Stories

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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Stories

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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The Crystal Dragon, Part 10: Internet Cafe, by Edward King

#adventure #crystal dragon

Hammer stood on the bus, holding the handle, swaying only slightly side to side at the bus’s violent stops and starts as it wove among disorderly lanes of traffic into the city.
He watched the tired faces of the people on the bus. They were a mix of laborers and office workers. A man wearing a rumpled shirt got up to let an old lady sit down. She smiled and thanked him.
The bus passed under red archways on the way into the city. The words passed by too fast of Hammer to understand. Billboards promoted engineering projects and the “Chinese dream” over photoshopped images of giant malls and industrial parks.
A sign read “Xi’an: 10 km.” Hammer closed his eyes and tried to get some sleep on his feet.
%%
The internet cafe was up four flights of dirty, graffiti-soaked stairs. Hammer was supposed to meet Laser here two minutes ago.
The girl at the front desk gave Hammer a sour look.
“Do you have an ID card?” she said.
“No,” Hammer said. “Do I look like I’m Chinese?”
“No ID card, no the computer,” said the girl.
Hammer was getting ready to put up a fight when Laser appeared from the stairs. “Forget about it,” he said. The front desk girl rolled her eyes, lit a cigarette, and returned to her screen.
Rows of teenagers sat along the internet cafe’s tables, wearing headsets. Rapt with concentration, taking breaks only when absolutely necessary. Cans of soda and styrofoam noodle cups sat half-eaten by their keyboards.
They sat down at a table with two computers in a quiet corner.
“Would you like some tea?” Laser asked.
He got a pot from the front, took the teapot poured the steaming neon-green stuff into plastic cups for Hammer and himself.
“I normally drink Pepsi but I know you guys like to experience the real China.”
“You guys?”
“Americans. Laowai.” He looked from side to side as he said this, as if he was suddenly self-conscious to be seen with an American.
“So, you’re working for an American company up in the mountains,” said Laser. “You must work for Nexus, right?”
“That’s right,“ said Hammer.
“The largest internet provider in the world. And now you’re penetrating China.”
“Yep.”
“And it’s for free, as long as it comes with a Nexus home screen. Nexus apps, Nexus store, all lines of profit going back to Nexus.”
“Hey, man, it’s just a job,” said Hammer.
“I’m just giving you crap,” said Laser. “Your Chinese is not bad, by the way. How long have you lived here for?”
“Two years,” said Hammer.
They had been slipping between Chinese and English through the conversation. Laser’s English sounded cribbed from American movies, with a twangy accent laden with slang.
Around them, the blue light of the screens reflected on the faces of the youths. They were taking valuable hours away from their studies to immerse themselves completely in the game.
Their eyes lit up with wondrous colors from the screens. Adventure, competition, victory.
Hammer eyed Laser’s clothes. They were cheap knockoffs, the kind you bought in past-their-prime malls that packed hundreds of clothes stores into their grimy colorful alleyways.
“So you work for the cloud,” said Laser. “Me too.” He grimaced.
“How’s that?” said Hammer
“Rare earth metals,” he said. “Mining.”
Suddenly it became clear in Hammer’s head. The explosion, Laser’s shadiness. He searched for his phone in his pocket and began mentally composing a text to Kip:
He’s with the cloud mafia!
That was what Hammer and Kip had taken to calling the rare earth miners. The mafia controlled the industry, exploiting others’ labor to extract the minerals that went to create the chips in our phones and computers.
An alarm bell sounded in his head: they were dangerous. He eyed Laser more closely. He had slicked-back hair over shaved sides, and wore a thin tough look as he put a cigarette to his lips. He tried to project world-weariness, but Hammer guessed they were the same age.
Hammer looked past the young boy leading an aerial assault on a European village to the front of the cafe.
Wait. Over by the counter. Was that—
Her! Alex Long. The wooden steps that led to her apartment. The mix of emotions they brought back: lust, adventure, trepidation, love. He’d left them far behind.
The girl holding the notebook at the front of the cafe could have been her. But he thought he saw her everywhere. Every Chinese woman the right age…
Laser saw him looking and turned around. He jumped, spilling his tea on the table and Hammer’s lap.
“We have to go,” said Laser. “We were followed. They must have seen me talking to you outside the mine.”
When Hammer looked up, the girl was gone but a man wearing a dark suit watched them. One of his eyes was normal and one was a dull grey.
They left the back way, keeping their heads low. Laser thundered down the steps, with Hammer close behind.


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Jigsaw Puzzle, Part Two, by David Cannella

#Jigsaw puzzle #Mental health

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, okay, 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.


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Jigsaw Puzzle, Part One, by David Cannella

#Jigsaw puzzle #Mental health

“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 okay 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.


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Dirty Bird, by Meg Sefton

#fairy tale #folk tale #literary

Katinka was the most efficient housewife in the village. Before the sun had risen overhead, she had finished the laundering and had set the bread out to rise. Her kitchen and rooms sparkled, and the hearth cracked with a bright well fed fire. It was her habit to air her home in the spring as she worked. One day, in flew a brown striped bird with a pink beak and a white breast. The tiny lark perched upon the back of a dining chair.

He then said: “You will have to do something about that husband of yours, Stefan. Surely he is cheating on you with the great and beautiful Georgetta, and everyone knows it. They talk of her beauty and her youth and how tasty she must be and how your husband is enjoying the fruits of two trees.”

“He is not, you naughty bird!” said Katinka, grabbing a broom and chasing the bird around her little wooden house.

But the bird escaped her broom; he perched himself outside on the fence, landing long enough to chirp about the various sexual feats of Katinka’s beloved.

When she finally managed to chase him into the woods, she sat on her chair beside the hearth and cried. She cried so much she made a salty soup with her tears, which she then put in the garden for the deer.

That night, in their marital bed, Katinka asked her husband: “Have I ever given you cause to be unfaithful?”

“No, of course not, my love,” Stefan assured her. “There is none more beautiful in all of the world to me. You are the only one of my heart, now and forever. You should not trouble yourself with such things.”

The next day, Katinka was hanging out fresh laundry. Out of the corner of her eye she spotted a brown striped bird bounding from branch to branch. Finally, it landed in her basket.

“I hope those wet clothes soak you so that you are damp and miserable,” said Katinka.

The bird only cocked its head to one side as he looked at her.

“Do you not remember that you were the bearer of evil news regarding my husband?” she said. “It was a falsehood. Were I not a kind woman, I would crush you and bake you into a pie.”

“At this very minute,” said the bird, “the king has entered the palace, the rowing has commenced across the moat, the snake is crawling its way to its hiding home.”

“That’s it!” Katinka cried. She threw a blanket over the basket, trying to catch the nasty animal, but it spirited away to the forest.

This encounter left her breathless and visions of what the animal was alluding to drummed through her head. How could it be possible? She believed her husband in everything he said. She was a good wife to him and had never even burned a piece of toast. And she was still one of the most beautiful women of the village, no small thing for a woman of her age, only a year younger than Stefan himself.

She made him ciorba that night for dinner, his favorite. She took extra care with the ingredients, adding the kefir that brings the tartness to the dish and whets the appetite. She wore a frock that complimented her figure and brought out the rosiness of her complexion. She brushed her hair a hundred times and wore her best combs. When she served Stefan the ciorba, she took care to bend so that he would see the beauty of her bosom and catch the sweet scent of her perfume.

“You are beautiful tonight, my queen, and you have prepared my favorite meal for me. Whatever is the occasion?”

Katinka only smiled and sliced a generous piece of lipie for his plate. She watched him consume his dinner and then he took her to bed. They were happy as a man and wife and she could not be more satisfied that all was as perfect as the day they wed. “Nasty old bird,” she thought. “Tomorrow he will be bird pie, bird stew, bird bread. What is the meaning of all of his chatter?”

The next day she had to go to market. She was out of milk and butter and flour and she wanted to buy a string for his little bird neck. She would catch him and feed him to her husband who would be none the wiser. That would teach him.

On passing through the market she chanced upon the lovely Georgetta who was buying a wheel of cheese. She had the chance to observe the lass who seemed sweet and innocent enough, not at all the picture of debauchery painted by the filthy bird. It was just birds like this, thought Katinka, who created so much misery in the world. How many tears have I cried over his lies? I tell you, one teaspoonful is too much.

She built the bird a snare and to lure him, a mound of seeds. The next day, she found him in her trap, proving he can only be the bird brain she thought him to be.

When she pointed this out, he said, “But I have done nothing against my nature, Katinka. I have sung what is in my heart to sing. I have eaten the seed that my stomach craves. Mark my words: By next moon, you will be out in the cold and a new bird will fluff her feathers in your nest.”

And with that, Katinka wrung his little neck and put him into a pie and baked him in the oven, so displeased was she with the little thing. “I just hope the taste is not as bad as his words,” she thought. But the taste was as succulent a pie as she had ever made and her husband praised her and stuffed his face. He was passionate in bed with her that night, more passionate than he had ever been and she was pleased as a wife and could not help but smile at the memory of it the next day.

She found she missed the creature, however, oddly enough, missed the way his accusatory remarks had stirred her. Her life felt flat, somehow, plain. When her husband came home she was as dull as a worn pan. “What has happened to you?” he said and for many days thereafter he inquired after her missing beauty, charms, youthful demeanor. “Where is my fair bride?” he said one day and it struck her that he saw only the surface for he did not ask: “How is the heart of my beloved?”

And so doubt struck her for the first time since Stefan had declared himself her faithful husband. The bird had sung one note which now reverberated louder in her mind since taking the little creature’s life for their dinner. Stefan seemed to sing several notes which clashed: One a denial of his trysts, another his claim of exclusive marital bliss, and yet a third his primary concern with her appearance, not her heart. What had happened to her dear, loving husband? This made it impossible for her to see him with a singular heart. That night she collected tears silently by the bowlful and put them in the garden and the bowls outnumbered the deer necessary to take away her pain.


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Under the Yaquina Bay Bridge, by Steve Carr

#memoir #realistic

Sitting on the edge of his bed, using his middle finger Jed slowly pushed apart one by one the photographs in the shoe box on his lap. Many were yellowed with age or had the remnants of Scotch tape on their corners from when they had been in photo albums. After going through them all and not finding the one he was looking for, he put the lid on the box and bent over and shoved it under the bed. Standing, he inhaled the aromas of the ocean being blown in through the open window. He put on his favorite cardigan he had laid on the end of his bed and left his room. Going down the stairs he heard Mrs. Jessup in the living room running the vacuum. As he opened the front door, the hinges creaked.
“You going somewhere, Jed?” Mrs. Jessup called out.
“Just for a walk,” Jed said, thinking she had the ears of a bat.
“Be back in time for lunch,” she said.
“I will,” he said, then went out the door and closed it behind him.
He stood on the porch for a moment and reached into a pocket in the sweater and took out a pack of chewing gum. He pulled out a piece and put the pack back in the pocket, then removed the paper wrapping and foil from the gum then put the stick of gum in his mouth. He put the pack back in the pocket then balled up the gum wrappers and tossed it into Mrs. Jessup’s flower garden along the bottom of the porch as he went down the porch steps.
Going down the walkway from the house to the sidewalk, Nero, the next door neighbor’s Golden Retriever came up behind him and shoved its cold nose in Jed’s hand. Jed patted the dog on the top of its head.
“No one looking after you again boy?” Jed said. “Come on, I’ll take you for a walk.”
Wagging its tail, the dog fell in place beside Jed’s left leg. At the end of the walkway, Jed paused momentarily, trying to decide which way he would go, then turned right on the sidewalk headed toward the 101, the main street and part of the coastal highway that ran through Newport.
A few houses down, Lark Maybury was standing at his hedges, a pair of clippers in his hands. “Where ya headed, Jed?” Lark said. Though retired from his position as a grocery store manager, Lark still wore a white shirt and tie no matter what he was doing. The tie he was wearing was being whipped about by the breeze.
“Nowhere in particular,” Jed said. “Just taking a walk.”
“Good morning for one if it weren’t for the wind,” Lark said.
“It’ll die down soon enough,” Jed said. As he continued on he said over his shoulder, “Don’t accidentally cut off that tie.”
“Got plenty more if I do,” Lark said.
Reaching the 101 Jed turned right and walked south. In front of him the green arch of the Yaquina Bay Bridge rose into the air from the bridge’s middle.
“You up for a walk across the bridge?” Jed said to Nero.
Nero affectionately shoved its body against Jed’s leg.
Within a hundred yards of the bridge’s walkway, Marris Hofstein pulled up beside him in his pickup truck and called out through the open passenger seat window, “You need a ride across the bridge, Jed?”
“No thanks,” Jed said. “Walking it for the fun of it.”
Marris pushed his straw hat back on his head. “You going to be at the Sea Net later?”
“Probably so,” Jed said. “As long as that busybody Mrs. Jessup doesn’t raise a fuss about it beforehand.”
Marris cackled. “Just don’t tell her,” he said.
“She knows what’s on my mind even before I do,” Jed said.
“If you make it you still owe me a beer,” Marris said before pulling back onto the road and heading across the bridge.
Jed stepped onto the bridge’s walkway and looked at the dark blue water below the bridge then out to where the Yaquina River flowed into the ocean, just a short distance away. The breeze had calmed but feeling a little chilled, Jed slid his hands into the sweater’s pockets, and hugged his arms to his sides and walked to the middle of the bridge, under the arch. At the railing as Nero stood on his hind legs and put his front paws on the railing, Jed watched the seagulls soaring above the gentle ocean waves.
He pulled the pack of gum from his pocket and removed a stick. After unwrapping it he rolled the wrapping in a ball and leaned against the railing. He put the stick of gum in his mouth and began to chew.
“Don’t tell anyone I’m throwing litter in the ocean,” he said to Nero.
He flicked the wad of wrapper out into the air and watched it slowly drift toward the water. Just before it would have landed on the surface, a hand reached up and grabbed it, and pulled it under. This was followed by a large blue-green fish tail rising above the water then disappearing beneath it.
Mouth agape, Jed stared at the water for several moments.
“I didn’t see what I think I did, did I Nero?” he said. “I must be losing my marbles.”
He hooked his hand into Nero’s leather collar and pulled him away from the railing, then turned toward home. He walked all the way back as rapidly as he could.
# # #
At the table, Jed peeled and tore apart the crust from the bread of his tuna salad sandwich. He had built a small mound of it and placed it on the table next to his plate without taking a bite of the sandwich.
“I thought you liked tuna salad,” Mrs. Jessup seated across from him asked.
“Can’t be,” Jed mumbled.
“It’s tuna salad alright,” Mrs. Jessup said. “I should know I opened the can of tuna and mixed in the mayonnaise, celery and onion myself, didn’t I?”
Jed looked up from his plate and saw her gazing at him with her usual expression of annoyance mixed with bewilderment. “Did you say something?” he said.
“Is there something wrong with your sandwich?” she said.
He picked it up and took a bite, chewed and swallowed. “Nah, tastes just like a tuna salad sandwich should.”
She took a sip of tea from a cup and staring at him, said, “Is there something bothering you? You’ve been acting strange ever since you got back from taking that walk.”
“I’m fine,” he said. “I was going to ask you, though, did you get into the shoebox with my photos? I can’t find the picture of Louise that I like so much.”
“Now, why should I get into your photographs?” she said defensively. “I have better things to do than get into your things.”
“I know,” he said. “I apologize for asking, but I can’t think for the life of me what I might have done with that picture. It was taken right before we found out she was pregnant with our son.”
“Oh, speaking of Randy, he called while you were out. He said he won’t be able to make it this weekend as he planned,” she said.
Jed took another bite of his sandwich. “I’m almost forgetting what he looks like.”
# # #
Getting up from the overstuffed chair, Jed stretched and held back from yawning, not wanting to wake up Mrs. Jessup who had fallen asleep in her rocking chair. He tiptoed across the room and up the stairs to his room. While putting on the cardigan he glanced around the room, thinking he had placed the photograph of Louise somewhere just to look at it and had forgotten. Not seeing it, he grabbed his wallet from the top of the dresser and got his shoes out of the closet and carried them down the steps. As he opened the front door, the hinges squeaked.
“You going somewhere, Jed?” Mrs. Jessup called out.
“Damn that woman’s ears,” he mumbled. “Just going for a walk,” he said.
“Another walk and at this time of night?” she said.
“As far as I know I can go out whenever I’d like to,” he said as he went out the door.
On the top step of the porch he put on his shoes. While lacing them, Nero bounded into the yard and ran up to Jed.
Jed rubbed the top of the dog’s head. “Sorry, boy. Not now.” He looked over at the neighbor’s yard and thought again that it was a shame that they weren’t spending more time with Nero. As he walked out of the yard he smiled as Nero peed on Mrs. Jessup’s flowers.
It was the first night of a full moon and it shone brightly in the middle of the black, starless sky. He pulled the collar of the sweater up around his neck and stuck a stick of gum in his mouth. He put the gum wrapper in his pants pocket and strolled to the 101. Before turning north, he looked at the bridge’s arch illuminated by the moonlight and let out an involuntary sigh. The moment made him miss Louise even more than usual.
A few blocks up, he entered the Sea Net Saloon. Sailing ships’ wheels, anchors, fishing nets, oars, life preservers, glass buoys, and a variety of fishing spears lined the walls. Old whale oil barrels topped with round sheets of plywood served as the six tables with wood casks as chairs. The floor was littered with peanut shells. Met with the aromas of beer and whiskey, Jed went straight to the bar where Marris was seated.
“Looks crowded in here tonight,” Jed said looking around at the two dozen people seated around the tables or in the rear of the saloon playing pool.
“I didn’t think Mrs. Jessup would let you out of the house,” Marris said.
“Me neither,” Jed said with a laugh. “She forgets I’m just a boarder and not her prisoner.”
Don, the bartender, was busy filling glasses of beer from the tap. Jed raised two fingers and shook them so that Don would notice. Don nodded.
“Where did you get the dog I saw you with today?” Marris said.
“He’s not mine. He belongs to the neighbors. He’s a great dog, but I think no one pays any attention to him but me,” Jed said.
“He looks a lot like my dog Rascal,” Marris said. “I sure do miss that dog.”
Jed took a peanut from the bowl on the bar and broke it open. “You ever see things that you know can’t be real?”
“Happened all the time when I was working on the boats,” Marris said. “The light on the water and things swimming around out there plays tricks on your eyes. You must of experienced that during all the years you were on the fishing boats.”
“This seemed a little different, but yeah I guess that’s what happened when I was on the bridge this morning,” Jed said.
Don placed two glasses of beer on the bar in front of Marris and Jed. “Who’s paying tonight?” he said.
“That’d be me,” Jed said as he took his wallet out of his back pocket and pulled out a twenty dollar bill and handed it to Don. “Keep ’em coming,” he said.
# # #
Jed had his hands in his pants pockets and tried to steady his gait. He wasn’t drunk, but he definitely felt tipsy. He stopped momentarily at the end of the street he lived on, then continued on toward the bridge. With the street lights and bright moonlight it was nearly as bright as dusk. The air was calm and filled with the scents of saltwater and fish. Sea lions were barking in the distance. As he stepped onto the bridge walkway he put his hand on the bridge railing and slid it along the rail as he walked to under the middle of the arch.
Looking down at the glassy surface of the water he took the package of gum from his cardigan pocket and took out a stick and unwrapped it. He put the gum in his mouth then rolled the wrapping into a ball and reached his hand out over the railing and let the ball drop. Just before the ball would have hit the water, a hand reached up and grabbed it, and pulled it under the water. This was followed by the loud splash of a tail fin; the same tail fin he had seen earlier.
Jed shook his head in disbelief. “Who’s down there?” he called out.
Getting no response, he leaned on the railing and looked out toward the ocean. It shimmered in the moonlight.
He took another piece of gum from the package and this time dropped the stick of gum. Out of the water rose a mermaid with long golden hair and with seaweed draped across her breasts. While in mid-air she grabbed the falling gum and put it in her mouth, then did a flip and dove head first into the water, pulling her long slender scale covered lower body and fins into the water with her.
“I’m not imagining this,” Jed said aloud gleefully. “My name is Jed,” he yelled down toward the water.
A fountain of water sprung up as high as the railing. Balanced on the top of it were the two balled gum wrappers.
# # #
Mrs. Jessup was standing at the bottom of the stairs when Jed walked through the front door. “I was about to call the police to go looking for you,” she said.
Jed grinned sheepishly. “I’m not allowed to go out?” he said.
“You’ve been drinking. I can smell it from here,” she said.
“And enjoyed every drop,” he said.
“I’m going to call your son and complain. He signed your lease to stay here and I made it very clear that I wouldn’t put up with drinking,” she said.
“Let me know what my son says since he never talks to me,” Jed said.
He walked past Mrs. Jessup and climbed the stairs and went into his room and turned on the light. He removed his cardigan and hung it on a hook on the closet door, then took off his shoes and placed them next to the bed. Sitting on the edge of his bed he pulled out the shoebox and removed the lid and placed it on the bed. Going through the photographs he pulled out the ones he had taken while on the fishing boat. He looked very closely at the ones taken of the ocean. The last one showed what he vaguely recalled seeing, a fin exactly like the mermaid’s jutting up from the water.
He put the lid on the box and put the box under the bed. He laid back on the bed and stared at the photograph. “I wish you were still here to talk to about this, Louise,” he said. He drifted off to sleep as the breeze through the open window carried in the aroma of the sea.
# # #
“Keep an eye out for you know who,” Jed said to Nero who was sitting at the bottom of the porch steps. Jed clipped the last of the carnations in Mrs. Jessup’s garden and tied the stem to the rest of the flowers.
“That should do it,” he said, turning the bouquet around admiringly. “C’mon boy.”
Walking at a fast pace with Nero at his side, Jed quickly reached the middle of the bridge. Leaning on the railing he looked at the calm waters under the bridge. “You down there?” he yelled.
The mermaid rose head first from under the water, then brought her entire body up and lay on the water slowly waving her arms and fin, creating concentric currents around her. He hair spread out on the surface and glistened in the sunlight. She smiled broadly and let out a small squeak of delight.
“We’ve been seeing each other for a couple weeks now,” Jed said. “I don’t think my dear departed Louise would mind if I gave you her name. Do you like the name Louise?”
The mermaid splashed the water with her fin.
“I brought you something Louise and it’s not gum this time,” he said.
The mermaid rolled over in the water, then dived under and sent up a spray of water.
Jed laid the bouquet on the top of the spray and watched it slowly descend. As the bouquet touched the water the mermaid surfaced and took hold of the bouquet and put it to her nose. She spun around in the water several times then did a flip and went under. A moment later a spray of water shot up with a multicolored shell in its center.
Jed reached out and grabbed it. “Thank you Louise,” he said.
The mermaid surfaced and squeaked several times, pointed at Jed, then pointed toward the ocean.
“You want me to go with you out there, Lousie?” he said.
The mermaid squeaked several times and splashed the water with her fin.
“If only I could,” Jed said. “If only I could.”
# # #
Jed sat on the edge of his bed with the shoebox in his lap. He looked at the pictures of him when he was a young boy flying a kite with his father, those of him when he played baseball in high school, the ones of him aboard the fishing boat, his wedding pictures, and pictures of his son. He put the lid on the box and sat the box in the middle of his bed. He turned out the light and left the room and went down the stairs and into the living room.
Mrs. Jessup looked up from the magazine she had in her hands. “So, have you come to finally apologize for cutting down my flowers?”
“I’m going out,” he said.
“If you go drinking don’t bother coming back,” she said.
“Have a good night, Mrs. Jessup,” he said.
He left the house and went to the neighbor’s house and knocked on their front door. The man who opened the door was dressed in a terrycloth robe and white sports socks.
“You got the money?” he said.
Jed pulled two one hundred dollar bills from his sweater pocket and handed it to him.
The man went into the house and came back a few minutes later with Nero on a leash. He handed the leash to Jed.
“He’s all yours,” the man said, then closed the door.
As Jed walked toward the 101, he saw Lark Maybury was in his front yard and looking up at the starry sky with a telescope. He had on a white shirt and was wearing a tie.
“Fine night for star gazing,” Lark said upon seeing Jed.
Jed looked up at the sky. “Sure is Lark,” he said.
“Where you headed with the dog?” Lark asked.
“To see a friend,” Jed said. “Before I go can I borrow your hedge clippers for a minute?”
“Oh, sure, they’re in the shed. Hold on a minute and I’ll go get them for you,” Lark said handing the telescope to Jed.
Jed looked at the constellations while Lark walked to the back of his house then returned a few minutes later.
He handed the clippers to Jed. “Kinda late to be clipping hedges.”
“But not too late to do this,” Jed said as he clipped Lark’s tie in half. He handed the clippers back to a speechless Lark and walked away.
On the 101 he turned north. In the parking lot of the Sea Net he met Marris who was standing by his truck.
“This is for you, my friend,” Jed said as he handed Nero’s leash to Marris.
“You giving me this dog?” Marris said, rubbing Nero’s head.
Nero’s entire body was in movement as he wagged his tail.
“He needs someone who will appreciate him,” Jed said.
“Thanks, Jed. This is quite a gift,” Marris said. “How about a beer?”
“Not tonight. I have to be somewhere,” he said.
“You want a ride?” Marris asked.
“No thanks,” Jed said. “I feel like walking.”
As he left the parking lot he looked back. Using a work glove, Marris was playing tug of war with Nero. His friend was laughing and Nero’s tail was wagging.
Walking onto the bridge walkway he looked up first at the night sky then at the bridge’s arch. At the railing he leaned over and called out. “You down there Louise?”
The mermaid broke through the black glassy surface of the water and did a spin and squeaked several times. She laid on her back on the water and doing back strokes circled about sending out small waves.
Jed took off his shoes and socks and placed them on the railing. Before taking off his cardigan he reached into the pockets and in one found the photo of Louise he thought was lost. In it she was sitting on a rock looking out at the sea, her long hair being blown by the wind. Jed kissed the picture and placed it by his shoes. He placed his cardigan on the railing then climbed over. Just before he leaped the mermaid send up a spray of water that caught him in mid-air and gently lowered him to the water.
Together, Jed and Louise swam out to sea.


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The Crystal Dragon, Part 9: Qinlings, by Edward King

Some time has passed since our heroes and heroines’ training in Siberia. Out in the world, with Oilberger and Siberia far behind him, Ben Hammer embarks on a new adventure…
From the top of the radio tower, Hammer scanned the mountains. They were blanketed by an impossible green.
He thought back on what had brought him here. What seemed real, what seemed unreal. Siberia. The fire. Hartman’s voice calling through the flames.
He watched a hawk, a speck, circling below.
He wondered, briefly, what Alex was doing now. Back home, it was night time on Sunday. She would just be making dinner. Something cheap and simple simple—a chicken quesadilla or some noodles. In the distance, the same sun he’d left in Colorado hung behind Mount Hua.
Suddenly, he heard a boom below.
Thick black smoke rose up amongst the green.
He radioed down to the outpost, which looked the size of a Monopoly house below him.
“Hey, Kip,” he radioed down. “I’m seeing some black smoke somewhere on the other side of the village. Any idea what that could be?”
“I don’t know, I just saw it too.” said Kip. “Wanna go check it out?”
”Sounds dangerous.”
Hammer met Kip down at the base of the tower, where orange butterflies circled above the ground. A stray dog sniffed at the wild strawberries that ran along the path.
They walked down the path, past laborers carrying mechanical parts and farmers carrying wicker baskets and tanks of water.
Kip had curly hair and an always-earnest face. The strong jaw that had blessed Hammer had never suited his personality, he thought.
“Should we wait for Gordon?” said Hammer.
“It’s up to you,” said Kip. “He won’t be back til night, I bet. By the time he gets there it might be hard to find the source of the smoke. If we go a little bit closer and watch from a good vantage point we should be safe.”
“Sounds to me like you’re the EXPERT, Kip,” said Hammer.

They set off on the pathway into town. They passed day laborers, shirtless, carrying shovels, into rice fields.
“It looked like it was just past the village,” said Hammer.
A highway ran along the river, and the village had grown alongside it. Blue motorcycles hauled wood and baskets of fruit along the road. Trash and liquor bottles littered the shore of the river.
They passed rows of concrete brick houses. All had red doors and most bore a large sticker of the character for “luck” upside-down. Tired laborers passed, sitting in truck beds and crammed into buses, squinting over cigarettes. The sky was blue above the little town.
They passed the junior high, its concrete block-built buildings painted blue, a basketball match in session under the noon sun.
Older kids waited in line for bowls of noodles in plastic bags outside shops, some with ornate golden characters carved above the entryway.
A Chinese man in his twenties crossed them on the path. He was about their age. He eyed them suspiciously.
“You shouldn’t go past here,” he said.
“What’s going on?” said Kip
“Listen. I need to get back to town,” said the stranger.
“You work here in the village?”
“No, town meaning Xi’an. I’m just an inspector here. …Listen, I’ve already said too much.”
He seemed determined to set off on his way, before he changed his mind. He pulled a card from his wallet.
“Meet me here tomorrow morning at 11. I’ll explain then.”
The card read:
“Laser Xu, cloud engineer. LUCKY 8 INTERNET BAR.”
But he must have given them the wrong one by accident. The card was crumpled and worn, not the kind of fresh business card you would hand to a client. And where the card should have read “cloud engineer,” a word was scratched out and rewritten to read:
“CLOUD MAFIA.”


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Regressed, by John Jones

#realistic

Arrogant, cocky, over-confident were a few of the labels that could, and were, levelled at Greg Curtis, a 38 year-old fork-lift truck driver at a Chinese wholesale food retailer. He had enough friends however, but secretly nobody really liked him. People like and in various ways are attracted to those who emit charisma, charm, and confidence. Some people however, have this in abundance and it can simply become too much, because no-one really likes arrogance, except for maybe a few, bizarre individuals, but they are the exceptions to the rule, as there is with everything.

He had his close-knit circle of friends, or followers, people who laughed at his jokes, who agreed with his political opinions, who never disagreed with him on anything, and this in turn, only fed his ego, reinforcing his own delusions of importance. He had never married, and had only had three girlfriends who couldn’t take anymore of mannerisms and promptly left. He claimed he didn’t want a partner, because according to him his freedoms would be stifled. Going for a pint and watching the match with the lads would probably be jeopardised, and he didn’t want that. He would always claim that he could easily chat a woman up if he wanted. He could have a one-night stand with practically anyone he chose was his bold claim, believed by his friends as usual. It was just that, he never actually wanted to chat any women up, he would usually say, such was the paranoia he had of commitment, of losing his freedom.

Always sporting a shaven soccer hooligan look, with a stud in the top of each ear, and wearing casual attire wherever he went, he was one of those people most would try and avoid, and if you were to enter a conversation with him, you would hear his opinion, no matter what.

Of course, he used to be the school bully, had spent several months in jail for glassing a friend over an unpaid £1 bet, and even his work colleagues, indigenous Chinese pretended not to understand him, yet he was always, however, under the constant delusion that everybody liked him, that he was popular.

Usually at least twice a year, he and his so-called friends, Robbie, Davey and Jimbo would holiday in Ibiza, or Majorca, or any of the other home from homes, little pieces of England only with more nightclubs and takeaways. His friends would always try and enjoy themselves as best as they could, putting up with him, but sometimes he would simply be in a bad mood, and whatever was on his mind you would not hear the last of, over and over again, the same arguments, the same opinions, until he’d settled down and forgotten about it.

It was a sojourn to Malaga from where they were now returning. They had arrived in Bristol airport, caught an extortionately priced taxi that drove them to Avonmouth which put him in a sour mood for a few minutes. They had all decided that before they went their separate ways home, they would all go to a fast food outlet, and as they walked along a row of shops by a canal, one in particular caught his attention. ‘Who you were’ it was called, and upon closer inspection on a curtained window, several notices were up proclaiming what it was.

‘Revert to your past life. Who were you? Were you a knight in shining armour, or were you the princess he rescued? Come in and find out for free’

“Free!” he said, and pointed at the notice, looking around at the others.

“It’s free” he continued, “How’s this place supposed to make money?” He didn’t expect an answer.

“Dunno, are we going for scran, I’m starving.” said Jimbo

“This’ll be a laugh,” Greg said, “It shouldn’t take too long. I’m gonna say I used to be a king or something like that”. They all followed him as he entered.

Inside, they found it to be no bigger than a normal sized living room in a semi-detached, with what was basically a dentist’s chair in the middle that looked like it had been passed around a few times and was finally sent to the dump, only to be found and rescued.

Besides that there was a high stool, akin to those found in pubs, and nothing else. The others all stood near the laced curtained front windows just standing around as though waiting for a bus. The walls were bare, as was the floor. Across the entrance leading into the back room Greg saw there was a curtain, which was pulled back, and a man who must have been no more than a few years older than him with dark black glasses and a cheap black suit walked in. He smiled at Greg and his friends without any humour, without any meaning, as though he was the last customer of the day and wanted to shut the place and go home.

“Hi, my name is Seymour. Take a seat, lie back, and just relax” he said, gesturing to the chair.

Greg did so, and winked at his friends before resting his head back.

“Okay,” said the man, “Clear your mind”.

“That shouldn’t be too hard for him,” said Davey, and instantly regretted his sudden act of bravery because even though Greg smiled, he knew that behind it he was genuinely insulted. The man continued.

“Close your eyes, and tell me what comes into mind”. Greg grinned at the man.

“I’m not sure I should tell you, it involves me and two women,” They all burst into laughter, except Seymour who simply stared at the floor. Soon Greg was back with his eyes closed, and was thinking of himself sitting on a throne with a golden crown.

“I think…. I think…. I was some sort of king…” In a quick movement, he lifted his head, winked at his friends, and returned back to thinking of being on the throne.

“Tell me what else you see,” said the man, “Tell me your surroundings”.

“I see…I see….” As he saw himself as the king, he watched as the throne faded away, along with his attire, only to be replaced with a filthy sheet. Greg suddenly found he could not move at all, or even open his eyes. He could only watch his mind’s eye as it showed him with greater and more clarity the person he used to be.

The image became like a dream, only with more distinction, based more in the real world, the real world for 1241, and his present day conciousness became that of his older self, in his new reality, his new world. The sky was clear blue, it was a nice day, and he found himself on the floor against the wall of a castle. He was a beggar. Some other people passed by, none of them looking in his direction. His skin was muddied and grimy, and he was sprawled on the ground holding out a small tin cup for any trinkets or money.

With his new mind, and his new knowledge of some distant future world, he knew that this is who he was now, and who he used to be. He also thought that he perhaps would not be returning to that small room back in Avonmouth by the canal so he flung his cup aside, one coin falling out, and dragged him self along the bridge and looked down into a moat, its waters dark and murky. He pushed himself over the edge and plummeted down in some effort to kill himself and return to the room, to wake up, but his reality was simply that. He hit the water, found he had no strength to swim, and sank away into the gloom.

His friends back in the room simply watched as their friend seemed simply to be asleep, and wondered if they were not seeing things as he slowly faded away.

The man turned and simply looked at them.

“What’s happened?” said Robbie, “What have you done with Greg?” The man looked at him like a defiant schoolboy not answering the headmaster’s questions. Rob knew he wouldn’t get an answer, and he also knew it was time to get out of there, they would have to find out another way. However the fact remained. Greg was gone.

“Come on lads,” he said, turning and walking to the door. The others hurried out

“Tell me one thing,” the man suddenly said. Robbie turned.

“If I could bring your friend back, would you really want me to? You see, I know that you don’t really like him do you? He stifles you, he influences you in ways you’re not comfortable with. Obviously you pretend to like him. You pretend and even convince yourselves that he’s a good mate, but you can never convince your conscience, can you? The voice that always tell you what you really think. So tell me, would you like me to bring him back?”. Robbie did not hesitate, and simply shook his head.

“No,” he said quietly, then turned and left. The man got off his stool, and walked back through the entrance at the back.

Outside, Rob rejoined the others who suddenly had a barrage of questions. He looked back at the place, and found that it was simply a derelict, boarded up newsagents. They all stared at it, then hurried away.

“Is Greg coming back?” asked Davey.

“No,” said Robbie, and all of them remained quiet for a few moments, not showing any emotion, but inside, they were smiling.


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Stories

The Naked Runner, by Jim Herod

“We thought maybe you were the naked runner.” That’s the way Tom greeted me that morning two years ago when I slid into the empty chair. Mostly, Bertile’s coffee klatch is a bunch of retired guys who meet every weekday morning, hoping to hear a new story. I’d known for some time that, as the new guy from Atlanta, I was the source of some of their funnier tales.
I tore open the package of powered cream and spilled it into my coffee while they watched. “I didn’t know there was a naked runner. And, by the way, what made you decide it’s not me?” I tried to look serious.
No one answered for a while. Then, “He doesn’t know, Tom. Tell him.”
Tom leaned back, looked at me over his glasses, and nodded. “Billy Moreland shot him dead.”
“Shot a runner? That’s terrible! Where?”
“Over on Old Line Road. Did it yesterday evening. It’ll be in today’s paper.”
“Why in the hell did he shoot a runner?”
Everyone laughed, except me. Tom was the one who reminded me. “It was a naked runner!” That started the laughter again.
I don’t remember what other stories were swapped that morning. I do remember that I pretty quickly made up my mind not to wait for some sanitized newspaper account. After all, Billy Moreland and our family shared property lines over on Old Line Road. Since retiring back to Clarke County, I had sat on Billy’s front porch many times, listening to stories about how the area used to be. I figured that the shooting of a naked runner over at his place would become a part of that lore. For sure, I wanted to get the story firsthand.
Billy wasn’t surprised to see me that afternoon, and he didn’t mind telling his story again.
His dogs had been agitated that night, barking and whimpering. Twice, he went out on his porch to see what was bothering the damn dogs and to try to shush them up. The third time, he heard the neighbor’s horse whinnying not a half mile up the road. He figured there might be a bear or a wildcat out there spooking the animals. So, he went back in the house, got his rifle, and walked down to where he kept a few goats.
It was not a dark night. The moon was bright, near full, he said. The goats were pretty agitated, stomping around, crashing headlong into the fence. Billy spotted what he thought was a large coyote hunched down in the middle of the pen. He already had the rifle’s safety off, so he put the gun to his shoulder and fired. He figured he had missed, for the animal let out a snarl, turned, and started to run.
Billy said he fired again. That time, what he thought was a dog or a coyote fell. Cautiously, he went to the gate, entered the pen, and walked to where the carcass lay. Only, it was a man. A naked man. The man stirred, turned his head toward Billy, and, Billy said, made a ferocious sound that didn’t seem human at all.
That was the last time the naked man moved.
I watched as Billy paused and looked out toward the woodlands around his house. I could tell the experience had bothered him. It would have scared me, too.
Of course, the county sheriff had been called. He and his deputy found the two shell casings where Billy said he was standing. They also found the bloody spot where the man must have been shot the first time. They checked with a neighbor of Billy’s. He confirmed that there had been a ruckus before the two shots. Something had been bothering his horse.
A picture of the man’s face was posted in our post office and in the next issue of the Clarke County Democrat. This brought several people forward saying they had seen the man around town. Some even knew his name: Jonathan Wolfgang.
Jonathan Wolfgang had bought what had been a vacant house across the street from the Watson’s Farm Supply store. I went to Watson’s and asked if they ever saw the man around. It turned out that Wolfgang had bought wire from the store to enclose his backyard. It seemed he kept goats behind his house. In fact, Wolfgang went over about twice a month and bought sacks of dog food and sacks of feed prepared for goats and sheep.
The next time I saw Mark Livingston, the town lawyer, I asked him what happened to a deserted house. The answer wasn’t complicated. If taxes were not paid, a public notice would be made and, after some time specified by the court, the property would be confiscated by the county and sold for back taxes. Mark told me that he had not been to look at the property and, if I was interested, he would get permission for the two of us to go inside.
The following Tuesday, we did just that. The front door was locked. I looked in a window and saw some furniture in the front room. I was about to go to the back of the house when Mark stopped me. He had found a key stuck in a crevice above the door.
The place smelled like a dog kennel. Mark, never a big talker, got it in two words, “Dog poop.”
All the rooms other than the front room were nearly empty. There was a cot, a chest of drawers, and boxes of books in the room where the man must have slept. A computer was there, too. A few shirts and jeans hung in a closet. There were three towels hanging in the bathroom, as well as a shaving mug and straight razor on the bathroom lavatory. In the kitchen, there were no dishes and no silverware, but there was a refrigerator and a freezer. Both were still running. The refrigerator contained six baby bottles of soured milk. The freezer was almost empty, just a few chunks of meat. I had no idea if the meat was beef or venison. It might have been goat.
There was nothing in the backyard, though the fenced-in area was not overgrown. Since there were no gardening tools in sight, I guessed the goats had kept it grazed. I said that to Mark.
“Strange,” was his only reply.
I thought bizarre would have been a better word.
Three weeks after Jonathan Wolfgang was shot, I was sitting in a chair at Jerry Bartle’s barbershop. It occurred to me that Jerry knew almost everyone and everything that happened in our community. So, I asked him if Wolfgang ever got a haircut in his shop.
He laughed and said he did. “I’ve cut all kinds of hair. Fine, thinning hair like yours, thick hair, straight hair, and curly hair. But I have never seen a head of hair like that man’s.” Jerry had never been reluctant to talk about or add to any news in our small town. “His hair never got longer than about an inch or so. I never had to cut a single hair on the top. His hair was so coarse it would have taken all the sharp off my clippers. So, he always got a scissor cut.” Jerry pushed my head forward as he trimmed down the back of my neck. “I always use electric clippers to cut the hair down a man’s neck. Not that Wolfgang fellow. The hair growing down his neck was just as thick and coarse as on his head. I shaved the hair on the back of his neck with lather and a straight razor.”
I asked one more thing. “Did he ever say anything about where he worked?”
“Down there at Tulane is what he told me. Biology or something.”
“A professor? What’s a Tulane professor doing living here?”
Jerry unsnapped the cloth that was draped over me. “I asked him if he was a teacher. He said he wasn’t. He said he worked with the stuff inside cells. I forget what he called it.”
“Genes?”
“Yeah. Like blue jeans.” Jerry had a big grin on his face.
I gave Jerry my usual twenty dollars and got back two. I paused at the door, thinking about what I had learned. I looked back at Jerry. He was already talking to the next customer.
“Damn.” I said that to myself. I knew I was getting wrapped up in something that was none of my business. Nevertheless, there was a guy on the coaching staff down at Tulane that I’d known for some time. I sent him an email asking if he had ever heard of a man in the biology department named Jonathan Wolfgang. He wrote back and said that he did not know him but that he was listed in the personnel booklet several years back as a research associate in genetics.
Genetics. Really.
There’s one more thing that may or may not be related to all this. It’s my habit to jog three or four times a week on trails near my home. It used to be that my neighbor’s dog would bark and pace in her cage as I went by. Every so often, she would yelp and howl what seemed like all night. I mentioned this to my neighbor some time ago. He laughed and said he hoped it didn’t bother me. “The she-dog howls when she is in heat,” he told me. I remember that I laughed with my neighbor, both of us in sympathy with the wildness we heard coming from that pen.
I haven’t forgotten what happened around a half year before the shooting. I had found my neighbor working in his garden and stopped to ask about the dog. I had no intent except to be neighborly.
My neighbor took off his cap, shook his head, and looked back at what I came to see was an empty pen. “Some dog jumped the fence and knocked her up,” he said.
“Jumped that fence? Holy catfish! Did you get a batch of puppies out of that?”
He shook his head. “No, sir.”
He didn’t say any more, so I pushed. “Is she okay?”
“Something got in the pen about three months later, ripped her open, and took the litter.”
“Ripped her open?”
He went on, “I know it was a big litter because she swelled up so. She never got that big before.”
“She didn’t birth the pups?”
“No, sir. Like I said, she was ripped open. That’s the way I found her, bloody and all. The litter was gone.” My neighbor paused, looked toward the pen, and then turned back to me. “We miss her.”
Billy Moreland shooting the naked man in his goat cage caused me to think back about this. No charges have ever been filed against Billy Moreland. Nobody expects there will be. After all, everybody knows Billy Moreland. He’s a good man.
I have to confess, however, that the affair has caused me to change some of my behavior. Previously, I would go over to Old Line Road near Billy Moreland’s house, park my truck, and hike into the woodlands. That’s changed. I don’t hike alone over there anymore. I bought a four-wheel drive truck, so if I want to get back in the woods, I drive.
There are two more things that I am almost reluctant to say. First, my perception is that it is quieter over where I used to hike. My wife says I don’t hear as well as I used to. But I insist that I can hear the airplanes flying overhead and, in the late afternoon, I can hear the coyotes yipping.
Here’s the second thing. Recently, along a sandy part of the road, I saw small barefoot tracks. Human child tracks. I can’t prove this. There were only three or four footprints in the sand. No one was with me to attest that it’s true. But it’s what I saw.
I know the guys at Bertile’s would have another story if they knew what I’ve been doing, so I don’t tell them. You see, for one or two days around the time for the full moon, I go over to the Old Line Road property and take a pair of binoculars. I park on a ridge overlooking a drainage area and scan the woodlands down around the creek. I’m watching. And I listen. Somehow, I have an idea that out there in those woods, I might catch a glimpse of a young, naked runner. Or maybe even a wolf pup.
Wouldn’t that be something?


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