THAT FROZEN BASTARD By Zack Bosley

Russ was dying. He could feel it, in his icy, frozen to the core bones. No part of his body was spared from the cruel chill of the mountain. His feet were cracked and bleeding, leaving a trail of crimson with every step he took. His fingertips were numb to the point where he almost wasn’t sure they weren’t there anymore. For all he knew, they’d broken off miles ago. Russ only took a breath when he couldn’t wait any longer, as his icy throat begged him not to. It couldn’t bare much more of the pain that came with the air from the harsh winds. Even his eyes were nearly frozen shut, not that it mattered. All he knew was that he needed to keep moving. He needed to get away from it; whatever it was.

 

The creature, that Frozen Bastard, as Russ called him, had appeared with the blizzard. Russ had been doing nothing more than ice fishing in his cabin when the storm appeared. He’d checked the weather before he left, and there wasn’t supposed to be even a flake of snow falling today. That had been a damned lie, and a deadly one at that. Russ had driven up to his favorite fishing hole in the mountains, thinking that it was going to be the perfect day to catch a fine dinner. Not so warm that the ice would melt, but not so cold that he’d find himself regretting the trip. This time, regret had found him.

 

It started with shaking of his tiny cabin, the kind of shaking that only came with the strongest of winds. Then the temperature dropped, making Russ’s nose run and allowing him to see his own breath. His winter coat and hat weren’t doing him much good at that point. He’d peaked out, trying to find some sort of explanation for the change in the air, and found himself in the middle of a harsh, unforgiving vortex of snow and ice. Pushing his way out the door, which was more difficult than it should’ve been with all wind coming at him, Russ walked outside only to discover that he couldn’t see so much as a few feet in front of him. Not even the cabin would keep him safe in this. The only thing he could do at that point was head back to the truck and try to make his way home. That was the plan until he heard the screech.  A screech that cut through the deafening sound of the wind and got Russ to turn in an instant. What he saw before him chilled his soul more than any winter ever had.

 

At first glance, one might have thought it was a human; frozen, alone, and looking for help. It took only one more glance to see that whatever this thing was, it had been iced over far more than any human ever could’ve survived. Though it’s figure was that of a naked man, it had no eyes in it’s head, only two empty chasms of eye sockets. The entirety of it’s body was a pale blue color that almost made it look transparent. There was no muscle on it, being so thin that you could make out every bone in its body. What looked to have once been a mouth was now frozen, with it’s face contorted in a way that gave off the air that it was trying to release an age old scream. But if the mouth was unable to open, where did the screech come from? As best as Russ could tell, it was from a hole dug into its throat, a gapping one that looked as though it had been carved out by hand. He didn’t know what this thing was, but Russ wouldn’t have guessed it to be from this world.

 

Russ turned to run, but found the snow he was standing in to be so deep that his boots were stuck. He yanked as hard he could, but was only able to get his feet out of the boots. The snow was bracingly cold on his feet, but that was of no concern at the moment. That Frozen Bastard was on all fours, and looked ready to chase him. With another screech that echoed through the mountains, the creature took off after him, the mad dash now underway. It was unfortunate for Russ that he’d taken off his gloves minutes ago to get at his toolbox, because the day wasn’t going to get any warmer.

 

An hour had passed since then, and Russ still found himself running, if one could even call it that anymore. In reality, it had become more like trudging. That Frozen Bastard was still behind him, still screeching away to him to let him know the chase was not yet over. Russ had been wondering why it hadn’t caught him yet, seeing as he’d slowed down to a snail’s pace at this point. There was only one conclusion that he could come to…it was waiting for him to give up. Luckily for the Frozen Bastard, it wouldn’t have to wait much longer. Unable to move his legs even one more step, Russ fell to his knees, spitting out a trickle of blood as he did. No man could keep running in a place like that for an hour. This, Russ was certain, was where he would meet his end.

 

Russ could hear the creature approaching him from behind, slowly continuing on it’s hands and feet towards the man. Once the Frozen Bastard had reached him, it reached out a finger and poked Russ, backing away as soon as it did so. When the man grunted and fell onto his belly, the creature came back, rolling Russ over onto his back. It started to grope at Russ with it’s hands, which were somehow even colder than the poor man’s bare skin. Before long it reached Russ’s throat, taking extra time to touch it. The Frozen Bastard grunted and shook his head, pawing at the area behind him. Whatever it was looking for, it found.

 

The creature’s hand came back up holding a narrow rock with a pointed end. It took the Frozen Bastard a moment to make sure it had the right end, running its fingers along it as though it needed to be certain. Once it seemed satisfied, the creature raised the rock high above it’s head, placing two fingers on the lower part Russ’s throat. This was when Russ realized what was coming. He tried to grunt in protest, as useless as he knew that was, before the Frozen Bastard pulled his fingers away and plunged the rock into the spot where they had been. Blood poured out of Russ’s throat as the creature pulled out the rock. Something about the warm liquid felt almost comforting on Russ’s icy skin. With that finished, the Frozen Bastard continued his work, feeling further up until he found Russ’s eyes. There was a much shorter wait for the horror to begin this time. Cold thumbs made their way to Russ’s eye sockets and gradually began to add pressure. More and more pressure was added, dragging on the experience, until the orbs popped like a pair of grapes. Finally, the creature dug around in the remaining sockets, clearing out the mess the eyes had left behind.

 

With its work now complete, the creature let loose a noise that Russ almost would’ve described as happy, and then walked over to his ankles. Taking an ankle in each hand, it started to drag the man across the frozen ground, the weight of his body not phasing it in the least. Russ was dragged for what he could only assume was miles into the increasingly cold mountains. Somewhere in that time, with Frozen Bastard not even noticing, his body surrendered to the cold and allowed it to take him to a new place. A place that he prayed would be far warmer than where he was now…

Gift of the MIL by Kathryn Blanchard

Millie awoke slowly, as she always did, giving her bones a chance to get used to the idea of moving. She could see the tiniest blurry glow of sunlight sneaking around her triple-layered bedroom curtains. The first thing she did, even before sitting up, was to reach for her glasses so she could read her watch, always stretched around her soft, veiny wrist. It was almost ten already. She seemed to be staying up later and later these days, couldn’t fall asleep for hours even after turning off the TV, but she still felt guilty when she slept so late. The voice in her head clicked on automatically. I’m 86 years old and I’m retired, so I guess I can sleep late if I want to.

With great effort, she rolled over on her side, then onto her belly, and lowered her feet to the floor. Her broken shoulder, never repaired because the orthopedic surgeon was too afraid she’d die on his surgical table, shrieked when she leaned on it. She waited for the pain to pass and carefully stood up, pulled on her house robe, and padded out to the living room for a cigarette. I’ve been smoking for 64 years so I guess I’m not gonna quit now. She turned on the news before fiddling with her lighter. Another black man was wanted by police. Another black mother had let her children die in a house fire. Millie inhaled. The white man and lady who told her all the bad news had looks of mild concern on their faces, before brightening up and passing the camera over to the pregnant lady (What color is she?) for the weather report. Girls today always wear tight clothes when they’re pregnant. It’s indecent. It was going to be cold again, but sunny. Maybe she would turn the heat up to 75. Reaching down for a can of Ensure from the case she kept by her chair, she noticed the carpet was looking dirty around her feet. The dust buster stood at the ready, but it was just out of reach of her sore shoulder. I’ll vacuum after breakfast, before LaVonne gets here.

Every other Wednesday (I know she wants to come every week but I only want to pay for twice a month) LaVonne came to clean for her. She’d vacuum, do some dusting around Millie’s countless heirlooms (once she’d called them “knick-knacks” but Millie set her straight), tidy up the kitchen as best she could without moving anything (I like everything out on the counter where I can see it), and scrub the two toilets, one of which hadn’t been used since Robert died. Then LaVonne would drive them both out to Walmart in Millie’s car, which otherwise got very little use. Before shopping they would usually go out to lunch. There was an unspoken agreement that Millie always paid, for reasons that were not entirely clear even to herself but she didn’t think to analyze. I think we’ll go to the Red Lobster today. She dressed herself accordingly. At around eleven she heard LaVonne’s knock and made her way to the door.

“Hey, Miz Buford!” the woman said cheerfully. Why are they always so loud? “How you doin’ this morning?”

Millie answered as she always did when people asked that stupid question. “I guess I’m makin’ it,” she replied, shuffling backward to let her in. LaVonne put her purse down where she always did and Millie noticed her detailed manicure. Where’d she get the money for those? Maybe I’m paying her too much.

“How you gonna clean with those long nails?” she asked.

“Aw, don’t you worry, Miz Buford,” LaVonne said with a smile, “I’m used to it, I’ll manage.” She headed for the closet to get the vacuum. Millie settled herself in her chair to have another cigarette and keep an eye on things. She turned down the TV volume so she could hear the girl working. I’m not paying her to talk on the phone to her sister. The news headlines on the gigantic screen came and went, unmemorable in their monotony. Millie’s own sister had died two years ago. They used to talk on the phone every day.

LaVonne eventually came into the living room. She seemed giant, at least from Millie’s perspective, and rather majestic in her bearing. Millie noticed that LaVonne was wearing a silky-looking hot pink blouse today, striking against her velvety-dark skin, with a skirt and tall boots. Where does she think she’s going dressed like that? Millie wondered. I bet she thinks I’m taking her out to lunch. LaVonne’s earrings, big wooden circles, swung back and forth with every energetic lunge of the vacuum cleaner. Millie sucked again on her cigarette, looked down at her own pointy nails, thick and yellowed under their cracking red polish. Mama would’ve said I look like I’ve been gutting the cat. And then another thought: Why does the maid have nicer nails than I do? She meditated on this for the next hour while LaVonne buzzed around her, in and out of the room, smiling every time she passed through.

“Okay Miz Buford,” she finally said with a satisfied shrug, “I think that’s everything.”

“You sure do look nice today,” Millie said.

“Why thank you, Miz Buford,” LaVonne replied, ignoring Millie’s tone. “So do you.” Millie had put on her black shirt with a bejeweled zebra on it, knotted at the waist, her black wool culottes with a zebra-striped scarf used as a belt, and black and white argyle knee-socks inside black slip-on ankle boots.

“Mm-hmm.”

“Are you all ready for lunch?”

Millie paused. “No, I don’t believe we’ll go out today,” she said, crushing out the latest butt in the ashtray (another heirloom). “I don’t think I feel up to it after all,” she added.

“Are you sure?” LaVonne asked. “But you’re already all dressed up! Don’t you need anything from Walmart?”

There she goes, pretending to care about me when all she cares about is getting a free lunch out of me. “No, uh-uh, we won’t be going out today.”

“Well, okay then,” said LaVonne casually, “I’ll get going.” She and her earrings bounced over to get her coat and her purse. This wasn’t the reaction Millie was hoping for; if she didn’t know better she’d say LaVonne looked relieved, but Millie decided her insouciance was actually camouflaged anger. It’s too bad but you just can’t trust these people; all they care about is money, so you gotta make them work for it. LaVonne paused and waited at the door for Millie, who always insisted on putting the check right in her hand before she left, the better to remind her who was paying her.

“Have a blessed day, Miz Buford.”

“Mm-hmm.” She locked the door behind LaVonne, feeling disappointed about the loss of Red Lobster. I sure do like their biscuits. She went to the fridge to see what she might eat. The bottom freezer drawer had permanently frozen shut, but she could still get the top doors open. She looked in on the crowded shelves of Diet Coke, uncovered plastic containers of chicken broth, a chicken carcass on a plate, gooey popsicles in wrappers, miscellaneous bowls covered in foil, and a gallon milk container. Cereal again, I reckon. But when she grabbed the milk container it sprung up in her grasp, much lighter than she’d expected. It was almost empty. She poured what was left into a bowl from the drying rack and then poured in a little Fiber One, just enough to meet the level of milk. Sitting down at the one tiny space on the kitchen table that wasn’t covered in heirlooms and objects she might need, she chewed and contemplated her situation.

I guess I can ask Bobby to get me some milk. Bobby, her son, lived with his wife in the other half of the duplex they shared. He worked much too hard and also had a long commute twice a day up to the city and back, but it was pretty easy for him to stop in the quick mart while gassing up his car on his way home. Slowly she washed her bowl and spoon, put them in the drying rack, and went back to her chair to see if there were any classic movies on this afternoon.

It was at this moment, when she found her finger searching in vain around the crackly cigarette package, that Millie realized her clever idea to punish LaVonne might have backfired. Though her pantry shelves were exploding with cases of Ensure and boxes of cereal and cookies, she was out of her most important and most perishable staples – milk and cigarettes. She couldn’t keep stocked up milk from going sour, no matter how much frost built up in her fridge. And she couldn’t keep cigarettes in the house without smoking them till they were all gone. Bobby would buy her milk, but on principle he would not buy any cigarettes. This left her with the uncomfortable choice of either asking for a ride or driving to the store herself.

She still had a valid driver’s license, so she could drive legally, but it was a terrifying prospect. People always drove so fast on the highway, and when she took the back roads people always rode so close to her bumper, passing her even on double lines. In order to feel safer, she had recently traded in Robert’s old car for a giant white sedan that she thought would protect her in the event of a crash. She had put the car in Bobby’s name in order to hide it from Uncle Sam, who was always trying to take away her money, and since it was in his name she had made Bobby pay for half of it. It was also on his insurance, but it stayed in her garage and he never drove it. He’s going to get all my money when I die, she told herself, so it’s only fair that he should help pay for the car now. Besides, he bought himself that expensive truck that he never even drives. Bobby hadn’t argued about paying for the car, just like he didn’t argue when his parents had insisted on sharing a duplex with him and his wife. The only trouble with her new car was that, given her child-like height (4’9’’ – now shorter than her ten-year-old great-grandson), it was almost too big for Millie to see over the hood and step on the gas at the same time. With the seat pushed all the way forward till she was virtually hugging the steering wheel, she could just barely reach the pedals.

Since her daughter-in-law of 35 years was right next door, asking for help should have been a small matter of walking out on the porch and knocking. But the cigarettes were an extremely sore point in their relationship. It wasn’t just that she smoked – though that would have been reason enough for her family to judge her and avoid her home like the plague. The bigger issue was that, because they shared a duplex, Bobby and Beverly complained that their half of the house also smelled as if smokers lived there. They said it came through the vents and the walls and the ceilings, despite the air purifiers and fresheners that littered every room. Beverly said she couldn’t breathe in her own house. Millie often told Bobby, when Beverly wasn’t around, that he should defend his mother when his wife was being ugly. But Bobby never did defend her. She stopped short of taking his silence as a sign that he was on Beverly’s side; she preferred to think he was afraid. Beverly’d had him wrapped around her finger right from the beginning, having become sickly within months of their shotgun wedding. She hadn’t worked a day in her life since then, which had been infuriating Millie for 35 years. My precious son works hisself half to death, and all she does is lay around and watch TV. More than once she’d suggested to Bobby that his wife had trapped him into a lifetime of misery, but he appeared not to hear her. I taught him that trick, she thought ruefully, before quickly putting it out of her mind.

So normally she would find another way, but as they neared the shortest, darkest day of the year Millie felt she really needed her cigarettes, enough that she would ask for help. And anyway, this is why we helped them build their house – so they could help us out in our old age. It’s partly my house so I think I deserve a little gratitude. She walked on creaky knees to her cheap front door, opened it and looked out through the storm door at the quiet street and the row of pine trees across the road, destined for clear-cutting whenever the housing market came back. This view vaguely depressed her for reasons she didn’t bother identifying. It was warm for December, even for Georgia, and she wished she could sit down on the porch in Robert’s old rocking chair and smoke right then, looking at the doomed pine trees.

With effort, she walked unsteadily down the two steps on her side of the railing and up the two steps to her son’s door, knowing Beverly would be home. She never goes anywhere. Millie tried and failed to open the door. Darn this arthritis, she thought, now using both thumbs to push down harder on the lever and leaning gingerly into the door. After a few seconds, it dawned on her that the door was locked. Millie was incredulous. Millie was accustomed to letting herself in almost every day and walking to wherever Beverly was lying in her nightgown, whether in bed or on the La-Z-Boy. She would stand over her, never just to talk about the weather but usually to tell Beverly to ask Bobby to come over and do some fix-it job when he got home. She could tell this annoyed Beverly, but she thought it the least she owed her for having stolen her son’s chances of happiness – for having stolen her son. She wouldn’t let Beverly forget she was still here.

She knocked lightly, then peered through the side window. Behind the sheer curtain she detected, mostly with the help of memory, the portraits of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren smiling out from their frames. She thought she could hear a TV, a commercial maybe, but that was actually coming from her own house, where the volume was always loud enough to be heard from next door. She rang the doorbell, rang it two more times, and finally Beverly opened the door, her face pale, her hair slept in, her posture uninviting. “Mornin’,” she said without conviction.

“I was wondering where you were,” Millie said, despite knowing exactly where she was. She never just started a conversation in the normal way.

“I was in bed, I’m not feeling good today,” Beverly replied.
She actually does look terrible, but I still shouldn’t have to knock on the door. “I was wondering why you locked the door,” she persisted.

“Bobby must’a locked it on his way out.” Beverly, like LaVonne, was well-practiced in evading Millie’s hints. “You need somethin’?”

“Mm-hmm.” This was always the hardest part – asking for something directly. “I’d like to go to the Walmart,” she finally said.

“Wasn’t LaVonne just here?”

“She couldn’t take me today.”

“Well I can’t take you either, I’ve got a fever, I need to lie down.” Beverly sounded both sorry and a little irritated. “Besides, Bobby took the car and I can’t drive that truck.” Their hatred of his new truck was one thing Millie and Beverly agreed on; when Bobby had first brought it home, Millie had heard Beverly say it would have been cheaper for him to get a girlfriend. She’d actually laughed at that, before quickly coming to Bobby’s defense. “What do you need from the store?”
“I’m out of milk.”

“Well I’ll call Bobby and ask him to get it for you on his way home tonight.”
There she goes, giving Bobby even more work to do. “I also need to do some Christmas shopping,” Millie lied. She already had a closet full of things she planned to distribute to her ungrateful family members at Christmas, mostly “heirlooms” and other things she’d bought for herself years ago and hadn’t found use for. All of them smelled of stale cigarette smoke.

“Well I can’t take you today, I’m sorry. I just don’t have the energy to deal with Walmart, ‘specially right before Christmas.” It sounded like she meant it.
So that’s the thanks I get for supporting you all these years, Millie thought. “Mm-hmm, okay.”

“Would you like to come in?” Beverly asked. “I have some tea.”

“No, thank you, I don’t believe I will,” Millie said curtly. She knows I can’t drink sweet tea.

“All right then,” Beverly said quietly, “you take care.”

Millie walked back next door, resolved to do what she must.

By some Christmas miracle, she made it to Walmart without incident. She hadn’t locked her keys in the house, hadn’t tripped and fallen, hadn’t hit Bobby’s prize truck backing out of the garage, hadn’t crashed the car. She found a handicapped parking space and had (mostly) worked her way in between the lines. The sunshine was glorious, most un-Christmas-like, but when she hobbled into Walmart with her giraffe-headed cane the mood changed immediately. “Welcome to Walmart,” said an elderly associate in a Santa hat; cheesy holiday jingles were playing and everything was red and green and flooded with light. She laid her cane in a shopping basket and began wandering toward the cigarettes, where she was excited to find jumbo-sized cartons of her brand on special. She put three of them in her basket. This lightened her mood considerably. Turning back toward the cash registers, the jewelry counter caught her eye. Maybe I will do some Christmas shopping after all, she thought; I’ll get something for myself since I never get anything good from them.

She pulled her cart up next to the glass counter. On top were spinning racks of cheap earrings, wood or plastic in bright colors. LaVonne would probably wear some of those, but I guess she won’t be getting any gifts from me. Underneath, where shoplifters couldn’t reach them, were the slightly more expensive things: shiny chain bracelets that came with a variety of themed charms, gold-plated necklaces with heart-shaped pendants, fake diamond engagement rings, even rings dusted with actual bits of diamonds. She looked down at the tiny diamond on her knobby ring finger. Well it isn’t much but it was the best Robert could afford back in 1947. She began calculating how many years she had been a widow. I should’ve bought more jewelry before he died so the IRS wouldn’t have taken so much of my money. The giraffe in the cart stared glumly at the ceiling.

A voice interrupted her thoughts. “Can I help you, ma’am?” Millie thought she looked like a nice girl behind the counter, fair and blond, smiling at her. In fact, most strangers who talked to her couldn’t help but smile at her, as if she were adorable, making going out in the world an almost always affirming experience. No one ever looked at her like that at home. She pushed her cat-eyed glasses up her tiny beak of a nose and adjusted her black turban hat (probably meant for a cancer survivor) atop her scraggly salt and pepper hair.

“Are you looking for a last-minute Christmas gift?” the associate asked.

“Mm-hmm,” she said. Then, thinking it would be humiliating to admit she was shopping for her own present, she added, “It’s for my daughter-in-law. She’s sick, bless her heart.” Not that she deserves anything for all her years of laziness.

The girl looked concerned. “Aw, I’m sorry to hear that. What’s wrong with her?”

Millie surprised herself by answering the girl’s question. “She’s got an infection in her gut.” Then she added, “She’s had it for years, ever since she married my son.” She found herself going on and on about Beverly’s illness, which had no name but which had kept her more or less bedridden for at least two decades, which had stolen her youth and the youth of her son and granddaughters. Unconsciously she edited herself, making Beverly sound rightfully pathetic, making herself sound perfectly supportive and sympathetic. The young associate looked at her with such kindness that she didn’t want to ruin the effect. By avoiding giving expression to her usual bitterness, Millie almost convinced herself that she felt actual sympathy for Beverly, whose life really did seem worse than death sometimes. “I pray to God for her to be healed every single night.”

“Well let’s see if we can find her something really nice to cheer her up,” the girl finally said. “What kind of jewelry does she like?”

“Oh, nothin’ too fancy,” Millie said, “since she doesn’t go out much.”

“Right, that makes sense,” said the girl. “But it’s hard always being stuck home so you want something pretty that she’ll feel good just wearing them around the house, right?”

“Mm-hmm.” I do like to wear something pretty even when I’m staying at home. Maybe that’s what Beverly needs to feel better. She never bothers to fix herself up. Somehow this conversation had stirred up an unfamiliar feeling about her daughter-in-law. Beverly did always look so sad and she must be so lonely, at home all day every day, in pain, with only Bobby for company and then only a few hours a week when he wasn’t working or driving or sleeping. Her children had gone away, taken her grandchildren and left her alone; they weren’t there to visit or take her to the doctor’s or check in on her. Maybe I’ll start checking in on her. She might like that, and Lord knows I could use the company too.

“So, maybe something classic. Does she have pierced ears? What about these?” The girl pulled out a pair of earrings and laid them gently on the glass. “They’re not real diamonds, but they’re pretty.”

Millie picked them up and held them before her bifocals. They were the dangly kind of earrings, but not too dangly, on hooks rather than posts, with clear stones set into little golden teardrops. Below each teardrop was a bit of golden filigree.

“These are real pretty,” she said. “I’d like to wear these myself,” she added with a little smoker’s laugh.

The girl smiled and nodded. “I think she’ll really like these, and I’m sure she’ll appreciate knowing you’ve been thinking about her.”

Millie turned them over and looked at the price: $39.99. Much more than she would usually spend. Beverly might even be grateful. “Mm-hmm, all right, I’ll take those.”
“Would you like a gift box for them?”

“Mmm-hmm, please.” As she waited, she imagined the look on Beverly’s face when she opened the box. She would be surprised and maybe even smile for a change. Maybe she’d be happier to see Millie from now on, when she let herself into the house for a visit. Maybe she’d even come over once in a while, when she’s having a good day. Millie tried to remember the last time her son or daughter-in-law had actually come inside her house. It might have been last Christmas, when she’d prevailed on Bobby to put up her fake tree with the built-in lights. He’d left immediately after; she’d never gotten around to putting any ornaments on it, since Christmas dinner was at Bobby’s. Why doesn’t anybody ever want to come see me? LaVonne had finally taken the tree down in February. She hadn’t bothered to put it up this year, settling instead for a permanently decorated one-foot-high model that she bought on clearance last year.

“Here you go, ma’am,” said the girl with another smile, handing her a small box with a Walmart sticker on it. “I hope she likes them.”

“I do too,” she said with another short smoker’s laugh, “I spent enough on ‘em that she better like ‘em.” At this slip of self-revelation, the barest hint of a frown crossed the girl’s face before she rearranged her smile. “Oh, I’m sure she will,” she said cheerfully.

Millie left the store a few minutes later with her cigarettes, earrings, a gallon of milk, and a box of sugar-free cookies. With groaning joints and heavy breathing she got everything, including herself, into the car. Turning on the ignition she felt very proud of herself for having made such a successful trip to the store. She was not only perfectly capable of doing for herself, but she was also the kind of mother-in-law who bought expensive earrings for her sickly daughter-in-law. No wonder I’m the last one left in my generation. Then, backing out of the parking space, she heard and felt a loud thump and stopped short. Someone was yelling, but she couldn’t see who. Her heart raced and she forgot how to open the door, but she managed to roll down the window. She immediately regretted this.

“You better watch where you’re goin’, ma’am!” shouted a puffy-faced woman who had suddenly appeared. “You almost ran over my baby!” Looking down as far as she could over the door, Millie could just see the spongy-haired top of a child’s head, a tiny brown hand in the pale, pudgy hand of the shouting woman.

“Did I hit him?” she asked feebly. Why is her baby black?

“No ma’am you didn’t, but you almost did! You would have if I hadn’t stopped you!” The sound she had heard was apparently not a child’s body, but a protective mother’s hand banging on her trunk. “You’d better watch where you’re going! Maybe you shouldn’t be driving if you’re gonna be so dangerous! Can you even see out your mirror?”

“Mm-hmm,” Millie replied, thinking the woman was overreacting, but not knowing what to say to her. She was no stranger to anger, but she wasn’t accustomed to staring it in the face. She pushed the button that rolled up the window.
“Be more careful next time!” she heard before it closed all the way. Who does she think she is talking to me like that, that piece of white trash? I bet she’s not even married to that baby’s father. Millie was shaking all over, whether out of fear or rage she didn’t think to discern. She drove as slowly as she could out of the parking lot, now paranoid about attracting the negative attention of other Walmart shoppers. She was relieved to get off of the main drag and back onto the country roads that connected one exurb to another. She kept driving slowly, not letting the tailgaters pressure her into speeding up. Some honked or gestured at her as they passed, but she didn’t care.

When she finally turned into her subdivision she took a deep breath and felt relieved to be home free. She drove down the alley behind the duplex and pressed the garage door opener. Waiting for it to open, she thought, What was he thinking, buying a truck too big to fit in a garage? She then proceeded to watch herself – almost in slow motion – drive straight into the truck. Her body jerked forward. What happened? She felt suspended in time, in utter silence, not yet ready to claim the stupidity of this reality. Inevitably she was forced to snap out of it when Beverly appeared at the car window where the angry mother had been a little while before. She was mouthing something. Millie found the window button again.

“Are you ok?” Beverly asked.

“Mm-hmm, I’m fine,” Millie replied. “I’m not sure what happened.”

“Looks like you hit the truck. Can you unlock your door?” Millie couldn’t, apparently, unlock her door, so Beverly reached in and opened it from the inside. “Why don’t you come on out and I’ll move your car for you.” Beverly held Millie’s arm, helped her get out of the car and move safely to the side. Then she got in the car and backed it up so they could survey the damage. Both the truck and the car looked as if they’d been in a major collision. How could I have hit it so hard? I wasn’t even going that fast. “Well it looks pretty bad,” Beverly said, “but at least you’re ok. Come on, I’ll help you get upstairs and then I’ll call Bobby.”

“Oh, I’ve got bags in the trunk,” Millie said absent-mindedly.
With effort, Beverly got the bags out and carried them up the back stairs for her, but only to the door – she never wanted to go inside. “Are you sure you’re ok?” she asked again. “Do you need me to call the doctor?”

“No, I’m fine,” Millie said. “I believe I’ll just rest for a bit.” She locked her door and made a little room in the fridge for the milk. Then she sat down in her chair with a new carton of cigarettes and turned on the Food Channel, which she always found calming. That fat woman was on, making something with butter and cream in it. I bet she’s diabetic, too. She felt strangely distant from everything that had happened in the past few hours, almost as if it had been some boring show that she’d watched on TV about a generic old southern lady. Is this really my life? she might have asked in an earlier time, but she’d learned long ago not to ask such questions. She never liked the answer.

A few hours later, she heard a banging on her door. When she opened it, she found Bobby standing there, arms floating slightly away from his torso, with fists on the ends. He had a smile on his face, but it looked unnatural, strained somehow. She assumed he was there to check in on her and see how she was doing. “Hi there,” she said.

“I see you took it upon yourself to crash my truck,” he said loudly, not yelling exactly, but definitely irritated.

“Hmmm?” she replied – her standard response when she didn’t like what she’d heard. What is he saying to me?

“You never did want me to have it,” he said. “You never want me to have anything that’s just mine.” He paused to see if she had anything else to say, then launched into a full-on lecture. “I’ve told you time and again, you are too old to be driving anymore! When are you ever gonna listen to me?” Shaking his head and lowering his voice he said, “Gimme your keys.” She stared at his held out hand. “Hmmm?” she stalled. “You heard me.” When she didn’t move, he stepped inside the door and grabbed the keys off the desk. “I should’a taken these a long time ago.”

This snapped Millie back into attention. “Well if y’all would’a just drove me to the store like I asked you to this wouldn’a happened.”

Her petulance escalated his anger. “You could’a called me, I would’a picked something up for you!” Why is he shouting at me? she wondered.

“Well I didn’t want you to pick something up for me, I wanted to go out myself!” she responded, voice raised as much as her weakened lungs could manage. “No one ever offers to take me anywhere! You said if I paid for your house you’d help me!”
“You did NOT pay for my house,” he retorted, pointing at her. “You paid for YOUR house.” Then, pointing at himself, “I paid for my own house!”

This was too much. When did my son become so ungrateful? “Well if you don’t start helping me out it’s gonna cost you when I rewrite my will,” she warned, wagging a finger in the air. “Just ‘cuz you’re my only son, don’t think I can’t give my money to somebody else.”

“You can just keep your money,” he said. “Now my insurance is gonna go up, and I’m gonna have to pay to repair the car and the truck, with no help from you, ‘cuz you’re too cheap to pay for anything that’s yours!”

“Well I don’t believe I have to listen to this anymore,” she said, slowly closing her door. “Good night.” At least I still have some manners.

“Yeah, that’s right,” he muttered before the door shut, “you go hide in your cave and smoke your cancer sticks while I take care of the mess you made.”

Millie wobbled back to her chair. She felt shaken. Getting yelled at twice in one day was disorienting and more than her system could reasonably handle. What happened? I came from such a loving family. She had not raised her son to be so rude to his mother, so neglectful. It’s that woman, she decided. He never gave me any trouble till she came along. She’s turned him against me. Millie sat back down in her favorite chair and lit up another cigarette. Looking down at her foot, she noticed the Walmart bag with the earrings in it. She took the box out and opened it up, admiring the sparkly stones in the shiny golden droplets. She doesn’t deserve these. All I’ve got from her is grief. Millie’s stiff fingers fumbled with the earrings till she got them off of the plastic card they were on, till she got them one by one into her ears. She went to the bathroom to see how they looked on her. These are real pretty. I’m 86 years old and I guess I can buy myself jewelry if I want to.

She headed into to the guest room to look in on the pile of heirlooms and other items in the closet, to find something to give Beverly instead of the earrings. She shuffled through the Christian romance novels, the colored glass vases, the yellowed ceramic angels, the pink tool kit. Then she saw it, the perfect thing, languishing under her long dresses in the darkened closet. It was a toilet paper holder she’d bought a couple of years ago, big enough for three rolls, made of shiny silver metal. It still had the price tag on it from TJ Maxx: $11.99. That’s more like it. She always left the price tags on her gifts if they weren’t heirlooms, so folks would know they were brand new.

For a split second, Millie had an image of the Walmart girl who helped her pick out the earrings, who thought Millie was a sweet old lady buying a gift for someone else. What would she think if she knew? Then her well-practiced mind expertly changed tracks. Everyone needs a toilet paper holder, and Beverly’s house sure could use some tidying up. She put it on Robert’s bed and slid the folding closet doors shut. Shuffling back to her chair in the living room, she became aware that someone was knocking at her door. Maybe it’s Bobby coming back to apologize.

It wasn’t. It was Beverly, looking concerned, holding out a dish covered in foil. “I fixed you a plate for dinner,” she said. “It’s just something I heated up but I thought you might not feel like cooking tonight.”

“Oh,” Millie responded, surprised. Taking the plate, she thought about saying thank you, but it never actually came out of her mouth.

Beverly stood for a moment wringing her hands. “Those are pretty earrings,” she said, breaking the awkward silence. “Are they new?”

“Mm-hmm,” was Millie’s reply.

Origionally Published in the March 2016 Issue.

Phone Call From the Moon by Amanda Futrell

He ambles to the moon.

He’s told me before that he might not return and this time I was sure he meant it. The moon spills over wildly, and Robert will soon be there.

He lifted his hoodie and put his hands in his pockets and his feet began to lift off the night cooled sand of the Arizona desert. Shortly after the moon’s light swallowed his slim, wavering figure, I got the phone call.

“When are you coming home?” I asked.

He laughed uneasily, “Um, I am home. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“No,” I said. “You’re on the moon again.”

“Want me to bring anything when I come back?” Robert never did understand distance. He thought he could bring home half a gallon of skim on his way home from the moon.
This could go on for weeks—maybe years. The moon has swallowed Robert, who says, but doesn’t really believe, he’s the only thing that’s truly mine. I will never understand Robert’s sense of space.

It’s easy to pretend he isn’t gone. Even in our tiny trailer, Robert and I move as though we live apart, constantly partitioned by an invisible line. It sentences us to separate chores, separate rooms, separate dreams—an almost constant, permeable and flexible divide that might as well span miles. I know that I dare not cross it.

I try pretending that this is the case, just another all-day divide, the night he ambled to the moon. He’s just around the corner, in the kitchen, the bathroom, turning sideways to squeeze between the washing machine and the bookshelf. But he’s not here. Our bedroom is empty, maroon sheets lying on the floor, his ninth grade mobile of the Andromeda galaxy swinging lazily above in the wall unit’s wake.
I collapse right in the middle of the bed. It’s amazing how easily I cross that invisible divide. The one that had separated us even in sleep. It had somehow kept me immobile even on those sleepless nights when I found myself unable to reach for him, even as my skin was singing his name. In the first years we lived together I would shatter the divide. I would put my hand on his slick, black hair. “Where are you?” I’d ask.

But his gaze would never leave the unearthly, bleeding eye of the overhead galaxy, “What are you talking about?” he’d reply. It wasn’t that different than getting a phone call from the moon. He said he was here, but I knew he wasn’t. And whether he’s on the moon or under his Andromeda mobile, he will stay gone—that is, until Robert decides he’s ready to return. There is nothing I can do to remedy that. And tonight will only be slightly different than every other night I lay beside him, my heart feeling as though someone is squeezing it out like a sponge. The only difference will be, unlike other nights, I have no hope. Robert is not here to sling his arm over me and send some chemical rushing through my body that will make my heart stop feeling as though it will implode. It comes as a surprise that without that faint hope, my chest seems to find the courage to stop aching for salvation. I don’t hope for sleep though.

Like all the other times Robert has been to the moon, this trailer which had seemed vast enough for Robert and I to elude each other every single day, feels more cramped without him. I am suffocating. Sleep will not come with or without Robert.
Morning crept in making no promise of his return. I stand on our front porch taking in popcorn clouds and empty horizon in every direction. So, this is what isolation looks like—blue, electric blue, a warm afternoon with clear rolling clouds, the broken thirsty sand a mosaic. It almost feels as though I landed here alone. The thought causes me to go back inside and search our trailer for evidence. Things that are distinctly his, distinctly mine– anything that might indicate that I had spent a handful of years with another human being.

Empty soda cans. Mine. An epicene, corded sweater too big for either of us- Robert’s, it used to swallow him whole. Though, when I lift it, there’s no indication of his scent. Without Robert, I will need to do the dishes less often, fewer loads of laundry. There will be less to do and more time to feel his absence.
There it is, a rock about the size of my palm serving as a bookend on our solitary stand. My meteorite. The day Robert gave it to me, I was sitting on the couch on my thirtieth birthday. He had tucked the meteorite into an empty Chinese take-out box and as he held its metal handle, the box sagging with its mass. I looked up. This wasn’t the Robert I knew grinning at me. He had made plans– spent weeks figuring out how to shatter the divide between us. But this was a conscientious effort, and I always sensed, with Robert, conscientious efforts had been carefully scripted to produce a desired outcome I couldn’t fathom. And it made me nervous. This was Robert’s script and he knew his lines. I didn’t know my part at all. So, I was destined to disappoint him. I flipped open the tabs of the takeout box and withdrew the rock. It was smooth on one side, it felt like scratchy pumice on the other. I turned it over in my hands. Half of it was a black rock as porous as a sponge. The other side looked like iron-slag icing melted over the top. I felt its surprising heft, which seemed to mirror the deliberateness of this gift, but I couldn’t begin to speculate on what it might be.

“It’s a meteorite,” Robert told me. “You said you always wanted to go to Spacecamp.” I don’t doubt I said that. But, when? I couldn’t remember. This meteorite–it’s nothing I would have asked for. But, it was an artifact from millions of miles away that managed to find its way through the universe and, thanks to Robert, into my hand. And I was truly moved. But whatever gratitude I showed, it must not have matched the script in Robert’s head. I could sense the permeable line between us congealing. As I thanked him, his eyes drifted to the corner wallboards. It wasn’t long after that his body followed. He was standing, sitting at the kitchen table, changing the air filter on the air conditioner, tracing an invisible path away from me and the little rock in my hands that felt heavy enough to pin me to the sofa.

The books Robert had brought with him when we moved in told nothing of him, rather the universal experience of boyhood- he saved his Choose Your Own Adventure Books, a couple of books that value baseball cards, the adolescent fascination with horror, the Lovecraft, the Stephen King, a couple of Orwell books he was forced to read in high school. Nothing that could tell me Robert specifically lived here. But then, there it was– a white leather Bible slowly yellowing. I studied the cover, running my fingers over his full name, embossed gold in the corner. Here was evidence. He was once a little boy with a full name whose mother put a stiff part in his hair and took him to church with his own Bible under his arm. The proof was in his stolid appellation and the gold pages which had been cracked at least a time or two. I put one hand on each cover and raised my lips to the thin pages, a silent wordless prayer, before I let it fall open in my lap. I was hoping for clarity, what I got was an obscure entry in Leviticus:

On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brooks. And you shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.

I thought finding evidence of Robert would calm me. Instead, every trace of him: Robert’s socks on the TV tray, an empty Miller bottle beside our computer, grocery lists in his slanted scrawl just made me want to find more. Finally, I heaved open the doors of his tiny, rotting storage shed behind the trailer—an unspoken sanctuary I never entered, even when he had the front doors wide open.
Even the scrap wood was neatly stacked according to size—first, paneling scraps, then, corkboard, then piles of two by fours. Large metal drawers were neatly labeled: “SCREWS, NUTS, BOLTS, WASHERS.” In the trailer, he was the type of person that would leave a pile of boxers between the tub and the toilet. In the shed, every place had its thing and everything had its place. I wondered which drawer he would cram me into if he could–if his life could be as orderly as this shed. But, Robert wouldn’t want me in here at all. He had never once asked me to stay out. But, on all of the property, it was the place I felt that invisible line most thick.
Perhaps, I felt I might anger Robert into returning. By trespassing his sacred space, and plundering the scrap wood he had so carefully gathered, he might return to administer his wrath. I ran my hand along the wall where Robert had left a message—an inscription in wax pencil along a sideboard. I might not even know it was his scrawl he used for grocery lists if it didn’t match the even block letters on the masking tape labeled drawers.

Robert had written, “The wind cannot stand the sight of fruit on the vine.” There was no attribution or dedication. No indication it had come from any source other than his own imagination. I opened a drawer labeled “PENS” and fished out a Sharpie. I reserved my best bubbly cursive, the kind that graced my middle school notebooks to write, “Though the fall is intoxicating, fruit on the ground will wither and die.” I snapped the cap back on and closed the drawer.

I wasn’t sure that he would ever return to see that I had trespassed in his holiest spot. That I had answered his declaration before dragging all the scrapwood into a pile in front of the trailer. That I had used his neat labels to find the screws, hammers and nails that I began shaping into a clapboard shelter just a few yards from our porch.

“And you shall live in booths for seven days…”

I was almost finished, rifling through a giant stack of pine branches, when my brother’s car appeared in a duststorm. There are no roads where we live. I saw his repeatedly-refurbished gold Chrysler rolling across the flats a good three minutes before he pulled up beside me.

“Whatcha working on?” my brother asked, leaning out the window. What could I tell him? That in that trailer, alone, I felt as though I was suffocating? So, I tried sleeping outside, on the ground in a sleeping bag. But while staring at the sky that had I noticed that no matter how much I relaxed my eyes, I couldn’t see the full sky– only a small proscenium that followed my dime sized irises. That I could sense the darkness in the periphery and all the luminous stars, each a bright beacon. Maybe, for a moment, I felt that same beckoning that could suddenly lift Robert’s feet off the ground, the same magnetism that caused Robert to lift off the ground. And in the face of that expansiveness, I felt like I would be swallowed by the darkness– assumed by the magnesium glow of the stars. How could I tell my brother that I feared both suffocation and erasure enough to start building from scratch? I glanced at my shelter and shrugged.

I could just barely her my niece in her car seat, gurgling. “Robert on the moon again?” my brother asked.

“Yeah,” I told him.

“Well, he’ll come back,” my brother began to roll forward as my niece began to fuss.”

“He always does.”

“I feel like the loneliest person on earth,” I knew he would think it dramatic, but I had to say it out loud to someone.

My brother laughed, “What do you mean? I stop by once a week!”

I turned my head towards the trailer, “You wanna come in awhile?”

His wheels never stopped moving. A cop would call this a rolling stop, a moving violation. “Naw, I got the baby with me.”

“She could come inside too,” I offered.

“Got milk in the trunk. It’ll go sour,” and with that, he was gone.

The Israelites dwelt in the desert for more than forty years, and I can wait right here until Robert finally decides to return. I will look at the sky, not in its expansiveness, but through the loose thatch of my pine-branch roof. I will sleep, not inside the suffocating trailer, but in this booth. I will neither be summoned by the universe, swallowed by the darkness, or smothered by domesticity. The sky will not consume me, it will be my ceiling. I will keep faith that it will not rain. While I wait, I will tend my small fire in my small space. I will gaze at the flames devouring the invisible oxygen and carbon. Every now and then an ember of wood, of plain visible matter, will pop loose from the bark and float towards the sky. I will study these embers and follow them until they burn away– I will focus only on what is real. I will be present-even if it means forty years of being present in solitude. Perhaps, when Robert returns, I’ll teach him how to watch the embers aimlessly float towards the heavens and then, when they’ve freed themselves from the fire, purposefully plant themselves on the ground, singeing the sand.

Origionally Published in the March 2016 Issue

Work of Art by Matthew Cicci

Ned’s fingers drummed along the steering wheel. He’d been watching them, thick and dry-skinned, tap the faux-leather wheel for at least five full minutes. He needed to get moving soon; the walk from the Millennium Park garage to the Art Institute of Chicago was about a block. Ned plunged his tapping hand into the vest pocket of his security uniform and withdrew a plain golden wedding band.  It slipped onto his ring finger as easily as it had twenty-three years ago.

Deb had removed her ring when she asked for the divorce; she never missed an opportunity for the dramatic. That had been on Friday. The rest of the weekend the ring sat, judgmental as a disapproving mother, on their kitchen table nestled between the salt and pepper shakers.  Ned wanted to wipe one of his big arms across the table, clattering china and ring alike to the floor. It was the same sudden rush of adrenaline that had threatened to overtake him the first time Deb had come home with her eyeliner melting and her lipstick smudged. However, instead of lashing out, Ned had retired to the garage. He hunkered down at his desk and busied himself with a model replica of the HMS Belfast. By Sunday evening he had finished, detail paint and all.

Throughout the weekend Ned treaded like a monk. He kept his balding head bent low, retrieved what he needed from the fridge, and shuffled back to the monastery of his garage. His only extended forays into the house had been to sleep on the couch.  Aside from one occasion, when Deb informed him she would be staying with their daughter, Cheryl, they spoke only in silence and averted eyes. A conversation hung in the air between them. After nearly a quarter-century of marriage, Ned could identify the telltale signs: the eyes opened a bit more than normal, the eyebrows arched, the way she scratched her thumb with her index finger. She was waiting for him to ask, “Why?” Ned could tell she was prepared to answer; her lips trembled under the burden of response. He had no desire to ask, no desire to let Deb convince him he was at fault.

His wife was no mystery to him. The night she’d first allowed another to touch her, twelve years ago this past spring, this past April, he’d been a good man. He had come to his wife with forgiving words. “What’s wrong?” he’d asked while wiping his thumb slowly across the moist skin beneath her blue eyes.

She told her story. The lawyer’s hand had rested on her shoulder while they poured over paperwork. Slowly it had drifted towards the small of her back, then further to graze across her behind, firm from an obsession with the elliptical machine. At this point, she’d started crying, her eyes spilling into Ned’s shirt. “Go on,” he’d said.  Deb described how the lawyer’s fingers had slipped between the band of her black pants and the skin of her waist — how his other hand brushed aside the wintry blond hair from her ears and softly traced them.

Ned listened with a growing, jealous, possessive heat he could no longer contain. “That damn suit!” Ned shouted three or four times; it was all he could say while his mind, unable to articulate his anger, spun like wheels in winter snow. “That damn suit! I ought go in there and touch him! Touch him right in the fucking face!”

“Ned, don’t! I stopped him, I stopped him.” Deb had reached out pulled Ned towards her, her sobs becoming soft murmurs, heated little whispers of apology and assurance that warmed the skin of his neck. “Let me handle it,” she had said. She thanked him, kissed him, calmed him. Her face was flush with the thought of the challenge. Deb, from her short hair to her pantsuits, her dark-rimmed glasses to her serious, thin lips, was every inch the lawyer, the breadwinner, the independent woman — she could handle this issue at work. She needed to; she had to present strength and self-reliance at all times.

Ned never heard her say these things, but he knew them by heart like the Baptist hymnals he used to recite when he was a choir boy. As he had watched her go to work that morning, beautiful and buoyant as ever, he let his anger slip. But he did not relinquish his guard for a long time; he asked about the co-worker, about other harassments she may have faced . . .

It all seemed a lifetime ago, only distantly part of the same reality in which he found himself. A reality that had this very morning presented him with a lunch packed by Deb sharing the same table as her disowned wedding ring. Deb was gone. The bed already made.  A yellow note was stuck to the brown paper bag: Love you. I’ll pay the mortgage until we work things out. Deb.

Ned had picked up the bag, his arm burning to throw it. He didn’t.

Ned hustled down the peeling plaster stairs and out of the garage, his face warm from reminiscing though the crisp, chill November wind whipped his cheeks. Across the wide avenue before him the Art Institute of Chicago stood, stone-walled and stately, an urban castle. He turned away from his workplace, and the yellow cabs, blue-grey busses, and sedans that crawled along Columbus and Monroe, the early morning commuters that marked Chicago’s daily awakening. He strolled through Millennium Park, Chase promenade at his left, the leaves of the trees already past colorful and now a withered orange-brown that drooped towards the wet grass and cement threatening to plunge. The silence was more comforting than the rush across Monroe, though it did leave his black shoes slick with dew. Ned had only recently begun taking this way to work, a straight path through the park to Nichol’s Bridgeway. The bridge rose up and over Monroe connecting to the Institute and Ned liked to get in early and stare at the traffic that passed underfoot. Staring down at the city winding beneath him made him feel like the captain of his own ship; it was a jolt better than coffee.

However, having dawdled enough, Ned strode through the glass doors of the institute. His black, polished shoes clicked hard off the wooden floor drumming a military cadence; the effect lent itself well to his crisp, pseudo-authoritarian uniform. After clocking in and passing out morning greetings, Ned settled into his familiar station, gallery 391.

The third floor gallery, devoted to early 20th century European masters, held Ned’s favorite piece, Picasso’s The Old Guitarist. The painting was stark; it lured patrons to it with a brutal melancholy that seeped from the aged colors. The guitarist was elderly and frail. His body was stretched thin seemingly held upright only by the strength of the guitar itself.  Short, white hair and wrinkled skin clearly showed the age of the dying musician. Still, the old man was oddly serene, as if despite the fact his body was withering and dying, his music would divert people from the slow decay.

“You have a blue guitar,” Ned quoted the one poem he knew, the one inspired by the Picasso; “You do not play things as they are.” Ned had always loved the painting. He remembered the day he’d eavesdropped on curators as they explained the piece. They’d spoken of the Wallace Steven poem and also revealed the faint image of a woman underneath the painting – a remnant of an earlier scrapped illustration by Picasso. The curator had waved his thin hand over the piece revealing the ghostly woman just beyond the hunched guitarist’s shoulder, ethereal and dark like a shadow.  On slow days, Ned would consider her slight outline and wonder what she did to deserve being buried beneath the sorrowful old man.

Ned had felt an electric thrill at the knowledge he’d gleaned that day. After work, he’d stopped at the Harold Washington Library. Fully captivated by the painting’s allure, the building’s red stone and grand windows, intimidatingly austere, threateningly academic, did not deter his entrance. Inside the hushed building, Ned silently scanned through the expansive section on poetry; his fingers skated along book jackets like kids playing pond hockey, quickly and without direction. He’d not asked for help; poetry, art, the world suddenly open to him that day had before been distinctly feminine. Yet, he found the book, found the poem, and rushed home. That long-ago evening, after Deb had finished studying for her boards, Ned caressed her thigh. The back of his working man’s hand brushed her silken, tight skin. He told her of Picasso, of the Blue period, words he barely understood pouring out of him, a waterfall. His hands climbing higher up her leg, he recited a few lines of Steven’s poem. Ned had never felt so in control, not even when he spent still, quiet hours crafting HMS replicas piece by tiny piece.

Control was mysterious to him now. He almost laughed even though he realized it was far from funny.

Schoolchildren, teachers, elderly couples, tourists, guides, and curators began to populate the gallery. Ned settled into his post.  He stood motionless except for occasionally slipping his ring along the length of his finger; every few moments Ned would catch himself in this act and clamp his hands together like a vice. Patrons skimmed past his presence as if he were a function of the building – a wall, a door – and continued basking in the art.

Every patron but one.

            The woman was young. She perched over a thick gray sketchpad. Little white earphones with long white cords draped downwards through her ebony hair and twined around her tan, foreign skin. She was a sketcher, a common sight at the Institute.   Rhythmically, her almond-colored eyes came up for little breaths of air, took in her surroundings, and then dove back into the depths of her sketchbook, while her pencil worked frantically.  On each resurfacing she locked stares with Ned. On the third such rise, he smiled sheepishly and broke their dance.

Ned looked and listened to the museum’s pedestrian traffic. Mostly conversation, as a soft murmur, a mixing of words and languages, served as the musical backdrop to the museum. The steady thrum of blended voices was comfortable to Ned; he’d been conditioned, he once told Deb – drive with the car off, exercise without headphones, just listen to the background.

So attuned was Ned to the white noise of the museum, any disturbance of the regular vibrations caught his attention. A middle-aged couple, a small bearded fellow with the hint of a gut pushing out on his dark sweater and a woman with thin glasses pinched on a thinner nose stood before the Picasso, whispering like school kids. One pass elicited a laugh from the bespectacled woman, a slight, lyrical giggle. The man put his arm around her.

“Her boyfriend,” imagined Ned; no rings graced their fingers.  Ned leaned towards the couple. He hitched a thumb towards the Picasso. “Peter Frampton when he is 90.”

The couple’s heads snapped towards him, surprised. The man issued a polite chuckle, the woman a thoughtful nod towards the oil painting.

Ned resumed his security guard stance, leaning back from the pair. They passed by, scurrying out of the gallery. He should have kept his mouth shut, observe and report, not speak; Ned wished he could grab his words and rope them back in. But of course, he did not apologize and even had he the means to wrangle his words, the couple had already left.

Deb had first made the joke, the connection between the withered guitarist and the pop singer. Ned defended the Picasso against such silliness. Silliness. How often Deb would make faces, stick her tongue out after a dirty joke she’d just told poorly. Ned used to be embarrassed to go to the movies with her – her laugh like a squawking gull would cause heads to snap their way. He’d shush her while trying to palm his own laugh in. That shriek was one of the few things she was sensitive about, one of the ways he could always tease her gently. The teasing caused her to laugh more. Ned always prided himself on pulling that high-pitched giggle out of her.

He hadn’t made her laugh, had not even wanted to make her crack a grin,  since that day a month ago; the day she came home with him all over her.

It had clung to her faintly, so damn faintly – the musk of Old Spice. She had come home on the verge of tears. He asked her, his voice barely a whisper, “How did this happen again? Am I just catching it now?” No words, just crying. “You gonna take care of it, huh?” How easily his voice had slipped back to the voice of his youth. She didn’t jump to answer. Sobs racked her body.  A tension ran the length of Ned’s arm, from his fist to his shoulder, like a corded rope wound too tight. That strain had fatigued his arm so badly, he’d not the steadiness to finish the HMS Phoebe as he hunkered over the model into the lightening hours of the next morning. He just stared at the Leander Class frigate for the whole of the evening, the aft-most gun turret resting in his palm. Twice he’d attempted attaching the piece flush with the gray deck of the ship; twice shaking hands caused the delicate wood to misalign.

She’d take care of it like she did twelve years ago. He couldn’t protect her from the damn louts she worked with, the “old boy’s club” of the law firm. Deb would always come home with a world-weary smile, like she’d had it up to here, right where the corners of her lipstick-laced mouth turned into her cheeks, with all the testosterone and bullshit. She’d say things, complaints disguised as grand statements, “I work twice as hard and do four times the job of anyone else at that firm.”

It had been hell for her to have a kid. Deb heavy, her stomach swollen but her limbs still spindly – watermelon belly, spaghetti arms, he used to say. She worried about Cheryl, but she worried about the firm, too. Would they need her? Would they give her a decent caseload when she returned?

They did. She’d seen to that — marched in there and told them she was back all the way, one hundred percent. Ned still remembered how fiery she looked that evening, how her hand smacked the kitchen table for emphasis, how the slap of skin against the table’s cheap wood had scared Cheryl and caused Ned to plant a dollop of Gerber banana across his daughter’s puffy, red cheek.

She’d handle it again; Ned couldn’t protect her, not when she’d hate him for it, not when it would rob her of that fire.

That night a month ago, unlike the night twelve years before, they did not collapse into each other’s arms; their mouths did not hungrily seek out each other’s skin. He had stayed in the garage fiddling with the Phoebe, but never finishing it. The only model he’d quit on. The next day they shared a few sentences over breakfast, and went to work.

In the weeks that lingered like an illness between that night and her removal of the ring, Ned had wanted to say something, wanted to pat her shoulder, give her the comfort he’d offered before . . . but he didn’t. He feared a slip of the tongue, admittance to fantasies of barging into her office and bloodying his knuckles on every asshole in the place, fantasies of asking her to quit.

“Frampton.” As was often the case, his wife had been right. Was she right to leave him? Right to set the ring he’d given her on the table? Right to leave him because, maybe, maybe he had already left her. His own ring seemed to grow hot on his finger; he should have taken it off.

The room, now empty except for security guard and sketcher, seemed cavernous.

Ned didn’t want to stay. He exited, glancing at the girl’s pad as he passed, but could see nothing over her slight, hunched form.

Ned slipped through the galleries like a ghost. Arriving at his destination, he settled his girth against a steel-gray door and eased it open. The break room, with its gray-flecked tile floors and unadorned walls, was antithesis to the rest of the museum.  Above the doorway a large circular clock hung, a ticking reminder that work waited.  A fridge and a counter complete with coffeemaker, condiments, cups, and sink, shared the back wall.

Ned poured himself a coffee. It never tasted like his wife’s. Deb possessed unique powers of persuasion, especially with, but not limited to, coffeemakers.  She could turn an ordinary cup of joe into a coffee shop delight.  The key, she’d said many times, was raw sugars, brown and clumpy, and whole cream. He wondered if she did the same thing at the firm, if the man who’d touched her, who’s cologne had settled into the fabric of her blouse so fully when Ned saw it hanging limp in the closet he could smell him, he wondered if this man had also tasted her coffee, had it awaken him every morning, same as Ned.  He tossed in a non-dairy creamer and two packs of sweetener. He stirred the drink together with two thin straws and tried to name his beverage. Perhaps, the café de Ned.

The door clicked open. Roger Yaschmidt, head of the Institute’s security and maintenance, nodded as he came in, his bushy orange-red hair flopping forward. “Ned, how the hell are you?” Roger slapped a powerful hand on Ned’s shoulder. Roger was a forceful man carrying a barrel chest and thick arms; he was an ex-marine, a point he brought up too regularly.

Ned eased back, letting Roger’s big hand slip from his shoulder. “Not bad. Not too bad at all. You?”

Roger made his coffee, one sugar and no cream, before answering. “Tired.”

Ned took a sip of his own beverage, but hissed; it was too hot for his liking. He waved away some of the steam. “Yeah, you look a beat, Roger.”

Roger wiped a few fingers across the top of his lip, clearing away coffee that had dampened his thick mustache. He leaned against the counter. “Goddamn Sunday night football.” Roger was a diehard Bears fan, born and raised. He could, and would, talk about the game every day of the week – rosters, injuries, play-calling. “What happened to all the games being played in the afternoon?” Roger took sip of his coffee and shook his head. “Ned, you ever try leaving Soldier Field at eleven at night with sixty thousand buzzed yahoos?”

“No, don’t think I’d have the patience.”

“Damn straight.” Roger rolled his eyes. “Then Ruth, you remember my wife, well, she gets on me about being out until damn near one in the morning.”

Ned took another sip and nodded.

“Well, that’s the goddamn straw that broke the goddamn camel’s back. I tell her what’s what, she gets pissy.” Roger stopped abruptly and let loose a big grin, his face growing childlike despite the thick orange mustache. “Course, I found a way to make her feel better.” He barked a quick, loud laugh.

Ned lifted his mug a little and lowered his eyes.  “Amen to that, Roger.  Amen to that.” He and Deb hadn’t had sex since the night a month ago. They’d kissed a few times, he’d asked her to shower with him once, but things never panned out. She’d be tired, or he’d lose track of the evening in the garage. He should have kissed her that night — one hand right across the top of her thigh, the other on her back pulling her forward for a kiss on the collarbone, right above her breasts.

“How was your weekend?” Roger asked.

“Yardwork.  The old lady was on me to rake up some leaves.” Ned looked away from Roger as he lied, past him towards the clock. “Yeah.  You know, Roger, I got to run. I just needed a little jolt.”  Ned lifted the coffee mug. He took a generous gulp, despite the heat. He excused himself again, smoothed out his uniform, and exited.

Ned left the break room angry with himself for lying.  He had nothing to be ashamed of; he had not asked for the divorce. Why the fuck didn’t he punch that man twelve years ago? What was he supposed to do this time? Go sock the touchy bastard square in the jaw?

Ned could feel the satisfaction in that. His thick knuckles caving in the cheek of that white-collared son-of-a-bitch. Ned would stand over him, his right hand speckled with blood. “Stay the fuck away from my wife!” In his mind’s eye, Ned was dozen years younger; he should have laid the rules down then. Had he, there’d be no melting under the embarrassment, no lying about his wife.  If he’d have taken care of it himself, she’d have stayed. She’d be pissed to be sure, but it would have passed. Deb would have let it slide after a bit, realized there was no shame in having some help. She’d have kept her damn job; she’d have kept her ring on, too.

Ned retraced his steps through the museum, his mind still whirring through a film reel of violence. The sketcher remained seated on the center bench of gallery 391.  Coming up behind her, Ned saw a glimpse of her drawing. The head was too thick to be the Old Guitarist, the forehead too broad.

            Ned resumed his post. Business had begun to pick up and nearly two dozen people now mingled in the gallery.  The activity kept his mind busy and helped his body settle into its station.  His back grew rigid and his leg muscles tightened; both actions furthered his height and sucked his gut in.  A smile, sincere not foolish, etched into his face, a look he perfected, both friendly and unobtrusive, the ideal security guard smile.  He kept his eyes on the people and studied them like they studied the artwork.

            Patrons filed past Ned to observe the Picasso. They debated the relation of the old man to his guitar. Ned figured it as love. The old man cradled the guitar like it were a woman; there would be no man, no guitarist, no painting without the guitar.

The room crowded. Individuals paraded in from multiple entrances. They raised fingers to point, they laughed, they opined.  Ned remained the calm in the center of the storm.  People breezed around him. He remained still – watched without being seen, listened without being heard. Minutes bled into hours like paint bled into a canvas.

Ned made sure that with each new influx of people no one was acting foolish. He made special note of the sketcher. One thin arm held her pad, the other gripped her pencil. She stood out amidst the crowd. Her skirt, flowery and yellow, her shirt sky blue, she was a swirl of colors herself, more painting than patron. The sketcher’s devotion to her art had been a morning long ritual.  Ned grew tense as he watched her. She was studying him more than the masterpiece. As if an art student would sketch a security guard. Still, he had a pang of panic, an almost unfightable urge to rip the pad from her hands, pass through him like a bolt. Ned shuffled sideways hoping to reveal the brilliance of The Old Guitarist to her more fully.

She penciled vigorously, her hand sprinting back and forth. Her wide eyes drank in the surroundings; so large, so attentive, they drove a splinter of fear into Ned. He could not, would not, swipe her pad without proof. Though, Ned knew. He knew in the same corner of his being that knew he’d failed Deb by not kissing her that night, by not showing up at her work the next morning with both his fists and his mouth closed. Yes, he knew, he knew.

Motion caught Ned’s gaze and stole it from the sketcher. A long hand raised high above a mop of red-orange hair waved Ned over. Roger.

He could not resist taking another sidelong glance at the sketcher’s work as he passed, but the attempt offered nothing discernable.

“Roger?”

“We need to speak in my office, heh?”

Ned enjoyed the way Roger turned directives into pleasant requests; he had always thought it an effective method of management. “Now?  It is getting busy back there.” Ned turned back towards his post.

People bustled about except for the sketcher who had regained her seat on the center bench.  She idly adjusted her skirt.

Roger waved a hand in dismissal.  “Please, Ned.  We both know that the alarms on those suckers are going to keep people from grabbing them off the wall. They can watch themselves.”  He slung an arm around the security guard’s broad shoulders and led the way.

Roger’s office was sparse.  His oaken desk was adorned with the basics: pens, pencils, stapler, a computer that Ned had never seen turned on, and pictures of Roger’s family, two sons, tall and straight, both with their dad’s bright hair, and his wife, Ruth, a petite woman with silver jewelry strung about her small neck. Roger gestured Ned to grab a seat.  When Ned had done so, Roger sat in his own chair, a plush black leather affair.  Roger said, “I forgot to tell you earlier; you got me in trouble, Ned.”  His face was sly.

“Sir?”

“Well, you know how Ruth and Deb hit it off at the Labor Day party, right?”

Ned nodded at the reference to their wives meeting, but he immediately did not like the direction of this conversation. Had the wives been talking?  Did Roger know?

“Well, Ruth has been on me, and on me, and on me about inviting you guys over for dinner.”  Roger shook his head, his bushy eyebrows raised in emphasis of how annoying his wife, Ruth, could be.

“Yeah, Deb’s been asking about Ruth, too,” Ned fibbed. It was a stupid white lie; he’d only said it because of the wedding ring on his finger.  Besides, she had mentioned something that night. After an everlasting silence in the car ride, she had said some nicety, something about Ruth. Ned was sure of it.

“Good.” Roger laughed.  He then leaned forward a bit like a co-conspirator, letting his elbows rest on the oak desk. “To be honest, I hate these little double date dinner get-togethers.” He spoke in a hushed tone, as if his wife, Ruth, stood right behind him. “But I figure having you come over might actually be fun.  Usually it is all of her artsy friends.” Roger gave a harsh laugh and shook his wrist, a limp up-down flip.

Ned chimed in with his own nervous laugh. “None of that here,” he said. “More of a beer and burger guy, myself.”

“So, Friday night.”

“Deb will be thrilled.” No she won’t. She will be livid, he thought. She will scream and rant and rave; she will ask why Ned didn’t admit the truth. But, Ned would not be surprised if she went along with it – Deb had a flair for the dramatic.

“It’s a date. I’ll tell Ruth.”

Ned thanked his boss again and exited. He could keep up this charade indefinitely. He could just tell Roger that Deb had plans and he forgot. No one would ever be wiser. He could keep this going; he’d never been a partygoer or one to blather on about his home life – it would be work as usual. Besides, at this point what did it matter? Deb had her own life, even more so now, and he had his . . . work, his garage, the unopened materials for the HMS Ajax resting on his worktable. He could keep this going; he could just be who he was, nothing lost, show up and do his job, shoot the shit like always and go home, five days a week, he was getting older anyways, retirement couldn’t be too far off, he could keep this going . . . just like he could keep replaying in his imagination throttling the fuck who’d dare touched his wife.

He couldn’t think anymore, his thoughts kept seizing up like car wrecks. He tasted salt at the corner of his lips and realized he was crying. Why didn’t he do anything? Because of her? Because she packed his fucking lunch, paid his fucking mortgage, because she didn’t need his help? He wanted to punch the wall.

His face tightened and grew warm. He had the passing thought that he should not be here right now.  How could he stand still?  How could he guard anything in such a state? He hadn’t even been able to protect his wife. He marched through galleries and hallways, no longer inconspicuous. Those that noticed him stared. His face, a hot mess, distracted people from the masterpieces, from the works of art. Ned sped up, nearly sprinting past people.

            He came to rest beside the The Old Guitarist. The sketcher immediately resumed drawing. Ned wanted to laugh, but with his face still wet he turned towards the painting.

            The guitarist cradled the guitar, neither supported by it nor caressing it.  He simply played it, and apparently had played it forever.  His pallid skin stretched tight over thin bones, his haggard, half-asleep face concerned only with the instrument, the only thing that defined him. He had been at it so long he had grown old and ill. No one noticed that at first glance, but to Ned it was painfully obvious, no amount of clinging to his music could cure the man. Still, as long as he held the guitar, he kept up appearances . . . he was an old guitarist, not an old man. Ned sympathized. Ned was a security guard; he just had nothing to watch over, from his wife to paintings better served by alarms and cameras.

Ned rubbed his face with a large hand.  It came away dry, without tears. Turning away from the painting, Ned assumed his normal stance, his guard’s posture.  He stood like a sculpture beside the Picasso. He stood, ring in place, and kept up appearances like nothing was wrong.

Of course, something was wrong; even had Ned been able to stop thinking of Deb, of the fact they’d said so little since she’d come home crying a month ago, the sketcher haunted him.  Her youthful eyes darted up, drank him in and returned back to her sketch. She studied his charade too intently. He could feel the urge to slap her sketchpad to the museum’s tile floor surge through him just as strongly as his desire to scatter the ring from his kitchen table had grabbed him on Friday night.

He’d find no peace with her drawing him, sketching the image he cast. Ned, not quite a husband but fully a security guard, knew he’d have to get rid of her if he hoped to make it until closing.

The Old Guitarist looked down on him, a brother in arms.

“Miss, you’re going to have to stop sketching now.” Ned’s voice was shaky and weak, like an unused muscle.

The artist raised a slender finger as if to beg for one finishing second.  She looked up. There was no confusion as to the subject of her gaze; her eyes didn’t offer even a flicker of recognition to the Picasso.

Ned stepped closer.  “Miss, please.”

The woman continued without interruption.

“Miss, I am not comfortable being the subject of your . . .” Ned trailed off waving a hand at the sketchpad.

The young lady paid him no mind. Her pencil danced across the paper, the sound of graphite against page provided the music.

“Miss, please.” Ned wanted to add ‘Not today. Any day but today.’ He did not want to be drawn. He did not want to see his practiced smile staring back at him. He did not want to see his neatly pressed uniform, his shiny shoes – he did not want to see his ring on his finger. He did not want to be here, wondering, waiting. Ned did not want this woman drawing the lie, etching it in shades of grey, stamping eternal the charade he’d committed to today.

The sketcher stopped, halted abruptly. With a twist of her delicate hands she flipped the sketch towards Ned.

The picture was Ned. There was no shiny uniform or practiced smile. The mouth was tight and terse; Ned’s shirt was loose, untucked and his body sagged, all too accurately, in the torso.  A bit of stubble gripped his cheeks, his pants were frayed, shoelaces untied – he looked pitiful, like some hound dog cast out into a cold night. On his left hand, his fourth finger, a wedding band circled his skin. The hand was clenched tight into a fist. Beyond his portrait, Picasso’s frame was inhabited by the ghostly image of a woman . . .

“She’s interesting, yeah? More than the guitarist,” she chirped. “She’s really there too, just a bit beyond him.”

“I know.”

She flipped the pad back towards her body. “I’m love the juxtaposition of live figure and static objects, you know?”

Ned turned away silently, slipped the ring off of his finger and stood next to the Picasso. He thought hard about ripping it off the wall, but instead he started to cry so violently his whole body shook.

The sketcher turned the page, glanced at Ned, and began drawing anew.

 

Originally Published in the January/February 2016 Issue.

Milk and Brownies by Erika Murdey

        The idea came to her out of pure desperation.
        Allison got home late one night (as she did nearly every night) from a long day at work to find her home a disaster. As if the police had executed a search warrant. Or someone in the mob had become convinced she had video evidence hidden away. Except this state of cleanliness was what she came home to every night. Ever since she’d started her residency. Every available surface covered in take-out containers, dishes, mail that really needed to be gone through, dirty clothes, dirty everything. She felt a weight drop on her the second she entered the door.
        If she had any reserves of energy left, she thought, she would do something about the mess. She would load the dishwasher, after first emptying it of the few clean dishes and putting those away. Laundry would be spinning in the washer, and the dryer. Mail would be sorted; the bulk of going to the recycling bin, which would also not be a towering heap of recyclables that would eventually end up dumped in the trash can instead of being taken to the recycling center.
        The weight that had fallen on her shoulders upon entering the house doubled as she considered taking a day off from working to clean the house, top to bottom; Such a task would kill her, she was sure. And she couldn’t take time off from her residency. She had to build her reputation at the hospital. She had to focus on what was important.
        She shoved the morning newspaper off of the couch, sat among the books and magazines and yesterday’s takeout boxes, and ate her chicken lo mein out of the carton with the wooden chopsticks that came with it. Allison wondered how much it would cost to pay someone, a cleaning service, bonded of course, to come in and make her house a place that did not crush her soul to come home to. She could imagine the look of horror and sorrow that would cross whatever-nice-person-the-agency-had-available’s face as he or she crossed the threshold and stepped into her home for the first time. How could you live like this? How long has it been like this? How did you let it get this bad? She would see the questions in the person’s eyes. He or she would be too polite to ask, of course, but would later talk about the house-from-hell that had been seen. And what if the person had ties to someone she knew? Were there confidentiality agreements for cleaning services?
        Still, she knew she could not face the judgment of this imagined cleaning service person, who would charge her triple the normal rate upon seeing both the house and her desperation. As she put the half-eaten container of lo mein in her refrigerator she spotted a mostly empty gallon of milk, two days past the expiration date. Allison remembered a fairy tale, the one about a shoemaker who needed help. Elves had come and made shoes for him. But how did he call them? Did he write a note to the elves on a slip of paper that he chucked down a well? Did he put a shoe in a tree? Or, wait, wasn’t there something about milk? Putting out a bowl of milk? That sounded familiar. She got a bowl out of the dishwasher, poured a small amount of milk into it, and set the bowl on the floor by her front door before going to sleep.
        She woke up to realize she had forgotten to turn on the alarm and had fifteen minutes to get ready and leave before she would inevitably be late. She scrambled to find her purse and keys and, finding those, threw open the front door. Something hit the wall and shattered.
        That damn bowl.
        She glanced at the havoc. Shards everywhere, milk dripping down the wall. Why the hell had she left the bowl by the door?
        Then she saw the note.
        It was a tiny piece of paper, stuck to the bottom of the door with a pin. She pulled it off of the pin and held the note to the light; she had to squint to make out the tiny handwriting. When she did she felt both elated and hurt.
        “You’ll have to do better than that. –B”
        Better than what? She ran to the fridge and sniffed the milk, then sipped it, then spat it out into the sink. “Shit.”
        The milk had gone sour.
        But it had worked! She had made contact with an elf!
That night she came home with a fresh gallon of milk. She got a fork and another bowl out of the dishwasher. She poured some milk into the bowl and set it by the door, then ate the pasta salad she’d gotten from the store deli counter and hurried to bed, feeling like a kid on Christmas morning.
        When she woke up to the alarm she sighed upon seeing the piles of dirty laundry still strewn on the floor. Had she imagined the note? She switched the alarm off and stumbled into the kitchen. It was just as messy as when she had gone to bed, but there was a small man standing on the counter. Her body felt numb.
        The tiny man stared at her. He had a squat figure, even for such a short creature, large brown eyes, and a bulbous nose. He wore tight black jeans, a fitted, faded t-shirt, and a scarf. His blond hair spiked into a hundred little points. She didn’t know what she had pictured. No, never mind, she did know what she had pictured– one of those smiling guys from the cookie commercials. Definitely something lankier, with pointier ears. This man was not that.
        “’Hello’ usually works,” he said.
        “Hello. Good morning. Who are you?”
        “You know who I am, or you wouldn’t have set the milk out for me and my friends.”
        “I thought an elf would look different–
        He held up a hand. “You must be joking, I’m a brownie—not an elf. “
        “What’s the difference?”
        The little man stared at her for a moment, then said, as if he hadn’t heard the question, “We have a problem.”
        “A problem? Is that why you didn’t clean?”
        “Of course.”
        She stared at him. She tried not to stare at him. She couldn’t. “What was the problem?”
        “You set milk out for us. Cow milk.”
        “What other kind is there?”
        He rolled his eyes. She pulled a chair up to the counter and sat in front of him. “You wouldn’t be so slow on the uptake if you weren’t all bogged down by the crap you’re eating.”
        “Crap?”
        “Yes. Crap. I didn’t clean your house but I looked in your fridge. When’s the last time you cleaned that thing out?”
        “I was hoping you would.”
        “You have to set out exactly what a brownie wants before said brownie will make your shoes or do your taxes or clean your house. Exactly.”
        “So what ‘exactly’ do you want?” she worried she had sounded sarcastic.
        “I can’t tell you. That’s not how it works.”
        “I don’t understand. What was wrong with the milk I set out? Oh shit, or was it supposed to be cream?”
        “Do you want to clog my arteries? Look– no. A brownie needs a lot of energy, right? And we did the cream thing for years, but we were dragging. Just dragging. So we did a little research on the internet. Did you know brownies didn’t always eat like that?”
        “I didn’t really know anything about brownies.”
        “Apparently. So, anyway, we went back to eating like our ancestors ate. You would not be-lieve how much more energy we have now!”
        Allison paused, then said, “You went paleo?!”
        “That’s it!”
        She wracked her brain to remember what she’d heard about the paleo diet. “So I put some almond milk or something out and you and your friends will clean the house?”
        The brownie put a finger to his lips and winked out of existence.
        When Allison came home that night she brought in a carton of almond milk. She grabbed the last clean bowl in the dishwasher. She thought about putting the remaining dishes away and starting a new load in the dishwasher, then laughed at herself. The brownies would take care of that for her! Instead, she poured the milk into the bowl and set it by the door, then hurried to bed.
                                                        ********
        She woke up when the alarm went off, and nearly cried when she saw the piles of dirty laundry on the floor. What had happened with the brownies?
        He stood on the counter in the kitchen again, wearing a button-up shirt and skinny jeans.
        “Didn’t you see? I put out the almond milk!”
        She heard him sigh. “You are not making this easy. Why did you buy that almond milk?”
        “Because it was on sale…”
        “Don’t you care about the Earth at all?”
        “What does that even mean?”
        The brownie said nothing, but stared at her.
        Allison rushed to the refrigerator and grabbed the carton of almond milk she had bought. The label confirmed that yes, this was almond milk. What did that have to do with the Earth? Oh crap.
        “It has to be organic, doesn’t it?”
        The brownie appeared to be extremely interested in a cobweb in the corner of the ceiling. Her face felt hot and she clenched her fists, then closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Would you like some organic almond milk, Mr. Brownie?”
        “It’s not a matter of ‘like.’ Would you like to flood your body with pesticides? Would you like to contribute to Colony Collapse Disorder? Would you like to pollute the Earth? If you’d take a moment to educate yourself–”
        “I–” Allison paused, breathed. “I’m sorry, Mr. Brownie. I’ve been very busy and I haven’t had time to learn what I should regarding—these things.”
        “I’ll say.” He smoothed his shirt. “You know, back in the fifteenth century brownies weren’t this patient.”
        “Of course. I’m sorry, Mr. Brownie.”
        “Don’t call me ‘Mr. Brownie,’” he said, and disappeared.
        She stormed into the living room, snatched a pillow from the couch, and screamed into it as hard as she could.
        That evening she went back to the store. She bought a carton of organic almond milk, the most expensive she could find. At home she looked in the dishwasher for another bowl, knowing she’d used the last. She had to hope though. No bowls in the cupboards either. If they want this damn milk so bad, she thought, they could at least wash a stinking bowl. She grabbed a coffee mug and filled it to the brim with the new almond milk, and set it on the counter.
        And she had tomorrow off! She would get to enjoy her clean house, maybe read. Stay in her pajamas till dinner, shower and put on clean pajamas.
        Allison lay on her bed, wondering how the brownies would change the sheets under her while she slept. She’d let them figure that out.
                                                        ***********
        When she opened her eyes she could not hold back a sob. The piles of dirty clothes. The wrinkled, smelly sheets. What could have gone wrong?
        The brownie waited in the kitchen, wearing a pair of thick-rimmed glasses and a tight knit shirt, paired with slacks. He walked up to the stack of dirty dishes in the sink and ran a finger across the edge of a plate before grimacing and rubbing his hands on a towel curled on the counter.
        “What do you want?” Allison cried.
        “Look, I can see you’re trying. And I appreciate it, the others appreciate it. But you need to give us what we want first, right? That’s just how contracts work. Brownies and humans have had contracts for centuries, and the human have always figured it out before.”
        “But there wasn’t almond milk in the fifteenth-or-whatever century,” she wailed.
        “I never said it had to be almond milk.”
        Allison grabbed the nearest thing to her, a glass, and hurled it across the room. Until she threw it, she was certain she was aiming for the brownie. He adjusted his glasses. “You know, my people have a reputation for mischievousness.”
        “What? What would you do? Mess the place up?”
        He smirked. “Good one. But we’re not confined to this house, you know. You work in a nice hospital, don’t you?”
        “You couldn’t.”
        “I don’t want to get all mobbish on you, but we could.”
        “Please, no, I’m sorry! I’m doing so well!”
        “Are you? If your home looks like this?”
        “That’s different. I can’t keep my house spotless and keep up on my rounds.”
        “Oh?”
        “Just please, please, tell me what you want.”
        He shook his head. “If this is too much for you, you can quit. No hard feelings. The other brownies and I will move on, find someone who can fulfill our needs–”
        “No! Are you kidding me? All I have time to do is work or study for my licensing exam! I haven’t gotten more than six hours sleep in a night in four years.” She looked at the floor for a moment. An ant crawled across her foot. “I’m so tired.”
        He gave her a look she couldn’t read; she wanted to see sympathy there. Then he vanished.
        Okay, she had to make decisions. That was what being a doctor was– making decision after decision. And she was good at that. She was. So now what? Do what the brownie had said? Give up? Spend her whole day off cleaning the house, enjoy it for a couple of days, a week, and then what? What would she do when it got messy again?
        Decision made. She went to the food co-op.

                                                        *************
        “Hi, I’m sorry, but I’m shopping for a friend. I think he’s paleo, or something. He’s very concerned about the environment. I need to find him a milk.”
        “A milk?” The girl asked. She had long tangled hair with two braids framing her face, studded with flowers. “Why don’t you ask him?”
        “I don’t want him to think he put me through any trouble,” Allison said carefully. “But I want to find him the most paleo-friendly, Earth friendly, no-possible-reason-to-reject-it milk that could possibly be purchased.”
        “Sure,” the girl said slowly. She regarded the shelves of milks, found a glass jug filled with a pearly white liquid. “This is hazelnut milk from a local organic farmer in a reusable jug. Just bring it back clean and we can refund the deposit on the bottle.”
        “That’ll do the trick?”
        “Sure,” she said, smiling. “I’ve met the farmer- he’s very active in preserving heirloom seeds and fighting GMOs.”
        “Sounds perfect.”
        The girl led Allison to the checkout counter, where a collection of fairy figurines beamed at her. She scowled. “Don’t you like fairies?” the girl asked, sounding scandalized.
        “Not fairies in particular. Some of the fairy folk are real jerks, though.”
        The girl tilted her head; a flower tumbled out of her hair. “I suppose you’re right. I mean, fairies and elves are good. But then you get those others, like hobgoblins and brownies. Those aren’t very nice.”
        “You know about brownies?”
        She nodded.
        Allison wanted to grab the girl by her tunic and shake everything she knew out of her. Instead, she said as calmly as she could manage, “I never heard much about brownies. Are those the ones that drink milk?”
        “Yes! They do chores if you give them milk.” Ha. “But they are very particular, and easily offended. Then they get nasty.”
        “How so?”
        “Well, they started out as these things called boggarts. Those were really mean. Played pranks, ruined crops, stole children. That sort of thing.”
        “What did they do with the children?”
        The girl shrugged. “Who knows? Probably ate them.”
        She handed the girl money for the jug of hazelnut milk and carried it to her car.
        Paleo brownies.
        But the brownie in her kitchen had said they wanted milk, hadn’t he? No, he never had. Just that they’d gone paleo. But he meant this, right? Plain old human paleo diet. What the cavemen would have eaten. If they’d had nuts and blenders.
        But what if he’d meant what paleo brownies would have eaten?
        On the drive home she pulled in to the park. A trio of children hanging from the monkey bars. Two boys taking turns down a slide. A lone girl on the swings, kicking her feet.
        Did she really want to do this? Shouldn’t she try the hazelnut milk? That must have been what the brownie meant, right? It was perfect, everything the most paleo paleo person could ask for. But person. Not brownie. She looked across the park, and saw a small boy kicking a ball by himself.
        But if the hazelnut milk didn’t work she would have no clean clothes to wear to the hospital tomorrow.
        And she was tired. So very tired.

Layers by Angela M. Havens

       A blond, a brunette and a red-head are strategically positioned around a questionably clean, questionably round table. They are gathered in a storage closet that has been converted into an office break room and the space is insufficient to effectively serve the role that has been assigned to it. As the women circulate around the room, collecting the various components that are required to assemble their respective lunches, they occasionally brush against each other or – more frequently –are forced to stand in a proximity to one another that should generate discomfort, but through force of habit, no longer has any effect.
The red-head is standing in front of what passes for a kitchenette, cursing at the microwave in a decidedly un-ladylike fashion.
       “Stupid fucking thing! I’ve been heating this soup for the past three minutes and it’s still lukewarm.” She glances over at the blond, who is digging through a drawer of mismatched silverware. “Did somebody break the fucking microwave again?!”
       “It isn’t broken.” The blond replies, selecting a fork and carefully examining the prongs. When she is satisfied that the fork in question was actually washed before it was tossed in the drawer by a predecessor, she takes it to the table and seats herself across from the brunette. “It’s just a cheap microwave. The wattage is low, so it’s going to take longer to heat things.”
       “Why didn’t we get a microwave with higher wattage, then?” The red-head sneers.
       “Because the cheapest microwave was all we could afford.” The brunette interjects. She barely glances up from the book she is reading and her nonchalant observation sends the red-head off on a tirade.
       “We wouldn’t have needed a new microwave if those assholes from purchasing hadn’t broken the one we already had! I don’t get it?! They have their own fucking break room and it’s four times the size of ours. It has a full-size kitchen and a conference table with padded chairs. It even has a 52 inch flat screen TV and they still insist on coming in here! They take up all the space in our mini fridge, leave food caked on the table and all of their dirty dishes stacked in the sink.”
       “They use our break room because they’re too lazy to walk upstairs.” The brunette observes. She sets the open book on the table and there is evidence of irritation in the tone of her voice. She has read the same paragraph three times now, but can’t absorb the information while the red-head is ranting.
       “How do you even break a microwave, anyway?” Red continues, resetting the timer and crossing her arms under her surgically-altered chest. She is just over forty and the lines on her face are more pronounced then they should be because she constantly tans. She wears shirts with plunging necklines to show off her perky breasts and low-waisted slacks that draw attention to her fantastic ass. Her red hair is her trademark and she loves to tell people that it’s a physical manifestation of her fiery personality, but she gets it from a bottle and is unaware that everyone knows it.
       “John said he was heating up coffee and the old microwave just died,” The blond replies, spreading tuna on a Ritz cracker unenthusiastically. The blond is nearly fifty, but unlike the red-head, her synthetic augmentations are limited to highlights. She’s eating tuna on low fat crackers in a misguided effort to take off some of the weight that she gained after her hysterectomy. “He told me he heard a popping sound, like a surge of electricity, and then the microwave went dead.”
       “If you happen to believe his story,” Red retorts sharply.
       “I’m sure he told the truth,” The brunette leans back in her chair. In her mid-thirties, she might be the youngest, but she has the demeanor of a person twice her age. She pins her hair up in styles that are governed by function instead of form, and she wears clothing that is designed to detract attention from the same areas of her physique that Red is taking pains to emphasize. “I’ve known John a long time and, while I frequently doubt his sincerity, he’s never given me cause to doubt his honesty.”
Pulling her soup from the microwave and turning toward the table, Red’s head snaps up, causing a glop of tomato bisque to crest over the side of the container. It lands on the discolored linoleum, accompanied by a stream of colorful expletives.
       “That’s right.” She mutters distractedly as she rights the container and steps carefully over the spill. “I forget that you used to work with him in purchasing.”
As she sets the container on the table top, Red wonders if she genuinely keeps forgetting or if she just chooses not to remember. By the time she turns around to clean up the spill, Blondie has already retrieved a coarse brown paper towel from the industrial dispenser on the wall and is mopping the floor with it good-humoredly. Though Red forces a smile, the intervention actually irritates her and the end result is more of a sneer. She distrusts her fair-haired colleague and interprets Blondie’s compulsive need to ingratiate herself through unsolicited acts of kindness as being motivated by an agenda. She lacks the insight and the imagination to intuit the truth: that Blondie is over-compensating for a number of perceived inferiorities, not the least of which is a chronic and pervasive tendency toward mediocrity.
       “John is…” The brunette continues, strategically selecting her words.        “Well, I guess you could say that he’s the perfect politician. He’s charming, but artificial. He appears to care about you, but there’s no sentiment behind the façade.”

       As she settles into a hard plastic chair, Red feels herself flush and clenches her jaw to keep from blurting out anything she will later regret. She thinks back on the extra-marital affair that she had with John during the first year of her employment and inwardly cautions herself against being too forthright in her responses. It’s a secret that she has guarded zealously for three… no, four… years, and she’s concerned that lingering resentment will facilitate an indiscrete admission.
       “You’re a better judge of character than I am,” she assures the brunette. The tone of her voice conveys a measure of the bitterness that she is trying to conceal, but self-control is a skill that she has never been inclined to hone and she can’t help it.
        Her brown-haired companion shrugs.
       “I don’t know about that.” Brun raises an eyebrow, and Red is instantly resentful of her colleague’s self-possession. Though she will never admit it, even to herself, she is secretly intimidated by her dark-haired counterpart. Brun’s intelligence and quick wit frequently make Red feel simpleminded by comparison, and though she regularly congratulates herself on her aesthetic superiority, there’s a part of her that envies the unassuming prettiness that Brun possesses in defiance of her drab, unflattering clothing, style-less hair and plain, unremarkable features.
       “I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever been particularly good at reading people…” Brun continues and a sardonic chuckle steals from Red’s throat. She knows she should let the conversation dissipate – that further discussion could abruptly trail off in the direction of exposure – but there’s a certain thrill in knowing that she is in possession of information that her chronically knowledgeable counterpart is not. She finds it inexplicably gratifying to dangle that information in front of Brun, if only in the form of subtle non-verbal indicators or vague allusions.
       “Well, you’ve certainly got John figured out!” Red scoffs, stabbing at her soup contemptuously with a lopsided spoon. “We saw a lot of each other when I first started working here and we used to bump into each other outside of work on a regular basis. There was a time when I thought we were something like friends, but I was never able to see through him… not the way you can.”
       Stealing a glance at Brun, Red is momentarily puzzled by an enigmatic smirk that flashes briefly across Brun’s features. When it occurs to Red that her brown-haired counterpart is almost certainly smiling at the complimentary remarks that were made in passing about her powers of perception, Red congratulates herself on being – on this occasion, at least – cleverer than Brun. It’s the first time that she’s ever had her dark-haired companion at a disadvantage.

       “You’re a better judge of character than I am,” she hears Red say and, though she’s never gotten on particularly well with her surgically-altered colleague, Brun is keenly aware of the cause of Red’s resentment and is inclined to be sympathetic. She has very little in common with her auburn-haired counterpart: Where much of Red’s self-concept is defined by her sexual marketability, Brun doesn’t see herself as attractive – never has seen herself that way – and though it isn’t uncommon for men around the office to take an interest in her, she rarely interprets their motives to be romantic in nature. It never crosses her mind that anyone could see her as a sexual object.
       “I don’t know about that.” She begins to reply. “I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever been particularly good at reading people…”
       She is interrupted by the loud chortle that tears from Red’s throat, but she takes no offense. Disgust may be seething from every pore of Red’s body, but like most of the people in the office, Brun can trace it back to the source. Red’s involvement in the tempestuous extra-marital affair remains unsurprising to Brun, though she often marvels at how stubbornly Red clings to the delusion of its secrecy. Not only has Red’s relationship been a staple of office gossip for years, but the infamous manner in which the relationship ended has culminated in a tasteless office euphemism. More than once, she’s heard coworkers refer to the callous discarding of a lover as “pulling a John from purchasing.”
       Trying to ignore the sick feeling that gathers in her chest whenever she has cause to think of John, Brun is strangely relieved when she is torn from her reflections by the sharp, shrill voice of her lunch companion.
       “Well, you’ve certainly got John figured out!” Red sneers. “We saw a lot of each other when I first started working here and we used to bump into each other outside of work on a regular basis. There was a time when I thought we were something like friends, but I was never able to see through him… not the way you can.”
       The insinuation catches Brun off guard. It hadn’t occurred to her that Red might actually attribute her insight to superior intuition, and the irony of it amuses Brun, largely because the accuracy of her description is the result of similar experience. She was anything but discerning when she worked with John in purchasing; when he cornered her at the company Christmas party and tried to coax her into an awkward liaison in an office cubicle. At the time, John was her direct supervisor – a consideration that made his behavior particularly unconscionable to her – and her wholehearted belief in his integrity, as well as his disinterested friendship, was violently shattered.
       Shaking off the memory, Brun realizes that both Red and Blondie are staring at her. She wonders how long she’s been smiling at the irony of Red’s misconception and reaches for her book as she hurriedly forces the smirk from her face.

       Peeling the lid off a pastel-colored Tupperware container, Blondie uses a fork to break up the remaining clumps of the tuna that she brought from home. Though she has given herself permission to add a little low fat mayo, she only uses enough to render the tuna edible, and – spreading the mixture over the top of an equally low fat cracker – she’s conscious that the result is less-than-appetizing. Her eyes are momentarily drawn to Red’s organically-grown, vitamin-enriched, gluten-free tomato bisque soup…
Lukewarm or not, she’d rather have that, and she’s vigorously calculating the calorie content when the tone of Red’s voice disrupts her fixation.
       “You’re a better judge of character than I am,” Red barks across the table at Brun, and Blondie can’t immediately decide if the remark is intended to be sarcastic or complimentary. To the uninitiated, Red may appear to be commenting on Brun’s discernment, but Blondie is not altogether uninformed and she recognizes the covert allusion to the duplicity of John from purchasing. She hasn’t worked at the office as long as either of her counterparts, but she has eyes to see, ears to hear, and enough life experience to make sense of the jokes and the thinly-veiled references that follow Red around the office.
       When Brun replies, her words are equally pregnant with meaning and Blondie finds her gaze shifting expectantly from one side of the table to the other.
       “I don’t know about that,” the brunette insists. “I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever been particularly good at reading people…”
       Blondie may not be as attractive as Red or as intellectual as Brun, but she has a niche of her own. Over the years, she has learned that being exquisitely average is the same thing as wearing a cloak of invisibility. If you’re quiet enough, people will forget that you’re in the room. Hell, as long as you don’t make eye contact, they generally won’t find you threatening enough to bother censoring their conversation, even when they do happen to remember that you’re present. That’s how she knows about John’s ill-fated pass at Brun, even though it isn’t common knowledge around the office. John himself was lamenting one day that Brun had rejected him “with extreme prejudice,” and was endeavoring to deter a coworker from pursuing her. The fact that Blondie was in the break room at the time appeared to escape his notice, and she listened in silence as John sipped his coffee and speculated that Brun was either “sexually frigid” or “a militant man-hating lesbian.”
       A strange guttural sound pulls Blondie back to the present and she is startled by how heavily the resentment has imprinted itself on Red’s features. Across the table, Brun’s face continues to be impassive, but – as Blondie reminds herself – Brun has less to be resentful about.
       “Well, you’ve certainly got John figured out!” Red snarls. “We saw a lot of each other when I first started working here and we used to bump into each other outside of work on a regular basis. There was a time when I thought we were something like friends, but I was never able to see through him… not the way you can.”
       Spreading tuna disenchantedly on another Ritz cracker, Blondie finds herself wondering how long they’ll continue to talk at each other; each operating under the assumption that they’re in possession of knowledge the other doesn’t have. Any other woman might entertain the notion that the conversation was being coded for her benefit, but Blondie knows better: You don’t waste that kind of energy on the human equivalent of an afterthought. Taking another bite of cracker, she chews on the dry, tasteless tuna and begins to fantasize about the vending machine at the end of the hall.
       If she recalls correctly, there’s still a handful of change in one of the cupholders of her car. Maybe – just maybe – it could be enough.

Magic Sleep Bugs by S.L. Wyman

       Last summer my roommates ran into a problem. They have a bearded dragon named Henrik and he has to eat crickets. A bearded dragon is a lizard from Australia that is generally a very passive, pleasant animal to have around (or at least Henrik is). They eat a pretty steady diet of crickets and the problem for my roommates wasn’t purchasing them. It wasn’t feeding them to the dragon for his breakfast. Their problem was the fact that the little buggers make a heck of a lot of noise.
Anyone who’s lived out in the country can tell you that crickets will put up quite a racket, especially on summer nights. My roommates are both city people. They aren’t really, actually used to this thing we call nature so when the crickets started singing, it meant the two of them had very sleepless nights. Worse, the noise they were making was keeping Henrik awake and bearded dragons need their sleep very badly to be able to properly digest their food. My roommates were very concerned about their pet and so was I. I’d actually come to really like the little guy and wanted to help out in any way I could. We struggled to put our heads together to find a solution. None was immediately forthcoming.
        We couldn’t put the crickets in the front room because my one roommate has ears like a fox and she’d be able to hear them screeching all night long, even with a wall between them. Admittedly, the walls in our apartment aren’t exactly soundproof but it was still a problem. We also needed to put them somewhere secure and we couldn’t think of a really good place out in the main room that wasn’t going to end up with one of us tripping over the bugs’ container or my roommates still being inconvenienced by their chirping.
        Then, an idea came.
        Unlike my roommates, I’d spent the last seventeen years, before moving to Mount Pleasant, out in the country. Vassar is a tiny Podunk town in the middle of nowhere that really has nothing serious to offer anyone, unless you really like nature. On summer nights, I used to bring a pillow and blanket down from upstairs and open up the sliding glass door to the porch. The sounds of the country would drift in through the screen and sing me to sleep, frogs, owls, night birds…and crickets.
        I suggested that my roommates put the bugs in my room for the night when they were being particularly loud. My room was at the far end of the apartment and there would be less chance of them being heard and I missed the sounds of home, of the country. The sound that annoyed my roommates soothed me and it would be great karma for the little guys to do some good before they got fed to Henrik. My roommates were only too happy to agree and we moved the cricket keeper into my room.
        At first, the cacophony was startling. I’m so used to my room being dead quiet that the sudden noise intrusion was unsettling. Then, I finally settled in and closed my eyes. Store bought crickets, especially when you have a lot of them in a small space, can be even louder than wild crickets. I wasn’t prepared for that but the sound, nonetheless, brought back images of home. I could remember the few times my parents had lit bonfires on summer nights towards Fall when the air was starting to turn crisp, the scent of fire and smoke mixing with the humming of frogs, crickets, and night birds under the dark sky. It had been so long since I’d seen the stars and the memory of them was soothing. All at once, the noise no longer startled me. My eyes closed. My roommates got a solid nights’ sleep and I got the most restful sleep I’d had in months, all thanks to those magical little sleep bugs.

Morning Rituals by Mika Yamamoto

            In the morning, I get my kids to school.
            My wife at work, I wake up and shower. The shower wakes Rei, age six. Rei dresses himself: skinny jeans; shirt; black ankle socks. It’s morning —get dressed, brush teeth. Eat breakfast. Don’t want to miss the bus, he thinks.
            Leo, three, wakes differently. “I need you to scoop me up,” he says.
            “Leo. You’re not a baby anymore,” I say to him. I say this, but I am happy to scoop him up. He wraps his arms around my neck. Fleece pajamas; fishy breath. I bury my nose in his hair. Synthetic berries and sour.
            “Now, brush teeth,” I say.
            “No! No brush teeth!”
            “Yes. Brush teeth, so no one calls you Leo Stinky Breath!”
            Leo laughs. Teeth get brushed.
            By the time we get downstairs, Rei is eating breakfast. I pour Leo cereal.
            “Wil bit. Wil bit more!” Leo begs.
            Soon, Rei leaves. I grab snow pants for Leo.
            “No snow pants!” Leo resists.
            “Yes, snow pants.”
            “No!”
Back and forth, back and forth again. Then, time out. Set the timer. Three minutes. One minute for every year of his life. That’s the rule of thumb.

            Time out is over and Leo is happy again.
            “I love you,” he says.
            “I love you too.”
            Snow pants on. Boots and Coat. In the car, he asks, “Dad, what color is O’s?” Then, sings a song the color of O’s.

            Ice on Traci’s driveway. Leo slips and slides for fun.
            “We’re late,” I say and grab his hand.
Down the steps, we walk to daycare.
            I open the door to Traci waiting, kids at the table, cinnamon toast and toasty.
            “Sorry we’re late,” I say. I grab the sign-in sheet. No Leo on the sheet. Look up to Traci crying.
            “What’s wrong?”
            “Oh, honey. We talked about this,” Traci says, “you can’t come here anymore.”
            “What?” Just then, a tug. I look down at Leo.
            “I’m not even here,” he says.
            “What?” Look at Traci.
            Look down at Leo.
            No Leo.
            “I’m going to call you wife,” Traci, through tears.
            No. I say. No.
            This word feels familiar, and this scene feels familiar, and I am ashamed in a way that feels familiar. I want to get away from this familiar shame and I want to get away from the nothingness that I feel in the space where my hand ends, where the shame begins, so I say No, No, No, and nothing else but No. I go up the stairs. Up. Out.
            Outside, sunshine. Dirty snow, brown grass, ice, ice, ice. Playset, yellow ball, blue lawn chair. Keep moving, Go. Don’t stand here. Don’t stand here. Get in the car, go. And go. But the question circles round and round, the question freezes my feet in place, the question that can’t be answered, the question that will be the undoing, and that already is the undoing. Where do I go? Where do I go now?

Published in the October 2015 Issue

Falling Down by Kevin Munley

Maybe mom was right. Maybe he had damaged his brain with beer and destroyed his heart with cigarettes. After watching him sleep like a suckling pig for hours and then throwing up all kinds of bright greens and yellows into our toilet like a bewildered beast, I never touched the stuff. My childhood was shit because of it. You wouldn’t touch the stuff either if you saw your old man falling down the stairs screaming at invisible demons.
Sure, it was difficult for me when I first got to school. Everyone wanted to know why I didn’t drink. Some guys in particular can be pushy. You know how those jock types can be? It makes them feel uncomfortable if others aren’t drinking with them. Jana was good about it though. She didn’t ask. We’d just do dinner and a movie and let the rest have their keg parties. Eventually I told her about my family. But despite her support, I started hearing this voice at night. With Jana beside me, I would try to sleep and a whispery hum would distinctly resonate between the buzzing of the dorm room heater.
“My son. Patrick, my son.”
According to my dad’s case manager, he was off his medication again, which meant another lengthy hospital stay. My mom hadn’t spoken to him in years, but I still kept in touch — keeping emotional distance, of course. I had his case manager’s number and she kept me informed of his progress, or lack of progress.
I had to see him today though. I had to. I know it’s crazy, but before my mom, before a psychiatrist, and even before Jana whom I trusted and loved so much, I had to talk to Dad. I needed to talk to him about that whispery “Patrick” I hear in my ear. I needed to find out what he hears. I had that ugly word in my head for days now, and I kept going back to it like a dry, unscratchable itch: schizophrenia Even the mumblings of that word make children cry and dogs whimper. Jesus Christ, my family…
The psych unit was typical of them. People in robes wandered in and out of their rectangular rooms like ranched cattle. The nurse’s aide that led me down the hall was a giant with a neck that would put a bull’s to shame. He could and should be working as a bouncer somewhere. But instead he was here to restrain this unit’s regulars and bounce them off the walls at his leisure. I’d ask him how my dad was doing, but I got the sense he didn’t know or care.
The common area was empty except for my dad watching some awful talk show. He was wearing those stupid hospital socks that keep you from falling down; his feet were up on another chair as if he were the Goddamned prince of the psych ward. I never understood those socks; it was like some depressive somewhere had tried to commit suicide by falling down. If all the pills and booze hadn’t killed my dad by now, he had little to fear from a fall.
It was just me and him, which was perfect. As I pulled up a chair beside him, he barely looked away from his show – Maury or Montel or something.
“Hey Dad. How are you?”
He gestured toward the trashy rednecks yelling about a paternity test on the TV and asked, “Do you think this is about me?”
“It’s not about you, Dad.” But he didn’t look convinced, his eyes glued to the spectacle. There was a deep sadness in those eyes, which oozed down into dark flesh pockets underneath.
On the screen, a heavy-set woman was screaming at her husband that their child was his. “Just look at his face and tell me? You’re the only one with a nose that crooked!’ she screamed, her fingers flailing in dangerous sweeps around the stage. The audience loved her for it and hooted and hollered approval. In the background, between the estranged couple, their child was on a live feed. The camera cut to the kid’s nose to illustrate the point; the audience loudly cooing at his cuteness.
My dad wiped away tears from his eye. Was he moved by this child’s situation? I couldn’t recall him ever this being emotional over me, who he should have lost to DCF hundreds of times in my youth.
The supposed father of the baby didn’t look impressed by the nose evidence. He pointed and screamed about the difference between his forehead and the child’s.
“You sure they didn’t write it about us?”
“Nah, it’s a reality show. Dad, you know those voices you hear, are they ever about me?” Pretty direct, I know. But I’ve found this kind of directness worked well with Dad. Often, if I wasn’t upfront with my questions, he wouldn’t catch the drift and we’d get nowhere.
“They’ve got me on a new medication in here. I don’t hear the demons now. I still hear the monsters. But the demons are gone. Do you think that’s your mother? You know your mother slept with a monster.” A big, wild beast of a woman was welcoming the other possible father of the baby onto the show. In seconds, the two men were on each other, pushing and pulling like a pair of rabid roosters.
“What the fuck, Dad?”
He turned to me with fire in his eyes now. The sadness was gone, if it ever was there. Here it comes. Whatever comes out of his mouth now is sure to be a pearl of schizophrenia. I grew used to these little psychotic fortune cookies of wisdom in my youth.
“Don’t swear and don’t call me ‘Dad.’ I’m not your dad. It’s that monster that crawled out of the basement and laid in bed with your mother. He fucked her and then you popped out.”
On the screen, Maury or Montel opened an envelope and, as if it were Oscar night, the result of the paternity test was announced. The winner celebrated by spiking his chair to the ground and dancing demonstratively. He thanked his family and friends and was led off stage by the host. The father sat quietly, while the mother continued to scream, “I told you so. I told you so.” A child was being thrown to the wolves, and it was captivating television.
I didn’t have much to say to the old booze bag after that. My dad was whispering to himself now about monsters and demons and I sat there listening myself. Maybe I could hear what he was hearing too? Was it “Patrick, Patrick”? I heard fuck all, just the sounds of his quiet mutterings. It was pointless to visit him.
My dad’s psychiatrist was nice enough to talk to me before I left the hospital. We talked about my dad’s progress and he told me about new trends in schizophrenia treatment. They wanted to try him on this new drug recently approved by the FDA. The doctor was very hopeful. The old drug targeted his depleted dopamine receptors, which they used to think caused schizophrenia, whereas this new drug would target his misfiring glutamine receptors, which they now think causes schizophrenia.
On my way out I crossed paths with an array of patients shuffling through the halls like the animated dead. Their bodies were rotting from the inside out from the Thorazine and Clozaril. Maybe the doctors would try ECT if that didn’t work? I can’t believe that is popular again. The doctors were trying, but it all seemed so desperate. I didn’t expect much from this new drug.
Afterward, I walked down toward the lakefront. The weather had brought all the families out. Fathers were playing with the children; the men were young and full of hope and care for their kids and the children were too young to say otherwise. The streets were filled with commotion and cars. I couldn’t hear past the wall of sound created by honks and shrieks. Only the blue sky was quiet. I thought I heard from somewhere up high, “My beloved son.” But I wasn’t listening anymore. Jana would be waiting for me, so I only lingered for a second and headed home.

Published in the September 2015 Issue.

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