I miss her because she was unpretentious and honest about how she made a living.
I miss her because she seemed relieved and happy to see me when she flagged me from the shadows of the French Quarter..
I miss her because she laughed when I opened the rear door for her every night.
I miss her because when I rescued her from the curb, she untied a knot of hair that became an avalanche of shimmering obsidian under the passing street lights.
I miss her because when I looked in the rear view mirror, her dark eyes met mine as if we were engaged in a long, intimate conversation.
I miss her because she sang Greek songs whose words I didn’t understand.
I miss her because she said that someday she would teach me what the words meant.
I miss her because she smiled when I joined her for a drink in her tiny apartment and panicked and spilled bourbon on myself because I was too young and scared to respond to the invitation of her smooth, bare legs.
I miss her because the last time I saw her, she leaned over the seat and kissed me and told me to come an hour earlier because she had a surprise for me.
I miss her because what remains of the bouquet that I bought for her is just a bundle of thorny sticks and dried leaves on the front seat and shriveled brown petals on the floor of my battered taxi.
* * *
Mike Fulton grew up in New Orleans, a city possessing a variety of traditions, a variety of people and a variety of musical styles. He taught in the inner city, played music at night and drove a cab during his off hours for several years. He currently lives in western North Carolina and teaches at a small college.
He walked with a gash on his head. Dried blood caked a lock of his hair over the wound. A thin purple thread ran withered down his temple. The pain was intense, but it was not in the flesh, it was inside. His eyes, weary from the sorrows of life, gazed dazedly at the symphony of autumn colors: reds, ochers, greens and yellows. Even in his bitterness he had to give in to so much beauty.
He had spent the night in the cemetery watching over the grave of his son, who had died eleven years before. It tore his soul apart and shattered his insipid life. He took refuge in a bottle, in gambling, in pills and tobacco. In everything that allowed him todivert his attention even for a moment from his misfortune. He forgot about his work, his family and even himself and lost himself with no possibility of return in the unfathomable caverns of suffering.
He was never a cheerful man. On his wedding day he told himself scared that he was not a good catch. He did not understand what the woman who was to be his wife could have seen in him. He remained crestfallen and distant all that day as if he fearedthat at any moment the spell of his ephemeral happiness would be undone. During the wedding night he was unable to express the slightest affection. He had unwittingly destroyed their marriage before it had even been consummated.
As a child his father had abandoned them. He did not keep a single image of him in his memory. His mother became an abusive alcoholic whom he and his sister had to suffer for years. Hundreds of faceless men paraded through his house, the expiredboyfriends of the one who gave birth to him. They seemed to live in a perennial autumn, sordid, ocher and sad. Yes, autumn had always been the only season of his life, wilted, leafless and withered. The continuous bitterness, like sudden gusts of cold winds, hadmercilessly shaped his personality for years making him languid, moody and dejected.
Last night, like many others, he had committed a stupidity. Another one. He had spent it alone sitting on the cold stone eating a sad sandwich on his son’s grave. Three wild boys had mistaken him for a drunkard and, for pure amusement, had beaten him up.
Semi-conscious, they had taken his watch, his wallet and the bag with the money that, like the tourists, he always wore around his neck under his shirt. Since his wife had kicked him out of the house, he carried all his meager possessions with him at all times.
He had been robbed a thousand times and he dared not leave anything in the dingy room rented to him by the Moorish woman who was now his landlady. He no longer had anything to pay her with. Autumn would once again be his home and the dry leaves hisbed.
Shortly before, when he saw his wife in his old house surrounded by friends, he understood that she had turned over a new page, that she had rebuilt her life and that he no longer had any place in it. Without a word, without even a glance, he felt all hercontempt. He decided to seek refuge that night in the only place in the world where he would not feel rejection, the grave of his son.
He remembered his sad little face as a child, with his crooked squinting eye staring haphazardly. The other children teased him mercilessly at school and his son, as if looking at two different places at the same time, seemed to implore “why, why, daddy?”
It was at that instant that the only true display of affection in his whole worn-out life came out of him.
“Son, you have such a beautiful eye that the other one can’t stop looking at it.”
His son returned a radiant smile that swept away the autumn of his life and, for the first time, made him feel the warmth of the sun on his skin. That little boy with the lost look had won him over forever.
However, the day he crashed his motorcycle, fleeing just as he did from himself, he understood that he was as stupid as his father. The impact of his death was such that it left him dumbfounded. He felt guilty for having transmitted his own ills to him. He went into a trance that had lasted eleven years in which he had lost his life and the lives of all those around him. The cold winds of autumn were blowing more impetuous than ever.
Now his days were rushing down the abyss of indolence. He would get up very late, wrenched from sleep by the unbearable mixture of smells from the Arabian food that his Moorish landlady prepared at all hours. He would tidy up his room and go out into thestreet. He wandered through parks, bars and gambling houses. He always lost. He picked up still smoking cigarette butts that he devoured with eagerness. He rummaged through garbage cans without finding anything useful. He would go to the supermarket and buy a little bread and some cold meat to prepare his only meal, a perennial sandwich. He would visit his son three or even four times a week until the cold of the tombstone stiffened his bones. He would sit in the park and rarely conversed with anyone. At night, sleepless,lying in his bed, he would hear his Moorish landlady’s headboard banging against his wall and her moans and gasps as the Moor, who was not her husband, penetrated her. They reminded him of her mother and he hated them.
His legs were no longer able to support him. He collapsed on a bench in exhaustion. He placidly contemplated the intense red of the maples, the yellow of the poplars, the dark green of the pines and the multitude of shades of the oaks, from gold to vermilion, passing through shades of saffron, brown and ochre. For the first time in his life the autumn in which he had always lived seemed to him the most beautiful season of the year. And he wished he could stay there forever.
He was flooded with memories. Now he understood that to receive love he had to give it first, and he had never given it nor received it. That lesson was taught to him by the smile of a child with a lost look, although he had not grasped it until eleven yearsafter his death and already, he said to himself, it was too late.
He felt he had nothing left, not even the cold comfort of a tombstone. He remembered his dismay, when he woke up dazed by the blows of his robbers, to see his son’s grave splattered with the crimson drops of his own blood. That vision produced in him a last and intimate communion with his ill-fated offspring.
He opened his hand and an empty canister rolled down the bench. He had consumed it completely without ingesting a single drop of water. His mouth was dry and pasty. Still, he wanted to stand there forever contemplating the incredible beauty of autumn, of what could have been his life but wasn’t and never would be. He had just made that autumn eternal.
Dejected, he looked down. At his feet only a single withered leaf remained. A gust of wind blew and it flew away, just like his soul.
* * *
David Verdugo is a Spanish writer who is trying to break into the English languagemarket under the pseudonym Dave Hangman. In Spanish he has been a finalist in a dozen literary contests. He has compiled four books of short stories in which very different genres coexist and even intermingle, magical realism, detective, horror, epic fantasy and science fiction. He has also written half a dozen short novels. He has just finished his first full-length novel, a story of love, or rather its absence, in a fictional world.
She doesn’t know the word for the smell, but she knows what it does to her. Tonight, once again, it’s taken her from the dream. Brought forth tears.
She saw him again. Noted the rice paddies. The plastic poncho and the M-16. Boots caked in red mud. And that smile. Always that smile.
She sniffles, swipes at her cheeks, careful not to disturb her slumbering husband, then rolls on her side. Turns her back to him and their seventeen years together.
Through the black rectangle of an open bedroom window, the petrichor continues to sprinkle in, offering the smells of sage and ocotillo, dimpled sand. She breathes in the night’s gift.
Eyes closed, her mind meanders, ferries her back to the year when she was all of eighteen, to that first time with the boy in the dream. The summer before he’d left. She watches him spread a blanket over damp ground, then hold her hand to ease her down. They lie in a kaleidoscope of broken shadows beneath a pair of mourning doves coursing below a bruised sky. The smell of recent rain soon to be replaced by his Hai Karate aftershave. His breath. Their together-sweat.
Reliving the scene, her hands, clutched at her breast, begin to tremble. Her heart flutters and she feels as if she’s on fire, skin as prickly as the cactus with the same name.
Moments later, through the mist of memory, she hears him whisper, again and again, “I love you.”
“It was him again,” her husband says, staring into his morning coffee. “Last night in your dream.”
She jiggles her head no, says, “I was just tired.”
He sips, knows he can argue, as before. Knows that he’s never won. Never will. His breath catches at the harsh thought that he will always be the runner-up, the second placer. The alternate to this boy. To her past.
“You’re going to be late,” she whispers, motioning at the clock on the stove.
He stands, delivers his dishes to the sink. He’s not a bad man, though he often wonders how long a good man could—would—live with the thought of never measuring up to number one. Cup and saucer rinsed, he washes his hands. Flings them as if he’s just touched something dirty.
He steps toward her, leans in, expecting his goodbye kiss. She turns her head. Just slightly.
“I see,” he says.
“You can’t help it.” He gathers up wallet, briefcase and keys. “I don’t think so, anyway.”
She nods. Too quickly, then follows her husband to the front door.
He opens it, pauses at the threshold. Glancing at her gardens of Aspen bluebell and False Forget-Me-Nots, he says, “Your flowers like the rain.”
He doesn’t answer and he can’t see her hand hovering above his shoulder just as he steps away, says, “I don’t think I’ve ever told you how much I love that smell.”
* * *
Fred Melton is a 2018 graduate of Pacific University’s MFA program. His work has been seen in Best American Mystery Stories 2002, Big Sky Journal, Oyez Review, Passages North, Front Range Review, and the Bellevue Literary Review, as well as other publications.
Dad would be well into the bottle most days when I got home from high school.
One afternoon he jerked open the front door as I approached and barked, “Get into your room!”
I reviewed my actions of the past few days; nothing much stood out. Still, I got into my room.
“I took your winter coat to the dry cleaner today,” he bellowed.
What’s the proper response to that? “Um…thank you?”
“When I cleaned out the coat pockets, I found—THIS.” Producing a carefully folded tissue, he opened it to reveal something red nestled inside.
I’d heard about illegal pills—reds, greens, uppers, downers—but I’d never seen one. I’m guessing my father hadn’t either because the thing in his hand was—well, as I told him, “It’s a red TicTac.”
His eyes widened in surprise for a millisecond. He’d expected me to lie, but this? “If it’s a TicTac, where’s the box?”
“It was empty; I threw it away.”
“Then why was this in your pocket?”
“It must have fallen out. I didn’t realize.” I said, growing increasingly frantic. I’d never done drugs in my life. “Just eat it, you’ll see.”
My father would not eat the red TicTac.
Did he think I was trying to get him high? Perhaps he worried the drug would not mix well with the alcohol he had already consumed.
We were at an impasse. Finally he allowed me to put the “pill” into my mouth, break it in half with my teeth, and breathe in his face.
It was indeed a red TicTac. He never apologized.
Elaine Bennett (she/her) is an award-winning speechwriter and definitely not the lady from Seinfeld, whose last name is “Benes.” She was a Finalist for the 2021 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize and won a Queer-Writers’ Fellowship to the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. A graduate of Smith College and The Brearley School, and a Mets fan who named her dog Fenway, she lives on the traditional land of the Wampanoag, also known as Cape Cod.
Moist. Rich. So chocolaty. I stood there daydreaming about the cake, my mouth watering, and then my phone buzzed.
“Where are you?”
“I’m in line.”
“At the front of the line, or at the back of the line?”
“Um, somewhere in the middle of the line.”
“Did you get applesauce?”
“I need it for the cake. You forgot! You’re always forgetting things!”
Chocolate cake—applesauce was one of the ingredients.
“Of course, I remember,” I said.
“Well, make sure to get it. I want to bake before dinner.”
I apologized to the others waiting in line at the cash register and spun my shopping cart around. With one hand holding down the toilet paper resting precariously atop a mountain of groceries, I set off in search of canned goods.
My tennis partner was lingering by the dairy refrigerators. Like me, Bill was pushing an overfilled cart. Like me, he didn’t seem pleased with the task.
“How are you?” I asked him. “We haven’t played in weeks.”
“My shoulder—it’s still bugging me. What’s up with you?”
“Oh, you know. The same.”
“We should get together, even if it’s not on the courts. Why don’t you come over on Saturday and we’ll watch the game? Have some beer?”
“Beer? Sounds good!” I said.
“You know what? Bring Janet as well. I can fire up the grill and we’ll make a meal out of it.”
“I don’t know what Janet’s planning,” I said. “If she’s up to it, what should we bring?”
“Why don’t you bring the beer?”
“Sure, I’ll bring the beer.”
“Well, I’ll see you then. Meanwhile, I need to find muesli. I won’t be allowed back in the house if I don’t buy muesli.”
“I hear you,” I said. I patted him on the shoulder and continued through the store.
Daily special! Marked-down prices. The red-bordered notices on the shelves drew my attention to discounted products, many of which I had missed on my first circuit. Onward through the store. Baking goods, dry goods, pet food. Frozen goods, fruits and vegetables. Finally, I arrived at the beverage aisle.
Beer, he said, but what kind? Pale amber, stout, or Belgian-style ale? Local beer, or the more expensive imported variety? If I get a cheap six-pack, I’ll appear to be stingy. But imported beer? I’m neither a regular drinker nor a beer connoisseur, but I didn’t want to be judged on what I would bring to Bill’s table. Okay, let’s just go with what’s on sale—American-style lager.
I waited at the checkout counter, smiling at the other customers. But wait! Janet had asked me to pick up something. What was it?
Applesauce for the chocolate cake!
“Excuse me,” I said, spinning my cart around to begin another trip around the store. Up one crowded aisle and down the next. Paper goods, cleaning supplies. I turned around the next corner and found myself back at the beverage aisle.
“Did you get the beer?”
“Bill! I thought you would be out of here by now.”
“I’m still looking for muesli. What is muesli anyway? Some kind of fancy granola? What’s wrong with good old cornflakes?”
“It’s probably with the other breakfast products,” I said, pointing toward the back of the store.
“Hmm. I see you got lager,” Michael said, regarding the pack balancing next to the toilet paper on top of my cart.
“You don’t like lager?”
“Oh, I do! I assumed you to be an ale guy. A pale ale guy,” he said with a laugh. I didn’t find his joke funny.
“Anything else you want me to get?” I asked, trying to humor him with a display of generosity.
“Let me see. We could use salted nuts to go with the beer. Cashews, almonds. I really like cashews, don’t you?”
“Listen, I’m just suggesting it. It’s not a problem if you can’t get any.”
“No, it’s fine. I’ll find something,” I assured him.
“Great! I really have to find that muesli and get the hell out of here. I hate grocery shopping!”
“Me, too!” I replied, but he had already wheeled his cart away.
I passed the bread and baked goods section, bypassed the coffees and tea, and headed to the candy and snack shelves. I hoped cashews were on sale.
Back in line at the cash register, I tried to think if there was anything else I was supposed to buy. Janet may have mentioned something, but it must not have been all that important. She would be pleased to hear we had been invited out. I knew she didn’t mind the occasional beer. We’d probably eat outside—the weather was certainly good enough. I wondered what Michael would be grilling. Hot dogs and burgers, or something more expensive?
“Will that be all, sir?” the cashier asked after the last of my goods had passed in front of her.
“Yes, that’s everything,” I said, pulling out my wallet. I handed her my credit card and arranged the shopping bags in the cart. “Thank you,” I said when she handed back the card along with my receipt.
A short while later, I parked the car out front and made two trips carrying the groceries into the house. “I’m home,” I shouted, and Janet joined me in the kitchen.
“Did you get the applesauce?”
“For the cake. The chocolate cake you love so much!”
“Uh, no. I was at the supermarket, and…”
“You forgot, didn’t you?”
“I didn’t forget! They were all out! I even asked the stock clerk!”
She shook her head, not believing a word I said.
“What’s that smell? Is there something in the oven?”
“Yes. Devil’s Food Cake. I knew you’d forget the applesauce. You’re hopeless!”
My wife makes the best Devil’s Food Cake.
Ellis Shuman is an American-born Israeli author, travel writer, and book reviewer. His writing has appeared in The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, The Oslo Times, and The Huffington Post. He is the author of The Virtual Kibbutz, Valley of Thracians, and The Burgas Affair. You can find him at https://ellisshuman.blogspot.com/
Easy peasy, Eva thought, as Mr. Burke explained her duties for the upcoming weekend: water the plants and feed Mrs. Burke’s fifteen-year-old grey Burmese cat, Logan.
Mr. Burke glanced at his wife, whose eyes were welling with tears. “Logan is shy, so you won’t see him,” he said, “but make sure to fill his food and milk bowl fresh every day, okay?”
Eva nodded, although she doubted Logan would be shy around her. He’s probably just bored cause he’s around old people all the time, she thought, with the exuberant confidence only an eight-year-old could muster.
Mr. Burke leaned forward and whispered, “also, you won’t need to clean up Logan’s litter. He won’t be making any mess.”
Eva had always wanted a cat, but her mother didn’t think she was responsible enough. “You’d forget to eat if I didn’t remind you,” she often said. “How can you care for an animal?”
This was Eva’s chance to prove her mother wrong.
After watering Mrs. Burke’s succulents the next day, Eva filled Logan’s bowl with milk, then poured out the cat food, lifting the bag to her waist and letting the dry pellets of salmon and sweet potato clack against the shiny metal container. She wrinkled her nose as a dusty fishy scent punched the air.
Gross! I would never feed my cat this stuff.
The following day, Eva dumped out the previous day’s milk, replenished the bowl, and then did the same with his food, although neither looked like it’d been touched.
He’s probably waiting for me to remind him to eat.
Using a flashlight she found in the kitchen drawer, Eva searched for Logan under Mr. and Mrs. Burke’s bed, inside the master bedroom closet, and behind the twenty bags of cat food in the kitchen pantry. She even jingled Logan’s lattice balls, hoping the bells would lure him out.
She mimicked Mrs. Burke’s high-pitched voice. “Loooo-gaaaan, time to eat!”
Noticing a bag of cat treats, she scooped out a handful and dropped them in a trail leading from each room to the living room couch. He’s gotta come out sometime.
As she waited, she counted fifteen frames hung along the hallway walls, each filled with pictures of Mrs. Burke and Logan.
This made Eva even more eager to meet Logan—to pet his fluffy fur, squeeze his squishy tail, and watch him chase a red dot around the house.
After what seemed like hours, Eva stopped searching and turned on the television, flipping through channels she wasn’t allowed to watch at home, all awhile wondering why anyone would keep a pet that hides all day. How boring!No wonderMr. and Mrs. Burke have cable. What else would they do all day?
When the Burkes returned home the following morning, Eva dropped by to collect her payment.
“I put food and milk every day, like you asked,” Eva said, noticing Logan’s food and milk were again untouched. “It’s not my fault if Logan wasn’t hungry. I tried—”
“Thank you so much, Eva. I don’t know what we’d do without you,” Mrs. Burke said before walking away.
As Eva started to leave, Mr. Burke pulled her aside, gazing briefly at his wife then back at Eva. “You must forgive Mrs. Burke. She just misses Logan so much.”
You were only gone for two days, Eva wanted to say, but didn’t.
Instead, she smiled, feeling proud of herself. She hoped she’d done enough so the Burkes would put in a good word for her with her mother so that perhaps her mother would let her get a pet.
Maybe she’d changed her mind, though. Maybe she’d get a dog. Cats were too boring.
* * *
Jennifer Lai works in cancer research and lives in Washington state. Her work has appeared in Blue Lake Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, Brilliant Flash Fiction and elsewhere.
Riding the subway taught me all I needed to know about people. It’s interesting if you actually pay attention. For instance, to my left is an old man with a wrinkled face and hands who sits, muttering nonsense to himself while swaying to a beat only he can hear. To my right, a young mother is pleading with her children to please, sit down and be quiet! Standing up, there’s an assortment of businessmen, college students, and teenagers. This group slowly thins as each stop approaches, past Eighth Street, Thirty-Third Street, Fifty-First Street.
Those who enter the train car with an air of quiet confidence, with hair neatly pulled back and horribly mismatched clothing are usually the ballet dancers. Occasionally, they’ll actually be the chorus dancers from the next run of Cats, but it can be hard to tell. The actors, artists, and musicians are harder to identify, but it’s a safe bet someone is a musician if they carry a large, oddly-shaped black box and clutch it to their chest as if it’s going to run away from them. There’s usually a number of people who don’t stand out in any particular way; I can’t determine what they do for a living and they don’t draw attention to themselves, so they tend to fade into the crowd. And then there’s also the homeless; scattered across the cars, sometimes crumpled in a heap on the floor, looking pitiful and other times walking down the aisles, begging for money. I always feel guilty when I see them; sitting here with my brand-new pair of shoes, my trusty iPhone, and the prospect of a warm, cozy apartment and food to return to. These people always mystify me too; what brought them to this place in their life? Are they really homeless, or just trying to make some extra cash? And where do they go when the temperature drops below freezing and the city falls under darkness?
But what strikes me the most about my long subway rides from Hudson Yards all the way up to One Hundred Forty Eighth Street—West Harlem—is that the subway, and most of New York City, for that matter, allows me to be exposed to what seems like the entire world and all types of people, all in the span of a few hours. There aren’t many places where that’s possible.
I’m jolted from my thoughts when I realize that we are indeed at 148th street—my stop. The last few people remaining in the car with me are getting to their feet, preparing to leave and continue on with their days.
And that’s when I see him.
A homeless man, trying very unsuccessfully to lug a shopping cart, stuffed to the brim with all of his belongings, onto the train car from the subway platform. The front end of the cart keeps getting caught in the gap between the platform and the car, and the man is too weak to lift it up. As a result, the doors to the car are frantically trying to close but stopping as soon as they realize there’s something in between them. The announcement over the intercom is telling everyone to please clear the doorways, but obviously, the only issue is the man. He looks close to tears, exhausted, and truly not all there.
I look around, wanting to see what others are thinking or doing, but anyone who’s left is either caught up in their own world or purposefully ignoring the awkward situation in front of them. Not sure if I should approach him or not, I then have a thought: what’s the point of trying to understand people if I don’t help them when the time comes? Taking a deep breath, I cautiously walk towards the man, half-intrigued and half-terrified.
“Hey sir, can I help you?”
“Um, maybe I can help you get your stuff into the car? It looks like it’s stuck.”
“Hhh…oookayyy,” the man said in a muffled voice. I couldn’t tell if he was on something or just not fully functioning.
As I reached out to jerk the front end of the cart up and over the train car floor, I noticed that people were watching us, curious but silent. I saw a teenage boy out of the corner of my eye whipping out his phone, presumably to capture a video—what the hell for? The announcement was relentlessly repeating itself and the words were starting to swim in my head as I heard them for the hundredth time. The man was virtually no help to me, but with a violent tug, I managed to lift the cart up into the car. As the cart entered, it rolled quickly, knocking me backwards against the other side of the car. I heard the man shuffle towards his belongings, and he gently pulled the cart away from me.
Once the commotion was over, everyone quit staring at us and continued on with their business. The teenager with the phone had stuck his headphones on and was obviously jamming to a song we couldn’t hear. Some lady was stuffing French fries down her throat while sobbing on the phone. A middle-aged man with wiry black hair and glasses was reading the newspaper. Everything was normal, as if nothing unusual had happened. But then again, I guess this really wasn’t unusual at all for New York. All of my years living here, and I still can’t come to terms with that. I guess that’s what is so remarkable about this place.
I shook my head to clear those thoughts as I realized that I still had to get off at this stop. I glanced towards the homeless man and he had gripped the pole in the center of the car, clutching it with one hand while holding the handle of his precious shopping cart with the other. He said nothing to me as I walked off, but he gave me a big grin that looked slightly unhinged. Maybe it was his way of saying thanks.
* * *
Gabby Iriarte is a second-year college student majoring in Film and minoring in Theater at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. She is also an actor and has appeared in productions at the Michigan Actors Studio as well as at Wayne State. In her spare time, she enjoys watching and analyzing movies, writing poetry, reading plays, and exploring new cities across the globe.
Anna squints: the street is clear, but something moves outside the garden gate. She jumps when the intercom bleats.
She looks at the keyring on the table that reads: ‘For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger, and you invited me in.’
Pressing the button on the wall with her elbow, she wipes her hands on her apron. The gates open slowly, letting the man into the garden. Then he stands in front of her suddenly, unshaven with a watering can in his hands. The front door screeches as she unlocks the security doors.
‘Come on in.’
The man looks around, wipes his forehead and takes off his hat.
Anna knows her husband would have a fit if he knew she let a stranger in. Just last week, there was a murder in the area. In the kitchen, she slides a soft drink and a cupcake towards the man. He sits down at the table, following her prompts. Looking at the floor, he nibbles on the cupcake and sips the drink. Then he stands up, moving towards her.
‘Can I have water, miss?’
‘But I’ve just given you …?’
‘I just wanted your hose to fill the can.’
* * *
Franci Hepburn is an artist and writer of flash fiction. She enjoys creating characters in all forms. Franci teaches Art at a secondary school in Perth Hills, where she lives. She has published her work in Cafelit magazine this year. Franci writes in English, her second language.
Body ablaze, Henry chokes and the ship lurches, throws him onto his side. Rogue waves strike like an open hand to the back, and a chunk of something rubbery and foul flies out of his panting mouth. He puzzles over the murmur of a TV game show and the icy disk pressing first on his chest and then his back. Echoes of crackles and bubbles fill his body. Falling back onto a bed softer than any sick bay bunk he can recall, he sinks into a murky doze.
His tenth year at sea. Henry patrolled the North Pacific in a rare period of calm winds, fair skies and no enemy sightings. Shore leave and his beloved Marie glimmered on the horizon; the stars lit the night watch while flying silver fish kept him company.
A welcome trickle of cooler air swept past. Seconds later, the commission pennant billowed and snapped, the sea plunged and broke, and granite clouds descended like a stage curtain. Torrents of salt-tinged water buffeted the crew.
The captain bellowed, “All hands on deck,” as twenty-five footers, thirty footers, rocked the ship. And all new recruits, cocky until that midnight, glowed gray-green in the scant light, and clung to the rails, and drooled in advance of the vomit to come.
The ship judders and Henry writhes. He tries to suppress the bile, doesn’t want to retch in front of his fellow sailors, but the wild sea keeps up its assault. He heaves. Someone tilts him up, someone strong and steady, and pats his back as the liquid contents of his stomach empty into a container snugged against his chin.
From far off, he hears Marie call, “Henry, I’m here.” Her soft cool hand feels real on his feverish forearm. His thick lungs smother each next breath and he panics in his battle to rise from the deep, desperate to open his eyes to see if Marie has somehow appeared, against all regulations, against all reason, in the sick bay. A prick to the arm, another round of chills, and he goes under again.
“Red sky at night, sailors delight; red sky in morning, sailors take warning.” Henry’s dad knew what the crimson dawn meant and also knew better than to row out of the harbor and into the ocean in his paint-chipped dinghy. He stopped to take swigs from his bottle, and laughed when Henry complained that they’d gone too far, that the rough waves scared him. “Sink or swim,” his dad said, then pushed anew against the swelling sea. White-caps swamped Henry’s feet, his ankles, his knees, and jagged rain drenched his frayed flannel shirt. Through the ropes of rain he couldn’t see three feet in any direction. At age eight, Henry realized that death might be a thing that could happen to him.
By the time the Coast Guard showed up and dragged him into the cutter, he was too cold to care. While he thawed under a pile of blankets and his labored breathing eased, his drunk dad slugged a Coastie and shouted, “You’ll never get away with this! I’ve got friends in high places!” They tightened his dad’s handcuffs and left him to the sleet on the open deck.
As a deep-throated creak rouses Henry from an uneasy sleep he catches a glimpse of his father and recalls his meager legacy—echoes of someone else’s wisdom. His father’s old-age refrain reaches him, “pneumonia’s an old man’s best friend,” and Henry struggles to rise from below, to gulp a mouthful of oxygen. But his chest squeezes tight and his breaths wane, turn to ripples, until the exhale from his nostrils scarcely moves the air. He lays spent, washed up.
Henry feels Marie’s soft lips on his forehead. He opens his eyes and drinks in one last look of her beautiful, wizened face as the tide recedes.
Marcy Dilworth is a recovering finance professional finally pursuing her love of writing. Her fiction is forthcoming or published in Typehouse Literary Magazine, Janus Literary, Blink Ink, and elsewhere. Oh, and she has a couple wonderful kids. You can follow her on Twitter @MarcyDilworth.
My first sensation was the smell of burning oil. Feeling flushed, I found myself squatting on a marble floor with my back against a fluted Ionic column inside a large room. On either side of me were stacked scrolls on shelves. Bearded men wearing draped garments were perusing the papyri, some reading by the light of licking flames of terra-cotta lamps.
Was I dreaming?
I overheard two men talking.
“When you show me a goatskin that can hold Aeolus’s wind, then I’ll believe Homer’s story is true.”
I rose and approached them. I wore a T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. They took notice and their conversation stopped.
“Are you Persian?” one man asked.
“Where am I?”
They exchanged glances before the same man said, “The Library of Alexandria, of course.”
I blurted. “The library burned centuries ago.”
They snickered and began to walk away.
I called out. “Where is Alexander the Great buried?”
“Check the scrolls under ‘Alpha.” Their laughter echoed as they moved away.
Streaming sunlight drew me toward a broad entrance. I shaded my eyes. Jutting up from the turquoise sea, the Lighthouse of Alexandria stood.
I should’ve been agog to see one of the wonders of the ancient world, but my mood was oddly depressed.
I heard a man muttering to himself, sitting on the stone steps to my right. He had a screw carved out of wood and a terra-cotta pipe in his hands. He frowned, seemingly in a quandary.
I wanted to locate myself in time, so I disturbed him with a question. “Who is the king of Egypt?”
His eyes didn’t rise and his tone was curt. “I’m trying to solve a problem and don’t have time to discuss politics.” He continued to ponder the screw and pipe, but his muttering became intelligible. “How do I keep the water from leaking around the screw?”
I wasn’t going to get my answer until I solved his problem. “You don’t,” I said. “If the amount of water delivered by the screw is greater than the leakage, the pump will work.”
The man’s head rose, and he blinked a few times. “Eureka,” he said, delighted. He turned to me. “Ptolemy the second and thank you.” He strode away, presumably to try his invention.
Around 250 B.C.! How did I get here?
Then it came to me. I’d been in an ICU hospital bed, my body scorched with fever, diagnosed with coronavirus, unable to breathe, feeling like I had an elephant sitting on my chest. I’d agreed to be intubated.
My thoughts were interrupted by a male voice, sounding distant, like from a hollow chamber. “Mr. Christos is sinking fast. We need the bed. I see there’s a DNR, a ‘do not resuscitate’ order.”
Alarmed, my mind tried to scream. Forget what I signed. Rip it up. Take extreme measures. Give me experimental drugs. Keep me alive.
Suddenly, I was pulled back inside the library toward a bright light and the heat intensified. The scrolls were on fire. The smell of rotten eggs mixed with the smoke. My anxiety grew as shadowy figures like flickering candle flames reached out to grab me.
Oh my God.
I felt a burning pain like my skin was being seared, then I began to sink, spinning down like I’d free fallen into a glacial crevice, dark, and infinite.
I was dying.
Will no one help me?
As abruptly as it began, my descent stopped, and I floated slowly upward until a light shone on my lids, and I opened my eyes.
A doctor, masked and with a face shield, wearing a blue gown stood over me. A female nurse in the same garb was on the other side of the bed.
“Mr. Christos,” the doctor said, “I thought we’d lost you.”
As I was intubated, I motioned that I wished to write. The nurse brought me a pad and pen.
I met Archimedes.
The doctor chuckled at my note. “High fever can cause strange dreams.” He placed a gloved hand on my shoulder. “Your oxygen is much improved and you’re breathing mostly on your own. We should be able to extubate you sometime tomorrow.”
I thanked them with a nod and closed my eyes, elated to be alive.
I felt sleepy and smiled to myself with an idea. Maybe I can return to the library and find out where Alexander the Great is buried?
* * *
Joe Giordano’s stories have appeared in more than one hundred magazines including The Saturday Evening Post, and Shenandoah. His novels include Birds of Passage, An Italian Immigrant Coming of Age Story,Appointment with ISIL (Harvard Square Editions), Drone Strike and his short story collection, Stories and Places I Remember (Rogue Phoenix Press).