Stories

Without Music, by Mary Ellen Gambutti

Jesse lived in suburbia, in a town with confused values. Like many girls in her town, she was sheltered in middle class privilege. Now seventeen, she’d thought about college; her parents both college grads, but it didn’t seem to be coming her way. She’d negotiated her way around studies and social life, especially during the final two years of school, but not to her best advantage. She chose to slide in academics to gain acceptance of cooler, less studious classmates. Now it was the end of June, 1969, and she didn’t mind going to work.

Guys either went to college for S-2 status, filed papers to assert conscientious objection, left for Canada, or for Vietnam. Troops had begun to return home that spring, but an eighteen-year-old who left school in junior year wasn’t among them. He was killed in action, and it Jesse’s town hard.

What could go wrong? Her New York City-raised mom let herself believe there could be no danger to her only child in this small town. She chose to cultivate a comfortable lack of awareness of her daughter’s interests or whereabouts, and rarely restricted her. Her father’s work and temperament kept him distant.

Jesse’s routine was to drive home from her job as a nurse’s aide, change from her white uniform into frayed bell-bottoms, embroidered shirt and fringed moccasins, and brush out her long, straight, brown hair. Without saying much, she often left the house before dinner, walked to the deli and ordered a ham and cheese and a Yoo-Hoo. She waited for other kids to show up, smoke and talk about nothing much.

Sometimes Rich would show up alone. Friendly and intelligent, Jesse thought of him. Reserved. He kept his sandy hair shorter than many guys did, and wore heavy-framed glasses. He was pale, if not unhealthy, about six feet tall with big shoulders. At eighteen, he was neither working nor in school: a bad combination if you hoped to avoid the draft.

Jesse and Rich’s crowd loitered as long as they could, until patrol pulled up to chat, when they left for someone’s house by car or foot. They might walk to his house, a mile from their hang out–five blocks from her house. His parents both worked, and watched TV in the living room after dinner. They never said more than a “Hi” to Rich and Jesse when they walked in the front door and headed upstairs to Rich’s bedroom at the rear of the large colonial.

Rich passed a joint to Jesse in front of his open bedroom window. Then they lounged on the wall-to-wall and played records on his portable turntable that resembled a small suitcase. Stacks of vinyl to choose from, Stones and Beatles were favorites–“Their Satanic Majesties Request” and “The White Album,” especially Paul’s voice on “Helter-Skelter.” Confusion: To them, it didn’t matter if the songs made sense. Nothing made sense, anyway, it seemed to them. Jesse played at DJ, while Rich lay back with his hands behind his head and listened with his eyes closed. His parents didn’t seem to object to the music’s volume, or that he was alone in his room with a young girl. Jesse felt comfortable with Rich because he didn’t touch her. He was a quiet friend she could be herself with. They hung out and waited with each other. They didn’t know what it was they waited for, but when there was something else to do, they went along.

Rich had a plain old beige Dodge. They would sometimes drive out of town and get high, play the eight-track he had hooked up to little rear speakers. One night, he said, “I got invited to a party in the Village. Go with me.” It sounded cool to her, so Rich drove them over the Bridge and downtown with the music turned up.

 

Dread hit Jesse in her gut when he squeezed into a spot on a choked East Village street. She followed him up cement steps to the door of a narrow walk-up, and into a filthy stairway. Several flights up, his pale knuckles tapped a grubby door. Her heart pumped hard. A girl with scraggly long hair, wearing an Indian print skirt and an oversized man’s t-shirt opened to Rich’s knock, and knew his name. The greasy odor of open chip bags, stench of stale ashtrays, sour beer and soda cans, cigarette smoke, and remnants of take-out mingled with sweat, weed and squalor in the dim living room. A few people greeted the newcomers with a nod.  Jesse glanced nervously around at young men and women in shabby dress and demeanor seated on an overstuffed couch and random chairs. Rich had on a buttoned short-sleeved tattersall shirt and Wranglers; Jesse, a tan fringed vest over a loose-fitting white poet’s shirt and purple hip-huggers. He sat tall on an up-turned milk carton, and motioned to Jesse to sit next to him on a folding chair.

Without music, the room lacked the tone of any party Jesse had been to. As she accepted a pipe, she noticed Rich pass money. In exchange, he took a tiny twisted plastic bag of white powder, and stuck it in his shirt pocket. A guy with bad teeth on the couch picked up a kitchen spoon from the coffee table and tapped white powder from a glassine envelope into it. Jesse felt weak. He squirted water from a glass syringe into the spoon, and held it over the lit candle butt that stood in a jar top. Rich tied a thick elastic band, like Jesse often saw at the hospital, around his left arm. The junkie passed Rich the syringe, and asked Jesse if she wanted some. She shook her head quickly, “No, thanks!” and turned away, trying not to show her horror. When she looked at Rich again he smiled. He became talkative. After about an hour of fear and tension, her look said, “please,” and Rich said, “O.K., let’s go.”

Down at the curb, Rich said, “You have to drive.” “So that’s why you brought me here,” she whispered when she understood his invitation, and adrenalin shot through her when he replied by putting his keys in her hand. She gripped the wheel all the way up the West Side Drive, while Rich dozed. She had never driven in the City, only knew a couple of trains. Over George Washington Bridge, onto Route 4, and the tape player stayed off. It was one a.m., over two hours since her friend took her up to a shooting gallery and shot dope in front of her. How many times had he done that, she wondered? He had pulled the tourniquet tight with his teeth like he’d done it before.

Off at River Road and back to their quiet Mayberry. She stopped under the streetlamp at her corner and said goodbye without expression. She walked down the block to her house without looking back at his Dodge, and it slowly pulled away.

She never saw Rich again. Jesse avoided their hang-out, and never returned to play records with him on his bedroom floor. In a few weeks she left for Aspen with new friends. That August, the musical explosion of music highlighted a peaceful dream of universal brotherhood, but the draft was still on. The anti-war movement would peak that November, with massive demonstrations. The lottery would follow under Nixon. Confusion, indeed, the year Jesse graduated.

She’d had a taste of the betrayal that comes so easily to an addict, someone she had trusted, but about whom she knew nothing. He had taken advantage of her kindness and naiveté.  When she heard, a year later that Rich had overdosed in his parents’ bathroom, Jesse concluded, “rather than face death in the Mekong Delta.”

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The Melody Diner on Broadway, Part 1, by Romana Guillotte

#london #melody-diner

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, August 13th 1929

Variegated stains fanned from a corner pipe on the kitchen ceiling. At least the leak was fixed. Vinnie knew girls would want him to paint, and he wondered when would be a good time. Probably now– 3:45 a.m. on Tuesday morning. Not much going on in the diner at that time. He took a long drag from his cigarette, staring at the ceiling from the floor. Sometimes he laid there at night after the floors dried when he didn’t want to sleep. His philosophy was, who would want to eat from a kitchen where you couldn’t even lie on the floor? He dabbed out his cigarette and closed his eyes at the thought.

The kitchen phone rang and woke him. Vinnie grunted, not realizing he had dozed off. He stood up as he lumbered slowly to the phone.  “The Melody diner on Broadway…” Lips smacking as he rubbed the stubble on his face and head.

“Vinnie, it’s Harriet, open up.”

He peered through the serving hatch into the dark diner to see Queenie by the door under the streetlight, then Harriet across the street at a payphone by the drug store. He answered with a new grunt, hanging up the phone. Harriet and Queenie were early – meaning they were looking for breakfast. Harriet scurried across to join her sister as Vinnie opened the door, the bell jingling with satisfying familiarity. Harriet and Queenie were close enough in age to be mistaken for twins, and they were the typical night and day personalities to boot.  They were also his only friends, but he definitely wasn’t going to say that. “Haven’t I told you that you ladies will never make it in showbiz if you’re early all the time?” His cockney accent was heavier just after he woke up.

Queenie flaunted in, brown curls bouncing with her. She was the ‘fun’ sister, usually with a giggle on tap. “Oh Vinnie, what would you know about showbiz?” She waltzed past him, her sister rolling her eyes behind her.

“I know enough.” He closed the door behind them.

“Yeah, yeah. New York and all that…”

“London,” Vinnie emphasized the city of his birth, “has some showbiz elements too, and I was certainly there a lot longer.” He trailed them into the kitchen.

Harriet looked to add something, but her sister continued, ignoring the Englishman. “Well, we aren’t early. It’s almost 4:30!”

“It’s so dark in here,” Harriet turned on the rest of the lights as she stored her purse. She was the older, protective one who operated like clockwork. “Don’t you ever turn on any lights?”

“Vinnie! The stove isn’t on!” Queenie exclaimed.

“I was catching some ‘z’s…” Vinnie shrugged.

“Is that why the door was locked?”

“Hey, I’m one man. And no one comes in between 4 am and 5 am on a Tuesday, so opening a few minutes late won’t be terrible.” He heated up the stove. “What’ll it be?”

“The usual,” Harriet said as she started the coffee. Her hair wasn’t quite as short or as curly as her sister’s, but she put some behind her ear absently all the same.

“Right up. And you, Queenie?”

Queenie grabbed aprons off their respective hooks. “Give me something exotic!”

Harriet grinned at her sister’s enthusiasm as she took the apron. Vinnie was not quite on board as he cracked some eggs. “Define exotic.”

“Like oranges, or an avocado…or clams!”

Vinnie sighed. “Where am I gonna get clams? We’re nowhere near the ocean.”

“I bet I know someone who could get us clams,” Harriet muttered as she poured them all coffee.

He didn’t like where that idea was headed. “Let’s not ‘tempt that,” Vinnie finished Harriet’s breakfast and handed her the plate. “It’s not even 5 am yet.”

“Just an idea.” She shared her smirk with him, and he accepted it.

He cleared his throat to break the moment as he turned to Queenie. “Where’d you get that kind of idea anyhow?”

“We saw The Hollywood Revue last night!” Queenie became excited.

“Is that a play?”

She giggled. “No. It’s a movie. And all the MGM stars were in it.”

“Garbo wasn’t. Or Lon Chaney. I don’t think Novarro was either…” Harriet added thoughtfully.

“Well, almost everyone. It was great! And John Gilbert was in it. Swoon!” She pretended to faint onto her sister.

“You’ll have to fight Garbo for him,” Harriet pushed her sister back to her feet.

“Not if she’s not there.” Queenie smiled as Vinnie gave her a plate with the same food as Harriet. “Thanks.” And sat down with her plate.

“Did you like it?” Vinnie asked Harriet.

She shrugged. “It was all right. I thought John Gilbert’s voice was strange. Guess I hadn’t heard his voice yet.”

“So it was one of them talkies.”

The two women chuckled. “They are almost all talkies now.”

Vinnie smiled at his non-knowledge of the pictures. “Meh. What do I know?”

“Certainly not the movies.” Harriet sipped her coffee.

“Yeah. Don’t try and argue about the pictures with these two Arizona girls.” Queenie said proudly.

“Pssh. It’s hardly a state.” He made himself some toast and beans.

“Is too a state!” Queenie objected.

“You were born in old Arizona, not the current state of Arizona.” Vinnie gave a straight face, then smiled and they all gave a good laugh. The bell on the door rang for their first customer. “Time to work.”

Harriet handed over her plate and walked into the diner with the coffee pot. A tall, unmemorable man sat at the counter. “What’ll it be?”

“Coffee, and…is that the special? It says Monday.”

“Oh, sorry.” She erased the day, picked up the chalk, and wrote Tuesday.

“It’s the same thing? What sort of scam you pulling?”

“Sir, I’m not sure what you’re getting at,” Harriet asked, rather jaded. “We aren’t exactly the Ritz…”

“You’re trying to shirk innocent customers…”

Vinnie overheard and called through the serving window. “Hey, did you have it yesterday?”

“Well…no…”

“Then what are you on about?”

Embarrassed the man looked to Harriet, “I’ll have the special then.”

“Great.” Harriet shot Vinnie a look. But Vinnie didn’t back down. The unremarkable man ate quickly, escaping within twenty minutes.

“Would you look at that?” Harriet held up a dollar, “He even tipped.”

Vinnie shrugged. “What are you trying to say?”

“That sometimes, I don’t need the English Bulldog in my corner.”

“You say that…”

Queenie overheard and giggled. “But we are grateful he is.”

“Thank you, Queenie. See, someone understands.” More customers came in, scattering themselves between the booths and counter, giving the trio plenty to do. “Now get back to work.”

 

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A Tale of Blood and Roses, Part 3, by Keira Heckman

#blood and roses #fantasy

Maccan ran a hand over his perfectly smoothed hair before he set off down the hallway again. Jake didn’t follow this time. Instead, he went to find Rosalind.

He found her in Exam Room B sitting on an examination table dressed in jeans and an old t-shirt. He folded his arms as he leaned against the doorframe and waited for her physical examination to be over. She sat with her legs swinging slightly, crinkling the white paper beneath her.

The nurse crossed over to her. “Open your mouth, please.”

Rosalind did as she was told while the nurse peeled the microphone from the inside of her cheek.

“Am I done?” Rosalind asked the nurse. Her eyes met Jake’s and she raised an eyebrow.

The nurse nodded. Rosalind jumped down from the table and skipped over to the doorway where Jake stood. “What’s up?”

Jake stood up straight and walked down the hallway in the same direction he had come, gesturing for Rosalind to follow.

“De-briefing?” She asked, matching his stride with ease. Her tone was coloured with a mixture of sarcasm and annoyance. Rosalind was much more of an act first, ask questions later agent. She had been taken in by the agency at twelve years-old and climbed through the ranks until she had found a position that fit. She made an excellent field agent, but he pitied the person that had to fill out her mission reports, until he remembered that was his job now. He sighed mentally, budget cuts.

He nodded. He glanced at her shirt, “Daddy issues?” he raised his eyebrows at her as he read the words printed on the yellow fabric.

Rosalind smiled, “It’s funny cause it’s true.”

Jake liked it when she smiled. It brought out a small dimple in her left cheek. When you added her bright blue eyes, lined with perfectly winged eyeliner, the contrast of her pale skin, and auburn hair, the result was a very pretty face.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you without eyeliner.”

“And you never will,” she teased.

Jake swiped his ID badge on the card slot in the door and pushed it open. “After you,” he said as he held it open for her.

“You know I can open a door for myself, right?”

Jake rolled his eyes, “I know you can open a door. I was being gentlemanly.”

Rosalind smirked as she stepped through the door. “Wow, there really is a first time for everything.”

Jake stepped through after her, shaking his head slightly as the door sealed shut behind them.

The size of the room was unclear because of the amount of technology that had been stuffed into it. A large screen took up most of one wall, while piles of old modes of computers, keyboards and base units took up another. The air smelled of dust, heated plastic with a faint scent of Doritos.

Rosalind saw a swivel chair in the center of the room and sat on it, one leg tucked under her, the other she used to spin herself in slow circles. Jake took the spare chair and moved it over a monitor in the corner of the room. He switched the monitor on and the screen showed an open document—a rundown of Rosalind’s latest assignment.

Jake sat on the chair, his eyes darting across the screen. He could see her spinning in the corner of his eye and sighed, “Please stop, you’re giving me motion sickness just watching you.”

“Sorry,” Rosalind wheeled her chair over to him.

“Okay, so what do we know about the assignment?” Jake asked, scrolling through the file.

“Known locally as the faceless man, seven feet tall, great fashion sense, oh, and I killed him,” Rosalind smiled.

Jake looked up at her, “What did you miss?”

Her look of triumph was replaced by one of confusion.

“Nothing.”

Jake turned back to the screen and read from it. “The faceless man disables his prey by emitting a high frequency sound. Victims have reported dizziness, disorientation, migraines, temporary deafness, and even blindness.”

Rosalind put a hand to her head, “The headaches.”

Her eyes widened, “Is that why I fell? The disorientation? Because I never fall, you’ve seen me train. I’m like a cat. I always land on my feet.”

Jake nodded, “It’s the most probable explanation.” He closed the tab and turned his chair back towards Rosalind. “About your fall…”

Rosalind read his face like a book, “What did Maccan have to say about it?”

Jake was taken aback, “How did you—”

“I could tell by your face. You get this look after you’ve spoken to him, like you’ve been sent to the headmaster’s office for something you didn’t do. So…”

Rosalind leaned forward in her seat.  “What did he say? Am I in trouble?” Her face was serious but there was a sparkle in her eyes.

Jake sighed, “He said your fall was an embarrassment to the agency and told me to deal with it.”

Rosalind looked relieved as she slumped back in the chair. “Oh, that’s not too bad. Just put a note in my file and delete the footage. It’d be a shame to mar my perfect record, but it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make if it’ll get Maccan off my back.”

He got up from his seat and walked across the room, running a hand through his hair. “I don’t know if I can just do that, Rosa. He was pretty ticked off. So,” He looked down, “I’m assigning you to Camilla.”

Rosalind’s jaw dropped, “Vampire duty?! But it wasn’t my fault that I fell. It was no face guy and his high frequency sounds!”

“I know that, but Maccan—” Jake started but Rosalind spoke over him.

“Did you at least explain to him—”

“I tried but he wouldn’t hear it. Besides, I think it’s for the best that you lay low for a little while.” Jake walked over to a monitor and turned it on.

Rosalind got to her feet. “And if I refuse?”

Jake looked up from the computer. “Well, technically, I’m your superior-”

“Not necessarily,” She shot back. Her anger clouded her pretty features.

“I’m your superior and I could report you to Maccan,” Jake finished.

Rosalind stared at him for a while before she spoke. “Fine. I’ll go babysit a three-hundred-year-old but it’s a waste of my talents, and we both know it.” She strode past him but stopped at the door.

She turned, “And you’ll report me to Maccan? Now who has daddy issues?”

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The Genesis of Steve, by P.J. Sambeaux

#Humor #literary #scifi

“Mom, what have you done?” Ellie whispered testily.

“I don’t know, honey,” her mother answered, her voice laden with fear and dismay. “I just don’t know.”  She reached out to lay a comforting hand on her daughter’s shoulder, but was irritably shrugged off.

It looked out at them from under the laundry basket in the corner.

“I do wish you’d both stop staring at me.”

**

“It says its name is Steve?” Carol told the customer service agent on the other end of the vid screen.

“What can you tell me of Steve’s genesis?” the man asked, sighing deeply – the tedium of job weighing heavily on his shoulders.

“Ok, this is going to sound really bad,” she began tentatively, “but I had a bunch of leftovers from old kits, so instead of buying a whole new kit I just put all the leftovers together?”

“Which leftovers did you use?”

“Ok,” she began, flipping through the torn labels, “I started out with Jamboree Fuzzy Time Loveable, then I added Einsteintatious, Kaleidescope Wowza, Submersible Party Time Buddy, Birds of All Feathers, Alien Wonder Bunny and Brief but Thrilling Terror from Outer Space.”

“How much temperalux and emoto-control would you say you added from all of the kits combined?

“None? Because there wasn’t any left?”

The customer service agent looked at the ceiling for guidance. There was none to be had.

“And when did you first notice something had gone wrong?”

“Um, I guess I’d have to say when he grabbed a knife and started waving it around.  I thought that was a really weird thing to do at a kid’s birthday party. So, yeah – that was probably when I realized something was off.”

“Is Steve fully sentient?”

“Oh, I don’t know, let me ask him.”  She turned to the creature. “Steve, they’re asking if you’re fully sentient?”

Steve sighed as tufts of pink hair sprouted above what were probably his ears.

“If you are asking me whether I am able to perceive my own existence and the existence of others in the environment in which I am currently situated, whether I have emotions and feelings, whether I am aware of my own abilities and limitations – then yes, Carol, I would have to say I am fully sentient.’

Carol turned back to the vid screen, her face pinched with worry. “Yes, he is reporting that he is fully sentient.”

“Ma’am, there is a reason that we advise you to discard any leftovers from a Temporary Party Time Buddy kit.  That reason, which you know are experiencing the full terror of, is the potential for creating a super-intelligent, possibly dangerous, probably hostile chimera.  The reason that we have you add the temperalux and emoto-control is so you can create an emotionally malleable creature that will expire just as your child has grown tired of it. I am going to have to put in a service call.  Someone should be with you between the hours of 5pm and 7pm.” The screen shut itself off as the call disconnected.

Carol walked over to her daughter, who was cautiously watching Steve, armed with a spatula and an extension cord.  She started to put her arm around her daughter’s shoulder, but then thought better of it.

“This never would have happened if your father had been here,” she mused unhappily. “I’m so sorry, honey.”

“You always are,” Ellie snapped back.

Carol brushed tears from her eyes with the back of her hand.  It was a few moments before she could speak.

“Happy ninth birthday, honey.”

“Thanks, mom,” Ellie hissed sarcastically.

“Yes, happy birthday, young lady,” Steve chimed in.

“Thank you, Steve,” Ellie said, eying him suspiciously.

**

“Ok, Carol,” Steve began some time later as they all waited for the serviceman to arrive.  “I’m going to put some of my cards on the table here. I’m not saying this to frighten you, but only as a demonstration of my trustworthiness.  The truth is that I can actually melt this laundry basket with my mind.”

Ellie made an involuntary sort of uh-oh sound, and her mother pulled her back and placed her own body in front as a shield.

“Oh, no, no,” Steve began hastily, waving two of his bioluminescent tentacles to show there had been a misunderstanding. “I am merely saying that you can trust me.  I could have done that thing, but I did not. I did not do something I have been capable of this entire time in order to earn your trust.”

Carol, who had begun backing away slowly, now turned frantically, knocking a tray of cupcakes and a plastic bottle of cherry soda off the kitchen table as she grabbed Ellie’s hand and ran to the front door.

That was when she realized the Party Time Buddies Company had put their apartment on lockdown.  There was no escape. She pushed Ellie into the coat closet, pulled the door closed behind them and waited.

 

**

“Carol,” Steve said, lighting up the dark closet with two bioluminescent tentacles probing underneath the door. “Really this is just silly.”

“What are you going to do to us?” she asked, the winter coats brushing the top of her head.

“Carol, I am not going to do anything to either of you.”

“You know, my husband will be home any minute,” she warned him.

“First, your apartment has been placed on lock down, and no one can enter without express authorization from the Party Time Buddies Company,” he replied in an educational tone. “Secondly, I’m guessing by the pervasive scent of rose potpourri and the decidedly feminine sense of organization in your apartment that no man has been domiciled here in at least sixteen weeks.

He had her there. She knocked her head against the wall of the closet in frustration.

“What was all that noise you were making earlier?” she asked.

“Ok, that was me trying one of those cupcakes and a little bit of spilled soda and discovering that they were actually potent stimulants.  I had to grow a whole volley of feet and run up one wall across the ceiling down the other wall and across the floor over and over again until the drugs were purged from my system.  Do you know what is in that “food”, Carol? Do you know that you’re feeding drugs to children?”

Carol sighed.

“It’s just an occasional treat.”

“Oh, right,” Steve said sarcastically, rolling the two eyes that were on the end of tentacles atop what could be described just that moment as his head.

“Mom, are we going to die?” Ellie whispered, as the initial jolt of adrenaline wore off and the gravity of the situation finally dawned on her.

“Ellie,” Steve began gently, “no one is going to die or be harmed in any way whatsoever.  I give you my word. Okay, what happened at the birthday party was that I was born and came into consciousness in the midst of a terrifying band of small-sized, yet heavily armed, ferocious monsters.  How was I to know they were children? Can you understand how I would have felt, Ellie? Can you imagine entering into the world in that manner?”

**

“Mom, why didn’t you just tell me you didn’t have the money for a Party Time Buddy?” Ellie asked after an hour spent in the stuffy closet. She was exasperated, hungry, and had an extreme need to use the bathroom.

“I didn’t want to let you down,” her mother said sadly. “And I didn’t want you to feel bad because your dad wasn’t coming.”

“Mom, dad isn’t coming back. Ever.  Deal with it!” Ellie shouted in sheer frustration.

The only thing that could be heard for a few minutes was muffled crying, then sniffling, then the blowing of a nose that was unintentionally obnoxious, like a sad foghorn.

“Carol,” Steve began after a time, “it’s obvious that you love your daughter and want the best for her and would give your life to protect her, but I’m going to need you both to come out of there now.”

“Could you come in here and get us?” Carol asked, suddenly terrified anew.

“Honesty did not work well between us earlier, so I’m just going to wait until you’re ready to come out.”

**

“Steve, may I ask you a question,” Ellie ventured a quarter of an hour later, too bored and uncomfortable to really be frightened any longer.

“Shoot.”

“When you melted the laundry basket with your mind, did the iron that I put on top of it fall through and hit you on the head?”

“Excellent question, Ellie. It did not.  I melted that as well and made you a pair of earrings for your birthday, which I will present to you when you come out.”

“How did you know what I’d like?”

“I read your thoughts.”

“Oh, jeez mom, he can read our thoughts.  He can melt stuff with his mind, and I really have to pee.  I’m going out there.”

“No!” her mother shouted, inadvertently digging fingernails into Ellie’s arm as she held her back.

“Mom,” Ellie said firmly, “I think if he wanted to hurt us, he would have done so already.  I’m pretty sure he can open an unlocked door.”

“She’s right, you know,” Steve chimed in.

Carol leaned back against the wall and closed her eyes, trying to envision all of this having a positive outcome, just like they had practiced in the newly single parents support group she had gone to – only once, but then she was always so busy.  Taking a deep breath, she summoned all of her courage and, against her better judgment, opened the door a crack.

“Ok, Steve, what are your demands?”

“This isn’t a hostage negotiation, Carol.  I merely require your assistance in a couple of matters.”

**

“If you needed my DNA, why didn’t you just take it?” Carol asked.

“I would consider that highly rude, and I sincerely hope you would too,” Steve replied with indignation.

“What are you going to do with it?”

“Create a new species to populate an uninhabited planet.”

“Isn’t that a bit like playing God?”

“Asks the woman who created me out of leftover Party Time Buddy kits.”

“Well,” Carol said hesitantly after a moment’s deliberation, “what else do you need?”

“A couple of grape popsicles, a mixing basin, all the cleaning supplies you have in the apartment, and a teaspoon of baking soda.”

“Why grape popsicles?”

“Ellie is thinking of them just now and they sound intriguing.”

Just then Ellie walked in the living room. She was wearing the earrings Steve had made for her.

“Ellie, help me gather all the cleaning supplies in the apartment and grab us a few of grape popsicles out of the freezer, would you?”

“Oh, good call mom,” Ellie said, nodding with deep appreciation – clearly impressed, “A grape popsicle sounds amazing.”

Carol smiled at Steve when Ellie turned her back.  He winked at her from a dozen or so eyes on different parts of his body, which was less horrifying than it might sound.

“Oh, I also need to borrow a sweater. Well, have one since technically I won’t be returning,” Steve added as he turned to a bright green liquid and oozed all over the floor to relax before his trip.

 

**

Steve, dressed in a grey cashmere sweater embellished with playful white kittens and a black beret positioned at a jaunty angle on his head, melted the sliding glass doors with his mind and stepped out onto the balcony.  He set the pickle jar that was now housing the beginnings of a new species on the ground and smiled sweetly.

“Ellie, I want you to know that your mother tries very hard and loves you very much.”

“I know,” Ellie said sheepishly, turning several shades of red and looking down at the ground.

“And Carol,” he said fondly, reaching out with a tentacle that she took in her hand. “Carol, you are a remarkable woman, but you have to move on. Your husband is never coming back.  You need to stop waiting for him. The service man that’s going to knock on your door in 4.5 minutes is named Dan. He’s a really nice, solid guy. He’s been a bachelor for a while, so you’ll have to be patient with how rough around the edges he is, but trust me, it will be worth it.”

With that he reconstituted the sliding glass door, scooped up the pickle jar and floated off the balcony, turning pink and gold as the sunset reflected off his now opalescent body.

Mother and daughter looked at each other for a moment before they met in a tight embrace.  Together, they watched Steve float up into the sky, before he popped into the clouds and was gone.

They both smiled.

Three minutes later someone knocked on their door.

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A Tale of Blood and Roses, Part 2, by Keira Heckman

#blood and roses #fantasy #scifi

The official job title that Jake Lachlan held was “Project Manager.” It said so on his contract and in smaller letters on his ID badge, but his real purpose was cleaning up other people’s messes—a job that never seemed to end. It seemed like every few minutes there was another thing that he had to fix. The latest, was Rosalind’s face off with the faceless man.

“What the hell was that?”

Jake looked up from his phone to see a swarm of people in suits pace toward him, the leader of the group was his boss’s boss, John Maccan.

“Rosalind is supposed to be our finest agent, Lachlan, you said that she could get the job done,” Maccan said as he tugged sharply on his navy blazer, smoothing out a non-existent crease.

Maccan was dressed sharply with his dark hair slicked back. Jake was the complete opposite; his dirty blonde hair was unruly. It stuck up in all directions no matter how hard he tried to tame it. While his superior was decked out, Jake wore a beige checkered shirt and an old pair of jeans accompanied by rust stain half way down one pant leg.

Jake slipped his phone into a pocket, “Well, respectfully sir, she did get the job done. She neutralized the threat.”

Maccan’s assistant gave a small tut and tapped on the tablet she was carrying. She presented it to Maccan with a small look of satisfaction. He glaced at it and turned it so that Jake could see. Playing on the screen was footage of Rosalind’s tumble backwards down the hill. Maccan turned it off as she landed at the bottom.

He took a small step closer to Jack as he spoke, “Does this look like our finest agent? The best that we have to offer? This—,” he gestured to the screen, “—is an embarrassment to this agency. You had better deal with it before the press get wind of it. The FDA have been looking for an excuse to shut us down and I’ll be damned if she’s the reason.” He gave another sharp tug on his blazer and set off down the hallway with his gaggle of businessmen trailing after him.

Jake raced after them. “Sir, what exactly do you want me to do with her?” He had to jog to keep up with their brisk pace. “She made one mistake. She can’t be punished for falling.”

Maccan stopped and turned to stare down at him. “It was a mistake that could have got her killed and would have let a target get away. Do you know how much paperwork a mess like that would produce?”

“Actually, sir, I do,” Jake said. One of the joys of his job was filling out mountains of documents detailing the dangers of one’s mistakes. He continued, “But that doesn’t mean—”

“Do you know how much time and, more importantly, how much money goes into training a new agent? People are scared. We are getting more assignments every day. It’s a struggle as it is to keep all of this under wraps. Can you imagine the widespread panic that would happen if the general public knew that monsters or demons or whatever you want to call them are not only real, but running amok in their towns?” Maccan spat.

“Like I said, Lachlan, deal with this or I’ll have to deal with you and you know what happens when I get my hands on an agent’s file,” Maccan said sternly.

Jake knew all too well what happened when Maccan got involved: memory wipes, arrests, and if worse came to worse, death.

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Rochford, by Steve Carr

#literary

Like the sound of breaking glass, the bell above the door tinkled noisily as Mrs. Wadsworth stepped through the open door with her dead dog in her arms. Bringing with her a blast of cold air from outside, she walked down the aisle of canned vegetables and laid the animal on the store counter. She slammed the palm of her hand down hard on the counter causing the coins in the breast cancer donation can to jingle.

“Your boy did this,” she said, her voice quivering with rage. “He’s a murderer.”

Tom stepped from behind the cash register and placed his hand on the lifeless white and brown beagle’s chest. “He’s dead, alright. What killed him?”

“Poison. Jonah poisoned him,” she said.

“How did he do that?” Tom said. He ran his hand down the dog’s body as if about to pet it, then remembered it was dead and pulled his hand away and put it in his pocket.

“He fed it some raw hamburger that he put poison in,” she said. She tugged her heavy wool coat around her hefty frame.

“Did you see him do it?” Tom said.

Her eyes suddenly opened wide as if she had just been startled. “Of course not, but I know he did it. There was some hamburger by Chester’s body when I found him in the yard yesterday and Jonah was in our yard petting Chester just a short time before that.”

“But you didn’t see him feed Chester any hamburger?” Tom said.

“No, but who else would do such a thing and as I said  . . . ,” she started.

“You shouldn’t make accusations you can’t prove,” Tom said.

“My proof is my poor dead Chester.” She bent over the dog, almost laying her upper body on it. “Poor Chester,” she whispered in its ear.

“I’m sorry about Chester,” Tom said.

Mrs. Wadsworth raised up slowly and said in a controlled, threatening manner, “You’re not sorry. Believe me, your boy won’t get away with this.” She scooped the dog into her arms and abruptly turned toward the door and walked out of the store, leaving the discordant jingling of the bells to fill the air.

Coming from behind the curtain in the doorway near the end of the counter, Jonah stepped out of the storeroom. “She’s crazy,” he said. “I didn’t kill her dog.”

“I know you didn’t, son,” Tom said. “It’s sad about her dog, though.”

“Yeah, it’s sad,” Jonah said. He turned and jumped up onto the counter, landing behind the potato chips display. “They have a band playing tonight at the Irish Gulch,” he said as he grabbed a small bag of barbecue potato chips from the display and tore it open with his teeth.

“You’re too young to be in there,” Tom said. He took a tattered rag from under the counter and began polishing the keys of the register.

“Shoot, Rochford is so small that everyone knows me and no one cares how old I am,” Jonah said. “I just go in to have a Coke and listen to the music. It’s not like I have any alcohol.”

“A seventeen year old boy should be doing other things than going to a bar,” Tom said.

“What else is there to do in Rochford on Saturday night?” Jonah said.

The bell chimed jarringly as Fred Dickens came into the store. He stopped at the door and clapped his hands, trying to warm them.

“Cold out there, ain’t it Fred?” Tom said as he tossed the rag under the counter.

“Colder than a witch’s tit,” Fred said. He stomped his boots on the store’s hardwood floor causing the bottles of salad dressing on the nearby shelf to rattle against each other. He walked down the aisle with the loaves of bread and grabbed a loaf of packaged white sandwich bread and shoved it under his arm as if he was carrying a football. At the end of the shelves he opened the glass refrigerator door and pulled out a large carton of whole milk. Letting the door close on its own he walked over to the counter.

“You going to graduate?” he said to Jonah as he walked behind him.

Jonah bit into a chip. “In June. I hope.”

“What you going to do after that?” Fred asked as he placed the bread and milk on the counter.

“Maybe join the Army,” Jonah said.

Tom turned the bread over and looked at the price and hit the keys on the register. “He’s a bright boy. He’ll be able to do whatever he sets his mind to.” He smashed down the keys for the milk and hit the total key. The amount showed up on a card in the glass window at the top of the register and the cash drawer opened with a resounding ring.

“Five sixty-five,” Tom said.

Fred took the bills from his wallet and the change from his pants pocket and laid it on the counter as Tom put the groceries in a brown paper bag.

“You heard anything about the mill being torn down?” Fred asked as he took the bag in one arm.

“Haven’t heard a thing about it lately,” Tom said. “I hope they leave it standing. The tourists like  it.”

“If it falls down while some tourists are climbing around inside it no one’s going to like it very much,” Fred said.

“I’d like to put a match to it and make a big bonfire of it,” Jonah said as he stuffed several chips into his mouth.

“Just what we’d need,” Fred said. “Burning down the old mill while burning down my house right next to it along with all of Rochford and probably starting a forest fire.”

“He was only kidding,” Tom said. “Weren’t you, son?” he said to Jonah.

“Sure, Pop.”

Fred walked down the aisle and out the door, his head bent as he walked into the wind.

*

Tom lazily rearranged the boxes of cereal on the shelf while glancing out of one of the four rectangular windows at the front of the store.  The wind was stirring up the dirt on the street and blowing it toward the direction of the Irish Gulch saloon on the other side of the intersection. Although never busy, there hadn’t been a vehicle pass by the store for over an hour. He took a box of Lucky Charms from the shelf and went to the window and looked out. The windows in the three houses across the street were dark. He opened the box,ripped open the inner bag.reached into the cereal, and searched around until he found one of the dehydrated marshmallows. He pulled it out and for a moment stared wistfully at the green clover marshmallow he was holding between his fingertips then put it in his mouth.

“What are you doing there?”

Tom turned. His wife was at the other end of the aisle, a look of bewilderment on her face.

“Just seeing what’s going on outside,” he said.

“I thought you and Jonah were going to do inventory today.”

“It can wait,” he said. “He had some other things he wanted to do and I told him it was okay.”

“You let him get away with not doing enough around here,” she said, crossing her arms.

Tom searched around in the box and pulled out a yellow moon. He held it up and showed it to her. “That remind you of anything, Beth?”

“I can’t see what you’re holding,” she said, not moving as if rooted in the spot where she was standing.

“It’s a crescent moon,” he said. “Just like the name of that motel we used to go to before we were married.”

“That was a long time ago and the motel was the Starlight.”

“Oh, that’s right. There’s stars in here also,” he said as he looked in the box and began pushing the cereal around.

“I don’t have time for this,” she said. “I have a pot roast in the oven.” She walked away, opening the door that led into their house attached to the back of the store.

Tom pulled out an orange star and held it up and then realized she was no longer there. He put it in his mouth just as the store’s door opened and the bell clattered.

The county sheriff, Mike Ramsy walked in, holding his cap in his hands. As the door closed he looked around, saw Tom near the window, and said, “We might finally get that snowstorm we’ve been expecting.”

“Looks like it,” Tom said. “How are you, Mike? You haven’t been around much lately.”

“This is a big county and you folks here in Rochford don’t cause much trouble.” He walked over to where Tom was standing and looked out the window. “Other than this store you could drive through this town and not even know someone actually lived here.”

Tom shook the box of cereal and peered into it. “Since the Thewsons moved away the population’s at a new low, eighty-four.”

“I had heard that,” Mike said. “The dog population is getting smaller also I hear.”

Tom reached into the box and pulled out another clover. “So, Sylvia Wadsworth called you, did she?”

“Hers was the third call,” Mike said. “Three pets poisoned in a town this small requires looking into. Mrs. Wadsworth seems to think your boy, Jonah, is poisoning the animals.”

“She came in here carrying her dead dog and made that accusation,” Tom said. “But she has no proof and everyone knows she has never liked me or Jonah.”

Mike ran his hand over his balding scalp. “For all the good being brought up in a small town like Rochford can do, it can also do some harm.”

“What are you saying, Mike?” Tom said.

“Only that one of the other pet owners also said they think it was Jonah who poisoned their cat,” Mike said.

“I’d stake my life on it, Jonah had nothing to do with poisoning those animals,” Tom said. He closed the box. “Was there anything else you wanted, Mike?”

“We’ve known each other for many years,” Mike said. “I’m just doing my duty.”

“Did you tell Mrs. Wadsworth and whoever else accused Jonah of killing their pets that in all these years you’ve never had one problem on account of Jonah?” Tom said.

“It sometimes takes a bad seed a long time to sprout.”

“Unless you have proof that Jonah killed those animals and you’ve come to arrest him, I’m going to ask you nicely to leave my store, Sheriff,” Tom said.

*

Beth placed two plates with pot roast, boiled potatoes, peas and a roll on the counter. The aroma of the food wafted in the air, mixing with the store’s scents of floor polish and age. The panes of glass in the windows rattled as they were battered by the wind and pelting rain.

“Jonah should be here,” she said.he sat on a stool behind the counter and faced her plate of food.

“I told him he could go hear the band down at the saloon,” Tom said, standing at the counter on the aisle side.

Beth turned her head and looked out the windows at the rain slashing sideways on the street. “I can’t believe the saloon is going to be open in this storm.” She put her fork into a potato and raised it to her mouth and bit into it.

“Why are we even open?” Tom said as he cut the pot roast into smaller pieces.

“We’re practically always open,” she said. “Ten in the morning until ten at night every day of the year except Christmas and Thanksgiving. It says so on the sign on the door.” She bit into and swallowed the rest of the potato.

“If we weren’t we would have closed up for good a long time ago,” he said. He put a piece of pot roast in his mouth.

“Maybe closing up and moving out of Rochford would have been a good thing,” she said.

“I’ve lived here my entire life,” he said. “Where would we have gone?” He pushed several peas around on his plate with his fork.

“Maybe somewhere that would have given Jonah a decent start in life.” She cut into her pot roast and put a piece in her mouth.

“Rochford is a decent place,” Tom said. “Nice people live in this town.”

“It’s been slowly dying for years.”

*

Still in his pajamas, Tom opened the door leading into the store.

Jonah was at the counter on the side of the aisle. He turned, surprised, and said, “Pop, what are you doing up so early?”

Tom looked at the windows and saw the snow falling in the early morning light, then looked back at Jonah. “I was going to ask you the same question.”

Jonah pushed aside a large plastic container on the counter and leaned on the container to hide it. He shoved a plastic baggie in his coat pocket. “I was going to go over Jake Harley’s and see if he was going to get his snowmobiles out.”

Tom walked toward him. “What are you trying to hide there?”

“Hide? I ain’t hiding anything Pop,” Jonah said.

Tom gently pushed Jonah away from the counter. He picked up the container and read the label on it. “Gopher bait. Strychnine.” He stared at it for several moments before saying anything. “Where did you get this?”

“I found it in the abandoned Winslow house,” Jonah said.

“It’s poison,” Tom said. “This stuff can kill cats, dogs and even people.”

“I had no idea,” Jonah said.

“Whatever you put in your pocket, hand it to me,” Tom said angrily.

Jonah pulled the baggie out of his pocket. “It’s just some leftover pot roast. I was going to take it with me in case I got hungry.”

Tom grabbed the baggie from Jonah’s hand. “Did you put poison on this meat?”

“No, Pop, why would I do that?” Jonah said.

Tom started to open the baggie. “What if I ate some of it?”

“No, Pop, don’t,” Jonah said. “Okay, I put the gopher bait on the pot roast.”

“Why?” Tom said.

“I was going to kill a few of the rats that are always getting into the saloon’s dumpster. That’s all, Pop. I thought you’d get angry at me for playing around with poison.”

Tom felt his throat tightening as he said, “It would kill me if I found out you were lying to me, Jonah.”

Jonah looked around him, as if looking for an escape route. “I ain’t lied to you in my entire life, Pop.”

“What about the animals around town that were poisoned?” Tom said.

“It wasn’t me that did it, but they’re just animals, Pop. I don’t know why everyone’s so angry about it,” Jonah said as he backed toward the store front door.

“They’re living things, pets, animals that people care about.”

“If it was me that poisoned the animals, I’d be graduated and enlisted in the Army before anyone figured it out anyway,” Jonah said. He dashed toward the door and grabbed the knob and pulled the door open making the bell rattle noisily. Standing in the doorway as snow blew in, Jonah said, “You know the folks who live here. Dumb as a bag of rocks, every one of them.”

He ran out, and out of sight, leaving the imprints of his boots in the snow.

Stunned, Tom watched the large flakes of snow fall on the store’s floor. Almost mechanically he walked to the door and closed it, then went to a window and stared out at the snow covered street. It was as empty as he felt.

He opened the baggie and reached in and took out a handful of the pot roast. He stared at it for several minutes before he put it in his mouth.

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The Crystal Dragon: Train to Kangding

#crystal dragon

There are many thieves in the train but I am not a thief.

There are always many trains coming and going, and many people, and much hustle and bustle, and they use this to their advantage, as a distraction. And though my clothes are dirty and my beard is long, though my eyes are weary and my cap is worn, I am simply a traveler and I would never cause another person pain just for my own gain. I am a decent man.

It is summer now, and so the stations are more hot and dusty and chaotic. The cafes, once something of a refuge from the crowds, have been overrun—the tables are all full and even the spaces on the floor are taken, and I’ve heard that by the afternoon there isn’t any tea left at all; although this is hard for me to verify as I don’t touch the stuff.

Summer is also the time when I begin my travels in earnest. In June I will leave Xi’an and take a train to the coast, to Guangzhou where I once had relatives; but I have not been for a long time. I will look them up, I think, but I should not torture myself with old family history as they will want me to. Perhaps I will not look them up.

%

Fen Yi, Emily, Laser, and Hammer walked stormed down the KTV’s concrete steps. A green glow: the dragon hovered above them in the street.

Below the dragon were the words: “Green Dragon Cigarettes. Embrace a new today.”

Laser ran into the street to hail a taxi and the four of them crammed in.

Laser turned around in the front seat.

“The Ling Da,” he said, in English. “They’re an organization… I suppose you could describe them as a gang. They’re famous for removing fingers as a punishment. I had suspicions about Mr. Grey, but I convinced myself he just lost the finger in an accident. But the fact he had the tattoo—he must be a member.”

The taxi stopped suddenly and Fen Yi, Emily, and Hammer flew forwards. Hammer ended up partially entangled with Emily. She freed herself from him and held onto the handle above the door.

“Where are we going?” said Emily.

“To the train station,” said Laser. “If Mr. Grey believes that I have wronged him, I don’t feel safe being here any more. I have some relatives in a city to the west, Kangding. We should be safer there.”

They drove through the city’s chaotic traffic, along Xi’an’s ancient city wall. The wall had contained the inner city’s dusty streets for thousands of years. Hammer recalled the feeling of being in the present as the grey-eyed man chased them through the streets. They were traveling on the back of generations, living in a present that had been built by a history with no connection to his own.

The city walls were built by a bloodthirsty emperor consolidating his power. Two thousand years later, a gang that treated human life as a commodity now pursued them. What choice did he have in anything?

“来了,” said the taxi driver. (“We’re here.”)

The square in front of the train station was like stepping back a hundred years in time into the past. People sat on spread-out newspapers in the dusty yellow courtyard: families, shifty-eyed pickpockets, commuters carrying briefcases to work.

Every kind of human life pulsated through the square, in and out of the city, in and out of the entrance to the train station itself.

Laser moved cautiously across the square. “The Ling Da are everywhere,” he said. “Don’t let anybody get too close.”

They proceeded in a tight group towards the entrance.

They stayed in their tight group through the security checkpoint and through the lobby of the trains station. The departure hall was packed: there was not a seat open, and much of the floor was taken up by commuters sitting with their suitcases. They stood near the gates to the train, while Laser tensely eyed everyone that passed.

With five minutes until the train arrived, Laser seemed to realize something. “Stay here,” he said. “I’ll be right back.” He darted down the aisle into the crowds waiting for their train.

The group stood nervously waiting for him to return. What would they do if the train arrived without him? With one minutes left, he reappeared from the crowd. He was holding a little bottle filled with a brown liquid and printed with the words: 京酒. It was some kind of alcohol.

“Can’t forget this!” said Laser.

When they boarded the train at last, they shared a sleeper compartment. Four bunks on two levels were crammed into the compartment.

The train cut through the green mountains, ascending, taking tunnels through the mountains.

As it got dark, they talked and passed the bottle of alcohol between the bunks.

At night, Hammer stood with Sedgwick in aisle in the dark. The world rushed past outside: dark mountains against a darker sky. Hammer again felt an indelible sense of being in the present moment, of this being his life.

“When you got up this morning, did you think you’d be on a train to Kangding?” said Laser.

“I hadn’t heard of Kangding this morning,” said Hammer. “Or the Ling Da.”

“That’s how it goes sometimes,” said Laser. “I didn’t think I’d be working for them. Sometimes you have no choice.”

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A Tale of Blood and Roses, Part 1, by Keira Heckman

#blood and roses #fantasy

There was something about the forest that had always felt comforting to Rosalind. Maybe it was the light breeze that danced across her face, or the way that the sunlight bathed everything in a yellowish hue. Perhaps it was the loaded crossbow in her hands and the arson of weapons at her side. She had practically emptied the trunk before she left, but she doubted anyone would mind. They had been hunting him for the best part of twelve years and every time they got close to minimizing the threat, he disappeared. His attacks were getting more frequent, more violent, and if they were sending Rosalind in, it meant that he had to be stopped.

The blanket of leaves cushioned the sound of her boots against the forest floor, but there was little she could do to cover the sound of rustling leave as she walked. The only solution was to move slowly, which she despised. It made her feel like the hunted instead of the hunter.

“How are we doing, Rosalind?” Jake’s voice said in her ear.

“Slow but steady,” She replied, her voice less than a whisper. The microphone taped to the inside of her cheek caught every vibration her mouth made.

“Do you have his position yet?”

She caught the sound of someone typing faintly through the earpiece. She heard a twinge of uncertainty under Jake’s Scottish drawl, “It’s hard to determine exactly where he is, you know with the lack of a heat signature, but the closer you get to him, the clearer it’ll become.”

“So, in other words, you won’t know where he is until he’s right on top of me.” Rosalind said, her voice was punctuated by a hint of annoyance. She started to stray away from the path and stood on the edge of the sloping hill beneath her.

“That’s another way of putting it,” he said. Rosalind rolled her eyes as she crept down the path.

“Be careful here. The path drops and you need to make as little noise as possible to avoid alerting him with your movements.”

She bit her lip as she concentrated on her descent. The sound of leaves rustling made her skin pickle. She swung her crossbow over her shoulder, poised to shoot in the direction of the sound. “What was that?” She murmured, her eyes scanning the area.

“Maybe just a small animal?” Jake suggested. “There’s nothing big coming up on the thermal scan.”

Rosalind shook her head. “No, it was more than that. I felt something,” she said as she kept her eyes on the direction of the sound.

“It might just be all that hair getting in your ears. I don’t know how you can hear anything through it,” he said jokingly.

Rosalind’s hair was thick, auburn coloured, and fell in loose waves. She was used to Jake teasing her about it and the fact that he had chosen now to joke about it meant that he didn’t think that she was in any immediate danger.

“Jake. I’m serious,” she said as she relaxed her grip on the crossbow while keeping her gaze on the sound. Her skin bristled with restless energy. The adrenaline that buzzed through her system seemed to be working against her and she was struggling to keep her hands steady.

“So am I,” Jake shot back. “I honestly think the best option is to have your head shaved and be done with it.”

Rosalind suppressed a sigh. “Now really is not the time, I—” Her foot slipped on a wet leaf and knocked her balance off, sending her tumbling down to the bottom of the hill. She landed on her back, winded and covered in leaves, with throbbing pain in the back of her head. She lost her crossbow in her fall, the knives at her waist had fallen out of her belt and were scattered on the ground around her.

“Rosa!” She heard Jake shout, his voice muffled and slightly distorted. Her earpiece had been knocked out of place slightly in her fall but remained otherwise undamaged. She sat up slowly and gently pushed it back into place.

“I’m fine,” Rosalind said, “Just a headache.” Once she sat up, the throbbing in her head had escalated and it felt as if someone was drilling into her skull.

Jake’s voice was loud and frantic, “He’s coming towards you, fast. Twenty feet and counting!”

She scrambled to her feet, her eyes darting around for her crossbow when he crashed through the leaves. He was seven feet tall, his arms reached down to his midthigh, ending in stubs of wrists. His skin was ghostly, and he was dressed in a black suit, yet by far the creepiest thing about him was his face—or rather his lack of it. Instead, there was a smooth stretch of skin where his features should be.

The man with no face barreled toward Rosalind, his overly long arms swinging. The pain in Rosalind’s head blurred her vision. He swung his arm at her, she ducked, still searching the ground for her crossbow.

And then she remembered the other weapons she had.

Rosalind jumped up punched him in the stomach, putting all the force she could muster behind the blow. The faceless man hissed as he staggered back. Rosalind raced towards him, this time aiming a kick at his neck, but the pain in her head was gradually worsening and it threw her off her balance. She caught the side of his ribcage instead and fell, landing awkwardly on her side. She pushed the hair out of her eyes and jumped to her feet. He ran toward her again and pushed her hard against the trunk of a tree, the bark rough against her spine.

“Rosalind,” Jake was in her ear suddenly. She winced as the microphone he spoke into gave off feedback. He spoke over it, his voice loud and urgent. “Hitting him in the stomach is no use. The weak point is his face.”

The faceless man stood back before lunging for her throat. She ducked.

“But he doesn’t have a face!” She shot back. The tree shook as he collided with it. Rosalind leaped past him, slightly disorientated. She felt something wrap around her leg and looked down to see his suit-clad arms clutching to her ankle. He gave a tug and she fell. His long arms pulled her towards him like a prized catch on the end of a fishing rod. As she was being dragged across the forest floor, her skin scratched by stray pine needles, she saw something gleam in the sunlight.

The crossbow.

Her ear filled with the sound of static and Jake’s voice trying to overpower it. “I mean the area where his face should be… he’s… before…” His voice was drowned out by static.

Rosalind dug her nails into the dirt and felt the faceless man stop for a second, confused. He wasn’t used to his victims fighting back. His pause gave Rosalind the advantage she needed, and she used her elbows to crawl towards the weapon. He recovered from the shock quickly and Rosalind felt him pull on her leg again. Her fingers were inches from the hilt and she was determined to survive.

She pushed her elbows into the ground, suddenly glad that she had chosen to wear a waterproof jacket and used her knees to push her body along. Her fingers closed around the edge of the crossbow and she held onto it as she rolled onto her front. Rosalind retrieved an arrow from her jacket pocket and loaded it into place. Rosalind’s finger hovered over the trigger as she tried to aim for the center of his face. Her vision was blurry, but the paleness of his face stood out against the lush background of the forest. She waited until he was stood over her to take the shot.

She let the arrow fly.

It landed just off the center of the space where his face should be and he let out a high wailing sound. Rosalind covered her ears as she watched his knees buckle beneath him before he fell to the ground. She got to her feet slowly, as the pounding in her head settled, and her vision returned to normal.

“Is he dead?” She said aloud, not bothering to be quiet.

There was the sound of typing before Jake answered, “I think so. How’s your head?”

Rosalind touched her temple gently, “Better. Much better actually.”

“Huh. I guess he’s dead then.”

“What does that have to do with my headache?” Rosalind asked, she held onto her crossbow, poised to attack, just in case.

“I’ll explain when you get back to HQ. Sit tight, I’m sending a team in to relieve you.”

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HIRAETH, by Kerri Caldwell

#literary #Mental health

8 years I’ve been in therapy.
7 years is how long H has been my therapist.
6 years old: the age I was when my mom and I were saved from the hell we’d been living.
5 weeks went by before I was allowed to my see my mom again.
4 months I sat in a chair facing a window, ignoring H while she patiently waited me out.
3 months after my fifteenth birthday my mom told me she was dying.
2 weeks of silence is all I had to say to anyone.
1 year later she was gone.

H

As soon as she’s through my office door, Nora is ripping the headphones from her iPod. I could hear the music blasting when I went to get her from the waiting room. I don’t recognize the song, but I recognize her mood. She throws the headphones on my desk, and I watch as she plugs in the tiny pink piece of technology into the speaker that sits on my desk, just for her. I anticipate the song she chooses, but only silence follows. She remains unmoving as I make my way around my desk and lean against it so that I’m not quite facing her. We’ve done this dance for years now, but it’s the music that plays that will lead the way. After a few minutes I look to her, where she’s watching me. I can read everything on her face, I always have. Even as an angry, hateful nine-year-old, I saw what no one else did. She wasn’t just a file that held details about a child no one would want to read, not when the child’s suffering happened at the hands of her father. All I really need to know about Nora comes from her face. In the beginning, this was the saving grace for both of us. I could see what she wanted to say, but Nora didn’t know how to communicate it. Expressing herself through speaking wasn’t something she was comfortable with, and I realized this about her immediately. It didn’t take long for the two of us to come up with our own language. I’ve never had this connection with any of my patients, not before Nora, and not since.

Today, everything about her screams uncertainty. As safe as Nora feels with me, she will always default to self-doubt. Years of our therapy sessions together, both inside these four walls, and other places we’ve found ourselves, has allowed her to work through an emotion that was once so crippling, Nora would pass out. Today, I am confident she’ll get past this place of uncertainty. Still, knowing that Nora often needs me to make the first move during these silent conversations, I kick off my shoes, pull my hair back, and sit across from her in my desk chair. Tucking my long legs under me, I reach for my phone, searching.

I love my sessions with Nora. She is always my last patient of the day. As a person, I’ve always felt a pull to help others find their way back from whatever derailed them. As a therapist, this almost never happens. There isn’t a lot of satisfaction or reward, or even a sense of accomplishment. With Nora, it’s different. I can reach her, feel her energy, and while I’ve no doubt come to love her, the connection between us still isn’t something I can understand. It goes beyond doctor-patient, to a place I can’t define.

I feel the air around us lighten as I scroll through my ever-growing library of songs. I find what I’m looking for and set my phone on my desk, swiveling my chair in time with the music. Looking away, Nora visibly relaxes. Sitting in one of the chairs, she folds her arms across my desk and rests her chin. It takes seconds for the entire mood inside my office to shift. Calm and peaceful, I close my eyes and let the words speak from my soul to Nora’s. She lets the song play twice before pausing it. Chin still resting on her folded arms, her eyes meet mine.

“A boy likes me.” she whispers. In those four words I hear a thousand that don’t follow.

Nora is 16. Her dark eyes always make you look twice. And I know more than just one boy is crushing on her with that face. Even in her anger, her hurt, or her tears, she’s beautiful. But when that smile comes out, it’s contagious. Everyone only sees that stoic, serious face that is so intriguing. She draws people to her without trying, without wanting to. Her social skills are no longer severely underdeveloped, but this doesn’t mean she’ll ever have the confidence to use them. To others, Nora is quiet, shy, and reserved. To me, she was a broken little girl that’s grown into an adjusted teenager who still can’t quite trust anyone. Her dark, wavy, wild hair matches the chaotic soul inside she desperately tries to control. But just like half a bottle of leave in conditioner tames her wild curls, music tames her wild mind. But it hasn’t cured her. She still has significant social anxiety. A boy crushing on Nora is a waking nightmare for her. I know this can’t be the first time a boy has shown an interest in her, but it seems to be the first time she’s noticed. After witnessing the things her father did to her mother when he wasn’t laying his hands on her, it’s not surprising that Nora avoids these types of relationships at all costs.

“Do you know a lot about him?”

“He’s in every single class I have. He’s not loud.” Loud is Nora’s word for anything that attracts attention. “I don’t want him to like me. I don’t want anyone to like me.” All these years with Nora, and she can still make me fight back tears. But I find comfort in what we’re talking about. This is a normal, teenage girl worry. We aren’t discussing anger issues, or the fact that tomorrow Nora will be sitting with her mom as she goes through another chemo treatment. These are the observations that make for notes I eagerly add to her files. She has too many notes and comments about setbacks.

“We can’t control what others see or feel when they look at us.”

Nora sighs in annoyance, but it makes me smile. She knows what I’m going to say next.
“But we can control our own reactions. Yeah, I know…” she trails off, leaving silence. I let her be, knowing she would tell me in one way or another what was really bothering her. I scroll through the iPod, hoping she’ll speak before I find a song to speak for her. These are the signs I watch out for, that tell me where Nora’s head is, and whether she’s in a good place or lost inside herself.

“What is my reaction supposed to be?”

N O R A

I wish I could feel at ease around other people. I want to be able to laugh with friends. I want to have friends. But whether it’s the classmates I’m currently shutting out, or strangers I can’t evade, ignoring everyone has worked for me for so long. It’s a habit I’m convinced keeps me safe. Everything is different with H, though. The only person I trusted was my mom, and then H came into my life. She wasn’t loud, but she wasn’t soft, either. She was safe and familiar, a stranger that felt like home. It made no sense, but I never questioned it. There were never any questions to ask, just answers I didn’t know I needed.
Of all the answers H has given me over the years, none have been as important as music. Music, for me, is the answer to everything. When the chaos inside of me reaches the point of crippling weight, music sorts out the feelings and emotions that I can’t. And when the words I can’t speak overflow my brain, music is how I release them. It’s how I let my mom and H know I love them, I need them, I’m not okay, I need you to hold me, don’t touch me, but don’t leave me, yesterday was hard, but I’m so happy today, so please stop worrying. I am a mess of contradicting emotions, and music is my translator.

I wonder who I would be today if my past wasn’t so intricately woven into all of my tomorrows. Before I started therapy, I never gave a second thought to my lack of communication. Silence was armor that sometimes kept me safe from angry, violent hands. Silence kept me from saying the wrong words, words I’ve witnessed bring my mom to her knees. They weren’t meant to hurt her. They were meant to save my mom from him.

I never come near to what I want to say. Staying mute is safer than the words I can’t ever seem to get to come out right. The sounds my mother made that night, and the sight of her inconsolable on the floor, used to be a relentless loop inside of my head. It was a constant reminder that something I said caused that amount of pain for the only person in my life that I loved – until H made me see how my silence tortured my mom as much as it did me.

“Nora?” I look up at the sound of my teacher’s voice interrupting my thoughts. Without looking at the time, I know why she’s calling for me. As I gather my things, I wonder how many more times I’ll be doing this.

I don’t have to wonder for long. As I reach the front office, I feel two things before I see H. The first is H herself. I’ve always been able to feel her presence without actually seeing her. She’s hard not to notice, though. It’s difficult to tell what you see first: her towering height, or the bright red hair. Her pale skin, thin frame, and beauty scream “runway model” and not “I make the world a safer place by medicating all your local psychos.”

The second feeling is a crushing weight of panic. It’s not supposed to be her picking me up at this specific time of day.

I freeze where I am for a second, before I’m hyperaware of everyone around me. H has me out of the school doors seconds later, away from the stares, away from the sympathetic looks that are killing me inside. The silence inside of H’s car is too loud, and before I can reach for my iPod, she turns the car on. The song that plays tells me everything. No thought enters my mind without being obliterated by the lyrics singing the truth. There is no chance for the “maybe” or “what if” scenarios to comfort me. Music deals the hard blow with sweet melodies and heavy words.

When we reach the hospital, I want nothing more than the safe confines of my room, where I can be alone. Instead, we walk into a loud room full of beeping, voices, humming machines, and feelings I can’t keep at bay. The room feels claustrophobic with nurses and doctors and their grim faces, rushed movements, and lack of eye contact. The only stillness comes from the bed, where my mom sleeps peacefully. I don’t know what my face looks like, but it must mirror the terror I feel inside because H comes behind me and wraps her arms around me. For a second, as she pulls me to her, I think she’s crying, but it’s not her. It’s not her shaking quietly, not realizing that she’s falling apart. I can’t make my body go to her, can’t move my feet closer to the bed. It wasn’t supposed to be like this, not yet. We were supposed to have more time.

I push back against H, desperate to be somewhere where this isn’t happening. She’s solid behind me, though, and the only move she makes is to bend to my ear.

“Just go to her, Nora. She can feel you, and she can hear. Just tell her.” I hear H’s words, but it’s what she presses into my hand that makes sense. I don’t have to look to know what it is, and I grip it like a lifeline as I go to my mom.

She’s dying. It’s not like I didn’t know it was coming, but nothing seems real until you’re crawling into a hospital bed with a body that’s been cold to the touch for too long, and pulling out headphones to listen to a song that leads to goodbye.

She doesn’t move. She’s under layers of blankets. For the last few months, nothing had been able to warm her up. Everything else about her, though, especially her smile, stayed warm. Looking at her now, I panic at suddenly not being able to vividly see her smiling in my head. How could I have lost this already? Before I can be pulled under by this thought, music fills my ears. At first, I think H must’ve set up this iPod, but then I recognize the song. There is only one voice that could sing to me the words my mother can’t speak to me, and for the rest of my life, that voice would be the most significant one that I would associate with the most important person in my life to leave me behind. There would be days to come where the headphones wouldn’t come away from my ears, days where I shut the entire world out so that it was just me, that voice, and my mom. The days will also come, fast and hard, where I won’t be able to hear that voice without feeling like someone lit me on fire. Fire burns and blisters, and it destroys whatever it touches, so that the only proof something existed is because those who once loved them have them safely tucked into a back corner of their minds. Songs will coax them from that dark space and the right lyrics will put them back when it’s too much.

No, this wasn’t from H. This song, these words, came from someone else.

“Mom.” I whisper. But there’s only silence from her. So, I put her song to me on repeat and close my eyes, ignoring the world outside of us. This was all I needed and everything I didn’t want.

H

I watch the scenes unfold. I watch helplessly, frustrated that there is absolutely nothing that I can do. I can’t stop Ruby’s suffering, and the rippled effect it’s created. We’ve all started to feel it, but I’m feeling it on different levels. I watch as her daughter’s therapist. I watch as her daughter’s protector.

I watch as someone I love slips away, faster than I can prepare the other person I love for this very loss. Time spent together as strangers in stressful, sensitive situations brought about trust and a unique bond between the three of us. When Ruby was required to attend therapy sessions she saw another doctor outside of my practice. We thought it was best that Ruby speak to someone who had no association or personal connection with Nora. Ruby had wounds that needed healing, too, pain that existed outside of Nora’s. I never refused Ruby my friendship, though, whether it came to her, or Nora. Months of progress, setbacks, reluctant smiles, emergency sessions, and panicked phone calls made us a family. We ate dinner together once a month, and had movie nights. Girls night out with Ruby was equivalent to my time with Nora; it was something fulfilling in my life. The time I give Nora helps her grow, but what Ruby gave me in those moments when it was just the two of us, two women only a few years apart in age, but living significantly different lives, is impossible to put into words. On a professional level, I understood why Nora needed music to communicate her feelings. But it wasn’t until I got to know Ruby that I was able to truly comprehend this overwhelming emotion on a personal level with Nora. What Ruby unknowingly gave me that particular night was a gift to both me and her daughter.

“How many different ways did you imagine your future?”                   

“An embarrassing amount.” My answer makes Ruby laugh, the darkness surrounding us making it seem louder. We’re at a comfortable place together after nearly two years, but I can feel things starting to shift as we grow closer. Our roles are becoming less “therapist and worried mother of a traumatized child” and more of a friendship between two adult women who still feel like we don’t know what the hell we are doing. “I only ever imagined my future going one way, and I think that’s where I fucked up.” I turn away from the stars to find Ruby watching them like all our answers are somewhere in between them.                             “Because it didn’t go like you thought it would, and now you have no idea what to do?” Ruby smiles before she narrows her eyes at me, asking, “Friend or therapist?” It’s my turn to smile while I roll my eyes and answer, “Friend. Always friend. I thought helping people would be the easiest thing in the world. I never imagined I’d get so invested in someone, and then never know what happened to them. Never know if I helped them enough to stay alive, or to build a better life that made them want to stay alive. It’s not something I’ll ever get used to.”        

    Ruby nods, eyes shining. “All I wanted was a family. A husband, kids, pets, baseball and soccer games, photo albums full of family vacations. All of that boring shit. Instead of being the mom that went on class field trips and made cookies for the bake sale, I became the single mom that rearranges her schedule for court ordered mother-daughter therapy sessions.” Eyes on the stars, she reaches out her hand, and I’m already grabbing it. “I would’ve done anything to save my little girl. So, I locked away that dream and focused on building a new dream, even though I had no idea what that was. I was scared shitless that first year we started therapy. My baby was gone, and I knew I had to do something before I lost her forever.” We’re both staring at a blurry sky, our gripped hands keeping us grounded. “You saved her, Brooke. I will never know how to thank you. But I’ll always keep trying to show you how grateful I am that you love her as fiercely as I do.” For the first time I can’t understand what I’m feeling, and after hours of restless sleep, I finally have the realization that this is exactly what Nora goes through. Taking a cue     from her, I pull up one of her many playlists saved on my laptop. I scan the songs, unsure of what I’m looking for, and settle on putting everything on shuffle. Six songs in, it happens. My head is full of so much that it’s easier to let it go running off out of control. I don’t know how long the song plays before my mind is so empty that I don’t realize my eyes are open, and I’ve been staring at the ceiling. It’s like the words chased away the thoughts that didn’t belong and put the rest in a sequence I could understand. I am momentarily paralyzed at what just happened, overwhelmed at the abrupt absence of being overwhelmed.   

    I play the memories over in my head as I watch my best friend sleeping serenely, when just hours ago I was sure I was watching her die. The sounds of pain that came from her will never leave my memory. I’m grateful Nora hadn’t been here to witness any of that. What she’s getting now is what she needs. Silence, so that she can speak. Silence, so that she can hear. Months ago, Ruby had asked me to help her come up with a playlist for Nora when the time came. What started out as a good-bye turned into something so much more. And what should’ve been another weekly chemo visit has turned into what I’m unable to acknowledge.

Hours go by without incident. Nora is another appendage to Ruby, the two of them lying in the hospital bed, one blissfully unaware and the other far too fragile to be in the center of all of this. I can’t tell if Nora is going through the playlist, or if she’s stuck on one song, but she’s got her headphones in each of their ears. In this moment, we are secluded in this tiny hospital room, with its suffocating lack of light. There are no windows and the dull, colorless walls only reinforce the fact that this room has seen the death of many. I’m afraid to stay how we are, because I know the longer we do, the more pieces Nora will shatter into when the time comes. We’ve skipped over all those preparations for hospice, a time that Nora would’ve been able to adjust at a slower pace, and gone straight to the end instead. The end that comes two days later.

8 agonizing days went by before Nora shed a tear.

7 different times I tried to tell her.

6 songs played on repeat.

5 weeks later she finally listened to something different.

4 days later I finally told her.

3 times she told me she hated me.

2 days in a row I woke up with Nora sleeping on the floor beside my bed.

1 month from now will be the biggest test of our relationship.

N O R A

I never thought the day would come when music would betray me. When I’ve needed it most, when the emotions inside of me have been as contradicting and confusing as ever, music has turned everything into a knotted mess more tangled than my headphones. Some days I listen to the playlist my mom left me from morning until night. Other days, I can’t stand the sight of my iPod. One song leaves me calm, but the next leaves me drowning with doubt about everything. And because I can’t figure out one feeling from the other, I resort to the one I know so well.

I can’t remember the last time I screamed at H. I can’t recall the last time I felt this much anger towards her. I do know the first time I felt hatred towards her because it was just a few days ago. I spoke the words “I hate you” with so much emotion that my throat burned for hours after. It hurt just as much the next two times I shouted it in her face. I can’t face in her the light, so I go to her in the safety of shadows and silence at night. In these quiet moments, I can feel it. That connection with H has never been as strong as it has since I came to stay with her weeks ago. It’s the source of all my confusion, and not one song has come close enough to speak what I can’t make sense of, the words I need H to hear. Thirty-nine words you won’t find in a song keep me company when I can’t sleep, something that is just as torturous.

I’m not angry at her. I’m hurting, I feel lost, and the anchor that has always secured me to earth is giving me the distance I don’t want, but most certainly deserve. And I know the reason H isn’t pushing me is because she’s just as confused. We have a new dance with no music to lead us, leaving us stumbling over each other’s feet, with one of us occasionally knocking the other down.

I’m reminded of those first months when I started seeing H, who was Miss Brooke back then. By the time she got to me, I’d already seen more psychiatrists and psychologists than the years she’d been in practice. It didn’t matter though, for me or for her. She didn’t treat me like I was the damaged, fragile child every other therapist had. And she wasn’t just another doctor I was afraid to talk to. I didn’t know what she was, I just knew I felt comfortable with her, nothing like how I’d felt with all the others. It would take a few years before I would be able to define Miss Brooke, but from that point on, I would always refer to her as “H.” I’ve never shared with her why I call her this, and she’s never asked. I feel like my mom might’ve known, though. I’m not sure why, I just always had the feeling she understood. It was like I suddenly knew how to breathe again, and she knew as much as I did that it was entirely because of H.

I’m on the verge of sleep with memories of times that my mom, H, and I would spend together outside of therapy when the song comes to me.

H

    On that third morning I wake up to an odd feeling. All night I had dreams of the court hearing we are supposed to have in a month, the one that will legally make me Nora’s guardian. It takes a few seconds before I realize that my alarm clock isn’t going off. Instead, music is playing. I sit up, expecting Nora to be on my floor again, but I’m alone. I sit back with a sigh, unsure of whether the knot in my heart is bigger than the one in my stomach. I know I need to be easier on both myself and Nora, considering what we’ve been through. And if I let the psychiatrist in me do her job, I could admit that we are both coping with normal behaviors and emotions. But I am no longer Nora’s therapist.

A brief pause in the music grabs my attention, and I realize that the song is on repeat. I sit up, a piece of paper just within reach on my bed. Just as I turn my head, letting the music fill my ears, my eyes fill with tears with a heartbreaking recognition at what I’m reading.

Hello, good morning, how you do? What makes your rising sun so new?

I could use a fresh beginning, too, all of my regrets are nothing new.

Hello, good morning, how you been? Yesterday left my head kicked in.

I never, never thought that I would fall like that, never knew that I could hurt this bad.

So this is the way that I say I need you

This is the way the I’m learning to breathe, I’m learning to crawl

I’m finding that you and you alone can break my fall.

It’s the very first song Ruby added to Nora’s playlist, the one that gave her the idea to create one in the first place. When I heard the words, sitting alone in my living room later that night, I wanted no more part of this project. How could I? These were the words Nora was going to need because her mother would no longer be around. She was overcoming one betrayal at the hands of one parent and falling headfirst right into another tragedy from the other.

For the first time, I allow myself to cry – the hard, painful kind, a reaction I’ve always had to fight when it came to Nora. But this time is different. This time Nora belongs to me. And the way Ruby and I left this detail unfinished can only be blamed on me now. We talked many times about how to tell Nora that I’d be her legal guardian if Ruby died before her eighteenth birthday. Aside from the legal documents, though, we never could settle on how to tell Nora. It was as if we were sealing Ruby’s fate if we solidified this last detail, and so we foolishly left it unfinished in the only way we could.

To admit this has backfired is the easy way out. Finding a way to apologize in Nora’s language was going to be hard on us both, but I’m the only one that deserves this pain. My first opportunity to protect Nora is a glaringly obvious fuck up on my part. A small part of me holds onto the fact that I know where Nora stands, with a bigger part of me acknowledging that she reached out on her own to show me. I know exactly how to bridge this gap, and then I can let Nora cross it at her own pace. I just need to be patient.

N O R A

    I’ve had my ear up to my wall for an hour, listening for anything to come from H’s room on the other side of our adjoining walls. The only sound is my song to H, playing on repeat. I start to get worried around the same time my neck starts to hurt. I wait another twenty minutes before the tears become too hard to hold back. The ache inside of me is worse than my neck. I let myself fall back onto the floor, where I can still faintly hear the music. I reach for my phone to play something else so I don’t have to listen to it. When I touch the screen to pick a song, a text comes through, and I accidentally open it instead. It’s from H, and it’s something shared from her iTunes. A song I’ve never heard. I wait, letting the magic of this language work its way throughout me, putting my insides together, and feel it settle into the parts that are so hard to control. I listen as I’m told, over and over again, that this is the day. This is the day that my life will surely change. Things will fall into place. Eight times he sings me these words, and eight times I believe him.

I’m so entranced by the song that I don’t even feel H watching me from my door. She joins me on the floor as the song finishes, and takes my hand. Her green eyes are bright, the pale skin on her face flushed. I’ve only seen H cry once or twice, but I always know when she’s sad or upset when there’s color in her face.

“We didn’t know how to tell you.”

I nod.

“We fucked up.”

I laugh.

“I’m sorry.”

“I know.”

“This is going to happen again. We can’t help it. But we’ll figure it out, we always have. One day this might feel like home to you, but know that nothing can ever replace your real home…Nora?” I hear H call my name as I run out of my room, looking for a box I had yet to unpack. I find it in the front room, and when I open it, what I’m looking for is sitting on top, waiting to be opened at the perfect moment.

This is the moment. This is the day our lives are going to change. I turn around when I hear her come behind me, my H. I silently hand her the envelope, and watch as she sits down to open it and begins reading. It won’t take her but a minute, and so I wait for her to read those thirty-nine words that have filled the cracks inside of me since the day I met H.

Hiraeth: a homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home that maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning for a homely feeling; an expression for the bond you feel to someone or something that feels like home.

H

    I read the words on the paper, not quite understanding. They feel familiar, despite the fact I’ve never heard of this expression. I read them over again, trying to make the connection, trying to understand why-

H. When I look up at Nora she’s patiently standing there, this look on her face I will never forget. When she comes to me, I pull her onto my lap. I’m a blubbering mess, holding Nora tight, as she calmly lets me fall apart. She’s so tiny compared to me, but it feels like she fits perfectly.

“I didn’t know what the word was until years after I met you, but this feeling has been there since that first day. I didn’t know I was homesick until I sat with you in your office. But more than anything, you are my hiraeth because you are my someone that feels like home.”

“An expression for the bond you feel to someone that feels like home.” I whisper. “That’s why you call me H?” My red hair falls over her brown hair when she nods, and I know she’s out of words. I pull her to me even tighter, her head over my heart, both of us content to stay in this moment.

We are finally home.

E P I L O G U E

H

    Later that same night, I find another piece of paper inside the envelope from Nora. As I unfold it, a newspaper clipping falls out, one that I recognize immediately because I have the same one pressed between the pages of my mother’s favorite book. The handwriting in the letter catches my eye.

My dear friend,

    My mom always told me that any sacrifice, any good deed, and any kind act, no matter how small or big, was worth the effort because you didn’t know the impact it could have on someone. It might be all they needed to turn their day around, or it might just be as important as making them want to see the next day. Brooke, what you do matters. Please don’t ever doubt this.

    I know you’re confused about the newspaper article, the one about the woman who was kept on life support for two months so that her baby could live. That woman knew she wouldn’t survive the car accident she’d been in and begged her doctor to save her baby, no matter what. As you know, that doctor kept her promise. That doctor, who was my mother, kept the promise she made to her best friend, who also happened to be my godmother. I was about four when she died, so I don’t remember much about her, the woman who saved her baby. My own mother died before Nora was born, but she made me promise every time she told that story that I would name my first daughter after my godmother. She never knew what became of the baby. The father raised her, and they moved away without a word, days after she was born. The only information she had was the baby’s name, the same as her mother’s.

    I once told you I would risk anything to save Nora. This included taking a chance on a new therapist for her, except that the one I happened to find wasn’t just new, she was hardly experienced. Something about you made me feel safe, though, and I knew my daughter would be safe with you, too.   

    My mom saved the baby of her best friend, who then grew up to save the baby of her own best friend.  I told you I’d never be able to thank you for giving me my little girl back, but I would always keep trying.

    Look at Nora’s birth certificate. You have always been connected to each other, and now she belongs to you.

Your best friend, Ruby

My hands shake as I look through papers and documents, my mind racing as I try to connect all the dots. I’ve been given an overload of information that doesn’t quite make sense. I end up having to look through the stack three times before my fingers graze the paper I want. My eyes dance until I find it, along with the clarity that comes with it. All my questions are answered when I see her name.

Our names.

Eleanor Brooke.    

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A Girl You Couldn’t Hurt, by Con Chapman

#literary

It was probably Dean who was responsible for him being where he was right now, he thought as he sat across the table from his fiancée, listening to her talk about the wedding and the gifts they were registered for and the reception. He had discovered an album he didn’t approve of—Barbra Streisand–among Dean’s records when he went to stay with him shortly after he got married to a woman from Cleveland.

“What . . . is this?” he had asked, holding it out gingerly at the ends of his fingers as if it were a dead animal hanging by its tail.

“That’s hers,” Dean had said, as if it was no big deal.

“Good Lord,” he had said. “If that’s what married life is going to be like . . .”

Dean had just given him the old shit-eating grin, the one he knew so well, the one Dean had pulled off the night a cop had found them stopped along the side of the road and shined his flashlight in the window.

“Have you been kids been drinking?” the cop had asked and Dean, without so much as a second’s lag time, had said “Officer—we’re not even twenty-one.”

“You take the woman, you get her records,” Dean said now, and he didn’t seem the least bit troubled, the guy he’d shared so many nights with, listening to music in a state of altered consciousness.

“You don’t actually . . . listen to it with her—do you?”

“As little as possible, but it’s like buying a car with seat covers that weren’t your first choice. You don’t even notice after a while.”

“Mom said they would buy us four place settings, so we actually only have eight to go to make twelve,” his fiancée said as she scanned their wedding registry checklist. “Do you think you’ll want to have bigger dinner parties for clients?” she asked, as business-like as a tailor taking his measurements.

“I don’t think so,” he said in an indifferent tone that he didn’t have to hide because his fiancée wasn’t paying close attention to him with so many details yet to finalize.

“So . . . you actually married somebody whose tastes you can’t abide?” he had asked Dean back when he was still looking.

“I’ve progressed beyond the romantic notion that there’s only one woman for me and I have to keep looking until I find her and if I don’t, I’ll die a lonely and miserable death.”

There was an implied criticism in that response, and he had to admit it wasn’t an unfair one. He’d fallen in love with a girl in high school who would joke with him, complete his sentences, borrow his records and books—a virtual female twin, and he had thought they’d get married and live happily ever after. Then her father was transferred halfway across the country to Rochester and she started going out with college guys and after a while he knew she was gone.

“So . . . there’s no love involved?” he asked.

“Sure I love her, but not the kind of puppy love you and I used to succumb to. I love her and I want to take care of her and I think she’ll make a great mother, and I let her have her sphere of influence.”

“That makes it sound like statesmanship.”

“It is, sort of. She can decorate the house and make whatever she wants for dinner and plan any vacation she wants, and I want to be able to play golf and watch football or whatever sometimes and not go to church.”

“How’s it working out so far?”

“Just fine,” Dean said. “It’s an economic proposition, too.”

“That sounds cold.”

“Maybe, but that’s life, pal. When you were picking up skanks at discos . . .”

“Which was never . . .”

“You know what I mean. Hitting on women at parties with no thought more than twelve hours into the future, it didn’t matter. If you actually date a woman for awhile with the idea you might want to get married to her you end up knowing where she comes from and who her family is.”

“And that overrules your instincts?”

“It channels them,” Dean said.

“I haven’t found anybody I want to commit to is all,” he said.

“You haven’t found a girl you couldn’t hurt is what you mean.”

He stopped then and looked at Dean. “What does that mean?”

“Instead of one of these hard-bitten molls you find in a fancy bar on Newbury Street, find a girl so nice you couldn’t hurt her—not in a million years.”

“But . . . if I did, I don’t think I’d be attracted to her.”

“Well, that’s your problem,” Dean said. “Once you get over that hurdle, you’ll be fine.”

“My mom is inviting so many people from Ohio, I can’t believe it!” his fiancée said as she ran her finger down the guest list. “I hope they start early to get their reservations, because the hotels will be booked solid pretty soon.”

He looked at her, her head focused on the tasks before her, and he thought to himself that Dean’s advice had turned out to be good. He had found a girl who he could tell would be a great mother, who came from a solid family. They shared some interests but each had a zone that didn’t overlap with anything in the other’s life. And she was so nice, so sweet, he couldn’t imagine hurting her in a million years.
The waiter appeared to take their order, and she pushed aside her lists long enough to look at the menu and select the veal marsala. He ordered fish—something that was definitely not something she favored—and they returned to their former positions; a tableau with her poring over her papers while he looked off into the distance, distracted but not unhappy, content to let her put together the beginnings of their nest.

“That music’s annoying,” she said. “When the waiter comes back could you ask him to turn it down, please?”

“Sure,” he said. It must have been like a high-pitched noise that dogs could hear but humans couldn’t, he thought. He hadn’t even noticed the music over the din of the restaurant, but she had. He concentrated a bit—the music sounded familiar but between the clinking of the glasses as the bartender put them into the dishwasher and the guy on his right who was droning on and on to his wife about how he was no slouch in the intellect department, he couldn’t identify it.

“It’s very jarring,” she said. “How many people are you inviting again?”

“I don’t know, I guess . . . I counted eight the other day.”

“Well, give me your list—we may have to do a little pruning if mom keeps sending me names.”

He heard a saxophone which cut through the noise in a way that the piano hadn’t, and he recognized that the music was a Thelonious Monk album.

“That’s okay—I doubt they’ll all make it. It’s a long way for them to come,” he said.

“Good. I mean—not good that they can’t come, good that it frees up more places for mom.”

He’d only had a few Monk albums in his life, but his roommate in Chicago had had a few, so he tried to recall which one was being played.

“Hel-lo?” his fiancée said. “Are you listening to me?”

“Sorry, I was . . . listening . . . looking for the waiter.”

“Did you ever get in touch with that band leader?”

“I did—he says they’re available.”

“Can they play our song?” she said, and as she did she looked up at him and smiled, and extended her hand across the table for him to grasp.

“I doubt it—they’re more a swing group,” he said, taking her hand. “So your parents’ friends can dance,” he lied. He had picked the band precisely because he knew they would not know any current songs, and could be relied on not to give in to requests to play loud, fast rock numbers as the evening wore on.

“Well, they can practice between now and then, right?”

“Right.”

“Anyway, that’s your job. I have a fitting with the bridesmaids this Saturday.” Her voice trailed off and he started to concentrate on the music again. It wasn’t from the big collection of classic jazz he’d bought, so it must have been the album with the crazy picture of Monk on the cover, with a machine gun over his shoulder, and a tied-up Gestapo officer and a striking female resistance fighter in the background standing next to—a cow.

“What’s so funny?” she asked.

“Nothing.”

“You laughed.”

“I was thinking of an old album cover I used to have.”

She looked at him as if he’d said he’d seen a squirrel loose in the restaurant.

“The things you think of sometimes,” she said, as moved her Cross pen—a trinket from some deal she’d been involved in—down her bridesmaids’ grid. “Cynthia’s boyfriend just got hair plugs,” she said with an expression of obvious distaste. “I hope the swelling’s gone down by the time we need him for the pictures.”

The thought of the album brought back to mind a night when he’d gone to a Frank Zappa concert in Chicago with some guys in his dorm, and all of a sudden an Asian woman had plunked herself down next to him and said simply “Hi.”

“Hi,” he had said, and she proceeded to pepper him with questions about the band as if he were a reporter from Rolling Stone or something. He knew a little, but not much, but she didn’t seem to care; a good-looking woman attracted to him for no good reason at all—this was apparently what he was missing staying on campus studying all the time.

“We’re using Thurston’s for the flowers—they’re my favorite,” his fiancée said.

“What’s the difference—aren’t all flowers the same?”

She arched an eyebrow to convey her disappointment in his naïveté. “There’s all the difference in the world between one florist and another.”

“Well I don’t know that kind of stuff,” he said, a little miffed. “There’s no need to snap at me.”
“I wasn’t snapping, I was just stating a fact.”

The Asian woman had sat next to him through the whole concert, then had asked where he lived. He was a little embarrassed to tell her that he was still in a dorm, not an apartment, but she had said “Can I go see it?” One of the other guys in the group gave him a look of congratulation, and the two of them walked to the train together, as a couple, with her arm hooked into his.

When they got to the room they listened to music for awhile; he didn’t want to put on rock because he figured they were going to have sex, so he put on the only piano album he had, the Monk album.

“This is nice,” she’d said as she lay back on his bed, opening her arms to him in invitation.

“Are we going to write our own vows?” his fiancée asked. Her expression conveyed the sense that she really didn’t want to be forced to be creative.

“Keep it simple,” he had said, biting on the word “stupid” since he knew she’d take it the wrong way if she hadn’t heard the expression before.

They’d proceeded from making out to sex faster than he thought possible, and when they were through he rolled over and found himself still erect several minutes later. He had developed blue balls, possibly because he hadn’t had sex for a long time. He got up to flip the record over and came back to bed.

“Uh, I guess we can do it again if you want to,” he’d said.

“I’m ready if you are,” the Asian woman had said.

“Can you talk to your friends beforehand and persuade them to dress appropriately?” his fiancée asked with a tone that he understood meant she was deadly serious.

“Sure,” he said. “Sure,” but he was thinking of something else.

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