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Issue 12.3

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Welcome to issue 12.3 of Forge!

Read the first issue of 2019 right here, or pick up a hard copy to enjoy unplugged.

~Melissa Venables

Uber-editor,
Forge 12.3

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CONTENTS

—Prose—

Corey Lynn Fayman: The Old Monsters Bar

Marcelle Thiébaux: Unnatural, Wicked

Matthew Wallace: Rupert and the Thimble Warriors: A Tale of the Famous Rabbit of Uncommonly Good Sense

Trevy Thomas: Number 401

J David Liss: The Golden Sea, and Silver

—Poetry—

Simon Perchik: 12 Poems—Winter 2019

Jeanine Stevens: Self Portrait: AssemblageRocket ManBetween Manhattan and the SeaTiny Sun, Large FlowerFaculty Off-Site: Folsom Prison

12 Poems — Winter 2019

By Simon Perchik

 

*

You keep the limp, stoop

the way this cane

lets you pretend its wood

 

can heal, touches down

making contact with the base

though there are no planes

 

–what you hear is your leg

dragged, starting up

and still the sky weighs too much

 

is filled with twigs breaking off

somewhere between England

and the slow walk home.

 

 

*

Without a riverbed you lean

feel your way through this dirt

as if it’s her voice you’re after

 

–for a long time, eyes closed

you empty the Earth with your mouth

darkening this built-up moss

 

sent off for a stone near water

stretching out to smooth the silence

hidden the way innocent bells

 

were placed along the shore

with no light to take away

or welcome rocks around her body.

 

 

*

Though her finger can’t reach

she’s telling you be quiet

as if there’s a word for it

 

shaped by a breath from where

the light on her face was lowered

–shadows know this, let you

 

lie there, go over the details

–from the start, her breasts

wanting so much to make a sound

 

cover the dirt with your mouth

pressing against her, begin

as silence, then nothing.

 

 

*

Side by side as if the moon

carries off those buttons

close together and your coat

 

dyed black to make it heavier

–you let it fall, lay there

–yes, you were in love

 

sang to birds, to burials

though it’s the moon

coming back and the darkness

 

it needs to close the ground

that goes on alone

yes, you couldn’t move.

 

 

*

Motionless, on the way out

no longer feels at home

though this single-minded nail

 

wants the job finished now

wanted a small hole, filled

to silence the song in the picture

 

in black and white taking her away

holding on –what’s left

will lower the wooden frame

 

is already caressing the wall

that something happened to

is surrounded by winds and cries

 

that carry off birds, bent the Earth

and the exhausted nail, by itself

between your fingers and suddenness.

 

 

*

Again one hand, side by side

clawing at your throat

–there’s an egg inside

 

that can’t come out, sheltered

by the darkness boiling over

till it was time, in ruins

 

–what you swallow

is snow, a single pill

falling the way all fevers

 

are healed by moonlight

reaching into your mouth

as a stone not yet breathless

 

with room for her to sit on

close to the ground

helping and the corners.

 

 

*

You button this sleeve the way smoke

is trained –a sudden shrug

and the night moves under you

 

can’t see you’re still on your feet

and though they no longer fit

the ground is already a crater

 

where her shadow would have been

holding on from behind

as a clear, moonlit dress

 

and the last thing you saw left open

as the slow, climbing turn

that’s still not over.

 

 

*

To grip the Earth you climb

as if this paint

is still not sure it’s safe

 

and though they’re white

waves don’t last in the dark

–each  rung by now

 

in that slow rollover

they were trained for, one

to stay white, the others

 

bleeding as rain and step by step

–this ladder is losing curvature

leans against the house

 

half ramp, half shoreline

and all these stars

still clinging to sunlight

 

are used to your hand over hand

and yes, spilling a few drops

the way every sea is filled

 

overflows, lets you drink

from a sky that will light up

as if nothing happened.

 

 

*

It’s only a few minutes

but they add up as bedrock

and from behind swallow the Earth

 

whole –this watch is always late

though its slow climbing turn

has nothing to do with this sunset

 

strapped to your wrist

while the other hand waves goodbye

running into bad weather

 

as if all it can retrieve

is hillside, sure you will lean back

slower and slower without any closer.

 

 

*

And though the flames are hidden

you still drink it black –spoons

are useless, aimlessly circle down

 

the way you once added cream, sugar

clouds –you level off so your hand

takes longer to climb back

 

let the cup burn your lips

as sunlight wedged between –you yell

though no one becomes suspicious

 

sees the fire starting up again

–it’s a simple first-thing-in-the-morning

so no one is the wiser and sometimes

 

a darker darkness is lured alongside

where you tighten till this cup begins

its slow turn into madness and your arms.

 

 

*

And though they’re cold

they won’t answer to a single name

from when these flowers

 

covered the air with stone

and room for your shadow

where nothing was before

 

–what they want is more darkness

not these graves bunched the way bells

still overturn as that night sky

 

even you can’t wear for an earring

hear this dirt making the emptiness

somewhere inside your arms.

 

 

*

Agreed! The firm handshake

wipes it dry the way one reef

irons things out with another

 

circles down as your shadow

already seawater, homesick

and the exact spot it remembers

 

–that’s the deal, you

become rain while this stone

is run backwards, girlish again

 

touching everything and the dirt

comes loose, floating past

not yet sunlight and side by side.

 

 

——————–

Simon Perchik is an attorney whose poems have appeared in Partisan Review, Forge, Poetry, Osiris, The New Yorker and elsewhere. His most recent collection is The Osiris Poems published by boxofchalk, 2017. For more information including free e-books and his essay “Magic, Illusion and Other Realities” please visit his website at www.simonperchik.comView one of his interviews here.

Self Portrait: Assemblage

By Jeanine Stevens

               Man Ray, Paris 1916

 

Only torso from the waist up: top end

an ironing board, mid-section, cello.

Metal bells for eyes, door buzzer—navel.

Touch, press. Sound the alarm?

 

You want to soothe him.

Everything says “touch me,”

yet more like a contraption than man.

No mouth, nose, or breath.

No hands to reach, trace the world

               no feet for escape.

 

Skin would be a logical addition, a hint to make sense,

but only a black shroud, white veil,

bib tucked below his chin,

childlike handprint

on chest,

               over heart.

 

So like Harlow’s iron surrogate, googly eyes,

brief cling to suckle, then return

to cradleboard and terrycloth mother.

 

We can’t see his back, don’t know extent

of scar or faulty wiring, another’s burnt ends.

 

How much we need to explain ourselves.

Even a dimple might help!

 

 

——————–

Jeanine Stevens is the author of Inheritor (Future Cycle Press), and Sailing on Milkweed (Cherry Grove Collections). Winner of the MacGuffin Poet Hunt (selected by Phil Levine), The Stockton Arts Commission Award, The Ekphrasis Prize and WOMR Cape Cod Community Radio National Poetry Award. Brief Immensity, recently won the Finishing Line Press Open Chapbook Award. Poems have appeared in The Curator, Evansville Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Chiron Review, Forge, Pearl, Stoneboat, Connecticut River Review, Provincetown Magazine and Rosebud. Jeanine recently received her sixth Pushcart Nomination. She studied poetry at U.C. Davis and California State University, Sacramento.

Rocket Man

By Jeanine Stevens

 

Sitting by the window, I fluff the tapestry pillow,

yellow with red chickens on gold muslin.

 

Outside, the variegated ivy in shade,

hardy in green rain, ground spongy.

 

CNN, one more politician recused, resigned,

fired? Still draining the hoary swamp

that extended from northern Indiana to D.C.

 

A line of poetry:

“For a long time my brother wore Rocket Man

pajamas & Nothing:: The body

never lies.”

 

An ordinary barnyard: clucking, pecking,

weary craws, rough digestion.

 

 

——————–

Jeanine Stevens is the author of Inheritor (Future Cycle Press), and Sailing on Milkweed (Cherry Grove Collections). Winner of the MacGuffin Poet Hunt (selected by Phil Levine), The Stockton Arts Commission Award, The Ekphrasis Prize and WOMR Cape Cod Community Radio National Poetry Award. Brief Immensity, recently won the Finishing Line Press Open Chapbook Award. Poems have appeared in The Curator, Evansville Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Chiron Review, Forge, Pearl, Stoneboat, Connecticut River Review, Provincetown Magazine and Rosebud. Jeanine recently received her sixth Pushcart Nomination. She studied poetry at U.C. Davis and California State University, Sacramento.

Between Manhattan and the Sea

By Jeanine Stevens

                A painting by a patient

                of Dr. Carl Jung, 1920’s

                                   

Out her window, towers

gleam alabaster, yet cathedral doors

open to darkness.

 

Brilliant carmine spills on Bachelard’s words:

 

“Skyscrapers have no cellars,

unthinkable for a dreamer of houses.”

 

A Chagall poster inspires.

She adds a small island, abandoned

 

shack, blue fish and day star

swaying on a hooked sun.

 

With the sound of a mermaid’s

conch, hair grows long,

bright henna.

 

Sting of coral on her calf—

she enjoys the wound.

 

Songs of extinct shore sparrows

fill the horizon.

 

Clutching velvet bouquets,

she considers the itch,

newly formed scales beneath her thighs.

 

 

——————–

Jeanine Stevens is the author of Inheritor (Future Cycle Press), and Sailing on Milkweed (Cherry Grove Collections). Winner of the MacGuffin Poet Hunt (selected by Phil Levine), The Stockton Arts Commission Award, The Ekphrasis Prize and WOMR Cape Cod Community Radio National Poetry Award. Brief Immensity, recently won the Finishing Line Press Open Chapbook Award. Poems have appeared in The Curator, Evansville Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Chiron Review, Forge, Pearl, Stoneboat, Connecticut River Review, Provincetown Magazine and Rosebud. Jeanine recently received her sixth Pushcart Nomination. She studied poetry at U.C. Davis and California State University, Sacramento.

Tiny Sun, Large Flower

By Jeanine Stevens

 

So we live on a fireball, ride a molten orb,

children of citrus rind, sunflower.

 

I read the earth’s core, 11,000 degrees F.

same temperature as the sun’s surface.

 

Then in Arles, otherworldly,

even the vicious mistral

born of two competing winds

cannot interfere

with light making whites alabaster,

blues peacock, yellows mustard.

Not one depressing shade or gloomy hue.

 

There is a town that never receives sun.

How can people be normal: no solstice,

night music, night madness?

 

No wonder Vincent dipped his brush so deep,

internal fire, eternal fire.

 

Even fish glimmer celadon, escargot shine pearl,

and peonies burn ruby on hillsides.

 

 

——————–

Jeanine Stevens is the author of Inheritor (Future Cycle Press), and Sailing on Milkweed (Cherry Grove Collections). Winner of the MacGuffin Poet Hunt (selected by Phil Levine), The Stockton Arts Commission Award, The Ekphrasis Prize and WOMR Cape Cod Community Radio National Poetry Award. Brief Immensity, recently won the Finishing Line Press Open Chapbook Award. Poems have appeared in The Curator, Evansville Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Chiron Review, Forge, Pearl, Stoneboat, Connecticut River Review, Provincetown Magazine and Rosebud. Jeanine recently received her sixth Pushcart Nomination. She studied poetry at U.C. Davis and California State University, Sacramento.

Faculty Off-Site: Folsom Prison

By Jeanine Stevens

 

Clearing security: rings, keys, buckles.

One needs multiple passes

to disentangle a complicated

hairdo, hairpins triggering alarms.

 

I think of the old trick: key-hole saw

hidden in a birthday cake.

 

Walking into a smudge of denim,

so many who won’t receive training,

a week’s severance pay.

 

(We later learn this was a misdirect—

no outsiders allowed in the open yard).

 

Steel cuts air.

 

In a classroom we witness

an experiment in recidivism:

short testimonials, brief coffee.

 

Officials arrive, escort us outside granite walls.

In the visitor’s dining hall lunch is steak

with serrated knife, potatoes, green beans

and sweet nubby Gherkins.

 

One of our colleagues, raised in Lebanon,

is unable to eat, or speak.

No one wants apple pie.

 

Noon sun steams black.

Tower guards resemble dark squares,

lean like cardboard cut-outs.

 

I will remember the blaze of blue.

We were told not to wear blue.

 

 

——————–

Jeanine Stevens is the author of Inheritor (Future Cycle Press), and Sailing on Milkweed (Cherry Grove Collections). Winner of the MacGuffin Poet Hunt (selected by Phil Levine), The Stockton Arts Commission Award, The Ekphrasis Prize and WOMR Cape Cod Community Radio National Poetry Award. Brief Immensity, recently won the Finishing Line Press Open Chapbook Award. Poems have appeared in The Curator, Evansville Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Chiron Review, Forge, Pearl, Stoneboat, Connecticut River Review, Provincetown Magazine and Rosebud. Jeanine recently received her sixth Pushcart Nomination. She studied poetry at U.C. Davis and California State University, Sacramento.

The Old Monsters Bar

By Corey Lynn Fayman

t was late on a Wednesday night. That’s why the bar was so empty. It was a crappy little place in a crappy little neighborhood, located on one of those weird Tokyo streets that have no name. An aging, one-armed bartender served low-grade sake and cheap Japanese whisky and topped off your drink with tap water. Paint flaked off the interior walls. You had to go outside if you wanted to take a piss, out the back door, then fifty feet down a foul-smelling alley to a claustrophobic bathroom, all the time checking the shadows for muggers. It was that kind of a place. It was exactly what I needed on this particular night. My teaching hours at the language school had been cut that afternoon, along with half of my salary. My Japanese girlfriend had dumped me the previous weekend. I might have been feeling sorry for myself. Six-cups-of-sake sorry by the time the lizard guy walked in. I wasn’t in the mood for any more Tokyo weirdness.

It was almost closing time, just me and the bartender shooting the breeze. I don’t remember what we were talking about. I had my back to the door when it opened. The bartender’s face turned to stone. I swiveled around on my barstool to see who’d come in, thinking it must be some wannabe-Yakuza putting the squeeze on the guy. It wasn’t a man who walked in, though. It wasn’t a woman. It was six-foot-tall lizard, standing on two legs. He looked like that movie monster, except shorter, much shorter.

I looked back at the bartender, to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. He gave me a low-browed glance, the kind of look that said, “Don’t lose your shit. Don’t be a stupid American. And don’t even think about posting this on Facebook.” I should point out that this bartender had very expressive eyebrows. He could say a lot with them. He was an old guy. He knew all the monsters. I’ll get to that in a minute.

“Nice suit,” I said as the lizard guy walked by, dragging his tail on the floor. He stopped and turned to look at me, then rocked back and forth for a moment, holding his stomach and waving one of his little claw hands, acting like I’d just said the funniest thing ever. Even in my inebriated state, I could tell he was being sarcastic. Before my pickled brain could come up with another smart remark and send it out my big mouth, the bartender cleared his throat. Loudly. I turned and looked back at him. He gave me that heavy-browed look again and spoke to the lizard guy.

“You are early, sensei,” he said, using the Japanese term of respect.

The lizard guy shrugged, then walked to the other end of the bar. He couldn’t get up on the stools, I guess, not with those funny legs, so he just leaned on the bar. The bartender pulled a set of keys out of his apron, squatted down, and unlocked a strongbox hidden in the floor. He withdrew a dark red bottle from the box, grabbed a shot glass from the back counter, walked to the end of the bar, and placed both items in front of the lizard guy, then whispered something to him in Japanese. I couldn’t make out what it was. The lizard guy nodded and poured himself a drink. The bartender walked back to me. He leaned over the counter and stared at me with worn-out eyes the color of gunpowder and smoke. I hadn’t noticed his eyes before under those shaggy brows, but he hadn’t stared at me like this, either.

“I give you one more,” he said. “On house. Then you go.”

“I was here first.”

“He longtime customer. You new.”

“I won’t bother the guy. What was that bottle you gave him, anyway?”

“Special sake. Only for him.”

“You been hiding the good stuff from me?”

“It is too expensive for you.”

“How expensive is it?”

“Only for Japanese. Not for you.”

“I speak Japanese,” I said, and laid a few of my favorite Japanese phrases on him. It didn’t make much of an impression.

“Not for Americans,” he said. “Not good for you.”

“I can handle my liquor.”

“You must leave now.”

“C’mon, let me try the stuff. You said I could have another drink.”

“I give you one drink. Regular sake. Then you go. No more talk. No more questions.”

“Okay, okay,” I said. I looked down toward the end of the bar, where the lizard guy was nursing his special bottle. I’d become a bit of a sake aficionado during my two years in the land of the rising sun, but I’d never seen a bottle like this one before. It made me curious. The bartender returned with a shot of the cheap stuff I’d been guzzling.

“What’s it called anyway?” I said. “That stuff he’s drinking?”

The bartender eyed me for a moment.

“Tears of Hiroshima,” he said.

“Whoa,” I said, sounding like some California surf dude, which I’m not. I graduated from Vassar. “That’s one hell of a marketing gimmick.”

“Very old,” he said. “Very few bottles left. Just like him. He is last one.”

“What do you mean?”

“It has been hard for him,” he said. “No movies. No job.”

“Does he always wear that outfit? It’s some kind of cosplay thing, right? Kosupure?

The bartender stared at me for a moment, straining the two bushy caterpillars over his eyes.

“You go now,” he said. “Or I call the satsu. Have you arrested.”

Even I didn’t want to mess with the Tokyo police. They could lock you up for three weeks without even charging you.

“I’m going. I’m going,” I said. I knocked back my sake, climbed off the stool, and headed toward the door.

“You must forget what you have seen here,” the bartender said.

I stopped at the exit and turned back toward the bar. I was all set to show the bartender a fine pair of American fingerbirds when I noticed the lizard guy staring at me. It was a thousand-yard stare that passed right through me, a tangible melancholy I felt in my gut. I dashed across the floor and hoisted myself up on the barstool next to him before the bartender could stop me. I understood now.

“That isn’t a costume, is it?” I said. “You’re the real guy?”

“Get out!” screamed the bartender. He lifted himself over the bar and advanced on me. The lizard guy growled at him. The bartender protested.

“I will lose face,” he said. ”They will close down my bar.”

The lizard guy shook his head and waved the bartender off with one of his little claw arms. The bartender grabbed my elbow, wrenching me sideways.

“He is American,” he said. “I will lose my license.”

A high-pitched screech blasted my left ear and a blue-green flame shot out of the lizard guy’s mouth. It passed in front of my nose and caught the bartender on the side of his face. He screamed as he released my arm and put his hand to the side of his face. A wisp of smoke curled up from his singed hair. The outer part of his right eyebrow was gone. He fell to his knees, flapping his one arm in supplication to the lizard guy.

“You know the rules, sensei,” he said. “They will take away your privileges too.”

The lizard guy grunted and shook his head. The bartender bowed his head to the floor.

“I am your servant,” he said. “I will obey your wishes.”

The lizard guy turned back to his bottle and poured himself another drink. The bartender slunk back behind the bar. For maybe the first time in my life, I was speechless. The lizard guy knocked back his drink. He turned to look at me. I had to say something.

“I’ve seen the guy in the suit, you know, photos from the movie set,” I said. “They even have a video of him now on the Internet. They show a guy getting into the suit. Even when I was a kid, I figured it was a guy in a suit, but…this is crazy. You can’t be real.”

The lizard guy shrugged his shoulders and turned back to the bar. We sat in silence a moment. He wheezed a little, like he had a touch of bronchitis. Shooting those flames out of his mouth had taken a lot out of him. Sitting this close to him, I could see the age spots and discolorations marking his leathery skin.

“I saw all your movies when I was a kid,” I said. “I think you’re much better than those computer-generated things they use now.”

The lizard guy nodded his head. I guess he agreed with me.

“This is so cool,” I said. “I can’t believe I’m talking to you. Why did you stop making movies?”

The lizard guy shrugged. I looked at the bartender, who was chewing his fingernails and watching us nervously from the other end of the bar. I thought about what he’d said.

“What did he mean?” I asked. “About the rules? About taking away your privileges?”

The lizard guy pointed at a clock above the bar. He pointed at me and gave a thumbs-up. He pointed at himself and shook his head. Then he raised a single claw, his index finger I guess. He made little movements with it, moving it from the nine o’clock position to twelve, like the ticking of the second hand on the clock. He pointed at himself and gave a thumbs-up. He pointed at me and shook his head.

“You’re only allowed to be in here after closing time, is that it?” I said. “After regular people like me are gone?”

The lizard guy nodded.

“But why? You’re legendary. People would love to meet you.”

The lizard guy put his claws over his ear holes, then his mouth, then his eyes, doing his impression of the three wise monkeys on the shrine in Nikkō. I thought about the ancient proverb it illustrates, a warning against dwelling on evil thoughts.

“No one’s supposed to see you,” I said. “Is that it?”

He nodded, made a little drawing motion with one claw, as if he were signing something.

“It’s in your contract? Is that what you’re telling me?”

He nodded again and poured himself another drink. I picked up the bottle. It was shaped like a lopsided teardrop. The glass was a dismal red color, murky and dim. Its surface was knobby and rough. I looked for a label. There wasn’t any.

“Tears of Hiroshima, huh?” I said. “What is this stuff?”

The lizard guy didn’t respond. I looked at the bartender. He shook his head.

“You will have many regrets if you drink,” he said. “You will mourn for your life.”

“Hell, I’m doing that already.” I raised the bottle to my mouth, took a drink.

The liquor bloomed on my tongue like an explosion of burning white flowers. As it hit the back of my throat, the taste congealed into ashes and tar. I swallowed. Fetid oil dripped down my esophagus and sloshed into my seawater stomach.

“Exquisite,” I said.

I took another swallow. My chest felt warm. I put the bottle down. A ticklish heat extended through my body, spreading from my sternum out to my shoulder blades. Sparks ran up my spine like a lit fuse and detonated in my cerebrum. I staggered back from the barstool, clutching my head in my hands as my brain exploded.

Scorching flames consumed all my reveries, setting fire to my vanities and conceits. Every failure, every self-centered preoccupation, every awkwardness and mortification I’d ever experienced was exposed by the liquefied heat. Every insult and abuse I’d aimed at family members, lovers, and friends flowed into the center of my brain like burning rivulets of shame. Long-repressed memories melted into a noxious pool of remorse. All the regrets and self-reproaches of my pathetic life surged at once into a great agony of light, and I saw myself for what I truly was—a rude, self-obsessed piece of human garbage, a bully, a fraud. Radioactive flames of guilt consumed my pitiful soul until it was snuffed out like a candle.

I do not know how long I remained insensible, but when I came to, I was still in darkness. I could not see anything. I could not move my body. A voice reached out to me through the impenetrable haze. I knew at once who it was. The monster was speaking to me.

We were children playing in the hills that morning. There was a cave in the hills, a cool place where they stored food and sake. We were exploring the cave when the great death light exploded above the city. In that flash of light, we all became orphans. By the time the rescuers found us, we had become monsters too, the ones you have seen in those movies.

We were kept secret, held in quarantine and hidden from the invaders until after the occupation had ended. Seven years we lived together in the hills outside the city, with no contact from the outside world except for doctors and nurses. Only government officials at the highest levels knew of our existence. They provided us with food and shelter, but we were treated as prisoners. One day two men came to talk to us. One of them was the head of the National Police. The other was the owner of a new movie studio. We weren’t children anymore. They offered us employment and a kind of freedom, but only if we followed their rules.

We accepted their proposal. We went to work for the film studio. Seven days a week, twelve hours a day. National security agents acted as our handlers, pretending they were our dressers and makeup team. We lived in trailers on the back lot. We were allowed to roam the studio grounds at night, when no one was there. As the years passed, and memories of the war faded, we were given more leeway. The government negotiated with establishments like the one you were in tonight, gave them special dispensations to allow us in during approved hours, always late at night. The proprietors were all ex-military, veterans crippled in battle. They were paid well, but they had to sign non-disclosure agreements. Failure to abide by the terms of their agreement would result in closure of their business and their arrest. They would have no recourse, no right to appeal.

“That’s why the bartender was angry with you.”

I should not have acted as I did. I was ungenerous. He has been good to me and my friends.

“They were real too? The pterodactyl and the three-headed dragon? The Silkworm? They were your friends?”

Yes.

“And the flying turtle and giant moth?”

Yes. All except the mechanical monster. The prop department built him. My friends are all gone now. I am the last one to die.

“Are you dead now?”

I am not dead, but I soon will be. It is the way of all things, even monsters.

“What about me? Am I dead?”

I do not think so. I can only speak to the living.

“I can’t see anything.”

The Tears made you blind.

“I can’t move.”

Tell me what happened, after you drank it.

“There was a conflagration inside me. I felt consumed by a great fire of self-condemnation. I fell into a hole of pure darkness. It is lighter now, but I still can’t see anything. It feels like I’m moving.”

That is the ambulance. The bar owner called for one after you collapsed.

“What did he tell them?”

Nothing. He left you outside.

“Where are they taking me?”

To a hospital, I would imagine. They think you are a drunkard.

“What’s the story on that stuff, anyway? The Tears?”

There was no answer.

“What does it do to you?” I asked again, but there was still no answer. I felt the centrifugal force of the ambulance as it took a long, sweeping turn. Flashes of light appeared in my field of vision. I heard an indistinct rumble of sounds. The ambulance came to a stop. The rear door opened and I felt a blast of cold air. Two men pulled me out of the ambulance. I realized I’d been strapped into a gurney. That was why I couldn’t move. A man spoke to me.

“Mr. Johnson, can your hear me?”

I mumbled a reply of confirmation.

“Mr. Johnson, my name is Reginald Saferman. I work at the American Consulate. I am a special assistant to the ambassador. The Japanese government has declared you a health risk. They have revoked your visa. You are being put on a U.S. Navy jet bound for Hickam Field in Hawaii. Once there you will be transferred to another aircraft and flown to San Diego, California, where you will be put into quarantine. Do you understand what I have told you?”

I mumbled again. Saferman took it for my endorsement.

“We will contact your employer and explain your situation to them,” he said. “We will pack up your personal effects and have them sent to you. Is there anyone else I should contact?”

I tried to think of someone who would miss my companionship, but the great fire inside me had revealed the truth. I had seen my authentic self. I had no friends. I was a monster to all who got close to me.

“There is no one,” I said. I could see the shape of the man standing over me. My eyesight had returned.

“Very well,” said Mr. Saferman. “On behalf of the Embassy staff, I am sorry for your illness and wish you a speedy recovery.”

Saferman disappeared. Two soldiers pushed my gurney across the tarmac, up a ramp, and onto the back of the jet. They strapped me in. I heard the door closing, the sound of the turbojets warming up. I closed my eyes tightly, searching for the darkness again.

“Are you there?” I said, without speaking.

Yes. I am here.

“They put me on a jet.”

We must speak quickly, then.

“I’m being deported. They say that I’m sick.”

The Tears have changed you.

“How did they change me?”

I do not know. Each of us is changed in a different way.

“Wait a minute. Are you saying it was the sake that changed you?”

We were not the only things transformed on that day. In the cave. Something happened to the spirits there too. The bottles warped in the heat. The glass turned to frozen blood. The intoxicant inside the bottles never spoiled, not like regular sake. It only grew more complex as each year passed, like fine wine. When I drink The Tears, it brings back images of my youth, of my parents and the time before the war. It brings back memories of my friends, the ones who are gone now. We are human again. We are children. The Tears are all I have left.

The jet engines roared in my ears as we hurtled down the runway and lifted into the air.

“I wasn’t in that cave,” I said. “What did The Tears do to me?”

There was no answer. I knew he was gone. I opened my eyes and saw the metal struts above me, the boxes and cargo around me. I raised my head, straining against the leather straps that held me to the gurney. I came to a stop.

Thick green moss grew on the back of my webbed hands.

 

——————–

Called “A powerful new voice on the crime-fiction scene” by Foreword Reviews, Corey Lynn Fayman has made a career of avoiding the sunlight in his hometown of San Diego, California, where’s he’s done hard time as a musician, songwriter, sound technician, and multimedia designer, though he still refuses to apologize for any of it. His hometown provides the backdrop for much of his writing, including the award-winning novels Border Field Blues and Desert City Diva.

Unnatural, Wicked

By Marcelle Thiébaux

was four and my parents’ only child, when we piled into Daddy’s Ford coupé and drove to a New Jersey lakeside resort for a week of canoeing and swimming. The place was called Brown’s Mills. The lake water was muddy brown, so shadowed I couldn’t see to the bottom. Splashing, wading, I felt underwater weeds tangle their rubbery fingers around my legs.

The resort kept riding stables for the guests, but my parents knew nothing of horses and their ways. One afternoon I strayed in the path of a muscular, mounted animal. I tumbled under the horse and remember to this day his fiercely galloping legs as he dashed over my head in a clatter of hooves. My father and my screaming mother raced to grab me, but I wasn’t hurt.

That seemed the end of it until I got to an age where I was reading too many books, so many they gave me dreams. One night it was a black stallion trotting up to me. He tossed his head and neighed a greeting. I knew I was in the grip of a dream. I’d never ridden a horse in my life, but I mounted without effort. He struck off at a canter, then galloped away with me clinging to his silver bridle and his long black mane.

We rode into a forest of gnarled trunks and branches. His flashing hooves barely touched the ground. Hoot owls called out mournful warnings, crows beat their greasy wings and swooped to peck out my eyes. Nothing could touch or hurt me. My hair flapped behind me like a honey-colored banner. We soared at a powerful gallop through the trackless wood, always hovering a little above the earth as my horse spread his strong pinions.

He alighted in a grove of oaks bearded with hanging mosses. I slid off his back, curling my bare toes in the velvety leaves. I patted my horse’s flank and threw my arms around his neck. I felt myself enfolded in his broad, black, feathered wings. Sensations of muddled warmth spread through my body as if I were consumed. I knew nothing like it.

To my surprise the horse spoke. I wasn’t expecting what he had to say. “Dorian, listen. Your mother will be seriously sick. She’ll die within months unless you’re willing to suffer a hardship to save her. An ordeal. You can grant her a few more years.” I was sodden with sleep. I mumbled, “Yes, anything, I’ll do anything to save her.” Again we rode until the dream faded into nothingness and I woke up. I thought about it all that day and the next. Gradually I forgot about it.

Shortly afterwards, my mother fell ill with a rare cancer. Untreatable, her doctors said, and gave her no hope. I cried for her. I went to see her every day in the hospice bringing her books and music and flowers but she lay listless. I raked through the Internet, reading about her disease on Web MD but found no consolation.

Off and on I thought about my dream. When I missed two of my periods, then a third, I saw this meant trouble but I couldn’t imagine such a thing happening to me. I didn’t even have a boyfriend except for boys I danced with in Mrs. Mallory’s dancing classes at the Tennis Club. If she saw any kids dancing too close, she blew the police whistle she carried in her pocket, and rushed over to pull them apart. The only boys I went out with, I met with my girlfriends at parties and the Rialto movie theater. But I kept thinking I’d been happy when the black horse had taken me under his wings. I had even felt love for him. All I felt now was fear.

I looked for information on Web MD to learn how it was possible for a girl to get pregnant by a wild non-human creature, but I found no mention of such a thing. I only read in Wikipedia about a queen who wished to take a bull as her consort. She had the palace engineer build her a wooden cow with an opening in the right place so she could sit inside. The brute mounted the fake cow without knowing the difference. The outcome was a disaster. The story had nothing to do with me.

I told my mother I’d missed a couple of periods. She was stunned. Weak as she was, she raised herself up on her thin elbow. With her failing strength, she cried, “Dorian, how could you humiliate us like that? I’m dying, and you do this to me.”

“Mom, I didn’t do it to you. It happened to me.”

“I know what you did. Thank God I won’t live to see this shame you’ve brought on yourself and us.” But she did live to see it, for she soon got better. Cured, she left the hospice, astonishing her doctors. She told my father about me. He was furious. He slapped my face. “Who is the boy? I’ll kill him.

“There’s no boy,” I said, truthfully. He shoved me into my room and locked me in. My belly got bigger while my mother’s health dramatically improved. Her friends marveled, saying she looked years younger, as if she’d spent time in a Florida beauty spa, while I grew pale and stolidly awaited my baby.

I couldn’t help dwelling on the heedless promise I’d made in my sleep. Was this my ordeal? At first I didn’t dare tell my parents about the horse dream. They’d certainly think I was crazy. At last I talked to my mother, explaining her recovery.

“You expect us to believe that?” Abruptly she changed her tone, speaking carefully. “We are going to consult a specialist about you, Dorian.” My father arranged for therapy sessions with a psychiatrist at Willowbend, a clinic for disturbed and delinquent girls.

I took back the story about the dream. “I just made it up,” I insisted as if I were a normal person.

My parents abandoned the psychiatrist idea. They sent me to stay with an aunt to hide my disgrace while waiting out my pregnancy. The creature I gave birth at my aunt’s house, painlessly and without a doctor, was a spindly foal. This was the last straw.

On receiving the news, my mother suffered a daylong bilious attack, after which she emerged resolute. Together, she and my father came to see me at my aunt’s house. Their faces were ashen with loathing. “What you’ve done is unnatural, wicked. The act of a deviant,” said my mother. “You are worse than we imagined.” She and my father got on the phone with the Willowbend psychiatrist.

Eavesdropping behind the door, I heard my father’s rich, honest voice. “She’ll have to be committed. That thing she gave birth to, we’ll take it out somewhere and burn it.”

I couldn’t let this happen. I’d borne the creature, however bizarre it seemed. Behind my aunt’s flower gardens an overgrown path led through the woods to a stockaded wildlife preserve, run by the State. I never ventured into it because of the hordes of deer ticks, tiny as pepper grains and impossible to detect. A neighbor had been bitten and died of Lyme disease. Pulling on a sweatshirt and cargo pants with thick boots, I tied a scarf over my face like a bandit’s and sprayed on insect repellent.

In my arms I carried my foal. He was small and light. I ran stumbling over thorns and thickets, brushing away swarms of gnats from my eyes until I reached a wide, sunny clearing. I laid my foal in the grass and wrapped him in leaves. I fed him with a milk bottle I’d brought with me in my blue Muggles baby knapsack until he slept. He was winsome, really adorable, but he smelled horsey like a barnyard. I wanted to let him go.

If ever I needed a friend, it was now. I could think of only one. I had to summon the horse demon who had done this to me, even though I’d agreed, all unwitting. Feeling helpless, I burst into tears. After I blew my nose and dried my eyes, I noticed the woods at the clearing’s edge were the same as in my haunted dream.

I called aloud, “You’d better come to me now, wherever you are. This is your doing, and this is your brat. Take him, take care of him for me.” I waited while nothing happened.

I heard a snorting, and felt a pawing of the earth. Here was the black steed galloping out of the woods, his satin flanks dappled with white foam as if he had come a long way. His tail and his long mane streamed like a stormcloud. The flaring nostrils breathed red sparks. He stopped before me.

“I’ll take him, Dorian, but I have to ask a favor.”

“I don’t see why. I kept my promise. Look at the price I paid to save my mother. She and my father disowned me and they want to lock me up.”

“You fulfilled your end of the bargain. All the same there’s more I have to beseech of you.”

I looked away. “What is it?”

“I need you to come for me, and live with me as my loving spouse and companion. My wife.”

“You must be out of your mind,” I cried. “I never want to see you again. Just take the child. I’ll say I gave him to a zoo or a horse farm.”

“I’m under a powerful spell that only you can break. We could make a life, Dorian.”

This was so absurd, I had no answer. A long moment went by, before he turned from me and made for the wood. The foal, who had scrambled up on his ungainly legs to frisk in the sunny clearing, doing pirouettes, cropping the daisies and paying no attention to us, spun around and trotted after his sire. Both vanished into the trees.

Glad to be rid of these two who had ruined my life, I gave no thought to the fresh burden the strong-willed stallion tried to lay on me. Nothing could force me. I was free. There was no going back to my parents, who’d given me up as a pervert. Home was now my aunt’s house, where I’d stayed until the birth of my foal.

Hers was a neat shingled bungalow, gray with white trim. When I reached her street, thirsty and footsore, I saw some of the shingles had loosened. The unmowed lawn was scruffy with dandelions, and the hedges, usually clipped, had sprung up high. Had I been gone so long? I banged the front door knocker. The door swung open, I pushed it and ran into the kitchen. My aunt wore her old turquoise robe, now soiled with age. Her hair had grown long and gray. She didn’t stop stirring a big pot on the stove. The sluggish brew smelled rank as the weeds in the Browns Mills lake.

“So, you gave the baby back to its horse father,” she said as if this were an everyday business. I began to think this aunt was a psychic or a witch. At the foal’s birth she alone hadn’t condemned me. She’d greeted my scandalous newborn without batting an eye. At the time I was too distracted to grasp this fully.

“I saw him,” I admitted. “I never talked with him before, except in a dream. I didn’t believe such a thing was possible, but it happened. Can I stay with you now?”

“You can’t live here,” said my aunt without rancor. “You left your human hearth.”

“I ran off with the foal to protect him. That was only right. My father would’ve killed him.”

“You made a choice and will have to go.”

I protested. “But none of this was my fault.”

“You’ll have to beg your way in the world until you find your husband.”

“Husband! He can’t possibly be my husband. And I don’t want a husband.” How did my aunt know he had asked me to marry him? She acted as if she knew a lot more than I did.

“Go on, find him.” Her laugh was bright and cruel. “Save him. I doubt you have the nerve.”

“I don’t need to save him.” I hated the way she talked about the mess I was in. I was better off leaving. I packed a few things. At the door she gave me a little embroidered purse on a chain. “If you run into trouble, use this.” I unsnapped it and saw it was full of money. I hung it around my neck.

It was still spring when I Ieft her house. I took a bus to a nearby industrial town called Railway Junction where I’d seen homeless people camping out on the sidewalks. They sat on blankets and cardboard boxes with signs like “Hungry. Please Help.” Vagrants marked their spots, so I threw my blanket roll in front of Victoria’s Secret. When the police came to shoo us off to the shelters, which I heard were dangerous, I left the town. By summer’s end I walked out beyond the train tracks into fields of goldenrod, sumac and Queen Anne’s Lace. Wild blueberry bushes grew beside a running brook.

Nights I moved deeper into the trees. I hunted for edible mushrooms I’d studied in school, hens-of-the wood, pink oysters, and morels. Pinched with hunger, I ate them raw, whether they tasted like walnuts or garlic or gulps of woodland air. I drank the stream water and ate sour blueberries. I wrapped myself in newspapers and my street blanket, sleeping in some animal’s burrow, breathing in his fusty, fecal, dried-prune smell.

The maples brightened blood red, the weather grew bitter cold and I took shelter against a concrete pillar under the train trestle. Now I didn’t see how I could keep going. My boots were worn to paper thinness, my clothes and blanket threadbare. Ragged men tramped along the railroad tracks. I hid, frightened of being beaten, raped or knifed. My head got so dizzy I couldn’t make out the time on my watch any more. I couldn’t read the headlines on the old newspapers I slept on. Words ran together in a jumble.

Hallucinations crowded my mind with giant sun-drenched blooms in crayola and day-glo colors, fragments of a flower show I’d once gone to at the Botanical Gardens. I was sick and filthy, without friends. I was hungry. I’d spent the money in the embroidered purse and couldn’t see much hope ahead.

I opened the purse one last time. In it I found a beautiful comb I hadn’t seen before, crusted with gems and inscribed in gold. How had I missed it? I thought I’d tug the snarls out of my dirty hair, but I stopped to read the inscription. My clouded eyes cleared and I read, “Easeful Death.” There was dire magic in the comb, my aunt’s final gift to me. Was it possible that my destiny had been laid before me by this witch? Full of self-pity, tempted by the alluring comb, I thought I might as well use it. The inscription faded. Now it read, Let me comb your pretty hair, Dorian. I continued to read the comb, whose words kept changing. There’s nothing more, it read.

I threw the comb as far from me as I had strength to, watching it become a scuttling lizard. I leaned against the concrete pillar, closing my eyes in relief at my escape.

When I opened them, a metal glint caught my attention. Beside the tracks a low-slung, rusted-out vehicle had parked, a golf cart or a child’s toy automobile. Dragging my blanket, I climbed into the mildewed seat. I flipped a switch. The car’s engine coughed, stuttering to life. As there was no road I didn’t know where I was going, but the car pretty much drove itself, rattling and jolting over rocky ground. Light snow drifted in my hair, feathered my lashes.

I drove into an abandoned amusement park. An earthquake, a hurricane, or time had struck this fairground and left it a ghostly rubble. My vehicle, which turned out to be a carnival bumper-car, jerked to a stop, stalling beside a fleet of wrecked, overturned bumper rides. Steering wheels were pulled from their sockets like crippled arms.

I leaped out, and trudged toward the wrecks of funhouses scrawled with graffiti. Haunted grottoes hung with skeletons. Here and there lay the twisted girders of dead thrill-rides, a roller coaster, a Ferris wheel looming against a vacant sky.

Beyond a cracked swan-boat, I stopped at the ruin of a carousel. Vines grew up strangling the decayed bodies of wooden horses, some headless, others with fractured knees. Unburied bones littered the ground. Over the carousel was nailed a horse’s skull.

Then I saw them just rounding the bend of the devastation, the black horse with the colt, both of them racing across the windswept field, snorting clouds of steam. It was winter. Their iron hooves rang on the stony ground. The two bounded up to me, neighing and nickering. The colt kicked up his back legs in a capriole as if I were an old friend.

“You’ve come back for us,” said the black horse.

“How long have I been gone?”

“He’s been asking for you,” said the horse with a toss of his head at the colt, who clearly had grown.

“I didn’t come for you. I didn’t know you were here.”

“Whether you meant it or not, you got here,” the horse said. “You’ve come to this place where the spell can be broken if you’ll do it.”

“I don’t know if I’m up to it.” I wavered. “Out of curiosity, what did you have in mind? I’m only asking.”

“Go to the fortune-teller’s booth and take the rusty knife stuck in her turban. You will have to cut our throats. Catch the blood on my silver bridle. Then flay off our hides.”

“Never!” I loved these two. How could I kill them? “I won’t carry out such a bloodthirsty deed.”

“Then we can never leave,” said the horse in sorrow, “and you can’t leave without us. Our doomed home is here, this fairy hamlet by the dead carousel. The three of us, we have to live here always in the shadow of the horse’s skull.”

“I’ve seen the skull. Where is the fairy hamlet?” I looked past the shattered wooden horses, to a cluster of low, thatched, dwarfish cottages with crooked chimneys. Windows grinned out at picket fences lined with hollyhocks and ladybugs. The little hovels had a distorted infant charm. They were pictures that had looked out at me long ago from my book of Mother Goose nursery rhymes. They were magical, but I knew I didn’t want to live here frozen in childhood.

I went for the rusty blade, yanking it from the fortune teller’s turban. First I looped my arm around the neck of the young colt, and pressed my face against his flank. Then I knew I could never do this. “No, no, no,” I cried out.

“You had better begin with me,” said the stallion. I choked back my panic and touched the knife point most delicately to my beloved horse’s neck and in terrified remorse saw a drop of  bright blood bubble from his skin, clinging like a baby ruby. Sobbing with horror, I flung the knife away and kissed the tiny wound I had inflicted, reddening with his blood.

To my astonishment he fell. At the same time the colt weakened and collapsed to his knees without a peep as one drop of his blood, too, appeared like a jewel against his neck. I looked at what I had apparently done and threw myself sobbing to the ground with them both.

“Take the bridle as a crown,” said the big horse in a strange voice near my ear. “Our enchanted blood has power in it.”

I caught drops of his blood on the silver bridle, and saw the bridle turn into a slim jeweled circlet. I set it on my head. My hair fell shining down my back. I hadn’t bathed for months but my body became fresh and clean. There was more I had to do, the horse explained to me. All at once I understood that this was how potent spells had to be broken. I had dreamed about such acts of violent magic.

Salt tears ran into my mouth and I swallowed them, tasting blood. I took the colt’s skin and it sheared away easily as a cloak, becoming a gown of red velvet. I put on the gown, which fitted my body perfectly. It felt rich, warm and soft. Heartened, I seized the black horse’s hide, which turned into a canoe with its paddles.

Before my eyes the two horses rose up to take on human shapes, one a young man like a prince with a black mane, the other a boy of three or four, who was fair like me. Our child stared at me, wide-eyed. The man stood fit and sturdy from his years in the body of a horse. He filled me with joy, since I knew at once that he was kind and always would be. He spoke in the human voice I was used to. “Our bitter enchantment is over, Dorian.”

“It was my aunt, wasn’t it? She set it up.”

“She didn’t like us. I angered her because I refused her daughter’s love, for you. She tried to destroy you, then me.”

“So now I’ve become a kind of witch?”

“Only because you outmaneuvered her in the end.”

Our little boy never took his eyes off me. I picked him up, and he clasped his hands around my neck.

The drops of blood ebbed, then darkened, rose and swelled in floods that turned before my eyes into the brown lake waters of Browns Mills. The amusement park melted with the snow, giving way to the familiar tall pines, whose cones and spiky-scented needles strewed the beach sand. Reeds sprang at the water’s edge, along with the savage purple cups of the pitcher plants. It was summer again.

“We can navigate to wherever home is.” I stepped in at the prow and seized a paddle. The old murky waters cleared so I could read straight to the bottom of the brown lake, where I saw my mother and father and aunt pacing the lake’s floor in a stately company. They walked away from us, empty-eyed and unsmiling, their watery garments trailing.

My husband took our child from me and lifted him into the canoe. We three gazed at one another with new recognition and pleasure. He got in at the stern where he could paddle and keep an eye on our child, who sat between us, clutching the sides of the canoe the way I’d done at his age. His gray eyes were large and solemn and had not lost any of their look of wonder.

 

——————–

Marcelle Thiébaux has published short stories in Delmarva Review (with radio play), Dogzplot, Grand Central Noir Anthology, Home Planet News, The Griffin, Keeping the Edge, Literal Latté, The Penmen Review, and KY Urban Fantasy. Her books on medieval themes include The Stag of Love, and The Writings of Medieval Women. For her fiction, she received a Pen & Brush Club Award and a Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition Award, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Number 401

By Trevy Thomas

arvey scratched the persistent itch behind his left ear as soon as he woke in a culvert pipe under the bridge. Most of the humans who lived near him were asleep, and that was the best time to get to work on his route. He crawled up the steep grassy hill, his long rat tail held out behind him, until he reached the street above. He ran, sniffing for morsels of food and the smell of predators, all the way past the university lab down 32nd Street to the nicer part of the city. Some of the white coats from his former prison lived in these houses. He’d started following them when the night terrors and flashbacks came after they’d let him out. When he was first on the streets, he’d just expected to be caged and tortured again, but then, slowly, he came to see that they were done with him. He was alone and, lost in his freedom, had to figure out how to get his own food, now that the button that once supplied it was gone. He hadn’t been able to find a button like that on the streets.

It was cold tonight and warm breath streamed out ahead of him as he ran, long nails clicking against the sidewalk. Sometimes he missed the heat of the prison. Finally, Harvey reached Number 401 and turned down the alley beside the house. He jumped down beside the stairwell, landing on a sill in front of the basement window, and peered in. There was a lamp on that provided just enough glow to light the couch. Harvey felt disgust rise, and he chewed at the bar in front of the window. His whiskers worked quickly, ears moving this way and that, as he watched the couch. There, curled up on a wrinkled blanket, was a large white rat, fat belly rising with every carefree breath, a thin ribbon tied around its neck. The only rats he’d seen with bellies this big were the ones kept in the smallest cages in prison, lying on their side gasping for air as the white coats stood observing their last painful breath. Harvey had never wanted to be fat. It looked painful. But being hungry also hurt.

Harvey’s hands were tight around the bars, his feet dangling below him, as he pressed against the window to take in as much as he could. There across the room near the light was a pink and white bowl on the floor with a heart above the word CARL. Next to that was a plain white bowl that contained water. Once, when Harvey was early and there was still some light in the sky, he’d seen the fat rat drinking clean fresh water from the bowl. There was a picture on the wall of a man Harvey recognized from the prison, the one who’d opened a door and let him go.

By now, his muscles sore from hanging at the bar, Harvey’s nails scratched against the glass as he tried for a better grip. The noise woke the fat rat, and his eyes opened, immediately spotting Harvey: scrawny, with thin feet that dangled ridiculously, breath streaming like a dragon, a greasy smudge on his fur, and a crazed look in his eyes. The fat rat sat up and hissed. Harvey wanted to run, but he couldn’t get his back feet on a support, and the drop down was far. The fat rat jumped off the couch, ran across the room, and climbed up a chairback where he was practically eye to eye with Harvey.

Harvey hissed. The fat rat hissed back at him, but neither backed down. Harvey pressed against the glass for a better look, just as the human from the picture slid into the room.

“CARL!” he screamed as soon as he saw Harvey dangling in the window. Harvey had no choice now but to jump. He wasn’t going to get caught again. Harvey looked down at the steep drop below, squeezed his eyes shut, and let go of the bars.

The fall was quick and hard, but he landed on a pile of dead leaves that kept it from being fatal. With no time to indulge the pain, he tore off down the alley back to 32nd Street, his heart thumping in a familiar way.

* * *

The human scooped Carl up from the chair and peered out the window, but the other rat was already gone. He carried Carl back to the couch and sat down, stroking Carl’s head while holding him in his lap. “It’s okay, buddy. Your heart is beating like crazy. I’m sorry that vagrant scared you.” Carl looked toward the window, wondering where the rat went. He tried to imagine a life on the streets as he snuggled closer to his human. “I’d better check your tag to make sure the door stays closed when you’re in. If you want a friend, we’ll find you one at PetsGo.” His human untied the ribbon around his neck and fiddled with the nametag. “Everything looks good, but I’ll replace the battery tomorrow just to be safe. You should be fine now. Let me get you a chewy.” Carl jumped down from the couch and ran over to the cabinet where the Rat-Chewys were kept. “Here you go.” Carl snatched the chewy in his front teeth and ran back to his blanket on the couch. Thoughts of the strange window rat faded as he chewed his way back to sleep.

* * *

Harvey ran and ran, his rear leg now aching fiercely. He made it back under the bridge and slipped into the pipe he thought of as home. The street humans were beginning to make noise, and he knew it was best to stay hidden in the light. He’d passed opportunities for food along the run back home but had, for the first time, lost the urge to eat. Now his belly hurt as much as his leg. He was lonely too, even for the other suffering rats who were once his comrades. He curled around himself, tucking his nose under his tail, and drifted off to sleep with torturous images of the warm, well-fed rat. He heard the rattling of a paper bag nearby and caught a strong whiff of alcohol before finally falling into a troubled sleep.

When night fell again, Harvey woke up ravenously hungry. Tonight, he would not foolishly waste his meal-hunting time staring at the window of the idiotic fat rat. Harvey was a real rat, a soldier who’d survived the horrors of war, and knew how to fend for himself. What would a pet rat do on the streets? Probably beg with a can and a sign no one would ever read. Harvey knew how to feed himself, and that’s what he’d do tonight.

He scurried down streets and alleys, staying close to walls. He hid behind the trash bin at Kyoto Gardens until the men in tall white hats finished smoking, then tore a hole in the bag outside the dumpster and feasted on treasures of strong pink fish, slimy black skins, morsels of white rice. He’d learned to avoid the bits of green paste that made him feel as though he’d swallowed fire. The first time he made that mistake, his coughs were loud enough to draw the attention of a chef who chased him down the street with a fire extinguisher. Tonight, though, he ate and ate until he thought he’d never be hungry again.

His pace back home was slower now. He remained close to walls where his dark fur helped him to blend in. A woman in tall-heeled shoes looked right at him and screamed so loud that Harvey almost screamed back. Humans were unpredictable. Even with a full belly, this puzzling behavior was alienating. He paused at a dark basement window and gazed at his reflection, turning his head to see what was different about him. Other than being darker, a little dirty, and a lot thinner, he couldn’t understand what made the white couch rat so coveted while he was rejected.

Harvey had set off tonight with the intention of staying away from Number 401, but now that he’d had his meal, he couldn’t muster the same aversion. His trip back to the alley off 32nd Street was uneventful except for the sudden appearance of a gray cat. He jumped into a drain until the cat passed. Surely, the couch rat wouldn’t have been clever enough to do that.

Harvey arrived at the window with the bars and went down for a closer look. It was a perfect spot to avoid detection on the streets yet still have a laboratory-like view of the privileged rat. The last time—when Harvey saw the human come into the room and yell “Carl!”—he’d thought it was a warning, but now he realized it must be the rat’s name. Carl. What kind of rat has a one-syllable name?

The blanket was folded neatly and hung over the back of the couch. Carl was nowhere to be seen. Harvey looked at the food and water bowls, but there was no rat there either. Where could he be? Maybe this cozy room had been a setup, much like Harvey’s lab setting. Perhaps Carl had just been a victim in another kind of prison and, now that they were done with him, he’d gone into a smoking, foul-smelling incinerator in the back. Whatever the lab rats had undergone, no one wanted to be forced into that room. They never came out again.

Harvey’s old sadness returned. He’d lost so many friends now. Maybe Carl wasn’t privileged. What had he been thinking to imagine that a human would keep a rat as a pet? It was laughable. Humans only wanted two kinds of pets: dogs and cats. He’d seen that on the streets. Dogs tied to humans running down the street. Cats at stoops waiting for doors to open where they were welcome inside. But rats? Never. He’d never seen rats in anything but a cage.

He crawled, slowly this time, down the maze of bars on the window to the ledge below to sort out his dark thoughts, feeling the loneliness swell in him, missing his friend Carl. Maybe he’d just sleep here tonight. It wasn’t the safest place. Cats and humans could find him if they looked, but he didn’t want to face the empty pipe tonight. He’d rest here awhile.

Then, just as Harvey’s eyes were falling shut, he heard a noise inside the apartment. A scratching-against-metal kind of noise. It was persistent, so Harvey shook off his sleep and climbed back up to peer inside the window. There on a side table where Harvey hadn’t looked before was a cage. Inside it was Carl. He appeared to be in a state of panic, running and running on a wheel of some sort that never took him anywhere. Poor Carl. He was trying to escape!

* * *

Carl’s attention was drawn to the scratching at the window. He stopped the wheel and stared at his rat visitor in the window. He watched him drop down slowly until just his head was visible, turning his ears one way and another, tweaking his whiskers, cocking his head, all the friendly communications only rats know. Carl responded in kind. It felt so good to have someone who knew how to communicate with him. The human tried but it was all just talk. Rats had their own language. Suddenly, the other rat just dropped from view. Carl stood on his hind legs hoping for a glimpse of him, but he couldn’t see anything. He got off the wheel and settled into some straw in the corner of the cage. Why did he have to be in his cage tonight?

* * *

Harvey ran home with new determination. Who knew what Carl had endured in that cage? To think that Harvey had been jealous when, in fact, he was free to run where he wanted, eat what he found, and best of all, not be subjected to the confusing whims of a human. Harvey was determined to help Carl escape. He spent the rest of the next day in his pipe without sleep, planning and scheming. He waited impatiently for dark to fall again. When it did, he ran straight back to Carl’s apartment, skipping Kyoto Gardens—though the smell of tuna almost pulled him down the wrong path. “Stay focused,” he reminded himself. “Carl and I can have a meal later.” This sense of purpose and possibility of friendship motivated him away from his hunger.

Once at Carl’s, he skipped the window altogether and ran straight to the human door. There he began scratching and scratching, trying to make as much noise as he could. Finally, exhausted from his efforts, he sat back on the doormat for a brief rest when he heard rat-speak behind him.

“What are you doing?” It was Carl, standing on the very same stoop, frowning at him. “You’re going to wake the humans if you keep that up. Were you hoping for a broom to the face maybe?”

Harvey sat in shock. So focused had he been on his plan that it took him a while to accept the fact that Carl was already free, standing beside him. And rat-speak! He hadn’t heard that in weeks.

“They set you free?” Harvey asked.

“Free? What do you mean? I use the rat door when I need to take a crap, then I go back in. Humans don’t like cleaning poop.” He gestured with one manicured hand. “Look what you’ve done to the door.”

Harvey turned his attention back to the door and saw scratches through the shiny black paint. It was green underneath, decor from another era.

“I was trying to get your humans to open the door so I could run in and save you,” Harvey said.

“And then what? Dial 9-1-1?”

Harvey was puzzled. Carl didn’t seem to want his help. He just stood here like nothing was wrong, talking nonsense.

“I’m Carl. You look like you could use some food. I’ll show you the rat door. If you’re fast, you can follow me in.”

Harvey was not sure about this. Maybe it was a trick. But he was hungry, cold, and curious. “Rat door?”

“Yeah. It’s my door. It only works for me. When I stand in front of it, it magically opens. Then when I go in, it closes. There’s a gray cat around the corner who tries to make it work, but it never does for him. I think he’s got the wrong collar. Just stay close and follow me.”

Harvey followed Carl back down to the window.

“What’s your name anyway?”

“Harvey.”

“Harvey. You see that little door by the window?”

Harvey looked and, sure enough, there was a square opening he’d never noticed in the side of the wall.

“I’m going to stand in front of it. You stay right behind me, practically touching—don’t get any funny ideas—and it’ll open. I’m going to run in fast, and you stay with me. Got it?”

Harvey wondered if Carl had been drugged. They did that in prison sometimes, and it made the rats have all kinds of weird thoughts. But what did he have to lose? He’d been planning to go in anyway. At least this way, if it worked, didn’t involve running past humans.

“Okay, I can do it.”

“All right. Get in line and let’s go.”

Harvey positioned himself behind Carl, close enough to smell the weird human soap on him, and they stepped together to the window. They’d barely stopped moving when the little cutout in the wall magically opened.

“Run!” Carl yelled over his shoulder.

Harvey was scared, but he buried his face in Carl’s backside and stayed near as they both rushed through the opening.

All at once, there was warmth. Heat. The only good part of being in prison. He looked at the door they’d come through, now fully shut. His eyes bulged in a moment of panic. He looked at Carl and worried again that this had all been some sort of trick.

“Relax, kid. I’ll run you back out when you’re ready to go. Let’s get some grub.”

* * *

Harvey took his time looking around this place he’d only seen from the outside. There was so much more to it, so many soft, warm places to burrow, so many smells and dark corners to hide in, so many strange creaking noises. He could spend days in here just snooping around. It was better than a dream. It made him wonder what was wrong with the humans who lived near him out in the empty cold when they could be comfortable like this. What did it take, he wondered, to get such a perfect home?

“There’s plenty to eat,” Carl said, standing by the bowl marked “CARL.”

“Go ahead, finish it off. Humans will refill it in the morning. I’ll save you some Rat-Chewy too. I get at least one of those a day.”

Harvey approached the bowl and peered over the edge. The little brown balls had a funny smell, not as bad as what they served him in prison, but still off, like a fake version of something real he’d find at the trash bins. But he was starving, there was a lot of it, and he was warm and safe while he ate. He took Carl’s advice and finished it off.

When he was done, he joined Carl on the warm chair by the window, and they talked long into the night. It was glorious to share so much rat-speak, to finally have a real window into what Carl’s life was like. And Carl was just as curious about Harvey. A softness developed between them through their common ratness. Harvey began to see that Carl had had no more choice in the outcome of his life than he had. They’d been born into their circumstances by the uncertainty of luck. Or, in Harvey’s case, bad luck. Carl explained about the changes he’d heard his humans speak of, how rats had once been the only source of research for their own ailments, but now they’d learned of a more accurate way to do their studies without the use of rats and that explained why Harvey had been set free. Carl had been one of the new breeds, born into the luxurious life of a pet.

Harvey wondered about his timing in life, remembering the procedures he’d endured. It seemed too much compared to the incredible ease that Carl had known. His feelings were coming at him fast and hard, and Carl could sense this. But their friendship had already begun to form, and their mutual willingness to cross the boundaries of unfair circumstance was guiding them over the bumps.

Carl made him a promise.

“Look, I don’t know how the humans would take to you living here, but if they don’t like it, it could turn out badly. Let’s just keep this between us. I’ll hide you here, and they don’t have to know about you. But you show me the streets too. I want a taste of that fish you keep talking about, and I want to travel like you have. As long as there’s a rat door, you have a home with me.”

Harvey felt something warmer than heat. It was almost too much. It called him back to his fuzziest memories of being snuggled between baby rats against the belly of his mother, snatched away from him too soon. That feeling of warmth had been fleeting then, before the hard, cold reality of his painful life began. But here was an offer of it, a glimpse that maybe life could hold warm surprises if you let it.

“It’s a deal,” Harvey said earnestly, as though this were a fair trade. He pushed down the injustice of their circumstances in favor of choosing the gift being offered that would change his. From where he sat on this warm chair with his new friend, he was getting the best of it. Finally.

 

——————–

Trevy Thomas is an author whose work has appeared in The Dr. T.J. Eckleburg Review, The Coachella Review, Drunk Monkeys, Sliver of Stone, Woodwork Magazine, the 2017 River Tides Anthology, and as a feature writer at Friendspast.com. She lives in Virginia with her husband and four dogs, and can be found virtually at https://trevythomas.com.