Issue No. 17, Summer 2016

There Go I

Sucking a last breath of office air, Frank pushed open the door and smacked into the city heat. He fixed his gaze on the corner walk light and strode past the ragged man sitting on the sidewalk. He reached the end of the block while loosening his tie, sweating.

The light changed, and he crossed in a business-clad throng, well, except for the old woman shuffling behind a shopping cart. He tried to edge his way around her, to no avail. Why did she have to be out at rush hour? If he could only cross the street, a martini and a cool apartment were a short subway ride away.

If only.

When she finally reached the median, the light changed.

Frank placed himself between the shopping cart and a planter, determined to cross in front of her. Whose idea was it to spend taxpayer money putting flowers on a city median? Like anyone could relax on one of the benches, listening to buses and breathing hot fumes. And yet a man sat, wild-eyed, dirty. Worn. Frank looked deeper. Not old. Decent shape. Clean him up and he could earn a living. And dignity. What was wrong with people?

Shopping cart woman reached beneath a pile of junk and pulled out a bottle of water, which she handed to the seated man. He set down his book and nodded his thanks.

“The Lord helps those who help themselves,” Frank muttered.

“That’s not in the Bible, you know,” the ragged man said. The light changed, and Frank leapt out in front of shopping cart woman.

“Judge not, that ye be not judged,” she called after him as he ran down the subway steps.

“Crazy people.” Frank dashed onto his train and grabbed a handstrap, staring into nothing, keeping up his guard until he was in his building’s lobby, the world safely on the other side of a door.

Finally home upstairs, he drank the cool air. Changed into a tee shirt and old sweats. Fixed himself a martini. Helping himself.

That’s not in the Bible. The bench man’s utterance niggled at him while he sank into the cold leather couch and flipped through channels.

“Of course it is,” he said. “Where else do people talk about the Lord?”

He stopped flipping when a news story caught his attention. Protesters. Rich kids thinking they’re saving the world. Except Sara had been an activist. She even got him to haul food from farmers markets to food pantries. And it had been fun, riding with her peppy optimism in a rickety pickup loaded with overripe melons. But then came graduation and adulthood.

“Grow up,” he said to the TV.

Judge not.

Why was shopping cart lady still in his head? Surely, she got wherever she was going by now, trudging with a buggy full of junk and handing out water to screwed up people.

That’s not in the Bible.

“Oh yes it is, dammit.” Frank fixed himself another drink and pulled up Netflix. It had been a trying day, and it wasn’t over yet. His ad campaign had flopped. Hard. He was going to have to rescue it before they lost an important client. But first, a movie. A hardworking man deserved a break.

That’s not in the . . .

“Shut up!” He turned up the volume.

By the third drink, he began searching the Bible Grandma Ellen gave him when he graduated. Sermon on the Mount? John?

The movie ended, unnoticed.

Matthew 7:1 yielded the shopping cart lady’s words. Judge not, that ye be not judged. He reread the passage twice, trying to make sense of the old english. Of anything.

It was past midnight. The gin bottle was nearly empty. But it hadn’t been full when he started, had it? The Lord helps those who help themselves.

He closed his eyes, picturing Sunday school. Was the quote displayed on the wall? All he saw was Sara dressed in pretty church clothes while coloring Jesus pictures, her pigtails tied with ribbons. He recalled his feet squeezed into stupid shiny loafers when he wanted to be wearing sneakers and climbing trees with the Jewish neighbor kids.

Jews. Old Testament, that was it. The words of a wrathful God.

Fresh air and a fresh perspective. Frank carried his Bible to a nearby coffee shop. It wasn’t until he ordered a double espresso, that he remembered he was wearing old sweats. No pockets, no wallet.

“I can give you a suspended coffee,” the pretty barista offered. She reminded him of Sara, who had joined Americorps while Frank was in grad school.

“A what?”

“Some people pay extra so needy people can get a cup of coffee even if they can’t pay.” She poured a small coffee and handed it to him with a sweet smile.

“But, but I’m not needy,” he said.

“You’re at a coffeehouse in the middle of the night with only a Bible. Here, really. Take this. It’s okay.”

Mumbling thanks, he added cream and sugar even though he had sworn off sugar, and settled into an armchair beneath a lamp.

Beginning with only darkness, Frank read through Moses leading the Jews from slavery, saw how they created an idol even after the parting of the Red Sea. They witnessed miracles and they still turned away.

He read on. By the time he decided Ezekiel was doing hallucinogens, his eyes burned, unable to focus. Outside the window of the coffeehouse, parked cars grayed in the early dawn. He rose stiffly and walked to the counter.

“Refill?” asked the barista.

He shook his head. “My, my phone is at home. Can you look up something for me? There’s this quote, the Lord helps those who help themselves. I’ve been trying to find it, and I should have just googled –”

She looked past him, to the next customer in line. “Good morning, Dr. Steinberg. Maybe you can answer this gentleman’s question.” She began making a cappuccino without waiting for him to order.

“Add a suspended coffee.” The professor handed the barista his credit card and turned to Frank. “Ancient Greece, son.” With a nod, he turned and carried his cappuccino into the new day.

Frank sat, dazed, while three baristas replaced the overnight one. He watched her leave, weaving her way through the work-clothed men and women pushing through the door. He wanted to go after her, to thank her, but he was afraid. He heard “suspended coffee” added to some of the orders. The few who glanced at him turned away as though they hadn’t seen him.

He knew he should go shower and drag himself to the office. But he needed to find the shopping cart lady. He would let her know he understood now. He was sorry, even if he wasn’t clear what he was sorry for. If only he could think. He picked up his Bible and left the shop.

A bus roared by. Taxi’s honked. The jumble of voices filled his head as he stumbled through the throngs. He saw a man with a Navy tattoo sleeping on the steps of a church, and vowed to buy him breakfast as soon as he had a wallet again. Except there were suspended coffees, from people who instinctively knew what it had taken him all night to learn.

The light changed before he was through crossing the broad boulevard. Exhausted, he sat on one of the benches in the median while traffic crept by, resting his stubbly face in his hands.

“The Lord helps those who help themselves.”

Frank looked up to see a designer-suited man staring at him from beyond the planter of orange and yellow daisies. “That’s not in the Bible,” he said.

“Of course it is.”

The light changed and the crowd crossed, all except the old woman next to him, the one pushing a shopping cart. She reached beneath her pile of junk and handed Frank a bottle of water.

“It’s a Greek quote,” he continued, twisting off the cap. “Won’t you sit down with me and enjoy these wonderful flowers?”

“Later, dear. There’s a man I need to catch up with.” Without waiting for the light, she pushed her shopping cart out into the morning traffic. The cars parted for her like the Red Sea.

Frank sipped the water and the world grew bright.


Nina Fortmeyer is a pastry chef, enamelist and writer from Nashville, TN, where she lives with her husband, a slightly peculiar dog and a passel of scenic chickens. Her writing has appeared in Nashville Noir, Everyday Fiction, 101 Words, and Origami Journal. She’s a contest reader for the Claymore Dagger Award and a volunteer at the Killer Nashville Writers Conference.

Issue No. 17, Summer 2016

What Jeannie Needs

The day Jeannie Jameson met Thomas McGrady threatened storms all afternoon. Jeannie walked home from her job at the Sister Sally snack cake factory beneath a darkly clouded, rumbling sky, holding her umbrella at the ready. Despite the threat of rain, she took the longer path that wound along the river instead of walking through town. The town council had constructed the Blue River Trail in the hopes that citizens would pursue outdoor activities like hiking and biking locally instead of driving out to the big state parks. A few joggers and dog walkers used it, but the line of abandoned Nikolai Vodka bottles, Keystone Ice cans, and hypodermic needles pointed to the trail’s main users.

Jeannie’s imagination was good enough that she could wipe the trash from her mind and pretend that the thin line of trees and weeds separating the trail from industrial complexes was a full forest, that the river’s muddy, green water was clear and blue, and that she was Snow White strolling through the woods. The pigeons, starlings, and sparrows picking at the trash became her helpful companions. Upon their arrival at the woodland shed in which they dwelled, the birds would help Jeannie wash the dishes from the day before, make dinner, and tidy the rest of the house before her father—maybe—came home. The sheriff was always on call, and kept his own hours.

Thunder cracked in the distance. Jeannie pulled the Velcro strap off her umbrella, then flexed her fingers, working out the ache from her day at the factory. She’d been working there for three months now, ever since she graduated high school. She thought her body would adjust, but every day she came home with aches in her feet, legs, and back from standing still in front of the production line that brought baked vanilla cupcakes stuffed with vanilla icing down the conveyor belt for her inspection. She had to work quickly, checking each cupcake to make sure it met company standards. Good cupcakes went back on the belt, bad ones got dumped into a large bin behind her. The repetitive motion of lifting and turning the cupcakes left a constant, low-level cramp in both hands.

The birds had fallen silent, and the wind slammed tree branches into each other. Jeannie had paused to watch the trees flail helplessly when a boy in muddy jeans startled her into dropping her umbrella.

“Hi,” the boy said. He was sitting on a fallen log by the river bank. He took a bite out of a red apple. His brown skin stood out against his white t-shirt, smudged with dirt. Jeannie could hear the crunch of the apple between his teeth. He held another apple out to her, eyebrows raised in a question.

Jeannie bent to retrieve her umbrella. “Excuse me.”

The boy laughed. He stood and crossed the distance between them. “I’m Thomas McGrady. You’re Jeannie Jameson.”

He held out his hand, and Jeannie took it without thinking. It felt rough and firm. The scent of apples was on his breath.

“How’d you know my name?” Jeannie took a step back, but the wind pushed against her forward, as if it wanted her to stay close to Thomas McGrady.

“Jeannie, you’re the sheriff’s daughter. Everyone knows who you are. He’s said himself on public television that he’ll shoot any boy or man who comes near you without his permission.” Thomas took another bite of his apple. “And I don’t think he’s kidding.”

Jeannie narrowed her eyes and tightened her grip on her umbrella. The trees thrashed. “No,” she said, “I imagine my father isn’t kidding. I don’t think he’d know a joke if it bit him in the butt.” She glanced at the roiling sky, then back at Thomas. “You came near me. Think you’re going to get shot?”

Thomas grinned, and took a step closer to Jeannie. “If there’s any shooting, I’ll be the one doing it.”

Something thrilled deep within Jeannie. This boy was flirting with her, and it was entirely different from when the factory foreman flatly complimented her appearance or tried to get her to laugh at a stupid joke. Thomas McGrady was openly defying her father. The few times she dared to disobey her father he beat her so badly she’d had to stay home from school for a week while her bruises faded and her cuts healed. She carried her fear of him locked in a chest of resentment and fury. Meeting someone who wasn’t afraid of the sheriff made her feel a little braver, a little more dangerous. Jeannie grinned back at Thomas, and before she could process what was happening, he was kissing her, his lips warm against her own, the taste of a fresh, crisp apple traveling across her tongue.

He broke away slowly. “Do you wanna get out of here?”

Jeannie drew a half circle in the gravel, trying to hold back feelings and thoughts that were coming at her too quickly to understand. “What do you mean?”

“Things are a little exposed here.” Thomas grinned.

She stared at him. “I think I know what you’re asking me, but I don’t even know you.”

“Okay,” Thomas said. “What if I meet you here tomorrow after your shift? I’ll walk you home. We can talk.”

“I don’t even know you,” Jeannie whispered.

Thomas kissed her again. It was a slow, measured kiss. He took his time, lingered. When he stepped back, he said, “You do now. Tomorrow. It’s a date, right?” then turned and walked down the path, waving as he left.

Jeannie stood there a moment longer before making her own way home, waiting for the rain that never came.

 

*   *   *

 

Jeannie spent that night sitting on the couch, staring at her long-dead mother’s Bible, focused on Thomas’s final words and kiss before he’d left her standing alone in that impotent storm.

The Jamesons lived on the outskirts of a mobile home park on the outskirts of town. It still bore Anita Jameson’s soft touches: pastel curtains that matched the beige carpets and accented the ivory walls hung with family portraits and landscapes painted by students at the local community college. Neither Jeannie nor her father had been to church since Anita Jameson’s funeral twelve years ago, but Anita’s Bible, her name stamped in gold leaf on the cover, still sat on the end table by the couch, unopened and untouched.

Jeannie thought she should have been thinking more about the first kiss, because it was her first-ever kiss, and it had come out of nowhere, from a boy she didn’t know. But that one, she thought, was only an introduction. The whole meeting made her want to curl up inside herself, but expand outwards at the same time. She could still feel the echoes of it, tingling all through her mouth, loosening the lid on that box of fears deep within.

But that didn’t mean she knew him, did it? She didn’t know where he lived, or what he did for a living, or even how old he was. Did any of it matter? Was that all she was, Jeannie Jameson the Sister Sally Snack Cake Factory Worker? Of course not. She spent her day there, that’s all. Her mind kept going back to the way his lips felt on her lips, the way he tasted of apples. Something so familiar, the tartness of apples, she’d never thought about it before. She went into the kitchen to see if the refrigerator was hiding any apples.

 

*   *   *

 

After another hand- and back-numbing day at the factory spent trying to ignore the foreman’s lingering glances, Jeannie found Thomas waiting in the same place. He held out an apple out to her, and this time she took it. She thought of Snow White taking the poisoned apple from the evil queen, but decided to be bold. Its meat was yellow-white under shiny red skin, and it tasted like Thomas.

“Where do you get these?” she asked, her mouth still full. “It’s not anywhere close to apple time.”

Thomas laughed. “They’re good, aren’t they? My family grows them in our orchard. This kind, Heavenly Red, stores incredibly well all winter. We have a small orchard down the river a ways.”

Without explicitly agreeing to, they started walking in the direction of Jeannie’s house. Clouds still hung low in the sky, but the wind had died in the night, leaving behind felled branches and a mess of chip wrappers and Styrofoam cups scattered along the trail.

“What brings you up here?” Jeannie asked. She was aware of the distance between their bodies, but unsure if she wanted to close it, or if she wanted Thomas to close it, or if she wanted it to remain open.

Thomas looked at her and grinned. “You.”

Jeannie felt herself blush. The blush more than Thomas’s cheesy pickup line embarrassed her, deepening her blush. She retaliated by giving Thomas a light shove. “I’m serious!”

The grin stayed on his face. “We sell produce and preserves and things like that in town a few times a week.”

A small group of pigeons pecking at an ant-infested piece of bread clucked at their approach and fluttered away.

“Why have I never seen you before?” Jeannie asked.

Thomas cocked an eyebrow at her. “You’ve bought things from us, at the summer farmer’s market.”

Jeannie’s eyes went wide. “No way! I would have recognized you.”

“Sure. Seventh Day Orchard. You buy our peach berry jam all the time.”

Jeannie stopped all together. She put a hand on her mouth. “That’s your orchard?” She loved that peach berry jam, especially over cream cheese on bagels. But she didn’t remember Thomas from the little stand at the farmer’s market held on the fairgrounds at the edge of town. How could she forget the way that grin made her feel off-balance, like she might topple over if she stopped focusing on standing?

Thomas laughed again. “Yes. You buy from my mother. I always do the heavy lifting. We never met face to face before yesterday.”

A spark of irritation flared in Jeannie’s stomach, but then she was laughing too. “You…” She didn’t know what to say, so she made to chase him down. He sensed it and started running a second before she did. Jeannie ran track in high school, though, and her muscles remembered how to sprint. She reveled in the physical sensation of her muscles lengthening and contracting, especially when she caught Thomas a minute later. She grabbed his shirt and pulled, and their legs got tangled up together, and they both went down.

“What are you going to do with me now that you caught me?” Thomas asked, his breath heavy.

“I hadn’t thought that far ahead.” Jeannie took a secret delight in the fact that she didn’t sound winded.

Thomas wrapped a hand around the back of her neck and pulled her into a kiss. “I think this is always appropriate.”

The sound of heavy footsteps and hard breathing down the trail made Jeannie jump up. “Not when there are other people around, maybe.”

Two joggers in fluorescent yellow jackets huffed past.

The almost discovery sent her heart beating faster than the short sprint had. “I should walk the rest of the way home myself,” Jeannie said. “In case my father’s there.”

Thomas narrowed his eyes. “Okay. I’ll meet you at the same place tomorrow.” He pulled Jeannie in close. “I’ll meet you at the same place every day.”

Jeannie looked up at him. He only had a few inches on her, but it wasn’t his physical height that made her feel so much shorter. “All right. I’ll see you tomorrow.” She decided to be bold, for the second time that day, and reached up to kiss him, thinking that now she was the one who must taste like apples.

 

*   *   *

 

The sheriff had not come home for three days. Not since Jeannie met Thomas. Jeannie was glad when her father did not appear those several days, at least at first. Little by little, she grew nervous, wondering when he might be home. His long absence wasn’t entirely unusual. The bad weather had continued, culminating in a terrifying thunder storm the night before. The power had gone out for several hours. There were sure to be accidents, and the sheriff had only five deputies. Or, a big case could have broken. When something like that happened, he often worked around the clock for days.

Anita Jameson had kept a clean house, and Jeannie had learned early that dirt had no place past the welcome mat outside the front door. While Jeannie’s father had no tolerance for dirt in his household, he also had no tolerance for cleaning, so the work fell to Jeannie. Since she’d met Thomas, she hadn’t touched so much as a dish rag. She couldn’t bring herself to. The thought of it made her stomach writhe. Three days’ worth of dishes lay spread out on the counter. Dust collected on the picture frames and window ledges. If her father came home and saw this he would—

The grumbling roar of an approaching motorcycle shook Jeannie from her thoughts. She hoped it would pass by, but it grew louder and then the sound changed to an idle before it cut off with a choking pop. Jeannie counted her heartbeats until the door opened. She heard the thud of heavy work boots hitting the floor and then the soft padding of stocking feet on the carpet. Her father’s big frame appeared in the entryway.

“Jeannie,” he said.

Jeannie didn’t move.

“I won’t be here long. Big drug bust downtown. Thirty good-for-nothings rounded up. Fifty million dollars’ worth of heroin. You believe it?” He moved toward the kitchen. “What’s there to eat?”

Jeannie still didn’t move. She felt as though the fibers of the couch had grown into her skin. “Ravioli. In the fridge,” she said.

Two more strides and he’d be in the kitchen. She held her breath without meaning to.

“Girl.” The word came out soft, almost a question. “Get in here.”

Jeannie moved. She reached the kitchen before he finished speaking.

“Get my dinner, and tell me what you’ve been doing for the past three days while I’ve been working nonstop for your bread and butter.” He sat down at the table, and stared hard at Jeannie. She wondered if that was the same stare he used on criminals, or if he had some harder look she’d never seen. She doubted it.

Jeannie looked away from him. Her fingers trembled as she opened the refrigerator and pulled out the blue Tupperware container of ravioli. She tightened her grip on the container to steady her hand, and thought of Thomas’s lips on her lips, and the endless line of vanilla cupcakes coming toward her on the line, and her mother’s Bible on the table. Jeannie decided to tell a lie.

“I’ve been sick, Daddy.” She moved over to the microwave, keeping her gaze on the Tupperware. “It was real bad for a day or two, and I just got behind on the housework.”

“Did you miss any time at the factory?”

“No, I made it to work.” Jeannie punched in two minutes on the microwave and watched the container rotate behind the glass.

“Good.” Her father paused. The hum of the microwave filled the small kitchen. “You feeling better?”

Jeannie was about to say yes when another brilliant idea came to her. “I mean, I’m all right, I guess, but I had a long day and all and…”

The sheriff grunted. “I don’t need to be getting sick right now. You better get to bed, save your strength for work.”

Jeannie nodded, and left the kitchen without a word, her heart flapping at her successful treachery.

 

*   *   *

 

Jeannie’s light mood from deceiving her father continued throughout the next day, despite her cramping hands and aching feet, despite the foreman’s usual attempts to flirt with her. She had more patience for the poor man now that she had her meeting with Thomas to look forward to every day. She would humor him.

It was one of the town’s best known secrets that Joseph Belinsky was well connected politically and good friends with the sheriff. Because of that, and because he had begun his courtship attempts the day Jeannie was hired at the factory—the day after she graduated high school—, Jeannie suspected her father’s hand in the whole affair. She didn’t doubt his interest—the way he looked her up and down when he thought she wasn’t looking was real enough—but she wondered why her father had chosen a factory worker nearing thirty for his eighteen-year-old daughter. She supposed she was just another political favor her father was doling out to his friends, nothing more. The thought of it brought the taste of vomit to her mouth.

When Joseph made his rounds, he hung around Jeannie.

“You look good today,” Joseph said.

“Thanks.” Jeannie didn’t know what else to say. She didn’t want to encourage him, but she didn’t want to be openly hostile, either. She would have to pay for every mean thing she said.

“You know, I’ve been thinking,” he leaned against the wall behind Jeannie while she inspected cupcake after cupcake, “and factory work really doesn’t suit you. Look. If you did it this way—” He stepped up and held Jeannie’s wrist at a slightly different angle as she picked up a cupcake. Jeannie resisted the urge to wrench her hands away from his grip.

Joseph was not ugly or repulsive, but Jeannie didn’t like his strength. Everything about Joseph was strong. His facial features, especially his jaw and square nose, his barrel chest and muscular arms, his wide stance and large feet. Even his fingers were thick with sinew. His voice carried across half the factory without amplification. His physical strength carried over into his personality and character, which made him a good boss. He made sure things got done on time, though the workers occasionally accused him of being too harsh. Jeannie thought this was what made him get along with her father so well.

“See?” he said, letting go of her wrists a little too slowly. “You’d increase your productivity that way, but I bet you find this kind of thing boring. I have some connections, you know, I might be able to help you find something else…”

“It’s all right here.” She wanted to ask him what kind of work, exactly, he thought she should do, but she didn’t. “I’ll try to do it the way you showed me.”

Joseph’s face brightened a little. “I can show you again…?”

“I think I got it,” Jeannie said, a little sharply.

Joseph nodded. “You’re a fast learner. That’s what I like about you. Well, one thing I like about you.” He winked, and disappeared down the line.

Jeannie sighed when he was gone, and thought about how different his touch felt from Thomas’s. Neither man was gentle, but Thomas didn’t seem like he had any interest in overpowering. He was rough and wild, yes, but in a way Jeannie found exciting. Maybe Joseph was too ordered.

Jeannie ended her shift feeling irritated and off balance. The day had started cloudy, a continuation of the week’s storms, but the clouds had moved on, wiping the sky clean. The sun shone yellow-white against an intensely blue sky. Jeannie had survived another day at work, had fended off another one of Joseph’s advances. She set off down the trail, her mood rising.

When she saw Thomas waiting for her just off the trail, she felt like she imagined Snow White felt at the end of the movie, when she had her prince and true love, and her happy ending. She felt invincible then. Thomas took her hand without a word and led her to a boulder on the river bank. It was screened from the trail by a copse of yellowed pine trees.

Thomas leaned in to kiss Jeannie, and the look of earnestness on his face transformed into hunger. Jeannie watched him, fascinated. She felt like she was watching this happen to someone else, like she was detached from her body. The first kiss was hesitant, searching. His lips rested on hers, and he opened his eyes, a question forming in the dark spaces between his brown irises. He wanted permission to explore what no one had explored before, not even Jeannie herself. Her breath grew quick and shallow in her lungs.

Jeannie had imagined this moment over and over again, had wanted it, looked forward to it, and now felt herself shrinking away from it. She reminded herself that no one could see them. She reached back for the feeling of invincibility and found it, grounded herself in her body again. She closed her eyes and kissed Thomas back. Her body switched on like the production line at work.

Thomas pulled back for a moment, and Jeannie worried that he was going to stop kissing her, but instead he repositioned himself so that he could wrap one arm around her waist and leave his other hand free to rest at the nape of her neck. Jeannie liked the way his hand felt on her neck, so she moved her own to the same place on his. Thomas kissed her eagerly now, and Jeannie could feel her body speeding up. Thomas’s other hand was on her waist now, his tongue inside her mouth, and Jeannie wanted more. She gripped the back of his neck with more force, pulling him into her.

The sound of a twig snapping on the other side of the yellow pines made Jeannie freeze. She forgot about wanting and needing and production line bodies and could think only of time and her father and whether or not he would be at home, wondering where she was. Thomas kept trying to kiss her, then stopped, confused at her sudden distraction. Jeannie fumbled for her cell phone in her bag. The lock screen display showed the time as 6:37 p.m. She had three missed calls, and had three voice mails. All from her father.

“I have to go home.” She dropped her phone back in her purse. She would think of some lie to tell her father on the way. It had worked once.

Thomas pulled Jeannie back to him. She struggled against his grip, but he held her firmly. “Don’t panic. It’s okay.”

Jeannie stopped struggling. She looked into Thomas’s eyes. “My dad is going to find out about us if I don’t go home right now, and if I don’t come up with a really great story about why I’m so late.”

Thomas met her gaze. “So there’s an us?”

Jeannie was too flustered to respond.

He pulled her in for one more deep kiss.

When he let her go, she said, “I won’t be able to see you for a while.”

Thomas shook his head. “Not acceptable. Do you want to get out of this shithole?”

She studied his face, looking for any hint of a joke. She found none. “Yes.”

“Then meet me tonight, at the pier. Get whatever cash you have and only bring what you need. As little as possible. We won’t have much space. We can buy what we need when we find a place to settle down.”

Jeannie drew a deep breath. “Tonight.”

“Yes. Tonight.”

“What time?”

“Ten o’clock. At the pier.” Thomas squeezed Jeannie’s hands.

She nodded. “I’ll be there.”

Thomas kissed her one last time. Jeannie let her hands slide out from his, and jogged down the trail toward her father’s waiting ire.

 

*   *   *

 

It felt as though someone had draped a blanket of silence over the trailer when Jeannie entered. She tried to take her shoes off quietly, but her shaking hands fumbled them and she wound up tripping over herself and banging into the wall in addition to dropping a shoe onto the floor with a thump. She cursed under her breath, hoping that her father would believe the lie she’d invented on the walk home. Her lungs still burned with the effort of jogging—she had been a sprinter, not a distance runner—but she controlled her breathing lest he think anything was other than it should be.

The silence was so thick, so deafening, she didn’t hear him approach.

“Jeannie.” His anger showed on his red face. He gripped a can of beer in his right hand. She could smell it on his breath as he huffed his rage. “Where the hell you think you been all evening.”

The lie Jeannie had thought out seemed so implausible now, so silly, so impossible, she almost said nothing. But nothing would mean a beating sure as the sun would rise, and she hoped—always, she hoped—to avoid those, so she straightened her spine and opened her mouth to lift the blanket of silence.

“Sorry Daddy.” She clenched her hands together. “You— You know the foreman, down at the factory, Joe? Well, after my shift ended, he asked me if I might want to go out for coffee sometime, and we got to talking…” Jeannie paused. She kept her gaze leveled at the linoleum and imagined Thomas as she spoke of Joe. “Time just got away from us, I guess. I didn’t even look at my phone until I was practically home.” Jeannie glanced up far enough to see that her father’s grip on his Budweiser can had relaxed. She continued while she had his attention, before he could start in on her. “Do you think it would be okay, you know, to get coffee with Joe sometime? He’s a really nice guy. You know him, don’t you?”

Jeannie heard her father gulp his beer. “I do.”

“So can I? Get coffee with him sometime, I mean?” She squeezed her hands together.

“Just because I know a guy doesn’t mean I want him seeing my daughter. Especially when she’s being irresponsible and staying out late.” Another gulp. “Go to your room. I don’t want to see you come out until the morning.”

Jeannie risked looking up at her father’s face. “Daddy, I…”

He scowled and crushed the empty beer can between his hands. “If this boy’s got you acting crazy, I don’t want you seeing him! Now get your ass in that room before I beat it!”

Jeannie ducked her head and rushed past her father to her bedroom. He chucked the empty beer can after her and muttered something about emotional, irrational women. She pushed the door shut behind her and let out a long breath. That had not gone exactly as she’d planned, but it could have gone a lot worse. Perhaps this was best. If he assumed she’d be in her room all night, maybe she could sneak out the window to meet Thomas without him knowing, and then she’d never have to worry about getting beer cans thrown at her again. Yes. Jeannie’s disappointment turned to elation in her stomach, and traveled up her chest and then through the rest of her body until she prickled with excitement and anticipation all over. This could work. It could really work. She could get away from this disaster of a household and disaster of a father, and make a life for herself with someone who wasn’t awful.

Deciding what to bring was easy. She packed a few pairs of clothes, a photo of her mother and herself as a baby that she kept on her nightstand, all the money she had saved up ($467, cash), her high school diploma, and the three-piece set of diamond jewelry she’d inherited from her mother. Jeannie didn’t have any special attachment to the jewelry, but it was worth something, and they might need the money. She certainly couldn’t imagine herself wearing it. Her father had insisted she wear it to her high school graduation, the earrings, tennis bracelet, and matching pendant, and Jeannie had felt utterly ridiculous in her black graduation gown and glinting diamonds. She felt much more comfortable in her jeans and flannel shirts.

Everything fit into Jeannie’s old high school backpack. She wrapped the photo of herself and her mother in one of her shirts and packed it between her clothes. She hid the jewelry in a pencil case with the money and put it in a hidden pocket meant for a wallet. Jeannie would be keeping her wallet in her pocket, clipped to her jeans with a carabiner like she normally did. She set the backpack next to her bed. She would leave her phone, so she set it to factory reset and laid it on the nightstand. Her father paid for it every month, and he was the sheriff, after all. He could use it to track her. Besides, who would she call? She didn’t have any friends. Her father was too controlling, and people were too afraid of him.

Her bedroom looked like the rest of the house, and not like hers at all. The paintings on the walls were landscapes painted by art students from local schools, like the ones in the living room. The only exception was a piece Jeannie had done of her family in an art class in elementary school. It was typical child art, but her mother had it framed and hung it over Jeannie’s bed. Like the rest of the art, Jeannie was so used to seeing it there that she never noticed it. It was visual background noise. She took a close look at all the paintings, thinking that she should feel nostalgia or even fondness for them, but she felt nothing. She could hardly remember painting the one of the three of them together.

Jeannie paced. And paced. The more she watched the clock, the slower time seemed to move. Finally, at 8:28, she couldn’t stand it anymore. It would take her awhile to walk to the pier, anyway. She decided to move. She held her breath and listened to the house. The blanket of silence had descended once more. Her window slid open without a sound, but her screen was not removable. She took her Leatherman tool from its place on her belt and selected a small knife. She sliced along the edges of the screen as quietly as she could. It still made a zipping sound, but she doubted her father could hear it from beyond the closed bedroom door. She slipped her backpack through the hole in the screen, then put herself through, legs first. She pulled the window shut almost all the way behind her, and slipped into the night.

 

*   *   *

 

A heavy gibbous moon lit Jeannie’s walk to the pier. She hunched her shoulders and kept her hands shoved in her jeans pockets, and no one bothered her. No ships sat in the docks tonight, but Jeannie wasn’t surprised. Fewer and fewer companies shipped their goods out via the river, especially with more places moving their factories overseas. Tonight everything seemed quiet and still, except for the river pushing up against the docks with little sloshes. Jeannie picked a lamppost on the sidewalk at the edge of the docks and leaned up against it, thinking that Thomas would be able to find her easily in its dim yellow-orange glow.

Jeannie tried not to check her watch. Instead she paid attention to the night sounds, sounds she’d never noticed before. Somewhere in the distance an owl hooted in steady intervals, and crickets sang all around her. She could hear the hum of electricity feeding the street light, and the whooshing of cars passing on nearby streets.

The distant rumble of a motorcycle cut through the other noises, growing louder. Jeannie’s heart quickened. She listened closer, but it didn’t sound like her father’s Harley Davidson. It wasn’t loud enough, and the engine didn’t pop and grumble, it only growled. The sound drowned out the hooting owl and the electricity’s hum as the motorcyclist drove closer to the pier. Jeannie held her breath, anxiety clutching at her throat. Too many people knew who she was. She moved out of the light, hoping the night would hide her. The bike appeared around a corner, and then the sound of the engine changed to a lower pitch as the rider decelerated. Jeannie turned toward the river and looked at the ground to hide her face.

The sound of another motorcycle roared out of the night. Jeannie recognized it instantly as a Harley Davidson. Fear clenched her jaw. Somehow, her father knew. She stood up and turned around in time to hear a gunshot and see the first rider lose control, his bike tipping over and spinning away from him. The rider slid across the pavement and came to rest against the same street light under which Jeannie had been waiting, his clothing torn into ribbons trailing away from his body. Jeannie gasped. It was Thomas, lying still, too still, in the dim orange glow.

Then her father swung his Harley around next to her. He would have knocked her over had he not grabbed her arm. “Get on the bike, Jeannie,” he yelled over the engine’s roar.

“No!” Jeannie screamed back. She tried to run toward Thomas, but her father’s grip on her arm was too strong.

“That son of a bitch just tried to rape you, and wouldn’t listen to a direct order to stand down.” The sheriff waived his Glock service pistol in Thomas’s direction. “Now get on the bike.”

Jeannie looked back at Thomas, and understanding sloshed over her in little waves, like the river beating against the dock. She saw the blood now, seeping slowly around Thomas’s still form. She saw the hole in his chest, illuminated by the street light. She wanted to scream at her father, to beat him with her fists, but she saw, too, the look in his eyes and understood that he’d known all along about her lies. She knew no one would protest her father’s story, even though none of the evidence agreed with it. So she got on the bike, and they peeled away from the pier, the engine noise drowning out Jeannie’s raging thoughts.

 

*   *   *

 

Back at home, Jeannie thought maybe she should cry, but she felt too hollowed and raw, like some giant yellow backhoe had scooped out her guts.

“I told you no girl of mine’s going whoring with some nobody nigger from downriver,” her father yelled at her between furious gulps of beer.

She’d never been able to look at his face when he drank like this—and he only drank like this at home, to protect the town’s pristine image of him as the noble, self-sacrificing sheriff. But Jeannie had always known better. When he poured beer after beer down his throat, his skin turned red and his brow contracted, bits of spittle formed at one corner of his thin lips, his nose seemed to grow longer, his chin more pronounced. Instead of facing that monster image of him, she looked at the gold sheriff’s badge pinned to one of the gray-green uniforms he almost never removed.

He downed another can and kept yelling at her. “If you could just do what I say, I wouldn’t have had to kill the no-good bastard, Jeannie, and you know it’s true, so quit crying.”

Never mind that she wasn’t crying. Never mind that she had done what he said all her life, and it had never been enough. Never mind that he was a drunk and a liar and didn’t deserve to eat dirt.

Something inside Jeannie cracked. She felt heat rise up from her stomach. She looked at the red smudge that was her reflection in the polished five-sided badge emblazoned with the town logo and her father’s name—her name, too—and she thought that her face must be growing as red and angry as his.

That’s when she’d decided she’d had enough. That’s when she reached over and pulled his Glock 9mm from the holster.

 

*   *   *

 

Jeannie stood staring at her father’s body on the floor for a long time. It wasn’t that she was shocked at what she had done, or surprised at how much he had bled, or sickened by the gore. She wanted to remember what he looked like this way, helpless, limp, the color drained from his face. She held on to the gun, feeling its unfamiliar weight in her hands, pulling at arm muscles already tired from the repetitive motion of examining snack cakes on the factory line. She wanted to remember what her father looked like, and what the gun felt like in her hands, so that when he attacked her in her nightmares, in one of his powerful rages, she could call up this image to banish him.

When her arms shook from the effort of holding the gun upright, she finally lowered it, and pulled her gaze away from the thing that had been her father. She walked into the kitchen, and placed the gun on the counter. She pulled on the purple dish washing gloves she had used every day to clean her father’s plates, silverware, and glasses, then took her time removing all traces of her fingerprints with bleach, the way her father had described to her once.

The cops would figure out her father had been killed with his own gun eventually, but she saw no reason to give them a head start, so she took her father’s right hand and wrapped it around the pistol grip a few times. She placed his index finger on the trigger, and then put it back in the holster.

Jeannie took one long last look at the body, then said to it, “I found a way to beat you in the end, you bastard, even if it makes me a monster.”

As she was leaving the house, she passed her mother’s Bible on the coffee table by the couch. A spray of blood marred the cover, partially obscuring Anita’s name. Jeannie took a tissue from the box next to the Bible and wiped the blood away. She thought about taking the Bible with her, but it was heavy, and she didn’t have much space. The book belonged more to the house than to her, anyway. She rested her hand on the cover.

“Mom, I hope you can forgive me. I love you.”

Then she left for the pier, not bothering to lock the door behind her.

 

*     *     *

 

No one had found Thomas’s body by the time Jeannie returned to it. With some difficulty, she propped him upright against the street light and straightened what remained of his leather jacket. The movement caused fresh blood to seep from his mouth and chest wound. It was apple red. She wiped the dirt and blood off his face with her sleeve. She walked over to the motorcycle wreck and checked the bike for damage. Other than an ugly scrape along the left side, nothing important seemed to be broken. She looked through the saddlebags, needing to know what Thomas had planned to take into their new life together. A few changes of clothes, a Colt revolver, a map of the United States with a few towns out West circled in yellow highlighter, and an envelope full of money. Jeannie took the money, the map, and the gun, and left the clothes except for a large sweatshirt with the Seventh Day Orchard logo. When that was done, she went back to his body and sat down.

For a long time, Jeannie sat there holding Thomas’s hand. She listened to the waves sloshing against the dock, and the hum of the street light, and the crunch of tires on broken asphalt in the distance. His hand was cold, but she didn’t mind. She enjoyed the feeling of his calloused palm against hers. She closed her eyes and tried to memorize its contours with her fingers, so that she could recall them at any time.

When the threat of tears seemed too great, Jeannie placed both Thomas’s hands in his lap and kissed him one last time. She ran a hand down his cheek, then walked back to what had been his bike. She wondered which of her father’s deputies would find his body, how long it would take. She wondered if they would connect the two murders, if they’d make up some story about Thomas breaking in to the Jameson’s trailer and shooting the sheriff in cold blood, and them catching him down by the pier. She doubted any of the deputies would suspect her, at least at first. It wouldn’t cross their minds that the meek sheriff’s daughter could have gotten caught up with someone with dark skin. Or that anyone with dark skin could be innocent.

She wondered again if her mother would ever be able to forgive her for what she’d done. It didn’t matter a whole lot now, she guessed. She swung a leg over the saddle and started the engine.


Kelly Lynn Thomas reads, writes, and sometimes sews in Pittsburgh, PA. Her creative work has appeared in Sou’wester, Thin Air Magazine, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and others, and was a finalist in the December 2015 Glimmer Train Fiction Open. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University, is hopelessly obsessed with Star Wars, and can always be found with a large mug of tea. She also runs the very small Wild Age Press and blogs for The Rumpus. Read more at kellylynnthomas.com.

Issue No. 17, Summer 2016

Dawn in the Ruins

Brendan’s kingdom was in peril. The castle walls, beleaguered by rain since early morning, would now need fortification. Large drops of rain pierced the invisible veil of warm, heavy moisture that lingered beneath the maple and oak trees on the outskirts of his neighborhood. Sweat and mud saturated his clothes burdening his trek to the castles, but he had to keep going. It was all up to him.

Mom said he could stay outside so long as there was no lightning. Quentin and James had to stay home because their moms were afraid of rain, and neither was brave enough to sneak out on his own.

When he arrived at the boys’ riverside castles, he groaned. Moats had risen around the base of the walls. Green and brown foam rushed downstream in the rapidly rising river. He sloshed through the mud and began inspecting the castles’ damages.

The roof on Quentin’s castle bowed under the weight of collected rainwater, and his sentries had been swept away. Brendan didn’t have time for search and rescue. James’ knights still circled the base of his castle, so Brendan gathered half of them into James’ tower and relocated the others to Quentin’s keep. Normally, Brendan wouldn’t have dared to move the guards inside, but on a day like this, there would be no visits from neighboring kingdoms and no enemy attacks.

A new haul of building materials had been washed to the shore by the storm. It was a mother-lode of wood, cardboard, and metal parts of who knows what. Fetching them would have to wait. There would be no way to climb back up the banks in this weather, and the river was moving so fast. Maybe he was brave, but he wasn’t stupid.

Tomorrow he would collect anything useful with the other boys, and they would repair and expand their castles. A roll of thunder boomed in the distance. Or was it a truck on the highway just downstream from the boys’ kingdom?  Since he couldn’t be sure, he continued his work. Rumbling didn’t count if there was no lightning.

He was about to go searching for sticks to block the castle doors when a bright flash pierced the dark gray clouds. He counted four Mississippi’s before thunder boomed so loud that his castle seemed to vibrate.

He shuddered and bolted out the castle door. Mom was not going to be happy that he’d been out in lightning. He’d better hurry home.

Struggling to dodge the soggy pine branches hanging low over the slippery path, he hurried back to the edge of the woods. Another flash lit all the trees in blinding silver. This time he only counted two Mississippi’s before the thunder.

He ran faster, jumping over tree roots and rocks. The rain fell so hard that he could barely see, and he wondered if this is what it felt like to be a ship lost at sea. His waterlogged shoes anchored his feet and slowed his pace, so he removed them. Warm mud bubbled up between his toes as he approached the tree line border on the edge of the civilized world.

Miss Becky’s bamboo forest marked the end of his trek from the river. She allowed the boys to play in it, but she had decreed that if they ever cut it or hurt any of the bamboo, they’d be banished forever. He couldn’t have that.

Miss Becky’s name was short for Rebekah, but nobody was allowed call her that except for the government. She had eyes the color of the sky and white hair with just a touch of yellow, like caramel ice cream. Miss Becky always had candy or Oreos to share.

Without the shelter of the trees, he felt the full onslaught of the pelting rain. A third bolt of lightning struck somewhere to his right. The ensuing thunder roared with no time to count. He decided to make sure that Miss Becky was safe. Her back porch had a big awning and a swing where he could wait out the storm. Since she was probably scared, he decided to sprint to the porch. More lightning forked across the sky.

Miss Becky was a princess living in a maze of towers and mysterious artifacts. Mom called Miss Becky a hoarder. Old magazines and newspapers with pictures of famous people long dead and places that no longer existed lined her floors and rose in tall spires throughout her house. Toys and clothes piled with containers and books formed columns that ascended to the ceiling. Sometimes she would give him a gift from her collection. Everything in her house had a story describing its worth or importance. She even had some magical things, but she wouldn’t tell him what.

Mom forbid him to go inside. She said that Miss Becky’s house was not safe because the towers might fall on him or a rat might run out and bite him. He wasn’t scared of rats, and towers that old and strong were not going to fall easily. But he would not disobey his mother.

“Do you have any kids?” he had asked Miss Becky once.

“I had three boys a very long time ago, but they turned into birds and flew away,” she said, staring out the window so sadly that he decided not to ask how it had happened.

Perhaps he would ask her about it today, but not until he made sure she was safe. He opened the back door and stuck his head inside, careful not to let his feet cross the threshold. As soon as he called for her, she emerged from behind the nearest tower.

“I wasn’t expecting you today,” she said, one eyebrow lifted. “What are you doing out in this storm? Your mother is probably worried sick.”

“I’m not scared of rain,” he replied stoically drawing up his shoulders and sticking out his chin.

“Of course you’re not,” she nodded. “But still, you shouldn’t be out in this.”

“I wanted to make sure you’re safe.”

“How thoughtful of you. Would you like an Oreo?”

He nodded, and a moment later she joined him on the porch swing with a plate of Oreos. He took two. He carefully separated the first cookie, making sure the white filling stayed intact.

“Did you ever have a husband?” he asked, crunching the chocolate wafer.

“Once I did, but he evolved backwards and became an ape.”

Thunder rumbled again, but it was further away now.

His eyes widened. “How?”

“Well, there is a part of town where lots of apes and other animals live, and he used to like going down there. He’d eat with them and play with them, and eventually he started acting like them. He got hairy all over, and his arms got longer, and he stopped speaking like a man. One day when I came home from work, my husband was gone, and there was only an ape left. So I let him go be with the other animals.”

The first Oreo was gone, and he had just started separating the second one when he asked, “Did that make you sad?”

“Of course! I was very sad to lose my husband, but you can’t stay married to an ape, you know. It isn’t right. But I found him once, much later. I drove to that part of town, and I saw him with all the other animals. He’s much happier now that he lives with his own kind.”

“What part of town has all the animals?”

He had never seen an ape in person before, and a whole neighborhood of animals sounded like fun. The rain plinking off the awning slowed.

“Oh, I can’t tell you that. You’d want to take your mom there, and that’d be very bad.” Miss Becky said, pointing her index finger at him. “They’d hurt her! You must protect her and keep her away from there. Don’t tell her about it either. She’d be unhappy that you won’t let her go. It’s our secret, ok?”

A secret with Miss Becky! The apes could wait. “Ok.”

He munched the last of his cookie in silence as they stared at the bamboo forest. The rain died down to a gentle mist, and the bamboo waved in the steamy breeze.

After several minutes, Miss Becky grinned at him and said, “I have something for you. It’s too magical for me to keep it here anymore. Hold on and I’ll fetch it for you.”

She slowly rose from the swing and shuffled to the door. She disappeared between the treasure columns. After an eternity, she returned, carrying a small silver box no larger than a robin’s egg.

She placed it in his open palm, and he stared down at it, wondering about its magical powers. Tiny pink and yellow flowers covered the lid, and a small latch kept it shut. He immediately tried to open it, but the box was locked.

“You must never open it,” she said gravely. “I keep the key in a little blue bowl on my kitchen counter, but I don’t use it. The box and the key can never be together.”

“What’s in it?”

“The sadness that comes from knowing more than you should. Once you open it, you can never forget.”

Confused, he slipped it in his pocket and said the only thing he could think of, “I’ll keep it safe for you.”

“I knew I could count on you,” she smiled. “Now run home. The rain stopped. Your mother is probably looking for you.”

He hopped down from the swing and walked carefully towards the gravel driveway. Muddy gray pools lined the street, and all of Miss Becky’s flowers had bowed over in the rain. He paused at the end of her driveway to study the box again. Holding it up at eye level, he stared into the little keyhole. Then he slid his pinky fingernail in the thin crease that separated the top and bottom. No use. Whatever was in there was locked up too tight to see without opening it. He shoved it back into his pocket. Anyway, Miss Becky had said not to open it.

He was about to turn towards home when he was startled by the phlegm-choked cough of his fiercest enemy. Mr. Gerald lumbered towards him. His tan Postal Service poncho tented over his enormous frame. When he was not wearing the poncho, Mr. Gerald’s mail uniform stretched tight over his bulging belly. His four chins jiggled with every step. He kept a wad of something in his cheek, and every so often he spit a long brown stream into someone’s yard. On the best days, he smelled like bad cheese, but most of the time, he smelled like a dirty bathroom.

Every kid in the neighborhood knew that Mr. Gerald’s sweat was made of acid. When it poured from his arms and legs as he walked the hot neighborhood streets, the boys would dare each other to touch the little puddles before they evaporated. No one ever took up the dare because they knew that if you so much as touched it with the tip of your finger, your whole hand would burn right off.

Brendan knew why Mr. Gerald was so ugly and mean and had acid sweat. Obviously, he was an ogre. When he told this to the neighborhood boys, Quentin and James readily agreed. Several of the other boys shook their heads but were unable to come up with a better explanation for Mr. Gerald’s general foulness.

Brendan, Quentin, and James had done everything they could to stop Mr. Gerald’s daily rounds. Quentin had lined the sidewalk with marbles and rocks. James had filled his mailbox with sticks. But Mr. Gerald kept coming. Their traps only made him angry, and he yelled at them whenever he saw them. And now he was approaching Miss Becky’s house. Brendan was not going to allow him to get anywhere near her.

Posted in front of her mailbox, Brendan faced his enemy. There was no time to make a booby trap, so he just stood there with his arms crossed and his best tough guy face.

“What are you doing?” Mr. Gerald growled.

“I’m keeping Miss Becky safe.”

Mr. Gerald roared with laughter. “From me? Oh yes, you’re doing a fine job! Go home, kid! You’re soaked.”

Brendan shook his head and straightened up, meeting Mr. Gerald’s eyes with an icy stare. Mr. Gerald’s laughter turned into a snarl, and he reached past Brendan to slide Miss Becky’s mail into the box. Then, with an exasperated sigh, Mr. Gerald shook his head and plodded on to the next house.

He watched to make sure the ogre didn’t double back to get to Miss Becky. Once her safety was assured, he continued his victory march home. He had escaped the ogre’s wrath and saved Miss Becky from his evil intentions. The castles were secure, the kingdom was well fortified with GI Joe soldiers, and now he was hungry.

“Stop!” Mom shouted as he entered the house. “Take everything off, and go straight to the bathtub. You’re covered in mud! And where have you been? There was lightning.”

“I’m fine, Mom. I stayed on Miss Becky’s porch until the rain stopped.”

She groaned as he walked naked through the kitchen. Was the groan was directed at him or the muddy clothes he had left by the door? All he knew for sure was that he needed to get past his brother Jacob as quickly as possible.

He passed through the house, concealing the silver box in his fist as he made the perilous journey to the bathroom. He tiptoed quietly past Jacob, who was frozen in front of a video game where everything blows up and everyone gets shot.

Jacob loved nothing more than destroying things other people had built. He must never find out about Brendan’s kingdom by the river or Miss Becky’s bamboo forest. If Jacob turned and saw how vulnerable Brendan was at this moment, it would go very badly for him. Many of the castle guards were Jacob’s GI Joes, which he’d discovered missing this morning.

All that stood between Brendan and safety were ten steps: four past the couch, one to the hall, and five down the hall to the bathroom. He inhaled deeply and took the first step. Halfway there, Jacob saw Brendan’s reflection in the television screen.

“You’re dead,” Jacob shouted.

Brendan sprinted. He made it to the bathroom just in time to twist the lock on the knob and lean against the door. It shuddered against Jacob’s furious blows.

When Jacob started fiddling with the doorknob, Mom shouted, “Jacob, get in here and set the table.”

“I’ll get you later,” Jacob growled, and he stomped off to the kitchen.

Safe at last, Brendan filled the tub, pouring a generous amount of bubble bath into the steaming water. On land, he might be the ruler of a sizeable kingdom by the river, but in the bathtub, he was Poseidon. Rubber ducks and plastic boats despaired beneath his triton, sinking under fragrant bubbly waves. A Lego man clutched for dear life to the side of his foundering boat. Would Poseidon show mercy? He stroked his bubble beard. Yes, Poseidon would be generous today. He lifted the Lego man to the side of the tub.

He had kept his kraken brother out of the bathroom, saved Miss Becky from an ogre, and secured the kingdom by the river, so mercy for the Lego man was the only suitable course. When his fingers wrinkled like raisins and the water stopped steaming, he hopped out and toweled dry. Though Poseidon does not stop his mighty work for the pleas of mere mortals, Mom had already called him to dinner twice.

Once Brendan was in bed, Dad came to the bedroom door, glasses in hand.

“What should I tell you about tonight? Would you like to hear about politics or business news? I can get the Times if you want.”  He pretended to step away to get the paper.

Brendan wrinkled his nose and shouted, “No, please, no! Tell me how Odysseus beats Circe!”

Dad grinned and pulled A Child’s Treasury of Stories from the shelf next to his bed. Even though Brendan had been able to read for years, he still loved to hear Dad’s dramatic readings of his favorite stories. As much as he wanted to know how Odysseus made it home, Brendan fell asleep before Odysseus saw the outline of his native shores.

It was still dark when he woke up. Everyone else was still asleep. The only thing on his mind was the box. How could such a small thing contain the sadness from knowing too much? How could knowing things make you sad? It was sadder not to know things! In fact, it was sad that he couldn’t open the box.

He turned it over and over in his palm. It was strangely heavy for its size, and the keyhole was tiny. There was only one way to solve the mystery, but he would have to be quick.

He crept barefoot through the house, sneakers in hand, careful not to bump into anything. He twisted the doorknob gently, and stepped out onto the patio. The humid morning air clung to him. The street lights were still on. Crickets were still chirping. A few stars were still twinkling in the clear sky. But the eastern horizon was just beginning to lighten when he set out. Stealth was of the utmost importance. He couldn’t risk dogs barking as they smelled him pass, so he took the long way to Miss Becky’s house.

Mom said that Miss Becky’s back door was always unlocked so that emergency crews could get to her if one of the towers fell on her, but he knew better. She kept the door unlocked because she was always ready to welcome visitors, especially him.

He approached Miss Becky’s house through the yard because crunching the driveway gravel might wake her. She didn’t need to know what he was going to do. The silver box began to feel like an anchor in his pocket. Perhaps he shouldn’t do this. It wasn’t too late to pass the house and journey onwards to the kingdom. Miss Becky had warned him after all, but her warning didn’t make sense. He had to see its contents for himself.

The back door didn’t make a sound as he eased it open. The kitchen lights were off. Deep snoring thundered somewhere beyond the shadowy columns. The sun was starting to peek above the horizon, and the room had just enough light for him to see the little blue bowl on the counter.

He tiptoed over and peeked inside. Pennies and nickels mingled with trinkets. A gold watch snaked through the change and candy wrappers. A small skeleton key rested atop a pile in the center of the bowl. He picked it up and held it toward the rising sun. It glowed in the red light. The box seemed to sink lower in his pocket.

The box and the key can never be together rang in his ears. But the memory was hollow compared to the temptation of finding magic.

Without another thought, he extracted it from his pocket and inserted the key. A miniature spring inside it popped, and the lid snapped loose. He pulled the lid back and was shocked at what he saw, which was nothing. Empty! Empty? Was this some sort of cheat? A trick from Miss Becky? It didn’t make sense.

His head began to whirl, and the tilted towers of junk seemed to impose on the kitchen. A familiar choke stopped the distant snoring. Phlegm. Coughing. A man yawned loudly, and bedsprings groaned under a heavy weight.

“Mornin’, Becky,” a deep, gravelly voice said.

Brendan’s heart leapt into his throat. Unmistakable. That voice, which had so often yelled at him and taunted him, here in this sanctuary was a punch in the gut. Not him! Not Mr. Gerald! Miss Becky was supposed to be Brendan’s princess in the towers, but she had taken in an ogre.

“Morning,” she replied sleepily.

It was too much! Just yesterday Brendan had saved her from this awful man, and now here he was waking up with her! Nothing made sense. The mysterious treasure pillars morphed into rubbish heaps, filthy and useless.

He began to feel queasy. The open pill box thudded to the floor.

“What was that?” Miss Becky said through a yawn.

The bed groaned again, and Mr. Gerald said, “I’ll go see.”

Brendan’s mind snapped. He couldn’t see Mr. Gerald in this house. Hearing him was already too much. There was no saving Miss Becky now, and maybe there never had been.

He bolted out the screen door, forgetting it would slam behind him. The only safe place was his castle by the river. He sprinted across the yard, not caring if Mr. Gerald saw him through the kitchen window. That fat man could never move fast enough to catch him.

At the tree line, the stiff bamboo refused to part, and he trampled some of it as he ran, inadvertently banishing himself from Miss Becky’s yard. Mud collected on the bottoms of his sneakers as he tromped down the well-worn path in the woods.

The sunrise was now in full effect. Shafts of light pierced through oak and maple leaves, dappling the path and blinding him to roots and rocks which obstructed his race to the castle. Underbrush and briars scratched his legs. His face became a palette of mud, blood, and tears from using the same hand to wipe his scratches and leaking eyes.

If he could make it to the river, he could climb into the safety of his castle keep. The GI Joe guards were waiting for him. They would protect him, but he needed to hurry. The sound of gurgling water signaled the end of his race. Maybe he wasn’t too late, and all would still be well.

When he finally reached the riverbanks, he shouted and fell to his knees in tears. He was too late. The river was just dirty water flowing over litter and refuse. What once had been a glorious castle was now a mud hovel. His kingdom was nothing more than a wasteland of garbage washed ashore by the polluted river. Quentin and James’ castles were gone as well, replaced by soggy cardboard and rotten plywood heaped all askew and fastened by crooked rusty nails.

The sadness that comes from knowing more than you should. The curse had worked. He was no longer a mighty king, just a muddy kid.

When he arrived back home, his Mom tried to interrogate him about where he’d been, but all of her questions sounded like they came from the other side of the wall. How could he tell her what happened? Where should he even begin?  Finally, she cleaned his face and hands, and allowed him to sit mud-caked at the kitchen table for breakfast.

When he ate, he did not try to sink the banana slices floating among the Cheerios. He stared at the wood grain on the table as he mindlessly moved the spoon to and from the bowl, eating without play. Eventually, Mom dropped the questions and sent him to change clothes.

A few hours later, Quentin and James knocked on the back door, calling his name. They had brown bag lunches, pilfered tools, and a sack of plastic green army men. They were heading to their junk heaps by the dirty riverbanks.

“Come on,” said Quentin. “Our guys need backup. And dragons are coming later, so we gotta build fire-proof roofs.”

“Yeah,” said James. “Plus, there should be new stuff washed up from the storm, and I borrowed my Dad’s tools.”

“You guys go ahead. I’m staying here.”

Brendan started to close the door when Quentin said, “What gives? I know you went yesterday. Why won’t you come with us now?”

“Because I just don’t want to,” he snarled, slamming the door in their faces.

They didn’t deserve that. Maybe he should explain, but what could he say? They were on a journey to an enchanted forest that he could no longer see. Once you open it, you can never forget.

He returned to the living room, where Jacob sat cross-legged on the couch waiting for the console to launch his game. Brendan had returned Jacob’s GI Joes, and to pay for the theft, he took a hard punch in the arm. It was a fair exchange, and Brendan did not fight back, sealing the new peace between them.

He watched the opening credits of the game. Soldiers embedded in an enemy city searched for terrorists and fought rebel insurgents. The game did not allow you to choose an adventure. You must fight, you must destroy enemy hideouts, and you must follow orders given by an invisible commander. There was nothing to risk, nothing delicate to protect, nothing to trust that could betray you without warning. Allies remained allies, and the enemies were clearly marked.

Jacob’s mouth was already agape. A grape soda stood nearby to quench the thirst that ensued after hours of slack-jawed mouth-breathing. He had no cares, nothing to worry about except what to blow up first. Through the back door window, Brendan watched his friends disappear around the bend. He could still catch up to them if he wanted. A gun cocked in the game, and Jacob took his first shot.

“Pass me the other controller. I’ll help you destroy this city,” Brendan said.


Sarah Hogg lives in South Texas and writes fiction. Her work has been published in The Colored Lens and Three Rivers Review.

Issue No. 17, Summer 2016

The Willows

Letha wrenched open the window of the bar bathroom, wriggled through, and dashed between the trash bins. Where the paving crumbled, she plunged downhill into darkness, her frail shoes slipping over wet grass, stones, and mud till she reached the stream lined with willows. She ducked under their skirts and crouched, looking back.

Up above, the beast bellowed: Letha. He’d pushed his hand up into her to show he owned her, then let her go on back to pee.

His shape crossed neon haze, moving toward the dark bulk of the closed textile mill. When she was a child, her grandmother told her not to play here and sang old ballads of sad mill maidens who’d vanished, never to be seen again. As she grew, her father and uncles came home with tales of accidents, suspicious spills, and layoffs, before they left in search of work.

Letha!

He was selling her, the beast had told her. She was pretty enough, but too glum, not worth keeping.

Grasping slim branches, she felt her way around to the streamside. She balanced by the water, its night breath cool.

Rattling rocks, the beast descended.

Leaves whispered: Willow in water puts demons to flight. Letha tossed away her shoes and stepped in. Bending, she sank her toes deep and took root, there among the other girls.


Lynne Barrett’s most recent story collection is Magpies, winner of the Florida Book Awards gold medal for fiction. Her recent work appears in Necessary Fiction, Fort Lauderdale Magazine, The Southern Women’s Review, Trouble in the Heartland, Fifteen Views of Miami, and other journals and anthologies. She teaches in the MFA program at Florida International University.

Issue No. 17, Summer 2016

"Impression #2" -- Priyanka Tewari
Impression #2
Priyanka Tewari

Julia C. Alter hails from Philadelphia and has found home in Vermont. She is a writer, birth doula, social worker, and conscious dance facilitator, among other things. Her poems can be found in Wag’s Revue, Keep This Bag Away from Children, and Clementine (Unbound).

Lynne Barrett’s most recent story collection is Magpies, winner of the Florida Book Awards gold medal for fiction. Her recent work appears in Necessary Fiction, Fort Lauderdale Magazine, The Southern Women’s Review, Trouble in the Heartland, Fifteen Views of Miami, and other journals and anthologies. She teaches in the MFA program at Florida International University.

Andi Boyd currently resides in San Antonio, Texas. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Texas State University. Her poetry and flash fiction has previously appeared in Gulf Coast, Pembroke Magazine, Narrative Magazine, and Gone Lawn.

Ingrid Bruck is a wild flower gardener and nature poet living in rural Amish country in Pennsylvania, a landscape that inhabits her writing. Some of her current work has appeared in Halcyon Days, Three Line Poetry, and Leaves of Ink.

Blandine Chambonneau is a 39-year-old stay-at-home mother who likes to take pictures.

Ion Corcos was born in Sydney, Australia in 1969. He has a Bachelor of Arts (Honors) in Philosophy and European Studies, a Bachelor of Science in Biology and Ecology, and an unfinished degree in Modern Greek Studies. Ion’s main love is poetry. The themes of his work centre on life, nature, spirit, and the world. His poems have appeared in Axolotl, Bitterzoet, Every Writer, Ishaan Literary Review, and other journals. Ion also writes short stories, non-fiction, and short plays. His play, “A Flower”, was short-listed in Short and Sweet (2006).

Reno Evangelista lives in Manila, in the Philippines. His work has been published or is to be published in Esquire Philippines, Fast Food Fiction Delivery, and the New Voices anthology of fiction.

Nina Fortmeyer is a pastry chef, enamelist and writer from Nashville, TN, where she lives with her husband, a slightly peculiar dog and a passel of scenic chickens. Her writing has appeared in Nashville Noir, Everyday Fiction, 101 Words, and Origami Journal. She’s a contest reader for the Claymore Dagger Award and a volunteer at the Killer Nashville Writers Conference.

Gary Glauber is a poet, fiction writer, teacher, and former music journalist. His works have received multiple Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominations. This past April, he took part in Found Poetry Review’s PoMoSco Project. He champions the underdog to the melodic rhythms of obscure power pop. His collection, Small Consolations (Aldrich Press) is available through Amazon, while a chapbook, Memory Marries Desire, is forthcoming momentarily from Finishing Line Press.

Sarah Hogg lives in South Texas and writes fiction. Her work has been published in The Colored Lens and Three Rivers Review.

Danelle Lejeune is a wanderer, a beekeeper, a farmer, a mother who gave up on art for nearly twenty years until an alligator in the marshes off the coast of Georgia convinced her to look twice. Since then she has been published in Literary Mama, Red River Review, and Fifth Wednesday Journal. Forthcoming work in Whale Road Review and Red Paint Hill Press. Her photos have appeared in Portland Review and Flyway Journal. She’s been a poet in residence at Vermont Studio Center, attended Charles University in Prague, and is the assistant to the Director at Ossabaw Writer’s Retreat (where the alligator lives….)

For three and a half decades Katharyn Howd Machan, picking up where Rod Serling left off, has taught creative writing at Ithaca College in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. Her specialty courses, besides in poetry, are Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy, Women and Fairy Tales, and first-year seminars called Fairy Tales: The Hero’s Journey. Her poems have appeared in 32 published collections and many magazines, anthologies, and textbooks.

Donna Marsh is a writer of creative nonfiction and she teaches writing and rhetoric at Syracuse University. Her husband is a fiction writer. Her life partner is a Yorkie Bichon. Tired of critiques of what Barbie has done to the contemporary imagination of women’s bodies, she is much more intrigued by what she reveals about the soul.

Ned Randle’s poems have appeared in a number of literary publications such as The Spoon River Quarterly, Poydras Review, Emerge Literary Journal, Barnwood International Poetry Magazine, The New Poet, Hamilton Stone Review, and Four Ties Literary Review. Running at Night—Collected Poems was released April 1, 2013 by Coffeetown Press. His chapbook, Prairie Shoutings and Other Poems, was published by The Spoon River Poetry Press, Bradley University.

Tammy Robacker won the 2015 Keystone Chapbook Prize for her manuscript, R. Her second poetry book Villain Songs is forthcoming with ELJ Publications in 2016. Tammy published her first collection of poetry, The Vicissitudes, in 2009 (Pearle Publications). Tammy’s poetry has appeared in Menacing Hedge, Chiron Review, VoiceCatcher, Duende, So to Speak, Crab Creek Review, WomenArts, and Up the Staircase Quarterly. Currently enrolled in the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA program in Creative Writing at Pacific Lutheran University, Tammy lives in Oregon. www.tammyrobacker.com

Ray Scanlon. Massachusetts boy. Lucky to be above ground, lucky to have grandchildren. No MFA. No novel. No extrovert. Not averse to litotes. Twitter: @oldmanscanlon. On the web: http://read.oldmanscanlon.com/.

Claudia Serea is a Romanian-born poet who immigrated to the U.S. in 1995. Her poems and translations have appeared in Field, New Letters, 5 a.m., Meridian, Word Riot, Apple Valley Review, among others. Serea is the author of Angels & Beasts (Phoenicia Publishing, Canada, 2012), A Dirt Road Hangs From the Sky (8th House Publishing, Canada, 2013), To Part Is to Die a Little (Cervena Barva Press, 2015), and Nothing Important Happened Today (Broadstone Books, 2016). Serea co-hosts The Williams Readings poetry series in Rutherford, NJ. She is a founding editor of National Translation Month. More at cserea.tumblr.com.

Sandra Storey is the author of the poetry collection, Every State Has Its Own Light, a finalist for the May Swenson Award, published in 2014 by Word Poetry. Her poetry has appeared in New Millennium Writings, THEMA, and The New York Quarterly, among other journals. Storey was founder, editor and publisher of two bilingual neighborhood newspapers for 20 years. Now she is a monthly columnist for the Jamaica Plain Gazette. She has been a featured reader at many venues in Boston. She is a member of the collaborative workshop Jamaica Pond Poets and co-director of Chapter and Verse Literary Reading Series.

John Sweet sends greetings from the rural wastelands of upstate New York. He is a firm believer in writing as catharsis, and in the need to continuously search for an unattainable and constantly evolving absolute truth. His latest collection is Approximate Wilderness (2016 Flutter Press).

Priyanka Tewari was born in India in the year 1984, and currently lives in New York. She draws inspiration from the uniqueness of life, the human existence, mysteries surrounding it, and beyond.

Her vibrant paintings often tell a story or a message that she conveys in the form of poetry. She thereby combines art and poetry to create a new form of experimental art that stimulates the human senses on various levels.

Her passion for her work, as a medium to express her deepest emotions, made her quit her job as a software engineer.

She has exhibited her work both in the US and in India. She was profiled in major national newspapers (India) and by an International Art journal published by Arts Council of England that also published a review of her work.

She strives to take her art forward not just to express herself, but also to study the impact of her work on a greater audience.

Kelly Lynn Thomas reads, writes, and sometimes sews in Pittsburgh, PA. Her creative work has appeared in Sou’wester, Thin Air Magazine, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and others, and was a finalist in the December 2015 Glimmer Train Fiction Open. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University, is hopelessly obsessed with Star Wars, and can always be found with a large mug of tea. She also runs the very small Wild Age Press and blogs for The Rumpus. Read more at kellylynnthomas.com.

Beth Walker has published poems from her series of fairy tale characters in Yellow Medicine Review and in New Millennium Writings.

"Impression #3" -- Priyanka Tewari
Impression #3
Priyanka Tewari