The Gnome

      by M. Shaw

         We caught a gnome in our house, in a trap we had set out for the raccoons who kept getting in the basement.

      “He’s adorable!” said Jean, and we put him in a cage. A big, old birdcage, it had belonged to my late grandfather’s parrot, who had finally died the previous year. The little fella didn’t seem to mind. He slept a lot, and then he did these little kicky dances and made all these noises that sounded like words, but weren’t. “Dow-tee hoy biddo! Funger hoo tee hoo!” That sort of thing. It had a pseudo-Irish sound to it, but we didn’t think he was a leprechaun, because of the hat. His was cone-shaped, definitely more the kind of thing you would associate with a gnome than a leprechaun.

        “Do you think he, you know, has intelligence?” I asked Jean after a couple days, while we were watching him in there. He had completely replaced the TV at that point, in terms of how we spent our time.

      “All animals have some degree of intelligence,” said Jean, “so it depends what you mean. Human intelligence? I doubt it. I mean, look at him.”

      “He’s wearing clothes and everything,” I pointed out. It wasn’t complicated clothing, just some baggy trousers and a shirt. It looked a bit like pajamas. And the hat. No shoes.

      “So is Princess Diana,” said Jean. That was the name of our Bichon, who was, after all, wearing a doggy Christmas sweater.

        I still wasn’t sure that they counted as the same thing. We watched him for another five or ten minutes, and then it hit me. “But we didn’t put the clothes on him,” I said.

        “I should make him some little outfits,” said Jean. “On the sewing machine.” I couldn’t tell if she had misinterpreted the point I was making, or if she was ignoring me completely.

         I lost a lot of sleep thinking about this. Was that a good measure of intelligence? To be able to not just wear clothes, but to put them on yourself? Did that mean that, when my parents dressed me, when I was little, I wasn’t fully human? What if I became quadriplegic, or developed some kind of dementia, and couldn’t do it myself anymore?

      We gave the gnome some steamed chicken and carrots, but he showed no interest. We gave him some canned dogfood, and he wasn’t interested in that, either. He seemed to never need to eat or go to the bathroom at all. I asked Jean if we were sure he was really a living creature. The lack of eating or pooping would seem to indicate no. But again, he slept. And when he slept, you could see his torso rise and fall, breathing. And he had a beard, and the beard was grey, suggesting growth and age.

        “I think maybe he’s a filter feeder,” said Jean, cutting out pieces of a sewing pattern. “Like a sea sponge. Or maybe he does photosynthesis.”

        “In the basement?” I asked.

        She shrugged. “I don’t know, Todd, I’m not a scientist. What do you want me to do about it?”

        I didn’t want her to do anything about it, so I said nothing. I was just worried about the definition of life. Honestly, sometimes I worried about whether it applied to me, though I don’t think that had anything to do with the gnome.

        “I’m thinking of naming him Bernie,” she said.

        This caught me off guard, and I still said nothing. She was thinking of naming the gnome? Somehow, I thought, that seemed untoward.

          “How does that sound to you?”

        “What if he already has a name?” I said.

        “Why don’t you ask him?” she chuckled.

          He was asleep when I went downstairs, but I tried anyway. “Hey buddy,” I said, “what’s your name? You got a name?”

          He didn’t wake up, and it occurred to me that he had never directly acknowledged me in any way. In fact, I didn’t get the sense that he was aware of his surroundings at all, except for the cage, which was a physical limitation. But as far as his behavior went, the cage might as well have been in the middle of a corn field. Or on top of a skyscraper. Or in the area with the high crime rate. I might as well have been anybody, to him. Hell, I might as well have been nobody.

          We never saw another gnome. We had an exterminator come out, to figure out how he had gotten in. The exterminator fiddled around the basement with her tools. Wrote some things on a pad with carbon paper. Looked at the gnome.

        “Funny little critter, isn’t he,” she said.

        Have you ever seen one before, we asked.

        “Can’t say I have.” She shook her head. “Can’t say I have. But, what are you gonna do? Stranger things have happened. Stranger things,” she repeated, “have happened.”

        I didn’t think that was true, but she said it with such confidence that I couldn’t disagree. She made some suggestions about the chimney, about caulking and insulation and things like that. She also sprayed some poison, and I still wonder if there are dead gnomes in the walls of the house. We never smelled anything, but maybe they don’t stink when they decay? Maybe they don’t decay? They just lie there, little lifeless rubber dolls?

          The gnome did not seem worried about his comrades.

          One day, Jean called me over. “Todd, look at this!” From the basement.

          I went down there, to find that the gnome was now wearing an outfit she had made
          for him.

          “He didn’t mind me putting them on him,” she said. “Didn’t make a fuss, not even a
            little.”

          He was wearing a black fleece pullover and dungarees. It looked like he was wearing little black sneakers as well, but on closer inspection, they turned out to be baby booties, made entirely out of linen but sewn to look like sneakers. She had taken the hat off and, what do you know, he was completely bald underneath.

          “He’s dressed like you,” she explained.

          “No he’s not,” I said, in a whiny tone of voice that embarrassed me immediately. I didn’t even own a black fleece pullover, which was the worst part, because it still seemed like the kind of thing I would wear, even though I had never actually worn one, as far as I could remember. Or maybe the worst part was the shoes, because I did own black sneakers, but mine were real sneakers. And this was like, these might as well be your sneakers, Todd, even though they weren’t even close, really. I’m not sure how the dungarees could have been the worst part, but maybe they were too.

          He absolutely was dressed like me, is what I’m saying, and I hated it. Not exactly like
          me, but like me.

        “Why did you do this,” I said.

          “It’s cute!” said Jean.

          It was cute, and there was nothing I could do about that.

          I decided to sell the gnome on the internet, secretly. I didn’t take any photos, but a few days after I posted the information about him, a guy came over to take a look while Jean was out with her friends at the roller derby.

        “Wow,” said the guy, watching the gnome dance in his cage. “It does this all the time?”

        “He actually spends a lot of time sleeping,” I said. “But apparently he doesn’t mind if you change his clothes for him.”

          “You ever let him out?”

        “Of his cage?” I said. “No. No, we never have.”

        The guy nodded. Princess Diana, wearing a tiny dog-sized cape with a Wonder Woman symbol, licked at his shins. “If I can ask just a really honest question,” he said, “is it legal to--well, I mean, not legal, but like--okay--I mean, to have a person, well, not a person person, but you--as a pet, or whatever--I--uh--like, is it kosher, you know?”

         “I’m not Jewish,” I admitted.

        He rubbed his temples with both hands. “I’ll give you thirty-nine dollars for it,” he said.

        “Okay.”

        “Well,” he made a wobbly motion with one hand, “thirty-seven.”

        “Okay.”

        “Actually, I’m not interested.”

        “You can have him for nothing,” I said. But the guy had already left. He really had turned on his heel and walked right out of the house, as if he suddenly found the whole thing appalling.

          Jean never found out that I had tried to sell the gnome. She came home from the roller derby and went directly downstairs to visit him, sleeping in his cage. When he first showed up, she and I would usually watch him together, and she would react to what he did by cooing or giggling or adding color commentary. Gradually, though, I had stopped spending much time watching the gnome, and she had transitioned into watching him silently. Like a vigil. But, that’s the way a lot of people watch TV, so I didn’t think it was all that weird.

            I spent weeks mentally destroying myself over why the guy who had initially wanted to buy the gnome became so upset. The gnome wasn’t doing anything wrong, so it must have been me, right? He must have found something repulsive about me. Maybe he noticed that the gnome, who was still wearing the fleece pullover outfit at the time, looked so much like me, which made it seem like I was trying to cast out this little simulacrum of myself. It would be like a kind of suicide, from his perspective. I wanted him to take away a facet of myself.

          The gnome was not a facet of myself, but the guy didn’t know that. And, from an outsider’s perspective, if the gnome and I seemed that similar, wasn’t that what mattered? There was no difference between me and the gnome, because a visitor to our house, who didn’t know me, couldn’t see one. And if that were true, then all the stuff I’d been thinking about, about life, was just wrong. Being able to put clothes on yourself, or have a name, that didn’t matter. It was all about how other people, with no connection to your abilities, thought of you. Which would mean that being intelligent, or being a person, had nothing to do with you. My body and my mind couldn’t be a person; only the idea of me could. Was that what the guy thought? Was that what everyone thought?

            I started watching the gnome with Jean more often, in silent vigil, the way she did. I wondered if she was thinking the same thing. If he was a person, in her eyes. If I was.

            She made him a little dinosaur costume, from a children’s Halloween pattern. “It’s October,” she explained. We had found the gnome in July.

            At that moment, I remembered that the guy had also asked whether we ever let the gnome out of his cage. Maybe that was the problem: that we kept him in the cage all the time, never letting him leave.

          When I thought of this, I felt an unexpected stab of resentment. Why should anyone be concerned about whether the gnome was being let out? What about me? Was anyone going to let me out?

          What am I talking about, I thought. Let me out of what?

          “We should take him trick-or-treating,” I said.

        Jean wrinkled her nose. “Jesus, Todd, he’s not our child.”

      This was true, of course, but then, what was he? “Is he, like, a pet?” The guy had used
     that word, after all.

        “I don’t really know,” she admitted. “I guess I have fun with him. He’s entertaining. And he’s harmless. He’s more like a,” she twirled her finger around in the air, “a toy, or something. Well… eh, the attraction is that he’s not dependent on me. That’s really the key piece. A child, or a pet, they need you. You have to do all these things to keep them alive and happy, feed them and clean up after them and whatever else.”

        “What about a husband?” I said.

        She didn’t seem to have heard me. “Whereas he’s basically alive and has a little personality, but he pretty much does his own thing. There’s no responsibility. I can rest.”

      “But you do all these things for him,” I said. “Making clothes. And spending all this time watching him.”

        Jean said nothing. It must not have registered as a contradiction.

      “Is that what you want?” I asked. “Someone you’re not responsible for, at all?”

        She nodded. She didn’t look at me. “Yes. Yes, it is.”

           I could see the gnome, then, as I thought she must have seen him: as an ideal version of me. A person wearing my clothes, and living in her house, but with no needs at all. A harmless me.

          We decided that, instead of taking the gnome trick-or-treating, we would move the cage near the front door, so that trick-or-treating children could see him, dressed as a dinosaur, and be horrified or delighted. There weren’t very many children in our neighborhood, so we usually spent the trick-or-treat time eating candy out of a bowl, watching television and occasionally answering the door, often seeing kids dressed as the very characters we were watching on TV.

          This year was different. Jean sat in a chair, facing the front door, the gnome in the cage by her side. Not eating any of the candy. Just waiting. When the doorbell rang, she would exclaim delight over the children’s costumes, then say, “And look at this!” And look at the gnome. He was almost always asleep, and she seemed no less excited for it.

          “Is that a bird?” one kid asked.

           Weird, said most of them.

         “It’s baby Jesus,” said another one, with a completely neutral facial expression and no trace of emotion.

           Others simply ran away.

            For the first bit of the evening, I stood slightly behind Jean, out of a sense of obligation. I felt it would be disrespectful to do anything else. Eventually, I took a break to feed Princess Diana, which had to be done. After that, nostalgia getting the better of me, I adjourned to the living room and turned on a show I’d been watching. She had no reaction. I looked over at her every so often, but didn’t get up. It didn’t look like she needed anything.

              I wondered if this was how things were going to play out from now on: Jean watching the gnome, inviting herself to be watched, watching the gnome; me, off by myself, watching TV. She with her perfect, harmless version of me, and me doing my best to be as harmless as possible, as much like the gnome as possible. I closed my eyes, using the sound of the TV as background for picturing this as normal. In the vision I made for myself, I was doing my best to disappear, or at least, to become invisible. I could sit here, in front of the TV, all day if I wanted to, and I wouldn’t be bothering Jean, because she would be with the gnome. I imagined myself wearing very large, linen facsimiles of sneakers, imagined what the linen would feel like on my feet all the time. I saw myself sleeping all the time, never needing to eat. I heard myself talk, and I heard what I said mean nothing. And what else is a house, but a very comfortable cage?

                I was asleep, is what was going on by the end. Jean woke me up late, with all the children long since gone home with their candy.

              “Todd,” she said, “it’s time to take Bernie back downstairs.”

              “Okay,” I mumbled, “I’ve got you. I’ll help!” I wondered how long she had sat in front of the door, waiting for another costumed kid to show up, after the last one had left.

              “You fell asleep on the couch,” she said. “Are you okay? How are you doing?”

              “Good,” I said. “Really good.” I stood up, did a couple shallow knee bends, getting ready to carry the cage.



M. Shaw is a graduate of the Clarion Writers' Workshop (class of 2019) and an organizer of the Denver Mercury Poetry Slam. Despite the best efforts of some, they STILL live in Arvada, Colorado, where they run the micropress Trouble Department. Their website is mshawesome.com. Their Twitter handle is @shawwillsuffice.

We Didn’t Know They Could That

      by Ryan Pfeffer

     

I had a hurricane outfit, apparently: a blue towel with a hole torn in the  middle that I wore like a poncho, completely naked otherwise. I’d wear it  while watching every hourly update of the storm’s projected track,  rooting for any squiggly line aimed at our roof.

“It was my damn fault,” mom admitted one time, when me, her, and  Sam were having dinner at Rincón De Jalisco. "I told you that  hurricanes were just god blowing all the monsters out of town,” she  laughed, pushing ice around her very green margarita with a plastic  straw. “You were still so scared of the dark back then."

By the time Hurricane Imelda formed, mom had left Redland, and it was  just me and an extremely pregnant Sam. She was about seven months  along but looked more like eleven. It snuck up on us both. She gained  20 pounds in three weeks, and all the sudden I couldn’t look at her  without feeling a kind of nervousness that felt vague and endless.

Sam wanted to stay put for Imelda. She said these things were rarely as  bad as the news made it seem, and she was right. But this was going to  be the last opportunity I’d have to be alone — truly alone — for maybe  the rest of my life. And that didn’t feel selfish at the time. I thought I’d  earned it.

“Why even risk it?” I told her, and went on about the various concerns of  having a pregnant woman in 96 degree heat with no power or safe  drinking water. Sam smelled bullshit, because Sam could always smell  bullshit, but also because she knew she was talking to the same man  who allowed her two glasses of red wine on Saturdays and even a  bimonthly cigarette without putting up the slightest fight.

I told her I’d stay back and watch the place, and she said “fine” in a  voice that meant “fuck off.” But I think some part of her wanted the  same thing as me, just a small break before an endless marathon. I  wish I’d just asked her that. Instead I gave her a big hug, a phony smile,  and the keys to my car. And she gave me a to-do list that was mostly a  form of revenge for making her drive six hours to stay with my mom in  Jacksonville. Baby’s Room was the big one, underlined twice and  circled hard enough to dent the paper.

Sam found some stupid article about how an overwhelming percentage  of Nobel Prize winners say blue is their favorite color. But after five  weeks of deep research, she still couldn’t decide between Eggshell  Ripple or Autumn Dolphin. I was apparently not being thoughtful enough  about these kinds of details. Sam demonstrated that one night by  asking me to choose between two paint swatches and, after I pointed to  the one on the left, revealed it was a Chinese takeout menu, then  proceeded to hit me with it.

She left only a few hours before the storm hit, because Sam’s time  management skills were never the sharpest and those last 20 pounds  didn’t make her quicker. She was supposed to text me her final decision  on the paint when she got to Jacksonville, but that obviously never  happened.

The thing about Imelda is that nobody knew what was coming because  nobody had seen it happen before. We didn’t know they could do that.  We didn’t know that a hurricane could get so big, so fast, and then  just… stay put. Hover there. Like a spaceship trying to abduct an entire  city. We didn’t know that a hurricane could find the exact perfect set of  conditions that would allow it to remain completely still, stretching from  South Beach to the Gulf of Mexico, feeding itself enough warm water to  hold an entire city hostage for months.

I never talked to Sam after she left. Cell service went out just 30  minutes into the storm, and it didn’t come back. Every couple hours or  so I’d turn my phone back on and try to text her. Just little things like  “I’m safe” and “I love you” and, once, a video of me naked in the  backyard waving a golf club over my head along with the message  “EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF.” I wanted to make her laugh because I  knew, wherever she was, that she was pissed. I just didn’t know if it was  because I wasn’t out there with her or she wasn’t in here with me.

Four days in and the storm still hadn’t budged an inch. Imelda decided  to stop with her eye directly over us. You could call that luck, I guess,  even though it wasn’t exactly pretty outside. But it was possible to leave  the house without getting shish kebabed by a grapefruit tree, so there’s  that. And soon enough people were jogging and driving to go visit their  friends. It almost felt like a town again, if you could manage to ignore  the world outside the storm, which I learned could.

Ed Tiller drove by one morning with four people and a small mountain of  avocados in the bed of his pickup. He invited me over to try an  experimental batch of wine he’d been working on. Over at Ed’s that  night, about a dozen people squatted around the radio, shushing the  folks who’d already had a little too much avocado wine. At first the  consensus from the meteorologists was that this would be over any  minute now. Hurricanes were like sharks, one of them said. They had to  keep moving or else they died. But the days passed, Imelda just got  stronger, and theories adjusted. Maybe it wasn’t even a hurricane, but  something different, a new kind of weather system. One scientist lady  called it a “permastorm” and suggested it could last for a decade.

Ed ran out of fuel for his generator about a week later and the batteries  in the radio died not long after. Ed’s generator lasted 72 hours longer  than the other generators in town because he convinced Ivan to siphon fuel from the monster truck he was restoring in his front yard. My phone  died around then too, but I sent one last text to Sam. I told her not to  worry about me, that I was doing just fine. And I tried to not think about  how much I meant it.

One night at Ed’s the wine was flowing pretty heavy when all the  sudden Ivan started shouting and pointing at the sky. A silver box the  size of a coffee table was floating down to earth, blinking red lights on  each of its corners. It looked for a second like it was going to hit Ed’s  truck, but missed by a few feet, and landed with a hollow thud. There  was a handle on top of the box next to the words “Pull Here,” so we did,  and the top slid off to reveal an impressive selection of canned beans.

“They could have squashed someone,” Ed said, stacking cans.

“They could have sent beer,” Ivan said, checking the empty box a fourth  time for booze.

After that, the sky drops — I’m not sure who coined the term but it stuck  — started coming about every three days, and kept coming for the next  month. Sometimes you’d find one smashed to pieces in an empty lot  with a crater around it. But most landed safely, full of food, batteries, a  little gasoline, firewood, cell phone chargers, first aid kits, water  purification tablets, toothpaste, toilet paper, playing cards, and socks,  which seemed odd at first but quickly became the most sought-after sky  drop item. One of the boxes had radios too, so I got my own and started  listening in the morning while I stirred instant coffee with a fork.

Imelda was getting less airtime every day, because different things kept  tugging at the country’s attention span: a pop star stabbed on the red  carpet of the Grammys by a crazy fan; the first daughter caught doing  heroin in the White House bathroom; Osceola, beloved horse mascot  for Florida State University, poisoned by a rival UF fan, and collapsed  on the 50-yard line during an important playoff game.

But Imelda was still a daily news story. One morning, NPR interviewed a  scientist who said that if Imelda wasn’t gone by March, things could get  real bad. El Niño was coming, he said, and all that warm water could  hypothetically sustain the storm for another nine to twelve months.

I turned off the radio and tried to imagine it: another year of this life.  Quiet walks and potatoes wrapped in tinfoil, cooked directly on the fire.  Drinking Ed’s wine in the backyard while the sun sets. Falling asleep to  the sound of wind and peeing outside, wherever I wanted. It didn’t scare  the shit out of me, and that’s when I first started to wonder if I was on  the wrong side of these clouds or the right one. And then a year didn’t  quite feel long enough.

The next day I woke up to a knock on the door and there was Ed,  lacquered in a layer of sweat and dead mosquitoes.

“You’re gonna want to come see this,” he said, and waved me into the  truck.

One of the sky drops had a little armored military laptop inside. When  Ed opened it, a video started playing. It was a video of our various loved  ones, hundreds of them, reciting pre-written words of support. It began  with a statement from the president, who said, “We’re going to show this  storm who’s boss,” while nodding solemnly.

The video was nearly over when mom came on screen, eyes all red and  looking like this was her fifth take.

“Hi, baby,” she said. “We love you so much. We’re all thinking about you  every day, and we know you’re going to be alright.”

She kept saying “we,” but there was no Sam. Mom paused to look at  someone off camera, probably signaling her to wrap things up.

“Baby, there should be a letter for you in the box. I need you to read it.  Everything’s going to be fine. I’m here and I’m taking care of it. But read  the letter.”

When the video ended, I found the white envelope with “JOSH” written  across the front in jagged black marker. Definitely mom’s handwriting. I  tore it open, and the words registered in bunches, like my brain was one  of those claws that could only grab one stuffed animal at a time.

“Premature… baby’s okay… named him Josh… complications… bad  infection… medically-induced coma.”

I could see Ed staring at me so I tried to keep a poker face, because I  didn’t want to cause a scene. But then I felt the wine in my stomach all  at once, like a water balloon exploded in there. I stumbled to the kitchen  and Ivan was leaning against the fridge, peeling an orange. I didn’t even  look at him, just went straight to the sink because I couldn’t tell if I was  about to throw up.

“Sick of this palace too?” he said in response to my dry heave. “Me too,  papi. Me too. That’s why I’m leaving tomorrow.”

“What do you mean leaving?” I asked, once I managed to swallow.

“I found more gas. There was a tank at the station everyone missed.  But not Ivan. I got in there with a jackhammer and now I have enough  fuel to run up the Turnpike. They say the wind’s not so bad after Boca.  Annoying, yeah, but it won’t kill you.”

Ivan was an alcoholic, but he was also a pretty competent mechanic.  And the truck in question, which used to go by the name Deadbolt in its  performing day, could run over sedans like they were speed bumps. I’d  seen it with my own eyes at the rodeo three years ago.

“Tomorrow at noon,” Ivan said, heading out the back door on the hunt  for more wine. “I’ll drive by and honk.”

As he swung the door open, I could hear laughter. People were  breaking into the latest batch of avocado wine, which came out like shit  this time. The same fucking Eagles song was playing on the radio. Ed  and his daughter were working on that night’s dinner: more unseasoned  canned beans and freeze-dried packets of buffalo chicken nuggets that  were more rubber than chicken.

I left without saying bye and when I got home, I went straight to the  baby’s room, grabbed the screwdriver on the floor, cracked open  Autumn Dolphin, and stirred the paint. It was an executive decision, but  I just knew Sam was leaning toward Autumn Dolphin. She was just  waiting for me to say it too.

Sam had never been to a hospital. It’s not that she never needed to go  to one. She was covered in scars if you knew where to look, and at  least several of her toes had been broken, judging by their angles. But  she would rather super glue a bagel-related laceration shut than take it  to the professionals. She claimed it was due to a scary movie she  watched at too young an age. She could not remember the name of the  film, only that it had an evil nurse who liked to murder people with a  sharpened tongue depressor.

That’s what really freaked her out about being pregnant — the thought  of spending the night in a “death hotel,” as she called them. I told her  that, if she gave me the word, I’d break her out of there. Me, her, and  the baby. “What are they gonna do?” I said. “Arrest us for stealing our  own baby?” And she laughed and kissed me on the neck.

I’d only finished one wall when I heard the beep outside. There was  Ivan, as promised, with one arm hanging out an open window, dangling

just above the D in the word Deadbolt, which was painted across the  truck in melting green letters.

“Road trip time!” he screamed over the truck’s gurgle.

I had to take a running start to get into the passenger seat. It smelled  like cigarettes and gasoline inside, and I couldn’t hear Ivan over the  sound of the engine. I flashed him a thumbs up and we pulled out, my  house getting smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror until I couldn’t  tell it apart from the horizon.

When we reached the Turnpike, we were right up against the  Everglades, and I could see for miles since the truck was so tall. It was  just an even buzz cut of sawgrass as far as you could see, but if you  looked up, you could tell where the eye of Imelda ended, and the sky  turned black.

Lightning flashed inside the clouds silently, and I could feel the humidity  getting sucked out of the air. It suddenly occurred to me that there were  no windows in the truck. I looked over at Ivan as he lifted a red cup to  his mouth and swallowed hard.

I really didn’t know where we were going. I never bothered to ask. Ivan  didn’t seem to have any luggage in the car and I noticed that he was  only wearing underwear from the waist down. He looked straight ahead,  at the same clouds I saw, only he didn’t seem to see them at all.

“Stop,” I said, but Ivan didn’t respond. So I said it louder, right in his ear.  And when he still wouldn’t, I unbuckled my seatbelt and dove headfirst  to punch the break myself, which sent Deadbolt into a fishtail that lasted  forever. I scrambled out of the truck and landed on my ass while he was  messing with the shifter. Then Ivan pulled away, middle finger out the  window until Imelda swallowed him up.

Standing there on the shoulder of the Turnpike, I felt my phone buzz in  my pocket. And then again and again. Cell reception must have poked  through the clouds, for a brief moment, because the notifications were  coming in machine gun bursts, one after the other. My pocket kept

shaking for the next ten minutes, and I just stood there crying. When it  finally stopped, I forced myself to look, the way you force yourself to  jump into a cold pool. You just do it without letting yourself think about  how bad it’ll sting. I only read one message, the first one that popped  up, and it was from Sam. All it said was eggshell ripple.

 


Ryan Pfeffer is a writer and journalist living in Miami. He's a native South Floridian
and is currently the editor of The Infatuation Miami, where he writes about food and restaurants. He's covered everything from DJ Khaled to the official Pitbull cruise,
and has written for places like The New York Times, Washington Post, and Vice.

Fair Game

by Brian McVety

 

      “Did you know that hazardous is one of only four words in the common English
language that ends in d-o-u-s?” Thad asked Sarah, as he sipped his beer.

She didn’t say anything, knowing there would be more.

“Isn’t that interesting? Like, of all the ways to make a word, there are only four
that end that way?” He looked at her, smiling, as if impressed with his own genius.

“Is there anything you don’t know?” she chirped.

“I’m sure there is.” A bit of yeast and beer remained in his glass, brown-bodied cells
clinging to the bottom. “I’ll let you know when I find out what.” He gulped it down, then burped loudly.

They sat in the taproom, lingering after their colleagues had left. The first Friday of the month meant Revolvers, a local brewery that had opened last year. Thad had started the gatherings last fall, as a way to bring the school together.

Sarah had been teaching there for a couple of years. She used to work downtown, in an underfunded district that had seen its numbers dwindle for years, until one day the annual pink-slip she found in her mailbox each June actually meant that cuts were taking place instead of just the warning that the budget was thinning once again. She had never wanted to leave, loved the chaos and the kids, but she figured a change to a suburban environment might make her days easier on some level, steadier, more predictable even. She had yet to complain about the parent phone calls, the parent e-mails, the eventual parent meetings. She hadn’t met this kind of support before. There was also the staff, how dedicated everyone seemed to be, to the kids, to each other, to Revolver’s. Everyone, especially Thad, made her feel like she belonged, yet she didn’t know why she felt like she didn’t fit in. She tried to appreciate them, appreciate him. Some days she did more than others.

“Don’t you want to know the other three?”

“Other three what?”

He mockingly shook his head. “Try to keep up, Sarah.”

She feigned annoyance and rolled her eyes. He looked at her with that crooked grin of his. “Tremendous, stupendous, and horrendous. Fitting adjectives, I think.” His grin remained.

“One seems to fit you, for sure. Maybe two.”

“I certainly am tremendous. Maybe stupendous. You’re too kind, babe.”

“Not those two.” She patted him on the head. “Babe.” It was Sarah’s turn to finish
her beer.

“Technically, there’s a zoological term that’s not used often that would make it five.
Apodous. It means without feet. So, I guess I lied to you.”

“Such a jerk.”

“But a loveable one.”

She wondered if he was loveable, had been wondering for a while. He certainly could be a jerk, but he made her laugh, even if it was often at her expense. He was a little older, had been married once, was one of those guys who wouldn’t get better looking as he aged. He was handsome enough, though, for now.

“Should we get another one?” he asked, eyeing her empty glass.

“I’m good.”

“What are you doing later?”

She was at a point in her life when she found that being direct was the most effective approach. She wasn’t sure when this switch had occurred. “Going home. Eventually going to sleep.”

“What a surprise.”

“You saying you don’t sleep?”

“Why sleep when I have my genius to share with the world?”

She knew he was writing a book. He wouldn’t shut up about it. Something about selective breeding in some dystopian universe. He had labeled it a commentary on Margaret Sanger. “It must be exhausting being you.”

“It can be. I might need to distract myself from myself.” He stared at her.
“Want company?”

She debated, knowing that she should say no, that that was the professional thing to do. She knew before it came out of her mouth that it might be a mistake, but she said it anyway.

“Okay.”

He smirked. “Really?”

"Ask again and I’ll change my mind.”

“Do you want me to really stop asking?”

Sarah wasn’t sure. She liked that he liked her. It had been a while since she had been liked. She had dated enough, sometimes seriously, sometimes not. It’s not that she stopped trying. Rather, she had grown content with the way her life was. It was easier in many ways. She hated the way people didn’t understand this. But, it had been a while since she had gotten laid. “Yes, I want you to stop asking.”

The bartender brought over their tab. “My treat?” Thad said.

“I don’t think so,” she said, taking out her wallet, the one with the faces of famous first ladies all over it a student had given her as a gift.

“Such a woman.”

“Not my treat either,” she said, putting down enough money for half the bill. “And you’ve got the tip.”

“Just the tip?” he said, winking at her.

She rolled her eyes and realized how strong the beers had been when she stood up. He put his hand on her lower back and guided her to her car. She knew it shouldn’t go anywhere, couldn’t go anywhere, that she wouldn’t let it go anywhere. But, she had forgotten what it felt like to be wanted, even if for a night.

***

Sarah watched the coffee drip from the old coffee machine, its once-white percolator now a faded brown. She sat down, pulled out of her bag a green pen and a stack of essays, but didn’t have it in her yet. Coffee, albeit mediocre coffee, first.

She usually only ventured to the faculty room before school for her first cup, when no one was in there, but she had been displaced out of her classroom because of state testing. She hated giving up her turf. She heard the door open, just as the Pledge was ending over the intercom.

“Morno!” Thad had two coffees in his hands and placed one next to her, despite the
mug in front of her.

“Morno?”

“No. Morno! There’s a difference.”

“What do you mean there’s a difference?”

He didn’t answer but leaned over her and eyed the pile of essays. She could smell his cologne and nearly coughed. “Social Reform in Post-Colonial England,” he said, reading the title. “We aren’t even close to getting there yet, but I like that idea. Social reform. We need more of it.” He sat down next to her, let his foot find hers under the table. “Like no one even uses this room. And when they do, it’s just a smile and a nod.
Barely even a good morning. Reform, we must.”

She looked at him, pulling her foot away. “Maybe it’s just you, Thad. People never seem to stop talking to me.” She looked back down at her essays. He was looking at her.

“What?”

“You’re cute when you grade.”

She didn’t look at him. “I need to focus.”

He reached into his bag and pulled out his computer, his mouth open as he typed. A moment later, the printer spat out a piece of paper. He grabbed it and posted it to the bulletin board. In bold, black letters, it said MORNO! Below, was a letter:

Dearest Colleagues,

It has come to my attention that Ms. Sarah Trubiano has grown tired of the
constant chatter, pleasantries, communication, niceties, and general forms of
human decency that you have been bombarding her with. If you would, please,
leave her the fuck alone, it would be much appreciated. Thank you
.

Sincerely,
Mr. Thad H. Cheswick.

He sat back down next to her and waited.

“Very funny,” she said.

“I know,” he said, smiling.

“Take it down, please.”

“Maybe.”

“C’mon, Thad.”

“Maybe not.” He sipped his coffee again. “So when am I coming over again?”
She remembered the way he snored, how his pillowcase was drenched with saliva when she changed the sheets, how she couldn’t sleep at all after. She remembered how predictable it all seemed. She didn’t regret it, but she didn’t want to admit that it had happened, either. “I told you when you left. That didn’t happen.”

“But it did happen.”

“No, Thad, it didn’t happen. Didn’t happen and won’t happen again.”

He looked like a puppy, wounded but unable to learn a lesson. She looked down at her the essays, not knowing what to do. He grabbed her hand, clasping hard.

“Please. I mean it.”

He let go when the door opened and Mrs. Naples, their principal, walked in carrying a tray of bagels.

“Morno!” Thad said.

“Morno?” Mrs. Naples replied, placing the bagels on the table.

“No, with an exclamation point. It’s the only way to say it.” Thad looked Sarah, smirking, before addressing Mrs. Naples. “How are you doing today, Chief?”

Mrs. Naples unwrapped the cellophane. “To have teachers like you, how could I not be doing great? Look, bagels, because I do care.” Mrs. Naples and Thad shared a laugh. Thad grabbed a bagel before Mrs. Naples had finished taking off the plastic. “How are you guys?”

“Just planning social reform. Trying to change the world.  You know, make a difference,” Thad said. He put his arm around Sarah in mock unison, giving her shoulder a squeeze before letting go.

“I’m glad to see that people are using their prep time for something productive,” Mrs. Naples said, opening a container of cream cheese. “How are you, Sarah?”

“I’m good.” Sarah felt she should say something more but couldn't. They all looked out at the courtyard. The goose was poking at the ground.

“When do you think they’ll hatch?” Thad finally said.

Sarah had heard from the students how some geese had landed a few days earlier. A pair had built a nest in the corner of the courtyard. Tony, the custodian, had found the eggs when he was cutting the grass. He was bending down to get a closer look when a goose arrived, flapping its wings and viciously hissing, trying to bite as it chased Tony away. He left the lawn mower running, didn’t want to go back out there, before finally bringing it back to the maintenance shed, shoving it in without locking the door. He turned to run back into the school but tripped and fell in a mixture of mud and goose shit.  The geese had been the talk of the school ever since.

“Marni will know,” Thad responded to himself, taking out his phone.

“Isn’t she teaching?” Mrs. Naples asked.

“Good point,” he said, sending the text anyways.

A goose came out from behind the bush, began to searchingly poke at the ground. Thad’s phone buzzed. “About 28 days until they hatch,” he said. “Google told me.”

Mrs. Naples gave a tight smile.

“Has Tony lived down the humiliation? I don’t want to tell you that I have seen the video on Twitter, so I won’t.”

“Tony’s dignity is impenetrable,” Mrs. Naples said, still looking out the window.

Sarah felt Thad’s hand running up her thigh under the table. She pushed it away.

“You never know what to expect in this job,” Mrs. Naples said. “Enjoy the bagels. Spread the word.” Mrs. Naples turned to leave when the bulletin board caught her eye. She pulled the letter down. Sarah felt her face redden.

“Is that why you’re so quiet today?” Mrs. Naples said. Sarah couldn’t tell if she was joking. “Grow up, Thad,” Mrs. Naples said, as she crumpled the letter, tossing it in the recycling bin on her way out, chuckling to herself.

“What the fuck, Thad?” Sarah said when the door was finally closed. She stood up and put her mug in the sink. She started to wash it with her fingers, hoping he would just leave.

“What? Just trying to have a good morning,” he said, shoving too much bagel in his mouth and walking up behind her. “Just like I had a great night,” he whispered, leaning in closer to her ear. He grabbed her butt on the way out, squeezing her hard, before he left.

Sarah stiffened, felt the lingering, as if his hand was still there. She didn’t know what to do. She turned off the water, looked out the window, noticed that the goose had gone. She sat down and looked at her essays. She didn’t make it past the title, before the tears started to fall.

***

Sarah had written and rewritten the email a dozen times. This one felt like the simplest yet.

Dear Mrs. Naples,

I wish I were writing this email under different circumstances, but there is a
matter that I need to discuss with you. Could you please let me know when it
might be a good time to meet with you? I appreciate your support in advance.

Sincerely,
Sarah Trubiano

Sarah saved it to her drafts with the others. She wondered if she should just let it go, if it wasn’t that big of a deal. Thad had even come by to see her later that day, had asked her why the schedule was flip-flopped, even though they both knew that it happened every year during testing time. He acted like nothing had happened. She wanted to confront him then, ask him what he thought gave him the right, but students started to come in. She couldn’t help feeling thankful for their presence. She spent the rest of the week avoiding Thad after that.

She debated starting a new draft, wondered if she should address Mrs. Naples by her first name, when she heard a noise at the window, like someone throwing pebbles. Sarah didn’t see anything but the parking lot at first. She started to walk towards the window when the black and white head shot up and tapped on the window again. Sarah didn’t mean to scream.

After the first pair, more geese had arrived. Initially, they merely meandered, sometimes in groups, sometimes alone, over the athletic fields, the walkways, the parking lot. Then they wanted in, the adjacent courtyard classrooms the first targets, followed by reports from the second floor, from the nurse’s office, from the gymnasium. Erin Waterman had even heard tapping on the window in the faculty bathroom. It seemed that any way they could get in was fair game.

Sarah double-checked the lock on the window just to be sure. The goose looked up at her, rapping the pane again, before it started to walk way. She pulled the blind down just as Thad walked into her classroom.

“Someone get killed in here?”

He walked over to the window and lifted the shade. The goose was making its way through the parking lot. It looked back once before heading to the soccer field.

“Someone should do something about them. I heard some students saying they were
going to ask Marni if they could experiment with their own repellents. They wanted
whoever designed the most effective one to get out of the final. I told her she’d win
Teacher of the Year.”

Sarah walked to the whiteboard and started to write her agenda for the next block. He walked to her desk and sat in her chair, putting his feet up next to her computer. “What are you doing this weekend? I’m getting beer, then maybe getting more beer, then probably getting some more beer.”

She kept her back to him. “I’m not sure yet. Might have to watch my sister’s dog.”

“Sounds like a party. I love dogs.”

She was done writing but didn’t turn around.

“So what time should I come over?”

She let her shoulders fall. “No, Thad,” she said to the board.

“What? Don’t like beer all of a sudden? Because I know you couldn’t not like me.”

She finally looked at him. “You can’t do that.”

“Do what?”

She couldn’t tell if he truly didn’t know. “Can’t just act like you didn’t do anything.”

“What did I do?”

“You should at least say you’re sorry.”

“Sorry?” He looked genuinely surprised. “Sorry for what?”

“Are you serious?” She could feel the knot in her stomach tighten. “You can’t just grab
someone’s ass, can’t touch me like that just because you want to.”

He still had his feet on her desk. He crossed his arms behind his head, his armpits a shade darker than the rest of his shirt. “That? You’re pissed about that?”

“Yes, I’m pissed about that.”

“What’s the big deal? It was just a joke.”

She could feel herself growing warmer.

“Look, I was just playing around. I don’t know why it upsets you so much.”

She waited for a “but” that didn’t come. “Well, it did upset me. Does upset me. You’re
lucky I haven’t reported it.”

“Lucky? It was a fucking joke. I thought you’d like it. You liked it the other night.”

“Nobody likes to get their ass grabbed at work.”

“I wouldn’t say nobody does, seems like a broad generalization.”

“Jesus Christ, Thad.”

“I’m sure there are plenty of people who wouldn’t mind. Depends on the job, of course. Kind of comes with the territory in some professions.”

She pushed his feet off her desk.

“What? Sarah, I'm just joking.”

“I have to get ready for class.”

He stood up and looked at her, taking a step closer to her. “Tell me when you’re back to being normal,” he said, putting his arm on her shoulder. “It’s more fun for the both of us.”

She pushed him off, just as the students started to file in.

“Mr. Cheswick, have you seen the geese?” a freshman boy asked.

“They’re everywhere,” another girl responded.

“Mrs. W. said one tried to come into the bathroom.”

“They’re so fire.”

“So fire,” Thad said, fist bumping them as they ran to the window. He didn’t look back as he walked out the door.

Sarah opened her computer, found the last draft, and finally hit send.

***

Sitting outside the principal’s office, Sarah felt like a student, wearing the same doe-eyed look she had seen on so many kids before. She didn’t know why she felt like she had done something wrong. The secretaries had gone home, and Tony was vacuuming the carpets. Mrs. Naples’s door was shut. Sarah didn’t know how long she should wait.

The door to Mrs. Naples’s office finally opened.  She had a phone to her ear but waved Sarah in. “I understand, Mrs. Ziplisky. I know,” Mrs. Naples said, nodding her head.
Sarah didn’t know if she should sit at the little table in the corner of the office or at the oversized chairs across from Mrs. Naples’s desk. Sarah wished Mrs. Naples would make the decision for her by sitting down, but she remained standing by the door on the phone.

“No, you’re right. There should be better communication.”

Sarah opted for in front of the desk. She sank into the chair, feeling like she had made the wrong decision.

“Yes. Yes, I’ve heard they are impossible to get rid of, especially after they nest. I will
certainly keep that in mind. Thank you.” Mrs. Naples ended the call and sat opposite Sarah. She didn’t say anything at first as she typed away at her phone.
“They tell you that most of your days will be spent on the phone. But they don’t tell you
that you will be spending hours on the phone dealing with fucking geese complaints. ”

She finally looked up. “Sorry. I don’t mean to swear, but that was the fourth call today.” She finally smiled.

“So. What’s going on?”

Sarah expected the question but didn’t really know how to begin. “It seems the geese are all anyone can talk about.”

Mrs. Naples looked at her. “I know. But what’s going on with you?” She waited.

“Well, something happened.”

“What kind of something?”

“I don’t even know how to describe it.”

“There’s enough to it for you to be meeting with me after school on a Friday. So, Sarah, what’s going on?”

Sarah exhaled. “Thad.”

“Oh. Thad.”

Mrs. Naples glanced down at her phone, before flipping it over. “What about him? Posting more letters in the faculty room?”

“It’s not just the letters. Sometimes, sometimes he just makes me uncomfortable.”

“I think he makes everyone a little uncomfortable. He has that way about him,
doesn’t he?”

“He certainly does.”

“But he does make you laugh.”

Sarah didn’t respond.

“So what did Thad do this time?”

Sarah hesitated. She had a hard time meeting Mrs. Naples’ eyes. “He grabbed me.
Inappropriately grabbed me.”

Mrs. Naples sighed. “Where?”

“In the faculty room.”

“No. Where on your body?”

Sarah felt the lump form in her throat, felt herself growing warmer. “On my backside.”

“Your back?”

She didn’t feel like she should have to say it. “No. My butt.”

Mrs. Naples sighed again. “What kind of grab are we talking about here?

The question caught Sarah off-guard. “Excuse me?”

“A light tap?” Mrs. Naples said, tapping her fingertips on her desk. “Or a grab?” She
gripped the edge of her desk to emphasize, her knuckles turning white.

“Does it matter what kind?”

“It shouldn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. Context does, though.”

“What do you mean context?”

“Well. It is Thad. And it is you.”

“So?”

Mrs. Naples looked at her, like she shouldn't have to explain herself. “Word gets around, Sarah. Even though it shouldn’t, I know, but word gets around.”

Sarah felt herself flush even more. She knew that schools thrived on gossip, but it was usually about school stuff. She didn’t know what Mrs. Naples had heard. Didn’t think that she could have heard about the two of them, until she realized Thad was incapable of keeping his mouth shut. Half the staff probably knew by now, she realized for the first time. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“It doesn’t. Unless it does.”

“What do you mean?”

“You sure you want to do this?”

Sarah wasn’t even sure what she was doing. “Do what? Report sexual harassment?”

Mrs. Naples looked at her like she was speaking with a child. “Listen. I’m not saying what he did was right. It wasn’t. But these situations can be tricky. I’m just trying to make sure. It basically will be a he said-she said situation. And with your history, it gets a little murkier.”

“We don’t have a history.”

Mrs. Naples had a way of smiling without it appearing like a smile when she was trying to figure something out. It made her seem like she was in on a joke that you should be in on, too. Sarah certainly felt as if she didn’t understand the joke.

“Maybe. Maybe not. A matter of perspective. I just want you to think about this. That’s
all. I'm on the side of fairness, and I just don’t want to see you ruined because of this.
Think about it. If you want to go through with this, we’ll go through with it. Let’s not
just rush into something, okay?”

Sarah didn’t know what to say. She felt a burning inside of her.

There was a knock at the door. Mr. Richards didn’t wait to be asked in but poked his head in. His tie was undone. He had the same expressionless face that he kept while on cafeteria duty. “Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt. Maria, I just got another call. Apparently, they’re canceling the soccer match on account of the field being such a mess. I guess there is shit everywhere.” He glanced at Sarah. “Excuse my language.”

“Okay. I’ll send something out to parents tonight.” She looked back at Sarah. “Think about it,” Mrs. Naples said, picking up her phone again.

She dialed a number and put the phone to her ear.

Sarah walked out of the room, avoiding Mr. Richards’s eyes. A few teachers were walking out the door, so Sarah put her bag down, pretended to look for her keys, pretended that she didn’t see how they whispered, how they glanced her way, how they smirked.

“Enjoy the weekend!” one of them called, after Sarah accidentally caught her eye. Sarah forced a smile before returning to her bag.

Mr. Richards came up next to her. “Lose something?” he said, straightening papers on the counter that didn’t need to be straightened.

“I’m not sure,” Sarah said, before walking slowly out the door, making sure not to
catch up with the others.

***

Sarah spent the weekend trying to make sense of Mrs. Naples’s advice, the words running through her mind on a loop. I’m on the side of fairness. She tried to convince herself that Mrs. Naples was indeed trying to be fair. Maybe it really was nothing. Maybe sleeping with him had complicated things. She didn’t eat much, could only see those words on her eyelids when she tried to sleep. The side of fairness. She remembered the workshop, where the speaker showed a cartoon of three little kids trying to see over a fence, the kids’ heights descending in size. The next picture showed them all getting the same sized box to stand on. Only two of the kids could actually see over the fence. The littlest one still couldn’t. The next slide said, “Fair is not always fair.”

Thad had texted her a few times over the weekend, wondering why she was being this way, why she was so mad. She didn’t respond. She laid in bed when her alarm went off on Monday morning. She had always liked her job, enjoyed showing up each day. The kids always made her laugh, seemed like they wanted to learn, and even when they didn’t, they were usually respectful about it. She could understand why people could grow tired of it, but that notion always seemed so abstract for her. Even on her worst days, there was nothing else she could ever imagine herself doing. But, as Sarah watched the coffee drip in the faculty room, for the first time, she didn’t want to be there. Fairness . Sarah
was starting to see what that actually meant.

She took her coffee and sat back down at the table. She wanted to be back in her room, but there was another week of testing. She took out the essays from her bag, where they had remained all weekend, and started to read. The door opened and she cringed. Marni walked in carrying some mesh netting and a bundle of stakes.

Don’t ask,” she said.

Marni put the materials on the table and poured herself a cup of coffee. She and Sarah had started at the school at the same time, had been placed at the same orientation table, which somehow bonded them, even though they never became particularly close.

“They want me to make sure that nothing happens to the nest. And they want me
to involve the students.”

Sarah had always appreciated how Marni had a way of joking without ever making
a joke.

“I thought they hated the geese and wanted to get rid of them,” Sarah said.

“They do, but they view it as some great learning opportunity or something. Especially for the freshmen. But they also want me to figure out a way to make sure
the geese don’t come back.” Marni took a big gulp of coffee.

“Sounds like a lot.”

“It sure does.” Marni continued to gather her supplies. “By the way. Have you heard
what the kids are saying?”

“Aren’t they always saying lots of things?”

“True. But the kids said that you’re trying to get Thad fired.”

She said it so matter-of-factly that Sarah at first thought she had misheard.

“What?”

“They said they had heard Mr. Cheswick was saying that to a group of kids arguing at
lunch, that he used you as an example apparently, how some teachers also don’t always get along well with other teachers.”

Sarah felt herself turning red.

“They also said that he said you were just mad because you used to date and
now you’re not.”

Sarah couldn’t meet her face.

“Is it true?”

“Seriously?”

“I mean, the kids usually know more than we do.”

Neither of them spoke. Marni refilled her coffee, grabbed the meshing and the stakes, and started to walk to the courtyard.

“Marni, you shouldn’t always believe everything you hear.”

Marni smiled. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to imply—I just wanted you to know what they’re saying. In case you wanted to do something about it.”

“Thanks.”

Marni looked at her. “He can be an asshole. But people are talking.”

Sarah didn’t say anything.

“Well, if you don’t want to grade, I’ll be outside. Wouldn’t mind some help.”

Sarah sipped her coffee while she watched Marni hammer in the stakes. She couldn’t believe he would do it, yet absolutely knew he would. Teachers were one thing, but not students. And she was the one being told to be fair. She knew she wouldn’t be able to grade. She put her essays in the bag and walked out the door.

A few seniors were at the tables, a couple of others lying in the grass on their phones. Sarah felt like they were watching her, even though they didn’t look up. The weather had started to warm, but she felt herself shiver. She didn’t know how they all seemed so comfortable. Marni was pounding another stake into the ground with a hammer. Sarah didn’t ask what to do, but started to unravel the meshing.

“Did you know that geese sometimes band together when they’re molting?” Marni said, as they worked. “They feel there’s safety in numbers. That could be why they’re here.
They feel that way until, finally, one is able to fly off. But they hate it, hate being grounded. It’s not the way they’re supposed to be.”

Sarah finished unrolling the meshing and started to gather the stakes. “Then why are we doing this?”

“Because once they breed, sometimes it’s hard to get them to leave. The goal is to
make them feel safe, but also uncomfortable. They should only be here a few months
and then they should move on, fly off when they’re ready. They’ll be back though. We’ll
have to do more next spring.”

“Where’s the nest?”

“Over there in the leaves. It’s hard to see it unless you get close. They’re pretty good at hiding things. I’m going to go get some more stakes. I’ll be right back,” Marni said before heading back inside.

Sarah struggled to pull the meshing around a stake, the grass long and wet around her feet. She pulled harder. It didn’t budge, so she pulled hard again. When the meshing slipped out of her hands, she stumbled backwards and heard the crack.

“Shit,” she said, lifting her foot and seeing the broken shell. She couldn’t see what was inside it; she didn’t want to.

She heard the hissing before she realized what was happening. She turned and saw the outstretched wings, the black marble eyes locked on her. She couldn’t tell if it was the mother or the father but knew it didn’t matter. She instinctively took a step backwards, hoping it might just go away. When she heard another crack under her shoe, she knew it wouldn’t. She grabbed one of the metal stakes and held it like a baseball bat. The goose hissed again, then charged, honking as it attacked. Sarah swung wildly, grazing its wing. The goose didn’t seem to notice. She swung again and landed a blow to its body. It came at her again, and Sarah swung as hard as she could, connecting with its head, just as it was about to bite. The goose fell down instantly, gray feathers floating in the air around it. Its breathing shallow, the goose tried to lift its head. Sarah knew she shouldn’t, but she swung down hard, just to be sure. The goose lay prostrate, its black marble eyes still open. Sarah’s chest heaved, the stake shaking in her hands. Sarah turned and saw Marni coming out with the meshing.

“Well that's one way to keep them away,” Marni said, arriving next to her.

Sarah let the stake drop. “I’m sorry—” Sarah said. “I didn’t mean to.”

Marni dropped the meshing and put her arm on Sarah’s shoulder. “I know you didn’t. But let’s get out of here. Its mate is going to be pissed.”

They left the bird and walked back inside, past the students who were recording the whole thing on their phones. Marni sat her down in the faculty room. Sarah’s hands continued to shake. Feathers clung to her hair. She looked out the window, at the students excitedly talking and texting as they made their way to the student doorway. She heard the door open behind her; she didn’t have to look to know who it was.

“I know they wanted to get rid of the geese, but I don’t think they wanted the students to witness murder.” Thad walked by them, taking out his phone as well. “I mean, there is probably a better word than murder. Goose-icide? I feel like I should know such things. Marni, remind me to look it up.”

Sarah could feel her legs shaking under the table, as if they weren’t her own.

“At least nobody took video of it. That would be a shame.” When he turned around, he
was smiling. “Would hate to see anybody’s credibility take a hit over something that shouldn’t be a big deal in the first place. Right, Sarah?”

Sarah started to pull feathers from her hair, before bringing her hands to her face and wiping what she thought was sweat from her forehead. She looked at them, and for the first time, noticed the blood.

“Fuck off, Thad,” Marni said, handing Sarah a wet paper towel. “I’ll let Tony know.
You okay?” Marni asked.

Sarah nodded.

“I never knew you had it in you,” Thad said, after Marni had left. “Wish I had known you could be so feisty.” He took out his phone and started to type.

Sarah wiped her face, the paper towel cool but scratchy on her skin. She closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths. When she opened them, she saw a goose fly down, land near the lifeless body. It poked around the ground, its beak passing through the leaves. Suddenly, the bird stiffened, like it knew. It looked around, before wildly honking and taking flight.

Mrs. Naples appeared from the student entrance, a few students trailing behind her, pointing to the feathered mess. Mrs. Naples looked at the bird, lifted her foot as if she were going to kick it, before turning around and saying something to the students.
They walked away laughing, and Mrs. Naples headed towards the faculty room.

“Morno!” Thad said.

Mrs. Naples ignored him. “What happened?”

“I stepped on an egg. Then I stepped on another. I didn’t see it. It was an accident.”
Mrs. Naples continued to stare. “I'm sorry. It just started to attack. I didn’t know what
else to do.”

Mrs. Naples sighed, looked at Thad and back to Sarah. “This wasn’t what I had in mind when I said to think about what you wanted to do.”

“Do about what?” Thad asked, not looking up from his phone.

Sarah looked at her, knowing that it might be a mistake to say it, but she said
it anyway.

“At least something was done.”

Mrs. Naples opened her mouth as if she were about to speak. Sarah looked from Mrs. Naples back to Thad. He held her gaze before looking way.

“What a mess,” Thad said, shaking his head. “Don’t worry, Boss, Marni’s getting Tony to clean it up.”

Sarah clenched the paper towel in her hand and realized what needed to be done. “No, I’ve got it,” she said, grabbing the trashcan between the two of them.  “It wouldn’t
be fair otherwise.”

Sarah walked back into the courtyard, leaving them both to watch.

 


Brian McVety is a teacher who lives in western Massachusetts with his wife and three daughters. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Little Old Lady Comedy, Apeiron Review, Blue Lake Review, and New Pop Lit. He can be followed on Twitter @bmcvety.

The Firemonger

by Molly Montgomery

         They say the fires started because of the Firemonger. Depending on which Internet forum you look at, the Firemonger is either a) some sort of fire spirit who, like a fever, is trying to burn out the sources of the world's imbalance (aka humans) b) a chemical weapon dumped in the atmosphere that whips up thunderstorms or c) a cult setting dead trees on fire in various parts of the state to make a profit on disaster relief.

       None of these explanations are remotely correct. It's just climate change, severe drought, and extremely bad luck that has caused the entirety of California to suffocate in smoke for the past year and a half. Still, that doesn't stop me from scrolling through people's posts at four in the morning, reading their crazy theories.

      I'm in my office so I don't wake up my husband, Doug. Mei Li nestles against me, her lips still wet from breastmilk. Lucky her. I can never get back to sleep after giving her breakfast, though every cell in my body screams from fatigue. I can't remember the last time I slept for more than four hours. My eyes itch, my back aches, and if I'm not careful the twinges of pain from my C-section scars will overwhelm me. I have to focus on something else other than the pain, so I hunch over the dim computer screen, whose glow leaves a ghostly trail on my pale skin. If I stare at the screen for long enough, I feel translucent, like I'm not really there.

      I click on the post entitled FOREMONGER SPOTTED? which leads me to my a grainy video of a stand of burning trees. The flames licking the branches curl into what looks like a devilish smile. I snort. What amateurs. My fourteen-year-old niece armed with nothing but a smartphone and a box of matches could create a more convincing video. Not that anyone would ever give matches to children these days. They're illegal, as are gas lighters. Even if you have lighter still, there's no way to buy fluid to refill it. Now you can only use lighters in ventilated phone booths installed next to convenience stores. If you want to smoke a cigarette, you have to stand in there while the smoke unfurls around you, fogging up the windows. Then when you leave it sucks all of the air out of the box, creating a vacuum, so not a single spark or conder can remain. Doug helped program those boxes. I feel proud every time we pass by one of them and see some poor nicotine addict wasting his lungs. My husband made it possible to prevent fires while not infringing on people's freedom to kill themselves slowly. For that, I am grateful. His invention has opened up a life for us that I never even dreamed of as a kid.

      In another post, a meticulous conspiracy theorist has plotted the origin of all wildfires in the past month onto a map. This is quite a feat since there have been more than a thousand, though it is January. The rain should have come by now, but it’s no surprise anymore that it refuses to fall. The person speculates that the ignition points have some sort of pattern to them, that they are all synchronized. He’s written out a bunch of equations— but they are complete nonsense. His theory is absurd, but I can’t blame him. After all, my own research is focused on solving this very problem— modeling fire risk in different areas, so that neighborhoods could be more prepared. That is, if they have the money for it.

      In my last year before I left on maternity leave, I was creating a computer model to try to predict where the next wildfires would strike. I even won an award for my research, but since then more fires broke out and my model was overturned. Someone else, a researcher at Stanford, came up with a better model. I haven’t had time to look at his paper, I’ve been too busy taking care of Mei Li.

      I want to get back to work as soon as possible, and it’s frustrating to not have a set return date. I was planning on telecommuting as soon as I settled into more of a routine with the baby, but that was before the university where I worked and where I stored all my samples burned to a crisp. No one died, thank God, but it will be a while before anyone in my department will be able to get back to their research. Meanwhile, the wildfires keep raging, and research at other universities is surging ahead, while I’m stuck here with my daughter, changing her diapers. Don’t get me wrong, I love Mei Li, but I want to solve the wildfire situation once and for all.

      Mei Li stirs beneath me. She licks her lips and her little pink tongue flicks like a lizard’s. I try to remember why I looked up the Firemonger in the first place. It was a dream I had, from which MeiLi’s cries had woken me. In the dream, I was walking through the forest, holding a can of gasoline. The only light came from the moon. I dug a moat around the roots of a redwood tree and filled it with the viscous liquid. It shined under the moon, lapping against the tree like dark ocean waves. Only when I lit the match did I see the color of the liquid. It was blood.

      The door swings open, and I jerk up in my seat. I had almost fallen asleep. Mei Li starts to wail. Doug peeks in through the doorway.

      “There are you are,” he says, flipping on the light switch. Mei Li continues to bawl, so he picks her up from my lap and bounces her. She settles down. It shouldn’t irk me so much that he can have that effect on her. But it does.

      “The Firemonger?” he asks when he sees my screen. “Really Fei? You don’t really
believe in those conspiracy theories, do you?”

      “They’re entertaining, that’s all.”

      “Right,” he said, and now that Mei Li is calm, he hands her back to me. “Well, I’m off to work. I took a look at the forecast, and the air looks clearer today than it has been in weeks. You and Mei Li should get outside,catch a little sun.”

      “I don’t know,” I say. “Even if the air is better, is it really safe for her lungs?”

      “Her lungs will get stronger from fighting the pollutants,” he said, winking at me.

      I roll my eyes and give him a kiss on the cheek. I lean in and squeeze his hand. Doug doesn’t think about these things, but I do. Inside the fireproof walls of our gated community, we’re safe. But Doug has to travel to the city every day. I wish he could work from home, but he says it wouldn’t look right, since he’s vying for a promotion.

      “I’ll see if I can get this afternoon off,” he says. “We could go to the beach.”

      “It’s January,” I say.

      “Yeah? So?” he says as he grabs his briefcase. “January’s the new July.”

 

      The sky outside is almost blue, just a hint of gray tinges its hue, like we’re looking at the world through the finest wire mesh. The sea breeze has swept through, giving us a respite from the hot, dry heat. Dust swirls in the air, kicked up from the garbage trucks. It’s almost chilly outside, so I bundle up Mei Li in a blanket before placing her in the stroller. As I push Mei Li’s stroller out of the garage, I see the gardener tending to our front lawn. He hooks upour hose to the fifty gallon tank on his truck filled with fresh water. We pay extra for that, but it makes a difference. The plants stay perky and mostly green. Some people think it’s not worth the cost to water the plants, but I disagree. We need the plants to keep us cool, and to keep us cool, they have to be alive.

      I wave at the gardener. Then I realize it’s not the man who usually comes. This man is much older. His scruffy gray beard grows in patches and his dark skin is mottled and sickly looking. As he heaves the hose, he grimaces under its weight.

      “Hello,” I say. “Where’s Rubin?”

      He puts the hose down and sighs. “My son,” he says. “Hospital. Third-degree burns.

      Whole family, children, grandchildren. All burned.”

      I should be shocked to hear these words, but I’m not. It’s not the first time I’ve heard of this happening, nor will it be the last. I don’t watch the news anymore because I’d rather not know just how bad it is out there. It makes me worry too much about Doug and the rest of my family, my five brothers and two sisters and their children, who are out there with no protection. With a pang, I think of how I haven’t called any of my siblings in a while, not even my older sister Ni Ling who I used to talk to every day. It’s hard because they don’t want to talk to someone who lives inside fireproof gates.

      “I’m so sorry to hear that,” I say. “Are they going to be all right?”

      “Only the newborn didn’t make it.”

      I clutch the handles of Mei Li’s stroller tighter. “I’m so sorry,” I say again.

      I push the stroller down the street, trying to calm my unbidden thoughts. I hum a little ditty to Mei Li, who is half asleep, blinking silently at me from her cocoon of blankets. I suspect she’s developing slower than normal. She’s a quiet baby. Almost too quiet. The doctor told us not to worry, that some babies are more observers than reactors, and that Mei Li is busy absorbing the world. She might stay like this for a while and then leapfrog ahead, skipping over crawling and going straight to running, speaking full sentences instead of babble. Doug is laid back about parenting. He tells me not to worry, that he was a shy kid and look he’d turned out fine. But things are so much different now. Who knows what the world will look like when Mei Li is an adult? She will need to learn all the skills she can. I can protect her here, but she can’t live her whole life behind a wall.

      Maybe the pollution in the air is affecting her, though we keep her inside most of the time. Just being outside will give her asthma, most likely. But could the smoke from all of these fires burning plastic and industrial building materials cause something worse? Autism? Early diabetes? Brain cancer? I’m not usually one to resort to hysteria. I believe in what the cold, hard data says about risk. But there are too many unknowns these days.

      “Your Daddy is coming home from work early today, so we can all go to the beach together,” I tell her, remembering that the doctor said it helps if I talk her. “That sounds fun doesn’t it? Let’s just hope the water is safe. I checked the forecast this morning and they said the waves are clean enough today for swimming.”

      Mei Li yawns, her little mouth stretching like rubber band.

      “Swimming is just like going in the bath,” I tell her. “Well it’s much, much bigger than a bath. You go out into this place that has water as far as the eye can see. You get to wear your little swimsuit. The one that has monkeys on it? You’ll love it.”

      As I push her down the smooth sidewalk, the sun warms both of us and I start to feel happy. Happier than I’ve felt in a long time. We’ll go to the beach this afternoon, and Mei Li will play in the sand. I’ll be able to lie down on the sand and take a good nap. This thought cheers me up the most.

      Then I start to think of all the chores piling up for me to do when I get home. 1. Pump   2. Give Mei Li her daily dose of vitamins   3. Change her diaper   4. Pack the items for the beach   5. Pay the gardener with our bank app and give him a nice tip. Maybe add a little personalized condolence note at the end. The list never ends and I keep losing track of the items. I’m always forgetting something. Then I start to wonder if I turned off the burner after I made eggs this morning. This is a ridiculous fear. I’m pretty sure the burners turn off by themselves. Still I can’t stop picturing the burners’ flames leaping to the cookbooks on the counter, the fire spreading to the wooden cabinets. Should I turn back, to check if my house is in flames? My breath comes in wheezes. I can’t tell if it’s the air
or if it’s just me.

      “Mommy needs to calm down,” I say to Mei Li, in between coughs. As I clutch my side, my scar starts to twinge again. “Our house is not going to burn down. Mommy is just being silly.”

      I see a vision of the house burning in my mind’s eye. I imagine smoke pouring into the nursery, the smoke alarm ringing. It’s just in my head, but this vision makes me feel more alert than I’ve felt all day long. I think back to the gardener and his family. I wonder if he felt this way when his house went up in flames. Not excited exactly, not thrilled, but wired. Then I remember his newborn grandson died. I look down at Mei Li and feel guilty.

      I hear a car puttering up the street. It’s a strange sound, since the neighborhood usually doesn’t allow cars that aren’t electric. Only visitors drive gas cars. I turn the stroller around and I see a beaten-up blue Volkswagen pulling up at the curb. I recognize it immediately, it’s my sister’s car. She rolls down the window.

      “Fei!” she says. “We were just driving up to your place.”

      My sister is three years older than me, but she had a daughter when she was in her early 20s, who is now in high school. Ni Ling has an exuberant personality that matches her large presence in a room. She was always one of the popular girls, despite being fat. I don’t mean that as an insult. Ni Ling embraces her size. In her youth, she was a plus-size model. Her daughter, Elsie, is built more like me. Skinny and flat-chested, with much paler skin than hermom. She slouches in the passenger seat, her eyes on her phone.

      “Why didn’t you tell me you were coming to visit?” I ask.

      Then I noticed that the backseat of their car is piled high with duffel bags. They must have evacuated.

      “We didn’t have any service on the drive,” Ni Ling said. I don’t believe that for a second. I think she was worried that if she had called, I would have turned her away.

      “Please,” Ni Ling said, “It’s only for just a few days. Our house is away from the epicenter of the fire. It probably won’t burn this time. But we have nowhere else to go.”

      “Of course,” I say. At that moment, Mei Li perks up a little bit and raises her finger at the car. I gasp. She’s pointing to it!

      “Is that little Mei Li?” Ni Ling exclaims.

      “Park my car in front of the garage and I’ll let you in.”

      This is a good sign, I tell myself. Mei Li pointed to the car. Maybe it will be good to have Ni Ling around for a few days. God knows, I could use a break from being the only one taking care of the baby.

      I turn the stroller around and almost run back home, fleeting energy in my heels.

      “Did you see that car, Mei Li?” I ask. “That was your auntie and your cousin in the car. They’re going to stay with us for a few days. Let’s beat them back to the house.”

      I take a shortcut down a walkway between cul de sacs. It’s a good thing we’re going back inside anyway because the wind has changed direction, and ash is drifting down from the sky.

      “No beach today after all,” I tell Mei Li. “But it isn’t so bad because your auntie will play with you.”

      When I get inside, I punch a key to open the air lock on the garage and then I carry Mei Li in my arms and go to greet my sister and niece.

      “My goodness, she is getting so big,” Ni Ling says. My sister has never seen my daughter before in person, so she really has no memory to compare to her current size, but I don’t point that out.

      “I could say the same thing about this one,” I say, patting Elsie lightly on the shoulder. I can practically feel the adolescent angst roiling through her body as she shakes off
my arm.

      “Now Elsie, don’t be rude,” says Ni Ling. “Can I hold her?” I hand Mei Li over to
my sister.

      In her arms, she gurgles. Gurgles! I can’t believe it. “Wow,” my sister says, “She’s
talkative today.” “She doesn’t do that for me,” I say.

      “Oh, don’t worry about it,” Ni Ling says. “She probably just likes seeing new people.”

      I give my sister and niece a tour of the house and then I show them to the guest rooms. I know what Ni Ling must be thinking, though she doesn’t say it out loud. Isn’t this fancy? Who needs these hypoallergenic carpets and filtering systems? She is probably comparing it in her head to the cramped apartment where we grew up, above our parents’ Chinese restaurant, which always smelled like grease. That apartment must be long gone by now, either demolished or burned to the ground. Or maybe she’s thinking of her own house, a quaint, ranch style home out in the countryside with its outdated appliances and no AC. She’s probably wondering if the flames have reached it yet.

      If Ni Ling is worried, she doesn’t mention it. She keeps herself occupied helping me check every single item off my to-do list for the first time since Mei Li was born. She puts Mei Li down for a nap, and then she insists that I rest on the couch while she does
the dishes and makes lunch. Elsie sets up laptop on the kitchen table so she can do
her schoolwork.

      “It’s such a relief to have you here,” I say. “You should have visited sooner.” “

      I would have, if you had invited me,” she says.

      When Doug gets home, I stop him in the driveway before he wonders why there is a
strange, gas-powered car sitting in the usually empty space in our 2-car garage.
I hurriedly explain to him the situation.

      “They have no where else to go,” I say.

      “Really?”

      Doug doesn’t like having guests, especially not my family. He finds my sister overbearing because she’s always giving him advice on ways to be thriftier. Ni Ling doesn’t realize Doug likes to spend the money he has since he can afford to do so. Doug thinks Ni Ling is a cheapskate. He didn’t grow up poor like we did. Sometimes it does feel like a waste to buy such extravagant things, especially when I know people are homeless just outside our neighborhood’s gates. But Doug always says he does enough for “those people” at his work, he doesn’t need to sacrifice for them at home too.

      “It’s only for a short while,” I reassure him, though I can’t be sure that’s true.

 

      For the first week after Ni Ling arrives, I sleep soundly, no longer plagued by strange dreams. My sister has taken it upon herself to be our live-in help, so I now wake to the smell of sizzling bacon and eggs. It’s like when Ni Ling and I were in high school, and she would take care of me and our younger brothers because our parents had to stay at work late. Elsie is as reticent as ever, though I tried to get her to talk about what she likes to do for fun. She just shrugs and says, “stuff you wouldn’t understand.”

      The only time I’ve seen her interested in something other than her phone was when I let her hold Mei Li for a moment while I was folding clothes. Elsie stared right into my daughter’s eyes, like she was searching for some sign of intelligence. I think she was expecting Mei Li to do something, like cry or burp, or flail her arms, but she just sat there, still as a painting, gazing up at her cousin.

      “She’s very young,” I said, almost apologetically. “It’s perfectly normal for her age.”

      “Do you think anyone her age will grow up normal?” Elsie said. “I mean, with everything going on. The ashes give babies brain damage, I heard.”

      “That isn’t true,” I said. “And even if it is, we keep Mei Li safe from the toxins. We only go outside when the air quality is green.”

 

      Their one-week visit stretches to two, then three. Ni Ling’s house survives, but officials in her area advise people not to come back because it is almost inevitable there will be another flare up there in the next few weeks, unless the rain arrives.

      “We’ll just be here until the rain comes," Ni Ling tells me. “It’ll be any day now.”
Ni Ling’s presence is starting to needle Doug.

      “I don’t know how many more nights I can eat Chinese food,” he says to me one night, after we had sex. I want to point out that we had only started having sex again once Ni Ling was around to help me care for Mei Li, but it seems crude to mention it.

      “I’ll ask her to make pasta tomorrow,” I say, as if that solves the problem. The thing is, Ni Ling is starting to get on my nerves too. She is constantly crooning over Mei Li,
petting her and singing to her, never letting me alone with my own daughter. Mei Li loves it, though. Around my sister, she giggles and moves her arms and her legs. Ni Ling even pulled me into the nursery the other day, excited because Mei Li started doing this half-crawl on the floor using one of her elbows to pull herself along. I was so furious in that moment that I wanted to snatch up my baby from the floor and storm outside. But we were in the orange zone that day, and I couldn’t risk it.

      At least I’ve been able to think about work for the first time in months. I have to admit, I like being able to sit alone in my office and not worry about whether Mei Li needs to have her diaper changed.

      I’ve noticed Elsie has started disappearing at night. I saw her leaving one day when I got up to go get a glass of water in the middle of the night. She was strapping on a mask and slipping out the door, sealing the air lock behind her. I didn’t stop her. She’s a teenager after all. You can’t expect a girl her age to stay cooped up in a house with her family forever. I just wish I knew where she was going, who she was meeting up with. Ni Ling doesn’t seem to notice, or care.

      One afternoon, I decide to talk to Ni Ling about her daughter. She has just put down Mei Li for a nap, and gone outside “to get some fresh air.” I wanted to roll my eyes when she said this and point out that the air inside our house was significantly fresher than the air out there ( it was a yellow day— but still! ). After checking that Elsie is deep into her studies— or whatever she does on her computer during the day— I put on a mask and follow my sister outside.

      “Ni Ling—” I start to say, and then I see she is leaning over our empty swimming pool, a match in hand, lighting a cigarette!

      “Don’t start,” she says, when she sees me staring at her, mouth hanging open. “I just have one a day. One. That’s all. And don’t worry, I rinse out my mouth before I go inside. You don’t have to worry about getting any toxins inside your house.”

      “What the hell are you doing?” I hiss. “Do you know how dangerous that is? And illegal! If someone sees you—”

      “Fei, look around you,” Ni Ling says. “The backyard, the walls of your own house, the roof, it’s all perfectly safe. In fact, there’s probably nowhere safer in this entire country to light a match. And it’s just one cigarette.”

      She’s right, and I feel embarrassed by my own panic. My voice catches in my throat, and my body deflates. I slump down onto the edge of the pool, so my feet are dangling. Ni Ling sits next to me. She offers me the cigarette.

      “I really shouldn’t,” I say. “I’m breastfeeding.” My hand absentmindedly rubs my scar.

      “Suit yourself,” Ni Ling says.

      “OK,” I say, changing my mind. “Just one puff.”

      After I take a drag, and let out a contented sigh, I say, “You really shouldn’t have those matches. The outside of the houses are safe here, but not the inside.”

      “And if a fire starts on the inside of a house, even in one of these fancy houses, and it gets big enough, it will spread, just like it would anywhere,” she says, finishing my thought.

      “I know. I read the FPS propaganda too.”

      FPS, Fire Protection Services, is the company Doug works for. They are the ones
who retrofitted our neighborhood to be fireproof.

      “It’s not propaganda,” I say.

      “Listen to yourself,” says Ni Ling. “You’re living in a bubble. You know this can’t last, right? The fires are going to reach you too, someday.”

      After dinner, while Ni Ling is putting Mei Li to sleep, and Doug is watching TV in the bedroom, Elsie appears out of nowhere in the doorway of my office. When I look up and see her, I realize I forgot to talk to Ni Ling about her, I was so distracted. It seems silly now to mention it. I doubt Ni Ling would even care she’s sneaking out.

      “Are you really a famous wildfire scientist?” Elsie asks me.

      I look up from my computer, feeling a little guilty. I haven’t been looking
at my data at all. Instead, I’ve beenmindlessly reading up on conspiracy theories again.

      “I don’t know if I’m famous,” I say. “But my model was one of the most accurate.
That is, until my lab burned down last December.”

      “Do you think the FPS torched it?”

      I frown.

      “I’m sorry?” I say.

      “Well isn’t it obvious?” Elsie said. “Everyone knows FPS is behind most of the fires. That’s how they’re able to raise their stock prices.”

      I had heard this rumor before, but I always dismissed it. There were enough fires from climate change for FPSto profit from without needing to risk starting their own fires and getting sued for it. And why shouldn’t they make a profit on fire safety? There’s a need, and FPS is filling it.

      “And here I thought it was the Firemonger starting the fires,” I said dryly.

      “No, that’s not what the Firemonger stands for at all,” Elsie said. “He doesn’t start fires. He just predicts them.”

      “Oh really?” I ask, my curiosity piqued.

      “If I tell you, you have to keep it a secret,” she says.

      I nod, struck by the serious expression on her little face. She closes the door and sits down at the chair next to my desk.

      “I know the Firemonger.” she says, “He’s real. But he’s not actually setting the fires. He’s more like a prophet. He predicts every fire in advance. He knows where it will start, how long it will burn, everything. That’s why people think he’s an arsonist. But he’s actually just telling the future.”

      “How is that possible? Wouldn’t people use that information to stop the fires?”

      “No,” she says. “Because he only tells people a few hours in advance. It’s not enough time to do anything about it. Plus, his followers don’t care about stopping the fires. They worship fire. They seek it out.”

      “It’s not possible to create a model that accurate,” I say. “Only a network
of supercomputers would be able to handle all those variables.”

      “Maybe he’s just psychic,” she says.

      Part of me wants to laugh out loud, but I hold back. The idea that a person
with supernatural abilities could accomplish with no effort what had been my life’s work makes me feel a bit hysterical. But what if it was a computer model? One more complex and accurate than anything I had ever been able to dream of? I feel a thirst building in my throat.

      “How do you know so much?” I ask. “You’re not going to get into trouble. I promise.

      “I'm just curious. You know that predicting wildfires was— is— my job.”

      “You can’t tell anyone,” she says. “Not my mom. Not even Uncle Doug. Or FPS. Especially not FPS.”

      “I won’t, I promise,” I say. I mean it, too. If I can figure out this Firemonger’s secret,
and replicate it, I would get the credit for his predictions.

      “I joined his followers last month,” she says. “At my initiation, they put this in my
arm.”

      She pulls back her sleeve to reveal a metallic tattoo. It’s a microchip.

      “It allows me to receive his messages on my phone,” she says. “They’re encrypted,
so you can’t read them unless you have the chip. I’ve been going to meet up with other Mongers at night.”

      I am surprised she would confess all of this to me.

      “How have you been gettingout of the neighborhood?”

      “There are others,” she says, shrugging. “I hitch a ride. But there’s a lighting tonight, and no one is around to pick me up.”

      She stares me right in the eye.

      “Will you take me?”

 

      I feel like a teenager myself sneaking out past midnight. Before I meet up with Elsie in the garage as planned, I peek into Mei Li’s room. I’m tempted to stay, to watch her sleep. She looks so peaceful now. But I know she will punctuate the night with her loud crying.
Ni Ling has the baby monitor in her room now. She’ll take good care of her. I stride away before the gravitational pull of motherhood can pull me back in.

      Is this really a good idea? asks the rational, adult part of my brain. Isn’t it dangerous
to drive straight into a potential fire zone?
I have been mulling over Elsie’s theory about the Firemonger for the past few hours, and I can’t help but poke holes in it. If this person is claiming to predict where the next wildfire will strike, couldn’t it just lead to someone setting the fire where it was predicted? That would be the very definition of a self-fulfilling prophecy. When I asked Elsie about this, she told me I was mistaken.

      “That’s the thing about the Firemonger,” she says. “He makes his followers swear an oath to never start a fire. That’s why we have the microchips too, so he can make sure
we keep our oath. He doesn’t predict arsons. Only accidental fires.”

      “But how would he know if you started a fire or if it was an accident?” I pressed her.

      “You have to see if for yourself to understand,” she said.

      We climb into her mother’s car together. There’s no smoke in the air, and the stars
are crisp and bright. On clear nights, you can see more of them now that most of the city has burned down and the electric grid outside our area has become so unreliable.

      It’s been so long since I left my neighborhood. I have not seen the city in many months. The freeway is still intact— it’s practically indestructible. But you can see the patches of twisted buildings here and there, scattered throughout downtown. We keep driving until we reach the hills. There are bald patches where the vegetation has been wiped clean, like a blank slate. In other areas, the trees and the forest are slowly growing back. Then we head into denser growth, one of the areas that is still untouched.

      I follow the car’s directions as it takes us up steeper, and steeper hills, until finally
we reach an unmarked driveway.

      “Are you sure this is safe?” I ask, for probably the hundredth time that night.

      “The Firemonger won’t direct us to a place in the path of the flames,” she says.
“It would be nice to know where the fire will go after it starts,” I say.

      “He doesn’t tell us that in advance,” she says. “Because someone might profit
from it. He hates FPS— no offense— and he thinks that fire should belong to everyone.
He believes in sharing the information, not to change what will happen, but so we can appreciate what is happening as it unfolds.”

      She sounds like she was quoting some sort of cult text. I wonder how deep this girl
was into this whole thing. I certainly hope Mei Li would never get involved in something like this.

      I follow the winding driveway up to an unmarked house. There are already several people milling in the front yard. We park next to a line of cars, and Elsie gestures for me
to put on my mask.

      “No one is allowed to reveal their identity,” she says. “Just in case.”

      We wait outside with the others in hushed silence. No one says anything at all. As the clock strikes one, the door of the house opens, and we are ushered inside and through a hallway to a living room with a balcony. This one of those old houses in the hills that has been abandoned because of the fire danger. It has a fantastic view though that overlooks the city below. The city is lit up in a strange mosaic, in islands of bright light of neighborhoods like the one where I live next to dark spaces in unprotected areas
where there is still a patchy network of electricity.

      “That direction,” Elsie whispers to me, and she pulls my arm so I face north in unison with the others. She might get in trouble for letting me come with her, she has told me, because I do not have a microchip. If anyone finds out, they’ll kick us out, so I have
to pretend like I am responding to the exact same instructions as they are.

      We are handed binoculars, but when I squint to examine mine, I realize these are no ordinary binoculars. They not only have precise night vision, but they are also linked to a drone that one of the hosts fires up from the balcony railing. It soars off in the direction we are facing, and we all look through the binoculars, a sense of anticipation building.

      I watch, and at first, I don’t see much, just hills. Then I noticed the fast-moving clouds visible on the horizon that seem to have gathered out of nothing. I hold my breath,
and then it hits, the arc of lightning. A limb flashes across the sky, another arcing below. Within a few seconds, a clap of thunder follows, shocking my eardrums.

      “Here we go,” Elsie whispers to me breathlessly, and I barely register the words because my ears are ringing. I’ve seen these dry thunderstorms before. They are one
of the main mechanisms for wildfires starting during the winter. Once they would have carried moisture that would have drenched the fires they started, but now they bring nothing but fury and destruction in their wake.

      Another arc of lightning from the same cloud jolts the sky, but there is no fire visible below. The storm seems to just be warming up. Each strike is more violent than the one before, each thunderclap louder. Then a whooping sound rises from around me, like
a feral war cry. The Mongers are cheering. I see why a second later, when I spot a plume
of dark smoke rising from the hills below.

      What I had found awe-inspiring, even beautiful just seconds before now sent a thrill
of horror rushing down my spine. The hill we are watching, I realize, is just above the free-
way exit we took, only about five miles from my house. I spin my binoculars away from
the smoke, looking to the west, desperately searching for the cluster of light that is my home, my safe neighborhood. I think of Mei Li, sleeping in her bed, and the fire rushing down the hill, enveloping her and my house whole. In that moment, I am terrified, gripped with the vision of the flames spreading down the hill, toppling our fireproof wall
in a tornado, tearing down everything in its path. Doug. Ni Ling. Mei Li. I feel sick
at this thought because by imagining it, a part of me wonders if I am willing it to life.

      “What are you doing?” hisses Elsie in my ear. She grips my arm tightly.

      I hurriedly point my binoculars back towards the smokey hillside, but it doesn’t matter. The clouds have reached us now, and I feel a foreign sensation on my arms. The soft, wet plops of rain battering my skin, first slowly, then harder. Elsie groans, and the others around us sigh, an almost wistful sound. I think I understand now, why they watch
the fires. They feel the same combination of terror and delight. It’s addicting.

      Elsie hands back our binoculars to the host, while I run back to the car to get it started as the rain starts pouring harder. I’m worried that if we don’t get out of there soon,
the streets in these winding hills will wash away, or we’ll be carried away by a mudslide. The first rain of the season is a strong one, a healthy, torrential pour, but it has the potential to turn dangerous since this land is so parched that it has become brittle.

      It’s only when we start driving down the hill, and I’m having trouble seeing out of my windshield despite my wipers that I realize that tears are blurring my vision. I try to hold them back, but they slip down my face anyway. Elsie is slumped in her seat.
She’s too preoccupied in her ownthoughts to notice that I’m crying.

      “Mom and I are going to have to leave now, won’t we?” she asked. “Now that
the rain’s come?”

      “Oh,” I say. After the night’s excitements, the thought hadn’t even occurred to me.
“I guess so.”

      I think of Mei Li in her bed at home, wailing as Ni Ling gets up to comfort her. With a pang, I realize that I wasn’t there to hear her react to the first sounds of rain pattering
on our roof. The first rain of Mei Li’s life. I let myself dream for a moment of taking her
out into the rain, and letting her play in the puddles, like my brothers and sisters and I once did walking to school on rainy mornings. But then I remember the rain will be acidic, that it won’t be safe for her to play in it. The thought of being left alone with Mei Li in
the house again, after Ni Ling and Elsie leave, feels like drowning.

      I didn’t tell Elsie that before we left the house, when I was getting into the car,
I opened up Ni Ling’s glove box to see what she kept in there. As I fumbled around
in the dark, I found just what I had suspected: a matchbox. I had not used one of those
in years, not since I had to light candles when the power went out in my childhood apartment. Ever since Ni Ling had bought her first car, she always hid her cigarettes
and lighters in it so our parents wouldn’t find them. Now I imagine she puts these matches there to keep them safe from Elsie. She might know better than I do what
her daughter is capable of. Now, as I speed down the highway through the lashing rain,
I reach into my pocket with my free hand and feel for the matches. There’s a dozen in there and though I can’t see them, I can picture their bright round heads, little suns waiting to burn. Better for me to keep them, just in case.

 


Molly Montgomery is a mixed race Chinese American writer who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she teaches high school English. She has an M.A. in Creative Writing from UC Davis. Her work has been featured in several literary magazines, including Entropy, X-R-A-Y, Lucent Dreaming, and McSweeney's Internet Tendency.

The Inheritance

by Marlene Olin

        The first in his family to attend college, Mason Markowitz considered himself a success. A professor of English. Handsome. Fiftyish. Married to an accomplished woman. His kids were nearly grown and his tenure secure.

          But no matter how much he was blessed, a cloud always hovered. He woke every morning and expected the worst. Black skies. Lightning bolts. Reams of pelting rain. He'd open the curtains certain of dread, each sunrise a cosmic test. Like Job, he waited for the earth to cleave.

        And then it did.

        First his mother lost her mind. No, it wasn't dementia. Dementia was something you could grip, something you could wrestle. Instead they called it depression, a kind of PTSD, a misty ghost that haunts the elderly. They've seen it before, they told him. In other Holocaust survivors.  The self-imposed starvation. The hoarding. The past was choking Ruth one memory at a time.

        The problems, of course, were nothing new. Their mother was always different. When the black moods came, she simply hid.  She'd spend days ensconced in her bedroom, too terrified to run to the grocery store or even to drive them to school. At first, there were good times. The episodes few and far between. But as years progressed. the craziness bloomed.

        If life were a stage, his father Yitz was the star. He juggled Ruth's meds, faked her handwriting, took care of both ends of the conversation while she sat mutely by. A regular vaudevillian act, his parents. The puppeteer and his prop.

        Who could have foreseen his death? Yitz prided himself on self-discipline, flaunting his fitness, badgering everyone with details of his diet and exercise. He had no idea how his cellphone worked but could tell you his HDL and glucose levels. But inevitably, inexorably, the curtain falls.

        Was it only a month ago?  An October day just like every other.  Mason's father busied himself with his routine. Lunching at the deli. Nudging the help. Playing backgammon and cards. Then he went to sleep and never woke up. At the age of ninety, a blessing, really.

        Still Mason couldn't wrap his head around it. Somehow he felt robbed.  An orderly progression should have taken place. A diagnosis. An intervention. A plan.

        Instead an incompleteness loomed. Sure a quick death was kind to his father. But where did that leave him?  Instead Mason muddled through his father's funeral.  Only after a week of mourning did reality hit. A mountain full of details had to be tackled, one onerous task at a time.

                                                                                ***

        Yitz's lawyer was nearly as old as Yitz.  Bifocals as thick as a yahrzeit glass. Hands that shook like a compass. Mason doubted Irv Sussman owned a computer. The office was stacked floor to ceiling with files. A massive desk and two chairs. Sussman took one while Mason took the other.

        "I don't need to tell you," said Sussman. " You. You know. Your father was a stubborn man. He should have moved your mother to a nursing home years ago. The transition went smoothly, no?"

        Chalk that up to another disaster. Palmetto Manor was a Miami fixture, the place where Jewish professionals parked their parents. The social workers had pushed it. The doctors insisted. His mother would live in a private apartment with the all the backup she'd need.

        But the move proved catastrophic. Whatever cord tethered to his mother to reality was forever cut. Instead Ruth's mind stayed perpetually airborne, time traveling back to another time and another place.

        "It's like she's back in the camps," said Mason. "Scavenging. I mean she always hoarded. Those little packages of sweetener. Salt and pepper shakers. Entire baskets of rolls. At restaurants, everything went in her purse."

        Sussman nodded. This was a story he heard before.

        "And now?" said Sussman.

        "Now she steals whatever she can find. Usually it's a bag of cough drops. Or a picture frame. But last week it was a watch. She tries to pilfer jewelry all the time."

        Sussman was old enough to know the ins and outs of senior facilities. "And still they keep her?"

        Mason threw up his hands. "We're moving her next week to a Memory Care Unit. Someplace with locks on the doors and eyes on the halls."

        Then suddenly the issue Mason was skirting stood front and center.

        "I need cash, Mr. Sussman. These places cost a fortune. I'm executor of my father's estate, right? I have Power of Attorney. There must be some funds."

        The list was suddenly endless. Money for his mother. Cash for his kids' college. Not to mention his sister. Since his father's death, she had called at least a dozen times
and at least a dozen times Mason refused to answer.

        The air-conditioning hissed and heaved.  Meanwhile Sussman thumbed through a thick stack of papers, licking the tip of his index finger as he worked. "Your father, as you know, didn't believe in savings accounts or the stock market."

        Mason gripped the armrests. "Their house has nothing of value. Green stamp furniture. Green stamp lamps. "

        He remembered the booklets. Sitting at the kitchen table. Filling in the squares.
His sister was three years younger and never stayed between the lines.

        "Aha!" Finally, Sussman found what he was looking for. He thrust out a paper.
"There's a safe deposit box. Here. Your father left a list."

        Mason glanced at his father's handwriting and felt his heart lurch. The mangled English.  The familiar loops and swirls.  He ran his finger over the paper, feeling
the texture, the grooves, the microscopic remnants of his father's touch.

        "Kruggerands. Bullion bars. A five-carat ring." Mason looked up. "This doesn't make sense. My father was a baker." Then he shook the paper in his hand. "How could he possibly own Fort Knox?"

        Sussman sat up a little straighter. Then he ran his long and spindly fingers through what remained of his hair. "Don't judge a book by its cover, Mr. English Professor. Your father wasn't just a baker. He owned bakeries. He was a savvy investor in his own peculiar way."

        "So we're fluid, right? I open the safe deposit box, sell my father's stuff..."

        Sussman held up a finger. "There's one minor problem."

        Mason felt his stomach cramp.

       "Your mother wasn't the only hoarder in the family. Your father. He trusted no one."

        "So what are you saying?" said Mason.

        "I'm saying there's good news and bad. The good news is you're rich. At least rich enough to join a country club, to go to Europe, to take a cruise."  Then Sussman glanced at his watch and sighed. "The bad news is your father liked secrets. I have no idea where this safety deposit box is. There's no key. No instructions. No nothing. Your father's sent you on a treasure hunt, Mason." Then he sat back in his chair, threw his feet on the desk, and chuckled. "The best of luck with that."

                                                                                                ***

        Hours later, Mason found himself in his office. He loved his office. The floor-to-ceiling shelves. The tasteful posters. He felt cocooned in his office, as if he were swaddled by books.  He walked to the outside vestibule where the latest work-study student was handling the phones.

        "I'm not here," said Mason. "No calls. No visits. I may look here but I'm not."

        Then he trudged back, closed the door, and took out his cellphone. Reluctantly, he
dialed his sister's number.

        "Leigh, it's Mason. Give me a call, okay?"

        His baby sister was yet another burden. As hard as Yitz was on Mason, he was the opposite with Leigh. Once when he was in college, Mason wanted to spend spring break in the Bahamas. All his friends at the university planned to go. But Yitz would hear nothing of it. In spite of him, Mason found a way.  He and his best friend chartered a jet, sold two hundred tickets, and with the profits finagled free rides.

        But his daughter was a different story. For Leigh, Yitz emptied his pockets. Nothing was spared. A new nose. A designer wardrobe. Not one but three extravagant weddings. And in the end, what was accomplished? A lifetime spent pinballing from husband to husband and hobby to hobby. Buddhism. Tai chi. Decoupage. Who could keep track?

        The last conversation he had with his sister played like a loop in his head.

        "Dad died last night," he told her. "Mom woke up and found him. She can't believe
he's gone. She thinks he's just taking a nap."

        But he emptied his heart only to be met with silence. Across the lines, miles away in New York City, Mason listened to his sister's soundtrack.  As always, she was restless, opening and closing drawers, the TV blaring in the background, the clink of ice in a glass.  Somewhere deep inside Mason felt an elevator falling and rising, the contents of his stomach working its way up.  The loss of ninety-year-old man was not a tragedy. Yet nothing made Mason lonelier than talking to his sister.

        Then finally, after endless seconds, she spoke.

        "I always thought he'd be here," said Leigh. "To take care of Mom. To take care of everything. You know?"

        Of course, Leigh asked for a plane ticket. And his father would have bought one, no doubt. But when Mason said no, she was shocked. Dumbfounded.  Then she let loose
a string of swearwords that would have made their parents blush.

        To Mason's shock, she never showed up. To her own father's funeral!

        The following days he went through the rituals alone. And as he tiptoed in socks and covered the mirrors and sat on wooden crates, the questions beat like a pulse. Did she even say Kaddish, he wondered? Was a single candle lit?

        When his cellphone rang, he jumped. Leigh's number was on the screen. Mason skipped the niceties and headed straight to the point.

        "I just met with Sussman," said Mason. "Did Dad ever mention a safety deposit box? There must be a key or a receipt."

        "A safety deposit box? she asked. "I had no idea."

        The more Mason thought about his dilemma, the more it overwhelmed him.  When they left the German DP camp in 1948, his parents first moved to Brooklyn.  They didn't move to Miami until years later.

        "Do you have any idea how many banks there are in New York and South Florida?" said Mason. "It's like I'm searching for the Holy Grail. And unless I find some fucking clue, I'll have to contact every single one."

                                                                                        ***

        The idea came to him while writing thank-you notes. Mason was determined to acknowledge every thoughtful gesture people had made on his father's behalf. He was old-fashioned that way. Once again he locked himself in his office. Then he took out his favorite fountain pen, his best card stock paper, and languidly began writing. Every food platter, every five dollar donation to charity, would be accounted for.

Dear Mr. Klein,

        I wish to extend my sincerest gratitude for thinking of me and my family during our time of need. My father spoke about you often. Nobody plays pinochle, like Yutch, he'd say. The tray of rugelach was truly enjoyed. Thank you very, very much...

Dear Mrs. Greenbaum,

  Thank you for your generous contribution to The Bichon Rescue Organization
on behalf of my father. Though I'm allergic to dogs, we all grew up with a sincere appreciation of the satisfaction they brought others...

Dear Trudi and Myles,

  My wife and I so appreciate the tree you planted in memory of Dad. Eretz Israel,
as you know, held a special place in his heart...

        Once again the memories taunted him. His father would send thousands of dollars to The Holy Land. Hadassah hospital.  The Israeli Defense League. And yet they sat year after year on the same plastic covered couches, the rugs ancient, the TV antique.

        And while his father hid bars of bullion, his mother wasted nothing. She'd sit and watch them eat, her mouth chewing with their mouths. Never eating. Always watching. Then hiding in the kitchen later, she'd spoon the last drop in a casserole. Then she'd wash and rewash the plastic wrap normal people threw away.

        Mason was mortified, of course. Not as a child. A child knows nothing. But as a teenager, his eyes were opened. Everything about his parents embarrassed him. He was ashamed of their accent, their clothes, the hand gestures that looped and lassoed the air.

        But when it came to charity, his parents were big shots. Mason could see that now. There was money. There was always money. It just wasn't directed toward him.

        He had combed his parents' house from the ceiling rafters to the spaces behind the kitchen cabinets. Still there was no sign of a safety deposit box. No key. No receipt. Then one day inspiration took hold. He was rummaging through the package the funeral home had sent him. And among the final bills and invoices, was the guest book that stood at the synagogue entrance. There were over a hundred names, many of them not remotely familiar.

        Again, Mason sequestered himself in his office. Then he created a file on his computer and methodically typed each name in. The plan was to search for any
pertinent information.  An address. A phone number. He'd personally thank each
person for attending the service. And then he'd zero in.

        "I'm looking for a Mr. Schwartz. Can I speak to Moishe Schwartz?"

        "You need a divorce?"

        "Is Max Fein at this number?

        "Fein? He used to be fine. But he dropped dead last Tuesday."

        Those whom he was able to reach were invariably deaf. Then one afternoon, after countless tries, with the last of the sun's rays slicing through his blinds, he met success.

        "Herb Kravitz? Is a Herb Kravitz available?"

        "Speaking."

        "My name is Mason Markowitz. I believe you knew my father?"

        "Your father I wasn't crazy about. Your mother I liked."

        The man lived in Boyton Beach, over an hour's drive away. Mason met him on his
turf, a small coffee shop near a strip mall. He looked vaguely familiar, his face like a photograph in a family album.

        A nimbus of frizzy white hair. The face splotched brown and white. The man wore a Lacoste shirt and plaid Bermuda shorts. Considering his age, Mason was impressed. Not only was the man upright. He was downright spritely. Herb glanced at his watch.

        "You stole me from my golf game, Mason. What's on your mind?"

        Mason unfolded a crib sheet from his pocket. Then he started with his questions.

        "First," said Mason, "I wanted to thank you for coming to the funeral. Were you close friends with my parents?"

        The man stood up, waved over the waitress, and yelled at the top of his lungs.
"Doris, you need to top my Sanka!  And bring those yellow sweeteners, will you!"

        Herb was either hard of hearing or completely ignoring him. It was hard to tell.

        "Close?  I've known you your whole life. I was at your bris. Your bar mitzvah. Your wedding.  How many times has your sister been married?  I was at those, too. Each
and every one a gift."

        He slurped his steaming coffee in gulps.  Then he stood up, waved his arms wildly,
and beckoned the waitress once more. "I need a bagel with a schmear, Doris.  Scooped and toasted. Don't forget."

        Sitting down, the old man sighed. "I have for you a story. You want a story?"

        Mason leaned forward.

        "Your grandfather and my father were in the fur trade in Vilna. We were wealthy. So wealthy that when the Nazis took over they tipped us off. They were emptying our neighborhood one block at a time. Then one night, a knock at the door."

        Like a thunderclap, the old man rapped his knuckles on the table.

        "Our apartment was next.  We were told to hurry, to shove everything of value into a single suitcase. To stuff our pockets with food. Though it was summer, my mother layered on my clothes. My winter hat. My leather boots. Then they sent my older brother to your grandparent's house with a note. We were to meet at the sewers.

        I still can picture that night. There was a manhole across from the Catholic church. We stood in the shadows and waited.  The moon was full, the steeple of the church reaching to the sky. Finally, a man appeared. If we handed over the suitcase, he'd show us the way.

        Of the twelve people who lived in the sewer, your mother and I were the only children. She was ten, I was five. The water was foul, the smell worse. But being young
has its advantages. I saw everything as an adventure. I could stand upright. The rats became pets. If there was a crumb of bread, I'd give some to my furry friends."

        Mason glanced at the people around him. A room full of strangers were eating, laughing, joking.

        "But Ruth," said Herb. "She wasn't happy. She couldn't sleep. She wouldn't eat. Her mother died in that sewer. And after eight months, when they warned us it wasn't safe, no one knew what to do.

        The plan was to find another hiding place. There was talk of a basement in an employee's home. But the moment they carried me outside, I panicked. Daylight hurt and people frightened me. The honk of cars. The rush of feet.  I wouldn't stop screaming. I was the last person anyone wanted to hide with.

        So in the dead of night, they snuck us out. While the rest of our group made their way to this basement, Ruth and I were sent in the opposite direction. My mother's pearl earrings were her prize possession. She unclipped them from her ears and handed them off. Then we were driven to a farm fifty kilometers away."

        This was all news to Mason. His mother never talked about the war. And Mason was never brave enough to ask.

        "The employee, it turns out, was not to trusted. Later, we learned our families were shot in the pits of Ponary. Meanwhile Ruth and I hid in that farm for the next three years."

        When Mason thought of farms, cows and gingham came to mind. Apple pies
and homemade butter. Christmas in July.

        "There was a old root cellar near the barn." Then Herb clenched his jaw and rapped
on the table hard enough to shake the water glasses. "Not much bigger than this table.
It was cold. Dark. Dank. That's where we hid. Ruth and I. For three long years."

                                                                                        ***

        Frieda Freyling lived with her daughter in Palm Beach.  Both of them had attended the funeral.  Frieda, Mason had been told, suffered a stroke a year earlier. Now she spoke only in Yiddish, the daughter her translator and guide.

        He drove to their home, a lovely Mediterranean house draped with pink bougainvillea. A housekeeper answered the door and ushered him in. The living room was as vast as a hotel lobby. Except for the art on the wall, everything was white.

        A few minutes later, an impeccably dressed older woman wheeled an even older woman into the room. Shayna Wasserman introduced herself. Then her mother bent forward and reached for Mason's hand.

        He stooped to make himself small. And as he was stooping, his head down, his hands on his knees, Frieda ran her fingers over his face. Over and over like she was reading Brail. Then she started crying.

        The daughter pointed to the couch. "Sit. I feel like we're family. There's much to discuss. No?"

        Mason could see that she was used to giving instructions.  A nod to the housekeeper. A finger point to Frieda's aide.

        "My mother knew your father in Warsaw. Did you know that?  When your father died, part of her died, too. She lost her last contact. With her family. Her childhood. Poland."

        The stories were buried but always threatened to surface. Somehow Mason's father
and grandfather survived the ghetto. The trains. The work camp. But Yitz only talked in generalities. Of the details Mason was spared.

        The mother turned and rambled in Yiddish for five minutes. Then Shayna turned back to Mason. "They met in the ghetto. The children ran wild, looking for food, for diversion, for a sliver of normalcy. They played together. Ate together. Prayed together."

        Then again the huddling. Mason looked outside. A huge pool and beyond the pool
the Intracoastal Waterway. The sea was lapping, the sun shining white on the crests.

        "Your father turned thirteen in the ghetto. Instead of a bar mitzvah, they threw a small party."

        This was another thunderclap. Mason had no idea his father was not bar mitzvahed. He waited for this news to percolate, his brain swimming with this extraordinary information. He still remembered the arguments they had when he turned twelve. Mason was steeped in the Beat Poets. He dressed in black and grew his hair over his collar.  And there was nothing he wanted more than to quit Hebrew school.

        They argued and argued but his father insisted. And afterwards, after reading from the Torah in front of two hundred family and friends, there was a lunch to top all lunches. His profile an ice sculpture. His face imprinted in chopped liver. Once again, Mason was mortified.

        Meanwhile, Frieda was playing with the hem of her blouse. She showed Mason the stitches.

        "The mothers sewed all their jewelry into the hems of their clothes," said Shayna. "Rings. Necklaces. Bracelets. And one by one each piece of jewelry was bartered. That day, the day of your father's birthday, your grandmother traded her wedding ring for an orange. They cut the orange into slices and gave a slice to each of the children. My mother made Yitz a birthday card. Someone presented a pair of socks. But the biggest treat of all was that orange."

        Then once again, Frieda began weeping.

        "Some people thought your grandmother was crazy. That she should have saved that ring for a favor or a bribe. But that orange was the most delicious thing my mother ever tasted."

        "A ring for an orange?" said Mason.

        "Looking back, it was the last birthday Yitz would ever spend with his mother.
I suppose she knew that. That orange would be her last gift."

                                                                                        ***

        Six months later it was June, and still Mason was driven. He spent hours on the phone talking to his parents' acquaintances, emailing banks, researching the ins and outs of his father's business. Of course, his family tried to convince Mason to give up the hunt.

        They were at the dinner table. Mason, his wife Miriam, his three teenagers. As usual, he interrogated his children. He asked the kids about their classes and their schoolwork and each diligently complied. It was a remnant from his childhood, he supposed. The nightly inquisitions. The admonitions to work hard and try harder.

        "You see these hands?" his father used to say. Then for the thousandth time he'd hold them out for inspection. Though his father was not a big man, his hands were muscled and callused from kneading bread, from stoking ovens, from lifting heavy sacks.
"At Auschwitz there were two lines. First they put me with the women and children.
But my father drew me by his side. Then they waved me to the left. But my father would have nothing of it."

        "Look at these hands!" he told them. "Are these a child's hands? They're the hands
of a worker! A laborer! These are not a boy's hands!"

        Mason glanced at his fingers. They were soft, white, manicured.  He sipped his tea and nibbled on a cookie, the whole time watching his hands.

        "Mason," said Miriam. "Are you listening? Have you heard a word I've said?"

        Still he stared at his hands.

        When all the dishes were cleared and the children sent to their rooms, Miriam once again spoke.

        "Enough is enough, Mason. We'll make do without your parents' money. We won't be rich but you have a job. I have a job. We'll never be poor."

        Mason looked up. "They're dying. Did you know they're all dying? My father had a little black book. Remember his book?  The one he scribbled addresses and phone numbers in."

        "Mason, that book's what?  Forty, fifty years old?"

        "I've been contacting every person. His friends, his neighbors, his business colleagues. If they're not dying, they're dead. It's a race against the clock."

        Miriam worked in an accounting firm. She knew when things didn't add up.

        "Mason. Your head is not attached to your neck anymore. I need you. Your children need you. It's time to stop."

        He opened and closed his fingers. Then he pictured himself with his grandfather.  Would he be sent left or sent right?

        "Mason," said his wife even louder. She rose up from her seat and stacked the remaining dishes in her arms.  "When this hunt, this quest started, it was all about
a safety deposit box. It's more than that, isn't it? Much much more."

        And that's when he realized that the search wasn't over. That what he was looking for was still out there, begging to be found.

                                                                                        ***

        Of one thing Mason was sure. A piece of the puzzle was still missing. And after sifting through his father's papers, after badgering the accountant, after hounding Sussman daily, Mason was fairly sure that the piece was in Milwaukee.

        It took him weeks to track the man down. But finally he found his father's old business partner. Yitz was nothing but a manual laborer until he hooked up with Morty.  Sure Yitz could bake. And he used only the freshest ingredients. But it was Morty Nussbaum who saw the big picture. Who recognized the cupcake mania before it started. Who insisted on franchising the stores.  He was the one who took AnnaLee Delicious, a mom-and-pop outfit, and made it a household name.

        Now Morty lived in a nursing home in Wisconsin. A widower, he had packed up and moved from New York a decade earlier to be near his daughter.

        "By all means come," said the daughter.  The sigh was audible across the lines. "Morty's body's shut down but his mind still works. He'll appreciate the visit."

        Following the directions on his cellphone, Mason looped the streets until he came
to a red-bricked building. A row of begonias neatly lined the entrance. Inside the lobby, a woman in a smart suit played a baby grand piano. The floor marble. The furniture tasteful.
Things, thought Mason, could be worse.

        Since it was noon, they ushered him to the dining room. Sitting to the side, hidden behind a nest of potted plants, was Morty and his daughter Sue. She looked in her sixties, her gray hair swept elegantly up. The old man was tucked into a wheelchair, a sweater thrown over his shoulders, his hands limp by his sides.

        Before they would talk, a lengthy lunch was served.  Finally, Mason took out his crib sheet. Then he glanced at the questions and crumpled the paper in his hand. "Dad left a safety deposit box," said Mason. "Did he ever mention it? Because I have no idea where
it is."

        The old man nodded. "It'll turn up. I've lived a long time. And eventually, if you live long enough, most secrets, I've learned, come to light."

        Somewhere a clock was ticking. Mason felt his body tense, saw his hand clench, heard his voice boom. And all at once, the months of searching built to a crescendo. "Maybe you don't understand. Dad never bought life insurance. He never anticipated. He never planned. Everything of value is in that box."

        Then the man pursed his lips and scowled. "Everything of value?"

        Suddenly Mason felt a drop in the air pressure. When he looked outside, he saw a hurricane. Flying furniture. A witch atop a broom.

        "My father was so...complicated, " said Mason. "I can't sort him out."   Which Yitz was he supposed to mourn? His father was kind yet cruel. Generous but withholding. A dictator and a clown. Mason loved and hated him both.

        Then all at once the old man started twitching. A spasm started in his fingers and worked its way up.

        "Do you know there was a sister? A baby girl. Before they were herded into the ghetto, your grandparents gave her away. She was beautiful, said Yitz. Blond and blue-eyed. Perfect. They put her in her fanciest dress, combed her beautiful hair, peeled her little fingers from their arms.  Then they passed her over."

        Mason felt all the color drain from his face. "I had no idea. What was her name? Did she have a name?"

        "They called her Anna," said Morty. "Just like the bakery. In her hand was a spoon.
A silver spoon with the date of her birthday engraved."

        Morty started coughing. Was he choking? Mason was sure he was choking.
Still the old man continued.

        "So you see, Mason. Your father had little interest in money. To him, a wallet filled with cash was just a sandbag in a storm. But that spoon?  That spoon haunted him forever. That spoon visited him in his dreams."

                                                                                        ***

        On the plane ride back, Mason fell into a deep sleep. And like a painting on the wall, the still life of his parents' past flashed before him. A pair of pearl earrings. An orange. A spoon.  How could anything else be of any importance? How could anything else compare?

        When he came home, his wife and children were waiting. And in a pile of mail, along with the bills and magazines, was an invoice from a bank. The letter had been forwarded from his parents' address. It had probably been in mail purgatory for weeks.

        Dear Mr. Markowitz,

        "This is to inform you that the yearly rent for your safety deposit box is overdue.
        Please contact us and remit as soon as possible. Your business is our business!

        The folks at Poughkeepsie National."

        Months passed. And it would occur to Mason, when his mother was settled, when his sister was mollified and his parents' house sold, that the quest was far from over. Somewhere, perhaps in Poland, lived an aunt. And who knows?  Perhaps a boatload
of cousins as well. She may or may not be alive. She may or may not know who she
is or whom she belonged to.

        Still Mason swore to find her. At the least, he'd find the spoon.

Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories and essays have been published in journals such as The Massachusetts Review, Catapult, PANK, and The Baltimore Review. She is the recipient
of both the 2015 Rick Demarinis Fiction Award and the 2018 So To Speak Fiction Prize.
Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of The Net, Best Small Fictions, and for inclusion in Best American Short Stories.

Three on Two

by Stan Lee Werlin

Deep in the third period the ACE line is half-way through its shift and the crowd is unsettled, cranked with nervous tension. Behind his net Alex “Ass” Alessandroni
stops on a dime, a sudden cascade of white ice shavings flying off his skates into
the deadened boards.

The countless pockmarks from skates, sticks, headgear and collisions with heavily padded knees and elbows are barely visible to the crowd stand-ing at their seats and screaming for a goal to tie the game and send it into over-time. The season is nearing an end and the team is on the edge of a third straight year missing the playoffs.  They need to run the table: pull out this game, take the next two, hope the team ahead of them in the standings stumbles and drops a game.

The zealous hometown fans are frustrated, weary, and their raucous catcalls let the players know it even as they root the team on.

Alessandroni is good at tuning everything out. He knows the ice as well as he knows his own body, the distance to each of the two blue-lines, the time it takes to cross the huge neutral zone face-off circle when unimpeded, the angles of approach to the opposing goal-tender 180 feet away at the far end of the rink.

Taking in the positioning of his teammates in their traditional uniforms of yellow-
jacket gold with black accents and the opponents in their hated red and white, his mind instantly calculates the probable geometry of the play setting up in front of him and the fluid ways it is most likely to change depending on what he does and how the players on the ice react. For Alessandroni that kind of vision is mostly instinct. It’s a rare talent, a precious gift that causes others to marvel, and he knows it.

He senses immediately that the other team’s defensemen are cautious, backing into a protective posture. They’re good at holding late game leads. The line they’re up against, though, the center and both wings, they’re aggressive forecheckers known to pressure an attacking team starting out of their own end of the ice to try to force a costly turn-over.

Maybe Alessandroni can induce an error from them. He digs the puck off the netting at the back of the cage where it has come to rest and settles it flat on the ice, caressed in the barely curved blade of his meticulously taped stick. He tapes it only at the heel and in the center of the blade, a superstition he’s followed ever since his first goal in the NHL. His linemates Kevin Cavanaugh and Buzz Evans swoop in from each side of the rink, criss-crossing in front of their goalie to build up their speed. The repetitive sound of their skates cutting into the ice is like the cadence of scythes mowing down a field of hay only faster, much much faster.

It is somehow both graceful and soothing, entirely unlike the violent, chaotic game they play. They both look back at Alessandroni, ready to receive a breakout pass that will start the attack.

**********

Vickie Alessandroni cups her hands under her chin and tilts her face upward in a mega-phone pose. “Let’s go boys!” she yells, “Go! Go! Go! Get up ice!” Next to her, Cassie Evans is fussing with her cell phone camera, ready to take video when the action nears. Cavanaugh’s latest girlfriend Izzy is seated a row behind them, a few seats to their left. The players’ wives and girlfriends and guests are sitting together in the cushiony loge seats at center ice for this game, not high off the ice in the team’s plush suite with the boringly buttoned-down executives staring at computer screens filled with spread-sheets offering mind-numbing advanced hockey analytics:

Corsi, Fenwick, WOWY and more, a slew of elaborate player statistics and sophisticated quantitative performance assessments that would hypnotize even the most rabid of fans.

No, they simply like to be close to their men, on top of the whirlwind action, watching the harsh crunch of bodies colliding as the players chase the puck and deliver bruising body checks and hack at each other with their sticks just softly enough not to draw a penalty. The brief grimaces of pain the women glimpse behind the players’ protective face visors don’t unnerve them so much as energize them. It’s a tough game and their men have to be able to stand up to it, don’t they? The stats don’t measure grit.

Cassie leans toward Vicky and has to shout in her ear to be heard over the rapidly increasing cheers of the crowd. “You think Izzy knows about Casanova?” she asks, nodding her head backward slightly in Izzy’s direction.

Vicky doesn’t know if Cassie uses Cavanaugh’s nickname innocently or to get under her skin. It evokes images of last summer she wants to suppress, and for some reason right now it irritates her.

“What? His fun-loving rep? Sure she does. How could she not?” Vicky pauses. “Oh. You mean about Kevin and you?” she rasps out. “What could she know, unless he told her?” They exchange a lingering private look.

Cassie arches her eyebrows at Vicky. “Not only me,” she replies with a crooked grin.

**********

Alessandroni feints once in each direction before carrying the puck from behind the net and straight up ice directly in front of his goalie. His defensemen settle in safely behind him, prepared to jump into the play if an offensive opening materializes.

His outlet pass goes to Cavanaugh on the left wing midway to their own blue line, a crisp tape to tape laser that Cavanaugh gathers in and cradles easily, the sound on his stick a loud rifle report audible throughout the stadium.

His wings are among the fastest skaters in the league, quicker than their counterparts. He’s counting on them to out-skate the opponents shadowing them and gain the inside position driving through center ice.

Casanova, he thinks, carry it up a few strides and then give it back to me. Their eyes meet for just an instant in a silent exchange that confirms what will happen next.

Alessandroni, Cavanaugh and Evans have played together for three years as the team’s top line. They know each other’s moves so well that at their best their positioning and passing is as smooth as precision choreography, almost balletic.

Or do we?, Alessandroni thinks as he charges forward. His mind flickers to his wife for a fraction of a second. He knows she’s at center ice, her eyes focused sharply on the play. Casanova, buddy, do I really know your every move, or have you put something over on me? He senses even before he sees Cavanaugh’s stick move that the puck is about to come back to him in a saucer pass through the air a few inches above the ice surface, the rhythm of the play uninterrupted. Concentrate, Alex, he thinks to himself.

**********

“Nothing ever happened Cass!” Vicky whisper-shouts over the crowd noise.

“Bullshit”, Cassie mouths back. “Does Ass know?”

Vicky is rueful. What’s the point in continuing her half-hearted deceit any longer? She as much as admitted it to Cassie months ago. She’s a trusted friend. They each know most of the other’s secrets. “He suspects. He asked me outright just before the first game this year. Of course I denied it. ‘I have to skate with this guy all season, Vick’, he said. I don’t think he believed me. There was this look in his eyes like he was pleading.

I just couldn’t tell him. It was so dumb to do it. I don’t know…that lopsided Kevin smile, the way he tilts his hips at you, maybe all that booze at the beach. Over before the season started.”

“I know,” Cassie said. She turns around to contemplate Izzy who’s waving her arms wildly and shouting “Whoo! Kevin! Skate! Don’t go downsides!”

“He’s sure not bonin’ her because she’s a student of the game, is he?” Cassie laughs. “She’s cute, though. Tight body. I give it a month with him.” Eyes back on the ice. “Here they come.”

**********

Cavanaugh steals a glance at the scoreboard overhead to catch the digital clock count-ing down the remaining game time. More than enough to regroup and get their goalie to the bench for a sixth skater if the play gets broken up. He gauges the distance between the opposing center and Alessandroni and then sends the puck back to him with a soft airborne pass calculated to tempt the opponent into trying to intercept it but keep the puck safely out of reach. They’ve done this a thousand times in practice. As soon as the opponent sees that Cavanaugh will back-pass he takes the bait, drops to a knee and whips his stick down flat on the ice, arcing it toward the puck with a quick sweep check to try to knock the puck off path and away from Alessandroni.

It doesn’t work. Just like that, the puck is back on Alessandroni’s stick and the opposing center is scrambling to get to his feet.  Now fifteen feet behind Alessandroni, he’s lost all skating momentum. He and the crowd and Alessandroni all know he won’t recover to get back into the play. It was exactly the mistake they needed.

In an instant,  a genuine 3-on-2 break looks possible.

Alessandroni is now alone, crossing his own blue line with the puck. Cavanaugh and Evans each accelerate past the opposing wingers, shrugging off their harmless stick checks, establishing the position they need.

A second later, the ACE line is in a classic 3-on-2 formation, Alessandroni at the top
of the triangle, Cavanaugh and Evans bear-ing down on the defensemen skating back-ward toward their own goalie and staying low to the ice in strong athletic posture, ready to dart in any direction.

Yvan Therrieu, their colorful French-Canadian coach, has schooled them for this brilliantly. They’ve watched films of the old Montreal Canadiens teams of the 60’s executing perfect 3-on-2s over and over, seemingly scoring at will. There was
never a team better at this part of the game in the entire history of the National
Hockey League, getting over the blue line, wings tying up the defensemen as they
drove to the net, the drop pass to the wide open center iceman barreling down
the slot and closing in to shoot. Now it’s do or die time. They’ve got to produce.

Alessandroni, Cavanaugh and Evans are skating hard through the neutral zone
at center ice past the player benches as the crowd sees the 3-on-2 develop.

Their second line center Gord Tkachuck shouts encouragement from the bench
as Cavanaugh flies past him on the left wing. “You guys get this one, we’ll get the
game-winner!” The women are invisible in the stands as the play rushes by in a
blur, Izzy jumping up and down with a non-stop “Yah! Yah! Go Kev Go!”, Cassie
taking video, Vicky intent on watching the angles and projecting the way the play
will shape up in the next two make-it-or-break-it seconds.

All three linemates hear the unmistakable full-throated call from Coach Therrieu that marks so many offensive rushes every game: “Vite! Vite!” Quickly, quickly! “Vite! Vite!” Evans knows the play; he’ll get the puck from Alessandroni just as he reaches the
opponents’ blue line.

Everything has to be executed at top speed.

The whole season is riding on the ACE line now. For reasons Evans can’t begin to fathom his mind flashes on their public persona. He’s the quiet one with the low key personality. He hates the spotlight and gives perfunctory, predictable athlete interviews. Skate hard, focus, keep to the game plan, stay positive, they’re a good team but if we play up to our capability we can beat them…Ass is the one who wants the glory, the credit for being a great playmaker, the adoration for scoring flashy high-light reel goals.

Ass the arrogant. He’s chasing the big contract when he becomes a free agent after
the season ends. Chances are high he’ll sign with another team: it’ll be the end of the ACE line.

Casanova is, well…Casanova. Sleeps with the groupies. Takes whatever comes
from flirting with teammates’ women. Flamboyant personality. Gives great stream
of consciousness interviews sitting at his locker after games, interviews that Ass
watches with a mixture of admiration and dark brooding jealousy. The same Ass
who right on cue just head-faked left and fired a perfect pass to Evans flying down
the right wing.

**********

It was Evans who took Coach Therrieu aside months earlier as soon as he heard it from Cassie. He still isn’t sure he should have done it. In some ways it felt like a betrayal of confidence, a soiled revelation. How do you balance that personal uneasiness against the needs of the team, the delicacy of human relationships, the huge sums they get paid to selflessly give their all and become professional scoring machines once they take the ice?

“Are you sure, Cass?” he had asked before seeking out the coach. “From Vicky herself? You’re not just maybe reading too much into harmless flirtation? Vicky can be a real cock-teaser.”

“Casanova told me,” she answered. “Not Vicky. Bragged about it, really. ‘Screwed Ass’s wife at that beach party in June’, he said, ‘Again last month before she said no more. Buzz and I do the heavy work, Ass hogs the puck and gets the glory. Vicky, she’s just payback. He deserves it’. His exact words. So I asked her about it. ‘He’s got a great body’, was all she would say.”

“Why would he boast about it to you? Tryin’ to make you jealous, lookin’ for another
go-round maybe?”

“Buzz, c’mon. Casanova and me, sure, we had our good times before you came along. That’s a thing of the past now, dead and buried, and he knows it. But he still likes to
take me aside once in a while like I’m his confidante, tell me he’s still in play, let me
know what I’m missin’. Great player but can’t help himself. Still just a kid chasin’ tail.
His cross to bear, not yours.”

“No, Cass. On that you’re wrong. We’re all in it. We are definitely all in it.”

Coach Therrieu’s office door is closed when Alessandroni wanders past and spots Casanova in the office with him, shoulders sagging under the weight of a harsh tongue-lashing. “We need you guys to be together in every way this year on the ice and off, n’est-ce pas? You understand? Team chemistry above all! If I have to break up your line there’ll be hell to pay! You want to move in on the girlfriends, that’s your business Casanova. But the wives are off limits. Laissez les femmes seules! Laissez les femmes! Is that clear enough?”

By the time Cavanaugh opens the door and steps out, Ass is gone, pondering what he overheard. There’s a deep scowl on his face that twists the fading rows of stitches on his chin and cheeks into an ugly mask.

**********

Alessandroni’s pass to Evans is another flawless laser timed exquisitely, catching
Evans in stride just as he reaches the offensive blue line. On the left wing, Cavanaugh jukes sideways and drags his rear skate along the blue paint to ensure he does not precede Evans into the zone. The puck has to cross the line completely before any attacking player has entered the offensive zone or the play will be ruled offside and whistled to a stop, and it does. They’ve nailed it.

The geometry of the 3-on-2 is now like a moving human isosceles triangle closing in on the net. Evans’s drop pass to the trailing Alessandroni just inside the blue line is a well-executed thing of beauty that has the fans already rising from their seats. Alessandroni picks up the puck and cruises unimpeded straight down the center of the attacking zone toward the opposing net. His counterpart nine or ten feet behind him backchecks futilely trying to throw him off stride, flailing at Alessandroni with his stick, catching only air. The opponents’ defensemen are helpless, prevented from driving into the slot and closing it off by Cavanaugh and Evans’s dominating size and muscular inside positioning.

The GM, the off-ice coaches, the scouts are all watching from the team’s suite
high above the ice in their state of the art stadium, all concrete and padded comfort,
vast and sterile, nothing like the original arenas and their stiff wooden seats. Those places had personality: Boston Garden with its first and second balconies practically hanging over the ice surface; Chicago Stadium with its analog penalty timers and the throbbing of its impossibly loud pipe organ; the venerated Montreal Forum where the fans attended games in suit and tie. They also had drifting clouds of smoke, obstructed view seats, wretched air conditioning, dim lighting, garbled sound, and sometimes, late in the season, when the playoffs were underway, fog on the ice.

The new generation of execs expects to be pampered: multiple TV feeds, video replay, gourmet food service, in-suite kitchen and bathroom facilities. Welcome to the high tech, high finance worldof contemporary professional sports.

None of that matters right now. They’ve shared the coach’s concern about the fragile chemistry of the ACE line all year. Mostly, the line has held together well. Game in and game out, made strong aggressive plays. Performed better than last season. Leads
the team in scoring. Solid defensively.  The dark undercurrent of difficulties between Alessandroni and Cavanaugh hasn’t surfaced in public. There’s been no media or press speculation. The locker room scuffle early in the season when Evans separated Ass and Casanova was intense but brief. It stayed private, no harm done.

The players refused to talk about it. Still, there’s been a persistent low wattage negative vibe, elusive, nothing anyone chose to put a finger on, just something percolating under the surface that has remained there for months. There’s never been a thought of breaking up the line, let alone a more extreme consideration like trading one of
the players. And now, here it is playing out on the ice below them, the last chance
to keep the season alive,a few seconds squarely in the hands of the ACE line.

Cavanaugh bangs his stick twice on the ice, hard and insistent, the signal he’s open
and wants the puck. Alessandroni has to decide instantly – thread it in to Cavanaugh
for a possible tip-in past the goalie or a deft deke that gives Cavanaugh a completely open net for an easy goal, or keep the puck to unleash an unimpeded slap shot. The pass is the riskier play. No glory for you on this one, Casanova.

Alessandroni cruises in alone from the blue line. Fifty feet. Forty feet.

The opposing goalie leaves his crease, gliding directly toward Alessandroni, squared
up to him. His pads, stick, blocker and catching glove loom ever larger in Alessandroni’s field of vision, creating a wide, imposing profile to cut down the shooting angles in an
effort to give the rapidly approaching shooter nothing to see and aim for, pressuring
him to take a high risk shot at the barely visible corners of the net. Alessandroni, the team’s best sniper, can hit the corners in his sleep. He raises his stick behind him, the blade above head height, threatening a slap shot at 100 miles per hour.

At that speed, the vulcanized rubber puck will be an unstoppable lethal missile cover-
ing the short distance between the shooter and the goalie in just over one-tenth of a second. There is no human reaction time now, just a set of divergent possible results.

The puck could hit the goal-tender, or miss him and rip into the net at the corner of Alessandroni’s choosing for a goal that sets off a wild frenzy of celebration, or fly
wide and smash into the protective glass or boards behind the net. It might strike
the bright red metal crossbar or one of the goalposts and continue into the net for
a goal, or it might carom away from the players harmlessly or drop down into the
tangle of bodies in front of the net where it could deflect in off a leg or arm or skate
for a goal, or skitter off into a corner or be buried under a body to end the play with
the harsh shriek of the referee’s whistle. All of these futures are about to collapse
into one.

Alessandroni winds up to take the shot. It is a violent action, shooting a puck at
this speed toward another human being, fierce, uncompromising, unmerciful.

In a final effort to fuse desire and determination into pure athletic focus, Alessandroni envisions Cavanaugh’s chiseled features on the surface of the puck. With a slight change of direction and lift, too subtle for anyone to see, he could fire the puck at Cavanaugh’s head.

No one can control a slapshot in today’s high speed game, he imagines the comment-ators saying as they replay the video again and again, the shot just went awry. At that short distance, the impact was bone-breaking. The helmet saved his life. Cavanaugh is
a lucky man tonight.
That vision he has of Vicky and Cavanaugh naked together, bed-sheets askew, their skin glistening with sweat, her hand tracing a line down Kevin’s rock hard quadriceps has never left him.

He drives the blade of his stick toward the frozen black disc, meeting it flat and hard slightly in front of his body where the laws of physics pinpoint the exact location of maximum force. In his mind, time slows to a crawl. The decibel level in the stands skyrockets. Eighteen thousand fans are propelling themselves upward from their
seats, leaving their feet, anticipating, their arms prematurely beginning to fly above
their heads in that unmistakable reflex of triumph, the way hockey goals are always celebrated. They are already halfway to a thunderous ovation that will shake the
stadium from floor to ceiling if the ACE line ties the game.

It all happens so quickly. Alessandroni hears the unmistakable harsh thunk of the
puck on metal, a sound so loud it reverberates through the entire arena, rising
above even the cacophony of the screaming fans. The puck deflects downward
off the crossbar, bouncing crazily and spinning on the ice surface in the crease
behind the goalie, rolling perilously close to but not entering the gaping four by
six foot rectangle that is now a wide open net. The puck is a black hole vacuuming
in the attention of everyone who can see it, waiting to be tapped in to the net to
tie the game or to be batted away by the desperate defense.

The fans behind the net are delirious, shouting, pounding on the protective glass. Instantly everyone converges in the goal crease - the defense-men, Cavanaugh,
Evans, the trailing opponent wingers, the goaltender.

The sheer tangle of bodies obscures Alessandroni’s vision of the net as the players wrestle each other to the ice surface in a flailing mass of arms and legs and sticks
and skates. The referee is positioned perfectly a few feet to the side of and slightly behind the cage where he can see the entire play and follow the fate of the shot.

He begins to make a waving motion toward the net with his arms, peering in
to find a glimpse of the puck, looking for a round black edge, ready to signal.

 


Stan Lee Werlin's short stories and poetry have appeared in Southern Humanities Review, Los Angeles Review, Sheepshead Review, Prime Number, Glassworks, Futures Trading, Soundings East, Saranac Review, Bacopa Literary Review, Zone 3, Gargoyle, Reunion, The Write Launch, Waymark, Blind Corner, Dark Elements, The Louisville Review and Roanoke Review. His humorous children's poetry has been published in numerous children’s magazines and anthologies. He was a Harvard undergrad and received an MBA from The Wharton School. Stan enjoys competitive singles tennis
and is a lifelong fan of the Boston Bruins. You can follow him on Twitter at @natsnilrew.

Environmental Disturbances

 by Anita Goveas

Marcella met her soulmates on a school-trip to London Zoo, swept along in a gaggle of knee-socked girls and grubby boys to the Reptile House. In the midst of disdainful snakes and over-active lizards, a lime-green bulbous-eyed Waxy Monkey frog stared right back at her. Wise and thoughtful, with luminous skin like pista halva, it could walk in the trees. She thirsted to know more. She asked for books about her-pe-tol-ogy, spelt out carefully with a damp finger. Her father took her every weekend to see the Brazilian blue poison frogs at the Horniman museum, while her younger sister Camila played netball. She studied their delicate toes, while they gazed around with their beady black eyes.

The last present he gave her before he disappeared into the hospital was two African dwarf frogs in a five-gallon tank. Marcella spent her weekend mornings in the library, afternoons watching the air filter bubble, evenings reading under the bed-covers. She learned a new fact every day: they ate brine shrimp, liked to hide under plant-pots, average life span was five years, but some lived up to twenty. Everything had to be perfect for when her father saw them. But he never did.

Hoppy and Sleepy were excellent listeners. She made up stories about them
when Camila was restless, how they saved the world from evil fly supervillains
and too much homework, how they sometimes worked with a dark-haired man
with a strong chin and thick eyebrows.

Uncle Filip helped her write them down on green paper, drew her pictures of lakes and forests. They were one of the few things that made her waning mother smile. She mur-mured about the place she grew up in, Mangalore, and soon the frogs jumped about in rice paddies and saved trees from over-enthusiastic wood-cutters.

Three years later, when Grandpa Bob moved in to help out, he told them stories of their father as a small boy, counting tadpoles in their pond in Manningtree, learning to climb trees. Marcella liked those stories better, but still remembered her amphibious super-heroes. She found all the drawings one day in a cupboard in the kitchen, neatly lined up in a folder labelled ‘Artwork’. They were crumpled and dog-eared and mysteriously streaked.


The frogs had just made it to their seventh birthday the month before she left for University. Marcella wrote down their routine for care and maintenance for Uncle Filip
to follow; he had been the one who helped her the most. Mother insisted on ironing
her jeans.  Camila was reading War and Peace, and Grandpa Bob was staring over
The Times at them, his thick eyebrows drawn together.

“Aren’t you taking those things with you to Lancaster?”

Uncle Filip kept writing, but she heard the iron hiss as if pressed too hard, and the
flip of pages stopped. Sleepy hid under a piece of flowerpot, a strategy she admired.

As she got older, the stories about her father changed. Her interest in amphibians grew, and she watched only wildlife documentaries and spent weekends helping at the pet shop where Uncle Filip worked and Grandpa Bob talked more about her father’s interest in chess, in crosswords, in doing his homework. Interests that didn’t involve frogs. He also talked about how sad it was that someone couldn’t follow in her father’s footsteps.

“I’m not sure they’d survive the journey. They’re fragile, Grandpa.” His heavy sigh indicated this wasn’t important.

He always took Camila to her netball games and to her computer club, never went with her and Uncle Filip to the Horniman. Her mother didn’t attend any of the activities the girls did. Marcella never begrudged the time to herself after the busy days at the hospital; now she wondered if she hadn’t wanted to take sides.

“Well, if your mother’s brother flips out again, I’ll be the one who has to flush them down the toilet,” said Grandpa.

The time she’d begged Uncle Filip to come to parent’s evening had been three years ago. She’d not really understood what his Asperger’s meant then, how much it took out of him to be around people. All he’d done was lie down on the floor, but Grandpa Bob had added it to his stories as a lesson. She’d never been sure who the message was for.

There were words that might fix this, but Camila had those. All she could think of was that her version of her father bought those frogs, but he seemed very far away.

“Frogs are important to the ecosystem; it’s all a very delicate balance.”

Grandpa unleashed his contemptuous snort. “And that’s why you’re dumping them on us.”

Uncle Filip slammed down his notebook, marched out, and Marcella watched Hoppy sneak under the flowerpot before she followed. A hum of triumph joined the flip of pages. The faint hint of burning invaded her nostrils, but her mother held the iron mid-air.


After University, Marcella took the first job she was offered.

She settled into American academic life. The worst part was the pressure. The pressure to publish, to obtain funding, made her studies seem different every day.  A landslide or a flood was devastating for the people from a region, but could impact flora and fauna for years. The balance between the thoroughness needed to be objective and the speed needed to make sure that the object of the study was something that still existed made her head spin like a centrifuge.  Her lab in Wisconsin was better equipped than where she’d done her Master’s, but money wasn’t everything.

The slam of the door meant Tanya had arrived to the lab. Her PhD supervisor was
the noisiest person Marcella had ever met. The sound of her slurping her herbal teas
echoed from the next room. Marcella put down the slide she was about to examine.

Tanya demanded everyone’s full attention.

“Marcie, you’re going to want to listen carefully.” Something supressed ran through her voice like carbon dioxide bubbling through lime water.

“The good news is, I got it, the money came through. I can finish my research in the field! And the better news is I want you to come with me!”

Marcella moved a beaker away from Tanya’s pointing fingers. Marcella straightened out her forceps, the pipette, the box of cover slips, to give herself some time.

“But you’re studying the impact of man-made pollution on rural farming, I’m swabbing frogs for anti-bodies to fungal pathogens. How on earth can your research proposal involve me?”

“Come on, how many times have I heard you give your ‘frogs are bio-indicators speech’? It’s your party piece! Your frogs are going to help find those toxic chemicals we know are out there. And you’ll never guess where we’re going!”

The lab benches seemed to shake; Marcella rubbed the crick in her neck. Tanya smiled with all her teeth, as if she’d already heard the yes.


Two weeks later, Marcella stood in the paved-over garden outside the terraced house. She’d forgotten how small it was. She hadn’t willingly come back since that first and
last row with Grandpa Bob. After her frogs died, it had become easier to spend her weekends in the lab and the holidays in the library. Her mother and Uncle Filip came
to watch her graduate with a First in Biological Sciences. Camila had been on her term abroad in France. Grandpa Bob hadn’t been well enough to travel. Her mother’s smile had been enough. Then, hen Marcella applied for her Master’s, with included a chance for her to take a year abroad in America, she’d needed to work to save up for the fees. Uncle Filip had already mastered Skype to talk to Camila. Marcella’s news never took long to report. And after Grandpa Bob’s funeral happened the same day that the Life Sciences Symposium commenced, there had been even less to say.

The doorbell still played ‘Frere Jacques’, higher pitched than she’d remembered, like the whine a record made before it stopped. She listed all the frog diseases in her head twice before a grey-templed Uncle Filip opened the door.

“I own the shop now,” he said, peering through the sliver of light he’d created.

“That’s great Uncle, I’m really pleased.”

“I bought two Leopard frogs; they’re in a twenty-gallon tank in your old room.”

“It’s ok, I’m not moving back home. Just … can I come in?”

A faint voice asked, “who is it?” Uncle Filip kept the door open at the exact same angle, but turned his head.

“It’s Marcella,” he said, then walked away, leaving the door open.

She followed after him, but the door stuck a little, and he’d vanished when she hurried down the linoleum-covered hallway.  Her mother sat in a worn green armchair, squinting at Cosmopolitan.

She’d hadn’t worked out how to say hello and stood in the doorway, hands clenched.
Her mother looked up, pushed at her blue-framed glasses.

“You didn’t phone? No need to upset Filip like that. He missed you, thought you
stopped coming because he didn’t keep your frogs alive.”

“I’d have lost my nerve, you know that. I’ll explain this him.”

Her mother slapped the magazine’s shiny paper with her palm.
Then she stood up and leaned her square chin on Marcella’s shoulder.

“We both missed you. The house is ... quiet.”

Marcella lifted her hands, felt the sharp bones of her mother’s shoulder blades
under her thin turquoise cardigan when she hugged her.

“I should phone more, I know, but I wanted to see you before I went away.
I’m going to Mangalore.”


A wall of heat hit as she stepped out of Mangalore airport. It almost knocked her back. Marcella’s face took on the glow of over-exertion, or embarrassment, and she could feel the ten-hour flight in her shoulders. It was supposed to be cooler in April, but monsoon was on its humid way, and the air was moist and heavy. She searched for the faces she’d memorised from photos and Facebook. She should have asked what they’d wear, how they did their hair. She’d never been to a place where everyone had the same skin colour as her, and she towered over their heads. People waited in erratic groups. Her earlobes sweated. The cool air of her tidy lab in Green Bay seemed distant. A pig-tailed girl appeared in front of her, holding a card saying “Paddock.” Marcella smiled at her gratefully.

“I think that’s me.”

“Come, my daddy’s waiting.”

She pulled Marcella through the intent crowd, which barely moved out of the way. After three sweaty minutes of walking, they reached an oval-shaped car and an angular-shaped man who she’d only seen smiling in two dimensions, her cousin Salvador. She slid into the backseat of the large boxy grey vehicle and the man slammed the door shut. The little girl sidled over to the middle next to her, then put her feet up into the gap between the front seats. A woman with neatly plaited hair turned towards her from the left side. At least they seemed to drive on the side she was used to.

“Marcella, this is my beautiful wife, Lia, and my irrepressible daughter, Alysa. Move over, you’re squashing your auntie enough. We need her fresh for the party.”

“Just ‘Marcella’ is fine, I’m not used to being an auntie. What party?”

“Everyone is auntie here and everyone is waiting to meet you. Welcome to India!”


Marcella tucked her socks back into her hiking boots and placed her sodden hair back up into a bun. Ranipuram peak loomed through mist. Water seemed to have soaked into her eyeballs. But frogs thrived in water, and she had to find her specimens. The agreement between her and Tanya, to examine the native purple frog population for the impact of pollution, had left out the part where someone had to catch them while standing knee-deep in the lime-pickle green Shola woods.  Monkeys bounced through the leaves and mosquitoes buzzed up her nose and ears. It was difficult to listen for a tell-tale splash when her neck was dripping into her trousers. She held the handle of the flapping net above her head, the chirp of cicadas mocked her, and the hum of forest noises were resolutely splashless.

Marcella had had enough for one day. She gathered up her bucket and water bottle to head back to the lab again in Karasgod. She was still squeezing out damp bits of water from her when she got there and didn’t notice that Tanya was talking to anyone until
she and the other person abruptly stopped in front of her.

The pale-skinned, thick-necked man was bursting out of a spotted green tie, as if he
was wearing an escaping yellow-spotted lizard. He stalked away on awkwardly long
legs, wrinkling his nose at the trail she’d left.

“Is that someone from the Institute? I thought they were all Indian.”

Tanya had been wining and dining agricultural scientists and research chemists. Farming was essential to the communities that lived along the Western Ghats, and crop failures could devastate whole regions. She’d been reaping the benefits of the local efforts to figure out long-term solutions to changing weather and growing populations.

“No, just another American working round here. You’re not going to drip like that in the lab, right? I don’t want you to mess up my notes.”

The hairs on Marcella’s neck rose, a primal instinct. She walked towards the bath-
room, slapping down her feet slowly and deliberately until Tanya disappeared behind
her computer screen.

Aftwerwards, she walked towards the entrance to check the sign-in sheet, with the man’s name so neatly written it was almost printed;  the company’s title, on the other hand, was a blurred scrawl:

‘Jason Thomas, Emerald Mining.’


She tried to ignore it as she ate dinner at her cousin’s house, something her Aunty Valerie’s large eyes tracked as if it were research. Which fish did she take more of, which vegetables did she ignore, how many servings did she take? This was something she did during every meal, for the last nine days. Today’s fried kingfish flaked apart like falling leaves, but Marcella wasn’t craving the spicy crust or the firm meatiness. Instead, she gulped water as if she hadn’t been soaked all day.

“Salvador, she doesn’t like it. Buy some chicken tomorrow.”

“Sorry Aunty, I’m just tired. I’m probably jet-lagged, and I’m still getting used to the lab here. Can I have it for breakfast?”

“There Mumma, relax. She loves it. She wants it for every meal!”

Aunty Valerie dug a sharp elbow in the roundness above Salvador’s right hip, and brought Marcella tiny brown-skinned bananas from the garden. Their perfumed softness seemed flesh-like.

Salvador brought a sliced cheese and white bread sandwich to her room, really Alysa’s room, which was plastered with pink butterfly stickers. Marcella dug her thumbnail into the crust. Green chutney oozed out.

“Are you really tired? You can tell us if you want to eat something else.”

“The food is wonderful! I’ll just have to let all my trousers dry first.”
Marcella couldn’t stop her sigh.

Salvador rubbed his pot-belly and smiled, but didn’t leave. He leant expectantly
against a neon pink wall.

“What is the Emerald mining company?”, Marcella asked.

“Have you seen that bilious billboard? Some American company. They’re trying to buy land to building a school in Madikeri. Obviously, they want something; no one is sure what, though. There used to be hematite mining in the mountains, but it’s been illegal for 10 years or more.”


She drove past a giant green billboard advertising the school on her way back to the forest and frog-hunting the next day. The sign squatted over the dusty red road like
a hooded cobra. As she stood in the woods, Marcella returned to the face of the man which had approached Tanya earlier on in the lab. He had a bland, smooth countenance, only marred by his reaction to seeing her.

The stillness was rippled by a slight splash. A glistening purple frog stared at her, so round and flat it looked like a piece of amethyst with white-tipped feet. She pressed her tongue against her teeth as she lowered her net, not breaking eye contact with the frog.

After unloading the net unto her palm, she cradled the frog, then placed it
in the prepared bucket with a layer of water and mud. The frog didn’t try and
escape; it nestled into the bottom as she covered it with mesh and then hurried
back to the car.

The small and spotless lab was empty when she entered. She gently transferred
her prize into a tank. The frog sank into the sand while Marcella tidied away the rest
of the equipment.

Tanya bustled in. Marcella stood in front of the tank, now hoping not to hear a splash.

“Empty-handed again? Not to worry, Marcie, I think I’ve found a way out of your little problem.”

Marcella focused on the yellowish spot on her supervisor’s lab-coat collar, an escaped drop of green tea. It throbbed in the fluorescent light, a visceral bruise.

“I’ve been putting a lot of effort into networking, thinking about the uses of what we’ve been studying, while you’ve been enjoying yourself in the mountains.”  Marcella willed the tea spot to grow tiny webbed fingers and aim for Tanya’s throat. Tanya went on: “A great opportunity has landed in our laps, real money to do real research!”

“I am doing real research, Tanya.”

Her supervisor chewed at her fat slug-like bottom lip.

“Just hear me out; it’s gonna make your life much easier.”

Tanya spread out her hands, as if inviting Marcella to dance.

“There’s this American company trying to get a footing here and they’re looking at ways to get involved in the community. They’d pay us to set up a new lab in Bangalore, study the impact of mining. They’d pay us for that report.”

Marcella’s breath swelled in waves up her throat. She fixed her eyes on Tanya’s, willing herself not to blink.

“You want us to move away from a place where the effects of mining are everywhere, to study the effects of mining? And why would a herpetologist be helpful for that?”

Tanya looked away. Marcella smirked.

“Ok then, you got me. It’s a stupid amount of money, Marcie. For whatever reason, they want to give it to us. It’s the smart move to take it, do what they want, then use the money to do something good somewhere else. Even the frogs are screwed here. This placed is fucked.”

Tanya shuffled out, swung her hand back into her usual slam-the-door position, and hesitated. The  tiny click still echoed.


Marcella stayed in the lab that night, so late that even Aunty Valerie gave up on and left dinner on a plate for her. Marcella was up with the neighbour’s vigorous rooster the next day, left behind a sleeping Saturday-lazy household, and even worked through lunch. Salvador found her peering at a microscope slide, a pen stuck behind her ear. Marcella kept rolling her shoulders, as if they were powering the lights. She pushed the slide away and whipped round, her mouth relaxing when he sheepishly waved.

“I know, Aunty Valerie sent you. I’m sorry, I thought I’d be back in an hour. I won’t be long. Save me some lunch.”

“It’s 8pm.” Her body drooped, as if he’d hit the latch of a collapsible table.

“Oh no, is everyone upset with me? This is a horrible insult, isn’t it?”

Salvador’s round face flooded with something intangible, like her mother’s
when Marcella caught her asleep at her father’s desk every night after he
didn’t come back.

“There’s a problem, cousin, isn’t there? Have you made a mistake?” His eyes were suddenly her mother’s, mahogany-brown and warm.

“I’ve been checking to make sure I haven’t made a mistake. This frog seems to be resistant to disease. This would be a huge breakthrough, and I don’t know what to do about it!”

It cascaded out, how a lack of frogs are an indicator of a dying ecosystem, how long she’d been searching in Karasgod, how frogs everywhere, from South America to Australia, were being decimated by fungal pathogens that no one could be sure wouldn’t get worse as the climate warmed, that this frog could be an advance for the environmental science and medicine, and how someone was trying to destroy everything.

“How can I take on a whole mining company? I’m alone now, without Tanya. Who else have they bought in the lab?”

“My very sweet, very English cousin, you’re related to at least half of the neighbourhood and its surroundings; we’ll think of something. You think we haven’t noticed how the quarrying made the floods worse? People lost their animals, sometimes even their houses; no one listened. Now, we can protest about these frogs!”


When Protest Day arrived a week later, it became clear that no one knew what a frog protest should be like. Salvador and a shy cousin at technical college printed off purple frog t-shirts, and several people wore them. Some people sported deely-boppers and carried windmills. Someone painted faces purple, green, yellow, and stripes of red.
There were placards saying, “Save the Ghats,” and, “Hands off the frogs,” and, “Big Business Out”. Someone even dressed as Kermit—top-half nylon frog, bottom-half sensibly dressed in shorts and chappals. What swelled in Marcella’s throat was not
the different ways in which people decided to save the frogs, but that so many people had something to say. It wasn‘t just her, or even Salvador, with Lia dragged alongside him.  Her dad would have laughed and ruffled her hair. It was glorious.

There were speeches. A thin, balding man whispered about being forced to sell his farm, and then work for the mining company, a young woman in red plastic glasses and skinny jeans talked about the landslides in Kodagu, a plump man in a frog t-shirt and a lungi shouted about how climate change made the most impact on poorer communities and that’s why no one listened. People cheered after every speaker. The technical cousin filmed everything, and Marcella watched the videos later, on YouTube, in her borrowed bedroom, and afterwards, on the Kannada news channel as well. She turned her phone off after the fourth call from Tanya. She was fixated on the TV screen until Alysa skipped into the room with the house phone. Her mother was talking on the other end.


A crowd waited for Marcella to accompany her to the airport. She decided to ride in Joseph’s (the technical cousin’s) purple Tata Tiago, because it made her smile. He
still communicated with her mostly in nods. She’d used so many words talking to journalists, about Tanya, resigning from college, and while discussing fungal path-
ogens over the phone with Uncle Fillip and in person with Alysa, who’d taken down
all the pink butterflies and replaced them with hand-drawn rainbow coloured frogs.

They drove past the Madikeri school, with operations being completed by a charity. Marcella felt her gut sink as she recognised the thick-necked man from the mining company, the one she wasn’t supposed to know about, talking to a paint-splattered workman. They’d won a small victory. Emerald mining caved to the publicity’s disapproval of their actions, but some of the pollution here was irreversible, and big companies had experience on rewriting the narrative.

Salvador seemed to glow in the airport’s light. She hugged him tightly.
Their foreheads touched.

“You’ll be back, cousin. We have lots of things to do.”

“I’ll be back, cousin. Maybe the University of Bangalore would like a herpetologist.
And Mum definitely needs some time in the place she taught me to love.”

 


Anita Goveas is British-Asian, London-based, and fueled by strong coffee and paneer jalfrezi. She was first published in the 2016 London Short Story Prize anthology, most recently in Little Fiction and mac(ro)mic. She’s on the editorial team at Flashback Fiction, an editor at Mythic Picnic’s Twitter zine, and tweets erratically at @coffeeandpaneer.

Her debut flash collection, ‘Families and other natural disasters’, is available from Reflex Press, and links to her stories are at https://coffeeandpaneer.wordpress.com.

Old Friends

by Daniel Elfanbaum

It is in the parking lot of a liquor store that I pick up a friend from college who was left there by the woman he’s been living with, a woman who wants to make a home-cooked meal for us to meet over, who thinks it’s a good idea that my friend and I meet up, the two of us, beforehand. I’ve been given to understand she likes to run things. I think this must be good for my old friend. I haven’t seen him in some years and it is very bright outside when I pick him up in front of the store. Two red plastic bags of beers and a half bottle of whiskey because he knows I like it. His workday uniform of ill-fitting khakis and an ill-fitting shirt sits familiar with my memory of him in ill-fitting gym shorts and tee shirts the year we lived together. The thing is that he was just so thin back then, and still is now, in the car driving in his new home town.

The highway exit ramps and interchanges loop over and around each other. We’d hugged when I got out to greet him, and I turn the music down a little as a gesture. Slow to start. We talk and catch up, a little. We exchange pleasantries about the weather and roll though our life updates in bulleted lists, and I’m happy to hear things are so good with him, these days. And these days they’re maybe not as much so good with me, but when we’d last known each other things had been at least OK on my end and not great with him. This meant that things were not great with us and our friends, and I spent a long time covering up this old friend’s tracks, misdemeanors, mishaps, and I can’t say that I had liked it. Had not liked it when there was a banging on my door at one in the morning, when the woman he’d been seeing started throwing shoes. Just kid stuff that shouldn’t have mattered, but of course kid stuff that felt important at the time. We were of an age for kid stuff. No more. And maybe a touch of infidelity is the kind of thing that always matters, I don’t know. Can’t really think how it’s always, things I’ve seen and heard about and done, can’t think of anything as always, but we’re not talking about it anyway, because why would I bring up that sort of thing. I wouldn’t. But I’m willing to be wrong about it.

My old friend lives in the kind of town that’s oscillating between new office buildings and old office buildings and buildings abandoned and buildings coming up. The familiar mish-mash of things and peoples and peoples and things moving, i.e., displaced, and I’m wondering what kind of car my old friend is driving now in his wrinkled khakis.

“I meant to tell you, I’m getting married,” he says, and I’m staying with him and his girlfriend, and so I hope I’ll like his wife. Fiancée. This is a slip.

Me? I’m single driving a cheap Japanese sedan but at least it’s clean, clean even though I’ve got my shit here and there and everywhere because I am right now in a way living here, in the car, I mean. The job I had had was over and the lease was month to month and I was so tired of putting so many things together poorly.

“I would love to be in the wedding,” I tell my old friend when he asks.

He directs me where and I drive and soon we’re in a little suburban town with green lawns even in February, with an attractive touch here and there of pre-dusk frost on the tips of the blades of grass, and my old friend is telling me about this house his fiancée bought a while back where he’s been living. Put together. They have a dog, a very good dog, and they’ve been going to church, and when we pull into the driveway tucked into the best corner of the cul-de-sac, and the house has half a brick front like the house that I’d grown up in, and I come in and meet the fiancée, this smiling woman, there is a constriction in my chest. I notice I am tense. I am pretending like I am not taking deep breaths to cool down. I don’t remember being sick or needing to cough or what I’m supposed to be stressed out about. I don’t know that this might be a kind of awe.

They together show me to the room where I’ll be staying. There’s pictures of them at a fair and with their dog on otherwise bare shelves, a double-high air mattress where I’ll sleep tonight and the next two nights at least, unless I do something wrong again, like when I saw my friend in Tennessee. When I come back into the kitchen after putting down my things, availing myself of the toilet, after observing that the room I am in feels almost intentionally un-moved-in-to, as if they were saving it for something, something, and I know what, I walk into the kitchen. My old friend is helping his soon-to-be wife make dinner. Smiling. He hands me a beer so as to clink glasses, and I feel as if I could weep. Marriage, babies, new life. Just me and the car and couches to sleep on.

We eat fish tacos for dinner and afterwards they let me join them to wash the plates and pan. We watch a program on TV and then his fiancée goes to bed to read. She says she wants to give us some “guy time.” I ask her what book it is, and it’s one I’m a fan of. We wish her good night.

“I thought you’d like her,” my old friend says.

Sinking into their big leather couch, I tell him he seems happy, and he admits he is. I’m glad, I tell him. I’m glad.


Daniel Elfanbaum is a writer from St. Louis now living just outside of Boston. Some of his other work can be found in S/Word, Taper, and Levee Magazine

Bears Always Find the First Star of the Night

by Eisuke Aikawa
Translated by Toshiya Kamei

The rain had fallen since the evening before, but it had stopped by the afternoon, as if it had never been. Clouds parted to reveal blue skies. The cicadas came back to life and resumed their chorus, and numerous puddles dotted the schoolyard and shone brightly as they reflected the sunlight. Only Kishi and I remained in the classroom after the end-of-term ceremony. We sat side by side at the usual desks by the window.

“This is it. It doesn’t feel like it, though,” mumbled Kishi.

“What’s so good about going to Hokkaido, anyway? It’s too cold, for one thing. Besides, it’s much more rural than it is here.” Even though I knew it was beyond his control, I couldn’t help but sound reproachful.

“They say ikura is delicious there.”

“Kishi, do you like salmon roe?”

“Not really,” he answered with a wry smile. That expression made him look all grown up.

“I heard on the news that a bear wandered into town.”

“That sounds scary, but I can’t just stay here.”

Silence filled the room for a short while. I wanted to say a proper goodbye, but every time I tried to get words out, they got stuck in my throat.

“Oh yeah,” Kishi blurted.

I looked up, my eyes still downcast.

“The sky must be beautiful at night.”

“You mean in Hokkaido?”

“Yes. They say it’s so clear you can almost touch it.”

I imagined Kishi looking at the stars alone on a night so cold the air could freeze. Bears and foxes would stand dazed as they stared up at the starry night sky. It was a faraway time and place, but I was able to see it as if it were floating in front of me.

“Is that so?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he answered with a laugh.

Years later, his smile still lingers in my mind.


Eisuke Aikawa is a fiction writer based in Fukuoka, Japan. He has authored two collections of short stories, Haikingu (2017) and Kumo wo hanareta tsuki (2018). His short fiction has appeared in venues such as Bungakukai, Hidden Authors, and Taberu no ga osoi. His first novel, Hannah no inai jugatsu wa, was published in 2020.

Toshiya Kamei holds an MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Arkansas. His recent translations of Latin American literature include books by Claudia Apablaza, Carlos Bortoni, and Selfa Chew.

Two Dead, One Buried

by Preston Taylor Stone

The thunder had rolled the evening into night: syncopations the dog growled at, but the rain never came. So it wasn’t without reason that I paused, wondering whether the bangs on the door were real.

“Who’s there?” 

“Open the goddamn door.”

I unlatched and opened the door and my sister shoved her way into my studio apartment, tracking mud on the white tiles and the gray patterned rug beyond it. She did lose herself on occasion, her panics frequent after the local court dropped the charges on the man who hit her in the parking lot of the Publix with his car. She was, as the prosecutor argued, “an overly hysterical woman with a history of drug abuse and paranoia. Who could believe she would tell the truth now if she hadn’t told the truth enough to keep her children?”

The old dog met her with sniffs and a waggy tail. She ruffled his fur as she sat down on the couch, her muddy shoes still on.

“He’s over there,” she said. “Watching me like a fuckin’ sniper.”

“Who’s over where?” I said.

“I swear to god, do you read your email?”

“Yes,” I said, a lie.

“The man from the church, the one who gave out the candies—prolly fuckin’ laced. He’s moved into the trailer across the way from me and his blinds never close. He don’t even make a show of being a stalker.”

“Don’t you think you’re being a little—”

“Fuck you. I’m not paranoid and I took a picture to prove it.”

She took out her phone, different from the one I had seen her with just a week before; though, I should say: she hadn’t keep phones for very long, not because she was paranoid about the number getting taken, but because she dropped them. Out windows, in toilets, on sidewalks, in the garbage disposal, in food or beers. She dropped them a lot.

The photo she brought up is of an older man walking into the trailer across the way from her own and what appeared to be a small bedroom window without blinds.

“I don’t see how—” I started, but she shushed me and flipped to the next photo.

The second and third photos she flipped to were more concerning: one of the man with a rifle while he sat in an older lawn chair the likes of which had probably not been sold since the late 90s, and one of what appeared to be the man watching the camera from the window. I didn’t think it was cause for as much alarm as she did at the time.

“Maybe,” I said, “he’s watching you because he can see you’re watching him. The gun’s a gun. People have guns, especially down here. They show ’em off.”

“But showing it off after you know I’m watching?”

“Why don’t you speak with him about it if you’re worried for the kids’ safety?”

“I just got them back from the state,” she said. I could tell she had thought through the scenario. “You think I wanna go argue with some armed fucker from the church who all but kicked me out so he can go on and tell everybody I’m what they always thought I was?”

Then, dog sat at her feet and licked some of the mud from the tip of her socks closest her knee. Another percussive episode of thunder made him growl so she shewed him from her feet. She had always been afraid of big dogs, even as when she was her daughter’s age. I thought more about the man, remembering as my sister had pointed out that he’d given out candy when we were small kids, stopping only because he had contracted diabetes and gave up sweets altogether, according to Nana. The pockets of his pleated khakis seemed so deep when we were that age. In the photos, though, the man seemed unbecomingly small. His petiteness was swallowed by the khakis, yes, but their length was too short for his leg and his tall white tube socks more than peaked out from the bottom of both shins. He was frail looking, too, like he’d had to take pains in order to lift the rifle.

“I don’t think you ought to worry,” I said. “That will just trigger some of your worse behaviors. And besides, he’s got a limp now, doesn’t he? Lost his leg from the knee down to diabetes, Nana said.”

My sister wasn’t satisfied by this answer. Almost offended, it seemed, at me dismissing her fears. She was paranoid, at times, the only remaining effect of her addiction. But she had come to my apartment for support and she trusted my loyalty to her wouldn’t be in question as it had been by almost everyone else in our family after she lost custody of the kids.

“Let’s go,” I said.

When we drove up to the trailer of the old man, I could feel her tense up. The man wasn’t in the yard, but the old chair was. It must have rained on that part of town because the sand and the little grass that the man had in his yard was wet. The sand snared when we stepped out of the truck and the tall weeds made a slap against my boots, leaving wettened imprints along the sides.

“I ought to go check on the kids across the way,” my sister said. “You know E. can’t be alone with her brother for more than a hour without wanting to strangle him.”

She’d already started walking to her place.

“No,” I said, and waved her over to where I was standing in front of the truck, which pointed at the man’s front door. “We’ll settle this together. You’re the one who’s scared, anyway, so you can confront him.”

She waited, thinking about it, probably offended I used scared, but I’d chosen the word specially. She was paranoid, and she knew it, but the one way I knew I’d get her was if I called her scared. She’d have jump off an ATV if someone told her she was too scared to do it. She turned around and walked to where I was. I tapped my knuckles on the vinyl door of the man’s trailer. No answer.

“Hello?” I said. “Sir? Excuse me.”

Still no answer. I looked around to see if his car was anywhere. I hadn’t noticed it driving up.

“Maybe he isn’t here,” I said to my sister. “Where’s his car anyway?”

“Don’t got a car,” she said. “Nana said he ain’t been able to drive for last couple years and ain’t got no family left to take him anywhere. And besides that, he’s always here. Never goddamn leaves.”

We hadn’t noticed the kids come from my sister’s place until they’d gotten to my truck.

“Uncle!” E. said. The little one tried but he could only muster out “Untull.”

“Get the hell back in the house,” my sister said to them both. She was scared. “I told you don’t come ‘round this man’s property. He’s got a gun, dammit.”

E. hugged me tight, ignoring her mother. Weird how they grow. She was almost taller than I was even though she was just ten years old. She screamed when she let go of me.

“He does got a gun, don’t he?” the old man said. He’d walked from around the side, and his arms held the shotgun, pointed at us. He cocked it.

“Woah,” I said, stepping in front of my sister while the kids hid behind her. “C’mon now, why you got that pointed at us for?” I said, making my accent thicker to appeal to him.

“You know it’s illegal for somebody walk on a man’s property without permission in the state of Florida?” he said. “And if I feel threatened I could damn well shoot somebody who’s on my land.”

“Sir,” I said, begging. “Please, you don’t wanna do this.”

I walked slowly toward him, something I knew of either intuitively or because of the films I’d seen. I had no plan of how I’d get him to put the gun down. With it cocked, I couldn’t very well grab it, since a slight nod of his finger on the trigger would see my hand or worse blown off. Shotguns are the flamethrowers of guns, the unskilled shooter’s choice: they dole out imprecise and unforgiving destruction. That close to us, he could have shot an arm off or blown my head to kingdom come.

“I think, actually, I do wanna do this,” he said. “Bitch’s been watchin’ me for all hours of the day and night. Wouldn’t take the warning when I got my gun out. Now strangers’ on my land asking for clemency.”

“You don’t remember us?” I said. “St. Peter’s UMC. Mary Louise Helms is our grandmother.”

For the first time, he let the gun down a bit, opening the eye he’d closed to make as good a shot as he could.

“You Patrick’s kids,” he said. “Or the other one’s?”

Uncle Pat had been a reputable member of the church for going on thirty years. He led bible studies, communions, youth camping trips, missionaries, and Sunday school classes. My mother, though, had always worked full time at the hospital. The last thing she wanted was an endless sermon at the quietest church in town on her one day off. No one in the family blamed her; she got us there every Sunday and Wednesday as kids. But the church members made side comments to all of us about her. “She can bring them but not stay,” they’d said. Or “We sure do miss her. Hope she can make it,” with just the right amount of judgement in the tone of voice that you knew that it was a commendation, not an invitation. In the split moment he’d asked which of Nana’s children we belonged to, I figured he’d surely wanted me to say Uncle Pat.

“You hear me, boy?” he said.

He put his face back against the shotgun, closed the one eye, and aimed again for me. My sister hit me on the shoulder and whispered something I couldn’t make out. She was telling me to lie, I was sure.

“Patrick,” I said. “It’s Patrick.”

E. stepped from behind her mother. “Great Uncle Patrick?” she said.

“Liars!” the old man said and he took the shot at E.

My sister screamed and covered her body with hers. I lunged at the old man and he cocked the gun again, but I pushed the barrel up before he could fire. The bullet broke through the makeshift patio cover that jutted from the camper’s side, protecting the chair from rain. The force of my pushing, with the firing of the gun, pushed the man down. I took the shotgun from his hands and knocked him out with the stock.

“Call 9-1-1,” I said to my sister. She was screaming, still on of E.’s body. The little one was crying now, too, but likely because he saw his mother doing it. He was too young to know death. I said it again: “Call 9-1-1!” She took out her phone and dialed. When they answered, she struggled to tell them what had happened. I could tell the operator was unable to understand her because she had to repeat herself several times.

“Give me the phone,” I said and took it. “Hello, yes. There’s been a child shot at Maury’s Mobile Manor, Jacksonville, FL. Yes. Thank you.”

I took off my button-down shirt and pushed my way to E.’s body. She was bleeding from where her chest met her neck. “Move,” I said and shoved my sister. “We gotta control the bleeding. That’s what they said.” My sister grabbed the little one and held him close while they both cried. Their screams were stomach-turning, and I don’t know to this day how no one heard enough to come see what had happened. Not a soul living in the mobile park made their way over to where we were.

The old man groaned and when my sister noticed, she grabbed my shoulder and screamed louder.

“Hold this,” I said to her, putting her hand on top of my bloodied shirt. “Press down!”

I grabbed the shotgun from the ground and beat the man where his hand was rubbing his head. I cursed him to hell and beat the shit out of him. His old body cracked like hot oil under my boots and his skull popped and flattened as I beat his face with the butt of the gun. When I was tired and the anger expensed, I realized what I’d done. My sister had stopped crying and started comforting E. with words like “Come on, baby, stay with me. Stay with momma.”

“C.” I said, calling her. She ignored me, stroking her daughter’s face and continuing the mantras of comfort. “C.!”

She turned to me finally. “Tell them the man ran off with the gun.”

“What?” she said through tears. “Why?”

“Just do it!” I said.

She looked frightened by my yelling at her but she nodded.

I took the old man’s body and chucked it into the bed of the truck. When I went back for the gun, I realized the man’s blood had painted the grass under it. I panicked. Looked around. I threw the gun into the bed of the truck and ran over to E. and my sister. 

“C. we gotta move her over there,” I said. “They need to think that’s her blood.”

E.’s body had fallen on wet sand and barely stained it despite all the blood she’d lost. We picked up my niece carefully, C. keeping the pressure on the wound. The flash of the police and ambulance lights was in view now. We were roughly midway into the mobile park but I hoped there’d be an exit at the back. We sat E. down where I had bashed the man’s skull in. I ran to where she had fallen and kicked around the wet dirt so it was of no focus for the police. I hopped into the truck, cranked it, and rolled down the window.

“Don’t forget,” I said. “He ran away with the gun.”

C. nodded. I backed the truck quickly—I could hear the body and the gun toss around the bed of the truck when I changed gears and sped off toward the back of the mobile park. By this point, I could see people coming out their homes. They had begun walking toward the sirens alongside the dirt road. I slowed to appear unsuspicious, but they still watched me closely as I passed them.

At the back of the mobile park, there was no exit. The dirt road ended at a final mobile home that was grown over with vines. The vinyl was so colored by a rusty orange mold that it had to have been years since it was abandoned. The trailer had become a part of the forest around it, the yard busheled by tall weeds and dense, wet grass. When I got out the truck, I looked around to confirm the property’s abandonment, peered around the truck and up the road to see if any of the neighbors wandered their way behind me. No one.

I opened the truck bed and pulled the body from the back. It fell to the ground like several cinder blocks, making a thumping sound. I dragged the body to the front door of the abandoned trailer. I said a silent prayer and tried the door. It was unlocked. I pushed the door in, moved the vines from out the doorway, and yanked the body into the living room of the home. The automatic headlights of my truck flipped off and the whole place was swallowed by darkness. I shut the door and got my phone out for the flashlight. I used it to look around the house, which while it was dirty did not smell of anything but dust and still air.

I checked the closets for shovels since I hadn’t seen a shed in the yard. Nothing. The closest I found was a large ladle in the kitchen drawer. I saw a long bread knife with serrations in the drawer and abandoned the burial idea. I looked in the living room for a fireplace and found one below a dusty wooden mantle. I opened the smoke shaft, and used my cigarette lighter to start a fire with my undershirt and what remaining wood there was alongside the fireplace.

When I took the knife toward the old man’s body, the barbarism I had committed and would continue finally occurred to me. It began to rain outside, hard. Thunder shook the trailer and I winced when the man’s skin and muscle squeeched from the knife. As the rain got stronger, though, crackling on the top of the trailer, I wasn’t able to hear any more sounds from the body under the knife. However, I quickly realized that the knife wasn’t nearly sharp enough for the man’s bones, even with their frailty. Besides that, it would have taken too long to chop the man’s body up and burn each piece in the small fireplace.

So, I decided after a moment that I would fold the man’s body into a ball. I tucked his body into a pillowcase from the bedroom and waited for the fire to get hot enough to burn a full body. My sister’s paranoia was not unfounded. The man was crazy, I told myself. Reiterating this phrase stopped my own paranoia. I’d killed someone. I wasn’t trained to kill a man. I’d never joined the military like my father or uncle Pat. I wasn’t a surgeon or a nurse. I had never seen the amount of blood that had collected under the man’s head when I had squashed it with the gun. I had never gone to the dressing place with my father after we’d hunted and killed a deer because I didn’t want to see them slice into the animal’s flesh and rip the muscles away from the bones the way my friends had told me they did. Yes, he’d shot my niece and self-defense is an argument that can hold up for some things, but not when you beat a man so much you collapse his skull. The man was crazy. My sister’s paranoia was not unfounded. The man was crazy. He shot my niece.

I went searching for lighter fluid or something flammable to help the body burn. The fireplace would never get hot enough to burn the body. I found something better: lye. I wasn’t a soldier, a doctor, a nurse, or an undertaker, but I had paid attention in high school chemistry. Lye and water can melt flesh, disintegrate it into a bubbly body stew, and empty every nutrient from every bone so they are brittle enough to powderize under small amounts of pressure. Heat expedites the process.

I got the largest pot I could find in the kitchen of the abandoned trailer and filled it with water from the case of water bottles I kept in the backseat of my truck. When I got back inside the trailer, I put the pot on the fire, and dragged the pillowcase with the man’s folded-up body inside it to the bathroom. I emptied out his body into the tub and wrapped the bloodied pillowcase around my head to cover my nose and mouth, so I didn’t inhale the fumes. I scattered the entire bin of powder lye over the body. When the water was warm enough, I poured it over the body. It wasn’t enough water so I did this several times: filled up the pot with water, warmed the pot, and poured it over the lyed body in the tub. Eventually, the fumes and smell of the bubbling flesh were so much I had to close my eyes and avoid breathing when I entered the bathroom.

When the water from my case ran out, I put out the fire and got in my truck to call my sister and meet her at the hospital. I didn’t have service, so I drove up the road until I could find a place where I had bars. I finally got to my sister’s place and my phone connected to the WiFi. My phone dinged with two voicemails and ten missed calls from my sister and my mother. I parked the car at my sister’s trailer and called her. No answer. I called my mom.

“Hey, baby,” she said. Her voice was calmer than I expected it to be, given the circumstances. Hearing her made my voice crack, my emotions finally hitting me.

“Which hospital y’all at?” I said, sniffling through tears.

“Memorial.” She spoke to someone else, thanking them. “Baby, you should get here soon.”

I put the truck in gear and drove toward the entrance of the mobile park.

“How is she? Is she okay?”

“E. didn’t make it, honey.”

The lump in my throat grew as hard as rock, my mouth dried, and my vision blurred, submerging in tears.

“I gotta go, baby,” my mom said. “They’re calling us in. Come quick.”

She hung up.

*

The next day, I bought the abandoned trailer and moved into it. I cleaned up the yard and cleared off the vines and painted the vinyl bright white. The old man’s liquid remains filled up the tub, too thick to go down the drain. So, I bought five-gallon gasoline jugs, filled them with water, and diluted the liquid remains of the tub every few hours until only the bones were left. When the electricity was reconnected to the trailer, I boiled the bones in lye and water until they were brittle enough to be crushed. I flushed the crushings down the toilet.

The funeral was at the church and they buried E. next to my grandfather. It was sunny and so humid that everyone sweat through their clothes and the women fanned their faces with the programs. My sister cried, of course, sitting in a chair facing the preacher and the casket. My mother held my nephew in her lap and rubbed my sister’s back while they both cried, as well. My father sat next to my mother listening to the preacher, a stoic and hardened look I couldn’t tell from one of boredom behind his dark sunglasses. His face didn’t appear to bear any tears. 

While the preacher gave a final prayer and everyone bowed their heads, I stared at the casket. I thought about how I didn’t regret killing the old man. I would never speak of it with my sister and to this day she has never mentioned it to me. My nephew, God willing, won’t remember. I thought about E. and my nephew going to church with my mother and father while they had custody of the children, when my sister was in rehab last time. E. loved to sing hymns and was fascinated by the sound of the organ. When she’d asked me once if I believed in God, I lied and told her no. I wished I hadn’t lied.


Preston Taylor Stone is an English PhD student at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, FL, where his research centers on diaspora studies, contemporary literature, and formalism. He is the Chief Editor of KAIROS Literary Magazine.