Your watch says half past ten as you look out to the Arabian Sea thinking of a different sunny seashore on the other side of the world, nursing your second gin and tonic at this Mumbai dive bar you overheard a tour guide suggest because it was famous for kebabs, spotting Bollywood stars score cocaine, and meeting one-night stands, when you realize yours is a no-show and you stand to leave but the music starts up and Rihanna swears she found love in a hopeless place and you smile as you light a cigarette because you know the DJ who’s been eyeing you all night played the song just for you, then he makes his way over to your table and you smile at him as he grabs your waist and the two of you dance all hot, sweaty, delicious and you just want more, more dancing, more drinks, and later as you lie in the hotel room, DJ tells you he has never left this city, that his whole life is encompassed within one neighborhood, that his biggest fear is to die here without seeing the world, which is probably why he likes to fuck tourists, you realize, then he tells you he comes from a family of god makers, people who make tiny fat Ganesh figures that you’ve seen hawked on city streets and at crowded intersections all over town, give me your address and I’ll mail you one, he says, but all you want to do is tell him you don’t have a permanent address, that you have to leave before morning because here the sunrise has a way of emptying everything inside of you.
* * *
Author of Out of the Blue, (Big Table Publishing, 2017) and The Face I Desire (Nixes Mate, 2019), Renuka Raghavan writes short-form prose and poetry. She serves as the fiction book reviewer at Červená Barva Press and is a co-founder of the Poetry Sisters Collective. For a complete list of her previous publications, visit her at www(dot)renukaraghavan(dot)com.
My body casts absurd shadows on my bedroom walls as I stretch, squat, reach, lunge and roll. It hurts. I’m told it’s supposed to. If it’s not hurting, it’s not working, and if it doesn’t work, I’ll hurt more. So I make it hurt. I push the pain from bone to bone, muscle to muscle, my body resisting, draining me. I do the exercises again at lunchtime and after dinner, in the same order, for the same amount of time, and I go to bed with a glass of water and a pill and pray that I’ll wake up tomorrow and the pain will be gone.
I didn’t do them before. Youthful stupidity, I guess. Doctors, physios, podiatrists—I’d seen them all by the time I was fifteen. They had different ideas about what the problem really was or how bad it could get, but they agreed on one thing. My body would get worse, unless I fought it. Unless I did the exercises.
But I didn’t. I didn’t think about them at all. I didn’t think about pain.
Then there was a party. Years ago now. For a while I ate and I drank and I was one of them, the same, part of something else, and I didn’t give it a thought. Then the sun went down and my friends became shapes on the dance floor, twisting and writhing around each other, against each other, holding each other, and without notice the long-promised pain was there. It had been lingering, biding its time. It grew as I watched them, and I sat alone with it in the dark.
It matured after that night, it swelled, came of age. Now it’s inside me, in my bones, and it wants every part of me. It takes its place with me on the sofa, walks to the corner shop and calls with my mother. It demands pills or ice or pinches or twists. There are moments, blissful moments, when I feel nothing. Some days when I wake up the sun streams between the shutters and the radio comes on. I look down at my body, stripes of shadow and bright light cast across it. Perhaps it’s gone, I think.
Perhaps the exercises are working. I feel light, nostalgic, and I don’t dare move. But then it starts, somewhere, perhaps in a knee or hamstring. It’s small and delicate at first but seeps outwards like ink on blotting paper, and it’s all I can think of.
No, it’s not gone. It’s just playing with me, taunting me; hiding before its day really begins. So I get up in the morning, have a glass of water and a pill, and try to fight it, I do my exercises. I do them again and again.
I’ve found something, I think. I’m getting stronger now. The work, the months and years of pitting pain against pain, of solitude, it could be coming to something. I’ve stood up to it. It’s still there, but I’m thinking more about what it would be like if I could contain it, if I could take something back, if I could win.
Today, I’m meeting a doctor to see how far I’ve come. I’ve had some x-rays and I’m in his surgery. He has pinned the series of strange, black sheets to a wall of light. I see the pale shapes; their curves, translucency and blurred edges, and feel like I’m peering inside myself. His fingers dance gracefully and deliberately up there. They show me my fibula and tibia, the bones that roll inwards and the bones that roll outwards, the pinched nerves and the stretched ligaments, and where my withered Achilles starts and where it ends.
“When did you break your metatarsal?” he says. “Metatarsal?” I say. I’ve heard of them. He raps a stick on a trace of black. “Yes. Two of them actually, and a while ago. Here and here.”
On the black sheets I see a version of myself I’ve never seen before. It’s luminous but somehow deeper, higher resolution, more vivid. I see it has been hiding something from me. There’s something else, the doctor says. He tells me the bones in my feet are not bones. They’re one bone, one mess of white fused together. He couldn’t be sure, he says, but he’d bet they always had been. And with them like that, I’d had no chance. I could do the exercises, and they might help, but my legs would always rock and roll and get worse and I’d always have to deal with pain. He tells me to take another type of pill, and to take them morning and evening with a glass of water.
My legs walk me out of the surgery, over the grass and onto the street, past the pharmacy and across the road. They take me through the park, past a woman walking a dog and a man pushing his son in a pram. I watch them and wonder who they are, what they want and where they’re going, but they disappear as I’m led onto a bridge, over the railway and down by the canal. As we go I can see my bones, pale against the darkness, and I can feel every flex and contraction of muscle and sinew around them. My bones are in charge, my body is in charge. It takes me where it wants to go, it makes me feel what it wants me to feel. I now know it has its own plan. I want things, it wants things, and what’s the difference. I do as it does. I’m its servant, and it takes me home.
* * *
Russell Saunders is a writer camped out in the wilds of south London. He left the world of marketing and a 15 year career behind to pursue the dream of writing words for people other than clients, bosses and other assorted middlemen – that and take a Grand Tour around Italy, build a patio and look after his son. He’s currently writing a collection of short fiction and a novella.
Einar dreamt of snow sifting like flour through his evergreens—until a pounding at his door jolted him awake. His old joints objecting, he groped his nightstand for glasses and a flashlight and padded barefoot across his cold cabin floor.
He let in a young woman, breathless and shivering from the falling snow.
“Call the police! Hurry! I need help!”
“Here now,” he said, flicking on a light switch. Late teens. Hair and shoulders covered with snow. No coat—
“No! Shut it off! Your yard light, too, or he’ll guess I’m here!”
Switching off the lights, Einar guided her to the sofa with his flashlight and wrapped her in his old throw blanket. “Who will? What’s happened?”
“This guy—Cameron. He locked me in his basement and I couldn’t leave. You have to call the police!”
“I’m afraid there’s no phone service back here in the woods.”
“We need to get help!” She choked on her words. “He hurts me.”
Her distress left him no doubts. “My pickup is in the quonset. I’ll warm it up and drive you into town.”
She clutched his arm. “He’ll figure it out! He went somewhere, but he’s never gone long. Your yard light showed through the woods—”
Einar drew the blanket around her knees. “Don’t worry. I’ll be right back.”
He pulled on a parka over his pajamas, slipped into some boots, then took his keys from a hook and opened the cabin door.
Headlights veering into his driveway turned Einar around. He shut the door and flipped the lock. “What does he drive?”
“A pickup. Black.”
Peering past the curtain of his living room window, Einar watched a pickup draw near the cabin, then stop. Its driver remained in the vehicle and left the lights on.
“We’ll move to the bedroom. If that’s him, maybe he’ll just go away.”
Her breathing grew ragged. “He won’t. He’s got guns.”
Einar helped her to a seat on his bed, then crossed to his closet where he withdrew an old, double-barrel shotgun and a couple rounds of birdshot. “Just in case,” he said, dropping heavily beside her.
“Let’s wait and see.”
The pickup’s headlights illuminated the cabin’s front. Einar listened closely for any sounds. The pickup door slammed. Steps crossed the wooden porch.
Einar rose stiffly from the bed and took a position just inside the bedroom door.
Brusque knocking followed, then a harsh voice: “Hello? Anyone there?”
Einar glanced toward the bed. She was no longer on it. He searched the shadowy room until he spotted her, curled in a corner on the floor.
The front doorknob rattled. “I’m a police officer. Open the door.”
“Don’t! That’s him!” she whispered loudly. “He’ll kill us!”
A heavy weight struck the front door—a foot? And again.
Einar could stay quiet no longer. “Go away! Please! I’ve got a gun.”
The man didn’t respond, but kicked once more at the door.
Einar drew a deep breath, cocked his shotgun and leveled it at the living room window. Its blast reverberated through the cabin, and the battering at the door ceased.
The bedroom’s one window could be a vulnerability, Einar realized, so he gathered the young woman from the corner and led her to his closet. “You’ll be safer in here.”
From the closet Einar pocketed more shotgun shells, then returned to the bedroom doorway, which commanded views of the bedroom window as well as those in the cabin’s main room.
A clanking arose from the pickup, then footsteps upon the front porch. Moments later, gasoline fumes wafted through the shot-out window. Einar’s heart pounded, realizing the fellow’s intentions.
Just beyond the front door, their assailant shouted, “I know you’re in there. Burn in hell!”
Einar felt they had nothing to loose. He pointed the shotgun at the front door, drew a full breath—and fired. Following the gun’s discharge, the headlights from the man’s pickup filtered through the shattered door. Shortly after, the flicker of flames sprang up across the porch.
Einar rushed back to the closet. “We’ve got to get outside.”
They moved together through the dark to the bedroom window. Einar opened it and pushed out the screen.
“I’ll go first, then help you out,” Einar said, having her stand ready with his shotgun. His arthritic hips prevented him from hoisting a leg over the windowsill, however, so he fetched a footstool from the closet. Using that, he managed to slide a leg outside, but the rest of his body tumbled along after it. He fell in a heap onto the snow.
She reached down toward him. “Are you OK?”
Einar wasn’t sure. The leg and hip he’d fallen on ached, also his shoulder, but feeling no great increase of pain, he slowly dragged himself to his feet.
The young woman handed Einar the shotgun and climbed out the window on her own, clutching the blanket. Einar ushered her through drifted snow to a dilapidated tool shed, tugged open the door, and eased the young woman inside. He remained outside, standing watch in the snow as flames infiltrated his cabin.
The sky about them began to glow in reds and yellows, the falling snow disappearing as it descended toward the fire. Feeling almost sick to his stomach, Einar grieved at the sight, less for the cabin and his possessions but more for the labor of years the fire so easily erased.
The heat intensified, causing Einar to back away against the shed. The cabin roof sagged, and the walls began to lean inward. Slowly, sections of the roof gave way, sending sparks in all directions.
Eerie creaks and hisses accompanied the crackle of flames, punctuated by a series of loud pops—the remaining shotgun shells in his closet. When he could stand to watch no longer, he squeezed inside the shed as well.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, lightly touching his shoulder.
Once the roof fully collapsed and the walls fell inward, the flames quickly reduced the remaining structure. Einar lost track of time as his mind wandered through a forest of memories associated with his corner of the woods.
He dared not linger too long with his memories, however. He gazed across the burning mass of wood, trying to spot the man’s pickup. Stiff from the confined space, Einar hefted his shotgun and emerged to the snow. Cautiously circling the glowing rubble of his house, he saw the man’s pickup had gone.
Feeling too weary to traipse back to the shed, Einar called, “All clear. Let’s get my pickup.”
She hurried to his side, pausing with Einar over some drops of blood nearly obscured by snow. “He must have caught some of my birdshot!”
He slid open the quonset door, helped the young woman into his pickup, then crawled behind the wheel, keeping the shotgun beside him.
His old pickup sputtered, then roared to life. Slowly Einar drove into the snowy night, following the other pickup’s tracks along the wooded drive. As they reached the county road, Einar saw red taillights jutting from the opposite road ditch.
She tensed. “It’s his.”
The pickup’s motor was still running, steam pluming from its tailpipe, but its cab was almost on its nose in the ditch. Einar pulled onto the county road, pausing for a glance at the wrecked vehicle. The driver-side door hung open. The man lay face up in the snowy ditch. He wasn’t moving. His shirt was bloodied.
Conflicting emotions swept over Einar. That his shotgun must have led to the man’s apparent demise bothered him less than the knowledge that such evil had taken place so close to Einar—without his even knowing. Einar’s aged body ached, and he had suffered a great loss, yet seated beside this young woman, he felt curiously excited, as if events had given him an opportunity to rethink his life going forward.
As he drove, she turned to him and touched his shoulder again. “Thank you…I don’t even know your name!”
“It’s Einar. Norwegian.” He smiled a little.
“I’m Layni—Laynis, actually. I’m so sorry about your house.”
He took awhile to answer, imagining what she must have endured.
“We’ll get through this. Right?”
Still wrapped in his old blanket even though the pickup’s heater was on high, she turned to him again.
“What will you do now?”
“After the police are finished with us? I’ll get a motel room and sleep.”
“And then…I’ll want to know that you’re OK.”
She began to say something, but stopped, instead leaning her head lightly against his shoulder.
Einar drove slowly, carefully, down the snow-covered road.
“Once tonight is over,” he said to console her, “things are bound to brighten up. It can’t snow forever.”
She breathed quietly, evenly. She had fallen asleep.
* * *
Darrell Petska‘s fiction has appeared in Flash Fiction Magazine, Loch Raven Review, Right Hand Pointing, Potato Soup Journal, Boston Literary Magazine, Nixes Mate and elsewhere (see conservancies.wordpress.com). With 30 years on the academic staff, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 40 years as a father (eight years a grandfather), and longer as a husband, Darrell lives outside Madison, Wisconsin.
The girl looks down from him to the numbers straight in front of her eyes, “Yes sir!”
Her tiny left hand presses four, lighting it up.
Her right hand holds a clear plastic bag full of yellow liquid next to her right leg;
Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Down the snake-like tube, surgically inserted into her bladder a few days before.
The elevator starts to rise.
“So,” says the man, “What are you….here for?”
Her left hand quickly reaches behind her to the open hospital gown, her fingers clasping it closed.
“Well, I have a kidney infection, so I have to wear this bag.”
The rising elevator tickles her stomach. She giggles.
“A kidney infection? he asks. “That’s pretty serious. Shouldn’t you be in your room?”
“Well, I decided I would be the elevator girl for a while; You know, like in the movies.”
“How old are you?”
“I’m eight, but I’m very mature for my age. That’s what all my teachers say.”
Ding! The doors slide open.
A young woman with red and white striped scrubs is standing outside the elevator with a rolling cart of half-eaten meals.
Briefcase man explains, as he holds the doors open, “This little girl says she’s here for a kidney infection, and has decided she wants to be the elevator girl.”
“What?!” the volunteer gasps, her hand jumping to her mouth.
After collecting herself, her hands now rubbing her candy cane pants, she says. “Ok, come with me.Tell me your name and let’s……”
“But I want to be the elevator girl like in the movies! I’m really good at it. And I feel fine.”
“Goodbye,” the briefcase man says, nodding his head at candy cane lady. “And thank you,” he says to elevator girl as he exits the elevator and heads down the long endless hall.
“Besides,” elevator girl continues, “my dad is taking a nap in my room and I don’t want to
wake him up. Please?”
Candy cane woman catches the elevator door before it closes, and places her hand behind the little girl’s back. Elevator girl feels her cold hands through the opening of the gown.
“Come on. Let’s go,” says candy cane woman.
They step out of the elevator.
Still holding the sunshine yellow bag in her right hand, the child grabs the handle on the cart with her pale left fingers. “Here. I’ll help you with the cart.”
And the petite patient pushes forward, her backside bare and cold, peeking through the back of tbeb open hospital gown.
And that was the end of my career as the Elevator Girl.
* * *
While not bingeing on her new favorite writer’s works, Lisa Molina can be found writing, workimg with students with special needs, singing, playing the piano, or marveling at nature with her family. She lives in Austin, TX, since earning her BFA at the University of Texas. Her works have been featured in Trouvaille Review, Beyond Words magazine, Indolent Books — Poems in the Afterglow, and the Ekphrastic Review, with poems soon to be featured in Silver Birch Press, Amethyst Review, and Peeking Cat.
Maya caught the briefest glimpse of the creature—gray and ragged in the sideways glance of her headlights—before she felt the sickening bump under her left-side tires. First the front, then the back. “Oh,” she said. “Oh, god.”
Her foot went from gas to brake and back again, wavering with uncertainty. She had hit something. A raccoon, maybe. Or possum. Matted fur. Pointed snout.
There was nowhere to pull over, just thick woods on either side, the trees silent and judgmental, the road before her bleeding into blackness. It was so dark. Why did he have to live where it was so dark?
Her car hurtled forward without instruction. Around a bend and away.
She replayed the flash of snout. The unforgiving weight of the car.
It wasn’t a dog, was it? She imagined someone’s pet lying helpless in the road, and her shock splintered into panic. “Oh, god,” she repeated, her breath quickening.
Stop, she told herself. Back up. But even as the idea wormed its way into her head, she pressed forward, automatically taking the turn onto Zach’s street. Lights appeared, then houses with wide lawns, and it was like tumbling out of the woods, lost and disoriented, leaving someone behind. A keening sound filled the car, and for a moment, she thought that whatever she had hit was being dragged beneath the undercarriage. But it was her, she realized. Her voice, her cry. She pulled into Zach’s black-ribbon driveway, relief coming like a breath. He would know what to do. He always knew what to do.
She turned the car off. Sat in the silence. Forced herself out on shaky legs, terrified she’d find blood and guts splattered across the fender. Something stuck in the wheel bed. A shock of fur.
There was nothing.
She peered down the road, half-expecting to see yellow eyes in the far-off dark.
She had felt it, she thought, clutching her stomach.
Zach was watching TV when she came in, the hockey game on low. He stood as soon as he saw her face.
She told him quickly, stumbling over grief and guilt.
“Hey,” he said, rubbing her arms as if to warm her, “look at me. It was an accident, yeah?”
But all she could say was, “What have I done?” over and over. A snowball of emotion picking up speed.
Zach studied her face. Took the keys from her clenched fist, gently, like she was holding a gun.
“We’ll go look,” he said. “How’s that?”
“It’s too late,” she insisted, but the idea calmed her. She let him usher her back outside.
He helped her into the passenger seat as if she were ill. “Things like this happen,” he murmured.
“It’s not your fault.”
Whose fault is it? she wanted to ask, but the question got stuck in her head. Ricocheted.
They coasted slowly down the street. Took the wide arc onto High Rock, the cones of their headlights briefly illuminating the deep pine on either side. Already the creature was transforming itself in her memory. Turning malicious and feral. With sharp, pointy teeth and black, curling claws. The dark night pushed against the road.
“There,” she said, pointing.
Zach came to a stop, but the road was empty. No tufts of fur. No streaks of blood.
Maya looked around, searched her memory. Nodded.
“Maybe it crawled off,” he said. He threw the car into park, got out. Left it running in the middle of the road, door open. Walked to the edge of the woods and looked around.
A fresh set of fears bombarded her—cars racing around the bend, creatures bursting from the trees—but Zach stood calmly in the glow of the headlights, hands on his hips. The longer he stood there, the more alone she felt. It was simple for him, she realized. Being told a thing had occurred wasn’t enough. He needed to feel it, hear it, see it, or it hadn’t happened. The serrated songs of crickets pulsed through the open door, and Maya’s heart matched their pitch.
Zach got back in the car, bringing the scent of night with him. “Nothing there,” he shrugged. They drove up and down a few more times to make sure. “We good?”
The horrible bump, bump replayed itself in her mind. “I felt it,” she said, shaking her head.
Zach looked out at the empty road, the clean, black pavement. “Well, whatever it was, it’s gone now.”
Maya turned away and stared into the darkness. For a moment, she thought she glimpsed a shock of gray among the trees, but it was only her reflection. Her earlier panic had lodged beneath her ribs like a dull knife. She held still to avoid its jab.
“Hey,” he said carefully. “Maybe you should—”
“I killed it,” she insisted quietly, watching him. Even in the dim light of the dashboard, she saw his eyes drop to her belly then skitter away.
He didn’t answer at first. Didn’t breathe. She watched him grapple with how to respond. “Look,” he finally said. “Things like this …”
He reached for her hand, but she balled her fingers into fists.
“Okay,” he said quietly, putting his own hands back on the steering wheel as if she had spoken.
“Okay.” He took his foot off the brake, inching them forward. “It’s done, that’s all I’m saying.”
It doesn’t feel done, Maya thought. It feels the opposite of done.
She wondered what he had been about to say. Things like this … what? Follow? Linger? Bleed into your darkest moments?
She stared into the blackness. Imagined flash of fur. Wild eye.
“You’ll be okay,” he said, and Maya was sure he believed it.
She could have told him, though.
How it was still out there.
Lurking in the shadows. Gnashing its teeth.
Waiting to jump in the road, again and again.
* * *
Kathleen Latham’s work has appeared in Boston Literary Magazine, Fictive Dream, Crack the Spine Literary Magazine, and Flash Fiction Magazine, among others. She lives outside of Boston, MA with her husband and an ornery cat and can be found online at KathleenLatham.com or on social media as @lathamwithapen.
Maddy left her sex drive somewhere—in a shoe box at the back of the giant closet, in a five-star hotel room in Atlanta, in her neighbor’s heart-shaped swimming pool.
It was like this lately with everything. She left glasses on the oval coffee table, then forgot where she set them. After dropping a romance book on the couch, she had no recollection of where it had gone.
But the sex drive was by far the worst missing thing. In bed at night, Maddy wondered how her once familiar body had suddenly become such a passive stranger.
* * *
Maureen Sherbondy’s most recent collection is Dancing with Dali. Her work has appeared in Wigleaf, Prelude, The Oakland Review, and other journals. She lives in Durham, NC. Website: http://www.maureensherbondy.com
On Monday afternoon, Henry braked hard. Ordinarily, there was no traffic on the remote road, far from Santa Rosa where he worked. He rolled down the window, smelling smoke from distant wildfires and exhaust from a long line of cars. Clumps of trash hung like old fruit from willow trees beside the road, evidence of the height of last winter’s flood, which was hard to imagine now, everything so dry and dusty, midsummer.
His cell phone vibrated. He figured Reba was calling, wondering when he’d arrive home. Instead, he retrieved a message from his secretary, Gabrielle: Thanks for lunch, she wrote, followed by a red-heart emoji.
Henry’s chest fluttered. Have a great weekend.
At lunch, they’d touched thighs, sitting in a booth, facing salads and jars of iced tea. He usually skipped lunch—a dromedary, Reba always said. Never ate, except on special occasions.
Gabrielle messaged a purple she-devil.
There was a stiffening between Henry’s legs and his mouth caked up as he inched forward.
Entering an intersection, he spied the source of the traffic—a cluster of chrome birthday balloons, hovering just beyond arm’s reach, over the road. Drivers were taking pictures, honking horns.
Henry put the car in park and sprang out. One foot on the front bumper, the other on the hood, he leapt and snagged the tail of ribbons. A slew of honks and cheers ensued. Henry, who usually shirked the limelight, retreated to his car.
He shoved the balloons in the hatchback. He’d tell their story at work, tomorrow. Maybe Gabrielle would have a story of her own, her sources predicting that he’d soon be Director of Quality Improvement—a promotion. Gabrielle had said, “No one’s more deserving.”
Henry drove off. The balloons appeared flabby.
When he arrived home, Reba’s car was missing. A last-minute errand, Henry thought. He left the balloons behind.
Inside, he switched on the TV. The news was all about a windstorm with planned power outages. At higher elevations, utility poles could topple, sparking additional wildfires. “No mandatory evacuation yet,” said the county sheriff, “but if you’re in a high-risk zone, best make plans.” They lived in the rugged hills above Santa Rosa.
The front door opened. Reba entered, carrying groceries. She’d been stocking up on candles, drinking water, canned food. “Heard the news?”
“We should find a hotel.” said Henry. “We’re not firefighters.”
“Don’t underestimate yourself.”
Together, they cleared the table, unloaded groceries. “You got marshmallows?” Henry asked.
“Thought we could toast them with candle flame, like on a camping trip.”
Henry raised an eyebrow.
They cooked dinner. Soon after sitting down, the power cut off. Outside, the wind rose, roaring like an engine. They lit candles.
“We might have to evacuate,” Henry said.
“Or, we might not.”
They’d purchased the home five years ago. The rural location with deer, hawks, foxes, and apple trees was Reba’s dream come true. She grew up in a public housing project.
Following the meal, they took a walk to scope out the fire risk. Neighboring houses were quiet, no visible lights from candles or lanterns. Cars were gone. There was an orange glow on a ridgetop some ten miles away.
“We’re the only ones who haven’t evacuated,” Henry said.
“If it makes you feel better, we could pack.”
“Deal,” said Henry.
They returned home and packed. Placing the luggage in his car, Henry discovered the balloons were now deflated. He crumpled up the plastic, shoving the compact ball in a pocket.
That night, Henry hardly slept, alert for any evacuation siren.
“Reba, you awake?” he asked at three a.m.
“We’ll be safe?”
The wind raged. Leaves and branches fell. But there were no sirens.
Henry fell into fitful sleep. By morning, the air had calmed. White ash dusted the ground, and the sky was orange from high-altitude smoke, but the wind had abated. He pulled on yesterday’s pants and went outside, checking the news on his cell phone. Santa Rosa still had electricity. Presumably, so did the office.
Reba was already on the front porch, making coffee on a camping stove. “Take the week off,” she said. “Who knows when the power’s returning. You don’t want to work all grimy, unless you plan on a cold shower.”
Henry pondered deadlines, projects, audits. He pictured another lunch with Gabrielle. The announcement about his promotion was imminent.
“Think how nice it could be. Nature hikes by day. Toasted marshmallows by night. I always wanted to go to summer camp.” She pressed close to Henry, nibbling his ear.
“And if the power returns?” Henry asked.
“Then we take nice, long, hot showers—together.”
“Last night, I thought we’d lose the place.”
She sipped her coffee.
Henry remembered the joy on her face when they first toured the property with a realtor. She’d filled a satchel of apples from old trees out back. “Our first house together,” she’d said as they mulled over a thirty-year mortgage.
They now held hands, sitting quietly by the camp stove. “Maybe I could take off the week,” Henry said. The office was a distant siren, work demands were receding. “Sorry I was late coming home. Work’s been,” he paused, “stressful.”
“I thought things were going well.”
“Not so sure now,” he said.
“And the promotion?”
Henry looked into the hazy sky. “Who wants to be everyone’s hero?”
She poured him a cup of coffee.
He reached into his pocket for his phone, brushing against the ball of crumpled balloons. “Give me a moment,” he said, walking away. He texted Gabrielle that he planned to take the week off—maybe longer. He returned and hugged Reba. “It’s done.”
“What’s that bulge in your pocket?” she asked.
He pulled out the ball of shiny plastic. “Trash. Balloons fell from the sky. Imagine that.” He had no interest recounting his exploits on the road home from work. He held her tighter, ignoring the vibration on his phone.
They kissed and then, together, they took flight.
* * *
Michael Kozart hails from Northern California where he works in a non-profit community health center. His short stories can be found in Flash Fiction Magazine, Into the Void, Every Day Fiction, MoonPark Review, and Brilliant Flash Fiction (forthcoming).
You find it strange how she opens the door to greet you. She smiles eagerly and touches your shoulder as you exchange inorganic pleasantries. Delicate fingertips, left shoulder. Smiles, added value. She holds your hand as she guides you to sit down on the couch. Slight tugging, right hand. She says, “Give me a couple of minutes, and I’ll be ready.” You nod. She takes the white envelope from you to count its contents in the back.
Her living space is warm, like a soft candle flame. The tungsten light bouncing off the wood gives everything a warm, brownish hue. White couch, now beige. “You can turn on the TV!” You do. Beige couch, now prismatic. The news is on. At least she is current. The ticker casually moves by, your eyes lock on it. Moving the same pace as the ticker moves, parallel vertigo. Click. Click. Click. Sounds of her heels reverberate off of the wooden floor, bouncing off of the tinderbox walls. Her white smile guides her way down the corridor to the living room.
“Okay. I’m ready.” You turn off the television and she grabs for your hand. Prismatic couch returns to beige. She turns off the lights as you both leave her place. Beige couch, now black.
You do the gentlemanly things for her: open the car door for her. A nice thud as you shut it, always a good sign of a great car. You cross over to your side, the amber streetlights ricochet off the dark hood, dotting the widower black matte. As your door thuds shut the new car smell hits. Fills the nostrils, the head, volatile organic compounds. The drive is smooth, streetlights: back, middle, foreground, back, middle, foreground. She places her hand on your right thigh as you drive. Tender.
Nothing is said, silence cuts the new car smell. Ding ‘The restaurant is ahead on the right.’
You do the gentlemanly things for her: open her car door, open the door to the restaurant, pull out her seat for her. You remember how much you loved the other woman on your first date. You are an extremely nice person. The woman at the table notices, her teeth begin to show when she smiles; just like the other woman. The conversation is light and amiable:
“Where are you from?” “What do you do for a living?” “What kind of music do you listen to?” “What books have you read recently?”
After the first dish arrives, and the conversation starts to calm, you notice how strikingly beautiful this woman is. Her black hair tied in to a side braid sweeps across the left temple. Chiseled cheeks, high cheekbones. Her lips, plump and pink. Her teeth, cocaine white, peek out from behind those pink lips every time you make a bad joke. Her skin, taut and radiant. Youthful. Full of collagen.
Not how you remember hers; caked with cheap makeup. Applied sloppily. The other woman laid in a box. Made respectable for everyone to see. You think about how sad it is that everyone will remember her in that box. Your dead wife wrapped in silk, pine, dirt.
This woman smiles again, picking up that you are drifting out of the room. “This food is delicious.” You nod.
By the time the third dish has arrived, you are feeling full, full of everything. Your mind slips and stumbles through sentences as you try to gather yourself. You don’t drink, you aren’t drunk. You are lost in thought. Thinking about her, how she is not like the woman across the table from you. How she is gone, but still makes you remember her in miscellaneous things.
The woman sees you slipping even deeper and clears her throat. “Hmph.” You snap back. You notice that dessert is on the table. Tiramisu and midnight colored espresso. Conversation stalls to an impasse.
Nothing is said. Glances exchange. Her cornflower blue eyes meet yours, sending signals of life. You smile, feeling the warmth of her intent. Your eyes lock as you reach for your espresso, the porcelain warm on your lips. The coffee, hot on your palate. A smile emerges from the burn. She smiles in return, her teeth casting a shadow over your wife’s memory.
The check finds its way upon the table and you reach for it. You do the gentlemanly things for her. You glance at the amount and move your leg as you reach for your wallet. Left leg, back pocket. Eighty-seven dollars. You put down one hundred, throw in fifty for her ride home. Three-fifty including the white envelope. You smile at her and hand her the server book. You get up and head for the door.
“Thank you for tonight. I left some money in there for you to get back to your house.” “Are you sure? You don’t want to come back?” You nod.
* * *
Christopher Homer is a writer with a degree in Creative Writing from Florida State University. His work has previously in the Kudzu Review. His photography and creative work can be found on his website, thechomer.com
My given name is not Malcolm Stone but my agent said it would be good for my career. So far, on the whole, she’s been right.
I decide to drive all the way down Sunset to Laurel Canyon even though it would be faster to just hop on the 101. I do this because Billie (Billie’s assistant, actually) gave me a tip that Sony had bought a billboard for my new film near Sunset and Fairfax. I drive past the billboard for Guns Drawn, the second-rate action flick I took to help fend off the blow – financially, at least – of the divorce. I can’t help but stare at my unnaturally smooth skin and my enhanced jawline. I avoid looking in the rearview so as not to invite the direct comparison, but my mind’s eye can’t help but imagine the pockmarks on my face and the graying stubble that comes in little patches.
I whip through the canyon at a good clip, familiar to its sharp turns and sudden bumps. Though it’s only late afternoon, the sun is already behind the mountains, casting an orange glow and deep shadows.
I used to be embarrassed about living in Valley Village, feeling my cheeks flush a bit red when I mumbled something about it being a good investment to a costar. It was Lori’s idea and, like many of Lori’s ideas, it’s proved to be a good and sensible choice. In all likelihood, I’ll be selling the house in the next few months and splitting the money with her and the kids.
I hit the button to open the gate to our mini-mansion and I get a rare pang of nostalgia as I pull into the driveway. I open the door and my footsteps echo as I walk through the Spanish-style entryway to grab an ice cold beer. I open it and sink into a kitchen chair, emitting an involuntary satisfied grunt.
“Don’t freak out,” a voice echoes from the living room. I don’t freak out, as instructed, because enough people have a key to the place that it’s likely some innocent explanation. I did let go of my housekeeper a few weeks ago, though it’s unlikely that Natalie would do anything to compromise my safety.
“Hey, I thought you were sober,” the voice says. This time, I see the man pop into the room. Loose-fitting pants, an army surplus coat and tousled brown hair. The only thing extraordinary about him is the gun in his right hand, which is pointed somewhat lazily at me.
“The hell is this,” I ask, mustering the slightly deeper voice I adopted for Guns Drawn. “Who are you?”
“Do you mind if I sit?” the man asks politely. I gesture to the chair across from and he sits, still pointing the gun at me. “Wait, I thought you were sober.”
“You already said that.”
“Just a bit surprised to see you drinking.”
“Long day,” I say warily. It’s true, I shouldn’t be drinking. Any talk of Lori makes me want to immediately crack open a beer and I’ve had a lot of Lori talk this morning.
“Do I know you from something?” I ask as my brain pores through blurry images of bygone acquaintances – maybe a college friend whose life has fallen apart or a washed up co-star looking to make a buck.
But the man shakes his head.
“No, sorry – so rude of me. My name is Bryan Thompson,” he says. “I am a huge fan of yours. It’s really nice to meet you.”
“Noble Trouble was always my wife and I’s favorite movie,” Bryan continues.
“It’s my favorite, too,” I hear myself letting my guard down a bit. Noble Trouble is everyone’s favorite. I was 31. I’d done a few dumb pilots that didn’t get picked up and a national commercial or two to pay the rent. My brother Sammy was 27, fresh out of grad school and crashing on my couch. We wrote the script together and Billie helped us get just enough money for a tiny budget production.
We were nominated for three Oscars that year and Sammy and I were the talk of the town. I went my own way after that, taking the first three shitty movie offers that came my way before settling into the WB show North Shore for the better part of the next decade. Sammy had a few projects that never quite got off the ground before his accident two years later.
“Shame what happened to Sammy,” Bryan’s voice snaps me back.
“Who are you?” I ask. “You never answered my question. You know you’re breaking and entering right now?” I’d say don’t you know who I am but I think therein lies the problem.
“Bryan Thompson,” he repeats. “I’m here to see you and make you a little offer.”
“What’s the gun for?”
“Insurance,” he says. “I would never want to hurt you.”
I make a point of letting my gaze linger on the gun but I say nothing.
“Would you like to hear my offer?” he asks.
“I want to offer you a role.”
I blink a few times before responding. “Oh?”
“Sammy’s role in the sequel to Noble Trouble. And all the other ones too, but it’s mostly just the two of us.”
“And you’ll play me,” I say.
Bryan nods, a goofy grin forming. “Exactly!”
“Come on, man. Screw you.”
I see Bryan’s eyes get glassy. “It’s my dream role. Ever since I was little–”
“Alright, alright, I get the picture. I’m sorry I snapped at you,” I say, though this is an absurd thing to say. I wouldn’t mind making this guy upset, but the gun in his hand gives me pause. “Can we just talk? I’m sure we can figure something out. Most of my assets are tied up but I’ve got some great North Shore merch that I’d be willing to part with.”
He shakes his head. “You think I want an autographed script from a second rate teen soap?”
“You didn’t even end up with Hillary. The writers got too cute. Stupidest finale of all time.”
The writers had wanted my character to end up with Hillary, everyone did. I steadfastly refused to do any scenes with her after we broke up during the filming of season four. But I don’t say any of that.
Instead I say, “So you did watch.”
Bryan shrugs. “I just want to make the movie.”
“There was never a sequel script. Sammy and I worked on a little something, but we never got anywhere.”
He shakes his head. “I wrote my own. In the style and voice of the original.” He pulls out a massive script from his bag and places it in front of me. I can already tell from here that the script is formatted incorrectly and seeing this psychopath’s name next to my brother’s (Bryan tackily gave Sammy a posthumous co-writing credit) pisses me off.
“Come on, man. What is this? Why don’t you go home and submit to my agent like a normal person?”
“I tried,” he says. “I swear, I did! Billie won’t return any of my calls.”
You and me both. “Am I supposed to read this with a gun pointed at my head?”
Bryan smiles gratefully and puts the gun on the table. “Let me know what you think.”
“But don’t be staring at me every second wondering if I’m laughing at your jokes. I hate when writers do that shit.”
He puts his hands up deferentially but his doe-eyes tell another story. I roll mine but dutifully open the script. For the next hour or so, I read in relative silence though Bryan makes solicitous noises throughout, even once saying “What?” when he mistook a cough for a laugh. The script is clunky and way too long with whole sequences seemingly adding nothing to the plot. But it’s also heartfelt and adventurous and the end of the script has a heartfelt sendoff to Sammy’s character which makes me tear up, despite myself. I finally finish the 220-page monstrosity and close it. Bryan is looking at me desperately but he doesn’t dare say anything.
“You’ve lost someone too.” It’s not a question.
“My wife,” Bryan says. “Two years ago.”
“It’s good. It’s raw and it’s way too long. But it’s good.”
He bursts into tears and I feel embarrassed for him. I let him do his thing for a few minutes, only making eye contact once or twice accidentally.
“This is for her,” he finally says.
“So, what do you think?”
“It’s not ready to film,” I say. “Not even close.”
He nods. “I understand.”
“But if you’re not going to cry every time I criticize you, we can work on a new draft.”
He nods, blithering and sniffling and smiling. It’s the most joy I’ve seen in a long time. His eyes are too blurry to notice the pocket knife that I’m slowly unfolding under the table.
* * *
Kaleb Tuttle is an executive and producer at a production company in Beverly Hills. Along with many others, he has worked on “Defending Jacob” and “13 Reasons Why.” Originally from the Bay Area, he now lives by the Hollywood Reservoir, where he likes to run when the weather is good (which it usually is). This is his debut short story.
Katie is bundled in her blanket, asleep in the crib. She is a good baby, quiet; I close her door and go to the kitchen.
In the cabinet, there is vodka, gin, rum. I do not want rum, my mother’s drink, or gin, my father’s. There’s another bottle—Jim Beam. No one in my family drinks bourbon. I pour it into a Dixie cup, mix in some Sprite. I don’t know the ratio; I am a 15-year-old babysitter, not a barmaid.
God, it burns. My lips, my throat. I drink, stunned by how fiery a liquid can be, how dry; mutes the carbonation, steals the bubbles from the soda.
“Drink more, taste less,” My father told my uncle that once, in a backyard drinking contest. I swallow more. Shiver. The alcohol is deep and grassy. I can see it is easy to get lost in its blades.
Have I been here forever—or just a minute? Time is curvy after three drinks; minutes walk away. Before tonight, I’d only had beer. The whiskey is avant-garde; I am elated, wrapped in wool. I can do anything, nothing; I am brave and terrified. Drunk is confusion.
At 10:21 the doorbell rings; I know who it is, I invited him. Counted down this night. At the door with twiggy black hair, coiled short for sports. Dark brown skin, oil-colored eyes. He wears his football jersey: 32. He is our varsity quarterback, 17-years-old—so much older than me. The first time I saw him, the jersey was a magnet. I was electrified.
I open the door. He grins; it’s unnecessary. I am infatuated—have been—this whole sophomore year. I am excited he is here—I am thrilled. I want the whole world to know. I want a parade of classmates cheering outside. I want him all for myself.
I’m dizzy and swaying. The room won’t stand still.
“Are you drunk?” He asks.
“Yes,” I laugh. “I think so.”
I take the cup from the counter, drink more.
“Let’s go,” I say, tugging his arm. I am a child on Christmas morning.
We sit on the couch; he pulls me on his lap. Scoots me up. The first kiss is cloying, candy-like. It pulls the whiskey from my lips, leaves them soft, cool.
His hands move so quickly, so sure, but I’m fearless, too, I think, trying to keep up. I’m brave; I’m squirming, anxious. He unzips his jeans, turns me around. I don’t know where to put my hands, how to move my fingers.
“Is this right?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says. “Lay down.”
The couch’s arm is uncomfortable, scratchy, with small snags of foam sticking out. But I am drunk on Jim Beam and him; I’m drowsy. He takes off my skirt, my bra. We are naked, then—I’m surprised by the quickness of it, my head full of dust.
He is inside me, his penis a Roman Candle, a firework thrusting, exploding. The pain is colorful—cylindrical, yellows and oranges, then red.
I am brave, I think. I will not keen or cry. It hurts, but I stay beautiful, quiet; though it is so horribly startling, so quick and hard. This is a movie. This is real. I make a sound, like a baby owl; I hold my breath.
When he pulls out, I feel empty, burned, bruised. Cold and dark. Like a purple-black sky, a finale exploded on a golf course’s green, blood trickling from sulfured, pyrotechnic hands.
“I have to go,” he says, zipping his jeans, penis soft and hidden again. “It’s Friday night; there’s a party.”
He sees the blood, pink and smeary, on the couch.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asks—though it doesn’t seem to matter.
“I don’t know,” I say.
I don’t know—don’t know anything. Does it matter? I am bewildered and broken and blurry; I am mistaken.
He dresses fast, the jersey back on, over his head. It’s 11:08 when I shut the door.
I go into the bathroom and vomit. My heart is racing, my eyes tear. There is amber puke in the toilet.
My face is gray and streaked. I grab a towel; I need to shower, to scrub away this new, sticky feeling. I feel shaky, sick—spent.
I want to go home, but not to my father. I want to call my mother, ask: “How do you get blood out of a couch?”
Katie is still in her blanket, quiet, asleep.
* * *
Bekah Rossman grew up on Chicago’s North Shore. She has a BA in Creative Writing from the University of Illinois at Urbana and a JD from The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law. Her poetry, nonfiction, and short stories appear in Montage: The University of Illinois Literary and Fine Arts Magazine and Albuquerque, New Mexico’s Static Magazine. Bekah is a member of the Chicago Writer’s Association and Creative Nonfiction/Poetry Program at UCLA and Stanford. She is currently writing her first memoir.