Issue No. 8, Spring 2014

Where Souls Go
Patricia Bowne

The girl was scarce into her thirteenth spring when she died.

Oh Sun!  Great Father of all things that fly!  Take this child to fly with your children high above the mountains.

Oh Moon!  Great Mother of all that runs through the night!  Take this child to run with your children in the forest.

The Sun’s great birds, black-feathered Ravens, ate up the dead girl’s heart and liver.  The Moon’s running warriors, gray-furred Wolves, ate up her arms and legs.  So her heart flew over the village and her legs ran through the woods around it.

But the dead girl’s mother the wood-wife had kept just two of her little teeth, and braided them into her hair.  When she walked out in day, the Ravens circled above her.  When she stepped forth in night, the Wolves followed her and would not leave her side.  Feathers, fur wrapped around the child’s bones, they followed the wood-wife.  They did her bidding.  So for two years she walked the kingdom round, until she met her own first footsteps on the grave where they had buried the girl’s soul.

“I will never let you rest,” the wood-wife said to the child’s soul.  But when she turned round, there was nothing of the soul in the Wolves.  There was nothing of the soul in the Ravens.  “You were not meant for a slave beast,” the wood-wife said to the soul.  “You were meant for ruling, and for blessing, and for cursing.”  Then she turned her steps to the center of the kingdom, and the Ravens and the Wolves drifted after her, leaves on the wind that blew ever inward, through the teeth in her hair to the world where souls go.

From first snowfall to elderbloom, the wood-wife walked toward the King’s seat.  Not a dry leaf dared bear her tread, but followed her upon the wind.  Not a branch dared block the light from her.  Not a gate in the city dared close her out.  Before the Queen she stood; the Ravens above her swirled the light to dancing, the Wolves around her danced the stones to light.  A train of leaves flew after her, unresting.  She undid the teeth from her hair and held them out, dandling in her palm.  Dark was her face and narrow, her lips red as blood, her hair black as night; her hands wove magic, spider-deft.

“Put these into your womb, lady, and know your husband.  So shall you get an heir.”

The Queen but blinked, amazed with light and leaf, and all was gone save two white stones, cradled in her hand.

Nine months passed, and in the cold of March snow fell, melted, fell again; the Queen was delivered of two children, born a fortnight apart.  Eldest a boy, hair white as bone, eyes black as Raven’s feather; youngest a girl, hair black as night, eyes gray as Wolf’s fur.  The boy she named Raans, meaning ‘promised;’ the girl she named Geesta, meaning ‘fulfilled.’

Harsh grew the boy as Raven’s cry, sly grew the girl as Wolf’s tread.  They learned ruling, and blessing, and cursing.  Yet their lives circled ever inward, through the stones in their mother’s womb to where souls go.  Ever as they grew she waned, old moon in new’s embrace, summer’s day sinking into winter night.  In bed o’nights, the king felt her bones through her skin.  The night of the boy’s thirteenth year, he felt her heart tremble, as it would leap from its seat and go where souls go.  Yet a fortnight her bones stayed with him, until the girl’s thirteenth year had passed.  On that morn, the queen died.

Oh Sun!  Great Father of all things that fly!  Take this woman to fly with your children high above the mountains.

Oh Moon!  Great Mother of all that runs through the night!  Take this woman to run with your children in the forest.

The Sun’s great birds, black-feathered Ravens, carried the queen’s heart and liver to her son, that he might eat of them.  The Moon’s running warriors, gray-furred Wolves, carried her arms and legs to her daughter, that she might feast on them in the night.  So her heart and her legs ruled, and blessed, and cursed in the kingdom.  But the teeth from her womb they carried back to the wood-wife, and she braided them into her hair.

From last snowfall to harvest-time, the wood-wife walked toward the King’s seat.  Not a flower fell, not a fruit ripened, where she passed.  Not a leaf dared grow large enough to block the light from her.  Before the King she stood; dark was her face and narrow, her lips red as blood, her hair black as night; she stood before him with the boy at one hand and the girl at the other.

“I am she who will bring your children from springtime to harvest,” she said, and the King stretched his hand out toward her and led her to the throne.  Spring flowers decked their wedding bower; the new moon wheeled above their bridal bed.  The boy and girl ran strong in the sunlit day, sly in the moondark night, and ever circled around the teeth in their new mother’s hair, on the wind that blows to where souls go.

All that year there was no winter in the land but endless spring, spreading flowers before the new Queen’s footsteps wherever she walked.  Where she trod, leaves broke out above her head, yet none dared grow large to shield her from the sun.  Her children were ever beside her, white-haired and black, the blossoms of youth.  Truly the land was blessed, the people said, from snowfall to elderblossom time.

But there came no other time, as if the year had died a child.  No fruit swelled and no grain ripened.  At midsummer the people ate spring flowers, at hallows they ate unripened roots, and at midwinter they died.  Ravens carried their hearts and livers to the new Queen and her children, wolves their arms and legs.  As they ate, the children looked ever to their mother, at the teeth knotted in her hair.  “I will never let you rest,” the wood-wife said to them.  “You were meant for ruling, and for blessing, and for cursing.”

“We have blessed and cursed,” said the boy.

“There are none left to rule,” said the girl.  “Let us go where souls go.”

Like Wolves, like Ravens, they fell upon their mother.  They tore her liver, her heart, her arms and legs.  But all her magic she cast into the teeth in her hair, leaving her life unprotected.  “I may die, but you shall never follow me where souls go,” she told the children.  Under the girl’s hand, between the boy’s fingers, the teeth turned to dust spread on the wind.

As far as the dust flew, that is their kingdom.  It is always springtime in that land, flowers forever bloom and no fruit sets.  From snowfall to elderblossom-time, Wolves rule the night; from springtime to hallows, Ravens scour the sky.  All who wander into that land think themselves first blessed and then cursed, and their hearts, their legs, their bones, stay in that land forever.  Ever they circle around it, in the wind that blows to where souls go.


Patricia Bowne’s writing ranges from folk and fairy tales through dark fantasy and academic satire. Her short work has appeared in a variety of publications including Tales of the Unanticipated, Unsettling Wonder, and Year’s Best Fantasy 3. Her novels about life in the Demonology Department of a modern university are available from Double Dragon or via links at her website, www.raosyth.com.

Feature: Issue No. 8, Spring 2014

Shadow Puppets
D.W. Gillespie

The sunlight through the back window filtered onto Jenny’s dirty blonde hair, lightening it several shades closer to the gold she had been blessed with as an infant. Now, she had what her father called dishwater blonde, an ugly way of saying that the shine had dulled ever so slightly. What was once a princess, now just a girl, but in the eyes of her grandmother, she was as lovely as any young lady had ever been.

Margaret sat behind her in the dusty, faded recliner that had once looked stylish in some long-forgotten showroom some twenty years ago, and her granddaughter sat on the matching ottoman, back toward her and head down as if in prayer. She fiddled with the ragged, ice-cream stained doll in her lap as Margaret pulled her hair back into a single, brambly handful to attempt to bring order to the chaotic tumbling curls.

“What do you think? One braid or two?”

The little girl didn’t respond, but Margaret already knew the answer. Jenny always liked to go with two braids, a pair of neat little ropes that stretched down just low enough to brush the bony tops of her shoulders. She fiddled some more in her seat, wiggling as if she sat on the hard, unyielding wood of a courthouse bench. The thought gave Margaret pause, and for a brief moment, she was back there, back in the courthouse with little Jenny, hoping that she was ignoring the things her parents were saying about each other.

The lawnmower droned out front, and she thought of her son, Mark, who had grown into such a fine man. Even now, she wondered what she had done to deserve such love and care. Here she was, an old woman, weak and arthritic, unable to garden or tend the lawn or mulch the shrubs. And there he was, strong as ever, and always eager to help with whatever chore she might have, whatever need might need tending. The humble home he grew up in was where he now spent his weekends, and for that she was eternally grateful. And what did she have to repay him? A meal here and there, a hot lunch and a glass of sweet tea, and all the hair braids that Jenny would ever want. He was always here it seemed, always remembering the things that slipped through her mind like oiled stones. Oh, she had always been a bit flighty as her husband said, and it occurred to her that her son was now the one that kept her grounded. Kept her cart on the path, so to speak.

“We’ll go with two,” she said.

Jenny fidgeted, but still remained silent. There was something weighing on her, Margaret thought, and even an old woman could see what it was. Things weren’t the same for the little girl since the split. She tried to sympathize, but Margaret’s own parents—God rest them—had stayed together for the long haul. No paternity battles, no late-night scream fests, no court mandated custody arrangement. It was so surreal to see the situation unfurl from the outside.

“I know what this needs,” Margaret said, determined to see a smile on the sweet girl’s face. “We need a couple of your big bows…one for each braid should do.”

She stepped away and dug through the small box she kept on her nightstand. Once, you could have called such a thing a jewelry box, but Margaret had never had much jewelry to speak of. Now, it was Jenny’s box, a catch-all that housed all sorts of little girl treasures in one easy place. There were a handful of hair bows, a few of them great, looping curls of ribbon that would have looked silly on anyone over the age of 8. There was a prismatic display of barrettes, and chintzy pieces of dull plastic jewelry that only a child could love. Here was a thimble, a few old-fashioned glass marbles she had played with when she was that age. Margaret picked out a pair of white bows that almost, but not quite, matched each other. They might not do for school or church, but for a lazy Saturday they were just what was needed.

“Well, I think I’ve found something you’ll like…”

The room was empty, and Margaret felt that old familiar pang she used to feel whenever her children got out of sight unexpectedly. A strange feeling washed over her, a memory perhaps, the antiseptic smell of cheap disinfectant blended with something else, something hidden. A feeling gnawed at her insides like a bad meal threatening to make itself known. The feeling rolled over her like a cloud blotting the sun, and it was gone, shivered away, replaced by the familiar drone of the lawnmower and the unremarkable wonder of a day just like any other.

“Jenny,” she said aloud to the house. “Where did you get off to?” There was something playful in her voice, an intentional softening that turned the suddenly misplaced child into a planned event, just a scheduled part of a scheduled game. “I’ll bet I know where you are.”

     Yes, that’s it. All part of the plan. And if there’s a plan, there’s no reason to panic.

     “I’ll bet you’re in…the closet,” she said as she flung the door wide. She expected to see the familiar stack of towels and sheets, the guest linens as her mother called them, but they weren’t there. Instead, she saw stacks of toilet paper and paper towels, and she struggled to remember when she had moved the closets around.

No worries. She liked to stay busy, always had, and even if there was no work to be found, she would dig some up just to find something to pass the time.

She passed the small dining room, taking a quick moment to glance under the humble, postage-stamp table before making her way to the first floor bedroom, just past the stairs and to the left. Or right? The hallway ended with a bathroom on one side and the bedroom on the right.

Oh you old bitty. Getting lost in your own house. What would Harold think?

She forced a chuckle, but it was a weak, unconvincing thing. The truth was, she was tired today, just like she always seemed to be these days, and chasing Jenny around wasn’t helping anything. The girl was almost twelve years old now; she needed to start considering others. Soon, she would be dating and…

She’s already dating.

“Who said that?” Margaret snapped to the empty, strangely stale air of her bedroom. It sounded, for all the world, like someone was whispering in her ear, so close that she could smell them. They smelled like…urine.

Something skittered under the lacy dust ruffle of her bed, and her head whipped around to see a small, white shoe darting out of sight. Margaret smiled.

“I see what’s going on here,” she said, the fear leaving her momentarily. “I think I see exactly what’s going on here.”

She strolled over to the long, oaken dresser and reached for the small lamp made of blue, rounded glass. The curtains were drawn, but the day was still vibrantly shining through the windows. It worked best at night, when the room was black as soot, but it would do well enough to coax Jenny out of hiding.

“I think,” she said playfully as she flipped the switch and removed the lampshade, “I think that someone wants to make shadow puppets.”

It was an old game, of course, older than her mother’s mother, but she remembered it fondly from her days as a child. That house was barely a house, and she could remember the days before electricity, all of them, boys and girls alike, hovered around the woodstove. Some nights, Papa would get his great lantern, the one with the rusted hinges that sounded like the ancient swing behind Mama Patty’s, the one Mama said never to get on because if it broke, you’d crack your tailbone. Papa would come in late, swinging that lantern and smelling of dirt and sweet manure, and he’d light the brown wick within and let them have at it. The rough-hewn wall of the sitting room was a fine place for shadow puppets, especially on starless nights where you couldn’t see more out the windows than your own reflection.

She sat the lamp down a few feet from the wall and kneeled next to it. You had to get the distance just right, not too close or too far.

“Tim,” she said, “That’s my oldest brother, you understand. He was always the best at shadow puppets. His fingers didn’t seem to have bones in them. He could make just about anything.”

She focused on the wall, willing her tender hands into shapes one at a time. First, it was a dog, his mouth draping open to bark here and there, and his ear wagging just so. That’s what sold it, the subtle, simple movement of the ear.

“Bradley was pretty good too. Where Tim just seemed to be born for it with those rubber fingers of his, Bradley learned from stubborn, dogged practice. I’d see him, leaned against the wall in his little bed, bending his fingers this way and that trying to make it work.”

Next came a bat born from both hands spread wide and overlapping at the thumbs. The wings reached broad and flapped to wonderful effect, and once again, the ears twitched ever so slightly.

“Charlotte didn’t care much for them. She had a doll she liked to brush over and over with Mama’s old hair brush. I can still see her, sitting right there at the edge of the light, looking at us like we were the silliest things she had ever seen.”

She twisted one hand into the unmistakable visage of a duck that quacked a few times, working hard for a laugh. Six year-olds loved ducks. Everyone knew that.

“Tim’s been gone almost twenty years. Bradley for five. Charlotte…”

She saw her sister’s face just on the edge of her mind’s eye, but she couldn’t quite place it. There she still was, sitting in the shadows, a girl no more than half a dozen years old. That was plain as day, but everything else was just out of sight.

“Jenny,” she said turning toward the bed, still expecting to see her granddaughter peering out to see the show. But the dust ruffle was down, and the girl was nowhere in sight.

“Jenny, I know you’re sad about your mom and dad. But I promise you, it will get better. You still got two parents that love you very much, and that’s about the best thing you can ask for.”

She slid over on her knees and peeled back the cover. “Now let’s go and eat some lunch…”

The girl was gone.

“Jenny,” she said peering over her shoulder and into the closet.

In there. Lots of room to hide.

The whispering voice made her shiver, not because of the tone, but because of its certainty. What if it was mistaken? What if that certainty was just a mask covering up the truth? She drew open the door and puzzled over what she saw before her.

The closet she knew, the wide, spacious walk-in with the hanging light switch, was nowhere to be found. It had, quite simply, transformed, metamorphosed into something terrifying in its unfamiliarity. There was nothing naturally unsettling about stacks of clean white sheets and thick, disposable feminine pads. These were things that had a place in the world, but that place was not here. This was the place of dozens of pairs of shoes, and musty, moth eaten jackets and suits that Margaret hadn’t been able to fit into in three decades.

“Jenny?” she said weakly as she let the door knob slide through her fingers. A wave of cold sweat washed over her like a rainstorm, and she feared she would vomit any second. She stumbled into the bathroom and gasped when she saw the changes here.

“No,” she said breathlessly as she looked at the sturdy stainless steel rail clamped onto the wall where the towel rack once stood. The claw foot tub Harold and his brother had muscled into the house was replaced by a walk-in shower with a stool inside.

Someone has changed it all. You understand that, don’t you? They took Jenny, and they want you to lose your mind.

Jenny was nowhere to be found, and Margaret felt herself screaming for her at the top of her lungs, her voice as wild as a dying coyote, her screams filling her up to the top with a fear she had never felt before.

“Jenny!”

She ran from the room, fleeing that place, searching for the world she knew still existed somewhere, somehow. Darting through the hall, she nearly fell over a couch she didn’t recognize, and the truth floored her. There was no hall, no stairway, no second floor. Just a bedroom and a small living room attached to a smaller kitchen.

The smell of antiseptic seemed to fill the room along with the subtle but unmistakable smell of urine. You couldn’t cover that smell, no matter how you scrubbed, and she remembered how Mark had wet the bed as a boy, how the smell never left the bed no matter what she sprayed.

“Mark!”

The familiar drone of the lawnmower whined outside, and she knew he was still there and that there was still hope. Mark was the one who held her hand after Harold died, the one who hauled mulch for her, who still kissed her forehead even as a teenager, a boy too old to love his mother, too embarrassed to admit he needed her. All of this was a dream, a horrible, waking dream, but Mark would wake her up. She spilled out the front door and onto the porch, out into the sunlight and sanity, and there she knelt, waiting for the breeze to blow that awful, stinging scent from her nostrils.

But there was no sun and no breeze and no porch. Her fingers noticed it first as they curled into little fists on what should have been concrete. She opened her eyes and stared down at the narrowly cut pile carpet, and a line of hysterical spit dribbled down onto her lap. As disoriented as a waking child, she looked up and saw the man who stood a dozen feet away, a small, dark skinned man who smiled politely at her as he pushed the droning vacuum cleaner back and forth.

The hallway stretched in both directions, a cavernous mile lined with pastel green doors. Next to each was a plastic placard with a name.

“Ma’am,” the man said as he turned off the vacuum. “Can I get someone to help you?”

She stared at him as if his words were traveling a thousand miles to reach her. He didn’t even look real to her, like a mannequin brought to life or a man casually standing on the other side of a glass aquarium.

In seconds, she was on her feet, moving past him and towards the door at the end of the hallway. He reached for her, and she slammed back against the wall, avoiding his touch as if his hand were aflame. Some doors were open as she bolted past, and the images only confused Margaret further.

Then, she hit the door and turned the knob feverishly, but it refused to open, refused to budge. There was a small plastic rectangle on the wall, some type of lock she assumed, but she didn’t pay it much attention. Instead, she leaned her shoulder into the door and began slamming into it with all her remaining strength.

The door wouldn’t move an inch, and she cried out in pain. Behind her, the man was pointing and a pair of girls suddenly flanked him and began running toward her.

“No!”

They were coming, moving towards her so fast. If she could just find Mark, it would be okay. Together, they would track down Jenny. They would make sense of all this. Together.

“Miss Margaret,” one of the girls said. “Honey, just calm down.”

Both of them were younger and stronger than her, and they led her back down the hallway. She felt very weak now, very sleepy, and her body just seemed to obey the pair without a word of protest.

“Jenny,” she moaned. “Mark. Where’s Mark. Where’s Jenny?”

The girls sat her down on the couch, the one she had never seen before, and they talked a bit in the doorway. One of them retreated, returning a short time later with a small white cup holding a pill inside.

“Do you want us to call Jennifer?” the girl asked in a voice much louder than necessary. “I believe she’s at work, but she said we can call?”

“Where’s Mark?” Margaret moaned as one of the girls handed her the pill.

“Here, just take this and we can…”

“I’m not taking anything,” she said as she swatted the cup away and sent the pill flying across the floor.

The two girls glared at each other for the shortest of moments. “Maybe we should just call Jennifer.”

“Jenny? Where is she? I can’t find her?”

“You just sit here and rest a minute, and we’ll give her a call.”

The girl turned on the TV and stepped out of the room. Time seemed to shift strangely as she stared at the set without seeing a thing. None of this made sense, and she felt like a songbird locked in a cage. Time swirled around her, and sometime later, another woman stood in the doorway, a cute, professionally dressed young lady.

“Nana,” she said as she walked through the threshold and sat on the couch next to her. Margaret stared into the face, knowing and refusing to know all at the same time.

“Jenny,” she said in dawning confusion. “I…I lost you. I couldn’t find you. Or Mark…where’s Mark at…”

“Shhh,” her granddaughter said as she patted her hand. “It’s okay. Dad’s gone, remember? For eight years now.”

Tears, fresh and raw and hot, formed at the corners of Margaret’s eyes.

“Gone? Gone?”

Jennifer’s face wrenched in a quick but fleeting moment of exasperation mixed with sadness.

“Here,” she said holding out the small paper cup. “Take this, and I promise I’ll tell you everything.”

 

So that was that. Her son was dead, gone for some eight years now. Her dear Jenny was grown, an accountant, a successful one from the sound of it. This place, this prison, was hers, a place to keep her safe, to protect her from what must surely be the most dangerous thing in the world; her own mind.

How did the time get away? How many days had passed without her noticing? For a long time, she sat there, wondering.

Later that night, the home—her home—grew as quiet as a mausoleum, and Margaret tentatively stumbled to her bedroom and drew the door closed. She sat in bed for a long time, watching the shadows from the road walk across the bedroom wall like shadow puppets.

She sighed and leaned back into the bed and willed her eyes closed. Sometime later, sleep overtook her in a warm, numb wave. Later that night, with the moon still shining through the blinds, she awoke suddenly with a fear she couldn’t place. Then she remembered that Jenny was coming tomorrow, and she let herself fall back into bed. Maybe the two of them would take the shade off the lamp and see what they could make.


D.W. Gillespie is a long time writer who focuses mainly on the horror genre. Like most of his work, there is a dark edge to “Shadow Puppets,” but the overall drive of the tale is longing for times past.

Issue No. 8, Spring 2014

Bright Light, Blue Moon
Chelsea Spiller

She was looking at the sky.  There were hardly any clouds and the moon was out, even thought it was daytime.  It was hovering, all faint and embarrassed, like it had lost a game of hide and seek.  Did that mean she’d won?  She nearly missed the bus.  A woman got on and sat next to her and started talking about her blisters.  “Oh lord,” she said, “I got ’em all over. My feet, and my hands…Oh lord,” she said, again and again.

Rachel was embarrassed.  For the woman or by her, she wasn’t sure.  She took out her cell phone but there was nothing to look at.  She thought about her boyfriend.  He was supposed to call her.  She had called him first, for a ride, but he hadn’t answered.  What was he doing?  It didn’t matter.  She’d see him tonight.  She touched her pocket and felt her prescription.

Thirty milligrams, the doctor had said. Ten more than before.  He looked up at her dubiously.  Was she supposed to answer?  She nodded.  His math was correct.  He handed her the prescription and smiled wanly.  Behind him was a samurai sword.  It was on display in the center of the wall.  She pictured him in his underwear and tube socks, whipping the sword around like a light saber.  He was probably recording himself with a vintage 80’s camcorder.  There was a good chance she could find his videos on the internet, posted by some perfunctory online persona like ‘ninjadoctor69’.  What else did grown men do with samurai swords?

The doctor told her how many doses, at what time of day and what time of night.  He gave her the look again.  She nodded.  She wasn’t sure his instructions mattered; she would give them to Adam and he would sell them anyway.  She had stopped taking Adderall a year ago.  She looked at her phone.

Come to the park, said Adam’s text.  And then a moment later: Codeine and whiskey.  She got a sharp taste in her throat.  She watched as the bus passed by her initial stop and continued on, toward the park near Billy’s.  Billy was Adam’s best friend.  Billy was probably a drug addict.  She got to the park and he had the bottle of whiskey in his pants as he let Adam spin him on the carousel.  The metal squeaked each time it went around.  Billy put his hands out on either side of him and fell off immediately.  Adam laughed and then noticed Rachel.  He kissed her hello and then he just kissed her.  She asked him where he was earlier when he didn’t answer her phone calls.  He took a swig of whiskey and laughed when Billy tried to walk in a straight line.  He didn’t respond.  It didn’t matter.

“Do you think it’s going to rain tonight?” she asked.

“It’s not going to rain,” he said.  “There’s a drought.”

“Oh,” she said.  And then,  “Well it has to rain sometime.”

“No it doesn’t,” he said earnestly.  “That’s why it’s a drought.”

Billy took another swig of whiskey and got back on the carousel.  Adam spun him round and round, until he vomited.  His puke was pink and cascading.  She thought of the time she was ten and got sick from cotton candy after being stuck on the Graviton.  She didn’t want to go on but her dad said she had to get over her fear sometime.  She felt nauseous after one ride but the teenagers on the other side of the wall asked the operator to go again so he did.  When she got off, she couldn’t make it to the trash can on time and threw up all over the entrance.  They had to shut the ride down for an hour.  Her dad said, “At least you’ll have a story to tell.”

So she told Billy and Adam the story but Billy just looked up confused, like she’d been speaking a different language, and then continued retching.  Adam laughed maniacally at Billy’s paleness.  He shoved him weakly and Adam shoved him back.  Billy told him to fuck off, took off his own jacket, put it back on, and then walked toward his apartment.  Rachel looked away.

“Sleep over,” Adam said.

It was cold and the buses had stopped running an hour ago.  She took a swig of whiskey for the walk and let Adam finish the rest.  He took his shoes off and laid on the bed as soon as they got to his mom’s house.  She tried to go to sleep but her mind was restless.  More restless than it had been all day.  She watched Adam, who  looked as if he was sleeping, or nearly sleeping.  His chest moved up and down irregularly, trying to find a pattern.  She touched his hipbone, then his stomach.  It was warm and moving and felt like dreaming.  After a minute, he moved to touch her back.  She felt his penis twitch.  It felt smooth and warm like her sister’s hairless cat.  She thought about Buster (the cat) and felt sorry for him, baldly going through his entire life, never knowing the kind of social acceptance hairiness could bring.  He was an outcast, probably; handicapped by obligatory sweaters that only accentuated his skeletal physique.  She wondered if this was the same opinion gorillas had about humans, all hairless and awkward, peering at them through glass walls. Preposterous! she thought in a 1920’s American socialite accent.  Absolutely outrageous.

“Ha,” she said out loud.

Her boyfriend said, “What’s so funny?”

“Socialites,” she said.

After a minute he said, “I’m kind of too tired to fuck.”

“Yeah,” she said.

She woke up after Adam woke up.  She could hear him talking to his friends in the garage.  “We’re having a party,” he said when she came down.

“A party?” she said.  “It’s 11 a.m.”

“It’s 11 a.m.,” Billy whined.

She sat down and took the beer Adam offered her.  The garage smelled like cat pee.  They started playing music and everything got hazy.  Gradually the party got bigger.  People she didn’t know showed up.  Boys ignored her because she was Adam’s girlfriend and girls asked her her name.  “Rachel,” she said and they said “Rachel?” and gave her a look.  The look depended on who they were.

She asked Adam for a cigarette, even though she didn’t smoke.  He gave one to her and then said he was leaving to get more beer.  He asked her if she wanted to come but she said no.  A car ride sounded awful.  Someone asked her to dance and she said okay.  She didn’t know his name but he was nice and didn’t try to touch her.  Eventually she got tired so she sat down.  The party got smaller.  The people left were doing whippets but the room was spinning so she went to lie down.  Someone was playing the bongos. Distantly, she heard Adam’s throaty laugh, followed by a clamor of disjointed claps and slurs of encouragement.  “Right on,” someone said.  A belch and a whistle.

Billy came in at one point and started talking to her.  Was he talking to her?  She wasn’t sure.  The room was spinning.  He sat on the bed.  More clapping.  “You’re so sexy, Rachel.”  There were constellations on the ceiling, glow in the dark ones like she’d had when she was a kid.  Whose room was this?  She didn’t ask.

“Get off,” she said, but Billy didn’t listen.  She was drunk and he was heavy on top of her, like a sack of wet cement.  She was drunk and it didn’t matter.  She was drunk.  It didn’t matter.

 

There was a keyboard in the room when she woke up.  It was probably there before but she hadn’t noticed it.  It was a child’s keyboard, small and bright red, covered in glitter stickers.  Some of the stickers were pineapples, others were kittens.  Meow, she thought.  This was Rebecca’s room.  Rebecca was Adam’s little sister.  She liked Rachel.  Rachel knew because she asked her to play Barbies every time she came over.  She never asked Adam to play Barbies, Adam said.

Rachel tried to play a Chopin piece but forgot.  Forgot.  She wanted to become agitated with herself but it really didn’t matter.  Chopin didn’t matter.  He was dead!  She found one of Rebecca’s Barbies and touched her hair.  It was soft and waxy and came out of tiny plastic pores.  She laid down on the bed.  It smelled of fabric softener and cigarettes.  Probably from her hair.  She felt bad so she stripped the bed and washed the sheets.  She watched the machine while it ran and moved them to the dryer when it beeped.  She wanted a shower.  She started to undress and her prescription fell out of her pocket.  The pills had tiny orange beads inside them.  She opened one pill and placed the beads on her tongue.  They were like fish eggs but didn’t pop in your mouth when you bit them.

Adam was asleep on the couch in the living room.  A boy and a girl were lying on the floor with their limbs draped all over each other.  She felt greasy and weary and wanted a shower but someone slept naked in the tub.

She went outside.  The pool was littered with oak leaves and empty beer cans.  The water was cold when she jumped in.  She lay face up and floated.  She pictured herself in various bodies of water – an ocean, a river, a small stream in the jungle, a gutter in L.A.  She was small and insignificant, floating amongst the fishes.  Her body felt cool and weightless.  The sun seeped through her eyelids and made everything ethereal and white.  Nothing was real; her thoughts were not hers.  She pictured herself in a crowd, subsumed by women in red sweaters and men in black coats.  When she looked at the crowd from far away she could not find herself.  Her tongue was numb.  She could not feel her hands.  She thought of Philomela and then felt silly and unimportant because she was not a Greek myth.  She was not even a virgin.  Empty thoughts became fragmented.  No; they weren’t empty.  They felt brimming!  She wanted to cry.  She was crying.  It was a salt water pool, not chlorine, so it was all the same anyway.  Everything caught up all at once.  A scream underwater.  Hot summer rain.  Rebecca said, “Is she dead?” And Rachel thought, What was the meaning of it?  She wanted to know.  She really wanted to know.  Perhaps she would ask.

Adam was pointing at the sky when she came up for air. She looked at the moon and then at his hand.  The moon.  His hand.  The moon was a great deal brighter.


Chelsea Spiller is a native Californian, currently studying English Literature and Studio Art at UC Davis. She is a self-procclaimed adrenaline junkie and quite fond of lucid dreaming.

Issue No. 8, Spring 2014

Gray
Jennifer Ryan

A woman in her forties is coming up the beach towards her. She pulls a gray coat tight around herself to block the wind but, as she gets closer, Lauren can see a warm smile on her closed, full lips.

Lauren looks over to the torrid waves, but the woman still comes, sitting beside her on the stones. When she turns to face her, Lauren can see her eyes, as gray as oceans, the pale, translucent mirror of everything and nothing.

“You’re me,” Lauren gasps.

The woman smiles gently and Lauren can see now, her own features different, older, her eyes glimmering with illumination.

 

Breathing is hard. You have to concentrate on it, think about it all the time. Otherwise you might just stop.

 

She’s been dreaming of another time. Dad was there, still alive, and it was just the two of them at the shore, with Bailey the black dog. Mom was organizing something at her work, her sister Kate at college. It was as if Dad and her had escaped time, darting onto the beach with green and turquoise towels, the ocean radiant blue in the blustery sunshine, their shouts and laughter carried off by the wind far out to sea, to distant lands and continents, covering the world with joy and freedom, with all that it means to be alive.

“Let’s find treasure,” Dad yelled and they ran, ran across the pebbles, racing, laughing.

“Let’s skim stones,” she begged him.

“Another time,” he called as they headed after Bailey.

Lauren’s Dad died of a stroke the following month. Her mother closed into her own world, drinking heavily, until she met John a year later. They had become engaged, waiting for Lauren to go to college, doing the right thing. But she became more absent. When Lauren realized that she was having her mail sent to John’s house, she knew she was living with a ghost, a swish of a woman who was hardly there. One night she found her gone, her bed ruffled as an absurd kind of alibi.

 

If you focus on breathing, you have no space for anything else. There is no time to love or hate; only to react.

 

Bailey was given to a neighbor during one of Mom’s drunken moments. He reminded her of Dad. She didn’t want him in the house.

Lauren sometimes wonders if her mother feels the same way about her.

Of course her school friends are jealous. She can do whatever she wants, whenever. There are no rules, no limits, no curfews. Her mother’s wine cellar has no lock, and the cleaner can be bribed to keep quiet about the party debris, the stench of drugs. The neighbors complain that she’s become wild, the parties populated with people from the city, older, sharper, corrupt and criminal.

 

You breathe in, and then out, then stop. Everything pauses, the world stops turning for a moment, and you are plunged head-first into the inescapable torment of transience, blended with silvery streams of grace, serenity, a sense of inevitability.

 

The guys who had come in the truck wouldn’t leave. It’s late, only a few people left, the place trashed as usual.

Who are these guys?

“Okay, party’s over, guys,” her friend Adam says, trying to get them out.

Lauren is out of it. The guys brought a ton of drugs and she got carried away. She is in a daze, unable to grasp anything.

“You better go to bed,” Adam says, pulling her up from the armchair and leading her to the stairs.

The bedroom is pink and purple and fantasy fairyland. She collapses on the bed, glad to close her eyes.

The sound of shouts comes from downstairs, and then she hears the heavy feet on the stairs.

 

Then something inside you panics, screams: Take a breath! Take a breath! And you have to follow; there’s nothing you can do.

 

It’s her eighteenth birthday next week. She doesn’t feel mature and capable. She feels crushed. She knows now that the world is a large, unsavory place, inhabited with strange, frightening people who she doesn’t understand. She is torn between seeking out all experience—to master it, own it—and hiding away, hoping it won’t find her, trying to forget.

She needs company tonight, but no one’s there. She calls her sister, but there’s no answer, and there’s no way she’ll call her mom. Why would she do that? Mom would make everything worse, get hysterical, and then Lauren would have that to deal with her too. She calls some friends but they’re busy. It’s Sunday, the day people are at church, with their families. A surge of gloom seizes her, and she looks to the nomadic verve of the gray water for an answer.

And then she begins to dream.

“Everything will be alright,” the older woman says softly. “I know it feels like the end of the world and no one cares, but you have to be strong, press on, keep breathing.”

Lauren begins to cry. The woman puts her arms around her, covering them both with her warm gray coat. She stays with her until the morning, kissing her head and whispering into her ear, “I will always be here for you. I’ll tuck you up and keep you with my own children, nurture you like I do them.”

The ocean roars like an unspent force.

“I will be with you forever.”


Jennifer Ryan is a non-fiction book editor, working for The Economist and the BBC. Originally from London, she now lives in Washington, DC where she is a an editorial consultant and a student at Johns Hopkins. She has been published in Wild Violet Magazine and The Blue Lake Review.

Issue No. 8, Spring 2014

The Dalmatian Print Chair
Denise Calhoun

It was Cinco de Mayo. Mutual and Peter were having lunch on a cafe patio, the kind with sequined sombreros and fluffy pinatas, drinking margaritas and arguing about cars as art. Were they or weren’t they?

They had lived together for what seemed like a long time, and their relationship was a rocky one. There was no subject too inane to fight about, too inane to threaten to split up over, whether it was a catty comment Mutual might make about a woman she disliked or Peter’s unwillingness to defend her against a slight from a waiter.

Sometime, say halfway through the second margarita, just as Mutual was opening her mouth to say some cars are art and some are not, she met Peter’s eyes. She looked into them deeply.

And she knew, just like the argument, that their relationship was pointless.

So she packed her hats, her shoes, her Dalmatian-print chair, her books, her typewriter, and her dog named Joe, and she moved.

She lived alone for awhile. She wasn’t exactly sure how long in hours or days or even months, but long enough to sell three essays and one short-short story.

And then one night at a party filled with useless rich ornaments and bused-in artists, she met Joel.

It wasn’t the first time. They had met before, at other redundant parties. But this time, it was different.

“Hey,” Joel said.

“Hey, yourself,” she replied.

No banter. No snappy repartee. Nothing to make one think of those glamorous 1940s movies with a saucy heroine in a perky cocktail hat with a bird perched upon it and a dark hero gazing down at her through the smoke from his Lucky Strike.

But, still, it was different. This time, she looked deeply into his eyes. She looked deeply into his eyes and she knew she loved him and had loved him since long before she’d ever met him, in fact, since the night of her conception. She looked deeply into his eyes and she saw the future and it was Joel.

Like bad poetry.

It was also different for Joel. He, too, had looked deeply into her eyes, and he, too, knew he loved her and would love her till long after the last spade of dirt was tossed over his coffin. He looked deeply into her eyes, and he knew he would love her forever.

So Joel asked her to a movie.

Mutual said yes. She told him to meet her at a theater in the suburbs, miles away from their hip inner-city neighborhood. She was specific about time (early afternoon) and where he should sit (two rows from the back). She would meet him there. Get popcorn, please. No butter.

“I will buy the cokes,” she said.

Joel agreed, and they met at the theater the next day. 2:05 p.m. Suburban multiplex. Stale popcorn. Dull movie. Afterward, they dined at one of those restaurants of questionable gustatory quality usually found in strip shopping centers, gazing deeply into each other’s eyes, and drinking bad wine, overpriced. After dinner, they went back to Mutual’s apartment.

When Joel unzipped her houndstooth sheath, her skin tingled as if a knife blade had been flicked all the way from the base of her neck to the point just below her waist where her bottom began its outward curve. She turned into his arms, and they looked deeply into each other’s eyes. They drowned in each other’s gaze, and no one existed except each other.

“Joel,” she sighed, running one Matador red nail over his very prominent Adam’s apple.

“Mutual,” he whispered, dropping to his knees and removing her panties, the ones with the high-gusset arch like Bettie Page’s. “Mutual, your legs are a work of art.”

Bad poetry.

They met at the movies the next day and the next and the next. They met in secret, which caused many problems because they were inseparable, like fuzzballs and belly buttons. They met at the movies, always a multiplex in the suburbs far from their hip inner-city neighborhood, then dined on food that tasted no better than the orange vinyl hugging their booth. Afterward, they went back to Mutual’s duplex, had sex in the Dalmatian-print chair, and slept in Mutual’s bed, Joe curled up at their feet. The next morning, after Mutual’s neighbor had left for work, Joel would go home, pick up fresh clothes, think about the art he should be creating, shake off the guilt like a worn-out sweater, then meet Mutual at the movies.

It was very important to Mutual that no one know they were seeing each other. Not because either was married or engaged or anything of that sordid nature. But Mutual did not want people to talk about their relationship, amusing themselves at love’s expense as they sipped free Chardonnay at art openings.

This went on for some time. Mutual didn’t know how long in hours or days or months, but long enough to sell two short stories.

Then romance blossomed full, just like in a bad poem, and Joel wanted more. He wanted marriage, a band of gold, a piece of paper. Legality.

Mutual did not. She wanted things to go on as they were. Full of fun and lust and gazing deeply into each other’s eyes, with each existing only for the other.

“Why mess it up, Joel?” Mutual asked.

“Because,” Joel replied. “I want to grow old with you, sitting on a porch, swaying back and forth in a swing built for two as the sun goes down.”

“Joel,” Mutual sighed, shaking her head.

But Joel, like any determined and ardent lover, would not give up. He persisted. Asking for Mutual’s hand each afternoon in the cool suburban multiplex, then again over bad wine, overpriced, in the strip shopping center restaurant booth, and again as they welded themselves into the Dalmatian chair.

Over time, Mutual began to soften. It might not be so bad, marriage. After all, they were different. Perhaps they could wed. Yes, perhaps they could, but it must be in secret.

Joel was growing tired of the subterfuge, but he wanted Mutual, so he agreed. They could elope to a nearby state and perform their nuptials there.

“No,” disagreed Mutual. “No JP wedding for me. I want a white tulle gown with a frothy veil and a train as big as a Cadillac. I want a cake as tall as a broomstick and bridesmaids in frilly dresses that they will never wear again.”

“Whatever you want, my darling,” Joel said. “A happy Mutual is a happy Joel.”

Still, Mutual was not ready for the announcement in the newspaper in 9-point type. She did not want to be the subject of tittering over young love, the object of speculation about how long the wedded would be blissful. So, the ceremony was held, complete with the white tulle and the frothy veil and the cake as tall as a broomstick and one frilly bridesmaid — but in a faraway state and with only their two closest friends, who were sworn to secrecy.

After the wedding, they each sold all of their belongings (at separate garage sales, of course) except for Mutual’s hats and typewriter and Joel’s cowboy boot lamp and art supplies, and they moved to the desert, miles from the nearest town, which had only a tavern, a general store, a filling station and a post office, far away from anyone they knew.

They did not tell their friends they were married or tell them where they were moving, and they especially did not tell them they were moving together. Each gave their friends post office box numbers in different towns somewhat close to their new abode. Mutual would not relinquish the secret.

And they lived happily, together yet alone, with Mutual writing several hours each day and Joel painting those same hours. Their work was good and plentiful.

And each night, they gazed deeply into each other’s eyes and drowned in each other’s gaze, and each knew that their love, like bad poetry, would last forever.


Denise Calhoun lives in Albuquerque – land of winds so fierce they snap trees like toothpicks, sunsets the color of watermelons and more aging nuclear warheads than she cares to think about – and writes short stories. Calhoun, who was a journalist at The Houston Chronicle for fourteen years, is working on a novel and stops occasionally to write a short story when instant gratification is required. Her first fiction publication recently appeared in Black Heart Magazine.

Issue No. 8, Spring 2014

MYRNA AND CARLETON, a Dark and Stormy Romance
Phyllis Green

After several dates Myrna realized Carleton was a piece of wood.  When they hugged she got splinters on her face and arms.  He couldn’t stand up straight when they danced. He leaned into her like an unbalanced telephone pole and the weight made her say, “Let’s sit this one out.”  But then he would tell his long dreary stories that always began “It was a dark and stormy night in the woods…” and terrible thunder would rent trees into bits and there would be rushing waters and rocks would throw themselves at coyotes and mountain lions, and hundreds of deer would stampede and the stories all ended badly and Carleton would end up weeping and morose.

So Myrna decided a journey was in order so they flew to Zurich and she suggested they take a ferry ride on Lake Geneva but Carleton said, “I’ve always wanted to see the Swiss woods,” so they did and he told sad woodland stories and got depressed.  So they drove to Paris and Myrna wanted to shop for the latest fashions but Carleton said, “I’ve never seen a French forest,” so they did and soon Carleton was telling tales about two-headed goats and unicorns running through the French woods biting at the trees and making them bleed.

So Myrna said, “Let’s go home.  I have an idea.”  She hired Ned, a builder, to build them a log house in the woods of a Northwest mountain.  Carleton would be in charge and he would only let the loggers fell the trees that he approved.

All went well until Carleton began to exercise his authority too vigorously.  He and Ned began to quarrel.  Carleton kept changing his mind.  Ned became exasperated and called Carleton bad names like total freaking idiot and crybaby wimp and the worst, tree stump.  Myrna was upset at the non-progress and Carleton’s depression.

“This has got to stop!” Myrna said.  “This log house is supposed to make us happy!  You two settle yourselves.  I am going to visit my parents.  When I get back this house better be finished and finished beautifully.”

When she returned in two weeks Myrna walked into the woods and saw the most charming log house.  She could not imagine one more perfect.  But she didn’t see Carleton until she heard something squeak.

Oh dear.  Carleton had been nailed to the front porch.  He had become the pillar that held up the whole log house.

“What happened?” Myrna inquired of the builder.

“It’s the only way I could shut his trap.  At least we won’t have to hear any more of his stupid stormy nights in the woods stories.”

Myrna took one look at the handsome builder and said, “I can’t live here all alone.”

She bought Carleton an IPOD and ear plugs and dark sunglasses (so the woods would always be dark and stormy), then she and Ned moved into the log house and lived happily until the mountain they were living on exploded (it was actually a volcano).  It was very dark and stormy and thousands of trees were sliced into toothpicks and the rushing waters took away the whole forest and rocks and mud and hot ash were streaming down the hillside and the charming log house went floating toward a smashing ruin until… one strong, able, dashing, daring front pillar called out, “I’ll save us!” and he, Carleton, steered the log house to safety and won the fair but not so loyal maiden, Myrna. She was so grateful that she bid “farewell and good luck” to Ned and lived happily ever after with her hero, Carleton, the big lug, or rather…log.


Phyllis Green’s stories have appeared in Epiphany, Bluestem, Prick of the Spindle, Poydras Review, The McNeese Review, The Chaffin Journal, Rougarou, Orion Headless, apt, ShatterColors, Paper Darts, The Cossack Review, The Examined Life, Dark Matter, The Greensilk Journal, Gravel, and other literary journals. She will have upcoming stories in Goreyesque, EDGE, Serving House Journal, Page & Spine, Flapper House, Synaesthesia, and Write for Readers Magazine. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee, Micro Award nominee & Best of Storyacious 2013.

Issue No. 8, Spring 2014

Cesario, or What He Will
Sara Cleto

I stand before the altar, watching the vision that is Lady Viola progress towards me. She is perfection incarnate—soft, airy, undeniably feminine in her form-fitting bodice. Her white décolletage blooms from her low neckline, unambiguously declaring her sex to any remaining disbelievers. Lace spills down her back, concealing the shorn hair that had won her a place in my service. A few artful curls tremble at her temple, and I think of the tumbled mop that had just brushed Cesario’s—no, Viola’s—velvet collar.

Her legs, too, are well veiled. Yards of fine fabrics, pearl pricked chiffons and silks, bell from her waist, and I wonder, a little wildly, if some new transformation has come over her—if she is masking a mermaid tail or a pair of hooves underneath the dense explosion of fibers and gems.

The first transformation, Cesario to Viola, was such a shock. I doubt that a sudden revelation of octopus tentacles could confound me further.

I wish I could see her legs. Men’s hose were invented for legs such as hers. The way her lithe, narrow muscles would tense beneath the thin silk, how they would release and turn, drawing a perfect curve so pleasing to the eye… Perhaps, if I could see her legs, I could believe that she is the same person who attended me throughout my trials, such as they were, with Olivia. In those days, I would deliver entire monologues to his—her—legs, too ashamed to meet the eyes of the one I wanted as I vowed my eternal love to another.

Viola stands before me, smiling with her lips closed. I imagine Cesario’s toothy grin and close my eyes as I reach for her hands.

After the initial confusion, I was, of course, delighted to realize that the object of my affections was a lady. Surely, I must have detected her feminine essence, her irrepressible womanly spirit beneath the fragile façade of her manliness. In a state of happy madness, I implored her to become her “master’s mistress.”

But Viola does not laugh with the heartiness and abandon of Cesario, and her legs do not look the same dangling helplessly from the same side of a horse as they did when Cesario thrust his heavily booted feet into their stirrups and gripped the horse’s wide, surging flank with his thighs.

My throat constricts.

I open my eyes. The ceremony is almost at its end. The priest is speaking, and Viola is making some reply, but I cannot hear her. Superimposed over her fine, steady alto is Cesario’s tenor, cracking unpredictably and veering haphazardly into other, more tender tones.

The priest gazes benevolently at me, and I focus on his words: “Will you have this woman to be your wife; to live together in the covenant of marriage? Will you love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?”

My lips part.

I stare at the woman before me. Her smile widens, and a hint of teeth gleams between her lips. Her hands, small for a man but large for a woman, feel familiar in my own. She shifts her weight, and a long, narrow calf emerges from the folds of her skirt.

“Cesario…” I breathe.


Sara Cleto is currently pursuing her PhD in English at the Ohio State University. She enjoys fairy tales, coffee, and obtaining more stamps on her passport. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in Cabinet des Fees, Eternal Haunted Summer, Niteblade, and others.

Issue No. 8, Spring 2014

My Children
Sean Ealy

I heard them out there. Something moving around on the front porch.

I turned the volume down on the TV and poked two fingers in the blinds, opening just enough to take a peak. The light was on over the covered patio; a bare bulb hanging from a single fixture that only lit up the space directly in front of the door. There was nobody there, I thought. Just the wind.

Something moved along the back wall, and then I saw her step out of the shadows. Just a little thing and so thin. She was only seven, and Lori hadn’t changed much since they put her in the ground.

She still wore the same white dress, not so pretty anymore. Age and ruin had turned it a nicotine yellow and there were streaks of dried mud all down the front of it. Lori’s hair was caked with dirt and hung limp in her face, which was lowered so that all I could see were her eyes. They were dark eyes, hollow and flat. That was the worst thing, I think. Her baby blues used to shine.

She tilted her head and I saw a smile creep up on her colorless lips. She saw me, and suddenly I didn’t want to be seen.

You’re dreaming Sara Ray. That’s all this is.

But I knew that was wrong.

Lori dug her nails into the wall, leaving long, deep gashes in the wood. Her eyes never left mine as her hands worked. Her nails were broken and yellow, and there was something feral about the way she moved. She cocked her head and laughed.

“No, baby,” I said. “You’re dead. I know that because I killed you.”

 

#

I remember everything about that day. The accident. The busted glass. The screech of rubber tires on wet pavement. The sound of my kids screaming. I’ll never forget those things because I carry them around inside me, every day, every sleepless night.

It should have been me. I was the one drinking. It was my fault, so why was I the only one to walk away?

The paramedic told me my blood alcohol level was 2.3. I had been at a going away party for my baby sister, who was heading off to college. I underestimated how much I drank that night. By the time I picked the kids up at the babysitter, I thought that I was sober enough to make it home. We didn’t live far away. Only a couple blocks.

I was wrong. I went to the hospital and my children went to the morgue.

 

#

The door opened in the kitchen. I heard the latch pop and I froze. I glanced at the front door. Dead bolt where it was

supposed to be. Thumb lock turned in the right position.

The door in the kitchen opens onto the back yard. Lori was still on the front porch, making those horrible mewling sounds. If she had come back, then that probably meant they were all out there somewhere, and one of them had just come in through the kitchen.

I waited, listening, holding the air in my chest until it hurt.

The old rusted hinges creaked as the door was pushed open wider. I shuddered and swallowed the breath I was holding. Throwing a hand over my mouth, I told myself to be quiet. Just be quiet.

The house was utterly still, but I could hear whoever had come into my kitchen just standing there, breathing. Low, hoarse and rapid quick. Open mouthed breathing. Then footsteps, soft and clumsy. Then nothing.

I stood there like an idiot, trying to breathe, trying not to breathe, wondering what to do.

It began to laugh, a high pitched, playground kind of sound. Exactly how I would imagine a dead child would laugh.

I bit my hand to keep from screaming, but it was no good. I screamed.

A thump at the front door and I jumped. I lifted the blinds and saw Lori’s face, only inches from the window glass. Her teeth were exposed, her lips curled around her gums. Asa stood behind her, his hands on her shoulders. The big brother. Raven hair and intense eyes, just like his daddy. He lifted his head into the light just enough so that I could see the stitches across his throat, black thread that no longer held the rotting flesh together.

I felt something creeping up behind me, but when I turned there was nothing but air between me and the kitchen. Whatever was hiding in there wasn’t laughing anymore. It wasn’t doing anything, and somehow that was worse.

Asa moved around his sister, his damaged face leaning into the window.

We’ve come home, Mama. Let us in.

I pulled back off the couch and almost tripped over my own stupid legs. I looked toward the kitchen, but I knew I couldn’t go out the back way. Something was waiting for me there.

I looked toward the stairs, but that felt wrong somehow. A bad decision.

That only left the basement. I could lock the door from the inside and wait until morning. Concrete walls. Concrete floor. Maybe things would be better when the sun came up. That’s how it was done in the movies anyway.

I ran for the basement door. As I did the window behind me shattered and I heard the blinds come down with a crash. I didn’t turn, knew that if I did, if I saw what was coming through that window, I would lose it. I reached for the basement door, threw it open and flung myself into the darkness.

I ran down the wooden stairs, heard them groaning underneath my feet, and almost forgot to lock the door. It was so dark I couldn’t see a thing. Not even my own hand in front of my face. I didn’t want to go back up those stairs, but if I didn’t lock that door they would follow me.

This was a stupid idea, I thought, feeling around for the door knob. Just as I found the lock one of the kids hit door from the other side.

Mama! Open the door, Mama. We need you.

Down the stairs again, clinging to the wall, not wanting to fall. Once I reached the floor I put my hands to my ears.

“Jesus help me.” I said this under my breath. A prayer. A curse.

I sat cowering in a corner of my basement, listening to my children laugh up at the top of the stairs.

Let us in, Mama. I’m so cold.

I don’t like the basement. It’s cold and always moist down there. There is a light, just a single bulb that can be turned on by pulling a long string. I tried it but it was burnt out.

Open the door! We want to play.

An icy shiver passed through my body as a thought occurred to me. I saw Lori on the front porch. And Asa. Ginger was in the kitchen. I had seen her there, crouching behind the wall, before I went down the basement stairs. But where was Anna? Where was my baby girl?

I heard movement along the far wall of the basement. Something fell to the floor and rolled. Maybe a ball.

Anna was my precious little girl. Strawberry blonde hair and the deepest emerald eyes. I try to remember her this way, but when I close my eyes I see the other image of her, after the accident. Her body was broken, twisted in places that it shouldn’t be. Her face, oh god her beautiful face! All cut up from the glass. She was thrown, you see, because she wasn’t wearing a seat belt. I forgot to fasten it.

The air shifted just in front of me, movement just as gentle as a sigh. I was trembling so bad I could hear my teeth rattling against each other. My face was wet with tears.

A hand fell on my arm and I screamed. The hand was small and cold. Its fingers curled around my wrist softly.

Mama, don’t cry.

My baby girl had come home. The sobs ripped out of me then like waves.

I felt Anna sit down next to me, her hand still on my arm. There was a sudden, shocking chill coming from her body, and she smelled like the earth we buried her in.

At the top of the stairs, my other children were throwing themselves at the door. I could hear them hit it with a meaty thud, hear the door rattle in the jam, hear them laugh like it was a game. They would break it down soon. It was only a matter of time.

I love you Mama.

“I love you too, Anna.”

She let out a heavy sigh, as if the weight of the world were on her shoulders, and I smelled the foul air coming out of her useless lungs.

I’m sorry Mama.

“Oh, honey, I’m sorry too. I’m so very sorry.”

The door at the top of the stairs buckled. Not a very heavy door. Cheap.

Anna shifted next to me, and I sensed her rising up on her knees. She pulled her hand away from my arm, her touch still lingering on my skin.

The lock broke and the door banged opened. Footsteps coming down, bare feet slapping on wood.

I closed my eyes, breathing. Just breathing.

Anna stood.

We want to go for a ride, Mama.

“No. No, please.”

A pain so sudden and bright hit me at my knee. Was that a bite? I leaned back against the concrete wall, put my hand to my leg and felt something warm and wet.

Take us for a ride, Mama. TAKE US!

Anna had begun to growl. I could picture her there in the darkness, my blood on her lips. All around me I heard the shuffling feet of my children, closing me in. Hearing was worse than seeing, I think. Their presence was bearing down on me, but I didn’t want to die.

“No!”

I flung my hand and hit one of them. I heard a thump as the one I hit fell to the floor. My leg was throbbing where Anna had bit me, but I had to get up, had to get out of there.

I’m gonna die, I thought. She bit me and I’m gonna die! Turn into one of them!

Too many horror movies.

A floorboard creaked and I heard a grunt, and then something slammed into me, hard and cold. Ginger, clawing at my face. Her teeth were clicking together as her small jaw opened and shut, and I could smell her hot breath washing over me. Putrid, like rotten dairy. I shrieked, pushing as hard as I could to get this child off me.

The other children giggled.

You killed us Mama. You let us die. But we want you back.

“No!” I yelled. I hit Ginger in the face, cut my knuckles on her teeth and felt my heart break when I heard her jaw crack. It was a horrible thing to have to hit your child, even if they were dead and trying to eat you.

I managed to grab hold of Ginger and I threw her, and then scrambled toward the staircase. I reached the bottom rung of the stairs when a hand curled around my leg and tripped me. My head cracked on the wooden stair, and I tasted blood in my mouth. Asa stood over me, laughing, and I hated him. These weren’t my children. They were devils. Bad memories. My children are dead, and the dead cannot come back.

I half turned my body and kicked as hard as I could. I didn’t care if I hit anything or not, I just needed to attack. The door was so close, I just needed to get there, to get out of the basement, out of the house.

I hit Asa and he stopped laughing. I heard the cracking of a bone breaking.

I turned and started to crawl up the stairs, missing steps and slipping, then regaining my grip. They were behind me. No more childish giggling. These were monsters and they were done playing with me.

The light from the living room illuminated the smashed basement door. I kept my eyes on that doorway. They were no longer working together, but were fighting each other to get up the stairs behind me, snarling at each other like a pack of dogs.

I racked my knee on the third step, and almost fell again. But I clung to the wall, and then I was up and through the door and scrambling across the living room.

I hang my car keys on a clip next to the front door. My license was suspended after the accident and I had just gotten it reinstated. I ran to the door, stepping through broken glass from the shattered window, cutting my feet. I unlocked the door, snatched my keys and then I did turn back around. I wanted to see them again. I wanted to see them in the light.

They stood at the basement doorway, watching me, and for a moment it was them, my children, all bunched together, and I longed for them. Then Anna’s bloated lips snapped open, baring teeth and swollen gums. She lunged at me like a rabid weasel, her tongue hanging from the side of her broken jaw, and her eyes burned red.

I ran out the door, slamming it behind me, down the stairs and across the yard. My car was in the driveway. In seconds I was behind the wheel of my car, fumbling with the key. The engine turned over and I put it in drive. I turned my head and saw Asa standing on the front stairs, watching me, the moonlight shining in his eyes. I’ll never forget the way he looked at me then. Not in a million years.

 

#

 

I still hear them at night. No matter where I go, or how many miles I drive, they seem to always find me.

Just last night I heard something in the alley behind the apartment I’m renting. Could have been a bum, looking through cans of garbage for something to eat, but I don’t think so.

So I’m moving on again, and this time I don’t know where I’ll stop. There are days when I think it would just be easier to give up and let them have me. Other days are better.

So I’ll run. I know they’ll follow me, because they’re my children. They’re still mine, you see, and I’ll always be theirs.


Sean Ealy is a writer of speculative fiction. He picked up a copy of The Shining by Stephen King when he was 10 and has been lost in the words ever since. He is an avid Red Sox fan living somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. You can read his blog at seanealyfiction.com or find him on twitter @SeanEaly

Issue No. 8, Spring 2014

Pillar of Strength
Mardra Sikora

When her father underwent heart surgery, she coped by using coffee and sarcasm. Her dry humor and pointed questions kept the doctors honest and impressed. In those long weeks, she stayed near her mother and never shed a tear. It wasn’t the first time the phrase, “She’s a rock,” was uttered near her; meant as a compliment, of course. The one who holds her composure. The one who remains stoic, allowing others to emote. The one who stands firm while others lean.

It is why she got the call when her grandfather died. “He didn’t make it,” said the Sheriff, “Can you come to your grandmother?”

“Yes, of course.” She hung up the phone, dressed, arranged for a babysitter, and rushed out the door. Later that morning she made the calls, lifted the burden, calmed the storm of emotions from family and friends.

It made her a strong manager, a trusted confidante, a respected mentor. When others said, “I could never—” they called upon her to carry…everything.

She allowed others to fall apart and she just swallowed hard, like swallowing a pebble that travelled through her and settled in her core, weighing her down.

When the doctor said, “He didn’t make it,” and this time it was her son, deep in her soul she felt the stirring of the animal instinct to run. Run from this horrible feeling and those frightening words. Instead, she could hardly move. She lifted each foot slowly, lumbered with each step until she reached the pavement just outside the hospital doors.

Her hands covered and held her face as if her head could crash to the ground. The impact of soft raindrops pushed her to her knees. Each new drop forced her features in place, her tears turned to streams of silver and her eyes changed to sapphire stones.

The next morning the city officials moved the mourning figure to the soft green grasses. Family and friends placed flowers at the sculpture base, all of her strength forever set in stone; she could never hurt again.


Mardra Sikora is a freelance ghost writer, marketing consultant, and blogger by day and a fiction writer by night, leaving less time for sleep than one would expect. Her fiction is published in varied literary journals online and in print as well as at www.theinnocentprince.com

Issue No. 8, Spring 2014

Mephistopheles in Miami
Margaret F. Chen

Someone is moving in upstairs.  I know because I heard footsteps up there yesterday, thudding from one end of the apartment to the other.  I had been in my kitchen, preparing my  lunch of iced tea and a grilled cheese sandwich, when I heard the footsteps, and I stopped and listened.  They creaked through all the rooms above, pausing once in the master bedroom, and once in the kitchen—I know where the master bedroom and the kitchen are upstairs because my floor plan (the “Cambria”) is exactly the same as the one above.  Both apartments were vacant when I first called complex’s leasing office two months ago, and I had chosen the lower unit, because I wanted the garden; the upper one has remained empty—until now.  I heard the kitchen window upstairs roll open upon its track, and then slide shut again, snapping back into its lock (he or she must have looked down upon my small, meagerly planted yard).  The footsteps then stumped back across the living room, and down the outside staircase, which is located directly to the right of my front door.  By the time I thought of abandoning my uncut sandwich to look out the peephole in my door, the stranger was gone.  I peered through the half-closed slats of the vertical blinds, but all I could see were the waving shadows of the eucalyptus trees on the sidewalk.  I watched and waited a few more moments, but whoever it was did not come back.

 

 

This occurred on a Friday, and now it is Saturday afternoon.  I am sitting at my cluttered dining-room table—a heavy, wooden, former library cast-off—drinking tea in shadowy darkness (a disadvantage of these “garden units”) while the August sun lingers outside the patio door and slants down upon the fence enclosing the yard.  A neighbor’s air conditioner gives a low and steady hum, and children’s voices rise and fall in the distance, echoing like far-away bells. Someone is singing, too, a melancholy, classical tune in a high, thin voice, probably a pale and willowy music student practicing for a concert. I have not heard the footsteps yet today, but of course, this new tenant probably won’t be moving in right away. He or she must have been just checking the unit out yesterday; maybe he (or she) wanted to get an idea of where the furniture might go.  I am both disappointed and excited by this turn of events. Disappointed because I will be losing the relative peace and quiet that I had possessed, with an empty apartment upstairs, and myself on the ground floor in a corner unit. Excited because there will finally be a new person moving in, and perhaps we can be friends. Since moving to this apartment complex last month, I had been hoping to make some friends, meet some of my neighbors, but I have found little in common with the young families that live here. Because it is summer, the children run about all day, to and from the swimming pool, up and down the paths, shouting at one another, and when they happen to be near my apartment when I venture out, they all stop their noisy activity as if on cue and stare at me.

I don’t blame them. I do seem out of place here—an awkwardly tall, pale, unattached woman, with pinned-up, dark-brown hair, always dressed in possibly too-bright skirts, white blouses, flat shoes, and my floppy-brimmed, brown hat (they probably call me the “hat lady”).  Someone who stays home all day, and doesn’t “go to work.”  I can understand the children’s (and their parents’) curiosity. How do I make my living, for example? If any of them had asked, I would have answered that I was a freelance writer—but, of course, that’s such a vague, unsatisfying answer. Most people—those who have the time, those who are curious, those who have asked in the past—usually want to know more. So I go on to explain that I specifically write biographies—on interesting and accomplished but obscure men and women.  For example, last year I published a biography on the Art Deco painter, Sonya Lampiere; before that, I had completed a work on a rare-orchid breeder, named Marcus Thal.  My focus for the past year has been on George Thomas Bethany, a creator and builder of roller coasters for various amusement parks along the East Coast.  It is because of George Bethany that I am here, in this town—in this very apartment.

 

I had first seen a portrait of Bethany in a small university library, where I had been researching Marcus Thal.  Both had grown up in Brooklyn, where I lived before moving to Florida, and both had graduated from the same school.  I was immediately struck by Bethany’s resemblance to a favorite cousin of mine, James, now living in London—the same whitish-blonde hair, thick eyebrows, light blue eyes, long, bony face, thin mouth, and high cheekbones.  The uncanny resemblance sparked my initial interest in Bethany as my next subject. And when I found out more about Bethany, I knew he would be my next subject.

George Bethany was an American inventor and businessman born in the mid-1800s, an innovator of roller-coaster design; he modeled his “gravity” railways after the coal mining cars of eastern Pennsylvania, and went on to build several of the first commercially successful roller-coasters on the East Coast, and a few in Florida and Chicago.  Besides inventing the modern roller-coaster, he also conceived of the idea of having paying customers for his “pleasure rides”—thus opening up an entire new industry of amusement parks.  After becoming extremely wealthy, George had retired at the age of fifty to this town outside of Miami.  Two of his descendents, Michael Bethany and John Dorset, had started a real estate business, eventually building several hotels and apartment complexes throughout Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, and Texas.  I had already spoken to John Dorset over the phone, and would be meeting with him and his brother sometime next month.  Michael was currently on business overseas in Hong Kong, and John was visiting family in Virginia.  The Grove Apartments, the apartment complex I had chosen, was a resort-style assemblage of cottages, several two-story buildings, and one sprawling, castle-like, central building.  It was built in the 1950s and very conveniently located, close to the city library, restaurants, and Bethany’s former home.  Here I intended to stay—for as long as I needed to.

 

There were many pleasant surprises when I had first moved in, such as the spaciousness of the private backyards, the beautiful, luxuriant flowers and trees.  My garden was bare when I arrived, as I had told requested—only a small patio and a smooth, dirt ground, ready for planting.  So far, I have installed only a few rose bushes and lemon trees, some pots of daylilies and daisies.  The neighbors on my left seem not to have done much with their yard, either; I can see long patches of bare ground through the slats of the fence that separates us; a rusty bike leans against the stucco wall near their patio door, and bright, plastic toys are scattered about.  Sometimes I see someone watering a potted plant hanging outside the patio door.  I always call out hello, if we both happen to be outside at the same time, although I am not sure exactly with whom I am speaking.

Although I don’t know these neighbors well, they are friendly, and we always say hello to each other.  I think they are Vietnamese or Korean (I sometimes accidentally get their mail, addressed to a Rosalyn or Jin Park)—a mom, a dad, a grandmother, and two young children.  Sometimes aunts and uncles or friends visit.  An assortment of shoes—green and yellow and pink striped slippers, tiny red flats, brown loafers—sit in rows on the welcome mat, neatly lining their front entrance.  Once I caught a glimpse of the family, through their open front door, sitting around the table, eating their dinner.  A strong, delicious, tangy smell drifted out upon the summer breeze—limes and coconut, I think.  I went back to my own apartment, and looked up various Vietnamese noodle soup recipes on the internet, but the directions sounded terribly complicated, so I cut up some vegetables and made gazpacho instead.  Anyway, I like the family next door, and the other families I see around the complex, and I like the front office staff.  But I never move beyond the standard small talk with any of them.  They all seem so self-contained, so politely uninterested.  And unfortunately, there has been a complete turnover of all three leasing agents and the manager since I moved in.  I had just gotten on friendly terms with the old manager and the assistants when one by one, they all vanished, to be replaced by at first one and then two, tall blonde, stylish women managers.

 

Over the rest of the week, between organizing new information about George Bethany retrieved from the Museum of Southeastern Florida archives, and typing up the chapter on his mysterious illness and death at the age of fifty-two, I continue to try and catch a glimpse of the new tenant.  But every time I hear footsteps outside on the staircase, and look through the peephole in my front door, I only see the distorted backs of the moving men or the elongated figures of one of the two tall, blonde apartment managers.  Where was the tenant?  I catch a glimpse of a petite woman, with cropped, dark hair, and excitedly think, “She must be the one.”  But I see her again, later, just as I am coming home from getting groceries, walking beside a tall, balding man in khaki shorts and a brown-and-gray striped polo shirt.  They do not match each other—he is dressed like a middle-management type in his weekend clothes, and she in a bright yellow pantsuit.  I hear the man say, “…and then she passed away last summer.”  It is in the hopeful tone of a lonely man out on a first date, trying too hard, telling too much too soon, things that are too private.  I figure out, from this conversation, that the lonely man and the cropped-haired woman are not together—she is in all likelihood a new leasing assistant whom I have not yet met, merely showing the upstairs apartment to a prospect.   Yet, only a few days ago I had watched men in white shirts and black shorts, a sort of moving company uniform, I think, hauling a queen-size mattress and a mirrored dresser up the stairs.  They had moved other things up too but I quit watching after the bed and the dresser.  I was sure I would see the new tenants that very evening, when I picked up my mail by the front office.  But no one ever did appear.

 

On Sunday, I take a break from the illness and death chapters.  I think these chapters are beginning to get to me—last night I dreamed I was floating in a stagnant swimming pool, one that was draining slowly, and I could see greenish moss growing on the smooth walls of the pool.  I am never very hungry in the mornings, but today, after the dream, the bland, brown toast and tea look even more unappetizing than usual.  The Sunday paper sits on the table, with its black headlines and smeary photos.  I feel tired and dull and can’t bring myself to pick up the inky paper, not even flip to the book reviews or the Style section for a jolt of entertainment.  Instead, I put on one of my father’s records—Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons—and sit and stare at the mass of photos and collection of magnets covering my refrigerator—souvenirs from amusement parks, cities, and state parks; magnets shaped like leaves and cans of soda or chocolate bars, or resembling old-fashioned signs or comic books or replicas of famous paintings.  I am very fond of my magnets, each one collected at a different place and time.  My favorite magnet is a black and white, 1950s photo of a man and woman—husband and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend, I assume—riding a roller coaster, laughing and bravely waving their hands in the air as they plunge down the five-hundred foot track; “The Inferno:  Coney Island!” is printed in a curly, circus-script above their smiling faces.  The Inferno was one of George Bethany’s roller-coasters.  I think of how ironic the name, The Inferno, is—George Bethany himself had been a devout man and former Sunday school teacher.  There is a sense of defiance in it all, though.  The man and woman laugh and seem to say:  See?  We’re flying down on The Inferno—it’s fun!  It’s nothing at all!

I may love my magnets more, I’m afraid, than the photos they frame and surround on the refrigerator.  There are photos of me, at different ages; photos of old school friends and old boyfriends.  There is one of James, wearing a fedora  and smoking a fat cigar; I confess, I had a crush on James as a teenager, although he is now married, to a childhood classmate, named Therese.  I hear from James and Therese occasionally—around Christmas, and whenever they visit their friends in New York City.

There are also many photos of my parents.  My father had been a professional photographer before he died; I was about four years old then.  He had taken hundreds of pictures of our little family.  But my mother, unable or unwilling to organize the bulk of these after he died, kept only the albums and a few of her favorites, and gave most of these pictures to me.  I don’t remember anything about my father, and I was never close to my mother (she fell apart after my father’s death and ceased paying much attention to me—you could say that I mostly brought up myself).  Most of the photos have, in fact, taken on an insistently happy yet strangely impersonal frozen aura, like the patient photos crammed onto the bulletin board at my dentist’s office—pictures of smiling strangers, engaged energetically in activities I know nothing about.  I have mulled over many of my refrigerator photos, and it seems they could be interchangeable with the ones at my dentist’s office.  I don’t know that toddler girl with the curly hair in the yellow dress, holding onto her father’s hand, frowning into the camera, or sitting in a field of daisies, laughing in her mother’s arms—this must be another child.  Yet, she looks like me.

 

That evening, dozing in front of the news, with photos of George Bethany and of his roller-coasters on the coffee table, waiting to be sorted, I hear something upstairs, a bumping noise.  My eyes open wide.  It must be my new neighbor, as it is Sunday, and there wouldn’t be any of the office staff working now.  There is the sound of the tap being turned on in the bathroom—the water rushes on and on, like a waterfall muffled behind a cave wall, and I assume that someone is taking a bath.  Then the tap squeaks shut; there is singing, a scratchy tenor voice, in a foreign language, as from a recording—not quite opera, definitely not something contemporary.   Who would listen to such music in the bathtub?  I imagine a woman, with aromatic candles set up all around the darkened room.  Yet, the footsteps that creak on my ceiling, after awhile, sound heavy, like a man’s, not a woman’s.   The television above turns on—the news, just like on my own television.  My watch says six o’clock—it isn’t too late.  I can go upstairs, make up some excuse to meet this new person.

There is no one outside, and even the birds are silent; the waning sun has disappeared behind a bank of grey clouds, and the wind waves the slender trees back and forth.  I peer up at the outside staircase and see lights seeping through the window blinds in the upstairs apartment.  I run up and knock on the door; there is no answer, although I can hear the television.  I knock again.  It finally occurs to me that this person is not going to answer the door.  I don’t think he or she can hear me.  I climb back down the stairs, and go back into my apartment.  A thudding noise from outside my patio door electrifies me; at first, I am rooted to the carpeted floor.  But then I run towards the sound, slide open the glass patio door, and step outside.  I am in my fenced-in, dusty garden—the sun edges out from behind the fast-moving clouds, and late sunlight illuminates the yard once more.  The six-foot privacy fence has a door which I rarely use, leading out to the parking lot and down past the walled-in backyards of single-family homes, and I see that this fence door is slightly ajar.   But, if someone had been here—wouldn’t there be footprints in the dirt, leading towards the door?  There aren’t any.  I peek out around the gate before latching it again—there is a shadow walking away, sauntering down the sidewalk past the houses of the neighborhood.  It is a very tall, thin shadow—that of a man’s, wearing something like a blazer and trousers.  I can’t tell what color his hair or clothes are, because he is too far away, but they look dark, whether due to evening shadows or their natural color. The man seems to be enjoying the sunset, not in any hurry at all.  He picks off a flower from a tree hanging over a wall from someone’s backyard, tucks it into his blazer pocket, and continues down the street.

 

The television upstairs chatters all night, keeping me awake, and in the morning, I feel dazed from lack of sleep.  I call the new maintenance man—Albert, a tanned, barrel-shaped man with two dark-brown commas for a mustache—who arrives at nine, and allows me to go upstairs with him to see what is going on.  He knocks on the door, and unlocks it, when there is no answer.  The light is still on in the living room, and just as I have insisted to Albert all along, the television is talking away.

“Well,” says Albert. “That’s really strange.”

“Strange?  Why?” I ask. “Who lives here now?”

“No one,” he says. “This is a model unit.”

I look around, and sure enough the furniture is all immaculate and perfect, in a generic sort of way—an olive-colored upholstered sofa set; the cream and brown square-patterned rug; the matching glass coffee and end tables; the white, wood dining set.

“But,” I say,” why did you knock if you knew this was a model unit?”

Albert shrugs.  “I don’t know.  I mean, with you telling me about the television and all. Maybe there was someone living here. The office don’t always tell me everything.”

“I heard someone here last night,” I say.  “Taking a bath.”  I hurry into the bathroom, but everything is in dark and perfect order—the fluffy, brown bath mat; the dry, folded towels; the unused bar of soap by the sink.

Albert says, “It don’t look like  no one was here.  Maybe you hear a different neighbor?”

 

A model apartment—of course, that explains everything.  I am relieved the mystery is over.  Yet there is a nagging feeling, a lot of things don’t quite fit; I resolve to call the front office later to hear what they had to say about Albert’s report; I wanted this straightened out, once and for all.  It is obvious to me that the leasing staff doesn’t communicate well with either tenants or maintenance.  Not only was there never any notice when the old staff left and the new people started, now Albert has confessed the office doesn’t always tell him what is going on.  If the upstairs apartment is a model unit, for example, who has been using it?  Why doesn’t Albert know who it is?  Someone had been taking a bath there, watching television, for godssakes. Why wasn’t he more interested or concerned?  Was it that man I saw behind the parking lot?  Was it even safe here?  That man could have been in my backyard, although I am beginning to question whether I had really heard that thud outside my patio door yesterday.  I find myself going over different scenarios—maybe someone is about to move in and Albert doesn’t know it yet, maybe someone is sneaking in—that tall, thin man!—and using the apartment, maybe someone has already rented the unit—one of the leasing agents, for example—and that man was the boyfriend; these are the only explanations I can think of at the moment.  I can’t think about it anymore, as my editor calls and wants to know where my next George Bethany chapters are; I draw the blinds in my bedroom, sit at my cramped desk, and try to work.

 

By noon I have sifted through all the published material surrounding Bethany’s death—family testimonials, autopsy reports (death by drowning), health records, newspaper and magazine articles—and start writing.  I also have plenty of my own material to work with, having conducted several interviews last year with various, scattered descendents—some were still living in Brooklyn, some in the Midwest, a great grandson and his wife and their grandchildren were out in Southern California.  There is something really off about George Bethany’s death—how could someone who was once a high-school swimming champion just drown on a boating trip taken on a calm, clear-skied day?  This mystery preoccupies me so thoroughly, I forget about calling the apartment office about the upstairs mystery.  When I finally remember to do this, at around three in the afternoon, the line is busy.   It is past five when I think about walking to the office in person; I decide to go there first thing in the morning.

I am searching in my refrigerator for something to make for dinner, when I hear shuffling noises upstairs again.  Just like yesterday, the tap in the bathroom turns on.  I hear the same music, and then, again, footsteps to the living room.  I hurry outside and up the staircase, remembering too late that I have no shoes on, and my hair and clothes are awry.

The front door to the apartment is open.  Someone says, “Come in.”  Where have I heard that voice before?  I know it—a smooth, melodious voice, with a hint of laughter just beneath.  If I had a favorite kind of voice, that would be it.  Sitting at the white dining table is the tall, thin man I saw yesterday, slowly walking down the sidewalk—or, I think it is the same man.  There is a lavender vase of purple and white orchids (which was not there yesterday) and two porcelain cups of tea (somehow, I know it is tea) arranged precisely on the table.  As for the person sitting in front of me, there is something very familiar about him.  His longish hair is not dark, as I imagined last night, but very blond, almost white in color, as are his long eyelashes and thick eyebrows.  His eyes are such a light blue, they look almost colorless, and his face is angular, with a high forehead and cheekbones.  He is very pale, and dressed rather formally and very warmly, for an August afternoon—a tweed blazer, pressed trousers, an oxford shirt, polished loafers.  This man—he is not handsome, although individually, his features are quite good.

This man looks somewhat familiar.

He looks like my cousin, James.

No—like George Bethany.

Like James.

I realize that I am shaking a little—from nervousness, from shock, or both.  Instead of moving backwards, however—carefully back out the door and down the stairs—I walk forward.

“Amanda Genevieve Langdon,” he says.  “Greetings.”

“How did you know my name?”

“I overheard,” he says. “Somewhere.”

From Albert, I thought.  But I wondered when Albert had ever called me by my full name.  “You live here then?”

“Yes.”

“But I was told this was a model unit.”

He laughs, and his pale eyes suddenly seemed to take on a warmer, deeper color for a moment, but maybe I just imagine that.

I persist (rather rudely, I admit), “Where are you from?  Was that you I heard up here yesterday?”

“Probably,” he says.  “I’m sorry—was I being loud?”

Here I flush a little, as I know I speak rather loudly myself sometimes, when I am on the phone.  What had he heard?

The man continues, sly and smiling, “Don’t worry, I’ll try to be more quiet.  Would you like some tea?”  He nods towards the cups on the table.  I wonder how he knew I would be coming.  It is just a coincidence, I tell myself.  He might have tea every afternoon at this time.  The extra cup is for any visitors who might drop by.  When he sees my hesitation, he says, jokingly, “Don’t be afraid.  It’s just tea.  I promise.”

I step up to the table, and suddenly poke him in the arm.  He does not look surprised, and I am not surprised that he isn’t surprised.

“You’re real,” I say.

“Of course.”

“Who are you?”

“But I’ve told you.  I’m your neighbor.”

“You look like my cousin, James,” I say. “A little.”

The man smiles, “That, I think, is a compliment.  But I am not James—my name is Richard.”  He takes a long sip of tea, and then clears his throat, as if he is about to give a lecture.  “You’ve been working too hard, Amanda.  All that work and where does it get you?  No friends, no family, a one-bedroom apartment, here in…The Grove Apartments—,” here he makes an exaggerated flourish with his right arm and rolls his eyes.  “And so, here I am.  To help you.  I know what you’ve been up to.  Your search to understand certain persons—difficult, elusive persons, I know.  ‘Those who know her know her less—the nearer they get.’  Or maybe I should say ‘him’?  Who said that, by the way?”

“Emily Dickinson.”

“Yes.  Emily.”  The man says this as if he knows her, and I laugh out loud at his ridiculousness.  He laughs, too, good-naturedly.  He has beautiful, white teeth, which, again, doesn’t surprise me at all.

“You’ve chosen some interesting people, haven’t you,” he says.

“What do you mean?”

“Take George Bethany, for instance.  His rivals killed him.  You find that hard to believe. Don’t you?  That people whose business it is to amuse others would resort to that kind of thing.  And George was such a generous, kind-hearted man.”

I am stunned into a long silence.  The abandoned swimming pool from my dreams forms itself again in my mind—I had read about Bethany’s death by drowning over and over again in the papers.  All accounts had insisted that he had fallen off his boat, while sailing with his wife and another couple, their best friends.

I say slowly, “The newspapers said it was an accident.  I checked every single article and interview.  The hospital and death records.  All of them confirm it was an accident.”  But I know that what Richard says is true.  It had occurred to me, despite all the “official” reports I had read in my research.  Bethany had been hiding out in southeastern Florida.  Who would believe roller coaster inventors had any enemies?

“That’s what I like about you, Amanda.  You do a good job.”

“What do you mean?” I say. “How do you know what I do?”  I back away, torn between wanting to continue my conversation with this Richard, and thinking I should call the police as soon as I get back downstairs.  This man, after all, might be some kind of lunatic or stalker, although he looked like neither.  Just get downstairs, I tell myself.  Pretend you aren’t scared.

Richard laughs again—an open, innocent, almost boisterous laugh.  He begins to hum something familiar.  I have the urge to laugh, too, and suddenly, I relax a bit.

“This is all a joke,” I say, maybe more to myself than Richard.  “I wanted someone to talk to, I needed someone—and so you came, is that it?  Someone sent you.  Who?  Who sent you?”

“No one sent me, Amanda,” Richard says patiently.  “I’m sorry if I alarmed you.  Let me assure you—I am your friend.  Your neighbor.  That’s all you need to know for now.  But you’re tired.  So good night—for now.  Come back later—tomorrow maybe.  We’ll talk about your work.  George Bethany.  Anything you like.  Whatever is on your mind.”

The door, I notice now, is open—had it been like that, the entire time?  Had anyone else seen?  I hurry down the stairs without looking back at Richard, but a sensation of dizziness hits me, and I sit down on the hard, bottom step, and lean my head against the handrail.  Everything becomes a little blurry, and I try to focus on the neat row of shoes lined up in front of the Parks’ door.  They remind me of my own feet, bare and cold—I have the overwhelming urge to slip my feet into a pair of those shoes.  The fluffy slippers look comfortable and warm.  I notice that the father’s loafers are missing, which means he probably hasn’t come home from work yet.  The mother’s red slippers are also missing.  But strangely, I see them—the missing red slippers—coming towards me on the sidewalk—with Mrs. Park’s white-socked feet in them.  The sequins on the shoes sparkle in the waning sunlight.  I squint up at her; she is carrying the mail.

“Miss Amanda?”  Mrs. Park’s high, tiny voice floats down.  “Are you okay?”

After a minute or two, I tell her quite crisply that I am fine, although I can’t seem to lift my head from the iron handrails.

“You don’t look okay.”  Mrs. Parks hauls me up—she’s surprisingly strong, tiny as she is—and I lean on her soft, sweatered arm.  I sneak a look up at the upstairs apartment, but the door is closed and the window is dark.

“Mrs. Park,” I say suddenly, pointing upstairs.  “Do you know who the new tenant is?”

“No new tenant,” she says, with raised eyebrows.  “Mr. Richard Bethany lives there.  He used to be in another apartment.  Over there,” she waves vaguely in the opposite direction, towards the pool and main office.  “His family owns the complex.  And others, too.”  Of course, I think, shuddering a little.  Richard Bethany is Michael Bethany’s son; he was supposed to be traveling with his father.  But instead, here he is, and I didn’t know why.  And moving into the apartment above mine was definitely not a coincidence.  His father must have told him I was coming.  Richard said he was here to help, after all.  Now I will be able to find out what really happened to George Bethany.  I would set the record straight about his death.  And Richard, his descendent, this terribly handsome man—someone who looks like my cousin, James, no less—is here to help me with my latest, my greatest—and my last—biography.

What more could I have asked for?

 

The sweet smell of orange blossoms is so overpowering that I become unsteady and almost fall again.  I had never noticed such a heavy concentration of the flowers by the stairs before.  Mrs. Park feels me swaying and grabs hold of my arm even tighter.

So I know that I’ll be going up to see my friend, Richard, again soon.   But for now, Mrs. Park and I walk together, stumble rather, towards her warm, good-smelling apartment.  I know I’ll be safe there, even if it is for just a little while.


Margaret F. Chen’s stories have appeared in Monkeybicycle, The Medulla Review, Metazen, The Legendary, Yesteryear Fiction, and other journals. She has twice been nominated for the UCLA Writers’ Program Kirkwood Prize, won Second Place in the 2012 Bacopa Literary Review Contest for Short Fiction, and was a Finalist in the September 2011 Glimmer Train Fiction Open.