Stories

Chiclets in Columbus Circle, by Mary Ellen Gambutti

#literary #memoir #new york

This day in 1955 is as clear a summer day as any I can recall. Mom and I have been staying with my grandparents, a block from Central Park, where I swing and play in the sand. Today’s adventure is a trip with Nana on the D train from Columbus Circle to Greenwich Village. She instructs me to hold her cotton-gloved hand, and we step through the tiled portal into a strange subterranean world.

Her best friend, Mrs. Toomey, lives on MacDougal Street, and Nana wants to show me off for the first time. They met in the late 1920’s, through her daughter, Katherine, and my mom, Agnes, when they all lived in the Village. Nana and Grandad moved up to West 58th Street when Agnes and her brother were ready for high school. But the women and girls have stayed friends.

Down underground, Nana pays for tokens, which is subway money, at a booth. She lifts me up, drops a brass coin into the slot, and pushes the wooden arms of the turnstile, causing a ratchet sound as we go through. Then she pushes us through a tall gate with bars, and we are near the tracks. I peer from Nana’s safety toward the tube with blinking lights. A man shines shoes at a big stand near the back wall, and I smell the polish. By the newstand–the dusky smell of newsprint.

People walk this way and that, while we wait for our train. I spy a glass jug with bubbling, swirling orange drink, and ask Nana. She gives the vendor a coin, and he presses the knob. The cool pleasure of smooth un-carbonated sips of orangeade from a conical wax paper cup stays with me.

Hand in hand we hurry to the train car as the engineer calls out the next stop, and sliding doors hiss and snap shut. Nana guides me toward a smooth, woven rattan seat, near an open-window. As we pick up speed, the breeze builds, and the cold white wall tile outside the train blurs its black writing. Inside, wall fans whir. The car isn’t full, so no-one stands at the center steel pole or at the swinging grip handles. In our seats we sway to the click-clack rhythm of track. Ceiling lights flash as we roar through the tunnels. I press against Nana’s petite frame for comfort, and her smile shows pride in me. My legs dangle below the hem of my yellow summer dress.

Amid the screech of steel brakes, we arrive at Houston Street station, and emerge into jagged light, stifling New York afternoon, traffic din, and reek of overflowing trash cans. Across the street, red brick dust arises, workmen shout, and a wrecking ball pendulum swings from a massive chain frightening me. Nana holds my hand through the fear, and leads me up the front concrete stoop of an apartment building.

Through the stale hallway by a wall of mailboxes, we climb three narrow flights past shabby plaster and the smell of cooking. Mrs. Toomey has seen us on the sidewalk from her front window and opens to us with a warm smile, and an accent I’ve heard from my father’s great aunt Kate Caffrey. In Mrs. T.’s floral parlor, the two old friends chat, drink hot tea. I kneel on the carpet at the coffee table with cold milk and crumbly powdered-sugar cake. After, I might have napped.

On the train back to 59th Street and Columbus Circle, I sit in a corner seat by myself, while Nana sits adjacent. At the station there’s a gum dispenser, and I ask.

Nana produces two pennies, pushes the first into the slot, and says, “Hold your hand under it,” and turns the crank. One white Chiclet square drops into my palm. Then another penny, another turn, another Chiclet–both instantly in my mouth–I know what to do with peppermint sugar excitement

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Stories

Paternity, by Henry Simpson

#fatherhood #literary

I had no appointments after lunch. I locked my office and went for a walk that started as a meander that turned into a journey to Mission Park. It was a weekday with school in session and the park was peaceful, quiet, and mostly free of people. A maintenance man was picking up trash with a pointed stick and a man on a riding mower was noisily cutting tracks in the grass. A few listless young men were sitting around home plate on the baseball diamond waiting for the grass to be cut so they could start their game. Some were smoking cigarettes and none resembled Pony Leaguers or Explorer Scouts. In the center of the park, the gazebo stood lonely and empty, ringed by yellow police tape but without a uniformed guard to protect it from interlopers. A young woman was sitting on the gazebo steps, within the police perimeter, strumming a guitar. She appeared to be singing, but I could not hear her because her voice would not carry to where I stood at the park’s edge.

As I set foot on the path to the gazebo, ominous deafening bass sounds from subwoofers assaulted the air from the opposite end of the park, growing louder as their source, a lowered black Honda sedan, drew closer. I started down the path and, as I looked back, caught a brief glimpse of faces behind its smoked glass windows. I stopped and watched as it continued its journey, completely circling the park before heading back along the street from which it had come.

The young woman looked up as I approached her, and smiled. Flora Hunter, the daughter of a bandmate of mine in another life. “Hey,” she said.

I nodded. “Hey.”

She was wearing a tie-dyed halter dress that reminded me of her mother in another time and place.

“Do you remember me?” I said.

“I guess, Mr. Costa. You came by the house Sunday morning.”

“Shouldn’t you be in school?”

“I didn’t go today. But that’s okay.” She lowered her eyes, watched her fingers as she formed a chord, and strummed the guitar, a Martin D-18 lousy with chips and scratches, its finish worn to bare wood on the fingerboard and body, a long crack above the pick guard. I remembered the day it was new in a Kansas City luthier’s shop.

“That’s Max’s guitar,” I said.

She looked up at me. “He gave me a lesson one day, and said I could borrow it for a while.” She handed it to me.

I sat down beside her and grasped the neck with my left hand, exploring the frets with my fingers. I had not held a guitar in a long time, but my fingers instinctively formed an open C chord, then a G, then an A7, moving effortlessly as they explored familiar territory. I imagined I was sitting on that hard steel chair in that dusty guitar shop with this instrument in my hands, as I had once before. “When did you meet Max?” I said.

Her eyes wandered. “A couple of weeks ago.”

“Did he drop by your house for a visit?”

“No. It happened right here. He came up to me as I was walking through the park. Almost freaked me out. He looked real ratty. He claimed he was some old-time rock star. Then he said he was my father. He seemed like psycho or maybe drunk or on drugs. He had this idea we were related. It made me wonder how many others he’d tried that line on. He scared me. Know what I mean?”

“I believe I do.”

“But then he offered to lend me this guitar.”

“And you took it.”

“Sure I did. It’s nice, even if he was a nut case.”

“Did he give you anything else?”

“Stop asking me about him. He’s gone and I guess I should be sorry but, to tell the truth, it’s probably not that big a deal. If he was my father, it would not do me or Donna any good. And if he stuck around here, telling everyone he was related to us, it would be a real downer. He was off his rocker.”

“It’s not good for you to hang around this place, Flora. A man died here. And the people in the park on days like this, well, it’s not good. You should go to school.”

She glared at me. “You’re not my father. What I do is none of your particular business. I turned fourteen last month.”

“All grown up, I guess.”

I returned the guitar and stood. “Take care, Flora.” I walked away.

“Wait a minute,” she said.

I stopped and faced her.

“That old bum—I mean Max—do you think it’s . . . possible?”

“He thought so,” I felt like adding I did not know for sure, but let my statement stand.

“Because… because I’d really like to know.”

“Ask your mother.”

“No, I can’t do that. She’d have a fit if she found out I talked to Max.”

“Everyone has a birth certificate. It lists the names of their father and mother.”

Her face brightened. “Thanks, Mr. Costa. I’ll look around for one.”

“Don’t tell your mother I gave you the idea. This is a secret, you know, lawyer confidentiality.”

“Okay, Mr. Costa. I know what that is. I swear I won’t say a word to her, even if Max’s name is on it, or someone else’s.”

I left her and continued my walk. There were other ways to know, but it was not in my province to offer the details to someone’s kid.

I heard her strumming again as I made my way back across the park. The sound gradually diminished, overtaken by the shouts of youths at baseball.

I walked back to my office, thinking about Flora. I had caught her ditching school and pondered whether I should bust her by reporting the infraction to Donna. What was she doing, strumming and singing a vigil at Max’s onetime hangout, the scene of his final act? Her harsh assessment of Max contradicted her presence at the gazebo, so I did not quite know what to think, except that she had not been completely frank with me; perhaps she was hiding something. On the other hand, it was not fair to expect her to reveal her inner thoughts with me, a stranger. As I approached the Paseo, the only thing I decided was to keep the kid’s secret.

#

A week later, in late afternoon, Flora appeared in my office doorway, wearing a schoolgirl’s plaid skirt and white blouse with a laden backpack hanging on her shoulders. She waved and smiled shyly, then advanced slowly toward my desk and stopped a few feet away.

“Hello, Miss Hunter,” I said.

She took one cautious step forward, another, then dropped into a chair.

“Hey, Mr. Costa. As you very well know, everyone calls me Flora.”

She leaned forward, slid out of her pack, and it fell to the floor with a loud thud. She smiled, blushing.

“Hauling bricks in that?”

“Sometimes feels that way.”

“What do you need, kid?”

“I need your legal advice or help or . . . maybe I’m speaking to the wrong person. Do you work with a psychic? I saw a sign outside, it says someone in your office reads the Tarot.”

“That would be Selena Koval. She rents the office next door. We don’t actually work together. Maybe we should. I could use her advice from time to time. Do you want your fortune told? She’ll do it for fifty bucks. Considering your tender age, she might charge less.”

“Wow, I can’t even afford a fiver. I sure would like to have my fortune told. But actually, I’m more interested in something that already happened than I am the future. You know, that day I talked to you in the park and you . . . well, I, uh, I found my birth certificate. My name is on it and Donna is listed as mother, but the line for father’s name is blank. What’s that mean?”

“It’s hard to say, Flora. There are many possibilities.” Why answer the question directly? It was safer to duck it, coward that I am.

“Do you think, maybe, she didn’t know who my father was? Jeez, is that even possible? I know it was pretty wild in rock bands, especially back in those days, but I can’t believe Donna slept with a thousand different guys.” She tilted her head like a dog as she looked at me, waiting for a thoughtful answer.

Not likely from this source. “Hold on now, Flora. Give her more credit. It could be, she didn’t want to involve the father.”

“Because he was on drugs, you mean, and insane?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know.”

She glared at me. “You’re not much help, Mr. Costa. You’re a lawyer, and supposed to be smart, but so far you haven’t said diddly.”

“That’s unfair, Flora. I gave you good advice and you ignored it.”

“You mean, ask Donna who my father is? I can’t do that, not ever.”

“Well, there you are, Flora.” That told her.

She frowned in thought. Suddenly her eyes opened wide. “Say, Mr. Costa. I have a really cool idea. How about, you ask her? You know, invite her out for lunch somewhere nice, have a glass of wine, or maybe two or three, and then just sort of casually sneak it into the conversation. You’re both adults so you can talk about these things. I mean, without getting embarrassed or offending each other.”

I stared at her for a long time, wondering who was in charge of the conversation, and who was the stooge.

“Are you thirsty?” I said.

“Not particularly.”

“What do you like? Coke, Fresca, water?”

“Water’s okay, I guess.”

I went to the reefer and filled two paper cups with bottled water. I handed her one and sat back at my desk. I raised the cup and swallowed. “That’s very refreshing. Try it.”

She lifted her cup and sipped.

“More, Flora. It’s hot outside. You must be thirsty after the long walk over here from school.”

I waited for an answer; none came.

“You went to school today, didn’t you?”

She set her cup on my desk, stood, and donned her backpack. “I have to leave now.”

“Where are you going? Mission Park?”

“No, home. Someone told Donna I was hanging out there and we had a fight like the end of the world. That place is off limits now.”

“Do you think I ratted on you?”

“Did you?”

“I wouldn’t do that. Lawyer confidentiality.”

She laughed. “You’re so full of it, Mr. Costa. But anyway, I’ll take your word for it. What I want to know is, how are you going to help me?”

“I’ll work on it, Flora.”

She gave me a funny look, and left.

I opened a file drawer, took out a DNA lab test package, and placed Flora’s paper cup in a plastic baggie. I placed mine in another, and an empty beer bottle that Max had used in a third. I labeled them and filled out the paperwork for the paternity test. It was time to find out who was Flora’s father.

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Haibun: Tokyo Years, by Mary Ellen Gambutti
Stories

Haibun: Tokyo Years, by Mary Ellen Gambutti

#japan #memoir #tokyo #womenauthors

June day
a child says goodbye
breeze blows on the runway

Steel stairway, wings and jet engines. Our Pan Am Boeing 707 in sun-glare. Idlewild to San Francisco, to Honolulu, then to Tokyo. Blue bows braided into my pigtails, blue plaid summer dress catches a hot breeze. Suddenly, I realize my Cinderella watch is still tucked into the seat pocket, and I’ll never see it again. Our family of four begins a three-year adventure in a new country and culture, far from my grandparents’ secure New Jersey home–our place of permanence–amid our transitory Air Force life. My father’s Far East forays are difficult for Mother, baby sister and me, but we are open to learn and enjoy this beautiful land and culture.

The Japanese expression for a sweet memory link–to a song, familiar food, place–is Natsukashii. I return to the traditional music of the stringed Koto, the popular song of“Sakura” Cherry Blossom, the colors and textures in silk fabric, in straw, bamboo, the plants; the scent of burning cone incense, sweet waxy red ink of my honko initial stamp, all of the imagery and life that was the Tokyo I knew.
A lush water garden captivates me. A chain of blue iris-filled streams and four wooden arched bridges over beads of glimmering ponds. Green iris leaves spike, and purple flower shades coalesce and merge filling each tiny brook. Dragonflies dart and hover on water lily pads. Ladies with black hair piled and fastened wear silk printed kimono. High geta shoes; gentle sound of wood on wood. Serenity.

Washington Heights–over eight-hundred housing units, office buildings, schools, movie theatre, chapel, base exchange, clubs, and swimming pools–was a sprawling middle class community built in 1946. Courts of quadplex landscaped with Rhododendrons, Azaleas, Yews, and Maples, green lawns for children, and sidewalks lined with cherry trees becomes our home the summer of 1961. A three-acre grove of black oak and pine stretched along a wide slope below our neighborhood. I roamed the mossy ground among big stones, on paths under a domed canopy in dappled light, or in bare winter chiaroscuro. We children carved hearts in bark, and peeled hardened cambium scars to renew old initials and friendships. Cicadas slipped their shells, claws gripped to rough bark. We wore papery skins on our shirts like badges. These trees, a forest fragment, spilled over a high fieldstone wall undulating at the edge of our play space. One-hundred and seventy acres of evergreens surrounding Meiji Shrine and inner garden were planted in 1926 to honor spirits of the Emperor and Empress, last rulers of Tokyo’s Edo period. The wall banked and bordered my sanctuary, my peaceful shrine.

sultry summer day
mantis in a bamboo cage
horned beetle eats jam

I attended fifth and sixth grades at an international girls school several miles from Shibuya-Ku and Washington Heights. Sisters of Notre Dame taught French, English Grammar, Arithmetic, Art and the sacred rule of Silence. We wore navy blue, but for family days, when our traditional garb, art, music and foods were relished. A cathedral-like chapel, medals bestowed for merit, giggles in refectory lunches, field sports, and myriads of smiles, all too brief.

Dad liked to venture outside the gate with us to Shinjuku shopping district. Vivid images, textures, toys entice me. Doll faces fascinated. A ten-year-old’s allowance of a few Yen could buy tiny glass animals, a pair of painted wood peg kokeshi dolls, lucky Daruma dolls, Hakata dolls in folk dress, or eggshell faced Ichimatsu Gofu, boy and girl baby dolls. Mom chose a kimono-clad Geisha doll in a glass case, and a delicate-looking red-flowered paper umbrella, Wagasa, waterproofed with oil, made with bamboo ribs, for spring and early summer rains. We followed mingled fragrances of street food: steamy Yakisoba noodles, tasty fried or grilled dumplings, savory grilled rice crackers, skewered chicken Yakitori.
Slated as the site of 1964 Summer Olympics, Washington Heights was set to be demolished. Dad made ready to move us summer of 1963, so we could be spared the sight of familiar buildings razed. I did my best to adjust to the move to Johnson Air Force Base, Irumagawa, north of western Tokyo, but change always came too quickly.
I missed my grove of trees, and one day I wandered on a shaded path at the rear of our quarters. I found myself at the top edge of a tea paddy, above a vast field of manicured tea bushes. Below to the right was “Ichiban Village,” airman’s housing. Ichiban means number one. I am “number one” daughter, and at twelve, would attend base junior high that fall. I squeezed through a break in the barbed wire fence and picked a handful of aromatic leaves. I breathed fresh air under a wide, blue sky. Ninety miles away, snow-capped Mt. Fujiyama, suspended from soft clouds. On rides through the city of Sayama to another airbase, I’d seen picturesque fields, farmers in peasant garb bending in rows, and Fuji San, getting closer, getting farther away.

In Spring – Sakura
beloved cherry blossoms
sidewalks turning pink

~~~~~~~

Want to read more by Mary Ellen Gambutti? Read her previous story, I Must Have Wandered.

Cover photo: TWO GEISHA AND THEIR WATER-LOGGED GHOSTS IN THE HORIKIRI IRIS GARDENS of OLD TOKYO, JAPAN, by Okinawa Soba (Rob).

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The Unhealable Wound, by Michelle Lindsey

#crime #memoir #police

Cover image by Adèle d’Alleray

There are some situations that strike the soul deeply and time is the only cure.

9:00 PM
“Mom, open this goddamn door!” Laura roared in between pounding fists on her mother’s bedroom door. “Mom! I’m not kidding! Open this fucking door!” Laura’s pummels grew more insistent the longer her mother remained silent on the other side. Each forceful pound sounding more muffled by the heavy barrier between them.


Karen sat quietly on the edge of her bed, fingers absently tracing the patterns on her quilt. Her daughter’s pleading voice seemed to barely penetrate the solid wood door separating the two of them.

She pulled a notebook out of her bedside drawer. She uncapped her pen and scrawled careful letters across the paper. She began to write: My dearest Laura….


“Shitbags,” Deputy Peterson mumbled under his breath while he watched his fellow deputy take down a witness report from the tiniest old woman he had ever seen. Her frail frame seemed to fold in itself as she hugged her elbows.

Deputy Peterson turned back to his witness. The owner, the very nice old lady- small enough to fit into his pocket, claimed her neighbor saw someone take her UPS package off her porch. The other deputy didn’t need him; but, he liked to help. He listened and took notes while the man swore he saw some unsavory ‘feller’ in her yard a few days ago. “I seen him snoopin’ around here just the other day” he drawled on. Of course he saw an unsavory character, Deputy Peterson thought to himself. He cast a glance at the neighborhood and shook his head slightly. They would never find who stole her package in this neighborhood. Dilapidated houses loomed over him- one swift wind and the jenga towers would come crashing down. Game over.

Deputy Peterson glanced at his watch to write down the time. 9:00 PM. It’s only 9 and he’s already dealt with two home visits for minors on house arrest, a dumbass who thought driving down the interstate at 130 MPH was a brilliant idea, and this theft report of someone robbing this nice lady. Yeah, it’s going to be a long night, he thought to himself as he finished the interview with the ‘witness’. A term he was going to use lightly.


9:05 PM
Laura continued to bang on her mother’s door. She paused and pressed her ear to it. The door felt solid, stable. She traced the grain of the wood with her fingertips while she awaited an answer she knew she wouldn’t get. Tears blurred her vision and the pattern of the door began to drown.

“Mom, I don’t know what to do. Tell me what I can do. Please. Just open the door.” She waited a second- her ear pressed against the heavy door. Silence. She knew something wasn’t right.

Laura started thrusting her tiny frame into the solid wooden door but her size was no match. Regardless, she continued. She could feel bruises forming on her arms and shoulders as she continued to try to break down through the only stable thing within the house.


Her daughter’s pleas weren’t loud enough to sway Karen’s decision. She signed her note: I will always love you and set it down on her freshly made bed. She was sure she would find it there. She glanced at the ripped corner of the newspaper- a marriage announcement. She clutched the smiling couple in her hands until their faces folded in on themselves. She dropped it on the bed next to the note. She unfolded the old, withered towel she grabbed from the linen closet and laid it out of the floor. That won’t do, she thought. She dragged the towel away from the laminate flooring and readjusted it on the tile in her adjoining bathroom, smoothing out all the corners and wrinkles.


Deputy Peterson returned to his cruiser to type up the report. Protocol has them draft the report on paper and then upload it to their software system later. Although a little redundant, It’s pretty effective. They don’t always have time to immediately type the report and the longer they wait- the more information they may forget. He leaned back in the driver’s seat of his cruiser while he watched his colleague finish up the interview with the victim. He hated that the assurances his colleague was more than likely providing were in vain. He cranked the key. The motor in his cruiser roared to life and he began typing.


9:08 PM
“Mom?” Laura pleaded through the door. She rammed her body into it one more time. Pain spread up her arm and into her neck. How much longer could she keep doing this? She pressed her ear to the door one more time. Silence. Fear and anger continued to radiate throughout Laura’s core. That’s it, she thought to herself. She grabbed her cellphone and made the call.

“911. What is your emergency?”

Laura didn’t know what to say. How could she formulate the situation without breaking down into hysterics? She felt like she was betraying her mom.

“Hello? 911. What is your emergency?”

Laura found a voice that didn’t sound like her. The voice she discovered was that of a little girl. Not a 17 year old about to graduate. “Yes, I need help.”

“Yes, how can we help you?”

“I think,” Laura struggled to find the words, “I think my mom is going to kill herself.” There. She finally admitted it. A new reign of fear caused her limbs to convulse and her voice to shake. A new round of tears raked the sides of her cheeks and her lips quivered as she struggled to make out what the dispatcher was saying.

“Ma’am, we need your address. Where are you?”

Laura regurgitated the address she’s had memorized since she was six. She currently didn’t recognize her childhood home.

“Okay, ma’am, we’re sending help your way. Please stay on the line with me until a deputy makes it to you. Where is your mom now?”

“Um… locked in her room. I can’t hear anything. She isn’t making any noise.”

“Ma’am do you have any guns or weapons in the house?”

Oh, god. Laura’s heart momentarily faltered within her chest. Did her mother have a gun? She shouldn’t. Dad took his guns with him. She honestly didn’t know the answer, “I don’t think so. I don’t know!” Laura fought the urge to vomit.

“Ok, just stay on the line, a deputy will be to you shortly. What’s your name?”

“Laura. My name is Laura”


Karen stood on the towel in her bathroom. She placed a hand over her chest and felt the steady beats of her heart, She closed her eyes and listened to the rhythm of her fleeting life. She knew what she wanted. Her daughter would eventually understand. Everyone would understand once they read the note.

She took a deep breath and reached for the steak knife she grabbed from the kitchen. She had the knife hidden in her vanity drawer for days now. Laura didn’t notice it was missing. If she had noticed, she would have suspected.

Her left hand stayed on her chest, pressing down on bones meant to protect her heart.

She held the knife by the handle and examined the sawed edge. Although dulled with use, it would still cut through their steaks without a problem. Pain was never an issue. Karen hadn’t felt anything is years. This was a long time coming.

Her fingers danced their way down her breastplate, feeling each climb and fall of bone and space. She placed two index fingers over the place right between her breasts. She took the knife and extended her arm out to the side of her body. In one fluid motion, she charged the knife right for her target.


“343, do you copy?”

Deputy Peterson grabbed his radio, “343 copy, over”. He released the tab on the side of his radio waiting for a response. Good. Anything to get him the hell away from this backwoods neighborhood and this sad old lady. The broken streetlights cascaded uneven light throughout the street. Even in the dark, Deputy Peterson could be the decay. The rot.

“We have a possible attempted suicide in progress, over.”

Oh shit.

“343, copy. On my way”.

He signaled to his fellow deputy that he had to go as he turned on his lights and sirens and headed to another house deeper in the neighborhood. Red and blue flashing lights lit up the houses as he barreled his way down the streets.


9:10 PM
“Laura? Are you still on the line?”

“Yes!” Laura began beating on her mother’s door again. “I can hear her screaming! You have to hurry!” Laura’s stomach rolled as she listened to her mother’s bursting screams continue.

“A deputy is on his way. Make sure you’re standing in the light and wave him down when you see him. Stay out of the road.”

“I can’t just leave her!”

“Laura, the deputy can get to your mother quicker if he knows where she is. EMS are on the way too.”

Laura hesitated while a new fit of wretchedness sounded from the crack underneath her mother’s door. Laura’s hesitation quickly gave way and she ran through the front door, the screen door flying off the hinges and left hanging in the wake of her exit.

She ran to the street light that sat in their front yard and she began to pace.

“I don’t see anyone!” She screamed into the phone.

“ I know you’re upset. But I need you to remain calm. They are on their way. A deputy should be there in approximately three minutes.” Three minutes? A lot could happen in three minutes. Laura’s mind raced with thoughts of her mother and what could happen in three minutes. She continued to pace.


The bone protecting her precious organ was proving to be a problem. Karen underestimated the power it would take to penetrate the bone and puncture her heart. Anger flourished in her as she yanked the serrated knife from her chest, blood pooling on her shirt and onto the floor. With a scream of pain, aggravation, and sheer adrenaline, she plunged the knife into her chest a second time. Hoping this time her strength could could get the job done.


“Where the fuck is this house?” Deputy Peterson breathed into the dashboard. His eyes raked both sides of the street. He turned a corner and found a homely girl with no shoes standing in the middle of her yard. Her frantic arm movements signaled for him. He slammed the cruiser into park and threw his body out of the car.


9:13 PM
“He’s here!” Laura hung up the phone and dropped it in the grass by her feet. She hoped he wasn’t too late.

“My mom! Please hurry! She locked herself in her room! I tried to get in but-”

“Are there any other exits in her room besides her door?” He barked as Laura fumbled with her words. He started heading towards the house.

“What? Yes. Wait. No. Her windows still have shutters from the st-”

“Do you have any weapons in the house?” He yelled over his shoulder as he stormed up the steps on the front porch.

“What? No! I don’t know! I-” Choking sobs cut off her words as she ran after him. She made it onto the first step of the porch before he held up a big meaty hand, halting her immediately.

“Where’s her room?” He drew his gun from his belt.

“Oh my god! Why do you have a gun? You have to go help her!”

“You wait out here. Wait for the ambulance. When you see them, flag them down, yell for me.” He turned to face her for a moment.

“Ma’am? Did you hear me?” He stared into her dirty face but her eyes were wild with fear.

“Ma’am?”

“Yes, I heard you. But-”

“Stay. Out. Here.” He commanded as he silently ushered his way through the front door. Laura was left outside by herself. Without the comfort of the dispatcher on the phone, she felt vulnerable in the dark. Her body shuddered uncontrollably as she continuously repeated her directions. “Wait for the ambulance. Flag them down. Yell for him. Wait for the ambulance. Flag them down. Yell for him.”


Karen faded back into consciousness. She was now on the floor. Blood pooled around her midsection and the knife was sticking out of her chest. Only a few inches of the blade concealed by her meaty flesh. Her strength failed her. She couldn’t break the bone.

The pounding on the door had stopped moments before she blacked out. She thought she heard a man’s voice but the ringing in her ears made it hard to tell. She must have hit her head. She couldn’t help but wonder how long she was out. Not long enough to bleed to death, she answered herself.

Realizing her method was failing, she grabbed hold of the knife once more. Her head was foggy and her vision was cloudy. The handle slippery with blood. She yanked it out of her chest, tearing flesh and shirt away with it. Karen cried out in pain but her cry was pitiful and weak. Shallow gasps of breath consumed her. She knew she had to act quickly.

The pounding on her bedroom door began again. This time harder, more forceful. Before she lost consciousness again, she thrusted the knife upward through her stomach, just below the breastbone. She hoped the upward angle would be enough. Blackness swirled around her and before she fell back into the black abyss she longed for, her bedroom door came crashing open.


Deputy Peterson gripped his gun, the barrel facing the floor. With situations like this, he could never tell how it would play out. Mentally unstable people were the most dangerous cases. Their actions unpredictable. If she had a gun, he needed to be prepared. He inched his way across the living room. The house was small, dark, dirty. His boots were sticking to the laminate floors with every step. When he got deeper into the living room, he could see the door to the master bedroom.

He rapped loudly on the bedroom door. “Ma’am? I’m Deputy Peterson with the Maycounty Sheriff’s Office. Can you hear me?” He waited for a response. He pressed his ear to the door frame and stilled his breathing. He listened. His trained ears told him it might be too late. He knocked again, this time more forcefully. He listened again. A strange gurgling sound hit his ears and that was all he needed. He backed up a few feet away from the door and used his booted foot and strength in his legs to force the solid wood door open. It took one, solid kick and the door crashed open hitting the wall with a loud thud. He surveyed the room, seeing nothing. It wasn’t until he turned to see the bathroom that he realized he may have been right about his timing.

“343, requesting backup, over.” He released the lever on the radio and cleared his mind. Training and experience started to take over.

“343, backup on the way, over.”

He hastily moved over to the lifeless body on the bathroom floor. He surveyed the scene before taking action. He had seen something like this before. A man pretended to be dead, only to try to steal his fellow officer’s gun when he reached down to check for a pulse. Deputy Peterson reached to the back of his gun belt and took out his rubber gloves. Deputies always have gloves, just in case. Once his hands were protected from the blood, he checked for any other weapons besides the knife protruding from the woman’s abdomen. When he was satisfied he didn’t see any, he checked for a pulse. Although faint, he could feel life hanging on in the arteries in her neck. Within seconds he had towels around the blade and he was applying pressure to the wound. He learned not to remove weapons until EMS arrived to ensure the weapon didn’t hit any vital organs. He didn’t need her bleeding out internally when a fair amount of blood covered the bathroom floor already. He applied pressure and he waited for backup. He thought back to the girl standing in the front yard, counting on him to save her mom. He looked down at the woman sprawled on the floor. This one was going to haunt his dreams for awhile. They always do.


9:16 PM
“They’re here! Hey! They’re here!” Laura screamed through the front door. Laura was about to run into the house but remembered she was supposed to show them the way. Wait for the ambulance. Flag them down. Yell for him. She needed them to get there quickly so they could help her mom. Despite the swirling lights of Deputy Peterson’s patrol car, she ran back to her street light and waved her arms frantically, hoping they saw her. “Flag them down” she repeated to herself.

A young man jumped out of the passenger side before the ambulance came to a complete stop. A team of men routinely gathered gear and a stretcher. Laura watched in awe as the red lights repeatedly illuminated her face, momentarily blinding her with each pass.

A man was running up the driveway and headed for the steps. She retreated into the shadows of the lawn. He was met by Deputy Peterson and they briefly exchanged words before the EMT slipped into the house followed by the others and the stretcher. The gravity of the situation caused Laura to fall to her knees. She buried her face into her hands and released heavy sobs.


Deputy Peterson could hear the wailing of the sirens as they rounded the corner and pulled closer to the house. He waited. He counted to fifty before releasing the wound and running to the front door. His job was to secure the scene and he needed to explain that the only weapon was still lodged in the victim. He needed to time it just right so the pressure wasn’t off the wound very long. After fifty seconds, he released his hold on the woman and reluctantly went out onto the porch.

After briefing them, the men ran past him and into the house. Deputy Peterson carefully took off his gloves, careful to use the innards of one to remove the other. Although his uniform was soaked in her blood, he preferred his hands to stay sanitized.

He moved his way over to Laura and stood by her, blocking her view of the house. Careful to remain in the shadows so she wouldn’t notice the state of his uniform. He needed to keep her separated from her mother.


9:20 PM
Laura peered up through her fingers to see Deputy Peterson standing by her. The pain that she had been ignoring now licked its way up her arm and throughout the top of her back. Her arm felt too thick in her shirt sleeve. The EMTs were still inside. It seemed like a long time to be in there. Too long. She cried out in pain from her arm, from her mom.

A light blinded her once more as Deputy Peterson shined his flashlight on her arm to inspect.

“We need to have your arm looked at too.” He said matter of factly.

“Where’s my mom?” She questioned. Her voice faded away as exhaustion and pain overcame her.

Her questions were soon answered as a man came out on the porch, towing the stretcher with him. Another man ushered the head of it out the door and down the steps. Deputy Peterson was holding Laura back by her good arm. She didn’t even know she had stood. She didn’t realize she was trying to run to her mother.

In less time than it took Deputy Peterson to tell her she needed to stay back, her mother was loaded in the ambulance and hauled away. Sirens blared down the road. Within moments, the only sound was Laura’s ragged breathing.


Deputy Peterson released the hold on Laura’s arm. He didn’t mean to grab her so hard but she didn’t need to see what he saw. The mangled abdomen of her mother looked like something out of a horror movie. The image of torn flesh running on a circuit in his mind.

“Laura, I’m going to take you to the hospital to have your arm looked at. I’ll be there with you so we can over your statement.”

“Is my mom…?”

“You did the right thing, Laura.” He guided her to his cruiser, careful not to touch her injured shoulder. His hand absently fingered the breast pocket of his unform. He could feel he crumpled up newspaper and letter he swiped off the bed on his way out. Protocol says this should be in evidence but he knew Laura would need this someday. He didn’t have the heart to tell her now that her mother’s note was in his pocket, or that the EMT shared a knowing glance his way when he exited the house, confirming his suspicions that he did- indeed- feel the life slip away from her right underneath his blood soaked hands. For now, she needed to focus on healing. Her wounds are ones that would take a while to heal.

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The Crystal Dragon, Part 12: Chase, by Edward King

#adventure #china #crystal dragon

LAST TIME, ON THE CRYSTAL DRAGON: OUR HEROES, Hammer and Laser, meet in an Internet cafe to discuss the “Cloud Mafia”—a band of criminal elements controlling the mining of the metals used to make phones and computers, those essential pieces of our modern lives—but their talk is interrupted by a mysterious grey-eyed man!
Read the past episodes.
Hammer and Laser thundered down the steps of the internet cafe. Behind, the grey-eyed man pursued them.

They crossed the street. A heavy stream of traffic blocked their pursuer.

He had one grey eye and one normal, and wore a dull grey dusty rumpled suit.

He stood there helplessly, blocked by a car.

Time seemed to stop. Though they were far from the ancient city center, Hammer felt that they were in the middle of the city—of the world. The present dilemma a seamless part of the tapestry of his life.

Hammer and Laser stood in a town in the midst of three skyscrapers. Children played in the space underneath the grey buildings housing sixty stories of families. Every necessity for life was there, packed into the corners of the dirty streets. In a general store, Bottles of water and packaged food crammed onto tiny shelves. Cramped Sichuan restaurants served spicy pepper dishes. A cell phone shop, a bank. A basketball court in the concrete lot behind the supermarket. At a table on the street, family sat around a steaming wok filled with peppers, long-stalked mushrooms and potatoes.

He thought of her: Alex. The wooden steps, the falling snow, his beating heart.

His eye caught the pink, shimmering lights of a KTV, a karaoke center.

A scantily-dressed model stood outside. Her sequined pink bra revealed her fleshy stomach.

Hammer thought, inexplicably, of Alex Long. The wooden steps leading up to her apartment.

Her body, sheets and bra, embracing him.

“What are you looking at?” said Laser. “karaoke?”

“No,” said Hammer.

“I don’t think that’s one of the legit ones anyway,” said Laser. “Or—depends what you mean by legit, I guess. It depends what you’re looking for.”

The grey-eyed man appeared atop the stairs. One eye watching them, the other grey, opaque.

“Run!” said Laser.

They ran through the smoky streets between the skyscrapers. Past a karaoke bar where skinny women stood below gauzy pink lights illuminating the street. Down concrete stairs.

They hopped across a board between two roofs.

The grey-eyed man behind them reached into his coat. When he withdrew his hand, it held a dull grey revolver.

“Duck!” yelled Laser.

Hammer ducked. A shower of sparks rained from the fire escape above his head.

They ran down the concrete stairs. Laser bumped a wok, launching food into the air.

The peppers landed on the grey man’s face.

“AHHH!” he yelled. “MY EYE!”

Hammer and Laser sprinted down the street.

“Sorry!” He yelled back, still running.

They were back outside the KTV again.

“In here,” said Laser.

They ducked into the entrance and ascended a set of glimmering LED-lit stairs.

“Who was that?” said Hammer.

“We just call him Mr. Grey,” said Laser. “He more or less runs the rare earth mining operation in this province.”

“That was your boss?”

“I don’t think I’m employed there any more,” said Laser.

Midway up the stairs, they stopped.

“I thought I saw her!” said Hammer.

“Who?”

“Alex Long. My ex.”

The wooden steps that led to her front door. The white snow falling softly on the stairs.

They continued up the KTV’s glimmering stairs.

In the inner entrance stood someone.

Alex! Hammer thought. At last!

But it wasn’t wasn’t Alex. It was—

粉一, she said.

Her skimpy clothing shimmered in the light.

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1968, by DC Diamandopolous

#lgbt #los angeles #realistic #womenauthors

Johnny kneeled on top of his bookcase as he wiggled the screen out of its frame and let it slide onto the bush outside his bedroom window. Just as he raised his leg over the ledge, he remembered his retainer and yanked it out of his mouth, tossed it onto the dresser and climbed out.

Sneaking around the side of the house, he unlatched the gate, inched through, then locked it. He glanced west toward the Brewers’ house and east to the Fillmores’. At ten thirty at night, the neighborhood had tucked itself into bed. His old man’s station wagon parked in the driveway was a real daddy’s car, but it had wheels, and that’s what Johnny needed to take him to his first gay bar.

Johnny pulled his dad’s key from his crushed velvet pant pocket, unlocked the car, and slipped behind the wheel, leaving the door ajar. He put the gear in neutral and let the Buick roll back into the street and then pushed the car past the Wilsons’ house, shut the door, started the engine and took off for the Harbor Freeway and Santa Monica Boulevard.

When he had read in the local paper that his science teacher was arrested in a raid at The Rusty Nail and lost his job because he was a homosexual, Johnny felt bad for Mr. Gilroy, but excited to know he wasn’t the only queer in the universe. The Rusty Nail reopened as a bar for men and women, gay men and women, Johnny learned through the back pages of the underground press.

Johnny pounded his fist against the wheel, feeling the victory of freedom. He had the fake ID his sister’s boyfriend made for him, thinking Johnny wanted to meet some fox at the Blue Turtle, but with a constellation of zits on his chin, his voice still swinging between the Little and Big Dipper, Johnny’s chances of making it through the doors of The Rusty Nail were still slim.

Three days before he got his driver’s license, Johnny rehearsed punching and fluffing his pillows like he’d seen prison escapees do in the movies, then he pulled the cover over them to make it look like a body underneath. He practiced climbing out the window so he wouldn’t mess his clothes by falling into the bush that grew outside his bedroom. He committed the perfect getaway until he realized he’d left the Free Press with the big red circle around The Rusty Nail lying on his desk. No sweat. He’d be back before his parents woke-up.

Johnny rolled down the window just enough so that it didn’t disturb his long hair that he brushed and groomed until his arm felt tired. When he had missed several hair cuts, his father told him he didn’t want his son looking like a queer. Johnny told his dad not to worry, he hated fags, but long hair was in.

His dark mop covered his ears, and he grew really cool sideburns.

If his old man saw him now in his bitchin’ yellow stripes and red polka-dot shirt and Nehru jacket, driving his car, he would flip.

Johnny drove up the onramp. Too bad he wasn’t in a boss looking Mustang instead of an old fogey’s car. He’d park a block away from the bar so no one would see it, but what if he met someone? It was his uncle’s car, he’d tell them, because his Mustang was in the shop. Lies. That’s what his life was about, dating girls, football, acting tough, all to please his dad and everyone else. He even put up a poster of Raquel Welch when he wanted to tack up Steve McQueen.

Johnny’s secret gave him headaches. It was a monster that gobbled him up until he felt like he’d become the thing that consumed him. Something dirty. Something that made guys pick fights with him. He hoped to replace loneliness with friendships and meet a cute guy at the bar.

He relaxed into the flow of the cars, turned on the radio and switched the dial to KRLA and Dave Hull, the Hullabalooer.

“Mony Mony” blasted through the speakers. Johnny thought he would explode with pleasure. The sexy beat sparked his fantasies into a rocket fueled ascension where dancing led to kissing and kissing led to hot sex and hot sex never ended.

His loud singing drowned out Tommy James. He took his hands off the steering wheel and clapped along with the Shondells, laughing and hollering, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!”

Johnny zoomed past downtown and veered into the lane for the Hollywood Freeway. He slouched down in the seat, his left hand hanging over the wheel, real cool, like he’d done it millions of times. He glanced left, then right, just to see if anyone was lucky enough to see how groovy he looked.

He reached in the glove compartment and took out his dad’s cigarettes. Shaking one free, he stuck it between his lips then punched in the lighter. It popped out, and he lit the cigarette. He took a drag and coughed. His eyes watered. He puffed without inhaling.

Someone pulled in front of him.

“Asshole!”

Johnny stepped on the gas and swerved into the fast lane.

“Wanna drag? I can make this mother move.”

He stubbed out the cigarette and caught up with the guy who almost creamed him. The jerk wasn’t even paying attention to him, probably didn’t even know he almost caused an accident. Johnny blared the horn. The guy gave him the finger. Johnny laughed. He had to be at least eighty, older than his grandparents.

He passed the Melrose exit. The Western offramp would be next, and he’d take it to Santa Monica Boulevard.

He flattened the gas pedal all the way to the floor. Street lamps flickered by, he felt the air lift his hair, smelled the damp night and asphalt. Johnny glanced in the rearview mirror. Red lights flashed. A siren screamed.

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I Must Have Wandered, by Mary Ellen Gambutti

#japan #memoir #realistic #short stories #womenauthors

On a sunny late June 1962 morning Mom directed me to return to school for my cordovan oxfords. I had forgotten to change into them on the last day of school, and wore my black indoor uniform loafers home on the bus. “Go get them!” she shouted. I was ten at the finish of fifth grade, a cautious child. To leave Washington Heights, our military housing complex, alone, on foot, was a daunting prospect. But I obeyed Mom and hiked to the main gate carrying nothing, not even my dependent’s identification card. A Japanese guard waved ‘bye,’ asked no questions as I entered Tokyo streets, to feel my way to Sacred Heart campus.

Beyond the sentry at my left was Meiji Park. I gathered my recollection of the school bus route, past the commuter rail station, and into the modern business district of Shibuya. Perhaps it was a Monday–maybe I’d been out of school a week—the sidewalks filled with boys in school uniform shirts and jackets, businessmen, department store shoppers in kimonos or skirts and blouses, pedestrians young and elderly; people I had come to trust during the first year my Air Force family lived in Japan.

City bustle around me, I rested briefly against a building, my head in a whirl. I exchanged smiles and bows, then made my way across a wide, busy intersection among the throng. With vague memory of the way, I began to ascend a narrow street into Hiroo, where homes rested along the road to my destination. Relieved to see the massive tori gate on my right, I walked under it and entered Sacred Heart school grounds.

My mission urgent, I turned up the stone driveway to the main building. Free of my uniform navy jumper and white blouse, and instead wearing sneakers, summer shirt and shorts, I felt out of place. Up the marble steps and into the halls of my all-girls school, I passed a few nuns, but they didn’t seem to notice me. In the cloakroom, that place where the daily business of shoe change and outerwear hanging was conducted under the demands of silence, I pulled the culprit shoes from my cubby. Without hesitation, I returned to the hall and exited into the drive, past the silent tea house and stone lantern, then under the tori—but what next? I should have turned left to descend through Hiroo, but did I?

I must have wandered; have no recollection of how long, or how I ended up in the village of Shinjuku opposite Washington Heights, the other side of Meiji Park. But when I found myself in front of a familiar shop, face to face with my American playmate, Kathy, and her mother, Mrs. Meadow, I was relieved.

“How did you get here? Are you alone?” Mrs. Meadow looked concerned. Kathy smiled in surprised.

I was tired, and gave in to self-pity. “My mother made me walk to school for my shoes.” I clutched them in my arms.

Mrs. Meadow, always friendly when I played with Kathy in their home, didn’t smile this time, but pointed to her car. “You can ride home with us.” I gladly accepted her offer of a small icy bottle of Pepsi, and rolled into the backseat of her Chevy.

I let the front screen door slam behind me, and held the shoes out to my mother. “Mrs. Meadow brought me home,” I told her, but said nothing about the journey.

“Put them in your closet,” was all I recall she said. She must have been relieved to see me, but I’ll never know.

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The Crystal Dragon, Part 11: Train Station, by Edward King

#adventure #china #short stories #stories

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.

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The Uncertainty of Being Earnest, by Peter McMillan

#literary #Mental health

Earnest was not your garden variety pessimist. Like his former idol, N., he was not satisfied just complaining. He had to destroy everything he found that was hopeful or good. Hope was an emotion and could not be trusted, and goodness was for the weak who needed directions on how to live. N. had also rejected all religions as variations on the same theme of creating purpose and the evidence to support it. And it wasn’t just the inflamed radicals with deadly political objectives. It was also the ordinary believers who observed Ramadan, Easter, Yom Kippur, Vesak, or Diwali but were otherwise unremarkable. Drawing from a common belief in hope and goodness, they were all misguided.

N.’s problem had been that he was so successful, in his mind, that he lost the fire and enthusiasm that first drove him to demolish these hollow belief systems. Once done, Earnest recalled, N. became bored and turned pessimism against itself. Ironically, N. was converted to his new quest. He constructed his own elaborate philosophy and became guardedly optimistic–hopeful and in tune with goodness. In Earnest’s view, N. had betrayed pessimism.

Earnest vowed to avoid the performative contradictions that had undermined N.’s later philosophy. For that to happen, he had to avoid N.’s mistake of challenging his own beliefs. He had to take as given that critique, destruction and pessimism were the essence of the eternally real. Because it was not belief but instead the very foundation upon which belief was built, it could not be logically removed without self-contradiction. To disconfirm is as much an affirmation as any belief, and pessimism is an attitude towards or belief about something. Yet something persists that is more fundamental than pessimism, and that is doubt. Unlike pessimism, doubt can be infinitely regressed. That was Earnest’s contribution which he felt completed N.’s work.

Theoretical skepticism and practical skepticism were two different things, Earnest discovered. He ended up believing in nothing, not even doubt. He couldn’t be sure that he trusted anything, and so he decided to accept that everything could be confirmed and denied, good and bad, right and wrong, believed and doubted. To live or to die, to love or not to love, to be successful or to fail were equally good and bad. Nothing was fixed. Even his bed might not be his bed, his apartment downtown might not be his apartment and might not even be downtown. Furthermore, nothing was his–not the bicycle, the book collection, the clock on the bedside table, the toothbrush on the bathroom sink. All of these things might not even belong to him. But what was most disturbing was the possibility that his very thoughts were unreal and were not about real things and that they only appeared to be the thoughts of a person who might not even exist.

Earnest felt but stopped thinking. He felt cold, lonely, depressed, and confused, and having no home to go to or identity to fall back on, he wandered the streets and slept where he fell. But this could not last indefinitely, and it didn’t. He was picked up by the police, interrogated, and placed in a psychiatric hospital where thanks to an aggressive chemical intervention regime he discovered a new side of himself–the gullible buffoon.

Cover image: Portrait of Pablo Picasso, by Juan Gris

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Jigsaw Puzzle, by David Cannella

#Jigsaw puzzle #Mental health

Jigsaw Puzzle

“I’m just trying to do my jigsaw puzzle before it rains anymore”
-The Rolling Stones

Her close coworkers told her she thinks too much, and her family told her she needed to be medicated. Did she? Maybe she just needed to better implement the coping skills Dr. Richrath had been teaching her. Deep breathing. Pausing.

Either way, Justine sat looking out the rain-blurred window with nothing but her thoughts. She always had her thoughts. The drops tapped the window, a few at a time, annoying her. The grass soaked up the water and turned greener. Everything was green. She’d have to cut the grass when everything dried out. The lawn was getting tall again. She winced at the thought of having to walk up and down her yard pushing four wheels artificially moved by a man-made engine.

The phone rang. She didn’t answer. She never answered unless someone was getting back to her. She picked up her phone to identify the caller. It was her sister, Amber. Amber, the star child of her small family. Amber, with her model looks and engineer temperament. Amber, everyone’s favorite. Not now. She’d call her older sister back later. She knew Amber was checking on her. Checking to see how she was feeling since she had only been home from the hospital for three weeks. Justine was probably another task on a to-do list for Amber’s day. Amber meant well, but how can you have a healthy relationship with someone who is everything you are not and everything you want to be? It simply cannot work.

When Justine called her back, the conversation would probably go like this:

Justine would say, “Hey, I see you called.”

Amber would answer, “Hey, sis. Just calling to see how you are doing.”

“I’m fine. The medication seems to be working. I don’t know. I can never tell.”

“Well, you sound good.”

“It’s an act.”

Amber would start in with, “Now don’t say shit like that. You know what you need to do. Put to use the tools Dr. Richrath has given you to work with. She is a cutting-edge doctor with all kinds of experience in helping people with – you know.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, how are you? How’s Jason and Ryan?”

“We are good. Listen, I’ve got to run. I’m taking Ryan to soccer practice. We were thinking about having a cookout for Father’s Day a week from Sunday.”

Blah, blah, blah. The perfect sister with her perfect family going to a wet, green soccer practice. How boring. How… typical. Did Amber ever have an original thought in her head, or was she a genetically superior robot who was programmed to do the right thing in every circumstance? Was she human? If so, did she ever struggle with her inherently depraved nature that, like everyone else’s, was absolutely self-centered, or was hers so deranged around being good that she simply did the right thing so that everyone around her would be happy and like her? Did she ever sin? She had never been drunk. Was not once depressed. She even waited to have sex until she married Jason, her perfect husband. Where was her struggle? Where was her shame? Did her compass ever point south?

She pulled the afghan off of her lap, folded it sloppily, and laid it on the chair in the corner. She walked to the couch and sat down as she searched for the remote control. Pushing the on button, she began partaking in her favorite drug. The nonresistant, culturally acceptable, legal form of escapism drew her attention to itself. The images on the screen melted any proactive thoughts she had like butter in a warm pan. She simply stared and suddenly did not feel alone. The man on the screen was talking to her. She listened for five minutes and decided what she was watching was boring. She turned the channel.

“Oh, please love me like before

Stay, stay, stay,

Oh, don’t show me the door

Let me stay, stay, stay”

A cute Latino pinup boy dressed in a white suit and turquoise collarless shirt was crooning lament to his lover. He wanted to stay with her, but she wanted to leave him. Everybody leaves. Everyone left her, and she understood why. Who would share the thoughts in her head on a consistent basis? It was just too much. The thoughts were too much for her, so how could she expect a partner to listen to them as well? She would always be alone.

She turned the channel because the song was making her think. The music was sad, a minor key of desperation in a vast open land of loneliness. The words were pleading, and she knew that feeling all too well. “I don’t know why I did it. Please don’t leave me. I love you,” or, “I’m sorry, Mom. I don’t know why I stole the candy bar from the store. I’m so sorry. I’ll be good. I’ll never do it again. Please don’t ground me. Please don’t punish me.”

The afternoon ticked by in front of the television. Eventually she found a funny movie. She caught it at the beginning, and it took her away, away from herself. She transcended her thoughts as the movie did what all great art does – it relieved Justine’s suffering. The healing power of a story catapulted her out of herself and into the conflict of another. She was comforted as she watched the protagonist face obstacles much larger than she ever would. With each conflict, the main character eventually rose above their circumstances and succeeded in getting what they wanted in the end. What did she want? If she was a character in a story, what would she want? She didn’t know, and at this point of her story, anyone telling it would not know either. Was she ok with not knowing what she wanted? Is it an ambivalence we can all sit in for now?

The alarm on her phone went off. It was time for medications. She stood up and let the blanket on her lap fall to the floor. She was sore from sitting for so long. She stretched, trying to touch the ceiling with the outstretched hands which rested at the end of her arms. She didn’t come close, but she felt better. Hey, maybe life is like that. Maybe you just have to try, and if you don’t succeed like the character in a movie, you will still feel good because you tried.

She trudged, almost uphill, one slow step in front of the other as she made her way to the kitchen. Abilify, Prozac, Lamictal, Alprazolam and Gabapentin were all waiting for her. She fumbled the first orange bottle when she picked it up. It fell, closed, to the floor with a crack. She picked it up, took a small yellow pill out of it and placed it on the counter. Yellow, orange, white, pink, green and yellow again. Who invented the colors of these pills? There were probably hundreds of board meetings about what color the medication should be. You should be able to order your meds in the color you want. “I’ll have a green Abilify, and let’s try pink Xanax today, ok, Gladys?” Her pharmacist was usually Gladys. What a horrible name. She was a nice lady though. On top of her shit.

She picked up the fistful of pills and said what she always did before she swallowed them. “Well, here goes nothing.” The chemicals entered her body and began doing whatever it was they did to her personality, her soul, her natural imprint. Each one changed who she was in a different way. Her snowflake was becoming the same as many others she saw standing in line at the pharmacy. The unresponsive look in the eyes was the first giveaway. No reaction. They just stood and waited as long as they had to, without opinion and with patience. Her chemistry was like theirs now. The doctors and the pharmacists were merely pawns to the pharmaceutical companies who aimed to not only control the population but also give the gift of nothingness to a generation of patients who willingly gave up who they intrinsically were in the name of “getting better.” She thought the business model was brilliant. Convince doctors and patients that the patient is sick and needs a product that may or may not work. A product that they can’t really specifically explain but which has helped some people. They just don’t quite know how it helps. The companies created their customers from dust, and most of them now look dusty. Not quite alive but maybe feeling better. The customer really isn’t sure they are better, but when that phone alarm goes off, they willingly consume the product. All because a doctor told them to. Brilliant!

As her chemicals went to work, Justine returned to the couch. She felt a stab of hunger grumbling in her belly somewhere. She felt too lethargic to cook. She glanced at her picture window and noticed it had no drops on it. The rain had stopped. Now everything was green and peaceful. Alive, but she was dead – the walking, or rather the sitting, dead. She felt her anti-anxiety medication calm her. It reminded her of the hospital just three weeks ago. They fed her all kinds of calming chemicals to get her to sit down and stop spouting off the made-up algebra she was doing in her head that day. She was also speaking most of the equations out of her mouth for the whole world to hear. But that was after the salami store. She was a genius that day. She laughed thinking about it.

At 5:05 her doorbell rang. Her first reaction was “shit!” She considered not answering it, but she found the will to get up after the second ring. One stubborn step after another placed her at the doorknob. She turned it and was startled, confused and curious all at once.


She spent one month in the hospital suffering from a manic episode. One month! She had very good insurance. Health is very important to the American society. It is so important, in fact, that it is just below money, food and oxygen on the list of societal priorities. They got their money, but did she get her health? Did they have the power to give it to her? Band-Aids. They only have the ability to put Band-Aids on her. She would never be completely well.

The day she went to the hospital was a day like any other. She did notice she was performing her morning rituals in record-breaking time. She was actually twenty minutes ahead of the clock when she decided to stop and pray for some reason. She prayed twenty-five Hail Marys. This was something she never did, but it felt as right as the water that cleansed her earlier in the shower.

On her drive to work, she began playing a game with herself. She would pick a number and multiply it by itself until she couldn’t do so anymore. Then the cars around her seemed to be driving much too slow. She turned the radio on and turned it up to eleven. Speed, reaction, twists and turns – her driving was splendid, aware and efficient. Then her thoughts clipped. Portions of this one and then of that. She was sexy; she was full of life. She was a little kid on Christmas morning jumping up and down, on fire from electricity of pure excitement. Dreams would come true. She was smarter than Amber, and so she called her to tell her.

Justine opened with, “You know that I got better grades in math than you did, right?”

Amber said, “Hi, honey, how are you?”

“I’m splufendus! Do you know why?” Justine didn’t pause. “Because I just realized how much smarter I am than you. That’s right, Amber. Smarter. And Billy Dobson told me he would rather feel me up then you because my boobs are nicer.”

“Are you ok, Justine? You sound a bit–”

“You have a great family, but your life sucks, you know. I have options, and nothing but good things are coming my way.”

“Where are you?”

Justine said, “I’m almost at work. Where are you? Oh, let me guess, getting ready to do nothing today because you don’t have to work? Going to go buy lunch meat later?”

“I’m suggesting that you go home and call in sick. I can be at your house in fifteen minutes. Do you remember last time? Honey, please go home.”

“So we can buy lunch meat together? Actually, I could go for some salami. Do you like pepperoni or salami better?”

Amber gave an ultimatum. “If you don’t go home, I’m coming to your office.”

“Pepperoni or salami!?!”

Amber answered tersely, “Salami.”

“Me too. What’s the difference? Hey, do you know what 127×127 is? That’s where I got stuck. Don’t use a calculator. Oh, wait. 16,129. I got it. I got to go.”

Justine lasted twenty minutes at work that morning. Amber, true to her word, showed up and met with Justine’s boss, who called security and then an ambulance. Embarrassing as it was, it needed to be done. Justine was in the throes of pleasure, pain, speed, lightning thoughts and thunderous communication. She was threatening a vendor on the phone when everyone arrived at her desk. The boss wisely evacuated everyone within earshot of Justine’s desk. Surprisingly, when Amber walked up to her and asked her to come and buy lunch meat with her, Justine gathered her belongings and agreed to go. “I really need some salami.”

He was at least six foot seven and weighed close to three hundred muscular pounds as he stood in front of Justine’s door. He was African, not African-American. She could tell when he spoke. All he said was “I cannot stay.” He was wearing an ugly brown corduroy suit with a matching fedora. He had a gold bone nose ring in his nose. He held a small purple velvet box and said, “I am only to give this to you if you promise to do what is instructed inside.” He stopped talking and stared at her, almost willing a yes out of her.

“Wait a second. What is this? I’m not going to agree to something when I don’t know what it is. Who are you?”

“I promise you, and I am a man of my word, that what is written in here is legal, not harmful in any way and will not take you long to obey. Will you obey?”

“Let’s open it.” She wanted to reach for it.

He held it further away from her. “It can only be opened tomorrow morning at seven. Are you willing?”

“Who are you, and why are you here?”

“There is a number to call inside after you have performed what is required.” He set the box at the bottom of Justine’s door. “Remember, you must not open this box until seven tomorrow morning. If you do, please do not call the number tomorrow morning. Remember, you are only fooling yourself if you lie.” He stared at her again, tipped his hat and walked away.

“Wait a minute. Who are you? Whom do you represent? What is your name?”

He stopped with this back to her and said, “Jeptha,” and then he walked away.

“Jeptha, come back! Jeptha!” But he was gone, vanished down the street. He probably had other boxes to deliver.

She picked the box up and closed the front door. It felt warm in her hands. It was made of cardboard and was covered in purple velvet. It was so soft, and yet the cardboard was very sturdy. It had a latch on the front of it. Should she open it? Who was this Jeptha to come to her house on a gray Sunday to interrupt her day of rest?

She gingerly carried the box to her coffee table and set it down. Could she wait until tomorrow at seven? She turned the television off so she could concentrate on what to do. Justine never kept the rules. As a small child, she would do whatever her mother told her not to. This trait could be described as rebellious until she was aged sixteen, and then sad all of the years after that. Jobs were lost, relationships extinguished, dreams changed. She felt entitled and always believed that if someone was challenging her, they most definitely were in the wrong.

She picked the purple box up again, and this time she smelled it. It smelled like crushed velvet. She ran her finger over the top of it. She wanted to know everything about the box if she couldn’t know its contents. She set it down again and played scenarios in her head. This guy was a pervert, and there was something sexual written down on a piece of paper inside. He would arrive ten minutes after she performed the act and would try to take things further with her.

Or her mother was upset that Justine hadn’t been calling her enough, and so she hired this guy to deliver a message that demanded that she call her mother. This was some kind of joke her mother was playing on her. But that didn’t sound like something her mother would do, especially if she perceived that Justine was probably going through a rough time after just being in the hospital. It was not really the time to start playing tricks on people.

Maybe someone from work needed something done and this was an original way to ask. It was a creative way to ask for help, especially since most of her coworkers knew how she hated to help others. That had to be it. This was probably Jenny’s cute way to get her to call an East Coast vendor at 7:00 a.m. She smiled, actually quite proud that she figured out the mystery so quickly. She thought about opening up the box just to get the phone number so she could call it now and brag that she figured it out. She looked once again at the box and spoke to it. “You thought you had me fooled, didn’t you? I am very smart, but I will admit this was a very intriguing game. Someone of lesser intelligence would’ve been consumed by you all night, but not me. I have you all figured out, purple box. Oh, Jenny, you are so cute.”

She picked the box up and placed it on the nightstand in her bedroom where it would wait the next fourteen hours, and then she went into the kitchen and decided she now had the energy to cook herself some dinner. And so she did.


Her alarm rang at 6:30 a.m., and she hit the snooze button for an extra ten minutes of sleep. Ten minutes later, she sat up in bed feeling very refreshed. She had slept well for the first time since she came home from the hospital. She looked over at the purple box and smiled at it as if it was a small child trying to outsmart her. Sun streamed through her bedroom window. The rain of the last few days was finally over. Getting out of bed, she went into the kitchen to brew her coffee and take her medications. She took the purple box with her and set it on the kitchen table.

A few minutes later, as the coffee maker burped and with her stomach full of pills, she returned to the kitchen table. She decided to kill the next few minutes on social media, and before she realized it, it was 6:58 a.m. She got up and poured herself a cup of coffee, mixing it correctly as if she were a chemist, and then she returned to the table.

At 7:00 a.m., she unlatched the box and saw a folded-up piece of paper lying on the purple velvet inside. She reached in and unfolded the piece of paper, smiling at Jenny’s creativity. On the piece of paper was printed one large word with a phone number underneath. The printed word read “SMILE.” Disappointment crossed her face like storm clouds on the horizon. “What the heck? Smile? What does that mean? That’s it? Smile?”

She reached for her phone to call the number and get to the bottom of the stupid trick someone was playing on her. She began dialing the number when Jeptha’s words played in her head. “Call the number after you have performed what is required.” Dammit. She ended her dialing. She had to smile, and yet in her disappointment, she seemed unable to let a genuine smile cross her face. She set the phone down and closed her eyes. After centering herself like Dr. Richrath taught her, she was able to think of something to make her smile. It was her own frustration. It was pretty funny how worked up the little purple box had gotten her. She smiled a big, wide smile, and then at 7:03 a.m., she dialed the number. She heard it connect.

A male voice answered. “Hello?”

“I performed the task in the purple box. Is this Jeptha?”

“Did you open the box before seven this morning?” the man who did not sound like Jeptha asked. “Be honest. It’s ok.”

“I waited until seven.” She gulped her coffee.

“Was it hard to do?”

“I was curious for about half an hour after I received it, but then I thought I knew who sent it and what it was, so I placed it on my nightstand and didn’t think about it the rest of the night.”

“So, thinking you had it figured out quenched your curiosity?”

“Yes. Is this Jeptha?”

“No.”

“Then, who is this?”

“You don’t know me. Did you smile like the paper asked you to?”

“Yes, but it took a few minutes because I was angry after I realized my guess was wrong. Plus, reading the word ‘SMILE’ kind of pissed me off. Anti-climactic.”

“Thank you. Jeptha will be getting in touch with you later today.”

“What? Listen, I don’t want any more participation in the strange game you are playing.”

Click.

The workday was spent looking over her shoulder for a large dark man in an ugly suit. Whenever she received a call on her cell, she answered it. By lunchtime there still was no sign of Jeptha. She decided to take her lunch with her outside so she could sit by the small pond amidst the towering trees and enjoy the sunshine. She had only eaten outside a few times and wondered why. She really enjoyed the quiet, recalibrating peace that nature afforded her. Why didn’t she do this more often? What stopped her?

She found a bench and placed her brown bag on it. The bench was parked a mere ten yards from the water. She was grateful that her company had created this outdoor haven for its workers when this new building was designed. The sun was dry, and only an occasional mild breeze cooled her skin. She sat on the bench and retrieved the food from the bag. As she began to nibble on a sandwich, she noticed a few ripples on top of the water as another breeze whispered by. Birds chirped a slow cadence of ambience and were drowned out by a truck pulling into the loading dock two hundred yards behind her. It coughed black smoke into the air two times, and Justine could smell it. “Thank you,” she sarcastically said out loud.

Her thoughts, which had been silent since she chose to eat outside, now began to ruminate on the purple box. What did it mean? Who sent it to her? Who was Jeptha, and why did he have to be so creepy? What would he bring her today? She focused on the water again and decided she would stop dwelling on the box and enjoy her lunch instead.

Before the truck pulled away, Justine’s sandwich was a near memory. She had also eaten all of her potato chips and was about to bite into her apple when her cell phone rang. She hurriedly reached into her purse and answered it.

“This is Jeptha,” the voice with an accent said after her greeting. “I have placed an item on your doorstep. I am asking you to deliver it for me by tonight at seven. The destination is not far from your house. The address is on the item. Are you able to do this?”

“Not until I get some answers.”

“The answers you are seeking will come in due time. Are you able to do this without them? Time is of the essence.”

“Ok, I will deliver your package even though I don’t understand why you didn’t do it yourself if you took the trouble to come to my house.” She crushed her apple.

“There is a phone number in an envelope on the item. Please call it after the item has been delivered.”

“Is it the same number as before, because I still have it saved in my–”

“Goodbye.” The call ended.

“You’re welcome!” She pulled her mouth away from the phone and raised her voice into it out of frustration. What was she involved with here? Was she delivering drugs? She should have made it clear that she wanted nothing to do with any sort of illegal activities. Could she be held liable because she didn’t express that? What if…. The water caught her vision again. The truck was gone, and the birds were once again audible. The heat from the sun was beginning to moisten her back and cause her to stick to the back of the bench. She finished her apple and placed the core into the brown bag. Looking at her watch, she decided to get back to her desk. She stood up and began walking to the building. On her way, she stopped to place the brown paper bag into a garbage can. As she opened the large glass-and-metal door to reenter the building, the alarm on her phone went off. It signified that it was time to take her medicine. All she could do now was wait.

She raced home within the speed limit and without any other thought in her head aside from the item she was to deliver. She squinted through her sunglasses to make out what was on her porch as she pulled into the driveway. Turning off the engine, she rushed to her door and verified what she saw from the driveway. A medium-sized brown cardboard box sat alone and in the open. After she unlocked the door and set her purse on a nearby chair, she stepped back outside and lifted it. It was only approximately five pounds. She glanced left and right down the block to make sure nobody saw her, and then she brought it inside the house and laid it on her coffee table. She sat on the couch and lowered her head so she was parallel to the box. If she had a magnifying glass, she would have used it. A sigh escaped from her mouth before she picked it up and slightly shook it. The inside revealed nothing more than air. She set it back down and noticed the envelope taped on the top. She pulled the envelope off and opened it. True to Jeptha’s word, the piece of paper contained only an address and a phone number. She folded the paper up and stood to place it in her purse on the chair. With anticipation overtaking her, she decided to deliver the package immediately.


“Next. Number twenty-two,” the man behind the deli counter said.

“I’m number twenty-two,” Justine announced.

“What can I get for you, ma’am?”

“Well, actually, I am here to deliver this package.” She raised the box. “Can I just leave it with you?”

The man’s expression changed to curiosity and concern. “You can leave it with me. I am the owner.”

“Are you expecting me to deliver something?”

The man looked at the two other customers in the store and then leaned close to the counter and whispered, “You’re Justine, right?”

“I am.”

“Ok, I’ll just take the box.” He raised the hairy, beefy arms that protruded from his white butcher’s smock. “Thank you.”

“May I ask what is inside?”

He ignored her question and asked his own. “Can I get you anything else?”

Justine leaned toward the counter and whispered, “Please tell me anything you can. I’d like to know what I am delivering.”

“Does every UPS driver know the contents of the package he delivers?” The man was getting irritated and clearly wanted her to leave.

“I am not–” She cleared her throat and began whispering again. “I am not a UPS driver. Now look, I provided the service for you, and I’d like to know what I am involved in here.”

“Honestly, ma’am, I don’t know what’s inside the box. If I did, I would tell you.”

“So, let’s open it.”

The lady behind Justine in line coughed twice to express her impatience. The man noticed and said, “I am not going to open it. I was only told to expect a package from Justine sometime before seven. I thought you knew what it was. Now, can I get you anything else? I’m getting backed up here.”

“One last question. You said you were told not to open it. Who told you that?”

“Look, I don’t know who you are or what is going on.” He waved her to the side of the store while raising his index finger to the woman behind her, letting her know he would just be one minute. He continued in a whisper. “You probably know more than I do. All I know is that this guy who calls himself Jeptha is suddenly in my life. He gives me tasks to do. I don’t know why I do it. Anyway, this is his box, and I am supposed to hold it for him. That, lady”⎯he paused⎯”is all I honestly know.” He waved her back in line. “Now, can I get you anything else?”

Justine knew he was telling the truth. He was not involved in any way. He was just a pawn like she was. She looked at the meat spread out before her behind the glass and then at him. “I’ll take a pound of salami.” And the lady behind her sighed out loud.

Seven that evening came fast. Justine reached for her phone to make the call, but at exactly seven, it rang. It was Dr. Richrath, and so she decided to take the call and cut her short.

“Good evening, Justine. I don’t normally do this, but I wanted to remind you of our appointment Thursday, and I wanted to check to see how you were doing.” The doctor was concerned.

“Hi, Dr. Richrath. I am doing well, thank you. I’m taking my meds, and I’ll see you Thursday.” Justine was quick and brief.

“Are you sure? You seem agitated.”

“Oh, no, I’m fine. I just need to call someone at seven, and I’m going to be late.”

“I understand. I’ll let you go, then, but remember to meditate quickly with a cleansing breath whenever you are agitated. I’ll let you go, and I’ll see you Thursday.”

“Good night, Doctor, and thank you for the reminder.” Justine ended the call and then dialed the number she was supposed to. It rang three times.

“Yes.” A different man answered.

“This is Justine. I delivered the item to the address on the box.” She was speaking quickly.

“Did you deliver it before seven?”

“Yes. I dropped it off around six.”

“Thank you. It will be some time before you hear from or see Jeptha again, but you will.”

“I’ve done this delivery for you, so will you please answer a couple of questions for me?”

“Good night, Justine.”

And that was that.

The following two days passed as boring, routine days are wont to do. Jeptha was on Justine’s mind. She even had a nightmare that she woke up and he was standing at the foot of her bed. Although she felt centered and able to concentrate clearly on all her work duties, she was waiting – no, hoping – for Jeptha to reappear. She answered every phone call, including this one on Wednesday night:

Justine answered the phone and said, “Hello, sis, what’s up?”

“Nothing. I was just calling about the cookout a week from Sunday. Can you bring some salads and a couple of liters of soda?”

“I can. So, how are you doing? Busy, I bet.”

Amber responded, “We are trying to get the boat ready at the lake house, and it is a major hassle. That thing is a money pit.”

“I love that boat. When are we going to the lake house? I miss Ryan. Oh, and Jason too, just don’t tell him.” Justine laughed.

“Give me a couple of weeks, and then we can spend a weekend up there. So, how are you doing? You sound really good.”

“I’m doing really well. Maybe the meds are working.”

Amber sighed. “Remember what Dr. Richrath said about using the tools she was describing to you. Cleansing breaths, not focusing on negative thoughts, coping with daily challenges and finding something that refreshes you. Are you doing those things along with the medication? Are you doing your best to keep your attention off of yourself and onto others? Do you have goals?”

“I’m doing those things, although it’s kind of being forced on me.”

“Forced? How so? Oh, do you mean work?”

“I’ll tell you more at the cookout. Listen, I’m going to read for a bit before bed, ok? I’ll talk to you at the end of the week.”

“Yes, you’ll talk to me at the end of the week if I call you. You have my number saved in your phone, right?”

Justine knew her sister had a point. “I’m sorry. You’re right. How about if I call you at the end of the week?”

“That would be nice.”


It was Thursday, and the wheels were coming off. Justine forgot to take her meds Wednesday night (damn alarm), and when she woke up Thursday morning, she felt… She felt everything. A lot of everything. Her morning routine was done, and even though she felt like praying a long time, she didn’t. Where was Jeptha? It had been three days. Why hadn’t he appeared? Where was he? She took her medications since her alarm finally decided to go off. She drank more coffee. That last cup was her third. And then, eventually, it was time for work.

Work, work, work. Work drained her. She could not focus. The rain was back. It splattered hopelessness all over the large windows next to her desk. It was hopeless today. She couldn’t concentrate. Coffee. She wanted more coffee.

Lunch came, and she stayed inside to gossip with Jenny and Elise. There were two affairs happening in the office. She knew about it, and now she wanted the details. Talk, talk, talk. She didn’t eat her two salami sandwiches. Lunch was over, and she took her medicine. All the different colors looked so inviting. Why couldn’t they have a flavor? Orange should taste like an orange. Blue could be blueberry. Yellow should be a banana, and green is lime. White could be white grape. Why don’t people think of these things? People are paid good money, and they never earn it. She yawned. She needed more coffee because she couldn’t concentrate. She was a blur. The day was going by so slow. She didn’t want to work. Wait, it was the end of the week. She should call Amber like she promised she would. She also set an alarm to remind her to see Dr. Richrath that night.

Her phone rang at 1:30 p.m. “Hello.”

“This is Jeptha.”

“Finally! Where have you been? What mission do you have for me today, sir? Another special deli run?”

“There is a dog in your backyard right now. When you go home, see if you like the dog. If you do and you want to keep it, call me back at this number by seven tonight. If you do not want the dog, I will provide you with an address to take him to.”

“Wait! Listen! I don’t want you fucking around by my house when I am not there.” She raised her voice loud enough that her coworkers noticed. “I don’t want your fucking dog, Jeptha, and I’m not delivering it anywhere for you.”

“You sound agitated.”

“Stay away from my backyard. The grass needs to be cut, and now there will be dog shit all over the place.”

“Why haven’t you cut your lawn?”

“Listen, I’ll do weird tasks for you, but you must stay out of my personal life. Who are you anyway?” She started screaming. “What are you, jetlagged?”

“I need to go now. Play with the dog. If you like it, please consider it as a gift from me for what you have done for me. Call me by seven.”

“No, you listen!” She stood up and began yelling at her phone, attracting all the attention of those who sat around her. “I’m done with you. You violated my privacy. My lawn needs to be cut, so I don’t want anyone at my house.”

“Justine?” It was her boss, Sandy. “Justine, can I see you for a moment?”

As Justine walked out of the building and toward her car, she made a phone call. “So, I’m going home for the afternoon. Do you want to hang out together? We never see each other.”

Amber sounded concerned. “What do you mean you are off? Are you ok? What’s wrong, Justine?”

“Yes, Sandy asked me to”⎯ she yawned⎯”take the rest of the day off. I think it’s a medication thing. I forgot”⎯she yawned again⎯”to take them last night.”

“But you’ve been taking them today, right?”

“Yes, Doctor Amber. I simply forgot because my alarm didn’t go off. I simply… I don’t know. I think I’m going home to take a nap. I have Dr. Richrath tonight at seven.”

She pulled into her driveway and walked through the front door. She entirely forgot about the dog, and as she lay on her bed, she set her alarm for an hour nap. Just one hour. A barking dog was the last thing she heard.

One hour later, she opened her eyes and rubbed them. She groggily sat up and attempted to remember what time of day it was. A few minutes later, she became recalibrated to her surroundings and remembered what happened at work. A new memory flashed, and it was about the dog. She jumped up and moved briskly to the back of the house and looked into the backyard. No dog. She slid her patio door open, and there was still no dog. She walked into the yard and checked the gate to make sure it hadn’t escaped. The gate was closed, so she walked back into the house and found her phone in her purse. She searched for the number she last spoke to Jeptha on and called it. It rang and rang. Then it just clicked to a dial tone. No voicemail and no answer. She walked into the kitchen and made herself a salami sandwich and began centering herself for her appointment with Dr. Richrath.

She sat in the waiting room, centered and mostly back to her medicated self. A painting of a barn on the wall looked peaceful. She checked her watch. It was 7:05 p.m. The great doctor was late. A moment later, her door clicked and swing open. The thin, modestly dressed doctor appeared. “Justine.” She closed her door behind her, leaving the both of them in the waiting room. “Hold on one second.” She motioned for Justine to sit, and she sat in the chair next to her. “You know that my methods are experiential and experimental, right?”

“I remember something about that from the hospital. My sister was telling me about this too.” Justine wrinkled up her nose in confusion.

“It is very important that you understand I am loyal to you. I, and everyone else in your life, can be trusted. Both those you know and those you don’t.”

“I’m confused. What do you mean?” Justine shook her head as if to dispel a fog.

“Do you believe that your family and I want the best for you?”

“Yes, I do. I’m doing a lot better. Today was just–”

“This is not about that. Let’s go inside.” The doctor stood up and let Justine behind the closed door and into her office.

It was like a surprise party from hell. “What the hell?” The office was scattered with chairs, and seated in them were her sister and Jason, her mother and father, and then she shrieked as she recognized both Jeptha and the deli man.


“Are you ok?” the doctor asked, and she used her hand to invite Justine to sit in an open chair. She did, and the doctor sat next to her. “For our purposes here tonight, I will be the only one talking to you during our appointment. If you have a question for someone, you can ask it, but I will let them know if they should answer you or not. Is that clear?”

“What’s not clear is what the heck is going on here!” She looked at her sister with a shrug of her shoulders and a “what gives” look on her face.

“Let me explain. When you left the hospital and we set up this appointment, I mentioned that your sister had sought out my experiential methods. She basically hired me to work with you. The day you left, I gave you some paperwork to read as homework. It detailed my medicinal protocol and my experiential and experimental methods. Do you remember?”

“I do. I didn’t read it, but I received it.”

“Well, I’m here to report my findings based on our experiment.” The doctor slipped her glasses onto her face and reached for a manila envelope on her desk. “We−” She paused and searched for the correct page. “We decided that, based on your bipolar diagnosis along with secondary anxiety, we needed an aggressive approach. Often people with severe mental illness need stability, routine, goals, peaceful practices and, obviously, medication. But please note that medication alone will often not lead to a more happy and productive life. Although it is a very important ingredient, as we saw today, it is only an ingredient. I have been conducting studies in the area of bipolar management for over twenty-five years, and I believe you experienced the benefits of that work.”

“How so?”

“I introduced Jeptha into your life as an authority figure to command you to do something and set timeliness goals. His arrival in your life helped to focus your thoughts, and you also had a jolt of excitement and anticipation, which is often lacking in the life of a bipolar patient. Did you feel alive?”

“I did.”

“Was it better than watching television?”

“It was. But−” She paused. “Can I ask a question?”

“Sure.”

“Who is the deli man?”

The doctor laughed. “Oh, let me introduce Michael, who played the role of Jeptha–”

Justine interrupted. “Very well, I might add.” They all laughed.

“The deli man is Jack. He really does work at the deli. He’s a successful patient of mine, and he sometimes helps us out when we need someone.”

“Nice to meet you, Jack. Great salami, by the way.” They all laughed again. “So, what is my family doing here?”

“Your sister has been checking in on you. In fact, she was the one who alerted us about the medicine hiccup today. Your mother… well, I’m going to let her speak.”

Justine’s mother’s hands were tightly clenched around a thoroughly used handkerchief. “Now?” she questioned the doctor.

“Yes, go ahead.”

“I’m not fond of any hocus-pocus that is going to confuse you, dear. That is why I haven’t called you much.” She started crying. “I’m so sorry. I should’ve been there for you more, but this stuff just confuses me, and I didn’t want−” She was crying harder now. “I didn’t want to mess up what the doctor was doing. I just want what’s best for you. You’re my little girl.” Her husband held her hand tightly and a tear formed in his eye.

“We love you, honey,” her father added.

Justine was tearing up herself. “Ok, doc, enough of this emotional intimacy. What did we learn?”

“Justine, recovery from this disease is like a jigsaw puzzle. Each piece has to fit. The only problem is that the size of the pieces keep changing and distorting the picture. For example, today the medicine piece changed sizes and we had to deal with that. Each day there will be challenges, but you are very capable of having good days, and recognizing and adjusting on your bad ones.

So, here’s what we know about Justine from our little experiment. You need routine. It is crucial for you to go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day. You need goals. If you are not striving for something – and you’re a good striver – you fall back into passiveness. Doing things like overeating and television binge-watching, etc. I recommend joining a gym and taking up at least one hobby. You need to meditate daily, and from each session, you will learn how to carry the peace from your session into your day. Finally, you need to care for something. That is why we introduced the dog today.”

“I was going to ask about the dog.” Justine laughed.

“I recommend you get one. You need to care for plants or a dog, and you need to take care of your chores.”

“Like cutting your grass,” Michael quipped, and they all laughed.

“I know, I know,” said Justine, embarrassed.

“I want to continue working with you, and I can promise you there will be no more surprises. We know what we need to know. We just have to act on what we know. Do you have any questions?”

“Yes, can I see the dog”? Justine asked in a little girl voice. “They are so cute.”

“We can bring the dog over,” the doctor confirmed.

“So, I guess I know what I have to do. I just have to do it.” Justine reached for a tissue.

“And we are just starting, so don’t be so hard on yourself. Baby steps with everything except medication. You have to take your medication.”

“I just want to thank everyone for caring so much about me. I know I’m not the most caring person in the world, but I’m going to work on it. I’ll even call you sometimes, Amber! I did today!” Everyone smiled together. “I just have one thing to add. Obviously, Michael, you should never, ever, ever come to my house unannounced. I’m sorry that I bit your head off today.”

“No worries,” said Michael. “That wasn’t you. That was a lack of medication.”

“The problem I’ll have is recognizing what is the real me and what is the medication.”

Lunchtime. A brown bag with two salami sandwiches, a bag of chips, an apple… oh, and a bone. Is there a better way to spend a Saturday afternoon than on a blanket at the park with salami and your dog? Justine thinks not.

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