’t remind him of home anymore. Somewhere among the skipped visits, the broken promises, the unanswered phone calls, he had lost it.

There was nothing left of them now. Simply ghosts running around the halls, making a racket and keeping him awake at night. The garden was dying, the winter was seeping through the cracks, and nothing felt whole or real. His father couldn’t even stand to look him in the eye. His father could only dream of peppermint and lilac coating the insides of his brain and transporting him to a place where everything was as it used to be.

Vincent sat there, watching the sun slowly sink over the trees. He had read once that you couldn’t go home again. Nothing could ever be the way it was, change is inevitable.

But maybe this house could be more than walls full of ghosts. Maybe. Maybe he could help his father resurrect his children, bring back his wife, fill the house with music and laughter. Maybe he could make up for the visits not paid, for the flowers not sent, for the phone calls never made. All he had to do was take the first step.

Vincent’s could feel his broken strings barely starting to mend as he got up from his chair by the fire. He could do it. He could mend his strings, his father’s strings, even Beth’s strings, if they could find her. Maybe they could figure out how to weave it all together, create a tapestry or repair the slashes made in the old one. He opened up the door and quietly walked out after his father.

Albert – by Molly Van Gilder

There was nothing about the morning that Albert liked. Every day his house was like an engine in winter, struggling to get started. He preferred things run smoothly. Instead, Ellie woke up wailing an hour before his alarm would have gone off, and Sophie grumbled that it was his turn, so he had to drag himself out of bed and across the hall to her room. She never stopped crying for him, even though he tried everything. He pulled his ears and made a monkey face, he made a door with his hands and played peek-a-boo, he gave her his keys, even his phone, anything to appease her. But no matter what he did, she screamed, almost defiantly, in his face. Could babies do that, be spiteful? He was suspicious that she considered him as nothing more than another tenant in the house, a nuisance even. He gave up, as he always did, and went into the hall. Once he was out of her doorway, she reduced to a quiet sniveling. Maybe she could feel the tension he brought to the house.

“What the hell,” Albert said. He scowled and stomped back to his room. It wasn’t fair. He tried much harder than Sophie ever had to, and Ellie still loved her and hated him.

“What are you doing?” Sophie asked.

He had kicked the nightstand, which had knocked off the tacky pink lamp and woken her up.

“How’s Ellie?”

“Fine. Great.” He looked at his wife. Her white, glowing skin had once captivated him, but he was used to it now.

“Okay. Want breakfast?” she asked.

He didn’t answer, instead dropping onto the bed and pulling the sheet over his face.

“Al,” she said, reaching for the lump in the bed. “She’ll come ’round.”

“She’ll come ’round,” he said into the pillow.  

Albert gasped awake, sitting up quickly and groping for his glasses on the nightstand. He turned stiffly to look at the clock. 9:00 already. “Shit,” he said under his breath. He looked around but couldn’t find his glasses anywhere. He swung his legs off the bed one at a time, expecting to find his slippers with his feet, but instead there was only the cold wood floor. Surprised, he looked down over the edge of the bed but the slippers had disappeared.

“Cold feet it is,” he said. “Cold and blind and late.” He paused, thinking about this, and then smiled. “Ah, I like it.” He opened his drawer and found a yellow lined notepad and a red pen. He clicked it and started to write cold, but the pen just made a little imprint on the page, no ink. He shook it up and down and tried again. Still no ink would come out. He made a swirl in the corner. Still none. He rolled the pen between his hands like he was starting a fire, trying to warm up the ink. He wrote Albert at the top and Albert was red. Pleased at his success, he counted down one, two, three, four lines to write, but he found he had forgotten.

“Damn it all to hell,” he said. He flung the pen and pad on the floor, then decided that wasn’t vengeful enough. He picked them up again and threw the pen at the wall, a tiny red tick made upon impact. He took the pad in two hands and tried to rip it in two, but it was too thick, so he ripped the top page and threw the rest across the room. All he wanted now was a drink.

He pulled on an old pair of jeans that hugged his belly a little too tightly and a lumpy green sweater that swallowed his frame. Out in the hall, he peeked in Ellie’s room which was dark and silent. Her absurd amount of toys were scattered around the room in piles. He moved on down the hallway and went downstairs. Everything was still and quiet. Albert looked in every room, waiting for something to move or scream. He began to hear the silence, a constant high tone in his ears. He cleared his throat just to hear the “ahem.” It helped a little.

Albert decided that today was the day. He was finally going to finish his story. He opened the sliding glass door to the patio and walked down to the edge of the backyard, where a small shack stood tucked between two fat yew trees. It was a dingy place with plastic curtains and an old wingback armchair, but the only place he could ever get any writing done. He could hear the memories of voices well up inside. When are you going to get a job? Sophie said. Wake up, Albert. Honestly, will you ever do anything? his mother asked.

What Albert didn’t realize was that he wasn’t a writer at all, not really. Since his eleventh birthday he had obsessed over the idea, or rather the image of being a writer. He imagined himself with a fuzzy mustache and loafers, scribbling notes everywhere he went, the constant aroma of coffee engulfing him in a sweet cloud. Since that time, he kept this image of the man who lived inside, who went by Bert and chewed on a pencil. Despite his obsession, he had taken twelve years to write his first story, a short novel he called The Great Sleep. He had sent it to his mother when he’d finished it three years ago, waiting with a knot in his stomach to hear what she had to say. She wrote him back, through the post, only one sentence: It’s rather dull, darling. He reflected later that there had been a time when this reaction would have made him pinch himself hard as punishment. Instead he set fire to the manuscript that night.

He went inside, walking for the first time that day with his back straight. He felt so cozy in here, surrounded by books piled on the floor like a little city, the walls covered in photos, drawings, and notes. He went to the cabinet for the brandy and a glass so he could start writing, but the bottle was gone. He looked by his armchair and at his desk, but couldn’t find it.

After searching everywhere in the shack, Albert walked back up the hill toward the house. It was a grey day, cool and bright, and it felt like it should be foggy but instead the sky was one solid block of slate. Albert looked to the left at the graveyard and saw a young woman crouching by some lost person. He stopped to watch her. Her dark hair made a curtain that hid her face as she bent over the grave. She didn’t move for a long time, except for her hands. It looked like she was fiddling with something. He wondered if she was praying. People do that a lot in graveyards. Maybe she thought she was talking to whomever she had lost. Albert felt sorry for her and wanted to go over there, but decided to keep going to the house.

He went to the kitchen and opened the top cabinet where they kept the liquor. There was no brandy, just a little bit of Apples, which he hated. He looked in the fridge but there was no wine. He decided to just pop into town for a bottle of brandy, then he’d come straight home and finish his story. He went to the front door for the keys but the hook was empty. Where had he put them? He checked his coat pockets and the counter and his coat pockets again. He tried to remember where he had put them last.

“Ellie!” he said. He took the stairs two at a time, careful not to misstep. He looked in her crib and the floor around it, but the keys weren’t there. She must have held onto them when they left this morning. He was stuck until Sophie came home, but he couldn’t write without the brandy. “Damn it, Bert, what do I do now?” he said to the inside man. He went outside and looked at the graveyard, and jumped a little when he found the girl was looking at him. He gave her a stranger’s half-smile, but her face didn’t change. She was pale and blank, looking at him unblinking with the darkest eyes he had ever seen.

Albert started crossing the yard toward her, and she sprang up like a fire was under her and ran away out of the graveyard. He was surprised when his feet met the cold ground, his toes squelching in the mud.

“Hey, wait!” Albert said. He started walking faster, wanting to catch up but not willing to make a scene about it. After a few more strides, he decided to give up. She was long gone. He went back and stopped at the grave she had been visiting. It read, Stanley Archibald Beames, Here we are, trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why. Albert thought about this, and smiled. Then, realizing he couldn’t write it down, the smile vanished. Albert didn’t notice how fresh the grave was.

“Get away from there,” a tiny voice said from behind him.

He twisted around without moving his feet and saw the girl. Her white dress and red coat played off each other like a painting. Everything about her looked new and calculated. “Why?” he asked.

“None of your business,” she said. Her eyes were still dark but he could see that they were also swollen from crying.

Albert turned back to the stone. “I like it,” he said, pointing.

“Fuck off,” she said. “You fucking idiot.”

Albert smirked, hardly put off. “Do you have a scrap of paper?”

“What for?”

“I want to write it down.”

“What are you, a graveyard tourist? Go fuck yourself.” She sighed. “And anyway, it’s from his favorite book. Slaughterhouse-Five.”

“I don’t know it. Why’d you come back?” he asked.

She shrugged. “Why were you chasing me?”

“I wasn’t chasing you. You were crying. I was coming to see if you were okay.”

“You looked like a crazy hobo or something.” She crossed her arms, looking past him at the grave.

“Who was he?” Albert asked.

“No one,” she said. She let her arms fall and started walking away.

A white string in her hand caught his eye. “Come on, I care, really. If I didn’t care I wouldn’t‘ve come over here.”

“Eh, you’re just nosy I bet.” She squinted at him, looking for a reaction. They kept walking down the lane of the graveyard, and when he said nothing, she sighed and stopped. “Why are you still here?” she asked.

“I’m interested,” he said.

“C’mon, what do you want?”

“Did you drive here?”  

Her car was a Land Rover decorated with dents, scrapes and road dust. It was in worse shape than he’d expected her car to be based on how she dressed. She had finally introduced herself as Bea. When she cranked her car it groaned like it had been awakened from a deep sleep, and the music picked up where it had been cut off. Albert didn’t recognize the song, some sort of pop or country. A woman twanged the lyrics, Ooh, ooh, Johnny B., you could’a been a lover but instead you’re free. He was thinking about this when he realized she was talking to him.

“What were you saying?” he asked.

“What? Ugh, were you not listening that whole time? Jesus. Never mind.” She drummed her long fingers on the steering wheel, pat-a-pat-pat.

He noticed the little string was woven through her fingers.

“I was trying to tell you that you can’t go to the store yet, it won’t open til one since it’s Sunday.”

Albert looked at the clock. It was almost eleven. “Hmm. You can just let me out anywhere then.”

“I have to stop somewhere,” she said. She turned down a road he always passed but had never been down. It winded around like it was trying to make people carsick. Albert had expected fog earlier and now he was getting it, a lot of it. It was so dense he expected a noise when it hit the windshield. Although the road was only visible for a yard in front of the car, Bea drove like she was being chased.

He didn’t realize how distressed she really was. “What is that, then?” he asked, pointing at her hand.

She pulled her hand close to her chest.  “It was a gift.  He …  Stanley, he gave it to me. I visited him the day before he died. He told me a story, an ancient Chinese proverb. It says that everyone is connected by the string of fate.” Bea glanced at him, tears gushing from her eyes. “Old bastard,” she muttered.

Albert didn’t really know what to say. “So, you have it with you now to … remind you we’re all connected, huh?”

“I never give rides to strangers, you know.” She sniffled one big sniffle, shook her head to banish the thoughts, and gripped the steering wheel tighter. Her foot became determined again, pressing relentlessly on the gas pedal.

“Shouldn’t you slow down?” he said, gripping the handle above him.

“No, I know this road. It’s fine.”

“Roads can change,” Albert said. Suddenly he remembered that he was supposed to go to the psychiatrist that morning. He had meant to call and reschedule. “Where are we going?” he asked.

“Just a quick stop,” she said. Her eyebrows pinched together. Bea turned to look at him, still driving as if in a race. “Have you ever lost someone?” “Sometimes.” Albert watched the fog roll around them.

She couldn’t help thinking about him. It had all gone bad so fast. “Do you,” she paused, “do you believe, you know, we see people again?  After they’ve gone?”

“Wouldn’t that be worse than them dying?” he asked. “Waiting your whole life for them to come round?” His mother’s voice appeared in his head, a recurring plague. Hold your shoulders up, Albert. No one will listen to a hunchback.

His thoughts were interrupted by Bea screeching, then the tires screeching, then a thud. Albert was propelled forward from the quick stop and his seatbelt took the breath out of him. He had been so lost in thought that he was disoriented for a few minutes, gazing at his feet in a daze. He realized the fog was around him, not just around the car but actually surrounding his body. He wondered if he was dead. He raised his hand up into the fog. It felt cool on his skin, and moved away as he moved the air. If angels had come up to him then he wouldn’t have been surprised. It was as if he was under a spell, captivated by a magic fog.

He looked over to the driver’s seat but Bea was gone. This surprise snapped him out of his trance. The windshield had a spider web of cracks all across it. He wondered what had caused that to happen. He unbuckled and got out of the car. When he walked around the hood, he saw a shape lying ahead, a silhouette in the thick mist. His stomach told him a feeling was there, something like dread. He walked towards the figure and saw it more clearly.

Lying there was a stag, a large beast that he guessed had been the cause of the accident. It wasn’t dead, and Albert didn’t actually see any blood, but it was clearly hurting. He thought deer were silent animals but the stag was wheezing out a small wail that sounded like air escaping from a balloon. It was the worst sound Albert had ever heard. He didn’t know what to do for it, so he went closer and knelt near the stag. It tried to get up, raising its front legs, but it couldn’t stand. He backed away from the beast, afraid of its spiked head. Albert thought it probably had a broken back and was bleeding on the inside. Albert wanted to help the animal, really he did, but there was nothing to be done.

He looked around, woods to the right and a field to the left. A shroud of fog softened the borders of everything. He moved slowly, giving the deer plenty of space, and went to his side of the car. He was afraid of breathing too loudly and breaking the thin serenity he had created for himself. He looked for his phone to call an ambulance but couldn’t find it, of course. Now he couldn’t even remember if he had brought it at all. He pressed his forehead against the glass of his window. Its smooth, cool surface made him feel like he was waking up, but when he turned back to the front he saw a red dot up the road.

Albert swung his feet out of the car, one at a time, and walked towards the red dot. He noticed that the sound of the stag crying was gone. The dot hadn’t moved, but as he got closer he affirmed it was her. Her red coat had led the way. She trembled. Finally, he moved her long black hair away to look at her. Her young face looked frozen in time like a wax doll. The eerie beauty of it made Albert feel empty and tired.

“Why did you do that?” she asked. She inched away from him. He didn’t notice the growing anxiety in her eyes.

“Do what?  I told you you were driving like a maniac. There’s a shitload of deer around here.”

“Albert?” she paused, the strangest look on her face. He couldn’t figure it out. “Give me the keys back.”

“I don’t have them,” he said, surprised.

“You do. You fucking do. I don’t know what’s wrong with you but I need you to give me the fucking keys.”

“I swear, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I woke up and you were gone, you just left the car with that,” he took a breath, “that deer lying there and I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “I thought you disappeared but I saw your coat.”

Bea started to walk away, and he grabbed her arm. “Let go of me! What the hell do you think you’re doing?” She shoved him and he let go.

“You can’t just, just leave me here!”

“You’re the one stranding us here, you’re the one playing some stupid game, and I’m done. I’m done with you. Just stay away from me.”

“Bea, I’m not — I swear …” he started.

“You fucking grab the steering wheel out of my hands like you want to kill us both,” she spat. “You practically hunted that stupid deer with my car, my car’s probably totaled now. And then you fucking steal the keys. And all the time you’re cackling like a, like an insane person.”

He was stunned. Albert looked at Bea, bewildered and full of pity for her. She must be crazy with grief. “I’m sorry you’re upset,” he said, as calmly as he could.

“Upset. Upset! Jesus, you are insane. The one time I give someone a ride, they had to be off it!” She spun around and walked away briskly.

Albert gave up. It would be no use to try to reason with her now. He watched her red coat disappear into the fog. He sat cross-legged on the white line, waiting for a car to pass, but after a while he couldn’t stand waiting anymore. Everything was still, as if time had stopped around him and he was the only man left on earth. Albert suspected no one would come down this road for a long time.

He got up and, after pausing to think a moment, ran toward Bea. “Bea, Bea, Bea,” he said. He stopped.

There was nothing to do. Albert started walking back toward the car, heel to toe on the white line. He realized he had been taking small, shallow breaths since the accident, as if Death had been strangling him slowly. He let his lungs fill with cool air, then slowly pushed it out through his lips. The fog made it impossible for him to know where he was exactly. The road curved at a much slower pace than before. He reached out his left hand to touch the tips of the weeds. Without even the sun as a guideline, he lost all sense of time.

After a while, he started to hear the swishing of cars passing on the main road. He didn’t know where to go next. “The liquor store, or home?” he asked himself. He decided to stop and think a while. He didn’t really have to be anywhere. He sat in the grass by the road, running his hands back and forth across the dewy blades.

Suddenly a memory came to him, something he thought he had buried. He was playing with his cousin in the woods on a sunny afternoon. He noticed the dotted pattern of light on the ground, coming between the leaves. His cousin went to a wilder part of the woods than Albert ever would have by himself. Albert watched him tramp ahead, climbing over logs and parting bushes to get through. Suddenly, he saw his cousin’s back stop. “Shush, Al,” he said, raising a hand. He pointed ahead of him, and Albert searched for what it was. A few yards away a cardinal perched on a small tree.

Albert was amazed. He had never seen one so close before, and its red was brilliant against the never-ending green of the wood.

“Shoot it,” his cousin said.

Albert hesitated, looking at him hopelessly.

“Do it,” he said. “Do it.”

Albert took his bb gun and aimed it at the bird. He had never shot anything before, and his hands shook. He straightened his arms all the way and shot. He hit the bird under its wings and it dropped to the ground. Both boys ran to its tiny body where it lay chirping and twitching.

Albert instantly broke down, his heart aching like a new bruise. His mother was going to kill him.

“Step on its head,” his cousin said. “Put it out of its misery.”

Albert shook his head, sobbing. He tried to scoop it up but his cousin kicked his hand away, then stepped on the bird. The beauty of its outside was now stained by its disgusting inside. Good red covered in bad red.

“See, it’s better now,” he said. “Let’s go.”  

Albert got up from the roadside and started walking into town. He needed a brandy, and he needed to get home to write before he forgot it all. He made it to the store and bought a fifth. The shopkeeper put the bottle in a brown bag, looking down his pointed nose at Albert with a slight frown.

“Thanks, Tom,” Albert said, waving out the door.

Tom gave his usual grunt in reply, his transaction with Albert complete.

Albert opened the bottle and started to take swigs of it as he walked home. The burn that followed each sip was cozy and relaxing, a blanket around him.

Before he realized it, he was back in his neighborhood, almost home. As he rounded the corner to his street, a clunker passed. A boy lowered the window and shouted at him, “Bum, old bum!” At first Albert thought he had said bug, and he thought about this. He imagined scuttling on the sidewalk with six legs, a cockroach chugging brandy. He smiled.

Albert swung open his front door and two-stepped into the living room. “Hello, house,” he said.

Sophie walked in from the kitchen and saw Albert sitting on the couch with the brown bag. “What the hell is that?” she asked. She came across the room and tried to take it, but he pushed her hands away.

“None of your business,” Albert slurred. He got up and went into the kitchen. Ellie was still in her car seat on the floor, gurgling. He took a long sip of brandy and went back to the living room. Sophie was sitting at the far end of the room, perched on the arm of her homely pink lounger.

“What do you think you’re doing, drinking out of a bag like that? Where are your shoes? God, you’re disgusting,” Sophie said.

Albert laughed a bitter, unsmiling laugh. He took his lips to the bottle. “I like it and it likes me,” he said.

“And what a lovely relationship you have,” she said. “You should tend to Ellie the way you do the bottle, you’d be father of the century.”

The room was buzzing. He turned his back on her, walked through the kitchen past Ellie, and slid the back door open. Albert went out and walked down to his shack, still cradling the brandy.

Finally, he was ready to write. He set his brandy by his armchair and found his lap desk. He set it up with a thick notepad and pen. He sat with all his supplies, and found his glasses between the pages of a poetry book. He decided to read over what he had written so far, but when he had stared at the words for a while he found he couldn’t. He kept rereading the same sentence over and over again. For thirty years I hid, from someone. For thirty years I hid, from someone.  For thirty years…

Albert set the desk down with everything on it and put his head in his hands. “Damn it, Bert, how has this happened?” he asked the writer. He got up and stared at his wall of papers. They were a timeline of his work, his life events, every word or line or photograph he had thought meaningful. He reached in his pocket and found the little white string, his newest trophy. He pinched it between thumb and finger and held it close to his face, letting it tickle his nose. Then he found a tack and carefully stuck the string to the wall. She’d probably noticed it was gone by now.

I wonder where she was going, he thought. Wonder if the car’s still sitting there.

He heard her small voice, Do you believe, you know, we see people again?  

Albert heard a thud on the door. “Albert, come out now and talk, you can’t just leave and say nothing,” Sophie said, muffled through the door. Albert froze, and when he didn’t reply, she said, “You’ll have to come out sometime, and when you do, you’ll have to talk to me.”

After a minute, Albert could hear her retreating back to the house. He still didn’t want to move. He didn’t think about it, but somewhere deep inside he knew he didn’t love her. Maybe he never had. When they had married years ago he had tumbled over her beauty. The best you could ever do, his mother had said, the closest thing to a compliment she had ever given. So he had taken it. It was easy to see now that he would have done better alone. There were already enough voices in his head, between his mother’s, Bert’s and his own. Too many strings were being tugged on inside of him, as if he had become a marionette.

Afraid to leave through the door in case Sophie noticed, Albert opened the back window and wriggled out legs first, leaving the bottle inside. The shack was at the edge of their property and behind it was a bit of woods. The trees looked thin and dead in the fog, the bare limbs stretching at the sky like they were grabbing at the air. He crossed over from the mown grass to the shelter of the wild.

“There’s nothing left here, Bert,” said Albert. His words were surer than he actually felt. He started weaving between the trees, vaguely noticing the tenderness of his feet as they stepped on rocks and brush. The fog of the brandy kept him warm, and the fog of the day kept him hidden.

Aren’t you afraid? asked Bert. What if she was right all along? What if you really are nothing?

“If that was true then you wouldn’t exist.”

Maybe I don’t.

Albert smiled. “You always were a devil, weren’t you.” He stopped and turned to see how far he had gone. He was surrounded by identical, bald trees, the shack and the yard too far away to see. Albert turned round and round in circles, his arms swinging loosely behind, until he got dizzy. He looked around at the trees towering over him, dreary, silent guardians. He didn’t really know which way to go anymore, which made him feel better. Now he could be lost on purpose. He continued walking through the woods, feeling more relieved as time passed. It would be dark soon, he realized.

And where are we going? Bert asked.

“It’s not where we’re going that matters. It’s what we’re leaving behind.”

Gemini – by Connor Roberson

“She hurt me, that I do not deny. But there was something in her breathing that kept me sane. It was humanizing.”

Aden had always thought that turning one’s focus outwards provided the best perspective inwards. The stars moved on their own profound celestial strings, and in their spinning machinations he was moved. While humans lived and loved and fell and died, the stars shone and soared in ways that he could never fully understand.

“She doesn’t see things the way you do.”

“I know. She never did. But she humored my silly habits,” Aden said. His glasses were slightly uneven and his hair unkempt. It had been six days.

“Maybe,” Sawyer said. “Maybe it is for the best that she moved on.”

He looked unconvinced. Sawyer watched his shivering fingers drum against the mug’s porcelain surface.

“This is hard on every parent,” Sawyer said.

“I am not her father.” There was such venom in the word. Two syllables weighted with millenniums of expectations.

“Yes you were, you ass. You raised her.”

Aden looked straight ahead, and his eyes visibly dimmed. He used to carry stars in his eyes and a waning moon of a smile, but now his laugh was brittle.

“She raised me, I think.”

 

What’s her sign, he had asked. The couple laughed nervously, until they realized that he was serious. Aden huddled the little baby Gemini against his chest and felt her smallness. She had been unwanted, but he wanted her very badly for reasons he never did discover. Perhaps, when he turned his gaze skywards, he was looking for those reasons.

 

“Don’t treat her like she’s dead, Aden. She’ll visit.”

Aden’s coffee had long since gone cold, and the employees behind the counter kept throwing him and Sawyer nervous glances. Aden shook very slightly whenever he moved. Sawyer guessed that he hadn’t slept in a week. His eyes were always half closed.

“I don’t think she will.”

“Bullshit. She’ll miss you, even if she doesn’t know it yet. They always do.”

“She isn’t a moon, friend. She has no orbit binding her here. She is running as far away as she can. I do not think her likely to return.”

“Come on. Kids always come back for money.”

“Of which I have none.”

“For love, then.”

Aden raised his mug to his lips and closed his eyes, but did not drink.

 

When Gemini turned ten she got her first telescope. The two of them spent every night shoulder-to-shoulder, eyes pressed against their machines. Gradually she learned the features of the sky. As the sky held her in rapture, he stepped back from his telescope and put his hand on top of her head. She stood on tip-toe and pushed her cold hair against his palm. For the first time, Aden understood that not everything valuable was unfathomable distances away.  

 

“Look, my kids left. Three times. They’ve all stayed in touch. I see them almost every month,” Sawyer said.

Aden’s jacket was fatigued from years of wear, and had several buttons fastened to the lapels. They looked like military medals, but each had a different planet on it. Sawyer had given them to him as a present shortly after they had met in college. The badge for Pluto was displayed most prominently.

“Your children are not Gemini.”

“Of course not, but some things are universal.”

Aden’s lips formed a thin line, “Everything is universal, if you think about it.”

It was a comfortable old joke, but told in bitterness.

“You seriously need some perspective.”

His responding glare was dismissive and withering. “Do I really?”

Sawyer refused to be daunted. “Maybe. She’s only a couple hundred miles away. That’s nothing, in the cosmic sense.”

Aden looked down at his hands. They had been compulsively holding and releasing each other for hours now. He had a child’s hands. For a long time, both men were silent.

Aden ran his fingers through his hair and sighed. “In the cosmic sense, we are all nothing.”

 

When Gemini turned fifteen, she had stopped using her telescope. Aden never pressured her, but his perpetual attachment to the heavens drew them apart. His poverty and his monkish life made her despise him. Whenever she screamed at him, he stood tall and silent until her rage exhausted her and she cried into his chest. To him, there was nothing as interesting as the majestic sweep of the cosmos unfolding before them through the tiny attic window every night. She couldn’t even force herself to care.

Sawyer insisted upon walking Aden home, but the pair had run out of words to say. Aden left him at the door and scaled the three flights of stairs alone, entering his attic and bolting the door behind him. As night fell, the greatest show imaginable began to play across the sky. Aden stood by his telescope, laying one cold hand against the metal but looking with his naked eyes. He pinpointed Gemini among the stars, watching her gleam.

He had thought that space was cold. He had thought that space was dark. He had thought that space was empty. How little he had known.

luminescence – by Christopher Robey

December 31st, 2013

Isla Carmen, northwest of Punta Baja

I’d been dreaming of sand, and its scraping beneath my deflated Therm-a-Rest had woken me again. Loose grains scattered across the tent floor as I turned over in my sleeping bag, minute drifts gathering in the corners as I freed my arms to sit up. I propped myself up halfway then sat blinking — my head ached, and my face was numb from being pressed against the cold waterproof canvas of my drybag. As my head began to clear I was jolted by a cold blast as the wind battered my tent again. I’d left the rain fly open to let the cool air in, and the wind had torn at it all through the night, a constant fwap-whap-whap-ing like bat’s wings.

I reached for my glasses, which I’d tucked into a side pocket near where my head had lain, and shifted forward, craning my neck to look up through the thin mesh roof. The glittering night sky seemed filtered, the gauzy material letting only the brightest stars shine through. Still, it was enough. Orion’s fist jutted from the corner of my vision, his great body hovering overhead.

A brief pulse of bluish light washed over my tent, shining in through the window and illuminating the dark wads of rumpled clothes at my feet. The scraggly shadows of the desert shrubs outside glided across my tent walls, the contorted silhouette of the ruined signal tower briefly looming. Then it was gone, the light fading.

I’d set up my tent at the base of the tower, hoping that it and the surrounding dunes would shelter me from the wind. A mistake, I soon realized. The sloping sandbanks channeled the wind, splitting it into dual streams as it met the tower that then circled and fought each other for claim of my rickety nylon shelter. Though nestled in among the shrubs and chunks of rusted metal and concrete, I may as well have laid my tent at the shoreline. Maybe then I could have avoided the burs.

I laid back down, tried cushioning my head with a balled up flannel. I was comfortable — for a while at least, enough to begin drifting back to sleep. But soon the wadded fabric became a painful spike in the back of my neck that persisted no matter which way I laid. I tossed the flannel aside, shifted so that my head could lay among the clothes nestled where my feet had been, scattering more sand. A sharp rock hidden beneath my tent jabbed into my back. I patted the floor, searching for it, but couldn’t find it. I tried rolling on my side, but after another jab I’d had enough. I sat back up, thought about going out to look at the stars. Instead I got up to pee.

I fumbled for the zipper of my sleeping bag and gradually untangled myself from its sand-dusted folds. I groped in the dark for my headlamp, decided it wasn’t worth it. My eyes had already adjusted to the starlight. I couldn’t find my socks either — they were lost, swallowed by the chaos of scattered clothes and drybags flung about my tent. After wiping my glasses, I eased one bare foot out into the cool sand, then the other, and crawled out.

I stood, fully exposing myself to the blasting wind. The edge of my rain fly was fluttering wildly, whipped about as the dual streams of air clawed at one another. Whap-whap-whap. I stooped and saw that one of the anchors holding my tent down had come loose, yanked out from beneath the hunk of bleached coral that I’d used to weigh it down. I didn’t try searching for it. Instead, I made for the bushes, the gale ripping at my fleece. A sand bur pierced my heel but I ignored it.

As I peed I leaned my head back to look up at the stars. Unfiltered by the mesh, they shone brilliantly, and for a moment I forgot about the cold and the wind. Maybe I’ll stay out after all, I thought. Having relieved myself, I made for the nearest sand dune.

The tower pulsed again, casting its bluish light across the dunes and briefly highlighting the other tents around me, all with darkened forms inside. Nylon rustling as they tossed and turned, fighting for sleep. It’ll be a long night for everyone else, too, I thought. My feet kicked up sand as I clambered to the top of the dune, leaving shifting prints where shadows pooled. Down by the shoreline, the moonlight glinted faintly off the tops of our kayaks. Their long dark forms were lined neatly, rudders pulled up and pointing out toward the sea.

At the top I found a clear spot away from the burs. The sand glowed softly, seeming to absorb the ambient light of the stars and the moon. I dug my toes deep, searching for warmth, but found none, all of it leeched away by the savage wind. I tried lying down, flattening myself against it, but the sand made me colder so I sat up.

I drew my knees in close and tugged mindlessly at the bands around my wrist. They’d been given to us by the Loreto Bay park service, one for each night we were to spend on the islands. The two I wore were already ragged with sand and salt. This would be the third night..

For a moment I paused. We set out from Loreto on December 28th. I tugged at the bands and counted them again. First. Second. Third night.

It was New Year’s Eve. Well, I thought. Shouldn’t I reflect? Make some sort of list?

My gaze wandered across the shimmering black expanse between Isla Carmen and far-off Isla Danzante, where we’d stayed the first night. Colored lights winked and bobbed near its shore, a cluster of them off the island’s northern end. Yachts, probably—there’d been many out during the day—with people on board. People toasting the new year, their echoes faint across the waves.

I sat for a time, listening for their voices, but the wind drowned them out. Again the tower pulsed, casting its derelict light across the sands, across the Sea of Cortez, before fading again, leaving my eyes to adjust to the dark.

the cat family – by Carter Becerra

 

The first cat was named Jasper.  He died after a year.  He had a tumor in his head.  He died on the older boy’s sixteenth birthday.  Sweet sixteen.  He was the family’s first real cat.  The older son considered him ‘his cat,’ despite arguments from the family.  Even the mother liked Jasper and she was not a cat person.  She was a dog person.  Jasper would sit with her in the morning while she drank her coffee and she would pet his long-haired tail and he would purr like a tiger.  Tigers don’t purr.

Jasper was a tuxedo cat.  He was a sleek midnight black with a white splotch on his chest.  He was small and never got bigger as he got older.  Jasper never meowed.  He was quiet.  He moved with stealth.  He had slanted green eyes.  He always looked either stoned or pissed off.  He was a good cat.  He chased bigger cats out of the yard.  That is, until he started running crooked and falling over.  He still chased them though.  They just stopped running away.  The father put Jasper down.  The family couldn’t bear to watch him suffer anymore.  The father took him to the vet.  The vet looked at Jasper and knew.  The vet petted Jasper’s small black head and shook his own.

The father fed him old pills that were kept in the freezer.  The father didn’t know what kind of pills they were, but he didn’t need to.  Jasper bit and clawed and the father did not fight back whatsoever as he endured the natural razors that all cats are built with.  He knew Jasper had endured a lot already.  The father was helping Jasper.  The father held him before, during, and after.  He buried Jasper in the backyard.  Then he went and picked up his oldest son from school.  It was his birthday.  Sweet sixteen.

The oldest son knew the cat was sick.  They all did.  It was obvious.  The cat couldn’t walk straight.  He couldn’t lie down straight.  He couldn’t stand up at all.  His uncaring green eyes were now scared and nervous.  That was the saddest part.  He was not the same animal.  He was not ferocious as he once was.  He was helpless.  Jasper dying was like the family losing a protector, a guardian.  For both boys it was like losing a role model and a baby brother.

When the father told his son about the cat, he had just checked him out of school and was taking him to lunch. The boy’s eyes grew bleary.  The father chuckled and asked if he was crying.  The boy said ‘no’, but that was only because he had quickly wiped away the only tears that came.  He knew he shouldn’t be crying over a cat, but Jasper was more than just a little black cat.  Jasper had the heart of a panther.  He was a big cat.  A big cat in a little body.  Jasper was gone.

The second cat was named Mosby.  He died after two years.  He had a spider bite that never healed.  He disappeared the day before Christmas Eve and was never seen again.  The younger son considered Mosby ‘his cat’.  There were no arguments from the family.  They all loved Mosby, but the younger son was attached to him.  The younger son treated Mosby with care, Mosby responded with loyalty.  The younger son would play tricks on the cat, but after would give him treats.  The mother liked Mosby as well, because he had a cute, fat face and was more like another boy child.  He depended on her for food and was obnoxious in this manner.  This made the mother love him.

Mosby was a gray cat with white cheeks and paws and golden eyes.  His eyes were big and round.  Mosby was a fat cat.  His stomach swung when he trotted across the yard for his dinner and he would constantly let out obnoxious ‘meows’ in the morning as he walked around the house, awaiting his breakfast.  The mother would make the boys tuna fish sandwiches for lunch on Fridays.  She said it was because they were Catholic, but really it was just so she could give Mosby the leftover tuna juice.  The mother would laugh at the cat as he slurped it up and the boys would chuckle about the mother laughing about the ‘tuna juice.’

Mosby was a sleepy cat.  He enjoyed his naps.  If one of the boys was taking a nap anywhere in the house, Mosby would find them.  Mosby would climb on the boy’s chest and rub his face against theirs and purr.  After the boy had awoke from his slumber, Mosby would begin flexing his claws into their chest to soften up his resting place.  Then he would lie down and go to sleep on that boy’s chest and rub his head against their heartbeat.  But that was before he got bitten.

Mosby could purr so loudly that if he was lying on the floor, the family could hear his chest vibrate and echo in the other room.  When they heard this, the family would know Mosby was happy, and they would smile to one another.  The only time anyone saw him run was to the door for dinner and away from other cats.  It was not that Mosby was afraid of other cats, he was just too lazy to fight.  Mosby was a lover.

Mosby disappeared before Christmas.  When he did, the family was sad but they knew it was for the better.  Mosby had a spider bite on his forehead.  It started out as a small scab, but it grew larger with time.  It would develop a yellow purplish crust, then that would break off from the wound and would drip bloody mucus all over the floor and in his eyes, until another yellow purplish crust would cover it up.  During this time, only the younger boy would hold Mosby.  No one else wanted to touch him.  Mosby knew this.  He knew his wound was gross and was making him disfigured.  He was not his usual lazy happy loud self.  He would sit quiet in the corner, all alone.  That was the saddest part.

Mosby was different from Jasper.  Even though he was much larger, he was not a warrior.  He was not a ‘larger than life’ cat.  He was the usual fat, lazy, loud, ‘Garfield’ cat that people love.  He was obnoxious and cuddly.  He was fluffy and stupid.  But when he died he was none of those things.  He was quiet, isolated, cold, and smart.  He was smart to leave.  It hurt the family, him not saying goodbye, but it left him some dignity.  The family understood.  The older son was still hurt.  Hurt in the fact that he didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.  But he was mainly hurt because not saying good bye reminded him of Jasper.

The younger son was hurt, but he did not show it.  All those extra times of him holding Mosby, those were his secret goodbyes.  All those times of being the only one to clean up Mosby’s bloody mucus as the cat ran around the house, screaming meows of unknown terror, frightened because he got gunk in his eye and could not see.  Those were the moments the younger son cherished the most.  For in those moments, he was the only one who cared for Mosby.  In those moments, Mosby only cared for him and they both knew it.

The third cat had two names, depending on which son you were talking to.  The third cat was also a girl.  This was new for the family.  She was neutered unlike the first two and she was also brought in from the Humane Society, while the first two were strays.

After the first two, the family wanted a cat that would be more stable.  When Jasper was not at home, he was roaming the neighborhood by himself.  He was looking for fights or hunting.  Jasper would go in the woods and kill birds and snakes and leave them on the family’s doorstep when they got home.  Mosby was also a roamer, as most male animals have a tendency to be.  Mosby did not go looking for fights though.  He went looking for food.  Mosby would scavenge food from trash cans, and eat food left out for cats and dogs in the neighborhood.  Then he would come home with scars from running away.

According to the first son, the third cat’s name was Chaka Kan.  According to the second son, the third cat’s name was Bathsheba.  The mother just referred to it as ‘that cat.’  The mother was not happy to have another female around.  It was competition.  For with the third cat being a girl, all three men of the house were nice to it.  They did not antagonize it like they did with the feisty Jasper to get him riled up and ready to fight.  They did not play tricks on it like they did with the goofy Mosby to laugh at his obnoxious meows and silly antics.  They treated her with softness.

Chaka Kan a.k.a. Bathsheba.  Bathsheba a.k.a. Chaka Kan.  She was as small as Jasper, though she grew to be larger than he.  She was black, but she was not a sleek black like Jasper.  Her black had small highlights of caramel that glimmered in light.  Her eyes were golden, but not like Mosby’s.  His eyes were bright golden like an orange sunrise reflecting off the ocean.  Her eyes were of dark gold like honey dripped on brass.  Her eyes were slanted in the day like Jasper’s, but big and round like Mosby’s at night.  She did not walk like either of them.  Jasper would roll his shoulder blades like a hunter as he strutted to and fro, like a big cat, like a predator.  While Mosby would bounce as he trotted, almost doglike.  His belly swung, his head bobbed, and he would meow without pause.

Bathsheba was different.  She would dart everywhere, her steps like small gallops; both legs moving in unison.  She hardly ever walked and when she did, it normally led to her running, darting.  She was like Jasper in the sense that she did not meow, and if she did, it was small and barely audible.

Yet Chaka Kan did do something unique, something that not even the father had encountered and he had had many cats in his lifetime.  She chirped.  She would keep her mouth closed and make a chirping noise as she ran.  She always made the noise in doubles as well.  It was always a ‘chirp, chirp’ as if it was her own little siren for announcing her presence or the appreciation of the family’s presence.  The father appreciated this the most and thought it to be comical.  He would laugh, and pick her up, and cradle her.  He would kiss her small head as if she were a baby, which in many ways she was.

As the boys got older they grew restless, as most men do.  They felt the need to walk the neighborhood at night and discuss things on their mind.  When they got older they would drink or smoke and forget the things on their minds as they walked.  It was these walks that they discovered the secret to the third cat.

The boys had walked around the neighborhood growing up.  It was nothing new.  Sometimes it was done out of boredom, or because they had extra energy, or simply because it was a good day to go for a walk.  When they had Jasper, sometimes in the early afternoon he would accompany them for close to mile.  He would walk in front of them, as if leading the way.  He walked with his ears laid back helping him pronounce his small rolling shoulder blades, as if saying, “Don’t mess with us, don’t mess with me.”  But being the predator that he was, sooner or later he would venture off on his own for a hunt.  Mosby on the other hand never walked with the boys, but they would see him around when they rode their bikes or went for jogs and walks.  Sometimes he would be sleeping in the middle of the road on a sunny afternoon, soaking in the warmth.  Sometimes he would be eating food out of a bowl on the front porch that belonged to another cat.  Mosby would meow with an echoing loudness when he saw the boys and they would call to him, but he never came.  Mosby only came home for his meals.

Chaka Kan was unlike the other two.  When the family got Bathsheba, the older boy was about to graduate high school and thought of himself as a man, even though he was still a boy.  The younger boy was just a freshman in high school but took advanced classes and thought of himself as a man, but he was still a boy too.  They would walk the neighborhood at night and discuss the problems that plagued their minds.  But they were not alone.

The small black girl cat would walk with them.  Except she would run around them.  She would dart ahead fifteen or twenty yards in front of the boys as they walked.  As they caught up, she would run away and disappear into the darkness.  They boys would get to the spot where she was and look around and not see her.  They would keep walking and several seconds later, they would hear the ‘chirp, chirp’ as she ran between them, only to run twenty yards ahead of them again and vanish into the night.  She would do this for the entire walk.  She never walked near the boys, but she never left them.

It was this that let the boys know who she really was.  Jasper was the guardian and Mosby was the companion, but Bathsheba was different.  Her world encircled the boys and timid cat felt safe with them.  When she accompanied them on walks she was adventurous because she was no longer worried.  Bathsheba only traveled with the boys because she trusted them.  This gave the boys a different sort of feeling.  They felt responsible for her.  They felt as if she were more than a cat, but small speckling black feline princess. The older boy would give her treats, while the younger boy would comb her weekly.  Bathsheba was different from the other two.

Most cats get pompous as they get older and Bathsheba was no different.  She began to develop an authoritative air to her stride as she darted about.  She was fond of attention, but only when she felt it necessary.  After a year or so, she no longer would come when called to, but only when she felt like being held.  This bothered the boys to some extent, but they saw it more as annoyance and all in all, it did not matter.  She was still just a cat.  They still cared for her and late at night when they walked to clear their head, she still walked with them.  But Bathsheba’s arrogance did bother someone in the family, to an extent not known by anyone.

The father tried not to let on too much, but deep down he really cared for Chaka Kan.  He relished the fact that the boys had their own names for her.  He thought it was funny and depending on how he was feeling, he would call her either one.  He always made sure to pick up Bathsheba at least once and hold her between the time he came home and the time Jeopardy came on. The father liked the fact that she had dark coat, but was not technically black; while also enjoying that there was no white on her either.  He liked that she chirped.  He had never encountered a cat that had done that, and he thought it to be cute.  But as she got older, she put more distance between herself and the father, more than any other family member.  Chaka Kan cared for the mother because that is who fed her and she cared for the boys because they pampered her.  There was no reason for her to really care for the father.  He spent the least amount of time at the house and when he was home, he was busy fixing things, reading books, or cooking large meals.  The father still wanted the cat to like him though.

There was more to this though.  The father had deeper connection to the cat.  A connection that was invisible to the other family members.  A connection that was only apparent on the subconscious level.  The father felt the connection, even though he wasn’t aware of it.

The father had secretly always wanted a daughter.  He was proud when he had his first son, so there would be a way to have his name passed down.  He was happy when he had his second son, because his first son would have brother and they would be brothers forever.  But deep down, he wanted a third child and he wanted it to be a girl.  He knew they could not afford a third child, two was plenty, but he still wanted a girl.

Chaka Kan a.k.a. Bathsheba was the daughter he never had.  It was unconditional love that did not challenge his authority.  It was softness.  It was something gentle.  Even though Bathsheba was just a cat, the fact that she was a girl gave her a different kind of aura.  An aura of innocence and obedience.  This is what the father saw in the cat, and it was what made him secretly care for it, even though it was unbeknownst to anyone.  But now the father’s sons had spoiled his only hope at having a connection with her, for she no longer needed his love, and they both, cat and man knew this.

As they boys got older, the tensions within the home got higher.  Both boys considered themselves men, and the father did not.  Clashes happened and the more the father and his sons were around each other, the more dangerous every breath felt.  It was not a happy place.

The boys had never known their grandfather and the father had never known his dad.  Therefore the father’s job as a mentor and teacher was more difficult.  He wanted to help his sons grow, but in some way he could never loosen his grip on the role of the alpha.  He had to maintain superiority at all times, because during his childhood there was no one to instruct him otherwise.  There was no one to teach him life, so like most children, he developed defense mechanisms.  Complete dominance at all times, at all cost, despite surrounding feelings was one of them.

One drizzly day in the early fall, it all came pouring out.  The boys were home when a fight developed between the mother and the father.  The father was looking for a fight, so sooner or later he would find one.  It had something to do with the dishes.  Neither one of them really knew.  The father began to shout.  He shouted about respect and lack of it.  He shouted about the boy’s laziness.  He shouted about the mother’s lack of discipline.  He shouted to hear himself shout.

When the boys came out of their rooms to see what the commotion was about.  The father locked eyes with them.  The father despised seeing them.  Their presence alone was testament against his authority, though no faults were committed.

Right then, Chaka Kan a.k.a. Bathsheba walked across the room, directly in between the boys and the father.  The father looked down and snatched the cat up by the extra skin around its neck.  The small feline let out a loud panicky meow, which did not stop once it began.  Both boys looked at the round scared eyes of their cat then to the eyes of their father.  They both felt ice trickle through their veins.  Their cat was in danger.

The father claimed to have hated the cat the entire time, which was lie.  He claimed that it was a nuisance and must be rid of.  He told the boys to take one last look at her, as he extended his arm towards them still holding the scruff of her neck.  The small cat’s ears were pinned back in fear and her eyes were bigger now than ever, as she no longer chirped, but screeched for her freedom.  Then the father snatched her back to him and walked into the garage with the cat, still crying out and trying to flee; its attempts futile against the father’s strong grip.

The boys heard him rummaging around.  Though the older boy was approaching the legal age of drinking and the younger boy was approaching the legal age of smoking, they both knew not to challenge their father in this state.  In his state of anger, he was unpredictable and that was always the scariest part.

When the father came out of the garage, he was holding a medium sized cardboard box with duct tape wrapped all around it.  Inside the box was Bathsheba a.k.a. Chaka Kan, still meowing.  She was crying, calling, screaming out for her big brothers to come and help her.  She was chirping for her protectors to do their job.  But there was nothing they could do.  The father was looking for confrontation.  He knew this was the deepest pain he could create without physically harming any person.  He wanted to see if they would retaliate physically, for if they attacked him first, in his mind, he would only react in self-defense and they would be in the wrong.

The sons knew their father was ill and they watched in silence as he stormed out the house, box in hand.  The box’s meowing got louder and louder as it got further away, until it died off with the close of car door.  That was the last time any of them saw her; inside a cardboard box that was encased in shiny silver duct tape.

The car sped out of the driveway and was gone for several hours.  When the father came back, there was no cat with him and no one said anything about it. Bathsheba’s cries for help still echoed around the house, through the hallways and continued within the heads of the boys, as they went back to their individual rooms for the rest of the evening.  They were both hurt, but neither one showed it.

That night the boys took a walk around the neighborhood.  It was long walk, longer than usual.  For the first mile, neither one of them spoke.  They were too busy seeing flashes of Chaka Kan and Bathsheba run past their ankles, only to realize that they were just memories.

The second mile, the boys began to open up to one another.  The bottle of cooking wine they had snuck from the cupboard played a part, for neither one could speak while completely sober.  It was too painful.  So they passed it between them and told stories about the cat that they both already knew.

They walked slower to let their minds become ignorant to reality.  They relished the happy memories.  They relished all of them to the extent to the point of her existence being a fantasy.  They did this because when they got home, they knew they would never speak about the cat again.  They would think about that cat again.  Chaka Kan was gone.  Bathsheba was gone.  Gone like Jasper.  Gone like Mosby.  But gone in a different way.

Several months after that, the older boy got offered a job opportunity on the other side of the country.  At the time, it seemed too good to be true and he moved there and never found a reason to move back.  The younger boy joined the navy and told himself he was going to do twenty years.  They both made it home for Christmas.

A year after the loss of the third cat, the older boy had left and the younger boy had moved in with a friend before he left for the navy.  At this point, something unexpected happened.  A dog showed up, an old puppy to be exact.

A Labrador-Pitt Bull mix puppy showed up at the front door, the second day after the younger boy left.  The puppy was several months old and very skinny.  The puppy had no collar or tags.  The mother, being the mother that she was, took in the puppy and tended to its empty stomach.  The mother put signs up around the neighborhood to see if someone had lost a puppy, but no one responded.

The mother who was always a dog person and just religious enough to be mystical, took this as a sign.  She saw it as her opportunity and her responsibility to continue to carry out her motherly roles.  She now had something that offered, loyalty, obedience, and unconditional love without question.  Apart from her regular dog qualities, it was a gorgeous dog with a blonde coat, dark eyes, and a big jaws.  She looked like a small canine version of a lion.  She had the size of a small Pitt-Bull with the gleam and demeanor of a Labrador.  Even though the dog was still very young and skinny her jaw size and stature were still very mature.  She looked intimidating to anyone who dared cross her but loving to everyone she met and smelled.

The mother secretly hoped no one called.  She had even contemplated putting an incorrect telephone number on the flyer, but she put herself in the owner’s shoes and did the right thing.  So when no one called, she was happy.  The mother adopted the dog and named it Brandy.  The mother loved the dog and the dog loved the mother.  The boys were not home, though they played with the dog each Christmas when they visited and the father was indifferent altogether.  The boys were gone, and though the father missed them, he was happier.  The mother loved Brandy, and that was all that mattered at this point.  The cat family had a dog, and though nothing was right, all was well.

Perfect Soldier – by Carter Becerra

 

The scent.  The scent is driving me crazy.  It is driving me crazy, bonkers, bzzzerk.  Tick, tick, tick go my legs against the floor.  My legs are shaking with anticipation.  My brothers are running with me.  We are running.  It is dark.  Very dark.  I can’t see, but I know.  I smell.  I see with my smell.  I don’t need to see anything else.

My brothers are moving.  I move along with them.  I move along with confidence.  Nothing can stop us.  We are an army.  We come to the exit of the tunnel.  It is our entrance.  The smell becomes stronger.  Too strong to pinpoint.  It is all around us.  It is everywhere.  I am loving it.

My brothers branch out.  We all go in different directions.  I can see the smell stronger toward the right.  So I go right.  I go so right.  I am so right.  The smell is stronger. Right.

Tick, tick, tick.  My legs tick slowly now.  My antennae twitch as they give in to the sweetness of the smell.  I walk.  I walk along a wall.  I don’t move in a straight line.  I move in waves, the way the scent moves.  It is dark still.  It feels good.  I like the feel of the dark.  It gives me confidence.  It gives me everything needed.  Tick, tick, tick go my legs against the ground.  One of my brothers is ahead of me.  He moves with confidence.  I follow him.  He stops.  We have come to a wall.  All walls look the same, but I only see the scent as it coats the wall telling us to climb; telling us to find.  He looks up.  I look up too.  We see light.  I start climbing.  He follows me.  We move with confidence.

The wall is soft, softer than the ground and it has a bad scent.  Anything other than ‘the scent’ is a bad scent.  My legs grip the wall with ease though.  My pinchers want to chomp it, to taste it.  They want to assert power into the softness that I am climbing.  The wall has a scent that is bad.  It smells wrong.  It is not the scent I am looking for.  The good scent is over this wall.

I come to the top of the wall.  It overlooks a vast valley.  I see vibrations in the air, I feel them.  Vibrations are moving everything.  They are coming from the left.  They are continual.  They are solitary.  I can see them shake the world around me, but don’t shake the smell.  They distort it.  The vibrations are coming from the left.  I go right.  My brother walks with me.  Then we both look up.

We see that we are not in the dark now.  There is light.  There is lots of light.  My brother is not ready for this.  We train for this, but it is hard to be ready.  Ready is born.  Trained is bred.  I am both.  He is not.  He begins zig-zagging, different from the waves of the scent.  He fears the light.  He fears the world.  I do not.

I stop.  I feel the smell.  I see where it is coming from.  I focus on the spot that it protrudes from.  I run as hard as I can for that spot.  My brother is no longer my brother.  He is lost.  I have other brothers though.  Tick, tick, tick.

I run down into the valley and find a dark crevice along the wall.  I stop running.  I walk fast.  My brother is still on the hillside.  The vibrations are behind me.  Being on the valley floor, I can feel them better.  They are rhythmic.  I like them.  I walk.  They grow distant.  BOOM.  BOOM. But now I hear different vibrations.

They are not coming from one spot.  BOOM.  BOOM.  BOOM.  BOOM.  These vibrations are moving.  They are moving across the valley.  BOOM. They are big vibrations.  BOOM.  BOOM.  BOOM.    The vibrations are moving like legs.  But they do not sound like my leg vibrations.  They do not have the same rhythm as my tick, tick, tick.  They are headed for hillside.  They are headed for my brother.

The vibrations stop.  I listen.  I listen with every angle, orifice, and tip of my being.  I stretch my antennae out to feel for my brother. Tick, tick, tick.  He is still zig-zagging.  The vibrations reach the hillside.  BOOM.  BOOM.  BOOM.  They stop.  Tick. Tick. Tick. WHOMP.

A different vibration is felt.  It is a sharp vibration that sends a chilling shockwave through the valley wall.  My brother.  He is gone.  I know this.  I have other brothers though.  We will succeed.  I will succeed.  The smell is strong.  It grows stronger as I walk.  I grow stronger as I walk.

The dark crevice along the valley floor leads me to threshold.  It is too large to see the entirety of its height.  There is light coming from it.  Before entering the light, I stick my head in the air.  I feel around for the scent.  I see it clearly.  I see it.  I grasp it.  I dash.

I enter the spectrum of the light.  I am running.  I run straight, no waves, no zig-zagging.  A strong gust of wind sweeps across the valley plane.  I am running.  But I stop.  The scent is lost.  The air moving changed the smell.  It is gone.  Don’t panic.  Don’t be weak.  She would want you to be strong.  She would want you to finish your mission.  She believes in you.  I tell myself this.  I make myself find the scent.  It is weak and distant, but it is found.  I am running toward it.  I love her so much.

The wind stops.  The smell grows stronger.  There is still light.  I pass under the threshold.  I see the gigantic walls by the way the scent bounces off of them. BOOM. BOOM. BOOM. BOOM.  The vibrations.  They are heading in my direction.  I bolt for the scent.  As I run, I sense the coolness of non-light.  It is to the left.  I change direction and head toward it.  BOOM.  BOOM.  BOOM.  BOOM.  BOOM.  BOOM.  The vibrations pass.  I am in the non-light.  I am in the darkness.  I am safe.  The scent is so close.  It smells so good.  It smells so so good.

Ahead is a hut.  I know it is where the scent is.  I know it.  The hut is made for me.  I see the hut by the way the scent floats out of its doorways; its orifices.  I walk into the scent.  It clouds my vision.  I feel the color of the scent engulf me.  Inside the hut are rocks.  THE SCENT.  They are the scent.  I pick one up and taste it.  It is sweet.  It is so sweet.  So sweet it hurts.  It hurts badly.  It stings my mouth.  I know it is good though.  It is sweet.  Like her.

I must take as many as I can carry back to her.  She must know of the sweetness I have found.  She must know how good I am.  I am so good.  I am so good for her.  She will make me king.  She will make me her King.  She will be my Queen.

I grab twelve rocks.  It is all I can carry.  It is not easy.  I move slower.  But I need them.  She needs them.  I will bring them.

I hold them in front of my nose.  They smell good.  I want to keep eating them.  I want to eat them all.  She will enjoy them.  She will be proud of me.  She will love me.  Like I love her.

I walk along the darkness toward the gigantic threshold.  The smell in my face is making it hard to see.  I walk very slow.  I carry the rocks.  I will not get be seen by the moving vibrations.  I will not panic like my brother.  I am better than he.

I walk along the darkness against another wall.  Its height.  It’s endless.  I know I will be passing through the threshold and the desert of light and wind soon.  But I am ready.

I see threshold.  The wind is making the scent bounce off the walls of the threshold.  I see the desert.  I know it is in front of me.  Therefore I see it.  I squeeze the rocks.  I squeeze them with love.  I know I will not let them go.

I begin running.  I run as fast as my legs will take me.  Tick, tick, tick,-tick, tick, tick,-tick, tick, tick.  I run, holding the rocks.  I feel the wind gust over me.  I look into it.  I see it through the scent.  It is clean.  It is so clean.  It is wrong.  I look away.  I keep running.

I hear no vibrations.  They have stopped.  This scares me.  I keep running.  I feel the darkness closing in.  It is the darkness of the crevice of the valley wall.  I slow down.  I begin heading to the hillside.  The hillside where a soldier, a brother in arms, was lost.

I see the other rhythmic vibration, I feel it.  It is here now.  I am close now.  The vibrations are shaking the ground.  It is trembling, but softly.  I walk toward it.  I know I am growing closer to the hillside.  I know am growing closer to her.

The smell of the rocks is ecstasy.  I want to eat just one.  I will not hurt anything.  I could eat it and have energy for the climb over the hills, back down into the cavern, and back down into the air funneled caves.  I stop.  The smell is ecstasy.  I taste one.  It is the best taste I have ever had.  It is so good it burns.  It burns so good.  It turns my insides into warm paste.  It hurts, but in a good way.  I like it.

No.  I will not eat a single one.  I am better than that.  I want to, but I won’t.  This is what training was for.  Discipline.  I will be content with the taste.  I will be content that the queen, my Queen will know that it was I who brought her ‘the scent’.

I run.  I run up the hillside.  I feel the light.  I see it.  It blinds.  But I am strong.  I will make it.  I pass by my fallen brother.  I smell his dead remains.  Even though they are gone.  I smell them.  I move past them.  I crawl down the wall.  Back into the cavern.

The cavern is cool.  It is dark.  There is no light.  I hear more brothers up ahead of me.  They can smell the scent that I am carrying and they gather around me.  They protect me.  They are proud of me.  They pat me on the back.  I am running toward her.  I am happy.

We find the air tunnel and begin down it.  I pass more brothers who are traveling.  They see me with the rocks and it gives them hope.  It gives them hope.  They can be as good as me.

The group around me carries me.  I run on them, as they run.  They run fast.  We run fast.  We want to make her happy.  We all do.  I do.  I will.

After more time of safe travel, we arrive home.  We travel through our hallways.  We navigate them.  They are ours.  We head toward the den.  We head toward the mother.

I reach her first.  She sees me.  She smelt me enter.  She squirms her giant sexy body over to me as she still continues to pump out babies. One after the other, over and over and over again.  Future soldiers.  Future workers.  All brothers.

I drop the rocks and she looks them over.  She soaks in the scent.  She has never seen such beautiful scent.  It is beautiful watching her enjoy it.  My brothers arrive and we watch her caress each rock.  She separates them.  Then she devours them.  She crushes them into two and then crushes the two into four.  She crushes the four into tiny bits.  Then she swallows.  She is so happy.  I am happy.  We are all happy.  We watch her eat.  She is devouring the rocks.  She eats with vigor.  It is making her stronger.  It is making me stronger.  She is devouring the scent.  She is becoming more and more beautiful.

She finishes.  She looks at me.  Her eyes are filled with love.  Mine are as well.  I draw close to her.  Then I stop.  She stops.  Her jaws are dripping.  There is a froth protruding from her giant pinchers.  Her eyes begin to swell and melt at the seams.  She begins screaming.  She begins screeching.  Her giant body begins writhing in agony.  She is in pain.  We are all in pain.  She is suffering.  We are all suffering.

Giant holes begin melting in her soft white plushy body.  Her beautiful body.  She is melting from the inside out.  I watch her.  We all watch her.  She is crying.  She is screaming.  She is so sad.  We are so sad.  She rolls around the den, spewing ooze along with preformed babes.  Future soldiers.  Future workers.  All brothers.  She is sloshing the future out.  The babies, the miniature us are slamming against the wall, exploding their neon juices in in little dead splotches.  Their final birth place.  They are dying.  She is dying.  We are dying.  I am dying.

Her antennae have fallen off.  Her legs have melted at the seams with bright goo that sizzles.  She is detached from her always working womb.  The womb deflates.  Our future deflates.  We hear our future crying out with no sound.  Our Queen is nothing more.  She is nothing any more.  We are all nothing.  I am nothing.  She has stopped.  It is over.  The scent has killed her.  The scent I found and brought back.  I killed her.

She is done.  We all stare at her.

The giant body with small squirmy organisms sliding out, dying.  Sliding out into the colorful poisoned mucus, colored by the scented rocks that I discovered and brought back.  The little ones disconnected from their mother.  Sizzling in acid.  Disconnected with love.  They will never know risking life to make her happy.  They will only know her warm nurture.  That is nothing.

Then all my brothers stare at me.  They all turn on me.  They grab me.  I do not even try.  I wish I could help them.  I am the problem.  I am the weak link.  I am too perfect.

They dismantle my arms.  They detach my antennae with their pinchers and tear into pieces amongst each other.  They chomp my segments unsymmetrically, causing as much pain as possible.  I am nothing.  Forgive me.  Save me.  Save the Queen.