IAN IN GLASGOW
By Madalyn Aslan
We’re all in the little guy’s car on Belswain’s Lane when Ian tells me his dad is in Broadmoor, prison for the criminally insane. I tell him I was born a bastard and we are poor. Ian counters, “But you’re rich in looks.” And I am like, man!
So we fall in love. He’s thirteen like me and looks like an angel and is going to be a playwright when he grows up. I love his hands. In the pub he talks about books with my mother. We discuss, seriously, names to give our future children. His mother Mae is a joyful drunk, fat and sexy in a tight flower dress, always coughing and laughing. She and my mother light up cigarettes with great animal sighs. My mother says she is from Scotland. So Ian is, too. After the little guy breaks it off with Mae, that’s where she and Ian disappear back to.
My mother borrows a car. We’re touring the British Isles, she says. I write up my ‘O’ Level study plans for next year while she drives. Sweetheart, she shouts. Look at the goddamn countryside! Look up!
I only look up for one day. This is when we visit Ian and Mae. The door is open. It is a council flat in a council estate in the outskirts of Glasgow. “Mae!” my mother calls. “Mae!” She is polite, leaning against the graffiti-decorated door but not going in. I don’t think anyone is here but then an old woman appears. A yellow wig hangs over her face. She looks like she’s been sleeping. But she has a lit cigarette in one hand and a bag in the other. “Oooh, I was just going out, ducks.”
She nods to my mother wearily and lets us in.
It is Mae.
We follow her into a dark room. “Sit down,” she says, pulling curtains. She is trying to open them. “Sit down, sit down. Will have us a drink then. I’ll just put down me handbag.”
My mother asks how Ian is.
“Ian is with his mates,” Mae replies, coughing and coughing.
My mother lights up with her on the settee, but it doesn’t look as fun as it used to.
“Fancy a drink,” Mae says. Her head rolls back. Ian, Ian, she screams.
He comes in then. I don’t recognize him. He stands in front of the plaid settee. Dumb. Clenching his hands. No eye contact. A mean man face. After a few minutes he mutters something about his mates. Mae shouts into her handbag. She throws a five-pound note up at him. “Get me fags!”
“All right,” he says. And Ian is gone. Forever.
By Bernard Arogyaswamy
It was nearly 10 pm at Deal City where I was a jack-of-all-trades. I had just hung the ‘Closed’ sign when I saw Debbie, the store manager, gesturing frantically to me. When I reached her station, she pointed at a customer slumped over his cart, motionless. “I called 911, but they’re backed up and can’t be here for 30 minutes or more,” she whispered, her voice betraying her panic.
“They wondered if one of us could bring him over,” she added, looking hopefully at me. Being the only male present, young, and non-white (“a DACA boy”), I drew the short straw. I picked the old man up gingerly and laid him down in the rear seat of my Civic. I did sixty in a thirty zone hoping the cops would pull me over and take him off my hands, but no such luck. I parked at the hospital, gave my name to the triage nurse, and waited till the stretcher guys took him away.
What irony, I thought. I’ve probably saved someone’s life while my own life lay in ruins. My parents, who had lived in the States for twenty-five years, had been deported a few days back to Guatemala. I, who knew no other country, was likely to follow them to a country I had never visited. I felt angry and soiled.
I was given a hero’s welcome at the store the next day, but I felt no joy. When I looked around, I only saw people who wanted me out of their lives. That’s what the election results meant.
I worked like an automaton for the next five days. Then I came down with fever, chest pains, and a splitting headache, all tell-tale symptoms of the dreaded virus, but dosed myself with Tylenol and went back to work. No doctor for me. My Obamacare deductibles were prohibitively high.
I felt guilty about infecting others but decided that I had to look out for myself like everyone else did. If anyone caught the bug from me, too bad. If I was going to be deported after twenty-two years of being a model citizen, I didn’t care if I passed the virus on. Maskless, I joked around with my older customers, who lined up to banter with me.
My college classes went online and I managed to do pretty well, graduating in Business Analytics. My minor in Philosophy helped me justify trying to infect others. Many of my co-workers fell ill, and the store was closed for a week. No skin off my nose. I had a job offer from a big pharmaceutical firm. I knew that if, no, make that when, the Supreme Court ruled against us brown immigrants, the Dreamers, we would have some time before we were deported. I hoped that my job as an Ethics Officer would help me stay on in the only country I have ever known.
To Lure Gavin Back Home
By Lisa Fox
The North Wind rolled over the snow-covered mountain caps and silvery clouds dotted the sky like errant balloons, floating. Helene pulled her parka closer; she raised her scarf over her cheeks to prevent the tears from freezing.
She looked down into the jagged hole she’d cut in the crust of the lake. Concealed under a shell of ice, the water lay still and dark as a grave. But Helene knew that frigid dormancy was an illusion, and life flourished far beneath the surface, pulsing with a light unseen.
With heavily gloved hands, she reached into her bucket to bait the line on her fishing pole. She’d fashioned the rod from Gavin’s peewee lacrosse stick; the wire from his X-Box formed the line. For bait, she’d chosen his favorite Matchbox car, the red Corvette he’d always carried in his pocket for good luck.
Maybe this will be the one, she thought. The one that will bring him back.
It was early summer when Gavin had vanished, the kind of afternoon best captured in the cicada’s song, when insect voices shimmer bright as sunlit ripples over water. She was sitting on the deck of their lake house, pouring lemonade for Gavin and his friends when she heard the shrieking. She bolted up, gaping at Gavin’s friends standing at the edge of the lake. They pointed and shouted his name, their cries visceral and raw.
An oily film rose from the center of the water, pulsing steady as a heartbeat. From its core, black tendrils branched out, reaching like jagged tentacles toward the shoreline. The film bubbled and boiled into a murky, steaming mist; and as quickly as it had appeared, it dissipated in a swift summer breeze.
Then, all was still.
Helene tried to tell the police what she saw. There was something alive in that lake and it had taken her son. Stone-faced, her husband Larry had draped a blanket over her shoulders. Through whispers, sounds coalesced into words.
Denial. Shock. Drowning.
Twenty-four hours after Gavin disappeared, the divers searching for him shifted their focus from rescue to recovery. It seemed so easy for these men to reach this level of routine finality, one moment, looking for the living and the next, seeking out the dead.
Seasons passed and Gavin was still lost. But without a body, she had hope.
Her family insisted on a funeral, but Helene refused to go. What good would it do to stare at an empty box, or listen to the droning platitudes of well-wishers, telling her he was in a better place?
Gavin wasn’t in a better place. He was in a different place. Wherever he was in that lake, she was going to lure her son back to the surface; let him know she was waiting for him to come home. Someone—some thing—held him there; of that she was convinced.
Not long after Gavin disappeared, so did Helene’s marriage. At first, Larry humored her, taking her out by rowboat every night before sunset to say goodnight to their only child. As the leaves changed and evenings fell sooner, he said it was time to move on. Spotting a realtor’s business card on the kitchen countertop, Helene concurred. She packed Larry’s suitcase and shut the door.
One by one, her friends drifted away. They’d tired of her talk of creatures, of underwater worlds. They said Gavin was dead.
Helene didn’t care what anyone thought.
Shivering, Helene wrapped the cord around the Matchbox car and pulled it tight, double knotting just like she’d taught her son so many years ago. She lowered the toy into the water; after only a few feet, she could no longer see the metal reflecting in the winter sunlight.
She swirled the line in the water, imagining the start of a small current brushing against Gavin’s skin, soft and subtle as her kiss. How he would look up from his underwater task, his eyes fixed on the shiny relic, a beacon through the depths of his captivity. Maybe this toy would give him the courage to break away from whatever held him, when so many other trinkets hadn’t.
Helene wondered what Gavin did with his days. She hoped he was happy and that his captor kept him busy. Gavin fidgeted when he was bored; she feared they’d tire of his whining, just as Larry had. Surely the creature must have had its reasons for selecting him and not one of the other boys. Gavin was a straight-A student, as clever and witty as he was kind-hearted. And he was an obedient son who never complained about chores or homework, the type of boy who always said, “I love you,” even with friends nearby.
Helene peered into the depths. It was time for him to come home.
“Gavin? Can you hear me? Gavin?”
All was silent, save for the wind skating over the ice.
The frigid air tugged tears from Helene’s eyes. She was freezing, so tired of being cold. She never should have let Gavin swim in the water without her, never should have allowed herself to be swayed by his nine-year-old bravado. Lemonade could have waited until the boys were safely seated up on the deck, teeth chattering and wrapped in towels, welcoming the sun’s warmth.
And then, a tugging from below. Helene gasped as the line pulled taut and the pole arched. An inky substance filtered through the surface; the water undulated and bubbled as she looked down through the rising mist.
The ice dissipated beneath her and she plunged into the frosty water, grasping tight to the pole. Headfirst, she was pulled into the depths, ensconced in the darkness that cocooned her.
And then she saw it, the tiny beacon. The red Matchbox car—in Gavin’s hand.
“This is what I wanted,” he said. “It’s good luck. Right, Mom?”
Smiling the same gap-toothed smile Helene saw only in her dreams, Gavin extended his hand. And together, they swam.
DON’T LOOK NOW
By Alan Ford
Joe was experiencing blurred vision in both eyes. Even house lights seemed to glare back at him. It was like looking through a dirty glass. So he saw an optician who sent him to see an ophthalmologist.
“Mmmm,” he said. “Cataracts. We’ll book you in for surgery.”
“Is it dangerous?”
“Oh, no. We use a learning algorithm.”
“We use it for carrying out operations.”
So Joe didn’t worry. The surgery was routine. He went home unaware that life was rarely that simple.
When his appointment came he was ushered into theatre. The two clouded lenses were replaced by artificial ones. He was ready to go home after forty-five minutes. The post op check revealed no problem.
But then his eyes began to itch. They became red and sore. That lasted only a few hours before his normal sight returned. But later he experienced a strange visual effect.
While watching television he could see through it. He blinked to dispel the affect. But the picture stayed in the foreground while the wall behind it remained visible.
Probably a side effect of the operation.
In the evening his sight deepened. He could see through the wall into a neighbour’s garage. It was clear enough to recognize the make of the car.
Susie, his German Shepherd, came in and began to whine and back away from him. He could see right through her.
Maybe he was losing his mind?
He closed his eyes for a few seconds. And the sights disappeared. But they returned when he opened them.
The ophthalmologist didn’t believe him. Obviously drunk, on drugs or an eccentric worrier.
On the way home he saw the Atlantic Ocean. Beyond it he saw Calais. A ferry was about to dock.
My god! He thought.
By the evening he could see World War II cemeteries. From there his eyes travelled all over Europe.
The next day Susie snarled at him and tried to bite his arm. When he opened the door to let her out, she ran off.
He spent the rest of the day with his eyes closed for the sheer, blessed relief. But at some point he had to open them.
When he did he could see refugee camps springing up all over the world. He saw the police in a Middle East dictatorship killing some protesters. He saw women and children being shot by religious insurgents. In Asia he saw an army forcing a minority people to leave their country. And then, in a scene he would never forget, a scene that blazed across his sight, he saw genocide.
Unable to stand any more, he bought a white stick and a pair of dark glasses. Eyes firmly shut, he tapped his way along the street. A helpful passer-by took his elbow and guided him across.
“Thank you,” he said.
You stand on the wobbly dorm-room chair, taping photos on the wall mirror. When I ask why you’re putting up pictures of the ex-boyfriend, your nostrils flare.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have said anything, not in front of your glamorous new college roommate. Fact is, I’ve never hidden my dislike of the snooty lout―not when you were dating, and I don’t hide it now. But I’ll accept the anger. He ditched you for your best friend, which means you are drowning in loss. I’m your mother. Where else would you direct your feelings?
Your leggy roommate’s side of the college dorm room is ablaze with pictures of family vacations in Maui, Bali, and Geneva—places we’ve never been. Every second photo is that of a bronzed young man, his arms brown against her creamy skin. Her suitcases and bags are a brilliant blue, a matched flock like we’ve seen in magazines.
You hiss, your breath strawberry-gum flavored, “You never understand,” and jump off the chair.
You turn away from me with that swift pirouette you mastered as a cheerleader, shove things into the three-legged dresser, make your bed in a frenzy with the old comforter and sheet set from your room at home, and place remnants of the large heart-shaped chocolate the lout gave you last Valentine’s Day into the miniscule refrigerator. The food I’ve brought from home sweats in the warmth of the August day.
We can’t have a conversation. Not with the din of moving-in day, your friends dropping in, music blaring from the room next door, the banging of suitcases, the shuffling of furniture―special moments getting swept away in a tide.
You say I don’t understand. The thing is, I do.
My boss at work, Karen, wrote letters to her offspring before they left. “This is a life event, leaving your childhood home. It’s nice to let your child know you love them and you’ll miss them,” she said.
In our family, we don’t write to each other, we don’t do goodbyes well, we don’t do love well. Your father left without notice, no note, no phone call even. One day I return from work to an empty closet; his clothes are gone. As a six-year-old, you waited by the window every evening, asked why I’d sent him away.
You say I don’t understand.
I understood when your diaper was wet, when you were hungry, when your gums became sore as teeth came in, when a gas-bloated stomach caused discomfort, when your tiny hand grabbed and held onto my ear as you nursed. I think I understood why you chose to sit with friends at your school picnic, or why you ripped your jeans at the knees, or wore pink lip gloss, or completed Ashley’s homework for her or got free makeovers with your friends at the mall on Saturday afternoons. I can even attempt to understand why you stuck used strawberry-flavored gum in a mosaic pattern under the bathroom vanity.
Karen says letting go is part of loving. “If you love them, let them go. They’ll come back.”
Your father didn’t return.
Karen also says parenting is about getting your child ready for independence.
Which is why, after depositing your belongings―bags, books, clothes, bed linen, laptop, microwave, tea kettle, iron, and an enormous box of food supplies—I sit in the car, looking up at your window. Why I’m telling myself not to expect you to come out and give me a hug.
By Laurie Ann Doyle
“Good Vibrations” on the radio, Michigan or Missouri maybe, the M’s have blurred. All she knows is it’s two days yet to California. The humidity’s hypnotic, the sky gray. If there’s a sun, she can’t see it.
Her father pulls off at the next exit.
They eat lunch and afterward, she walks to the top of the hill, peers over the edge. Dirt spills all the way down, dry leaves, twigs. A dust devil spins.
She doesn’t hear her little brother come up next to her, barely hears her parents fighting, a fight that started hours ago and now has her father hissing, “Stupid cunt!” Sounds stretch, splice themselves in half, then half again until they become just air, vibration.
She hardly hears the word rise in her brain. Jump. She just imagines herself floating, arms stretched out, defying gravity, flying for a moment, before crashing down. It won’t hurt, nothing can, the way she feels. Spaced out not so much by the joint she snuck behind the Holiday Inn this morning, but by thousands of miles stuck inside the sticky interior of the family station wagon, windows rolled all the way down, her eyes blasted dry, mind numbed.
“Whatcha doing?” her brother asks.
The pull is otherworldly, stronger than she’d ever imagined. The suck of a riptide, the call of a dream. The fog of a dream. She leans.
He’s seven, her parents’ almost-lost-hope-for son. His hair is wiry and orange, like their father’s. Hers, dirty blonde streaked chlorine green. All summer she’s been helping him swim in less crooked lines across the pool.
His hand touches her arm again and this time she feels it. He likes to copy everything she does, hold his breath underwater, tuck in his chin as he examines things. What did you do over summer vacation? they’ll ask when school starts up again.
She licks her fingers, presses them to the back of her neck, steps away from the edge.
Fifteen years from now, it’ll be her brother’s mind that slips. He’ll phone at three in the morning his time, six o’clock hers, say he’s discovered the next big thing after Relativity, how his tongue tastes like the copper pennies they used to lick, that he can’t stop wanting to eat his foot. Out of the blue, he’ll bring up that summer, too. “The trip cross country, that was fun, wasn’t it?” The two of them in the backseat trading Lifesavers—grape for cherry, lime for raspberry—I Spy-ing their way across the Midwest, wearing out the colors yellow, beige, orange as the sun blared on the horizon. “Even if Dad was a little mean.”
She’ll nod, though she knows he can’t see it, won’t mention the whipping they both got with the dog leash somewhere before Billings—for what she can’t remember—the gravel spitting as their father pulled back on the road. She’ll tell her brother it’s snowing though it’s not, because he loves to think of it snowing in Massachusetts, because she wants to keep him talking. That song, he’ll bring that up, too, how it was on the radio everywhere that summer, how he’s bought the album, plays it so loud neighbors complain. “Not sleeping a lot these days.”
“You don’t sound good. I can fly out,” she’ll say. “Do you want me to fly out?”
“No, no. I’m fine.”
She flies out.
Forty-three years from now, they’ll take a road trip of their own, just the two of them in his orange Camaro. They’ll stop at tourist shops where he refused to buy moccasin key chains and jackalope earrings. He’ll go for a ninety-nine cent surprise ball, which is nothing but wrapped up junk—little figures with Homie stamped on their chests, slippery red fortune telling fish—that they couldn’t sell any other way. At fifty, he’s still a little clueless, clueless in a way she’s always liked. Sane, too, as long as he’s on his meds. And fuck if he won’t discover the CD in a used bin in Mississippi. Only she’ll tell him flat out no, he can’t play it, so he’ll strum a clumsy air guitar and crack her up.
She’s never liked that song: the “na na na’s,” the completely fake electronic chorus. But the vibes part, the way people can sense things, she’ll think, that’s cool.
She’ll lean over his bed, sixty-eight years from now, slip her hand amid the tangle of hospital tubes and digital monitors, hold his bloated fingers in hers, hoping to give him a moment of comfort.
“Come back from the edge,” she tells him and her brother steps away, too. They walk down the hill and slide into the station wagon next to each other. Their father starts the engine.
By Diane D. Gillette
The four of us crowd around the toilet. Straight and solemn. Evan has put on a tie. Peter, at least, has put on a clean soccer jersey, though he hasn’t bothered to spit out his gum. Cecelia wears her blue recital dress and her sparkly barrettes, the ones with the purple butterflies. They already hang loose in her curls. None of us have mastered the art of doing her hair since Hannah died. It’s on the list.
I clear my throat and look over Cecelia’s head at the boys. I mouth thank-you to them. There are other things they want to be doing right now. Evan would be planning his next D&D campaign perhaps. Peter attempting to perfect his outside kick before next week’s soccer tournament. In the grand scheme of things, a fish funeral can’t feel like a life-altering event for them. But Cecelia hasn’t stopped sniffling since she discovered Glub floating upside down in his bowl.
“We are gathered here today … ” I begin, trying my best to sound formal. But whatever words should come next, fail me. I find myself trying to remember the words of the minister at Hannah’s funeral, a day that is still so crystal clear in my mind, but somehow also blurry. It had been a trying-to-breathe-underwater kind of day. I’m not sure I’ve come up for air yet.
“We’re gathered here today to say goodbye to a friend,” Evan pipes in, saving me, as he has so many times these recent weeks.
“Glub was a good fish, taken from us too soon. Gone before we were ready,” I am able to add.
I stare at the bowl in Evan’s hands. Glub’s eyes are clouded over. I can’t for the life of me think of one anecdote I can share about him.
“Glub loved his fish flakes. And he loved his fairy castle and his pirate ship equally,” Peter chimes in around the wad of gum in his mouth. “And, of course, he loved Cecelia. She was his favorite person.” Peter smiles down at the little sister he never knew he wanted until she and her mother fell into our lives.
Cecelia nods before tearing off three squares of toilet paper, folding them neatly, and wiping her nose.
“He was a valued member of our family,” Evan adds. “He made me smile every time I saw him.”
We all stand silently for a moment because what else is there to say about a fish who’d lived with us for all of six months?
“Glub was my best friend,” Cecelia says. I exchange glances with the boys. She hasn’t been one for words much since the last funeral we’d all attended. “Mommy bought him for me. To keep me company while she was in the hospital. Since she couldn’t tuck me and tell me how much she loved me, Glub would say it for her. Glub means love in fish language.”
Hannah never told me why she bought Cecelia the fish. I just came home one day—one of Hannah’s good days, one of the days that made denial so easy to sink into—and found that she’d let Cecelia stay home from school so they could have a girls’ day. Glub was on the nightstand. Hannah and Cecelia were cuddled up in Cecelia’s bed reading Matilda together for at least the twelfth time. I had wanted to ask Hannah about the day, I remember. I’d looked forward to curling around her, letting her fill me with her joy in those stolen moments. But the exhaustion took her early that night and by morning, the mundane routine of breakfast and school and work and doctor appointments took over. Maybe it was a secret she wanted to keep between her and Cecelia anyway.
I watch Cecelia take the bowl from Evan. “It’s time,” she declares. She gently tilts it until Glub’s little body rides the waterfall into the toilet.
Peter wipes his nose on the sleeve of his jersey before he pushes the handle and sends Glub on to the next world. Cecelia thrusts the empty bowl into my hands. She grabs Peter’s hand in one of hers and Evan’s in the other. I stand behind them, balancing the empty bowl in one hand, no one to pass it off to, feeling the sudden emptiness in that crowded little bathroom.
By Sara L. Godwin
The key opened a small box, lost years ago. Perhaps it disappeared in a move or it was hidden by a small child pretending to be a pirate or maybe Mother had thrown it away during one of her fits. Regardless, Henriette knew she would never see it again. Yet she held on to the key. It felt wrong throwing it away even though it was basically useless at this point. She knew what it unlocked and that was enough to make it special.
As she sat in the quiet kitchen enjoying her second cup of tea in an hour (she liked a cup or two mid-afternoon to break up the day), she turned the key over in her hand. Flip the key, sip the tea, flip the key, sip the tea. It had become a mantra, a meditation on how she had gotten to this point. How clearly she could recall the feel of the key slipping into the small lock on the front of the box, the brief hitch at the third tumbler, but once you got past that, it slid smoothly the rest of the way. The rich, roundness of well trained metal moving against metal always made her think of oatmeal raisin cookies.
She could recite the contents of the box like a memorized spelling list: a quarter her sister had given her for taking out the trash when she was 8, a corkscrew she hid there from her parents, a picture of a boy she had dated briefly in high school, a yo-yo, a Heineken bottle cap, a button off of her high school marching band uniform, the first engagement ring her husband had given her (the one he bought at a gas station in Effingham, Illinois during their first road trip together), the left shoelace from her 7th-grade soccer cleats. There was nothing special about this collection, nothing worthy of a museum display or a Wikipedia entry. But it was her. It was moments of her life that made up her DNA. These things were the marrow of her past and present. And she missed them. But only while drinking tea, in the middle of the afternoon, when Mother was napping off the effects of her medicines, before the children got home from school and then rushed back out for events with friends or practices or rehearsal, before her husband returned home to eat a quiet dinner with her and then head to the basement until he emerged to go to bed.
As soon as the cup was empty, she placed the key back in the junk drawer, by the roll of tape and the stapler, beneath the pile of takeout menus. There it stayed, next to her memories and nostalgia, until her next mid-day cup of tea.
By Jerri Jerreat
The weather was alive that day; it had force, and meaning.
I left the man on the steps of City Hall. I’d nodded politely through his, “It’s not me, it’s you,” speech. I assured him we were fine; I was just popping in to the library.
Instead, I wound through limestone alleys and parking lots, fury an excellent adrenaline.
The wind had picked up, so I stopped to pull out the ancient brown leather jacket and gloves from a saddlebag, then yanked on the helmet and snapped it up. Betty purred under me as I revved her four-stroke engine, and curved into traffic. Heading north.
Away from the city, away from men.
I turned right to follow the river, which often soothed. You could breathe there. Breathe better without a liar who had clearly been, what? Dating on the side. Just two months ago we’d agreed it was serious; exclusive. Huh.
Another grad student; someone adoring, I suppose.
The water was grey and turbulent, wind frothing the edges. It suited me and I drove hard, loving the anger in me, the water and the sky. A sky now suddenly worth another look.
In the city one rarely sees the breadth of it but, out here, it was a Voldemort sky, a monstrous charcoal whirling creature, a Chinese dragon, skimming the horizon. It looked like computer animation.
I slowed down.
If this thing touched down, I’d drown, or be a lightning rod on this lonely road. I looked ahead for vertical stripes from the Cloud-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. None yet. There was a church ahead, likely shut tight. (What happened to open for solace and prayer?) There was a family grocery store if I turned left, ten minutes if I gunned it.
I patted Betty’s gas tank and sped up.
Weather like that, sudden and shocking, can knock a crap relationship out of one’s mind.
Raindrops as long as my fingers began on my helmet, on my visor, on Betty. Two kilometers to go. I risked more speed. The drops became a tattoo on my helmet, and the road, slick. I had to either slow down or push it before hell broke loose. A car jerked out of a treed driveway without looking and I swerved and flipped the throttle down simultaneously. A half spin into grey rain, a dangerous teeter but I swung left with my whole weight and thank god Betty didn’t go over. Good girl. We were back on our feet, so to speak, cursing the damn driver and shaking my head to try to see. A hundred meters. I’d make it.
I pulled into the edge of the store’s lot, slunk up to the loading side and turned her off. Couldn’t see a thing. The world was underwater and I, in an aquarium, a staccato my heart-brain.
Deep breaths. Visor up. More deep breaths. I slid off, legs shaky from that near skid, and paused. Then I walked as boldly as Betty along the porch into the store.
A dozen folks were all looking out, murmuring, chatting with the cashiers, comparing the downfall to Niagara Falls.
“Poor you!” exclaimed Charlie, the eldest cashier, a cheery duckie with vibrant blue hair, not old-lady-pretending-to-be-grey-blue. “Put your helmet over here to dry. Good lordie, we need hot drinks over here!”
The youngest butcher had just come forward wiping his washed hands, to peer out the windows. “I put the kettle on,” he said, nodding at me. “Tea or coffee? Or hot chocolate?” He lowered his voice and winced. “It’s the instant kind.”
I blinked at the kindness. I’d always liked the staff, the warm wood floorboards, the assortment of food from eggplants and gluten-free bagels to basmati rice. I’d overlooked this pleasant man with the crooked-tooth smile. Wait, was that boyish charm again?
He misinterpreted, leaned in slightly. “But there’s marshmallows.”
Who could resist that?
My expression was an answer for he turned and walked down the canned goods aisle toward the mysterious back room.
“You’ll be all right, dearie, once you’ve got a hot drink in ya,” continued Charlie both to me and the group. “Pete! Make that two!” she shouted. “Here comes another.”
A man shoved inside, a wet mass of human, and shook, like a dog.
I scooted away, nearly in time, but the crowd frowned en masse. His long hair and raincoat had sprayed far and wide.
Clueless, he shoved through to Charlie. “You got cigarettes?” he asked, then sneezed.
I turned and followed the aisle down toward my artificial expanding marshmallows. The steel roof was playing John Williams. When I reached the long plastic strips hanging in place of a door, I hesitated.
It was dark in there, no doubt a warehouse of dead animals hanging with their skin peeled off, or cartons of creepy intestinal-looking gourmet sausages. I turned away, unzipped the jacket and peeled it off. Thirty-year-old leather was absorbent, and heavy as mud. I held it at arms’ length, thinking wet cat.
“This might help a bit,” came that pleasant alto voice.
He was about my height, crinkles at the corner of his eyes, deep olive skin and thick wiry eyebrows like small cats. In short, adorable.
I reached for the cup, grinned at the tiny white pillows. Totally chemical. Betty and Voldemart made me speak without editing. “Do you want to hang out sometime?” Ohmygod he was probably married. “Sorry, forget it. I mean, you’re probably—“
His smile was slow and wide. He raised those wild eyebrows. There was no wedding ring. “That sounds nice.” He paused. “Maybe check my cooking skills first.”
Sage advice. I sniffed the drink, took a sip and swished it. “Excellent flavour,” I said. “A hint of factory sugar with undertones of tap water.”
I took a bigger sip to hide my grin. Betty would advise me that the best way to get over a man was to just—move on.
Above us the roof witch-danced.
By sid sibo
The mountain’s forest is ash and air. The mountain feels spacious, open. In yesterday’s ancient summer sunlight, she revealed some of her secrets, offered a brief remembrance of a layer of time. To Gideon, and to Clara, she gave this offering. Clara accepted the gift, but fails to accept its brevity.
She grabs a sketchbook of soggy drawings and stuffs it into one of the smaller plastic storage totes. The last week’s frenzied work on the burned-over hill where she stands will be the only documentation ever done at the block house village archeological site she named Vermillion Towers. The tote is heavy with carefully located potsherds, hunting points, her meticulous journal, ink already smudging.
Everything Clara can’t carry is about to be buried. She feels the mountain loosening into a flash of ochre mud, a strange sense of the mountain as her mother, the brevity of her presence in her life. Her mother’s skin reflects in the mahogany cliff layers that channel the river here into its fast canyon. Her mother’s voice sings in the rock-mulched gardens of the ancestors, her hands slap mud on the great-grandmothers’ block house walls. Clara should race for the raft at the edge of the Kid River but those muddy hands hold her spellbound.
The mountain’s air thickens, descends, saturates, and slashes into New Mexican monsoon. Lonely without the green forest, the mountain longs for her river, leans toward movement. She isn’t as immutable as people think—she shapeshifts. A layer of memories softens, muddies. Mountains hold long memories, and still they too change, depending.
The personal history in Gideon’s long legs knows running is surviving. Freshly arrived from an East African refugee school, he is barely eighteen and lightweight like a wild falcon. He is already knee deep in the raining splash of wind-thrown river waves, untying the raft from its cottonwood anchor. He hangs onto nothing but his experience. The mountain coming down behind him sounds like soldiers. Crashing trees shoot bullets of bark and wood, and the storm darkens the day into a too-often-remembered night. Wind screams like his mother, failing to save his sister. He is a survivor. The river chokes on the charred scent of African village, on the dead trunks of recently burned forest.
Kid River wants that raft, and it wants Clara’s burdens. The mud grips her boots two seconds too long for her to keep her balance. On impact, the plastic tote loses its snap-top, sending sketchbook, potsherds and ancient seeds to scatter into the wind and under the jack-strawed black branches falling around her. Like so many people in pain, she calls out for her mother. But the river rises around her as she crawls over the ground, grasping at anything that might remain.
Gideon yells. “Get in the boat!” His slight body hangs on one end of the rope, bracing against the tree, while the river grows, and grows hungrier. The river makes a new offer. To slip Gideon loose of an unchosen identity. Two-word label: child soldier. As if one word could be true at the same time as the other. The river can swallow the guilt, that Gideon always chose survival. Even when it meant killing someone else. The river slaps his face, and gives him a fresh choice.
He could climb in the raft, and the river would carry him out of the canyon. Eventually the river would flatten and spread, and the raft would ground itself. Holding only the ledger-sized field journal now, Clara stands dazed on the crumbling riverbank. He yells again. “Clara!”
He maneuvers to keep the rope taut around the tree while he scrambles to her side. She outweighs him, and he is already battling the current. “Clara, you have to climb in.” The river is up to his hips, over her waist. She holds the journal above her head, but with the downpour, air is no drier than river. “Let it go, Clara. You need your hands.”
She stumbles forward while he leans back against the pull of the raft. The river pushes her to her knees, and the ledger is submerged, but she rises and struggles to heft the journal into the belly of the boat.
Gideon shortens the boat’s tether, hand-over-hand, until he is behind her. “Now.” His hand is beneath the ledger, adding his strength and pushing it over the edge. The river hoists Clara onto the smooth, air-filled Hypalon chamber, belly-first, and she slides over. Gideon sucks in a deep, wet breath. Thick river sluices around his narrow body, giving him both baptism and release. He flips in first one leg, then the other. Clara is in the stern and her hands grip a paddle. She gives him a nod and he lets the rope go. Into the waves the raft rears, and Gideon slides to the bow, grabbing for his own paddle. To send them into the center of the river, she levers her weight against the water’s force. He uses his paddle to fish the rope back into the boat, so it won’t snag. If something stopped them now, they’d capsize.
By W. T. Paterson
Through the glow of the red chili pepper string lights running the perimeter of my porch, I watched a drifter boy talking to my neighbor’s daughter. The girl’s father stood by watching from a sandpit picking lint out of his bellybutton, a cud of dip fattening his lip. It felt like being back on the stage of a small club.
“What’s up, funnyman,” my neighbor said. He waddled over and hobbled up the only two stairs in stiff jean shorts that fell to the top of his bony knees where scars wrapped the flesh like vines.
I stepped back to look at the glowing peppers. The Nevada desert wind wailed through the torn-up screen.
“What do you make of this one?” He spit black sludge into an empty beer can.
“There are no happy endings,” I said. He laughed and clapped me on the shoulder with such force that I wanted to dig my fingers into his hideous lips and rip the ink from his mouth. I never bothered to learn his name, so I called him Mud, which he seemed to enjoy.
His daughter looked no older than thirteen, the same age as my ex-wife when we first met. In the eighteen years we spent together, we fell in love, out of love, and made a child to love instead. A girl named Beatrice. I called her Beats.
Then, during my first late-night talk show appearance, my ex wrapped her sedan around a telephone pole and gave up the ghost.
The drifter boy had a faded homemade tattoo on his forearm. Fire, maybe. I looked at my own arm where scars wrapped the flesh like vines. The reason people turn away from suicide at the last second is because they’re too afraid it’s going to hurt.
Mud belched and I considered kicking that idiot face-first into the golden sand. Then he said ’scuse me and I forgave him.
The girl looked over at her father. Mud smiled and waved. The girl flipped him off. Mud laughed.
“Grow up so fast, don’t they?” he asked, and scratched his face with yellow fingernails. I unplugged the lights.
“Septic needs draining,” I said.
“Call ’em up, funnyman,” Mud said, and hocked another glob into the can.
When I first arrived, Mud learned of my TV appearance. He rounded up his daughter and made me perform in my living room. It was the first time I’d told a joke in a year.
Women love to ask questions. Luckily, men think they have all the answers. I call that balance, folks!
Mud hollered so loud, I thought he might keel over. His daughter hid behind her hands.
Mother birds push their babies out of nests after a few weeks so that they learn to fly. Humans? 18 years! I call that Stockholm syndrome, folks!
Mud howled like a coyote with mange. The girl rolled her eyes. She looked like my wife who filed for divorce right as my career gained steam.
I talked about getting wasted on Bourbon Street and stumbling into a fortune-teller to get my palm read. The twist is that it wasn’t a fortune-teller, it was a brothel.
That’s what I call a real hand-job, folks!
That part isn’t true, but the fortune-teller is. I wasn’t wasted, but I was upset that the crowd talked through my entire set. It was Beats’ birthday and my wife told me not to come visit, so I booked a show as far away as I could.
The fortune-teller was a beautiful Haitian woman with an accent. She told me I could manifest whatever I wanted so long as I tucked a special sack of herbs under my pillow.
“I want my wife out of the picture,” I said, and smiled at how clever I was. The woman told me to be more specific. I said that I hoped my wife wrapped her car around a telephone pole, and then asked the fortune-teller out for a drink. She agreed. She wore a necklace made out of dried chili peppers, but after two drinks, she disappeared, and I never saw her again.
In my living room, Mud repeated the word brothel, spraying spit from his lips. His daughter stood up and left.
Now, on the porch, the girl eyed her father and followed the boy to his flimsy blue tent on the outskirts of our commune. Mud’s eyes went dark and he limped down the steps.
“If I imagine the worst, it ain’t gon’ happen, right?” he asked.
I told him that it’s the stuff we never consider that gets us.
Like how Beats was in the car when my wife wrapped the Sedan around a telephone pole and how after the happiest moment of my life, things were never the same.
I bent over and plugged the string of lights back in. Mud paced until a gust of wind whipped sand so hard that it forced him inside and I could no longer breathe with open eyes.