Arat Fort

By Linda McMullen

“… and this next site, Arad Fort, predates Shakespeare,” my guide intones, with her insinuating British accent.  Maybe it’s just me.  Four months into our planned year of post-graduate globetrotting, Michael left me for a girl from Liverpool with a fourth-rate education and a burgeoning career as a glamour model.  That was back in Istanbul.  It’s been one week and approximately ten pounds of Turkish Delight since then.  

I slip out of the bus behind the Canadian couple (in polite, disbelieving disagreement over something), a pair of retired Frenchwomen on a bucket list adventure, and a bearded backpacker with no sense that his shorts are out of place.  Muharraq is under construction; new malls and condos seem to emerge in real time.  And still preserved within this urban development is an ancient fort.  Loving hands must have restored this structure, a gleaming sand-tinted citadel beneath azure Bahraini skies.  

“This fort – with its thick, straight walls and circular towers – is representative of traditional Bahraini military architecture,” the guide continues, though I’m the only one listening.  The others are lining up for selfies, pivoting 180 degrees to capture both the imposing edifice and the Manama skyline.  Beardy – who unfortunately resembles Stuart, the angst-ridden pseudo-poet I dated before Michael – is asking the tour guide how she likes Bahrain.  How she keeps in touch with her family.  How long she’s planning to stay here.  What she likes to eat.  What she’s doing for dinner tonight.  My eyes meet hers and we exchange a look of profound mutual comprehension.

“Hey,” I interrupt.  “I have a question.  What kind of stone did they use to build the fort?”

The tour guide beams at me.  “Coral limestone,” she says, promptly.  This allows her to segue into a mini-lecture about how Bahrain’s efforts to reclaim not only its heritage, but land… how the island has expanded over the years… 

Beardy drifts away, glaring at me.  I let the guide’s words drift over me like the gentle breeze. Everyone always thinks of the Gulf in terms of oil / wars / hellacious heat.  Somehow no one ever considers calm 68-degree Decembers and playful zephyrs ruffling the fronds of swaying palms.  Even I hadn’t.  Michael designed this part of the itinerary; I picked up again starting in Romania in the spring.  

He would have loved this – the historic setting, the gorgeous weather…

…and – I thought – me…

I turn my attention back to the guide.  She’s explaining the fortress’s defense mechanisms, including placements for cannons and machicolations.  I edge along the narrow catwalk so I can inspect them.  Michael would have taken aim at me, called me out for shots fired, for my ability to drop barbs on him out of nowhere.  Hmmph.  Well, I hope he and Gemma are as happy as they deserve to be.

My eyes feel hot.  I really thought that Michael and I… I run a sleeve over my face.  Of course, earlier I had imagined that Stuart might be my…

Guide.  Follow the guide.  She’s now describing Bahrain’s colonial history to the French women, explaining that the Portuguese and the Omanis took control of the fort at different times – “but now,” she smiles, “it belongs to Bahrain.”  I straighten, place my hand on the sun-kissed stone.  Still standing.  

                                                     *   *   *

Linda McMullen is a wife, mother, diplomat, and homesick Wisconsinite. Her short stories and the occasional poem have appeared in over one hundred fifty literary magazines. She may be found on Twitter: @LindaCMcMullen.

It Was Always Going to Fall Apart in the End 

By Christina Carlson 

I never could speak in metaphor. Instead, I scream my words in repetition, praying that one iteration of my meaning would penetrate their walls. So many words have been lost this way. 

Silence became my friend. My heart can’t be hurt if it is never noticed.

I silently play The Game of Life in the corner by myself. “Where’s Chrissy,” they say. 

Dad asks questions but never waits for my response. Conversations with him turn into a series of unexplainable problems with no attempt at solutions. The words, “Chris, can you just do it for me?” end many of these talks. He never waits for my response. 

My sister rolled her eyes when I read something I wrote for our little brother’s funeral. To say that I chose silence is like saying Gionni chose to die. 

“These fucking Democrats,” Dad says.

“Be careful,” I warn, knowing he has been doubling down on the far-right Facebook videos since the election has grown close.

“They’re all fucking losers,” he says.

He launches into another series of unexplainable problems but my ears protect my brain by engaging a sharp buzzer in my head.

“Dad,” I interrupt. “Dad, I am a Democrat,” I say.

He knows. There have been many nights this year when the buzzer in my ears has also protected my heart.
There is a pause– a jerking, awkward moment of silence.

“Yeah…” he says, “but we have to forgive you of that because you went to college.” 

Mom listens. In quiet moments, together. She listens and she folds me into her, hugging my heart for just a breath. In these moments, I am seen, I am known, I am loved. And in these moments, I allow myself to live in the lie that I am enough. 

My sister says “Go cry like you always do.” I am 5. I am 13. I am 30. She is saying it now. 

My husband says he supports my dream. “Go be great,” he says before listing off all the ways I put him last. 

All the quiet moments come raging from my mother’s mouth like a river without a dam. 

You did this, she spits.
You.
You opened your mouth and built these walls. 

                                           *   *   *

Christina Carlson is an MFA graduate from Randolph College and writes from the parts of Las Vegas that have nothing to do with The Strip. She writes true things that sometimes turn into lies and lies that sometimes tell the truth. She worked for many years on the Las Vegas Strip and likes to think that time is behind her but is continually surprised by the way it pops up in her stories… which happens quite a lot.

Artificial Lakes

By Gary Reddin

Erica leaves tomorrow. But right now, we are a hundred miles from home sitting outside of a 24-hour Korean supermarket, somewhere between Tulsa and the end of the world. I am alone in the predawn with only the steady dinging rhythm telling me, politely, that the driver’s side door is open. I run my hand over the back of the broken compass she gave me when she arrived. It won’t find north, but it will keep you a step ahead of your misery. The supermarket door opens. Erica comes back to the car holding a brown paper bag. I still have the compass in my hands. 

“What’s it telling you?”

“Nothing yet.”

She takes a bottle of clear alcohol with a foreign name out of the bag. 

“A step ahead of your misery,” she says, passing it to me.

I take a long drink. Its warmth spreads down my throat and through my body.

“The guy at the counter told me about a place nearby where we can watch the sunrise,” she says.

When she closes the door I feel a space in my chest hollow out where the ‘I’m open’ noise had been. We pull out of the parking lot, crunching gravel under our wheels like broken dreams.

“Tread softly,” I say, remembering an old poem.

The road is weather-worn and cracked. It dips deep into the earth, then crests like a shark’s fin. Graffiti coats the waves of asphalt like constellations. 

The car noses into the emptiness and my stomach disappears for a moment. We ride the wave up the other side, surfing on obscene stars, and discover a million miles of flat earth marching into the pink horizon. She parks on the shoulder. We get out and sit on the hood together. She laces her fingers through mine, and I surrender the bottle. She drinks an ocean’s worth. 

“Annihilation.”

“How’s that?” she asks.

“Something my mom used to say. After dad died, a verse she used to recite to me. Confront them with annihilation, and they will then survive.”

“Is that from the Bible?”

“The Art of War.”

I take out the compass again, holding it to the sky. The needle rotates twice before deciding that we are facing west, which I know is impossible since the sun is rising in front of us.  

“What’s it saying now?” She asks, resting her head on my shoulder, the half empty bottle hanging loosely in her other hand. 

“I think—I think it’s telling me I’m lost.” 

She lets go of my hand, takes the compass in hers, and inspects it like a precious stone. 

“It’s telling you that direction is your enemy.” 

The edge of the sun rises on our wasteland. She puts her forehead against mine and whispers a prayer. She says it is for good luck. Her eyes are an abstraction. Caught somewhere between blue and grey. In some empty pocket of time after the prayer I decide on silver. They’re not hungry but starved. Waiting for the end of some secret fast.

“Where to now?” She asks.

“Direction is my enemy, remember.” 

I watch her slide off the hood and step into the middle of the road silhouetted against the flat oblivion. She pours out what’s still left of the alcohol, places the bottle at her feet, and spins it. I watch light glance in and out of my rotating future until it stops, the neck pointing straight ahead into the horizon. 

“A step ahead of my misery,” I say, and she nods.

We get back in the car and drive toward the rising sun. I can see mirages forming on the concrete. They wash over us, tides untethered from the pull of the moon. Aching for it, chasing it, and yet never able to meet it. We pass through towns with names like Daisy, Antlers, Blanco. As if the people naming them were as drunk as we are now. Erica keeps the car on the road. We pass no police and by noon we are sober again.

“Eufaula.”

“What?”

“Eufaula, that’s where the compass is taking us.” 

She points to a green sign advertising skiing, camping, and recreation. Lake Eufaula, twelve miles. We turn off the highway and onto another lonely backroad. I watch the world untie itself for us through the windshield as we snake a path toward the lake. There is a moment at the apex of every curve where I believe we will meet another car head on. I tense with each bend that rolls by. But the impact never comes, and the road straightens out. A dirt path runs down to the shore of the lake and we follow it to its conclusion. 

She steps out of the car and walks toward the water’s edge. I watch her through the windshield. She takes off her shoes and steps barefoot into the lake. The compass needle spins but cannot find us a way forward. I sit it on the dashboard, step out of the car, and join her in the water. She takes my hand, and we walk out into the shallows until it rises to our waists. 

“It’s not real,” she says.

“What isn’t?” 

“The lake. Its manmade. One of the largest. All of the lakes in Oklahoma are like this, artificial.” 

She covers her silver eyes with her hands as if to hide from this truth. 

“Take off your shirt,” she whispers.

 I obey. The water is cold against my skin. She lowers her hands and takes hold of me. Her grip is strong. 

“Are you prepared to face your enemy?” 

She positions herself beside me. With a surprising amount of control, she lowers me backward and submerges me beneath the waters. I open my eyes but cannot see her through the murky haze. Her grip loosens and I sink away from her until my back finds the silt of the lake floor. This is my annihilation. The space left in the wake of the world’s end. But it is an artifice. A creation meant to contain, to control. It is the gloss between two versions of myself. 

My chest tightens. My lungs constrict, begging for breath. I close my eyes.

The water is quiet. Calm. Directionless. 

                                                                   *   *   *

Gary Reddin is a writer, poet, and recovering journalist from Southwest Oklahoma. He is a current MFA candidate at Lindenwood University. His work has most recently appeared on Essay Daily and in the Dillydoun Review. You can follow him on Twitter @andrewreddin for more of his work.

The Elements are Harsh, But the Pup Must Be Set Free

By Miranda Keskes

“Did you get enough to eat?” 

“Yup.”

“Excited for school today?” 

“Nope.”

“Looks like great weather for football tonight.”

“Sure.” 

He speaks in mono-syllables these days. It reminds me of his toddlerhood, but the inflection’s all wrong. He looks down at his phone, thumbs in constant motion, slouched over in the passenger seat. I sigh, pushing a little harder on the car’s accelerator. 

  The gaps between the time we spend together are widening. 

Last night, I stumbled across a documentary about harp seals. The mothers abandon their young after two weeks. The pups learn to fend for themselves, bobbing along on ice caps, adrift at sea. 

 

I tighten my grip on the steering wheel, stealing glimpses at his newly sharpened jawline, the light shadow across his upper lip. We inch our way through the school dropoff line. 

 

Many dangers await the young pups: hunting, vessel strikes, entanglement, chemical contaminants, oil spills, climate change. The mortality rate for harp seals in their first year is 20-30%.

My foot presses on the brake. Our turn. He opens the car door, climbs out. “Bye, mom.” 

“Have a great day. I love you.” 

“Yep.” He pokes his head back in before closing the door. “Love you too.”  

 

Harp seals often appear to be crying. I’m told it’s because they lack the ducts to drain away the tears. 

                                                                  *   *   *

Miranda Keskes is a writer and educator whose fiction has appeared in Pigeon Review, Everyday Fiction, and the anthologies: You Do You, Heart/h, Hysteria, and 100 Ways to Die. She lives in Michigan with her husband and two sons. Find her on Twitter @mirandakeskes.

The Reason For It All

By Andy Betz

You can plan. You can reason. But, you have to eventually let go.

From the moment her water broke, I was Superman. Everything I knew had to be executed with precision. I had the bag packed. I called the doctor. I had three routes planned for the trip to the hospital. They had a special lot for expectant parents. Perfect.

Then came the flat tire. I kept driving.

Too many red lights. I slowly kept driving.

The first contraction unnerved me but did not stay this courier from the swift completion of my appointed rounds. I kept driving.

The friendly orderly met us at the front with a wheelchair and a smile. Just as planned.

Once I parked, I learned the elevators were inoperative. Time for Plan B.

Three floors with two men carrying 1.5 people is worth the sweat.

All the while, she remains calm.

Gown up, gloved donned, and in I go to see it all.

At this point, no amount of training can prepare one for the inevitable.

Six hours later, I am still chanting this mantra to myself.

My wife looks as if she has been through combat. I have heard her call me names that would make a sailor blush. She has gained the strength of Atlas when gripping my hand. But, she remains focused on the prize.

Fully dilated, four final pushes, resulting in one miracle. For both father and mother, a series of evolutionary chemicals begins their bombardment of brain cells (from stem to frontal lobes) , ensuring the two that all of the decisions leading to this point were correct. The euphoria becomes Nirvana. The duration is fleeting.

Is it worth it?

I need only look at her laying on my wife’s chest to know it is.

                

                                                                  *   *.  *

Andy Betz has tutored and taught in excess of 40 years.  He lives in 1974, and has been married for 29 years.  His works are found everywhere a search engine operates.

Dancers

By Coleman Bigelow

Dan and Susan sat in silence at their corner table by the window.  The food had been good but the place too formal, and Dan regretted this choice for their last vacation meal.  He half-heartedly contemplated a dessert menu before looking up to see Susan’s profile backlit by the setting sun.  She smiled open mouthed—animated in a way he hadn’t seen for months—and he turned to find what had captured her attention.

Just outside, on the lawn leading down to the harbor, two children, a tall thin girl who looked about ten and a husky red-cheeked boy, maybe two years her junior, were in the middle of a spontaneous dance-off. Both children danced to imagined beats, but it was clear they grooved to different tunes.

One bopped, and the other bounced, one spun and the other jumped and gyrated.  The girl more studied, while the boy shifted from wild hip thrusting to rowdy butt shaking, his arms flying up and down to accentuate each move.  The boy reminded Dan of one of his students from the previous year.  A boy he was constantly disciplining but secretly found amusing.  A boy whose exploits he had enjoyed sharing with Susan, when she was still excited to hear such stories.

Inside the restaurant, the dancers attracted a growing audience. A man two tables away slapped his leg with laughter as he watched the boy execute a dance move that involved riding an imaginary pony.  Susan giggled and, listening to her, Dan thought of how the shock of her convulsive laughter had first attracted him.  He loved the progression of her laugh from quiet snicker to full throated guffaw. The magical surprise of this otherwise-graceful person letting go. A laugh that had faded from Dan’s world like a close school friend you don’t realize you miss until you run into them again on the street years later. A friend with whom you are instantly able to reconnect. A friend to whom you would confide about the baby.

It was growing dark, but the children gravitated to a pool of fading sunlight.  The girl appeared to explain some rules to the boy and then, after a dramatic pause, began her own elaborate routine.  She clapped her hands and did a kind of grapevine back and forth.  Then she stopped, put her hands to her sides and jumped to cross one leg in front of the other.  Once in position, she spun herself around while pivoting on crossed feet in a perfect Michael Jackson imitation.  She finished by dropping into a split.

With a satisfied smile, she motioned to the boy to take his turn.  The boy appeared stumped, but then clapped his hands over his head and rotated his hips.  He did a running in place routine that made his stomach jiggle inside his t-shirt.  Dan noticed the girl purse her lips as the boy shot fake guns from his fingertips.  The boy laughed and spun around the girl, eluding her grasp. Mid-rotation, he froze and pointed at the restaurant.

The children, eyes widening, registered all the faces looking down.  The girl gasped. She pulled the boy in the direction of the guest cabins.  Halfway up the hill, the boy broke free to sneak one more peak at the diners.  He took an impromptu bow and grinned, his broad smile stretching his chubby cheeks.  Dan put one hand on the glass and watched as the boy caught up with the girl and disappeared into the shadows.

After the children’s departure, chairs were rotated back into tables and the steady buzz of conversation resumed. Dan missed the distraction of the children – the escape from the unspoken. He was tired. Tired of waiting for her. He’d begun to wonder if she’d ever be ready again.  Susan continued to stare into the fading light. She sipped her tea.   The same tea she had nursed throughout dinner, frequently lifting the little white pot to refill her cup even as the water grew cold.  Susan had taken to drinking tea after their baby died.

“Good dinner?” Dan asked, reaching for her hand.

“Those kids were the highlight,” she replied, and moved her hands to her lap.

A final splash of pink retreated across the harbor lawn.

“Free entertainment,” Dan said, finishing his last drop of bourbon.

Susan twisted the napkin in her lap. “You forget how uninhibited kids are at that age.”

“Or how much joy they can bring.” Dan said. Her eyes locked onto his. The blacks of her pupils first expanding and then shrinking as if absorbing the subtext. Dan smoothed the tablecloth in front of him.

“Isn’t it time?”

Susan’s full lips squeezed tighter. She nodded. “I didn’t think I’d ever be ready, but…” She paused and pushed herself up.

“Can you pay the check while I run to the ladies’?” Midway across the floor, she glanced over her shoulder, and Dan wondered if she was happy he was still watching her or wishing he would look away.

***
Coleman Bigelow studied creative writing as an undergraduate at The University of Virginia and went on to study playwriting and screenwriting at The Actor’s Theatre of Louisville and the New School. His short stories and flash have appeared recently in Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Magazine, Free Flash Fiction, The Under Review, Ink and Sword and The Dead Mule School. He’s currently at work on his first novel. http://www.colemanbigelow.com

History and Hysteria

By Overcomer Ibiteye

Thirty years later, and you’re explaining to your kids how dreams dazzle when broken like communion bread. You teach them to recite the kyrie eleison over and over again because you were taught that life and death are in the power of the tongue. But when they point out that your tongue and the rest of your body are antonyms, you reply that a body is meant to be marooned in sizzling contradictions. What is a body if not a blancmange of errors? You hiccup your history into a song, a proverb, a tear, anything to make them remember but it feels like you’re storing a remnant of yourself in formalin jars, waiting to be examined and discarded. When this is over, you’ll begin a battle for names; a clamor to be known, to be called something. You’ll beg for an identity, something that connects you to this family tree that’s about to be broken into half. Identity reminds you of your loss, and existence. In the middle of your hiccups, you will borrow words like “mistake” and “unintentional” to soften the thud of a body, falling into oblivion. Then you’ll sniffle and continue talking. Your history is a tale of woes that mirrors a wife sprawled on asphalt concrete like stars splashed across the night sky in a haphazard design. Your history is the throat of an automobile gulping down dust, smoke and bones. Your history is a colony of drinking and driving and kissing and driving and dying and driving. You are doling rumpled Naira bills to the patrol officer and he’s cancelling something on his writing pad, and it looks like he’s changing the cause of accident from drunk driving to something more likable. Thirty years later, and your memory is three-forked with jammed brakes, sequels of somersaults and blood and you’re explaining to your kids and their faces are orbs of repressed screams and there’s no name for this feeling.

                                                  *   *   *

Overcomer Ibiteye is a Nigerian poet and writer. She’s an alumnus of the SprinNG Writing Fellowship. Her works have appeared in anthologies and magazines like BPPC, Iskanchi, Scrawl Place, Poets-In-Nigeria, Uncanny Fiction, Land Luck Review, Apex and others. She was also shortlisted for the African Writers Awards 2021.

Pink In The Afternoon

 

By Ashley McCurry

I stare at the door of my walk-in closet and peer inside, scanning rows of practical staple pieces and the latest seasonal trends. Jeans: skinny, wide leg, high-waisted, distressed, and acid wash. I haven’t yet decided who I am.

Battle armor. This one decision, which in all actuality is one hundred smaller decisions, defies me to set the tone for the day ahead. Pairs of flats and heels, in every possible obscure color and pattern, line the perimeter of the closet. I recall reading that women under 5’4 should never wear flats, in an issue of Seventeen Magazine from the 90s. In five days, I will be forty.

(Last night, I dreamed that ninjas were climbing up the side of my house. I lay on my back, eyes wide and pleading, unable to move even the tiniest muscles. The window frame creaked as the glass slid open. Three shadows loomed over my body, speaking an unintelligible language comprised of groans, pops, and intermittent screeching. I awoke, alone, to the sound of my Roomba following an invisible labyrinth across the floor.)

My phone alerts me to the fact that I have ten minutes left to get dressed. Each morning, I set six alarms to keep me on track, or else I might fall into an abyss from which I can’t escape (and that’s not really an acceptable reason to call out from work).

I grab a black sweater, skinny dark grey trousers, and red flats and sit on the edge of the bed, sipping tepid coffee that I promptly splash onto my carefully selected pants.  I once purchased Audrey Hepburn’s favorite lipstick shade from Revlon; I thought that “Pink in the Afternoon” might change my life. 

I sit down at my computer and take my first call of the morning. By lunchtime, I’ll be in leggings and a sweatshirt, dreaming of another life far removed from this one.

                                                          *   *   *

Ashley is a speech-language pathologist with an M.A. in Social Foundations of Education and an M.S. in Communication Disorders. She is the recipient of the University of Iowa’s Obermann Graduate Fellowship and the FIPSE Graduate Fellowship from East Tennessee State University. More importantly, she is a rescue dog mom, cosplayer, and lover of short stories and musical theater. During the evenings and weekends, you can find her tucked away in a corner of an upstairs office, endeavoring to write stories that both unnerve and inspire.

Waiting for Another Train

By Mark William Butler

There he was, waiting for another train. He was so sick of the subways. Always late. Dirty. Noisy. Flying maniac kids dancing for dollars. Bad musicians. Endless panhandlers. And the so-called announcements? A muddled, mumbling mess. He stood close to the edge of the platform. Not very smart. People get pushed onto the tracks. It was happening a lot lately, but all he could think of was his current go-to word: whatever. It was a good word. It covered everything.

It was his birthday, so he was thinking about his life, of course. Such as it was. Things were going nowhere. There was nowhere to go. Nothing to do. There were no new plans, no new strategy. It had stopped dead, the big dream. He was awake now. Yesterday was the last straw. It wasn’t going to happen. And now he didn’t know what to do, who to be. So he stood on the edge of the platform, clutching his crumpled paper bag, which contained a can of beer. Why did he even bother with the paper bag? Who the hell cared? Once he saw someone rolling a joint on the A train. Another time he caught a glimpse of a crack pipe party on the M60 bus. So what was he, really? Nothing but a throwback. An old guy and his beer, in a paper bag. Who the hell cared? He took a swig and waited for the train.

And then he heard her, behind him and to the left. She was on her phone. Hello? And then shock, sudden, soul-crushing shock. She cried out. What? Her voice collapsed into a halting sob. The worst thing that could have happened had apparently just happened. He turned to look. Her face was melting, tears streamed down her cheeks. A man to her left glanced, then went back to his phone. The woman to her right moved away. The rest of the crowd stayed in their bubbles and waited for the scene to end. Don’t look. Don’t react. Besides, every street show in New York was open to interpretation: was it real? Was she real? Was she nuts? Was it a put-on? Performance art? Drunk? Drugs? Most of the crowd usually chose not to be part of the audience. It was a tough room.

But he knew it was real. Somehow. He looked, and then he found he couldn’t avert his eyes. He witnessed her breakdown, her collapse, her tears. Then suddenly a train was there. It was hers but not his. The doors opened and she stumbled on, crying uncontrollably. He stood there, and then suddenly he felt something. Sorrow. Heartache. Pity. For someone besides himself. He had to catch his breath. She took a seat on the train. He stared. He knew he shouldn’t, but he did. Suddenly he felt compelled to do something for her. But what? There was nothing he could do; she was a stranger. And that’s another thing, he thought. Why should I care? I’ve got problems of my own! I can’t even help myself! But he sensed her desperation, and somehow felt desperate himself. I want to help her. But how? He kept looking at her, hoping she would look back. But what if she did? What then? A smile? A thumbs-up? Pathetic! Should he get on her train? His mind raced. To do what? This is crazy! He took a step, but the doors were closing. It was too late. He kept his eyes on her, watching her through the window, and suddenly, without realizing, he had put his hands together, as if to pray. He was shocked. What was this? I don’t pray! But maybe she would see it, the gesture, maybe it would mean something. He kept looking at her, but she didn’t look back, and then, just like that, she was rolling away, then gone, leaving him standing there with his prayer and his beer, waiting for another train.

                                                       *   *   *

Mark William Butler lives in New York City, and in addition to short stories, writes plays and musicals, many which have been produced and selected for festivals. His short story, “Cool and Clean and Crisp”, was selected for Best American Erotica 1994, an anthology edited by Susie Bright.

Mindrocker

 

By Mike Lee

Kayleigh learned the bagpipes and played around town for tips while struggling through a partial scholarship at NYU. Wanting autonomy from parents who decided co-dependency and emotional domination over their children was the reason.

Today she cut her hair but kept the bangs.

When the last snip hit the floor at the salon, nothing mattered but the permanence of the now.

She sprinted up the metal steps, clacking in her black kitten heels she pulled out of the trash on East 11th Street. Although the hem of her black pencil skirt threatened to split in the excitement, Kayleigh felt finally unbridled from her past.

While Mom, Dad, living out their dysfunction at the split-level tomb, remained in the Bronx, along with the Our Lady icons and the brother she avoided unless she had to, this was her time. Kayleigh had broken free and went off to hang out at Washington Square to watch the singers and the stoners and enjoy the last of the autumn sun’s warmth before Winter and the end of the semester struck like an unwatched train.

She planned to stay in the apartment during the winter break but attend Christmas Day in Yonkers. This was required because she always needed to test her emotional distance rather than getting presents and performing family rituals.

Kayleigh passed a window near the corner. She touched her hair, brushing back the cowlick, considering maybe it was too short. Kayleigh was self-conscious of her ears sticking out. After touching her hair, moving brunette bangs about, shaking her head, and nixing the thought of a kitchen sink henna dye job, Kayleigh loved the look. She felt finally a person, not somebody’s daughter. Who that person remains is a process until a conclusion. The haircut was just part of the beginning of another stage in that self-transformation.

The day was cloudless, with a light wind warm enough to open her gray trench coat. Unfortunately, the dye was fading; and needs to be hemmed. She figured safety pins and more shoplifted badges would cover it.

She started bagpipes in seventh grade. It was the first Catholic school with an extensive music program. It was underwritten by a grant from an alumnus who had a minor yet respected career playing experimental jazz on the West Coast.

Kayleigh saw him play at Town Hall several years later, backing Chico Hamilton.

“You’re the bagpiper!” He shouted at Kayleigh when she was backstage. He hugged her. I got to see you twice at Our Lady. You got sharp shoulders and strong lungs. But you won’t make money except at funerals and Bronx weddings.”

“But damn,” he added.

“Never quit. Don’t you ever. Your play like a mindrocker.”

He pointed at her heart.

“That’s what matters.”

Kayleigh cried as he held her in his arms. She couldn’t tell him she planned on quitting.

Her parents and neighbors were so annoyed at her practice, she had to wander to the park early in the morning to practice.

So, she did not quit.

Instead, performed at St. Pat’s functions and funerals for firemen and police. Also, for a construction engineer who died falling off a scaffold at the Pan Am building.

She performed the usual: Danny Boy and Amazing Grace. But for that funeral, she learned Wonderful Land.

Wonderful Land was tough to play. This was a hit song in the UK by a rock-and-roll instrumental group called The Shadows. Kayleigh practiced replicating the melody and the guitar tremolo for hours, but she learned enough to make the song recognizable.

As she stood playing the song on the hillside away from the crowd gathered at the funeral, Kayleigh watched the widow, bent over, her head buried in hands, sobbing.

He was a city employee, a building engineer only doing his job, killing him.

During early mornings in Greenwich Village, Kayleigh practiced in Sheridan Square. No one seemed to mind. Sometimes the early risers stopped to listen and dropped money into her Bolero hat for tips. The experience convinced Kayleigh to play on Saturdays alternating at Union Square and outside the front entrance of Grand Central Station. The cash in the Bolero kept her in laundry, cappuccinos with oak milk, and dry cleaning the tartan skirt she wore when busking.

The skirt pattern had the red, brown, and green colors of County Cavan, Kayleigh’s ancestral home.

Whenever she slipped it on, she’d remember that legacy is to be admired. Unfortunately, though, the family is another matter.

“There’s a piper by the gate, of which ‘tis her fate,” Denny said. “Now she’s cut off all her hair to psyche them out at Union Square.”

Kayleigh laughed and placed her notebook beside her on the concrete. “You left out ‘Mom’s a drunk and my brother a junkie, yet nothing rhymes for Dad.’ ”

“Well, as you say, you don’t pick family. But you do have choices later,” Denny said. “Nice haircut, by the way. Really brings out the sparkle in your eyes.”

Denny was her remaining friend from the Yonkers years. A missed opportunity since the middle school prom, the two circled and failed to cross paths at the right time.

And he has another girlfriend.

Denny sat next to her. He smelled of expensive cologne.

Kayleigh supposed the new girlfriend had money.

“So, how are you? I heard you were going to try out for that band.”

Kayleigh straightened her shoulders. “I want to try something group-oriented, and it’s just a matter of finding my spot to fit in while the beat goes crashing along the way. So yeah—good.”

Kayleigh fussed with her hair. She was getting used to feeling the weather on her neck.

“I like that,” said Denny. “The beat goes crashing. That resonates.”

He paused. “A bagpiper in a punk band?”

“It works. I have sharp shoulders and strong lungs,” Kayleigh said, smitten, sad, and annoyed at once, staring.

                                                           *   *   *

Mike Lee is a writer and editor and photographer working at a trade union in New York City. His work is published and forthcoming in Drunk Monkeys, Ghost Parachute, The Quarantine Review, and many others. His book, The Northern Line is available on Amazon.