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.

The Lines and Their Consequences

by Annie Vitalsey

It was Yves who threw the party when we learned the earth was blue. When Gagarin came down from his orbit and swore it was so, we took him at his word. It was Paris, it was 1961, and before this most of us had thought our planet to be green.  

Not Yves. 

When he was a boy, he would lie on the sand and divide the earth amongst his friends. Claude would have the land, Armand the animals, but Yves only ever wanted sky. A blue so perfect, he had to possess it. Blue, pure energy. Blue, absolute serenity. Blue, the only color that could hold emptiness. He railed at the birds for pocking his view. 

When I knocked on the door of Yves’ blue apartment, it was Rotraut who answered in blue pants and a blue blouse, brown pigtails hanging heavy on her shoulders. 

“You thought it was green too?” she asked me. 

“Everyone did,” I said. “Don’t tell Yves.” 

Inside the walls and carpets were blue, the couches and chairs. Yves had blued the spines of all their books, and painted over plates and glasses, knives and forks all the same shade, dark like evening—over-saturated—like if squeezed, the hue would flood out smelling salty and fresh and almost frightening. In the corner, he had painted a heavy globe this same blue, seas and continents merged together in one shade. He had thrown Rotraut’s bluest scarves over every light and lamp so they cast the color over the faces of the partygoers. They would have looked dead, had they not been smiling so. 

“Drink?” asked Rotraut, and she offered me a cocktail in the familiar shade, and I took it. She smiled at me then, and too her teeth were the same blue, too dark for just a trick of the light. “Family recipe,” she said. 

I had known Rotraut first, before she met Yves and moved in with him. Before, when we shared a tiny apartment in Montmartre and modeled for art classes. I liked the work. I liked sitting still. I liked watching the groups survey me, seeing how they fixed my lines by eye. But all this bored Rotraut. Her back grew stiff and her eyes wandered and more than once her head rocked back from dozing. She would go home and sketch angry shapes across paper—fast colors at bold angles. 

“This is misery,” she said. She wanted to paint in her own right. But like me, she was only twenty-two, and apart from her tits and the slope of her spine, no one was paying attention. 

Then, of course, she met Yves and he let her mix the blue. 

It was a new kind of blue, she told me, formulated with the help of chemists, with the help of the same man who did Picasso’s blues. The trick was in the binder—it dried perfectly clear and would not taint the luster. She swore me to secrecy. A blue, like the heart of a flame, she described it. A blue that looked like love felt. 

Rotraut slathered herself in the blue and slid over canvases for Yves. She pressed her blue body to walls and floors of white. A new, dynamic model of painting, she explained. The body, liberated from the paintbrush. A satisfying collaboration, she called it. 

“Sure, sure,” I said. Her own paintings were being shown for the first time in London. I had to take on extra work to pay for groceries. 

Yves spent the whole party at his writing desk, composing another letter to Eisenhower. Yves wanted to use his blue to color the atom bombs. He said it would bring true peace, a blue revolution. Rotraut stood at his elbow, offering now and then a word. Yves wanted to marry her, she had told me. She also told me Eisenhower had yet to answer his letters, and he was still waiting on replies from Castro, too. 

Yves wanted to turn the whole world blue. He wanted to pave the roads with it. He wanted to color houses and churches, tint bread and salad, he had plans for the animals, for the rain. He wanted to feed it to sea plankton. He had just done his Blue Venus, and L’Esclave de Michel-Ange in blue. 

“Did you know,” a young man sitting next to me at the party said, “that Michelangelo couldn’t afford the color blue?” 

“Oh?” I said. 

The young man had a mustache bleached out and colored blue with what looked like chalk dust. It was making him sneeze. 

“Oh yes!” he said, scooting in. 

I took a sip of the drink Rotraut had poured me. It tasted briny. It stung my molars going down. 

“Did you know there’s no blue in cave paintings?” he went on. “Did you know the ancient westerns had no word for blue?” 

“Oh?” I said. 

“Did you know the Egyptian god Amun could make his skin turn blue and fly invisibly across the sky?” 

I sat and listened to him, thinking of my mother back in Nice, and how she liked to let good looking men explain things to her. She told me it was good for their hearts. 

“Did you know,” he went on, “that blue eyes aren’t really blue? It’s a trick of the light. Same thing that makes the sky blue.” 

I drank more, feeling the liquid pull and burn in my chest. 

“My name is Shrike,” he said. 

“Caro,” I said. 

When he tried to kiss me, I did not pull away. I tasted the blue chalk in his mustache—milky and hygienic. 

Yves wanted to turn the whole world blue. But according to Gagarin, according to the news and the experts, it already was. 

Rotraut had been working with Yves for months before she invited me to his studio—a white room a short walk from the Panthéon, with a brass chandelier hanging low on one side. She wanted me to try the new modeling, too. She wanted me to see how fun it was. 

Yves was in the studio when I arrived, but he did not look up from his work until Rotraut asked him to.

“This is Caro,” she said. 

Yves nodded. 

He worked while Rotraut painted me up with a sponge, pressing the blue over me, tenderly, neck to knees, as if she was giving me a bath. The paint was oily and cold, and clung like needles. 

“Now move,” she said, and gestured to the canvas, held taut to the wall with nails, ready. 

First, I pressed my whole front to the white, then my back, then my front. Rotraut added more paint and I went again, slapping my fingers to the wall, sloping my knees. The whole thing took ten minutes. 

“Good,” said Yves, but he still did not look at me. 

Rotraut sat on his lap when I went to wash, down in the little bathroom in the hall. The whole thing reeked of Yves. Vanilla and beeswax, turpentine and unwashed hair. His beard shavings clung to the sink. The husks of his fingernails and loose, knotty pubic hairs peppered the floor. In the mirror, I saw the blue had crept up my neck and gotten into the ends of my hair. 

I stood in the ancient bathtub and opened the window to temper the air. The cold from outside prickled my skin. I found an old, dry sponge to work into a lather, and the soap suds blued as I scrubbed, running down my hands and my legs, dyeing the rest of me blue, but lighter. I washed and rinsed and lathered again, and the soles of my feet went blue in the cool standing water. 

Blue is a color that swallows, I thought. A consuming color. It runs and it devours everything else. It is everywhere. It is inescapable. 

I lathered and I rinsed, lathered and rinsed, again and again and again. 

Afterwards, Rotraut bought me a glass of wine. We sat at a table on the street, and she told me she was in love with him. 

“It’s a spiritual love,” she told me. “It’s immaterial.” 

“Oh?” I said. 

“It’s all there, in the blue. Didn’t you love it too?” 

My skin still tingled from the paint, it burned. I thought it was cold and uncomfortable, artless and cheap. The pigment still rimmed my fingernails and clung behind my ears. It was going to give me a rash. 

“I don’t get it,” I told her. “I don’t like it.”  

Rotraut took a sip of her wine. She twirled a pigtail. 

“He says he thinks he’s going to die soon,” she said. “He feels the void. He feels it everywhere. In the blue, too. But he isn’t afraid.” 

“He’s going to ruin your life,” I said. 

Rotraut looked hurt, surprised at this. “I don’t believe in death,” she said. 

“He doesn’t really love you,” I said. 

“Before modern science,” Rotraut said, “they made blue by soaking plant leaves in human urine. Usually urine from men who had been drinking a great deal of alcohol. Look how far we’ve come!” 

She had stopped listening to me. Within the next week, she moved out of our apartment and into the blue with Yves. 

At the party, Yves had my blue portrait propped against a wall, the imprints of my thighs, my breasts, my belly and hands ready to be shown off. I thought of how much of myself was left behind on that canvas—how many germs and skin cells, how much of my DNA would go on to be displayed in galleries, museums, gazed upon by thousands, auctioned at great price. 

“That’s me,” I gestured to Shrike. 

“Oh?” he said. 

“I did that one.” 

“Oh?” 

I wanted him to revere me. 

“I like it,” he said. “That one and that one.” He pointed to the one next to it—one of Rotraut’s first. Yves had painted her up and dragged her across the canvas, leaving two long, arced smears with breasts. 

“Another drink,” I said. 

At his writing desk, Yves balled up the letter he was writing. Rotraut rubbed him on the back. 

Within a year, Rotraut would go on to marry Yves. She would wear a white dress and a blue tiara, and Yves would wear the insignia of the Knights of the Order of Saint Sebastian. By then, Yves would be jumping off buildings and onto trampolines for the photographs, to look as if he were flying, defying gravity just the slightest bit. 

Eisenhower still had not written him back. 

Yves would be painting in fire by then too, sneaking into the Centre d’Essai de Gaz de France, dousing models in water and rolling them over canvases, then torching their outlines with a heavy flare. Men at the center lost their jobs for those paintings. 

Within six more months, Yves, 34, would die of a heart attack, leaving Rotraut six months pregnant. Even at the end, he told her he wasn’t scared. Neither was she.

That night of the party, I took Shrike home with me. We left early, because the blue was strangling, suffocating and I was drunk. In the lantern light on the sidewalks, the chalk on Shrike’s mustache looked lighter, more pastel. 

We sat at my table and dipped our fingers in sugar while he told me more about the color blue—reflex blue, Prussian blue, ultramarine, azure, cornflower, steel. The sugar helped get the taste of those drinks out of our mouths. We ate it by the spoonful. 

“What was it like?” he asked. “What was is like for him to paint you?” 

“Boring,” I said. 

In my bed, he found the spot between my legs and dallied there until the blue had long rubbed off his mustache. With every loll of his tongue I pictured tangerine and safflower, fuchsia and merlot. 

But later, when I got up for the toilet, I filled the bowl with that familiar color, and in the mirror I saw the whites of my eyes had also gone blue. 

I phoned Rotraut. “What the hell?” I said. 

She laughed. “Methylene,” she said. “A great joke! The revolution is starting.” 


Annie Vitalsey has an MFA from Arizona State University and her stories have appeared in Reed Magazine, Juked, Bennington Review, Pacifica Literary Review, and elsewhere. She currently teaches fiction writing at Colgate University, where she received the 2019-20 Olive B. O’Connor Fellowship.

We’re Fine

by Elizabeth Vignali

The house was only one story, so it was easy to see where it began, in the top corner of the living room above the potted schefflera. The little triangular patch right where two walls met the ceiling—not much bigger than both my hands splayed out—faded till it was as thin as parchment paper and we could see the yellow leaves of the neighbor’s birch tree through our own wall. You noticed it first. You saw the yellow shapes moving like coins on the ceiling and thought it was reflected light, that the baby was playing with some shining toy on the floor.

But the baby was on my lap. I was still trying to bond with him, get him to smile
at me the way he smiled at you.

“Ba-ba-ba-ba,” I said in that nonsense way people do when they’re talking to babies. He clung to my finger but he was still looking at you, your face turned away, toward the ceiling. We both watched you. He and I thinking the same thing. Look at me. Look at me.

“I think something’s wrong with the house,” you said.

I followed your gaze but I couldn’t see it then, couldn’t see anything but your
turned-away face.

The next morning, even I had to notice. On my way to the kitchen for coffee, sunlight striking my forehead, my right ear. A small corner of the house was gone. I walked over and looked up. It was a perfect circle. No saw could make edges so clean. You’d come up behind me, so quiet I didn’t know you were there until I felt your arms slip around my sides. Pressed your cheek to my back.

“It must be a prank,” I said. “Your brother.”
“No.”
“What, then?”
“I don’t know.”

After breakfast, I pulled the ladder around the side of the house and climbed up to take a look. “Be careful,” you said from below. Your boots on the fallen yellow leaves, the baby in your arms. I hadn’t been up here yet. There was moss on the roof, a few shingles missing. The gutters were choked with leaves.

“I should clean out your gutters for you,” I said.
“Our gutters,” you said.

Through the hole, I could see my plant in its mustard-colored pot. The coffee table. Your paperback spread-eagle facedown on the glass. The couch. Cushions indented from the previous weight of our bodies. The baby’s plastic giraffe tangled in your crocheted afghan.

The hole itself was just a hole.

“I don’t understand,” I said, too quiet for you to hear. But you did see me reach
for the edge, wanting to feel the cleanness of the cut, wanting to figure it out.

“Don’t touch it!” you said.
“Why not?”
“I don’t know.”

I pulled my hand back. Grooves from the ladder stretched from where I’d dragged it to root against the house, black dirt tracks like a railroad curving around the corner, beyond where I could see. From here, I could see the roof of the coffee shop I used to go to every morning. The red-edged tower of the old theater. The spires of the church-turned-bar where I’d seen my favorite band last year. Had I been to the bar since then?

When was the last time I went to the coffee shop? I grasped the ladder, fingers aching on the cold aluminum, and tried to remember.

“What’s happening over here?” Your neighbor propped his mug on the fence
separating the yards. “Do you guys need help with something?”
“No,” I said. Too quickly. Your reproachful look. “I’m just looking at the gutters.
Our gutters. I need to clean them out.” I don’t know why I lied; there was a hole in the
house, and small as it was it was plain to see. I watched his eyes travel from the hole to
your face.
“You sure?” he asked you.
“Yes,” you said. Shifted the baby from one hip to the other. “We’re fine.”

We couldn’t see it happening, but by late afternoon we were sure the hole was a little bigger than it had been that morning. The edges weren’t as clean, either. They were blurred, almost. The walls and ceiling around the hole were thin and faded, as if the house was a pencil drawing slowly being erased. By evening, the translucence had crept down the wall. The top of the schefflera was vanishing. The leaves nearest the empty spot were curled up.

We kept an eye on the baby, but he wasn’t interested in the corner anyway. He grasped the edge of the coffee table and pulled himself up on chubby legs, wobbly but determined. He lost his grip and sat down hard. Pulled up again. His open smile, only for you.

“He’ll be walking soon,” you said.
The plant bothered me. I stood and walked closer to the corner, studying it.
“Do you think it’s too late to move it?” I asked.
You weren’t listening.
“Want a beer?” you asked. “I’m getting one.”

While you were in the kitchen, I got down on the floor and army-crawled toward the plant. It felt ridiculous, ducking to avoid a hole, but the thought of getting to my feet beneath it made the hair on my neck stand up. I grasped the heavy ceramic pot and tugged it toward me, grunting and awkward with the lack of leverage. Still, managed to move it a couple feet, enough that it was out of the way of danger. I stood again and looked at the plant, half expecting the disappeared section to be back, but it was still gone. I passed my hand through the air where the top of the plant used to be.

You returned from the kitchen, a beer in each hand. You gave me one bottle and drank from the other, your lips wrapped around the neck in a way that took my attention from the hole in the house.

“It’s actually kind of nice in a weird way, isn’t it?” you said, looking at the stars
through the wall.

We retreated to the bedroom sooner than we had to, in retrospect. The rest of the house sort of seemed superfluous, anyway. We’d always preferred the bedroom. For a
while, we could still get to the kitchen when we needed to, laughing at each other as we absurdly hugged the wall in order to avoid nothing.

You had the foresight to bring food to the bedroom, paper bags stuffed with crackers and carrots and cheese, grocery shopping in our own house. You even remembered to grab the remote before it was too late, to turn the television so it was facing the hallway to the bedrooms, so we could sit in the doorway to what used to be your living room and watch baseball until the television vanished too. Then the baby used the remote as a teether, pressed the hard plastic against his sore gums, drool all over the power button.

The plates began to pile up in the bathroom, crusted with food, but neither of us felt like doing the dishes with hand soap and washcloths in the bathroom sink. “Watch,” I said. Balled up my paper towel and threw it toward the emptiness. It disappeared. We got a little carried away then, fetched the dirty dishes from the bathroom and flung them like frisbees and watched them vanish into thin air. It was fun at the time, but we didn’t have any plates to eat on after that.

No one came by, except once, when your neighbor’s teenage son knocked on our
bedroom window. I slid it open.

“You want your lawn mowed?” he asked.
I turned to you.
“Sure,” you said. “Hang on.” You had on underwear and a threadbare tank top,
and I watched his eyes track your progress across the room until I moved to stand in the way. His eyes slid the other direction. You found your purse under a pile of dirty
laundry. Pulled a twenty from your wallet. You handed it to me. I handed it to him.

“Thanks,” I said, and shut the window.

Every day—sometimes twice a day—I pulled the schefflera a little further away from the growing erased area. I waited for you to tell me to just go ahead and move the plant all the way into the bedroom, where it would be safe, but you never did.

Then one day, the schefflera vanished. I’d moved it bit by bit into the hallway, where it blocked our view of the disappearing house. But the erasing was happening faster than I realized, and one morning when I filled an empty yogurt container from the bathroom faucet and went to water the plant, it was gone. I stood in the remaining half of the hallway and looked out. It was raining out there in the rest of the world, a rain so cold it was nearly snow. There were no leaves left on the neighbor’s birch. The naked branches black against the clouds.

I heard your bare feet come up behind me.

“It’s gone,” I said.
“I know, honey,” you said.
I put my arm around you and pulled you close. We watched the freezing rain till
you started to shiver. I rubbed your arms, pulled you close.
“Come on,” I said and slid my hands to your hips. “May as well go back to bed.”

You were sleeping when the bedroom wall began to fade. I woke you up.
“The baby,” I said.

You got up and walked naked to the doorway, peeked across what remained of
the hall toward where the baby’s room was. You came back, your skin prickled with cold. Lifted the covers and burrowed against me.

“It’s too late,” you said.
I sat up, wanting to see for myself. If there was anything to be done. You pulled
me back down, your skin warm again already.
“It’s okay. I’m sure my mother got him.”

I didn’t ask how your mother would have known, how she would have reached him. Easier to run my hands down your back, pull you on top of me, push your head gently into my neck so you wouldn’t see the encroaching eraser, the slow disappearance of the door to the bathroom, your grandmother’s old oak bureau, our pile of crumpled laundry.


Elizabeth Vignali is the author of three poetry chapbooks, the latest of which is Endangered [Animal] (Floating Bridge Press 2019), and the full-length collection House of the Silverfish (forthcoming from Unsolicited Press). Her work has received special notice from the Pushcart Prize anthology and appeared in Willow SpringsCincinnati ReviewMid-American ReviewTinderboxThe Literary Review, and others. She lives in the Pacific Northwest, where she works as an optician, coproduces the Bellingham Kitchen Session reading series, and serves as poetry editor of Sweet Tree Review.

Hunting and Fishing

by Charles Haddox

With the vicious determination of a mother bird hunting insects for its young, two strong men cast out a weighted nylon net and pulled it in one direction and then the other, trying to catch as many fish as possible before the start of the afternoon rains. They were using the net in the clear waters of a creek coursing through the dense forest of sheltering river palms, beetle-covered strangler figs, and towering ceibas that continually dropped yellow flowers into the water below like a slow rain. The creek flowed just north of Greyhill, along the base of an ancient talus slope, which was topped by the road that ran to the island’s capital. Standing in waist-high waters, the two young men called to each other. They were mainlanders who had come to the village to idle away a few days fishing in the unspoiled rivers of San Carlos. And they were using the net to catch small fish which would later be used as bait to take bigger ones in the broad green river that surged through Greyhill on its way to the coast.

Two boys, about ten years old, were wading in the creek. They played with a turtle that swam in the warm, sparkling water. The turtle was almost a meter long from head to tail. It moved gracefully, gliding through the water like a thread of light. Its short, leathery legs were yellow and viridian, and its shell was the color of chocolate. It paddled against the gentle current of the shallow creek; unhurriedly, indolently, as though lacking any purpose or desire.

Birds of all colors chattered in the tall trees, and a sea mouse moved cautiously through the reeds that bordered the creek. The sky was clear, and the day was hot.

The boys lost interest in the turtle and set about building a dam across the creek with fallen tree branches. The water sparkled as it flowed over the branches and eventually carried the smaller ones away.

One of the men saw the turtle and pointed it out to the other man. They dragged it to a rocky spot on the shore and dropped large stones on it until it lay crushed and lifeless. It was half-buried by the rocks; a pile of red flesh, broken shell, and purple entrails.

The boys noticed what was going on. They stood in the water, watching.
“Why did you kill it?” one of the boys asked.
The men looked at each other.
“The turtle eats fish,” one of them answered.



Charles Haddox lives in El Paso, Texas, on the U.S.-Mexico border, and has family roots in both countries. His work has appeared in a number of journals including Chicago Quarterly Review, The Sierra Nevada Review, Folio, and Stonecoast Review.

CLIK2CHAT

by Daniel Marcus

The house was full of people and the insect
hum of their voices.  Their presence made
his living room look oddly foreign and it was easy for Bob to imagine for a
moment that he, too, was a guest.  He
stood awkwardly next to the fireplace, drink in hand.  People approached, inquired, veered off.
Nearly everyone had brought something to eat or drink and every available
surface in the kitchen was loaded with casseroles, salads, plates of cookies,
sushi mandalas, paella pans.  There was
something about bereavement and food.  It
wasn’t comfort — there could be no comfort — but it was deeply tribal nonetheless.  What Bob really wanted was a good, stiff
drink, but he was afraid of where that would lead, so he sipped his glass of
Pinot and tried to not look like he wished they would all just fucking leave.

A cluster of Jenna’s friends, bristling with piercings and spiky hair, huddled near the door.  Bob had known most of them since pre-school.  A willowy girl in sleeveless denim, Lu, caught his eye.  She walked up to him and gave him a loose-limbed hug.

“You guys okay?” she asked.

Bob had a sudden, vivid memory of a trip to Marine World, maybe six years back, an impossibly distant other life.  It was just Jenna, Lu, and him.  The girls orbited about him like wild, giggling moons as they explored the park.  They slept, curled up in the back seat together, the entire drive home.  It was a good day. 

Bob shrugged, smiled sadly. How could we be okay?

“Sorry — stupid question.”  She looked away, biting her lip.  A single tear tracked down her cheek.  She took a breath, looked up at him again.  “How’s Mrs. P. holding up?”

“She’s hanging in there.  I’m really glad you came, Lu.” 

In fact, Mrs. P. hadn’t stopped crying for three days and was upstairs now in a shade-darkened room, tossing in a sweat-drenched Ambien doze.  Bob was almost glad of his hostly duties because they took him off the front lines with her.  He felt a stab of guilt at the thought. 

Jenna’s friends were the first to leave.  Lu turned on her way out and gave him a sad, little wave. Bob’s colleagues from the office were next — a handshake conga line and a pat on the shoulder from the head of the firm.  His secretary hugged him and cried a little. 

“Give my best to Allie,” she said.

“I will,” Bob promised.  

After the neighbors left, and a few other parents from the school community paid their respects and backed out the door looking guiltily relieved (fellow travelers for many years, their connection now abruptly severed), there was just Allie’s sister, Darcy, and her deadwood husband, Frank. 

Darcy flitted about cleaning while Frank helped himself to a healthy dose of Glenlivet from Bob’s liquor cabinet.

“Hell of a thing,” Frank said. “So young.”

Bob remembered Jenna’s description of him as “that fucking retard Aunt Darcy married” and nearly smiled, then caught himself, and a wave of grief rushed through him like the ocean through a rocky channel, leaving him breathless for a moment.

“You okay, Bob?” Frank asked, a hint of slur in his voice.

“Yeah, I’m fine, Frank.  I just need to sit down.”

Bob sat in one of the two floral patterned wing chairs bookending the fireplace.  Frank stood watching him for a moment, then sat in the matching chair, resting his drink on his thigh. 

They spoke no further and Bob tried to will his mind empty of thought. 

After a few moments, Darcy appeared, pushing back an errant blonde lock from her forehead.

“All clean,” she said.  She was a ditz, but Bob had come to like her, even love her, over the years.  Her luck with men was almost comically abysmal. 

“Thanks, Darce,” Bob said.  “You didn’t have to do all that.”

She leaned over and pecked him on the cheek.  “Don’t worry about it.  You just take care of Allie and yourself.”

When they left, silence descended on the house with the finality of a closing curtain.  Bob returned to the chair next to the fireplace and sipped his drink.

Upstairs, Allie
awakened and began to weep, a soft, desperate keening that seemed to come from
everywhere in the house at once. 

Bob sighed.  He didn’t want to face her and felt it again,
that pinprick of guilt. Her grief was no more acute than his, he felt, but it
demanded more attention.  Infinite
attention, really — a black hole that swallowed all solace.  He didn’t blame her at all.  He just didn’t know how to help her.  He couldn’t even help himself. 

He set his glass
on the coffee table and went upstairs. 
The hallway was dark.  The door to
Jenna’s room was open a crack.  He walked
past without looking in.  His bedroom
door was shut and he placed his palm flat against it.  From within, the sound of weeping
continued. 

“Allie?”

There was no
answer.

He gently pushed
the door open. The air in the room was humid and had a strange, oceanic
smell.  Allie sat on the edge of the
bed.  Her grief had an animal quality:
primal, pre-verbal.  He sat next to her,
put his hand on her shoulder. She vibrated with a fine tremor, like a
bird.  Every now and then she would gasp,
a breathing reflex. The keening would catch, then continue.    

Bob pulled back the collar of her nightgown just a bit, kissed her bare shoulder, and left her there.

Bob’s home office
was a long card table in a corner of the garage.  There was a multipurpose printer, a big
monitor, a keyboard. Several rows of shelves sagged under a haphazard
collection of tools, books, and boxes with faded, peeling labels.  In the opposite corner, amidst a litter of
discarded plastic lawn toys, sat a red bicycle with flat tires and training
wheels. Faded blue ribbons dangled limply from the handlebars.

He sat down and
stared at the flat, grey screen until he imagined motion within its depths. He
pushed back his chair and went back in the house.  He cocked his head to listen.  Allie had stopped crying.  He imagined her sitting on the edge of the
bed staring off into nothing. The furnace sighed on.  A car whispered past on the street
outside. 

Bob poured
himself two fingers of Glenlivet and returned to the garage.  He sat at his desk and took a sip of whiskey.
His eyes watered and his chest filled with heat. 

He missed her so
badly.  It was like a physical
hypersensitivity, a migraine or an opiate withdrawal, a painfully acute
awareness of smells and changes in light.

He double-clicked
a shortcut on his desktop and her homepage appeared.  There were dozens of pictures, mostly of
Jenna smiling, occupying a center of gravity among several friends, a couple of
somber art-school poses and several with Allie and Bob.  He was glad that she wasn’t embarrassed to
post them. 

In her most
recent photograph, just a few days before she died, she had shaved her head and
carved, in the emerging stubble, swirling Maori-like designs.  She had a pierced eyebrow and upper lip.  This too was something of an art-school pic,
but in spite of its edginess, it seemed to capture better than the others the
essence of Jenna as a much younger girl. He could see her peering out, smiling,
just behind the hardware and the adolescent piss-off frown. 

Her profile said she liked basketball (he knew that), Rimbaud (he had no idea), and motorcycles (he’d have to have a talk with her) — and it hit him again, that surge of grief (have a talk with her) so acute he lost track of himself for a moment. 

Her status read:

Smith is nice.  Mt Holyoke is a gothic prison. Amherst is Amherst. In Logan now, waiting for the plane home. I love airports, monuments to transience. The static hiss between stations!

She must have
posted from her cell phone, minutes before the explosion.  Bob tried to imagine it – an instant of heat
and light, intense pressure, a sound like the sky ripping open. He hoped it was
fast, that she didn’t have time to register what was happening. He wondered if
she thought of them in those last milliseconds, then cursed his narcissism.    

It seemed he was
living half the time in fugue – replaying snippets of time with her, random
moments, conversations real and imagined. 
They surfaced haphazardly, pulled him in, played themselves out, and
left him stunned and empty.

His eyes kept
returning to the icon in the upper right corner of the screen, a yellow
smiley-face in side profile beneath a word bubble.  Inside the bubble: Clik2Chat.

He slid the
cursor over the icon, hovered for a moment, then willed his finger down on the
mouse button.

Jenna’s avatar
appeared next to his keyboard: a smiling, translucent, foot-tall pixie.  Tiny diamonds of dust swam in the light beams
emanating from small, twin sources beneath the screen.  The scan had been taken about a year before,
so it captured Jenna before her severe phase. 
Her hair was shoulder length and she wore jeans and a plain, green
t-shirt. She tilted her head, a coltish gesture he knew well.

“Hey, Dad. What’s
up?”

Bob’s breath
caught in his throat.  The voice was
almost right – Jenna, with syllables oddly clipped.  He knew it was nothing more than a bit of
digital magic cranked out by a kid hunkered down in a cubicle amidst a litter
of Nerf toys and empty soda cans, but it was still a shock.

Jenna tilted her
head the other way.

“Hey, Dad.  What’s up?”

This is stupid, he thought.

“Hi, Jen.”  His voice cracked.

“Hey!  How are you?”

Bob didn’t say
anything. The avatar shifted her weight, brushed back her hair.

“You’ve probably
figured out that I’m somewhere else right now. 
My little Doppel-G here will record whatever you want to tell me and
I’ll have a look at it later.” 

“We miss you
terribly.”

Jemma frowned
disarmingly.

“Sorry, didn’t
get that.”

“We love you.”

Jenna smiled.  “I love you, too, Dad.”

“We’ll always love you.”

“I love you, too, Dad.”

From far away he heard the high whine of engines, a plane settling in to SFO final approach.  He cocked his head, listening, until he couldn’t hear it any more.  

“You haven’t said anything for awhile, so I’m gonna go.  Bye!”

“No!” Bob shouted, startling himself.  “Wait!”

Jenna tilted her head again, looking, he imagined, just a trifle impatient.

The static hiss between stations, he thought.

Something rustled outside, probably a raccoon.  He closed his eyes and saw clever, busy hands.

“You haven’t said anything for awhile, so I’m gonna go.  Bye!”

He did nothing this time.  After a few seconds, the image winked out. 

He sat there for a long time.  When he was ready, he pushed his chair back, stood up, and stretched.  He let himself back into the house and went upstairs.  Allie was sleeping again, her breathing deep and regular. 

He slipped his clothes off and slid under the sheets, careful not to wake her.  She whimpered softly, turned on her side facing away from him, and backed closer.  He curled to fit her, feeling her warmth, draping his arm across her hip.  He shifted restlessly as he drifted off to sleep and she moved in response, their somnambular dance as familiar as walking. 

 


Daniel Marcus’ short fiction has appeared in many literary and genre venues, including Asimov’s SF, ZYZZYVA, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Witness. Some of these stories were collected in “Binding Energy,” described by Salon.com as “a cross between Raymond Carver and William Gibson.” He is also the author of the novels Burn Rate and A Crack in Everything. He has taught Creative Writing at the UC Berkeley Extension Program and Gotham Writers’ Workshop.

Queen of the Sunken City

by Susan DeFreitas

The King of King Street poled his skiff across Calhoun, looking for his queen. Sometimes in the mornings she could be found around Market, meeting her day’s appointments with “dem tourists from foreign,” as his granny used to say.

Tourists had been coming to the Sunken City of the South since long before it had
sunk—coming to see the Rainbow Row and the Battery and the grand old churches
built upon the backs of slaves. Coming to take the tours, most of which omitted
such distasteful details.

Tours such as this one here on Calhoun Street—which, like all of the streets downtown, was no longer a street at all, but a glittering canal, reflecting the half-submerged
historic homes and churches that appeared on all the postcards. A fellow in a
flat hat at the helm of a water taxi steered it slowly into the mangroves of
Francis Marion Square, telling stories to white folk made whiter by their
reflective nanoscreen, which made their whiteness gleam.

“Here to the south side of the square, just beyond the Lindsey Graham Memorial
Mangroves, you’ll see the statue of John C. Calhoun,” the guide said, stilling
the motor. He gestured to the bronze statue on high, which the King always
thought of as the white man in the sky. “Calhoun was one of the state’s most
illustrious citizens. He served as a senator and US Vice President in the years
leading up to the First Civil War, and he was an prominent advocate of states’
rights.”

King almost laughed as he poled on past, his dark skin bare to the sun. The only reason the white man in the sky had escaped being sunk was because the city fathers had
seen fit to raise him up so high. And why? Long ago, any Black folks who
happened to pass would do their best to deface him. Rumor had it the statue of
John C. Calhoun was missing the pinky finger of its left hand, which sat
casually upon the man’s hip, as if he were disciplining a dog.

“King,” came a voice from down the way. “How you going, boss?”

“All right, all right.” King shaded his eyes from the sun. There upon the wrought-iron
balcony of the Floating Flophouse stood Nestor, tying up his catch. “How you
keeping, Nesta?”

“Fine, man, fine. You see?” Nestor held aloft a glistening magenta fan from which dangled
strands of blue.

“Man, you crazy,” King told him. “You eat that thing?”

“You en eat jellyfish chop chop?”

“I eat saltfish chop-up.”

Nestor laughed. “Saltfish? You try. I en able with shark, man. Shark got teeth.”

King just shook his head. Like King’s granny, Nestor hailed from the islands to the
south—what was left of them now—which is why he talked so broad. He’d made the
harbor last spring on his cunning Third World raft, a riprap of sea trash,
slipped in under the guard, and promptly installed himself amid the rotting
grandeur of the Floating Flophouse. (Which did not actually float, though rumor
had it, upon occasion, the air mattresses of its inhabitants did.)

“Nesta,” said King. “You seen the queen?”

The man smiled, showing teeth. “Queen Street way she dey.”

King lifted his hand in thanks and poled past.

Past Society, Wentworth, Hassell, and down by Market, where the boardwalks of the
city converged—where tourists stepped up from sleek water taxis to wander the
stalls of the New Market, which sat atop the roof of the old.

Altogether, a pod of scuba divers dropped off the promenade, their airbreathers affixed to their faces. Even as one group dropped, a barker stood at dock, rustling up the
next. “See the Sunken City in all its grandeur! Shipwrecks, pirates, and
Blackbeard’s Revenge! Opulent marble malls, mausoleums, and museums! Swim inside the Circular Church!”

King sucked his teeth in derision as he poled past. Of course, he had taken such a tour
himself once—who could resist the invitation to see the Sunken City from below?
But just like the water-taxi tours, the scuba tours were full of hokum. The
mall, museum, and mausoleums were real enough, as was the Circular Church,
which really was a wonder—much of the stained glass was still intact, and when
the sun shone through it, illuminating beds of kelp swaying in your wake, and
the headset played “Amazing Grace,” it was enough to make the Devil himself get
religion.

But the Queen Anne’s Revenge was no more than a rich man’s yacht from the 2040s worked over by crafty hucksters. It had been
picked up from the Ashley River by Hurricane Yvette and dashed against the Old
Slave Mart, as if in recompense—and the skeletons of those so-called pirates
were no more than the city’s poorest citizens, whose bodies had lain so long
under the sodden trash, awaiting emergency management, that they’d never been
claimed or buried.

King knew that now—knew too the real reason the seas had risen, the heaviest buildings
had sunk, and the great storms had grown so fierce. All of this he knew because
of the queen, and today, he’d decided, was the day he would present to her what
it was he knew. A humble craft, but an old one, in which he might find favor.

King stopped to drop his dipper in an eddy that had formed near Jacob’s Alley and
fished out a bright yellow bag—#4 plastic, good quality—and added it to the
pile at his feet. Soon he’d have enough for another basket, like those tied up
on display to the fore of his craft, which would fetch a good price at the
market.

When King reached Queen Street, he anchored his pole and turned his skiff in one smooth, practiced maneuver. From a nearby rowboat, patched up with cheap nanobond,
three boys were watching him, but they looked away when he caught them. Their
plastic roses were loosely folded, their sea baskets slack and lopsided. King
lifted his chin in their direction, in dismissal, and away they rowed down
Queen.

And there she stood, a vision in yellow beside St. Philips Church. The tourists she was
addressing bore only superficial resemblance to those he’d seen in the water
taxi, and to those strapping on scuba gear at the market; some were white and
some were black, and some murmured to one another in a language King thought
perhaps was French, but all of them were attired in such a style that his
finest sea basket would not have fetched a price sufficient, he suspected, to
purchase even one of their shoes.

“In 1835,” the queen was saying, “the original church burned to the ground. Three years
later, the church that stands before you now was built, in the Wren-Gibbs
style, common in the churches of Charleston.”

The queen’s immense yellow sunhat bobbed as she spoke. Her manner and bearing bespoke a lineage stretching back to Nefertiti, and her elocution, her various degrees
from good Canadian colleges. But she was not above dressing the part of the
guide, in anachronistic style—in that full, flowing sundress that brushed the
tops of her sandals, in that beribboned hat so broad a brood of children could
have gathered in its shade, all of it as yellow as the #4 plastic King had just
fished from the canal. The color gleamed against her blue-black skin.

“Two years later,” the queen was saying, “the statesman and outspoken advocate of slavery John C. Calhoun was buried in the West Church Yard here, and then, during the
First Civil War, moved to the East Yard, for fear his grave would be desecrated
by Union troops. However, efforts to protect Calhoun’s grave would ultimately
prove in vain, as the massive tomb built by the state legislature in 1880 would
in fact be desecrated, in 2054, just before Hurricane Yvette. Unbeknownst to
the elders of St. Philips Church, a crafty activist would carve his own
epitaph—or should I say, epithet? ‘Here lies John C. Calhoun, a real motherfucker.’”

The group tittered; this was, after all, as advertised, “The Truly Troublesome True
History of the Sunken City of the South.” King could have listened to the queen
all day. Which in fact he had, more than once, though he’d never approached her
so boldly.

“John King,” she said, turning to him. “What can I do for you today?”

Floating there at her feet, the king felt a fool—what, after all, had he expected,
interrupting her this way? He stood there on his skiff for a moment tongue
tied, all his troubles doubled: the great tower of St. Philips rising above and
rippling below, the tourists in their fine clothes, and in the center of it all
the queen, lemon yellow and blue-black in her immense beribboned hat. He may
have been the King of King Street, but here, he could see, just two blocks to
the east, he was no more than riff raff, sea trash.

Finally, he lifted that yellow #4 plastic bag. “Yes, ma’am,” he said, and then, in his best
approximation of the Queen’s English: “My apologies for interrupting. I thought
perhaps your group might be interested in a traditional African American
handcraft dating back in this region nearly four hundred years. Might I offer a
demonstration?”

Under her hat, the queen lifted an elegant eyebrow. “Please,” she said, “by all means.”

King explained the way peoples from West Africa enslaved in the Sunken City—long
ago, before it had sunk—had woven baskets of bulrush. Their descendants had
carried on the tradition with sweetgrass, and now, in modern times, folks made
such baskets with sturdy recycled plastics, deposited daily in the canals of
the historic peninsula—likewise the city’s iconic roses, prized as souvenirs,
once folded from the fronds of the palmetto.

Now the fine tourists listened to John King speak, as if he really were a king. Now the
queen watched him from beneath the benevolent brim of her hat—in such a manner
as to suggest perhaps, in time, she might grant him a private audience.

By the time he turned, lifted a hand in farewell, and poled his skiff down Queen Street, one perfect yellow rose lay folded at her feet.


Susan DeFreitas has never been able to choose between fantasy and reality, so she lives and writes in both. A first-generation American of Caribbean descent, she is the author of the novel Hot Season, which won a Gold IPPY Award for Best Fiction of the Mountain West. Her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry has been featured in the Writer’s Chronicle, the Huffington Post, the Utne ReaderStory Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, High Desert Journal, and many other journals and anthologies. In 2017, The Oregonian named her “One of 25 Oregon Authors Every Oregonian Must Read.”