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Fan Voting, plus New Co-Editor Tara Campbell, and, 2020 Fall Schedule

Monday, August 19th, 2019

Have you read the final story of the contest
Ransom” by Don Noel?–
In that case,

!Fan Voting is Now Open!
simply click on the burgundy links,
or, surf the full content of
Defenestrationism.net
from our retro Navigation Panel, to site-left
and Fan Voting will also have a link…
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This voting works American Idol style,
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!vote early and vote often!
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Before announcing our fascinating
Fall Publication Schedule,
I simply must announce officially
our partnership with

New Co-Editor,
Tara Campbell

who will be reading submissions and co-selecting finalists
for future contests at Defenestrationism.net , including
the 2020 FLASH SUITE Contest
— submission now open until October 19th.

Tara Campbell—
Defenestrationism.net ‘s
new co-editor and resident “Mother of Dinos”– is a writer, teacher, Kimbilio Fellow, and fiction editor at Barrelhouse. Prior publication credits include SmokeLong Quarterly, Masters Review, Jellyfish Review, Booth, and Strange Horizons. She’s the author of a novel, TreeVolution; a hybrid fiction/poetry collection, Circe’s Bicycle; and a short story collection, Midnight at the Organporium. She received her MFA from American University in 2019.

Much more from Tara Campbell at: www.taracampbell.com





So, without further delay, here’s our bi-urnal, then weekly

Fall Publication Schedule

only on Defenestrationism.net :

Wednesday, August 21st–
Chicago Street Preacher, by Michael Lee Johnson

Friday, August 23rd–
Santuario Monserrate from Atlas: vol. 1, Bogotá

Sunday, August 25th–
Stray Dog Almost Hit by Truck from Atlas: vol. 1, Bogotá

Tuesday, August 27th–
Venezuelan Carumba Band from Atlas: vol. 1, Bogotá

Thursday, August 29th–
Getting lost in the Centro Comerciál from Atlas: vol. 1, Bogotá

Saturday, August 31st–
Granadilla Fruit from Atlas: vol. 1, Bogotá

Midnight on Sunday, September 1st– last chance for Fan Voting

Labor Day Monday, September 2nd– !Winners Announced!

Sunday, September 8th–
Crossing the Streets, Downtown from Atlas: vol. 1, Bogotá

Friday, September 13th–
We will spook you most spookily with a very special, very spooky special for you, most verily.

Sunday, September 15th–
Bogotanos in the Rain from Atlas: vol. 1, Bogotá

Sunday, September 22nd–
Libreria  from Atlas: vol. 1, Bogotá

Sunday, September 29th–
A Coffeehouse in Candelaría  from Atlas: vol. 1, Bogotá

Sunday, October 6th–
The Art of Sustaining a Still Popular Website in an Age of Social Media
Part 1.) The Broader Outlook at Defenestrationism.net

Sunday, October 13th
The Art of Sustaining a Still Popular Website in an Age of Social Media
Part 2.) Display and Design at Defenestrationism.net

Saturday, October 19th–
Close of Submission Period for 2020 FLASH SUITE Contest

Sunday, October 20th–
The Art of Sustaining a Still Popular Website in an Age of Social Media
Part 3.) Content and Consistency at Defenestrationism.net

Sunday, October 27th–
The Art of Sustaining a Still Popular Website in an Age of Social Media
Part 4.) Traffic and Capitalism

Thursday, October 31st–
eh, no real plans. Some excitement’ll happen, I’m sure.

Sunday, November 3rd–
(I will, probably, write a conclusion to this essay)
The Art of Sustaining a Still Popular Website in an Age of Social Media

December into January–
2020 FLASH SUITE Contest

So Keep Surfing Through,
All You Lovers of Literature,
throughout our 2019 Autumnal Season




Don’t forget to VOTE


More Exciting Content:
The Art of Throwing People Out Windows
Disability Narratives — but one part of Voices of the Disenfranchised
Letters to Maria Coryatè
So, You Wanna Understand T.S. Eliot’s “the Waste Land?”

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Ransom

Sunday, August 18th, 2019

by Don Noel

She hardly realized she’d been kidnaped until the big car was about to speed away. One minute she was pruning roses near the arched brick gate, and the next she was pinioned by the elbows in the hands of two burly, masked men who whisked her through the gate and into the car, wedging her between them in the back seat.

Although it was a long way up to the house, she tried to scream. One of the men clapped a hand across her mouth so hard that it hurt, and so tight that she couldn’t even try to bite.

“Now, Granny, let’s not struggle,” he growled. “Don’t want to hurt you. They’ll send us the money and we’ll let you go, safe and sound. Deal?” He took his hand away.

She shook her head. “Open the door and let me out, please.” It struck her as a bit unusual to be speaking politely to these ruffians, but she knew the importance of civility in managing human affairs and controversies. One should observe the proprieties, not lose control or yield to frustration.

“Fat chance.” A third man, behind the wheel, seemed to be the one in charge. The two men shoulder-squeezing her wore black Lone Ranger masks. The driver wore a gray fedora and a red kerchief over his nose and chin. He stomped on the gas; the car squealed forward. He half-turned – she could see his bushy black eyebrows — to address the one on her right. “Johnny, get her phone and turn it off.”

“Right,” said Johnny. “Granny, you want to give me your phone, or do I have to search you?”

“I’m not ‘Granny’. I’m Elizabeth Smythe, you’re not going to search me and I don’t use those things.”

“Everyone has one.” His voice sounded as though it came from his substantial belly. Like the other man who’d grabbed her, he wore a faded and rumpled business suit, the shirt collar open. She should pay attention to these details, she thought, when the time came to report them to police. Balding, graying hair.

 “Not I,” she told him. “I still have a dial phone in the bedroom. My first phone was a party line; you took turns with neighbors to call.” She glared at Johnny. “Cooperating. Sharing. I don’t suppose that would appeal to you.”

“Search her,” the man in front said.

“Don’t be vulgar!” she said. “Have you no breeding? It’s not allowed. You’ll have to have a female accomplice do that. Or else take my word.”

“Take her word, for Chrissake,” the man in front said. “But Granny, we’d better not find out you’re lying. Rich people lie a lot.”

“You know,” she told him, “I wasn’t always affluent. I fed chickens and sold their eggs to help the family. That was in third grade. Did you have work when you were in third grade?”

The man in front ignored her, took out his phone and punched in a number.

“You shouldn’t telephone while you’re driving,” she told him. “It’s against the law.”

He continued to ignore her. “Hello? Is this Peter Smythe? No? Well, you tell him he can have his mother back for one hundred thousand dollars. This is Harry. I’m going to call again in an hour to tell him where to leave the money. Tell him not to call the cops, or he’ll never see her again.” He punched the phone off and handed it over his shoulder. “Turn it all the way off, Johnny. Otherwise they can track us.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, ignoring the phone business, “but can you stop at a gas station? I have to use a rest room.”

“WHAT?” The man in front, who’d said into the telephone that he was Harry, looked over his shoulder. “Are you crazy?”

“If you’re going to kidnap elderly people, you’ll have to get used to it. I used to be like a camel, but not anymore.”

“A camel?”

“They can store a lot of water. Goodness, you’re not very well-read, are you?”

“You’ll have to hold it, Granny. We’ll be at the house in ten minutes.”

“I’ll try. My, this highway looks familiar.” She knew the moment the words were out of her mouth that she’d made a mistake.

“Johnny, for God’s sake!” said the driver, Harry. “Haven’t you blindfolded her?”

“You shouldn’t take the Lord’s name in vain,” she told him.

“Sorry, boss,” Johnny said. “Forgot.” 

“Well, do it. Now.”

Johnny produced a black silk kerchief and wrapped it around her eyes, bumping her head with an elbow.

“Ouch! You’re clumsy. I bruise easily. You’ll be charged with unnecessary assault and battery.” She would have glared at him, but the blindfold prevented her. “Why do you need to do this anyway?”

“So you won’t be able to tell the cops where we took you, Granny.” She recognized the voice as being Harry’s, in front. “When we get there,” he added, “we’ll take it off.”

“Will there be a lady there? Someone who will understand my needs?”

“Molly should be there,” he said.

“Molly? My, that brings back memories.”

“What?” That was from the man on the other side, whose name she hadn’t learned. A distinctive voice, though, one she might recognize or describe to police. A tenor, albeit rather a scratchy one.

“Molly was my best friend in high school. She helped me take in laundry.”

“You did other people’s laundry?”

“Oh, yes, we had the only washing machine on the block. It had a wringer. You guided each piece between a pair of rubber rollers and then cranked. That squeezed the fabric through to the hanging-up basket, and most of the water back into the washer. That was in seventh grade, I think.”

“Granny,” Harry’s voice said from the front, “you’re a piece of work. I hope your son will pony up right away to get you back.”

“And we hung it outdoors to dry.”

“Outdoors?” That was the man to her left, the tenor.

“My, you have no idea what poverty is. You have no right to harass old ladies.”

“Granny, shut up!” That was Harry.

“My father,” she insisted, “rigged up a pulley line from the back porch across the driveway to a tall tree. So we had to lug the laundry basket up from the basement, where the washing machine was. It was heavy.”

“Granny, I told you to knock it off.”

“Have you no manners? Didn’t your mother teach you to say please?”

Harry said nothing for a time, apparently concentrating on driving, because she felt the car make a turn. “Please,” he finally said. “Shut up!”

“You mean ‘say no more’. You must have had terrible teachers.”

“You want us to gag her, Harry?” Johnny asked from her right.

“No, Johnny. Granny, please say no more.”

“Good boy,” she said. She hoped he might be looking at her in the rear view mirror, and made a pantomime of zipping her lips in front of the blindfold.

In a few more minutes, the car stopped. “Okay with the blindfold,” Harry said, and Johnny took it off as clumsily as he’d put it on.  They were stopped in front of a small house surrounded by what looked like farm fields. Almost certainly farm fields, because it smelled as though cow or horse manure had been recently spread. That might help the police figure out where she’d been held.

Johnny came around to open the side door, and actually extended a hand to help her out.

“Thank you for your manners,” she said. Surely no harm in acknowledging small favors, she thought, but she saw his eyebrows above the mask go up in surprise. The poor lout must be totally unschooled.

“I think we should seize the opportunity for some lessons in decorum,” she said. “Perhaps this evening. After you’ve mowed the lawn, by the way. It’s quite unkempt.” 

A young woman came down the sidewalk to meet them. “Hey, Molly,” Harry said. “Granny needs to take a pee. I want you to frisk her for a cell phone, then take her to the head.”

“You look like a nice girl, Molly. I guess he wants you to search me.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Just don’t do anything you wouldn’t do to your own grandmother. And be quick, please; I’m about to burst.”

“Yes, ma’am. Can you spread your arms and legs, please?”

“What? Not until those men turn the other way.”

“Jesus,” said Harry. “Johnny, Eddie, turn and look at the street. Let’s get on with it.”

“I’ve already told you,” she scowled at him. “You mustn’t take the Lord’s name in vain.” They all turned, and she smiled at the young woman. “All right, Molly.” She tried to think about other things while the woman patted her legs and arms and body, politely but firmly.

Thinking of other things took an unexpected direction: She thought about the clippers with which she’d been pruning the roses. “Do you have my pruning shears, Mr. Harry?” she said.

“What?” He started to turn.

“Don’t turn, please,” she scolded. “I was working on the roses when you rudely abducted me. Those were very good shears. Expensive. Did your ruffians make me drop them in the garden, or are they in your car?”

“Beats me, Granny.”

“Please. Mrs. Smythe.”

“All right, Mrs. Smythe. I still don’t know.”

“Why don’t you have Johnnie or Eddie go look in the car,” she said. “They have bright red handles.”

He sighed. “Johnny, go look. Molly, you finished back there?”

“She’s okay, Harry.”

“Can I go to the bathroom then?” she said, trying to convey her urgency.

“Of course.” Molly seemed more polite and understanding than the men. “Follow me, please.”

The bathroom was less than clean, but serviceable. “Can you find a paper towel so I can wash my hands and dry them on something clean?” she asked Molly.

“You bet.” Molly was back in a moment with a handful of towel segments. She washed and dried her hands with care, then let Molly lead her to a small, dingy living room where the three men were waiting.

“Do you live here?” she asked Harry. “Or just imprison helpless old ladies here? Your facilities are a disgrace.”

“Granny, you’re something else. I’m going down the road to get the team some food. How about a hamburger before I go call your son?”

“Hamburger? No, thank you. I’m a vegetarian. You should try it. Clarifies the mind.”

“Jesus!” he said again. “All right, we’ll see if you get hungry while I’m gone.”

“You’re leaving me here?”

“Not for long, I hope. I’m going to call your son.”

“Why don’t you call right now? Perhaps I could talk with him. Reassure him, you know?”

“Granny, they track phones nowadays. I’ll turn my phone on when I get to some crowded place.” He left before she had a chance to object again to his not using her name.

“Miss Molly,” she said. “Is there someplace I could have privacy for a little nap while we wait?”

“Of course, Mrs. Smythe. You can have my room.”

Really a nice girl, she thought; must remember to recommend a little leniency when this gang goes to trial.

Molly led her to a small room with a small but clean-looking bed. “You get a little rest, Mrs. Smythe. I’m going to take the other car to see if I can find you some vegan food. Anything special you’d like?”

“Thank you, dear. Most places have a veggie burger or a vegetarian chili.”

“How about something to drink? Or will a glass of water do you?”

“I think it would be unwise to drink from a glass here,” she said. “Suppose you get me a can of ginger ale and a straw? In a paper sleeve, please.”

She fell asleep almost instantly, but half-wakened when she heard Molly come in the front door. The aroma of the chili brought her fully to her senses. Molly had brought a plastic fork and spoon and the roll of paper towels. “Thank you, dear heart. You deserve better than to be associated with these men. Are you in love with one of them, poor girl?”

“Harry and I are engaged.”

She didn’t hurry her response. It was usually unbecoming to rush responses, just as it would be unseemly to gulp food down. While she chewed, she held out her left hand, raising an eyebrow to show Molly to reciprocate.

“No ring, poor girl?” she said after swallowing that bite. “You mustn’t let love blind you to uncouth behavior.”

The young woman blushed. “You’re a very wise lady, Mrs. Smythe.”

She wanted to pursue that, but her mouth was again full of chili. Before she had half- finished the bowl she heard the front door again, and heard Harry.

“Put on your masks, you guys, and get Granny to the car.”

“Fantastic, boss,” she heard Eddie say. “You struck a deal?”

“Later, Eddie. Get your mask back on. Molly? Molly? Where is she?”

“Coming, Harry.” The young woman led her out.

It was all very confusing. “What’s going on, Molly?” she asked.

“I suppose your son has arranged the ransom, Mrs. Smythe. I think they’re taking you home.”

“Praise the Lord. Can you come too? I suppose they’ll want me blindfolded again, and these men don’t know how to do it gently.”

“Take her out to the car,” Harry ordered. “Molly, you blindfold her.”

It was dark, and she took the young woman’s hand to avoid stumbling. Molly helped her get comfortable in the middle of the back seat, and tied the blindfold very gently indeed. “You take care now, Mrs. Smythe.”

“Thank you dear. Remember what I said about not being blinded. All right, Mr. Harry; take me home!”

The two men squeezed in on either side of her as before, and she heard Harry get in and start the engine. He gunned it, and she felt the car swerve onto the highway.

“Gently there, Mr. Harry.” She raised her voice to be sure he heard her. “Gently, I said. Your blindfold makes me dizzy, and I’m experiencing some motion sickness. You don’t want me to upchuck all over your friends back here.”

“Sweet Jesus!” she heard Harry mutter from the front seat, but he slowed down, and she felt Eddie and Johnny edge away from her as much as they could.

“Did you get the whole hundred grand, boss?” she heard Johnny say.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Harry said. She sensed irritation in his voice.

He drove on, and they all fell silent for what seemed a long time. She tried to count right and left turns. Finally, Harry spoke again. “Now, you guys get ready. Be sure your masks are on. Take her blindfold off. When I stop, I want her out of the car and on her feet in ten seconds flat, and we’re out of here.”

She felt Johnny fumbling with the blindfold while he spoke. “Aren’t we going to collect the money first, boss?”

“I told you we’ll talk about it later.”

Johnny’s voice sounded strained, as though he found it hard to challenge the boss. “You didn’t get it, did you?” he said in what seemed an accusatory tone.

“You know what her son told me?” Harry said. “He wanted to bargain. ‘You keep her for a few days, and we’ll see if the price goes down,’ he said.” Harry turned to scowl at her over his bandana mask. “Your son, Granny. You raised a cheap bastard.”

“Please, watch your language. I raised a boy not to be a spendthrift.”

“To sell his mama down the river, Granny.”

Harry had by now gotten out of the car come around to the rear door. Johnny had opened it and was waiting. “Well, why are we taking her back, then, boss?” he asked.

Harry reached in, took her hand and almost yanked her out of the car, hardly looking at her as he turned to Johnny. “You want to keep her a few more days, do you?”

Her turned back to her. “Welcome home, Granny.” She couldn’t see his mouth behind that stupid mask, but there was no trace of a smile in his eyes, and she was glad she didn’t need to smile back.” He led her to the locked gate, and wheeled. “You guys get back in the car. We’re outta here.”

She tried to read the license plate as the car disappeared in a roar and squeal of engine and tires, but it was caked with mud. At last she turned back to the gate and pushed the intercom button.

“Who’s there?” It was Peter’s voice.

“It’s your mother. Come open the gate.”

“Mother! How wonderful! How did you get here?”

She thought about saying that she’d saved him a lot of money, and that he should be grateful for having a mother who observes the proprieties, but decided that would itself be unseemly. “We can talk later,” she said. “Come quickly, please; I need to use the bathroom.”

It was a chilly evening. She shivered as she waited, thinking that she must remember next morning to look for the pruning shears.

-End-





back to the 2019 !Short Story Contest!
FAN VOTING opens tomorrow at 12:05am EST
home/ Bonafides
!What’s New! on Defenestrationism.net


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Tommaso

Monday, August 12th, 2019

by Nickolas Urpí

I

The nail dug into the wood as deep as it could without ceremony and without art, one of many identical iron nails compulsory to completing the coffin. Tommaso ran his hand along the side of the wood. Back and forth he rubbed against it. Were there splinters? Were there rough patches? Would a grieving widow place her hand on the wood and feel the pain physically as well as emotionally? He had to rub his hands over it many times, as his hands were no longer young and fresh, but thick and calloused with work.

He was still young, though. Age had had not carved any ridges or troughs into his face. It had only calloused his hands with work and hardened his legs with standing. 

“Your work is excellent, Tommaso,” Padre Giampaolo said, coming up from behind the carpenter to admire his craft. They were old friends, the priest and the atheist. (One time, as children, Tommaso had saved Giampaolo from drowning. They were young and foolish and wanted to catch fish larger and more impressive than the other boys, and so they rowed out further. The waves, however, were choppy with the coming storm and the boat capsized. Tommaso dove into the waters to save his friend, who had fallen over and was sinking into the dark grey sea. He managed to grab Giampaolo by the shirt and breast and pull him up from the water. Giampaolo’s mouth had already almost filled entirely with water. It even crashed down on Tommaso as he kicked his legs, trying to keep him and his friend afloat. It was a struggle just to keep Giampaolo above the water as he swam them both back to shore, the boat succumbing to the ocean’s treacherous pull. 

Just as they arrived on shore, Giampaolo hardly breathing at all, the sun crashed through the clouds, smiting the storm, which seemed so far away. Giampaolo was ill and hardly responding to Tommaso shouting his name. “Angels,” he whispered with his head lying back against the sands. “I see Angels.”)

“The execution is good,” Tommaso replied, satisfied that his work had been efficiently accomplished. The coffin was ready for staining and lining. Tommaso completed every aspect of the process himself, preferring it to hiring apprentices to assist him. He was less artistic than most in his trade, but more meticulous. Not once had the lining slipped on the inside of the coffin, and the seal was always tight. 

“You are talented at what you do,” Padre Giampaolo insisted. 

“Thank you, Paolo,” Tommaso replied. “How is the Tall Man?” 

“He is dying,” Padre Giampaolo sighed, cleaning his glasses with a small clothe. “He will not last the night, the doctor says. I think it is possible he may have a recovery—but it looks bad. It looks very bad.”

“The Tall Man has a good heart,” Tommaso said, wiping his nose on his sleeve. “He will be missed.”

“He was very good to the poor,” the father added, searching his mind with his eyes, sorting through all the glimpses of memories of the Tall Man.

“He was kind to my mother, too,” Tommaso said. “When the mine collapsed on my father and three others—he helped to dig. My mother was on her hands and knees, scraping with her nails. He worked night and day—unlike some others.”

“My cousin was in that mine,” the priest continued. “It was a tragic day for all of us.”

“Yes.” Tommaso looked around his shop for the leather he had purchased from Florence to fill the lining of the coffin. “Yes, I must return to coffin. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“One more thing.”

“Isn’t there always?” Tommaso sighed. 

“When will I see you at Mass?” the priest asked, smiling.

“Not today,” Tommaso replied, returning his friend’s smile. 

The priest laughed and exited the carpenter’s shop. Their ritual was always the same: conversation, old times (despite neither of them being quite so old), always culminating with one simple question which always had one simple answer.

“Watch your step,” Tommaso said, his hand outstretched to help Nunzia scale the rocks leading to the hillside where they would have their picnic. It was a quiet, green place that overlooked the town.

“I can manage,” Nunzia said, lifting her dress, her bare feet clinging to the rocks and lifting herself up to him. 

“Your hair is very pretty today.”

“Your compliments are like desserts without sugar,” Nunzia joked. “I’ve heard better compliments from many other young men—suitors all of them.”

“Why aren’t you with them, then?” Tommaso asked, shoving his hands into his pockets, his sleeves casually rolled back up to his elbows. He had spun away from her, focusing on his own climb

“Because they are all sweet and no flavor,” Nunzia joked again. 

Her laughter sent a shooting warmth throughout his spine. He closed his eyes and let the moment of her and him together immerse them in a spirit of blissful unity. The wind blew the fresh, dry scents of the mountains into their nostrils.

“Sure, sure,” Tommaso replied, his mind wandering in the countryside. “Isn’t this beautiful? A true religion to be sure.”

“Ah, you and religion,” Nunzia said, punching him lightly in the shoulder as she caught up to him. “Why don’t you ever come to Mass?”

“You know why,” Tommaso replied. “I do not believe in Christ or God.”

“How can you say that when we live in such a beautiful world he created?” Nunzia said, holding her hands out to the air and letting the sun beat down on her breasts, rhythmically moving with her breath.

“He did not create this world,” Tommaso replied. “This world is all there is—it is beautiful on its own. It does not need a God. When we die, we go back to the worms. That is all. Then, the birds eat the worms and the cycle continues.”

“You and circles,” Nunzia laughed. 

“You and churches! You are beginning to nag at me like Paolo,” Tommaso laughed back, grabbing Nunzia’s hand and leading her through the dry shrubs to the spot that had caught his eye since the beginning of the climb.

“Padre Giampaolo,” Nunzia corrected. “Have some respect. He is a priest.”

“He is my friend and does not mind,” Tommaso retorted, finding the perfect location for their picnic. “Here, hand me the blanket.”

“Just because he is your friend and does not mind does not mean you have to treat him disrespectfully! He has worked hard to become a priest and has made many sacrifices.”

“I do not wish to discuss this again, Nunzia,” Tommaso said, sitting down on the blanket and reaching his hand up to pull Nunzia down to him. Nunzia’s hand were planted firmly on her hips, her hazel eyes glaring down at Tommaso. She narrowed them and twisted her lips up towards her scrunched nose. Tommaso withheld his laugh, but his humor manifested itself in his smirk.

“So, you laugh at me now? You think this is funny?” Nunzia asked, her hips bobbing as though they were dancing to her voice’s rhythm.

“No, this is very serious,” Tommaso lied, feigning as though he were deep in thought. He rested his chin on his knuckles. “Very serious!”

“Oh, shut up!” Nunzia said, falling on his shoulders as she sat down beside him. “I am just  sorry for you.”

“For me?” Tommaso laughed. “Don’t be—I am sorry for you! Chasing a dream, thinking about the other world when this one is just fine! Look at the birds and the trees!”

“Yes, I see them,” Nunzia said. “I see you too, the way you enjoy them.”

“Yes,” Tommaso replied. “I do love to be up here. Sometimes you can smell the wild fennel, or even the sea.”

“The sea is too far to smell from here!” Nunzia insisted, laughing at his crazy conjecture.

“Not if you close your eyes! You can hear it if you close your eyes and just listen,” Tommaso whispered, doing so, as though he were teaching her how it was to be done.

“You are a poet,” Nunzia said. “A poet with his faith in grass and bugs.” Nunzia laid herself down flat against the ground, forming hills of her own as she folded her knees.

“When I am your husband, I will not put up with your teasing, Nunzia!” Tommaso laughed, reaching down and tugging at her hair. Her hair was all spread out like a black fan, her curls like whispers of smoke rising from the ground.

Nunzia smiled: “How can you marry me if you will not go in a church?”

Tommaso let his body collapse onto hers. He kissed her, and her arms wrapped around him, her fingernails digging into his back. They remained like that for a long while, the question remaining unanswered…

“Nunzia! Come quick! Papa is ill!” Giacomo cried, as he ran towards his sister, his hands waving in the air and his face black with dust. Nunzia and Tommaso had just returned from their picnic, perusing hand in hand when they noticed Giacomo bolting through the town. 

Nunzia’s hand broke away from Tommaso’s and she ran with Giacomo back to the house, Tommaso following behind. Nunzia disappeared through the front door and jumped the stairs three at a time to reach the top floor. Tommaso waited respectfully at the bottom of the stairs for near an hour before the creaking of footsteps on the stairs alerted the carpenter to the doctor’s presence.

“What is it Dottore?” Tommaso asked, his voice calm, though his blood jolted as it pressed its way through his veins.

The doctor sighed and scratched at the bald spot on his head, decorated with a currant-colored birthmark. “I do not know, but he is very ill—I told Nunzia and Signora Rubino that they can stay and watch over her, but the boy must go. There is no use in having him exposed to the illness.”

“Yes, of course. I will take him,” Tommaso said, as Nunzia escorted Giacomo down the stairway. The shock pulled Nunzia’s face thin. Her eyes were colorless masses and the vivacity that so often shone within them seemed to be nothing more than wisps of smoke from a blown-out candle.

“Are you well, Nunzia?” Tommaso asked, pulling Giacomo by the shoulder to come with him. “You are so pale—let me do something. Shall I run to the butcher for some meat for your father? Perhaps that will help?”

“Only broth,” the doctor interrupted. 

“Thank you, Tommaso,” Nunzia’s weak voice replied. “Just take Giacomo.”

“Nunzia, no,” Giacomo insisted, a tear running down his cheek. “I want to see Papa.”

Nunzia kneeled down in front of Giacomo and played with the curls in his hair. His cheeks were still rotund, and he sniffled as he tried to restrain his tears.

“You have to go, Giacomo,” Nunzia said, brushing his cheeks with her fingers. “You have to go with Tommaso. I will take care of Papa with Mama until he feels better.”

Giacomo nodded and let Tommaso escort him out of the room. Tommaso stole another quick glance of Nunzia while caught in Janus’ domain. The rich yellow, light was peering in from the windows, illuminating the whole house with its peculiar hues. The banister broke the light, its shadow forming crosses on Nunzia’s lower body as she scaled the steps one at a time. Tommaso shut the door behind him as the memory of Nunzia’s ascension repeated endlessly in his memory.

The doctor knew no rest. Nunzia’s father was gravely ill for a week before passing on a Sunday. That was only the beginning of the bad news. 

Giacomo fell ill and was taken back into the house to be cared for by Nunzia and Mama. Like pieces of a chessboard falling to their fate, the men, women, and children of the town started to succumb to the disease. Even some animals passed with this new disease as the cause. The doctor was at a loss to explain it. He wrote back to Rome to see if a friend of his, a professor, knew what the source of the disease could be. He received no reply. 

Tommaso was busy night and day in his workshop, building coffins for his neighbros whose lives and strength were exhausted by the disease. Tommaso, however, remained unaffected. He didn’t have time to pass by the church, illuminated with the faint glow of candles, the musty air muddied with the mutterings and tears of widows and widowers.

“How is Giacomo, Paolo?” Tommaso asked, putting the finishing touches on one of the coffins for the butcher’s wife, who was the latest to fall victim to the illness. 

“He is doing well. Recovering, thanks be to God,” the priest said, sitting down in the corner of Tommaso’s shop. He rubbed his eyes from underneath his glasses.

“And Nunzia? I have not seen her since her father—,” Tommaso began, but swallowed because he could not finish.

“Nunzia is well. Neither she nor the Signora have caught the illness,” Padre Giampaolo continued. “They are tired though. They have been all over town, as all of us have. I have seen Nunzia every night, lighting a candle for the all our brothers and sisters who have fallen. So much death! So much tragedy to have befallen a small village such as ours.” The priest sighed again.

“You do not look good, yourself,” Tommaso said, placing the coffin gently in the pile with the others. He wiped the sawdust off his hands and his apron before approaching his old friend, the chair screeching as he dragged it across the floor, drawing marks in the cushioned layer of sawdust that stretched from wall to wall. “You are pale.”

“I am well enough,” the priest replied, his hands running against his knees. The distinct odor of burning wood felt sharp in his nostrils. He brought his handkerchief up to his nose to prevent himself from sneezing as Tommaso leaned back in his chair. “Your hands are worn—red, are they not? It’s not the candlelight. You have been working hard.”

“They will heal. I have worked hard before, and when this is all over, there may not be much more work for me,” Tommaso replied, using his whittling knife to chop at a stick. No statuette emerged from the piece of wood—no kore or kouroi—no pursuit of artistry—not even simple geometric design. He simply cut away at the wood, sliver by sliver. The senseless chips fell to the ground, destined to be blown away and dissolved in the wind.

“Tell me, Paolo,” Tommaso began. “Why doesn’t your God do anything? Hm? Why did he not save Nunzia’s father? He was a good man, wasn’t he?”

“He was a very good man,” the priest replied, tentatively, sitting back in his chair. “Why do you think that God ‘did nothing’ as you say, Tommaso?”

“Because there is no God,” Tommaso asserted without hesitation. 

“This is our world,” the priest replied. “And we have to live with it as it is—God performs many miracles, sometimes, and sometimes he does not. I do not know why he does or does not—many good men die, but they are not truly dead. They are rewarded for their goodness and are with Him now. We are left to mourn, but also remember, that they are not gone forever, and we will join them one day in God’s heaven.”

Tommaso remained unmoved. “I did not ask for a sermon—for you to comfort me as though I were a schoolgirl, naïve in her faith.”

The priest laughed and shook his head. “If only we all had naïve faith! Faith like a child—if only. I do not know what you want me to tell you, Tommaso. This is what I believe. Bad and good happen in this world and we cannot control it, we can only mitigate it at times. There will always be bad people making bad choices, but the choice is theirs to make. Sometimes the good have ill fortune, but they are rewarded for their goodness.”

“Another sermon,” Tommaso said. “Paolo! How can you believe all this when there is so much death and unhappiness around you?”

“It helps me to believe all the more, Tommaso,” Giampaolo insisted. “All the more—when will I see you at mass?”

“Not today,” Tommaso smirked. As the priest stood up, his old friend embraced him and landed a hearty slap on his back. 

Just as the priest opened the door to exit the carpentry shop, Tommaso stopped him: “Paolo..”

“Yes, Tommaso?”

“Did you really see angels?”

The priest straightened his eyeglasses and let his firm gaze meet Tommaso’s. 

“Yes, Tommaso. I saw angels.”

Time passed not like sands falling through an hourglass, but like mud: it oozed down from the top to the bottom, mirroring the pace of the town’s continual suffering. It almost felt as though time were suspended, the sun and moon continuing to rotate more from habit than from the natural progression of time. The doctor’s visit to Tommaso was never a favorable portent, and Tommaso prepared himself for more ill news when he saw the doctor’s drawn face coming up to him in the cemetery. Tommaso had finished placing the last shovel-full of dirt into one of the graves he had to dig for the undertaker, who had passed in the epidemic.

“Padre Giampaolo is ill,” the doctor sighed as he placed his hand on Tommaso’s shoulder. 

“Very ill?”

“He will not make it,” the doctor replied. “It is a miracle that you and I have not fallen ill—it is a strange disease. So many deaths. So many widows, widowers, mothers, sons, daughters! What do we have left?”

Tommaso left immediately with as much haste as he could muster. He found Padre Giampaolo alone on his bed, pale and weak with the illness which had drained the sun-stained color from his cheeks.

“Do not take long,” the doctor said, coming in behind him. “I do not want you to fall ill yourself.” The doctor’s eyes had sunk down to his cheeks, the dark bags made all the more noticeable by the pale contour of his skin, which had not seen a minute of sun since the plague began. His profession was an illness of its own.

“If I were meant to catch this disease,” Tommaso replied. “I would have caught it already.”

“Be careful, nonetheless,” the doctor insisted. “This disease has played enough tricks on us already.” Tommaso ignored him, and the doctor closed the door behind him as he left the old friends to reminisce undisturbed. 

Tommaso sat himself down on a chair by the priest’s bed. Padre Giampaolo was wheezing in his sleep, his chest gently waxing and waning, inhaling and exhaling, dripping with hot sweat.

“Father,” Tommaso whispered. He hardly fit in his chair, such was his frame. His shoulders were broad and thick with muscles from having worked wood for long hours. 

“Paolo,” Tommaso whispered. 

Paolo’s eyelids opened just enough to let the light in. The whites around his eyes were a creamish yellow color, and his breath took long pauses, in between which, his twitching fingers would still. Then the trembling and breathing would begin anew, a cycle that could only be broken by recovery or death.

“Paolo,” Tommaso reiterated, his eyes reddening as a tear condensed in the corner of his eye. “What has happened to you, friend? Are you in pain?”

The priest’s movements were so subtle, they could have been missed by even the most attentive onlooker. Tommaso could see the shaking of the priest’s head, however, indicating that he had already moved beyond pain.

“That is good—no pain is good,” Tommaso said, reaching out and clasping his hand on his friend’s arm. Paolo’s archaic smile indicated that his courageous spirit was still holding firm in the face of fear— 

He did not know if saying the obvious was for his friend’s sake or his own, but he did not dwell on his words, but was rather immersed in the present moment.

“You’ve been a good man,” Tommaso whispered, biting his lip. Words were failing him, despite how in these moments, their meaning were more potent. And yet, it was in these same moments that they seemed so much more inadequate. “A very good man, and your God, if he is up there, will reward you.”

Paolo could not reply. His parched mouth pursed slightly, as though he were trying to speak. 

No sound came out. He only continued to breath.

“You will see the angels again, Paolo,” Tommaso said, nodding his head. “Of that I am sure.”

Padre Giampaolo’s breathing paused. Tommaso waited for them to resume. 

“Paolo.”

His arms were stiff. 

“Padre Giampaolo,” Tommaso said again, louder this time, as though the volume of his voice could summon the spirit back into the corpse. He could not restrain his tears. He bit his lip again, waiting for the priest to begin to breath again.

“Goodbye, old friend.”

The service for the town’s priest was held in silence. Very few were able to attend. Not even Nunzia was able to show for the priest. All the women were busy weeping or helping to save the remaining few men who were still ill. Many were recovering. Many had recovered. Many widows had left the town to seek asylum with family connections elsewhere, as far as Sicily or Milan if need be. Many were forced to leave to find work as a seamstress or tutor in the cities. 

Tommaso’s lower lip curled, as though he were to speak out, rage even. Instead, he just leveled the shovel and pour the black dirt back to its place, above the coffin he had built for Padre Giampaolo, who was communing with the angels.

II

Nunzia performed the sign of the cross, the wooden pew creaking as she lifted herself up from her knees. She was not alone, but the clacking of her footsteps against the cold, tile floor echoed off the walls and windows. Once outside, she removed the twilight-colored lace from her head and folded it across her arm. She loosened her hair. The sun was weak as the late summer drowsiness began to weaken against the wakening of winter.

The clouds, too, seemed as though they had lingered for some days not even changing their shape. A bird sang as it bathed itself in the aging cement water fountain in front of the church. The water sifted its way through the brightly-colored feathers of the dancing bird. It shook off the excess droplets and dashed off across the sky towards the town. Nunzia realized then, a smile had spread its way across her face. She brought her fingers up to feel her cheeks, the edges of her mouth piercing into them. 

She saw Tommaso driving a cart back into town. His withered, grey mule, Cannolo, grumbled as it slogged along down the street. 

Nunzia waved to Tommaso from across the town. He did not wave back. Both of his hands were wrapped in white cloths. 

“Tommaso!” Nunzia said, approaching him as he descended from his cart. “Tommaso, I waved, did you not see me?”

“No, Nunzia. I’m sorry,” Tommaso lied, unpacking from his cart the freshly cut wood he had purchased in the next town.

“I have not seen you in a very long time,” Nunzia said. “We have not had a moment together, we have not talked or shared a meal—not even a coffee.”

“I have been busy,” Tommaso replied, curtly. “I have had an offer from one of the estates up in the hills for a whole dining set.”

“That is wonderful news,” Nunzia smiled, the scent of incense gently lifting from her shawl and filling Tommaso’s nose. “Come visit us when you finish your work, for dinner, perhaps.”

“I am sorry, Nunzia. I have no time. Another day, perhaps.”

“Will I at least see you in Mass?” Nunzia asked, biting her lip and twisting her shoulder in hope. Tommaso remained wooden:

“No, you know I do not believe.”

“I thought perhaps—”

“No perhaps,” Tommaso interrupted, his patience having exhausted. “I wrote to the bishop, informing him of what happened to—to Paolo. They will send a new priest soon.”

“Of course, thank you, Tommaso,” Nunzia said, her eyes breaking from him at his outburst. “It was a good thing you did for your friend.”

Tommaso nodded, about to take his leave of Nunzia’s company when she reached forward and lifted up his arms. 

“You wounded yourself on both hands? Tommaso! You’re so clumsy, you usually only hurt one of your hands at a time. You are working too hard!”

Tommaso ripped his hand away from Nunzia. 

“What business is it of yours? A man has to work!”

“Of course, he does,” Nunzia said, swallowing as embarrassment swept over her. “Don’t think I don’t know that! I was only concerned for you. I can wash your wound for you if you wish.”

“I don’t wish. Good day, Nunzia.”

“Good day!” Nunzia spat back, angrily. As Tommaso disappeared into his shop, she muttered: “Scimunito!” 

As she dragged herself back to her house, her mind chewed over their conversation, searching her memory for some twitch or look in Tommaso’s eyes that would allow her to explain his cryptic and defensive behavior. She hoped that even if she could not find a way, that time would.

Time, however, was as powerless against Tommaso’s hermetical withdrawal as she was. The whole town, even (few as there were left) took notice of the strange wrapping of Tommaso’s hands. “He is working himself to death,” they whispered to themselves. “He has not been the same since Padre Giampaolo died.” “They were best friends, you know. He saved the padre when he they were boys.” “He is pale, and he works his hands to the bone! That is why they are so wrapped up.” 

The other question that plagued the town was the missing priest. 

“Tommaso!” they would shout at him from across the street. “When is the new priest to come? Have you heard from the bishop?”

“No!” He would say. 

And that was all. 

Time and time again they would pry him for information, but to no avail. Tommaso even wrote to Rome, informing them of the oversight. No word ever came back. Silent were they ever.

“I need to speak to you,” Nunzia said, the door slamming shut behind her signaling her arrival. 

“Nunzia!” Tommaso shouted. “Stop!” He spun around, grabbing a cloth and wrapping his unwrapped right hand, which he hunched over to keep her from seeing. “Get out! I am working!”

“I need to speak to you! Do not speak to me in such a tone!”

“I do not have time for you!”

“You will make time!” Nunzia yelled. “I need your help, Tommaso!”

Tommaso’s muscles softened as his shoulders fell into his sigh. 

“What is it, Nunzia?”

Nunzia tightened the shawl around her arms and approached his table in the far corner of the workshop. She brushed the sawdust from the chair and sat down opposite him. 

“Well?” Tommaso asked, his foot impatiently keeping an allegro tempo against the floor.

“It’s Giacomo,” Nunzia began. The words she had fermenting inside her were now difficult for her to let free into the air. “Yesterday—Oh Tommaso—Yesterday, he disappointed me so much. He broke one of the stained windows in the church with a stone yesterday! I caught him running home, tears streaming down his cheeks. He tried to suck them up when I saw him, but he couldn’t fool me! He didn’t tell me why he did it, but I know. The whole town is suffering, Tommaso.”

“What do you want me to do?” Tommaso asked, scratching the back of his neck. His eyes avoided Nunzia, preferring to keep fixed on various inanimate objects around the shop. “I have told the whole town I have heard nothing from the bishop or Rome! There is nothing we can do if they do not send a priest!”

“The women are starting to lose their hope,” Nunzia insisted. “They do not pray anymore! I hardly see anyone within the walls—they treat it like an ancient temple, one that has fallen into disuse, one that has been forgotten by time! A temple that means nothing any longer—to anyone—to gods that only existed in their minds! I don’t want that to happen.”

“I cannot help you, Nunzia! Why must you insist?”

“I need help, Tommaso,” Nunzia shouted, grabbing him by the arm. “What has happened to you? You never come to see me anymore. Is it because of Padre Giampaolo?”

“I have had many friends die!” Tommaso grunted, shaking Nunzia away from him. She loosened her grip. “His death was the same to me as my mother’s and father’s and brother’s! In fact, he was my brother! We all die! All of us! Even priests! That is not why—”

“Why what? You know it’s true. You have not been to see me or anyone else in the town! You used to shower your love and respect on everyone—even if you were quiet. We could see you smiling and working, being alive! You have changed so much, Tommaso.”

“That is my business,” Tommaso insisted. “I cannot help you!”

“Tommaso, marry me,” Nunzia said, falling back on the table, trembling. “Marry me.”

“Nunzia,” Tommaso whispered, as he walked away from her still, as though the very proximity to her wounded him. “I can’t.”

“Why not?” Nunzia implored. “That would force us to have a priest and use the church! Maybe it would remind the town of happy times—happier times and we could be alive again! Maybe it would save us, too.” 

“There are no happy times,” Tommaso said, his fingers wrapping around a chair. Nunzia could see them squeezing around the back of the chair. The wood almost snapped beneath the weight of his anger, his frustration, flooding his veins and reddening the inside of his palms. 

“There is only time.”

“There are many happy times,” Nunzia insisted, her voice giving her lightness and as her hope filled her and spirited her away, carrying her over to her Tommaso. The distance seemed insuperable, as though a dark shade, cast by the sun hiding its brilliance. “We’ve had happy times together—do not surrender, do not leave me alone. Help me, Tommaso.”

“I cannot!” Tommaso shouted. “Go, Nunzia!”

“Tommaso!” Nunzia yelled. She did not approach him, nor implore him. She incanted his name as though it were a prayer that could rip the man she knew from times past. 

“Go Nunzia,” Tommaso whispered, his shame pulling him away from her.

“Goodbye, Tommaso.”

Nunzia left his workshop and walked over to the church, she felt as though she were hovering, with no ground beneath her to land on. She leaned her head against its warm stone exterior and listened to the echoes of prayers and all times, good and bad, that seemed to be so securely encased in the crumbling edifice.

The town waited until waiting was no longer a habit at all anymore. Life seemed to crawl onwards without the routine of Masses, baptisms, confessions, or funerals. Whatever few living members of the town were left ceased asking Tommaso about the absence of the priest. Nunzia still religiously prayed every week, lighting candles and replacing them until she found that there were none left. She could not afford to order any, someone had already looted the donation box for candles and stolen the matches. 

Tommaso began writing to Rome every day, urging them to send a priest or bishop, even temporarily. There were no return letters, no replies, nothing that indicated any intent on the part of the Church to remedy the situation. Silence—God’s sacred silence descended on the town, and many, if not most, had already stopped listening for it.

Footsteps bounced off every wall. He slowed himself down so that the echo would be diminished. Only the moon’s residual light illuminated the various corners of the church through its colorfully stained windows. Some of the pews were as bright as day, and others were as dark as storm cloud nights. He did not sit on either side but walked straight up through the middle pews to the crucifix. 

The Christ was suspended by ropes behind the altar, nailed to the sacred cross. It had always looked like wood to him—a dead statue.

“What do you want from me?” he said, his lip trembling violently as he spoke. 

Silence.

“What do you want from me!?” 

His scream echoed endlessly from one stone of the church to the other, as though they were gargoyles mimicking him by repetition. The echoes became whispers and then just a hum. Sound.

He let his hands catch his head, falling with tears into them. His knees felt the hardness of the tile floor as he collapsed in front of the watchful sacrifice.

“Tommaso! I thought it was you!” Nunzia whispered as loudly as she could, closing the door behind her. The closing of the church doors sounded like the sealing of a tomb.

“Nunzia! Go!” Tommaso said, backing up into the altar, a monolithic fear shining radiantly from his eyes. “Leave!”

“Tommaso!” Nunzia shouted, as she fell to her knees before him. “I will not hurt you. I had a dream and woke up. When I looked out the window, I saw you walking towards the church. Something is wrong, tell me! I am here. Speak to me.” She put her hand on his shoulder. Her thumb rubbed his shoulder blade and he felt the walls he had erected between them turn to dust.

“I can’t.”

“Please, Tommaso,” Nunzia said. “Why are you here? Why now, so late? I would have come with you tomorrow.”

“I don’t want to be seen,” Tommaso cried. “I don’t want to be seen.”

“What is wrong?” Nunzia asked. 

“I don’t understand,” Tommaso insisted, as though her words had just sailed over him. “I don’t understand at all.”

“Please, Tommaso.”

“I was out in the fields, sometime after the passing of Paolo. I lay my head back, thinking of our times together. I closed my eyes and thought of you and how I wanted all this to be over—the death—the plague—all the bad times. I thought I felt a peace for a minute, as I always do when the wind passes over me. I feel the bugs on my face and I heard the trees murmuring to each other.”

(Nunzia waited patiently, letting her hand leisurely slip down near his)

“I felt an ant crawling on my hand. It crawled near my thumb, then my wrist. It tickled, and I imagined it was your finger tracing over me, as you do sometimes to excite me. Then, the ant crawled through my hand, and onto the grass.”

Nunzia was paler than the moon, whose light shone down on her, giving light to her features as her beloved huddled scared in the darkness. 

“What do you mean, through? Inside?—Tommaso, speak to me.” 

With heavy breaths, quickening from his fear and the tortured agony of revealing his secret to the one person to whom he wanted to reveal it most, he lifted his hand and let Nunzia unwrap the white cloths. She did so slowly and gently, so as not to hurt him. Her heart pounded as she waited to lock her eyes on the answer to Tommaso’s riddle.

She brought her hand up to her mouth, the tears flooding from her eyes onto her cheeks. She quaked and was struck dumb with awe. 

There was a hole straight through Tommaso’s hand.

“The other is the same,” Tommaso said, after some time had elapsed in silence. Nunzia’s shock was such that only her eyes could move to meet his, and then witness the truth of his words. His other hand, which he unwrapped for her, had the same hole, the same wound, driven through the center of his palm, the width of a nail.

 “My feet are the same,” Tommaso added. “And this.” He lifted his shirt, confidently trusting in her fidelity. It was cathartic to him to finally reveal his burden onto one he loved and could trust. 

He brought her hand to his side. There was a wound there, fresh and raw, but not bleeding. A cut, from where a pilum had been pressed into it. 

Nunzia looked at his hand again, biting her lip. She was almost smiling. 

“Tommaso—it is a sign. A beautiful, wonderful sign.”

“I don’t understand, Nunzia,” Tommaso whispered, calming now as the movement of the moon caused the angle of the light to begin to shine on him as well. She placed her hands on his cheeks and held him steady as he breathed.

“I don’t understand…”






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Lost

Sunday, August 4th, 2019

by Elaine Abery

In the movies, they give you one phone call before they lock you up. I’m here to tell you there is no such thing in real life.

It was about three months ago in NSW, Australia. That’s March 2019. I want to be clear on that. We are not talking about the 1960s. We are not talking about a third world country.

My ex had just kicked me out of the house. My marriage was over. As I drove out of the driveway, my kids were screaming “Daddy! Daddy! Don’t leave Daddy! Stay pleeeeeaaaaaasssse! Daddy!”

My heart was broken.

My world was torn apart.

Like anyone would, I cried as I drove.

I had nowhere to go. I kept telling myself “I just have to get to Dad’s place. He will take me in. He will help me out.”

Dad’s place was over 400 kilometres away. He was expecting me to arrive in about six hours.

As I drove, I kept seeing my kids’ teary faces. Hearing their voices as they begged me to stay. Seeing them in the rear view mirror, trying to run after my car. Held back by my wife.

I didn’t want to leave them.

My wife’s resolute face, telling me it was over. That I needed to leave for her sake, for my sake, for the kids’ sakes. It seemed logical that I would leave. That she would stay in our home with the kids. After all, I had been the one working, sometimes away from home for days at a time. She had stayed home with the kids. This way would be more stable for them.

Fifteen years we had been together. We met when we were both nineteen.

I should have seen it coming. My wife and I had struggled to get along for a couple of years. But I didn’t. It hit me like a sledgehammer.

I needed a plan. I wanted to talk to someone, make a plan. Anything to try and lessen the picture in my mind of the agony on my kids’ faces as I drove away.

So, I rang the Mental Health Line.

Big mistake. Big, big mistake.

I explained that I was moving to Wollongong and was looking for the details of some good mental health practitioners to help me through a tough place.

The lady asked me if I had mental health issues. I mentioned that I had been diagnosed with bipolar a few years ago. She kept asking me if I was having suicidal thoughts.

“I won’t lie,” I told her. “I’m not in a happy place. My marriage has just ended. I just drove away from my kids as they screamed for me to stay. I know I need help. I’m concentrating on getting to my Dad’s place. He’s my best friend. He will know how to get me the appropriate help.”

She asked me if I would take my own life.

“No way,” I told her. “My dog, Beau, is in the car with me. What would happen to him? I want to see my kids again. I would never do anything to hurt others. Suicide hurts others.”

She started asking me for details on my car, my rego. I asked her why.

I pulled over. Beau and I had a pee.

There was an accident on the highway ahead of me. I figured I would just hang out here until the traffic died down. No point just sitting in traffic when I could walk around here with Beau. Stretch my legs. It felt good to stretch our legs on a long drive.

I looked up and a police car pulled over. Two officers stepped out of the car. Another vehicle pulled up. Two more officers.

Four officers stood around my car, barricading me in the drivers’ seat.

“What have you done to me?” I asked the Mental Health Line lady before she hung up.

I asked the officers if they had spoken to her. They told me it was for my own good. They told me they were there to help me.

“I just want to get to my Dad’s place. He will help me get the right help.”

They told me I had two options. I could either come with them voluntarily or they would take me by force.

“Where do you want to take me?”

They told me they wanted to get me help. They would take me somewhere they could help me.

“Well that’s not a choice, is it? What about my dog? I just want to go to Dad’s. He will get me help. He will know how to help me.”

They told me my dog would be fine. My dog would be looked after.

“Look after him. If anything happens to my dog, I won’t be answerable for my actions.”

I gave them his bed, his favourite toys, his bowl. I knew he would be upset. Kicked out of home, seeing me crying. I never cried. After all, I’m a bloke.

Then my poor dog would be picked up and taken somewhere to be “looked after”. He hadn’t done anything wrong. Just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I never saw those things again.

I wondered if I would ever see Beau again. I had been shown the door on my marriage. I had been told to leave my home with Beau, my car and a few clothes.

I stepped out of my car. The police grabbed me and patted me down. They took my belt. They pulled the drawstring out of my hoodie. Car keys and phone went with them. Everything else was left in my car. Humiliated, I felt like an object. Of four officers, only the woman treated me well, talked to me like I was a human being.

They walked me to the back of the paddy wagon. They told me there was no room in the front of the vehicle.

I’m not a big bloke. There was room.

My shiny car with all the bells and whistles was left, abandoned, on the side of the highway for the next few days. I found out later that Dad had somehow found my car and stayed in his car on the side of the road, next to my locked car (he had no keys) to protect it from vandals. He managed three hours’ sleep.

There was nothing to restrain me in the back of the paddy wagon. Nothing to hold onto. I was thrown around during the hundred odd kilometres of driving. It felt like the driver was just in a hurry to get somewhere and had forgotten his human cargo. The tears started coming again. What had my life come to? My wife. My house. My kids. Beau. Gone. Now this.

My head slammed into the sides of the paddy wagon as it drove. Again. And again. And again. I saw stars. I saw my kids’ faces as they screamed for me. I saw Beau’s confused face as they led him away.

It felt like I was being rolled around inside a very hard washing machine.

The paddy wagon stopped. The door opened. I fell out. Dazed. Grazed. Bruised. Battered. Tear-stained. Snot streaming down my face. I could barely stand up.

“Where am I”?

“Go on. In you go,” the man barked at me.

I looked up. My vision was a bit shaky from the long washing machine ride. Campbelltown hospital was written on a sign. Nobody told me where I was.

“C’mon mate. I really need a smoke.” I don’t know where the defiance came from. Perhaps a survival instinct for fresh air. For space. To move my legs, my arms, my body without being slammed into a hard metal wall. I was escorted to an allocated space. It took a few goes to light the cigarette my hands were shaking so badly. I drew on the nicotine slowly, savouring my last minutes of freedom. Breathe, I told myself.

I was still shaking.

The female officer had convinced the male to let me have a smoke. Said she needed one too and would come with me. She spoke to me. Helped me feel a little more human.

I walked into Campbelltown hospital. Surrounded by two police officers. As I was waiting there, the male stood facing me, his hand on his gun. He asked me what I was looking at.

“I’m not a criminal,” I said. “Can’t you take your hand off your gun?” Was he going to shoot me? I had seen the media where police officers shot people with mental health issues because they were poorly trained and scared.

He looked at me like I was dirt.

“If you’re not going to take your hand off your gun, just shoot me now and get this over and done with.” I felt like I was in an evil alternative reality.

I didn’t want to die. Would I ever see my kids again? Beau? My parents?

They took me into a waiting room. I was seated in a corner with a guard.

For about thirty-six hours.

Thirty-six hours without sleep. Thirty-six hours of only being allowed to pee or poo with the door open. Thirty-six hours in a corner on an uncomfortable, hard, plastic hospital seat. Thirty-six hours with no sensible human interactions.

I asked for a pillow to try and get some sleep. Sometime later, someone grunted at me and passed me a rolled-up blanket.

I didn’t know where I was. Nobody would tell me anything. I was lucky if they looked at me.

If I wanted to drink something, I had to ask. There was no water. No meals. They offered me a sandwich. Sometimes.

I wasn’t allowed a shower. Nobody offered me a change of clothes.

I needed a bed. A good, solid meal. Humane conversation.

“I’ve got a slipped disc. My back is agony sitting here for so long. I need to go for a walk. Please!” I begged. I pleaded. No chance.

I was ordered to stay put. With a grunt.

One nurse came and talked to me for a little while. She offered me water. She treated me like a human being. It didn’t last long.

Thirty-six hours later, someone came towards me. They told me they had a bed for me.

They took me to a room.

I hadn’t slept for nearly two days.

Like any human being, all I wanted was to sleep. And sleep. It was too much to hope that sleep could help me wake from this nightmare.

A few short hours later, around 3am, I was woken up by a large guy standing over me. It was scary. He said nothing. I asked him to leave the room three times. His stilted responses indicated mental health issues.

Aha! I finally knew where I was – the mental health ward.

Around 8am, a nurse shook me awake and told me the doctors were coming to see me. Nobody came. I stuck my fingers in my ears to drown out the screaming, the groans coming from all around me and fell asleep again.

At midday, they woke me again. “You have to come and eat something.”

Oh great. Thirty-six hours of nothing and now I haveto eat something.

“I just want to sleep. I haven’t slept for two days. Can’t you just leave me alone?”

I wanted a shower. A change of clothes. A solid meal. Human company. Beau. Dad. To look at a picture of my kids.

I got people standing over me. Taking my blood. Poking me. Prodding me. Talking about me as though I couldn’t hear them. I didn’t resist any of it. I didn’t ask questions – it was clear that I had no rights in this place. I wanted just one thing – that they let me catch up on two days of missed sleep.

The blood-curdling screams. The groans. The noise. This was the noisiest place I had ever been.

I hated this place.

I knew I wouldn’t get better here. I was getting worse. I had never felt like this in my life. There are no words.

They were here again. Insisting I wake up. “Your Dad’s here.”

Escorted to meet Dad, I tried to close my eyes, my ears to the sights and sounds of misery around me. Dad’s eyes were wide when he saw me. Above the screams, he said, simply “I’m sorry son.”

We sat together. Dad had spent two days trying to help me. Nobody would tell him anything. To be fair, nobody seemed to know anything. They had lost his son. Then, someone told him I was here.

Dad asked them for me to go home with him. They said they wanted to keep me inside, that I was “jittery.” Dad suppressed a laugh. “Of course he’s jittery – he’s a pack a day smoker and he hasn’t been allowed a smoke for two days.”

Dad didn’t say the rest of what he was thinking “you pulled him off the side of the road and locked him in an alternate reality full of very disturbed people who screech and scream and groan all day and all night. He hasn’t been treated like a human being for over two days, since you dragged him out of his car on the side of the road.”

Somehow, Dad worked a miracle and managed to convince them to release me into his care. It took a long time. A lot of convincing. They wanted to keep me there.

I reckon my Dad saved my life that day.

I can tell you that I wasn’t thinking about killing myself before they locked me up. Every hour locked up, life was less palatable.

Compare that to another friend of mine.

She and her son both have mental illnesses. Noticing her son’s behaviour becoming erratic, she rang the mental health service. They told her they could do nothing. She convinced her son to present to the mental health unit of the hospital. They told him they didn’t have room for him.

“Go home and come back in two weeks.”

A few days later, someone threatened to shoot him. He reacted and assaulted the guy. Less than two weeks after presenting to hospital for self-admission, he appeared before a Magistrate. He is currently serving four years in gaol.




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Traffic update, three-quarters-way through 2019 !Short Story Contest!
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Traffic update, three-quarters-way through 2019 !Short Story Contest!

Sunday, August 4th, 2019


Dearest Lovers of Literature;


Thanks for surfing through, and then surfing through again,
the 2019 !Short Story Contest!
only on Defenestrationism.net .


We have some exciting numbers to share, as we roll through the last quarter of our contest and into Fan Voting (beginning August 19th).

Since the announcement of the finalists on June 23rd,
in those 42 days, we have received:


-visits from 483 unique IPs
-resulting in 1,531 pageviews
-for an average of 36 views, everyday of each week.

-on June 29th we had 93 hits
-and on July 12th, alone, 52 unique IPs visited us



I, and new co-editor Tara Campbell
— and of course editors Emeritus,
eatstuf
and
D.Glover (rest his soul)–
cannot wait to see how many of you
glorious
Lovers of Literature
surf through to vote for your favorite stories,
August 19th through September 1st.


Meanwhile, Tara and I eagerly await all your submissions to the
2020 FLASH SUITE Contest
only on Defenestrationism.net .





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Life will be life and so the world

Sunday, July 28th, 2019

by Nikky Jain

 He is looking for a girl, who does not know he exists, or the story that has brought him here. He has no reasons to be discreet but still he has to be careful. He is standing near the doorway and surveying the golden banquet hall, which is filled with refined bodies in saris and jackets, and beautiful young women with straight hair who never make facial expressions. But they will, soon. Any moment now. 

 He looks for her here and there and everywhere but she is nowhere to be seen. For a moment he thought that might be he came at wrong place. But that could not be possible, he was strictly following the black Audi that brought him here. He turns back to go to the parking lot to confirm. He stopped with a thud to see the girl in simple suit is being dragged by two aunties. He already knew it, she didn’t want to be there, she was getting forced. 

 The place comes to life when that girl find herself pinned to the sofa chair in center. The boy is getting more and more nervous, the program is about to start. 

 The man with everything big as big belly, big moustache and alike pointed at that girl with a bitter cruel smile and said ‘15 Lakh’. One of the aunties laughed a greedy smile and said, ‘do you really think you can put a price tag on something so precious?’. The aunt touches her so visibly vulgarly that it seems like a lesbian rape, almost. The girl shrugged and lost her balance on the chair, she didn’t fall, the aunt pulled her hand to get her back on the seat. 

The boy is continuously looking at the face of worried girl but she hadn’t noticed him yet. He is just waiting for one eye-contact. 

Other men started howling and fighting to claim the suit girl with as much price as demanded. On the stage, other girls make faces at the seated girl, all of them thinking the same point, ‘why is she getting so much attention, just because she is youngest of us all?’ One of those women said, “Look at her face, no lipstick, no blush, no make-up, no designer clothes and still she looks beautiful and Thank God that she isn’t smiling otherwise we would have lost our business today.” 

The boy shifts his glance to her hand and notice that she is holding a pen, a tick-tock pen. His brain races fast and now he has a plan. 

He desperately needs her to look in his eyes, for once. 

The aunties try to handle their uncontrollable customers by saying, “We can hold this program with peace too. For every girl, whosoever will pay the highest price will get the particular girl”. Noises drained a bit but the place didn’t overcome its chaotic curiosity. 

Another man pointed his finger to the seated girl, the pierce is so hard that the girl got hurt. He stated, ‘21 Lakh’. When a young man said, ‘25 Lakh’, the boy couldn’t help realizing that he is his school friend who won the lottery, invested it in resorts, clubs and alike properties and he actually got lucky. The boy found himself avoiding him, his passion pained him to see his childhood friend like that. 

He thought to himself, “Good people never get anything instead bad people get everything so they can do even more bad.” “Ridiculous.” 

Finally, he came to a side and as he looked at the stage, the girl seems to be looking at him but her eyes are full of tears, anger, frustration and defeat, its not sure. The boy confirms an eye-contact after a minute or two. Girl recognizes him, he is the one who had visited her school for the guest lecture on ‘Advancement in principles of physics’. 

She thought to herself, “what is he doing here? Is he too? 

As he is about to lose the eye-contact, he quickly sign her to use the pen to hit the aunt on his right and come down to him, fast, very fast. 

She takes a considerable amount of time to understand his portraits and looks at her both sides. The two boss aunties are standing on her either side, the one on left is busy with the customer, explaining the qualities of the product (girls) and the one on right is busy with other women, explaining them the dos and don’ts to make their customers happy. The girl is facing partially her back side so she stabs the pen right between where the threads of her blouse are tied. She shouts after a pause. 

The girl quickly jumps from the stage, the boy motion her that she could have used stairs. She throws her hand to him and the boy catches it tight and together they start running. They kept running to get out of the banquet hall, then to get away from the banquet hall. 

They turn into a shopping complex and the boy lost his certainty on remembering that his car is parked at the parking space of banquet hall. He immediately decides that this information is not important for the girl. 

Suddenly, he comes back to the plan and takes her hand to get her out of the mall, they take a taxi and the boy ask the driver to take them to the airport. The driver suspiciously watches over his passengers. Suddenly, something cocky gets into his mind and he asks them if they both are adult. The boy and the girl look at each other and say ‘yes’ with confidence. The driver said that he would charge 500 extra. 

The boy makes a face at him and asks him to drive fast. 

The car starts moving and girl feel somewhat relaxed, she asks, “why are you doing this for me?” The boy knows the answer to this question but he catches driver’s doubtful glances and sign her to shut up. 

At airport, he asks at the counter about any flight that is available in an hour or so. He takes two tickets for Kolkata. 

He returns to see that the girl is covering her face with the dupatta. He tells her that in less than an hour, she would be out of this mess and also she would be free to start anew. She studies him for a while and says,”what will I do there?”To that he responds, “Anything, you can do anything there. I will get you an admission in government school and rest you can work at restaurants or malls and like.” The girl reply with a lost ‘okay’. 

The boy buys food and water. They eat in silence. 

After eating a lot, she says, “What will you do? They might know your face?” The boy replies, “I will see Kolkata for few days and then I will go to Mumbai. They are after all criminals, I don’t think they are gonna find me, I can expose them”. “With what proof”, girl snaps. The boy frowns. 

The girl changes the topic and fires another question, “Do they teach in government schools? I have heard that private schools are costly but are better. I was studying in private school and it was pretty good? The boy replies, “If you want to be educated, you can get yourself educated. Schools don’t matter,will power of studying is needed. And yeah, don’t worry about your Mom, I will see to her once I get you safe.” The girl says coldly that she doesn’t worry about her mother. 

The boy left the topic for other time and escorts her to the plane. After few minutes, the plane starts moving and then flying, the girl is looking completely out of the world and the boy is looking like an alien. 

They both closes their eyes. 

The plane lands at Kolkata airport. Both of them are tired. The boy takes her hand and get her out of the airport vicinity. They take a taxi and the boy saw that his wallet will be absolutely empty after paying to the driver. 

The taxi driver is listening ‘goo goo dolls’ by Iris. The boy ponders on the dilemma that whether he should know the girl’s name or not. Now, the taxi driver is listening to the ‘scientist’ by Coldplay. 

The taxi driver is literate cool dude 

The boy asks him to stop at the ATM. He chucks out to withdraw some cash. The girl waits inside. She shuffles her suit pocket to find her mobile phone. She has got many messages from many people on whatsapp. She calculates wisely and chose to read the boss aunt message first. Its a video, she opens it and cries out silently to see that its a video in which the women and men are harassing her mother, openly embarassing her and also brutally raping her. She reads the message below, “Come back or else, this video will be the breaking news.” 

She shuts down her phone. She starts thinking to draw a valid conclusion. She pictures herself going back to get raped, used. She pictures the video being seen by everyone, everyone will know that its her mother, sooner or later. 

The boy jerks in the car and smells that the girl is sweating. He asks in tension, “What happened”. She replies, “Nothing, I have decided that I will find some work first and then I will buy books or go to libraries. I need education and not certificates. And yeah, thank you very much for helping me”. 

The boy smiles and the girl smiles back. 

In a few days, the girl gets work in homes as a maid and in a small restaurant as a waitress and dishwasher. She sells her phone after throwing away a sim card and deleting her accounts on whatsapp and facebook. 

One months passed, she witnesses some hungry eyes towards her but slowly and steadily they evaporate. With her first salary, she gets a haircut, to look different, to start differently in a different life. 

She finds a library and starts visiting there. One day, at a home, when she is moping, the owner says, ‘You know, you can earn a lot more, if you will fulfill some of my needs?’ 

In some posh place in Mumbai, the boy is talking to some monk, he is saying, ‘Baba, as you had said, I rescued a girl and send her to a better life. Now, my wife will get pregnant, right? Baba smiles patiently and responds, ‘Of course, my child, you had to help the almighty in a divine work, you probably succeeded, so your wishes will come true for sure.’ 

The boy is going back to his home thinking that if he had not listened children abusing that girl, saying her ‘prostitute’ and if I had not followed that Audi in which she was been dragged after school, I would have never got the chance. 







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Rain

Sunday, July 21st, 2019

by Sue Mitchell

She pauses on the sagging veranda to stare at the horizon. The rains are late, about seven years late, but the metalled sky looks promising — or threatening. The peeling paint on the post she holds to support herself is already warm. Perspiration trickles down her neck, into nooks and crannies she doesn’t wish to acknowledge. The towering cumulus clouds share the same palette as her bruises, hinting at an as yet unleashed violence. The crackle of electricity raises the hair on her neck and arms.

Supporting her swollen belly with one hand she manoeuvres down the creaking steps and crosses the barren yard to the semi-derelict chicken coop. Balancing the bucket on a fence post, she unhooks the twisted wire loop that secures the gate. The chickens flutter and fuss around her ankles, pecking at each other in an orgy of anticipation, until she scatters the feed.

The detonation of thunder disorientates her, then the pain in her lower back explodes and she doubles over, sinking to the dusty ground in a torment of agony. The splatter of fat raindrops batters her hunched back, instantly drenching her light summer dress. Clinging to the fence post, she claws her way almost upright before realising some of the wetness is hers. A torrent of pain rips through her again, forcing her back down on hands and knees. The chickens take indignant refuge in their coop.

Panting and wild-eyed she scrambles outside the gate, dragging it closed behind her. Unable to reach the wire, she trusts the chickens won’t stray too far in this unprecedented storm. Collapsed on the muddy ground, she screams, again and again, as her baby tears her apart. Copper smelling blood mingles with the sloppy mud, painting abstract pictures of hope. The bundle of flesh she expels screams lustily when the rain smacks its delicate red skin.

A daughter. She will cop so much trouble when he gets home.

Since their parents’ funeral three years ago she hadn’t seen or spoken to anyone. Her brother insisted they needed no one else. His rudeness and aggression secured their isolation. He was apoplectic when she told him she was pregnant. He demanded she abort the baby, never expecting she’d have the courage to refuse. The kaleidoscope of bruises she wears all over her skinny body bear witness to his outrage. On one occasion he’d even tried to drown her in the bath. Still the baby had clung on, growing ever larger, proclaiming their sin. He promised her that if she kept it, if it survived his frequent beatings, that he would drown or strangle it at birth. She has no reason to disbelieve him.

Both new mother and daughter lie in the mud as the storm rages over them. Only one of them continues screaming. The final convulsion delivers the placenta, jerking the girl into action. She gathers her newborn into her bedraggled skirt and crawls back to the house. The cacophonous juggernaut of thunder rolls over her, its fearful wrath forcing her lower, but she fights back, refusing to be defeated. Not again.

She locates her sharpest paring knife, carefully knotting and slicing the umbilical cord. She wraps her daughter in a washed soft tee shirt, then a thick towel. There are no baby clothes waiting for this secret child. She strips off her soaked dress and wipes herself dry, her adoring gaze fixed on her daughter. She picks her up, crooning nonsense to hush the whimpering. Instinctively the baby suckles and a newfound contentment fills them both. The relentless rain drums an incessant lullaby on the tin roof, welcoming the storm born baby.

Having dressed while her daughter slept, the girl makes a decision. Her daughter has survived so far and against all odds. A beautiful and perfect baby. She will defend her baby at all costs. Surely, when her brother sees his daughter his paternal instincts will kick in.

“Your name is Rain, and I’m your mummy,” she tells the baby. “We’re going to fetch your daddy then we’re going to town to find a doctor. I’m going to take the best ever care of you, Rain. I won’t let anyone ever hurt you.”

Exhausted but determined, she shrugs into her brothers work worn Drizabone, tucking Rain inside. The storm is still raging, and the baked earth is flooding, unable to absorb so much moisture so quickly.

She grabs the keys to the rusty Toyota, rehearsing what she’ll say to her brother when she presents him with their perfect daughter. She runs her fingers gently over the silky smooth age worn stock of the rifle poking from behind the seat, reassuring herself she has a means of protecting her daughter. She straps herself in, with Rain still cocooned to her chest. In her sleep Rain is smiling with baby wind which enchants her mother.

The storm clatters on, the deluge continues and puddles are spreading to form shallow lakes. Driving slowly, she keeps up a susurration of verbal nonsense.

“Daddy left early this morning, he went to work in the gully by the far paddock. Yes, he did… yes, he did… and he’ll love baby Rain just as much as Mommy does… yes… yes, he will… he must… everyone will love baby Rain… my beautiful baby… perfect baby Rain… nothing will ever hurt you, Rain… Mommy will protect you, yes, she will… Mommy won’t let anyone ever hurt you. Never.”

The inexorable rain is now forming fast-flowing streams that nudge the Toyota’s tyres and bear desiccated detritus. She turns the wiper blades to their fastest setting. Hunched forward with one protective hand curved over Rain and the other hand gripping the steering wheel, she negotiates the rapidly changing landscape. She knows where her brother will be but the tracks are now swift streams and it’s proving a challenge to reach the paddock. Perhaps he’ll be pleased. Returning in the Toyota will be easier than on the quad bike and trailer.

She pulls up next to the gully. Its steep sides are crumbling under the brutal inundation. She reverses to avoid causing further damage. The gully is rushing with silted water, foaming and gnashing at the earthen walls, gouging bites that are swallowed whole by the voracious new river. Peering up and downstream, she spots her brother’s upturned trailer. The quad bike is still hooked up and is pressing her brother into the bank.

She presses the horn to get his attention. The clangorous storm has shrouded her arrival. Shuffling cautiously she waves to him.

Enraged by her unauthorised presence and maddened with pain, he screams at her.

“The winch… unwind the winch and throw it down here…”

Bending against the storm, she opens her coat to reveal Rain.

“Our daughter! I brought our beautiful daughter to see you!”

Rain screws up her face and wails furiously. Her mum returns her to the comparative dryness and safety under the Drizabone.

“You fucking stupid bitch! I warned you… I warned you, I’ll kill it… I’ll fucking kill you both! Stupid fucking bitches! Throw the goddamn cable…”

Stunned by his vitriol she steps back. The gully walls continue to crumble.

“The cable! I need the cable… my leg… think it’s broke… can’t move… trapped… throw the cable… then winch this shit off me! D’ya fucking hear me? Stupid fuckin’ bitch! Winch cable! Throw the winch cable down…”

Her eyes flicker between her helpless brother and the Toyota to which the winch is bolted and where the rifle nestles. She clasps Rain closer, frozen by indecision. She battles the tsunami of pain threatening to overwhelm her; only maternal determination to protect Rain keeps her upright.

She can feel a rumbling underfoot, not cattle, something else. Her brother is screaming and fighting to free himself from the quad bike when the wall of floodwater hits him. The scaturient waters envelope him in a deathly embrace, dragging him, the bike and the trailer downstream in an urgent orgy. She watches her brother clutched by the river, gaping mouth gurgling with filthy water. In this unchoreographed dance of lustful death he dashes his head on a submerged rock. The ravening river gleefully bears away his limp body.

Clutching the Drizabone tightly around them both, she clambers awkwardly back into the Toyota, a hesitant smile slowly spreading over her delicate features. She wipes the wetness from her cheeks and steers the Toyota towards the township, towards help.

“Daddy won’t be coming home, my darling. We were too late… he was beyond our help… it’s just us… the two of us… we’re both safe now…”

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Seedlings

Sunday, July 14th, 2019

by W.T. Paterson

It was a silly thing to say, he meant nothing by it really, but his daughter found the idea to be horribly wretched.

“But Dad, I already swallowed a watermelon seed,” Heidi said, her ten-year-old eyes swelling with tears under the late June sun.  The neighborhood barbecue was teeming with people stuffing their faces with juicy hotdogs, sizzling burgers with slices of cold yellow cheese, and cans of soda popping open like an arthritic knuckle.

“Uh oh, Heidi” Louis told her. “Looks like you’re going to have a watermelon grow inside of you.”

Louis should have told her it was a joke, he later realized.  Kids didn’t know any better, but also wasn’t that a bit of the fun?  A single father raising a daughter wasn’t exactly the job he had hoped for, but it was the job he had been handed after his wife Alma had died of an unexpected aneurism on a flight back from London a year ago.  She was the one who had done the bulk of the childcare while Louis was off consulting with growing business on how to create stable employee infrastructures. On days when he was home, more often than not, Louis felt like he was less of a father and more of a casual acquaintance to Heidi, his own daughter.

They had been invited to a neighborhood barbecue after moving out of Chicago and into the suburb of Evanston, Illinois.  Neighbors saw the moving trucks and slipped an invite – a bright green photocopy of the fun details – under their door.  Louis mentioned the party to their therapist who loved the idea and recommended getting back out there, that new friendships were often the key to overcoming tragedy because on the whole, people were welcoming. 

It was true.  An hour into the event and Louis had already gotten the phone number of three separate single mothers and was on his way to a fourth when Heidi butted in slobbering on a piece of watermelon, her lips bright pink and shiny with juice.

“Are we going to do anything for Mom’s birthday?” she asked.  It was an innocent question, they had discussed potentially heading to the cemetery with cake and flowers, but out of context it made Louis look like a dirty dog.  The single mother scoffed, folder her arms across her bosom, and walked away mumbling about how all men were the same.

“Don’t swallow any seeds,” he told Heidi, slightly annoyed. “You don’t want a watermelon to grow in your tum-tum.”

In truth, he felt that Heidi was a little too old to believe that a watermelon would actually grow in her little belly.  She’d already debunked Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy that year when she’d caught Louis in the act as he put sloppily wrapped presents under their Christmas tree, or loudly came clomping into her room with a fistful of singles to slip under her pillow.  But for some reason, the idea of swallowing a seed stuck and the little girl looked as though she’d been handed a death sentence.

Heidi lowered the remaining chunk of melon and rind back towards her small paper plate and placed it on the chipped wooden table beside them.  She placed a hand over her stomach and looked up at Louis.

“I don’t feel well,” she said.

“It’s probably already starting to grow,” Louis joked, looking to see if there were any other women around without husbands that he could schmooze with.  It wasn’t as though he was glad his wife was gone, it actually pained him horribly, severely even.  It was that getting attention from someone new made him feel like he was in high school again where the idea of romance instead of pain was as wild and magical as sitting on the hood of an old beater car watching the sunrise with the captain of the girl’s varsity soccer team.

Heidi rubbed her eyes with the back of her wrist and wandered over to a tree to sit by the gnarled stump in the shade.

“Not feeling well?” a woman asked, walking over holding a silver tray with a pyramid of rice crispy treats.  She had close cropped black hair with angular bangs swooped across her face and tucked behind her right ear.  A low cut maroon v-neck revealed an array of beaded turquoise necklaces against perfectly mocha skin. Gold and silver bracelets dangled off of her arms, one of which had a dream-catcher tattooed just below the crook of the elbow.

“She’s fine,” Louis said.  “Stress of the move.”  He craned his neck to look at the plate of treats and felt the sides of his tongue begin to water.

“Take two,” the woman said.  “I’m Navi.”

“Louis.”

Navi held out the shining metal plate while Louis took two squares that were stuck together.  He nodded a quick thanks before shoving the first into his mouth and chewing without closing his lips.  Crumbs sprayed out like sand from the back of a shoe after a day at the beach.  

“So where are you from?” Navi asked.  She placed the tray down on the chipped wooden table and politely sat on the accompanying bench.  Louis instinctively followed.  The day was unusually warm, something more in line with late August than early June.

“Chicago,” he said, licking his fingers of the excess sticky marshmallow.  It reminded him of the time that he had lost his mother before Heidi was born, back when Alma was new to the picture.  Hesitant, he broke the news in an awkward phone call so filled with pain that he could barely keep his thoughts together.

“My mother is gone,” he said, startled by the pain of saying it out loud, let alone to someone he been dating for only a few months.

“Gone how?” Alma asked.

“To get cigarettes, like those dads that go get cigarettes and never come home,” he said, wincing at his own spiraling narrative.  She’s dead, he needed to say.  Just tell her she diedPeople have strokes all of the time.  But the words wouldn’t come.

“That’s weird,” Alma said.  “I didn’t know she smoked.”

Louis thought about smoking, and then imagined his mother getting cremated. It broke something inside. The deep roots of strength that he believed existed at his core were nothing more than seedlings poking through the ground during the first rain of hurricane season.

“I’m not doing this right,” he said, and his throat let loose a primal groan that seemed more appropriate for a zombie movie than a phone call with bad news.

“Oh…Oh lord” Alma gasped, realizing what he was trying to say.  “I’m at a gas station right now, but I’ll come over right away.  Work can do without me for an evening.”

Fifteen minutes later, Alma showed up at Louis’ door with a thin plastic bag bustling with chips, candy bars, ice cream and soda.  Louis fell to his knees and allowed himself to cry, to really accept the loss, and to let Alma see him as the broken man that he always knew he was.

Instead of passing judgment, Alma sat with him on the couch running soft fingers through his hair while the Chicago Blackhawks played on TV.  They ate the junk food together burning through bags of salty chips, gooey chocolate, and fizzy drinks.  They split a rice crispy treat, but as Louis ate his half, he caught Alma watching him.

“Take my half too,” she smiled.  Louis took the piece from Alma’s tender hands. He knew at once that he was deeply, madly, crazy in love and refused to imagine a future without the two of them together.

Now at the barbecue, the June sky hosting cotton candy clouds as a gentle wind skipped across the green grass chasing butterflies, everything began to sink back in.  Life had continued to push forward even as he silently begged for it not to.

“I love Chicago,” Navi said.  “You ever go to Second City?”

“Can I ask you a question?” Louis said, interrupting.  “If a person swallowed a watermelon seed…”

He started to trail off realizing the lunacy of his question.  Navi looked at Heidi who had moved to a different side of the tree.  Neighborhood kids had gathered and were giggling, interested in befriending the new girl.

“My father is Native American,” Navi started.  “He honestly believes that we cycle through life experiencing the same events in different ways until we learn what we’re supposed to learn.  Then, once we learned that lesson, life will change and start a new series of cycles.”

“My mother died of a stroke, my wife because of an aneurism, and I made my little girl’s head explode because I told her that eating a seed…” Louis paused again.  Saying true things out loud was harder than lying.  Being vulnerable wasn’t something he came by naturally.

Heidi got up from the side of the tree as a trail of kids followed behind.  She was clutching her stomach like she was carrying something heavy underneath.

“Daddy, you were right,” she said, lifting her shirt to show a swollen belly.  It looked like the little girl was pregnant. The protruding rounded skin was solid and turning green. Red veins traced the sides like tiger stripes.  Louis shot upright, shocked.

“What did you do?! How did this happen?” he asked, the same way he did when he found out Alma was pregnant.  Alma was smiling while Louis was terrified that their life together would be irreversibly changed.  He was right, just not in the way he had feared.

“I ate the seed,” Heidi said.  The girl seemed far less concerned than Louis.

“Children find ways of making real the things we say,” Navi said, reaching forward and tickling Heidi’s bare belly with the tips of her fingers.  Heidi chuckled and stepped back.  

“You don’t see…” Louis started, pointing at his daughter’s engorged, green stomach feeling horribly confused.  “I feel like I should get her to a doctor.”

Heidi shrunk away at the idea and turned to rejoin her new friends as they scampered back to the shade of the tree.  A dog barked in the distance.  Someone threw a yellow flying disc to their friend.

“Am I insane?” Louis asked.

“You’re shouldering a lot of responsibility,” Navi said.  “It’s natural to feel disconnected from time to time.” She pulled one of the treats from the tray and bit into one of the corners.  “What do you do for work?”

“Consultation for growing businesses.  We help them build infrastructures.  HR, accounts receivable, logistics, support, things like that.”

“That sounds helpful,” Navi said.

“For a growing business, absolutely.  Otherwise it’s chaos.  People get very bitter.”

“So it’s important that these growing businesses listen.  It’s important that they believe you.”

“That’s the idea,” Louis said.  Something about Navi reminded him of Alma.  Maybe it was the dark hair and mocha skin.  Maybe it was the way she listened without judgment and had an uncanny way of putting him at ease.

“My wife quit her job at a packaging plant to work for my company,” he said.  “She was our intake extraordinaire fielding phone calls, scheduling consultations.  It was perfect.  We sent her to conferences, let her work from home to be with Heidi.  But that’s what killed her.  It was a work trip abroad and…pop.” He made a bursting motion with his fingers near the back of his head.

“Did you tell her that you loved her?” Navi asked, taking another slow bite of the rice crispy treat.

“Not nearly enough,” Louis answered.

“And your daughter?”

“She knows,” he said, and watched as the children began marching back over to the bench.  Heidi was holding something in her arms that was wrapped in a beach towel.  The children cooed and whispered with hands cupped to their mouths.

“Look Dad,” the little girl said, unfolding the towel. “I had three watermelons.  Aren’t they cute?”

Louis was so startled that his whole body jolted backwards.  The small watermelons were the size of chocolate Easter eggs, but more than that they appeared to be breathing and nuzzling against each other.

He grabbed the bottom of Heidi’s shirt and lifted it to look at the girl’s belly.  It was no longer swollen and green, but rather back to the ten-year-old pudge it had always been.

“They’re beautiful,” Navi said.  “You must be proud.”

“This is Nina, this is Pinta, and this is Santa Maria,” Heidi said.  She looked at the small watermelons with large, loving and eyes.

“Who gave you those?” Louis asked.  His voice was stern.  “What have I told you about strangers?”

“I know you’re scared, Dad, but I swallowed the watermelon seed.  It is I who must bare the consequences.”

Louis stood up ready to snatch Heidi and leave the barbecue.  Whatever game she was playing, it wasn’t funny.  That phrase, it is I who must bare the consequences, was something that Alma had said over and over when making big decisions.  He overheard her say it when she spoke with her boss over the phone when she left the packaging plant, at the OBGYN when she discussed the legacy of hemophilia in her family, and when she told Louis that she was in love with him.  It was possible that Alma had also said it to Heidi, but he had never once heard her utter that phrase after their daughter’s birth.  He wondered if all that time away had done something irreparable to his relationships because he constantly found himself in the land of not knowing.

Navi extended a gentle arm and blocked Louis from stepping forward.

“Such a strong girl to go through this all by yourself,” Navi said to Heidi.

Heidi looked at her father and frowned.  “Sometimes we have to,” she said, and then walked back over to the shaded roots of the tree.  The other children joined her.

“The first language a child learns is story,” Navi said.  “The second language is games, things like risk/reward, probability and chance, and what if.  Their third language, which is spoken, becomes their native tongue.”

Louis felt crazy.  Was no one else aware of the bizarre game his daughter was playing, let alone how she was pulling it off?  Shouldn’t he be putting in an emergency call to their therapist instead of sitting on a bench eating homemade desserts? He looked at Navi who didn’t seem concerned at all and so he drew in a long, deep breath and exhaled.  

“Did it hurt?” he asked.

“I’m not an angel, if that’s what you’re implying,” she said.

“Your tattoo,” Louis said, pointing to her arm.

“Oh, I thought you were using a pick-up line.  You know, fell from heaven. Sorry.”

“I’ve always wanted one but could never commit to one design.  I’m too afraid I’ll regret it somewhere down the road.”

“The thing about permanence is that we adapt.  Our choices become our lives and so imagining a life without those choices is fruitless,” Navi said, looking at Heidi.  “The things that are actually important to us, we don’t wear them on our bodies.”

After Alma died, Louis had considered getting a tattoo of her name on his shoulder so that she’d always be with him.  He’d gone so far as to show up to a parlor and talk with an artist – a woman with tattoos up and down both arms and neck – but backed out when it came time to make a deposit.

“She’s with you regardless,” the woman said, un-offended by the last second cancellation. “Be well.”

Shocked, Louis left the parlor wondering how many of his life perspectives had been misaligned, misinformed, and shaped by pain.  That night, he swung by a pizzeria and grabbed a deep-dish pepperoni so that he didn’t have to cook.  He and Heidi ate it on their living room floor sitting side my side and leaning against each other for support.  They put on a movie so that they could both share something else, and twenty minutes in, Heidi fell asleep in Louis’ lap.  He pushed some strands of hair out of his daughter’s sleeping face and felt the terrifying pressure of raising a child alone. Alma had left him with such an enormous responsibility, but in watching his daughter sleep, he saw that she was still a part of them both in ways that he could have never imagined.

“Thank you for talking to me,” Louis said.  Navi stood up and brushed a few renegade crumbs from her hips and knees.

“You’re a good man, Louis,” she said.  “I hope you’re able to see it, too.”

“Hey, you wouldn’t want to maybe go out sometime, would you?”

“The cycle continues,” Navi said, this time with a hint of a frown.  “Heidi doesn’t need a mother right now.”

They looked over and the young girl was walking back.  She was carrying a full sized watermelon like a football.

“This is the only one left.  It grew up faster than I was ready for.”

“Yeah, that’s kind of how it goes,” Louis said.

“I’m sorry I ate the seeds, Daddy.  I didn’t know this would happen.”

“There was no way to know.  It’s impossible to know.”

“I’m in charge of this watermelon now, and I can’t pretend I’m not.”

Louis pulled his daughter into an enormous hug. Scents of barbecue were locked in the fabric of her shirt and the back of her hair. The sun beat down casting their shadows in slender stretches behind them. Louis felt the seedlings inside of him start to sprout and blossom in spite of the hurricane.  He needed his daughter as much as she needed him, and that was how they would both survive the storm.

“I love you,” he whispered so that only she could hear.  “You know that, right?”

“Yeah,” she said, the watermelon pressing into both of their bellies. “It’s just nice to hear it sometimes.”



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Babybox

Sunday, July 7th, 2019

by Simone Martel

Maddie darted across the bedroom carpet in her baby doll PJs, jumped up onto the chair and threw her stuffed pony into Carlotta’s face. “I won’t, Mommy. I don’t want to get into the box.”

  “Get in, sweetie, and tomorrow we’ll have more and more fun.”

Maddie grimaced, showing off the new gap between her front teeth. “I don’t like the Babybox.”

“Maddie, silly! You’re lucky we can afford twenty thousand dollars a month for this box.” As Carlotta spoke, she scooped up Maddie in her arms and lowered the little girl into the box, laying her out on the white cushion. “Ooof! When did you get so heavy, baby?” 

Maddie reached up out of the box and wrapped her arms tight around Carlotta’s neck. “Don’t go, Mommy. You’re my best friend.” 

“You’re my best friend, too,” Carlotta said, struggling to break Maddie’s grip. “Good night, now.”

“Okay.” Maddie sighed. “Bye-bye.”

Carlotta snapped the lid into place, and the girl in the box went limp, her face draining to the color of skimmed milk, her eyelids reddening as she ceased to breathe—or very nearly ceased. Carlotta dragged the box into the home gym between their two bedrooms, sliding it over the smooth bamboo floor. With her shoes laced up, she stepped onto the treadmill and ran, looking down at the unconscious child. From that angle, the bone structure of an older girl seemed to press up through the childish face; a trick of the light, perhaps.

Ten minutes later, Carlotta’s phone beeped, and she answered without breaking pace, coming into the middle of a fuzzy conversation and drunken laughter, not directed into the phone, followed by an explosive, “Hey, Carlotta!”

Carlotta panted a greeting.

“I’m at Juvenescence with–Charlie,” Carlotta’s friend stressed the man’s name as though to prove to the company around her she knew it. “He has this friend, so—”

“—I don’t leave Maddie in the box to go clubbing. That’s not what the box is for.”

“Oh, fine, Ms. Perfect. Just don’t pretend you don’t use it as much as the rest of us. If not more. Charlie, stop it.

Carlotta beeped off, shaking her head. The box was a gift to children, not to their parents.  It spared Maddie from dreary hours with a nanny or a tired, distracted mommy. Of course, the box rewarded Carlotta, too, not because she used it selfishly, to go out with men, but because she could turn off the clock, gaze down at Maddie and hold on to this precious time.

And still, the girl grew older. Just that morning she’d lost a tooth, marking her baby smile—those two rows of even chicklets—with a black gap. The tooth looked tiny, spat out onto the breakfast plate. Hard to believe years had passed since that white serrated edge cut through Maddie’s clean, pink gum. The whole teething process seemed as recent as Carlotta’s last facial. Maddie had hardly fussed, was an easy baby in general. Carlotta always planned to have another, but time slipped by, and now she was too old.

On the treadmill, Carlotta ran faster, though her thighs and buttocks burned. The phone beeped again, loud in the quiet house, punctuating the hypnotic rhythm of the machine and Carlotta’s breathing.

“Opportunity calling.” It was her agent’s voice. “You’re set for the Daytime Emmys ceremony. It’s a milestone in your career to be presenting an award.”

“Thanks,” Carlotta said, though she’d rather be the young actress receiving it.

Motivated, now, to drop a few pounds, she forced herself to run even longer, envisioning herself on television, sleek in a clingy gown. Pearl-gray silk seemed appropriate, dignified yet sexy.

Carlotta ran until her legs shook, then stepped off the machine and into the bathroom. After her shower, she stood in the dim, moody light slanting through the steam and gazed at her reflection with half-closed eyes: not bad. She’d buy a gown to show off her boob job, taking the audience’s eyes off her neck, which was a tad ropey. The boobs, though, were perfect. She cupped them in her hands, leaning forward. 

With her white terrycloth robe lashed round her waist, Carlotta dragged Maddie’s box into the bedroom, where it lay like a bassinet beside the bed. There, reclining on throw pillows, Carlotta sipped water and paged through scripts. Theoretically, she’d like to do another film, though she wasn’t yet resigned to playing the mother-in-law. Acceptable offers came to her rarely, lately not at all.

When her eyes grew tired of reading, she pushed up her glasses and rested her head back on the yielding pillows. Across the room, a square of picture-glass reflected the opulent bed floating in the mellow lamplight, but not Maddie in semidarkness on the floor. Feeling judgmental eyes upon her—so many people denounced the Babybox—Carlotta asked these imaginary critics what else the girl would be doing right now. Watching television? Playing on the computer? From an early age Carlotta had walked home from school to an empty house, hung out on the street with other unsupervised kids, watched her parents watch television at night, listened to them yell at her brother to come out of his room, ate carrot sticks and cottage cheese alone on her bed, Glamour or Cosmo spread on her knees. In contrast, she and Maddie sat down to a home cooked dinner every night. Though she could have afforded a personal chef, as well as a nanny and a driver, she adored doing all those jobs herself for her little baby doll. As a girl, she’d never played house; lucky her, lucky Maddie, they got to play now.  

The next day around ten, dressed and coiffed—no reason to scare the girl with bed-head mommy—Carlotta removed the lid, and Maddie popped up, grinning her gap-toothed grin. “Park?”

Inexplicably, Maddie had fixated on the public park, a grungy place of metal, sand and dirty, cracked plastic. To Carlotta it simply was not on the map, but stood outside the circuit she and her daughter made through their happy, cotton candy-colored world.

“No park today. But we’ll have fun.”

After lunch they drove out along winding streets, past pink and beige and cream Mediterranean-style homes, toward the gate. As they passed under the stucco arch, Carlotta waved to the guard, but the young man stared past as though she were invisible. Carlotta smoothed her hair, then gripped the wheel again. So many wrinkles ringed her wrists. If babytech made boxes big enough for adults she’d get one, damn the cost, though she’d have to hire someone to haul her out of it or she’d lie there forever.

A few blocks on, the tall gray Nordstrom building slid out from behind a row of eucalyptus trees, and Maddie began to pout. Carlotta drove into the mall, reassuring her, “We’ll have fun. We always do.”

After two loops round the parking lot, she found a place beneath a leathery-leaved magnolia tree. Hand-in-hand, she and Maddie crossed the asphalt, walking toward the monumental glass facade of the PlayDaySpa. Inside, they left their shoes in cubbies and padded into the vast central room.

“You go play, while Mommy gets a manicure.”  

Maddie walked away in her purple socks toward the enormous play structure, while Carlotta signed in with one of the uniformed play-associates. She left Maddie climbing the big green net and strolled toward the manicure tables near the wall of mirrors. Once enthroned in a padded black leather chair, she checked back across the room. Maddie had reached the crow’s nest at the top of the structure and stood looking out toward the manicure stations. Carlotta waved. The little girl didn’t see, or pretended not to, turning away and crawling into a big red tube. 

After her manicure, Carlotta started toward the consultation booth to reserve a chemical peel for the following week, passing on the way the door to the massage room.

“Carlotta!”

Carlotta looked into her friend’s flushed face. “You’re…relaxed. Nice massage? Never saw the appeal myself.”

“You’re too tense, Carlotta. You should’ve come out with us last night. His friend was thirty—and hot.”

“Sorry.” 

“I know, your little girl comes first.” The woman made a sour face as her own daughter ran up to her side.

“Can we go now, mom?”

“Don’t rush off.” Carlotta prolonged the conversation long enough to let drop that she was presenting an award later that month. “I’m glad I got that eyelid lift last spring. The lighting at those awards thingies isn’t as forgiving as on the set.”

“Christ!” her friend exclaimed, as though Carlotta had jogged her memory. “Have you seen my ‘soap husband’ this season?”

The impatient daughter, grimacing, braces glinting, tugged on her mother’s arm, pulling her in the direction of the shoe cubbies. The woman called back to Carlotta. “Check him out at frighteningplasticsurgery.com.” 

Carlotta turned to the play-associate who’d silently appeared at her elbow. “Ma’am, we have a situation,” he said.

Carlotta’s smile tightened as she looked past him to the play area where two toddlers stood blubbering at the sides of the plastic ball pit, while Maddie sat in the middle, waist-deep in blue and red balls. All three mothers reached the scene within moments. The first, a squat woman in gray sweats, swooped out one of the sobbing toddlers and scowled at Carlotta.

“Is that big girl yours? She dived in and squashed my son.” Clutching the little boy to her freckled chest, she glared down at Maddie. “This place is for little kids.”

In the car on the drive home, Carlotta asked, “Did you have fun? Before the problem?”

“I want to go to the park next time.”

After lunch Maddie galloped around her bedroom, skidding over the smooth floor and crashing into her canopy bed, before lying down in the Babybox for her nap. Carlotta snapped the lid in place and sat back in the sudden quiet, breathing hard. She stood and wandered through the cool, dim house. In the living room she passed the fireplace, with its scent of cold ash, and ended up at the computer on her desk.

Within seconds, she’d logged onto the plastic surgery website. First standing, then sitting, Carlotta scrolled down past poorly lit photographs of boob-jobs, collagen injections and facelifts. Some of these people she knew; most were in the entertainment industry. She had to laugh at her friend’s soap husband with his orange tan and raised eyebrows jutting to the corners of his forehead. Going down farther, sometimes wincing and moving on, sometimes pausing to stare, she scrolled until she caught her breath and touched her hand to her mouth.

Actually—and this was funny—she recognized the blue dress first. She’d worn it to the Vanity Fair party, where a tabloid photographer must have snapped this picture. But though the dress seemed familiar, the face was not. That could not be her.

It was, of course. Below her photograph, the caption read: “Sure, wrinkles are a bitch, but so is having a face made of wax.” Carlotta leaned closer to the screen. In such lighting even a teenager would look bad, especially shot from below. Still, her face was as tight and shiny as a rubber doll’s.

Carlotta clicked off, stood up, and turned to the gilt mirror above the fireplace, brushing her fingers across her cheek. Her friend must have known the picture was there. Perhaps she’d mentioned the soap husband to lead Carlotta to the website. Carlotta reached for her phone, started to punch in the number, but stopped herself in time and threw the phone onto the chair. She wouldn’t vent. Mentally, she crossed that friend off her list, though. It was a shame.

Carlotta moved to the window and peeked out through the Venetian blinds at the California afternoon, the sprinklers showering her emerald-green front lawn. She turned to check the clock on the mantel. Not much time had passed since she put Maddie down. She slipped across the shiny floor to the door of the workout room and stood with her hand on the frame, regarding the metal machines with their weights and shin-bruising bars. While she hesitated there, the muscle under her left eye twitched, once, twice. She smoothed it with her index finger and turned away. One day off wouldn’t hurt. The effort seemed somewhat pointless, now.

With nothing else to do, Carlotta strayed back into Maddie’s bedroom, where her daughter lay stretched out, gangly, on the white cushion in her box. She’d towered over that pair of toddlers. Perhaps she really had outgrown the PlayDaySpa. Then Carlotta would have to do without its convenience. Maddie’s happiness mattered most.

For ten more minutes, Carlotta paced the living room, straightening cushions, aligning the edges of stacked magazines: what to do, what to do. Their lives were changing. Adjustments must be made, not just to this afternoon but to the next and the next. After staring into the refrigerator and at her computer, knowing they both offered diversions that could harm her, Carlotta restarted Maddie earlier than usual.

“Want to go to the park?”

“Yay!”

Twenty minutes later, Carlotta slid the car into a parking place parallel to the park’s chain link fence.

“I just worry so much about you,” she said, as she popped the door lock, releasing Maddie from the car. On the sidewalk, Carlotta squatted to rub sunblock on the little girl’s cheeks and nose. “No jumping off the swings, okay?”

Carlotta swung open the gate and followed Maddie into the park. The little girl looked from the monkey bars to the slide to the teeter-totter, before spotting a friend playing in the sand.

“Hi, Maddie!” The enormous giraffe of a girl, with knobby knees and elbows, waved a stick and grinned. Her two front teeth had grown in freakishly large for her face. The girl stabbed her stick into the sand and ran to the swings with Maddie. The two began pumping, building up higher and higher until their legs pointed straight out into the air and then even higher, flashing their underpants and the backs of their legs.

“Let’s jump!” Maddie hollered.

“I can jump farther.”

“No, I can.”

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” Carlotta called out. She looked around for support, but the girl seemed to be on her own.

The two girls bailed out at the same time, landing in the sand on their knees. At first Maddie giggled, thrilled by the danger she’d survived, then she noticed that the other girl had touched down three feet farther from the swings. Carlotta remembered those big front teeth. Maddie’s friend had passed her by at least six months, though she’d been born a year after Maddie. Maddie cheeks reddened. The friend, unaware, ran back to the swings.

“Let’s do it again.”

Maddie climbed the slide, pretending not to hear. At the top of the ladder, she sat down with her legs splayed on the metal slope and gazed out at the playground.

“Carlotta?”

Carlotta turned toward the voice, placing the face, if not the body. She recalled this woman lying on a mat, breathing out through open lips like an angry gorilla. 

“Lamaze class.” Carlotta stood and reached over the chain link fence to shake hands with the woman standing on the sidewalk. “It’s been awhile.”

The woman had put on weight, probably weighed more now than she had nine months pregnant.

“We were passing and I saw you here. Danny, say ‘Hi’.” She spoke to a teenage boy standing behind her.

That’s Danny?”

For either financial or ethical reasons the woman had let the boy grow naturally.

“Where’s Maddie?”

Carlotta pointed to the little girl on the top of the slide.

“Oh, honey.”

“I know. I’m trying to cut down.”

With her eyes still on Maddie, the woman raised her hand in a goodbye salute. “Nice to see you.”  

“We should do coffee again,” Carlotta said, as the woman walked away.

On the playground, the tall girl squatted in the sand digging with her stick, while a new, smaller girl, Maddie’s size, knelt on the bottom of the slide, looking up at Maddie, who came whooshing down, using the rubber soles of her shoes to stop at the bottom, inches away from the new girl. Both of them giggled. Soon they were climbing on the play structure with their eyes closed, trying to catch each other. Though Carlotta winced whenever they neared the edge, they managed to stay on the structure, probably by peeking through their eyelashes.

Carlotta found a bench in the shade of a big pine tree where the air smelled resiny, like Christmas. She brushed away the rough needles before she sat down. Underfoot, more needles mixed with the sand. She slipped off her mules and poked her toes into the coolness, remembering through the soles of her feet something her mind had forgotten years ago.

Carlotta considered the day. She really did want to have coffee with that woman, just as she actually did intend to cut down on Maddie’s hours inside the box. It was true; adjustments must be made.   

Maddie was quiet in the car driving home. 

“Whatcha thinking ‘bout?” Carlotta asked in a sing-song voice.

“Her. That girl.”

“Your new friend? I like the way you make friends, Maddie.”

“I don’t want to come back to the park next time and have her be bigger than me.”

This was new. Maddie never used to care who she played with. If one child passed her by, she settled for another.

At home half a dozen envelopes stuck out of the brass box on the front porch. Carlotta flipped through them while Maddie jumped down from the porch to the flagstone walkway.

“Watch me! You’re not watching.”

Maddie stomped up the three steps to the porch and jumped again, while Carlotta considered the pay slip from the modeling agency for a life insurance ad in which she simpered at her “daughter” in a bridal outfit. How had she come to this? The money was hardly worth the humiliation. However, she and Maddie had an expensive lifestyle to maintain.    

Carlotta looked up from the pay slip as Maddie caught the toe of her shoe on the top step and fell into a nosedive, landing hard on her hands and knees. Carlotta leapt after her, hitting the sidewalk almost as quickly as her daughter. Maddie sat back on her bottom to examine her scraped palms and skinned knees. Blood welled out of an inch-long cut on her left knee.

“Ow.”

“Oh, baby doll, this is Mommy’s fault. Mommy wasn’t paying attention.” Carlotta led the little girl into the house to the powder room, where she washed the cut with a soapy washcloth. “Now we’ll get something for this boo-boo.”

The medicine cabinet door reflected her face, a face of wax. That the awful picture was going to hurt for some time. In a way, though, the pain didn’t matter. She could ignore her private hurts, though perhaps not the deepening heartache of her life with Maddie.

She opened the cabinet. “Where are those Band-Aids?”

Carlotta’s thin hand riffled through the crèmes, lotions and toothpaste in the cabinet, batting them about. There were no Band-Aids. She’d never bought them, though such an oversight seemed impossible. “Oh, sweetie, I’m sorry.”

However, the cut had stopped bleeding.

That night Maddie refused to brush her teeth and fought as Carlotta dragged her toward the box.

“Tomorrow, after your classes, we’ll go to the park again, and your new friend might be there.”

“No. I don’t have any friends,” Maddie objected. She stepped into the box, though, and sank down, defeated. As Carlotta reached for the lid, she pushed away the hope that the little girl would fight harder, the possibility that she would cave in to her daughter’s rebellion.

Alone again, she poured herself a tumbler of red wine and sat at the computer, returning to her photograph on the plastic surgery website. The wine soon washed heavily though her size-two body, while she scrolled down over the parade of freaks. What had they all been thinking? The same mistakes repeated, over and over. Carlotta laughed at the first young girl with boobs like cantaloupe halves glued in place, but after six examples, wondered what kind of body image problems those gorgeous young women had. Before and after pictures showed round-faced lovely girls changed, with the help of cheek implants and nose jobs, into chiseled beauties who, oddly, weren’t as pretty anymore. Many of the before pictures dated to when the girls were local celebrities in places like Australia or Spain or England.

“Look what we’ve done to you,” Carlotta said to an Irish girl whose lovely mouth—with a delicately carved upper lip, and tender curving lower lip—had recently ballooned into a duck bill, a cartoon mouth, better to be seen from a distance on the red carpet.

The older women were worse, of course, even when the surgery worked. A smooth-faced actress of sixty had a cheek she could bounce a dime on, but when Carlotta, thinking of Maddie, tried to see the six year old in that face, she knew this face had never been six years old. This face was a surgeon’s creation.  

Carlotta slammed the laptop closed and cursed her friend. She hadn’t needed to see this website. She smashed her face into her hands, elbows on the desk, baggy skin be damned. Maybe she should get fat, like her friend from Lamaze class—the woman who would never call about going out for coffee. Carlotta wanted to yell, “I have no friends!” like her daughter.

Poor Maddie. If her new playmate passed her by like all the others, she’d be sad. No, she’d be angry. Angry at Carlotta. She wouldn’t see that her mommy had meant well, had only wanted to give her a long, wonderful childhood.

Carlotta got up, hand flat on the desk, and went to Maddie’s room. The lamp was on, glowing through the pink-pleated shade. The light could not disturb the child’s unnatural sleep, and besides Carlotta liked to keep Maddie visible, close by, though perhaps the girl deserved some privacy now, since she seemed to have different desires and new demands.    

Through the glass, the reddish slug-mark stood out on Maddie’s pale knee. It would heal to become her first scar. Carlotta sat down on the carpet, drew up her knees to her chest and leaned against the box. She lay her hand on the cool glass, asking the universe for guidance. After a time, her unfocused gaze fixed itself on a shiny, aspirin-sized mark on her wrist. In another life, she’d burned herself baking a birthday cake for her mother. Scars. Everyone has them. On her manicured index finger, a silvery hyphen mark reminded her of Ginger the guinea pig, who once mistook her finger for a carrot. On her elbow, a white crescent recorded a fall from a scooter thirty, thirty-five years ago. And she bore a long, thin, silvery scar on her shin from running through a rosebush during a neighborhood game of tag. Birthday cakes, guinea pigs, tag. A tumble off the front porch. These were the things that scarred young girls. Not so terrible after all. 

Carlotta looked again at her daughter’s cut knee, still glistening red, not yet darkening into a scab. Of course not. If Maddie did not age in the box, she also would not heal. If she did not heal, she would not scar. Carlotta rose to her knees and leaned over the box, reaching for the latch. Carlotta raised the lid. She lifted out the little girl, one arm under her knees, the other around her shoulders. Carlotta’s daughter would age, heal and scar.

Maddie woke at once when Carlotta set her down, but wavered woozily on her feet. 

“Stay here.” Carlotta hurried into the living room and stood, looking around, until she settled on the andiron in the fireplace and lugged it back to the bedroom.

“Stand back.” She raised the andiron, so heavy her biceps shuddered and her wrists buckled under the strain as she brought it up and let it fall, swinging down, cracking into the side of the box, destroying further temptation. 

Maddie yawned.

“No more box,” Carlotta told her.

“Yay.”

No box, no financial burden, no foolish advertisements, no frightening red carpet photographs, all good; an alternate future eluded her, though. Imagining tomorrow, or the next day, an old-timey home movie played in her mind, a flickering image of Maddie climbing up the slide at the public park while Carlotta sat under a pine tree with her bare feet in a messy mixture of cool sand and prickly, half-rotten pine needles; she heard happy laughter in the distance and saw decay at her feet.



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Riding the train

Sunday, June 30th, 2019

by Terry Smith

So…I had to take the train today. I was heading to New York to resurrect the after-birth of a magazine called “The National Lampoon”…..my idea was to call it WTF  …..the train was packed tighter than Celesta Geyer in a tank top and bicycle shorts…..I noticed however there was one seat that was inexplicably empty…..except for a solitary man sitting quietly with a hood covering his face, I assumed for privacy ….I squeezed my way over to him and asked if I could sit….he replied ” be my guest.”…to which I said ” As your guest could I ask you to please clear out the foyer?”It’s like an orgy out there and even Caligula wasn’t interested in the talent pool….. I thought I heard him laugh but the din was so penetrating that I was hearing thoughts that belonged to other people…..as I sat down I noticed he was playing solitaire with a deck the likes I had never seen before….the cards looked fragile and well worn like he had been playing for centuries…they seemed to be made of a material like the wings of butterflies or the petals from angels trumpet…..the diamonds glistened as if they were real, the hearts were upside down and appeared to be oozing ,the clubs all had the symbol for six to the third power and the spades….well I won’t even go there……the kings were all Henry the eight and the queens four of his wives…there was Catherine of Aragon…Anne Boleyn…Kathryn Howard…and Jane Seymour….all with their heads in their hands…literally …the jacks were ..Dempsey,Kerouac.Nicholson and Benny….and the others were all naked bodies bound and writhing in agony in numbers correlating with the numeral beside them….I sat down and started rambling as is my want to do about the magazine and that no one was off limits…no rules… an article about how when a man ages his penis goes from making a bad decision every five minutes to going to the bathroom with the same frequency….and one on feeding rapists to the sharks so they won’t bother the beach goers …and how they tried to use Lincoln as the first piggy bank…only pennies of coarse…..he listened quietly and never said a word ….then I pulled out my trusty flask and lit a joint…[ I offered of coarse but with a waive of his hand he politely declined ]….the weed made me hungry so I pulled out my briefcase full of cheeses and strawberries coated in chocolate to look like the kids game hangman …..he sat up at this point as if to gaze intently at what I was doing but I could not tell as his face was still obscured by the hood …just as I was laying everything out like some picnic in hell  I heard a voice as sweet as honey dripping off of chocolate coated ice-cream on a hot summers day….I was becoming a diabetic just listening to her…..finally I focused on the words she was saying….” May I ?” and I replied ” Of coarse!!” My heart was racing faster than a midgets at a tall women’s convention or a meth-addict sky diving with the FBI ….she sat down next to the man when somehow my pheromones covered her in a fine mist …her nostrils flared and nipples hardened like two bullets from a .38 special against the fabric of her dress….she bit into one of the strawberries , juice oozing down her lower lip….I had to adjust myself and noticed I had gum on the crotch of my pants from the underside of the table…when I felt a foot sliding up my thigh ….she smelled like the air after a thunderstorm and the iris’s of her eyes looked like the pupils had studied orgasms all their lives…and had totally destroyed the bell curve….she said she was a contortionist for a traveling kama sutra company in an off off  broadway play…I told her I was going to try to start a magazine…..finally we came to a stop and the mysterious man leaned over towards me and said…”You better get off here.”..”And take her with you”…there was something about him that made me feel as if I should do as he said so I took her by the hand and we exited the train….we were standing inside the station checking  the schedule for the earliest connecting train when all of the sudden there was a loud explosion …just out of sight of the station the train had crashed…killing everyone aboard ….realizing we were lucky to be alive we decided to share a hotel room for the night..and do all the depraved things one would do if they had just cheated death…..we took a taxi to the nearest Hilton … walked up to the desk where the clerk informed us that the hotel room was already paid for….as was the concierge.

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