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Winners of the 2017 !Short Story Contest!

Tuesday, September 5th, 2017

This is not a subtle contest.  This is a contest of sudden change.

 

We are proud to present the winners of this summer’s contest.

The judging panel was completely divided, with very little overlap.  The fan voting had three clear winners, but only tied-up the overall winner.  It ultimately came down to a tie-breaking vote by the owner, Paul-Newell Reaves.

 

Now, the winners–

 

Fan Voting:

with 19% of Fan Votes, Bearcat

with 20% of Fan Votes, Delocation

with 23% of Fan Votes, Blank Faces

 

Runner-ups:

Delocation by Andrew Livingston

and

Blank Faces by Jess Costello

 

And our Grand Prize Winner:

Bearcat by Lisa Clark

 

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Exciting News for 2017 !Short Story Contest!

Thursday, August 24th, 2017

Welcome to defenestrationism reality.

 

Well, all votes are in from our Judging panel, and they completely disagree!  !Hoorah!

 

This is great and exciting news.  With such a split from the judges, Fan Voting becomes more important than ever.

 

So rally all your friends, supporters and internet junky acquaintances– because you, of course, dearest readers, never spend your working hours surfing the web– rally them all to vote for the

2017 !Short Story Contest!

only on

defenestrationism.net .

 

 

Vote Here

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The Collector

Sunday, August 13th, 2017

by Gustavo Bondoni

 

“Mr. Stanlow, do you have a second?”

The millionaire art collector stopped just outside the door, turned and smiled at the reporter.  He hid his surprise that they’d tracked him down so quickly, but it just went to reinforce that things happened at lightning speed in the internet age.  “Of course. How can I help you?”

“Have you heard about SuperEdie?”

A note of sadness crept into Stanlow’s voice.  “Of course.  I suppose the entire art world has by now.  A terrible tragedy.  She was a true star, of course, but more than that, that’s a terrible thing to happen to anyone.”

“Did you know her well?”

“Probably no better than your average reader.  I’d met her once or twice.  Before you ask, yes, she looked remarkably like Edie Sedgewick in person, which is why she cultivated the persona, I guess.  She seemed like a good person – but I was just a collector to her, a means to an end.” He shook his head.  “I guess my days of collecting SuperEdie are over.”

“Do you have any idea who would want to do a thing like this to her?  It was such a brutal murder, a lot of people are speculating that she might have been involved in something illegal.  Do you know if she was involved in drug dealing?”

“As I said, I didn’t know her all that well.  I saw her at a couple of parties, and that’s it.”  He paused for a second.  “Having said that, the parties were what you in the press would call ‘wild’, I guess.  I’m a bit too old for that kind of thing, but I can imagine how a young girl could get involved a little too deeply with a supplier.  Although if I had to guess, I’d look for a jealous lover – she was beautiful, and she lived life to the fullest, so I’d start there.”

“Were you her lover?”

Ah, thought Stanlow, this guy was from one of those papers.  But he knew how to deal with that kind of thing.  “As I said, she was a bit out of my league.  I think you should be looking for Hollywood actors, not sixty-year-old men.”  He winked at the reporter.  “Money can only get you so far.”

“Nut you have the biggest SuperEdie collection in the world.  Maybe she chose to express her gratitude for your patronage.”

“Sadly, no.  My motives for stockpiling her art are purely financial.  I pride myself on being able to spot superstars in the making.  Buying when no one else is is a good way of getting a good price.”

The reporter nodded.  Everyone knew that Stanlow had gone from penniless immigrant in the early nineties to art magnate twenty years later thanks to a golden eye for talent.  Focusing on a few young up-and-comers, buying low and selling high, had netted him an eight-figure fortune.  “Too bad they all seem to die so young.”

Stanlow shrugged.  “The stars that shine brightest often burn out the quickest.  Think of Hendrix.  Or, in the art world, think of Keith Haring.  If he were alive today, maybe I’d have had the opportunity to buy his art.  Even Warhol survived his youth only by the slimmest of margins and because his would-be assassin had little talent for murder.  From what I’ve seen, artists lead pretty disorganized lives.”

“So, do you know who the next big thing will be?”

“Now that would be telling, wouldn’t it?”

“And what would you say about the value of SuperEdie’s work now?”

He nodded sadly, even though this was the question he wanted.  “In my experience, this kind of thing turns artists into immortals.  You should see a big rise in SuperEdie prices.”

“You should make a killing.”

“I only wish the opportunity didn’t arise.  I don’t really need another few million, and not having any new SuperEdie art to look at will be a terrible loss to the world – and to me personally.”

He saluted the journalist and got into the waiting car, a dark blue Mercedes-Benz limousine.  Stretched, of course, but not obscenely so.

His driver, as always, had the partition lowered.  A silent partner in his business, the man was also about to become rich due to the demise of the young artist.

“Hello Walter.”

“Hi Boss.  They asking about SuperEdie?”

“Of course.  It’s the only thing we’ll hear about for the next few days.”

“Poor girl.  She was just a wisp of a thing, it almost makes you cry,” the driver said. 

Stanlow smiled inwardly, thinking how sentimental streaks seemed to arise in the least likely of places.  “She was beginning to slip.  Her art wasn’t what it once was. In a few years, no one would have been buying her stuff, and our collection would have been worthless. I blame the cocaine.”

“I suppose you’re right.  I really wouldn’t know about that sort of thing.”

They drove in silence for a few minutes.  There was a small gallery at a strip mall where an unknown artist from Peru was making her first big exhibition.  He’d seen her stuff, and it spoke to him.  Perhaps she wouldn’t be the next big superstar, but it would be worth betting a few thousand dollars on her.  It only took one of those small bets to pay off, and the early work would be worth millions.

“Are you going to offload her art tight away?”

“No.  Remember what happened last time.  When Carlos died, we sold everything too soon.  We’ll wait six months.  We should get spectacular prices then.”

The driver nodded.  “I guess you’re right.  Reckon we lost a few million last time.”

“You lost a few million.  I lost tens of millions.  We won’t make that mistake again.”

The driver nodded.

But Stanlow wasn’t finished.  “And Walter?”

“Yes boss?”

“Next time, could you make it look like an accident?”

“Sure boss.  Whatever you say, boss.”

 

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The Hunter

Sunday, August 6th, 2017

by Isabella Hernandez

She hungered. Day in and day out, night to night and screen to screen- she repeated the search. By the hour, by the minute, by the second her fingers flurried names across the familiar keys. In her head they made a chant, a cult gathering. She could recite their crimes with hateful glee. A pedophile for one, in fact for another too- in fact wasn’t the first one also into fucking animals? Yes, yes they were she recalled with pain. That one had her hunt cast first, always first.

Who cared if she had been exposed for it before? The Hunter would prowl and pace, stalk, slink, wait with bated breath. Fangs bared and tongue salivating; the Hunter would seize the fantasy of tearing out her throat to restore her heart. The Hunter could feel her pulsing neck between her teeth, taste the gushing metallic blood quenching her thirst. It passed effortlessly through the pixels of her dimly lit cell phone screen (The latest iPhone before they put that cheap Seven shit into production- she liked to say). Memories painfully clawed their way to the surface as she savored this daily bread. Like daggers or a nail chiseled in by a hammer, came the photos of drawn underage girls spreading their puffy, growing vaginas- hair tousled and their eyes brimming with shame.

Then there were naked women taken in public with nothing but a leash round their necks as they were made to bend over into a dog bowl; their exposed asses and taints free to be imposed on all. It made the Hunter choke, the blood in her veins to boil. Her jaw chattered and burned furiously, her glazed over eyes bursting with red and big as saucers. An iron taste flooded her tongue; she recalled the incident involving the desire to stick in a fetus between a human and a bee up a woman’s uterus. Suddenly she violently lurched forward, clutching her stomach- careful to move her thumb away from the taunting follow button. The rising slivers of bile infected her throat; her tongue tied to plead her brain to stop. This prey was guilty, so guilty.

Slowly, the Hunter shifted her eyes once more toward the screen. A report droned to life in her mind; above the chaos of haunting imagery. The prey’s habits hadn’t changed, neither had her adamant lack of self-awareness. A walking contradiction, she had maintained the lure of accepting all and defending children. The Hunter wanted to dryly laugh in horror at the irony. Despite her efforts however, the sound did not come out. Instead there came the usual nauseating pit of sickness in her gut.

On slimy hands and feet it swaggered up her innards, around her organs, and up her spine. From head to toe her body rattled and her head buzzed. Clear as pain came the comforting fantasies. She’d corner the bitch in her home, her lumpy, malformed face (This type tended to be the ones typically responsible for these sorts of things, the Hunter thought plainly. It was always society’s diseased undesirables who couldn’t see what they truly were.) would drip and slobber tears down her uneven skin. In this manner, she would gaze up at the unflinching Hunter; her drooling mouth pleading in earnest for her life. A self-proclaimed Christian, her trembling sausage fingers would clasp into a motion of prayer. Begging and screaming, crumpled on the floor into a sniveling ball, she would helplessly watch as the Hunter’s unfeeling stare coldly brought down a metal bat to her skull.

The echoing contact would be slick and ring in one’s ears (Just the same way those young girls pussies were meant to sound, the Hunter’s mind added-). Over and over the bat would rise to fall. Wham! One strike for deceiving the Hunter. Wham! Another for her false friendship. Wham! Yet another in the name of justice. Wham! Wham! Wham! It was cathartic, the tangy stench of blood, the shrieking, the moment the prey fell silent, the grey spongy brains that spilled out with the ease of tomato sauce, the caved in bits of bone-

Softly there came a pitiful whimper that penetrated precisely as a surgeon’s scalpel. It scraped around her brain through her ears; the fantasy shattering like glass into fragments. Looking over as she sat in her spinning chair (age had torn it to shit along with her twirling), she set down her phone. Limping through her open doorway, the Hunter’s face softened at the sight of her small, lanky dog. His whiskers were all but gone, grey fur dyeing his once brown face a silvery white. With his wounded gait he soldiered on as far as the second chair before her scratched dresser.

His head was hung and his face long as he lumbered toward her feet. He whimpered again, looking up with big and beady brown eyes. In the rear, his right hind paw hovered stiffly in the air; the rest firmly planted on the dingy floor tiles. Nervously and with a pang of grief the Hunter asked,

“What is it old man? Wanna sit with me?”

The dog wagged his tail half enthusiastically in response. Giving him a gentle smile, she stood and bent over to lift him. Planting a kiss between his pointed ears, she rested him on her lap. Cradling his torso sized frame, she gave him another flurry of kisses. Tenderly she touched his wounded paw, releasing it as he recoiled. Shivering, he licked his thin lips and stared at her acne splattered face. Patting his head, she coddled the dog as if he were a newborn. Her youthful voice oozed concern, wobbling as she slowly rocked the chair back and forth.

“I know it hurts, we’ll take you to the hospital tomorrow morning ok? No jumping in the meantime and you should be resting more than walking.”

The dog turned his face away and adjusted himself in her clutches. Lazily he curled up, staring quietly into the air.

 

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Delocation

Sunday, July 30th, 2017

by Andrew Livingston

The universe has walls, but not the kind of walls you’re probably thinking of. They’re more like the walls of a plant cell than the walls of a building. They enclose the universe’s working parts, they give it some temporospatial rigidity, and they’ve got membranes in place to control what comes in and what goes out. Don’t act all surprised about that last part; first of all, such transfers are rare, and also the physics of it eventually all balance out. If matter or energy comes in, the demands of equilibrium usher something else to the exit.

Which is what began to happen sometime toward the end of May or the start of June. Whatever it was that entered our universe, it represented the matter and/or energy equivalent of roughly two-thirds of the three-story corner townhouse of a certain human being in suburban North America. This person happened to be named Sal Fenster, who was, aside from being a townhouse owner and retired schoolteacher, was a collector of antique keys, an amateur complaint letter-writer, and had since childhood suffered from a recurring dream of being a child on one end of a seesaw, watching helplessly as a giant approached and pushed the other end with one colossal finger, sending Sal flying. The entirety of Sal’s existence was a series of astounding coincidences, but the same was true of everything else.

Anyway. The universe’s equilibrium maintenance selected approximately two-thirds of Sal’s townhouse for displacement. The choice was at random, from among nearly infinite candidates. The selected portion was not the upper two floors of the unit or anything respecting the unity of human perception, though. Technically, the chosen chunk of matter and energy extended from about three meters beneath the building to two above it, sliced right through the townhouse’s interior, and reached out about three more meters into the thin air on two of the building’s sides.

This chunk included the side of the unit that faced an adjoining vacant lot. Sal’s desk was in the center of the second-floor living room, facing out on it through a sizeable window. Sal appreciated the vacantness, feeling that it promoted in some indescribable way the writing of complaint letters and the examination of antique keys. It facilitated a pleasant unpensive vacantness of mind as well, now and then.

Once the inscrutable laws of the universe’s equilibrium had made their selection, the process of removal began immediately, albeit slowly. There was no change in spatial relationships between matter that was to remain and matter that was soon to depart, at least not in ways that any human being could detect. Great changes were taking place in the underlying structure of the universe nonetheless. A pore in the membrane between IN and OUT aligned itself with that unfortunate chunk of Sal’s townhouse and the surrounding air and soil.

Sal felt an unfocused strangeness wash through the interfacing points of body and mind. Sal did not think much of it, though; old age could do—and had done—far worse. It wasn’t even unpleasant, like the arthritis’s groans whenever there was a drop in atmospheric pressure. Just strange. That’s an unsatisfyingly vague description, yes, but unfortunately there aren’t better words for the sensation in any human language, because anyone who experiences it does not have long as a member of a speech community, so there’s never been a lasting lexical need for a term describing the feeling.

What was really happening beneath the surface of the observable was simple enough: the chunk of matter and energy, now at the cusp of its exit point, was being engulfed or encased. It was rather like a molecule about to be pushed out of a cell’s membrane, ensconced first in a vescicle to allow its passage.

Sal was sitting at the desk, trying to concentrate on penning a letter to the manufacturer of a brand of plastic ballpoint pen that displayed an unacceptable tendency to lose its flimsy plastic clip whenever, as Sal put it, ‘one so much as looks at them slantwise.’ Had Sal tried to go to the staircase at the other end of the room, or even to so much as look in its direction, a sort of distortion and misdirection would have impeded any such efforts. But Sal made no such efforts.

However, once a particular turn of phrase had turned itself to Sal’s satisfaction, a glance upward and out the window revealed an impossible sight and demanded a much closer look. Rising to protesting feet, Sal shuffled to the window and confirmed, without perhaps totally believing, that the scene was more than a mere trick of the corner of the eye.

The vacant lot had been replaced by vacant nothingness. Out the window, the barest suggestion of grass ended at the abrupt point where it met…nothing.

To be clear, this type of ‘nothing’ is not like the medium of deep space, which contains sparse wisps of hydrogen with the barest hints of helium even in its emptiest reaches. The type of ‘nothing’ that Sal looked out on was not black. Close both eyes in a dark room and you may think of what you “see” as black; close only one eye, and what do you see out of it? Nothing, or at least a form of it. What Sal saw combined this aspect of nothingness with a sort of grey-purple static that rioted at the edges of Sal’s vision and receded when focused on. It was ontologically terrifying and also frightfully beautiful to behold.

The view through the window faced out of the pore in the membrane of the universe. With no frame of reference to measure by, there was no visual indication that the bubble of matter and energy was growing ever closer to the point of no return. But Sal, transfixed by this final incredible sight could nonetheless feel a final, gentle push that sent the two-thirds of a townhouse and its sole occupant soaring free, for one eternal contextless moment.

 

END

 

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Lost in Defenestration

Sunday, July 23rd, 2017

by B. Craig Grafton

 

Judge Hauptman was here to decide whether or not to extend the temporary restraining order in the matter of State vs Somebody. The judge couldn’t pronounce the Defendant’s last name. To her it was unpronounceable and even unspellable in English. So Judge Hauptman, being a practical person, chose to address the defendant simply as Ahmed, his first name, which of course was much easier to pronounce. The same held true for Amina his wife, the complainant. The defendant’s attorney was William, Americanized from Wilhelm, Schlick. And the State was represented by Ms Elwinne Fenster. Both of those names the Judge had no trouble at all spelling or pronouncing.

Judge Hauptman sat up high on her elevated bench looking down upon the attorneys and their clients below her. There they all sat, each at their own table, in a respectful silent manner, just the way she liked it. She then glared down at both attorneys and gave them her trademark scowl warning them that she wasn’t going to put up with any nonsense from anyone here today. Then she began.

“I have been informed by the bailiff that the complainant now wishes to withdraw her complaint. Is that correct Ms Fenster?” asked the judge.

“Yes Your Honor. She wishes to withdraw her complaint.”

“And the reason?”

Ms Fenster rose from her chair so to emphasize what she was about to say.

“She dearly loves her husband and doesn’t want him kept away from his family this holiday season. She wants him home with herself and their child. After all it is Christmas Your Honor.”

How many times had she heard that one before. The man beats the woman to a pulp but she still loves him. Forgives him. Wants him back. And as to the Christmas card, well it always got played this time of year.

Judge Hauptman stared at the complainant who sat there and fidgeted, trying to make herself comfortable, best she could that is, her crutches propped against the table, her right leg in a heavy looking cast and splints on some of her fingers. Judge Hauptman closed her eyes and shook her old gray head side to side in disbelief.

“What say you Mr. Shlick?”

Attorney Schick knew enough to keep it simple. Never volunteer anything more than necessary.

“That’s fine with us Your Honor.”

Judge Hauptman looked at Amina, obviously in discomfort,  picked up the file again and re-read the doctor’s report for the umpteenth time. She didn’t know if she could go along with all this.

“It says here in the doctor’s report that her right leg is broken in two places and she has broken bones in her hands plus multiple bruises Mr. Schlick. All of which is quite obvious to this court. I don’t suppose she did that to herself did she?”

“It was all a misunderstanding Your Honor.”

“Misunderstanding?”

“ Misunderstanding. She didn’t make the baklava the traditional way like his mother did in the old country. He might have overreacted a bit Judge.” That was an understatement and a mistake to say the least as to both statements and Attorney Schlick knew it, the second it left his mouth. The judge jumped all over him.

“Over reacted a bit! I’d say he overreacted a bit all right counselor! Threw her out of a second story window! That’s way overreacting in my book and everyone else’s book too. You sure you want to withdraw the petition Ms. Fenster?”

“If I could speak to my client a minute your Honor.”

“Go ahead counselor. We have the translator here if you need him.”

The translator was there because English was a second language for Amina and Ahmed. Both of them had learned some English and could get by with some broken English but they still had trouble understanding some times. Didn’t pick up on all the nuances of the English language. And sometimes they pretended to understand when in fact they didn’t. So rather than be embarrassed and have to ask the speaker to repeat himself, they just kept quiet.

Ms Fenster, Amina, and the translator huddled. After a few minutes the huddle broke and Ms Fenster spoke.

“Your Honor my client really does want her husband home. Little Ahmed their son is just beside himself and can’t understand why his daddy isn’t there. My client keeps on making excuses to him but the boy still cries himself to sleep every night. Amina truly loves her husband and forgives him and in her condition she really could use his help around the house now.”

How pathetically ironic that is thought Judge Hauptman.

“What say you Mr. Schlick?”

Attorney Schlick had to refrain himself from saying “I couldn’t have said it better myself Your Honor,”  But instead he came up with the usual, “I believe that the best interests of the family are paramount here Your Honor. It’s in the best interests of the child and all concerned that my client be home with his family this holiday season.” He always played the family card whenever possible.

Just then Ahmed grabbed the translator by the arm, spun him around and had a somewhat loud and heated conversation with him.

“Mr. Translator what was that all about?” asked Judge Hauptman when they were finished talking.

“Your Honor,”  he replied. “Ahmed does not understand why he is here. He says that in his country a husband can remove a wife from the home if she does not obey him and do as she is told. His wife did not use his mother’s recipe when making the baklava. She defied him and tried some other recipe. In his country he would not be brought before any court for this.”

“Well you tell Ahmed that he’s obviously not in his country anymore and that this is his country now and in this country the law does not permit a husband to throw his wife out a second story window if he she doesn’t obey him. He’s lucky he didn’t kill her and that he’s not facing a homicide charge instead of a request for a restraining order against him.”

The translator took Ahmed aside and repeated in just a few words what the judge had said.

“Ahmed now understands what he did Your Honor. That he can’t throw his wife out a second story window like that and he will not do it again. Your Honor he just wants to be home with his boy.”

Not with his wife thought Judge Hauptman, just with his boy. Doesn’t call him his son. Calls him boy as if he were an object, a possession, like his wife.

Judge Hauptman looked again at Amina. Her colorful dress, babushka, rosy cheeks and short round stature gave her that warm earthy peasant look. Yet her face remained so sad, so forlorn, her big brown eyes begging the judge to grant her request.

Judge Hauptman too was a wife, a mother and thus sympathized somewhat with Amina. That Amina could use the help around the house in light of her injuries went without saying. Maybe letting Ahmed come home was a way for them to patch up their differences and get things back to normal. It was definitely best for Little Ahmed. Maybe Ahmed does deserve another chance. After all if Amina is willing to give him one, why shouldn’t she give him one. And she felt sorry for them both because they were refugees who had been granted asylum here in America because they were on the wrong end of a gun in their country. And now in this county they were minority persons, like herself. Oh well it is Christmas she thought and sooner or later the Christmas season would be part of their lives here, and especially so for Little Ahmed. So because of all these sympathies and against her better judgment Judge Hauptman gave her okay.

“Okay Mr. Translator tell them both this. I’m dismissing the petition for the restraining order. Ahmed can rejoin his family but if he ever throws his wife out a second story window again and appears before me, he won’t be facing a restraining order, he’ll be looking at jail time. Tell him that and make it very very clear to him what he can’t do in this country.”

“Yes Your Honor.” The translator again said just a few words to Ahmed and then told the judge that Ahmed understood even though Ahmed had said nothing in response to what the translator had just said. Judge Hauptman noticed this.

So then she asked the two of them, without benefit of the translator this time, if they understood. They both looked at the translator who nodded his head yes and then they both answered “yes.” Then she asked if they needed any clarification or if they had any questions. Both answered  “no.” Again after taking their cue from the translator. The judge took note of this also.

Attorney Schlick and his client were the first ones out of the courtroom. Attorney Schlick always made a point of being the first out the courtroom when he got a favorable result just in case the judge changed his or her mind or something else came up that was overlooked. The others soon followed.

So this time Amina made the baklava for the holiday season the same way as Ahmed’s mother did and they even put a tree and exchanged presents, all for the sake of Little Ahmed. They were back on the track to happiness.

Until January third that is when they were all back on track in court again on a second restraining order request.

“The parties have been sworn. Call your first witness Ms. Fenster,” instructed Judge Hauptman.

“Thank you Your Honor. The state calls Amina,” and here Ms Fenster butchered the pronunciation of Amina’s last name and then began her examination.

“Amina please tell us what happened on New Year’s Eve three days ago.”

The translator repeated the question to Amina. She answered and the translator relayed what she had just said.

She said, “They went to a new year’s eve party at the neighbor’s across the street. She told her husband not to drink the punch as she was told by someone there that there was alcohol in it and as you know their religion prohibits the drinking of alcohol. But Ahmed said that when he asked the host, Mr. Svenson, if there was alcohol in the punch  Mr. Svenson told him, ’Oh no there wouldn’t be any alcohol in it, no not on New Year’s Eve.’  Ahmed didn’t know that Mr. Svenson was joking and believed him and got drunk. Then at midnight everyone started kissing everyone. They were told that this was traditional and customary here in America and it was okay for them to do this. But her husband must not have understood and when Mr. Svenson kissed his wife, he got mad and drug her back home, broken leg and all.” The translator stopped.

“Then what happened?” inquired Ms.Fenster.

The translator did his job again and repeated the question to Amina and then repeated her response.  “At home he got even madder and violent with me and threw me out the kitchen window.”

“What’s this with the windows again Mr. Schlick,” interrupted the judge. “Didn’t your client understand from last time, no more throwing people out of windows.”

Attorney Schlick shrugged his shoulders.

“You know Ms. Fenster?”

Same response.

“I know Your Honor,” volunteered the translator taking responsibility.

“Well, what is it then? huffed Judge Hauptman.

“Your Honor Ahmed understood from last time that you didn’t want him throwing his wife out a second story window. That it was too dangerous. So he thought it was okay to throw her out a first story window. You only said second story windows weren’t okay.”

The attorneys stifled their laughs, almost that is.

Judge Hauptman lowered her head, closed her eyes and again shook her head side to side.

“Here’s what I’m going to do,” she said as she raised her head. “First, Mr. Translator, you’re fired. Second I’m continuing this matter until we get a new translator. Until then the defendant is to remain in custody. I don’t want anything else to get lost in translation.”

She paused and then added,  “Or in defenestration for that matter either. Like someone losing their life.”

 

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Blank Faces

Sunday, July 16th, 2017

by Jessica Costello

 

Three horses stood guard around Plinkett the monkey during the night. The stuffed animal smiled sweetly, and his outstretched arms and fuzzy belly seemed just right for a hug, but Ellie learned years ago that the monkey was able to turn your own dreams against you if he wasn’t guarded. Now that Ellie was eleven she didn’t quite believe that anymore, but she still felt safer at night if Harvey, Roland, and Prickers stood guard at night to make absolutely sure there was no mischief.

Ellie took the time to show her appreciation with a quick pat on each of their heads before she tossed them on the bed. Most mornings she didn’t have time for that – middle school came much earlier than she was used to, and sometimes she didn’t even have time to comb her hair – so it was very important to show her gratitude when she could. It had to be jarring for the horses, who just a few months ago were stroked and thanked every morning before school. Ellie hoped that they understood.

“Comfortable?” she whispered to the horses as she struggled with her training bra strap. She was long past expecting a response from them, but she still needed to ask. She felt a little bad: two of the horses were on their sides, one on its back, and all were scattered on her bed. Plinkett the monkey sat upright on a tiny pillow on top of Ellie’s dresser. His tail curled so perfectly, like the inside of a snail shell, and his arms were opened wide to show off his plump, fuzzy, belly. Ellie hesitated, only one leg pulled through her jeans, then she crawled to her bed and lined the horses up in a row on her pillow. “Anyone else need fixing?” she muttered to all the fuzzy faces piled at the front and back ends of her bed. She hadn’t spoken to them at normal volume in years.

They were all content, which was good because she didn’t have quite enough time to rearrange them. Plinkett was by himself, and Ellie did usually prefer to keep him next to a good influence, like Sunshine the lion or Mouthy the kindly hippo, but he would just have to sit by himself for awhile. Mae, her best friend since the third grade, was supposed to come over soon. Maybe Ellie could move him then. Plinkett smiled at her and his tail curled up so prettily.

Mae came at ten-fifty-seven, three minutes before she was supposed to. Ellie was still tossing her dripping cereal bowl in the sink, but three minutes early was better than an entire half hour, which used to be the case back in elementary school. Mae tapped on the front door, unaccompanied. Her mother didn’t walk her to the door anymore; at some point in the last few years, she and Ellie’s mother decided that they didn’t have enough in common for foyer chit-chat.

“Hey, Mae!” Ellie’s mom said. “Oh, I love how your name rhymes. Hey Mae hey Mae hey Mae…”

“Heh, yeah,” Mae said. She chuckled politely.

Ellie heard this from the kitchen and hurried to the front door, where she saw her mother cornering Mae between the couch and the nearest window. Ellie grinned too wide, panicked with embarrassment.

Hey,” Ellie said. “Mae, wanna come up to my room?”

“Sure, yeah.” Mae did a very good job of sounding casual, but as soon as Ellie’s mom left the room Mae mouthed thank you over and over again.

Mae lay back across the width of Ellie’s bed and kicked off her shoes. In one hand she held Tommy and Pinky, her two stuffed cats, by their tails. They were far from the paper bag full of dolls she usually brought, but it could still be fun to play with just two. Ellie and Mae would just have to orchestrate a smaller game, was all.

“So what d’you wanna do?” Mae asked. She tucked her cats on the pillow in between the snoozing horses. “I saw the funniest video yesterday if you wanna see it.” She rolled over to face Ellie full-on.

Ellie stiffened. “I, uh. Sure,” she said.

“What’s wrong?”

“You’re…wearing makeup.”

“Oh. Yeah.” Mae dropped her eyes to the polka-dot printed comforter and shook out her hair. “I’m just trying it out. Figured I’d practice today before I go to school with it.”

“Why.”

Mae shrugged. “’Cuz I’m a girl?” she said.

“So?”

“I wanted to try it. What does it matter?”

Mae’s eyelids looked thick and dark from the slashes of black eyeliner and globs of superblack mascara. Ellie touched her own hair. Strands of it were still wet because it hadn’t finished air drying yet. She never bothered with blow dryers because she hated the way they burned her neck if she held them in one spot for too long.

Mae stood up. “Come on, let’s watch that video,” she said. “Or play a game or something. You got that new Life where you can use credit cards, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Let’s play that.”

But Mae’s voice sounded different. Ellie couldn’t tell if it was higher or deeper or just annoyed and brisk, but something was off. “I actually think I want to play with the dolls,” she said.

“You always wanna play that,” Mae said.

“So what?”

“Let’s play something else. We can play with the dolls later.”

“Why don’t you want to now?” Ellie asked. “And we can do Life later?”

Mae groaned. Her strawberry blond curls bounced as she leaned her head back in exasperation. “We play with them all the time. Why don’t we just do something normal?”

Ellie looked at Plinkett, his arms still outstretched and devious smile as inviting as ever. She looked at the horses, snuggling with the cats, and at Mouthy the hippo in her flower apron. “It is normal,” she said. “We’re just playing.”

Mae sighed. Her curls fell in front of her face, and she wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “All right,” she said. “Yeah, let’s play dolls. I only brought two though.”

“That’s okay.”

They kneeled on the floor, hunched over their stuffed animals: Ellie held Mouthy the hippo in one hand and Plinkett in the other. “Mwahaha!” Ellie screeched in the high-pitched voice she used for all her dolls. She bounced Plinkett up and down to make it clear that he was the one speaking. “Finally! After years of experimenting I’ve perfected the art of making your nightmares come to life! No one can stop me!” Ellie paused, waiting for Mae to jump in. She was looking between the cats, each in one hand.

She stepped Pinky forward. “I can!” he said. But the voice was deeper, less enthusiastic.

Plinkett said, “Oh you think so, do you? I’ll show you, cat!” Ellie wiggled the monkey’s tail back and forth, marking the beginning of making nightmares come to life.

Instead of reacting to it, Pinky lunged. “Ahh!” he shrieked. Or, Ellie assumed he was supposed to shriek; it sounded more like a moan.

“What are you doing?” Ellie demanded.

Mae stopped the cat midair. “What?” she asked.

“He’s making the nightmare come to life! You can’t just make Pinky jump like nothing’s going on.”

She expected Mae to become indignant, to say something like I can make him do whatever I want, how do you know he’s not more powerful anyway? An argument over the logic of the game, the way their games often ended. Instead, her mouth made a little o shape. “Is that what he was doing?” she asked.

“Yes,” Ellie said. “What else?”

“I dunno, I thought you were just making him twitch or something.”

“No, I said I was gonna be doing the nightmare thing.”

“Yeah, sorry. Sorry, I missed that part.” She started moving Pinky through the air again, but Ellie put Plinkett down. Mae stopped. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Maybe we should just watch that video or something,” Ellie said. It wasn’t fun playing dolls if Mae wasn’t going to do it right. Her apathy was infuriating, and more than that, Ellie felt odd as the only one putting effort into the game.

Mae immediately brightened up. “Yeah?” she asked.

“Yeah.” She placed Plinkett back on the pillow. She considered tucking Mouthy next to him, but decided that the game was enough time with other dolls for the monkey. Mouthy went on the pillow with the horses.

They watched the video, along with others. They played Life for hours, then they went through the list of Ellie’s board games and video games. They talked about Ms. Teitell, their homeroom teacher, and about how odd it was to have homeroom at all and getting used to lockers and switching classes and carrying their books around. They did not talk about how Mae spent most lunch periods sitting with her new friends from Band. They did not touch the dolls again, except when Mae picked hers up right before she left. Ellie watched, saying nothing as Mae pinched the cats’ tails between her fingers like it wouldn’t hurt them. Mae waved goodbye and Ellie waved back, but her hand dropped as soon as Mae got into her mom’s minivan.

“That makeup looked pretty silly, didn’t it?” Ellie’s mom said to her.

“It was dumb,” Ellie said. “She doesn’t need it.”

“Although I guess everyone uses too much makeup before they know what they’re doing,” Ellie’s mom continued wistfully. “I remember when I was thirteen, I thought I looked great in bright, bright blue eyeshadow. She’ll figure it out.”

“She shouldn’t,” Ellie said. “She doesn’t need it.” She went upstairs to her room, careful not to stomp on the stairs or slam her door, so her mother wouldn’t feel compelled to follow her and talk it out.

Ellie went right back to Mouthy. The hippo had a thin squiggly line of a smile, a pink and yellow floral print apron, and a bell in her belly that still sort of jingled when shaken around. Ellie was past imagining comforting words of love and support from Mouthy, but just the look of her, the feel of her fading skin, was comforting enough. Mouthy was the kindliest stuffed animal in the bedroom. Ellie hugged her tight.

She spotted Plinkett from between Mouthy’s little humps of ears. “Don’t look like that,” Ellie mumbled. “You got played with more than the rest of them.” But he looked exactly the same, of course he did. Still, it was infuriating. Mouthy’s smile was comforting; Plinkett’s was just insolent. In one motion Ellie rolled Mouthy off her lap, stood up, and slapped Plinkett down on the ground. “It was better for you than the rest of them. I played with you. I didn’t get to play with any of them, but I played with you. So stop looking like that.” She stopped. It wasn’t his fault – he didn’t have the chance for anything to be his fault. Ellie picked him up and ran her thumb up and down his fuzzy belly. She laid him down next to Mouthy – a good influence and good company.

Ellie, however, wandered to the bathroom mirror. What did Mae see that made her want makeup? Did Ellie have it? Her shoulders were slumped; she straightened them. Her hair was a chestnut brown that family members constantly told her they were jealous of, but it was thick and unwieldy. No comb had ever tamed it, but whenever she went to get a haircut the stylists over-compensated by making it too sleek and straight. She had acne, especially around her jawline, but who didn’t? It wasn’t worse than anyone else’s. And she didn’t have glasses, which was good. Ellie leaned in closer for the best part. Her eyes were green with little spots of brown – iris freckles, she called them –  and she loved them more than any part of her body. She tried imagining them with Mae’s thick black eyeliner and mascara, or her mother’s blue eyeshadow. She shuddered and took a step back. No, makeup would only ruin her eyes. But even with that conclusion, she continued to scrutinize herself.

Her shirt. Nothing was wrong with it – it was just a gray, medium, unisex Beatles t-shirt. She never really listened to the Beatles, but she liked their smiles and suits and haircuts that no boy ever had anymore. “But unisex means a boy shirt,” Mae protested the first time Ellie wore it to school. Mae started distinguishing between boy and girl clothes by shape, not just color, just over the past summer. It was starting to make a difference to her because girl clothes framed her body differently than boy clothes. Ellie had asked her mother what that meant, but the only answer she got was that it would start to matter to her pretty soon, too.

But Ellie decided that, besides maybe her posture, she looked fine.

She thought she looked fine when she got ready for school the next day, too. Her shirt that day had Harry Potter’s glasses on it. Also unisex. It was her favorite shirt because Harry Potter was her favorite book, and that was that.

Before she left, Ellie made sure to place Plinkett beside Sunshine the lion: Sunshine was another good influence, which would hopefully prevent Plinkett from becoming too bitter about the day before.

Mae was still wearing makeup at school – the exact same thick black that made her entire face alien. Ellie tugged on the collar of her shirt, her favorite shirt. But she couldn’t help but watch as Mae shrugged off her own sweater to show off a frilly tank top that was cut so low Ellie could see the tops of Mae’s breasts, which had just recently graduated from the training bra to a 32A. Mae faced Ellie. “What d’you think? My mom would only let me wear it if I wore a sweater over it so I had to wear one to school, but I think it looks so cute by itself,” she said very quickly and breathlessly.

“I like it better with the sweater.”

Mae frowned. “You think so?” She sounded crestfallen. She fidgeted with the tiny straps on her shoulders. The bell rang, so Ellie only nodded silently. Mae hugged herself, and to Ellie’s relief draped the sweater over her shoulders. But halfway through the period it was off again. 

Ellie got home, dropped her backpack at the foot of her bed, and laid back for just a second. She was spread across the width of the bed, facing the dresser where she situated Plinkett and Sunshine. She saw them. Their paws were touching. They were holding hands. She scrambled off the bed and bent down in front of them, hands on her knees. Ellie scrutinized the lion and asked, “You made him good? How’d you do that?” Although that didn’t seem right; Plinkett’s smile was still twisted, mocking. There was something off about Sunshine, too. Sunshine was supposed to be happy, and the lion in front of Ellie only looked smug and contemptuous.
“You’re with him now, aren’t you?” she asked. Sunshine’s smile was crooked. Ellie tucked the monkey and lion at the foot of the bed, their arms overlapping.

Ellie checked the other stuffed animals in the room. They were okay – it was too late for Sunshine, but not for them. Ellie collected Mouthy; Ernest the hedgehog; Harvey, Roland, and Prickers the horses; and Quackers the duck, and sat down with them on the floor. She considered one doll after another, then picked up the hedgehog. She focused on his smile, on his comforting plushiness, and took a deep breath:

“Help, everyone! My plants at home are growing out of control!” she made Ernest screech. He ran to the group, bobbling wildly.

“We don’t have time for that,” Quackers honked in the exact same voice. Ellie only had one voice for all her dolls; usually Mae was there to add variety. “This morning I put just one foot in the pond and there were waves everywhere! There shouldn’t be waves in a pond!”

Ellie paused, assessed the remaining stuffed animals, then picked up Mouthy. “I can’t believe it! When I tried baking cookies, the oven got hot all on its own! It would have burned the house down, but just when I thought about how badly I want it to turn off – it stopped!”

“Do you…do you think we have superpowers? Maybe I have control of plants, Quackers has control of water, and Mouthy can have control of fire!” Ernest said, bouncing up and down.

Ellie stopped. She forgot about the horses and what their superpowers could be. But she was constructing the entire story alone, and three heroes was already a little too much to work with. She put the horses aside.

“Superpowers? Don’t be silly!” Quackers exclaimed. He paced up and down, up and down, bobbing frantically. But then…he stepped in a puddle! It was such a little puddle – only the size of one of Ellie’s folded up socks – but as soon as his webbed foot touched it, it went wild. It swelled up and waves were everywhere. Quackers yelped and jumped as high in the air as Ellie’s arm could make him go. The duck landed directly on his giant, round backside. “Guys, I think we may have superpowers,” he panted.

“That’s what I said!” cried Ernest.

“What good things can we do with our powers?” cooed Mouthy. “We have to do something good with them!” She didn’t bounce like the others, but instead dipped up and down like she as bowing a lot, because she was too calm and motherly to bounce around.

We should stop bad guys!” hollered Quackers.

“There are no bad guys here. Everyone is nice,” Mouthy protested.

“MWAHAHAHAHA!” Ellie scrambled across the floor and grabbed Plinkett from the bed. “You superdolls have met your match! It is I, Plinkett!”

And Sunshine!” Ellie snatched the lion without thinking about it, but then the good superdolls all cried Oh no, not Sunshine! and she stopped. She could have made him a good guy if she wanted to, since she was in control. They were just stuffed animals. But she couldn’t, not really. It didn’t fit. When she looked at him she couldn’t get past his twisted smile. No, it wasn’t right anymore. Sunshine was a bad guy.

That night she hugged Ernest, Quackers, and Mouthy tightly as she slept, while the horses kept watch over both Plinkett and Sunshine. It took Ellie a long time to fall asleep. Plinkett under guard was a common sight ever since she was little. Sunshine was new. Ellie didn’t cry, but she stared at the pair for a long time, processing.

Since she spent so long staring instead of sleeping, she didn’t hear her alarm when it first went off. It rang and rang, but eventually gave up and fell silent. Ellie’s arm was still draped over the remaining good dolls. It was her mother knocking that woke her up. “Ellie?” she said. “Are you getting up?”

Ellie’s eyes snapped open. “Coming, coming!” she said, leaping out of bed instantly. She threw herself together with a speed she could never possess when waking up on time. She left the guard around Plinkett and Sunshine, but since there was now double the mischief that might have been for the best.

Ellie and Mae were walking down the hall from homeroom to history, which was no longer called social studies, when Mae said, “D’you want some lip gloss? I just bought it yesterday,” From the front pouch of her backpack she produced a delicate glass vial. The liquid in it was some sparkly shade of pink that didn’t exist in nature. Sparkly. Mae unscrewed the gold cap with slow, deliberate twists, using only her fingertips to do the job. She dabbed the stuff on her lips with an applicator that looked like something between a nail polish brush and a Q-tip. She dipped it back in the bottle while smacking her own lips, then held the brush-thing out to Ellie. Ellie grimaced.

“Oh come on, what’s wrong with it?” She rolled her eyes and twisted the cap back on just as slowly as she took it off, as if she just enjoyed the motion.

“I just don’t like it.”

“Why not? What’s wrong with it?”

“The color.”

“It’s champagne.”

“Yeah. I don’t like it,” Ellie said. She fished her own tube of chapstick from her pocket and smeared that over her lips.

Mae looked dumbfounded. “You’re using cherry chapsick!” she said. “That colors your lips too, you know.”

“I don’t mind this color,” Ellie said. Then she added, “There’s no sparkles.”

Mae sighed. “C’mon, grow up. Sparkles are pretty,” she said.

“No they’re not.”

“What’s your problem?”

“Nothing, what’s yours?”

“I don’t have a problem,” Mae said.

“Well, cool, then,” Ellie said.

“Cool.” Mae reached behind her and slipped the lip gloss in her bag. Ellie tucked her chapstick into her pocket. They walked the rest of the way in silence.

The horses changed. Ellie felt it as soon as she closed the door to her bedroom. She didn’t need to look at their faces – none of them smiled anyway – but all three manes bristled.

“You’re not afraid of the horses,” she whispered to Sunshine. “You did this.” She didn’t want to touch the horses – their hair looked so scary and hostile. One was on its side, having abandoned its post. The other two faced her. Their black eyes flared at her; their heads were lowered like bulls ready to charge. “I’m sorry. I should have let you rest. I should have let you be superheroes. I’m sorry.” But it didn’t matter. The guard was gone.

Ellie pulled the last three stuffed animals onto her lap. “Are you guys okay?” she asked them. “You’re all right, right?” She studied every face, the curve of every smile. “Yeah, yeah, you’re okay.” She kissed every one of them. She looked at their faces, still happy, still loving.

The dolls sat on the table with her while she did homework, squeezed on her lap during dinner, and snuggled in bed with her that night. Her mother said nothing about it, but Ellie would have kept at it even if she was prodded: Plinkett and Sunshine would not be given any opportunity to get at her dolls. The next morning, the three dolls were packed in her backpack along with her books and sandwich. Absolutely no opportunity.

But when Ellie got to school, the threat of Plinkett and Sunshine felt much farther away. The stuffed animals took up so much room in her backpack, and when Ellie walked down the hallway she could hear Mouthy’s jingling belly right behind her. She couldn’t push them to the bottom of the bag, because that would upset them and turn them against her. But sitting in homeroom, surrounded by an entire class of kids who all wore themselves the way Mae did, embarrassed her just a little. She tugged at the collar of her Beatles shirt, although she didn’t like it quite as much when she couldn’t see Ringo’s smile.

The bell rang, starting homeroom. Ms. Teitell, a rhino-ish woman who doubled as their last period English teacher, tapped the board for attention. “Okay everyone, please take out your planners and make a note that the Thanksgiving food drive is November fifteenth. I’m letting you know almost a full month ahead of time so you can make sure to get food in.”

All around Ellie, tired kids dutifully dug planners from backpacks to jot down the date. Ellie stared at her desk. She could feel Ms. Teitell’s eyes burrowing into her, but she pretended she couldn’t. Her fingers tied themselves in knots on her lap.

Everyone get this date down,” Ms. Teitell repeated. Ellie’s face heated up tremendously, but she didn’t bring herself to move yet. “Ev-er-y-one-uh,” Ms. Teitell said pointedly. Ellie sighed. She hunched over, kicked her backpack in between her legs, and unzipped the smallest bit she could, but Mouthy’s belly blocked all the books there. She nudged the hippo over, which opened the backpack more. The opening grew wider when she searched around Quackers’ wings and Ernest’s cumbersome spikes. Her backpack jingled. Ellie froze, looked up. No one paid attention to her. No one except for Mae, who knew the jingling and whose eyes popped at it.

“Oh my god,” Mae breathed.

Ellie yanked the planner out of her bag and shut it as quickly as she could. Mae gawked. She kept at it, eyes bugging, head shamelessly turned toward Ellie, for all of homeroom. Ellie hugged herself. Her breathing was a forced even and her eyes were on nothing but Ms. Teitell and the pages of her planner. Her feet clenched her backpack so it couldn’t move and, more importantly, couldn’t jingle. But for twenty minutes those black-lined eyes were on her. Were right beside her. Mae was the last one out the door when the bell rang, following Ellie’s back with her gaze.

Mae sat across from Ellie at lunch. Since they started school Mae had been having lunch with her friends from Band more and more often, but this time Mae plopped herself down at Ellie’s empty table and stared at her without shame. Her mouth hung open so wide that Ellie squirmed. “What?” she asked.

“Why would you bring your dolls to school?” Mae said.

“None of your beeswax.”

“Don’t say beeswax.”

“Why not?” Ellie demanded.

“You just shouldn’t, trust me.”

“But why not.”

“Because you’re not five years old, that’s why the hell not,” Mae snapped.

Ellie twitched. Mae, too, seemed surprised. She leaned back a little and blinked slowly, looking without focus past Ellie’s head. But she quickly recovered.

“I’d rather say beeswax than…what you said,” Ellie said.

“What, hell?” A smile crept over Mae’s face.

“Yeah.”

“Maybe you should go back to elementary school then,” Mae said. “God, I can’t believe you brought your dolls to school.”

“So what?” Ellie said. “I wanted to. You wanna look like a – a prostitute, I can bring my dolls to school.”

“Excuse me?” Mae said coldly. Her smile was gone. “That’s what you think?”

“Yeah, it is. Actually, yeah. Yeah. You changed.”

“Yeah, we’re in middle school now so I grew the hell up,” Mae said. Her face burned so red it made her champagne lips look white.

“Stop saying that! You don’t have to say that word.”

“Yeah, but I want to. Hell. Hell hell hell hell.”

“You’re just mean, you know that? Is that part of growing the heck up? Being mean and wearing makeup that doesn’t even look good?”

Mae laughed, and the laugh sounded twisted. “You think I’m mean?” She stood up with her lunch tray. “Go bully some fifth graders. That’s where you should be.” She marched off to sit with her Band friends, who had been glancing over at the table and muttering.

Ellie’s throat clogged up. Her stomach hurt bad, like someone drove a spoon into her gut and stirred it around. It started off small, but rapidly crescendoed. She tried to endure it, tried to at least ease the lump away, but it stayed solid. Mae seemed fine, chatting with those girls, meanwhile Ellie’s eyes were glassing over. And her stomach. She clutched it, but that did no good. Her innards churned. She rushed to the bathroom, positive she would sob or vomit or both.

Ellie held in her crying until the lock was in place. The vomit never came, but the tears attacked her. Loud, retching sobs echoed around the bathroom and snot gushed down her face. She tried, she tried to calm herself, but every time she managed to pause for a second the agony in her stomach returned. It came in waves, retreating for a few seconds just so it could feel fresh and terrible when it returned. She collapsed onto the toilet seat. The pain stopped when she did that, but then it came right back.

“You okay?” said an anonymous voice on the other side. Ellie didn’t answer. What she did do was unzip her backpack with a shaking hand. Finding the dolls took a second because they were pushed to the bottom by books, but she found them. And when she did touch them she hugged them greedily, rocked them, cried into them, leaned back a little to look at them.

“Oh…No,” Ellie moaned. “No…” She rocked them. She kissed them. It didn’t matter. She let them be crushed while she went about her day, let them listen to her say everything she said to Mae. Why would they want her?

Mouthy was the worst. Her smile was already an unsteady line, but that was always an endearing detail. Now it was warped into a grimace. The colors of her apron clashed with each other. Her bell trilled sullenly, like Mouthy the hippo had swallowed a dying fairy. Ellie rang it over and over and over.

Somehow the sound sobered her, even though she couldn’t stand looking at the face. Maybe it was just time passing, and the way all crying had to stop at some point. Ellie’s sobs became wheezes and her wheezes became hiccups. She placed the dolls back in the bag, one by one. She wiped her face. She exited the stall. The lump was gone from her throat, but the pain in her stomach persisted. Ellie hobbled to her next class wincing and gasping, but not crying.

Mae didn’t look at her once. That was fine. All of Ellie’s attention focused on swallowing groans. The pain seemed to spread: it seeped from her stomach into her back and thighs. She breathed through her nose, hoping that the feeling of air passing through her nostrils could distract her.

“Ellie?”

Ellie opened her eyes, even though she wasn’t aware of closing them. Mrs. O’Reilly, the algebra teacher, stood over her.

“Sorry,” Ellie gasped.

“Maybe you should go see the nurse,” Mrs. O’Reilly suggested gently.

“Huh?” Ellie said. Was her suffering that obvious? And with horror she thought: did she groan? Did she cry again, but this time in front of everyone?

“You’re…bleeding,” the teacher whispered.

Ellie looked down. Blood. In between her legs – blood. She looked back up at Mrs. O’Reilly, eyes wide.

“The nurse will have a change of pants,” Mrs. O’Reilly said.

“It hurts.”

“They can help with that too. Come on, it’s okay.” She guided Ellie out of her chair and handed her her backpack. The room was silent.

The nurses did have a change of pants, but they couldn’t stop the pain. “You need Tylenol for that, and we’re not allowed to give that to you,” one of them told her. Ellie let herself cry again, just a little, just until they called her mother. They gave her a heat pack until her mother arrived, but all the heat did was make her queasy as well as hurting. The nurses knew this, but applied the heat anyway because that was all they could do. Ellie closed her eyes, opened them, laid down, walked around, but nothing helped. Nothing even dulled it. Her mother arrived with a hug already prepared. Ellie went home.

“Here you go sweetie,” Ellie’s mother said, dropping a single children’s Tylenol into Ellie’s palm. “This will help.”

“Thanks.” Ellie was curled in a fetal position on her bed. She gobbled down the pill without waiting for a glass of water.

Her mother stroked her hair and made vague cooing sounds. “Do you want your dolls?” she asked. “Where are they?”

“Backpack.”

Ellie’s mother found them and handed them over. “I’ll leave you alone,” she said. Ellie nodded. Her mother kissed her again and then left. Ellie waited a second after the door was closed, then hugged Quackers, Ernest, and Mouthy tight against her chest.

“Please just be good for a little bit,” she begged them. “I know you’re mad at me and I get it but I really, really need you.” She looked at their faces. They were still twisted.

Ellie closed her eyes and took shuttering breaths, trying to let the vibrations of her breath calm down the welling tears. She looked at the dolls again. Their faces weren’t warped, but they didn’t smile either – they were neutral, but neutral was something. She snatched Sunshine and Plinkett from the foot of her bed. Sunshine, too, was at a bearable neutral place, but Plinkett was the same as ever. He was evil – he brought nightmares and turned goodly dolls against her – but Sunshine! Sunshine was okay.

An urge dragged Ellie out of bed. With Mouthy in one hand and Sunshine in the other, she crouched on the floor:

“We have to escape from the volcano!” Sunshine screamed. “We’re not away from Plinkett yet!”

“But I – can’t – move,” Mouthy panted. “I’m so tired.” The hippo bent in half at the stomach to emphasize this.

Sunshine bounced over to her and tossed her on his back. “We’re not out yet! We can’t stop! Come on, we’re almost there!”

“You can’t carry me, I’m too heavy!” Mouthy said. Ellie winced. She got off her knees and sat on the floor, legs crossed and back hunched.

“Nothing’s too heavy for – for a lion!” Sunshine was supposed to shout those words to the wind, but instead they came out a groan as another wave of pain shook Ellie.

Ahh…” she said. Her breath came out in short bursts through her nose; she dropped the dolls in order to clutch her stomach. They lay on the floor, their faces blank and impassive; they didn’t seem to care if they were played with or not. Ellie left them there to crawl back into bed. Maybe later, she thought. Maybe later.

 

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Bearcat

Sunday, July 9th, 2017

by Lisa Clark

 

Brooklyn, New York 1927

“You want to be a little nawghty, right?” Marilyn said, holding up one of her own dresses in front of her niece. “This’ll do it.”

Helen turned toward the dresser mirror, tilted downward. She bit her lip.

“What’s the matter?” Marilyn asked, Brooklyn buzzing in every word. “Ya look gorgeous.” At twenty-five, she was only six years older than Helen; more like an older sister than an aunt. Helen had thought that leaving rural Ohio to visit her in New York City would be exciting. She hadn’t expected to feel so drab next to Marilyn and wasn’t prepared for a change this dramatic—or revealing.

“But this dress is so short.” Helen’s face contorted as though she were viewing a cow giving birth rather than herself in the latest style. “I’m sure Mom and Dad would never approve.” The state of Ohio wouldn’t, either. There, hemlines higher than seven inches above the floor were illegal.

“No offense, but your folks are appleknockers.” When her niece didn’t respond, Marilyn added in elongated syllables, “You know. Bluenosers. Hicks. Prudes.”

“I guess.”

“Honey, sit down.” While Helen took a padded chair, Marilyn plopped onto the bed. Even there she looked elegant. Her satin bathrobe matched her bedspread, which in turn coordinated with several floral throw rugs. The wallpaper, featuring diamonds made of tiny flowers on a dusty peach background, tied it all together. Sophisticated royal blue linoleum made Helen’s home seem positively dowdy. No; that wasn’t the word. Like a prune pit. That’s the way Aunt Marilyn had described Helen’s overcoat.

“Don’t look so glum, kid,” Marilyn said. “We don’t have to go dancing at all. I was only dolling you up because you said you wanted a little excitement before you marry that farmer fiancé of yours.”

Eugene. Helen twisted her engagement ring around her finger. Inside, her stomach twisted all by itself. What would Eugene think of all this?

“Listen,” Marilyn pulled one knee up onto the bed. The way her robe draped? Her pose? She looked like a movie star. “You can stay home tonight. No problem. I just got to get to a certain juice joint to hear the band play one last time.” Juice joint? Is was like Aunt Marilyn spoke a different language. She leaned forward. “Sorry, honey. That’s the way anybody who’s anybody talks around here. A juice joint is a gin mill, a speakeasy—you know, a club where they sell alcohol.”

With a quick lift of her chin, Helen said, “I know about speakeasies. I’ve read lots of confession magazines.” Finally; something she could talk about without sounding like a dumb Dora. “If you ask me, there’s nothing wrong with imbibing. The law says nothing about the consumption or possession of alcohol. Only making, transporting, and selling it.”

Marilyn stood to remove the clips holding the spit curls framing Helen’s face. “Good for you, kid. Glad someone’s up on the law. You oughtta be a trendsetter and go to law school. You’re brainy enough. Too bad you’re life’ll be over in seven months. Me? I’m not looking for a handcuff.” After meeting Helen’s gaze, she rolled her eyes. “An engagement ring, okay? Geez, you gotta get with it.”

“Eugene’s nice, Aunt Marilyn. He’ll be running his family farm soon.”

Marilyn huffed. “Sure, kid. Anything you say. Only don’t call me ‘aunt’ when we’re out together, all right? I don’t want people thinking I’m some kind of old maid.” She glanced at her watch. “Gosh. Time’s running away. Whether you come or not, I gotta get ready.”

“Maybe I shouldn’t go. I mean, would Eugene approve of this?” No. He wouldn’t.

“Yeah. All right. It’s your decision. I ain’t gonna force you.”

Helen watched as Marilyn transformed herself from everyday typist to femme fatale. With practiced strokes, she brushed on gray eye shadow, which she then highlighted with brown and the smallest smidgen of turquoise to hood false lashes. When she blinked languorously, Helen couldn’t help but giggle.

Next came face powder that concealed under-eye circles. “Even if you have a rotten week,” Marilyn explained, “you gotta hide it if you expect fellas to look at you.”

Marilyn penciled in thin lines above the natural brow before sloping dramatically in a straight line. “Ya gotta make ‘em think you’re hiding some sad secret that’s breaking your heart.”

“What kind of secret?”

Marilyn paused with a pot of rouge in her fingers, her lips pursing for a moment before she shrugged in a quick up and down. “You got me there. I guess it don’t really matter as long as you look good.”

Finishing her makeover with red lipstick and then quick pinches to shape the hair framing her face, Marilyn turned to the outfit she had laid out on her bed. “Now comes the fun part.” She rattled on as she donned each item. At the end, she twirled in her gold tissue evening gown, making the purple fringe on three levels of the skirt whirl out at a ninety-degree angle.

Helen slumped. She hadn’t felt frumpish in Ohio, but next to Aunt Marilyn, she felt like a square. While Helen wore bobbed hair, Marilyn sported the shingle cut, trimmed close to the neck in a V shape, like a boy’s. Though Helen had never held a cigarette, Marilyn had a special box for them and an elegant holder. While Helen’s only going-out dress covered her shoulders, Marilyn brazenly bared hers.

The memory of a confessional Helen had read recently popped to mind. A young woman left her husband and young child for life in the city. Her recklessness had led to despair for the entire family. Helen bristled inwardly. Of course the story had ended in misery. All the stories ended that way. Helen supposed they had to; who would buy a magazine that promoted licentiousness?

She was in no danger of becoming like the woman in the story. She’d never leave Eugene to pursue a wanton life of pleasure. The thought of such an unkind and selfish act repulsed her. But wouldn’t it feel lovely for just one night to find out what life might have been like if she’d grown up in New York City?

“Hmm.”

“What’s that, honey?” Marilyn said.

“Oh. Nothing.”

Marilyn returned to gazing in the mirror, fiddling with her beaded headband.

“Um,” Helen said.

Marilyn looked at her through the mirror’s reflection. “Yeah?”

“I’ve thought it over. I want to go with you.”

“Really?” Marilyn turned to face Helen. “Are you positive, honey? The joint I’m heading to might be… Well, it’s something you’re probably not used to.”

“Yes. I’m sure. I might never have a chance like this again.”

“Eh.” Marilyn scrunched her mouth. “I don’t know. Maybe you’d better not. There’ll be jazz and smoking and dancing. And of course drinking. You wouldn’t know what to do with yourself. Stay home. Tomorrow morning I’ll give you a little report about how it went.”

“No,” Helen said, stubbornness tinging her tone. “I don’t want to sit at home while you have all the fun.”

“Listen to me.” Marilyn’s voice transformed, sounding more like Helen’s mother than her fun-loving aunt. “Where I’m going ain’t no playground. If you want, I’ll help you get dolled up and we’ll strut our stuff along some busy street tomorrow. See how many dandies honk their horns at us. That’ll be safe. Not tonight, okay?”

Helen stood. “No. It’s not okay. You said it’s my decision. I’m nineteen. I’m old enough to go out on the town. Besides, a few minutes ago, you were trying to convince me to go.”

Marilyn’s head drooped to the side like a wilted sunflower. “But I promised your mother I’d take care of you.” The bangles on her wrists tinkled as she planted her knuckles on her hips. “You sure about this? What about Eugene? What’ll he think?”

“He doesn’t even have to know. In fact, I have an idea. I won’t go as boring old Helen Rivers. Instead, I’ll be Fay Bow for the night.”

Marilyn guffawed. “Like a mixture of Fay Wray and Clara Bow?”

“Exactly.” Helen thrust her hips forward and began a small promenade around the room, tripping slightly on a throw rug, then swooping her arm around as though she’d planned the move. “Now,” she said in the affected tone she imagined a sophisticate would use, “please assist me in my transformation while we still have time.”

“You mean we have to get a wiggle on?”

Helen giggled. “Right.”

When Marilyn finished the makeover, Helen posed before the mirror, an empty cigarette holder between her fingers, her hand perched on a jutted hip. She liked the way the silk velvet dress draped lower in the back. Kind of a mini-train. She’d wondered whether the narrow tubes of fabric that made up the shoulder straps were too scandalous. But no; the dress wasn’t risqué at all. She’d seen pictures of other women with bared shoulders. She wasn’t a floozy any more than they were.

Marilyn whistled her drawn-out approval that started out high and descended two octaves lower. “What a bearcat you turned into!”

Helen glanced to the side and lifted her chin, gazing into the air like a movie star spurning a would-be suitor.

With a laugh, Marilyn said, “Yeah, you’re a fiery, hot-blooded baby all right.”

The sultry look flew from Helen’s face, replaced by a toothy grin.

By the time Marilyn latched and locked the door of her apartment, plain Helen Rivers from Ohio had disappeared entirely, replaced by Fay Bow. Her engagement ring remained on the dresser.

Fay carried herself more freely than Helen had ever dared, swinging her hips and allowing her skirt to flutter flirtatiously at the knees, where a glimpse of naked flesh occasionally peeked out.

She liked this emancipation from her normal, restrictive life. Like Aunt Marilyn had said, “Ya can’t do the Black Bottom or the Charleston all trussed up.” Or feel as alive as she did at that moment. Fay was ready to plunge herself completely into the role of a flapper.

Half an hour later, a brawny man admitted them into the club. With red lips puckered, the two passed between tables of laughing people. Ostrich feathers bobbed lazily as the heads beneath them bantered between puffs from long cigarette holders. Smoke rose in gentle swirls as the saxophone and clarinet took turns with raucous jazz melodies. Fay’s eyes widened at the stem glasses and tumblers filled with green, amber, and pink concoctions. She had no idea alcohol could look so tantalizing.

Stepping aside to allow a waiter to pass with a tray of half-filled glasses, Fay rammed into the chair of a woman wearing intense rouge whose drink slopped onto the table then dripped onto her lap.

“Hey! Whattaya think you’re doing? Why don’t you watch where you’re going? Ya know how much I paid to have this rag cleaned?”

Helen reemerged with startling speed, stumbling backwards. The room that, a moment ago, promised sophisticated excitement, now seemed suffocating. Was everyone looking at her? Accusing her? She was suddenly sure that her dress, the long strand of pearls draping to her waist, and her clownish make-up fooled no one. They could all clearly see that she was a bumpkin.

“Listen, she’s sorry lady, okay?” Marilyn said, pulling Fay back to replace Helen. “She’s new here. Give her a break just this once, willya?”

The woman’s eyes flashed beneath severe black lashes, but she turned away. Marilyn, grabbing Fay’s bare arm above the elbow, steered her toward a table where two young men sat.

“These seats taken?” Marilyn asked. “If they’re not, we’d like to rest our dogs.”

“Reserved for you two,” one man answered, his attention now on them instead of the nearby table, where four flappers postured. “Right, Chet?” He nudged the man next to him.

Is this what Aunt Marilyn did, Fay wondered? Approach absolute strangers and ask to sit with them? People didn’t act this way in Ohio. Then she caught herself. Cut it out, she ordered.

She forced a smile.

“Yes. Please sit down.” Chet stood to pull out Fay’s chair. He stood at least two inches taller than Eugene, and Chet’s dark hair, slicked back and shiny with brilliantine, was also thicker than her fiancé’s and his voice a tone or two deeper. In a blue double-breasted suit with pencil stripes, Chet looked classier, too.

Stop comparing him to Eugene.

“Thank you. I’m Fay,” she said, batting her eyes. She’d let Marilyn worry about Will or Bob or whatever the other man’s name was.

As they sat, Marilyn winked at Fay.

Their night had begun.

Until that moment, Fay didn’t realize that a saxophone could send shivers up her arms.

“Glad you sat down with us. Jim and I are only visiting.” Chet had a nice, friendly, lopsided smile that set Fay at ease. “Do you live in New York?”

The clarinetist rose to his feet and fingered out a sultry run, drowning Chet’s next words. Fay scooted her chair closer to him. “It’s hard to hear.”

“Yeah. Give us four Sidecars,” Jim said to a waiter who was balancing a tray above his shoulder.

“I hope that sounds good to everyone,” he said, meeting Fay’s eyes.

“Sounds great.” What’s a Sidecar, she wondered?

“This band is really good,” Chet said, leaning toward her ear. He smelled good. Fresh. Like a field in the spring. Different, better, than Eugene, who often visited her after milking cows. The barn scented his hair.

She angled her body toward Chet. “I know. It’s one of Au— Marilyn’s favorites.” Which she supposed was true.

Fay tried to catch Chet’s words while the music infused the room and its occupants with scandal. At the next table, one woman splayed her legs, baring her thigh high enough to reveal a red garter. Her companion ogled then pulled her toward him, chair and all. Another woman, who appeared no older than Fay, leaned her naked shoulder into a willing man, shrugged, and tilted her head backwards. Slowly. He obliged her with kisses on the shoulder, neck, and finally on her lips. Fay’s pupils widened.  People in rural Ohio did not behave that way. Especially not Eugene.

Then there was Chet himself. Fay had heard the term “smoldering eyes” before, but didn’t think she’d ever met someone with them. Men with smoldering eyes probably didn’t spend their days in barns, tending to animals. Chet’s eyes, though, deep-set under heavy brows, definitely qualified. His longish lashes might almost have made her envious if they hadn’t added an extra, mysterious layer of shadow to his golden topaz eyes, rimmed black around almost luminescent irises. As he fixed his eyes on her, he squinted the smallest bit and his lips wore a whisper of a smile, as though being with her intrigued him.

Eugene never looked at her that way.

When the waiter plunked down their drinks, Jim hoisted his glass. “To a delightful night, where strangers become very good friends.”

Fay raised her glass with the rest of them before touching it to her lips. Her eyes brightened. The chilled glass was rimmed with sugar. Tasting the tiniest amount, she recognized lemon and orange peel and almost laughed. This is what the—what was Marilyn’s name for prudes? Oh—the Mrs. Grundys were so upset about? She sipped several times before noticing that Chet was watching her. She smiled, setting the drink down.

“You have beautiful eyes,” he said close to her ear before turning toward the stage, where the pianist was cracking a joke, something about gin being “still-born” that Fay didn’t quite get. Nor did she understand why a devil who’d lost his tail would go to a gin shop, where they retailed spirits; the rest of the crowd found the jest hilarious.

While Chet’s attention was on the band, Fay licked the remaining sugar from the rim and emptied her glass.

Chet caught her eye and they exchanged smiles when the pianist began a titillating rhythm that swung from high to low, soon joined by the drummer, who used some sort of wire sweep to create slinky slides. Something else she’d never seen in Ohio.

“Another round of drinks,” Jim called out to a nearby waiter. “Make it Barbary Coasts this time.”

Barbary Coasts? Didn’t that have something to do with pirates? Who named these drinks?

“Care to dance?” Before she could answer, Chet was on his feet, holding out a hand toward her.

You’re engaged, she told herself.

No, she countered, I’m Fay Bow, who is single. Besides, there’s nothing wrong with dancing.

When she stood, lightheadedness wrapped her briefly in fog. Odd. She shook her head and then, feeling as though she were watching herself in a dream, followed Chet.

A crowded dance floor forced Fay to squish in close to Chet. Fay took his proffered while he slipped the other onto her waist. With so many strangers hemming them in, she had to scoot in even closer. The spicy, warm fragrance of his aftershave made her wish she didn’t have to exhale. Chet was handsome and polite and, well, lots of things. All good. Best of all, he felt safe.

Soon the crowd was bouncing to the music, dancing their favorite steps in place. By the end of the song, Fay and Chet were laughing. He grabbed her hand to lead her back to the table, where their drinks, luscious-looking creamy concoctions, waited.

“Yum!” Fay said after a sip, instantly slapping her hand over her mouth.

“Good, ain’t it, honey?” Marilyn said with a lift of her brow.

No. Not good. Delicious. Fay let the smooth, thick liquid linger on her tongue. Why, she wondered, was the country so determined to ban liquor? Abolitionists obviously hadn’t tried either a Barbary Coast or… Or whatever that fruity first drink was.

A singer joined the band to belt out “Sweet Georgia Brown.” The music, the people, the sounds of clicking glasses and giggling girls, the scrumptious drinks, the remembered feel of her hand in Chet’s and his at her waist, his smell and steamy eyes made Fay wish she could wrap all of this up in a package that she could take home and open whenever she felt blue. 

“Another round,” Jim called out to the passing waiter a few songs later. After the drinks arrived, Fay sucked down a large gulp of yet another sweet concoction. The hazy, disembodied feeling that settled on her fit the persona she wanted to portray perfectly. She felt relaxed, free to be herself. Each sip made Chet more wonderful. How was it possible that such an urbane man, a student of Veterinary Science at Cornell, would be interested in her, a simple country girl?

Chet was talking about the Coney Island amusement park. Fay lifted her hand to her ear and he slid his chair so that it touched hers. When the singer took the stage again for a heart-wrenching rendition of “The Man I Love,” Chet’s fingers lightly stroked the back of Fay’s hand as it sat on her lap.

She wondered what it would be like to be in love with a man like this. Her insides ached thinking about it. Not in a bad way, but delectably.

How would it feel to nestle into his neck?

Chet lifted his hand to signal to the waiter, busy several tables away. While his attention was elsewhere, Fay slid her dress up a fraction. Would he even notice?

Turning to her again, his gaze dropped briefly to her hem. He noticed.

When his hand grazed her arm on the way to her neck, Fay felt a surge. Her breathing grew heavier as Chet caressed her neck with his fingertips before leaning toward her and touching her cheek with a light kiss that lit up her body and brain. At the same time, prickles of warning crawled up Fay’s arms.

She forced a smile and lifted an empty glass to her lips.

“We’ll have another round,” Chet said when the waiter arrived, his tray loaded with a large collection of empty glasses.

“Make it Gin and Sin this time,” Marilyn called out, laughing.

“Another dance?” Chet asked.

Fay was glad for slow music this time so she could lean into Chet. With her head resting on his shoulder and his hand low on her back, she felt woozy and tired and comfortable and happy. When the music stopped, Chet lifted her chin and brushed her lips lightly with his. The look in his eyes afterwards was intoxicating.

As they returned to the table, Fay ran her tongue over first her upper then her lower lip, recalling the kiss.

The cool mixture of gin, citrus juices, and grenadine in the new drink relaxed her further. She was enjoying playing the part of Fay, the bearcat. When she glanced at Chet, the intensity of his gaze made her gasp.

Chet played with the fringe of hair at the nape of her neck before letting his fingers slip onto her naked shoulder.

Fay was having trouble thinking straight.

She blinked back a wave of tiredness. If she could just close her eyes for a moment. Chet smiled and, with an arm around her shoulder, pulled her in snugly. She leaned into him and laid down her head, cozying into the soft hollow between his shoulder and chest. Her face warmed at her own boldness.    

When the piano player ignited the air with a sizzling chord progression, Fay wriggled up straight and, as nonchalantly as she could manage, set her hand on Chet’s thigh. Her heart raced. He covered her hand with his and pulled her toward him for a long kiss, sucking her lower lip. This man was making her forget her fiancé entirely.

“Four rounds of drinks is enough for me,” Marilyn announced loudly. Fay pulled back from Chet to look at her aunt. “Any more and I’ll be splifficated. We oughta get outta this joint and head over to my place where it’s quiet.”

“Whatever you say,” Chet’s friend answered, grabbing Marilyn’s hand.

Chet and Fay followed.

As they stepped out into the cool air, the world around Fay rolled like a wheat field in the wind. She leaned heavily onto Chet, depending on him to keep her from falling. He led her with an arm around her waist.

Being Fay was wonderful.

*  *  *

Sunlight slashed through the thin gap between Marilyn’s heavy curtains, jerking Helen awake. Beside her on the sofa lay a naked man. He was definitely not Eugene. This she knew by his face, not his body, for she had never seen Eugene in the altogether.

She bolted off the sofa, stumbling and slipping on an area rug and landing on her rump. The commotion woke the man, who was lying on his back. Helen grabbed something white that was draped over the arm of the couch, limp, like the body of a headless duck.

The man shifted her way, looked at her, looked at himself, then sprang up, snatching the closest loose bit of fabric nearby.

A breath later, the two stood face to face, she covered with his shirt, he with her dress.

Now she recognized him. He was the man from the speakeasy the night before. The one who looked so dreamy and sophisticated. He looked neither at the moment.

Then she remembered Marilyn’s last words before taking the other man—who was it? Bob? Jake? Jim?—into her bedroom. “We’ll be cuddling in the other room. You two just make yourselves comfy. See you in the morning.”

Next, other more intimate images flashed into her mind.

What had she done?

All of those puritanical, stodgy-looking women who waved signs demanding abstinence filled her brain, wagging their fingers in her face. They—not her flapper aunt, not the lewd and licentious patrons of the speakeasy—were right in their assessments. Alcohol was dangerous.

How could Helen have been drawn into such debauchery?

The five feet between her and the man—Chet, was it?—wasn’t nearly enough. She raced to the bathroom. Before she clicked the lock, Helen began to weep. She had saved herself for marriage. For Eugene, her fiancé.

Sitting on the edge of the tub, legs spread wide, Helen scrubbed away the sticky pink evidence of her deed until finally crumbling inside of the tub.

How could that man out there have taken advantage of her this way?

Miserably, she shuffled to the mirror. The mascara and eye shadow she had thought so fetching last evening smeared her cheeks in shameful shades of black, brown, gray, and turquoise. A false eyelash still held onto one corner of her eye like a spring that was bent and yanked out of shape.

She scoured her face clean with a washcloth, all the while thinking that no amount of soap could recover the innocence she’d possessed less than a day earlier.

Then she sat on the closed toilet seat, doubled over, and wept. What was she going to do? She couldn’t tell Eugene. She just couldn’t.

“Hey Hel… um, Fay.” Helen startled when Marilyn’s called through the door. “The rest of us would like to get in there, too, so get a wiggle on, would ya?”

When she emerged from the bathroom with one towel wrapped around her waist and another to cover her chest, she felt like a cartoon man she’d seen at the movies once who was stuffed into little boy clothes; flesh that should have been covered was bared for everyone to gawk at. Head down, Helen rushed to Marilyn’s bedroom

“Helen,” Marilyn said, cracking the door of the bedroom a little later, “are you okay?”

“Okay?” she snapped. “No. I’m not okay, Aunt Marilyn.” Every syllable was an accusation.

“Geez, I’m sorry to hear that. The fellas are ready to leave. You should come say good-bye.”

Helen followed her aunt, not knowing why. She had nothing to say to the man who’d stolen her chastity.

“I’ll be heading back to school on Monday, Fay, but we could still write,” Chet said. “Here. I jotted my home and school addresses down for you. If you give me your address and telephone number, I’ll get in touch with you.”

Under the name “Fay Bow,” Helen invented an address and phone number, feeling sneaky and vindictive and guilty and awful as she wrote.

She hadn’t been a bearcat last night. She’d been a fool. When Chet leaned in to kiss her good-bye, she pulled back as though he were about to bite her. She could see confusion in his eyes, but she didn’t care. 

By the time Marilyn closed the door, anger had risen in Helen like water in the Great Mississippi Flood earlier that year, which had flooded some areas with thirty feet of water. Whatever wasn’t washed away was destroyed. Just like Helen.

“How could you do that to me, Aunt Marilyn?” she spat out.

Marilyn pulled her head back. “Do what, honey?”

“Do what? Are you joking? You took me to that… that den of iniquity. You filled me with alcohol. And then you let that man…” She knuckled away tears.

“Den of iniquity? Where do you learn this stuff? Listen, sit down and tell me what’s bugging you.” Marilyn plopped onto the sofa directly beside the blood stain on the center cushion of the floral damask.

Helen folded herself onto the matching armchair opposite, still wiping tears from her face. “You shouldn’t have taken me there. You shouldn’t have dressed me up like some lady of the night or slopped your make-up on me. You shouldn’t have asked those men if we could sit with them—”

“Wait. Whattaya talking about? You’re the one who asked me to doll ya up, to take ya out. And you sure seemed to be enjoying your time with Chet. What’d you two do last night after we left?” She guffawed.

“Stop it, Aunt Marilyn.  It’s not funny. I only acted that way because of all those drinks. You’re the one who ordered that—what did you call it?—Gin and Sin. So tell me. Was it your plan all along to get me so drunk I didn’t know what I was doing?”

Marilyn’s eyes narrowed. “Now just a minute. I didn’t do nothing.” Now she sounded nothing like Helen’s mother. “That was all you, little missy. I saw you on the dance floor with Chet, the way you were encouraging him to touch and kiss you. Don’t you dare lay the blame on me.”

Helen dropped her feet to the floor heavily and leaned forward, her tears replaced with outrage. “You should have known what would happen. You knew about Eugene. Why didn’t you say something—do something?”

“Hey, I asked you if you were sure about going out with me. I even asked you to think about Eugene.” Helen had always thought of her aunt as pretty. At that moment, without her make-up and in the morning light shining in the window, she looked pale and ugly. No wonder she was unmarried. “You’re the one,” Marilyn continued, “who wanted to become Fay Bow. Or don’t you remember that little speech you gave about being nineteen and ‘old enough to go out on the town’?”

“But you saw what was happening at the club.” Helen’s throat was thick, her voice deep and severe. “And when we got back home, you left me. Alone in the room with that man. All night long.” She dropped her face into her hands and her voice broke as she wept. “I was saving myself for Eugene, for our wedding night. Not for some stranger who I’ll never see again.”

Marilyn was at her side, sitting on the upholstered arm of the chair, rubbing Helen’s back. “You mean you never…?”

She glared at Marilyn. “Of course not.” She looked over at the bloodied center cushion of the couch. “I’m not some quiff. Like you.”

Marilyn gasped.

“What’s wrong? Didn’t I get the right word? I mean slut. Whore.”

More than anything else, Helen was shocked when Marilyn slapped her cheek.

Standing, Marilyn said, “I think you better get out of here, Helen. Take your valise and puritanical views back to Ohio where they belong. You’re obviously not ready for the big city.”

*  *  *

What am I going to say to Eugene?, Helen wondered as the train clicked and clacked its way to Ohio.

At one-thirty, she decided to say nothing to him. Why did he have to know, anyway? She’d figure out some way to hide the truth from him on their wedding night.

At one-forty-five, when she thought of Chet, she wanted to scream. This was his fault. What he did was wrong. She wanted to go back to the night before and tell him to go away, leave her alone, keep his closeness and hands and lips away from her. Then her body remembered how he’d made her feel. Staring out the window at the passing fields, her vision turned to him kissing and touching her. Her breath hitched as she remembered how wonderful his fingers felt on her bare skin.

The next moment her eyes teared at the wrongness of it. Stop it. Don’t even think about Chet. Not now. Now ever. Remember: you’re engaged. To a wonderful man.

She leaned back against the headrest, tired. Why couldn’t Eugene be a little more like Chet?

At two o’clock, Helen realized that it was she who’d brought all of this on herself. She was the one who had convinced Marilyn to take her to the club, despite her aunt’s protestations. She was the one who’d guzzled down not one, but four drinks. And enjoyed them. No one had forced her to drink. She’d been the one who teased and coaxed Chet to do things to her that she would never have asked Eugene to do, at least not yet. She was responsible for it all. She should have listened to those wise women who rallied against alcohol. Nothing, nothing, good came from imbibing. She’d been a flirtatious, foolhardy trollop and now she had to pay for it.

By two-thirty, Helen’s tears had dried. What if she did tell Eugene? No. He’d be so hurt. Instead, she’d be a loving and faithful wife the rest of her life to make up for what she’d done. He would never, ever, know.

At two-forty-five, she thought, what if I’m pregnant? She and Eugene’s wedding was planned for seven months from now. She squirmed. There would be no way to hide a seven-month pregnancy. Eugene—everyone—would know what she’d done. And she’d be discarded by him, her family, and society, forced to live the rest of her life in regret.

No. No! She wouldn’t think about that.

She picked up a newspaper someone had left on a nearby seat and read about plans for a new monument. Built into Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, it would feature the faces of four presidents. How interesting, she thought for half a second.

Her hands fell onto her lap and she leaned her head onto the window.

At three o’clock, she slept.

 

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Meet the 2017 !Short Story Contest! Finalists

Sunday, July 9th, 2017

Welcome– or welcome back–

to defenestrationism.net

 

We are excited for you to Meet the Finalists of the 2017 !Short Story Contest!

We ask our authors for photos in her, his or other’s favorite chair

resulting in some quite intimate portraits, both non-glossy and non-commercial.

 

 

 

Lisa Clark‘s work has appeared in various publications including The Alligator, The Gnu, Scarlet Leaf Review, and Best Modern Voices, v 2. She’s winner of the Glass Woman Prize for fiction and the Mia Pia Forte Prize for creative non-fiction. Bulgaria has been her home for over eighteen years. She’s currently working on a YA novel about AI sentiency.

 

 

Jessica Costello began writing when all her friends got too old to play make-believe and she still wanted to. At eleven she decided to try writing a novel, after she read Lord of the Rings and thought, “I can do that.” Though that first attempt was unsuccessful, she hasn’t stopped: throughout high school and college she wrote four unpublished novels, and is now working on her first novel to be published. Her flash fiction is available at https://funkyllamablog.wordpress.com/. Jessica is a recent graduate of Emerson College, where she earned her BFA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing, and is working toward her Master of Library and Information Science from San Jose State University to become a children’s librarian. Her stories have appeared in the online magazines East Coast Ink and the Merrimack Review, and she has reviewed books for Graphic Novel Reporter, Indie Reader, and The Horn Book, Inc. She lives in Los Angeles.

 

 

B. Craig Grafton‘s stories have appeared regularly in Scarlet Leaf Review. His story Misconceptions appears in The Prison Compendium a book if thirty three short stories. Two of his stories are in the book Tales of Canyon Lake and two in 100 Voices An Anthology one in Volume Three and one in the upcoming Volume four. In addition he has had nine stories published in Romance Magazine, one in Heater and seven in Frontier Tales and a few others here and there. Author is a retired attorney now living in Texas who began writing stories about two years ago while recovering from a broken foot.

 

 

 

 

In addition to writing fiction, Andrew Livingston writes and draws a daily webcomic at CrustaceanSingles.com. Back when he was a linguist, he wrote an extremely technical descriptive grammar of an obscure Polynesian language. He also co-authored What The French!?, a very non-technical textbook on French grammar. He subscribes to the notion that any window can be a door if you believe in yourself.

 

 

Isabella Hernandez is unemployed young adult of 19 reapplying for another try at college in the Fall. She hopes to be accepted into SUNY Delhi, where she will pursue an Associates in Culinary Arts; then later a Bachelors in Culinary Management in the hopes of owning her own fine dining restaurant, Arato’s. After that, she would like to continue studying culinary overseas at Tsuji Culinary Institute before gaining work experience and finally opening her place. On the side, she writes her own novel set in an alternate history WWII that while not changing the outcome, will offer a fresh new take on the subject that also shows the trials and tribulations of mankind from either side- moral, psychological, and physical. Aside from cooking and writing, she is also a massive history buff, and is particularly fond of the pilots who flew on regardless of their flag, the odds, and at times in spite of the horrid ideologies of their governments. The only other official contest she has won was an essay on Thanksgiving during 5th Grade which instead spoke out on the inhumane treatment of Native Americans. Ever since, she has continued to expand and improve her writing by first reading good books, classic or otherwise. She consistently scored extremely well in English class, and once achieved the highest grade on the English Language Regents exams in her first high school – a 95. She looks after her old dog of nine years, named Happy, on a daily basis.

 

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer who writes primarily in English. He has recently released two science fiction novels: Siege (2016) and Outside (2017).  He has nearly two hundred short stories published in fourteen countries.  They have been translated into seven languages.  Many of the stories are collected in Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places (2010) and Virtuoso and Other Stories (2011). The Curse of El Bastardo  (2010) is a short fantasy novel.  His website is at www.gustavobondoni.com.

 

 

 

Thank you for your interest in defenestrationism.net

Surf through all Summer for more of the 2017 !Short Story Contest!

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Announcing the 2017 !Short Story Contest! Finalists

Monday, July 3rd, 2017

We are honored to announce the finalists for

the 2017 !Short Story Contest!

only on defenestrationism.net

 

 

Now posting in order of first submission

“Bearcat”, Lisa Clark

July 9th

“Blank Faces”, Jess Costello

July 16th

“Lost in Defenestration”, B. Craig Grafton

July 23rd

“Delocation”, Andrew Livingston

July 30th

“The Hunter”, Isabella Hernandez

August 6th

“The Collector”, Gustavo Bondoni

August’ 13th

 

-Fan Voting is now closed.

Winners now announced

 

 

keep surfing through, all summer long

Meet the Finalists— photos, bios and more

Guidelines

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