Stories

Fish Fry

By Robert Roman

Time out, idiots!” Father Morgan the Organ yelled from the doorway of the Triple Deuce and lit a cigarette.

You never knew who might come out of that place because it didn’t have any windows in its brick walls. Me and Jaggerbush practiced our Kung Fu Fighting on the square of grass out front. Thick green hedges surrounded the grass like boxing-ring ropes. People driving by on Perrysville Avenue blew their horns and yelled, “Break his face!” and “Knee him in the balls!”

We took off our Pro-Keds and tube socks and put on winter gloves. We tried not to punch each other in the face with all our might, but sometimes you couldn’t help it. My little brother always connected a lot because his skinny arms and legs were way longer than mine even though I was a whole year older than him. But if I got close to him, I could knock him on his butt with a body shot to one of those pointy ribs of his, since I was the super-strongest sixth-grader on the North Side of Pittsburgh. That’s if he didn’t cheat and bite my neck in the clinch.

“I said, time out, damn it!” Father Morgan the Organ blew two blasts of smoke out of his flat, dented nose like a fire-breathing dragon.

Jaggerbush kept swinging at me until I told him to step on the brakes.

“Here’s the situation,” Morgan the Organ said. “You boys are going to work at the Fish Fry tomorrow night.”

They used to only do the Fish Fry on Fridays during Lent, but ever since Ronald Reagan became President this year, Father Morgan said it was good for people to fast every Friday. Even though he wasn’t any older than Dad, he was the Pastor at Saint Augie’s, so what he said went.

“What’s the bounty?” Jaggerbush said.

“Your reward will be in Heaven.”

“Sister Kelly’s always telling us we’re headed in the other direction, you know, H-E-L-L,” I said.

“True, there’s little hope for your brother,” Father Morgan sucked his cigarette like he was trying to slurp up the bottom of an Eat-N-Park milkshake. I looked across our green fighting ring at Jaggerbush. He wasn’t even listening, he was too busy throwing roundhouse kicks at the heads of the bushes. Ten years old and already doomed to Hell. It didn’t seem fair.

“But you might have an outside shot, Ringer. After a long layover in Purgatory, of course.”

“We’re sticking together,” I said. I didn’t want to go to Hell or Purgatory or Limbo or any other of these damn places if I died in a nuclear war with the Russians. But I wasn’t about to leave Jaggerbush behind to fight off all those devils and demons and dead commies all by himself.

“Sister Kelly seems to believe the two of you are impervious to negative consequences, so let’s see how a little more carrot and less stick works.”

“I hate carrots,” Jaggerbush said.

“I’m not talking about real carrots, maniac. You know what I’m trying to say, Ringer?”

“Does it have something to do with the horses at the racetrack?”

He stuck his cigarette back in his mouth. The tip burned red-hot like a little bitty sun threatening to go super nova.

“I’ll make you a deal. If you work the Fish Fry, without incident, then I’ll allow you to retrieve one item from that hope chest of Sister Kelly’s, the one where she keeps all the illegal objects she’s confiscated from you over the years.”

Wow, she had my glow-in-the-dark yo-yo, boomerang, Han Solo action figure, invisible ink pen, mini parachute, die cast metal flying saucer, Green Lantern power ring, loaded dice, stickers, football cards, comic books, and a whole mess of other stuff. I really wanted that yo-yo back. But Jaggerbush would never go for it. He never, ever, ever cut deals with adults. Ever.

“You got yourself a deal,” Jaggerbush said from across our green boxing ring.

“What?” I stared at him.

“As long as we get to pick what we want from Sister Kelly’s booty,” Jaggerbush said, throwing a spinning donkey kick at the hedges.

“Fine,” Father Morgan said. “But, Jaggerbush has to work in the kitchen. We don’t want a repeat of that God damn fiasco last Easter.”

They were the ones dumb enough to make Jaggerbush work as a busboy. They should’ve known better. A table full of hefty ladies were pigging out like the end of the world was coming and ordered Jaggerbush to bring them more dinner rolls. He told them to join Weight Watchers. You ever notice fat ladies can scream really loud? Especially when they want to be fed.

“You can count on us,” Jaggerbush said.

Morgan the Organ flicked his cigarette over our heads. It flew more than ten yards and landed all the way in Perrysville Avenue.

“Don’t forget to wash your filthy mitts before you show up to work. And use your jab more, and quit kicking each other like a couple of Asiatics,” he pushed open the Triple Deuce’s red door and went back inside.

I never saw Jaggerbush agree with anyone without a fight. There must have been something inside Sister Kelly’s secret box that he really wanted.

“Ding Ding,” I said, and we put our dukes back up.

“Hi-yaa!” Jaggerbush yelled, and jumped with both feet out in front of him to dropkick me. I sidestepped him, and he landed so deep in the hedges that he got stuck. He tried to wiggle out, but the thick branches wouldn’t let him go. I punched him once in the gut just for good measure, then I yanked him out and rung the bell and we went back at it.

***

After lunch, the teachers herded us all over to church because it was some kind of holy day. Sometimes it seemed like they just made up these holy days when they got fed up with teaching. I mean, how many God damn saints were there?

Jaggerbush stood in Saint Augie’s vestibule with his thick brown hair sticking up and pointing in a million different directions. He stared up at the two big blackboards on wheels parked against the back wall. They each had a giant football-poll grid drawn on them in yellow chalk. Last week’s Steelers game was on one, the winner’s names were circled in red chalk. The other blackboard had a grid for this week’s game. The dads paid the ushers and picked a block and wrote their names inside. Every Sunday after twelve o’clock mass, Father Morgan the Organ added the numbers along the top and one side of the grid just in time for the coin toss at the beginning of the game. If your numbers matched the score at the end of one of the quarters, you won. There were two polls because you couldn’t collect your winnings until the Sunday after the game. Father Morgan said it had something to do with teaching patience. Kids weren’t allowed to play, but Dad always asked Jaggerbush which block to pick. Jaggerbush didn’t know the difference between football and long division, but Dad won more than anybody.

“Jaggerbush!” Sister Kelly said. “Get away from those blackboards and get your rear-end in a pew and pray to God for forgiveness.”

Mass kicked off with that rumbling sound of everyone standing up at the same time. Father Morgan the Organ and three altar boys marched down the center aisle in their long white dresses while everybody sang. Fantastic Freddie led the pack, carrying the tall skinny golden cross, the one the lead altar boy held out in front of himself like a first-down marker. They always walked so damn slow, like they were heading to the principal’s office or something.

Jaggerbush stood alongside the aisle a few rows ahead of me with the rest of the fifth-graders. He knelt down, but he wasn’t genuflecting. That boy was always retying his Pro-Keds no matter how many times he triple-knotted them.

“Ahhhhhh!” Fantastic Freddie screamed, and did a belly flopper right on his big blubbery stomach. His golden cross sailed at the altar like a gladiator spear.

Somebody yelled, “Fumble!”

Ca-Clang!

The cross bounced off the marble steps in front of the altar. The little statue of Jesus popped off and ricocheted under the front-row pews. The first-graders sitting there jumped up on top of their pews and screamed like Jesus was a mouse.

I don’t know when Jaggerbush tied that tripwire across the center aisle, but it was one of his best booby traps in the history of the universe.

Sister Kelly snatched him by his skinny arm and dragged him toward the back of the church. She had a hard time because Jaggerbush let his feet drag like some of the men who got hauled out of the Triple Deuce for falling asleep at the bar. Jaggerbush yelled, “How do you expect me to get inside this Heaven joint if you keep kicking me out of church?”

***

They held the Fish Fry in the school cafeteria in the church basement. Watching all those grown-ups sitting at the same tables where we ate lunch every day and stuffing their faces like an army of Godzillas eating Tokyo was weird.

My job was to bus tables. It was easy since there wasn’t much to carry except empty plates and silverware. The hungry hungry hippos hogged down more fried fish and French Fries and coleslaw than I could eat in a week, and according to Mom, I could eat you out of house and home. This fasting-on-Fridays thing didn’t make any sense to me. It didn’t look like there was a whole lot of sacrificing going on.

I lugged my square plastic tub of dirty dishes into the kitchen. It was like the engine room of a deep-space battle cruiser with all the steam blowing and oil sizzling and water gushing out of faucets and pots and pans clanging on the stove. It stunk worse than the fish market down on the Strip District where the guy behind the counter always gave me and Jaggerbush free smelts while he whispered to Dad.

When it came to church stuff, Fantastic Freddie was the biggest brown-noser in the galaxy, so he had the funnest job. He got to help cook the fish. If only the adults knew about all the stuff he light-fingered out of the church and how he went around performing illegal sacraments. One time, last winter when we were playing football, I sacked Antonio and made him spit up blood. I didn’t even hit him that hard, but the snow looked like cherry Italian Ice when he was done spitting-up all over it. Fantastic Freddie whipped out a vial of holy oil he swiped from the sacristy and read him last rites. But it was a big fat waste of time since Antonio didn’t die.

Fantastic Freddie stood on a stepladder in front of the silver deep fryer. He pulled frozen slabs of breaded fish out of a cardboard box with a pair of long steel tongs.

He asked each fish, “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior?” and then held it to his ear like he was trying to hear what it was saying.

“No? Then into the boiling oil with you, heathen!” he dropped it into the deep fryer.

Antonio wore a tall white chef’s hat that made his Afro stick out around the bottom of it like a clown haircut. He stirred a giant bowl of coleslaw with the biggest wooden spoon I’d even seen. I wouldn’t want to be paddled with that thing.

“Hey Ringer,” Antonio said. “What’s wrong with your brother?”

I walked into the dishwashing room in the back of the kitchen. It was dark and damp and stunk like a wet dumpster. Jaggerbush was standing on a plastic milk crate talking to himself in cartoon voices while he scrubbed a dish in the big steel sink with a sponge made out of chain-mail armor. Nothing was on fire, nothing was broken, the room wasn’t flooded, the backdoor was closed. The clean white dishes looked like pillars in ancient Rome they were piled up in such nice neat stacks.

“You feeling okay?” I said.

“Yeah, this is fun.”

“Fun?”

Mom would’ve fainted if she saw Jaggerbush washing and drying all those dishes. She had to scream her head off just to get him to wash his face. Maybe he was planning on pulling a Sampson move and knocking down all the dishes once he was finished.

For the rest of the night, Jaggerbush worked like he was mining for gold. He took out the garbage, put all the silverware back in the drawers, and swept and mopped the floor. He did everything he was told. One of the cafeteria ladies even called him “a good little worker.” I couldn’t figure it out. Maybe he got replaced by an alien life-form. Or maybe I finally punched him in the head too hard and gave him brain damage like Mom was always warning me about. Or was Father Morgan the Organ right about his carrot stick prophecy?

After the Fish Fry was over, the cafeteria ladies must have given us a good report.

“It appears that you two malcontents aren’t completely incorrigible after all,” Father Morgan said. “I’ll tell Sister Kelly to give you your just deserts tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow’s Saturday,” I said.

“Monday then.”

“We’ll come tomorrow,” Jaggerbush said.

“I don’t blame you,” Morgan the Organ said. “You put in the work, and you deserve what’s coming to you.”

“Yeah, Sister Kelly can be forgetful,” I said.

“She can, can’t she? Tomorrow then, boys.”

Me and Jaggerbush caught up with Antonio outside. It was getting dark. Antonio was still wearing his chef’s hat. He was eating handfuls of after-dinner mints out of a brown paper bag.

“Wait here,” Jaggerbush opened the back door to the cafeteria’s kitchen. A little hunk of cardboard fell from between the doorknob and doorframe. He must’ve propped it open when he took the trash out.

“You can’t break into a church,” Antonio said with his mouth full of mushy sugar

“It’s not like anybody lives here,” Jaggerbush said.

“God does,” Antonio said.

“Then he should buy a watchdog,” Jaggerbush said, and ducked inside.

Antonio had ants in his pants the whole time Jaggerbush was gone. I had to threaten to gag him with his chef hat just to shut him up. He could be such a baby sometimes.

Jaggerbush came out slapping his Toughskins leaving yellow handprints on his thighs. He stuck both his powdery hands inside Antonio’s brown paper bag and mashed a bunch of after-dinner mints into his mouth with one hand and filled his pocket with the other.

“Don’t be greedy,” Antonio said.

“Shut up, unless you want busted on.”

“For what?”

“For being an accomplice.”

“That’s crazy. You’d get yourself in trouble, too.”

“I’m never not in trouble,” Jaggerbush said, and stuck his hand back inside Antonio’s bag of mints.

***

We followed Sister Kelly. Our footsteps echoed all the way down the hall. The school was quiet, creepy quiet, like we weren’t supposed to be there, and it smelled like ammonia.

“I want you two to know, I am against this entire enterprise,” Sister Kelly said. “How in God’s holy name am I supposed to maintain any sense of order as principal of this school if that man keeps undermining my authority? And on a Saturday, no less.”

“Why don’t you start a mutiny and take over the school yourself?” I said. “We can help you make him walk the plank.”

“Don’t tempt me.”

“Is it because what’s-his-face likes Morgan the Organ better than you?” Jaggerbush said.

“What’s-his-who?” Sister Kelly said.

“The long-haired guy with the beard who does the magic tricks.”

“He means Jesus, Sister,” I said.

“Don’t be ridiculous! The Son of God doesn’t play favorites. Or perform magic tricks!”

“Then how come Dad is always praying that the traitor Tony Dorsett breaks both his knees when he’s running the ball?” I said.

“Holy Mother, give me strength.” Her round glasses started to get foggy.

We followed her down the stone steps into the school basement. Her big ring of keys jangled like a witch doctor charm.

“Where’re you taking us?” I said.

“The book room.”

It took her a while to find the right key, but she finally got the door open. Inside, there were rows and rows of metal shelves so tall I couldn’t reach the top if I jumped as high as I could. It was like an A&P for schoolbooks, but dark and dusty and without shopping carts.

“Why are these new books buried down here in this dungeon?” I said.

“They’re out of date.”

“They look brand new. What’re you going to do with them?”

“None of your business. Let’s get this miscarriage of justice over with.”

“We didn’t do anything wrong,” Jaggerbush said. “You should be proud of us.”

She took a bunch of deep breaths like she was about to dive into the deep end of a pool.

“Let’s just select your thirty pieces of silver and put an end to this.”

She hunched over her giant footlocker and spun the dial on the combination lock. It was so big, me and Jaggerbush could both fit inside at the same time. He knelt down beside her and retied his Pro-Keds. The lock popped, and the lid squeaked open.

It looked like the back of Santa’s sleigh. It was full of squirt guns, Mattel basketball games, X-Ray glasses, rocks, every kind of Nerf ball, a wedding veil, Star Trek Phasers, radios, hats, a lady’s black high-heeled shoe. Jaggerbush dug around in the treasure chest. He pulled out a half-eaten pack of grape Bubble Yum.

“After all that work, all that self-control, you’re choosing a pack of old gum?” She shook her head.

“I want to blow some bubbles.”

“Give it here!” she said. “What’s hidden inside?”

She tore the pack open and took it apart like he was trying to smuggle top-secrets to the Russians. She handed the pieces of unwrapped gum back to him. He shoved them into his pocket.

“You’ve made your choice. Don’t dare let me catch you chewing any of it on school property.”

I pointed at a bookshelf. “Can I have one of these out-of-date books with Saint George and the Dragon on the cover, instead?”

“Absolutely not. A deal’s a deal, even a deal with the Devil.”

I couldn’t find my glow-in-the-dark yo-yo in the trunk, so I grabbed my silver Matchbox car with the demon face on the roof and the flames on the doors that Sister Kelly stole from me four years ago back in the second grade.

“Can you two see your way out without vandalizing anything?”

“Yes, Sister,” I said.

We walked down the hall kicking our feet so the bottom of our Pro-Keds skimmed across the stone floor and made loud skid noises. Jaggerbush shoved a piece of Bubble Yum in his mouth and handed me a piece.

“It’s kind of stale,” I said.

“Left 13, right 42, left 23.”

“Are you talking in secret code again?”

“It’s the combination to her lock.”

“How do we get into the book room without a key?”

“There’s other ways to open doors.”

***

We snuck out of Sunday Mass right after communion and met Ding Dong outside so we could pitch pennies against the church steps.

“Jaggerbush! You have to throw real coins. Nobody wants your bottle caps,” Ding Dong said.

Jaggerbush dug in his pocket and threw something shiny and silver that dinged against the steps.

“Bolts don’t count either!” Ding Dong said.

All of a sudden, you could hear men screaming and hollering so loud inside that you would’ve thought the statues were bleeding or something. Saint Augie’s wooden fortress doors burst open. Men were shoving each other and pulling their jackets over each other’s heads like they were in a bench-clearing hockey fight. They were cursing something fierce.

A few of them fell down the steps and landed on our pennies. Father Morgan the Organ stood in the doorway. He swung Fantastic Freddie’s big cross back and forth like a Samurai warrior. The men scattered.

“You!” he yelled at Jaggerbush, his flat face was redder than cherry juice.

“I should at least get my choice of weapon,” Jaggerbush said, flipping a piece of yellow chalk in the air with his thumb and catching it like a coin.

Morgan the Organ shoved the cross into Ding Dong’s chest like he wanted him to hold it and walked toward Jaggerbush real slow.

“You better run,” Ding Dong said.

Jaggerbush didn’t budge. Morgan the Organ snatched the piece of chalk out of the air and laid his hands on my brother’s shoulders.

“Please, please explain to me what on Earth you could possibly get out of pulling a stunt like this?”

“Nothing,” Jaggerbush said. “I told you, I hate carrots.”

He blew a giant purple bubble until it exploded with a crack and splattered all over his face. He just left it there, staring at Morgan the Organ over the grape glob covering his nose like a bandito mask.

“I warned you. That child can’t be reasoned with,” Sister Kelly yelled from the church doorway.

Morgan the Organ gave her a look that would send you running. Then he looked at me and said, “Do me a favor, son. Take your brother home before I murder him.”

I pulled Jaggerbush across the street by his wrist. The men picked themselves up off the church steps and straightened out their jackets while Ding Dong snatched all our pennies off the ground. Some apologized and shook hands, but some still looked like they wanted to roughhouse some more. Father Morgan promised them a refund and walked back inside the church with his head down.

“What did you do?” Ding Dong said.

“Follow me,” Jaggerbush said.

The three of us doubled back to the cafeteria’s kitchen door. The hunk of cardboard was still in place. We followed Jaggerbush inside. He led us through the dark cafeteria and up the steps to the church vestibule. It was empty and the big wooden doors were closed. Jaggerbush pulled another piece of yellow chalk out of his pocket and pointed it at the blackboard with last week’s football poll on it, and said, “And the winners are…”

The names inside the winning squares were circled in red chalk, Zulu Warrior, Pontius Pilate, Hong Kong Phooey, and The Bee Gees.

 

 

——————–

Robert Roman grew up in Pittsburgh, PA, where he sold newspapers to cars from a concrete island. He worked as a mail carrier, busboy, bartender, and laborer while earning a degree in English Literature from the University of Pittsburgh. He taught at a juvenile detention facility, Baltimore City, and Howard County Public Schools. He studied writing at Johns Hopkins and UCLA. He lives in L.A., where he writes fiction and America’s favorite Hangman puzzles.

A Story from Another Spring

By Megan Paske

Samantha woke up early. Matthew was already at work; she knew he left at 6:00am sharp, every day, in his ties and buttoned-down shirts. Sharp, always sharp. He said the ties gave him more authority over his unruly students. She often wondered if it made any difference, but never questioned it. She loved the look of him leaving the house: buttoned-up and flawless. Sam wanted to remember Matthew that way, every moment of her life with him.

But this morning she smiled through her confused sleep, fading quickly into a quixotic awareness. Today she was not alone. She was with her Grandmother. ‘Grandma Bunny.’ Bernice—her given name. Everyone called her ‘Bunny.’ Sam knew it; felt it in the haziness that transformed her unquiet mind from her dreams to dawn.

“Good morning Sam. We have work to do today.”

Bunny wiggled Samantha’s fingers and toes until she settled down into her mind.

Let’s get up now.”

Sam’s head slowly raised the rest of her petite, yet substantial, form from the bed. The sheets lie in a smothered pile somewhere between now and her subconscious mind’s last night’s wrestling match. Sam looked down at her hands. They began to smooth out and lengthen into slender, delicate hands. Not Sam’s. Sam’s own hands were short, stubby: fingernails kept short from years of being classically trained on instrument upon instrument.

Her new hands were long and sleek; the nails curved elegantly beyond the tips of her fingers, polished neatly with a clear veneer. Flawless, strong. Typist’s hands. Hands that held cigarettes with elegance and mystique.

I was always complimented on my hands, love. The men that ogled other women’s chests and asses. They took my hands in theirs and gave them gentle kisses.”

Samantha delighted in her transformation. She swung her own well-defined, muscular running legs over the edge of the bed. They swung freely for a moment and she studied them closely; looking down as they shifted. She watched as her legs stretched out into the gangly, flawless dancer legs Bunny pranced upon in the pictures she remembered as a child. Black and white, eighteen-year-old Grandma Bunny. On point shoes and holding her skirt up like a frozen fairy, preserved in time on a 3×3 Polaroid. Pirouettes, pas de bourrées, arabesques. Sam hesitated, then carefully poked at her new, knobby-knees. Legs too skinny for the shorts she wore. Shorts that now belonged to someone else.

“Time to get out of bed now.”

Sam twirled—on her new legs, with her new hands—in the emerging sunlight of the bedroom’s slightly cracked windows. Effortlessly, she floated with a wide grin to the kitchen. Matthew had made coffee before he left; the pot was still on. The slightly burning coffee temporarily assaulted Sam’s nose back into her own mind as she entered the hallway.

“Grab our smokes, and a cup of coffee darlin’. Black. Time to plan the day ahead. Lots to do. Make good use of all the morning energy.”

She began to hum as she went about her task. She made a stop first in the bathroom. She had to see, had to know for sure, she was who she knew she was. Sam flipped the switched and waited while her eyes adjusted to the fluorescent scorch coming from the tidy vanity’s smudge-free mirror. Samantha always kept the bathrooms pristine.

She studied her face. She stared back into her Grandmother’s reflection. The skin she remembered touching when she was only four, right before Grandma Bunny passed away suddenly and without a warning. When Sam was a young girl Grandma Bunny’s face had been thin and pock-marked. 58-year-old skin. The age Grandma Bunny was in Sam’s own memories.

Your mother now is seven years older than I ever was; ever would be. You’ll be me now dear. Finish what I left behind.”

Sam observed as the skin in the mirror reflected back not the Grandma Bunny in her memory. She stared into a soft, dewy complexion. A hint of dimples—almost imperceptible even through her broad grin—emerged. Sam delighted in her new glow. Sam’s thick, wavy blond hair, flowing down to the middle of her back, gradually darkened and retreated its way back up to her shoulders. She watched as it folded into a brunette bob, curled under at the end, and framed her new face. Her own button nose and blue eyes melted away to muddy brown eyes peering out through cat-eye glasses perched on an elfin nose. Her cheekbones tightened and her earlobes now donned tiny diamond studs, though Sam’s own ears were unpierced.

Sam’s hand touched the mirror, leaving a handprint over the image of what should have been her once round, olive face. Staring back at her was a lily white specter of Grandma Bunny as she was at Sam’s age—twenty-eight and doe-eyed—and all smiles and dimples and seduction. Her transformation was almost complete.

“I’m here now. Let’s keep going.”

After a quick shower, they re-entered her bedroom and began shuffling through Samantha’s wardrobe. The towel on their head held in dampened bobbed curls, a few escaping and leaving cool drips on their shoulders.

None of this will do.”

Sam’s heart sank. There were no clothes for Bunny here.

What are we going to wear? How can we fit into any of this?”

Too short, too round, too full in the bust. Then they found what they needed. What they were looking for.

Bunny carefully chose a bright yellow sundress, speckled in rusty orange flowers: the one dress Sam had kept since high school, when she was a willowy teenager. The shirred bodice had long since become too tight for Sam’s own curves, but fit Bunny comfortably. The cool fabric whisked at her spindly legs. Bunny twirled again in front of a full length mirror, delighting in the reunion with her youth. She didn’t know how long it would last; she’d have to make the most of it. Bunny grabbed a pair of Samantha’s sandals—a bit too loose, but they would have to do.

Bunny approached the mirror in the bedroom. One last inspection of herself.

“Yes, I’m all here now. Don’t worry love, I’ll be ok. You just rest. You and I will be just fine.”

Bunny slinked down the hall, graceful and hauntingly as a mourning dove’s song at dawn. She knew Sam hid the cigarettes in the drawer next to the refrigerator. She hadn’t had a smoke in months, years. Her hands shook in anticipation. First she grabbed a coffee mug from the rack next to the slowly charring coffee burner. Its aroma had morphed into an acrid stench of burnt grounds and coffee pot sludge. No matter—the only way she took her cigarettes were with coffee and the only way she took her coffee was with cigarettes.

Bunny had to shuffle around the drawer until she found the unopened, “emergency pack” in the back, behind an assortment of miss-matched cupboard knobs, grill lighters, unsent greeting cards, and a broken wind chime—intended on being pieced and glued back together.

All she needed were the cigarettes.

“Got ‘em.”

Bunny deftly unwrapped the plastic and packed the cigarettes. They were Parliaments: not her first choice, but they’d have to do for now. She’d pick up a pack of her Pall Mall’s during her afternoon walk down the block to the corner market. She had a lot to get done tonight before Harold arrived back from work. Before Sam’s husband came home from school. And before Sam returned. With her coffee mug in one hand, and the cigarettes in the other, she rifled again through the drawer, pulling out a crumpled pack of matches. Only a few left; she made note to pick up a lighter as well.

Carrying her loot, she struggled to nudge open the back porch door with her toe and elbowed through the rest.

Door’s hard to open this morning. I’ll have to have Harold take a look at it when he gets home.

The small space she created between the door and the jam made just enough room for Bunny’s slender figure to slide through. She was dismayed at how hard it was to negotiate the conservative space. Once out (after a momentary panic of getting stuck, and spilling part of her coffee onto the pavement of the back porch) she glanced down at her slender form.

Have I put on weight?

Little else thought to her momentary lapse in spatial judgement, she turned and faced the east morning sun, still rising lazily above a horizon of trees and farmers’ fields beyond the backyard. Bunny became disoriented. Her neighbors’ backyards were replaced with what appeared to be a cornfield. She shut her eyes briefly and opened them again to the familiar views she was accustomed to: the neighbors’ untended flower gardens that Harold always complained about, the unkempt, rusty swing sets, the wire fence at the back of their lot line. Harold wouldn’t spring for the wooden fencing, but he hated the neighborhood kids filing through the backyard on their way home from school. He insisted on erecting the fencing early on in their marriage. Before their first child arrived.

Bunny’s children were now at school, and she had the remainder of the day to complete her daily tasks. For now, she’d enjoy her peace and quiet, her smokes and coffee. She plunked herself down on the back stoop. Samantha’s slab of concrete was in actuality much larger than the few steps and sidewalk that led to Bunny’s backyard, but Bunny took little notice. As she sipped at the bitter coffee, and puffed absently at her cigarette, her mind wandered.

What shall I do first? The cleaning, or the laundry?

Harry was due home at 5:30 and dinner would need to be on the table. Bunny glanced down at her right wrist. Bunny, left handed, always wore the same dainty gold and silver watch around her right wrist. It was missing.

Where is it? Oh heavens tell me I didn’t lose it, Harry will have my head!

Bunny quickly mashed out her cigarette, noticing her ashtray had also vanished. She threw the butt in the trash bin next to her garage, getting her bare feet damp from the morning dew. She glanced down expecting grass, only to realize she was still standing on the concrete slab of Sam and Matthew’s back porch. Her cigarette butt now rolling away towards the edge.

Confused again, she spun around toward the back door. Her stoop had been replaced by a modern sliding glass patio door. Bunny looked about, helplessly, trying to get her bearings, when Sam looked down.

Samantha realized she was wearing the sundress she had kept from high school.

“What the hell is going on?”

Sam muttered, audibly to herself. Her cat Penelope peered at her through the sliding door. Penelope hedonistically stretched out her paws upon the screen and exposed her snow white belly, softly mewing, and begging to be let out.

Where did you come from honey?

Bunny, startled, opened the back porch and the cat skittered out, wrapping herself between her feet. Bunny stooped over to pat her on the head, and felt an uncomfortable tug at the straps of her dress; one of them began to slowly tear.

Well that won’t do – I’ll have to mend that before Harry gets home. I must have shrunk this the last time I did the wash. I knew that new dryer was a mistake.

Bunny shooed the cat away. Penelope, confused, milled about the back porch for a few minutes.

“Scat, go home kitty. You’re probably missing your breakfast!!”

 Bunny scolded the orange and white swirled tabby, no bigger than seven pounds, declawed, and completely unaccustomed to the outdoors. Penelope found a bush by the side of the back porch and burrowed in, content to stay curled up there until the door re-opened.

Bunny re-entered the house, expecting the usual swish and clack of the old wooden screen door swinging shut behind her. Instead, the sliding door stood ajar until she pulled it shut. She slid out an unfamiliar kitchen chair, and sat down with her coffee.

Suddenly, she was starving—her head spun and she couldn’t get her bearings. Bunny was habituated to skipping breakfast. She never developed an appetite until closer to dinner, then she suppressed it with a couple more cigarettes and a few bottles of beer before Harry came home and the family sat down for their formal meal. Even then, Bunny barely ate. It was her way of controlling her figure—Harry made a habit of pointing out anytime Bunny did manage to gain a pound or two. He’d chide her.

“My, aren’t we tipping the scales lately? Getting into the baking chocolate again? Too much fudge?”

Why am I so hungry? All I can think about is toast and peanut butter. I don’t even like peanut butter.

Bunny ignored her hunger pangs and went on with her day. She needed to start the cleaning, but nothing was in place. She couldn’t find the mop or broom or washer and dryer. There wasn’t even a clothesline in the backyard, which had transformed again into a foreign landscape. Her home had become a maze and she was suddenly frightened—as though she had entered the wrong house. She set about each chore deliberately, not following through on any, nor with any cohesion on setting on to the next.

Every few minutes or so, another hem or seam would tear from her dress. She rummaged around once more in the junk drawer until she found them. She tacked a few safety pins to the straps of her dress, holding them in place for the moment. She’d bother with mending it later.

Right now she had to clean the floors, and iron and fold the laundry.

Samantha glanced up at the clock on the microwave. Noon.

The house permeated an overwhelming, almost nauseating, amount of pine cleaner, though Matthew and Samantha’s house had barely any hard flooring. Most of the house, except for the kitchen and bathrooms, was wall-to-wall carpeting. She hesitantly stepped into the family room; someone had saturated the rugs with floor cleaner. She thought she noticed pieces of furniture out of place, but was distracted by discomfort. She looked down at her torn dress, the straps digging in to her shoulders and the slight sensation of pin pricks with every few movements.

She was starving and sweating.

Amidst her bewilderment she madly craved a cigarette. Sam rooted around for the spare pack she kept in the junk drawer.

Where the hell are they?

She glanced around the kitchen. Her cigarettes lay opened—one visibly missing—with a pack of matches in the middle of the table. She remembered putting a full, unwrapped pack in the drawer some months back, when she hadn’t been smoking. Maybe she had snuck one in the meantime—she couldn’t remember. She couldn’t remember putting them out on the table. She couldn’t even remember what she had been doing all morning.

Then she noticed something odd in the corner of the kitchen, an ironing board was out—is that the toaster? Sam almost never used the ironing board; Matthew liked to iron his own clothes. He certainly wouldn’t have left a toaster upside down on top of a pile of his signature buttoned-downs. There were burn marks from the top of the toaster on a few of his lighter colored shirts. Bread crumbs littered the rest of the shirts and ironing board cover. Sam unplugged the toaster, wanting to avoid any future burns, or worse, a fire. She left the pile of shirts and crumbs, too stupefied to decide what to do about the mess.

She couldn’t make senses of it: missing moments of her morning that had culminated to noon, and with no explanation on how she got there. She had a vague memory of similar incidents occurring in the past, but with her lucidity at work—for the moment—she decided not to deal with any of it. She grabbed her purse and the pack of cigarettes and swept open the door to the garage. She threw on a jacket to cover up her bare shoulders and too-small dress that she still couldn’t remember when or why she put on. She entered the garage, leaving the pine cleaner and ironing board behind her. She needed a distraction—maybe a run to the local coffee house would calm her down.

She made it as far as the corner of the street before Bunny panicked. Bunny made several failed attempts before she was able to turn the car around, to get back down the street towards where she thought was her house.

What am I doing? Where do I think I am going? I don’t even have my license!

Thankfully Sam had left the garage door open. Bunny scraped up on the curb and managed to get within a few feet of the garage. She contemplated entering it.

Sam came to, with her head on the steering wheel and the car alarm going off. She instinctively grabbed at her keychain (still in the running ignition), turned off the car and hit the alarm button to silence the cadent screeching of the horn. Sam’s emotions stopped. Her awareness of her current situation suddenly became clouded by an overwhelming paralysis. She fled to the house, opened the door, dropped her jacket, and began shedding the dress that was too small and had already torn in many areas exposing Sam’s torso and lower back.

She realized Penelope was gone. Usually, she greeted her at the back entrance. Sam called and called, her dress half off and dangling about her waist. The bra she was wearing was put on inside out, but she barely noticed. She started to panic.

“Pen!! Penny!”

She slid open the sliding glass porch door, Penelope, crouched in a bush, was invisible to Sam, but Sam had a good idea where she might be hiding. This had happened before, but at that moment Sam was only cognizant of the current situation; barely cognizant of it at all. Sam carefully made her way to the bushes. It had rained recently, and the ground was full of mud and wet grass clippings. They caked onto her feet and clung to what was left of the dress’ hem line. The thorns of the barberries scratched at Sam’s bare torso as she lifted the frightened cat out of her hiding place.

Penelope, too, was covered head to toe in mud. Sam didn’t care. She clasped her close to her breast, now all but fully-exposed. Two houses down a neighbor mowed the lawn, as Sam saw him turn the mower in her direction, she scurried with Pen as fast as she could to get back in the house without him witnessing.

Exhausted, she took Penelope into the bedroom with her. She shed the last of the dress, leaving it in a heap next to the bed. She and Pen laid on the fresh sheets Bunny had replaced earlier that morning, covering them with mud and grass, but that was the least of Sam’s worries. And the least of the damage she had done today, she was sure of it.

She remembered only moments, flashes. She knew down in her core, her mind had betrayed her again. That she had been deceived by its ghosts and false memories. She had allowed ‘Bunny’ to consume her right mind and now Samantha, not ‘Bunny,’ would have to pay the price.

She tried to make reality go away by falling asleep, but the overwhelming stench of the floor pine cleaner became too much too bear. Sleep wouldn’t come. She dreaded Matthew’s return. She knew what was coming.

***

When Matthew started to pull into the garage, the light had been left on. He immediately noticed that Sam’s car had been parked askew with the front driver’s door left wide open. There was to be no way he would get his car, though compact, into what remained of his ‘spot.’ Sam did silly things like this somedays, so it gave him no immediate concern. He was preoccupied with the boys on his team. They were gunning for spots at the State track meet in all of the distance races he coached, and he knew he could get them there. Still buzzing from a great practice, Matthew left his car in the driveway so he could fix the angle of Sam’s and squeeze himself in.

He half skipped to the mailbox. Sam always left the mail in the box for him. He had an odd fixation with getting it, even though it was always mostly junk. Still, Sam was endeared by Matthew’s cute, yet somehow childish antics—the mail being one of many. So every day, she left it for him. Matthew could count on that.

Upon returning to Sam’s car with a wad of useless ads, a few bills and his weekly subscription to “The Economist,” Matthew noticed something else about the strange parking arrangement in the garage.

Oh no.

Sam’s right side, passenger mirror was hanging by wires, as though she had misjudged the side of the garage and struck the mirror, tried to back out, then tried to get back in, and ripped off the mirror in the process. She wound up overcompensating and turning too far left and into Matthew’s ‘side’ of the garage. Upon further inspection, she had also managed to swipe the side of the garage with sundry garden tools, scraping the exterior of her black hatchback.

She had completed her parking attempt by uplifting all of the garbage and recycling cans so they and their contents were strewn about the garage floor. She had finally come to rest, square on top of an old bar stool that had been used to prop up a radio and had sat directly to the left of the garbage cans. The radio was destroyed. The car’s carriage seemed to be stuck on the legs of the stool that was now nearly cracked in half.

Matthew knew he would have to deal with all of the disorder later, but he needed to tend to Samantha first. He cast aside the mail, grabbed his bags out from his car, and quickly shut the garage door. The neighbors did not need any more of a show than they probably had gotten that day.

It was 6:30 pm. The house was quiet; an overwhelming smell of pine cleaner clung in the air. Matthew had to open two or three windows and turn on a ceiling fan to keep himself from gagging. He inspected the living room. The furniture had been rearranged, but in a way that was nonsensical, as though the house had been uprooted by a Wizard-of-Oz-tornado and spun in circles before being plunked back down in the same spot.

Follow the Yellow Brick Road.

Matthew’s mind raced.

The TV leaned catawampus against the wall, imperceptibly, yet dangerously sliding all the way down; it had already begun to leave a track mark from the top corner, digging into the wall’s soft plaster. The kitchen chairs stopped Matthew in his tracks. In an eerie arrangement, all four were placed on top of the couch and loveseat—facing each other like stiff, awkward guests. Each uninvited and just as leery of the others’ attendance.

Matthew dropped his school bags and running gear from practice. He assessed what he could from the front entrance, dreading the damage control to come. He quickly made his way to the kitchen, not yet calling out to Sam. He half observed, from the corner of his eye, the mess of his burnt, stained shirts atop the ironing board and under the kitchen toaster. He opened the cupboard they used as a medicine cabinet. He grabbed the full bottle of risperidone.

Patient: Samantha K Westfield. Filled: 03/13/2015.

It was May 25th.

He blamed himself. He had been spending so much time working at school, prepping for his masters exam, and getting his boys ready for State, he had not noticed Sam was skipping her meds.

When did her behavior change?

He took the full bottle into the bedroom, carefully stepping around the piles of clothes that led from the typically spotless bathroom and hallway into their master bedroom. Every aspect of their normally immaculately clean house was uprooted and in disarray. Matthew inspected the chaos on the bedroom floor. He recognized a dress Sam had obsessively kept from high school, though it was far gone from fitting her. The straps were torn, stuck full of safety pins, some open and rusted; the rest of the dress was covered in mud.

Sam lie naked and still, curled up in the pile of sheets that had been changed since that same morning. She faced him. Her eyes, never blinking, remained fixated on an invisible (but not to Sam) spot on the floor. Her bare shoulders and torso revealed small prickles of blood from having clumsily “mended” the dress, and others from having recovered Penelope from the barberries in the backyard.

“Sweetie, what have you been doing all day?”

Matthew tried not to sound patronizing, but in situations like this he did not know how to avoid it. No matter what he said, Sam’s reaction remained the same blank stare at the ground with its hypnotic grasp on her. It was as though she were a little kid and he had caught her with her hands full of cookie dough. Matthew did not know if Sam was aware of the mess—the destruction—she had caused that day. He did not want her to know; did not want to have to be the one to explain it to her.

Sam’s breaks had always been non-violent, but creepy, delusional, and psychotic. The last time it happened she had spent a two weeks in a psychiatric ward, convinced she was her late Aunt Katie, and that they had her confused with someone else. Her Aunt Katie had died more than two decades before in a car accident at the age of twenty-five.

Sam was convinced the accident was no accident—that Aunt Katie had intended on killing herself. Sam only met Aunt Katie months before she died. Still, the “memories” of Katie’s life haunted Sam, and even when Sam was stable, she spent hours chronicling every last detail of what she imagined Katie’s life to be in journals. Sam became convinced Katie had been channeling her former and current thoughts through her—because no one else in the family believed in her. In Katie. In Sam.

Matthew always—in “situations” such as this—had to check his judgement. His wife was not her illness; his wife was not a child. She was a young, beautiful, brilliant writer, musician, chef—all careers she couldn’t remain in due to her illness. She tried many other avenues only to discover walking out on jobs held her highest success rate.

Sam took up a new purpose over the course of the past few years, and many years since her last psychotic break. She was the “housewife.” She cleaned, cooked, and organized everything in the house: what they’d eat, where they’d go, who they’d go out with—though, they didn’t have many friends. She worked in the morning on the house, laundry, kitchen, vacuuming. She ran and did yoga in the later morning and afternoon. She attended her appointments (so many appointments) and she cooked dinners for Matthew and her on the nights when he was home.

But she was lonely. She was lonely all of the time, even when Matthew was around. Sometime in the early spring, Sam had made up her mind to stop taking her pills. Once again. Just an “experiment.” She was not—in her mind’s eye—at risk for hurting herself or anyone else.

So she just stopped. Just like that. Filled the prescription on March 13th, 2015 and never refilled it. Never so much as popped one pill. Her follow up appointment with her shrink wasn’t until June.

“Sammy-lyn? Was is Aunt Katie this time?”

“No. Grandma Bunny.”

She answered, weeping silently and clinging to Penelope, covered in mud, but audibly purring. Matthew put the prescription bottle on the table beside the bed. Sam stared blankly at the pills, then looked up. Tears pouring down her flushed cheeks, as though she were running a fever. He sat next to her on the bed and stroked her long blond hair. It was disheveled and knotted. He grabbed a brush and began to slowly smooth it out.

“You know we need to go now.”

Fully lucid now, she acknowledged Matthew’s command.

“I know.”

 

 

——————–

Megan Paske studied Journalism at UW Madison and was published in various newspapers as a columnist. Since then, her fiction has been featured in literary publications, including Forge and Riding Light Review.  She is currently working on a memoir of her life with Bipolar Disorder. She uses her creativity as an outlet and as advocacy for mental illness and its place within the creative arts. She lives with her husband in Neenah, Wisconsin.

Serendipity

By MH Lee

After the utter darkness of the night before, the blue dawn was almost a shock to him, as if he hadn’t expected daylight to ever come again. The bus had been late coming out of Tucson, over an hour. Serendipity. Because of the delay Bobby had seen the first bright fingers of morning in the parking lot of the El Paso bus station. He had entered the station in the same blinding pitch he had been riding through all night, but just as they reloaded onto the charter, he glimpsed the beginnings. The steely light began to give definition to his surroundings. He noticed palm trees all around the edges of the lot. He had forgotten that they would grow in Texas—or else he had never known. He hadn’t really been concerned with trees in his past.

As the bus pulled away down Santa Fe Avenue, past the Scottish Rite Temple, Bobby realized that there were lots of things he had never noticed before, like the way the buildings here looked different than they did in Oklahoma or Missouri or California.

Something about the buildings here seemed open and clean. Maybe it was the contrast to the view beyond. The driver had said that Mexico lay only half a mile or so outside their windows. All that separated him in El Paso from strangers in another country was water. In some places that water was hardly more than a trickle, but in others the river was a rushing gulf, hungrily claiming the bodies of some desperate souls who tried to cross it.

Here in El Paso the river seemed like nothing, like a winding cattle road or a split-rail fence or just a line drawn in the dust, marking the end of one man’s place.

Bobby tried to focus on the houses of those other people as they sped past the city. Was that really Mexico? Was he seeing some foreign land? The place looked so barren, dusty and rocky. The houses were so close together that the clusters looked like tenement apartments with houses piled one on top of another. He wondered how those people could breathe so close together, packed in like prisoners. He had never had enough space, not in the hills, not in the desert, not in the faceless cities where no one knew his name. It had taken Bobby his entire life to figure out that his claustrophobia wasn’t caused by other people or their nearness to him. He just carried it around with him, like other people carried fears of flying or memories of their husband’s death. Some things just walked around inside a person whether they wanted to use them or not. Bobby figured that maybe he was so afraid of what might happen if people were close to him that he tortured anyone who made the mistake of asking him the time of day. What if they knew him inside? What if they could see his thoughts and his fears? What if they realized that he was nothing, an orphan, a beggar, an old lost man? Where would he ever be able to go if he lost that power to protect himself?

Bobby tried to stretch his aching back. He was getting too old and brittle to travel like this. Mid-fifties might as well be mid-eighties as tired as he felt. Running from himself was exhausting work. He was ready to retire. That was why he had accepted Francine Mathison’s offer when it came. There was Serendipity again, trying to catch him now that he was slowing down. He had only been out of prison for eight or nine months this time when the investigator she had hired came to his door.

The man had been strange, quiet and almost rude, like he was already late for the appointment of his life. Bobby had sneered when the man explained who had sent him.

“Statute of limitations, man,” he had said as he snapped the screen shut in the strange man’s face. The man looked tired. He hadn’t shaved in a while.

“Mr. Dowty,” he had said quickly before Bobby slammed the inner door, “Mrs. Mathison doesn’t wish to prosecute you for anything. She merely had me find you to extend this invitation.”

The odd, thin man had reached into his cheap, gray suit pocket then and extracted a small, purplish envelope bearing the name Robert J. Dowty. Something about seeing that name made Bobby feel nervous, as if Robert J. Dowty was another person he had met a few times but never really knew. Bobby wanted to take the envelope just to see what was inside. Maybe there was something about his mother. Maybe she was sick or dying. The old Mathison lady had been her best friend, after all. He needed to open that envelope—but something in his mind told him that it might explode if he touched it or vanish into a puff of smoke—or that someone might come rushing toward him yelling, “Thief!” So he had stood without moving, staring through the screen at the man whose ears were much too large for his head.

“For your convenience Mrs. Mathison has provided a round-trip bus ticket to the event and complete instructions,” the hook-nosed man said matter-of-factly, proffering those articles with his other hand.

“What’s she want with me?” Bobby asked bluntly. He squinted at the man as if he could somehow read the answer in the lines of his face.

“I’m sure I don’t know. If you want to find out, I suggest that you ask Mrs. Mathison.”

Then, for several moments, both men had stood motionless, waiting each other out. Bobby finally decided he was tired of looking at the gangly little man and opened the screen to take the items.

The scrawny investigator had merely dusted off his hands as if the whole affair had been dirty business and, with an abrupt turn, headed toward his rental car. “Good afternoon, Mr. Dowty,” he had said over his shoulder. When his car backed out, Bobby imagined that the man had driven just out of sight and then stopped to laugh and sneer at his face still frozen in the doorway of his trailer house.

That had always been the problem with Bobby. He couldn’t just accept things as they came. Everything was a question, an ordeal, a battle to come out on top. He wondered what kind of people they were who could just be happy with their lives. What made those people tick differently than he? Who were those men who lived in brightly colored, cheery little Mexican houses, one on top of another? And why did he have the impression that those poor people across the river were so much freer than he, just as poor on his side?

Bobby thought of a book he had read from the prison library, some old diary written by a girl who had died in World War II because she was Jewish. Bobby hadn’t planned to read that book. He had picked it up by mistake, but once he had started reading, he had wanted to know what happened. He had felt weird reading some girl’s private thoughts from so long ago. Of course he hadn’t read the whole book. Some parts were boring so he had skipped around a lot, and he had been really disgusted when the book just ended—without any answers like regular books. He figured maybe that was because a person was never really finished like a story that’s made up. Just to be sure he had asked Mrs. Mumphrey, the prison librarian, if part of the pages at the end of that book were missing. She had seemed surprised that Bobby would have chosen to read such a book, but after only one double-take, she had explained what had happened, why the book had ended. The little girl had been taken to a prison, only unlike him, she hadn’t committed any crimes. She was just from a religion that Germans didn’t like much. Bobby had been a little sad to find out that the girl had died in her prison, that she had never grown up to leave home or drink beer or have a boyfriend with a swell truck.

Mrs. Mumphrey had suggested other books Bobby might want to read about the girl and her war. He hadn’t checked any of them out, but for some reason he couldn’t help thinking about that girl. He had gone back to the library on a Friday, when Mrs. Mumphrey was off, to flip through the other books, looking for signs of the girl. He hadn’t wanted Mrs. Mumphrey to know he was too interested. He was content to let her think that he wanted no more knowledge added to his brain than what was provided with her “Words for the Week” board on the library wall. Every week there were two new words that everyone could learn if they wanted to have a better vocabulary when they got back to the real world. Most of the words didn’t interest Bobby, but one day Bobby had seen a word that kept his attention for a solid minute: Serendipity. The word looked so impressive up there on the board, long and beautiful. Serendipity. The definition had read, “An assumed talent for making discoveries by accident.” That had been the moment that Bobby discovered his real purpose in life. He had a knack for finding out things when he wasn’t even trying. The girl in the war prison was one of those things. After that Bobby had set about his task of finding books with a new vigor. He even started to feel almost proud of his newfound talent.

One book had pictures of other people like the girl who had died horribly. They had ended with their bodies piled up like the weary Mexican houses. Another book had told about a fence where free people snuck away to talk to their friends through raggedy holes. Sometimes they took them food or blankets or hopeful news about their families.

Seeing the river in El Paso reminded Bobby of that fence, where hope was nearly all that survived on both sides. He wondered if his life would have been different, if he would have hope, if he had been born in one of those tumbled-up houses in Mexico.

Bobby looked around him at the other riders on the bus, wondering, for maybe the first time in his life, what other people wanted from their lives. You could see where they came from: mothers with their children, young guys in college t-shirts, old people with their sun visors and fanny packs. The harder thing was to figure where they were going. Was anyone looking at him and knowing that he was riding through the desert dawn straight into his past?

He glanced to his right, where a middle-aged couple dozed together on one pillow propped between them. They were covered with a gigantic blanket, and the woman’s mouth hung wide open. In front of them sat two teenagers. The girl was rubbing at a kink in her neck as she carelessly threw her empty chip bag on the floor. Her boyfriend stared out the window. He was wearing earphones that were turned up so loud that Bobby could make out the beat of the songs from his own seat.

The woman directly in front of Bobby had a small baby all bundled up and another child that she kept yelling at in Spanish. Bobby didn’t speak any Spanish, but he could understand the tone of her voice clearly enough. They had gotten on the bus at the El Paso stop, and Bobby had noticed that their carry-on luggage had been dripping wet. Bobby thought again of the Rio Grande and turned away to look across at the windows on the other side of the bus.

Most of the people were like him. They had been on since Tucson or longer, and although they never asked each other’s names, they seemed to have formed some sort of alliance. They were the riders. When the bus driver swerved wildly in the night, they discussed amongst themselves the dangers. They prompted a volunteer to ask for an extra coffee stop. When the air conditioner wasn’t cool enough, they complained to each other and swapped stories of their hottest summers, of heat stroke and sunburns and cool mountain streams. When a baby cried, they recalled other tears, other babies, other nights on long, winding roads. But it wasn’t just the conversation—something about the people around him made Bobby feel like part of a community. The feeling fit awkwardly but he thought he could learn to like it. Maybe he could stay on that bus forever, living on the outskirts of life. It would be easier than going home.

He had dreaded this trip since the day he left, knowing that eventually almost everyone returns to where they came from. Sometimes people waited until they were old and dying before they went to make amends or see things one last time. Sometimes they got there by chance because of a random choice they made one day. Bobby couldn’t be certain but he was pretty sure that no matter how long they waited, they were all as scared as he was.

Bobby rummaged in his old, worn duffel until he found the book, the dog-eared Bible that the prison chaplain had given him on the day he was released from prison. The chaplain had talked to him a lot through the years, and though Bobby couldn’t say why, he had listened intently on more than one occasion. On the morning of Bobby’s last day inside, the chaplain had brought the old, used Bible to Bobby and had marked a page for him in the book of Luke. Bobby had read the highlighted passage dozens of times since that day, and as he traced it now with his finger, he felt the truth of blame deep in his bones.

“…And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want…”

The story went on to tell about how the son had realized his sins and had gone home to ask to be a servant, but when he got there his father kissed him and made a big party to celebrate, which really ticked off the older son, who had stayed home and been good all those years. Bobby could understand the part about the riotous living. He had certainly wasted more substance than most people could expect to gain in a lifetime. He even understood the brother. There he was, taking up all the slack for his brother, but as soon as he came home, everyone acted like he was a rock star or something. The part that Bobby couldn’t quite see—the part his conscience didn’t really believe—was the part about the father and his open arms. Even if his father hadn’t been bitter to start with, wouldn’t all those years of his son’s being wasteful have done the trick? Maybe long ago in Bible times, people were more forgiving of their children, or maybe some people loved their sons so much that it didn’t matter what they’d done. They’d always welcome them back.

Even though Bobby knew his story wouldn’t end that way, even though he already felt the cold certainty of being turned away, he couldn’t help but press onward. Serendipity and Francine Mathison had given him an opportunity to go home again. He had nothing to lose and probably nothing to gain, but he felt a wriggling queasiness in the pit of his stomach. He hadn’t felt that particular sensation in a very long time, but he thought perhaps it might be hope.

He ran his fingers over the twentieth verse one last time before he closed the Bible. He wasn’t really reading the verses anymore. He knew the entire passage by heart, and even after the book was zipped back safely inside his bag, he replayed the words carefully over and over in his mind.

“…And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him…

 

 

——————–

Melissa Heath-Lee is a Foster Care and Adoption Recruiter for the State of Oklahoma, where she lives with her husband Peery. She’s been writing for nearly 40 years while also pursuing careers in the arts, education, and vacuum cleaner sales. Her short stories, flash fiction and poetry have been published in journals such as The Quotable and Green Eggs and Hamlet, and her plays have been produced in Texas and Oklahoma.

The Silencers

By Vic Cavalli

Mike Armaiolo considered himself a premium machinist, but when Louis Capice came into his business and stealthily requested a silencer for his 500 Nitro Express, he felt challenged and slightly vulnerable.  It was awkward trying to disguise it.  The 500 Nitro is a loud, formidable rifle, and when Louis motioned Mike’s ear closer and whispered the order, he said, “Of course,” but he wasn’t sure of himself.  From a practical point of view, silencer diagrams from prison came to his mind.  He had done time with a gun genius nicknamed The Deadlifter who had sketched exploded diagrams of esoteric firearm devices, all of them illegal.  Mike’s memory raced through this library and got a few good hits, but he still wrestled with how the diagrams could be adapted to a double-barrel design like the 500’s.

Louis remained at his ear for a few seconds after his order, as if he was listening for the snap of a twig and readying himself to fire.  Then his head slowly moved away from Mike and he looked at him squarely to speak honestly.

“They are hunting me, Mike,” he whispered.  “I know it sounds insane, but they are all coming back.”

His face was taut and his eyes looked around to confirm what they already knew, that they were alone in the machine shop.

“At first the scenes came back in flickers; I was alone in the bush, listening and barely moving.”

Mike had been building guns for Louis for over twenty years, and he considered him a good customer and to an extent a friend, but now he was confiding in him as if they were close.  Louis looked around again, clearly nervous, and confessed.

“Not in dreams, Mike.  In the dark while I’m lying in bed trying to rest. I’m actually seeing them. All of those sons of bitches!”

“Who?”

“First, the guides walked away like silvery, poor quality chalk drawings whose edges became sharper, crisper, then smeared and blurry and then pure black and gone.”

“What the fuck,” Mike whispered back, thinking to himself how surreal Louis’ artistic language seemed.

“Then I was alone in the bush, in absolute darkness, with distant roars and cackles and nearby twigs dryly cracking.  And then the thin white pencil outline of my first lion’s profile emerged and then he turned to me and the lines thickened and became luminous and he roared full out, I swear, exactly as he did the moment before I blew the bastard away with my 500 Nitro, and then I shit a bit in the bed and jumped up in a full sweat and turned on the lights and there was fuck all in the empty room!”

“Fuck me,” Mike whispered.

Louis was deadly serious.  He looked around and then flinched when he saw a woman’s figure approaching the front door and then heard the bell ring as she entered. She was obviously out of place in a machine shop but seemed to know why she was there.  She was wearing a conservative faint pink dress and a string of small white pearls, and her auburn hair was braided near the temples and pulled back into a delicate crown.  She was wearing red lip stick and she obviously had self-respect.  Her expression was serious.

“Can I help you?” Mike asked her.

“My husband Carl asked me to pick up something you made for him.”

“You are Carl Rimpianto’s wife?”

She nodded, and Mike brought out a small box from the back room, rang up her bill, and she left with the door ringing.  Her hair lifted slightly in the wind as she walked to the left and away in the sunlight.  Mike looked back at Louis and they quickly regained their previous confessional intimacy.

“You’re not bullshitting me, are you Louis?”

“Mike . . .”

His face said it all.  He looked like a man genuinely concerned about being committed.

“Now, it’s not just that first lion; they all come back as soon as I turn off the lights.”

“They?”

“It’s a fucking herd of lions, rhinos, water buffalos, and hippos, and all of them tangled

together and roaring full blast as if I never silenced them.”

“Fuck me,” Mike whispered.

“I’ve got to kill them again, Mike.  And this time for good.  That’s why I need the silencer for my 500 Nitro.”

“How the fuck is that supposed to work, Louis.  You can’t just start blasting at hallucinations.  Somebody in the real world is going to get killed.  You need to talk to your doctor, not me.”

“They are real. No one will get caught in the cross-fire. You make the silencer and I’ll go camping in a remote location close to the Yukon border.  I’ll kill them all the first night and then return.  It will all be finished with and I will be able to have my life back.”

Mike was silent and in deep thought for at least a full two minutes; then he said, as if breeching a promise of silence, “You should take Carl Rimpianto with you.”

“The guy whose wife was just in here?  Why?”

“Because she just left with the silencer I machined for his 458 Winchester.”

“What the fuck!” Louis said loudly.

“Listening to you is like listening to Carl’s voice being played back to me on a

tape recorder,” Mike whispered.

Louis’ face turned a grave pale grey and he yelled, “Don’t fuck with me, Mike.”

“I swear I’m not, Louis.  Your order today is the seventh silencer ordered this month. The neighbors have been complaining about me setting off fireworks at night in my back yard.  They’ve got no idea that I’ve been testing silencers.”

“What the fuck,” Louis whispered.

“Yeah, what the fuck,” Mike responded in even a lower voice.

And then Mike began filling out Louis’ order form.

 

 

——————–

Vic Cavalli’s fiction, poetry, photography, and visual art have been published in literary journals in Canada, the United States, England, and Australia.  His visual art can be viewed at  vittoriocavalli.com.  His novel The Road to Vermilion Lake, is forthcoming from Harvard Square Editions in July 2017.

The Misfit on the Island of Misfit Toys

By James Valvis

t1

eddy arrived at the Island of Misfit Toys. He was supposed to be a Teddy Bear for a nice little boy or girl, but he had sailed on the wrong ship and ended up here. He was soon surrounded by other toys, many of whom seemed broken and unbalanced.

“We’re all misfits like you,” the first toy said. He was a bus with square wheels.

“Listen, I’m not–”

“Let us introduce ourselves,” an eyeless doll said. “I’m Betty and my eyes are sewn into my chest. Let me lift my dress so you can see.”

Sure enough there were eyes where one might find nipples on a little girl. It disgusted Teddy.

“Some factory worker with a sick mind,” she said, shrugging. “What is your deformity?”

He needed to look away.  “Well… I…”

“Don’t rush him,” said the bus with square wheels. “Let him work up to it. It takes some time to come around to admitting you’re a freak.”

All the misfit toys laughed and agreed.

“Jack, help him out by admitting your condition.”

“I’m a Jackal in the Box,” said a dog on a coiled wire. Blood was painted on his face. He was very frightening. “No kid wants a Jackal in the Box. That’s why I hate kids.”

“You hate kids?” Teddy said.

“We all hate kids,” said a cowboy who was riding a llama. “Kids are the worst. I’d like to round them up and–”

“Hey, they don’t want us,” Betty said. “So we don’t want them.”

“But… but,” Teddy stuttered. “It shouldn’t be too hard to get you round wheels, or get someone to sew your eyes on your face, and there’s probably some disturbed kid out there who might want a Jackal in the Box. And as for the rest of you–”

“You don’t talk like a misfit,” a spotted rhino said.

“No, he doesn’t,” said a gun who shot mustard. “Not at all.”

“I’m not,” Teddy said. “I’m perfectly fine.”

“Nobody here is perfectly fine. That’s why we’re here.”

“Well, I am,” Teddy Bear said. “I’m exactly how I should be. Maybe I have a bit too much fluff in the midsection, but otherwise I’m normal.”

“We hate normal,” the misfits said in unison.

They began to move in on him.

“Wait a minute,” Teddy said. “Wait. Listen.”

“No, you listen,” the bus said. “We’re misfits. We don’t like normal.”

Teddy was still backing up. Behind him was a wall. Toys were to his left, right, and front. “But if everyone’s a misfit, is anyone really a misfit? Isn’t the normal one the misfit?”

“Normality is evil,” Betty said. “That’s the law of our Island! No normal toys!”

“Everyone must fit in!” roared the Jackal in the Box. “Everyone must be different!”

“This isn’t the Island of Normal Toys!” yelled the mustard gun.

“Everyone must be a misfit!” the spotted rhino screamed. “Missing arms! Missing legs! Something! Get him! Make him a misfit! Make him a misfit!”

And so they did.

 

——————–

James Valvis has placed poems or stories in Ploughshares, River Styx, Arts & Letters, Southern Indiana Review, Adirondack Review, Natural Bridge, Rattle, Hot Metal Bridge, The Sun, and many others. His poetry was featured in Verse Daily. His fiction was chosen for Sundress Best of the Net. His work has also been a finalist for the Asimov’s Readers’ Award. A former US Army soldier, he lives near Seattle.

Reviving Ophelia

By Cassie Title

i’ve been hearing lists of names since nursery school. We would sing them with the cantor: Elohei Avraham, Elohei Yitz-hak, v’Elohei Ya-ah-kov. The sanctuary was mahogany pews and wood paneled walls and elegant white candles dripping wax. There were stairs there, special stairs, carpeted in deep blue, the same color as the bimah they held up. There were sandy bricks on the wall behind the bimah, behind the ark and the Torahs and the white curtain that covered them.

There were more lists of names: Elohei Sarah, Elohei Rivkah, Elohei Leah, v’Elohei Ra-hel. We’d sing them with the cantor. There were plaques on the walls, too: hundreds of golden tiles with names that seemed both familiar but not quite modern, like a generation removed, names like Edythe Hershman and Sid Schlossman and Isaac Weisman. We would sing more songs and read more prayers and recite things from memory. We would open our siddurs and press the smooth pages down. If we dropped the siddur, we’d have to kiss it after picking it up. The rabbi wouldn’t say anything, but we knew that God was watching.

Of course, we didn’t know what God was. We knew he had many names: Adonai, Elohim, Lord, Yahweh (which we weren’t allowed to say). We knew he wanted us to read the Torah, and to say blessings, and to drink grape juice from shiny, silver Kiddish cups. We knew he was friends with Rabbi Steinberg. We knew he was involved in some really interesting stories—tales of a magic staff separating water, of a tower that stretched to the sky, of a father about to kill a son, stopped by an angel.

Sometimes, Rabbi Steinberg would take the Torah out of the ark. We’d all have to stand up. He would walk around the room, and we’d reach our siddurs out to the aisle, touch them to the Torah, and kiss the book. Other times, we’d have to stand on our tip toes and chant kadosh, kadosh, kadosh. We knew the words meant holy, but we didn’t know what holy meant.

 

I met Josh on a park bench. It was one of those ferociously cold winter days, yet the sun wouldn’t stop shining. I’m not quite sure why, but I wanted to be out in the frozen air, so I was reading in the sun and squinting. He offered me a pair of cheap sunglasses.

It seemed like something that never actually happens in real life, so I went along with it. When he asked me what I did, I told him that I was a professional slacker. He understood that I was in graduate school.

I think I liked him instantly, which never used to happen. I’m not sure I can really explain it. It used to take me months to like potential suitors. We would go on five dates and I’d do weird things like wait two weeks to call them back or act like their conversational skills weren’t impressing me at all, and then as soon as they would write me off, I’d decide I was madly in love with them.

But Josh was different. It seemed like he talked to me because he genuinely wanted to talk to somebody, not because he was trying to hit on me. He was wearing a collared shirt and slacks with neatly parted gelled hair—all perfectly, disgustingly made up—but his footgear didn’t go with the rest of him. I must’ve liked the way his shoes were scuffed. I’ve never trusted anybody with clean shoes.

He was writing a book about Eskimos. It seemed like a luxurious thing to do. I pictured igloos, ice castles, palaces of hardened snow. And then I saw fairy tale princesses, swans in carriages, silver skates making stitches on ponds—I’m not sure why. It’s not like they had anything to do with Eskimos—I was just picturing some fantastical winter wonderland. When he told me the study was “anthropological in nature,” I thought of names: Inuit, Aleut. I thought of land bridges, animal furs, ice fishing. Of people who crossed the Bering Strait tens of thousands of years ago. Walking over Beringia, and ending up in a different continent. Did they even know they were leaving Asia behind?

I was writing a book about nothing. Eventually, it would have to be about something. It was unclear how much longer I could keep getting funded for my Ph.D. in history. I was interested in monarchial politics, the kings and queens of Europe. How they were pretty much all related, so at one point, all of the wars were really just family disputes on a worldwide scale.

He wanted to see if he could call on me for “my expertise in historical matters.” He said it like he knew it sounded ridiculous. I gave him points for that.

 

Before he died, my grandfather would come to our house every Friday night. We weren’t particularly observant, but we always celebrated Shabbat. I would help my mother bake challah—we’d mix the eggs and the oil, twist and braid the dough, watch the yeast rise, and brush it with egg whites. This was my favorite part—getting to use a paintbrush on food. It felt rebellious—like how I felt the time I snuck into the kitchen to try the yeast mixture while the dough was rising, thinking it would taste like raw cookie dough.

My mother would make roast chicken and carrots and string beans and chicken soup with matzo balls and noodles. We’d have chopped liver, which was creamy and sweet, and red wine for the adults and grape juice for me. I’d chant the blessing when my mother lit the candles, and I’d watch the fire leak light onto the table, orange in its glow.

After dinner, I’d help my mother polish the candlesticks and the fancy silverware we used just for Shabbat. We’d wash the lacy tablecloth we only used on special occasions. We’d have coconut macaroons for dessert, even if it wasn’t Passover. And when I was really young, my mother would sing and my father and I would dance, my feet atop his, spinning around and around until he twirled me up the stairs to my bedroom, and tucked me in before I went to sleep.

 

The second time I saw Josh it was snowing. We ducked into a coffee shop.

We pored over the chalkboard menus. I ordered something embarrassing. He paid.

We talked about caramel macchiatos.

__What are they? He asked.

I told him that they didn’t exist.

He seemed intrigued.

__Starbucks has bastardized the term. A macchiato is an espresso shot with a couple of dollops of foam. The drink that most people associate with a caramel macchiato is really just a caramel latte with vanilla syrup.

__So you have expertise in caffeinated beverages, too.

He said that. I didn’t correct him.

 

While I was in graduate school, going home became strange. Ever since my grandfather died, my family no longer did Shabbat dinner, we rarely went to the synagogue I grew up going to, and when we did, I hardly recognized any of the people or the tunes or the names. I used to love visiting: driving around the suburban streets, counting how many minutes it would take that one traffic light on Lakeview Ave to switch to green, wandering through Millers Park, swinging on the swings, dipping my shoes into the gravel, watching kids cup fresh mud in their small hands.

Now, everything feels even stranger. It’s like looking at your reflection in a mirror after getting a drastic new haircut—it takes a couple minutes to even recognize yourself. Despite the fact you know it’s you, and nothing has really changed, everything seems different, far more different than you could ever have imagined.

 

__Let me make you dinner, Josh said on the phone.

I paused for a minute, maybe two.

__Oh, no. The dreaded two-minute pause.

__What? I said.

__You’re trying to figure a way out of having dinner with me.

__Wow, so insecure.

He laughed.

__What can I bring? I asked.

__Nothing, he said. Just your company.

Later that day, I put on my snow boots and walked to his place. I looked at the trees covered in ice, counting as I passed them by: maple, spruce, elm. I stared at dogs being walked: golden retrievers, beagles, German shepherds. When I got to his apartment, and he opened the door, I found myself making another list: great smile, witty sense of humor, warm, bellowing voice.

__Greetings, I said.

__Salutations, he laughed. Won’t you come in?

I did. He led me to the table, but nothing was on it. I sat down.

__So we’re having an invisible dinner?

__Clever, he said. But not quite.

He poured some wine, handed me a glass. Then I followed him into his living room.

There was a picnic blanket on the floor, topped with candles and fresh cut flowers in mason jars. There was salad and steak and orzo with feta and grape tomatoes. It was all of my favorite things. I couldn’t remember mentioning them to him.

We started eating.

__How’s your dissertation going?

It wasn’t going well. In fact, I was starting to think that it didn’t matter at all anymore.

__Fine, I told him.

__I’d love to read it when you’re done.

__As soon as you show me your Eskimo manuscript.

He laughed.

__I’m afraid to show it to you, with all of your historical and research and writing experience. Besides, you’ll totally hate the part about how ancient aliens came to Alaska and Canada and invaded the native peoples and then their descendants became the Inuit and the Aleuts.

__Oh, okay, I smirked.

__See, this is exactly what I was afraid of. You laughing at my belief in ancient aliens. A guy can’t show his crazy this early in a relationship.

__Oh, so this is a relationship?

__I sure hope so. He laughed. Then he got up to go to the kitchen, where he stayed for five minutes.

__Josh?

No answer. I heard a machine.

__Have you been taken? Are they here?

He came back in.

__Funny, he said. He handed me a mug.

__What’s this?

__Oh, the ancient aliens came and made some caramel macchiatos. I thought you might like one.

I said nothing, and just grinned.

 

Before Josh, there was Ryan and Aaron and Jeb, all musicians: guitarist and bassist and saxophonist.

I had a habit for dating inappropriate men. Men who were too young, too old, too unemployed. Too into alcohol, cocaine, heroin. Too Morman, too Jewish, not Jewish enough.

They were baristas and college drop outs, exotic pet trainers and moving men—but if you were to ask any of them, their “true calling was music.” Josh worked at an app company. He seemed somewhat successful. He didn’t make me feel embarrassed walking down the street with him, even when he took my hand, switched our glasses (we had the same prescription, oddly enough) and insisted on waltzing through the sidewalk. Then he’d walk me to my door—not to my building entrance, but to my actual apartment door—without ever expecting to come inside. He’d kiss me slowly, slide his fingers through my hair, and then he’d tip his imaginary hat to me before leaving. Granted, he only did this a handful of times, because we only went out a handful of times. And then the last time, he simply said “he was falling for me,” and would see me tomorrow.

 

Growing up, I had a new name every day. My parents couldn’t keep track, so they’d keep a list on the refrigerator. Lily, Chloe, Olivia, Roxanne, Layla, then back to Ophelia, which is actually my name.

I couldn’t understand how I had to commit to just one thing, one name, one identity. I wasn’t sure why I had to choose, why it was so important, why it mattered at all.

I don’t remember settling on Ophelia, but I must have finally accepted the name I was given.

 

My mother has developed an obsession with Ancestry.com. It started as a hobby, something to pass her newly retired time with. Now, there are lists of potential relatives all over her computer screen. There’s a photo of the house my grandfather lived in as a toddler in Queens, the church my great grandmother was baptized in in Irvington, New Jersey. This brought up questions: my great grandmother was baptized? We knew one leg of the family was non-practicing Irish Catholic, but to be baptized? It seemed like a serious lapse in familial knowledge.

Then there are the passenger records of ships from Galicia docking in New York with names like Clara and Haskell and John. In school, my friends’ families came from places like India and Romania and Switzerland. Everyone in my family was fourth generation Newark, New Jersey. We had to go back a fifth generation for any sort of cultural identity, which always turned out to be Galicia, a place that no longer exists.

There is a myth in my family, that my father’s grandfather was a British pirate. I may have been the one who started it: his name was John and he was from England and I was in sixth grade reading Treasure Island, so I convinced myself that he was Long John Silver. I eventually realized this wasn’t the case, but I still thought I had “this much” British in me. So, I started speaking in an awful English accent for a full month. Nobody—not my mother or my father or the very grandfather whose father I bestowed the pirate identity onto—had the heart to correct me. It turned out that the British side was really from Galicia, too.

There is another myth in my family, about being Irish on my mother’s side. My grandmother spent years telling us she was Irish. I took to studying Celtic myth, Irish folk songs, Gaelic. But my mother sorted through the archives of huge steamships and censuses and churches and temples and street addresses, and it turned out that the Irish part of the family had actually originated in Galicia, too.

I asked her about this Galicia, which was not to be confused with the one in Spain. She told me it no longer existed. I didn’t understand how a place could physically be there but not, how a place could be called something else. She told me my great great grandparents lived in what is now Poland or Ukraine. But back then it was Galicia. They were Eastern European, Ashkenazi Jews. They spoke Yiddish, not Polish. When they got to America, they settled in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Newark. They married other people from Galicia. They cooked corned beef and cabbage and kreplach and worked as seamstresses and mechanics and food purveyors. They had kids who forgot their language, their cooking, their culture. They were part of a world that forgot their country existed.

 

Josh never saw me tomorrow. On his way back from walking me home, an icicle fell on his head. They say in Russia, 100 people die a year from falling icicles. They can impale you, like a dagger—even in America. I read about it in the local daily newspaper.

It seemed like an impossible thing: death by sharp snow. I knew he had a thing for ice and igloos, so I wondered if his death was poetic, if he would have approved. I didn’t even know him, not really. But I put on a nice black dress and stared at his open casket and thought about giving my condolences to his parents, who I didn’t know and didn’t know me. But I knew that it was all my fault that he was dead, that he never would have walked that way if he hadn’t been walking me home. So I left without talking to anyone and got myself a caramel macchiato, because the drink didn’t exist and Josh didn’t exist and where I came from didn’t exist, so what did any of it matter?

 

My mother used to sing in the choir at temple. She wore these long cream robes and sat with the other members in stiff-backed chairs to the left of the rabbi and cantor’s podiums. I’d sit in the first row, waiting and waiting until her solo. Her voice sounded clear and sweet and she didn’t even need a microphone to project like the others.

Other people would follow her in their siddurs or song sheets, reading from the back to the front, from right to left. It was confusing for me, all these languages I grew up hearing: English and Hebrew and Yiddish, two you read left to right, the other right to left. I started reading my English books from back to front and my Hebrew books from front to back.

For a year in Hebrew school, I stopped reading along in the services. It was easy enough to memorize the prayers and songs, so I did: the Mourner’s Kaddish, the Mi Shebeirach, the V’ahavta. I could say them in Hebrew: Yit’gadal v’yit’kadash sh’mei raba, Mi shebeirach avoteinu m’kor habrachah l’imoteinu, V’ahavta et Adonai eloheha. I could say them in English: You shall love the lord your God with all your mind with all your strength will all your being.

But when my mother sang, I didn’t sing with her. I just watched her gracefully open her mouth, look at the congregation, and let the words, all the words, flow out.

 

I was sitting in the graduate school library, the night before my dissertation draft was supposed to be submitted to my committee. It was dark outside, so I couldn’t see the sky. I just kept staring at the lamps on the desks, made to look like old-time oil lamps, despite the fact that they were clearly electric.

My computer screen was blank. Completely. I tried to remember why I was interested in all the Henrys and czars and princesses. I couldn’t think of anything.

Then I made a list.

Con: Loss of academic integrity and/or career. Sense of doing something very wrong. Not allowing myself to reach my potential.

Pro: It would be written and I would be done. No more incessant stress and pressure. Everyone does it, everything we do or write or think is merely a copy of something else, so what would it matter anyway?

 

When I took the train to my parents’ house after Josh’s funeral, they didn’t know that I’d be staying there for good. They picked me up at the station, all happy and laughing and “great to see you!” I evaded their questions: How long are you staying? Are you seeing anyone special? How’s the dissertation coming along?

A list of these truths would look like this: indefinitely, I might’ve been but he died from an icicle attack, and not so well, mostly because I got kicked out of grad school for plagiarizing.

 

The therapist my parents are making me see has taken quite an interest in my listmaking. We have talked about medicines: Zoloft, Lexapro, Klonopin. We have talked about exercise regimens: adult soccer leagues, master’s swimming programs, yoga. We have talked about Henry VIII’s lesser-known wives: Anne of Cleves, Kathryn Howard, Katherine Parr.

He uses the wives to get me talking history, my dissertation, about “my next step” which is really a veiled way of talking about my “misstep.” He is trying to understand why I plagiarized. I wish him luck, as I am still trying to figure it out.

I think back: there was my parents’ disapproval in my chosen field, their disbelief that it was a worthwhile degree. My advisor saying my funding was running out, that I had to finish this year. There was all the reading I had to do, from left to right, all the time I didn’t have. There was the phone call I got about my grandfather dying, how he slipped in the shower and my mother had to see him, sprawled, on the floor, after the assisted living called to tell her he was gone. There was the funeral, the eulogy, the dirt I shoveled onto his grave. There were these words of mourning, words I’ve memorized since five but still know nothing of their meaning: Yit’gadal v’yit’kadash sh’mei raba. There was the fact that my parents put me on Lexapro at thirteen, because they thought I was too anxious. There was Josh and his Eskimos and blood-covered ice. There were two languages that were supposed to be dead, but resurged; there was a kingdom that was dead but its land still stood under peoples’ feet. There were the Habsburgs and the poor farmers and tailors from Galicia and the Torah stories, the fact that Jacob’s name changed from Ya-ah-kov to Yisrael. There was the fact that, when you really think about it, all of this has happened before and will happen again and so what does any of it matter, really? There was too much to think about, the therapist noticed, so he said I should list it all out and come back next week.

 

A word about my grandfather’s funeral: he was old, ninety-one, so it wasn’t as tragic. He was always giving me fifty dollar bills to hide in my wallet “in case of an emergency.” I called him once a week, sometimes more, and we all had a running gag about keeping him on the phone. The standing record was three minutes, although the rest of my family didn’t believe that I had achieved such a feat. My grandpa just wasn’t good on the phone—he’d rather come over and see you, talk to you in real life.

He used to bring us Portuguese rolls, soft and fluffy and fresh and warm from the bakery’s oven. My father talked about this and his generosity while he eulogized him. Before that, they asked if I wanted to see him. My mother warned me that it would be the last time I looked at him, and I had never seen a real dead body. I didn’t think I wanted to remember him like that, like a mannequin, so I never saw.

We said the Kaddish and my feet hurt from my heels and I couldn’t think about anything but the way my grandfather used to pick me up on his shoulders as a toddler, bounce me up and down and tell me he was sending me to the moon. I wondered if he thought it was funny that I loved it so much, that I told my friends in school I had been to the moon plenty of times, that I was practically an astronaut, that I space traveled in my rec room every Saturday morning.

I still wonder if I should have looked at his body when I had a chance, to see his remains. We closed the casket because thousands of years have taught Jews that open caskets are tacky, disrespectful. I just thought they were weird, but maybe I was wrong. Maybe I needed to see what was left of him, to feel his death was real, to acknowledge that he no longer existed like the place where his grandparents came from, but still, still was there.

 

My mother takes me to see her manicurist, Olga, who she’s been going to since I was three. I remember hiding under her table, stealing the polishes my mother wanted and scooting around on the floor to the other manicurists’ stations, switching the colors. She would paint my nails for fun and for free and I liked the way it looked but hated the way my lacquered nails felt.

Olga hasn’t seen me in years, maybe two, maybe four, but she hugs me tight and hands me bags of Polish chocolate, candies with names like Paluszki and Chalwa and Pawetek. They taste like milk and nougat and cocoa, and I think about how Olga moved here from Poland thirty years ago. She may have even lived where my ancestors lived, where Galicia was and is not anymore.

When we leave, my mother reminds me to write a thank-you note. I ask if I can call instead. She looks at me knowingly, and I think she wants me to be ashamed that I can only write things that are meaningless: lists of couples I know and colleges I’ve visited and particular categories of people—Jewish girls from camp, Jewish girls from high school, names that I made up.

I know she saw my trash can, with at least fourteen crumpled pieces of paper stuck inside. They were crinkled almost beautifully, like weird origami figures that were only halfway made. I know she saw the etches of writing on them, black scribble against an otherwise white background. She probably opened them, saw list upon list of random names.

I know she is furious, concerned about my sanity, trying to understand why someone who was having so much trouble writing that she needed to plagiarize her dissertation can now not stop writing lists of names that do not matter in the slightest.

I see her think about this, and she tells me I don’t have to write a thank-you after all, that I can give Olga a call.

 

In Hamlet, my namesake goes mad and starts singing songs and listing flowers and herbs: rosemary, pansies, rue. She tells people they’re for remembering, thoughts, regret.

There is a book my mother loves, a psychological manual for teen girls, called Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. It was written after I was born, but my mother always fancied herself a psychologist, so she tells people that’s what she named me after.

It was a pretty tragic name to give someone, I thought, which is what I told my parents in middle school. My father said he liked the way it sounded: Oh-fee-lee-ah. He heard wind chimes and bird calls in the four syllables, musical notes like my mother’s singing voice.

I used to climb a willow tree in our backyard, and my mother found it ironic, considering Ophelia fell off a willow tree into a brook and drowned. There was no water underneath our tree, so it seemed I was safe.

I’d think about what it might mean to drown, to fall into water, to not be able to push your way through, to feel like liquid was that thick. I’d think about the flowers she had given out, the madness she had fallen into, the lucidity of it all. Then I’d wonder what it would feel like to drown from the smell of flowers.

 

I’ve started archiving the horticulture books and historical documents at the town library. I make piles of huge, dusty books and write down their names. They didn’t even ask me to do it—I just started and soon enough they saw and approved and I was doing inventory in the children’s section and the fiction section and for all the biographies, too.

There’s a room in the library, with glass walls and a door and steps and a floor and it looks like a bimah in reverse, with the stairs leading down to the platform instead of up. I used to sit there for hours when they had children’s programs like book clubs or story time or my-parents-work-so-I-have-nowhere-else-to-go-time.

Now I make my lists there, sitting on the floor in this great, wide space of carpet. They’ve offered me a desk but I’ve said no, preferring to feel the plush fabric on my skin. They leave me alone, for the most part. They appreciate the help. They like the lists.

 

My grandfather’s Yahrzeit is tonight, so we go to the synagogue and wait till the end of the service, when the rabbi reads the long list of names. When he says my grandfather’s name, I feel surprised. We’ve been waiting an hour and a half for just this one name, and then he says it, and it’s over, and the mourning, for the night, is done.

It’s a funny thing, the anniversary of a death. We light a candle for twenty-four hours. We say the Kaddish too many times. We wait an hour and a half to hear the one name we came for, then go to the Oneg and eat rugelach and fruit and drink soda and then leave.

My parents go home but I walk around. I pass the baseball field and the park, the middle school and the bus stop, the traffic light I have to wait a whole ten minutes at to even try crossing the street. I peer through cracks in the sidewalk, holes in fences, spaces in air. I am trying to fit it all together: the names and the lists and the deaths and the prayers.

I see lists everywhere: in the shadows of tree branches, the old street signs, the license plates on all the cars. There are deaths everywhere: in America and Israel and even Galicia, a place that technically no longer exists. I keep walking and sorting, speaking in three tongues. I think of my mother’s solo, how when there was an instrumental break in the song, the congregation stood up, one at a time, called on by the rabbi, and recited the names of their sick loved ones. Then I sing it: Mi shebeirach avoteinu m’kor habrachah l’imoteinu, and only later do I realize it’s the prayer for healing.

 

——————–

Cassie Title is an MFA candidate in fiction writing at Emerson College, where she teaches composition in the First-Year Writing Program, creative writing to high school students through EmersonWRITES, and works as a writing consultant in the Writing and Academic Resource Center. She graduated with a BA in English from Tufts University, and has written for Interview magazine.

How to Stay Healthy

By Richard Key

picture yourself thirty years down the road, the victim of poor health choices. There you sit in your bedchamber, pale and greasy, practically unable to move from sore joints, back problems, and generalized weakness. You make the portrait of Dorian Gray look like an ad for the fitness club. Years of excess have caught up with you, and now you’re a wasted heffalump whose only amusement is trying to defeat toenail fungus.

Now imagine a healthy, vibrant you taking charge of your life, making excellent health decisions, maintaining a normal weight, eating wisely, and preaching to all those around you about how, with a little work, they too can be full of vitality and energy well into their golden years. Decades later, after you’ve run off all your friends, you can be proud of the way you stayed the course, and can enjoy your remaining years lonely, but full of health and vigor.

He has little who doesn’t have his health, a wise fortune-cookie scribe once wrote while moonlighting from her real job as a copywriter for Procter & Gamble. In fact, health has been chosen as the official bodily condition of the 2016 Summer Olympics. And the easiest way to stay healthy is to remain young. Young people, naturally, have far less disease than older folks. Unfortunately, the only way to beat aging is to constantly be traveling near the speed of light, which they don’t let you do anymore, even in Texas. So, that leaves the alternative—lie about your age. No, of course I wouldn’t ask you to do that. What that leaves is following several guidelines and recommendations that lead to a healthy lifestyle, and ergo, a healthier life.

The first thing to do is stop inserting Latin words and phrases into your sentences ad nauseam. Latin is a dead language, and no good can come from peppering your speech with morsels of a lingua mortua.

Secondly, never ever sit down. Ever. Sitting, we know now, can knock years off your life. If you never sat down, you could live to be a hundred and fifty. You’re sitting now, aren’t you? I can tell from my writer’s perch that you’re sitting. I sense it. So much for longevity! Now, get off your keister right this minute, and toss out every chair in the house. Just throw them out in the yard. Honestly!

As you already know, your immune system is critical to your health. A finely-tuned immune system can fight off infections and lower one’s chances of getting cancer. A weakened immune system, on the other hand, invites disease. That’s how you get shingles. The chicken pox virus hides deep in your body, waiting patiently for just the right moment to pop out and cause problems. Like that girlfriend with the frizzy brown hair you once dated. She was an emotional wreck and your mom never liked her. You tried several times to break up, and each time she weaseled her way back into your life. Finally you broke up for good, and she moved to Milwaukee to study interior design. Then, fifteen years later, right after your divorce is final, she moves back to your small town where you run into her at Target, ironically. Suddenly, half your face is covered in painful sores.

You must develop good eating habits. Junk food is out. Soft drinks are out. Red meat is out. Cold cuts are out. Sugar is out. Fried stuff is out. Rice contains arsenic, and fish contain mercury, so they’re out. And you can kiss gravy good-bye. Salt is bad for you too, but if you don’t get the iodine in the salt, your thyroid gland will swell up like a tick on a vampire.

The bottom line is, there is very little that you can eat that won’t destroy you eventually. It really comes down to whether you want to starve to death or be slowly poisoned. You must be constantly vigilant as you shop for groceries to avoid all the harmful chemicals, additives, and disease-promoting components that are found in almost everything in the store. So, caveat emptor.

The one loophole here—and you really should take advantage of it while it remains open—is that coffee, nuts, and chocolate have been determined to be good for you. So, for now, force yourself to have some chocolate every now and then, and wash it down with a cup of joe. And eat a handful of almonds while you’re at it. Pointy-toed scientists are working around the clock to find ways to shut this down, so enjoy these foods now before they’re linked to teeth warts or earlobe dysfunction.

Drink plenty of water. Begin your day with two tall glasses of clean, sparkling water to purge your system of impurities that have built up overnight. Then have at least six more glasses of water throughout the day to ward off dehydration. As you slosh around the workplace, you’ll find yourself having to raise your hand during important meetings to go to the little room by the watercooler. That lets you and everybody else know that your kidneys are functioning properly. And after you turn in for the night, you’ll find your dreams filled with panicky situations where you can’t find a real toilet, and you are forced to relieve yourself on the houseplants in the Oval Office, prompting Secret Service agents to announce a “code yellow” and haul you away.

Green tea has been shown to contain disease-fighting substances and is super good for you. Fill your bathtub with it once a day and soak for an hour. And don’t forget to drink a bit of it too. Green tea contains antioxidants. Otherwise, no one would touch the stuff. Actually, some people do like its subtle flavor, which they describe as “even tastier than plain hot water.”

Health food stores are full of nutritional supplements and various herbal remedies: St. John’s Wort, echinacea, ginkgo biloba, fish oil, etc. These are substances that organized medicine doesn’t want you to know about because of their natural ability to correct imbalances in your system and heal many common illnesses and conditions. Conversely, they’re unregulated, potentially harmful nostrums produced by charlatans to milk profits from the udder of misinformation. So take these substances at your own risk…But just remember, they might be exactly what you need…If they don’t kill you first…Which they won’t because they’re harmless…Ha!…Ha yourself!

Develop an exercise program and stick with it. Touch your toes every day—or if you can’t manage that, pay someone else to do it, especially if that fungus is still there. Keep moving, and get one of those gadgets to count your steps if you need to. Ten thousand steps per day is recommended to stay healthy. March around the TV set if you have to. You won’t miss anything. Download John Philip Sousa’s greatest hits into your iPod, and high step around the neighborhood to the Washington Post March carrying a rake like a drum major’s baton. If people think you’re crazy, just remind them that people once thought Charles Manson was crazy too, and look at him.

And, get some sunshine! Vitamin D is necessary for good health, and natural sunlight relieves depression for many people. So, step outside and soak up some rays. Okay, that’s enough sunshine. Go back inside. Are you nuts? Sunshine is full of ultraviolet rays that cause your skin to age prematurely, and can even cause cancer. So, for heaven’s sake, wear dark clothes and a hat if you go out there!

Try to get seven or eight hours of sleep per night. A good night’s sleep is essential to maintaining good bodily function. Sleep allows your brain to process the events of the day, and gives your immune system a chance to refresh itself. If you’re unable to fall asleep right away, it’s okay to use pills. Go to your pharmacy and ask for the strongest placebo they have, and get about a thousand. Now pretend they’re tiny sheep and count them over and over.

So, there you have it, your concise road map to health. No more excuses. Carpe diem!

 

——————–

Richard Key was born in Jacksonville, Florida and currently lives in Dothan, Alabama with his wife. He works as a pathologist by day, but has been writing short stories and essays for about eight years. His work has been published in several literary journals and a few pieces have won awards. This essay is the third in his “How To…” series which seeks to help the reader navigate the choppy sea of modern existence.

The Death of Isaac

By DA Cairns

t2he stone gray sky mourned his awakening as Abraham pushed open the tent flap and stepped outside. He groaned inwardly as he stretched his back and looked to the majestic escarpment. Normally bathed in the warm glow of sunrise, it inspired him and encouraged him. Today, however, a silver fog bearded the mountain range while dense white clouds cascaded over its crown. Abraham sighed and scuffed the rocky ground with his sandaled foot. How he missed the oak groves of Mamre, the Hill country where he had pitched his tent for fifteen years among the tribes of the Amorites.

Mamre: where Yahweh had spoken to him, promising he and Sarah would, finally, after decades of heartache and broken dreams, have a child and this child would be the father of many nations. On feeling the light touch of Sarah’s hand on his arm, Abraham did not react. She had joined him outside the tent, moving quietly and gracefully to stand by his side to greet the new day as she did every day.

‘Yahweh mourns this day, my husband. He weeps in the colour of the sky. He is sad.’

Abraham turned his head towards the western sky where Nanna was falling with the rising of Utu. These were ancient reflections, habits he had never been able to shake. Though he knew the astral Deities of his forefathers, and his former life in the Chaldees, to be shadows of Yahweh, he could not help but worship them when he could see them, and the majestic trails they traced in the Heavens.

‘I have an urgent matter to attend to today.’

‘Urgent?’

‘Yahweh has spoken to me again.’

Sarah gasped. Yahweh and his messengers were benevolent but she nonetheless feared them and often wished they were more like the gods of the Babylonians who were completely disinterested in the affairs of men, and only inclined to action when they were angry, displeased with the sacrifices presented to them. An, Enil, Enki and Ninhursag. Sarah knew their names and despised them but at least their cruelty was predictable. This Yahweh was always surprising them and requiring outlandish acts of obedience like the relocation from Ur decades earlier. Eight hundred kilometers northwest along the Euphrates River to a foreign and inhospitable land. A place called Haran.

‘I must journey with Isaac to Mt. Moriah where I am to present a burnt offering to Yahweh, and worship him there.’

‘It is a long journey for you and the boy,’ said Sarah. She would rather have kept her son at home with her but she would not argue with Abraham. ‘When will you leave?’

Just then, two of Abraham’s servants approached. They were leading a donkey which had a large pair of baskets joined by a leather strap, draped across its back. One of the men was carrying an axe. Bowing their heads as they neared, they slowed and finally stopped.

‘How much wood do we need, Master?’

‘Fill the baskets if there is enough,’ replied Abraham, before turning to Sarah and saying, ‘it is a three day journey and we will leave this morning.’

‘Does Isaac know?’

‘My son will do as he is told to do.’

With that Abraham quickly entered the tent and gently roused Isaac from his slumber. He gazed on the angelic face of his twelve year old son and sighed.

‘Isaac,’ called Abraham. ‘Rise my son. We are to journey together to the Land of Moriah. Rise, eat and bid farewell to your mother. We will be gone for six days.’

The boy obeyed his father and prepared himself for the trip while Abraham supervised the loading of the wood and other provisions onto the donkey. He had chosen this particular beast for its unusual endurance and docility. While all asses were designed for hard work and did not tire easily, this was one exceptional. It would serve them well.

Sarah watched her husband work as she simultaneously fussed over Isaac.

‘Tell me the story mother.’

‘There is not time for that tale and you have already heard it so many times. Do you not grow weary of its retelling? Do you not know it by heart?’

‘Please, mother. There is time. Shorten it as you see fit.’

Sarah smiled at the boy. She had never been able to deny her only son anything, and so she began.

‘Your father was sitting at the entrance to the tent in the heat of the day. When he looked among the Terebrinth trees he saw three men approaching. He ran to greet them, fell to his knees and lowered his face to the ground. They accepted his offer of hospitality and he hastened away to get me to prepare some food for these mysterious guests. He gave them water and bid them sit and rest. Your father was surprised when one of the men asked him where I was, and used my name. His spirit quickened within him as he recognized these men as Yahweh’s messengers. Though he had not seen them before, somehow he knew them.

‘One of them told your father that he would return in one year and at that time I would bear a son.’

‘What did you do when you heard those words?’

‘I laughed.’

Isaac laughed. ‘You laughed at Yahweh’s servants, and denied it when they asked you why.’

Sarah smiled. ‘I was already an old woman, and your father too, almost one hundred years walking the earth. It seemed impossible. Ridiculous to think that I could have a child. I can still hardly believe it. You are our miracle, Isaac. The proof of the power of Yahweh, and the one through whom He will fufill His promise to your father, made forty years ago in Ur.’

The boy was too young to understand how he could be so important and Sarah could see the innocent ignorance in his eyes as he rose from the ground and bowed to her. He liked the story because his mother had laughed and then named him, Isaac which means “laughter.”

‘Go, my son,’ she said simply. ‘Your father awaits and is anxious to be on his way.’

‘Did he speak to you of the purpose of this journey?’

‘Only that he must go and worship Yahweh on Mt. Moriah. I think the significance of you being required to accompany him, should not be overlooked. Do you understand, my precious Isaac?’

‘Yes mother.’

 

Abraham’s  heart was heavy as he watched Isaac leave the tent and walk towards him. He had not told Sarah exactly what Yahweh had said. He had deliberately left out the part about presenting Isaac as a burnt offering. Thankfully Sarah had not asked from where he was to get an animal for the offering. Her curiosity had faded with the passage of the decades, and so had his. In its place, a resigned complacency had settled whereby they knew and accepted mystery without needing to, or even wanting to, understand it. They were secure in their unawareness. They also trusted each other to speak or not speak. To act or to remain passive. Love and dedication were fuelled by a passion undiminished by the years albeit expressed less exuberantly.

After a final inspection of the donkey load, Abraham gave the command for the party of four to begin the journey. Abraham preferred silence but Isaac was more garrulous due to his youth and the excitement of adventure.

‘Tell me the story of my cousin Lot.’

‘The night after the angels had visited us with news of your imminent conception your mother dreamt of Lot. It was a dark, ominous dream. She feared that he and his family may have been in some trouble. She said she saw them running from an unseen enemy, then they were frozen in time, like pillars of salt.

I told her that I had been anxious for them as well. I had heard some ill tidings from some of the Hittite traders. One of whom told me, as we completed our deal, that he had decided to bypass Sodom because of the increasing violence on the streets there. He said it was a city of wickedness beyond measure. He used the words filthy and depraved.’

‘Depraved and wicked?’ Isaac shuddered.

‘Evil, my son. Evil.’

Lot had chosen to move into the city for a reason known only to himself. From the fertile plains of the Jordan he had transferred his family and was, it appeared, in mortal danger. I feared for my nephew and family but felt impotent against such evil as was described in the hearts of the Sodomites. I wondered had Lot himself been corrupted? I had heard whispers of him being seen at the City Gate which was indicative of a possible leadership role. How enmeshed was he? Anxiety boiled in my veins.

The following day, around the midday heat, the three visitors appeared again. Once more, I greeted them properly and bid them rest, and prepared food and water for them, but they seemed to be in a hurry. They were polite yet obviously distracted so I asked what was troubling them.

One of them said that he had heard many complaints about the people of Sodom, and that they were going to investigate. I heard an edge to their voices as they explained that if they found Sodom to be a cesspool of obscenities, they would have to do something about it. The implication in those words was unmistakable and terrifying, and I felt compelled to do something, if only for the sake of my nephew and his family.

I ran after them and stood before them, hands clasped in supplication. I was trembling as I issued a challenge to their intended carnage. I knew that Sodom was overrun by wickedness but I reasoned that not all of its inhabitants could have been worthy of death.

‘Are you going,’ I said to them, trying to control the shakiness in my voice, ‘to destroy the good people along with the bad people? What if there are fifty decent people in Sodom, will you still annihilate them all?’

Yahweh himself answered me and said that if there were fifty righteous men in Sodom he would save the city. I pressed him further and asked what he would do if he found forty righteous men in Sodom. He replied that for the sake of forty he would not destroy it. Foolishly, I continued to bargain with the Almighty, and asked if he would restrain the extermination if there were just ten righteous citizens of Sodom. Without displaying the faintest trace of annoyance at my impertinence, Yahweh said that if there were ten righteous people in Sodom he would repent, and leave them be but, he said, but my child Abraham, there are no righteous citizens there. Not one. They have all turned away from decency and goodness. They have become like beasts following whatever vile impulses and wanton lusts come upon them. They are lost by their own choosing, and I cannot tolerate them any longer. That is what he told me and I was sickened and shocked. So much so that I crumpled to the dirty ground like a tent without poles.

Isaac had heard the story before, but just as Sarah’s story about laughing at Yahweh’s messengers always made him laugh, so this story of the merciless obliteration of Sodom never ceased to grieve him. Abraham knew this and they had discussed it many times. He had continued to impress upon Isaac’s young mind the need to trust and obey Yahweh, regardless of how he might feel.  Did the story of Sodom prove that Yahweh was cruel? Then what of His kindness in granting them a miracle child? Isaac still wanted answers. He still believed that there were answers for all the questions he could ever think of, and he invariably expected Abraham to provide those answers. Abraham knew how frustrated Isaac felt when his only answer was that he didn’t know, or that he didn’t understand. Abraham had never lied to his son, never pretended that he was omnipotent or omniscient. Life was characterized by suffering, and the sooner the boy understood and accepted that fact, the better off he would be.

It was at this point that Abraham’s mind disengaged from the present. He continued walking on autopilot, satisfied that Isaac would remain quiet for some time as he again contemplated the ramifications of Sodom’s destruction. Abraham was considering the command of Yahweh to go to Mt. Moriah and to present Isaac as a burnt offering. He had heard of such practices in Babylon and Mesopotamia but he knew that most people considered human sacrifice, especially of children, abhorrent. Why would Yahweh command him to sacrifice his son? And why, of all his many sons, Isaac? His beloved, the child of the promise. The more he thought about it the more he became convinced that he had misheard. But pondering Sodom clouded the issue. If Yahweh was not concerned for the hundreds who lived in Sodom, why should he care about one child? His feet felt leaden, and he suddenly stumbled and landed on the ground with a grunt.

‘Father,’ cried Isaac, kneeling beside him. ‘Father, what’s wrong?’

‘Sometimes I think I have lived too long.’

‘Nonsense,’ said Isaac dismissively. ‘Rise and let us continue our journey to Mt.Moriah. Yahweh has called us, so we must go. He will strengthen our legs and our resolve for his glory.’

Is it glory, thought Abraham as he struggled to his feet with Isaac’s assistance, for this God to want your death at my hand? Why? If His desire is to examine my faith then why not some other way, and have I not already proved myself over and over again? Abraham was complaining bitterly but thankful at least, for having sufficient control to contain his rambling inside his head. He knew, of course, instinctively, that there would not be, could not be, a greater test of obedience than to surrender the thing he most loved in all the world, his precious son. Somewhere in his mind, logic was prevailing against the tide of stormy emotion: resentment. If Yahweh was merely applying a trial with his command to sacrifice Isaac then perhaps he would repent at the last minute, or soon. At some point in this journey, he would speak once more and commend Abraham on his submission, then send him back to Gerar. Yahweh could change his mind. Just because he did not repent from the massacre of Sodomites, did not mean that he would not repent on this occasion. There was still hope. There was always hope. There was only hope.

‘Come father,’ urged Isaac, ‘You appear as an old man yet you are still young and strong. Take some water and let us continue.’

Abraham drank from the bronze horned vessel that Isaac handed him, then poured a little of the cool water on his head. He was aware of the two young servants standing by, watching pensively to see if he would be able to continue. The donkey brayed impatiently. Even the ashen sky seemed to hold its breath until finally, Abraham placed his hand firmly on Isaac’s shoulder and nodded. Although undecided with respect to the dilemma he faced, Abraham determined to forge ahead and allow events to unfold as Yahweh ordained them. The days and nights which followed were peaceful, and with favourable weather conditions the four made good progress towards Moriah.

 

On the third day, Abraham looked and saw the place in the distance. Without being specific, Yahweh had told him he would know the place when he saw it, and this was confirmed now. It was further evidence of Yahweh’s faithfulness yet also another nail in the coffin of Abraham’s hopes that He would change his mind about Isaac. In fact, Abraham was now convinced that Yahweh would actually require him to murder his son.

Leaving the donkey with the two servants, Abraham told them that he and Isaac were going further on to worship Yahweh, and then they would return. He pronounced the words from an arid throat but did not believe them.

‘Gather a load of wood, Isaac and carry it on your back. I have the flint to start fire and a knife for the sacrifice. Let us go.’

‘But Father,’ said Isaac, ‘where is the sheep for the burnt offering?’

Abraham realized this was probably a question which Isaac had wanted to ask many times during their journey but had thought better of it, preferring to trust his father implicitly. Now, however, as they were so close, he could restrain himself no longer.

‘We have all we need, except the actual animal to sacrifice.’

Not knowing what to say, Abraham opted for silence and merely gestured for Isaac to do what he had been told to do. He wondered if he should share his heart with his son, or continue to try to protect him from the ugly, fatal truth. He wondered if he had the courage to do what was required of him. An eruption of pain burst inside his temple and he automatically reached for it, to sooth it, to fix it. Isaac’s back was turned to him so he did not notice the latest physical assault against his father. Abraham fought hard against his feelings, the strength of which threatened to overwhelm him at any moment. A tsunami of doubt rolled over him and he tripped on some loose stones. Somehow managing to keep his feet, he waved away Isaac’s look of concern and they continued walking: together but each alone with his own thoughts.

‘Here, my son. Lay down your load and let us build an altar.’ He looked around. ‘There should be enough stones here to build a low platform.’

Abraham watched his son carefully. As there was still no sign of a sheep, no miraculous appearance of any beast for the offering, Isaac hesitated. He probably felt guilty for being disobedient, and for doubting but was powerless to help it. Abraham knew the brute force of emotion. The battlefield between emotion and will was littered with the corpses of good intentions. He decided there was nothing for it but to carry on the work, so he selected a large base stone and laid it down. Then he found another and laid it on top. Soon Isaac joined his labour and in no time they had constructed a crude altar. Taking wood from the bundle Isaac had toted, Abraham began to lay out the pieces in an orderly fashion, alternating larger branches with smaller twigs for kindling so that the fire would start easily and burn well.

‘Father?’

Abraham straightened and gazed into his son’s eyes. Tears burned his own eyes and blurred his vision. When he attempted to speak, he coughed the word, Yahweh, out of his mouth like a curse. Not good enough, he told himself.

‘Yahweh himself will provide a sheep for the offering,’ he said before immediately averting Isaac’s eyes. ‘Continue. We must finish.’

Once the altar was complete, Abraham stood and stared at it. Isaac, although bemused, participated in this strange, previously unheard part of the ritual. After several long minutes, Abraham called Isaac to him.

‘Isaac. Come let me bind your hands and feet.’

‘Father?’

‘I will tie your hands and feet then lay you on the altar.’

‘Why?’

The pent up confusion and rage he felt towards Yahweh exploded from Abraham’s lips. ‘Do as I tell you Isaac,’ he ordered, then cringed inwardly as he witnessed his son wilt in front of him. It was possible, until that moment, Isaac had thought his father was joking. Abraham quite clearly demonstrated the error of that thinking. He approached Isaac holding the cords with which he intended to bind him. Isaac remained motionless and silent. When Abraham took hold of Isaac’s hand, he shook free of his father’s grip.

‘No father.’

Abraham tried again and this time Isaac pushed him. Suddenly Abraham felt the volcano inside him, and he shouted for Isaac to submit.

‘No father. I will not be your sacrifice to Yahweh. Have you lost your mind?’

Abraham stepped close to Isaac and grasped his son by the shoulders. Isaac grabbed a handful of Abraham’s tunic and the two were thus locked in a stalemate. Though still a child, Isaac was able to match Abrahams’ strength long enough for his father’s endurance to weaken. They glared at each other as though the intensity of their eye contact could win the struggle for them. Abraham had no passion for this fight though. Surely his son was right when he suggested that he had lost his mind. He loved Isaac and could not deliberately harm him let alone draw the blade of a knife across his throat to drain him of life. Finally, Abraham released him before slumping to the ground: abject, defeated.

He could feel the heat of Isaac’s shock and simmering anger. Abraham kept his face to the ground. Mortified.  No words were spoken. Failure. He had not wanted to kill Isaac and consequently had not tried to. Isaac had disobeyed him for the first time in his short life. Defiant to the point of violence. A primal scream of resistance into the face of authority.

When Isaac turned and trudged away, Abraham rose from the dirt and dusted himself off. After waiting a few minutes, he followed until he reached the place where he had left his two servants with the donkey. Isaac had walked past them apparently without offering any explanation.

‘Did Isaac speak?’

The two young men shook their heads simultaneously.

‘Go and collect the wood from the altar, bundle it and load it onto the donkey’s back. We are going back to Gerar.’

 

Later that day, Abraham saw Isaac walking ahead in the distance. Thankfully he had a good sense of direction, and he also appeared strong which heartened Abraham. Before too long he hoped to have the opportunity to explain to Isaac what had happened, to try to justify what he did. He was a smart child, and would understand and in time, he hoped, forgive the wrong done to him. On the other hand, Abraham hoped not to speak with Yahweh, who he knew must be angry with both of them. Abraham’s greater concern was with the welfare of his son. Looking again, he could no longer see him and he knew the boy should eat and rest.

Addressing one of his servants, Abraham said, ‘Hurry ahead and catch up with Isaac. Ask him to stop and rest with us. Ask him, don’t tell him. Ask him to eat with us tonight and suggest he will be free to walk alone again on the morrow, if he wishes.’

While the servant raced off in pursuit of Isaac, the other man helped Abraham make camp. Before they had finished however, the servant returned with his chest heaving, and barely able to talk.

‘Where is Isaac?’ asked Abraham.

‘He has fallen and is injured.’

‘Why didn’t you bring him here?’ Abraham was too frantic to wait for an answer. He said to the other servant. ‘Go with him and bring Isaac to me now.’

Abraham used the unbearably anxious wait to beseech Yahweh, to beg his intervention, to save his boy. There was no time for apologies, no time for remorse. His son was hurt but he did not know how seriously. Surely, the Almighty would be merciful. Abraham wept hot tears as he waited in the fading light of dusk.

 

By the time the servants returned to camp, night had fallen so their approach was obscured. They came quietly and laid Isaac down beside the fire. Abraham was by his side in an instant cradling his unconscious son, weeping prayers, oozing misery.

‘Master,’ said one of the servants softly. ‘The boy has bled profusely from a head wound. He has shown no sign of life since we reached him until now. I’m sorry, master. He is dead.’

Abraham moaned as he tightly hugged the limp, lifeless body of his beloved son.

 

——————–

Heavy metal lover and cricket tragic, DA Cairns lives in Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory, where he works as an English language teacher and writes stories in his very limited spare time. He has had over 50 short stories published (but who’s counting right?) He blogs at Square pegs http://dacairns.blogspot.com.au and has authored four novels, Devolution, Loathe Your Neighbor, Ashmore Grief, and A Muddy Red River which is available now from Rogue Phoenix Press.

Forest of Dolls

By Judy Darley

Ella likes to line the dolls up on her grandma’s kitchen countertop. That way, if she lays her cheek against the cold surface, she can pretend she’s in a forest of painted dolls. They stretch all the way to the horizon, casting shadows taller than giants. The smallest, the lone un-openable doll, catches the sunlight and blazes like a birthday candle. If Ella tries very hard she can make it lift into the air – fuelled by solar power and her imagination – and zoom around the ceiling.

Matryoshka dolls, that’s what her grandma tells her they’re called. Ella whispers it to herself like a magic spell: “matryoshka, matryoshka.” Granddad used to get her to say strange words like that to help him do his conjuring tricks. “Repeat after me,” he’d command. “Verucca, pertrucca, kertrucca.” And then he’d open his hands and the coin would be gone, or would have appeared, glowing against his palm like a solid spot of sun.

These days he doesn’t do magic tricks any more. Doesn’t do anything much; just sits in his chair by the hearth emitting harrumphing noises with a wet, sticky finish. Ella cringes when she hears it, but Grandma just murmurs: “Oh dear” and goes over and wipes his chin. Sometimes, when he opens his pale blue eyes and seems to watch her, Ella will kneel down beside him and mutter, “matryoshka, matryoshka”, and close his fingers around the smallest doll, just for a moment. Sometimes when she does this, his lips twitch like he’s about to smile.

Ella’s certain the smallest doll has other powers it has yet to show her.

When it’s time for her to go to bed in the room that’s hers when she sleeps at her grandparents’ place, Grandma goes and gets the phone from the shelf in the hall. Then, once she’s said goodnight to Mom and Dad on the phone, and to the baby brother she’s yet to meet, she and Grandma place each of the dolls back inside one another, all except the smallest, which Ella cradles in her hands all night long. Sometimes she hopes the heat from her palms will split it open – like an egg hatching – to reveal what’s nestled inside. But every so often the hugeness of the possibilities of what that thing might be scares her and she wakes Grandma with her wailing.

Granddad never stirs.

The new baby is called Liam – a soft name, like the touch of Grandma’s cat’s belly fur against her hand. Yet when she thinks of Liam it’s not soft belly fur that comes to mind – it’s teeth and claws that twist at her insides and make her wish she could curl up small enough to hide in the largest of the matryoshka dolls, snug and secure.

When Mom and Dad told Ella about the new baby, before he even had a name, she knew a little brother to would be better than any toys, even the matryoshka dolls. But she got impatient waiting and began to nag at him to come out, whispering softly to Mom’s belly: “Push, push, come on!” So when he suddenly did decide to come out, very quickly and far earlier than he ought, she knew it must be at least partly her fault. The screaming still rips through Ella’s head late at night. Sometimes it bursts from the body of the smallest matryoshka doll, making Ella shriek with it and soaking the darkness so that Grandma has to come upstairs and change the sheets.

Ella doesn’t like to play with the dolls when Grandma’s cat is around; he occasionally makes a sudden pounce into the midst of them, or treads very delicately between them, then knocks them spinning with a twitch of his tail. She waits until he’s safely outside, busy stalking bees among the clover that dapples the lawn.

Grandma is upstairs helping Granddad have his bath, so Ella has the kitchen to herself. She lines up the dolls all along the countertop, a forest of dolls, with the smallest catching the sun like a birthday candle, ready to be blown out, blown up, in exchange for a wish. She has an image of something fluttering inside the little wooden body, full of air and energy. Like the air and energy her little brother needs.

The doll is a chrysalis, she decides, and inside is a golden butterfly that will zoom from Grandma and Granddad’s house to the hospital and the cage where Mom, Dad and Liam are trapped, and the butterfly will unlock the cage and reunite them with Ella and Grandma and Granddad.

It makes such wonderful, shimmering sense that Ella has to gasp for breath. She lifts her face from the cold countertop and reaches for the smallest doll, not caring that she knocks some of the others spinning in the process.

She takes the nutcracker from the kitchen drawer and places the tiny painted doll inside, and she turns the screw, winding it tight. The doll squeals as the screw presses into her belly, but Ella ignores it. There’s a soft cracking sound and Ella closes her eyes, expecting a blinding light to burst out, fiercer than the sun. She stays like that, eyes pinched closed, the nutcracker cradled in her hands, the splintered doll inside it, and she wishes as hard as she possibly can.

 

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Judy Darley is a UK-based fiction writer, poet and journalist. Her words have been published by literary magazines and anthologies, including Unthank Books’ Unthology 8. She has read her short fiction on BBC radio, in cafés, in caves, in artist’s studios and in a disused church. She blogs about art and other things at www.skylightrain.com, and tweets @JudyDarley.

Rabbit Stew

By Joseph Eastburn

My father was Southern, and stories were a big part of my understanding of who we were. There was the one about how his family piled into a Model T Ford, or “The Fidder,” as it was called, and moved to New York where the eldest son, Cecil, was moving up at Burrows Adding Machine. There were the exploits of Leslie, the second son, in a convertible with his ukulele and raccoon coat. Before that, there was the story about how in the early 1930s, just after Christmas, the family’s house in North Carolina burned to the ground—how they had to scramble with nine children to find a place to live that winter; for many years, no one knew how the fire had started. In fact, it was a jealously guarded secret. What was no secret, however, was that my grandmother, Charlotte—whom I knew only as “Granny”—loved rabbit stew.

My father married and settled in northern New Jersey. When I was growing up, we lived on a country road with a steep hill of woods behind our house. The neighbor to our left was a man named Ralph Roberts. We knew he hunted when we heard shotgun blasts in the distance during hunting season. Once I saw a deer hanging in his backyard and, not knowing why it was hanging there, assumed it was some mysterious process that hunters engaged in and didn’t question it. When my father thought I should go on my first hunting trip, he called Ralph and asked him if he would induct me into the strange world of killing and eating animals.

I had been over to the Roberts house a few times and knew Ralph’s son, Don, a big, quiet, athletic guy with a blond flattop who was my older sister’s age. Every morning I would see him walk to the bottom of his driveway with his books when the school bus stopped along our road. One of my sister’s girlfriends, Micky, was madly in love with Don. One night she came over to our house and (at least in my memory of it) invited between five and fifteen girls along for moral support. It seemed like fifty. What was the big event? Micky had gotten up the nerve to go ask quiet Don to go steady. She’d gotten my sister involved because of her proximity to the Roberts house.

It was a warm summer night with a soft breeze that was everywhere agitating the tree leaves. As the younger brother, I naturally tagged along and was surrounded by a herd of colorful summer dresses as we galloped up Don’s driveway in the dark. One of the girls started yelling like a banshee and the rest of the girls joined in so that—with the exception of an embedded little brother—we must have looked like an attacking horde of pubescent teenage girls storming the battlement and asking for Don’s head, or some other remarkable body part. Mr. and Mrs. Roberts appeared outside the rear screen door, puzzled but smiling. We chanted “We want Don!” until—flattop glistening with hair tonic, and wearing a fresh striped shirt and black chinos—Don appeared to rousing cheers and was spirited away, for all I knew, to a human sacrifice. Whether he ended up going steady with Micky or being eaten, I can’t remember.

We had an additional wooded lot between our properties that had been cleared of underbrush and planted with grass, but the trees—the tall oaks, white birches, and sugar maples—created a cathedral of shade above and a natural series of green curtains between the Roberts house and our own. My father built sheds on that lot where he kept lawnmowers and gardening equipment. On the other side of the sheds, he built a music studio around a tall oak tree, enclosed by a skylight that leaked. He kept adding on, building a bedroom above one wing, and eventually when my parents decided to separate, my father moved into his studio. I have vivid memories of my mother calling my father on the phone in the mornings with a somber tone and telling him that breakfast was ready. My father would walk down from the studio in a robe, greet us, and eat quietly at the breakfast table, looking chagrined.

On the land above the studio, my father actually built me a baseball field with a regulation backstop, and for my birthdays, we would sponsor a baseball game where I would be the captain of the Yankees and another kid would be the captain of the Dodgers. There would be a prize bat for best player, a new white baseball for runner-up, and a booby prize—usually a piece of fruit painted to look like a baseball—which, when hit with a bat, would explode. The irony of this was that in my forties I moved to Los Angeles and became a Dodgers fan, much to my own personal torment. Surely this was the work of a God with a wicked sense of humor.

As a child, at every one of my birthday baseball games, I ended up crying loudly and enthusiastically when things didn’t go my way. I mean, first of all, how many kids in the world had fathers who built them a baseball field? How could I be crying? What problem could possibly be important enough to bring me to tears? My father grew up in a poor family in the South, had eight siblings and must have wanted for everything—so I realized he was compensating and lavished on me what he had been deprived of as a boy. One birthday party, he was pitching and I was on second base, crying my eyes out. He turned around to me, his face red, voice raised with shaking emotion, and shouted for me to shut up, just shut up. Looking back now, as a parent, I understand the height of his emotion. Whenever our children cry, parents take it personally, as if our own unresolved childhood emotions have reappeared out of someone else’s body like ghosts to haunt us.

With my friends, I built makeshift tree houses on that wooded lot between the Roberts house and ours. Once when I’d climbed high up in a tree with my friend Kevin, my sister walked outside with a sandwich and, while she ate it, called up to me, “Don’t fall for Atlantic City!” That must have been the summer we drove down to the Jersey shore for a family vacation. My parents went to play golf, and when my father apparently tried one too many times to tell my mother how to hit the ball, she lifted her club in the air and tried to hit him over the head. He raised his arm to protect himself, and she broke his elbow. So he bought her a car. That pretty much captures my parents.

I once constructed a platform between three birch trees about ten feet off the ground, built a side wall, pounded nails into it at different angles, and pretended they were switches to blow up the world. It was the fifties, after all, with air raid drills at school where we would hide under our desks in case of a nuclear attack. My cousin’s family even built a fallout shelter. With an older kid named Douglas, a neighbor not as nice as Don, (who may have had sinister ideas in mind), I built a tree house in an oak tree high above a giant boulder. After having a few drinks one night, my father stormed out with a hammer and ripped out the first few pieces of two-by-four we’d nailed as a ladder above the rock—apparently to keep me from falling and killing myself. The next day he hired a carpenter to build me a real tree house in a different giant oak above the baseball field. One year, a girl I had a crush on came to one of my baseball games with her girlfriend and from high in the tree house cheered for my team. I never really liked the professionally built tree house as much as my own dilapidated creations, but I did go up there to smoke and with my friend Walter, sleep out overnight, discuss the bewildering and mystical parts of girl’s bodies, and beat off.

From that baseball field is where I first saw the dead deer, antlers and all, hanging from a tree. I didn’t dare go up and look at it. To see such a beautiful animal hanging dead just behind my backstop was too dark and menacing for a middle-school kid to contemplate. When I asked my father about it, he said something about the deer curing before Ralph would slaughter it to harvest the venison. I didn’t want to understand any of that, but the meat itself sounded exotic, so to my young brain, it helped me forgive Ralph Roberts for killing the deer.

The night before my hunting trip, my parents suggested I lay out my clothes. That’s when I came up with the crazy idea of wearing football cleats. Sneakers just didn’t seem to be rugged enough. The next morning at 5:00 a.m. when I clomped up the Roberts’ black tar driveway, Ralph came out the back door and said, “What in the world have you got on your feet?”

When I told him, he shook his head and told me I’d have to take them off before I came in for breakfast. Ralph’s wife served us bacon and eggs and coffee, and I when I saw Ralph sponge up the egg with the cake side of a sweet roll instead of toast, I did the same. After breakfast, he took me over to his gun case beside the mantle and lifted a .410 shotgun out from behind a glass door and handed it to me. It was light. He showed me how to break open the barrel and load the chamber. He dropped a handful of thin green shells into the pocket of a tan game jacket he said I could wear. He even opened up the ends of two shells with a pen knife to show me the size of the .410 BBs compared to the larger BBs for his double-barrel 12 gauge. When I put my cleats back on, he began shaking his head again. We started climbing the hill behind his house just as it started to get light out. He said I was going to warn every animal in the woods that we were coming.

It all happened very fast. He’d been telling me that I might get a rabbit because they come out of their holes in the morning when it’s cold and hop around to get warm. Sure enough, a rabbit ran by us and it was so slow, it might as well have sauntered by. I lifted the .410, clicked the safety off, and fired in its direction. I remember the cloud of smoke. I guess I winged it, because Ralph rushed over and grabbed the rabbit up by the scruff of the fur and banged it on the head with the barrel of his shotgun. The combination was enough to kill it. Ralph unsnapped the back of the game jacket I was wearing and placed the rabbit in a small pouch. All the way back down the hill, I could feel the warmth of the animal against the small of my back. It didn’t occur to me that the warmth was fading as I walked. My father was proud of me and seemed moved when he saw the game I had killed. I didn’t understand why. He wrapped the rabbit in newspaper, placed it in the freezer (my mother would shortly discover it by accident and scream), then he took me out onto the back porch to tell me a story.

When his family’s house had burned down that winter in the ’30s, my father was about fifteen years old. His father, who worked as a bricklayer and a shopkeeper who sold meat to the Army, had fallen on lean times but had managed to find work as a caretaker for a farm estate where he tended the grounds, fed the animals, and kept the farm machinery working. The big empty house where they lived was heated by a giant fireplace in the kitchen. To get them through that first month, my father used to set rabbit traps at night, get up first thing in the morning, check the traps, and usually catch a rabbit or two. He would bring the rabbits in and clean them (I didn’t understand until much later what this meant), and his mother would roast the fresh meat over an open flame or fry it in a cast iron pan. Meanwhile, my aunts would come downstairs and stand in front of the fireplace to keep warm while they were dressing, and my grandmother would serve the family fried rabbit and fresh biscuits for breakfast. Later, she would add carrot, onion, and potato to make rabbit stew.

Before my grandmother died, she ate the rabbit I shot, or so I was told. That marked the end to my rabbit story, and it was, to my thinking, a happy ending despite the fact that a pitifully slow rabbit had been roused from its burrow by the scrape of football cleats on a cold morning and had met its fate by a middle-schooler’s first shot. I never saw my grandmother eat the rabbit. For that matter, I never knew if the story about my father catching rabbits when he was fifteen was true. So I have to take his word on both counts. But I found out years later that his family house had burned down when my grandmother tried to put the Christmas tree in the fireplace.

My father told me Granny ate that rabbit stew in the months before she died and was gratified that her sensitive grandson had been the one to kill the rabbit. I have to believe this story is true. When I told the story to my wife, she frowned and said, “Who cooked the stew?”

I said without hesitation, because it made a good story: “My father, of course.”

 

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Joseph Eastburn earned a master’s degree from USC, where he taught writing for ten years. His writing has appeared in American Theatre, Apalachee Review, Crack the Spine, Penmen Review, Reed Magazine, Sliver of Stone, Slow Trains, The Sun Magazine, Tower Journal, Sand Hill Review, and Hobo Pancakes. His first novel, Kiss Them Good-Bye, was re-published by Morrow in January, 2016. His new novel, A Craving, was 3rd Place Winner in the Operation: Thriller Writing Competition.