There was a man in their bathroom. Gracie saw his silhouette moving behind the shower curtain after she’d hopped up onto the toilet to pee. She stopped breathing. Her heart began to thump so loudly she was sure her mother would hear it.
Her feet didn’t reach all the way to the floor, so she balanced on the seat and tried not to move as she sat with her legs hanging over the side of the bowl. She stole a sideways glance towards the shower. The man had stilled. His face was pressed up against the curtain. His lips looked like two wet slugs clinging to the plastic. Spiky black hair poked up over the shower rod. She sucked in three quick breaths, hopped down, and dashed for the door, pulling her panties up as she ran. “Someone’s in the bathroom,” she wheezed as she skidded into the kitchen.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” her mother snorted. She continued peeling carrots as if there wasn’t a man in their bathroom.
“There is!” Gracie insisted. “I saw him. He’s in the shower!”
Her mother rolled her eyes.
“But there is, and I really have to go!”
“Stop it, Gracie! There is no one in that shower!”
“Can you go check?” Gracie whined, hopping back and forth. She pressed her knees together and held onto her crotch. “I’m scared and I really, really have to go.”
“Oh, cripes,” her mother hissed. She tossed the carrot peeler onto the counter. “Let’s go!” She boomed. She grabbed Gracie’s hand and dragged her as she stormed down the hall.
Gracie’s bladder let loose. Trickles of pee ran down her legs as she slipped and bumped against the cold Linoleum floor.
When they got to the bathroom, Gracie’s mother dumped her in the hall. She stomped in and whipped the shower curtain aside. “See? There is no one here!”
Gracie dared a peek in. The shower was empty! “B-but there was,” she stammered. “He must have gone out the back when I went to tell you,” she said.
“That’s just plain silly. We would’ve heard him! Think about it! This place is about as big as a postage stamp.”
“I swear and promise there was,” Gracie said, her voice uncertain.
Gracie’s mother noticed the puddles. “What in the hell is the matter with you? You are way too old to be peeing your pants!” She yanked Gracie into the bathroom, tore off her panties, and threw them into the sink, “I hate your father for walking out on us,” she seethed. “I really do. I’m sick of being the only one that has to deal with this crap.” She turned on the hot water, dumped a glob of soap onto the underwear, and began to scrub. “When your sister gets here, I’m going out. I need a break.”
When Gracie’s sister, Luna, got home from school, their mother rushed out in a huff.
“What’s the matter with her?” Luna asked.
“I don’t know,” Gracie said, gazing towards the half-peeled carrots on the counter. “I’m hungry.”
“I’ll make us something, but first, I’ve gotta pee,” Luna said. She dropped her backpack and hurried into the bathroom.
“There was a man in there earlier,” Gracie announced, following her until they reached the door. “I told Mom, but when she went to check, he wasn’t there. She thinks I made it up. He was in the shower.”
Luna moved the curtain aside. “He’s not here now,” she said. She finished her business and slammed the lid on the toilet. “Did he have spiky black hair?” she asked.
“Yeah! How did you know?”
“He was outside yesterday. He asked if Mom was around. I went to get her, but he ran away.”
Gracie made a face, “What was he doing out there?”
Luna went back into the kitchen. She reached into the cupboard and took out a loaf of bread. “I don’t know. Peeking in the windows, I guess. He was kind of weird.” She sprinkled some sugar onto a piece and handed it to Gracie.
“Like how?” Gracie asked, taking a bite.
“You know that friend mom has?”
Their mother had lots of friends. Gracie shook her head.
“The one with the yellow hair that always has that big girl with her. You know, the fat girl with glasses?”
“Yeah!” Gracie nodded. She remembered. She was a weird girl who talked loud with her eyes screwed shut. She was nice, though, and always laughing.
“He was kind of like that,” Luna said.
“Oh,” Gracie said. It made her feel a little better.
The next day was Saturday. Luna didn’t have school. She and Gracie dressed in shorts and t-shirts and went outside to play with the kids next door while their mother went out for coffee.
There was an old, rusted truck in the back lot of their complex. Gracie liked to sit in the bed and imagine that it was a hot dog stand. She used plastic blocks as pretend food. “Hot dogs! Come and get your hot dogs!”
“You can’t use green for hot dogs,” Luna said. “You should use red ones. No one wants to eat a green hot dog.”
Gracie checked around the truck for a red block but couldn’t find any. The next time she looked up that man was there. She recognized his hair.
“I’d like a hot dog.,” he said. “Can I play, too?”
“You’re too old to play,” Gracie giggled, shyly.
“You think I’m old? That hurts my feelings,” the man said. He pretended to cry, but then started laughing.
Gracie knew he was teasing, but Luna was right. He was kind of weird like that big girl, except he didn’t talk with his eyes closed.
Gracie gave him a block. “Here you go,” she said, trying to sound professional.
The man stopped laughing. He took the block, but kept his focus on Gracie. The way he smiled at her made her feel funny.
She scanned the lot for Luna. “Luna!” she called.
“Yeah?” Luna hollered from next door.
“Did you find any red blocks?” Gracie asked, her voice higher than usual.
“You don’t need a red block. Green’s okay.” The man said. He reached out and ran his hand up Gracie’s bare leg.
“My mom’s not here,” Luna announced, running toward the truck. She stopped when she arrived and gave the man a timid smile.
“I know,” he said. “I was watching you through your window.”
Luna shot Gracie an expression that said, ‘see, I told you.’
“Which one of you is the one who’s not wearing any underwear today?” the man asked.
Suddenly, Gracie became aware of how the jean shorts felt against her bare skin. It was uncomfortable.
“Her,” Luna said, pointing to Gracie. “She never does.”
Gracie wished Luna hadn’t told him.
“Let’s play inside,” the man said. He lifted Gracie out of the truck.
She was scared. Her gaze sought Luna’s as the man began to carry her away. Luna seemed scared, too, but she stayed where she was.
The man carried her through the back door of their apartment, into the bathroom and closed the door. They were only in there for a few minutes when Luna came busting in.
“My mom’s coming!” she cried, “You better get out of here, mister, before you get into trouble.”
The man jumped up, pulled up his shorts, and ran out. Gracie got up and wiped her nose with the back of her hand.
“What were you guys doing?” Luna asked.
Gracie didn’t answer.
Right then, their mother ran in. “Why was that man in our apartment?”
“Did you see him?” Luna asked.
“Yes, I saw him! He nearly knocked me down on his way out! Why was he here?”
“I don’t know. I think he did something to Gracie.” Luna said, pointing into the bathroom.
“What? What did he do?” she asked, her voice full of concern. She moved Luna out of the way so she could get in. “Did he hurt you?” She whirled Gracie around and inspected her. “You seem okay. Are you okay?”
“Can somebody please tell me what happened!” she bellowed, losing her patience.
Gracie didn’t want to tell.
“Tell me what he did!” she demanded, her hands on her hips. She looked first at Gracie and then Luna.
“I don’t know!” Luna cried. “Don’t look at me! I was outside! When I came in, he was here with Gracie.”
“Oh, Jesus!” their mother cried. “What in the hell were you doing, Luna, letting a stranger in, in the first place? You’re eight years old! That’s old enough to know better, damn it! I trust you to watch her!” She got down on the floor in front of Gracie and held her face. “Did he do something bad, Gracie?”
Gracie tried to get away. She didn’t want to talk about it.
Her mother held her in place by squeezing her cheeks. “You need to tell me right now!” When Gracie didn’t answer, she said, “Luna! Get me the phone!”
Gracie began to cry.
A policeman came. Gracie stayed in her room. She heard him asking their mother questions.
“How long were the kids alone, ma’am?”
“Well, they weren’t really alone … I mean, the neighbor was supposed to be watching them.”
“Did you ask the neighbor to watch them?”
“What does it matter? There was a man in my apartment! He hurt my little girl! You should be out looking for him instead of asking me a bunch of stupid questions!” Gracie’s mother shrieked.
“We need to find out exactly what happened,” the officer said. “I can’t just go arresting someone if I don’t even know what happened. She needs to be examined. Now, until that happens, there isn’t much I can do.”
Later that afternoon, Gracie’s mother took her to the doctor. “For goodness sakes, don’t tell him I left you guys alone,” she whispered as they sat waiting in the office. “That’s all we need is the state coming by!”
A nurse came in and gave Gracie a paper gown to wear.
When the doctor came into the room, he lifted Gracie up onto the table. “Lie back, sweetie.”
Gracie didn’t want to.
“I promise this won’t hurt, but I need to see,” the doctor said, gently pushing her down.
Gracie’s face felt hot, but she shivered anyway. Goosebumps broke out on her arms. She felt weird all over and sick to her stomach. “I know this is uncomfortable, but just lie still,” he said, “I’m almost finished.” Gracie began to cry. Her mother got up and went over to smooth her hair, but Gracie pushed her hand away. She put it back and gave Gracie a stern look, “I’m sorry, baby, but this has to be done.”
Finally, the doctor stepped away and took off his gloves. “Everything’s just fine. There was no harm done.”
Gracie’s mother let out her breath. “Well, that’s a relief. Thank God,” she said. She took Gracie home. The officer came back over that evening and showed Gracie a book full of men’s pictures. “Do you recognize any of these faces as the man who was here? Do you see him?”
Gracie flipped through the book. Her stomach roiled, when on the third page, she saw the man. She pointed to his picture, then looked away quickly.
“Good. That’s what I thought,” the officer smiled. “We got him. He won’t be back again, honey. Don’t you worry,” he went for the door but stopped and turned towards Gracie’s mom. “You got lucky. It could have been much worse. I’m just glad she wasn’t hurt. Keep a better watch on these kids, okay?”
That night, after Gracie went to bed, she couldn’t sleep. She kept peeking out of the blankets to see if anyone was outside the window.
“What are you doing?” Luna whispered loudly.
“Nothing,” Gracie whispered back.
“He’s not out there, if that’s what you think,” Luna yawned. “The police took him to jail. Now go to sleep. You’re keeping me awake.” She flipped around and pulled the covers over her head.
“But what if I picked the wrong picture?” Gracie asked.
“Did you?” Luna asked, sitting up.
“I don’t think so.”
Luna let out a sigh of relief and laid back down. “Then stop worrying and go to sleep.”
Gracie didn’t want to use the bathroom alone again. She made Luna go with her, but eventually Luna didn’t want to anymore. “I’m not going with you, you big baby,” she said. “You’re going to have to do it on your own. Mom said nothing happened. I don’t know why you’re so scared.” Sometimes Gracie wished that Luna was the one who wasn’t wearing underwear that day.
She freaked out every time her mother tried to leave the house. “The policeman said you can’t leave us alone,” she’d say, blocking the door.
“For heaven’s sake, Gracie. That man is long gone,” she said. “You’re going to be just fine.” It didn’t feel like he was long gone. Gracie could still see his face when she closed her eyes.
After a while, everyone seemed to forget about it. Gracie was glad. She wanted to forget about it, too, but it came back to her a lot. That creepy feeling would wash over her and make her feel ill when she had to go to the doctor or when she saw a policeman. There were other times, too, like years later, just after she’d turned fifteen, and she and her boyfriend were sitting on the couch in his den listening to music. His parents had gone out for dinner, leaving Gracie and Sam home alone for the first time. He got up, turned down the lights, and sat next to her.
“Want to kiss?” he asked.
Gracie was nervous. She didn’t want to, but nodded anyway. He leaned in to kiss her, starting at her lips and then moving to her neck. He lifted her shirt and skimmed a hand across her breasts, first over her bra, then underneath. She lost her breath as his hands worked their way down, and unzipped her jeans. He stuck his finger inside of her panties. She panicked. That feeling came. She pushed Sam away, zipped up, and ran out. She felt stupid about it later and called to apologize. She never explained or told Sam what happened to her. She didn’t want anyone to know. She had to remind herself over and over what the doctor had said when she was four: “There was no harm done.” But if that was true, she wondered why it felt that way.
When she was in her twenties, she saw a man that looked like the man did when she was four. He approached her too closely in the grocery store, and started talking, his face so close to hers she could smell his breath. He reached out and touched her arm. She shivered and backed away in revulsion. People looked at her like she was crazy as she ran out, leaving her cart in the aisle.
She wanted to talk to someone about it, so she called her mother. It was a mistake.
“Oh, Gracie, that was years ago! Why are you still thinking about that? You are such a drama queen, I swear! He barely touched you.”
“I just wish you hadn’t left us alone,” Gracie uttered. “What were you thinking? We were so little. I was only four years old.”
“Oh, for heaven sakes. I didn’t leave you alone. You’re too young to remember.”
“I do remember, mom,” Gracie was angry. “That’s the thing. It’s like that time is etched into my memory forever. It’s like I’ll never forget it.”
There was silence on the other end before her mother spoke again, “I don’t know why you’re so hell bent on blaming me now. What do you want me to say? That I’m sorry? I can’t be sorry for something that never really happened.”
“But something did happen!” Gracie argued, frustrated. “How can you say that? Why can’t you understand that?” she demanded.
“Oh, Gracie, get over it,” her mother breathed. “Seriously. Grow up.” The phone clicked on the other end, signifying she’d hung up.
Gracie felt like she was going crazy. She decided to see a therapist. She didn’t tell him about what happened to her for a long time, and when she did, she ended with, “So, honestly, there’s not much to talk about. It’s not like I was raped.”
“Is that what you believe?” the therapist asked, in that clinical, non-committal voice he used.
“I don’t know,” Gracie admitted. “I mean, technically I wasn’t.”
“Rape is more than just the act of penetration,” he said.
Gracie began to sob, finally giving in to her feelings after all that time. “It feels like he took something from me,” she sniffled.
“It sounds to me like a lot of people did,” the therapist said. “I think together, we can try to get it back.”
Kristy Gherlone was born and raised in northern Maine. She attended the University of Maine, worked for Baxter State Park, and as an Early Interventionist for children with autism. She is the self-published author of three novels and some of her shorter works can be found in Short Fiction Break, Every Writer’s Resource, Bedlam Magazine’s Loud Zoo, The Mystery Tribune, Defenestration Mag and more. Currently, she resides in New Hampshire.
Jurgis Didysis went out, as they say, "with his head held high." It was, of course, no longer attached to the rest of his body, but that begs the point. To be perfectly frank, he went out with a style and sense of quiet dignity that was, in the end, altogether unbecoming of such a famous brawler and roust-about, whose exploits were sung of in epic sagas, and throughout his short, turbulent life, were the cause of disputes with his bosses that led to the termination of employment contracts on several occasions. However, in the end, he’d made amends and mustered enough personal strength and courage to win the admiration of his executioners, and even his previous employers, The King of Poland and the Grand Duke of Lithuania, who, though they did not say so, were very proud when they’d heard of it. The Grand Duke, it was later remarked, had even "smiled quietly to himself" when he heard how well Didysis had met his end.
Didysis had been gracious enough to tip the executioner of Riga "a little something extra to get something nice for the wife," and was even thoughtful enough to bring a thank you card, a small box of candies for the executioner’s two young children, and to tell the little girl that she had a pretty dress. For all this, it must be said, that the executioner did a nice job, something they’d most certainly write-up in the trade journals if he’d done it today. One German chronicler put it quaintly, that he’d done his work "in one fell swoop, so to speak, and didn’t botch the job." According to tradition, the executioner left a single red rose in the window of his apartment above the Swedish Gate on the day there was going to be an execution. That day he didn’t forget, and even made sure it was a fresh, fragrant one with silky, soft petals. It is such attention to detail which is sorely missed today in all but the finest hotels and restaurants. But I digress.
Jurgis Didysis grew up in Vilnius, the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Little is known about his upbringing or his family except that his mother, if the chronicles are to be believed, and in this case they aren’t, had once baked cookies for the Grand Duke of Lithuania when he’d come over to play one afternoon. In recognition of this "benevolent act of kindness to our person," as the Grand Duke later put it, he made her son the Voevode of Naugaudius and Palatine of Kaunas, with the right to call the Grand Duke "cousin."
This situation did not last long, though, and, during a campaign against Moscow, a violent dispute took place in the company of the Mikhail Aleksandrovich, Grand Duke of Tver, involving two barmaids – one blonde and the other brunette – during which Didysis is said to have called the Grand Duke of Lithuania "a lot more colorful things than just cousin," though what exactly is not preserved by the chronicles.
He left Vilnius, in the words of the great Lithuanian epic poem "in a bit of a tizzy," and made his way to Poland where he offered his services to Ludwig, the King of Poland and Hungary. The King, more favorable to "persons of the female persuasion," declined the offer, but made Didysis his personal secretary and later chancellor of Poland. Another dispute with his sovereign, also involving two barmaids – their hair color has not been recorded for posterity, though one of them was named Agnieszka - forced Didysis to flee Poland in the dead of night dressed as a Benedictine nun. He remained in hiding in the Cloister of St. Clara in Prague for the next seven years, where he expanded the abbey and increased its activities for the poor and destitute, eventually being named abbess, before a dispute with the Holy Roman Emperor, this time involving two more barmaids, both named Anna, forced him to flee Bohemia dressed as the Archbishop of Salzburg.
He began major renovation work on the Archbishop’s palace and greatly expanded the art collection, (Most art critics grudgingly admit that he had impeccable taste in art.) before the real archbishop, returning from a visit to Rome tried to have him burned at the stake (even after all he’d done for the architectural and artistic value of the palace). He fled, again dressed as a Benedictine nun, back to Lithuania, where his erstwhile "cousin," the Grand Duke, had died and had been succeeded by his son, Jagello, who was too busy in Krakow marrying Jadwiga, becoming King of Poland, and being baptized, to care much about whether or not Didysis was in Vilnius or not.
Jurgis took up residence in Vilnius where he built a Benedictine convent but did not take up the position of Mother Superior personally, instead striking a deal with the bishop (some sources claim it was the bishop’s representative, not the bishop himself) at a local tavern. It is alleged that Didysis agreed to allow the bishop to name the Mother Superior in exchange for the bishop not trying to pick up the barmaid working that evening. They agreed and Didysis and the barmaid were later married.
Vytautas, the nephew of Jurgis' former "cousin", emerging victorious from a power-struggle with his cousin the King of Poland in 1393, became Grand Duke of Lithuania. He soon called Jurgis back to serve as his ambassador to the Khan of the Golden Horde where he served the Grand Duke faithfully and was obedient to the command "not to embarrass us by entering into any dispute involving barmaids, racing stallions, hunting falcons, fermented honey, or anything else, with any representative of the Khan or his retinue, any merchant of Genoa or Novgorod the Great, or anyone else." Whether he was faithful first to the Grand Duke’s command, or to his new bride, is ultimately not know and perhaps not truly relevant. Following the embassy to Sarai, he returned to Vilnius and was named Great Etoman (hetman or chief) of the Army of Lithuania but was dismissed in disgrace over a dispute with the Voevode of Volynia and the Palatine of Kiev, this one not involving barmaids, but rather the placement of troops at the Battle of Vorskla River (perhaps he allocated too many units to the defense of the local bar).
He settled down and fathered several children before his wife died at a young age, as was the custom in the Middle Ages, and he was called back to serve as ambassador to the Teutonic Order at Malbork. He was placed under house arrest after the Battle of Grunwald, where the Poles and Lithuanians defeated the Teutonic Knights, and was handed over to the archbishop of Riga to be ransomed, when, following "a dispute with a senior knight of the order similar to those previously mentioned," he escaped and fled, but was captured in a nearby Benedictine abbey and sentenced to death. His sentence was carried out, as is obvious from the description above and the body, out of respect for the mother, who, legend has it, had also baked cookies for the archbishop of Riga years earlier, was returned to Vilnius where it was buried beside his wife in the churchyard of the convent he had founded. His tombstone lists his achievements:
Here lies in honored rest, Jurgis Didysis, loving husband
and father, Voevode of Naugaudius and Palatine of Kaunas,
"Cousin" to Grand Duke Algerdis of Lithuania, Chancellor of
Poland, Abbess of St. Clara’s in Bohemia, Archbishop of
Salzburg, Gracious Founder of this Holy Convent, Ambassador
of Vytautas the Great to the Khan of the Golden Horde,
Etoman of the Army of Lithuania who fought at Vorskla River
(1399), Ambassador of Vytautas to the Grandmaster of the
Order of the Teutonic Knights, a lover of barmaidens, whose
mother baked cookies for Bishops and Princes. A.D. 1410
A rather popular bar stands on the corner nearby, outside the walls of the churchyard, but the bartender won’t take any guff about the barmaids.
Michael C. Paul bio coming soon.
“Yes, baby. God you’re good.”
I looked at her hoping for some response but she was staring straight at the ceiling.
“You know Bob, when we do it, I hear music.”
“I hear music. Going through my head. Kind of like those old musicals they used to show on tv. When they used to kiss, there was music. Well for me it’s like that.”
I thought about that for a moment.
“What like stuff from Grease?”
I started humming Greased Lightning.”
“There’s no romance in your soul, Bob. You know that. Anyhow, it’s not that kind of stuff. It’s like when you touch me, it sounds like a concerto, you know. The way you move your hand across my stomach, I kind of hear Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.”
“I think I’ve heard of that.”
Have you never noticed my breathing when you do that? It’s in time with the music.”
“Then when you move onto my breasts,,,”
“Oh, let me guess. Handel, maybe.”
She bunched up her fist and slammed me in the ribs.
“You think I’m nuts, don’t you. I’m going to sleep.”
I sat up.
“No, no, Please. I’m sorry. Please, tell me.”
“Bach. Cello Suite number one.”
“How do you know so much about classical music?”
“Then when you touch me down there…”
“Then it's Tchaikovsky's Moderato. Violins, trombones,
“Wow, that brings you to a crescendo?”
I looked at her, her eyes closed as if reliving the moment.
“Almost.” she whispered.
“And...when I enter you? “
“Flutes and violins. Rimsky Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee.”
I sat up, a little indignant at this.
“What. Rimsky who? Surely you mean Mozart?”.
She looked at me and laughed.
“Mozart! Hell, you're no Mozart but listen honey at least I
don’t hear the Minute Waltz. Mozart. Ha!”
I lay back on my pillow and slowly heard the opening strains of Tchaikovsky. The music was irrelevant. It was the title.
The Nutcracker; and the fact that I was never a Mozart.
Alun Williams is from Wales. He's a member of several writing communities online and has been published in several places.
In my head, a mental timer ticked - eleven hours fifty-two minutes
A half dozen times over the past two weeks I pleaded, "Nothing special, please." And today was no different.
"Why so sad?" she asked, dancing across the kitchen floor, a light hum spilling from her lips. After sixteen years of marriage, she was still stunning, and the tactic of using the hum to deflect my pleas. Well, I'm familiar with that ploy. But unbeknownst to her, I spotted the iconic yellow Post-it notes. And when she wasn't looking I dug them from the trash. Written in her familiar handwriting, were names, numbers, and a recurrent date. That date was today. So, I knew she was up to something. And who could blame her, it was a special day. It was a day for celebration. "See you tonight," she said, pushing me out the front door with honey-do-list and a soft peck on the cheek.
As I drove to work, regret over my lack of assertion grew, but the rational part of me knew how important this day was to my wife and my teenage daughter who has lived her entire life without famine, illness, or war.
Eight hours twelve minutes
After the twenty-minute commute, I arrived at the office, met by the well-wishing’s of several coworkers, who sprung from their cubicles; an odd game of human whack-a-mole as each returned to their seat when tossed a soft-spoken thank you. I knew they weren't so much happy for me as for themselves. And though I couldn't blame them, I didn't get a single; I'm sorry to see you go. It's this falsity that's never sat well with me. How we've let the value of life become mundane.
Other than arriving at the office, my morning was painless and slow, though I struggled to manage the swell of nervousness in my stomach with a pinched, repetitive smile. At noon, after a brief overhead announcement, everyone gathered in the lunch room. There was a short speech from my boss and a cake made by Alice in human resources. It was in the shape of an hourglass, with gold fondant borders, and no time remaining. It made me nervousness flourish.
After the cake the day was a blur. And before I could blink the clock read 4:45 p.m. and my final work day ended. So, I tidied the items on my desk; loose papers found their place, mementos stacked in a cardboard box marked with scotch tape and my name in sharpie. Outstanding messages returned, and sales prospects passed to another associate. I put my official call into human resources; telling them today was my day and to thank Alice for the cake.
"Congratulations again," she said leaking fraudulence, "And on a Friday, what a fantastic end to your week." I winced and said, "Thank you" as stomach acid flashed up my esophagus.
Four hours seven minutes
On the drive home I hammered through my to-do-list with half-hearted attention while examining the how, when, why of my life.
How had I arrived at this point? And why does no one else think the same way I do? The thought of questioning how one celebrates their day made me flinch inward. I've been to a few celebrations - a good many people surrounded themselves with family and friends; while others keep to themselves. But, I wanted nothing more than to be alone, to hide from the spectacle. If there was a wrong way, I may have found it. And someone needed to know. After forty minutes of running around town, I made it home. Before going inside, I sat alone in the driveway and let the world settle. The house needed fresh paint. The grass, mowing. Cockeyed shutters straightened, and several broken spindles on the porch needed repair.
I climbed the front steps, across the porch, and with my hand on the front door said, "Honey, I'm home." Something I hadn't done in sixteen years of marriage but felt compelled to give everyone inside the chance to maximize their surprise. It worked. "Congratulations," erupted as I entered. A swarm of hugs and handshakes followed. I wondered if any else felt as uncomfortable as I did.
The charade lasted less than an hour. Mindless chatter, fleshy mannequins, pretenders, and cowards spilled into the dusk with fixed smiles. In three hours, I become a straw dog among billions. Once the house emptied, I settled on the couch with a plate of food and a fleeting appetite. My daughter joined, with cheese dripping from her lips and a plate of nachos in hand.
Two hours nineteen minutes
"Tell me again Daddy. How was it when you were young?"
"No need dredging up the past," I said, but her excitement surged.
"Please Daddy, one last time." My wife rifled a glance across the table of leftovers as if she knew.
"Well, when I was your age people were sick and unhealthy. But human engineering changed everything. The common diseases cured. People grew old, the population exploded, and resources became scarce. People killed each other over food and water."
Her eyes widened. "The water wars," She said.
"But they fixed it."
"I suppose," I said. There was a moment after the words passed my lips, a fracture in time, which my daughter stiffened. So, I continued.
Yes, "An end date, a genetic switch programmed into the DNA of random individuals over the age of eighteen, a lottery of sorts, to keep the population under control."
"And people are happier now," she said, punctuating her words with a fistful of nachos as if the world was a perfect place in her mind.
Two hours four minutes
Fear, guilt, embarrassment, shame; a lifetime of feeling unsettled, I collapsed into myself. "I found a way out," I blurted, my hands resting on her knees.
She drew back and cocked her eyebrow, "What do you mean?"
Even though I never told another living soul, end day had been on my mind for years. And I had prepared. For as long as I can remember I've felt defective and unable to embrace my expiration.
One hour thirty-nine minutes
"I have these pills," I said, producing a small glass vial from my pocket containing two fluorescent blue pills.
My wife, now outside fighting with the overstuffed trash, was out of earshot.
"It's your responsibility," she sobbed. "It's the law."
In my mind, I'd worked through this scenario a million times and settled on eight words. I gambled they'd be enough. And I took a deep breath before I spoke.
"Do you know how much I love you?" I said.
It was three weeks ago that I picked up the pills from a friend of a friend after providing a copy of my DNA. I paid ten thousand in cash.
"Designed to work," the stranger said with conviction. I've been carrying them in my pocket ever since, along with the burden.
As my daughter’s face screwed itself into disbelief, my soul retched. Her disbelief shifted to anger. With her shoulders drawn back, and the frankness of her mother, she responded, "Daddy, it's your day. We've celebrated."
Her tone flattened with matter-of-fact words that torpedoed my courage, and I sank in shame. And in my moment of disgrace, distracted because love was the strongest thing I could offer her and it wasn't enough, she snatched the vial from my hand.
"No. I won't let you. I won't." She said, opening the bottle and downing the pills in one swift motion, swallowing dry.
My daughter had known one existence, become that person, a pretender, and smirked as if she had won. I felt nothing but resentment towards her. "I love you too much Daddy. It's your responsibility. I couldn’t let you do it. "
Her words rose past her vocal cords with a hard gurgle, softened, and died on her lips, as did she, in my arms.
R.E. Hengsterman is a Pushcart-nominated writer, film photographer and flawed human who deconstructs the human experience through images and words. He writes under the Carolina blue sky. You can see more of his work at www. ReHengsterman.com and find him on Twitter at @robhengsterman.
Alice watched the leaves swirl and pile like tossed confetti in her tiny back yard. The curtain filtered the yellowish October light, making lacey patterns on her arms. The tea in her mother’s china cup had turned cold.
She listened to the children playing next door. Their backyard sounds— laughter, chatter —were homey, sweet, a trifle poignant. Tom and Lisa Gaffney, the children’s parents, had moved in as newlyweds. Alice remembered the birth of each one. Evie, all blonde curls and long spidery limbs. Stuart, still pudgy baby-fat and giggles. Even Josh had a certain handsomeness, such smooth dark skin, big blue eyes, if one looked past his twisted limbs, stiffened by cerebral palsy.
Alice never had children. She hadn’t married. She’d been asked years ago and almost said yes. But he was older than she was, uncomfortably so, and had adult children of his own. Alice was not sure he could be convinced to have more. And, she told herself, her ailing mother needed her at home.
Once her mother died, Alice was over forty. It’s time now, she thought, to find a good husband. But Alice didn’t know how. She’d never dated much, and it had been years since she did. All she could think of was church, and that would not help, since just about everyone there was older than she was. Most of them were single women, too. She’d heard that online dating could work, but it was way too scary. Besides, her computer skills were rudimentary.
That afternoon, her old friend Peter came by for a drink. They did that now and then, using her father’s old barware, the decanters, the cocktail shaker. Both would dress for the occasion, Peter with his scarlet bow tie, Alice in a navy skirt and white silk blouse with a lace collar. Peter always brought nuts to have with whatever recipe in Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide caught Alice’s fancy.
Alice arranged the decanter of bourbon and the bitters, an orange and bowl of cherries on a silver tray. She placed it on the buffet next to the ice bucket. She got two glasses out of the china cabinet, making sure to avoid the ones with chips.
Peter poured the curried cashews from a paper sack into a flowered dish while Alice mixed the drinks. They sat opposite each other and raised their glasses in a silent toast.
Peter cleared his throat before he set down his glass.
“Have you ever wanted children, Alice?” He folded his cocktail napkin over and over on his knee. “I think about it once in a while. I do like babies.”
“Oh Peter. Do we really have to talk about it? I want to enjoy my drink, not dwell on the impossible.” Alice wrapped her napkin around her glass, catching the condensation. “I’d say you were drunk, but you couldn’t be on one sip. Unless you had a stiff one before you got here.” She sampled one of the cashews. “Mmm. Good choice, Peter. These are yummy.”
“I’d like to talk about it, if you don’t mind. And I am as sober as you are.” Peter picked up his drink again, swirled the ice in the glass, then set it down again. “It’s always seemed ridiculous to even think about. But not so much anymore. I wonder. Maybe I should consider it seriously.”
“Peter. You are 48. You are a single gay man who has never even dated a woman.”
Peter glanced at Alice. “It would be easier if I were straight, it’s true.” He sat up, leaned forward, and looked at Alice while she raised her glass. “But listen. If you could get interested, I think we should give it a try.”
Mid-sip of her drink, Alice nearly choked. Swallowing hard, she dabbed her lips with her napkin. Peter reached across the coffee table, patted her knee. “Take a breath, Alice. It’s okay, we don’t have to.”
“Don’t have to what, Peter?”
“Oh Alice. Let’s have a baby,” Peter said. “I think we could do it.”
“Goodness, Peter.” Alice leaned back in the chair and closed her eyes. She given up letting herself think about having children, even though theoretically it was still possible. But with Peter? “How do you propose we do this?”
“Well, we don’t have to do it like other folks. You know… that way. Although I suppose we shouldn’t rule anything out.” Peter shuffled his feet, crossed his right leg over his left, then switched to left over right. “But what if I, when I came over for drinks, I brought some…” He hooked his finger over his collar and bow tie, tugging to loosen both. “Oh dear, how should I say it, Alice? The male part. You know.”
“No, Peter. I don’t know. What?”
“Sperm? Peter, really.”
Peter cleared his throat. “I’d pass it to you when I came in the door. In a little jar. In a paper bag. Discrete.”
“And what would I do with that little jar, Peter?” He really has thought this through, thought Alice.
“You could go upstairs maybe? And put it where it needs to go,” Peter said. “I hear a turkey baster can do the trick. I have one if you don’t.” He took a big sip of his drink. “Then you could come down and lie here on the sofa. Put your feet up. That’s supposed to help. I’d bring you a nice big drink.” Peter started to smile and set down his glass. He crossed his hands in his lap and waited.
He looks quite pleased with himself, thought Alice. But she couldn’t stop the implications from pushing in.
“Good gracious, Peter. Have you gone crazy? We’ve known each other for so long. You usually make good sense. This is the most bizarre thing I have ever heard you say.”
“Oh Alice, please! Say yes! We could have so much fun!” Peter picked up his glass again, stared at the melting ice cubes. “We’d have drinks more often. To make plans. Think of baby names, buy cute little outfits, even decide who would change diapers, that sort of thing.”
“There’s is a certain amount of risk, you know especially at our age.” Alice rubbed her forehead with both hands, smoothing the worry lines. “Look at little Josh, next door. Not every baby comes out perfect. And his parents were twenty years younger than we are. Plus I don’t know if I could get … in the family way … at all.”
Alice could hear Tom Gaffney banging the trash cans in the alley. “Don’t forget the recycling,” Lisa yelled out the back door. Alice took over a gift when they brought each new baby home from the hospital. Lisa would hand Alice the newest one to hold while she unwrapped the present. Alice had struggled not to fall in love with each tiny mewing bundle.
Peter cleared his throat. “You’ll never guess what I bought last week.”
“What?” Alice was not sure she wanted to know.
“A stuffed toy.”
“A velvety baby duck.”
“A velvet duck?” Alice tried to imagine Peter at the cash register, paying for a stuffed duck. Peter was very careful with his money.
Now she could hear the children, let out to play in the yard before dinner. She thought of Evie’s curls, Stuart’s fat arms with the creases at the elbows. Josh’s smooth dark skin. Children had come so easily for Tom and Lisa. At least, that’s how it appeared.
Alice hesitated, took a deep breath, then stood up and headed for the buffet. She laid her hand on Peter’s shoulder as she passed behind him.
“Peter,” she said, “we need another drink.”
Kathryn Lord is a Maine native. With her husband Drew, she spends the cold months in north Florida, just a few miles from the Gulf of Mexico, and the warmer times in a home she built herself on the Maine coast. In a former life, she was a psychotherapist and Romance Coach, for which she maintained a busy website (Find-a-Sweetheart.com) and taught herself to write. Her story “What Grows in the Garden” is scheduled to appear on Literally Stories on 1/20/2017. She has a self-published book available on Amazon, “Find a Sweetheart Soon.” Now I dye silk scarves, host Airbnb guests, and write.
Death admired the centerpiece, made from old maps cut into the shape of blooming flowers, while sitting at an empty table reserved for him on the edge of the Marriott's Celebration Hall, in a corner next to a post, underneath a flickering string of edison bulbs, the furthest possible distance from the open bar and the dance floor, on the opposite side of the hall from the children’s table, in the chair closest to the door. On the other side of a floor-to-ceiling window, Mike and his seven groomsmen, all either frat brothers or friends from a capella, huddled around a gas-powered fire pit in the courtyard, poking their cell phones under the arms of their matching blue suits to see if they could catch Death in a photo, which, they say, is good luck, although he won’t show up unless he’s looking straight at the camera. “Quit it,” Mike mouthed, before tilting the last of his rail whiskey into his mouth, trying his best to feel warm. He stared at the fire, waiting for this next part of the ceremony to be over. Coa and he had danced to “When I’m Sixty-Four,” and then he must have danced with his mother, and Cora with her father, to music they’d spent nights bickering over only have it lost in the wash of the evening: the last minute tailoring, the delayed plane from Dublin with Cora’s uncle on it, the search for painkillers for the bridesmaid who slipped on one of the stairs, and all the effort spent trying not to cry in front of his new wife (who spent most of the evening on the verge of tears). But now there was only one thing left to do. The reception was winding down, events were becoming clearer to him, even in spite of all the alcohol, even in spite of the fact that this moment was the moment he would rather forget. Mike watched Death take a half-hearted bite of the steak that was still in front of him, that no one had bothered to clear, that had probably gone cold by now. He remembered earlier in the evening, when, coming off of a leading the line dance for “Cotton Eye Joe, one of the staff had mentioned to him that Death thought the steak was overdone. Mike had switched from beer to whiskey after that.
The DJ called for one last round of applause for the new couple, and thanked the families and friends for coming out for the evening. The crowd cheered, clapped their hands, and made their way off the dance floor towards their tables to begin their goodbyes, to decide who was going to keep the centerpiece, to write a last thought in the guestbook. Only Cora stayed on the dance floor. Her bridesmaids touched her hand as they walked by, and she waited.
Death stood up. He ambled to the center of the dance floor. As custom dictated, Cora took off her shoes. Death put his hand on the small of Cora’s back, and they began to move. The DJ shut down his computer, the staff cleared the last of the cake plates, as Death and Cora moved together from one end of the dance floor to another, to a rhythm only they could hear, made from the light rustle of Cora’s dress, the brush of their feet being placed on the floor, the occasional crack of one of Cora’s knees. The murmuration of the crowd lowered and lowered. The guests spoke to each other, but quietly and about nothing in particular, hoping to overhear what Death had to say to Cora about her and her new husband. The best man lead the groomsmen away to set up the after party, clapping Mike on the shoulder. His hand felt heavy, like he thought he may not see Mike again. After they had left, Mike stayed by the fire and watched his wife do something like dancing across the lacquered wood panel floor.
Sooner than either Mike or Cora expected, after the centerpieces had been claimed, after the staff had put out the cigarettes they were smoking behind the venue and divvied up the tips, Death stopped, bowed, and stepped away. Cora picked up her shoes and walked between the tables, each with its chairs stacked upside down on top of it for the morning cleaning. She stepped outside, Mike heard the glass door close slowly. He stared at the fire. He was out of whiskey, and even the ice had melted.
Cora set her shoes down on the faux stone tile, waiting for her husband to look at her from across the fire. “How much did he tell you?” Mike said.
“Enough,” Cora said, dry-eyed.
“What did he tell you?” Mike said. Cora was quiet. She undid one of her berets and pulled at a few bobby pins to see if she could let her hair fall over her shoulders and keep her neck warm. Mike placed his glass on the edge of the fire pit, took off his blazer, and held it out to her. He looked at his hand instead of her, she looked him straight in the eye. After a moment, Mike looked her in the eye. “We can’t keep secrets from each other.”
“You don’t get to say that to me. Not anymore.”
“So. He told you-”
“-I don’t have to tell you what he told me.”
“But could you? I’m asking you-”
“No,” Cora said, “and you’re going to have to accept that. You’re going to have to look me in the eye, for the next forty years, knowing that I know.”
“Did he say it was forty?” Mike asked.
“No. I just pulled that out of thin air,” Cora said.
“Do you think it could be forty? Still?”
Mike sat down again. He pressed his fingers against the sides of his nose, he was careful about breathing, he couldn’t help thinking about everything that might be ending in one moment. Cora sat down a chair away from him. “It’s been a long time since I thought you were perfect,” she said, “and maybe tonight, maybe, for a few moments, I forgot that you weren’t. But now I know exactly how imperfect you are. And I need you to look me in the eye and show me that you’re ready to go through this knowing that I know.”
The fire faded in the cold. Then, Mike looked Cora in the eye. She put her shoes back on.
At the hotel, the maid of honor paced and the groomsmen tried to coax the bartenders into stay open even later. Cora’s parents had gone straight to bed, following their relatives’ advice that whatever happened they’d be able to sort it out in the morning. Mike’s best man sat by himself at a booth, looking out at the parking lot of the hotel, while everyone tried to make polite conversation and avoid how late it was getting. Suddenly, he saw Mike and Cora come out of the hall. They made a break for Cora’s car, train dragging over the asphalt. The headlights lit, and the car pulled away, leaving the wedding party, the parents, everything behind. He could guess what Death had told Cora. He was the only other person at the wedding who could’ve guessed. He knew that was going to be the last night he ever saw Mike again. But at least he could imagine where the two of them were going now.
Griffin Horn is a fiction writer and playwright working towards his MFA at Temple University.
Mrs. Walter dreams the whole day through, whether she's at home or when she's put on hat and gloves and taken her purse and gone to visit acquaintances and neighbors, fellow immigrants who hardly know what to do with her because all she talks about is “when my ship comes in.”
Everyone except Mrs. Walter (and perhaps she too) knows that ship will never dock, that one day she will simply disappear from the scene, because there is no one to take care of her and when she is too old or ill to take care of herself, she will be taken to the hospital and die there or soon thereafter in a nursing home.
Ingrid remembers Mrs. Walter and her dreaming, though it was more than sixty years ago. She remembers the embarrassment she felt around the elderly woman, she remembers the pity her mother would take on her when she dropped by unannounced just when her mother sought in a nap some respite from her own worries about her husband's uncertain income. At first she might say to Ingrid to tell Mrs. Walter that she was sleeping and then, almost as if she could see the disappointment in the fragile woman's face, she would call to Ingrid, get up, and welcome Mrs. Walter in.
Sixty years later, and Ingrid knows how Mrs. Walter felt. Ingrid is under no illusions that her ship will come in. She fights the good fight, although all that is left to her, after the expenses of her husband's long illness, is his social security, barely enough to carry her from month to month.
Her own family is gone, and there is no one to take care of her. She is still strong and healthy enough to retain her optimism, but when any condition of illness flares or when she hears of someone's stroke or heart attack or cancer, she becomes frightened.
So many of her friends are gone from the city, moved away and scattered to various parts of the country. She keeps in touch by email and sometimes by phone. She would like to visit them and looks at maps and train schedules and catalogs in search of proper clothing for a trip and, like Mrs. Walter, dreams.
She knows that as the years pass, she will dream more and more, but for now she tries to hold onto her dignity and tells those friends she still has that perhaps she will visit when things are less busy.
M.C. Neuda explores the complexities of the human condition in the short story both literary and genre, delighting in its more compressed forms. Stories have been published in “Shotgun Honey,” “Flash Fiction Press,” “Near to the Knuckle,” and “Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine.” One story won an Honorable Mention in a “Glimmer Train” competition last year, and another was accepted into an anthology of “Flash Fiction Magazine” this year.
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Noah Tapper is a writer and prep cook in New Orleans, LA. His work has been published in Neutron/Protons, the Maple Leaf Rag, and (twenty-two years ago) in Guideposts For Kids.
She had switched to vodka-Red Bulls once we started talking. I can’t stand them, myself. She insisted I drink one with her and I did, but after six whiskeys it just tasted like a pink glass of sugar. She paid for my drinks and rather forcefully invited me to come with her. As we walked under a cold moon and rain I entertained long-held fantasies of having a sugar momma to pay for my every need and vice if this whole writing thing never panned out. I imagined a warm bed, trips to the coast, a life of luxury and leisure. I’d never have to work again.
She was a well-earning construction engineer—she designed all the fancy new condos on the waterfront that the locals loved to complain about—but what I never took into account was that any attractive 36-year-old woman who was willing to take home a 23-year-old from the bar was bound to be unhinged in a major fashion. As if chosen to warm through her cold exterior, she was named June.
It wasn’t until we stumbled under the roof lights of her Porsche that I gauged the full extent of her drunkenness. Her blue eyes were glazed over like still water. Her nose was red with broken blood vessels obtained from a lifetime of alcohol abuse. Deep wrinkles spidered out like cracked glass in the corners of her eyes and beneath the rouge painted across her face. She stunk of vodka and depression and I found her beautiful. She asked me where I wanted to go.
“I don’t care,” I said.
She stared at me for a moment, thinking of an answer, and finally arrived at, “Watch this.”
June pressed a button next to the wheel and held out her arms as if she had performed a magic trick, and the roof of the car opened up. Rain began falling over us, sliding down the leather seats. She didn’t seem to notice.
“Isn’t that something?”
“Sure,” I said.
She babbled on, something about work. I ignored her and shook the rain out of my hair. “That’s nice, but will you close the roof? I’m sure it’s better in the summer.”
“You don’t like the rain?”
“I don’t mind, I just don’t think it’s good for the car.”
“Who cares about the car? I can buy ten more of them.”
“Then leave it open. Where are we going?
“I know where.”
With an abrupt jerk, June peeled off the side of the street and burned through a red light at the intersection. She made very little attempt at watching the road, instead staring into the side of my head while I did my best to let the whiskey eat away at my anxiety. “You know you’re cute? You’re cute.”
I nodded and laughed nervously as the dirty black Porsche ran through a stop sign into an unfamiliar side street.
“I don’t do this much,” she said. I could hear the slur in her voice becoming more prominent. “I’m really not like this. I work a lot. I’m a busy person.”
The rain was hitting my face at an angle due to the speed of the vehicle, and the wind whistled past my ears.
“Do what?” I said.
Before she could answer, June whipped the car around a dark curve in the road, narrowly missing a ditch filled with overgrown bushes.
“You know I liked you right away?” she said. “You aren’t like most guys I talk to. You look damaged. Like you drink too much. You’re shorter too. But that’s okay. I liked you right away.”
I wasn’t sure what to say.
After a few more close calls and broken traffic laws, we began to slow down in a residential neighborhood. The houses were pristine and large, with trimmed grass and white fences lining the properties.
“Are we going to your house?” I asked.
June hesitated and looked around.
“I’m not sure. I’m not sure. Hey, lemme take you to the hill where I broke my leg.”
At this point I was becoming less interested in sex and more interested in getting this drunken woman out of the driver’s seat.
“Why? Let’s just go to your place. We can walk and you can show me where you broke your leg.”
“No, no. I can just drive us. C’mon, Henry.”
June began speeding up and passed the row of pristine houses. I mumbled something about a DUI and she snapped at me: “No, look—I appreciate that you’re trying to take care of me but I have…” She paused and did the mental math while the car stalled in the middle of the street, “...thirteen years of experience on you, and I know things you don’t. Okay? You’re a child and I’m the adult here. It’s fine.”
We pulled up at the top of a long, steep hill that I recognized from a story my friend had once told me.
“Wanna see me skateboard down this hill?” Her hair was strewn across the makeup and contours of her face, straight and blonde.
“No, no I don’t. Don’t do that. My friend’s old babysitter died riding her bike down this hill. I know you’re the adult and everything, but don’t do that. Let’s go to your house, and then you can skateboard down whatever hill you want to while I’m not responsible for you as a witness.”
“Fine. I have somewhere else to take you anyway.”
June turned the car around and started heading back towards the neighborhood behind us.
“Why don’t you wanna take me home?” I asked. “We don’t need to have sex, y’know. We can just hang out. I’ll get a ride home. I just don’t want you driving.”
“No, no, no. No, we can’t hang out.”
“Because I don’t wanna hang out. I wanna have sex with you. I think you’re cute and you think I’m crazy. And if I take you home, I’m gonna molest you and then I’m gonna start having feelings for you and I’m gonna have to see you again, and you’re not gonna do that.”
“What if I have feelings for you too? Did you ever think that I’m crazy too? I like you.”
I wasn’t sure if I was lying, but anything felt like fair game if it kept me from smashing through the windshield of a sports car.
“No you don’t, you’re just saying that. And I’m gonna take you home and molest you and fuck you and then you’re gonna run away like everyone else.”
“Okay, maybe I don’t wanna fuck you,” I said. “Maybe I just wanna hang out with you because I like you. Can we go home now?”
“No, no, you don’t understand. I’m very persuasive. I always get my way. I’m very good at getting my way. If we go home I’m gonna have sex with you and you’ll never wanna see me again. You understand? So I can’t take you home.”
I breathed heavily through my nose and checked my front pocket for the pack of cigarettes that wasn’t there. The rain was growing fierce but neither of us noticed now. I looked up for the moon but couldn’t find it behind the trees standing over the blurred houses moving past us like a movie reel.
“Just trust me,” she said. “You’ll like this place.”
I gave up and gave in to whatever future was in store for me. I got the feeling June was taking me with her whether I wanted to or not. There was nothing more to say.
It was an abandoned house. The floodlights of the Porsche lit up the untamed lawn behind the gate. We sat in the driveway and June’s face was flushed red, a puerile grin filling up the inside of the car. When she smiled I saw somebody I didn’t want to leave, despite her mental instability—or maybe because of it. There was this haunting, tragic sort of beauty that seeped out through the cracks in her mannerisms.
The sort of beauty you experience during that brief moment of anticipation before a firework explodes. Whatever it was that screamed and trembled underneath her surface, I wanted it.
“This place has been empty for months. I’ve wanted to go in forever,” she said.
I remained silent, thinking of some way I could convince her to park the car somewhere where it wasn’t illegal for us to be.
“Let’s go in,” she said.
“Yeah, stupid.” She laughed and grabbed the inside of my thigh. “Unless you’re scared.”
I looked out through the floodlights and eyed the ominous, shadowed house watching me from up the hill. It appeared decayed and dilapidated. “Yes, I’m scared.”
“C’mon, don’t be a pussy. You’re a writer, right?”
“Well, here’s a story. Let’s go explore it.”
I weighed the options, trying to think how much bail would cost for when I called a friend from county at three in the morning after catching a B and E charge.
“I saw it in you,” June said. “You need a little adventure.”
Well, she wasn’t wrong. I forced myself into the mist of my drunk, mumbled something like “fuck it”, and reached my hand into her thicket of blonde hair. She shouted “finally!” and slid her tongue violently into my mouth like a snake attacking its prey. The taste of vodka and cigarettes stung the back of my throat and my cock hardened. In that moment, any trace of fear and hesitation drained out of my body. Her open lips breathed into me a vibrating high and the concept of death faded into a soft static. Overpowering warmth replaced the harsh cold of the falling rain. We parted and I was perfectly, simply numb.
“So, do you wanna go in?”
“Yes,” I said.
She tossed her high-heels into the back of the car and grasped my hand, leading me towards the gap in the locked metal gate.
I did, and found myself enveloped by the shadow of the building. A porch stood on molding high beams. We walked up the steps and stood tentatively on the aging wood until it was apparent that we weren’t going to fall through.
“How do we get in?” I asked.
“There’s a door somewhere. Have you ever broken into some place?”
I thought about it.
“I don’t think so. It depends on what that means exactly.”
We found the front door. It was closed with a padlock.
“Well, we tried.”
“No,” she said, “there’s always another way in.”
We walked around the corner and I watched the adjacent street for any signs of headlights. I could see through the broken windows repaired with 2x4s and there was nothing but an open, dark room.
“Why did you wanna go in here?”
“Haven’t you ever just wanted to do something wrong?”
“Not on purpose,” I said. “It just seems to happen.”
June let go of my hand while she spoke, disappearing around another corner of the house. “You know what your problem is? You don’t live with enough intention.”
“Thank you, Doctor.”
“Hey! Come here!”
I ran after her, expecting to find a loose nail pierced through her bare foot, and instead found June beaming next to an open sliding glass door.
“What’d I tell you?”
I leaned into the empty space and tried to let my eyes adjust to the pitch-blackness inside what once was probably the living room. It looked like a bomb had detonated in the house. Broken pieces of wood and debris littered the ground. Piles of glass from the shattered windows sat glittering in the dark.
“Was this always open?”
“I’m not sure. I’ve never gotten this close. Isn’t this exciting?”
Before I could back away, June took my hand and pulled me inside the building. We were greeted by a gaping hole in the center of the floor. It could have gone down for miles for all I could tell. I imagined this place to be a perfect hideaway for someone to do heroin, and told her so. This excited June, and she whipped around to kiss me with a passion that seemed inappropriate for the situation. She released herself from me, and the glow from her eyes lit up the room. She felt bigger than life.
“You think we’ll find a dead body?”
I ignored her and reached for her hand as the curiosity began to overtake me. There was a stairway that appeared to be the most logical next step. June screamed at the top of her lungs: “Hey! If anyone’s here, keep doing your drugs! Don’t mind us! Really!”
I could feel the weakness of the house’s infrastructure moaning under each step. The air tasted like rotten death. I tried to say something clever or charming but nothing came out.
Upstairs was what was left of the bathroom. Black mold grew across the cracked tiles. A hole fell through the Earth where a toilet must have once stood. The windows were intact but covered with layers of Saran Wrap. The wooden floorboards felt like permeable rubber.
“I could totally buy this place,” June said. She repeated this a few times. “I could turn this place around. I could totally buy this place.” She spun around and smiled at me triumphantly as if we had stumbled upon a rich gold mine. “I could really do something with this place.”
I stepped carefully around loose planks and ran my fingers against the wall. It felt like I was inside the soul of a dead relative. I began to feel very alone.
“I think I wanna leave,” I said.
“But we haven’t even checked to see if there’s a basement!” June squealed, taking off back down the stairs, her voice trailing off with her. “Maybe that’s where they keep the bodies. Or where the junkies are hanging out. Don’t you wanna see dead junkies?”
There was no basement, and no dead body, not even a homeless drug addict. This disappointed June.
“Life is never as exciting as you think it is,” she remarked.
We walked back outside and stood on the porch, watching the Elms sway with the late-winter wind. I could no longer tell if it was cold or not. I was growing sick with confusion and people and whiskey, and all I could think about was another drink to stave off the incoming jag of depression. Whatever effect June’s presence had had on me was quickly losing its efficacy.
“Let’s go back,” I said.
“Fine. I have to pee. Where the hell did I put my shoes?”
“In the car.”
“Oh, okay. Okay, I trust you.”
We headed back into the yellow glare of the streetlights and entered the Porsche. June sat motionless in the driver’s seat for a while, as if expecting something exciting to finally happen. “Y’know, you’re not as fun as I thought you’d be.”
“I get that a lot,” I said.
“But I still like you.”
“Where do you wanna go?”
“I don’t care anymore.”
“Are you hungry?”
“If it gets us out of the car.”
“Okay, I know where to go.”
“Of course you do.”
As we drove down dimly lit streets and through empty intersections, I imagined how life could have been different if I had made fewer mistakes or was born with more intellect than what I was given. I decided that not much would be different.
The loneliness eating away inside me battled with the broken woman sitting to my left, driving far over the speed limit. A thought lodged itself in the front of my mind that I wasn’t sure how to explain away: that death wouldn’t feel so bad right now. Any happiness I’d ever experience would always be ephemeral. The only answer that came to me was the only thing I was ever able to come up with: that it would just have to do.
I never expected much from life. Maybe that was my problem. I tried to bring back the feeling of excitement that came from this expectation of something better, and like so many times before, I was left feeling nothing but emptiness. I looked over and forced myself to take the hand of this woman, and felt nothing but the grasp of another stranger. It was as if the person who was attracted to her had suddenly disappeared behind a vast, dark wall, and I had been thrust back into the world. I no longer knew how to act. I was grasping at the warmth of long-gone ghosts.
We pulled up to the parking lot of the bar we had just met at. June turned off the car, smiled and reached in to kiss me. I failed to reciprocate, letting her lips taste utter indifference before unlocking from mine. Her eyes grew dark. The wrinkles became more pronounced. Her age was showing.
“You don’t like me, do you?”
I looked away, out the window, where a white moth was fluttering aimlessly around the streetlight above us. It glowed, translucent in the orange glimmer.
“Look at me!” she shouted. “I knew it! You don’t like me! What did I do? What did I do this time?”
“You didn’t do anything,” I said, and I knew I was telling the truth. I looked back over cautiously and saw that the blue mirrors staring at me were filling with tears.
“Nothing ever works out.” She choked out the words between small sobs.
I tried to think of something to say, but nothing seemed to be able to convey the complication of what was occurring within me.
“I’m fucking lonely,” she said. The tears were pouring down her face and mascara stained her cheeks like running watercolors. “My brother is dead and—and…he died. My best friend is gone—can you understand that? My husband left me and took everything and I don’t think I’ll ever not be alone again until I die. I just want to feel okay again.”
I looked back into her eyes, silent, and the guilt began hollowing out the inside of my chest. She didn’t want me to speak. She didn’t want me to tell her what she knew was coming. So she continued: “My ex-husband took fucking everything. He took everything and I’m 36 and living with a goddamn roommate like some fucking college student. All my friends are getting married and they have kids, Henry—they have families and lives and I have nothing. I feel like it’s just too late. I’m so used to feeling alone that I don’t know if I can be not—not…alone anymore. And now you’re here and even you don’t like me—a fucking kid doesn’t even like me. And you don’t even have the balls to tell me, you fucking asshole.”
It was then that I realized why I was so attracted to her in the first place. I felt the urge to explain my need to satiate the lonely demon aching inside me, my uncontrollable desire to fill the emptiness lingering in the depths of my being like an injured stray dog; the failure of any attempt with booze or sex or passing romance to keep it from coming back. But any words I could use didn’t seem to matter any longer. So I took her hand like an idiot, and to my surprise, she intertwined her fingers with mine and squeezed. And that seemed to mean more than any words ever could.
A smile appeared on her face and she wiped away the tears and tarnished makeup dressed messily under her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“It’s okay,” I replied. “Nothing lasts forever anyway.”
“Is this the best we’ll ever get?”
“I’m not sure,” I said, “but it’s something.”
“Yeah. I guess it is.”
We both laughed. I didn’t know why we were laughing, but something finally felt good again. I didn’t want to question that anymore.
June leaned her head against my shoulder and held onto my hand with a tight grip. I could feel the tears wetting the top of my shirt.
“I’m happy right now.”
“Me too,” I said.
I turned to look out the window, and the white moth was gone.
Jack Moody is a short story writer, poet and freelance journalist from wherever he happens to be at the time. He has had work published in multiple magazines and journals, including the Saturday Evening Post. He didn't go to college. He likes his privacy. He doesn't have social media. Don't ask him to make one. Contact him at email@example.com
Lewis Deacon was not going home for Christmas. His father was a medical doctor who didn’t recognize a PhD’s claim to the title, his mother was scattershot about any aspect of a holiday other than the themed cocktails, and his brother the lawyer—at least a well-paying profession—was in the throes of a divorce that was getting uglier by the billable hour. His parents were willing witnesses for the prosecution, listing faults of the soon-to-be-former daughter-in-law that just barely eclipsed Lewis’s failure to marry at all.
All of this was pretty stock stuff except that Lewis was also black. So when he was jogging across the median strip on Faculty Row on the Wednesday between Christmas and New Year’s, the police assumed he was casing winter-break-deserted homes, called for backup, and had him sprawled across the trunk of a cruiser before he could point out that his hoodie had the school crest emblazoned on the front.
He called his brother from the police station. No bail, technically, since Lewis wasn’t being formally charged—“We have to be careful during the holiday; you understand”—but released after IDs checked and double-checked, his home address and employment verified. His hamstrings were stiff after the abrupt end to his run and the cheekbone that had met the trunk throbbed when he moved his mouth. Elliott showed up in a suit that probably had even the white lawyers stroking their amicus briefs, necktie stuffed in a pocket like he’d been downtown working late, not interrupting a bowl game marathon and getting dressed to intimidate the desk crew.
“Salam natal,” Elliott greeted him and raised his fist in a Black Power salute. So much for a low-profile exit. “Where’s Magdalena?”
“Puerta Vallarta.” Irrelevant, however; Lewis had never dated a woman he would have called to get him from jail. He went to a counter behind a wire-caged opening, where the sergeant told him he could retrieve his keys.
“Shoulda gone ahead and met the parents.”
“She’s third-generation Venezuelan and fuck you.” In fact, most of the South American was from Magdalena’s father’s side. Her mother was a Jew secular enough to think that naming her children after Catholic saints was hilarious; Magdalena’s activist side was awakened after she got kicked out of Hebrew school when she refused to answer to “Lena” and pursued an argument about why none of Noah’s sons’ wives were called by name. But Magdalena carried forward the genetic thread of some Amazonian ancestor, skin color beyond sunbrown or Aramaic that evoked comparisons to food and erased her mother. In fact, Lewis had never been invited to meet the parents—on this trajectory, a black boyfriend was too stereotypical to deal with unless things got serious.
“Katana wants to get back together.”
Lewis snorted. “She had a blue Christmas.”
“She says she’s pregnant.”
The cop came back with Lewis’s driver’s license and keys in a manila envelope, and Lewis signed three times for the privilege. His wrist was circled with a thin bruise. He wondered how long Elliott and Katana had been separated.
Do the right thing . . . do the right thing . . . crackled through his brain like the alerts on the police scanner.
Elliott paused by the American flag taking up a corner of the lobby. Brass stand, eagle finial, flanked on either side by portraits of the mayor and the governor. “I want to run a little bar on a fucking beach somewhere. Mix mai tais and worry about fishing bait.”
“Do it. We need someplace to go for the holidays.” Lewis held the police station door open for his brother. He straightened his spine, pulled up his hood, and stepped into the night.
Ann Marie Gamble is an editor at an ad agency in the Midwest. In addition to short stories, she writes poetry and screenplays and practices keeping it pithy on Twitter.
When Yamaraja visited the decrepit old jail in Muzaffarpur, he crinkled his parrot-beaked nose in disgust. The cells were cold and cramped. The stench of urine permeated the narrow aisles. Damp patches sprawled and spread across walls. There was only one large window on the far end—green and slatted—and the slivers of dust-speckled light let in were a dull shade of flaxen.
When he reached the eighth cell to the right, Yamaraja squinted his eyes in order to discern the shapes of the three shadowy figures. One was rocking back and forth on his haunches as though in a trance, mumbling incoherently; another squatted over what appeared to be a hole in the ground; and the third—where was he, now? Oh there, all by himself in the corner, slumped against the wall like a limp and lifeless sack of grain, his glass eyes unseeing, his mouth half-open.
Yamaraja cleared his throat once, then twice, and then rapped his stubby gold-ringed fingers against the rusted bars of the cell. Only one of the inmates, the one who had been squatting, stood up and straightened his lungi before throwing the messenger an unselfconscious glance.
“I believe it is the end of the road for the three of you,” Yamaraja stated in a voice grave and sonorous, “but the lords have decided to make an exception in this rare instance. Taking into consideration the hardships you have endured groveling in this hell-hole for a crime you were pressured into committing, the lords have deemed the last twenty years as time served in purgatory.
As a pardon, you have been granted one— and only one— wish each.
“Choose wisely,” Yamaraja continued, twirling the curlicued end of his dense, black mustache. “For it is not in my power to you grant you a second.”
This seemed to excite the first inmate, who gave a loud cry and threw himself at Yamaraja’s feet. “My son… I had longed to see him crawl his way into this world. My son must be a big boy now, married and with sons of his own.”
Yamaraja studied the prostrated man; he appeared to be in his forties, his beards and sideburns graying.
“I wish to be home with my family, and for my tribe to prosper.”
“Ah, well, then so be it,” Yamaraja pronounced, and the first inmate’s wretched form rose and dissipated like departing mist.
The second inmate’s eyes lit up at this spectacle; he scratched his genitals, and proceeded to extricate a rolled bidi from the folds of his loincloth. “It has been years since I have heard Laila Begum’s silken voice, felt her muslin skin against mine,” he mused, lighting the cigarette and holding it between his parched lips. He took a long, lingering drag, the tobacco crackling.
“I wish to taste all the wine and women in Bihar.”
“These earthly desires are yours to claim!” Yamaraja decreed, and in a few moments, the second inmate, too, merged with the sunless air.
The messenger’s eyes now probed the shadows, searching for the third inmate; there he was, draped in a blanket of gloom, his vacant eyes cloudy with cataract.
“You, there; it is your turn. So, will it, and it will be yours.”
These words seemed to breathe life into the man, who straightened his wiry and withering frame, corpse-like and languorous in his movements. Suddenly, he broke out into a feverish fit, shuddering and sweating profusely.
“Sin and suffering is within and without, ours to endure, alone and together. I am a lonely man. We are a lonely people…”
The sun outside had set, and despite the melancholy moonlight that streamed in from the faraway window, darkness now hung like a pall. Yamaraja blinked, confused, taken aback by the man’s drivel.
“I am afraid of being alone,” the third inmate continued, clasping his quivering hands in desperate supplication. “I am afraid of this darkness, consuming me whole. I drift into its eddies, like a dead fish floating out to the sea. And so I pray to the lords—I plead—please return my cellmates to me.”
In all his years traversing the worlds of the living and the departed, Yamaraja had not witnessed a man who voiced his fear of the darkness despite seeming to dwell in its very recesses.
A man who swallowed the darkness, and was swallowed by it. Who wore it like a mantle, as though it were a part of the very fabric of his being.
And in that moment, Yamaraja felt a flicker of unease.
The boundaries separating the fourteen lokas began to blur and dissolve before his firecolored eyes, worlds merging together, overlapping like wave upon wave. And as the two other men began to materialize before him like vaporous clouds gathering before a storm, Yamaraja saw the nether realms rise to meet the heavens and become one with his surroundings.
Was one free from hell, then, if hell was here all along? Was one truly free, if hell was within?
Bhavika Sicka is an emerging writer from Kolkata, India. She has been a finalist for the Write India contest, and her work has appeared in Arkana, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Crab Fat Magazine, and Jabberwock (the literary journal of the Department of English, Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University). She is currently pursuing her MFA at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, and is a fiction reader for Barely South Review.
One of Jim's main activities was stick-fighting. I didn't meet him through sticks, however, but through music. I'd played several gigs with my group, the Warm Club, at a little jazz-oriented bar and casino in a small town in Nevada—which to me means anything other than Las Vegas, Reno, and Carson City—and he never missed one of our shows. Turned out he played some pretty mean Swing guitar, so I jammed with him a few times at his home. That's how I met his wife, Molly.
Molly worked as a nurse at the little local hospital and shared a better-than-average tract house on the edge of town with Jim and his guitar and his sticks. She was two years younger than Jim and a year older than I was. As I got to know them better, I discovered that they were both really nice folks. We became good friends, and I stayed with them whenever I was in that area. Jim put a good deal of time and effort into teaching me to wield a quarterstaff. I acquired some skill with the staves, but never attained Jim's expertise or enthusiasm. I, in turn, contributed to his skills and repertory on the guitar. Molly enjoyed our music and tolerated our exercises with the sticks.
Even more than Jim, who was a thoughtful guy, Molly gave a great deal of thought to the world around her, near and far, physical and intellectual. Her soft Southern country accent gave an ironic twist to her incisive and well-reasoned opinions. The contradictions only made her more fascinating. Generally an open and happy person, Molly seemed to carry a sadness within her that she never expressed.
One Friday morning, after I'd played a Thursday night show and Molly had worked a night shift at the hospital, she and I sat and chatted over coffee after sharing breakfast. We'd shared such mornings several times over the previous five or six years, often with Jim and sometimes—on weekdays—without. On this early Spring morning, we got to talking about relationships and how people—and, specifically, we—lived our lives. Molly surprised me by saying her biggest regret was not having had any children. I knew Molly liked children, 'cause I'd seen her with neighbors' kids and friends' kids. As I got up and re-filled our coffee cups, I asked her why she hadn't.
Neither Jim nor Molly had ever mentioned the topic before, as far as I could remember, and I wondered if there might be some medical or other physical problem with either her or Jim. It turned out Jim didn't (and still doesn't) like children, anybody's children. He absolutely refused to raise a child or have any of his own. When Molly'd met Jim and fell in love, she'd figured that didn't matter. Since then, she'd found it did.
“Besides,” she said, “it's too late, now.”
Molly was in her early thirties, the picture of health, and beautiful beyond my meager powers of description. I therefore wondered what she meant by “too late” and said so.
“A woman can't go and start havin' babies at my age,” she said, “too much risk for the baby—for both, really. And I'm married to Jim, and there's no way anyone's gonna change his mind on that topic.”
“Yeah, I get that about Jim,” I said, “but there's no way you're too old to have a first baby. I've known, and known of, several women who've had their first baby way older than you—a couple of 'em in their forties.”
“Well, even if age weren't an issue, I'm still married to Jim. I married him for better or for worse. This is “worse”, but we manage OK together, and I still have a better life than most people.”
I couldn't argue with that and didn't, and I didn't volunteer to initiate a pregnancy with her, much though I wanted to. I've wondered a few times since then if she was issuing a silent plea to me to take her away and start a baby with her. We were fond of each other, and she knew I liked children and had begun thinking about having a family. We both liked and respected Jim too much ever to get involved in that way, though, so she probably wasn't.
The next time I saw them was more than half a year later and closer to home. Jim had applied for and obtained a job as a Deputy District Ranger on the Ochoco National Forest, and Molly had exploited the portability of her nursing skills to move to a job at Pioneer Memorial Hospital (this was before Pioneer had been gobbled up by the expanding St. Charles medical empire). They had bought a beautifully restored older home in a nice neighborhood in Prineville. Their new home stood five-and-a-half hours drive from my place, compared with sixteen hours to their previous home, but my touring schedule meant I didn't see them much more often.
Molly and I never discussed children again, although I could see a yearning in her eyes every time I visited Prineville. I stayed with Jim and Molly a couple times a year when I had gigs in Bend, and stopped and visited them—often spending a night—on my way to and from gigs in Idaho and Nevada and points east. They even drove to Portland a couple of times to catch my shows there. That pleasant state of affairs last three or four years, until an opportunity to get out of the entertainment industry (I love making music but hate being on the road) led me to move overseas. I wrote a few times, and so did they, but we lost touch after another three or four years. If we'd had email back then, we might've managed to stay in touch, but that lay a few years in the future. I felt bad about losing contact with them, when I thought about it, but was busy with my new job and new life and new home.
Seven years after I'd emigrated, I'd decided to change jobs and, within my new home country, locations. Seizing the opportunity to re-charge my bank account, I got my old agency to book a tour of the West Coast festivals and jazz clubs. I managed to get my old bass player and one of my old guitar players, and they agreed on a piano player I knew and a second guitar player I didn't to round out the group. I arrived in the U.S. ten days before the first gig, and we had plenty of time to practise ourselves into good shape for the tour.
My agent had outdone himself and got us hired for two shows at the PDX Jazz Festival in Portland—one at the beginning and one eleven days later near the end—with a show at the Seaside Jazz Festival in between. Three months later, we had just finished a set at a festival just south of downtown Salem, when a slender man wearing reflective sunglasses walked up and said, “That was the hottest show ever.” I thanked him and went on talking to the band about our next show. The man stood in the same spot until I finished, then asked “You still doing any stick work?”
Until that moment, I hadn't realized our fan was my old friend Jim. The shades, eight more years, and the addition of a neatly trimmed goatee hadn't changed his appearance much, but enough to keep me ignorant until he asked about sticks. I set down my violin case and hugged him, and we found a quiet corner to sit and talk. And talk. And talk. Jim enjoyed catching up with all my news, such as it was, and enjoyed hearing most of his. I felt surprised and dismayed to learn that he and Molly were no longer together.
Apparently, Jim and Molly had drifted apart to the point that he got involved with someone else—Elise, a woman from work to whom he introduced me later. I felt doubly sad that Jim had no news of Molly, didn't know where she was or what she was doing. His last contact, he said, occurred a little over two years ago. He said he understood she'd met someone and, Jim thought, re-married. No, he told me, they hadn't had any children. I had to admit that I hadn't wielded a quarterstaff since I'd left Oregon. I gave Jim my 'phone number and email address, and we promised to keep in touch—and he said he'd let me know, if he heard any news of Molly.
Educated and graduated as a scientist and a mathematician, Harlan Yarbrough has made his living as a full-time professional entertainer (singer and musician) most of his life, including a stint as a regular member of the Grand Ole Opry. His many attempts to escape from the entertainment industry have led him to work as a librarian, a teacher of physics, and a city planner among other occupations. He emigrated to New Zealand in the 1990s and now lives in Bhutan, but often returns to the US (and Europe) to perform.
It was alive. The window frame shook under her arms from the music as she peered down and out at the people walking and laughing and eating and drinking. Three stories up and she could still make out the glisten of the road awash with left-over beer, she could smell it. She had never tasted it. Heads milled around: golden, red, pink, brown, hats. An sat on a crate, surrounded by a dozen other, and boxes, stuffed bags, cases. It was the only room in the house with open, accessible windows.
Her room was on the second floor and the windows remained closed. The smoke and air made her grandmother’s chest cough worse, and the voices and sounds were too much for her middle-aged aunt. The first floor held their shop with hangers of patterned clothes and scrawled prices on paper. It was a pattern mimicked by every two other shop on their small street. The rest sold pickled eggs and nuts, with a toothless sleeping tobacco seller filling in the gap. The biggest pull on their street was the white tiled corner room with red stools marking the sidewalk. It served big bowls of steam and plastic glasses of fresh beer from four to midnight.
It was one golden head she sought, curly with three shades of brown and gold, almost as long as hers. He had sat down on the little red stool yesterday, one of a noisy group of all colours but her own. She had watched him eat as she rearranged the banana and watermelon shirts according to fruit. She had watched him smile and laugh and touch other women and men in what was it, camaraderie? She saw him telling stories. She saw him pause outside their shop while she sat inside thinking about him. She heard her youngest brother call out to him.
‘Hey man. What’s up with all of these fruit?’
‘Look so good man! Traditional clothe, ladies like so much.’
She stood up when she heard him laugh and shake his head and look around. His friends and her brother were engaged in money talks. She sidled up closer, not wanting to make a sound or breathe too loud. Her brother’s voice was like a whip when he called out her name. Still invisible, she got the matching banana shorts, and held them out to her brother.
More haggling. She stayed behind, looking busy, her face her brother’s twin; longer hair, without the smile. There was a plaque in their shop that read ‘Wherever you go, go with all your heart.’ He stared at it, looking contemplative. There were three girls in the shop, moving across racks, speaking in languages she didn’t understand; and two other men with bare arms having a kick at their clothes.
‘Drew, do I look fruity?’
Drew, his name was Drew, Drew, Drew. He looked at her, maybe he had sensed her looking, and smiled. She froze, heart in her throat, choking. She smiled back, exhaled.
And then they had left, with one shirt and a pair of shorts, banana style, free-size.
By the window, she saw all sorts of heads, all sorts of stories, but it was only one that her eyes sought tonight. She stayed there watching until the lights on the street went out; the chairs and tables folded and kept away; and the strollers became infrequent groups laughing, women walking by fast, couples kissing, touching. It was deep into the night when she went to lie down on her straight, hard bed, thoughts of his, Drew’s hands on her thighs, hitting them lightly as he told her a joke. Her windows remained closed to the sights and sounds of outside, her grandmother coughing, aunt snoring.
She stood washing dishes, lathering the front, the back, putting the plate down on the stack to the right.
‘Maybe we’ll find you a nice young man from your year at the party, oy?’
An bobbed her head, which could mean anything, and kept on turning the plate around in her hands. There was nothing to say. It felt a little like cheating, if that’s what cheating felt like; hearing those words as she ran her soapy hands under the water, watching the rivets flow down on her skin.
Her father laughed, grunted, turning to his eldest son. Her brother was getting married, moving to a new neighbourhood, their home too narrow for the family he wanted to make.
She was next. She’d be married soon to someone, some business owner like her father maybe. He’d take her to bars and she would try beer and she would help out in his shop and arrange his racks.
There was a plaque in their kitchen that read, ‘Without feelings of respect, what is there to distinguish men from beasts?’
It felt a little like cheating.
It was around 11.30pm that her heart froze. She gaped, throwing her head out of the window and blinked stupidly, as if trying to get rid of an illusion. Golden, brown, curly Drew, Drew. She saw him sit down on the little red stool, accompanied by two other men, laughing, waving for the boy.
She just had to.
She went to the bathroom, staring at her face while her heart thudded in her ears. She couldn’t risk going into her room to change. She tied her hair half up like she saw on the streets. She frowned at her clothes. A black tank and pajamas. Her heart beat louder.
There was no time. An crept out of the narrow house, stopping by the storeroom to exchange her pajamas for a pair of watermelon shorts.
He was done eating by the time she got down and crouched in the darkness of one of the alleys. She watched him get up and shake out his limbs. She watched him smile and talk, and leaned forward, wanting to catch his words. But just like that, he was turning away, walking away.
It was like a slap to her chest. She was there, but he was walking away. She smacked her head and said a prayer to Ma, and slipped out as fast as she could out of the street that housed her.
It was alive. People rushed around chasing all directions, the music louder, and she was one of them in her watermelon shorts and hair half up-down.
He turned, and she followed at a distance. He stopped outside two brown doors with a sloping name outside and in he went with his friends. She stopped. The doorman looked at her, looked at her face and her shorts and smiled at her wickedly before holding the door open.
There was more smoke inside than there was outside. Her legs walked inside the pub, turning sideways to cross people and tables without chairs. He was sitting on a stool opposite the bar with his friends, holding a green bottle to his lips. Her heart continued its beat.
Who was she?
An picked up a green bottle as she moved along. She could smell it, could feel the liquid swill at the bottom. She moved through the throng, pausing behind the bar. There were so many people. Slowly, daringly, pushing everything in her in to this moment, her back found the wall. Right next to him.
She stood, holding the beer just away from her lips, staring, staring at nothing in the smoke, painfully aware of his body right next to hers, almost at par.
‘Do you want sit down?’
His eyes were brown like hers, but a little speckled, muddy. She looked around to see if there was someone else, but it was just her. He was smiling. There was nothing else to be done.
She nodded and she hoisted herself up on the stool as he slipped out, looming over her, smelling a little bit salty. The empty bottle in her hand became heavy and she put it on the table as he raised his hand, put it down, and then raised it to his hair.
‘I’m Andrew, but you may call me Drew.’
‘Maybe its fate!’ one of his friends at the table barked and laughed easily.
She was grateful for the dark as she learnt everyone’s names, Drew, An-Drew right next to her. They had seen that she was from around here and wanted to know where to eat, what to see, what it meant when her people did that. She told them and she felt herself slip into a new girl, a different An, especially when An-drew sat down next to her on a seat someone vacated, and pulled his stool close. He was ‘half-British, quarter everything else’ and had a little stutter and golden hair running from palm to arm. He looked 26, had been traveling the world for 6 months, and said it was the best decision he had ever made. She pulled up her watermelon shorts a little bit.
‘Wherever you go, go with all your heart, said wise man Confucius,’ said An, willing herself to look straight at his face.
She saw his composure slip, felt his eyes return her gaze with an added intensity.
‘Maybe it is fate,’ he said, his stutter more pronounced, and he scooted his stool closer to tell her how he had read these words in a shop, and how it was a philosophy so close to his heart. Her own heart squirmed a little bit, waiting for the recognition that did not come, noticing his hand on the table now, near hers.
‘Look, your beer is empty, let me help us to another.’
There was an empty seat in front of her before she could protest. The people around her suddenly became louder and more real and more rushed and she hurriedly put her empty bottle on his stool for fear of someone else, anyone else taking his spot.
He laughed when he came back (had her actions been for that sound?) and gave her another green bottle, cold. She held it close to her but he clinked it anyway and took a sip. She followed suit, just letting the drink wash her lips, getting some in her mouth and it was rancid but cold, and she put the back of her hand against her mouth so that she could push it down.
She could feel a rabid excitement within her. She took another awful sip. He was telling her a story but it was even louder now, and the beer tasted strong and his face was strewn with moles and freckles. She kept nodding and sipping. His friends had turned away from them by now, and his stool was even closer. She needed to have a plan, needed to know her next few steps before home time.
‘I am so glad I met you!’ he leaned over to speak in her ear, his hair brushing her shoulder. She grinned toothily, elated (though she hadn’t said much in all this time). ‘Do you want to get out of here?’
An looked at him confused, heart plummeting. He stuttered again, ‘I meant, would you like to go somewhere else?’
This was wild, this race of plunging and rising emotions. His hand stroked her knee, so swiftly that it could have been an accident.
‘I have to go home.’ She saw him straighten up and move back as if he’d just finished his meal. This could not be the end, please no, but this night could not go on like this.
‘But,’ she paused to recollect, for effect, ‘I want you to be everything that’s you, deep at the center of your being.’ She placed a hand on his thigh as she got up, for support, for sparks. She waved her goodbyes.
An started running when the door to the pub closed behind her, and didn’t stop until she was upstairs by the third floor storeroom window, tears of thrill escaping her eyes.
There was a plaque on their staircase that read, ‘To see and listen to the wicked is already the beginning of wickedness.’
Confucius had something to say about everything.
She had gotten four measured slaps across her cheek from her aunt for waking up late. She kept her eyes lowered in apology as was custom, and the day went on as usual, besides the fact that today she was floating.
She checked his profile before she lit the stove, after she put the rice on boil, constantly as she waited. She scrolled through his pictures as she dusted and wiped, pausing every few minutes to check if he was online. Her day really began at 4pm when he messaged her, just as it was time to oil her grandmother’s aching legs. It was the quickest, most disrespectful massage she had ever given her Bà nội.
It was awkward pleasantries, a nervous dance, but this was real, and daydreams did come true.
‘If you look into your own heart, and you find nothing wrong there, what is there to worry about? What is there to fear?’ An had kept this one waiting for Drew. The response was worthy.
‘What is in your heart?’
There was longing and fear and an itch to run. There was hope, along with a calm acceptance. Right now though, filled to the brim, there was only tall, golden Andrew.
‘A desire to experience.'
They made plans to meet by the lake next night, and she boldly suggested midnight. When no one would know she was away and her hours weren’t owed to her family.
There was always so much to do.
It was a giddy, giggly An who helped around at the store that evening. It was a happy, dreamy An that helped her younger brother practice his grammar and handwriting. ‘The superior man, while his parents are alive, reverently nourishes them; and, when they are dead, reverently sacrifices to them. His thought to the end of his life is how not to disgrace them,’ he copied in his lined notebook, with An interjecting in intervals to correct a word, a letter.
She had sniffed her bra before she snuck out, trying to be prepared for most contingencies. She had however forgotten the mosquito repellent, and the whizzing little monsters attacked her bare legs as she tried to ignore them and be fully present for the man next to her.
He had brought beer in cans for them, and had compared her to the lilies they sat next to. She had slowly been emptying her can in the same bush.
There was another couple sitting to her left, to a distance. Together they were the loudest in the night time quiet of the lake. There were laughed protests (from the girl), and other expressiveness. A moonlit water body was supposed to be a romantic place.
An felt a little nervous tonight. She had imagined this very moment hundreds of times since yesterday. His hand had started off with holding just the tip of her fingers but it was now around her arm. She felt small and soft, cradled as she was, but a little strange too, for it wasn’t really easy for her to move.
He had asked her about her siblings (three brothers), her house (three stories but narrow, connected through courtyards to so many of the same), her occupation. The last one she didn’t give away, not wanting to share that she was the girl from the shop with the plaque. The one he hadn’t quite seen.
He had two elder sisters, had lived in multiple flats, and had been everything from a clerk to a groom. Their bodies were so close that the other couple had disappeared from her vision. She could still hear them shriek. He was so close that she could just see details, not Andrew. She could make out the golden hair on his face before he kissed her, turning her to fit into both his arms. He kissed her slowly on her mouth and around it. There were no explosions, it was just a mouth, and it was nice to be kissed. He held her neck and kissed her behind the ear and his lips went down her neck and nibbled. She was kissing Drew. Her hands clenched his arms.
An and Drew sat there for a while, rocking, not too wild, but getting increasingly disheveled. An had all but disappeared into his arms and chest, being held and caressed and touched and moved. She had tried to do the same but sometimes she would freeze when his hands ventured too deep, and then he would stop and move on to other territories.
It started to drizzle. He liked her lips but she liked him on her ears and neck and she would nudge him in the right direction, now her knees around his waist.
It started to rain. His hands were somehow two layers beneath her shirt, and she felt a new, wilder thrill rise as rainwater made its way down her breasts. She feared it.
‘We should go.’
An could see the other couple scrambling with their things up towards the road. Andrew held her hand, grabbed the last can, and they made their way quick.
‘I have to get home,’ she said before he could ask.
She could see his objection even in the rain, but he nodded and held her hand and walked by her side to drop her home.
They could make out the other couple in the distance, the man leading her away. An led Andrew under the awnings of dark, rapidly emptying streets, and onto one at a little distance from her house.
She sensed his hesitation again as he kissed her with one hand around her neck but she pulled away. An slipped in through a curtain and made her way out of small courtyards and onto another street, finding the sneakiest, driest way home.
What did she even want?
There was a tiny fire that kindled in her body that made it difficult for her to focus. Until she heard the shrieks. These shrieks were not friendly or pleasant. Her heart screamed ‘No!’ but her mind got the better of it and she slid up to the little alley where she had heard the girl scream.
It was them, the other couple. The girl was white with big eyes and she breathed heavily, holding a green, broken glass bottle in her hand. Her bra was hanging out of her shirt. The man lay on his side on the floor, wet, unmoving.
An stepped forward to look at the girl who returned her gaze, lowered the bottle and turned to walk away.
Even though it was wet and slippery, An ran rest of the way home.
He had messaged her the next morning while she was still washing the breakfast dishes.
An made rice, salad and meat for lunch, and she was still eating when he messaged her again.
‘It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.’ He had found her one too then.
It made her feel a little bit sick, and she didn’t reply to that message either, vigorously scrubbing each lunch plate, and placing it on the stack to the right.
Fizza Sohail is a young woman from Pakistan of age 28, who has been resisting her family's attempts to get her married for the past 10 years. Besides being a fighter, she is also a feminist, an educator, and a learner.
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