Category: Fiction

Billy Bagbones: A Folk Tale By Dan Fields

Billy Bagbones: A Folk Tale By Dan Fields

There’s an old song about Billy Bagbones. I bet most of you know it, but it’s only a little bit of the story. I’ve got cousins way out in the country whose people were neighbors with his folks. When I was little my great-aunt Winnie told me all of it, the way she heard it when she was just a little older than me.

A long time ago in the foothills thick with trees, a few miles south of where we are tonight, a little boy lived in a falling-down cabin. His name was Billy Boggs. His daddy brewed moonshine from corn and dogwood bark and pine cones to sell in town, but kept too much for himself to make much money. His mama took in sewing and laundry even though she couldn’t keep herself clean to begin with. Billy’s granny lived there too, and bought tobacco to chew with money that could have fed the family better.

Billy was seven years old and there was nothing much special about him, good or bad. He liked fishing and tree climbing like any boy, even though he could never find another kid to play with. Parents told their children to steer shy of Billy Boggs because he belonged to bad folks. His mama and daddy hadn’t started out bad, but they came from bad folks and were sad and mean and rotted from hard living.

Instead of teaching his son to shoot and fight and brew, Billy’s daddy taught him just enough wood chopping to keep the fire burning, then left him alone except to beat him.

“You’re a dumb dirty kid,” Billy’s old man told him, “and that’s all you’ll ever be.”

The old man had fine ears like a hound dog. He could hear the revenue man’s truck coming five miles away, and he could track hogs and deer through brush without having to wound them first. He could hear anytime the boy came in easy swatting range, no matter how quiet Billy tried to be. He could have a been a hunting guide or plenty other useful things, but he drank too much for steady work, so he wasted and grumbled his life away, hearing the world go on around him and blaming his son for it.

Billy’s mama wasn’t much for washing, but she had fine fingers and a gift for sewing. She worked long hours in the house, never so much as going to the porch to watch the sun set. She muttered under her breath what sounded like prayers, but they were full of cuss words, and when Billy came to help her she kicked his legs or poked him with pins.

“You’re a nasty child of sin,” she told him, “and you’ll never be anything else.”

She’d had an old banjo, but Billy only remembered her picking it once when he was just a baby. She’d sold it off to spring Billy’s daddy from jail for fighting. If she hadn’t married Daddy she could have picked the banjo for real money, maybe even played gospel meetings on the radio. But she’d had to marry, she said, and gave Billy another kick or a hard poke in the ribs when she thought of it. Billy tried to be good, fetched and carried for her and did everything she thought up for him to do. He reckoned if he could figure out how to be a good boy, things would ease up on him.

Billy’s mama never went to the porch because his granny practically lived there, and she was the flat worst. She’d stare at the boy like a chicken hawk as he came and went, spitting her chaw into the weeds unless Billy stopped to speak to her or even look at her. Then she’d hock brown slime right in his eye and pinch him with her birdy claws.

“You’re a filthy little twerp,” she’d screech at him, “and you’ll never be good for a thing.”

Then he’d always get a slap and a kick at supper from his daddy and mama both, for what they called provokin’ his granny. Billy was never sure whether his granny was his daddy’s mama or his mama’s mama. They all went together so natural it hardly mattered. He was not about to ask fool questions just to get beat up. Most of his time he spent thinking of ways he could try harder to be good. He wasn’t all that dirty, and he certainly was not dumb, but he’d been called it so many times he believed it. It was why he never thought of running away.

One day the sun came out with no clouds to hide it. The air was warm with a soft breeze that made the trees whisper sweet things. Daddy had passed out drunk, Granny was in bed with hay fever, and Mama was deep in a basketful of sheets to mend, muttering her dirty prayers to the ugly gods in her heart.

Billy ran down to the creek, happy and free. Perfect days only came a few times a year and they taught him what it means to be blessed, even know he didn’t know the word well enough to say it out loud. The frogs were out in the creek enjoying the warm sun, yet he didn’t find a single snake to bother him. He splashed and laughed in the creek, piling mud on his feet just to watch the current wash it away. If that day had not come along so nice, he might have thought all girls and boys grew up the same as him. He was fixing to learn different.

Two little children found him there, a boy and a girl. They weren’t from town or from a farm.  They said their folks were traveling north to a place called Oh-Hi-Oh, and they’d stopped the wagon for a picnic just up the hill. Billy was so glad to meet people who didn’t know him or who he belonged to that he played all sorts of games with them, pirates and hide and seek and skip-a-rock. Billy caught flies and set them on the water in front of a big old bullfrog, who’d shoot out his tongue and lasso them into his wide mouth. When it was time to go, Billy gave each of his new friends a button off his shirt to keep. They were nice buttons but nearly ready to fall off, and he wouldn’t ask his mama to sew them when she was eaten up with work. Just as he was leaving for home himself, the bullfrog hopped up to him and burped a happy song. Billy decided to keep him as a pet, to help him remember the wonderful day he’d had at the creek.

When Billy came running into the cabin, busting with excitement over the friends he’d made, he thought somehow he could keep life from going back to normal. It already had. He held the bullfrog up to his mama just as proud as could be.

“I trained him to follow me!” he said, thinking a bad sinful child could never do such a marvelous thing. His mama didn’t say a word at first. She stuck her sewing needle straight into the frog’s ear, which made it go slack. Then she grabbed the floppy thing by its big legs and slammed its head against the floor. The poor thing never made another croak, but his mama had something to say.

“Well, go and build a fire to stew it in. And how come there ain’t no fresh wood in the fireplace?” And she knocked him on the side of the head. Billy had taken every kind of licking there was, but something about the way she did with his frog made him feel different. It was just like she’d knocked those nice children, who wouldn’t hurt nobody, on the side of their heads too. What had the old bullfrog done but be hungry and friendly? It was one thing to smack a bad childlike Billy, but he had enough sense to know an innocent thing when he saw it. All at once he wondered how his mama would like to be knocked on the head herself.

What his mama didn’t know, what his daddy didn’t know, what his granny sure as hell didn’t know, was the secret Billy kept all for himself. It was the reason he kept so cheerful no matter how rough his family treated him. He knew he could be good enough to please them someday because he knew that in his heart, he was good. He knew because he had been told, and the one who told him was always with him.

Billy thought it was the Lord Almighty speaking to him, the same who looked after the poor and mistreated. He believed in the goodness of creation even when he saw his mother’s faith turn to poison in her breast. He believed in wonderful rewards he’d earn for not complaining, for doing his best, for keeping his chin up. In his sweet trusting way, he never imagined that there was another who knew the scriptures as well as the Lord, to use against the innocent. The voice that came to Billy in sleep and solitude told him, “You are good in my sight. You are loved when you suffer for my sake.” He felt the words were pushing the hurt and anger out of him. He never dreamed it could be old Scratch putting on a holy accent, packing his bad feelings down like powder in a cannon. For months and years the devil had played his trick on Billy, until he only needed to touch a spark to the charge in the boy’s belly.

“Now, my son,” said the voice in Billy’s heart. “Free yourself. Show them what they’ve made.”

There was a wooden mallet in the kitchen that his mama used for pounding hog meat tender when they had any. It was stained dark with hog blood, so Billy figured nobody would mind if he spoiled it some more. He took it right back to his mama and gave her a good knock, right in the jawbone. She slid from her chair to the floor with a kind of wet-sounding sigh. Billy figured another knock would really teach her, and once he’d done that he had a hard time thinking of reasons to stop. Before he was done he’d knocked his mama’s head with that mallet almost as many times as he’d ever been hit himself. Finally, his arm got tired and the mallet felt heavier than before, and he noticed there was hardly any head left to knock.

Billy’s daddy found him in the yard awhile later. The old man was up and around with a mighty sore head. Billy ignored him at first, kept splitting wood like his mama had sent him to do, but his daddy was looking for something to hit. He saw the dark rusty footprints Billy had made all down the porch and settled on that for a reason. He punched the back of the boy’s head, nearly knocking him forward over the splitting stump. Billy almost fell on the hatchet he used to split smaller pieces and shave off kindling. Things might have stopped there if he had. His daddy would have run off to the hills, or maybe had a change of heart and cried for the love he’d kept from his only son, or maybe kept on drinking til somebody found the four of them knocked and chopped and drunk and starved to death all around the falling-down cabin on the hill.

Instead, Billy stumbled forward a step and caught himself. He didn’t turn around right away, but he cocked his body to move quick like a little clock spring. The voice of love was talking to him again, telling him carefully every little thing he ought to do.

“What the hell you step in, boy?” growled his daddy. “You hear me, dummy?”

Billy gave his daddy the chance to calm down, to back off, just as the voice in his heart told him. That way he could never be blamed for what might happen. When his daddy’s rough hand spun him around, Billy was ready with the hatchet. He was just the right height to swing for the big man’s knee. A second later, the two halves of the knee dropped to the ground and the big broad chest was lined up for a second stroke. A second after that, the forehead of the man now roaring in pain and surprise was lined up for strike three. Billy had never swung an ax crosswise at a standing tree, but he knew how to hit a baseball. It was just about the same thing.

Billy was stoking up the fire when his granny came out of bed to complain about the noise, or maybe about the quiet, or maybe that no dinner was cooking yet. She stood above him in her shawl, screeching about the ruined floor that seemed to concern her a good deal more than Billy’s mama with her head all gone. When she saw the boy all caked in gore she cursed him, telling him she’d always known he’d bring them ruin.

“Hateful, hateful, hateful,” she spat. “Shame on the day that saw you born.”

Billy, who now knew that shame and ruin had existed long before him, had in fact brought him unwilling into the world, had nothing much to say. He had spoken his last a good while ago. The voice of love gave its next instruction. Billy rushed at the old woman but instead of striking as she cowered away, he seized a corner of her shawl in each hand and spun her with the skill of a square dancer she might have known in bygone days. He released her just so to send her tumbling across the hearth into the well-built fire. As she cried out and flailed and crackled, he held the iron poker that she had used to stir him from idleness in the past, yet he treated her with the gentleness he owed his elders. He only used a few soft jabs of the iron to keep her from crawling out, until she was quite still, and a pleasant roasting smell filled the cabin.

Billy spent the remaining daylight dividing his family into easily carried pieces with the hatchet and a butcher blade from the kitchen. He meant to rise early and dig a single hole to bury them. He was not feeling tenderhearted enough to call it a grave, but he did not mean to let the bodies fester and foul the little cabin, bitter a place as it had become to him. Had his heart been a shade colder, he might have stewed up a pot of them to sustain him in hard days to come. But he was ready to have the whole business done with. The freedom he had seized for himself was dawning on him by degrees, and he hoped to spend the following day enjoying the sun again. Something, a queer instinct that whispered softer than the voice of love, told him to set aside a few fragments from those he would bury. These he stowed for safe keeping in the woodshed.

It would be easy to think that for Billy Boggs, things came within a hair of turning out fine. If you did not know how deep the devil had his hands in that poor child from birth, you’d think it was only the one bad chance that cast him into ruin. There happened to be a wandering preacher man along one of the cart roads. He traveled with a mission of saving souls when he found them wanting. He was young and unwed, freshly minted by the bible college, young enough to be Billy’s older brother. He had made good road time that day but being in a strange place he feared losing his way. That was why he rode his mule up to the yard of the falling-down cabin. The sun was long set, but he could see a fire burning inside and a small shadow moving through the open door.

The mule shied, nearly tossing its rider, and would come no closer than two dozen yards from the house. Not until the preacher crossed the threshold did his nose pick up the sharp copper smell that had frightened the animal. It was a farm smell he knew from his own childhood, a smell of the fall slaughter. It was blood and rendered flesh. What he found in the cabin brought him to his knees. He gave a quavering cry as he searched the room for one whole, recognizable human form.

That was when Billy, startled by the intruder’s ghastly warbling, stabbed the preacher deep in the thigh with the butcher blade. It was a confused, inexpert blow but it roused the preacher to full alarm. Unmindful of his hurt leg, the man retreated into the yard and leapt on his mule. Kicking the bewildered beast to speed with his good leg, he rode it like a hellhound four miles to town, crying murder and massacre all the way.

The town folks returned to the cabin a short time later. The sight of a holy man with blood all down his leg and terror in his eyes put them in a sort of frenzy that it might not so much these days. He put up a shout about the small demon in the falling-down cabin on the hill. On they came in less time than you’d think possible. They came with shovels and shotguns and fire, and most of them carried stones.

They found Billy busy, burying the fragments of his people. He paid them no mind nor made them any menace, for it grieved him having harmed a stranger who meant him no ill. He had a mind to finish his chores and leave the rest of the world in peace. He was dropping the last of the dead into the hole he’d dug when the first rock struck his head. Crying in one voice of vengeance and hate, they rained their stones upon him as it’s told in the Good Book, seeking to break the monster who had made the carnage they beheld.

They mangled poor Billy, not knowing him for a simple child wronged by heaven and hell and humanity alike. The largest rock came hard enough to split his skull, and caused his brains to ooze. They might have torn his limbs one from the other had not the loudest of them cried for him to be decently hanged. They marched all the way back to town bearing the dying boy’s body, and using the good stout rope from the town well, they hauled him up on the gnarly limb of a grandfather elm that stood in the square. They hoisted him and let him swing where all his good neighbors could look upon him.

Only then did the evil one, author of all the day’s misery, take the scales from their eyes. He had appointed the lynching for his own purposes. Dumbstruck, shamed and horrified, they saw that they had seized and stoned a young boy without knowing his guilt for certain. Their madness washed away as from a drain with the plug out, yet nobody had the nerve to approach the tree and let him down. None of them spoke as they turned homeward. The only sound was Billy Boggs twisting at the end of a rope, high on the elm in the center of town.

 

Tadpole, tadpole, frogs in the sand

Billy came home with warts on his hand

“Shame!” said Mama and thumped his head

Billy took a hammer and he knocked her dead.

 

Graveyard, graveyard, digging up roots

Billy came home with mud on his boots

“Shame!” said Daddy and blacked his eyes

Billy took a knife and skinned him alive

 

Woodshed, woodshed, hide ‘em in the dirt

Billy went to church with blood on his shirt

“Shame!” said the preacher and cast him out

Billy took a hatchet and shut his mouth

 

Murder! Murder! All through town

Billy came walking when the sun went down

“Shame!” said the folks and they took his life

Hit him with a hammer and a hatchet and a knife

 

Hangman, hangman, string him up high

Let Billy be the last in town to die

“Shame!” said the devil and cut him down

Made him a body from bones in the ground

 

Rooster, rooster, crowing at the sun

Where’d Billy go to? Now he’s gone

Body sewed up and brains in a sack

Billy got away but he’s gonna come back

 

See, there’s a Bible verse telling how the devil stalks the world like a lion, looking for folks he can eat. He labors in every heart, understand, but only once in a while does he open his jaws and gobble up a soul. He’d been cooking Billy Boggs for seven years, and my oh my how Billy must have tasted. Turning the poor child loose on the kin who’d misused him was only one delicious bite. The real feast began the next midnight, when old Scratch took himself walking through the square to see how things had shaken out. Every door was shut tight, with no lights in any window. It was not the quiet of a little town asleep. It was a cemetery, each home a crypt where folks had locked themselves in. On account of what they’d visited in fear on a poor troubled child, they dared not speak or look one another in the eyes. Nobody but the youngest children had taken any supper, entombing themselves in sleep and resignation to heaven’s judgment, few expecting to live til morning.

But the punishment for their sin was not to be death. In their beds they slept soundly, and dreamed of guilty secrets til the sun shone in and they rose to see the morning newly created. After one instant of joyful promise, they looked closer and saw the world was the same old horror as ever. Never would a sunrise come again that failed to remind them. That was the reward of the murderers, not to die but to live in dreadful knowledge of the hearts.

The evil one knew this all along, smiling to count the ones who would know despair and end themselves the soonest, compounding the black marks against them in the Almighty’s account book. Standing beneath the tree where the little body hung, he thought of the many new rooms he would have to build in his own foul halls. A mottled crow roosted on the limb, but dared not peck the boy’s sweet eyes without leave from its master. The eyes were shut, the expression on the beaten face almost prayerful. The child looked only asleep, but for the rope about his throat. It would have pulled the heart from any creature except the prince of hell, who half-sang to himself as he watched the breeze turn the rope, this way and that. At two minutes after twelve, he went to work.

From his pocket he drew a long bandage of coarse linen, narrow as a ribbon. Then he took a length of thick black thread made for binding up wounds and sealing the lips of the dead. At the thread’s end was a fine needle fashioned from a bone sliver, the kind that may shear off into the blood and stab the heart from inside. The body has such ingenious ways to murder itself that for most men, enemies are a needless luxury.

At the devil’s command the hanging limb withered and died. It was a trick he had stolen from the preacher of Galilee. He sewed up the worst of the child’s wounds and bade the still heart beat again. The Billy-corpse flailed about senseless in the dirt. The devil wound the linen bandage in clever loops around the broken skull, binding in the brains and seeping matter, then fastened the ends tightly round the throat. Two eyes fluttered open, and the thing Billy had become looked in silent reverence on its deliverer. Old Scratch had no stern decree for his dear one, no brutal marching order. He had come to teach the boy secret ways of mending himself. At dawn he handed over the oily black thread as a gift and sent the Billy-thing away to walk the world.

The folks in town were reluctant to shake off sleep. It was Sunday, but no one rang the church bell. They dared not tempt holy wrath before the Lord’s altar. Instead they came in barefoot twos and threes to the town square, where they found the hanging tree fallen, the rope a frayed and snakelike ruin. As the women who found the open tomb on blessed Easter felt wonder and joy, these folks felt horror. It was a dreadful discovery, yet in their hearts many were not surprised. The devil had claimed and preserved his own. That did nothing to soothe or justify their hearts. In silent assent they gathered lamps and candles. As pilgrims they went, two by two, up the hill to the falling-down cabin. There, as the company looked on murmuring psalms, each one cast his light through the window until tongues of flame rose high above the eaves, issuing a black column of hell smoke. The congregation prayed that their penitent act be accepted as a cleansing, not as a further mockery of the commandments they had all held sacred before the madness of the previous night.

Billy wandered the nearby woods for some hours, til long after the interlopers had gone home again. From an old memory, or old it seemed after his long night of hell, he found his way back. The ruins of the house were smoking, a vile remembrance charred into the earth, but he did not come in search of shelter. In the woodshed he found the tokens he had saved, obeying the command of his false conscience. With the gory hatchet he cut his fingers free one by one. In place of them he stitched the slender fingers of his mother. The womanly digits on his chubby child’s fists were spidery and queer, but with his nimble new hands he could grasp and sew and do all manner of things much faster.

With rough strokes of the bone-blunted knife he took his father’s keen ears for his own, sewing them in place under the bandages that made his soft skull. With these he could track anything through the dark, no matter how small or fleet.

He had no use for a sharp tongue, especially since his granny’s was stained with chaw. Her lungs were tough and callused from the exercise of shrieking. Instead he took her flinty eyes which could see everything by dark and by day, sometimes things only imagined. With the devil’s art and his gift of needle and thread, Billy made himself all new.

Probing deep with his hands, he sifted fresh grave dirt for more parts to strengthen and sustain him. Some were half-rotten and had to be replaced within days. Billy began to walk the woods along wagon roads, listening for unwary travelers. From a young blacksmith he took shoulders like a bull. From a hermit he stole tough horny feet that ran silent and sure over gravel and sharp river rocks. Soon he was a much greater thing than a defenseless boy, yet not any sort of creature that you might call a man. He prowls these parts even today, adding to himself from the victims he takes. His parts are always wearing out and going dead, but there’s always new folks passing through. I reckon one day he’d like to have a good left leg like yours, and a strong young heart like yours. Be careful in case he comes close enough to hear it beating in the dark. The only thing Billy never worked out is how to switch his dirty cloth head for a whole one of flesh and bone. Keeping his body alive while he changes heads, that’s the one secret old Scratch never shared. He held it back to make sure Billy stays a monster no matter how much life he gathers to himself. That way his wandering and searching will never end, and when our little ones grow older the song will be theirs to sing.

 

Dan Fields once absconded with a film degree from Northwestern University. He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife and offspring.

Mountain Views By Abigail Miller

Mountain Views By Abigail Miller

Above the tree line, it hits just how alone you are. You’ve traveled so far that the forest who once stood tall beside you, offering shelter from the less inviting elements of nature, no longer accompanies you. There were a few brave souls who tried, but only managed some naked trunks. Miles below on the ground, it looks like a hill lined with toothpicks, or a closely buzzed scalp.

But miles up, standing on top of the peak, is its own kind of beauty. It’s the place where you find snow in a desert, sweltering heat and bitter chill at the same time. The whole atmosphere a confusing and beautiful contradiction, perilous beauty that you could only recognize up close. Anyone can look up from the valley, see the mountain and say it’s beautiful. But what makes the opposite perspective special, looking down at the valley, and looking directly around you, is that fewer know the view.

Colorado “14ers” get their nickname for being over 14,000 feet above sea level, close to three miles in the sky. Even the oxygen cautiously wanes, not yet abandoning you, but just enough to keep you moving. The sun beats down on you to combat the brisk winds trying to knock you back down. But you’ve come too far to turn around, you must finish.

Right on the divide between towering evergreens and snowy sand, it’s a breathtaking scene. The pause between motion and complete stillness. Even the famous evergreens decided they were not strong enough to plant themselves beyond that line, yet there you are accepting the challenge to trek forward. And the reward is well worth it. For eyes who never grow tired of beholding nature’s glories, it’s a breath of fresh air. For the soul who must conquer uphill battles to grow—it’s a victory well won.

 

Abigail Miller is a Dental Hygiene major who likes to think she’s got a knack for writing. Her hobbies include hiking, sub-par mom van parking, asking to pet strangers’ dogs, and writing about all the above. As she continues exploring her passion for words, she hopes it’ll inspire the joy and humor in others’ lives, one snarky piece at a time.

Your Studies, Sir By Robert Pope

Your Studies, Sir By Robert Pope

When I was very young I heard of them, certainly, but they remained a distant terror. I heard about them later in religious training and bedtime stories. Ministers taught us to resist the desire or tendency to conform to their ways, beliefs and practices—as if they had any attraction! They were nothing more than evil, something to fear in shadow and abstraction. Yet in bedtime stories, I sensed both threat and charm, for what is the tale without the danger?

While given to believe they were legion, around us every moment, I saw only my friends, other children, parents—where was the danger we feared? The world still seemed a jolly place, and with my faith in God and all his Saints, what had I to fear? Still, the legend of the vampire thrilled me, fear a drug of sorts. I imagined fabulous creatures in their lairs, waiting to suck the mortal blood.

As I grew, I lost myself in studies of the dark ones to the exclusion of anything else, and for this removal from their midst, my townsmen admired me, mistrusted me, even feared me. As years went by, I came to understand legends as ideas cloaking our reality, like the dark cape of the monster—but where were the monsters themselves? The lure of ideas retreated, withdrawing like waves from a beach. As these waves drew back into the ocean from whence they came, what remained but old friends, parents, strangers met along the way, my teachers themselves?

I could no longer believe that vampires, demons, or other such hobgoblins, manifested themselves among the normal, common folks with whom I worked and lived, who looked at me as something of an oddity because I was not yet one of them! I had held back from them so long I felt alone. Following this childish faith—that the imaginings and fears that once fascinated me had promised a world darker and stranger than the natural one—had made me an oddity, a freak, willfully denying the goodness of the curious humanity about me, who studied me with furrowed brow as I searched among them for the shapes of evil.

I relaxed my defenses, laughed at the fool I had been, joined the throng of comrades in their pleasures and strife, blessing the day they finally took me in as one of them. Years passed, and nothing of the child I had been remained. And then, one day, a fellow came to our office with frightened, shining face, full of the illusions of protracted youth. He had surely been a pampered one. How little did he know of the reality of life! And yet, what promise he possessed. He stirred my fascinations of old with the tattered pages of the book he sought to publish.

He sat across from me at lunch next day, in the midst of an eating, drinking crowd, loud with conversation of daily matters. A dear friend had died; perhaps this separated him from me. In his excited words and gestures, I saw him for a fool possessed of ridiculous ideas, and nothing more. But as the distance between us grew, what I saw was not a separate individual, but the sort of fool that I had once been. I now recalled the wild excitement of those days, so long forgotten, that now un-reclaimable faith! What I experienced was grief!

What my teachers hoped to protect me from, I had become, the inevitable progression to conventionality against which they warned me. Yet even then they knew the reason they sought to preserve in me their own lost faith—they knew it would be lost. I looked about us there in the restaurant, saw the creatures I had feared, whose number I had joined not because they sucked at my blood, but because I feared to stand alone. I could hardly breathe. I shouted, “Please, stop this nonsense at once!” My young companion ceased in mid-speech and those at tables near enough to hear turned to look at me. Their curious, roguish smiles terrified me.

I literally fled the company of men preoccupied with their own lives and hid in the forest around our little hamlet, shunning the community of people who had fostered, rejected, received me once more in their bosom. I could not return. I left word by an old friend that I would venture back to the university and into the greater world in my pursuit of a project I had contemplated for many years. Oho, my old friend said, with a mischievous smile, so, you have not given up on all that muck?

I winked at him as if he had caught on to me, but I did not tell him I had discovered an abandoned hut in the deepest wood and there taken up residence with nothing but my howling emptiness for sustenance and companion. I grew thin, snarling, sickened on my own lost faith, the notions I once held that could never be fulfilled or realized in this or any world. I felt nothing so strongly as an urge to stop the young man who had created this metamorphosis in me, for his mistakes had been my own, and mine had led me here.

One night, desperate without respite or cure, I cloaked myself in darkness, crept to the edge of town, and peered through a window the other side of which sat my student at his books. A fire dwindled at the hearth. With candle burning at his elbow, he smoked his clay pipe as he followed a line of thought with one finger on a text. My hatred flared now higher than the fire inside a darkness I had pulled around me. I tapped on the window, drew back in the trees. From where I hid I saw an inquiring face at the glass, looking first one way, then the other.

I climbed onto the lower branch of a stout tree and perched there listening as his front door opened. I heard the rustle of the undergrowth as he made his way around the little house, calling out a tentative greeting: Hello, who’s there? I removed a lengthy blade secreted in my bosom as he approached. When he stopped beneath me, puzzled, I hid my mirth. I watched him in his dire confusion scolding his own senses for deceiving him. I waited until he gave up inquiry and went back in the house to climb down from my tree and hurry through the shivering woods, to the remote hut in which I now dwelt.

Did I intend to kill him that night, or on another night in the coming weeks and months, or did I simply intend to terrify him? I did not know, but I came to realize our fates had become inextricably entangled, my only duty now to ensure my student either gave up forever or never gave up his studies. I wanted to dash, once and for all, a fantastical faith that his fears had a mysterious source that would, at last, be revealed to his probing mind, or confirm him in the same belief—which, I could not say.

Inevitable fulfillment came at last, one night in autumn, when the student railed against the forces tormenting him. I lurked in the shadowed doorway of an alley through which he had come to pass, ever glancing behind. He stopped, turned, and roared for his tormentor to reveal himself at last. As I stepped from concealment, the dagger clutched in my hand inside the cape, he stared in terror until he found his voice and demanded my identity, and the reason I assailed him in this way. My turn to be confused.

He pointed now, arm straight, his finger stiff, asserting his right to an answer. Could he not recognize my face? Was I so changed? Answer me, he bellowed, whatever manner of demon you may be. Your name, sir!

I could take this unconscionable abuse no longer. I sprung, cape flying, plunging the blade deep in his heart and held it there, looking in his eyes. When he fell, I crawled on top of him and whispered in his ear: Your studies, sir, have not been in vain, for you have called me from the blackest hell, wherein my malice and my love were forged.

Robert Pope has published a novel, Jack’s Universe, as well as a collection of stories, Private Acts. He has also published many stories and personal essays in journals, including The Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Fiction International, and anthologies, including Pushcart Prize and Dark Lane Anthology.
 

 

 

Unearth By Jody Gerbig

Unearth By Jody Gerbig

The guy running the “real archeological dig” has me take the Number Nine bus to a non-stop alongside the freeway. He instructs me to tell the driver to pull over at mile-marker six. I wear khaki hiking pants, rolled and buttoned mid-calf, hiking boots, and a black t-shirt. The summer air has an unexpected chill to it, and I wish I’d worn a jacket, or something with pockets for my hands.

“Here we are,” the bus driver says, pulling onto the berm. I emerge from the bus alone, on the berm, with only my cell phone, some cash, and a photo I.D.  I wonder when the others will arrive and notice it’s already 5:35 p.m. I didn’t think to bring a taser or pepper spray, but I wish I had.

A gray Jeep slows on the asphalt and pulls over, its front dipping into the ditch marking the beginning of the field, its sides somewhat obscured from the road by tall grasses. A man steps out, all six-feet-some-inches of him. He wears faded jeans slung low on his lean hips, a hunter-green long-sleeved shirt, a plain baseball cap that covers peppered brown hair, and hiking shoes. I judge him to be somewhere between thirty-five and forty.

“Howdy!” he says, shifting a bag of rattling tools and a large spade to his left hand. “Miriam?”

“Ted? I wasn’t sure I had the right place,” I say. He extends his free hand for me to shake. It is warm and soft. I notice a pair of leather gloves hanging from his back pocket.

“Wow, you’re much prettier than I expected.”

My neck tenses. I have been called ‘pretty’ only a handful of times and never by a stranger. I feel my armpit drip with sweat. Ted is handsome. Not like Harrison Ford handsome. He’s clean shaven and smells like baby laundry detergent. I stare at his perfect row of white teeth as he smiles.

“And the others?” I say, fingering my cell in my back pocket, considering an Uber ride home.

“Others?”

“There are other people on this dig, right?”

“Oh, yeah.” Ted searches the horizon, as though remembering these nameless ‘others’ who had once filled the class. “They had, uh, another engagement.” He turns and smiles, his eyes inviting, like those of a guy passing me on a Sunday hike, out with his black lab, enjoying the stillness of the woods. “Just us.” He winks. “Sorry, not sorry.”

“Oh.” I shrug, letting my hand fall from my phone. “No worries,” I say, like someone else. Like a festival-going hipster.

When I filled out the form linked in the Facebook ad, Ted emailed me within the hour. I considered for a moment that “Ted” is an infamous serial-killer name. He wrote emphatically, Hello, Mariam! I have one spot open for an evening group dig this Thursday at 5:30 p.m. Reserve about three hours and wear comfortable outdoor clothing. Please respond if you are interested in signing up and pay via PayPal on the link below!

I had so many questions: Where do I meet Ted? Do I bring my own shovel and brushes? Where do I buy a shovel and brushes? How many people are in the class? Are we digging on private property? His own, maybe?

My co-worker Jen, standing over my shoulder when I got the email, said, “You’re not thinking of doing this, are you?”

“It sounds fun,” I said.

“It sounds stabby. Or rapey,” she said.

“So, I shouldn’t go.”

“I dunno. He might be cute.”

I paid without asking the questions, and Ted sent me instructions with too many exclamation points in them.

But Ted doesn’t seem like an exclamation-point kind of guy in person. Not out here. Even with the teeth. He does seem like a quarter-life-crisis kind of guy, though. I make assumptions: he went to Harvard business school and then dropped off Wall Street two years in to be a rafting guide in Colorado—that is until he realized he kind of sucked at rafting, that he was way better at digging dirt and brushing dust off old poop pots.

Ted turns and walks toward the worn path, whistling a light tune anyone would follow. I know I should call the Uber. I feel like my next step could take me somewhere.

“Coming?” he says, turning only his cheek toward me, a half smile. He waves his hand over his shoulder—he will not wait for me. I take a full breath, clench my fists, step onto the grass path, and walk into the horizon.

Ted’s whistling is beguiling. I don’t even notice we’ve walked about a half-mile on a narrow dirt path, past some full-grown oak trees, until the low sun pierces my eyes.

“What do you expect to find today?” I ask.

“Oh, you know.” He pulls the gloves from his back pocket and slips them on his hands. The shovels and brushes rattle on his back as he strides, clinking together like a hobo’s pan and tin cup. “Sometimes we find native clay pots. An arrow head or two. Maybe something like that.” He turns his head slightly. I see a glint in his eye—the sun’s reflection. “What do you expect to find today?”

It is one of life’s questions. I don’t answer.

“How many times have you done this?” I say instead. I want to ask all the other questions, like whether he’s married, if he has any children, whether he’s close with anyone, but I don’t. I ask interview questions, as though I haven’t already bought the ticket and tromped that first piece of grass off the freeway.

“A few.”

The air is still, save birds fluttering hither and thither. I’ve always wanted to use that phrase, hither and thither. In accounting we use acronyms, like ETA, ULD, AR, LLC. We wear layers of polyester clothing, the office a deathly temperature fit for a sub-species of men. Our throats scratch when we talk, and we don’t talk much. Thus, the acronyms.

“So, what is Miriam like when she’s not following strange men through unmarked fields?” Ted says, glancing back.

“Sitting next to stranger men in cubicles,” I say. He laughs. I can’t help it—I fall for his self-deprecation. He has a nice laugh.

We walk twenty or so more yards, past a sign that reads Private Property, No Trespassing. Ted holds open a loose spot in a barbed-wire fence for me to climb through awkwardly and slowly. I count nine years since my last tetanus inoculation. We enter a clearing, speckled with limestone boulders, hedges, and dirt mounds. About two-hundred yards in the distance lies a line of deciduous trees. I can’t make out any buildings.

“Here we are,” he says. I stop and stretch, making mental notes about the direction we’ve gone (south), how far on foot (approximately a mile), the terrain (mostly flat and open, a dirt trail through tall grasses), should I ever need to remember. The ground on the site has been dug before, in neat four-by-six-foot sections with a flat-edged shovel—I can make out a clean edge—like rows upon rows of fresh graves.

“You sure we’re allowed to be here?” I ask.

“Oh, yeah. No worries.”

“It’s private property.”

“I worked out a deal.” He pulls off his tools and unbinds them. “A couple weeks ago I found some artifacts around here. I was with a few young ladies from the university. They loved it,” he says, like a man who holds forest-bed orgies under super moonlight. He looks up just long enough to wink and smile.  I picture girls in high pony tails, low scoop-neck t-shirts, and Daisy Dukes out here pecking at the dirt with the point of their spades. I shudder, feeling both revolted and jealous. Maybe even a little afraid. I remember some discussion in the spring about a new self-defense startup for such girls, and I wish now that I had taken one of the classes. But I am not a co-ed. I’m a middle-aged woman wearing a loose chignon with frayed grays around her temples.

“What kind of things do you do for fun?” he says, and I bristle, thinking again of the orgies under moonlight. “Dig in the dirt much?”

My mother rented a plot in a community garden once, outside our rented town house. She grew tomatoes and cucumbers and lettuce, and I remember her outlining rectangles like these, each to keep track of what she’d planted where. Later I realized the cucumbers take over all of it.  “No, not like this.”

Ted shovels an outline of a new work area, the same rectangle as the surrounding ones, and as he works a bead of sweat forms on his brow. I find myself taking deep breaths, watching his arms flex under his shirt, noticing his back muscles grip cotton with each move.

“Here, sift through this dirt pile I’m making. Make sure there’s nothing interesting in it,” he says, pointing to the growing pile behind him. I squat down, my eyes level with his backside, and grab a handful of dry dirt. It slides out the bottom of my fist, now like an hourglass.  “You just might be a natural,” Ted says, and I blush.

Ted and I talk to pass the time—about high school and first dates, about junker cars and strange pets we’ve owned. He gabs more than I would’ve imagined, growing quiet only when describing a brown-eyed girl who lived next door. I think I should respond, to fill the void.

“You liked her?”

Ted seems not to hear. He bends over and digs a dozen or so strokes. In the middle of a shovel-full he remembers something that sparks the conversation again, a summer spent camping in Wyoming with his uncle. He talks feverishly about butchering his own deer. He is so youthful and excited about it all that I almost forget that he has killed and slaughtered a deer.

“—its entrails fell out like—” I hear before the horizon captures me, its large, jagged rocks and bushes like a rural skyline. A fantasy emerges: A storm has rolled in, and we are trapped in the woods. We need to make shelter. And huddle. We must huddle for warmth. Ted’s scruff has grown. I feel it on my chin as I shiver. He rubs my arms, and—

“I’ve never told anyone that,” Ted says.

“Hmm?” I’ve missed something.

“I mean, no one knows.”

“Oh, wow. Okay,” I say, now trying to remember the last thing he said, wondering if it was something clandestine, illegal even. I nod, but he doesn’t look at me. He digs instead, his sleeves now rolled up his forearms, his pace quickening. He glances at the sky, at the horizon where the sun begins to dip, where I had been staring when he confessed.

He wipes his forehead and meets my gaze.  “You want to trade?” He lifts the spade toward me. I pause, staring at the tip of the blade, maybe studying it for marks or something. I stand, take it from him and hold it like a shot gun, feeling its weight in my hands. I nod, lean over, and dig. It’s more difficult than I imagined, the dirt hard and dry and unforgiving. I feel sweat beading in my cleavage and worry that I smell. I wonder if this is Ted’s workout.

“Does it ever get easier?” I say, leaning in, pushing the spade into the hard, dry soil with my boot heel.

“Easier?” He laughs. “This is fun for me.” He fiddles with his brushes. I am so focused on creating the hole I don’t notice if he’s made any progress.

“I didn’t think it would be so violent,” I say, my arms aching. I have dug a sizeable hole. We haven’t found one artifact.

“Most things are, aren’t they?” He laughs. I don’t understand the joke. I am breathing heavily now: in, out, in, in and out. I feel dizzy. Do I imagine a buzzing sound? Birds, maybe? Hawks overhead? I squint into the sky, getting only an eyeful of sun.

“Hey, why don’t we take a little break?”  he says, leaning over and reaching into his left sock. From it he pulls out a flask. He shakes and uncaps it. I smell whiskey. He takes a long swig and holds it out for me. I could take it—I am only an arm’s-length away—but what then? Would we sit on a boulder and watch the sun set?

Was it too much of an impulse, coming here? I wonder. It was a damned ad on Facebook. An ad! I’d been riding the Number Six bus to work last week, like I had every day for fifteen years, scrolling through my Facebook feed, when a man, holding a morning paper under his arm, climbed aboard. I’d noticed him before, this gray-haired man still riding the bus to work, still reading a physical paper. He passed me and chose a back seat. I made some assumptions about him: he still sits in a cubicle; he often works late; on Tuesdays he eats lunch at Applebees; he has a secret life—some hobby or activity he does—that maybe his wife doesn’t even know about. In the moment I grew jealous.

That’s when I noticed the ad. You, too, can find hidden treasures! I clicked on it. The man with the paper coughed behind me. The bus jerked to the left, and I was forced right. I reached for the seat in front of me. The driver yelled, “Shit, man!” slamming his foot on the brake, leaning back so that his bald spot reveals itself to the dozen passengers behind him. The tires squealed. A woman screamed. In the street, a dog barked and then yelped. It is dead, I thought. I didn’t want to know. I gripped my seat. I took in a quick breath and held. This is it, I think. I will die today, in this rolling coffin of a life.

What did I know, then? Nothing. It was another life. She, a different Miriam.

“Aren’t we running out of time?” I ask.

Ted caps the flask and returns it to his sock, shaking his head. He is disappointed.

“I’m not.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing. Nothing.” He pulls the flask back. I stand, my arm resting on the planted shovel, my head cocked to one side. I’m tired, but I don’t drop the shovel. In the quiet, I study Ted: the sharp edge of his jaw casting an odd shadow, his pristine hiking boots, the brushes sticking awkwardly from the tool bag that, admittedly, might not be brushes at all. I feel tired. Very tired. I do want to take a break.

“Look,” he says, using his hands to talk, “I just meant that I’ll be back. You aren’t planning on coming back, are you?”

It is one of life’s questions. I don’t answer.

I think about the man with the paper, on the bus. About his secret life. Gambling? Jumping from planes? A girlfriend? A boyfriend? It would’ve been nice to have known him, I think—to have talked to someone through all those red lights between my apartment and the cubicle.

“Give me a swig,” I say, reaching for the flask Ted digs from his sock. I down a large gulp, the alcohol burning my throat, the low sun piercing my lashes—closed now like a Venus Fly Trap. The tonic tastes like death. Like all the countless things that have perished here, some deep and sand-like, some fresh and foul. I wonder which I will be. One of life’s questions.

I don’t answer.

I drink.

 

Jody Gerbig is a mid-forties, Midwestern woman raising three toddlers and a writing career. Her recent work appears in South 85, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, and Litro Sunday.

The Green House By Brigitte Brkic

The Green House By Brigitte Brkic

The green house sat in perfect harmony with the sea, mountains, and pines behind it; seemingly at one with nature and untouched by the war in the former Yugoslavia.

Two years after the fighting had stopped the effects of war were fading, and preparations for a new tourist season along the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia were well underway. Everywhere smells of fresh paint and newly planted flowers mingled as the residents hammered and sawed at repairs on land and water, scrubbing and power-washing away the neglect of the last five years. Even the Adriatic Sea seemed to take on a new clarity as it lapped against the old pebble shores and sprayed over jutting rocks as it had always done.

The day after our arrival, the first in six years, I took the sea path that follows in and out of coves, past small fishing villages, and comes to an abrupt end where Biokovo Mountain drops vertically into the sea. Though the war’s destruction had not reached the tiny resort town of Brela, it had suffered in its own way by the complete absence of tourists—its life force. The shells of houses under construction before the war now stood abandoned. From them, shrubbery and weeds leaned toward the sea, straining for sunlight. The path I followed was old and neglected, torn upward or caved in at every turn, depending on the angle of the waves that had pounded it each time a Jugo blew.

Stepping carefully, I rounded a corner and entered a sparsely populated cove. At the entrance the land jutted far out into the sea, and from the highest point a green house kept watch over the water on three of its sides. Behind the house, a cluster of pines sheltered it from the land. Unlike the box-like architecture typical of the multi-story, balconied houses built for years up and down the coast, the green house seemed to sprawl, its irregular roofs and eaves mirroring the rugged landscape. Doors opened to verandas at various levels and upstairs windows to individual balconies. But the most striking difference from the other houses was the soft green of the walls, merging perfectly with the pines and olive trees.

Each day of our two-week stay, I walked that same path. My husband joined me once, but he found the house unremarkable. During the second week our daughter, who had been doing forensic work on the mass graves in Bosnia, came to visit. Day by day on those ten-kilometer walks she spoke a little more of her work; of what she had seen and touched, the stories of the survivors who had kept vigil, watching every moment in their hope of finding some clue as to the fates of missing husbands, sons, and brothers. She spoke of her colleagues and how they had found ways of coping and supporting each other. We paused at the green house, but there was never anyone there.

“It was probably built by foreigners before the war,” she said. “And they’ve stayed away like all the other tourists. They probably have some local person take care of it, so it’s not neglected like those other houses.”

“No,” I disagreed. “Look at the new plantings. Someone has lavished care on this house and garden. Besides, the windows and doors are usually open.”

“Maybe the caretaker airing the place,” she laughed. “Mom, when I’m rich and famous, I’ll build a place like this for you.”

“Silly,” I said, nudging her with my elbow. But I was relieved to see her smile, a sign that she was setting aside the somber and obsessive images of her work.

The following year our son, having recently graduated college, came with us. I resumed my daily walks along the path. New houses were springing up, and some of the unfinished ones were completed. The green house stood out from the rest, unchanged but for cobblestones laid in concentric circles to form a patio around the base of the pine tree on the point. After a few days of lazing on the beach or watching the televised European soccer matches almost every day, my son was ready to walk with me. He spoke of his plans and dreams for the future. When we reached the green house, he took photos from all sides of it and of the view. His sister had told him of “Mom’s Green House.”

After that visit I returned each year in late summer and photographed the changing garden. Under the pine tree lounge chairs appeared, creating a shaded spot to sit and watch the sun sink into the sea between the islands. Mediterranean shrubbery covered more and more of the rocky ground as cypress trees grew slender and tall. Splashes of yellow flowers bloomed between the evergreens. Stone walls, steps, and paths terraced the ground from the house to the pine at the point. Bougainvillea spread purple blossoms to the balconies on one side. In my imagination I created an elderly British couple who had spent their lives far from home, in service to Queen and Empire, before retiring here and building their dream house.

Each year we returned; sometimes friends joined us, another year my son brought his new bride, and the next they came with his wife’s parents. Then our daughter came with her husband and their one-year-old son. Whoever came to visit walked with me at least once by the green house. The garden matured while the house remained unchanged, but I never saw the people who lived there.

Occasionally, in cafes or restaurants, I asked friendly waiters about the green house. They shook their heads in puzzlement—what green house? Sometimes I saw people working around their houses nearby, but it seemed rude to ask about their neighbor, and there were no cafes or shops in that cove to allow a casual query. Once I asked an architect who worked in the region, certain that he must have noticed the unusual design, but he shrugged and shook his head. He did not know of it.

Then, on a recent visit, earlier in the season than usual, I stopped to peer through the railing. When I looked up, I was startled to see a woman standing under a rose-covered archway watching me. She was pruning the roses and held her clippers about to snip.

I felt caught in the act of spying. She spoke to me in Croatian.

“Ne Hrvatska,” I said, shaking my head.

“French?” She was smiling.

“Pas beaucoup,” I said, showing a small opening between the tips of my thumb and forefinger. “Besser Deutsch or English?”

She laughed, and we agreed on English.

“I was admiring your garden,” I said, trying to explain my nosiness.

She nodded. “You’re early this year.”

I was thrown, wondering how she could know that we usually came in late summer. I decided that she meant it was early in the season for the garden.

“Yes, the flowers at this time of year are wonderful,” I said.

“May is my favorite time here—it’s the smell.” She looked more closely at me and said, “You usually come in September.”

I watched as she snipped at a dried rosebud. She was slim and of medium height, moving easily and gracefully. I could not decide if she was in her early forties, or late fifties, or somewhere in between. Her-light brown, medium-length hair was well cut and poked behind her ears. Lighter streaks around her face looked as if they had been bleached by the sun, although only her arms were tanned.

She turned back, smiling as if she knew I had been studying her. “Are you here alone this year?” she asked. “I’ve never seen you this early.”

“Just with my husband for the first week,” I said and hesitated before adding, “Then my daughter and her family will join us for the rest of our stay.”

“Has she had more children?”

I nodded, and as I told her that my daughter now had a three-year-old girl, I was thinking this was getting too weird. What more did this woman know about me?

She came forward and opened the gate that stood between us. “Why don’t you come in, so I can give you a tour.”

I hesitated, feeling as if I were being lured into her domain. I was being silly, I told myself as I walked into the garden. She was a good guide and gave me the history of each plant, bush, and tree.

“My husband—Denis—laid the stones that circle the pine tree. We chose this spot for the house because of that tree.”

“I admired the perfect way those stones were set,” I said, remembering the second year I had come by the house.

“I know you did,” she said. “And you had your son—I think it was your son—photograph it from every angle. The previous year your daughter was with you, but we had barely begun on the garden. They seemed very young then, your children, I mean.”

As we reached the far side of the garden, I caught the heady scent of jasmine and looked around for its source.

“This way” she said, leading the way past a laurel bush. “It’s my latest and now favorite project. Whenever I feel low, I stand here just drinking in the perfume. It always works.”

She took my hand and pulled me under the bower of jasmine. The aroma made me think of the “Goblin Market”, the enchantment coming from flowers instead of forbidden fruits. I closed my eyes and breathed in the heady scent, trying to stamp it into my memory.

“It’s addictive,” she warned. “Please come back any time and enjoy it. It doesn’t last long. By the way, my name is Chantal.”

She held out her hand and I took it. “I’m Roberta but everyone calls me Robbie,” I said, shaking her hand and thanking her.

“I mean it,” she said. “Come back and I’ll make tea.”

I was elated by this unexpected meeting, and the rest of the day I thought of little else. Now it was not only the green house that fascinated me. Chantal had seemed a little lonely and sad to me, and I was certain her invitation to return was sincere. My fantasy of the elderly British couple was gone. I would go back the next day.

* * *

I timed my arrival for mid-morning, a good time for tea. Again, she was in the garden, pruning. Her smile welcomed me as soon as she saw me, and she put down her clippers and opened the gate. She directed me to one of the chairs under the pine tree, where a tray rested on a small table. Everything was ready for tea: porcelain cups and saucers, milk and sugar; only the teapot was missing.

“I’ll just boil the water, and tea will be ready in a minute,” she said as she climbed the steps to the house.

I chose the chair facing the water and stared into the distance. Chantal had read me correctly. Not only had she known I would come, she had known when; and had set out the tea set in preparation.

She returned minutes later with the teapot and a plate of wafers. As she poured the tea, she began to ask me questions.

“What brings you here year after year?”

“The beauty of the coast,” I answered simply.

She waited for me to continue.

“My husband is from this area and, as a child, spent his summers here,” I said. “We came here on our honeymoon, and I fell in love with it. Once we had children, we returned every few years, whenever we could afford it. Since the end of the war, we’ve come back every year, usually at the end of the season. Now that our children are grown, we are no longer limited to school holidays. But this year we came early so our daughter and her family could join us. She teaches so we’re working around her schedule.” I paused to catch my breath. “Now I want to hear about you.”

Chantal nodded and stared out over the sea. At last she began to speak.

“It’s a pretty simple story, really. My husband was born very near here, and his family owned much of this land. The few houses back then were built further up the mountain, around the church and cemetery. I met him while I was here on vacation. We were very young. He came to see me in Paris that winter and met my family. They have been in the fashion industry for three generations, and when my father saw we were serious about each other, he offered Denis a job in the firm. Denis has an artistic flair and soon established himself, very successfully, as a designer of cotton prints.”

She paused to pour more tea.

“We spent our summers here, staying with his family. My husband frequently returned to Paris, but he managed to teach our son to swim, sail, and fish whenever we were together. At the end of each summer, we all returned to Paris.” Again, she paused.

“What about this house?” I prompted, not wanting her to stop.

“We had talked about building for a long time and were ready to begin when the war broke out. We decided to postpone it until the fighting stopped. Once the house was finished, I started on the garden. That was when you saw it for the first time.”

She stood and began to assemble the cups on the tray.

“Is your husband here too?” I asked. “Does he also garden?”

“No, he’s too involved with the business. I have never been much interested in it, which was a great disappointment to my father—until my husband showed up. The garden has been my work. My husband comes in April to open the house and again in November to close it.”

She had picked up the tray and turned toward the house. I carried the teapot and followed behind her.

“What about your son? Does he still come?”

There was silence and I wondered whether she had heard me.

“Luka,” she said quietly and kept walking. “He’s dead.”

We had reached the veranda, and she placed the tray on the table before taking the teapot and cookies from me.

It was clear the visit was over, but I was still struggling for words. “I am so sorry”, I managed at last and wondered whether those would be the last ones between us.

“I know” she said, squeezing my hand. “Please, come back soon. I will be here. I have enjoyed our visit.”

* * *

For the next two days, I could not return and worried that Chantal would misunderstand. A friend of my husband’s had arrived unexpectedly, and we took him to see other towns along the coast. On the third morning my husband drove his friend to the airport in Split, and I set off for my walk along the sea path.

It was raining and too windy for an umbrella, so I wore my raincoat and pulled the hood well over my head. I hesitated at Chantal’s gate, for I was dripping, then I rang the bell anyway. Within seconds Chantal was running down the steps to open the gate. I was relieved to see her welcoming smile.

“Come in, you must be chilled,” she said, handing me a towel and slippers as she took my wet slicker and sneakers to the bathroom.

“It’s a good day for cocoa,” she said, heading for the kitchen. “Make yourself comfortable in the living room. It was so gloomy I lit a fire.”

In spite of the weather, the living room was filled with light. French doors across the width of the room led out to the central veranda and created a wall of light unopposed by the semi-sheer curtains, which were pulled all the way back. Books lined the side walls from floor to ceiling. The logs in the fireplace blazed and hissed from the damp, and the well-worn, overstuffed chairs and sofa beckoned. I chose a chair that looked out over the sea. Next to it a side table held a variety of photos in frames.

They depicted three or perhaps four generations of the family, several taken on the Adriatic coast. There was a much younger Chantal with a handsome young man I assumed to be Denis. Her fair hair and complexion contrasted sharply with his darker Mediterranean features. Several of the photos showed a boy, some taken of him in infancy, a few at various stages of his childhood, and some as a young adult. I picked up one showing him leaning well back over the side of a sailboat, turquoise water outlining his lean torso and broad shoulders. He was laughing at the camera as he countered the pitch of the sailboat. The wind whipped his dark hair, and the boat was obviously moving at high speed.

“That’s Luka,” Chantal said. I had not heard her enter the room. “Sailing was his passion. His father took him out on the sailboat as soon as he learned to swim.”

I set the frame back carefully. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to pry.”

“I keep the photos there to be looked at,” she said, handing me a mug of cocoa topped with a mound of froth.

Sipping it carefully, I considered the questions I could ask her. I was curious about so many things. We sat for a long time in silence, and I was the first to break it.

“Chantal, many people must have walked by your house and admired it, so why did you notice me especially? You seem to have even figured out the members of my family.” I hesitated, not wanting to sound suspicious. “How did you know when to look for me?”

She smiled, her eyes still watching the fire. At last she spoke. “That first time you stopped was the first time I had stayed in the house. Most of the construction had been completed that winter and spring, and I was alone with just enough furniture to get by. I had hoped to get a start on the garden, but I spent most of the time just looking out. It was a particularly low period for me. Denis would not come at all, and I had begun questioning why I had.”

“If this is too difficult…” I began.

“No, no,” she reassured me. “The way you looked at the house made me pull myself together and realize why I was here.”

“What way?” I asked. “I was admiring it.”

“It was more than admiration I saw in your face. I felt you understood the house. You looked at it from every angle and you kept coming back. Of course you didn’t know the story behind the house, but I could tell you connected with it.”

“Yes, I was attracted in a strange way,” I admitted.

“We had wanted to build for years,” she continued. “Once we started talking about it—Luka was about twelve—he became obsessed by it. He drew pictures of his dream house, always with green walls to blend with the pines and the sea. At first, they were childish fantasies; castle-like structures on the cliffs with the sea pounding below. But as he grew older, the drawings became more realistic, and a family friend, an architect, began to take an interest and make suggestions. Just as we were ready to start building, the war started.”

Chantal got up, stretched, and stoked the logs with the poker.

“So, this house is Luka’s design,” I said. “He’d have made an incredible architect.” The words were out before I registered how stupidly insensitive they were.

Chantal raised her hands dismissively and continued. “Luka was finishing medical school in Paris and volunteered for the army here. My husband was absolutely against it, but I understood his need to go.” Chantal paused, brushing a strand of hair behind one ear. “He was killed before the end of his first year. And my husband has never forgiven me.”

“How terrible,” was all I could manage in response.

“Yes, it was, and it still is.” Chantal swung her feet to the floor and leaned forward, her elbows propped on her knees. “Denis began a new life when he came to Paris after we met. The only connection he felt was to this little piece of land because of its beauty, but it could have been in any country in the world. He had no nationalistic feelings and avoided all discussions of politics. When Croatia declared independence, he approved, but that was the end of it as far as he was concerned. Luka, however, became passionate about the war. He began to study Croatian and read everything he could lay his hands on, not only the current news but also the history of the region. Denis, who had always refused to speak Croatian in our home, would not practice with him nor would he discuss any of the war with him. So, Luka talked to me.

“When he decided to volunteer, he told me but not his father. I did not try to dissuade him—I didn’t think I could—and I didn’t tell Denis until Luka had left. I did not want them to have a terrible row before they parted. Of course, I did not want Luka to go, but I was proud that he felt such a commitment—foolishly. I thought that with his medical knowledge, they would keep him busy in some field hospital well behind the lines. But this was not conventional warfare. Luka wrote to me of the atrocities on civilians. He could not believe human beings were capable of such actions. And I continued to be so proud of him.”

Chantal walked over to the bookshelf and rummaged between the books. From behind one particularly large tome, she extracted a packet of Gitanes.

“My great vice,” she said with a smile.

She pulled a cigarette from the pack, examined it before lighting it, drew in deeply, and exhaled slowly.

“He stepped on a landmine at the beginning of his eighth month there and died instantly, or so they say.”

I was shaking my head, and all I could think of saying was, “I am so sorry.”

Chantal looked at her watch, and I thought about leaving when she said, “It seems to have stopped raining. I’m going to take some flowers up to the cemetery today. If you would like to come with me, if you have time, I could show you. He—his remains are buried in the churchyard up there in the old village.”

She had already cut white roses and put them in a bucket of water before my arrival. Gathering them up, she wrapped the stems with a paper towel and we set off. A patch of blue sky appeared as we climbed the steep road between olive trees and grapevines growing on narrow terraces.

I had many questions, but I was too winded to speak. It was all I could do to keep up with her as we climbed ever higher. Several times I paused to look back at the view, which became more impressive with each stop as I tried to catch my breath.

“Take your time,” she said, smiling. “I do this every day. You get conditioned. When I’ve been away for a while, it takes me twice as long. Why don’t we sit here and rest a little?”

We had reached a bench and I flopped down gladly. The sun was shining now and had already dried the seat.

“It is beautiful here,” I said. “But don’t you find it lonely all by yourself?”

“No, when I’m here I feel closer to Luka. He loved it so.” She turned to me as she continued, “I was the one who got the house built. Denis wanted no part in it. I did it for Luka.”

I thought of her husband and tried to imagine him dealing with his son dying for a country that he had abandoned.

Chantal seemed to read my thoughts. “Denis comes here to see his family, and as I said, he opens and closes the house for me. But, without Luka, he takes no joy in it. Being here just reminds him of what we have lost.” She sighed deeply and added, “We all deal with these things differently. In Paris he keeps busy. People depend on him and it gives him the reason to keep going. Now, are you ready to go on? It’s just a little further.”

We continued to climb and at last, to my relief, the church came into sight as we passed small, ancient stone houses. I recognized the bell tower which I had seen from far away. It was a simple building of sun-bleached stone, surrounded by horse chestnut trees and a stone wall. Walking in the shade of those trees felt like entering a sanctuary from the turmoil of the world.        Chantal pointed toward steps leading to the seaward side of the churchyard. “The graves are this way.”

On the top step I stopped in wonder at the view that lay before me. We were standing on a ledge, the church behind us and the sea in front of us. At the outer edge the ground fell away sharply with only the rocks and pounding waves far below. The flat surface was covered with graves so close together, it was impossible to pass between them without stepping on them.

Chantal led the way to a grave at the far edge that looked out to the sea. She busied herself, replacing wilted roses with the fresh ones and sweeping debris from the stone. The outline of the green house was etched into the smooth marble face of the headstone. Chantal stood at my elbow and translated the simple words: Luka 1970 – 1992, Home and Remembered Always.

“Chantal, it’s beautiful—so peaceful,” I whispered.

“Yes, I feel he earned this spot.”

My eyes teared and I turned away, not wanting her to see. She squeezed my arm.

“It’s all right,” she said. “You know, I always wished for a second child, but it wouldn’t have made it any easier.”

We stood side by side in silence. Then she said, “I do have one consolation. I have a grandson.”

I looked at her in surprise and waited for her to say more.

“Luka had a girlfriend, Marie. She became pregnant just before he left for the war. Against her parents’ and my husband’s advice, she decided not to have an abortion. Luka never saw his son. She named the baby Luc.”

Chantal glanced at me and sat down on the edge of the grave, motioning me to join her.

“Denis did not want me to get involved. He said Marie was too young and needed to get on with her life. Except for occasional financial assistance, he would not allow himself to connect with the baby in any way because he thought it would hold Marie back—at least that was how he explained it. I understood his point. But Marie encouraged me to spend time with my grandson from the time he was born. She is a wonderful mother, and I believe she has appreciated having me in her son’s life. Two summers ago, Marie and Luc spent a week with me here. Last year he came for a month without Marie. As Luc grows older, Denis spends more time with him in Paris, especially when I’m away. I tried to get Denis to join us here, but he won’t. I think he’s afraid. Those days he and Luka spent together here were among the happiest in our lives.” Chantal stood up and brushed off her pants, staring out to sea. “Anyway, Luc is coming again next week,” she said, turning to me. “I have been trying to find a way to get Denis here at the same time. I think it would be good for both of them.”

“Maybe you could create some emergency that would bring him here,” I said.

She laughed. “Short of breaking a leg, I can’t think of anything.”

* * *

My daughter arrived the next day with her two children and kept me busy for the following week. The next time I went for my long walk, I stopped at the gate, looking for Chantal. Instead I saw a man on the veranda. He spotted me and came down the steps.

I was taken aback and blurted out, “I-I’m sorry, I was looking for Chantal.”

His smile was friendly and amused at my discomfort. “You must be Robbie,” he said, holding out his hand. “I’m Denis. Chantal told me you might stop by.”

“Is she all right?” I asked, wondering what had happened to her.

“Yes, she’s fine,” he reassured me. “She had to go back to Paris to take care of some urgent business.”

“Will she be back here this summer?” I asked.

“Yes, in two weeks to spend the last part of our grandson’s vacation with him. Luckily, I was able to get away and come here before Chantal left, otherwise he would have had to go back to Paris with her. Would you like me to pass along a message to Chantal?”

“Please tell her I look forward to seeing her when she returns,” I said, then added, “I hope you enjoy your stay.”

He nodded, smiling. “Thank you, I intend to.” He turned from the gate, paused, and met my eyes. “Chantal has enjoyed your visits. It’s been good for her to have someone to talk with. Well, good-bye.”

I waved and continued my walk. On my return an hour later, I gazed up from the cove to the house, its windows open to the sea. Turning to look in that same direction, I saw a sailboat leave the quay. I thought I recognized Denis as one of the two people on board. He was calling directions to the other occupant, a teenage boy. The letters on the stern of the boat spelled Luka.

 

 

Brigitte was born in Germany, and after time spent in England and Austria, she moved to the United States. She has a Master’s in English Literature and lives outside of Washington D.C. with her family.

 

Too Quiet By Daniel L. Link

Too Quiet By Daniel L. Link

“Don’t look directly at it,” she said. “They won’t do it if you’re looking.”

“Do what?” Harry had been staring at the mural for five minutes.

“They won’t move.” Violet used both hands to turn his head a few degrees to the left. “There. Try it now.”

He didn’t know what he was supposed to be seeing, but he liked the feel of her hands. Violet was twenty years younger than Harry, one of the youngest patients at the hospital. She was pretty, too. Harry wasn’t sure why she chose to spend all her free time with him, but he wasn’t complaining.

“You’ve got to use the sides of your vision.” She crossed in front of him, her nose turned up in disappointment. “Your peripherals. That’s the only way you’re going to see it.”

It wasn’t the kind of painting that belonged in a hospital. It reminded Harry of something he and Margaret had seen at Coit Tower in San Francisco. They’d brought Deb with them; he’d carried her in the little backpack with the holes her legs went through. Bobby hadn’t been born yet.

That painting had depicted migrant workers in a field. He remembered wondering at the time whose idea it had been to paint it on the inside of a tourist attraction where people would spend ten minutes waiting in line. Wouldn’t people rather see something beautiful while they waited, not some poor schmucks working their fingers to the bone?

The mural on the south wall of the hospital looked similar, only these workers were picking corn. He couldn’t remember what kind of fields they were working on in Coit Tower, but he was pretty sure it hadn’t been corn. He still thought it was strange to show people outside working to patients trapped inside a hospital, but his perspective had shifted. Now he’d do anything to toil his day away in the sunshine. He and the other patients were the schmucks.

“Harry, you’re not even trying.” Violet loomed so close to him they could almost rub noses. He could see his own reflection in her large pupils. She poked his belly. “Are you in there?”

“Sorry.” He tilted his head, then squinted while he took in the painting. He felt her hands reposition his head, and he smiled. “Now what am I supposed to see?”

“The men. If you wait long enough, they’ll start to move.”

“What will they do?”

“They’ll fucking move.” Her voice betrayed her frustration. “Wouldn’t you say that’s pretty damn spectacular? How many other moving paintings have you ever seen?”

“I haven’t seen this one yet,” he reminded her.

“That’s because you’re not doing it right. Now I’m going to go sit in the corner,      quiet as a mouse. Remember, don’t look straight at it. You’ve got to pretend like you’re not looking.”

“No.” Harry heard a tremor in his voice. “Don’t go.”

“I’ll be right over there.”

He sighed. “Okay. But don’t be quiet. I can’t stand the quiet.”

The doctors told him the voices he heard weren’t normal. They said it was good that the medication made them go away. Harry had relied on the voices. They were a part of him and he was lost without them.

The first few months in Belmont were torture. It wasn’t until Violet arrived that things became bearable for Harry. She was the only noise in his life, the thing that allowed him to forget for a second the absence of the voices. The doctors said that absence was good, that the quiet it brought him would allow him to sort out things in his head, but all it did was make him feel alone.

“Did you move?” Violet was off the couch and bounding across the room before he could answer. “This is never going to work if you keep moving.”

She checked the position of his head, fingertips light against his temples, then flitting away like butterflies. “There. Now try again.”

The men in the painting were dark, much darker than anything Harry saw inside Belmont. Aside from the mural, everything on their floor was white, from the walls, to the tile, to the patients. They were so pale, himself included, the place leeching the color from their skin.

He tried to imagine being in the painting, working out under the hot Indiana sun. The color would come back to him then, if he could leave this place. If he escaped this palace of bone, he might revitalize his body, and if he could get off the meds, he might be able to hear their voices again.

“Harry?” Violet sounded far away. He was in the painting, but her voice floated down to him there. “You okay, Harry?”

“I’m fine,” he said, trying to stay focused. “I still haven’t seen them move, though.”

“Maybe we should take a break.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re crying.”

His concentration shattered. He didn’t move his head, but he reached up a hand and touched his cheeks. They were wet. He reddened, then wiped the tears on his pants. The material felt scratchy on his finger and thumb, but his thigh felt nothing.

“You want to go back to the TV room?” Violet appeared in front of him again.

“No. I want to try again. I can do this.”

She squeezed his hand, which made him want to cry out with gratitude. It felt so good to be touched, made his heart desperate for more, but he kept his face neutral and waited for her to put his head back where she wanted it.

After a few moments staring in silence, he said, “Keep talking. It makes it easier.”

The white wall in front of Harry had a crack running from floor to ceiling, a tiny black line that started at the floor and wended its way upward and to the left until it terminated at the white foam insulated tiles that led to the attic. He concentrated on that, letting the edges of the mural blend into his periphery. Still no movement.

What it did was create a bright white backdrop for his memories to play out on, a cracked projector screen on which the pivotal moments of his life appeared before him. He saw Margaret in the hospital, a different kind of hospital, one where hopes and dreams came alive, not where they went to die.

She was in the bed, the sheets tucked under her armpits, her face soaked in a sheen of sweat. A nurse was handing her a bundle wrapped tight in a pink blanket. She looked at Harry, turning the package so he could see the tiny red face. “Meet Debbie.”

Harry gasped, more at the sound than the sight. He hadn’t heard their voices in months, and the sound of his wife’s voice mingled with his daughter’s cries was almost too much to take.

“Is it working?” Violet asked.

He hadn’t been paying attention to the mural, and there was no way he was taking his eyes off of that scene from fourteen years before. He didn’t even blink until the reel changed and he saw himself, standing next to a brown-haired boy of about six astride a bicycle with streamers hanging from the handlebars. Bobby.

The boy’s laughter cut deep, as did watching himself running alongside the bike. On the wall, his hand was on the bike’s seat, but there in the hospital it clutched the armrest of his wheelchair with white-knuckled intensity. He didn’t have to be told he was crying, his vision was so blurred by tears he only saw a fuzzy image of his son as he yelled, “Let go. You can let go Dad.”

But Harry couldn’t let go. He held on tight as the vision faded, and he was taken to that night, the night he’d lost their voices forever. The rain came down so fast it blinded him, though the wipers were on their fastest setting. The headlights bore down on them, like he knew they would. He felt Margaret’s hand on his arm, and he waited for the sound he knew he’d hear next, the twisting of metal and tearing apart of his reality.

Instead, he swerved, a deft maneuver that he could never have pulled off in life. The rear of the car slipped, gaining traction a moment before the truck flew past. They came to rest on the side of the highway, and he looked at their faces, each in turn. They shared a laugh, and as they pulled back onto the asphalt, the rainfall subsided.

“Harry?” Violet waved a hand in front of his face. “Did it work?”

He was back in the wheelchair, and the vision was gone, the wall once again a stark white slab bisected by that jagged line. But Harry could still hear the echoes of his wife and children, their laughter still present in his head as he wiped the tears from his eyes.

“Yes,” he said. “I think it did.”

 

Daniel Link lives in Northern California where he writes short stories, novels, and flash fiction. He is the assistant editor of the Gold Man Review, and since he started submitting stories in April 2017, he’s had ten published in various literary magazines. Most recent were the Eastern Iowa Review, HCE Review, New Reader Magazine, and ALM Magazine.
The Cracked Door By Clara Jenkins

The Cracked Door By Clara Jenkins

 

There was no way he was going to call Rich of all people and ask to be unlocked from this room. He knew how that smugness would overtake his normally stiff, ill-favoured face, and he wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. It had been almost a month since he’d been down here last, and the thick scratchy air and vague smell of millipedes was still as unsettling as he remembered.

Stanley had accidentally locked himself in the grimy, neglected storage room while searching for a file. Fumbling through a cabinet of letters and waxy paper folders, he’d heard a sound: a soft shuffle and scratch from the hallway. Straightening up, he walked over and turned the door handle, intending to peer out and find the source. Nothing greeted him except the sharp click of metal on metal to inform him that he was locked in. As he pulled his phone from his back pocket, it sounded again, closer this time and loud. He paused, but dialed.

“Rich, I need you to bring your keys,” he said as soon as the phone picked up. “I’m locked in.” Through the taunting reply on the other end, a long, drawn-out scraping ran across the outside of the door.

It stopped a minute before Stanley heard the jingling of keys, and the door opened.

“Did you hear anything when you were coming down?” Stanley asked, trying to sound as nonchalant as possible.

“No,” Rich replied questioningly and glanced to his left, noting Stanley’s serious expression and quick pace. A wicked grin spread over his face. “Aw, did you get scared? Locked in the basement all alone . . .”

“Of course not,” he replied dismissively, disguising any anxiety in his voice with a natural annoyance. Although there was something about that basement that gave him chills, his feelings of foreboding soon vanished as mild embarrassment set in. It had been impossible to feel anything but disgruntled while listening to Rich’s mocking voice.

This time, there would be no need to call Rich.

I’ll Just find the files and leave. It’s no big deal, he thought to himself.  Just as he was about to step into the room, he heard a voice call after him.

“Oh yeah, apparently, that door will still lock on its own if you close it, so just prop it open while you’re in there,” Rich instructed with a lazy tone and an amused half smile, indicating the musty file room. Stanley just scoffed in response. Rich had probably known that door would lock last time. He always found enjoyment in messing with him, but Stanley wouldn’t take the bait. Rich jingled his keys and placed them on his belt before the conspicuous metallic whine of the elevator carried him back up to the first floor.

Stanley looked around for something to prop the door with. A small cardboard box did the trick, leaving a narrow window open to the hallway. He got to work and began to rummage through the scattered mess of soft, thick paper files. This was going to take a while, he noticed, precariously stacking piles of foxing brown paper and fervently trying to ignore the memories of what happened last time, that eerie scraping. He checked his phone. “Seven percent” he noted. He knew it probably wouldn’t last long, but he didn’t plan on using it.

At first it didn’t bother him, having his back to the door, but as the quiet settled in, the place began to get to him. A few minutes into his task, he noticed that he kept turning back to glance at that rectangular chink of light. The crack itself wasn’t a problem; that connection to the outside was almost comforting to Stanley when facing the door, but he wasn’t. His concentration had to be on the other side of the room, deep in the corner of a cabinet. He faced his files, resolved not to turn around again.

His anxiety began to spike, and he nearly jumped out of his skin when a file fell off its stack with a sudden stinging flap. Slowly and gently he replaced it, forcing a calm through his hands to prove his indifference to the sudden noise. He kept thinking of the persistent, creepy noises from last time. Maybe it had just been the elevator, or Rich trying to mess with him.

The minutes dragged. He could feel the stale basement air press against his back, but he forced himself not to look. The elevator whined at random intervals, interrupting his determined silence. It was nerve wracking, just out of sight, around the corner and down the hall. The worst was that he never knew what it meant. Was it a familiar human face coming down to him, or something else? Stanley didn’t know whether he should consider it threatening or comforting, but he knew it was beginning to unnerve him. He settled on threatening. The tension was mounting, twisting into something more dangerous. Every dull pulse of the air vents and smudge on the white washed walls seemed to seep that invisible echo of a horror that lurks in every deserted place.

Each creak or stir he made seemed to be coming from the door; a sickening jolt ran through him every time his own shoe squeaked louder than it should against the slick floor or his feathery shadow seemed to move faster than he had. It was as if something else was attempting to synchronize its movements with his. His rationality weakened and the thick air closed in when he heard a sound from beyond the door, a hurried scraping shuffle. That was definitely not the elevator, he thought as he whipped around to see the crack staring back at him, a six-inch gateway to an unknown terror. He called out once, nervously but loud. Maybe Rich had come back down? No one replied.

He watched the crack in the door unblinkingly, the silence after the rasping scrape deeper and more horrible than it had been yet. He crept closer, apprehensively allowing just one eye to gaze out. He thought he saw a shadow for a moment. It was only a brief flash, and then nothing. His thoughts went to his dying phone. Yes, he could call and put this to an end if he had to, but not if his phone died first. He tore his gaze away for a moment to check it. It was at three percent. The shuffle sounded again, closer. Far too close. This could be his last chance to call. If his phone died, he wouldn’t have a way out of here for hours.

The next sound was long and steady, a rasping, vibrating scratch, sure of its purpose, as it reached the edge of the wall. Panic asserted itself and his brain filled with an irrational adrenaline. With a frantic motion, he slammed the door, swiftly and gingerly, as if it might bite while hanging loose on its hinges. The crack was sealed. He’d locked out the noise. He faced the closed door, breathing audibly, and with head heavy and reeling. His phone was at one percent. He called Rich.

“Well, well Stanley, you locked yourself in that room again, huh?” He could hear the sneer, and was about to offer a reply when everything went silent. He looked down through the dimly lit room at a black screen. The phone was dead, but the panic was dying with it now. He was about to get out of here. He pocketed it with a sigh of relief and fingered the door handle. His hand stiffened with sudden terror as he heard a shuffle and slow scrape, this time from the cabinets behind him.


Clara Jenkins is a student at Hagerstown Community College and is the current art editor for the Hedge Apple.

 

A Man of No Small Coincidence By Jack Donahue

A Man of No Small Coincidence By Jack Donahue

Let’s just say his name is Charley. That’s not his real name, but it will have to do for now. It’s not that I’m afraid I’ll be sued for defamation of character because for the most part I only have good things to say about him. Well, maybe good is not the most accurate word to use. The things I have to say about Charley are all true. I don’t know whether you would consider them good or not, but I do know they’re absolutely true because every single thing I’m going to tell you about him I personally witnessed. None of it is hearsay.
Another reason for choosing a fictional name is that once I start describing what “Charley” has done, some of you will probably recognize who I’m talking about anyway. I knew a lot about him when we both lived in Chicago. But I never had the privilege of meeting him there. I met him for the first time last week in Indianapolis. Well, maybe privilege is not the most accurate word to use to describe how I felt about meeting Charley, but I can’t think of a better one right now. You see, Charley is not the nicest person in the world. A celebrity for sure, but one that you’re probably better off not encountering real close up. He is all he is and nothing more and, in my opinion, sometimes a lot less.
Here’s another word I’m not crazy about using, coincidence, but it does describe my first encounter with the celebrity, Charley. I was a last-minute replacement for the keynote speaker at the annual meeting of the American Dental Association. The original speaker who dropped out at the last minute (some joked he had an abscessed tooth) is arguably the nation’s top expert on developing methods for detecting mouth cancer in dental patients. Certainly, he would have dazzled the audience with the latest findings on this significant subject. But when I got the frantic call just days before the conference was to open, I could not promise so lofty a topic. You see, my specific expertise is indicated by my chosen speech: “The Most Efficacious Way to Advertise and Promote Elective Dental Implants.” I was assured by the ADA staff that the ballroom would be filled for my talk.
At least the lights would be dim enough so the moment I walked onstage to the lectern I would be kept in benign ignorance whether the room was filled with fellow dentists from all over the country eager to hang on my every word or only the first few rows were occupied by ADA promotional staff members. The golf and tennis tournaments weren’t scheduled until late afternoon, so I had at least a fair shot of attracting a ballroom filled with my peers. I mean, dental implants provide a huge profit center for the local dentist. Even though they are frightfully expensive and not covered in any way by most dental insurance plans, the appeal to a patient’s vanity is quite compelling. In my talk, I make sure to emphasize how often the dentist should subtly make the comparison between an old man’s removable choppers versus the new, natural looking permanent teeth locked into your jaw just like the ones God gave you.
Anyhow, I’m getting way off the topic telling you about myself rather than my encounter with the celebrity, Charley. The coincidence I referred to earlier concerns a magazine article I had just read on the plane about the very subject itself, the mathematical certainty of coincidence. The article was short and simple, but the editors did strive to present opposing points of view about the pro-coincidence movement as well as the position that there is no such thing as coincidence. “The world is so big,” one expert stated, “lots of things happen in every corner of the world every day. When they happen to us, we take special notice. Therein, lies the difference between coincidence and a commonplace occurrence.”
Fresh from the airport taxi ride to the hotel, I had to endure a mild inconvenience when I learned that my room would not be ready for another hour or so. Having that time to kill, I walked into the bar only to see Mr. Coincidence himself, Charley. He was in the process of regaling a few bar patrons with one of his legendary blowhard stories while I order a double scotch on the rocks (doctor’s orders: better than Anbesol for toothaches).
The fact I just read the magazine article on the subject of coincidence, coupled with the unexpected encounter with my fellow Chicagoan, Charley, in this hotel bar on Waterway Boulevard in Indianapolis, was worth noting. At least I thought so.
“Many years ago,” Charley started telling his star- struck fans, who were munching on peanuts and gulping down bottled beer, “I was vacationing with my family on the New Jersey shore, just driving along when my wife says out of the blue, ‘You know, Tommy’s regular temperature is 98.5 whereas Peggy’s is 98.6 like the rest of us.’ At that exact moment, I look to the side of the road and see milepost 98.5 on the Garden State Parkway. Then I pull into the Mobil station and the posted price for gas is…”
“98.5 cents,” one of the admiring fans answers automatically. The others make all the expected exclamations of how strange Charley must have felt. As was his custom, Charley pooh-poohed the suggestion the experience was out of the ordinary. “That’s nothing,” Charley says enthusiastically, “Listen to this. I pull up to the gas pump, open the car door, and take a look at the coke spill on the ground the previous driver just made, and the shape of that spill is a perfect rhomboid. At that moment, I look through my front windshield and the sun’s rays refract a perfect rhomboid on my seat cover. But here’s the weird part. The attendant comes over and asks if I’d like to apply for one of those Mobil speed passes. I look at the application on his clipboard and the coffee stain on the paper is a perfect…”
“Rhomboid!” the same volunteer hollers.
“How are the twins?” I called out from the other end of the bar. Charley does not turn
around. “Tommy and Peggy, how are they doing?”
The mention of the kids’ names got Charley’s attention. He swivels around to see where this question was coming from. The other patrons didn’t know, but I know. Charley had a local TV show for a little while back in Chicago, and he used to waltz his wife and kids in front of the TV cameras just, so those cute and adorable little people could verify his sometimes outlandish claims of high coincidence. You see, Charley was no mere teller of 98.5 cent gas price and rhomboid shaped coke spill stories. He was a bona fide seer. He predicted these things before they actually happened. And he didn’t go around trying to make them happen. They just did. In great abundance. Enough so that Charley got noticed by a Chicago TV producer, and soon, he found himself starring on a popular primetime TV show, “Mr. Coincidence,” featuring reenactments of actual events in his life. He is legitimate. No question about that. But after I mention his kids’ names, he tenses up.
“Did you hear what I just told these folks,” Charley said, staring me down.
“Yes, I did,” I dutifully respond.
“What I didn’t tell them is that if anyone of note was around to listen I would have told him that the 98.5 phenomenon was about to happen just moments before it did. And I knew about the coke spill, and the sun refracting through my windshield and the coffee stain, all before they occurred. As I watched that guy dump the contents of his plastic cup on the ground, I saw the shape of things in my mind. I know these things.”
“I know you do. I used to watch your show every Tuesday night at eight o’clock. I was a regular,” I say out loud but think to myself, ‘His wife and kids must not be of any note. I think I touched a sore spot without realizing it.’ His demeanor takes a nasty turn as we continue to converse. I was beginning to sense that my mere presence bothered him. Sometimes, his dark side would come through on his show. Even though it was taped, they could not edit out all of his telltale facial expressions. We all want our seers to be upstanding citizens, or, at the least, nice human beings and maybe even intellectuals with an aristocratic bearing combined with a common touch for more earthly beings such as myself. But he is none of these things. He turns his back on me and begins to tell his fans another story. One of them gives the bartender the sign for another round of drinks. I was not to be included in this little ensemble. But I press forward; order another scotch on my own tab, forty-five minutes away from gaining access to my room. Still bored, I decide to perform some surgery on him, in a congenial way I thought, by shoving another implant into his raw, bleeding gums. “Whatever happened to your show in Chicago?” I ask, touching an exposed nerve. He ignores me as well as any cat ever ignored his duty-bound owner. “I swear. I watched your show all the time. You deserved those high ratings. I heard you were close to syndication before … before it all ended so abruptly.”
Charley didn’t answer me then and I never heard from him what happened to his show. I was forced to stare at his back. He lowers his voice into one of those hushed tones where every word seems to carry the gravitas of exclusive, profound thought. His gathering of devotees, however, continues to laugh out loud and make all the appropriate gushing exclamations befitting their illustrious host. I didn’t know what Charley’s plans were or what business he had in Indianapolis, but it occurs to me that this little scene of his, holding court in a hotel bar, was a step down from national sponsors and millions of loyal TV viewers. When I should have been using this time to go over my speech on dental implants, I become more and more curious about Charley’s situation, even though it’s none of my damn business.
I pick up my drink and walk over to the group, taking the brunt of some cold, nasty stares. What they didn’t realize at the time was that I could stake claim to celebrity status myself, being the keynote speaker at a major convention. I stepped right in front of Charley. I had to know some things, but struggle to find the right words that would trigger a meaningful response.
“So what is it with you, Charley. Is it all just luck?”
“Hardly,” he answered curtly.
“Coincidence then?” I asked.
“Barely,” he said.
“Providence?” I offer.
“Rhode Island,” he says smartly which sends his gaggle of geese into a paroxysm of overly loud amiable beer laughs and a fit of contagious knee slapping. In that moment, the convivial atmosphere in the bar turns harsh and unwelcome, for me at least. I knew it was time for me to exit while I still had some of my dignity intact. I just wish none of those red-faced, knee-slapping drunks were dentists. But the odds are some of them are. Any mathematician would tell you there’s a one in seven chance one or two of them share my profession. But few odds makers could readily pin down the betting formula for what happens next.
I pay my tab, leave a tip for the bartender, and then pick up my briefcase. I head toward the exit. Through the spindle wood and eggshell glass barrier separating the lobby hallway from the bar area, I notice the vague outline of a woman and her two children about to enter into the dim light. I study them through the etched design of a swan, wings spread wide, alighting upon the water. The graceful bird seems to offer this fragment of a family temporary protection in the brightly lit hallway. As I drew closer, and the growing awareness of the identity of these three people start to sink into my scotch-soaked brain, I stop short of the exit and sit down at one of the small round tables.
The woman escorts her children into the far corner of the bar and settles in at a little round table just like mine. Oh my God, I think, it’s Tommy and Peggy, Charley’s twin kids and that’s his wife, or ex-wife to be more precise. Here’s a situation where I have a unique perspective. I knew I was about to see a scene unfold, just moments before it did. I could almost predict what would happen next. Charley would not be so dismissive of this little threesome as he was of me. Also, I’m not sure his bar friends would be as unkind in their silent treatment toward a woman and her two small children. I watch the kids closely. The girl sits obediently still, doing whatever mother commands. The boy has other things on his mind. He becomes restless. He makes several attempts to get up to greet his father, whose back is turned against his family. It seems that Charley is only aware of the entertainment value of his last remark, in all likelihood a retelling of some remarkable coincidence predicted by him for all the world’s historians to note.
The mother, I find out later, works as a receptionist for one of the dentists in Chicago. He is on the ADA Board of Governors, so he paid for her to accompany him to the convention. All she had to do in return was work the registration table one of the mornings. She agreed to go as long as she could take her children. After all, their ninth birthday fell on that same weekend. One morning at the table, check credentials for all dentists A through D, and the rest of the weekend she was free. Free to do what, I do not know. I am sure there is a lot to do in such a big city. A big city not that far from Chicago. I mean, Charley and the young, pretty TV producer he hooked up with could have run further away than Chicago. Yet, in Tommy and Peggy’s little minds, their father was as far away as the moon. He abandoned them and now there was the issue of unpaid child support. The TV producer, as much impressed with Charley as his current fan club at the bar, had some family as well as business connections in Indianapolis.
I noticed that Tommy tried to call out to his father, but his mother cuffed his mouth. She would be the one to speak first. I observed that at least his son still had feelings for him. Charley must have spent more time with him than the girl. Anyhow, it was sure building up to be an awkward moment for Charley. To be confronted with his past, the specter of the disenfranchised wife, the deeply hurt, neglected children, the near success of this phenomenal seer who must have known that someday there would come a moment way beyond the commonplace, weird shapes of coke spills and milepost numbers notwithstanding, when some extraordinary coincidence would take place in his life. He had to know that, given his exceptional gift for predicting the future. But Charley is no mathematician, so I am sure he was unaware of the odds of his estranged wife walking into this bar, with kids in tow, it being his stage for the moment. In a city that is not his current residence. On his abandoned kids’ birthday. The anti-coincidence theorist would say the odds were in favor of this exact thing happening, that his former wife had to get a job somewhere, and a dentist’s office was as good a place as any. The Chicago dentist paid her well. The job offered good health benefits which she certainly needed for herself and the children. And the dentist was kind to her. She needed that kind of treatment after Charley stung her so deeply. The coincidence theorist would most likely say, “Wow! What a coincidence!” I don’t know which side I would agree with, but I feel that somehow I am an integral part of the outcome.


Numerous short stories and poems written by Jack Donahue have been published in journals such as: Newtown Literary Review; Prole (U.K.); Palo Alto Review; The Main Street Rag; China Grove; Folio; The Almagre Review and others throughout North America and Europe. Mr. Donahue received his M.Div. degree from New Brunswick, Theological Seminary, NJ in 2008. He is married and resides on the North Fork of Long Island, New York.

Halloween Terror By Alison Cloonan

Halloween Terror By Alison Cloonan

How much longer before we get to the motel?”  Stephanie asked. “We haven’t slept for two days!  If it weren’t for all the caffeine today we’d be arrested for Driving While Asleep!”

Jennifer laughed as she drove through the darkening evening.  “About an hour. With the big college game there weren’t any motel rooms near the city, so I got one on the way to my dad’s stomping grounds. It was a whole lot cheaper, too.”

“Cheap is good!” Stephanie said.  “I’m so tired of being broke, but I wouldn’t have missed this for anything.”

Passing houses, the road narrowed as they headed into a small town nestled in one of West Virginia’s many hills.

“Oh my gosh!  Look at those cuties!” Stephanie exclaimed when she saw the costumed children walking from house to house asking for candy.  She laughed. “It’s so cold the poor kids have to wear coats over their Halloween costumes! Sure is different than back home, isn’t it?”

“Everything is different,” Jennifer agreed, “I’ve never seen entire forests of reds, yellows, and orange.”

Leaving the town behind them, the car was swallowed up again into the darkness as it followed the black ribbon of asphalt. The women murmured softly in conversation, Stephanie occasionally fiddling with the radio to change stations as static overtook them.

Peering into the dark, Jennifer said uneasily, “The trees are so thick you can’t even see the stars! It’s Halloween so if we have car trouble there better be cell service, because I am NOT getting out of the car to go for help. I don’t want to end up being a campfire story.”

Fog rising from the ground dulled the headlights and made the curving road difficult to follow and both women began to lean forward, peering out the windshield, the eye-shine of unseen animals reflecting back at them.  Deer became goblins and possums were gnomes, shapes shifted, reaching down as though to block their way.

*   * *  * * *  *

Having finally checking into the motel, Jennifer threw her suitcase on the bed and herself next to it. “We’re here, we’re here! Oh glory, we’re here!  I should be ready to sleep, but I’m still wired from the drive and am up for putting on my swimsuit and checking out the Jacuzzi. How about you?”

“Oh, yeah!  I’m still knotted into a pretzel from the plane ride. Dibs on the bathroom!” Stephanie called as she zipped open her suitcase and pulled out her suit.

Exiting the bathroom she saw Jennifer in her suit, tossed her a towel, and they wrapped themselves up and headed out into the open walkway.

“Brrr!  It’s colder than I thought!” Jennifer declared, “We’ll be doing that Swedish thing of getting hot and then running out in the cold.”

Giggling and shivering, they ran, the slapping sounds of their flip flops echoed into the dark.

“Ahhhh,” Stephanie sighed as she slid into the heated bubbling water.  “This Jacuzzi is the perfect lagniappe for the start of some great memories.  Just one of those little extras that make life fun!”

Jennifer placed her towel behind her neck, resting it on the edge, her muscles relaxing in the warmth.  “If I fall asleep, don’t let me drown!”

Stephanie turned to look into the pool area. Windows enclosed the three open sides and she thought how pretty it would be to watch the snow or rain falling through them.  She turned back around to face the wall. Unfortunately, the jet was positioned where she couldn’t see outside.

The two soaked in meditative silence until Jennifer popped up out of the water and exclaimed, “If I don’t go in now I’ll be too limp to get to the room, I’m like a wet noodle!  You stay here for another ten minutes while I shower, and then you can take yours. That okay with you?” She looked down at her friend, grabbing her towel.

“Perfect,” Stephanie agreed. “I’m still working on this one kink in my back.”

“I hope I can make it to the room!” Jennifer said, staggering off.

Stephanie slid further into the water, closing her eyes.  The lights, reflecting off the pool, danced across the walls and glowed through her eyelids.

A change in the lighting perhaps or a sound she couldn’t identify caused Stephanie to open her eyes.  The clarity of the black shadow cast on the wall in front of her outlining the hat and trench coat left no doubt that a person was behind her and that it was a very large man.

Languid from the heated water, her brain muddled, she was unable to move and the scenarios of all the horror movies she had ever seen flashed before her eyes. She saw her body dragged away, raped and murdered, her family never knowing what happened to her; her best friend finding her in a Jacuzzi full of blood, her hair spread out from her head as she floated in the water; she envisioned the shadowy arm lifting up a large knife and it striking down on her again, and again, and again.

In her head she was screaming, silently screaming, but she, herself, could make no sound.  Struggling to open her mouth, the horror of not being able to scream became as terrifying as the looming shadow in front of her. Her eyes, the only part of her still able to move, widened, the pupils dilating across her green irises as she watched the shadow shift, shrinking as it moved further down the wall as footsteps echoed off water and windows.

Her heart, beating so loudly in her head her ears vibrated, she almost missed the sound of a weak, quivery voice, call out, “It’s a nice evening out tonight, isn’t it?”

Rolling her head around toward the voice, Stephanie saw a small elderly man with a very gentle face, wearing a fedora and overcoat against the fall chill, standing across the pool, the bright floodlights luminescent behind him.

“Yes,” she wheezed out the breath she had been holding, “Yes, a very nice evening.”

He smiled, nodded, and continued his evening walk.


Alison Cloonan is a 60-year-old emerging writer who has completed a college creative writing class at Hagerstown Community College.

Ghosted By Jade Draper

Ghosted By Jade Draper

The neighborhood was a quiet one. One of those developments, filled with large, similarly constructed houses, evenly spaced apart. A neighborhood full of cute, picture perfect families of the upper middle class, living in their beautiful houses, in serenity.

They were a young couple.  The woman, with straight, platinum hair cut into a perfect bob and her husband with slicked back black hair, both never looking out of sorts. The day they moved in to the last vacant house on the block was memorable simply because they brought nothing with them. No moving truck pulled in with their enviable black Mercedes, just the Mercedes. All the people recall is watching that car pull in, seeing the couple get out and walk straight into the house. Not a single bag. And nothing had come before hand and nothing came after and believe them they tried to get a peek inside because how strange it all seemed. Who moves into such a home and brings absolutely nothing with them? And yet every time they saw the couple they were dressed in different clothes and he often had a briefcase, she wore varying pieces of jewelry. It puzzled them, but what could they do?  Everyone just called it peculiar and moved on because they did not bother anyone.

Then Autumn set in and the leaves changed and with it the couple changed. It was if their icy exterior fell away as they got ready for Halloween. They pulled decorations from who knows where and set them up in the yard. A string of skulls in the barren tree in the yard, a frightening witch, a headstone, multiple jack-o-lanterns, and ghosts scattered about the yard. This again set everyone to talking, yet only for a minute because most everyone decorated so it was not too out of place. What really was interesting is what the children started to say. Rumor had it that the couple liked children. That they were kind to them even.  The parents dismissed this talk as the children mistaking the couple’s new-found comfort around their home for comfort with the neighborhood itself.

The bus stopped at the end of the cul-de-sac and all the children walked home together, one by one saying goodbye and going into their homes. They then would meet up to play after all the homework was done and run around the neighborhood on bikes and scooters, laughing and shouting. Now each night, unbeknownst to the parents, the couple had started to sit on the front porch. They had set up chairs, again, from where they brought them no one could know, and watch the children. It could be said that they just enjoyed the crisp fall air and each other’s company, but about two weeks after this habit had formed they moved the chairs to the edge of the driveway and began to talk to the children. And the children began to like them. They would joke and sing with them and make sure they went inside at a decent hour. They never moved from those chairs though.

Halloween was quickly approaching and all the children were becoming quite excited. They did not come outside at night anymore to play because it had become much too chilly and they had costumes to work on. The couple had moved their ritual back to the porch, but sat outside after the children got off the bus. Now the way their house was situated, second to last in the development, meant that by the time all the young ones had walked each other home, there was only one child walking by their house to get to his. Jones was a small timid boy, but he enjoyed playing with the other children and he had grown to like the couple who had sat outside and chatted with them all this time. So, every afternoon as he walked by to go home he waved and the couple smiled back. This went on all the way until the night of Halloween.

Trick or Treat was simple for the neighborhood. Everyone knew everyone so it was put your child in a costume and send them out all at once and then, at the agreed time, turn your porch light off and all the children came scampering home. It was a great system. The parents could relax without freezing and all the kids felt independent and got candy. So, the night began. All the little witches and vampires and doctors were running around gathering their candy, happy as could be. The couple sat on their porch, light on, handing out candy to each child as they came by, smiling and offering a kind word, the only adults visible outdoors on the chilly night.

At the agreed time, all the porch lights went off and each child reluctantly went home, dragging a bag of candy with them. Jones waved goodbye to his last walking partner as they ran inside their own house and began his small journey home. As he was walking past the couple’s house he noticed, even though their light was off, that they were still on the porch. They saw him, smiled, pointed to a bowl of candy that was still quite full and waved him over. He made his way up the sidewalk and excitedly opened his bag and watched as they dumped all of it in. He grinned and said thank you.

The next morning the police were at the last house in the neighborhood. The family was hysterical for it seemed that their little boy, one in a ghost costume who goes by Jones, never came home. The police made their rounds that morning to each house and questioned the families. When the police questioned the couple, who were on their porch drinking coffee, they found nothing out of sorts, as with everything else in the neighborhood. Three days later the neighborhood woke up to find the second to last house in the neighborhood vacant again, the porch light flickering ominously. Void of the couple and their Halloween décor.  Obviously suspicious of such a quick departure, the people of the neighborhood took it upon themselves to investigate.

Inside they found beautifully decorated walls, with pictures of the couple hung all about. Odd artwork of a dark nature, not really depicting anything for certain sat about in random corners, giving each person an uneasy feeling. The house otherwise was empty. No beds or furniture or food. Not ever toilet paper or a toothbrush. Yet, when they made their way into the garage they found the black Mercedes sitting alone. The doors of the car were locked, but the trunk was left slightly ajar and dirty handprints had seemed to have caressed it not too long ago. All the neighbors looked at one another, no one really knowing what to do or daring to touch anything. Suddenly, without anyone touching the trunk of the car, it flung itself open with a creak to reveal a large bag of trick or treat candy. The candy was not alone in the trunk. Staring down each neighbor, striking fear and questions into each heart, lay a tiny, blood soaked, ghost costume.