The Reason For It All

By Andy Betz

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

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

Then came the flat tire. I kept driving.

Too many red lights. I slowly kept driving.

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

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

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

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

All the while, she remains calm.

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

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

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

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

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

Is it worth it?

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

                

                                                                  *   *.  *

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

Dancers

By Coleman Bigelow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A final splash of pink retreated across the harbor lawn.

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

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

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

“Isn’t it time?”

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

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

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

History and Hysteria

By Overcomer Ibiteye

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

                                                  *   *   *

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

Pink In The Afternoon

 

By Ashley McCurry

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                          *   *   *

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

Waiting for Another Train

By Mark William Butler

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

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

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

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

                                                       *   *   *

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

Mindrocker

 

By Mike Lee

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

Today she cut her hair but kept the bangs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But damn,” he added.

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

He pointed at her heart.

“That’s what matters.”

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

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

So, she did not quit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And he has another girlfriend.

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

Kayleigh supposed the new girlfriend had money.

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                           *   *   *

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

How to Stop a Thief

By Elizabeth Morse

When I moved to my own place, I was a refugee from my family. My father managed to draw blood when he hit me. My mother told me he was right to do so.

My sister never got hit. She was blonde, a stellar student who didn’t get bullied. I was the opposite: blue-black hair, dark polish over bitten nails, sharp font of dismal grade reports. It made all the difference.

So, I started stealing from my parents and my sister. First, I took a magnifying glass from my mother and a pair of scissors from my sister. I loved to see them pawing through every drawer and closet as they were screaming.

Amazingly, I got away with it. Pilfering just became part of the evil person I was.
***

Once I lived on my own, I got all new furniture, all new clothes. At first, the sumptuous reds and blues thrilled me. But they weren’t quite right. What I had was tainted just like I was. My couch, table, silverware and earrings were all hexed.

So, I started stealing from friends, starting with Nicole. I took an oversized turquoise and silver pen and had my eye on a watch with tiny dials and a bulky face. Nicole also had great earrings: silver, gold, emeralds. I could graduate to these. I felt bad about it, since Nicole was the kindest person I knew. But I couldn’t help myself.

I’d been to twelve-step programs and thought about character defects. I had plenty of those. I’d quit drinking years ago but was too ashamed to go to meetings.

What I could do was give something back, placing it surreptitiously in a drawer. Then I could make up for it by removing something else. I’d still be a thief who was as no-good as my family thought I was. My identity wouldn’t be violated.

Next time I visited, I deposited the pen in the desk and took off with the watch in my coat pocket. Simple.
***
Nicole called me a couple of days later. When I saw her number light up my phone, I cringed. Surely, this was going to be a showdown. She’d never speak to me again.

We’d laughed together, listened to each other with rapt attention. We’d told crazy stories about knives and forks having conversations and cats who danced the night away, not to mention swapping the best recipes. Her coconut cream pie was the tastiest. She was one of the few people who had empathy for my family situation. Her father had tossed her down the front steps of their house when she was seven. I’d tried to be a good friend, except in the one way I couldn’t.

Face everything and recover. That’s what they said at AA meetings.

Sucking in my breath, I answered the call.

“You’re wonderful, Mina! You just bring good luck.”

I gasped. She must have gone crazy. But this could just be the wind up to a confrontation.

“I found the pen I lost. It just showed up like magic after you left last time.”

I wanted to hang up. Confrontation I could deal with, but this was too confusing.

“Come over tomorrow at seven,” she said. “We can talk better in person.”

***

The next night, I went to her apartment. She threw her arms around me. “Great to see you!” she said.
I immediately let go. This would be the last time she spoke to me. I had to be prepared.

She brought coffee in dainty blue and white cups. As we spoke, her hair caught the light and her sweater had a pale glow.

“The pen we talked about. I wanted to get rid of it, actually.”

“But you were happy to have it back?”

“I just wanted to know where it was, so I could give it to a thrift store. I didn’t want it floating around my house.”

In a minute, she was going to confront me. Pushing my glasses up, I crossed my legs and sighed.

“It’s bad luck because it used to belong to my ex,” she went on. “I was going to return it, but I couldn’t stand the idea of seeing him again.”

Her ex had hit her at least once. Anything he owned, I didn’t want.

“I still have his watch somewhere. That I haven’t been able to find. When I do, that goes in the giveaway pile as well. More bad energy.”

“Listen,” I said, reaching over to touch her arm.

She turned. “What is it?”

I was going to have to tell her and take my chances, even if I had to stop stealing altogether. I’d have to sacrifice. She was too important a friend.

Grabbing the watch from my pocket, I deposited it on the coffee table. She smiled as I waved my fingers with their chipped black nail polish.

* * *

Elizabeth Morse is a writer who lives in New York’s East Village. Her work has been published in literary magazines such as The Raven’s Perch and Hazmat Review, and anthologies such as Crimes of the Beats and The Unbearables Big Book of Sex. She has her MFA from Brooklyn College and supports her writing with a job in information technology.

Orange Crush

By Laurel Osterkamp

It was the strangest coincidence.

First, a burnt-sienna colored Volkswagen Rabbit tore through Country Club Plaza. The exact same kind of car that she’d driven in high school sped recklessly and thank God, Anne was out of its way and on the sidewalk.

Then, another flash from the past. Anne smelled Jake before she saw him. How strange that after nearly twenty years he would have the same citrusy scent that he’d had, back when he’d begged her to stay and then broke her heart.

Whenever she thought about Jake (which was often) she couldn’t escape that last, horrendous memory of right before she left for college. He’d asked her to marry him, for God’s sake, and when he’d gotten down on one knee, she’d laughed because the whole idea was so ridiculous. Her bags were packed, her new Laura Ashley comforter for her dorm room bed was selected, and she’d enrolled in all her classes.

“Are you crazy? I can’t drop everything and marry you. That would be, like, a death sentence.” How his face had crumpled, but his tearful pleas quickly turned to angry insults.

“I’m glad I cheated on you with Shelly Walker,” he’d said. “She’s way better at sex than you, and you’re a ruthless, bitchy whore.”

His harsh words made her feel like one of those cartoon characters with her head bashed in; she saw stars, and the sting and pain nearly made her pass out.

Despite all that, over the years she found herself thinking of Jake, of their John Hughes movie marathons, or how he’d taught her to skateboard, his hand gently resting on the small of her back, guiding her as she balanced and glided down the suburban sidewalk. She thought of their first time together, and how she’d cried that she would always love him. She thought of how when he laughed, his left eyebrow rose slightly, and when he kissed her, he always closed his eyes before pursing his lips.

At the time, she didn’t know how special he was, but she also had no clue about Shelly. She certainly hadn’t realized that she’d never find another guy who smelled as good as Jake.

Anne had never quite figured it out, how it was always like he’d just eaten an orange. Was it his shampoo, or the fabric softener his mom used? Anne smelled it now. It was everything. It was his essence. Sharp yet subtle, with a quietly refreshing strength.

She was window shopping on the Kansas City Country Club Plaza, nicknamed the “City of Fountains”. It was still a cow town, but the expensive stores were the same here as they were anywhere. Right as that dark orange Volkswagen sped by, Anne saw that the Lululemon had in their new shipment of yoga pants.

Then, she felt a presence behind her, and her nostrils tingled with his familiar scent, sending her suddenly back to high school as if she’d never left. “Jake?” She said his name before turning around, completely confident that once she’d pivoted, his blue eyes would meet her browns.

“I thought that was you. How are you, Anne?”

There was no recrimination in his voice, no trace of the verbal assault he’d hurled the last time they’d spoken, so many years before. It was like they were two acquaintances chatting before a PTA meeting.

Not that Anne had kids. But did Jake? Had he married Shelly?
She tried to subtly glance at his ring finger, but his hands were in his pockets.

“I’m good.” She laughed though she found nothing funny, not really. She had been haunted by his ghost for years and now here he was, in the flesh. “It’s amazing to see you, Jake. It’s been so long.”

“Are you here visiting your mother?”

“Yeah. I would have let you know, but I don’t know how to contact you anymore. You’re not even on Facebook.”

Anne cringed, realizing that she just admitted to seeking him out, to thinking about him, to wanting to reconnect. Jake shrugged. “I’m not really into social media.”

He was balding and paunchy. She could still see the boy inside the middle-aged man, but neither were aging particularly well. And yet, he still smelled so good.

“Okay. Well, give me your number and I’ll text you. We could grab a drink. I’m in town for a few more days.” Anne held her breath, waiting for Jake to respond, and when he did, her exhale came slow and stilted.

“I can’t. Super busy this whole week. You know how it is.” He removed his ringless fingers from his pocket, clenched them into a fist, and gave her a playful punch in the shoulder. “Good seeing you though. Maybe next time you’re in town?”

“Sure.”

He strolled away without asking for her number. Anne watched him go, and then, distracted, she stepped into the street, her eyes still on Jake’s receding form, her nostrils still clinging to his citrusy scent.

This time, when the Volkswagen came ripping around the bend, narrowly missing a fountain in the middle of an intersection, Anne was not safely on the sidewalk. Her last thought was that the car looked how Jake smelled, and how funny, that she could be hit so forcefully by two memories at once.

* * *

Laurel Osterkamp is from Minneapolis, where she teaches high school English and Creative Writing. She has self-published several novels and recently, her short fiction was featured in Tangled Locks Literary Journal and will also be published by Sledgehammer Lit in February. In August, her novel Favorite Daughters will be released by Black Rose Writing. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing through Lindenwood University. You can connect with her on her blog, LaurelLit.com – Writer, Reader, English Teacher or on Twitter – @laurellit1.

If She Goes

By Teagan Kessler

She might finally have to leave him. She sat in the darkness on her curb-alert special couch, tired feet tucked under her, and she watched the TV throw colors at the plain white walls. A laptop wobbled on her bent knees as she moved her finger round and round over the trackpad, the cursor making slow, dutiful circles on the screen. Her mind spun much faster. She had to make a decision. The affair demanded it.

Stay. Be a good wife.

Go. Make a new life.

She didn’t know. Couldn’t know.

The bottom drawer of her dresser held a plane ticket to a faraway place—maybe even that whole new life, if that was what she wanted. The more she thought about it, the more her stomach tied itself in knots, pulling tighter and tighter like a stick through a tourniquet.

She glanced at him, then balanced her wrists on the laptop, her fingers typing out “what should I do” into the search bar. Several useless random-decision generators gave her answers she didn’t like—neither option seemed right—and she gave up. She could never make decisions, and could never follow through once she did. Opening the closet in their childless second bedroom risked an overflow of unfinished projects, her lava-hot passion for them quickly cooled to a barely bubbling blackish crawl.

Forget major life decisions. She couldn’t even decide what to do in the next ten minutes. She could distract herself from the sickening uncertainty, maybe get up and go sew a few more strips to her crooked quilt, or go out and buy a few new plants for their apartment’s balcony. That would be a waste of money, though, considering the dead plants out there now. Funny that she should end up with pots full of nothing but roots when she had none of her own.

When they first met, her husband gave her the stability and big, noisy family she’d longed for her whole life, but the affair was still a fault line between them, delivering aftershocks that left them wondering if they would ever again stand on solid ground. He watched the TV, some crime show with some fake body covered in some fake red blood. She guessed the husband did it. It was always the husband.

Or the lover.

She set the laptop on the table, and she knew he saw her hands shaking.

“It was definitely the husband,” he said, putting his arm around her and kissing the top of her head. “It’s always the husband.”

A smile spread across her face, slow and sweet like spilled molasses. She loved him. She knew that. She slid sideways and rested against his body, warm and strong and hers. 

*

One week later, he packed for the trip, gathering clean clothes for a fresh start. They were going to be together. Always. She said she’d ordered him something special, and he felt like a kid again as the clock ticked its way toward the usual daily mail delivery. He went outside, hoping it would arrive today. They were flying out tomorrow. He grinned when he took the plain brown envelope from the ancient mailman’s hands, weathered and gnarled like branches straight out of a nightmare. But nothing could darken his mood.

He hurried inside the large apartment building, taking care not to be seen by the other residents, many of them lonely old women who liked to detail the lives of their nine billion grandkids. On any other day, he would listen and give polite nods, but his enthusiasm had him taking off down the hall like a sprinter from the line. He saw sweet Mrs. C emerging from 6D and he considered a tactical roll out of the elevator so as not to be seen, but she tottered off in the opposite direction. He slipped into his apartment and ripped the envelope almost in half in his impatience.

Something fluttered to the floor, but he didn’t look down until after he’d read her note.

His stomach went weightless at her words.

He looked down.

The plane ticket he’d sent her a week ago lay on the floor, and he slid down the cabinets to join it, stunned.

The note stared back at him.

“I’m sorry. I can’t. I love my husband too much.”

He hadn’t even known she was married.

                                                  *   *   *

Teagan Kessler is a writer, editor, dog foster, and MFA student. She lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with her foster-fail dogs, Rocket and Skip.

The East-West Line

By John Saporito

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.”

“Twenty minutes!”

“Yes.”

“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.