By Paul Ratner
Hiroshima, 6th August 1945
I was sitting in class staring at Mr. Takashi writing algebra in big loopy lettering on the chalkboard when the bomb landed. He was wearing a short-sleeved white cotton shirt with black slacks that billowed around his skinny legs and a pair of black-rimmed glasses that perched on the bridge of his rubbery nose.
I’m not sure why I can remember him so vividly now. It was just an ordinary school day and me and my thirty or so classmates had no idea when we filed into trigonometry that morning that this day would change our lives.
But somehow every minute detail of that day is seared into my memory, like it’s a part of me and I’m a part of it. And so my life became divided in two—those childhood days that came before the bomb and the days that marched onwards defiantly after. The bomb itself is somehow outside of my life now, like a break in a paragraph, instead of a chapter in itself.
So I was sitting at my desk staring over the backs of five other boys’ heads at Mr. Takashi, who was trying to help us find x, while only giving us y and z as clues, when suddenly a searing, soaring heat swept across the room.
If you imagine a giant is standing high above you and your whole class, and in one furious motion he sweeps his giant hand over all of you, so hard that he knocks you all to the other side of the room, then I guess that’s what it felt like.
Except his hand was burning with the heat of the Sun. So I guess it was more like a dragon, who was blowing fire down out of his nostrils, scorching every part of us—our clothes, our skin, our hair, our faces—and tearing the earth asunder.
But dragons are meant to smell ghastly and yet there was no smell. Not at first anyway. There was just the heat and there was just the pain. So I guess it’s not like a giant or a dragon at all, it’s just like being hit by an atomic bomb, because the whole world’s never dreamt up anything else to compare it to.
I lay flat on the ground in between the arms and legs of my classmates, feeling dazed and sick. I noticed that some of my friends’ arms and legs were still attached to their bodies, and some were not, and I imagine this might sound odd, but at the time it didn’t seem strange to me. For a minute or so I adjusted to the idea that some of my classmates didn’t have arms and legs, and felt like this was perfectly normal.
You’re probably wondering what it sounded like with all those survivors screaming. It didn’t really sound of anything. I just remember hearing a faint dog whistle playing in my ear and even though I could see some of my classmates’ mouths moving furiously, I couldn’t hear what they were saying. It was peaceful in a way, like watching people through plated glass.
I couldn’t move my right arm but could just about move my left, which felt painful like someone had punched it repeatedly all over. I touched my left ear to try to unblock it and felt an immediate sting, like I was poking my finger into a wound. I put my hand in front of my face and noticed it was covered in blood. My blood. Somehow this didn’t concern me.
I tried to raise myself off the ground with my one good arm but could only manage about five inches. Even though turning my head to the side caused me great pain, I did so just long enough to glimpse Mr. Takashi, who was lying slumped over by the door, with his clothes ripped across his body and his smashed, black-rimmed glasses lying comically over his dead-eyed face.
My arm then gave way and I fell back into my place in the pile of arms and legs surrounding me.
There is a festival in my country called Tanabata, the Festival of the Stars, which takes place every year on the 7th of July. It celebrates an old folk legend. The story goes that the daughter of the Sky King met a handsome prince and fell in love, but because of her new marriage she stopped making beautiful clothes for her father and he grew angry. As a punishment, he sent the prince and princess to different ends of the universe and only allowed them to meet on one day a year in July.
Sometimes I think of Mr. Takashi now, with his clean white-cotton shirt and black-rimmed glasses, and feel like he was banished to the other side of the universe. To a place so cold that only the cockroaches could survive. And I wonder what it’s like out there for him, floating all alone in space, searching for x in the darkness where there is no y and there is no z. I hope that one day I see him again. I hope that one day we reach our 7th of July.
By Donají Olmedo
(Translated by Toshiya Kamei)
Damn it, why, in this precise moment and not in another? I cursed my fate. It just so happens that light, in my case, is darkness. Sarcastic antonym. Stigma and counterpart of the concept. Two days before the light visited me, the circumstantial gears of my life presumed fluidity.
“The exit of the Miguel Ángel de Quevedo subway station. Is that okay with you?” she asked in her singsong voice, and my life resumed flight. It was the date I had waited so long for.
I woke up at six in the morning. It’s a lie. I didn’t wake up, and as I like to align myself with the concepts, I’ll be honest. I didn’t sleep a wink. I decided to crawl out of bed and be done with the maddening mental knots that invade those with an unshielded heart like mine.
While I scrubbed my body with soap, I practiced poses and greetings. A list of topics to be discussed unfolded in my particular scenario: the latest U2 album, the Cannes winners, etc. With clothes it didn’t take me long: jeans. She loves self-confidence and simplicity. I went out to meet Rebeca, a woman with rain-colored eyes. The clock in the living room of my apartment marked ten-thirty when I closed the door behind me.
I was humming With or Without You in the Hidalgo station’s transfer tunnel when my aura appeared, hurting my eyes. That pathetic warning, in my case, resembles a luminous protoplasm, a premonitory ghost. There, in the middle of the passageway, the white irony stood, baring my teeth. The other passengers, with ease, confronted it and I hated them right away. It always happens to me. I have even taken it as an affront that others don’t see my aura. I have a minute, more or less, to place my feet and body somewhere safe. This time I used it to send a text message: “Rebeca, an unexpected setback came up, I’m not coming. Will you please forgive me?” It took me several seconds to think about the content and many more to type it. I scanned the tunnel. Before I managed to lie down on the floor, darkness arrived.
I must have scared people with my spasms. Whenever I open my eyes and meet strange, benevolent gazes, I get violent. It sucks. Even though, being faithful and literal to my customary alignment of concepts, when this happens, I pee and shit.
The clock in the living room of my apartment marked twelve-twenty when I returned, dragging stink with every step. I didn’t even remember why I had gone out. The period of amnesia after the epileptic seizure lasted three hours. Before getting in the shower, I realized my cell phone and wallet had been stolen.
*Aura: subjective feeling (auditory, visual, olfactory, motor or gustatory) that precedes the onset of a paroxysmal attack such as an epileptic seizure or a migraine episode.
The Phone Kiosk
The traffic on O’Connell Street was endless, buses, cars, a refuge truck, bicycles, all rushing past with places to go. Even the pedestrians on the pavement, passing the window of the Costa Coffee with its brown bean signs, its window counter, its street gazers, seemed concentrated on their journey, their destination, the surety of their lives and their momentary mission. You could see it in the way they strode purposefully by, their eyes focused on some future event—the fulfillment of their excursion, the conversation they would soon have, the purchase they would make.
It seemed to Mikey, looking out through the glass of the telephone kiosk, that the world was going about its business in its usual ordered way, clear and knowledgeable about its requirements and desired outcomes. Even the buildings themselves, lining the broad street on this late summer’s afternoon, seemed to know what they wanted, standing tall and white in the bright air, full of their histories, strong, unerringly moving into their futures with determination and certainty.
He fingered the coins in his pocket and rehearsed again in his head the number he would call, as if it wasn’t already well known to him. It was a simple matter. All he had to do was pick up the phone, insert the coins and dial the number. All he had to do was say I’m alive, I’m well. I just wanted you to know. Don’t worry about me, I’m getting by. He could hang up at any time. He did not have to listen. It was just a matter of imparting his message, putting down the phone, and stepping out again into that moving world, the one where he could lose himself, a pebble pushed along the edge of the beach by the tide, a stone carried down a mountain in a tumble of scree.
The sun slanted into the kiosk over his left shoulder, sharpening the chrome buttons of the phone, dulling the cracked Perspex cover of the panel above the shelf where one might place a scrap of paper containing a phone number or, perhaps, a small book into which received instructions might be written. Behind the Perspex emergency numbers were listed—fire and ambulance, police, child lines, and slotted into the bottom right corner through the crack, a card with a picture of a woman with a whip, a stern face and a message saying Madam Victoria wanted him to call her, now.
Too many demands. Was that why he left? Everyone else always seemed to know what was best for him. How could he argue, he who had no ideas himself, who wanted nothing more than to have one day slip into the next, to be unnoticed, a book at the bottom of the pile, a sock at the back of the drawer? Why did everyone always want him to do something else? He had always felt out of phase with the world, as if he had stepped into it in mid-sentence. It wasn’t even that he could not make sense of it all. He understood it well enough. It was more that he had little interest in any of it. The fact that the shop had run out of blackcurrant jam, that the post was late, that Mrs. Clinton had told Mrs. Nugent that the O’Connor girls were seen stealing make-up from the supermarket, was of no importance. People seemed to build their lives around such trivia, they rushed, worried, got irritated, angry, talked on and on in pointless dialogues. It was all too much.
‘It’s all pointless.’ He had told his mother.
‘It is if you spend all day on yer arse,’ she had retorted. ‘You should get a job.’
A job. It was rolled out by everyone as an answer. The solution to the banality of existence lay, it would seem, in the numbing servitude of work. It was not the effort he objected to, the physical exercise of his body, the induction of tiredness, it was the monotony of routine—doing the same thing day after day, saying the same words in the same way to the same people; hearing the same words daily—good morning, how are you?, you’re a lazy little shit, fuck off.
Two months. Perhaps three. He wasn’t sure. He had lost himself in drift, in floating through the days, letting his head fill with shapes, with sounds, he never tried to identify. He ate or he didn’t. He closed his eyes if he needed to sleep.
He could stop anytime he wanted. Fully stop. Perhaps, just by willing it—a last breath. Yet here he was, back in the telephone kiosk, pulled by something that gnawed at his mind. Rules. Thou shalt call thy mother. Why must he do this? Why had he been compelled again to gather together the coins and step into this space? It was as if he had stepped into his own head. It was not a place he wanted to be. He wanted to be a balloon let free from the hand of the small boy and blown away by a breeze.
Today? Yes, perhaps he would make the call today. Perhaps he would make the call and set himself free of its obligation. Perhaps if he called he would be able to float out from the kiosk. He took his hand from his pocket and opened it. It was empty. Perhaps tomorrow. Tomorrow might be a better day. The sky might not be so painfully blue, the weight of the air might be less, and his hand might contain the coins, travel more easily to the phone, and his voice might find a way of starting itself, the key turning easily in the ignition; the engine might purr and the journey lay itself out on the windscreen of the kiosk like he had some place to go.
KEEP IT NICE
By Salvatore Difalco
My parents argued in their bedroom. I had been asleep for hours, but their voices awoke me. I lay there in the dark trying to make out what they were arguing about. My mother did most of the talking, her voice rising and falling with emotion.
My father had been to a poker game that night. I’d gone to bed before he came home. I knew he was playing poker because he always wore his black loafers to poker games. His feet swelled when he sat for too long, so he could easily slip the loafers off when necessary without drawing attention to himself.
My mother’s anger would not abate. I could hear my father murmuring apologies. She was having none of it. At one point he raised his voice but after a hissing rebuke quickly lowered it.
The argument ended, or I fell asleep again. In any event I awoke the next morning to chirping birds and the smell of burnt toast.
I dressed, used the washroom, and went downstairs.
My father sat at the kitchen table in an undershirt, his hairy ams and shoulders contrasting with and heightening its whiteness.
My mother stood facing the stove in a pale blue dressing gown, head bowed. I don’t know what she was doing.
“Buon giorno,” I said, taking a seat at the table.
My mother didn’t turn around. My father grunted under his breath.
I grabbed a biscotto from a plate in the middle of the table and chewed it.
“You’re spilling crumbs everywhere,” my father said. “Go grab a plate.”
I went to the cupboard for a plate. I could see that my mother was crying. I looked at my father. He sat there with his jaw set, hands flat on the table.
“You want coffee?” I asked.
“Your mother’s getting it for me.”
My mother didn’t move. She brought a Kleenex to her nose.
I grabbed a cup and walked past my mother. The glass coffee pot rested on a back burner. I reached around her and lifted the pot off the burner. I filled the cup and lowered the pot back to the burner. My father drank his coffee black, so I took him the cup and set it in front of him.
“I said your mother’s getting me the coffee,” he said without looking at me.
“It’s right here, Pa. It’s okay.”
He glanced at me and in one motion grabbed the cup and hurled it at the wall. It shattered, splattering coffee everywhere.
I stood there shaking.
My father rose from his chair and lifted his arm to strike me.
That’s when my mother turned around from the stove and stared at my father with what I can only describe as burning blue eyes.
As I braced for the blow, my father’s hand froze in midair.
Shoulders hunched, knees bent as if to leap or sprint across the floor, my enraged mother stared at my father with such intensity he began to shrink.
I took a step back as this unfolded, unsure of what I was witnessing.
My father’s hairy shoulders and arms receded inch by inch into the undershirt. His balding head shrunk down to the size of a baseball, then dipped below his neckline. His legs completely disappeared. His clothes and what remained of him crumpled to the floor in a sloppy heap. I thought I could hear him squeaking like a mouse under the clothes, but I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure of anything anymore.
My mother now directed her gaze at me.
I didn’t know what to do, whether to bolt or face this head on.
“What do you want for breakfast?” she asked.
I raised my hand to shield my eyes.
“Uh, I’ll just grab myself some Cheerios, Ma.”
The Space Between Us
By Lisa Kenway
A handwritten note flaps against the bathroom door. A white flag. Do not flush sanitary items down the marine toilet. The tape at the bottom of the page has come loose, peeling away a layer of wood veneer.
Imagine a sticky note on the furniture for every unwritten rule: Learn how to relax. Don’t take everything so seriously. Give me a bit of space, would you?
I hardly recognise myself in the photo propped up on the cabinet. I reach out and trace the square line of Sam’s jaw. His face is softer now, worn in. Of all the pictures I could have brought, I chose a relic. A Polaroid faded to sepia. I’m sitting on Sam’s lap, his chin nestled into the hollow of my shoulder. The two of us grinning for the camera.
The silence is thick with prickles—the kind that catch on your clothes and tear your skin. My breakfast cereal has turned to mush, wet sawdust on my tongue. The boat pitches about and the milky sludge laps over the edge of the bowl.
‘Why don’t we go exploring today?’ I push the spoon around and bring it to my mouth. ‘See if we can find that heart-shaped reef you mentioned?’
Sam’s eyes narrow. He grabs a sponge and wipes up my mess. ‘I wish you wouldn’t talk with your mouth full.’
I leap off the deck and force my legs through the water, kicking against the current and swimming until my thighs burn, putting distance between myself and the yacht.
Under the surface, the water crackles with life. It could be my ears equalising, the rush of air from throat to inner ear. Or the sea creatures, snarking about the intruders.
The salt is sharp on my lips. I blow a fountain of seawater into the air, shift the mask off my face, and spit into it, smearing the gob around before rinsing it out. Like magic, the fog in front of my eyes clears. I crane my neck to locate the timber hull. And Sam, shirtless, bent over the rigging, the curve of his spine jutting out like a full keel. Not once turning to look in my direction.
How long can I stay out here, caressed by the tug of the swell? Until my skin wrinkles and flakes off? Until I dissolve?
Last night Sam’s calloused fingers brushed against my stomach and I flinched. A drowsy reflex. I reached for him, but he sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the bed, his back a wall between us. ‘Were you in love with him?’ he whispered. ‘Did he know how to satisfy you?’
My hair fans out around me. I take a deep breath and propel myself to the ocean floor. My index finger curls around the limb of a sea star and I flip it upside down. It will right itself in time, and if it loses a limb it will regenerate. I dig my toes into the sand and push upwards, a trail of bubbles guiding the way. Returning me to the wide expanse of blue.
On the surface, I swivel around, searching for Sam. I can just make him out in the distance.
The boat is a child’s toy skipping along the horizon, the sails crescent moons.
I’m failing this test; the rules are opaque and changeable. And I’m not sure I want to play anymore. I float on my back and stretch out my arms and legs to conserve energy. My tears are briny drops consumed by the vast ocean.
On Conduct and Character
By Sydney Wright
It was the look on his face—glazed over, prideful smirk, not an ounce of care. Everything about him in that moment told her who he was, like how you are your most genuine self when no one is looking. But in this room, the wandering eyes were always in motion. He was shirtless. His hair was unkempt with one headphone sitting clustered underneath it in his ear. It wasn’t even his cavalier appearance, it was his mouth. A dark hole that, in her experience thus far, had done nothing but cause cringing skin and create an unnerving atmosphere. And yet he was comfortable, lying relaxed on a blue training room treatment table, one leg bent, letting his business nearly flop out of his loose athletic shorts.
She was sore and irritated from the lens of exhaustion that lay across every inch of her skin. Thread of hamstring and fiber of quadriceps were weary with the day’s workout and all she wanted to do was minimize the pain as much as possible, moving her muscles slowly across the foam roller underneath her. Black sport tights were spotted here and there with sweat, taut against her legs, but she still wore a blue sweatshirt that blocked the autumn wind from constricting the air in her lungs while she ran. Her mind ran thick with thoughts of pushing through the pain shooting into her stomach.
“Ay, bae bay.”
She looked up in the direction the voice had traveled from, where the insensible guy on the athletic training table was laughing with a few other athletes. She ignored him, her stomach clenching awfully.
“Yeah, roll that booty out for me.”
She maneuvered the foam roller to be positioned under her calves. She could feel the knots in the belly of the muscle, the foam roller slowing down just slightly as it skimmed over them. Chills rose on her skin despite her layers and her stomach began to turn with the sound of laughs filling the space around her.
“Ay, bae bay!”
The group of guys was laughing now, and she knew they were looking at her. Every time she repositioned the foam roller beneath a different muscle to try and smooth out the knots, another comment was shot her way: roll that booty out for me. Twerk for me.
She looked to the athletic trainers, waiting for them to reprimand the guys, waiting for them to say to leave the girl alone so she can do what she needs to do. Be quiet, was what she figured they’d say. And then the guys would go about their business. But there were no words exchanged between the athletic trainers and the young men. She watched as one, right next to the group of guys, wrapped up a cross-country runner’s ankle with white tape before moving on to the next athlete waiting. He didn’t even flinch at the profanities being tossed into the air and launched across the room.
At this point, she was feeling worse than she had when she’d first come into the training room. She stood up to put the foam roller away on its rack and walked to the back office where the head athletic trainer was, past the group of guys whose mouths were still producing a steady stream of unwanted comments.
The trainer looked up from his computer. “Hello. What can I do for you?” He looked like an athlete himself, like the guy who was the quarterback for the football team in high school, like the guy who people were just drawn to follow. He had a dark blue polo on and buzz-cut hair.
“I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I was just foam rolling and was going to get some treatment on my hamstrings, and this—” she laughed now. Was she really having to do this right now? “A group of young men were making some crude comments that made me very uncomfortable to be in the training room.”
The head trainer’s eyebrows turned down and toward one another, like he couldn’t believe something like this could be true. But it was true, and it wasn’t the first time. “I’ll take care of it,” he said, smiling all of a sudden, his eyebrows relaxing back to their normal place.
The next day a sign was placed on the training room door:
No Tights Allowed In Training Room
Must Wear Regular Shorts Or Pants Over Them
Thank you for your participation
— Training Room Staff
By Chad W. Lutz
Three days go by without a single word from you. Not a text. Not a phone call. Not a wink, nudge, hello. Nothing. By the second day, I assume I’m never going to hear from you again and start gearing up for the possibility of what we had was just lunch. But, today, you send me a text message: “Hi” with a smiley face.
I get your text while I’m changing clothes and lose myself in how to respond. Practically drop my phone when it comes through. Then I hear my mom call.
“Dinner!” she yells.
“Yeah!” I yell back. “I’m coming.”
My face is flush and my pants are in a wet bunch around my ankles.
My mom shouts up the stairs again, this time nearer, sounding pissed. I don’t want her coming all the way upstairs, so I flip my phone closed and throw it down on the bed, but not before messaging you saying, “Hey, what’s up? Any plans tonight?”
I descend the stairs and enter the dining room and as soon as I do my dad asks me how the job search went today.
“Don’t you have anything else to talk about?” I ask. “Like how I’m feeling? Or the housing markets?”
“The housing markets won’t get you a job,” he says. “Neither will your feelings.”
My mom flashes me a smile that says I’ll ask how you’re feeling, but I don’t pursue it and reach for the mashed potatoes.
“I wouldn’t have a hard time looking for a job if corporations like Enron and Fannie Mae weren’t turning us all into slaves for profit,” I say, forking some of the pureed root vegetable onto my plate and eyeballing the pot roast swimming in its own sweat with a feeling less than enthused.
My dad rolls his eyes. My mom keeps hers on the table.
“I mean, Ford gets a $5.9 billion bailout and I get a shitty fucking degree that amounts to hills of razor-bladed ass.”
My mom sits up suddenly, breaking her silence. She says, “You will not use that language at the dinner table.”
“Language?” I say, pushing back from the table. “Language? Who gives a fuck about language?”
I open my mouth to protest further, but my father’s face turns fire red. With his white hair, he looks like a VOIT ball with male-pattern baldness. And with the noise his lungs are making …
“Okay,” I say, settling down. “Fine.”
But the damage is done and the meal is ruined and everybody finishes up without saying a single word.
After dinner, when I get to my room, I slam the door behind me, somehow thinking that’ll show ’em, but who, I think—me? But I slam the door anyway, knocking a couple of picture frames off the wall in the hall.
“What the hell was that?” my dad yells, leaping from the table and clomping toward the stairs.
“I stubbed my toe,” I yell back, opening my door so he can hear me and discovering the photos I knocked down were of me. One of them is my high school graduation photo; the other, a senior portrait: me with my dad’s old beamer.
My dad clomps away, muttering, as I enter the hall. The blue carpet is about twenty years dated and the cream-colored walls and early colonial farm décor give the place a nursing-home feel. I pick up the photos one by one, but pause on the one of me and the beamer. In the photo I have shorter hair, a bowl’s cut, and I’m leaning against a waxy Z3 Roadster shimmering in a late summer’s sun. There’s something easy in my smile.
I put the photos back on the wall in their respective places and turn toward my bedroom. As I walk through the door I notice my phone glowing on the bed and see it’s another text from you.
“Busy,” it says, but another text pops up right after that, also from you: “Free tmrrw?” Then another: “Lunch?”
Tomorrow? I think. Tomorrow sounds vaguely familiar. Like a place I’m hoping for, a place I wish I were.
So I type, “Sounds good,” and hit send.
A minute later, I get a, “Ya sure ya betcha.” And with a winky face, our second date is set.
By Miguel Gardel
She had a simple light yellow dress on and she came up to him and said, “Wait here.” She didn’t say hello or anything else. And she turned around and walked away.
She returned with a piece of cake on a paper plate and handed it to him and said, “Follow me.”
It was the bedroom, and no one was there. “Eat it,” she said, and she smiled.
“He’s taking Phaedra around so that the neighbors can see her in her new birthday dress.” She smiled again. He smelled talcum and perfume and thought of sweet flowers. He saw how humble and unassuming she was. He was very lonely and wanted to love her.
They stood there and talked and then he set the plate with the cake very gently on the bed. All his movements were gentle. And, smoothly, as if in slow motion, his hands went up to her head and he combed her beautiful brown hair with his fingers while she stood still. He wanted every inch of her right there. And then they embraced and kissed each other and he slid his hands down to her waist and squeezed her. They embraced again and held each other very tight and then he felt her warm mouth next to his ear, and then she slid her tongue into it. Conscious that they had only a short moment to satisfy each other, they threw caution to the wind. Though, for a second, he did think of his cart unattended in the lobby full of letters and packages.
“Wait,” she said. They stood there, his heart pounding in his ears. She said she heard her little girl’s voice. “They’re back,” she said.
She straightened out her dress and she hugged him again and gave him a quick peck on the lips and hugged him one more time, tighter, and stuck her tongue, again, into his ear. And she left him standing there next to the dresser. She said goodbye with that, a tongue in his ear. And then she walked out of the room. He went out through the window she had earlier opened for him. And downstairs he continued on his rounds. Her special fragrance swirling about him.
That short moment together with her in her modest bedroom made his heart happy and less lonely and satisfied.
He saw her two weeks later with Mr. Hook. They were coming up the stairs of the post office, the place where he had been introduced to her by Mr. Hook some months before. He was on his way to lunch. All three said “Hello,” as they passed each other on the stairs.
BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR
By Kristy Kerruish
It was dark inside the cupboard. Only the streaks of light that showed between the wooden panels gave a little brightness. I pressed my face against a gap in the wood and peered out.
That morning the weather had been fine. I had stepped out before city traffic filled the day with a fog of emissions. The park was populated by dog walkers and early joggers—mostly women, like myself, shedding the winter weight.
A man was knee-deep in a pond, sleeves rolled up, dredging along the sludgy bottom, sending clouds of green to murk the waters.
“What have you lost?” I had no intention of helping. Just watching.
“I threw something in by accident.”
People did that. They made wishes. Any pool of water and they threw in coins loaded with a prayer, a hope, a wish.
He dredged on.
He drew up clumps of debris from the bottom and laid them on the side of the pond, brushing through them in search of his treasure.
That was why I was in the cupboard, because of his dredging. Because I had waited and watched.
“What are you looking for?”
“My wedding ring.”
I took a stick and gingerly shifted through the piles of sludge, looking for the glint of gold. Nothing glinted but there were other things; dark, tarnished reminders of long forgotten wishes, old Victorian pennies, now green.
“Why did you throw your ring in?”
“I argued with my wife. It’s a thing they do in films.”
I wondered if he meant arguing with his wife or throwing his ring away.
That’s why I was in the cupboard. Because a stranger had quarreled with his wife and had a theatrical moment in the park.
“Can I take some of these old pennies for my nephew?”
“Yeah, anything. But not the ring?” he smiled.
The two pennies were so smooth. A thousand fingers had worn them down. I wondered who had thrown them, what they wished for and what the world looked like as they left them to fall into the darkness of the green pond.
Mr. Dredger found the ring. I have no idea how. It was gold and shiny. He squelched off happy, smiled and thanked me. For nothing.
I went home; passed the manicured borders with leafy ferns and climbing ivy. I fingered the coins, letting them drift smooth and warm through my fingers.
That is why I was in the cupboard. Because I brought home old wishes.
It’s only when you’re in a cupboard that you really get time to think. When you make a wish you throw a coin in the water. Take it out and you take the wish with you. The visitor was somebody’s wish from over one hundred years ago and he was sitting in my living room and I was in the cupboard. Should I run out, grab my phone and ring the police?
“There’s a Victorian in my living room. Do something … ”
“Are you sure they’re Victorian?”
“Yes, I brought home an old coin—he came with it. Someone wished for him a century ago.”
Of course the police would not understand and the recording would be played back on social media as a prank call. The humiliation.
The Victorian was a young man. He had set aside a chimney hat, gloves and cane and set about pacing the room. He’d left his card on my coffee table. Possibly a visiting card. He was probably expecting tea to be served—they always serve tea in period dramas.
I planned my next movements with care. I would burst out of the cupboard, shining a torch in his face, take up the coins and run to the park to throw them back into the pond. When I returned, the Victorian with his chimney hat and cane would be gone.
The plan was simple enough. It was only a matter of getting the courage up that had delayed me this long. I thought through everything one final time. Should I scream as well, to make myself more intimidating, or just curtsey, slop down a mug of tea and show him the door?
The stranger had settled into a chair, clearly confused and unable to leave because of the puzzling electronic security system. I could just see his boots, nothing more. Someone had wished that he would call on them some long-forgotten summer. Perhaps they had waited for him, day after day. One thing was certain—they would not have hidden in a cupboard.
We both heard the noise at the same time. The sound seemed to pass right through my flesh, a low reverberating tone. There was a voice whispering but the words were barely discernible. Then there was a chilling silence. The Victorian rose to his feet, rushed across the hall in confusion and tried the front door, rattling the handle with some force. I could see him clearly, he was quite young, good-looking too—but I had read Dorian Gray so I knew that was nothing to go by. He looked around as if he had seen something. Overcome by fear, he threw himself against the door several times before giving up. He thumped the door with his fist in exasperation and then dove across the hallway and tried the handle of my cupboard. I sprang back, cowering. There was a desperation about him; he was afraid. Edging forward I saw him pressing himself into the airing cupboard, with some anxiety. It seemed inexplicable, since I don’t think they had airing cupboards in his day.
Once he was in the cupboard I saw the glimmer of his eye at the crack in the door as I looked back across the hallway from the crack in mine.
Then we heard a noise again. Both of us turned our eyes to the direction of the sound.
Wait a moment, I thought.
I listened intently, frozen, my heartbeat pounding in my ears.
I had picked up two coins …
By Charlotte Crowder
“Filthy things!” Lisa’s mother’s gauzy peignoir just cleared the screen door, which slapped behind her, trapping the two of us on the porch. The granite step was damp with morning dew. Her bare foot hit it on the first stride and she pitched backwards momentarily but righted herself.
“My lovies!” Lisa pushed the screen door open and skidded across the granite flag. I was close behind.
“Stop your whining. You’re far too old for lovies, dragging them around all day. Filthy things!” She pushed off the rock atop the garbage can lid, there to deter the raccoons, lifted the lid, tossed the lovies into the can. “And don’t cry!”
But Lisa was already crying. The way she always did, soundlessly. I watched as the familiar, copious tears slid down her face. With another slap of the screen door, Lisa’s mother was gone. She hadn’t replaced the garbage can lid or the rock, which made my job easier. I stood on tiptoes and pulled the can toward me, reached inside. I retrieved the lovies from a bed of coffee grounds and last night’s corn cobs. Something slimy, no longer recognizable, clung to them.
Even without a coating of slime, I didn’t really like to touch Lisa’s lovies, the remains of three or four rubber squeaking animals she had had since infancy: a donkey, a duck, a dog, and perhaps a cat. Each had had its own distinctive bright colors. By now they were just shreds of gray rubber, with the occasional nub of a no-longer squeaking squeaker. They were, as her mother said, filthy. But I well knew the need for a lovie. My bear sat upstairs on the canopy bed Lisa and I shared when our families vacationed together. I managed to get through the day without my lovie, but knew Lisa could not. She reached for them. I placed them in her outstretched hands and wiped mine on the back of my sunsuit.
With Lisa clutching the lovies, her tears still streaming, we ran to the front of the house and hid in the cool under the lilacs, behind the spade-shaped leaves.
By Christine-Marie Liwag Dixon
Amihan was born at the most depressing time of the year, when the radio stations abruptly stop playing Christmas carols and resume a blandly shuffled playlist of Top 40 hits. Her father was preparing to drag the newly undecorated tree out to the curb when her mother’s water broke. The roads were slick with slush, remnants of a white Christmas that had come and gone, so Henry carried his wife to the car.
“Play some Christmas music, Henry,” Fernanda begged. There was a cassette of Bing Crosby hits still loaded into the tape deck, but when Henry pressed “play” all it did was screech, and so he began singing himself. “Silent night, holy night,” crooned Henry in his smooth baritone, continuing to sing as Fernanda panted through her contractions.
Fernanda still was not used to the snow, even after twenty years in America. In Manila, even the rain was warm. The idea that drops of water could freeze and fall and gather on the ground was as abstract as the concept of entropy or the Holy Trinity. The snow was yet another reminder of how far she was from home, even more jarring than the child that she would soon hold in her arms.
All through the agonizing hours of labor, Fernanda thought of Manila. She thought of the palm trees in her yard and the coconuts that would drop from them, rolling down the driveway. She thought of the clinging heat, and the chorus of birds that woke her up each morning. She didn’t know the names of the birds, but she knew their song, so different from the crashing cadences of the birds she heard in America. Fernanda often thought that American birds had been lulled into complacency, or perhaps that they had been so horrified by the commercialism of the country that they dimmed their voices in protest. Manila’s birds were joyfully exuberant, trilling harmoniously with the sunrise.
As Fernanda pushed and screamed her way through the delivery she felt like she was the one being born. She had taken root in this new country and now she was giving birth to a child that would never know the Manila sky. Even if she went home for a visit, this baby would be a foreign thing, a changeling child raised in a faraway land. Her accent and her mestiza features would be a resounding reminder that she was not truly one of them, that she was not an island girl. No, her baby would be a creature made of snow and heartbreak and unfulfilled destiny.
When Fernanda finally held Amihan in her arms, she felt strangely empty, like the shell of balut sucked dry. Here, at last, was a solid link not just to this country but to life itself, a piece of her own flesh and history, but instead of feeling an urge to nurture this new life Fernanda wanted to roll back the years and become a child again herself. She wanted her own nanay, wanted her mother’s arms around her. She wanted to be the one so blissfully unaware of the pain of the world, with nothing on her mind other than being fed and changed.
Some babies are ushered into the world with kisses showered onto their foreheads. Amihan was christened with her mother’s tears. When the nurse asked what she would name the baby, all Fernanda could think was that this being she had brought to life was the first in a new universe, that she was a goddess who would eclipse them all. And so she named her Amihan, for the bird-deity of Filipino mythology, the powerful being who became savior of all humanity.
Her birth certificate read Maria Amihan Celeste Moreno Metzger, but to Henry she was Ami and to Fernanda she was always Amihan. As she grew older, Amihan would hate her name, especially after her classmates began to tease her for it. Her teachers began to call her Ami, too, but Fernanda always refused to budge on the nickname.
“There is power in a name, hija,” she said after Amihan asked her yet again to call her Ami.
“If I do not call you Amihan, how will the stars recognize you as one of their own?”
Letters at High Tide
By Robert Pope
Shannon and I had originally come to the island as volunteers, she a year before me, at which time she had seen the ceremony, by chance, from one of the four brown or orange—depending on the light—buildings that line the edge of the sea in this inlet at high tide. The windows of upper floors had no glass and lower floors no windows due to not infrequent lapping of waves against the outer wall. On her first day of service, she had been taken to the top to watch the dropping of letters into the sea. Her curiosity had grown as she got to know the mysterious denizens of the village.
Shannon stands easily as tall as myself, and I am close to six feet, a head taller than most natives of the island. She had taken on many characteristics of the natives but had retained distinctive practical traits of her own region. She wore the black shirt and pants covered by waders—rubber hip boots that rose to her thighs. Her dark hair had been cut straight across her forehead and shoulders, in the manner of the natives, and she had the dark eyes of the natives, though without their reddish hue. I was something of a curiosity myself, with pale hair and eyes.
We had hidden ourselves from view in the shadows, in the oddly squarish inlet where the sea came right to the rise of land on which the buildings stood. I observed a lighter coloration of what I have called the lower floors of the closest building, rising to five tiers, tallest on the island, of which only the top three were used for human habitation. Bottom ‘floors’ were used for storage and, I hesitate to admit, ‘burial’ of the dead in the local fashion. I asked Shannon why the lower portions were lighter rather than darker, as I might have expected, marked by the rising sea.
She explained that every year villagers rebuilt the lower portion with the fresh mud mixture of which the buildings had originally been constructed, and which began as a light yellow, turning dark over time. She shushed me when the ceremony began. Like all their rituals, no fanfare accompanied commencement. A pair of workers appeared at the lowest windows of each building.
I said commencement, but the first stage of the ritual had been the writing of the letters once a chill of winter had been felt. We experienced a cold snap, during which the bells rang out morning and evening, and the villagers, without further admonishment, wrote individual letters to the sea that surrounds the island, to which they were beholden for sustenance and from which they received punishing storms.
Shannon explained that in these letters they wrote, in their own language, of their hopes for the family, themselves, and the village, and lamented their sorrows. Once the cold spell ended, elders came to each door to gather sealed envelopes in sacks that appeared to have been patched and re-patched for many years. Four pairs of younger workers were given the task of ‘dumping’ letters into the sea from the first windows of each building, wearing headgear about the same as a beekeeper to represent the fact that no one else had read the letters.
I could not tell if the workers actually saw through their face coverings as they leaned out windows with their sacks, but none of them, all men, wore shirts, exposing powerful and oiled musculature in the last rays of the sun. The letters fairly slid down sunbeams and disappeared into retreating waves. When the workers themselves disappeared and bells began to ring, Shannon waded into the sea, catching the last of the letters before it was carried away.
Returning to my side, she held up the wet envelope, through which I saw the writing of the letter. Let’s see what these villagers have to say, she muttered. As she intended to open the letter, I asked to see the envelope before she did so. Once free of her fingers, I threw it back into the sea, where an obliging wave carried it out as dusk faded and a full moon ran a trail of light to the dark buildings.
By John E. DeLaughter
Every year, Rodney went to Rossum’s bar with a mixture of hope and despair. He never knew what would be there, but he hoped that it would be worth the trip. He winced at the loud music and frowned at the jerking forms that filled the brightly lit dance floor. His idea of a good time was something a little less obnoxious but this wasn’t about having a good time. It was about winning. As he scanned the floor, he saw his adviser across the room. He signaled to attract her attention and moved to join her.
“Does the music have to be this loud?” Rodney asked once he was close enough to be heard.
“Given their primitive receptors, yes,” Cynthia answered as she surveyed the room. “Not much to look at this year.”
“What about the one with the red hair?” Rodney offered. “It is sort of interesting.”
“Look at the way it walks,” Cynthia rebuked. “Obviously glitchy in the medulla.”
“But it actually appears interested in what it sees, unlike that one over there with the eyebrows.”
“Must be one of Marvin’s,” Cynthia decided. “He always tries to distract from the problems. That one is almost blind, based on how it keeps running into things.”
Suddenly, Cynthia looked over Rodney’s shoulder and flashed a smile.
“Marvin! We were just talking about you!”
“Really? I was hoping to talk to you tonight,” Marvin said.
“Not campaigning for votes are you?” Rodney chirped with a wicked grin. Marvin’s entry last year had been disqualified when it asked the judges to vote for it.
“No, I’ve learned that lesson; this year I included an inhibitor. But it seems to have interfered with the optical sensors,” he muttered as he scowled at his entry.
“Eyes,” Cynthia corrected. “In humans they are called eyes. If you don’t want my vote, why are you here?”
“I wanted to see if you’ve read Seymour’s latest. He makes some pretty outrageous claims about our work.”
“I know,” Cynthia grumbled. “His paper is so bad it isn’t even wrong.”
“So you don’t think he’s right about the basic futility of our work?” Raymond asked.
With a shrug, Cynthia pointed a manipulator at the figures on the dance floor. “Would we be here if I didn’t think we could create a thinking being? The one thing that Seymour got right is that the map is not the territory. Intelligence isn’t created by connecting random synapses together. But it isn’t created by the program running on the synapses, either; it takes both, working in a synergistic and emergent manner. That’s how we work and it is how they will have to work, too.”
“Well, it looks like your way is enough to get the prize,” Marvin said enviously. “Here comes Shafi, for the fourth year in a row.”
Raymond and Cynthia swiveled just as the judge glided up to them. Shafi smiled at Marvin before extending a small trophy marked “Most Human” to Cynthia. Behind her, Rodney pushed all five of his extensors into the air in celebration.
“I’d almost believe that yours was a real machine,” Shafi congratulated. “Ready for the litmus test?”
Raymond and Cynthia eagerly agreed, Marvin somewhat more hesitantly. Shafi moved over to the control for the lights and began slowly turning a knob, causing the lights to strobe. Slowly at first and then more quickly the lights flashed. Soon figures began to drop on the floor and shake as their nervous systems became overloaded. With a final twist, Shafi caused the lights to flicker almost too quickly to be seen and the final figure fell.
“How did you get yours to last so long?” Marvin asked curiously.
“I used a combination of rhodopsin and iodopsin and divided the sensors into low-light and color. The redundancy keeps an overload from burning out the system. Or at least, that’s the idea,” Rodney said, frowning at the figure lying on the floor.
“Unfortunately, we once again have no winner for the fully functional award,” Shafi announced. “Will the contestants please collect their entries?”
Rodney darted off to pick up the limp figure on the dance floor. Shafi wiggled her waldoes at him in passing and rejoined Marvin and Cynthia by the wall.
“Another year, another failure,” Shafi lamented. “No matter what we do, we can’t seem to make human beings that work as well as machines do.”
“Maybe the skeptics are right,” Marvin replied. “Maybe you just can’t make a thinking machine out of anything but silicon.”
“That’s what they said about viruses,” Cynthia objected as she stuck the trophy into her chest cavity. “And look what we did with them!”
“It’s a long way from a virus to a thinking being,” Marvin said dejectedly. “As we are finding out. See you next year?”
“Yeah,” Cynthia agreed as Rodney rolled up to her. “OK, Rodney, let’s get this thing out of here and into dissection so we can see what went wrong.”
THE FUTURE CRAWLING
By David James
When the apples fall and crack, and then fill up with ants and bees, that’s when I think of you. You always loved apples, at least, until you discovered cocaine. It was September when we fell in love and by the end of October, you had quit your job at the law firm, moved into the basement with me, addicted and lost. On my minimum wage salary, it was the best I could do. And love turns a man into a sappy idiot with blinders willing to believe anything that gives him the promise of a piece of ass.
By Thanksgiving, you had slept with the entire neighborhood for drug money and I couldn’t see it because I had scrambled eggs for brains. I was dreaming of a wedding and a house outside of town with a baby girl, a quaint family of three.
By the time Christmas bells rang, I pictured you lying in the snow in bare feet and underwear as some EMT jammed a needle into your arm, but it didn’t help. The snow reminded me of the heroin and cocaine sprinkled on the coffee table and the Jesus star high in the sky shining down on me like blame.
People say it’s not my fault, that it could happen to anyone, and I guess that’s true, but the future crawls into every one of my dreams, all skin and bones, starving to death, staring at me, and I’m not sure how long he or she can last.
By Riham Adly
“Sarah, sweetheart, matsebeneesh. Please, don’t go.” He sings a strained plea that sounds like it struggled to break free from his throat.
Mahmoud calls me Bonbonayet omry, which means the bonbon of his life, because of the way I smile. I’d argue with him about it, but Mahmoud has his own logic about everything. Our relationship was like going up and down a ladder. He’d say I brought in the sunshine wherever I go. Egyptian men are never romantic and Egyptian women love clichés. He’s the odd romantic and I just resent clichés.
I get this sickening sense of … I suppose … satisfaction when I watch him walk into my room every day. He comes in today wearing the funny hat that clings to his head, his stubble a day or two old. Those new frameless glasses suit him. The color of his scrubs matches the cerulean blue of his eyes—another rarity in Egyptians. Today he smuggles in dandelions, a wilted bunch snatched from the side of the road. He’s always hated them, calls them weeds. He’s more of a roses person. I’m not. Dandelions will always be flowers. He holds my hands, whispers classical rhyming Arabic poetry to my sleeping frame. I know he knows I can hear him and I know he knows I don’t like poetry. He’s provoking me, another helpless strategy to bring me back.
One of the perks of my present situation is having that exquisite liberty to come and go whenever I please regardless of my motionlessness. Will you believe me when I tell you, it’s easier to play ghost when you’re in a coma? I like to scare the nurses and the night-shift newbie resident doctors, but nothing scares Mahmoud, except for flat lines, my occasional flat lining on the monitor. The newbies I scare are stationed next to my bed with a defibrillator to zap the life back into my heart, though my brain’s the one acting like a vegetable. I heard him say that.
I love where I am right now. Gentle sun rays light up the loggia overlooking the garden. Sunflowers and soft-scented dandelions are everywhere. Tall trees sway to my singing, the smell of grass is earthy and strong. I like making wreaths, a luxury I’ve never had in my block apartment in Giza—that’s in Egypt, in case you were wondering. Rich friends living in the suburbs bragged about their villas and gardens. Mahmoud was one of them.
When he proposed, against the will of his parents, I said yes so I can have that garden. He loved it when I let my hair fall in an untamed mess around my face. He used to tell me I looked like honey and pineapples and that I always smelled like early spring. He went half mad when I decided to wear the Higab and cover my hair for good. We almost broke off the engagement when on the 28th of January I joined the protests that preceded the 2011 revolution. I begged him to come join the volunteers in the makeshift hospitals in the later battlefield after central security forces bombarded us with tear gas.
We never kissed and never will, but right now he kisses my grayish eyelids, perpetually shut until I finally wake up—that’s what he thinks.
Today, I feel near enough. I watch him scrub for his upcoming surgery. I observe this intense look in his eyes as he says “scalpel.” He squints when he’s deep in focus and when he does that his nose looks like a spear-like missile. The nurse wipes the sheen of sweat off his forehead before it trickles down his face. I observe his gloved hands, hands that could have helped save my best friend Mona from bleeding to death when police shot bird-shot pellet cartridges right into her left eye. His parents are so proud of him for backing up the regime that they forgive him for hanging on to me.
But, I don’t.
When he used to visit me, he held up the tears in the corner of his eyes for the longest time before letting them slip.
Men don’t cry, right? Didn’t his proud parents teach him that?
He should’ve tried crying next to a tear-gas canister.
Today he screams like a wounded Hyena, like a madman.
The sound of his sob annoys me. Really, a doctor like him with a degree from John Hopkins or Yale or whatever, didn’t know that rubber bullets fired at close range can dislodge a chunk of the human skull and penetrate the brain, that they can pierce one’s chest and puncture a lung? Really?
They had to hold him still to shoot the sedative in his arm.
“You had it coming.” I whisper in his ears.
When he wakes up, he stands tall over what’s left of me, but my legs are quick up that ladder—to heaven, in case you were wondering.