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Fiction - The Legendary
Drew Liu Vani Rao Jessica Barnett
Jia Din Gj Hart Melissa Ostrum
Laura Stout Joe Fleck Christopher James
Jay Hodgkins Andrew Hogan George Keenen



One Last Story
by Drew Liu
 
I have been a sort-of-birch-tree for one year, because I don’t look like any birch tree you find on google pictures, because I have no roots, no branches and no canopies. Figuratively, I am a birch tree, or I just have some features of a birch tree. It’s hard to get my words straight now.
    
My dad comes to my tree house every week and calls from below with my lunch or dinner—a bottle of water and a few slices of bread. I don’t eat much. For most of the time, I am sitting up there with my eyes closed and legs crossed, meditating or not—I don’t know. Then his voice retrieves me back. So I climb down the tree, take his basket and turn around. He always says, “June, you have more leaves on your arms than last time.”
       
“Because I am a tree.” He has grown used to my cold voice. I shed leaves. Last winter, after all the leaves died, I looked like a normal kid. He insisted on taking me home but the next day, I snuck back. That’s just shedding, not transformation into a normal person.
        
My mom was found lying in the kitchen thirteen months ago, mouth wide open with pointed incisors sticking out. Her hirsute arms stretched in the direction of the drawer where dried meat was stored. Dead. In the third stage of her transformation. She died when she searched for food on her own. Dad kept his usual face, cold and emotionless. I cried. But I could do nothing. Three days later, my mom went through the final stage of transformation—she became ashes.
        
Three years ago, we were both humans. I was a normal high school kid, and she was a normal mom who cooked for me and picked me up. Then one day, she told me she had a tumor in her brain. No mom in this world would pull her car off in front of a high school, wait for her kid out and tell that kid on their drive home that she had a tumor. But she did. The traffic was busy that day, so she kept pressing the horn while I kept pressing my knuckles. It didn’t work. I cried.
         
She fell rapidly. The tumor grew bigger. The brain scan showed that it was the same size as a goose egg. That goose egg was not going to choke her in throat but in brain. She couldn’t move or speak clearly after a few months of the discovery and my dad said it was the worst kind of tumor that wrecks your language and motion nerve systems.
        
I realized there had been symptoms I hadn’t noticed before. My mom had become slower in speaking since my last year in middle school. She stammered when she got angry.
         
My mom couldn’t move or speak clearly but lied under the white sheets in hospital. She silently pressed my fingers. 
        
My dad didn’t change much. He went to his lab every day and came back late. He visited mom every other day. He wasn’t good at speaking. He didn’t have a tumor but he just wasn’t good at organizing words in a more meaningful order. He sat at her bed and pressed her fingers and mine. My mom’s plump, round face was tapered into some ghastly shape. My dad was always ghastly. His eyes gloomy and his face gaunt. He was some biologist who went to lab, pressing a pinch of skin tissue here and a mess of mouse flesh there. Then he pressed our hands. I didn’t hate him. He was never really close or really distant from us. He was there, my dad, my mom’s husband.
         
I think I didn’t hate him even when he decided to take mom home one day. It was almost two years ago from now. He drove both of us home in mom’s Honda. He cooked our dinner: soup, traditional Chinese fried peppers and scrambled eggs. My mom sat in a wheelchair and I fed her. He offered to help but I refused. He wasn’t good at taking care of anybody, including himself. Then I wiped my mom’s body with rinsed towels and tucked her under her blankets.
         
The next day my mom started to hop around. Her eyes were vaguely red. I called her. She only looked back at me and hopped away. She crouched in the garden, sneezed at the grass and tried to lick it. She looked like a rabbit. My dad came up to me, emotionless, like a statue. What did you do to her? I asked him. No, I actually boomed at him.
         
I put some potion in her soup yesterday.
         
What potion?
         
A potion that can transform her.
         
Why?
        
I can’t forebear to see her lying like dead in that bed every day. Like she can’t even move or wipe herself. You know what kind of woman she is. She can’t even stand herself. I know she is painful. So are you and I. I want to see her happy.
       
This was his longest speech in my entire life. I didn’t know if he had ever coaxed such long sentences for mom when they dated. Maybe not. How did you get it? I asked.
        
I made it.
       
He stayed in the lab all day and visited mom every other day. To make this potion, that left us a human-rabbit.
       
My mom grew longer and thicker front teeth which protruded out whenever she smiled. She ate carrots and raw, dry noodles. She didn’t sit with us at the dining table but at a corner in the dining hall. She crunched on her food noisily.
     
Why could she move?
      
That’s why I transformed her. I want her to move. Though she can’t move, she is well conscious, so her brain will still beacon her body to move. This incongruity between the body and the mind will stimulate certain chemicals in her that try to enable her movements. But these chemicals are always too weak to be effective. So I created the potion to amplify the power of these chemicals.
      
I asked him, so what?
      
When these chemicals were strengthened, they would awaken the most primitive and wildest instincts in human bodies, like animal instincts. They will enable her to move like an animal at the cost of human reason. She became less human.
       
Can they kill the tumor?
       
No, they are not in the immune system. That’s why I can’t cure her but only strengthen them. That’s the best I can do.
       
So you just traded her human reasons for some animal spirits that enable her to move?
      
He nodded. We slipped back into silence. My mom finished crunching on her carrots and started to tumble on the floor. I didn’t know what to make of her. I could call her mom, but she wasn’t.
     
Her days as a rabbit passed. Her eyes shone like real rubies. Her front teeth became strong enough to sink through carrots. Sometimes I would call her, she would hop to me and snuggle her head into my chest. She didn’t know anything about tumor and death. She didn’t know how to press my fingers. She only ate carrots and snuggled with me. White hair on her arm became longer and thicker. When I touched it, she groaned with satisfaction. Once I even saw her in the garden, plucking grass with her claw-like hands, and thrust a handful into her mouth. I ran up to her and snatched the grass out from between her teeth. She bit my fingers. I didn’t scream but cried. Like the first time I cried in her car. She snorted at me and hunched her back. The next minute, she ran back into the house.
        
She bit me. I told my dad.
        
Why?
        
She was eating grass and I was trying to take it out of her mouth.
        
Let her be.
        
What do you mean? Let her be? Let her eat grass without the least dignity as a human being? I couldn’t quench my anger anymore. I wouldn’t believe this man was my dad.
       
But she was happy then. Wasn’t she?
       
My mom went through the second stage of transformation during the fourth month as a rabbit. She became a retriever. Her fangs stuck out. My dad said the transformation into the second stage depended on the body’s health condition. If it deteriorated, then more chemicals were released and stimulated, so the body became wilder.
        
I wished he hadn’t explained. I wished he hadn’t really treated my mom as a chunk of mouse flesh piled up on his operation desk in his lab. He watched mom. He must have been taking mental records of her living habits for his research. He was cold, emotionless.
         
My mom became restless after this transformation. She always wanted to go out. Though she still ran on foot, she liked to squat a lot more with her tongue stretching out sometimes. I was not strong enough to take her out on my own. Her forearms were full of strength, suitable for digging holes on the ground and snatching prey. She needed a prairie. Whenever my dad and I took her out together, we would cuff her hands tightly with our own. She didn’t press my hands but struggled and grappled and sometimes bent her head to bite my hands. I had two deep gashes on my hands but luckily, neither she nor I needed to be sent to the vet. We always took her to the piazza at night. There were few people and ample space for her to run. She ran wildly and howled to the moon. Every time she squatted down for rest, I would walk up to her and wipe her sweats. She then looked me in the eye and smiled. That’s when I knew she was my mom. A retriever couldn’t smile. But my mom could.
             
We took her out almost every day. One day, I had to buy meat for her so I couldn’t go. My dad offered to do this on his own. Of course, I couldn’t trust him. But he insisted. My mom was restless bumping her body against the door and almost turning the knob. So I said ok.
           
It was obviously not okay. My mom was missing. My dad texted me when I came back home. He said my mom was running on the piazza and just disappeared. I ran to the piazza. My dad was yelling and running around for her in the manner of looking for a pet dog. I despised him. I didn’t say a single word but rummaged through every single street, building, corner and trash can near the piazza.
       
The wind stroke past my face and coldness made me more than conscious of the possible results of losing her. I didn’t want to read about her in the newspaper under the title: Animal or Human? New Discovery! I didn’t want to be told a few months later that she was found lying on some other biologist’s operation desk, stomach severed. I have to find her! The thought pummeled firmly to me.
      
We spent a whole night looking for her and ended up finding her sprawling near a trash can patting another dog in her arms. The dog freed himself from her arms when he saw us. My retriever-mom looked up at me in great shock. She didn’t say anything but crooked and wagged her index finger like a dog did with its tail.
          
The next day, I didn’t go to school but snuck into my dad’s lab. When he went to the bathroom, I found the potion and drank it. It wasn’t hard to find at all. A tag propped to it, said “For Lina.” That’s my mom’s name. I stood in the middle of the lab and held the empty vial to him. His face dropped. His muscles trembled.  What did you do?
           
He wasn’t asking but thundering at me. I drank it, if that’s what you want, dad. I can’t let mom live like that alone.
          
Why did you drink it? Tell me why! He grabbed my shoulders and started to sway me back and fro. My stomach was bellowing.
          
Because you stole mom’s dignity and I can’t forgive myself seeing her suffering like this and doing nothing about it.
         
I didn’t steal her dignity. I am giving her dignity! Do you think she has dignity lying in that bed every day like a corpse?
        
Then do you think she has dignity rampaging around like a dog? Without the least sense of what she is doing! I stormed out of the door and heard my dead roaring behind me. I had drunk the potion, whatever.
        
My mom went into her third stage as a wolf and I started my first stage of transformation. Instead of turning into an animal, I became a sunflower. I thought the reason why I didn’t become an animal was that I didn’t have a cancer and I could move. So there were few chemicals in my system for me to morph into an animal. I didn’t have roots or petals or tubes that produced spores. But I did like sunshine and would turn my head to it despite myself. I also attracted bees and butterflies somehow. This was strange because I had never seen sunflowers attracting these creatures before.
        
I couldn’t rein my mom now. My arms were powerless like strings of a flower. My mom grew longer fangs and sharper nails. She wanted more meat than ever, but she didn’t turn on me or my dad. Maybe she was still there. Consciously and subconsciously. There wasn’t much difference between her second stage and third except for more meat and longer fangs and nails. She would still love to go out at night and run. But she rested more frequently. When I tried to hold her from back, she wouldn’t resist too much. When I tried to pat her head, she would moan somehow pliantly. I would always cry green tears as my mom’s health got worse.
        
My dad was silent. He would walk out with us but only watched us from distance. His eyes looked like still water. A coward. He was the only one in this family who didn’t drink the potion but tricked the other two into drinking it. Maybe he didn’t trick me. But somehow he did.
         
My mom became more and more restless. She ate more meat while I ate less. I hated rainy days and started to sit still for most of the time. But my reason didn’t fade away. I was conscious of everything—how my mom gasped deeply for breath every time after she finished her exercises and how my dad supported his chin with his hands overlapping.
        
I think my story is coming to an end. That day was the first day of forever bereavement in my life. I sat in my room, still, though I was conscious of all the rummaging in the kitchen. My body was hard to move. Then when I finally came to the kitchen, well, I think I had to relive the beginning of this story. “Thirteen months ago, my mom was found lying in the kitchen…” Death marked the ending of her story. Death marks the ending of everyone’s story. A matter of time.
        
After that, you know I went through the second stage of my transformation, I became a birch tree and moved to the tree house on another birch tree in the forest.
       
I have been a birch tree since then. I have more and more leaves growing out and become stiller. I don’t want to live with my dad because he never belonged to my species. When I was a kid, he was an adult. When my mom and I drank the potion, he didn’t. When I moved out, he only begged me to go back. He sucks. He stole my mom’s dignity and makes me a damn plant.
      
He never loves anybody. He is a selfish bitch. I can never believe his crap that he invented the potion for my mom. He did it just for his own triumph.
      
My story is coming to an end. I don’t know when my next transformation will take place or will it really happen?
      
There is nothing I am sure about and want to be sure about.
      
Because I am a birch tree.


Drew Liu lives in Baltimore and majors in Writing Seminars in Johns Hopkins University. She is a co-editor for Word Planet, a Hopkins-based community that helps students with creative writing.

Lego House
by Vani Rao

(Can a monkey assemble Lego pieces?)

Maya was in a particularly good mood this evening. She rolled her windows down and hummed as she drove home from work. After three months of brutally long hours, she was going home early.

It couldn’t have been easy for her twelve year old daughter Chitra.  “I’ll make it up to her” Maya thought as she turned into her Piscataway neighborhood. Raghu had called her earlier in the day to tell her he would be away for a few days.

The neighborhood was awash in summer colors – green lawns and roses in full bloom. Folks worked in the garden or sat on their porches drinking cold beer. Maya pulled into the garage.  She noticed that the side door leading into the backyard was open. She walked towards the door, her stilettos clacking loudly on the hard garage floor. Outside, she saw Chitra planting stakes in the vegetable garden and carefully tying the tomato and bean stalks to it.

“Hi baby” she called out.

Chitra gave a slight wave without turning. Maya shook her head. Chitra was becoming increasingly moody, almost hostile, of late.

“I’m going in, Chitra. Don’t be late” she said. No response.

She shrugged and went inside. A sink full of dirty dishes greeted her. Maya opened the window over the sink and started working on the dishes.

She watched Chitra in the garden. The printed shorts and t-shirt stretched over her buttocks and back as she bent forward to plant the stakes. Her pony tail swung back and forth as she worked. “She’s beautiful” thought Maya with wonder. She smiled, feeling like a sculptor who steps back from his work halfway through and realizes that he has a masterpiece in the works.

She looked at the sprawling backyard and thought: “So much better than a one-bedroom Edison apartment”. Chitra was barely four when her first husband was diagnosed with cancer. He succumbed a year later but the out-of-pocket expenses had nearly left Maya bankrupt. She had raised Chitra alone until two years ago when she had married Raghu, an Engineer like her, and together they had bought this sprawling suburban house and filled it with furniture from Ethan Allen.

It was quiet except for the distant shrieks of children at play. She felt peaceful, watching her daughter. A car pulled up next door. It sounded close, as if it were pulling up on their driveway. Chitra, who had been crouching over a tomato plant, paused and looked up. Her body was rigid as she looked over her shoulder at the garage door – one, two, three beats. Then perhaps realizing that the car was her neighbor’s she went back to her plant.

Maya looked at her, frozen and unmoving, holding the dish and sponge in her hands, forgetting to breathe. Her mind was blank, as if refusing to process what the eyes had seen. Maya shook her head. “It’s my imagination. The mind’s a monkey” she thought. Besides, such things did not happen in the Indian community. Did it?

A seemingly random thought bloomed in Maya’s mind: “Oh God. If it is so…then I have to start from scratch, all over again”. Her shoulders slumped and a wave of depression filled her heart. She looked at her daughter and her blossoming womanhood and silently screamed: “Don’t ruin it this life”. And for a split second hatred coursed through her veins, making them throb.

Chitra finished tying the last plant and headed back to the kitchen peeling off her garden gloves. She took her muddy shoes off and paddled barefoot into the kitchen. She passed Maya without glancing at her and went to the cereal cabinet.

“Where is he?” asked Chitra.

When Maya had introduced Chitra to Raghu, he had told her “You can call me uncle or even just Raghu if you wish”. But Chitra had abruptly stopped saying his name for a few months now.

“He had to go to Boston- some office emergency. He will be gone for a few days”

Maya felt, with the preternatural instinct of a parent, felt Chitra let her breath out in a silent sigh of relief. She heard Chitra putting things on the table - cereal, bowl, spoon, milk – and every sound she made sounded deafeningly loud to Maya.

Thump, thump, thump. Chitra’s hands thumped on the counter as she ate. Maya felt the walls of the house slip away and she found herself back in the ultrasound room, looking at the blip on the screen that would be Chitra and listening to the steady, rhythmic thump of the baby’s heart. She had stared at the screen, the world ceasing to exist except for her heart beating in sync with the life growing within her. She whispered to her unborn child: “Be safe”.

Chitra had stopped the thumping and was now softly tapping the counter with the tip of her index finger. It sounded like clicks to Maya. And all the scattered thoughts in her mind, even ones that had been swiftly sent to the depths of her subconscious, now fell into place one by one. Her realization that Raghu was not just an introvert but a loner (so what, still a good guy), his willingness to watch Chitra so Maya could work (jackpot, girl!), Chitra’s increasing moodiness and withdrawal (pre-teen angst), her avoidance of Raghu at all times, and finally her sudden call on one of Maya’s all-nighters screaming and sobbing and demanding to know why she was always working late (I’m doing this for you, baby). And on and on her mind arranged her thoughts- like Lego pieces clicking into place.

She had finished washing all the dishes. The sink was clean now. Chitra was no longer tapping and the only sound was the soft clinking of the spoon against the bowl. Maya turned. Chitra was eating her cereal exactly like she had always done, even as a little girl – never taking her eyes off the bowl.

“Chitra” Maya called out softly as she walked toward her daughter.


Vani Rao bio forthcoming.

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Flycatcher
by Jessica Barnett
   
They were in the hotel room waiting to leave for supper in a nearby restaurant, the only one along Wilshire Boulevard that encourages men to wear at least a jacket, and a tie too, “if convenient.”  He was too accustomed to the general sartorial sloppiness of the city to complain out loud, but it did bother him, even after repeated experiences in a variety of restaurants in downtown Los Angeles. Maybe that was why he overreacted when she asked if she should change into something more formal.  He replied that she had fidgeted all day with the neck of her sweater. Why not change into a dress? 
   
She immediately marched off into the bathroom, trailing a cloud of indignation. Dining with her, he thought, would be impossible. He remembered his Latin: cum pane. They were now not true “companions,” those who break bread with each other in a spirit of communion. He canceled the reservation and told her so when she reappeared from the bathroom.
   
For reasons he never fully understood, she launched into a tirade, shouting at him for shouting at her about fidgeting, and followed up with accusations of selfishness and insensitivity. “I hate you,” she cried at the peak of her crescendo. He had witnessed such an emotional dash from rationality to rage before, and retorted that she was about to repeat the same scenario she created when he once tried to reconcile her with a former friend.  She was outraged (as was the friend who thought she was being asked for money), and flew into a fit that lasted for a week.  Yes, she understood that my intentions were good and she missed the evenings in her friend’s apartment where she had cocktails while being dazzled by the spectacular view of Central Park. But she didn’t want to be seen as needing anyone.
   
Yet, she admitted to missing the sex of their relationship. He was guilty, she had “told a friend” (an obvious lie), of not touching her after her operation for ovarian cancer. Her memory reduced to narrow selectivity, she had forgotten that she twice warned him not to initiate any foreplay because she was no longer interested in sex.

After her explosion, she developed a physical transformation into what he later called Mrs. Hyde. From the funny, stimulating, and open woman he had known for more than twenty-five years, she had become a harpy without compromise, even when he tried to give her a quick hug. No sharing, verbal or physical. Of course.
   
She decided that she should leave the next day, Sunday, and not on Monday as originally scheduled. He didn’t object. Nothing was easy. She could not raise American Airlines because the phones were always busy dealing with bad weather on the east coast. They finally had the hotel Concierge work with a Travel Agent to obtain a ticket for a 6:30 AM flight for the aggravating fee of $349 for a $630 fare.
   
The rest of the evening was unbearable. He sat in a chair looking out the window for three hours until it was bedtime. She preferred hovering on the edge of the bathtub, eating energy bars in place of supper. The thick and heavy tension might have been alleviated if she had allowed the distraction of the television. But no, she had no patience for the tube.
   
She spent the five hours between bedtime and the wake-up call at 3:45 AM pacing the floor and packing her valise—loudly, slamming clothes and cosmetics into the small case. When she was about to leave the room, she approached his bedside and said: “I don’t hate you.” Small  consolation, since he had already figured out that he would never again see New York, Paris, Berlin, or even Chicago. These are cities for two, especially at dinner time in 11 Madison Park, or Chez Rene, or Les Solistes, or Aria. Paul Valéry has written about poetry that “the Gods give you the first verse.” And so it was with their love affair: after an electric and easy beginning, the rest was often fitful. They had no idea when or how they would compose the end. It turned out to be like a leaf, dead on a tree for months, that finally falls.

Jessica V. Barnett
lives in the Boston area, where she writes, parents, dances, and practices law, not necessarily in that order. Her debut novel, Freak Camp: Posts From a Previously Normal Girl, was a runner-up for a 2014 Rainbow Award.

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Segue
by Jia Din

A girl sitting directly across from me doing a phone interview at the restaurant I was wasting time at yesterday said she was currently making 95K. I made faces at her on and off for the rest of our time together. She liked it. Goddamn sociopath.

“I'm looking at 115 to 120 to make a move.” She said. Into her phone. “TO SEGUE INTO MY NEXT POSITION.” She said segue.

Truly I think she owes me some money. I made her smile and entertained her even. For free I did.

If only general jester were a position!

She said segue. She really did.


Jia Din completed a B.A. in English and psychology from the University of Delaware. After college, she planned to read great works of literature by day and take in attentive lovers by night. (The plan isn't quite panning out as she had imagined). Jia has lived in Washington D.C. as well as New York City where she held various mind-numbing office jobs. She is now residing temporarily in Delaware before eventually moving to either Philadelphia or Seattle. She still holds a mind-numbing office job. Twitter: @asdklfjsd.

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Contacting the Dead
by Gj Hart

I emailed him one night, very drunk. Subject: Sorry.

Content: I would tell him everything. The reason I hadn't visited, the reason I had left like I had when I had and how sorry I was. I blamed myself and when I had it straight I would contact him again.

I pressed send. The email snapped back, unable to deliver. I deleted it and poured another drink.

I rang him on the number his father gave me. A women answered, her voice soft as rubber sole on carpet. He wasn't able to come to the phone she explained. She sounded unsure and I wondered if he was sitting right there.

I couldn't visit I explained, impossible due to the weather, snow had fallen and the roads were closed. But the snow had melted and the roads were fresh and empty that morning I drove to pick up breakfast.

After eating I fell asleep and dreamed of nothing.

I visited him in October: He opened the door. I was shocked, he was bald and nothing but bone.

My waist had grown two inches, I felt huge. You look great he said. Thanks for nothing I thought. You look great too I replied.

He took me round. He'd emptied his account, the rooms were crammed with stuff he’d bought. I noticed the sweat, it enveloped him and leaked onto the things he showed me.

With each step he grew weaker, his pain more irascible untill it kicked against the opiates like a kid in the rear seat. I have to sit he said.

We talked. At night the fear came to him in dreams disguised as familiar objects. He asked me what it meant, I looked down, shaking my head. They had to find a match he said, but the odds were slim. I couldn’t bear it. I stopped myself listening. I had to go I said, there was a party, a

Halloween party. I was obliged. But I hate parties, fancy dress parties. I was never going to go.

That night I watched TV alone and ate pizza and drank till my mind stopped. The next morning his words were waiting.

Can't you stay, we left it so badly, I blame myself, tell them you’re with a friend, he's dying.

No I can't, I'd said, they wouldn’t believe me.

And that was true, I thought, swallowing two aspirin, they wouldn’t.

GJ Hart lives in Brixton, London and is currently working as accident prone butler to two wealthy cats. Pieces accepted at The Pygmy Giant, Flash Fiction Magazine, Spelk Fiction, Yellow Mama and Squawk Back magazine.

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Covenant Christian Academy, Divested
by Melissa Ostrum
The dress code, a baby blue Oxford tucked into pitch black pants, begins and ends with the bus, so poly-cotton blends shroud the hours between leaving the house and reentering the house. Like, all day.

Arthur Russell, in the homestretch of his education, should be reconciled to this manner of dress. He’d admit: boys’ clothing, even when not set by a rule, doesn’t get much more creative than the uniform standard. But Arthur can barely stand shrugging into the wrinkleless shirt, a passive-aggressive article that refuses to get ruffled. Only morticians and congressmen should have to wear these black pants. The milky buttons down his front are little wide-eyed irritants.

Brenda Wing, who sits in front of him in trig, wears a black bra under her white polo. He can just make out the back strap, a beautiful shadow. It adds an uncertain variable to the uniform equation. It reminds Arthur: here be breasts. Joy Sherwood wears white tights as she must. But under her blue plaid skirt, halfway up her thighs, whiteness stops at her garter’s snaps. He thinks. The lower half of the girls’ uniform is too long to confirm this suspicion. However, in the library, during study hall, Arthur watches Joy cross her legs. He pays attention. He believes—yes, he’s almost certain—he sees the telltale impression of the garter ribbons. He decides they are made of red satin. He likes to think they’re trimmed in lace.

No one gets away with obvious aberrations. Interesting spikes of hair, saucy high heels, blue dye streaks, outlandish make-up and florescent green fingernail polish: each, cause for a trip to the office and, after the phone call to Mother, a lecture-filled trip back home to rectify the wrong. Extravagant earrings find themselves in the homeroom teacher’s top desk drawer. Distracting hair bands, too. Dazzling bracelets never last.

But underneath, underneath the oppressive blacks and blues, secrets fester. Arthur’s sure of this. The other students—with their matching blandness concocted out of the adult belief that sameness will blind young people to appearances and foster purely academic attentiveness—must spend some of their schooldays doing what he does: contemplating the secrets, craving to discover them, making them up when necessary.

And one late afternoon, after the bus has brought him home, after he can change into a t-shirt inscribed with the message, F.R.E.E. Com-pli-men-ta-ry, Arthur Russell walks three miles to a downtown parlor, lies about his age and pays a great deal of money to get a tattoo, all over his right shoulder, from just below his tattered collar to just above the cuff of the fraying short sleeve. The design is intricate. It is not remotely decent. Beyond mentioning its existence to others at school, he doesn’t show or even describe it. It is the mystery his undershirt protects. He hopes the girls will make the tattoo whatever they want. It can be the very thing they would most like to see. 

Melissa Ostrom lives in rural western New York, where she serves as a public school curriculum consultant, teaches English at Genesee Community College, and writes whenever and however much her five-year-old and seven-year-old let her. Her fiction has appeared in Juked, Monkeybicycle, decomP, Lunch Ticket, Matchbook, and elsewhere.

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Mick's Island
by Laura Stout

At the end of a mild October afternoon, Sam’s eight-foot Walker Bay dinghy, having been patched one too many times, slipped beneath the lake’s choppy surface. He treaded water inches from his little sister Jackie, safely secured in her life vest, then grasped a short line he had tied to her waist and began swimming toward Micks Island. He pulled her through the swells, turning his head every few minutes to see water lick her face and mix with her tears.
   
A short time later, Sam’s feet brushed the lake floor. He helped Jackie shed the life jacket as they lurched from the water. Jackie collapsed on the narrow beach. Sam squatted next to her and scanned the empty horizon.
   
Jackie sat up and hugged her knees to her chest. “Now what?” The words cracked apart between sobs.
   
“Mom and Uncle Ray will come. When she gets home and sees we’re still gone they’ll get the Glastron and come find us. She knows I always fish around this island.” Sam flattened his tone, as though he were explaining the rules of a game. He stood and brushed sand from his wet clothes, then paced behind her. After several minutes, she stopped crying, stretched her legs out, and began pouring scoops of sand onto her knees.
   
“Guess we should’ve stayed home,” Jackie said.
   
She’d begged him to take her fishing with him as he spread peanut butter across slices of white bread for her lunch. It was late Saturday morning and already she’d grown bored with her cartoons. He glanced up from his sandwich making. She was bouncing up and down on tiptoes, black-rimmed eyeglasses sliding down her nose, a messy ponytail dancing against the back of her neck, and she offered him a buoyant and sunny smile; a sight so rare he gave in immediately.
   
He’d taken her with him once before. She’d been good, although not much in the way of help. But she was only ten. The important thing was their mom trusted him with keeping his sister safe while she worked at the salon.
   
He stepped close to Jackie, bent down, and gently clutched her shoulder. “You’re not scared, are you?”
   
She jerked her shoulder out from under his hand. “Heck no.”
   
He stood, blinking, and rubbed his arm. “I was going to come out anyway.”
   
“And just leave me at Uncle Rays all afternoon?” 
   
“You stay there all the time. I know the twins drive you nuts, but it’s not that bad.”
   
“What time is it?” She wiped her face with the back of her hand, her lower lip trembling from the chill of wet clothes and a descending sun.
   
He looked at his watch. “About five o’clock.”
   
“Mom doesn’t even get off for another hour.” Sam winced. The tone of her voice implied he was somehow responsible for this fact.
   
“And we have at least another hour of sun. So we’re good.” Behind them, wind sifted through a forest of oaks and willows.  “Come on. Help me get some wood. I’ll make a fire.”
 
He walked toward the trees. She didn’t move.  After a few steps he stopped and turned back.
   
"Was it really that hard to hold onto the fishing rod?"

His father had given it to him for his twelfth birthday, back when they first began fishing together. Back when the world was the way it was supposed to be. She lifted her chin and stared at him. She'd let the fishing rod drift from her hand on purpose. That rod had always left welts of hurt on Jackie's heart, reminded her of what he still had with their father. He wanted to be angry with her, but his heart stumbled as usual.
 
He reached down, scooped up a handful of matchstick thin twigs and walked over to her. She hunched over and dug her hands deep into the sand. "Look kiddo," he touched her arm, "we need kindling like this."

She inspected the snarl of tiny sticks cupped in his palm. “What if there are spiders?”

“Ok, I’ll get the sticks, you get branches. They need to be one or two feet long, like this.” He held his hands apart to demonstrate.

"What if I see a snake?”

"I've told you, there are no snakes on this island."

"How would I remember? I never come here anymore."

She was right. They used to come here for summer picnics; all four of them. He remembered a red-checkered blanket and tuna sandwiches, the coconut scent of sunscreen, his father tossing Frisbees to him on the shore. His mother would lie on a beach towel flipping through magazines while Jackie built sandcastles. One time his father snuck up and threw their mother over his shoulder and tossed her into the lake. They all laughed so hard they couldn't speak and collapsed onto the sand in one big heap.
   
She finally rose and limped behind him into the forest. He collected kindling, feet squishing in wet tennis shoes and crunching through tangled brush. Jackie seemed to be circling the same tree, humming a tune, the same melody over and over. Several minutes later he called her back to the beach. She clutched three misshapen branches in both hands. Sam rolled his eyes.
   
“Really? That’s the best you could do?” He smiled trying to cover up the sharpness of his words.
   
“I’m cold.” She tossed her branches on the ground. “How are you going to start a fire without matches?”
   
“It’s easy.” He turned and headed back to the trees. “Dad taught me last month when we went camping.” His words hit their mark and now he imagined Jackie’s narrowed eyes glaring at his back. Even though it was her fault, even though she was the one who refused to forgive their dad.
   
After returning with an armful of wood, he pulled out his pocketknife and carved a small hole in a piece of bark. He held the tip of a thin branch in the hole and rubbed the stick back and forth, as if warming his hands. He glanced at her but she flicked her eyes away, feigning interest in pushing together piles of sand with her feet.

After a few minutes, smoke swirled out from the hole that now held a circle of glowing ash. He gently dumped the ash into a bundle of tinder and soon flames licked the air. Jackie stood, palms hovering over the fire for warmth. A reddish-yellow glow radiated across her sharp cheekbones and deep-set eyes. She wouldn’t look at him.

"That cave I showed you once. I'm pretty sure there's a sleeping bag inside."

She scrunched up her face. "What's an old sleeping bag doing in the there?"

He sat on his heels, rested his forearms on his knees and opened and closed his fists. He stared off across the lake and thought about copper-haired Emily and their afternoon trips to the island last summer. Now she wouldn’t answer his texts, wouldn’t meet his eyes as he called out to her across the hallway at school.

"Look, I'll be right back. I want to go get it while it's still light out."

"I'm coming." Jackie began to get up.

"No." The word came out stronger than he meant. He didn't want to say she'd slow them down, but they both knew it.

"Stay by the fire and keep warm." He sprinted toward the woods.

Jackie had been born with a defect. A congenital disorder or limb anomaly were ways it had been described. But basically she limped and couldn't participate in most sports. Their mom shadowed Jackie, fetched things, drove her everywhere, pushed her in a stroller through the mall until she was seven and Sam pleaded with her to stop. Their dad coaxed and demanded Jackie walk the five blocks to school, taught her to ride a bike, never carried her. Eventually, their parent’s differences evolved into so much more than how to raise Jackie. Each evening their bickering expanded into yelling matches. Sam would lean against his bedroom door and listen and wonder how much longer their family would remain whole and unbroken.
 
A few months later their dad gripped a duffel bag in one hand and gently rapped on Jackie’s locked door with the other. He lingered for an hour begging her for a kiss, a hug, promising her he’d see her soon. It had been painful enough for Sam, but for Jackie, her champion was abandoning her.
   
When their dad had settled into his new townhouse an hour’s drive away, Sam and Jackie went for the weekend. He treated them to Chinese take-out. Sam and his dad laughed as they stabbed chopsticks into fried rice and cracked open fortune cookies in search of bright futures. Jackie retrieved a fork and refused her cookie.
   
“How’s third grade treating you?” their dad asked. She shrugged and stared at her plate.
   
“She’s doing the spelling bee next week. She’s going to win,” Sam said proudly.
   
Jackie took her plate to the living room and turned on the TV. “Only the Disney channel, sweetie,” their dad called out. The din of canned laughter drifted back.
   
The next morning she sat huddled on the front steps, arms wrapped around her skinny legs, feet tapping furiously, waiting for their mother to arrive. “You could stay one more day with me and dad.” Sam stood behind her, holding her backpack. Next door a dog barked at two small children as they roller-skated up and down their driveway. Jackie didn’t seem to notice. Sam set the backpack down and went inside. A fissure had begun to split open inside his heart. And with each solitary trip he made to visit their dad, it would deepen; become a complicated mixture of guilt and anger.
   
When Jackie turned eight, their dad sent her a birthday card. On the front, a white puppy chewed a piece of chocolate cake.  Inside it read ‘Have your cake and eat it too.’ Below the words, her father wrote: Battle on, I miss you Jackie-o. I’d love to talk to you next time I call. Love, Dad. He also sent a small package. Inside was a pink ceramic jewelry box, the kind that opens and a tiny ballerina pops up and twirls around and music plays. Sam smiled at the gift.
   
“I don’t have any jewelry,” Jackie had said, her words cutting through the space between them.
   
“You should talk to him once in a while. He misses you.”
   
She threw the card and the jewelry box in the garbage pail. After she left the kitchen, he pulled them both out thinking someday she’d be sorry, someday she’d understand.
   
Sam returned to the beach with the sleeping bag. He shook out the dirt and wrapped it around his sister’s shoulders. He fed the fire and slumped down in the sand. She poked a stick at the ash scattering out from beneath the flames. Above them the night had become black and thick and held them like hostages in the precious silence.
   
“Sorry about your fishing pole.” Her voice was thin, like air rushing through a hollow reed.
   
Jackie never apologized for anything. Privileged due to defect, Sam had always reasoned. It had been a spiteful thing to do, letting it go, watching it drift out of reach. But he understood the brief moment of power she must have surrendered to.
   
“It was pretty rough out there. Don’t worry about it. Don’t have a fishing boat to fish with anyway now.”
   
Jackie pulled some long strands of twine from a zippered jacket pocket and began to loop and tie the ends together. He’d taught her all the knots he’d learned years ago in boy scouts and now she repeated them in front of the TV or at the kitchen table in between math problems.
   
“Look, I’m just sorry you were with me when the boat sank.” He got up and bent over her, rubbing her arms hard to warm her up. “You warm enough?”
   
“Fisherman’s eye.” She held up the complex twisting of the twine and smiled proudly.
   
“Perfect as usual.”
   
He sat back down and tossed small stones into the fire. “Those Bronson kids been bothering you at school lately?”
   
“I can take care of myself.”
   
“I know. I was just curious.”
     
She unraveled the twine and began another knot.
   
She always sat alone when he picked her up from school, a long stretch of playground away from joyful clusters of children. But she appeared content with her solitude, as if she never expected anything else. Each day, Sam thought, she absorbed life’s little inequities and transgressions and in some ways it had rendered her uncaring, and especially unforgiving.
   
“Hey, how come Kit hasn’t been around lately?”
   
She looked at him, her face working at trying to figure something out. “She only came that one time so I could help her with some homework. Her mom made her.” She went back to her knot, eyes focused, front teeth chewing her lower lip.
   
Long shadows crept out from the flames, wrapping around Jackie like crooked fingers. The fire’s glow intensified her pale skin and hollow eyes, the sleeping bag billowed slightly in the wind, the corners lifting up from her legs. Her fragility ascended all around her like floodwaters; streaming currents Sam was always struggling to keep at bay.
     
That familiar burden of love and responsibility for his little sister came rushing up before him. They were a constant vice around his heart, sweet and ferocious, and he didn’t know, didn’t want to know, how to turn them off.
   
“So why’d you quit? The question startled him. She rarely asked about his life.
   
“The football team. Why’d you quit?” She insisted.

The night Sam missed his first football practice, his mother silently added another plate to the table. Jackie peered at him over her glass of milk. "What are you doing here?" she asked him, as if he didn't belong at the battered wood table where they ate their meals. Sam shrugged and shoved a spoonful of mashed potatoes into his mouth. "Not playing anymore."  He felt his mother’s eyes on him as if at any moment he might break apart into tiny pieces she wouldn’t be able to reconstruct.
   
The truth was simple, but there were things Jackie and his mother didn’t need to know. At the end of summer, some of his friends pilfered fireworks from their parents stash: spinners, fountains and cherry bombs. They blew up a couple of mailboxes. Sam watched. Later they invited some cheerleaders to a beach. When a few of the boys got pushy with the girls, Sam pulled them away and hurried them into his pickup. A couple of his buddies shoved Sam against the truck. He shoved back and doled out a black eye and contusions to the quarterback. They’d been friends since kindergarten. When school began, his former friends shunned him on the quad at lunch and taunted him at football practice. Sam pretended not to care.

Now, when Sam still didn't answer, Jackie tried again. "I wanted to come to your games but Mom could never bring me".

"I know," Sam said gently.

"Those guys you used to hang out with, they’re not nice you know. "

"They weren’t always that way.”  A sharp sadness hung beneath his ribs. Emily wasn’t the only one not texting him anymore.

“You didn’t do those things I heard about, did you?”

“What things?”

“Things.” She shrugged and pushed her glasses back up the bridge of her nose. “They say some of them drowned the Millers cat.”

The fire snapped and popped. Cricket chatter rose and hung in the air like a machine breathing.

“Well, I don’t hang out with them anymore.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

“Why are you sorry?”

“Because you thought they were your friends.”

“They were. But not anymore.” He stood and jabbed at the fire with a long branch, moved some burning logs around exposing bright red embers of heat.

“That’s good.” She looked at him and nodded her head, as if giving her approval.

Out across the water red and blue dots of light appeared, splintering against the blackness.

“Look. It's Mom. I told you.”
   
Sam kneeled down next to Jackie and motioned her to climb onto his back. She obliged. He trotted down to the surf where they peered into the darkness and watched the boat lights grow brighter. She slid from his back and they stood side by side, the cold night air stinging their skin. He held her hand in his and took a deep breath.

“I'm moving in with Dad.”
   
He squeezed her hand but she yanked it away and shuffled back to the fire. He followed, sat close but said nothing. Finally he touched her chin and turned her face toward him. She wore a look of surrender and something in her eyes had receded, as if she'd been expecting this.
   
“Come visit. Dad misses you. So much.”   

Her mouth opened, wordless. She put her hand in his and he curled his arm around his little sister. He watched the lights approach, glide closer, heard their Mother’s cry of relief.  He felt the hot light of the fire shimmer and snap across his skin.

Laura Stout graduated from the University of California at Santa Barbara with a degree in Economics. She has since traded in her spreadsheets for notebooks filled with rewrites. She resides in Manhattan Beach, California with her loving husband and two teenage children. In between dreaming up stories, she ferries her two dogs to local hospitals and brings smiles to the patients and staff. Her work has appeared in several on-line literary journals.

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Awake
by Joe Fleck

She was wearing that red sweater again.

For some reason I had the feeling that everybody owned one.

I’m dragging myself into the classroom and noticing that some things seem more real than others. Sit down in the back of the room. Unzip my backpack. Pull out my notebook. It’s strange to think that I might not actually be doing any of these actions. I might be laying in bed back over the bridge just dreaming it all up.

I know who’s to blame for all of this.

He’s always wearing a red sweater. He’s the one that took those sunglasses off of his face and gave them to me, telling me that I had to become the thing I fear in order to defeat it. I should have known that he was only quoting Star Wars. And he’s talking to me on the hill of the old elementary school playground, dragging that cigarette from his mouth like he’s James Fucking Bond. I don’t know why I listen to him.

They say that a good way to determine whether or not you’re dreaming is if you can remember how you got to where you are.

I never went to that playground. At least, not until the girl with the scheming smile and the old camera was there. I told her about the red sweater. I told her about the black boots that he wore because “everybody needs a defining image”. I told her about the wise-sounding words that he rambled to me day and night. But she didn’t help me. She doesn’t realize that this shadowy figure hiding behind dark sunglasses, the one to blame for every mistake people think that I’ve made, is always lurking somewhere in that neighborhood.

He probably knows that I talked to her.

He was probably watching from across the street, laughing to himself as he flicked his cigarette butt over the fence. I could always identify the smell of his cigarettes. I never figured out what the brand was. He bought the expensive kind, with smoke that smelled like an old black and white film. He told me that paying more for something useless meant that you were powerful enough to be wasteful. He said it was a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness.

I rolled my eyes and hoped that he got lung cancer.

Today in class, the teacher is talking about RNA. It seems unreasonable that this microscopic cell has any idea what it’s doing. Why is the teacher saying that the RNA just knows to deliver the genetic information? Why is the teacher saying that the cell knows when to split in two? It’s doesn’t have a brain. It’s what’s making the brain. I’m finding this so unreasonable that maybe I really am dreaming. I take notes anyway.

You know that your insomnia is bad when you can fake lucidity this well.

Somebody turned the volume down on the universe. It’s like I’m listening to that faint music they play in Fred Meyer, and all you can hear is the occasional Audioslave breakdown or a Led Zeppelin wail. Everything else is lost in the buzz that is my inoperative mind. Words that should make sense don’t. Words describing impossible things must be true.

She liked my new pair of sunglasses.

She doesn’t understand why I’m shaking my head every time I see a red sweater. She can’t comprehend why I swear at the mention of Thursdays. I’m trying to tell myself that all of those late nights I stayed on Skype with nothing to do but listen to his stupid rants about how to live were just my imagination.

I’m hoping that I dreamt it up.

Life is just a giant puzzle, he tells me. You’re good at those. You’ll figure it out. Pop some melatonin and try to tell yourself a story. A story that just might turn into a dream if you think about it hard enough. Just pretend that you’re really there. But I am really there. This dream isn’t some story that I’m telling myself. This is a memory. I can remember it too clearly. Are these even my memories anymore?

He wanted me to get rid of her.

He gave me his sunglasses so I could wear them myself. Become the thing that I was trying to defeat. It’s just a stupid metaphor, but I suppose mind games come easy to me. They always have. There’s nothing unusual about the red sweaters. There’s no conspiracy. It’s not like wearing a red sweater is a sign that you’re friends with him, right?

I tell myself the same thing about the smell of those cigarettes.

It’s Portland. Half of my high school smokes. It’s just chance that I’ve caught four different people puffing out the same smell that reminds me of him. The smell that reminds me of the words that roll off of his tongue as if he’s speaking the word of God. He can’t be that smart. He’s probably just quoting philosophers without a clue what he’s talking about.

I suppose his confidence is the only reason I listened.

Everything is out of order. Everything is a mile away. The teacher keeps talking but for all I know this is yesterday’s lecture being replayed in my unconscious mind. It’s hard to keep track of what’s happening when your past is just a little different every morning. Has the insomnia made me forgetful, or has it made me smarter than I ever was before? He probably would have told me it was an improvement.

Everything I did wrong was an improvement.

I smashed the sunglasses with a hammer.

Joe Fleck was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. He recently graduated from Western Washington University with degrees in Math and Psychology. For more of his work, visit fleckfleck.com.

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Delicious Cake
by Christopher James

After going to bed at eight to wake up at five, I got a message at four telling me the meeting was cancelled. I woke up at five anyway, determined to do something productive with the unexpected day off work.

I went for a walk, heading in the direction of the sunrise, and ended up bathed in milky morning light in a part of town I didn’t know, tired suddenly of walking. A coffee shop was opening for the day, its metal shutter lifted in front of me from half-mast to full mast. A pretty waitress with a black apron wrapped sideways around one hip emerged to leave laminated menus on the green curlicue outside tables. I took a seat and asked for a black coffee and a slice of good cake.

“Cheese or chocolate?” she asked. She had a lovely, lazy, Friday morning smile.

“I shouldn’t. I’m on a diet. Which is better?”

“They’re both delicious. The chef’s French. From France.”

“Hang it,” I said. “One of each.”

Across the street was a bank, and when the waitress left a plate with two slices of cake on my table, an armored van pulled up. A guard, his hat askew, not even trying to hide his tiredness, left the passenger seat and walked round back to open the rear door. There was another guard, also sleepy, inside the van, and he was armed. It was an odd time for them to be picking money up, at the beginning of the day, so I assumed they were there to be dropping money off. They went to knock on the door to the bank, leaving the back of the van apparently unattended.

God. What I wouldn’t give to walk over there now and snatch a couple bags of cash. Might never need work again. Move to some country where they can’t arrest you and live the good life, sipping margaritas in the sun.

“If I robbed that van,” I said to the waitress, “would you run away with me to Madagascar?”

“My knight in shining armor,” she said, tapping my shoulders with her notebook and pen. “It’s a date.” And she tossed me a wink before meandering off to polish glasses.

Jeff called, no doubt keen to save me from a life of crime. “Where are you?” he hissed into the phone. “We’re starting.”

“Are you kidding me? I got a message at four saying the meeting was off.”

“Well it’s back on. Hurry up and get your ass in here.”

“Would have been nice if someone had let me know.”

“I’m letting you know now. Get a move on.”

I left the cake, the coffee and a tip, the bank, the armored van, the pretty waitress and wealthy exile, and went to work. But, not even a minute down the road, I stopped, and thought Hang that too.

Christopher James lives, works and writes in Jakarta, Indonesia, and has been published in the Tin House blog, McSweeney's and the Smokelong Ten Year Anthology, among other places.

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Bankers WANKERS
by Jay Hodgkins

How we get down

Dickhead Pete’s ‘We Are the 1% Party’ got a little bit out of hand last night. Cristal Beirut. Belvedere Unfiltered Jello shots (for the ladies, natch). Johnny Walker Blue. Ice luge. Hot new interns (dude interns not invited, natch). Anorexic models. Spin the bottle. Fuck the bottle. Prude intern exit stage left. Anorexic transvestite model. Fist fight. Lines of coke. Eli Manning. Lines of coke with Eli Manning. Bad head: non-prude hot intern. Puke on non-prude hot intern. Exit stage left. Good head: anorexic transvestite model. 4:30 a.m.: pass out. 5:15 a.m.: alarm. 5:33 a.m.: break alarm. Shit-shower-shave. Visine. Advil. More Visine. Boot coked-up models (tranvestite and original recipe). Depart Tribeca bachelor pad. Red Bull. 5:59 a.m.: arrive at office.

Not bad for a Wednesday night.

DP lives for this shit. The last time he showed up at work this bombed, Ron Chancellor called him into his office. Ron was starting up a new division – Innovative Investments – and he wanted DP to be his lead dog, his general in the field.

Memory:

Ron: “So what do you say, DP? You game?”

DP: “Who are you talking to, boss? Fuck yeah I’m game.”

Ron was a legend at Goldlynch. You don’t turn that dude down when he comes calling. And Innovative Investments was like nothing the bank had ever done. No limitations. No asset classifications. Most important, no questions. Mission: max returns. The recession was over, investors were tired of conservative bullshit, asset-backed securities were dead. Goldlynch needed to invent a new game to keep their good name as the smartest guys in the room. Innovative Investments was it.

“DP, you are a tremendous dickhead,” Ron said. “But you’ve got the touch. You shit money. Pick your team. You get a blank check this quarter. Get me 15 percent-plus returns and you get another one next quarter. See how we play this game?”

Good times.

DP bears off Wall Street into the dazzling new $2.6 billion Morclays Goldlynch & Co. headquarters. Great building, slow fucking elevator. Red Bull No. 2.

Another memory:

Stupid hipster chick at bar wearing hackneyed square-frame glasses who wanted the D: “So why do they call you Dickhead Pete? Is it because it rhymes or something?”

DP: “No. It’s because I’m a giant fucking dickhead. Are you that retarded?”

SHCABWHS-FGWWTD: “Can we go back to your place?”

DP: “Fine. But if you open your mouth while I’m in you, I will donkey punch you. And if you give me an STD, I will hire a fucking hit man and he will kill you.”

Good times. Memories are the best.

Elevator arrives at Floor 57. Outstanding view of Zuccoti Park and Ground Zero Memorial. Mr. Mayor: Excellent decision allowing Morclays Goldlynch to bulldoze the old Trinity Church to build this state-of-the-art financial palace of the gods. About time the real estate went to good use. 9-11 first responder memorial crybabies: Suck it.

DP’s got a busy morning. Peruse financial headlines. Minesweeper. Sext exposed penis to girlfriend. Then time to get his game face on. Ron’s coming to sit in on the team’s quarterly investment vetting meeting. The crew hit 43% ROI in quarter one. Make it rain, bitches! 37% in quarter two. 16% in quarter three. Oops. Now Ron is concerned.

DP is not. DP will own Ron. That’s because Ron is not going to be the smartest guy in the room. Actually, Chinkbait – birth name Bao-Zi Chang – will be the smartest guy in the room. That’s why DP handpicked him for the team, der, but he can’t speak English for shit. Ipso facto, DP will be acting smartest guy in the room.

Meet the band

Chinkbait is 7 minutes early, arms failing under a 2-foot stack of Powerpoints, financials, SWOT analyses and additional investment criteria. DP is still in the execution phase of sexting picture of erect penis to girlfriend.

“Get the fuck out of my office, Chinkbait. Out. Out. Out. Didn’t I say if you came to another one of my meetings early, I’d hire a hit man to poison your fried rice? Sit in the fucking hall and do not come in until the entire A-Team is assembled.”

1 min. late: Enter Jack Whipple Chesterfield IV, an inbred Cape Cod WASP if there ever was. Great lacrosse player. Not surprisingly, Grampa Chesterfield bought Whip’s way into Harvard. Not surprisingly, he flunked out. Landed at Brown. Shame of the family. Raged like no intern before him so even though he’s not really A-Team material, DP brought him on.

3 min. late: Enter Marcus Smart. Sample size not statistically significant, but presented strong anecdotal evidence at the party last night that black dicks really are bigger.

14 min. late: Enter Tony Baloney – birth name Antonio Cacciatore, aka The Hunter. Wops are notoriously shit bankers, but notoriously clutch at charming the panties off anyone. That’s what The Hunter does. Chinkbait does the research and crunches numbers. Marcus analyzes the market, bullshit tests the strategy and vision. DP, natch, makes the final call on if and how much to invest. Whip is the new kid so he follows the money, sounds the alarm when investments are in danger of missing their mark. The Hunter, though, he’s the key. Most Innovative Investment targets don’t know they’re targets. They don’t even know Wall Street knows they exist. The

Hunter goes in with DP for the face-to-face. Plenty resist. They’ve heard bad things about letting Wall Street in. The Hunter charms their panties off. They sell their soul. Works every time.

14 min. 1 sec. late: Re-enter Chinkbait.

The A-Team assembles at the custom burr oak hyform boardroom table in DP’s office. It is now covered with coffee cups, papers, black leather attaché briefcases, and bottles of prescription drugs for headache and heartburn.

By the way, the entire crew threw down at the 1% bash last night. They all entered DP’s office looking like hell. Not even official Wall Street kit – fitted black suit, black tie, black patent leather shoes shined daily, custom-fitted designer white shirt with forward-point collar – can save them.

Memory:

Marcus walked into an A-Team meeting with a custom-fitted designer white shirt with English spread collar. Whip’s mouth fell open. He looked offended. The horror in his eyes implied the words of 16 generations of Chesterfields: You can teach a negro all the tricks to play, but they will never really understand the game.

DP: “My God, Marcus, are you wearing an English spread collar?”

Marcus: “I don’t know. It’s a collar.”

DP: “Marcus, isn’t it hard enough being a black dude on Wall Street? Go home and put on a proper shirt. Seriously, get the fuck out of here. Go. Try not to let anyone see you.” Back to the present. Everyone felt like shit. Except Chinkbait. He gets really red and sketchy and starts reciting poems about orchids and cherry blossoms when he’s drunk, so DP locked him in his home office with a baggie of coke and told him to crunch numbers all night.

“ Chinkbait, why the fuck are you so late?” DP says. “I swear, I will fire your ass and replace you with a new Asian so goddamn fast. Do you know how many Chinamen can do math? Like a billion, dude. Tell the A-Team you’re sorry for your insubordination.”

“ I’m not Chinese. My family is from Taiwan. I was born in Piscataway.”

“ Oh, you did it now, Chinkbait. That’s it. Whip, call Princeton and tell them I need a new Asian math genius.”

“ I’m sorry for my insubordination, everybody.”

“ Say it right!”

“ Me so sorry for insoobohdination, everybody.”

“ That’s better. Now we can all start to heal.”

Make money money, make money money money

“I want nothing but solid gold bangers today, men. My buzz is fading, I’ve got a raging hangover and Ron’s here in 15 minutes. Show me the money, fuckers. Marcus, you first.”

“Whizzinator. The guys who make prosthetic dicks and synthetic urine so you can pass drug tests. They can’t keep up with demand in Colorado and Washington and they need a cash infusion. Courts in both states have already ruled employers can fire you for recreational marijuana use, even though it’s legal now. Those rulings will take 2 to 3 years to reverse. Projections show 500% growth in Colorado for the next 24 months, low triple-digit growth in Washington and 10 to 15% growth in other markets. Chang says we double our money on a $10 million investment by year-end.”

“Good stuff, Marcus. Small potatoes, but we need small potatoes, too. Whip, speak.”

“My old bro from Harvard is down in Charlotte at Bank of America and he says this new fast food joint called Deep Frys is blowing up. Basically, they just dip everything in this dope batter and deep fry it in peanut oil. Chicken. Even livers and hearts and shit. Hamburgers. Pickles. Cheesecake. Oreos. Pizza. It’s a fucking heart attack on a plate, but I hear it’s bangin. They’ve got this deal where you can bring in anything, I mean, anything, and they’ll deep fry it for you for 5 bucks. My hombre says he makes BoA junior analysts eat fried shoe leather as initiation. There are 5 Deep Frys now, but Marcus dug around and found out they’re trying to expand.”

“Tempting. Marcus, what’s the plan?” DP pops two Percocets, scratches his balls.

“Deep Frys ownership wants to hit 20 new locations next year – Raleigh, Charleston, Atlanta, Columbia, Savannah, Tallahassee – then franchise out another 50 by end of 2015. I think they can do at least 30 corporate-owned and 100 franchises in that time. What can I say? My niggas be lovin fried shit. Somebody finally said fuck this fake ass health food fad and decided to exploit it. Shamelessly. They’re probably still regional on the 5-year horizon, but they can be national in 10.”

“Fuck me. Whip, you might have some of your old man’s stuff yet. I thought you were operating on 46 retarded chromosomes. Let’s make sure they follow our aggressive growth scenario. Goldlynch is going into the fast-food business. Chinkbait, go.”

“In China, solar panel manufacturers are in big trouble. But I see a new opportunity...”

“No. God damn it. No. No. No. Do I really have to say this? We’re not going into manufacturing. Business fucking 101, Chinkbait. Manufacturing equals low margins.”

“No, DP. Please listen.”

“If you want me to listen, Chinkbait …”

“Fine. Prease risten. We no invest in China. I hate China. U.S. make a new 31% import tariff on Chinese sorar parts. So now Chinese send parts to Taiwan and Taiwan import to America. Duty free. Taiwanese shippers say, ok Chinese asshole, we charge you equivarent of 25% import tariff. China say that cheaper than real tariff. We can do undercut of American panuhs fo’ sho’, my niggas. Okey dokey, Taiwan, we shake hand.”

“Wait. That’s genius. Taiwanese shippers have an entire new industry falling at their feet. High margins are locked in by the U.S. import tariff rate. They need help expanding shipping capacity to take on the new load.”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“I take back everything bad I ever said about you, Chinkbait. Do you want a blow job? Seriously, I will put your tiny Asian penis in my mouth right now and blow you.” DP gets on his knees and tries to unbuckle Chinkbait’s Armani belt. Chinkbait squirms uncomfortably trying to escape.

Tony’s baloney

“Ey, don’t yoos guys want to know my find?”

DP releases Chinkbait.

“Tony. You went to Rutgers. Investment thesises aren’t really your thing. Let’s stick with what we’re good at. Stay in our lanes, ok?”

“Seriously, come on, bro. I got a good find. Hear me out.”

DP considers. Ron will be there in three minutes. “Share that coke stashed in your pocket with the whole A-team, then you can tell us.” Tony disgorges a baggie of coke from the inside pocket of his suit jacket onto the burr oak hyform boardroom table, then cuts it into five lines with his platinum American Express.

Cult ritual. The A-Team stands over their lines and waits for DP’s signal to initiate launch. Wait for it. Wait. “Thundercats, ho!” DP plunges in.

Memory:

Tony was a hot shit newbie in i-banking at his first big Goldlynch social. He and DP were already deep in a budding bromance after an all-nighter at the Penthouse Executive Club (stripper giving double handy in the champagne room: 100 bucks. Coworker bonding: priceless). They were both square-jawed bad asses. Between Tony’s tall, dark and handsome and DP’s Aryan blond and blue, they had the market covered for ladies cruising for the D. Tony was (and is) an animal. Fucking Jersey Shore guido. No class.

Wired from a coke binge, Tony walked this managing director of equity research into the men’s bathroom. She was smoking hot. DP had already been there, done that, hit it and quit it. Ditched her when she started getting obsessed. Problem: Tony’s situational analysis was less than ideal. The club was super swank. Not the type of place you bang ladies in the shitter, particularly when the entire C-suite is there sipping on Scotch or Bordeaux. The analyst was also going through a nasty divorce (recourse for habitual DP fucking). She was blackout drunk. She stumbled behind Tony into the bathroom stall and then promptly passed out. He fucked her anyway.

He couldn’t wake her up when he was done so he went and got DP to help him out of the pickle. DP looked in the stall and saw the analyst from a familiar angle: ass up, panties down. Her body was propped over the shitter. Tony hadn’t bothered to wipe his grand finale off the back of her blouse. Wouldn’t you know it, she came to right at that moment and assessed the situation as only an equity analyst can.

Analyst: “Tony, you fucking asshole. You raped me. You raped me. Oh my God, you fucking raped me.” Tears. Drama. DP had to act.

DP: “No, no, baby. You and Tony didn’t do anything. It was you and me. We just made love. You got dizzy and passed out and Tony came to help me. I didn’t know what to do.”

Analyst: “Wait. You and me? Us?” She pulled up her thong and skirt. Ebbing sobs. Dazed confusion. Emerging glint of happiness. DP looks at her like she’s pathetic. She infers affection.

“You’ve got great tits, hon,” DP said when she showed up at his office the next day acting like his girlfriend, “but there’s no us.” Word spread through headquarters that DP tricked a divorcee research analyst into believing they were an item so he could bang her in a bathroom at the company social. And that is how Pete became known as Dickhead Pete. Kind of like the queers, he beat the derogatory slight by owning it. Boy, did he own it.

Good times. Back to the present.

“I was on a bar crawl with my buddy from RBS the other night,” Tony starts, wiping his nose clean. “He was telling me he was onto something big, but the new Ethical Investments Review Board that RBS started after mortgage-backed securities imploded put the kibosh on it. Pussies.”

“Time is money, Tones,” DP says. “Come on, buddy. Sell me.”

“Ok. Ok. He didn’t want to tell me what it was, but I says, ‘Ey, Luther, it’s me. Tony Baloney. If yoos can’t tell me, who can you tell? Besides, sounds like those fucks don’t appreciate you no ways so why don’t you tell me what you’re on to and maybe I can talk to somebody at Goldlynch about getting you some proper recognition.’ Yeah, buddy, that tickled his taint. So here it is: Water-free wheat.” Tony puts his hands behind his head and leans back. Everyone stares at him.

“What do you mean water-free wheat?” Whip says.

“GMO wheat that doesn’t need water to grow.” Marcus pops two Advil and chases them with coffee. His foot starts tapping frenetically. “The holy grail of a water-starved world. Africa’s salvation. The end of food scarcity.”

“How?” Dickhead Pete says. “Fuck how. Who? When?”

“It’s not totally water free, but almost,” Tony says. “The seed sprouts tubers or some shit. They suck up any moisture and feed the plant until the wheat’s ready to harvest. Some bootstrap small-time R&D lab out in the San Joaquin Valley figured it out. Called G-Crop Biosciences Corp. Traded over the counter. Ticker’s GCB on the pink sheets. Word my guy at RBS got is that Monsanto is moving fast. They’ll probably have an acquisition by the end of this weekend. Merger Monday, baby.”

“So RBS dropped out because they’re worried about insider trading? Stupid. No one can prove that shit.”

“Not just insider trading, bro. I didn’t tell you the catch. G-Crop’s been testing the wheat on rats. Three different trials. Every one ended up with rats full of cancer. Rapid effect, too. Tumors start showing up in a few months. RBS didn’t bite because when Monsanto buys G-Crop, they’re planning on folding the water-free wheat into a GMO wheat program that’s already FDA approved. They’re taking it straight to market.”

“Damn, that’s cold,” Marcus says.

“That’s easy money,” DP says. “Chinkbait, what’s GCB trading?”

“One dollar forty-five cents per share.”

“How much do we see Monsanto paying? Give it to me kung pao style, son.”

“My five year cash frow vayooation, conservative market base case scenario: $12 to $15 birr…birr…bilrion. That over one-hundred dorrah per share.”

“Oh God, Chinkbait, I think you just made me cum in my pants. Tony, I want you to buy every fucking share of GCB you can get before market close tomorrow. Once the cancer cases hit, nobody’s going to look at us for insider trading. We get the cash from the Monsanto buyout and our hands are clean.”

Ron gets served

Ron’s shadow appears behind the frosted glass outside DP’s office. He comes in sporting mock tortoiseshell horn-rimmed glasses, blue print tie and red suspenders. What a dinosaur. An aging monarch trying to defend the kingdom being taken right from under him. This is going to require a deft touch. DP tees him up with the Taiwan shipping scheme.
 
“Arbitrage play, pure and simple. Love it. What else you got?”

DP hits him with the Deep Frys franchise plan. The projections blow him away. Ron requests Whip procure him a fried dog turd. He has a score to settle with a neighbor in the Hamptons.

Whizzinator. Ron’s a little sketched out. But if the numbers work, go for it, he says, “I guess.” But Whizzinator looks like investing in Disney after they explain the G-Crop play.

“What the fuck is wrong with you kids? No. That’s insane.”

“Look, Ron, you told me to pick my team. You said blank check. No questions asked. This deal is huge. Just look the other way. You can’t take the fall for us. That’s how we’re set up.”

“But all those African kids. Cancer.”

“For fuck’s sake, Ron. You used to be a rock star. Don’t you want to get paid? Keep your wife happy? Buy her some nice new things? Tiffany’s isn’t getting cheaper.”

Ron thumbs his suspenders stupidly for a moment. The A-Team stares at him, fidgety from the coke.

“Just hit your fucking numbers. This meeting never happened.” Old King Ron stands, defeated, and leaves the battlefield.

“We’ll do more than hit our numbers, Ronald. It’s on like Donkey Kong.”

The door clicks shut. High fives all around.

“Boys, we’re about to make history. Let’s call it a day and hit The Dead Rabbit. We’ve made Goldlynch enough money today.

Picture us rollin’

Steak power lunch. Bloody Marys. Jaeger bombs. Red Bull and vodka. Chinkbait red face. Orchid and cherry blossom poems. Wrestling. Broken glasses. Angry manager. Exit stage left. Sing Sing Karaoke Bar. Tony: Money (That’s What I Want), The Flying Monkeys. Chinkbait: Material Girl, Madonna. Whip: Money for Nothing, Dire Straights. Marcus: Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems, Notorious B.I.G.

Dickhead Pete: Real American (Hulk Hogan theme song), Rick Derringer.

Penthouse Executive Club. Lap dances. Hand job request denied. Strike 1. Attempt to insert silver dollar in stripper’s anus. Strike 2. Puke on stripper. Strike 3. Exit stage left. Hipster bar. Hipster fight. Grossly outnumbered. Black eyes. Broken rib. Taxi cab to Indian casino. DP down. DP way down. DP really, really down. Roulette wheel: one spin, $10,000 bet. Always bet on black. DP back up. Procure coke. Procure drunk college chicks. Procure finest Indian casino suite. Additional coke and alcohol abuse. Group sex. Ugly girl insults small Chinkbait manhood. Fight. Security. Girls leave. Return taxi to Manhattan. Shit-shower-shave. Change. Return to work.

The End

Postscript for moralistic pussies who require blatantly didactic endings:

So will the A-Team get its come-uppance? Will fate, karma, and the wrathful morality of God or mankind show these bankers the consequences of their folly? If you think so, you haven’t been watching the world very closely. You will never be the smartest guy in the room.

But you want to know. Fine, let’s look into the future.

Quarter 4 ROI: 116%. Outsize bonuses, bitches! The team makes a mint on the G-Crop insider trading deal. Water-free wheat gets pulled off the market in 2016 due to increasing evidence it is behind a third-world cancer epidemic. Monsanto settles with victims for the bargain price of $35 billion. Its stock goes up 19% the day the settlement is announced. Everyone assumed they were toast. Thank their lucky stars Africans have shitty lawyers.

Year 2 ROI: 44%. Year 3 ROI: 39%. Year 4 ROI: negative 1,087%, resulting in a corporate write off of $17.8 billion. The Flash Depression of 2017 sinks Innovative Investments and nearly sinks all of Morclays Goldlynch. It doesn’t sink the A-Team. They are long gone. Someone else is left caught holding their bag of shit.

Marcus went uptown to join HS-TD Citiwells. Shitty bank, good decision. Marcus had the goods, but you don’t move up at Goldlynch unless you’re a Jew or a WASP.

Whip got shot. No, it’s not like that. This isn’t “Gangs of New York.” He was shooting clay pigeons at his parent’s country house in New Hampshire. One of his old Harvard lax buddies was tripping balls and thought he was a giant eagle. Shot him dead in the face. Birdshot punched out his eyes. He’s now the first blind professor of finance at Brown. Still shame of the family. He teaches an annual case study on Deep Frys, now the third largest American fast food corporation. America’s obesity rate crosses 35% for the first time by the end of the decade.

Tony got arrested and charged with rape. Doesn’t matter. Best lawyer money can buy. He got off. He’s now executive director of Goldlynch’s personal wealth management division. Easy street!

Chinkbait turned traitor. He sued Dickhead Pete and Goldlynch for millions, claiming a hostile work environment, racial discrimination, and psychological pain and suffering. This was a poorly thought out move. Chinkbait was a math whiz, not a strategy guy. Video tapes of him soliciting prostitutes were anonymously furnished to the police. Bao-Zi Chang’s was quietly deported to Taiwan. DP knew that “born in Piscataway” story was bullshit. He currently serves as Vice President of Logistics for Taiwan Ship Co.

Did the Chinkbait fiasco sink Dickhead Pete’s career? If you think so, you’re still not learning. Dickhead Pete makes the money. The man who makes the money is not the man who takes the fall. Need proof? See 5,000-plus years of recorded human history. The golden child shall reign all his days.

Jay Hodgkins’ short fiction has appeared in Oblong Magazine, Pythia Journal, and the Eunoia Review. You can read more at www.jayhodgkins.com or follow him on Twitter @JayPHodgkins. He has worked as a speechwriter and journalist for more than a decade. He holds an M.Sc. in creative writing from the University of Edinburgh and a B.Sc. in commerce from the University of Virginia.

Back to the Top

Dawn in the West
by Andrew Hogan

The clunky engine sputtered to a stop in front of Frank Tombe’s house. He raised his head from the armrest of the sofa where he had been sleeping off last night’s hangover. Frank nearly gagged on the fragrance of the lilacs floating in through the living room window. A loud booming noise, like a large metal ball slowly descending the staircase, hitting each step with a thunderous blow, came closer and closer. Then a megaphone blared in his ears, “Frank, I’m leaving.”

Harriet stood in the doorway of the living room. She set down one of the two large suitcases she’d dragged down the stairs and picked up the photo Frank had taken fourteen years ago at the Socorro County Fair of their son William in his cowboy outfit. “And I am taking this with me.”

Frank tried to speak, but his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. He got out a “Nnngh,” but by this time the cab driver had loaded Harriet’s suitcases in the trunk and opened the rear passenger door. Frank looked at the clock on the mantle -- 9:45. The train from Socorro to Albuquerque would be leaving at 10:30.

Should I try to stop her? Frank thought. He tried to sit up, but a large rubber band snapped around his head. Last night he had tried to explain to her again.

“Harriet, this was the last time I’ll need to go to White Oaks. Everything’s set now.” Frank lied; actually he needed to go one more time.

“You said that the last time, Frank, and here you are drunk again. I’m finished,” Harriet said. “First Billy, now you. We have nothing left, Frank.”

Frank laid back on the armrest. He’d rest a little longer before going to the train station to stop Harriet from leaving.

It was one in the afternoon, and, still shaky, Frank decided to drive, rather than walk, to school. A little hair of the dog would have helped, but he didn’t want the smell of alcohol on his breath. Frank pulled his car into a faculty parking space next to Cramer Hall on the campus of the New Mexico School of Mines. Most of the parking spaces were empty. Spring classes were finished. Unlike Frank, most faculty members had already handed in their final grades.

Of course, the parking lot hadn’t been full for more than three years now. Most of the students had been drafted, as had three of the younger faculty members. Admitting female students had helped keep enrollments up. Sarah Feinburg had joined the faculty as an adjunct to help teach the organic chemistry course after Sam Weatherton was killed in Italy.

This was all about to change. Germany had surrendered, and the Japanese were on their last legs, waiting for an American invasion. The department had already hired Richard Pugh as the unlucky thirteenth member of the faculty, and student applications were flooding in from newly discharged soldiers ready to go back to school under the GI Bill. There was a heightened interest in New Mexico uranium mining, and rumor had it that something earthshaking was about to happen over at White Sands.

Molly was sitting at her desk in front of the chairman’s office. As soon as she spotted Frank, she called out: “Dr. Mitchell wants to see you right away.”

Frank tried to slide past Molly’s desk, but she was up, blocking his way.

“He’ll see you now,” she said.

Frank turned toward the chairman’s door, but before he could knock, Molly had rushed over and opened it for him. Molly always smiled, but not today.

Hugh Mitchell looked up from his desk as Frank stepped into the office. Molly closed the door with what Frank thought was a deliberate slam, although Mitchell seemed not to notice.

“Sit down, Frank.” It wasn’t a friendly invitation.

“Sure, Hugh. How’re things? Where are you and Peggy going this summer?” Frank said.

Mitchell ignored him. “Frank, are those grade sheets in your hand?”

“Yes.”

“Give them to me.” Mitchell ripped them from Frank’s extended hand. “I don’t know what happened to you. You used to be a good teacher. The kids loved you. You had some nice research publications, nothing great, but still respectable. What the hell happened?”

“What’s going on? Why are you asking me this? It isn’t time for my annual evaluation.”  Frank was thirsty.

“Frank, you’re finished.”

“What do you mean ‘finished’?”

“I mean, you’re fired.”  Mitchell sat back in his chair and sighed. “What happened? For the last year you have screwed up every assignment. Your teaching stinks. All the students complain about you.”

“Nobody ever complained to me,” Frank said.

“Of course not, you’re never in your office. As far as I can tell, you missed almost every scheduled office-hour this semester. And when students were unlucky enough to catch you after class or, God forbid, in your office, you blew them off with some bull about how they were doing fine and not to worry about their grades.”

“Well, sure, standards have slipped a bit with the war, but we will all be back to normal next year,” Frank said.

“Your normal isn’t good enough any more, Frank. We’re going from 15 students this year to over 60 next year. Johnson and Poundstone will be back from the service. Yarnell is being released from his assignment at Los Alamos. The new guy, Pugh, is replacing you in engineering drawing and math. I’m keeping Feinburg for the time being.”

“You can’t get rid of me, I have tenure. For Christ sakes, Hugh, I’m fifty-two years old. What am I supposed to do?” Frank was almost in tears.

“You’re supposed drink yourself to death, like every other drunk, Frank. I have confirmed reports that you came to Monday classes intoxicated at least five times in the last semester. I’m going to do you a favor, Frank, for old times sake. I’m going to let you resign. If you don’t, I’ll fire you for cause; it will go into your personnel file, and you will never get another teaching job.”

“Shit, Hugh. You know I’m not a drunk. It’s my research. I have to drink,” Frank said.

“You have to drink to be a mining engineer? What kind of bullshit is that?”

“Okay, look Hugh. I mean I need to keep something under wraps for the time being, you understand?” Frank said. “Can I trust you to keep this under wraps?”

“You can trust me to fire you unless you have a god-damned good explanation for your behavior.”

“I think I’ve discovered a grave,” Frank said.

“Ah, great. A mining engineer finding a grave,” Mitchell said, with a look of feigned astonishment on his face. “In the ground, I presume.”

“Look,” Frank said, “it’s the grave of a famous missing person.”

“Aha, so Amelia Earhart wasn’t lost in the Pacific, she crashed in New Mexico,” Mitchell said, widening his eyes in apparent surprise.

“Okay, make fun of me,” Frank said. Mitchell paused, momentarily out of ridicule. Frank continued, “I have been stringing along an old greaser, buying him a lot of booze, drinking with him. You’ve known me for years, Hugh. I don’t even like to drink.”

“For somebody who doesn’t like to drink, you’re doing an awful lot of it.”

“But that’s the thing. I can’t let the greaser figure out what I’m after. He might buy the land before I do, or maybe rob the grave. Look Hugh, this place is going to explode with all the military research they’re doing over at White Sands. A tourist attraction like this will be a gold-mine,” Frank said.

“Frank, I don’t care if you did find Amelia Earhart’s grave. You’re a mining engineer, not an historian or an archeologist. What the hell are you doing looking for graves anyway?”

“But don’t you see, it’ll be a gold mine,” Frank said.

“Frank, you’re paid to teach people how to dig real gold mines, not to find artifacts that would be as good as a gold mine. What I see is a faculty member who is more interested in drinking and going on a wild goose chase than teaching students. Frank, if you’d told me you’re having a rough time because of William or that Harriet had left you for another man, I might have given you a second chance. But this crazy-ass story just convinces me I’m right to fire you.”

“Please, Hugh. I can get myself straightened out by September. Everything is coming to a head this summer. I will either find the burial site or I will give it up forever,” Frank said.

“I had Molly clean out your office and box up all your things. Move everything out today, or I will have the janitors take it to the dump.”

Mitchell got up and left Frank sitting alone. After a few minutes, Frank went to his own office. The door was locked, and his key didn’t work. His books and papers were packed into boxes by the door. A moment later, Molly came by with a hand-truck.

“Do you need any help moving the boxes to your car, Frank?” Molly said.

“I’ll be okay, Molly,” Frank said. She gave him a smile that looked more like a wince and went back to her desk.

Ever since the chief mining engineer of the Old Abe Mine in White Oaks had invited Frank’s senior engineering drafting class over for a field trip at the beginning of the fall semester, Frank had been making regular trips to White Oaks on the pretext of giving engineering advice. Frank went to White Oaks every third Friday of the month, when there was no faculty meeting, and spent Friday evening, most of Saturday, except for a quick trip to make an appearance at the chief engineer’s office, and Sunday morning at Lupe’s Cantina.

Last September on his first visit to the Old Abe Mine, Frank and his engineering drafting class were all guests of Old Abe’s chief mining engineer. A goat had been slaughtered and roasted for the occasion, and local performers entertained Frank and the dozen prospective mining engineers with songs and stories of the old west. Frank had had a difficult time keeping up appearances during the reception, until he heard the local minstrel tell the story of how Billy the Kid had not gone east to Fort Sumner after escaping from jail in Lincoln following his murder conviction, but had, much more logically in Frank’s opinion, gone west into the mountains through Capitán and into the lava fields known as the Valley of Fires, where even the Mescalero Apaches wouldn’t be able to track him. According to the minstrel, Pat Garrett had killed the wrong man in Fort Sumner, maybe a look-a-like hired by Billy’s gang. Having become famous for killing Billy the Kid, Garrett would have made a fool of himself admitting he killed the wrong man -- and so the case of fatally mistaken identity became part of history.

Frank understood why Billy couldn’t be tracked into the Valley of Fires. The fields were treacherous; broken terrain, riddled with fissures, brittle overhangs, almost no flat surfaces and many sharp projections. Even in late April, when Billy escaped from the Lincoln jail, the lava fields turned into an oven during the day because of the black surface and the lack of any shade. A single slip of the foot by man or horse would likely leave one or both disabled in a waterless wasteland with no hope of help from passersby.

So every third weekend Frank traveled to White Oaks and, just to be friendly, bought drinks for any seemingly knowledgeable locals to get them to open up about local legends, history, and gossip. He didn’t push anyone to talk about Billy the Kid, but when the opportunity arose he would ask the right question to steer the conversation in that direction. Gradually Frank learned that Anglos, Mexicans and Indians all believed different myths about Billy the Kid, depending on how badly he was thought to have treated their particular group while alive. Finally during his April return visit to Lupe’s Cantina, Frank met Miguel Herrera, an aging, part-Mexican, part-Mescalero Apache miner.

“Muchacho, I’ve seen you working at the Old Abe?” Frank said.

“Si, I work there,” Miguel said. “You work for el ingeniero?”

“No, I teach at the School of Mines in Socorro. I just come here to show the students how it’s done in real life, not in books. How long’ve you been a miner there?”

“Long time,” Miguel said. “My father also miner at Old Abe.”

“Grandfather, too?”

“No, he full-blood Indian. Before there reservation at Fort Stanton. He got grandmother embarazada over on finca in Oscura. He have regular Indian wife back in mountains. Go back and forth,” Miguel said.

“What kind of work did he do?”

“Hunting, stealing, like all Apaches back then. He wait for people go in lava field, fall and die, then he take things and sell,” Miguel said.

“There were a lot of famous people around here back when your grandfather was alive. Did he ever meet any of them?”

“No, he mostly stay away white man, except they die in lava field,” Miguel said.

“Nobody famous died in the lava fields, I guess?”

“Grandmother tell us one time grandfather find dead gunfighter in lava field. He take gun, knife, spyglass, boots, saddle. Horse already dead from fall,” Miguel said.

“Really, was it a famous gunfighter?”

“No sure. Grandfather no speak Ingles. No read. No care about papers on body. Just things to sell. No know name of gunfighter, but had gun in holster a la isquierda,” Miguel said.

“Isquierda?” Frank said.

“Si, over here.” Miguel pointed to his left side.

Nearly two months after his resignation in May Frank had saved enough gasoline ration coupons to make the trip from Socorro over to White Oaks. On his prior expeditions, he had used the ration coupons from the School, since he was on official business. He had waited for the sun to begin to set before making the trek across the Jornada del Muerto where the daytime temperature could easily reach 110° in early July.

Frank left Socorro around 5 p.m., going south on the Camino Real to San Antonio and then turning his Willy’s east across the Jornada del Muerto to White Oaks, where Miguel would be on his way to Lupe’s Cantina, as he was every Saturday night. Once he passed through Farley and reached Carthage, Frank was stopped at a military roadblock. After assuring the soldiers that he was on official business from the School of Mines, he was allowed to pass, but they warned him to stay on the Roswell Road all the way to Carrizozo and not to make any detours south onto the military testing grounds.

Lying before him was the Jornada del Muerto, the ninety-mile shortcut off the Camino Real between Santa Fe and El Paso. The Jornada was an empty plain filled with lava that the winds had abraded into a sandy basin covered in low shrubs. There was no reliable source of surface water for a trip that had taken several days on horseback. The Muerto whose death inspired the name for the ‘Dead Man’s Route’ was El Alemán, a German trader whose body was now submersed somewhere under the Jornada’s sea of volcanic sand. A dead Kraut thousands of miles from home, thought Frank. Dying in a distant land.

The waning afternoon light hit the desert scrub at an oblique angle, making the surface appear dark, even though the sand underneath was a light creamy brown. The desert basin shimmered in the heat, an ocean of choppy, dark water lying between the islands of the Fray Cristóbal Mountains to the west and the Sierra Oscura Range to the east. The late afternoon wind had raised a sea spray of dust. Frank sailed across this sea of sand in his Willy’s much as the America’s sons had sailed across the English Channel toward Normandy on D-Day, now more than a year ago. Sinking beneath the surface, lost forever in a distant sea, Frank thought.

Passing through Bingham and another military roadblock, Frank was again warned not stray off the road. The Willy’s ascended the bumpy road up the Chupadera Mesa, a bottle of Don Cuervo Especial Tequila bouncing on the back seat. Frank would use it to pry out the last bits of information about the burial site of the dead body Miguel’s Apache grandfather had found out in the Valley of Fires some seventy years earlier. Crossing the top of the Mesa, Frank descended into the breach in the northern and southern ranges of the Sierra Oscura; darkness quickly surrounded him.

I’ve got to find that grave, Frank said to himself; since losing his job, he only had himself to talk to. Harriet had wanted to talk to him but he had lost interest almost a year ago. He didn’t actually miss talking with her that much. Since she’d left, Frank found he preferred cooking his own meals and eating alone. Ever since he had heard about Billy the Kid, talking things over with Harriet at dinner invariably led to a fight.

The next day was July 14, two months since Frank had lost his teaching job. If everything went well tomorrow, he’d soon be welcomed back at the School of Mines. His strange and erratic behavior would all be explained, or at least excused, by the significance of his find. Okay, it wasn’t a mineral in the ground, but it was a significant discovery; and it was underneath the earth and it did have to be excavated, even if it wasn’t exactly a job requiring the skills of a mining engineer, Frank thought. Uncovering a grave of this historical importance will show Mitchell a thing or two about the noteworthiness of my research. More important, it’ll shut Harriet up about how I’ve lost my mind, about needing to pull myself back together.

Frank wasn’t sure he wanted Harriet to come crawling back to him from her mother’s farm in Iowa, but he would feel vindicated if she tried.

The Don Cuervo Especial had done the trick. Miguel got good and drunk and told the whole story of his grandfather’s grave robbing. Okay, that was unfair; Miguel’s grandfather had dug the grave for the gunfighter, buried him deep enough and covered him with enough rocks to keep the coyotes from devouring his remains, Frank thought.

Of course, the old Indian had unburdened the unfortunate corpse of its unnecessary worldly possessions -- possessions, which, if left there with the body, might well have tempted some unscrupulous person to defile it and disturb the spirit of the recently deceased. The gunfighter might have led a turbulent life and suffered a painful death, but that didn’t mean he shouldn’t rest in peace.

Frank left White Oaks the next morning as early as his hangover would allow and headed south through Carrizozo. Miguel’s story about his grandfather and the dead gunfighter had given Frank the landmarks he needed to find the grave. Frank was stopped by yet another military roadblock on the road to Alamogordo and again warned not to leave the main road. Reaching the village of Oscura, Frank found the trail into the Valley of Fires closed by a barricade proclaiming the area on the other side to be a restricted military zone; a single sentry sat in a jeep next to the barricade.

It was 3:30 in the afternoon; the sentry would change at 4 o’clock. Frank parked the Willy’s a quarter of a mile down the road and waited. At 4 pm, the sentry drove off toward Carrizozo to exchange the jeep with his replacement. Frank shifted the Willy’s into four-wheel drive, drove around the unguarded barriers, following the trail through the narrowest point of the Valley of Fires lava field.

On one of his periodic visits to his Mexican wife, Miguel’s Apache grandfather had seen the gunfighter ride through Oscura on his way into the lava field. The Apache followed the gunfighter on the prospect that an untimely accident might provide some valuable prizes. Miguel said his grandfather had guessed that the gunfighter wanted to cross the lava field and then ride up its western edge. With a spyglass, the gunfighter could keep an eye on anyone following him on the eastern side of the flow; he could be long gone into the mountains by the time any posse could cross the treacherous lava fields.

The gunfighter had a good plan, Miguel’s grandfather had thought, until he wandered off the established path, probably to make tracking more difficult. The gunfighter had got himself onto a precarious ledge running along side a ravine where the brittle lava failed; the gunfighter and his horse fell, both suffering a painful death.

Fortunately for Frank, the army had built a patrol road, with an easily circumvented roadblock, right where the path used to be. Frank had written down all the rock features he would need to find his way to where Miguel’s grandfather had buried the gunfighter: The Tortoise with the Broken Leg, The Coyote with One Foot Raised, and The Hawk Catching the Ground Squirrel. Before dusk, Frank had found them all.

Frank set up his camp at the foot of the twisted juniper tree, growing out of a crevice in a black lava platform. Lightning had split the juniper tree’s trunk decades ago; the separate halves of the trunk had continued to grow, agonizingly twisting themselves more than 360 degrees in opposite directions. The night air was cooling fast, but the black lava still radiated the sun’s heat. Just behind the deformed juniper lay an oblong mound of rocks marking what Frank believed to be the grave of Billy the Kid.

It only took Frank an hour to restack the rocks covering the grave into a wall around the edge. After removing three flat slabs of volcanic lava, Frank saw in the ebbing light that the remaining dirt had subsided, collapsing into the empty cavity that had once been a human body. It was too dark to continue; the rest of the excavation would have to wait for the new dawn.

Frank started a fire and prepared his meal. In the deepening dusk, the split and twisted trunks of the juniper looked like the desperate arms of a drowning soldier reaching out of a dark sea, hoping to find someone to pull him to safety. Frank took a long pull from his flask and laid back on his bedroll for a rocky night of sleep.

Frank woke before dawn, needing to relieve himself. He restarted the fire and put on some coffee. The eastern sky was just starting to blush a soft pale blue. Another half hour until dawn, and Frank could finish excavating the grave.

Drinking his coffee and waiting for the light, Frank opened his wallet and took out a worn pocket snapshot of his son, William, dressed in his cowboy outfit at the Socorro County Fair. Tears ran down his cheeks.

“Oh god, son, I wish you could be here with me now. I couldn’t save you from drowning off Normandy. If only they could have sent me your body to bury, to have a grave where I could visit with you, to know you weren’t lost forever.”

Frank sat on the wall he had built from the rocks covering the grave of the body he believed to be Billy the Kid, holding the picture of his dead soldier-son. In the west the sky burst open with an enormous flash of light. The flash was so bright that Frank could read the note Harriet had written on the other side of the snapshot, William ‘Billy the Kid’ Tombe, 1931. A brief eternity later and the snapshot burst into flames. Frank’s eyes blistered and went black, but he could still hear. The earth quivered and the sound of a thousand locomotives raced toward him. Time passed very slowly; then a tidal wave of wind hit Frank so hard his burning body was thrown backward into the open grave, collapsing onto and becoming part of the desiccated remains.

In a few seconds the grave was filled with debris. The campsite was obliterated. Frank’s Willy’s was incinerated and thrown into a nearby ravine. Another Tombe had been buried in an unknown grave, in an unknown place no loved one would ever visit. The area was covered with radioactive fallout and declared off-limits for twenty-five years.

Andrew Hogan received his doctorate in development studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 
Before retirement, he was a faculty member at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, where he taught medical ethics, health policy and the social organization of medicine in the College of Human Medicine. Dr. Hogan published more than five-dozen professional articles on health services research and health policy. He has published forty-nine works of fiction in the OASIS Journal (1st Prize, Fiction 2014), Hobo Pancakes, Subtopian Magazine, Twisted Dreams, Thick Jam, Midnight Circus, Grim Corps, Long Story Short, Defenestration, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, The Blue Guitar Magazine, Flash, Stockholm Review of Literature, The Beechwood Review, Short Break Fiction, Cyclamens and Swords, Children, Churches and Daddies, Spank the Carp, Pear Drop, Festival Writer (Pushcart Nominee), Flash, Shalla Magazine, Lowestoft Chronicle, Fabula Argentea, Mobius, Thrice, The Lorelei Signal, Fiction on the Web, Sandscript, and the Copperfield Review.
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Ash Wednesday
by George Keenen

I cried today, and I never cry.

I almost cried in the morning. I was walking down Montgomery St. and saw the clouds blow up and hide the sun. This struck me as momentous. I forgot what I was thinking about. I looked up and down the street: people walking, noticing nothing at all. But I felt tears gathering, waiting. They lived there, and no sudden memory of Mother, or of fishing at Kane’s Farm, or of my second wife, was going to pry them out.

I shuddered. Tears were welling up and ready to fly. Those tears I didn’t shed at my parents’ funeral, still there. Those tears I didn’t shed over the Red Sox, stored like pearls in a jewelry box. Those tears that were not shed when I identified the bodies, they were waiting at the floodgates.

I am a blueprint deliveryman. I carry yellow cardboard tubes up and down the concrete walks of the Financial District and Lower Market. It’s hard on your legs; the bicycle messengers have it easy. When people receive a set of blueprints, they are activated, they become Doers. Once you have the Blueprint, the world is yours.

Garfield & Associates was on the second floor of the Glassic Building. I had been there before. This was Beverly. I said, “Hi, ma’am. Blueprints,” and gave her a receipt to sign. While she scribbled a signature, I looked at the photograph of the Bay Bridge that had been made into wallpaper behind her. I looked at her boring desk: a rubber band holder, a paper clip holder, an IN/OUT box, stacks of stamped envelopes ready to mail, and some rubber stamps on a stamp wheel; one  of them said SEE ME FAY. I imagined Fay.

As Beverly took the tube from me, I said, “Bet I know what these are.” I was only guessing because I knew this firm did spot work on the Bay Bridge, and I knew there had been trouble with some of the girders because I read it in the newspaper. So I thought it might have had something to do with that, but I was only guessing. Beverly looked at me with a huge hostile question mark on her face and said, “Then you know too much.”

She brought the tubes to a room in the back of the office where men in long-sleeved white shirts were waiting, and I could see her talking to them as she removed the blueprints from the tube and spread them on the table. She bobbed her head toward me, and the men looked at me through the open door.

I went outside; the sun had returned, but it was a cheerless day. I headed back for another yellow tube feeling that old anger rising as I thought about God. I had been raised Catholic and was still going through a nasty break-away. Stupendous lies had been told by popes who were crazy rich from selling indulgences! While we had nothing. I was disgusted, disappointed. I felt I had been duped by my own parents.

And yet part of me remembered serving six o’clock masses in a stone-cold church. That wasn’t a lie. It was the kind of tactile link that was sticky as a spider web to release. I had loved serving mass—the fragrant incense, the tall beeswax candles, the priest bent over his chalice in the low light. Those were rare moments, and they felt exclusive: the old widow in the second row with a black scarf praying her rosary, she was the only witness, our only accomplice. But the lies, the lies. . . sin, heaven, indulgences. Back and forth I raged. I must have looked like a street crazy; but I wasn’t. That’s what they all say, of course. But I was sober and off the dole. I was just a guy from Jersey trying to make a living in California, doing a job that was very hard on my legs, and trying to work out what was true in America and the immediate cosmos.

I walked back along the piers, past the bus terminal and the Seafarer’s Home, past the posh new high riser apartments with a Dry Cleaners or a chiropractic office on the ground floor.

The Dispatch Office of Downtown Messengers was down an alley off Howard. A long narrow concrete room painted yellow, an awful yellow, with a high window in the front and a cage in the back. Three other messengers were queued up on the benches looking bored: Ace, the oldest and longest tenured of the messengers. He was 65 and had never found anything better to do. Ernie was more like 20, a college drop-out reading a comic book. Carlos, a tall friend my age, was from Costa Rica, living in the Mission at his mother’s, very sensitive and spiritual. I might as well include myself in this rogues’ gallery. I’m 32, an ex-altar boy, ex-seminarian, ex-rancher, ex-soldier, ex-husband, ex-everything.

I didn’t sit down. I walked to the back and found Tony, the manager, in the cage writing out delivery tickets; he didn’t look up when he heard me.
 
“I’ll take any Garfield you want,” I said.

“What’s so great about a Garfield run?” he asked. “All the other messengers hate it; it’s the farthest we got. Oh yes, okay, sure, you’re a ladies man, there must be a hot secretary. What’s her name?”

“Fay.”

“Well, then, what do I care, here’s another one for Garfield.” He handed me the yellow tube through the slot in the cage and looked up at me appraisingly. “And let me give you a tip: don’t make us look bad on the street, Jimmy? Think. And not just about yourself. Be a professional, not just a mumbler in a t-shirt. Act your age. OK? Good man.”
 
“People always tell you to think,” I said.

“Do people say that to you often?” asked Tony, squinting at me.

“But they never tell you how,” I said.

“Okay, I’m not afraid to tell you,” said Tony. “ It’s like listening. If you listen for the farthest thing you can hear over the noise of the surrounding world, what can you hear? That’s thinking—being alert to possibilities, answering the call.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.

“Go on, get out of here,” said Tony.

“Tony, you rock.”

“Get!”

As I left the office I had to pass the boys on the bench. Ace kept his knees out and I had to go around him. As I passed him he hissed, “Tool!”  Ernie kept reading his comic book. I passed Carlos and whispered to him, “Nos vemos mas tarde.” He made no reply, sat there staring at the wall.
 
Outside again I was happy. I was un-anchored and changeable as the weather. I looked up—there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Happy for no reason.

I had only walked a few blocks towards Garfield’s when the tide of pedestrians jelled and surged; everyone was moving in the same direction in a hurry.  I came to the rear of a standing scrum of people, all struggling and grunting. I asked a straggler what happened. He said, “A man has jumped or fallen from the roof of the Mayfair Hotel.” 

“Maybe he was pushed,” said a man in a broken hat. “You never know.”

“I saw it,” said another man, one with avid eyes and parched cracked lips and a wacko look that came up under at you. “He came down head first and he broke one of the flagpoles in the front there, on the way down.” Indeed there was a gap in the row of flags hanging out horizontally from the hotel.  “Is he dead?” I asked; the hotel is only three stories high. “His head is smashed, that’s for sure,” said the avid man. He was enjoying this. I moved away through the crowd and I was surprised to see Carlos in the crowd. I went up to him, saying, “That was quick.”

“I quit,” said Carlos. “I can’t stand Ernie, and Ace leers at me. Tony is fatherly and okay, but he doesn’t out-balance the other two. And there are others.”

“I almost cried today,” I said.

“It’s one  of those days,” Carlos said.


“Where is the moon, anyway?” I wondered.

“My popi can get me construction,” said Carlos, “but I can’t do construction any more.”

I saw a cop giving Carlos the eye. I knew that cop—Donnelly was his name. Used to see him under the bridge when I was homeless. He saw Carlos was working the crowd, picking pockets. I said to Carlos, “Get rid of the wallets!” and moved away.

An emergency medical squad pushed its way through the throng towards the fallen man. Police pushed people back and created some breathing space---for whom? The man was through breathing, I thought cynically. The nurse checked his pulse; blood not pumping, blood gone to sidewalk, take the sidewalk’s pulse. She held a small mirror under the dead man’s nose; the breath on life did not appear. She put the mirror down. Loosening the man’s belt, she checked for injuries. At that moment she looked my way and there it was:  a black smudge just above where her eyebrows meet. It looked like someone had put a cigar out on her forehead. This could only mean one thing. It was Ash Wednesday. Go to church, have ashes put on your forehead, reminds you you’re going to die. I was non-denominational about death. I felt I had to be able to learn from everything. I thought some dust  to ponder would make me Hamlet.

I felt like going to my apartment and pondering. But my loyalty to Tony was immense; I wouldn’t not deliver something he gave me. And so I went and delivered my package first. The secretary I had dealt with before, Beverly, was gone. No one was at her desk. I looked in the back and saw a beautiful woman standing with the men in the back room. She, not the blueprints, was the object of all their attentions. She handled them all like a champion fencer holding off five. “Why, be that as it may, darling, there’s not a real man among them.”

Fay, is that you?

I waved my tube in their direction until they noticed me. One of the men came out to the counter. He had a pipe in his mouth  but it wasn’t lit. He took the tube from me and said, “Hi, I’m William Bailey. I’m a senior partner here. It’s all confidential, private, need-to-know type business back here, and as our adjunct worker we require the same of you, uh, Jimmy. You realize that, don’t you?”

I was choking on his choice of the word ‘adjunct,’ but I managed a “Yes, sir.” Still looking at me like a cop, he hit his pipe on the edge of the wastebasket and the un-smoked plug came flying out. He picked it out of the basket and showed it to me.

“That’s the dottel,” said William Bailey.

He took a package of fresh tobacco from his pocket and walked away re-filling his pipe.

“Have a nice day, uh, Jimmy,” he called.

As soon as he left I reached over the counter and grabbed the rubber stamp and stamped SEE ME FAY on my forehead. I put the stamp in my pocket.

I walked over to the Mayfair Hotel; the dead man’s body was gone. The crowd has disappeared but some men continued to nose around: Carlos was still there, foolishly counting money in the open.

Suddenly Donnelly roared, “Hey, you!” and came after Carlos, who dropped five empty wallets and took off. I took off with him. We ran down Market and cut through 2nd St to Mission past the French Horn Cafe. We ran down Howard. There we saw the old Blessed Sacrament Church, with lines coming out the doors. We each jumped on a line and put our heads down. It was the last place he’d look for us. Sure enough, in half a minute Donnelly came huffing by, and kept on going.

Carlos, riffling the cash said, “Here’s mom’s rent.”

“Later for that. We’re here, it’s Ash Wednesday, we might as well get ashes.”

“You’re a sucker for ritual,” said Carlos.

“I’m a sucker for ritual. Stay on that line there,” I said, “and I’ll stay on this line here. We’ll get ashes. And then we’ll go down to the bus terminal and you can buy me dinner at Terminal Lunch.”

The lines moved slowly and I found myself remembering what it was like to identify the bodies of mom and dad, the broken bones pieced together to make the semblance of a corpse, and I pictured the whole unbelievable scene by the overturned bus. Where was god then? The line snaked ahead. Carlos’s line was moving faster. He got to the priest
and closed his eyes, and the priest daubed him with ash.

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” said the priest.

“Thank you, padre,” said Carlos, leaving with folded hands by the side aisle.

My turn. I got to the head of the line and to my surprise the priest wasn’t giving ashes. He was giving communion, putting hosts on tongues. An altar boy stood next to him and held a plate under my chin in case the host should drop. I was on the wrong line and it was too late to flee, it was too late to do anything but open my mouth and stick out my tongue.

“Corpus Christi,” said the priest. I made no response, but in my heart I said, Fancy meeting you here.

I turned and walked down the side aisle, swallowing the host as I went. Again the tears welled up. I was so confused. This time I cried. I sat down on the steps of the church and wept for a long time. People walked around me without commenting.

Carlos came over and sat next to me. He put his arm around me.

“Pura Vida,” he said. “It’s great to be alive.”

George Keenen lives on a ranch in northern California, where he grows the world's hottest Thai chilies.


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