Tag Archives: Fiction

Lights in the Night Sky

The sky here is beautiful: different from home, though.  This seat feels weird.  Where is he?  He told me to meet him here, by this body of liquid water; I hope I’m at the right place.  I’m at the right place; I’m sure of it.  Mountains are slowly fading into the dark blue of the night sky along with the trees; I can hear the water going back and forth on the shore calmly, quietly, and innocently with a moon that is full, and quite large compared to the planet, reflecting on the water.  I hear a strange call in the distance. One I can’t describe, made by a creature I’m sure that I have read about before coming here.  These clothes are weird. I hear walking; perhaps he is here.

“Peter,” It’s him.  “Or do you want me to call you by your real name, Pietor?” he said as he sat down next to me.

“Whichever you prefer, I’m used to both, Erik.”

“You can call me Erōx, if you feel more comfortable.  It’s just us here, nobody is going to hear us.” I nodded as he told me this.  “That is why I chose this spot. Besides, I always found it calming.”

“It is.”

“So how was your adventure? How long again were you here?”

“I don’t know, for about a year for us I think,” I told him.

“So about what?  One and a quarter years for them?”

“Yes,” I said as I exhaled heavily relaxing in this seat.  “My adventure was fine. I miss her though.”

“Well you could talk to her through your little device, though, right?”

“Yes, but there is something about face-to-face talking.”

“We will get you back to her as soon as we are done here,” he told me.

“What did the other observers say?” I asked him.

“Three were for and three were against.”

“So I’m the tiebreaker?” I asked, frustrated.

“I’m afraid so. You have the weight of this world on your shoulders,” Erōx exclaimed, exhaling heavily.

“Who burdened us with this task anyway?”

“No one knows.  Whoever gave us the machine that allows us to teleport, thousands of years ago.” he told me.

“Why must we do this though?”

“To keep this galaxy safe, to protect it from a galactic war, and to help it prosper,” he explained as the call I heard earlier is sounded again. I jumped.

“What is that?” I said turning around to look behind me, where the sound was coming from.

“It’s called a wolf; a quadruped covered in fur.  It’s a hunter. You should have read about it.”

“I’m not a big fan of reading.”

“Well no one said you had to read. The encyclopedia was just there to help,” he told me.  There is a small fog forming above the water.  “So…what do you think about them?”

“The humans?”

“Well, the other life forms we’re not too worried about. They don’t pose any real threat.  If you ask me, I think they are the ones that could be better protected, even saved, if you voted against.  No pressure though.”

“I’m sure.”

“So…”

“They are violent,” I told him.  “They destroy, and are at times ignorant of the consequences their actions may lead to.”

“That is what the others were saying.”

“I find that they fight over resources they should be sharing, or instead of fighting, trying to work together to create a new way to power their vehicles.”

“I worry if the same would happen on a cosmic level if the humans and another species discovered a resource,” Erōx added.

“So do I,” I told him.  “They are also destroying their own planet. Forests are being taken down, the air polluted, and other life forms are nearing extinction. They are at times destroying things they don’t even know exist.”

“Hmm.”

“I feel that they are the biggest threats to their survival, but I do admire how they protect certain pieces of land.  What are they called again?”

“National parks, and we are currently in one called Yellowstone,” he told me.

“I also approve on how they wish to journey as far as they can into space, pushing the limits and boundaries of what seems possible.  They seem to be stubborn, you know, like if you tell them something is impossible they will want to test your opinion,” I said, smiling.

“Yeah, I’ve always found that also.”

“Beings like that could be very helpful in helping unite the galaxy.”

“But they are violent and they destroy, like you said.”

“Yes, but I wonder how they would be if they got rid of country borders.  Would they still fight wars?  Or would they unite under one flag? Creating a peace,” I asked him.

“Who knows; they are very unpredictable,” he responded as we sat in silence for a minute or so.  I looked up at the night sky and noticed that in spite of all the darkness, with those small little points of light, it didn’t seem so dark.  Those little miracles of nature lit up the darkness.

“The humans have created a planet like the night sky: dark and scary, but yet when you take the time to look closely, you find small lights that work together to outshine the darkness and make it seem…”

“Bright and loving,” Erōx said, finishing my sentence.

“Yes.  There is something about them, the humans.  I have been on here a year interacting with them and yet they still surprise me.  They are adventurous, imperfect, and I find that when I begin to lose faith in them because of their violence, the smallest act of good restores my hope for them.  Such as a parent hugging their child, a human taking time out of their day to help another, a young couple falling in love, and just the way they enjoy life sometimes.  They are quite fascinating creatures,” I explained to him.

“I have also found that they seem to have a great understanding of music, and some of them are quite skilled at creating rhythms and songs,” Erōx added.

“I have found that, too. It is quite extraordinary.  Music is a wonderful gift given to the universe.”

“Not to mention it is one of the two most important forms of galactic communication.”

“The other being love,” I said.

“The other being love,” Erōx added.  “What have you learned about the humans and love?” he asked me as I stared off watching the water calmly race up to shore and retreat only to race back up again.  The sand beneath my feet was like the sand back home. I have been on this planet for one year, and my last night here is the first time I found it to feel like home.  “Pietor?”

“I can’t really put a finger on it, but it’s quite beautiful when you see it at work with them.  It’s indescribable,” I said as Erōx smiled and tilted back.

“That’s what I said when I first observed it at work with them.  I observed this ceremony they have called a wedding, where two people unite and become one.  You could feel it in the air all around you.”

“I feel as if many of them don’t understand it, but they trust it you know?” I told him.

“Love is something you cannot fully comprehend. Heck, our species doesn’t even fully understand it, and honestly, I don’t think we ever will.  At least not in this life.”

“I’d be okay with that.”

“Okay with what?” he asked, looking at me perplexed.

“If we don’t fully comprehend or understand it, it gives us something to keep searching for.”

“It’s beautiful though, and if you ask me, it’s the strongest force in the universe.”

“Where do you think it came from?” I asked him.

“A higher power if you ask me. A grand protector of the universe,” Erōx added as we sat in silence for a moment or two.  A wind bristled through the trees as I felt it hit my face.  A vehicle they call a car pulled up about a hundred feet from us.  “So Pietor, I need to hear your decision, do we kill off the humans in order to protect this galaxy and this planet, or do we choose to help them advance their technology and make them allies?” Two humans got out of the car: one male and one female.

“The humans are violent and at times dark. They were given a beautiful planet and seem to be destroying it with war, pollution, and destruction,” The couple stood next to each other. The male had his arm around the female’s shoulders; I think that’s what they call them, yes, shoulders. “However, something must have seen greatness in them to give them such a beautiful planet.”

“The grand protector,” Erōx added.

“Yes.” The male ran to the back of the car and grabbed a wide, long, wavy object.  “What’s that called?” I asked, pointing to the object.

“A blanket,” Erōx said as the human laid it on the ground and they both sat on it.

“I don’t know,” I told Erōx. “What do you think?” I asked as he took a deep breath.  I glanced over to the couple and watched as they pointed at the stars.

“I’ll keep my answer short.  They may be dark like the night sky, something that makes you want to return home, but the longer you stay out, you become attracted to the lights.  They rid the darkness and make you want to stay outside and explore the night sky.  Small points of light working together to help blot out the darkness…it makes me want to help it grow.  I have found good in them, and when I would begin to lose faith in them, a small act of kindness would restore it.”

“Wasn’t exactly short, but…”

“Well no,” he said as we sat in silence for several minutes.  I glanced over to the couple on the blanket. They were laughing, talking, and I could tell they loved each other. It reminded me of her, the one I long to return home to.  They were lost away from reality; it was extraordinary to watch them enjoying life in such a way…and form a love that would grow into something incredible, one that would benefit the universe.  “So, Pietor, what should we do?”

Sometimes the smallest moments of love and light, ones that are missed by most of the world, like the one I was watching, are the most incredible and can make you want to never let them go.  The moments that the universe longs for, and if humans can create these moments on this planet, who knows where that could lead if they had the technology to travel the galaxy.  A light soon shone from Erōx, and when I looked back over at him, he was turning back into his normal form.  Humans might find us to have skin like an animal they call a salamander: a transparent pink with a natural light lighting up our bodies into a subtle glow of different colors of the light spectrum, black eyes, a nose and ears more flattened to the face, five fingers, and feet without spacing in between the toes.

“You are quite locked on those two,” he said.

“I am, they remind me of me and her,” I explained to him.

“It seems as if you have made your decision.”

“I have.”

“Like we said before, sometimes it’s the little things, the small points of light.  Moments like these that rid the darkness.” He took a deep breath and smiled as he stood up to face me.  “They are incredible creatures, aren’t they?” he asked me.

“They are,” I said to him.  He took my hand as he slowly began to teleport away and handed me my teleportation drive.  So I could finally return home, back to her.

Dustin Dehne

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Filed under Fall 2016, Fiction 2016

Semper Fidelis

I was sitting in the easy chair next to Eleanor’s bed, holding her hand and nodding in and out of consciousness. I probably wouldn’t have noticed him, but the smell of those Altoids he always chewed gave him away. I remember wondering if he wasn’t the Grim Reaper coming to take her from me.

“Hi Bill,” Danny whispered.

I didn’t bother standing, not that he expected me to; I’d never made much of secret about what I thought of him. He slid a chair over and sat, facing Eleanor more than me. I hoped my silence would gnaw on him, but taking a hint was never one of his strong suits. Once in a while, I’d glance up at him just in time to see his eyes dart away. I was about to ask him what the hell he was gawking at when he spoke up again.

“She looks peaceful.”

No, she didn’t. Her thinning silver curls were oily and flat from being mashed into her pillow and not being washed in a few days, and her forehead showed lines I’d never noticed before. I traced the back of my fingers along her cheekbone, part of me hoping an eyebrow might arch or a finger might twitch. She wasn’t there.

Danny shifted a few times, sucking in now and then like he was going to say something else. One of these days, I figured he’d get around to saying what was really on his mind. Until then, I wasn’t going to waste the last few moments I had with Eleanor waiting on him.

Eventually, he cleared the frogs out and tried some small talk. He sounded like he might hit puberty any day, and his looks didn’t help. I knew he was north of forty, but I bet he’d get carded nine times out of ten. He asked about the kids, whether Amy had made partner yet (yes), whether Emily had had the new baby (no), how Sarah’s residency was going (fine) and if Dawn had been accepted into OCS (yes). Clearly, Eleanor talked to him more than I ever did. She was the sociable one. I made a habit of saying as little as I could to him.

He went silent again after running out of bullshit. The steady gasp and puff of the ventilator filled the void, along with the muffled play-by-play of the Lions game filtering in from across the hall. I tossed a glance his direction as he took a sip of whatever he had in his Starbucks cup. I looked back to Eleanor before he could see I’d been looking at him. He shifted again, clearing his throat.

“Soooo…what are the doctors saying?”

He already knew the answer. I focused on my wedding band and twisted it around the smooth, pale groove that hadn’t seen daylight since Kennedy took office. Our whole life was etched into it: twenty-five years in the Corps, three tours in ‘Nam, the three months I spent in Walter Reed, the births of five children—the death of one… I’d gotten so used to that ring, the only time I noticed it was when I took it off.

“You know, of all the ways I ever thought my marriage would end, I have to admit I never imagined it ending like this.”

I wasn’t sure what I expected him to say, or why I’d even said it. The last thing I expected, though, was nothing. Most times, I couldn’t get that bible-thumper to shut the hell up. He was always riding my ass about needing to quit hanging out with Johnny Walker and the Marlboro Man and get to church. The one time I wanted him to say something, nada. If he’d offered up a token Lord’s Prayer—hell, even a cough or a sniffle or a belch or a fart—it would have been better than listening to that ventilator.

I glared at him. I was hoping the weight of my stare might light a fire under his ass, but he was engrossed in that cup. The old D.I. in me wanted to get right in his beak and bark at him until he cried for his momma like a new boot at Pendleton. Instead, I just watched him bouncing his leg while he fiddled with that cup. He traced the seam with his thumbs and turned it around like he was looking for a way to climb inside it.

I gave Eleanor’s hand a squeeze. Even bony and limp, there was something about having her hand in mine that settled me down. She’d always liked Danny—The Reverend Webber, she called him. Said he was like the son we never had. Every Sunday, she went to church all gussied up like she was meeting the President, but no matter how much she nagged me about it, I never came along. I wasn’t about to let some eight-ball who was still suckin’ his momma’s tit while I was overseas getting my ass shot off tell me what was what. Every once in a while, she’d invite him over for coffee or tea or whatever the hell preachers drink. It’s funny; I can still see her glaring at me over the brim of her glasses while she sat on the couch thumbing through the IGA ad.

“Honestly, William, would it kill you to sit in the same room with him and carry on a civil conversation?”

Might not kill me, I remember thinking. Every time he showed up, though, I’ll be damned if that lawnmower didn’t suddenly need its carburetor rebuilt. One day he tried to buddy up to me. Asked if I needed help. I should have just kept my mouth shut, but my give-a-fuck-inator fell off three beers back. I don’t even remember what I said, but Eleanor heard it. Sometimes on rainy days, I can still feel her boot up my ass.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “If there’s anything I can do…”

My fingers balled. My jaw tightened. Who the hell did he think he was, acting like I needed pity? I swear, if he would have looked at me just then, he’d have pissed himself. Then I looked back at Eleanor and decided it would be unbecoming to deck him in front of her. Snot-nosed kid or not, she liked him.

“God, I need a smoke.”

I looked away. Before long, I found myself fixated on the clock—twenty-fifty-three. It’s funny how time seems to move faster the older you get. Seems like it was just weeks ago that Amy and her husband flew out with the grandkids. Now that I think about it, though—the fireworks, the parade, little Billy with that fishing pole twice as big as him—I guess it was actually months. Now it was different. Now I felt every cold, sharp second slipping through my fingers, and the harder I tried to hang on, the deeper they cut. Maybe it was the universe’s way of telling me it was time to let go. Yeah, well maybe the universe needed to go fuck itself. My eyes drifted to Eleanor’s hand. Her nail polish had started to flake. She’d have hated that.

“How did you think it was going to end?”

What?”

“Your marriage. How did you think it would end?”

I rested her hand back on her belly, promising her under my breath I wouldn’t knock him out. When I finally made myself focus on him, I was surprised to see him still in his chair. He was braver than I thought—or stupider. He took another sip and sat there staring at me like he was trying to shrink my head.

“What the hell kind of question is that?” I felt the veins in my neck. I don’t know whether it was nicotine shakes or me getting mad, but my hands trembled. I swear to God, unconscious or not, the boy had Eleanor to thank for his safety. I relaxed my fists and took a long breath to ratchet down the urge to drill him in the running lights. I watched Danny’s eyes dart to my hands. I hoped he would take the hint and back off. Instead, he leaned forward and squared off with me, resting his forearms on his thighs and clasping his hands.

“I don’t know.” He stammered. “You said this was the last way you thought your marriage would end. Were there other possibilities you thought were likely?”

He knew he was poking a hornet’s nest. To this day, I have no idea why I felt like I owed him any explanation at all, but there was something about the way he kept looking at me—into me, really—that I just couldn’t shake. I kept glaring, hoping he’d lose his nerve. A dozen answers ran through my head. He just stayed quiet like he was watching for a tell. Much as I hated to admit it, he was right.

“Doesn’t matter. You wouldn’t understand.”

He crossed his ankle over his knee again, swirling his cup.

“Try me.”

“Yeah. O-kay.” I headed toward the door. “I’m going for a smoke before I… never mind.”

I don’t know whether it was a whole lot of brave or a whole lot of stupid that got into that kid’s head, but he stood between me and the doorway. My jaw clenched. “I’m gonna tell you one time, son. I’m a whole ton of pissed off, so if you like your face—”

“I know it’s not easy to lose someone you care about.”

I felt my nose get hot. My chin quivered. Bile crept from under my tongue. My heart pounded so hard I thought my chest was going to blow like a Claymore. I could feel it coming. Worse, Eleanor was going to see it. If Danny hadn’t been standing in my way just then, I’d have just had my smoke and came back after I’d settled down.

But the son of a bitch was in my way.

I’m not proud of what happened next. It was like I was watching it happen from the outside, all distant and hazy. When everything came back into focus, I had Danny against the wall, my forearm against his throat. His cup spilled by the door. Light tan drips spattered everywhere. I felt his Adam’s apple move. I hadn’t seen terror like that since Khe Sahn.

I heard Eleanor explode. “William Archibald Stevens, you let go of him!” I whipped my head around, expecting to see her scowling and wagging her finger. She was still laying there, her chest rising and falling from the ventilator forcing her body to live. I backed away. Danny stepped away from the wall. He tugged at his collar. How the hell had we gotten here?

I crushed my eyelids shut and hung my head. “I’m sorry. I’m just… I don’t know what to say.” I wiped at my tears. More than ever, I wanted to go crawl under a rock.

“I get it.”

My eyes blew open and burned holes in him. “Do you?”

“Yes. I do.”

“I’ve been married to that woman longer than you’ve been sucking oxygen, son.” I glanced at his hand and lowered my voice to a whisper. “I don’t see any ring on your finger, so you’d best shut your fuckin’ mouth about shit you don’t understand.”

I’m not sure whether it was his silence or the sound of the ventilator, but whatever it was, I couldn’t take it. His eyes were glistening. His jaw was quivering. He looked like he was about to scream or cry or both. He shifted his jaw, grinding his teeth like he was chewing on what he was about to say. Maybe wondering if it was worth pissing me off again. He squared his shoulders and took another step toward me. When his eyes locked on mine, I saw blue-gray steel looking back. Something gripped my insides. I don’t know why, but I felt the need to stand up a little straighter.

I think that was the first time I ever really saw Danny Webber. The man in front of me had been to hell and back—it was goddamned eerie. When he spoke, his voice sounded like rocks scraping together.

“Her name was Sarah.”

My eyes must have been the size of hubcaps.

“I… I didn’t— ”

“We married on 17 June 2006. I deployed four months later.”

I felt like he’d just punched me in the gut.

“When I kissed her goodbye…” His voice trembled. “It was the last kiss I ever gave her.”

I dropped into my chair. I felt sick.

“I never knew that, Danny. Any of it.”

He shook his head. “I don’t talk about it. To anybody. It’s a chapter in my life that’s just better off buried.”

The only words I could put together felt stupid when they came out of my mouth: “What happened?”

When he sat back down, I got the sense we were heading into I-could-tell-you-but-then-I’d-have-to-kill-you territory y.

“Outside of my shipmates, only one other person knows what I’m about to tell you.”

He must have seen the question.

“No, Eleanor doesn’t know.”

I wasn’t sure how to take that. Honored that he trusted me? Worried that he was going to tell me some blood-curdling secret? Either way, Danny Webber was not the man I thought he was.

“It was a Tuesday. The Ike was underway in the Persian Gulf, and I was in my stateroom for the night when somebody knocked on the hatch. Spaghetti had ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ playing on this cheesy boom box he’d scrounged.” Danny bent his naked ring finger with his thumb until the knuckle cracked. “Part of my duty as chaplain was notifying sailors of family deaths. I’d done it dozens of times over the years. I figured this was another one.”

I watched his eyes drift and stare into space.

“You know, I’ve had grown men collapse in my arms and cry like babies. I’ve seen them double over and dump their guts, then fall down in their own vomit howling like dying animals.”

He rolled up his sleeve and showed me a lumpy worm of a scar that ran across the meat of his forearm, cutting his clipper ship tattoo clean in half.

“Got this from a gyrene after he found out his wife and baby burned to death in a fire. Eleven stitches. You try to be supportive. You tell them you’re sorry for their loss. You let ‘em hug your neck and cuss you out. You do everything you can to walk them through it, but the whole time, somewhere in the back of your mind, you’re thinking you’re glad it’s them and not you.” He blew out a long, quivering breath. “Drunk driver. They had to use the Jaws of Life to get her out. She was medevacked to Riverside, but…”

“She didn’t make it?”

Hearing my own voice felt like I’d just puked on myself. Danny shook his head. A tear dripped down his cheek. He was rocking slowly, rubbing his palms on his thighs. A couple times, I thought he might say something more. He glanced at the mess I’d made, and finally, he blew out a sharp sigh and stood. He yanked a fistful of paper towels out of the wall dispenser and wiped up the spattered coffee. Every once in a while, he looked in my direction, bit his lip, shook his head and went back to wiping. I got the feeling he was arguing with himself. Maybe he was regretting telling me.

I leaned forward. “Something’s on your mind, son. Best way to cure a sick belly is to just puke and get it over with.”

Danny looked at me with an expression that said he just might. He stopped wiping and stuffed the soggy towels into the cup. He stood, leaned against the wall and kneaded at his temples.

“I wasn’t going to come up here tonight. We haven’t exactly seen eye to eye over the years. The fact of the matter is…” His gaze retreated into the ceiling and hung there. When he found me again, his shoulders bobbed in a half-hearted chuckle. “The fact of the matter is you scare the hell out of me sometimes.”

I had to look away for a second. “What changed your mind?” When he didn’t answer, I came back to him. I could see his gears turning.

“God, Bill. God changed my mind.”

I rolled my eyes.

“I’m serious. All night I wrestled with this, and I don’t think I slept more than a couple hours. And all day today, too. I’ve been sitting here ever since I came trying to figure out how to do this.”

“Do what? Last rites? Why would you think I’d have a problem with that? Just do it.”

“I am. I mean, I will. But that’s not what I’m talking about,” he said, nodding at Eleanor. When he looked at me again, it was more like he was looking straight through me. A warm shiver ran down my back. “I’m here for you, Bill.”

My heart pounded in my ears. I grabbed at my chest and crumpled my shirt in my fist. Did he know something I didn’t? I remembered old Fred G. Sanford: “Oh, this is the big one! You hear that, Elizabeth?! I’m coming to join you, honey!” Maybe he was the Grim Reaper, after all.

“I mean God has a message he wants me to give you.”

So that’s what this was all about. Corner the grumpy old bastard when he’s down and confront him with the error of his ways. Drag his ass kicking and screaming onto the straight and narrow whether he likes it or not. I’d heard all I was willing to. I pointed toward the door. “It’s time for you to go, preacher. I don’t care to hear anything he has to say to me.” I jabbed my finger at the ceiling. “If he’s so concerned about me, then why the hell is my Eleanor laying there? Why is my baby girl buried? Why?! Huh? WHY?! You answer me that, and maybe we can talk. Until then, get the fuck out.”

Danny stepped toward me like he was ready to fight. I was ready to oblige.

“Not until I do what I came to do.”

I planted my feet, set my jaw and coiled my fist into a sledgehammer. He stepped into me and gave me a stiff shake. His voice was almost coming apart.

“Bill, this is what God wants to tell you.”

He threw his arms around me and pulled me into a bear hug. I felt swallowed in his arms, just like when my dad—God rest him—hugged me when I was a kid. He buried his face in my neck. He started bawling so hard I thought he might throw up. I gave in. I wrapped my arms around him, too. Something broke. I can’t explain it. My bottom lip trembled. My chest heaved. I fought against the break I felt coming, but everything in me gave way and I collapsed.

It was like stepping out of the cold shadows and into the sun on a fall day. I felt warm. Clean. Kind of like you’ve been working your whole life and nobody ever noticed before, and then the President shows up and you’re the only guy in the world that matters.

He placed his hands on my shoulders and looked me in the eye. “Listen to me, Bill. There is a whole lot of stuff in this world that God isn’t happy about. Rain falls on everybody.”

He must have seen my confusion. “What I mean is bad things happen.” He gestured toward Eleanor. “And sometimes they happen to good people. I don’t know why. I don’t know that anybody does.”

I wiped my face on my sleeve.

“What is that supposed to do for me?”

Danny stuffed his hands into his pockets. He wandered to the window and looked into the night. “If you had the answer, what would that do for you? What would it change?”

I rolled his question around, looking for some angle I could argue. “Nothing,” I admitted. “But maybe I’d feel more at peace.”

He glanced at me over his shoulder. “Bill, you don’t need answers to pointless questions to find peace.”

“No?”

He turned around and smiled. “God just told you everything you need to know.”

I looked up at the ceiling and sniffled back my tears. “If you really needed to rattle my cage, did it have to be a fuckin’ Navy man?”

Danny smirked. “You do realize that the Marines are a department of the navy.”

I nodded. “The men’s department.” Ω

Christopher Williams

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Filed under Fall 2016, Fiction 2016

The Sense of Me

The plastic squelched in his hand, dribbling a bead of cool water down a line of bruises. A layer of the ice gave way and settled over his hand as he leaned back in the cheap plastic of his seat. The freezing sensation over his left fist was almost as painful as the black and blue knuckles. He moved the ice cubes around, needing to understand that it had really happened. He recalled the shrill ring of the afternoon bell and a stampede of students out into the main commons. He’d been jumped while cutting class and suddenly had an audience of over three hundred faces as he took a swing at the other person. He let himself get boxed in as the crowed ringed around them both. He had no choice but to keep swinging. An ache in his back brought him to the back to the present. That’s right. Campus security had broken up the tussle and he’d been wrestled to the floor, the knee of a 195-pound officer jammed into his back to keep the peace.

Sore ribs and bruised knuckles would be the least of his problems with the way the principal’s secretary glanced at him. He was sure she was typing the immediate incident report for Principal Wells. Every click of the keyboard in the quiet office was surely dredging up the dark secrets of his so called permanent record. He shifted in his seat again, crossing and uncrossing his legs. He sunk a little lower when the secretary, an older woman with pinched lips and eyes the same color of stale coffee, scooted back from her desk. The wheels of her chair snagged on the speckled carpet as she slid back to a row of filing cabinets. Fake nails fished through a manila maze until she freed her prize. The folder was thin, but sticky-noted to high heaven. It had to be his rap sheet. He half expected her to start reading it aloud to him. First name: Caleb, Last name: Evans, Age: 15; every single scrap of information one would expect in a school file. “If only they could see him now,” he fully expected her to say.

She didn’t read it out loud though. She flipped it open instead and kept typing on her desktop. Caleb huffed out a breath, not sure if he should feel relieved or annoyed she didn’t say anything. There were just two doors to the office he sat in, both opposite his peripherals. The door to the main commons was always propped open by the same heap of plastic lining the walls where he sat. The angle was just perfect so that nearly every student that passed by would see who was next on the chopping block. The ice pack sagged in his lap, surely melting with how long the door to the principal’s actual office had been closed. It was quiet enough with the afternoon rush of students going home now long over. Definitely quiet enough to hear the muffled and irate voice from the mother of the teenager Caleb had fought. Her voice rose in pitch, but he couldn’t understand what she was saying. Another storm of words cracked the door to the office and the distraught woman wasn’t far behind. Caleb sucked in a breath, spreading a hand across his face in a vain attempt to hide.

“You!” she exclaimed, pointing a finger as her purse nearly slid from her shoulder. “If you ever come near my son again, I’ll have you arrested.”

“Ms. Powell, the situation is being handled with the upmost care. I can promise you that, but I do not need you harassing and making things worse,” Principal Wells intervened, slipping between Caleb and woman who’d gone red in the face.

“He attacked my boy in front of the entire school and I’m harassing him?”

“The fight is over now, and I’d like to keep the peace. I can assure you the consequences will not be light. Violence on my campus will not be tolerated.”

Caleb kept his eyes fixed to the floor, knowing that at least three sets of eyes were boring into him. The condolences the principal offered made Caleb’s face heat up in anger. Not a single word came to his defense as the woman continued to wave threats. One voice was silent in the aftermath of the fight and Caleb couldn’t bring himself to look up. A burning seemed to crawl up his throat, and his hand twitched out of reflex to the lining in his jacket. The material was frayed enough to create a faux pocket, and it was brilliant for smuggling his cell phone and food into class. He could feel the outline of a box about as large as his palm tucked away in the fabric. The urge was aggravating, but Caleb tugged his hand away. No need to add wood to his pyre just yet. Hugging arms to his chest, he tried to let his face go blank, but the nagging urge in his brain coupled with the hard stare of his older brother made his skin crawl.

He felt crowded suddenly with the principal and the woman standing just beyond him. His brother was stuck in the doorway and couldn’t reach out when Caleb stood abruptly. It clacked the plastic chair against drywall, enough of an alarm to deafen the entire verbal battle. Rubbing at his throat, he let the ice pack pool into the dip in his seat. He scraped up his backpack in one fluid motion and fled out the door, baffling everyone in the room. He walked like the world was on fire for the front exit, but opted to detour instead. He wouldn’t let them find him, not until he had himself sorted. The back hallways of his school were all cement and linoleum, multiple passages leading to the locker rooms and the kitchens. He fumbled in the dim light, shaking out the pack of cigarettes from his jacket. He clenched one between his lips, snapping off a match as he walked.

Caleb stood just before a set of double doors leading out to the football field. A curl of smoke wafted upwards as he took a long and slow drag on his cigarette. The sensation tickled his throat until he exhaled. He liked to think of the smoke as a curtain, something to pull in front of the world so he could focus. Another drag had his shaken nerves finally taking a breath. He leaned against the door, closing his eyes for just a moment to think. A slight breeze whistled through the gap in the doors, whispering of the waning afternoon and last trails of day. Caleb figured he should just walk home and spare Parker the embarrassment of having to haul him out the front door. He frowned, pulling the cigarette to his lips again. Parker had stared at him in such disappointment. Caleb inhaled once more in the vain hope to wash the sensation away.

A sudden flare of light in the dim hall was almost blinding, Caleb dropping the cigarette in surprise as his hands flew up to block out the steady beam. It jerked as heavy footfalls descended upon him and a sick feeling grappled in his stomach. A gruff hand, campus security issue, wrapped around his upper arm and pulled him from the doors. The curtain of smoke he’d so carefully created was pulled apart like cobweb. Caleb felt the lecture more so than heard it as he was manhandled back down the hall to the main office. He hadn’t made a clean getaway after all when he ran roughshod from the principal and his brother. Finishing a fight and then lighting up in the back halls of Westbank High School, that had to be a new record for him at least. Getting busted for one thing was always worse when he got busted for two. Caleb saw the office coming into view and acted on instinct, digging his heels into the carpet. He could just barely see Parker and Principal Wells talking. The mother of the other teen was gone at least. Their voices got louder and Caleb stopped walking altogether when he caught Parker’s voice interrupting the principal.

“I have to go after him,” his older brother gestured, sound almost a little erratic.

“We have things we need to discuss here, Mr. Evans,” the principal returned. “Your brother is in very serious trouble. Fighting on school grounds is not something I can let slide. Especially since it’s his third incident this year.”

“I understand that. I really do, but Caleb’s well-being has to be my top priority right now.”

“Are you even considering what could happen to him now that he’s back in my office? He punched out another student. That is grounds enough for an expulsion.”

“Expulsion? You’re not seriously considering that…”

“I am, Mr. Evans.”

Caleb heard Parker grow silent in his defense, face hidden while his back was turned through the glass. The moment was numbing to Caleb when the security guard finally got him walking again. Forced through the main entrance, the burning need to run had Caleb turning around in the officer’s hands. The guard’s burly stature kept him from slipping back out and he found himself cornered once more. Gripped by the shoulders, he was made to turn around, facing both the principal and his only sibling. A mixture of something appeared in Parker’s eyes, and for a moment he almost looked like their father. A sharp twinge was brought on by the thought and Caleb dropped his head again to hide the burning in his face.

“Is it alright if I take him home now?” Parker spoke up suddenly. “He’s been through a lot today.”

“And what of his actions here?” the principal answered.

“That’s why I’d like to schedule a more formal meeting for us to discuss that. I think we all need to catch our breath.”

“I know you’re no liar, Parker. Considering you were one of my best students, I’ll allow it. I understand that it’s not easy raising a teenager on your own.”

Caleb bit his tongue at the principal’s last remark, knowing he meant nothing by it, but it burned nonetheless. He shook off the guard’s hand, staring back in contempt when Parker collected him instead. He shrugged his backpack on, following after his brother as they headed out for the parking lot. Most of the cars were already gone, save for most in the faculty parking. Guest parking held just a bare minimum of vehicles, including Parker’s used pickup. Rusted around the back tire well and dented along the front fender, it had seen Parker through the majority of high school and college. It fit right in now that his older brother was back at home. Shoving his backpack into the floorboards, he pulled himself inside, settling into the cracked leather. He ran his fingers along an edge he always picked at, imagining it like a river he had fished alongside his dad when he was twelve.

The driver side door opened, shaking the cab of the truck when Parker sat back on the edge of the seat. The door hung open, and his legs stretched out on their heels into the parking lot. Caleb knew what his brother was thinking from the way his shoulders sagged to the way he kept running a hand through his hair. Still nothing was said between the two when the truck finally did start and they pulled out onto the main road. The neighborhoods stretched out, houses buried in the long shadows of afternoon. He thought he recognized someone drifting along the sidewalk on a bike, but a blinking turn to the left interrupted his thoughts. A temptation to fill the silence weighed heavily in his thoughts, a hand reaching out to the radio. A sidelong glance from Parker, brows pulled down at his little brother had Caleb retracting his hand almost immediately. That burning need returned full force, reminding him of his remaining cigarettes. He rolled the window down a crack, plucking one from the crumpled cardboard. He didn’t even have time to pull a match free when it was yanked from his mouth.

“Are you kidding me right now?” Parker exclaimed, fist closing and crushing the roll. “And right now of all times? You’ve got balls, Caleb. I’ll give you that.”

“Those aren’t cheap you know,” Caleb muttered, crossing his arms to stare out the window.

“I can’t believe you. Do you even care that you might be expelled?”

“Why should I?”

“You punched another student. You literally beat him.”

He jumped me. It was self-defense!”

Caleb swallowed around the lump in his throat, fists white-knuckled atop his jeans. The quiet rumble of the engine remained the only thing he could focus on when Parker didn’t respond. He looked to the worn door handle, wanting to yank the passenger side open to get away. The moving world around him kept him locked in their suspended moment, and Caleb found himself wishing that Parker would speak up. He wanted to hear yelling, a scolding, or anything, but an uncomfortable silence. Parker did nothing though, just guiding the truck where it had to go to get home. His hair was a mess and a slight shadow sat beneath his eyes. His eyelids drooped before he fluttered them back open, face pinching and concentrating on the road. Caleb vaguely recalled seeing Parker awake, working on his laptop when he’d gone out the night before with some friends. It must have been roughly two, maybe three in the morning.

The truck rumbled to a stop shortly after, finding its home in a short one car driveway. The small two-story house it stretched from was a sun-bleached white with navy blue shutters and black shingles. A pot of flowers sat on the edge of the first step to the front door. His mother always insisted on guests having a little color added to their day when they visited. She always kept it filled with marigolds or mums. The welcome mat was gone, so weather worn that no one could walk over it without tripping up and down the stairs. The grass was getting a little high, sprouting tall in certain patches. Caleb sighed, glancing to the shed in their equally un-mowed backyard. Maybe if he spruced up the yard, Parker could worry less. The truck shut off with a grunt, keys jangling in Parker’s hand. He kept one hand on the wheel, face still turned forward and focused on the chain link fence that ran the span of the property.

“I have to go to class in twenty minutes, and I won’t be home until nine,” he said offhandedly, undoing his seatbelt in the same sentence. “I left enough money on the corner if you want to get takeout from Chen’s. Other than that, stay at home. Please.”

“What about…?”

“We’ll talk about it later.”

“I didn’t start that fight.”

“I know.”

Caleb’s head snapped up in surprise, wondering if he’d heard his brother correctly. The disappointment in his eyes was gone, painted over by an expression too old for a twenty-four year-old. He opened his mouth, voice cracking as he tried to find something to say. The words locked in his throat, jumbling into something he couldn’t understand. He managed a nod at least, feeling rotten when he stepped out of the truck. He kept idling though, leaning on the open door wanting to actually say something to Parker. His brother had his head cocked to the side, confused and waiting. Caleb glanced around the truck’s interior to avoid what he was really thinking and mumbled a quiet “be safe” to Parker before letting the door shut. He knew the weight of those words and looked through the glass to the other’s widened eyes. The shock slipped into a knowing smile, Parker nodding without a word to him.

The house was quiet as he kicked his shoes off by the couch. He let his backpack fall next to them and he padded towards the kitchen. A twenty-dollar bill was exactly where Parker said it would be. He shoved it into his pocket, trying to decide what he wanted to do next. The clock on the wall said 3:45 p.m. and Caleb realized just how long he’d been trapped in the principal’s office. He lifted his hand, knuckles black and blue still. He grimaced when he ran a finger over them and decided more ice might be the best idea. Wrapping ice cubes in a rag, he kept it over his hand as he wandered to the second floor. Three bedrooms and a bathroom spread out down the single hallway. Caleb headed straight for his room, keeping his eyes from wandering to the dark brown oak for the very first door on the right. He was rooted though when he noticed its brass knob turned and the door ajar. The crack let a faint ray of sunlight through.

“Mom?” Caleb muttered in a cold sweat.

He reached forward, a tremble to his hand and pushed against the door. The heavy material creaked inwards, letting more sunlight escape. He could only see the closet from his angle and beating tremor made it hard to move around the corner. Caleb exhaled and made himself move forward, eyes starting to sting when he found the room empty. The only bed in the room was made up with a downy soft comforter, pillows fluffed and arranged. The dresser top was empty save for a few photo frames and a closed book. The sight was completely normal to Caleb except for one thing. Sunlight streamed in from the wide bay window, spilling across floorboards. The curtains were drawn aside. They were never drawn aside. Never. Caleb held onto the doorframe, unwilling to disturb the picture when he knew at least Parker had the nerve to.

His shoulders dropped in a shuddering heave when he pried himself from the doorway. His temper flared suddenly and he slammed the door. There was enough force in the slam for Caleb to hear something drop on the other side and shatter. He yanked it back open as quickly as he could, the door pushing pieces of glass and wood. The broken frame was laying facedown when he freed the bent photo from underneath it. The edge was torn and bits of glass still stuck to it from the fall. A familiar sting came to his eyes again as he looked over the picture of his family. He had a copy just like it sitting in an album under his bed. A beach shot of everyone on their last trip up north. He recognized the lakeshore framed in the background. His parents were seated on one of the many benches posted along the shoreline, just before the sand and grass met. Parker stood behind them, looking frazzled after scrambling back to get into the photo before the timer went off. Caleb saw himself as well, sitting cross-legged on the ground in front of his dad’s legs.

Something warm ran down his cheek, startling him from the little piece of time. The photo fluttered from his grasp when he realized what is was. His breath came back to him short and ragged as he backed away. He lingered for a moment, trying to gather himself when he couldn’t take the feeling anymore. It was strangling to be back in that room, to be back in that moment. It was all a reminder, a constant and nagging voice that drove him back downstairs to the front door. He tugged on his shoes haphazardly and pulled his hood up. It was late afternoon at best as he took off across the lawn and across the street. He’d made it a block when he started to run. The afternoon breeze was starting to cool, gathering in the gaps of his hood. Rubber met cement as his feet pounded across blacktop and dirt. His lungs burned and it felt refreshing. He kept pushing himself to run. If he could run faster, maybe he could outrun the things he’d left at the house.

The muscles in his legs ached, carrying him past a car that honked as he ran across its path. He kept running until he couldn’t breathe and kept running past that. He came to a familiar corner and cursed out loud. He didn’t want to be here, anywhere but here. He looked about wildly, chest expanding fast when he tore right and kept running. He staggered as he came to a curb, burning his knee along concrete until he picked himself up to take another step. He managed one more desperate sprint before stumbling over the lip of a slab of sidewalk. He fell face first into the grass and weeds and found he didn’t have the strength to pick himself back up. Everything felt like it was on fire from his legs to his lungs to his eyes. Breathing hard, Caleb slung his arm over his face and bit into the thick sleeve. The sob hurt as it wracked his throat, but he kept his teeth clenched. The tears returned and blurred the paling sky overhead. He rubbed them away, but more fell as he tried to catch his breath. A fast vibration in his pants pocket made him suck in a shaky breath as he fumbled to get it. The phone continued to vibrate until he managed to hit answer.

“Parker?” he croaked, hating the rough pitch in his voice.

“Caleb, where the hell are you? I told you to stay at the house!”

“Y-you’re home?”

“I left my wallet on my nightstand when I had to rush out of bed to get you today. This was my only day off this week from work and then with night classes, I’m running on near empty right now. The least you can do is stay home, so I have one less thing to worry about!”

“I’m sorry…” Caleb hiccuped, trying to muffle the sound with his sleeve.

“Are you…what’s wrong?”

“I’m fine. Don’t worry about it.”

“Caleb, you’re crying. Where are you? Are you okay?”

“I’m…I think I’m on Clark Street.”

“Clark Street?” Something like a click of a lock filled the line before Parker continued. “Stay there. I’m coming to get you.”

“It’s my fault.”

“What are you talking about?”

“It’s. My. Fault.”

“Stay there.”

The line went silent as Caleb held the phone in the air. He let it slip from his grasp as he cradled his face with both hands. A harder sob worked itself. It felt like a lead weight had settled atop his chest. He could barely breathe and he didn’t know if it was from running or the overwhelming tide he found himself trapped in. His eyes stung as he rubbed at them, but the tears wouldn’t stop. A faint squeal of tires broke his daze for only a moment and he imagined seeing a gray car on the street. It looked like the one his parents drove. The illusion faded when he got to the street corner and his mouth quivered into a hard line. More tears streamed loose and he couldn’t bear to look anymore. Clouds, lazy and large, drifted overhead streaked in pink and orange like the flowers his mother always put on the steps.

The tires he’d overheard weren’t his imagination as the same rusted pickup turned onto his street and stopped at the curb. A heavy creak of metal and a slap of a door had Parker standing in the grass just feet away. Caleb didn’t move, still breathing hard. A thick and slow feeling of shame hit Caleb when his brother closed the gap and he couldn’t stop another sob. He found himself being pulled up by his arms, muscles feeling like jelly and ready to collapse back into the grass. Caleb barely protested when Parked wrapped him in his own arms. The close hug only made the weight on his chest worse and Caleb buried his face into Parker’s shoulder. The tears fell heavy and sluggish. A comforting hand patted his back and he found himself falling back into a pit he’d kept at bay for over a year.

“It’s my fault,” he sobbed, repeating the phrase while Parker held him tight.

“No, it’s not,” Parker protested, staring out across darkening evening.

“It is.”

“It was an accident. It…it can happen to anyone.”

“They were looking for me when it happened.”

“What do you mean?”

“I snuck out. They had to go look for me and now they’re dead!”

“Don’t say that stuff like that, Caleb. Their accident…it wasn’t your fault.”

Caleb didn’t have more to say as his eyes blurred over once again. He sobbed out another apology, gripping at Parker’s sleeve. His whole body shook with the effort it took to cry. Parker sighed, resting his cheek on Caleb’s head and kept a steady gaze upwards to the purpling sky and fading clouds. A hum of energy filled the air, streetlights beginning to waken and disturb the shadows. Evening closed around both the brothers, their own shadows disturbed by the halo of light cast over the rusted truck and concrete road.

Sarah Sullivan

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Filed under Fall 2016, Fiction 2016

Healing

The monotonous sound of my shoes pounding against the cement reminded me how tired I was. I clicked my volume up two notches to drown the noise out. I had been tired for a long time. I was used to it. The upbeat music pounding into my ears didn’t help like I had hoped. I focused on breathing instead. I reached the end of the paved road and continued on slipping through the gravel filled path. I picked up a warm smoky breeze coming from the campgrounds up ahead. Dane and I used to camp there. It was only two miles down the road but made a nice retreat from home. I would work on setting up our dwarf sized tent while he attempted to start a fire. I don’t think either of us knew what we were doing. The tent was always crooked and our fire would sizzle out after an hour or so. On more than one occasion we just laughed at the mess and drove home. I missed the sound of our individual laughter combined to make one booming sound. We hadn’t been camping much in the past year. A lot had changed. When I realized my lack of sleep had caught up with me, I decided to head home.

 

I could see the driveway was empty from studying the house from a distance. It made sense when I checked the time on my phone. One advantage to my insomnia was starting my runs before he was awake. Sometimes I would catch him on his way out the door. We would exchange an awkward “Have a good day.” I don’t know if either of us meant it. We pretended a lot. It spanned from our fake greetings to playing nice around his family. Pretending was so exhausting. I was relieved to be avoiding our fake greetings today.

I dropped my sandbag of a body on the couch. I could feel myself being sucked into the throw pillows. I sat there for a while as if I was completely paralyzed. I studied the room. Pictures from our wedding day covered the walls. Two strangers stared back at me. It was hard to believe we were ever that in love. The one next to it show the strangers sharing a passionate kiss at the altar. The last one I stared at for a little longer. I recognized the people in it. It hadn’t been as long since I had seen them. Dane’s family was the only family I knew now.  With both of my parents gone and no siblings it was hard to even say I had a family. I think that’s why the pretending was worth it. I loved them like my own and I didn’t want to leave them either. I sat there for a while longer until I realized I had sweat drying on my body. I looked down at my sorry-looking shoes and untied them carefully. I was happy they had made it through another run. I thought about getting new ones a while ago. They really were on their last life. I didn’t like the thought of having to settle on new pair. I really liked these. And with new shoes came new blisters. It would be painful to adjust to new shoes. When I realized I wasn’t deciding on shoes I picked them up and threw them in the closet.

I battled the stairway to get the shower started. I turned the knob to the hottest temperature possible then adjusted it so I wouldn’t scald myself. I pulled my shirt over my head along with my sports bra. I started a pile on the floor. I added my running shorts and socks to it and stared at myself in the mirror. I noticed the black and blue marks fading to an ugly brownish color. I was happy to see them healing with the cuts above my right eye. I stared at my skeleton figure in the mirror for a while. I pushed my stomach out as far as possible while I held my breath. I tried to remember what my stomach looked like rounded again. After the last miscarriage, we decided to take a break. The break had lasted a while now and I wasn’t sure it was a break anymore. I used to pray to God for a miracle but stopped after the last one. I hadn’t talked with God for a while. I didn’t trust him anymore.

Pregnancy had ruined my marriage. The second pregnancy was just filled with anxiety. I began running around that time. When we lost her, my doctor had suggested I do something healthy to take my mind off of the “situation.” I hated how she danced around the word miscarriage. I knew what the fuck it meant. She was right about running, though. It saved my life. I slept an hour or two more every night. I could feel the anxiety fade a little after each run. And I noticed muscle starting to bubble from under my tired skin. I wish the doctor would have had a talk with Dane that day. His resolve to the second loss was more whiskey. I wish I could blame our issues on the whiskey. I often did but always realized it was the man behind the bottle. He would stumble home most nights from the bar. I really couldn’t remember the last time I had a normal sober conversation. When his drinking first started getting worse I tried to help. I would ask him things like, “Why do you need alcohol when you have me to talk to?” He would usually hang his head and say, “Just give me a minute to think.” His minute would turn into what felt like hours. I couldn’t handle the silence so I would keep talking until talking turned into yelling. We would scream at eat other until our voices were gone. Thank goodness our neighbors were half a mile away.

When we realized talking didn’t do us any good we stopped. The house was quiet without all the arguments, but it wasn’t a serene quiet. I think we both knew we were still thinking about what we wanted to say. I don’t know about him, but the thoughts in my head were much louder than any screaming match we had ever been in. I thought of something to say to him every day. I would muster up the courage all day but lose it at first sight of him. How did it get so bad? Why are we still doing this to ourselves? I knew the answers to these questions but didn’t like them. I think I just kept asking myself them to look for a different answer.

When my parents both passed away suddenly they left me everything. I had no siblings and my parents had no one else to care for. Dane knew his homely job as a carpenter wouldn’t pay the bills. I wasn’t happy with our marriage but it was better than coming home to an empty house. With no relatives on speaking terms, children, or even a dog that liked me, what would I do with my life? At least with Dane around I had another warm body in the house with me. I thought about leaving a lot. I would make plans and write them out in a notebook. At one point I had decided to move to Clearwater, Florida. It was about a twenty two hour drive from my freezing Michigan home. I would pack up everything I could and leave. Reality set in quickly. This wasn’t a Hallmark movie. I couldn’t just pack up my Jeep and drive thousands of miles with no place to live. I ended up using the notebook to kill a man-eating spider one night and threw it in the garbage with the corpse. I realized I was still standing in the bathroom bearing all that I had to show. I carefully stepped into the shower.

 

I grabbed the pile of pizza menus that delivered to our lonely home. Cooking wasn’t on my list of things to do tonight. I knew Dane would eat whatever leftovers in the fridge. I guess that was the one good thing about his habits. My eyes grazed over the options. I was starving as usual but nothing sounded like it would cure my hunger. I was crazy for pizza with my last pregnancy. I would have Dane order three medium pizzas for the two of us and finish them all by the next day. I had a little hope for the last pregnancy. I was feeling much healthier, and something was different this time. It was like my body finally agreed to help me out for once. I still wonder what we would have named it. We never even got to find out if it was a boy or a girl. I had names picked out for both.

My deep thoughts with the pizza menu were interrupted by the front door. I heard the key attempting to make it into the lock. Then I listened to a few angry grunts. I decided to help the shithead. I took my time walking to the door though. When I finally opened it I saw a tired- looking man. His blond hair was twisted every which way but you could still see the line from his hat. His broad shoulders were hunched over as if he had just been punched in the stomach. He had obviously stopped by the bar after work. His dusty work boots matched his filthy outfit. He looked at me with his baby blue eyes. They had changed a lot since we had met. They no longer made me smile when I looked at them. These days they were bloodshot and darting around the room as if they had never seen the house before. After the giant stumbled past me I looked out the door to see if his car had made it hone too. It did. You would think he would learn from his mistakes.

I dialed the number for Marco’s Pizza and put in my usual order. “That will be about an hour, ma’am. Is that alright?” Is that alright? No, but it was a done deal now. “Sure,” I responded and hung up. Heavy footsteps were pounding through the house. What the hell was he doing? I decided to check the situation out.

I found him butt naked trying to pick up his t-shirt at the wrong moment. I turned away until I was sure he was upright. When I looked back at him I met his stare with rosy cheeks. “Sorry,” he slurred. “I was just looking for some clean clothes.” I let him know I had left a pile of them on top of the washer. He stumbled into the laundry room. I decided to turn on the TV and wait for dinner to arrive. I had hoped he wouldn’t join me. I couldn’t handle his inebriated presence tonight. I thought about the car again when I passed by the window. Chills ran through my body. His brand new F150 wasn’t a purchase we planned on making. His last truck didn’t make it through the accident. I suddenly felt hot as I thought about what else we lost that day.

 

My body was keeping up with the last pregnancy. I had complications but not like before. I was on bedrest so I sat home most nights reading various books about how to raise a healthy baby. Dane and I were also doing well. He decided that he wanted to take me out to dinner with the doctor’s permission. We called the doctor and she gave us a time limit of an hour. I attempted to make myself presentable while Dane called in reservations to our favorite restaurant. I could tell he had been drinking but he still seemed to be functioning normally. I let him drive since he insisted I was in no condition.  I should have told him the same thing.

The next thing I remember is the truck spinning and rolling into one of the deepest ditches on our road. They blamed the icy road in the police report, but we know there were other factors involved. When they pulled my body out of the ditch, my skin had a pale blue tint to it. I lost consciousness a lot so I don’t remember much until I woke up in the hospital bed. Dane was sleeping in a chair next to me. His wrist was wrapped and his bruised skin matched mine now that I was looking at it. I looked around the room and back at my limp body. I could tell something was terribly wrong just from looking at my torso. Dane jumped up as soon as he realized I was awake, too. His tearstained cheeks confirmed my suspicions. I didn’t cry when the doctor repeated the news everyone had already heard. I just sat there and stared at the ceiling. I didn’t think. I just stared at the creamy orange-colored paint. I remember not feeling the pain even when they took me off the morphine. I just felt numb. There was nothing I could do. We had lost our last baby.

The doorbell threw me off the couch as if there were springs in my ass. I grabbed my wallet out of the kitchen and gave the zit-faced kid a twenty and told him to keep the change. Dane suddenly appeared in the room. The smell of pizza must have made its way to wherever he had been. I didn’t want to look at him tonight. How could he drive drunk again after what happened? I called him every name I could think of without actually saying them out loud. He looked at me with a twisted face and dropped the pizza. “Who the hell puts pineapple on a pizza?” I would normally ignore his inebriated talk but I had too much on my mind today to hold another thing in. “It’s called a Hawaiian. Most people don’t complain about pizza they didn’t buy.”

“Really? You’re going to lay that shit on me again?”

“You asked…”

“If you‘re so unhappy, why don’t you take your trust fund and leave me the hell alone?”

I thought about it for a minute. Agreeing is what he wanted right now. I decided to change the subject and talk about what I really wanted to know.

“Why are you driving drunk, Dane? Didn’t you learn when you killed…”

I stopped because if I finished that sentence, it would hurt him more than me. I didn’t really like him right now, but no one deserved that. I didn’t have to finish my sentence though. The damage was done. He punched the wall on the way out of the room. Shit. I was going to have to fix this. I didn’t want to apologize but he was out of whiskey. Nothing good happened when the bottle was empty. I followed him into the next room. His head was between his knees.

I sat there staring at him. I couldn’t think of a damn thing to say. Why could I defend pineapple on pizza but I couldn’t talk about our failing marriage? I seriously needed to visit that therapist. When he noticed me standing there he scoffed and slurred out, “I don’t know what you want me to do. If you hate me, why don’t you just leave? Why do you stick around this dump? Why do you sit with garbage like me?” I thought about answers to all the questions he repetitively kept asking. I didn’t really know the answer besides being lonely scared the hell out of me. I interrupted his quizzing with, “Where would I go? You’re the only family I have.” I could tell he was stumped now. We both sat in silence. The escalated anxiety was sitting around the room with us. I was done talking until he decided to answer me. Maybe he knew the answer to the question I had been asking myself for a long time now. I would like to hear his opinion. His answer was laughter. Laughter! What the fuck was so funny? I repeated my question out loud.

“You would have no one to live with and I would have nowhere to live. I can’t afford this shitty house on my own.”

I still didn’t find it funny but answered with, “Well I’m glad we’re on the same page.”

He replied, “Why don’t you get a dog? That might be better company than a drunk.” He went into a fit of laughter. I’m pretty sure the alcohol was slowly melting his brain into nothing. I started thinking about that notebook again and my dream home on the Florida coast.

“Where would you go if I left with my ‘trust fund?’”

“I don’t know. I’d probably stay with Ma and Roger until I got myself a place.”

He got up and slowly made his way up the steps. Before he walked upstairs, he turned around and said, “Meg, you got to do something with yourself. We ain’t no good for each other. Hangin’ round here is only making the past hurt more.” He made his way to the second floor and I listened as his footsteps pounded into the bedroom before I started crying.

The emotion felt good. It was as if a balloon had popped inside of me. I felt all the sadness from the loss of our children but the happiness of knowing there could be a future. How could my husband, the drunk, figure that out but not me? When I was through with my concoction of emotions I decided the couch was more of a bed tonight than sharing one with Dane. I snuck into the dark room filled with snoring and grabbed my pajamas and my favorite pillow. I shoved the full pizza boxes into the empty fridge. I watched reruns of Friends until I felt the warmth of sleep take over my tired body.

That night I dreamt about running through the sand. The feeling of the grains filling in between my toes each time I took a step felt so real. The sun shined on the back of my neck. I stopped to take a break from the heat under a small wooden bridge. The salty air filled my nostrils and I sat there listening to the waves move in and out. When I felt cooled enough, I ran back the same direction. I knew where I was going. A small blue beach house waited at the end of a narrow road. The backyard was replaced with sandy shores leading into the bright blue water I had ran next to earlier that day. I made my way up the steps to the screen door. A medium sized black Labrador greeted me with licking the salty perspiration off my body. I laughed as the grainy tongue tickled my skin. I decided to thank him by sitting on the tile cold tile floor. I scratched behind his ears and all the way back to the dock of his tail. His little body squirmed all around as I made my way back to his ears. I heard a door shut from behind me and looked around the house. Panic overturned my happiness. There was no other door shut besides the one behind me. I thought maybe my panicked state pulled me out of my dream, but I realized it was our front door being closed behind Dane.

 

I listened as the truck door shut behind him and started the engine start up. He took his time backing out of the long driveway. Little rocks popped under the large tires. The dream felt so real and I tried to close my eyes and get back to my new friend. I gave up after a few minutes of tossing and turning. I sat up and thought about how refreshed I was. I had gotten my first full night’s sleep in over a year. I couldn’t give the couch credit though. Last night had changed something.

I hobbled up the steps. I was only half awake but already in a better mood thanks to my dream. I pulled out a fresh pair of shorts. I put on the clean sport bra and an old t-shirt I had gotten from Mackinaw Island on our honeymoon. I made my way to the dark closet at the bottom of the steps.

I pulled my sad looking shoes back on my feet. I tied them very carefully and thought about this being their last run.  The fading colors from what used to be a bright pink with green stripes were now some sort of odd gray. I stared at them a little longer and thought about how I really didn’t even recognize them. It was almost like they were completely different shoes. They were filled with little rips in the mesh. The bottom of the left one was peeling off the main part of the shoe. I prayed they’d hold up for their last run. I decided I was ready for a new pair.

My feet tapped against the pavement in a different way today.  Each one was filled with springy energy. I decided to take a new path today. I wanted to get to know the neighborhood a little better.

Lauren Hamel

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Filed under Fall 2016, Fiction 2016

Shake the Rust

“Okay, I can fix this. I just need help.” The young girl heaved a sigh of relief as she slumped against the front door of her grandparents’ house that she’d just rushed through. Her short blue hair was all scraggled, and her clothes looked much the same. Things had happened very quickly and gone wrong even quicker. She wasn’t sure what she should do, but she knew she had to get back as soon as possible, otherwise.

“Lorelei?!” gasped her mother, rounding the corner. “Where’ve you been?! I thought you came home with Bianca! What happened? Why’re you all banged up?”

It was late, and seeing as she’d been running as fast as she could, Lorelei hadn’t been too quiet when she burst through the door.

“What?” she pointed to herself, “Me? Where’ve I been? Just y’know…” she looked around the room, scraping for a feasible answer, “just riding my bike. Yeah!” she perked up. “Late night bike ride in the country. That sort of thing.”

“Then,” her mother gestured to all of her ragamuffin daughter, “How’d your clothes get all torn and dirty?”

“OH!” Lorelei clapped her hands together, “That! YES!” She hadn’t actually noticed the state of her clothes with all that had happened. “I totally fell into a ditch. But it’s okay, I’m okay!” She waved her hands frantically. “I’m good, no fractures, broken bones, or otherwise.”

She knocked on her head, “Had my helmet on too, so my noggin’s good as well! No worries.”

“Hmm,” her mother mulled over this information, “okay.” Lorelei sighed at this, “But next time, give me a heads up before you go out, okay? You’re usually so good at that.”

“Yeah, well, what can I say?” Lorelei pointed to herself with both hands, “Teenager,” she smirked.

“Okay, well, g’night then,” her mother waved and yawned as she headed to her room.

“See you in the morning.”

Another sigh. “Well, at least that went well,” Lorelei thought. “Could’ve gone worse. Could’ve gone worse. I’ve already had enough worse for one night.”

*     *     *

Lorelei dropped her backpack on the floor by her room’s door. She and her mother had temporarily moved in with her grandparents. At least until the divorce was a done deal. It had taken a while, but her new room had begun to feel a little bit more like home after she had filled the dresser with her clothes, and stacked the few books she had brought from home on the desk near her bed. Neat and organized…and a little cramped. It was the exact opposite of her old room. At least it had a big window, though. She sighed and looked out at the dark night, wondering what to do, knowing what she had to do, not wanting to do what she had to do.

Whether she liked it or not, she had to go back there.

Back to the factory. Back to the fear.

“Oy! Lorelei!”

“GAH!”

The voice came from her bed, startling Lorelei. It was a friend.

“What happened after I left?” Bianca asked, looking confused. “Where’s Wes?”

“Things…happened.”

*     *     *

A few days after they’d moved in, Lorelei decided to take a walk to try and clear her head a bit. She stepped outside, followed the bends of her grandparent’s driveway, and headed out onto the empty country road. The sun shone warm, but the wind was cool. Fall lay on the horizon. She wore her favorite hooded purple sweatshirt covered with tiny silver stars on it while she took her walk to no place in particular. The wind, and the sun, and the quiet helped to clear her recently very busy mind as she trudged on. Eventually, she came across a clearing in the woods off the side of the road, with an old, broken, wooden gate in front. Curious, she headed down the path beyond it. The clearing looked pretty old, and had a rut from car tires that was now covered in grass and leaves. She followed the path for quite some time until it was blocked by a high wall of fallen trees. From the looks of things, the trees seemed to have been cut down, rather than blown over by the wind or fallen down on their own. There were several “Caution” blockades in front of the trees.

“Curiouser and curiouser,” thought Lorelei. “I’d wager somebody doesn’t want somebody to get past this blockade…but why?”

Her curiosity had been piqued. There was no way that this minor setback was going to stop her. She searched around until she found a way around them, through the thick woods. She grabbed ahold of a low-hanging tree branch, and pulled herself up onto the high embankment that formed the sides of the wooded path. Her skin and clothes were scratched as she waded her way through the thick brush. Soon, she rounded the blockade and stepped back out onto the path.

The trail continued winding on and on, and Lorelei soon began wondering whether she should head back or not.

That is, until she saw the factory.

It was old. At least several decades from the look of it.

It was big. Not tall, but large and strange enough that it looked very out of place in the middle of the woods.

It was broken. Part of the roof was caved in where a large old tree had fallen over onto it. Weeds and scrubs covered almost the entirety of the outside. The front doors were busted off their hinges, and darkness was all that could be seen of the interior.

“That…is more than enough exploring for one day,” Lorelei decided as she spun around on her heal and hurried back home.

*     *     *

“Dr. Matthews! Dr. Matthews! Sir, wait!” The young man rushed down the hall, shouting.

“…what is it, Arron?” The old man turned as he kept walking. He furrowed his brow and faced forward again.

“Well, it’s the head of our soon-to-be owners. They’re here. They’d like to see you.”

“See me? More like smile through their teeth while they stab us in the back. How long you think this place will be running after they get their greasy claws into it?”

*     *     *

The next day, Lorelei brought her friends Bianca and Wes to explore the factory further.

“Remind me again, Wes, why’re you here?” Lorelei asked.

“Me? Why’m I here?” Her friend Wes, a thin lanky fellow, snapped his fingers and pointed towards himself. “Me? I am here because: a.) old, abandoned factories are cool and creepy, b.) I didn’t really have anything to do today, and c.) Bianca can’t keep a secret.” He then gestured towards Bianca, who gripped her scarf and snapped:

“Shut up, man!” She punched Wes on the shoulder. He winced even though it didn’t really hurt.

The three friends stood outside the factory in the late afternoon. Had they given this little exploration party a bit more thought, they might’ve headed out earlier in the day, but otherwise they were all set. They’d brought all the necessities for the trip.

The dark innards of the place seemed to seep out of it, all around it. Both warning away and inviting any would-be explorers.

“Okay. Has everybody steeled themselves?” Lorelei asked. “All prepared mentally? No? Cool. Me neither,” she looked at her friends. “Let’s head on in then.”

*     *     *

“Sir, where are you off to, now?” It was days later, and Arron was again hurrying after Dr. Matthews.

“They want this place so bad, eh? They can have it! But I’m gonna keep working ‘til they drag me out of here kicking and screaming!” He pointed at the young man. “Now let me be, Arron!”

“But…wait. What’s that in your pocket? Is that–” Arron reached forward.

Dr. Matthews’ pocket bulged and several small gears and parts of machinery fell from it as he continued his hurried path down the hall. Arron stared, shocked.

“Are you the one who’s been stealing from the company?”

“Preposterous. These are just some parts I made at home. Now go away.” He shooed the young man away. “I’ve important things to take care of.”

*     *     *

The inside of the building wasn’t much nicer than the outside. Pretty much all of the tiled flooring had been cracked, shattered, and uprooted by plant life. Furniture was moldy, cubicles had fallen over, and wires and cables hung down all over the place.

And it was dark. The trio switched their flashlights on.

“Yeah, okay, I know I said I wanted to check this place out, but I’m having second thoughts now,” said Bianca.

Lorelei shrugged. “Okay, but Wes and I’re heading further in. So, see you outside in a bit,” she started to walk ahead.

Bianca looked back over her shoulder at the quickly darkening woods outside. “Hrmph,” she made a pouty face, “Fine. Lead on. But if anything goes badly, I’m blamin’ you, Lore.”

The three carried on through room after room of empty office-like spaces until they found an emergency stairway, tucked away in the corner of a room, partially blocked by a bookcase.

“Oh dang,” Lorelei reached out and touched the cold door, “You guys think we should check it out?”

“We’ve come this far,” Wes said, “Might as well, right?”

It took all three of them to heave the heavy shelving unit out of the way, knocking several dusty tomes to the floor, further kicking up even more dust in the process. Heaving her body into the door, Lorelei barely managed to crack it open, leaving the group to squeeze through the narrow opening. The stairway, unlike the rest of the building, was still in pretty good shape.

“Hey, so, though,” Wes held up his finger. “If this building is only one floor, why did they build a fire exit that goes underground?”

“That…is an excellent question,” Lorelei began, “One to which I do not yet know the answer to.”

“Okay, well I’m definitely heading out now, guys,” Bianca said, jabbing a thumb in the direction they had come from. “For real this time,” she put on a serious face aimed at her friends, in the hope that they’d join her. “Not even kidding. I can do creepy empty office rooms, but mysterious, hidden, shouldn’t-even-be-there-in-the-first-place staircases? Nope. I’m out,” she spun around, and waved back at them, “You two have fun. If it’s cool with you, Lore, I’mma head back to your grandparent’s place.”

“Yeah no, that’s totally fine Bi, we’ll head back in just a bit. Be safe.”

“You guys, too,” Bianca said, looking back as she left.

“Whelp,” Lorelei turned to Wes, “Ready?”

“Oh, most definitely! I’m in my element, girl!”

They took each step cautiously, making sure that their weight could be supported. When they reached the bottom of the staircase, and rounded the bend, there was nothing in the wall where there should’ve (logically?) been a door. So, they headed down the next flight, and the next…and the next. They had gone down at least four flights when they caught sight of the door.

It was large, heavy-duty, and had a numbered lock on it.

“Agh, all this way, and we can’t even get in!” Wes growled with anger.

“Oh, can’t we?” Lorelei pointed to a small piece of paper sticking out of the bottom of the door, with a number sequence written on it. It was (luckily) not pinched entirely beneath the door, so it was easy enough to de-wedge it, and easier still to enter the secret code.

The latch clacked open. Lorelei swung open the door.

She and Wes stepped into the dark, vast, dusty room. Cobwebs populated the area, covering the many boxes, computers, and shelves with bits of machinery on them. They could see a shaft of moonlight streaming down from a crack in the ceiling high above, with part of a tree poking through as well. Lorelei looked at Wes, and nodded her head in the direction she wanted to head. For some reason, she wished to remain as quiet as she could in this room. As she walked on, she almost tripped over something. She bent down. It was an odd-shaped piece of machinery. Moreover, it was an odd-shaped piece of machinery made of several overlapping gold and silver gears that looked like it could be wound up with a key. There was a little tag tied to it, with a little message on it:

To you, my boy. Time to show the world all the great things you can do. Be free. -Dr. Matthews

Lorelei pocketed the strange thing and caught up to Wes a little ways ahead. He had stopped a few feet ahead for some reason. He was just…standing there. Staring. Lorelei waved her hand in front of his eyes, and then looked to where he was looking.

Everything happened in a moment.

There was a robot…and it was staring at them.

They stared back.

It gasped.

They gasped.

There was a sudden cracking sound and the building shook.

The robot looked up and then lunged towards them, and pulled Wes towards it.

The tree fell through the roof.

Lorelei fell backwards, hit her head on the floor, and blacked out.

*     *     *

“LET ME GO!!!” Dr. Matthews screamed, kicking. Two massive men carried him by the arms. “You’ve no right! I’ve done nothing!”

“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to kindly shut your mouth,” said one of the men. “You steal from the company, you get the boot. The boot, and jail.”

“You blasted fools! All my hard work will be for naught if you don’t free me!”

“You’ve been given plenty of time to clear out, sir. It’s time for you to leave. You brought this on yourself.”

“But he won’t survive without me! You take me away, you’re taking the life of another!”

*     *     *

Lorelei woke with a start, gasped, bolted up, and remembered everything that had happened in a flash. “WES! WES! WHERE ARE YOU?!!” she shouted. Looking around, she was alone. Wes was nowhere to be seen. And neither was the robot. “Nononononononononono. He took him. He took him somewhere. He took him somewhere and I don’t know where and I don’t know what he’s gonna do to him. This is all my fault. This is all my fault. What am I gonna do what am I gonna do?” She could feel the fear and panic burning at the back of her brain, rampant throughout her head. The robot. Wes. The divorce. All her worries and fears. All of it. All at once. “Is this…is this a panic attack?” Her heart began to beat faster and she felt a cold sweat come over her as she sat in the dark in the basement in the factory in the woods. “No. NO. Cal- Calm down. Breathe. Breathe…slowly.” This had happened before. Not too long ago, shortly before the divorce, when things were getting really intense back home. A feeling of absolute terror. Uncontrollable and raging. “But, but I rode it out…before. It’s okay. It’s okay.

“I’m…okay. Breathe.” She did her best to talk herself down. “Breathe in. Out. In. Slowly. Focus on only breathing. Calm. Calm. Steady.”

“Breathe.”

The feeling began to subside. A little bit at a time. “Good. Good. Al- Almost there.” Her mind began to calm.

She let out a long breath, trying to center herself, trying to center her mind again.

She opened her eyes. Shaken.

“I…need help.”

She stood up. Turned around, and raced out of the building, back towards her grandparents’ house.

*     *     *

“You just left Wes there?!” Bianca asked incredulously after Lorelei had finished telling her everything. “How could you?!” She grabbed ahold of Lorelei’s sweatshirt, as tears began to well up in her eyes.

Lorelei slapped her hands away, and looked her distraught friend in the eyes. “You ask me like I wanted to leave him there? It’s not like I had much of a choice, Bi. I…he was gone when I came to, him and the robot. And…,” She averted her eyes, “I started to have a panic attack I think, but I fought it off. I didn’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do. All I know is that I needed help,” she placed a hand on Bianca’s shoulder. “And you’re it.”

Bianca blinked away her tears, “Shouldn’t we, like, call the police or something?”

“Probably. But do you think they’d come rushing over when we tell them that our friend was kidnapped by a robot?”

“Fair point. You going to tell your mom?”

“Yeah. After we get Wes back. We need to get back there as soon as we can, and telling her would just make her try and stop us. So later.”

Bianca looked up at her friend. “I…don’t want to go back in there, especially now. I mean I know I-“

“Hey,” Lorelei pulled her friend into a hug. “I don’t want to either. Out of fear of what might happen, I mean. But right now, how we feel is irrelevant. We have to move past this fear to do what we have to do. This all won’t get better if we do nothing.”

“Mmhm,” Bianca buried her face in Lorelei’s shoulder.

Lorelei let out a long breath.

“Let’s go.”

She grabbed her bag and her friend and headed towards the door. She tromped down the hall noisily.

She grabbed her mom’s car keys.

She threw open the door.

She got in the car, turned the key, hit the gas, peeled out.

Her mom rushed to the door as her daughter drove out onto the street, and into the night.

*     *     *

In a matter of minutes Lorelei and Bianca reached the factory, rushed through the dark and empty rooms, tore down the flights of stairs, and made it to the secret basement room.

“Alright, keep a sharp eye, Bi, they could be anywhere down here.”

“Y’mean, like right there?” Bianca pointed straight ahead, towards the middle of the room. Sitting on the recently fallen tree, under the moonlight crack in the high ceiling, was the robot. He was tall, at least seven feet, and his arms and legs were long, lanky, and thin. There were loose wires hanging off of him in several places, and his boney-looking face had two different sized eyes. He was covered with rust patches. He tilted his head at the girls. They tilted theirs in return. Then Lorelei spoke.

“You!” She growled, angered and pointed at the robot. “WHERE IS HE?!”

The robot cringed and hid behind his arms. “…the…one who was with you? He is in my room, recovering.”

“What did you do to him?!”

“N-nothing. He…his head was hit slightly when the tree fell. He will be fine. I took him in there, but you were gone when I returned a little while later.”

“O-oh. I see. What…who are you? What is all this?”

“I? I am an artificial intelligence unit created by Dr. Matthews. My name is Jericho. This was once a factory that created and designed machines and parts. I was a personal project, constructed in secret. My creator wanted to do more than just design pieces and parts; he sought to create something more, something groundbreaking. But he was unable to gain the approval of those above him. So he began creating me in secret. He gave me emotions, free will, and taught me many things about the world, as well as morals and the like. Then one day, Dr. Matthews was arrested for stealing important machinery from the company…to build me, I presume. The factory was bought up by a larger company, and was left behind, along with myself. I’ve not seen Dr. Matthews since.”

“Why didn’t you leave here?” Bianca asked.

“I cannot. The day Dr. Matthews was planning to present me, he was to give me my final piece of machinery that would allow me to move about freely without the bounds of my recharge station.” There was a long mess of cables trailing from his back along the floor and out to somewhere in the darkness. “And so, I’ve been trapped here for several decades now. Unable to move on. Unable to leave this shell behind.” He gestured all around him.

Lorelei tucked her hand into her pocket as she listened, and it brushed against something cold and metal. She gasped.

“Is this it?! Is this the piece?” She thrust the gear with the tag on it at the robot. He looked at it, picked it up gently with both hands, and read the attached note.

He smiled and looked up at them.

“Thank you. ‘Be free?’ I would like that. I would like that very much.”

“You can be now. Do whatever you feel. You can always move forward.”

~Adam Schultz

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Filed under Fall 2015, Fiction Fall 2015

The Game of Life

Zizzy Topper didn’t flinch as her opponent triumphantly flicked aside the black queen. A look was in his eyes as though the moon had just eaten the sun. Her thoughts lingered bitterly upon brands of cat food.

“Ooh, regiscided by a lowly rook.” Succulents? Fancy Scraps? She knew X would freak if she got it wrong again.  No other pet on earth had different types of food for each day of the week.  Only the best for that putrid orange whore.  Buy food for your own cat, mom. “If your strategy this time is daydreaming, I might actually have a chance here.  Zizzy?  You in there?”  The stuffy library, choked with dust and futility, was starting to become irritating.  The room was little more than a square office, converted to a “game room” and set aside for bored little kids. Sunlight pierced through the single window.  She adjusted her gray fedora to better shield her eyes, shifting her weight on the chair, damning her uncomfortably tight shorts.  Where does the weather get off, dictating fashion like this.  While she’d sworn off make-up long ago, she still took longer to get ready than X on the basis of wardrobe alone.  He was saying something again.  Her fingers drummed against the wooden table as she shook the dark curls out of her eyes. What was he going on about now?

“Yeah, yeah.”  She gave the board a cursory glance before unceremoniously moving her knight to G-7.  “Sorry, thought you might be droning on about your party again.  Let’s hurry this up, it’s blazing hot in here.”  Not to mention she had a chat log to check back home.  For the third time that day.  She mentally slapped herself.  Just calm down.  Not like your life depends on it or anything… Yeah, great work Zizzy, real comforting.  Her sarcasm wasn’t limited to the physical plane.  Her neck popped as she rolled her head back, resolving to only refresh the client one more time, today.

The boy sitting across from her wore a sly sort of smirk. He always did when he thought he had an edge in their games.  An embarrassing tell.  But a useful one.  “You really should come, you know,” he said for the millionth time. His chair squeaked against the waxed floor, his glasses slipping a bit as he leaned over the table.  The board was beginning to look sparse, only a few major pieces left to both sides.  Her armies of darkness were scattered and desperate, seemingly helpless before their ivory-clad opponents.  Their queen had just fallen before them, and morale was low.  Or it would have been, if not for the calm, calculating demeanor of their black-haired puppet-master.  Lester Crawford, her best friend and occasional arch-nemesis, cracked his fingers and flourished his hand dramatically.  He’d never managed to capture her queen before.  Which was how she knew he’d do it.

“I mean,” he continued, “we both know you’re just going to sit on your ass and play Galaxyforge until your fingers fall off.”

Zizzy put a finger to her lips, pretending to contemplate the idea.  “Just hurry up and take your turn.”

He smiled his goofball smile.  “Oh, do not despair, my lovely rival.  Your demise, though inevitable, shall be swift.  How much Internet fame will I accumulate, I wonder, from besting the great Zicero?”

She chuckled, raising an eyebrow.  “Not nearly enough to fill that empty head of yours.  C’mon, take my knight.  I dare you.”

“Your overconfidence is your weakness,” he taunted.

“Your faith in your friends is yours,” she replied, dutifully completing the exchange.  His smirk deepened.  He picked up his only remaining bishop and obligingly slew her wayward horseman.  The board, or boards, really, reshuffled themselves in her mind’s eye.  Most people found that games grew more exciting as they drew towards their conclusions, but Zizzy felt the opposite to be true.  As pieces were lost and possibilities grew fewer, the less engaged she felt with the experience.  Especially when victory was certain.  Crap, she thought, I don’t think I watered the ferns this morning, either.  Now I have to get the right cat food.

“King to B-3,” she said, not bothering to move the piece.  She opened her mouth to continue, but he cut her off, wagging a finger.

“Oh come on, don’t do that thing again.  Don’t you dare.  I have you this time, I even got your queen.”

“’xactly,” she started, stretching her arms out and leaning back in her chair.  “Just like I wanted you to.  Now you can’t move your rook back to defend.”

His smirk dwindled, pushing his chair away from the table. He stood up and leaned over the board once again, like a general would a regional map. “But all you have is pawns and one bishop left…”

“Yeah, and it’s the white-tiled one, so your bishop can’t take it.  Which since I moved my king, is now poised to force yours into a corner, with my pawns.  Next, you’ll either move your rook to check me or try to block my bishop.  I’ll take it in two moves either way, and it’s checkmate in five moves no matter what.”  She stood up as well, pushing at the base of her spine, squinting up at the pasty fluorescent light playing across the ceiling’s rafters.  Lester just groaned. He started to gather the pieces.

“Haven’t you ever heard of fighting to the bitter end?” he asked.  She just shrugged, watching him pack up the board.  Lester was a year younger than her, but they’d shared biology class the previous year.  He was a nerdy, “misunderstood poet” kind of guy, but he was endearingly self-aware about it.  Smart enough to put up with.  Moderately handsome.  Overall she’d rate him three and a half out of five stars.  She saw him looking at her as she helped sort the chess pieces into their respective bags.

“You’re still anxious about that, huh?  Come on Zizzy, worrying yourself won’t do any good.  I’m sure they’ll respond soon, if they have any sense.”

She groaned.  Perceptive to a fault, as always.  “It’s cute how you think you can make me feel better.”

After packing up the board, they traversed the barren midafternoon streets heading towards the lazy, comfortably stale suburbs.  Zizzy endured a few minutes of Lester ranting about the latest rom-com he was into. Pitiful. She countered with a story about her latest game of Galaxyforge.  It was the only game they talked about lately.  It had only been out for two months, but already, teams were being drafted, tournaments planned, and champions crowned by the collective hive of the e-sports community.  Two months, equaling 1,488 hours.  Zizzy had spent about 1,000 of them broadcasting her epic battles to thousands of loyal viewers.  A muffler-less car rocketed past them, interrupting her scintillating tale of war and triumph.  She flipped it off, and Lester laughed, adjusting his glasses.  The summer sun was warm, but a cool breeze carried the painful reminder that autumn was approaching rapidly.

A new school year for two C-average students brought nothing but dread. Though in Lester’s case, it also brought the last-minute desire for social reconnection with his peers.  The dreary slouch and wanting, passive-aggressive glances told her that she’d disappointed him.  This called for a mood lightener.

“Don’t get pouty.  We both know you just wanna look cool by inviting an older girl.”  He rolled his eyes.  No trademark smirk, either.  Zizzy wished she was better at this.  “Look, X has been hounding me about a job, again.  I’m sure you’re familiar with Hitler’s ‘final solution’, and this is hers.  I have to start earning more with my stream.  Convince her I can make it.  I barely get enough for food as it is.”  They’d stopped walking now, at the corner where they had to part ways.  Both of them hesitated.  The awkward silence grated painfully against her mind. He finally turned to her with a not-so-straight face.

“It’s because you eat too much, fat-ass.”

She grinned as they both waved farewell, turning homeward.  A fat joke?  Still so much to learn.  It was something though, and she’d take it.

After the long walk through the winding streets, Zizzy nudged open the door of the two-floor house with her foot, wrestling with the bags in her arms.  The old place was small and kind of sucked, but she wasn’t sure if anywhere else was much better. Something soft and warm clung itself to one of her legs, further upsetting her balance.  “Zizzy Zizzy!” it cried, giggling. She smirked, rolling her eyes. The five-year-old bundle of energy was practically magnetized to her.

“Hey, little guy,” she greeted with her customary nickname for him, as he had for her.  Like most girls named Elizabeth, she had previously gone by Lizzy. Until the twerp overheard her screenname, and decided to combine them.  As nicknames tended to do, it soon infected the rest of her family, her friends, and then the whole school.  Now she had to grudgingly explain it to her teachers.

“Zizzy!” her brother shouted again, laughing.  Her arms were already throbbing painfully after carrying the cat food, of which she’d bought two different bags just to be safe, but she relented and picked him up, swinging him onto her back.  Christopher was obnoxious, but he could be quiet when stealth was needed, making him the perfect partner in crime.

Together, they snuck through the dark living room, musty with the smell of Pledge and Windex, and thick with dull snoring.  Like clockwork, their mother had fallen asleep on the couch after a long day of doing not much at all.  Zizzy called her X, for X chromosome.  Y was gone on business, as usual.  The kind of soul-rending, hand-shaking, ass-kissing for some nameless corporation that plagued Zizzy’s darkest nightmares.  The duo crawled across the thin, rough carpet, expertly avoiding the creaky spots.  Attempting to escape a conflict with X, Zizzy had found, was not dissimilar from trying to delay the entropic disassembly of the universe. And yet, they had to try.

They crept past the tacky clocks and esoteric Japanese paintings to her room at the end of the hall.  She set him down on her frameless mattress that was squished into the corner. He immediately hopped to his feet and scurried back down the hall, giggling his way to his next distraction.  Flopping herself in her pleather business chair, Zizzy shook the mouse to wake up her snoozing computer.  Her desk was completely empty save for her 18 inch monitor and buzzing hard drive.  Zizzy hated clutter almost as much as she hated cleaning it up.  She dealt with it by keeping everything crammed into her closet and leaving the puke-colored carpet bare.  As the screen came to life, the Galaxyforge chat client filled her vision. Of course, it had timed out during her absence.  Her cursor moved to the refresh icon.

Click.

Pling.

One new response.  Though she received thousands of messages from miscellaneous fans, it was set to only notify her if certain usernames contacted her.  Her eyes widened, a shaky breath escaping her lips. It was what she’d been waiting for, alright.  Quickly, she jumped from her chair and slipped off her shoes and socks, tossing the hat onto the cabinet in the corner.  Her eyes scanned the notification as she flumped into her chair again.  Sent an hour and forty minutes ago… he’s still online…  It was perfect.  This was her chance to finally get drafted onto a team.  They’d kept her waiting for two anxious weeks since she messaged them. Though they’d only just started recruiting, rumor had it that several big names who were transferring over to Galaxyforge from other games were setting it up.  She took a few more shaky breaths. Her fingers trembling slightly on the keyboard as she forced herself to wait a few moments.  Responding immediately upon logging in would just be pathetic.  Her teeth dug into her bottom lip before finally, she lowered her finger and clicked the button to reply.

zicero197 opened a chat with [APEX]skylord

[3:45] –zicero197: hey

[3:46] –[APEX]skylord: Hello there, zicero! how are you?

[3:46] –zicero197: fine i guess. got your msg. interested?

[3:48] –[APEX]skylord: Haha, so forward! well, to cut to the chase, yes, we’re interested in recruiting you for team Apex. your speed is decent and your builds are spot on. you got in master league recently if I’m right?

[3:48] –zicero197: a month ago actually

[3:48] –[APEX]skylord: Sound. we’re really trying to build a versatile, highly skilled team here.

[3:49] –zicero197: cool. i’m up for joining. u guys looking at other streamers?

A long, soul-crushing pause. Her eyes bored into the screen, her mind buzzing with every swear word she knew. Her cheeks flushed with anxious indignation.  Yet, she told herself to keep calm, even as sweat glued her fingers to the keys.

[3:56] –[APEX]skylord: Oh, we’ve looked at other options of course. but if you keep up your game you should be fine. when are you good to set up a game?

[3:56] –zicero197: a game?

[3:57] -[APEX]skylord: I’m planning on testing your abilities against our other players. practice makes perfect you know, and we need to test the newbies a little to make sure they’ll hold up against real pros. so in the next week or so we can set something up

[3:57] –zicero197: um i’m not really new though, i’ve played other games and i’m in master league like i said

[3:59] –[APEX]skylord: You did say that. you weren’t really big in any other game though. don’t get me wrong, you’re pretty good. the pro scene is a whole other game though, and all our other players have won at least something.

[3:59] –zicero197: …

[3:59] –[APEX]skylord: Not trying to get off on the wrong foot here haha. just saying we need reliability going into the scene. lots of teams being set up even this early!

[4:01] –zicero197: well i’m looking at your profile here and u actually haven’t won that many tourneys

[4:01] –zicero197: ur biggest victory was four years ago in a game i’ve never even heard of

[4:02] –[APEX]skylord: Hm? what are you talking about?

[4:02] –zicero197: and u keep saying you have big names w/o even saying who they are

[4:02] –zicero197: everyone knows u have void and giguro already and they’re both semi-decent

[4:02] –zicero197: banshee’s staying quiet but u prolly have him too

[4:02] –[APEX]skylord: …

[4:03] –zicero197: but really idk why you think i need testing

[4:03] –zicero197: i’ve logged more hours than any of u

[4:03] –zicero197: and u wouldn’t have responded if u didn’t think i was at least as good as a “pro”

[4:03] –zicero197: and i’m prolly as good as one of them and def better than u

[4:03] –[APEX]skylord: Wow.

[4:03] –zicero197: so based on initial impressions

[4:03] –zicero197: i think i could probably kick your whole team’s ass at the same time

[4:04] –zicero197: guess we’ll have to test that though

[4:05] –[APEX]skylord: Well that was the most arrogant thing I’ve ever read

[4:05] –[APEX]skylord: but since, as usual, I have to be the mature one

[4:05] –[APEX]skylord: I’ll judge your skill, not your attitude. we’ll see if one can back up the other.

[4:06] –[APEX]skylord: Friday at 5pm. be on

[APEX]skylord disconnected from chat with zicero197

Zizzy stared apprehensively at the chat window.  Her cheeks were hot, her shoulders rigid and tense.  Silence took hold, save for Chris banging around with his toys in the next room.  A slight breeze wafted through the open window, tousling her curly hair.  Right now she wanted nothing save to crawl under her bed and wait for Armageddon.  For a long minute, she languished in her chair. Hands wrapped around her chin, nails digging into her lips.  The sudden need to see Lester came over her.  The absurd need to explain to someone exactly how stupid you are, and have them reassure you, comfort you.  It felt disgusting, pitiable.  It was this douchebag’s fault. Talking to her like she’d never played the game.  Never put in the hours upon desperate hours into her stream. Her ambition.  Yeah, lying under the bed was sounding more attractive by the second.

The hinges on her door made a shrill squeak.  It swung open, the now animate X consumed the doorway.  She surveyed her room as though it were a crime scene.  Her thick curls were nearly flat to her head from her long nap, dull pink lipstick smeared around her mouth.  Zizzy was too startled to come up with a sarcastic remark about remembering to knock.

“Ah, you’re home.  Hm.  Did you make Chris some lunch?”  Her small voice nagged at her ears. She edged slowly into the room, pursing her lips like she was concerned about germs.  Zizzy rubbed her forehead, forcing out a shaky breath.

“Um, no mom, not yet.  Got your cat food though.”

“Which you just left there on the table.  Really Ziz, a little thought to others please.  Your poor brother’s probably starving.”

After Y’s fifth month-long absence, Zizzy would’ve really hoped their mother would be able to cook something more advanced than pop-tarts and ramen noodles.  “Okay, I’ll make him something.  I’ve been busy.”

“With your computer games, yes, yes.  When are you going to start listening to me? To give a thought to what I’ve told you about finding a job?  Just the smallest effort?  Most kids your age work two jobs.”

“Pretty sure they don’t.  And I made almost 200 dollars last month.”  X sighed, a snappy, unpleasant sound.  Of all the things Zizzy was in the mood for right now, this was probably at the bottom of the list.  She looked toward the floor, rubbing her sweaty feet together.  A blisteringly hot shower was much closer to what she was looking for right now.

“Listen honey, we’ve talked about this.  I’m really thrilled that you’re making money with your hobby.  Really.  But that’s not a career, and it’s not even close to a living.”  She began outlining her usual war-speech about responsibility and taking life by the horns.  Zizzy felt ill.  Her ritual of responding in the most creatively flippant ways possible was even more halfhearted than usual today, their verbal battle oppressively routine.  When X finally left, Zizzy’s blood was boiling in her veins, her head filled with nails.  The computer chair had long since stopped being comfortable.  Even when she rolled into bed for a much-needed nap, it took her a long time to fall asleep.

The next few days were consumed by training.  Even her expensive hard drive was buzzing with the effort of running Galaxyforge for days on end without a second’s rest.  In addition, Zizzy ingested hours of recorded footage of various players, skylord included.  She would memorize, master, and then attempt to subvert all of their most reliable builds and strategies.  Not fast enough.  Lost too many units that time.  I’m not improvising when I need to.  Lester sent her a text somewhere in the middle of her concentrated stupor, which went ignored.  She knew he was just reminding her about the party…

Fuck.  She’d completely forgotten that Lester’s party was on Friday night too… Great.   He would know what to say right now to help her through this.  Something completely out of place outside of a trashy romance novel.  Zizzy rubbed her eyes and let her head fall to the desk with a thud.  She remembered when Lester was dating some girl who looked like a cardboard cutout he’d stolen from Victoria’s Secret. They were both novices then, she at strategy games and Lester at life in general.  His girlfriend hadn’t liked him hanging out with some “nerdy hipster” girl. But her feeble campaign of passive-aggressive comments had been no match for Zizzy’s systematic deconstruction of her very being.

She reached over and shook the mouse slightly to keep her computer from idling.  In the end, Lester stopped the fighting, though he broke up with the girl shortly after.  Zizzy had always considered this event a point of pride, until now.  The memory felt sick, like wasted time.  She hadn’t been able to understand Lester’s point of view.  What’s the fun of it, she wondered, what’s the appeal of someone who lives inside an ideal little snow globe on your shelf?  Zizzy stood up, marching down the hallway, looking at herself in the oversized wall mirror on the way to the bathroom.  If someone’s content to idle through life, she thought, they haven’t lived at all.  An orange ball of fur pushed past her legs, meowing like the godless hussy it was.  She sighed as her thoughts were interrupted, heading to the kitchen to make use of her earlier purchases.

When she returned to her room, she pushed her fingers together to crack them, groaning like only someone who spends all day sitting down can.  Her stomach felt hollow, her fingers filled with sludge.  Sorry Lester, thinking about sappy motivational stuff didn’t help this time.  As she queued up another game, she quickly checked her stream.  Oh wow, a record number of viewers.  Nice.  She put a hand on the mouse and fingers to the keys, eyes riveted to the screen.  After fighting to get here, she could fight skylord too.

The fight against skylord, however, was not going well.  When she’d joined their chatroom at precisely 5:01 pm, there’d been barely enough time to say “hello” to the other players before they’d been thrust into a series of brutal one-on-ones.  Zizzy’s heart ticked like the timer on a neutron bomb. Finally going up against the pros that she’d studied for months.  Though, as much as it pained her to admit it, she was starting to see what skylord meant when he’d said “a whole different game.”  void’s incredible managing of his resources, giguro’s siege tactics, and banshee’s use of unorthodox strategies were all one thing to watch, and another thing entirely to play against.  And they were all really, mind-bogglingly fast.  She’d only managed to win a single game, when she’d managed to anticipate void’s assault and launch a sneak attack into his base.  Her nails were leaving red marks on her forehead, a taste like battery acid filling her mouth.  If I can even just beat that doucehbag… Just let me fight skylord…

[9:17] -zicero197: just let me fight skylord

[9:17] –[APEX]void: lol yeah maybe you’ll get lucky again

[9:17] –zicero197: if he gets even 1/5 mad as u it’ll be worth

[9:17] –[APEX]void: stfu

[9:18] –[APEX]giguro: god why did we think this was a good idea again?

[9:18] –[APEX]skylord: Haha, quiet guys, it’s fine

[9:18] –[APEX]skylord: invited you zic.

[9:18] –zicero197: accepted

[9:19] –[APEX]skylord: Good. don’t worry too much, it isn’t like your life depends on it or anything. ready?

[9:20] -[APEX]skylord: zic?

[9:21] –zicero197: yeah ready

The first ten minutes were quiet.  Neither of them attempted to subvert or harass the other, slowly setting up their bases.  Zizzy exhaled slowly, resolving to play defensively and counter attacks as they came, enduring his assaults until she could grind him into submission.  But even as she made plans for attacks that hadn’t yet come, she knew what would happen.  Fresh-faced and confident, he would sit back and make her come to him.  He knew how tired and stressed she must be.  For the next twenty minutes, they kept building up their forces, gazing at each other across a line in the sand.  Twenty minutes in, he was taking advantage of all of her smallest mistakes. Claiming territory she’d missed. Anticipating her moves.  Her mind felt numb.  The match seemed like a wall of slick ice she’d been told to scale with her fingernails and teeth.  Thirty-five minutes in, he easily swept her forces aside and destroyed her, utterly, completely.  Zizzy felt even worse because she couldn’t bring herself to care.

The rhythmically blinking light coming from her computer was the only beacon in the darkness.  Zizzy sat huddled on her flimsy mattress.  She pulled a little at a bit of string, chewing on her lips.  What team was she going to join now?  She felt like she could die of old age right here on this bed.  Weird how we feel like we’ve accomplished everything we can after failing to accomplish anything whatsoever.  “We.” Like it was someone else’s fault besides hers.  She looked at her cell phone with watery eyes.  The unread message symbol seemed to gaze back at her.  Slowly, she forced her legs to unbend, reaching over to the cabinet for her hat.

Her clunky, rust-bucket car rolled along the curb, the doors nearly scraping against the cement.  Sure enough, he was sitting on the railing of his front porch, dangling his skinny legs without a care.  Zizzy wrenched the gear into park with a dull click.  Chris was in the back seat, almost making the car shake with his restlessness.  She glanced back at him.

“Stay in here for now, little guy.”

He scrunched up his face. “I wanna play too though.”

“I’m just talking to him.  I think.  It depends on what he wants.  I’ll let you know.”

She slammed the door, walking across the silent gray lawn towards Lester.  Pale light illuminated the wooden deck, glinting a little off his glasses.  He should find a way to weaponize those.

“Hey. Everyone’s left already,” he said softly.  Zizzy looked up at him, her shoulders slouched.

“Yeah, I figured.  Sorry.”  She shifted her weight from foot to foot.  Lester scratched his smooth hair, silhouetted against the house.

“I know they’re not your type… but my friends are nice, when you get to know them.”

“It wasn’t that… some things happened, and.  I don’t know.  I… I lost.”

Awkward silence claimed the space between them.  It was too dark to read his expression very well.  He seemed concerned, but reluctant to push for details.  She loved him for that, the shy goofball.  The moment passed, and he scooted to the left, patting the spot next to him.  Reaching up to the railing, she pulled herself up next to him, smiling.  The city lights were too numerous for many stars, but the crescent moon stood out against the bleary sky.  Zizzy saw Chris pressing his face to the window.  Lester chuckled.

“Let me guess… X went out, and-“

“-stuck me with babysitting.  ‘Xactly.  I…”

She paused.  A silky summer breeze rustled the leaves above them.  A distant cricket paused its song.  The night itself seemed to melt away.

“I think I’ll talk to X about paying me to watch him.  I’ve convinced her to do worse.  She knows I need the money.”  Lester hummed thoughtfully.

“Could work.  I could ask my mom if we need help feeding Mitzy.  She cooks her own food for that spoiled mutt though.”

“Gross.”

“Yeah.  Hey, you take what you can get though. At least until you have super-elite tournament money.”  They both laughed.  Zizzy looked over at him with a small smile.  It was cute how he could made her feel better.  She rolled her eyes at the thought.

“You up for getting your ass kicked at Galaxyforge?”

“Pah, such arrogance as always.  I’m more ready than your freshly-dug grave, Miss Zicero.”

He pushed her off the railing onto the damp grass, ducking inside through the screen door.  She groaned, brushing off her shorts.  She started walking towards the cruddy car to get Chris.  X would have some things to say about keeping him up this late.  Her mind buzzed with plans and potential builds with which to batter her friend into the dirt.  Lots of new strategies to try.  She found herself excited despite the fact that they were the only two pieces left on the board right now.

~Adam Crane

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Filed under Fall 2015, Fiction Fall 2015

Vintage

Whitney liked to arrive early. Sit in the parking lot and get herself together. She had an unusually large vanity mirror, with lights on her visor. A major selling point. Applying eyeliner, she could ponder the contradictions of her girlfriends.

She could think of things even she didn’t agree with. And this is a hard thing to do. She poked her lips out, considering balm. She thought past that, then stopped at a name. Whitney could not always divide herself. Her girlfriends would approve, but her mother wouldn’t. Or vice versa. Or nobody would approve and certainly never her father. And getting herself to approve on top of it would prove harder still. So she didn’t tell anyone she was meeting Kelly to go thrifting.

She continued fussing with her hair, alternating between innocent eyes and vixen, devouring smiles, as she does in parking lots. Brief practice for the conversation ahead. A bearded man knocked on her passenger window mid careless-sex-pose. She collapsed the visor elegantly and gathered her things into her purse. Never looking up, never feeling startled. High on herself. She opened the door, took one step and spread her arms out. Kelly swept around the car and hugged her.

“I cannot believe you’re wearing that nasty beard.”

He rubbed it into her neck and she fell out of his arms like liquid.

“Straight granola these days,” Kelly said. He stepped back and put his hands in his pockets. He looked her up and down, asked her if she was getting better looking.

She dug through her purse and found her cell phone, put it on silent in a covert act. She wasn’t trying to blow anyone off specifically. She just thought it better not to be distracted. Kelly hadn’t seen her in a while. She hadn’t thought of him in a while. They broke up over a year ago. She knew the break-up was coming and so her life didn’t halt one bit. It may have sped up.

“So what do you want to show me?” Whitney perked up as the sun sank in her skin.

He told her she would find out once inside. They walked in and neither had to fight any nostalgic urges. Kelly was too rambunctious to hold hands while shopping. Everything stimulated him. This is what attracted Whitney to him. Though in practice she found it was too much. She had to scold him. She had to be a bitch. And worse yet, she liked doing it. She found her own angry face to be sexy and thought he must as well. Still, she felt guilty deriving pleasure in such incidents. This sort of conundrum would invoke itself on the two in everything they did.

The old ladies working the register were talking intensely about recipes or grandsons or blacks or discounts or medicine or republicans or vacations or Christmas or crocheting or work or church. They were not talking about true love. Whitney and Kelly slipped in unnoticed. Kelly went into the corner and pulled a fedora from a rack. There were feather boas and winter hats; a Playskool telephone was wedged onto the end. Kelly handed it to Whitney and said, “It’s for you.”

He told her that was it. The reason he had her come out.

“Really, come on. You know I’m bad at waiting,” and she rocked her shoulders a little. Mostly she could wait. She liked to make sure that Kelly still wanted to satisfy her. Whitney was a smart girl. She could rely on herself for trivial demands. She finished school.

Kelly laughed at her. She realized she overdid it with the Monroe-esque line. She laughed at herself and threw a feather boa around her neck. He peeled the fedora off and put a plaid cabbie hat on. They walked down the aisle with all the busted electronics. Kelly liked to scour for obscure VHS tapes. He collected a few. Whitney always thought they were junk, but she stole one from him. A copy of This Old House. Bob Vila inside Frida Kahlo’s. After her divorce. It was strange, but Kelly never asked for it back.

“Doesn’t Saul wear these hats?” Kelly asked. She knew it would come up sometime. Kelly didn’t bother with tact.

“Sure. He wears whatever he wants. I don’t keep track,” she said. But she did. She kept track. And she liked the hat with a particular set of dark glasses. And she didn’t mind it on Kelly either.

“Is that really what’s going on? I mean, I know it is. It’s our little quarterly check-up. I tell you about me and the artist. You tell me about some drunken hook-ups.” There, she thought, this is what we both wanted. His lack of articulating what they were both thinking is why she left him.

Kelly lifted his hands in arrest position. “Okay,” he said. “I don’t have any drinking stories. I’ve mostly been by myself. All my drinking is E. A. Poe style.” He thought this would intrigue her. She always said he was a weepy-philosophical drunk. It was one of those attract-repel things. Not now. Whitney saw in hindsight pure repellent raven.

“Oh my god. Are you still doing that shit? There, Saul would never do that. You think you’re classic, but you’re just corny. ‘Corny Kelly is crying because T.V. is ruining the world’,” she mocked. “Yeah, we get it. Jersey Shore is what’s wrong with America. But I got shit to do.”

Kelly smiled inside. It pierced Whitney, just a little, to pretend those things were so frivolous. But really, who had the time? She started thumbing through men’s shirts. Kelly knew she was looking for specific paisley patterns. They could’ve written dictionaries to each other’s daydreams.

“Are you still making scarves?” Kelly asked. They used to take weekly trips to thrift stores together. They would usually stop for the ‘bag for a buck’ deals. Whitney made scarves. The frayed old-western types that musicians wear. Along with vintage dresses and boots she would sell online. You get a variety of patterns cheaply at the thrift store, Whitney would say. It was an excuse. She always loved revitalization. Finding the brilliant flairs amid all the worn out. Sewing memories together for ‘hand-me-down happiness.’ The smell. Garage and attic. Hiding. Sharing that smell.

“Yeah, but ever since I started at the co-op I don’t have time. I mostly just make them as gifts now.” Co-op made Kelly’s stomach turn a little. Picturing all these artists rubbing elbows with each other. Pretending they have their lives together. For the instant they are together, knowing that they do have their lives together. Kelly was looking for t-shirts with wolves on them. Preferably in tie-dye. Whitney held up a shirt with gold piping and white and red paisley on brown. “Perfect,” he said.

“All right, I’m going to walk behind you and cover your eyes. I don’t want you to peek. You are really going to like this,” Kelly said. He got behind her and resisted the urge to nuzzle his big beard into her back, grab her by the waist and hump her. He was unsure if it was typical male or a fog from the oxytocin released in his brain upon sight of her. He walked her down the aisle without any sexual advances.

“Now keep your eyes closed until I say.” He leapt in front and said Ta-Da.

He leaned back, reclining on an orange corduroy sectional couch, circa 1970 whatever. She smiled brightly and it faded into a giggle. Whitney walked over and sat next to Kelly. Only three parts were in an orderly fashion.

“What do you think?”

She really didn’t know what to say. She had always wanted a vintage couch. None she had ever seen to that point fit her exact description of ‘vintage-couch’ like this one. Kelly was beaming. Proud of his discovery. She thought it was cute, but she knew the mess ‘cute’ could make. She thought about asking the price, but that implied wanting it.

“Oh my god, Kelly, too much. How did you find this? I suppose you expect me to fuck you now?” she laughed and laid back.

“You always said, vintage couches and shag carpet made you horny.” Kelly didn’t really honor that statement. He straightened up and told her upon finding the couch he thought of her. He sighed.

“It’s too late. I think I’m moving in with Saul. I don’t have room for it anyway,” Whitney sat back up.

“You’ve always wanted one. Suddenly you don’t?” He threw his leg over a fray in the upholstery.

“I don’t know. I don’t have the room. I can’t just rebuild all my décor around one piece of furniture. I don’t think Saul will even like it. He’ll think it’s tacky or ugly. He thinks the retro is there to serve the new. Not to be applauded,” and she cast her gaze at her feet. “Are you ever going to grow out of that stuff, evolve?” She looked at him.

“Whoa, whoa. Don’t think the couch thing is some metaphor. I mean, yeah, I can’t turn down public sex on a corduroy couch, but… This isn’t some effort to win you back. I just thought you wanted to see a great couch. I thought you would appreciate it,” Kelly demonstrated sincerity. She could tell he meant what he said. She always had a problem with his lack of concealing. She could see right into him. He was transparent except for a little core, like the seed of an apple that reflected Whitney right back. “Besides, I might consider not fucking you in this thrift store. Old Jenny would get pissed,” Kelly said and fingered a macramé hemp bracelet.

Whitney reeled a little. She had never suspected that the little core was capable of reflecting back whatever gazed upon it. Whoever. That his core could reflect back another. She stiffened up and gathered all the sex from the vanity mirror of her car. Composed she said, “Oh yeah? I bet I could seduce you.” And he didn’t respond. They were both rubbing their hands over the fabric of the couch until Whitney noticed. She reached into her purse absent minded. Her hand touched her cell phone. She pulled it out. One missed call. Two missed texts. Saul had texted that he saw her car at the thrift store but couldn’t stop. The second noted that she hadn’t told him she was going out that day.

“Excuse me,” she said and texted back to Saul. She said she was with Taylor grabbing shirts to make scarves. Then she texted Taylor to cement her story. She turned a little from Kelly so he couldn’t see her typing. “I’m going to grab a few more shirts,” she said.

The two walked out together into the purifying sun. It made them realize how truly dark it had been. The fresh air turned their bloodstream into southern California. Traffic and people and birds and garbage and carbon monoxide and vibrant colors and advertisements and train whistles and puddles and chocolate and that fucking-not-attic-air reminded them that it’s good to go to the thrift store, if only to leave.

They hugged near Kelly’s beat-up car. He stole a kiss at her cheek. She spotted a big tangle of hemp looking stuff in the back seat. “What’s that?”
“Jenny made it,” Kelly said. “It’s a hammock.”

“Hmmm…,” she wrinkled her nose. She thought Kelly’s car was a mess and all that rope wasn’t helping. She walked back to her car and closed the door. The solitude and the pent-up heat overcame her. She pulled the visor down and mussed her hair. Pursed her lips. When she started her car, she realized she never even asked the price of the couch. She wanted to know the cost.

~Benjamin Champagne

This short story earned first place in the annual student contest for the Liberal Arts Network for Development (LAND). LAND provides a network for the development of the liberal arts in Michigan’s community colleges.

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Filed under Fiction Winter 2015, Winter 2015