Why I Broke Up With My Boyfriend

by Alison Bullock

“If my severed hand were to wash up on shore, would you recognize it?” I asked. A simple question. We were sitting under my beach house portico, sipping martinis, and watching the tide roll in.

For the record, I would have recognized his severed hand any day of the week. His olive-toned skin, that white thread of a scar that swims across his thumb like a tapeworm.  Even if that hand brined in seawater for weeks– even after bacterial bloating set in, or crabs got involved, I’d still recognize it anywhere.

“Forget it,” I told him. “Your silence is my answer.”

“Why would that even happen?” He sputtered. Honestly, sometimes I feel like I’m talking to a toddler. I have to explain everything to him.

We’re so different– he and I, and it all comes back to hands.  His pinkie finger is bent, which means that he’s lacking in communication skills, whereas mine is a ramrod. The gap between his thumb and index finger is wide, indicating a person who tends to avoid serious discussions, whereas my thumb and index finger are practically fused– almost identical to the paw of an Australian marsupial.

We are polar opposites you see; two lonely circles floating side by side, but never intersecting.  A Venn Diagram that doesn’t Venn. If these were our only differences, it might be a gap worth bridging, but there’s more.

His nail beds are square, confirming that he’s more of a same-old, same-old type, whereas my nails are shovel-shaped, proving that I favor ingenuity. He’s always coffee black– no sugar, whereas you never know whether I’ll go macchiato, affogato, or lungo.

When I explained all of this to him–how it was a hopeless situation because of our hands, he tried to talk me out of it.

“But I love you,” he whinged. “What about the baby?”

He didn’t understand the pointlessness of his pleading. See, my ring and middle phalanges are far apart, which means I’m impossible to influence.

                                                  *   *   *

Alison Bullock’s short fiction has appeared, or is soon to appear, in Peatsmoke, The Coachella Review, The Writing Disorder, Halfway Down the Stairs, Anti-Heroin Chic, Boston Literary Magazine, Every Day Fiction, and the Momaya Annual Review. She lives in Massachusetts.

 

 

Consolation

by Steven Ostrowski    

A sleeting morning and a shock to the system since it was only mid-September. Connor didn’t want to be there, but Tammy insisted that it was the decent thing to do. Of course, she was right, even though they weren’t that close with Jennifer, who was Tammy’s cousin, and even less close with Jack, Jennifer’s police officer husband who’d shot himself in the head two weeks earlier.

Connor pressed the doorbell. He didn’t hear it ring, thought he hadn’t pushed it hard enough, and pushed it a second time. Tammy shook her head at him as if he’d kicked the damn door. When it opened, Jennifer stood in the doorway looking sleepless and hunched, her blue eyes shrunken and grayed with sorrow. 

“Hi,” she said. “Come in.” 

As soon as they were in the foyer, Tammy offered Jennifer the bouquet of mixed flowers they’d brought.

“They’re beautiful,” Jennifer said in a quavering voice. She led the couple into the living room, gestured for them to sit. Jennifer went into the dining room and lay the bouquet on the table. “I’ll put these in a vase these later.”

“No, of course,” Tammy said. 

“Please sit,” Jennifer said.

Tammy sat down on the mauve sofa, then Connor did. Jennifer remained standing, blinking her eyes as if she were trying to remember what she was supposed to do next. “Can I get you a drink? Coffee?” 

Too quickly, Connor said, “Nothing for me.” It sounded, somehow, rude. “Thanks, though.”

“Nothing for me, thanks,” Tammy said. “We just came to tell you how sorry we are, and…and to let you know that we’re here for you if there’s anything we can do.”

Jennifer caressed her left earlobe with two fingers. She wasn’t wearing earrings. She lowered herself into a rocking chair that faced the sofa. “Jack always insisted, ever since he became a cop, that when he died there wasn’t going to be any wake or funeral. Nothing. Imagine? You know what cops’ funerals are like. Everyone wanted some way to mourn together, but I couldn’t dishonor his wish. Right?” She looked only at Tammy the whole time she’d spoken.

“No. You have to honor a person’s…”

“I don’t know why he… He wasn’t really unhappy. There wasn’t anything going on, like he wasn’t being investigated anymore. All that was settled. It’s a stressful job, but, you know, this town isn’t really violent or dangerous. I don’t understand why…”

Connor nodded sympathetically, but he was thinking about the first time he’d been introduced to Jack, by Tammy, before Jack and Tammy were married. She’d introduced Jack as a police officer and Connor as a professor and poet. “With two published books already,” she’d said with naive pride. What Connor never forgot in all the years since was that Jack actually laughed out loud. After that, whenever they saw each other, which wasn’t often, Jack always had to announce Connor’s presence with “Hey, the poet’s here. Recite us a poem, Con. Make us feel something.”

“But even in this town,” Tammy said, “with the job a cop has, they must deal with things that they don’t want to talk about.”

“He hated talking about work.”

Tammy glanced around, said, “The kids go back home?”

“Yeah. We had the cremation, just the three of us. Took his ashes to the beach. You know. They had families and jobs to get back to.” Jennifer fingered the delicate silver crucifix that hung around her neck. “He didn’t leave a note, nothing. He just came home from work that day and gave me a kiss on the cheek like always. A little while later he went out behind the storage shed, and…and…” She fought not to cry, but the tears came anyway.

Tammy got up. She knelt beside her cousin and put one arm around her shoulder and with the other hand rubbed her back. “Oh, Jen. This is so hard, I know.”

Connor stared at an ink stain on his pointer finger. He’d always envied the way women knew instinctively how to console one another. He wished men, or more men, or at least he himself, had that gift.

Jennifer suddenly lifted her eyes and locked them on Connor with an intensity that chilled him. “I don’t meant anything bad by this, Connor, but…”

Tammy turned and both women stared at him.

“I think he resented that you weren’t more accepting of him. Of, you know, his blue-collar occupation, his regular guy-ness. I think he thought you looked down on him. From the ‘ivory tower.’” 

Connor shook his head and stammered, “No, I…”

“He told me he sent you some of his poems a few years ago, but you never responded.”

Tammy said, “He wrote poetry?”

“He just wanted something, some little response from you, Connor. A suggestion or two. I don’t know if he was any good; he would never show me what he wrote. He always said, let me get better at it, then I’ll show you. He knew you were a busy guy, but still… You couldn’t say anything?”

                                                                         *

 

They drove. “You never answered him?” 

Jack had sent Connor an envelope, snail mail, with three handwritten poems on three sheets of loose-leaf. His note said, Hey, are these any good, dude? Three maudlin, sentimental poems that rhymed, all of them about how cruel the world was. Bad, sad. Sorrow, tomorrow. Connor had put them aside, meaning to offer Jack some generic but honest response, something about how heartfelt and sincere the poems were. And to keep revising.

“Look, Tam, they were awful. But I did mean to tell him, you know, to keep at it. Then I got busy and forgot all about them. It happens. I’m feel terrible about it now, obviously.” 

They drove on, Tammy staring out, Connor harboring the absurd hope that his wife would suddenly understand and offer him consolation: It’s not your fault. He had to be depressed. There was probably more to that investigation than we know. Something.

                                                              *   *   *

Steven Ostrowski is a widely-published fiction writer, poet and painter. His flash fiction has been published in numerous places, including Arts & Letters, Midway Review, and American Short Fiction. His poetry manuscript, “Persons of Interest,” won the 2020 Wolfson Chapbook Prize and will be published by Wolfson Press in 2022. He teaches at Central Connecticut State University. 

a spider on an after-hour call

by Ilari Pass

The woman, not her desire, is like the spider  

when she takes unto herself a frail house.

If only her lover knew, she’ll wait for the moon 

to pry open the night, her web will flash 

silver sparkles, an allurement to destruction

between lines of white she writes 

toward the silence.

                                                           *   *   *

Ilari Pass holds a BA in English from Guilford College of Greensboro, NC, and an MA in English, with a concentration in literature, from Gardner-Webb University of Boiling Springs, NC. She currently is poetry consultant for Free State Review, and serve as a Representative Reader for the African American culture for North Carolina Writers’ Network. You can find her Greatest Hits in The American Journal of Poetry, Kissing Dynamite, ONE ART, As It Ought To Be, Sledgehammer Lit, Paterson Literary Review, Free State Review, and others.

Black Eight

by CC Carter 

Gustavus Montaigne Schmidt, aka Smitty, was not only on the run, but literally running. Running from a small time mobster and collector known as Break-bone Bob. As he intersected 42nd  Street doing the full tilt boogie, he skidded and almost fell. Cart wheeling his arms for balance, barely keeping upright, he inadvertently hailed a passing cab. 

A woman, stepping into the rain from an unseen doorway and carrying several upscale shopping bags, was flagging the same cab. She considered it her hail; he, his.

“Share?” he asked, reaching the door first, looking past her at the approaching mobster who was just then rounding the corner. 

She turned to follow his gaze and her face went pale. 

“Yes, fine, please hurry.” 

They both scrambled in and the driver queried direction in the rearview mirror with one raised eyebrow. 

“Downtown,” said Smitty. 

“Uptown,” said the lady.

“Uptown it is,” answered the driver, calculating the greater tip with barely a glance. Smitty and the lady were both looking backward; his pursuer had also found a cab. 

“Step on it,” they said together. 

What gives, thought Schmidt. Does she know Bob? What’re the odds? He looked sideways at his fellow passenger, who was also following the progress of the pursuing taxi. Late twenties, buxom, leggy, a smear of strawberry lip, a freshly swollen black eye beneath a black beret festooned with lace. Her skirt-jacket combo would have paid Smitty’s bar tab for a month. Smitty noticed things. The driver’s I.D. number was zero, zero, twenty-six. 

Turning onto 53rd, they suddenly met with stopped traffic, two hundred red taillights blurred by rain.

 “Here, take this,” said the lady to the cabbie, handing him a fifty. She disembarked in a hurry, taking all of her bags but one. Smitty grabbed the remaining bag, and slid out the other door, thinking he might catch her, but she’d already disappeared. 

He pulled his coat up over his head and jogged the two blocks to the subway. A train was loading and he hurried in, the last one through the door. Dripping, shivering, making sure he was unobserved, he glanced into the bag and smiled. He could read the wrappers on some of the bundles, fresh twenties, $20K per bundle, a minimum of ten bundles. He bought a transfer to the airport.

In Nevada, Smitty walked into the first casino on the strip and cashed in one bundle for chips, feeling the juice, knowing he was on a roll. He’d always liked roulette and put 

$5K down on number twenty-six.

It hit, paying thirty five to one. A small crowd gathered. 

After only a beat, Smitty said, “Let it ride,” and held his breath. The pit boss nodded to the croupier. The ball rolled, popped, landed in the slot, spun to a stop. Twenty-six again. 

The crowd whistled and clapped. As Smitty exhaled, he noticed a tattoo on the dealer’s wrist. The symbol of Infiniti. In black. 

“Black eight,” said Schmidt. The dealer spun the wheel.

*   *   *

CC Carter is a poet, a writer of short fiction, and a Singer-Songwriter.

His music can be heard at cccartermusic.com or at Ouroborosartists.com

He lives in Bradenton, Florida.

Annemarie, the Rollerblader and Me

by William Kitcher

Annemarie was driving; I was in the passenger seat. We turned onto Station St., and came up behind a rollerblader who was in the middle of our lane, weaving from side to side, sucking on a soda pop, oblivious to everything due to listening to something on headphones.

“Ah jeez,” I said. “We’re going to be late as it is. And now this.”

“We’re not going to be late,” said Annemarie.

I looked at the dashboard clock. “It’s five to eight. The play starts at eight.”

“Plays never start on time.”

“That’s true but it’s still about ten minutes to the theatre, and then we have to find parking.”

“You’re always worrying about nothing.”

“I wouldn’t have to worry if you didn’t take so long to get ready. I mean, putting make-up on. One, we’re going to be sitting in a dark theatre so no one will even see you. And two, you don’t need make-up. You’re beautiful as it is.”

“Don’t be sarcastic.”

“I’m not. You are.”

“No, I’m not beautiful.”

“Then why does every guy you meet hit on you?”

“It’s my personality.”

There was no rational response to that so I didn’t bother to try. We’d been going out only about three months so I couldn’t get into anything really personal. But my mouth didn’t listen to my brain.

“You’ve done stuff like this before,” I said. “We got into that movie last week late because of you, and I never could figure out what was going on. And, like going on vacation and not taking a suitcase you could lock. That’s why all your stuff was ripped off. How could you not think of that?”

“I’m more trusting of people than you are.”

“And look where it got you.”

I could see Annemarie clenching her jaw, gripping the steering wheel harder, and staring ahead.

“This is ridiculous,” I said, looking at the rollerblader still dawdling in front of us. I reached over and hit the horn. The rollerblader visibly jumped, stopped, turned around, removed her headphones, and glared at us.

Annemarie slammed the brakes on and turned to me. “What the hell did you do that for?”

“She’s on the road! She’s not only stopping us from getting where we want to go, she could get herself killed, especially with those headphones on!”

“You’re unbelievable,” said Annemarie. “Live and let live. She’s not hurting anyone.”

“She’s being stupid!”

“You’re being stupid.” She paused, and then said, “You need a haircut.”

I could feel any relationship we had fading away…

The rollerblader came back to the car and went to the driver’s side.

“Now look what you’ve done,” said Annemarie.

Annemarie put her window down, plastered a smile on her face, leaned toward the window, and said, apologetically, “Look—”

The rollerblader threw her drink in Annemarie’s face, muttered something, then rolled off. Annemarie’s mascara ran.

I handed some tissues to her, and said, “Now we’re really going to be late.”

                                                    *   *   *

Bill’s stories, plays, and comedy sketches have been published and/or produced in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, Holland, India, Ireland, the U.K., and the U.S. Recent stories were published in Slippage Lit, Alien Station, 365 Tomorrows, Theme of Absence, Yellow Mama, 34 Orchard, Revolute, Great Ape, Jokes Review, and Across The Margin, and he has stories forthcoming in Black Petals, The Literatus, Schlock!, Inklette, Literally Stories, Sledgehammer, Antipodean SF, Bewildering Stories, The Bookends Review, Defenestration, Spank The Carp, Evening Street Review, and 2 stories in the Horrified Press anthology, “Twisted Time.

Bourbon on the Rocks

by Paul Germano

Roy Samanski loosens his necktie, pours himself a Bourbon on the rocks and downs it so quick the ice never gets the chance to melt. He’s got one year, seven months and eleven days to go, before his eligibility kicks in for full Social Security retirement benefits and he has no intentions of applying early and collecting less. He’s put in the years and he wants every cent he’s entitled to. 

Roy used to practice the gentlemanly habit of nursing his Bourbon, savoring the flavor as it chills over ice, taking slow, almost erotic sips of the dark brew. But not anymore, not after day-in and day-out with the asshats he works with, one more stupid than the next. He pours himself another glass and downs it in a New York minute.

His wife walks in, surprised to see him. “Didn’t hear you come in, how long have you been home?” He grunts an answer and refills his glass; the ice cubes are still solid. She watches him gulp down his drink and raises a disapproving eyebrow. “Rough day?” she asks, already knowing the answer. He sours his face. 

“I didn’t have much fun at work today either,” she says in a sympathetic voice. He offers to pour her a glass. “No thanks, got the tea kettle on the stove.” She twists her lips. “You can always opt for early Social Security. At this point, it’s not going to make much difference moneywise.” He grunts, pours another drink, downs it quick and stifles a burp. In the distance, the tea kettle whistles. She pats his shoulder and leaves the room.

Roy pours more Bourbon, draining the bottle dry. “Goddammit,” he grunts, glaring at the empty bottle. He downs his drink in a hurry and starts chewing on the ice.

                                              *   *   *

Paul Germano lives in Syracuse, smack dab in the center of New York State. His fiction has been published in roughly 40 print and online magazines including Boston Literary Magazine, The Drabble, Flash in a Flash, Foliate Oak, Free Flash Fiction and Microfiction Monday Magazine.

 

His Brave Face

by Russell Richardson

His reconstructed face is a scientific wonder, but a corrugated fright in the mirror.

Ray interacts only with his medical team and, reluctantly, his online support group. Gayle, an Irish woman from the group, is sweet, but he recoils from her DM requests to turn on his video. She is not self-conscious about her own patchwork visage.

Ray has everything delivered. Outside his apartment door come groceries, Amazon boxes. He breakfasts at his window, watching pedestrians below. In her gentle slur, Gayle recommends timed excursions outside—sit on a bench for five minutes among the living.

Ray dons an invisible man outfit and paces the hallways first. Next day, he sits on the courtyard bench. A young couple pass, obliviously in love with themselves. A mother pushing a stroller averts her gaze. Having survived, Ray resets his timer for another five before retreating.

Ray texts Gayle the news. She calls immediately. He debates answering. “I’m so proud!” she squeals. They talk for an hour. The next day, they chat for another hour. He calculates their time difference while washing dishes. The third night, they talk until she falls asleep. Drifting off, she threatens to visit.

He confides in a nurse, “I have a girlfriend.”

She asks, “Has she seen you yet?”

His confidence plummets. A blind date with a blind girl would be simpler.

The pressure to show his face is suffocating. Ray skips the following support group, and Gayle sends a worried text. They talk again on the phone. One day, she sends a picture of a booking confirmation screen. He nearly dies——and cries.

During the next group, she DMs: “I’d be so happy to see your face.”

He inhales. His mouse hovers between the browser’s red X and the video icon. He clicks.

He sees himself smile.

                                       *    *    *

Russell Richardson has written and published many short stories, illustrated a book of poetry, and created children’s books to benefit kids with cancer. His YA novel, Level Up and Die! was published in April, 2021. He lives with his wife and sons in Binghamton, NY, the carousel capital of the world.

When Mighty Evolution Paid a Visit Monday

by John Cody Bennett

When mighty evolution paid a visit Monday to the streptococcus, it brought a radical idea which threatened a division of the cells. At dawn, the whole thing had seemed amusing, a silly hypothetical, but not anymore. Cell A embraced the idea, launched a protest, initiated a schism.

I can’t do this anymore, it said to Cells B and C, as it refused to infect their host. This gangly thing coughs itself silent. What if we’ve been wrong all along? What if it feels something?

Feels? barked Cell B, the arch-realist of the bunch. Its feelings have nothing to do with it. Of course, it feels something, we’ve known that for generations. It’s alive, after all. It’s proven.

Oh, no, it isn’t! said a skeptical Cell C, who feared newfangled concepts. It’s much too big to be alive. At least that’s what the old ones always said. Too big and with no mind to speak of. Maybe it feels pain, but maybe not! Either way, it’s not at all like us, and that should settle it.

By noon, Cell A had persisted with its unfathomable protest, much to the irritation of its streptococci colleagues. The issue remained unsettled among them, and it would for some time.

I know you both disagree, said Cell A. But I believe it’s better for all of us. Much better. Better? exclaimed Cell C. Better to abandon all it means to be a streptococcus? Better? Cell B, for its part, was much more sympathetic to the perspective of Cell A.

Listen, I want our host to welcome us, too, and I wish it didn’t have to suffer. But it’s in our nature as streptococci to infect things; infections hurt; and infect we must. There’s no choice.

No choice? scoffed Cell A. Oh, please. Nature, you say? Our nature? It makes me sick.

The protest continued until four in the evening when Cells A and C lost all patience and commenced their rupture. Their views, it was agreed, were irreconcilable, and a split was begun.

How about some binary fission? Cell C asked of them both. Who’s with me?

I second it, of course, said Cell A. Let us begin. I’ll go my own way. I’ll leave you both.

You know you shouldn’t, said Cell B. It’s a dead end. There’s no streptococci where you’re headed, there’s nothing at all. I promise, it’s dangerous for you. I don’t know why. I just sense it.

Night came, and at last the protest ended with the completion of the split. Afterwards, though, Cell B wrestled with the decision, for it didn’t like the outcome and never would. In fact, many such things fit this pattern. Not Cell C, but Cell B would reflect until the dawn reemerged.

So many questions, Cell B said to its colleague who refused to entertain them. So many. It felt something now ― a thing grand, mysterious, and inexplicable ― and welcomed it.

*  *  *

John Cody Bennett is an educator at The Birch Wathen Lenox School in New York City, a graduate of Sewanee: the University of the South, and a Fulbright scholar from Louisiana. He has been published in Animal: A Beast of a Literary Magazine and Across the Margin.

 

STRINGS

by M.L. Owen

Lydia peels celery before she eats it. That’s how I noticed her in the first place. It was at the parents-day pot-luck the week before school started. She sat under the elm tree, the one away from the street, the one that doesn’t have a swing. She sat there with a full plate of food, peeling the celery and laying the strings in a little pile.

She saw me staring at her. “I don’t like to floss my teeth while I’m still eating,” she said.

“I’m David,” I said.

Other people say that she has really big glasses, but I know that she has to have big glasses because she had such huge eyes. They take in everything. I went over and sat down beside her, near her. I didn’t ask her permission or anything. I just did it. While I did it, her eyes followed me. Her huge eyes. It wasn’t like she seemed frightened or angry or even especially curious. She just watched me and peeled celery.

I stuck my hand in the applesauce on my plate. I realized then that I’d been staring at her, too. She didn’t seem surprised at what I’d done but reached over and handed me a napkin. Maybe people always stare at her so much that they stick their hands in their food, or run into walls, step off cliffs. She must be used to it. I stopped staring for a while, and we ate.

We finished our plates at more or less the same time. It’s hard to tell exactly when a person’s done eating, but both of us wiped our mouths and laid the napkins on top of the plates. I picked up both of the plates and stood up. She reached up and touched me on the arm. That’s all. She just touched me. Then she picked up the little pile of celery strings and put them on top of the napkin. “I’m Lydia,” she said.

Together we walked to the nearest trash barrel, dropped the plates, and just kept on walking out toward the apple orchard. Sometime after that I took her hand, or she took mine. Sometime after that, we started talking. I don’t remember how we got to talking or what we talked about. We must have talked about her moving to Atacra, about being in the same grade, about her dad dying, and her mom having grown up here. I got to know whose things somehow. I know we talked about me, too, but I don’t remember what I told her. We just talked.

It must have been about an hour before we got back to the picnic. Bill and Ed yelled at me to grab my glove for the softball game, and her mother called to her. She stared at me again with those huge eyes and then squeezed my hand before letting go and running away.

I’ve never known anyone who peeled her celery.

                                               *    *    *

M. L. Owen lives and writes among the giant redwoods of Northern California and has published in a number of literary journals, including Down in the Dirt, The Bookends Review, Toyon, Mosaic (10th St. Press), Poets & Writers (College of the Redwoods), Gambit, and Scribblement.

A Warning

by S.R. Ponaka

It is the end of our weekend trip. We stand outside the door on the stoop, saying our goodbyes. The sun hasn’t risen just yet. I booked my flight quite early in the morning, so that I’d still have most of the day available to me when I arrived home, although I have nothing urgent to attend to. It is darker still because the house where we are staying is far outside a city. I cannot recall the name of the town as I write this, even though I’m using every memory close to this one to remember. This trip was with Gita, whom I no longer speak to, so I cannot call her to ask. A forest surrounds us in every direction. There are no streetlights out here.

I am bundled up in a coat. Gita is in her pajamas and a thin cardigan because she has planned to stay for a few more days, to work on her thesis. The taxi driver waits at the end of the driveway, the light on the cab’s roof weak and flickering. Gita had rented a car, but the battery is dead because she had forgotten to turn the headlights off after we returned from dinner last night. She wrings her hands, nervous and apologetic for not being able to drive me to the airport. I am grateful to have booked a taxi ride at 3am.

“It was so good to see you.” She gives me a hug and rubs my back. “You too,” I reply, holding tight to her embrace.

She breaks away, and looks at me.

“We don’t do this often enough.”

“I know, I know,” I say, nodding my head. We had enjoyed ourselves over the last couple of days, but I am completely exhausted. A weekend with someone I might have called a close friend. Full of all of the intimacies and tension I’d grown to understand were a part of how we existed together.

She looks down the driveway, grabs the handle of my bag.
“Please make sure to be careful.”

She is like this. It is freezing outside. I’m sleepy and want to be in the backseat of a warm car.

“You aren’t listening to me. It’s a long drive to the airport.”

She rolls my suitcase down to the taxi. Knocks on the passenger window to peer at the driver, then smiles and waves at him. She is taking the kind of mental picture that would hold up at a police station, or in a court of law.

He pops the trunk and stays bundled up in his seat. She rolls her eyes at him, then walks around to the back.

As she lifts my bag, she speaks in low tones.

“It’s easy to get raped on rides like this. It must happen all the time.”

She is now her mother, and my mother, and so many of the women we know. “Just be aware of where you are.”

I have no idea where I am because Gita was the one who decided on this house in the middle of nowhere. We didn’t have phones or GPS then, just roadmaps and handwritten directions. We weren’t moving blips on each other’s screens, reproduced by satellite systems meant to record our every move.

“Try to memorize where you are, keep track of all the markers on the way. Please, don’t fall asleep on the ride. Do you have any pepper spray?”

I don’t. Do we need to remind each other of this?

“Gimme your keys,” she rummages through my bag. She finds them.

“Why do you have so many keys?” she says. Jangles them in front of my face.

She selects a few worthy, sharp keys and jams them in-between my fingers. Here I am with the key to my mailbox and my Accord and the back door to work and the front door to my house and an ex-boyfriend’s key I’ll never return, coming out of my knuckles.

Gita thinks this will protect me, or any of us.

A wrecking ball in my coat pocket.

I pretend to stab her in the stomach and giggle.

She is exasperated with me now.

“I swear to God, you’re hopeless,” she gives me another hug.

“You’ve got another subway ride when you get home. Be careful.” Gita believes in her mission, and my body responds. There is the bracing and churning of my gut that happens in the midst of all sorts of simple activities I’ve learned that, as a woman, I can be killed in.

She opens the back door of the car, watches me get in. Leans in to say hello to the driver.

“Good morning sir! Thank you for coming to get my friend. Please make sure you take good care of her.”

She tries to take a good look at his face, but it is partly covered by a woolly scarf.

“Sir, could you pull your scarf down? I know it’s early, but I would love to see your gorgeous smile!”

He stares at her.

She looks at me, mouths, “Please don’t die.”

On the way to the airport, there is a swarm of fear, whether mine or Gita’s, or a consciousness much larger than both of ours, to slough off. I let the keys go slack in my pocket, and watch the full moon follow us. I see how tree leaves turn silver in the night. There is the glitter of a creek behind a copse of pine. I catch a rabbit on the side of the road, frozen by headlights.

But fear doesn’t go anywhere. It resuscitates itself.

Still, I crack the window a bit, to get my last breaths of small town air. It is full of eucalyptus and salt and tree rot and old fires. I hook my fingers over the top of the window, let them hang, weightless in the wind. I don’t want to do anything but witness a moment, then the next one, then the next. To stay in this tiny threshold.

The driver must be tired too. He puts on an Oldies station, hums to himself. I never ask his name or get a good look at his face.

The car rocks as it coasts down an empty highway.
Even if I try to resist, eventually, I fall asleep.

*  *  *

S.R. Ponaka is a psychiatric social worker, therapist and writer living in the Los Angeles area. She has participated in the Voices of Our Nations (VONA) workshop and the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference.