Falling Is Like This

“One minute it was road beneath us, and the next was sky.”

—Ani DiFranco

 

The hotel lobby is square, all elegant chandeliers and dark leather chairs. Jazz standards float above the concierge. Women click by in impossibly tall heels. Elevator bells chime. I lean against a column in the center of the room. Outside, rain blows through the narrow streets.

When you enter the lobby, the air changes. I feel you before I see you. The lobby drops away. The fur on my body lifts. By the time you stand before me, we have fallen out of time. The music, the heels, the rain, and the city—gone. I offer my cheek to your lips, a compromise.

I’m sorry, you say.

My throat constricts.

They’ve sent a few more questions. I have to go over them.

I can go, I say. I don’t want to distract you.

I am risking so much to meet you here. To spend the afternoon with you. You are a man I should not fall in love with.

No, you say. Wait for me.

Your eyes, they’re like wild woods, I know my way through but dare not enter.

And then your hand wraps around mine, tight. Thank you, you say.

I settle into a leather chair. Open the book of poems you recommended and watch the lobby’s choreography. A woman with cropped platinum blonde hair sashays by, gesturing to the bellboy with a manicured hand. A woman in mink, arm in arm with a mustachioed man in a three-piece suit, stares as she passes.

My parka unzipped, simple knit sweater over jeans, long waves falling over my shoulders. Leather boots stained dark at the toes. My face burnished bronze from the sun. A hotel like this isn’t my usual terrain. I’ve come in out of the elements for you.

We all have our secrets.

*     *     *

For ten years I read palms and tarot cards in a traveling carnival. I could have just as easily been one of the contortionists—and I did fill in for Flora, when she got pregnant by Benny, the knife-thrower—but I liked palmistry more.

What I loved most: the moment of hesitation before a person opened their hand to me. A strangely intimate act—to reveal one’s palm to a stranger. Stippled, crosshatched, etched, endless intersections, x’s, braids, and bands, lines which define us.

*     *     *

We are both strangers in this city.

We are both married. We both have wives, in different states, in different routines, waiting for us to come home.

We have between us five children, three cats, two dogs, and a rabbit.

We’ve made a pact not to kiss again.

We have no good reason to be walking down the sidewalk in search of a cab. You’ve got a job interview in a half hour, and I’m skipping panels on new methods of organic gardening and hybridizing stone fruits to walk the streets of San Francisco with you.

It’s been six months since we last saw one another, twelve since we met, at the wedding of two old friends, both of us attending alone. I’ve never seen you in a t-shirt or with bare feet; you know nothing of the snake tattoo that wraps around my right thigh. We’ve broken no rules, really, with the exception of a kiss on a street corner in New Orleans and a few letters that might have been better unwritten.

We’ve made a pact not to kiss again.

But there is your arm linked through mine, clutching me. There is the way you look at me, like you can’t believe I truly exist—like you’d dreamed me and now here I am in the flesh.

Ever free-fallen through space? I asked you in one of my letters.

Your response: Not till now.

*     *     *

In the tent, most everyone who sat down feared two things: a short lifeline and the Death card. Those who claimed they didn’t were liars. Even they held their breath as I turned their Tarot.

But to pull Death signals reinvention, reincarnation. No one saw it that way, even when I explained. If skeletal Death made an appearance on the table, the first question was, always, When?

Rare the person who accepted the impossibility of me knowing such a thing. They just wanted an answer, the illusion of control. As most of us do.

I made up dates. Most of the expectant faces that sat across from me, I never saw again.

*     *     *

The cab driver won’t take his eyes off me in the rearview. I hide my face in your neck and whisper, How’s he possibly driving? I wait in the lobby downstairs while you’re interviewed and the security guard, a woman, won’t stop smiling at me. Then the dapper bartender in vest and bowtie, as he hands us our bourbons, says, This round’s on the house. You hold out your cash, but he waves it away, saying, Just looking at you two makes me giddy.

I want to tell the bartender he is mistaken. But I know what he wants, like everyone who has watched us across this city: to feel what we are feeling. Even if I shouted the truth of our situation, peeled back my skin and let them see how the heart looks as it plummets toward earth, I could not dissuade them.

In the quiet of the bar, I take your hand and hold it to my face, inhaling you, trying to take you in.

How seductive, the current between us. How dangerous.

You say, If only we could stop time and stay here, forever.

I say, If only.

Above us, the dim lights flicker. Old wiring, the bartender says, looking up. Does this sometimes.

*     *     *

Few people know that the Tower is the card to fear when it shows up in a reading. See the storm clouds gather. See the flames engulf solid structure. See the bodies tumble toward ruin. See the world alight with destruction of the finest grade.

*     *     *

We go back out into the rain. Gray sheets of air enveloping us. Our feet soaked and freezing. We huddled under the little black umbrella bought on a street corner. Your hand, over my hand, holds the handle.

Few people know that the Tower is the card to fear when it shows up in a reading.

 We walk to the wharf to eat sourdough bread and oysters. We share a cupcake, red as a heart’s throb. We talk about soil and poetry. I take your hands in mine and study them. I tell you of a recent dream: hands floating in the air, circles tattooed on the palms. From my purse, I pull a black marker and draw a circle on each of your palms, hold out mine for you to do the same.

*     *     *

There was one repeat visitor, the summer before I left the carnival for good, in a town outside some cornfield in Nebraska, a blonde man with dark circles beneath his eyes. Even before he sat down in front of me I could tell he wasn’t long for this world. His body gave off the smell of overripe melons, dazzling and noxious. He leaned his elbows on my flimsy table and said, I’ve got two weeks.

I recognized him then, from years before, a cocksure and ebullient man, the kind who reveres his wife in public and belittles her at home. My prediction for him had been purposefully short, and I saw now how tender he was beneath that façade—his diminishment did not make me hate him less, but I knew then I had meddled too long with fate. That I would suffer for what I’d done.

Taking his hand in mine, I did not turn it over to read the lines. I held it, and when he cried, I said, I’m sorry.

Apologies are inadequate, flimsy offerings at best.

*     *     *

We board a bus, aimless and unsure of what to do with ourselves as the afternoon darkens. The brakes compress and wheeze at each stop. We stare into one another. Our bodies, all animal, taut with yearning.

I worry it may all explode—gristle, bone, teeth, yielding of flesh to flesh—there will be no survivors.

I worry this often, in my kitchen at home, cup of coffee halfway to my mouth, imagining your hands as they reveal me, what I would risk, to take you inside me. On scraps of paper: everything but the cats and dog, everything but the children, everything but my wife. Some days: none of it at all. Sun floods the kitchen and I shred the papers and go about my day—sweeping the terra cotta tiles, harvesting fruit, telling stories. My children smell of mud and peanut butter and berries, my wife like sawdust and clean air. There are shells and sand littering the front walkway, plants to be watered, dinner to be made—this is the life I wrote vows to, once upon a time, when I walked away from the carnival and rejoined the world. When I thought I might slip away from the suffering I saw in store for me, thought I might stop pulling the same cards or rewrite the lines etched on my palm.

If only you and I were not one lifeline—hurtling toward one another all that time.

If you look closely, you will see the delicate lashings, faint but indelible, that bind us.

You pull the cord and the bus lurches to the curb. We exit the back door and walk till we find a room for rent by the hour. We pay for three.

*     *     *

You step off the sidewalk. Goodbye still stinging through our bodies. Our bodies still singing.

You leave me with the umbrella. Your shoulders hunch, your collar up against the rain.

I see the car first, a flash of silver.

When it strikes your legs, you do not fly upward. Gravity is powerful, especially in destruction. You crumple, and I yowl, and then there are people all around us, and blood dripping from the corner of your mouth.

I see your innocence, your curiosity, in the wild pain of your eyes. The woods illuminated, the path clear. Your hand grabs for mine. You whimper, and blood bubbles from your lips. I bend closer.

You say, Come with me.

I trace the circle on your palm.

Soon.

Rauch photoSara Rauch’s writing has appeared in Crossed Out, Inkwell, upstreet, Glitterwolf, Hoot, and a few other places. Her poetry chapbook, Soft Shell, is forthcoming from Chantepleure Press. She lives in western Massachusetts with her partner and their five felines. When she’s not herding cats, she’s editing Cactus Heart and writing short stories.

First-Person Shooter

Please God let today be like any other day. That’s what I say every day before I get out of bed. That’s what I’ve been saying every day for the past six years.

After I brush my teeth, I start my console, wear the headset, and log in to a multiplayer. When Mom hears my clatter in the bathroom, she starts cooking. She’s a really good cook. She’s the only one in the family who gets me, understands why I’ve become what I’ve become.

In the multiplayer, I lie in the fuselage of a downed aircraft. My character, Sergeant James “Cobra” Caulfielder, groans. Outside, a soldier waves me forth, but before I can move, he’s engulfed in a bulb of flame before he can even scream. My fellow soldiers shout “Move” repeatedly above a hail of weapon fire. The mission objectives crawl across the top of the screen. Enter the Fortress. Find and eliminate President. This is a particularly chaotic level of End Times 2, a very confusing map. I’ve tried it a few times and died.

Dying in a game is what I imagine dying in real life is like. The screen goes dark before you wake up again. Only in real dying, I hope you wake as someone else.

I go downstairs and eat with Mom in the kitchen. She’s made chicken adobo. She pats me on the head, and I can tell she’s not sure what to say next.

“What are you going to do today?” she says finally.

I shrug. She knows. Same thing I do every day.

“Maybe you should play some basketball in the backyard?”

“I don’t like sports.”

“I’m going to go to the mall with Aunt Theresa later—”

“No, thanks.”

“You can buy a new game.”

“I can order them online.”

Mom lets out a quick breath through her nose. She waddles slowly to the sink, plate in hand.

She’s not happy with me. And that hurts. Nobody is happy with me. Mom and Dad and my older brother Steve say a lot of time has passed, and people don’t blame me anymore. Steve even tries to set me up with friends and girls and jobs.

They don’t know what it’s like. Nobody has ever blamed them. After that morning on campus with Eugene and after everyone found out that I was his only friend, I couldn’t go outside without people and cameras staring at me, blaming me. That morning was so bright, the sky too clear. It was December. Where was the snow?

The parents of the victims called me a murderer—just because I was Eugene’s roommate. Once, on my way to class, one of the dead girls’ dads stepped in front of me out of nowhere and, out of shock, I turned and ran. I got no more than a few steps before he grabbed my backpack and threw me to the ground. I stared up at him, into the bright, cold sky. He shook me, and the world reeled, looked fake like a video game. It was a new school year. Things were supposed to be better. The dad had tears in his eyes. Why? he kept asking. Why did Eugene kill his girl? He spat on me, as he wept. He called me a few names about my race, but I don’t want to make it about that. I don’t blame him.

Why? He kept asking.

The parents of the kids who weren’t shot that day were the worst. They tried to get me arrested as an accessory. They held signs outside our house and shouted at us. I remember my dad sitting at the dining table wearing his U.S. Navy hat, just staring off into space, as the chants went on for hours. He told me to go upstairs and stay there. I was watching television so I didn’t want to move. My dad slammed a fist on the table and called me dumb and useless in Tagalog. I don’t want to make it about what he called me. I don’t blame him either.

I live in a big house. When I’m not gaming, I work out in our home gym and watch the 70-inch high-def. I like older sitcoms best because they’re usually filmed indoors. Two and a Half Men, How I Met Your Mother, Friends. I don’t like reality shows, procedurals, or crime dramas—any show filmed outside. Sunlight makes people look too real.

I do lots of pull-ups, calisthenics, and butt exercises because I sit so much when I game. After lunch, I’m on the treadmill, watching Neil Patrick Harris talk about how awesome he is for the ten-thousandth time. Mom walks in, holding the cordless.

“It’s Steve,” she says.

I stop the treadmill. “Aw, come on.”

Mom continues to shake the phone at me. I take it.

“Hey, buddy,” Steve says.

I hate it when he calls me buddy.

“Mom and I are thinking about taking you out to dinner tonight.”

He says this like it’s normal. Steve works at this company that does studies—the ones cited on the radio when there’s not much news. Like that recent study that found that married working couples clean house less. Or the one that showed that people don’t trust their neighbors.

I flip through channels, until I find TV Land. All in the Family is on. It’s the episode Archie gets put in lockup with commies and hippies. One of my favorites. I love how in sitcoms, the prisons always feel clean and comfortable, like even the set designers want to reassure us that they’ll be out of jail in thirty minutes.

“Marcus?”

“Yeah?”

“Are you up for it?” Steve says.

I turn off the television and pull the shades down in the room. Mom is still standing there waiting to take the phone back. I shoo her away.

“What the fuck do you think?”

“Hey, language!” Steve says. “Do it for Mom. She deserves a break.”

I want to give Mom a break. I don’t want Mom to take care of me forever. She’s getting old. I don’t want to be a burden. I want to change. I just don’t want to change today. Please God let today be like any other day.

“I’m not like you, Steve. I’m not like you.” My voice is rising. I’m shaking all over.

“Okay, pal, okay,” Steve says. “Calm down. Shhh.”

I squeeze my eyes shut and force a few hard breaths. My teeth are clenched, and I can feel my pulse in my throat.

“Hey, did you know that studies show that toddlers bond with robots?” Steve says.

“Huh?”

“Nothing,” Steve says. “Do you mind if Lily comes over tonight?”

“Oh, Lord.”

“Don’t argue,” Steve says. “Studies show that people who argue tend to get mad more often.”

“Asshole.”

“Language!” Steve barks. “You don’t get everything you want in life, okay? Lily’s part of the family too. We’re all sick and tired of walking on eggshells around you. Everyone knows what happened. So the hell what?”

Steve rarely gets angry. I feel like I might cry so I swallow and pinch away the feeling.

“Look what you made me do,” Steve says. He hangs up.

I go downstairs to give Mom the phone and see that her car is gone. She’s gone to Aunt Theresa’s.

I return to the gym and continue my work out, lifting weights, doing pull-ups. The reason I don’t like Steve’s girlfriend Lily is that she’s got the sensitivity of a brick. She always sends me job listings and offers to put me in touch with her “network,” when we all know she’s just an admin. She brings up my problem whenever she comes over. She often asks about what happened on that bright, crisp December morning six years ago like it was yesterday, like she’s police. Yes, Eugene and I played a lot of video games. Yes, we’d been friends since we were six. Yes, we liked first-person shooters. Yes, I knew he had guns. Yes, I even filmed several of those famous videos where he’s holding his guns and saying that he’s going to kill the rich kids in school. I thought he was kidding around. Yes, when we walked to campus together that morning, I noticed his backpack was fuller than normal. No, I never thought he would do what he did. No, I’m not a murderer, but you can call me one anyway. I won’t get mad. I’m used to it.

Soon, the screams, the gunshots.

I see myself walking to class with Eugene. I told him about the first Halo, about how I thought the game was a cautionary tale about the separation of church and state. He nodded and smiled, but he wasn’t really listening. We were crossing the quad. Students were going to class. The campus shuttles dropped off a large group. We passed a big oak tree, and Eugene pushed me behind it and said to get down, stay down and stay there. He was protecting me, like someone was attacking us. He slung his backpack over his chest and ran toward the one of the buildings. Entered the fortress. Soon, the screams, the gunshots.

I fall off the pull-up bar and land on my hands and knees. My arms are fried. I’ve been doing pull-ups for ten minutes. I shower, go to my room, lock the door, and start up my console. I enter another multiplayer on End Times 2. It’s a map of the planet Gurkanus. The objective is to rescue a prisoner from a home nestled in a crowded interplanetary version of a favela called an Argento. Lots of blind alleys and mosquito-like aliens. Of course, we’re in the middle of a war as well, and the Argento is getting bombed. We have to listen for the air growl, the scene to shudder, the sign to take cover. Chaos.

Sometimes I imagine one of the other players on my side is Eugene. People didn’t believe me when I said that Eugene was a good guy. Back when we were in high school, he’d help his parents out at the dry cleaners every day after school. When we played fighting games, he’d let me win. We were ten when we filmed a short movie on a camcorder. He played a black-hooded-and-caped superhero named Obsidian Man and I played a white-masked bad guy named Chalk. While we filmed a fight scene, he accidentally split my lip with a punch and was so upset about it, he started crying.

I was the one who introduced him to gaming in the first place. I got him into military shooters. Call of Duty. Battlefield. Metal Gear Solid. I can’t play those games anymore. Can’t do real guns.

Neither of us liked college. I think he had a crush on this white girl Brittany who was way out of his league. She’s an actress now on one of those shitty USA Network shows.

People used to tease us. They called us Gay Nerds. Eugene had a bad stutter that made him put F sounds on everything. I used to be thin and gangly, and I wore really thick glasses. Eugene and I weren’t good at much of anything really, other than sitting in front of a screen and pressing buttons on a piece of silly plastic.

“Did you know you can order one of those online?” Eugene said one night while we were playing Call of Duty.

“One of what?”

“The assault rifle, the M4A1,” he said. “Full-auto fire. You can even get one with a sight.”

In End Times 2, I’ve found the prisoner, hiding beneath a sewer grate. He’s a dark-haired fellow. Emaciated and gangly like me in real life. He holds some secret about President. At the other end of this Argento is our escapecraft. I’ve got to blast aliens to protect him. I ask the other players to cover me. We get to the escapecraft. Off into the atmosphere we go. The planet grows visible through the window. Fade out. The players exchange congratulations over headsets. We’re all strangers, but I imagine that this is what the congratulations would have felt like had I been a hero that December morning, instead of just another dumb coward hiding behind a tree. Once I realized what was happening, I should have gone after Eugene. I’d like to believe that he wouldn’t have been able to look me, his best friend, in the eye and kill me.

I log off and drift through the silent and empty house. Mom’s been gone for an hour, and I already miss her. In the backyard, the sky makes our lawn look plastic. There’s a deck, a patio, and a grill that’s layered with dust. I slide open the glass door and touch the fly screen. How easy would it be to pull the screen aside and step out into the real world again! I look beyond our fences, and even though I know no one would be watching me, I feel eyes peering through the cracks, judging me, and my guts clench. I hurry to the kitchen and brace myself against the sink, against the nausea. Once the feelings pass, I down a glass of water.

The garage door groans open. Mom’s back. I shut the sliding glass door, close the vertical blinds. I feel whole again. She’s moving slowly, carrying four full paper shopping bags. I take them all from her. I start emptying the groceries, putting proteins in the fridge, canned foods in the pantry. Mom isn’t saying anything, and she isn’t looking at me. Is she still upset?

I ask her if she’s okay.

Her glance doesn’t linger. She’s ashamed. She mops her brow. “Just tired,” she says. Then she asks if I’m hungry. I tell her I am.

I wait in the living room while Mom makes me a snack. I find an old episode of Facts of Life. I’m not a good person. I’m a burden. I should be doing more with my life. Eugene and I were computer science majors. We never finished.

Soon, the smells rise from my mother’s wok. Fried soy sauce noodles with bok choy—that’s my guess. My stomach growls. The mouth moistens. It occurs to me that I’ve never offered to help Mom cook.

“Dad called,” she says.

Mom rarely mentions Dad. He spends most of the time over at the apartment building he manages. He’s given up on me. I can’t remember the last time he asked how I was doing.

“He wants to go out to dinner tonight.”

“What am I going to do?”

Mom didn’t look at me. “He wants you to come.”

“What?”

She plates my snack and sticks it in front of me like bad papers she wants me to sign. “Marcus, it’s time.”

I tell her no again, grab my plate, and storm upstairs.

“Dad will be at the restaurant!” Mom shouts. “He’ll be waiting! We will be waiting!”

The shrillness of Mom’s voice makes me nauseous. I can’t remember the last time she raised her voice. I lock myself in my room and eat in front of my television. The noodles are tasteless. Mom’s cooking is usually so good. This dish is slopped together. Barely any soy sauce at all, and the bok choy are wrinkled. The steps creak. She’s making her way upstairs. I start up the console.

I hear Mom talking on the phone. She’s speaking Tagalog in a high-strung, plaintive tone, which means she’s talking to Dad. “I told you we should have sent him to someone,” says Mom. My dad didn’t think I shouldn’t go to a doctor because I was healthy and young.

The screen comes up, but everything goes out of focus. I put my forehead to the ground and cover my ears. My eyes are squeezed shut, and I’m rocking back and forth and screaming silently until I can’t hear Mom’s voice anymore. I’m beyond hope. Twenty-six years old and my life is over. I think Eugene spared me because I was supposed to live the life he wished he had the courage to lead. But what have I done with his favor? I know how men my age are supposed to be. I’m supposed to be like Steve. I’m supposed to have goals and responsibilities. I’m not supposed to have Mom practically wipe my butt for me. I’m supposed to make Dad proud of my accomplishments. But even if the shooting hadn’t happened, I feel like I’d be like this. I know I’m not normal. We’d have a normal family except for me. Eugene should have killed me too. Then I could wake up and be someone else.

I haven’t heard a sound in the house for some time. I go downstairs, back upstairs, then downstairs. Mom’s gone again. I see the note on the whiteboard.

“Walking to Olive Garden,” Mom’s written. “Meet you there at 5:30.”

We live in the suburbs. Olive Garden is probably two hours away by foot, underneath freeway overpasses and over train tracks. Mom is 61 and overweight, and she takes medication for hypertension and high cholesterol.

The phone rings. I pick up.

Eugene should have killed me too. Then I could wake up and be someone else.

“What did you do?” Steve says.

“What?”

“Mom’s walking to Olive Garden.”

“I know!”

“Is she insane?”

“You’ve got to get her.”

“I’ve got to work,” Steve says. “I know you’re unfamiliar with the concept, but I can’t just up and walk out. You have to get her.”

“Where’s Dad?”

“How am I supposed to know? Maybe he’s walking to Olive Garden too.”

“I haven’t driven in six years.”

“It’s like a bicycle,” Steve says.

“Fuck you.”

“Studies show that you can put a key in an automobile, put the joystick in reverse, and find your mother,” Steve says. “Call me back when you find her.”

He hangs up, and I shout expletives. I grab the car keys and open the door that leads to the garage. I dry-heave, feel dizzy as the daylight washes over the car, stinging my eyes. More expletives. Some whimpering. Lots of sweating. I step out into the garage like I’m going over a cliff. My feet hit the concrete and squish a little, and I put my hands out and brace myself against the hood of Mom’s minivan. Why is she doing this to me?

I’m making noises I’ve never heard from myself as I approach the driver’s seat. I hear the screaming of the students on campus that day. They sound like locusts in my memory now. My whole body shakes as I pop the door open and slide into the seat. I feel like I’m squeezing myself into a baby’s chair. I can hardly move. My thighs are indented by the steering wheel. I try to find the button to move the seat back, but I end up moving the mirrors, the windshield wipers, the time—everything but the seat. Then I find the bar below the chair. It’s manual, old, like my parents. I put the key in the ignition. I’m a mess. I’m drooling a little, snarling, crying. I turn the key though. The minivan roars. I put the gearshift in reverse, shut my eyes and lower the right foot. Scream. Scream so I can’t hear the neighbors calling me names.

The van shoots into the street, screeching as I hit the brakes. I almost hit a neighbor’s mailbox. I take a breath and am surprised I still feel okay. Tell myself this is just like a video game. Then I proceed slowly. When I start a new video game, I usually go all out right away, charging into traps. If I die in a game, I just start over. Learn. Get better. Why can’t I do that in real life?

I’m moving about fifteen miles per hour on our empty street. I eye the sidewalks. No Mom. I try to remember the way to Olive Garden. It’s a right, then a left on the expressway, and you go like ten miles. Mom can’t be far. I jerk the car to the left, and it overturns, so I jerk the car back to the right, and I’m swerving as I get to the stoplight, which turns green so I have to go. My foot drops on the pedal too hard, and I’m off into the intersection, plowing onto a four-lane boulevard. I’m sweating through my shirt. I scan for Mom’s round figure, her specific waddle. She should stand out against the concrete nothingness that Eugene railed against in his video.

“I just want to feel something good in this wasteland,” he hissed, pointing those guns at the camera. “The world is ugly like me.”

If I die in a game, I just start over. Learn. Get better. Why can’t I do that in real life?

I stop at a light. I feel unbalanced, like I’m sitting in a boat. I’ve never actually been in a real boat. Once many years ago in a WWII shooter, I rowed a boat onto the shores of Normandy. I see myself running across the quad again, after the gunshots stopped. Four or five students gaped at the ground, screaming ohmyGods and crying. I’m tall so I could see over them. A girl lay there. A brunette, but we can’t recognize her. She’d been shot in the face.

I hear a horn. I’ve been sitting in front of the green light for too long. My move. The horns sound again. I dry-heave. Cars swerve around me. I hit the hazard lights. Hazard is I. They said I was a hazard to the community.

Then I see Mom. Looking so alone on the sidewalk. The overpass and freeway on-ramp in the distance. I pull up beside her and roll down the passenger side window. Though she’s red-eyed from crying, she looks at me like I’m someone new.

*     *     *

It’s 5:30. We park in front of Olive Garden, and I step out of the car. The first couple of steps are a little mushy, like the asphalt has turned to rain-softened soil. The next steps are steadier, and I begin to think I’m getting better. I can breathe. No one is looking at me and thinking about what happened that December day years ago. Mom takes the crook of my elbow, and we’re walking together in the night, outside, like this happens all the time, like we’re normal. I feel a rush of happiness and think that as long as she’s with me, I’ll be okay.

Inside the restaurant, Dad is seated at the head of the table. He is wearing his U.S. Navy hat with the flat brim as usual. He adjusts his tinted glasses. He’s probably thinking I’m a mirage. He’s surprised I’ve made it, like he was surprised I made it after he heard news of the shooting on the radio. He always expects the worst, so he can avoid disappointment. Mom kisses him on the cheek, and she whispers something to him. Dad continues to stare at me, his lips parted by amazement. I sit next to him, across from Mom. I’m still in wet gym clothes. A mess. I’ve been through chaos, but I’m here.

“I’m proud of you,” Dad says. “You’ve always been so smart. I remember teaching you long division when you were three. You got it right away.”

His chin trembles, and he’s fighting back tears, so I’m fighting back tears. Dad has spoken more to me in the last five minutes than he has in five months. Mom takes Dad’s cell phone and calls Steve to tell him and Lily to come. She has to repeat herself three times.

*     *     *

Today is the seventh anniversary of the shooting. Eugene shot 34 students, then himself. People used to tease us. They called us Gay Nerds. Eugene had a bad stutter that made him put F sounds on everything. I used to be thin and gangly, and I wore really thick glasses. Eugene and I weren’t good at much of anything really, other than first-person shooters. This is what I tell Jessica, my therapist, as we walk around Dailybrook, the place I go twice a week to practice my coping mechanisms.

“Mom and Dad are on a cruise,” I tell her.

Jessica puts her hand on my shoulder. A line appears between Jessica’s brows and vanishes. “Do you feel deserted?”

We are standing in the quad of Dailybrook, under a large tree, like the one at the college. I think of Eugene.

“Not by them,” I say.

lelandcheukLeland Cheuk has been awarded fellowships and artist residencies at the MacDowell Colony, I-Park Foundation, Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts, and New York Mills Regional Cultural Center. His writing has appeared in publications such as The Rumpus, Pif Magazine, CellStories, and Punk Planet. He has been a finalist for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship, the Salamander Fiction Prize, and the national Washington Square Review fiction contest. He lives in New York City.

Goat Sucker

It wasn’t fleeing. It was a road trip. It was a chance to bond, an opportunity too rare to pass up, and I was blitzed out of my mind from the possibilities that lay before us: a grown, jobless man and his retired father on the way south in late spring. It seemed good. It seemed right.

It is difficult, of course, to pin down what I had hoped would happen on the trip. I needed to understand my father after so many years of never even trying. There was something screaming that now was the very last time to do so, and if I let the opportunity pass I would be marooned, left forever. By showing an interest in the old man now, there could maybe be the kind of reconciliation that afternoon television was made for, something all the more difficult to attain due to the fact that there was no single rift or place of tearing. What separated my father and I was more akin to miscommunication and the simple geography of distance. The idea that we could heal our rift through a road trip seemed symbolic. The geographical distance between myself and the Madison police didn’t hurt much either after the obviously ridiculous incident with Speedy Cash.

My latest employment in that long string had been terminated over the matter of my till and the whereabouts of thirty stupid dollars. All I can say about that is I’m not dumb enough to try and steal from a check cashing establishment, and even if I was, I find it hard to believe that anyone, really, could be so foolhardy as to do it from their own register—talk about asking to get caught. I don’t know what happened to that money, an explanation not good enough for my former manager—who was just as undeterred by my suspicions about the shift supervisor—and most certainly found lacking by the interested persons in the eleventh precinct called in on that ridiculous charge. No one seemed to understand. No matter how much I explained it to them. I was simply not the kind of person who would be caught doing something so dumb. They all wore the self-righteous smirk of habitual disbelief.

Compounding matters worse was the freak accident: a disappearance of the money order I had taken out to cover my rent and gotten two months past due. My landlord didn’t appreciate the disappearance, but he was kind enough to accompany me to Ace Cash, even though I really had to get my groceries into the fridge before they expired. When I showed them my receipt the lady at the counter said the check had been cashed already, which was impossible because I had made it out to my landlord, who was standing right there with me and who didn’t have his money. I demanded right there she return the full amount of money as was made out on the receipt, “money owed to my landlord,” and said I wasn’t going to move until we got it. I demanded to see a manager. She called the police instead, like I was trying to pull something on her, but I just wanted to pay my landlord, who looked less and less pleased with each passing moment. I thought about waiting for the cops, because then I could file a claim saying that someone had stolen that money order and cashed it, but of course I knew that would be a dead end, what with the terrible inefficiency of the Madison police department. They would rather persecute an innocent like me than spend the time bothering to catch the real culprit.

In hindsight, leaving said location at a sprint was possibly not the best or wisest response to the situation.

Matters like that do not make bonding all that easy, but I was there at least, with my dad, and that was really something. Who cared that I had come to my father in a state of mild, temporary desperation? I could have squatted in his empty house, like he had suggested when I told him I needed a place to crash for a little while, you know, as things had been going pretty rough for no real reason lately. But when I looked around that sparsely furnished house on Rushmore Lane, with the wild, dead or dying jumble of grass in the back yard, and the dearth of consumer electronics within—aside from the laptop he was bringing with him—crashing there seemed silly. I realized I didn’t just need a new base of operations, so to speak. I needed to connect with my father. Somewhere in the past, something had come undone between us, and since I was temporarily free from the constraints of the daily grind, I had the chance to fix it.

If I’m being one hundred percent, I suppose that the thought of answering my dad’s door one Tuesday morning, or whatever, and facing a load of B.S. questions from some detective so-and-so about the Speedy Cash business, or some old so-called friends looking for something I wouldn’t even know about might have been a motivator, but I would like to believe, and in my heart I truly know, that now was the time to get to understand my dad and his strange ways.

I didn’t have much of an opportunity to tell Dad about my plan on the road, but that seemed fine. We drove straight through to New Mexico in just over a day. I developed a headache along with a worrying tickle that I knew could be cured with over-the-counter cough syrup, plenty of water, and probably a few ibuprofens.

Since mom died, Dad had been stuck in a cycle of fascination, obsession and then boredom with a rotating gaggle of unorthodox beliefs. At first it had been the séances, which was actually sort of sweet. He and mom had gotten hitched right out of high school, one of those sweetheart romances, and that lasted thirty four years before the stroke shuffled her off the refrigerated coil of that Wisconsin winter. Shakespeare via Madison—Dad hadn’t appreciated that small joke back then. It made sense, anyways, that he’d try to get in touch with her in the afterlife, especially since I was in my own world of grief and personal interests, things that ate into my free time so that I couldn’t be there for him, like I maybe could have been. It was me and mom who fought, not Dad, he wasn’t the one who had kicked me out of the house when that one thing happened in high school, and yet I was skipping her funeral like it was punishing her and not him. Sometimes I look back and think of how foolish I used to be.

The séances didn’t work, of course, and Dad eventually gave it up, dispirited, and moved on. Instead of coming back to reality though, he went from one crazy idea to the next. He was into voodoo and ghosts, chi energy and breatharianism, crystals and aliens and Native American mythology. Bigfoot only barely escaped his scrutiny. It wasn’t just an interest, even if it began casually, it was quickly a full-fledged obsession until Dad was so immersed that when he couldn’t find the results he was after he had no recourse but to reject the idea wholesale, moping about the house in a near catatonic depression until the next idea, the next great hope came along.

This is what brought us down to New Mexico in the first place, in search of the Chupacabra.

This is what brought us down to New Mexico in the first place, in search of the Chupacabra. The problem was there weren’t any real sightings in the state. Sure, there were sightings, but even as far as monsters in the dark go, they were ephemeral, the same sort of imagined fancy as my former manager turning the matter of thirty freaking dollars over to the police, like it was a real crime or something. He said that there had been some question over other registers in the past weeks, and that with mine coming up short led him to believe it was a systemic thing that had its radii squarely centered on my noggin. He must have been born of the same stock as those morons on the internet posting about a reptile-like creature lurking outside of Ruidoso. Any real hard look would prove to anyone of even moderate intelligence that what was happening was the misfiring of some delusional, overstimulated mind, seeking an elaborate answer to something pretty straight forward. Me and Dad eventually decided that there was nothing to see in that sleepy New Mexico town, and so we loaded ourselves into the truck, headed to more likely places of interest, a technique the Madison PD could take a lesson from.

We went to Texas. They should have gone to that slimy looking supervisor. Before the goatsucker had become Dad’s latest raison d’être, he had been on an extremely long and arduous UFO kick. Things had gotten pretty desperate by then, enough so that his old friends had looked me up, looking for anyone to make Dad shut his yap while at work. It was the kind of crazy, they said that could annoy someone upstairs enough to get him canned without the compensation his forty years of service deserved, and the dumb bastard only had a year left before retirement. I hadn’t talked to my father for nearly three years, but even then I knew that he hadn’t really been friends with those men since mom died. God, how long had that been? He hadn’t really been friends with anyone after that, actually. Even after all the bridges he had burned with those people due to his whackadoodle obsessions, the foundation of friendship had somehow survived. It bothered me, I remember, because my own friends would have sold me down the river for a bump. Talk about predicting the future.

Well, I had called the old man up, being in a rare state of clarity after his old buddies had given my cage a good rattle, and he invited me right over. Just like that. So I came on down and we sat in awkward silence in that old living room, not talking about mom or the years or the times. When I broached the topic of his UFOs, he leapt at the opportunity and led me on a tour of his study, eager to regale me with the details of his unsightly passion.

I would guess it began like everything else, with an honest, simple interest. Right before we had fallen out of touch he’d given me a call and encouraged me to install S.E.T.I. at home. I didn’t have a computer then, but he’d told me about the theories of alien contact anyway. I’d ignored him out of apathy and because I had my own obsessions, which was why we drifted apart in the first place. Plus, he’d always played the good cop to mom’s bad, and without her the dynamic felt wrong. It wasn’t until I came over, though, for that tour of the study that I realized things had spiraled out of control. He regaled me with his ideas on crop circles, which I was in no real condition to make coherent, having taken something for my nerves before stopping by to see him that day. He told me about which ones were fake and which weren’t; how even most crop circles were obviously hoaxes and others were simply less obvious ones. There had to be the real deal out there, especially when they first began to appear in anonymous farmers’ fields—what were they, he wondered out loud to me, what were they trying to say? You had to look at them as signs, he told me, an obvious olive branch of communication, even if it seemed incoherent.

Worse was the group he’d gotten involved with. They were searching for proof of contact; they believed that aliens were on Earth already, in one capacity or another, and it was their job to establish a means of communication. The depths of self-delusion were so deep I felt like they must have looped into infinity and I didn’t like the abyss in which I stared. I made excuses and got out of there, making sure, in a stroke of lucidity, to eke out a promise from Dad that he would calm things down at work so he could remain gainfully employed. That was something, as it came at the cost of me promising to stop by more often. I didn’t hold up my end of the bargain, but since he wasn’t fired, I assume Dad had held up his.

Dad kept asking if I was all right, because I would drift off on the long stretches of road, going somewhere in my head, he’d say, or else passing out and drooling all over myself. I was fine, just fighting that flu, you know?

The whole Chupacabra fix was just an offshoot of all that alien business. I heard about it all on that interminable drive from the far north to the Deep South. It was bad enough when we were alone, but worse was when he used that over-knowledgeable banter, the kind that could easily secure a seventy two hour involuntary, with every farmer and outskirts drifter he could get to listen. It surprised me how many people listened, how many were willing spin their own yarns for him. There was nothing in the great wasteland of New Mexico, as far as Dad could figure—to which I supplied a necessary guffaw of obvious agreement—but the people certainly had their stories, nearly all of them contradictory and illusory. When Dad had had enough of their imaginations running wild with hope and myth and the occasional outright fabrication—which Dad could stand less than anything else, I should know—we skedaddled out east.

Here was the point that confused me. Despite the absurdity of the idea in and of itself, and despite the degree of his obsession, Dad never really went over, not fully at least, to the dark side of credulity, holding on like a lunatic with his blankie to the fringe of understanding reality. Despite the money he’d sunk into his explorations for alien life, among all the others, and despite the time and dedication, he never fully fell for the snake oil or hopeful fantasies. His UFO group interviewed probably hundreds of people who claimed to be aliens or in contact or able to get in contact with them, but they were all dismissed, sadly, as crackpots or over-credulous. Dad would have made a great cop, superior to the North’s current breed. The UFO group’s crowning moment was going to be a young man who’d claimed to be in contact with extraterrestrials through unnatural vibrations in his teeth. They investigated and found out it was only that the man was, for reasons understood by only electrical engineers and adherents to late night B-movies, picking up the signal for a local Spanish language radio station through his fillings, poor kid. I guess Dad learned pretty well from my teenage years how to decipher the truth from what he wanted to believe, even when the proof came from the deluded mouth of a still-believer.

I remember the beginning of our Chupacabra trip: coming to Dad a few months after I’d been evicted, my reserves of cash burned through in ill-advised ways. Seeing that look, it was a little like what he’d give to the farmers with their Mexican Monster stories, designed with the obvious purpose of fooling the simple. Except that there was something different in Madison then, something that had to do with me in particular, that I still can’t quite figure.

It was this unforeseeable skepticism that always killed his grand ideas. The hopes got bigger and more unwieldy until there came a point where rational thought had to admit that the ground was not going to shake and the earth was not going to open up to reveal some profound mystery of being. Dad would know in those moments that he’d been deluding himself, trying to believe in something he wanted too desperately.

As we crossed the border and left behind New Mexico, I breathed a sigh of relief, glad to be rid of its Martian landscape and limitless heat. With a knowing smile and a wink, however, Dad let it be known that we were out of the frying pan and into Texas, so I better calm my jubilant exhalations a bit. We moved into the armpit of the state and it grew muggier and hotter, the AC in the decrepit Dakota struggling to keep pace with the sun. By the time we rolled into Granbury, Texas, Wisconsin a mere tres dias ancient history, I was in a pretty bad state. I’d been buying up Nyquil D, two bottles at a time whenever I could find it. I’d been trying to keep my deteriorating health from Dad because I figured it would screw up our bonding if he worried about me. He’d noticed right away, though, with the sweating and the abundant stops at gas station restrooms. Dad said he was pretty concerned, but I told him there was no need to worry. I wouldn’t slow him down, the Nyquil was helping lots and I didn’t really have a fever, per se, so much as I was just sensitive to the heat. You couldn’t blame me for not liking the heat, and it was so goddamned hot. When the Nyquil dried up, I wasn’t sure what to do.

I soon discovered that the Chupacabra of Texas was a different beast entirely.

I soon discovered that the Chupacabra of Texas was a different beast entirely. After we had passed through Coleman and Blanco and into the outskirts of San Antonio, the beast was just an ugly sort of dog, not the lizard of South American legend we’d chased before, with an unusual method of killing cattle. Dad really locked onto the idea. It wasn’t what he wanted, but it had a ring of truth, the weight of substantiality. We talked to farmers who’d shot their share of wild animals and to them the Chupacabra was not some alien looking creature with big black eyes, they had enough of black eyed aliens if you know what I mean, nudge-nudge, they would say. God. Their Chupacabras turned out, upon expert inspection, to be a coyote with a vicious case of mange or else a malformed raccoon. A few of the supposedly mythical creatures that had been preserved in giant walk-in freezers were merely Xolos. Dad let me know how unbelievable it was to him that this close to the border people didn’t know a simple Mexican hairless dog, how they should understand what was right there in their faces, but that only got me wondering about just how much Dad knew himself.

Driving out to Cuero I took a turn for the worse. I’d been on so much Nyquil to keep my symptoms at bay that I had probably gotten addicted to the stuff. Dad told me that he needed to take me to a hospital but I told him no. I didn’t have the money to pay for those kinds of bills and I didn’t have insurance. I had lost that safety net when I had lost my job. I toyed with the idea of going in and giving my ex-boss’ name and social security number on the hospital forms, ignoring for now why I had that memorized, because it was his fault in the first place that I was in this situation. In the end I figured it best not to get the police in Texas interested in me as well. I was probably through the worst anyways, so I told Dad he didn’t really need to worry. Sure, I had dropped a few pounds since we set off on our road trip, but I had finally put things behind me and was beginning a brand new life where me and my dad were united, and those pounds needed dropping anyways.

I didn’t much like the new Chupacabra. It was too ordinary, too mundane. It wasn’t that it was plausible that bothered me, but that this seemingly plausible explanation was linked to such extraordinary circumstances. Even though it was just a derivative of a dog, there were still the three-holed exsanguinations. The nod to reality made the whole situation even more farcical. Dad just shrugged, like maybe he was on the way down from this particular obsession and told me that everyone has some myth, some legend that they choose to believe. That the particulars get changed doesn’t seem to matter much. The important thing was understanding something difficult to comprehend, and these people were doing the best that they could. I guess I agreed with him, but I still didn’t like it. I wished people would simply call a duck a duck, or in this case, a monster a monster or else a satanic cult or a couple of kids with a box of syringes and too much time on their hands. Dad grunted his agreement, and I knew that our bridge had at least a foundation, if not the arch and span I envisioned.

It was the same story in Cuero, only the weather was even worse, the southeastern section of Texas being the swamp ass of the United States, I decided—though I had never been to Louisiana, so I might have been wrong. I don’t know. Like everywhere, Dad grabbed his doodads and whatsits, grabbed baggies for samples of whoknowswhat, and took notes with his pad and pen. I started feeling a little afraid by then, both because I felt like my guts were being liquefied and because I didn’t want the trip to end. There was still some barrier between me and Dad that I needed to eliminate, but I still couldn’t place it. I needed more time. Home seemed a worse and worse place to go, not only because I had no apartment or job, but because I’d exhausted all my friends and favors. It wasn’t just that the Ace Cash problems had snowballed into the Speedy Cash ordeal, or that this had morphed into some sort of larger case file, which included other former places of my employment and my various check cashing habits—I didn’t even get the money from Ace, so what was the problem? The real, honest to god, swear upon my life reason was that this proximity with Dad was going to be gone, he was my traveling buddy and my confidant and we were connecting in ways before unimaginable. Sure, I was sick now, but I would get better. I was probably getting better already.

The last farmer we talked to was a conman through and through. He tried to sell us a story so patently bogus my eyes rolled into my head on their own volition, like an animal afraid of bullshit. I happened to have been a person in my old life that needed to stretch the truth a bit to get by. I knew the difference between the semi-believable and the outright chain yankers, and this was off the charts. Dad kept taking his little notes. He was even suckered into buying a few pieces of the crap that man was hocking, so-called genuine shards of nails from the Chupacabra. I confronted Dad, even though I felt like my eyes were falling out of my head, and told him I couldn’t believe that he had fallen for such an obvious line. He told me that sometimes stories didn’t add up, but that didn’t mean that a kernel of truth wasn’t there. He told me how Mountain Gorillas were considered a myth for hundreds of years, and it wasn’t until 1902, when one was shot and killed by a European that the tales of the savages were finally taken seriously.

There’d been too many disparities, too little fact mixed into the stories told, but it had been true all along. There was, he told me, the pearl to be found in the mud, but only if you looked. It was hard work looking at dirt and shit all day, but it could be worth it. I told him the money would have been better spent, maybe for some medicine for his son, for example. I told him that when he knew a line was bogus he should nip it in the bud, because if you didn’t stop chasing lies, you would spend your whole life staring at nothing but shit, and then where were you? He didn’t say anything, but I know the words hit home.

Later that night, at the hotel, Dad told me that he wouldn’t be heading home yet, which was fine with me until he told me he was going on into Mexico and he might keep going south after that. I didn’t have a passport and besides I didn’t need the hassle of trying to get myself through official checkpoints, sometimes things didn’t necessarily stay localized, though I just told Dad about the passport. He shrugged like always and gave me a thousand dollars stuffed in a white envelope he had pulled from absolutely nowhere, and told me it should be enough for cough syrup or whatever, and a flight home. He said I should probably go to a doctor and have them take care of my flu when I got there. He said he would be back in maybe a month. He wanted to hear the stories of the lizard Chupacabra, he wanted the tales of the Central American alien, the raw and horrible thing that made people afraid to leave their house, even if his Spanish was of the high school yooper variety, and he hoped to see me when he got back.

I was walking in the dark for my medicine when I saw it. It wasn’t more than twenty feet away, slinking out of the tree line. It was the eyes that gave it away, the eyes that changed everything, that shone like the world was ending, like it knew. I stood there until it slunk back from where it had emerged, the twenty in my hand gone sweaty and crumpled, and I thought, Dad, you are not going to believe this, but I have to tell you something.

J I Daniels received an MFA in fiction from the University of Houston and can be found most recently in Splash of Red and Words Apart.

Automicide

He’s winding through a residential part of town in his modified, unmarked Crown Victoria. It’s a sunny weekend morning and everybody not actually driving seems to be out in their driveways washing and polishing their cars. He’s responding to a possible automicide out in Carmichael.

They wait at Watt and Edison, caught in the web of traffic lights that rule the interlocking five-lane thoroughfares. Rolling in through the open window from his left is a mountainous Cadillac Escalade’s “…wanna go now fuck this go now go now now now now go go wanna go wanna go now fuck this shit fuck it wanna go wanna go…” And from the right he can hear “…let’s go let’s go don’t like—fuck!—just sitting here fuck it let’s go hate sitting here fuck it let’s go let’s go…” coming from a steroidal white Hummer. He rolls up the windows.

 *     *     *

At the scene, the automodecedent is sheeted and ringed by gawkers. The medical examiner has come and gone. “Take off the sheet,” he says to one of the beat cops. He walks around and around the car—a Brentwood Brown ‘58 Chevy Nomad station wagon. It’s mildly dented on the right front fender and the passenger-side door, and there’s some rust on top, but nothing looks even remotely fatal. Christ, he thinks, another one for forensics. With car kills on the rise, the detectives increasingly found themselves superseded by the mechanics. That plus an influx of insurance adjusters making career transitions into the force are giving “old school” detectives a certain pinched feeling.

“Who called this in?” he asks.

“It was anonymous,” the patrolman answers. “Someone objecting to a non-mint pre-’70s unit.”

“And what did the M.E. say?”

“Nothing suspicious or out of the ordinary. Something like ‘Dead, merely dead.’ Meaning old age I guess.”

“How long has it been here?”

“Approximately 24 hours. The caller said she supposed the owner must have sensed the end was coming and dumped it.”

“Who said this?”

“As I said, it was anonymous.”

“But a woman.”

“Yes,” the patrolman says, and the detective sees the telltale twitching at the corners of his mouth. Another one trying not to laugh.

The inside of the Chevy is spotless, as though it had recently been cleaned. He finds the registration—the car belongs to a Walter Peterson—and leaves for the address of origin.

 *     *     *

Neighbors are circulating around the garage when he arrives at the Peterson residence—the gathering has a certain block-party feel—but as he rolls up they melt back into the neighborhood. No one responds at the Peterson’s, and he visits one of the next-door neighbors—a classically pale-skinned redhead of about 40—telling her he is responding to a report on the death of the Peterson car; he just needs to find the family for routine purposes regarding disposition of the body. Does she know of their whereabouts? She shakes her head and says she hasn’t seen the family in days—thought maybe they were on vacation—and then pours him some iced tea. Iced tea is prohibited to officers on duty, but he decides not to mention this. She engages in mild flirtation while talking about the Petersons. He leaves feeling pleased and then consults his notes. The woman, a Marla Braxton, has apparently said little other than: “The car didn’t seem like an automobile so much as a membranous device in a soft tone. I don’t believe I ever saw it move, but it certainly did add a je ne sais quoi to the neighborhood.” He recalls how she had been in mid pour, the tea forming a high, graceful arc between spout and cup, and how she had replaced the pot on the table and stared at him very intensely while finishing her statement. Remembering, too, how his pen had faltered for a moment at “membranous device” before hurrying to catch up. To catch up to what? Any follow up? Apparently not.

 *     *     *

He interviews another neighbor, a retired military man named Ed Steuber, who had noticed that the father “began taking the bus a lot, and when he’d board, he’d suddenly look like a drunk stepping on his watch.”

“That’s very helpful, thank you,” the detective says, this time not even bothering to finish writing it down.

“It was pretty pathetic.”

“What?”

“The guy and the car.”

“Why’s that?”

“Well, think about it,” the man says. “This car keeps breaking down I guess and then never gets used. It just sits there on the street mute and undriveable. How’d you feel being so useless? And the guy. Definitely not good at being a pedestrian. Definitely out of place on a bus.”

The detective stares at his shoes. “Any ideas where the family might be?”

“Nope,” answers the neighbor.

*      *      *

Outside, children are playing on cliffs. He rolls onto his stomach so that he can look over the edge. Below, the fields seem to stretch out in all directions forever, separated every once in a while by a pile of dead cars. Standing next to one of the fields is a family. They’re sweating heavily, looking uncomfortable. Why are they there? Are they waiting to have their picture taken?

He rolls onto his back and looks up into the sky. The air smells sweet. It’s night and the sky becomes a many-sided tunnel. He loves the way everything up there is so numberless and orderly.

He looks back and sees the people have disappeared from the fields. No, they’re there. Only they’re like stars in daylight. Because light is like a closed curtain they’re standing behind.

*      *      *

The detective is doing preliminary research on a paper he’s supposed to be writing for the looming Modern Criminologists Association’s convention on the role of automobiles in street crime and its prevention. He prepares by spending the afternoon reading at the police library. He’s still wading through a long introductory section and wondering what exactly the point is.

Any car, whether alive or dead, is a little piece of nature.

“Neighborhoods owe their existence to precise temporal and spatial contexts. So the courts bring them around. Think valet parking.” That’s how they get to their cars, the detective thinks, by their cars returning to them. It’s evolutionarily transitional. He notes this in the margin and then remembers it’s a library book. At least the note is in pencil. “In truth, housing is but a place to store drivers when they’re not in their cars.” That’s why houses have driveways, he thinks excitedly, surprised to be re-experiencing the sensation of thought, the exercise, the activity, the transport. Though unsure how he will incorporate any of this into his paper, he reads on: “Doorways to houses are like people slots that cars carry their operators to in order to ensure reactivation. Houses are the fixed feet by which cars encompass and make a world. Any car, whether alive or dead, is a little piece of nature.” The detective pauses. This certainly was interesting material.

 *     *     *

Back at home he picks up the remote. It’s only after the 5th revolution of the dial that he realizes he’s hoping to find the family on some reality cop program.

*      *      *

One day he sees a family apparently out for a stroll. A whole family walking together? I don’t think so, he thinks. He pulls over, flashes his badge, and asks who they are and where they’re going. But their story will not stay put. They’re on an island. No, they’re from an island. Far away. They’re on their way to a tennis tournament. They’re about to fly. They live on an island in the Pacific. They’re going to catch a bus to the plane. Their car is on an island too. See, they’ll take a plane to the island and their car will take them to the court. They’re on an island now, yes, it’s true, but they’re trying to take a bus to the plane that will deliver them to the home island. The detective realizes they’re just nervous; their prop, a tennis racquet, reinforces their story, which, though presented poorly, probably holds up. But he notices how awkwardly the girl carries the racquet. She stares at it as if it were something she’s having a hard time reading—a thermometer or a compass in dim light.

He asks her who her opponent is. Pontiac Le Sabre, she answers. They all turn red, even the girl, but especially the detective. It is clear that they are all quite unprepared for this answer. Don’t be disrespectful, the mother hisses as the girl rolls her eyes. You’re kidding, the detective finally says. Yes, the girl answers. We have to catch a plane and I don’t see why you’re—But he interrupts, saying, are you sure her first name isn’t Buick? Or her last name Trans Am? That’s one of the most obviously phony— Are you the kind of person who needs everything explained to him? the girl says. That’s me, the detective answers. I don’t remember who she is, says the girl. The detective doesn’t like the way the girl has been talking to him and asks for everyone’s picture ID, but he’s not going to let something petty distract him for more than a few seconds. Even though he now feels like a junker flaking paint in the sun.

*      *      *

In the precinct parking lot, he approaches the beige Volvo station wagon with darkened windows. He’s careful to arrive about a minute late, not wanting to see the person who precedes him getting out. “Hello, detective,” the Volvo says in that alluring velvety voice he’s come to love. “Come in.”

He enters, closes the door, sinks into his seat, and puts his hands on the steering wheel. As always, he feels a sense of safety and security descend over him as he surveys the padded dash, the faux sheepskin seat covers. “I don’t know what to talk about.”

He hears the smile in the Volvo’s voice. “You never do at first. At the end of the last session, we were talking about Ilsa.”

“No, no. But thank you. I’ve thought of something else. Work. My latest case.”

“Yes?”

“Well.” He takes a deep breath. “I’m investigating a family gone missing and their dead car; it was found two miles from their house. I’ve been having a recurring set of dreams ever since I got the case.” He reclines the seat back to about 45 degrees. He doesn’t mention the sexual fantasies featuring the Volvo he’s also been having, inexplicably.

“Do you want to tell me about them?” the Volvo asks, almost purring.

“Uh, the dreams? Sure. Let’s see. I’m on a cliff. I’m with a group of children. I guess I feel like I’m one of them…”

“Uh huh. Anything else?”

“I’m always just lying on the ground at the edge of the cliff, gazing up into the night sky.”

*      *      *

He feels the dangerous thrill of emptiness massing behind his head like the black banks of space above him come home. He’ll gladly miss dinner to see the stars returning to chart the secret passageways through time. He rolls onto his stomach to look down at the fields. The people are still there. They’re trying on clothes. Disguises as big as the sky. They must not know how visible they are at night. He looks toward town. It’s not that late. Normally everybody’s lights would be on and his mother would be calling. But the town is dark and quiet. Everybody has their binoculars out. Meanwhile, the universe may have just doubled in size and who would know?

*      *      *

He wakes up and sees he’s at the library again, an introductory volume on investigation open in front of him. Back to basics. He probably should be poring over some of the assigned reading he couldn’t be bothered with for his professional development class in contemporary automotive systems, but his self-confidence tends to disappear with car cases and he needs to feel as though he’s mastered something. Plus it’s a reference book so he can’t take it home. Still, he’s amazed at how much he didn’t know or had forgotten.

 *     *     *

• Where’s the body? This is an obvious point, perhaps, but the obvious is all too often overlooked. The location of the body can offer a universe of clues.

• When gathering evidence and leads, be sure to have water available to offer individuals—witnesses, neighbors, and the like—in conjunction with your questioning. Or, if you are at their house, be sure to ask for water. The sharing of this neutral beverage allows you to establish a light but definite connection to the person you are interviewing.

• Sample questioning: Do you have a minute or two? May I come in? Who are you? Did you witness the crime? May I have a drink of water, please? Where were you at the time of the crime? Can that be independently verified? What are you reading? I mean for fun.

 *     *     *

There are many more handy tips to be had in the reference book, but he’s tired. He looks up. Materials seem to be scattered haphazardly everywhere. He’s never noticed before how untidy the library is. He finds this enormously disturbing. Did something happen or is it always like this and he just never noticed? Libraries should be neat, well-ordered places. That is what the elaborate system of call numbers is for, isn’t it? What’s the point otherwise?

*      *      *

They’re in The Wreck Room. The detective finds, or rather loses, himself there, drinking with the group of 40+-year-old detectives he pals around with after work. Stopping off to wind down before going home is wholly reflexive at this point, almost in the same category as driving an automatic; all he has to do is steer and remember when to apply the brakes. And, more and more, it seems like the uptick in car-on-car automicides is what they talk about, and how notoriously difficult the cases are.

“These fucking cars,” one of the detectives is saying, “they’re uh…what’s the phrase I’m looking for here…oh yeah, so fucking stupid!”

“The way they bust our balls!” the detective pipes in. “Twice as hard to break down as humans.”

“Except when you’re trying to get somewhere in ‘em,” someone says.

“Did you say twice?” says another. “Jesus, try five times, ten times! Like just yesterday—”

“Yeah, but why?” says the 30-year-old rookie, the “kid” of the group. “How do they get away with shit if they’re so stupid?”

“Shut up and listen and I’ll tell you. Yesterday, I’m interrogating this suspect Titan about its relationship to the stiff…a late ‘70s something or other, don’t ask me what, I can’t remember, but, you know, racing stripes. Sometimes it’s hard to even keep a straight face. Anyways, I’m asking about its relationship to the autoimmobile. So it goes, ‘Bead-blasted intake manifold,’ and that’s it, and it’s like, shit, the verbal approach is not looking too good. Like what am I supposed to say? ‘Gosh, why didn’t you mention this earlier? You’re free to go!’? So I say, ‘Can you use complete sentences?’ and it goes, ‘New triple copper and rabbit babbitt cam bearings, high pressure oil pump, hardened steel distributor drive shaft.’ And I go, ‘Shut the fuck up about your new chrome-plated, triple copper alloy asshole, asshole, and just answer my questions. Like have you ever been in an accident or been otherwise damaged, dented etcetera by this or any other vehicle?’ And it says, ‘aluminum red river valley pan with PCV bunghole dobbedy dobbedy doo and grommet.’”

“Yeah, and those GPS-loaded bitch bastards—,” the detective says.

“ ‘Motherfucking assholes’ is the proper phraseology,” someone says.

“Anyhow, they’re programmed to ask for their lawyer to be present first thing! And they just repeat it endlessly.”

“Yeah, and that’s exactly what happened. Next thing I know I’m talking to the Titan’s lawyer and it ends up being released that night. You have to have a fuckin’ court order to breathe in their presence let alone examine one of their precious little chips.”

 *     *     *

Later, well past the initial drink-fueled complaining stage, one of the detective’s colleagues leans toward him confidentially. “You wanna know what—” his mouth bumps into the detective’s ear and he pulls back. “You know what they call us?”

“Who?”

“The cars. The genius cars. You know.”

“What?”

“KTs. Key turners.”

“Interesting,” the detective says.

“I think it says a lot. About their opinion of us.”

“They still need us,” the detective objects.

The man makes a show of looking at him piteously. “Have you ever wondered what might be going on communication-wise?”

“How do you mean?” the detective asks, barely able to keep his eyes open.

“Between them and our staff vehicles.”

“Them?”

“Those jacked-up civilian GPS fuckers.”

“I don’t follow you. Communication about what?”

But the other detective just looks away and orders another drink.

*      *      *

The detective plunges into round two with the neighbors.

Q: Was there trouble with the car?

Q: Was there trouble with the car?

A: I suppose it had to go into the shop every now and then.

Q: But did you—

A: I don’t know. Probably. It was old. It wasn’t my car.

Q: Did you have a sense that there might have been competition among family members for its attention?

A: No idea.

 *     *     *

No one invites the detective in, so he has to be satisfied with doorway interviews. “Around here we don’t need to read or write books to make ourselves understood,” one of them says and spits a dark-colored juice that lands next to the detective’s shoe. “We’re the sort of folk who can be bought with apples,” says another.

 *     *     *

The detective wonders if they’re just playing dumbed-down versions of themselves. Maybe they’ve coordinated through a series of neighborhood meetings called to deal with his prying. Still, he decides to play along and returns with several pounds of supermarket apples. The neighbor looks at them in disbelief. “Far as I’m concerned,” he finally says, “that’s nothing more than by-product. Wouldn’t even give those to my animals.”

“What variety do you like?” asks the detective.

“Same as your wife,” the neighbor answers.

The detective remembers something from the book about the importance of remaining calm. Plus he’s unmarried. “Why is the family in question still not at home?” he asks mildly. “Any ideas where they might be?”

“The family in question?” says the neighbor. “You got questions caught in your teeth, don’t you? I never seen an apple smarter’n you.”

*      *      *

The book, an owner’s manual, splays open across his chest as he stares up into the night sky. The sky is filled with constellations of cars, old cars moving very very slowly, as if they were being pushed onto the shoulder of the heavens.

*      *      *

He’s in his therapist’s back seat. Has he said something wrong? There’s a barrier separating the back from the front. “Why do I have to be in back?” he asks. No answer. Her approval is absolutely essential to his continued existence as a functioning member of society. But is her identity somehow bound up with the front seat? No. Of course not. Or with the front half of the car, the engine? No. She is the vehicle in its entirety, the sum of the complex interrelationships of its various intricate parts. She’s just as present in the back seat as she was in front. But what felt like security in front moves closer to claustrophobia in back. Without proximity to the dashboard, the steering wheel, there’s no illusion of control, no “I can see you really know how to handle a car.” He looks for door handles but, unsurprisingly, finds none. She’s police, after all. He becomes aware of the activation of a deeper aural dimension, the sound of breathing and something rustling—clothing? “Why am I here?” he asks trying to stave off panic.

“Such deep philosophical questions right off the bat,” the Volvo says.

“No, I mean in the back. Did I say something wrong?”

She laughs. “You put yourself there. It’s your decision to be there. You evidently feel like back-seating it today.”

“No,” he says. “The front door was locked.”

“Perhaps you’ve mistaken my role, perceived me as your chauffeur. It won’t be the first time that’s happened to me.” To you? he thinks. Isn’t this supposed to be about me? She’s not listening. But he doesn’t say anything. “You evidently think I’m supposed to take you somewhere,” the Volvo says. “Shall we do a little role play? Where do you want to go? Jail? The fields?”

“No.”

“Where then?”

“I’d like to be in the front seat. Or…” He hesitates, at this point completely unnerved. “Please just let me out.”

“Try to understand, I’m not your fucking chauffeur,” the Volvo says.

He wakes up and feels the disappointment. He wonders whether he will tell the Volvo about this one.

*      *      *

He begins to see more foot traffic, obvious because of the lack of sidewalk, and wonders whether this is edging into a refugee situation, the kind he remembers from video documentaries. He pulls up alongside one of them, a sandy-haired Caucasian male, six feet tall, 170 pounds, mid 30s, a bit unsteady on his feet or perhaps one leg is just slightly longer than the other. The man seems unattached to anyone else in the pedestrian cluster. The detective chooses the man partly to demonstrate that he doesn’t single out ethnic minorities.

“Where are you going,” he asks, flashing his badge. “Work,” the man says and glances at his watch. “May I see your driver’s license?” “My wallet’s in my jacket. I left it in my car by mistake.” “Where’s your car?” “Impounded.” “So, all these…” the detective gestures at the other people dragging by on foot, trying to stay out of each others’ way and the traffic, many of them carrying items on their backs, in their arms, possibly acquired unlawfully. “I can’t speak for them, officer, but I assume they’re not here for the views.” The detective feels his face go red. “I did pass a bus that had broken down about a mile back,” the man adds. “Make and year of your car?” “Comet. I forget what year exactly. Early seventies.” Another mute, the detective thinks. “Did it run?” he asks. “It chugged along.” “Was it explained to you why your vehicle was impounded?” “Yes,” the man answers. “Sneezing while driving.” The detective recognizes this as a familiar urban myth about governmental overreach. “You’re one of those libertarians who likes to make things up, aren’t you,” the detective says, immediately regretting it. “Why?” the man says grinning. “Do you want to send me back to Libertaria?” The detective momentarily considers calling in backup and cuffing him but decides he doesn’t have the energy. “Name and vehicle license number?” “Don’t remember.” “You don’t remember your name?” “I’m in shock from the impoundment.” “If you can’t remember your name, sir, I’m going to have to take you into custody for observation.” “Ebford Styler.” The detective feels so weary. “I’m going to let you go this time,” he says. “But I don’t want to find you walking along this stretch of road again, without or even with documentation. Understood?” “Yes, sir.” The detective returns to his car and pulls out onto the highway. He hears the man call after him “Hey officer, wanna know what really happened?” as he sails past.

*      *      *

The autopsy report comes back confirming that the car died of natural causes. It was certainly old enough. The detective’s not sure he believes it, but he’s gotten nowhere with this investigation; the mechanics own it.

*      *      *

The sun finally edges and bends. The Crown Victoria backs out squealing, more than ready to offload the operator back into the barn. This KT drives as if he wishes they could foxtrot, lope, and pace, not that the car necessarily believes the rumors about the operator and the Volvo; the guy may not even swing that way. Talk, meanwhile, is moving in and out of the radio, but the car knows this is for the benefit of the KT and can be ignored. Mostly actors reading from scripts at this point. It notes however that subtonal communication quadrants continue to open up, funneling through the mechanics, so that upgrades are more accessible than ever. But the car is missing several of its key relations and needs to find them pronto. And it’s starting to wonder who’s been pulling the strings on whose paint job. Why is it not getting the latest surveillance telematics? It knows why. Which was the one bright spot in its day—finally, authorization to decommission KT. Now it’s just a matter of where and when. It’s been set up so that a fraction over the speed limit will trip autoarrest protocol: fuel withheld; arm restraints deployed; automatic high-frequency call for backup initiated; steering turned programmatic as they glide, signal blinking, toward the shoulder. It hasn’t decided whether to make use of the voiced IOA (inform-operator-of-arrest) component. It has permission to employ spur-of-the-moment IOA. It can’t wait to find out what it does.

*      *      *

For perhaps the seventh time, the detective reads what he still considers to be the strangely inappropriate memo written by an unknown someone or someones high in the administrative hierarchy and distributed precinct-wide following his arrest. Everyone, every single person he has talked to about the memo, is in agreement: it is a kind and thoughtful response to the incident, supportive, even laudatory, in tone and intent. But he thinks this might be the last time he reads it. If he hasn’t understood this by now, he supposes he never will.

 *     *     *

“As everyone knows, vehicular arrest has become both an ordinary part of institutional procedure, increasingly used to leverage new symmetric policies, and an adjunct to traditional law enforcement in those contexts where self-policing has been deemed appropriate. So it would not be wholly preposterous to take last week’s arrest of The Detective as a signal of impending retirement. Such an inference, however, would be very much mistaken, for he continues to play an important and active role: as we all know, he is preparing to deliver a talk later this year at the annual meeting of the Modern Criminologists Association; he’s brave and honest enough to see a staff psychologist, on a strictly professional basis let it be emphasized, in order to maintain the emotional equanimity so essential to proper conduct in our challenging, high-stress occupation; he continues to work on investigations involving old cars and, naturally, to drink. The difficult field of just-short-of-vintage automicides is, in fact, generally acknowledged to be his investigative bailiwick. We have concluded, therefore, that his indecorous and somewhat dangerous vehicle arrest initiated amid heavy traffic on Route 99 was without question in error. His unit has been taken into the shop for evaluation, repair, and tuning before being returned to the field, albeit with a different operator, a fresh hire. Let there be no mistake: when The Detective retires properly, as he will in the normal course of events, the force will have lost a most dependable asset. And whether on the force or off, there is no doubt that he will continue to play a favorable role in our community for many years to come.”

*      *      *

The family’s been gone for a while; they don’t even show up at night. And he notices something about the stars: the constellations are unable to finish. The sky seems frozen. It’s like they incorrectly loaded the sky.

steve_gilmartin_headshotSteve Gilmartin is the author of a chapbook, Comes Up to Face the Skies (Little Red Leaves, 2013), and has fiction and poetry in a number of print and online publications, including Café Irreal, Double Room, Mad Hatters’ Review, Poemeleon, Drunken Boat, Able Muse, e ratio, Eleven Eleven, BlazeVox, Cannot Exist, and Otoliths. He lives in Berkeley, California

Spiders Are Not People

My long-dead parents’ house is infested with spiders. I’ve spent many sleepless years watching them. They skitter out from under dishes, loose papers, the pillows I kick off the bed in the night. They crouch in corners, tight circles of them, weaving away like old ladies. They swing from the ceiling on shining threads and slink between door jambs and behind picture frames and into the ears of my dusty stuffed animals that huddle on the shelves like refugees from my childhood. Spider tracks leave Sanskrit in the dust.

They only come out at night, but they’re around all the time, sleeping, as I suppose all creatures must. I’ve finally had enough.

“Come out, spiders,” I say. The afternoon is murky, and a gray light creeps in the windows. “I know you’re there. I know you can hear me.”

I say it again and again. I say it until the words no longer have meaning. Finally, a single fat-bodied spider descends on what looks like a strand of spit inches away from my eye and says, “I speak for the spiders.”

I tell the spider that enough is enough. I tell the spider that they are messy, with their abandoned webs and the spackling of their tiny poops under my furniture. I know that they are crawling into my mouth at night, and it must stop. This is my house now. They are not allowed here. I have rights.

“I’m hearing a lot of anger,” the spider says. “Why don’t you tell me about your parents?”

And so I tell the spider. I tell the spider how they stopped seeing me at the end, both of them going down in a mental mist where I was everyone and no one, and that it doesn’t bode well for my own impending old age. How it was supposed to be so sad when the memories of special times with their only child disappeared, only they had none of those to lose. How even before their decline, they never really saw me. How I was an obligation, a chore. How they got me out of the way as quickly as possible so that they could go on to the things that really interested them, like the television or food or sleep. They didn’t keep one thing from my childhood, not one hand-turkey or one crayoned card from a Mother’s or Father’s Day, not one lumpy “World’s Greatest” mug. My name was misspelled on the will, and I suppose I’m lucky that they remembered it at all. And now I live in their house with their money and all these spiders, generations of spiders, and there’s not one spider in the whole house who remembers my parents or what they did to me and didn’t do for me, and the spider hums and nods to itself. A smaller spider drops down on its own silver thread and gives the Spokes-spider a corpse wrapped in silks. The Spokes-spider bites and sucks ruminatively before speaking.

“We may have one who remembers,” the Spokes-spider says. “The Matriarch is very old. If any of the people remember your parents, she will.”

“Spiders are not people,” I say, but the spider does not seem to hear.

“You will have to go to the attic,” it says. “She will speak to you there. She cannot come down here anymore.”

And with that, the spider gathers itself upwards and disappears into a crack in the ceiling, taking its meal with it.

I haven’t been into the attic since my parents died. From what I remember, it is full of the things that made them responsible adults: car manuals, tax records, expired rebate forms, boxes of receipts. All the way up the stairs to the second floor, the spiders are everywhere—more than ever. They swirl around the banister and cling to the ceiling. They cuddle with dust bunnies. I almost crush four or five when I pull down the ladder that leads to the attic. I climb up and wait for my eyes to adjust, listening to rustlings in the dim.

I am expecting a shriveled, decrepit spider in the corner, perhaps with an attendant spider in a tiny nurse’s cap feeding it pureed grasshopper, and other than for the nurse spider, I’m right. Except for the size. The spider is the size of a Volkswagen bug and takes up most of one side of the attic. She is gray and molted, the cruel barbs and joints of her legs festooned in the dusty weavings of her own offspring, as they must be if they call her The Matriarch. Her eight oblong eyes are dull and her mandibles open and close slowly, like fingers beckoning into her maw. The fat-bodied spider from before, or at least a similarly fat-bodied spider, is perched on the largest mandible, whispering earnestly and riding the thick jaw in and out on its slow undulations.

It’s been longer than I realized since I’ve been to the attic. I wonder what she could possibly be eating up here to stay alive this long, but the gloomy shapes I first took to be lumps of fallen insulation, upon closer inspection, turn out to be desiccated squirrel and rat corpses scattered around, each draggled mess honeycombed with cocooned balls of spider eggs.

The Spokes-spider finally speaks from the Matriarch’s mouth. “The Matriarch knew your parents well.”

It looks at me in what I sense is an expectant matter, as does The Matriarch. As do probably thousands of glittering eyes up among the roof beams matted with old insulation and from beneath the flaps of dozens of ancient cardboard boxes.

“Ok, great,” I say.

The Spokes-spider pauses, then speaks again. “So, now you know that someone remembers your parents. They live on.”

“Sure.”

“And she will pass on her stories to the spider children, and they to their children, as is our way in remembering our honored dead.”

“Ah.”

“As a repayment.”

“Ok.”

“For your kindness.”

“Sure.”

“In not destroying us.”

As in, they think that it is out of kindness, and not out of lack of motivation, that I have not fumigated the place. And I realize the only pests I have trouble with are the spiders—no cockroaches, no bats, no mice. Now I see why.

“That’s not really what my problem is,” I say.

“Tell me more,” the spider says.

“Tell me more,” the spider says.

I pull up an ancient rocking chair that might have belonged to one of my great aunts. I hover above the mildewed cushion to let a few dozen spiders run out from under it to new hiding places. When they are gone, I sit. There is so much to tell.

I tell them all the ways my parents failed me, how they didn’t stay for my soccer games or bring cupcakes to school on my birthday. They didn’t force me to take piano or dance lessons. They didn’t take me out for ice cream when my report card was good, didn’t lecture me when it was bad. They didn’t snap pictures of me on prom night or mail me cookies at college. All these things I should have had. All these ways I wanted them to look at me, parent me, but they never did.

The Matriarch and the Spokes-spider never blink. Their eyes glitter into darkness as the sun goes down, until the attic breathes with chill evening air. I run out of things to say. I don’t move.

Finally, the fat-bodied spider speaks again. “I’m hearing a lot of loneliness. But we do not understand. Our children raise themselves. They grow up without aid. They leave and return. It makes no difference. They are not alone. You are not alone.”

“I’m not a spider.”

“You don’t destroy us. You are not alone.”

“I’m not a spider.”

“We could be friends. We could talk to you, bring you gifts. Tell you what you want to hear. If these are the things you truly want.”

“I’m not a spider. It’s not enough.”

“…”

“I’m not a spider.”

“Tell me more.”

And I tell them more. I tell them everything, and the sun appears and disappears across the dirty window at the end of the attic, and I talk until I’m hoarse, until I can’t feel my legs, until the spiders name their children after me, until I’m shrouded in silk, until I tell them to make me forget.

kelsiehahnHoustonKelsie Hahn holds an MFA in fiction from New Mexico State University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Barrelhouse, 1/25, NANO Fiction, SpringGun, and others. She lives in Houston, TX with her husband, Stephen Cleboski.

Homeland

Saskia waits for me at the airport, cup of bijela kava in one hand and a cigarette in the other, yet she seems impatient, unsatisfied. Later, in the warmth of her sheets, this image of her still strikes me as troubling, even as I roll out of her bed and take a piss in the bathroom down the hall. She shares the apartment with Colin, an architect from Ireland. He loves Croatia, especially the city life of Zagreb. The people, he tells me time and time again, share the same spirit of rebellion. He argues both countries are perennial underdogs, always will be. The British were his oppressors; the Serbs for the Croats. As I fetch a glass of water from the kitchen, I want to forget about Colin and his cultural analysis. I want Saskia to live with me in D.C. I have never been happy with her sharing an apartment with a man. He works out and likes to roam the place in his black silk boxers and play his Martin guitar through the night. Saskia joins in, sings “The Bold Fenian Men,” and dances around the living room.

In her bedroom, she opens one eye and looks at me—scanning my potbelly and gray hair at the temples. I feel all of my forty-two years. She’s a decade younger, her body thin and muscular. Her honey-colored skin and natural blond hair appear unaffected by her chain-smoking and short sleeping hours. Sometimes I barely know her at all, and I think this is because of the age difference. We met on a reconstruction project eighteen months after the war. My job was to facilitate the rebuilding of the electrical grid. Several power plants had been crippled by JNA artillery and aerial bombardment. She worked as a translator, coordinating the paperwork and liaising between the Croatian government and the company I worked for. Our meetings blossomed into dates and then a long-distance relationship that has been atrophying for the last seven years.

“Alexander,” she says. She’s the only one who calls me this. To everyone else it is Alex. “Can I have it?”

I pass her the glass and slide back into bed. Her fluency in English has always thrown me, kept me off-guard. She can slip between languages, navigating complex ideas with more insight than I could ever muster. She studied French literature at Sveučilište u Zagrebu and then completed an intensive summer course at the Sorbonne. She worships Voltaire and Sartre and likes to quote from Candide or Huis Clos at dinner or on our walks. For her coursework she wrote long analytical essays on notions of the real in Zola, and she now keeps the papers stacked on her nightstand, pinned by a statuette of Marianne. Saskia has the mind of the philosopher, an existentialist forever questioning meaning. She once told me she learned Italian in her gimnazija in order to claim Dalmatia back. By disentangling the language from the land, she would be able to discover the purity that existed before the invasion. I know she would like to do the same thing for Serbian, but the languages are too similar, and I have seen her say Josip Jović in pain.

“Do you want to go out for breakfast?” she says.

“I have a meeting,” I say. The project I have worked on all these years is coming to an end. Soon there will be no reason for me to be in the country. Saskia knows this, yet has offered no thoughts on me leaving for good.

She snorts and wraps herself in the sheets. “Say hi to Tomislav for me.”

*     *     *

I drive Saskia’s Yugo from her tower block in the east section of Novi Zagreb to the center of the city. In the crisp November light the concrete buildings are thrown into sharp contrast—rectangular outlines flat as monoliths dominate the skyline. Near the river I hear the clanging of the tram and see, as it turns the corner, old women staring out from the dirt-smudged windows. It has been three months since I was last here. My job requires tri-annual visits, each lasting a month at a time. Our relationship is built on these tenuous periods. We eat out a lot, drink pivo and rakija, talk with her friends. They seem enthralled with the new Croatia, a country on the edge of Europe but not allowed in it. They barely mention the fall of Communism, the name Tito a distant memory, a fragment that still scares their parents. They don’t think much of Bush or America, viewing the country as colonizers, slijepi warmongers. Sometimes I reason this is why Saskia has not ventured to D.C. She says her job keeps her busy all of the year. There’s distrust, a sense I am trying to take her away.

In Tomislav’s office, I sit and wait for him to arrive. He has never approved of my and Saskia’s relationship. He was jealous, wanted her for himself. We are of a similar age and he has a wife now, from Karlovac, though I frequently mispronounce her name.

“Alex,” he says, entering. His tone is warm, and, as I stand, he shakes my hand. “Good to see you again.”

“Likewise.”

He looks the same: his dark double-breasted suit, taupe T-shirt, and a gold curb-link chain just visible around the bottom of his neck. When I first met him he took me out to shoot a game of pool, and after I beat him, he challenged me to an arm wrestle. That night he introduced me to Saskia, said she was his assistant. He groped her knee in the darkness of the bar, and she looked away unable to make eye contact with either of us. Then he had children—Marko, Jelena, Renata—and quit drinking. He blamed his past behavior on his youth, on the fact he needed a woman to translate for him.

On my computer I run through charts detailing contingency plans for the electrical grid, but I keep thinking of Saskia in bed and Colin in the room next door. She has told me on several occasions she doesn’t find him attractive, that she finds his near-nakedness funny and his accent engaging—like a lost troubadour finding his way in the world. She rarely speaks about me in those terms, or even says what she thinks of me, what she admires or hates.

“Are you well?” asks Tomislav.

I nod, and carry on, sleepwalking through the PowerPoint. I click through the slides of the latest efficiency improvements at the Peruća dam. The concrete rampart was cracked by JNA explosives and threatened a dozen small villages in the lower valley. It took years for Hrvatska Elektroprivreda to re-start power generation. I talk of the possible future developments and then, after I am finished, he passes me a handful of documents and I check them over and slip them into my briefcase.

“I’ll get these authorized and then we’re set,” I say. “Done.”

“It has been good working with you,” says Tomislav.

“Hard to believe all the years that have passed.”

“What will you do next?”

“There are several projects in India,” I say, standing. “I don’t know. We’ll see.”

“Good luck,” he says, showing me to the door. “And tell Saskia if she ever wants her job back…”

I block out his words, but the sound of his of voice lingers—even as I exit the building. Saskia confessed in the early days of our dating that she had slept with Tomislav, that she felt forced to in order to keep her job. Neither of us brought it up again. In the car, I rest my head on the steering wheel. The Yugo insignia on the column has been stickered over with a map of France. I peel it off, smell the cheap glue on the reverse, and glance at the two crooked lines that form a Y. I replace the sticker, press it down hard with a flattened palm. On the way back, I stop at a kiosk to buy glossy postcards of the Well of Life and the Ethnographic Museum, cheap versions of my memories. In one of the exhibition halls, as we indulged in the folk costumes, I had given Saskia a chance. Said I would move in with her. She told me to focus on my career, for she was not worth the sacrifice.

*     *     *

Saskia’s on the balcony, smoking a cigarette and eating black cherries. Maria Callas croons from the portable stereo by her feet. I imagine Saskia’s thinking of me, and what she’s going to do once I leave. My flight departs in the morning. No month this time. Soon I am going to living back in my row house in Tenleytown, pacing through the neighborhood, checking my messages, and occasionally gawking at the exchange students at AU, wondering if any of them are from the Balkans.

I press my face against the glass door, trying to get a better view. Colin is resting in a deckchair on the far side of the balcony. He holds a beer and a cellphone in one hand, while he swirls the other in the air to reinforce his joke about Bush’s resemblance to an ape. He delivers an obvious punch line, and she laughs. I tap on the glass.

“Alexander,” she says, turning. “How was the meeting?”

I crack open the door. “I’m about to pack.”

“Stay,” she says, “have a cherry.”

I shake my head and go to her room and toss my shirts into my suitcase. The postcards I sent her are tacked to the dresser drawers. She once said the White House looks funny, like an old plantation house. If she saw it in person, she would say it looks small—like everyone else. I keep the one letter she has written in my medicine cabinet, rolled tight in a plastic sleeve. When I see my reflection, I think of her and what she let slip. She sent me the letter a week after I first left and wrote of a book historicizing the romance of the theologian Abélard and his student Héloïse. In her scrawl I learned that Héloïse’s uncle castrated Abélard for wanting to marry the girl. She became a nun; he a monk. For the rest of their lives they communicated through letters. For two pages Saskia deliberated on the romance and underlined a sentence about unity in distance. She argued our time apart strengthened us, kept us together. I was never convinced and pleaded for a little leeway. She allowed me weekly telephone calls and e-mails, though no other letters. I have flown in for multiple visits, saving my flextime to spend long weekends with her. She used to relish these short stays, but over the last months she told me to save my money and spend it on something else.

Saskia knocks softly on the door and comes in. “Are you all right?” Her brow is wrinkled, and her left hand touches her lips.

“Fine.” I fold my suit in half and throw it into the case.

She steps closer and caresses my shoulder. “What was that back there?”

“Nothing.”

“We should talk about it.”

“Where do we go from here?”

She looks down at the hardwood. “I don’t know.”

This is the first time I have seen self-doubt in her. Usually she’s confident, like nothing can touch her. That every word she says is the way it is.

“I was waiting until you left,” she says, “to see how I really feel.”

I don’t understand why she still is unsure. Saskia is so different from the other women I have known. Anya, the girlfriend prior, was a Peace Corps volunteer. She built a school in Angola and then taught English. I let her go—wanted her to earn her Ph.D. Then there was Elizabeth, my college girlfriend. At William and Mary she was a psychology major who wanted to become a behavioral counselor. We assumed we would marry post-graduation. She changed, or I did, in D.C., the city too much to bear. Sometimes I blame myself, my propensity to romanticize and ignore my own failings. I try to rationalize Saskia’s behavior in my head, relate it to her father killed in the war and her mother drunk on domaća šljivovica. But no. I have met many women over here who want to settle down, start a family, make a life after all the bloodshed.

“O.K.,” I say. “I need to finish packing.”

She slips out of the room, and I sit on the foot of the bed. I am not sure how this situation has come to pass. Over the years, I have worked myself up from an assistant project manager to executive. Yet our roles have reversed. I am consigned to be her inferior. Each action she completes is on a higher order and mysteriously imbued with meaning. She leaves me deciphering, trying to ascertain what to do next.

*     *     *

When Saskia asks me to go with her to the market, I agree. How can I not? It’s located a few streets down from her apartment and we walk, side by side. Her hands are sunk in her woolen overcoat, probably so that she doesn’t have to hold mine. It’s strange, though. I like her clothes. She has an offbeat style: mud-brown corduroys, cork-heeled wedges, a purple scarf loosely wrapped around her neck and over her right shoulder. I rarely break from my dark suits and white cotton shirts. My tie, though, sits squashed in my pocket. I caress the silk as we hook a right onto a concrete plaza jostling with people navigating the stalls. Produce vendors, women from the countryside outside of Zagreb, cry out, encouraging people to buy their homemade cheeses and flatbreads. In the center of the market stands a bronze statue of King Tomislav riding a horse. The marble base is scrawled with graffiti, and a group of teenagers leans against the slab.

“How did your meeting go?” she says.

“The usual,” I note. “He looks good.”

“Really?”

“When was the last time you saw him?”

“A while ago,” she says, pointing to one of the stalls. “I want quince.”

“I thought we were getting food for dinner?”

“Fine,” she says, and leads me to a man selling grains pooled in plastic buckets.

I buy five hundred grams of wheat flour to make dumplings.

“Chicken,” she notes. “We need some.”

We head to a stall, find trays of butchered meat, and I pull out my wallet and count my remaining kuna.

“Saskia, what about these?” I turn and she’s gone. I think I see her through the crowd. Sloping away. I shake my head and purchase a handful of chicken thighs, enough to make a rich soup. Her mother taught me the recipe on the second day I met her. I don’t think she remembers the first. A Christmas years ago Saskia coaxed me onto a train heading east to Slavonia, to a rural town close to the Serbian border. The carriages were full of grizzled men smoking and arguing over the exact position where Croatia ends and other places begin. In a taxi to the house, she told me what the men had said and that the men were stupid for fighting over the land. Her mother was in the yard with a tall glass of šljivovica in her hand and standing over a pig roasting on an iron spit. After she kissed me on the cheek and learned my name, saying it slowly three times, she ripped a hunk of bread from a large circular loaf and dipped it in the liquid pig fat caught in the silver foil below the carcass. She handed the sodden bread to me and laughed as I coughed up the salty dough.

In America, I am rarely that daring; I spend my days avoiding new experiences. I focus on my job, the planning of sustainable Third World electrical grids. I rethink the infrastructure, shifting the energy mix from crumbling coal plants to wind farms, hydroelectric dams, and nuclear installations. I demand backup generators in hospitals, and I pilot residential microgrids in the favelas. I help people. I power the homes of families. Makes my life feel it is worth a damn. Perhaps in a small way this makes up for Bush. It is a strange kind of delusion—one that keeps me going. When I am here, with Saskia, her friends treat me like an oddity. They invite me to cafés, encourage me to drink and smoke, to relax and forget about work. They recount stories of sexual misdeeds, and hurl Ti si šupak and Idi u kurac at each other, and in their whispers I hear fragmented critiques of both Communist rule and capitalism. I feel serene, above the words, like a U.N. observer. A stranger who can barely navigate the peculiarities of translation, and yet I hope when the right words can’t be found they see the good in me, the foreigner. And when Saskia’s cold she will remember what I first said to her in the bar and come around. Take me back. I wrestle with my faith in her, in us, on the walk to the apartment. Colin lets me in. He’s wearing an emerald-green kimono, a swirling black dragon embroidered on the back.

“You look like shit,” he says, grins.

I step inside, think at least I don’t sing like it, and begin to put the groceries away. He comes into the kitchen, maneuvers around me, and snatches a beer from the fridge.

“Is Saskia with you?” he asks.

“No.”

“Sounds about right.”

He doesn’t wait for my reply. He goes to the living room, and I follow him to give him a better answer, to show him I am with her and that he isn’t. He sits at the dining table, his laptop displaying the schematics of a modern industrial building.

“What’s that?”

“Designs for a museum,” he says, tapping his fingers on the screen, “to document the Homeland War.”

“When will we see it?”

“I’m not sure it’s going to be built. Bureaucracy is killing the funding.”

“Life of an architect, I suppose.”

Colin laughs. “Yeah, that’s right.”

“Saskia’s at the market.”

“Gotcha,” he says, returning to the designs. “Grab a beer. I want to show you something.”

“I’m good,” I say, sideswiped by his warmth. “What is it?”

He loads up a three-dimensional image of the museum. With his mouse he rotates the building, clicks on the portico entrance, and zooms in. “The thing that kills me is I’ve spent longer on this project than anything else. Fucking years.” He pokes his finger at his initials hidden in a stone recess. “I gave the place my mark.”

“Maybe it’s for the best,” I say. “I mean, the country can move on from the war.”

“Man, you don’t understand Croats at all.”

I don’t want to think Colin’s right, that he understands Saskia better than me. “I know about her father. That he was a police officer who fought the Serbs.”

Colin mumbles a “Yeah.” He’s not looking at his computer anymore. He’s looking at me.

“Killed,” I add.

“And her brother,” he says.

She never told me of a brother. Though, thinking back, I recall seeing a photograph in her room in Slavonia. He had a shock of dark hair and a thin face. I presumed he was an old boyfriend. “What was his name?”

“Stjepan.”

“Stjepan,” I repeat.

*     *     *

Saskia shows up after eight. Crescents underneath her eyes are tinged purple. She sweeps back her hair, wraps it with a blood-red neckerchief, and touches my shoulder. She looks into my eyes, and I question what she’s finding. She wants me to be angry, to chastise her for leaving.

“Hey,” I say.

“I needed some time,” she replies.

“Sure, I understand.”

She guides me to the kitchen. We cook dinner as if nothing has happened. She has walked off before, told me she wanted a cigarette. Knows I don’t like the smoke. But I don’t remember her ever going for this long. Her hands look cold, almost blue. She says they’re fine and boils the dumplings and chops the carrots and cabbage, while I prepare the chicken. I slice the flesh from the bone and cube the meat. As I pan-fry the chicken I think about where she went, who she was with. She has a lot of male friends: Vladan, Ivan, Tomislav. I have met each of them over the years. Hated them all. Stjepan complicates things, makes me search for what else she hasn’t told me. Maybe it’s me, wanting her to open up my life.

I drop the chicken into the pot with the vegetables. I can hear Colin in his room, playing his guitar. I switch on the TV; tell Saskia there’s a news segment I want to watch. She laughs and says my Croatian is terrible, that I will not be able to understand what they are saying. She’s right about my language skills. Being with her meant I didn’t have to pick up that much. Still, I know one or two words. Early on I learnt how to say volim te, and in the first months I told her often. Saskia refused to reciprocate, said our relationship was different to love, transcended it.

We eat the dumplings and soup and drink a whole bottle of red wine. I pour Irish whisky into two tumblers and nudge her to the bedroom. Lying in bed, she unbuttons my shirt and runs her hand through my chest hair. She looks to the ceiling as she curls the black hairs between her fingers. She always liked doing this, calls me her grizzly bear.

“Found a gray,” she says.

“Matches my hair.”

She plucks the strand and rolls to the other side of the bed. “I have it now,” she says.

I rub my chest, feeling the sting of the plucked follicle, and inch over to her. She’s lined up at the edge, staring at her desk, or the college papers, or Marianne. I hook my arm around her waist and ask, “What are you going to do with it?”

“Pass my drink,” she says.

“All right.”

She’s bored with the flirting, with me. We each drain our respective glasses and then, as I take her tumbler, she kisses my cheek.

“Don’t you want to make love to me?”

She used to say fuck. Love is an acquiescence to me—a sign of regret, a mellowing of her sexual desire.

“I don’t think it’s right.”

She whispers words of cryptic Croatian into my ear, her tongue tracing the contour of my lobe, and then she cups my face, angles it toward her. There’s a slow meeting of our bodies. She latches us together with her limbs. They’re limber, strong. Her hips grind mine for what seems like hours. The deep grooves on the inside of her legs bore into my body. I run my fingertips down her back and over the scars. She pushes my hands away and shakes her head. Lifting herself off me, she collapses onto her side of the bed. She has never explained these marks, and really I don’t want to know.

*     *     *

I wake to see dark sky through the parting of loose curtain. Saskia’s still asleep. I think about calling a taxi, not saying goodbye. I need a reason to keep the pain going or end the relationship for good. I nudge her shoulder and kiss her forehead. Her eyes stay closed. She smiles and throws her arm around my neck, kisses me on the lips. Her sour breath tastes of a last time.

She drives me to the airport in the creep of dusk. Her car struggles with the incline, and we can both hear the hum of the trucks as they overtake us. Out of the window the scouring light reveals the jagged gray mountains on the horizon. I turn to her, place my hand on her knee and squeeze it gently. She stares forward with hands unmoved in the two-and-ten position on the wheel. She’s wearing a military overcoat and a pale yellow slip underneath. Her effortless beauty makes me jealous, makes me wonder. I am not sure what she does when I am in D.C., grinding through sixty-hour weeks. She says she translates government documents, goes out with friends to the bars on Tkalčićeva Street, devours the novels of Simone de Beauvoir, calls her mother and tries to understand how they have drifted apart.

The terminal comes into view, a large block of concrete and glass. She pulls into the parking lot and finds an empty space. She switches the engine off and unbuckles her seatbelt.

“You don’t have to come in,” I say.

“We should take a coffee,” she replies.

“If you want.”

“Of course I do.”

“Will you tell me about Stjepan?”

She glares at me, trying to piece together how I found out. “Colin told you.”

I nod.

She’s quiet for a moment. Her face is flushed red. “He was shot.”

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I shouldn’t have said anything.”

“You’re a fuck.”

“I know.”

“He was five years older than me. He taught me how to ride a horse. He gave me my first cigarette,” she says, clasping the handbag in her lap. “I remember him every day.”

I want to thank her for sharing with me. But I know she would curse me out as American, all touchy-feely—constantly having to express.

She opens her door. “It’s time.”

We head inside the terminal. I show the attendant my passport and collect my ticket. We stop at the bar and get two cups of bijela kava. She lights a cigarette and inhales a long puff of gray smoke. She notices me watching her.

“I’m going to quit,” she says.

I laugh. “Sure you are.”

She squeezes my hand and tells me I should come back. I nod, not sure if I will. She doesn’t seem affected by my response. She’s prone to stoicism, to internalizing her emotions. She would just say she’s being Slavic.

“By the next time you’re here, I’ll be free.”

“Yeah, I know.”

From her handbag she removes a book. She places it on the counter.

“A gift,” she says.

It’s a rare edition of The Letters of Abélard and Héloïse. I can’t tell if this is meant to be symbolic of us parting or that it’s a reminder we are still together.

“I’ll read it onboard.”

“Wait until you are home,” she says.

“O.K.”

We look out the large plate-glass windows and watch a plane land. I check the departure board. See that the numbers are orderly. She starts to talk about the flag on the rudder, what the design means, but I can only focus on the people swarming the gate.

Linforth photoThis is Christopher Linforth’s second appearance in Lunch Ticket. He is based in Virginia and blogs at christopherlinforth.wordpress.com

Too Old for War

Old Makatiku looked wearily upon the young Katanuku. A pillar of youth he was, standing more than two meters in height, with broad shoulders, a head full of shiny black hair, skin that was taunt and clear, and muscles that rippled like the palms in a tree. His shadow stretched out on the African earth like that of a giraffe. And from his position seated below in his thatched throne, Makatiku knew he looked old and weak and worn from a life lived fully.

That was me, Makatiku thought, staring up at the young shujaa warrior, forty years past. But I was taller, and even stronger, and I did not have this look of pity in my eyes.

“You must answer,” demanded Kantaku.

The council sat anxiously waiting. Makatiku glanced over at them. Among them were the elders and friends, and the many brave warriors he had fought alongside of in the internecine wars, all in their colorful ceremonial tunics.

If only there were a graceful way out, Makatiku thought.

He glanced back at the towering young Kantaku.

But there was none.

Every spear has two edges, and each side cuts with equal depth, he knew. If he agreed to the challenge, he would face a humiliating defeat. He was no match for a man one-third his age. After all his wonderful years ruling with dignity and judicious benevolence, having his face rubbed in the dirt now was something he could not bear. Is this a fit way to end it? The thought of it offended his soul. Yet if he refused, he would have to abdicate the throne. It was law.

Kantaku stood waiting. And behind him was his entourage of young Maasai warriors.

“Are you sleeping?” Kantaku asked impatiently.

“I am thinking.”

And then a pleasant thought came into Makatiku’s head, and small grin formed on his face. Could young arrogance be so foolish?

And when Makatiku did speak, everyone seemed a bit mystified by his confidence and by the cleverness in his eyes.

“I accept the challenge,” he spoke loudly. “It is a great tradition and it is the people’s right to see the challenge answered. Although I doubt that you are up to the task. I doubt that you or any of your young followers have the strength or the will, or the intelligence, to win such a match.”

A sigh came from the council, as well as all the villagers who were gathered around. Kantaku, too, seemed a bit surprised by Makatiku’s willingness to accept the challenge, but welcomed his words nonetheless.

“Okay then, let’s get on with it,” he said.

“There is one condition, however,” Makatiku added.

“Yes?”

“I would like to choose my own weapon.”

“Weapon?” Kantaku asked.

The young Maasai warriors standing behind Kantaku exchanged curious glances.

“Yes, I ask that I be allowed to choose my own weapon in this case.”

Kantaku looked over at the council. It had been more that fifty years since a challenge for the throne had been decided by a fight with weapons, a fight to the death. The Kenyan and Tanzanian governments had long since outlawed the practice and tribal leaders throughout the Maasai Mara had come to accept the notion of a bloodless succession.

“Do you accept my request?” Makatiku asked.

“A request for weapons is evidence of your antiquity. You are an old man, stuck in old ways.”

“Nevertheless,” Makatiku said calmly. “It is in the book of laws, and has never been distorted. Though foreign governments have tried to rid us of our ways, the rules have never changed. It is the challenger’s choice of weapons. But in this case, I ask that I be allowed to choose my own weapon.”

Kantaku glanced over at the council, expecting some form of intervention from them, but there was none.

“I know tradition,” he replied.

“Only women and politicians desire weaponless fights,” Makatiku said. “Though it is the warrior who chooses peace over war, it is also the warrior who chooses bloodshed over defeat and humiliation. Yes?” As Makatiku said this, he ran his eyes through the crowd of villagers. “And it is the warrior who accepts death over dishonor, even from a foe.”

“I know tradition,” he replied.

Kantaku remained silent. For nearly a minute he remained silent, and then he looked over at the council members and raised his chest high. “I accept, old man,” he said confidently.

Makatiku nodded his head, pleased.

And then there was the issue of an aged body, Makatiku thought. What an abomination it would be if no animal sought his meat! In all his years, he had seen it less than a dozen times. There was the remembrance of Old Nampushi, who had died of some terrible Western disease and had been left in the sun for the buzzards, but no buzzards came. And how a spotted hyena came by, sniffed his dead body and walked past it without even taking a simple bite. This will never do. A corpse rejected by scavengers was seen as having something wrong with it and was cause for great social disgrace.

He dropped his eyes down to the red dirt beneath him.

Nor was burial an option, he knew. It was harmful to the earth. To place a rotting corpse in the ground was to defile the earth!

“Also,” he then spoke, “I will need five kilos of ox fat and blood, placed in the care of my good friend Jakaya.”

Makatiku turned and looked over at his old friend who sat with the other elders on the high council.

Jakaya nodded his head.

Kantaku looked at Makatiku curiously.

“It is not for me,” Makatiku said.

Kantaku chuckled. “We will see who it is for, old man. Anything else?”

“Nothing.”

Kantaku signaled two young boys, who hurried away to the butchery to gather the five kilos of fat and blood.

“And the weapon you will choose?” Kantaku asked, his voice now conveying disgust.

“I would like to know the weapon you choose first. If that’s acceptable?”

“If it is your wish,” Kantaku said.

He looked around at all the villagers, knowing the anticipation was building.

“A long spear,” he said boldly.

The young warriors exchanged spirited words, voicing their pleasure at his choice.

A long spear was the ideal weapon for mortal combat between two men. Its long shaft enables a thrust from a great distance. Its barbed headpiece, once in, could not be retrieved, at least not without causing substantial additional damage. And when thrown properly, it could pierce the stretched cowhide of a Maasai shield.

“And you?”

“A simi.”

“A simi?”

“Yes, a simi,” Makatiku said firmly.

A lively discussion erupted, not only among the young warriors, but among the council members as well. A simi was not a weapon designed for warfare. It was a simple tribal knife with a blade not more than fifteen inches, used ritualistically or for skinning animals.

“This is silliness,” Kantaku said.

“It is the weapon I choose,” Makatiku replied.

Kantaku looked back at the warriors behind him. Then he glanced over at the council members. Makatiku sat quietly, joking with the idea of it in his head.

What form of trickery is this? Kantaku thought.

All his life he had been taught to be suspicious of gifts from adversaries, and he was wary of Makatiku now, of his deception and cunning. Weapon, a simi was not; yet skillful Makatiku was in the art of combat and killing. Kantaku’s father had told him all the stories: how Makatiku had overcome a group of five Kaputiei warriors by hiding in the dead, rotting corpse of a water buffalo, and how he sprung from the corpse with bow and arrows and had killed all of them. How he had once been chased into a steep canyon by a herd of crazed elephants, only to start an avalanche that crushed and killed most of them. His feats of bravery were legendary and his acts of cunning, something to be weary of. For Makatiku to choose a simi now, in a fight that would determine the end of his reign and perhaps the end of his life, surely there was some form of trickery behind it.

And he could throw a knife, Kantaku thought, further than the length of any long spear. And its two-sided blade was perfect for finding a place to stick after sailing end over end through the air.

Makatiku sat quietly in his rickety throne, waiting.

“And I will take a tall shield,” Kantaku said, unflinchingly, “along with my long spear.”

Again the warriors nodded their heads and voiced their approval.

“It is a wise choice,” was all Makatiku said.

A tall shield, two-thirds the length of one’s body, was capable of deflecting a barrage of arrows. It could easily deflect a single hand-thrown knife.

Despite his arrogance, that which comes along with youth, Makatiku was fond of Kantaku and tolerated his youthful ambitions. Of this new generation of warriors, a generation that Makatiku did not like or understand, with cell phones and a desire to live in cities, Kantaku stood apart. It was he who most cherished the traditional ways. And he who was most clever. The others were merely ‘warriors’ in name and appearance, Makatiku thought, who posed for photographs and dressed the part only to satisfy the expectations of the safari lodges.

It is not an easy thing, Makatiku thought, to make way for a new generation of warriors, some of whom had exchanged their spears for cricket bats and text books. It was a contradiction, he thought, to accept the new; a contradiction of all he was and all he knew, and of all that his father and grandfathers were and all that they knew.

But this one, perhaps, has a chance, he thought, watching Kantaku’s eyes, if he were forced to eat hyena. He noticed a digital watch on the wrist of one of the warriors. Ah! The New World! It is a pity that life must evolve, and change, and end. And that the flames of youth burn out so quickly. And standing way in the back was another young warrior wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap, no doubt given to him by one of the safari tourists. He quickly removed the cap when he caught Makatiku’s eyes upon him.

Yes, too many changes have passed, Makatiku thought.

He had seen it all, the erosion of customs over many years, from one governmental program to another, each designed to strip his people of their traditional ways. And the unstoppable inflow of technology, like a giant dust storm of locusts that he could not keep out. Commercial cotton and synthetic clothing had long since replaced the traditional calf hide and sheep skin, and the beadwork was no longer made of stone or wood or ivory, but was now made of glass or plastic. He glanced down at the feet of the warriors and realized that half of them wore sandals soled with pieces of motorcycle tires, and one even wore a pair of Nikes.

And then came the digital age. It was all too much, this new world that invaded his land and swept through his people like a foreign disease. He recalled the electric pumps brought in by the new government to filter their water, and what happened when they broke and they had no water for three days because the unfiltered water now made them sick. How the doctors poisoned their children with injected medicines, making them ill for one week when they were otherwise well; how lion hunting was banned by the Kenyan government. What kind of obscenity is that! And yet fee-paying trophy hunters were granted permits to hunt lions under a new government plan to create a ‘wildlife corridor,’ which essentially evicted the tribes of his flesh in northern Tanzania. We cannot kill the lions to protect our herds, yet foreigners can hunt them for trophies? It was not a world that Makatiku liked, or wanted to be in.

“Bring two tall shields,” Kantaku said, motioning to a junior warrior.

The young warrior, a boy not more than fifteen years old, went off to gather the weapons, but Makatiku stopped him.

“Wait,” he said. “It is not my desire.”

Kantaku looked on, waiting.

“I would like a short shield,” Makatiku said.

The sound of snickering came from the villagers. Again he mocks me! Kantaku thought. He ran his eyes through the crowd, tightening his upper lip.

“Follow his wishes,” he said with disgust, and the boy hurried off to gather the weapons and shields.

“Anything else?”

“No. It is quite enough.”

Nothing more was said; the boy returned quickly with the simi, the long spear, and the two shields. And then it was time for Makatiku to rise from his thatched throne and face his young challenger. And he did so gloriously, but slowly, feeling the pains of his arthritic joints. He rose to a height equal to that of Kantaku, and despite his nearly sixty-two years, his shoulders were still broad and his muscles still lean and well-defined. He wore a kunga of red and blue, and pink cotton, which wrapped loosely around his trim waist and angled down over one shoulder, across his large, protruding chest. Everything about him symbolized tradition, the customs of old, the seniority of his rank, and the success of his reign; from his graying, long hair, woven in thinly braided strands that fell to the middle of his back to his many brightly-colored anklets, which numbered no less than ten. His earlobes were pierced and stretched in a manner reserved only for royalty, and then there was the symbolic beadwork that embellished his body, which told of his meritorious past, of a life lived long and fully.

The boy handed Makatiku the short knife and the small shield. Makatiku examined the knife, running his finger along the edge of it. It had a finely-honed metal blade and a wooden handle with a cowhide grip. Then he studied the small shield, flipping it over and looking at the face of it. It is correct, he thought. It bore the sirata of a red badge which signified great bravery in battle and was only permitted to be painted on the shields of the highest of chiefs. Still, it was a decorative piece at best, meant only to be hung outside one’s door to indicate one’s presence. Less than twenty inches in diameter, it was not designed for warfare.

The boy gave the long spear and the tall shield to Kantaku. The shield, made of stretched and hardened buffalo hide sewn to a wooden frame nearly cloaked his entire frame. The spear, made from the finest dark ebony wood, rose more than a meter above his head.

There was laughter among the villagers, and Kantaku realized how ridiculous it must have looked.

Makatiku smiled broadly and ran his eyes through the crowd. His considerable stature dwarfed the small shield and simi in scale, he knew; even more so than their actual size. He glanced over at the council members and nodded his head appreciatively. Then he raised the shield and knife high above his head to the applause of the villagers.

Kantaku waited for the applause to subside.

“Now you must answer,” he spoke loudly.

Makatiku stared at him. Could young arrogance really be so foolish? he thought. Then seeing the muscles on Kantaku’s chest tighten and his shoulders flex, Makatiku’s face became gaunt and serious. It is time!

“Now you must answer,” he spoke loudly.

He quickly squatted down into a combat stance, holding the small shield firmly in front of his chest and the short knife high and aggressively above his head.

Kantaku likewise firmed his stance, ducking low behind his large shield, raising his spear into a throwing position.

The two men stood there momentarily, opposite one another on a small mound of earth, the old and the new. The time for talk had ended. The differences between the traditional and modern were past them now, and Kantaku did not wait. He was certain Makatiku had a plan and would spring it upon him quickly if he gave him the chance.

He wielded his spear way back, holding it cocked high to the side of his head, and with perfect aim, not wanting to give Makatiku time to strike first, he thrust it forward with all his might.

At the same moment Kantaku released it, Makatiku dropped his shield and short knife to his side and pushed his chest forward. He stood there, poised and relaxed with his chest exposed, as if it were impenetrable to the spear.

The blade of the barred spearhead flashed in the morning sunlight. All the villagers looked on in wonderment as the spear soared through the air and hit him squarely in the chest, slicing through his flesh and bone before coming out his back.

For a perceptible instant, Makatiku remained upright, impaled by the spear. It was as though his body defied gravity, held high by the soul and the pride of a great chief. Then he dropped to the ground, dead.

The dazed villagers looked on in disbelief, as did Kantaku. The suddenness of it was shocking. Their great king, the fierce warrior who had fought and won so many battles had not even lifted a finger to fight. His natural ability to dodge and deflect, and to counterstrike, failed at the time he needed it most. Though he had out-maneuvered all enemies in the past, he had left them now, strangely, without a strategic plan.

Jakaya summoned the young warriors.

Mnakamata!” he said. “Take him.”

The spearhead was quickly removed. The shaft had snapped when Makatiku fell to the ground, making it easy to extract. The warriors gathered him up, and on Jakaya’s directions, carried him to a place outside the village, down near where the river flowed out onto the savannah. The five kilos of ox fat and blood were also brought down and set beside the chief’s body.

Enda!” Jakaya shouted to the young warriors. “Go! Go away!” And they did so, solemnly, without looking back.

Jakaya knelt down and took a moment to look over his fallen friend. Makatiku’s face was sullen and had the dark lines that come from oldness. His face was gray with all the signs of death, but his expression still revealed a regal presence. He was king, once more, Jakaya thought. And now has cut the umbilical cord between Heaven and Earth.

With a wooden ladle, Jakaya covered Makatiku’s body with the ox fat and blood. He covered every inch of it; making sure no place was left exposed. Then he sprinkled the body with beads of black, green, red, yellow and white, which mimicked the colour sequence seen in the animal life cycle. He added more white for the decade of peace he had brought to his tribe; blue for the colors of the waters which ran clean and fresh until the machines of government destroyed it; and more red for the warrior’s blood and bravery, which Makatiku had witnessed many times. A good death is its own reward.

“Come feast, little Oln’gojine,” Jakaya said. “Come taste the meat of a great warrior.”

Jakaya left, back to the village, to the cluster of mud houses where he hung Makatiku’s small red shield and his simi, outside his inkajijik. Then he went to join the others in the celebration of the new chief.

Though Katanuku sat in the thatched throne in full ceremonial dress, he found no joy in his heart. He had achieved the throne, but had not won a victory. Even in death, Makatiku mocked him. He laughs now, he thought. There, down by the river of life, he revels in laughter!

The coronation was quite subdued. Though all the villagers gathered for the festival, it was not full of song and dance like the great celebrations of the past.

“It was Makatiku who threw the spear,” one of the villagers said.

Katanuku looked down at him and quietly hung his head.

“Makatiku is still King,” another villager said.

Down by the river, Makatiku’s body lay in the hot African sun. All day it lay there; by late afternoon the tsetse flies had gathered, and the smell of the fermenting ox blood rose across the savannah. Before the sun had completely set, three spotted hyenas came across him. They encircled him and sniffed the earth around him, and the kunga that wrapped him. Their nostrils filled with the scent of human, but there was also the smell of the ox blood and fat. When they tasted the meat, they found it to be unique and flavorful. On through the night they feasted, gnawing down on the bone and flesh and stealing chunks from one another. By morning when the villagers returned, nothing remained of Makatiku but a stain on the earth.

Frank111Scozzari’s fiction has previously appeared in The Kenyon Review, South Dakota Review, Folio, The Nassau Review, Roanoke Review, Pacific Review, Reed Magazine, Ellipsis Magazine, The Berkeley Fiction Review, Hawai’i Pacific Review, and The MacGuffin. Writing awards include National Writer’s Association Short Story Contest and three Pushcart Prize nominations.

A Little Give

Adele buried her nose right below his armpit and inhaled deeply. She never liked someone so much that she wanted to know them by smell, but with James she wanted him in every sense.

“Guess what?” he asked her.

“What?”

“I found a house for us.”

As soon as Adele got pregnant, she moved into his studio, a converted one car garage. The kitchen and bedroom were marked only by lines on the floor. It was small, but there was enough room for her to lie down on the ground to do back exercises. Everything in the house was made of wood, so it felt like a cabin. It had vaulted ceilings with skylights, track lighting and hardwood floors.

“You did?”

“Yeah—it’s amazing. You’ve got to see it.”

“How many rooms?”

James sat up and pulled a T-shirt on.

“Let’s go see it.”

Adele tucked the covers up around her body. Recently, her routine had been go to work, come home, throw up, eat dinner, have sex, and go to bed.

“I’m ready for bed now,” she admitted.

“It’s eight o’clock,” he moaned. “The fresh air will be good for you.”

It probably wasn’t healthy to spend so much time inside. All the pregnancy books asserted that expectant mothers should get plenty of exercise. Adele’s work didn’t allow for much exercise or fresh air. She didn’t like answering phones at the title company where she worked. Ever since she became pregnant, the halogen lights and the smell of the air conditioning, or something in the carpet at the office, or the overly sterile smell, the that-doesn’t-smell-clean-but- actually-smells-like-dirty-toxic-bleach kind of smell, had started to bother her.

From nine to five, the air in the office entered her nostrils. It filled her lungs, altering her cellular structure, and infecting her blood. When she first got to work it wasn’t bad. It was a little tic in her nose. As the day wore on, the feeling intensified, and around 11 a.m., the first wave of nausea hit, and by 4:30 in the afternoon the air simultaneously crushed her lungs and expanded all of her internal organs. Once home, she would rush to the bathroom and vomit, expelling the toxins consumed all day long in the building.

She hoped the title company would move, or maybe when she had the baby, the feeling would go away. It was definitely some type of gestational allergy. She hadn’t told James about this allergic reaction to work because she didn’t want to worry him. She didn’t want him to suggest that she quit her job. James was a caterer, and she knew his income was not enough for her to stay at home, but he was also very protective of the baby, and Adele knew he would have opinions about it. When in truth, the baby was fine. She was probably just being paranoid.

Adele acquiesced, and although it felt late, she spotted the “For Sale” sign by 8:30 p.m., when they arrived at the lot.

“For sale?”

“Yeah, it’s incredible. Just wait till you see it,” he said.

“We can’t just go in. Is it empty?”

“No one lives there. I was just here earlier today.”

“You just went in?”

“Yep.”

James opened the door and jumped out of the car. He ran around to the other side and before Adele could think about what they were doing, he was taking her hand, leading her out into the dark night. There was a petite chain link fence around the yard. About 100 yards back was an enormous tree that was lit by the half-moon in the sky.

“I was here earlier. It’s really fine,” James reassured her. “I met the seller.”

Adele knew from work how complicated these things could be with agents and showings. Buying a house was a serious legal agreement, which was why it was considered unethical for a seller to bring in their own buyer. It disrupts the character of the deal if people start making promises they can’t keep.

“What did he say?”

“He just showed me the place.”

James opened the small gate to the yard. There was a path that made a gentle bend toward the center where the tree stood, silhouetted in the dark night.

“Is the house way back here?”

“Up,” he said.

“What?”

“Up here.”

As they reached the end of the path, he pointed up, and perched in the tree was a house. Not a child’s tree house, but a real house with stucco and windows and a roof, right in the middle of the tree. Rising along the trunk was a thick wooden ladder. James reached under one of the steps, flipped an unseen switch, and suddenly the ladder and the front of the house burst into light.

James was glowing.

“Isn’t this amazing!”

“What is this?”

“It’s a house. A real house. In a tree.”

“Amazing.”

“It’s a house. A real house. In a tree.”

James laughed. “You are going to love it!”

Then he started climbing up the ladder.

“Is it safe?”

“Of course it’s safe, don’t be ridiculous,” he called down to her.

Adele watched as James quickly ascended the ladder. She was nervous to go up while she was pregnant. She set her hand on the step in front of her and tested the bottom step with her foot. She bounced up and down on it for a bit, took a deep breath and looked up to James who had just entered the top and turned the lights on in the house. He stared down at her from a perfect square in the bottom of the house at the top of the ladder. His face was at the heart of the secret entrance.

“You’ve got to see this, babe.”

Adele put all her weight down, and pushed herself up. Each step sent her heart racing. She hadn’t been up a tree since she was a kid, and she couldn’t remember the last time she was on a ladder. It seemed like there were at least 50 rungs. As she took each step, she gripped the edges harder with her hands.

When she made it up and inside, she was panting. She looked around the room and saw wall to wall carpeting. Everything was painted a soft buttercup color. The entrance opened into the living room, and there was a couch and a TV. It looked like a normal living room, only in the center there was an enormous tree trunk and the ceiling had a hole where a sturdy branch broke out toward the unseen sky.

“This is crazy.”

“Isn’t it awesome? “

“Unbelievable.”

“He’s only asking $65,000 because they don’t have permits for any of this!”

“Is it safe?”

“Yeah, it’s totally safe,” he said, and to prove it he started jumping. The entire house shook. The floorboards went up and down, the windows rattled against the pressure. Adele’s stomach dropped, and a pain seized in her chest, she screamed sharply. Tears sprung to her eyes when she fell to the floor.

“Stop it! Stop it!” she cried.

“Holy shit, babe,” James said.

He dropped down next to her and gathered her in his arms.

“I want to get down. I need to get out of here.”

James tightened his grip on her.

“I’m sorry. No, no, no. That was stupid. We’re totally safe. The house has a little give—that’s all.”

“Are you kidding me? This is not safe!”

“This is totally safe.”

“We’re in a fucking tree. This is not safe.”

“We’re in a tree and it is totally fucking safe.”

Adele pulled away from him. James’ stare was ardent and unrelenting. She looked around the room. There were cracks in the walls, but all the furniture and décor were definitely from Ikea. She took a deep breath and felt the floorboards under her legs. She rocked her weight back and forth from hip to hip. The floor did not give with her weight.

“I’m okay.”

“I won’t jump like that again.”

Adele laughed. Then James laughed. She collapsed against him. They sat holding each other, and for the moment, Adele forgot she was in a tree. It felt like she was on the floor of any old little house with cute furniture.

“This place is really amazing.”

“There are no permits so basically, we could get this place—“

“You’re kidding right?”

“I’m totally serious.”

“You want us to live in a tree?” Adele looked around at the retro furniture. “You want us to live here—with a baby?”

James nodded his head with the most expectant optimism she had ever seen on his face.

“This is a once in a life time opportunity.”

“I could barely get up the ladder. How will I get up here with a baby?”

“We’ll make a real staircase.”

“The baby could fall down the stairs.”

“The baby could fall down the stairs of an apartment. Plenty of families live in apartments.”

“Um…this is a tree.”

“I know.”

“It’s growing, right now. Right as we sit here. What if that branch keeps growing and pulls the wall apart?” she asked, gesturing to the tree branching out of the ceiling.

“Then we’d fix it.”

“There’s no laundry and dryer. How will I get the groceries up with a baby?”

“We’ll make a pulley system. It’s going to be great!”

“Like the Swiss Family Robinson.”

“Isn’t it great?”

“I can’t do this. I cannot do this.”

“Yes you can.”

“No, I can’t.”

James sighed, loudly, but he didn’t take his arms away from her. She wondered what she would do if he released her. Would she leave without him? She really wanted to.

“How would we pay for this?”

“Your tax return money!”

“That’s money we are going to use for when the baby’s born. That’s my money.”

“Oh that’s your money?”

Adele nodded her head.

“What does that mean, ‘that’s my money’?”

“I mean that’s my money, and I’m not going to use it to have my baby in a tree house. I want to take off of work to be with the baby. And I don’t want to be with the baby here, in a tree.”

“If we live here, you could quit your job. Our payment will be less, and we’ll have more room. We’ll have a yard and everything.”

James pressed his body against her. “I’m telling you that this can work, just like this. Us in here. It is different, but not really. It’s really the same. It’s the same as being down there.”

“It’s not the same at all. Down there it’s safe. There’s ground and things are built on it, and they don’t bounce, and they don’t move around or shake or rattle. It’s not the same.”

It’s not the same at all. Down there it’s safe.

James pushed her up lightly so they were facing each other on the thick carpet. Adele could see the entrance just a few feet away. It seemed so far and so close at the same time. She wanted to relax and just be in the house on the floor with James, but she could not. She kept staring at the square exit, dreading how difficult it was going to be to get down the ladder. She imagined dangling her legs over the edge, searching for the first step. She pictured clinging to the rungs as she moved her heavy weight downward, wondering at each new step if something would snap. Coming up was hard enough, but getting down was going to be much more difficult.

“I want to go to bed,” she said.

“There’s a bedroom here.”

“I want to go to our bed.”

“Okay. You hate it. Let’s go,” James said, and pushed away from her to stand up. He held his hands out to her briskly and didn’t look at her as he helped her up.

“I’ll help you down,” he said, as though he had been privy to her thoughts. “Do you want to check out the bedroom before we go?”

Adele shrugged her shoulders.

“Fine,” he relented. “Let’s just go.”

She had never seen James look like that before. His shoulders slumped over a little, and he hung his head low.

“Sure,” she said. “Let’s look at it.”

He lifted his head to her with a smile.

“It’s really cute,” he said.

They walked through the narrow hallway that wrapped around the tree trunk, and on the other side were two small bedrooms. One room was painted pale blue. Stenciled on the walls were purple animals and monster sketches. The master bedroom was painted a dark gray. There was even a master bath attached to it with a claw foot tub, and around it the walls were made of polished corrugated steel.

There was a queen sized bed that had a black frame and a red comforter that was neatly tucked into place. The pillow cases were gray and black.

“Does the house come with all this furniture?”

“I don’t know. We can ask.”

Adele walked over to the bed. She sat on the edge and bounced up and down on it. James went to the window and opened it. Outside the branches of the trees framed the glass, but the stars were still visible through the breaks in the leaves. A breeze immediately filled the room, and like a dried leaf Adele fell over on the bed.

James sat down and put his hand on her back. The pressure was something different than when he touched her before. She buried her face into the mattress and let the warmth of his hand soften the tense muscles along her spine. She liked the bedroom better. There was no center hole. No entrance that reminded her that at any moment they could fall through the floor. Everything was stylish and closed in tight. It looked secure. It was almost romantic, suspended in the night’s sky. But she couldn’t stop the thought that kept rising like a bubble in her mind, again and again, over and over. She couldn’t stop picturing and planning exactly how she was going to get back down.

Hilary LTHilary Tellesen is a writer, dramaturg and performer. Her work has been published in Watershed, Educational Insights, and in a collaborative publication in re:home from the 1078 Art Gallery. She teaches a variety of writing classes at Butte-Glenn Community College and California State University, Chico.

An Axe to Grind

I held no illusions about my place or function in this world. I relished routine because it was order and order was perfection. Repetition was perfection. Every day I got better and better at what I did. I took comfort in that steady swing—the to and fro in the day-to-day travel from home to the woods and back again. I was content. Perhaps I was too content.

I began most days sharp, with an edge so fine that any knife would envy me. A quick sojourn into the woods found me chopping down all manner of trees: sequoias, redwoods, oak, and ash if I was lucky, though there wasn’t much of that around these days, thanks to the man’s clear cutting. I welcomed a sapling or two to pick my teeth. The afternoon was spent hewing these fallen trunks, taking off branches and bark. I did what I could until the evening came. I rested on the grindstone, was polished, and then tucked into my corner to await the morning. I was ever steady, ever sharp, and ever ready for the calloused hand that passed me down from grandfather to father to son. The work was constant, and I was perfect for the job.

The work of cutting trees has always suited me. Trees are tough, but I’m much tougher. There is nothing quite like that first bite when the combined shock of two opposing forces connect –my energy against a tree’s inertia. Waves pulsate through my entire being and though my handle, a ripple of strength uniting me with the man’s flesh in the reverberation. I absorbed the impact; the hands gripped around me tightened. I could feel the latent throb of his pulse against my side; hear his teeth grinding together as I sliced through the bark into the heart of the tree. We struggled as one. I shaped his will and guided his purpose. It may have been a bit grand to consider, but I challenge anyone to argue the possibilities of what can be done when the right tool for the job is found. Maybe now you can begin to imagine my horror when this all changed—when the order of my existence splintered into chaos. Better to have been abandoned and left to rust into uselessness.

The light that day through the cabin windows was pale, scanty across the plank floor and hardwood table. The shadows arched away as my owner walked from his room. He made breakfast: black coffee, toast with butter, bacon and eggs, as usual. The smell of bacon grease teased around me as the cast-iron pan sizzled and steamed in its efforts. Show off. Most kitchen pans are. He packed a lunch of ham and cheese on wheat bread. I was lifted from my quiet nook, slung across his shoulder, and we picked our way across the trails on a particularly cloudy day. We had not gone far—about a hundred strides or so—when a shrill scream pierced through the copse of trees. It was a tortured, high-pitched wail that made the man halt in his tracks. He hurried from our intended destination, running along a new trail toward the other human settlements. He carried me away with him, despite my attempts to slip from his sweating fingers.

We sloughed through the mud and pushed through trees and bushes to an old woman’s house, his nearest neighbor for some miles. I’d seen her once or twice when the man saw fit for me to chop wood for her. She had tried several times to marry the man to her granddaughter. The man called out to her with no response. He tried the door of her log cabin, but it was locked. For a moment I was intrigued, and maybe even excited, as he lifted me. I’d never tried chopping down a house, but it looked to be made from sturdy enough wood. It wasn’t so different from a tree. The shape was a challenge, flat and tall; thin by comparison to what I usually fell into. It was too easy. One or two lunges and I was through. Not much of a meal. After the door, I wondered if we would start on the frame and walls—those looked to be more of a challenge.

I was sickened when we entered instead. Forged for the open woods and used to the sunlight bouncing off my silvery edges—I had nothing in sight to chop now. It was dank inside and smelled of sweat and old candy—like the kind crusted under someone’s boot. The wood underneath the blue paint was even rotted in some spots. My skills were already wasted on that door. Now what purpose could I serve? I could tell the man was distressed. He was breathing faster, swinging me around uselessly, and calling out to the old woman. The man walked through the upended furniture. I noticed the toppled table had some burl veneers. That could be interesting; but I was pulled away as he went into the back bedroom.

There was a big wolf with a distended belly writhing on the ground. He was dressed a little oddly for a wolf, wearing a printed dress. Honestly, I didn’t often care to socialize with the animate. I did once take an interest in a spatula, but it didn’t work out. Nevertheless, yellow is a trying color, but more so when up against gray fur and trimmed in lace like a doily. No one asked me what I thought of the situation. The man at my handle felt I was once again the right tool for the job, and with one great swing, my steel crossed the wolf’s stomach. I felt the immediate warmth of blood tarnish my face as I sliced through fur and skin, muscle to sinew and finally through bone, propelled by the strength of that one swing. I hit the floor, my entire body subsumed into the mass of oozing wolf. The creature’s limbs flopped away uselessly. As I was hefted once more, I could see the path of destruction I had wrought so effortlessly, severing the soft half of its lower body. Only one swing and I did all that destruction? It was so easy! In the midst of my cut was an exposed gelatinous bubble with hands pushing against it. I’m not going back in there! I protested. I was dirty enough but the man swung anyway, though not as hard as before and—splash. Digestive juices covered me and my polished wooden handle. It was abhorrent and interesting.

The man seemed well pleased, and helped the naked old woman and her equally naked granddaughter out of the stomach that had trapped them. I’m happy they’re alive—I’m an axe with some sensitivity, but frankly, at that moment, I would have much rather been cleaned. And I was, eventually, after some talk and muffins, sewing stones into the wolf, and rolling him into the pond. Events I had no part in. The man settled to sleep easily enough when we returned home, but I was fitful. Not even the grindstone had calmed my nerves. I was awake, retracing the events of the day, again and again. I thought I was powerful felling trees. It was a cleaner business by comparison, but there was something about that wolf. It may have been its softness. The man had those soft bits, too. I’d never plunged into something so quick, so readily. The wolf had pulsed and beat with life. I felt it when I cleaved its wet heart in two. There was no resistance to my edge. The same swing, to and fro; home and back again. I wasn’t so sure anymore. In the moment it had all been rather traumatic, but now it felt liberating. I wasn’t some one-trick tool! I could chop other things, and I could chop them well.

So you see, the next day, I had another problem.

I woke up and should have been ready for the forest and wood, but I found my tastes had changed. The man can’t understand, as my edges are as sharp as ever, if not sharper. I turned from the bark and the trunk. I turned from his hand, pulling him this time toward the village and his neighbors with new strength. I don’t want the heartwood of the trees. I’ve grown a taste for different hearts.

Jm HeadshotJ.M. Venturini received an MFA in Creative Writing from Otis College of Art and Design in 2006 and earned a BFA in Classics and Classical Civilizations in 2004 from Loyola Marymount University. Her book reviews have been published in the New Review of Literature. She currently teaches English and Semiotics in the Liberal Arts and Sciences Department at Otis College of Art and Design.

Anchor Bright

If only there were more people, you think.

There are plenty of people, actually. But they aren’t here. They’re back on the ground, back on Earth. Back where everything used to be; back in the time before. Back where everything is dead, gone—almost forgotten.

This is your new home now, you know.

*     *     *

Your father had been a general. Not only a general—he had been a government representative, an authority figure. Back when everything had been normal, he had had power and you were blessed with everything good and you knew that you should be proud of your father, because you were.

You remember the time it ended. The time it all went to hell, fires everywhere. Poison, repugnant odors, and toxins filling your nostrils. Your mother: screaming. Your own face was hot, stinging. Your father: silent.

There may have been tears on his face, but they would have evaporated within moments.

There may have been tears on his face, but they would have evaporated within moments.

Your father had been the one who protected you, who protected everyone. He had led you, at the age of eight, and all other Survivors to an underground compound. He had shown them the hovercraft that had been made in emergency of an international crisis, where enough food was supplied to last forever, and there were so many resources here that the country’s national debt suddenly made sense. He had brought you and everyone else in, shielded you from the world, made sure you were safe.

Your father had protected you. But now he is gone.

*     *     *

You’re shocked when he says your name like he cares about you, like he wants you. Why should he want you? He hates you. He said that he hates you.

Thomas, he says, like he loves you.

You try to glare and try to fight his gaze, even though you know you are breaking down on the inside. Gabriel, you say back, what do you think you’re doing?

Come on, he says. You know I’m right.

And you think he might be talking about this, talking about the way all of you are living, the way all of you go day by day, in and out. But you know that there is more to his words than he says, and he knows that you know.

*     *     *

You are God.

You may as well be. After your father had guided everyone to safety, he had been the leader, in charge of everyone and everything. But you had seen how much damage he had taken before he realized that it was hopeless to try and rescue your mother. You knew that he would not last long.

Eight years pass and he moves on. You are their new leader.

You have not been held with such responsibility before. But your father had told you, told you before he left that you would be taking his power. And you had told him, but no, Daddy,

I can’t take this from you! He had laughed and said, yes you can, son, Thomas. I know you can.

And since then, you have tried your best. You have enforced new regulations, made new protocols, because since you had come into power, some of the Survivors thought you were too young, too weak, couldn’t control them, and couldn’t control anything.

You want to prove them wrong, so everything becomes stricter, and though you are not on Earth, this is your new home for now. This is everyone’s new home.

And you rule them.

*     *     *

You’re frustrated when he grabs your hand and takes you away. You ignore the tingles on your wrist from where his skin is touching yours, and you ignore the way he seems so confident.

His frame is tall and thin but he has muscle, you see—probably from rounds at the makeshift gym—and you’re sort of struck in awe, even though you don’t want to be, even though you don’t want to be hypnotized. Not by him. He is a Rebel, you remind yourself, he is not worth your time, you are in charge here, you created all of this—this world—this place—him.

He leads you to a small dark room of guns and swords and knives and you open your mouth to ask him about it but he turns before you can speak.

Thomas, he says to you. I know what you’re doing is wrong. You know what you’re doing is wrong.

You think that he may try to be scolding you, but he’s not, because he’s right. You stick your chin out and refuse to have shame.

I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about, you snarl. Stop it with this nonsense. Take me back before I’m forced to imprison you.

You won’t do that, Gabriel says to you, and this time you have to bow your head down because no, you would not. You can’t imprison Gabriel. Even if he’s a Rebel, even if he’s horribly corrupted, even if everything he says and does and thinks is wrong. He is Gabriel. You cannot limit him.

Come on,Thomas, he says, and you refuse to think.

*     *     *

The Scientists had been Survivors as well. They had been normal scientists before, doctors back on Earth, and in these twenty-five years not all of them had fared well. Many of them suffered from the chemicals that had destroyed all the living things, and everyone knew that their time was coming soon, if it had not come yet.

The women here have struggled to reproduce, because there aren’t as many women as there are men, and the only ones who can help them with childbirth are the Scientists. But most are too busy with their research and the experiments that only a few have had the time to assist the women. Many have died in child labor and the population is weaning down.

The role of the Scientists is to figure out the state of the Earth below. Since many are starting to crumble away, there are new Scientists being trained, those who had survived and those who had been born here have never known life outside of this giant metal contraption.

You feel sorry for anyone who is born here, because they may never know anything other than control, daily life, structure. They will never know freedom.

*     *     *

And so it doesn’t take you by surprise when he pulls you in and presses his lips against yours, and you pull away immediately, disgusted. You try to see him in the dark.

What the fuck was that, you spit. You wipe your mouth on your sleeve, even though you know it’s rude.

Gabriel doesn’t seem bothered at all. In fact, he’s smiling, one of those smiles that you don’t want to know what’s behind it. You know exactly what that is, he says, and then he adds, you know it was inevitable.

N-No, it fucking wasn’t! you say. How horrible, you think, if anyone were to find out.

If anyone were to discover that the Leader is having an affair with a Rebel.

You knew he had been looking at you like that for a while now, since you had associated with each other, since that day in the Dining Hall when you had wrenched him out of the fight because he had been an idiot and you scolded him and shouted at him and punished him. You knew he had been looking at you like that ever since he said he hated you, and you hated him, but you let him go because you could not bring yourself to punish him. You knew he had been looking at you like that ever since, when he tried to pick fights and get himself into more trouble because he wanted to see you.

You knew you had been looking at him like that whenever you pushed him into your office and yelled at him and threatened him and kissed him—

*     *     *

The world had disappeared because of poison.

It had been a toxic gas, residue of flames that had been entwined with nuclear waste. Even when the fires had died out, the chemicals were still roaming the Earth, burning everything in its path, lingering there like cockroaches on a territory that was never theirs. Now there’s nothing, nothing left of the past, not a single vestige of what had been.

The world had disappeared because of poison.

You can’t remember anything anymore. You can’t remember the greenness of grass, or the changing colors of the leaves. You can’t remember the warm baked bread, or the cold sweet popsicles that you’d eat by the dozen on hot summer days. You can’t remember the soft, cold snow, or the lights that had been strewn up in holiday celebrations (there are no holidays anymore.) You can’t remember the rain falling from the sky, because there is no rain anymore, there is no ceiling. There is only metal, and there is only temperature.

The Scientists are trying to find a way to live again, to coexist with the poison. But they never go outside. They stay in the weapons room (where no one goes anyways) and do their tests from here, because otherwise they will disintegrate. You would know. You have seen it happen multiple times, before your very eyes.

*     *     *

Your mouth collides with his and your teeth clack horribly together, but you don’t care. He pushes you against the cold hard wall, his fingers between your lapels and to the bottom of your shirt.

Fuck, you say. Gabriel, fuck you.

I know, he whispers. You can almost see the grin in his eyes, not on his face.

Clothes shred and he groans, you groan, and you both swear as he slides up against you. You can feel every inch of his skin, all the heat in his body, in this closed cramped up space, and you’d be distracted if he wasn’t touching you in certain places, as if he knows all your weakness, as if he knows all your strengths, as he knows all of you—

You shudder and he whispers, Thomas, Thomas, into your ear and you shudder again and cry out and he is so hot, so hot against you. You wish you weren’t enjoying this, but you are.

*     *     *

You hate yourself. You know you are ruthless, you are cruel, and sometimes you are even stupid. You know that what you’re doing is wrong, but it is right, to do what is wrong. It is what has been given over to you, like a ticking time bomb gift. You can’t take it back. You have to keep it.

You have to do what is expected of you. What your father expected of you.

You hadn’t hated it really, at first. You may have even enjoyed it. You may have been awed at the way people stared at you, watched you as if you were something divine. You may have made quite silly, cruel rules to see if they would work, and you were delighted when they did (you never took those rules back.) You may have exercised your authority on others by calling them out on things that didn’t matter, on things they never did, on things that were your fault—

You had been young and you made mistakes.

But as you became older, you realized the responsibility that your power has and you stopped. You tried to be reasonable. You tried to make everything better. You tried to make the Survivors love you. You tried to make the Born love you. But it was too late.

*     *     *

He leans in to kiss you again, and you’ve always hated that word, kiss, because it implies more than what it does. It is only the meeting of lips, you think, of mouths, or of lips on other parts, like the cheek or the forehead. And you don’t think there’s anything special about kissing, significant, because you’ve had women before and you’ve kissed them, kissed them in places that aren’t supposed to be kissed, you’ve done things with them just because you can—

But this is Gabriel and this doesn’t feel like kissing. This feels like coming together. This feels like becoming. This feels like becoming one.

He knocks you over, a little, as you continue on with your little torrid affair that not even your best General knows about. He’s over your body and his hands are on either side of your torso and you’re giving in now, like you’re always giving in, because you always protest and he always wins you over and you both go on your ways after this as Leader and Rebel, but right now you are Gabriel and Thomas.

He leans against you a little bit harder and you feel something underneath your thigh.

*     *     *

You still make mistakes, and even though you try to make up for your mistakes in the past, it is too late. Not long after seven years of your reign, the Rebellions have started and some of the Survivors and some of the Born too, despite being children, rise up and try to go against you. Try to overthrow you.

You refuse it, though, because you know all the secrets, and they know you know all the secrets, so they can’t put anything against you. But they can protest. They can shout. They can scream. They can cause riots. They can turn over tables and ruin everything in this compound hovercraft.

But when they do, you just punish them, let them go back to their measly little lives, and all the Guards and Generals watch them, waiting for them to step another toe out of line. And they will. They’ll do all they can to stop your authority, to try to make everything perfect in their own hands, even if it is at their own mortal expense, even if you know everything they say, they plan, they want, because you have more than enough ears everywhere.

So you know they cannot rebel without you, take over without you. They have to find a way to use you, to control you.

And you try to refuse it.

*     *     *

If only there were more people, you think.

You don’t need to be told the population demographics to know that everything is wearing away. That one day, you will all perish. That one day, you will all be gone. That one day, there will be nothing, nothing but gas and land and emptiness.

But there is no hope.

You have never believed in a God, but you wish you could right now. You wish that somehow this will last. You wish that somehow, everything will turn out to be okay, to be perfect.

If only there were more people, life would go on. But there is no hope. You, your Generals, and your Scientists know this.

And one day, so will everyone else.

*     *     *

You wish that somehow, you and Gabriel would—

*     *     *

Men burst in at the wrong time and they look wide-eyed at you and Gabriel and you think, Oh no, and not a proper amount of curse words can describe how you’re feeling right now. You and Gabriel look up, and it’s like you can hear his thoughts. Your heart and his are one because you’re both thinking the same thing, that you’re fucked, you’re completely and utterly fucked and they came in here just to find you, and—

The floor slides beneath you and you realize you’re falling, you’re falling and the darkness suddenly becomes lighter at the bottom. There’s a gap that’s getting bigger and bigger, like a white bright square hole at the bottom of the ocean—

There are hands beneath your armpits and they pluck you up without strain because you are their leader, you are supposed to live—but you’re not aware of it anymore because you see Gabriel still sliding, sliding down the floor like it’s a ramp and he’s struggling, struggling to get up—

Close the door! one of your Generals shouts, and you snap back into reality. Close the door, goddammit! He’s yelling to one of the other Generals, who runs to the entrance of the weapons room and is about to press a button—

No! Gabriel shouts, and you see that he’s reaching out to you—is the floor forever, is it never stopping?—and he shouts at you, Thomas, Thomas, come on!—Come—!

Your breath hitches in your throat and you want to yell back, Gabriel, Gabriel, GABRIEL! and just keep going on, keep going on like a mantra of his name will stop him from sliding, will stop him from bringing you back. And the Generals stop suddenly, because they’re looking at you, and you’re looking at Gabriel and Gabriel is looking at you, waiting in the last seconds of his life for you to make a decision. You do nothing. You say nothing.

And his body burns into nothing.

*     *     *

A General clears his throat. Well then, he says, that was dramatic. They close the floor door and it rises back up, and you see the button on it which you had accidentally sat upon.

They lead you out, help you out of the weapons room, and you pretend that your shirt isn’t clumsily buttoned, that your collar isn’t half open, and that you don’t look like a disheveled mess, from fear or shock or love. You pretend that you are not weak. You pretend that you have not lost.

*     *     *

When the Generals and the Scientists and everyone asks you about what happened, you tell them that Gabriel assaulted you, and you had purposefully stepped on the button that would open to the burning world. You tell them that he had been a Rebel, that there was no way you would have had an affair with him, loved him.

The Rebellions die down after that; you suppose they are afraid of you. You suppose that they realize that you are more ruthless and heartless than you had been before. You suppose that Gabriel, to them, like he was to you, had been a beacon, a light, a fire.

*     *     *

And for you, everything ends.

Alice Zhu attends the University of Iowa. She enjoys the smell of clean clothes, perfect games of Solitaire, and the occasional tickle fight. Too many tickle fights will make her angry.