Tag: Fiction

This Old Town – Stephen Stratton Moore

This Old Town – Stephen Stratton Moore

This Old Town

“Jacob, I wish you could have seen it. When I was a little girl, every one of us, the grown-ups and kids alike, would put on our best and head uptown on a Saturday night. Main Street was lit up like a Christmas tree! There was so much energy in the air, you couldn’t help but get excited. Things were just happening. All the sidewalks and even the streets were alive with folks laughing and visiting and heading this way and that. Mary Jane’s Diner at the heart of town was the place where most were either going to or leaving from, but there were other places, too.

“The old men would gather on the benches in the square to chew and pass the flask while their better halves, the older ladies, congregated at the meeting hall behind the Church of Christ to gossip. All the kids just ran around in small groups absorbing all the energy that the grown-ups were giving off. None of us had much money in our pockets. Oh, Mother might slip us a quarter to go to the movies every now and then, or maybe we’d have enough spare change to share a root beer float at Mary Jane’s because we were not rich people―not money-wise, anyway. Not too many people were in those days. The depression hit hard here. We didn’t have much, but we shared what we had.

“There was a sense of community back then that’s not around anymore. Times were hard, but we helped each other. Bad things were going on in the world, but all those troubles brought us together. It was a simpler time, I guess. Folks used to sit out on their front porches to visit with their neighbors, instead of hunkering down in their backyards. What I do remember, what stays with me to this day, is that even though times were tough, it was a very happy time for me. Maybe our memories play tricks on us, blocking out the bad. Maybe I’ve romanticized it some, but not much. Things were just different back then. Maybe we were different.”

Jacob helped himself to a second slice of key lime pie, offering another to his hostess. She declined it with a wave of her hand, and he smiled, beckoning her to continue, as if he were hearing all of it for the very first time.

“You know, it was at Mary Jane’s that your mom and I became best friends. We were both waitressing there over the summers, so we talked a lot. She was and still is, to this day, the sweetest-natured human being I’ve ever met. She was also very smitten with my big brother, and that’s how you eventually came into the world. Anyway, we got very close, your momma and me, long before we were actual in-laws. I do miss her so… and your daddy, too! Oh, I’ve prattled on for far too long. You’ve probably heard these stories a thousand times!”

“A thousand and one, Aunt Rosemund, a thousand and one!” replied Jacob with a sheepish grin and a sip of his coffee.

Jacob Warren loved his weekly visits with his Aunt Rosemund. He could listen to her nostalgic stories of yesteryear all day long and well into the night. They kept him centered. These visits pretty much kept them both centered. It had been their longstanding tradition, maintained sporadically since his boyhood, but it doubled down to a weekly event after the auto accident that took both his parents away.

Every Friday, just after the noon whistle blew, he’d stop by and take care of whatever household chores needed attention. In return, she’d put a meal on the kitchen table for them to enjoy while he visited. Jacob always wondered how long it took her to make these wonderful meals, but he long ago decided it impertinent to ask. Oftentimes, the very anticipation of those meals got him through a long week. To be honest, it was the only real food he ever ate. His other days of the week were relegated to the much narrower menu options of a bachelor accustomed to little culinary creativity. His focus was on his work―so much so, that he considered food to be more of a distraction. He was indeed a busy man these days. He was on call 24/7, but he always made sure that he had at least a few hours’ time set aside for Fridays at noon.

Aunt Rosemund kept a small home on the edge of town that she had ably maintained for as long as Jacob could remember. She had a huge vegetable garden out back and a flower garden, rivaled by none, in the front. Among the many annuals and perennials, it boasted five-foot hollyhocks and a hydrangea bush the size of a Buick. Her actual Buick, a brown Skylark, had been stored in her outbuilding since ‘84.

“I never had much use for the thing but could never find it in me to get rid of it,” she’d say. “Maybe I’ll put it to good use one day and make a planter out of it. We’re both long past the state of me ever driving it anywhere.”

It could be said that her little front yard at 221 Mulberry Street, which was ablaze with color from mid-June to late October, was one of the wonders of the county, but then again, these days, there wasn’t much competition. The Owensport of Aunt Rosemund and even Jacob’s childhood memories was no more. The town had been in a constant deteriorating spiral for the last twenty years now, and things didn’t look to be turning around any time soon. As it was, the young and able were moving away to seize their day, and the old and infirm were holding on to yesterday for as long as it would have them.

There really wasn’t much left of uptown anymore, just good bones. Most of the shops of Jacob’s childhood were gone. Beck’s Grocery closed down ten years ago, replaced by the Foodland and Wal-Mart in Chester. When Jacob was a child, Mary Jane’s Diner was replaced by Ben Franklin’s Five & Dime, but even that space was now vacant.

The remaining uptown storefronts were now occupied by antique shops, a tobacco store, a carryout, the municipal death knells of a Salvation Army thrift store, and Payday Loan. The old Rite Aid was still there, the last holdout from Jacob’s day. But it was only a matter of time. The old town was on her way out, and though unspoken, it seemed as if Jacob and his Aunt Rosemund would see it to the end together.

Jacob lived over on Water Street in a modest upstairs apartment in one of the grandest houses in town. His living needs were quite Spartan, and he appreciated the minimal personal living space he occupied. It meant that he could focus more of his energy on his career, his vocation. Jacob was known around town for his soothing empathy and the comforting tone and cadence of his voice―a town fixture on whom folks depended in their most troubling hours.

They all knew that he was there to support them with his kind words and gentle humor. It was this gift that he shared with his community. Jacob was also his hometown’s gatekeeper of sorts, an unofficial tender of its very living flame. He was most suited to monitor the town’s slowing pulse rate and vital signs on a daily basis because he knew more than anyone what the real story was.

His was the only business left in town that was still booming. With his inheritance money, he put out his shingle thirteen years ago after buying out the previous owners. Since then, his business had done nothing but grown and flourished. He had been saving up for a while with the ultimate designs of starting a second location up in Chester. But for now, he was biding his time, accumulating his capital while his future plans gestated.

Jacob was also fortunate enough, for convenience’s sake, to live in the same building where he worked, the stately white mansion that rose from immaculately landscaped grounds right on the river. It was a handsome white brick building with four thick columns holding up a Greek portico. Unlike buildings uptown, it was well-maintained with great care to detail.

Out in the front yard, directly under the spreading branches of an ancient pin oak tree, was a wooden sign with elegant gold cursive letters that read, Warren’s Funeral Home Est. 1989.

***

“Good morning, Mr. Johnson. I’ll take good care of you. Linda will think you’re just napping on the couch when I’m done,” said Jacob as he cleaned the body.

Jacob had the habit of conversing with his clients, in much the same manner a doctor might with his patients. The doctor’s intent was to distract the patient from what might actually be going on in the moment, and in Jacob’s mind, this wasn’t much different. It just seemed proper.

After completing the embalming and preparation, Jacob’s assistant Doug helped him with the casketing and cosmetic application while Jacob continued, “Linda wants you in your naval uniform. It’s a bit snug, but we’ll make it work. We’ll get those brass buttons and your medal all shined and looking shipshape! Mr. Johnson, I remember you always putting up with me asking to pet your basset hound Gertrude on your evening walks. What a great dog she was! You were always grumpy about it, too, but I knew it was okay because you’d give me that wink. By the looks of those scars on your legs, you had good reason to be grumpy all the time, but you really weren’t. I always knew that. I’ve already arranged for your guard on Sunday. You’ll have full military honors, sir―taps, folded flag, and a seven-man, 21-gun salute! You’ll have a special Medal of Honor recipient marker on your stone as well; I think you’ll be very pleased with it.”

When he had completed his work, Jacob said a silent prayer. Though he wasn’t particularly religious, it was the routine he followed, whether he had known the deceased personally or not. It was his way of honoring this individual. If it was someone he had known, like Mr. Johnson, it was a longer meditation, honoring that life lived here, in this old town. Many of those lives, more often than not, had touched his own life, and in some cases, profoundly.

Over the years, Jacob had buried a few friends and many neighbors, his third-grade and ninth-grade teachers among them. Mrs. Spence had been his favorite. She always encouraged him to “THINK BIG!” She had written those words in his yearbook, which he still had on the shelf behind his desk. He had also buried Mr. Beck, the man who offered Jacob his first job delivering groceries on his bike when he was twelve. Mr. Beck was like a crazy uncle to him, but a great mentor as well. Jacob learned much from him, especially how to take care of his customers.

Jacob had let him know as much during his preparation for burial. “Mr. Beck, I don’t think that kind of customer service exists anymore. You always took the time and went the extra mile for folks, and they really appreciated it. You inspired me in that way and a lot of other ways. You know, to this day, I still show the bagboys how to properly bag my items at the Foodland. I thought you’d appreciate that. I was taught by the best!”

Like Mr. Beck, Jacob provided a service to his community and to the folks he knew and loved. His calling was in the sacred preservation and celebration of solemn human dignity. He brought it forth through the time-honored traditions and techniques that he had learned. Through his art, he was able to take the ugliness and often raw brutality of death and transform it into beauty. Each case was unique. Sometimes, only a little touchup was necessary; other times, a great deal of challenging reconstruction was in order. Occasionally, the circumstances were far beyond his abilities. Wherever they fell within the spectrum of his skills, it was his mindset, his humanity that made all the difference. He was good at what he did.

***

The noon whistle was still blowing as Jacob latched the front gate. He took three paces and hugged his aunt, who had just risen from tending to her roses.

“I don’t need much done today, Jacob, just a curtain rod that needs put up in the front room. I have a pork roast and beans stewing in the crockpot and cornbread in the oven for when you’re done.”

“I’ll get right on it, Aunt Rosemund. Do you need a ride into Chester later? I have an errand over that way myself, so I could drop you at the Foodland.”

“That might work well for me, thank you sweetheart!” she replied, patting the side of his face with a garden-gloved hand, leaving a smudge of peat moss on his cheek.

After a lunch of pork roast and white beans, served with fresh-from-the-garden sliced onions, tomatoes, and cucumbers in sweet vinegar (and some good conversation), he helped her clean the kitchen. She then grabbed her purse from the peg, and they headed out the back door. He helped her up into his Wagoneer, gently pushed the passenger door closed, and walked around to the driver’s side.

He climbed in, saying, “You ready to roll?”

To which she replied, “Just drive the car, Jeeves.” They rode in silence for a time as the Wagoneer followed the wide curve of the river for the fifteen-minute drive. “What’s your errand in Chester, Jacob?” she asked curiously.

“Business, actually,” he replied. “That is, my business; I’m looking into opening up a second funeral home over there. I want to look at some listed properties, maybe give old man Vinton a run for his money. I’d have to hire some more associates to help run it. I’ve been percolating on the idea for a while now, and I think that now’s the time to begin the building of my empire, Aunt Rosemund. THINK BIG! Right? THINK BIG OR GO HOME!”

She only crinkled her nose in response and looked out the passenger window at a passing barge on the river.

Without turning to him, she responded, “So you’re going to be some fancy corporate tycoon. Is that want you want to be?”

“Well, sure, I guess, if that’s what success makes you. Seems like the smart thing to do.”

Jacob dropped his Aunt Rosemund at the Foodland and did some preliminary drive-bys of the three properties he had in mind. The third one actually spoke to him. He got out of the car and walked around. It wasn’t much to look at from the outside, but the location was good. The building was locked, but he was able to peer into the front window enough to see that it needed a lot of work on the inside.

As he swung back around the block to collect his aunt and her groceries, Jacob noticed a poster advertising a folk music festival that was going to be held later in the summer at the county fairgrounds. That looks interesting, he thought. He’d heard something about it on the radio as well, so he made a mental note to check it out.

The drive home was a comfortable quiet with the radio low, but Jacob could sense that his Aunt Rosemund was somewhere else. When they passed the Welcome to Owensport sign and slowed to drive through town down Main Street, she finally spoke.

“Daddy would be heartbroken to see the wretched condition of this town. I hope he’s somewhere where he doesn’t know about it.”

Jacob’s grandpa had been the Mayor of Owensport for twenty-eight years, and Jacob’s dad had been the Fire Chief all through his childhood. Both had always been a deep source of pride for him.

“Yup, Grandpa would have a conniption,” he replied. “He would not be pleased with the Owensport of today.”

***

Jacob was downstairs by 7:30, just in time to greet the van as it backed into the garage entrance. He and Doug guided it into the bay. The driver then came around and opened the back doors, and they received the mortal remains of Dwayne David Stone, one of too many who had died from an opioid overdose.

“Jesus!” said Doug, “How many dead friends does it take for these people to stop doing this shit?”

“Too many,” replied Jacob.

It was indeed the single most troubling aspect of his job these days. In previous years, the greatest specters had been crack and crystal meth, which wasted their victims to skin and bones. Jacob had seen multiple bodies of young people whose physiological age was that of an octogenarian. Meth users still came in on occasion, but they were usually not overdoses; their organs just finally gave out. That was horrible enough, but it was the sheer number of opioid overdoses of young and middle-aged folks that was truly shocking. Most disturbing was the average condition of their bodies: healthy yet dead. The bulk of his clientele were still old folks, that was true, but the kids were coming up fast on the inside and gaining ground, almost tripling their normal death rate.

Later that evening, in his apartment, while winding down from his busy day, Jacob pulled the cork from a bottle of Makers Mark 46 and poured the golden liquid over ice. He briefly held the glass to the light, admiring its caramel tones, anticipating the slow warmth of the bourbon flowing down his gullet and into his belly. Perhaps it would render him the same unfeeling numbness that Dwayne had so longed for. In that moment, he completely empathized with the dead young man. He downed his first glass, immediately poured another, and walked across the room to sit.

As much as he desired it, Jacob could not drink off the dark mood. It was not a sudden thing. It had been building, culminating like the gathering of leaden storm clouds for some time now. He’d been able to keep it at bay with his natural positivity, but Dwayne’s arrival this morning had ripped off an old scab, reopening a familiar and festering doubt within him. It seemed that tonight, it all would come to the fore. Tonight, the storm that had been looming on the horizon would come rolling through his mind, and he was helpless to stop it.

At what time does a small town hit critical mass? Had that already happened? He had a good thing here, a great career. A dying town was technically good for the bottom line of a funeral home business, no question about that. The questions were more of the intangible variety, the ones that had to do with his sense of place, his personal connections to Owensport. This was his town. He dearly loved this place where he was born and where his parents were born and buried. He loved this town where he had grown into a man and become a successful adult. It was in his blood flowing through him like the river itself. It was real. But… what had this town become? What was it now, today? If he stayed here too long, would it take him down with it?

And what would happen when Aunt Rosemund passed away? He didn’t like thinking about that, but it would happen at some point… it was a real consideration. She was his only tangible connection, the very last link to the Owensport of his soul. If she were not here any longer, if (or when) she was taken out of the equation, what would life be like here? He thought about his possible project in Chester. Maybe he should move forward with it more aggressively. Maybe he should get out of town completely while he still could… someplace new… someplace warm… someplace different. THINK BIG… OR GO HOME.

“It’s been a long and shitty day, so I’m going to bed,” he said aloud, walking over to the kitchenette to pour the last of his bourbon down the sink.

As Jacob nodded off that night with his thoughts still unresolved, he settled into a deep sleep, and he dreamed. The ghosts of Mrs. Spence and all the friends and neighbors who had passed on over the years visited him in the form of a great parade up Main Street. He was a little boy sitting on the curb, bathed in the yellowed summer light of an old Polaroid photograph. They passed by him in joyful procession, waving. The parade started off with Mrs. Spence, clad in a striped clown suit, gangly, walking on stilts. She held over her head a large sign that read, “THINK BIG, JACOB WARREN!”

Behind her were several bunting-covered floats, depicting Jacob’s childhood memories in paper-mâché. The first one depicted the time he broke his arm after Marcie Dent, his best friend growing up, dared him to ride his red racer sled all the way down Owensport Hill when they were eleven. The second one commemorated the Christmas when he got a coonskin cap and leather-fringed jacket from Santa. It was officially a Davy Crocket jacket and cap, but when he played in it, he was always Daniel Boone. The third float celebrated his teenage beer can collection, which featured a great pyramid of rare 1930s brew vessels.

Following the memory floats was Mr. Johnson in his naval uniform and distinctive medal draped around his neck, walking Gertrude the basset hound, and glad-handing the adult spectators as he passed by. He wasn’t grumpy anymore.

Next in line was a small marching band of old people with tall furry hats and ill-fitting uniforms playing a Glen Miller dance tune on clarinets. There was a short gap in the parade, during which he only heard the muted crowd conversations around him.

The lull was finally broken by the shrill siren from a shiny, red and chrome fire truck. Jacob stood up, leaned forward to get a better view, and saw his mom and dad together in the front seat smiling large for him. He waved at them until his wrist hurt. His mom blew him a kiss that he caught and put on his heart, his small hand covering an orange Popsicle stain that resided on the front of his striped t-shirt.

Behind them came a smoke-belching tractor pulling a trailer of waving kids. The trailer had handmade posters with brightly colored lettering duct taped on the sides. This was followed by a large troupe of sequin-clad little girls twirling batons, shrinking in height with each line, increasingly younger and more awkward as they passed by. He learned from the colorful writing on the posters and majorette banner that they each represented the town’s drug abuse fatalities.

The crystal meth victims waving from the trailer threw handfuls of crack vials to the little tots, who ran along the periphery filling their plastic bags with delight.

The opioid victims, the twirly girls, smiled their blank, soulless smiles from little cherubic faces plastered with too much adult makeup. They wore so much mascara that it appeared to Jacob as if they had no eyes. He stared transfixed into the black voids until he heard the bling-bling of a bicycle bell.

It was Mr. Beck who shakily rode Jacob’s old Schwinn with two expertly filled grocery bags in the basket. He gave Jacob a quick two-fingered salute before regaining control of the bike.

The great procession finished with the parade’s Grand Marshall. Jacob’s grandpa was sitting up on the backseat of a 1974 burgundy Cadillac convertible with door magnets that read Clyde Orville Warren, Proud to Be Your Mayor Since 1948. He was smiling and waving to all the cheering citizens lining each side of the street. In the eternal moment when their eyes met, Jacob could plainly see the tears streaming down his grandpa’s cheeks. From the expression on his face, Jacob could not clearly tell whether they were tears of joy—or sorrow.

Little Jacob then reached down and picked up the sweating glass of bourbon that had been sitting on the curb beside him. He held it up to the sun for a moment’s examination, brought it to his nose, inhaling its potent aroma, and then poured the golden contents into the gutter. He watched the liquid slowly making its way toward the storm drain at his feet. It perversely reminded him of formaldehyde and bodily fluids swirling at the drain of his embalming table.

***

The coming of a new day did not bring relief to Jacob’s unrest. He awoke abruptly that morning to an aching lamentation and the coppery tang of despair on his tongue. Sometimes, dreams have a way of sticking, and he wore it all day like an extra layer of clothes. He finally figured the best way to deal with it was head-on. He arranged to meet with the commercial realty company to take a closer look at the Chester property he was interested in. It was across from an attractive park and situated on a street that provided a direct route to the city cemetery, located just up the hill above town.

Unlike Owensport, Chester’s economy was on the rise. Its boundaries were growing outward to the degree that the rolling country and river allowed. It boasted much of the restaurants and service amenities one would expect from a larger town. It even had a hotel and an Olive Garden! The town had a vibe, a cultural, artsy personality to it. Now, this is a destination town, he thought.

The walk-through revealed that the property had promise, but also, as he suspected, would need a great deal of work to convert it to his needs. It would be a very expensive project. Jacob now found himself at a crossroads. It was a manufactured crossroads, evolved from his own mind, but he felt the bewilderment of it, nonetheless.

There was an underlying sense of urgency in it, one that he did not completely understand. Something larger than himself was going on here. It seemed as if things were moving at an even faster pace than before and gaining momentum, creating an emotional vertigo that filled him with the urge to vomit.

***

Jacob and Rosemund sat together at the same old table that he had known since he was a boy. He was more aware than usual of the little things about the room, the precious details, the warm smells of a well-used kitchen. The very air was infused with the scents of its soul, of cinnamon and coffee, of bacon and dish detergent, somehow blending together to create the timeless aroma of comfort, of home. From the hallway, the old family clock ticked off the passage of every second of his life. It continued in its mission of gear and spring working precisely in the darkness behind old polished wood. He gazed around the room and noted the folded dishtowel by the sink, the neat stack of opened envelopes and bills by the microwave.

He noted the hummingbird feeder filled with red sugar water hanging from a grey rusting hook just outside the window, the very same hook that hung suet in the wintertime. Everything was in its place, just as it had always been for the entirety of his life. Jacob smiled at his aunt as she placed a freshly cut slice of coffee cake on his plate.

“I love you, Aunt Rosemund.”

His mind had gone around and around things for a week now and each revolution of thought ended with the same revelation. He had to remove himself from the only home he’d ever known. Where had this all come from? Why now? The suddenness of it was crazy, but it was visceral. He knew that he had to make a logical decision, and make it now… even if it hurt the person he loved the most.

“I need to leave here, Aunt Rosemund. Maybe just up to Chester, maybe farther. I don’t know yet. Maybe you can come with me… we can open up a cantina in Mexico, what do you say?”

She thoughtfully breathed in, exhaled slowly, and looked him squarely in the eyes. “Honey, I don’t want to see you go anywhere. I would miss you terribly, but you have to follow the path that seems right to you. I’m not going to be around here too much longer anyway, but the only place I’m going is where the good Lord leads me. Until that great day comes, I’m staying right here where I belong. I do know exactly how you feel, though. I understand it more than anyone else in this world.”

“That’s just it,” he replied. “The Owensport that I know and love isn’t real anymore. It doesn’t exist. It’s all just a fanciful figment of our collective imaginations now. Our memories are sweetthey’re beautiful, but they’re not tangible. They’re not real! We… I can’t live on just that. I can’t live in a dream anymore. I have to make my own reality before it’s too late. It’s time that I close the casket on this town, Aunt Rosemund, and move on with my life.”

Aunt Rosemund smiled and replied, “I think she still has a little breath left in her, but you do what you have to do, Jacob. I don’t want you just waiting for me to die before you go, either. You go now. I’ll be fine. I have my gardens to keep me busy. Just visit me from time to time, that’s all.”                          

***

Later that afternoon, as Jacob was driving down the curvy road of Owensport Hill, a thought popped into his head out of nowhere. It had been quite some time since they had been in touch with one another―over a year, maybe three? It was crazy, he thought, how effortless it had been to get so caught up in the day-to-day and lose touch with the bigger picture.

Marcie Anne Dent had been a part of his bigger picture for most of his life, but they had drifted apart in recent years as old relationships oftentimes do.

“How does that happen in such a small town?” he wondered aloud.

Jacob called Marcie, and as old relationships also have a way of doing, it was just as effortless to begin again right where they had left off. After catching up, he asked if she was interested in checking out the upcoming folk music festival and maybe grabbing a bite to eat afterward. They had dated a little back in the day, but early on, they each had resigned themselves to the fact that they made much better friends then they did lovers, and ever since then, minus the three-year hiatus, they had been close. After ending the call, Jacob smiled and thought, Life changes so much, and yet it all stays the same.

***

The morning was still cool as Jacob pulled up in front of Marcie’s house with a quick double honk.

“Mornin’, Mad Dog,” said Jacob as Marcie slid into the passenger seat next to him.

“Jake, I can honestly say I’ve not responded to that nickname since Reagan was President,” replied Marcie, shaking her head and rolling her eyes in mock exasperation.

Jacob grinned as he pulled from the curb heading for the county fairgrounds. They spent the entire sun-warmed afternoon together enjoying the festival, which was a much larger event than he had expected. Five separate stages each featured acts ranging from full bands to individual artists and smaller groups playing a wide variety of instruments and musical styles. A large vendor’s area offered food and traditional Appalachian instruments for sale. There was public camping where you could even rent your own private yurt for the weekend if you wanted to shell out the money for it.

After checking out the evening’s performance schedule and discovering that Rhonda Vincent and the Rage was the headliner, Jacob and Marcie immediately decided to grab some fair food and stay. While they waited for The Rage and sipped their beers, Jacob had the opportunity to talk at length with Marcie about what was going on with him, and she had some new ideas, some insight, and a few suggestions of her own that put things in a completely different light.

“What an awesome day! I really needed that. Thanks for your feedback. I think we might be on to something here,” said Jacob as his Wagoneer squealed to a stop in front of Marcie’s house.

“I’m excited!” she replied. “I’ll be reaching out to some people. It might take some time, baby steps, but I will get back to you as soon as I know something. Thank you for calling me. I had a wonderful time,” she said, squeezing his hand as she opened her door.

“I bid you a good evening… Madam Mayor!” said Jacob in a jovial tone.

Marcie turned back smiling before closing the door and replied with equal spirit, “And to you, good steward. And to you!”

***

(Saturday Night, Six Years Later)

Uptown was lit up like a Christmas tree. There was so much energy in the air, you couldn’t help but get excited. Things were just happening. All the sidewalks and even the streets were alive with folks laughing and visiting and heading this way and that. It was the fourth year of the Owensport River Music and Arts Festival. It had been a slow start for the first three years, but it was looking quite promising this year, slowly gaining notoriety. The Uptown Owensport Renewal Project was in progress as well, but it still had a long way to go. With the funding of some generous local investors, it had gotten a foothold, and that was all they could have ever hoped for. It was all about momentum now.

THINK BIG… AND… STAY HOME! Jacob thought, looking up and smiling at Marcie as she slid into the booth beside him.

“I just love to people-watch, don’t you?”

“Yes, Aunt Rosemund,” replied Jacob. “Yes, I do.” The trio sat in their usual spot, watching the many folks walking by the window, each enjoying their own vanilla bean, craft root beer float—the specialty of Mary Jane’s Diner.


After losing three close family members at an impressionable age, Stephen Stratton Moore attributes his influence as a writer to this experience, especially in the way that he looks at things. It gave him a richer appreciation of our connectedness as human beings and stoked an inner passion to revel in the bittersweet nuances of those bonds. Stephen is a published writer, musician, and graphic designer.

Mrs. Fonseca – Francine Rodriguez

Mrs. Fonseca – Francine Rodriguez

Mrs. Fonseca

Every time one of those big trucks barreled down Coronado Street flying over the traffic bumps, going fifty miles an hour on a residential street, Mrs. Fonseca’s entire apartment above the garage shook and the dishes in her cabinet above the sink rattled. The trucks passed by several times a day on their way to the freeway entrance headed south or maybe east. She couldn’t really tell the difference because she never drove herself.

About half of the dishes in her cabinet were cracked anyway. She kept them just because she’d had them so long and the rest of the set had long since broken and been thrown away. Sometimes when she stared at the few Blue Willow plates left, she remembered happier times when she’d prepared big meals for her family and served them on those same plates, mofongo, arroz con pollo, and rellenos de papas. Her sons were big eaters, known for taking seconds and thirds on whatever she cooked. Her daughters were more finicky. By the time they hit high school they complained that Puerto Rican food was unhealthy, heavy and greasy, and they nibbled daintily on non-fat yogurt and baby carrots and then stuffed themselves on chips and candy bars.

When the grandkids came along, they whined for pizza and soda, and she dutifully counted out the rest of the money left from her Social Security check to order it. She hadn’t seen her great grandkids for quite a while now. Everybody was always so busy, and they reminded her she’d never learned to drive.

Juan used to drive her everywhere. He insisted on taking her where she was going and watching her every move. But he was dead now and had been dead for fifteen years. It didn’t bother the kids much when he died. None of them cried. The youngest ones didn’t know him that well.

“Good riddance, asshole!” her older son yelled as he threw some pebbles on the coffin.

By then, Juan wasn’t coming around that much anyway. When he died, she thought about learning to drive, but to tell the truth, she was scared of the traffic and couldn’t remember the rules for driving anyway.

She practiced driving with her youngest daughter, but it ended badly with a lot of screaming, mostly on her daughter’s part.

“I keep telling you, you can’t turn left from the right lane, and you’re following that car too close.” Sometimes Elizabeth would yell at her at the top of her lungs. She was sure everybody in traffic could hear, and she flushed red with embarrassment when the yelling started. “Mom, you’re holding up miles of traffic. Figure out where you want to go, damn it!”

Elizabeth wasn’t the only one who didn’t think she could learn to drive. “You’ll have an accident and kill somebody.” Her son, Carlos, couldn’t believe that she would even consider something as complicated as driving. “You better stick to the bus.”

So, she did. She took the bus to every location of importance in her world: the Vons market all the way down on Sunset Boulevard, the bank at the corner of Alvarado, and sometimes her doctor’s office on Vermont. Usually, once a week, she traveled west on Hollywood Boulevard on a local bus to visit her best, and only friend, Mrs. Akmajian. The rest of her friends were either dead now or had disappeared somewhere and she didn’t know where to find them.

She walked arm-in-arm with Mrs. Akmajian, looking in all the shop windows and clucking at the immodest clothing on the mannequins. When they were tired of walking, they stopped for a Value Meal at McDonald’s. It was the perfect end to a perfect day.

A few times a year, she took the bus the farthest and visited her beauty parlor which was actually in what they called “West Hollywood.” Her hairdresser was a nice young man named Rene who wore tight pants and a lot of makeup. The makeup confused her, but Rene had been cutting her hair since he left beauty school, and he still charged her the same price for a haircut and always told her how beautiful she was. Her white-domed church was close by her home on Michaeltorena. She walked there every Wednesday night and Sunday morning for services unless it was raining.

She was a short woman, grown shorter over the years and likely from the curvature in her spine. She kept her kinky iron-gray hair cut close because it was easier that way. The years and rich meals she cooked had added pounds to her once slim frame, and she found herself wearing larger stretchy polyester pants and a jacket to cover her stomach and hips. Back when she was in her late sixties, she started wearing orthopedic shoes, something she thought she’d never do, because back then she never left the house without her stilettos. The wrinkles were always a shock. So many of them now, that it seemed her eyes had almost disappeared into the many folds and her lower jaw receded when she didn’t wear her partial plate. But then, she reminded herself, she was almost eighty.

These days, her apartment wasn’t the only thing that shook. So did her hands as she counted out the number of pills in several bottles of pain pills and one bottle of sleeping pills. She used the pills judiciously, knowing that lately her doctors didn’t want to okay a re-fill, and they cost too much, anyway. She’d been saving most of the pills for quite a while, even before her daughters moved her from her small bungalow that they’d rented for years, the place with a small garden where she raised the kids. The pills were there like a security blanket. She knew when things got really bad, they’d be there waiting. It was the one thing she could count on.

Both of her daughters were insistent about the move to the tiny garage apartment.

“You don’t need all this space. Daddy’s gone and there’s nobody to help you keep it up. Walking up the stairs is good exercise for you. Besides, they keep raising the rent for this house and pretty soon you won’t have any money left for food.”

The apartment above the garage was up a steep flight of wooden stairs, and she climbed them slowly, hanging onto the railing as the pain in her arthritic hip shot down her legs. It was tiny; hot and airless in the summer, and cold and damp in the winter. She kept a little portable fan on the window ledge and learned to adjust her small rocking chair so she could watch her thirteen-inch television set and let the warm air circulating from the fan blow on her face at the same time.

There wasn’t much furniture in the cramped space besides her rocker, a small green velour love seat, and the television stand where the portable television rested. Above the velour sofa hung a large picture of Jesus wearing his crown of thorns. The picture was somewhat faded because of the sun shining directly on the glass frame, but the eyes still stood out, and she swore they followed her and saw everything she did.

To the right, in the alcove by the window, was a circular two-seater table that her oldest daughter had given her when her husband bought her new patio furniture. Behind a patchwork curtain, there was her single bed and a miniature chest of drawers where she kept a few changes of clothes. When Carlos visited here, the place seemed even smaller. He was a large man and complained that he had a terrible time turning around in the bathroom. The stove, an ancient two-burner, and the antique-looking refrigerator that looked like it had survived the fifties, came with the apartment. The tap water ran rusty into a yellowed porcelain sink.

The one thing the apartment did have a lot of was photos, all framed. They covered every inch of available wall space and left only enough room for the television on the portable stand. There were pictures of all her kids as babies, alongside their high school graduation photos that hung next to the grandchildren’s photos. The walls held school photos, photos taken at her daughter’s quinceneras, engagement photos, wedding photos,photos of family picnics, photos from a trip to Disneyland that the family made after months and months of saving, and photos of Juan when he was a young man working on a boat, before he came to the United States.

In the corner, where the walls met, a small photo sat on a wooden shelf in a painted silver frame. The photo was of a toddler, perched on Juan’s shoulders. The toddler wore all white and his light hair was long and curling. She hated the photo and always planned to throw it away. The opportunity came when Juan died, but by then, she couldn’t bring herself to do it. It was a picture of Juan with one of his outside children from so long ago. Somehow it seemed like a sin to throw away a child’s picture.

Narrow wooden stairs ran from the rear of the five-foot-wide service porch behind the refrigerator, down to the cement walkway behind the garage. On warm days, she hugged the railing all the way down to sit in the sun on a canvas fold-up chair she dragged down from her living room. She’d always liked the sun, even though it wasn’t as strong here as it was on the island. She sat, turning her face upward, and felt the heat burn into her skin and dive deeper until it cradled her curved spine in warmth. She sighed then, in comfort, as the aching pain in her bones dulled, and she let her mind slip back to the days when she and Juan were both young, before they came here to start a new life.

When she closed her eyes she could see Juan, tall and handsome, his skin glowing like polished copper, and herself, several shades darker, with crisp, curling hair, holding onto his arm as they strolled along Calle de la Cruz, watching the tourists. So long ago. Where had the time gone? They’d lived in New York for a while, in the Bronx, when they first came here. Their oldest was born when they lived in their first walk-up.

Then they moved to Los Angeles because Juan’s brother found him a job at a maintenance company. It was good for a while until the company closed. After that, they both hustled a living cleaning offices. They liked living in this part of Los Angeles, where they could hear Spanish spoken almost everywhere and the rents were cheaper. Besides, they were just a short walk from the park, where the paddleboats floated peacefully on the water and the geese chattered at the people picnicking on the grass near the boathouse.

That was before the rest of the children were born and before Juan got his “wandering eyes” that lead him out of their little house and into the bars where he spent too much of his paycheck. That was before she hated to answer the phone because some strange woman was calling to let her know she was having sex with Juan. That was before Juan got “mean drunk” and beat the kids when he came home late at night, and before he started beating her, too.

She almost moved out of the neighborhood once, when Mrs. Akmajian’s son tried to get her an apartment where his mother lived, in the tall white building with balconies in Little Armenia, an area of East Hollywood. He explained that only old people lived in this building near Hollywood and you had to be on a waiting list to get in.

“The place is rent-controlled. They have emergency alarms in every apartment in case you fall or hurt yourself.” He tried his best to convince her. “The apartment is just ten years old. It has carpeted floors and central heating. You never have to be cold in the winter like in that cracker box you live in now. Besides, I have connections with the Armenians who own it so you can bypass the waiting list. You can see my mother every day without taking the bus.” He was referring to her only friend, his mother, who spoke no English or Spanish, but always understood Mrs. Fonseca.

She thanked him but didn’t take the offer. Probably not as many people spoke Spanish in that neighborhood, and she didn’t know her way around the streets there. Besides, there was no park, just block after block of apartments that all looked the same. All that concrete hurt her eyes. Where would she go to walk in the early morning or sit on a bench and feed the geese, or buy a taco from without the lady pushing her cart around the cart? So, she stayed, even though it rained like crazy that winter and water leaked from the roof onto her thin carpet and left it smelling like mildew.

After the big rains stopped, neighbors moved next door in the adjoining garage apartment that had been empty most of the time she lived there. She watched curiously through the window, peeping behind her heavy tapestry curtain. They were very young. Probably in their twenties. The man had long hair and a mustache, and his arms were covered with tattoos. The young woman had very hair red hair that she wore twisted into spirals that hung down her back. She was very thin and had tattoos on her arms and legs, and even some on her chest.

Mrs. Fonseca watched them move in. They only brought a big mattress, a tall glass bookcase with glass partitions, and a giant television set. She watched in amazement as they carried it between them up the narrow stairs. She’d never seen a television set this big. It must be as big as the whole apartment, she thought to herself. As it turned out, she was right. Peeking in the window one day, after making sure nobody was home, she saw that the television covered most of the wall opposite the window.

Gracias Dios, why does anybody need a television that big?”

They came over that night and introduced themselves. Her name was Maureen and his name was Sean. They’d come to California to be actors, or at the very least, television stars.

“We’re both working on screenplays too,” Maureen explained. “But I work at Trader Joes part-time to get money to live on until we make it.”

She listened, nodding her head. Maybe someday they would be famous, and she could say they were her neighbors. Sean insisted that they drink some wine and invited her in to watch their television. She drank a few sips of the wine. It warmed her stomach and made her feel dizzy. She could feel her face getting red.  Maureen kept asking her questions about Mexico even though she explained she was from Puerto Rico, and she wasn’t Mexican. Maureen and Sean looked puzzled and asked her if she would make tamales. They’d had some in Nebraska once. She cringed, thinking about how tamales made in Nebraska would taste, and told them where they could buy some in the neighborhood.

Maureen and Sean liked to play loud music. She guessed it was music, but it was unlike any music she knew. Mostly she heard somebody screaming in a deep angry voice and a clashing sound that could have been a guitar or maybe a hammer striking metal. In fact, Sean said it was called “heavy metal,” and it was all he listened to since he used to be a singer with his own band. That was how he met Maureen, he explained proudly. She came backstage and claimed him as her own.

All in all, they weren’t bad neighbors, except when they brought their friends over and stayed up until the next morning, playing their music so loud that you could hear it up and down the street a block or two over. On those nights and early mornings, nobody slept. They drank a lot. She knew that because she checked the bottles in the trash. Not just wine, but whiskey and gin, and other kinds of alcohol that she didn’t recognize.

Most of the time, a strange smell floated out of Maureen and Sean’s apartment. She figured it wasn’t marijuana, because her son had smoked before. It made him giggly and he said he couldn’t stop laughing.  Juan found the weed he’d been hiding behind a dresser and kicked him out of the house.

Vamanos Marijuano,” he yelled while he pitched tennis shoes and basketball shorts out into the street late one night, and her son held his stomach and laughed hysterically.

This was a different smell, like nail polish remover, or maybe like too much cat pee if you forgot to change the litter box. The kids had a cat once, she remembered.

On one really warm day, when the temperature was in the high nineties, she saw Maureen throwing away the garbage in the covered shed at the rear of the garage. She was wearing a long-sleeve black turtleneck with a name on the front that she didn’t recognize, heavy black jeans, and knee-high Doc Marten work boots.

“It must be so hot in your apartment,” she said, staring at Maureen, knowing that neither apartment had air conditioning, and even with the portable fans running all day, you could barely breathe.

“Yes, it’s pretty bad,” Maureen assured her, wiping her forehead with the back of her arm. Her face was red and sweaty.

“Just wondering, why are you wearing such heavy clothes in this heat?”

Maureen looked away and tugged at the high collar on her turtleneck. “Sean likes me to dress like this. He likes all black. You know, this look. He doesn’t like anything else, really. I used to…” Her voice trailed off.

Mrs. Fonseca nodded as if she understood. “Oh, I see. I mean, those clothes just look so hot.”

Maureen put her head down and walked away.

Sometimes, she saw other things when she peeped into the side window, spoons and syringes like the nurses used when they gave you a shot and tiny little glass tubes. She had her suspicions, but figured it was none of her business.

Maureen and Sean argued a lot. They called each other bad names like “asshole” and “fucking cunt.” Sometimes, they threw things. Many times, she could hear the sound of something smashing, as whatever they threw hit the wall and broke.

But still, they were some company in her solitary life, and more often than not, she turned down her television so she could hear them argue. The sound of a human voice that didn’t come from a television set was special these days when hardly anyone talked to her. She told herself it wasn’t eavesdropping; she was listening to a live play through the walls, and she happened to know the actors personally. Sometimes it was actually exciting, and it made her heart race as she waited to hear the crack of one of them being slapped or the thud made by a fist striking soft flesh. Sometimes, she heard the sound of blows followed by Maureen crying. Then Sean’s voice, low and deep. Maureen stopped crying then.

When she saw her the next day, Maureen’s face and arms were all bruised, reddish and purple, and she wouldn’t stop to say hello. A few times, she thought that maybe she should ask Maureen if she was okay, or maybe call the police, but she was embarrassed. Nobody in the neighborhood called the police for anything. You never knew what they could do, plant drugs or arrest you for something. Better not to. Besides, by the time they’d get here, everything would be quiet. Exhausted from all the stress of the goings-on next door, she usually fell asleep as soon as she heard Maureen stop crying.

It was a Saturday morning, the best day of her week. Today she would go and visit Mrs. Akmajian in Hollywood and they would go shopping and have lunch afterward. She prepared her morning cup of tea and dry toast and thought about eating her breakfast downstairs as the sun was coming out. Holding her cup of tea carefully, she opened the back door to the stairway and then stopped. Her hands shook too much, and she knew she couldn’t navigate the stairs and hold the cup in her other hand without spilling it.  She turned around and walked back in. Sitting down on her velour couch, she suddenly brightened. What she needed was to hear her grandchildren’s voices, or at least one of her children. It had been a long time since they called her. She’d tried calling a day ago but couldn’t reach anybody.

She picked up her princess phone that she’d managed to save all these years and use for her landline. The phone made her kids laugh. They’d tried buying her a cell phone a few years ago, but it was way too confusing, and she couldn’t get the hang of using the one they showed her. Besides, it came with a cord for charging and she knew she’d never remember to keep it charged. She flipped through her little phone book and began dialing her children, one by one. Their phone messages were all on, telling her to leave her number and they would return her call. Sighing in disappointment, she tried her two oldest grandchildren. It was the same thing. Nobody was answering.

Her daughter told her before that it would be better if she got a cell phone and texted. Nobody answered phone calls these days. Her son even showed her how he texted on his own phone. She watched, shocked. Why would somebody want to write all those words? What she wanted was to hear the voice of the person she called. When you heard their voice, you could tell how they were doing, if they were happy or sad, if they needed comfort. No, she would stick to the phone she was used to.

She began combing her hair, dressing in one of her better pairs of black polyester pants purchased from JC Penny’s. Each year, her daughter took her shopping for Christmas and had her pick out a few items of clothing to charge on her card. She scurried around the sales racks, pushing items aside and pulling them away for examination. She checked price tags and only picked the cheapest items on sale. She didn’t want to take advantage.

It was nine o’clock and she planned to take a walk around the park before she caught the bus to east Hollywood, to see her friend, Mrs. Akmajian. She was washing her teacup in the sink when she heard a huge crash and the sound of shattering glass on the other side of the wall. The crash was followed by a moment of silence, and then a shrill scream of pain that ran deep into her spine and made her hands freeze in place in mid-air.

She heard Sean’s voice scream, “Oh my God!”

It occurred to her that she hadn’t seen either of them come out of the apartment for a few days. It didn’t seem that Maureen was going to work either. She stopped drying and started across the room. Something was wrong with Maureen. She was sure of it. The pounding on the door stopped her in her tracks.

“Open up! Open up!  I need to call an ambulance quick.”

Sean was standing outside her door. It took her a moment to recognize him. He seemed even skinner than last time. His skin was pale under his tattoos, and his hair and beard were wild and uncombed, standing away from his head. He was only wearing undershorts that looked like they might have once been white but were now a dirty gray. She stared at his legs, boney and veined, the skin translucent.

“I need to use your phone now. Can’t find mine. Need to call an ambulance.”

She pointed to the alcove where the princess phone rested, staring, her mouth open.

He grabbed the phone, punched in some numbers, and began yelling into the receiver. “Please, I need an ambulance. My girlfriend fell and hit her head. She’s not moving.”

She heard him give the address and listened as he told the person at the other end of the line that Maureen didn’t seem to be breathing. She watched him drop the phone and start back out the door. Without thinking, she followed him. The door to their apartment was jarred open, and the shades were drawn, keeping the room in semi-darkness. She looked around in shock. It looked like someone had turned the apartment upside down and shaken everything before it fell. The television set that used to hang on the wall was lying face down on the floor. The rest of the small living room was covered with half-empty food containers, pizza boxes, and scattered clothes. She could see dirty dishes stacked in the sink of the tiny kitchen and on the counter more used food cartons. A reddish, blood-like liquid had splashed all over the linoleum and the puddle had dried in a sticky film. Beyond the kitchen, the bathroom door hung off its hinges and she could see the floor covered in water and balled-up towels. There was no sheet on the mattress in the corner, and in its center was a small pile of syringes and plastic bags.

And then her eyes started to get accustomed to darkened room and she turned to her right. Huge chunks of glass lie broken and gleaming on the floor below the remaining glass and metal poles that had once held the bookcase shelves. Maureen lay there on the glass, her back to the bookcase, her hands flung behind her, one leg twisted to her side. She wasn’t moving and her eyes were closed. There was a long bloody scratch across the side of her face.

Staring in horror, she backed away from the body. “Oh my god, what happened? She’s not breathing!”

“She fell,” mumbled Sean, holding onto the sides of his head. “That’s all. She fell.”

The woman kept her eyes glued on the body. Somewhere, she had a dim recollection about first aid. You were supposed to do something. What? Breathe, yes, breathe.

“We need to breathe into her mouth to make her breathe,” she told Sean. She’d seen it on television before.

“Just get away from here, you nosy old bitch. I don’t need you here. Go!”

She looked up, her face dropping at the outburst. “What? We need to help her. Her color’s bad.”

“I said get out!” he screamed, moving close to her face.

She looked at him now more carefully. His eyes were red and sunken and the veins in his neck stood out.  His fists were balled up as he stepped toward her. For an instant, she thought he was Juan, returning from the dead, drunk and ready to fight her.

She backed up and turned as two husky Latinos wearing white uniforms with red stitching on the breast pocket ran noisily through the open door carrying black equipment bags. She heard them call out the address and ask who was hurt. Then she turned and ran back to her apartment.

After collapsing into her chair, she sat for the next hour shaken by the thought of Maureen lying there. She was a nice girl. Too nice to be hurt like that. She’d just seen them kissing the other day, or was that a few weeks ago? She couldn’t remember.

The men from the ambulance must have made a call because when she looked out the window again, another vehicle showed up that said “City Coroner” on the side. She watched while they carried a white stretcher up the stairs and then a few minutes later, carried it back down, this time with somebody on the stretcher completely covered with a white sheet.

The police pulled into the driveway about the same time the Coroner’s vehicle was leaving. After talking to the ambulance attendants, two police officers, a short Asian and a taller, light-skinned Black man, banged on her door. They wanted to know what she’d seen. She told them she hadn’t seen anything. They took down her name and phone number anyway and said some detective would be out to talk to her later. She stuck the card they gave her into her pocket and ducked her head. She hadn’t seen what happened to Maureen, she told herself. Sure, she’d heard things coming from that apartment. But why get involved? It was always better to keep your head down and look away.

So many years ago, she’d pounded on a neighbor’s iron security door when they lived in the scattering of broken-down shacks that stood one block over from the industrial area near downtown. She banged on the nearest door two houses over, running from her house at two o’clock in the morning, in her nightgown, blood streaming down her nose, and her dislocated shoulder throbbing as she moved.

“Please, call the police. My husband beat me up. I’m afraid for my kids. Help me, please!”

She could hear the inside door latches snapping open, and the porch light flicked on. A woman peered around the small gap between the door frame. In the background, a television played quietly, and she could see several small children sleeping in their underpants, sprawled on a couch by the door. The woman had wide-set eyes brown eyes and dark skin. Her braid of black hair had come loose, and the wiry strands blew around her face.

Si?” she asked in a heavy accent.

She told the woman again that she was running away, that she was afraid of Juan, of what he could do. Afraid he would hurt her son. She asked her to please call the police as she wiped the blood from her face with the back of her arm.

The woman looked at her and shook her head. “No Senora. No quiero problemas. No molesta a mi.” She slammed the door hard, turning off the porch light.

Mrs. Fonseca clutched her shoulder and staggered to the side of the house bordered by a patch of dry weeds and sunk to her knees, crying.

She always cried, and at first, Juan was always sorry. He held her in his arms and kissed her. He blamed it all on his drinking and said he’d never take another sip. She prayed he would change. But a day or so later, he’d hit her again, or beat one of the kids too hard with his wide belt with the brass buckle. He stopped saying he was sorry, because he wasn’t. He started staying away from home. She and the kids were so glad. When he finally came home to stay, he was in the last stages of cancer. Her children had grown and moved on. He lasted about a month.

Shaking, she closed the door behind the police, desperate to forget how Maureen looked, all twisted up on the floor. She sat rocking herself on the small loveseat until she heard more commotion coming from next door. Cautiously, she pulled a corner of the drapes aside and peered out. More uniformed police were running up the stairs, leaving their cars with the doors open, parked one behind the other in the long driveway. The house shook with their heavy footsteps clomping up the wooden stairs. She heard voices yelling and watched as three police half-dragged, half-carried Sean down the stairs as he tried to grab at the banisters with his hands cuffed in front of him. She watched as the police stationed themselves on either side of him and pushed him headfirst into the first car by the stairs.

She heard one of them call up the stairs, “Lock it up, Fernandez. Nobody’s coming back here.”    

Grabbing her purse, she hurried down the stairs, moving faster than she ever did, barely holding onto the splintery railing. Clutching her purse, she moved quickly, heading up to Sunset where she caught the bus just before it was about to take off from the curb. Out of breath and shaking, she stumbled into a seat up front by the driver. Her heart was hammering, and all she could see was Maureen’s pale purplish face.  She’d seen a few dead people before, back home, and once at a wake held on the top floor of a walk-up in the Bronx where she’d been hired to cook food for the mourners. One side of the family had removed the dead man’s body from the funeral home because they wanted to conduct the service at home, and the police came to arrest them and take the body back.

Her lips moved silently as she prayed to Jesus to protect her and keep her calm. Then she crossed herself and turned to look out the window as the bus bounced along, passing Thai restaurants, taco stands and laundromats. When a grubby-looking man stumbled on, shoeless with tangled hair, carrying several shopping bags of possessions, and sat down next to her, she moved closer to the window and held tighter to her purse. The rank odor coming from the man’s dirty clothes was familiar; she’d smelled it so many times before, passing homeless camps crowded with blue plastic tents in the park and along the sidewalks. You could count on there always being homeless people, and poor people, just like her, she thought. Sometimes it was nice to know what you could count on when everything was changing and going by so fast. Thank God for Mrs. Akmajain!

She tried to keep her eyes closed and not look at the man sitting next to her who was now mumbling to himself, but when she did, she kept seeing Maureen’s purple face. The bus made a wide turn onto Sunset and picked up speed. Within a few minutes they were across the street from Mrs. Akmajian’s apartment building. She stepped off gratefully, her legs still shaking.

Ringing the buzzer by the mailbox, she waited for her friend to answer. Mrs. Akmajian spoke very little English, and Mrs. Fonseca didn’t speak Armenian, but they still spoke to each other with a combination of gestures and grunts, vowels and syllables that substituted for the language they did not share. Over time, they each tried to teach the other the words for things they wanted to talk about, but neither one was good at remembering the new word for more than a few minutes, so they never quite managed to exchange vocabulary.

Mrs. Fonseca was so glad to see her friend come down the stairs that she hugged her extra hard, noticing that she looked sad.  “What’s wrong?” she asked over and over. “You have problems? Maybe with your son?”

Mrs. Akmajian just shook her head and chewed on her lower lip. She didn’t understand. They started out on their usual walk, but she didn’t seem interested in the things that usually made them point and stare: the few hookers in high platforms strolling up to the cars, the man with dozens of watches for sale hanging in the lining of his heavy trench overcoat billowing around his ankles, the teenagers with spiked mohawks dyed aqua and purple, with piercings through their lips and cheeks, or the women with their faces and chests covered with bold tattoos of birds with spread wings and evil looking serpents that circled their necks, tattooed in reds and greens. They stopped for their usual lunch at McDonald’s, but Mrs. Akmajian barely touched her Value Meal, and Mrs. Fonseca found she wasn’t that hungry for the treat herself.

Shaking her head, she looked at her friend and wondered what was wrong.  She wasn’t enjoying herself much either, she wondered what was going to happen to Sean now, and did she really see them carry Maureen’s body down the stairs or was it all something she imagined.  Sean was such a nice guy she thought. Why did he change? Why did Juan change? He’d choked her once until she almost passed out. The kids saw it too. They were too scared to do anything, but then so was she.

When the bus stopped across from the tall apartment building, Mrs. Akmajian’s son was parked in front, waiting in his black E-Class Mercedes. Mrs. Fonseca knew the car was expensive because her son Carlos had once given her a ride here and talked to her friend’s son. He came away saying that the family had a lot of money they made in something called “import and export,” and wishing he made enough money operating a forklift to buy a car like that.

Mrs. Akmajian’s son stepped out of his car holding his cell phone to his ear. “Just hang on, okay?  I’ll just be a minute. Don’t hang up.” He turned to Mrs. Fonseca. “Look, I just waited to tell you, I’m moving my mom to San Diego in a few days, so you won’t be seeing her here after today.”

Mrs. Fonseca stared, not believing what she heard. “What did you say?”

“I said, we’re moving to San Diego. I’m opening another warehouse down there. We’re having my mom move with us. She fell in the shower a couple of days ago and couldn’t get hold of me. It’s just too far away. Anyway, I don’t think she should be living alone anymore.”

“But she likes it here,” Mrs. Fonseca stammered. What was she going to do without her friend?

“I know,” her son told her, “but it’s for the better. I mean, she doesn’t even speak English. I don’t know how you even talk to her.”

Mrs. Fonseca felt tears start to fill her eyes. “Can I have the phone number there?”

“Sure. Don’t know why you’d want it. She can’t talk to you.”

“Yes, I want it. We manage.”

The son shrugged. “Well, I know my mom has your number. I’ll call you and give you our new number at the house.” He turned away and started talking to his phone again. “Hello, sorry. Just some nuisance business to take care of.”

The tears rolled down Mrs. Fonseca’s cheeks, and she hugged her friend tight. Mrs. Akmajian was sobbing and shaking her head. They stood there together rocking back and forth, knowing they probably wouldn’t see each other again. They wouldn’t be talking in their own made-up way anymore.

“Well, I’ve got to go,” her son told Mrs. Fonseca.  “I’m taking her back to my house. My wife’s coming down tomorrow to pack up her things. Time’s up for the afternoon, I’ve got to get back to work.”

Mrs. Fonseca stepped back and wiped her eyes. In the end, time was always the boss. She kept her head down all the way home, feeling sick to her stomach, and thinking about everything that happened since she woke up this morning. Maureen, the nice white girl who lived next door, was dead it seemed, and Sean, who seemed so sweet, had done something wrong, and just as she knew this, so did the police, or they wouldn’t have taken him away. She shivered, knowing their living room was really a crime scene. And now, her only real friend was moving away.

Her mind ran through a procession of the long days to come. Days when she would always be alone.  Nobody to talk to, nobody asking how she was. No Saturdays to look forward to when she knew she would see her friend. Days where she was in bed by seven o’clock, her dinner eaten an hour earlier. Long days with nothing much to do. Might as well end that kind of day early. The sleeping pills helped.

Stepping off the bus, she started down the block, surprised to see the mail carrier still out delivering. She walked to the rear of the front house and he stopped in front of her, handing her a white envelope with blue lettering. She recognized her electric bill.

He pushed the floppy canvas safari hat he wore back from his forehead. “Had a late start today, and this whole block was closed off, anyhow. Heard somebody got killed up there.” He gestured toward the garage apartment on the left.

The sadness started leaking out of her eyes. She was going to miss her young neighbors, too. They were always so full of life. Just listening to them was more entertaining than television. She stumbled up the stairs and closed the door behind her. The stillness pressed in, filling the small room and reminding her that she was going to be spending the rest of her years here. Her kids said it looked like she was going to live a long time, and it would be some time before she’d end up in a home. She needed to talk to one of them now, better if it was one of her daughters. They’d understand how she felt and maybe they’d decide to come down and visit her.

Feeling a little brighter, she checked her pocket phone book and started dialing. First, she dialed her oldest daughter. The call went straight to the message. Still not sure how to leave her message, she yelled into the phone, and then dialed her other two daughters. They didn’t answer either. Well, maybe Carlos then. He might yell at her about calling during work hours, but at least she’d hear his voice. Feeling more confident, she dialed his number. Nobody answered, and the phone rang and rang. She waited for the message to come on, but it never did. He must have forgotten to set it. She hung up feeling worse and tottered over to the kitchen counter on arthritic legs. With shaking hands, she poured out a couple of sleeping pills. She’d finish the day early. Maybe it would be better tomorrow.

God, she missed her children, not these adults who were really strangers, always all business, making you talk to phones instead of talking to a real person. Strangers who didn’t even care enough to call her and say hello. They weren’t really the children she remembered. She missed the little children who stood by the sink patiently in their new shoes from Discount Shoe Mart while she combed their hair and held her hand tight on the first day of school.

She carried her pills and a glass of water over to the couch, turned on the television and stared at the two people reporting the news. All of it bad. But she didn’t care. She couldn’t help those little refugee children or cool off the earth or keep the police from shooting more Black men. She wasn’t even able to help Maureen. Maureen, with her fiery hair, and her tattoos of angels, devils, and flowers that covered her chest and arms. Poor Maureen. She was some mother’s baby daughter. Whoever her mother was, whenever she found out, she would feel the kind of pain that never stops.

She pictured Maureen’s face again, bloody and purple. The world was a horrible place, full of men like Sean, and women like her and Maureen. She was like Maureen, she thought. The only difference was that Juan and his wandering eyes left, or she might have ended up in the same place, on a stretcher going to the morgue.

She wondered if Maureen ever thought it was all her fault. She’d thought like that at first herself. She wished she’d talked to Maureen before. She could have told her about how it was with Juan, told her that Sean wouldn’t change, no matter what she did to please him, and that she needed to leave, not to be afraid, life would go on without him.

She sat there thinking how nobody was there to help Maureen when all the time, she was suspicious. No, more than suspicious; she knew but never said anything. She felt ashamed. All the time being lonely and miserable, useless, with no real purpose anymore, and nobody to talk to. She could have helped. She saw that now. Maureen needed somebody to stand up for her, to make sure there was justice. Sean was not the one.

There was still time, if not in life, then in death. She dug into her wallet and pulled out the card the police left her. She wouldn’t wait until the detective called her. She would call him and tell him what she heard through the thin plaster walls and what she saw. And after that, she would find more women like Maureen who needed her help. She took the sleeping pills in her hand and poured them back into the bottle. She didn’t feel like going to sleep this early tonight.


The stories in Francine Rodriguez’s collection, such as Mrs. Fonseca, are written about women from various walks of life, and at differing stages of their lives. She chose to focus her writing on the lives of a handful of Latina women living emotionally precarious lives on the edges of society, whose voices and stories are under-represented in women’s literature. She honed her creative writing skills writing appellate briefs for many years, where it was required that you spin broken flax into gold. She also spent some time studying writing with the author John Rechy and found that she, too, could identify with the themes of Los Angeles’s neighborhoods. During her course of study, she developed a process to put her feelings and obsessions with this area and some of its inhabitants into words with a fresh perspective. You can find her at francinerodriguezauthor.com.

Toffeehouse – L.N. Loch

Toffeehouse – L.N. Loch

This short story of Loch’s was one of our personal favorites this issue. All you’ve got to do is read it to understand. Enjoy.

Toffeehouse

Our neighbors’ house burned down on a black November evening. I’m not sure what it was that pulled me from sleep, if it was the shouting outside, the choking stench of incinerated fabric and wire, or the screeching harmony of every fire alarm in our house erupting at once, rattling the windowpanes with their terror. Whatever it was, it wasn’t enough to rouse Giles, and I had to shake him awake before we grabbed Francis from his cradle and evacuated. By morning, the house was reduced to a sooty rectangle of rubble, and though ours still stood, the side that faced the disaster was marked by black scorch marks, creeping up the wall like rot. 

We never got around to painting over it, just as no one ever got around to rebuilding anything on the property. The lot remained vacant, a new kind of fire hazard in itself, growing into a tangle of underbrush and saplings that, as Francis grew and Abby was born, became an untidy, private forest preserve. I didn’t tell the kids to stay away from it until the summer Francis got sprayed by a mother skunk, and the stench of vinegar and tomato juice in the back of my throat lingered long enough to remind me to. Since then, I watched it through the kitchen window before leaving for the office, gazing at the deer and foxes that stayed past the sunrise. Giles and I thought little of it, and my friend, Elizabeth Robertson, one half of a barren couple who lived across the street, speculated over tea that the empty lot was actually a net positive since the foliage shielded us from our neighbors on that side. Unfortunately, it did nothing to guard us against the Robertsons, whose recent venture would catalyze the unkempt lot’s eventual taming. 

Abby had just started the seventh grade when they began stringing up chicken-wire at the side of their house in a fragile, mesh cage. When I asked Elizabeth what had inspired her and her husband to open a peacock farm, she simply shrugged and said they had gotten the idea from a magazine. Though this was baffling to me, I offered her no comment at the time, only quietly turned my morning gaze from the vacant lot to the one across the street. The squawking began to wake both Giles and me long before our alarms could, meaning that for the first time, we rose concurrently. The bubble of time I’d once had to myself, before departing on my lengthier commute, was punctured. He joined me in taking his tea by the front window and I, not knowing what to do with the extra body next to me, returned to my original post as watcher of the empty lot, missing, somewhat, the flashing of the birds’ bejeweled feathers in the sun as I stared out at the sooty mess. 

“What do you think is the real reason?” Giles asked one night at dinner. 

“I don’t know,” I said, because I didn’t. I hadn’t thought much on it, aside from how irritated I was with all the noise the birds made. 

“I think,” Giles said, “they eat them.” 

The children and I stared at him, our boxed potatoes thick in our mouths. This was more than any of us ever spoke at the table. 

“They’ve only ever accepted the best,” he continued, “and it works. No one puts in the effort in this house.” 

He was probably right. We weren’t eating peacock. 

“I mean, hell, we can do that.” Giles stopped eating, and he looked down at his food, his fists tightening around his knife and fork. “We can do that.” 

He excused himself and put his plate in the sink, and the kids and I finished our meal in silence. 

*** 

I braced myself for the announcement that we would be starting a peacock farm. Discreetly, I snuck some earplugs into my bedside table, though their rubber made my ears swollen and inflamed after a few uses, and I decided which side of our house I would not mind sacrificing to a fate of gravel, bird shit, and chicken-wire. However, all of this was in vain, as the only change to follow Giles’s mysterious dinnertime sermon was a sudden dominance in the kitchen. Cookbooks began to appear around the house, and our cupboards filled with confounding ingredients like gelatin and cake flour and cream of tartar. Dinner was still my domain, but Giles supplemented this with tantalizing desserts that always dwarfed the main course, enchanting the children with carefully constructed cream puffs and crème brûlée. 

It all left the kitchen a mess, but usually I was cleaning things as I cooked dinner anyway, and I didn’t complain when he danced around me with hot trays of this and that as long as I had oven space to finish the casserole or meatloaf. This lasted through the oncoming autumn and winter, and though we didn’t entertain for Thanksgiving or Christmas, our fridge was full enough of leftovers that it appeared we had. 

“We may not have the best house on the block,” he said one night, as the children scarfed down second helpings of organic berry cobbler, “but at least we can enjoy the simple pleasure of food.” 

I couldn’t argue with that. He’d become an amazing cook, and the kids and I had gotten into the habit of expecting an elaborate dessert to follow every meal. Double chocolate soufflé with candied orange peels became such a regularity that I was struck one day with the realization that Giles was not sinking into the new routine like I was. The more he cooked, the more time he spent looking out the windows. Not only at the Robertsons and their flock of strutting peacocks, but also at the open lot, a presence I had nearly forgotten. 

One summer evening before bed, Giles and I watched a 40-minute cooking competition on the food channel. It was a rerun of a Christmas episode where the contestants were tasked with creating spectacular gingerbread houses large enough for children to play in, and while I absorbed the clock’s decreasing numbers and the judges’ resolute faces, I glanced over at Giles once to see his eyes were bright and wide, the television’s images playing back in them like a vividly recollected dream. 

The next morning, he was not in the bed, and a bright red woodchipper was situated at the front of the vacant lot, consuming the saplings being tossed into it by workers in neon vests with a deafening roar. Giles directed them with a knobby finger. I didn’t ask him about it at dinner that night, as the manic energy with which he consumed his chicken breast made me aware of myself in a way I wasn’t fond of. 

“They’ve finally cleared that vacant lot,” was all I said. 

He confirmed that they had, and I got the sense from his voice that his mind was miles away. So, after a few minutes of bearing the dinnertime silence, I questioned our son about his college plans. Francis’s ensuing manifesto was more detailed than any personal statement I’d ever written, and it spanned the rest of the meal. His declarations of his superior work ethic and his promises to make something of himself rang off the glass bowl of Hamburger Helper cooling to room temperature next to the stove. 

Within a week, the only evidence that remained of the house fire were the scorch marks on our siding. I got up one morning and migrated to the window with my tea only to be struck with the view of our neighbors’ house, which I hadn’t seen for years. I passed the summer in the kind of bleary, cranky headspace that comes after one is awakened from a nap, driving Francis to repeated ACT tests and Abby to sleepover parties. Giles ceased production of desserts as well, which made the dinners I produced seem even more inadequate than before. Suddenly, he was too busy to cook, or even to eat. Busy with what, I didn’t know. He would sit down to a meal with us, take a bite, and then dash off to make a “quick” phone call that never ended until we’d all left the table.  

I knew he was planning something, from the large sheets of paper that billowed like white sails when he moved them around the house, and the irregular tap, tap, tap of calculator keys that always arose when I least needed it, but I never asked what. Instead, I did my own planning, stewing in my indignance that he didn’t enlighten me as to what he was doing, and composing in a hundred ways what I would say when it all came to light. 

Clarity came with the first frost. I awoke to the sound of construction equipment, and when I went to the window, there was a crowd of workers surrounding a house-shaped hole in the ground. Foundation was already flowing, slow as molasses, down into the form, and its bright white reflected that of the late September sky. 

I rushed outside but could think of nothing to say. After walking past me a few times, Giles finally caught my eye and grinned. 

“Wait until you see it.” 

He didn’t explain further, and I watched the buzz for several minutes, shivering in my robe and slippers and wondering why it smelled like a carnival. When I finally came to my senses and went back inside, it was already far later than Giles left each day for his supposed commute, but he seemed blissfully unaware, and I, irritated and hurried, left without alerting him to the time.  

That first week, Elizabeth commented that she didn’t know how we did it and looked to me expectantly, opening the opportunity for me to say I had no part in it, that this was Giles’s crazy project. But I thought of her and her husband eating their peacocks, and I nodded silently, as if to say, Yes, I know, it’s incredible what we do. 

The neighbors from the other side of us told Giles they were happy someone was finally doing something with the lot. From what people were saying, it seemed like the old owners had been desperate to get rid of it and had sold their former land to him for an absurdly small fee. How much this “fee” was, I don’t know, and I couldn’t ask, but the fact that I noticed no change in our bank account beyond the tens place was enough of an answer for me.  

No matter how small the sum had been, Giles was happy to receive the praise for paying it, as well as the praise for assuaging the neighbors’ worries about wild animals. Ironically, whatever new thing he was building attracted far more animals than the initial woods did, and instead of seeing an occasional deer or fox when I looked out the window in the morning, I sighted entire herds of deer, murders of crows, and even, once, a great black bear. After the last, a barbed-wire fence as tall as our house was erected around the lot, which made me feel safer, if a little bit sad. 

I didn’t find out what he was actually building until a local news crew gave him an interview, which I watched while on my lunch break at work. It was titled, “Meet the Man Building an Edible House.” 

“What motivated you to do this?” a reporter with limp, caramel curls asked. 

“I just wanted to show people that you can do anything you put your mind to,” Giles responded. “I’ve always loved sweets and candy, and so do other people, so I thought this would be a good way to make a point while also making people happy.” 

It was around this time I found out he had stopped showing up to work. I’d stayed home to treat Abby for a fever, and when I turned to look out the window while a mug of tea was in the microwave, was thunderstruck to find him right where he always was before I left: directing the workers. I initially pretended I didn’t notice, but ultimately confronted him about it on a rainy day in mid-October, when he was involved in the frantic erection of a gigantic tent around the already-melting foundation that had taken weeks to get in place. 

“How will we afford this?” I asked, when what I meant was, How will we afford our actual mortgage? 

He reassured me that it would be fine, that his job had been planning to lay him off anyway. 

“Francis is going to college soon,” I said. 

“Nothing wrong with in-state.” 

Though his responses held such an easy confidence I nearly believed in them, it was the reactions of people around me which ultimately enabled me to turn my dislike towards the project into indifference. Our street became a constant parade of cars, parents leaning out the window with rubbernecking children in the backseat, pointing as they cruised by. On occasion, Giles walked over to talk to them, and the families parked on the curb, their faces bright with interest. It was a rare day that I pulled into the driveway after work without being questioned as to what was happening next door. People seemed to see the white tent and assume someone was getting married. I didn’t mind correcting them. 

Reactions were not universally positive, however. Halloween brought a special kind of disenchantment, as I watched crowds of trick-or-treaters trot down the block, plastic jack-o-lanterns bouncing against their pudgy legs, and subsequently watched their faces fall when their gazes landed on the bare foundation and sugarcane scaffolding that made up the house so far. I received little thanks for the Jolly Ranchers I handed them from the same bag I’d been using for three years. None of them, however, were as disappointed as Abby, who had somehow gotten the notion that the toffeehouse’s existence predicted she would harvest more candy this year.  

When I questioned her about why she thought this, she only told me she wanted it. The candy, that is. 

*** 

“Whatever you need, I’ll get it to you.” 

I heard the hearty clap of a hand on Giles’ back and walked into the kitchen to see Paris, the owner of a local family bakeshop she had worked at since I was in high school. She was a dignified woman with short, dark hair and a deep voice, and before I’d met Giles, I’d bought countless overpriced croissants from her during my lunch breaks. 

Against my best efforts, she caught my eye and offered a politician’s smile. 

“Katherine, your husband’s paying my mortgage!” 

Seeing her brought every pastry I’d ever bought from her, and the coy conversations they’d come with, racing back to me. I strapped stones to their feet and drowned them. 

*** 

Paris was not my husband’s only new best friend. As soon as she got involved with the project, it seemed every bakery, candy manufacturer, and sugar factory within a thirty-minute drive was clamoring for our business. Some of them pitched themselves to me as well as Giles, saying things like, “We here at Snow Puff Pastries operate by the same mission of perseverance and dedication that your project represents” and “Hi, I’m the owner of Carolyn’s Cakes, and I just want to say how inspiring I find what you’re doing.” These appeals didn’t affect me as much as they did Francis, in whom they brought out a rage I had never before witnessed. 

“Shut the fuck up,” he told one of them, right to her face. I peered down the stairwell in time to see her rearrange her initial shock into a smile. 

“Francis!” I said. “Apologize to her.” 

He whirled on me. “These people don’t actually give a fuck about Dad’s stupid project, only their own agenda.” 

Of course, I knew this, but I appreciated the extra congratulatory words and friendly smiles their soliciting brought to my day. 

“Apologize.” 

“Ma’am, I caught word of what you’re being charged for sugar, and I just want to offer —” 

I made my way down the stairs, told her thank you, we’d consider, and explained that Francis was applying for college and very stressed. She wished him luck. 

Day by day, it got colder, and production intensified. Such a spectacle was never seen in our little Michigan town; it even seemed to dwarf the Thanksgiving county carnival, which was usually the biggest event in November. I was worried about the wind blowing the house over, with the way it bent the tent poles to its will, beating the plasticky fabric so relentlessly that its whip-like cracks never seemed to leave my ears, but I needn’t have. The higher the walls were built, the more imposing the actual building appeared. Giles and Paris, it seemed, had done their research. 

The house taking shape before my eyes was a saccharine mirror of the one I’d raised my children in, and I could already envision where Abby’s room, the living room, the upstairs bathroom would be. Its foundation was made of a thick, sugary cement, the precise ingredients of which I was unaware. Rather than being constructed out of sheets of sweets, like a boxed gingerbread house, the walls were made of massive cinderblocks of solid toffee mortared together by more of the sugary mixture. Every piece of it was edible, and even the plumbing was made of hollow rods of sugarcane. The tiles were hard candy, the insulation a mixture of popcorn and marshmallow. The windows, which were the interior’s source of light, were the only discernible flaw. These were made from poured isomalt, and though they were clearer than blown sugar, they were still not ideal for looking out of. Their imperfection was anachronistic, calling to mind the clumsy glass of centuries past, yellowed and translucent, which the Puritans would have watched their neighbors through. 

I checked our bank account, and it remained shockingly stable, so I wasn’t sure where Giles was getting the money to pay for the elaborate construction, but it didn’t particularly matter to me, as long as I had money to go about my life as usual. As it turned out, money was not what prevented me from doing this. 

The fear of running into Paris, who was always around when I least needed her to be, coupled with the constant noise and the kids’ near-constant irritability drove me to spend less and less time around the house, even on weekdays. I wound up making a habit of heading across the street after work, where I watched Elizabeth tend to her precious flock. Curiously, she avoided the topic of the construction whenever we talked now, and I was just gathering up the courage to bring it up myself when she finally mentioned it. 

“The house is coming along nicely.” 

“Thank you. I’m excited to be able to tell people I own two houses.” 

She looked at me, her hands full of feed. “And that one of them is made of candy?” 

“Giles has such ambition, and you know, it really makes people happy.” 

“His ambition makes people happy?” She threw some food to the birds and watched them rush in to peck away at it. 

“What?” 

She brushed the remaining feed off her hands, and then put her hands on her hips. “Nothing. It just seems a little wasteful to me. What will you do when summer comes?” 

I told her Giles was planning on air-conditioning the tent, though the truth was that the question hit me like a punch to the gut, as I had no idea what he was planning on doing upon the dawn of the warmer months. The next time he was present for dinner, I asked him about it. 

“It doesn’t get that hot up here,” he said. “And besides, we’ll install a cooling system in the tent.” 

I frowned. “What about insects?” 

“It won’t be that bad.” 

I imagined Francis scoffing at that. He wasn’t at dinner that night because he was taking the ACT again. A strange resentment for Elizabeth and her peacocks quickened in my breast that night, and I clung to Giles’s words to soothe it. They didn’t want to put forth the effort, they were jealous that we had more going on, that we’d overshadowed their stupid peacock farm, and that was why Elizabeth wasn’t supportive. I tapered my visits to her house from then on, and the more time that passed between them, the more certain I became of her bad intentions. By December, her house was no longer a refuge from the turmoil next door, and every time one of her peacocks’ squawks sounded over the roar of the construction equipment, it strung cold dread through every muscle in my body. 

*** 

Christmas was a melancholy affair which found me in a surprisingly similar mental state to Abby. I tried so hard to enjoy the toffeehouse that I became even more miserable when I couldn’t. We hardly put any lights up, and we were still the most trafficked house on the block. Everyone wanted to show their children Giles’s nearly completed concoction, its pastillage shingles dusted with snow like Paris’s pastries were dusted with powdered sugar. She sent a bright red envelope in the mail a week before the holiday, but rather than open it, I panicked and shoved it to the back of a drawer, spending a good ten minutes trying to calm my heartbeat and convincing myself that I was ill. 

Giles was the only one of us in truly high spirits for the holiday. I was preoccupied with Paris, Francis was exhausted from finishing his college applications, and Abby was grumpy because of the amount of Daddy’s attention the toffeehouse was robbing her of. When I attempted to reassure her, she said something along the lines of, “He doesn’t love me, only that stupid house,” which I was certain she’d picked up from a movie somewhere. 

Just in case she was serious, I commented on it when Giles and I were lying in bed after putting Santa’s presents under the tree. He turned to face me. 

“You’re serious?” 

I told him I was, though the way he asked it made me second-guess myself. When he rolled his eyes, I felt even more foolish. 

“Kath, this house is every kid’s dream. She’s gonna look back on this someday and feel so blessed.” 

“How do you know that?” 

“Think about it. She has something no one else has. Everything edible,” he leaned in close, and the feminine smell of vanilla sugar filled my nose, “including you.” 

That was the end of that conversation. I was never a fan of cunnilingus, but I understood Giles was being generous because of the holiday, so I did my best to enjoy it, though all I could think about was the red envelope Paris had sent me in the mail and, it follows, Paris herself. I fell asleep to a silent stream of self-flagellation. 

*** 

Winter dragged, and more forebodingly thin envelopes arrived in the mail from the admissions committees. With each one, Francis grew quieter, until he became another silent audience member for Giles’s dinnertime lectures. I was grateful for the break from his righteous outbursts, though I feared him not going off to college would mean listening to them for longer. 

By February, the detailing was the only thing preventing the house from being finished, and Giles sat us down for a family meeting. 

“I want us to live by what this house stands for,” he said, referring to the one next door. “What do we all think of moving?” 

Abby started to cry because her room here was pink, and she didn’t want to live in a room that wasn’t. She calmed slightly when Giles informed her all the toffeehouse’s interior walls would be colored with edible paint, and that hers could be pink if she liked. 

In spite of his recent silence, I was appalled that Francis had nothing to say to Giles’s outrageous proposal and spoke up myself. 

“You can’t be serious.” 

“We’ll only take what’s most important to us, to keep the authenticity of the thing. We want most of it to be completely edible.” 

“What about the kids’ electronics? How will I cook?” I had a sneaking sense that my family was being turned into a roadside circus act, but Giles was already getting up. I whirled on Francis. 

“Say something!” I hissed. 

He looked at me with empty grey eyes and followed his father. 

*** 

Francis started talking again when he started helping Giles with the toffeehouse. I never saw him working, only his silhouette behind the tent’s white expanse and the crisscrossing pattern of the barbed wire fence. Because most of the heavy construction was finished, I didn’t hear the noise of power tools or workers, either. Most of them had gone home.  

The extent of what I heard were his exchanges with Giles, in which he was ordered to do something and he affirmed he would do it. This simple obedience seemed to vastly improve his temperament, though it soured mine; my only possible remaining compatriot was an eight-year-old. To make matters worse, the fresh silence reopened itself to the chatter of the peacocks, which had me thinking of Elizabeth day in and day out. 

With Francis always helping Giles, the house, our real house, began to fall into a state of disrepair. He’d spent so much time at home while he was writing his applications that he’d wound up taking on most of the chores, and as such, dishes had always been his domain. Now, in his absence, a monolithic, stinking pile of them began to grow in the sink, which I resolved not to touch when the first plate settled. I had spent my entire childhood doing dishes for the family, so I shouldn’t have to do them now. I thought of asking Abby to do her part, but I was so offended at the fact that I might have to do so that it never happened, and our sink became a landfill of glass and old foodstuffs. Things fell out of order and were never set right, clouds of dust, hair, and crumbs formed in the corners, carpets went unvacuumed, smells remained uninvestigated, and lightbulbs went out, plunging rooms into scattered darkness until our real house was just as unlit as the one made of candy. 

Maybe I would have considered Giles’s proposition of moving if I hadn’t found his newfound self-satisfaction so damn repulsive. After all, even Abby was starting to warm to the toffeehouse, now that its existence was more about candy than construction. Francis had already taken most of his belongings to Goodwill, having selected his few precious necessities that would follow into his next life in his sweetest of residencies, a toffee-flavored tomb. Abby brought a group of friends I hadn’t seen before to take one of the five-dollar tours Giles had begun giving, and instead of bringing them back to her room afterwards, she sent them on their way without setting foot within its pink walls. Maybe because the new one had already been painted. 

I began to wonder if something was wrong with me. Was my life worth less, because I didn’t have dreams? Because I didn’t want to “go places?” Was it not my right to live modestly, to not do anything before I died, to suppress every outlandish urge my foul mind could drive me towards which would require me to step outside routine? How utterly repulsive, to question the way things were. Giles had corrupted my children, filled their minds with the idea that what I could provide them with wasn’t good enough, turned them against me to fuel his own ego, and I hated him for it. I hated the Robertsons and their peacocks, and I especially, deeply, hated Paris. 

The first spring floods were coming in when I saw her next. We were on high ground, so I wasn’t overly concerned about Giles’s project washing away, but on the weekends, I still wandered over to the window now and again to check and see if it was there. Only its shadow was visible behind the translucent walls of the tent, and my heart lurched several times when I convinced myself that this was only an illusion, and the toffeehouse was, in fact, gone. After each fit passed, I wandered away into the darkened house and waited for my thumping, irritable heart to slow before the urge for stimulation drew me back to the window again. 

On a quiet Saturday in May, I stopped by the window yet again only to find that my temporary absence had provided enough time for a car to pull up without my knowledge. Paris had parked her Toyota on the muddy curb, and now stood in front of Giles’s project in apparent contemplation. 

I stormed away into the depths of the house, half-enraged and half-terrified. What business did she think she had, showing up here? She was probably just there to gloat, to see her new best friend, my husband. Her best customer. 

When I wandered back to the window, she hadn’t moved. I strained my ears, but couldn’t hear Giles and Francis, or anyone for that matter. There was only the whistling of the wind, restless and threatening rain. 

I would feel so stupid, if I went out there only to find that Giles, and Francis, and God knows who else were out there, and it had simply been too loud to hear them. That would make me feel foolish. I couldn’t bear them watching me talk to Paris. Yes, I wouldn’t go out to see her. 

I was content with this plan until I remembered the old red envelope from last Christmas, sitting at the back of my drawer. Staying inside and not having the satisfaction of going out and handing it to her trumped my fear of being seen, and I found myself stepping out into the wind, my shawl billowing out behind me like a cloak. Across the street, the peacocks fretted, their tails ruffled by the oncoming storm. 

She noticed me just a moment too late for my comfort, and I felt unimportant as I handed her back the forbidden envelope. 

“What’s this?” she asked, a corner of her mouth twitching upwards. She looked so young and alive. Speaking to her made me feel like a rotting corpse. 

“Something of yours.” 

She stared at the envelope for a moment, and I clarified, “You sent it for Christmas.” 

Taking out a small knife, she slit the envelope open and retrieved a glossy photograph. In it, she was smiling next to a woman with glasses, a blue-eyed husky between them. 

“My girlfriend did Christmas cards.” 

Did. Past tense because Christmas was months ago, or because the girlfriend was no longer around? The toffeehouse loomed above us, its tent whipping around it in the warm, spring wind. It looked more like a jailhouse than a home of any kind, with no light behind its sugared windows. Its mortar, once the pure white of sugar, was now greyish with grit, and I imagined it would repulse any tongue it touched. I wondered if Giles and Francis had set up the cooling system yet. It didn’t look like it. 

“It’s impressive, what Giles has accomplished,” I said. 

Her gaze was heavy. 

“There’s nothing impressive about it.” 

I didn’t feel vindicated, hearing it. Only sick. I looked at her. 

“Pardon?” 

“Well,” she said, “anyone with money can pay workers to build something for them.” 

“Giles designed it himself.” 

“And look how it turned out.” 

I snorted. Its cast sugar gutters were more functional than ours, and that was saying something, considering they’d melt at the first touch of water.  

“I’m sorry the architecture isn’t up to your standards.” 

“My standards don’t matter.” She appeared to struggle for a moment, then continued, “I never saw you out there during construction. Did you and Giles even talk about what you want in all this?” 

“I’ve never wanted anything,” I said. 

*** 

I checked our joint bank balance again, but as always, it was like nothing outside of our usual expenses had occurred. Though it was on my mind, I refused to actively consider whether Paris was closer to Giles than I’d thought, and was somehow eating the expenses. When Giles finally returned home at the end of the day, the rain was coming down in sheets, and he immediately engaged Francis in discussing a wedding ceremony that was to take place at the toffeehouse in a few months. I interrupted them. 

“Can we talk?” 

Abby seemed to sense my tone and darted off to her room while Francis stalked away to the basement. Giles, meanwhile, positioned himself as a soldier awaiting orders, adopting an easy, wide stance and a blank stare. 

“Where did all this money come from?” 

“Money?” 

“How did you pay for this house to get built?” 

“Kath, it’s making us a ton of money —” 

“I’m not seeing any changes in our bank account.” 

“Then what are you complaining about?” 

“I’m complaining because I don’t know what I’ve sacrificed to —” 

“It was mine.” 

Francis had reappeared. 

“What?” I asked. 

“I didn’t get into college, so we used that.” 

We. Like it was as much his idea as Giles’s. I turned to my husband. 

“How could you let him do this?” 

“Oh, for God’s sake,” Francis continued. “Not everyone wants something big from life. I don’t want to go to college and be a physicist. I just want to live simply. Is that too much to ask?” 

A great crack from outside plunged all three of us into silence. 

“No.” The look of terror on Giles’s face robbed him of all the borrowed youth the project had offered him, and for a brief second, I watched Francis’s suppressed rage rekindle and sputter behind his eyes. 

I followed them out into the storm in time to see the tent’s white mass lift into the sky like a great, prehistoric bird taking flight. Giles and Francis shouted in tandem, racing to their masterpiece. The rain made the trek next door into an odyssey, and it seemed like I followed the sounds of their anguish for minutes, a nervous Abby at my tail. 

Mortar melted in great streams of sugary white, mingling with the mud as it ran down from the house’s foundation to my feet. Shingles morphed, windows dissolved, and I watched from behind my husband and son as the rain poured on, the springtime air sticky sweet with mist and toffee. Giles fell to his knees, and Francis roared. After a few more moments of silent watching, I left them to the downfall, and returned to the house with Abby, whom I asked if she would like to go to the bakery. 


L.N. Loch is a 22-year-old student and writer. She adores reading and storytelling of most kinds, but especially draws inspiration for her fiction from the dustier corners of literary canon. She lives in the Midwestern United States.

Mistress of Winter – Brynn Lietuvnikas

Mistress of Winter – Brynn Lietuvnikas

Mistress of Winter

A woman watched from outside as young Eleeza was quietly sleeping in the corner of her little brother’s room. In the serene night, her brother’s crib rocked gently. She was completely ignorant of the subtle threat on the way. The only sign was the chill that caused a little shiver from the sleeping girl, but alas, it went unnoticed… 

For on this Christmas night, there was another person: the woman at the window, whose name was Meracki. She was not like Eleeza, who was dreaming in joy with the anticipation of gifts and happiness glowing around her. Meracki also wasn’t half as serene as the little child. 

No, she had not been as peaceful as the girl was on this night for many, many moons. This woman felt no change coming, no promise of rescue from this state that had plagued her for an eternity. 

That knowledge she loathed. She loathed it all, especially this time of year, for it was this season years ago that her last chance of happiness dropped from her… dead. She had lost her baby so many winters ago… 

During her early pregnancy, she had been so full of joy, so full of the anticipation that came with this time of year, that came with Christmas. But the night she was forced to gaze upon the son that was to make these feelings eternal… It was too early… And now it was too late… 

Ever since, she had been full of bitterness and regret. Now, she was as cold as the winter nights she ruled.  

Whilst she hated this season, she could also relate perfectly to it. She felt a kinship with the Earth at this time of year. The Earth and her barrenness; her happiness buried under snow. Meracki felt for the planet like she would feel for a sister, but every year, this sister betrayed her. 

Every year brought its Spring, its new birth, its new life. The planet would regain her fertility, her joy. She gained everything Meracki would never have again. 

So the mistress of winter learned not to trust this season or its guise of sisterhood. She could not trust her sister Earth. She could not trust the winter she served. She could not trust hope. 

That is why she looked through the window into Eleeza’s little brother’s room and felt so stupid. She thought she had been done. She thought she had been finished. She was not. 

For how could she be done when that awful surge of jealousy came, for the mother that could have that baby boy? For how could she be finished when the question came, the question she had asked so many times it was almost too painful to think, the question of, Why can’t I have a son? 

Tears also came: wet, hot things that boiled from her eyes, but like everything that came from the mistress of winter, they turned icy, cold… and dead. 

She became overwhelmed with anguish. The icy desire for a son cut daggers into her breasts. 

Then a thought came to Meracki, a thought that made her heartbeat speed. It caused her breathing to come in rapid bursts, which made her look as though she was exhaling smoke because of the cold. 

What if she made this baby boy her son? 

This uncontrollable urge filled her until she was so full of joy, so full of anticipation, that she had to act upon it. For this was Christmas! This baby boy would be her gift! 

Her sharp nails, now talons, scratched against the glass of the window. A horrible screeching sound accompanied it, but it did not bother the soon-to-be-mother. It did, however, disturb the young Eleeza from her slumber. 

The mistress of winter’s arms, now possessing unimaginable strength, ripped the window from its ledge despite it being locked. Eleeza cried out, panicked. She ran to the door, trying to make it to her parents’ bedroom to wake them. 

Eleeza’s attempts were in vain. Meracki raised her arm and ice conjured from her fingertips and covered the door, sealing the exit closed and trapping the children inside the room. 

“Who are you?! What do you want?!” Eleeza’s voice was hard, determined, but her eyes were brimming with tears. 

“I am the mistress of winter, and I have come for my son.” 

Confusion, bewilderment, and horror crossed the young girl’s face in a matter of moments as the older woman made her way to the baby’s crib. The woman pushed the crib and it rocked gently. She lifted a slender hand to the boy’s cheek and affectionately stroked it. A smile blossomed on her cold face.  

“No! He is my brother! He is ours! You cannot take him!” 

The woman’s face hardened as it turned from the baby to the girl. Her voice was bitter and harsh. 

“You silly, stupid girl, don’t you realize how selfish you’re being? Don’t your parents? They have their child. They have their little girl. Why must they also have a son when so many do not, when so many cannot? No, no, this boy is rightfully mine.” 

There was now a pounding at the door, the parents. They called for their children. They threw themselves at the door. But there would be no victory for them. No mortal strength could break the woman’s ice. 

The mistress of winter picked up the baby and wrapped him in her arms, holding him close to her chest for warmth. She was grinning now, her body filling with the emotions she thought she would never know again. 

Eleeza made a noise of panic and fury. She threw herself at the woman, hands reaching for her brother. The woman slapped her away with one hand. 

“NO! NO! I WILL NOT LET YOU TAKE HIM!” 

“Selfish child, one day you and your family will understand. You will see how truly fair all of this is.” 

The woman moved back to the window. The little girl continued to pull and yank at Meracki’s silver gown but made no hindrance for the woman. She wailed and sobbed. The mistress of winter ignored her, completely taken by the innocence in the baby boy’s face. Without looking back once more at the girl, she left.  

The new mother looked down at her baby with the warmest of expressions. She finally had her son. Her husband would be so happy in her success. But to her displeasure, the baby began to bawl and cry. 

The mother made comforting sounds and sang to the baby, but his screams only grew louder. She shrugged this off and continued to head to her home and her husband. 

The heavy, crystalized ice of the door glittered in the moonlight as she opened the entrance to her home. In one hand she held the door, in the other, she held her little boy. She froze in place as she gawked at the child. Surely, he was the most beautiful spawn that the gods had ever created. With a face like that, he was definitely so.  

The smooth skin, ocean eyes, and high cheekbones suggested divine intervention in his mother’s womb. However, something was wrong in those ocean eyes… but Meracki would not allow herself to see it, to notice it. The tiny seas of life, those perfect irises, held unimaginable pain. Inside of those eyes were shores of sorrow and terror that could not be described. But all Meracki could see was the perfection in the baby as he stared back at her. The love radiating from her caused the world to grow roses without thorns. The gorgeous flowers blocked her vision. They protected her mind from the two attackers, the baby’s two eyes. 

“Wh-What is THIS?!” Her husband’s voice, which shook with increasing volume, took her from the baby’s face. But again, Meracki could not process the look on the master of winter’s face, the look of horror and revulsion.  

“It’s our son, beloved. Isn’t he just beautiful?” 

“Where did you get that boy?” His voice quivered with anger. 

She pursed her lips. Something had slipped through her flawless walls, her mind’s impenetrable gates. The words “that boy” played over and over in her mind. She knew there was something off with them. They did not belong in her paradise of bliss and satisfaction. The way they tore violently out of his throat as if they were curses, dirty insects buzzing to escape a corpse’s mouth. They were not the blossoming praise to announce the opening anew of a flower long thought dead. No, those words were wrong.  

She found herself uttering the final word aloud. “Wrong.” Her hoarse voice was alien, frightened, disappointed, hurt to unfathomable proportions. 

This was not what she wanted. This was not what she expected. It was all wrong. She felt her heart sink into her boots. 

“Where did YOU GET HIM?! WHOSE SON IS THIS?! WHOSE CHILD HAVE YOU STOLEN?!” 

Again, her mind dragged on his words. They were a trap laid out for an unsuspecting bear. The long, rusty edges cut into the sides of her brain. They pressed deeper and deeper until their jagged blades met. And the trap closed. 

Her voice shook, her mind still clinging onto the fragile hope that perhaps she could have misinterpreted what he was saying. “Lo-Love… Dearest, this is our son. The family who had him didn’t want him anymore.” 

“You’re lying! You filthy woman, you’re lying!” 

That hope burst like glass from a shattered window under fire from bloody stones. She wept in frustration, shaking her fist about madly. How could he do this to her?! After all, the boy lost had been his too. After all, he had mourned with her… for a time. 

That was it. He had healed. She was left broken and shattered and trapped, and he was fine. Rage boiled within her. He had not shown her the elusive path to freedom! She had been abandoned! She sought out a cure by herself, for herself! And he was here, in her arms. A baby boy to be the son she deserved. 

But perhaps her husband did not deserve this light of a child. He had his own light, faulty and artificial. Or possibly he had gone blind. Maybe he could no longer tell light from dark, and he confused his blackness for contentment. For how could he look at the cure and see only a mistake, see only “that boy”?  

“He is ours! He is our son! Accept him! Love him as I do!” Her eyes smoldered. His eyes must be wrenched open to gaze upon this beauty! He would not condemn me for this holy act! 

“He is not mine! And he is not yours! Put him back! Give him back! Now, woman!” 

No! He would not see. Why?! How?! He was not only blind but mad! How else could he demand such an action? It was equivalent in her mind to burning a thousand sacred churches for the goal of pleasing the gods. 

How could he even dare to think that blasphemy?! 

She turned to the baby she held. The graceful lines she drew on his cheeks with her gentle fingernails were ruins of ancient love and devotion.  

“I would rather die.” As she uttered the words, she knew them to be true. Indeed, they were the truest words she or anyone had ever spoken. 

The master of winter’s eyebrows rose, and his glare deepened. Feeling the rise of aggressive tension in the air, the woman placed the boy down safely. 

“This goes against the rules of nature!” he bellowed. 

She didn’t flinch. Instead, she whispered, “This is nature.” 

Like the statement was a spell, a chill came into the frosty castle. Then she realized that the door still stayed slightly open. She made a split-second decision. In a burst of power, she thrust the great gate back against its hinges. Freezing air filled the world about her. She felt the power of her element grow on her to make armor.  

Her husband’s eyes widened. He had seen her in joy, in grief, in agony, but never had he gazed on her and thought without a doubt that she was a goddess. 

She reached out into the wind, waiting readily for her call. It crafted for her a long, sharp staff of power. It glittered dangerously. 

“Do recall, love, who married into the house of winter. It. Was. You.” 

With the venom came a sound like a creature wailing in the dark. It was the sound of every piece of blade-like ice in the palace shooting toward Meracki’s husband. They say when everything you love is on the line, you fight for everything you love, and in that, you fight with everything you love. 

She looked longingly at her son. The love she felt for him encompassed her like a cloak of mail. And she was going to fight. 

She launched herself and her staff at the treacherous fool. Her staff met one of his own.  

“Do recall, woman, why we married. It was because of my power.” 

Thunder roared through the opened door. Lightning struck Meracki’s back. A wild yelp broke through her. The scorching blast of light left black places on her back. The burning skin smelt like determination to Meracki. 

She charged again, pushing down suddenly harder on her staff. She forced her husband back. His jaw set tightly in a pained frown.  

That was when the sharp pieces of ice attacked. They pierced him from every side, and she danced swiftly away as one landed in his chest. Blood poured from him like beer from a damaged keg. Though the sight would have been gruesome and sorrowful to anyone else, Meracki took pleasure in it. 

She sauntered back to greet her husband’s death. She watched patiently as the soul began the process of leaving his blind, mad eyes.  

Before he was truly gone, she said, “I am the mistress of winter. And no one will take my son away from me. Not again, not now, not ever.” 

Then he died. 

She exited the palace, leaving the artwork that she had created. The body had frozen. Forever, her masterpiece would lay there in cold misery. But she had tired of looking at such a hateful face, the face of her husband. She had a new love, a better love. Her son. 

She gazed down with passion and hope at her baby. He was perfect. And he would be perfectly hers for the rest of eternity. She would make sure of it.  

Lost in ecstasy, she had nearly forgotten to be cautious in carrying the baby. Meracki noticed his attempts to break free of her grasp. He was flailing about and whining. 

“Shh, shh, my love. It’s all right, you have me now. I’m your mommy.” 

He cried louder. His screams echoed in her ears painfully. A feeling of despair deepened in her. The baby did not want her.  

She tried to push the thought away. She forced the roses to return. He loved her with all his existence as she did for him. That was nature’s law. The son must love his mother as the leaves must love their tree.  

Yet, the boy bit her and sank his nails into her arms. He tore himself free of her arms with horrid strength. And so he fell from her, plummeting into the dark, cold trees below. Like a leaf that had fought to survive the cold of autumn but had given up when the talons of winter finally came to claim it for her own.  

Because everything the mistress of winter loved turned icy, cold… and dead. 

The Hobby Cowboy – Will Brooks

The Hobby Cowboy – Will Brooks

Our first work of fiction for your reading pleasure thus far. We enjoyed the humor present in this story’s dialogue sections and in the unique characterization of Bessie. We have a feeling you’ll come to agree.

The Hobby Cowboy

About three years ago, my wife, Pinky, talked me into moving. I say she talked me into moving because I was content where I was. Regardless, she had found a place she liked better and was moving with or without me. Not seeing any other choice, I moved. 

Pinky picked a good place, forty acres with a spacious farmhouse that was older than both of our ages combined. Fortunately, the fella who had it before us didn’t waste any time hunting or fishing. The house had been totally gutted and redone. New plumbing, heating and air, cabinets, and paint; even the house inspector found little to write up about the place. Having been a sucker most of my life, I knew it was too good to be true.

“The previous owner, did he die or something?” I asked attentively of the realtor. 

“William?” Pinky snapped. Pinky, having never attended the school of screw-overs as I have, finds that kind of questioning offensive. I couldn’t imagine a guy spending all this time on a house and then selling it. I kept my mouth shut.

It wasn’t until we were signing the papers that the scam was brought to light. Under property description were the words “hobby farm.” I broke into a cold sweat. Unable to speak, I meekly pointed with a trembling hand. 

“What is it, sweetie? Did you find a grammar error? I know how you love a good grammar error.” 

“There,” I managed to say, afraid to repeat the words rattling around in my head.

“Yes, hobby farm. I don’t see the error.”

“Hobby doesn’t bother me—it’s that second word.”

“Farm?” said Pinky. I unconsciously started grinding my teeth. Flashbacks of endless chores, broken equipment, and animal dung broke like a dam from some suppressed area of my brain, rushing into my conscious mind like floodwater. I swear I heard a rooster crow. 

“But you grew up on a farm?”

“Actually,” the realtor piped in, “it’s more of a hobby ranch. This reminds me that I need to tell you about Bessie.” 

“Please tell me she’s a ghost that haunts the house,” I said. 

“No, she’s actually a cow. An Irish Dexter that the previous owner left with the property.”

“This is a nightmare,” I said, putting my head in my hands.

“An Irish Dexter?” Pinky asked. 

“Yes, they’re a smaller breed of cattle. Really cute.” 

“Cute? Oh god, I think I’m hyperventilating.”

“Oh, calm down, William. You knew this place had acreage. What did you think we were gonna do with it, hunt?”

“Yes! I thought that was the deal. You get the house and I get ground to play on, not work on.”

“Oh, it will be fun. You grew up on a farm. You’ve told me dozens of times about those hilarious mishaps.” 

It was true I’d wasted half my youth laboring on farm duties. It wasn’t until I went to college that I realized not everyone farmed and that was okay. Pinky, on the other hand, always seemed delighted by my tales of farming as a youth. I think the idea intrigued her urban logic.

“Fortunately,” the realtor piped in again, “it’s more of a ranch than a farm.” 

“See, it’s not even a farm. It’s a ranch, Will.” 

“A hobby ranch,” the realtor said, smiling. 

“No, it isn’t true. It isn’t,” I muttered. I was in denial, the first stage of farm-purchase grief.

Then I got angry. Not the scream-and-shout kind of angry. The bitter kind of angry where I quietly seethed through the whole moving process, followed by me making a bargain with myself that if I got rid of the cow it wouldn’t be a farm anymore. Then I got depressed reflecting on bitter memories of kicks and stomps I received as a youth. Then I accepted the fact that I now lived on a farm. All this took about three-and-a-half days. I understand that the larger the spread, the longer the grieving period.

“Forty acres with one cow,” I told my wife as we were placing dishes in the kitchen cabinet three nights after moving in. “That’s chump change. Heck, as a half-grown kid I was in charge of whole milk-barn of Jersey cattle.”

“Well, I’m glad to see you’re feeling better, dear. Say, we’ve been working on this house all day. Let’s go for a walk around the forty.” 

“Sounds great, dear. Have you seen my boots while we’ve been unpacking? All I’ve got are these tennis shoes to wear.” 

Looking back, my limited selection of footwear may have been the only thing that saved me on that first encounter with Bessie. Who knew I’d be running? 

We had just made it to the very back of the property when my wife elbowed me and whispered, “Look over there.” 

I thought she’d spotted something important like a ten-point buck, only to look over in disappointment: a mini black cow.

“That must be Bessie,” said my wife. 

“Sure, or her sister.” I said. 

“Isn’t she cute? Oh, William, can we keep her?” 

“You keep kittens because they’re cute. It doesn’t work that way with cows.”

The whole time we had been talking, Bessie had been eyeing us with suspicion while chewing her cud. A nonthreatening glare meant to keep our alarm down. The top of her back came to about my waist and the two horns on her head didn’t look long enough to cause a flesh wound. Bessie looked like an overgrown toy.

“Do you think she’ll let me pet her?” Pinky said, taking a step toward Bessie. 

All at once Bessie’s potential energy exploded into kinetic. Bessie grew three times her size with horns as long as pool sticks. I heard my wife scream (or it could have been me) as I turned tail in the direction of the house. After a few hundred yards I noticed my wife wasn’t with me. 

I pushed the image of Bessie stomping the mutilated body of my spouse out of my head long enough to yell, “Pinky?” 

To my great relief, there was a response of, “Over here, you stupid blank-of-a-blank.” 

Carefully, I eased through the brush until I came to Pinky thrashing in the waters of a mudhole pond, Bessie on the other side condensed to her original size and resuming the chewing of her cud. 

“What happened to you?” I asked.

“What do you mean? You left me!” 

My wife, unschooled and unconditioned in farm life, didn’t understand that when cows attack, heroic gestures only cause bodily harm and it’s better if every man accounts for himself. I was trying to think of how to break this to my wife when she intruded on my train of thought. 

“She chased me into this pond. And you just left me!” 

“She chased you into the pond?” I asked, making a mental note of Bessie’s behavior. She doesn’t like water.

“No, it just looked so inviting I couldn’t restrain myself from taking a swim. Now help me out of here.”

Finding a long stick, I gave Pinky a hand, doing my best to keep my sneakers dry. Covered in bright green duck grass from head to toe, she looked like Swamp Thing. 

“What are you smiling at? I could have been killed.” 

“You know those hilarious mishaps? I think this makes the top of my list.”

Pinky stomped off, muttering. The only two words I made out were “horses” and “ass.” I didn’t think it a good time to school her on the fact that horses and donkeys are different animals. Left alone, I turned to look at Bessie—who wasn’t there. The hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I knew she was still watching me. I hurried after Pinky to the safety of the house. 

After two showers and a glass of wine, Pinky finally spoke a direct full sentence to me as we climbed into bed. 

“Get rid of Bessie.” 

Evidently, Bessie’s cuteness had worn off quickly. 

“It’s not that easy,” I stammered.

“I don’t care. I’m afraid she’ll hurt someone.”

“Yeah, me too. Mostly me.” 

“Just get rid of her.” 

The next morning I searched the Internet for a cattle hauler. After a few phone calls, I had a gentleman who agreed to come out that day and take a look. An hour later, he turned in the drive, pulling a long aluminum trailer behind his Ford Dually truck. He stepped out donning a palm-leaf cowboy hat, a pearl-snap, long-sleeve shirt, Wrangler jeans, and boots. A thick mustache covered his upper lip, the tips of the hairs stained by Copenhagen. A real cowboy, I thought—he’ll know what to do. He introduced himself as Buck Thompson. Even his name sounded heroic to me. I’d found my man.   

“You been cowboyin’ long?” I asked. It was such a stupid question to ask; a real cowboy is born in the saddle. 

“You bet.” 

“Oh, well, what’s your horse’s name?” I asked. 

“Taco. Won the team-roping event off her last weekend.” 

“Fascinating,” I said. 

It’s a little-known fact Missouri ranks number two in cattle production in the United States. However, it never had the rich cowboyin’ history of Texas. Growing up, we never had a horse. Our cowboyin’ was done on foot with buckets of grain, willow branches cut for swatting sticks, and—if things got bad—rocks. For this reason I’d never considered myself a real cowboy growing up. I mean, when was the last time you saw John Wayne rope a milk cow?

Buck disappeared to the end of the trailer and there were a few thuds as he unloaded Taco, a tall chestnut roan. Taco was already saddled and Buck climbed onto her back with the ease of most people stepping into a warm bath. Adjusting the saddle a bit, he took a can of Copenhagen out of his shirt’s chest pocket, tapped it on the saddle horn, and pinched a bit of the snuff into his gums.

“Alright, where is this pygmy cow?” Buck asked. 

“Right back that way.” I pointed in Bessie’s direction. “Say, uh, you don’t… I mean, I can if you want… Need help?” 

“Probably not this time, Bud.” 

“Right. Okay, well, I’ll be in the house doing some work. So, yeah, if you need me,” I said, trying not to sound too excited that I didn’t have to help.

“I’ll let you know when I’ve got her all loaded up,” Buck said, leading Taco into the pasture. I watched him start to take the trail Pinky and I had taken the night before. Immediately, Buck met his first adversity to Ozark Cowboyin’: tree limbs. Not able to take the direct path Pinky and I had followed, he maneuvered Taco around some buckbrush and disappeared. I retreated to the safety of the house. 

Watching through the back window, I counted the minutes waiting for Buck’s triumphant return. Around minute sixteen I heard the first sounds of a fierce struggle. Pinky came along about this time and asked what was going on. 

“Hush,” I said.

“Don’t hush me. What’s going on?” 

As she stood glaring at me, Bessie burst from the brush. She didn’t look as intense as I remembered during the attack, but she didn’t look happy. One end of a rope was looped around one of her stumpy horns and she jerked and bucked as if being stung by bees. She was shortly followed by a disheveled looking Buck holding the other end of the rope. 

“What’s he trying to do?” asked Pinky. 

“What I hired him to do.” 

“Maybe you should help him.” 

“He’s a professional. He made it very clear he didn’t want my help.”

Even though I could see Buck was flustered, I was confident he would come out on top.

Boy, was I wrong. He’d played right into Bessie’s plan. 

Now in the open, Bessie rushed around a lone blackjack tree, then shot back toward the woods. Taco was doing her best to take up the slack in the rope as Bessie disappeared back into the woods, dragging Buck and Taco into the low limbs of the blackjack. Buck’s hat flew off as a tree branch whipped off Taco’s neck and into his face, bloodying his nose. A few expletives were released as Buck and Taco disappeared back into the woods. We heard Buck yell, “Get back! Get back!” 

Then all went eerily mute. 

“You know, maybe I should call 911,” I said. 

“Maybe you should go out there and help?”

“You want to be a widow?” 

As I said this Bessie came marching victoriously from the brush, the rope and Buck having disappeared. She paraded up to the fence, her tail arched defiantly, eyes blazing, looking for her next victim.

I’ve heard of elephants using low-level bellows to communicate with other elephants several miles away, of whales having a vocabulary of calls and songs that scientists have yet to decipher, and of the amazing chemical communication of ants. But I have never sensed a connection with an animal like I did as Bessie eyed me in the window, stopped dead in her tracks, and stared into my soul. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and I must have blacked out, for when I finally felt my eyes blink, Bessie was gone. 

“Where’d she go?” 

“Back in the brush, but more importantly, where’s your cowboy?” 

An image of Buck’s mangled body hanging from a tree limb was just starting to form in my mind as Taco and Buck limped out of the woods. I hurried to the back door. Buck was bloody. Taco had no visible flesh wound but seemed to be favoring her right hind leg. I asked what any reasonable, non-medically trained person would ask. 

“You alright?” 

Buck didn’t answer. He just laid Taco at the back of the trailer. I’d never seen a horse load so fast. 

Again applying my most sympathetic voice, I asked, “Anything broken?” 

Buck still didn’t answer, only limped to the front of his truck and climbed in the cab. He fired up the engine and rolled down the window. 

“When will you be back to try again?” I asked. 

“Don’t call me. I’ll call you.” 

A few days went by and I hadn’t heard from Buck. I dialed his number, feeling that same tight-gut feeling I’d had calling up some girl I had a crush on in my juvenile years. I could feel myself swallow with every ring on the line, dreading the moment when he might answer, and wishing to God he would. He didn’t. 

I hung up the phone and wrote him off. I thought I’d reward myself for the effort with a stroll into town for a visit to the gun shop. Heck, maybe I’d buy a new gun to hunt down Bessie. 

My friend Frank runs a hunting and fishing/knickknack shop in town. He attracts a variety of weirdos that make a weekly stop to visit, me being one of his favorites.

“Hello, Will, what’s new with you?” he asked as I walked through the door. 

“What’s a good caliber for cow?” 

“Cow elk?” 

“No, cow cow.” 

He gave me a puzzled look and I explained my situation.

“You need to call my cousin Carl,” he said when I finished. 

“Is he a good cowboy?”

“I wouldn’t call him a cowboy, but he knows how to handle cattle—that is, he did until he got locked up.” 

“Locked up? Listen, thanks, but I don’t want some tweaker on my property.” 

“No, he got locked up for cattle rustling.” 

“Like stealing cattle? That’s a thing?” I asked ignorantly. I thought they only existed in Western movies. 

“Oh yeah. If he can’t catch ’em, no one can. I’m gonna see him later. I’ll give him your number.” 

“Great, thanks,” I said, figuring I’d never get that call. 

That night, at about eleven, I was awakened from a sound sleep to my phone ringing. Thinking it might be Buck, I answered on the third ring.

“Hello?” 

“Is this Will?” 

“Yes.” 

“This is Carl. When do you want to catch that cow?”

“As soon as possible.” 

“I can come over tonight, but it will cost more.” 

“Tomorrow will work.” 

“I’ll be there at sunup.”

“Sure.” And then the phone went dead. 

“Who was that, dear?” Pinky asked from under a night mask on her side of the bed.

“Carl.” 

“That’s nice dear, and who is Carl?” 

“Some cousin of Frank’s that catches cattle.” Leaving out the part about Carl being a convicted felon, I lay back, wondering what time sunup was and how Carl knew where I lived. But I guessed rustlers have their ways. 

I didn’t sleep much after the phone call and was awake by 5 a.m. The sun wasn’t up yet so I figured I wasn’t late. I was going for my second cup of coffee, just as the first signs of daylight were emerging from the window, when I noticed a rusty pickup sitting in the drive with an even rustier stock trailer connected to the bumper. Shocked, I stepped outside, wondering how long a vehicle had been parked there without my knowledge. A man was leaning against the front bumper of the truck smoking a cigarette. He looked nothing like the image of a rustler to me. 

He was pudgy and dressed in bib overalls. His feet were adorned with some camouflage Crocs. He was bearded and had on a sweat-stained truckers’ hat from the local feed mill. He looked vaguely familiar, like I might have seen his picture on the People of Wal-Mart website.  

“Are you Will?” the man asked, and I recognized the tone from the phone. I thought of saying no. I stood there trying to decide what to say when Carl spoke again. “Let’s go catch this gyp before it gets any brighter.” 

“But how?” I asked. The question was meant to be geared toward the truck. How did it get in the drive without me knowing? I think Carl thought I meant Bessie.

“Minor details,” is all he said as he lifted his butt off the bumper and gestured me to follow. I was too stunned to decline. 

The trailer was parked in such a manner that, with the trailer’s rear door open, it blocked the gap left by the open gate. Carl entered the trailer via a side door toward the trailer’s front. Following, I noted the trailer’s floor was blanketed with carpet. I turned to ask Carl the purpose of the carpet, but he was already heading toward the woods, two dogs on either side of him that hadn’t made themselves noticed until now. Dumbfounded, I stood there watching them go until they stopped at the edge of the woods. 

“You coming?” he asked.

“Listen, I’m not sure what kind of help I’ll be. Maybe I should just wait in the house. I’m more of a hobby cowboy.”

“Cowboy? Shoot, son. Cowboys got nothing to do with this.”

“Well, yeah, maybe. But I’m…” I was digging through my bag of lies, but couldn’t clutch anything valid enough to use.

“I’ll tell you what. Since it’s your first time and all, I’ll let you be the racer.” 

“Racer? What’s that?” 

“Oh, nothing much. You just run back through the trailer and exit via the escape door.” 

“That’s the door on the side? And how will I know when?” 

“Yes. I’ll holler. Oh, and be sure to shut it behind you.”

And with that, he turned and walked into the woods. I took a tentative step off the trailer, wondering just how fast I could make it back to the trailer. I’ve never been known for my ground speed. I’m no dummy; I knew what Carl was asking me to do. I should’ve turned and gone into the house. Maybe I was just desperate to rid myself of Bessie, or maybe it was the way Carl just marched off into the woods so fearlessly, but something mustered what minor hero material was in me. Stupidly, I followed, feeling like a lamb being taken to slaughter. 

Our quartet found Bessie by the mudhole pond, patiently chewing her cud. I thought Carl would send the dogs instantly, but he only stood staring at her in silence. 

Finally, I asked, “What’s the matter?”

“Nothing. I’m just figuring. You stay here. I want to see what she does when she’s approached.”

“Explodes,” I said. 

Carl either didn’t hear me or didn’t care because he took the dogs and started around the pond. Bessie noted their movements with the skilled tactician of a seasoned veteran. As Carl and the dogs circled the pond, she shifted her hind legs around, keeping her pointed stubs of horns pointed in their direction. Then she started backing up. I’d never seen her back down from a fight, but the dogs, I figured, were a new threat she had not dealt with before. As she backed up, she kept edging around the pond, keeping the water between her and Carl. I stood stock-still, not sure of my role in this tango, watching as her rump inched closer to me. 

Transfixed on Carl and the dogs, Bessie finally backed around the pond until she was a mere ten yards away. I hadn’t moved, wasn’t even sure I was breathing, but she abruptly whirled around to face me. I felt death was certain now—that at any moment she would charge, drilling her horns into me before stomping me to death with her mini-hooves.

“Run!” Carl shouted, startling Bessie who glanced his direction. “Run, now!” 

I swear Bessie knew what he said, because she turned and looked at me, an evil smirk coming across her face. Bessie was looking for a fight. I wasn’t giving her one. I ran.

I ran as fast as my short legs would go, and, feeling Bessie’s hot breath on my backside, jammed into another gear I didn’t even know I had. I was preparing to hit Mach 1 when the trailer came into sight. I took a quick glimpse back before entering the trailer and could see the dogs nipping at Bessie’s heels. I exited the escape door, slamming it behind me. The trailer shook violently, Bessie bouncing off the sides like a wild bird put in a cage. 

“Good job, Sport,” Carl said, coming around the end of the trailer, “Better get half-pint here to the yard before she brains herself. Have you got my pay?”

Stunned by my near-death experience, it took me a moment to answer. “Yeah. Yes. It’s inside. I’ll be right back.” 

Rushing inside, I found Pinky at the back door, no longer wearing her night mask, but still in her robe. 

“Where have you been?” she asked. 

“Catching a killer cow.” 

“You caught her?” 

“Of course.” Playing it off, I continued, “Say, Carl wants to get paid. Grab me a check, please, before Bessie breaks out.” 

She disappeared around the corner and I heard the drawer open and slam where we keep the checkbook. “How much is it?” 

“I have no idea.”

Back outside I found Carl already in his truck, the two dogs in the passenger seat. Spontaneously, there would be a big thump from the trailer as Bessie tried her best to free herself, the truck rocking a little with each blow. 

“How much is it?” 

“Two hundred is my standard hauling fee.” 

“Great,” I said, and started writing out the check. 

“I prefer cash.” 

“Oh, well. I don’t…”

“A check will do, as long as it’s good.” 

“Oh, it’s good. I promise.” I tore out the check and handed it to him.

“I guess you want the check from the yard mailed to here? That is, if she brings more than the postage cost.” 

“Yes, here’d be great.” 

“All right then,” Carl said, and put the truck in drive. “Take ’er easy.” 

Following Pinky through the grocery store a month later, I found myself in the meat department. I realized I hadn’t thought of Bessie in a while, but seeing the red meat lying on Styrofoam plates wrapped in plastic made me wonder where she was now. Her display on the selling floor at the stockyard must have been impressive; she brought a whole fifty dollars, according to the check I received. She may have been compact, but she fought like a giant.

Will Brooks received his bachelor’s degree from Drury University, with a major in creative writing and a minor in business. He currently works for his family’s propane company. He loves working with his hands and enjoys many outdoor activities, hunting being his favorite pastime. He lives on a large farm, in a house that was built with lumber harvested and milled right on the farm over sixty years ago. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hawaii Pacific Review, Pencil Box Press, Ignatian Literary Review, Critical Pass Review, Stirring: A Literary Collection, and The Penmen Review. He is also a member of the Missouri Writers’ Guild.


Revival – Mark Houston McLain

Revival – Mark Houston McLain

Mark’s writing for Revival is captivating. It tugs at you as much as it does envelop. The world he paints, along with its characters, is at once verdant and tragic. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

Reader discretion is advised for physical and emotional violence.

___

REVIVAL

Ruth

When I was a girl, my Momma and me would sing together.  She would be working her hands on that washboard and look over at me and smile, singin’ that song as happy as she could while not knowing she was working herself to an early grave.  The winter after Daddy left, she got sick and died and left me all alone. I was sixteen and that’s when Irwin asked me to marry him. I guess he felt sorry for me because I had only met him a couple of times and had given him no reason to like me.  His family had a large farm and they said we could live there. Where else could I go? So, I said I would marry him, and we decided we could have a wedding at the end of summer and live with his Momma and Daddy until we could build our own house.

I went to church some, but Irwin and his folks were a Bible bunch and I reckon they thought since I was going to be part of the family, they had better start workin’ on me.  A couple of weeks after we told everyone we were going to get married, the whole family packed up in the truck and we drove down the highway about an hour to a hay field in the valley of a large farm.  We unloaded the truck and pitched a canvas tent next to a group of other families. In the middle of the tents was a haulin’ trailer with a big shiny microphone roosted on a metal stand. Hangin’ behind it was a white sheet with big red letters

HAVE YOU BEEN WASHED IN THE BLOOD OF THE LAMB?

That first afternoon we laid out blankets on the hay field in front of the trailer, and we were right in the front, as close as we could get.  In the evening, two women got up and stood on both sides of that microphone and began to sing and everybody that knew that song joined in. They sang two more songs and then left the stage.  Someone turned on a string of lights that hung right over the trailer, and a lanky man ran up the wooden stairs two at a time and onto that stage and grabbed that shiny microphone and yelled into it and said Hallelujah! Have you been saved? as he held up his hands high in the air.  He was young, and I don’t know if he had even shaved yet, but he was wearing a black suit and a white cotton shirt and that is the first time I ever saw anybody in a suit.  He had a head full of red wavy hair and it was all combed over and was the prettiest hair I had ever seen. It shined like a new penny when he walked under that string of lights.

He began preachin’ and walking himself back and forth across that stage.  Every once in a while he’d stop and look me in the eyes, and I figured it was the Lord talkin’ right at me.  After he finished, the two women got up and sang again, then the lights went off and we went back to the tent for the night.  Only I couldn’t sleep in that old hot canvas tent with all them family in there. Whenever somebody moved it woke me up all over again.  I told Irwin I was gonna sleep outside, and I don’t know if he even heard me. I took my pillow and went and put it down on that stage and slept like a baby under the stars.

The next day we all walked down to the river and Irwin’s Momma had packed some cornbread and greens, so we all ate and put our feet in the water.  That evening as the crickets started to chime, we went back to the trailer and the same two women came out to sing and I waited on the red headed preacher to come on the stage, but it wasn’t him but a big man in blue pants and a white shirt with the sleeves rolled way up.  He did some preachin’. He’d stop ever so often and say Amen and take his hanky and wipe all the sweat off his face.  I didn’t hear much of what he said, I was wonderin’ what had happened to that other preacher.

That night, when the family was all getting settled in the tent, I told Irwin I was gonna sleep outside again.  He said I was sure to get eat up by skeeters and rolled over. So, I went back out across the field to the trailer and throwed my blanket down under that big sky and the preacher with the red hair comes walkin’ up.  He don’t have his suit on and he sure looks different. He asks me what I’m doing out here. He takes his smoke and crushes it out on the metal edge of the trailer and asks me if I have ever been baptized. I shook my head no and he says we should go down to the river.

We walked down the steep bank to the river and sat on some big rocks along the side.  He kept talkin’ about cars and shotguns and whiskey, but he didn’t say nothing more about baptizing.  The moon was big that night and I figured I might as well sit and talk with him cause the sky was so bright, I wasn’t gonna see any stars anyway.  That red hair almost glowed in the night and I kept looking at his eyes when he talked and didn’t even realize that he had put his hand on my leg and slid it up under my dress some.  He went to whisper in my ear and I thought it was gonna be something about baptizing but instead he just kinda rubbed my neck with his mouth. It happened fast after that. I was lookin’ up at that big moon and pretty quick-like he stopped moving on me and just lay there and I figure that’s when he filled me with his spirit.

******

Irwin

I used to tell myself he don’t mean no harm.  But I’m an old man and now I know that sometimes you can see a thing for what it really is.  I come to realize that sometimes there is evil in the world and that’s all you can say. That boy come into this life screamin’ and I reckon he won’t quit ‘til they lay him in the ground.  He don’t look like none of my folk but I raised him just the same. I knew it as soon as I seen the little bastard. Damn boy come out with that red hair, how the hell was I supposed to think he were mine?  Raised him though, and claimed him for my own when I knowed he wasn’t. She let me name him and I give him my uncle’s name and I shore wish I hadn’t.

When that boy was just a little feller he was pure evil, I mean weren’t a decent bone in him.  Killin’ stuff around here just for the fun of it. Ants and spiders when he was knee high. Coons and possums later.  Once he killed him a huntin’ dog. A damn huntin’ dog.  Had a collar on it and everything.  I told him it were a redbone and some hunter would sure be lookin’ for him.  He didn’t care. He just kilt it to watch it bleed out. I told him it sure was a sin if I ever heard one to kill a man’s huntin’ dog.  He just stood there and looked at me with that red hair stickin’ up. I give up on the boy right then and there. Roof. Heat. Food. That’s all that youngin is going to get from me.  I said to myself thank God he ain’t from me, I ain’t got that evil blood runnin’ through me.

Ruthie and me don’t talk about him no more.  She never let me lay into him, whip him a few times.  It’s because she knows he ain’t mine. We he was about twelve or so, he got into trouble, something to do with cornering a girl after school and holding her down.  School principal showed up at the house and said Don’t send Parnell back down here, we don’t want him.  That boy gonna have to get his learnin’ somewheres else.   Ruthie told ‘em they was all damn liars but deep down she knew it was true.  Only time I ever heard her swear in her whole life. She tried all the time to get him some salvation, but he never seen the need for it.  Sometimes at night she’d read to him from the Bible and he’d sit there staring into the fire, listening to her reading all the thous and shalls, his cold eyes all fixed and he’d just have this little smirk in the corner of his mouth and sometimes right in the middle of a readin’ he’d bust out and laugh and she’d stop readin and look at him.  I mean right at him. I could see she was madder’n hell, but I knew she’d be right there on her knees that night prayin’ against all that evil in him. One night she just slammed her Bible shut and went to bed and cried all night and I figured that’s when she gave up on him too.

******

Parnell

I had a girlfriend once.  I was about sixteen. Pretty girl.  Her neck and face as smooth and white as sweet milk.  I met her down at the river. It was summertime and hot as dammit.  One day Momma said she wanted me to see a preacher man. I asked her why and she stayed quiet for a real long time and I thought, well fine then don’t say nothin’, I don’t care.  Then she said she wanted to get me right with the Lord and I thought well hell, why not. Damn old truck bout didn’t make it over the mountain. We drove for a good long while before we pulled up in the dirt parking lot of this church.  I couldn’t read the sign, but I saw it had a steeple so I knowed it was a church. Made out of cinder blocks with white paint peeling and hangin’ off and that steeple on it were way too small looking and I thought this don’t look like no place to get any religion.  Momma said to stay in the truck and so I sat there while she went inside. After a while she came back out with this big bald-headed feller and they stood there in front of the door with Momma talking at him and him standing there with his arms crossed just lookin’ at me and noddin’ and I thought this don’t look good.  Momma waved me on and I walked up to them and ole baldy put his arm around me and kinda pulled me along into the church. We walked right up to the front, where all the preachin’ is done and he said I was a sinner and that I gotta get down on my knees, and so I figured we come all this way I might as well do what the man said so I kneeled on down and then he smacked my head real hard like and started screamin’ and then Momma started screamin’ and all the while I was the one bein’ smacked and I was the only one weren’t hollerin’.  After he popped me a couple more times and yelled some more, he laid his hand on my head and I didn’t pay no attention to what he said but he had my head under that big hand of his and it was a shakin’ like he was trying to send something down into me. He let it go all of the sudden and told me Get Up! and I did, and I could see Momma standing there with her hands all up in the air shoutin’ and the tears a washin’ down her face.  She durn near shook the hand off that old preacher and then handed him two dollar bills. On the way home, we stopped at a blue hole down by the river to eat our sandwiches and I saw her.  She was swimmin’ and she knew everybody was watching her, but she didn’t care. I sat right there and watched her swim. Her hair was all slicked back on her head. When she got out of the water and on the bank, I could see her pretty bottom in that swimmin’ suit and she knew I was lookin’.  She stood up and pulled at her top and bottom to make sure that nothing ain’t fell out when she got out on that rock, standing there in the sun. About that time, she bent over, and I said GODDAMN! and Momma commenced to start bawlin’ and said she reckoned the devil ain’t been out of me and that preacher must not be no good, and I started laughin’ cause I guess that’s the funniest thing I ever heard.

******

The social worker stood on the stoop of the tattered shack, tears flowing down her cheeks as her trembling fingers flicked at her cigarette.  The sheriff should be here soon, she thought. On the rotten porch steps, she could see Parnell’s bloody boot prints heading in the direction of the heavily wooded creek area.  In the open front doorway lay Irwin, his eyes open and fixed in the furrowed skin of his cold, white face. Only the handle of a large hunting knife could be seen, as the whole of the blade was entombed in the side of his chest.  In the shack, some cinders remained smoldering from a neglected fire and a heavy ash lay over the stone hearth. The room showed the leftovers of a violent struggle. In the rocker next to the hearth sat Ruth. She rocked in silence save for the runners of the chair creaking with each pass on the floor.  Her old hazy lensed glasses sat perched on her nose as she read from a well-worn Bible that lay open across her lap. Her craggy face showed no signs of distress or horror, but of serene peace and calmness. Along the worn floor, the blood that had drained from the wound in Irwin’s side wasn’t the bright red of a fresh cut, but a crimson as deep as the reddest of wines.  The blood had rivered along the knotted pine floor to pond at the low area beneath Ruth’s rocker where some of it had soaked up into the thick wool socks she was wearing.

___

Mark McLain loves to write short stories about the South.  A seventh-generation Tennessean, he is a graduate of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and enjoys spending time with his family floating the Hiwassee River and hiking in the Appalachians. His work has appeared in Gravel and Mulberrry Fork Review.

The Food Upon Which Others Feast – by Thomas Elson

The Food Upon Which Others Feast – by Thomas Elson

This story carries a chilling note of the thought-provoking.

Please, enjoy the read. We certainly did.

___________

THE FOOD UPON WHICH OTHERS FEAST by Thomas Elson

We mapped this route generations earlier, and irrespective of origin, the path is the same for everyone. We also dictated a hierarchy: We, the vanguards, would watch the votaries whom the witnesses were told monitored them.

Two of our votaries perched thirty feet above the driveway in front of a limestone building constructed in 1868. Obadiah, the senior votary, impeccably attired in a dark blue suit, silk tie – the color of which befitted our calendar, and sunglasses, rested his hands on the polished railing. Ariel, young and eager to impress, hovered with his clipboard pressed into his gray sweater.

“Who are the two new witnesses?” Ariel looked at the older votary, bit off a piece of beef jerky, and waited for an answer.

“Take notes at the briefings the way I taught you and you’d know.” Obadiah smiled and looked down.

Ariel, by now used to such sarcasm, tapped his pen on the report form attached to his clipboard. “Humor me.”

Obadiah shrugged and continued. “That first guy, the red-headed one, is Herb Peavy. He used to sneak into second-floor bedrooms and stomp women to death with his climbing spikes. It’s his second time here. He’d be at the North Center if the vanguards didn’t still have some use for him.” He waited for a moment. “Just watch him. All he wants to do is get close to that thin kid. If he were anywhere but here, he’d get detained for-“ Obadiah waited a second. “Following too close.” Laughed at his own joke.

“That thin guy looks like an eleven-year-old girl.” Ariel pulled his sweater over his belt buckle. “Hell, he looks like a-”

“Don’t say it. Do not say it. That’s Kenny Dumars. Just two months ago, he was a part-time wheat farmer and full-time high school Spanish teacher livin’ the dream. Even set-up housekeeping with his girlfriend. But the sheriff caught a Cessna unloading marijuana on his property. Ol’ Kenny boy had himself a third job – being paid for the use of his farm land.” Obadiah grinned, added, “Poor guy’ll be eaten alive in here,” then shook his head and unbuttoned his suit jacket.

“He ought’a have a good time in this place with Herb tailgating him.” Ariel watched the red-head smooth his hands over the thin kid’s shoulders. “What’d they want us to do with ‘em?”

“Well, Herb’s bound to do what he did the last time.”  Obadiah adjusted his tie, nodded toward the driveway. “His only value to the vanguards is to see how Kenny reacts around him at the South Center. So, we are required to keep ‘em together after processing and watch what happens.”

When new witnesses arrived we required they remain alone for a short period of time. Alone and unattended, but not unobserved, and certainly not unrecorded. Their movements to be transcribed by votaries onto a checklist. Posture erect? Hunched over? Gesticulations made? People touched? Pockets reached into? Items extracted? Stepped out of line? Anything picked up? Rocks? Cigarette butts?

The witnesses stood as if transfixed. Blank stares. Clenched teeth and tight jaws. Minds working overtime. They stiffened as a scattershot wind hit their faces. Herb looked east toward the wide expanse of farmland and inhaled the scent of the harvest. Kenny stared at contrails swirling twenty-six thousand feet above. Both shuffled around on the gravel driveway. Their sounds alternated between crunching and hammering. Neither looked toward the North or South Centers.

Inside the South Center Processing and Orientation section a votary with a sore-knee limp walked toward the two witnesses, handed each a towel and small cup half-filled with delousing shampoo. “Well, Herb. I figured I’d see you again. What happened? You hear we got a new line of clothing?”  He pointed at the open shower. “You know the drill. And keep it in your hair for a few minutes.”

Amid echoes of “Fresh meat,” and  “Come over here and visit me,” Herb walked with his middle finger aloft. He abruptly shouted, “Looks like you’re working old three-pack pretty hard,” nodded toward the man laboring to stand – his left hand clasped three unopened packs of cigarettes, then hurriedly walked to his chair, lifted his pad and charcoal, resumed drawing.

Kenny held back until Herb returned, then clutched his towel where he thought it might do the most good, and, despite wet floors, rushed into the shower. He finished without drying, quickly headed back, and hurriedly dressed.

The votary handed each a paper bag and directed them to carry it in their right hand. “What you’ve got there is a toothbrush, toothpaste, and two hotel-sized bars of Ivory soap. Commissary takes ninety days to kick-in but most of you will be gone by then. So, other than your meals, that’s pretty much it.”

The votary raised his palm. “Ya’ll gonna be buried under the mass of senior witnesses. Just know that you have no rights here. Only privileges. The rest you gotta figure out on your own.” He looked at Kenny in his practiced manner. “Consider that your orientation.”

The votary knew Kenny was too frightened to remember what was said, but his perspective would change after the doors slammed. When it became apparent that he could never again open or close a door, walk from one room to another, chose when to eat, what to eat, where or when to sleep without first asking permission. When Kenny had the look of an animal that decided to stop running, we would know he had learned our Rules: Eyes down but stay alert – Don’t look but see everything –When you walk hug the wall but do not touch it – There are no gifts; accept anything and you are in debt. – Ask for permission before you do anything.

The votary led them into an area the size of a basketball court with a walkway surrounding a chain-link enclosure. He assigned both witnesses separate bunks within fifteen feet of two exposed toilets and one rust-stained sink. Then he repeated what he said each time, “Good luck. And don’t come back.” He locked the gate and walked away.

As Kenny waited in line that evening, his eyes moved from witness to witness. He watched how each held two utensils under a stainless-steel tray, and silently moved toward a wall opening, then placed the tray on a small ledge, and remained motionless as meat and green beans were plopped on it. After a half-pint carton of milk hit a tray, a voice barked, “Next!” and the line moved forward.

Kenny set his tray on a table near the stage. Herb pulled a chair out, turned it slightly, dropping his tray next to Kenny. Herb looked at Kenny, “What’cha need from the commissary?” Then skimmed his tongue across his upper lip and moved his hand under Kenny’s. After a moment Herb raised his fingers slightly, pulled his hand back, and left a list of commissary items under Kenny’s palm. “I can get you ramen noodles, pens, paper, stamps, cigarettes, peanut butter, pretty much anything. What’cha want?”

“They told us we can’t use it for ninety-days.” Kenny moved his hand away.

Herb pushed a package of gum between their trays. “But I can. I’ve been here before.”

Silence.

“Why me?”

Herb stroked Kenny’s hand. “You’re my friend.”

Kenny leaned forward, gently raised his hand, gracefully rested it on the back of Herb’s head, and whispered.

Herb’s eyes flared. “We’ll see smart guy.” Then, contemplating his next move, said, “We’ll see how you’re taken care of from now on.” He grabbed Kenny’s half-pint of milk, shoved it into his coat sleeve, stood, left the package of gum on the table, and walked toward the stage and the line of witnesses waiting to be frisked.

A votary bent to frisk him – calves first, then thighs and hips. Herb, with a one-arm motion, slid the milk carton from coat sleeve to palm and onto the stage. When the votary found nothing, he turned to frisk another witness. Herb picked-up the milk carton, raised his arm, allowed the carton to drift inside his coat sleeve, cupped his hand, lowered his arm, and walked away.

An hour and a half later sounds and smells reverberated inside the enclosure. Toilets flushing or not flushing. Bodies unwashed for days. Scattered loud voices. Small groups talking, shuffling. Bunks creaking.

A votary wheeled in a console television. “This will remain on the channel it’s set to.” He paused. “That safety razor on top the t.v. has one blade.” He pointed to the razor. “You have one-half hour to shave,” he said to everyone. “When I return at eight o’clock, that razor will be right there.” He struck the top of the console with his knuckles. “With the razor blade next to it. If I see anything other than that, I will respond.” Tapped the console and left the enclosure.

Herb rose from his bunk with three other witnesses, walked up to Kenny, blinked slowly.      “You busy?”

No reply.

“You too busy to spend some time with us?” Gestured toward his bunk, then pulled Kenny’s head closer, “You owe me.”

“The hell I-”

“Shut up. Shut the hell up. You owe me. I gave you something. And now you owe me. Don’t renege or I’ll make sure they yank your privileges. Send your ass down behind them damn white doors.” Within moments he laughed, raised his voice a decibel below a yell.   “You want that? You wanna be b’hind them doors downstairs?”

The three witnesses from Herb’s bunk surrounded Kenny, then tightened their circle. Kenny’s head jerked back. Pain descended from eyes to mouth, then came guttural sounds, and he was on the floor in a fetal curl. He knew he was leaking – red or brown – but did not know which. One of the witnesses set a blade on top the television.

The next afternoon Kenny waited in yet another line of witnesses to be told what to do, where to go, yelled at about something, lined up to go somewhere or lined up to come back. It didn’t really matter. His knees ached, everything ached, and he was ashamed of the stains between the hip pockets of his jeans. Herb cut in. Within seconds Kenny was again encircled.

“You.” Herb spit on the floor. “You do not say ‘no’ to me.” When he signaled, the circle blended away, and Kenny was on the floor with blood on his shirt darkening yesterday’s stains.

A votary meandered over. “Get off the floor.” He raised his voice. “Get over to the infirmary.”

We now knew Kenny had learned the Rules.

Late the next day, when he awoke, Kenny’s eyes followed the white infirmary wall toward a metal desk at the opening of the ward. He blew at the detritus descending from the ceiling, watched it float away, then concentrated on the liquid dripping through a tube attached to an elevated bag. When he pulled down his sheet, he saw stitches below his rib cage and several blood stains.

A nurse from Honduras walked up. “¿Como estás?” Kenny asked.

She eagerly responded. “¿Pero, como estas?” Then smiled and touched his shoulder.

A witness two beds over pounded his mattress. “Hey, lady, get the hell over here and take care of my bedpan.”

She rolled her eyes, stooped slightly, walked toward the demand. When she returned, Kenny continued with questions about Honduras, her hometown, his difficulties. In an environment where she was held in less esteem than children’s pets, she lingered. On his third day, she handed him a gift – a Hershey’s candy bar.

“No te puedo pagar,” said Kenny.

“No need to repay,” she said. Then added, “You don’t look like you belong here.”

Kenny laughed, then winced. “Gracias.”

On his final morning, the nurse placed the Spanish edition of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” on Kenny’s bed. “When you go back, read it,” and tucked it under his pillow, then patted the pillow as if fluffing it. “Wait. Open then.” She knew when he left the infirmary he would not be searched.

A week later Kenny was strong enough to walk the circumference of the enclosure. He moved carefully. His head down just enough to seem disinterested – as if passing through on an assignment.

#

Kenny had waited almost six years since his transfer to the North Center’s third floor when he heard a votary’s clipped accent call his name for the first time, “Du mars.” The sound seemed to extend. “Kaaaa-neee Duuuu-maws. Somebo’y lu’ ya.” He pitched a nine-by-twelve manila envelope on the concrete floor. Kenny hustled down iron steps to retrieve the package.

Back on the third floor, he flipped to the last page, saw the final word: DENIED. But when he read the preceding three words his body constricted. “… the same fate.”

He reached for the book the nurse had given him. Opened it to the section with the indentation. He did not understand why they allowed him to keep the book. Kenny closed his eyes. His contours hardened as if chiseled. DENIED, that last word on the final page told him whether sunny or dark, summer or winter, held no relevance for him. He knew what came next.

He would soon be inside a metal building, past racks of the North Center’s food items – cans of peaches and lard, bags of rice and beans, five-gallon bottles of ketchup and mustard – walking toward unmarked doors, then into a building connected to a small concrete warehouse, and through an opening the width of a garage door. When he stopped, the door would descend.

Lights would illuminate five unsmiling votaries in dark suits and one senior witness. At this point, Kenny would need assistance. We knew it required an element of irrationality to voluntarily continue. “Let’s go,” a votary would say. “Lean on me.”

Kenny’s shallow breathing would be familiar to these votaries, as would the next sequence – exam table. White sheets. Straps. No needles. No tubes. Eyes never averted. No request for last words. No more time.

Our Rules dictated that Kenny remain awake while the senior witness held the toothbrush the nurse had secreted inside the book. The same sharpened toothbrush Kenny shoved__ into Herb Peavy’s carotid artery.

The senior witness would press that toothbrush into Kenny’s neck until there was no longer a pulse.

– THE END –

 

______________

Thomas Elson’s short stories, poetry, and flash fiction have been published in numerous venues such as Calliope, Pinyon,Lunaris Journal, The New Ulster, The Lampeter, Blood & Bourbon, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, and Adelaide Literary Magazine. He divides his time between Northern California and Western Kansas.

Our Hands by Katelyn Hogue

Our Hands by Katelyn Hogue

I groan as I walk home and look down at my nails. The black paint is already chipping off even though I just painted them the other day. I angrily adjust the pack on my back as I continue walking down the sidewalk, my boots crunching the fallen leaves that litter the path. I look up from my nails and notice a crowd of about twenty people gathered outside a house in my neighborhood. I hear them talking before I see what they’re discussing.

“What’s going on?” says some man in the crowd.

“Why’s he up there?” asks a young girl.

I walk up the path and to my horror, I see a boy standing on the rooftop of one of the homes. I know that house, it’s one of the few brick houses I pass on my way to and from school. I can’t tell who the boy is, but he’s standing on the ledge of the roof. My stomach drops, fearing the worst. I join the crowd hoping to get some information about what’s going on.

“Just some guy on the roof. Maybe suicidal,” explains a big bald guy. Thirty seconds later, at least ten more people join to watch. A few call 9-1-1, but most are just talking about the boy and asking question. Glancing at the crowd, I make my way to the back of the house. No one pays attention to me as I leave the group and enter the home. I climb up to the attic and find an open window. Assuming this is how the boy got to the roof, I squeeze through the small square space.

“Luke!” I exclaim, recognizing the boy. “What are you doing up here?” We’re both seniors in high school, and we’re in the same civics class. I would never have guessed he would be doing this. He’s on the football team, girls seem to like him, and our civic teacher can’t stand him because he talks all class period. I mean, I’m the weird girl who wears dark clothes that sits in the back of the class. I’m the one who doesn’t seem to pay attention. If you looked at us both, you would guess I would be the one on the ledge of a roof.

“Tiffany?” He looks a bit puzzled. When I try to walk to him, he warns, “Don’t come any closer,” The crisp autumn air turns heavy as my fears become reality.

“Okay, Luke. I won’t, but talk to me. What’s wrong?”

He’s not facing me, but he must have been crying because his voice comes out scratchy. “Everything,” he mutters.

“Like what?” I asked, edging my way closer to him.

“Everything! My mom passed away from cancer, dad’s depressed, I don’t have any real friends. I barely feel anything anymore…except the pain.”

“I know how that feels, Luke. The pain. When life’s too real. I get that,” I say to him. I work my way closer until I’m a few feet away from him.

“Stop Tiffany! I’ll jump!” He shouts at me and glares back angrily, but in his eyes I see nothing but depression and desperation. I freeze.

“Luke, I get it, but I know that it gets better. It really does. You just have to push through this. I could help you!”

From down below, I hear the same man from earlier yell, “Jump already!”

Sickened, I beg, “No, Luke, please don’t!” I cry, “This doesn’t have to be the end!”

“No, he’s right,” Luke whispers. My eyes widen as I realize what he’s about to do. My heart aches as he chokes out, “It’s too late,” He leans forward, accepting his fate. Tears stream down my face and before I can even think, I run up, reach out, and rip him back from the ledge by his shirt. With a loud thump we both crash back on the rooftop. I look at his face; He’s not angry… he’s scared. He opens his eyes, looks at me, and sobs deeply. I move to my knees and hug him. He wraps his arms around me and continues to cry on my shoulder.

“It’s going to be okay. I’ll help you,”

That’s all we say, and we just sit there.

Eventually, he looks to me, signaling he’s ready to go. I stand up and reach out for his hand. The person in front of me is a young man preparing for adulthood, but all I see is a scared little boy. He reaches out and grabs hold of my hand. Our hands lock together, his rough and shaking, with mine small and soft. For that moment, I think, Luke isn’t the type of guy you think would end up on the roof contemplating ending it all, and I’m not the type of girl you think might end up doing anything important with her life, but I realized people aren’t who they seem to be. I’m not just some girl, I’m… a hero?

I pull him to his feet. Hand in hand, we walk from the roof to the attic door. As we make our way out of the building, the crowd applauds us. The police try to take Luke away, but I don’t let him leave my side. It’s not until I give Luke my number and tell him to call me whenever he needs help, and the police assure me they’re going to get him help that I let go of his hand. As I turn to leave, he grasps my hand again.

“Why?” he asks.

“Why what?” I respond, confused.

“Why did you run up there? Why did you save me?”

“Because…” My eyebrows furrow together. Why did I? I didn’t have to, but I never second guessed myself. It was natural. “Because it’s who I am,” I answer softly.

He nods, and with one final glance, I walk away.

Katelyn Hogue lives in a small town in Pennsylvania. She spends her times as a junior in high school and tries to make time to read and write.

World Tree by Kevin Hoover

World Tree by Kevin Hoover

Kevin Hoover

World Tree

 

 

The boy watched as Grandfather stoked the fire-pit dreamily, his old age and wisdom a wonder among men. He knew the wrinkled man was calling deep upon memory, preparing one of his many stories for telling. The boy waited impatiently, letting his gaze drift behind Grandfather, back and back, past the plains of cherried-wheat, beyond grey hills and shadowed ranges of snow-capped mountains. There imposing upon the pink dusk of the sky and leagues higher than the other mountaintops, rose the Great Mountain. The single, conical behemoth, though faded by distance, filled the majestic vista of the boy’s world, and his eyes went captive to it. The mountain’s colossal heights were veiled in eternal clouds, forever hidden. What the summit must look like, the boy could only wonder. None had ever known.

“Your face is fixed upon Ceivva, I see…” whispered Grandfather. “As it has always been, by all men.”

The boy continued to stare at the mountain. “Isn’t it beautiful, Grandfather?”

“That it is, child. That it is…” the old man’s voice sang softly, like hushed secrets. “And what would you ask it, boy, if it could answer you?” He continued to poke at the embers under the fire.

“What lies beyond the clouds, at its peak…”

And here a hint of a smile turned the corner of the old man’s lips. “Ahh,” returned Grandfather. “Then I shall tell you, for the mountain cannot.”

The boy looked to his Grandfather with astonishment. “You know?”

“I do at that, for despite what folk now say, men of ages past-many, many great ages past and nigh-forgotten, came down from its heights. They were our ancestors.”

“Tell me! Is it true Grandfather?” The boy sat across from him, eyes wide with the magic of possibility, the crackling fire spitting between them, and the Great Mountain beyond.

“Indeed,” said Grandfather, “And remember this most of all, boy. They were not so unlike us!” and his voice bespoke the truth of it. “It has been said that Ceivva has no summit, at least, not one that can be reached. But this is only partially true. It is also believed that the Great Mountain is our connection to the heavens. Do you know what ‘Ceivva’ means?  Hmm?”

The boy found it curious to think on the question, and realized that he did not.

Grandfather continued, and he carried his story in wisped, reverent tones…

* * *

…Though it is a mountain, ‘Ceivva’ means ‘World Tree.’ It has always carried this name, in our ancient times and in the times before time. As it is with you, boy, the first people of this world cast their adorning gaze upon the Great Mountain, and were captivated by its mysteries. Soon our every ancestor set their desires upon learning the secrets of Ceivva. It became their sole purpose—and a curse.

Every advancement, every progression, every momentous step of ancient man’s evolution through history, every lunge toward civilization was centered upon the Great Mountain. The fathers and mothers of our arcane heritage became obsessed by reaching its summit. Every piece of history now lost to us, good and bad, played out with that common goal in mind. Wars broke out among the fractured tribes as they claimed the vast slopes of the mountain as their own; still they climbed higher. Dangerous expeditions into its freezing heights were waged, all for the honor of being first to reach the top. Men and women died by the thousands along its unforgiving faces. Still, they looked upward toward Ceivva’s elusive summit.

Soon, delayed by the mountain’s unyielding rigors, attentions among men went to the design and building of many great and wondrous things, inventions beyond our understanding today. They used these creations at first to keep each other from scaling higher than themselves. But they soon found they could master the skies with their intellect, and were free to roam the winds like great birds.

Eventually, aided by the power of flight, they reached the very top of the mountain. What was found there was a curious thing, as enigmatic as the mountain itself. Upon the summit, a great tree grew forth, leagues upon leagues in circumference. Here then, was some truth to the Great Mountain’s name, Ceivva- The World Tree. How this coincidence might have occurred baffled our ancestors, but it brought forth, for a time, an era of peace and unison among them, for surely there was some divine work now in play. There was little doubt they were fated to reach the summit, and to ascend the Great Tree toward the heavens.

And so, with wheated-plains, lush forests, and grey hills of their origins long behind them, these first people pushed ever upward, seeking out their destiny. The air grew thin, and thin, and thinner still. Nevertheless, they continued to launch daring campaigns of exploration, climbing up the gargantuan surface of Ceivva, for they had surpassed the heights whose winds afforded them the gift of flight. Such heights had these people reach that the invisible force that holds us tight to the bosom of the world was less and less, until the only force still upon them held them to the tree itself. Looking back now, they saw the world for what it was and what it had always been—a perfect sphere. They began to think of Ceivva not as ‘ascending’ atop the world, but rather as ‘growing outward’ from it, reaching into the expanses of the starry beyond.

And here there was a great split among the first people, for so strange and foreign was this existence that many gave up their eons-birthright, letting go the quest to seek Ceivva’s ultimate end. Those many ancestors turned around, wanting the memories of the past, which told stories of fertile lands, rivers and forests, and fields of red-amber wheat, of kingdoms of animals now long forgotten. And so they returned to the firm stretches of the soiled world, and became  known as ‘The Grounded.’  Yet, many more committed themselves to their lust for discovery. They chose to continue venturing outward along Ceivva, always wondering at its extent what lies but a little farther, and so they became known as ‘The Seekers.’  They believed, in all their hearts, the legends that Ceivva would one day link them directly to the Divine.

The path of The Seekers was at first difficult, bereft of the fruits and substances afforded to The Grounded, but Ceivva’s skin yielded the way onward. Soon, her bark of vast valleys and dense foliage became ecosystems unto themselves. Through great toil and a plentiful life provided by this newfound paradise, the achievements of The Seekers eventually surpassed anything The Grounded had hoped to reach. Finally, The Seekers had mastered the flight of the heavens themselves, thus the meter to which their exploration along World Tree progressed had increased a hundred fold, and colonies by countless dozens sprung up ever outward.

The connections and conversing between The Seekers and The Grounded became less frequent and less still. That dialogue, which did reach The Seekers, spoke tales of hunger and strife among their old brethren. The sprawling eras of time bestowed upon The Grounded alternated between curses of disease, war, and famine. Word came of the desperate pleas for aid by The Grounded, begging The Seekers to share their good fortune with them. But The Seekers thought on their ancient kin as an arrogant, backward and foolish people. Sadly, they turned their backs on them, and looked instead toward the ends of Ceivva.

Resolved in leaving the ill fortunes of their cousins behind them, they advanced their designs of an idyllic life yet farther along Ceivva’s incalculable reaches. And idyllic their life was, for eons it would seem. They lived out their lives, each generation, like gods. But despite all this blessing, and all their relentless exploration, they lacked the one thing, which had always eluded them. Outward again, and again, and again, desperately trying to fill their need to know, to fathom where Ceivva might lead them, but she was unwilling to yield this to the minds of men, for men they still were, and soon paradise became a fleeting thing. They had progressed so far away from the world, and here along the infinite regions of World Tree, she began to bare fewer and fewer bountiful areas. The Seekers would push past an immense expanse of deadness, only to reach a quaint vale of struggling life; past countless leagues of inhospitable tree-land, only to find a pitiful spattering of near-dead life.

Whole colonies were lost to these dying regions. Likewise, the once fruitful settlements, which had come before them, were also in loss of their providence. A slow, withering impotence began to overtake the surface of the Great Tree, and the loss of life among The Seekers became an aberration of horrors.

Eventually, at such peril were The Seekers in, they made the unthinkable decision to turn back. So back they went, and back and back, clamoring down Ceivva’s colossal trunk, hoping to gain the firmament of the once-forgotten world beneath their feet before the last of them died out. They would rejoin their kin, and trade with them their secrets of knowledge in exchange for home and sustenance.

Finally, with so very few of them left, they reached again the land of their distant origins. Now, descending the slopes of the Great Mountain and passing through the barrier of constant clouds, they looked down upon the world, and what they saw caused a great sadness among them. Our ancient ancestors saw, at long last, the sums of their past. Or, perhaps, it was the future they glimpsed, and the sight of it nearly stole away their will to live… 

* * *

And here, Grandfather’s eyes glazed over, the light of the fire danced across his face, and a few stray tears went unchecked down his leathered cheeks.

“What did they see?” asked the boy. Grandfather sat, stalwart among his thoughts, his gaze lost upon the flames between them. He said nothing. For a long while, it seemed, the boy waited for more, but curiosity and impatience won out. He went around to the other side of the fire-pit, knelt before his Grandfather, and reached for his hand. “Grandfather, is that it?  Is that the end of the story?”

The old storyteller blinked through his tears, as if coming out of a long sleep, and turned to look at his grandson. Trapped in his thoughts, he realized the boy had asked him a question. His eyes asked the boy to repeat it.

“Is that the end of the story?”

Grandfather shook his head slowly. “Oh no…  Not the end,” he managed at barely a whisper. “Not the end at all.”

“Well, what did they see, beneath the clouds?” the boy asked.

Grandfather moved a hand up to rest it on the boy’s shoulder, and caught his eyes with his own. “The land was neglected. No—not neglected… Devastated! The land was devastated! The Seekers knew, without ever having seen the world for themselves that what lie before them was a vile, horrid rape and mutilation of the land. Hardly a tree remained standing upon the scorched surface. The fabled plains of cherried-wheat were gone. The grey hills were black and ravaged. The snow-capped mountains had lost their snow, standing bare like solemn witnesses. It was an unnatural plight, and they understood then that the wars and desperation of their once-brethren people had brought the soils of the world to the brink of death, and so too had caused the dying of Ceivva.

“But the great sadness and burden that our ancient ancestors, The Seekers, would forever onward carry with them is their part in it—their share of the blame, for they too caused the death of Ceivva. And their kin. And nearly the whole of the world. They who thought themselves like gods, and turned their back on The Grounded, leaving them to work with what was now seen before them.”

The boy and Grandfather remained silent for a time, locked in their thoughts and buried in their emotions.

Finally the boy spoke, “What did they do, The Seekers?”

Grandfather blinked back his slow, impending tears. “From thence… thence came a time of great struggle, and great hardship, when our ancient ancestors were forced to turn all their attentions to the re-nurturing of the world—to rekindle what had once been forgotten.” 

The boy looked on the landscape around them. His gaze pierced the evening shadows, swept across the hills and the wheat swaying slowly in the wind.

“Yes,” continued the old man. “After a time, a long time, they succeeded. In doing so, they lost much of the knowledge they had once gained, but they succeeded.

“Now it is time to return home I think, and to bed. I am growing very tired.”  Grandfather stood up, slowly, as old age would permit him, and began to make his way from the fire-pit, Ceivva fading in the twilight behind him.

The boy took one last glance at the snow-capped mountain ranges, and The Great Mountain rising above them all, then turned to help his Grandfather.

The old man yawned, then spoke again, as if in afterthought to all he’d said tonight. “Tomorrow, boy… tomorrow, you will tell me the story I have told you today.”


Trolls Are Hot by Chris George

Trolls Are Hot by Chris George

Chris George

Trolls Are Hot

I knew he was the one the moment I laid eyes on him. I loved his silky hair, his chiseled abs, his big, soulful eyes, and his velvet toned voice. He sat alone at the lunch table across from me in school. I just had to talk to him.

“Hi!” I said.

“Hey,” he replied.

“My name’s Megan, and…and…ohmigosh I think you’re really cute.”

“Oh. My name’s Alvin. Alvin E’hoar.”

“I like your name! Is it Irish?”

“No, it’s Troll.”

I just couldn’t believe what this dreamboat was saying. “Troll?”

“Yes, I’m a troll. My whole family is.”

“You are not! You’re so silly Alvin!” I giggled at him and left.

“I’m being serious!” Alvin told me as I left.

Later that day, as I was walking home from school, I noticed something strange. Under the interstate overpass I go by every day, I saw furniture. Brand new sofas, a flat screen TV, bureaus, a dining table, beds, even a bathtub. It looked like a house, except everything happened to be outside. As I approached this curious place, I saw You-Know-Who again.

“Megan, is it? I told you I wasn’t lying. This is where my family lives.”

“Alvin, my boy, who’s your friend?” his father asked. “Come over here and introduce her to me. We’re just about to sit down for dinner.”

Alvin took me over to his parents and they graciously invited me for dinner.

“What’s your name, child?”

“Megan,” I replied.

“What a lovely name. I’m Gordon. I know, it’s hard to believe that we’re Trolls, but we’ve always looked just like humans. It’s just that your kind has always portrayed us as ugly in their stories. We’re decent folk, really.”

“Our family used to live under the bridge on Old Route 94,” explained Alvin.

“You mean the bridge over Little Hampton Creek?” I inquired.

“Yep,” chimed Gordon, “we used to charge toll for going over that bridge. That’s how we made a living. But when the interstate was built, people stopped driving on that road. So we moved here and tried to do the same thing. Lemme tell ya, it just ain’t the same. Trying to collect toll from people going 70 miles an hour is a mite bit tough unless you’re the Transportation Department.”

“So what do you do for a living now?”

“I work as a freelance web designer. No one suspects a thing, since Trolls look just like humans. There are certain habits I need to remember to keep in check, but I’m getting ahead of myself now.”

“That’s funny, because on the Internet, there are people called ‘trolls’ who post on websites to make people angry. Do you ever have to deal with them?”

“Only when I work for high profile clients. Occasionally I’ll do some work for the government, and a few hooligans will crash the site just as soon as I have it up. I really wish people would stop calling them ‘trolls’. It defames our people. But such is the state of affairs between us and humans.”

“Mr. E’hoar-“

“Please, call me Gordy.”

“Thanks, but, it’s getting late. My parents don’t know where I am and are probably worried by now. It was nice talking and eating with you, though.”

“Oh, no trouble, Missy. Here, take this,” Gordon handed me a book about Troll culture. “This has everything you’d ever care to know about trolls. And if you have any other questions, just drop me a line. Okay?”

“Okay.”

I gave them a smile and started back home, but not before winking to Alvin. He just stammered at me. How cute.

That night, I read the book Alvin’s dad gave to me. It was the most engrossing thing I’ve ever read. All aspects of the Trolls were laid bare to me. Did you know that a Troll’s skin hardens in sunlight? They don’t even need sunscreen! That’s so hot. And there’s a reason why they collect tolls. The coins are like status symbols. The more coins, and the shiner the coins, mean the higher the status for the family. I wonder how many coins Alvin’s family has?

The next day at school, Chelsea, the resident mean girl, came up to me.

“Hey, I heard you went out with that Alvin kid,” she said while chewing gum. “That guy is mine. You’re too much of a dork for him!”

“Hey, shut up!” I shouted. “I did not go out with him! We aren’t ready for that yet.”

“Oh! Did you hear, girls? Megan’s ‘not ready for dating’! Oh, how precious!” Chelsea said maliciously. She and her posse began jeering.

It was then that Alvin walked by.

“Hey Megan,” he said in his customary aloof manner. “I really appreciate you coming to visit me yesterday. Are you friends with Chelsea?”

“As if!” I said.

“Hey Ally boy, why hang out with this loser. Come with me, I’ll show you a good time!”

“No thanks, Chelsea.”

“What did you say?”

“I don’t want to date anyone right now. What’s important is that I graduate from here so I can start providing for my family.”

My heart sank a little when I heard that. But I was confident I could change his mind. Chelsea, on the other hand….

“Fine! You’re such a slut anyway! Who needs you! Come on girls, let’s get outta here.”

And with that, she left.

“Did I hear you right, Alvin? You don’t want to date me?” I asked, my voice quivering ever so slightly.

“It’s not that I don’t want to date you specifically. It’s just that one day my Dad will no longer be able to care for himself, and he’ll need someone to look after him. If he went to a nursing home, they’d realize he’s a Troll sooner or later. There’s no telling what would happen then. So I need to study hard so I can get scholarships and earn enough to support him. Maybe one day, if I’m ever famous, I can show people Trolls aren’t bad at all. But that’s way in the future. I must keep my eyes ahead while focusing on now. Do you get it?”

“I think so…”

“You seem like a very nice girl. Maybe someday, something will happen between us. But for now, I’m happy just being friends with you.”

“Yeah, thanks for being a friend.”

“You’re welcome.”

Alvin then winked at me and left. I spent the rest of the day thinking about Alvin, how even if he is famous one day, we’ll still be friends. I dearly hope he keeps that promise. He’s too sexy for me to lose.