by B.J. Smith
Kalmo Bettis woke up in mid-snore from a rare midafternoon nap. His first thought was about the dream he’d just lost, hot seconds away from either carnal relief or more frustration. He rolled off the sofa, grabbed his service pistol from the coffee table and held the Glock 22 behind his back. Peering between the curtains, he saw no sign of either visitor or prankster who might have rung the doorbell. The street was quiet.
He opened the door and relaxed, then cursed himself for letting the lilacs grow so out of control that he hadn’t seen the kid. Bettis knew from experience that little ones seldom attacked cops. More important, he recognized this one. He hid the pistol in his waistband and stepped outside. “What do you need, young man?”
Bettis towered over the boy, who took a few steps back, ready to run. “I’m sorry to bother you, Officer, but my mom said I should report it to you.”
“Report what to me?”
“Somebody stole my kite.”
Bettis smiled and looked up and down the street. “I see. What’s your name, son?”
“James, sir. James Wagner.”
“I’ve seen you around. You live down on the corner, right?
“And how old are you?”
“Seven today. I got the kite for my birthday.”
Bettis sat on the top step and gestured for the boy to join him. James took a spot at the far end, leaving a couple of feet between them. Bettis shook his head, studying the row of houses on the other side of Blakemore. “Now that’s a real shame,” he said. “Some criminal stole your birthday present? Did you call 911?”
“No sir. My mom said that’s just for emergencies, like if my dad comes around.”
Bettis looked at him and nodded. “Your mom told you right, James. You listened to her. That’s great.” He reached over and gave the boy’s shoulder a pat, taking note of a slight flinch. “Does your dad come around very often?”
James looked down at his feet and shook his head. “Not much.”
“You have any brothers or sisters, anyone else at home?”
“No, just me and my mom.”
“Does he call?”
James shook his head again and turned to Bettis. “On my birthday. That’s about it.”
“Did he call today?”
“Yeah. He told me happy birthday and asked if I liked the kite. He said he dropped it off in the night.”
Bettis nodded. “And did you tell him you like the kite? What did you say?”
“I didn’t see it. There wasn’t anything inside the front door like he said.”
Bettis stood and locked his eyes on the house on the corner. A siren sounded in the distance. It grew louder. “What did your dad say then?”
James stood and followed the cop’s gaze to his house. “He started swearing and said someone must have stolen it and he’d get me another one. He wanted to talk to my mom.”
“Did she talk to him?”
“For a minute, then she said he couldn’t come over and she hung up.”
“And then what happened?”
“She started crying,” James said. “I told her someone stole my present and he was going to bring me another one. Then she told me to come over here.”
Bettis reached back and touched the Glock, reassuring himself that it was close. “Where does your dad live?” he asked.
“Over on Clayborn,” James said.
“Does he have a car?” Bettis stepped to block the boy’s view of the house as James described a rusting pickup that squealed around the corner and stopped. Close behind came a police cruiser with lights flashing and siren blaring.
James lurched down the steps. Bettis was quicker. He grabbed the boy and pulled him close.
B.J. Smith writes fiction, essays and poetry in addition to technical prose. His various other identities include cyclist, hiker, University of Iowa journalism grad, veteran, and former daily newspaper reporter.
By Yash Seyedbagheri
You, Dad, and older sister Nancy talk at dinner. Three of you, four chairs.
The fourth chair gapes, cold, elegant.
You speak of John F. Kennedy, weather, Paul Newman movies, Richard Yates novels.
Instead of love, you talk of plots. Tension. You don’t speak of people incapable of love, people who couldn’t pretend; you speak of the Kennedys’ smiles.
Some nights, you move the fourth chair an inch. Another.
You wait for Dad to yell, Nancy to call you a slob.
Dad jokes about Nixon sweating. Nancy offers to take you to the movies.
You forgot how to cry.
* * *
Yash Seyedbagheri is a graduate of Colorado State University’s MFA program in fiction. His story, “Soon,” was nominated for a Pushcart. Yash has also had work nominated for Best of the Net and The Best Small Fictions. A native of Idaho, Yash’s work is forthcoming or has been published in WestWard Quarterly, Café Lit, and Ariel Chart, among others.
Janet felt the contractions while cleaning cages in the animal shelter.
The ambulance took her to St. Mark’s Hospital a mile away.
Seconds apart in an emergency room bed, identical twins, Brittney and Bethany, were pushed out of Janet’s womb, both lacking vocal cords.
While being held by their mother, they grabbed at each other’s necks like feral cats.
Dr. Gomez, first day in practice, realized they couldn’t breathe and scheduled emergency surgery.
They died on the operating table.
At the funeral, Janet watched two tiny black coffins lowered in their respective holes.
Now, the graves speak on their behalf.
* * *
John Lane has been working in the aerospace industry for twenty years. He has been published in Boston Literary Magazine, Fifty Word Stories, Mad Swirl, The Drabble, Trembling with Fearm CommuterLit and elsewhere. John has also been published in forthcoming anthologies by Christopher Fielden and Pure Slush. Currently a volunteer editor for 101 Words, he completed the Fast Flash Workshop with Kathy Fish and Embracing Uncertainty with Tricia Park. He is also an Army and National Guard Veteran.
There are only so many ways you can reorder your record collection, Adam Harper realised. Once you’ve tried alphabetical, rainbow patterned, random, chronological, then painstakingly rearranged your vinyl by genre, that’s pretty much it. Harper would need another distraction strategy when the cravings came, as they inevitably would.
He had been abstinent for four months, unemployed for two and single for three weeks. Only the first of those abandonments provided relief.
Covid-19 had rendered him jobless, once the government furlough scheme came ended and his employer, a publisher of sheet music, “restructured its workforce”.
Joanna had tried to stick with Adam through these life transitions – kicking the booze and experiencing the joys of Universal Credit and shopping at discount stores. But she loved her Cabernets and Martinis just a little bit more than she loved Adam. And adhering to any sort of compromise between his abject poverty and her barrister’s salary proved unworkable. Adam was too proud to let her pay for everything and Joanna didn’t see why her social life had to be brutally curtailed. In the end, their differences in temperament became more and more apparent. They split with fragile good graces. Neither had wanted kids; there were no third parties to consider – separation was painful, without proving catastrophic.
Three weeks into his renewed bachelorhood, Adam was battling the urge to drink almost daily. With so little else going on in his life, it was proving difficult not to give in to the temptation to self-medicate with alcohol. Instead, he took his anti-depressants, went for long runs and began reading the pile of books on his bedside table. When he found his mind racing and refusing to settle, like a butterfly unable to decide which weed to settle upon, he would rummage through old cardboard boxes containing the detritus of his past.
Old gig tickets, comics he drew in his teens, bad poems written for girls and discarded and disassembled stamp collections. Occasionally something seemingly inconsequential would ambush him with associated memories, such as a dried-up piece of orange peel that he was given by an ex-girlfriend (in the form of an actual orange), the day she left him. So many leave-takings.
Here were a couple of marbles Adam had won in a game with a schoolfriend when he was about eight years old; here was a photo of Adam and his sister, with faces painted as sad clowns; here was a photo of his parents, impossibly youthful, taken from their courting days – how had that slipped in there? At Adam’s age, his parents had two teenage children. Adam had rootlessness and regret.
Ah – there it was – an inevitable discovery his subconscious must have known he would make. The miniature whisky bottle from his friend Tom’s wedding. Bunnahabhain – nearly twenty years old now. Could he? He really ought not to and yet he wanted so much to savour that crisp peaty, burning sharpness on his tongue. Adam lifted the bottle out of the box and headed to the kitchen, where he found a small, stubby glass. He dropped the miniature, unopened, in the glass and rolled it around, contemplating all that he might lose if he were to crack open the seal. With an effort of will, he managed to put the glass down on the counter and return to the box of memories. He’d pour the whisky down the sink later.
Back amongst the relics, Adam found a small Ziplock bag containing a half-dozen old coins. Nothing too ancient – the earliest an 1868 penny, rubbed almost down into a smooth disc but still recognisably bearing the head of Queen Victoria. Actually, some of these coins, although almost black with dirt, looked in rather good condition. There was a threepenny bit too, a twelve-sided brass coin he was sure the millennials who lived in the flat next door would not believe had ever existed. A quick Google search revealed some of these coins selling on Ebay for up to four hundred pounds! He might have a couple of thousand quid’s worth here, provided he could clean them up.
Back in the kitchen he opened the fridge to find that he was out of HP sauce, a classic coin cleaning agent. Needless to say, he had no vinegar either. He could pop to the corner shop for a bottle of Coca Cola but that would necessitate wearing more than his bathrobe and would result in his possessing the makings of a whiskey and coke, and that could never end well. There was only one safe and fitting solution. Adam poured the coins into the glass, unscrewed the cap of the Bunnahabhain and hesitated. Just a sniff to remind himself, perhaps a sip?
He poured the amber restorative over the old coins, drew up a chair and for the next half hour Adam watched the whisky eat away at the grime of ages. It was both heavily symbolic and resonant with a kind of irony as the alcohol returned something aged to the condition of its immaculate youth. There was no way he was going to swig back the turgid contents of the glass once the coins within were renewed. Adam could only guess how many fingers those pennies and halfpennies had passed through. Merchants, mothers, urchins, gamblers, gentlemen, ladies of the night… all had touched these pieces of alloy, now gleaming perfectly amongst a grimy suspension.
Adam poured the whisky down the sink and rinsed the coins off with soapy water, drying them with the a hand towel. They looked beautiful – pristine and near-perfect. He wasn’t sure now whether he’d sell them. Perhaps the two threepenny bits would make interesting cufflinks, should he ever need cufflinks again.
More importantly, he had faced down the venomous enemy and he had not been bitten. Pocketing one of the pennies for good luck, Adam decided to drop in on the Monday night AA meeting in his local church. It would be nice to have some good news to relay for once.
* * *
Gavin is a Scottish writer and filmmaker living in London. He has published two travel memoirs about running ludicrously long distance, Downhll from Here and Running the Orient. The latter, published in August 2020, charts his 2300 mile run from Paris to Istanbul, following the 1883 route of the Orient Express. Gavin’s stories have recently been accepted for publication by Constellation, Blueing the Blade, The Closed Eye Open and The Abstact Elephant. He is also writer-director of the 2015 independent film Sparks and Embers.
The garage sale was on a cul-de-sac. A retired detective had moved into memory care, and his daughter was cleaning out his crap. Along with the box of cold case files, Fairview bought a Hot Wheels. The axles on the car were bent. The daughter squeezed the tires until the Mustang ran smooth on Fairview’s open palm; she pretended not to notice Fairview’s suicide marks. Back at the hotel, Fairview bumped into a wedding party headed to the cocktail lounge for karaoke and Jello shots. The best man made a V with his fingers and licked the groove.
Fairview recharged in her room. She preferred sleeping in rest areas, but she’d been on the road for months and needed a bath. While soaking in the tub, she tried not to imagine the horrible things that might have happened to her missing son. As she toweled off, Fairview accidentally touched her scarred wrists and, because of nerve damage, felt an electric tingle in her jaw. Fairview placed the Mustang on top of the television, so she wouldn’t forget it when she checked out. She looked in the mirror and practiced smiling. She turned on the Weather Channel for company.
Fairview ordered room service. An hour later, “Gladys R.” arrived with a cart. Gladys R. asked Fairview whether she’d noticed any unusual smells or stains in the room. A terminally ill guest hanged himself in the closet over Thanksgiving. Did Fairview know that some fumigators specialize in infestations that feed on bodily fluids? Fairview couldn’t read Gladys R.’s expression. Was she messing with Fairview or serious? Fairview wished she’d kept the chart her mother made for her as a child, with faces cut out of magazines and corresponding emotions written beneath—even the wicked ones adults only whispered about.
After she ate, Fairview sorted through the cardboard box. The cold case files looked like they’d been rescued from the bottom drawer of a squad room desk. They were stained with coffee cup rings and pizza grease, and, in every margin, the paperwork was annotated with the detective’s chicken scratch. Fairview figured he’d spent his retirement absorbed in the unsolved missing person cases still haunting him. At the bottom of the box, Fairview found a cicada carcass and an empty fifth of scotch. Fairview was hoping to find her son’s file in the stack, but of course, it wasn’t there.
Fairview read through the files and studied the circumstances surrounding each victim’s disappearance. It was brutal yet paradoxically sublime, confronting the entirety of a life distilled into a 1,000-word report. A faded photograph was usually stapled to the coversheet, taken from an old yearbook or driver’s license— one woman was pictured on an Alaskan cruise. Fairview laid the files out on the bed. She arranged the vanishings by location, creating a rough map of the United States. Fairview searched the geography for meaningful coincidence, like how five victims had passed through the same Montana truck stop, but decades apart.
Fairview began to nod off, her mind exhausted from grappling with the calculus of heartache. If you divide by nothing, don’t joy and sorrow both become meaningless? Fairview dreamed that the creases and stains on the bedspread transformed into mountains and rivers then took a matchbook road trip deep into the heart of micro-America. She drove the toy Mustang along routes the victims journeyed before evaporating. She meandered forgotten byways and ghost trails pockmarked with the footprints of her own lost boy. She followed the irresistible call of a child jumping up and down on a bed and laughing.
When Fairview woke, early morning light was poking through the privacy curtain, and the air conditioner was already straining to keep up with the heat. Fairview glanced at the clock-radio—time to hit the road again. She started gathering the case files and realized that, as she slept, they’d been rearranged. The pattern on the bedspread no longer resembled America—rather isolated islands floating in a void. As Fairview repacked the cardboard box, her fingers became stained with cicada droppings. She’d read about a mind-controlling fungus turning the species into zombies and wondered if the condition affected people.
Fairview cracked a window and smoked a cigarette. She listened to the song of a lone cicada searching for its mate. Fairview knew the fungus made the bugs devour their own timekeeping glands. They emerged in the wrong year, finding that no other members of their species were awakened. Fairview knew well the torture of bad timing. Her son was kidnapped while waiting for her to pick him up after soccer; Fairview was five minutes late because she stopped to let a family of geese cross the road. That day, her breath and heart were forever knocked out of phase.
Fairview paid for her room and made her way through the parking lot to her rental. She climbed into the car and, from the force of habit, ran her hand along the sun visor. Her ex-husband liked to tucked love poems up there. Then their son was taken, and he got scary. He started leaving abusive notes accusing Fairview of being a bad mother and not grieving enough—or properly. After Fairview slit her wrists—more to escape his judgment than her own despair—her ex barged into the mental health unit and screamed at her for abandoning him.
Fairview opened the glove box and tossed the Mustang onto the pile of toy cars she’d been collecting to give to her son when she found him—or place in his coffin if they recovered his remains. She set the cold case files on the passenger’s side, fastened the seat belt around the cardboard box so the alarm wouldn’t chime, and headed back out to the highway. Most mornings, Fairview wanted to gnaw out her own eardrums to unhear the unspeakable silence of the missing. Today, though, she chose to stumble down the phantom songlines listening for signs of life.
* * *
W. David Hancock is a neurodivergent fiction author and playwright, whose theatrical work has radically challenged formal and narrative dramatic conventions. Hancock’s stories have appeared in many journals, including The Massachusetts Review, Hunger Mountain Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, and Menacing Hedge (forthcoming). Among his honors are a Whiting Writers Award, the Hodder Fellowship, and 2 OBIE Awards for playwriting. Hancock’s latest play, Master, was a NY Times Critics’ Pick and received a NY Drama Desk nomination for “unique theatrical experience.” For more information about Hancock’s work, please visit http://www.wdavidhancock.com.
My husband and I escaped NYC one February, years ago, looking for the road’s centerline between wiper swipes as snow blanketed the road. I’d packed a plowman’s lunch with sharp cheddar and a crisp Cortland apple, my tribute to our New England move. My in-laws followed behind us in their car, bearing our 2-year-old daughter, Emma, and a red Corning Ware casserole filled with beef stew.
Although my dear mother-in-law considered salt and pepper the only important seasonings, the stew was particularly satisfying after our long trip. Especially the big chunks of potato that my hub mashed with his fork to soak up the gravy. I try not to reimagine food already cooked, but I can’t help myself: if she’d lightly floured the meat, browned it, then pureed some of the cooked vegetables into the mix, it would have helped thicken the stew and added depth to its flavor. But she didn’t.
Don’t worry; I’ll get to the cheese.
And so, we moved. The next morning, we woke in the wreck of the house we’d bought for not much, but planned to fix up. The hand cut beams stood above us, loaded with character, our home bright from the refection off the snow. A rush of frigid air welcomed us from below our massive front door. I pried it open to snow that stood two feet above the jam, threw back my head and howled, because I wasn’t sure what else to do. Emma followed suit.
By then we were all hungry. But the kitchen shelves were bare; the old fridge empty except for the few provisions we’d driven up, including more of that sharp New England cheddar. I buttered the backs of two slices of bread and grated cheese to go between. Miraculously, I found my large cast iron pan in one of the trillion boxes. I fired up our ancient Vulcan stove. Then we christened our home with sandwiches cut point to point, because triangles are the only way to eat grilled cheese. And Emma licked the oozing cheddar from their edges.
All that was before we met our neighbors. The Comstocks were a new kind a vegetarian, a kind I’d never heard of who didn’t like vegetables. They lived on cheese and looked it. Now, I don’t mean to malign cheese, but it can’t be the center of every meal, can it? If the Michelin man were made of cheese, he would be Charlie Comstock.
In my snobbish reverie, I imagined Charlie was more the American cheese type. But I was wrong. Just because someone’s dogs bark all day, and they shout, “fuck you” at their twin toddlers, it doesn’t mean they don’t adore the elegant taste of well-fermented cheese. And Charlie did.
As a toddler myself, I recoiled at the Roquefort my dad handed me across our kitchen table. I can still see the Stoned Wheat Cracker in his hand smeared with it.
“It smells rotten.” I’d said.
“It’s the very rotten flavor in cheese that we reach for,” he’d instructed.
His answer left a strong impression. Something about reaching for flavors outside your box. My box was small at the time, as I hardly reached the corner of our kitchen table. But after that I began to wonder about the taste of other. Cheese has it. I’ve heard tell that early nomads made cheese by mistake, their camels carrying milk in bags sewn from stomach linings across the dunes. The sloshing, the stomach’s rennet, the heat, created a kind of cheese that tasted the right kind of rotten and preserved their milk too.
By the time I was a teen, my taste buds learned to love what my dad called rotten. These days, I lift all kinds of cheese to my lips: soft Morbier, classically layered with milk from the morning and evening milking, separated by a thin layer of ash; mold ripened Brillat Savarin with its triple-cream opulence; and sheep’s milk Ricotta Salata, which sings when shaved into a salad of snappy garden greens. And yes, the complex, almost meaty, flavor of aged washed rind Gruyere.
It was during that first New England summer that our cheese-eating neighbor, Charlie, grew a beard and decided he was a nudist. He began to mow his front lawn, which sat directly across from ours, nude in his sneakers. By then he’d evolved into a kind of naked Santa, his white beard as long as his belly was wide. And I don’t mean to malign fat either. Just him. He abused the glory of cheese and looked it. His puffy face, his glassy eyes, were an ad against its persistent use — cheese on every sandwich, in eggs, sliced into thick sticks, eaten in front of the TV we saw glowing blue in the night across our country road. Like all ingredients, cheese needs to be used with intention, whether it’s served solo, spotlighted in a starring role, performing a salty salute with a curvaceous pear, or snuggled in mutual embrace with partners, as when it melts into tangy greens inside your plump ravioli.
Hours spent in the country with a toddler are longer than you may think. But Emma and I ate, read, sang, watched Charlie and sometimes talked opposites. Sour-sweet, strong-weak, black and white. That summer we covered a toddler’s range of culinary opposites. For sweet, we licked ice cream from cones in town that were made with the local Jersey milk and vanilla, aged in oak kegs nearby. And we sucked on wedges of sour lemon juice before nibbling on a bitter parsley sprigs, picked from our garden. And Emma downed salty franks my hub fed her on the sly, because he wanted to turn her into a regular kid, while I tried to protect her from too much junk too young.
And I told her about Maddie Mather down the street, a goat farmer, who was quite the opposite of Charlie. Black hair to Charlie’s white, tiny to Charlie’s giant, Maddie spoke in a small, but confident voice that would never yell, “Fuck You!” to anyone, especially not to her goats. While Charlie’s two goats wandered in and out of their sloppy pen, Maddie chose her breed of fifty Nubians for their cheerful looks. They were good-natured and highly functional to boot. Three at a time stood on the milking merry-go-round she designed, while cheesecloth bags hung on high, dripping the whey out from what would soon become one of the best fresh goat cheeses in America. Milky with a gentle tang, I’ve never tasted better.
One summer, while I was whipping up “cream cheese” icing with that same cheese, Charlie started coming home with an unusual array of cheeses, from that flinty Gruyere I worship, to a Burrato, with its mozzarella covering a sexy center that ran when his wife, Bertha, cut it open. Wise to his ways, she knew something was up.
Soon Charlie was not mowing the lawn, because he’d moved in with Shirley, the cheese monger from the local food Co-op in town. It was quiet across the street with Charlie gone, but in a small town rumors fly. His wife Bertha had marched into the food Co-op, right up to the cheese counter, where the cheese monger, Shirley, had asked: “Can I help you?”
“You can stop fucking my husband,” Bertha shouted, before marching out.
Back in NYC, cheese had been plentiful in my catering business, and especially in the cheese tasting class that I taught. For each session, after buying the cheeses downtown, I’d unwrapped them, grouped on plates by their food family. When you taste — say, a variety of Swiss-style cheeses together — you can differentiate, compare and decide, a rare privilege. You should try it.
Shirley had a huge selection of cheese at the Co-op. But unlike Charlie, I rarely partook, as life was more frugal for us in New England. With few exceptions, I stuck with what was local and good — fresh goat cheese from Maddie, lively blue from the Jersey cows down the road, and sharp orange cheddar from a therapeutic farm in the neighboring town.
And unlike Charlie, I stuck with my husband too. But after decades of cold winters in our drafty home, he began lobbying for a move to Mexico. I tried to get myself in the mood by anticipating avocados. One day, I scooped some of some of Maddie’s cheese into avocado halves, warming them together in the oven. Then I poured tangy lime vinaigrette over them. They were surprising good.
By then Charlie’s wife Bertha had raised their two sons, I assume on cheese, while our daughter grew tall and left for college. In all, we settled twenty-five years in our home, long enough for me to consider smoking mozzarella with the dairyman down the road. But no. I was left only with the smoky smell from across the street when Charlie’s son burned down his family’s home. Everyone escaped unharmed. But by the time their burned-out shell sold, my husband had renovated our old house, we’d packed our bags and moved to Mexico, where avocados are abundant and they sprinkle cheese on just about everything.
* * *
Cotler is a chef and writer. Recently, her short pieces appeared in Hinterlands, Prometheus Rising, Guesthouse and The Rambling Epicure. She was a leader in the farm-to-table movement and food forum host for the New York Times. Currently, she lives in Mexico. Visit her at amycotler.com.
He glances at the clock and struggles to hold back frustrated tears. Despite the mild April day, the building’s heaters are still pumping at January levels. Sweat pours down his face and into the grimy stubble along his jaw. Beads trickle from his armpits, tickling his love handles. Less than an hour since the exam began, but he already needs to shit for the fifth time. There’s no one to blame but himself. He’s been on an all-coffee diet since exams started two weeks ago and it’s finally caught up to him. There weren’t any signs of trouble before he opened his booklet. But the moment his pencil hit the paper, his bowels started purring. There’s only so much brown java you can pour down your throat before it starts coming out the same on the other end.
He rises from his chair with a delicate clench. But leaving the gym isn’t as simple as getting up and going. There are proctors stationed at desks next to every exit, serving as bathroom escorts. As luck would have it, the nearest of them is a cute brunette he recognizes from the campus bar. She’s been reading a sci-fi novel. When she notices his approach, she closes the book and stands to open the door without expression.
Not a word passes between them as they walk to the bathroom. She moves more quickly than he does, and on several occasions has to stop and let him catch up. The first time he made this trip, she smiled and went about her job mechanically. When he came out for the third time, though, she stuck closer to him in the hallway. Now, she’s seen the ashy death in his face. All she offers is a pitying look when he re-emerges from the bathroom for the fifth time. He meets her with a brave, self-deprecating smile.
He manages to make it through the last half-hour of the exam with his ass in his chair. Running on empty, it seems.
Now he stands outside the O’Donnell residence building – a clinical brick fortress that he’s begrudgingly called home this past freshman year. Grey April has dampened the air and washed away most of the snow. A soft drizzle clings to his cheek. The smell of thawed horse manure wafts over campus from nearby farm country. He loses his balance for a moment, feeling nauseous with hunger and dehydration. A duffle bag stuffed with unfolded clothes lies on the concrete beside him.
A familiar grey car appears at the entrance of the O’Donnell parking lot. After a slight hesitation, it starts rolling toward him, settling at the curb. His father waves from the driver’s seat, throws the door open, and tries to get out before undoing his seatbelt.
“Hellooo Patrick!” he says. Despite his enthusiasm, the man’s unsure whether to hug or shake hands. Patrick gives no opening for either. His father goes to open the car’s trunk. Patrick tosses in his bag and climbs inside the car. Before he can settle into his seat, a sour stench punches him in the face.
“It stinks in here,” he says.
“Yup,” his dad answers. “I spilled some milk a few months back. What are the odds?”
“Did you wipe it up?”
The man lets out a little laugh. “It’s okay. I’ve gotten used to it.”
Patrick sighs and lets his head fall back. The Volvo’s headrest presses against the base of his skull. He doesn’t look back at O’Donnell Hall as they glide away from the curb.
His father lets loose a sneeze that threatens to blow out the car’s windows. Patrick winces at the sound. It carries the last traces of what the man used to sound like when he was really angry.
Two gas stations bookend the road ahead. They remind Patrick of the trips his family used to take when he was young. They’d travel across the bottom of New Brunswick and down into Northern Maine, back when the dollar exchange was juicy enough to lure Canadian shoppers southward. With those long rides came the inevitable tantrums he and his brothers would throw. He remembers having a fit in a Bangor gas station because his parents wouldn’t buy him a Milky Way. Falling to the dirty floor and spasming like the girl from The Exorcist. His mother just stood back and waited for him to exhaust himself like a little grease fire. At first, his father was willing to entertain the same approach. But as the minutes passed, he glanced at his wristwatch. A few minutes more and you could see his skin starting to burn.
“Patrick,” he finally snapped, “Get up from the floor right now and GET IN THE CAR.”
Patrick ignored him. The man grabbed him by his bicep and pinched as hard as he could. To anyone watching, he’d simply taken hold of his son’s arm. It was impossible to tell cries of pain from petulant whining as he dragged the boy outside.
“I love making this trip,” his father says from the driver’s seat. “It doesn’t seem that long at all – when you’re not tired.”
“When you’re not tired,” Patrick repeats. He drops his head against the passenger window and watches the onrushing shoulder of highway. He glances at the man whose happiness is unwavering now, the very essence of consistency—ever since his kids left for university.
“Patrick, I know you’re upset. But you’re just tired.”
That’s what his mother used to tell him whenever he got really agitated about something, especially his father. He hated how much it cheapened his emotions.
His headache is overwhelming. They’re approaching the exit to New Glasgow.
“Do you mind if we get off here, Dad? I need something to eat.”
“Aaaab-solutely,” his dad sings in reply. He doesn’t mention the sandwiches and bananas stashed in the back seat.
Patrick frowns at his father’s face in the rear-view mirror. He opens his mouth to speak, then doesn’t. Maybe he’s not so angry with the man. Maybe it’s just one of his bad moods. Maybe he should wait to see if he starts feeling better. He might break the old man’s heart if he says what’s really on his mind.
They settle into the parking lot of an A&W they’ve passed dozens if not hundreds of times. The two of them step into the wet April air. Patrick almost loses his balance.
“Go ahead and order whatever you like,” his father says as they enter the orange building. Patrick orders a Teen Burger with onion rings instead of fries, figuring there must be at least 1,400 calories in the meal. His dad orders nothing and follows him to a table in the farthest corner.
Once seated, Patrick raises an onion ring to his mouth, pausing over its heady aroma. He knows that if he takes this greasy drug, he won’t have the anger he needs to confront his father. He’ll never say how he truly feels, and his dad will just go on living in absent-minded euphoria. But what’s the point of it all, anyway? He sinks his teeth into the crispy ring. Within seconds, he feels the pressure inside his head dissipating. The will to say something is dissipating with it. Almost gone now.
The old man stares back at him with glittering eyes.
“You know… you could be a dick sometimes when I was a kid.”
His father looks around. No one’s paying any attention to them. His eyes fill with hot tears. “I know, Patrick. I’ve always regretted it, and I’ll regret it for the rest of my life.”
Patrick hesitates at how easily his father has conceded the point. The man’s crying takes him off guard, but not enough to stop him just yet. “Then why didn’t you ever bring it up?” he demands.
His father lowers his eyes. “I guess I just never worked myself up to it.”
Patrick wants to ask the old man if he ever would’ve brought it up on his own. But he already knows the answer. He still wants his father to do what’s right, even if it’s hard. Then he thinks about how easy it would’ve been to say nothing just now. If they hadn’t made this stop, hadn’t eaten this exact meal, hadn’t sat at this corner table—would he have said anything? If not today, would he ever have brought it up? He realizes he’s feeling something other than resentment now, something deeper. It’s fear—fear over how something so important could depend on such insignificant things.
“Are you sorry?” he asks.
His father lifts his glasses and dabs his eyes with a napkin so thin that light passes through it. “Yes, Patrick. I’m sorry. I’ve always been sorry and I’ll always be sorry.”
Patrick can’t help himself. He resents the old man’s blubbering. His father should be comforting him. It takes every ounce of strength to reach across the table and lay his hand over his father’s.
“We’ve talked about it now,” he says. “And you’ve said you’re sorry. That’s good.”
Fresh tears pour down his father’s cheeks. A little girl at the nearest table has noticed and is staring at him.
“C’mon Dad. Let’s go.”
They head back outside. His father pats his pockets for his keys.
“Are you alright to drive?” Patrick asks.
“Ugh.” His father palms his eyes. “I am. But thank you.”
They get inside the car. Patrick stares out the window at the restaurant, thinking of how many times he’s driven past this place and thought nothing of it.
“This place is important now,” he says aloud.
His father glances over at him, then out the passenger window. “You’re right,” he says. “Because you did a brave thing. I’m grateful.”
The word grateful causes something to unclench behind Patrick’s eyes. He can feel the softening spread down through his neck, shoulders, and chest. It could also be the calories from the meal kicking in, but he feels his energy returning as the car drifts back on to the highway. He glances over at his father, who’s blinking away the last bit of puffiness around his eyes.
“This is a nice stretch of road,” he says.
His father blinks and nods vigorously. “It really is, isn’t it?”
* * *
Philip Glennie was born in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada. He is the author of two novel and currently lives in London, Ontario.
Some of us met at orientation, but there wasn’t much of a bond. We just did what we were supposed to that night; listening to everyone ramble about high school, the music they liked, or how wasted they got after prom. We all had summer jobs, and friends going to better schools, only a few staying home to figure their lives out. Their futures were already apparent in the chiseled faces of our co-workers and distant cousins.
In the fall, there was more immediacy to everything; voices clashing across classrooms, but lacking authenticity. We rarely added to the noise, figuring it better to read the material on our own. A Saturday could then disintegrate in the dorms, marathoning 90’s sitcoms and caffeinated sugar.
Austin finally proposed the idea in October; all of us listening to his brief albeit uninformed description before googling it. Straight-edge didn’t necessarily mean “no fun” or a life full of limitations. It was at everyone’s discretion. We were a solid crew that clearly didn’t fit; not one joining a Greek organization or championing some political candidate. We weren’t necessarily believers in Jesus, but still respected him for setting out to change people’s minds. There wasn’t much desire to get wasted anyway, all of us above lowering ourselves for the sake of a crowd.
Weekends and nights then blended together; ideas exchanged with a somewhat disparaging eye cast at our contemporaries. They needed the unsatisfactory crawl of a hangover, the artificial comfort from a one-night stand. We had each other, and that meant so much more. When our parents called, we were honest; their subsequent reactions well worth the price of admission.
After Christmas break, Austin and Ruby went vegan, sharing videos in their spare time. Meals at the dining hall became few and far between, only certain parties regularly-available. The winter meant we could still hide, but most decided against trudging through the snow to watch bad horror movies like a sixth grade sleepover.
Jenn was the first to break, heading out into the night with her roommate and no expectations. She later told the story with such enthusiasm that all of us couldn’t help but wonder if we were doing the right thing. It was just a get-together off-campus with some like-minded individuals. Jenn spoke out, but also smoked grass to impress a boy. His name was Patrick, and soon we only saw them together, ranting about new-age concepts and The Grateful Dead. We humored them, but couldn’t help but talk about how different everything felt when they showed up all red-eyed.
Brad was next, trying to be secretive when all of us could smell the liquor on his lips. He said we should experience every dip in the road, coping by whatever means necessary. We weren’t surprised when he fell in with his crew; Brad always the loudest during competition-based activity. Some of us still said hello, but with finals vastly approaching, it felt like a waste of breath.
Ruby and Austin started having sex in the spring, but justified their actions as love. We stomached their PDA, but sensed something was off. They enjoyed flaunting their smiles in front of us; likely exploring any number of positions on the same mattress we once sat and played Nintendo. Henry started eating meat again after that, while summer hit all of us harder than expected. It wasn’t just separation, but rather the sting of old high school friends returning home with far better stories. Our shitty little towns full of rednecks were suddenly of no concern, even if we were stuck serving them until the closing bell.
By the next fall, the dream had all but ended despite a good month of rehashing familiar ground. Ruby ditched Austin and was often seen with Brad around campus, wearing their favorite jerseys on game day. This forced Austin and Henry into a stupor, the two soon experimenting with whatever they could get their hands on, including each other. Jenn attempted to reconnect if only to boast, suddenly the progressive math major with two gay friends.
The rest of us fell by the waste side, attempting to find our place in basement punk or the rambunctious spin of forced intellectualism. Our tolerances eventually rose and leveled off with the rest of our peers as sophomore and junior years dissolved into the ether. We discussed career paths with our advisors during regularly-scheduled office hours and settled for unflattering jobs in various cities and dead-ends if only to pay off our loans. Looking back, there would always be a fondness for that time when sobriety felt right, but even now, it’s still easier to suppress these unbalanced emotions with just the right amount of intoxicated indifference.
* * *
Christopher S. Bell is a writer and a musician. His fiction has recently appeared in Spillwords, Midway Journal, The Fiction Pool and Nymphs, among others.
The stuffed fox, once so fluffy and soft, sprawls flat and matted on the floor by the couch. One eye replaced with a blue button years ago sticks out from the reddish orange fur contrasted by the yellowing tail tip and chest. The boy who loved him for ten years sleeps soundly upstairs.
It’s not worth waking him, I tell myself, to give him the fox. Instead, I pick up the fox to place him on the couch. Two steps later and I’m rubbing the scruffy fur between my fingers. The tip of my pinky digs into a seam I sewed years ago when he nearly lost a leg and most of his stuffing. I pricked my finger three times trying to save this toy instead of buying a new one. But the toothless smile and giggle was a worthy payment.
“Ready to start the movie?” my husband asks.
“Sure.” I duck my head to hide my damp eyes. “Pull it up. I’ll be right back.”
I carefully creep up the stairs and creak open the door. Sprawled on his stomach, my boy sleeps soundly with his hair standing in odd angles. I hesitate before setting the fox on his headboard between the baseball glove and football.
It could be time to find a place on the top shelf for the fox with the rest of what my husband calls “dust collectors.” But somehow the fox made his way to the couch this morning and maybe, just maybe, he’ll be back downstairs with my boy again tomorrow.
* * *
Coley, coffee-enthusiast and aspiring author, has a bachelor’s degree in communication from Columbia College and completed graduate studies in multicultural and transnational literatures at East Carolina University where she became a published scholar. She lives in the southeastern part of the states with her husband and four children.
When I took my fifteen-year-old son to get his learner’s permit, I had to provide his birth certificate, his social security card, my driver’s license, a utility bill, my mortgage statement, and my vehicle registration (this had to be “real” and not printed from the web or email even though all of these bills are paid via the web). It seemed a bit much to require for a learner’s license, particularly since others didn’t seem to have as much material, but in their defense, they weren’t getting a learner’s permit either. They were there for a renewal after expiration, a replacement for a license lost, or issuance of a different type of license because of driving under the influence of alcohol or drug charges.
One fellow in stained shorts, a raggedy t-shirt, discolored tennis shoes with an unknown brand emblem, and bed head worse than my teenager’s hair in the morning came to the counter, and I figured the clerk was in for an experience. I pretended to read and listened to him tell her he’d moved South from Arizona and lost his license in the move. I wondered how one might lose a license in a move if it was in the wallet, and the wallet was always on him. He hadn’t mentioned losing his wallet or anything else, so it seemed suspicious to me. The young lady typed his information into her computer, and she shared he had an outstanding ticket for driving without his license and for driving with broken taillights. He then shared that he’d explained to the officer that he’d lost the license but technically he had one and shouldn’t be ticketed. Plus, he had pleaded that the tape holding shards of red plastic over the small light bulbs were crooked but not totally busted and functioned.
The driver’s license lady said, “That was your first mistake. When you lost it, you should’ve come on in and got a replacement. That was a year ago. Where you been?”
“I know,” he pleaded. “I just didn’t have any money.”
She nodded. “It only cost ten dollars for a replacement, but now you got to go to court, pay the ticket, and bring proof back from the judge before we can get you a new one.”
“I tried to go to court, but the doors were locked. It’s hard to get rides.”
“I understand and wish I could do more.”
I kept my nose in the book and was thankful I didn’t have a job where I had to listen to people whine day in and day out. I hoped he didn’t notice me in the chair behind him, hoped he didn’t go postal (though I didn’t think he could have hidden a gun without it being seen in his outfit), hoped he didn’t ask me for a ride or for money, and hoped my son didn’t come out until after the guy left.
When he left, a young girl with blue hair got her license renewed, and mother tattooed with what I thought were ancient symbols, paid for her son’s new license after his DUI. I imagined she didn’t know the symbol on her leg was a triple spiral triskelion that predated Celtic culture but simply liked the tattoo one night after too much hard liquor. If I had a tattoo, I might have selected this one, too, but the likelihood of me getting a tattoo had always been low because of the pain.
My son barely passed his test and wanted to drive home, but we had to take the interstate and it was rush hour. I told him we’d try that later.
* * *
Niles Reddick is author of the novel Drifting too far from the Shore, two collections Reading the Coffee Grounds and Road Kill Art and Other Oddities, and a novella Lead Me Home. His work has been featured in thirteen anthologies, twenty-one countries, and in more than three hundred publications, including The Saturday Evening Post, PIF, New Reader Magazine, Forth Magazine, The Boston Literary Magazine, Cheap Pop, Flash Fiction Magazine, With Painted Words, among many others.