The midnight bus rolled past the stop where no passengers awaited pickup and none aboard wanted off, climbing up the bridge and then down the hill past the blur of streetlights that glinted in the Rorschach night.In the front the driver was alone.No one seated for ten rows behind him.The heater puffed out a few languid breaths and he leaned in to accept them.At the next stop was a man standing on the curb.He eased to a brake and the door opened and the winter night gusted in and so did the man.The door shut and the chill passed like a ghost over the aisle and broke in the air.“Mornin,” said the man.The driver nodded and the man sat down behind him.
In the back a half dozen passengers sat solemn in their tattered seats, huddled up in coats and scarves and clutching their belongings like migrants on a polar train.An old man with his cane looked down at the seat next to him.His wife once sat there.He looked across the aisle at the mother with her children, one child in the seat and the other in her arms, draped over her and sleeping while mom kept vigil in the dark.
Through the tunnel where the sounds of other cars swung close and passed by.A woman in the corner spoke no English.She was leaving one job and going to the next, tired beyond the possibility of dreaming.A lady across from her sipped coffee and pulled on mittens and braced for the day.She smiled and winked at one of the children who was beginning to stir and who waved back and then turned and buried her face in her mother’s neck.
“Momma,” said the girl, “I’m hungry.Can I have my cereal now?”
“No, dear.We are almost home.”
“But I’m hungry now.”
“I know.Twenty minutes and you can have your cereal and your juice.”
“OK.”She put her head down and fell asleep.
At the next stop the old man rose and took his cane and stepped toward the front.He nodded to the driver who chewed his gum and nodded back.The bus sank on its wheels and the man climbed off and vanished into the blackness.Then the door closed and the bus climbed up on its axles and made off down the street, past the intersection where another bus was stopped across the median for people getting on and off to start their day or end their day or to reach the next stop on another line where the bus went east or west to whatever start or end their day had meant for them.
* * *
John Saporito is the first-place winner of the League of Utah Writers 2019 writing contest.He has been shortlisted in both the Writers’ Workshop of Asheville memoirs contest and the William Faulkner-William Wisdom creative writing contest.His work has been published in Woods Reader and he contributes regular columns to Coastal Angler Magazine.To keep the lights on, John is a full-time bartender.He plies this trade near his southwest Florida home.
I remember that he kept handing me things as I readied myself to leave, leftover bread, teabags, and an over-ripened avocado. It was so strange and unsettling. During our almost eight-month relationship, he had never done anything like this before. It was almost as if my boyfriend passed out party favors or parting gifts to a guest who was soon headed out of the door. Maybe these tiny tokens were intended as place-keepers, mementos to save his space in my life. But, more likely, these items were a way of communicating his desire and need to escape. And then perhaps, these small parting gifts were intended to say, “Sorry, I am checking out for a bit, goodbye,” “Don’t call me, I’ll call you,” or “Here’s something to remember me by until we meet again.”
When I think back to the weeks leading up to the day we last parted, I remember I would sometimes see and hear my love mumbling under his breath. It was almost as if he were talking to someone else in the room; perhaps, that someone lived in his own head. Of course, he didn’t include me in these quiet conversations he had with himself, but I recognized his distress, almost as if my love were arguing or debating a decision he struggled to make. And then, finally, his seemingly agonizing choice was made, and he wordlessly pushed me away.
After three months passed, we eventually reconnected. I recall being hesitant at first, but my love’s smile and persistent charm eventually lured me back into his arms. I still remember the first time we touched and hugged again; he simply said, “I am so sorry.” And when I pressed him for more info, he simply said, “I can’t.” And so, inexplicably, I just let it go.
We continued seeing each other for another three or four months. Looking back, our time together was loving and joyous, filled with ample laughs and an insatiable physical intimacy. And over time, I slowly relaxed and began to think of our last break-up as an isolated event. I started to trust my instincts once more and gave this man my heart to hold again.But as the months went on, I noticed subtle but familiar changes in him, signs that reminded me of another moment not so long ago. Then, one night, as my love stood by his kitchen sink, preparing to brush his teeth before bed, in an almost inaudible whisper, I heard him say, “here we go again.” And then from the bedroom, I quietly replied, “yes, here we go again.”
We woke up the following day and sat at the kitchen table, talking over our morning tea; the blazing sunlight poured through the window next to my seat. As I looked at my love sitting with his back straight up against his chair, I noticed that his body seemed stiff, and when I looked into his recently clean-shaven face, I saw that his big brown eyes were communicating some measure of regret.
Finished with our tea, I stood up and grabbed my bag to leave, and his eyes began darting around the room as if in desperate search of something. He eventually settled on a granny smith apple and a half-full bottle of wood glue that he said would be perfect for fixing a broken cabinet latch in my kitchen. And as he handed me my parting gifts, I remember wistfully staring up into his sad downturned eyes, and I said my final goodbye.
* * *
Margo Griffin is a 30-year urban public school educator from the Boston area. She is the single mother of two college-aged daughters and, adopted mom to the love of her life, her rescue dog Harley.
Samantha had trouble keeping a straight face. In the hustle and bustle of the university coffee shop, on a Sunday afternoon a little past noon, the question had come like a whisper. At first, she hadn’t even heard it. She’d been thinking about getting a boob job. And then she had looked over at Tom with his soft, almost feminine features and then it registered.
“‘Will you marry me?’ Is that what you asked?”
She thought about it a second longer and was about to laugh, but then she held back. She was sure that if she had she would have seen him fall apart.
“No. No. No. Sorry, what? Why would you even ask that?” Even that had been a bit harsh. His face showed a few cracks, but he held up.
“Listen, Tom. You know me. I like to do things my own way.” Harley Davidsons on Saturdays, never with Tom. “I’m a career girl.” Sales. Hence the boob job. “I’m independent. I also borderline hate men. Sometimes, I think I’m a lesbian that dates men for sadistic purposes. Don’t you think so, too? Why would you want to marry someone like that?”
Tom nodded his head very seriously. He was always doing that even when she spewed shit from her mouth and rained fire on those beneath her.
Finally, he responded. “I don’t know what that means. I mean for you and me. You don’t hate me. At least I don’t think you do.”
Now there was food for thought for poor Samantha, Sam to her friends. No, she didn’t hate Tom. She may even love him in her own way. After all, he was nothing like her stepfather. The over-sexed womanizer who’d put his hands all over her and had cheated on her mom with no less than a dozen other women.
The first time she had had sex with Tom she was pretty sure he’d been a virgin. She had asked him the day afterward and he had said no, but the way he said it made her think that he was lying.
“Should I go? I think I should go.” Tom said this with a look that was equal parts thoughtful, stoic, and defeated.
“You do whatever you want, but I think we should just forget you asked the question and get the fuck on with our day.”
He considered this deeply. A typical Tom move. He could think deeply, but he couldn’t penetrate deeply. That last thought made her smile a little too cruelly.
“Now, time for the real question.” She pointed to her boobs. “Time for an upgrade?”
“I’m thinking of getting a boob job.”
“Are you making fun of me?” And there was that dour face again, so gentle and ready to cry.
“Oh, sweetheart. I’m not. This is a serious question for me. I’m in sales. My looks are my currency, just like your brain is when you’re studying your physics shit. Think of all the money you’re going to make.”
“Actually, physics professors…”
“Honey, stop trying to tell me how poor you’re going to be in the future. Not a turn on at all…Anyway, how did we get off the subject of my boobs?”
Tom was getting up to leave. He looked now like he really was about to cry. She thought about how shy and clumsy he’d been the first time they’d had sex. Shy and careful Tom. Where would she find another like him? Who else could she have dominated so easily?
He was almost out of the coffee shop when she shouted. “Wait!”
Her shout was loud enough to get the attention of the entire shop. All of them turned to face Samantha, including Tom. His face had this look like it might break out into tears at any moment.
“Don’t go! Maybe not marriage…but…but…I’m ready to discuss matching tattoos.”
Daniel has wanted to be a writer ever since he was in elementary school.
He has published stories and articles in such magazines as Slipstream, Black Petals, Ken*Again, Aphelion, Spindrift, Zygote in my Coffee, and Leading Edge Science Fiction (among many others).
You can find his literary novel “The Ghosts of Nagasaki” on Amazon.
Another night of unnerving sleep, another night he wished the waves of searing pain would cease. He swears, it wasn’t meant to be like this. He still remembers the first time it came to him. Its strong presence had left him with a peaceful feeling that had overcome him. The kind of peace and calmness you experience when everything is so quiet and you are grateful that you no longer listen to your sobering thoughts. It had tricked him so well with the weasel words it kept whispering in his ear. Those soothing words that offered him consolation from a world that was forever reluctant to welcome his otherness, when everybody else had rejected his complex nature as it wore the badge of being problematic. How couldn’t he be grateful as it offered him the acceptance he craved for? So, it gradually found its way into his affection to the point he was anticipating for the night to come. -such folly of illusion-
Because now he tries not to lose his reason and the more he strives to prevail upon, the more embroiled he becomes in a self-destructive state. Yes, he is certain that its “services” are no longer required. All the same, it gains ground while coming, calling his name. He holds his head in his hands and thinks to himself how fool he was to believe it would someday unchain him. Ηis dreams have turned into nightmares, writhed in absolute agony as he is, tantalized by its power over him. “Leave me, hunt me no more. I am begging you to release the grasp of my mind! I have never sought these disturbing nights.” That was the last desperate appeal he had made, thinking that it would honor the agreement, it had to. But it keeps coming and coming. Hard as he tries to keep it away, it continues to threaten every bit of his soul. His thoughts have become disquieting, sobering. He takes s fleeting glimpse of what he craves; his freedom. Somehow, there is an impression of chaos and disorder in the house and this inky pressing darkness penetrates his soul. Tonight, he resolves there is no other way but to kill it and remove the burden of this sin. The answer is kept underneath his pillow in a final act which awaits to be performed. The moment has come! He feigns deep sleep while it leans over his head once again to whisper these words that give off the putrid smell of insanity. He takes out the sharp knife which he has so cleverly kept is presence hidden. The blow is hard and the loud scream that is heard echoes like a high-pitched wail. “I hate you!” it shrills, and then nothing but a void stillness which dominates the bedroom.
He opens his eyes to discover it has disappeared. Indeed, he cannot feel it any more. Such a victorious action! Yet, there is a body which lies on the ground, it is his.
* * *
Lefcothea-Maria was born in 1977 and lives in Athens, Greece. She has been involved in the field of ELT for the past 23 years and at the same time works as a freelance writer. Her first poetry collection was published by Adelaide Literary Magazine in 2019. Part of that collection also appeared in Mediterranean Poetry, Aphelion webzine, Eskimo Pie and Down in the Dirt magazine. One of her poems also appeared in Adelaide Literary Award Anthology. Finally, her article ‘Life of uncertainty’ has been published by The Sentinel and Tri-town Tribune. In Greece, she writes children’s books and her articles appear in online magazines.
On the same day, two trains derail in our town; one a freight train on the outskirts, the other a children’s train at the zoo. Though both suffer major damage, no person or animal is injured. Both incidents will, of course, be investigated thoroughly. However, some conspiracy theorists already suggest that both derailments might be the work of saboteurs, the coincidence too obvious. They suspect foreign or domestic terrorists, though law enforcement denies such groups exist in our sleepy little town. A less vocal group believes the derailments to be the work of bored juveniles. The rest of us think it was just coincidence. An expert, a philosopher, is interviewed on television and claims the two incidents are coincidental, but definitely not “synchronous.” The difference, as I understand it—the interviewer doesn’t push the expert to explain—is that coincidental events happen by chance at the same time, while synchronous events also happen simultaneously yet imply a deeper meaning, as if a spiritual intelligence is at work. Either conjecture would seem to indicate that derailments were, in any case, simply “accidents,” happening without deliberate cause or intent, causing damage, but as mentioned, no injuries. It’s what the reporter says later, after re-stating there were no injuries—“thank heavens”—which I thought unnecessary, the truth derailed as he crossed the line of objectivity, intentionally or not.
* * *
DS Levy lives in the Midwest. She has had work published in New World Writing, Bending Genres, Bull Men’s Fiction, Atticus Review, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, and others. Her work was included in the Wigleaf Top 50 2021 and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best Microfiction. Her flash chapbook, A Binary Heart, was published by Finishing Line Press.
William Timely thrived on order and predictability. He woke at 6:35 every morning, finished his one eight-ounce cup of coffee by 7:15, and walked 1.37 miles in Granby Park. He grocery shopped on Mondays, dropped off his dry cleaning on Tuesdays and visited his barber on the last Saturday of every month. He liked rules, due dates, and items on his calendar.
William was a pilot for DRN, a national package delivery-service. The preciseness of arrival times and departures agreed with him. Information from the cockpit gages and monitors contributed to his sense of control. When he was in the cockpit, a blanket of calm enveloped him.
One morning, after dropping off packages at a distribution warehouse, William was flying back home. He checked his watch, 8:41, right on time.
As he hit cruising altitude, the plane lurched.
William’s stomach heaved with plane’s movement. He had double-checked four different weather apps on his phone. All had predicted clear skies, but a storm front was rolling in fast.
Then the controls on his dashboard went dark. He glanced again at his watch – it wasn’t working either. It simply blinked 00:00. Damp patches darkened the armpits of his canvas flight suit.
William’s mind went blank with panic. He focused on the four-seven-eight breathing technique his therapist had taught him. Breathe in for four. Hold for seven. Out for eight.
He remembered the mnemonic device his flight school instructor had taught him: A-B-C-D-E. A was for airspeed. William adjusted the pitch. B stood for best place to land. William scanned the ground. He spotted what looked like a cow field a couple of miles in the distance. C was for checklist. William liked checklists. He made sure the fuel shutoff valve was on and the throttle set to full. D meant declare but his transponder wasn’t working. Which left him with E. Execute field landing and exit. The ground rose quickly, and the Cessna plowed into the soft earth. William exhaled and popped open the cockpit window.
He was alive, his plane seemingly in one piece.
Sunlight backlit a face that appeared.
“Are you okay?” The face said.
A hand with delicate fingers extended through the window. As a rule, William didn’t touch other people’s hands, ever since reading that article in Health Magazine about the surprising number of germs found on a person’s fingers, but he couldn’t extricate himself on his own. He clasped the stranger’s hand which was surprisingly strong. William found himself standing beside the plane with a petite woman with unruly blond curls.
“Where am I?” William said.
“You’ve landed in the city of Rienprevue. I’m Felicia,” she extended the same dainty hand.
William paused before shaking it but reasoned that he had already touched her, so any damage was already done.
“I’m William,” William replied, as he discreetly wiped his hand on his pant leg. “I’ve never heard of this place. It’s not on my map.”
“After the 2020 pandemic,” Felicia went on to explain, “a bunch of us realized we liked the slower pace of life enforced on the world. We came together to live in Rienprevue, which literally translates into ‘nothing planned.’ We don’t follow any set schedules. Everything is done at our own pace. You can only arrive here through a special portal that’s only open 24 hours every fourth full moon.”
William was having a hard time processing all of this. Not the special portal part. He watched plenty of PBS space documentaries, so he knew about black holes and time-space continuums. But no schedules? Who could possibly live like that?
“Would you care for some dinner?” she asked, as she walked away from the plane.
Without his watch, William wasn’t sure, but figured it to be around 9:30 in the morning.
“Don’t you mean breakfast?”
“Here in Reinprevue, we eat whatever meal we want, whenever we want,” Felicia said.
They strolled through a lush meadow, passing several other people. No one seemed to be in a hurry. They came upon a small cottage. Felicia served a hearty stew, which William quite enjoyed despite the fact that the meat and vegetables were touching.
When they finished, they meandered to a small babbling brook behind the cottage. Felicia removed her shoes and waded into the water. William hesitated but eventually joined her. The icy water was shockingly cold, but his feet soon acclimated. As they navigated the slippery river rocks, Felicia lost her footing. William grabbed her elbow to steady her before she fell. He let his hand linger for a moment before withdrawing it.
Afterwards, they lay on a blanket and watched the clouds drift by. William explained the difference between an altimeter and an airspeed indicator. No one had ever listened to him with such attentiveness.
As the afternoon wore on, the two drifted off to sleep. When William awoke, Felicia’s head was resting on his shoulder, her tangled blond curls tickling his ear.The warmth of her body next to his was pleasant. He couldn’t remember the last time someone was this close in proximity to him. Felicia opened her eyes and gazed up at him. She inclined her head and gently brushed her lips against his.
William’s heart skittered but not the way it did when an appointment was cancelled or when a closed road forced a detour. No, this tingly shot of adrenaline made William feel taller and stronger than he ever had.
“I’ve never felt like this before,” William whispered to Felicia.
“You could stay in Rienprevue,” Felicia said. “We could drift through the days together.”
The serenity surrounding him evaporated. William’s chest tightened and he struggled to take a deep breath.
“You need to decide before days’ end,” Felicia went on to explain. “Once the sun goes down, you won’t be able to return to your former life.”
The sky through the trees was now streaked with orange and pink. Felicia handed William a stone from the river’s edge. It was smooth except for one small fissure. He turned the rock over and over in his hand. He wanted to stay but tomorrow was Wednesday, he watered his plants on Wednesdays.
He gave Felicia’s hand the gentliest of squeezes.
He didn’t know how to convey to Felicia that time schedules and order were the only things that kept him from feeling like everything was spinning out of control. If he knew what was going to happen each minute of each hour of each day, there wouldn’t be any surprises. Surprises caused chaos. William couldn’t risk the chance of chaos.
He dropped her hand.
“I….I can’t,” he stuttered.
Felicia placed one last kiss on his lips. He closed his eyes, savoring the moment.
When William opened his eyes, he was snugly tucked under his 600-thread count sheets. He was startled to see that the bedside clock read 7:30. He stumbled past his windowsill plants and headed to the kitchen. There was a rock on the counter. He picked it up. It was warm in his hand. William felt something inside him soften.
After a second cup of coffee, he walked his usual 1.37 miles in Granby Park. As he left the park, he looked at his wrist to check the time, but realized it still wasn’t working. William felt his pulse quicken, but only slightly. He inhaled for four. Held for seven. Out for eight. He paused on the sidewalk and then headed in the opposite direction of home. It was Wednesday, but he had grocery shopping to do.
* * *
Julia Bruce lives in Ridgefield, CT with her husband, two children and one-eyed rescue dog. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Tiny Love Stories, Herstry, and Potato Soup Journal.
For six days the emaciated masses looked on as cartloads of sycamore figs, spiced wine, and preserved goat meat traveled to the dead man’s new home. Six servants died along the way. Four perished from the weight of the burden. The other two from the desert sun at noon. Six new men immediately took their places.
When the last story tablet had traveled from palace to tomb, it was time to ready the king’s last possession. She did not flinch or cry out when the men who once fanned her feet came to bury her alive. She slept through the journey and woke up in the airless dark.She would not weep.
Instead she ate. And, drank. Honey beer, Shedeh, curdled milk, bread, and dates. Fistful after fistful of sticky fat dates. She left the world full; drunk on royal wine and high on rage.
* * *
Beth Kanter essays and stories have appeared in national newspapers, magazines, and online publications. She was awarded a James Kirkwood Literary Prize for Paved With Gold and was named the winner of the 2020 Lilith magazine fiction contest. Beth also has written six non-fiction books about Washington, DC. She earned her MSJ from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism and, when not writing, leads narrative writing workshops. Read more of her work at bethkanter.com
I slammed on the brakes. That shriek, forced from her body by the impact – a sound I’ll never forget. Popping the gearstick into neutral, I pulled the handbrake up tight. She lay still a few feet ahead.
I was at her side in seconds, my quivering legs collapsed to their knees. She couldn’t have been more than ten years old. Some of her blond hair partly covered her face. The rest spilled, straw-like on the ground. I didn’t touch her for fear of the slightest pressure breaking something. Please let her be alright. Please let her wake up. Tearing my phone from my jacket pocket, I called emergency. In minutes, an ambulance and the Police arrived, traffic on the expressway slowed, drivers gawking while they all passed. She should have been playing that late afternoon. Instead, she was taken away, leaving Police and me at the side of the road.
“Where had you been before you were driving home?” the Police asked.
A few drinks with colleagues to celebrate my promotion. A step up. It was a big deal. I’d tried for long enough. I was ready to go home when the guys surprised me with a get-together at the usual afterwork haunt. It would have been impolite to turn them down.
When I said the word “drink”, I saw “case closed” on their faces. They took me to the station while my car was towed away for examination.
That evening, I learned the girl hadn’t made it.
Not long after, I hit her again. I got out of the car, running to her, panic-stricken. This time, she got up. I asked her if she was alright. I couldn’t make her out clearly. Her lips moved as though she might be saying no way, which didn’t make any sense, but she was fine. It was the greatest relief until I opened my eyes and all was well for those few seconds after waking before all is real.
Same again a few days later. I got out of the car, ran to her. She got up. I asked her if she was alright. Her lips moved but I still couldn’t make her out. Maybe it was oh wait, but that didn’t make sense either, like most dreams don’t.
I don’t sleep long enough now for her to infiltrate my dreams, so she’s started to goad me in my waking hours. In the living room, in the kitchen, I catch a swish of blond sometimes out of the corner of my eye and turn quickly to find her gone before I have a chance to focus.
A daytime TV show runs a special report on drink-driving statistics. I change the channel. Radio has a discussion on drinking sensibly on nights out. I turn it off. I don’t have to listen this. She’s in the room with me again. I look over and she’s gone.
Work advised me to take some time off. They’ve been good to me. They said the first thing I should have done when I got my car back was go for a drive or it would take me forever to get behind the wheel again. They’re probably right. I promised I would. I haven’t yet. It’s easier to stay at home, hidden from prying eyes and pointing fingers.
Every day, new comments appear on the Facebook page set up in memory of “our beautiful angel” taken from us. Maybe taking time off work wasn’t the best idea. I visit the page every day to read everyone’s tributes.
Then the other comments, condemning the driver when word filtered around that he had been at the pub; how you couldn’t be in full control of a car after even a single drink. Anger builds the more I read; anger at damning statements, at accusations from people who weren’t there but jumping to their own conclusions, fuelled with an instinctive urge to blame. Do they ask what the hell she was doing running out on to the road like that and not using the underpass to get to that playpark (I see her in the corner of the room – as usual she is gone when I look but she waited longer this time). My mind takes me back to the expressway and to the Police questioning.
When I said the word “drink”, I saw “case closed” on their faces.
“And what did you have to drink when you were there?”
“Just soft drinks, no alcohol at all” I replied, shaking but confident, and their subsequent breathalyser test confirmed my answer.
“How fast do you think you were going?”
“I was doing sixty, no more.” The expressway had a sixty mile limit. I know I never went over. “She just ran out. I hit the brakes as soon as I saw her.”
They arranged for my car to be collected for examination. Shortly after they took me home from the station, the car was returned to me, all routine checks satisfactorily passed.
Last night, I hit her again. I got out of the car and ran to her, panic-stricken. She got up. I asked her if she was alright. She nodded. Her lips moved. I heard her this time. She said it’s okay.
When I awoke, all was well for a few moments more than usual. Her words were still with me and although I’d heard those exact same words from others in intended comfort, coming from the one who mattered the most told me it was finally time to start moving forward, as slow as that journey might be.
* * *
Andrew Newall’s short fiction has placed in several competitions and been published online and in print. His work has appeared in the pages of Open Pen, Bewildering Stories and, most recently, in the online magazine Theme of Absence in May 2021. He lives near Falkirk in Scotland.
Since the tide had receded he was walking on the wet part of the beach. It was cool on his feet, and he smiled because it was a good omen. He was walking where water had walked.
He did not look up the bluffs at the city where the lamps were now being lit, where the horses and people were stamping and yelling and the theaters were swelling and his name was being passed along from lip to lip. He was not thinking about his play or its debut performance. He was listening to the ocean, which was like a giant breathing, and he inhaled deep and marine.
On the beach was a dying fish. He stopped in front of it and looked down. It was trembling and pumping its gills, straining to return to the sea. He watched the gills fan out and collapse. They reminded him of bellows. Bellows stoking the fire. Bellows pumping nothing. There’s a poem there. Bellows stoking… stoking… rutilance. What is a fish on a beach like? Love? Unrequited love. Gills fanning like fingers with no hand to hold. A trillion fish breath easy below while this one breached the surface. What is that like? Fish is closer to the stars now. The water has been rescinded. The breathable film is gone. Curtain up. Fish can see clearly now. The sight of the stars leaves Fish breathless. Ha ha. Fish is breathless and his fingers fan out into nothing. Air is like nothingness to Fish, nothing to move against or breathe, paralyzed in non-space, in unspace, crowded by stars that leave you breathless. Breathless. Fingers fanning. What else… rutilant stars. Bellows… stars do not need bellows to glow. That’s a good line. So the gills begin as fingers fanning out to be held… and the water caressed them, filling the spaces, she filled the spaces… yes, she’s the water… but the tide pulls her back… pulls her? No, she turns away with the tide. As the tide. So she turns away as the tide, and we are on the beach under the stars, and clasping fingers against nothing. So now gills are bellows… keeping the ruddy coal inside alive, but the coal is fading as the bellows slow… and the fish notes sadly that… that the rutilant stars need no bellows to burn. Then it dies. Yes. But from the perspective of the fish? Or does a poet see it. Probably from the fish’s perspective, so it can sadly note the rutilant stars. That’s a good ending. But back to the start… unrequited love, fish out of water… start with the pumping gills, that’s a good image.
The fish on the beach stopped heaving and died, but he did not see it. He was already further along the beach, murmuring lines to himself. He turned away from the sea and took the path that led up the bluffs to the city. The breaking roar of noise from the streets meant the play was over, and the nobles, governors, secretaries, poets, journalists, mayors, critics, rich daughters, musicians and playwrights were leaving the theater, trying out his lines on their lips, tasting their sweetness, sharing the tart sounds, filling the air with the vibrations of his words-but the most vibrant sound was the sound of his name being passed along from lip to lip. He crested the bluffs and reentered the light of the city, and in the darkness at the sea the tide came in and washed his footprints away.
* * *
Simon Stegall is a young writer in the American Midwest. He spends his days teaching English and Latin to unwilling teenagers and his nights writing ridiculous stories, which are subsequently published in his fever dreams.
After the accident, they kept asking her about Janelle Wolf’s state of mind. Did Mrs. Wolf seem upset that night? Had she been crying? Did she leave the house angry?
In fact, it was Lizzie who’d arrived at Mrs. Wolf’s house bawling like a baby. And it was Mrs. Wolf who’d comforted Lizzie, sat her down, made her a cup of hot tea, the real kind with ground leaves and a tea ball.
But Lizzie didn’t tell the deputy that, as he sat across from her the next day in her mother’s living room. Lizzie could never admit she went apeshit in front of Mrs. Wolf, that she’d cried about being an “alternate” cheerleader which was nothing but a benchwarmer and you had to wear an ugly polyester uniform instead of a pleated sexy skirt, and those hateful bitches on the squad laughed at you, and Tad not waiting at your locker anymore because you didn’t put out, and then you did, and now he didn’t like you anymore because it was super slutty that you let him and you liked it, and geography was way hard, and your father’s disability checks were still not coming through so your mother couldn’t pay the light bill.
Mrs. Wolf told Lizzie she had a lot on her plate. She said Lizzie was bright and capable and she was certain she would feel better about things tomorrow. Bright! Capable! Lizzie basked in the warmth of those words. Her own mother called her a pain in the ass.
Mrs. Wolf had worn a clingy black V-neck dress and red suede boots. She had her own office in the house, with an IBM typewriter and a fax machine. She was a career lady and a wife and a really good mother.
I want to live like this, Lizzie had thought. I want to be like Janelle Wolf.
The deputy sat on the saggy corduroy couch where Lizzie’s father usually slept, one armrest shiny from his head. Lizzy’s mother was thrilled to have a deputy in their living room, to serve coffee to, to be part of the awful excitement. Her mother would blab it all over. Y’all, listen. Lizzie was the babysitter.
The deputy asked Lizzy, what was her state of mind? Did Mrs. Wolf act different? Think now.
After Lizzie had washed her teacup, she’d helped Mrs. Wolf put the children to bed. Mira was two and liked picture books. Burry was six and Mrs. Wolf read him Charlotte’s Web. Burry was mad that the pig’s name was Wilbur, just as Burry’s was, but Mrs. Wolf told him that Wilbur was a wonderful, kind, and magical pig, and how special it was, to share the name of a beloved character, right Lizzie? Lizzie loved how Mrs. Wolf talked to her kids.
Like they were real people already.
Mrs. Wolf kissed her children over and over and tickled them and they giggled and she kissed them some more.
Huh. The deputy acted like that was weird.
It wasn’t. Mrs. Wolf always kissed them—
Lizzie’s mother said, reckon she was telling them goodbye.
Then the deputy asked Lizzie about the phone call. The phone rang just as Mrs. Wolf was leaving and Lizzie had hoped it was Tad, calling to beg her forgiveness.
But it wasn’t Tad.
Mrs. Wolf had a frantic, whispered conversation. When she hung up, her mascara was smudged. Something was wrong. Something changed. Her state of mind. Then Mrs. Wolf left.
Mr. Wolf had left two hours earlier.
Lizzie watched An Early Frost on NBC. Her mother would freak out if she knew Lizzie was watching a movie about homosexuals. Aidan Quinn played a man who had AIDS. He was a total fox. It was so sad when he got sick, Lizzie cried.
Shortly before midnight, the Wolfs’ doorbell rang. It was a neighbor. There had been an accident—
It was all over the news the next day. Mrs. Wolf’s car had crashed through the bridge and plunged into the river.
Someone from First Baptist started a phone tree to pray for Mrs. Wolf.
Others started rumors.
That Mrs. Wolf was dead.
That Mrs. Wolf was a vegetable.
That it wasn’t an accident. That Mrs. Wolf drove into the river on purpose.
A newspaper man interviewed Lizzie. The article called her the babysitter. They didn’t print her name because she was only fifteen, but everyone knew. The babysitter said Mrs. Wolf left the house shortly after seven, on the way to join her husband at the home of Senator Stan Rex.
The article disappointed, with its bare-boned facts. So the town filled in the gaps.
Jeremy Peters seen when she done it. She just revved up the engine good and drove into the river.
Poor Charles Wolf. Having to raise them kids, and her not right in the head.
Bless his heart. You know she was stepping out on him with the senator.
The ones who got it all, big house, all fancy, they’re not happy.
Mrs. Wolf almost died. She recovered, but she was damaged. Different.
The town was superstitious. The Wolf family’s dirty scandal splattered Lizzie, too. No one asked her to babysit anymore.
Lizzie left the town the day she turned eighteen. She moved to Virginia, married a Navy man. They had two boys.
Lizzie’s mother kept her informed over the years, said Mrs. Wolf was a crazy lady, jabbering nonsense, embarrassing her husband.
But Lizzie never forgot the exotic luxury of that cup of jasmine tea, like drinking flowers, and Mrs. Wolf calling her bright and capable.
When Lizzie raised her sons, she never called them a pain in the ass. Lizzie read Charlotte’s Web to them and smelled their shampooed heads and kissed them over and over, thinking she could never leave her children, she could never do what Mrs. Wolf did. What they said Mrs. Wolf tried to do.
Lizzie never believed it.
* * *
Mindy Friddle’s short fiction has appeared in LitMag, The Gateway Review, The Long Story, Steel Toe Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Southern Humanities Review, Failbetter, and Phoebe. Her novel, SECRET KEEPERS (St. Martin’s Press/Picador), won the Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction. THE GARDEN ANGEL (St. Martin’s Press/Picador), her first novel, was selected for Barnes and Noble’s Discover Great New Writers program.