Stories

Jigsaw Puzzle, Part Two, by David Cannella

#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

#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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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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The Passage, by Tom J. Perrin

Terrence brought his bike to a halt right at the start of the passage, and looked anxiously down into the morning gloom that had settled. The sporadic overhead lights were flickering and illuminating sections of the path, but the end was still shrouded in mist. He was also late for work. He sighed deeply and blew into his hands, hot breath escaping through his fingertips, fighting against the December cold that had settled around him.

A factory worker nearing forty-five, Terrence knew that once he had navigated the gauntlet that was this passage, the aptly named Hollywood Fields lay beyond and offered a shorter path to the factory and hopefully the avoidance of another bollocking from his line manager, who’d been a real arsehole lately. This alone should have made Terrence swallow his fear and head down the shortcut towards the grassy fields, but still he stood peering into the depths, his mind casting back to two weeks previous.

“Oi, you old prick.” The voice snapped him out of his thoughts. It belonged to a hooded youth with an acne riddled face. Despite the late hour, his face seemed to stand out in the murky night. It looked familiar, one of the faces from the estate potentially? His thoughts were shrouded.

Terrence had just finished a night shift and had risked the fields on the off chance there wouldn’t be the usual lurkers hanging around that had plagued the fields over the past few months. His luck was out. Terrence’s path was blocked by the youth; he yearned for a cup of tea and his bed, knowing he had to do it all over again in twelve hours. He made to head past the youth without engaging with him.

“Oi, I’m talking to you, you knob. Don’t ignore me.” The menace in his voice was there. Terrence picked up his pace and climbed onto his bike, heading down the passage. He could hear the boy following him; his footsteps reverberated in the morning silence.

“Mate, seriously, I’m trying to fucking help you. Come down here in the dark on your own and you’ll die, get me? The trees are mysterious man; they’ll close in on you and swallow you. You’re lucky I’m here, pal!” The youth was jogging alongside now, they were nearing the end. Terrence sped up and the youth stopped at the end of the passage, shouting after Terrence. “BE CAREFUL, this passage is funny. Stay out of the dark.” The youth’s words stayed with him until he got home.

Every day since he took the longer route; it took him through the industrial estate and down the main route in an unnecessary loop. Terrence hadn’t given it a second thought. He hadn’t seen the youth lurking around, not until the teenager’s picture was on the front of the paper a few weeks after their encounter, the headline staring back at him, the eyes familiar and his own disbelieving..

**

The paper seemed to stare back at Terrence. The youth’s name was Marvin Edwards, he was sixteen. His body had been found at the entrance to Hollywood Fields the night before. The officers on the scene had immediately opened a murder investigation down to the strangulation marks on his neck. Terrence looked in stunned silence at the paper. The youth’s voice filled his ears again.

“This passage is funny…”

He still stood with his bike, peering down the passage. The cold permeated around him, he was layered up but to no effect. The gloomy stretch of the pavement stared back at him, seeming more and more eerie under the flickering fluorescent light. The sun showed no sign of coming up anytime soon, but the minutes ticked by slowly.

“Fuck it,” Terrence said aloud, his breath floating in front of his face. He couldn’t afford to be late.

He was halfway down the passage when he heard the dead kid’s voice in his head. “Turn back. Get the fuck out of here, man. They’re coming. I fucking warned you.”

He peddled faster and faster, seeing the end of the passage and the train tracks that would take him to the fields, and safety. It was to no avail, ahead he spied a limb of a tree reaching out, and wrapping itself around his front tyre. Terrence went flying onto the pavement and felt his nose explode as his face hit the floor, the warm trickle of blood down his face felt oddly relieving against his cold face. He rolled over onto his back and saw the limbs of the trees flailing in all directions. They all seemed to be coming for him.

“Told you,” the voice said… they were the last words he heard before it all went black.


The trees now overhang the passage, creating a roof for coverage from the pounding rain that was falling. In Summer and Autumn the colours of the leaves make for an eclectic wash of colour, a picture of vibrancy. In the wintery rain it just looked fucking depressing; a pothole ridden obstacle course of puddles, mud and dogshit. The passage had gone long neglected by the council after the spate of incidents had called for an enquiry which never materialised and fell victim to more important issues. The trees had been left to grow out of control, plunging the passage into an almost permanent gloom. The potholes widened with the seasons and the graffiti at one end only seemed to grow, he stand out piece reads “Don’t come down here after dark. Enter at your own risk” the words were lazily scrawled and semi prominent amongst the bed of graffiti.


They were all pissed out of their trees. A concoction of cheap, watered down lager and jaeger bombs on an empty stomach had left them all feeling merry as they walked across Hollywood Fields in the direction of the estate that lay opposite. Joe couldn’t help but need a piss. The four of them all moaned when he decided to stop. Eventually they carried on towards the tracks, leaving him behind. As he pissed up the tree, he felt the relief washing over him. In the distance he could hear them laughing down the passage. Jake, Jacko, Jim and Joe had grown up together and their friendship thus far looked like it was surviving the post school transition. Despite this, Joe still thought of himself as the least popular and always but of their jokes.

“Fuckers,” Joe whispered to himself, not wanting to feel scared by the darkness around him. He felt a little uneasy being alone with the fields stretching behind him.

He jogged over the tracks and peered down the passage. Into the darkness, he heard the voices but they seemed so far in the distance. The passage seemed to be narrower; Joe looked down at the low hanging trees, in the night they looked menacing. As he started to walk down the passage slowly and hesitantly he felt something squidgy underfoot. He searched for his phone frantically, eventually grabbing his phone. He shined the light on his shoes. He’d trodden in dog shit. His brand new white trainers were ruined.

“Fuck sake!” Joe cursed.

A shout came from the other end of the passage. “Joe, hurry up you melon. It’s arctic monkeys out here!” It was Jake shouting from the other end.

If he’d been more aware of his surroundings, he would’ve seen the trees, the limbs, the branches all coming to life. He was almost free and within reach of the group when something swept him off his feet. A tree branch tightened around his neck and he felt the life being squeezed out of him, it was harsh and bare and the splinters pierced into his neck, he heard what sounded like the breaking of bones and knew they were his own. He tried to scream but a bunch of leaves found their way into his mouth, choking out any noise he was trying to make.

After a few minutes Jake took a slow walk back down the passage. Joe was nowhere to be seen, he stood pirouetting on the spot for a second calling for his buddy without response. He wrinkled his nose against the smell of shit as he walked back along the passage towards home, calling Joe as he went. His phone went directly to voicemail.
“Joe, where are you buddy? Call me ASAP! I am going to wait outside my Uncle’s house.” He said, walking out into the dim streetlights. If he’d looked down he’d have seen the specs of blood that were dotted around his white Converse.

**

The Have You Seen Our Dog posters were stapled to the trees along Park Lane, along with a lazy promise of a reward if found. The line above read ‘last seen heading towards Hollywood Fields on the evening of March 19th around 10pm’.
As Winter changed into a pleasant Spring the council finally took action after a string of complaints and a petition from the locals, nervous about the disappearances that were linked to the passage. The trees were pruned and the passage repaved, all of the graffiti washed away. Footfall through the passage grew and the fields were in bloom.

After the sun had gone down people would wander down the passage alone, blissfully unaware of the sensation of the trees closing in and round.

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Glance and Gesture, by Con Chapman

#Humor

The professor was droning on about how to read a painting, how you needed to look at the figures within it, how they directed your eye by glance and gesture so that you could divine the artist’s intent. The dark-haired girl—he figured she was a New Yorker–had sat down next to him even though there were other seats open. He had seen her before, in the little grocery store on 57th Street where the old Jewish women would complain about the prices openly and audibly, muttering “Goniff!” as they walked the aisles.

She was too close for him to look at her unless something odd or funny happened in the art history class, and since they were getting a scolding of sorts from the professor on the quality of the papers they’d handed in, it was a time for looking straight ahead.

The professor was little, and as he sat there listening to how the man thought they’d all failed miserably in their second assignment, he thought how he wouldn’t care what the guy thought if he didn’t need a good grade. So instead of telling the guy to take his class and shove it, recalling the song that had played over the radio on assembly line he’d worked the past summer, he just sat there and took it.

The dark-haired girl seemed to bristle; she had probably been going to MOMA and the Whitney since she was a little girl, and was defensive about the criticism the professor was showering indiscriminately upon them. He wondered if she thought he hadn’t understood the assignment, and was dragging her down. He looked at her out of the corner of his eye; she turned towards him, and appeared to be looking for sympathy. He gave her a look that conveyed, as best he could, the unfairness of it all.

The professor wasn’t letting up; he’d asked them to critique a painting and a sculpture, and some people had done two of one and none of the other, or just one, or hadn’t done anything but describe a piece literally, or hadn’t done much of anything. He thought he could expect that they, the best and the brightest he’d been told, would get something as simple as that straight, but apparently not. He wondered if the guy was being mean to them because he had nobody else in his life he could beat up on.

Across the room there was a woman with long hair, a bad complexion, and black glasses with thick lenses; a plain woman, he thought, who hides behind a bohemian pose. She seemed to be taking it all in without the same outrage as the woman beside him. Maybe she wasn’t from New York and didn’t feel the same sense of superiority as the woman beside him.

The woman beside him shifted uncomfortably. Maybe she was one of those who already had her life after college in Chicago all planned out–grad school, job at a museum, or the reverse, maybe she’d end up a professor too. She didn’t want a C on her record, that much he could tell.

“And so,” the professor was saying, “I’m going to hand all of these papers back to you, ungraded, and ask you to do them over. I didn’t find any of you that understood the assignment, or if you did you failed to express it in writing, which is really all I’ve asked of you.”

He felt a release of breath from the students assembled around the four tables formed into a square. He was ready to rewrite the thing if that’s what the guy wanted, but he got the sense that others weren’t so willing; maybe they weren’t on scholarship as he was, so they had other options. He looked at the woman beside him, who was fuming; she probably had every waking minute the rest of the semester planned out to the second. Some kids had already bought their plane tickets home when they arrived at the beginning of the semester they were so organized.

No one said anything until the plain cum bohemian woman broke the quiet that had descended on the room.

“Excuse me,” she said almost politely as she raised her hand.

“Yes?” the professor replied.

“I wanted to know . . . exactly what kind of fucking power trip are you on?”

The students were silent as they waited for the professor to respond; they’d never heard anyone take on an instructor like that. “Well,” he began finally and a bit uncertainly, “I’m just saying that there are certain minimum standards that I expect students to satisfy in order to get a grade in my course.”

The woman let his words hang there in the air for a second. “And who the fuck are you?” she continued. “Some of us have been here three years already. Nobody ever tried to pull this kind of shit on us.”

The professor drew himself up and took a moment to collect his thoughts. “Well, I . . . I mean, I know you . . . may worked hard but you sort of . . . missed the point and . . .” He couldn’t actually tell her she shouldn’t talk to him that way; those days were gone, we were in college now, and paying for the privilege.

The bohemian woman looked around the room for support, but for all the collective outrage that must have been swelling up in the hearts of the young men and women who lined the room, no one said anything.

Finally a guy with a beard, who earlier in the semester had stopped the student-teacher dialogue with the aggressively-stated observation that “The position that art should be apolitical is itself a political position,” spoke up.

“If we’re going to do the papers over you should at least give us an option. If we don’t re-write them we get like a B minus, if we do we can get a higher grade.”

This offer of compromise touched off a back and forth as to fairness which he had no stomach for. He wanted to get into the New York woman’s panties was what he wanted, he thought to himself. Why did the class have to erupt on the day when she’d sat down next to him for no good reason at all, as far as he could see?

“All right, I’ll set a floor of B minus,” the professor said. “I expect people who want a higher grade will turn in their papers by 5 o’clock this Friday.”

The announcement of this deadline touched off a group groan, with the woman from New York expressing the greatest exasperation of anyone in the classroom. It was the end of the fifty-minute session, and people started to get up to leave. The professor was surrounded by students seeking relief or exemptions from his harsh ruling, with the bohemian woman and the New Yorker standing next to each other, arguing their case together as if they improved their chances of prevailing by joining forces.

He looked back at the woman from New York as he left the room. Her veins were bulging along her neck, and he thought that’s what he would have seen if things had gone right and he’d had her in thrall to him in his bed, back in his room.

Con Chapman is the author of two novels, ten published plays, and over 40 ebooks of humor available on Amazon. Contributor to Boston Globe and Herald, his work has appeared in The Atlantic and The Christian Science Monitor, among other print publications.
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The Last Sunset, by Steve Slavin

#new york #realistic

1
Can you remember your favorite sunset? My father had always wanted to see the sun set over an ocean. His favorite song appeared to be Red sails in the sunset (written in 1935 by Hugh Williams and popularized by Bing Crosby, and later, Nate King Cole). He seemed to recall just the title line, and would hum the rest of it.
My father knew that he would have been able to see some great sunsets on the West Coast, but he never had the time to make the trip. Then, finally, when they were in their late seventies, my parents flew to San Francisco to attend a family wedding.
They stayed for two weeks and returned with hundreds of photos. When I asked if there were any sunsets, my father explained that the ocean was too far from where they were staying. A few minutes later, I heard him humming, “Red sails in the sunset.”
I’ve never seen the sun set over an ocean either. But, then again, it wasn’t such a big deal for me. Maybe that’s because I’ve seen a couple of much more memorable sunsets. In fact, I was actually in Brooklyn when I saw them.
If you’re old enough, you can remember where you were and what you were doing on November 22, 1963. I was in Kelly Park playing basketball. Someone had a transistor radio, and we all stood around listening. We knew that the president had been shot and was rushed to a hospital.
The park was a few blocks from the apartment where I grew up. Depending upon whom you asked, the neighborhood was called Midwood, Kings Highway, Sheepshead Bay, Gravesend, Madison Park, or Flatbush. Only three years earlier, when John F. Kennedy was campaigning, he made a stop in front of Dubrow’s Cafeteria on Kings Highway, just three blocks from our house.
As soon as I heard the news, I rushed home. My mother was sitting at the kitchen table, listening to the radio. She was crying. I knew then that the president was dead.
A month later I was on an elevated train going from Jamaica, Queens, all the way across Brooklyn, and then over the Williamsburg Bridge to the Lower Eastside where I lived. It was, by far, the coldest day of the year. Passengers getting on at each stop were shivering. One girl was shaking. Her lips were blue.
It was the last day of mourning. Flags all across the nation were at half-staff.
The train had just made a right turn and was headed north. I looked out the window to the west. The sun had just set and the sky was a pale orange.
In the distance, I saw the metal frame of a five- or six-story building that was under construction. And visible through the frame was a flagpole silhouetted against the sky.
I memorized that image, knowing that in minutes it would be gone forever. There would be no going back. Not for me, not for anyone else on the train, not for our nation, and maybe, not for the world.

2
A few years later I moved from the Lower Eastside to Brooklyn Heights. I could afford only a studio apartment; but it was just two blocks from the Promenade, which provides a spectacular view of New York harbor.
One of the first people I met in Brooklyn Heights was Seymour, who lived in my building. At the time, he was a graduate student at NYU. He supported himself by teaching English composition part-time at a couple of community colleges.
Seymour was a mountain of a man, maybe six-foot-six, and close to 300 pounds. Truly a gentle giant, he was often apologizing for offenses that only he appeared to notice.
For months, studying for his oral exams completely consumed him. To relax, he would walk along the Promenade, often reciting poetry to himself. One beautiful summer afternoon, he was lost in his recitations as he strode across the Brooklyn Bridge.
Back in those days, the footpath was not yet clogged with tourists, although it had long been a magnet for Europeans and Japanese. As Seymour power-walked, his arms swinging wildly, a middle-aged German couple walked toward him. Seymour was spouting poetry in Middle English at the top of his lungs.
The couple suddenly turned, and began rushing off in the opposite direction. Seymour, who was horrified that he had frightened the couple, galloped after them, trying to explain that he was studying for his orals. They either could not understand him or perhaps were just not that impressed with his explanation.
The German man, growing more alarmed, yelled over his shoulder, “Please, just leave us alone and we will say nothing to the authorities!”
Seymour, almost out of breath, slowed down and whispered plaintively: “You don’t have orals in German Universities?”
But Seymour passed his orals, and defended his dissertation a year later. When he was offered a tenure-track teaching position at Jersey City State, he bought a seventeen-foot wide three-story brownstone near the college for just $28,000.
The only problem was that he missed the Heights more than he could have ever imagined. Once or twice a week Seymour would take the PATH train to the World Trade Center, walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, and then continue along the Promenade.
Another friend I met soon after I moved to the Heights was Bob. He had grown up in the neighborhood and often proclaimed that he would never move away. Whenever someone asked if he had lived in the Heights his entire life, he had a ready answer: “Not yet!”
Known as “the mayor of Brooklyn Heights,” Bob wrote a humor column in The Heights Press. But for a living, he sold steel and other metals to construction companies on Long Island and in Connecticut.
When I asked if he liked his job, he said that he’d much rather be the full-time mayor of the Heights. Regretfully, that position did not exist.

3
I spent a lot of time on the Promenade and especially enjoyed the sunsets. These attracted some serious photographers, who set up their tripods, perhaps hoping to capture the world’s greatest sunset, even if it wasn’t over an ocean.
After living in my tiny apartment for a couple of years, I caught the break of my life. A great apartment on Hicks Street, across the street from the Hotel St. George, had just become available. It was a floor-through, with fourteen-foot ceilings, a working fireplace, and even a sauna.
To this day, I can say that living there were the happiest years of my life. The rent was fairly high but still affordable, and the landlady, who occupied the third and fourth floors, kept to herself and was away half the year.
I held huge parties and often had friends and family over for dinner. But mainly, I loved coming home and enjoying all that space.
But as they say, “all good things come to an end.” My landlady, spurred on by her friend Mindy, a local real estate broker, decided to sell the building. This was in 1980, when the Heights was becoming a hot new neighborhood.
Mindy could get my landlady at least $400,000 if she could deliver the building without any tenants. I was an easy mark since I didn’t have a lease. The couple in the ground level apartment, Tony and Vern, who had spent hundreds of hours fixing up the backyard, also had no lease. The landlady didn’t even offer to compensate them.
There was an elderly couple on the second floor who still had almost a year to go on their lease. They refused to move. But Mindy persuaded my landlady to make them an offer they could not refuse. Grudgingly, she forked over the money.
We were heartbroken, but within a few months, all of us were gone. A friend and I bought a fixer-upper building in Downtown Brooklyn, about a mile from the Heights. Still, I never reconciled to living there. I was back in the Heights once twice a week, often on the Promenade. I was another Seymour, albeit a scaled down version with absolutely no facility with Middle English.
One day I ran into Bob.
“Did you hear what happened to me?” he asked.
I just shrugged.
“I had a heart attack!”
“That’s terrible!”
“I still don’t know how it happened. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. OK, I’m not in great shape, but I was just ten pounds overweight.”
“Were you under any kind of stress?”
“Not at all. But I did take on a new line at work that was causing some problems.”
“Bob, maybe that’s what it was.”
“Yeah, maybe. Anyway, I have a great cardiologist, I go to cardio rehab three times a week, and I walk a lot.”
“What about that new line you look on?”
“Yeah, maybe I should get rid of it.”

4
I still ran into Bob from time to time. He’d be walking in Cadman Plaza Park, or on the Promenade. He knew that I had moved, and was glad to see that I still came around. I confessed to him how much I missed the neighborhood.
He told me that it was becoming increasingly unaffordable.
“How much do you think my old house would go for?”
“Why? Are you thinking of moving back?”
“I wish I could afford it.”
“How much did your landlady get for it?”
“I think slightly over $400,000.”
Bob started laughing.
“What’s the joke?”
“If she would have held on to it another couple of years, she would have gotten almost double that.”
Now I was laughing too. It served the greedy bitch right!

5
A few months later, I was watching the sunset. It was the second or third week of September. Bob was holding court with a few friends and acquaintances.
He had recently started swimming in the pool at the Hotel St George and was looking forward to going the next morning. He declared himself one hundred percent recovered from his heart attack.
After the sun set, the sky remained a deep, deep red. Then, very slowly it faded to a blackish red. Almost an hour later, there was still a bit of color where the sun had gone down. It was as if the sun knew how much we enjoyed watching, and had only reluctantly disappeared.
The next afternoon I got the news. Bob dove into the pool and evidently had another heart attack. He was dead before they could call an ambulance.

6
I am writing these words thirty years later. I still miss Bob and Seymour. I still miss the Heights. And I still miss the sunsets. I checked Zillow.com the other day. My old house on Hicks Street just sold for almost four million dollars.
But the Heights that I miss no longer exists. It’s become an entirely different neighborhood. Only the upper one percent and long-time residents with rent-stabilized apartments can afford to live there. I doubt that I would feel at home there anymore – even if I could live in my old apartment.
For years, like Seymour, I was in denial. I was no longer living in Brooklyn Heights, but I couldn’t help going back. Until, one day, I stopped.
What happened? When did things change? When did I stop going back there? After that last sunset, there was no going back.


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