Stories

Go Down Easy

By Max Bayer

turned onto my street. The usual discarded cans, plastic bottles, and food wrappers lined the curb and sidewalk. Taking a deep breath, I prepared myself for the unexpected. Rolling over bottles, cans, and debris, I parked in front of my house. Before entering, I strode next door to greet Hassan. This Black man and myself had become friendly. He was always in front of the abandoned house plying his trade.

It was some months before, as the weather got warmer, when I first noticed Hassan. He was standing outside, and cars stopped. Approaching the car, a window opened, and an exchange occurred. At first, I didn’t think much about it. But he didn’t live on the street, and it soon became clear he was a dealer. Since he had lots of downtime in between sales, and I often took breaks on the steps of the house I was renovating, we got to talking.

“Yeah, that’s a nice house across the street. It was rehabbed, but the tenants are trashing it,” he told me. Turned out he used to work in real estate. Said his brother was an attorney and would handle his sales. And his sister, too, was doing well, with a good city job in New York. I never asked about his chosen profession, but he said some things went wrong, “and I’m doing this in between jobs, you know, until I get settled?”

Being seventy-five, I always found the young guys a little strange. Hassan, with his tight jeans, pointy shoes, and well-fitted shirts, hardly looked more than twenty-five. I was impressed that his pants rested on his waist and not a foot below, as is common in Newark.

Once, I locked myself out of my truck. Hassan saw my distress. “Don’t worry, Pops,” he said. He had taken to calling me that, although I told him my name was Mark. Since my one remaining African tenant called me “Daddy,” and now this young fellow was calling me “Pops,” I decided to let people call me what they wanted. Hassan picked up his phone, and five minutes later, a swanky BMW pulled up. “Hey, yo, where’s the truck?” the thin Black man asked as he jumped out of his car.

Hassan pointed to my truck. “Don’t worry, Pops, this will take five minutes,” as he retrieved a leather case filled with instruments. How did he know my name was Pops? But who cared, since my truck was quickly opened. I reached into my wallet to tip the guy, but Hassan yelled, “No, he owes me. You’re a good guy, Pops, and I wanted to repay you for that favor the other day.” He was probably referring to the time he went behind the abandoned house to pee and asked me to watch the front. “If anyone comes, just tell them I’m out back checking inventory and will be out in a second. Some of my customers try to create trouble, but they won’t bother you.”

I think our friendship blossomed when he mentioned something about his twenty-fifth birthday. The next day, I brought two big sandwiches, soda, and donuts. I didn’t put any candles on the donuts, but he remained speechless as I handed him the food. “We can eat out here,” I told him. He reached into his pocket to give me money. “Hey, it’s your birthday,” I told him. With his head down, he unwrapped the sandwich slowly. He looked at my writing on the bag, which wished him happy birthday.

I think it was on that day we became friends. From then on, I didn’t feel so bad about going to my rental property in Newark and almost dreaded the time when my fix-up would be completed.

On my last visit, looking forward to a nice chat with Hassan, I was surprised to see a crowd of young men next door. There were ribbons, candles, and an assortment of bottles circled around the parking sign. A lady from across the street, whom I knew by sight, yelled from the window for me to stay clear of these men.

Not one to heed warnings, I walked up and asked, “What’s going on?”

“It’s private, just move on,” a tall man covered in tattoos said.

“No, wait,” another from the crowd yelled, “that’s Pops, you know, Hassan’s friend.”

When I asked about Hassan, someone said, “He’s dead. Two men got into an argument with him and stabbed him. He bled out on the way to the hospital.”

I stumbled and couldn’t speak.

“Yeah, man, the motherfuckers killed him. We’re paying our respects.”

Two more cars pulled up. Several men came into the crowd. One was carrying a young baby. One of them pulled out a phone and music started, and the crowd went into a rap about their friend Hassan. I had now become part of this crowd, and one of them yelled, “Hey, Pops, say some words for our friend.”

I swallowed hard, knowing I had to say something.

“Hassan was a friend of mine. He helped me, and I helped him. We celebrated his birthday only days before. I found him to be a good man. May God have mercy on his soul. And, Father, we ask for your blessing for all of us here today in the name of your Son and our Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Murmurs of agreement.

Someone unwrapped bottles and passed them around. I had not taken a drink in forty-five years, for reasons I didn’t wish to discuss. The bottle came to me and everyone looked. I raised it and took a swig. I tried not to cough. “That’s it, Pops, let it go down easy.”

All of us stood for a long time. No one wanted to leave. Driving home, I despaired about the drink I took and, worse still, for the second one I wanted.

I returned the next day. Passing Hassan’s spot, I noticed something in the alley. I walked through the debris and looked down. I picked up a wallet, which must have been Hassan’s. It was mostly empty except for two photos; his brother and sister, I assumed. Also sticking out was a piece of cut-out paper. It was from the bag that contained the sandwich I gave him.

To Hassan, for your birthday, it read. Signed, Pops.

I held the little note for a long time. I walked to my van. I didn’t feel like working, and drove home.

 

 

——————–
Max Bayer was born to immigrant parents who fled war-torn Europe in 1942. He came to writing late in life when he discovered that his parents—Holocaust escapees—left a daughter in Germany when they fled to America. He has worked as a health care consultant and is currently a CBD hemp grower in the Hudson Valley while pursuing his passion for building and writing.

Elizabeth II

By Randy Fowler

ouisville, on the day of my arrival, was enjoying a respite from a treacherous and unyielding summer and from where I stood in the doorway of the bus station, winter was nowhere in sight. Leaves on nearby trees were swaying to a tune I couldn’t hear against a sky bluer than I remembered. The city that sought absolution for its past failings seemed to have achieved some kind of internal peace for the moment, ready to settle for what it had grown into, and the weather pled for clemency on its behalf.

I never intended to return. I grew up on the west side, in an area next to the Ohio River, officially labeled a toxic-waste site responsible for almost half of the county’s pollution. Nothing could have brought me back short of the news that my only son was missing. I had neglected him when he most needed a father, and now, in spite of my parole status in California, I couldn’t turn my back on him in a crunch.

I cased the area. Two patrol cars, one state and one metro, were parked at the curb. For a parolee, the slightest misgivings can give even a brain-dead Johnny Law probable cause, and my gut said they were looking for me.

To my left, a loud noise caught my attention. A fat man had dropped two of his bags with a thud. He wore a plaid shirt, two sizes too small, and Levi’s drawn tight below a belly that I feared might pop the buttons from his shirt, a sight I hoped to avoid. I hurried to help gather his things and returned his bag to its upright position.

“Why, thank you so much!” he said. “I don’t see a baggage handler around, do you?” He raised his eyebrows as he spoke, making it seem like a question.

I suggested he carry my lighter satchel along with his smallest bag, and I would help him get his other two over to the cab stand. He said his name was Ralph. “Just a short trip to visit my aging sister,” he said. “Only be here for three days. I live just outside Cincinnati, you know. I’m heading downtown to a reasonably priced Holiday Inn, willing to share a cab with you to split the expense. You interested?”

Luckily, I had found me a talker. A natural camouflage.

“My, my! This satchel feels like it’s empty,” he said.

I wasn’t about to tell him that a hundred fifty grand in hundred-dollar bills only weighs a little more than three pounds. Instead, I said, “A small gift for a relative.”

With my son missing, I had pulled together all my liquid assets in case of a ransom demand, and under the circumstances, it felt better having someone else carry all that cash as we walked past the police. Plausible deniability can sometimes create favorable confusion.

As soon as possible after hearing about my son, I jumped on a plane to Cincinnati. You can’t get to Louisville non-stop from the west coast unless you travel in a UPS box, but four hours from LA and you’re landing in Cincinnati, only ninety minutes from Louisville by bus. Besides, I thought the bus would let me sneak in without detection.

As we walked by, I dismissed the two local cops as rookies as they eyeballed the crowd from inside their car. I relaxed a bit as one of them stepped from his car and leaned against it to light a cigarette. He was eyeing a young woman in tight denims and a tank top. Humans are so fucking predictable.

One State Trooper, in summer-issue uniform of French gray trousers with a one-inch stripe, chukka high top shoes and short-sleeved shirt, his badge on the left side of his shirt spelling out Johnathon L. Clark, stood alertly next to the passenger side of his Ford Crown Victoria. He was looking over my head at the crowd of people shuffling along. I noticed badge number 635 as I walked past, smiling my usual, decoy smile, which caused him to look away rather than be bothered by some overly fawning civilian. He fiddled with his trooper hat as he gazed at his female partner who was fast approaching the car with two steaming cups in her hands.

At the taxi stand, I insisted my new friend take the first one in line, saying no to his offer to share a cab.

“Opportunity only knocks once,” he said.

And misfortune just barges right in. “Well, maybe I’ll ride with you as far as the Brown Hotel,” I said. It had suddenly occurred to me that it might be wise to get out of the area as quickly as possible.

The cab we approached had a typical Jefferson County taxi license plate, with the number 1843. I took my satchel from Ralph and placed it inside the cab, on the back-seat floor, and returned to the trunk to deal with his luggage. He didn’t offer to help. I fumbled with rearranging some miscellaneous crap the driver had stored in the trunk—like it never occurred to him that his next fare might have luggage—and began cramming Ralph’s bags inside. I finally got the damn lid closed, and when I looked up, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The back door—which I was sure I had closed—was open. I saw a man in a hoodie running down the street. He jumped into a waiting, nondescript black Chevy and was off.

“So, do you still want to go to the Brown?” the driver asked.

I said. “Yes, and could you please go slow; I’d like to see if we can spot that getaway car or the hooded guy.

“What hooded guy?” Ralph asked.

“You want me to what?” The driver was looking in the rearview mirror.

It was too much trouble to explain. Something I felt I wouldn’t have had to do in LA. Processing new information seems easier and faster on the west coast. Another reason I never wanted to return to my dear old home town.  I looked for the hooded little thief and his getaway Chevy as we drove but saw nothing. At the hotel, I handed Ralph twenty-five bucks, even though the meter said twelve.

I walked slowly through the entrance of the hotel and rode the escalator up to the lobby. I needed help, and there was only one person I still knew in town.

“This is Eddie Mayer,” I said to the woman who answered the phone. “Is Michael Barzini there?”

Michael’s greeting was a familiar welcome. “Hello,” he said. “I thought it might be you.”

“Sorry, Michael, but this is not the call you expected. I’ve run into even more trouble, and I need your help sooner than I thought.”

“When you called from Cincinnati, I put out some feelers on your son. Nothing yet, if that is what is on your mind,” he said.

“Nothing…you heard nothing?” I asked.

“No. These things are sometimes hard to ferret out,” he said. “Maybe we get word soon.”

“Well, I’ve got another problem that I don’t want to discuss over the phone. Can we get together?” I asked. “Do you still live downtown in that great place over on Third?”

“Yes, I am pleased to say,” he said. “Where are you presently?”

“I’m on Fourth. Only a few blocks away. It would only take a few minutes for me to get there, if you’re up for it.”

“I will come to you. Where will I find you?”

“There’s a café on Fourth, a half block from Broadway, close to the Brown Hotel.”

I took a table on the sidewalk at the café—trying to imagine where my satchel might be, and whether the snatcher had yet discovered what was in it—and ordered a coffee.

When we first met, Michael was a curly-haired, nerdy kid. He was often doing something technical, like building a radar detector for measuring the speed of passing cars just for the hell of it, and I was constantly in trouble with the authorities. I was fifteen; he was thirteen, almost fourteen. We immediately disliked each other, but over time that changed, and we began running together, off and on.

When he developed a gambling problem, we somehow grew closer. Overnight, he discovered hard times, and getting in trouble was an affliction I knew something about. I guess I’m drawn to people with flaws, having firsthand knowledge with personality defects. We were more often in trouble than not, and on a couple of occasions, we found ourselves cellmates in the county jail. When I left Kentucky for California, he was in a medium-security correctional institute in eastern Kentucky for running an illegal (and crooked) casino.

Michael arrived as the waiter poured my third cup. I told him about my ordeal at the bus station.

“That doesn’t sound like you. How much were you carrying?” he asked.

“A hundred fifty large,” I said.

“That’s a sizable amount. Was it yours?” he asked.

“Unfortunately, yes,” I said. “I should tell you I jumped parole to get here.”

“Ah ha, ah ha. So what is the plan now?”

“Well, I guess I’ll register at the Brown and then get started. I have to find William, but I admit I don’t know where to start. Don’t have a clue how to go about getting my money back. I was hoping you could help with that. I don’t have your connections.”

I looked for a response. No reaction to being categorized as to being connected would mean he still was. I had picked the right guy.

“I have lost track of many of the people we used to know. Things change and memory plays tricks when you have been away so long, but I will do what I can” he said. “However. you will not be checking into any hotel. You will stay with me, at least until we get the lay of the land. We will try to figure out what we’re dealing with and go from there.”

***

I met Meredith when I was twenty-three and she was twenty. I had just been recently released from county jail where I had been held awaiting trial for larceny. She married me for the danger she sensed when we first met and divorced me for the same reason. Skirting the edge and defying the establishment was fun at first. We were both wild and unsettled, filled with boundless energy and iconoclastic views.

Then the baby came, and Meredith wouldn’t leave the house. She was obsessed with taking care of our son. She nagged me constantly about my lack of responsibility. A real man would be out looking for a job that paid a salary. She resented me and my activities more and more; I had lost my partner and began to resent the boy for the imposition. Her attorney telling the divorce court we had grown apart was like calling WWII a disagreement.

Meredith married her attorney two years after I left Kentucky. They moved to the outskirts of Louisville, on the east side, near St. Matthews, the other side of town from where I grew up in every aspect of the word. Her new husband changed jobs three years later to become an assistant commonwealth attorney—what everyone except Kentuckians call a DA—working somewhere in the bowels of state bureaucracy. Just the type Meredith and I had both spent our lives trying to avoid when we first were married.

I went to southern California. Working alone and realizing all the advantages of specialization, I found a niche that took advantage of my athleticism and limited the competition at the same time. My new job evolved organically, one step at a time. I became known as one of the best high-story men in the business, rising in a business that was declining. Others felt the work was dangerous and too hard. With my new work notoriety came, and with-it ego, I guess you would say.

At first I tried to keep in touch with William, our son, who worshiped me without reservation. His mother’s anger made me reluctant to keep it up, and as I called more infrequently, her tone softened a bit, and his interest faded. Her married name was now Young, but my son still used my last name—even today—which is the one thing I held on to as I phoned her.

“Meredith. It’s Eddie. Have you heard anything, like a ransom demand—or worse?”

“Who’s this, again?”

“C’mon, Meredith. Goddamnit, don’t fuck with me. This is serious.”

“You think I don’t know?”

“I take it you haven’t heard anything then,” I said.

“No, Shirley,” she said. “It’s not today. Tomorrow, at Mike Linning’s, out on Cane Run Road. You know, by the river, for lunch, around one. Remember?”

“I take it your dear beloved came into the room just now and you can’t talk, right?”

“Okay, I’ll see you there at lunch time then.”

I have always been so impressed with how instinctively and automatically she could pull off a common ruse. Except when it was on me, of course.

***

Staying in Michael’s house seemed natural at first; getting used to his habits was another matter. He amused himself with still-life oil painting for short periods of time, which drove me nuts. I wanted some action. When he went out with some of his buddies without saying a word, I was looking for news about my son or my money when he returned, but he said nothing.

“Any news, Michael?” I asked.

“Nothing yet,” he replied.

“Michael, I’m going crazy here. We’re not doing anything; nothing is happening. I can’t just sit around doing nothing. I have to take some action. My son is still missing, not to mention my money?”

“Nothing can be done at this point. Just relax,” Michael said. “I have a game with some influential friends tonight. Maybe I hear something. People brag, drink too much, maybe drop a hint about your son or that dough you lost—it was a big haul after all. You never know.”

“A poker game?” I asked. “What time will it be over?”

“Game starts tonight. Sometimes lasts a day or two, maybe less, maybe more.”

Idleness for the rest of the day almost sucked me under. Fortunately, Elizabeth, Michael’s girlfriend, came home early from her work at the main public library on Third. I found her knowledge on a wide range of topics interesting and her smile calming. All the while, I was trying to think of something I could do without waiting for Michael.

The next morning, the house was empty, and I had no way of getting in touch with Michael. I walked to the library hoping to find Elizabeth, but she wasn’t there. I scanned some of the magazines hoping some article would suggest a useful person or helpful action, but nothing came. I began to feel a little uncentered. I tried thinking about everyone I’d ever known in the area but came up empty.

Embarrassed, I returned to the house thinking Michael might return sooner than I thought. At noon, a knock on the door brought a man I didn’t know with a note from Michael. It read: Go back to the café on Fourth at four p.m.. Wear a white shirt, no jacket, order a coffee, and wait.

I don’t do the patience thing very well. Elizabeth came home for a late lunch at one, and I felt an unexpected excitement. Not just for the promise of action later, but because she was there. I didn’t understand my interest. In LA, I tended to be drawn to what I would call a hint of urgent lust, a great figure with a degree of dangerous looseness, a sexiness as obvious as the need to be discovered. A woman in tight jeans and high-heel shoes with a kind of aloof confidence that bordered on arrogance was what got my attention.

But Elizabeth was different; she wouldn’t generally be considered pretty if not for her kind smile and glowing aura. Today she wore a charcoal blazer over a knee-length yellow shirt with a navy-blue and white polka-dot skirt and beige medium-high heels. She looked elegant, with her scarf draped casually around her neck picking up some of the outfit colors. Not the type I generally went for, but I very much found myself drawn to her. I could feel the vibe of kindness, gentleness, what people describe as a good heart.

“You’re all dressed up,” I said. “Very stylish, very nice.”

“Some VIPs, big donors, were at the library today, and we were trying to make a good impression. They wanted a tour of the place. The remodeling’s going to cost a bundle.”

“When do you think Michael will return from his game?” I asked.

“No telling. I’m thinking sometime tomorrow.”

At four, I did as the note suggested. Halfway through my second cup at the café, a man walked by my table without even a glance in my direction. I looked closely at the satchel he was carrying—my satchel—and when he passed me, still without looking, he dropped it at my feet. I finished my coffee, picked up the satchel nonchalantly, tucked it under my arm, and walked back to Michael’s house. I immediately dumped the contents on the floor and began to count it. When I looked up, Michael was smiling.

“There’s fifteen Gs missing,” I said.

“You expected to get away without paying the vig?” he asked. “I told the little weaselly twerp to take his cut. Thank God nothing in life is free. Otherwise, guys like you and me would get no leverage. It was small juice to pay for justice or —if you prefer—ninety percent justice. Beats the shit out of no justice at all, does it not?”

I was glad to have the bulk of my life savings back. “Here, I want you to have this. Thanks for helping,” I said, handing him another fifteen grand. “You deserve it.”

“You are my friend. I didn’t do it for money,” he said.

“Still, I need to thank you.”

I learned long ago: kicking up is as important as taking care of people below. Eating alone is the problem, it strains friendship and loses points.

***

I had ordered my fish sandwich and fries before she arrived and went to an outside table. She joined me.

“So, I take it your wonderful husband was home when I called yesterday,” I said.

“Ever thought about taking up police work?” Meredith responded.

“What do you want from me?”

“My son.”

“He’s not just your son, he’s also my son. Do you remember how much time I spent with him before we parted?”

“Well, your so-called career gave you a lot of time to spend with him during the day, didn’t it?”

“I think about those times constantly. We did everything together, spent most every day doing something together until he was—what? —ten or so. Emulating my every gesture in those days haunts me even now, and I can’t stand the idea that I’m too incompetent to help him when he needs me most. I have to apologize to him for being so unavailable these last few years.”

“It’s a little late, don’t you think? He’s missed you so much. He’s just like you in every way I can think of. That’s probably why he and Alan have always been at odds with each other.”

“I feel bad enough—you don’t have to rub it in. I get the insult,” I said.

“I’m sure you’ll eventually turn it into a compliment.” Her brow was furrowed, eyes lowered. “How’s the fish?”

“What has your husband, his stepfather, done to help find William?”

“He refuses to talk about it.”

“What! Are you kidding? Why? He knows a lot of people, people in high places: police, detectives, DAs, probably most everybody in town. You’ve been married for twelve years, for God’s sake, and he’s been a prosecutor most of that time. And he’s done nothing? What the fuck is his problem?”

“He says Bill is a disappointment. He thinks he has just run away, he’ll be back. ‘Just give it time,’ he says. In the meantime, I’ve heard nothing—nothing—not a word. I’m worried sick. And nobody is doing anything about it. No ransom, no information, no nothing? What the fuck are you doing, for that matter, except criticizing others?”

“I’m trying. Don’t have a lead yet, can’t find a handle, but I am trying—have feelers out, but so far, nothing. By the way, I guess your legal-beagle husband came into the room while we were talking. Is that why you called me Shirley?”

She only stared and shrugged. Uncomfortable, I turned away to watch the river flow for a moment. The current was hypnotic enough to ease my discomfort.

“So how is the marriage anyway?” I asked, still staring at the river.

“Complicated.”

“Is…was William happy…before—?”

“Yes, well, he was reasonably happy until recently. But he and Alan always had a strained relationship, I guess.”

“Why?”

“I think Bill—he prefers Bill to William—has always missed you, and Alan, I think, is jealous, although he won’t admit it.”

I couldn’t think of anything to say. Her words tore my heart out. How could I have left my flesh and blood and been in contact so seldom? I felt guilt like I had never felt it before. When my eyes teared up, something that almost never happens, I didn’t know what to say. “What was going on with Bill…before he, you know…?” I turned away.

“Bill has always been troublesome, headstrong, if you know what I mean—of course you do—but something happened recently… He stopped speaking to Alan altogether… I asked Alan about it, and he blew me off. Said something about how Bill needed to learn to mind his own business.”

“What the hell did he mean by that?” I asked. “What a strange thing to say unless—”

“Don’t really know. Not sure,” she interrupted. “He’s been acting strange though, recently.”

“Bill, you mean?”

“No, Alan,” she said.

“What’s that about?”

“Don’t know,” she said.

“Then, take a guess. Your intuition has always been spot-on.”

“Well, I only know there was an investment banker that’s been coming to see Alan a lot. The last few times he showed up, Bill left the house, slamming the door.”

“Who was it? I mean, do you know him and why he was there?”

“Don’t know, really. I assumed he was advising Alan on investments. He’s been talking about retirement…he would like to take an early one…talks about how difficult it is for a government employee.”

“And his name was…?” I asked, prompting.

“Not sure. I think his last name was Walter, or Walker, or something like that.

“Do you have any reason to think this investment guy did anything to Bill to make him want to leave the house? Did he have any interaction with Bill at all?”

“I don’t think so. The visits seemed like normal business to me. I don’t know what Bill was thinking, but he and Alan spoke even less than usual.”

Confused, I wanted to leave before I said something I would regret. I thanked her for agreeing to meet with me, and for the ancient memory of the tasty fish sandwich. When I tried to give her a peck on the cheek in parting, she moved away.

***

The odds against winning the lottery are the same for the loser as for the winner before the draw. Despite my inability to calculate the probability, I took a long shot on locating the only cop I respected, the last one to arrest me before I left the area. Not only did I discover he was still in town, but I discovered he was still on the force and was back walking a beat in old Butchertown.

That area was shear hell when I was a kid. You took your life in your hands when you entered. Now, instead of cattle carcasses, its brick buildings contained upscale boutiques and gift shops.

I didn’t ask about his being back on the beat; I had picked up on a rumor of a disciplinarian problem, which confirmed my choice. Instead, an introductory question seemed best.

“They still call you Whitey?” I asked.

“Yeah. What do they call you?” he responded.

“Eddie Meyer. You locked me up for burglary long ago. You probably don’t remember, do you?”

“Vaguely. No, as a matter of fact, I do remember you. I remember you as someone who was in touch with himself, in an odd sort of way. What do you want?”

“Just wanted to thank you. For getting me to go straight. Now I need help with a problem—when you’re off duty, of course. Maybe buy you a coffee and talk? I could use some sound advice. What could it hurt?”

He was skeptical, reluctant to get suckered in. He repeatedly turned down meeting me at all. I began to think he didn’t want anything to do with me, and the odds for my long shot were getting slimmer by the minute, until I suggested White Castle on Broadway. He agreed to meet me there for a quick bite before his evening shift the next day.

I discussed the Whitey meeting with Michael, who warned me to be careful. Although he didn’t know Whitey, nor had he ever done business with him, he had heard a rumor of a gambling problem. I knew I was asking fate to cover her ears as I listened to a rumor of a gambling problem told by someone with a gambling problem who heard it from a third person with a gambling problem, but what the hell was I to do?

I chose to not show up at my scheduled meeting with Whitey in favor of easing in the gate before stepping into the lion’s den. That very day Michael was able to determine that Whitey was down twelve thousand to a fellow gambler by the name of Vernon “the Roach” Jackson (whose nickname derived from the fact that a number of attempts on his life failed—it was generally believed he could survive the apocalypse). I gave Michael twenty thousand for him to pass on to his friend the Roach to cover Whitey’s debt and for an additional eight-thousand marker.

The next day I found Whitey on the job.

“I don’t like being stood up,” he said, walking by slowly as I pretended to stare at a shop display.

“Sorry, I had some business to conduct,” I replied.

“Apparently. It would seem your business is more than just your business,” he said. “Same time, same place, tomorrow. But don’t stand me up.” His mumble was barely audible.

I accepted with a single quick nod. He turned quickly and stopped abruptly to ask the proprietor of the boutique a question, smiling, nodding. He slapped the shop owner on the back, then shuffled off down the middle of the common courtyard.

The next day, I arrived at the White Castle before he did and ordered a half dozen with mustard. He held up ten fingers to the woman at the counter before acknowledging me. Suddenly the informality of the situation hit me as preposterous. We’re ordering stupid little hamburgers while my son is still missing and might possibly be injured or even dead. I’m helpless and at the mercy of a cop I barely know. Michael hasn’t come up with anything. Am I being a fool? My stomach knotted; the tension, combined with the smell of onions, caused me to gasp for breath. I was going to be sick. I took two deep breaths and hoped for mercy.

“You don’t have White Castles in California?” Whitey asked.

“You’ve been doing your homework,” I said, relaxing a bit.

“I know you are still on parole. I know you jumped when your son went missing. I know I can arrest you anytime I choose but have elected, under the circumstances, to let it go for now.” Whitey raised his eyebrows, as any cop with over twenty years on the force might do.

“What do you know about my son?” I asked. “What have you heard?”

“I don’t know where he is, if that’s what you’re asking,” Whitey said.

“His stepfather is a commonwealth attorney. You ever hear of a guy named Young? ACA Alan Young?”

“Yeah, I know him,” Whitey said as he stepped away to fetch his lunch from the counter.

“And?” I asked.

“I don’t know him that well,” Whitey said. Don’t much like him, seems full of himself, doesn’t speak to anyone below his level, if you know what I mean.”

“Apparently, my son doesn’t like him either. Have you ever heard of an investment banker named Walter or Walker, something like that?” I asked.

“No. Who is he?”

“Someone my ex-wife mentioned,” I said. “Maybe not important. She said she thought he had been coming around to help with investments. My son refuses to be there when he’s there. Don’t know if it means anything or not.”

“I’ll ask around,” Whitey volunteered.

“My ex-wife got a ransom call last night,” I said.

“Jesus Christ! I would think you’d have mentioned that before now,” Whitey said. “That changes everything.”

“I was trying to take it one step at a time, carefully,” I said. “For all I knew, you might have been good friends with my son’s stepfather. But a ransom demand makes it all so real. Thinking of what has to happen now scares the shit out of me.”

“What’d they say?”

“Half a mil. She told them—or rather it, since it sounded like a computerized voice—we don’t have that kind of money. They threatened something bad would happen if we didn’t get it by midday Saturday.”

“That’s an odd time,” he said.

“I don’t know what drives it, but now what do I do? I can’t just sit on my ass and do nothing.”

“Hang on a second,” he said. He left the table and walked outside.

He was on his cell for a good ten minutes. I got another Coke and waited patiently until he finally returned.

“That name you gave me: you said Walter or Walker, something like that. Could it be Waters?” Whitey asked.

“Yes, maybe, I guess so; it sounds right. Waters. Why?” I asked.

“Charles Waters is a big-deal financier, and I found out he knows your buddy, ACA Young.”

“So, he’s legit?”

“I didn’t say that. I asked some of my friends, and one, Bob, a detective, said he’s been investigating Mr. Waters for possible fraud, money laundering and other crimes. Bob suspected as far back as eight months ago that Waters was pulling off some kind of financial scam. It’s still an open investigation.”

“What’s he doing with Young?”

“Don’t know yet. I’ll find out,” Whitey said. “What are you doing about the half-mil?”

“I’ve got it covered,” I said. “But thanks for asking.”

***

Michael had offered up the ransom. I asked Meredith to call me as soon as she had any further instructions. She did, but when I suggested to Whitey that I act as courier, he pooh-poohed the idea. “They haven’t contacted you, only your ex-wife. Let’s not change anything. Let her do it. That leaves the two of us for backup.”

I thought Meredith should not do it. I should instead; after all, I’m the adrenalin junkie, it’s an integral part of my work so to speak. But this was different. This was serious, way beyond a threat to reputation or loss of freedom. This was too dangerous: somebody could get killed. But there was no way I could talk Meredith out of it.

They wanted delivery the next day. She was to board the Belle of Louisville for the one-o’clock, after-lunch voyage. The money had to be in an otherwise empty tote bag, not a hard case. She was to board close to launch time and stand at the top of the gangplank, then wait.

Whitey suggested I board first and stand back in the crowd to watch the drop, in case Meredith needed me. He would wander around outside, on the street.

“You never know how these things will go down,” he said. “There is often a problem, a wrinkle of some kind that can’t be anticipated. We have to be ready for anything and everything.”

Everyone was in place by five to one. At close to one o’clock, two boat staffers approached the gangplank to prepare for launch. At that exact moment, a young woman approached Meredith and reached for the bag. I saw Meredith resist at first. She had only heard a deep voice on the phone, and I surmised that the woman threw her off. I caught her eye and shook my head discreetly from side to side. She caught on and released the tote. Just as the gangplank removal began, the young woman sprang into action, jumped on the ramp, knocking it out of the hands of the startled sailors. I heard the woman say, “Sorry, I have to get off before I get sick.” She ran pell-mell down the gangplank into a small crowd, across a parking lot and up toward the downtown area.

My first thought as I saw the woman run down the plank was that it was already too late for William. When I approached Meredith, she cursed at me and hissed that we were fools to not have assured his safety before giving up the money.

“If he’s hurt, it’s all your fault and I’ll never forgive you.” Both Meredith and I were stuck on a three-hour cruise neither of us wanted to take. It was the worst riverboat ride imaginable. I could only hope Whitey was on that woman’s trail.

Meredith was furious. Scared for William, she doubted aloud that Whitey and I knew what we were doing and suspected the bag didn’t even have five hundred Gs in it. Everything I said to reassure her failed. Probably because I didn’t believe what I was saying myself.

Low on options, we weren’t even speaking by the time we disembarked. I went by cab to Whitey’s beat. When I finally spotted him, I stopped in front of a shop and waited for him to approach. I saw him do a double take, look around, then approach.

“Meet me in an hour in the Brown bar,” he whispered.

I got there early. Pacing, I imagined the worst: we had failed. I had allowed us to be snookered. I was already seated when he entered and sat down.

“I followed the woman into the Galt House, where she went up in the elevator with the bag,” Whitey said. “I thought there was a good chance I’d never see her or the bag again.”

I quickly wrote the rest of the scene in my head. Whitey loses track of the money, finds the bag is in some trash can, and no one knows where William is.

“But just in case,” he said, “I sat in the lobby watching the elevator traffic. Within five minutes, a man emerged carrying the bag under his arm like he was ashamed of it. He rushed through the exit to the parking garage so fast I damned near missed him.”

“Could you tell who it was?”

“No. But I followed him to an apartment building in St. Matthews. The man had to wait a while to be buzzed into the building, so I guessed he didn’t live there. I sat in a bus shelter across the street alongside a woman who said she lived there and took the bus to town every day. I struck up a conversation, figuring I’d give him the fifteen minutes before her bus arrived. He came out in eight. The nice lady said she didn’t recognize him. I watched him walk away down the street empty-handed.”

“Damn it. Damn it!” I hit the table with my fist so hard the waiter came to see if we needed something. For cover, I ordered a bourbon, and Whitey followed suit.

“You give up on me too soon,” he said, with a wink. “I’m a cop, remember? A very good cop, regardless of what you might think. I tapped into our database and discovered that a Charles Waters lives in that building.”

“I may kiss you,” I said. “After I find William.”

***

Over the next couple of days I gathered information about Mr. Waters from every available source. Charlie Waters was indeed a registered investment banker, whose primary activity was real-estate development. As General Partner in his many syndicated deals, he distributed enough income and tax deductions to keep the limited partners on the hook while he formulated arguable reasons to not pay his vendors, holding them at bay by sometimes suing them for nonperformance and saying the most outlandish things imaginable to hurt their reputation, always presenting himself as the eventual savior in press releases. The projects were often kept afloat until—at the moment before disaster, sometimes four years later—an out-of-court settlement favorable to his syndicate was reached. In the interim, he used borrowings against projected cash flow to start other developments and repeated the cycle time after time.

I asked Whitey to check with the officers who had been investigating Waters for the latest status of their case. He reported back that there had been no additional progress on the fraud case but that his limo driver, Tommy “the Snake” Piccolo, had been recently arrested for assault of a detective who had been tailing Waters, and was awaiting trial. As a well-known gangster for hire, he’d only recently landed the job as driver for Waters.

Michael gave me the name of the restaurant and bar Tommy the Snake frequented. I went there for the next four nights, stopping by during the day several times just in case. No luck.

I asked the bartender. He said, “I ain’t seen Tommy around lately. Come to think of it, I don’t remember the last time I seen him. You never know: he may slither in anytime, you know what I mean?” he said. His laugh was so loud it made me wonder if I missed something.

Having lost the ransom and making no progress, I became lonely and depressed. It had been too long since William’s disappearance, and I was worried—worried that I wasn’t doing my share. I had to find the Snake. The weather had turned; it was dark and cold. Winter had arrived with a vengeance. I went out for a walk, and out of habit I headed toward the Snake’s hangout.

The wind had skeletonized the street, blown away all activity. I was as cold as I’d ever been. No real traffic; an occasional car crept along the snow-covered streets, going slowly, seemingly searching for something rather than going someplace. People were indoors; I walked alone on sidewalks wide enough for four. Snow fell. The wind blew flakes into my face. I pulled my collar tight around my neck like a hangman’s noose, reducing my sense of exposure as a parolee with no civil rights. The pub’s glowing lights helped my mood somewhat.

As I approached, I noticed a prostitute standing outside, smoking and looking innocent enough. I asked if I could bum a cigarette, even though I don’t smoke, just to have someone to talk to. She struck up an engaging conversation and generously offered the pack. I said no, I didn’t smoke that much and offered to buy drinks inside.

I asked if she knew Tommy Piccolo.

“Sure, everybody knows the Snake,” she said. “Why?”

“I haven’t seen him in a while,” I lied.

“Oh, he comes in mostly on the weekends but just happens to be here right now—over there, in the corner,” she said, nodding in his direction.

I thanked her and asked what she generally charged for her time. She said she didn’t charge anything for talking.

“Oh, come on. I’ve taken a lot of your time—time when you could have been on the clock. Tell me what you would have charged if I was a customer.”

“Three hundred is the going price.”

I gave her three bills. “You’ve been very helpful,” I said. “I’ll hand over another one for you not mentioning anything about me or that I was looking for him.”

“How could I tell anything about you? I don’t even know your name,” she said. “Not passing on information I don’t have is free: keep your money.”

Tommy Piccolo reminded me of a man I’d spent several months in jail with long ago. He was unsure of himself and unsure if he wanted to change. He seemed permanently hooked on negative thinking, supposing it was the only way to keep one step ahead of disaster. He was drinking Jack Daniels on the rocks, and I asked the bartender to keep them coming. I had locally bottled beer.

After two drinks, I concluded he would do most anything for money. Telling him my story wouldn’t sway him one way or the other; he was only interested in what was in it for him. I asked questions about Mr. Waters, prodding in a way that might lead to some of his habits and issues regarding his schedule.

“Aw, I do not know if it is in my best interest to talk about my boss,” he said, under his breath. “Are you planning something?”

“What do you care?”

“I care to not get caught in any resulting crossfire.”

“I promise you that whatever I do will not involve you or your limo. You will be in no way involved,” I said, with as much sincerity as I could muster. “And I’ll give you ten Gs for information on his activities.”

“I don’t think so,” he said, frowning. “Sounds too risky.”

I could see the drinks were sneaking up on him.

“I have reason to believe he has a half mil in his condo,” I said, to bait him with the money he took from me.

“Oh, he’s got lots more than that, I can tell you that for sure,” he said, shaking his head. Laughing, he continued, “Oh yeah, he’s got lots more than that.”

“Tell you what,” I said, leaning in. “You meet me tomorrow for lunch at Dolci Italiano in Butchertown. I’ll have the ten big ones for you if you answer my questions, and if it turns out that he has more than the five hundred as you say, I’ll meet you back here with another fifteen. Deal?”

“I will go so far as agree to meet you for lunch tomorrow. Then we’ll see.”

As we walked out together, his legs wouldn’t hold him. I grabbed ahold as he lost his balance and almost fell. I had encouraged him to keep drinking, but now I was sure that if I hadn’t stayed with him he would have broken God knows how many bones. Somehow he was able to make it to a cab, and I watched him fall into the back seat.

Over the next several days, I learned more than I’d expected. I gave him the original ten and another five. Now I was getting somewhere, finally making progress, even though I was down to eighty-five thousand, less miscellaneous expenses.

At some point, he began talking freely about how Waters financed other criminal activities while staying clear of getting involved directly himself, how Tommy, as personal driver, was often sent to pick up bags of cash and bring them to Waters’ condo.

Getting close was never my problem; knowing what was too close required a talent I’d never developed. Like a moderately competent horseback rider, I questioned whether I could keep my saddle at racetrack speeds.

“One night I personally picked up four bags containing over three million and left them inside his empty condo,” he volunteered. “It stayed in his wall safe for a day or so, then it mysteriously went someplace two days later.”

I wanted to say: So, his condo is the rinse cycle for funds left soaking overnight. But I restrained myself.

***

It was six o’clock by the time I arrived back at Michael’s house after the spending a long lunch with Tommy the Snake. I told Michael all I had learned about Waters from Tommy.

“What is going on inside that head of yours?” he asked.

“I hope to get your half mil back and then some,” I responded. “What would you do in my place?”

“I would be very careful,” he said. His eyes flashing about as though something might be sneaking up on us.

“I always try,” I said. “Maybe you could verify some of my info with your friends—when you can, of course.”

“I will try,” he said. “I have to go, but I will do what I can.”

By the time I showered and shaved, Elizabeth was there. Our dinners together had become old hat when Michael was at poker. I had convinced her to try an upscale restaurant three blocks from Butchertown which Whitey had put me on to. Elizabeth had softened, seemed to enjoy our times together more and more. She was free in spirit, easy to talk to, and her eyes sparkled as I spoke. I was excited and flattered. She reminded me of the early days with Meredith. It felt warm, like admiration.

I don’t normally drink wine or have desert, but I took both because she wanted them. We lingered after-dinner, telling stories of our childhood and laughing at the idiocy of things we considered important as kids.

Leaving, we couldn’t remember where she had parked. We searched for a moment or two before I spotted her car. I had driven to the restaurant at her request, but now I thought better of it. I put my arm around her shoulders and pulled her close.

“I think I had too much to drive home.” I said. She slipped her arm around my waist as we walked the twenty yards in silence.

The silence lasted longer than I intended; it seemed to take on a life of its own.

“I just now realized the high point of my day is when you come home,” I said. “You are most fascinating.”

“If I hadn’t gotten to know you so well, I might think you believed what you were saying,” she said. “But I know you’ve been around, seen a lot. I’ve never really been anywhere, or seen much, not like you have. I can’t believe you’re serious, but thanks.”

“I am serious.”

She looked down, bashfully, and I kissed the side of her neck.

“Are you okay to drive?” I asked.

“Didn’t you notice I had only a few sips of wine tonight?”

“I didn’t. I knew you hadn’t had much, but not that little. Are you not feeling well?”

“I feel fine, but guilty for drinking. I’m trying to stop, but it’s been very difficult. I think I may have a problem with alcohol. But I’m determined.”

“Why?”

“I’m pregnant,” she whispered.

“My God! You’re pregnant?” I whispered back.

“Start of third trimester. I’ve been reckless, but I’m going to stop. No more.”

“Is the father someone you work with?”

“No. There is no father.”

“All the more reason you need to take care. No more alcohol, my dear. Fatherless births are special, you know. We still honor the last one.”

She touched my cheek. She held her hand there until I thought my heart would burst. She fondled my earlobe for a second, gazing into my eyes. She slid her hand slowly down my cheek, touched my chest, and let it rest there. She looked away. I wanted to speak but nothing came out. We stood for several minutes in silence before getting into the car; the grace of the moment was too extraordinary to tamper with.

***

Tommy confirmed that on the date of the ransom delivery, a bag like the one I described containing a sizable amount of cash showed up at Waters’ condo. Beyond anything I expected, he mentioned his boss was expecting between a million and two million on a night he was to receive an award at a dinner downtown. I slipped the Snake another fifteen grand for the info. True to his nickname, Tommy was able to swallow it in one gulp. Now I was down to seventy thousand.

I remember how excitement filled the air the next afternoon. This was to be the quintessential event of my entire career, the job everything else had been training me for. The past lost its meaning except as example.

The execution was perfect. The take was a little on the plus side, totaling two million three. I dallied a moment over taking more than the five hundred I felt was mine but justified taking the whole bundle as my reward for the grief they caused me. I rationalized a moral ground somewhat higher than I was used to walking, thinking no report was likely to be filed. I was taking money that was not his in the first place.

After a week it seemed I was home free. But it turned out that some of the money had been siphoned from a Federal construction job and that made it a bigger deal than I counted on. My active parole status in California was bad enough, and now the potential for even deeper trouble seemed imminent; I didn’t need the Feds looking for me as well. I learned long ago that when you’re in a hole it’s best to stop digging, and it’s important to get rid of the extra dirt. So, I gave back Michael’s half-mil and contemplated where to stash the rest. Beyond that, I decided I really should lay low for a while, but the need to find William was greater.

***

“Hello?” I answered a call I wasn’t expecting.

“This is Meredith.”

“Did you hear something? Where is he? What’s going on?”

“I’ve got two things to tell you, so just listen,” she said. “First, I’m so Goddamned frustrated I want to kick somebody’s ass, yours included, and I got word from the police that they are giving up. William is about to become a cold case. They have no leads and assume he is a runaway.”

“Can your wonderful husband do anything?”

“Stop asking that. He’s not going to do a damn thing. He says there’s nothing he can do.”

“What about the ransom demand?” I asked. “That proves he’s not a runaway.”

“Mentioning that raises more questions than I can deal with right now.”

“Smart. That’s probably smart, you’re right.”

“But thank God, I then heard from Bill. I was so relieved but still frustrated that I couldn’t tell anyone.”

“Where is he? What’s going on?”

“I don’t know; he wouldn’t say. He is going to call you, wanted your number.”

“Me? Why?”

“I don’t know, but I told him where you were. If he calls, please call me as soon as you can. I have to know what’s going on.”

It was only a few days ago that I thought he might be injured or dead. What can I say to the kid to indicate how I feel without appearing like an old fool? How can he forgive me for not calling or coming to see him?

***

Two days can seem an eternity. But he finally called.

“Hello?”

“Hey.”

“William. Where the hell are you? Are you okay? I asked.

“Stop it. There’s something you have to do. Quickly,” he said.

“Wait! Wait! First, are you okay?”

“As if you care.” His voice sounded detached and distant.

“Are you kidding? Don’t do this. I’ve been worried sick about you. Are you okay?” I repeated.

“Let’s just skip the preliminaries,” he said. “This is serious, and I called you because I don’t know who else could possibly fix it. Mom’s about to get taken to the cleaners.”

“How?”

“They’re trying to sell the house,” he said.

“Come on, William. How can that happen? What’s going on?”

“Alan’s been scheming with that Waters guy. They plan to put the house up for sale soon. Mom’s oblivious.”

“How do you know?”

“I overheard them talking, before I became the enemy. The mortgage is down to about three hundred fifty thousand, but the current value of the house is around a million, more or less. After Waters’ take—which I gather from what they said will be about a hundred thousand or so—Alan expects to net over a half million. He wants a million; the other half million comes from my ransom—”

I interrupted. “And where did they think it would come from?”

“They know Mom doesn’t have that kind of money, but they figured you did, or could raise it—at least you could finagle a way to raise it.”

“What in god’s name are they thinking?”

“Alan is trying to figure out how to run away with a woman not much older than me.

“Son of a bitch! I’ll kill the bastard.”

“Don’t give them the money. I got free.”

“How? When?”

“Couple of days ago. The guys holding me weren’t too bright. I was sure they would get lax, and I used the time to plan a getaway.”

“I have to see you. I want to see you. After this ordeal…we need to stay in contact. I’ve missed you.”

“No, stop already,” he said.

“Can’t we meet someplace? I have to see you.”

“Enough. I need to get my head straight.”

“Was it dangerous getting away?”

“No, not really. There was a ledge outside the only window in the room I was in, and I used to sit in the window to get fresh air—at least that’s what I told them. The woman living on the floor below always left her window open; she left every day around ten and never closed that window unless it was raining. At the right moment, I shinnied down a drainpipe to a small balcony one floor down. It worked.”

“How could a father not love a son like that? You’re a block off the old chip.”

“Do not pay the ransom, and I’m asking you to save Mom,” He said. “Where I am is nobody’s business. I want to be left alone right now. Just don’t pay the ransom, and fix Mom’s problem, I beg you. I figure you should at least be good for that. That’s all I called about. Goodbye.”

“Where are you? Can I come to you? Let me help you. What can I do?”

“Not to worry,” he said. “Be safe, take care of Mom.”

“Keep in touch then—often, you have my number—when and if you’re up to it.”

I knew he was going to be okay.

***

The first item of business was to call Meredith and report the essence of the conversation, and to ask her to check every checking and savings account, every loan they had, and reconcile every incoming and outgoing transaction she could think of, with an eye toward anything that stood out, any item that seemed out of order.

She called me back the next day.

“Everything seems normal, except one account,” she said. “Maybe I’m mistaken, but I could swear we had a savings account with over a hundred thousand in it. I have no idea what happened, but it now has less than three hundred dollars.”

“Go to the bank and find out the dates of the last ten transactions. And then go to a different bank and open an account in your name only. Call me back when you finish.”

The next day she called to say Alan had made a withdrawal a month ago and put the funds into an account in only his name.

“I’ll need the routing numbers and account numbers for both accounts. Then monitor the joint account, hourly. When you see a large amount deposited to the joint account, write a check to pay off the mortgage on the house. You did open an account in just your name at a different bank, didn’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Then move the remainder into that account, the one that’s in your name only. Use that account to buy CDs of different denominations with staggered vesting dates. Then get an attorney to file for divorce and get him or her to immediately start working on getting the house in only your name. At least tie it up legally so it can’t be sold.”

I diverted her questions and asked her to listen to me: it is what Bill wants. That seemed to quiet her for a bit.

I then went to Tommy the Snake. I offered him twenty-five grand to get me the details on Waters’ offshore bank accounts. When he didn’t return at the agreed time, I went to his pub.

“I got the dope,” he said, “but I need more. I damned near got caught messing with his computer. He suspects I’m up to something, and I have to warn you, he’s tied you to the money he lost—he didn’t hear it from me. Can’t say for sure, but I would guess we are both   be in danger. Your offer of twenty-five is not enough.”

“What is enough?”

“I’ve already quit my job, even if I’m the only one that knows it. I have to get out of here. I got a trial coming up in three weeks. Now would be a good time, but I need more.”

“How about another twenty-five?”

“Still not enough. I’m taking a lot of risk here. I got a place all picked out.”

“I gave you a lot before.”

“Still got it. Still ain’t enough.”

“How about a hundred?”

“Make it a hundred fifty. That should last a while where I’m going. You got the cash now?”

He turned over the details of Waters’ account when I handed him the money the next day.

***

Agreements with hawala operatives are always verbal. With no paper trail, the deals depend on personal trust. I arranged for a local hawaladar to transfer eight hundred fifty thousand to his counterpart in the islands, who further transferred it into Waters’ account. Their commission was twenty percent. The hundred sixty Gs bought their mutual trust.

When the transfer was complete, I moved it from Waters’ account into ACA Alan Young’s account. That part was easy: I had the necessary information and that path was well-worn. But I ran into a snag when I tried to transfer the dough into the joint account for Alan and Meredith Young. Some newbie, eager to avoid mistakes and apply all the rules, kept asking questions and requiring proof of authorization. I adeptly supplied answers that should have worked, but he kept coming at me. Finally, in desperation, I asked to speak to his manager.

“Before you put me on hold, in case we lose the connection, would you tell me the name of the manager you are transferring me to?”

“Leon Taylor is manager of this branch. I’ll see if he’s available. Hold, please.”

As the music began, I hung up. I emailed Meredith and used my personal phone to call her.

“Meredith, there is a problem, but nothing we can’t handle,” I said. “Would you please call the bank number I just emailed to you and pull from your end? I told them I was Alan Young and that may be part of the problem—the guy I spoke to may or may not be convinced of that, and even if he believes me, remember Alan made a sizable withdrawal recently without your knowledge from this same account, and they may be trying to be very careful. You need to convince him the person he just spoke with is your husband, Alan Young, and since you and Alan are individual signatories, you can ask to talk with a manager by the name of Leon Taylor—and make him aware that you are expecting a sizable transfer. Get mad, threaten to raise hell—you know the routine—and demand to know what the fucking hang-up is.”

“Got it,” she said. “Feels like old times.”

“Don’t forget,” I added, “as soon as the transfer is complete, write a check to pay off the mortgage. Then move the rest into your account and buy CDs with varying maturing dates so you can roll them over as you need to. Also, good luck.”

It worked. By the end of the week, Meredith’s mortgage was paid off, and she had five hundred thousand tucked away in CDs.

Two of Michael’s friends, acting as intermediaries for me, each bought a Mercedes in the names of two guys in LA who had helped me out over the years and had them delivered by carrier to addresses in LA I gave them. The hundred sixty thousand paid them back handsomely and would undoubtedly come back to me in kind, all laundered and spiffy.

I offered to cover Whitey’s expense for a high-end gambler’s rehab facility, which I estimated to cost around forty grand for top-notch care or, alternatively, to refresh his marker by the same amount. He chose to renew his marker, saying that in-patient rehab would jeopardize his employment and be a waste of time, anyway.

***

Walking up the five steps from street level to the brick walkway leading to the front door of Michael’s house, I saw rapidly moving silhouettes inside the first-floor window. The Gothic architecture provided many protrusions, massive gables, lancets arches around windows and doors, each a potential hand or foothold large enough to accommodate even an amateur’s awkward step.

Climbing to the second story windows was easy. I saw Elizabeth standing behind a huge wingback chair large enough to provide a false sense of safety, but she didn’t see me at the window. I motioned; she still didn’t see me. Finally, I got her attention and motioned for her to unlock the window. I climbed through.

“What’s going on?” I whispered.

Her eyes registered bewilderment: they were wide open but unseeing. She tried but couldn’t find her voice.

“Did they hurt you?”

“No. They…not up here,” she murmured.

“Is there a gun in the house?”

She shook her head no and shrugged again.

“Sit tight, stay here. I’m going down there.”

The stairway leading down had a banister on each side, the one on my right attached to the wall. I moved as far right as far as possible, knowing the steps were less likely to creak closest to their support. I turned my back to the wall, my right-hand gripping low on the banister, my left grasping at a higher level up, and I put as much of my weight as I could on my hands, somewhat relieving the load on the steps, and quietly inched my way down.

I could hear yelling. There were two men who were demanding the return of the two million three. I continued down, slowly, one step at a time, trying to survey the action, ducking my head slightly, bending at the waist to increase my view.

I felt myself spinning, my body gyrating uncontrollably, and my eyes lost focus as I tried to locate the source of the noise in my ears. The stairway began to shake and vibrate, the steps contorted as though they were made of rubber, for which I was grateful since I knew they were moving toward me and I longed for a soft landing. In all the commotion, with me rotating and the staircase circling, I found myself hitting the floor and lying there with one of the men standing over me.

Michael was tied to a chair, his chin on his chest; blood everywhere, his feet splayed, his torso slumped over. Then came a chilling scream from the top of the stairway. I was able to turn enough to see a man coming down with Elizabeth in tow. Halfway down she jerked, and he snatched; missing his grip, she kicked, and he shoved. I saw her fall.

She tumbled down the steps hitting the bottom on her back and sliding almost to where I lay on the floor. I closed my eyes and reopened them in disbelief. She obviously needed immediate medical attention. All I could say to the two men was, “Please help her.”

“Shut the fuck up,” the bald-headed one said. He was pointing a pistol at my head. “Where’s the money?”

“What money?”

“You know what money,” he said. As he spoke he lifted his hand, and I heard the explosion. Michael’s body jumped.

“Don’t…don’t…” I couldn’t make another sound.

“Shut up. It’s over.”

I heard nothing else before the piercing pressure and a sense of suffocation overcame all further feeling and thought. I sank into a black abyss.

What sounded like a woodpecker’s incessant knocking caught my attention. It stopped for a period and then resumed. It went on until the pain in my side forced me into awareness. It was dark; night had fallen, and whatever was at the door became more insistent. The door squeaked open.

I heard, “Hello? Hello, is anyone here?”

A day and a half later, with the help of a doctor friend of Whitey’s, I was able to walk around. Tight bandaging around my upper chest and a sling for my left arm slowed me down for a while, but gradually I could pretend to be almost normal. I took a cab to Jewish Hospital.

Both Elizabeth and the baby were in distress; she was in a coma. Michael was pretty beat up before they’d shot him and was in critical condition. In response to my questions, the nurse said he was in and out, and I could talk to him only when he was awake and stable. They were both in ICU, with limited visitor access.

“How are you, Michael?” I asked, when the nurses finally let me see him.

His voice was weak. “I got snake bit,” he said.

He passed out and I left.

When I returned, I walked straight toward ICU. No one was at the main desk, which was unusual, so I walked straight to her room. There was a flurry of activity, four nurses and an intern surrounded the bed. I peeked around them. I saw Elizabeth lying there, uncovered, her abdomen sliced open. Her eyes were open and staring at nothing.

I couldn’t stand it. I closed my eyes so tight it hurt. I wanted to unclose them but couldn’t. Unable to achieve the impossible task of looking, unable to distinguish what was real from what wasn’t, became unbearable.

Where is the baby? I need to see the baby! I wondered why no one was listening. I felt or heard a thud somewhere between my back and my injured arm, or maybe at the base of my neck, and I remember thinking it didn’t matter, all was lost anyway.

A nurse came and knelt by me, raised my head into her arms, and screamed “Stat!”

I whispered to her, “What happened to Elizabeth? Where’s the baby?”

The next morning, I awoke in my own room. A nurse was standing there.

“Lie still: you broke a few ribs and re-injured your wound. You’ll have some pain for a while,” she said.

She gave me a shot and I began to feel better almost immediately.

“Where’s Elizabeth, and where’s the baby?

“We did everything we could,” she said. “Elizabeth took a turn for the worse. She never woke up, and the doctor had to take the baby. He waited as long as he could. He only did it when he knew we couldn’t save her. Didn’t even have time to get to the OR. The baby’s fine. She’s in the nursery. Would you like to see your baby, Mr. Mayer?”

“Where is Michael?” I asked.

When I finally opened my eyes the next morning, my brain had died. My body, in sympathy, wouldn’t respond. I couldn’t wake up. Forcing my eyes to focus, I still didn’t feel conscious; I couldn’t believe what I thought I remembered. Whenever I tried, my mind went blank. It was just too horrible to think about.

Even the following day, I was not able to imagine the event; I almost passed out struggling with it. But the day after, it helped to visit the baby; I missed Elizabeth and could sense the baby did, too. I tried to visualize the baby as being her mother, incarnate. My view of the universe had changed. I felt an anxiety of complete doom: it couldn’t possibly be worse.

Reality began to seep in after a few more days.

“Mr. Mayer,” Nurse Luanne said, “the nursery has been asking about when the father is going to sign the birth certificate, and what name you have chosen for your little girl.”

“Is Michael still in a coma?” I asked.

“Yes, he’s in a medically induced coma, and you’ll probably be able to take the baby home before he’s discharged.”

“I want to go see the baby. I haven’t seen her today.”

“You should lie there and rest for a bit.”

“I want to see the baby.”

She took me to the nursery in a wheelchair. The sweetest little girl I had ever seen opened her eyes for only a few seconds, and I fell in love all over again. I spent the next few hours there, staring in disbelief.

I looked through the window at people passing by outside. I wondered how they could go on living in view of the disaster, how they could choose to live under these circumstances. Then I thought about the baby, and I understood. Vaguely.

I didn’t take care of my only son when I had a chance, why did I so desperately want to take care of this one.

“It won’t be easy, but you’ll be just fine with your little girl,” the nurse said. “She’s so precious. I’ve gone to see her every day, and I pray for her every day. I’m just sorry I didn’t get to know her mother.”

“She was special,” I mumbled.

Nurse Luanne smiled and nodded.

***

At the last moment before leaving, I wrote ‘Elizabeth Barzini’ on the birth certificate. For the first few days at home, I had no idea what I was doing. I never left her side. I was scared to death something bad would happen. But with the formula and diapers the hospital had given me, and the constant visits of Michael’s friends and their wives bringing food and supplies, we managed.

Three weeks after Michael came home, I began to trust him to look after the baby for short periods of time. Eventually, when I could leave for an hour or two, I drove across the bridge to Indiana to meet a man Michael knew who was able to create a new human existence: an Indiana driver’s license, a new social security card, and a birth certificate for me. It cost me two hundred fifty. He did such a good job I tipped him another hundred.

I read in the paper that the police had two suspects for the attacks. The article indicated there was not enough evidence to get a search warrant; the possible charges were numerous, including murder. They had police sketches of the suspects in the paper, but it could have been anyone, as far as I could see.

Michael had told me they had taken his wallet which contained about eight hundred dollars, his Rolex, and a few other items, to make it look like a robbery, he thought. And he was sure, relatively sure, they had also taken Elizabeth’s diamond necklace.

“The cops asked me to confirm the accuracy of the sketches. I declined.” Michael said.

“But you’re reasonably sure these are the guys, right?” I asked.

“Yes, especially the one with the dragon tattoo on his neck. I won’t forget that.”

“Then, don’t identify them if they ask you again,” I said. “I’ll take care of it.”

Whitey was able to get an address from his friends working the case. They lived in a run-down apartment house, and from the room designation I guessed they lived on the fifth floor. The next afternoon, I asked Michael to watch the baby for a couple of hours.

The building had iron bars on the windows, and the front door was kept locked. I was unsuccessful in moving fast enough to get to the door before it closed behind a heavily perfumed and tattooed man with the face of a bear. I’ve found that people want to trust all but the most suspicious-looking, so with well-rehearsed timing and boldness, I was able to talk a tenant with the thinnest grasp on reality into holding the door for me as she entered.

Picking the lock on the door of the apartment was a freshman’s assignment. I searched the place, looking for answers to questions I hadn’t formulated yet. There was a small stand-alone safe on the floor in a closet, an inexpensive one designed to stop the near-honest and slow down the not-so-honest. It contained a surprise: about a hundred credit cards of all types with a variety of names. There were three of Elizabeth’s, and the one and only credit card Michael owned. I took Michael’s and left Elizabeth’s there.

In a top drawer of a dresser, beneath some odd-looking T-shirts and tank tops, I found about twenty watches and some odd pieces of jewelry. I spread them out on the bed. One necklace was exactly like Elizabeth’s, so I put it in my pocket for later examination and left everything else on the bed just to let them know someone had been there.

Using several of the credit cards from the safe, I called ten stores from an old directory using their phone: electronic stores, clothing stores, and a jeweler. I bought a total of twenty items, about fifteen thousand dollars’ worth of goods. I gave the thugs’ real address and phone number, and for added measure, I asked that they be delivered to the names I had read in the paper. Even if the information was incomplete and the dates a bit out of whack, it should be enough to give the police probable cause and a search warrant.

***

The guilt and remorse I felt about Elizabeth’s death wouldn’t go away. I had always been used to operating in a background of nagging guilt, juggling conflicting feelings like a clown tosses bowling pins in the air, and like the clown, my trick was always to never look directly at any one of them. But that was not working now. I had to look things in the face. I had to let someone I trusted in on my plans, in case something happened to me. I felt responsible for little Elizabeth’s welfare and decided to tell Michael.

“I got a job,” I said. “And I’m buying a house, on the east side of town, not too far out. Would you like to come live with us? Me and little Elizabeth?”

A reflective moment followed. The house had a nice nursery for Elizabeth, and I made sure it had a separate guest house in case William ever showed up. I still hope to find a way to reconcile with my son but doubt it will come anytime soon.

Michael picked something up from the table. “Hey, I see you found Liz’s necklace. Where did you find it?”

“In a drawer,” I said. “Elizabeth told me she wanted her baby to have it. By the way, from now on please call me Edwardo Barzini, your two-years-older brother. I changed my name. You okay with that?”

“It’ll take some getting used to. Even so, I doubt it would be a good idea to cohabitate,” he said. “And you got a job, did you?”

I said nothing in response as he let the question sink in.

“How did you get a fucking job, anyway?” Michael challenged my stare. “A job? With your record? Really?”

“I got the offer today, by phone, and Edwardo Barzini doesn’t have a record. I interviewed a week ago. Supposed to start two weeks from now.”

“Where?”

“Out at the airport. Mechanic.”

“Which airline?”

“No airline. Trucks. A fleet of trucks to be exact. I passed a test, and now they’re going to train me. The pay’s…well, let’s just say the pay’s not falling from the sky in clumps like the old days, but not bad either.”

“Starting a new job, changing your name, buying a house?” He stared in disbelief. “You’re still Eddie to me. You financially okay?”

“Okay, as long as the authorities leave me alone,” I said.

The thought made my heart rate go through the roof. Jumping parole is a problem that won’t go away by itself. California won’t give up, and who would look after little Elizabeth then?

He looked longingly at the necklace in his hand, kissed it, then slowly lay it down. He turned to gaze out the window. I walked to where he stood and put my hand on his shoulder.

“You have been a better friend than I deserve,” I said.

His eyes darted around the room, looking for something he had lost.

 

 

——————–

Randy Fowler was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky. He received his Bachelor of Science in Engineering from the Univ. of Louisville, a Master of Science from Arizona State University, and a Doctorate in Engineering from Stanford University. He lives with his wife, Karen, in California. They have two grown children and four grandchildren. His previous work has appeared in Catamaran Literary Reader and in Chicago Quarterly Review.

Farther, Sayeth the Spider

By James la Vigne

he word rishida has the twin meaning of “name” and “spirit.” To give a name is to give life and form; the human power to do so is what keeps the Void beyond the Mountains at bay. After the death of her father, the girl wanders from the Village with the pretext of searching for flowers to honor him. When close to dark she returns empty-handed and quiet no one questions her. Every day she ventures farther. She hopes to glimpse something as-yet nameless, something yet to emerge from non-being, and with a carefully chosen (as-yet unspoken) utterance to make it part of the World.

One day as the sun embraces two peaks she halts, for the way forward is blocked by an enormous spider’s web. Unnatural patterns are spun into the silk. She steps closer. Were she literate, she would recognize these patterns as the glyphs of an arcane, long-dead alphabet, one that sang the verse of a civilization that thrived and perished before the Village was founded along the river bank. She checks the points of contact between the web and the surrounding trees and brush for the resident spider but can’t locate it. Now she hears a tenuous ghost voice, a dry subverbal utterance that seems to come from everywhere and nowhere. She can feel it like a mild quake of the earth. The spider crawls into sight: a female black widow, much too small to have produced such vast intricate webbing. It moves toward the web’s center, where it stops. Its legs continue to wriggle, and it displays the marking on its abdomen, a symbol whose meaning is more entrenched even than language. At last it greets the girl in her tongue, the physical force of its introduction now absent.

She replies politely as her father taught her.

“What is your name?” the spider asks.

“Lenasta,” she replies.

“Pleased to meet you,” the spider says. “I am—” It pronounces a string of syllables impossible for her to repeat.

“Spiders don’t have names,” she points out.

“You have come far from the Village,” it observes.

“Not so far I can’t get back before dark,” the girl replies, looking over her shoulder. The cold line of the river cuts through the green and brown of the terrain. The smear of tan and red along on the bank has housed every one of her memories so far, and someday would be where she would be buried unwed and childless like Tesha. She turns back to the spider.

“But you must go farther,” it tells her. It spins more silk until the girl can discern a new vision of her future in the very curves and intersections of the web.

***

The girl comes across a narrow path through the Mountains, which she has understood to be unscalable except by goats and the gods. The light retreats like slow fingers over the slopes. Hours later she encounters on the other side not a Void to be named into existence, but a world that pulses with familiarity. The moonlit trees shaking around her, the smell of the blossoming hyacinths, the earth soft under her feet, the very air she inhales–all are like the reflections she used to ponder in the river when she washed her family’s clothes. Having brought no provisions and having nothing to eat or drink but a scant few berries, she grows thirsty and famished but continues, assured by what she saw in the spider’s web. At last she grows too weary to continue. She uses a pile of fallen leaves for a pillow and sleeps in the dirt. She dreams but on waking she remembers little: whispers, mountains flattening into what would be called valleys, the peel of an orange in her father’s hands.

When she wakes, she finds a pile of rocks topped with cooked meat (rabbit) and a pot of water, which first she sips, then guzzles: cold and fresh like the water from a way downstream from the Village. The birds are busy with songs in the trees. When she stands, she strains to remember which direction to go: the cluster of bark and leaves in every direction gives her no hints. After filling herself on meat and berries, she finally wonders who had left these provisions for her, if only for a moment. She can hear something and follows the sound until she discovers a stream just wide enough to prevent leaping across without getting wet. She fills the pot and follows the river until she finds a middle-aged man rinsing rags in it, the first true stranger of the girl’s life. His language is familiar enough for them to converse politely, but on the way to his hut he uses a few words unlike any she had heard before, such as entoya, which means “to discover,” but she does not pester him with questions. He feeds her and then leads her to the village.

The huts become more common. They are clay and stone habitats she was familiar with, but many-chambered and taller, and all of them were adorned with strange coils. Soon the villagers gather to hear her story. She tells them she comes from over the Mountains, which shocks them since they are too treacherous to scale. They ask her why she fled from home if not war or famine–two more words the girl does not know. She cannot tell them of her quest for the Void, to go beyond human boundaries to usher into this world something new. After the crowd disbands the girl meets the leader, who is the elderly widow of her predecessor. The leader takes the girl into her dwelling. She allows the girl to inspect curtains, hinged wooden doors and separate rooms instead of one common living space. Offering to house the girl, she talks in a near-whisper, wrapped in the alien glow of candles.

That night a boy emerges from the woodlands, one she knows from the village, though not very well.

***

“You could have been killed,” the widow says some days later. “By man or beast. The wilderness is no safe place, even for a grown woman.”

The destiny the spider wove for her precluded the risks of the journey. “The danger didn’t bother me,” she says.

“Why did you leave your home?”

“I left a place,” she answers, “but it wasn’t home.”

***

Though she is female, in light of her natural inquisitiveness, the widow ensures that the girl receives proper instruction from the resident sages, alongside the boy. They learn to read and write in several languages. They learn of geometry and empires, of cities across the sea so vast you couldn’t hope to cross them in a day’s journey. They adopt temperamental new gods. They learn that history doesn’t vanish like a long gust of wind or cycle like the seasons but accumulates forever in books. They learn of wealth and nobility and the instruments of war. They learn of romantic, rather than ritual, love. They learn lyrical and epic poetry, some of it by heart. She learns of Platonic ideals and comes to recognize that her childhood had been spent in a cave.

The girl learns the traditional songs on the lyzat, a wooden string instrument. She learns Sappho’s most beloved songs and soon sets her favorite passages of Homer to music. She plays these songs while seated on the stone barrier to the central basin, smiling at the passersby. Next, she composes her own songs. She sings of the spright flowers of Phoenicia and the shimmering shores of Thrace and the rugged cliffs of Britannia, of the legendary creatures of Ovid and Virgil, of the plight of those who suffered Jupiter’s wrath. She sings of love and heartbreak. People linger around the basin. Soon there is a small crowd before she arrives. One day she debuts a song, after which she receives applause so effusive that she flushes. “Thank you,” she says.

That night she dreams of the spider spinning letters into its web, but she still can’t read them. The words disintegrate and from a blue mist the future appears again, clearer than before: “You must go farther.”

***

The widow sends the pair to the city to continue their education, alongside an elderly guide. The roads here are like flowing rivers cutting through an endless landscape of impossible architecture. At first, she greets everyone on the street, but the guide quickly dissuades her of this practice. They rent a house that was built by carpenters rather than its owners or their servants. The profiled faces on the coins are replicated with perfect precision. The pair stop at every sculpture and fountain; in particular, she admires one depicting the birth of Minerva from Jupiter’s head, water cascading over the skull from around the infant’s waist. When they visit a library, the girl encounters a map of the world–every patch of land scaled, settled into, and named. Descending the steps of the library she halts to ask the boy what lay beyond this lapping sea before them.

He hesitates while her gaze is fixed upon the sea. “There are islands,” he replies at last. “To the west and—”

“What are they called?”

“Well, there’s Corsica,” he answers, pointing though her face is averted. “And then there’s—”

“And east!” she exclaims, turning. “I suppose you know what is over those mountains?”

“There isn’t much but small towns. But if you go far enough, you’ll reach the Adriatic Sea.”

“And then what?”

Again, he hesitates.

“What’s beyond the Adriatic Sea? I suppose it has a name?”

“You know the answers as well as I do.”

The girl sinks onto the stone steps and weeps. People on their way into the library pass them without much concern.

The boy sits beside her. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Did I say something?”

She shakes her head.

“What’s troubling you?”

“Names,” she manages.

“Names,” he repeats. The sound of the fitful sea.

She stops sobbing. “Everything has a name,” she says.

“I’m afraid I don’t understand you sometimes. You are a strange girl.”

“When I was a child,” she begins, sniffling, “I thought our village was all there was. I thought that mountains that surrounded it were the boundary of existence, and past them there was only Nothingness. I left to escape from such a small place. But I was wrong. Beyond the mountains there were just more trees, more water, more people, more mountains! The farther I go,” she concludes, “the smaller the world appears. Everything has been discovered, named, and put into books.”

“I feel the same way,” he says.

“Really?”

“Yes, the Village was the world. It’s quite a shock to be here.”

“Yes,” she says, standing back up, “but a thousand thousands of people have lived here.”

“You want to go somewhere new?” the boy says, more confidently than before.

“Not just that, I want to create something new. Something beautiful.”

“What about your songs?” the boy asks. “They are new. And you created them. And they are beautiful to me, every time I hear them.”

“I’m not talking about those,” the girl responds.

***

The girl performs in a public square outside the bustling marketplace. People linger for a song or two. As night gathers, an elderly man watches her for some time before he invites her to entertain an audience during the intermissions of a theatrical attraction two nights later. There, the audience in the outdoor amphitheater dwarfs the village of her birth. When the performance begins the actors’ voices are carried with such clarity it is a though they are conversing casually just a few paces away. She realizes that the visceral content of her planned songs might not mesh well with its tone. She opts to play something more low-key. When she is called onto stage her smiling companion wishes her good luck. A wall of faces rising to meet the somber tree in the distance, every one of them possessing some name unknown to her. Afterward the elderly man asks her to join the performers and owners for a small party. At this point her companion departs, but not before effusive praise for her performance. At the party the girl gets intoxicated for the first time in her life.

The next morning, down some crooked alleyway she encounters the spider’s web. The earth trembles with its indecipherable voice before it speaks plainly, “You have come far, my dear.”

“O thank you, my guide,” she says. “I had the best day of my life and owe it to your wisdom!”

“But you must go farther,” it replies, spinning her future into its web.

***

“I don’t want to go back,” the girl says, her feet bare on the cold floor of her quarters.

“You can’t just abandon your home,” the boy replies, peering out the window toward the shoreline.

“My home is here.”

The boy turns to face her. “For how long?” he asks. “How long before you decide your home is somewhere else? Out there somewhere? Whatever you’re looking for you won’t find it here.”

“You don’t know that.”

“I do!” he insists, stepping closer. “You left the village of your birth because it was too small, and then the next one. And now we’re in Rome, the greatest city ever built, and still it will be too small for you.”

“No. I’m happy here!” she exclaims. “Actually happy.”

“Are you?”

“Yes. And I was never happy in the villages. But I am now, here. This is where I always belonged.”

“But it won’t last!” He sits beside her on the bed. “Soon you’ll have visited every shrine and seen every sculpture and performed every venue and at the Colosseum. And then what?”

“Well, what about you?” she counters. “Haven’t you been with me all this way? What are you looking for?”

He thinks a moment. “Sometimes I wonder myself,” he says as though to himself, thumbing at the fabric of the bed between them.

“Then Rome isn’t enough for you either.”

“You’re right. I didn’t come for Rome.”

A gull squawks outside. His gaze is hot against her cheek, but she watches the doorknob as though expecting it to turn.

“I didn’t leave the village,” the boy begins, “because it was small. I had no concept of size. I didn’t leave the village because a voice called me from beyond the mountains. I heard only the voices of my family and the villagers. I was happy there. I was happy to learn my father’s skill, to marry and raise children and die a hundred passi from where I was born.”

She expected him to go on, but he didn’t. “Do you mean that you are not happier here?” she asked. “Or that you wish you had never left?”

“No,” he replied. “I mean only that I could have lived my life there. But you couldn’t have. I think your father was the last thing that kept you connected, and when he died, you were lost. You started going on long walks and wouldn’t return until nightfall. I was worried you would get lost or worse. And then one day you didn’t turn back, and I couldn’t leave you alone in the wilderness. It was dark and–”

“You followed me into the mountains?”

“Yes. What else could I do? I didn’t—”

The girl’s spine straightens as she gasps at a realization. “And it was you who left the meat and water while I slept?”

“Yes, that was me. You had gone far without anything to eat or drink and I didn’t want you to be afraid. Then you continued away from the village and I had to make a decision.”

“To go back alone or—”

“To stay with you.”

“I always thought,” she says into her hands. She begins to cry. “I always thought no one would have cared if I left.”

“I did, for one. And I’m sure they did too. Your mother and sister, I’m sure they missed you very much.”

“Do you think so?” she says.

“Yes,” he replies. “But I doubt they were surprised. You were always…separate. When we were little, I remember we would play our games, but you preferred to spend the afternoon on the riverbed, drawing shapes in the sand with a stick.”

“I remember that.” She stops crying. The gull squawks, closer to the window. She rests her head upon his shoulder. He embraces her. “Do you miss your family?”

“Of course.”

“You want to go back to the village.”

“Our village, yes,” he replies.

“But I can’t go back,” she says. Her hand grips the neck of the lyzat in its spot on her bed. “You can go back. But I can’t.”

“Maybe I can’t either. I tried. I walked ten mile passi along the mountainside and couldn’t find the path we had taken through them. It was almost as though it had closed up after us. I don’t think I can go back either. Not unless–” He doesn’t finish his sentence.

The girl considers this mystery with closed eyes. The gull squawks yet again, now closer, as though stubbornly searching for some kernel on a barren shore. The sound of a thousand thousand gulls on this endless coast. “Unless?” she asks.

The boy disengages her from his. embrace. “There is something I need to show you,” he whispers.

“Yes?”

“I am afraid.”

“You can show me.”

“OK.” He stands with his back to her. Then he seems to be unbuttoning his shirt. Swiftly he drops the shirt from his shoulders, revealing nothing unusual in his muscular backside–no noticeable scars or strange birthmarks.

“I hope you have something else to show me,” she remarks.

“I do.”

The boy turns around. And there, hovering at the midpoint of his sternum, is a black luminous gem, the glare of its surface shifting as though from candlelight or a distant lightning storm. Here it is, unmistakably, the chaotic Void which had called to her since before the spider had urged her onward armed with a vision of the future, the thing she had travelled from the isolated village over mountains and seas, woodlands and cities, to discover. Every step of the way, she hadn’t been chasing it, but fleeing from it. Yet still it had always been at her side, all the way to Rome.

A silence ensues, the thing between them like a sleeping infant they are wary to disturb. Their eyes meet.

“You,” the girl begins.

“You’re the only person who can see it,” the boy explains, “but it’s been with me since my youth.”

“All this time,” she says, almost inaudibly.

“I always believed that it first appeared the moment I fell in love with you. It was painful because I never thought you could love anyone–especially me–and so I thought it would be my burden forever.”

“I do love you,” she proclaims.

“If that’s the case,” he wonders, “then why doesn’t it go away?”

“I know what to do,” she says. “Sit down beside me.”

He complies. She puts a hand to the black gem. It is warm and pulses under her palm like a living thing. She presses it to his chest. She knows the word to pronounce, and it is in her native tongue. “Rishita,” she says as though pronouncing a spell.

They embrace. The scent of his neck is new. The gull’s squawk is new. When they let go something pings against the floor: a necklace with a golden key strung to it. The girl picks it up and stashes it into her pocket.

She looks into his eyes, a gentle brown that could be the start of her most beautiful song yet.

***

The couple return to the second village and marry. At the wedding the girl doubles as the bride and the entertainment. She plays a few of her old songs as well as a few composed for the event, never to be played again. She sings solo until the last song, which is a duet between her and her husband, who sings timidly with a flushed face. She, too, abandons the theatrics of earlier performances for this song. At the close of this song they kiss, and the villagers applaud.

After this unusual wedding, the couple retire to the elderly widow’s house. The widow is ill and was unable to attend. They find her out of bed for the first time in days, sitting in a chair facing the entrance, a blanket draped over her lap. “Greetings to the happy couple,” she says in a withered voice. While they talk with the widow, they must stand very close to hear her. “I knew this day would come,” she proclaims, “the moment you arrived. It is no accident you both come from the same world. That bond is stronger than you think.” She coughs quietly and the couple wait. “Have you ever thought of returning home?” The boy explains that he has, mentioning the mysterious disappearance of the passage through the mountains. “Such things don’t vanish,” the widow assures them. “You will find your way home.” She has a dog and a pair of mules prepared for them, alongside enough provisions to last a week’s journey. The girl brings her lyzat to introduce her family and the rest of the village to the pleasures of a non-percussive music.

They set off, going over their recollections of the passage on the way to the mountains. The girl’s recollections are far spottier and vaguer than the boy’s, but there are points of agreement. The boy having already failed to find a path at a foot of the mountain, they decide to climb up a few hundred passi to search for passages at that elevation. The slopes look as impossible as their reputation, but after a few hours they chance upon a promising passage that cuts into the mountainside. They follow this path until they reach, alas, a monstrous spider’s web spread from slope to slope.

Before the boy can react to this peculiar sight—before he can discern the innumerable hieroglyphs or feel the vibration of the tiny spider’s voice—the girl launches herself into the wall of silk to tear it down with windmill arms. In her frenzy the girl gets web into her clothes and hair and face. The spider does not appear with the scant offerings of the future or its admonishments to “go farther.” She wants only to walk beside this man who has been with her since before she ever recognized it. Stumbling and breathless she declares the path no longer obstructed. As they continue the boy simply remarks that she is a strange girl while he removes web from her face and hair.

The sun sets and the couple unfurl their blankets to sleep. They start a campfire and eat. The girl falls asleep and dreams. She dreams of the village, empty except her father, who she finds crouched at a cup of tea in their old hut. The walls are far away, almost nonexistent. He is smaller than she remembers. He shivers from a coldness the girl does not feel, perhaps the coldness of being a ghost. “Did you find any pretty rocks today?” he asks. She tells him she has. He asks to see it and she produces the glassy black gem of the Void. He turns it in his hands. “Rocks never change,” he says as it shifts and morphs. “This is a relic of the time before there was man, when there was only the land, the river, and the gods in the mountains.” Her mother and sister suddenly crowd the room, and her father remembers he died long ago and disappears. The girl awakens and reaches for her lyzat.

Her husband is sitting upright beside her in the moonlight, for the fire has died. “You’re awake,” he says.

“Have you been awake this whole time?” she asks.

“Oh, I awoke just before you,” he says, but she knows he is lying.

“When we get there,” she says, “nothing is going to be the same, is it?”

“All the better,” he yawns. He lies down and puts an arm over her. “Go back to sleep.”

 

 

——————–

James la Vigne is a fiction writer and accused poet living in Seattle Washington, where he trains wooden parrots to sit very still. His stories and flights of fancy have appeared or are forthcoming in Cardinal Sins, Literary Heist, Metaworker, Modern Literature, Grey Sparrow, and Headway.

Storms and Possibilities

By Sam Moore

picked up another stone and tossed it out into the gray blue waters. It made a tiny splash, and then all was silent again. Small ripples spread and grew and disappeared just as quickly as they arrived. How many stones had I tossed in the waters now, and still no response? I leaned back, let my legs dangle over the edge, let the subtle waves lap at my feet. All around this tiny island was nothing but water and sky. Nothing more than a tiny crag barely tall enough to keep from being buried underneath the endless ocean.

I grabbed another stone, let it plop into the waters.

This was my favorite spot. Follow a worn out path until it wears out completely, cut through a shadowy canopy of trees, up one small hill and down another. The route spat out into a tiny haven, an edge without any shoreline. The waters were bottomless as soon as you stepped into them. No gradual declination here, just a bottomless pool beneath your feet. As I looked out and saw only a great and overwhelming nothing, this spot made me feel like I was at the edge of the world itself. I came here often.

Another stone, another plop in the same spot.

The clouds swirled and churned overhead like the concoction of some dark potion. Not terribly different than the waters below, I thought. Endless sky above, endless waters below. Trapped between two infinities, both full of wonder and power and destruction. The thin line in the distance where the two met seemed to blur more and more each day. Perhaps that far off into the horizon they are one and the same, not that anyone on this tiny rock would know. When was the last time anyone left? Or, came back after they did? I couldn’t remember.

Plop.

Maybe they weren’t coming today, I thought. Oh, well. I could lay here for a while either way and ponder my plan for tonight. One last throw and then I fell back, resting on the ground with my hands behind my head and watching the sky as if waiting for it to speak.

I heard a slightly bigger splash than the ones my small rocks had made. Then, one landed next to my head as it bounced and rolled behind me.

“You called?” said a gurgly voice I knew well.

I sat up. “I didn’t think you’d come,” I said. “Almost ran out of rocks.”

“Have I ever once missed a day when you called?” The squid lifted several tendrils out of the water, each holding a stone. “I couldn’t help but try and catch as many as I could on my way up. A game of sorts. Have to find enjoyment where you can, no?” The squid then deposited the stones onto the ground next to me in a neat pile. “For next time,” it gurgled.

“I hope there’s a next time,” I said, gazing up at the sky. “A great storm is on the way. Probably tonight.”

The squid rubbed its temple as if trying to decipher a riddle, and then disappeared under the water. It resurfaced a few seconds later several feet away. “Yes, probably tonight,” it offered. “But I dislike your choice of words.” It dove under once more, popping up in a different spot. The creature did this often. I imagined it swimming about, gathering up its thoughts in a neat pile on its way back up just like the stones I tossed in. “There is always a next time, and this time is no different. You’ve seen plenty of storms, have you not? Same as always. You know how to handle a mere tempest. You air-breathers are a resilient lot.”

My plan for when a storm approached was always the same—I had discovered a tiny cave far up the cliffs, elevated beyond what most people explored. I’d gather some wood for fire, enough food for the night (perhaps some berries, or a piece of fruit), and stay hidden away. Then, wait for it to pass. Each and every time I’d done this, and I’d survived thus far.

“Yes,” I said. “I know how to handle one.”

“Of course you do,” the squid agreed. “Then why so frightened?”

“This one feels different.”

The squid disappeared under the water once more. Several seconds passed, but it had still not resurfaced. The seconds stretched on. Still nothing. What had happened? Was something wrong? Had I misspoke? The wind felt like it was picking up. I thought I felt a raindrop. I wondered if the creature hadn’t left altogether. But it wouldn’t—?

A sudden splash and the squid was back, apparently having gathered up all its thoughts.

“It might feel different, but that doesn’t mean it will be.

I said nothing back.

“Look,” the strange creature continued. “I’ve come to look forward to these talks. As always, I look forward to the next one. You surface dwellers are such odd folk. I still have so much to learn about you and your kind! Don’t let one tiny little tempest stop my quest for knowledge.”

“Yes, well, I’m jealous of your kind whenever a storm hits up here. What trouble is water falling from the sky if you live beneath it anyway?”

“Don’t worry,” the creature said. “The seas are full of their own terrors.”

We sat in silence for a brief moment as the wind swirled around us. “I should probably prepare for tonight,” I finally said. I stood up to leave, but tossed one last thing into the water. The creature quickly scooped it up in a tentacle and examined it like a treasure hunter appraising a rare jewel.

“What might this be?” it asked.

“A berry. For eating.”

“A berry,” it said barely above a whisper. “Fascinating.”

I made my way back through the canopy of trees, back onto the worn out trail as I ventured inland. The wind had picked up noticeably by now. Tree branches looked like flailing limbs trying to tread water as they bobbed up and down in the gales. The sky grew darker, and a heaviness was settling onto the air.

After some time I stopped to rest my feet. I sat on a large rock on the side of the path and munched on a few berries. Not too many—had to save the rest for tonight. My small bag was still roughly halfway full, which was enough to get through an overnight storm.

A rustling behind me. I quickly tied up my sack of food and turned around. Through the tall and wavering grass and brush was a figure approaching my way. I could hear slashing and then crunching underfoot as it made its way towards me.

An older man emerged from the brush. His face was bitter and weathered and reminded me of the craggy cliffs where the waves crashed the strongest. He huffed and cursed as he finally made his way out. He held a large knife in his hands.

“Damned overgrown brush,” he muttered. “What are you looking at?”

“Nothing,” I said quickly, avoiding eye contact.

The old man huffed again like a tired beast. “Storms brewing. A bad one. I always know these things. Feel it in my bones. Bones never lied to me yet. Only thing I can trust anymore.” I said nothing back, offered up a slight nod.

“What’ve you got there?” the man asked, pointing at my bag with his knife.

I hesitated a second too long, wondering how to respond. Tell the truth and he might try and take my only food for the night, tell a lie and he might become suspicious and angry.

“Only a few berries for the night,” I coughed up.

The man grunted. “Not worth the trouble, then,” he decided. “Be glad you answered honest, child. Another thing I can always tell—whether someone speaks true or not. The trick isn’t in the words themselves but how the words are said. The voice, the language of the body, the eyes. You look too frail and frightened to speak falsely. Wise choice, young one. If you’d have even answered ‘Nothing’, I’d have snatched your bag away by any means just to sate my curiosity. Never know what you might need for days like today, what might come in handy for survival. A bad storm approaches, indeed.”

I opened the bag and held out several berries in my hand. “You can have some,” I offered.

The man’s face scrunched up in confusion. Then, he laughed madly. “You’re a fool, you know that? Say—now that I think about it, you’re that odd child that’s always running off and speaking to strange creatures aren’t you?”

I said nothing back. My eyes gazed down at my dirty feet and collapsing shoes, waiting for the man to continue. A drizzle had begun, barely noticeable except for the tiny dots of darkened ground appearing beneath me, like someone was dotting the earth with ink blots from a fine brush.

“Yes, yes you are,” the man continued. “I see it now. Not many of us left here, I’m surprised I didn’t realize it sooner. All alone, you find company and conversation in the oddest of animals. Truly, a fool! You shouldn’t trust the words of man, let alone the words of strange beasts. Best to brush off any advice they give you, whether it be the beasts of the air or of the deep. Nothing good comes from either.” The man spat out a single syllable of coarse laughter, apparently realizing something amusing, and added, “Not that anything good comes from the surface, I suppose.”

The man began to stride off in another direction. “Keep your berries,” he called out over his back. “Our tiny rock will be washed away by the morrow, anyway.”

I walked for a great deal of time, switching to climbing when the elevation made walking impossible. This entire section of the island—where my hidden sanctuary resided—was ignored by most of its inhabitants. Aside from the elevation which made the journey difficult and tiring, rumors of its dangers had spread. Murmurs of strange poisonous creatures, sinister things that lurked in the shadows of its thick trees and in between the rocks of the jagged cliffs, of traps and loose ground, had reached the ears of everyone by now. My own experiences taught me these were all false. Certainly, there were strange creatures and patches of difficult terrain but I’d never had a problem with either. The journey wasn’t so much dangerous as it was draining. Nobody had taken the time to figure that out, however.

The rain was picking up, now a step above a mere drizzle. A palpable heaviness permeated the air as if the entire sky itself was about to plummet. I snatched some pieces of wood along the way to make a fire. Hopefully they weren’t too wet to be of use by the time I reached my destination.

Finally, I reached my destination. Dead center in the middle of the section everyone else ignored. My legs felt as if they might collapse underneath me. The cave was small enough that I had to duck slightly to get inside. It wasn’t much bigger on the inside, either. Much closer to a small hut than an expansive cavern. Only a tiny fraction of remaining daylight peered in. I set about making a fire—it took some time, the wood being slightly damp in places, but I finally got it started. I warmed myself, and waited.

Night had arrived. I could see leaves scuttling by in the winds as they grew stronger, branches swinging back and forth, plunging up and down like they were weak ships being tossed about by mighty waves. I sat motionless for I don’t know how long. Waiting.

When the sky did finally crack open with a piercing bolt, it felt like there would be no sky left by the time it was over.

A curtain of heavy rain blocked the exit of the cave. I felt as if I was at the bottom of the ocean inside a tiny bubble. Branches were ripped apart and thrown about. Flashes of blinding white light illuminated the sky followed by bursts and explosions nearby.

A new fear entered my mind—what if someone else found this place? Would they attack me? Try to take my little bit of food left? Kick me out forcibly?

Another explosion outside, the sound of something bursting into pieces.

Nobody had found this place before, but that didn’t mean that wouldn’t change today.

What if the storm never stopped? If the skies emptied themselves out, dry as sand, until the waters reached even my hidden sanctuary? What if that man was right, and the storm buried our island underneath the waves?

What if?

What if?

Another deafening crack.

What if? Anything was possible—which made me think back to my conversation earlier…

It might feel different, but that doesn’t mean it will be.

I thought about that strange creature’s words. Perhaps if anything was possible, that meant it was possible that this, too, would pass, just as it had before. The worst-case scenario could happen, but that also meant a multitude of other scenarios could happen instead.

Those words rang in my head as I leaned back against the hard walls of the cave, drifting off as the flames danced around my shelter from the storm.

 

 

——————–

Sam Moore is a writer from Michigan. His works have appeared in Qua, The Courtship of Winds, HOPE: A Comic For Flint (Source Point Press), and others. When he’s not writing short stories or comics, he enjoys playing music, video games, and reading anything weird and imaginative. He can be found on twitter @SamsoniteMoore.

A Momentary Disturbance of Air

By David H Weinberger

he lives deep in a year-round arctic-like valley. Towering evergreens surround her decrepit house, blocking the sun’s ability to melt the ever-present snow. Frigid temperatures and glacial winds are constant companions. Deer, raccoon, moose, and rodents of various size forage in her yard, burrowing through the snow in search of elusive morsels to eat.

These seemingly inhospitable conditions cannot stop her from leaving her house and returning. She works full-time in a nearby city. A short drive through the valley, followed by a shorter drive down the busy freeway, and she transitions to sunshine and greenery. She is a sales representative at an herbal supplement company. She has an innate knowledge of herbs and their medicinal and restorative powers, perhaps magical powers too, and hence is constantly awarded for her domineering sales volume.

After work, before returning to her snowbound oasis, she heads to the local bars to mingle with friends, drink to abandonment, and perhaps catch a lucky man to spend the evening or more with. Her standby drink is vodka: shots, vodka tonic, Cape Cods, Russians, in whatever way you can mix vodka. Top shelf of course. She drinks and dances. And talks. To friends or to potential partners. She slurs her words of affection through mists of vodka. And while she wins awards at work for her sales acumen, at the bars she wins virtual awards for her acquisition of men. With a little vodka on her side, she has no problem attracting men. Quite often, she takes them back to her home and shows them the passion they have been talking about over drinks and dancing. Most of the men desire to stay afterwards, but she always sends them away. Almost always.

It is not uncommon to have a man get caught up in her world. So caught up that he cannot leave and she allows him to stay. Such was the situation Mitchell found himself in not long ago.

They met at Gravitational Pull in the city. She was drinking vodka and he was drinking red wine, the only drink he cared for. The usual took place. She approached him, spoke to him, bought him a drink, and invited him to dance. Mitchell barely comprehended her words, the touch of her hands on his enough to understand her desire. They spent the evening alternating drinks and dance and soon no one else existed around them. It all unfurled as she planned, and they ended up in the valley drinking vodka shots and fucking into the morning.

This time, for reasons only she is privy to, she did not send him away. They stayed in her bedroom for the weekend and when Monday night came she invited him for dinner. Mitchell didn’t know of her past, nothing about her identity, where she came from, other men she may have been involved with. He liked her and thought dinner would be a good way to get to know her better. They ate steaks and ended the evening playing Scrabble and drinking vodka sodas. He stayed the night and it was in the air that he would do so more often. Mitchell did not quite know how it happened but he found himself in an ongoing relationship with her.

One month on. He is living at the house in the snow-covered valley. The sex started changing from unbridled passion to simply ambiguous. He senses a growing disconnect between them. As if her words of affection fail to match her acts of affection. And she has become cruel. Taunting him, finding fault. She has again been visiting the bars after work. She comes home very late. He thinks nothing of it though. Instead, he thinks she is overworked, needs to relax, unwind.

Two months on. The Scrabble board sits between them. Random words adding up to nothing. Mitchell views their lives as a Scrabble game. They build word upon word yet the connection, the meanings, between the words remain a mystery. The vodka he now exclusively drinks, helps make a few tentative connections. Helps to make the meaninglessness less obtrusive. Yet with each play, she speaks affectionately, playfully. As if each word were just another blank slate laid upon a barren board. No points, no scores. But she always scores. She is continually racking up points.

She plays as if she is winning the game. In spite of the real score. She plays as if she determines who wins, who loses. She knows the real score can change in an instant. And it can be manipulated. A fake play. A set up, someone falls for the deception, and points are earned. At least, secreted away for a later date, a later self-serving purpose. Mitchell is leery of playing Scrabble with her.

She tries to comfort Mitchell. Perhaps I can be of service. Perhaps I can assuage your fear. It’s just me. I’m here to help along the way. Her salvo. Her constant refrain. Words of affection. Mists of vodka.

No, Mitchell thinks. Fear is all I have. Don’t relieve me of it. It is the only remaining contact I have with reality. With the truth that seems so distant and elusive.

Three months on. Mitchell can no longer tell when the words have meaning or are just a disturbance of air. She is saying things for the sake of saying them. Mitchell is carried along. He listens and believes the words he hears, though the subtle smell of vodka tickles his senses and puts him on alert. The small intrigue in the mystery of her words. To go along or follow his intellect. He goes along and she gently continues to speak. Enough to keep Mitchell listening to what follows. She speaks of the future. Buying a new house. Raising kids together. But her words betray her feelings. She sees no future. Sees no together. Mitchell does. Mitchell acts as if they both do.

Four months on. She speaks as if her words were ordained. She speaks as if everyone, including Mitchell, can believe the sincerity of what she says. And she says plenty. Mitchell is confused by her pronouncements. With her endless smile, she claims that she is devoted to him and they need to hold on to what they have. But it is unclear to Mitchell what they have. He cannot hold what they have, cannot touch what they have. What do they have? Just her word that they are one. Her word that they are together. Yet she is distant and unreachable.

Five months on. She now speaks openly to Mitchell about men she has met at work or at the bars. She assures him they are just friends but there is a hint of untruth to what she says. Not quite a brick hitting him, perhaps a small pebble. Such is the distance he is willing to travel to believe her. She begins to spend more time away from home. He is alone in the house surrounded by snow. One night, when she comes home at three in the morning he confronts her about her behavior, her late-night outings. She assures him of her love and devotion. She assures him that she is simply unwinding after stressful days. The air moves around her lips but Mitchell fails to understand the words being spoken. And he begins to question her honesty.

In the morning, there is one more rodent foraging in the snow-covered yard.

 

 

——————–

David H Weinberger is an American author writing in Bremen, Germany. His stories have appeared in Thrice Fiction, Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review, The Ravens Perch, Gravel, and elsewhere, and can be read at his website davidhweinberger.com. He holds a Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Education and taught kindergarten for eight years in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Gift of God

By Ron Singer

At thirty-four, I’ve hit the jackpot, a five-figure advance for my first book! “Five?” you sneer. Hey, I’m not a serial writer of serial-killer thrillers. Nor am I about to quit my day job as a Special Ed. teacher. And who knows? This job could become the basis for Book #2. But, as my own H.S. Latin teacher would quip, “That’s putting Descartes before Horace.”

Not only was the amount of the advance inadequate – 10K – the terms were sobering. As my agent put it in a text (translated):

 

Hey, Bob.

Good news (fairly), a 10K advance from Carnivore, one of the 27 publishers I pitched your book to. Remember them? The small outfit in Omaha? “No Fat, No Gristle. Just Books!”

Before you run out and spend the money, however, you should read the fine print (contract attached). The gist is that, after Carnivore covers costs, including the 10K, you get 15% of sales. As I said when I took the book on, “This could sell, in which case you could make some real money.” But, if I were you, I wouldn’t count those chickens yet!

 

I took her advice, even to the point of not spending $100 to replace my worn-out shoes. To give you an idea of the kind of person I am, these are the shoes worn by many restaurant and hospital workers, people who, like me, are on their feet all day. I believe the most common epithet for them (the shoes) is “sensible.”

As for the book, the title says it all: GO TO THE HEAD OF THE CLASS, A SLACKER’S PROGRESS. “Oh no, not another memoir!” Let me try to disarm that gibe by quoting from the Preface:

 

This is a story of unmerited redemption. As a sixteen-year-old, to cite one among many mortifying experiences, I was escorted, falling down drunk, from the premises of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My ejection was caused by having glugged the entire contents of a pint bottle of bourbon while simultaneously contemplating the Rembrandt masterpiece, “Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer.”…

 

Nowadays, cold sober, I am a Language Arts teacher in a four-person team at a middle school in the south Bronx. In addition to their special learning needs, my thirty-two wards labor under handicaps that include second-language interference, and the psychological burdens inflicted by our current political leader’s relentless attack on the foreign born (which almost all of my students are)…

 

How, you ask, did I get from Point A to Point B? This is not the story of a heartwarming conversion experience. None of my friends died, none emerged from our youthful excesses as hopeless wrecks. Nor did I get religion, or dry out in Alcoholics Anonymous. No, my own reform was triggered by a sequence of events much less predictable and yet, in its own way, at least as dramatic as any of the above…

 

In the weeks after receiving my agent’s text, although I only shared the good news with a few of my closest friends, it seemed as if the whole world knew. For instance, a few days after returning the signed contract (and not buying the shoes), I got a note from the Managing Agent of my building, informing me that they would not be reimbursing me for a leak in my apartment which I had had fixed. To quote his pithy explanation, “To qualify for re-imbursement, you would need to have employed a licensed plumber, which you did not. Therefore…” That’s what I get for trying to save my fellow shareholders a few dollars! Doesn’t the M.A. know what “co-op” means?

Of course, that note may just have been a coincidence, but other communications were more obviously the fruits of my sudden access to fortune. These included offers from sharks who prey on lottery and lawsuit winners; appeals in a newly fawning tone from charities and political orgs; letters from people I could not remember ever having known, calling in favors I could not remember ever having incurred; heartbreaking solicitations from long-lost friends and relatives; threatening notices from collection agencies; offers from banks and credit-card providers that were too good to refuse; and semi-literate solicitations from fictitious entities in the poor world, to the effect that I would be guaranteed a windfall, simply by remitting the sum of …

Worst of all, I received a dire appeal from the brother of one of my own students. This came in the form of a long, handwritten letter, sent by snail mail to my school address. Anticipating that the letter’s many errors might make me sound like a racist, I silently correct them:

 

Dear Mr. “Bob” Shepard,

I believe you are the teacher of my brother, Raimundo Suarez. I am Emiliano, age seventeen. The reason I am writing this letter is that my parents don’t know English, and Ray would be too embarrassed. Yes, this is a letter requesting monetary assistance. Please don’t throw it away, it is very important to us, even a life-and-death matter!

Could you find it in your kind heart (as Raimundo has told us you have) to grant to my family a loan of a certain sum? This sum is $500.00, which I know is a lot of money, but which we will work very hard to re-pay you.

The money will be used to engage the services of a lawyer to fight the deportation proceedings that the government has begun against Raimundo! The notice they sent us says that the reason (as far as I can understand it) is that he was not born not in this country, but in the Dominican Republic (“D.R.”), and that my parents have lived here for a long time without doing what is necessary to make the family’s status legal. I did not really understand the details of this letter, but it also said something about the difference between what they referred to as the “DACA” and something called “The Dream Act.”

The lawyer, whom we met through our cousin, Jaime Sosa, himself a U.S. citizen, said we could beat the deportation, but the cost would be $500, the sum already mentioned. This lawyer also said the money must be delivered in cash to his office, which is 74-11 82nd Street, Jackson Heights, Queens.

If you can find it in your heart to advance this sum to us, we will be forever grateful. Please reply asap, because Ray is due in court in less than one month’s time. If you can bring the $500, I will meet you in front of the lawyer’s office, at a time convenient for you, possibly in the evening. His office is very close to a stop on the #7 subway train.

Bless you, sir, even for reading this lengthy letter! I hope to receive your reply a.s.a.p.

Your faithful student’s brother,

Emiliano Z. Suarez

 

One reason I found the letter touching is that Raimundo is one of my favorite students. A good-natured thirteen year-old, he typically responds to a question by throwing his cowlick back off his eyes, licking his pencil, and producing, in tentative, broken English, what is usually a correct answer. He calls me “Sir.”

The letter also evoked an episode from my own past. Fifteen years ago, when I was a nineteen year-old sophomore at a small, second-tier liberal arts school in New England, I engineered what may have been the most outrageous of the many pranks for which I was notorious. It involved moving the grand piano of a prestigious fraternity – they had not invited me to join – onto the lawn behind their building, via large French doors, and then filling the piano with chicken manure, purchased at a local farm-supply store.

This was obviously not a solo prank. Also involved in lugging the piano and manure bags onto the lawn, at 3 a.m. Friday morning of Homecoming Weekend, were five other students, including a combined Pre-Med/Liberal Arts major from Nigeria named Jeremiah Ogochukwu. “Ogochukwu” means “Gift of God” in Igbo, Jerry’s first language.

Despite our inebriated state, we had to do this job silently, neither stumbling nor laughing. Even so, the long and short of it was that we were caught. A presumably insomniac professor, out walking his pooch, spotted us and called Security. After we had been apprehended and separately interrogated, punishment was meted out.

To quote the Assistant Dean of Students, himself a recent graduate of the College, “Since none of you clowns is smart enough to cough up the name of the joker whose brilliant idea this was, you’re all getting the same punishment.” This was suspension, without a pro-rated tuition refund, for the remaining semester-and-a-half of the school year. Not to mention that we had to pay the costs of having the piano cleaned and fumigated.

That was fine with me and, I imagine, with my four American fellow-slackers. But it was not fine with poor Jerry Ogochukwu, who, soon after the suspensions took effect, lost his student visa and was deported. As he said when we were shamefacedly seeing him off at Logan Airport, in Boston, “At least, now, I get to enjoy my mother’s pounded yam again.”

As it happened, Jerry’s homecoming took place in 2003, six months after Nigeria attempted to resolve its endemic unrest through a Presidential election. As usual, the voting triggered an outbreak of protracted ethnic violence. Whether or not Jerry somehow fell victim, I never learned, because he never replied to my communications, and later, in the Internet era, I was unable to identify anyone on social media who sounded like him.

In other words, by the time I received the plea from Raimundo Suarez’s brother, I had harbored for fifteen years a sharp sense of guilt over the deportation and – who knows, possible death – of another innocent victim. This episode was a turning point in my life (and Chapter Four, in my book).

 

After wasting the weekend pondering Emiliano’s plea, I arranged to have coffee with Sarah Blau, the Social Studies teacher on our team. Sarah is also a volunteer for the National Sanctuary Coalition, an organization that assists immigrants. (Like me, she is in her thirties, but married, with two children. I am still unmarried, and currently without a partner. I explain all this to forestall any idea that the story is about to take a romantic turn.)

After school on Tuesday, when we were settled at a back-corner table of a local café with our coffees at the ready, I thanked Sarah for meeting me and showed her the letter. A furrow crossed her brow.

“Well, Bob,” she said, with a sigh, “this is complicated.” Sarah’s speech is measured, even slow. “First of all, DACA is not the same as The Dream Act. DACA defers deportation of children illegally brought to the U.S. The Dream Act permanently legalizes their status. Both laws are now in limbo, because the current administration is doing its damnedest to thwart them.”

While I fidgeted with my spoon, she scanned the rest of the letter. “Hmm! Very interesting. Assuming you’re willing to pony up, can you really afford the $500?” I told her about my advance, and she congratulated me. “Even so,” she said, her brow furrowing again, “if I were you, I’d be very careful. I mean, I like Raimundo, too. He’s a sweet boy, tries really hard. But, as I’m sure you know, there are lots of clever scams out there.”

I thanked her again and said I would try to follow her advice. When we had finished our coffees, I grabbed the check. As we parted on the sidewalk, she said, “Let me know what you decide to do, Bob. I’m really curious.”

After a restless night and a hard day’s teaching, on Wednesday evening I replied to the letter –in the affirmative. I sent my reply to the return address on the envelope, which I knew was the Suarez residence. In another back-and-forth, also by letter, Emiliano and I agreed to meet at the lawyer’s office, at 8:30 the following Thursday evening. I did not inform Sarah.

 

After climbing down from the subway platform, the first thing I noticed was that the storefront office was shuttered. Then, seemingly out of the shadows, came a tall, slender young man who I assumed was Emiliano. I was surprised by the fact that he wore much flashier and more expensive-looking clothes than any I had ever seen on Ray. A little shamefaced about my act of charity, I did not want to prolong the transaction. So, after we had introduced ourselves, shaken hands, and agreed that the office was obviously closed for the night, at his suggestion I wordlessly handed over an envelope containing five $100 bills. Without counting the money, he thanked me profusely. We shook hands again and walked off in opposite directions.

 

After spending most of the ensuing weekend second-guessing myself, on Monday I ate lunch with Joan Ligori, a mid-level administrator at the school. (Like Sarah, Joan is married. I don’t know whether she has children.)

“Oh, no, Bob!” she said, when I told her what I had done. “Not you, too!” She took a deep breath. “Fasten your seatbelt! Emiliano Suarez is an eighteen year-old serial scam artist who has served time in a juvenile detention facility. I found this out last year after he pulled exactly the same scam on me! Same amount, even! Like you, too, I fell for it because I knew and admired Ray and the rest of his hard-working, law-abiding family. Emiliano turned out to be the glaring exception. (Is ‘black sheep’ still politically correct?)”

“Did you report the scam to the police?”

“Well . . . I decided not to. I mean, I could afford the loss, and I didn’t want to hurt the family. I did try to get Emiliano to meet me again, so I could demand a refund. Ha! I left several vaguely threatening messages on the Suarez’s answering machine, but he never called back.”

 

Lunch with Joan took place the day before yesterday. (The school lunch on Mondays is chicken potpie – not bad.) It was time to decide what to do. Should I go to the police? Tell the parents? Ask Raimundo? I imagined a conversation in the classroom during passing time, when the room is normally empty.

“Uh, Ray, I need to ask you something.”

“Sir?” He would look nervous.

“Has your family received a letter lately from the Immigration authorities?”

He would look alarmed. “No, no one has mentioned such a letter. Why do you ask?”

“Has Emiliano mentioned anything about hiring a lawyer?”

The boy’s puzzled expression would be sufficient response. I did wonder if Emiliano’s lie would hold up. If the parents noticed that he had a lot of extra money, I suppose he could tell them he had won the lottery, or something.

After more handwringing, I decided to follow Joan’s example, for the same reason: fear of hurting the family. Sarah had mentioned a case in which an undocumented immigrant had been stopped for a routine traffic check. Since he was using a friend’s license, the police reported the stop to the Immigration authorities, and the poor guy wound up being deported.

No, I would swallow my loss and hope that, at least, it would repair my karma for the deportation I had caused. Come to think of it, maybe Emiliano had read about that episode in the manuscript of my book, which Ray had borrowed after I boasted to his class about the advance.

A few weeks passed. Then, the other day, I received a text from Adebayo Ashiwaju, another Nigerian from College days. ‘Bayo, who had not been a participant in the piano escapade, now lived with his family outside Harrisburg, PA, and worked as Regional Sales Rep for a big-pharm company. His text was a response to the question I had asked him repeatedly over the years, whether he knew what had become of Jerry. Again, I translate:

 

Dear Shepard,

Greetings to you, my friend! Through the Old Boys’ network, I have finally obtained an answer to your question, “What ever became of our erstwhile fellow-student, Jerry Ogochukwu?” I will summarize this interesting story:

It seems that a family rift during the 2003 troubles led to a name change. “Jeremiah Ogochukwu” became “Jeremiah Olubunmi,” which, in my own Yoruba tongue, has a similar meaning to the original: “Gift of God.”

When conditions were finally normalized, Jerry was able to complete his medical studies at the University of Ibadan, in our home country. He has since risen to become Managing Director of a Catholic teaching hospital in Aba, an important city in his own eastern sector. By now, Dr. Jeremiah Olubunmi is what we Nigerians call “An Important Somebody.”

 

After all those years! What a relief! Even so, I’m not sure the good news means I should try to resume contact with Dr. Ogochukwu/Olubunmi. Maybe, he still resents what happened. Or maybe, by now, he has completely forgotten me.

Never mind! The rush of recent events has produced at least a few good results:

 

1. I just ordered the shoes,

 

2. leaving me with $9,400 of my advance,

 

3. plus the idea for a new book, after all – or, at least, a story,

 

4. for which I may soon have additional material, since midterm reports and parent conferences are coming up,

 

5. and, finally, I am about to text Katie Khokhar, an attractive, unmarried colleague (Math & Science), to ask her out.

___

“Gift of God” is one in a series of poems and stories that Ron Singer (www.ronsinger.net) has recently written in response to the current global wave of xenophobia. Singer also volunteers for the New Sanctuary Coalition, a group that helps immigrants. His fiction has previously appeared, e.g., in The Brooklyn Rail, diagram, Evergreen Review, Home Planet News, and Word Riot. (Four Pushcart nominations.) His 11th & 12th books are due from Unsolicited Press. The Promised End (2019) is a story collection; Gravy (2020), a mixture of genres. An earlier book, Uhuru Revisited: Interviews with Pro-Democracy Leaders (Africa World Press/Red Sea Press, 2015) is available in libraries across the world

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.

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

By Matthew Wallace

ory and Dory tiptoed down the hall, sneaking past the pantry on their way to the rectory library. Ms. Finkelbaum, the girls’ matron and the reason for their visit, was in town shopping, but the twins were always cautious.

“Look at the pictures.” Dory pointed up at the series of pedestrian landscapes that lined the hallway walls.

“You always point those out,” Mory said. “Always.”

“Well, they’re pretty. And when are we ever going to get to see places like that?”

Mory wasn’t sure they were seeing them now. All the landscapes looked alike to her, and she wasn’t sure any of them looked like actual places in the world. Besides, she had to keep her button eyes open, not only for Ms. Finkelbaum but also Jasmine the cat. “Any sign of the demon seed?”

“Nope,” Dory said. “Unless you think those pawprints over there are fresh.”

Mory dashed over toward where Dory was pointing. But before she quite got there, Dory started laughing.

“Quit it, Dory,” Mory said. “We have things we need to do.”

Dory smiled, shaking her head. “How on earth do people confuse us? You’re always so serious.”

“About being eaten by a cat? Yes, I don’t really like to joke about that.”

Dory walked over, smiling a shy smile. “Sorry, Mory, I will try and be more serious.” Mory smiled, shrugging. She never could stay mad at her sister for very long.

“Let’s go,” Dory said. “The rectory library is right around the corner.”

* * *

Mory and Dory slipped through the barely cracked door into the light. The room was lit here and there by small lamps with green glass shades, each one illuminating a long row of high shelves. In the center of the room was a massive desk covered in papers and books. A larger, green-shaded light created a yellow circle in the center of the desk. Mory and Dory looked up and could see an open copy of a book and, just peeking over the top, a quill pen dancing back and forth. They could hear the scratching of quill pen to paper.

“Is that he?” Mory whispered. The pen stopped. A pure-white head peeked over the book, looking down. His eyes were sharp black lines that missed nothing.

“Ladies, how may I assist you?”

* * *

Rupert put the quill down and slid his notepaper aside. The Parson never missed the paper that Rupert used, and Rupert always refilled the inkwells. Rupert had moved into the rectory library several years ago, mostly because he found the quiet and calm to be much to his liking, and only discovered later that it was a convenient place from which to help people.

He looked down at the rag dolls and smiled. The parsonage library was a long way from the orphanage—nearly two blocks—and they would only come if it was a problem of great import.

“Well…we have a problem,” Mory said. Rupert recalled that she was the one with the red button eyes. The serious one.

Rupert held up one paw. “Just a second, please.” He placed his quill pen in its holder, marked his place in Newton’s Principia, and, with a single bound, leapt off the desk and landed, composed, next to Mory and Dory. “Would you join me for a cup of tea, and we can discuss your problems?”

* * *

Mory and Dory followed Rupert to a small corner of the massive fireplace. In no time at all, he had pulled out a small table and laid out a nice spread of cheeses and biscuits. He pushed a small kettle on a swinging rod just over the edge in the fire. They chatted and ate. Dory laughed as Rupert kept raising one of his long ears to hear if the water was boiling.

Mory elbowed her. “Be nice.”

“Nice? I think he’s delightful.”

Rupert adjusted his place settings and turned, smiling. “Thank you, ladies. The tea is almost ready, I believe.”

Mory stood. “Mr. Rupert, sir. All of us girls drew straws, and well, frankly, we lost and had to risk Jasmine to come visit you to ask for your help.”

“My door is always open to the Thimble Warriors. What troubles you so?”

Rupert cocked his ear as the water came to a boil. He held up one paw and went to remove the kettle and fill the pot.

Mory looked over and saw that Dory had already consumed a whole collection of biscuits, her cloth face plastered with crumbs and bits of raspberry jam. Before she could say anything, Rupert had produced a napkin and was wiping her messy face. He was at ease with the world around him and that helped Mory relax.

“Now, what is so important to be worth the risk of coming here?” he said.

“We are all made by the children of the ward,” Mory said.

“And that’s great, we love our girls,” Dory said.

Rupert nodded, pouring them all a cup of tea, and sat back to listen.

* * *

The story the twins told was grim. The Thimble Warriors were a large group of dolls sewn from cloth scraps and leftover buttons by the girls of the school. Each of the Thimble Warriors was a unique creation of love made by hand—Mory and Dory were the only twins. Many of the Thimble Warriors were sold at craft fairs and became toys for children all over the region. The rest attached themselves to children at the orphanage. The ones who were sold weren’t saddened to leave since they got to spread happiness far and wide.

“You know how much we want to go abroad in the world,” Dory said, “but there is something wrong now, Mr. Rupert.”

“It’s Finkelbaum,” Mory said. “She knows how hard the children work, and knows how much love goes out to make us, but she doesn’t care. She’s not doing her part.”

Finkelbaum had always struck Rupert as a source of trouble, so he wasn’t surprised to hear that the trouble was now arising. “How is she not doing her part?”

“Before, when we were sold,” Mory said, “she would collect the money and use it to buy more thread, more stuffing, button eyes and stuff. But now it’s all different. We have a number of our Thimble Warrior sisters that we can’t finish because they’re missing parts. They stumble around blind or without mouths—it’s painful to watch.”

Rupert scratched down notes and stared at them. He had a feeling he knew what was going on. The question was what to do about it, and how? He scribbled a few more notes.

The two warriors stayed quiet, munching biscuits.

“I think I have an idea,” Rupert said. “Maybe we can find a way to deal with Ms. Finkelbaum.” Dory snickered.

* * *

The fire had burned down to embers when Rupert finished laying out his plans to help the Thimble Warriors. Mory and Dory had long ago headed back to their dorm, and Rupert sat alone in quiet contemplation, sipping a renewed cup of tea. He had warned them again about Jasmine the wild cat—his old nemesis—but he felt confident that the ladies would make it back to the orphanage.

The fire had burned down to red embers by the time Rupert had finished writing out the last note. He wrote in a beautifully long hand, his letters formed with precision. He had scribed many such notes for the Parson, often reminding him of things he had forgotten to do. Over time his handwriting and the Parson’s Old English script had become indistinguishable. Rupert had recopied many of the Parson’s notes, with minor emendations, to help keep the parsonage and orphanage running at top efficiency. No humans noticed and simply ascribed the elegant script to the Parson’s gentle hand.

Rupert rubbed his eyes and read over his last letter, to the Parsonage Secretary. “Mrs. Merryweather: Please collect Rupert the stuffed rabbit from Ms. Finkelbaum’s office. I had it repaired and it needs to be returned to the library with all haste. With God’s blessings.”

Folding the note over, creasing the paper with care, sliding it into the envelope, Rupert tucked the letter under his arm. He pulled the chain to cut off the desk light and hopped down. He had to head to the boys’ sleeping quarters before dawn to find a particularly troublesome specimen.

Rupert slipped the note under Mrs. Merryweather’s door, taking care to push it all the way under. He kept his ears and nose open. Jasmine always seemed to be about this time of night, and he had no interest in tangling with that old canny feline. As he moved on down the hall, his ears caught the faint snore of the Parson and the louder, harsher grind of Mrs. Merryweather, the housekeeper.

Down two flights of stairs, across a drafty breezeway, and Rupert came to the boys’ dormitory. Of course he smelled the mixture of dirt, sweat, and bean-saturated farts long before he arrived—the curse of a sensitive nose. The room was dimly lit, and all of the boys were fast asleep. Rupert moved from cot to cot, looking for the just-perfect boy.

He found him in the sleeping Stevie McDougal. A crayon was still clutched in his dirty hand, the half-drawn picture of a large and rather engaging dragon having dropped to the ground next to the cot. With a quick glance Rupert saw that the boy had talent. His color formations were quite delicate, particularly around the belly scales. Not at all what one would expect from the orphanage’s most dedicated hellion.

Rupert hopped up on the cot, looking the young boy in the face. A tight mop of shaggy red hair, freckles, and a missing front tooth created a deceptively cute face. Rupert touched the boy lightly on the cheek, too lightly to be felt but enough to apologize for tomorrow’s lunchtime escapade.

Hopping down, Rupert found the boy’s backpack. He slipped in, burrowed down to near the bottom, curled himself into a tight ball, and went to sleep.

* * *

Rupert stirred when Stevie picked up his backpack. He had to wait for dinner to enact his plan, so he busied himself all morning dodging the debris of an active child. There had been a large, unremarkable clod of earth, the head of a plastic soldier, and even a smelly and quite confused toad (fortunately removed promptly by an instructor). But most of the day was spent in a quiet state as he kept trying to solve, on his own, a question posed by Newton in his book.

Rupert knew the instant he entered the dining hall. Even muffled by the backpack, the place was a riot of sound. He could make out near a dozen separate conversations, not counting the cacophony of screaming kids and disappointed infants that formed a background soundscape. Young Stevie was involved in a high-pitched argument about whether or not the invisible man in H.G. Wells’s novel could see.

“There is no way,” Stevie said. “If he’s invisible, his retinas would be invisible too, and how could an image project onto an invisible surface?”

“Maybe he could see himself?” someone said.

“Nope. If so he would have seen his hand when he held it up in front of his face,” Stevie said. “We are just the sum of our prejudices, like Doctor Butler said. He said the world around us is magical, and we just fail to notice it.”

The argument, with Rupert following it carefully, continued on for some time, long after Rupert felt the backpack drop to the ground beside the lunch table. Once the pack settled, Rupert started to work his way out, trying to avoid the wet spot where the toad had made his mark. He peeked out of the edge of the pack, looking for Ms. Finkelbaum. He spotted her tan hose moving between the rows of community tables.

He slipped out of the pack and took his place on the bench between Stevie and a mysterious pile of goo that may once have been salad. He would have to leave a note, in the Parson’s name, to review the food being served in the dining hall. Rupert was certain that he could find a bit of money in the budget to improve these children’s cuisine.

* * *

The tap of Finkelbaum’s too-practical heels was distinctive. Rupert had no problem following her progress around the hall without looking. Her sharp voice offered rebuke to first one child and then another. Rupert appreciated proper manners as much as the next rabbit, but Finkelbaum used manners as a way to punish. Besides being unfair, it gave manners a bad name.

Rupert sat leaning up against Stevie and waited. Once Finkelbaum saw Rupert in Stevie’s possession, his plan would come together.

But even the most practical rabbit’s best plans can go astray. Finkelbaum walked past Stevie just as she spotted Suzie Murphy chewing with her mouth open. She was so intent on her rebuke that she did not notice Rupert at all.

Rupert glanced around. No one was looking. He squatted on his haunches and launched himself as powerfully as he could at the back of Ms. Finkelbaum’s head. As he flew up toward her, he could see the mismatched collection of pins and clips holding her hair in place. He whipped his arm around, smashing her in the back of the head, crashing into her neck.

He let his body go limp and tumbled all the way to the floor, looking to anyone like a thrown stuffed toy. The hardest part for Rupert was to not wrinkle his nose. Finkelbaum smelled like a rasher of cooked bacon and mothballs.

“Who threw that?” Rupert looked up from the floor as she scowled back and forth, looking around the cafeteria like a searchlight in a prison camp. “Who threw that?”

She bent down and picked Rupert up, her hands tough and iron hard. Holding him up, she repeated the question, her voice getting higher and shriller. Rupert kept his body limp. “This is the Parson’s—not yours. Which of you stole this?” She shook Rupert again, making his eyes rattle in his head. “Which of you?”

Finkelbaum stalked over to Mr. Taylor, the elocution teacher and other lunch monitor. She held up Rupert like evidence in a murder trial. “Mr. Taylor, did you see who?”

Mr. Taylor shook his head and reached out to stroke Rupert but missed when Finkelbaum held him aloft. He smelled of chalk dust and lemons. “Which of you?”

Taylor let her go on for some time and then quietly spoke to her. “Ms. Finkelbaum, most of these children grew up in an orphanage. They know not to speak up. You will never get a confession, I’m afraid.”

With a harsh snort she stepped up on the seat to one of the benches, displacing two orphans. “You people must appreciate other people’s property. Since you don’t, every one of you will write a two-hundred-word essay about how you should not touch other people’s things.” She shook Rupert at them as if he were a whip. “I want them on my desk in the morning.”

The whole room began a resigned muttering. Rupert could hear words like “tyrant” and “queen” and once a faint, whispered “bitch,” but they were rendered too low for Finkelbaum’s all-too-human ears.

“Tomorrow!” With that final shot she stepped down from the bench and charged out of the room with mincing steps, brushing past the elocution teacher. Her iron grip around Rupert tightened as she stormed down the hall toward her office.

* * *

As soon as Finkelbaum turned the key in the door behind her, Rupert sprang to action. He fluffed his fur where the old crone’s iron-hard grip had crushed his plush. The room was small and crowded with a busy life of a spinster house matron. He took a second to look the room over so he could put everything just as it was when he left. It would not do to have his actions discovered before they could take effect.

He tried the old woman’s armchair and then her sewing basket without success. At last, behind a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress on the shelf, he found a stocking that had been repaired so many times that it looked like a collection of mismatched threads. But the sock was stuffed full of small-denomination bank notes and one-pound coins. It added up to a lot of money. It took Rupert four trips to get all of the money onto her desk. He tossed the sock onto the sewing basket.

Rupert busied himself doing a complete count of the money, calculating how to divide the coins and bills. He almost missed the shadow growing larger. At the last moment Rupert sprang away as a massive cat plunged down onto the pile of money, spraying coins and bills all over the floor.

Jasmine.

“Now I have you,” she said. “A little rabbit goulash for supper.”

Rupert slipped under the desk, looking for a way out, his heart thundering in his chest. How could he have been so careless? He knew the transom window was open. He just didn’t think about it.

“Where are you, little rabbit?” Jasmine said. “You can’t hide forever, you know. There is no easy way out of this room except in my stomach. Why don’t we make it easy on you? I will end you quick.”

Rupert saw Jasmine drop off the desk on soundless feet. She was looking around, searching for where Rupert was hiding. He might have explained to her that he was plush, not real, and wouldn’t make a very good meal. But he knew she wouldn’t trust him without trying him herself. And by then it would be too late.

More important, what Jasmine said was true. There was no way out of the room. Rupert could never jump high enough to get out by the transom window, and he was far too well stuffed to slip under the door. He was trapped.

Unless…

He picked up a pound coin that had fallen close by and rolled it across the ground, out away from Jasmine. The instant she sprang for it, Rupert leapt, hopping across the room and into the sewing basket.

Just as he slid into the basket, Jasmine slammed onto the wooden lid, laughing. “You are mine now.”

Rupert grabbed some heavy button thread and quickly tied both ends closed, wrapping the thread around the backside of the handle. He hoped this would give him enough time to complete his escape plan. He began sorting through the scraps of cloth.

Jasmine tried to slip her claws into the lid to hook it open. “Come out, come out, little rabbit.” She pawed at both lids a few more times and then became quiet.

That couldn’t be good.

Rupert found all of the materials he needed and began weaving a cable from the strongest of the thread. Without warning, Jasmine jammed a sharp claw between the woven thatch walls of the basket and deep into Rupert’s leg. Then it was gone again.

Rupert looked at the stuffing leaking from the wound on his leg. Though painful, it would not slow him down. He had to focus and went back to winding the thread into a cable.

“Oh, little one, that is just a taste of what’s to come.”

Rupert could hear her licking the claw, enjoying the taste. He wound the cord tight, knowing his life depended on it.

* * *

Jasmine had fallen off into a light doze, her senses poised for the slightest sound from the sewing basket. She dreamed of rabbit stew, rabbit sandwiches, and rabbit shish-kabobs.

When she heard the faint click of the sewing box lid, Jasmine was instantly awake. She saw the back legs of the rabbit as he squirmed his way out of the sewing box. She did not hesitate but sprang to action, plunging onto the rabbit’s back legs.

There was a moment of confusion as her claws sunk deep, too deep, into the hindquarters and then a shock of confusion as she was pulled into the basket, her claws entangled in something. Glancing up just before she was pulled all the way into the sewing basket, she saw the rabbit pulling with all his strength, his powerful back legs braced against the other end. And she realized what she was tied up in was just bits of plush stuffed with fluff and tied to a cord.

A cord that led up to the rabbit.

And then she was inside. With a heavy thud the lid closed behind her.

* * *

Rupert wound the last of the cable around the knob of the sewing basket, leaning into it, making sure the knot would hold. The basket rocked as Jasmine expressed her fury. When this did not work, Rupert saw her claws flashing out through the weave of the basket.

He hopped off, taking a moment to check the lashings on both ends of the sewing basket.

Jasmine hissed in fury, the basket rocking back and forth and finally tipping onto its side. “Let me out!”

“I’m sure someone will let you out soon enough.” Rupert looked out the window. From the height of the moon, he still had a couple of hours. “But for now, my friend, I have much work to do, and I am quite happy knowing you can sleep the night away in there.”

With a single big bound, Rupert leapt onto the desk and began restacking the pound coins.

* * *

The sun was just starting to rise when Rupert finished addressing the final package in his long, fine hand. Jasmine had long since fallen into a grudging sleep inside her trap. Although he was still trapped in Finkelbaum’s office, he had managed to slide a message to Mory and Dory under the door and made sure they understood their task.

He lay down for a much-needed nap.

Mrs. Merryweather’s key hit the lock of Finkelbaum’s office to pick up the packages. According to the note she got, she had to get them all delivered before breakfast. She clucked her tongue when she saw how many there were, clucking again when she picked up the package addressed to Mr. Taylor and felt how heavy it was. But that was Finkelbaum all over—dumping her work on Mrs. Merryweather’s aging hands and back.

Hours later her tongue clucked a third time when she had to reach into her own pocket to pay for postage to not one but two places. She held her tongue when she saw that one was addressed to the local constabulary. She did not consider why a letter from the Parson would be left in the care of Finkelbaum.

* * *

Mrs. Merryweather dropped Rupert off on the Parson’s desk next to a pile of packages and took time to light a fire for the Parson. She placed Rupert in the armchair, taking care to sit him properly. Without a complaint she moved on to her next task.

Rupert hopped down and stretched his paws toward the fire, enjoying the touch of warmth. So far things seemed to be going well. He let himself doze, waiting for the Thimble Warriors to arrive.

He startled awake when Mory clambered up onto the chair, giggling. Rupert rubbed his eyes and stretched. It seemed it was already evening.

“Mr. Rupert, we found your note. How may we be of service?”

Looking at Mory and Dory and the heavy burden they had to carry, he realized they were not strong enough. “First, I need more than you two. It’s a hard task and requires lots of muscle.”

Dory poked Mory, laughing. Dory attempted a curtsy and managed only to tumble onto her head. She stood back up. “Then it’s a good thing we brought our friends.”

Rupert moved to the edge of the chair and saw a host of Thimble Warriors. He stopped counting at twenty-four.

Mory tapped him on the shoulder. “We are at your service, Rupert.”

Rupert brushed his hair and, taking a post on the edge of the chair, told the Thimble Warriors about their commando mission.

All through the night the Thimble Warriors worked in teams, emptying Rupert’s last heavy package. Just after 3 a.m. on Monday morning, the Warriors reported to Rupert and went off to happy slumber.

* * *

The events of the next week went down in the long history of the orphanage as the most stupendously extraordinary of all.

It started when the orphans, both boys and girls, each discovered a nice, shiny pound coin under his or her pillow, except for little Stevie McDougal. He had two pound coins, a fact that he shared loudly and proudly in between arguments about H.G. Wells and the War of the Worlds.

Then, at lunch, all talk of the sudden wealth ended when the local constable and solicitor general walked into the lunchroom and, without pause, arrested Ms. Finkelbaum.

“By order of Her Majesty’s Solicitor General in London,” the constable let his voice dwell on “London” as if it would convey greater authority, “I am remanding you into custody until suitable bail can be arranged.”

Finkelbaum stammered, her hand grasping the broach on her too-prim housedress as if it blocked the words in her throat. But she found her voice when she saw the manacles in the constable’s hand. “Why? Why? I never…” She pulled back from the constable.

The solicitor grabbed her by the elbow.

“Unhand me, you—you ruffian,” she said.

“Ruffian? It’s not me that got caught with a hand in the till.”

“What?” Finkelbaum’s voice was a high screech, like a fork on a steel plate.

“Don’t you try and deny it. We have all of the records in your own handwriting.”

The constable clapped the woman’s hands in irons. “Well, well,” he said, “it seems you have been a bad girl.”

Until that moment the entire lunchroom had been perfectly silent. No one dared breathe.

It was the long-suffering Mr. Taylor who started. His carefully cultured English reserve collapsed and he started laughing. He laughed so hard that he had to hold onto the table.

The room exploded into laughter and some scattered applause. As Ms. Finkelbaum was led away struggling, the laughter grew to a delighted cacophony.

Only Mr. Taylor had recovered enough to speak. He waved to Finkelbaum. “Good‑bye, Ms. Finkelbaum. Pleasant journey.”

The last surprise took place two days later, when the town’s largest hobby shop delivered parcel after parcel of art supplies, cricket bats, buttons, and thread. There were enough supplies to make many, many dolls, and toy trains, and hundreds of other things that the orphans needed. At first Mrs. Merryweather hesitated, worrying about the cost, but she was delighted to know they had been provided by an anonymous benefactor.

All of these good events led to a turnaround in the morale of the orphanage for both employees and orphans alike. Things got even better when the young Ms. Rachel Summers came to teach the children, but that is a tale for another time.

* * *

Far away in the rectory library, a rabbit of uncommonly good sense worked away on his translated version of Principia. He was lost in the intriguing mysteries of gravity.

But his soul felt lighter than air.

 

——————–

A lover of fantastic words and worlds, Matthew Wallace is the President and CEO of VRSim, Inc. (a virtual reality company). His work has appear in the Menda City Review. He is currently recording the next adventure of the kind rabbit with uncommonly good sense. Matthew can be reached at matthew.wallace@vrsim.net.