Stories

The Old Monsters Bar

By Corey Lynn Fayman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I was here first.”

“He longtime customer. You new.”

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

“Special sake. Only for him.”

“You been hiding the good stuff from me?”

“It is too expensive for you.”

“How expensive is it?”

“Only for Japanese. Not for you.”

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

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

“I can handle my liquor.”

“You must leave now.”

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

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

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

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

The bartender eyed me for a moment.

“Tears of Hiroshima,” he said.

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The lizard guy nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exquisite,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes.

“And the flying turtle and giant moth?”

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

“Are you dead now?”

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

“What about me? Am I dead?”

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

“I can’t see anything.”

The Tears made you blind.

“I can’t move.”

Tell me what happened, after you drank it.

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

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

“What did he tell them?”

Nothing. He left you outside.

“Where are they taking me?”

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

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

There was no answer.

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

“Mr. Johnson, can your hear me?”

I mumbled a reply of confirmation.

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

I mumbled again. Saferman took it for my endorsement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes. I am here.

“They put me on a jet.”

We must speak quickly, then.

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

The Tears have changed you.

“How did they change me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

——————–

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

Unnatural, Wicked

By Marcelle Thiébaux

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I looked away. “What is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How long have I been gone?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So now I’ve become a kind of witch?”

“Only because you outmaneuvered her in the end.”

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

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

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

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

 

——————–

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

Number 401

By Trevy Thomas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

“They set you free?” Harvey asked.

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

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

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

“And then what? Dial 9-1-1?”

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

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

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

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

Harvey followed Carl back down to the window.

“What’s your name anyway?”

“Harvey.”

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

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

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

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

“Okay, I can do it.”

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

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

“Run!” Carl yelled over his shoulder.

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carl made him a promise.

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

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

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

 

——————–

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

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

By Matthew Wallace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

“Ladies, how may I assist you?”

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Mory elbowed her. “Be nice.”

“Nice? I think he’s delightful.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

The two warriors stayed quiet, munching biscuits.

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

“Maybe he could see himself?” someone said.

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

Jasmine.

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

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

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

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

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

Unless…

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

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

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

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

That couldn’t be good.

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

A cord that led up to the rabbit.

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

He lay down for a much-needed nap.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

The solicitor grabbed her by the elbow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

But his soul felt lighter than air.

 

——————–

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

The Golden Sea, and Silver

By J David Liss

I

congregant asked me how I most want to be remembered, as a rabbi or a physicist. “Remembered,” I said, “Why, am I going someplace?”

In truth, for me that question didn’t make sense. I simply answered, “As a husband and a father.”  But I never was one to stick to categories. After my son Mikey died 12 months ago, I started to mix things together even more.

I used to think that the sea was the great body of water that encircled the Earth. As I thought more about the world, I saw the sea as something larger — the atmosphere that contained us all, water and land, living and still. After all, it was deeper than the water and all of us swim through it in one way or another. But now I realize that the true sea is the light that fills all the universe, soaks the spaces between planets. The true sea pours from the sun and all the suns, gold and silver, in all the skies. Molecules of air swim through the sea of light, as do the fractions of water and salt that flow and spray. We are all moving through a sea of light in the high tide of day and low tide of night.

I used to think that God was a being who created the Universe. But the more I studied the equations behind creation, the more I understood the math behind particle physics, I came to understand that God is the Universe. He didn’t create something apart from himself; he is singular, not binary. He cares about us because we are all part of him—all of us—the kings and cats and coelenterates, the vast distances between endless galaxies that move forever from the center yet are still part of the whole, amen.

On Mikey’s last day, we took the long, hard drive to Sloan Kettering. After 15 months, this trip felt a little different. It had taken him two hours to move from his bed to the car in our driveway, he was in that much pain. But he wouldn’t let me call an ambulance. He didn’t want to make a spectacle of his pain.

He didn’t actually pass until the next day. By then, we were all gathered in the hospital. The oncologist showed us the MRI images. We made the decision to end the life support systems that were keeping his heart beating, his lung inflating and sending air to the rest of his body.

The process was quite humane. As they stop the drugs that make his heart work and remove the machine that makes his lungs work, they increase the drugs that suppress pain and anxiety.

His heart stopped and he wasn’t there. But I didn’t see him leave.

How could I have missed it? How could I not see the moment when his soul left, reached my hand out to him, given him my last blessing and received his, tell him that I would see him soon enough, when I joined him in the next life? How would he know what I was feeling?

II

My parents used to gently make fun of me, but with great pride, that I was 37 years old and still in school. Being in the Rabbinate at the same time I was working toward a doctorate in physics took time. But things were on track. Katie and I were married 10 years at that point and both kids were born. Neither Columbia nor Hebrew Union College were charging me tuition, and between Katie’s job, my stipend, and money from our parents we were pretty comfortable.

As I got very close to being both a rabbi and a scientist, my advisors from each program had a heart-to-heart with me that was shockingly similar in a way that still makes me smile. They both said a variation of the same speech.

“Arthur,” said Dr. Smithson, “I couldn’t be more pleased with the final version of your dissertation. The idea of viewing Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, our best evidence of the big bang, through the lens of string theory is daring but has some really interesting points. Your math is good. But, Arty, your descriptive text concerns me. You describe cosmic rays with a prosody that border on poetry, that comes dangerously close to…I’ll just say it, scripture. Frankly, it detracts from the scientific gravitas of your thesis.”

“Ellis, we’ve had this talk before. My rabbinical studies are not getting conflated with my lab work.”

“To me, your thesis reads as if they are.”

“I look at it as if I’m reading two different books at the same time, one poetry, the other prose. I can read two books without confusing them. That’s what I’m doing with my studies.”

“It’s harder to maintain two world views than to read two books.”

“It’s working just fine. My dissertation is good, right?”

“But your future is not clear for me. I don’t believe you’ll ever reach your full potential as a scientist without being fully dedicated to your work. Forgive me for bringing in a reference to the religion I was raised in, but you can’t serve two masters.”

“You can render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto G-d what is his.”

“I should have known better than to quote any religion to you. Okay, I said what was on my chest. I’m going to move your dissertation to the committee.”

“Arthur,” said Rabbi Goldman, “Your thesis is original. I’ve seen close readings of the Genesis creation narratives before, but yours is the first to describe G-d’s creation of the universe as the template for human behavior. It will be controversial but is worth developing. I even like the title, The World to Come from the World that Was. But…

“But?”

“A mathematical approach? I expect to see a well-developed essay and I get tables laid out with phenomena and corresponding consequences.”

“It seemed more efficient to make the point by directly correlating what G-d does on a global level to what the Ethics of the Fathers says is how individuals should behave.”

“And is your job to be efficient, or to be a role model and inspiration for your people?”

“I don’t think those things are incompatible.”

“They’re not, if you don’t make them incompatible. Listen, eventually a committee will have to read your dissertation. Write it in a language they will understand. This is not going to a panel of physicists; it’s going to Rabbis, soon to be your colleagues. Use the language they use out of respect for the job they have to do.”

“That’s a good point.”

“Arty, I’m concerned that you may never reach your full potential as a Rabbi.”

“Why, Steven?”

“Because you have to explain things to yourself before you can explain them to other people, and how you explain things to yourself is inconsistent. You are trying to prove that G-d is true as if he were an equation.”

“I think that things that appear to be contradictory can still be true if we understand the context.”

“You may be right, but we don’t have a view that is big enough to reconcile those contradictions. That’s the role of faith.“

“I don’t think the contradictions run that deep. Sunrise and sunset seem like contradictions. But if you know the world is round, spins, and revolves around the sun, then it isn’t hard to understand that we’re just repeating the same view of the same phenomena.”

“Of course you use a scientific analogy. But there are things that cannot be explained by equations because they are not math problems. But very well, scientist-rabbi, let’s figure out how to change your charts and tables to something people will actually want to read.”

III

How could I not see the moment when his soul left him? How could I not see the moment when Mikey left me?

I believed. I believed he had not left me for good. And I believed that I could see that moment.

I had been following the work of Lene Vestergaard Hau, the Harvard physicist who had frozen rays of light so cold that it turned into matter. She could take light from a given moment and preserve it, release it later to illuminate a point from the past. Like a child capturing a firefly and putting it in a jar, she could hold light in her hand and own it.

It was time for me to leave the holy sanctuary and return to the laboratory. I would capture the light from Mikey’s last hour, in his hospital room at Sloan Kettering. I would analyze every photon of that light, across every spectrum, until I found the shape and shadow of my son’s soul. Then I would freeze that image and know, know beyond doubting, that Mikey’s soul was in the light.

For the senior rabbi of a Manhattan congregation to arrange a six-month leave of absence is usually as complicated as the most difficult physics problem. At least, it is unless the leave involves the loss of a child. Then the rules are suspended. There’s a Yiddish word that transliterates as rachmones, roughly meaning empathy, understanding, sympathy, pity, all rolled up into one. I would sometimes say to my more judgmental congregants, ‘In matters of charity, rachmones over rules.’

Katie was more of a barrier. “Stop it, Arthur. A leave is a good idea for both of us. We need some time to regroup. But you shouldn’t be working this out in the lab. It will only delay getting where we both have to be.”

She was wrong, though. I wasn’t going to move on without doing something. And then I realized she might be right about at least one thing.

I wasn’t going to find what I was looking for by examining Mikey’s hospital room. There was no way that I could recapture the light at the moment he died. That light had left the Earth months ago; it could never be reclaimed.

But I had to do something.

Professor Hau’s work gave me a direction I had not thought of before. I was expert in the field of cosmic rays, but I had not thought to freeze them the way Professor Hau had frozen visible light. If I could stop the motion of ancient cosmic rays, I could convert the microwaves into visible light. If I did that, I would see the universe at the moment of creation. I would see the face of G-d.

Such ancient cosmic rays are not common, but they are ambient throughout the cosmos and can be located. Controlling their speed and shape, their frequency and wavelength, would allow me to manipulate them into visible light.

Why did I want to see the face of G-d?

If I could see his face, I would see reality. Then I would be able to see Mikey again, for he is still here, only someplace that I simply cannot perceive.

Ellis Smithson, now chairman of physics, was thrilled that I was returning to the lab to work with primordial cosmic rays. I was still on the review board for several physics journals and served on a doctoral committee every other year as a favor to Ellis. He had come to Mikey’s funeral. He thought a return to the lab was how I was dealing with the grief, and he was right. He may have believed that I was turning back to science because faith had failed me. Nothing could be further from the truth. I never saw faith and science as incompatible and I finally had a research problem that brought them both together. Partly out of faith in me, and partly out of, well… charity, he absorbed the cost of the research into the departmental budget.

The part that would take the longest was locating the cosmic rays. I had come up with a method for capturing them, using magnetic fields to corral the radiation into the freezing chamber. It was a waiting game.

Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation—cosmic rays—are the oldest thing in the cosmos. The cosmos. The universe. The multiverse. I thought about the languages I knew. Of course, they all had a word that defined the place we exist. But the old words had a common history. The Earth, first just the dirt we scratched for food; then the entire world upon which we walked, and then sailed; then the concept of all that was contained in creation, Ha Olam, in Hebrew. Cosmic rays shone upon it all since the very first day. Interestingly, the oldest word for man in the Hebrew language—Adam—also translates as red clay. Man and his universe are dirt, but filled with the divine light. There is much that seems contradictory; but there are surely no contradictions.

Light as old as the cosmos doesn’t flit in a straight line at 186,000 miles per second. It is subtle. Capturing that old energy would require patience and cunning.

When the sensor alert went off, I knew the capture mechanism had been triggered and walked from our apartment to the lab. Cosmic rays filled the device, which I called the box.

I had to manipulate the magnetic fields to shape the frozen nitrogen atoms that held the cosmic microwaves. I would change their shape and speed to turn them into visible light, and project that light on to a special screen. This was a double challenge. My math had to be perfect. And I had to work the controls of the magnetic field with the precision of a conductor leading an orchestra, the confidence of a flutist charming the python that is inches from his face.

Microwaves aren’t supposed to make a noise. So, what was that sound that I was hearing from inside the box?

It was a single note of music.

I knew it.

It was the first note of the first prayer we sing on the holiest night of the year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It was the first note of Kol Nidre, All Hear, the deep, soul-stirring moment when we repent and ask for forgiveness.

It’s the prayer we sing to tell all our own failures, our lack of faith and trust and honesty; the prayer that tells all the world we ask to be forgiven and makes clear why we need to be forgiven. This is the sound of a cello in the vacuum of space. I don’t need to be told there is no sound in a vacuum; I’m a physicist. There are more ways of hearing than through the ears. That note sounded from the box, and I knew it had to be my imagination and I thanked G-d for this holy moment in which my mind could meld my sadness and my ambition and my desperate need to see Mikey again.

Forgive me G-d, my ambition.

I shortened the wavelength of the microwaves, speeded up their frequency. My sensors crept to the moment when the cosmic rays reached the status of visible light. Optical fiber connected the box to a liquid crystal screen. The screen began to glow. Light that was 11 billion years old, that illuminated the universe as it was born, flowed over the glass fiber. But somehow, the cosmic rays weren’t projecting on the screen as they were supposed to, but filling the room. It was all around me. The lab was bathed in rich golden light. Shot through the golden light were threads of bright silver. They seemed to move through the gold at different speeds and with slightly different motions. I couldn’t understand what I was seeing, though it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever looked at.

Inexplicably, the silver threads seemed to head toward me, circle me, then swim away and let others take their place. This was electromagnetic energy, yet it seemed to me that the light moved in purposeful ways, particularly the shining silver threads. I never wanted it to stop. The light filled me. I breathed it in and the gold and silver filled my lungs, infused into my blood, entered into my brain. I began to speed up. The universe was rushing away from the center. But the center was everywhere. Everything was exploding away from everything else and I was pushed along with the light, exploding out, becoming the source material for what would evolve into everything. The motion was overwhelming, sickening. I began to scream, but the sound that came out was a single note, the deep, resonant first note of the prayer, All Hear, Kol Nidre. My screaming was the cello that accompanied creation. All hear! The universe has been created and I have sinned. I have sinned the sins of pride and despair. Oh G-d forgive me the search for Mikey’s soul, for your face when you began Time and Space. And as I screamed and prayed in a single note, it seemed to me that one of the silver threads circled my head, entered my left pupil. Vision stopped. Mercy enters through the eyes.

As the radiation left the box, it started to slow down and convert back from visible light to microwave energy. The gold and silver dissipated. I was in the lab. My eyes filled with darkness and I could not see. I feared blindness. I sat for a long time, although I don’t know how long. Eventually I was able to see again, though ever since, my eyes have been very light sensitive and I typically wear sunglasses.

Ellis Smithson was disappointed when I told him I would be returning to my congregation. He had applauded the idea of freezing Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. Although my experiment hadn’t yielded useful data, he thought that visible light was the wrong conversion unit and that if we focused on generating the extremes of radio waves and gamma rays, we could learn enormous amounts about the big bang. He thought the fact that my eyesight had been affected was scaring me into returning to religion. Again, in a sense he was right.

God may be singular, but the best I can understand is binary. It has to be enough to know there is a sea of light, a sea of gold. And bright beams of silver swim through that golden sea. What it means, I will have to take on faith.

 

——————–

In 1984 J David Liss received an MFA from Brooklyn College. Trained in writing and inclined to politics, he became a speechwriter, then a lobbyist. In the past 30 years, Liss has worked in corporate, academic, and healthcare centers and all his work has been touched by literature (he likes to think). His prose has been published in “Inscape,” “The MacGuffin,” “Lake Effect,” “Between the Lines,” “Adelaide,” and others. He also writes and publishes poetry.

Static Electricity

By Rosalia Scalia

y twin sister Raisa and I are in our childhood home. Overstuffed with clothing, furniture, drapes, toiletries and all kinds of things that our mother loves and uses daily, the room feels empty even with us in it. On each of her closet doors an elephant garland with vibrant colors, bells, and beads jingles every time Raisa opens and shuts them, the garland a remnant of Mom’s days as a hippie. I’m sitting on Mom’s bed above which hangs a giant portrait of our grandmother—Mom’s mother—painted by Mom’s ex-boyfriend Tim when Grandma was struggling with Alzheimer’s and spent most of her time in a hospital bed installed in the living room.

We’re going through Mom’s stuff deciding what to bring to the hospital, and while we both find comfort in touching her things—as if doing so would change the situation back to normal, back to the way it was just the day before or last week—it’s a colossal waste of time. We should have stayed at the hospital. Raisa believes it’d be a good idea to clean the house before Mom returns, but it’s busywork, a way to stay frenetic, which is how Raisa deals with things. The house is already tidy and clean, but Raisa likes to submerge herself in frenetic activity whereas I prefer to observe and study things before taking action.

Mom kept the masking tape labels posted all over the house from when Grandma first moved in, labels identifying what things could be found in the drawers and what things were named—useful until Grandma lost the ability to read them. In Mom’s large block letters in black marker, the labels are everywhere: “mirror,” “bathroom,” “underwear,” “linens,” “door,” “window,” “spoons,” “spices,” “pots,” and an array of other words. Raisa wants to remove them, but I veto that, reminding her that it’s not her house.

Raisa rolls her eyes. “It probably never occurred to her to take them down. She’s always so oblivious.”

“It’s her house,” I say.

“Like she’ll even notice they’re gone?” Raisa says, but leaves the labels alone.

As she packs things for the hospital, I’m jittery, wanting to return as soon as possible. Older by two minutes, Raisa always tried to boss people around. She’s already switched off Mom’s waterfall wall in the hallway, saying it makes too much noise reverberating throughout the house; unplugged the aromatherapy diffuser, saying it stinks; and stuffed her refrigerator with chicken and bacon, knowing Mom, a strict vegetarian with a “Meat is Murder” bumper sticker on her car, has avoided bringing meat in the house for ages. When I turn the water wall and the diffuser back on, Raisa shuts them off. I don’t want to fight with her.

“We should call Tim,” I say, changing the subject.

“No,” she snaps. “Her phone number hasn’t changed in the last hundred years. He’s the one who should be calling us. Or her.”

“Maybe he hasn’t seen the news…?”

“Maybe if he lives under a rock,” she says.

I text Tim anyway. Raisa leans over and pulls a small suitcase from under Mom’s bed and moves the curtain. Outside, people approach the house with arms full of flowers. Some carry teddy bears and others lighted candles, large handmade posters, and mementos of all sorts. Not wanting to see the spectacle, Raisa shuts the curtains abruptly, but I’m comforted seeing Mom’s positive impact at the school having value to others in our town.

“We should just go,” I say. “She doesn’t need anything from here.”

Raisa insists on completing the packing.

I don’t remember consciously thinking of myself as a twin, and Raisa and I never treated each other like twins, although, growing up, others often confused us. We always acted like sisters. Born three minutes earlier, but smaller, Raisa fought for her life and perhaps never graduated beyond the initial drive to survive. Raisa tosses Mom’s underwear into the suitcase. Her robe, her slippers. She tosses in perfume, cosmetics, sundries as if packing for a vacation instead of the hospital, overpacking useless items. I want to leave so I hurry her along.

Raisa points to the portrait. “Grandma at her best. Not as the demented, diapered old lady who failed to recognize any of us,” she says.

“I’ve always loved it,” I say. “And Tim, too. What a good egg.”

Raisa rolls her eyes. “Such an annoying man!”

Raisa says the same thing about my husband, Tony—that he’s an annoying man. From day one she’s disliked him and created tension between them. He prefers to avoid her when she’s in town. When we were newly engaged, she’d implied he was too lazy or dumb to go to medical school instead of becoming a physical therapist and smashed an egg on the top of his head. We were all shocked. She called it a joke and accused us of lacking a sense of humor.

“Now I know the reason you can’t keep a boyfriend and will never marry,” Tony told her while sopping the egg off his head. “It sounds like ‘rich.’”

“Something you’ll never be,” she said.

Tony stays at home with the kids, and it’s OK because she doesn’t ask about any of them. We’re thankful that our kids attend the school where I teach math in the next town over. He and I chatted before he put the kids to bed last night, ourselves numb and dazed that this happened so close. I stayed with Raisa at Mom’s house.

Neither Raisa nor I could focus on anything else and obsessively watched the news about the shooting: the timeline of events, interviews of the parents of dead or wounded children and teachers, and vigils that we skipped because we didn’t want to talk to anyone. We didn’t want to be present watching all those people who lost nothing chasing their fifteen minutes. We looked through Mom’s photo albums, laughing at all the crazy things we remembered from the photos—when Grandma danced and sang with a wooden spoon microphone; when our father, still alive, planted the gardens that continue to bloom around her house in waves of colors as the season change; when Tim and Mom painted the delicate and beautiful strands of green ivy still circling the top of each doorway; when Raisa and I were dressed in identical clothing, but in different colors, doing different things. Also in the photo album are shots of Grandma, Mom, and us in front of Capital Police Headquarters where they took Mom after she was arrested for protesting Corcoran’s cancellation of the Mapplethorpe exhibit. In the photo with us, she holds her sign “Censorship is obscene. Not Art.” Angry that politicians could cancel an art exhibit because of a bunch of unenlightened prudes, she participated in the group that projected Mapplethorpe’s work on the walls outside the museum. We were too young then to appreciate her courage. In all the photos, including the ones after she was released from police headquarters, Mom’s perpetual smile stretches across her face under her serious-looking, black-plastic framed glasses.

In the drab trauma waiting room, parents and family members of those injured in the school attack drape themselves over the chairs, pace, squeeze their hands, stare at the TV without actually watching it, or sit cross-legged on the floor. Worried, weary, clutching cell phones, water bottles, brown bags, snacks from the hospital cafeteria and vending machines—they, like Raisa and me, wait. Good news. Bad news. Any news. The principal approaches us and tells us Mom’s a hero. He says she yelled “Shooter! Shooter! Protect the students!” at the top of her lungs soon after the gunman entered the building and the havoc began.

“She ordered her aide to hide her students in the windowless room with her art supplies and to barricade the door after she left the room,” the principal said. “She grabbed a fire extinguisher and ran down the hallway toward, instead of away from, the gunman, and then aimed the fire extinguisher at the shooter and sprayed him with the foam,” he says.

The white foam caused the gunman to cough uncontrollably, disrupting his progression through the hallways for a short time, he told us.

“Without actually seeing her, the shooter turned and shot her, hitting her first in her leg, then in her gut. She sprayed him until the extinguisher was empty. Then she hit him with the cannister, and that’s when the he shot her a third time. She tried to stop him,” he says. “She succeeded for a minute.”

The principal sounds as if he’s told this story one hundred times with the same level of disbelief and shock. He takes my hand and envelops it in both of his—his eyes shiny, bloodshot above the puffiness beneath them. “I’m sorry.”

He tries to envelop Raisa’s hand but she pulls away. “How did this monster get in?” she yells, her voice shattering the uneasy silence of the waiting room. “You only said those things to avoid a lawsuit. How the fuck did you witness this interaction without helping her, and where the fuck was the security guard when Mom was confronting the gunman by herself? Alone.”

No answers. The other families shift their gazes between Raisa and the principal. They, too, want answers that aren’t forthcoming. I thank him for telling us as he backs away. He looks at Raisa with eyes as large as tangerines while Raisa says nothing, shredding the tissues in her hands.

I picture Mom’s school building, try to imagine the altercation between her and the gunman. How incongruous it must have been for her amid the brightly painted walls, the bold blues and greens, the happy yellows and cheerful reds that fostered positivity and learning. Mom’s middle school students’ colorful lanterns—fashioned from empty gallon milk jugs and LED lights—hang from the ceiling in school’s corridors like a luminous, aerial, 3-D cross-stitch. Her students’ life-sized self-portraits—their outlines traced onto paper, cut out and decorated as mini-me’s—line hallway walls leading to her classroom. Outside her classroom door tombstone etchings of the town cemetery grace the wall—a project of the older students. Her mission as an art teacher, she once said, meant helping her students see beauty in the world around them, even in the most routine things. Yellow police tape now surrounds the property as an active crime scene, and I wonder if blood spatter now mars those beautiful lanterns, self-portraits, and etchings.

A nurse in blue scrubs enters the trauma waiting room and calls our names. Raisa and I hold each other’s arms as we follow her into a trauma bay where Mom lies connected to tubes and machines. A ventilator breathes for her, and I imagine the long recovery ahead as I watch the machine inflate and deflate her chest. The nurse stares at us. I know she’s puzzled by the fat and thin versions of the same face and body type standing before her. She holds a clipboard but doesn’t speak for a long time. Usually one of us speaks first, explains that we’re identical twins, but this time neither of us does that. Mom appears small and breakable, her face pale as a waning moon, and her body surrounded by tubes and beeping machines. We fail to notice the nurse leaving.

I swallow a wail that fights to escape my throat because Mom looks so delicate, fragile, amid the tangle of corded machines. We flank each side of the bed and hold her hands. Raisa leans over and whispers into her ear. “Don’t worry, Mom, we’re here!”

“People in a coma can still hear,” she tells me in her Know-It-All voice.

When the doctor comes, she tells us that they did everything possible, that the ventilator is the only thing keeping Mom alive, that her brain has ceased to function, that she’s not going to improve. She asks about Mom’s advance directives, if she has a do-not-resuscitate directive, because if she doesn’t have one then we must decide whether it’s time to turn off the life support system. She also asks about Mom’s organ donor status. Neither Raisa nor I know these things, and it dawns on me that neither of us knows much about Mom beyond her role as our mother. We don’t know why she and Tim parted ways, why she never remarried after our father died, why she chose to teach art rather than work as a medical illustrator like our grandmother—far more lucrative than teaching. Suddenly, all that I don’t know about her feels like a gigantic hole, a chasm of loss, a treasure stolen.

“Is your mother an organ donor?” the doctor asks.

“How premature. And insensitive,” I say, my turn to be indignant and accusatory. As I watch the machine inflate and deflate my mother’s chest, my math brain concentrates on the numbers of breaths a healthy person takes for granted: sixteen breaths per minute, 960 breaths an hour, 23,040 breaths a day, 8,409,600 a year. If Mom were to live to be 80, she’d take about 672,768,000 breaths in her lifetime, and it kills me that my children are being robbed of seeing their grandmother take in and expel all those breaths. I imagine all my children’s milestones, and all their activities she’ll miss: birthdays, graduations, weddings. And mine, too.

“No response in the brain or the stem,” the doctor says in a matter-of-fact voice.

Hope clings to me like static electricity. Maybe time will restore her responses. It’s only been three days since the shooting. Miracles can happen. I believe in miracles.

I look at Raisa, her face identical to mine—but mine’s gone soft and full from pregnancy and motherhood, whereas Raisa’s remains sharp and thin. Her hair, thick chestnut sheets, falls just below her shoulders in a sexy bob, while mine, cut short, exposes my ears. We could pose for before-and-after photos for a weight loss advertisement.

“We did our best.” The doctor says the words slowly as if we are idiots who cannot comprehend.

I know they can’t turn off the ventilator until everything about organ donation and withdrawing life support is laid down, signed in triplicate, settled.

“Rumian, she wouldn’t want this,” Raisa says.

“She’s not dead yet,” I yell.

Raisa takes the clipboard from the doctor and signs away Mom’s organs as if she were signing over the title to her car. I leave the room.

A stony silence fills the car on the ride back to Mom’s house. Raisa’s driving. Wishing with every cell in my body that she was shot instead of Mom, I peer out the passenger window to avoid looking at or speaking to her. I want to put distance between us—to drive home to see my kiddos and Tony. I want to take a break from her—from this awful situation.

“She’s still on the ventilator,” Raisa says, as if that makes a ton of difference. “We have a lot to do,” she adds in that Know-It-All voice and begins ticking off a to-do list beginning with “make arrangements.”

“Shut up. Shut the fuck up,” I say, my words venom darts. “You’re going to turn her waterfall wall and diffuser back on. And you’re going to be polite to Tony and my kids when they arrive.”

Raisa stared at me with disbelief in her face.

When we turn into Mom’s driveway, a large object covered in thick brown paper tied with twine leans against the front door. Without speaking, I unlock Mom’s door, drag the package inside, cut the twine and tear off the paper. I immediately recognize Tim’s work. It’s a companion piece to Grandma’s portrait, capturing Mom in her youthful glory: Filled with energy, her eyes appear flashing behind those large black-framed glasses, her hair wild, curly, large, untamable. Love shines from her face as she smiles at us, her arm encircling Raisa and me, our young faces identical but slightly different with our heads forming the top slopes of a heart; her elbow, the point, and her forearm closes the circle.

___

Rosalia Scalia earned a master’s degree in writing from Johns Hopkins University in May 2003 and is working on her first novel, Delia’s Concerto. The first chapter was one of seven finalists in a competition held by the National League of American Pen Women and a more recent version was published as a story titled “Soul Music,” in Crack the Spine #109. Her story “Henry’s Fall” was a finalist in the Gival Press Short Story competition. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Amarillo Bay; The Baltimore Review; Blue Lake Review; Crack The Spine; Epiphany; The Furious Gazelle; Hawaii Pacific Review; The Oklahoma Review; North Atlantic Review; Notre Dame Review; Pebble Lake; Pennsylvania English; The Portland Review; Quercus Review; Ragazine; Riddle Fence; Silk Road Review; Smile, Hon, You’re in Baltimore; Talking River; South Asian Ensemble; Spout Magazine; Taproot; Valparaiso Fiction Review; Verdad; and Willow Review. The story that appears in Taproot won first prize in its annual literary fiction competition for 2007, and “Uncharted Steps” merited a 2010 Individual Artist Grant from the Maryland State Art Council. “Sister Rafaele Heals the Sick,” first published by Pebble Lake Review and nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2005, appeared again in an anthology titled City Sages: Baltimore (CityLit Press, May 1, 2010), a collection of stories by 32 Baltimore writers, including Poe, Anne Tyler, and Alice McDermott, among others. Most recently, her story “You’ll Do Fine” was a recipient of the Willow Review Award for the Spring 2011 issue. Her short story collection, Sister Rafaele Heals the Sick & Other Stories, was shortlisted in the 2013 Santa Fe Writers Project Fiction Awards.

The Landfill

By Fred McGavran

echnology is always the answer. Hi. My name is Yardsal (“Yardy”) Haines, and that’s what I used to tell the school kids bussed out to the landfill for a day in the country. Most kids nowadays have never been to the country and thought they were going to see a cow pasture when we took them up to Lookout Point. Stretched out before them was an inland sea of plastic bags crisscrossed by bulldozers leveling out the bumps.

“Hey, Mr. Yardy!” some kid always asked. “Why’s it smell so bad? Is it the cows?”

See what I mean? Those kids couldn’t tell a cow from a bulldozer. Anyway, the question gave me a chance to talk about decay of organic matter and give them some terms to describe it besides the ones they already knew. Teachers really appreciated that.

“If it smells like shit, it probably is shit,” my friend Bill Bob Leahy, chief of security, always added.

Bill Bob is a short man with a beer belly so enormous he has to lean backwards to keep from toppling over. The kids loved him because he spoke their language. Teachers were another story.

For twenty-seven years, I’ve been chief engineer at Settlers Landfill. As a waste management professional, I don’t use terms like “dump” or “trash.” For us in the industry, waste management is a technological challenge, not a subject for sick jokes. We accepted over two million tons of household and industrial waste every year and spread it out across our six hundred acre campus to be layered with soil and blended into the environment. Thanks to reclamation science, we graded and seeded the outer edges just like strip miners grade and seed the outer edges of their pits, so passersby see only rolling green hills from the road.

Inside, however, we had to deal with mounds of plastic bags exploding and out gassing as their contents ripened in the summer sun. Over the years our sales force was so successful that corporate in Chicago projected the landfill would reach its capacity by 2020. Our neighbors wouldn’t sell us more land, and the regulators wouldn’t let us use it if they did. Strapped for space, we could not keep layering the waste with dirt to keep the flies and odor down. We had to find a high tech solution.

Although often criticized in the media, our industry is very sensitive to the needs of our neighbors. We have to be: my wife Cindy and I and Bill Bob and his wife Cheryl live in Settlers Grove, a planned community for employees just outside the landfill. So we were all relieved when corporate announced that it had developed a proprietary solvent that not only made the waste decompose in less than the half-life of a plastic bag but would also shrink the compost to less than one third its original size. We learned later that it did this by dehydrating and solidifying the waste into a hardness that could withstand a nuclear blast.

Corporate had thought of everything except the exponential increase in methane gas caused by the enhanced decomposition process. Coupled with a temperature inversion, complaints about bad odors reached a crescendo not even our PR firm and Political Action Committee could silence. School trips were cancelled; grilling out was impossible. I remember wearing an oxygen mask when I cut our grass.

Corporate found another technical solution: a gigantic plastic dome that would cover the landfill and capture the gas. Through an intricate piping system, methane would be routed to our neighbors to heat their homes. The dome was designed by the same NASA engineers who were designing domes for the first colonists on Mars. It made the landfill look like a gigantic terrarium. Offering methane gas at below market rates, we converted criticism into praise and gained many advocates. We even designed clear places in the plastic at Lookout Point so the kids could look in and watch the enhanced decomposition. It was only in the choice of a piping and concrete contractor that we went astray.

Butch Siegel is the best example I have ever seen of why accepting the lowest bid can be a mistake. As the weather changed, leaks developed around the pipes where they passed through the dome due to the different rates of expansion for plastic and metal. Neighbor complaints rebounded, reaching as high as the governor’s office, and Cindy and I had to cancel our Fourth of July barbecue. I called Siegel to my office in the concrete block administrative building that had been built when the site was used as an ammunition testing ground in the 1940s. He was as confident as ever.

“The pipes are leaking,” I said.

“No problem,” Butch reassured me.

“How’re you going to seal them?”

“Easy,” Butch said and winked, holding up a Zippo® lighter engraved “Danang 1969” and a large tube of epoxy cement

That was the last time I saw him. Bill Bob watched him climb up the dome and light the Zippo by one of the methane pipes. Leahy made it back to our administrative building just before Butch found his first leak.

To my amazement, even our closest neighbors did not hear the blast. When Bill Bob and I went out to survey the damage, the dome was intact, having deflected the blast downwards into the landfill. Only the piping was gone, landing as we learned later in backyards and Interstates as far as 20 miles away. After putting in a missing person report on Siegel, we were back in full operation within an hour.

Corporate in Chicago called to ask whether there had been any damage to the waste itself. Obviously they were thinking of restarting methane gas production as soon as possible. I hadn’t thought of that. So we let the dome cool for a day, and then Bill Bob and I clambered up with flashlights to peer through the pipe holes. It was like looking down into the earth through an upside down periscope.

Not a plastic bag remained. The waste, solidified by the solvent, had been driven deep into the earth like a gigantic bullet, leaving the appearance of a crater on the moon. Now we had space for hundreds of millions more metric tons of waste, enough to serve the prospective needs not only of the city, but also of the surrounding area for decades. We scrambled down to call Chicago.

“Watch out, Yardy!” Bill Bob cried, grabbing my arm and pulling me back just as the concrete base at my feet collapsed, leaving a gap between the dome and the crater below.

“Looks like Butch skimped on the concrete, too,” I said.

The explosion had cracked the base all around the dome. Corporate wasn’t happy, but who needed a dome now that fifty years accumulation of methane was gone? The neighbors could go back to getting their gas from the utility company like everybody else. I designed a wire fence on metal stakes to keep workers from falling in, but after a month the ground gave way beneath that, too. Sections of the fence drooped and dangled over the edge until the last stakes gave way and everything dropped into the crater. We had to stop the school tours for good.

We established a protocol that anyone approaching the edge had to wear a safety harness. Every time I got roped up to inspect the crater, I was amazed at how deep it was. Gray, cloudy, with little channels of fire swirling in its depths, it was like looking into the remains of a city hit by nuclear bombs or an opening into hell.

One afternoon the dome started to tilt to one side, like a lid too small for a pot.

“What’ll we do if it falls in?” Bill Bob wondered.

“Beats hell out of me,” I replied. “Let’s hope corporate has the answer.”

Corporate didn’t care. Aside from a photo of the tilting dome that went viral, no one else cared, either. The day the dome finally slid down into the crater, Bill Bob and I were the only ones who bothered to get roped up to see it. It was lying on the bottom at about a 30º angle, exaggerating the flames beneath it like an enormous magnifying glass.

“Is the dome flammable?” Bill Bob asked.

We soon had the answer to that.

Bill Bob and I had bought houses on the same street in the late 80s when the landfill was just getting started and worked our way up in the company together. Now that the kids were gone, he and Cheryl and Cindy and I were beginning to think about retirement communities where you did not go to sleep to the sound of garbage trucks racing in and out of the landfill, or the crackle of uncontained fires sweeping over mountains of plastic bags.

“You know, I kind of miss the sound of the plastic bags burning,” Cindy said the evening the dome fell in while we and the Leahys were grilling steaks on our backyard grill. “It kind of put me to sleep, like a fire in the fireplace on a winter evening.”

“What’s that?” Cheryl exclaimed.

A rush of wind came from the landfill, followed by the throat-closing stench of burning plastic.

“Get inside!” Bill Bob cried as I took the steaks off the grill. “The dome caught fire!”

The sky over the landfill was clotted with thick black smoke lit orange by the flames beneath.

This time corporate was ecstatic. Once the dome was burned out, we could put in even more waste without it blocking the flow like an upside down cup over a garbage disposal. Besides, the crater was getting deeper, and Settlers Landfill was about to become the largest in the country. Despite thousands of tons of dirt dumped into the crater, however, the fire burned for three weeks, causing the evacuation of everyone within our outgassing range. Every TV station in town had drones circling to get real time action shots, and we were the subject of sarcastic comments by TV talk show hosts and liberal politicians all over the country. Bill Bob and I and our wives had to move across town to an extended stay motel, cutting short the summer cookout season.

“I don’t need all this,” Bill Bob said after he had been up all night trying to move protesters out of the access road to the landfill so the trucks could get through. “I’m going to take early retirement.”

“Maybe I should, too,” I agreed. “Florida is looking better every day.”

We weren’t the only ones with ideas like that. The only problem was getting our money out of our houses. That’s when corporate announced it would buy the house at pre-explosion fair market value of any employee who agreed to stay on until retirement. As usual Chicago thought it would all blow over in a year and everyone would forget about the offer. Instead, the problem kept expanding.

The crater was getting larger. Even the waste truck drivers noticed that they didn’t have to drive as far into the site to discharge their loads. Finally figuring this could be as much a problem as an opportunity, corporate ordered me to find out why.

That’s when I met Cleves Warsaw, Ph.D. No one in City University’s engineering department knew anything about crater mechanics, so I was referred to physics. Dr. Warsaw was the nation’s leading expert on the formation and life cycle of craters. With a scraggly beard whitened by chalk dust and a squint from spending years peering through telescopes, Cleves Warsaw looked more like a janitor than a professor. Bill Bob made him show two sets of government issued identification to let him onto the landfill. Fortunately he had a current Yosemite National Park pass along with his driver’s license, or we would never have learned what was going on.

Like many physicists, Dr. Warsaw was obsessed with data. What was the radius of the landfill when we installed the glass dome? When did we first notice the slippage? Did we measure it? Could we get access to the TV stations’ drone films? All this was necessary to determine the crater’s coefficient of expansion. Along with all this, he was the most reckless investigator I have ever known. Nearly every day we had to wire him up to inspect the crater’s edge, and nearly every day he fell in and was extracted with great difficulty, often with a winch. Did I tell you he weighed over 300 pounds?

Corporate was demanding answers, and some drivers were refusing to enter the landfill for fear their trucks would fall in. When Dr. Warsaw finally announced he had found the answer, I set up a conference call with corporate, because no one there would come near the landfill.

“You’re not going to like this,” Dr. Warsaw told me before he began.

I was just happy that Chicago had not insisted on Skyping. If they had seen Cleves Warsaw, they wouldn’t have believed anything he said. As it was, the call was delayed while he fiddled with his laptop and set up a screen to project his conclusions. Bill Bob, who was sitting in out of general interest, was getting edgy.

“Looks like he’s about to download his pornography collection,” he whispered.

And then Dr. Warsaw turned down the lights and started his presentation. Bill Bob was lost from the get go, but to me it had a certain logic, like one of those guys at the fair selling tools you could use to chop vegetables and work on your transmission all at the same time.

“So just tell us what’s going to happen,” our executive VP said over the speaker phone.

It was the first time anyone in Chicago had spoken.

“This is what’s going to happen,” Dr. Warsaw said, showing a computer projection of the crater expanding until a bulge arose in its center forming a ball so big the crater disappeared.

“I can’t see it,” the executive VP snapped. “Yardy, what the hell is going on?”

“The crater is turning the world inside out like a guy taking off a sock.”

“How much did we pay for this?”

“Dr. Warsaw, what are you telling us?” I asked.

Like so many theoreticians, he could not give a simple answer. In the late 1940s, the Soviet mathematician Dmitri Baklanov had developed a series of equations so elegant and seemingly detached from reality that no one had ever found anything in the universe that corresponded to them. Thinking Baklanov had written a mathematical parody of the Soviet Union, Stalin had him shot. Afterwards the best mathematical minds in the world had searched for some application for the Baklanov equations, much as they searched for something that would change lead into gold or proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem.

“And now I have identified the process Baklanov predicted,” Dr. Warsaw exulted. “When an explosion occurs with sufficient force directed downward at a particular place on the earth’s surface, it sets in motion a process whereby the crater expands and deepens until it exerts a sufficient attractive force on the other side of the globe, which swells downward and engulfs the original crater, causing the world to turn itself inside out.”

I have never known Chicago to be quiet for so long.

“How much time have we got?” asked the executive VP.

“Seven years, two hundred and thirty-one days, and two hours.”

“At least it’s not tonight,” somebody else in Chicago said. “I’ve got to take my kids to soccer practice.”

The rest of the call was about keeping everything under wraps so the public would not panic and house prices in the neighborhood would not fall any more than they already had. It turned out that the company was negotiating a class action settlement and had offered its employees the same deal it was offering everyone else, without having to stay on the job to get it. Dr. Warsaw assured us he would not disclose his work until it was published in the peer-reviewed journal Crater Dynamics. Fortunately, Crater Dynamics was published bi-annually, and the latest edition had just come out. The world would not know its fate for nearly another two years.

“There’s more than enough time for me to win the Nobel Prize after that,” he said happily. “The university will have to make me tenure track when I win the Nobel.”

“That’s right, Professor,” the executive VP assured him. “No need to get people all worked up about something they can’t do anything about.”

After the call was concluded, Bill Bob and I went to our offices to work on our applications for early retirement. They were granted along with the house buy out after we signed a confidentiality agreement.

Later I asked Dr. Warsaw the last place to be sucked into the earth before the world turned inside out. He said Yekaterinburg, Russia about 1,100 miles east of Moscow, where the last Czar and his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918. Cindy and I don’t think a few extra years on the edge of Siberia are worth it.

So Bill Bob and Cheryl and Cindy and I are moving to Key West after the first wave of panic selling hits, and they think they’re all going to go under tomorrow. Being inundated by a tsunami can’t be any worse than freezing in a blizzard, even if it comes a little sooner. Dr. Warsaw says we’ll have several good years in Florida. That’s more than most people get. The end of the world is only a problem if you let it get to you. Come to think of it, maybe somebody will come up with a technical solution for that, too.

 

________

Fred McGavran is a graduate of Kenyon College and Harvard Law School, and served as an officer in the US Navy in Vietnam. After retiring from law, he was ordained a deacon in the Diocese of Southern Ohio, where he serves as Assistant Chaplain with Episcopal Retirement Services. The Ohio Arts Council awarded him an Individual Achievement Award for The Reincarnation of Horlach Spenser, a story that appeared in Harvard Review. Black Lawrence Press published The Butterfly Collector, his award-winning collection of short stories, and Glass Lyre Press published Recycled Glass and Other Stories, his second collection, in April 2017. For more information and links to stories, go to www.fredmcgavran.com.

Aunt Josey’s Stuff

By John Allison

y then, at age nine, I understood. It was what she could not take that weighed heavily on her mind, more than the year before, and more then than the year before that. Now, I sometimes feel the crushing weight of them all.

That Sunday I tapped lightly on the door to her large bedroom, cracked it open, and watched. Aunt Josey, her back to me, sat on the floor wedged into the one space where she would fit. Standing, smearing her nose and then her eyes on the right sleeve of her dingy, partially buttoned chambray shirt, she surveyed the area. Barefoot, cheeks damp, shoulder-length reddish-brown hair pulled behind each ear, shirttail hanging loosely over kneeless Levis, Josey was unbothered by being squeezed among the many boxes stacked four or five high that would have caused the claustrophobic to panic for fear of no escape.

Each had two signs stuck on with tape, a master label stating either MUST TAKE or, in another section of the room, MAYBE TAKE. Illustrative of the MUST TAKE secondary labels were: MAGS/VARIETY, MAGS/NEW YORKER, MAGS/VOGUE, NEW YORK TIMES, POTTERY, ART STUFF, JEWELRY, JOURNALS/LAST5YRS, MAKEUP, CARL, MITCH, SHOES, SHOES, SHOES, SHOES, and twenty-four BOOKS. The contents of the latter, I already knew, left out few periods or places in the world’s history. And there were clothes.

Exemplifying the MAYBE TAKEs were six DOLLS, MAGS/SASSY, MAGS/YM, MAGS/COSMOGIRL, MAGS/TEEN, MAGS/TEEN PEOPLE, FIGURINES, SEA SHELLS, PENNIES, JOURNALS/OLD, ROGER, CLINT, and ten DO NOT OPENs.

There was a third tier of her things in the basement she had taken over from her father, my Granddad Paul, but this wasn’t mentioned. My grandfather had his own collections in the attic and in three metal sheds out back—tools of every kind and age, numerous old paint cans full of nuts and bolts, and what he called antiques but that Grandma Charlene called “other people’s effluvium.” My dad had been charged by both Granddad and Josey with intentional infliction of emotional distress when, a number of times over the years, he cleared the back yard and hauled off rented trucks full of their objects so that the grass and weeds could be kept in check.

Josey stood, opening a bulging container marked DOLLS. Without turning toward where I stood peeking in, she said, “Charlie, come on in, close the door. I need your help. Think you and Albert could get more boxes from Studs?” That was the liquor store a few blocks away in Hartford’s West End neighborhood where Pop and I had gotten extra boxes during the last month in anticipation of this moment.

As I was saying “Sure, I guess. I can ask,” she pulled out a thing with floppy legs and arms, sad-looking looking to me then and hideous now, one eye missing and two or three small holes in its head where some of the pretend hair braids had once been anchored. She murmured something, maybe Sally, maybe Cassie, I couldn’t be sure, and then reunited the pathetic creature with its mates. Then, emerging from wherever she had been, she turned toward me. Her lips parting slightly, their corners sneaking upward, she said, “Hi, there, big guy, what’s up?” At this, my only thoughts were of what I could do for her.

My dad strove to get her attention from one room away where he and I slept. His voice was strong and could be piercing when he was annoyed. “Josephine Wambaugh, when you going to be done packing? I’ve been ready for three hours. You’ve been getting your, cr…,” Pop catching himself before calling her many treasures crap because he knew how sensitive she could be about the subject, “your stuff together for half the day.

“We already spent most of yesterday getting ready. We’ve got to hit the road if we want to make Middlebury before dark. We’ll have to eat someplace along the way, and if you and Charlie require a few pit stops, it might take us five hours.”

A stressed “What, Albert?” made it through the wall to Pop.

“Baby sister, did you hear anything I said?”

Hearing nothing for the next minute or so, he came around to Josey’s bedroom door. “Josey, Josey, what’s the holdup?” he pleaded. I was aware that Pop knew perfectly well what was going on.

***

The day before, he and I had gone to a U-Haul outlet there in Hartford and rented a trailer for my aunt’s stuff. Pop, Josey, and I had filled the trailer with boxes, most of them too heavy for me to carry alone. I saw each one as a special thing, and proudly dragged the few I could by one end. Josey and I lugged others together, Pop naturally doing the largest share of the work. Though not tall, my dad was powerfully built and was intense when there was work to be done. Late that afternoon, trailer full, Josey appeared lost as she gazed wistfully at everything that wouldn’t fit, not even counting the stacks remaining in her room and a hallway. She looked at Pop for what seemed to be a long time.

“Okay, okay, Josey,” he sighed, and the three of us began unloading the trailer, stacking boxes and some loose things on the driveway of my grandparents’ house, where Pop and I were living, and where Josey still spent summers and school breaks.

“So, you want to swap it for a bigger one, huh?” the man rasped through cracked lips that gripped half a cigarette beneath a veined, bulbous nose, his impressive gut resting comfortably on the U-Haul counter.

As Josey shook her head in vigorous assent, Pop said, “You know, I’ll pay for a bigger one if you’ll give me half off for the day, or less than a day, I’ve had the other.”

“Bigger? How much?”

“Oh, maybe half again the first one. Got one that size?”

“Yeah, just about, maybe a little more. Just five more bucks a day.” Quickly figuring, he grunted, “Sure, man, deal.”

***

It was Sunday afternoon by the time the larger trailer was full and hooked behind the 1968 Mustang GT fastback that Pop had bought in 1972 with military savings so that he would have a “good car,” as he put it, before going back to school. I, of course, thought the Mustang, with its 302 cubic inch V8 engine, 4-barrel carburetor, four-on-the-floor stick shift, sport handling package, and still-pristine exterior was far better than anything Buck Rogers flew. Josey, though, had observed pointedly that her brother’s idea of a good car was a pure, unmitigated chick magnet, and that she, naturally, was not attracted by such gauche displays.

“But Albert, there’s more still.”

“Josey, darling, you know there are a lot more of your necessities out here and inside than we can possibly carry. I can’t get a trailer any bigger than this one. Books I understand, but all this other stuff mystifies me. We can’t take it all, for one thing. For another, what the heck you going to do with it when you get there?”

As it turned out, Josey had more than one solution to the transportation problem. First, she said, sweetly, “But Albert, I’ve been waiting tables for years. I always got great tips. From the men, you know. I’ve got savings. I saw a trailer bigger than this one. I can pay for it.”

Pop hugged her tightly and brushed a tear from her cheek, saying “Sweetheart, I don’t think my car can pull a larger trailer.” I thought it probably could, but I kept quiet, and Pop remained adamant about not risking harm to his lovely red Mustang.

From my dad’s perspective, Josey’s second solution was no more tenable than the first: renting a truck in addition to the trailer, she driving the second vehicle.

In answer to the what-to-do-with-it-when-we-get-there question, she pointed out that the previous year she had abandoned dormitory living and moved into a garage apartment adjoining an old home not far from the Middlebury campus. A middle-aged couple owned the property, the large lot having ample space for the rented storage shed Josey convinced the male half of the couple to allow her to place close to a back fence. She generally fared better with men than with women, although she could often persuade other women when an issue was important enough to her. With the men, it wasn’t all about sexual allure—although I came to understand there was plenty of that—because her suasions worked so well on Pop and Granddad and not just on guys who lusted after her.

We left the Wambaugh place after four that Sunday afternoon, Josey having finally succumbed to her brother’s entreaties, leaving behind some of the things she thought she absolutely had to have and all of the hoped-for stuff. Pop’s cause was helped by Grandma Charlene, who, as Josey had been pleading with Pop, came around a corner and said, “Josey, now just you listen, your brother will take care of everything. He’ll get you and whatever you need to school. Your dad and I can’t do it, and you know that, so just let Albert handle it like he’s done before.”

No one told Pop about the besotted but soon-to-be-forlorn young man who showed up two weeks later with Josey in a pickup truck that shortly thereafter turned around and, riding so near the pavement that its frame almost put off sparks, headed back to Vermont.

***

The trip from Hartford to Vermont was, for me, a late summer adventure in which I had played a minor role since Josey left for her first year at Middlebury College on full scholarship when I was six. Pop timed his last long leave home from Miramar, California, where he had been training Marine Corps helicopter pilots since returning to the states, so that he could take her to school that first September, and he was home for good before the autumn of her second year rolled around.

Back then I saw my dad as invincible, but he was no tough guy when it came to his little sister. When her saucer-sized green eyes misted over and the first quiet drops began to make their way from impossibly long lashes down her cheeks in diminishing rivulets, it was game-over for Pop. Despite the seven years that separated them, and the differences that marked them—he a math whiz drawn to engineering and the logic of computer code, she a rapacious reader and a writer of steadily burgeoning ability—the two of them had formed a deep bond before she was even a toddler.

It was my grandmother, along with Josey, who supplied most of the details about the family that I either couldn’t recollect or had never known. As I recall her now, from both memory and family photos, Grandma Charlene’s short, dark brown hair didn’t begin to reveal streaks of gray until she was in her sixties. Not a large woman in height or girth, her will had been forged of tungsten carbide. Pop and Josey told me of clashes between the grandparents, shouts leading to broken dishes and exhaustion but no bruises, until finally Granddad Paul just checked out, leaving all of the family decision making to his wife. Josey told me she remembered her father saying to no one in particular, “Fuck it all, it’s just not worth it.” After that, Josey said, the Wambaugh household operated more smoothly, no one apparently thinking about what emasculation may have done to Granddad, although he seemed to be at peace.

Later, though, when he developed Parkinson’s disease—he was only in his early forties—Grandma took on the job of caring for him with alacrity, lovingly holding him in her arms and singing softly to him each night until sleep plucked him from misery.

Pop said his mother “rode Josey pretty hard, like a drill sergeant,” until Josey was about fifteen when there was a showdown of some kind. Pop said, “After that, Charlie, those two women just sort of eyed each other and kept at a safe distance. On occasion there’d be another skirmish, but not like earlier, not as intense. Then they’d move to their own corners like bantam-weight boxers. Sometimes I thought they might even be rivals. Mother was still a very good-looking woman, she always was, and I wondered whether there was some sort of competition going on. Both of them, I don’t know, they were just so damned stubborn. They had these egos, these wills, whatever. Maybe your grandma saw too much of herself in Josey, I don’t know. After your grandfather got sick, though, Josey backed off. But I really hoped she’d never have a daughter.”

***

“Mama, that’s a pretty nasty job, right?” my dad had asked his mother as she was changing Josey’s diaper. Grandma told me about it when I was about eight, the age Pop had been at the time.

“Well, yes, it sure is,” she told her son, “but it’s got to be done. And there’s nobody else around to do it. Besides, I’ve done it enough that I don’t mind anymore.”

“I can do it for you sometime, Mama,” he had offered. “Just show me how.” She did, and he was good to his word.

“Charlie, Albert loved that baby so much. Before then, I couldn’t have imagined any boy his age doing a job like that. And he volunteered, if you can believe it. It was almost like she was his, I don’t know, his little doll or something. And it never stopped.”

She continued. “When Josey was about eighteen months old or so, about that, I think, Albert taught her to play football. Tackle, mind you. The ball was half as big as she was, and she’d hold that thing with both hands, hug it to her little pot belly, and run headlong down the hallway squealing until she met him coming the other way when the squeal turned to a wild banshee screech. He would pretend to tackle her, lifting her off the floor and gently planting her down on her back. Then he’d tickle her. They wouldn’t quit ‘til Albert tired out. I don’t think she ever would have. I can’t remember how long they did that, probably until she started school.

“Then, he walked her all the way to school and back every day. I went with them the first few times, until I knew they’d be okay. They held hands, she’d look up at him, just beaming. He kept that up until long after other boys his age wouldn’t have been caught dead walking with a little girl. But Albert didn’t care what anybody else thought. There was just something about those two. He did hang out with other boys, but Josey came first, and it seemed to never occur to anyone to make fun of him for having a little girl as a pal. It was just Albert and Josephine, and that’s all there was to it. Really, I never did understand it.”

When I started kindergarten at age five, Josey was seventeen. She walked me to school and back home almost every day of her senior year in high school, before she went off to college. She would talk to me. And she would listen. She spoke to me as an equal from the beginning, explaining to me how to tell whether a girl liked me, and what to do if one did. My initial disgust at hearing this later became a useful insight. She and I didn’t play football. But we danced. And danced. And danced.

She danced with me to the pounding rhythm of the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Paint It Black” long before I began kindergarten, teaching me to sing the words as we flew around some room in the house, my feet sometimes on the floor and sometimes miles above it. I learned and loved the Beatles’ “When I’m 64” and “Twist and Shout,” to do the Watusi and the Twist. And I fell in love with Josey. Around the time I turned eight, I had secretly formed the hoped of marrying her, and when I told her she folded me into her arms, softly singing the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” close to my ear as we moved to and fro, her intoxicating scent unadorned, my small body boneless as I burrowed in. I was probably about eleven or twelve when I figured out that I couldn’t marry Josey, my pillow case becoming wet with my sorrow for a few nights. Now, sometimes, it is her smell I first recall in the early morning before the bracing odor of strong coffee brings me back to the present.

One time, I finally worked up the nerve to ask the question that had pecked at me for the previous month like an old hen in insect-infested fescue and bluegrass. Taking a while to choke back her laughter, Josey finally said, “Oh, god, Charlie, yeah, girls get gas, too. But maybe not as much, I don’t know. And most of them work a lot harder than guys to keep it sort of, you know, sort of tucked in until they’re by themselves.” My eyes widened at this insight, surely unknown to my peers.

In truth, Josey gave me something to think about nearly every time we talked as I grew older. When I was in high school, a sophomore or junior, I think, she came out of the blue with “Charlie, life’s really not hard to figure out. Intent is part of it—your heart ought to be in the right place. But the rest of it, Charlie—it’s mostly just technique.” And, one summer Saturday while we were shopping to replace my threadbare canvas Keds and find additional essentials for Josey, both of us squirming impatiently on an up-escalator clogged with standing shoppers, Josey advised with her volume knob fruitlessly ratcheted up, “Charlie, there may be only two kinds of people—the ones who think escalators are an easier way to go up and down, and the others who think the goddamned things are a faster way.”

***

That Sunday in Pop’s Mustang, we headed north from Hartford on I-91 for Josey’s senior year at Middlebury College. Just before Springfield, Josey said, “Albert, I know staying on 91 most of the way north is a lot faster, but these freeways are just so damned dreary. Can’t we get off onto I-90 and then at Stockbridge go north on Highway 7 all the way to school? Some of that way is so much prettier, you know in the national forest. Please, Albert?”

Pop was quiet for a few moments, calculating the extra time it would take. “Josey, Charlie, if we do that it could be dark before we get to Middlebury.”

“We’ve got headlights, Pop,” I said, excited about the prospect of going through unknown territory at night. I didn’t know then that he was exaggerating a bit for effect—it was farther but not that much.

Josey giggled. Pop was silent.

“Please, Albert,” Josey importuned.

Pop sighed deeply. “Okay, okay. Premature death of an older relative, that’s what the indictment will say,” his voice softening as he looked first at Josey in the front passenger seat, and then quickly back at me where I sat behind Josey.

So we took Josey’s route and Pop and Josey began their storytelling, each sometimes having the floor alone and other times one interrupting the other by finishing a sentence or asking a question. I did my best to participate occasionally with an insert of my own, feeling like an equal in the threesome because Josey was there. I adored Pop, but he was a parent, not a mysterious, amazing, fun friend.

“Albert, Charlie. You know, there’s something I never told you about Highway 7. Actually, I never told anyone.”

“Is this something we want to hear, Josey?” I thought Pop’s question was weird. I always wanted to hear anything Aunt Josey said.

Josey was quiet for a couple of minutes that seemed like hours to a nine-year-old. Breaking her silence, finally, she began.

“My freshman year. The first weekend of spring break I stayed around school before coming home. There was this guy. I’d known him only a couple of weeks. He had these dimples on his chin, sandy blonde hair, a few freckles, really cute, you know, and he had transportation. His name was Dick. Can you believe it? Man, he definitely was one, but I hadn’t figured that out yet. You know, I was still a kid.”

Pop interrupted. “Josey, Charlie’s back there, you know. Maybe you could tell us another story.”

“Oh, Albert, Charlie’s been with me so much. You know, since the little squirt’s head popped out of his mom. There’s nothing he hasn’t heard. And he’s a mature young man.”

I beamed. And I was utterly in Josey’s thrall. She continued. “Anyway, we went to Battell Woods, near town, to find a hiking trail. I always loved to hike, you know, when I could. Took binoculars to maybe see some birds if we stayed ‘til morning. So, this guy, Dick,” she and I again stifling giggles, “he left his truck, a pickup, down at the trailhead. We went about a mile out a trail.”

“So, we thought we’d stay a few hours, and if we fell asleep just off the trail, no big deal. No camping there, officially, but we figured we wouldn’t get caught. Had sleeping bags, thermal long johns. If we didn’t sleep, we’d head back to campus after a while.” Josey paused.

“And?” Pop asked after the pause had lengthened.

“We’d hoped to find some weed, maybe a couple of joints, but we didn’t have any luck with that.”

I remember being confused by this, picturing Josey and this guy pulling weeds and him messing up a joint somewhere. We had studied the skeletal system at school and I knew about joints. His knee, maybe? I kept quiet.

“So we had beer, a lot of beer. Anyway, I had one can. Not a lot of body weight, you know, and no real food for a while, so I was a little tipsy, and just tasted a little of a second one. It was terrible, anyway, some cheap shit he’d gotten just outside town late the night before. So I stopped.”

“Glad to hear it, little sister,” Pop said.

“Anyway,” she resumed, “Dick . . .” and I started laughing again. Josey said, “Shut up back there, you little brat, so I can tell this.” I knew she didn’t mean it, the brat thing.

“Well, in the time it took me to drink one can plus a couple sips of that vile excrement, Dick chugged six.”

“What’s ex-cra, excra…what?” I interjected.

“Later, Charlie, I’ll tell you later. Let your aunt finish her story. Soon, I hope.” I saw Pop wink at Josey.

“Anyway, you little twerp…,” she said as I tried to look like Charlie Chaplin, the Little Tramp, from a movie I’d watched on TV with Josey.

Starting again, she implored, “Gentlemen, puu-lease. That’s when I knew for sure I had a real loser on my hands. He slurred his words, started acting stupid, and got feisty with me. You know, putting his hands all over me. I wasn’t ready for that, and besides, he was a lush.”

“Josey, Josey,” Pop said.

“No, it’ll be okay. Nothing happened. At least not that kind of thing. Anyway, I got really uncomfortable and shoved him away. He stumbled and fell on his ass—his butt, Charlie—then he starting cussing me. He was sitting on the ground, so I moved fast, shoved him on his back, and sat on him. Had a fist-sized piece of granite in my right hand above his head. He squirmed a lot. I asked if he’d prefer that his brains stay inside his skull, and he sort of froze.”

My eyes widened. “Did you hit him, Josey? I hope you hit him.”

“No, I wanted to, but I knew better than to kill the bastard.”

I knew Pop would later talk to me about words like bastard, about not using them myself. I’d gotten that lecture before, but I was old enough by then to not say things like that around the grandparents, the teachers, other grownups. Even Josey had given me the talk about that as she continued to enrich my vocabulary through the years. I knew they had to do that. I was already figuring out that adults had to be hypocritical with kids. It was their job.

My aunt continued. “I took the keys to the truck out of his pants pocket, grabbed my stuff and stuffed it in my backpack, and ran like hell for about ten minutes. It wasn’t all the way dark yet. Then I walked fast to where we’d parked. I jumped into his truck and took off back to Middlebury. He was too drunk to come after me.”

“Oh, god, Josey, you didn’t,” Pop said.

“I did, big brother. I’d figured out that Dick’s place in my life was like ear wax after not digging it out for a month. I was disappointed, you know. I had high hopes for the guy before that. But I left his truck, with the keys in it, where he usually parked at school. It wasn’t too far for him to walk back. Next morning, Monday, I caught a bus back to Hartford. Albert, you didn’t come back from California until later, in the summer, so I couldn’t call you for a ride.”

“I wish you’d hit him with the rock,” I piped up again. Pop sighed deeply. Josey giggled.

When they weren’t trading stories or jokes, their verbal fencing, one riposte after another, was better than baseball, and I wished we’d never make it to Middlebury. Then, more seriously, Pop brought up his having left college after two years to join the Marine Corps.

“Why’d you do that, anyway, Albert?” Josey interrupted. “Seemed kind of dumb to me.”

“You may remember, Josey, or you may not—that they did away with college deferments in sixty-eight, started a lottery. Damned if they didn’t draw number forty-three for my birthday. The local Selective Service boards in most places were drafting guys with numbers up to around 120, so I was a real gone goose.”

“But why the Marines, Albert?” Josey asked. I didn’t know anything about this, but was surprised that there was something Josey didn’t know.

After a prolonged silence, Pop said, “You know, after talking to some of the older guys I knew who had gone to ‘Nam and come back, and watching stuff over and over on the TV news, I was, well, I guess I was just desperate. I couldn’t stand to think about being a grunt going on patrols in the jungle where it just friggin’ rained all the time. Not just rain, but downpours that never seemed to stop. Feet, socks, boots, fatigues, wet for days at a time. Mildew on all the gear, the stench of rotting jungle. Feet covered with fungus. Crotch rot.”

“Then, the sun would come out and boil everything. Those guys, the ones I talked too, said they never knew when their unit would be machine-gunned in an ambush, never knew when one of them would lose a leg to a mine or some jury-rigged booby trap. Or when a guy’s spine would get sliced like a cucumber by a Viet Cong sniper.

“I figured I’d have a better chance of doing something else if I volunteered for another branch. And I wanted to fly something, planes, helicopters, something.”

“Why not the Air Force, Pop?” I wondered aloud.

“That’s a great question, Charlie. Would’ve made more sense, but I didn’t think of it. I was twenty. And I knew guys who’d been in the Marines, plus the former Army guys I knew. Didn’t know anybody in the Air Force. But I got to fly medevac helicopters, anyway, and I loved it. Took the college equivalency exam and they sent me to OCS. After I got a commission, they taught me to fly choppers.”

On that trip, I learned that there were two enlistments of three years each, three of those six years flying choppers. He completed the last two years of his second enlistment back in the states at the Marine’s 3rd Aircraft Wing Command in Miramar, California training pilots, returning home for good when he was twenty-six. He then worked for a couple of years before taking up his studies where he had left off, this time at the University of Hartford, which accepted all of his sixty semester hours credit from UConn. So, as we were carting Josey and her things back for her senior year at Middlebury, he was starting school again and was nervous about being a SOTA, a “student older than average,” as the university referred to those like Pop.

My mom, Jennifer, who stayed with me at the Wambaugh house while Pop was gone, left us both within a month after he returned. I asked Pop why she had gone.

“We got married way too young, Charlie. We were nineteen and we both changed so much during the next couple of years.” This puzzled me because nineteen seemed really old to me then, and besides, I thought Pop still looked the same as always.

When I was much older, probably about nineteen myself, Josey told me that Jennifer had starting seeing another guy after Albert had been in the service two years. Pop somehow got word of it just before his first three years were up, and both Josey and Grandma Charlene hinted strongly at this being the reason for the reenlistment that otherwise made no sense at all. During that second stint, a couple of different guys appeared on the front porch of my grandparents’ house, Grandma chasing them off with Granddad’s old pump-action twenty-gauge shotgun.  Then, Josey said, my mother started spending one or two nights a week elsewhere.

I guess I was well into my twenties when Pop told me to stop blaming my mom for her departure from our lives. “I was no angel, Charlie. You understand? When I was overseas. There were girls. You know, Charlie. I was lonely. That’s no excuse, I know. But there were girls. In Saigon, Manilla, on leave. I wasn’t a very good husband. She knew. I knew she knew. I’m sorry, Charlie. It’s sure as hell not easy to tell you this, but you have to stop putting all the blame on your mother.”

It took a while for me to process all of this, about both of my parents. I had to age more, see my own flaws more clearly, before I could fully accept both them and myself as we were. I couldn’t stay upset with Pop for very long, though—he was the one who was there for me at the critical times after he came back. Later on I reconnected with my mom, finding after a time that I really liked her, and we drew closer. Not like it might have been, but still better. Josey, of course, was always there, never too busy for me, if only on the phone.

Pop had calculated that he could handle private school costs even after quitting his full-time job doing electronics repairs for Radio Shack by living with my grandparents, using GI Bill money for tuition, and working part time in the cramped campus basement that housed the college’s gigantic, aging UNIVAC mainframe. My grandparents lived on the inadequate disability payments they got from Social Security and the trucking company where Granddad Paul had managed a dispatch center before his disease did its dirty work. Grandma took in sewing, laundry, and ironing, but things were always tight. Pop managed to help buy groceries and sometimes chip in on the electric and water bills, as did Josey on the uncommon occasions when she had any extra money.

***

On those journeys back and forth to Middlebury and later New Haven for the five years Josey worked on her PhD in history at Yale while supported by a graduate assistant’s position and some waitressing, the trailers became larger, Pop finding that the Mustang could indeed haul more weight. Then we switched to a rented truck, car in tow. Whatever we drove, I was enthralled by stories. Some were about Pop, especially his time in Vietnam, but my favorites were about Josey.

Although my aunt was usually good tempered and kind, I learned during one of these trips that she could occasionally reveal a “tiny little mean streak,” as Pop called it. That aspect of her personality seemed not to be vicious but had occasionally led her to spit out things such as “Damn that Carol Rosenblatt, the only reason she’s valedictorian is she’s so damned homely she’s never got anything to do but study.” But, Pop said, Josey got over being second in her high school graduating class and later recanted the comment about her then-eighteen-year-old academic rival, admitting that she just hated to lose and that Carol had “truly been more diligent about biology.”

Pop told me that, despite her normal industriousness, the fact of the matter was that she and biology just did not mix well. Josey then explained that she could not tolerate the dissection of worms, frogs, and grasshoppers, or the slow boiling of the same. She became ill and had to miss most of a class while on her knees, head over the toilet in the girl’s restroom when her biology teacher and several of the boys mounted the skeleton they had constructed after boiling and scraping off the carcass of the scraggly old yellow tom cat, Winston, that had patrolled the school grounds for years and finally succumbed beneath the right rear wheel of the biology teacher’s 1966 Studebaker where the ancient creature had been napping one afternoon. Mr. Werner, the teacher, was not one to let things go to waste. But seeing the glued-together skeleton being mounted like some sick version of a basketball trophy in the far corner of the lab amidst the lingering smell of boiled cat hair and entrails destroyed any motivation Josey might have had to do well in biology. She had so dreaded biology that, instead of taking it with her class as a freshman, she put it off until after chemistry and physics and it more than met her expectations of loathsomeness.

***

Not wanting to stray far from home, both Pop and Josey began careers in the Hartford area, she on the history faculty at Trinity College, he as a consultant after earning his computer science degree and then later as a web entrepreneur. After college and an MBA, my job as a financial analyst allowed me to work from my home just outside Hartford in Avon most of the time, except for long train commutes to Manhattan a couple of times each week. Pop, Josey, and I continued making time to see each other regularly in twos or threes.

Josey’s dramatic weaving of stories from twentieth-century European history for her students, along with many research papers and well-reviewed books, brought her a full professor’s position at Trinity by the time she was only in her mid-thirties. At one of our breakfasts at a place near campus, this one to celebrate a prestigious book award Josey received in her early forties, she told me, “Oh, Charlie, why did you and Albert have to be my relatives?” I kept this close to me, retrieving it for warmth when one of life’s internal cold spells struck.

Aunt Josey married twice, the first time not long after she began her teaching career, ejecting both men from her life in relatively short order. About the first one, an English professor at the university, she said, “Donald was just, you know, well, for an academic he was dumb as a bowl of chowder. I cannot fathom what I ever saw in that guy.” About the second, a stock broker named James, I learned from others that he had once hit her after they had been married a year. Josey sent him to the ER with blood flowing from his left ear after she defended herself with a twelve-hundred-page hardbound copy of London: A History. The police in the well-to-do suburb of West Hartford where Josey lived picked up James from the emergency room. After several days in jail and a fine, he left town. There had been other men, too, but none ever seemed to measure up. There had also been a couple of promising guys, Pop told me, who dropped out of contention after seeing that they played second-chair violin to Josey’s vast collections of chattels.

Like Josey, Pop and I seemed to be condemned to failed romantic relationships. I married once, to a good woman, but it didn’t stick. Pop, too, remarried but it didn’t last more than a couple of years. Later in his life, however, when he was in his mid-fifties, he fell for a smart, strong, interesting woman named Savannah and somehow managed to hang on to her. Savannah even gained Josey’s approval, which was in itself a remarkable achievement. Josey did wonder aloud, though, whether Savannah’s parents might have been geographically impaired, given that their daughter had been born and reared in Saginaw, Michigan. “But what the hell,” Josey said.

In addition to the single attempt at marriage, my other connections with women likewise lacked durability, mostly lasting no more than a year or two. Despite wondering whether there was something in the DNA of my grandparents’ descendants that mimicked the weak adhesive properties of Post-It Notes, I’ve felt good about remaining friends with all of my exes. A successful romantic denouement as Pop apparently has experienced would be nice, I think, but I no longer know whether I have it in me.

***

Well into middle age, Josey’s silhouette remained the same, she and I having spent countless hours together in the gym and on hiking trails. Small wrinkles at each eye served merely to enhance the delicate facial features and nearly translucent skin that at times seemed an optical illusion, with scant, nearly indiscernible gray filaments strewn through her lustrous auburn hair. Still stunning, she remained unchanged except to one who for most of his life had been privileged to see so deeply into her soul as to form one of the two strands in her DNA’s double helix. For her fiftieth birthday, Josey declined the offer Pop and I made to throw what we hoped would be a raucous party filled with friends and colleagues. Instead, she insisted on just dinner, an intimate gathering with new food and old stories.

That evening, what Josey had years before come to call the Daring Wambaugh Triplets sat in a corner booth in an excellent Cuban eatery. As our fried plantain chips arrived prior to the main course, I asked her how remodeling was going at the lovely old home she had bought in West Hartford fifteen years earlier, a few years after she began teaching. She was having it done one room at a time, paying a price in patience for staggered disruption rather than massive chaos.

“Oh, Charlie, some rooms, they just can’t do it  . . . ,” her voice trailing off before going silent, her eyes vacant as she went off to a place my dad and I did not know. Perhaps others would not have noticed, but in unison neither Pop nor I could exhale for two or three heartbeats as some foreign intruder occupied the small space around us. After a long minute or so, Josey came back, but her sentence remained unfinished. Josey pushed aside the appetizer and finished her margarita as she waved for the waiter to bring another. I had never seen her order more than a single drink, she often not finishing even the one.

“’Anything wrong, Josey?” Pop asked softly as he and I looked first at the other, then at Josey.

In a few moments, she said “What, Albert?” Then she returned to us as quickly as she had left. Our little party of three continued as planned, and we finished out an evening filled with warmth, pulled pork, and laughter. For a while after, I thought nothing more about Josey’s blank spell or two extra margaritas.

A few weeks later I visited her at the university. Although I had been there to see her many times before, on this occasion several months had passed since I had last stopped by. I always checked with her in advance to learn when she would be free, and I had been welcomed every time with a long hug and a cup of fresh coffee, followed by an hour or so of conversation that was, more often than not, about work—hers and mine. But this time was different. After knocking, I had to wait several minutes before she met me at her office door. Furtively, she opened it no more than was necessary for her to quickly slide out and close it behind her. I managed a curious glance inside as she emerged, seeing nothing but newsprint stacked from floor to ceiling, her lovely old oaken desk no longer visible. When I started to speak as she led me to the faculty lounge with its burnished wood and frayed faux Victorian chairs, she interrupted with “Research, Charlie. It’s research.”

Even I knew that historians did not use loose newspapers as sources. Everything old enough to matter was either digitized or on microfiche. I said nothing of it, but in the mostly pleasant two hours that followed, I mused over this Josey. While she fed my kindred but amateur fascination with history, her eyes occasionally darted about as would those of a wild thing in the forest upon hearing dry leaves beneath unknown feet. This continued, irregularly, even as she kept me on the edge of my unofficial pupil’s seat, often laughing, while she gave a blow-by-blow account of French leader Charles De Gaulle’s manipulation of President Truman in 1945 and beyond that helped lead America disastrously into southeast Asia.

After this, I did not see her again for nearly two months. I see now that she had already developed a shell of some kind, and my gut twists from doubt about whether I tried hard enough to break through. For more than twenty years, most of my visits with Josey, at least weekly and with or without Pop, had been at little haunts with coffee and eggs, or cheese and amber ale. But every month to six weeks I would call at her home, always giving the advance notice she required—nobody just dropped in on Josey if they wanted the knock answered. Whether at her place or elsewhere, I was without fail greeted with unvarnished, even gleeful affection. Nothing in my life had ever been better than seeing Josey. I tell myself now that the change, whether at a Cuban diner or at her office that last time, was subtle, and that only I, or maybe Pop, would have noticed anything at all. Still, I did not see what I should have seen.

Listless eyes greeted me at her front door as Josey, voice bereft of its former effulgence, said “Hi, uh, Charlie? Please, uh, sure? Come . . . in?” She brewed coffee by rote and we sat down.

“What is it, Josey? Have you caught a bug of some kind?” Once, when with anyone, Josey’s eyes had made the other believe he was the only person who existed. Now, her eyes were strangely unsettled, those of prey in peril or of a hummingbird unable to find nectar among honeysuckle blooms. Instead of answering, she spoke of two students in a course she taught on Europe between the world wars, how talented they were. Our conversation was that of the once keen edge of a butcher’s blade now blunted from countless bone strikes. Then there was quiet. After several minutes that seemed infinitely longer, I left, nonplussed, having no idea what to do.

Pop and I continued to phone her regularly over the following months, neither of us able to gain her consent to meet. He and I both fretted, from concern but also from missing Josey. Rapping at her door brought no response, and when I could not find her at the college, I called Dr. Chastain, Josey’s dean, from whom I learned that Josey had been asked to resign to avoid a tenure-termination proceeding. She had not met her classes the previous semester or the first few weeks of the current one, a dereliction intolerable even for one of such distinction in her field. I decided to call her one last time before summoning the police, delighted to hear that she would see me again for coffee at a hole-in-the-wall spot not far from her home.

There, it was Josey, but it was not Josey. Her hair was oily, unkempt, not cut for much too long a time, eyes even more lifeless than the last time. The voice lacked all animation and her skin’s former luminescence had drained away as though a gaping hole had opened in her spirit. I drank and ate, but she touched nothing, my questions drawing single words and vacant stares. At the end, I insisted on seeing her at her home. Over her scowl, I demanded, “I’ll be there Monday at eleven, Josey.”

The following Monday I knocked, waited, knocked again, waited some more. I rang the doorbell that she hated. When no response came, I used the key I had gotten several months before by telling her that a Trinity College faculty senate resolution required her to give me one. Josey was sitting on her parlor floor, immobilized in the only spot not piled high with the possessions that now fully possessed her. Several minutes passed before I was able to coax her up and lead her to a chair I had cleared off.

***

I bought a larger townhouse so that Josey would have two rooms, one with a nice view of parkland. She comes out occasionally just to look around, but takes most meals on a plastic tray in the sunnier of her two spaces. After I moved her in, Josey was disturbed by her surroundings until the obvious came to me. She is now mostly surrounded by stacks of old books and magazines, and even a few boxes of knick-knacks, but I gently declined to bring in the dolls.

A dear woman named Alberta with red hair, big hips, and a bigger smile comes to stay on those days when work takes me away. Josey did not like her at first, but in time Alberta won her over. Josey is calm now, maybe even happy, particularly on those irregular occasions in the evening when she launches into long, detailed discourses for a rapt audience of one on how it was utter folly for America to enter the First World War or how it waited too long to join the Second and take on Adolph Hitler.

My days are tinged with melancholy, although keeping busy helps. I am grateful that a bit of Josey remains. Not much, you see, but a little of Aunt Josey is better than all of anyone else.

 

——————–

John Allison is a long-time faculty member in the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin. He has published widely in intellectual property law, especially empirical studies of the patent system, and argues assiduously that he is not as boring as that sounds. This is his third published short story, the previous two having appeared in Mount Hope in 2016 and The Wagon.in 2017.

Three Methods to Save Your Life, Chapter 1

By Stacia Levy

ey, Sharona.” Kevin Wasserman from hardware sales poured a cup of coffee. “Looks like another shoplifter out in jewelry.”

“Yeah?” I was standing next to him in the break room by the coffee maker, drinking my first cup of the day, which I really needed to finish before heading back to the floor. Shoplifters in this half-assed retail store in south Sacramento were pretty much an everyday event, as regular as break time—when they usually happened.

So far a predictable day. A day when I’d woken up late with some guy from my apartment building who, even then, I’d almost forgotten after drinking too much the night before. Wondering what I was going to do with the rest of my crappy life, which had already begun to spiral down into no apparent future. And I was thirty-three, a time you should be firmly on track to somewhere or other. No idea this was the day that would change that trajectory, setting me on the path to somewhere.

“Security’s not worth their bad uniforms.” Jake Anderson, from insurance sales, joined us at the coffee maker. He and Kevin were both tall, looked somewhat alike in terms of their slim body build and lean facial features, but there the resemblance ended. Jake was black and Kevin white, but more noticeably, Jake tried so hard to be the company man, in his suit and tie, that it was pathetic. Kevin didn’t even bother—in jeans, shirttail hanging out.

We stood meditating in silent agreement about worthless security. “So have they actually caught the guy—or girl—yet?” Kevin asked. Not that it mattered much. Security didn’t have the authority to do anything—except call the police, who’d just administer a strongly worded scolding.

“Yeah.” Jake shrugged. “And it’s ‘them.’ Four guys, gangbanger type. Security was talking to them in jewelry when I passed.”

I took another drink of coffee, which the guys did too. We didn’t have much else to talk about. Basically three strangers who only saw each other in the break room a couple of times a week.

Not wanting, necessarily, to go out there, back to clothing, while the thing with the shoplifters was going down, I said, “So, Kevin. Why are you here?”

“What?” He glanced at me. “Taking my break. Okay with you?”

“No, I mean working here. Not doing some real job. You know.”

“Well, don’t know if you heard, but there’s a recession going on.”

We were all thirty-something then, in 2009, the beginning of the long “economic downturn” we thought would last only a year at the most. Then we’d get on with our lives.

“How about you, Jake?”

I remember he’d opened his mouth to answer. But he never got a chance because it was then the first gunshot sounded.

We stood frozen.

I don’t know about the guys, but it was the first time I’d heard a live gunshot. It was followed by four more.

“Jesus Christ.” Kevin came to life first, grabbing my arm, pulling Jake along, to the emergency exit across the room.

Jake pushed the door. And pushed.

“What’s the matter with you?” I’d never heard Kevin, who always seemed too detached to get excited about much, raise his voice. “Open the goddamned door.” He kicked at it. It didn’t move.

“Oh, shit.” He stood still.

“What?” I was shaking. I think I’d dropped my cup. Coffee was spreading across the floor anyway.

“It’s blocked. What do you think?”

“Why’s it blocked?” Jake was still pushing at it. “A fucking emergency exit?” Never heard him swear like that before, but then you don’t talk that way when you’re around customers most of the day. On a reasonable day.

Kevin gave a brief laugh. “By some boxes, delivery of something. I remember noticing them this morning when I drove up and thinking, ‘Shit, that’s not to code.’”

We just stood there. There was noise out on the floor. A couple of screams. Running footsteps. Crying. More gunshots. They sounded closer now.

“We still need to get out.” My voice was distant in my own ears, as if I’d left my body.

The guys nodded. We’d all calmed down a little, maybe the adrenaline rush slowing, as if our bodies realized we needed to concentrate if we were going to survive. The men were probably thinking the same thing I was: the only other door to the break room was out to the hall with the restrooms one way, directly out to the floor the other. And it was probably only minutes before the gunmen made it over to the break room, the first door off the hall, and that door didn’t lock.

“Come on,” Kevin said. “We need to take our chances. Find somewhere else to hide.”

“Where the hell is that?” Jake’s voice came out higher than usual.

“The conference room.” It hit me that it was at the end of the hall and could buy us some time. There were no windows and the only door to the hall locked. As if what went on in there was national security instead of three asshole managers monkeying with the mission statement. Or playing with themselves, for all you knew. Letting the place go to hell so much that a few post-pubescent punks could take it over in three minutes.

Jake opened the door and looked out. “No one’s here. Let’s go.”

We darted into the hall.

Dylan Alvarez from sporting goods was ambling down the hall toward us from the men’s room, eyes closed in concentration, in the groove with whatever was coming from his earbuds.

“Come on, asshole.” Kevin almost ran over him, yanking him along.

“Hey.” Dylan yanked out the buds. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Trying to save your pathetic life.”

The commotion out on the floor was closer now, and individual voices stood out: the adolescent whine of one of the gunmen, another already dipping down into manhood.

“We’ve got to move.” Jake put his hand at the small of my back as we ran down the hall.

Kev got out his plastic key and hovered it over the plate next to the door. The light stayed red. No beep.

“Flip it over, man,” Jake said.

Kevin complied, trying again. No change.

I could hear my own breath catching.

“Maybe our keys don’t work on the conference room,” Dylan said. “Typical.”

“Let me try.” Jake reached for the key, but Kevin jerked his hand once more across the pad.

This time the buzz sounded, the light turned green, and Jake and Kevin yanked the door open.

The voices of the gunmen faded as they stampeded past the hall.

And then we were in the conference room. The door slammed behind us. It locked automatically, one of those safety doors that opened without a key only from the inside, when you pushed on the bar—like the exit out of the break room was supposed to.

We all let our breath out; Kevin and I sagged against the conference table.

“Anyone got a phone?” Kevin said.

“Someone must have called it in already,” I said.

“Doesn’t sound like it,” Jake said. “I didn’t hear sirens.”

“That’s because you can’t hear anything in here,” Kevin snapped. “It’s a freaking bunker. The walls are soundproof.”

Dylan had gotten out his phone and was tapping away.

“There’s a newsfeed on this,” he said. “Police are outside.”

“Well, why the hell aren’t they doing anything?”

“Because it’s a hostage situation. They’re holding about thirty people out on the floor.”

“Let’s barricade the door,” I said. “Shove the table up against it. Everyone grab an end.”

We tugged and pushed at the table and banged it against the door.

“That secures it pretty well,” Jake said. “Still…” He left the thought unfinished.

I was thinking, probably along with the guys, that the table and door weren’t much of a barrier against bullets blasting through.

There were boxes of files lining the room. “The boxes,” I said. They could be an additional wall between us and the gunmen.

“Always knew that paperwork must be good for something,” Kevin said.

“Let’s all take a section,” Jake said. “Pile them up on the table and against the door. Sharona, think you can do this?”

“And why the hell couldn’t I?” I worked out four times a week and took karate twice. Had nothing better to do with my time.

“No time to worry about gender stereotypes,” Kevin said. “Sharona, if you can, you can. Let’s do it.”

Damned right I could do it. I climbed up on the table. “Form an assembly line,” I said. “The three of you line up, grab the boxes, and pass them up to me. Let’s do it.”

The boxes felt like loads of bricks. Jake was stoically silent during the process, but Dylan swore in Spanish a couple of times, Kevin in what I thought was Yiddish. It would have been funny under other circumstances, if I wasn’t trying to control my shaking.

After five minutes I stopped and looked at the wall we had put up. I swiped the sweat mixed with tears on my face—I hadn’t realized I’d been crying.

“Goddammit, Sharona,” Kevin said. He was at the end of the line, closest to the table. “Take this box already.”

I grabbed it, still looking at the wall of boxes. “This is wrong.”

“What do you mean, wrong?” Dylan asked.

“The direction, the angle,” I said. “We need to turn them around, see—so they’re lengthwise. So a bullet will take longer to pass through.”

Kevin let his breath out in a snort. “Okay, let me get up there and I’ll do it.”

“I got it.” I yanked one around. “Just keep passing them up, okay, and I’ll catch up in a minute.”

In ten minutes we had that barrier up, about thirty boxes lined across and up the door.

I swiped at the sweat dripping down my neck and was hit by the rank, musky odor rising from my shirt, and didn’t care.

Dylan had gotten out his phone again.

“What’s going on?” Jake asked. “Have they killed anyone?”

“Yes. One.” Dylan scrolled down, reading the report. “And two shot.”

“What the hell do they want?” Kevin asked.

“It doesn’t—oh, wait.” Dylan squinted at the screen. “It looks like they’re demanding three million dollars and a plane to Argentina.”

We all fell silent.

“Does anyone want to call someone?” Dylan spoke. “You can use my phone.”

“No,” Jake said. “Just my ex-wife, who probably wouldn’t want to hear it.”

Kevin shook his head, leaning against the wall, arms folded.

“Sharona?”

“No, no one.” Who would I call? “Don’t you want to call your parents or something, Dylan?”

“They’ve kind of made it clear they don’t want to hear from me. Well, it looks like we got each other at least.” He laughed. “Isn’t that great? Not the way I’d ever imagined going.”

Oh, this was totally stupid. “Call 9-1-1,” I said. “Let them know we’re in here.”

“Why?” Dylan shot back. “So they can, what, notify the police, the same ones who just let a couple of people get shot? Uh, no, sorry. I think I’ll just chill right here for a while.”

After that we were all quiet.

 

Read chapter 2

Three Methods to Save Your Life, Chapter 2

By Stacia Levy

eing held hostage is, besides terrifying, mostly boring. We sat around a laptop table across the room from the door and looked at each other. I plowed through the paper that was spread across a chair and then passed it on. I stared at the clock. I looked at the guys again, then looked away. I stared at the clock some more and counted off the minutes. I held conversations with my ex and dead parents in my head. A couple of hours went by.

Dylan was up and prowling the room like a panther, mumbling to himself. Jake was monitoring the situation outside on the phone.

“Ever notice—” he began.

“Please.” Dylan slammed his fist against the wall. “Shut up.”

Jake continued as if he hadn’t been interrupted. “—how people are always telling you to ‘be aware’?”

“What?”

“Well, with gunmen, for example. Mass shootings. A reporter just said we should always be aware of our surroundings. Remember after 9/11, everyone was telling us to be aware? Do you think that was the problem? If we’d been paying more attention—?”

“Why?” Dylan asked. “So that we’re fully cognizant when they blow us away?”

This drew bitter laughter. We had all migrated to the floor at this point because the chairs were uncomfortable, our legs drawn up to our chins, in symbiotic communion.

I couldn’t stand it anymore and started talking. “You know what I’m going to do if we get out of this mess?”

“No, Sharona,” Jake said. “I don’t. What are you going to do?”

I didn’t know either—I wasn’t a particularly future-directed person—but I said, “I’m going to get a better a job. Maybe buy a house, find a boyfriend.”

“If you could do all of that,” Dylan asked, “why haven’t you already?”

“A legitimate question,” I said. “I’m kind of a screw-up.” I hated to admit it, but it was hard not to, given the current situation, and what the hell did I have to hide at this point? “I’ve messed up just about every relationship and job I’ve ever been in. But maybe things will change after this, you know?” Maybe, if I survived it. Crisis and opportunity, they say.

“What kind of job do you want?” Jake asked.

I had no idea but I said, off the top of my head, “Maybe as a paralegal. Work in a law office.”

“Sounds good,” Jake said. “Why not? I’m thinking of sending my resume out again too. How about you, Kevin?”

“Please,” he responded, not looking up. “I’m just trying to focus on surviving this.”

“And you, Dylan?” I asked. “If we get out of this, what are you going to do? Don’t you go to college or something? Maybe finish your degree, try to make up with your parents, or whatever?”

An ironic smile played around his lips. “I wish.”

“Well, why just a wish? What are you going to do?”

“Probably seek treatment.” He spoke after a minute.

“Yeah? For what? Alcohol, drugs?”

“If you really want to know, bipolar disorder. I’m not a college student, and I work here because my parents kicked me out after I busted the big-screen TV when Scott Pelley was pissing me off. Okay?”

“Wow.” That was impressive—I couldn’t top it, even with my record of drinking and promiscuity and patchy job history, all due to poor impulse control. “Guess you were off your meds?”

“Sharona, that is enough.” Kevin spoke up. “Leave him alone.”

“Well, aren’t you freaked out?” Dylan raised his head to stare at us.

Kevin gave a brief laugh and lit a cigarette. His hands were shaking so badly I was afraid he’d burn himself. “I think we’re beyond being freaked out by each other. I swear at this point you could tell me you’re Hannibal Lecter, and if we get out of this together, I’ve got your back for the rest of your life.”

“Yeah,” Jake said. “And if we don’t get out, we’ll all go down together.”

We all murmured agreement.

“Well.” I tried to make a joke. “Shall we all join hands? Sing? Say a prayer?”

“Shut up, Sharona,” Jake and Dylan said, more or less together.

After that we were silent again. Kevin, sitting next to me, seemed to be taking this harder, cracking under the stress more, than the rest of us—shaking, eyes clinched shut, pale.

“You okay?” I asked.

“Oh, I’m great.” He gave a brief laugh but didn’t open his eyes. So I shut up for a while, but then, because in general I can’t stop talking, I spoke up.

“Kevin, are you observant?”

“Observant of what?” He didn’t look up.

“Of Judaism, what do you think—an observant Jew?”

“Do I look like an observant Jew?”

“But you are Jewish, right? I’m more of a cultural Jew too.”

“Meaning what? You eat Chinese takeout, go to bar mitzvahs, avoid extreme sports?”

“All of the above. I haven’t been to services in years, though.”

“Yeah? Well, maybe this is as good a time as any to reconnect with our faith. How about you guys—Jake, Dylan? You religious?”

“Just enough to wonder which god I pissed off in that past life,” Dylan said. “How about you, Jake? What’s your Higher Power, if any? You seem an upstanding, church-going man, if you don’t mind my saying.”

“I’m not so upstanding.”

“Yeah?” Kevin snorted. “What’d you do—take someone’s pen? Stiff some rude waiter of his twenty percent?”

“No. I’ve been stealing from the company for over three years. About five thousand total.”

“That really pisses me off,” Kevin said.

“Well, you asked.”

“I mean, in three years? You couldn’t have taken more? Or lifted some of the merchandise at least?”

“What’s the situation outside?” Jake asked Dylan.

He glanced at the phone. “No change. The police have gotten a phone in there and have the bit going with the hostage negotiator, but looks like it’s pretty stalled.”

We groaned. I got up and walked around, stimulating the circulation in my lower body. No use coming out of this a double amputee from cutting off circulation.

Another hour ticked by.

I was sitting next to Kevin at this point, back at the laptop table. He’d picked up a knife from some silverware piled at the end and was taking stabs at the table with it in circles around his hand and between his splayed fingers.

“Please.” I couldn’t take it anymore and covered his hand with mine. “Stop. What are you doing—playing Russian roulette with your fingers? Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah, fine.” He put the knife down. “I told you already.”

“What’s this?” My hand was still over his, and I noticed, for the first time, the thin, silver chain on his wrist. I picked it up. He didn’t seem the kind of guy who’d be into jewelry.

“Med Alert bracelet.”

“Med Alert?” I only vaguely knew what that even was, thought it was something old people with Alzheimer’s wore. “For what?”

“Diabetes.” He spoke after a minute.

“Diabetes?” This was like the worst possible news—aside from the hostage thing, of course. Really didn’t want to hear it—it was so unfamiliar, thinking about someone else’s needs. “So the bracelet’s so medics will know what to do if you go into a coma? And you were going to tell us when?”

“When you noticed the bracelet.”

“I’m sorry. We’ve been a little distracted here—”

“Are you insulin dependent?” Jake asked. Kevin nodded. “Well, do you have it with you?”

“No. I didn’t think I’d need to carry all of it with me—”

“—to the break room.” The rest of the sentence, in basically the same form, came from all of us.

“It’s not the insulin that’s the problem now, anyway,” Kevin said. “It’s the missed food. Insulin drops your blood sugar, and then you have to balance it with food.”

“Did you just take your insulin before this whole thing went down?” Dylan asked.

“Yeah, yeah. Forget it, okay?”

Forget it? Don’t you need to eat something?”

“Why the hell do you think I was in the break room? But what’s it matter now if there’s just no food?”

“You really should have told us before,” Jake said.

“Look, I appreciate your concern—”

“I’m not all that concerned,” Dylan said. “I just don’t want your defective blood on my hands. And I was really honest with you, wasn’t I?”

“So? I told you to come out? I didn’t want to hear it.”

“There’s got to be food someplace,” I said. “I don’t think a bunch of fat managers are going to sit in here for hours without food.”

“Well, it looks like they did, didn’t they?” Dylan was pacing around again, lifting papers off the table and chairs and looking under them.

“You’re not going to find a doughnut stashed underneath yesterday’s paper,” Kevin said. “So just stop, okay?”

“It’s not just about you,” Dylan said. “Not everything is, believe it or not. I tend to get hypoglycemic myself when I don’t eat. And I get really irritable, I can tell you, when I’m hypoglycemic. And I’ve already told you the kind of things I’m capable of when I get irritated. So we’re looking for food, okay?”

“The silverware,” I said. How could we be so stupid? “If there’s silverware, it means they did eat in here, and there almost has to be food somewhere.”

“We could probably sniff it out,” Kevin said. “Like police dogs.”

“The boxes.” I suddenly knew it. “There almost has to be food, nonperishable stuff, in the boxes.”

“Okay.” Jake seemed to brace himself. “So we need to go through the boxes.”

“How are we going to do that,” Dylan said, “and keep the barricade up?”

“We’ll just have to take them down individually, go through them one by one, and then put them back up right away,” I said.

“Right.” Jake rose. “Let’s do it. Let’s each take a row.”

So we went through each box, putting it back after. We repeated this process for what seemed an hour—muscles in my back and arms screaming, sweat dripping down my neck.

At the bottom of the next-to-last box in my row, under a ream of printer paper I almost didn’t bother to lift out, I hit pay dirt. A box of granola bars. And a six-pack of plastic water bottles.

“I knew it.” Joy, redemption, swept over me. Praise God, Allah, Jesus, whoever else was up there.

“What’d you find, Sharona?” Dylan pulled himself off the floor, where he’d been sifting through a box.

“Water and breakfast bars.” I never thought I’d be so happy to see those gooey, dried-out things, cloying sweet from raspberry and other crappy filling.

“Thank God.” Jake’s thought patterns clearly had mimicked my own. He took the box from me, then started to pass it to Kevin. He then paused. “What about the expiration date?” He looked at the side of the box. A groan rose from both Dylan and me. Dylan grabbed the box from him.

“Jesus, these things could probably outlast all of us if we were stuck down here during a nuclear holocaust.” He passed the box to Kevin. “Here.”

“Thanks.” Kevin took two. “You guys take some.”

We all ate.

“I don’t know about anyone else,” Dylan broke the silence. “But I’ve got to take a piss sometime very soon.”

“Yeah, same here,” Kevin said.

“We’ll just have to go in a corner in the wastepaper basket or something,” Jake said. “Sharona, I’m sorry, you’ll excuse us.”

“It’s not like I don’t have the same problem, more or less.” What did he think? “Oh, by the way, you’ll all be careful to splash the shiny clean walls a little, won’t you?”

After we took care of our bathroom needs, we migrated back to the table.

Kev lit another cigarette.

“I get your addiction, man,” Dylan said, “but should you be doing that, with your health concerns?”

That was more than I could take. “Obviously anyone who smokes is doing it against medical advice,” I said. “Leave him alone, okay?” Like we needed to heighten the tension by picking at each other.

“We’re probably not going to live long enough to worry about secondhand smoke and lung cancer anyway,” Jake said.

“It’s not him I’m so worried about,” Dylan said. “Why does everyone think that? I just don’t want my last breaths in here filled up with smoke.”

“Happy?” Kev stubbed out the cigarette on a plastic plate. “What’s going on outside?”

Dylan looked at his phone. “Oh, shit.”

“What?”

“They’ve released a couple of the hostages.”

“What in hell’s wrong with that?” Jake said. “That’s progress.”

“Problem is—” Dylan paused and I could visualize his mental cogs turning, “—they’ve done a body count.”

“Body count?” I shivered. “How many dead now?”

“Sorry, bad choice of words. I mean a roll call, of those who made it out plus those still stuck inside.”

We all sat and let this news sink in.

“They didn’t—” I began. Oh, no, they couldn’t be that stupid.

“I’ll put it on speaker.” Dylan set the device on the table and hit the settings.

“—four of the store employees—” a reporter was saying; I recognized her voice, Katie something-or-other, they were all Katie something, “—in one of the most worrisome of developments. Dylan Alvarez, Sharona Feinstein, Jakob Anderson, and Kevin Wasserman remain unaccounted for and are assumed—”

“Assholes.” The same word burst from all of us at the same time.

So it was only a matter of time now before the hostage-takers figured out we must still be in the store somewhere and found their way over here. Which meant, optimistically speaking, we’d also get released soon. More pessimistically—or, as we pessimists prefer to say, realistically—the hostage-takers could come blasting through our jury-rigged barrier anytime.

 

Read chapter 3