A Man of No Small Coincidence By Jack Donahue

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

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

Halloween Terror By Alison Cloonan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   * *  * * *  *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He smiled, nodded, and continued his evening walk.

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

Ghosted By Jade Draper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Threads of Glass By Aileen Pepple

I open my eyes and the first thing I perceive is the unsettling moonlight slipping in through the cracks between the filthy, navy-blue curtains. Pushing myself up from the dusty, certainly bug-covered floor, I take in the room around me. Large pieces of the wood flooring have rotted away or been viciously pulled up to create dark pits that bring out my anxiety. Peering into the darkness burrowing into the heart of the abandoned house, some feeling tells me that if I were to jump I would hit a dirt floor where two graves had been dug. Leading out of the living room I stand in, two framed doorways reveal a kitchen and foyer with a raggedy staircase leading up to the second floor. Eventually I notice the peculiar wind chime hanging from the ceiling between the doorways. Thin threads hold up shards of multi-colored glass that scratch each other in a breeze that I don’t feel. I move towards the hanging glass and reach out, mindlessly running my finger along the edges of one of the longer, magenta-colored pieces.

Lainey, be careful! I hear his sweet little voice arise from the back of my head. Not all of my memories from my childhood come back, but some of the missing pieces I never wanted to be recovered find their way to me at last.

My voice cracks as I speak. “Why am I back in this house?”



I can hear the sadness underlining my little brother’s words. “You promised me you wouldn’t forget, but you did it anyway.”

My eyes water and my face flushes as I turn around.  “Danny, none of this is real. You are not real. I-” He stills appears as his seven-year-old self, the age he had been murdered in this very house by him.

From what I can remember, our parents used to go on monthly, week-long business trips together, although they never told us where or why they went. During these trips, they had our Uncle D’lester babysit us. Our uncle was known to have anger problems and questionable tendencies by nearly anyone who had met him, but I don’t think our parents ever thought he would hurt either of us. Yet, he did and had been doing so for a long time. That last night, my little brother saw how our uncle hurt me and, in seeing the bruising on my arms and legs, he tried to protect me. Uncle D’lester pushed him too hard. Danny’s body slumped between the floorboards and the walls as a small pool of blood started to trickle out from the back of his head. Our uncle turned back to me and bashed my head so hard into the wall behind me that it knocked me unconscious. After that, I woke up in a hospital with one of our neighbors holding my hand, my parents missing, and my brother dead.

Danny stands before me with swollen cheeks and the bruising and dirt covering his small form still clearly visible. “Danny, please. Our uncle is dead now. I got rid of him forever. Our fear should be gone.”

Danny looks up at me and tries to dry his tears with his sleeves, but it doesn’t help. He speaks in a much older voice now, how I think he would sound if he had lived to the present. “You don’t remember! You don’t remember, Lainey! You are still in danger! Over these years, I have heard you try to convince yourself everything happens for a reason. Well, that is true, but not always do they happen for good reasons. Sometimes the reason why things happen is because evil exists.”

“Stop!” I shout. “I just want this to end! Why did you bring me back here!”

Suddenly he seems frozen as he stares just over my shoulder. “I didn’t.”

“Then who did?”

A shiver runs through me as the light behind me in the foyer flickers on. The silhouette of a man holding a small knife and a woman holding onto his arm stretch across the floor boards beside me. They speak in unison. “Hello, sweet daughter.”

Aileen Pepple is an English/Theatre major. Her passion is for creative writing with a focus on horror and science fiction. One of her major dreams is to write and direct a series of horror short films, using all the knowledge she has learned at HCC. 



Watching, Waiting By Katelyn Hogue

2:52 A.M. All it took was one sound. One unexpected sound, and I could feel the air shift around me. So quick, but so important. One unexplained sound and she awoke, surely frightened. Her body now lies rigid and alert, but only seconds before curved naturally in blissful sleep. That’s fine. Mistakes happen. Sounds happen. I wait, calm, sure that soon her eyes will tire and her body will sag, comforted by the warm air and the trusted silence. I wait, 3:05 A.M, but still, for over ten minutes, her demeanor does not change. Smart girl. She trusts her instincts. Most would pacify themselves with hopeful reassurances until their frightened bodies fold organically back into their mattresses, but not her. She heard me, and she knows it too. For one instant in the confusing in-between where reality and fantasy converge she heard me, and the voice now telling her to relax her ever-beating heart is not loud enough to silence her instinctual need to survive.

3:07 A.M. I breath silently, in no hurry, and completely willing to let her take as much time as she needs. The sun will not be up for hours. I have plenty of time.

3:21 A.M.  I long to move, but I stand perfectly silent. When I close my eyes, I can hear her internal debate. One voice pleads with her to look around the room, worried for what may be lurking in the shadows. Another voice, either fear or reason, tells her to go back to sleep and scoffs at the childish fear of monsters waiting in the darkness. I lick my lips and smile. It’s a shame how many times “don’t be stupid” outweighs “just to be safe”…

I want her to look at me. I desire it with an incredible lust I can’t fully explain. Just look behind you I tell her silently. So few ever do. Searching for me, looking at me means facing fear itself. That’s what I want. That’s what I love. It makes the game so much better.  After all, no one wants to hunt a dead deer. Those who have the courage to peer into the darkness, to confront man’s fear of the unknown live to fight another day, and I, I resign to the shadows, euphoric and satisfied. We both win when they’re brave. With vigilant, hungry eyes, I study her, aware of everything; the woosh woosh of her fan, the chill in the air, the faint scent of cinnamon. I watch and wait for a twitch or a hint of movement, something that tells me she is willing to confront me. I hold my breath in anticipation. No matter what she choses I will get something what I want. So I watch and wait for her.

3:36 A.M. I watch her sag, convinced that the sound she heard was the wind, not real, or some other excuse made from her tired mind. I shake my head, almost making a tsk sound, but I don’t.

A hint of a smile flicks across my lips. I’ll enjoyed killing her, but I can’t help but feel a little disappointed too as she has, unknowingly, surrendered to me, and sadly, she will not get another chance, another sound, to save herself.  I take a silent step towards the bed as I reached for my knife. Long. Thin. Sharp. Slow. She’ll know soon that she was right, and it was foolish of her not to check on me. Perhaps that will be her final thought.

Katelyn Hogue is a student at Hagerstown Community College.

Cabin Fever by Judy Gitterman

“Ted, are you in there? Are you alright?” It was Dennis, his father.

“Yeah, Dad. Just a minute.”

Ted took a quick look in the mirror over the dresser but barely recognized the visage staring back. There were dark circles under his eyes, and his skin was so pale it looked like he hadn’t been outdoors in months. That wasn’t far from the truth. He was at the family cabin in upstate New York for the weekend, and it was the first time he had ventured out of the City since Susan died. They had always traveled together to the annual family “Oktoberfest Weekend” near the Finger Lakes. He hadn’t wanted to go this year, but his father pressed him, and he’d finally agreed.

He had at least three days’ growth of beard. Instead of the usual thick dark curls, his hair hung in listless strands, plastered every which way on the sides of his face. Ted couldn’t remember when he had last washed his hair. He splashed his face with water from a glass on his nightstand and opened the door.

Dennis was wearing pressed corduroy pants and a new hunter’s green plaid flannel shirt. At 6’2” with broad shoulders and angular features, he always seemed so put together. He was 60 but looked ten years younger. Dennis stayed in good shape by running five days a week and working out with weights. He could be the poster boy for AARP’s “aging well” campaign. Dennis handled whatever life threw at him and made it look easy. Ted’s mother Joanne had died from breast cancer when Ted was nine. But Dennis had taken this in stride; he had never appeared bitter or angry and had taken on all the childcare responsibilities with enthusiasm. He managed to juggle Ted’s Boy Scout overnights and soccer games with his job as an engineer for Con-Edison. When Ted was twelve, Dennis married Andrea, and Ted’s twin half-brothers were born three years later.

Dennis creased his brow and frowned. Ted hated that look. He knew his father had good intentions, but Ted wasn’t in the mood for conversation. He braced himself.

“Ted, you’ve been up here at the lake three days already, and you’ve barely left your room. I know what you are going through. But Susan’s been gone eight months now. Why don’t you take your camera outside and get some fresh air? You know, today’s the perfect day to take some pictures—the foliage is at its peak. Ted, do me a favor, just try it.”

Ted looked at his father and quickly looked away as he fought to suppress the tightness welling up in his throat. He didn’t want to talk about Susan, and he didn’t want to talk about his camera. He’d brought it with him and had even charged the batteries but had yet to use it. It didn’t seem right to take pictures without Susan. Though they both worked long hours—Ted was a software engineer, and Susan was an attorney—they had shared a passion for nature and landscape photography and always made time for it on weekends and vacations. Their pictures lined the walls of the cabin.

“Hey, it’s okay, Dad. Don’t worry. I just needed to rest, that’s all. Go on back downstairs. I’ll be down in a few minutes.”

Ted found his clothes crumpled in a pile on the floor and put them on. No need to shave or shower. What was the point? He went downstairs. The twins Chris and Kurt were playing their new Super Mario Brothers game on the Wii.

“Hey, guys,” Ted said.

The boys did not take their eyes off the television screen. Their faces were set with resolute determination as they deftly moved the game controllers with the confidence of experienced fighter pilots. No one would guess they were related to Ted; they didn’t look anything like him. While Ted had Dennis’s build and affect, the twins were skinny as string beans and had their mother’s sandy blond hair and bright blue eyes. Ted liked the twins well enough, but he didn’t have much to say to them. At twenty-eight, Ted was fifteen years older. He could have tried harder and invited them to do things with him, but he didn’t feel like expending the effort this weekend. Anyhow, they were lost in their alternate universe of video games.

The air in the family room was dense with wafts of roast beef, potatoes, carrots, and onions. Comfort food. But he wasn’t hungry and didn’t want to be comforted. The smell of a home-cooked meal just made the pain of Susan’s absence that much sharper. He was an interloper, looking in from the outside on the domestic bliss of some other family, not his own. He needed to get outdoors and clear his head. Ted found his hiking boots by the front door and laced them up.

He walked over to the kitchen doorway. Dennis and Andrea were preparing dinner. Dennis was chopping up vegetables for the salad while Andrea sliced the roast.

“Hey, I’m taking a walk,” he said. “Back in about an hour.”

Dennis glanced up. He looked relieved to see that Ted had emerged from the bedroom.

“Sure son, have a nice walk.”

Dennis turned his attention back to the carrots and lettuce.

Ted zipped up his bomber jacket. It was his favorite jacket even though it had a long gash in the left elbow and the brown leather was faded and crinkled. Susan had given it to him for his 21st birthday. He wore it every day now, and in a way that he couldn’t explain, it gave him some semblance of security.

Ted opened the front door when a photo in the front hall caught his eye, and he stopped. It was a photo of a eucalyptus tree Susan had taken in Kauai, on their last vacation together. He remembered that Susan had spent almost an hour getting close-ups of the eucalyptus grove on the North Shore. A stab of guilt hit him when he remembered that he had been impatient and had asked her to hurry up so they could go to dinner. But with her usual equanimity, she had just smiled and said she hadn’t realized the time. They ate dinner as the sun set at a small café overlooking Hanalei Bay that night, and he remembered feeling how lucky he was.

Susan had cropped the photo of the eucalyptus to magnify the rainbow colors of bark, and then she over-saturated the colors in Adobe Lightroom. The result was a stunning abstract of bright, crayon-like colors. She printed it out on their home printer, and Ted had made a white mat and cherry wood frame that made the colors pop. They gave it to Dennis and Andrea for Christmas last year.

Ted turned his attention to the open door. Outside, the sky was a brilliant blue and crystal clear after last night’s rainfall. The leaves on the maples and sycamores that surrounded the cabin were deep wine red, bright orange, and yellow. Ted held his gaze on the trees, then turned and ran back upstairs. He grabbed his camera backpack and tripod and went outside.

Almost as soon as he shut the front door behind him and walked past the property line, the tension in his head evaporated as he breathed in the crisp autumn air.

Ted took the trail that circled the lake. When he was just about halfway around, he turned off the trail and climbed through piles of leaves and underbrush until he got to the water’s edge. Setting up his tripod, pushed the claw feet into the mud to stabilize the legs and locked his camera into place. The grip of the camera in his hands felt warm and welcoming, and only then did he realize how much he missed it. Over the summer, friends from the photography club he and Susan founded had asked him many times to go on weekend shoots, but he always declined, making one excuse or another. His friends didn’t believe him and kept asking until finally they gave up and stopped calling.

The early evening light brought out the rich tones of the leaves on the white oak, red maple and river birch trees lining the lake. Ted peered through the camera’s viewfinder and adjusted the aperture setting to focus on the foreground as well as the distant trees lining the far side of the lake. He took some wide-angle shots and then switched the camera to panorama mode. The shutter clicked and whirred as he moved the camera in a 180-degree arc, the camera’s internal software stitching together the frames into a single image.

Ted took a quick look at the LCD screen and was satisfied that he’d captured the vista in optimal lighting. He sat down on a rock and gazed out over the water. The wind whistled faintly through the trees, and a lone hawk called off in the distance. Snowy cloud pillows drifted across the canvas of blue sky. Perfect solitude. Susan would have loved it.

As the sun sunk down lower in the sky, the wind picked up, and the air chilled. He slung the tripod with camera attached over his shoulder and started to walk up the hill, toward a small clearing that would give him the best view of the sunset over the lake. The incline was steeper than it looked from below. Ted was out of shape, and he had to stop several times to catch his breath before continuing the climb.

Drenched in sweat, he reached the summit just as the sun was about to set over the lake. The view was worth the effort. Pink and red streaks illuminated the sky. Ted drank in the deep red, orange, yellow, and green tapestry of trees with his eyes. It was too windy for a reflection of the trees on the lake, but as the sun hit the ripples, the light shimmered and danced on the surface of the water like Fourth of July sparklers on silver.

Just as he was about to take a shot, a double rainbow appeared, like oil pastels that mirrored the image of Susan’s eucalyptus he still held in his mind’s eye. He clicked the shutter, catching the sun as it melted into the lake.

Ted felt a gentle wave of tranquility wash over him. He smiled, packed up his gear, and turned to make his way down the hill, back to the cabin. He was hungry and looked forward to dinner.

Judy Gitterman is a writer living in Santa Monica, California. She recently received her MFA in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles, where she was co-lead fiction editor and on the interview team of Lunch Ticket. Judy is currently working on a collection of interwoven short stories.

Days of Heroes by Matthew Wilson

At night I watch her dance, the sweet village girl, how she smiles and I would give my soul to have her smile at me, but she comes here for peace and quiet from her problems, this angel.


How I wish I were brave, strong as steel to deserve such a dancer, but I have given my name to science, and I wished to save the day another way. The world of 2018 is dying, and I thought I could use my machine to go back, to be like the heroes of old days and warn the people of before.


I thought I was smarter than this, but my machine malfunctioned, and I have travelled much further than I should. At night, I creep back into the woods to untangle it from the trees and try to undo my mistakes; for the locals would hang me as a witch if they knew the truth.


But I would cross galaxies to see this angel dance, this girl  who keeps me from my work when she shouts at the stars, spitting at the tyranny back in her village when corrupt officials kill her neighbors and burn their homes.


I can see such bravery in her eyes that shame those stars, steel that I envy but know I can never have. I am a man of science and know I can get back to 2018 if I keep working, if the angel would cease invading my dreams. So, I wake refreshed with my mind on one thing.


But all I know is angels, and that idiotic part of me that got me stranded here in the first place wonders what would happen if I spoke to her, if this Marion noticed me.

Oh, what a hero it would make if she smiled at me.

Then the world would know me for something more than science.

Maybe it would know Robin Loxley for something great.


Matthew Wilson, 34 has been published over 150 times in such
places as Horror*Zine, Zimbell House Publishing, Star*Line, Alban Lake
and many more. He is currently editing his first novel


“Continuing Grace (we can always come back)” by Michael Tucker


It smelled funny in church. Antique wood paneling, breath mints, musty hymnals, Aqua Net Hairspray, polyester suits worn by old ladies since the 1970’s, sour old man sweat, cheap perfume, slightly mildewed carpet, and that institutional, indecipherable smell which is somehow contained in church buildings everywhere added up to a smell that Zach had come to hate. He didn’t want to be sitting here with his back pressed up against this hard and unforgiving, wooden pew on a Wednesday night smelling this funny church smell as the congregation of The Continuing Church of God brought their painfully discordant rendition of Hymn Number 422, “When Storms of Life Are Round Me Beating,” to a merciful end. Brother Don stood at the pulpit in a navy blue, pinstriped suit waiting to start this evening’s sermon. Zach hoped he wasn’t going to again pull out those horrific banners that displayed the beasts from the Book of Revelation alongside the visions of Daniel in all their terrible glory. He particularly dreaded the one that bore a demonic looking image of a drunken harlot clad in scarlet riding on a many- headed, leopard-spotted beast with snarling fangs and glowing eyes. Brother Don had just unfurled those scary, prophetic pictures in his sermon three Sundays ago, so he should be safe tonight. He hoped, too, that the pastor wouldn’t pull out those tapes of rock music being played backwards with its garbled, demonic voices that praised Satan. That was scary stuff— and besides what kind of person listens to music backwards anyway?

 Zach had hoped to no avail that his mom would let him stay home this evening. He was, after all, already thirteen years old, and his friend Malora, who was also thirteen and who lived in the trailer at the end of the road with the grouchy old man she called Pap, stayed home alone all the time. Besides the fact that she always smelled of stale cigarette smoke, Zach really liked Malora. Unlike the people here at The Continuing Church of God, Malora made him laugh with her sarcasm and her silly streak. Brother Don with his slicked back hair, ruddy, rubbery face, and booming voice just made him feel sort of uncomfortable and more than a little unworthy.

Brother Don wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead with the handkerchief he kept in his lapel pocket, took a deep breath, and began his sermon. It didn’t sound much different to Zach from the one he had just heard this past Sunday or last Wednesday night or any of the other ones he had been forced to sit through before that for that matter.  

“Brothers and Sisters in Christ, we are truly living in the last days. Just as in the days of Sodom and Gomorrah, the world is full of filthy perversion and immorality. People have turned away from God. And just like He did to Sodom and Gomorrah, God will once again pour the vials of his wrath out upon the earth. The world is full of immorality and homosexual perversion…”

Zach glanced sheepishly over at David McAllister who was sitting three people away from him in the same row. Zach wasn’t sure what he felt when he looked at David, but he found himself looking at David often— even if it made his stomach do flips whenever he looked at him or thought about him for that matter.  Besides, if he didn’t want to end up being burned up by the hand of God or turned into a pillar of salt, he had better stop staring secretly at David. He had seen him playing basketball at the park last week with his shirt off in the early spring sunshine. Zach wondered if his own skinny body would ever develop the muscles that David had. He thought about the naked statue in his art book that was named David, and he thought about how much the real David resembled its smooth and chiseled musculature there in the shimmering sunlight on the basketball court that early spring afternoon. His mother tapped him on the leg. She unwrapped a Certs and handed it to Zach. This was his cue to pay attention.

“… and yes, brothers and sisters, false information is all around us. Television. Radios. Newspapers. So-called universities of higher learning. All the Devil’s tools in these last days. Scripture tells us in Second Timothy 3: ‘This, know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents…’”             

Zach squirmed in his seat. There it was: that funny church smell again.

“…ever learning and never able to come to the truth.’ Do you know my brethren that there are even those among us who claim today that animals have souls when the Holy Bible clearly tells us that this cannot be so?”

Zach’s mind wandered to Jerry, the fuzzy, gray ball of fur that had showed up shivering and mewing on their front porch two weeks ago. He couldn’t believe that his mom had agreed to let him keep the poor little, hungry kitten. Things had been tough since Zach’s dad had passed, and another mouth to feed was kind of a big deal, not to mention paying for cat litter and vet bills. All the stuff that came with being a pet owner added up to extra expenses, and most of the money his mom made at the factory went for rent and food, but who could say no to those bright green eyes? That little cry? That purr? That warm little body that made frantically loving circles around their ankles in the morning?  Zach thought to himself that Jerry had a soul. He was sure of it. He didn’t care what Brother Don or his book said. He glanced over at David and felt another orange Certs being pressed into the palm of his hand.


It smelled like rain: fresh and green and sad and somehow fertile with more than a hint of earthworm and mud in its essence. Zach sat on the front porch waiting for the lightning to let up. He looked at the box and the plush, blue blanket inside it. At least with all the rain, the ground would be soft. This was going to be hard. Each time someone he loved died, it brought back memories of all his previous losses. He barely remembered his Dad’s passing. He was five. The details were fleeting. Eating a bowl of Lucky Charms in the warm kitchen on a snowy morning. His mom looking pale and shocked on the phone.  An emergency room waiting area. A closed pine casket on a white pedestal. The sickening stench of flowers. Eating food in the basement of The Continuing Church of God with its paper table cloths and folding metal chairs and that funny church smell. His Mom’s death was much more vivid in his mind. The details much more visceral. The diagnosis: pancreatic cancer. The constant doctor’s appointments. Chemotherapy. Sickness. Low red cell counts. Radiation. Isolation. The hospice people bringing in the hospital bed. Morphine. The sickening stench of flowers. A waxy skeletal figure that only vaguely resembled his mother in the pine casket lit by soft funeral parlor lighting.  Brother Aaron, son of Brother Don, officiating at the freezing, January graveside service. Food prepared by the ladies of The Continuing Church of God and served in the same basement. Same paper tablecloths. Same metal folding chairs. Same damn funny smell… And now his best friend of the last fifteen years lay wrapped in a soft blanket in a cardboard box on the front porch waiting for the lightning to let up, so Zach could bury him. It wasn’t unexpected, really. Jerry didn’t do much but sleep these past few weeks. Zach had found him stretched out dead on top of the dryer when he came in from work. His eyes were closed. Old Jerry must have drifted off into eternity in his sleep.

Thunder rumbled in the distance. No sign of lightning. Zach buried Jerry at the edge of the backyard. He scattered some lime over the fresh grave to keep other animals from digging Jerry up. I’ll never forget you, Jerry. May your soul be at peace in the land of mice and catnip, my friend. He went back to the shelter of the front porch and had a much needed, cathartic cry on the damp, cool concrete.

He fixed a veggie burger for dinner since there would be no food served in basement of   The Continuing Church of God in Jerry’s honor. Not that Zach ever went back after his mother’s passing. Not even once. Malora would be picking him up in a few minutes. Going to shows together was sort of their thing. If he hadn’t already paid for the tickets, he would have called Malora and told her not to bother, but tonight Zach’s favorite band, Papadosio, was playing, and dancing would be fun. Sometimes dancing was the thing that kept Zach sane. It was the way he worked things out in his body, his mind, and his soul, and tonight, he would dance in Jerry the Cat’s honor.    

Malora pulled into the driveway in her hulk of a Lincoln Town Car: dull silver with a Bad Religion bumper sticker on the left side and a multicolored, dancing Grateful Dead bear sticker on the right. She had stickered up the old beast of a car when it became hers after Pap’s death. She blew the horn. “I’m sorry about Jerry. You partying tonight?”

“Thanks. Nah, I’m staying sober,” Zach replied, sliding into the gigantic, leather front seat. It smelled of stale cigarette smoke. He took comfort in the fact that some things never change.

“You don’t mind driving, then? Do you? Hell, yeah, Dosio tonight! What do you want to hear the boys play?”

“Not at all, it’ll keep my mind straight ‘til we get there. And I would love to hear a super dank ‘Magreenery,’ ‘Out of Hiding,’ or ‘Utopiate,’ or hell yeah, ‘We Can Always Come Back.” It’s my favorite off the new album.”

“Dude, I want ‘Therian’ so bad. I love Sam’s voice so much.  And did I tell you that I can see people’s animal spirits now?”   

He slid into the driver’s seat and pulled away as Malora howled out the window at the moon at the top of her lungs.

It took almost an hour to reach the venue. Zach spent most of the ride thinking about Jerry and laughing at Malora’s sarcastic take on the customer base at Hot Topic. It was an okay enough job and it payed for her efficiency apartment in town, but damn, what posers. The topic of conversation somehow switched to include a lofty spiritual analysis of Ally Sheedy’s character in The Breakfast Club, Lana Del Rey, and Labyrinth-era David Bowie as her spirit animals, and the two travelers reached their destination before they knew it. They went inside the venue where it smelled of patchouli and fruity vape-smoke along with that magical essence of anticipation for incredible music hanging in the room: something kind of electric, yet somehow tangible. Tauk, the opening band, was already playing a heady mix of progressive rock and psychedelia.      

They were greeted by the usual suspects in the regular congregation of Dosio family revelers. Shawn with his bear hugs and giddy excitement about what the boys would be playing tonight, Mark with his “Fuck, you two look beautiful tonight,” Claire with her kind smile and patchwork style, Rob, the merry prankster all lollipops and goofiness, and Nick with his bright eyes and intensity. They all gathered together at the rail up against the stage as the lights grew dim. They screamed and cheered as the time to rage was finally upon them: those nice boys in Papadosio took to the stage immersed in surreal lights and began to play.          

 From the first note onward, the music overwhelmed Zach. It felt like liberation-to be lost here in the lights, all violet, orange, green and white, and the sounds, those driving beats, shimmering synths, and soaring-vibed guitar melodies, to be at one in this moment with the crowd, moving together as a single organism and hanging on every note as if this sound was nourishing the very fiber of their souls. And perhaps they were. To Zach, this all felt somehow sacred. Malora was babbling on and on in his ear about how Sam had turned into a shining, white wolf creature behind the piano. To Zach, he just looked beautiful, pounding away at the keys with rhythmic abandon and arching his back elegantly as he played on, his silhouette glowing against the trippy projections on the seemingly liquid-LED screens that served as a backdrop. She rambled on that Anthony had morphed into a multi-limbed Hindu god and that she couldn’t even look at him because he was really freaking her out  with his ability to send out gigantic love vibes with his guitar… and would you just look at Healy stealing faces and flailing away on the drums like a beast and Billy twiddling those knobs opening wormholes in space and Rob. . . he really made your feel that bass all the way down to the bottom of your soul like no other badass creature in the universe. Zach felt love wash over his entire being as the band veered a familiar melody into an achingly beautiful, uplifting jam. He kept riding the crest of the waves of the melody until all his grief, all his cares washed away from him. This felt like salvation. There was nothing left but joy and gratitude and appreciation. He was all ears and all heart. He felt the pleasant sensation of other human beings moving to the music with him. One body kept pressing itself against him in rhythmic sync to the epically danceable groove being laid down for them. This body belonged to a boy with glowing green eyes in a tie-dyed hoodie with a large lightning bolt patch sewn on the front. Zach smiled sweetly at him, and wordlessly they fell into a timeless hug.  Chest pressed tightly against chest, all that existed for them was each other and the music. It was pure, and it felt like magic.

“Thanks for the awesome hug, brother. My name’s Jerry, and I’m grateful I met you.  Have a great night.” He gently pulled away from Zach and danced off into the crowd.  

Zach thought about Jerry the Cat and was overcome with gratitude for the deep friendship they had shared. He thought about each beautiful soul in the crowd and how grateful he was to be sharing this moment with each one of them. He thought about his Dad and how he never really had the chance to know him beyond Saturday mornings spent watching cartoons on the couch together. He thought about his Mom and how she had found meaning and purpose all those Sundays and Wednesdays at the Continuing Church of God— and how much she had wanted Zach to find his meaning there as well. I just found mine in a different place, Mom. That’s all. I love you. He pulled Malora close to him and smiled just as the hauntingly spacey synth line of “We Can Always Come Back” began—  and it felt like a prayer. For Zach, it felt completely like grace.

Michael Tucker is working on degrees in English and Human Services at Hagerstown Community College. He enjoys live music, literary pursuits, and spending time with his partner, Tara, his daughter, Emily, and their menagerie of furry critters.

“Hopeful Now” by William Cass

I was nearing the end of my last year in college and could be described at the time as deeply passionate, obsessed even, about my music.  I spent more time in the practice rooms in the basement of the performance center than anywhere else on campus. I was there again one bitterly cold Sunday evening during white-out conditions in what was supposed to be early spring.  I’d been at the piano in the room at the far end of the hallway for three hours and was struggling over an ending for my senior composition that I couldn’t get right. Out of exasperation, I began playing opening strains of famous pieces.  Perhaps it was my discouraged mood that led me to begin with the second movement of Chopin’s Piano Sonata #2, using a tempo even slower than his staff notation. After I’d finished, I sat with my head down and shoulders slumped and blew out a long breath.  A moment later, the same strain at the identical tortured tempo came from the next room, then stopped abruptly at the exact point I had.

I sat up straight and frowned.  I’d passed all the open doorways in the hallway on my way in and they’d all been empty, not surprising with the weather.  I was used to being vaguely aware of other music being practiced elsewhere in those rooms while I was there and hadn’t heard a

note played since I’d arrived.  I sat in the stillness for a full minute or more, then launched into Beethoven’s Op.126 bagatelle.  I stopped again in the middle of a strain, then waited. Another moment passed before the same interlude came from the next room, but played with a precision and emotion that made a shiver pass over me.  It stopped again precisely where I had.

I listened more intently and could just make out the sound of the wind straining the glass entry door upstairs, but nothing more.  Suddenly, I entered into the “Se je chart mains” canon, this time much faster and louder than it was intended to be played, and halted arbitrarily between notes.  A handful of seconds later, the same piece echoed from the adjoining room, but with a yearning and quality I couldn’t possibly approach or hope to attain. Again, it stopped abruptly where I had, and then I heard the door to the room fly open and footsteps clatter down the hallway.

I jumped from the bench, stumbled to my knees, regained my footing, and pushed open my own door.  I was in time to see the back of a young woman in a long blue overcoat with auburn hair bouncing over its collar turn at the end of the hallway.  The side of her face became momentarily exposed as she started up the stairs, and I saw her glance my way with green eyes that sparkled and lips that held a crease of smile.  

I shouted, “Hey!”

But, she didn’t stop.  Instead, I heard her take the steps several at a time.  I ran down the hallway after her, but she’d disappeared at the top of the stairs when I got to them.  I clambered up as quickly as I could and burst onto the landing on top, only to find the door that led outside

yawning closed.  I shoved it open and hurried into the thundering storm of whiteness.  There was no sign of the woman and no indication where she might have gone in the night’s fury.  I stood there hugging myself long enough that the wind and snow had turned my cheeks numb before forcing myself back inside.

*           *           *           *           *

Eventually, I finished my senior composition, received Honors in the Major after playing it for my oral comps recital, and graduated.  During those final few months of school, I searched actively for the woman from that stormy night, but was unable to find her. Our department was a large one in an urban university with over ten thousand students, so it was no surprise that she remained unidentified to me.   When I was in the practice rooms afterwards, I often tried playing the opening strains from well-known compositions, but never heard another musical reply.

My father convinced me that relying on a career in musical performance was foolhardy, so I enrolled in a teacher’s credentialing program that started in September at a college in another city a couple hours away from my old one.  While I was there, I played in the university orchestra and continued composing pieces that were heard only by me. I auditioned for several larger community and musical theater orchestras, but didn’t get selected. That next spring, I was offered a full-time position at the high school where I’d done my student teaching, and took over the band and all other music-related classes there in the fall.  

Like most beginning teachers, my days and nights were consumed with work.  I felt lucky if I found a couple of hours on weekends for my own music. Auditioning further elsewhere became an afterthought.  But, I did begin dating another teacher at school shortly

before Halloween, and she and I had become serious enough that we invited one another to meet our families over Winter Break.

Her name was Dawn, and she’d begun teaching English there the year before I arrived.  She had a long tangle of brown curls and a manner that was both shy and removed that I found alluring.  Her smile was rare enough that it felt like a small victory when I could coax its arrival. She wrote poems and had published a few in literary magazines I’d never heard of, so we shared artistic interests, if not temperaments.  We accompanied one another to readings and recitals, but I could only marvel at the way she squeezed my hand as a poet’s words moved her, and I’m pretty sure she felt the same way when I did the same at a strain of music I found particularly beautiful.  But, we enjoyed simple things together – cooking meals, taking walks, watching old movies, keeping a jigsaw puzzle going on the coffee table in my living room. Of course, we also understood one another’s preoccupations with work and the long hours involved there, so had few expectations with each other, or disappointments either.  By early spring, she’d moved into my little rental house by the river, and a month later, we’d taken an abandoned puppy home from the animal shelter. We passed the shelter one Saturday during a walk, looked at each other, and then simply retraced our steps and went inside. Although we didn’t speak of it, there was an intentionality and shared responsibility involved that felt warm and significant and a little frightening.  He was a mutt and we named him Wags: a nod to Wagner, who was a writer in addition to being a composer.

Dawn often stayed late at school grading essays, so I began playing the piano again alone in the band room while waiting for her to be ready to go home.  Sometimes, she entered while I

was playing and I wouldn’t see her there until I’d stopped, when she’d smile and applaud heartily.  She’d usually get up in the mornings an hour or so before I did to write, and would often allow me to read pieces that she was ready to send out; I admired those I could understand, and always told her so, even about those I didn’t.

*           *           *           *           *

By October of my second year at school, the marching and pep bands I taught had improved to the point that they both had placed in several regional competitions.  I’d gained enough of a reputation in the area that I began taking on a few adult students for private lessons. At around the same time, one of the online journals that had published a couple of Dawn’s poems asked her to become an assistant editor, which she was proud of and could do remotely.  So, our lives become busier and more productive, I suppose, but it did mean less time together.

We kept Sunday mornings kind of sacred and unencumbered to be with each other.  If the weather cooperated, we usually began by taking Wags for a walk along the river.  During one of those in early December, Dawn surprised me by asking, “So, do you find giving private lessons satisfying?”

I glanced at her and shrugged.  I said, “Not particularly.”

“Then why don’t you use that time instead for your own music?”

“What, compose pieces that I write down and put in a drawer?  It’s not like your poetry that you can publish and share with other people.”

“Aren’t there ensembles or something you could join?  You know, like chamber music?”

“Those are string quartets.  No piano.”

We were quiet again while Wags sniffed at a tree in the light dusting of snow.  I looked at her face while she watched him; it had taken on that distant look, her mouth a small, straight mark.

After we resumed walking, she said, “I’ve been asked to take part in a reading.  One of the local journals where I had a poem appear.”


“Thanks.”  She looked down at where Wags tugged her on his leash along the path.  “I’ve never actually read before except in a creative writing seminar, so this will be my first time in front of an audience.  I’m a little nervous.”

“You’ll do great.  Where is it?”

“At a bookstore…next Saturday evening.”  

“Shucks,” I said.  “My pep band has a competition then.”

“That’s okay.  I’d probably be more anxious if you were there, anyway.”


“I don’t know.”  She looked at me for the first time.  “I just would.”

*           *           *           *           *

After the first of the year, Dawn won a contest for one of her poems sponsored by a fairly well-known journal that paid her $500.  Our town’s newspaper found out about it and published an interview with her about her writing, which she tacked on the wall above her desk in the second bedroom we used as a study.  That led to her becoming a member of a new literary arts council formed by public libraries in four adjoining municipalities, and she began devoting lots of time helping organize council events like author visits, book signings, and young writers’ forums.  During that same period, I started playing basketball after school a few afternoons a week with some other teachers at school; we often grabbed a beer afterwards at a pub near the gym.  Our

schedules became such that by February, Dawn and I were driving to and from school in separate cars.  At home while she was gone, I watched a lot of YouTube videos of musical performances, sometimes binging on one after the other, while Wags sat on my lap and I scratched him behind the ears.

On an evening just before Spring Break, I came into the house after playing basketball and found Dawn sitting on the edge of the couch in her jacket with a small suitcase at her feet.  She looked up at me blankly and said, “This isn’t working.”

I felt my heart quicken.  I said, “I don’t understand.”

“We don’t share anything anymore.”  Her voice was flat and dull.

“We’ve just gotten busy doing our own things.  That can change.”

She shook her head, looked away, and said, “No.”

I squinted at the way she said it.  I was still sweating from the gym, and a cold shiver crawled up my back as I asked, “Is there someone else?”

She didn’t look my way.  A moment passed before she said, “That’s only part of it.  You and I haven’t been happy for a long time.”

“I’m happy.”

“Well, I’m not.”

She stood up, lifted the suitcase by its handle, and walked towards the door.  I reached for her, but she shrugged under my arm.

I said, “Don’t leave.  Please.”

But she opened the door, went through it, and closed it quietly behind her.  I heard her footsteps hurry down the walk, heard her car’s engine start, heard it crawl quietly down the driveway and then disappear up the street.  I stood staring at the depression in the sofa cushion where she’d been sitting, a numbness spreading through me. I felt as if I was falling, falling, falling in a well with no bottom.

*           *           *           *           *

Dawn wasn’t at school the next morning, and when I got home, all her things were gone.  She didn’t answer any of my calls or messages, and after several days, she’d shut down her cell phone and personal email accounts.  She didn’t return to work after the break either; one of her friends at school told me that she’d heard Dawn had moved to another state with a writer she’d met somewhere; a month or so after that, the same friend said she’d been told they’d gotten married.  The ache I felt was like an echo, deafening at first, then slowly receding.

Like it had to, I guess, life went on for me.  My walks with Wags became more frequent and longer.  I declined social invitations and dating opportunities.  Every now and then, I Googled Dawn’s name and found a new poem of hers in some online literary journal; they became more upbeat than I’d remembered them, breezier, lighter.  One was called, “Hopeful Now”; my heart clenched as I read it.

When summer vacation arrived, I brought a keyboard home from school, and used the extra free time to try composing again.  To say I was rusty was an understatement. My first few attempts were halting and dirge-like. But, eventually, a few pieces seemed promising enough that I went over to school to try them on the piano on the theater stage.  I thought the place was

empty, but when I finished, I heard someone in back clap slowly three times and saw our custodian there grinning at me, a broom leaning against the crook of his arm.  

“Great!” he called.  “Bravo!”

I gave him a sheepish wave and heard his footsteps go off across the linoleum into the foyer and ascend the stairs; the sound reminded me of the woman on that stormy night long ago.  The thought came quickly to me because I’d found myself dreaming of her recently, waking and sitting up suddenly in the darkness, the image of her so close and vivid I felt chagrined to have awoken.  When that happened, I tried lying back down quickly in the hopes of returning to the dream, but was never able to.

Over the long July 4th weekend, I returned to the city where I’d gone to college to visit a friend who’d found a job and settled there after we graduated.  I brought Wags with me, and took him on a walk across the deserted campus one morning. I passed my old dormitory, the wing of the library where I’d done most of my studying, and peered through the cafeteria windows at the table where I’d usually sat to eat.  I wandered over to the performance center, found the entry door open, and went downstairs to the practice rooms. No one else was there, and I took a seat at the piano in the room at the end of the hallway. I played the same three openings I had on that snowy evening, pausing after each one to listen to the silence that followed.  As I did, Wags looked up at me where he sat at my feet with his head cocked.

“I don’t know,” I told him.  “I have no idea what I’m doing either.”

When we left the room, I paused to look at the spot where the woman had turned and glanced at me before ascending the stairs.  I thought of her eyes, that hint of smile. An idea occurred to me out of nowhere, and I led Wags up the stairs outside.

We went inside the adjoining building, which housed the music department’s administrative offices, and I found the student bulletin board on the wall just inside the entrance where it had always been.  The same assortment of housing requests, job postings, textbook sales, and flyers advertising musical venues were tacked here and there across its surface. I sat on the floor beneath it, took a pad and pen out of my daypack, and wrote a description of the woman from that night.  I included her blue coat, auburn hair, green eyes, and exceptional piano talent. As near as I could, I estimated her height, weight, and age, as well as the date and description of that stormy evening. I asked anyone who knew her to contact me and ended with my name, cell phone number, and email address.  

I stood and looked up and down the long, empty hallway.  Then I tore the page off my pad, found a tack and spot on the bulletin board, and secured it there.  Wags studied me with the same cocked head.

I shrugged and told him, “What the hell do I have to lose?”

In early August, I finally scooped the last jigsaw puzzle that Dawn and I had worked on off the coffee table into its box; I couldn’t remember the last time either of us had touched it.  As I was closing the lid, my cell phone pinged and I glanced at its screen where it lay on the table. A text appeared from a number I didn’t recognize. It said: “You’re looking for me.”

I frowned and typed back: “Who is this?”

A moment later: “Performance center practice rooms.  Stormy night.”

My heart leapt, and I snatched the phone off the table.  I steadied my hands and typed: “I’d like to meet you.”

Another moment passed, then a new bubble swooped onto the screen that read: “Saturday night @ Jake’s, 8pm?”

I recognized the name of the bar and could picture it in a hip neighborhood on the opposite side of the city from my old college campus.  I typed: “I’ll be there.”

*           *           *           *           *

I changed my mind several times about wearing a sport coat before eventually leaving it at home and starting the drive that Saturday evening.  It was hot, humid, and I kept the air conditioner and classical music station on low. The stretch between my new and old cities was mostly farmland, long stretches of corn and wheat fields, tall with the approaching harvest.  I watched them nodding in the small breeze along with the dipping telephone lines in the distance and let my thoughts tumble over themselves. I thought about Dawn, her new life, and what had happened to us. I wondered about the woman from the practice rooms and how she’d filled the time that had passed since then.  I thought about the days ahead and how I’d fill those myself.  I’d just turned twenty-five and had spent my birthday alone.

Jake’s was down a little set of stairs, a long narrow room that was already dark against the gloaming outside when I entered.  There was only a dozen or so customers, and I found the

woman quickly once my eyes had adjusted to the dim light.  She was sitting alone at a table next to a small stage with a piano in its center and was fingering a glass of beer.  She raised those fingers to me, and I recognized her green eyes and smile. I took a breath, walked over, and extended a hand.  She took it, and we shook.

She said, “You haven’t changed much.”

“You either.”  I sat down across from her.  The simple blue dress she wore was the same shade as her coat on that snowy evening.  I said, “I’m Tom.”

She gave a short nod and said, “Sylvia.”  The hint of smile was still there. “So, what’s this all about, Tom?  This query of yours on a bulletin board.”

I felt color creeping up my neck.  I said, “I’m not really sure.” I shrugged.  “That night has stayed with me, I guess. How you played.  Why you did.”

She took a turn to shrug.  “Well, that Chopin sonata you started was pretty woeful.  Sounded like you could use some encouragement.”

Her smile widened a bit, and I did my best to return it.  “That’s true. I was feeling a little down, frustrated.”

“Truth be told, I’d been listening for quite a while.  The piece you were working on, it was your own?”

I nodded.

“It was beautiful.  Really”

A tiny bubble of something opened in me: something good.

Sylvia said, “The finished version was even better.”

I felt my eyebrows knit.

“I was there for your senior recital.  Out in that dark audience. Has it been performed since?”

I swallowed and shook my head.

“That’s a shame.  And you’ve written others?”


“None performed?”


“Well.”  I watched her take a sip of beer.  “Then that’s a shame, too.”

A waitress came up to our table and I ordered a draft beer, too.  Then Sylvia and I sat looking at each other until I asked, “Why did you run off that night?”

“Oh, I don’t know.  Enough said at the time, I guess.”

Our eyes held.  She wasn’t beautiful, but her combination of features was pleasing, lovely somehow, full of life.  Finally, I asked, “So what about you? Even hearing you play those few moments…well, it was exquisite.”

She shrugged again.  “I’m more interested in theory, actually.”  She took another sip from her glass. “The department at school there had started a degree program for music theory, and I’d just transferred into it shortly before that night.  I’m almost finished now.”

“Then what?”

“Still trying to figure that out.”

“You should be playing.  You should be heard.”

“Oh,” she said.  Her eyes took on that same sparkle from the snowy evening.  “That might be involved.”

The waitress brought my beer and set it on a coaster.  I lifted it, and we clinked glasses. “To your good fortune,” I said.

“Likewise,” she replied, and we both sipped.

The place had begun to fill up.  The few remaining tables had all been taken and most of the stools at the bar were occupied.  As a cone of dusty light blinked on over the piano, a quiet sort of murmur rose in the room, and I felt several glances turn our way.  Sylvia looked beyond my shoulder, and I watched her raise a hand and her smile broaden. Another woman walked up beside her, leaned down, and they kissed.  Then, they both turned to me, and Sylvia said, “This is Anne. With a ‘e’.”

I sat blinking, hesitated, then took Anne’s offered hand and shook it.  She was tall with short blonde hair; even dressed only in a green T-shirt and khakis, she was striking.  She sat down in the seat between us and placed her hand on top of the Sylvia’s. They exchanged quiet smiles, then looked at me.

“So,” Anne said.  “Are you staying for the set?”

I frowned.  “I’m not sure.”

“You don’t want to miss it.”  She studied her watch, then said to Sylvia, “You’re on.  Your fans await.”

Sylvia took another sip of beer, glanced again at me with those eyes, then stood up and climbed the two steps onto the stage.  She sat down on the piano bench, adjusted the microphone

on the stand at the piano’s side so it was near her mouth, and began playing random warm-up riffs.  As she did, her gaze became serious and the noise in the room grew silent. A moment later, she closed her eyes and began playing one of Mendelssohn’s softer “Songs Without Words”.  I shook my head slowly at the absolute beauty of it.

She played steadily, a wide variety of pieces: classical, jazz, old standards, even a few improvisational versions of popular ballads during which she sometimes hummed melody into the microphone.  Regardless of the type, I was astonished at her virtuosity, and the crowd’s reaction grew more robust after each song concluded. Sylvia kept her eyes squeezed shut while playing, and only opened them briefly to say a few words of introduction between pieces.  

At one point, Anne leaned towards me and asked what I thought.

“Unbelievable,” I said.

She nodded and I watched her for a few moments gaze at Sylvia while she played.  As she did, I saw a combination of emotions on her face: love, of course, but also joy and pride and contentment.  Eventually, I looked back at Sylvia’s bowed, swaying head and closed eyes as her fingers glided over the keyboard.

After about an hour, Sylvia told the crowd she would be taking a break after the next song.  Then she looked once at me, smiled, and began the piece I’d been composing in the practice room on that stormy night.  She played it perfectly, better than I ever had. I felt

something akin to what I’d seen on Anne’s face spread up through me as she continued.  I whispered, “Hopeful now.” I didn’t want her to stop. I whispered, “Thank you.”

William Cass has had over a hundred short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines such as decemberBriar Cliff ReviewJ Journal, and The Boiler.  Recently, he was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received a Pushcart nomination, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal.  He lives in San Diego, California.

“This Girl” by Michael Cowgill

Joy feels no joy here in the cramped backstage area. She holds her guitar neck with her left hand, adjusts her Beatles’ wig with her right, ignores the chatter of her bandmates, her sisters in music, who more and more grate on her like a sharp note.  She still loves the music, loves the band’s concept even, a four-girl Beatles tribute band, playing those beautiful songs and dressing like them but with a feminine touch. Cheeky, a little sexy but limiting and exhausting. Joy has songs of her own she’d like to play and record, ambitions beyond the tribute band circuit, the Beatles fan festivals.  She’s thought about going to back to college, backpacking through Europe, making a pilgrimage to India.

“Jesus,” she thinks, “I’ve played George so long I’m becoming him.”

“You OK?” Ali says.

Joy glances at her, nods.  Ali tucks a strand of red hair back under her wig, grins her perfect grin. So Paul, perfect in her gray suit and Nehru jacket.

“Big crowd,” Ali says, this time trying out her dodgy Paul impression. The last fifteen minutes before show time, she likes to “get into character.” None of the others try that hard. They know the music, they wear the wigs and outfits, but they don’t play characters.  Right now, Liz–the John of the group–scrolls through a dating app on her phone, looking for some after-show New York City fun. Nora warms up on a drum pad, her focus on the brick wall in front of her, her jaw chewing away at a piece of gum. Ali? Ali taught herself to play bass left-handed for authenticity.

“You don’t look OK,” Ali says.

“I’m fine,” Joy says. What else can she say, especially right before a show?

“You feel good about that ‘Taxman’ solo?”

Joy studies her guitar, fingers a few chords.  Ali knows the damn answer, and she knows Joy doesn’t need to practice those parts anymore.  They’ve played them almost every night for three years.

“You know,” she says, “you should play that solo.”

Ali frowns. She has a great voice and great bass chops, but she doesn’t have Paul’s multi-instrumental genius.

“I mean,” Joy adds, “if we want to make it authentic.”

Ali waves her hand in dismissal.

“I don’t care about that,” she says, turning “care” into something that sounds more like “cuh.”

Joy shrugs.  Ali would love to play that solo if she could.

Then it happens.

She looks right at Ali and speaks.

“I’m thinking about quitting.”


Ali’s green eyes widen.

“Literally,” Joy says, “I was thinking about it when you interrupt. . . when you asked me if I was OK.”

“You don’t mean it.”

Joy shrugs again.

“I don’t not mean it either.”

Ali steps as close as she can without their instruments hitting, then speaks in her real voice.

“Did I do something?”

Joy raises an eyebrow.

“You know,” Ali whispers.

Joy blushes, looks away again.

“You know I can’t give you that,” she says.

“I know,” Ali says.

She rocks back on her heels.

“I thought you might want to get away from me.”


Ali joins Joy against the wall.  Joy does want some space, but she can’t tell Ali that, even though it has nothing to do with Ali’s desires.  She needs time to herself today, tomorrow, maybe for a year or three, instead of time to herself surrounded by three other women and a slightly pervy road manager.

“Not right away,” she says, “not ‘til after the dates we have, but maybe then.”

“I can’t do this without you,” Ali says.  “It was always us.”

“It doesn’t have to stay that way,” Joy says.  “You could find a replacement or change up the act and have a dude or two around or start doing Paul songs instead.”

“Fuck that,” Ali says.

She pushes herself off the wall and retreats to Liz and Nora, puts on her chipper face again.

“You said it,” Joy mutters.

The others huddle, and Ali glances once at Joy as she talks.  Joy has had her fill of this, too, the ever-changing dynamics, shifting alliances, bruised egos.  Everyone loves the romantic idea of a band, this pure expression of friendship, the band against the world, and then everyone acts surprised when a band falls apart as if it’s never happened before.  This band in particular doesn’t have anything to do with friendship, other than Joy and Ali. They found the others through auditions, but the band only has two missions, one noble, one practical. The noble one: share this great music, honor this great band, show people “girls can do it, too.”  The practical: you can make money easier with someone else’s songs.

Their road manager gives them a sign.  Joy adjusts her wig again, makes sure her gray pants haven’t wedged themselves anywhere, brushes them off, and joins the others. They head out to the darkened stage, plug in, and strike that first magic chord of “A Hard Day’s Night.” Lights blaze. The club crowd erupts in applause. After the song, they take their Beatles-style bows. Joy used to feel a charge in these moments but looking out at these Baby Boomers reliving their youths and smiling at the band’s gimmick doesn’t do anything for her. They’ve served the audience a fast-casual twist on the McDonald’s fries of other tribute bands, not some hand-crafted delicacy.

For the few seconds before the next song, she ponders throwing her guitar down and leaving, just walking out into the Village in her stupid Nehru jacket, tossing her wig in the nearest trash can, and heading to Penn Station or Grand Central or the Port Authority to catch the next train or bus to wherever and never looking back. Then Nora counts them in by tapping her sticks together, and Joy plays and bobs her head and sings harmonies with Ali at a single microphone, their faces almost touching, their voices blending perfectly, and she understands Ali’s feelings even if she can’t reciprocate them.  In those moments night in and night out, they seem perfect together.

The song ends, they step back, take their bows, and Ali leans close, whispers.

“How could you leave this?”

The fantasy rolls in Joy’s mind again, but now she has to sing lead, and she has no time to think about leaving or staying.  She has to perform, she has to tell Beethoven to roll over. Across the room, she sees an older woman they met in the train station in Washington.  Chatting with her, they learned she had seen the Beatles as a teenager and that her 14-year-old granddaughter loved them, too, so they told her about the show.  The granddaughter sits, tapping her foot but looking a little skeptical of the proceedings. Joy understands that, but she decides to focus all her energy on this girl, this one person, keeping her eyes on her as much as she can, playing her solos with extra energy, letting a little of her own style creep in.

When she steps back to her regular position, Ali grins at her as if to say, “See?”  They carry on, and Joy continues to focus her energy on the girl. A few songs later, the girl has moved up front, sometimes dancing, sometimes watching their hands, trying to learn.  She wears a sweatshirt emblazoned with the cover of Abbey Road, the four Beatles not long before their breakup, crossing a street at a crosswalk. Joy likes it, points at the girl, gives her a thumb’s-up.  The girl flashes a big, bright smile, and Joy does the same. The girl averts her gaze.

They reach “Things We Said Today,” and as always, they take their cue from the live versions and do a rave-up during the middle eights.  Joy leans into it even more, and that pushes Ali, always a good musical listener, to open up her voice more. The girl bounces up and down. Her ponytail pops loose, and her long brown hair whips around her head.

They bow before a break, and the girl still moves a little, her hair a mess around her, sweat beading on her forehead.

This, Joy thinks.

They leave the stage, hurry to change into their cheekier Sgt. Pepper outfits, matching the Beatles’ original satin marching band uniforms but different: sleeveless with skirts and go-go boots.  Joy hates them but at least prevailed on Ali to forego fake beards and mustaches. Now though, thinking about the girl, about that moment of abandon, she doesn’t care about feeling ridiculous. She doesn’t care about the annoyances, the resentments, the jealousies.  She cares about the music and the girl.

Ali’s bare shoulder brushes hers, and Joy turns.  Ali’s face beams.

“Did you see that girl?” she says.

Joy can’t suppress her own smile.



Ali reaches out and adjusts Joy’s wig.

“We should do something extra,” she says.

They lock eyes, nod, know.  Ali looks over her shoulder at Liz and Nora.

“At the end,” she says, “Abbey Road, side two.”

She turns back, runs her hand along Joy’s cheek.  This has happened before. Joy doesn’t flinch, but she doesn’t relax either.  Ali’s smile softens into a frown.

“Don’t,” Joy says, then softer, “please.”

Ali’s eyes water.

Joy holds up her guitar and points at it.

“This,” she says, “just this and that girl and making her happy.”

Ali nods.

“And then?”

Joy locks her eyes on Ali’s teary eyes.

“Then,” Joy she says, “the girl in the next town.”

Ali nods again, wipes her eyes with the back of her hand.

Their road manager gives them the sign.  Joy tugs at her skirt to straighten it, and they find their way to their spots in near darkness, plug in again.  Nora counts them in, and purple lights, applause, and the girl greet their opening chords.

Michael Cowgill writes fiction, comics, and songs in Falls Church, Virginia, and is a member of the comics collective The DC Conspiracy. He also co-hosts the podcast Battle of the Network Shows. He earned a BFA in creative writing from the University of Evansville and an MFA in fiction writing from George Mason University. His fiction has appeared in Phoebe, and his comics have appeared in the anthologies District Comics and Wild Ocean.